When I want your feed-back …

ABCDF Symbol

“I thought this was going to be my favorite class.  Boy, was I wrong.”

Such was the comment I received on a course evaluation a few years ago.  I am accustomed to receiving quite favorable evaluations from my students over the years, but have developed a habit, not entirely unknown among instructors, to focus on the less-than-positive comments students write on these documents.  I actually plan very carefully for the time to unseal the envelope and read through them:  never at the start of the day, lest you ruin it; always in solitude; and when nothing else must be accomplished, to avoid the distraction that any negative  comments will no doubt deliver.

This one, while not surprising, really stung.  I carried it around for many days after reading it .  This student had been upset with the requirements for a major assignment in the course and had acted out in class during a discussion.  A couple of weeks later she stopped coming to class, and then failed the course (only to re-take it in a subsequent semester with another instructor).

Many of my instructor colleagues and I have joked about the impact of student evaluations.  While meant to assist us in improving our instructional delivery, and while we claim we want to learn from them and welcome “honest” and “constructive” feed-back, we are struck by the impact of the negative comments, even if they comprise  a fraction of a per cent of the whole.  After all, we have spent hours planning the course, understanding adult learning, working to individualize instruction, make the learning experience an engaged partnership — only to agonize over the occasional comment that suggests we have not, even after all these years, nailed down the teaching thing in an air-tight, error-free, everybody-had-a-stellar-experience manner.  (The actual experience of being evaluated is always a bit humbling, as well:  we must read from a script to our students before they begin the evaluation, and vacate the room while they complete the document, which means, of course, that we sit forlornly in the hallway, wringing our hands, sweating, peering at the ceiling, pretending to be very involved in a reading task, and praying to the Evaluation Gods that they are writing nice things about us.)

This experience was brought to mind after reading Rex W.  Huppke’s column in the February 17, 2014 Chicago Tribune.  His intriguing review of the forthcoming book,  Thanks for the Feedback:  The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well,” by Harvard lecturers Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, offers all of us a valuable nudge toward self-reflection.

Feedback Silhouette

Reading this review helped me consider the function of feed-back in both my professional and my personal life.  I had to read through it a few times, mainly to wrestle myself away from all the focus I have placed on delivering feed-back effectively to others, since this is a major part of what I do as an instructor an in my position in my own department.  I have prided myself on working very hard to offer what I hope to be clear, honest, and concrete feedback as an instructor and someone who supervises part-time instructors and full-time staff.  Taking great pains to be clear but caring, diplomatic, provide examples, and encourage the recipient’s response are all components I’ve tried to hone over the years, and for which I’ve received, well, positive feed-back.

My students receive feed-back on their written assignments, on their comments during class discussions, on oral presentations, on group projects, and on their interactions with children during field experiences in teacher preparation.  I have often talked to them about the rather difficult role of a student, which by definition is an individual who is in constant receipt of some sort of feed-back.   That can get pretty exhausting.  (Remember?)

So my focus has been how I can be a better feed-back giver.

But the focus of Stone and Heen’s book is on how to be a better feed-back recipient.  In a Q and A on their web site, they emphasize the essential value in the feed-back process.  They claim that  the real power in this process is in the ear of the recipient.  Their research, which has focused on cognitive and emotional factors involved in feed-back, suggests that the value and effectiveness of feed-back is in the ability of the recipient to consider it.

Simon_Cowell

They go on to say that our natural, dual human tendencies to  grow and learn and the desire to  feel appreciated “as we are now,” really run the show in the feed-back process.  They suggest that the way to flip this process  is to stop and consider the feed-back (particularly negative or confusing comments ) and take a closer look, to tease out the underlying message.  Stone and Heen offer up three potential triggers in feed-back that can block our ability to learn from it: truth triggers (the message just doesn’t make sense or fit with the task being evaluated); relationship triggers (our connection with the person delivering the feed-back is impacting the message); and identity triggers (the message threatens our own self of self).

Rejected Sign

Stone and Heen remind us that feed-back is not confined to the workplace — it is part of our personal lives as well, in our family connections, love relationships, and friendships.  The perspective  that feed-back is a constant, daily part of our lives lends credence to the suggestion to focus energy on how to receive it and use it effectively.  Again — in my work as a college instructor, I have spent a great deal of time being an effective feed-back giver.  I construct assignment rubrics so that my expectations are clear.  I have developed a system in which students are required to offer feed-back to each other following oral presentations, so that they begin building skills in giving and receiving constructive criticism; in  offering relevant comments on their written assignments; and in carefully planned tips for their activities and interactions in their field work with young children.

Students in our field experience courses are evaluated at the mid-term point in the semester.  One statement in the evaluation expresses the expectation that the student is able to “accept feed-back with maturity.”  While this is a typical standard for future teachers, it is likely easier said than done.   Self-preservation is a powerful force in human development, and “Thanks for the Feedback” makes the point in its discussion of the myriad ways we experience it in our lives.  Most of us have not grown up learning how to accept feed-back from others — it just isn’t a part of our upbringing.  It comes up more often in the workplace than in any other aspect of our lives.

So if Stone and Heen are right, I should probably spend a little more time talking with students about the function of feedback, how it feels, and how they can effectively respond to it.   And I can’t do that well if I don’t spend some time doing some personal work on how I respond to it in my own life.

Man Receiving Poor Review

That said, I am going to consider more carefully how I handle  feedback, try to understand the message behind it — and tease out the valuable aspects that will enable me to be a more confident recipient.  This will likely be a tough process.  I plan to obtain a copy of  Stone and Heen’s book, and see if I can apply the principles suggested therein.  I’m hoping it will have some impact on my teaching and supporting my students’ professional growth, and offer some insight into self as well.   This will probably not be a barrel of monkeys, but it’s worth going after.

Stick Figure Giving Negative Feedback

My thanks to Rex W. Huppke for featuring the book in his column.  It has brought to mind the old adage:  don’t ask for feed-back if you don’t really want to hear it.

OK.

But enough about me.  What do you think about me?

 

 

Deer Me – Part II

Gray Cat

“Joe!  Johhhhe!” called my mother from the kitchen.  “The cat’s in again.  He’s already in the bedroom.”

Such was a frequent announcement from my mother to my brother Joe in our home in Atlanta, whenever his cat, Nigel, managed to squeeze himself between my mother’s leg and the kitchen door, shoot down the hall in a furry gray blur, slide himself under my parents’ bed, and remain there for hours at a time, with my patient brother stretched out on his stomach, jutting one arm under the bed,trying to pull him out, or hunched down, singing to him as he pushed a saucer of milk just a few inches from the bed.

