The Pretzels of Harmony

I woke up from a dream where I was teaching at an elementary school in Reggio Emilia, Italy. In my dream Loris Malaguzzi walked into my classroom while I was playing freeze tag with my students. I feared that he would reproach me for playing such a physically active game inside instead of outdoors. Instead he gave me two thumbs-up and said, “Keep up the good work!”

That morning, I woke up to the 6:00am sound of my alarm feeling great. The Loris Malaguzzi – father of the Reggio Emilia approach to education –  found me in my dream to tell me that I was doing a good job!  I reached for my phone, opened the web browser and typed “Loris Malaguzzi quotes” in the google search engine. “Not without Joy,” read the first line. I decided this would be my Malaguzzi quote of the day. I got out of bed, set my stopwatch for 20 minutes, plopped onto my zafu (round cushion used for meditation), curled my legs up in the shape of a pretzel, and closed my eyes. My mind swerved through the serpentine network of thoughts, questions, and realizations. I thought of what being a teacher means to me, and came up with the following meaning: teaching is a perpetual journey to collaboratively explore the world and make cool realizations about ourselves and to discover all the awesome forces that connect us to one another. In the teaching journey, the kids are teachers and the grownup teachers are students. Through our interactions, we, the kids and adults cultivate seeds of kinship, which are sure to grow into meaningful friendships. Such was the inner monologue brewing in my head while I sat in meditation. Then my alarm went off. I opened my eyes with an idea in mind: I would lead an activity that would be educational, provocative, collaborative, and fun. I would need three things: a bag of pretzels, a paper cup, and my group of students.

On my lunch break I went to the corner grocery store and bought a bag of pretzel. I entered the school gate and casually meandered across the playground, deliberately holding the pretzels in plain site of the children as they played.

“Hey! What’s that?” Emma yelled across the yard. She caught up with me and asked again, “What’s that, Allen? Is that pretzels? What are you going to do with them?”

“Oh these pretzels?” I asked. “These are just nothing,” I bluffed.

But Emma’s acute perception was not to be fooled. Her eyes were already lit up with delight, as if she’d figured out the whole caboodle. “No it’s not!” she said. “We’re going to play a game with pretzels, aren’t we?” She was jumping up and down clapping her hands as she skipped off to share the news with her friends. “You guys! Allen is going to give us pretzels after lunch!”

“Mission accomplished,” I said to myself and returned to the classroom to prepare. I placed the cup and bag of pretzels in the middle of the circle rug, and used the last 10 minutes of my break to eat my own lunch.

Recess was over at 1:00pm. As everyone returned to the classrooms. I instructed my group of first graders and kindergarteners to sit next to one another around the bag of pretzels and paper cup. “As tempting as it might be,” I said while passing out two pretzels per kid, “Please do not eat the pretzels yet.”

I continued with the instructions: “Each of us will take turns putting one pretzel into the cup. As you do so, you have three options. Option #1 is to share what it means to be a KMS Kid. Option #2 is to give someone a compliment. Option #3 is to not saying anything at all. Regardless, you are required to put one of your two pretzels into the cup.”

Fourteen hands shot into the air, ready to share. “Let the games begin!” I announced.

“Being a KMS kid means to be kind, caring to everyone,” said Charlotte, putting her pretzel into the cup.

“Being a KMS kid means to make friends,” Sophia said.

“Being a KMS kid means having fun and having personal responsibilities, like cleaning after yourself,” Emily said and put her pretzel in the cup.

Then Daniella : “Scarlett, I want to compliment you for being so quiet and listening when the teacher is talking.”

Scarlett blushed for a moment, humbly shrugging her shoulders. “Thanks, Daniella. And I want to compliment Allen for being such a good teacher.”

Now it was my turn to blush. I did not expect anyone to say anything toward me. I put my hands together in gratitude and said, “Thank you, Scarlett. That’s a really sweet thing to say.”

