Thursday, June 25, 2009


The scream I heard while sitting at my desk caused my skin to crawl. I knew who it was, but I did not know why I heard the desperate, shrilling call. It was the morning after holiday break when all of our preschoolers were finding their way back to the once familiar classrooms they inhabited two weeks ago.

I soon heard the scream again but louder, much louder. There was a demanding tone that announced, “I don’t want to be here. I want to be with you. Don’t leave me. Take me with you.” Ah, now I understood, it was a five-year old struggling with separation anxiety. As I stared at my door and the hall where the cries came from, I instantly fell into a reverie that pulled me back to the time my mother brought me to Kindergarten on the first day of school. I did not want to be there . . . at all.

The next image that surfaced in my mind was me sitting in the back seat of my neighbor’s woody and my mother sitting in the passenger’s seat looking forward, mad — and I suppose embarrassed — and I am thinking, I feel safe now, but what’s going to happen when I get home?

While demonstrating my separation anxiety in the classroom, I became so distraught and adamant about not wanting to be there. I distinctly remember biting my mother on the leg, and the principal saying to my mother, “Mrs. Peters, you will have to take your son home.” As a child of loving parents and many days in nursery school, I have no idea why that happened back then.

Fortunately, my friend down the hall was comforted by her mother and she adjusted to her once-familiar surroundings; mother slinked away; and normalcy returned to the child, my skin, and getting back to my work . . . away from long-ago images. Obviously shaken by the whole ordeal, the child’s mother scurried past my door, but not before I could catch her and tell her the story of my own five-year old anxiety. Relieved, she said, “And I guess you turned out OK. Thanks for the reassurance.”

Who knows what causes children — and adults for that matter — to feel adrift, needing a lifeline at a particular moment in life. In this case, the mother did the right thing, using the guidance of the teacher, staying strong, and letting familiarity and caring teachers take over.

Friday, June 19, 2009

In Context

Helping a child understand the use and importance of contextual clues when reading has always been a fascination of mine. Knowing whether the word “wind” refers to what you do to a watch (old-fashioned, that is) or what keeps a kite aloft on a blustery spring day can only be understood by looking at the words around “wind.” For this concept of context a lesson presented itself when I least expected it . . .

. . . my office is situated on a hall that leads the two-year olds to the rooftop play area. Each day in the fall while I am at my desk, I wave to them as they sheepishly walk past, heads focused straight ahead, never venturing the thought of exchanging a wave. By December, one or two walk by, look in and timidly lift a hand in an attempt to acknowledge my flapping gestures.

Well, by February, the teachers cannot move them past my office because they all have to stop, wave vigorously, and say “Hi Dane.”

One day in the spring I was standing outside of my office and the twos were making their way back from their daily venture to the rooftop. I was excited; now I could be close by and exchange a happy hello instead of the behind-the-desk wave. Hovering close to the hall wall, anticipating my office, three children prepared themselves to crane their necks around the door jamb to offer their daily greeting when they looked up at me and quickly shied away as if to say, “Hey, who are you and what are doing here?” They wanted nothing to do with me. Then it dawned on me that I was out of context. I immediately said, “Oh. Wait a minute. I’ll fix this.” I ran to my desk and began waving. Without a hitch, their faces beamed, hands started flapping and the “Hi Danes” took over as if I were always there.

By the way, it isn’t only children that need contextual clues. Last weekend, my wife and I were at the green grocer and a parent gave a hearty “Hello Dane.” I smiled and wondered who that was. A minute later, when it was too late, I realized that it was a parent . . . but without his child and not walking through the front door of the school. Like the twos, I, too, needed contextual clues.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Children Concentrating

Children need ample time to create, think, and work. Compressing a child’s work time to fit our busy schedules can be frustrating for the child and ultimately counterproductive.

A while ago, I sat in amazement as I watched two-year olds “perform” during an admission intake for our Twos Program. Essentially, six children are set free in the classroom and encouraged by their parents or a teacher to engage in an activity. A book, a ball, a bunny, a sink, or a marker can catch their fancy.