Nigel and my mother never really clicked.  She rarely called him by name, usually referring to him as “the cat,” and was anxious when he was around.  I  wouldn’t have labeled her a non-cat person.  But she had endured many years of living with an array of household pets, and Nigel just didn’t light her fire.  He had a  distinctly  prolonged, nasal meow that commanded attention.  He deposited many a tiny shrew in the carport to impress family members.  And he parked himself in front of windows, staring inside, motionless, as if to silently demand to know why he had not been made an indoor pet, living among humans — his inferiors.  His favorite nighttime spot was the top of the kitchen window air conditioning unit.    The first time he chose this spot, my mother opened the curtains the next morning, to be greeted by Nigel staring her straight in the eyes.  She recalled leaping back into the kitchen table, knocking over a chair, and nearly falling over in fright.  This did not enhance their connection, of course, and every day after that she took a more cautious approach to opening the curtains, standing several inches from the window and yanking them back with a quick jerk of her fingertips.

But Joe loved Nigel. He was his cat.  Nigel was a one-person cat, though  he grudgingly accepted caresses from the rest of us, and accepted food from anyone.  But Joe was His Guy.

When we moved from Atlanta to Miami, the plan was to bring Nigel with us for the one-way, 24-hour car trip.  My father built a carrier for him from some left-over wood and chicken wire, complete with a door and a latch.  After the car was packed, we had only to load Nigel.  My father picked him up from behind, bent down and nudged him toward the opening.  Nigel began writhing, his hind legs rotating and swinging wildly, and pinning his front paws on either side of the opening for support.  My father was no slouch here.  Having grown up around animals, he was comfortable handling them, and simply picked Nigel up for a better grip and a second go at the crate.  Nigel squirmed and contorted as if crazed, hissing and yowling, his ears flattened against his head.  The claws came out.  They did their work.  My father released his grip, and Nigel sprang down the steps to the back yard.  My father’s forearms were covered with streaks of  blood, his forearms covered in scratches that ran from elbow to wrist.

Nigel did not come with us to Miami.  My father bathed his arms and we began the sad departure without him.   My sister and I felt terrible for our father, but we worried that Nigel wouldn’t survive.

A year later, in a visit to Atlanta, my friend took me to our old house.  The new owners confirmed that Nigel was still there, and strongly suggested I take him off their hands.  I politely mumbled my decline to this suggestion.

Such are our pets.  Or at least some of our pets.  We love them, we feed them, we care for them, and we put up with all kinds of behavior and problems associated with this relationship.

They provide companionship,  The offer unconditional love — which may be a chief reason we keep them around.  They are a constant source of entertainment.  They separate us from our hard-earned cash.  We feel separation anxiety when we’re apart.  We feel anguish when they are injured or ill.  They break our hearts when they die.

They really have a hold on us.

If you grew up with pets, or even if you didn’t, and you’ve had pets in your adult life, you understand what I mean.

German Shepherd

Duke was one of the first pets I recall in my childhood.  He was given to us by our uncle, Herb, a man my brothers and sisters and I worshipped.  Duke was a sweet-tempered, playful German Shepherd who chased pine cones like balls, sat and offered his paw on command, and loved being hugged and petted.  He was frightened by thunder storms, and during these disturbances was allowed into the house, where he often cowered under the kitchen table.  We stroked him until he stopped shaking.  He loved a long life, but developed arthritis as he got older, a condition that left him unable to walk, and vulnerable to attacks by neighborhood dogs.  We were devastated when my father had to put him down.

Guppy Fish

My parents may have figured that black guppies would be a lower-maintenance kind of pet, but were possibly unaware of the rather macabre traits they carried.  We brought home a male and very pregnant female, setting up their aquarium in the basement recreation room.  The next day we counted 18 babies, and we were thrilled!  Then they began to disappear.  They didn’t die.  They vanished.  We soon learned that mother guppies have a propensity to eat their young.  The pet store advised us to insert a glass barrier into the aquarium to separate the mother from the babies, to save those who’d escaped her clutches.  This was unsettling to me, and likely diminished my appreciation for fish as pets.  It didn’t help that I could swear — but I can’t prove — that I saw the mother smiling, rubbing her belly with one fin and holding a tooth pick to her mouth with the other.

Black Kitten

Cinder was my favorite pet of my childhood.  She was all mine.  I was stunned that my parents let me have her, given that we already had a dog, and of course, had had so many pets in the past.  She was barely 7 weeks old when I got her.  I was completely in love with her.  She slept on my pillow at night.  We played together.  She was already becoming skilled at sitting on my shoulder.  But our time together was short-lived.  As she grew, and began living outdoors, she developed a habit of jumping up on a ledge behind the grill of our station wagon.  A few days before Christmas, when she was about 6 months old, my brother Joe and I took the car to pick my sister up from an after-school job.  We were driving along a street bounded on both sides by thick woods area, when we heard a “thunk” come from beneath the car.  I whirled around to see Cinder darting into the woods.  We stopped the car, ran into the woods, called to her and looked for her everywhere.  She didn’t answer.  And we couldn’t stay.  It was getting dark, and we were already late to pick up my sister.

My brother and I returned to woods the next morning, but there was no sign of Cinder, and we never found her.  It’s likely she didn’t last the night.  I grieved her loss for months.

Black Poodle

After our move to Miami, my mother bought us a miniature black poodle, partly to ease my sorrow about losing Cinder.  We named her Nickie, and she soon became a happy companion to Urchin, a black poodle my sister Mary Dee brought home.  They were fast friends, and delightful, affectionate dogs.  They enjoyed chasing the ducks that converged on the canal behind our house.  They were both “talkers,” and would bark on the command to speak.  Nickie was much more adept at this skill, yipping and prancing, while Urchin sat till, enthusiastically jerking her head back and offering a noble, throaty gulp of air.

A new era of pet ownership began in college and later.  My friends and I enjoyed a short-lived effort to sneak a kitten into the dorm.   We name her Xique, for a town in Brazil pinpointed on a map during a blind-fold contest.  We were fortunate to find someone to take her in.

Tristan, a gray tabby, was a great companion for many years.   He was a very verbal feline who enjoyed popcorn, among other human foods.

I gained other pet experience with my husband and step-daughters.  We had a parakeet named “Queenie” who we later learned was actually a male.  I never looked at her very closely, I guess.

We had a turtle named “Speedy,” who had the misfortune of developing a fungal infection which caused his shell to begin pulling away from his body.  This malady was alternately heart-breaking and disgusting to observe, as the shell slipped further and further from his body, to the point at which he appeared to be dragging it along behind him.  Unable to tolerate it any longer, and learning that there was nothing we could do to save him, my husband put him in the car.  In the dark of night, he drove him to a nearby canal, stealthily edged down the embankment, and slipped Speedy into the murky water.  He said he felt like Louie the Hit Man as he drove away.  My guess is that Speedy went quickly.

Bettas, those delicate, high maintenance aquarium fish requiring specially-prepared freeze-dried food and hourly water changes, had the uncanny ability to live forever.  Even as their health deteriorated, they lived on — and on — their bodies shrinking, but their heads retaining their normal size.  So at a certain point you just saw a couple of big heads floating around in the water.  I have no idea how they propelled themselves forward.

