Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Lost Afternoon

Yesterday, I had one of those days.  One of those days in a good way.

It was a very "Dodge" afternoon.  In my classroom, the Spruce Room, we didn't do anything according to plan.  In fact, we threw the plan right out the window.  We started class with the intention of hiking right away, but everyone seemed to have a cold and we had a hard time getting organized-- there were multiple visits to the bathroom, wardrobe changes and attendance hiccups.  We couldn't seem to get farther than an area that we call, the "Mungle Jungle."  It's just outside the playground gate.  The Mungle is a little clearing in the burdock-filled woods, just off of a boggy marsh.  It has a couple good climbing trees, which are draped with large Tarzan-type vines.  There are some old rotting tree stumps and a lot of dead fall, thanks to a severe summer storm.  In fact, that storm took out one of the best parts of the Mungle:  a cool stick fort.  My ever-enthusiastic colleague, Luzia, had been working on building a new stick fort with another class of kids, and since we seemed to be stuck there, she invited kids to build while we waited to hike.  Of course, the children became so engrossed in construction, that we stayed right there for much of the day.

Since we were sticking around, my other co-teacher, Amanda, went and fetched the class journals.  Soon enough, children were building or writing, and then they were doing both, at the same time.

Each child in our classroom has a journal that we keep in the class all year.  Children are invited to draw in their journals and we also dictate the stories that the kids invent to accompany the illustrations.  Later, at our daily Group Time, we act out, or stage, these stories, with the author acting as director and/or actor, and the rest of the class participating either by acting, or as an audience member.  The process evolves over the course of the year into something really special.  As you might imagine, having the power to record your imaginings and also to make them more concrete or "real" through performance is exhilarating for children.  It is a happy cataclysm of creativity, literacy and self-confidence.  But I digress...  

There we were, in the near woods, and everywhere we looked, we could see kids engaged in very purposeful activity alone, in pairs or in little bands.  A stump became a desk and the writer at the stump desk turned and asked Amanda to come and see her work.  It was the very first time this particular child had initiated a conversation with her teacher.  A couple of boys sat side by side, working in their journals.  One boy sang a silly song about pie and his fellow turned and said, "Wait.  How does that song go?"  And we watched as the singer repeated the song, verse by verse, for the friend who began to illustrate his words.

These two have known each other for a year, but never had they actually conversed.  A group of girls at work in the new stick fort decided that it needed to be fumigated.  Small sticks became tools--"scrapers," "hammers," "pounders," and "catchers"-- which they employed with great dexterity in order to rid the new structure of "cockroaches" and "bedbugs."  Three more children strolled around peeking into other kids' journals, offering suggestions and then pausing to climb a tree together.  As they climbed, they offered one another advice about how to reach "the highest branch."  Another boy called me over to where he had lugged a very large branch.  "See this?" he said, pointing to the branch with his slender pointed stick, "It needs to be mended, here and here.  This is how I mend it.  Watch."

He knelt down and began to work on the branch, as if he were planing and sanding it with his stick.  Another group of girls was hunting in the leaf litter.  "What are you looking for?" I wondered.  "This!"  And a girl stuck her palm under my nose.  There was a tiny brown speck in the crease of her little palm.  "What is it?"  "A snail!"  And sure enough, it was the tiniest snail shell I've ever seen, and they were hunting them out of the leaf litter right and left.

One child sat up in a tree.  Having watched the other climbers for some time, she had finally attempted the summit herself.  After achieving the "highest branch," all on her own, she was now content to hang out in her throne, just watching.  She seemed to enjoy her vantage point,  as if she was the queen of our little village.  It struck me that each child seemed not only happy, but content.  And what was satisfying them so?  Industry and enterprise.  The play was autonomous, and certainly well-imagined, but everyone was pretending that they had a job, and each job seemed to fulfill the need of the moment.  Everyone was lost in that moment, or found, really, depending on how you look at it.

These are the days that teachers live for, I think.  Especially early childhood professionals.  I think we are really happy when everything is clicking along, when everyone is getting along.  But we are super-extra happy when things are "working."  I think its no mistake that we say, "things are working."  I think we mean that we are witnessing children finding purpose in life, or "work."  And when we witness children discovering their purpose, their work, we, in turn, have found ours.

Adults have a hard time living in the moment.  My yoga teacher says, "Just breathe.  That's all you have to do.  Breathe in this moment.  Let the rest go."  Yeah, right.  Easier said than done.  So I breathe, and the parade marches through my head:  I forgot to return a phone call, I need to pick up milk, I shouldn't have yelled at her, I should get the cat to the vet, I should lose ten pounds... On and on it goes.  But there are a few minutes, maybe a few seconds in reality, when it all falls away and it is just the breath. "Oh!"  I think, "I'm doing it!"  And just when I think that, it's over.  You can't be thinking that and still be "breathing in the moment."  Well, great days in the classroom are like breathing in the moment.  Everyone exists only in the activity and there is nothing else that is more important or fun than what we are doing right here, right now.  That's what happened yesterday.  It was a delightfully lost afternoon.

