As I reflect on the life and death of Michael Jackson it makes me wonder how much of a role his lack of a typical childhood played into his tragic life story. Michael took the stage at the age of five and was an entertainment sensation almost instantaneously. That meant that while most children were out in their backyards finding adventure and playing with other neighborhood children, Michael was on the road traveling to the next gig. While most people think that the life of a celebrity is glamorous, those who are in the limelight see it differently. In a 2003 "60 Minutes" interview with Michael, he touched on the topic of his lack of a childhood when he explained the mystery behind his Neverland ranch. And it makes perfect sense. He did not get to do the things that typical children get to experience, and as he grew into an adult, that yearning for a childhood never left. I can't help but wonder if this is partly what contributed to his demise.
As I watched excerpts from the "60 Minutes" interview with Michael Jackson, I couldn't help but feel sorry for the man. It made me wonder if his response to the question Ed Bradley asked about the appropriateness (or the inappropriateness) of a 45 year-old man inviting young children to sleep in his bedroom wasn't a direct result of his lack of a true childhood. It was almost as though Michael was trying to recapture something of himself that was lost when he was thrust out of his childhood innocence and into a life of instant fame and notoriety. How tragic.
At the time of my writing this post, the autopsy results confirming the cause of Michael's death have not been made public. But there is plenty of speculation about the role prescription drugs played in his death. While I have never experienced an addiction of this magnitude (food is my only addition), I can't help but wonder what hole those drugs were trying to fill in his life. Something must have been missing in his life to leave a void that needed filled. Could it have been his childhood? We will never know.
The effects of a lack of a childhood in Michael's life leads me to ask the following questions: How important is play in the development of mentally creative, mentally healthy children? What role do educators play in helping define our students' childhoods? Are educators guilty of stifling a child's imagination through structured activities?
In looking at the first question let me quote a few lines from an article by the National Literacy Trust.
Children are being stripped of their natural creativity by structured activities and hi-tech toys, leading academics warned yesterday.
Innate play skills are lost as parents pay for them to attend classes and clubs or buy televisions and video game machines for their bedrooms. Even at school they are told what games to play in sports lessons and sometimes even in the playground. But the regimentation of their leisure time is stifling their initiative, says a report.
While this article is geared more toward the effects of play in the development of young children, it has some major significance for older children as well. Through my many years as a teacher, I've discovered that the creative juices of my middle school-aged students have almost stopped flowing. Their philosophy seems to be this: "Spoon feed me. Tell me what to think. It's easier that way." They would rather be told what to write about or what project they should do instead of dreaming it up on their own. I have to stop and ask myself if this is due, in part, to the fact that students spend countless hours sitting in front of a television or video game and exercise their brain only half as much as they would if they were creating their own fun somewhere else. I don't know...maybe I should do some more research on this idea...maybe I'm on to something here.
This, then leads me to the next two questions I posed earlier. What is my role in the development of my students? Am I guilty of stifling their creative juices because I give them too much structure in their assignments? These are some serious questions to think about. I believe it is my responsibility as an educator to build a fire under my students (not literally), to spark their imagination by giving them opportunities to take a hold of their learning and run with it. I like to give my students assignments where their only limitation is their own imagination. At first this was tough to do - after all, I LOVE STRUCTURE - but once I left my comfort zone and opened the door to a different kind of classroom, I found that my students advanced far beyond my expectations. I still have a long way to go, but believe I'm on the right track. It IS my responsibility to teach them to think for themselves. It IS my responsibility to allow them to make choices on their own. It IS my responsibility to let them fly. And it IS my responsibility to help pick them up with they fall. Kind of sounds like parenting, huh?
And so I end this post with an anonymous quote:
I tried to teach my child with books; he gave me only puzzled looks.As a teacher, I want to allow my students to "play" more often.
I tried to teach my child with words; they passed him by, oft unheard.
Despairingly I turned aside. “How can I teach this child?” I cried.
Into my hand he put the key, “Come”, he said, “play with me.”