Pretending creates a powerful context for learning—for my kindergartners and for me as their teacher. On this day, three girls planned to play in our pretending area. They told me that Lauren was going to be the sister, Teresa was going to be the mom, and Wisdom was going to be the baby. "She's always the baby," Lauren informed me, as an aside, and off they went.
Awhile later, from that corner of the room, I heard Lauren's voice cry out, "Oh my goodness, I just had another baby! Now I have three babies!" Apparently someone else had joined the original three and roles had shifted, with Lauren back in her favorite role, that of the mother.
Nearby in the block area, which was clear of buildings on this particular day, two girls, Danica and Bella, were using the carpeted area to play a math game. Suddenly two of the "babies" came crawling out of the pretending area and into the block area. The game players registered their protest at being interrupted and Lauren quickly retrieved her escaped charges, admonishing them, "The neighbors don't like noisy babies."
It wasn't long before Lauren could be heard commenting from the pretending area to whomever would listen, "Three babies is a lot of work. I'm going to need some help!" (Seriously, what mother has not said the same thing at some point?!) Danica overheard this and stood up from her game. "I could be the babysitter," she offered.
The next thing I realized, the previously escaped babies, the "mother," Lauren, and Teresa, who seemed to have now become a baby, were in the block area again. Danica and Bella looked on. Lauren was complaining that the two babies, Wisdom and her friend, Janice, had taken the baby, Teresa's, bed. A couple of pieces of cloth from the pretending area were spread on the floor in the block area. Janice and Wisdom huddled against the block shelves next to the cloth "beds." Teresa self-righteously explained, "They are the naughty babies. I'm the good baby."
They seemed to be appealing for help so I asked, "So what do you do with naughty babies?"
"I put them in time out," replied Lauren.
"Yeah," added Teresa, "That's why Janice is crying." It appeared that it was not pretend crying, however.
Moved by her classmate's distress, Bella crossed the block area and began rubbing Janice's back. Janice continued to cry, perhaps enjoying the attention that came with it. Lauren and Teresa returned to the pretending area.
"Are you worried about her, Bella?" I asked. "She's crying because she's pretending. She got put in time out. Have you ever been put in time out by your mom and started to cry?" Bella could identify with this. "She's going to be ok. You don't need to worry about her." Bella left Janice who continued pretending she was in time out with her real tears.
What happened next I could not have predicted. At this moment, Danica, the "babysitter," sprang into action. "Oh, what's wrong, babies? Do you need a hug?" Janice immediately nodded and they embraced. "It's okay," Danica comforted, patting Janice's back.
Then, no longer crying, Janice sat back down beside Wisdom. "So what would you two like to do? the "babysitter" asked. "What would you like to play?" I couldn't hear their response but they gathered up the "stolen" bed cloths and returned to the pretending area, seemingly reconciled. They continued to play until it was time to clean up.
Recently, I have been trying to give children the space to navigate their own struggles. I've been thinking a lot about how children spend almost all of their time "supervised" by adults, and understandably, we are not comfortable watching their conflicts and hurts. But on the other hand, how will they learn to navigate life if they don't figure this stuff out? So, I'm trying to observe, trust, and not step in as quickly. And when I do, mostly ask questions.
One of my favorite quotes is from Marie Clay, "The one doing the work is the one doing the learning." She was referencing learning to read, but I've come to believe it applies to all learning, no matter the subject, no matter the age. In the past, I probably would have intervened. I might have suggested that it wasn't fair for Lauren to be the mom and everyone else be the babies. Or I might have told Wisdom and Janice that they weren't allowed to be naughty babies and if they wanted to play there they would need to change. But I would have been doing the work of resolving the conflict. I would have robbed them of the opportunity to learn to empathize, to ask for help, to see what happens when you are "naughty" (in low risk ways), and to emulate caring people they have known, things that are much more important to me than easing my discomfort.
And equally as important, I would not have learned that children are capable of much more than we sometimes believe. You have to make the space and give them the chance.
As I write this, we are officially two days into the new school year. I've been at this for over 30 years, most of it in kindergarten. I love the work and it's so challenging. Always has been, always will be. I once heard that the only profession that requires more decisions than teaching, is being an air traffic controller. It's true. How many decisions do you think a teacher makes in an hour, a day, a year? I mean, when my little ones come on that first day, they are ready, willing, and able, but they don't know much about how school, this school, or this classroom work and what's their role in it.
