What Educated People Do
26 January 2022 | 2:37 pm

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Listening to students' thoughts is a good way to teach. And that very process of teaching is a research process as well. ~Eleanor Duckworth

The reason that I've never considered giving up "circle time" in preschool is that I approach a preschool classroom as a living, breathing self-governing society and, for me, it is essential that we take time, every day to talk together, and listen together, about the things that are important to us as a community.

One day, Amanda told the assembled "us" that she was afraid of the handful of boys who played superheroes on the playground. The boys, and especially one avid superhero named Orlando, argued that they were not bad guys; they were good guys and good guys protect people. Other children joined Amanda, expressing why they did not, despite their declared good intentions, feel safe around the boys. Others sided with Orlando. Most, however, seemed to be trying to find some sort of middle ground. It was a long, often emotional community discussion, one that did not end in any sort of immediate resolution.

There was a time when I would have tried to steer the conversation toward an "answer" of some sort, a compromise that we could formulate into a rule or agreement about how we would treat one another. Instead, I role modeled listening. The way I did that was to actually listen.

There were solutions proposed and discussed by the kids. We talked about possible rules. But since I view my my role as staying neutral with regard to the substance of their possible answers, I was free to simply listen, to understand, and to rejoice in the thinking, the talking, and the listening. 

Most of what passes for formal education comes down to children being expected to answer the questions the adults are asking. This means that most of a teacher's effort involves, in one way or another, signaling to the child what they want the child to say. Most often, this takes the form of a kind of lecture in which the person with all the answers that matter in the context of school simply tells the kids the answers, expecting that they will remember them the next time they are questioned. 

More progressive educators, or those who are not in a hurry to get through their curriculum's schedule, might take the time to guide children toward the correct answer by offering exercises of some sort that are carefully designed to allow children to discover the answer "on their own." This process may involve some superficial back-and-forth between the adult and the child, but in the end, the adult brings the child to the expected answer.

There was no immediate answer to this circle time discussion. We talked and listened and thought together for nearly an hour until we had exhausted the topic before going back to our play.

That evening as I reflected on our community conversation about superheroes, I knew that at least some of the children, and Amanda and Orlando in particular, were doing the same thing. You see, this was an important question, one that had arisen from the children themselves, a meaningful question that demanded an answer. These are the questions that we stew upon as we lie in bed after the light is out. This is the kind of question that requires understanding, unlike the random questions with pre-determined answers that adults tend to pose to children in the name of education. We don't need to think about those questions because we know that the answer already exists, and if we can't remember it, the adult will eventually tell us. But this question about superheroes, this real life question, was one that needed an answer that only the children themselves could provide, and that requires thinking.

The following day, Orlando arrived to tell me, "I'm not going to play superheroes today." When I asked why, he answered, "Because it scares Amanda."

Later, Amanda strode in wearing a homemade cape. "Today," she announced, "I'm a superhero and I'm going to protect everyone!"

Listening and talking and thinking, that is what educated people do.

******

If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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"I Don't Want My Coat! I'm Not Even Cold Ever!"
25 January 2022 | 1:29 pm

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It was cold out, but Maya didn't want to put on her coat. An adult tried to compel her, bringing her the puffy pink parka she had worn to school that morning, holding it out to her coaxingly, urging her, "You'll be too cold outside."

Our policy was that the kids got to make their own decisions about wearing their coats, the theory being that it wouldn't be the end of the world if they discovered, on their own, the natural consequence of being underdressed. When it was particularly cold, I might say something like, "It's cold out there. I'm wearing my warm coat," but otherwise the decision was theirs to make.

It was early in the school year and this parent-teacher either hadn't got the message or was heeding a care-taker's urge that was more persistent than our policy. "Just put it on, please. If you get too hot you can take it off."

Maya responded by running out the door onto the playground, unburdened by her coat. As the adult followed her, still carrying the parka, I said, "Why don't you leave the coat on a hook? Then if she gets cold she'll know where it is."

"But she will get cold."

"I know."

Reluctantly, she returned the coat to its hook and we went outside together. Moments later another parent-teacher raced past us, headed back inside. As she passed us she said, "I'm just getting Maya's coat."

I asked, "Did she ask for it?"

"No, but it's so cold," and before I could say anything else she dashed away, returning moments later with the pink parka. I watched her chase down Maya who didn't seem to be feeling any negative effects from the weather. From a distance, I watched the attempt to persuade, the refusal, and then after a few rounds of it, Maya ran off to join her friends, leaving the adult standing there, coat in hand.

