Reframing Challenges in Learning and in Life

LWF at Joshua Tree
My nephew, Lucas, on top of boulders at Joshua Tree. Photo by Robin Worley

The 2nd grade students were all working quietly on a math app yesterday morning while their teacher and I were getting ready to share a new project with them. I’m definitely not a fan of skill and drill apps, but there was an important lesson to be learned with it that day.

One student, Sebastian, with his messy hair falling in his anxious brown eyes, kept raising his hand and calling out, “It’s too hard, help me!” A couple of times I went over to see what he was doing and offered suggestions to nudge him in the right direction.

But around the 4th time that he called out for help, I decided to try a different tact. I peered over his shoulder and exclaimed, “Good job! You got to the good stuff! You’re so lucky you get to be challenged and use your brain and learn something new!” He looked at me with a confused expression, but then a smile slowly appeared on his face and he went back to it with renewed determination.

I walked away, and in a minute or so he piped up, “Oh, I got it! It wasn’t that hard,” and he kept working, his eyebrows knitted together in concentration and a slight smile still lingering on his face.

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I was thinking about that last night, and thinking about life, as I sat in my backyard garden with the sun setting and the stars starting to peek through the night curtain. Learning is like life. As much as we may wish for our life’s pathway to be more like a stroll through a flower-filled meadow than a mountainous ironman triathlon course, that desire would be misguided. In the classroom of life, it’s when we get to the “good stuff,” i.e. the hard stuff, that we get to learn and expand.  

And then I got to thinking about Care Bears. That’s right – Care Bears. I saw them skipping along through that wished-for green meadow. I have always told my writing students that a story without conflict is just a Care Bears cartoon. Mildly entertaining if you’re three years old, but mind numbingly boring for the rest of us. Our life is our story – how dull and pointless it would be without conflict that forces us to overcome the antagonist and be transformed!

An article I just read in the New York Times echoes this idea in the extreme. In “Life After the Storm: Children Who Survived Katrina Offer Lessons,” the author, Benedict Carey, interviews young adults who lived through Katrina as children. Carey found that some of those children were able not just to survive, but to thrive after that traumatic experience. He refers to psychology studies to help explain it.

Although ‘trauma’ can mean many things, and is generally considered destructive, its demands can force people to learn what their abilities are and which are most useful when all seems lost. Studies by Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychology professor at the University of California, Irvine, and others have found that adults who report having taken no serious hits – like, say, the death of friend, a serious illness, a natural disaster – generally do not score as highly on measures of well-being as people who have survived traumatic events.”

While we would never wish a natural disaster on anyone, there are countless smaller challenges we face every day, and our attitude towards them can determine our lives. Let’s remind ourselves and our young scholars that our greatest hope should not be that learning (and life) is easy and boring, but that we have the perseverance and grit to stand up to the tough challenges that we face.

These are the tests that will force us to expand to become the heroes and heroines of our own stories, continually transformed on our hero’s journey. And with a little luck, we may be rewarded with the ultimate boon to share with the world.


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