That's where I come in. I've thought a LOT (over these last 30 years) and have made thousands of decisions about what I want them to do, how I want them to do it, and how I hope they will grow. One, and just one of many dilemmas, is what kind of paper to give them for the start of writer's workshop--blank, loose sheets, single sheets with a box and lines, or pages already stapled into a writer's journal? In fact, a colleague and I had this conversation again this year. I've tried them all. In the end, I said, "Let's do plain white, individual sheets." Inwardly, I trusted something, but I'm not sure I could have articulated the reason.
Then it happened. On the first day of writer's workshop, as I enthusiastically introduced the children to their power to put onto paper all the stories of their lives, one eager author raised her hand. "Can we make real books? Can we fold the paper in half so it's a real book?" A smile started in my heart and spread up and out across my face. "Yes. Yes, you can. You can make a real book."
And that's it. Plain, white paper works for a reason. It's a choice that creates the flexibility and freedom to empower children and not hold them back. I had my answer. Later there would be other paper choices—paper with lines, pre-stapled booklets—meeting other children's needs and encouraging everyone forward. But for now, I recognized and reaffirmed something I learned early in my teaching which is the value of open-ended materials. Ahhh, one less decision to make going forward.
"Did you grab a mat for the kids to eat lunch on?"
"How are we going to carry the lunch boxes?"
"Do we have all the iPads?"
"Are the kids going to ride in kindergarten and first grade pairs on the bus?"
"Has everyone gone to the bathroom?"
On a field trip day, despite all the planning and preparation, getting 4 teachers and our 48 kindergarten and first grade students out the door, and headed toward the bus requires considerable effort. Finally, we are underway.
Moments later, as we get to the front of the school, we see… NO BUS! Panic sets in. We turn to each other.
"Did you turn in the requisition?"
"Yes. Did it not get passed on?"
"Well, did we get a confirmation?"
"I don't know. Check in the office."
"What do we do with the kids while we wait?"
"Let's take them to the playground. They can run around while we sort this out."
We head off toward the playground with all the littles in a crowd behind us. They are eager to do something beside stand around and wait. "Oh no!" my co-teacher at the front of the pack cries out. "The groundskeepers have just turned on the sprinklers!" We turn the group around and we edge back the way we came.
At that moment, word comes that the charter bus company has been called and they are sending a bus our way. It should arrive in 10 minutes. We calculate when we will arrive at the Aquarium and decide to have the children eat their lunches here, rather than in the park outside the Aquarium as planned. We sit them down and pass out the lunches. Three bites later, the charter bus pulls up. "How in the world, did he get here so fast?"
"Oh well, never mind. Let's just get to the Aquarium."
"Close up your lunches, everybody. Hang on to them, but do not eat on the bus!"
Gratefully we file the kids onto the bus. Arranged like eggs in a carton, four dozen, two by two, in rows, front to back, we are on our way. "The parents will be wondering what has happened to us. I bet they are all standing around in a group in front of the Aquarium. I'll call one who can pass the message on that we ARE coming."
"Hi, just letting you know that there was mix-up with the bus, but we are now on our way. We should be there soon."
"Oh, okay. Well, there's been an accident at the corner of Kapahulu and Ala Wai Blvd. and the police are diverting traffic. We all assumed you got caught up in that. If you're not there yet, you should go a different way!"
I head up the aisle to the driver and inform him of the situation. With a groan, and a "Good to know," he makes a quick right turn and takes an alternate route. I settle back in with my colleagues as we huddle to adjust timing and responsibilities.
"Ahh, I see the ocean. We are almost there!" As we make the final approach, we look out the bus window to the section of the park where we had planned to have our picnic.
"You've got to be kidding me!" one of my partners exclaims. "They're trimming the trees!" We note that the grass is full of heavy equipment.
"Oh, well. I guess we'll just have to eat on the other side of the Aquarium."
Suddenly she bursts into laughter. We all burst into laughter. "Can you believe this? We should write a story about today. And we can call it, 'Can we just get to the Aquarium, please?' "
A blog I read encourages people to choose One Little Word at the start of each new year. It replaces resolutions and it's something you can hold onto for the year. I like that. Previously, I have chosen "Enough" and "Ready." This year my word will be ACCEPT.
