"The learning and knowledge that we have, is, at the most, but little compared with that of which we are ignorant."
I love writing haikus. To me, the Japanese-inspired 17-syllable poem is the bonsai tree of creative writing. Elegant. Profound. Succinct. And I try to inspire myself each day by writing a new one — which I duly post on my Facebook page. They're not conventional, and they are not always very good, but I find the exercise of writing them stimulating — and liberating. I guess over time I've created a bit of a following. Go figure. Still, I'm always amazed at people's response to my little bonsai poems...
Well, it just so happened one morning that I was feeling rather jaded about 21st century life. I can't remember exactly why — I dimly remember some kind of conflict with a middle manager who had drunk a little too deeply of the company koolaid — but it seemed to me that day that the rigidity of corporate life was suffocating the very joie-de-vivre that makes our all-too-human existence bearable. This particular guy had no imagination, no curiosity... and absolutely no sense of humour. It was like talking to a rock. So this is what I wrote:
It's on the endangered list.
Use it or lose it!
And it inspired some fine online rhymes. But the most intriguing response came from my friend, Dawn Titus. "Try teaching kindergarten," wrote the Spring Creek educator. "Lots of imagination abounding; and so inspirational!!" And in a following post: "Why don't you come visit and see for yourself."
Challenges are like catnip to me. I just can't resist them. So when the inimitable Ms. T invited me to visit her class, well, how could I refuse? Besides, I reasoned, what a great way to check into Whistler's future. I mean, these four-and five-year olds were the very kids who would inherit — and ultimately have to live with — what we've created here.
A little background on the teacher first. This is what I wrote in a past Alta States column:
"Educator, athlete, mentor, coach — and an inspiration to Whistler gals (and more than a few guys) for the last three decades — Dawn Titus is devoting her not inconsiderable energy these days to wrangling South Whistler's rambunctious kindergartners.
Frankly, I can't imagine a more daunting task. Fun, for sure (yeah — maybe for an hour or two). But riding herd on 20 happy-faced, question-filled, mischief-making Whistler tots for five days a week, ten months a year? Oh, my aching head...
But somehow it fits. For Dawn is no ordinary human. Think endorphin-charged Energizer Bunny — but without the need for batteries. I mean this woman is a walking, talking perpetual motion machine. Wanna go for a bike ride to Pemberton? Dawn's ready. How about a stretch of Nordic skiing? Same. Or what about combining a handful of sports in one day? No problem. What's more, Ms Titus can probably loan you whatever equipment you're missing. And teach you something about the sport along the way..."
See what I'm saying? So how could I refuse her invitation?
And that, my friends, is how I found myself walking through the halls of Spring Creek Community School recently, feeling a little like Swift's Gulliver among the Lilliputians. And I could tell from the kids' surreptitious glances that I looked just as strange to them. I winked. I smiled. I waggled my Santa moustache. Some smiled back. Some stared or looked away. But it was suddenly very clear to me that I'd entered a brave new world.
Now this isn't a story about educational politics or teachers' rights or the silliness of local school boards for thinking that teachers can handle countless numbers of kids without flinching. But one look at Ms. T's classroom was enough to turn me into an instant critic of the system.
The classroom itself would be ideal if it were hosting 12-15 students. But that's not the case. In its inimitable wisdom, the local board has managed to stuff 21 kids into a room made for half that many. And it barely contains them. Boots, parkas, hats, mitts, lunch boxes, drink bottles, art supplies, drawing, journals, toys, tools, learning aids, chairs, tables — everything fights for space here. Trying to keep a semblance of order in all that chaos would drive me nuts!
But it doesn't appear to bother Ms. T one bit. Upbeat as usual (and no, it's not an act; she really is that way), she greets every one of her charges by name as they enter the room. And I can tell almost immediately that these kids love their teacher. They don't just "like" their teacher. They love their teacher. You can see it in their eyes; in the way they hug her, in the way they beam when she compliments them. There's an easy-going banter in the room. An atmosphere of fun. Everyone seems happy to be here. And the hugs are very real — as much for each other as for the teacher.
But don't mistake the fun for lack of discipline. Without raising her voice, without getting angry or impatient or aggressive or self-righteous, Ms. Titus manages her kids like an educational pied piper. It all seems effortless. Smooth. Natural. But it's not — she's obviously put a lot of thought into her curriculum. There's structure, but it's lightly applied, with a lot of room for what Ms. T calls "the pregnant pause." And the results are nothing short of impressive.
In what seems a miraculous transformation, the scrum of 21 laughing, talking, fidgeting, moving, questioning, nose-exploring, ear-picking, butt-scratching kids are now calmly seated on the ground. "Voices quiet, ears listening.... dot, dot, dot," croons Ms. Titus. The fidgeting dwindles. And then silence — the whole room is quiet.
It suddenly strikes me that the teacher's calming exercise could be put to great use at municipal council meetings. Know what I mean? These kids are better behaved and more thoughtful with each other than the adults we've entrusted with the community's future! Remember that old phrase "everything I needed to know, I learned in kindergarten?" Well, the more I spend time in Ms. T's classroom, the more I realize that she and her charges are working on social skills that most adult Whistlerites have yet to master!
Concepts like respect and kindness and generosity and active listening are visited and re-visited throughout the morning. Nobody gets to be selfish in Ms. T's classroom. For her (and her students) it's all about the good of the group. No one person deserves more time or attention than any other. Be patient. Be helpful. Wait your turn. Celebrate each other's successes. These are the "pearls" I harvest from my morning at school.
But it's not like these ideas are used as battering rams. Rather, they're quietly inserted into the day's activities, whether it's getting acquainted with the magic of letters through visual storytelling... or dancing wildly together to "Who Let The Dogs Out."
A quick glance around the room is all it takes to realize just how much learning goes on here. The walls are a riot of colours and shapes and charts and letters and numbers and paintings and carvings and collages. I don't think there's a spot of white space left...
And suddenly it hits me like a bag of wet cement to the head. While Ms. Titus is doing a fine job of teaching her kids about reading and writing and arithmetic (what most parents would consider the conventional curriculum), there is something much more profound happening just under the surface. These kids are getting a master class in civics. How to behave in a group, how to wait your turn, how to curb your disruptive behaviour: it's all about community here — the community of kindergarten!
How do we get through this year together? How do we live and learn and play — without impeding others from living and learning and playing? Basic things. But oh-so-important. And I'm struck by another bolt of lighting. Strip it down to its primary components, and kindergarten reveals a blueprint for a sustainable future: Respect thy neighbour. Funny how we forget these lessons as we grow into adults...
I'm shocked at how quickly the time flies. And before I know it, my stint in kindergarten is over. As I'm preparing to leave, a scrum of five year-olds approaches me timidly. "We just wanted to give you a goodbye hug," says the group's leader. No guile. No agenda. They just want to say goodbye. And I can't help but feel good about Whistler's future. It's in good hands. Which inspires another bonsai verse:
A morning at school,
Lessons from the very young.
Thanks so much Ms. T...
A final note: Whistler boasts a coterie of outstanding, passionate educators. And it's been that way for years. Ms. Titus is but one example of that wonderful teaching tradition.