The Longevity of Meaningful Learning I attended a Headstart program nearly four decades ago. Admittedly, I have had many notable learning experiences since that time. As an educator, however, my nursery school days remain among my most personally and professionally formative. Unlike most children who choose to become teachers when they grow up, I did not enjoy much of my schooling. Beginning in kindergarten, I passed from grade to grade in a blur of academic boredom and social dread. While I did eventually attend a good alternative high school that woke me from my scholastic sleepwalk, it is my church-basement nursery school with two, twenty-something teachers’Leanne and Linda’that has become the standard I use to measure the quality of other learning environments. First, the physical space would prove to be the most open and alluring I have ever been invited to call my own. I remember there was room for the whole class to sit in a circle to sing songs, tell stories, or play duck, duck goose. We even had tricycles we could ride up and down the center of the room. There were boxes of dress up clothes, kitchen supplies and empty boxes of food, big blocks and small, colored connecting logs, marble shoots, paint and easels, and, as the year progressed, art work and projects everywhere. My teachers actively involved families in the program. Parents volunteered, came in to talk about their work or hobbies, and we visited them at their jobs as well. Of course, the most memorable visits for me were when our class took a field trip to my mother’s impressive garden and when my artist-father spent time painting a mural in our classroom. Along with my classmates, I would occasionally pull myself away from the structure I was building with blocks or the ‘pie’ I was ‘baking’ in the house corner to watch my father working in complete concentration. Hearing parents talk about their work or the things they were passionate about helped me feel closer to many of my classmates. But when we visited my mother’s garden, or when I observed other children watching my father paint, I was able to see them through my classmates’ eyes, to imagine their perspective of who these people were and how it differed from my own, insider view. Still other specific moments stand out’seemingly mundane reminiscences that, through some mysterious alchemy of experience, personal wonder, and understanding, seem to have become part of my being in ways that even I do not fully understand. For example, I remember the way the long tables where we ate together were arranged in three rows; I remember the oversized jars of peanut butter and grape jelly, and a dull knife I had to wait to use until someone else was finished deciding the right amount of each spread to put on his or her bread. I remember my friend Timothy (who played in blocks and dress up with me) would cut his sandwich into bite-sized squares. Cheryl (who was the fastest runner and who drew horses) cut hers on a diagonal to make two triangles, and others didn’t bother cutting theirs at all. Once I saved a section of my mostly-jelly sandwich in a brown, paper bag. One of my teachers asked me what I was eating when she saw me pulling tiny pieces out of the bag at the end of the day. I remember telling her that I had made a ‘jellyroll’ in class that day. She didn’t correct me, but chuckled and said something like, ‘oh that must be very tasty.’ I am pretty certain that I had never had an actual jellyroll before, but after my teacher affirmed my declaration, that corner of a P&J transformed into the loveliest jellyroll imaginable. There are many more seemingly isolated memories like these, and I have often wondered why some fade while others firmly take up residence. Though I could not have articulated it then, I now understand what my teachers cultivated among their very young charges was a strong sense of community with room for individual needs and quirks. On some level, four-year-old me must have come to experience the long tables to be a symbol of our community, the ability to choose how to prepare and eat (and transform!) our sandwiches a sign of our independence. Still, other enduring lessons I learned in nursery school were more overt. Perhaps one of the most profound lessons that Linda and Leanne taught us was to recognize and care for a wounded soul. I remember one of my classmates, Francine, as a snapshot: a sad-faced girl with golden pigtails and big, watery blue eyes. I didn’t like Francine at first because of her prissy dresses, her sour face, and her strange silence. When I was a little older, my mother would explain that Francine lived in an abusive household. But I didn’t know that then. I just trusted my teachers. I listened to what they told me, I watched what they did. Linda and Leanne helped us include Francine in our play. They hugged her and talked to her all the time, even if she rarely responded. Somehow, we came to understand that Francine was a vulnerable member of the pack who we needed to watch out for. And I remember clearly the day our community witnessed a sea change occur for Francine. It took place during one of our routine morning attendance roll calls. Though saying ‘here’ or ‘present’ when our name was called was not, by any means, the most significant thing we did, the silence that followed when the teachers called Francine’s name was notable. Her teary-eyed muteness was consistently drawn-out and awkward, as the teachers gave her time to respond. Those predictable silences were probably the closest that Francine came to actually expressing her overwhelming sadness to us, and they were imbued with all the frustration and gloominess in the world. Leanne and Linda never seemed annoyed by Francine’s silence, but they never stopped calling her name either. And then one day, with no warning, she just did it: she smiled shyly when her name was called and quietly uttered ‘present.’ Our teachers gave her a big hug, and we all applauded. Francine eventually began to talk and smile more. It was such a small gesture, but my classmates and I understood that something powerful had taken place. Trust had been won, an obstacle overcome’a quiet victory had been won for our community. I am certain that, under my teachers’ guidance and through my own natural development and drive to absorb knowledge, I learned many discreet skills, improved my fine motor skills, and increased my vocabulary. But I focus here on the social, emotional and sensual aspects of my early education because I have come to understand these qualities to be central determinants of how and what humans learn, as well as how that learning evolves within in us over time and how we choose to employ it. Speaking to the overarching purpose of education in her book, Starting Strong, educator and philosopher, Patricia Carini, writes: I take humanness, and valuing humanness, as starting place and center for education’and for society more generally’to resist a constricted educational vision and the devaluing of humanness, I offer humanness itself. I offer humanness as widely distributed capacity, as active making, as value, as resource, as scale, as process and as responsibility. Though they probably had never heard of Carini, my Headstart teachers nonetheless seemed to embrace this view of education. I, in turn, became a teacher as a form of resistance to that ‘constricted educational vision’ that I experienced first hand throughout my elementary schooling. To this day, I invoke my nursery school experience, both as a model of a powerful learning community, and as a reminder that the most potent learning is the kind that remains activated, versatile, and useful across time and place.

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