Letter from the Editor
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
One of my favorite books for children is Fredrick, by Leo Lionni. I’ve used it with 6 six olds, but also when I taught puppetry to middle school kids expelled from the traditional setting for various reasons. They loved to argue over what this story might be able to teach the second graders they were preparing to present to as part of a community service project. It was my sneaky way of filling in the gaps they had in their own learning as young children.
We reviewed the plot, the setting, characterizations and through what seemed a simple story about a small, outcast mouse, we were able to discuss universal themes related to the nature and value of different types of “work”. And this is what a multitude of children’s literature courses does to teachers. I love it.
Did I mention that they loved to argue?
Frederick brings out the beast in both liberals and conservatives of any age. He asks us to examine why we value what we do in communities, what we should count as a sort of civic duty, and the most important question surrounds the value of artistic endeavors. He has us recalling the times when we have felt unappreciated and abandoned by our peers, (has anyone really escaped that?) and also analyzing whether or not we might be suffering from a superiority complex when it comes to our unique talents. When discussing this story, I have witnessed very young children (in their own words) argue that art is or is not “real and important work”; critically thinking about their own position.
In the beginning of the story, we find Fredrick staring off into space:
“gathering the sun rays, colors and words…for the cold dark, winter days are long and many”
while all the other mice are carrying corn and nuts to and from the granary. They continually ask him, “Fredrick, why aren’t you working?”. And despite the controversial undertones, the text is soft and sweet and I imagine Meryl Streep’s voice would have most of us organizing it next to Dickens on the fireplace mantel. But My 13 year old castaway students added some hip music for their little mouse puppet to describe what gathering and collecting colors, rays and words looked like. They danced him around the makeshift stage until the narrator began again. One student faded the music in and out. And while in the world of full- grown mice, the arguments might go on forever over the value of Fredrick’s contributions, this second grade audience loved him and they got it. They understood his dance because it is so often how they process the world that is unfolding around them and how they express or demonstrate understanding.
One of the fathers of cognitive development, Jean Piaget is often echoed as saying, “Play is a child’s work...”. His theory describes that children come into this world as artists and scientists. It seems to illustrate that when they are setting up a pretend veterinarian clinic, a pirate ship or other theaters of sorts they are working. It tells us that when they are constructing buildings out of blocks, tumble weeds or drift wood, they are working. It suggests that when they are painting, sculpting and dancing they are working and it tells us that when the time is right and they are able to share these things with others they are working really hard.
I think our fathers of cognitive development would probably agree that it doesn’t mean that children should never be expected to sit still or to be quiet, but that it will be much harder than it is for most of us in the adult world and it may not indicate that they are really “working” or thinking critically about anything.
But of course, that is not what a lot of corporate education reformers are saying. It is not what textbook and test material companies are saying. It is not what a few drug companies are saying.
There is ample research to back up what our contributor, Dr. Lawrence Diller has argued about the recent “epidemic” of ADHD in America and how that relates to “a living imbalance” in our culture and attitudes toward “work” and maturity. Teachers and parents across the nation are speaking out about what they know makes sense through films like that of the Mission Hill School in Boston, also featured in this month’s release of Encompass.
It seems that in response to current mandates and pressure toward “accountability” in education, there is a resurgence of the ideas Leo Lionni presents in a simple picture book about what really matters as we attempt to rebuild communities and schools. I have only question for the data frenzied reformers and drug companies:
"Why aren’t you working?” (Lionni, 1967); on what really matters.