The "Aha" Series: 'El conejo brinca' and Other Tales from the Preschool Specialists

This week, we asked our Toddler House and Children’s House specialists to share some of their favorite stories that illustrate those moments of joyful discovery when an idea really clicks for a student and the “aha!” epiphany brings new life to learning.

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Annemarie Whilton—Art

I was teaching in Children’s House and we were making Valentine’s Day “heart people.” One child, a five-year old, was carefully observing before jumping in. He is the sort of child who likes to do exactly what he sees. Anyway, I was encouraging the children to write their names on the back of their valentines. I showed the three-year-olds, who for the most part cannot write yet, how to make a short form of hugs and kisses by writing “o” and “x.”

This particular boy thought about this for a moment—and then he proceeded to make his own, turning the facial features on the front into a series of “OOOOOOO”s for the mouth, and a large “X” for the nose. This seems like a small moment, but for this particular boy it was wonderful to see him approach the project with a sense of creative ownership—and to witness his obvious pride in his uniquely different valentine.

Denni Edlund—Music

Children express their enthusiasm for music in so many different ways. There are some who seem to hang on every note, following instructions, marching when asked to march.  There are those who can’t help but play air guitar while I play, wiggling body parts in impossible ways, hair flying. And then there are the dreamers. They gaze out the window, scratch at the carpet, perfectly content to hang out and often not participate. One particular dreamer sits with his chin in his hands, elbows on knees. A shaft of light might catch his eye from time to time. He is respectful and follows along. I’d always assumed he didn’t care for music, or rather, music class—whether it was the selection of songs, me, the time of day…

At our winter concert for Children’s House this year I selected a song called “Peace Like a River.” It’s a traditional African-American spiritual song with lyrics like “I have peace like a river in my soul. I have joy like a fountain in my soul.” I taught the children some sign language to go along with the performance. At show time, I was facing a wall of roughly one hundred 3–6 year olds, so I physically couldn’t make eye contact with each one. I was mostly concerned with containing the edges of the mob, making sure that parents could get a good photo of their kids, and that the children were actually singing and not frozen like deer in headlights.

What I did catch was my dreamer, during “Peace Like a River.” His eyes were closed, squeezed tight. And he was singing and signing with more passion than his 99 peers combined. He was feeling it. At that moment, I got him. And I got that although kids may not show that they are engaged at all times, they are listening, sponging it up, and sometimes, just feeling it.

Colleen Quinn—Movement

Ah, the joy of skipping! Is there any motion more kid-like than skipping gleefully through an open space, a field of grass, down a straightaway sidewalk? Ah yes, the pure joy of skipping.

Except for those kids who can’t skip! Aargh, how frustrating!

Skipping is actually a rather difficult step to perform. One has to be coordinated enough to transfer weight from one foot to the other at just the right time with a hop in between…and have the strength to lift their whole body weight into the air from just one foot…and balance enough to land on that one foot without falling over before stepping onto the other foot to reverse the whole maneuver.

Every child can skip. However, individual children will learn to skip at different times in their development. So, how to teach the fine art of skipping?

My “aha moment” came when I was trying to explain how to skip to a student, trying to explain the transfer of weight, the hopping, the balancing. Another student, (an expert skipper), was observing the whole lesson when she interrupted and said, “Skipping is just marching with a jump into the air.”

AHA!!!! So simple, so succinct, so perfect! So much less technical.

And don’t you know, the student trying to learn to skip “got it!” An “aha moment” for her, too.

Kids…they’re the best teachers. Makes me want to skip through the Artsbarn!!

Ling Tang—Chinese

Teaching the kindergartners, I am amazed at how much they want to learn. I recently taught them a new word in Chinese – “love” – and wanted to use the word in sentences.  We started with “I love my father” and “I love my mother,” but when it came to brothers and sisters it got confusing. I explained that in Chinese it is very complicated, because you use different terms for each sibling. For instance, there is a term for younger sister, older sister, middle sister, etc. So I said that we would just use names, like “I love Susan” or “I love Sam.” Otherwise it would be too confusing.

They did this at first but then insisted we go back and learn all the different terms for brother and sister. I was so surprised that they wanted to do this. And then when I went over all the different terms, they immediately got it! They repeated the words, and were so proud when they said them correctly. Then they wanted to go on and on, figuring out the way to say everyone else’s brothers and sisters in the class. They are so smart, they impress me!

Denni—Spanish

Beginning in the toddler house this year was a challenge for me. I had never taught Spanish to children so young and was a bit stumped early on for ideas. My first day, I walked into the room feeling slightly incompetent and decided to play things by ear, considering this was all so new.

The circle was filled with gorgeous cheeks, some apprehensive eyes, a few runny noses. And I began. “Uno, dos, tres,” etc. Nada. Nothing. One child got up and ran over to the slide. Yikes. Two more song attempts later and the entire classroom was on the slide and I was Adios-ing. I went back to the drawing board.

But soon, after getting to know the children and the classroom, I was hitting a stride. I still had a very young group, some who didn’t have a large English vocabulary yet, but I knew that exposure to Spanish sounds and songs was important, so I pushed on. At least I had them hooked on my puppet and a few of my songs and games. And then came my “Aha” moment.

I had most (okay, some were probably on the slide) of the group circling around the rug with me doing a game that we did every class.  I would say an animal and then we would walk, run, jump, etc. I had done the first two, “Como el perro? Camina!, Como el pajaro? Vuela!” And then I said “Como el conejo?” As I opened my mouth to answer myself as usual, I heard a small voice from behind me say, “Brinca!”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “YES!! El conejo brinca. The rabbit hops!! Si. Si. Si.” The association was made. By a two-year-old. Incredible.

[This post originally appeared in Rhythm & News, the Inly School newsletter, on March 13, 2009.]

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