Monday, May 21, 2012

How I Learned To Give Up

A couple weeks ago I wrote about how the Pre-K kids re-assumed control of our classroom agenda through doodling together.

For me, however, there was more to it than just what happened on that day. Those kids opened my eyes to a reality I'd been blindly bumping up against all year long hoping, I guess, that it wasn't a reality, expecting that if I just approached things from the right direction, with the right attitude, with the right back story, we could manage to skirt around it. When they all got down there with their tidy markers and drew, I came to a place of acceptance -- late, but I finally got there.

Specifically, I've been frustrated all year long in my attempts to engage this particular group of 9 older kids in messy art projects. At one level, after all, that's kind of what we're known for at Woodland Park: a willingness to, nay an affinity for, giving children the opportunity to freely explore art materials, which usually means getting paint or clay or shaving cream or whatever all over ourselves in a full-body exploration while the adults celebrate, or even participate in, the fun.

From the start, however, these kids have been averse to messy fingers. I first noticed it last fall when we all gathered around the sensory table to mix of a batch of what is commonly called gak: a fascinating mixture of white glue, warm water and borax. They gladly helped dump two gallons of glue into our basin. They had no problem with measuring and adding the water. And they did the same with the borax. But when it came to sticking our hands in there to harvest the gak, the 9 stood there with their hands at their sides, leaving the actual hands on phase to me.

The same thing happened with a paper mache project a couple weeks later. They were all fired up about making a "new planet" to hang from our ceiling by forming a cardboard shell around a balloon, but the reality of the paste was too much.

I hadn't notice it when they were younger, although I knew a couple of them were decidedly mess averse -- there are some in every group. Perhaps it was because last year's older kids were such messy art role models or because their younger selves hadn't yet developed this sensitivity, but whatever the case, things like fly swatter painting, finger painting, hand prints, paint walking, and even pendulum painting were kind of off the table for these kids this year. They'd gladly watch their younger classmates (who, as a group, love to get messy) and adults getting slimy up to our elbows, often offering advice and instruction, but when it came right down to it the answer was, "No thank you. I already washed my hands."

On any given day, especially when the art or sensory table was particularly messy, I'd find a few of my Pre-K friends gathered around our do-it-yourself table happily cutting, stapling, taping, and drawing, making art, but doing so in the tidiest of ways. When the Pre-K kids took to the floor to doodle amongst themselves, that's when it hit me that they had been taking charge of their own art explorations all year long, carefully stepping around the spatter to make things their own.

On the following day, we just kept right on drawing. We rolled out a large sheet of butcher paper and broke out the markers. I fought down the temptation to add bells and whistles. Like in the Pre-K class the day before the older kids fell on it, crowding in at every vacant spot to add their marks to the community drawing project. As some point, they began to add their own bells and whistles by commandeering shapes from a building set around which to trace shapes.

The following day I added rulers, stencils, draftsman's triangles, protractors and other fancy drawing aids. I felt kind of like a slouch, as a teacher, offering up these simple things, but this, I could see is one of the places the Pre-K kids have been taking us all year long.

A couple days later we just used tracing paper over some of our big books and they were at it again, using these drawing aids with focus, concentration, and enthusiasm. I've learned from these kids that I have, at least on this subject, let my own ideas of what Woodland Park is, stand in the way of what it was trying to become. I'm glad these kids finally got through to me.

All year long, with each birthday we celebrated, I've noted aloud to the kids that our paper mache birthday throne is ready for repairs, hoping these Pre-K kids would take up the challenge. They agreed the work needed to be done, but it wasn't going to be them who did it. In fact, one day recently Sylvia informed me that she felt the "little kids" ought to do it.

So that's what we'll do.

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Floor Pie said...

Tom, as the parent of one of the most mess-averse kids in the class, I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to read this. I feel like I tried to explain this when she was younger, but I worried that I maybe came across as too overprotective or too The Man or something, not letting my girl explore her wild side. Indeed, there have been times when I’ve marveled at what she’s capable of and so glad you were there to give her opportunies that I probably would not have. This is why I send my children to school in the first place.

But I’ve noticed your disappointment when my girl and others have been reluctant to take the plunge. You stay so patient and kind, upbeat and non-judgmental, and I appreciate that. But I could tell it felt like a setback of sorts to you, and that disappointed me, too. I feel like I’ve been saying it all along, Lorax style, that expecting all kids to thrive on messiness and chaos is just another version of the very “one size fits all” we criticize in other schools. Giving our kids free reign in an emergent curriculum as we do means that sometimes…they’re going to choose neatness and order. And it’s not because their neurotic parents are holding them back. It’s because their awesome parents get this about them and wholeheartedly support it, even when it goes against the grain.

I think the most encouraging thing about this post, though, is realizing that I couldn’t have told you any of this without feeling like I was criticizing or naysaying...but you realized it yourself, through observation and caring. That you were able to put your expectations in the background, go slowly at the children’s pace, follow their lead, and ultimately arrive at such a meaningful conclusion and embrace it – even as it contradicts what you were hoping for – speaks to your commitment to the emergent curriculum and speaks to your profound connection with these children. Thank you for “giving up.”

Darin M. Bicknell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darin M. Bicknell said...

You prepare the environment... and then let the child determine what they want to do. Giving up... in actuality what you are doing is giving control, trust and respect to the individual. When you expect a certain result or choice from the students then there is a danger that you are inadvertently imposing limits on the child. Providing them the opportunity and choice is the key... noticing what works and supporting that intrinsic motivation by preparing the environment is what is important. The environment includes you Tom. All children are fully capable of choosing work that calls to them and that is what you should be seeking. Your classroom sounds like a delight for these children where there is always something for them to engage with all you need to do is follow the child and observe the rest is up to the child.

Kierna C said...

I think is one of the hardest things for us to accept! I know I have felt disappointment when a class haven't wanted to get into a messy activity - I have taken it personally, hard not to. I have also got frustrated by a class who don't want to jump in puddles - surely this is what they all want to be able to do, they will enjoy stomping in those puddles! Thanks for a very honest post :)

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