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Looking a Little Longer: Conversation in the Classroom

Early this year, I learned a ‘trick of the trade’ from one of my colleagues. When teaching a group of young children, it can be of great advantage to you to begin class by saying, “Who has something to say to our class? Please raise your hand.”

Children compile so many thoughts throughout the day. Everything they see and hear sparks some inner comment that simply (and very literally) must be voiced. Those inner comments tend to pile up like ill-fitting hats if they’re not removed and hung up on a rack at regular intervals, leading to lots of shenanigans and less of actual learning. And so, every day my students (grades Pre-K through 2nd) know that the beginning of class will be dedicated to just that: saying whatever is on their mind, no holds barred.

Usually, it’s a Jackson Pollock-esque splatter of conversation. A student will raise his hand and say, “On Saturday, we’re going camping!” Another will raise hers and add, “I have four baby cats.” A third will remind me that their friend, So-And-So, is coming over later today, a fourth that he is wearing new boots, and so on.

But what began as a simple tactic for a type of behavioral palate cleanser is often something much more significant. One day, moments apart, one student announced that her mother was pregnant and another that a younger sibling had died. Grandparents have had strokes, pets have run away, new homes have been moved into, teeth have been lost and regrown.

Most of us feel that life is happening too quickly, but I have been surprised in the past seven months to observe that it seems to move in hyper-speed for our youngest students. Everything is new. Every major event is a first. They’re processing and learning to zip zippers and trying to make friends and traveling to funerals and going to birthday parties and repeating phonograms. Every time I ask if someone has something to say to the class, I know that there’s a very good chance that one of them will say something that shocks the room or raises a volley of questions.

And I’m glad when they do.

I’m glad that they feel safe enough to tell a room full of people that their ear hurts, or that their older sister is their hero, or that their grandfather is sick. I’m glad when they ask why some people do the sign of the Cross one way and some another. I’m glad when they tell me about their play date, or their cats, or their new boots. It shows me that they’re paying attention. Life is moving fast, but not so fast that they don’t catch it every few moments and turn it over in their small hands, wondering.

A mentor at my undergraduate alma mater used to say (and probably still does) that an artist is one who looks a little longer. It’s always encouraging to see my students doing that. I am privileged to witness their work.