[In this essay, Courtney Kaufmann writes, “Arguably, we live in a society in which people—teachers included—listen to respond rather than listen to understand.” Courtney is a graduate student in the Bard MAT Program in New York. She wrote the blog for the course Language, Literacy, and the Adolescent Learner.]
Early in the week, I sat in my one-year old son’s bedroom, leaning against the crib, watching him play. I couldn’t help but glance at my phone and browse Pinterest. After all, I was throwing his very first birthday party in just a week, and there was still much planning to be done. Besides, we had been at this for an hour and a half. How many times could I repeat, “Wow! Great book, Oliver! Look at the animals. What sound does a cow make?” without hearing any sort of response? The conviction had left my voice a while ago. As I was browsing pins full of DIY instructions for making snowflakes and high chair banners (whatever that was), Oliver came running to me with a red square-shaped block in hand. He pointed to the accompanying box, with a top that had shapes cut out of it. He knew that the square block went into the box, but he couldn’t figure out how.
I took the box from him and put the square block in the square hole. “See, easy peasy!” I said to him, then kissed him on the forehead. Try as he might, he could not figure out how to align the square block with the its matching hole and let it go of it. Instead, he put it in sideways, or tried to put the block through the star-shaped hole. I slowly got distracted again by the website, but the moment he caught me looking away, he would tug on my shirt and thrust the block at me once more. With all of the patience I could muster, I would show him how to do it again before turning back to party planning. We went back and forth like this for some time.
Later in the week, I was at work at the Writing Center at a local college where I tutor students in writing, when a familiar student walked into my office and requested a session. I recognized her from the semester before. She requested help on an assignment for her first business class. Her group was supposed to write about the company Target and analyze its role in the retail industry in various ways, and she was given ‘politics’ as her category. She had already submitted the assignment to the professor, but he gave the students an extension after he realized that he never mentioned that they should look at the retail industry as a whole, and to his dismay, the students did very specific case studies on their company. Despite the fact that her essay was nearly complete, the girl had a worried look on her face. “I want to talk about the Trump administration, and NAFTA. But I don’t want to get political. I don’t want it to be like, ‘Oh no, Trump is going to deport me,'” she worried.
I smiled politely, but asked myself, “How do you write about politics without ‘getting political’?” As we began to piece the paper together, adding outside information about the retail industry as a whole, the effects of both foreign and domestic policies, and the entire policy that is North American Free Trade Agreement, she kept repeating, “I don’t know if I should get political.” After some time, I honestly began to panic because the clock was ticking. I felt that we did not have time to worry about getting political. Honestly, her writing was good. She just needed some help refining her ideas. I told her that, very simply, she needed to describe the policy, its potential repercussions economically, and then what kind of changes the industry itself or a particular company would have to make if the Republican administration were to abolish NAFTA. After describing this, I suggested we pick up the pace and move to the conclusion of the paper.
I could not help but reflect on these two experiences and question my role as a teacher in both as I read the writings of Loris Malaguzzi and Maria Montessori for homework in my education class at Bard College. Simply put, these educators believed that the teacher cannot help the child learn and succeed unless he or she understands the child. In his work, “Your Image of the Child: Where Teaching Begins,” Malaguzzi explicitly says that “there’s a difference between the environment that you are able to build based on a preconceived image of the child and the environment that you can build that is based on the child you see in front of you — the relationship you build with the child […]” He also suggests that in order to create success, adults should create an appropriate image of the child that fits the child and not the adult. The combination of these two elements create a customized experience for the child, rather than, as Malaguzzi describes, the standardized experience which consists of “rapid assessments, tests, [and] judgments.” Finally, Malaguzzi suggests that the educator should attempt to strike a balance between assisting the student and encouraging self-learning.
I found these ideas particularly useful when looking back on my experience with the freshman student. Why hadn’t I alleviated her fears of being ‘too political?’ This notion is elementary, and was a perfect excuse for me to teach her how to approach the difficulties of appropriately portraying politics in formal writing. Why didn’t I tell her what I was thinking, that she had to be political to a certain extent? I pride myself on building relationship with students, especially ones like this girl, whom I have seen multiple times. How could I have helped her learn her material even better, rather than imposing my edits on her paper in order to complete the assignment within our allotted time? Understanding her needs, alleviating her fears, and creating a safe space to talk about these issues could have helped her more than a completed paper would have. I am sure that either I or one of my colleagues would see this student back for the same kinds of issues.
Malaguzzi’s philosophy was also eye-opening in relation to my experience with my son. Specifically, Malaguzzi asserts the idea that children need adults to be present all the time, and not just in the final results of their success, but in their journey. From the perspective of the child, he writes, ‘“If only you had seen all I had to do.’ The child wants this observation. We all want this.” Many of the parents that I have talked to with small children worry about similar things in today: ‘Do I work too much?’ ‘Am I on my phone too much?’ ‘Am I not involved enough?’ While it is both difficult and exhausting to engage with a little human who has limited language skills, it is important, as Malaguzzi says, to be constantly involved, and to observe the child all the time. Oliver looked to me for the exact response that Malaguzzi identifies; he did not just want me to show him how the block went into the box, he wanted me to watch him try. He wanted me to see whether he succeeded or failed. If I had only put the phone down and observed him, I would have, as Malaguzzi says, drawn an image of my child, one that is appropriate to him and not to me or my ideas of him. I did not truly consider his capabilities in this action. Rather, I assumed I understood them. By observing him more often and putting in an effort to truly understand him, I can become a better teacher, a better parent, and a better learner myself.
Finally, this brings me to Montessori. While her piece, “Methods for the Teaching of Reading and Writing” is perhaps more of a case study on the effects of her approach to teaching reading and writing to young children, Montessori assumes something that Malaguzzi is attempting to instill in the reader: she already understands the child. More importantly, she acts as a sort of in-between, between the world of the child and the world of the adult. She is a translator. In the first paragraph of her piece, she regards the vertical stroke as the first one practiced in writing. She regards this stroke as entirely pointless. In fact, she compares the notion of children learning strokes before they learn letters to studying “infinitesimal calculus” in order to seriously consider the stars. She recognizes that children this age heavily rely on sensation, and uses this tactic in order to teach them both reading and writing before the age of six years old.
This observation and understanding of the child is not only something that applies to younger children, but to older ones as well. Arguably, we live in a society in which people—teachers included—listen to respond rather than listen to understand. In an effort to maximize the child’s knowledge in a set amount of time, perhaps the teacher loses his or her way. With this mindset, it is easy to drown in one’s own voice. Rather, if one were to build relationships with and observe the child, he or she could better customize a lesson and identify key problems that the child is having. This does not just mean that one should be aware of certain theories, such as Erikson’s stages of psycho-social development. In my education class, we have talked about how, sometimes, the role of the teacher and the parent seem to have a blurred line. Understanding older children, especially, requires walking that blurred line in order to, ultimately, help an individual self-learn and become entirely autonomous. And, as Malaguzzi suggests, we might just realize how little we actually know.