"Let me keep my mind on what matters
Which is mostly standing still
And learning to be astonished"

~ Mary Oliver ~

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Telling Tales IN Class: Life as Curriculum

Telling Tales IN Class: Life as Curriculum        by Ada Glustein

The children rush in after recess.
“Mandeep stole my snack!”
“Jimmy wouldn’t play with me!”
“Guess what?  Ruby is my best friend!”
We gather in a circle, sitting at the carpet for our daily “Class Temperature,” the opportunity for my students to tell the stories of the playground.
“I’m a zero,” pouts Michael.
“Tell us what happened.  Take your time.”
Michael starts the story circle.  What comes pouring out is what really matters -- stories of inclusion and exclusion, stories of love and betrayal, stories of triumph, and stories of defeat. 
“All the guys went out to play soccer and when I got there, nobody let me play.”

It is up to me as the teacher to discern what the child is telling and asking, to recognize the facts and the feelings, to honour the child’s voice, to hear the values that have come into question today.  It is up to me to model for the other listeners how to show interest, how to inquire respectfully, how to restate articulately what I hear is so important to this child, how to listen deeply to the meaning beneath the words.
“So, you went out at recess with everyone and you planned to play soccer with all the guys, but they wouldn’t let you join them.”
“Yeah, Jimmy told everybody not to let me play.”
“It sounds like this made you feel left out and pretty sad.”
“Are there other people here who have ever felt left out?”
There are nods and many voices wanting to tell that story.
“What happened then?”
“Jimmy started laughing and then Raymond, too, and Taka.”
The attention in the circle shifts quickly to those three soccer players.  They each tell their versions of the story.  I make sure that they are not interrupted till they’ve all had their chance to talk.  I invite questions from the class for Michael.  I invite questions for the soccer players. 

As the details become apparent, the story takes its shape, and I, as the teacher, wonder aloud, sometimes provide vocabulary, always confirm facts with the tellers, and draw out the dilemmas of Michael’s experience, his wanting to fit in and not knowing how, and the dilemmas of the three players who wish to enlist only those people with “good” soccer skills.

We hear the current ending of the experience, but look for other possibilities.  Was this fair?  Why or why not?  What else could Michael have said or done?  What else could Jimmy have chosen to say?  What would be the most respectful way to say that?  Is there something that the bystanders could have done?  Why might that be important?  Voices of other class members are invited.  Lots of brainstorming and sharing takes place.

When this process of Class Temperature becomes a daily practice, students who at first may have difficulty listening to others or showing care for others, begin to exhibit changes over time.  They start to realize that if they come across a difficult situation, their story will also be valued; their community will be there to understand and to share the possibilities for alternate endings. 

Many children share positive stories, of course.  Each day many children state their temperature as a ten.  They tell about sharing their snack with a friend, or being asked to join a team.  They excitedly share the wonder they experienced that day as they watched a caterpillar munching on a leaf.  On any given day, many seem content with life as it is.  Yet others appear troubled, but don’t acknowledge the difficult feelings – I see a frown or a restless fidget, and we all must call upon our patience to wait.  Children’s feelings of safety and comfort vary from person to person, and as the teacher, I need to notice that and to cultivate a nurturing environment that will eventually allow the seeds of those silent ones to germinate, sprout, and be able to tell their stories, too.

You may wonder at the time taken for deeply exploring individual children’s dilemmas.   Never once have I seen an official recommendation to incorporate such a time into my daily school calendar.  I know that many will wonder what important curricular item it is that I leave out.  Am I not encroaching on valuable learning time?  Won’t children get behind in their work? 

My experience tells me that when I leave the stories of the playground out on the playground, children are less able to focus on the curricular demands in class, that their unresolved conflicts and feelings interfere with the “work”.   And, added to that, children come to believe that what matters most to them doesn’t count in the classroom.  That they don’t count.

It is the teacher’s job to honour the stuff of the children’s stories, to know that the reality of the playground is also part of the of the classroom reality.  These stories are real life – they have meaning – they matter.  And they have lessons that provide lifelong skills and deepening understanding of one another.  What lessons could possibly be more important than these?

As teachers we have been pushed far too often and far too long to deal with a very narrow spectrum of skills in the classroom, to put our attention solely on core subject areas, the traditional 3 R’s.  We have been pushed to separate the mind and heart.  Social-emotional domains have been shoved down under, except perhaps for an insistence upon “appropriate behaviour”.  Along with the creative arts of dance, music, drama and the visual arts, spending time on children’s personal stories can be seen as a frill, only when there’s time, only when the “work” is done. 

But adventures on the playground, if we allow them, can be the grist for a very richly integrated curriculum.  We can learn from our own class stories a great deal about social awareness, social responsibility, problem solving, self-awareness, how to recognize and work with our feelings, how to get along with others in our community, and how to honour differences.  If we are creative, we can connect all these social-emotional attitudes and skills to curriculum in other subject areas.  For instance, let’s look at oral language development.  Children will gain skill in thinking and presenting their ideas; they will learn this naturally, through the teacher’s and other students’ questions; they will learn about the importance of details, to enable the listeners to understand; when they explain what happened in the school yard, they will need to share a clear and understandable plot line, a beginning, middle and end.  Children can use art, drama and dance to express and represent the happenings and the feelings that arise on the playground.  They can write their own story, or interview another child and write that child’s story.  They can create a written script to be read as readers’ theatre or to be acted out, maybe with a choice of possible solutions and endings.  Our Class Temperature time can embody stories of democracy, studies of what it really means for every citizen to have a voice.  We can develop alternatives and vote on the best way to solve a particular problem.  We can learn to back up our choices with facts and evidence. 

We need to let children see and feel that school is part of real life.  We need to let real life into the classroom.  Such a simple structure incorporated into the teaching day can create a close-knit classroom community, a caring and safe community, a community where children can thrive in their learning.  This is living the curriculum.  This is life as curriculum.  

This piece won the Federation of B.C. Writers award for creative non-fiction in their Literary Writes contest, August 31, 2013.