Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Making Order From Chaos

Puzzles are not, by definition, open-ended toys. Unlike most things we play with at Woodland Park they come complete with a "right" answer, which makes them the odd man out in our classroom. Oh sure, kids can play with them as one would with loose parts, just as they can play with anything as loose parts, but when they do, it greatly increases the likelihood of lost or damaged pieces and, unlike most toys, a missing piece renders a puzzle, if not useless, at least greatly dissatisfying for those of us who enjoy the challenge of a good puzzle.

And many of us do enjoy a puzzle. For those of us who do, it's usually a meditative process of creating order from chaos, of making meaning from meaninglessness, of completing the incomplete. Most kids, most days, don't spend a lot of time with our table top puzzles, even if they are puzzlers at home. A busy classroom full of other people and things contains a lot of distractions and puzzles, if they are good puzzles, require a certain amount of concentration. But there are always a few who can't resist, even amidst the busy-ness, often setting themselves the additional challenge of working "all" of them. Others can spend an hour working and re-working the same puzzle, mastering it. So while the puzzle table is rarely where children flock, there is almost always someone there, concentrating.

Since we're a cooperative school with plenty of adult support, I have the luxury of assigning a parent-teacher to keep an eye on the puzzles, making sure the pieces don't walk away, re-ordering things when someone decides to "help" their classmates by dumping out all the puzzle pieces, and generally supporting the kids when they struggle.

Generally speaking, puzzling is a solitary process, unless we're talking about our large floor puzzles. These lend themselves to a community process one in which as many as a dozen kids might be involved in assembling a single puzzle, crowding around, putting there heads together, jockeying for body space, negotiating, cooperating, and concentrating. Sometimes a child will insist that she will "do it myself," but that edict rarely sticks as classmates still gather around anyway, kibitzing, the prospect of working with others to make order from chaos too strong to resist.

It's always a beautiful thing to watch the children working together, each bringing her or his own puzzling techniques or strategies to the project. There are few things more heartwarming than to stand amongst them, these great humans coming together, voluntarily, around a common journey, one that may have a pre-determined destination, but an infinite number of ways to get there.

There is always a cheer when the last piece of a floor puzzle is put into place, a celebration of us which is then followed by a moment as everyone gathers around to gaze upon their creation and, godlike, to call it good. Usually then, they agree to return the universe to chaos, feverishly working together to dismantle their puzzle before moving on to the next.

The holidays are upon us. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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