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The Wonder of the Five-Year Old Mind

“Most of us can look back to particular teachers who inspired us and changed our lives. These teachers excelled and reached us, but they did this in spite of the basic culture and mindset of public education. There are significant problems with that culture, and I don’t see nearly enough improvements. In many systems, the problems are getting worse. This is true just about everywhere.”—Sir Ken Robinson, Ph. D.

I had a little boy on Thursday that was desperate to say thank you. In kindergarten, this is a magical time of year. About a week or so after Parent-Teacher interviews, I usually start my first reading groups, handing out new books for my emergent readers. To say that they are excited is an understatement. It is honestly magical (in a July 1st kind of way, complete with fireworks) to watch their faces when I break it to them that they will have their very first book sent home that very day. There are usually gasps of delight. And I usually see them looking at one another with wonder and amazement.

Is there anything more rewarding to a teacher than the view to sheer joy and delight on a child’s face?

The day I passed out books was also the day that our Literacy Coach came to observe. She had noticed that one emergent reader was missing a canvas reader’s bag to store his book and reading log inside, and she had made a special stop on the way home Wednesday so as to get a special bag for one little fellow. She told me that he deserved to have the same as everyone else, and besides: she did not want him to feel left out. What an amazingly caring lady this woman is.

That little boy? Well, he noticed that the effort had been made on his behalf, and at the end of the day, he came to me and said, “Who got that bag for me?”
I told him who, and we both decided it would be a good idea to seek out Mrs. Turner and say a special thank you to her, now that the excitement factor had come down a notch, enough for him to attend to business.

We walked upstairs to find her.

And as I walked the few short steps with this busy little boy’s hand in mine, I was struck by the fact that not only was he excited that he was getting a book and book bag to take home for homework, he was deeply thankful for the privilege that was his in being enabled this wonder.

It is a wonder still for me in the recalling his little face. In recalling all their faces as I watch them learn.

I still love to watch their eyes as I read a book to them that makes them laugh.
I still love to watch their expressions as they connect with the characters and story, often laughing uninhibitedly.
I still love to watch them working diligently over a story they have created of their very own, watching them laboriously sounding out the words that they alone feel are best suited to represent their thoughts.

Yes, I still get a feeling of amazement from watching them learn what we traditionally call school.

But in my classroom, I feel I have such an exquisite privilege. I also get to watch them direct their own learning through play and inquiry. I watch them create and build and form and construct. I watch them invent and discover and imagine and wonder. And all the while I wonder: is this school?

Can this REALLY be school?

There is nothing quite like an early years classroom to remind one of what school could be like if it were founded on the principals of creativity and innovation.

What are those problems with culture in public education, particularly in the years that follow primary learning? Why does the passion fizzle? Why do kids end up hating school, thinking they are dumb? Thinking school is a waste of time?

Robinson (2009) would account for three critical areas of concern that contribute to this phenomena, those being: the preoccupation of our educational leadership with certain sorts of academic ability, the hierarchy of subjects as presented by that same leadership and the growing reliance of this very same leadership on standardized assessment of these privileged areas so as to account for learning.

Robinson (2009) says the fact that schooling is primarily concerned with words and numbers, privileging these two areas as being the utmost of importance in human intelligence, is true cause for concern. What of other aspects of human intelligence? And why is it that the maths and science, along with language skills, are placed at the head of a hierarchical order of important things students must know? Are there not other aspects to being human that weigh in as equally important? And even more ludicrous: why must we assess students to the brink of sending them into fits of panic and anxiety so as to see how well they do in these hand-selected areas of interest? Placing them on a scale as to their performance in regards to two areas of human development: our literacy and numeracy abilities?

I have been writing for over a year about the importance of care in education, doing so primarily because I, like Robinson and others concerned with the state of education, believe that the way school systems have been arranged and evolved run contrary to the human spirit. We are relational beings, in need of connection. We crave response and touch. We want to be with people. But we are also creative beings who long for something more than we have been offered. We desire to learn in the safety of an environment where we are cared for enough to push the boundaries of our own minds.

What schools need is transformation.

But how is this to be done?

First, it starts with educators challenging views about schooling and learning that narrow and undermine the human capacity for connection, while not overlooking in the resistance the very integral aspects of brain development accomplished through play, wonder, creativity and imagination.

Truly, I feel it starts with investigating primary classrooms and asking whether the very inquiry-based learning projects we see underway in these classrooms could not be adapted and modified so as to uniquely suit each grade level to follow. Matching students with areas of learning that fit their interests and learning styles so as to maximize their opportunities.

You know, I ask my students all the time if they are excited for days off from school. We have one coming up next week. Invariably, the answer I get is no. Is this because I am such an awesome teacher! Ha! I wish. No, it is rather because these children know that their learning is up to them. They are integral to the success of their day. I am only there to guide them, enable them, assist. It is their job to make the school day worthwhile.

They intuitively know this. It is just the way a five year-old brain was made to work.

I think that is why they love school. Because they still have some leverage in terms of how and what they learn.

May that always be the case.

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