I should start this post by lamenting my lack of posts. My duties are derelict and I’m feeling the loss of time to reflect in this more concrete way, to share those reflections with you, and to get your feedback. I miss it. But the nature of this consulting work seems to be frenetic and by design a bit fragmented. Today I’m here, tomorrow I’m somewhere else completely. The threads just don’t draw themselves together very often.
But there is one that I keep revisiting in my conversations with teachers. It happened again yesterday, prompting me to dig some photos out of my library and write this. Again and again as I work with teachers and their students, we come back to the theme of patience and the lack of it in our schools and, more broadly, in our culture. More and more I hear teachers lamenting this impatience and wondering at the impact it has on teaching and learning. What does it do to children?
Yesterday, I sat in conversation with a group of grade 4-6 teachers (not my usual Kindergarten gang) and we talked about assessment. All of them told stories of children they had taught as well as their own children whose development didn’t follow the accepted curve but who wound up having successful lives. They expressed their frustration with the assessment framework we currently have which demands that they assess children based on graded standards instead of assessing their progress as individuals. They are frustrated by having to apply letter grades that don’t capture the complexity of a child’s learning and that create (whether intentionally or not) a hierarchy among children, causing them and their parents to compare their grades and creating a situation where parents ignore the comments that may contextualized a grade in favour of attention to the grade itself. If that’s not a hidden curriculum then I don’t know what is!
What would be possible if we walked back a little? If we took the long view of childhood instead of being so focused on the next benchmark, the next milestone, the next report card? What would we see?
I was visiting a school recently, and Z approached me on the playground with two rocks, both pink quartz.
“This is a leech rock.” she said. “Oh,” I replied, “why is it a leech rock?”
“Because it’s red.” she responded.
“Are leeches red?” I wondered.
“No, they’re grey and black but they eat blood and that’s red. This rock is grey and red, that’s why it’s a leech rock.”
And she skipped off, seemingly content with our exchange.
A few weeks later, I was back at Zs school, once again outside.
Z approached me again to show me what she’d been doing in the gravel.
“I wrote an F and an A, that makes FA.”
I asked her what else she could write with her feet and instead she picked up a larger rock and started writing in the softer sand. She wrote her name.
I told her that my little girl’s name is just one letter different from her name – an M instead of a Z. Z was able to ‘erase’ her Z and replace it with an M.
Another child joined us and said that her name also started with an M.
I wondered if her name was also one letter different from my daughter’s name but she explained that it was spelled differently and spelled it for us.
Z wrote her classmates name in the sand, using a lowercase a.
Her classmate was confused because she thought that Z had written it wrong, expecting an uppercase A instead. She said: “That’s not my name. My name has an A and an A is like this.” She put her index fingers together to show a triangle shape.
This led to a great conversation about the different ways of writing letters.
As I look back on this conversation and the great literacy and social learning that came out of it, I wonder about the alternatives. I wonder about that first interaction with Z, the one where she showed me the “leech rock.” What if, instead of just commenting on the rock, I had said: “What letter does leech start with?” or “Does leech start with an uppercase L or a lowercase l?” What would the impact have been on Z’s understanding and interest in writing and language. How would that have changed our relationship? What would we have gained? What would we have lost? Would Z ever have sought me out again to share something special?
In Kindergarten we have the privilege of time, of space, of patience. In many grades, teachers don’t feel that they do. I wonder about the impact of that and not just on learning. I wonder about what it does to our spirits when we feel we can’t relate to children in the ways that serve them best. I wonder if some of the cynicism we see in teaching isn’t related to exactly this lack of patience, this focus (or perceived focus) on curriculum and results ahead of relationships and trust and I’m reminded of the power each of us has to make a difference for kids, one little rock at a time.