Phasmida in Aquarium

The pet that wins the “Strangest Pet of All Time” award is the phasmida, the stick insect.  This pet was, thankfully, a short-term visitor to our home, never intended to be a full-time resident.  I’ll give you a shiny new dime if you can tell me where the little stick dude is in this photo.  You must submit your guess in the Comments field at the end of this essay, though.

My current pet, of course, is my lovely Fiona, the cat in the photo with me on the home page of this blog.  To the untrained eye, she  appears to be in a neutral-to-sour mood, but as any experienced cat owner knows, she is deeply content and pleased.

Our pets are loving, charming, maddening, and hilarious.  We don’t control them.  It is absolutely the other way around.

So, if you have a pet memory to share, by all means, share it here!  And don’t forget to enter the “Where’s the Phasmida?” contest.  Enter your guess in the Comments field, and be sure to include your address so I know where to send the shiny new dime to the Lucky Winner.

And finally, all together now!  Sing it with me:

You really got a hold on me, I said you really got a hold on me, you know you really got a hold on me, you know you really got a hold on me!

Deer Me – Part I

deer in snow

Deer sightings are not unusual at one of campuses of my community college, located in the mist of a lovely forest preserve.  You can often spot them early in the morning and late at night as they nibble at leaves or dart across the road.

It was unusual, though, to spot them at the other campus a week ago.  This campus, located about ten miles to the east,  is in a more built-up suburban area, butting up against a major thoroughfare.  It was around 8am, and I was walking down the hallway on the second floor, when I spotted two deer in the snow.  They weren’t more than twenty feet from the building, gracefully walking back and forth, tugging at the needles on the low trees branches and walking right up to the windows of the building.

I stared from the second-floor window, fogging up the glass.   Then one of them looking up – directly at me!  I was deer-struck.  Each time an instructor entered the office, I asked, “Did you see the deer?”  Everyone was taken by this rare close-up view of these two creatures.  I called our ECE Center to let the teachers know so that they might walk the children down the hall to see them.  A few minutes later a small group had gathered in front of the first floor window — the only barrier between them and the deer.   Some had their palms up against the window, as if wishing they could touch them, while others knocked against the glass for their attention (followed by a gentle reminder from the teacher that watching  quietly would likely encourage the animals to stick around longer).

They did stick around.  They appeared healthy, of solid weight, and calm.  They shadowed each other, nuzzled, and then curled up in the snow, side by side, and went to asleep.  Many folks uttered  concerns about their welfare and proximity to the busy street, and we all marveled at their clear comfort level with the surroundings — and the frozen, snow-covered ground, no less.  They seemed familiar in this spot.    One of our Center teachers said that word was they’d gotten separated from their herd in a nearby nature center and were being fed by concerned campus employees.

I was so captivated by them that I walked my students down the hall after my class to show them  — nervously hoping they’d not run away.  They were still there!  The students loved watching them, and actually hung around for a while, talking together in the hallway.  I’m not so sure that would have happened had we not had a couple of minutes together to make this unexpected field trip.

This  close encounter brought back a memory of my own childhood enchantment with deer, and the countless hours of outdoor play — much of it in the woods.  There was simply no better place to play.   The woods held tall pine trees, narrow walking paths, huge rocks, honey-suckle vines, fallen trees, and creeks.  Here is where fantasy play abounded:  when we weren’t  superheroes fighting villains or thwarting pirate onslaughts, we were digging for dinosaur bones, searching for fossils, or watching breathlessly for spirits of the long-dead, nervously waiting to see them to rise from the dry pine needles.

In addition to those escapades, I silently carried a fantasy that one day  a friendly deer would  step from behind a tree, look me directly in the eye, and become my instant companion, walking with me everywhere, eating gently from my hand, and falling asleep with its head in my lap.  I would convince my mother and father of all the merits of having a deer for a pet, and make a solemn promise to care for the animal on a daily and permanent basis.   I was always looking around expectantly, wanting to be ready, should the hooved beauty emerge.  Alas, that never happened, and the fantasy shrank into the shadow of my memory.

My friends and I had contact with many animals, actually.  We played outside for long stretches, most of the year, as the temperature allowed — only stopping to come home for lunch and then to return for the rest of the afternoon until dinner.  That gave us a chance to have commerce with other forest wildlife — at least with those creatures that couldn’t outrun or out-slither us.

green snake

We had contact with lizards, small snakes, tiny green turtles, and caterpillars.  My next door neighbor Chris had an affinity for these animals in particular, collecting them and basically colonizing them in his back yard.  I would likely not have touched a snake or a lizard had we not grown up together.  We were playing with these creatures by kindergarten, letting the snakes coil around our wrists, cuddling turtles and stroking their smooth shells, and creating nests for caterpillars in empty shoe boxes.

caterpillar

Daddy Long Leg Spiders and rolly pollies were other favorites to pursue, and, in the curiosity-driven manner of a child — poke, with the goal of observing the poor critter’s desperate survival response (curling up in a ball).

Daddly Long Legs Spider

We certainly were not fully informed about all the animals we encountered, though, and so did not always treat them well.  This ignorance was often unintentionally supported by adults.  In the summer, after nightfall,  we thrilled to catch lightening bugs, cupping them in our hands and then releasing them.  But we also enclosed them in empty mayonnaise jars, convincing ourselves the insects could breathe because we’d punctured a few holes in the lid before screwing it on.

lightening bug in jar

In another rather ill-conceived summer activity during family nights at our local community pool, adults dumped buckets of goldfish into the water, as we children eagerly jumped in, swimming frantically to snare the wriggling things in our hands.  We were so excited to come home with even one goldfish tied inside a plastic bag — only to be devastated a day later when it expired.  I can’t imagine the concentration  of chlorine loading that pool water. We swam it in daily and were accustomed to the way it stung and reddened our eyes.  I’m surprised those fish lasted as long as they did.

goldfish in plastic bag

But my friend Chris was a true animal lover, and an animal rescuer as well.  He loved his reptiles, but he cared about any animal he came in contact with.  One time he found a frail yellow duckling with a broken wing, and named him Atlas.  He understood — and told us — that Atlas wouldn’t live long.  So we all crowded into a tiny dark fort made from a log pile in his back yard, holding vigil for several days, taking turns cuddling him and caring for him until he died.  We carried out a solemn funeral and burial in the woods just beyond the log pile.

duckling

These encounters with animals were distinctly different from experiences we had with our own household pets.  They felt different, I think, because such creatures were untamed, survived in the great outdoors, and had an air of mystery about them.  They captured our imagination.  But they also offered early lessons in nurture and responsibility.

