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.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A teachable moment

Oh, this is going to be a great story!:

At our Sensory table today, we filled a tub with water to clean cranberries to make cranberry sauce. The children had great fun putting their hands in the water and feeling the cranberries between their fingers ... but the real magic came when all the cranberries were taken out and it was time to empty the tub.

Because the tub is so large, it sits on a stand and there is a plug at the bottom to empty the water from. As I did so, some children had stayed to watch the water go down. One noticed the shape of the water's movement as it went down the plug - it was exactly like water going down a drain, spiraling around.

Now, I see this phenomenon every day. I don't ask questions about it. Alas, I am no longer four years old. Luckily, I hang out with young children enough that they remind me how great it is to be so young and wide-eyed and wondering at the world. Because as everyone else went about cleaning up from the morning's activity, one boy - Bennett - tapped my leg and asked me: "What is the water doing there?"

"Oh," I responded, "It's spiraling and spinning down the plug."

"That's like my potty!"

"Yes, that's what water does anytime it goes from being in a really big container down into a really tiny hole."

"Why does it do that?"

[Ach! Killer! I *love* four-year-olds!]

"You know, Bennett, I don't think I could tell you why. I don't know."

[It's true. I don't know. But I don't want to just leave him with that. I want to follow this interest, keep it alive and fresh and active ...]

"...Wait, Bennett, I have an idea. Maybe we can figure it out."

I went to the kitchen area where everything was prepared for making cranberry sauce and made a bee line for the cinnamon container. I returned to the tub, the water still draining into a more manageable bucket, and let loose, sprinkling cinnamon all over the water's surface.

I didn't really know what was going to happen, but I knew it was just going to have to be amazing, if not because it was science at its purest, it was a four-year-old that inspired the idea. Sure enough, more children came over to watch the movement of the water in the entire tub, and to marvel at the phenomenon of how rapidly it began to move in circles as it approached the plug at one end. I was amazed: with the help of the cinnamon, it was remarkably easy to see the entire pattern of the water's movement.

"Why do you think the water makes that spiral down at the plug like that?" I asked.

Several children just kept watching, as if in a trance. I could tell Bennett was really trying to figure it out, make sense of it. "I don't know," he said, "I just don't know."

"That's okay," I said, "I don't know, either. But it's really cool, isn't it."

"Yeah. It's really really really REALLY COOL!" he bursted.

"Well, you'll just have to keep thinking about it, and I bet an idea will come to you."


What can I say? Another day in pre-school...

"Sharing, it's what good friends do..."

... whatever I have, you can have some, too."

Anyone remember that song? A Sesame Street classic ... or maybe it was exclusive to the repertoire of my talking Big Bird...

I've been thinking a lot about sharing lately, because it is really a very loaded concept, and not an easy one for 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds to grasp. I find it most difficult, however, to be the one who is trying to explain and teach sharing to these little ones.

At it's very core, sharing implies loss. That's what my students remind me of every day. When someone tells them "You need to share", what they hear is "You can't have that to yourself, you need to give it up." That is loss. So, now, you're the teacher: How do you teach that loss can be a "good" and rewarding thing? How do you explain that there are times when we submit ourselves to the experience of loss willingly, because that loss actually becomes an experience of gain, in another form than the original loss? That is some very twisted logic, when you get right down to it.

I am trying to start from the beginning: "You know, I can tell you're really enjoying playing with all those Legos, Francis, and I can see why! Remember, though, we're at school, and all the toys here are for all the children to play with. That's why we get to practice sharing a lot at school, so that everyone gets a chance to play with the toys they want..."

[Finders may be keepers, but the point of play and of a playful community such as the classroom can be is the connection we find and experience with others. Yet, though I would never call young children 'selfish', they do need to understand others primarily through themselves.]

"So, let's think, Francis: There are two ways I think would make for some pretty good sharing right now. We can share the material we have - like Legos - or we can share the time we have the material. What do you think? Can you share your Legos with your friends so you can all play at the same time? Or would you rather keep all the Legos for yourself now and then give them all to someone else when I come back in five minutes?..."

[This is the new piece of my thinking: I don't think it's a horrible thing to want something entirely for oneself for an amount of time. There are things we cannot divide up like Legos, so we divide up the time we have with them. Maybe this is an easier way to share for some children?]

Francis decided to share the Legos with the other children at the table. I have to admit, I was relieved. Perhaps I had come up with an alternative way of sharing, but I had not quite thought completely through how I was then going to teach the concept of time ... that will have to come up in another post soon ...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Is destruction an act of creativity?

I want to give them the benefit of the doubt: there must be something more to holding something in one's hand and then, in sheer excitement, throw it all over the place; there must be a cognitive sense to building a tower of colored blocks for the sole purpose of kicking it down upon finishing.