On this special morning, I had the occasion to watch Kari do her thing. With much concentration and determination she was engrossed in an individual activity. A basket with four-inch round head screws and a six-inch tall jar that is used for sprinkling parmesan cheese is all this child – mind you, a two-year old child - needed for her half-hour activity. Once the teacher demonstrated how you place a screw in the hole, the child was off and running.

Maybe it is the feeling of accomplishment, or maybe it is the sound the threads the screw makes when it is inserted into the hole of the metal cap. Whatever it is, children need time to explore, create, and discover their world. Dr. Montessori stressed the uninterrupted work cycle so that children can become engaged in the work – engaged in a way that allows them to concentrate and discover at their own pace.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Weighty Words

The last time I read to our middle school students, I first wanted to have an exchange with them on new words and how they make it into their lexicon. I asked them to tell me some of the newest words that they have heard and with some hesitation one student said, “hoodie,” then another said, “rap [music].” I replied, “That’s the idea.”

I then read from the book
A Century of New Words that describes the evolution of words decade by decade throughout the 20th Century. For example, the advent of aviation spawned hundreds of words that never existed before the Wright brothers made their amazing discovery.

Finally, I read from a book that I presented to each graduate at graduation.
The Weighty Word Book by Levitt, Burger, and Guralnick presents an alphabet of SAT-type words with a unique story attached to each to help the reader remember its meaning. From among “coruscate,” “ingratiate,” “ubiquitous,” and others, I chose to read the story for “quixotic.”  

My hope is that the next time they hear the word "quixotic," they will remember its definition along with the other words that are defined through a story.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Random Acts of Love

As I stand at the school doors each day, welcoming children — including younger not-yet-ready-for–school siblings — parents, teachers, dogs, staff, bus matrons, and others, I see so much that is taking place in the street and on the sidewalk. Passersby making their way to the subway, pedestrians walking to their jobs, honking horns, buses and parents in cars dropping off children, loud street sweepers, squeeling sanitation truck brakes, and fancy cars with jacked music all pass in front of me.

From about 50 yards away, I try to get a bead on people who I know will be entering the school — you know, those who turn at the corner or those walking the long stretch of sidewalk from the F Train station that is beyond my sight. Seeing folks before they reach the doors gives me a chance to access names for a friendly good morning greeting.

Some people arrive in strollers, on bicycles, scooters, or skateboards, buses, and cars. All it takes is one parent trying to phenagle a stroller through the front doors or a child who insists on riding his bike up to the school, through the doors, and into the stroller room to cause a traffic jam that backs everybody up in front inviting conversation and warm exchanges.

The other morning, I noticed three-year old Sam with his mother and father approaching the school. I could tell that Dad was about to break away to make his way to work, and as he leaned over to give Sam a kiss, Sam exclaimed, “Family hug. Come on, family hug.” Whereupon, Sam lifted his arms, and Mom and Dad encircled their arms so that they could experience a family hug. Upon releasing each other, Sam grabbed his mother’s hand, Dad turned to walk away, and Sam and Mom walked to the doors. I said to Mom as she approached to walk through the doors, “Love the family hugs! Could you see me after you drop Sam off in his classroom?”

When she returned, I let her know how much I enjoyed their family hug and how it reminded me of what my wife and I would do for our sons as they were growing up. We would hold “Son Appreciation Days” when they were in grade school and high school. We didn’t do it often, but randomly my wife and I would conspire to buy a present for each; prepare one of their favorite meals; and hang a “Son Appreciation Day Banner” by the dinner table. When they came home from school, we would say “Surprise,” and gather for dinner. There was always a part reserved for letting them know how much we appreciated how hard they work and how much we loved them. After dessert we opened presents and went on to our usual evening routines.

I believe it is those random acts of love that are the most meaningful in our lives.

If you have experienced a special RAL, share it in a comment to this post.