Sunday, May 13, 2012


How do I know what I think until I see what I say.  ~E.M. Forster

You can't read and write as much as I do without thinking a lot about words and one of the things I think about the most are verbs. Specifically, I think about the verbs we use to describe exactly what it is teachers do with children.

As I've often mentioned, this blog is, before anything else, is my own personal reflection on what I do as a teacher, what we do as a class, what we do as a school, and sometimes (like yesterday) what we do as a society. Most mornings when I sit down, I usually know what topic or event or activity or photographs I want to explore, and I sometimes have my first line in mind, but it's not until I'm in the midst of wrangling the words into place that I discover what I think. 

I often write about things that didn't work, or that didn't work the way I expected them to. And more often than not, I discover that the culprit is that my adult agenda, an agenda I often didn't even know I had, has come into conflict with the children's own agendas. Sometimes I realize this on the fly, but frequently it isn't until I sit down to write, that I discover, usually through the verbs I'm using, what was going on.

For instance, the verb have is a warning signal. I know I'm in trouble if I find myself writing sentences that begin: "Have the children . . ." or "I had the children . . ."  This tells me that I've attempted to compel or otherwise get or make the children do something that they don't otherwise want to do. In an emergent, play-based curriculum, this shouldn't be happening, and it tells me that I'm going to have to let go of my own ideas before the children's ideas can emerge.

Likewise, I learn a lot when I'm writing sentences like: "Encourage the children to . . ." or "I urged the kids to . . ."  I may be stepping back from the coerciveness of have, opting instead for persuasion, but that still tells me I'm working an agenda not of the children's making, that I'm attempting to pressure or trick them into something that they either aren't willing or able to do. It's an approach that injects unnecessary stress into our relationship as they resist my rhetoric. I've often noticed that it's only when I drop my persuasive efforts that the children relax and then fully engage in what I have to offer.

The other verbs that I watch for are allow or let, as if I'm somehow in a position to give them permission to learn. It suggests to me that I've engaged with them from a position of greater power somehow, of being, by virtue of my size, age or experience, their superior. Ideally, child-led learning calls for teachers to be partners rather than bosses.

Verbs, the action words, I feel embody the essence of the real relationship between the children and me, the teacher. Have, urge, and let are verbs that tell me I've not listened enough to the children, that I've not followed their lead, that I've not observed closely enough. Those verbs tell me that I need to get out of my own head, that my relationship with them is not what it needs to be for our curriculum to work. I'm not here to boss them around, to allow them anything, or to even cajole them into something. I am both a partner and servant: the one who helps them think what they need to think in order to learn what they want to learn.

Now there's a good verb for what a teacher does with a student, help, although it has two sides. When I see that one in my writing I ask myself, "Did I help too much?" The verb help can sometimes tell me I've intervened or directed, but it can also mean that I've provided the tip, or the vocabulary word, or the concept that opens a whole new world for a child. 

I often understand what went right when I see my relationship with the children embodied in the verb create. That's definitely part of what what teachers are here to do; to be creative partners. This verb has another side, too, of course. I don't want to be creating on behalf of the children, but it does work for me to create for or alongside them, such as when I create a challenge, or create an environment, or when I sit with them at the art table painting my own painting or sculpting my own artwork from toilet paper tubes and glue.

I also like see the verb invite appear on the screen. I've seen lots of my ECE blogging colleagues describe their art or other activity set ups as invitations. I like that. I still examine it, however, knowing that it's easy to slip into trying to convince them to accept my invitation or that sometimes invitations are really a kind of summons one can't ignore.

Help, create, and invite, therefore, are the double-edged swords of the verb world.

So what verbs best describe my relationship with the children when I'm at my best? 




I don't need to examine those verbs. When those verbs are turning up in my posts, I'm golden.

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1 comment:

Judi Pack said...

One of my favorite Foster quotes.
Yes, "be" with children, then the love and play will follow. This is nice.Thanks.

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