This was one of our alumni, back for Columbus Day to see her little brother in nursery school. I was standing by the entrance to school in my usual morning post, and she was chatting and catching up with her former teacher from two years ago. I watched, enraptured, as she described Kindergarten.
She had been one of the smallest children, by height, in her PreK class the year prior. It appeared as if this was likely the case again in Kindergarten. But as she excitedly shared news about her classroom with her former teacher, she was, it seemed, quite big. She raised up on her tiptoes, shoulders broad, arms gesticulating high in the air, chin up, and eyes wide.
As adults, we seem to have a thirst for providing labels and categories for children. We rank their height and weight from birth, we tell them based on their exact birthdate what class is appropriate for them, we tell them what to learn based on how old they are. We assume that our assumptions are correct....because we're adults, so how could they not be?
Lost in this adult appetite for prescriptions for our children is the perspective of the child. From her eyes, she was not the smallest in her class. She was in Kindergarten, and it had made her big. It certainly looked like it!
At our school, we take the perspective of the child seriously. We listen deeply to what the child says, does, and expresses. We interpret and translate in an effort to have our classrooms reflect the child's vision of themselves and the world. Sonya Shoptaugh, an educator and "Reggio coach", has shared with our teachers the phrase "ruthless listening." (Sonya has worked with our school in different capacities over a period of several years, and is working with our teaching staff monthly this year.) It is this passionate pursuit of the child's perspective that we striver for each day.
With this in mind, I was in one of our 3s rooms this week, watching two students play together. One was scribbling in a notebook, very carefully making an up-down pattern, squiggled between the lines on the paper, characteristic of a young emerging writer. She was softly repeating the words her friend was saying, "writing" them down.
Her playmate, marker and notepad in hand, looked on, forlorn:
I don't know how to write my letters and numbers, she said.
She looked at me, deflated. I encouraged her to ask her friend to teach her. The students worked together; slowly, both notebooks filled with scribbles and squiggles. They took turns saying something to each other, and the other would repeat it slowly as they "wrote" it down.
I found this exchange so curious. Neither student, according to our adult categorizations, could write. Neither of them knew their letters or numbers. But one saw herself as a writer, and the other didn't. And through the simple act of peer collaboration, they joined together as writers that day.
Listening to the young child, as we seek to do in our school, means more than letting them choose what color crayons to use or who to sit next to for story time. It means sensing their own ideas about them self. It means hearing them tell their autobiography, instead of writing it for them.
Children consistently amaze us. All it takes is pulling back the labels and categories we give them (big and small, literate and non-literate), and instead ruthlessly listening to their own descriptions of themselves.