On just noticing diversity

5 Dec

As Poet Laureate of the United States Billy Collins created Poetry 180, an initiative to expose students to more poetry. The method is simple: read a poem a day, every day. And that’s it. Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry” (the first poem in the 180 series–for the full list, see: http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/p180-list.html) captures the intention and spirit of the program:

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

With Poetry 180, Collins suggests that sometimes a poem is just a poem, and that’s enough: it doesn’t need to be a close explication, an assignment or even a journal entry.

Early childhood educational consultant (and self-dubbed “block consultant”) Jean Schreiber takes a similar tack in her work with, yes, building blocks (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/28/nyregion/with-building-blocks-educators-going-back-to-basics.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&hpw=&adxnnlx=1322504566-yTXMm+jHOx3FKNXat5NQpg). Schreiber gives workshops on block building to parents/guardians and educators, teaching them how to support children’s learning and playing… with blocks.

In a culture of competitive kindergarten, helicopter parenting and all-work-not-enough play, the need for an expert to teach us how to help children play with blocks may not be as absurd as it initially seems. Schreiber dispenses advice such as, “Don’t rush to help them with structural challenges,” and “You don’t have to ask them a million questions. Just sit with them and notice.”

Just sit with them and notice. In other words, kids are curious, clever and resilient. If the tower collapses, they can rebuild it–and maybe even make it stronger this time. Our role doesn’t always have to be Fixer, Solver or Savior. Sometimes we can be Watcher, on-call Question Answerer or Hands-Off Adult. And along the developmental journey of a child, all of these are useful, supportive and growth-encouraging roles for us to play.

These approaches to poems and blocks offers a helpful model for doing diversity with kids. As adults, we can become highly invested in cultivating the “right” attitudes, language and behaviors in children so that they never offend anyone. We can find ourselves beating issues of diversity to a pulp, overanalyzing situations and trying to spoon-feed lessons learned to kids, who eyes have long since rolled back in their heads (muttering, as one progressive SF Bay Area high school student put it, “We get it! We’re not racist!”) 

This bubblewrap approach to diversity, in which we try to protect children from feeling or committing any harm in a complicated multicultural world, takes a lot of effort and is, practically speaking, mission impossible. 

Certainly, intentional mentoring to help children cultivate self-awareness, develop tools and skills to engage diversity and practice inclusive habits of heart and mind is critical to any whole child education. My point is simply that so is letting them try, fail and pick themselves up. 

In terms of diversity, this requires some discernment on our part: while we don’t want to permit unnecessary harm to come to our or other people’s children, we need to distinguish what risks and injuries are normative to developing one’s own identity and learning to navigate diversity. These normative diversity opportunities might include: noticing someone is not like me, being shushed for saying something “rude” or “wrong”, realizing that something I said or did might seem prejudiced to someone else, getting labeled by someone else, rejecting a label that’s been put on me, reclaiming an identity that I once rejected… These are all arguably inevitable and critical occasions in the formation of identity, awareness and compassion. To bubblewrap or rescue kids from these sometimes painful experiences is to deny them the character-forming experiences that help them learn how to be fair and inclusive, rather than just looking like they are.

And because children, whether or not they are biologically ours, are extensions of ourselves, we need to separate our fears about how their falling down reflects on us, from fears about actual harm that may come to them when they inevitably fall.

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