Monday, August 20, 2012

Endings and Beginnings

One of my favorite endings, to any book, is Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are. "And it was still hot." The line refers to Max's dinner, left for him in his room. A simple, declarative, beautiful ending that opens a perfect door for discussion. Especially for the older children in my class, who obsess over things being "for real or pretend". They love engaging in pretend play together, but when it comes to books or new information from teachers, they always ask me for a concrete answer. "For real or pretend?"Sometimes, when I'm telling them we're going to nap all day, or about the Dark Elves living in the woods behind our school, I answer "Pretend", pleased to see that my answer doesn't at all hinder their interest. Other times, I feel torn.

Even as an adult, I feel like the land of the wild things is very much a real place. Its the place I went as a child when I couldn't contain the whirlwind inside of me (and the times I was sent to my own room for dinner). Its the place I went as an angry, apathetic teenager. Its the place I went when my father died and my heart broke in ways I never imagined it could. The land of the wild things is a space for physical exertion and stretching of imagination, a place where children reign and monsters obey. All children deserve that place, but even more, they deserve to come home to dinner, still hot. They deserve to be forgiven for the wild thing that so many of their parents have forgotten or suppressed.

Next week, six of my students will move on to Kindergarten. Three new children will join our classroom, two from our toddler room and one completely new. As our 5 year olds move on, our room will change in ways I can't even begin to imagine now. As a preparation for this transition, our 5 year olds are forgoing nap this week to get used to a school day. Today I got to work with them while their friends rested. We began our play with a letter game, but quickly moved on to fabric markers and felt. When the children found a googly eye in the marker bag, we dug out the hot glue gun and some other decorations. One of them requested a crown, and soon all 5 were busy building castles out of blocks, wearing their crowns. Soon, as always happens with my current class, the physical energy got too high to be cooped up indoors. Once we'd cleaned up the gross motor space, I grabbed the pool noodles they love playing with and we went out to the front lawn. We noodle fought, raced, sang and wrestled on the grass and certainly enjoyed the wild rumpus.

When I think about the children I teach moving on to new schools and communities, I am generally confident that they are prepared for the world ahead. Mostly, I worry if the world ahead is prepared for them. As academic goals inch further downward, children are afforded significantly less time and encouragement to explore their wild places. Many become afraid of those spaces inside themselves, after having had to deny them. As a teacher I rarely feel like my job is to "teach" the children in my class anything. I encourage them, cuddle them, reassure them, sing to them, trust them, and often mediate between them. I do all of these things, because in exchange I am granted a day pass to the wild spaces inside them, a small peek into their bustling, growing brains. And on the journeys that are too rough and deep for me to join in on, I am waiting on the other side. With their dinners, still hot.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

English Language Learners

This week I attended an English Language Learners workshop with my coteachers. In our classroom, we have 4 families who have bilingual homes, and soon we'll get 2 more from our toddler room. Our families speak French, Spanish, German, Polish, and Dutch. Although we're supportive of these language differences and attempt to bring books and language into the classroom to reflect the children's homes, myself and my coteachers are all English language speakers. I often wonder how it feels for children in our class used to the fluidity of bilingual households and what it means for them to come to our fast-paced, all English classroom.
In high school, I attended a school where many of my classmates spoke English as a second language or were multi-lingual. My advisor was also multi-lingual, speaking English, Hebrew and Spanish interchangeably and flowing easily from one into the other. Our advising group discussions were often interspersed by bursts of Spanish phrases and words, and the majority of my classmates spoke Spanish at least half the time at home. I grew up in a culturally rich but monolingual household, before the era of Dora the Explorer and bilingual children's toys. My first real exposure to “foreign” language wasn't until junior high, when I took Latin for two years. Following that I managed to get out of high school with only one year of foreign language (French, taught by an ancient multi-lingual Brother who often lapsed into German, Latin and Somali) and attended a college that had no language requirements. In all of my 22 years, even after a month touring Europe, I've managed to learn no more language than I could pick up on a show like Dora.
For my students, the world is slightly different, both from my own experience and that of my high school classmates. The children in our class come primarily from upper middle class households, families that chose to immigrate to our country as opposed to refugees, migrant workers and other less choice based immigrants. Even our bilingual students speak English as their primary language, with their parent's native tongue being their second or third language. Many of the cultural and linguistic difficulties between families and childcare providers don't effect the often American educated bilingual families we serve. Although the workshop was interesting, and important for providers working with many families, it didn't feel particularly relevant to our current families.
In fact, as my coteachers and I discussed later, many of our bilingual students have developed better letter recognition and literacy skills than our students who only speak English, probably in part because of the focus their parents put on English literacy in the home. Food for thought.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Alone Box

In a corner of our classroom, next to the door to our playground, is a cubby. On top of the cubby is the teacher shelf, where we keep our stereo, class clipboard, and a constant rotation of "in progress" tools and projects. Inside the cubby is our alone box.
The alone box is all white, with a few handmade pillows and a soft knit blanket. Its a small, quiet place for the children in our class to center themselves away from the noise and chaos of a classroom. There are only 2 "rules" for the alone box: only one child at a time, and no one can bother you while you're inside. For some of our students the alone box is a refuge from others, a relief from an argument with a friend or from a particularly rambunctious activity. For others, its a safe place from themselves, an area where they can rage or cry or scream until they're ready to rejoin the wider world.
As a child myself, I spent much of my time in a variety of "alone boxes". The car on our camping trips, screaming and kicking at the windows or the closet in my grandparents room, sobbing into my grandfather's wool trousers. And my mother was always there, waiting patiently outside, often in tears herself, for the waves of my sorrow or anger to subside.
As a teenager, I had my own set of silent refuges. The RISD art museum, home to a large wooden Buddha who I poured my heart out to on a near daily basis. A special spot by the river where the only noise was waves and passing traffic.
Unfortunately, as an adult, I'm too big to fit into our alone box. That special cathartic space is physically off limits to me, but the safe place it provides is still something I need to process our classroom, my students, and my own life. This blog will provide that space: a place for raging, a place for sobbing, a place for celebrating all of the things that test me and invigorate me about being an adult in a child's world, about holding their small hands in my own and letting us walk together.