“Boys, stop playing with that. It doesn’t belong to you and you shouldn’t be doing that.” With drooping shoulders and dragging feet, the boys walked away, muttering to themselves but loud enough for all to hear, “Why not? It’s here every day and no one ever claims it. It’s falling apart. You never let us do anything.” Brian* was the first to spot the tricycle. He would ride the pink, overused bike around the basketball courts while all the other 4th graders played Capture the Flag. His fun would last for a while, he’d get bored and then move on to the swings. Eventually, the tricycle would catch the attention of others. I watched as the other fourth grade teacher told the boys to walk away. She returned to the other teacher. “Can you believe them?” “Why would they want to play with that tricycle?” “It shouldn’t be touched. It should go in the trash. Such trouble makers.”
I didn’t say anything. I was not being the active bystander I was teaching my students to be, but I didn’t want to make a big deal. However, when we returned to the playground the next day and those teachers weren’t around, I let the boys do some investigating. They huddled around the tricycle, discussing their plans for it. After delegating who would bring what tool the next day, they disbanded. For two weeks, those three boys discussed, collaborated and investigated as they conducted business meetings over the tricycle. Brian, a student who struggles to keep up with his classmates in all content areas and often forgets how to complete his nightly homework by the time he gets home, reliably brought in the tools each day. James, a sensitive child whose daily dose of medication helps his ADD, depression and anxiety, but does not help his ability to pick up on social cues from his peers and aid in his ability to respond in difficult situations, listened and discussed the plans for the tricycle, its parts and the goals for the following day. Alfie, always eager and engaged was shocked each day as a group of his peers would gather around to observe the work he and his friends were doing.
For two weeks, I watched three boys rush to return to this machine that they de-constructed together. All the skills that we hope to cultivate in our classrooms were in full bloom and on fire: collaborating, delegating, posing questions, eliciting theories and possible answers. There was lots of conversation about why things work and what-if questions and an eagerness to return to something and disappointment each day to leave it. And to think this might not have happened. Is a teacher’s need for control, fear that a child will hurt him/herself, concern that whatever is being pursued will be too noisy or messy or both, that causes many teachers to prevent students from pursuing what truly interests them? In the days to follow, that teacher and her colleague would return. They would look at the boys with disdain as I looked on with a huge smile of pride. Moments like this remind me that my job is truly of facilitator, not controller, leader or omniscient power. These students are of the “let-me-Google-it” generation. Any fact can be found within seconds. These moments remind me that as a teacher the best lessons I can teach to help prepare this generation for the future are the moments when I let them pursue their questions, what interests them, and the ideas that make them tick.