“My greatest skill in life was wanting but little.”
-Henry David Thoreau
Here’s an old journal entry I wrote when I was student-teaching in a second grade class with Mehrnoosh Watson, a master teacher who had a profound influence on me. I’ve been reflecting more recently on the value of children’s play (something I do a lot) and it seems to me that play is not only a cognitive imperative but a moral one, too.
Reflections from a Second Grade Classroom
How do teachers integrate moral lessons in daily teaching practice? Many teachers ignore the subject altogether, arguing that it has little role in the academic life of a child. Other teachers focus their moral teachings on fair play on the playground or teaching children to take turns. Sometimes a holiday or assembly comes up and there is a brief flurry of activity around moral issues. In the school where I am teaching, there is a strong commitment to issues of environmental stewardship, kindness, and inclusion – manifested by an active recycling program, many fundraising activities for children in need, and public recognition of “acts of kindness.”
But I still wonder: how do teachers effectively respond to the emerging moral development of young children in a teaching environment of high stakes testing, over-burdened schedules, and – perhaps most daunting – deep anxiety about meddling in issues that many adults assume are rightly taught (or not taught) by parents?
In my second grade placement, I notice moral teachings every day. Sometimes they are explicit; other times they are subtly hinted through the organization of space, the routines, and the teacher’s expectations.
Today was the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. It was also a day on which we read a children’s book about Henry David Thoreau (part of an ongoing unit on Thoreau, whose name is also the name of the school.) Beginning the day, the teacher gathered the children to read a passage from King’s famous, “I’ve been to the mountain top” speech, delivered in Memphis the day before he died. She asked the children what they remembered about King’s life and most children remembered that, a) he was a great man who “wanted everyone to get along” and b) that he was shot. The teacher read this passage, she said, as a kind of ‘comfort’ to the children because, she felt, they were preoccupied with his death (some of the boys made shooting gestures as they described it) and wanted to give them something uplifting that “went beyond King’s physical life” – the idea that King knew he, personally, “might not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the promised land.” The children were awed by this speech (she read the last few paragraphs) and I was astonished by their understanding of his concepts of social and economic justice and his equanimity in facing his mortality. She asked, “what does he mean, ‘getting to the promised land’?” and a child responded very gravely, ‘That’s when you get to the place where the promises come true and there are no lies anymore.” Another child added, “Yes, where there are promises to be kind and nice to everyone with black and white skin and brown skin.” Another child said, “I don’t think he got there yet but we are almost in the promise (sic) land because M.J. (an African American child in the class) is my friend and we have a holiday about Martin Luther King, too.”
Later in the day, the teacher read a passage in which Henry David Thoreau wrote, “My greatest skill in life was wanting but little.” She asked the children the they remembered a connection between Thoreau and Dr. King. (“Dr. King liked Henry a lot,” one child observed.) She asked the children to reflect on what it means to want “but little.” She reminded them of an exercise they had done earlier in the year, making two separate lists of things they “want” and things they “need.” The children remembered the lists and reflected on them. Some children had clearly stretched their thinking since the initial activity months ago. They even laughed about how they had written “laptop computer” on their lists of “wants” and “needs.” They seemed to have a real understanding of the abundance and even excess in their lives. And yet… the conversation felt theoretical.
How to move it forward to a concrete seven or eight year old level? The teacher did something clever. First, she described her childhood classroom in Iran, as a young girl, a room without toys or books or posters or colored pencils. “No active-boards?” the children asked. “No computers?” Everyone was incredulous when she revealed that they didn’t even have chalk. As a challenge, the teacher told the children she had a surprise for them. They could have a special “choice time” in the afternoon but there was to be a challenge: they couldn’t play with any “thing” in the room. They had to play using only their “hearts and minds and bodies.” The children were skeptical. At first, they milled around aimlessly. Then they began to organize themselves into little groups. Conversation began to flow. Some children played games with their hands. Other children started to dance. Some sat on the floor and played, “telephone.” A group broke into laughter, gently at first and then uproariously. The laughter was infectious and others joined in. Some children switched groups and began to teach their friends how to play “Miss Mary Mack” and other clapping songs. A boy in a wheel chair was actively engaged in word play and was ‘holding court’ explaining to a rapt audience all about black holes. Finally, Choice Time was over. The children reassembled to discuss the experience.
I noted that the children seemed so joyful and I didn’t notice any little arguments or altercations or special requests, as I usually observe at recess or indoor choice time. The children agreed enthusiastically. “Yeah, we were really joyful, I think. You’re right,” a girl observed. One boy remarked, “you know, I can’t believe this but I actually had more fun playing with nothing than I did playing with everything.” Others agreed. “Yes! It was really fun. At first it was hard but then we all started laughing.” One girl made a connection to a book they had read a few weeks earlier, “The Book of Nothing.” “I guess ‘nothing’ really is ‘something,’” she observed.
The teacher then encouraged the children to think about “something you have learned this week that you could try to practice at home.” “Do you mean like homework,” somebody asked? “Well, no,” the teacher explained, “I was thinking about an important lesson you’ve learned about how to lead your life. Does anyone have an idea of something they have learned about themselves that they could try to remember at home too? Because, remember, you spend a lot of your life at home, not just at school.”
The children were literally bursting with ideas:
“I’m going to show my sister how to play with nothing.”
“I’m going to read Dr. King’s speech with my mom.”
“I’m going to turn off my TV for 17 days.”
“I’m going to try not to ask for more toys when I don’t need them.”
“I’m going to go organize my room because then I can think more clearly.”
“I’m going to try to keep a promise.”
I know that moral issues are difficult and often scary for teachers. And sometimes they veer into rocky terrain. Dr. King’s speech was full of biblical metaphors, for example, that many would argue have no place in a second grade public school classroom. A lot of experts believe children this age are too concrete to understand abstractions like justice or peace. But I have seen something very special today and it makes me wonder at our collective adult squeamishness about children’s “big ideas.” I may not be able to find it in the Massachusetts curriculum frameworks but I know it is real. And I think it is a moral imperative to support young children’s moral development.