Before I could call on the next student, Emily took the floor: “And I want to compliment Allen for being my favorite teacher. You always play with us and read to us and help us write.”

And you play freeze tag with us during recess,” Scarlett added.

“Yeah, Allen!” Daniella said. “You are the best teacher we ever had!”

“I like when you teach me to read,” said Mia.

“Well this is just great!” I said in jest. “You’re about to see your teacher cry.”

“But why?” Asked Diana. “We’re saying nice things to you. Why are you sad?”

“I’m actually quite happy,” I said.

“I am so grateful to be your teacher, I replied. “If you say I’m a great teacher, that is because you are all great teachers.”

And then there was silence. We all just sat there tacitly enjoying the moment, in which I felt beholden to the compassionate heart of Loris Malaguzzi and to my own path of becoming a Reggio-inspired teacher.

“Now can we eat our pretzels?” Diana asked with a huge happy grin.

“Yes!” I exclaimed. “But what about the pretzels we put in the cup?”

“Let’s take them out one at a time and eat them,” Layla said.

“But this time,” I added. “As we each take a pretzel, let’s say one word to describe how we feel.”

“Happy!” said, Mia and took out a pretzel.

“Encouraged,” said Caroline, and took out a pretzel.

“Like,” said Layla while pointing her finger at me.

“Thank you,” said Celine.

“Love,” said Chloe.

And so, we concluded our Friday afternoon in a place of happiness, feeling encouraged, showing gratitude, and sharing the love. I believe Mr. Malaguzzi would be proud of me. This afternoon everyone took another step deeper into the already strong sense of community we all feel at our school. Indeed, nothing that day was performed without joy.

 

The Restaurant

 

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“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

– Plato

“Hey Mr. Allen!” Danny (6 y/o) yelled from across the school yard. “Come look at what we built. We made a restaurant and you can eat anything you want!” He and his friends – all in my grade 1 class – were huddled in the corner of the playground.

“Ok!” I yelled. “I’m coming!” Toora noticed my approach and sprinted over to meet me. She was out of breath, panting with controlled patience, ready to reveal something inevitably amazing. “Mr. Allen, Mr. Allen, she said between breaths. “We have this amazing restaurant! You can have anything you want! What would you like to have? Do you want dumplings?”

“Well what else do you have?” I asked.

“Um, we have…any kinds of food you want. Just say something and I will go make it for you.”

Then Danny came dashing behind Toora and stopped in front of me. “Mr. Allen,” he said. “I’m a server, and we want to invite you to eat at our restaurant.”

I perceived Danny’s invitation as an excellent opportunity to join my little actors upon a stage of imaginative artistry – engineered and steered solely by the hearts and minds of these children. They choose who gets to participate in their world of fantasy, and they call the shots of how the play will go.  That’s just how it is, and that is how it ought to be. With permission to enter their sacred place of imaginative play, I walked in.

“Hmm,” I said with dramatic sobriety. “I don’t know, Toora. I was hoping to see a menu of some sort. I’m a pretty picky eater.”

Toora and Danny exchanged glances.  “Ok, wait right here, Mr. Allen,” Danny said. “I’ll be right back.” They ran away to confer with their colleagues. Danny returned with his entourage of restaurant staff: Mark, Natalie , Steve, and Robbie. “Come with me,” Danny said. “We have a menu prepared for you.”

On our way to the corner of the playground, Steve said, “I’m the manager of this restaurant. You can ask anyone who works here and they will tell you what we have. Please sit down. Someone will be with you soon.”

Natalie  escorted me to a lawn chair and said, “Here Mr. Allen, sit down and we will serve you some delicious food!”

Danny walked up to me holding a large green leaf, which he folded into the shape of an ice cream cone. He had filled the cone up with soil and stuck a few twigs into it.  “These are Hula Sticks,” Danny explained. “They retain you and help you stay hungry until the food comes.”

“Excellent! I’ll take a Hula Stick,” I said.  “What else do you have?”

