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.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Two-year-old woodpeckers

Whenever I substitute in the two-year-old classroom, I know that I will get to observe another animal in action. Each day, the children decide to play a different animal, with the same children playing the mamas, and the same children playing the babies. Today: woodpeckers.

"These are gonna be good eggs to hatch."

"Can I get buried? Put some more on me."

"She's hatching!"

"The egg cracked - boom, boom - and I hatched! Crack! Boom!"

The mama and baby woodpeckers fly around the classroom.

The remarkable thing to observe during this play was that they went through the same process over and over: burying the babies into their eggs, letting them hatch, then flying around the classroom, and back to the next to put the babies back in their eggs.

You see this often in children's play: a pattern or routine repeated over and over until it borders on ritual. This makes sense when I recall what I've read of Kieran Egan and learned at the Imaginative Education Workshop this past summer. He considers this phase of life (2-6 years old) comparable to how humans were thinking when they were dominantly an oral language culture - having developed language, but not yet the abstract symbols of writing. During this stage, one of the cognitive tools children are using (says Egan) are patterns and rhythms. Other cognitive tools of this stage are binary opposites (good/evil, etc), metaphor and image-making, mystery, and dramatics.

When I watch the kids engaging in this kind of play, and think about what they are thinking, underneath it all, I wonder if this is the time of life when we are captured by the essence of things: what makes woodpeckers woodpeckers, what makes the world what it is, and what makes each of us who we are.

Friday, August 27, 2010


It's amazing how topics of interest surface in conversation.

There I was, sitting with a student who was playing with Legos when another student came by and picked up a Lego parrot, colored red with green and yellow paint on the wings. She showed it to me, and was telling me a little about it.

"It reminds me of a story," I said, "About a woman in Belize who was trying to protect those parrots from a dam that was being built." (True story. Excellent book by Bruce Barcott, Seattle journalist, called "The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw" - don't let the title deter you)

"Tell us! Tell us!" they said, so I explained a little more ... until I realized that none of them really knew what a dam was and I sure as heck couldn't explain it well enough. But why would you bend over backwards explaining things? Why not make them think a little?

"Think of this," I said, "Think of a long river that doesn't have a lot of water in it, and people want to make a pool to swim in somewhere along the river. How do they stop the water so it collects into a pool, instead of continuing to flow?" The ideas poured out: "Rocks!" "Your hands." (Like at our local beach Golden Gardens) "A wall." [And my favorite:] "A train!" ... So we looked on the Internet to find pictures of dams that had been built in the United States, as well as the beavers who first started the practice.

The next day was a trip to a local park. During free play, I noted that if I poured water down the walkway, it would be kind of like a river. "I wonder if we could practice making a dam here." I started collecting leaves and little rocks and sticks to start the dam, and pretty soon a good four or five kids were helping, so I stepped back. It covered the width of the entire walkway by the end, and I filled up our water jug at the fountain. "Ready?" Down went the water.

The experiment went ... alright. The water did begin to pool a little, but eventually worked its way through, giving the kids the feeling that it had failed. I tried to explain that it's ok for a little water to go through - the question is: did it pool enough at the top? Still no. Hmm.

I could have let it go there and waited to see if any more questions emerged from the kids' thoughts. I could have thought about dams more abstractly, of the science and mathematical thinking at the root of it, and let provocation ideas come from that.

But no. I was a stubborn teacher who got fixated on making a dam.

And that is how I found myself the next day trying to facilitate a dam in the dirt outside the school building, moving kids around so they didn't step on it and controlling who got the spray bottles when and directed each step of the process. No experimentation. No open questions. No exploration. Dam.

Yet, how illustrative it is of a teacher's tendencies in teaching a concept. Instead of digging deeper into the concept to find what there is to explore, we try to teach a concept by illustrating how it is supposed to work, or how we know it work. This is a good illustration of how the concept has been applied in today's world, but it doesn't allow for students to experiment and explore how that concept can be applied to tomorrow's challenges. And that's what education needs to be, and what teaching needs to allow a lot more room for.

With a little distance from it all now, I realize that sometimes what I consider my greatest asset as a teacher can also quickly become my greatest vice: my own sense of wonder and curiosity about the world. At some point this week, I let the student in me overwhelm my role as the observant, patient educator who knows when to change a classroom environment with provocating objects and materials, and when to stand back and let her students engage with that environment. And that is the greatest disappointment of all: I was not the teacher I strive and know myself to be. Dam dam dam.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Story making

While drawing with a four-year-old girl I'll call Nikki, she commented on how much she liked a bird I drew. I thanked and said I think she would make a great hero in a story. "What kind of story do you think she could be in?" Through our ensuing conversation, the following story emerged:

Once upon a time, there were three princesses. They were walking in the forest one day, when they got stuck in the mud. Then a mama bird came and she grabbed one of the legs and pulled it out with her beak! She did it for all of them so they could all walk again. Then, they all turned into baby birds and the mommy bird brought them food. Yummy worms!

There was a bad guy who got stuck in the mud. Mama Bird pulled out his leg and ate his leg up. Because he was bad to her. He hit her.

Then the three princesses went back to the castle and became princesses again.

Nikki draws and writes her story. The mama bird's nest is pictured on the left, the three princesses and a smaller nest on the right. The little blue bird on the right-hand picture is the bird I drew. She asked me to cut it out and then she taped it onto the nest she had drawn.

I marvel, again and again, at the human capacity to make stories of anything: a picture, an image in our minds, a feeling, an experience. People say, "Even four-year-olds can do it!" but I find that so diminuitive. Because really, four-year-olds are some of the best story makers I've ever met, far better than I could ever imagine myself to be as an adult.

I'm making all these observations while concurrently reading several books about storytelling, story making, and how inherent narrative is to how our brains function. I'm working on a few posts that relate to each of these books, so stay tuned!