Breathing and a Kindness Circle

The week before winter break was filled with changes to our classroom schedule. It may not seem like much, but extra rehearsals, making and wrapping gifts for parents, making cards for parents, and adding glitter to the cards, were filling our already full days to overflowing. We were all feeling excitement, joy, anticipation, and let’s be honest, some stress. And, if you’ve ever experienced that, you know, it’s all good, until it’s not.

I had recess duty the last full day of school before break. The lunch duty teachers greeted me with smiles and shaking heads. “Good luck with recess. They are really having a hard time.” I raised an eyebrow and thought “Alrighty, then.”

Out on the playground I carefully watched to see if the time outside would help them regroup. Sometimes they just need time to run around, be free, and get rid of their extra energy. This was not one of those times.

What was I going to do? I heard the voice of a former professor in the back of my mind, “If you’re having classroom management problems, look at yourself, not at your students.” Ok, what was I asking them to do that wasn’t appropriate for them at this time. What was I missing? What could I do to help them?

I had less than 20 minutes to figure this out. I went into creative problem solving beast mode. Have you ever experienced that? For me it means relentlessly pursuing a solution, with the energy and drive of a big, powerful beast — cloaked of course, in the gentle trappings of a kindergarten teacher! I thought laterally, divergently, creatively, critically. Heck, my brain was standing on its head trying to figure it out.

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It was time to ring the bell and return to our classroom. I didn’t have it all figured out, but I did have the beginning of a plan. I took a leap of faith. I rang the bell, and trusted my big, beautiful, creative problem solving brain would continue to work as I moved the girls forward.

I stood — breathing — and calmly waited for them to join me. Then I began to speak in a rather quiet voice. I could see the ones in the back of the line straining to hear me. I paused, and with only the slightest elevation in volume, I asked if they could hear me. Many answers of “No!” filled the air. I responded, “Ok, I’ll speak a bit louder, but you’ll have to listen closely, because I’m not going to yell.” They strained with body and brain to hear every word I said.

“When we go in, we’re all going to take off our coats and get a carpet square. We’re going to be silent when we do this. Once we have a carpet square we’re going to find a spot to lie down and breathe. Find a spot that’s comfortable, where you have some space to just be, and breathe. Are you ready?”

There were some quiet questions which I answered with the least words possible.

Them – “Get a carpet square?” Me – “Yes.”

Them – “We’re going to lie down?” Me – “Yes.”

Them – “We’re going to breathe?” Me – “Yes. Once we’re all set I’ll set a timer for about 3 minutes. Then we’ll come together at the carpet.”

I asked again if they were ready. They quietly responded “You beddy!” (Our call and response to “Are you ready?”)

Once we entered the learning space, I barely spoke above a whisper. I encouraged them to find a space, breathe, relax, and just be. Most of them did it easily. Some needed a bit of help. Still others asked “Can we do this every day?!?”

In those few minutes, while they breathed, I was still in silent beast mode —  thinking, problem solving, and breathing. My inner conversation went something like this. “Yes, the curricular content I have planned is important, but will we actually be able to cover it? Will it be a time of joyful learning, or will it be a time of distracted learning punctuated by my constant call to learn? They need time to breathe. They need time to practice self regulation and pro-social behavior. They weren’t going to do it on their own. I need to help them. I need to give them time, and a structure that allows them to succeed. They need to experience success, and the joy of pro-social behavior.”

By the time I rang the chime, my plan was set.

While they put away their carpet squares and gathered on the carpet, I quickly collected my supplies. I joined the circle and began. “I’ve noticed that you’ve been having a tough time these last couple of days. It’s seems like it’s been a lot harder to listen, and harder to be kind to each other. I don’t think that’s the best way to end our time together before we go on break. I’d love if we could leave each other with a time of peace, love, and kindness. So I thought we’d give a kindness circle a try.”

I’d never done a kindness circle before, nor had I ever heard of one, but it sounded good to me. I took another breath, trusted in the power of my words, my intention, and my students, and continued.

“Each of you will get a name — not your own — and you’ll have 10 minutes to make something nice for them on this card. Do you think 10 minutes is enough time?” They all agreed it was a good amount of time.