Getting so close to those beautiful deer last week brought me  back to these experiences.  But it also reminded me of how vulnerable they are when they leave their habitat.  A few years ago, on my way to work at the other campus, I was driving along and had to pull to a stop, as a police officer had blocked the roadway in both directions.  I was stopped right behind the squad car.  I craned my neck to look as he exited the car.  Just beyond his car, to the left, I could see the antlers and part of the head of a deer on the road.  I assumed it had been hit by a motorist.  The officer opened the trunk of the squad car, removing a rifle.  He quickly walked around to the front of the car, pointing the rifle at the deer.  I put my head again the steering wheel.  Two shots rang out.  I kept my head down as he pulled the buck to the shoulder of the road.  He returned to his car, moved it to the shoulder as well, got out, and waved me on.  The remainder of my drive to campus was a bit teary.

So last week, two days after spotting the deer, when I returned to the building for my class, I looked everywhere for them as I walked the hallway and then returned to the office.  I asked around.  No one had seen them.  Food left on a tray under a tree  was still there, untouched.  I looked for them again this week and have seen no sign of them.  They may have been shooed away after all the attention they drew .  Perhaps they’ve found their way back to the nature center.  I hope they’re still around … somewhere.

I hope they’re alright.

 

 

 

Juvenescent Genuflection

 

Church Altar

Many of my essays explore how early experience shape later development.  Working with students who are undergoing teacher preparation studies provides much opportunity to do this, and for all of us to consider how we’ve been influenced by them.

In my Guidance class we have been discussing the underpinnings of moral development, and how significant individuals and institutions in a child’s life form the foundation for this area of personality.  A major part of our discussions and activities center on developmental theory — which is important, of course — but which often take a back seat to personal stories shared by students and instructor, as appropriate.

These discussions have led me to reflect on my early experiences in Catholic church, which for me, came during my childhood in   Atlanta, Georgia.   While there is no doubt that this institution influenced my early moral and spiritual development, I think there were a myriad of other social lessons being learned in the many years spent there.  It was not only Sunday mass that became a familiar part of my life, but school masses on the first Friday of every month (when we were happily freed from the trappings of the plaid school uniform and saddle shoes) , monthly confession, Stations of the Cross, and other major religious holiday activities.  You became accustomed to spending time with family, peers, teachers, and the broader community in this space.

Church Cry Room

My earliest memories of attending mass was sitting in the Cry Room with my family — that isolation chamber at the rear of the church, intended to segregate all the poor families with small children who, for some reason, found it challenging to make it through  a sixty-minute service without any boredom or upset.  One Sunday an unfamiliar child sat beside me, pulled a piece of hard candy from her jacket pocket and presented it to me on her outstretched palm.  I accepted it, silently thrilled, but dared not eat it, as I was convinced my parents had probably witnessed this exchange.  The other girl matter-of-factly unwrapped her own piece, popping it in her mouth, swinging her legs back and forth as she sucked on it with relish.  (This may have been an early lesson in both delayed gratification and not pushing one’s luck).

Mass was indeed a lesson in building self-control.  And while I like to perceive myself as a pretty well-behaved child, at least two recollections indicate that I really didn’t “sit still,” a common admonition during those times and in other public settings.  My younger sister and I sat on the kneelers together one time, facing the pew to have a “picnic.”  This play episode, of course, was short-lived.  On another occasion I lay down on the pew during a segment in the mass when everyone was standing (likely during the gospel reading).  My grandmother was visiting at the time, and had accompanied us to church that day.  As she prepared to sit, spotting me sprawled out on my pew-bed, she declared, “I’ll sit right on top of you if you don’t get up.”  I bolted up in warp speed, of course.

Church Pews

Church was a great people-watching place.  I must have been quite the watcher, as my mother frequently reminded me not to stare, gently placing her fingertips under my chin and turning my head forward.  I used to practice staring ahead but shifting my eyes in either direction, to fool her, but this proved a painful venture, which was soon abandoned.

The aisle position was the coveted seat in the pew.  It was usually my father’s spot, although I recall competing for it with both my younger sister and one older brother.  Age always won out in this instance, with my father placing himself between the battling siblings.  The lesson here may have been to deal with the sibling hierarchy, and know that your aisle-seat time was coming.

Receiving First Communion was a deeply important experience that we all took very  seriously.  It was an early right of passage in your spiritual journey.  I have a memory of being able to sit in the first pew, so close to the altar, and feeling very special, excited, and nervous all at once.  Monsignor Reagan, the church pastor, was a benevolent man with a beautiful singing voice and a gentle smile.  He always used our saint’s names when giving communion,  making us feel recognized and cared for.  I can still hear him say, “Body of Chriiiiihsssst, Cecilia.”  I was terribly nervous about letting the host touch my teeth — something we had been taught not to allow to happen.  So I’d push it up to the roof of my mouth, spending the next several minutes attempting to peel it off with my tongue, with my mouth closed.  No small feat.  My fellow Catholics are certainly familiar with this challenge.  One of my older sisters recalls how disappointed she was that she did not see a vision after receiving her First Communion.  I was nowhere near her in this depth of spiritual  reflection, wishing only to return to the pew without tripping or having the host fall out of my mouth.

Singing hymns was a major part of the Mass experience.  Monsignor Reagan often led us in rehearsal prior to school masses, pulling us into tune with his ever-present pitch pipe.  This was clearly very important to him.  In a rare unguarded moment, during one practice, he reminded us to listen to the note, adding, “Some of us have tin ears.”

I loved the hymns.  This may have been part nature, though I am sure it also stemmed from my mother’s love of music, and her background in voice and piano.  She and my father always sang with reverence, my father in his low voice, and my mother leaning over to say, “Sing so I can hear you!”  I remember having favorite hymns, and being deeply moved by those with sad or haunting melodies. (Folks who know me well know that I’m an easy weeper.)  I can recall my throat closing up and fighting tears during some hymns because they sounded so terribly sad to me.  I just listened during those hymns because singing felt impossible.    This, perhaps, was an early lesson in self-knowledge.

On Mondays, in second grade, during religion class, we were expected to recall the homily from the Sunday before.  Not one time did I ever meet this standard.  Once I realized, though, that this was to be a weekly requirement, I strained to listen and remember the message and come to school ready to share.  It never worked.  I cannot recall how successfully my classmates were able to manage this task either, but I do remember our teacher sternly demanding the recollection, and then extolling on the theme.  The rest is probably buried deep in my unconscious self.

The experience of confession was perhaps one of the strongest aspects of our moral development, though.  In my experience, this was a monthly Saturday afternoon visit to church.  You were taught to “examine your conscience” to carefully consider your own transgressions and misdeeds, and to ask for forgiveness.  I was one nervous kid going into that dark room.  I can still hear the screen sliding back as the priest greeted me.  I tended to quantify my sins, typically recalling how many times I’d said something mean, or lied about something.  It was so relieving to exit the confessional because I knew I was getting another chance — an opportunity to start over.  One time during a school visit to confession, a classmate declared that she didn’t have any sins to confess that week.  That really irritated me, and I silently uttered the go-to put-down for that year, which was “Oh, you think you’re so tough.”  This thought was immediately followed by, “Oh, brother, now I probably have to confess that.”

