Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Language of Paper Boats and Paper Airplanes


Somewhat long ago and far away, I was a part-time art teacher in another school in another part of town, an art gypsy without a classroom and relatively new to the world of elementary education.  I was asked to teach art with an SOL twist – the lessons I had to teach had to be rooted in what the children’s grade level teacher was working on in class.  They were learning about force, motion, and energy….specifically, potential energy and kinetic energy. 

So what would an art teacher dream up to help teach these concepts? 

Paper airplanes, of course. 

I taught my students how to correctly fold paper into two different plane designs, then encouraged them to color them any way they’d like…and then I had the audacity to ask them to test out their engineering in the auditorium where I had to teach that week and where such daredevil feats could take place safely without disrupting regular classroom time.  Needless to say, this was a huge hit with my students.  Everyone loved getting the chance to climb up onto the auditorium stage and perch with their plane before setting it aloft across the floor. 

Together we learned which designs worked best and which plane went the greatest distance, how to tweak our designs to make them work better, and we supported each other and cheered every plane on.  Before they left my class, I made sure the children understood that they could take their creations with them, but that they couldn’t fly them in class because a) they would likely be in big trouble with their teacher, and as a result, b) their planes would be confiscated. 
This was the one and only time I ever got in trouble as a teacher.  Some children simply could not resist the temptation and keep their planes in their backpacks until they left for home, but most of them were merely chastised as they returned to their classrooms with them, never once letting their creations take flight after they’d left me.  Some of the teachers expressed their displeasure with me and with the entire enterprise of the day. 

I shared this story with my present first grade students and they could hardly believe  that I ever got in trouble and that school wasn’t designed to let children have fun and experiment. 

Recently, we’ve been building a lot with paper.  W., a new student to Sabot and a new child in my classroom, began the year trying to build connection to his new classmates, and he’d had a hard time breaking into friendships that were already well established.  He tried so hard to break in with the boys, but often used unreliable methods of overt physicality and tall tales to insert his personality and become an essential part of his new tribe.  After many conversations with him – and with all of the boys – about how to respect physical space, personal boundaries, and our learning environment, W. was still searching for ways to feel valued and heard.

And that’s where the paper boats and paper airplanes came in…

When any free moment presented itself in our classroom, W. was at the ready with paper, making precise folds to create impressive paper boats or hats.  As each child saw these creations, they invariably found themselves drawn toward them and quickly began trying to make paper creations of their own.  The kids soon realized that W. was a paper folding expert and started coming to him for guidance on how best to improve their paper creations.  W. was suddenly in high demand among his peers, and as a group, we decided to shut down morning work to let W. take charge and teach everyone how to make paper boats.  Our classroom studio took on new energy as everyone looked to him to help, and he eagerly – and very, very patiently – rose to the occasion. 
It is not an easy thing to have so many people coming to you and asking for feedback and instruction - often all at once.  This is something that I, as an educator, am reminded of every day.  Everyone wants you to read their writing. Everyone wants you to check their work.  It is all very complimentary and rewarding, and it shows a deep sense of connection and community, but when it feels like everyone is descending upon you at once, it can often feel overwhelming.  I did worry about how W. would feel in this position once he was afforded the opportunity of being the “expert,” the one in charge. 
To my great delight, the children approached him respectfully, and even when it appeared that the situation could potentially be overwhelming, W. tactfully and respectfully handled every request of his time.  He never seemed put out.  He patiently answered everyone’s questions, and showed great maturity and reserve in helping each child in turn.  His demeanor never showed signs of being tasked.  He always seemed pleased to assist the other children and considerate of their requests.  Soon paper boats were being produced at a fast and furious pace.  It was an impressive feat to behold, and as his friends delighted in their new paper boat making skills, so did W. 

After numerous boats were made, the conversation turned to what exactly we should do with all of these mighty ships.  After a bit of discussion, it was decided that we would bring them to the stream on Forest Friday to test their stream-worthiness.
E.S. adds a plastic base to her boat
Part of me was fearful that their labors would be in vain, since I knew that the boats would likely disintegrate once they hit the water.  However, there were several  children that also knew that their paper boats might need a little something extra to help keep them afloat. A.L. thought of using plastic to support her paper boat, and so her boat was one of the few that survived the foray upon the forest streambed. 

A.L.'s plastic "paddleboat" has passengers
Others weren’t so lucky, but not a single child was upset or tragically disappointed when their boats became waterlogged in the forest.  They were simply thrilled and contented to test their creations, see the results, dispose of their vessels in a plastic bag, and move merrily onward to the next adventure.  W. himself brought down three boats of his own making, and even after seeing them all dissolve into the water, remained incredibly pleased about the whole affair, and thrilled even more that his friends took his endeavors seriously enough to fully commit themselves to the project and test the results.

The boat making experience and trial in the forest was a thoroughly satisfying experience unto itself, but as this past week was so very rainy, we were afforded another opportunity to let W’s paper folding expertise lead the way.  W. began to turn his attentions to paper airplane making, and as before, everyone wanted to learn how to make a proper paper airplane.  First the boys became captivated, making their planes in the in-class studio, then trying them out in the hallway. Then came the girls, who quickly took the lead in designing more colorful aviation, and they too ran to the hallway to give their creations flight. 

W. and G. and the plane making "factory"
I. shows off his plane and gets ready to test it in the hallway
The girls working fast and furious on their colorful aviation designs
As I watched these children eagerly and enthusiastically clamor to make their own planes, I marveled at the simplicity of it all.  Paper and pens – the means to make the plane and the means to make it unique and colorful – were all it took to build enthusiasm and creative joy within my classroom.  And all of this happened because we took the time to let a child share what he knew with the children he sought connection and friendship with.  In an age where children have so much sensory overload, an onslaught of electronic media available to them, so many distractions, so many demands placed upon them…here in my classroom on a rainy day, they were given the freedom to pursue their creativity and build community, and all it took was paper and markers to help it take flight. 

W. makes a "plane bomb":  taking several paper airplanes and launching them all at once

Heard in the back ground:  "W., you're famous!"

The more I think upon this beautiful moment the more I am truly humbled by it. At this school, I am able to stand back and let my students share the luxury of time and space to explore that gorgeous sense of freedom that so many students in other learning environments simply don't have.  It is in that moment of self-directed discovery that they can hear and express themselves in the language of paper boats and paper airplanes and experience it for what it is and can be...a joyous distillation of childhood energy, wonder, and connection.  

1 comment:

  1. I love this! Thanks so much for sharing it. I made a number of "mistakes" like this in teaching. I'll never understand why play and allowing time to experiment and follow curiosity are considered bad things. You know well that I believe kids will learn just as much, if not more, from this kind of guided inquiry.

    In case you didn't know it already, you're doing great work. Your students are very lucky to have you.