The Silver Lining

I have been teaching for over four decades.  That’s amazing to me because as a young girl my interests flittered from one thing to another.  I never thought I would do one thing for so long, but this one thing has brought me so much joy.  I really can’t imagine a time when I won’t be doing it, but I know that day will come. And it is approaching more quickly than I want it to.  I push that thought away, and I focus on the children.  This year, I am teaching study skills to three groups of 4th grade girls.  They’ve learned about time management, planning, organization – all those essential executive function skills.  Now it’s May.  They are tired and distracted, and so am I.  I call it PES – Plexiglass Exhaustion Syndrome.  This year has challenged us to stay focused and on task even with masks on that distort our speech and breathing and plexiglass that distorts our view and interactions.  A couple of weeks ago, I bent down and peered through a plexiglass-lined desk and said, “Girls, I am so proud of you.  I know this year has been hard learning like this.  So, for the last few weeks of school we will be doing a project on play.  You all will get to create something that shows why play is important.  It can be a game, some artwork, a persuasive essay, a brochure, a model of a playground, a video, anything you can imagine.  The girls were intrigued by the idea and asked many questions.  It took some a while to believe that I was serious.  That we were, indeed, going to study PLAY.

Behind the scenes, I was as excited as my students.  I quickly put together all the important information I wanted the girls to know about play.  I found video clips of animals playing, psychologists talking about play as a human right, and children giving TED talks on the importance that imagination and recess has on learning.  I created a wonderful slideshow to start off our project-based study of play.  I couldn’t wait for my first class. 

Tuesday came quickly, it was a beautiful warm sunny day.  I was so excited to start my presentation, but when I got into the room, the girls clamored around me begging to go outside for a five-minute recess.  I couldn’t in good conscience say no to them when the whole essence of my lesson was how important play is to learning, so they went out and rolled on the grass, hung from monkey bars, and pretended to be dragons. Our five minutes turned to fifteen by the time we got back to the classroom.  That was okay. I still had time to show most of the slideshow.  That is, I had time as long as the technology cooperated.  And of course, as these things go, the technology didn’t cooperate.  I couldn’t get the sharing screen to work to begin the presentation.  I pressed all types of buttons.  Nothing worked. The girls began to lose focus, and the room became loud.  Several of them rushed up to me asking all kinds of questions.  I put my hands up and said quietly without thinking, more to myself than to them, “I am overwhelmed.”  This is something they understood – this overwhelmed feeling – this year.  They returned to their seats.  The got a little quieter.  I asked them to go to the link that I had posted so they could watch the video individually.  This is not what I had planned.  My lesson was falling apart. I wanted it to be a group experience, but it might be able to be salvaged a little.  I sat down and continued to fiddle with the share controls.  Then one of the girls came up to me and handed me a bottle of spring water and a little packet of iced tea mix.  “Open the water.  Put in the packet of tea. Shake it up.  I do this all the time for my mother when she feels overwhelmed. It works.”  I looked up at her in wonder. “Go ahead,” she said, “You will feel better.”  So, I did.  I followed her directions and took a deep breath. I fiddled with the controls once more, and of course as luck would have it, they finally worked.  But alas, it was too late to view as a class.  The girls were all watching on their own gasping in surprise and laughing.  I had a chance to sit back, observe, and sip my mango-flavored tea.  My students were engaged in the content, commenting as they went along. Some students told me that they often get overwhelmed and that it was okay.  Everything had worked out. I thanked the student who provided the magic tea, and told her that it did, indeed, work. “I know,” she said confidently with a smile.

Play is important, but so is compassion, understanding, and empathy.  That day, the girls understood this deeply. And I began to understand also. I could have focused on all the things that went wrong with this lesson, all the content I did not get to share, all the things I should have done. Instead, I reframed those thirty minutes as the room I made to show loving kindness and compassion. Something that is in increasing short supply in our world. I told the girls that I am very lucky because my work – teaching them – is my play.  If you love the thing you do and are passionate about it, then it is play and you can do it forever.  When you play passionately, others feel your joy too – and it spreads – that is the silver lining.

This is the project the girls will be working on for the next few weeks. I’ll keep you posted!

When All Else Fails – Finger Paint!