I forged ahead, “You can draw something, write something, or even make something. It’s up to you. There are only 2 rules — You must keep your name a secret until we come back to the kindness circle to exchange kindness with one another. And, you have to do your best with whatever you make.”

They liked the rules and waited — with some impatience — for me to give out all the names. With names in hand they set off to work.

As everyone was settling in, I noticed some angst and tears. I popped over to find out what was wrong. The girl who was crying said, “By accident I said the name of her person. I didn’t mean to do it. I want to switch with her so everything is still a secret.” I affirmed her act of kindness in admitting her mistake, being sorry, and  wanting to correct it. They switched names, and all was right in their world.

The 10 minutes zoomed by. I rang the chime again, and they gathered back together on the carpet with quiet excitement. Before we started, I mentioned that both the giver and the receiver of the card were practicing kindness. The giver was kind by working hard for her friend. The receiver was kind by being gracious. “Perhaps it’s not what you hoped to get. Or maybe you can’t read what they wrote. That’s not what really matters. What matters is that they worked hard to make something nice for you.”

It worked out better than I imagined.  Each exchange was lovely. Givers and receivers were kind and gracious. They practiced beautiful pro-social behavior. They looked each other in the eye. The givers said a little bit about what they made and why. The receivers accepted the gift, gave it a look, commented that it was very nice, and said thank you.

I sat back, took another big breath, and basked in the glow of our kindness circle. My inner conversation was calm, satisfied, and affirming. Taking a risk; pursuing a creative solution like a beast; trusting myself and my girls; taking time to breathe; giving the space and opportunity to be kind, is fantabulous! I gotta find a way to include these super powerful happenings more regularly in our days together.

Beast mode has been called off, but rest assured, the thinking continues. A solution will present itself in due time.

 

 

New Blocks

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An educator friend was getting rid of her wooden Cuisenaire rods. She wondered if I might have any use for them.

Lovely colored, wooden blocks?!?!!! OF COURSE I can use them!

Happily, my students are as excited by new materials as I am! As I put them into containers yesterday, this conversation ensued:

Them: “What are they, Miss James?!!”

Me: “New blocks!”

Them: “New blocks?!?!!! For us?!!”

Me: “Yes!”

Them: “What are we going to make with them?”

Me: “I don’t know. What are you going to make with them?”

As others gathered — helping to put the blocks into the containers — conversations and gasps of delight erupted around me.

I love when excitement, joy, imagination, creativity, conversation, problem solving, and possibility surround me. And when it’s precipitated by wooden blocks saved from the trash bin, it’s extra special.

 

 

Label Your Build

Labeling is part of every build in our classroom. Sometimes my request for labeling is met with a bit of grumbling. “Labels? Do we have to label? Why do we have to label things, Miss James?”

I always respond the same way. “Yes, you have to label things. Everyone find at least three things to label.” and “Why label?!?!!! You have to label things because when you label them, everyone else gets to know and understand your great ideas and creations!” Once they get over the need to stop building in order to label, and any hesitancy they have in their ability to write things that others can read, the labels begin popping up all over the build site.

Here are a few from this year’s Thanksgiving build.

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(bed, home)

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(bed, pillow, home)

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(food place)

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(person, Lilly)

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(mountain)

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(person)

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(crib)

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(trap door)

There’s tons of value in each of their labels. I can assess their phonemic awareness, and their ability to encode the sounds they hear. I get a deeper understanding of their thinking and building. And, perhaps best of all, they get to share their thinking and work with everyone who visits the build.

My favorite thinking shared this year (and mind you, they are ALL fantabulous and bring me great joy) was this one.

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(For you, Mayflower. This corn is for you.)

We learn that the passengers of the Mayflower stole corn from the Native Americans. At first, the girls respond with outrage. “That wasn’t very nice! Why did they do that? That’s mean!” I acknowledge their observations and feelings, agreeing that it does sound mean, and not very nice. But then, I encourage them to think a bit about what the passengers of the Mayflower might have felt — and what we sometimes experience in our own lives.

