Tuesday, September 25, 2018

What's happening along the edges?

I am participating in the
Tuesday Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers.
All participants are writing about one moment, one part of their day.
A big thank you to Two Writing Teachers for providing this unique opportunity
for teacher-writers to share and reflect.

I spent this past weekend on the most amazing silent retreat. The retreat is nestled in a forest conservation area, surrounded by beautiful meadows with simple mowed paths for contemplative walking. I did a lot of walking, a lot of noticing, and a lot of writing. Entering the retreat, I was aware of the many transitions in my life right now - we are newly empty nesters, my husband is retired, and we will become grandparents in late October. Plus, of course, a new, fast-paced, and full school year is underway, with many new preschoolers and their own powerful transitions. I had a lot on my mind. Rev. Sarah Anders, our retreat leader,  challenged us to put our own lives and worries on hold throughout the weekend, and, instead, focus on being present in our walks, in our silence. We were invited to stop and notice the nature around us. We were invited to pay particular attention to the edges - what's happening along the edges? Such a magical pursuit! I threw myself into it...

...and it was extraordinary!

I walked slowly, noticing. There was a very inconsequential rain throughout, with sun streaming as well - a 'last vestiges of summer' kind of rain. My protective hat was just enough to keep the rain away from my face, and that's all I needed to ensure my continued walking. The meadow was filled with gorgeous yellow yarrow, milkweed, and purple thistle. There were so many insects busy at work...there are, in fact, I soon realized, an amazing number of lives in a meadow...butterflies, dragonflies, crickets, bees, hornets, spiders, beetles, flies, ladybugs, on and on, innumerable small and new, anonymous species. Within each of these categories of insects, there was tremendous variety...I saw so many different types of butterflies, for example. Are there a zillion types of dragonflies? Thin-bodied, thick bodied, blue, black, small, medium, large, and more?

As I walked, I seemed to stir up the insects...my footsteps instigated immediate, quick, and yet nearly invisible movement - as if we were playing hide and seek. As I wandered, all sorts of insects would jump from the mowed path that I was walking on, into the recesses of the tall grasses and plants in the meadow. How to describe the movement of all these small beings, all at once, as if on cue, with every step I took, within five feet of my own steps, always in the direction I was walking? If I stopped and went completely still - well, they would go still as well, nothing moving, quiet all around. But if I stepped again - voila! Immediately, the grass started jumping, coming alive, shimmering and flickering, almost like a light show with teeny tiny lights. Surreal. 

It felt like a celebration.

Why all this movement? Did the insects hear me? Did they feel the shaking of the ground? Or did they see me moving their way? Was I disturbing them? Or were they delighted to see me? Were we playing a game of following the leader? Who was leading whom? 

Here I am, back to my normal life, for just two days now - and I have remembered to "stop and notice" throughout the day. At school, I've started a fun little personal challenge, thanks to this retreat - what's happening along the edges in my classroom? Who's on the sidelines and what kind of merrymaking are they up to? The possibilities are endless.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

How to put the puzzle pieces together?

I am participating in the
Tuesday Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers.
All participants are writing about one moment, one part of their day.
A big thank you to Two Writing Teachers for providing this unique opportunity
for teacher-writers to share and reflect.

Have you ever watched a group of preschoolers create a floor puzzle together? Everything that children need to learn about sharing can be learned through this one activity. Simply place the puzzle box on the floor and invite children to join you - and, wow, watch the fun unfold!

The play begins wildly, boldly, instantly, and selfishly, with each child automatically grabbing one or two pieces and trying to shove their own pieces together. Three year olds are used to playing with things by themselves and for themselves. They are not accustomed to working with others. The first few moments of puzzle-making are fast-paced motion...the grabbing of a piece or two, trying to connect the pieces, dropping puzzle pieces in frustration, and moving onto another piece immediately to see if it matches. Many hands moving quickly, mashing pieces together on the floor, stepping onto pieces or bumping into a classmate, whirling, spinning, commotion.