Moments later another adult approached Maya. "Oh, you forgot your coat. Do you want me to get it for you?" Having been witness to the first two attempts, I didn't feel that it was an overreaction when Maya stamped her foot and shouted, "No! I don't want my coat! I'm not even cold ever!"

I felt sorry for her, but also proud. It was hard for me to imagine that she wasn't feeling the cold, but I admired how she stood up for herself, not letting the adults wear her down. That's when I saw the adult who was still holding the pink parka, her attention drawn by the shouting, headed Maya's way. I intercepted her, saying, "I'll talk to her," taking the coat.

I went to Maya who was still engaged in her battle of wills. I held her coat up and called to her, "I'm going to put your coat inside. If you want it, it will be on a hook."

Maya shouted, "I don't want it!" then ran off again to join her friends.

By now, it was clear to me that the mistake in all this was mine. I'd obviously not made myself clear to the adult community about our school's coat policy. Some time later, Maya rushed up to me with exciting news of some kind and I noticed she was now wearing her parka. Worried that yet another adult had badgered her into it, I said, "You're wearing your coat."

She replied fiercely, "Yes. I changed my own mind," then went back to her play. And indeed, that's the only way any mind has ever been changed.

******

If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Your Wish is My Command
24 January 2022 | 2:50 pm

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"Your wish is my command."

It's a phrase that originates in the Arabic folk tale Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. It's what the genii said to the boy who conjured him. It is meant as a declaration of gratitude for having been released from the prison of the lamp, one that the genii makes in earnest. He will, up to the limit of three wishes, obey the boy. 

Today, more often than not, when we use the phrase we mean it sarcastically, as a way of indicating that someone has us over a barrel. As autonomous modern humans, most of us have learned to be uncomfortable with ceding our behavior to the whims of others and to feel resentful when circumstances conspire to place us in the control of others. And even when we say or hear "Your wish is my command" spoken with the earnestness of the genii, we know that there are limits to any obedience, even if a great debt is owed.

I've written often here about the widely-accepted cultural notion that children should, at least when it comes to "important" things, obey the adults in their life. In my view, this is a dangerous thing to teach children because we know that the lessons learned in our youth have a way of carrying forward into adulthood and adults who have learned obedience are not adults who are well-equipped to make their own decisions. They tend to be people who look to others to do their thinking for them because, at the end of the day, that is what obedience is all about: it is about making another person's wish into our own command. Obedient people can be more easily made to do things against their own judgment or best interests, which makes them dangerous to themselves and others, and easy targets for bad actors.

I was surprised, therefore, to recently learn that linguists believe that the words "hear" and "obey" most likely originated as the same word. In Latin, the word obedire translates as "obey," which is the composite of ob + audire, which means to hear while facing someone. This is true for Greek, Hebrew, French, German, and Russian, as well as English.

Of course, meanings change over time and through usage, but I recognize that in my own life, hearing, and especially listening, is a kind of obedience.

As Julian Jaynes puts it: "Consider what it is to listen and understand someone speaking to us. In a certain sense we have to become the other person; or rather, we let him become part of us for a brief second. We suspend our own identities, after which we come back to ourselves and accept or reject what he has said. But that brief second of dawdling identity is the nature of understanding language; and if that language is a command, the identification of understanding becomes the obedience."

Jaynes is writing about understanding language specifically, but I think this goes for the entirety of interpersonal communication, which includes both verbal and non-verbal listening.

Not all of what we call "listening" falls into this category. Many of us, especially when we are in positions of power, as when we are adults with young children, merely perform a show of listening while we construct our response, or, as is too often the case when a child tells us a long-winded story, simply as a polite cover for the fact that we are merely waiting for them to come to an end, and lacking that, a space in which we can interrupt. But when we honestly listen, when we, as Eleanor Duckworth says, "listen with our entire self" it is an act of putting ourselves completely at the service of others.

The act of understanding another person is, however briefly, a necessary and voluntary act of obedience because (Duckworth again) ". . . we cannot assume that an experience whose meaning seems clear to us will have the same meaning for someone else."

Our profession as early childhood educators is too often wrapped up in the language and practice of adults controlling, dictating, telling, and "teaching," but the true art, the true practice of an educator is listening, to hear their wishes and make understanding them our command. 

As Mister Rogers writes, "I think the most important part about communication is the listening we do beforehand."

******

 
If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share


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