Kicking Down the Boxes

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Synopsis

Examines our culture of labeling and how we can use labels wisely, or not at all.

Every Christmas, in Ojai, California, these guys in the photo come randomly walking around town.  This type of unique occurrence is common in that wonderful little village, and to such events we remark, “Only in Ojai.”  You just have to smile and wave.  

Do you ever feel that you’re stuck in a heavy, brown cardboard box?  And that other people are caught in boxes, too?  And that we are all walking around, like these guys, our real identities masked behind impenetrable facades of labels and categories?  Labels can be anything - gender, status, race, religion, ailments, age.  In schools we often find them to be intelligence levels, psychological disorders, behavior problems, disabilities, reading levels, processing speeds, or English language mastery.  

For many years now, I have felt that my mission in consulting with schools and families on creativity and learning is to kick down the boxes.  But not when people are in them, of course.  Step one is to meet them where they are, and then to dig deeper, looking behind the mask to find out who is really inside.  I want to understand people in their organic, natural state.  What are their creative strengths, ambitions, and interests?  What lights them up?  Sometimes it even takes going back further to early childhood, before the box was encountered, to understand the true nature of a person.

Next, I help people realize that they don’t have to wear the box.  If they want to wear it, they don’t have to keep it on at all times.  After all, it is really like a costume, usually an overlaid construct to make certain characteristics recognizable to others.  We know that in the above photo, there’s a snowman.  The decoration of his costume makes it easy for us to categorize him with other snowmen.  Sometimes that is necessary.  For example, if a heatwave is coming, we’d want to make sure to gather all of the snowmen first and herd them safely inside a commercial freezer.  It would be helpful for us to have a way to quickly recognize all of the snowmen to complete this job expediently, for their own good.  However, there is a flip-side.  When someone puts on a box it may be useful to meet one aspect of their needs.  But more often than not, as time goes on, we only see the box and forget there is a person inside.

In education terms, let’s consider reading abilities.  Children who need reading help might be categorized as slow readers.  This might be necessary so that they may receive extra time or perhaps a different approach to reading.  But we need to provide the opportunity for them to not always wear the “slow reading” box.  Sometimes students with reading delays have exceptional visual-spacial skills; what might be all of the ways, as teachers and adults, that we can discover these strengths and make students aware of them?  For children, one way to do this is by providing opportunities to originate, experiment, and create.  Reading is a prime example, because a child’s school experience often hinges on this single measure.  If cast as the “slow learner” character early on, this box can affect the child’s entire educational trajectory, and even the rest of their life in terms of self-concept and longterm success.  In other words, the box stays on, and exceptional talents and creativity in other domains are not uncovered nor valued.

By its nature, sturdy cardboard is not malleable.  When the folks in the photo are walking around town, they have to move slowly, because large appliance boxes are heavy and awkward.  They all kind of move the same way, plodding along the sidewalk in a slow motion animation.  It’s the same way with labels.  Once they are on, it’s hard to be an individual within them because all that appears on the outside is the group moving together in a herd.  This is why I propose the first national “Kicking Down the Boxes Day.”  

Do this alone, or do it with friends.  Find as many cardboard boxes as you can from small to large - shoe boxes, appliance boxes, cereal boxes, moving boxes.  Think of all of the labels that you - or your students - walk around wearing day to day.  Write the name of each label on a separate box.  Then, go to your favorite box-kicking place like your driveway or your backyard or a wheat field.  Pile the boxes in any formation that you feel is right, blast your favorite metal band, and get to work kicking down those boxes.  Just imagine if we all did this for ourselves, and for each other.  No longer would we have snowmen, reindeer, and Santas wandering around town in sleepy uniformity, but creative individuals, each with their own manner of self-expression, uninhibited in their ability to make a unique contribution to the world.  

Copyright 2013 Kathryn P. Haydon

This article was originally published on the Sparkitivity blog

Tags: education levels, educational psychology, kathryn p. haydon, labelling, labels, reading abilities

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