Without exception, the best conversations I’ve had with any of the elementary school students I’ve taught have always been the ones I’m not really supposed to be having. Nowhere in the Boston Standards of Learning does it say that I’m to teach my 1st grade students the origins of the names of the days of the week, but when they asked about this one morning, I couldn’t help tabling a lesson on sentence structure to give them some answers. I told them what I knew— Saturday is named for Saturn, Wednesday for Woden, Monday is the moon’s day, and Sunday is the sun’s day—and then gave a short overview of mythology to tide them over until I could research the rest. I’m glad I digressed; if I hadn’t, I doubt Christopher ever would have asked me his question, the one that would have stumped a roomful of philosophers. He asked: “Ms. Ehrenfeld, if people believe in the gods, do the gods believe in people?” Hard to get a question like that when you’re drilling them on the appropriate placement of capital letters.
There are many people who would say that two months of poetry, or a morning spent discussing Greek and Roman mythology, are stealing valuable time from the curriculum.
Not all of my conversations with my students lead to the kinds of questions that leave me speechless or sleepless; some conversations are purely silly, some are ethical debates, some are just brief speculations on a small but significant topic of interest. And sometimes it’s not even a conversation that transforms my classroom into someplace mystical; it’s just a moment or a mood that appears out of nowhere and disappears immediately unless noticed. Yet all of these times are essential to the kind of classroom I want to create for the children—the kind of classroom where the paths we travel are sometimes mine and sometimes theirs, where their curiosity is given as much space as they need it to have, as much air as they need for their exploration of the world to survive.
Creating this world for the children also means sometimes accepting that I won’t be able to follow all the startling twists and bends of their seemingly illogical logic, or that when I do finally figure out what they’re saying, the conversation may be long finished and forgotten.
This happens to me one day in December, in my 1st grade classroom, as I am getting ready to start my morning meeting with the children. I look down at Nequan, seated on a pillow just in front of my rocking chair, and notice that the pillow is strewn with tiny white crystals of some unknown substance. Great, I think, it’s not bad enough they give me their colds and flus and rashes, now they’re bringing me anthrax?
I look at Nequan, who grins up at me. “Nequan,” I ask, “what is all over that pillow?”
Nequan shrugs, his grin suddenly shadowed by just a hint of guilt.
I give him my best FBI interrogation look, and ask again. “What is on the pillow?”
Another shrug. “Sugar?” he tries, clearly hoping I’ll be satisfied with this and move on to the “Good Morning Song.” No such luck.
“Where did it come from?”
By now, the guilty look has completely eclipsed the grin. “My pocket?”
He does a quick check, then affirms his answer: “My pocket.”
“How did it get there?”
He thinks. “It fell in?” He looks up at me quickly, trying to see if I’ll buy that answer.
“Nequan, sugar does not just fall into your pocket. How did it get there?”
“I put it in?”
“Why on earth did you put sugar in your pocket?”
Just a hint of a shrug this time, then a more assertive answer: “For my raisins.”
Do I want to keep asking him questions? I’m starting to feel as if I’ve lost control of the conversation completely.
“Do you have raisins in your pocket?”
“Did you bring raisins to school today?”
“So why do you have sugar in your pocket?”
“For my raisins!”
I give up. Complete, unconditional surrender. I tell him to clean the sugar off the pillow and clean out his pockets, then we continue with the morning meeting.
Baffled for days by this conversation, I finally figure out the reason for Nequan’s sugary pockets. We had been on a field trip the day before I caught him with the sugar, and the cafeteria had packed boxes of raisins in the children’s lunches. Nequan, who clearly likes his raisins with sugar, had been obliged to eat them plain. The next morning, determined not to let the possibility of raisins for lunch catch him unprepared, he had filled his pockets with sugar before school. Had I been 6, perhaps I would have understood this immediately, but during the conversation, my slow, clumsy adult brain just couldn’t keep up with his logic.
The fact that rigid connections and pathways have not yet been burned into these children’s minds also means that they write some of the most moving and original poetry I’ve ever read. A 3rd grader, recounting her bout of the flu, writes: “I shut the door/I saw the bandit of paradise/I knew/this would happen/to my body/blooming like the sun/when I got sick.” Another, creating a fictitious character in a poem, writes: “She has/keys in her/back pocket/she dreamed /she had/puppies on/the step /drinking /milk /out of/the sky.” A third, angry for no reason she will ever tell us, suddenly reveals herself in this poem:
One day I
saw two ugly persons.
I didn’t know it was my mother.
She had brown eyes and brown hair.
was my mother.
The next thing
ugly man he
had black eyes
black and gray hair.
The two months I spend every spring teaching them poetry and letting them run down its corridors without restraints of any kind is not in any of the curricula I’ve ever been handed, but those months are always the time when I learn more about them than I’ve ever known, and when they do their most creative and astonishing work.
I am not a Montessori teacher, neither do I work in middle- or upper-class progressive schools. I have taught only inner- city children in public schools where the standardized-test pressure is intense, and the sense that there is little time to waste if we want our students to catch up with their wealthier, whiter peers pervades everything we do. There are many people—teachers, educational “experts,” politicians, school administrators—who would say that two months of poetry, a morning spent discussing Greek and Roman mythology, even a short and mystifying conversation with a student, are all stealing valuable time from the curriculum. But I honor my students too much to believe that every minute of school time should be spent thinking in the narrow ways that a curriculum writer far away in an office has determined they should think.
These times are essential to the kind of classroom I want to create, where their curiosity is given as much space as they need it to have, as much air as they need for their exploration of the world to survive.
My classroom is a far better place when I listen to my children: to a question I have never imagined, a request for information that is not going to be on any test but that they just want to know because they are curious and at this very moment it is important, or to a conversation that leaves me puzzled but sometime later opens a window into the way they think, and in turn, makes me a better teacher for them. Most of all, I won’t be responsible for hurrying my children out of that age when so many things are interesting and so much is new, and when their desire to learn is pure and not corrupted by the rewards we offer and the punishments we threaten if they do not learn what we want them to learn when we want them to learn it.
All of this should not be taken to mean that we spend all day in my classroom carelessly chatting about whatever pops into my students’ minds. We work very hard: My children have learned to read this year, they are good at math, they’ve learned some history and some science, too. It’s just this: If at the end of the day, I find Reginald standing at the window instead of reading at his seat, and I see that he is wide-eyed and absolutely entranced by a squirrel in a tree in the yard, I will not call to him to sit down and pick up his book. In fact, I might even join him there for a moment and remember what it feels like to be amazed by a squirrel.
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2002 edition of Education Week as In Defense of Whimsy