Friday, May 25, 2018

What We Do Best Together

Yesterday, I wrote about the play that our five-year-olds wrote and performed to end our school year. This was followed by pizza on the playground with their parents, grandparents, and siblings, then a "bridge ceremony" in which each one "crossed over" from preschool to kindergarten. It was a big emotional day, but it wasn't our last day of school together. I like for our real final day to be as normal as possible because, after all, that's what we do best together.

And it was. We gathered yesterday on the playground as usual, played, bickered, and settled our differences. We invited one another with sentences beginning with "Let's . . . ," played games about superheroes and baby tigers, and mixed up potions we called "toxic."

The only thing that really set this day aside from all the others is that I planned to take a moment to tell them that I have loved being their teacher, to say that I would miss them, to wish them well, and to thank them for being my best friends. As we gathered on the checkerboard rug for what we call circle time, I held my copy of Eve Bunting's Little Bear's Little Boat, the book I traditionally read to children before sending them home as newly minted kindergarteners. I had read it the day before and I intended to use it as a jumping off point for my message. For those who don't know the story, the central metaphor is a bear cub who loves taking his little boat out on the lake to row and fish and dream, but, as is a little bear's destiny, he grows too big for his little boat and must finally give his boat to a littler bear. The story ends with big bear building a bigger boat for himself.

The children clustered on the rug as usual, sitting where and how they will. Before I could begin my remarks, however, one of the girls said, "I want to try sitting in an actual circle today. We call it circle time, but we never sit in a circle."

The kids decided to give it a go and they all scooted to the edges of the rug. There was some discussion about whether we had formed a circle or a square, then I said, "I read this book to you yesterday . . ."

I was interrupted, "Hey Teacher Tom, I figured that book out! You're the little boat and we're the little bears!"

Someone else chimed in, "No, this school is the little boat and kindergarten is the big boat."

We spent a few minutes talking about the metaphor around the inward facing circle we had formed, talking to one another like best friends do, taking turns, sometimes raising hands, sometimes not.

After a time, I took the moment for my message, referring to the metaphor that they all seemed to grasp. I thanked them and told them I'd miss them.

A boy raised his hand in response, "I'm sad that I won't see my friends at school any more. I wish I could come back to this school."

"Me too."

"Me too."

They sat looking around the circle at one another for a few seconds. In all my years of sending children off to the rest of their lives, I'd never experienced anything quite like this. There are always one or two sentimentalists in every group, but in this case the moment seemed to have impacted them all.

One girl broke the silence, announcing, "I'm going to invite all of you to my birthday party."

We then went around the circle as they declared their intentions to invite one another to birthdays and playdates, essentially swearing to be friends forever. One boy suggested, "I think we should meet in a park one day and do our play again," an idea to which everyone agreed. I've often gotten emotional at this time of year and there are always teary-eyed parents, but this is the first time I've ever witnessed a group of five-year-olds well up like this.

Then, just when I was expecting them to break into a collective sob, a girl shouted out, "But there's good news! We all get to go to new schools. My school is really big! A lot bigger than this school!"

There was an explosion of cross-talk then as the kids all began excitedly telling us about their kindergarten plans.

Finally, by way of wrapping things up, I said, "So, we're all a little sad to be leaving our little boat behind for the little kids to use, but we're also excited about our new big boats. We made plans to keep being friends and to keep playing with each other and to go to each other's birthdays. I also want to invite all of you to come back and visit this little boat any time you want. Just tell your moms and dads and I'm sure they'll bring to you to visit. I'll be so happy if you do."

There was a pause then before a girl answered me, "But Teacher Tom, you're invited to my birthday too." And then I received invitations to all their birthday parties, forever, before we went back to playing together, doing the thing we do best.

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

"I Don't Know"

Our most enduring tradition at Woodland Park is that the oldest kids, the five-year-olds who are moving on, stage a play. I introduce the idea in January, telling them that those who came before them have written and performed a play, and for the past 17 years, the children have agreed they wanted to follow in their footsteps.