My church was important to me as a child, I’m sure, because it was so intimately tied with my school experience.  There were elements that felt inviting and others that engendered discomfort.  I am not attempting here to put a value on this experience so much as share my effort to understand the other lessons experienced during the many years spent in that setting.   Reflecting on these experiences, though, can provide insight into our present selves and the choices we make.

The instruction included everything from ritual to inner control to obedience to respect for authority.  This is not any different from any other social, religious, or educational community in which children are raised.

But there were also lessons in kindness, regard for others, and care for those whose circumstances were brittle.  These are often the lessons that support the development of  a moral sense of self, through all these relationships and experiences — with family, friends, peers, and adult in their community.   The sense of right and wrong, good and bad, getting along with others, making ethical choices, begins here.

But I’m wrong.

It starts even earlier.  In infancy.   According to a recent study at Yale University, we may show our understanding of good and bad at the tender age of three months.  Amazing.  (For a future discussion … right here!)

So … what were your first experiences in good and bad right and wrong?   How far back can you remember?  And how did they make you who you are today?

 

 

 

 

 

 

February 14 Post Script: Paper Delivery Leprechaun

Leprechaun

In my last post, in which I offered thoughts about expanding our usual notions of Valentine’s Day, I shared some experiences of kindness received.

One of these was a description of how the paper delivery man had been walking the morning newspaper up to the front door of our house all winter, during one of the harshest seasons experienced in Chicago in many years.  I’d noted my unsuccessful attempts to present him with a gift card as a thank you for his extra effort and thoughtfulness.

Newspaper

I am happy to report that the morning after posting this essay I was able to present the gift card to the Paper Delivery Leprechaun.

Such is the Valenkind Day Circle of Appreciation.  Oh happy day.

February 14

Valentine's Day Hearts

Well, the day is almost here.  That Hallmarked holiday, primarily romantic in its focus, embraced by some, loathed by others, depending on one’s relationship circumstances or history …

In the last week I have seen stories in the local newspaper about how to determine when and whether to be the first one to declare your love in a romantic relationship; how to deal with being single on The Big Day; how critical it is to place flower, candy, and stuffed animal orders early, since florists across the continental US are warning customers that snow and frigid temperatures may impede deliveries.  (According to a report on NPR this morning, this is indeed a serious concern — roses by the hundreds have filled every square inch of some shops, with owners terrified they may not reach their intended recipients.)  The sea of pink and red has filled the aisles of every drug store and grocery store since December, and the department and jewelry store circulars have been stuffing mail boxes for the past two weeks.

I am a proponent of Valentine’s Day, having enjoyed it to varying degrees of intensity in my own life.  I’ve had fun with this day, and some sadness as well — all self-inflicted, admittedly, by choice and attitude.

Yet during the last two weeks at school, I have been quite taken by some interactions witnessed in our early childhood centers — both related to and unrelated to the holiday — that have again reminded me this day can be celebrated from many standpoints.

There are so many ways to express care and love, right?  Leave it to small children to bring this to your attention.  Even the tiniest children show altruism and kindness, particularly as it is modeled to them.  Last week I was observing the 2 year-olds from the classroom observation booth.  A teacher was reading the very popular book, No, David! by David Shannon, about a little boy who can’t seem to stop getting in trouble.  The teacher was sitting on the end of a couch, with four boys and one girl squeezed together in a charmingly tight row to the other end.  They were captivated by the story, whose lines continuously admonish David to stop doing what he’s doing (tracking mud into the house, throwing a baseball in the living room, trashing his bedroom, creating tidal waves in the bathtub).  At one point, the boy seated next to the teacher held up another book he’d been holding, and she realized he’d ripped pages from it as he listened to the story (a fairly common 2-year-old behavior).  She stopped the story briefly but purposely to express her dismay at the torn pages, letting him know he would have fix the book, and calling to her teaching partner to assist him in this process.  The other teacher quietly took him by the hand, walking him to the art table where they joined another child.  The teacher sat him down next to her and helped him open the book and tear off some clear packing tape to begin the repair process.  Two year-olds don’t have strong fine motor skills, so the teacher did most of the work as he watched closely.  She gently uttered a statement about “taking care of our books so we can always read them when we want to” and then asked him to return it to the shelf.  He then rejoined the group.  A small lesson on caretaking the environment, and taking responsibility for your mistakes –calmly but thoroughly carried out.  No rejection or marginalizing.   (I have observed these two teachers, on so many  occasions, respond lovingly to very upset, crying 2 year-olds.  They are preternaturally calm during meltdowns and extended crying jags.   They achieve mighty feats with tiny creatures.)

Euroamerican Girl Hugging African American Girl

Be Kind.  Be Safe.  Be Neat.  These are the three best guidelines ever developed by whoever developed them.  Yes, they are intended for young children, but adults could use them as a trio of principles by which to live.  Easy to remember, easy to understand.  Just a little harder to put into action.

Today I was visiting the ECE center at our other campus.  The bulletin board in the 3-4 year-old classroom caught my eye:  it depicted a giant construction paper gum ball machine with a pile of multi-colored gum balls filling the bottom portion of the reservoir.  I asked one of the teachers about it.  She explained that this was the outgrowth of a focus on kindness, begun at the start of the week, as a vantage point for discussing Valentine’s Day.  They read the book, Have You Filled Your Bucket Today?  by Carol McLoud and David Message.  The book uses a bucket as a metaphor for a place where one holds good thoughts and feelings about self and others.  You “fill a bucket when you show love, [or] do something kind,” and you dip a bucket when you “make fun, say or do mean things, or ignore [someone].

Elementary School Children Helping Infant

The teachers provided a real bucket in the classroom into which children could toss examples of ways they had shown kindness to classmates.  This symbol gave way to the gum ball concept after an unexpected, though not completely surprising,  foray into kindness-competition.  The gum ball machine proved a more expansive way to  help the whole class visually track their acts of kindness.  While the acts are discussed at group time, and a gum ball is added to the machine, nothing is written to describe the act itself.  The impact seems to come as the days unfold, and the gum balls fill the reservoir.  I counted 66 so far.

The group plans to distribute Valentines to the college students tomorrow morning.  The teacher recalled doing this same activity    last year, describing how a  tall, brawny male student wept upon receiving a Valentine.  So you never know how you might affect someone with a caring act.

Children are getting valuable lessons in reaching out, taking care,  being kind, and enjoying first friendships.  They are seeing that their behavior truly has an impact on others.   These are the roots of empathy.  These activities are a terrific spin on the romantic angle of Valentine’s Day.  I’m not implying that similar things aren’t happening in early childhood programs across the country (or maybe it ‘s my hope they are).  But I’m glad to have witnessed them first-hand.

