Saturday, November 26, 2011

"Does That Sound Fair?"

Last week our public schools set aside Monday-Wednesday for parent-teacher conferences, so along with the Thanksgiving holiday break the kids had the full week off, while the preschool remained in session. We've always maintained an open door policy at Woodland Park, in which older siblings are welcome to join their younger brothers and sisters for a morning of preschool if they have no other plans. Most of these older kids are children I taught as preschoolers or as part of our summer program, so they know me well enough, and they know our program, and I know them well enough that we can usually work together quite well.

Less common, however, is to have some of these older sibs join us for our Pre-K (4-5 year-olds) afternoon which happened last week when Sylvia's brother Zachary and Violet's brother Elliott, both second graders, came to play.

I like to use this once a week opportunity of having my older students all together and undistracted to begin to address community-wide issues and challenges. Our swing set use has been a brewing matter for some time now with only two swings and, often, more than two aspiring swingers. I know for awhile there, the kids, with a little help from me, adopted a "count to twenty" system for allocating swing time. That is, if you were waiting for a swing, you counted up to twenty, which was then the signal for a switch. I've not made this system widely known among our parent-teachers, hoping that the kids themselves could operate and adapt the system on their own, but things had clearly broken down during the past few weeks as children were increasingly 1) neglecting to count in favor of nagging, shouting, or glowering at the other swingers, and 2) refusing to give up a seat to those who waited. Violet's mom Cheryl reported actually hearing one of the children use the word "injustice." Nice.

I laid out the situation for the kids on Tuesday, including our two second graders, making sure we all saw the dynamics the same way, as well as agreeing upon a need for some kind of solution. We were all on board with both suppositions.

"Okay, so what should we do?"

Zachary's hand went up first, "There should be a 10 to 20 second time limit."

I wrote the idea down on a piece of butcher paper, describing our old "count to twenty" system and asking Zachary to confirm that this was the kind of thing he was proposing.

"What else could we do?"

Sasha was next, "We could ask, "Can you share please?"" 

I clarified, "So, if you want to swing you ask the person on the swing, "Can you share please?""

I wrote that down as well.

"What else could we do?"

There was a bit of a discussion rather than specific ideas at this point, but it bore fruit in the sense that the word, "fair" came up.

"So we want it to be fair, right?" When everyone agreed, I wrote that on our list too.

"What else?"

Violet suggested, "We could build more swings."

Although I perhaps should have just clarified, then written it down like I had the other proposals, the idea immediately sparked a number of supportive comments, which lead me to say, "Let's talk about that idea little bit. How many more swings would we need?" I drew a crude representation of our two-swing swing set, then began adding swings. The children finally suggested increasing the number to 24, the enrollment of the entire class, although I didn't draw all of them.

This is when Elliott brought up the real-world concern of cost: "It might be too expensive."

I asked, "How much do you think it would cost?"

One of the older boys authoritatively suggested "$150,000," so that's the number we ran with for the purposes of the discussion.

"We don't have that much money. How are we going to get it?"

I don't recall all the specific ideas we had, but most of them involved making things like lemon popsicles and selling them. We took a few of these ideas and tried the mental experiment of determining how much we could "realistically" expect to make from each of them. This part of the discussion was largely owned by the older boys, with the 4-5 year olds following along as best they could, but in none of our scenarios could we come up with a number anywhere near $150,000. In fact, even with all of our ideas combined, we only got up to $155.

That's when Zachary finally put the nail in the coffin of the idea by saying, "And we haven't considered the issue of space."

I clarified, "I was wondering about that. Here I've drawn 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 swings. We're talking about building twice as many. Do we have enough room out there for all those swings?"

There was a lot of shaking of heads.

This discussion is only one of many ways the older boys contributed to class on Tuesday. 
For instance, when it was time to clean up, they took it upon themselves to "color
code" our wooden cubes. They helped elevate and focus all of our discussions and activities. 
When we worked on "patterns" it was great to see them demonstrating concepts beyond
the basic A-B-A-B patterns. I love being able to stretch our age range like this,
even if it's only temporarily.

