Back to School: A Letter to My Daughter

08/27/2017 10:40 pm ET Updated Aug 29, 2017

Dear P,

As we wind down summer and prepare for a new school year—haircut, gym shoes, another trip to the ice cream shop—you’re feeling excited: you got the teacher you wanted, your Grade 3 classroom will be upstairs with the big kids, and you have a plan for how to decorate your locker. You’ve grown so much in just two years at our neighborhood school; I’ll never forget how you begged us for “a day off” after your second day of first grade, and now you wish you could go to school seven days a week.

This year, you’ll get to learn the recorder in music class, and the librarian has a special book club for your grade. It’ll be your last year in Walking Club, but there are enough Fridays to collect plenty more shoe charms. It’s going to be great.

As you know, I have a lot of opinions about school. And as I know, some of these opinions frustrate you. Please understand these opinions aren’t specifically about your school or you as a student. From a young age, I have been fascinated by how we learn and how we teach, and by the connection between learning and identity (who we are). I chose a college major, graduate school concentration, and career through which I could explore my questions, and my interest has yet to wane. You are a new lens through which I can view things, but I’ve been thinking about this stuff for more than two decades.

Here’s my love-filled advice for you as you continue your path as a learner. Maybe you’ll think about some of this while you’re walking laps Friday mornings. Probably not, since most of this won’t make sense to you until you’re a lot older. Possibly you’ll disregard it. Definitely it’s only my point of view, and someday I would love to hear if and how yours differs.

I’ve organized my thoughts into “gifts,” in homage to Friedrich Froebel, the creator of kindergarten, who designed learning objects (which he called gifts) for children. (You know the tangrams we love? Those grew out of one of Froebel’s 10 gifts.)

Froebel Gifts
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Froebel Gifts

Gift 1: Figure out what kind of learner you are.

Learning differences and multiple intelligences are real—and beautiful. There is a ton of research on this topic, or you can just look at the three of us in our little family, or pick three of your friends, and quickly you’ll see obvious evidence. Understanding (and honoring) how you learn is just as important as knowing and minding any of your allergies (remember wool!), preferences, or fears.

Theory of Multiple Intelligence
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Theory of Multiple Intelligence

There is a reason your American Girl Magazine often has a quiz that (perhaps not always elegantly) gets you thinking about yourself, and there is a reason why you like to complete the quiz and then read a (not always relevant) description of yourself: it’s nice and fun and important to get to know yourself and reflect on who you are and who you want to be. Who you are as a learner is part of this picture.

Identifying how you learn, what your natural strengths and areas of opportunity are, and what you need to be successful will empower you to take charge of your learning. It will help you treat yourself more kindly when you are struggling, know when to push yourself, and advocate for what you need. Your teachers may or may not take the time to understand who you are as a learner, and they may or may not differentiate your schoolwork; a traditional public school isn’t really designed for lots of different kinds of learners. That’s ok. I can talk to you about how to reflect on your experiences learning in and out of school, help you define a profile that feels right to you, and talk to you about you-specific strategies that will aid your learning.

I noticed this year that you started writing down questions for your teacher, turning music on to focus, keeping notes in a journal, and drawing diagrams to make sense of new concepts. You started doing all of this on your own—with no direction or suggestion from me. You are doing a beautiful job of getting to know yourself and taking control of your learning. This is a gift that will serve you in school and, more importantly, in your hobbies and lifelong learning pursuits.

Gift 2: Find a bigger why.

For the most part, in a K-12 school your teachers dictate the what, when, and how of your learning. If it feels like you can’t choose what to read, when to explore a topic, or how to discuss or process something, that’s because usually you can’t. And if that feels totally depressing, that’s because it is. Due to that set-up, it might be hard to answer what the point of it all is, other than if you don’t do it (show up at school, answer 1-21 odd on the math worksheet, write the book report) you’ll get in trouble.

Find a bigger why for your learning, so you can earn more than obedience points.

  • A bigger why is achievement of a basic level of literacy to navigate the world independently.
  • Even bigger is job preparation, or gaining the skills to get and do a job you really want.
  • Even bigger is understanding the world (people, systems, concepts) through a wide range of reference points.
  • Even bigger is challenging yourself and fulfilling your potential in something about which you are passionate.
  • Even bigger is applying your knowledge or creativity to invent new things or solve problems.
  • Even bigger is feeling joy and wonder through deep, authentic encounters with art, science, philosophy, geography, history, and beyond.

