Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Skills of a thief

I've been reading the book, Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

There are different ways to "flow" and different reasons people get into "flow." But the result is the same. Flow is something that happens when we get completely absorbed in something we enjoy. It happens when we engage the mind...when we work toward a solution...when the gears in our brain are turning and we are deep into problem solving. It may be gardening, writing a paper, fixing a computer, or planning an event. "Flow" is not accomplished when veging out in front of the TV. It takes work. But the work is so fulfilling that it results in a deeper rush of enjoyment.

It made me think of a conversation I overheard one time. Some teenage boys were talking about "hitting a lick." From listening to them talk, it sounded like their "lick" had produced quite a bit of money. Not so long ago, I would have written off crimes like this as an adrenalin rush. However, I don't think that is entirely accurate.

I do believe that "hitting a lick" successfully provides an adrenalin rush, but it is much more than that. These teenage boys had to do a lot of work to rob the store. They had to plot out which store to hit, research the store, scope out the patterns of people going in and out, figure out the security system, know where and how the money is secured, ...you get the picture.

There are a lot of skills involved in robbing a store. Yet these teenagers do it successfully and often manage not to get caught. Adrenalin rush? Perhaps. But I would argue that the problem solving that takes place and the enjoyment and excitement they receive as a result of their success is what Csikszentmihalyi refers to as "flow."

I thought about schools and after-school programs. Too often, schools are set up to teach kids to read and write. After-school programs are set up to contain kids between the critical hours of 3:00-6:00 until their parents get home. In itself, there's nothing wrong with that. But we're missing a piece. We're not equipping kids to use their minds outside of the classroom!

Even in after-school programs, we often provide activities kids can do while there. They might have fancy equipment or toys that they don't have at home. That's great...as long as they're at the program. But what happens after they leave? Their mind has to become sedentary until they return the next day. For a kid with a sharp mind (like many of those "thug" teens in my neighborhood), they are not satisfied with passive learning. They want to think!

We need to begin thinking in terms of how to engage kids in a way that they can take what they learn outside of the classroom. We need to think about how to engage kids utilizing and being creative with the resources they have.

So how do we do this?

As a child, I used to get absorbed in making crafts--cross-stitching, putting craft kits together, latch hook... I loved crafts. Some days my cousins and I would walk to the creek. We searched for crawdads and strategized how to catch them before they could scoot away backward. I was given a job I hated--scraping paint and re-painting our mill. As I scraped the paint, I tried to figure out the best way to hold the scraper to get off as much paint as possible, as quickly as possible.

We need to provide kids with opportunities to pique their interest.

In our After-School Academy, we have a garden. I have watched Ladaysha and Niemen get completely absorbed in that garden. I'm hoping we can begin working with them to create container gardens for their home. In our Digital Connectors program, Vanessa said she wants to learn everything they have planned because she wants to be able to fix their home computer when it goes down. In the Library, kids can get absorbed in books...and now they can purchase them and take them home with them for a mere 25 or 50 cents.

Instead of writing off the kid who has chosen a life of crime, maybe we should look at the skill level their crimes require. I believe if we look close enough, on the higher order thinking scale, we will find that the skills they have taught themselves often exceed what we're teaching them in school.

Maybe we're the ones that need to re-evaluate.
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