We did eventually find ourselves up on Tipi Hill, out beyond the Sugar Shack where the coyotes like to hole-up.  Tipi Hill is a bonafide hill in this flat land, and better still, it has a big, inexplicable pile of hand-sized rocks up on top.  It gets its name from a stick tipi that has been up there, in one form or another, over the years.  Some classes call it Princess Mountain--you'll have to ask the fairy house expert and Dodge teacher extraordinaire, Kristenza Nelson, about that.  And the place really is a mountain, if you're not yet three feet tall.  Climbing the hill can be tiring, but it's like another world up there.  It's a world of sugar maples, coyotes, bonfires, stone cities and tipis.  We had a picnic, we sang songs and we read about fall trees while the blazing maples danced dappled shadows over the pages of our story.

One child was stung by a bee, right in the middle of the story, and we all stopped to watch Amanda take care of the sting.  And the child didn't cry.  And then we returned to the story.  Typical Dodge stuff.  Typical life stuff.  And throughout it all, we stayed in the moment together.  The kids carried their journals up the Hill, and we acted out their stories under the trees.  And when it was time to go, nobody could believe it.  How could it be over?  Really?  And the beauty of it is, it isn't really over.  Life can just be like this, one delightful discovery after another.  Joy and excitement now.  It can be like this a lot more often than we adults think.

"Time to go home?  Are you sure?"  That's why I teach at Dodge.  I can get lost here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow: Separation with a Capital "S"

'Tis almost morning, I would have thee gone--
And yet no farther than a wan-ton's bird,
That lets it hop a little from his hand,
Like a poor prisoner in his twisted gyves,
And with a silken thread plucks in back again,
So loving-jealous of his liberty.

I would I were thy bird.

Sweet, so would I,
Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing.
Good night, good night!  Parting is such sweet sorrow,
Thus I shall say good night till it be morrow.  

After four years of graduate school, and at least as many Shakespeare classes, I still have a hard time remembering what a "gyve" is.  At any rate, I've forgotten more than I care to admit, but I do know that Fall is in the air.  Fall with a capital "F."  I certainly remember Fall.  The nights are cooler.  Days are shorter.  Leaves are beginning to turn and drop (or depending on where you're at with drought, to shrivel up and turn to dust prematurely).  Dust or no dust, this time of year always inspires nostalgia in me, and a big dose of anticipation.

Many of my childhood memories are tied up with first days of school.  New scratchy clothes, riding the bus (with the older boy who picked his nose with his pencil, silently, for my terrified benefit), looking anxiously around for possible friends, getting used to a new teacher...it all comes back in memories, and dreams.  Sometimes those back-to-school dreams are just terrible!  I'm forty-one-years-old (oops, cat's out of the bag), and I'm a teacher myself, but I'm still plagued by a spate of those awful anxiety dreams each fall:  Missed the Bus, Can't Find My Class, Lost My Glasses, Can't Open My Locker, Forgot to Put on Pants, Peed My Pants (actually did that in the second grade, so that one is rather vivid)... on and on they go.  So, although I so look forward to welcoming new and returning students to my classroom each autumn, I know all-too-well how bittersweet the starting of school is.

My very wise colleague, Kris Rollwagen, always astutely reminds our staff that Separation, with a capital "S," or saying good-bye to a young student for the first time, is a whole curriculum unto itself.  And Separation, of course, is not just a matter of coping with tears at the classroom door, it is the reunion too, and how the child and her caretakers, negotiate the different worlds of school and home-- how they move between the two.  And this Separation curriculum doesn't come to a close in a month or two after the child has successfully adjusted to her new school.  No, parent and child keep growing through this process as it repeats itself and alters year in and year out with each new situation or activity beyond home.  During our professional development days this year, just before school started, I said, in a fit of hyperbole, "Separation is the beginning of a life-long process, from birth to death, the long good-bye that never ends."  Fortunately, Kris said, "Marlais!  I know what you mean, but I hope you don't say that to the new parents!"  So, I'm tattling on myself, but the point is that parting is a sweet sorrow, and a natural part of life.  Child and parent keep saying, "Good-bye," and, "Hello," as the child grows steadily into her or his own person.  Teachers realize that all new parents and new students must re-invent the wheel of good-bye when they come to preschool for the very first time.  New Parents, you are not alone in this big excitement and not-so-little grief and anxiety; each fall we teachers re-live a bit of the process through you and your children, and with each passing year, supporting you and bearing witness to your transition becomes a sweeter enterprise.  We see this beginning as part of the great adventure that is life, and all that is unknown and yet-to-be for your child.

This Fall, the Dodge Preschool open house for returning students, was terrific.  It was the best couple of hours I've had in a long time.  Not much compares with watching my old young friends become reacquainted with their classroom, their friends and their teachers.  This is the other side of the Separation coin.  When teachers have the good-fortune to work with the same kids over a span of years, like parents and caretakers, we get to watch them grow over that span.  That initial school trepidation is transformed into something truly magical.  The child returns to a place and people she knows well, and her anticipation balloons on the spot, as she imagines all the wonderful and exciting things that will transpire back in this familiar old place.  The returning student is the master of her domain, able to lend a hand to new students and to feel the joy and pride in being able to help others.  Energy, friendship and almost boundless goodwill were nearly palpable during that open house; kids were actually vibrating with eagerness.  So, New Families, you have this future sweetness to look forward to.  And the pattern will repeat throughout a child's schooling, on through college and even in the process of moving away and starting his or her own family; the "silken thread" is pulled back and forth between parent and child, each so "loving-jealous" of the other's "liberty":  Good-bye--Hello--Good-bye--Hello...

"Gyves" are shackles, by the way.  The gyves of autumn nostalgia sure are powerful.