Thursday, April 14, 2011

Teacher Tom Needs To Roam

As I locked up the school yesterday, I was beset with the feeling that I hadn't been a very good teacher. The whole day had felt "clunky" somehow. I never really got into a flow, the way I do when the "magic" is happening.

There was a time when I'd let an emotional response like this fester and pester me, but the older I get, the more I find myself thinking of my own emotions like I do the lights on the dashboard of my car: a warning that something needs to be tended to. Usually, it's just the little icon telling me I need to tank up, but on days like yesterday it's the "check engine" light, probably indicating something benign, like the gas cap isn't screwed on properly, but it could also mean it's time for a new car.

I've spent the last 18 hours noodling it over, not obsessively, but while stuck in traffic, shooting baskets, waiting for my daughter to get out of her rehearsal. I really want to go into Spring break next week with a dark dashboard. My Pre-3 parent educator Dawn Carlson and I talk a lot about our reflective practice as early childhood educators, about how it's important to find some time and some method for going back over each day to make sure we really understand what has happened.

Without going into too many details, here's what I've come up with so far . . .

The kids have been crazy for storytelling lately, jumping on me right from the start of each day, "When can we tell stories?" "When is it my turn?" "Am I on the list?" This is a great thing, no doubt, and my clipboard is thick with stories at this point. Not only that, but the "quality" of the stories is taking amazing leaps forward. For awhile there, they were all more or less telling the same story, pure silliness, random, and there's still some of that, but yesterday in particular I was struck by the length and variety of the stories. Perhaps even more impressive are the numbers of kids wanting to get on "the list."

Here's a pony named Glitter helping me read my ever-growing list of 
aspiring storytellers.

And I think that's one of the big reasons I've been feeling out of sorts. For the first time in the history of Woodland Park storytelling, I'm having to make kids wait until the following day to tell their stories. There just hasn't been enough time in the day to get to all of them. And it's not just the length of the list, but the length of the stories, which means that I've been spending most of our mornings sitting in a single spot taking dictation.

Don't get me wrong, I love the time I spend down there in that circle of knees and hands and shoes . . .

. . . their steamy breath on my hands and cheeks . . .

. . . the way they knee-walk over to me when it's their turn, or when they just want to listen to the story their friend is telling . . .

. . . my clipboard on my knees as my hand cramps up while scrawling their stories as fast as I can in the necessary shorthand I've devised for the purpose.

All of this is a wonderful, wonderful part, perhaps the most wonderful part, of what I get to do each day, but . . .

Anyone who's seen me in class, knows that I'm a mover. I like to be part of everything that's going on, sticking my head in here, sticking my head in there. At any given moment, I usually know what kind of play is developing around the sensory table, our block area, the drama station, table toys. There's a meta-story in our day that I'm reading as I move from place to place, a luxury of the cooperative model, which puts a parent-teacher at each of those places, freeing me up to be where I'm most needed, helping the children make connections between this kind of play and that, or between this child and that, checking in with the parents to find out how they think it's going, what materials they might need, what support I can lend them. That's how I create my rhythm, my flow. And, frankly, I've always assumed that it's this practice of mine that has created the classroom's flow.

But this passion for storytelling has anchored me to a single spot now for several days.

It's a different way to be a teacher, one that doesn't feel right to me, even if, perhaps, there's nothing pedagogically wrong with it. The other stations, after all, are covered by parent-teachers who by now really know what they are doing. They don't need me. And the kids, by now, are totally capable of making the classroom work on their behalf, you know, like getting Teacher Tom to settle down and take dictation.

And while I'm unsure what happened in the rest of the classroom yesterday, I do know that good things were happening in my little corner of the room. For instance, Benjamin discovered that there were "Three little pencils to match the giant one."

He told me that the big one was longer and fatter, then showed me that the little ones were actually better for drawing.

And Violet made a pony roller coaster from Easter baskets, a theme that carried over into her story.

And a gang of girls spent a lot of time building sculptures from clothespins, specimen cups and other loose parts.

Not to mention the incredible storytelling taking place and the strategy game some of them have devised to try to make sure they are the "first storyteller" tomorrow.

Being pinned down like that has been hard for me, but when I really think about it, when I really reflect, I can't think of any signs that it's hard for the kids, which is the most important part. But maybe, just maybe, it's time for me to relinquish my control of the storytelling clipboard for a time, at least as an experiment, and let my incredible parent-teachers take it on.

That's going to be hard, but Teacher Tom needs to roam.

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UP Early Childhood said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
child central station said...

I know the dictation taking is part of your ritual, but have your considered audio recording some of the stories? Audacity is a free voice recording program. I use it with the children all of the time to record stories and/or songs that they make up. You can edit the voice recordings too. They love to have a turn with the microphone!

Julie L. said...

I had the same pondering as ccs, perhaps a recorder of sorts could help give you some roaming time mixed in. Of course good stories need good audiences but maybe the kids could take turns playing a role in both parts.

Barbara Zaborowski said...

I've thought about audio recording, too, but not as a replacement for writing. There's the intimacy of sitting with one child (no matter how many others are crowded around); there's the watching the words appear and the way the lines form left to right; there's the opportunity to point out a word like "Disneyland" appearing over and over and each time it looks the same. All that said, dictation is something I usually turn over to another parent when they come to spend the morning. I, too, hate being tied down.

Marsaille said...

Darling, they love you. This is their way of getting "Tom Time" and have found a way to pin you down and get you to themselves. How wonderful that they get their favorite person (or one of them)to listen to them for as long as they want! Where else in their world does this happen? Yes, recording is wonderful... but maybe what they are wanting is someone to listen.

Karen Cox said...

I was going to suggest a recorder also. It might not be a perfect solution, but it could be a temporary solution. Perhaps it could be an activity that involves at least 2 children. Put a recorder in a basket. One child's job is the storyteller, the other child's job is to be the listener and hold the recorder. Just an idea. It can be exhausting writing down long stories!

Teacher Tom said...

Over the years, I've considered a recorder of some sort, but I just can't get my mind around how to use it as a storytelling device. I think the process of waiting as I take dictation, slows them down, giving them time to reflect on their story sentence by sentence, idea by idea in a way rambling into a microphone just can't do. It's much more like real writing, I think. Not to mention that I'd need to make the time outside of class time to listen and somehow transcribe the stories, editing out the asides, etc. It seems like a lot of work and I really don't like any work that doesn't put me in direct contact with the kids!

No, I really love our storytelling process for the reasons I've written here and for the reasons Barabara Z. mentions. It's just that right now, it's become so popular.

And yes, I'm aware that some of them are jumping on the storytelling bandwagon to get me to themselves for a time. That's one of the reasons I like to move. When I see a station being under appreciated, for instance, I know I can just settle in there and kids will join me, engaging in an activity or idea that they otherwise might have not been attracted to.

Deborah said...

Have you thought about training the other parents to do some of the dictating for you? Perhaps it would be interesting to go back and see what they record and read it from a new perspective (one where you were not there when the child told the story).

Teacher Tom said...

@Deborah . . . I was just having that conversation at school today. One of my parents is a writer who really wants to take on that role. And I think you're right, Deborah, the stories would be different if I wasn't there. I try really hard to have blank face and be a humble recorder, but I'm sure I influence them in ways I'm not aware.

kristin said...

ah, tom, i think i could have written that post. today. about yesterday.

i hear you.

i appreciate the support in reading it here.

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