3-17-07 Gifts from a leprechaun on St. Patrick's Day. He left a tiny letter in my mailbox with clues for the children to find his gold - not the real gold, of course, because leprechaun never give that away so easily!
Each month, the Director of the Lab Schools, David Magill, shares his thoughts and ideas with our community in a column entitled On the Same Page. This month, he invited teacher Michael "Spike" Wilson to respond to Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind. Mr. Pink's book was chosen as our annual faculty and staff
summer read and it's set the theme for many of our discussions this year.
I began my career at the Lab Schools in Spike's classroom as a student teacher. Right away, Spike gave me the trust and freedom to teach his students. He encouraged me to try new things and helped me to build relationships with children and colleagues. I learned so much in those short three months. Spike has an amazing intuitive understanding of children. He gives them his patient, yet firm support and can handle the most difficult children better than any teacher I've met. These are the children he affectionately calls "rascals." His thoughtful, creative and well-planned lessons continue to inspire me. My experience with Spike as my mentor laid a strong foundation for my own career as a Lab teacher.
Lab can be an intimidating place for a new teacher. Teachers are given the great responsibility and freedom to design and implement curricula that follow best practices. We choose our own materials and structure the time children spend in our classrooms. At Lab, teachers are truly accountable for their work. Although we have grade level standards, we also have room for our teaching to be spontaneous (taking full advantage of those teachable moments) and dynamic. We can allow the curriculum to emerge from the needs and interests of our students. In turn, we give our students a great amount of responsibility and freedom. Teachers encourage children to wonder, explore, investigate, think and act for themselves. This learning doesn't stop at the classroom door. Here is just one example of the learning that happens at Lab, in one of the most unlikeliest places.
Learning Transcends the Classroom
Michael “Spike” Wilson
Recently, a disgruntled patron of the second floor boys’ bathroom began
expressing his displeasure with things in general by repeatedly putting
the two plants that thrived there into the garbage cans. Elizabeth, the
kind and efficient member of the housekeeping staff who takes such good
care of this vital retreat, lovingly rescued the plants each time our
lad disposed of them. After several weeks, even Elizabeth had had
enough of this regular exercise. With the uprooted plants in hand she
asked that they either be removed from the room or she would just leave
them in the cans the next time they landed there. The plants were
repotted once again and moved to the room next door where they receive
more light and less attention.
Left-minded thinkers would immediately ask why anyone
would put live plants in a boys’ bathroom to begin with. That is a good
question, and one that can be answered in one word, freedom.
There must be places where children have total freedom to think and act
on their own if they are to develop well-rounded cognitive skills and
the confidence to use them in a self-directed way. This of course is a
strong argument for both long periods of unobstructed learning activity
and even longer periods of unstructured play that is safe, but free
from as many adult constraints as possible. Where could a child find
more freedom than in a boys’ bathroom enriched with creative materials
like plants, artwork, and now, even toilet seat covers? There is an
honest gender distinction to be made here as boys' bathrooms have the
addition of urinals with automatic as well as manual flushing valves,
and the urinals contain pink sanitary disks that look and work like
hockey pucks. Also, the chances of encountering an adult in the boys’
bathroom in the Lower School are few. Opportunities for developing
right-minded thinking are many, and the more stimulating materials
there are, the better.
What children need most to develop their whole minds
is the freedom to explore and experiment in a natural, personal way.
This is one of the true challenges of teaching young children. Much of
the incredible growth that occurs before children begin organized
academics comes from the freedom they have to sate their curiosities
without preconceived notions and with only the expectation that their
explorations bring them joy. The success of their discoveries depends
heavily on the emotional connections they make, their abilities to
share what they’ve learned through stories, and the reactions of the
adults to whom they animatedly report their findings. These are all
right-hemisphere brain functions.
Once in Lower School, children begin to be directed in
a linear fashion, as the curriculum and learning become more
sequential, functional, and analytical. The challenge then for teachers
is to give young children the freedom and time to develop deep
understandings of concepts and firm grasps of skills in an
idiosyncratic manner. When children begin to believe that there is one right
way to do everything, they will stop using the right side of their
brains. They will simply give back in a linear fashion what they expect
adults want, and they will begin to copy whatever models have the most
attractive forms. The best artist then is the child who is able to draw
and color the most life-like horse; the best mathematician is the child
who computes numbers most quickly; the best writer has the most
correctly spelled words written in the neatest handwriting, and so on.
When a broad spectrum of approaches and results are validated and
encouraged, children will naturally use the right sides of their
brains, the sides they relied on so heavily before they entered Lower
School. Given the freedom to use their minds completely, children will
feel secure in the thinking that there is nothing they can’t learn if
the process gives them as much freedom as possible to learn in their
own styles. Children will still learn to read, and to develop
mathematical algorithms, and to write clearly, and they will use what
they have learned with a self-reliance that will motivate them as
artists, researchers, and problem solvers.
The place that offers young children the most freedom
in school is the bathroom. As a result, a trip to the bathroom for
young children is only occasionally for biological purposes. The first
and best reason to go is because adults are few and far between, and they do not linger. If you want to get away from a teacher, go.