Children in Tight Hug

Of course, these experiences children were having got me  thinking about adult civility and kindness in conjunction with Valentine’s Day.  After all, if children can do this, why can’t we?  Could we possibly re-think our notions of Valentine’s Day and broaden its appeal beyond the realm of romance?  We can and many of us do, I think.  (Parents give their children valentines, friends give each other valentines, co-workers do so as well.)

I began thinking about the kindnesses I’ve experienced over the last several weeks and months.  It’s not a bad way to reflect on your life.  I’d like to share of few of them here.

This past fall a student I’ve not seen for a couple of years came to me during a conference to give me a pair of crocheted slippers and to thank me for a class she’d taken with me.  They were beautiful.  I have worn them often.  I can also attest to how well I can moon-walk with them in my kitchen.  So, they’ve  kept me warm and have kept me dancing.  (And yes, I am one fine Moon-Walker.  So there.)

Our next door neighbor has consistently cleaned the sidewalk in front of our house with his snow blower (I shovel).  I baked some brownies as a thank you and we had a nice visit.

One of my students from last fall came to my office after the semester was over and presented me with a lovely box of cupcakes.

A friend of mine gave me a set of two matching chains with charms — one for me and the other to hang on a tree that my siblings and I recently dedicated to our youngest sister, who passed away two years ago.  She never knew her.  But she has listened to me describe her and has read what I’ve written about her.   And she’s expressed admiration for her.  Had they ever met they would have been fast friends.  Of that I’m certain.

I’ve received kind public comments on this blog — wow.  I’ve also received private compliments on it.  Folks who have done this didn’t have to do so, yet the took the time anyway.  (They filled my bucket!  Well, they filled my gum ball machine, maybe too.)

The gentleman who delivers our newspaper has been walking it all the way up to the step near the front door during this Polar Vortex of 2014.  That means he has vacated his car to do so, rather than winging it from the rolled down window.  I have tried all this week to catch him to give him a gift card but he has come and gone too fast for me so far.  He’s like a paper delivery leprechaun.  But I’m not giving up, and shall continue to monitor his arrival daily until I’m successful.  Goodness.  It shouldn’t be so challenging to offer thanks.  Unless he really is a leprechaun.

All of these kindnesses were unexpected, of course — and perhaps for that reason, so deeply appreciated.

So, I’d like to suggest that we continue to expand our meaning of Valentine’s Day, to broaden it to include civility, kindness, and empathy.

Cascade of Hearts

And with that, I would like to rename February 14 ValenKind Day.

I wish you all a Very Happy One!

May your gum ball machine always be full.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Were you a Wild Thing?

Where the Wild Things Are

Were you a Wild Thing as a child?  Did you resist rules?  Question authority?  Did you get in trouble?

In Maurice Sendak’s beloved titan of picture books, Where the Wild Things Are, we see an angry young Max openly defy his mother after he has been creating chaos all day.   Following his offense, he is sent to his bedroom for a timeout, where he readily falls into a dream of visiting a far-away land full of giant lumbering monsters — Wild Things — who he tames, parties with, and ultimately disappoints when he departs as homesickness beckons.  Upon awakening, a spent Max finds a warm dinner has been brought to his room.

I read this story to the students on the first day of my Guidance of the Young Child class this semester at the community college where I work.  I read children’s stories once a week that reflect the content we’re exploring.  Where the Wild Things Are is the kind of story that captures the struggles young children undergo when they are trying to figure out how to be in the world.

Students taking this class are studying to be teachers of very young children.  We talk at length about the importance of understanding typical development in order to have appropriate expectations of them.  This principle also implies a built-in respect for children and how they navigate their world, and a realization that adults can (and should)  be there to support them on that path.

Part of this process includes re-thinking one’s ideas about children’s behavior — their unproductive behavior, especially, since that is what most frequently commands our attention.  We can be confounded and exhausted by children’s conflicts; in an early childhood setting they are a daily experience.

A major intersection we reach early in the semester, then, is this understanding of behavior and development, and how best to respond. Right away we begin discussing the difference between misbehavior and mistaken behavior (per Daniel Gartrell) in children.  This becomes the foundation for everything that will follow.  Misbehavior is a perspective adults hold that children purposely act in unproductive, trouble-causing ways — for which they should be punished.  Mistaken behavior is a perspective that children, in their effort to begin to understand themselves and interact effectively with others, will inevitably make mistakes in the process.  This perspective also draws on brain research that reveals children’s newly-emerging abilities to manage feelings and social interactions.

The misbehavior perspective supports a punishment response.  In this instance, children’s behavior is controlled through fear and stresses what not to do; children “behave” or hide their mistakes to  avoid a penalty or humiliation.  The New International Dictionary of the English Language (1989) defines “punishment” as “any ill suffered in consequence of wrongdoing.”  Its definition of “punish” is “to subject (a person) to pain, confinement, or other penalty for a crime or fault.”

When I asked students to write about a childhood memory of getting in trouble, over half of them reported being struck or slapped for behaviors ranging from imitating someone to talking back.  While this was not necessarily surprising, it was clear that the memories were still vivid for them even now.  They also reported feeling guilty, hurt, or embarrassed.

The mistaken behavior perspective supports an adult response that seeks to understand the reasons a child behaves in a particular way, to choose an appropriate way to step in, and most importantly — to help the child find a way to resolve the conflict (Gartrell).  Therein lies the messy path to self-understanding.  It’s not simple and it’s not always pretty.  But when the adult responds from the angle that the child is wrestling with something, and is struggling and upset in the process, a trusting relationship can be built, (s)he can begin developing those emotional intelligence skills that are so critical to her long-term future.  In previous essays I’ve note that early childhood teachers believe that all behavior is meaningful, and reflects children’s needs.  They don’t have the same kinds of coping tools at their disposal as we do as adults, so it’s our role to be around to model, support, and be in their corner.  I’m not suggesting this is always a walk in the park.  It can be exhausting.

In Where the Wild Things Are, Max’s mother is exhausted.  She’s had it with him.  He’s been racing all over the house, terrorizing the family dog, running with a fork … no wonder she’s angry.

Maurice Sendak

Here is where Sendak  shares such an insightful take on young children.  While his own troubled childhood is well documented, and he spoke candidly about its influence on the story, he clearly acknowledges and respects children’s dark side.  Pretty revolutionary for 1963, when the book was published.

Sendak’s work  acknowledges the shadow, that Jungian concept of personality representing the unconscious part of the self we’d  prefer to keep under wraps, given that it contains largely negative and undesirable elements.    It’s the seat of instinct.  For a young child, it’s one major aspect of the tussle that characterizes the first steps to self-understanding and, by extension, moral development.

cartoon of boy and scary shadow

Teachers and anyone who cares for young children might consider a juxtaposition of the these ideas:  mistaken behavior,  Jung’s concept of the shadow, and Sendak’s Wild Thing — his acknowledgement of children’s noble endeavor to live with clashing emotions and what is sometimes a rather confusing or scary world.

