Friday, February 17, 2017

"I'll Help You"

Like every preschool with which I'm familiar we celebrated Valentines Day this week by exchanging messages of love and friendship with one another. I know, I know, it's a "Hallmark holiday," but so what? I like that we set aside at least one day every year to celebrate love in all its forms. Our tradition is that each kid makes his or her own construction paper pocket, decorated with hearts, lace, and other bits and bobbles, which serves as a "mailbox" into which classmates deliver their Valentines. In the morning, I set up long tables in the large room across the hall from the class room, lay out the pockets, then as the kids arrive, they start their day by distributing their cards. At the end of the day, they take them home then spend the afternoon enjoying them. It's straight-forward and simple.

The kids in our 4-5's class have come to understand that they are indeed in charge of the curriculum, and one boy in particular almost daily requests some special activity or another. Often they are things that require some prep time so we often have to agree to the following day, but not always. On Wednesday, he asked for "mat slamming." The tables were still set up in middle of the the big room, so I answered, "How about tomorrow? Those tables are in the way."

He answered, "We could move them. I'll help you."

These are fairly heavy folding tables with plenty of pinch points for good measure and they are stored in a closet where they lean against a wall standing on end. I wasn't really sure how he was going to help me, but I wasn't going to do anything to extinguish the sentiment, so said, "Alright, come on."

As he propped the doors open with doorstops of his own accord, a handful of other kids asked what we were doing. They wanted to help too. I said, "The first thing is to fold up these tables and move them into that closet over there. First, we'll have to tip the table on it's side so we can fold the legs." We worked together to tip the table, then I showed them how the legs worked, making a point of pointing out those pinch points. Without discussing it, two of them held the table still while the other three wrangled the legs into place.

They seemed to have it, so I walked over to the closet to wait for them saying, "It goes in here."

At first they struggled. They were able to get the table moving by sliding it along the floor, but they couldn't get it heading in the right direction. "Teacher Tom, we can't steer it."

I said, "The person in front is the steerer. The rest of you are the motors." That was what they needed. I thought I ought to handle the job of stashing it into the closet if only because it was too small of a space for five kids. I took the table from them and before I'd finished leaning it again the wall, they already had the next table on its side. This one had a slightly different mechanism for folding the legs, but they figured it out before I did and were soon maneuvering this one toward the closet as well.

The first two tables had been rectangular, but the third and final one was round. This one they were able to roll to the closet as everyone agreed that round tables are easier to move.

Now it was on to the gym mats which were stacked in a corner. They were no longer helping me; it was their project and I was only there in a supervisory capacity. I said, "Next we need to set up the mats." They wrestled and wrangled them. They played and ran and fell onto them. They argued and complimented and suggested and agreed. It was an inefficient project, one that got sidetracked by tumbling, chase, and general horseplay, but at any given moment at least one of them was working to set up the long runway we needed to play the game of mat slam.

I noted that I was calm, feeling no need to coach or cajole, which of course was a result of it not being my project, but theirs. I knew this because when it's my project I coach and cajole because I have internalized the dictatorship of getting from point A to point B in a straight line, whereas the kids intuitively embraced the democracy of getting there together no matter the zigs and zags, listening to their hive mind intuition rather than mere logic.

Finally, after a good half hour, they got everything set up to their satisfaction. According to the clock, getting ready for play had eaten up all the time we had allotted for play. If I'd been sticking to the schedule, we would have now had to tidy up, so of course we ignored the schedule: we'd done the important part of working together, I could hardly rob them of their reward.

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1 comment:

Tom said...

Teacher Tom again, with one of his little stories that shine a flashlight upon the deep understandings. The dominant discourse in Early Childhood Education uses the word "quality" — quality improvement — quality rating — as if people understood what "quality" early childhood education was. Well, it is obvious to anyone who takes more than a cursory look, it's impossible to define. It's not that dissimilar to defining a "quality" meal at home or in a restaurant.
The restaurant is not a bad comparison, really. Who decides if your dining experience is of a high quality? You? Your partner? Your child? Right there you can see there is not single way to define it.
Maybe the US Government, Department of Restaurant Affairs, and contracted entities can define a quality dining experience for you and bribe you with a gift card to agree to choose only restaurants that have four stars on their scale. What an improvement to have it all systematized.
This centralized way would ensure the elimination of any opportunity for democracy, individual choice, and cooperative evolution of programs in the direction that families and children and thoughtful educators find satisfying and beautiful.
Well, this story, "I'll Help You" defines "quality" as I see it. Since there aren't any absolutes about what things are "satisfying and beautiful" about provisions for children and families, no measures, no check sheets, I think it would be beneficial if we could agree on an alternative conception of when things are "right," so we had a way to know if we were on the right track as adults in doing our best in this moment in time. That's all we really can do anyway.
In Teacher Tom's story two "right" things are happening at the same time.
One is, as he wrote, "I noted that I was calm, feeling no need to coach or cajole, which of course was a result of it not being my project, but theirs." He was present, observing, and authentic — and he was aware of his own calmness. He was self-aware of being at his own best, being as good as he could be as the leader in the moment.
The other is that the children were doing things that he valued, things that I value, too. Cooperation. Caring. Joy. Participation. Belonging. Inventiveness. Working on a self-chosen goal. Using "their hive mind intuition," as he says.
If the children and families value these same things, too, and the leader of the democratic learning community is authentic, present, and playful, it's the best — and maybe the only way — to tell when events are satisfying and beautiful. It's a good meal when we all, who are sharing this experience together, agree it is.
It's just that simple.