The Capable Child

I believe that children are capable.  If my teaching life has a base, that’s it.

I’ve started so many experiences with that assumption that it’s become second nature.  I’ve tried, over the past few years, to make that assumption really clear and obvious to children, parents, and colleagues.  Sometimes it’s a bit of a challenge: You think kindergarten kids can’t do that?  Let’s try!

They can’t climb and jump?  Let’s try.

They can’t paint with acrylics?  Let’s try

They can’t play with sticks?  Let’s try.

They can’t play on the ice? Let’s try.

They can’t build scale models?  Let’s try.

As a society, we place so many limitations on children, I take some mischievous delight in challenging them.

Sometimes it’s me that gets challenged.

This morning, I worked with some Kindergarten students, introducing them to clay for the first time.  I was expecting the usual progression: some exploration of the properties of the material, followed by some basic sculpture-building using the tools and techniques I had shown them.  Maybe in a few days, they would build something interesting.

Wrong.

This is what they built… in the first hour.

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So, yeah, children are capable.  Often more capable than I could have imagined.

The question that remains for me is this: how much of this capacity do we miss when we don’t allow children access to these rich materials?

I had a great conversation with a teacher of older students this morning.  We were talking about how her students, as they worked on printmaking, were having a hard time dealing with the fact that their prints didn’t always look exactly the way they had envisaged. Their discomfort at seeing art-making as a process with surprise embedded in it, prompted me to wonder how much of this anxiety is related to our cultural stigmatization of mistakes and how much is related to the product-based way we teach art.

One of the kindergarten sculptors took his piece apart three times and in the end didn’t have a final product.  He was fine with that.

The grade 6 students were upset when their prints weren’t “perfect”.

What happens in between?

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A good school

Earlier this week, I wrote about our children starting at a new school. It’s a “good school”, that’s what everyone says. About their old school, they said less flattering things; it’s a rough school, a bad school. I always felt like I was on some kind of affirmative action campaign, trying to dispel those myths because, well, we loved that school. It was a great school.

Now, the new school is a good school too but my point here is that the perceptions we have about our local schools are very often based on little more than dust in the wind, snippets of conversation and rumours.  Sometimes the perception is entirely based on standardized test scores and media reports about them – a very narrow window into a very big world.

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I spent this week working in a school that is very much like the school my children used to attend. If you asked around at swimming lessons, or on the side of the soccer field, you might hear that this school is a bad school. You might assume negative things about the students or the staff. You might avoid it for your own children.  You would be wrong, very wrong.

This is a great school. I have seen great teaching here this week and I have been so impressed by the ways that these teachers and administrators are carefully considering how to best serve their students. I haven’t heard a single disparaging comment about a child or a family and I have witnessed incredible compassion. These kids need great teachers and they have them.

We who hang out on the sides of soccer fields, holding Starbucks lattes in our hands need to think carefully about how we define good schools and how we talk about all schools. Is it really just about the test scores? Don’t we want more from schools than test scores? I know I sure do.

Maybe we should hold our opinions, like the foam on our lattes, until we’ve walked a mile in those hallways.

Oh very young one

Today while we were out and about, my son nuzzled into me, pushing my arm over his head and onto his back, demanding my closeness. He’s 7; every time he wants to be that close is a gift. I know that soon he’ll start pushing me away, he’ll start finding me embarrassing – and not just when I sing and dance in public.

He goes back to school tomorrow and so do I but, for the first time in my career, not to students of my own. There have been no cubbies to label with names, no parents to meet with, and no anxiety about the work of meeting the needs of 30 small people. Instead, I spent last week unpacking boxes, organizing a storage space, setting up a 4’x6′ cubicle, and learning about my new job. Unlike all of the years I spent in the classroom, I may actually sleep tonight.

For him, things are changing too. He starts in a new school tomorrow, away from his friends and the comfort of the teachers he’s always known. He’s been down the stairs three times tonight, unable to fall asleep. As I walked him back to bed this last time, he asked “Mommy, can you Google ways to help kids cope with starting in a new school?” My heart aches for him. I know how the system works, how hard it is to make friends sometimes, how slow things are to change. I want him to walk into a transformed school: experiential, experimental, expressive – I know that’s not what he’s getting. There will be too many worksheets and too much time in a desk. There won’t be enough Art or enough time spent outside.  He’s creative and kind, sensitive and imaginative, insightful and curious. Schools can be tough places for kids like him. They can be tough places for lots of kids.  We need to do better because, frankly, we know better.

I will catch my breath as he gets on the bus in the morning. I will mutter a prayer under my breath and wave goodbye. I know, in my teacher way, that he will probably be fine but, oh very young one, how I wish for something better than fine for you. I promise that I’ll keep working on it.

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