(This is kind of a dorky and imperfect Maslow hack.)

Find a bigger why so you can bring intention to and get enjoyment from your studies. The good news is that even though right now the education ride feels like a moving sidewalk, at some point it will indeed be a choose-your-own adventure, and armed with your bigger why, you’ll bring motivation and inspiration to every path.

Gift 3: Care.

School is another place (in addition to your home, neighborhood, religious space) to learn what it means to live in community. Your school is filled with people who bring with them different ideas about how to be a community member. Here’s a simple concept I hope you will learn from and model for others: care.

Care about your classmates. Listen when they are sharing. Help when they are struggling. Cheer for their successes. Also, get to know as many of them as possible. At age seven, you seem naturally interested in lots of different kids; instead of focusing on this or that person or group, you’re always inviting new people to the house. This is a lovely quality I hope you never lose. Last year, your school started experimenting with social and emotional intelligence curricula—you know, the sharing circles you enjoy so much—which will help you and your classmates better understand and take care of one another. I’m so happy you are getting this experience, and I love that you appreciate it.

Care about your teachers. You’ve been privileged so far to have teachers who have demonstrated genuine interest in you and have taken the time to really get to know you. Return that gift by honoring your teachers’ time and life experience: be an active learner and a leader in your classroom community. As you get older, the relationships you have with some of your teachers will likely become quite special; whenever you'd like, I can tell you about some of the teachers who profoundly impacted my life and with whom I had decades-long relationships.

Care about yourself. Treat yourself kindly when you are struggling. Try hard not to compare yourself to your classmates. Do your best work, always—not for a grade but to see what you’re capable of. Remember that it really is ok not to know stuff, it really is ok to try something and fail. It might not feel like that all of the time, because there are penalties in school for not understanding something (a bad grade) or not understanding something right away (the class keeps moving forward, and you’re more lost than ever) or experimenting and bombing (again, a bad grade, or possibly the added bonus of social humiliation). I get it. I, too, went to school, and I, too, am a human being. Be gentle with yourself: know who you are and where you are, work to achieve your own goals, and focus on progress (vs. perfection).

Gift 4: Celebrate that almost nothing in the world is boring.

School has a funny way sometimes of making the most interesting things ever seem like the most boring things ever. This happens for a variety of reasons: your teacher doesn’t understand the subject matter well enough to bring it to life; as a class, you don’t spend enough time on a topic or do anything substantial with it to really get into what’s cool about it; you can’t find anything personally relevant about it; the thing you’re doing with it isn’t working with your learning style; and so on.

The truth is that almost nothing in the world is boring. Almost everything is or can be fascinating, and endlessly so; in fact, you will run out of time before you run out of beautiful poems, funky insects, complicated people, and unique places to explore.

The key to transforming something seemingly boring into something absorbing (and this works for almost anything/everything, though of course we all have our exceptions) is personally connecting with it (with the person, time period, story, place, motivation, process…), a key that schools sometimes misplace or forget to use.

Connecting means finding something in the thing you’re encountering that resonates with your life experience, or identifying a question you want to explore, or relating this new thing to some other thing.

Connecting helps you care. It also inspires you to add your voice to what’s already there. Doing so will serve as a gift to you and to the world.

Connecting enables you to continue to be the very curious person you already are. Trust me here: this curiosity will bring you more joy than almost anything else in your life.

A great teacher will find ways to introduce something foreign or complex, take you on a journey to beauty and relevance, and leave you with lots of questions to explore. Sometimes you won’t get that great teacher, so you’ll need to make this happen for yourself. We can work together on developing this important skill.

I hope you spend the rest of your life wondering about and exploring and marveling at all of the not-boring things in the world.

Gift 5: Recognize that very few concepts are out of your grasp.

Most things in life are not rocket science. And even rocket science can be learned; after all, there are rocket scientists doing rocket science, so it can be taught and learned and done.

Because multiple intelligences are real (see Gift 1), I know some things you encounter will come more easily to you than others. Besides your brain just being your brain, other things will affect your learning: your teacher and classroom environment, how interested you are in something, how badly you want to master something, and even when (the time in your life) you are learning something.

I urge you not to think too much about how quickly or slowly you’re learning something. Try not to get too frustrated by things you “just don’t get,” don’t brand yourself as “good” or “bad” at something and stop evolving.