“We have chicken and strawberry kabobs,” said Robbie. “Would you like one?”

“Yes,” I said. “But I would also like a vegetarian kebab with pineapple and watermelon.”

“Sorry, Mr. Allen, but we don’t have that,” Robbie said with a sympathetic frown. “But we do have vegetarian dumplings. Would you like a vegetarian dumpling?”

“Indeed I would, good sir!” I exclaimed.  “What else is on the menu?”

“Well we have this really great salad,” said Danny. Now Danny was holding a yogurt container filled with dirt. “The dirt is brown cheese,” he explained.  “It tastes just like blue cheese but it’s brown.”

“Brilliant!” I stammered. “I always wanted to eat brown cheese that tastes like blue cheese!”

“You should really have some dessert,”  said Robbie. “Our ice cream is organic. And it has toys on the bottom for little kids.”

“Toys on the bottom for little kids,” I echoed. “I would be delighted.”

“I am so satisfied with the food!,” I said loud enough for all the children to hear. Your restaurant rocks! And what perfect timing: I’ve just finished my dessert and it’s time to go back to the classroom for lunch!”

As the children ran off to eat,  remained back with me. She asked if I could give her a piggyback ride to the classroom. As always, I agreed. I knelt down low enough for her to hitch onto my back. On our way, we talked more about the restaurant. Natalie  informed me that their restaurant would be open again tomorrow, and that I was invited for a brand new menu of food. I told Natalie  to have a table ready for me at 12:30pm sharp. As I turned my head to catch Natalie ’s reaction, I saw her beaming with happiness. We walked the rest of the way in silence, tacitly sharing a feeling of closure to a wonderful journey that took place in a small nook of the playground.

In those 15 minutes of spontaneous role-play, I experienced my students shine in their element as little geniuses; as teachers who led me through a workshop on how to understand them through play.  The workshop taught me that to really understand a child is to pay attention to her calling to join in the fun, and when that invitation comes flying at you, offering the opportunity step into the child’s sacred space of the imagination, you say, “YES!”

Don’t Ever Give Up

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I remember the day in 6th grade when I nervously sat in the principal’s office at Miller Creek Middle School, awaiting the inevitable sentencing for some minor offense I’d committed during recess. When the principal finally came in, she caught me staring at a black and white sketch with the frog gripping to the bird’s throat pinned to her door. Ms. Shepard fixed her eyes on the same picture, and we both just studied it in silence. It was awkward. The school principal – my judge and jailer – inviting me to share some tacit truth about life.  Finally after a few moments of intolerable silence, she began to nod her head, and a wickedly mischievous grin broke out on her stone-cold white face.  “Allen,” she said. “You’d better learn something from this moment.” I remember the decisive intention in her voice. I had been expecting a blow from a fire-breathing dragon, but instead got a lesson in life from a caring teacher. I received a rather light sentence:  Two hours of garbage pick-up and a phone call to my parents letting them know I’d been a naughty bugger. Twenty years later that image of the frog holding on to dear life, the shared silence between Ms. Shepard and I, her advice that I’d best get my sh*t together and persevere in life. It all makes perfect sense to me now. Don’t Ever Give Up!

The Power of “I’m Sorry”

As an educator, I do my best to make emotional space in my heart for times when I have to apologize to my students for having done something I shouldn’t have done.  For example, my students already know that if I raise my voice, I apologize on the spot for creating an emotionally unsafe space for the kids.  And if I forget to apologize, I’m always reminded with remarks such as, “Um, Allen, you didn’t apologize for raising your voice.”  Then I end up apologizing for forgetting to apologize for raising my voice!  It’s all good fun, really.  

 

Today, Jerry (6 y/o) appropriately called me out for being a total bonehead because I undermined his intelligence.  Consequently I realized just how powerful and important it is for a teacher – given the appropriate circumstances – to practice humility by saying two golden phrases to a child:  “I’m sorry” and “Thank you.”

