The questions were simple enough. “What about basic supplies? What about the laptops? What about the crayons? What about the things multiple hands touch over a short period of time every day?”
The man at the end of the call asked the questions of the teacher’s union president. It was following a discussion of what we will need to do to safely re-open schools in what many hope will soon be a post COVID-19 world.
The call was 5 days ago.
I have asked myself “What about the crayons?” innumerable times since I heard this teacher ask. The union president was stumped, but to his credit, collected this teacher’s contact information to add him to future focus groups.
There is so much we just don’t know.
I have tried to stay present, not to stray too far from the moment. I have tried to remain in an attitude of gratitude for my ability to work from home, the health of my family, and our financial stability.
But, my mind strays from tragedies, milestones missed, and seasons not played, to an uncertain future. We receive conflicting messages daily, through multiple elected representatives, doctors, and ordinary citizens. Everyone feels adamantly one way or another about a variety of issues.
But, what about the crayons?
It’s a basic enough question, that may seem like no big deal if you haven’t spent the last 23 years in an elementary school. It’s the kind of question that will easily be brushed aside regardless of how many times it’s asked.
But, maybe it’s one of the most important questions.
Through the years of teaching I have seen a lot of changes, and I have not always embraced them willingly. Some, I would argue still, are pure nonsense. Others have made me a better educator. In reality, like so many other things in life, what I agree with is not wholly relevant.
When I started teaching we had desks. Students had desks. Teachers had desks. Everyone had their own supplies. Students largely worked alone. Slowly, there were times it was appropriate to do “group work” where we would move desks together for collaboration, only to later return them to their original separate space.
Through the years, desks became tables and teacher’s desks were eliminated. There were bins on tables for shared items. Books were kept on shelves, and folders kept in bins. Everything required a monitor to hand it out. The tables were 6 sided, making separating children a challenge, you know, for those activities that shouldn’t be done in groups. So we added “dividers” also stored, and distributed as needed.
Slowly, desks have made a comeback, as everything old is new again, and supplies are often kept in the desks for the older children, but many of the youngest still work from tables.
We are supposed to teach them to collaborate. We are supposed to teach them to work in groups. We are supposed to teach them to get along, in addition to, well, TEACHING them.
About 10 years ago I shifted from teaching in a classroom of my own students to teaching as a “cluster” teacher, in a position to provide preparation periods for the classroom teachers as per our contract. I serve as a math cluster, a position many see as odd, but one I love. My role in this position is to help all children love math.
I have evolved over the years from a hesitant, controlling teacher, to one who embraces productive student noise and activity. Although I see students from kindergarten through 4th grade, my room still has those six-sided tables. Most lessons are hands on, using everything from play-doh, to stamp pads, to puzzles, to counters, to fraction bars and many more. My children share pencils, 12 at a table. They also share scissors, and glue, and rulers, and hundreds charts, and teaching coins, and that is only some of what is in every table bin. As 5 classes a day, 25 classes a week, and roughly 600 students a week sit at my tables and handle my math tools, monitors count and keep order. Desks are washed often and hand sanitizer flows freely.
But, there is no part of me that thinks it’s enough.
The giggling joy of children battling number facts, playing dice games, building numbers with play-doh, and solving number puzzles together has become a sound that I truly enjoy. My room is noisy, active, and largely fun.
It’s a stark contrast to some other aspects of life.
I take seriously the task to encourage a passionate love of math. I am thrilled to be a safe space, where tests are minimal, informal assessment rules, groups are fluid and the majority of children get to feel successful.
Maybe I learned how important that excitement for education was after our Cowden’s Syndrome diagnosis in 2012. Something about surviving a sneaky cancer, and watching your own child lose a good deal of innocence on exam tables, and in operating rooms, makes you more in touch with the value of “productive, happy noise.”
My girl was in 3rd Grade when we were formally diagnosed, but in truth she has ALWAYS been dealing with health issues. I watched her elementary school experience. I know as an only child with two working parents, largely unavailable to meet others to play, social isolation came early. I know she had tons of alone time, and subsequently too much adult time.
I know the teachers that changed her life for the better, to whom I will be eternally grateful, and I know the ones who just changed her.
She never liked math. I could always get her to understand, but it made her nervous. It still does. She never “played” math. Like so much else, it was a task to master, not an experience to have.
Maybe because it was easier to read during the hours of waiting, in traffic, in offices, in hospitals, and during recovery. Or maybe because it wasn’t fun. I’ll never know.
She never really handled crayons much either. Or math tools. And she was allergic to the wheat in the play-doh….
So, I set out to make my math room a place that could maybe change the perception of one kid. Maybe I could help one kid believe they could be good at math, or that math was fun.
I have a system set up. There are 5 bins of every math tool you can imagine. When they need crayons there are three fresh boxes poured out into bins that match the color of their table baskets. The older kids usually have a focused lesson in different levels. The little guys often rotate through a few activities to keep them moving and keep things developmentally appropriate.
Which brings me back to the crayons.
As my colleague on that call pointed out, it was laptops, crayons, and everything in between.
It is my entire program. It is all things hands on and developmentally appropriate for our youngest learners.
No one knows.
I have had many sleepless nights since we began
Very few things leave a mom as unsettled as her child’s health.
But, a close second might be asking a primary teacher, “What about the crayons?“