Seven dandelions plucked with short stems sit in a line on the arm of the bench. By this, I know that a very young child has been here recently. Only the very young, not yet having learned that they are useless weeds, value the vivid yellow flowers. Only the very young have not yet learned the value of the overlooked stems that feed that vivid yellow.
So in space, if not in time, I sit in the presence of the very young. What would they value in this place? A lone feather caught in the grass. Young birches not quite big enough to hide behind. Various weeds to pretend into fairy treasures. Rocks to climb . . . and then jump from. A quick insect. Things small enough to pick up or touch or change. Real things. Footholds into the vastness of imagination. Young children are immersed in yet heedless of the vastness of time and space where imagination breathes. After decades of experience, I am familiar with four-year-olds and how they delight in the immediate.
Except when they don’t. Except when their world is so filled with video games or cartoon scripts that that “other world” seems to supplant their own. This is the challenge I face with preschool learners, and I have to continually rethink what it is I value in the classroom and how I share those values with preschoolers.
Understanding and Appreciating Lucia
Lucia had done a lot of writing with me in the past year, working her way from a string of letter writing to beginning phonetic writing as she added text to the stories she had already written in her drawings. And while I had anticipated more extensive creative writing with her during our second year together, over the summer she had become enamored with Monster High characters and the new Barbies, complete with fangs or strange colored skin along with ridiculously high heels and embarrassingly short skirts. I was disappointed that during writing time she did little more than reiterate Monster High details and spell out the names of characters she had memorized.
I was dismayed at the turn of events and frustrated with how hard it was for me now to draw her into creativity or any narrative other than the details of these cutesy monsters . Nor was I pleased with the conversation about blood or zombies or of the flat look on her face when she talked about them. I didn’t really care about Lagoona Blue or Draculaura. It seemed as if Monster High had taken over Lucia’s mind, blotting out her own stories. My efforts to change her focus were unsuccessful, and I no longer looked forward to writing time with Lucia.
Thus when I changed our dramatic play center, Lucia’s excitement about Chinese writing was an utter relief to me. Lucia noticed the dramatic play center immediately, eyes lighting up as she recognized that it had been changed to a Chinese restaurant. “Chinese! I know Chinese!” she breathed as she headed over to the writing center. She found the small papers folded as cards and began writing.
Without any model, she wrote symbols that resembled Chinese but were not quite Chinese: “letter-like forms” in a different language. Underneath she drew a panda bear. She repeated this on the back of the card and again on the facing inside page, this time changing the drawing to a smiling girl. On the front of the card she drew a series of zigzag lines. I was fascinated by her interest in Chinese and her writing’s unmistakable resemblance to Chinese, and asked to keep a sample. She gave it one to me and then proceeded to make another card, almost identical, with the same character forms and the same drawings but with a variation on the front — straight lines instead of zigsags. “Tell me about this writing,” I probed. “Well . . . I don’t read Chinese,” she hesitated. “How about here?” I pointed to the facing side. “Uh . . . I like Chinese.”
We had dabbled with Chinese characters in the previous year, using models from Huy Voun Lee’s beautiful books In the Snow and At the Beach. Even so, I was surprised at how much her unmodeled writing resembled Chinese. The following day, Lucia was again drawing cards with her Chinese character-like forms. This time, her friend Camelia had caught her excitement and Lucia taught Camelia how to make the string of “characters,” and showed her how to make the panda bear and the girl. Camelia executed the details, even down to three fingers on each hand and three toes on each panda foot. This time when I conferred with Lucia about her writing, she looked at it again herself more carefully. “Oh, I forgot,” she said and added another line to her character. She clearly had a standard for this writing.
I then brought out In the Snow and showed it to Lucia; and she looked and copied a few characters. Copying was easy for Lucia. Her copies were fairly exact and hence were actually Chinese. Despite that, copying characters wasn’t compelling for her like her own Chinese-like writing had been. Her demeanor was flatter, and I realized that my attempt to foster and further her interest had not been entirely successful. Considering the experience, what seemed essential for Lucia’s excitement was a combination of confidence — “I know Chinese!” — and risk taking, writing something with no model. In the process, she showed that she understands that writing stays stable from incident to incident. The string of characters was exact or nearly exact each time. And yet she was in a kind of ideal-free environment where there was no one to correct her and no text to match.
In the following months, I watched Lucia return to a creative freedom in her writing, the creativity that I had felt was missing and the freedom that I long for and strive to protect for my students. Following her fascination with Chinese writing, she went through various fascinations: experimenting with which colors of pencil “worked” on black paper as she made disco balls; painting and drawing plants outside and then the developing caterpillars inside; crafting exceedingly sweet birthday cards and Mother’s day cards, treasures that her mom would keep forever. She returned to sharing ideas with friends, both helping them and borrowing their themes.
As time went on, I forgot the months of frustration I had felt with Lucia’s stymied writing and creativity. Looking back, it was just a phase that she went through. Still, I’m glad she made her way through it, partly for my preference but much more for the life that came back to Lucia in her writing. I feel now that my earlier disappointment was not entirely warranted. Lucia made her way through. In her lifetime, the months of Monster High were merely a blink. In the future, I still won’t want a child to remain stuck in commercial scripts, but I think now that I’ll have more faith that they’ll find a way through. Chinese writing seemed to open the window back into freedom, exploration, and joy for Lucia. For the next child, it will probably be a different window. I’ll be looking for that window . . . this time with more faith that it will appear.