‘TheHundred Little Things’
The hundred little things- that’s what it’s all about, in teaching and in life. It took me many years as a teacher to figure this out. Thank goodness I had a ‘lightbulb moment’.
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-five years ago.
It was nap time 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 Jennie. He knew it and I knew it. This was deep and enlightening.
In education, I learned that if children come 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 passion. 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.
It was each ‘moment’, 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 clearly put the horse before the cart. 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”.
Once teaching became child centered, the most remarkable events began to happen.
We 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. 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 and participated in making a Peace Quilt, which is now a permanent display in the Museum. The depth of this project was a combination of 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 to bring the song to soldiers, to making a book, and to designing a quilt that hangs at the Fisher House in Boston. Our most recent quilt hangs at the Boston State House. Most importantly for the children, the Governor personally accepting the quilt.
When I pay attention to what sparks children and ‘run with it’, there is always a powerful result, something meaningful, something children sink their teeth into, something they remember. Last year they loved the robots that Boston Dynamics built, so children wrote a letter and told them so. The engineers wanted to Zoom with the children and tell them about the robots. Today at school, it has started again. Stay tuned for the letter and story.
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 the 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 to children. You just need to really see them, and love them. It can change your life. It changed mine.