The photo is of our daughter on the five-hour drive to college last August. She's been there almost two months now. Funny how it seems so much longer. At first, she said she felt as if she was at camp or on a summer trip and would be home in six weeks. Now she says her dorm room feels like her other home. She called this morning as she walked to the library, her first excursion there since she got to college. "You're going where?" I asked her and she laughed. She said, "I might as well do some work as I've already caught up on all my shows." I asked her which library had she decided on (she goes to a large university with many schools and libraries) and she said the one near the outdoor farmer's market she works at on Thursday afternoons, because someone told her it has the best food. Whatever works. She has a lot of work and she's getting it done, but she seems to be managing the stress, too.
My cousin mentioned to me this week that her daughter is not good at taking tests, that somehow her memory deserts her. It made me recall a science project my son did when he was in the fifth grade, which of course I followed very closely. The project was about brain-hemisphere dominance. He asked each of his classmates to do a series of tasks (throwing a ball, answering a phone, looking through a pinhole, kicking a soccer ball) to determine which brain hemisphere, right or left, was dominant for sight, sound, handedness and footedness.
He had learned from previous research that the left brain controls the logical, analytical, objective functions while the right brain stores the spatial, artistic, intuitive data. The majority of the kids he tested were a mix, meaning they might be right brained for sight but left brained for handedness, and so on, storing data across hemispheres depending on how it came to them. But one girl tested left brained for every task, and one boy was right brained for every task, and don't you know, the girl happened to be the leading scholar in the class and the boy was the student who struggled the most in the class.
As my son delved deeper into the subject (prodded by his mother who by now was deeply interested in what he was learning), he discovered that when highly stressed, a person has access only to the dominant brain hemisphere because the corpus collosum, the pathway between the two hemispheres that allows information to pass back and forth, shuts down, effectively gridlocking traffic. Given that exams generate their share of stress, this might mean that a child who can always access the logical and analytical part of the brain will likely do better on tests, since most schools are set up to test the logical, objective and analytical strengths of students, valuing those abilities over the artistic, subjective and intuitive. And that right brained child, like my cousin's daughter who is a budding photographer, will often have the experience of walking out of a test and suddenly knowing the answer to every question, perplexed as to why she couldn't bring up the information while in the exam room.
This is a generalization of course. I'm sure neuroscience is infinitely more nuanced than could ever be expressed by the learning acquired for a fifth grade science project. But since then, I have always felt that my daughter did well in school because she started out in a progressive setting that didn't overemphasize test results, relying more on experiential and project based instruction and unconventional ways of storing information. My husband called it "stealth learning." He always remembers one particular parent visiting day when our girl was in first grade and the students were given the task to act out their number facts. The kids were so busy coming up with wacky ways to act out "7 + 8 equals 15!" that they mastered the number facts as a byproduct, scaffolded by the memory of the group's enjoyment of their performance.
I also think the smart management of student stress is why my son's high school turned out to be perfect for him, after a rather intense middle school with a homework load that near burned him out. His high school, while traditionally structured, dispensed the lessons with a dose of humor. It was an all boys school and the teachers seemed to understand that boys like my son needed to expend excess energy, to find the levity in their circumstances, to not make everything too deadly serious. Not that the school neglected to discipline the boys when it was called for, but discipline was in the form of JUGS, which stood for Justice Under God (it was a Jesuit school), and might entail running backwards around the football field—on one leg.
Once, when my son's class was particularly unruly at an assembly welcoming that year's freshmen, refusing to stop clapping and cheering as each new boy's name was called so as to extend the assembly and shorten first period class time, the principal gave the whole class of juniors a JUG, requiring them to return to the assembly hall after school. There, as he called out the names of each student in the junior year, the class was required to clap and cheer as they had that morning, resulting in a two hour detention that sent all the boys home with endorphins boosted. Down the line that evening, their Facebook status updates were the same: "Best JUG ever."
I don't know where I am going with this. I think I am just happy that my children seem to be managing the demands of college right now. I pray things continue to go right, and that they are able to meet their challenges philosophically, with diligence and hard work, but without debilitating stress that might cause them to temporarily lose access to whatever useful and needed data might be stored in their brains.