490. The Forest and the Trees

Sometimes the work of teaching makes it so you can’t see the forest; there are too many trees to think about. As I sat in Pam Szczesny’s third grade classroom this morning, I took a moment to look at the forest. Children were working on writing their own individual creation myths, and they were deeply involved in the project. Children in Pam’s class are usually deeply involved in one thing or another. It’s almost always something Pam has planned, but there aren’t many times when children look as if they’re doing what someone else told them to do; it only seems to take a moment for the children to own whatever project Pam plans, and there’s plenty of room within her plans for the children’s plans.
Some children were stretched out on the rug, some standing at tables, and some seated at their desks. All were busily creating their worlds or universes, populating them, and inventing adventures. Some were running their ideas by each other, some consulting the four adults in the room, and some busily writing. I kept zooming in on individual children with my ears and eyes, and each time I did, I witnessed total involvement in the assigned project.
I don’t know how Pam had brought about the degree of involvement I saw, but as I said, her class is usually involved like that. So am I when I’m in her class; most of the time, I’m so busy helping individual children, who are in the midst of projects, that there’s no time to sit back and see the big picture. But this time, I forced myself to take a few minutes and see her class as a class, rather
than focus on what individual children were doing. That’s something teachers ought to do once in a while, but they’re often so busy making great things happen that they can’t stop to see the things happen. I asked Pam to take a moment to appreciate the rich environment that was her classroom. She did, and she smiled.
But she also told me that she doesn’t get to do that very much. It’s great that there are usually several adults in her classroom, but there’s so much going on all the time in her room that every adult who is there has plenty to do. At one point, for example, a child motioned for me to come over. He was trying to think of a name for one of his immortal characters. I suggested Zenkar. He liked that name, and used it. Another child asked if I would read what she’d written so far. I did. I was impressed, and told her so.
Pam is a phenomenal teacher. She pays attention to the children in her class, and really knows them. Somehow, she makes sure each tree gets sufficient light, and all its other necessities. And those trees are growing, all right. But I hope Pam and other teachers get occasional chances to notice what beautiful forests they’re cultivating.

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