“How do you think the Mayflower passengers felt when they arrived?” I ask. “They were on the boat for 66 days. The Mayflower wasn’t very big and there were a lot of passengers.” My students are silent, clearly trying to figure things out. They begin to share their recollections and thoughts — “There were storms. People died. A baby was born. Maybe they didn’t have enough food. They were probably cold. Maybe they were hungry.”

One asks “Why didn’t they just ask the Native Americans for some food?”

“Good question.” I respond. “Why didn’t they?”

At first they are silent again. Then I ask them. “Did the Native Americans and the passengers of the Mayflower looked alike? Did they dress the same? Do you think they spoke the same language?” They quietly and thoughtfully respond “No.”

Now I am silent. For a moment or two I let them sit with that information. Then I ask them “How do you think they felt?” With a greater of empathy they respond, “Maybe they were scared.” I shake my head, “Yeah, maybe they were scared.” Wanting to bring the two ideas together, I continue “It wasn’t nice what they did. They shouldn’t have stolen the corn, but it’s good for us to remember they might have been afraid, and hungry, and didn’t know what else to do.”

When the girl made those bags of corn, she showed them to me. “I decided to make these for the Mayflower. I’m going to leave them by the boat so they see them. Then they can just have this corn, and not steal ours.” I responded, “That’s a great idea. I bet they’ll be happy to find it.”

There is so much I love about her thoughts and work. Kindness. Empathy. Problem-solving. Offering without being asked. Leaving it with a note — therefore forgoing a thank you. Believing this will help them, and keep them from taking your things — without telling them not to take yours. Lastly, I love that the build, and the labeling, allowed this student to show the depth her understanding, empathy, kindness, and problem solving. May she keep it, grow it, and use it all her days!

Exuberance And Enthusiasm

ex-u-ber-ance
iɡˈzo͞ob(ə)rəns/
noun
 
  1. the quality of being full of energy, excitement, and cheerfulness; ebullience.
    “a sense of youthful exuberance”
    • the quality of growing profusely; luxuriance.
      “houseplants growing with wild exuberance”

     

AND….
en·thu·si·asm
inˈTH(y)o͞ozēˌazəm,enˈTH(y)o͞ozēˌazəm/
noun
 
  1. intense and eager enjoyment, interest, or approval.
    “her energy and enthusiasm for life”

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The maker using the blue tray is FULL  of exuberance and enthusiasm!!!  

I am so excited for her — and the rest of the class — as they become inspired by her brave and joy-filled, creative spirit.

 

 

NOTE: 

Thanks to Google dictionary for the word information found above. 

 

Hinges in Kindergarten

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How will we make our own hinges? Hmmm …

The girls and I have been thinking about this for some time now. Last night I ran out to the hardware store and bought a hinge so we’d be able to look at the pieces, and problem solve together today.

Seems we have many problems to solve:

  1. We don’t have a way to screw in the hinge plates.
  2. We don’t have the remarkable stable structure of concrete walls.
  3. We don’t actually have hinges or hinge plates for our door.
  4. We don’t yet have the door completed.

How might we:

  1. Make our door more secure and stable? (Tomorrow we’re going to take a look at some door designs.)
  2. Create hinges, or hinge-like things, to hang our door?
  3. Create a stable structure to anchor our door?
  4. Make our door workable?

When I look at all the problems, and all the how might we questions, I’m a tad overwhelmed. But, then I see, in my minds eye, my girls, this morning.

I told them I had tubes that might work for the door. With a good deal of excitement, they asked if they could work on the door. “Sure, go ahead!” I replied.

When I popped my head in the makerspace, it was a remarkable scene. Four large columns were being constructed by four groups of girls. They were talking, pointing, sharing ideas, collaborating, and working hard. Some were standing on chairs (the door is much taller than they are). Some were straining their necks to see to the top of the door. All were engaged, empowered, invested, and joy-filled. It was AWESOME.

There is hope!

 

P.S.

Perhaps you are wondering:

  1. Why do you need to make hinges?
  2. You’re making a door?
  3. Why do you need a working door, doesn’t your classroom already have one?

We are making hinges and doors as part of our Social Studies supermarket build.

More on that later!

