I'm gonna tell my own story

These are the words perhaps of a great author, poet, or historian; the words of an accomplished man sitting down at the end of his life to write his autobiography. Certainly the words of someone who sees themselves as powerful in this world, capable of expressing their ideas, and with a story worth sharing with the world.

Yesterday, they were the words of a four-year-old girl in classroom 6. I sat at their art table, watching as five children worked at a furious pace, intently engaged with their work, tiny yet intentional shapes emerging as their colored pencils flew up and down on the blank white paper. This girl turned to me in the middle of her work and showed me what she had created: a large square (with the wavering, fluctuating lines and imperfect corners marking it as child’s work), with several (undulating) lines below it. It was an unmistakable replica of a “Story Sheet,” a tool our teachers often provide children with for telling their stories. The box on the top half of the sheet is meant for the child to draw a picture in, and the lines below are for the words of the story. This child showed me her replica and proudly proclaimed, “I made my ownStory Page.” Her smile was ear-to-ear, and she quickly returned to her work. Several moments later, she turned again, and with the oratory power of an ancient poet she proclaimed, “I’m gonna tell my own story.” Watching as she worked, the story emerged: two quirky-looking stick figures, with bow-legged arms and larger-then-life eyes, accompanied by the very clearly written “TECBH5PO.” She could not have been more proud.  Later, checking in with her teacher after dismissal, I heard that she shared more: the story was about her and her mother going to the grocery store. This was her story, and she had to tell it.

Sometimes, we are so focused on a child’s development that we forget that children are competent individuals with ideas, passions, and importantly, a voice. I’ll make a distinction here between language and voice. Language is a cultural competency to communicate in an agreed upon manner with pre-defined vocabulary; voice is the sense of self and desire to share that self with others. Language is English; voice is making your heart and passion external. Our children have voice, but have only a stammering competency with language. Society tells us to strengthen the child’s language to prepare them for later experiences; along the way, their voice is unwittingly lost. Our community is a place where we fight this tide, where children are seen as citizens now, where the child’s voice is respected, given space, and listened to.

What we have found is that children need tools to express their voice if they are to overcome the hurdle of language. One of those tools is the Story Sheet that we use, highlighted in the anecdote above. Another tool is small figures, dolls, and animals, allowing the child to talk through their play. I watched in classroom 1 two years ago as a two year old boy eloquently voiced his relationship with his mother: the large zebra was “mommy”; the small zebra was “me.” This was his story, and he needed to tell it. The tools of play gave life to his voice. It allowed him to feel confident and known in this world. He is now in our preK program, moving on to kindergarten next year. Along the way, he has learned the tool of language. But he had his voice long before he had his language, and our school is a place where he has been listened to as both have developed. He will leave nursery school this spring not only with a competency in his language but a power in his voice.

It is important that we provide tools for our children’s voice in the environments they inhabit. As adults, we do this as well: a cup of coffee or glass of wine gets our conversations flowing.  It is that much truer for our children, if only we can find the right tools to allow their voice to take expression.  When we provide children with paper and crayons, small figures and dolls, playdo or clay, and really listen intently, we realize that not only do young children say the silliest things, they say the most profound things as well.

What tools does your child use to express their voice? When you listen hard, what are they saying? What new tools can you introduce in your home for your child to express themselves?

When we attend to the child’s voice, not only their developing language, we realize they are not preparing to share their stories with the world at some undetermined time in the future when they have mastered mature language; they are sharing their stories right now, right here, with me and you. The more we listen, the more we learn.

Shabbat shalom,