Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Thanks, Hillary!

It Takes A Village Part I:

Whew!  It's that time of year again: conference time!  Things are getting busier as we approach the final stretch of our school year.  We are preparing to meet with families for our last formal conversation and a look at their child's progress over the arc of the year.  The longer I teach and the more summaries I write and the more conferences I share, the more I understand the role of the preschool classroom in a child's life.  The idea is pretty simple, deceptively so.  I have one main idea about preschool.  The implications of this idea may be as varied as any collection of kids, but it is still just one blanket idea.  Here it is:  the role of the preschool classroom is to function as an extended family or a village might in a child's life.

Most of us, in this culture, as diverse as it is, don't live day-to-day under one roof with an extended family including grandparents, aunts and uncles and a big age range of siblings.  And most of us don't live in a village either.  As much as we may like to think of Highland or Seward as a cozy village of familial connections, our cities, neighborhoods and suburbs are not places where we share hunting or agricultural duties and skills, build our own homes together or truly share the daily watching and rearing of our children.  We are raising our children in the context of what we have, and that is just fine, but even as recently as the twentieth century, some rural kids in America were routinely growing up with a variety pack of family members contributing to their rearing.  Older siblings took on day-to-day duties, from diapering and feeding to teaching reading and writing.  Now older siblings have to drive themselves to school and activities and their days are so full, they are unlikely to feed or tutor little siblings, even if they have 'em.

Kids growing up in big, diverse, families and small non-industrialized villages learn from a more diverse group of folks, and, I would argue, they have to acquire and adjust to community and culture faster.  They probably have to learn to pull their own weight faster too.  Even the farm friends of my youth acquired more confidence and responsibility faster than I did.  In retrospect, I think this was probably due to circumstances of their lives.  They had chores, had to feed animals that could die if they didn't feed them, had to learn to drive machinery that could kill them.  Surely many kids are still raised similarly, out of necessity and circumstance, here in the Twin Cities and beyond.  Maybe I'm living with Mom and Dad, and Auntie.  Auntie might say, "Yes," when Mom says, "No."  Maybe my uncle metes out punishment for some infraction and my Dad is just fine with that.  Could be my big sister feeds me and gets me to school because Mom works.  Maybe Dad is working in North Dakota while I live in Fairfax with Mom and Grandma.  Perhaps Mom, Dad, sisters and brothers are all living with my uncle while we save enough money for an apartment of our own.  Maybe, but the fact remains that even if our family structures resemble something like a village, here in America, our highly industrialized, modern culture does not necessarily support a village approach, what with our mobility, how much both parents have to work and other factors.  But we all belong to a larger culture and we have to learn how to get along with a wide variety of other people in order to experience a degree of success in our lives.  Now consider the role of preschool in our culture:

A couple of weeks ago, we enjoyed some refreshingly balmy weather here at Dodge.  My afternoon class took advantage of the heat wave, heading outside and staying outside all afternoon.  As we often do, we split into three small hiking groups, six kids per teacher and set off on separate little adventures.  Separate little adventures did ensue, but I'd like to tell you about what happened when we all rendezvoused for a low-key, late winter picnic.

Each class session includes a snack and that afternoon's repast was nothing special:  graham crackers and tart clementines, with a splash or water (or scoop of fresh snow) to wash it down.  Our three hiking groups met on a small frozen pond we call the Crossroads Pond.  This little unassuming pond is our springtime destination for peepers and morel mushrooms.  Once we hosted a pond-dipping party at the Crossroads and it was such a warm day, some of our students took a dip themselves!  After some walkie-talkie conversation between the teachers, we convened at the Crossroads out of convenience; the little frozen spot was not a destination, but truly just the easiest and closest meeting point, a true crossroads.  So we set up camp on a big old boxelder tree.  I'm not actually positive this old girl is still kicking, as the tree bends right down over the surface of the pond.  The tree was another convenience, multi-tasking for us at snack time as a counter, table and chairs.  Truth be told, when kids did not have a mouthful of snack, the tree also served as a jungle gym, couch and for the more fatigued, a bed.  While teachers were serving and corralling, the kids were eating and chatting and cavorting.  Standing back and looking around, I was struck by two things:

First, how simple life can be.
You CAN feed twenty-one people out of one backpack.  Here's how:  1 small squeeze bottle of hand sanitizer, three sleeves of graham crackers, two sport bottles of water (one teacher holds the water bottle and says, "Open up," and squirts the beverage into the child's mouth) and one Tupperware of pre-peeled clementines.  Backpack+tree=classroom snack time.  Still thirsty?  Grab some snow.  Got to pee?  There's a tree over there (we do acknowledge that outdoor toileting requires more vigilance in the winter).

