Monday, March 22, 2010

Teaching Handwork

Last week, a very special mentor came to our school. Else Gottgens is 80+ years old, sharp as a tack, and shining with an inner light, an obvious spark. She sat quietly in my second grade class, after greeting the children, and watched.
Afterward, we talked. She asked me if I had any questions. I brought up a topic that has left me confused since I started teaching handwork: do you let the children talk or do you guide them into working silently? I had never quite listened to my inner sense about this, preferring to rely instead on the wisdom of others. And in listening to others, I came to value a "quiet working hum". But it never felt quite right. In speaking with Else, she brought up several important points.She asked if the children, when I think of them in my mind's eye, are frowning or smiling. I said, "well, they are engaged in their work..." "no, are they frowning or smiling?"
I had to admit frowns. They liked me and handwork well enough, but they weren't enjoying it as much as they could be. She went on to explain how important the social realm is in handwork. I had a clue before: having children help each other, celebrating finished projects, but she really helped me see I could take it a few steps further and celebrate even small accomplishments. I could carve out a few minutes to allow children to teach each other, and have them share their experience with the class. I could bring small projects for making gifts.
She encouraged me, indirectly, to follow my heart, and to stand with absolute conviction behind what I do, and reminded me to know why I do what I do in be able to give a plausible, informed explanation. For me, this means the children can talk, but I, as the teacher and authority, keep the social interaction pleasant and engaging, while not letting it cross the line into "recess".
That is all well and good, and I am sharing with you a glimpse into my evolution as a teacher. But, the big reminder she gave was this: It is not important what one makes, it is of utmost importance how one gets there. In other words, the journey is what matters more than the destination...the experience of helping and being helped, the pride in knitting two rows when you could hardly make a stitch the class before, the rhythmic and artistic gifts of handwork, celebrating each other.
What a relief it was to give myself permission to follow my intuition. Isn't that one of the tasks of trust our inner selves as much as we trust those voices outside of us? My friend says that when you play those outside voices as your inside track, they are "renting space in your head." So true!
Some of my favorite books on teaching and handwork:
Will-Developed Intelligence
Courage to Teach
The Education of the Child
The Kingdom of Childhood
Educating the Will
I also like Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman and anything by Malcolm Gladwell for their insights.


  1. It is wonderful to be able to draw on the wisdom of elders, as well as our own intuition (which usually echoes what they have to say). This woman sounds like a beautiful spirit. I'm glad you are going to let the children talk. She is right, handwork is such a social thing. :-)

  2. The whole concept of the process being more important than the destination is so very powerful - and so very difficult for me to remember. I'm working on that myself.

  3. I hadn't read books like you mention while I was teaching. Thanks for the links. I did do a lot intuitively and let learning happen in ways that would have disturbed other teachers--it's amazing what can happen if we let some control slip. Healthy parenting books helped me--and Sark...ha ha.

  4. Yes! Listening to ourselves, following our own intuition. This is the direction we need to go in. Your friend is so wise. I know eighty year old women who are still trying their own voices.


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