"So, let's go back to our list. We have the idea of a 10-20 second time limit. We have the idea of asking, "Can you please share?" And we want it to be fair." Frankly, I was assuming we were headed for the time limit as our primary solution, but the kids had other ideas. Sasha, Sylvia and Violet, three of our most enthusiastic Pre-K swingers, and therefore the most invested participants, wanted to further examine the idea of asking others to share.

I asked, "So, are you suggesting that when someone is on the swing and you want to swing, you should go to them and say, "Can you please share?""

They nodded.

"What if that person says, No?"

I thought for sure we were now going to start talking about the "count to twenty" system. There was a pause before Sasha said, "Then you ask them again."

"If the person says, No, then we ask them again, "Can you share please?""

They nodded.

"What if that person says, No, again?"

This time there was no pause, "Then you ask them again."

"So if the person says, No a third time, we ask them again, "Can you share please?""

I could see that this might go on for some time, and apparently so did Elliott, who said, "Then after three times we could use the time limit."

There was general agreement.

Click! "Okay, so let me see if I understand our plan. If you want to swing and someone is already on the swing, we will ask, "Can you share please?" If they say No, we will ask them again, "Can you share please?" If they say No, we will ask them again, "Can you share please?" If they say No this time we will invoke the time limit."

Despite the word "invoke" the kids agreed that this was a good plan.

Then I asked, referring to the notes I was keeping on the butcher paper, "So now we just need to decide if it's going to be a 10 or a 20 second time limit."

There were opinions on both sides, so we voted. The 10 second limit won.

"Alright then, so this is our plan: if you want to swing and someone is on the swing you will ask them, "Can you share please?" three times. If they keep saying No you can invoke the time limit by starting to count to 10. When you get to 10, that person has to get off the swing and you get on."

Yes, that's what we'd decided.

"And what happens if you're on the swing and someone else wants a turn?"

Zachary spoke for the group, "The same thing."

I asked, "Does that sound fair?"

Everyone agreed.

On Wednesday with a lot of the kids already gone for their holiday break there weren't enough swingers to try out the new plan, so we'll likely be testing it on Monday. I'm still hoping for it to become a child-managed system, with our Pre-K kids serving in leaderships roles as our second graders did on Tuesday. We'll see . . .

Thanks to Zachary and Elliott for helping us get to a solution (and feel free, guys, to correct me if I got anything about this discussion wrong.)

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Jessica said...

This takes time, patience and mindfulness. What a great investment to make on behalf of children.
Way to go!

Anonymous said...

Ah swings! Always just a hot issue. We have just 3 for 25 children.

We handle it a whole different way.

We encourage the children waiting for the swings to let the swingers know they want a swing. If the swingers all say "No!" as they usually do, we encourage the waiting child to ask if "when you are done, they will let me know."

Sometimes this is followed by a "I'm going to swing forever." But not usually.

The idea we hold on to is that when someone is on the swing, just like a bike, it is truly "theirs". They are building ownership. We also want them to be empathizers and will sometimes remind them to think of when they really really wanted a swing. We also ask the one who is waiting if they remember how it felt when they had a swing and someone really really wanted it.

I enjoy reading about your democratic conversations, I just disagree a bit on the idea of making someone get off the swing and calling it "sharing". As they're still working on owning and sharing tends to come much later.

Teacher Tom said...

@rememberplay . . . That's how we handle it with most things in the classroom, but this is the kids' own democratically devised plan for dealing with their problem so I need to honor that. They may find it doesn't work, which means adapting and adjusting (For instance, I'm pretty sure they'll go to a 20 second or longer countdown) which will be interesting in its own right.

I'm not entirely sure I agree that they're too young to understand sharing, however. Most of the older 3's and all of our 4's seem to have a pretty good handle on it, especially those with siblings.

Anonymous said...

I love the democratic process you afford them. I can only imagine the magic in the room as they shared their ideas to solve the problem. :)

I'd love to hear a follow up on how the counting down works out. As with all things I'm sure it'll work fine with some kids and not so much for others.

I'm interested in your interpretation of the word share in the "Can you share please?" question. Is this a 3-4-5 year old version of sharing? An exchange of ownership rather than a borrowing with no exchange of ownership. (Again I fully agree on respecting their democratically established solutions.)

Thanks for the response Tom!