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.


Reunited with my Students

Teach = Play I often taught my elementary students: “Listen to your heart – be wise, be mindful, be silly, be smart.” After five years of service as a teacher at KMS, I decided it was time to respond to the callings of my own heart: I packed up my bags, said good-bye to the families, to my fellow educators, and to my beloved students. I boarded an airplane with a one-way ticket to Thailand and went on to explore a new life as a teacher.  But after a year of separation, my heart was speaking out again, imploring me to come back and say hi.  So I packed up my bags again and flew to America to do just that.

But I wanted my reunion with the KMS kids to be just like in the movies: a tear-jerking blockbuster, sheathed with emotion, tears, hugs and smiles.  For days I mused over a dozen scenarios of how beautifully it would all transpire.  Oh yes.  My surprise visit of March 14, 2013 would go down as one of the great moments of my life.

I snuck into the school early in the morning. Peyton and Liz, the upper elementary teachers, were waiting for me as planned.  We had a quick powwow to make sure we all knew our parts.  Then they went downstairs to bring the kids up to the upper elementary floor, and I dashed upstairs out of site.  The plan called for a quite simple execution: the children would gather for an all Upper Elementary Council meeting along with Po – my stuffed, super soft and fuzzy panda bear – who would play a critical role.  Po had been a relatively passive, though special, participant of in every classroom I taught from my first day as a teacher.  When I came to KMS, the children breathed life into Po, adopting him as one of their own.  As a symbolic gesture of friendship and trust, I left Po in the custody of the kids before I moved to Thailand.  But now I was back, and Po was ready to come alive in a way nobody would have ever imagined.  The stage was set for an epic surprise.

It was go-time.  Peyton called my phone with her phone and activated its loud speaker.  That way I would be able to hear the entire conversation from my hiding spot.  I kept my phone by my ear and quietly waited for the children to come upstairs.  Finally I heard their high-pitched voices fading in, rapidly permeating the air space of the second floor.  My heart revved up with excitement.  When the butterflies flew into my stomach, I knew there was no turning back.  I held my breath and listened. The children gathered on the floor and made a big circle.  I imagined Po sitting upright next to Cara-Rose (now 9 years old).  Cara had been told about the plan in advance and agreed to be our accomplice. After the children settled into their circle spots, Peyton announced that the talking piece of the council meeting would be her own cell phone.  Of course, nobody knew that the phone’s loudspeaker was on and that I was able to hear everything that was being said.

Peyton began: “This morning’s theme for our council meeting is: A special memory you had with a teacher.  When you receive the talking piece, please share your memory.”  Peyton handed the talking piece to Cara.  I listened to Cara reminiscing about a memory she had with me last year.  Then she placed the cell phone on the floor right beside Po, and said, “Po, what do you think?”

That was my queue.  I took a deep breath and spoke into my phone: “Ever since Allen left, I had a wish to see him reunite with all you kids at KMS.  I miss Allen telling us to listen to our hearts.  And I want him back. So I decided to listen to my own heart: I went back to school to learn how to make my wish come true.  I applied and was accepted to the PhD program at the most prestigious Panda College in the world, The University of Panda Magic.  After I got my Magic PhD, I went on to become licensed to practice “Mystical Transport Magic,” which would give me the qualifications to transport people from one place to another when I would really miss them.  Well, I suppose now is the time to share with you my exciting secrete: I have been working on a magic formula specifically designed to bring Allen back to KMS. 

I paused for a few moments and listened to any commotion from the kids.  The room below was dead silent.  Perfect!  I went on:

Now, I need all of you to pay very close attention because we only have one chance at this.  It’s currently the middle of the night in Thailand, so I am assuming that Allen is sleeping.  We’re going to wake him up and bring him right here to KMS.  I need everyone to quietly whisper a countdown from ten to zero.  If my calculations are correct, Allen will appear before us by the time we get to zero.”

I put my phone away and tip-toed to the bottom of the staircase. I heard the children whispering, “5…4…3…2…1.”  Clothed in pajamas and my hair in a mess, I walked into the open.  I was standing right in front of the children.  At first there was a strange silence, but then, “He’s here!” they whispered, as I inched closer to them.  And then all 35 children stood up and ran up to me. Within seconds the entire group embraced me.  We were back together again, hugging in perfect harmony, all at the same time, together as one.  An overwhelming feeling of unity rushed into the tear ducts of my eyes.  I caught the eyes of many children with looks of bewilderment, excitement, and joy.  All the while I was participating in the best hug of my life.  Then I noticed Pheona, now 8 years old, standing on a chair and staring deeply into my eyes.  Tears rolled down her cheeks as she softly repeated, “You came back to see us.  You came back!” I nodded and said, “Yes, Pheona! I came back to see you.”

Peyton called the kids back to rejoin the circle to resume the council meeting.  As the talking piece made its way from one child to the next, I heard some of the most touching words from the kids about how much they appreciated me as their teacher, how thankful they were to me for caring about them and never giving up on them.  Listening to such sincere and loving expressions of gratitude, I felt cradled in a state of oneness.  It was as if I was enraptured by the accolades of the universe, which gave me the gift of sharing so much joy with the people who I really cared about.

Indeed, that day was one of the happiest of my life.  I got to experience the mighty capacity of love.  But it wasn’t just the love that did it. It was that togetherness aspect of love – the mutual sharing of feelings that I always place in such high regard.  In my opinion, it’s damn important and completely worth striving for.  It’s what makes my world go round and round and round. How can I be so sure?  Cause my heart told me so.  And I’m pretty sure that hearts have a pretty solid record of telling the truth.