Most preschoolers seem to readily grasp that the pieces fit together in some way; I have never had to explain this. There are typically about 20 pieces, meaning a small group of preschoolers can grab one or two pieces each, and each feel very powerful. Of course, in reality, there's not much exciting about one or two pieces of a puzzle. There's not much to see or make, with so few.

Often, one child will walk off to the periphery of all the commotion, clutching a piece, not seeking out any other pieces, and, seemingly, feeling no need to participate in the puzzle building. This savvy child! They may look disinterested, but they have claimed some very valuable real estate. Yes, they are holding what will be the LAST piece of the puzzle...ha! This piece is being ignored right now, but, without a doubt, it will become very important very soon.

As teacher, I try simply to moderate the overall process. I try not to direct the children to follow 'my approach.' For example, I don't say - "Hey, let's grab all the straight edges first." - which was definitely the way I was taught, many years ago. I enjoy watching preschoolers find their own way, to figure it out...I trust that they will. I sit back a bit, and use my voice mostly to guide - helping them work together.

Sometimes the puzzle piece that you simply must have is in another child's hands, and, here, it's often easiest to just grab the piece out of the other's hands. Teachable moment! I pepper them with questions - "Who had that piece first?," "Did you ask her if you could have that?" "Where do you think it goes?" "What makes you think so?" "How do those two match up?" Many instinctively know to turn the piece around and around and around, exploring new positions, to see if the pieces will connect.

As the children work, I begin to build some ground rules with them - "If two pieces are connected, you leave them be and try to match your piece to the connected ones. Don't take apart what is already working." Somehow, this often seems to surprise preschoolers - as if, "Wait, I didn't match those pieces! But, you expect me to leave them be?" Another important rule, "We don't take pieces out of our classmates' hands." Also, "Puzzle makers move slowly and purposefully, they don't stand on the puzzles."

I am frequently amazed at the ferocity and motion involved in making a puzzle together. Around and around and around they go, testing this piece against the other.

after a short while,
seemingly arising out of thin air,
bubbling up without any plan of action other than 'every child for herself',
the puzzle begins to form,
with interconnected sections becoming more apparent.

I often wonder if this is the very moment that young children become aware of the power of team work..the very moment they become aware that, wow, perhaps each person has something to offer to the process...the very moment each child begins to literally see how what they are doing connects with that of others.

Although the puzzle begins with every child feeling and working solo, in the end, it is completed by the work of many...it takes a team.

The learning from such a simple 'toy' is truly profound. Children learn to be more observant of one another and of the puzzle, noticing details on each individual piece. They begin to interact with one another, communicating - "Does this go here?" "Put yours there." "Here!" "Look! These go here!"

And that child who might have wandered off with that one piece? Oh, yes, we need her now! You can't finish without a floor puzzle without including everyone.

Floor puzzles have two distinct phases for preschoolers -
the first, egotistical, self-absorbed, every child for him or herself; and
the second, enlightenment, the mind opens, the realization comes - we do better when we work together.

There's always a big round of applause at the conclusion of a puzzle! Go, preschoolers!

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Are you able to bear the responsibility?

I am participating in the
Tuesday Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers.
All participants are writing about one moment, one part of their day.
A big thank you to Two Writing Teachers for providing this unique opportunity
for teacher-writers to share and reflect.

Second day of school. Early dismissal for preschoolers. 12 noon. Three of them wait to be picked up. Tick-tock, tick-tock. 12:10. One child helps to sweep the floor, one child dances on carpet, one colors at a table. These three watched every other child get picked up. Oh, here is a family! Down to two children. Three teachers, two preschoolers. 12:15  I lean down to tie the dancing preschooler's shoes; no sign of his parents yet. Oh, here's another family! This Mom has questions, I turn to answer her -  "yes, we need napping materials for tomorrow's full day..." and, quietly, invisibly, unexpectedly, he slips out. Elopes. Right by me, standing three feet from the door of our classroom. He, my dancer, the last child, waiting, desperately, for a Mommy or Daddy or another loving adult who never comes. He is impatient, he is three. He has just watched every classmate get picked up. 