The dictionary gives six definitions. My intention is the first: "to receive willingly." The key here is willingly. Such as "I will accept this gift."
I will accept the children that I teach, just as they are, in all their diversity. I will help them to grow, but I will not try to make them different than who they are. I will accept my colleagues and recognize that we are going to be different and disagree about some things, and I will receive those differences willingly. The same is true in my family.
This year I want to remind myself of the line from the prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, "O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed." There are always events and situations, such as changes in administration, traffic jams, people not doing what I expected, and weather, that I also want to accept. It's all a part of life.
But probably the one who I need to accept the most is myself. I'm not a project that needs to be worked on. I don't need to be "fixed." This year I hope to remind myself over and over to accept the wild, beautiful, irritating, capable, critical, controlling, creative mix that makes me, me. It's not that I can't be changed. It's that I don't need to be. I can grow, I will grow, but it will no longer be driven by my need to become more "acceptable."
In early August, the office sends me the first glimpse of who my next group of kindergartners will be. It's a computer-generated list. It's orderly, neatly typed, and purely black and white. Definitely not like the children themselves. As I prepare for the new school year, I look toward the time when their smiles will fill the doorway and I'll have real faces and real children to match these names.
Finally, the day comes and they enter the classroom. There is the one who stands quietly on the edge and watches. There is the one who speaks continuously. With him I know everything he thinks at the moment he thinks it. There is the one who asks if she can pretend to be a fairy godmother. There is the one who can't quite figure out which direction to turn in order to get where he wants to go in the classroom. There is the one who goes to the drawing-and-making center and cuts a heart out of paper. She hangs the edge with the heart-shaped hole on the wall to decorate our room, and hands the heart-shaped piece to me shyly, like a secret admirer. There is the one who tells me at least seven times throughout the day that she will be going to after-school care, as much to reassure herself as to inform me.
That night, after the children have gone, I decide that I want to capture this beginning time. I want to honor each unique person and I want to bring us all together in one grand act that will represent the unity and the diversity simultaneously. So on the morning of the second day, I ask the children to tell me a color that they really, really like. "Red," is the first response. It is followed by "golden." Hands wave in the air like palm branches as I call on them and record their replies…purple, pink, hot pink, light blue, green, dark green, light green, lavender, light orange like peach, black, white, dark orange, turquoise, yellow, and brown.
Later while the children are outside playing, I place one large, long, brown sheet of butcher paper over the lanai tables. I fill little cups with paint. Some colors are straight out of the bottle; others are surprise packages of two or three colors waiting to be mixed. I grab a large handful of brushes from the shelf—thick, thin, medium widths. When the children return, they are invited to surround the tables. I remind them that they know what lines are. We talk of ridgelines, and curving lines, bouncy lines, and zig-zag lines, thick lines, and thin lines, and then they each get a color and a brush. One by one they add their line to the mural. "Can I paint on someone else's line?" one child asks. I refer the question to the group and the decision is no. So they figure out how to "jump" over another line if it's in the way. In the end, they have all added their mark.
The school day ends. The children are gone. The paint dries and I smile at what they have created. I drag it inside and, with some help, adhere it to the classroom wall. Stepping back I savor it. This represents the little people I am beginning to know. They are vibrant pink, adventurous orange, steady black, and calm light blue. They are bouncy, stiffly straight, thick, and very thin, so thin that you have to look hard to even notice. It's this variety all together that makes the painting beautiful.
I sigh. It's a deep exhale. I'm glad it's on the wall for those days that I know will come when someone will be just a little too "bright orange" or another painfully "thin." I want to remember to look up and say, "That orderly, black and white list has been replaced. And that's the beauty of it all."
The Live Poets Club had its final meeting. With the start of the school year on the horizon for several of us, we no longer had the time to meet twice a week. And our gentle, quiet leader admitted that he was ready to let go of the responsibility. It had taken lots of mental and emotional energy. On the last day feelings were warm and no one could quite explain how the magical combination of writing, listening, and commenting had brought about the growth in all of us that it did. With gratitude to my fellow poets, I've selected to post, the two poems that I am most pleased with.
It was probably broken from the beginning.
Desperately childless and almost forty,
I met him at our high school reunion.
Intoxicated on inflated hopes of finding one's true love,
I agree to leave my job and drive
Across country, back to a place I had once known.
