Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The man who made a very poor choice

"Hey um, Melissa?" I never know what is coming next when I hear this request for attention, especially from the lad uttering it this time.
"I... My mommy said she heard on the news they caught that bad boy with the... Shootin' things..."
"Ah, it's true, the police caught the man who made a bad mistake and shot his friends. They took him to jail."
"Hooray, they got him!"
"Hooray, maybe they will help him learn to make better choices while he is in jail."

This conversation took place on the way out to the playground yesterday afternoon. He was talking about it again when he came in this morning. "They catched him when he was trying to um go out of Canada but soon they are gonna bring him back to Edmonton."

While I believe that The News is inappropriate for young children, I also believe they have the right to know (to an extent that is within their grasp) what is going on in the world. When children bring up something from The News, it is almost always something very scary. I think they're looking for someone to help them make sense of it all. I see it as an opportunity to equip them with some survival and coping tools. One child brought up a news story about some "bad guys in a white van" who were "tryin' to steal some kids" one day at lunch, which sparked a conversation about "what do you do if someone is trying to steal you?"

The news story mentioned yesterday was about the recent U of A shooting at Hub Mall last week. A man made a very poor decision. He shot four of his friends. Three of them died. The other one is still in the hospital, very badly injured. The man who made the poor decision also stole a whole bunch of money, and then he ran away. The police caught him at the US border. Now he is going to jail for a very long time.

Scary stuff, but the kids are aware of it. Two or three of them have been telling me little details about Travis Baumgartner and the people he shot. I take their input seriously, and try to give them a relevant framework on which to hang it. I can feel the cognitive dissonance. One boy seems to find it intolerable to think of Mr. Baumgartner as anything besides "the bad boy." I don't know if it's about the implications of a grown-up committing crimes or if it's because the child tends to identify with villains and bad guys, and actually wants the villain in this case to be a boy like him. Either way, I make sure to point out at every opportunity that he's "A man who has made a very poor decision" and that doesn't make him "bad" necessarily.

In the weeks leading up to the fateful day when a security guard shot four other security guards and drove off with a truckload of money, the kids in our centre were increasingly "playing guns". We have very strict gun and shooting rules in the preschool room. They are one of the sets of teacher-created rules, but there is a kid-created rule that addresses playing guns, too: "No shooting." I've tried very hard to teach the children as much as I can about guns and gun safety, empowering them to explore the concept and the power of guns without allowing them to threaten other people with said power. I passionately believe this is more important than simply banning gun play, partly because of an incident in which one of my classmates was accidentally shot in the face by her babysitter, who was playing around with a rifle and didn't realise it was loaded. We were in grade two at the time. The incident never would have happened if the babysitter had known the most important rules about guns.

Here are the teacher-created gun rules, which are simplified and amended to fit each situation:
  1. You never, ever, EVER point a gun at a person. Not even a pretend gun.
  2. People who point guns at people get their guns taken away and go to jail.
  3. If you see a gun in real life, don't touch it! Tell an adult right away. Guns are not toys.
  4. Assume every gun is loaded.
  5. Only aim at things you plan to shoot.
  6. You can only shoot at targets that are not alive. 
  7. You can only shoot a living thing if you are going to eat it or if it is about to kill you.
  8. If you shoot a living thing, it might die. Dying is forever.
  9. People who shoot other people get their guns taken away and go to jail for a VERY long time. Jail is not fun.
Recently, I have been confiscating a lot of "guns" (mostly wooden blocks and foam L-shaped blocks, or guns built out of Duplo blocks, but some invisible guns, too) and sending a lot of kids to 'jail' (I never specify where jail is or how long they have to stay there. Usually they go sit on the rocking chair or go behind a shelf, and then come back on their own, spontaneously telling me "I won't shoot anymore" or "I'm all done being a bad guy"). I have heard kids reminding each other ad nauseum "NO SHOOTING! You shooted me, you have to go to jail!" to no avail and getting frustrated and angry. Now that they are talking about a guy who shot his friends, I am cracking down hard on the gun play. No more warnings. No more polite reminders. Today, we linked guns with "the man who made a poor decision and shot his friends" in conversation. I hope that further exploration of this discussion will lead the kids to an understanding that it is NEVER okay to shoot their friends. After all, dying is forever.

Monday, June 11, 2012

We don't teach reading and writing here.

No really, we don't.

Yes, we call ourselves an accredited preschool childcare program. But if you walk into our classroom, you will not see brightly coloured cartoon alphabet banners adorning our walls. The books on our shelves are chosen purely based on their relationship to the children's current interests. There is no drilling of letters and sounds, no singing the alphabet song unless the children initiate it, and well... almost no direct instruction, except music and the "advanced drawing class" that some of the older children choose to attend.

And yet, our children are remarkably literate (with the possible exception of a couple of kids with differing learning needs and one whose first language is not English and does not use our alphabet).

To be fair, we accidentally taught the oldest preschooler how to write last spring. Oops. He was doing some drawing exercises for his advanced drawing class, including making lines, points, angle lines, circles, and curvy lines. Susan pointed out that everything he would ever draw was made of those elements. I then made the mistake of mentioning that all the letters and numbers are made from those basic shapes as well. Oops. Over night, he unlocked the secret to writing. He started by copying out all of his classmates' names over and over again. He wrote his name and his best friend's name on anything he could get his hands on. He asked how to spell the name of his favourite Pokemon character. Now, he has the tidiest, most compact printing I have ever seen from a five-year-old (it rivals that of some nine-year-olds) and in the ensuing year, I have spent countless moments telling him how to spell the things he wants to write down, letter by letter.

I suppose we may have accidentally given some of the children other literacy tools. Just this morning, a group of children at the art table discovered an amazing thing. It all started when the newly-returned 4-year-old asked one of the soon-to-depart Big Kids how to spell her name. He wrote every letter as she dictated, until the final letter, where he misheard "T" and instead wrote "P".

"Wait a minute! That's not how you draw my name!" exclaimed the name's owner.

"Melissa, what does this say?" asked the writer, turning to me.

I wasted no time in reading the name he had written, emphatically pronouncing the P at the end. Hilarity ensued. That could have been the end of it, but the boy's analytical mind went immediately to work, and he wrote his own name, replacing the final letter with a P. "What does this name say?" I obligingly read it, again being sure to pronounce the final P.

I could see the wheels turning in his head, and all but heard him thinking "Oh boy, if changing one letter makes a name say something different and silly, I wonder what happens when I add letters, or change more letters..." and all of the sudden, I was being bombarded with pages of coloured paper with felt-marker letters scrawled across them: "What does mine say? What does this say? Read mine now!" The boy had unwittingly stumbled across one of the most important pieces of knowledge that are Top Secret to children who are too young to go to school: Letters stand for sounds, and sounds combine to make words. And by drawing them into his joke, he shared his forbidden knowledge with not one, but two of the Big Kids! Why, one of those girls handed me a page reading "ACHHHHO" to read, and then fell over laughing when I told her it said "ach-OOO!" and THEN she had the nerve to write it again on another page! And she read that page to her friends, without any teacher to decode it! Kindergarten won't know what hit it in September.