Saturday, July 03, 2010

At Our Best For Miss Pamela

I've been learning a lot about my own agenda lately.

Miss Pamela (Pamela Wallberg, director/owner of the Alderwood House preschool and proprietor of the blog Leaves & Branches, Trunk & Roots) drove down from British Columbia on Thursday to visit us.  Specifically, she was interested in observing how we incorporate parents into our program and as an evangelist for cooperative preschools, I was more than happy to oblige.

I know I shouldn't, but when we have special visitors in class, like grandparents from out of town, parents touring for next year, or respected colleagues, I find myself wanting to show off. I suppose it's human nature to want newcomers to see us at our best, but I try to fight the urge anyway, or at least focus that energy into making the day even better than normal for the kids, instead of it just being Teacher Tom showing off.

As a true cooperative (a school that is owned and operated by the families enrolled in the school) I had no doubt that she would see excellent examples of parents in action, but I wanted her to see our kids in action as well, robustly engaging in a variety of challenging, pitch-perfect projects and activities. You know, things that reflect well on both the kids and their teacher. I didn't tell Pamela this, but I arrived at school 45 minutes earlier than usual just to make sure everything was in order. I fretted about the weather, which was threatening rain for the first time in a couple weeks, making back-up plans in case of a downpour. I prepared several "extra" projects to hide up my sleeve, just in case, one of which was a stash of finger paint that has been in the storage room, unused, for at least 5 years.

This finger paint was a purchase by a former Pre-3 teacher, but I've never really seen the point of special paint for fingers. In fact, pretty much all of our painting projects, at least for some children, become finger painting, so I've just stuck with all-purpose tempera paint for most uses, squirting in a little dish soap if we want the silkier consistency. The day before, several of the kids had expressed an interest in painting the castle/beach hut and it seemed like this would be good way to clear off some valuable shelf-space. My idea was to hold this paint in reserve until the subject came up, then joyfully break it out for a paint fest, demonstrating to our visitor from a foreign land just how responsive we could be to the emerging interests of the kids.

I was organizing the "spontaneous" paint supplies as Pamela arrived, so our first face-to-face conversation was about the pros and cons of finger paint. An entirely appropriate starting point for preschool teachers.

It was fun to finally put a face on this educational titan who introduced herself to me many months ago by throwing down the gauntlet that lead to the international tape-off challenge, which ultimately grew to include competitors from across the continent and around the world. The tape bench/train her 2-year-olds created was a masterpiece. (Click here and read from the bottom up for the full tape-off challenge story.)

Once the kids started arriving, I kind of forgot about Pamela as I got my parent-teachers going on our various projects for the day (finishing the new water wall, patriotic splat painting, giant bubbles, installing a trellis for training our sweat peas, etc.). At one point, however, we were standing together near the "spontaneous" finger painting supplies, which reminded me to show off for the first time all morning. The castle/beach hut painting idea hadn't yet emerged, so I forced the issue, "Who wants to paint?"

I started dumping paint into yoghurt containers, and handing them out. Our outdoor painting policy is that anything outdoors, except plants and other living creatures, is fair game. I've documented the results of this policy more than once, most recently in this post about outdoor fly swatter painting. Parents frequently ask me things like, "They're painting the windows, is that okay?" or "Do you want them painting the fence?" and I always answer that they can paint anything outdoors that is not a living thing. It's tempera paint, it'll wash off in the next rain anyway, right?

In the past, when I've handed out paint like this, the kids have rushed around the outdoor classroom joyfully applying a stroke here or there around the space, but on this day, Henry, barely 2-years-old and taking part in his very first Woodland Park painting free-for-all, dropped to his knees on the spot to paint the concrete stairs at his feet. This was a new idea for the other kids and soon a half dozen of them were painting the stairs and the landing just outside the main entryway into our school.

Arg! I hadn't thought of that! This is the front door of our school, the way we all come and go at the start and end of the day! Every single child, every single sibling, and every single parent who arrives to pick up their child will need to walk right through here! And to top it off, since mostly what we had leftover of the finger paints were the dark colors like brown, green and black, the kids were intentionally painting it "ugly" (their word, ask Pamela). And to top even that, this is the one part of the entire outdoor classroom that is under a permanent cover, so the rain won't even wash it off! And as an extra sour cherry on the tippy top, we were going to open our "gym" shortly which is carpeted and only a few steps away from this ooey, gooey, "ugly," painty mess!

I think I did a commendable job of fighting down my own show-offy agenda of keeping a safe, clean ingress-egress to the school, not once trying to get them to move on to another canvas. I did step back, however, and let Dennis, George, and Vivian's father Terry step in to manage this now genuinely spontaneous project. He kept their yoghurt containers charged with paint, pointed out spots they'd missed, and kept the flow going.

Later, the last of the clear paths across the concrete now covered in a thick, silky coat of paint, Thomas' mom Amanda helped the kids get devil ducky caution tape and caution cones with ropes arranged to discourage people from walking on this artwork that had engaged at least a dozen children, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6-year-olds alike.

This project completed, a couple of the kids turned their attentions to painting the unicycle merry-go-round. B.J.'s mom Helen reminded them that if they painted the seats, then their friends (who qualify as living creatures) would get paint on themselves. They seemed to think this sounded reasonable and settled for painting the rest of the apparatus, leaving the seats free for their friends' bottoms.

As I often do at the end of a day when I've had to set aside my own agenda (in this case, the agenda to show off) in favor of the far more important agenda of the children, I felt a little unsettled, a little out-of-control. As Pamela and I chatted, I mentioned that it "bugged me" that the kids had painted the stairs and porch, that I wished I'd not handed them the paint right on that particular spot, but instead carried the yoghurt containers over to the castle/beach hut, for instance, before handing them over.

She seemed surprised, saying, "I think it's beautiful."

I think so too. Maybe Pamela did see us at our best, the children and parents taking charge of their own school and their own learning . . . in spite of me.

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Mrs Addams said...

i have a similar policy about painting at our home. this of coarse means all of my daughter's ride-ons are covered with paint and since we make sure not to leave them out in the rain they will remain covered in paint. she seems to enjoy painting on them better than riding them anyway ;)

Juliet Robertson said...

Hi Tom

It's funny how these things turn out. I really empathised with what you went through...normally my mind is filled with one expletive after another in these situations.

I noticed on Jenny's "Let the Children Play" blog that you mentioned about a lack of display space for big artwork. Perhaps you or your parents know of a local library, community centre, doctor's surgery, ranger centre or old folk's home who might like some of your artworks once you have finished with them.

When I first started teaching my local library loved the murals we passed on, and this was a great incentive for the children to visit to see their work as well as borrow a book!

Michele @ The Hills are Alive said...

love your honesty/transperency/willingness to learn and pass on the lessons learned to others (like me/your readers)

Thanks once again Teacher Tom for a wonderful post and more food for thought

Christie - Childhood 101 said...

Aaah, you are a human too, my super-teacher idol :) I remember having these exact same feelings when we had visitors to our centre!

And yes, the painting is beautiful.

pamela Wallberg said...

And have they continued to paint it? Or has it all been washed away?

Awh, now I feel like a rock star! I would have NEVER known that you pre-prepared - everything felt so very natural and a part of the flow. I hope to visit again next time I am in your area...

And, btw - we've placed our order for glue. . .just you wait - we will have world glue domination!