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 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!

 

I’m Just a Kid – One Child’s View of Truth

Friday afternoon rolled around.  School was out, and I went to the front gate for my weekly after-school duty.  As I assisted arriving parents to sign their kids out, I knew that at any moment, Yok, one of my fifth grade students, would be come over to hang out with me for a few minutes. I have to confess that Yok had spoiled me with her perfect attendance since the beginning of the school year.  I always looked forward to our after-school conversations.  Eventually Yok skipped over and sat on the bench beside me.  “Hello, Mr. Allen,” she said cheerfully.  This that our chit-chat meeting was now in session.  

On that particular afternoon Yok and I shared personal stories about the times we broke or dislocated our bones, and about other stupid things we did to get in trouble. After about ten minutes I decided to change the course of our discussion.  “Yok,” I said with a thoughtful tone. “Who do you want to be when you grow up?”

“That kind of talk is for grown ups, Mr. Allen.  And I’m just a kid.”  She paused to study my reaction.  “And besides,” she continued.  “The future is unbalanced.”  Her eyes trailed off into the distance, leaving her words as silent echoes in my mind.  I immediately recalled a scene from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince where the narrator explains: “Grownups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children to have to provide explanations over and over again.”

 

But alas, I was a grown-up, 32-years in; and I felt a need for further explanation. “Unbalanced?” I asked. “What do you mean by unbalanced?”

“I mean the future is unbalanced,” Yok explained in a scholarly tone.  “By the time I’m your age I will have changed my mind 100 times. So what’s the point of thinking about it now?” 

 

“You’re so right!” I said.  “Thank you for teaching me this truth.”  She extended her hand in the air with her palm facing me.  Awe-inspired, filled with amazement at Yok’s wisdom, I extended my hand to meet hers in a quick high-5. 

 

The future is unbalanced: what a beautiful way to verbally illustrate the ways of the universe.  I believe Yok understands that she’d be better off absorbing her mind in things that happen at the present moment, instead of meddling in a future that hasn’t yet been born. And I think she is a happy child for it.

 

And her comment, I’m just a kid:  it reminds me that I too, am just a kid.  Kids are good at being kids because they are kids.  So as a grown-up I find them to be great teachers for me to learn how to live life more happily. Thank you, Yok, for reminding me to live in the present moment; thank you for reminding me to continue being a kid.