 

Thomas Edison and Kindergartners

They are more alike than you might think at first glance!

According to the Edison Innovation Foundation, Thomas Edison once said:

“I find out what the world needs. Then I go ahead and try to invent it.”

Given the chance, any kindergartener would say that! Ok, perhaps they wouldn’t say “what the world needs” but they surely would say “what I need” or “what my friends need” or “what my dog needs.” They are natural problem-finders, and problem-solvers!

Like Edison, they are constantly observing, investigating, wondering, and asking questions. This, coupled with their imagination, and a rather intense desire to have things that do not yet exist, often leads them to a plethora of problem-finding. This car I just made is too long. We need a zip-line on the playground. Why don’t we have a container that holds all that stuff?

They often also share Edison’s intense confidence, boundless energy, imagination, and love of tinkering. Given the opportunity, time, resources, and a little encouragement, they create many prototypes as they engage in focused and determined problem-solving.

One of my kindergarteners recently discovered a problem she deemed worthy of her thought, time and energy. “How can you open a card without touching it?” Hmmmm …

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“Add some handles!”

We might be inclined to relegate this to the “ah, isn’t that cute” category. While it is cute, it is so much more! It is sophisticated problem-finding and problem-solving. This student took her present knowledge – about cards, sticks, handles, tape, hands – and thought about it in a new way. She used that knowledge to envision something as yet non-existent – a card you can open without touching it. She then took the materials available to her, and used them in novel ways to solve her problem. She created a card with handles. And, it can even be place in an envelope.

Finding problems, thinking divergently as well as convergently, tinkering, testing, and finally, problem-solving are important skills and habits. My fingers are crossed that my students will continue in this way, and one day say, with Thomas Edison “We found out what the world needed, and we went ahead and invented it!”

Resources:

Edison Innovation Foundation http://www.thomasedison.org/

Great conversations

Our Thanksgiving Social Studies unit included a huge block build.We divided ourselves into three groups – those who remained in England and Holland, the Pilgrims/Saints who chose to leave on the Mayflower, and the Native Americans who were here when the Pilgrims/Saints arrived.

There were definitely times I wondered what I was thinking when I decided to work on this project. Many days I wondered how I would ever survive the energy, non-stop conversation, inquiry, work, and overall “mess” of the build. But survive it I did! And, wow, what a spectacular experience it was! My only regret is that I didn’t have a tape recorder running at all times. The conversations, questions, problem finding, problem solving, collaboration, joy, struggle, teamwork, negotiation, and creativity were remarkable.

We read books, watched youtube videos, and talked – a lot! The girls made sketches, as well as lists of things they wanted to include in each area. Then, unable to contain them any longer, the build began!

They were relentless in their work. The energy they brought to it was amazing. We usually worked in 30-60 minute increments, but often they wanted to spend more time, and continued to work during choice-time.

Here are some photos of the final product. They do not do justice to the incredible thought, work, and attention to detail the girls engaged in each day, but they will give you a sense of what was accomplished.

An overhead shot. England and Holland are to your right and include a castle, two homes and three windmills. The Mayflower sits in the ocean at center. The Native Americas are to your left and include a river (with a waterfall), a garden, round house and two long houses. 
_MG_4815Looking towards the Native American build from with the castle.

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 Looking at the Native American build from within the Mayflower.

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Looking toward the Mayflower from within the Native American build.

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The build was filled with problem finding and problem solving. How do we create a rounded structure from rectangular blocks? How do we make windmills? How do we create waterfalls? How do we represent fish in the ocean or rivers? What do squash look like? How can we create them for the garden? What do we do when our people don’t fit into our house? How do we negotiate when our neighbors want to add more ocean, or more land, or a larger river, and it crosses the line into our area? What do we do when our ideas are different than others in our group? And perhaps most thought-provoking – Where do we put the dead people?

The discussion regarding the dead people arose days after learning some perished on the ocean journey. Their discussion was practical: “Nope we do not want to store the dead people where we will be sleeping.” and “Maybe we can just throw them in the ocean.” But it was also filled with kindness and empathy: “Throwing them into the ocean wouldn’t be very nice.” They arrived at their solution after several extended discussions with each other and me. I didn’t offer solutions. I simply encouraged them to keep thinking, talking and problem solving. Eventually they decided the cereal box from our re-usable supplies would work perfectly.

