Why this blog?

"... Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves ... Do not search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." - Letters to a Young Artist, R. M. Rilke

Rooted in the promise and challenge of growth ...

these are letters from a young teacher.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Sound maps at Magnuson Park

While at IslandWood, I learned a variety of exercises in listening to engage in in quiet places. My favorite was called a Sound Map, and I have carried it with me to engage myself in, as well as other students I've met along the way.

At my school now, we've been taking weekly field trips to Seattle parks all summer, at which I had already introduced some listening exercises. Who could ever imagine 15 boisterous K-3 students practically bouncing off the trees one minute, that the next they could be sitting in a wide circle with their eyes closed, counting all the different sounds they hear on their quiet fingers and their concentrated faces?!

... Which is why I felt, by this point in the summer, that they were ready for the Sound Map. And this is how I found myself with fifteen clipboards, sitting in the tall grasses of Magnuson Park with the kids ...

I struggle with the initiation of activities, because I don't like to detract from the kids' motivation to explore something by imposing my motivation to explore it in a way I prefer. However, when I sat down with my clippboard and pencil, and began drawing ... all it took was a question:

"Avery, what are you doing?"

"I'm beginning a sound map. Do you remember counting sounds at the Arboretum? This is like that, but instead of counting, I try to draw pictures of the sounds I hear and place them in a map around me..."

We were off.

I began the Sound Map by drawing myself in the middle of the paper. Then I asked, "What do we hear around us here?" As each child suggested something, I invited them to add a picture of it to my map. We began with birds and airplanes, which are easy enough to visualize for a picture. And then we came to the wind.

"How do you draw the wind?" someone asked.

"How do you draw the wind?" I reflected with them. There was no way I was going to make any suggestion whatsoever.

"I know!" declared a second-grade girl, "You could draw it like the pictures in the weather, with curves and stuff." She added the wind.

After our collaborative sound map was well on its way, I invited the kids to take their own clipboard and find a quiet spot to make their own sound map. If they didn't want to focus on sounds, they were welcome to draw a picture of something where they were sitting.

Once engaged, they were quick to focus their attention on the task they had chosen, and were able to decide when they were finished, and when they needed to continue. Some left their clipboards behind completely, and became engrossed in exploring the tall grasses.

I usually like to let children's drawings speak for themselves, but I just can't resist sharing: at the very bottom of this picture, the student drew "the wind rushing through the grasses"

This student opted to draw what he saw in his surroundings.

The "wind" appears here similarly to our collaborative sound map because it is by the same girl who thought of this particular representation of the wind.

What I most enjoy about this activity is that it allows me to get in touch with each student as an individual. There is no rubric, no expectations connected to this exercise - it is a way I get to know my students, just as they are. Their expression is invaluable to me, because it reminds me that, though we may all hear the same sounds and draw the same pictures, there are as many ways to show what we know as there are ways of knowing.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The culture of money

This past week, I observed a fascinating development among some boys in my class. They learned last week how to play an ocean-themed version of Monopoly (called Oceanopoly), which, when you think about it, is not exactly intuitive to five- and six-year-olds. Did that stop them? Of course not.

After one of our teachers had explicitly taught them the conventional rules of the game, they kept much of what they had learned, yet began altering some aspects. For example, they introduced Opposite Day: "If you get this [a card that says "Pay $200"], then you don't have to pay, you actually earn $200." ... Of course, another boy was quick to add: "But, if you get "Earn $200" then you get to earn it, too." Hmmm... "And," - there was more - "when you want to buy something, you actually get paid to buy it!" I see ...

From game adaptations, they moved to playing Aquarium, which I was given the grand tour of, with each kid interpreting a different sea animal. (I think my favorite was the seahorse: he knew that in the seahorse community, the males carry the babies, so he stuck out his stomach with a grin on his face, declaring, "I'm pregnant!").

By the end of the week, however, the idea of money - the making of it, the exchange of it, the earning and losing of it - had really taken over, so that by Friday, there was no Oceanopoly game any more. Instead, the boys were in the studio, cutting up construction paper and putting some awfully big numbers on them.

@: What are you all up to?
Jack: Making fake money.
Miles: For Kyle to sell.
@: What are you selling money for, Kyle?
Kyle: I'm being nice, so people have more money.
Miles: And we get paid.
@: How does that work?
Kyle: I pay them with paper money ... the money they made! ... [To Jack:] Don't make 'em too short, make 'em, make 'em ... yeah, that long. ... [To Denny:] Since you've been such a good worker, I'm gonna give you a hundred bucks! [Gives Denny one fake $100 bill.]
Denny: Yes!
Miles: I wanna get paid.
@: What will you do with your money, Miles?
Miles: Keep some of it. ... I'm gonna take it and put it where I put all my money ... in my suitcase.

Meanwhile, I later came across Hamish with a whole piece of paper, on which he started writing 5 - 0 - 0 - 0 ... and just never seemed to stop. As he filled the page with zeros, he chanted along: "Zero ... zero ... zero ..." and then, under his breath, " ... I'm going to be rich!"

Being a naturally reflective person, I can't say I was exactly thrilled to see all this going on. I am as much a product of our capitalistic society as anyone else, but I just couldn't help but cringe to see children role-playing their interpretation of its different aspects. However, at some point, I remembered I had my teacher hat on, which meant I was not judging, but exploring a theme that emerged from the interest of the children, seeking to understand how the children experience it in their play.

My observations prompted me to remember what my concept(s) of money were as a child. I'm sure I would be deceiving myself if I pretended to think I had always been as frugal, yet generous as I aspire to be as an adult, though no particular examples come to mind. Except, perhaps, ironically enough, the games of Monopoly I played with my cousins for days on end. I laugh to think how seriously we took ourselves, how proud we were to have amassed a small fortune of hard cash and valuable properties, and how devastated when bankruptcy seemed imminent. Did we have any idea of the actual weight of such ventures on the psyche? We were just playing, after all.

Oh, play! I find it a sort of double-mirror. It is somehow painful sometimes to see children use their play to act out adult roles they have observed, as with Hamish's money-making Kyle's management of the money-making (though I have to say, he was pretty generous and supportive of all of his employees). However, at the same time, just because children are acting out these roles does not mean they will come to inhabit them as adults. They are simply trying on something for size, imitating something they have observed to see how it feels in their own skin. It is certainly a fascinating phenomenon to be witness to!

However, here I arrive at a bit of a dead end: Where to from here? As the teacher, I've first explored with the children how they experience this theme of money, and have a good impression of what each of them is drawn to within this theme. Now, is it also my job to respond to that and introduce some new element to the theme? Perhaps another money-oriented game, with a different spin? Should we experiment with real money?

The possibilities are endless ... yet I hesitate. All to often I watch children's motivation to explore a topic simply dissipate as I begin to "take control" of it through a lesson. I wonder if it is precisely when the teacher attempts to own a theme at hand that the learning no longer belongs to the children? What, then, is there for the teacher to do?

I'm listening ...