Many years ago, I was an avid knitter. During those cold winter months in Vermont, I could whip out an Icelandic sweater each and every month there was snow on the ground. Skiing, attending class, studying, and socializing consumed my days, and darn if I didn’t knit while doing three out of those four! Knitting provided a structure and a routine that could be varied and creative. It was predictable, comfortable, and challenging.
But every once in a while, I got too comfortable. I overlooked details, lost track of the pattern, or perhaps was a bit sloppy. In those instances, even if I was binding off at the neck, I would have to take a long, hard look at my efforts and make the difficult call to rip out stitches, re-wind the ball and fix up whatever mis-stitch or hole I had inadvertently created. It wasn’t fun, but it often taught me something and it always paid off in the end.
My life has become far too complicated for me to make time to knit and my aching fingers would never be willing to grip bamboo needles that gently click as I count knit two, purl two. But the patterns and habits of knitting, and the occasional need to look honest at what has been stitched together, have been flashing through my head this week like the old familiar routine of knitting and ripping out stitches.
For me, and countless other teachers, the first six weeks were rich with modeling, practicing and defining our class community and expectations. Children rose to the challenges and pulled together to be their best. We proudly celebrated our accomplishments and dug into the academic endeavors. But slowly, tension started to build. Friends are comfortable with each other and lose patience or know just how to get under someone else’s skin. Children feel unsure and that can manifest in silly or bold behavior. Germ-sharing has begun and some feel under-the-weather and more vulnerable. Our schedule now gets tweaked, interrupted, crammed. Others are revealing small signals that the work load is hard or needs to be modified so that their learning can be optimized. It’s officially feeling like a frenetic fall, despite the glorious accomplishments that come to light during each day’s closing circle.
It took me a day or so to admit it to myself, but we had dropped a stitch, overlooked something in our pattern, tightened the yarn. Something was slightly amiss. I desperately want to pretend the sweater will be okay with minor imperfections, but I know that when a stitch is dropped, the hole grows if left unattended.
I wasn’t looking to blame anyone, except perhaps myself in some small way. I quietly reassured myself that this was natural and to be expected, but required action. After all, we know each other well and we know that we forget to do the rules. In the words of Walt Disney, it was time to “move forward.”
I took a look a our schedule and determined where we need to back up and reflect on our guidelines. “Tell me which of our guidelines will help us treat friends and teachers with more respect than we’ve been seeing.” Or, “which of our guidelines will help you remember what needs to happen when the chime rings.” We revisited what logical consequences arose when you forgot or simply chose not to do the rules. We had to tighten up some of the privileges and choices we’d enjoyed until our routines and expectations were shored up. It didn’t take long for things to start to shift.
I also took a gander at the chronological ages of my kids. Yup, those eight and a half-year olds who love cooperative work are now several weeks closer to nine (where competition is king). The talkative explainers who were eight, were inching toward the complaining, self-criticising nines who claim work is “boring” or that they (gasp!) “hate it,” often with the body langauge or sound effect that reverberates for minutes after the words leave their lips. Nothing personal, just young bodies, minds and spirits stretching and growing. But as with all conflict and stress in life, the way adults react to children’s behavior and needs has tremendous power in that moment and in their development. Time to rip out a few stitches, rewind that yarn and begin the pattern again refueled with the determination that will complete the pattern to move us forward with our unique process and end product.
I went instinctively to Gesell and Yardsticks. Whew! It’s not me. It’s not them. It’s not the group. It’s development and human nature. It’s part of children’s acquisition of self-control as they test the waters, learn to exert their power, and expand their repertoire. They are being challenged in many ways and that growth can feel uncomfortable without the safety net that comes with a sense of belonging, significance and some old-fashion fun.
Patience and clear explanations of what is expected, what we have seen transpire and what our goals prove be more effective than blame and frustration. A sense of humor and encouragement when kids are discouraged or anxious goes a long way. In our case, some old Beatles and Michael Jackson lightened up lunch and led to interesting conversations about which of those icons are still making music. Carefully chosen read alouds – humorous fiction and realistic fiction – allowed us to escape into a good story. They also gave us pause to talk about social situations and dynamics, and to make those rich text to self-connections that bring us closer to the literature and a keener understanding of ourselves.
Every beautiful sweater takes time, care, and some reworking before it’s completed. When you know your pattern and are committed to making it the best, it takes time and patience. With the start of a new week upon us, I am encouraged by what lies ahead now that we’ve recommitted to our pattern and practiced our stitches. I know these kids – all kids – want to do their best, especially when supported and understood by adults who are lucky enough to spend each day with them. I’m grateful to have to the time to do so with them!