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They didn’t only think about death. They also imagined people living – and giving birth! Directly in front of the “going to heaven box” they placed this woman – with her three babies!

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They treated the living with the same thoughtfulness they afforded the dead. “Did they have toys, Miss James?” “Did they have dolls?” After discussions about themselves and their parents, we decided they must have had some things to keep the children happy and entertained. They painstakingly created these cardboard dolls.

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They worked for nearly a month. When it was time to end the build, they resisted the notion of finishing and dismantling their work. “We aren’t done!” they insisted. I assured them their work had been thorough and fabulous. I explained we would do future builds – both exploratory and representational. Then I invited others in to see the build. The girls shared their work and their thinking as they gave the visitors tours of the build.

Finally it was time to clean up. It was a massive undertaking. But, it was a great part of the process. We had worked together to create the build, and now we worked together to “destroy” it.

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Eventually each block was sorted and stored, every piece of tape removed from the floor, each scrap of paper swept and recycled, and each handmade treasure safely stored in a girl’s bag. The canvas is clean, ready for our next creative learning experience! My fingers are crossed we will all be able to lean into the unknown, and experience another incredible build together.

Munari’s Zoo

I discovered Bruno Munari while attending a conference for educators at the Eric Carle Museum in Massachusetts. Munari – an Italian artist, designer and inventor, and writer of children’s books, – is loved by Reggio educators. I use Munari’s Zoo and Munari’s Machines in the classroom with great results!

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I enjoy using Munari’s Zoo at the beginning of the year. After a read aloud, we surround ourselves with paper, pencils, crayons, markers, scissors, tape, yarn, pipe cleaners, hole punches, and various other art supplies and tools – and set about making an animal to populate our classroom zoo (bulletin board).

Munari’s book starts with several amusing signs, so we all create a sign for our animal. This year the signs were mostly identifying our animal and the artist that created it. But, sometimes we add signs with instructions. This year there was one sign warning readers – “do not pull the lion’s tail!”

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It’s a fabulous exercise. The students are engaged – working hard without feeling strain or pressure. The spirit in the room is light and joyous. Conversations abound between the students, and between students and teachers. It’s a great way to get to know each other and to do some authentic assessments.

Are the students brave? Do they jump in, or hang back a bit? Do they have many ideas that they share and implement? Do they look to their friends or teachers for ideas? Do they need a little extra encouragement and love? Are they leaders – helping friends? How are their fine motor skills (holding pencil, scissor, manipulating tape, pipe cleaners, cutting, drawing)? Do they know the sounds letters make? Can they stretch out words? What do they hear as they stretch out the words? Do they have an efficient motor plan for their letters? Do they use upper case, lower case, or a combination of both?

The challenge involved is positive and self-regulated. The students are intrinsically motivated to create, and caught up in the excitement of seeing their work displayed, even the most timid writers stretch out words to make their sign. The open-ended nature of the assignment allows the children to self-differentiate. Some students make one animal, some make many. Some use materials they are familiar with, while others experiment with some of the less familiar materials. But, one way or another, everyone succeeds at the task.

This project is an easy, and safe way, to give the students control over their work and learning, and therefore increase their sense of agency, early in the school year. My instructions are simply to make an animal, and a sign to accompany it. They decide if the animal will be real or imaginary. They determine the form, color, and size of their animal. They choose the materials they will use to create it. They decide what their sign will say, and write it (with as little or as much help as they need). Finally, once done, they choose where to place their animal on the board as we create our class zoo.

And, very importantly, I do my best to limit my “interference” and simply listen, question and encourage. For instance, the animals at the top right are peacocks. One has to use their imagination and enter into the mind of the child – as best we can – to see how they are all wonderful representations of peacocks – although not ones we might have imagined. But, notice the color, the beginning structure, and the use of the yarn to represent all the color of the peacock feathers.

