The Importance of Ketchup Strategy and Donkey Kong

Scott GallagherUncategorized

serving of french fries with ketchup on top

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As a mentor at The Learning Cooperatives, I try to help teens identify personal goals and pursue the things they’re interested in. But as important as trying to figure out the subject or content areas they’re interested in, I also look for what Barbara Sher, in her book Wishcraft, calls their “touchstone.” It’s the thing that makes them tick. It’s the thing that speaks to their sensibility, or how they understand or process the world. It’s the reason they have a particular interest. Many kids might have an interest in, say animals, but the reasons for such an interest can be wildly varied. Some might love animals because of the emotional connection it gives them. Some kids love to watch animals, looking at the mechanisms of bodies, and thinking about anatomy. Some like to think about animal communities and how they cooperate with one another. Some like to think about the relationships that humans have had with animals over thousands of years. The point is that it’s not just about animals. But that something about animals is the thing. 

Often, the “something” doesn’t reveal itself in a formal conversation about interests or goals, but in the day-to-day chit-chat of the common room. Because of the flexibility of The Learning Cooperatives’ program, our teen members are free to relax in the common room, to chat and play games. Sometimes the silliest conversations start. For example, Is it better to dip french fries in ketchup or drizzle the ketchup all over the fries? or Why is it so important that we play old games like Donkey Kong? In a school setting, these conversations would be seen as a waste of time or getting in the way of more important things. But at The Learning Cooperatives, they are perfectly critical to the process of self-discovery. They are exactly the kind of thing I like to listen to because they reveal so much about how our members see the world and how we might help them be their best selves. Some kids don’t like to plan: they drizzle their ketchup to create an unpredictable french fry experience. Some kids are all about recreating experience for history’s sake: in order to understand Donkey Kong, we must play Donkey Kong. 

We can take what we learn from kids and do a few things with it. The first is we can use it to help us put things of interest in front of them. A conversation I’ve heard might help me decide if I should introduce a teen to the writings of Kurt Vonnegut or the writings of Oliver Sacks, to introduce them to experimental poetry or city planning. 

Beyond giving them suggestions, we can also just tell kids what we’ve learned about them. This can be a profound confidence builder for kids when they realize how closely we’re paying attention and how much we value how they see the world. And our feedback can provide a model for how they can think about themselves. Later, when they are having another silly conversation about Ms. Pac-Man or pizza, they can think about what their position says about how they see the world. 

We don’t want to get in the way of silly conversations, and certainly we don’t want to shut them down. If we dismiss these kinds of conversations as silly or pointless we can miss important aspects of kids’ sensibilities and passions. We want to provide an environment where kids can meander in and out of ideas, banter and wonder out loud, and we can catch it all. Because all of it is important. It all reveals something. If we want to help them be their best selves, we have to listen. 

[Photo Credit: Image by Tobias C. Wahl]