To Want “But Little”: Reflections from a Second Grade Classroom

“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.


About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director/author. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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53 Responses to To Want “But Little”: Reflections from a Second Grade Classroom

  1. Daphne says:

    What a fabulous teacher! My son’s 2nd grade teacher emphasizes community service by selling milk and cookies during parent-teacher conference week to raise money for cancer research. She told me most kids want her as a teacher because of her community efforts. I need to show her this post – I think your teacher’s approach is innovative and very effective. Now the real question – how do we get more teachers like this?

  2. She really was/is a visionary and… big surprise… not everyone at the school appreciated her giftedness. Some seemed threatened or even jealous. How to get more teachers like her? I know it sounds simplistic but I think if we dramatically raised entry-level salaries for teachers to make the profession competitive with, say, starting salaries of engineers, programmers, even lawyers etc., we would go a long way toward attracting people with the intelligence, commitment, and moral fortitude to inspire kids. In the long run, we would save money because by putting more competent teachers at the front lines as classroom teachers, schools wouldn’t be spending anywhere near as much as they currently do on all the extra specialists who manage the behavior and learning problems the not-top-notch classroom teachers can’t handle. Many European schools do this better than we do: they have FAR fewer specialists and administrators but better trained, more skilled (and, frankly, smarter) classroom teachers. I hate teacher-bashing and think they are scapegoated for way too much. But if you look at academic measures like SAT scores and GPA, elementary school teachers as a group rank very poorly compared to their better paid peers. Of course there are always these heart-warming stories of selfless teachers but if we want a more stellar workforce, we have to pay for it! (Needless to say, in the old days a lot of really brilliant women became teachers who now go into law and medicine and hedge fund management!) Sorry, end of my sermonizing!

    • peachyteachy says:

      I recently heard of a colleague in another school in my district who is resigning to accept a position in some corporate capacity. My co-workers and I ,frankly, sighed with envy—how sad that we have come to this point, where our intelligence, intuition, creativity are more of a liability than an asset. Value as a teacher right now is measured by how precisely one can align every component of one’s instruction to a prescribed rubric, and how many percentage points one’s students increase from their performance on their previous state test. How can we help but give kids a feeling that nothing is ever good enough, when we refuse to meet them where they are? And where they are in my school is vastly different from where they are in a suburban school. My heart longs to be able to choose, ever, to change the plan and shift to a lesson that embodies these incredibly important social and emotional skills that my students desperately need. If my administrator came in during such an unauthorized shift, I would be crucified.

      • I hear you… this is so depressing and we are on the edge of an abyss if we can’t redirect our pedagogic focus. Thank you for commenting.

  3. Wonderful post, thanks for sharing! Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  4. What an honor to work with a brilliant teacher like that. Too bad our schools weren’t brimming with them.

    • It really was a huge honor and I wish others could feel her impact. Not only are our schools not brimming with teachers like that, many school systems actively discourage them and/or are enormously threatened by them!

  5. buzzug says:

    You’re an inspiration!

  6. Okay this is nothing short of amazing. It goes to show that children.,when guided, may be more intelligent than most adults.

    Simple Living and simply enjoying life and nature and each other is lost on so many people these days. For all of our modern “conveniences” studies show that people who purposely live a life of gratitude and simplicity are happier.

    Thanks so much for sharing this.


  7. Beautiful post! I too am a teacher. When asked why I left the better-paying corporate world and decided to teach? “I chose to inspire” is always my reply. Kudos to teachers like her.

  8. What an extraordinary and inspiring post. I think our culture needs many more explicit places and times for us to talk openly about our values, no matter how difficult or contentious this might be.

  9. krithya G says:

    That’s one amazing teacher, I aspire to be a teacher some day too and I hope I can find a mentor like this teacher….Thanks for sharing!

  10. I taught English for most of my thirty years in the classroom and the stories and books we read that were out of the textbook or were on the state adopted list for literature always led to discussions and topics that touched on moral issues. In fact, I wrote prompts for short, one page essays for just about every novel, short story and poem we read that all dealt with moral issues. The only complaint I had from parents in thirty years was from maybe two parents that did not want his or her son reading Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” due to the use of the N _ _ _ _ word.

