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.


A Harmonious rANT

They disembarked at my shores like a storm with no warning, escalating the possibility of war…

ImageAfter getting settled in my studio apartment in Thailand, and following weeks of mindless harvest of enjoyable (and totally unhealthy) street food, I was ready to prepare my first meal at home: tuna salad with chopped vegetables, spread on rye bread, topped with cheddar cheese, and warmed in the toaster oven.

Keeping my MacBook closed, I-phone in my pocket, book on the shelf, I resolved to eat my dinner in silence.  I placed my tuna sandwich on my newly purchased Japanese-style plate, and then tenderly positioned it in the center of my brand new IKEA table.  I sat down and wistfully gazed at my food, musing about the naked simplicity of this present moment: me, sandwich, silence.  No plans for the future or memories of the past.  No worries, gripes, or hang-ups. I took the first bite and felt my brain deliver sweet accolades of euphoria through my body.

However, my solitude was soon to be interrupted by the visitors.  I first noticed them when they marched past my plate.  They were 5 strong, filling the my the room with an air of menacing fidelity – a deep devotion to feed their master – The Queen.  One could only guess when the contingents landed on the shores of my apartment Room 8406; could have been days, months, even years before my settling there.

They were dressed in matching black armor and moved in unison. Indeed, they were born and raised as loyal clones, bred to follow all orders even in the face of the most perilous circumstance – the encounter with humans.

They’re here! I thought to myself unnervingly. The ants disembarked to claim their stake on their land…which I now occupied…Room 8406.  I knew right away that my waging war on the colony would not only be futile, but it would be inhumane – kind of like when in real life countries invade other countries with no resolution and regard for human life.  Yes.  There would have to be another way to face my fate: to offer diplomacy and request peaceful co-existence.

Meanwhile, the scouting division of five ants ceased its advance and froze to assess the viability of the situation.  I watched their antennae waving in the air like leaves in a storm.  They must have been using a cryptic ant language to discuss the situation before them.  They were probably saying, “Hmmm, what shall we report to her Majesty: deploy troops to R8406 or continue the search for other options?”  The ants continued the procession past my food to the other side of the table, down the table leg, and across the floor toward the nearest corner.  Then they disappeared out of site – for a while.

I imagined the ants reporting the epic news: “Your majesty! Your majesty! We have located a human occupier in your kingdom!  He cooks his own food every day.  And…and….and he leaves crumbs…EVERYWHERE!  Your highness, we have on our hands a pure-breed draggletail messy-eating – S-L-O-B!

The Queen would nod her head in stoic approval and order immediate construction of a Food-Gathering Formicidae Military Base in between the walls of my room.[1]

And they did just that.  Here’s a list of the ways that the Ant Colony of R8406 has workred for the sake of my well-being:

–       I am now extremely mindful of how well I clean up after myself

–       My apartment is free of dirty dishes

–       My floor and counters are free of crumbs

–       If I do leave any trace of food, the ants come out of the woodwork to help me with cleanup.  Once all the food is gone, they disappear.

–       The ants have challenged my ego in many ways.  If you really think about it, is it right to say that the ants are disturbing my peace and my space? Who was here first?  The ants!  In fact it is I who is disturbing the ants, if anything.

–       It’s actually pretty cool to share the apartment with the ants.  We’ve um, uh, kinda become friends.  I like their company.  And I’m pretty sure they like my food.

I can’t wait for an opportunity to share this story with my students at school; to share my opinion that Ants – just like people, just like anybody and everything – are good teachers for us.

And to the ants I dedicate this pithy poem:

Mad Gratitude for changing my mood

And deep apologies for my maybe being rude (before)

Thanks for helping me clean up my mess

You and your Queen are totally the best!

[1] Formicidae is the family that ants belong to.  And just in case you were wondering they also reside in the same insect family as wasps – the Hymenoptera.  Cooooooool!