Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Can't go wrong with monkeys

"We'll have storytelling, then we'll watch a movie, and then we'll do a craft," said the woman who was leading the program. She had short gray hair and wore slacks and a long, lightweight jacket that swung down to mid-thigh. I hoped desperately that she would turn out to be cool.

U and I were at preschool story time at the Lakeview branch of the public library, in our neighborhood. It began at 7 p.m., so I scooped him up when I came home from work, pulled some clothes on him, and we went on our way.

The program was held in the magazine reading room, a pleasant carpeted space with cozy leather(ette?) armchairs and a fireplace.

"We'll start with our names. What's your name?" she said, addressing the child farthest to her left.

"Jake," he said.

"What letter does that begin with?"

"J," he answered.

"That's right!" she said. She wrote a big "J" on her chalkboard and she launched briskly into a song that clearly was meant to be adapted, verse by verse, for each little audience member: "J for Jake, my name is Jake, my name is Jake, what's your name?" or similar lines, the idea being that the next kid over says, "Chloe," or whatever, and the storytelling lady says, "What letter does that begin with?"

Midway across the room, a boy of perhaps three, surely not much more than four, kneeled on the floor in front of the chairs where his parents sat. "Ike!" he said, happy that his turn had finally arrived.

"What letter does that begin with?" asked the storyteller.

His little body shot up in its kneeling position, so vigorously that his knees hardly were able to anchor him to the carpet. "K!" he announced. He was eager for this moment.

"'K,'" repeated the woman, slowly. Dubiously. She didn't write it on her chalkboard. "Well, it does have a K in it." She tilted her head to one side. "But does it begin with a K?" She waited for an answer.

The boy looked like he wanted to respond, but no longer knew what to say. Obviously the answer the grown-up wanted was, “No."

"What letter does it begin with?" she persisted. Ike sank back on his heels, without a sound.

"How about I? Does it begin with an I?"

He mumbled assent.

"All right!" said the storyteller, with lavish approval. "I!" She wrote an I on her chalkboard and continued the song. I saw Ike looking out into the center of the room, while the other children turned their gaze to the next child.

I was confused, and angry. What was the big deal? Why did she have to make that kid wrong? In public? In a room full of strangers? Why was it so important to teach the kid about how spelling works -- like he's not going to learn how to spell his own first name, for pete's sake -- that is the first thing a kid learns anyway -- at the expense of his pride and enthusiasm?

Why not sing "K for Ike"? It seems to me that K is the most distinctive sound in "Ike," even if it isn't the first letter. The song didn't say, by the way, "The first letter of my name is __." It just said "C for Cassady," or whatever. Why can't K be for Ike, for a few seconds? How about, "Ike! That has a great big K right in the middle of it!"

She went on to read us some stories from picture-laden books, stories featuring monkeys. By the middle of the second story, the children weren't paying attention much. It was clear to me that the plot was far too complex for them to grasp, and the pictures were not all that engaging. The book was small and fairly far away, too. "Are you listening to the story?" she asked, a little sternly, when the sound of children shifting positions and talking took over. Her admonition didn't make any difference to what was happening in the room. She pressed on through to the end of the book.

Next came an animation based on the picture book, "Goodnight, Gorilla." Lovely pictures, a haunting jazz soundtrack that riffed on Brahms' Lullaby.

Then the lights came back up and it was craft time.

Tables were prepped with craft sets for each tyke. Each place was set with a coloring sheet with an illustration of a monkey, small, colorful feathers, coin-sized leatherette ovals, stars, circles and other shapes. Plastic soup bowls, each containing several glue sticks, were placed in the center of each table.

The idea, we were told, was to make a hat for the monkey out of the leatherette shapes, then decorate it with the feathers.

The parents jumped in with enthusiasm. At my table, a man and woman guided a three(?)-year-old’s hands so that in no time his monkey sported an artful befeathered, multi-leatherette-shape beret.

The boy was delighted with the feathers. “Fe-fah!” he said.

“This is glue,” said the mother, working the glue stick to fix another feather on the monkey’s hat. “Can you say ‘glue’?”

“Fe-fah.” said the boy, passing a feather between his fingers.

“Glue,” she insisted, waving the glue stick toward him. "Glue."

Meantime, Ulysses scraped at the tip of the glue stick with a fingernail. A blob of purple glue stuck to it. He shook his finger, then rubbed it against the paper. He explored the blob’s texture with his finger. I stuck a feather into it to demonstrate that it would stick to the paper. But he was already playing with his leatherettes, pouring them from one palm to the other. He saw the leatherettes at the empty place settings at our table, and went round to collect those, as well. He took a bunch of feathers and placed them on the concave seat of his molded plastic chair. He examined them with his eyes and fingers, then went back to examining the leatherettes.

I marvelled at what I saw in the room: a lot of adults working very hard to make a group activity happen against considerable odds. The children were clearly – to me – continuously and spontaneously becoming immersed in their own deep worlds of experience and exploration. But their grown-ups consistently, automatically, pulled them out. They were committed, it seemed, to compelling the children to attend only to a specific set of pre-selected, narrowly defined, details and procedures.

What kind of learning was supposed to be going on?: How to use a glue stick? How to follow instructions? How to complete someone else’s pre-prepped creative vision? How to pick up an object and fasten it where it was supposed to go? Or maybe it was the very concept of “supposed to” that was being taught.

As far as I could tell, U was the only kid learning anything about leatherettes, shapes, colors and feathers. Or at least the only kid not being so strictly channeled.

By now the craft time was over. Families were leaving, and the activity leader was giving each child a box of conversation hearts -- Valentine's Day was near -- on his or her way out the door.

I heard a man say to his child, “Look, Michael! You get candy for doing the project!”

U and I lingered longest. He continued to play with the shapes and feathers, and I gathered up materials and straightened up, as the room emptied. The woman asked if I wanted some candies for him. I thanked her, but said that since he hadn’t noticed them, we might as well not point them out. I asked if we might keep a few leatherette shapes. She hesitated, then said, “Sure, why not?”

The hesitation was interesting, I thought, for a couple of reasons. First, we had already declined the candy. Hospitality would seem to demand that a host would be glad to have discovered an alternate gift.

Second, suppose we had glued those same leatherette shapes to our coloring sheet. I wouldn't even have thought to ask about taking them with us. All the other kids and parents had taken theirs along. I thought of Locke's theory of the origin of property rights. You mix your labor with a natural resource that belongs to noone -- for instance, you chop and saw a log and make a trunk from it -- and it thereby becomes your property. Ulysses hadn't made the monkey hat with his leatherettes. Not only that, his parent hadn't done her share, either. Hadn't kept her child in his seat while she hovered and got the monkey cap made, one way or another. We didn't "do the project."

Perhaps offering the candy was an attempt at a good deed on the part of the storyteller -- a charitable gesture. But when I asked for the craft supplies -- without putting any work into them -- I had gone too far. Plus, unlike the candies, the shapes hadn't been offered; I had cast myself as a supplicant.

I heard some folks thank her for the session, saying that the theme was a good one.

She laughed. “You can’t go wrong with monkeys!”

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