Social concerns are the next important reason children plan a trip.
Unfortunately for them, Lower School teachers are fundamentally
suspicious, and they devise elaborate rules for the numbers and
combinations of children who may leave the class at a given time.
Children must rely on the randomness of meeting up with friends from
other classes to make a trip socially worthwhile. Still, the most
prevalent reason for a bathroom break is not knowing what to do next on
an assignment. Whether they have writer’s block or they are stuck on a
tough math problem, when a child hits an academic wall, the best choice
is to get out of the classroom and go. Luckily, for the children who spend considerable time in this safe haven, it is time well spent.
In the boys’ bathroom the lads are free to design
with all the available materials. Plant leaves, potting soil, paper
towels, toilet paper, toilet seat covers, sanitary disks, plus the
things they smuggle in, enable them to create with whimsy. The lads
enter with their heads aching from the assault of linear information
and directions, and they exit with a clarity that comes from
refreshingly high-concept creation.
No trip to the boys’ bathroom should be short. To
savor the joy of true freedom a lad needs to extend his trip as long as
possible. The challenge is to come up with a story that is persuasive
and at least biologically reasonable. A good long session in a stall is
a time when a lad is motivated to compose a well-organized story that is embellished with details and descriptions, usually of the characters he is implicating as research associates.
permeates a boys’ bathroom. There is great science as the lads watch
the pink soap plop on the floor to make larger and larger concentric
circles. There is social studies as the younger lads experience a
hierarchical social structure while waiting their turns to use the
favorite stall by the window. There is math as the lads unroll the
toilet paper to get a good estimate of how long it is. Most
importantly, these learning activities happen simultaneously,
throughout the day, creating symphony that a well-organized classroom
can only hope to approach.
Nowhere is empathy nurtured more than in
the boys’ bathroom. Women in particular wonder why, with the added
resource of urinals, some lads insist on using the floor. Ask any lad
and he will shrug his shoulders and declare earnestly, “Well, because.”
The rest he can’t explain because he feels why it is so comforting, but
it is a mystery that cannot be put into words. The empathy that lads
develop for one another is accompanied by an unspoken code of honor
that is essentially high-touch.
Play in the boys’ bathroom is unstructured
and unobstructed. There are no playground rules or adult monitors.
There are climbing structures, projectiles of all manner devised for
throwing, batting, and kicking, receptacles for targets, hiding places,
and limitless running water. A lad can look forward to as many
playtimes as he can bargain before drawing suspicion.
The search for meaning often leads a lad
to the boys’ bathroom. It is an elemental place, and a place where
status has nothing to do with material possessions or privilege. A lad
is who he is, and he must rely on his creativity, skills, and guile to
make a trip there fulfilling and meaningful. The clamor of lads
shouldering open the door and reentering the organized world of linear
thinking is a joyful noise born of the rewarding feelings that come
from a successful journey.
As a uniquely free space where there are no rewards
for left-minded thinking, a boys’ bathroom is a place where few
behaviors are linear.
As they exist, boys’ bathrooms are exemplars of essential learning
environments. When the restraints on right-minded thinking are lifted
and children enjoy the freedom to learn in ways that befit them as
individuals, they do so with confidence, self-reliance, and a sense of
personal fulfillment. The challenge for teachers is to create
environments with as much individual freedom as possible. One such
environment will always be the second floor boys’ bathroom, which for
the time being has everything needed to inspire a right-minded lad,
except potted plants.
Using a lesson from Climb Inside a Poem: Reading and Writing Poetry Across the Year (Heard and Laminack), we encouraged students to look for poetry in the most simple and ordinary places, to use a "poet's eye." Poetry is all around us and we need to only look and listen carefully to find it. It always amazes what these eight-year olds come up with. Even children who normally struggle with writing, seem so uninhibited. They love the fact that poems can be about anything and that they don't need to follow the the conventional rules of grammar. They love that they can skip lines, use all capitals, even write words upside down! Here are the places they found poetry hiding:
Poetry hides in...
my comfortable bed that is soft and fluffy like snow.
reading that shows you a picture in your heart. Reading is your imagination. Reading what you think about the most, it's what you do every day.
water that is as blue as diamonds flowing in the sky.
a flower that is pretty and pink and the leaf that’s green and the spine that you can feel.
a snowman because it shines like the moon in the sky.
skiing downhill in the snow and ice. Blinding white snow flies behind me and my brother.
grapes with the seeds drinking the juice with very much glory.
a spider web with rain like my mom’s pearl earrings.
pizza’s cheese. It can be like a monkey’s vine.
a tree, a tree full of branches like hands sticking out in the sun.
a can of nuts because a can of nuts rattles like a maraca.
a spider’s web covered with dew running down the silk strands of lace.
swimming pools, in water-filled waterslides zooming down. All’s a blur, splash! Sploosh! Out I come.
cake, cake tastes as soft as snow.
photo credit: String of Pearls by flickr member James Jordan