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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Snow Shoveling, Card Making, and School Teaching

What do those 3 topics have to do with one another? Well, I just figured it out this morning while shoveling snow for 3 hours straight. Besides the fact that I love doing all 3 of the activities in the title of this post, I discovered a far more profound commonality that just may be the core of my basic philosophy of life. Bet you did not know shoveling was such a mentally stimulating activity!

I love to shovel. I grew up in Eastern Montana and the winters were ferocious in the 60's when I lived there. For some reason I developed a love of shoveling snow. There is something that really clears the cobwebs from your mind when you are out in 15 degree weather, crisp air, with snow falling all around while physically working up a sweat. Since moving to SE WA in the mid-70's I rarely get a chance to really indulge in this kind of fun. I work full time and we just don't often get much snow. Since my last day of school was Thursday and snow has been falling almost constantly since then, I am getting a real work out.

This morning after 3 straight hours of shoveling, my husband drove up with the tractor (we live out in the country) and began hauling away "my" snow. I was incredulous that he did this without asking. He just started leveling the driveway and hauling bucket loads. After I got over my shock I waved him down to stop messing with my snow. In true male fashion, he was just trying to help. After all, the goal was snow removal, was it not? Nope, not for me. I know our tractor can do in minutes what will take me hours and hours to do, but I want to do it myself. There is huge satisfaction in it and I get lots of thinking done with headphones with Christmas music playing as I shovel and shovel and shovel. It is a combination of physical sensations with the weather and the work, as well as satisfaction of seeing each shovel full of snow placed where I want it. This may make me seem like a simpleton who is very easily amused and should be working in some factory line doing the same thing over and over and if so, well---

The connection to cardmaking? With what I have put into my craft room and supplies I could probably buy a Hallmark store full of cards. Why would I go to so much work and effort? Why not just buy them and save all that work, planning, and organizing? Why not just get it done the most efficient way? Why not just buy the cards and for that matter, why not use the tractor in the driveway? If you haven't figure it out yet, give me just a bit more of your time.

Truly, I am an organized person who enjoys efficiency when that is the goal or when I really don't want to spend lots of time and energy on something that doesn't matter that much to me or that simply has to be done with time constraints.

When I was growing up, the neighbors had no dishwasher and I remember asking if I could wash their dishes after I had meals with them. The kids in the family, who hated this chore, thought I was crazy, but I loved talking to the mom as we washed dishes together. I loved the warm water, playing in the suds, getting the dishes all shiny, and just the feeling of slowly and methodically doing something while enjoying the peacefulness of the activity.

What does this all have to do with my teaching in a juvenile jail? I figured that out this morning. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE being able to take my time and really immersing myself in activities with the kids to the point that we are simply loving the learning without worrying about anything else. We do not grade anything. Yes, we correct some things, but we keep no grades at all and for these children who have experienced little but school failure and red pen marks, it is a very freeing thing to learn simply because we enjoy the process. We are not frantically trying to make these children into products who can pass standardized tests for the purpose of keeping a district's percentages in a certain range. It is not about scores, grades, tests, money, or keeping people at the top happy. It is about learning. Learning for the pure joy of learning.

This week we read Jack London's "To Build a Fire". It is a story that cannot be rushed. It must be savored. You must allow yourself to be with the man and his dog to truly appreciate it. You could have heard a pin drop and seen the children shiver when the temperature in the story dropped to lower than 75 degrees below zero. We had no goal but to enjoy the story. We stopped every so often and talked about our own experiences with snow, cold, fear, and dogs in the winter. I heard audible sighs when it became clear how the story would end. I saw looks in faces who had been transported by a story, maybe for the first time. Many of my children are very poor readers and reading has been presented to many of them as a goal in order to pass tests and to earn credits. For many of them, being asked to open a book is a traumatic experience because they feel forced to produce. It is a very new concept for some of them that reading takes you places and gives richness to their lives. If I accomplish nothing else there but helping them get a taste of this, I have done my job.

Last week we did the same thing with O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi". They then talked about what they would sacrifice for someone they loved. When we started, these kids with criminal histories, gang membership, behavioral disorders, mental health problems, and even mental retardation were not sure that a story written in 1906 was worth their time. The words looked big to them and certainly the language was not words they were familiar with, but before long they were immersed. The characters, James and Della, became real to them. Again I saw that look in the eyes of several as if a miracle had been opened up for them. As risky as it was in this tough peer group, several asked whether we could do some more "old-school" stories.

In my classroom, we do lots of art. We made Christmas gifts and cards and the most beautiful paper snowflakes you have ever seen. We decorated a tree. We listen to Christmas music and we learned the parts of a story by watching the animated Grinch cartoon and figuring out how the characters were developed and the parts of the plot that built to a climax and then a resolution. How could learning be this much fun? I get asked by kids all the time if this is "real school" and if so, can they stay and go to school in our classroom for the rest of the year.

Many schools these days no longer have time for exchanging Valentine's, singing Rudolph, being read to, having recess, or doing any types of activities that are not directly related to THE TEST! Some teachers are forbidden from decorating candles for gifts, painting Christmas ornaments for the pure joy, or from responding to restlessness by taking the whole class out for a game of tag. It is all about the most efficient way to get kids to pass tests, which many of the students don't even understand the relevance of. It appears that Piaget's discoveries about how children learn and how things need to be developmentally appropriate have been forgotten in the race to plug those facts into the little brains.

For me something is lost when we become about making everything look or perform the most efficient way in the shortest order possible. When we take the pleasure out and it becomes all business, only then do some believe academic time is being used properly. If there is too much laughing and smiling going on there must be just playing and wasting time going on.
When the goal is the end result we look at and the joy of getting there is not longer considered, I believe we have lost something very important as we indoctrinate children into the adult rat race from the moment they hit pre-school.

I have been watching old Walton episodes and I am reminded that much of character is built when doing things we enjoy or that make us feel creative as well as competent. Chopping wood can be healing and stringing popcorn for a tree can be educational. Social skills can be learned as we do these activities together. Our society has seemed to have forgotten that we are human beings and we do not have to spend every moment as human doings. Or that the "doing" can be pleasurable and not necessarily all about the best results in the most pressured amount of time possible.

I long for the days of Valentine exchanges, Teddy Bear picnics, classroom singing and Christmas pageants, and children being read to with no other goal but to impart a joy for learning for all children. It is sad that juvenile jail is one of the few places some kids can get this experience. What a wonder to have children look up and say "Isn't this just cozy and peaceful in here, teacher?"

So, I will continue to spend hours making hand made cards, not for the result, but for the process. I will continue to shovel and the tractor had better stay away. And---I will continue to teach the whole child for the pure joy of learning and not for numbers on a bubble test form.

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