Friday, May 29, 2020

This Process of Godlike Creation

"Teacher Tom, that tree is peeking out from behind those other trees."

He made this comment as we sat together at the top of the playground. He enjoyed making observations, usually about the most mundane things, usually rendered poetic by his use of metaphor. Indeed, most of what he said about the world around him seemed to be expressed as metaphor.

"Those clouds are folding each other."

"The lights are looking at me."

"My yellow shirt is happy on my skin."

They came so often and were so inventive I started writing them down.

"It's a day with pink music in it."

"Those kids are sideways rockets."

"Bye bye, Teacher Tom, tomorrow is where I'm going."

His habit of inventing the world anew with almost every sentence often made it difficult for him to communicate with the other children. Many stared at him blankly, making neither head nor tales of his words. Some laughed, understanding them as jokes. But every now and then a child would be struck dumb by something he said, cast, apparently into an unexpected current of thought so powerful that it interrupted whatever it was they had already been doing: the work of a poet.

Humans can hardly communicate, or even think for that matter, without the use of metaphor. It's part of how we construct our collective reality. Trees don't really peek out from behind one another, yet, in a moment of inspiration, they do for all of us. On one level, the creation of metaphor seems like an incredibly complex thing: the projection of the qualities of one domain onto another, creating an entirely new reality linking both domains. Yet at the same time, it shares a lot in common with the instinctive way children play in the physical world. When left without adult interference, children tend to quickly abandon using things the "right way" in favor of the exploration of objects by combining them with others, creating something entirely new, which is one of the foundational ideas of loose parts play. The creation of metaphor is the same phenomenon except with words and ideas instead of physical objects.

"The rain is laying a blanket on the ground."

"These pinecones are angry today."

"My shoes thought my feet were carrots."

One of the greatest joys of working with young children is to be present as they use words and ideas the "wrong" way, employing metaphor to construct knowledge and understanding. They delight us, not just with their joy, but with the sheer inventiveness, ease, and humor with which they create new meaning from this old, stale world, a place where we adults have long ago settled upon our metaphors. They surprise us out of our humdrum, showing us a new world that has, in a moment of childlike epiphany, come into existence. We take it as evidence of their genius, and it is, but it's more than that: it shows us that humans are, in fact, creators, all of us, and metaphor is a no less important building block than the atom.

There are many reasons for adults to practice listening in the presence of children. We think because we've lived more years that what we have to say is of more vital importance, that we can and should always be teaching. But much of what we do amounts to sucking oxygen from the room as we play an inadvertent demon to this process of godlike creation.


My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Book is back from the printers! I'm incredibly proud of it. And if you missed it, you can also pick up a copy of Teacher Tom's First Book as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.

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