Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Planning Ahead

Reader Amy posted this on the Teacher Tom Facebook page:

I found a nut-turned-seedling in the garden today and was so excited to be "in the moment" and have a "teachable moment" with some "deep discussions" and "genuine inquiry" with the children (ages 2-4). They looked at it for about 5 seconds, then -- "Tag, you're it!" -- they were gone . . . Today they needed to run, chase, and practice negotiating the finer points of tag. Works for me.

This is the sort of thing that happens all the time in a play-based curriculum. Sometimes your own agenda meshes with that of the kids. Sometimes the kids are all over that nut-turned-seedling, but often they're not, at least not in the way we anticipated with all our adult "deep discussions" and "genuine inquiry." And as hard as it is sometimes, we have to have enough philosophy, like Amy does, to let it go.

A teacher can't help but have an agenda when it comes to the children in her charge, if only because any teacher worth her salt has been thinking about the kids, anticipating them, keeping track of where they were, where they seem to be going, and what they might need from us to get there. But the children always have an agenda as well and we're primarily there to serve that agenda. When we're unable to joyfully set our own agenda aside in favor of their more important one, that's when we find ourselves in the role of cajoling, scolding, and even bossing, which ought not be a teacher's role in a play-based curriculum, even when it's about a nut-turned-seedling, rather than a worksheet.

When the door finally closes behind the last child at the end of the day, I usually take a moment to reflect on how I feel things went. I might later spend more time dwelling on specific children, challenges, relationships, activities, and opportunities, but this moment is a sort of emotional gut check, one where I'm most focused on how I feel about myself. Almost always, if I find the memories of cajoling, scolding, bossing or even just quietly grinding my teeth, I know I've struggled that day with setting my own agenda aside.

People often want to know how to "lesson plan" for a play-based curriculum. I suppose it's not a lot different than lesson planning in any school, the difference being that at the end of the day there is no shame in finding that what actually happened during the day bears little resemblance to that plan. Of course, sometimes it does. For instance, I happen to know that I'm going to draw a crowd when I, say, break out the baking soda and vinegar and start erupting our volcano, or when I announce we're going to be playing the Goldfish game, or start to read Caps For Sale, or produce the big parachute. Those are times when I'm putting on a sort of "show" and most of the kids, most of the time, adopt it as their own agenda because it's fun to be part of the big show, even if it's only as a member of the audience. Works for me.

Sometimes, however, I've planned a show, like when the cast iron pump needs to be serviced, that fails to draw a crowd. That's okay too. If only one or two kids want to hang out as I talk my way through loosening nuts and bolts, cleaning out debris, replacing leathers, and smearing plumbing grease inside the cylinder, that's still a success. Works for me.

If the art project I've planned is a dud, like the time I painstakingly cut out dozens of butterflies from watercolor paper for the kids to paint, and they turn it instead into something of their own, like saturating the paper with liquid water color and using them to apply temporary butterfly tattoos up and down their arms, that's still a success. Works for me.

It works for me because in a play-based curriculum the goal is not to "get" the kids to see the world the way I, or any other adult, wants them to, but rather for the children to make the world their own. It's a curriculum of discovery, not memorization, and the teacher's role is to reflect, prepare, then get out of the way: that space we leave when we step aside is where critical thinking happens, and that's really, in the end, what education is all about.

A nut-turned-seedling is a miraculous thing, but so is a game of tag, and today it's on the agenda. Works for me . . . Although I'll still save that nut-turned-seedling for a few days, setting in a place where it might be discovered because, you know, tomorrow's another day and that's me just planning ahead.

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