Sendak had deep respect for young children’s ability to do this work on selfhood:    From their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can.  And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis.  It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things. (Goodreads.com)

But Sendak often chided adults for under-estimating children as well, suggesting that soft-pedaled stories of happy endings and good times are actually more protective of our own self-interest:  Grown-ups desperately need to feel safe, and then they project onto the kids. But what none of use seem to realize is how smart kids are.  They don’t like what we write for them, what we dish up for them, because it’s vapid, so they’ll go for the hard words, they’ll go for the hard concepts, they’ll go for the stuff where they can learn something.  Not didactic things, but passionate things.  (Goodreads.com)

Let’s hear it for fantasy play and fairy tales.  Jung said, “Everyone carries a shadow …”  He also said that the shadow was the source of potential creativity and even unrealized potential — so it’s not all bad, right?   If we acknowledge that part of our selves, then we must do so for children, too.

If you’re not familiar with Where the Wild Things Are, or you’ve not read it for a while and want to get re-connected with this exquisite story, consider grabbing a copy from the public library.  I’ll bet every copy is worn from reading and-re-reading.

older man and woman walking projecting shadows

So, were you a Wild Thing?

Are you still?

 

Green Balls of Doom – Part II

Brussels Sprouts on Cutting Board

A loyal Sensiforous follower recently contacted me about my post from December 22, 2013.  Here’s an excerpt from her note:

Dear Sheila,

First, let me tell you how thoroughly enjoyable and informative I find your blog!  It’s masterful in its sophistication and content.  It’s actually the best blog I ever followed, and I follow hundreds!  I’ve told all my friends and colleagues to visit and subscribe.  I’ve even marched up and down Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago with a bullhorn to advertise for you, but I keep getting handcuffed by very polite police officers and taken into the police station.  Maybe I need to try something different.  I’ll give that some thought.

Anyway, in your December 22 “Green Balls of Doom” post, you included a recipe for Brussels Sprouts with Spicy Bacon.  I tried it and absolutely loved it!!!

Could you please publish some more Brussels sprouts recipes?

With deep admiration,

[name withheld]

Dear ________________________________,

Thank you so much for your kind note!  You make me blush.

The recipe in the “Green Balls of Doom” post was given to me by my friend Nicki Denofrio.  She’s the friend to whom I refer in that post, who inspired me to change my attitude about Brussels sprouts, and who coined the name for them, thus inspiring the title for the essay.

Nicki has a little blog of her own.  I think it’s goodgirlbad.com or something like that.  It’ OK, I guess.  She does a few things, has some interests, you know.  She’s a professional musician.  She sings a little. She writes.   She’s kind of a fashion connoisseur.  She’s a former race car driver.  She might be a decent cook, but I can’t really prove that.  You might want to check out her blog.  Subscribe, maybe.  If you’ve got the time, that is.

But enough about her.  Back to me.

While I don’t have any Brussels sprouts recipes readily at hand to share with you, I did take some time to come up with some potentially very creative recipes and uses for this versatile, if sadly unattractive, vegetable.  It has always gotten a bad rap.  And I’m here to change that.

Girl with Brussels sprouts

Here’s a list of some exciting new ways to prepare and present Brussel sprouts.  Check ’em out!

Brussels Sprouts People (create human body by connecting sprouts with tooth picks)

Bobbing for Brussels Sprouts (switch out your aluminum beer bucket for this great new fall party game!)

Chocolate Covered Brussels Sprouts (for the vegetarian who’s ready for a break)

Heads Will Roll! (Next Halloween, jam 2 raisins into each Brussels sprout and pass out to the trick-or-treaters instead of candy.  You’ll totally freak ’em out!)

Brussels Sprouts Smoothies  (Jam ’em into your Cuinsinart and let ‘er rip!)

Brussels Sprouts Pops (a veggie version of the popular cake pop)

Brussels Sprouts Ice Pops (dice them up, sprinkle into an ice cube tray, fill with water, insert a popsicle stick, and freeze)

Green Mean Balls (seal a Brussels sprout into hamburger meat, and roll into a ball, and bake — careful, though:  don’t jam it into your mouth all at once — you might make a bad impression!!)

Edible Christmas Tree (insert enough Brussels sprouts into a cone-shaped piece of styro-foam; coat with white sprinkles for  snowflakes)

Clams With a Prize (for your next beach theme party, cut Brussels sprouts in half, and place a cheap plastic pearl inside one of them; close them all back up, and invite your guests to see who wins the “prize” — what a laugh they’ll have!  But not as much as you will!)

Mr. Turtle (cut 3-4 Brussels sprouts in half, and connect the pieces together on a plate to form a turtle — a great way to introduce your young child to this wonderful vegetable and teach him about amphibians at the same time; OK, it may take 5 or 6 tries, but everything’s a process, right?)

I hope you get a chance to try out at least one of these ideas!

And … as a bonus, here are some additional non-cooking ideas for any left-over sprouts that didn’t make their way into any of the afore-mentioned recipes. These are great for children.
But adults will enjoy them, too!   Check ’em out!

Brussels Sprouts Pendulums/Brussels Sprouts Juggling Balls/Brussels Sprouts Catapults/Brussels Sprouts Marble Games/Brussels Sprouts Bozo Buckets (use soup cans — a real challenge)/Brussels Sprouts Bowling (use empty 12oz. plastic bottles)/Brussels Sprouts Bocce Ball/Juggling Brussels Sprouts/Brussels Sprouts Ball in the Cup/Create a Brussels Sprouts Tower Race (using wooden skewers — with adult supervision, of course).

And if the above isn’t enough, use Brussels sprouts as door stoppers; as substitutes for rose petals at wedding ceremonies and for romantic interludes; as Christmas tree ornaments; as a Christmas tree wreath; or as worry balls.

Brussels sprouts wreath

I hope you get a chance to try one of my recipe or activity suggestions.  Let me know how it works out!

Thanks to my devoted reader and to my  gifted friend and colleague Nicki Denofrio for the Brussels Sprouts conversion and inspiration.

Keep those cards and letters coming!

 

 

 

 

 

Shelter From a Storm

 

Shelter Sign

In the mid 1980s I took a teaching position in a short-term shelter for homeless families in Uptown, on the north side of Chicago.  The shelter is housed in a former Holiday Inn.  At the time, the shelter offered a number of services for residents, including a public school classroom, a Head Start program, and a classroom for young children.  I worked in the classroom for young children, originally  called the “Nursery School.”  My co-teacher and I re-named it the “Playschool.”

The most common factors drawing families to the shelter included domestic violence, eviction, or natural disaster (fire, most often).  Most of the families were mothers with children, some whose ages ranged from infancy to early adolescence.  They led transient, chaotic lives.  Some families stayed in the shelter for 24 hours, somehow able to secure housing, while others remained for several weeks.  The average stay for most families was two weeks.  The most common single-factor keeping families in the shelter:  the inability to scrape together two months’ rent for a security deposit on an apartment.