We begin by choosing what characters we want to be, making a list that is destined to change on a week to week basis, then launch into the process of writing the script. For the next couple months, I take dictation from the kids, sometimes one-on-one, sometimes in groups. Occasionally, I read the work-in-progress to them when we're gathered on the checker board rug so we can take stock, together, of where we are in our process. Almost always, we decide it is "too short" and that we need more pages.

This year, we declared the script finished in early March. They likely would have kept writing it forever had I not held out the carrot of getting on the actual stage to try it out. And then we rehearsed, usually once a week, sometimes more, rewriting the script on the fly. It's an experience I've had 17 times, this amorphous, messy, child-led process of producing a play. At the end of each rehearsal we gather together to discuss how we felt it went.

"It's too short."

"I want more to do."

"I liked it."

"Let's do it again."

To the adult eye, these rehearsals appear as pure chaos: kids running around, goofing off, cracking jokes, and "hiding" under chairs as I read the script in my role as narrator/director. Sure, some of them take it seriously, but most are there to play with their friends which is as it should be. This is their play, not mine, and I have learned over the years to dis-invest my own ego from both the process and the end result.

Meanwhile, we created our sets and props, then last week we worked on costumes. Some kids brought things from home, but many created theirs from our massive collection of costume parts. On Tuesday, we had our dress rehearsal. It was like all the other rehearsals, except in fancy dress. The kids chattered amongst themselves, missed their cues, spontaneously ran around the room at intervals, and ad-libbed entirely new plot lines. One boy chose to lie on the floor to roll on and off the stage. More than one good natured wrestling match broke out.

Yesterday was the big day. Parents took days off work and siblings played hooky from school. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and special friends came. I had set up 50 chairs for our audience, but we almost doubled that number.

Then, after all that work, performed our play, which we had entitled I Don't Know, as apt a title as there has ever been. And for the first time in all our months of preparation, the kids performed their play exactly as they had written it: very little backstage chatter, no one missed a cue, no spontaneous running around the room, and only one brief attempt at ad-libbing. The boy who had rolled instead ran. There was no wrestling. Indeed, it was as professional a performance as any preschoolers have ever staged. I had prepared our community for an hour long show, privately expecting it to run over, but we were so efficient that we went from beginning to end in a brilliantly efficient half hour.

When I read, "The end," the audience erupted as it should and the children took their bows like seasoned vets.

I've been doing this for 17 years, guiding children through a play of their own creation and this has been the experience every time. And even so, it's always a kind of miracle to me. I know it's coming, this smashing success, but I'm always expecting it to be a roomful of adults watching kids run around in their costumes, which would be fine, but obviously the children, collectively, expect more from themselves and, collectively, they nail it. Whereas I once viewed the running around and goofing off as distractions, I've come to understand them as essential parts of how they make it their own.

Honestly, I think this is how all early childhood education should be. It doesn't always look the way we adults expect learning to look, but they are learning: this goofing around, this chaos, this messy process. But the proof is there when the time is right. I see it every single year.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

How We Become Wiser, Gentler People

It happened in a flash. He wanted to dump the bowl of "jewels" (florist marbles) that he had collected into the mud. She wanted them to remain clean. He dump the jewels. There were loud voices and when I looked from across the sand pit I saw her push his face, then storm off.

Both children were upset. The boy's mother was nearby and after checking to make sure he wasn't hurt, engaged him in a discussion, so I followed the girl whose body was tense with rage. She marched this way and that for a moment, jaws locked in anger. As I approached, she turned her back on me, so I stopped in my tracks.

What was I going to say to her? Maybe I was going to remind her of the rules we had all agreed to some weeks ago, specifically mentioning the one that goes, "No pushing." I might have been preparing to say something like, "When you pushed his face, you hurt him." She walked slowly away from me, her shoulders hunched forward. When she got to a corner formed by a railing and a random cart that has found its way onto our playground, she knelt on her knees, nose in the corner.

