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What Apple Spritzer on a High-Speed Train Taught Me About Challenging Students


There we were, me, my wife, and my two young children, one day out from a six-hour drive followed by a nine-hour overnight flight and a two-hour connection, operating on just one night of jet-lagged sleep, hiking through the cars of a Karlsruhe-bound InterCity Express train in search of the restaurant car.

We finally found it, and the menu was happily, gloriously German. Currywurst and eintopf and pancakes with applesauce, and, much to the kids' delight, there was apfel schorle to drink. Apfel schorle--apple spritzer--is the ingenious German combination of apple juice and sparkling water. Not only does it cut down the amount of sugar your kid ingests, but it's also much more fun than regular juice.

So I dust off my passable German and order auf Deutsch even though the cashier surely knows English. And as she hands me the bottles of schorle, she also hands me a pair of stemmed, glass goblets. For the kids.

You heard that right: Glass goblets from which the kids are to drink their apple spritzer as we eat in the mobile restaurant at something like 250 kilometers an hour. Did I mention my kids are 2 and 5 years old?

***

My family just got back from a trip to Europe. And while it wasn't my first time on the continent, it was my first time traveling with two young kids. And the first major thing that stuck out to me was this: with the exception of McDonald's, precisely zero restaurants gave our children plastic cups with lids and straws. Time after time after time, our children's drinks came in open-topped glass cups.

And guess what happened...

Nothing.

Sure, my 2-year-old daughter got a bit over-exuberant a few times at the beginning of the trip and spilled a bit of her drink on her shirt. And sure, there were a few scares when they were this close to knocking the glass of the table. But in the end, it was fine. A 2-year-old and 5-year-old are perfectly capable of drinking out of grown-up cups.

Later in our trip, in Geneva, we were at a beach and I ordered the special of the day, which was a steak, asparagus salad, and potatoes. There was no kids' menu, and we weren't 100% sure what all of the menu items were, as neither my wife nor I are fluent in French. And so we simply ordered the child's version of the special.

You might think the child's version would be smaller than the adult version. It was, but only slightly.

You might think that the child's version of the steak would be well-done, instead of the very rare (but very good) adult version. Nope, the kids got the same, cooked-to-barely-cooked-perfection steak that I had.

You might think they would replace the asparagus salad with something more kid-friendly. You'd be wrong.

And yet... the kids loved it. They ate it up. Okay, they didn't eat the asparagus. But they loved the steak. Loved it.

Here's my point: when it comes to the dinner table, we in America tend to baby our kids. We think they need plastic cups and plastic utensils and special foods. And yet, if we actually gave them the chance to eat like grown-ups, we'd probably find what I found out on my trip to Europe. They would do just fine.

I bet if we're honest, we as teachers sometimes baby our students, too. We underestimate them.

What I love about teaching middle school is that the students are still young enough to be receptive to help from adults, but they're also old enough to engage in deep, high-level conversations. At my school, our kids are trained to think about "what's best for their learning." It's not unusual to hear a student ask if they can work in the hallway or do a project a different way, or work with a particular partner because they believe it's best for their learning. They're empowered and encouraged to be proactive and independent-minded.

When I began teaching middle school, I had to undertake a process of calibration. It was so easy to want to construct projects and assignments so that students would be forced to do everything just the way I thought they should do it; just the way I would do it. And yet, that can't work. Not only does does such a system fail to differentiate for kids who need it; it also cuts kids off from the opportunity to embrace learning. Just as painting by number stops kids from expressing their true creativity, learning by number teaches students to follow a list of steps rather than learn by exploring.

The other way that we baby our students, though, is by talking down to them. Obviously, schools need to be safe and respectful places, and we should never do anything that will make our classrooms feel scary or unwelcoming.

However, we in the American educational system have a bad habit of acting as though our kids can't handle complexity.

They can.

We have a bad habit of acting as if they can't handle hard truths.

They can.

We have a bad habit of acting as if they can't be trusted to think of solutions to big problems.

They can.

And, just like my schorle-obsessed toddler, they can do all of those things without training and without hand-holding. The only thing they need from us is the opportunity.

I think many teachers--most teachers, probably--know this truth deep down. They know that their students are capable of amazing things. And so most teachers probably try their best to give students frequent chances to think big and try big things.

For most of us, the challenge isn't accepting that our kids can grapple with grown up concepts, ideas, and problems. Rather, it's being willing to keep upping the ante. When our students tackle a tough issue with a complexity we didn't expect, we need to be prepared to dig even deeper. When our students succeed at a challenge we thought might be beyond them, we need to remember to challenge  ourselves to be willing to trust them to take on even bigger challenges. When our students amaze us, we need to be ready to invite them to blow our minds.

Kids make mistakes. It's true. And when we ask them to tackle big challenges, when we refuse to baby them, there's a legitimate risk that they will fail. But failure is OK. More often than not, though, our students will succeed. Spectacularly. And that spectacular success is worth it, even if it means risking an occasional shattered glass of spritzy apple juice.

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