Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Working Together

Within the context of our school, a place where we come to make mistakes, where right and wrong are only adjudged according to the agreements we've made with one another, puzzles have always fascinated me. You see, there really is only one way to work a puzzle: you either have all the pieces and they are all in their proper places or not. If the puzzle is a "just right" sort of puzzle then it requires a lot of concentration, a lot of trial and error, to finally noodle it out. For some of us, that's both the pain and joy of puzzles.

They become particularly challenging when we break out our giant floor puzzles, the ones that invite others to work them with us. And since ours is a robust, full classroom, you're often not even guaranteed an undisturbed space in which to do all that concentrating. Because of that these puzzles become as much an exercise in cooperation as they are a constructive process.

Most children have better things to do than work the puzzles, but there is always a handful for whom they form the focal point of their morning. It's fascinating to witness the strategies they develop for getting their puzzles done. One year a girl named Sasha took charge, sitting in a position of oversight, then instruction her friends, piece-by-piece. On Monday, these three-year-olds, after rejecting the adult ideas of "starting with the edge pieces," began assembling individual sections of the construction site puzzle, then, in an epiphany-like fashion, connected their disparate parts until they had formed it into a whole thing.

They worked hard concentrating and cooperating, finally finishing their puzzle, jumping to their feet, cheering, then proudly showing off to any adults who happened to be near, "Look what we did!" 

But, inevitably, all puzzles must be dismantled. For some, that's a joy equal to the accomplishment of completion, but for others it's harder to let go. It began with the completion of the construction site puzzle:

"Let's break it!"



Usually, the enthusiastic damage is done before the objection is even voiced, but this time everyone froze and looked at their friend who was not yet ready to see all that hard work in pieces. It had been primarily a crew of four who had done the assembling: three were poised to return it to the box. They looked up at their friend who wore an expression on the edge of tears. There was a long moment of silence before one of them said, "Let's leave it!"


They then turned their attentions to the dinosaur puzzle that another group had left partially assembled. As they worked, the construction site puzzle was in constant jeopardy with children stepping on it, accidentally kicking it and whatnot. At some point, inspired to support the children in their wonderful agreement to not break it, I said, "Hey, when you step on the puzzle you're breaking it. You guys didn't want to break it."

They abandoned the dinosaur puzzle for a moment, reconvening around the one they had previously completed. They stood with their toes as close to the puzzle as possible without actually standing on it. Then one of them went into a deep crouch and leapt across the puzzle, landing on the other side, leaving the puzzle untouched. He turned around and did it again. Then again.

After a few more jumps, one puzzle-working friend joined him, then another. Soon these children who had cooperated to assemble the puzzle and who had cooperated in not breaking it up were now cooperating in leaping over it, sharing space, taking turns, still not breaking the puzzle because one boy, a boy who had by now moved on to other things, had not been ready. 

As a couple kids continued to jump over the construction site puzzle two others returned to the dinosaur puzzle, finishing it. Then, without even speaking about breaking it up, they began to jump over that puzzle as well.

There may only be one right way to assemble a puzzle, but there are as many ways to work together as there are humans on the planet.

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