Monday, May 10, 2010

It Looks A Lot Like Patience

On Saturday my 13-year-old daughter Josephine accompanied a friend, a classical guitarist, to Couth Buzzard Books in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle to perform both separately and together at their "open mic" session. Josephine just started teaching herself to play the guitar this summer and it was the first time she'd summoned up the courage to play in public. Even more courageous was that she chose to play several of her own compositions mixed in with songs by the Dixie Chicks and Snow Patrol.

She was brilliant.

When she wrapped up, her friend's guitar teacher asked how many years she'd been playing. When he learned it was a matter of months, not years, he replied, "She's a natural then. I'm not. That's why I have to work so hard." He then went on to play a set of remarkable classical pieces.

When I share stories like the one from last Friday people invariably comment on my patience. It feels good because this is not a trait I come by naturally. I've had to work at it.

Back in October I shared this story about a seminal lesson in my ongoing journey toward leaning to be patient with young children. (I got to this point in the post by way of a "stone soup" metaphor, which will explain the cooking references.)

My favorite part of the being a parent at the Latona 3-5's Cooperative Preschool were the days when I was responsible for a small group activity. One of my earliest classroom lessons, however, was that while I might be the one providing the stone, and maybe even the kettle, it was not my job to bring in the recipe.

One time, following up on the tip from Teacher Chris to bring in something of interest to me, I thought I’d lead the kids through an examination of how books are made. I have a huge library of hardback books and had spent time learning about how they’re made, so I brought in a collection of different types of books (paperback, hardback, leather bound, etc.), a junker book, and a box cutter. The idea was to let them look at the books for a couple minutes, then break out the box cutter to perform the sacrilege (little did I know what I'd later be doing with books) of cutting the junker apart to examine how the binding is attached, signatures are assembled, and the invisible role sewing plays in traditional bookbinding.

It went smoothly, I was holding the kids’ interests, and they were clearly excited by the prospect of a “super sharp knife” being present in the classroom. It was at this point that Teacher Chris (David) stopped by our table to see what was going on. Her presence reminded me of the guideline to let the children get their hands on things, so I started carefully separating the signatures and handing them out to the children to examine. That’s when it all went horribly wrong. The children, in a joyful frenzy, set about tearing what was left of the book into tiny pieces.

My educational consomm√© had turned in a moment into a food fight of that consisted, of all things, in ripping a book to shreds. Making it worse, was that it was happening under the nose of Teacher Chris. I’ll never forget her calm smile as she looked me in the eye and said, “The children have made your activity their own.”

As a teacher, I have bad days and good. When I examine what went wrong on the bad days it almost always comes down to the fact that I came into class with my own “recipe” and clung to it even when the children clearly wanted to try a different one. Rather than helping the kids "make it their own," I’ve doggedly tried to control and manipulate them into sticking to the instructions. The best days are the ones when I remember that it’s all about stone soup.

It’s not always possible in our day-to-day lives, to set aside our agendas in favor of those of our children. We have things we must get done, we have schedules to meet, and we need our children to behave in certain ways in order to make it happen. But I'd also like to point out that every conflict we have with our children (or anyone else for that matter) is a conflict over agendas. In the midst of the rush and crush, however, it’s important strive to keep the principles of free play alive, and to remember that our children need the experience of making community or family activities their own, and that can only happen when we agree to put down our recipes and allow them to wear the chef's hat for awhile.

I find myself reflecting back on this episode often, sometimes daily, as I work with young children. Those moments when I demonstrate the most patience, I think, are those in which I'm able to recognize that I need to just get out of the way and allow the children to pursue their own agenda. It's not something that comes naturally to me. I needed my education from Teacher Chris' class. I still have to work at it every day. When I succeed, it looks a lot like patience.

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Unknown said...

I love this lesson! I think it can be much the same with life, and with things like community projects.

Let stone soup happen!

Thank you for this wonderful share about your daughter and about patience. The P word is something that has eluded me naturally as well, so it has been an on-going lesson in my life!

Bright blessings,

Scott said...

I love that observation: The kids made your activity their own. That happens a lot to me. And, while I usually encourage it, it's good to have a "name" for what happens.

Thanks, Tom.

Deborah Stewart said...

Oh yes - I have been there and still have to always remember that I can plan away but in the end, my students will define what is most meaningful to them.

SurprisedMom said...

Having patience is a blessing. I have to work very hard at having patience and letting other people "make it their own." Thanks for the lesson. It was a good one for everyone.