I even purposefully limit the amount of help I give them as they write. I try to help them hear the sounds in the words, and encourage them to represent each sound. But I resist my adult urge to “tell them” how to write it. By limiting my “help” I allow them to think, struggle, problem solve, experiment and come up with their own solutions. By doing so, we (they and I together) strengthen their skills, increase their ability to persevere, expand their vision of themselves and their abilities, and (hopefully) positively impact their future work and thought.

 

Yes, and … in the classroom

Back in July, I hipped you to Uri Alon’s awesome TED talk. (https://creativitylovingeducator.com/2014/07/05/in-the-cloud-with-uri-alon/) I said we’d talk once you watched the video. Well, hopefully you found the time (If not, go now!), because here we go!

So, yes, Uri Alon. How do we transfer his ideas into the classroom? Do his ideas have any merit in a classroom where we are laying a foundation of skills, facts and knowledge? Isn’t it important, and in fact necessary, that we as teachers teach our students what is correct? Wouldn’t we be doing a disservice to our students if we engaged in “Yes, and …” conversations? How is “Yes, and …” valuable in, for instance, a kindergarten classroom?

All great questions. I think it is a matter of balance – not “either or” but, “yes, and!” LOL!

As a teacher I understand the necessity of giving my students a broad base of knowledge and facts. It would be irresponsible of me to never correct a child, but it would be equally irresponsible if I never engage in “yes, and …” conversations with them.

“Yes, and …” conversations provide opportunities for profound things to happen for me, and for my students. Given a “yes, and …” response by me, my students are given permission and space to enter into a dialogue with me, their peers, themselves, and their work and thought.

They must engage in metacognition and  attempt to articulate their thinking. Why do they believe what they believe? How is it true?

By thinking about their thinking, and struggling to adequately express their thoughts, they will practice, and hopefully enhance, many essential skills:

  • metacognition
  • thinking about their thinking
  • critical thinking
  • creative thinking
  • articulating
  • emotional intelligence
  • negotiation
  • listening
  • analyzing
  • comparing
  • evaluating
  • experimenting
  • summarizing
  • valuing mistakes and learning from them, instead of running from them

They may discover their thinking was flawed at a certain point, and upon rethinking, may arrive at the correct answer with greater understanding and knowledge. Or, they may discover why their answer was correct, and grow in confidence and understanding.

Additionally, “Yes, and …” conversations benefit me as a teacher (and learner). By engaging in “yes, and …” conversations with my students I too enhance all the skills listed above. I may discover they are thinking along a path I never considered. I may discover that my instructions, or thinking, were flawed or ambiguous, or, simply different from theirs. Plus, I grow in my understanding of my students’ thinking. Focusing on the process, and the path they took to their answer/understanding, I am more able to encourage, affirm, and/or correct.

house

One year I asked my students to draw a picture of their family. One student came to me, excited to show me her picture. It was a lovely picture, but their were no people in it! I looked at her, and she looked at me. I was perplexed, so I asked her what she drew. “My house,” she replied. “Did I ask you to draw your house?” I asked. “Nope,” she replied. “You asked me to draw my family.” I looked at her with a smile, and a bit of a raised eyebrow and said “So, where’s your family.”

It seemed she hadn’t noticed any problem until I asked her about the whereabouts of her family. She leaned on the table – one hand on either side of her paper – studying her drawing intently. She looked, and thought. I waiting silently.

Finally she looked up, with a huge smile on her face – eyes glowing with the discovery she had just made. “THEY’RE IN THE HOUSE!!!!!” I couldn’t restrain myself, as the answer was so unexpected, and burst out laughing! “They’re in the house? What are they doing in there? Do you think you can draw them so we can see them?” She looked at the picture one more time, said yes, and began to draw faces in the windows.

That was an awesome example to me of a “Yes, and …” type of conversation benefiting both my student and me. She had to think about the task and her response. She had to problem solve. I had to trust her, wait, and re-evaluate my directions.

We both walked away with greater understanding and confidence in ourselves and each other. Fabulous!

 

RESOURCES:

The Art of Focused Conversation: 100 Ways to Access Group Wisdom in the Workplace, edited by R. Brian Stanfield,  http://www.amazon.com/The-Art-Focused-Conversation-Workplace/dp/0865714169