In a split second, he was gone. 

Just a minute more, maybe only 30 seconds later, I knew he was gone, too - and I bolted from my classroom, down the hall, towards the front desk - only to be met by Mom and Grandmother, holding him firmly by the hand. Mom was livid - "I did NOT find him right here in the hall! I found him out front, coming out the front door of the school!" 

Her angry eyes will stick in my memory forever - devoid of trust, filled with hurt and anger.

I rambled,

"I am SO sorry. I am SO sorry. I need you to know, this is on ME, I am responsible. He was just here, and he slipped out, and that SHOULD NEVER EVER EVER have happened and I am totally at fault. I am so sorry. I have never had this happen in all my years of teaching and it won't happen again, I promise."

She was LIVID.

Words are nothing but nasty air when one's most important possession has almost vanished.

I continued,

"Please, this is horrible. I invite you to speak to our principal about this. It is a terrible mistake and you should report it. I can assure you it won't happen again. I'm sorry."

I moved automatically to find my principal, and I breathlessly told her, "Please speak with this family, they are so upset, as they should be - their preschooler in my class slipped out the front door of the school at early dismissal."

My principal asked with remarkable calm, "Did we find the child?"

"Yes! His family was walking right up to the school when he was walking out - they grabbed him and brought him back to me."

My principal continued to me, before talking to the family - "This is a blessing. Hear me, it's a blessing. He was found. He is safe. Now we know. We revise our plan. We continue on." 

As she walked toward the family to talk further, I dissolved into tears. 

It is hard to bear the responsibility.

Epilogue -

Even now, a whole year later, it is hard to think about this day.

My principal and colleagues gave me tremendous support and perspective, and I am so appreciative. We revised our 'end of day' routines, and there was never another such incident all year. I worked hard to rebuild trust with the family; I am very close to this family, now.

Truly, on this day, my biggest fear about working with young children happened: losing a child...that one might simply disappear, no matter how hard I try to keep my eyes on them. Whenever I hear one of those nightmare stories about a child who walks away from school, I think "but for the grace of God" - and I am filled with compassion for everyone involved. It takes a village!!

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

What is most important?

I am participating in the
Tuesday Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers.
All participants are writing about one moment, one part of their day.
A big thank you to Two Writing Teachers for providing this unique opportunity
for teacher-writers to share and reflect.

My beloved colleague Connie came up to me and said, "I'm going to tell you something that is going to make you mad, and, here's the thing, you can be mad for a minute and then you are going to get over it and we are just going to get it done." I looked at her surprised, wide-eyed, perplexed - and then asked cautiously - "Well, what is it?"

Connie quickly told me what the problem was, and the necessary solution. I'm not sharing what the problem or situation was, because, honestly, it doesn't matter. Teaching days can be filled with problems like this. Suffice to say, it was annoying, and small, not a big deal.

Her preceding words echoed in my head: "...you can be mad for a minute and then you are going to get over it and we are just going to get it done."

I stared at her a moment and then I burst out laughing, amused by Connie's clear-eyed insight about me. I said "Well, let's skip my 'getting mad' part and just get down to it." We laughed together as we worked. And, yes, we got it done.

I want to celebrate Connie's approach with me.

She held a mirror up for me to see myself - and she did so in a caring and amusing way. She made me laugh about my own foibles. She was showing empathy and understanding for my expected frustration with her news, while simultaneously urging me to not get bogged down by my annoyance and, instead, stay focused on the larger goal and complete the task.

It was more important to get past my frustration and anger and to just shine in our work. 

I wonder how long I will carry this wisdom: don't let my anger keep me from doing what matters. Or, maybe I should state it this way: save my anger for that which matters. I know anger is a powerful tool for change...I don't need to squander it on the small stuff.

Stay focused.
Don't get bogged down by what doesn't matter.
Don't get distracted.
Keep on with my purpose.
Be joyful.

Thank you, Connie. Such powerful insight for me at the outset of a new school year!