Arguments stowed away as we left the city,
And came out of hiding, tormenting us
At every place we tried to rest.
When we reached the coast, a truce
Was called and we behaved for his family
And tried to build domestic tranquility.
Jobless, I walked canyons alone,
And cried unending tears into the phone,
While our bed slowly froze.
A two-hour drive away, my sister
Gave birth to her first child. Our mother
Flew to her side, but declined to stay by mine.
One morning, "I would never marry you!"
Roared into the void between us and whatever
Had thinly wrapped us, ripped into shreds forever.
He drove off and I sat in a cold kitchen, staring
At an uncertain future. In the next moment, the phone
Brought me the warm, long-distance voice of an old friend.
"I'm coming. Would love to see you. What are
Your plans?" she asked with unknowing irony.
Through grief-filled sobs, I revealed the destroyed relationship.
Her immediate question: "Do you feel safe?" became
A woolen poncho tossed lovingly over my shoulders. And
For the first time in a year, I did.
Words as Lens
The poet is like a photographer,
Who captures a moment:
Backlit grasses, geese in flight,
Ruins of war, hollow black-and-white eyes,
Hands about to touch, old man on a park bench.
The poet takes existence and suspends it,
Focusing our attention on that which was
As I mentioned in my last post, a group of us have been gathering to support each other in learning more about poetry and improving what we write. A couple of days ago, I received my class list for the upcoming school year. Later that day, I composed this poem. Guess the poet thing is becoming more real. No assignment from or for the group, just thoughts that seemed to belong in a poem. So here it is:
I've always thought of the new kindergartners as seeds;
But today I realize they are seedlings. They come to me
In their little pots, already nourished and watered
By other hands. It's time to take them out and give them
Room to grow in rich soil.
They'll need plenty of sunshine and water
And time. Each one, already a
Carrot or a daisy. I can't change that.
Every one needs tender tending to grow.
No darkness. No crowding.
No pruning. At this stage, they need all their
Leaves, stems, branches, roots, to eventually
Bring forth fruit or flower. The pruning will come later.
At the beginning of the summer, I asked a friend if she had any ideas about where I could learn more about writing poetry. Her reply was, "I know someone who is one of the best poetry teachers I know. If he concedes to teach you, I'm in too. He's forgotten more than I'll ever know about poetry."
Long story short, he accepted. And the "Live Poets Club" was born. We've had two meetings thus far. Last time he had us write "circle poems." They are like free-association list poems. Each line is connected to the line before it but in surprising ways and at the end, the last line recalls the title in some way. Here are two from yesterday's session. The first was a group effort. The second is my attempt.
It all started with a text from my brother:
Millie fell and broke her wrist.
Then a day later, another text:
She's going to need surgery.
Millie is his 85-year-old mother-in-law. She lives here in Hawaii, like me and our mother. He, his wife, and all of Millie's immediate family live on the mainland. Thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean separate them and us.
The crisis was that the surgeon, quite justifiably, would not do the wrist surgery, if Millie, who normally lives alone, did not have someone to care for her afterwards. Lots of phone calls were made. Many scenarios were suggested. In the end, we all decided that, having known each other for decades, the best thing to do was to have Millie recuperate at my mother's apartment.
However, my mother is 87. I suggested that we could do this together, grateful that as a teacher, I had a summer vacation that would allow me to spend as much time there as needed. And that's how the octogenarians became roomies.
One morning when I arrived, Millie was fresh out of the shower. "I can't wash my hair with this darn splint on, " she declared. "Isn't there a beauty salon somewhere around here where I can just have someone wash my hair for me?"
"Let's see," I said, whipping out my phone, and typing BEAUTY SALON into Yelp! Several little red markers popped up on the map near my mother's apartment.
"We are planning to grocery shop this afternoon. Is there one near the store?" my mother chimed in. That narrowed my choices.
"Yes. There's one across the street from the store called Salon Mei. Do you know it?"
"No. But if I have the address I can find it," came my mother's confident reply. I looked at the grey building outlines tucked between the streets on the map on my phone. I knew this area. It's a maze of angled streets, parking lots, and high-rise buildings. I had my doubts.
"Well, first let me call and see if they can help us out," I proposed. A pleasant young woman's voice confirmed that they could see Millie at 3:30. Millie found the price of a shampoo well worth the investment and the appointment was made.
