Any time the children in my class make a mental connection, I celebrate with them. A while back, the class was absolutely enthralled with the book Owl Babies by Martin Waddel. One day a child was upset and told me that they wanted their mommy. I said, “Don’t worry, mommy is coming back.” Another child thought for a moment and said, “Just like the owl babies’ mommy!” I was very impressed with this connection and Owl Babies became our flagship book for remembering that mommy always comes back.
Children make connections like this all the time. The challenge for us, as teachers, is to not get so caught up in our own agenda that we miss the children trying to tell us about their connections. Any time I hear a child insistently calling my name – no matter what we are doing at the time – I try to answer and give them a chance to talk. It takes some practice and some patience, but I have found that the connections that the children make are much more visible to me.
There are two aspects of teaching this way that I want to discuss further. The first is, as I said, our own agenda. We all have a lesson plan that we must follow every week. We have activities planned that we know the children will enjoy and that will help them grow in the areas they need to grow in. The children keep trying to tell us something, but we don’t have time to listen to what they have to say – they need to be quiet so that we can move on to our next activity. Have you felt like that? Like there is too much distracting you from fulfilling your agenda for the day? Like they just don’t want to listen to you, and don’t they realize that we have a lot to do today?
Your agenda, in the grand scheme of things, is not that important. What is important is that this young child, who is still learning about and experiencing life, thinks highly enough of you that they want to share a piece of their life with you. This piece is so important to them that they will do whatever they can to get your attention so that they can share it.
Wherever this piece of their life leads you – to a different learning experience or a play idea that you hadn’t thought of before – pursue it for them. I promise you that whatever was so important to you can be reworked into the idea that was so important to them. And I realize that not all of the ideas that they have can be pursued. But this brings me to point number two.
Respect them enough to listen to them. Sometimes we get so caught up in thinking about them as children who need to be taught that we forget that they are people who have feelings, just like us. I know that when I am bursting with a new idea or have made a connection or have a celebration to share, I seek out the closest person I can find who I think will care. It can be a little deflating to try to share something with someone, but you can’t because that person can’t or won’t stop what they are doing for two minutes to listen to your news. It makes me think twice about sharing with them next time. If we don’t give children an chance to share their lives with us, how excited are they going to be to share with us when we want them to at circle time or any other time? How can we build connections with them if we don’t let them share with us? And what are the consequences as far as their self-esteem and their confidence if we don’t allow them to share?
What are the consequences to the classroom? If their inability to share leads to frustration, they may take that out on other children. If it leads to sadness, we may find ourselves dealing with a moody child. Neither option is ideal when working with a class full of children.
“Exactly,” I hear you say. “I have a class FULL of children. How can I possibly listen to the stories of every single one of them?” Well, the good news is that they won’t all have news to share at the same time. But the bad news is that many times the story of one child will trigger a thought in another, who will have to tell you their thought right then. This is a good opportunity to teach how we take turns when speaking. I have heard of several different ways to teach this communication skill, including giving a set of cut-out lips to the speaker and cut-out ears to the listener. My favorite, however, is simply to tell the children whose turn it is to talk. They typically understand, especially when they are told that they will get a turn as well. This even works when the teacher is trying to talk. Informing them of whose turn it is helps them to learn the mechanics of conversation.
The point is that nothing in anyone’s agenda is more important than the thoughts of the children. And the thoughts of the children can lead you to learning opportunities that you never dreamed of. Taking a moment to listen can be the greatest thing you, as a teacher, have done since making a lesson plan.