by Laura Rock
When I was a little girl, one of the things we would do on visits to the grandparent’s farm was crack nuts. My grandparents had pecan, walnut, and chestnut trees and many an afternoon or evening was spent on this task. Some of the nuts cracked open easily, others, once cracked open, would surprise you with a moldy interior, and still others, would be a challenge to crack. We noticed however, that some of the most tasty or beautiful looking nuts were the ones that were the hardest to crack.
Many of the students who arrive to the Learning Center, either in 9th grade or by a move, arrive with seemingly little to no motivation to make positive changes. They have been “doing” school for at least 9 years and so far, all it has led to is feeling like a failure, or that they don’t belong in the education setting. Think about it, how would you feel about a place if every time you walked in the doors you felt inferior, or like you didn’t belong for nine years running? How would you feel if the one large expectation of your childhood, educate yourself enough to become successful in some career, had you labeled as disabled to accomplish? What would it be like if you looked in the eyes of your teacher and wondered if they felt you was “good enough” to be occupying a chair in their room? It is no wonder that many of my students have built a huge shell around themselves, impenetrable to adults and seemingly impossible to crack. However, I can’t let them not be cracked. I can’t allow them to stay locked up in their shells. My challenge is to find what tool to use to crack their shell, and what nut picks are needed to remove them from that shell, allowing their potential, skills and knowledge to be utilized.
How does this happen? How can I crack their shell? Sometimes, it is necessary to begin the nut cracking by just saying hello every day and giving them space to feel wanted and a part of the school. Other times I find that by being open with them about what they are going through and making some of the learning challenges they face explicit, they start to connect. I have learned, as well, that fancy methods are just as unsuccessful at cracking them as the fancy nutcrackers imported from Germany and sat on the hearth a my grandparent’s house would be at cracking nuts.
To the chagrin of my grandmother, one of us grandkids tried it and its poor mouth was never the same! Keeping interventions simple and consistent are the most successful at cracking the shell. I have learned that when I share my struggles with learning, both past and present, they see that I can empathize with them. I have learned that when I listen to them, even if I disagree, their shell gets softer. I have learned that constant encouragement, sitting beside them, knowing what they need to do and supporting them through the process, helps them become vulnerable enough to allow themselves to be cracked open. Finally, I have learned to respect the process and to err on the side of protecting what is on the inside to be of most importance.
I used to think that once they were cracked open my work was done. Then I learned that just like cracking nuts, getting them open is only half the job. If you want a nice looking nut, one that Grandma will put in her pie, you need good nut picks to pull them out nicely. Otherwise, they will be all broken and can only be put in the broken pile. While nuts in the broken pile are great for nut lovers to eat, they don’t make great students. So now, I know that cracked open students need delicate precision for me to pull them out whole to be ready to join the world of learning. This often takes even longer than cracking them open. They will often sit content in their shell, willing to learn, willing to try new things, but not willing to leave the protections they have built up. It is at this critical stage that I need the assistance and collaboration of teachers. It is the classroom teachers that allow students to feel safe for me to “pick them out” of their shell. It is the interactions they receive outside of the support room that gives them the courage to shed their shell and to be ready to feel a part. There is no better achievement as a teacher and school when a student who has given up on their role as a student turns into an ambitious and successful one, arrives to school with a smile on their face and truly believes they can achieve their dreams. Will you join me in becoming a professional nutcracker?