I can’t remember where I learned our Shapey project, but it’s been a fixture in our Pre-K curriculum for as long as I’ve been teaching.
A mysterious envelope arrives from outer space and in it is a letter from the alien Shapey of the planet Polygon. He requests that the children make a portrait of him to give to his mother. Instead of a photograph, he provides the children with the following description of himself:
· I am 10 inches tall.
· I am 8 inches wide.
· I am made of 4 rectangles, 2 circles, 5 triangles, and 1 square.
· I have 2 octagon eyes
· I have one pentagon nose
· I have a crescent smile
· I am symmetrical
We then divide into two groups with a ruler, glue sticks and a collection of precut shapes to work on the challenge. It can get pretty lively as they discuss and debate everything from who gets to hold the ruler to the size of Shapey’s space ship, but in the end they usually wind up settling on some version of taking turns. Although a few years back, one group came up with a system that involved all 4 of them holding the glue stick together, all 4 of them picking up the tiny construction paper pieces, and all 4 of them, Ouija board style, guiding those pieces into place. But the point is that they always naturally come up with a solution that is fair to everyone.
It’s usually then a matter for confusion, then debate, when the two groups come back together with their portraits to find that in spite of following the exact same instructions they’ve produced sometimes vastly different results. This year’s class, however, with it’s notorious “hive mind” came up with surprisingly similar portraits:
Each group is usually convinced their version is the most realistic, but the only way to know for sure is to check with Shapey, who has promised to thank them in a “special” way. The following week, the children learn that Shapey is pleased with both portraits because one looks like him when he’s awake and the other looks like him when he’s asleep.
This year, Shapey’s “special” thank you was a box of “jewels.”
Traditionally, I introduce our Martin Luther King, Jr. Day material in our Pre-K class with an object lesson in fairness by taking something like these jewels (which are really just bits of plastic from our art supplies) and imbuing them with value by making them seem scarce. In a normal year, I’ll say something like, “I’m going to give each of the girls one of these jewels,” which elicits howls of protest from the boys. I then take the jewels back and instead exclude the girls to similar effect. Tears are not uncommon. I’ll then give them only to children with curly hair or stripped shirts or other arbitrary dividing points until someone suggests just giving one to everyone. After all, that’s the fair thing to do.
This year, however, something happened that has never happened before. Even before I was done distributing the jewels to the girls on the first round of the activity, Annabelle said, “That’s not fair, you should give them to everyone.” While the boys sat in silence, the girls, already clutching their prized jewels, joined Annabelle, “Give them to everyone.” I tried to continue the process of unfair distribution, but I had a mini-rebellion on my hands. Katherine said, “You should either give them to everyone or don’t give them to anyone,” and she tried to hand hers back.
I gathered all the jewels and tried to plow forward with my plan to give them only to the boys, but the protests grew louder. Instead of the usual tears, I was looking out at genuinely angry little faces. “Give them to everyone!” “That’s not fair!” “We should all get one!”
I felt like the segregationists must have felt. This is why I want the children of Woodland Park to know it’s okay to question authority. I’m here to teach children so that they can grow up to be well-educated citizens, and there is no more important responsibility of citizenship than to stand up to authority when it is being arbitrary and unfair. I didn’t just let them “win,” they compelled me to give up on my nefarious plans through a powerful, peaceful protest that relied on words and reason.
My classroom activity was halted in its tracks. I gave them each a jewel. I’ve never been more proud of the children.