You know those teacher stories that stick with you for years? The ones that completely change your mindset and your practice? The ones that instantly have you adapting your ways to be better and do better for your learners? Well, this is one of those stories…
We were mid way through our kindergarten year together and we had a new family come in to tour our classroom as they were considering bringing their child to our school. We welcomed them warmly and they all jumped in on a “mitten” role play we were doing at the carpet. They smiled and played along but there was an apprehension in this Mom’s face that struck me. She had a story and I needed to know more.
As they left our room, I stepped out to answer any questions this family had about bringing their son our way. We chatted about the standard schedule type stuff and then this Mom gently asked “Ummm… do you have any farm toys?”
“Yes! I do have farm toys!”
“So, ummm… do the kids actually get to play with them?” she asked with tears in her eyes.
“Yes. Yes they do. It is one of our favourite WIN (Whatever I Need) Time activities and is ESPECIALLY popular on “Kids’ Choice” days…”
She breathed a huge sigh of relief and went into the story that changed me forever…
“Thank you for explaining. You see, we are coming from another town mid year because of some troubles my son was having in his previous class. There is nothing he loves more in the world than farms. The animals, the vehicles, the buildings… all of it. His teacher was constantly calling us to say that he seemed distracted in class and was refusing to participate in many activities. We met many times to try and find solutions together”.
“During one meeting, I realized that I had not shared my son’s loves and passions with her. I foolishly thought “this will be the ticket! Once she knows what he loves, she too will fall in love with HIM and we can work through some of these issues”. I sat trying to explain to her what he is good at, what he loves more than anything, what he is passionate about and what strengths he has.”
“She started taking notes. I breathed deeply thinking “thank goodness! She is finally starting to see him for the wonderful little soul he is”. And then she said… “Thank you for the information. It sounds like your little guy is a little too obsessed with farms doesn’t it? I have just made a note to put the farm toys away. I need him to find interest in something else. No more farms.”
“I have never felt less seen and heard. I had never felt that my son was less loved and valued. I knew that this was something we would never come to agreement on and that it was time to move on. This is going to sound strange but…”
“Can you promise me he will get to play with the farm toys?”
I could feel the sadness in her heart. But I could see the optimism in her eyes.
“Yes. I can promise. It sounds like farms are his passion. It sounds like he has built many strengths through this passion. His passion? These strengths? They will actually help ME to help HIM learn. Thank you for sharing this with me”.
I spoke to Mom and Dad about our DNA (dreams, needs, abilities) inventories in our classroom and how their babe’s love of all things farms would fit in beautifully to our planning as the year went on. I looked forward to welcoming him to our room and using his expertise in our community throughout the remainder of the year. She said that he didn’t know his letters, numbers or how to write his name. I assured her in every way I could that we would use farms to get there. Counting barns and animal feet, learning letters in the words “farm” and “silo” and “pig” and “cow”, changing “Old McDonald” to his name (which conveniently had 5 letters) and using farms in any way we could to reach him so that authentic learning could take place.
This wasn’t the time to expand his passions. This wasn’t the time to encourage him to fall in love with something else. This wasn’t the time to take away the farm toys. This was the time to let him shine in all his farm loving glory. He would get there on his own. His interests would eventually expand. But no amount of teacher controlling was going to get him there. And I was ok with that.
This story , that Mom, her boy, taught me so much that year and I continue to think of them as I plan for this year. They taught me to not only let go of the control I so desperately clung to when it came to planning in our classroom that honestly, centered around my strengths and interests but taught me to really lean into student strengths and interests and what they offered our community. They reminded me about the power of allowing our students’ interests and knowledge to make their mark on our time together. They reminded me that our kids would “buy in” to the teaching I was selling if only I centered it around them. They taught me that there would be time to find new passions and loves and interests in life (heck, they were exposing each other to new content areas based on their unique passions every single day!) but that me forcing that upon them would never, ever work.
And this experience paired with these amazing questions about student strengths and interests from George Couros along with KNOWING just how essential emotional regulation, relationships and connection will be especially in the year of a pandemic? Well, these are what are leading the way as I get ready to welcome a wonderful, unique, fresh bunch of learners with their own strengths and knowledge and passions to our community this year.
So, do you have any “farm toys”?
Those toys or games or manipulatives tucked high up on a shelf that you think have been “overplayed” with but that kids fall in love with every year?
Those books that are tattered and torn and dog eared because the kids love them SO much but that you have stuffed in a box because you are done with it and sick of reading/hearing it?
Those things that you have taken away because you feel their minds need to be “expanded”?
Those “farm toys” that you could be using to have learners demonstrate their knowledge and skills and enthusiasm for learning but are instead never to be seen in a year?
Expose them to the new but allow them to flourish with their farm toys too. Don’t take them away. Pull them out and use their passions to teach them the outcomes, to have them demonstrate their understanding and to show them that their interests are valued in their classroom.
And you never know… maybe your love of farms will grow too.