  11. E Wooten Jr says:

    The difference between being a teacher and an educator. You can teach someone something but can you educate them. A pastor once said of all the people that do get a degree in college, not all of them receive an education. For that matter, any leader (person with a position of influence; namely everybody to some degree) is a teacher because we learn from each other.

    • E. Wooten Jr.

      Life is a classroom. We get out of it what we put in. If we put nothing into the effort of learning, we get little to nothing back.

      A teacher/educator will reach some and not reach others all in the same classroom.

      For example, one student, for whatever reason, never reads the assignments, doesn’t do the classwork, never does homework and reading is hated. This student has been the rebel and class clown for as long as he or she has been in school. This students has had as many teachers as other students have. [In one semester of high school, the average student may have five to seven different teachers. By the time a student finishes high school, he or she may have had more than fifty different teachers and some students learn very little from any of them.]

      Back to the example: Instead of cooperating, he or she acts out in class and disrupts the learning environment causing difficulties for the teacher to teach and students to learn (those that make the effort to learn).

      Sitting next to that Failing student is an A student who does everything and also reads books because he or she had parents that read books to him or her as an infant and continued to read books where the child could see. This student goes on to become a scientist, doctor, engineer or accountant by going to college and the A student may be responsible for a breakthrough to cure HIV/AIDS.

      However, the Failing student was a member of a street gang and as a teen he was known as a “shooter” because he killed rival gang members and had a price on his head.

      I taught for thirty years in the public schools near Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley. The schools I taught in were surrounded by a barrio. The first school had razor wire on the roof to keep the street gang teens off the roof.

      I taught both examples of students often in the same classroom. I have taught the “shooters” that refused to learn and the A students that went on to graduate from Stanford or Berkeley and then give back much more to society than the “shooter” that caused so much suffering and spent years of his adult life in prison.

      In fact, the family I grew up in mirrors this example: my older brother learned nothing in school. He ran with street gangs, spent fifteen years of his life in jail, was illiterate, did drugs, etc. When he died, he left eight children behind and most of them were illiterate like him. Several had already spent time in prison and one had warrants for his arrest as he attempted to hide from the police.

      However, with the same parents, I learned to read, graduated from high school, never spent a day in prison, served in the US Marines, fought in Vietnam, then went to college on the GI Bill all before I ended up teaching many students just like my brother in that barrio.

      Learning is a choice and that choice is heavily influenced by the environment and family that a child grows up in.

      My wife and I told her daughter (she turned 21 recently and is starting her third year at Stanford studying to be a medical doctor one day) that there was no excuse not to learn. It didn’t matter if the teacher was incompetent. A motivated student that cooperates even with incompetent teachers will still learn but a child like my brother and the “shooters” I taught that never cooperate will not learn even from the best teachers.

      And our daughter says she had two incompetent teachers among the many that taught her K – 12 but she remembered what we told her and did not let that stop her from learning, earning a 4.65 GPA and being accepted to Stanford. Why, because we did not accept the excuse that that the teacher was boring or stupid or incompetent. It was our daughter’s responsibility to learn no matter how the teacher taught.

  12. Thank you for description of thinking-feeling powers of seven year olds. As retired teacher I can so relate because children might not have the vocabulary but there is a moral sense – that does need instruction/guidance. Great post. Congratulations on being freshly pressed.

  13. djdfr says:

    “A lot of experts believe children this age are too concrete to understand abstractions like justice or peace.”
    And yet very young children may be heard saying “that’s not fair”. They also know when there’s not peace. Concrete realizations of justice and peace are more important in my opinion than abstractions.

  14. skyblueguy says:

    Impressive! Great post.

  15. Great post. Thank you for sharing. I have a second-grader and a pre-schooler and it is certainly a big difference between a teacher who is there as a job vs a teacher who is there by a calling.

