Changeling Children

“In the morning they came up out of the ravine and took to the road again. He’d carved the boy a flute from a piece of roadside cane and he took it from his coat and gave it to him. The boy took it wordlessly. After a while he fell back and after a while the man could hear him playing. A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin. The man turned and looked back at him. He was lost in concentration. The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a traveling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves.”

~ Cormac McCarthy, The Road ~

Have you read The Road, by Cormac McCarthy?

I read it when I was on maternity leave.  I read most of it in the middle of the night, balancing a tiny screen while nursing a tiny baby, riveted awake by McCarthy’s prose and my own terror.  It is a terrifying, post-apocalyptic read – not usually my thing, really.  I’m not even sure why I started reading it but it was so good, so absurdly well-written, and so compelling that once I got started, I couldn’t stop.

I find myself coming back to The Road again and again, it’s become one of those touchstone books for me.

I think of it especially when I find myself somewhere desolate: a big city in November, an empty field in the middle of winter, early spring when the snow is half-melted and dirty.

This afternoon I had a Road moment.

The greenspace at the back of our school, which I’ve been writing about all year, has been devoured.  We went back there this afternoon and it was clear that some giant piece of machinery had eaten it.  All that was left were mounds of snow and dirty dead grass, topped with broken tree limbs and masses of pointy twigs.  It was sad and frustrating and ugly and bleak.  I was devastated.

piles of snow and sticks, grey sky

But then I noticed the kids.  They climbed over the mounds of snow, they pulled out the sticks and carried the broken branches.  They lay down in the snow and looked at the sky.  They didn’t say anything.

kneeling girl holding a branch next to a pile of snow

They didn’t seem at all phased by the change in the landscape; they just accepted it and moved on.  Not a single child asked what had happened.  Maybe they figured it out because of the tracks in the snow.  Maybe they assumed that their green space was still intact, hidden under the snow.  I was so awed by their silence that I didn’t feel right asking them; it felt intrusive.  It had become a formless space, somewhere that they could approach as though new.  While I was busy grieving, they were exploring – venturing bravely into a new world.

boy kneeling on snow pile, girl walking away from camera

Ice Fishing and Footprints

I think I need to rename this blog… maybe it should be called “teaching on the verge… outside” because it seems that this year, especially, so much of what I’m noticing is happening outside.  I think that this has a lot to do with the greenbelt strip we have at the edge of our playground which offers so many more possibilities for learning than a traditional playground ever could.

We recently had a day of heavy rain which melted all of our snow.  This was followed by a drop in temperatures and a good dump of snow.  The snow stuck to the ice which had formed on all of the branches, creating a beautiful effect that puts every branch into stark relief against the blue sky.  The denuded trees looked sparkly and crisp and the evergreens were heavy with layers of snow and ice.  FI asked if the trees had grown; everything looked fuller and more substantial.  According to the calendar it’s still fall… maybe we need a new calendar!

snow covered trees seen from below

It is like walking into a winter wonderland.

snow covered branch, sun and clouds

LH was very interested in the way her feet crunched through the snow and the frozen slush underneath, leaving very defined footprints.  She took me to see a large footprint that she thought belonged to a monster.

footprint in snow

Then she created a footprint of her own which she told me came from a big dog.

a child-created footprint in the snow.

LH has an amazing imagination so this discussion of footprints quickly swerved in a different direction as a group of students came to tell us about the chipmunk they had just seen.  In response, LH said: “At my grandma’s I saw 18 chipmunks, 18 dancing chipmunks, and they did cartwheels and skated on the ice.”  She then decided that she should camouflage herself, like animals do.

child hiding in/camouflaged by cedar trees

As LH was hiding in the branches, I noticed two boys playing on the ice in a nearby ditch. I was concerned because the ice had weakened during the rain so I went over to show them that it wasn’t safe to stand on.  I cracked a hole in the ice with my boots and the children moved back on to the bank.  They were undeterred, however, and changed their game.  Now, they were ice fishers!  They found sticks and vines on the ground and began using them as fishing rods.  One of the boys, BH, often engages in fishing-play.  He rallied the others to fish through the hole in the ice.  He told them: “You have to be quiet so the fish don’t get scared.”  LH joined them and told us: “I ate fish last night and it was real: I put ketchup on it.” Clearly, only the realest fish needs ketchup!

children pretending to ice fish

We are the ice police.