Fulfilling another part of the "we'll do this together" bargain, I fixed lunch. We ate and they spent time talking about the grandchildren they share, remembering good times and rough times, catching up on details that one knew but the other didn't.
Then because neither one of them likes to be late, they decided it would be good to get going. I helped Millie put on her socks and tie her shoes. We laughed about how her broken wrist had put her in the position of one of my kindergartners. My mother pulled her wheeled shopping cart out of the closet. I looked up the salon on Yelp! one more time and I showed my mom the map, orienting her to the grocery store and its parking lot. I gave her the salon address and reminded her that it was going to be in a high-rise building on the second floor—Suite 222. She would not see it at street level as she drove by. She would need to find the building, park, and then find the salon. She looked at me like I was treating her like one of my kindergartners.
With that the two of them headed out of the apartment, shuffling towards the elevator together. All I could see were their backs and I yelled after them, "Have fun, you two, and call me if you get lost."
Moments later, I locked my mom's apartment door behind me and walked to the elevator, ready to head home. Suddenly, I had this sense of being the parent who decides to follow the school bus, just to make sure that her child gets off at the right stop. By the time I got to my car, I had made my decision. Rather than driving home, I turned in the opposite direction and went in search of my mother and Millie.
It's only a five-minute drive to the part of town where the grocery store and the salon are located. I tried to imagine the route that my mother would take. I drove around the block of the grocery store and its parking lot. Across the street was the high-rise building, but there were multiple ways to enter its parking garage and the address was not visible. I drove around the next block and from the front side I found 1600 plainly in view. Looking up, I saw a neon sign with cursive letters barely visible in the window announcing "Salon Mei." My mother's car was nowhere in sight and my concern deepened. So the bus analogy was not working. I was going to have to reveal my over-protective impulse.
I pulled into the parking lot and parked. I knew I couldn't call my mom's cell phone. She never has it turned on. It's a flip phone that she carries in case SHE has an emergency, so she can call out, but not so that others can reach her. Millie, on the other hand, uses her cell phone regularly. Sheepishly, I reached for my phone, prepared to confess. I scrolled down the contacts list. Seriously? I didn't have Millie's number? How could that be after several days of helping to care for her? But now I couldn't turn back.
I got out of the car and walked toward the salon. I had to confirm if they had made it or not. If not, I knew I had given the young woman Millie's cell phone number and I would call her from there. I crossed the parking lot and entered the building. Through the lobby I found the elevator and pressed the button for the second floor. When I exited the elevator, I realized that I had to go through another set of doors to the building's annex. This was getting more complicated by the minute.
I strode anxiously along the hallway, reading the door signs, looking for Salon Mei, Suite 222. Finally a large red metal door, embossed with a raised floral design announced that I had reached my destination. I pushed in on it, straining against its weight. As I stepped over the threshold, there was my mother sitting on a white wicker bench casually flipping through a magazine. Millie was in a chair with a lovely white teacup filled with green tea balanced on a table beside her. They both looked up in surprise as I gasped, "Oh good, you found the place!"
"Yeeesss," my mother answered, as she looked at me questioningly.
"I saw the look on your face as we left," said Millie. "You weren't sure we could do it."
"It's true," I confessed. I just really wanted to make sure that Millie got her hair washed. I was worried that they would get lost and it would seem like too much trouble and they'd give up. My mother had been known to do this in the past.
"Well, we did have to call after we had driven around the block once. But they told us where to park and how to find the salon," my mom informed me. Thank goodness for Millie and her cell phone.
With that I moved toward the door. "Okay. You two look like you are all set. So I'll be on my way." As I walked back to my car I was smiling. I guess caring for them wasn't a bad thing. And I learned that when you put the two of them together, they could get the job done. Isn't that what roomies are for?
Any journey begins with first steps. I've decided to keep a blog. I did this once before when I took a sabbatical but that was for a specific purpose for a specific amount to time. This time I just want to explore the landscape. I'm trying to write more, to get my thinking down where I can reflect on it and others can as well. It's summer now, so the classroom life lies dormant. I'm not sure what will show up next. I just know that the journey has begun.
I teach kindergarten at an independent school in Hawaii. The joy of young, curious learners delights me. I'm passionate about my practice, always striving to meet the needs of the children and their families.