Own It, Girlfriend!

Before you read any further, I want to assure you that the student and her mom both approved the sharing of this story.

One of our lower elementary classes has been writing books.  A student decided that she wanted to add an “About the Author” section to the back cover.  While working on it she asked her teacher, “How do you spell autism?”

The teacher helped her find the correct spelling and then looked at what she had written. “She has autism.”  The teacher said that her initial reaction was of slight panic, thinking that this child shouldn’t write this about herself.  But she didn’t say anything. Instead she realized that was her own reaction and had nothing to do with why or how the child chose to identify herself.  And, sure enough, the next sentence was, “which means her brain works differently than others.”  The teacher was not only glad that she didn’t react to this self-description, she was struck by how accurate and clear the description was.  Her appreciation for the student’s description deepened when she saw the illustration she had added.

This story was shared at a staff meeting where we discussed an article that talked about praising the effort of the child rather than the product.  While we all agreed that articulating and acknowledging the effort is effective, we all took issue with the idea of praise. Praising a child usually means that we are adding our own value judgement. We are telling them what we think is amazing or awesome or cool or well done.

The Montessori philosophy works at building intrinsic motivation, doing work well for the sake of feeling like you’ve done something well, not because someone else told you they though you did a good job.  The same goes for other emotional reactions.  The teacher’s point in sharing this story was that she held her own emotions back, allowing the student the freedom of self-expression. The student shared this information about herself because she wanted to, not because anyone else told her to.  And it’s pretty clear from the picture below that she considers autism a part of who she is, and that’s a good thing.

So it’s not just intrinsic motivation that is at issue here, it is the self-identification of the student, his or her emotional connection to the work they do, how they do it, and how that makes them who they are. It seems to me that this has a hand in a number of abilities that we are coming to understand are at the heart of “success,” such as resiliency, self-reliance, and creativity. I realize that might be a bit of a leap, but it would certainly be fun to research.

I’ll let you read “about the author,” and decide for yourself.