Open

by Rebecca Quackenbush, Elementary School Teacher, June 2015

I looked up just as Mrs. C. whisked herself past my open classroom in an apparent tizzy.  Just moments earlier, her face an expression of utter shock, her reprimand in the form of a question:

“What do you think you’re doing?!” she asked one of my students in a voice loud enough to be heard down the hall.

Zach was standing near the trash can and did not look up. His eyes peered down to the ground as his hands clutched a plastic water bottle, half full with water and a broken pencil that was floating along with it.

“Did you see this?!” He is trying to drink his pencil!” Mrs. C.’s alarm sounded before she was off and out of sight, leaving Zach in the dust of her accusation.

Our eyes met briefly from halfway across the room as Zach slowly shuffled back to his seat, water bottle with pencil still in hand.  Placing the vessel onto his desk, his head was soon to follow. 

I settled down next to him and began to ask what happened.  For that moment in time, all other action and sound disappeared around us.  Engulfed in a sea of inquiry, Zach took me aboard a journey to his own curiosities…

“What happened Zach?” I asked.

Silence.

“If you don’t tell me, I can’t help you.” I coaxed.

Silence.

“Were you really trying to drink that pencil?” I wondered aloud.

Silence. 

We sat together in silence for some time, until eventually the energy of the end of the school day rituals drew Zach’s head from between his folded arms to look up at me, a single tear blurring the pupil of his left eye, a slight nod in the direction of the water bottle. 

“Won’t it grow?” he asked me.

In the moments that followed, Zach went on to explain to me how his prior knowledge about trees needing water to grow had prompted him to attempt growing his own tree using a piece of wood that was his pencil, since wood comes from trees.

This time, I was the one who sat silent, as I listened in amazement and complete awe to what this little boy was relaying to me.  This time, as with so many experiences in my class, I found I was the one learning the lesson.  Together, we sat with the idea for a bit as I pondered the value of the bigger picture. 

Zach and all of my children need space to wonder.  They need time to explore their curiosities – to ponder, to research, to confirm or revise their understandings – in order to create a more meaningful understanding of the world around them.

Zach, though he did not necessarily realize this at the moment, was laying the foundation for such an instructional shift in my classroom and for my classes in years to come.