An email message in my inbox said, “Shari, can you write something about why it’s good for children to touch their foreheads? I think it has something to do with the forehead being the place where thinking occurs in the brain.” I doubt that very many of you would be surprised at my immediate reaction, which was something like, “Huh? Exactly what does that mean?”
I was very excited when I was offered a writing job. Now a considerable chunk of my income comes from writing. Can you believe it? Someone is actually paying me to write on a much more regular basis than the occasional article I contribute to publications such as the one you are reading. That means that I’m a “Writer”—with a capital W. I get to create teaching units, develop training seminars, and write blog-like documents for coaches. It is quite exciting. But somehow, on this particular occasion, it had come down to this: writing on someone else’s topic. I didn’t know, nor did I much care, why it’s good for children to touch their foreheads.
From Assigned Topics to Scripts in the Classroom
While I was in the midst of feeling sorry for myself and regretting the latest direction my illustrious writing career had taken, I was also working with a third-grade teacher on writing workshop. Tanya was new to the school and eager to make a favorable impression. The school was using one of those published writing curricula, complete with mentor texts, scripted minilessons, and planned writing celebrations. Tanya was using the curriculum for the first time and determined to do a good job. For her, doing a good job meant following the curriculum to the letter. She’d rehearsed those scripted minilessons until they were perfect. My efforts to encourage responsiveness and use of the children’s writing to inform minilessons fell on deaf ears: she was determined to follow that curriculum with 100 percent fidelity.
I decided to stop fighting this losing battle and to focus exclusively on her writing conferences (which weren’t scripted) instead. As a result, one day I found myself sitting in on her conference with Isaiah. The class was working on a unit that entailed having each child write an original fairy tale. To say that Isaiah hadn’t gotten very far with his fairy tale would be a colossal understatement. In fact, even his prewriting graphic organizer was completely blank, and he appeared to be struggling to come up with any useful ideas at all. Tanya reiterated that he needed to create a protagonist, an antagonist, a setting, and a problem. She told him that she was scheduling another conference for him the next day and that she expected him to have the graphic organizer completed by then. Isaiah trudged back to his seat with his head hanging low. I followed.
I suggested to Isaiah that we look through his writer’s notebook to see if there was something in it that might spark an idea for his fairy tale. I was shocked to see an almost full writer’s notebook. There was writing on both sides of the pages and the margins. Isaiah had even written on the inside cover of the notebook. However, there was nothing remotely fantastical or even fictional in his notebook. There were no memories or personal narratives of any kind. There were drawings and labeled diagrams—diagrams of beehives, beaver dams, escalators, volcanos, conveyor belts, and more. There were inventions, such as a machine that untangles knots and another one that cools off hot soup. There were questions of scientific and historical interest, such as “Will a snake die if it swallows some of its own venom? Does the liquid in lava evaporate? Why were there air shafts in the pyramids if the people inside were dead?”
I said, “Stories are not your thing, are they?” He shook his head. I said, “Well, it’s an assignment. I’m willing to help you get started if you would like my help.” He nodded. I told him that I’d talk to his teacher and be back the next day with some ideas. Tanya agreed to the extension.
The next day, I dropped off some books for Isaiah to look at during independent reading time. The books were Hansel and Diesel, Once Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude, and The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship. I returned in time for writing workshop, sidled up next to him, and asked, “So what do you think?” When Isaiah replied, I think it was the first time I had heard his voice. He said, “These books are cool. They still have that fairy tale stuff in them, except for Hansel and Diesel, but I didn’t hate them.” Didn’t hate them—that was endorsement enough for me. I pointed out that his main character didn’t have to be a princess. Her problem didn’t have to be that Prince Charming was late arriving. The story didn’t have to take place in a castle. I reminded him that he was the author. He got to choose. He gave me a quick nod, took out his graphic organizer, and got to work.
I thought about what I had told Isaiah and decided to take my own advice. I am the author. I get to choose. Like Isaiah, I had parameters, but I still had the power to make them. I offered myself the same assistance that I had offered Isaiah: reading. I began my reading. I read articles and blogs. I finally found out why it is good for children to touch their foreheads.
I attended Tanya’s writing celebration for the fairy tale unit. I heard stories about princesses, unicorns, giants, and dragons. Some of the writers even came dressed as their characters. Many of the children decorated folders to hold their writing. Isaiah was in his school uniform, and his writing was unadorned. His story was about a robot whose battery had infinite power and who wanted the ability to turn himself off and on. The evil scientist wanted the battery with infinite power for himself. It made me smile because it was so Isaiah. His story had all the required elements: a protagonist, an antagonist, a setting, and a problem. It also had something extra: diagrams. Even Tanya enjoyed it.
My story had a happy ending, too. I got an email from the content manager. She loved what I had written! And in case you’re wondering, touching the forehead is actually “kissing your brain.” It is a directive coined by the renowned educator Dr. Jean Feldman. The frontal lobe of the brain is behind the forehead—so despite my initial skepticism and to my eventual surprise, it’s not just a myth that touching the forehead is good for children.
From time to time, some of the effective educational techniques that we use with our young students can also be constructively employed outside the classroom for our own benefit.