 

Here’s how it all went down.  My first graders and I were chilling in the school library, exploring books while lounging on the comfy bean bags and floor pillows.  I was reading a picture book to a few children who had crowded around me.  Once I finished the story, I made an announcement that it was time to head back to class for Writer’s Workshop.  As the children filed out, I jumped up on my feet and slammed my head on the low loft ceiling above.  “Ouch!” I shrieked.  The kids stared at me as I stood there holding my head in pain.  

“Are you ok, Allen?” the children sympathized.  

“Yes yes, I’m fine.  Let’s go upstairs for Writer’s Workshop.”

When we returned to the classroom, I reminded the children to make sure that books they checked out must go into the appropriate book bins of the classroom library.  I noticed Jerry putting a book about snakes into the wrong bin.

“Jerry, please check your book again,” I said.  “Is this a fiction or non fiction?”

Jerry completely ignored me and continued to place the snake book in the same bin.

“Jerry,” I persisted.  “Please rethink your decision.  This book is non-fiction.  Where does it go?”

Jerry stared at me in frustration, as if to say, “Allen, I know what I’m doing.  What is wrong with you?” Ignoring me again, he put the snake book in the same bin and waited for my move.  

“Sorry, dude,” I said shaking my head. “Try again. You have a non-fiction book and you’re putting it into the fiction bin.”

He refuted my claim again, this time shaking his head with resolute force. It seemed that Jerry and I were stuck in a debate with no apparent winner in site. But then Jerry went in for the kill, ending this debacle once and for all.  He put his finger directly under the “non” of the “non-fiction” label and said, “Um, Allen,  this is the non fiction bin.” I looked at the label again and indeed it was the non-fiction bin.  Jerry had been making the correct decision all along!  “Looks like Allen had a brain fart,” I thought to myself.  

Then Jerry said, “Please wait here, Allen, I have something that will help you.”  He ran off toward the bathroom and came back with a soaked paper towel.  “Here you go Allen.  Put this cold paper towel on your head where you got the bump.  This will help you take care of your brain since you didn’t know where the non-fiction books are supposed to go.”

“It’s ok, Allen,”  Jerry said.  His voice sang with empathy and care. “You just hit your head.  Your brain wasn’t working properly.”  Then he walked to his writing spot to wait for me to begin the writing lesson.  But I followed him, knelt down to one knee, looked him in the eyes, and said, “Jerry, I’m sorry for doubting you.  Thank you for your kindness.”  Jerry blushed and nodded his head in acceptance.  

I got up to my feet – slowly this time.  “Boys and girls, I’m glad to see you all gathered on the rug in your writing spots to begin today’s Writer’s Workshop…”  My eyes met Jerry’s.  He was still smiling at me, sitting tall and looking proud to be an excellent 6-year-old teacher.  I smiled back with gratitude for being his 33-year old student.  

Lessons from the White Space Monster

Back in the early September days of this school year, my first grade students began work on a team-building art project. On the project’s third day, I decided it was time to share the tale of the White Space Monster.  I picked up the ‘Freeze’ bell,  stood on a chair, and held the bell high above my head like a mistletoe.  A couple children noticed me and assumed the well-rehearsed frozen position.  Ring Ring Ring, went the bell.  The room fell into a silent hush as eight pairs of 6 year-old eyes stared in my direction, ready to listen.   I’d managed to catch  their attention, and I was excited to deliver something captivating, meaningful, and worthy of their time.  I jumped right in:

 

“As I walk around the room,” I said,  “I notice that all of you are staying beautifully involved in your drawings.”  Then my face turned to a sobby frown as I continued:  “But, there’s a tiny problem.  Many of you are not completely taking care of your drawings.  That is, you scribble a few lines with a color pencil and you leave tons of white spaces.”

