A story begins

Monday, January 26, 2009

Occasionally, I publish on this blog pieces of writing I may be doing in my "professional" life. As I inch my way towards my dissertation, I do these pieces to help myself clarify the story I am telling - for this is what it is, this dissertation. My narrative. The Emily in this story is 16 years old now, Hannah is 13, Shannon and Geoffrey are 12, and while I know they have no recollection of me or these incidents - I carry them within ME as part of my reflective teaching practice. They created Dawn - the teacher. And I am grateful.

I have been reading a lot of journal articles and other scholarly works in the past week, waiting for my ideas and opinions to congeal. I find myself still occasionally tongue tied by Vygotsky, then subsequently get annoyed at myself for this strange mental block I have developed.

I returned to my base. I began to read and re-read articles on children, rather than pure theory. One article would lead me to the next. If something of interest was cited in one, I would track down the source, download it and read the source material. “Scholarly” is what Teresa has called it, but for me it is following the leech field of ideas. I need to see where things came from so I can re-construct the ideas for myself. Only at this point can I integrate the new knowledge into my wider sphere of knowing. As ridiculous as this sounds, it is then that I can feel confident of having absorbed the knowledge – soaked it up in my brain like a sea sponge. I am happy when I am at this task, for there is nothing that I am so much as tenacious in task.

This last journey started with a chapter of a book, “The Origins of Storytelling” from The Stories Children Tell by Susan Engel. As I read this authors ideas around the way children come to acquire the ability to tell stories, I was drawn back to my days working with Infants and Toddlers. Yes, it was true that I spent a good deal of my days describing to the children in my care.

I would start off the day by setting the room up in order to entice the various individuals. I knew Geoffrey loved the pig puppet, so maybe I will hide it in the tunnel in order for him to find it...or Shannon loves the pictures of faces, maybe I will line them up next to the mirror in order for her to make faces AT the faces, and catch sight of herself doing this, which will lead to howls of laughter from her...or Hannah loves to race to the top of the climber and knock over the stacking cups I will have placed on top for her to decimate. With these memories came the knowledge of WHO each of these people were ( and most likely still are) as thinking, learning individuals. As a teacher, I understood that it was not merely the taking care of physical needs such as diapering and feeding and napping, but the language I supplied that helped these children make sense of the things they already knew.

It was Magda Gerber who I sincerely credit for my understanding of the role of my talk in the worlds of these babies. Magda did not like “chattering” adults who talked in baby talk to infants. She taught that you should be purposeful in your talking. Describe what the infant is seeing. Reflect the infants experience. Validate their feelings and frustrations at occasionally being limited by their bodies lack of coordination. But above all, be authentic. Infants know who the trustworthy and respectful adults are – they sense it like a beam of light coming out of our foreheads. They may be babies, but they aren't stupid.

I recall a day during my first year of teaching when I became aware of my use of language. Emily had a temperature and was clearly uncomfortable. As I watched her from my spot on the floor, I asked her if she needed me to take her temp. She glared back at me, assessing whether the comfort she could derive from holding and maybe some tylenol would outweigh the irritation of giving up what she was doing and having me take her temperature. Another parent was in the room, as we often had visitors during break and lunch times.

Emily looked at me again. I sat up, cross legged and waited. “Do you want your temperature taken, Emily? You don't look like you are very comfortable.”

In nearly all things, Magda Gerber teaches her students to seek the childs cooperation and consent. There are times to assert your adult need to care for them, but on the whole, we asked for participation in the care rather than assertion of adult might. When an infant knows that their caregiver respects their body, they trust that the things we ask – such as diapering, or napping, or temperature taking, springs from a sincere concern rather than a need to dominate and control.

Emily looked down to the object she was exploring. I offered, “We can save that for you if you are worried about losing it while I take your temperature...”. It was indeed what she was worried about, and she look relieved as she picked up the toy and brought it with her as she walked over to the couch. I got the thermometer and met her at the couch. Snuggled on my lap, with the toy safely next to us, I said “It's going to be cold at first – the temperature...”

I paused and then said “Actually what I meant to say was that the thermometer will be cold at first – and the thermometer is what I use to take your bodies temperature. You'll know it is done when you hear the beep beep beep.”

Emily leaned back into me and said “Beep”.

We both sat there, waiting for the tell tale beep of completion.

The other visiting mother sat watching me from the rocking chair. She began to laugh. “That was a lot of explanation for taking a temperature!”, she chortled.

“Was it? I was just correcting my mistake – that I use a thermometer to take her temperature, really I was just thinking aloud...”

It was the first time I recall being consciously aware that my language was being broadcast to the children for whom I cared.

In reflecting on this long ago incidence, I also believe that I was helping Emily, and all the other children I cared for over years, create their own narratives. My language, my interpretation of their body language, my teaching sign language to younger infants to help them verbalize their needs and wants, all these things added to narratives. I was telling them stories, and they were telling me stories.

In every classroom in which I taught, we had a wall of family and friends. On this wall were photos of important people in the lives of the children, as well as the copious photos I took of them at work and play. One little boy, Geoffrey, loved to flip over a plastic bucket in front of the wall and sit for many minutes every day – naming every one he knew on the wall. At eleven months, he would stretch out his index finger and say the name of the person ( or animal) as his finger reached the picture. Inevitably, some one, adult or peer, would join him at his perch. There is nothing as delightful as being reminded of the people you know and love.

It was this activity – and many others – that helped me learn that infants and toddlers are able to project outward and understand others stories. We all knew the same of Lauren's dog in her picture – Diva – and the names of Hannah's cats too. We understood that those people and pets belonged to that one child. We all understood the idea of “Mother” too – but understood that my mother was not your mother or her mother or his mother. Mother could be a term that meant similar – but completely different things.

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