Second, it does take a village.
And most of us don't live in one anymore.  So here at Dodge, we make the village.  As I said, most of us don't enjoy the benefits of living in or raising our kids in an extended family situation.  Kids don't have aunties and uncles and grandmas and grandpas participating in their every day, down-and-dirty experience.  Most of us are not raising a whole passel of kids and our kids are not as likely to grow up among a bevy of siblings.  At home, we are missing the bigger community with it's varied perspectives and our kids are missing out on guidance and correction from other authority figures.  They do not also have the benefit of being just one of the fish in a pond full of fish; in my house, for better or worse, our kids often get their needs met very quickly.  It is only with supreme effort that my husband and I remember not to intervene all the time.  We usually feed the girls, anticipate their needs, listen to them right away, too often clean up after them, organize them and drive them around.  We don't have time to wait for them to learn how to cook or do their own laundry!  At least, that's the excuse I seem ready to make.  Now, I'm not suggesting neglect (and my kids are much older than preschoolers), but I'm suggesting that the structure of our lives--two parents working full time, only two kids--lends itself to putting children at the center of our little universe.  Sometimes it is good NOT to be at the center of the universe; sometimes it is better to be a part of the universe.  To have that humble perspective of one among many likely engenders MORE responsibility and self-reliance, not less.

So our preschoolers here at Dodge have three different teachers, offering three different perspectives and modes of guidance for each child.  Then they have seventeen other peers to deal with too.  I might not want to use this as a selling point for our Dodge families, but each child is just one little fish swimming in a school of eighteen (in a school of close to 200).  Nobody really swims under the radar, we keep everybody safe, nobody is lost or neglected, but each kid has 1 of 18 chances to be the center of attention at any given moment.  The odds are high that each kid will, out of necessity, have to learn a degree of patience and gain some perspective about their role in our larger community.  Each kid matters equally, but nobody matters more than anyone else.  Part of the universe, not the center (we are stardust, remember).  Kids must grow some eempathy and coping skills in this environment in order to experience happiness and success.  Preschool is the modern (and often privileged) kid's chance to be raised by a village, to learn how to be a person among other people, and to start to understand who they are apart from (but of course still in relationship to) their own immediate family.

That's me standing on a waterfall!
It Takes A Village Part II:
I swear this is directly related to my previous idea, just listen:

Just the other weekend, thanks to our forward thinking Director, Marty, I and three other Dodge teachers got to go up to the North Shore on a Winter River Expedition.  Mark and Katya Gorden, guiding us out of the North House Folk School, took us up the frozen Devil Track and Kadunce Rivers, when it was really, really cold.  The four of us Dodge teachers were actually really worried about the trip.  We were worried about snow on the road, cold temps and actually worried about falling through the ice and dying.  While our fears may have been overblown, they were real and somewhat founded.  But none of us died or froze to death.  In fact, we agree that we had one of the best times we've ever had on Earth.  Now, some of us have gotten married, or had babies or had a perfect night's sleep and we've certainly all had the experience of tasting chocolate for the first time-- set those really big moments aside.  This was still a great day.

Intrepid explorers, left to right:  me, Kristenza, Melanie & Amanda
Here is why it was great:

We did something completely new. We didn't know what to expect. We saw stuff we've never seen before.  We were in the company of friends, and of strangers.  We were afraid.  We were excited.  We saw beautiful stuff.  We had two guides for nine explorers.  Two guides can help nine adults, but they can't help them all the time.  The guides provided instruction and support, but they couldn't carry us over the scary bits, or hold on to the rope for us or stop us from falling into a crevasse.  We were responsible for ourselves (we had to sign a waiver, in fact).  We stood on a frozen waterfall.  We had to help each other up steep embankments and try to stop each other from falling in open water.  Frostbite was possible.  We saw fischer tracks.  We traversed terrain that human feet, due to global warming, may never traverse again, period.  We could have broken our legs.  We didn't.  We could have fallen on our butts and embarrassed ourselves.  We did.  We had to be careful.  We had to listen.  We had to be awake.  We had to participate.  Laying in the snow and closing our eyes was not a viable option.

And you know what?  We realized that our experience was nearly identical to what we ask of our students each and every day here at a land-based preschool.  Laying in the snow and closing your eyes is an option, but it isn't viable for too long.  Seriously, teachers can become numb to the fact that it is all new for kids all the time; we too easily forget that we are part of the universe, not in charge of it.  Not only do kids participate in a community and activities, with expectations and unknowns, the kids have to be accountable for their own actions minute to minute.  They have to take risks every minute.  And when they are outside, challenging themselves in new physical experiences, they have to grow in order to be safe and have fun, in order to experience success.

We are only part of the universe
So it takes a village, and when you set that village in the context of the natural world, wow!  The results are fantastic.  We learn how to be people, we learn so much about the world we belong to and we have to sprout some independence and self-reliance really fast.

So, conferences are coming up.  Are the kids learning how to be people?  How are they getting along with others?  Are they happy?  These are the big questions we need to ask about young children.  Don't ask me about ABCs and 123s.  Okay, go ahead, but first we're going to talk about how they're doing.

Stay tuned... next week I'll tell you how we adapted our Up North Adventure for Dodge kids.

Do learn more about North House Folk School and guides, and sailors, Katya and Mark Gordon.  North House has some great classes to offer and, of course, Grand Marais can't be beat (neither can the Tavern Burger at Gunflint Tavern).