The children shifted their gazes back at their drawings to confirm my observations.  “Have any of you heard of the White Space Monster?” I asked in a mischievous tone.  Eight 6-year-old heads shook left and right to signal a ‘no.’  “Well, the White Space Monster is a really nice monster, and he never hurts anyone.  But!  If he sees anyone leaving white spaces in their drawings, he creeps up behind and tickles them!”

“You’re the White Space Monster!” the children playfully accused me.  I had anticipated this response and was therefore ready for a rebuttal.  “I certainly am not the White Space Monster, BUT,” I paused with a raised finger in the air.  “The White Space Monster is currently training me to do his job.  That’s right, boys and girls.  I have become a loyal disciple of the White Space Monster.  What all this means is I can come over and tickle anyone who leaves white spaces.”

“But why does the White Space Monster need to tickle us?” Beca asked. “And what does ‘disciple’ mean?”

I responded: “Because the White Space Monster wants to teach us that when we color in white spaces,  we are taking care of our work and we’re doing the best we can.  And when we do the best we can,  we can be proud of ourselves!  And the word ‘disciple’ means a student who follows and believes in a teacher’s wisdom.”

“What is ‘Wisdom’ mean, Allen?” Beca asked.

“Wisdom is joy that you will have if you do your best on all your work and treat other people with kindness!”

“Now then!” I continued.   “Of course, the White Space Monster understands special situations when white spaces are meant to be left white.  But in this activity, I expect you to do your best to cover as many white spaces as you can inside your pictures.”  

As the weeks passed, I often brought up the notion of the White Space Monster, but I never actually tickled anyone.  Indeed, all eight  students showed that they took the White Space Monster philosophy to heart:  the children began to put care into their work, and their drawings were improving every day.  

But the White Space Monster wanted to play.  So he came by to visit our class on September 25th while the children drew geometric designs.

In the middle of this activity I announced: “Excuse me, boys and girls.  “While you were coloring your geometric shapes I received a call from the White Space Monster.  He asked me how you were all doing, and I told him that you were  involved in a coloring activity today.  Then he told me that I have full permission to tickle anyone who leaves white spaces!”

“No you don’t!,” said brave little Teddy.  He had a huge playful grin on his face.  “You’re not gonna tickle us!  We can leave white spaces and nothing’s gonna happen!”  Teddy then looked around for social approval.  He got it from a few boys and girls who chanted, “Yeah! We’re not gonna get tickled!” Ahah – The tables have turned, I thought to myself…but not for long!

“Ok,” I said shrugging my shoulders.  “You are all entitled to your own beliefs,” and I slipped out of site to prepare for the White Space Monster ambush.  It took me a month to get to this epic moment, but it was worth the wait.  The children refocused their attention on their drawings while I silently counted down to zero.  And then I made my move: I ran through the classroom wildly screaming, “White Space Monster! White Space Monster!” pouncing behind and tickling every child.  I knew that at that point I had unleashed another monster – the Monster of Chaos.  The kids began to shout, laugh and jump up and down in a complete frenzy. After I got everyone tickled, I ran away toward the other side of the classroom with a stampede of 8 elated children chasing behind.  Collapsing on the meeting rug, I rolled onto my back and let the frenetic kids cover me with tickles from all sides.  

At the end of the school day, we came together for closing circle reflection.  Every child shared that his or her favorite part of the day was the White Space Monster’s visit.  Then I made my own impromptu closing speech:

“Yes it was also my favorite part of the day because I got to play and harmonize with all of you.  But for me, what also matters is that you learned something valuable from the play we had.”  Then I stopped for a moment, thinking what to say next.  It came to me when my eyes met Beca’s.  I smiled at her and said,” I hope that we all uncovered a bit more wisdom!”  She smiled back at me with a look of self satisfaction.

“So what did you learn?” I asked the children.

Jeffrey raised his hand but was way too excited to wait for me to call on him.  “We learned that we have to do our best and make sure that we color in all the white spaces!”

Liz added, “Yeah, and if we do our best, then we can be proud of our work.”