We have had ice before today; thin sheets on shallow puddles.  Today was the first day that we had real ice.  The kind you have to stomp on to get it to break, the kind that beckons you out to the middle of foot-deep puddle/ponds to see how many jumps it will take to break through.  This was serious ice.

There is something about ice that just begs children (and adults, I confess) to break it – such a satisfying crunch and the interplay between the solid layer on top that conceals the liquid beneath.  It leaves you wanting more and more.  Being the committed inquiry-based, child-led teacher that I am, all of this ice leaves me in a pickle.  I can’t let them walk out into the middle of the puddle/pond because I know that eventually they will break through and find themselves knee-deep in cold, icy water.  But, at the same time, I don’t want to entirely deprive them of the ice-breaking pleasure that they so crave.

Arg! What to do?

So we become the ice police.  We chase them away from the deeper spots and we let them go to town on the shallow puddles and ditches.  Sometimes, when I’m watching them, I stomp down with my own heel… just to hear the crunch.

child breaking ice with a stick

Where does inquiry come from?

This week I came outside and was immediately drawn to what “N” was doing.  I could hear him before I could see him.  He had discovered that if he took a chunk of ice and hit it hard against the metal pole, that not only would it make a sound but that the sound would sustain for several seconds afterwards.  He has a quizzical look on his face as he tried it again and again.  I’m translating our conversation from French so I apologize for any awkwardness in the phrasing.

“N”: bing…

ECE: It continues (the sound) for a long time.

“N” and friends “I” and “B”: bing, bing, bing, bing.

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ECE: It’s like church bells.

Me: How long will it last, “N”, if you hit it and leave it alone?  Can you count?

“I” leans against the pole and “N” hits it again.

Me: Oh, but is it different when “I” doesn’t lean against the pole?

We went through a few trials of “N” hitting the pole and “I” touching it before we got one when the sound dispersed on its own.  I wondered if “I” was interested in the feeling of the vibration.

Me: 1 – 2 – 3….

“N”: Four… four seconds!

At this point, “B” and “I” join in again hitting the pole with their own chunks of ice.  Bing, bing, bing…

Me: Do you think the sound will be shorter when “B” is touching it?  Why would the sound be shorter when someone touches the pole?

“N”: Because it’s not hard.

Me: Because it’s not hard if someone is touching it? If someone touches the pole and the sound it shorter – why is that?

“N”: (with that quizzical look) Because the ice is harder.

Me: The ice is harder?

ECE: Look “I” – touch the pole, put your hand here.

“N” (speaking to “I” and taking his hand to place it on the pole): You do like this (hand on the pole), I do like this (hitting the pole).

Bing, bing, bing…

Me: Does the sound last longer when no one is touching it?

“N”: 1 – 2… two.

Me: Just two when someone’s touching?  And why is that? Why doesn’t the sound last as long when someone’s touching it?

“N”: bing, bing, bing

ECE (placing her hand on the pole and moving in closer to “N”): What happens to the sound when “I” touches the pole? Why doesn’t it last as long?

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“N”: The hands stop the sound from moving.

Me: The hands stop the sound from moving… wow.

ECE: Wow…

This was an amazing moment.  We knew that “N” could get there, that if he had enough time to puzzle it out he could come up with a hypothesis that fit with his observations, both auditory and tactile.  His initial hypotheses that the ice and the pole became harder didn’t seem to satisfy him any more than they satisfied us.  We’ve had many opportunities for sound-making outside with found-sound instruments attached to our fence (pots, pans, metal and wood pieces, etc…) but this is the first time I’ve observed that experimentation leading to meaty inquiry questions.

Where will we go with this?  We’re going to show this video to the whole class this week and present them with more opportunities to play with sounds and vibrations.  While we usually teach our own music in the classroom with singing and small rhythm instruments, I think that this new thread will prompt us to visit the music room so that the students can experience bigger and more vibratory instruments.   I can’t wait!  Bring on the noise!