“Look, Paul, look! I put spaces between my words!” one of my students said, in a fit of excitement, as she ran up to me. I sat at my kidney table, conferring with students over their writing. I had shown her, hardly 20 minutes beforehand, how to put spaces between her words using crayons.
“I used the crayon but then I thought I didn’t need it because I knew how to do it without it,” she said, her words running into one exasperated run-on sentence, excitement overflowing with every word. While I didn’t show it like she did, my excitement paralleled hers. I was humbled and moved by the sponginess of her brain and genuineness of her excitement.
“I’m so excited for Teacher Margarita to get my book,” she finished, heading back to her seat to continue working on the final copy of her published book. Our charge for this project was to write stories, publish them, and send them to Family Connections, a local organization that provides educational services to low-income families including tuition-free parent participation preschool, parent education and links to community services. We’d had a representative from the organization come in just a week or so before, igniting the kids’ excitement to share their writing and make others’ lives better through literacy.
My eyes scanned the room, momentarily resting on each one of the little humans that sat at our hexagonal tables, diligently working on their stories. In this moment, three and a half months flashed before my eyes: the first days of school, the “scribble scrabble” that used to fill many of their Draw-and-Write notebooks, their endearing dependence on the adults around them. These memories were momentarily juxtaposed with the present: these final days of school before winter break, their developed drawings, attempts at forming letters and sounds, and an independence that almost left me–dare I say–bored during writing workshop, simply due to the fact that my students didn’t need me in that moment.
I turned to another one of the students at my table, lost in his writing, the same student who months before, struggled to draw even a simple shape on his paper. His pages were now filled with colorful pictures, the lines strewn with clusters of capital letters, representing a day of playing soccer with one of his close friends. I subtly smiled, beaming with pride, wishing I could take more credit for these successes. But in a way, I felt like I couldn’t.
It was Locke who said children come to us a tabula rasa, or blank slate, and that our job as educators or as parents is to help write, color, and otherwise fill these slates. But as I looked around the classroom, I was reminded once again that this isn’t the way it works, and that wasn’t what was going on here. What happened over these past three months was entirely different.
Instead of my students being formerly blank slates that were now written upon, their minds were unlocked. The interests, affinities, and strengths with which my students had come through the doors on the first days of school, coupled with an authentic and important purpose, had suddenly been combined together harmoniously, allowing each of them to feel like true writers, to have a mente aperta–an open mind–and to see themselves in a curriculum that is not only important to who they are as individuals, but one that is also important to the world around them.