Emily and The Tree

Little Emily loves the Japanese maple in the Maywood yard.  It’s over fifty years old, planted by Emily’s great-great grandmother Retta. And it is the perfect tree for little ones to learn to climb on.

The main trunk divides into two very low to the  ground, so little legs can easily climb into it.  The next branch is a short leg swing above that, providing a perfect spot for a three year old to sit and ponder.  Of course, the natural thing to ponder is how to get up higher in the tree.

“Help me up,” she says.  “I want to go up there,” she says, pointing to a branch that is over my head and absolutely impossible for me to reach.  I can’t put her there.  The only way to get there is for her to climb there herself.

“But I want to go up there,” she says.

“You have to do it all by yourself.  You have to think about it and figure out how to do it.”

If you think that three year old Emily thought about it and climbed up to the high branch, you will be wrong.  I turned around to watch out for her little brother and–that quick–she fell out of the tree.

Boom. Right onto her elbow on a stick.  Instant adult panic that she could have broken her arm on my watch while the parents were away.  Instinctive reaction to protect her, take her away from the dangerous tree and go back to the house for a popsicle.

That’s when she amazed me.  She got up, surprised but not crying, and she climbed right back into the tree.

emily & the treeThis time she had real respect for the tree.  She carefully considered where to place each foot, how to hold on.  Her goal was no longer how to get up to that very high branch.  Her new goal was to master the distance from the ground to that first branch.  And she did.  While I diligently spotted her.

Oh, the Winnie-the-Pooh lessons to be learned from Emily and The Tree.  On the way to school Monday, I thought of how I wanted my students to be more like courageous Emily.  They tend to want me to implant knowledge in their brains, like Emily wanting me to put her on the higher branch.  However, they panic when things are difficult, fear making mistakes, and want to bail on the whole learning process when it doesn’t go as quickly as  they want. They also absolutely, positively do not focus on anything for longer than a nano-second.

“I want to tell you a story,” I began first period class.

“Are you going to yell at us?” they asked. (They are so paranoid.)

“NO! I just want to tell you a story!” (Ok, I might have yelled that a teensy bit. Sometimes their way of thinking makes me crazy.)

So I told them about Emily.

“Are you saying that learning French is like climbing a tree?”

Um, yes.  And then I told them what branch they were currently on and how we were going to climb today to a higher  branch.

“Are we going to fall out of the tree?”  they asked. (FYI, these are high schoolers and 8th graders.)

“Actually, yes, some of you are going to fall out of the tree.  But we aren’t up very high.  You will not die.”

That seemed to calm them down.  Apparently they believe that learning will kill them.

Friday, my colleagues and I attended a workshop on Teaching the 21st Century Learner.  The speaker was good and had extensive handouts of his very scripted presentation that covered all the usual blah-blah about active learning, none of which I can recall without reading the handouts.  His presentation did not teach me nearly as much as I learned from little Emily.

  • Students want to climb high.
  • Students want the teacher to put them where they want to be, but…
  • Students have to do the climbing themselves.
  • Students are afraid to make mistakes, but…
  • Students learn from their mistakes.
  • Students need diligent coaching and spotting while they climb.

I’m tempted to assign tree-climbing for homework, but they would fall from their trees, injure themselves so they couldn’t participate on their sports teams, and I would get blamed for such a stupid idea. I guess instead I’ll focus on how to better coach and spot them.  They do want to climb, and I don’t want them hurt on my watch.