  16. Well put. I will be social bookmarking this if you dont mind. I would like more people to read this!

  17. This is wonderful, and full of great ideas that can be used by anyone who teaches students of any age. Thanks so much!

  18. Fancy this! Just posted a poem called WHAT IS NECESSARY, at !

  19. S.C. says:

    Interesting post! Second grade kids are a lot smarter than most teachers give them credit for; they just have to be given the right prompt and the space they need. It sounds like that teacher was one of the rare few who could do that. By contrast, I remember my second grade teacher being pretty awful.

  20. Susan S says:

    Beautiful post… I think too many teachers today are too hidebound by making sure that the kids pass the standardized tests that are imposed on them. I have spoken to many who are frustrated by having to teach for the test and, in doing so, are not allowed to encourage the children to think for themselves on so many levels. Bravo to this teacher who took the time to make these children think a little about the world around them. I especially like the little boy who said we were getting closer to the promised land because he had a friend who was African American. It reminds me of my friend John, whom I wasn’t allowed to bring home because he was African American.

  21. Franziska says:

    Love the “can’t play with a thing” idea. Children are so creative… whenever we let them!

  22. brain4rent says:

    I am as impressed with the teacher as the children..the kids decided what they learned and they were all valuable lessons. For my nieces I always did the nothing game box- and you’d be amazed at how many games are there…a personal favorite when we were walking in the woods and the kids were getting antsy on the trail was called roots or rocks – make a choice for yourself Roots or Rocks..then see how far you can walk without touching the dirt by picking whether you’ll walk only on tree roots or rocks popping out of the ground – for years this helped toddlers make short work out of long trails, and as they got older I’d mess with them and “shout” switch forcing them to try the other option.

    • What made this teacher special, in my view, was that she honored children’s natural curiosity and goodness. It continually astounds me how infrequently educators do this in a school setting!

  23. I’m a big believer in the importance of letting children play with nothing and encouraging them to use their imaginations. These are the building blocks for innovative and strategic thinking adults. Teaching is an undervalued profession and it encompasses way more than the 3 R’s. A great post, thank you for writing it. And congratulations on being freshly pressed. 🙂

  24. bahia says:

    This makes me so hopeful for the future! I love that these children were able to “see” and learn so much.

  25. Sarah says:

    What an inspiring entry! As a teacher myself, effective use of play is such an important part of a child’s development. I don’t want to write a novel here so – great entry! 🙂

  26. charlesberry101152 says:

    My son Lance is in the second grade. According, to his teacher, Lance loves to learn to read and write. He loves to write stories using his imagination. He has a very vivid imagination. This is possible because he watches educational tv, with his mother and me reading to him every night. He is ahead of his time. He reads exceptionally well for a second grader, using words like an adult. We are very proud of our only child..

  27. mirrormon says:

    wowwww!!… i loved your post… the teacher comes across as very smart and intelligent… she is making them think and practice acts of the kind i wouldnt think kids in our age and time would do…impressed by her skills… 🙂

  28. notebooksandteacups says:

    Yes Yes Yes! I so hold this belief system when it comes to rearing my son. NOW, if only I could get others on board (i.e. grandparents, etc.), then maybe we could really see what a simple, imaginative childhood can look like in our family. Thank you for this post!

  29. Audrey says:

    Wow. I have kids, and I always admire teachers who can keep it together when they’re faced with a roomful of noisy, inattentive, distracted young ones. But what you shared is something else altogether. This world could do a few million more teachers like that. Thanks for sharing and congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

  30. L. Palmer says:

    That is a great teacher. Often, we forget how observant and cognizant children are of their world, and how creatively they problem solve. It’s important to allow that room to play, think, and create so they can form a greater self.

  31. billlattpa says:

    I think this proves how influential and important a good teacher can be to all children. But maybe even more so to the kids with one parent, or none, or in a bad situation at home. These kids can at least learn in school the importance of adult guidance.

  32. Pingback: To Want “But Little”: Reflections from a Second Grade Classroom | aebarb005

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