“Exactly!”  I said.  And you should be proud of your work because you all did a great job.  I will report this good news to the White Space Monster immediately.  He too, will be proud.”

 

The room erupted with laughs and giggles as we ended the school day together with a light-hearted  feeling of joy and a collective sense of closeness as a community of friends.  I am so delighted that the children found new skills in the arts, deepened their appreciation for a strong work ethic, and uncovered just a bit more wisdom in their young journeys as little Earthlings.  All was done in the name of the White Space Monster’s teachings  – to keep sacred the freedom of learning through play.Image

A 5 year-old’s Guide: How to Deal with Anger

“Choose a job you like, and you won’t have to work a day in your life.”

– Confucius

There once was a 5 year-old kindergartener named Teddy.  Teddy loved to visit my first grade classroom and participate in all our activities.  Every morning before school, he would run up to me and ask the same question: “Allen, can I be with you in upper elementary today?”  And I would usually respond with the same answer: “It’s ok with me, but first check in with your kindergarten teachers and make sure it’s ok with them.” Then Teddy would whizz off to ask Randall, the head kinder teacher.  Randall would usually say, “yes.”

One morning, Teddy was engaged in a math activity with my first grade students.  I was teaching a small group lesson to 4 kids while the others were playing math games.  Teddy and his friend Rick, walked up to me.  “We need to tell you something in private,” Teddy whispered.  “Yeah, it’s really important,” Rick added, putting extra emphasis on the ‘really.’  The three of us stepped out of the classroom.  As soon as I knelt down to their eye level, Teddy said, “Can me and Rick have some time to play outside of the classroom?”

“Ok,” I said with a hint of caution.  I waited for their faces to light up with relief, and then I added, “But first you must stay involved in your math activity for 10 minutes.  Then you can choose to either build with wooden blocks or draw pictures in the Atalier (Fancy Italian word for art space).”    

“Ok,” Teddy said.  “But we also need to run around the school while we play.” The urgency in his voice was so convincing, I nearly gave in. 

“Oh?” I replied.  “And why do you need to run around the school?”

“Because we’re Adventure Cats!” Teddy said with excitement. 

How could anyone contend with such an argument? Adventure Cats obviously need space to run around and make noise.  I mean, that’s what Adventure Cats do, don’t they?  Well, I couldn’t have two 5 year-old kids running around the upper elementary space during our math time.  But instead of denying his request, I decided to challenge Teddy to a game of negotiations.  If he proved himself worthy, I would settle on a compromise.

After 5 minutes of heated dialogue with the two boys, I proposed the following conciliation: “You may play Stationary Adventure Cats.  That means that you can be Adventure Cats while concentrating your mind and body on a specific activity.  Running around is not a reasonable choice because it will distract the other children.” As expected, Teddy and Rick agreed to my terms right away.

“We choose to build with Kapla blocks!” said Teddy.  Then the boys dropped onto all fours and crawled off to the block-building center, meowing as they went. 

Five minutes later I came over to check on the two Adventure Cats.  I found Teddy sitting motionless on the floor while Rick stared in shock at the disorganized mess of Kapla blocks that surrounded the boys. Teddy’s legs were twirled up like a pretzel in a full lotus position.  His eyes were closed, and he held his palms together in prayer.  Sensing my presence, he opened his eyes.  “I’m meditating,” he said calmly.  Then he closed his eyes again.

“Why are you meditating?” I whispered.

Teddy re-opened his eyes and shifted his gaze at the disorganized pile of Kapla blocks. “I’m meditating because I am angry,” he said.  “Our Kapla tower fell down, and I got angry.  I don’t want to be angry because it hurts.  That’s why I’m meditating.”  His voice was tranquil; and his brave little heart, unshaken by the ill-fated circumstances, had found a path through meditation, to dig himself out of his own sorrow.  He closed his eyes once more and returned to his temple of peace. 

That is why I love my job!