Thursday, May 08, 2014

Wisdom And Mastery

Last week, our Pre-K class used glue guns to make a robot prop for our upcoming play. These are kids who have been using these tools on a regular basis for the past two years and it showed. I was struck by how competently they handled these potentially dangerous tools, as evidenced by the fact that they were all focused on the project before them, rather than the tool in their hand. They've come a long way from the time when the mere act of pulling the trigger and directing the hot glue took their full concentration.

Humans are driven to use tools to imprint their visions on the world. Almost everything we make or do involves, at some level a tool, the mastery of which requires practice. In preschool, we need ample opportunity to sort of mess around with a wide variety of tools like wire, scissors, hole punches, hammers, paint brushes, saws, glue guns, pencils, screwdrivers, knives, and paper clips. We need to get our hands on brooms, clothes pins, drills, shovels, rulers, pulleys, trowels, staplers, and rakes. As humans we have being alone, we have talking face-to-face; for everything else we use tools.

Usually, we use our glue guns on individual projects around our work bench or a table in a more controlled manner, but the nature of this group project required that we be on the floor, which gave us the extra challenge of working on a 360-degree project while tethered by the glue gun cords. This was something new for the children as they at first found themselves getting wrapped up. With adult help, however, we came up with the solution of putting the tools down when we moved our bodies, which meant giving up on the idea of "my" glue gun or "your" glue gun, but rather making them "our" glue guns to pick up and put down as needed to create our robot.

As I watched these kids create together, using their glue guns side-by-side, a couple of the guys consulted with one another, decided the robot needed eyes, and together determined what part from our collection of junk they would use. One applied the glue while the other positioned the piece of garbage they'd agreed upon in the place they'd agreed upon, then stepped back to admire their work, all while holding the glue guns safely in their fists, under control, confident, fully in the moment of creation.

As usual, we had a bucket of water nearby to sooth any burns, but if it was used, it was done with so little fuss that it didn't rise to the level of adult attention; they cared for themselves, then got back to work. I did spy one boy bent over the bucket. When I asked if he'd burned himself he answered, "No," then showed me he had glue on his finger. I said, "That must have hurt," and he answered, "No, it's just stuck. The water makes it easier to get off," revealing a new level of wisdom and mastery.

But it was more than glue guns that have been mastered by this group. They worked for a good half hour, shoulder-to-shoulder, on a project of their own, bickering a bit perhaps, but always with the objective of making space for both the bodies and ideas of one another, these good friends with whom we've shared three full years as classmates.

One guy who had not been part of the early stages of the project, joined the group. Before leaping in, he spent some time studying what had already been done, asking questions, "What's this part?" "Is this the front?" and making assertions, "This is the tummy," "The motor is in here." Then he got to the "eyes."   He pointed at them, and unaware that he was addressing the two artists who had previously named and affixed the eyes, said, "These are the buttons that turn it off and on."

This was a moment that could have lead to conflict. The boys would have been well within their rights to assert, "No, we put that on! Those are the eyes!" Instead, they looked at one another as if checking to see how they ought to respond, seeking to ally themselves in their reply, then one of them turned to answer with a friendly shrug, "Sure, they could be buttons." And the other, his words nearly overlapping those of his friend, added, "That's okay, they can be that."

It was a moment that could have lead to conflict, but it didn't. Instead it lead to agreement. These kids have been playing, working, and living together for the past three years and it showed. I was stuck by how competently they handled this potentially inflammatory situation, as evidenced by the fact that they were focused on their friend, rather than the project before them. They've come a long way from the time when the mere act of being "right" and defending what's "mine" took their full concentration: a new level of wisdom and mastery.

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Meagan said...

Could you describe HOW you introduce glue guns, and other "dangerous" tools to your youngest students?

Teacher Tom said...

@Meagan . . . I'm sorry but blogger doesn't let me post links in the comments, so you'll have to cut and paste. I've written a couple posts that cover more of the "how" aspects of glue guns, but this is the closest to a tutorial: