Friday, August 02, 2019

To Work Together On Something Meaningful

I try to not run too many of my own agendas around the school, although being a human being, I generally have a few at work at any given moment, among the most dominant being to set my own agenda aside the moment the children show me they have a better one, and they almost always do. Another of my agendas is that I want the children to learn to rely upon one another instead of the adults, and it's one of the few that consistently overrides those of the children. I guess I think it's a better idea in the long run for them to turn to one another rather than to rely on the adults for help.

For instance, when a child on a swing asks, "Will you push me, Teacher Tom?" my response is usually to repeat their request to the nearby children, "Francis wants someone to push her on the swing!" This always, always, results in a child deciding that if Francis wants to be pushed, I could be the person doing it. 

When a child asks me to push him around on the "unicycle-merry-go-round" I do the same thing, although I use the metaphor of announcing that "Phillip needs a motor!" Again, this always result in someone offering to serve as a motor, usually several people.

Most gratifying, of course, is when the children start skipping me in the process and turn to one another for help all on their own. That's when I feel that my agenda has been successful.

Yesterday, on the final day of this session of our summer camps, a boy asked me to help him "hook the chains onto the boat." He was referring to one of the rusty, old-fashioned chains that were once-upon-a-time used to wrap around car tires in case of snow and ice, which have been mainstays on our playground for years. They had been knotted through a loop at the front of the sandpit row boat for several months now.

I pointed to the chains, "I see the chains right there."

He went over to them, gave them a tug to show me his problem, "They're stuck."

"They are. They've been stuck there a long time."

He then showed me that there was a pair of small hooks on the dangling ends of the chains, explaining that he wanted to hook them onto the side of the boat, then pull it to the top of the concrete slide. What he planned to do after that was unclear, but it was a solid agenda, the sort for which I typically set my own aside, but in this case, my agenda of not doing children's play for the kids held precedence.

I nodded my head, "That sounds like a good plan."

"I want you to get this chain off for me."

I continued to nod, saying loudly enough that nearby children could hear me, "You want to get that chain off of the boat." This drew a clutch of kids who were curious about the problem. One of them immediately began to tug at the chain, then another. Their efforts were going nowhere. I could see it was going to take a more methodical approach given that the chain had been wrapped through the loop several times. After a couple minutes, one of the helpers asked, "Why does he want it off?"

I looked at the boy with the plan, who explained what he wanted to do. This was motivating to the point that one of the older girls backed the others away, saying, "I know how to tie," leaving it unspoken that she also, therefore, knew how to untie. After several minutes of struggle, she had freed the chain. The boy with the original idea then took over, grabbing the hooks and searching for places to attach them. By now, the project had attracted more children who were milling around, telling one another that they were going to use the chain to pull the boat to the top of the concrete slide.

Hooks securely attached under one of the seats, they began to pull, randomly at first, then, under the instructions of one of the older boys, they coordinated themselves into a sort of heave-ho rhythm. The boat rocked slightly. Then the cry went up, "We need more kids! We need more kids! We need more kids!" This resulted in their numbers doubling. As some of them pulled the chain, others had the idea to move around to the other side of the boat to push. Others grabbed shovels under the theory that they needed to dig the boat out of the sand before it would move. But they all had the same goal, to shift that boat to the top of the concrete slide using that chain.

They strived for a good fifteen minutes. At times they were cheered when they noticed their efforts were causing the boat to move a bit. Individuals gave up, others joined in. Occasionally, they would cry out again for "more kids." Their chatter was about ideas and solutions and working together.

By now, I was standing halfway across the playground, forgotten, enjoying the feeling of having accomplished my own agenda, even if the kids, in the end, didn't succeed in their own, unless one considers the agenda that underpins all others: to work together on something meaningful.

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