Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I Think It's The Sound

Honestly, four days into our new place and I'm struggling. Objectively, things are going well. Children are engaged, things are running as smoothly as one can expect from a facility cobbled together in a week's time, the parent feedback has been positive and constructive. Yet it still hasn't felt right. It doesn't yet feel to me like Woodland Park.

I think it's the sound. The place just doesn't sound right. There are fewer echoes, the white noise shush of the city outside our fence somehow absorbs us, we have so much more room in which to spread out. A kind of hush has fallen. I don't think it's bad at all, in the long run I know it's actually a good thing, but it isn't the us I'm used to. I'm accustomed to small children in small spaces living together in an acoustically challenged place. I've been teaching like that for my entire career, yet now, suddenly, we have plenty of space and far less brick and concrete off which to bounce our shouts, shrieks, laughs, and cries. How can I tell if the kids are having fun if it doesn't hurt my ears a little bit?

I've been going to the old place daily for nearly a decade. As much as I worried about the kids adjusting, maybe it's me about whom I should have worried. I know I'll figure out the new walls, windows and doors, but the sound thing . . . It's such a big part of who we are -- who we were.

If there was one common criticism of Woodland Park over the years, it was that we were a small, loud school, something that I early on decided to adopt as a positive characteristic. Where others talked about sound abatement and spreading out, I urged getting even louder and closer together. This was the place we hung out together -- a small, loud place -- and like it or not, I reasoned, we might as well take advantage of the good things a small, loud place has to offer, even if it meant we couldn't be the right fit for everybody.

I'm fully aware of all the disadvantages of a small, loud place. The first time I put up the balloon cage nine years ago, for instance, one of the first kids to arrive was Vaughn, whose mom promptly and systematically taught him how to sit on balloons until they popped. A perfectly innocent, rock-and-roll parent thing to do, although the resulting pops were like gunshots in our little room, which was too much for Paul who was on the fence about the noise level already. He pretty much hid under the loft for the next hour as Vaughn taught his classmates his newly acquired skill. (It was after that day that we instituted the "no popping balloons on purpose" rule.)

Calvin's dad Larry wasn't the only parent-teacher who appeared to be in genuine pain when the sound level rose.

Often I had to ask children to speak directly into my ear so I could hear them.

Making it even louder was the baritone of all those adult male voices lifting the usual preschool mezzos and sopranos to greater heights.

We were definitely not for everybody. I even made the parents of our Pre-3 class tour the 3-5 class before enrolling specifically so they could hear how much louder we were. Eyes wide open, baby, that's the only way to go.

Indeed we did talk about the difference between inside and outside voices, but even normal joyful laughter could be too loud as the sound bounced crazily off our four walls. And outside wasn't much better given that we played in a courtyard enclosed by brick, glass, and plaster. I didn't want us to spend our time -- the children's time -- reminding them to keep it down, so instead we covered our ears only when the sound level got unnecessary and extreme, relying on that universal signal of aural distress, saying, "I see people covering their ears."

Yesterday, when the kids got into one of their periodic chain-reaction shriek-fests, intellectually I knew it was loud, but really, I barely heard it, so quickly it dissipated into the sand, trees and open air. I hadn't realized how much I'd come to hear that din we made together as the sound of learning: the sound of joy.

I'm going to have to learn to listen differently, more carefully, to pick up on our new tune or rhythm or whatever it is.

What do we sound like here at the Center of the Universe? I may not know for awhile, but I'm listening.

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Aunt Annie said...

Tom, you need some musical instruments. I recommend a big bass drum and some of those Orff metallophones that go on ringing for ever. You'll soon feel right at home. (rolls on floor laughing hysterically- I'm actually a music teacher by original profession, but I can barely stand to use these because of the noise level!)

Nikoli said...

"How can I tell if the kids are having fun if it doesn't hurt my ears a little bit?" THAT is awesome.

Saya said...

I totally have to agree with nikoli's comment. lol!
THAT line made me giggle, as I think back of my daily life. LOL!!
Good way to think about that ear piercing noise of "fun" :)

Unknown said...

IT's funny how we come to rely on the small things to comfort us~even a little noise! I'm guessing that as time goes by, you'll get used to the alternate noises you hear at the Center of the Universe. (But, I do understand how missing those sounds breaks the heart just a little.)

I feel like I apologize for our noise level too often. "It's okay, we're noisy in Pre-K". I love the noise of play~ I learn a lot from it! :)

miss merril said...

It's so interesting the things we remember and miss in life. I'm wondering - have you talked with the children about this? It would be interesting to hear if they've picked up on the subtle (or maybe not so subtle) difference in noise and sounds at the new school.

Rose said...

Ah, I know exactly what you mean! At the (democratic) Albany Free School where my five-year-old son is an "upstairs kid" (six and under), we have a sound, too. The upstairs room is a giant echoing loft space where voices manage to both be lost and resound hugely. The first week my son was there, he was very distressed because he could not make himself heard. We had to consciously develop a relationship with the acoustics of the space. My feelings about the school, the upstairs especially, have changed in resonance with my feelings about the sound. At first it was painful and harsh, and I did not want my baby boy away from me for so many hours each day, and now I have learned to hear it like music, and we have learned that we are not a school but a tribe.

It's not just a little thing, for sure. Often the first words a person says to me, when I tell them where my kids go to school, is "I thought it was so noisy there. How can kids learn in that environment?" I haven't been certain how to answer that question. Thanks for the ideas.

Males in Early Childhood said...

What an insightful post. The sounds around us & the accoustics are often one of the last things we think about when planning an environment, if we think about it at all. It's funny in a way that you are finding the adjustment more difficult than the children. It just goes to prove that we continue to develop as professionals & individuals throughout our career.
Greg :)