Tuesday, November 10, 2020

"We're Not Digging to China"

The two boys were digging a hole in the sand pit. It was a large hole, wide and deep. I made a comment about digging to China, a destination to which my own playmates and I had aspired lo those many years ago.

"Teacher Tom, we're not digging to China."

"Oh, where are you digging?"

"We're not digging anywhere! This is a trap!"

"No, it's not a trap. It's a hole!"

The boys bickered for several minutes, finally agreeing that it was a "very deep hole-trap."

"We're going to dig it all the way to the molten core."

"We can't dig to the molten core! It's full of lava!"

"No, it's full of magma."

"Well, it'll be too hot. We'll get dead."

They resumed digging in silence for a time, before one of them said, "We'll stop digging when the ground gets hot. Then we'll know we're close to the magma."

"I know! We can dig around it!"

"And then we can go to China."

"I don't want to go to China. Let's go to California. That's where my grandma lives. We can have movie night!"

It didn't end there. I left them debating the relative virtues of various destinations. Later in the classroom, I began goofing around with the globe. It's a vintage map, one that shows the USSR as a united nation, but still useful for most of our classroom purposes. The diggers joined me as we spun it on it's axis.

One of them asked me, "Where's California?"

I pointed it out, then showed him Seattle.

He thought for a moment, then said, "We would have to dig sideways to get to California."

His friend corrected him, "That's called a tunnel."

"We're not digging a tunnel. We're digging a hole."

"A hole is a tunnel. It's just up and down, not sideways."

There was an argument over the nature of tunnels versus holes, ending with the boys agreeing that they were digging a tunnel and a hole-trap.

"Teacher Tom, where's China?"

I showed them.

"That's too much on the side,"one of them said, referencing the angle they would need to take if their hole was going to reach that point on the globe.

"Yeah, we want to go straight through."

"But we have to go around the molten core."

"Yeah, we'll go around, then get straight again."

"That won't work!"

"Yes, it will!"

They went back and forth until they finally agreed to dig "down and around and around and straight and up."

They then solicited my help in calculating exactly where their tunnel-hole-trap would wind up, which turned out to be the middle of the Indian Ocean. This seemed to disappoint them for a moment as they contemplated what that meant for their project, before one of them said, "Wait! I know! The ocean will sink into the hole and come all the way through the earth and make a swimming pool! Our playground will be a swimming pool!"

"No it won't! It'll be too much water!"

"Yes, it will!"

I left them then to their self-created curriculum that was superficially composed of equal parts earth science, engineering, and geography, but the real molten core of their project was the bickering. As adults, we too often underestimate the importance of bickering, often reacting to it as something to control or guide. We worry it will lead to yelling or, worse, violence. But, I've found that most of the time, when children are accustomed to being left to their own devices, they use their bickering like they do their shovels with their destination being agreement. Not always, of course, but more often than not they come to recognize that they must dig down and around and around and straight and up until they find their way to a compromise that keeps the game going. And that can't happen without the bickering.


Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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