The Essay That Didn’t Win…It Should Have.

The essay contest was titled, “When did you first know the meaning of love?”.  I knew the answer in a heartbeat; I had to enter and tell the world, because it was important.  It was the ‘light bulb’ moment in teaching, and how that became the groundwork for the many years that followed.

The Hundred Little Things

As a teacher, I have a way with children; sometimes I feel like the Pied Piper, young children seem to naturally gravitate to me. I can ‘read’ a young child; watching their eyes, listening to their words; the subtleties that children project are very honest. When I tell a story or read a book at school, children are often captivated, although spellbound is probably more accurate. “Jennie, tell the bat story!” You can see the anticipation in eager little eyes and transfixed bodies. Preschoolers move and wiggle, but not when I tell or read a story. Lunchtime at school is full of fifteen excited children, and that is when the stories flow. Children know that if a story starts with, “Once Upon a Time”, it is pretend. The Little Red Hen and Goldilocks and the Three Bears are ever popular. On the other hand, if a story starts with, “It Happened Like This”, they know the story is real, and something that happened with Jennie, their teacher. Oh boy! Those stories are beloved. Children beg to hear them, because they portray their teacher when she was a child, in the same situations that they can understand; being scared over a bat in her room, hating vegetables, going Trick-or-Treating at the scary next door neighbor’s house, and a birthday cake with the wrong frosting.

Believe me, it wasn’t always this way. Early on in my preschool teaching, I interacted with children with the best of intentions, yet often struggled to feel that I had made a connection, much less a difference. Even though I was always a caring and kind teacher, there was a self imposed ‘you and me wall’. I was the teacher, and you were the student. Teaching meant teaching information, in a caring environment. Yes, I was a good teacher, but I didn’t fully understand how important love was until that day, twenty years ago. It was naptime at school, late in the fall, the time of year when children and teachers were comfortable with each other. There I was, lying on my back, looking across the classroom. All the children were asleep, except Andrew, a child who was often distant and sometimes challenging. He was the boy I had not really connected with. He saw me, and I saw him. We both smiled, simultaneously, knowing everybody else was asleep. At that moment, there was nobody else on the whole earth. It was just Andrew and me. He knew it and I knew it. This was deep, and forgiving, and enlightening. I understood; love has no preconceived agenda. It is ‘there’, regardless of circumstances. Most importantly, love usually isn’t met with a lot of fanfare. In fact, it is the little things that often express love. The intensity of that moment is still with me. It changed me, and I understood that love, on the purest and simplest level, is most important.

In education, I learned that if love comes first, then teaching becomes deeper, better, more focused, and more energized. The children learn because I have put them first. I had it backwards, carefully planning a curriculum and activities, and then fitting the children into those plans. Not that it was bad or didn’t work; it just was…well, lacking the passion that comes with love. Oh, children know how a teacher really feels. So, thanks to Andrew, I started to change. First, lunchtime became a forum to learn about the children and really listen to them. I learned so many little things, like the names of pets and grandparents, what a big brother does, the color of a bike. These were little things, yet they became the building blocks. We often debated deep subjects, such as if a girl can marry a girl, or if people go to heaven when they die. Everyone’s opinion was valued. The day that Kelly told us her dog, Bruno, had died; the class did not know what to say. I told her that my dog had died years ago, and I was very sad. Then, a child asked Kelly if she was sad. The following thirty minutes was spent with heartfelt children telling each other about grandparents and pets who had died, and all the feelings and questions that naturally follow. At that moment, lunch was far less important than what was happening, and could wait. The building blocks were working.

I started to use a tape recorder to “interview” children, as this not only helped me to get to know them, but also was a good tool for language development (and it was fun). Our curriculum at that time was France and learning about the old masters in art. Young children love to paint, and they were practicing being artists with real palettes. I was learning so much about them, why not have the children do an autobiography to accompany their work of art? And, why not have the children name their work of art, and call it a masterpiece? The result was so profound that we had an art show at school, and then moved the art show to our local post office for the community to enjoy. What a success, and what a wonderful experience for the children. Our art show has since become a yearly event in the community. Again, the building blocks were growing, but now I began to realize that each block in itself was little. Did using a palette or holding a microphone make a difference? No. So, where did the passion and love (and there was passion and love!) come from? It was each block, over and over again, often hundreds of them, which made the difference. I started to call this phenomenon “The Hundred Little Things”. Now, my teaching and curriculum had become child centered. From this point forward, I put the cart before the horse. Smart thing! That same year my husband asked me, out of the blue, why our children wanted to hear ‘I love you’ all the time. “It’s the hundred little things”, I told him. “It takes at least a hundred times for each little ‘I love you’ to really become meaningful”.

The next year my class went to the circus. Of course we decided to have our own circus performance at school for our families, and I let the children decide what they wanted to do. Again, a child-centered event eclipsed anything I could have planned. Over the next few years, music, math games, and science exploration exploded. Every child’s interest was a spark, and became a tool for learning. I had learned so much and transferred the children’s love into a great preschool experience. Little did I know that the best was yet to come.

I love museums. In Philadelphia I visited the National Liberty Museum and was thunderstruck by their Peace Portal. Instantly I knew this magnificent structure was something my classroom could recreate. My years of following the love of the children had allowed me to embrace my own love, and give it back to the children. Now the tables were turned, yet again. I brought the idea back to school, and the children loved it! They spent a large part of the school year designing a Peace Portal. Then, they wrote a Peace Poetry Book, and designed a Peace Quilt, which is in the Museum. Suddenly, the power of love had gone beyond the classroom. The depth of this project was not only children’s building blocks, but my building blocks as well. Yes, I could give the same passion and love as well. Wow! A combination of the two means a deep understanding and enthusiasm on all parts. As such, the process and the product were wonderful. The following year, the children really wanted to sing “God Bless America”. Watching them sing amongst themselves, over and over, was a true ‘hundred little things’. Again, we worked together, under the umbrella of love, to bring the song to soldiers, to making a book, and to designing a quilt that hangs at the Fisher House in Boston.

Being a preschool teacher for many years has been a wonderful roller coaster of every emotion and of learning. When I first became a preschool teacher, teaching happened first. Thanks to Andrew, I know that love happens first, and then becomes the catalyst to develop deep relationships with children, and therefore a rich curriculum. The ‘hundred little things’ proves that to be true.

Pay attention, as love is there. You just need to see it. It can change your life. It changed mine.

Jennie

 

About Jennie

I have been teaching preschool for over thirty years. This is my passion. I believe that children have a voice, and that is the catalyst to enhance or even change the learning experience. Emergent curriculum opens young minds. It's the little things that happen in the classroom that are most important and exciting. That's what I write about. I am highlighted in the the new edition of Jim Trelease's bestselling book, "The Read-Aloud Handbook" because of my reading to children. My class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at both the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, and the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital.
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