Sure, some things are really hard to understand. Some things won’t play to your strengths. Some things you’ll choose to abandon. (As you know, I never learned to read maps.) But if you’re desperate to learn something, do everything you can to learn it. Most likely, you’ll get where you want to go. This might not feel true or realistic, because school sometimes doesn’t give you the time you need to master something. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn that thing; it just means you couldn’t or didn’t learn it in a specific timeframe. Luckily, there’s lots of time outside of school to keep going (for example, the rest of your life).

The things in life that are truly incomprehensible (like the meaning of life, our mortality) aren’t taught in school anyway. But don’t worry, we’ll spend plenty of time exploring those topics at home—and we will never understand them.

Gift 6: Allow yourself time to think.

One of my favorite teachers liked to say that “half of education is reflection.” This means that a huge part of learning is thinking about what you’ve encountered—making sense of it, connecting with it, finding new pathways for exploration. You can’t spend all of your time on the thing itself; you need some time to think about the thing.

You don’t have a lot of time in school for reflection. There is too much content coming at you all day, every day, and not enough time to process or ask questions. You will find yourself naturally thinking about stuff at home (in bed at night, in the shower, etc.), and together we can practice some reflection skills (like discussing, journaling, sketching, writing a short book or making a short video, making a list of questions, or identifying related things you want to explore) that you can use with your schoolwork or with anything you learn outside of school.

You also don’t have enough time in school to rest, which is related to thinking. You have a painfully short recess, and you have homework every weeknight, so you go from school to homework to school again. There is so much research on the benefits of rest—how down time improves learning. You’ve experienced this phenomenon yourself, like when you take a break from a puzzle and then solve it more easily when you return to it. Less is more; the elevator never arrives faster just because you keep pushing the button over and over. But school design doesn’t always reflect what we know about how people learn (oh the irony, but let’s move on), and you’re expected to just keep going and going.

Practice carving out your own time for reflection and breaks. What might feel like indulgent self-care (itself a good thing) in fact will only help you learn more and learn better.

Gift 7: Be a learner, not a student.

I once saw a documentary about the state of American education, and a high school student was interviewed about her AP French test. I can’t remember the details, but I remember she said something about how she was so happy she did well on the test because now she would never have to speak French again. She was a perfect example of a great student—someone who can master content or skills and crush an exam.

I have met valedictorians from huge high schools (say, #1 in a class of 800+ students) who have very little interest in learning and refuse to challenge themselves. I have also met valedictorians whose zeal for learning and unending curiosity is humbling; they are always asking and trying to answer life’s big, enduring questions, and then on top of that they do things like write concertos in their spare time.

I hope you grow to be a great learner, not a great student. This means wanting to learn because you care about ideas and are curious about the world around you. It means finding things you’re passionate about, and connecting with them authentically. It means your grades in school might not always accurately reflect your interest level or understanding.

Being a learner will help you develop into a whole person with your own point of view, because you aren’t just following rules or only mastering what’s on a test. You’ll figure out what interests you, because you’ll explore a great many things—inside and outside of school, on and off the test.

Being a learner means learning how to learn—the single most important thing you can learn. It’s learning how to explore a topic and ask questions, make sense of content, personally connect with content, make connections between ideas, and apply knowledge to new contexts.

Being a learner will keep you safer in the world—you will be able to solve problems, be resourceful—and will bring you so much joy.

While schools aren’t always designed to develop learners, I hope you will resist against becoming a student.

Gift 8: Separate learning from money.

I can hardly believe it, but even at your age, some of your education programming is focused on college, career, and money. Since you are, as you know, only seven years old, I think right now you should focus on learning how to learn and caring about learning—not about how whatever you’re learning is going to prepare you for your future job.

There is a low-lying yet ever-present panic among educators and parents that the jobs of the future don’t yet exist (obviously—by definition, they’re jobs of the future!), and as a result we can’t possibly prepare today’s students for the future workforce. You are all going to be unskilled, robots are going to take over the planet, hurry get some engineering kits.

I can’t predict what kind of job you are going to want someday, what that job will pay, what kind of education you’ll need for that job, where you’ll want to go to college to get that education, if you’ll get into that college.

What I can predict is if you can allow yourself to learn for the sake of learning, you will almost certainly find a career path about which you are passionate, you will almost certainly be able to obtain the skills and knowledge required for that path, and you will almost certainly be able to support yourself.