Four boys have been the object of my reflection on this question - Is destruction an act of creativity? - because I just watch and wonder at them. I wonder at them partially because they are the complete opposite of what I ever was as a child. But what's more: they consistently push my perceptions and understanding of the purpose of childhood and - perhaps more importantly - the purpose of teachers.

Is this an energy to be reined in? Modified and conditioned? ... Or could it be understood? Could it even change the way I think about that child and/or that behavior?

This is where the complexities of being a teacher - with all the background expertise AND intuitive, on-the-spot insightfulness - take shape in my understanding of what teaching is all about. Maybe it's not about what I have to teach them, but about what they can teach me. How can I expect myself to be able to teach them effectively and appropriately if I am not willing to take responsibility for learning from them, first, what that will entail?

So, my eyes and ears are open as I watch these boys. We shall see what I find.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Draw and tell ...

This is my ow-ee [red, center]. This is me [orange, right] I climbed the tree and hanged there and then I got the ow-ee. My mommy [purple circle, lower right] carried me down.
Timmy, age 3yrs 6mos

I put my hand here first [yellow, traced hand] and here are trees [green and blue] and this is my TV [yellow above hand] and the hand goes from tree to tree.
Thomas, age 3

This is my sister [lower left, behind scribbles]. Can you draw a dress for him? ... This is my mama [toward the left within scribbles]. Now I'm gonna draw my own head. This is me! [green circle toward right within scribbles]. I'm in the danger [starts scribbling green], and then my mom is in the danger [spreads scribbles toward left] and my sister's in the danger. My daddy's [red face] going to save all the family.
David, age 3

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Kinetics part 2: Whose agenda is it anyway?

Oi! Today came an instance, in which I became very very frustrated. With children. Believe it or not, that does not happen often. Time to deconstruct.

I can't say I felt well set up for success when one of my colleagues shoved a board game into my hands and said, "Here, play this with those four over there. They can't pay attention during storytime." Don't get me wrong - we all have our moments and our days - and this was a moment when I felt very disconnected from my colleague and her greater scope of intention. This is a very uncomfortable feeling for me, so I was not off to a good start.

There I sat, board game in hand - a game I'd never even heard of, by the way - with four squeamish children who would have never known the difference had I simply gotten up and left. Because that is slightly what I felt like doing at that moment.

Come on, I thought to myself, it's just a game. Something to pass the time for these kids while the others listen to a book. That was my second problem. I didn't agree with my colleague's decision to exclude these kids from the other activity.

Stop! I reminded myself: It is too easy to resign oneself to feelings of dissatisfaction toward the actions of others. If you have a problem with what a teacher has done, you be the teacher you would rather see. No use expecting others to live up to your standards if you aren't able to consistently do so, yourself.

Way to put myself in my place - my place being in the blue child-size chair, at the table, with the same four squeamish children.

We started playing the game. The children were supposed to take turns rolling two dice - one with a number, one with a color - and identifying the illustrated object (boat, car, shoe, ice cream, etc) in the corresponding square on the grid board. That whole taking turns thing lasted maybe half a turn, before they all were either grabbing for the dice or leaving the table completely to play somewhere else. This was not going well.

What made me think that? What wasn't going well? The children were not doing what I thought they should be doing, or, what I was instructed and expected to have them do. I am finding such phrases increasingly frustrating, because they are such strong indications of the top-down mentality that pervades schooling: the teacher tells students what to do, and students listen and behave. This is efficient, perhaps, but only when the teacher's agenda is taken into consideration. What would be the most efficient way to serve an agenda set by children?

Back to the board game: I begin rolling the dice myself and ask all the children if they can find the corresponding picture. The first one is a boat on the ocean. "Was ist das?" I ask, and two chime together, "Ein Boot!" "Genau! Das ist ein Boot!" I respond, and continue in German: "Let's make a boat with our hands and ride those waves in our boat: up and down, up and down, up and down..." Miraculously, everyone has joined in the action. We continue on our momentum, creating kinetic stories about tying our shoes, being a steaming kettle of water, and dressing ourselves appropriately for snow.

After 20 minutes, I am exhausted. It's the kind of exhausted feeling you get when you've just left your house on your bike and your first 20 minutes are all uphill. Steep uphill. And I'm not entirely sure I've just done a very good job, because the kids are still squeamish and I feel like I'm talking the entire time just to keep everyone together in our kinetic stories.

The other students finish their story and it's time for free play. My four students explode from the table off into different corners of the room. I go to the bathroom for five minutes, just to be with the silence. There is something wrong with this kind of teaching. This does not feel right. This does not feel like me. It feels like I'm holding on for dear life.

Game with children not as strong in German, and very active - blending of both PLUS getting over my agenda to serve children better