I looked back at the boy who was now chatting easily with his mom as he bent down to the mud handling the jewels he had dumped there.

I didn't say anything to the girl because, frankly, there was nothing to say. Or rather, anything I said would be redundant at best. There was no question that she was already feeling remorse, regretting her action, mulling it over in the quiet of the corner she had found for herself. I stepped away and left her to her conscience. After a couple minutes, she moved herself into a more distant corner, although this time she faced outward, her face a study of sorrow, staring into the ground.

Again, I began contemplating words I might say to her. Maybe I could comment on her emotional state. Or perhaps there was something I could say to help her understand the cause and effect of the affair. But again I realized that anything I said just then would be a mere distraction from the important work she was doing, sitting alone, calming down, and painfully reflecting.

Moments later the boy approached her, hand outstretched. In it was a jewel. He offered it to her saying, "I cleaned this one for you."

She took the jewel and held it in the palm of her hand. The boy shifted from foot to foot as if waiting for her to say something. When she didn't, I softly said, "That was a kind thing to do." He went away then, back to his play. The girl watched him go then looked back at the jewel in her hand, contemplating it for a moment before clutching in her fist. She stayed that way, thinking and feeling, until she was ready to return to her own play. It's from these moments that we become wiser, gentler people.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

"Ready, Guys?"

There are four wheelbarrows on our playground. Yesterday, a boy climbed into the bed of one, leaned a bit too far toward the front and found himself dumped onto the ground. He thought that was hilarious and did it again, then again. After a time, his friends noticed and they crowded around, asking for a turn. He obliged.

Soon, they had mastered the solo tip-and-fall, so began experimenting with two, then three kids per barrow dump. Once they had played the challenge out of that, they explored how they could dump themselves over the sides, a technique that required someone on the outside managing the handles, "Ready, guys?"

When they tried dumping one another toward the handles, they discovered a kind of equilibrium, a sort of wheelbarrow teeter totter with one kid in the bed, while the other put his weight to the handles. The boy in the bed found that he had to shift his weight back and forth for it to work.

After a while, the wheelbarrow wound up fully upside down. They tried sitting on the wheel facing toward the handles. The tried it with two bodies. One boy then turned around to face the wheel, using the wheelbarrow leg supports to support his weight while rapidly spinning the wheel with his feet. Everybody then needed to try that. As they awaited their turns, they found other things to do, such as squeezing under the overturned wheelbarrow bed through the tiny crack between it and the ground.

"Hey guys, look! I'm a turtle with a wheelbarrow shell!"

I laughed at his joke, but no one else did, because by now the rest of them were out of earshot, finished with the wheelbarrow, having moved on to a game involving a small trampoline that was missing three of its six legs.

Someone had installed a stick pony as a lever and as they took turns stepping on the trampoline, he would put his weight to the lever causing them to fall onto the ground. They had crowded around, asking for a turn, and he had obliged.

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Monday, May 21, 2018

Discovering What The Other People Are For

Both of the boys have older sisters and one of them has a twin brother, so they have lifetimes of experience in living in a world with other children. I know they love their siblings, these people who are raising them as much as their parents are, but those have always been "arranged marriages," so to speak, people with whom they have by the circumstances of their lives been thrust. It's not the same as getting to chose a person, the way we do when someone becomes our friend.

When I first began teaching two-year-olds, parent educator Kate Kincaid told me, "They're all independent suns around whom the universe revolves," and while I might today be more inclined to compare this stage of their lives to one of those two star solar systems in which mother and child orbit one another, I've found the metaphor to be largely apt. At the beginning of the school year they don't typically view the other kids as potential playmates, let alone potential friends, but over the course of the year it begins to happen.