For now, let’s separate doing science experiments or building stuff from “STEM careers.” Let’s not spend our Saturday mornings at a coding class. Let’s instead take a walk in the little forest preserve by our house.

Gift 9: Acknowledge that school isn’t the only place to learn.

I know some people who think school is the last place to go to learn something. They mean no disrespect to the teachers who work so hard to each and every day and each and every year (I, too, was a classroom teacher, and it was the hardest job I’ve ever had). You learn a lot at school—not just content but independence and how to be in community and more. But I understand the statement and the sentiment behind it.

It can be hard to learn in school, because of some of the reasons I already mentioned: there is too much content, not enough time for reflection, too much emphasis on being a student (vs. a learner).

Make your whole world your classroom, so you aren’t learning only what’s taught in school, or only learning in the ways in which things are taught at school. Learn at home, learn with and from your friends in the neighborhood, learn in community centers, learn while walking around your city, learn in museums, learn in parks, learn while people-watching, learn by observing processes around you, learn by listening and looking closely, learn by writing and drawing, learn by playing, learn by trying as many things as possible, learn by failing.

I love how much you love school, I love watching you learn outside of school, and I love teaching you new things and learning new things together. I know I am and will be a very small part of your lifelong learning, a fact that pains me a bit but mostly excites me. I can’t wait to see all that you will discover on your own—and all that you will teach me.

(Daddy asked me to include this relevant Bruce Springsteen quote here: “We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school.” )

Gift 10: Remember what’s important.

Whenever we send you off on your day or to bed at night, we say these words to you: Be nice, have fun, be strong, be yourself, and follow the golden rule.

We tell you these aren’t just words, and we ask you to practice these actions every day. We can’t teach you physics or French, sewing or calculus. But we can (hopefully) teach you to be a grounded, independent, decent person and send you off into the world to contribute something of value. (Teaching you how to sew would probably be easier. But first we would need to learn how to sew.)

While these five directives capture so much, I’m adding the following:

  • Evolve: you’re not a fixed being; give yourself permission and opportunity to grow as much as you can.
  • Ask: ask all of the questions, all of the time; you’re not supposed to know everything, and you never, ever will.
  • Resist: stand up and speak out when something isn’t right (you will likely always know when something isn’t right).

Finally, as context for these gifts, I’ll add that I cannot and am not going to defend the traditional school system.

It’s not ok that you have 20 minutes to eat your lunch. It’s not ok that you have a 20-minute recess. It’s not ok that you had only two science units last year, and they were totally disconnected from everything else you were learning, and they didn’t even focus on inquiry. It’s not ok that you had an onerous amount of homework in first grade, and that almost all of that work was drill-based. It’s not ok that most of your in-school work the last two years was seated worksheet activities. It’s not ok that sometimes you’re scared to ask to go to the bathroom, because your teacher might say no. (By the way, remember what I told you: you’re in control of your body, and if you have to go to the bathroom, even if it’s a “bad time” in class, you go to the bathroom, no matter the consequences.) This stuff is indefensible.

This isn’t about your teachers the last two years, who were absolutely incredible. And this isn’t about your specific school, which is so special in so many ways but is part of a district, which is part of a state agenda, which is part of a federal agenda. I understand the set-up. I can work to change or counteract it (which I do through my day job), but defending it does neither of us any favors.

You might wonder why I send you to school at all. I explored homeschooling—first abstractly and then more directly, interviewing students and parents from our neighborhood who chose that path. While so much of homeschooling appeals to me (self-directed learning, a more relaxed learning pace, a more sensible volume of content), I couldn’t get past the barriers: Dad and I both work full-time (we feel very lucky we found things we love to do professionally, and we wouldn’t be whole people without our work; also, money: we need it), which makes homeschooling much harder (though not impossible); neither of us felt qualified to create an effective homeschooling environment for you; and perhaps most importantly, I believe in learning in community (through collaborative projects, group discussions, peer mentoring), and that is more easily achieved in a school environment.

I have not made my peace with the system. I cannot forgive the system. I will not ignore the system. I understand the system, and I inhabit it with and for you with clear, critical eyes. May the same be true for you as you navigate complex systems throughout your life.

For now, let’s go decorate your locker.

To learning, to life--

Mommy

Elory Rozner is the founder and principal of Uncommon Classrooms, a Chicago-based consulting firm that develops education programs and exhibits for cultural institutions.

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