The Playschool was a single classroom serving children from 2 through 6 years of age.  It was a converted hotel room, so the space was small.  Still, it was equipped with some staples one would find in most early childhood classrooms:  a play area with toys, games, and equipment, which doubled as a group time area;  two tiny tables  which tripled as art activity, game, and snack surfaces; an area for quiet activities, such as reading; and a tiny bathroom and storage area.  Two large windows looked out on what used to be the former hotel’s pool area.  The pool had been filled with dirt and covered with sod.  This was the outdoor play area shared by the Head Start program and our classroom.

What became apparent to me early on was the ephemeral nature of the lives of the children with whom I came in contact.  I might see a child for one day, only to learn the next morning that the family had moved out of the shelter the night before; in other instances a child might remain in the shelter for 4-5 weeks.  It was a daily experience of hellos and goodbyes — constant separation.  Upon the child’s departure, I was required to submit a summary of my impressions, on a 5 ” X  7″ form.  It never did justice to describing any of them, including whose who were there for only 24 hours.  In the 18 months I worked there, six families returned to the shelter.

The number of children in the room fluctuated daily, too.  We might have two children one day and twelve the next.  The most effective response to this constant change was to do everything we could to provide stability, and to respond daily to whatever the group presented to us.   These efforts were odd bed fellows, as we worked to balance predictability with a flexible daily plan (teachers are trained in myriad ways to do short-term and long-term planning — in this setting, that principle was shelved).

Children who came to the classroom were frequently exhausted, some having arrived in the middle of the night.  It was quite common for children to come to the room un-bathed, with colds or other respiratory ailments, or with lice.  On their first day in the classroom, many showed behaviors typical in response to an unfamiliar setting:  quietness, caution, reticence to get involved, or, at times, curiosity, depending upon their nature and circumstances.  But within a day or two, demure demeanors often gave way to more challenging behaviors as they became familiar with the setting and the routine.   Conflicts over toys, unsafe or aggressive use of  materials, testing of safety guidelines, and physical aggression toward classmates and adults were daily occurrences.  This testing and less productive behavior, though, while exhausting to manage, we took as a backdoor complement.  It meant that children felt safe enough to express the chaos and stress that characterized their lives.

Children Entering Cab

In the early childhood field we often say that all behavior has meaning.  For children who were leading such transient, unpredictable existence, it should have been no surprise to us to witness exhaustion, fear, confusion, defense, anger, and resiliency in them.  They were drawing on whatever coping attributes they’d managed to construct in their very young lives.

More than anything, they needed to feel some sense of physical and emotional safety, and some predictability and routine.  All children thrive on this — but children coming to the shelter had not experienced this — and many had experienced abuse.

So we tried to let safety, predictability, ritual, and play lead what we did in the classroom. We were feverishly  working to build trust with each individual child and match our caregiving to whatever he or she presented.  A tall order.  But worth the effort.

Whenever a new child arrived, we bathed her, changed her clothing if supplies were available, took her picture with a polaroid camera, and started a care package for her eventual departure.  It was always amazing to observe how many children relaxed after being cleaned up and given a new outfit.

We also worked to make the play area and equipment reflect what children were actually experiencing in their lives.  In a previous post, I discussed the vital function that fantasy play has on children’s development.  It’s especially critical here.  If you buy that idea that play is the mechanism for coping with circumstances, then it’s important to provide the necessary setting and props for that purpose.  In our classroom, it was common to see an extensive collection of coats, hats, purses and suit cases, materials allowing children to dramatize the constant travel and change pervading their lives.

Child Suit Case

We often entered fantasy play directly with children, not just in response to their overtures, but to build trust and to model coping skills for the circumstances suggested by the play.  Some play reflected common popular themes, such as shopping, going to work, or superhero rescues, but it was also common to observe play episodes that included taxi and bus travel,  court appearances, intense arguments, or hiding from police.

It was not unusual for a child to become upset enough to collapse in tears, strike classmates or teachers, tantrum, or topple equipment or materials.   (On a lighter note, there was a time when a little boy mooned me in response to my request that he sit at the table to eat snack; he quickly pulled his shorts back up upon that request, so the situation was, thankfully, brief).  When these especially troubling moments happened, though, we had the rocking chair for refuge.  Set in the quiet area, this chair offered balm for both the child and the adult.  The nestling, coupled with the gentle back and forth motion of that magical chair,  made hard moments dissolve into soothing connections.   It was the single-most important piece of furniture in that room.

It wasn’t unusual to see children show indications of delayed development, whether it be physical, cognitive, social, or emotional.  We might notice that a 5 year old couldn’t identify basic colors, or a younger child was using language more typical of a toddler.  Often, older preschoolers asked to be held or carried like a baby.  But one of the most striking memories I have of this phenomenon was some children’s response to having their photograph taken.  Many children did not recognize themselves in the picture when it was presented to them, asking, “Who is that?”  This was troubling, because my training had taught me that in typical development, the milestone for self-recognition happens around 18 months of age.  Experiments developed in the 1970s helped demonstrate this landmark by placing children before a mirror and watching their reaction.  If it wasn’t readily clear that the child recognized himself, a dab of rouge was placed on his nose.  Children who recognized themselves touched their fingers to their noses, often doing a double-take in the mirror, then looking down, looking up, and then looking down again — indicating the child’s understanding that this is not how he should look.

Rouge Test  African American Girl

This prompted me to bring children to the mirror more often, to really encourage them to look at themselves and talk about their facial features.   I encouraged much more mirror play after noting this pattern.

Rouge Test Eruo American Girl

My deepest concern for the children probably centered on how the experience of being homeless affected their sense of self and identity — so core to everything  human.  On some level , I know that I was likely having limited impact on their lives.  Yet I hoped that for a short time each of them had some experience of stability and care — a brief respite from stress they’d come to know.

I can say with certainty that this short experience impacted my teaching and my view of children and families.  It taught me to slow down and try to think more in the moment (like children do … go figure).  It reinforced my belief that a sense of self, and emotional intelligence are infinitely more important than all other areas of development.  It reinforced my understanding of the true vulnerability of early childhood and the unfortunate realities of the great numbers of American families who still do not have access to affordable housing.

The other good fortune from this experience was working side by side with a gifted co-teacher, whose easygoing, delightful view of the world was such a wonderful model for me.  She taught me the very simple yet magical statement, useful in so many instances, in our room,  “Come sit here beside me and be my special friend.”  She became a friend and a colleague.  You can’t beat that for a valuable  professional experience.  Thanks, Benita.

To all the children who passed through the Playschool during that year-and-a-half, thank you.  Thank you for making me a better teacher.   You gave me much more than I gave you, I think.  Thanks for teaching me about vulnerability and resiliency.  I think of you often, and wonder where all of you are now.

I hope you are well.

 

Bless the beasts and the children, for in this world they have no voice.  They have no choice.

(Perry L. Botkin and Barry De Vorzon)