On Friday, as I sat across the playground, I saw one of these boys take the other by the wrist. It looked to me like he was attempting to pull him along against his will. There was a moment during which they tugged against one another, one boy resistant to being pulled, the other insistent on doing so. I began moving closer in anticipation of a conflict, but before I'd taken more than a few steps, the boy being pulled managed to calmly pry those fingers from his wrist. Words I couldn't hear were exchanged, before they then took one another's hands properly, as equals, as friends, and began to walk together.

At first they just walked about the space, neither pushing nor pulling one another, following the contours of the playground. When one stepped up, he waited while the other stepped up. When one stopped, the other stopped. They were accommodating one another, working together, pointing, occasionally exchanging words that I was still too far away to hear.

Eventually, they came to the bottom of the concrete slide and opted for an ascent. They tried to do it while continuing to hold hands but the surfaces were too steep and slippery, so they freed their hands for scrambling and one after another climbed to the top. Once up there, they exchanged more words, gesturing, then apparently agreed to slide back down. The first one waited for the other and they slid down side-by-side, looking into one another's faces, beaming, as they did so. They agreed to do it again and again. Sometimes they agreed to take another track up or down. By now I was close enough to hear them. They were saying, "Let's . . ." the most magic of words.

These aren't the first butterflies to emerge from their chrysalid. We have witnessed the miracle of several first friendships over the past few months, but each time it's a wonder, these first steps in the journey of discovering what the other people are really for.

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Friday, May 18, 2018

"Okay, Now Pretend You're Going To Roast Me For Dinner"

Three girls were playing together on the outdoor stage. I approached just as a fourth girl asked them, "Can I play with you?"

This is tricky question to ask around a preschool because the knee-jerk answer is most often "No." Normally, I advise kids struggling to enter into an established play group to start by asking, "What are you playing?" or to simply state, "I'm going to play with you," or best of all, to simply drop to your knees and start playing. It still doesn't always work, of course, but I've noticed that kids who approach others like this are far more likely to have success.

In this case, however, one of the girls answered, "Sure, if you want to be an evil unicorn."

"I'll be an evil unicorn."

The girls then continued where they left off with both me and the newcomer listening on.

"Okay, pretend I'm on the bridge and you come along and push me off."

From what I could gather, the girl asking to be pushed off was a good unicorn. For the most part, she was directing the evil unicorns in how to torment her. They pretended to push her off the planks of wood they had arranged as a bridge, then she said, "Okay, now pretend you're going to roast me for dinner."

There was an old bicycle tire on the stage. The good unicorn knelt down in it. One of the evil unicorns held a couple of florist marbles. She put them on the good unicorn's back, saying, "These are so you'll taste better when we eat you."

"I'm already going to taste good."

"Yes you will, dearie, but these jewels will make you taste even better."

The evil unicorns went through some motions around their roast while the newest evil unicorn looked on, still studying the game before leaping in.

After a few seconds, the roast popped up, "I'm done now. Now you have to wash me off." She retrieved a faucet set up (a spigot with hot and cold knobs mounted on a board) that has somehow appeared on the playground this year. The evil unicorns used it like a hose. Then the good unicorn said, "Pretend the bridge is the table and you're going to slice me up." She walked out on the bridge again and curled up under the spigot, repeating, "Now slice me up for dinner, dearie."

At first, the good unicorns used the sides of their hands to pantomime slicing, then one of them said, "Pretend I'm going to slice you with my staff," referring to the large stick she had been wielding. They were interrupted by the newcomer calling out, "I don't want to be an evil unicorn. I want to be a good unicorn!"

"Okay, if you're a good unicorn then we're going to have to roast you for dinner. Get in the oven." The newly be-monikered good unicorn dutifully took her spot within the circle of the bicycle tire.

"But first you have to eat me," insisted the other good unicorn.

"Don't worry, dearie, we'll eat you first."

Then the newest good unicorn called out, "And eat me too!"

"Of course, dearie, of course."

(Fairy tales) tell children what they unconsciously know -- that human nature is not innately good, that conflict is real, that life is harsh before it is happy -- and thereby reassure them about their own fears and their own sense of self. ~Arthur Schlesinger

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I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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