Friday, April 17, 2015

Counting Wooden Blocks And Everything


I was rushing around one morning last week before the children arrived, working with our "third teacher," and began to worry I'd not allowed enough time to do all the things I wanted to do, when I was reminded of a lesson I'd learned from my admittedly shallow readings of the Waldorff (Steiner) approach. Namely, that it is important that children see adults doing their "real" work. It is something that has stuck with me over the years and one I don't employ often enough as I too often strive to have the complete stage set when the children come through our doors.
 
In this case, I wanted to cut a couple dozen lengths of 2"X2" (because that's what we had available in our lumber pile) to use to create starting points for what we call "tall paintings." If I sound like I'm writing in code, please click the link for a translation, but suffice it to say that it's a typically engaging and often meditative process art activity we've been perfecting over the past several years.
 
 
As children came through our gate in ones and twos I set myself up at the workbench with our power jigsaw. With the first pull of the trigger, children, as they typically do when adults engage in real work, gathered around to ask, "What are you doing, Teacher Tom?"
 
"I'm cutting this wood."
 
After watching me saw off a couple pieces, "Why?"
 
"I'm getting them ready for an art project."
 
And then after a few more cuts, "Can I try it?"
 
I knew this request was coming and I was prepared with the irritating truth, "I'm sorry. I can't let you. I used to let kids use this tool, but our insurance company told me I can't let you any more."
 
"Why?"
 
"Because they think you'll get hurt."
 
"I won't. I'll be careful."
 
"I know, but it's a rule I have to follow."
 
 
We then had a brief discussion about insurance companies and their irrational fears which ended when one of the kids lost interest, more accepting of the fates than I, and began to pick up my cuttings from the ground where they had fallen and arranged them on the workbench. I stopped working for a moment and watched him lay them in a row, side-by-side. I said, "I want to cut 25 of them."
 
He began to count the ones I'd cut so far, "Nine." Another boy confirmed the count, then said, "If you cut one more, there'll be ten."
 
Someone else said, "If you cut two more, there'll be 11."
 
And another child, "Then 12."
 
Then someone joked, "Then a hundred!"
 
There were several shouts of, "No!" followed by, "He's only cutting 25: that's less than 100," "Then 13!" and "A hundred would take too long!"
 
So many mathematical concepts being tossed around like any other loose parts on the playground, there to be used for our play rather than, as so often happens in school, as a replacement for play.
 
I was working slowly, readjusting my wood in the vice after each cut. Had I done this before the children arrived it would have been the work of a few minutes, but I wanted to role model safe and proper woodworking procedures even if I don't always practice them when working on my own.
 
 
As I cut more blocks of wood, the children kept track, as a group, debating, frequently recounting, always rearranging, stacking, building, making patterns. When newcomers joined our group and asked, as children always do, "Can I try?" they replied with sad voices, "The insurance company says you can't," then explained what that meant in the way they understood it, usually with a shrug, sharing their knowledge freely.
 
When someone then inevitably asked, "Why?" they didn't ask me, they asked a friend who replied with the knowledge he had, "We need 25 for an art project."
 
They wanted to know more, so I explained the whole process: later we would use the paper guillotine to cut rectangles of cardboard, then glue guns to stick the wood to the cardboard, then we would mix paint into glue and pour it over the top of the wood to make tall paintings."
 
 
Later we did all those things, real work that a teacher might seek to do in advance by way of setting the stage. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. We all prepare for the children. In many ways, that's the main responsibility of the teacher in our kind of school. In this case, I had chosen to use my preparation time on something else.
 
In the meantime, the children continued counting, debating, discussing, confirming, calculating, estimating, anticipating, and accepting the realities of a world that too often makes it impossible for us to try the things we want to try even if we know we won't get hurt.
 
When I finally cut the 25th block, they cheered, knocked over the tower they had been building, then ran off to other things.
 


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1 comment:

Kelia Fagan said...

Hey Teacher Tom!

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog! This is a fantastic observation. I really enjoyed how you took an interaction that seemed so simple and realized the actuality of the situation. This is a great blog and I hope to read more in the future.

-Future Teacher Kelia

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