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.