Whenever I’m stuck in my writing, whenever I feel like I’m not sure what to write about, I look on my bookshelf, choose a title, and start reading.  Then in the quiet, after a little while, a miraculous thing happens – I begin to get ideas.  I begin writing in my head.  Sometimes there are so many ideas that I don’t know which one to focus on first. 

This happened to me last week, while I was reading Jordan Shapiro’s book, A New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World. He is such a fast thinker – going from one idea to the next, making connections at lightning speed – Greek philosophy, gaming, systems theory, divorce – they all go together in one wonderful coherent whole.  How does he do that?  He uses metaphors and makes images in readers’ minds so they remember concepts.  He brilliantly persuades us that there is nothing to fear about our children’s obsession with technology. In fact, it is a crucial tool that will continue to evolve. Throughout the book, he makes a case for viewing digital devices as beneficial rather than toxic.  He quotes Heraclitus of Ephesus who asserted that “Life is flux,” or the only thing humans can count on is that everything changes. And so for those of us who are confounded by the new technology our children are pursuing, think about that during Socrates’ time, he considered the written word as cutting-edge technology.  Socrates believed that words on the page were going to ruin peoples’ memories. We all have nostalgia for our childhoods, we all want to return home, and pursue simple pleasures.  The thing is that our children are creating their own simple pleasures and much of it revolves around technology. And that is okay – that is what makes the world go round – that is change – that is life.

In his chapter, “The New Language Arts,” Shapiro connects prehistoric cave painting, the invention of finger paint, Aristotle’s concept of the soul, and Steve Job’s realization that everything will be within reach of our fingertips. I loved this section of the book, because as an ELA Curriculum Coordinator, it made me think about teacher reading and writing in a new way.  What exactly can technology add to learning to read and write?  How is the process of writing enhanced?  What can students do with technology that engages their imagination and creativity.   I especially enjoyed reading about Ruth Faison Shaw, who invented finger paint.  Yes, a woman invented finger paint! When I did a bit more research about Shaw, I found out that we had something in common! We both worked at the Dalton School in New York City.  Ruth was there in the 1930’s, and I worked there in the 1990’s and early 2000’s – about sixty years apart.  I wish I had known about her work then, I would have scoured the archives and found out more about her.  From my small amount of recent research, I found out that before she taught at Dalton, Ruth set up a school in Rome in the 1920’s, and that’s when she got the idea for her finger paint by watching a child smear iodine on a wall.  Ruth believed that “Creative work must come from the imagination and personal experience. Your imagination, which directs your hands, will lead you to produce something individual and representative of you.” She came back to the states, taught at Dalton, and wrote a book in 1934 called Finger Painting: A Perfect Medium for Self-Expression.  (I immediately scooped up a copy and was lucky that I found one in good condition.  I am eagerly waiting for its arrival!) Shaw’s ideas on the creative process inform education for the future.  As Shapiro states, parents and teachers should view educating children with a Both/And Mindset. In the 20th century children smeared paint as a means of self-expression, and now in the 21st century – children, with a swipe of a fingertip against a screen, can also express themselves in productive and meaningful ways.

Several years ago, I wrote an article about fostering curiosity and imagination. I described how I went through the process of integrating visual arts, music, movement, and drama into curriculum for early childhood and elementary students. I truly believe that creative expression, in all forms, nurtures growing minds and helps children develop a sense of self that allows them to become independent learners and critical thinkers.  Today, I would include all the ways technology has become another tool children can access from their creative toolbox.  Instead of having a fixed mindset about the limitations of technology as a means of self-expression, let’s open it up. Let’s ask ourselves: How can coding lead to poetry? How can Scratch help tell a story?  How can Procreate make our learning visible?

This summer, I decided to give myself sometime in the Painting Playground.  I have created space in my week where I can experiment with paper, pencils and paint. The emphasis is on play not product. This week, I painted with my fingers to return to the process of creating on the page. Then I added some designs with black markers.  They are not perfect works of art, rather they are representations of playing on the page.  I was so focused while doing this work, I dove in and was in the flow for a good hour and half: I made “mistakes,” ripped up paper, spilled water, got my fingertips dirty. It was the most self-fulfilling activity I did all week.  I cannot wait to return!

If you are interested in finding out more about finger painting, try this book by Iris Scott – Finger Painting Weekend Workshop: A Beginner’s Guide to Creating Brush-Free.