December 15, 2021

Last week, everything changed. There was some build-up: the week before, I got a message from the teacher I subbed for five years ago when I first developed my string story curriculum. She had already become a friend even before I did that long-term job for her. She said she’s now out on maternity leave and would love to have me take over her class–they’re having lots of trouble finding substitutes. At that point, I had just had my booster shot and was still pretty concerned about the new Omicron variant. I hesitated.

Then I got an email from the principal, who was very supportive as I went through the process of creating my program five years ago. The booster shot reaching full effectiveness at the two-week mark and the personal appeal from the principal combined to give me the courage to take a leap. I’m back to work full-time! Well, not really — the music teacher I’m subbing for had several classes that were funded by a special music grant, and since I’m not teaching music, the principal offered to eliminate those classes so that I would have mainly first-, second-, and third-grade classes and rearrange the schedule so I only need to come in three days instead of five. There is one four/five combo class and two Special Day classes, so I have fifteen different classes for an hour each on those three days, five classes a day — feels like a full-time job to me! 

Yesterday I had my first day back with kids since March 2020. What a joy! It was so clear that this is what I’m meant to do, and that my frustration with trying to teach string games online was fully justified. This really is something that’s best done in meatspace. The excitement and satisfaction that I saw the kids experience as they mastered the basics — keep the fingers straight enough that the strings don’t fall off, and remember a three- or four-step sequence — was so gratifying. I am thoroughly convinced that this is one of the most important things kids can do, in school or out of school. The concrete nature of the feedback the strings give them makes for a powerful reward, and the enhancement to their sense of agency is immediately visible.

The highlight of the day for me was my visit to the PreK through third grade Special Day Class. There are only about ten kids in the class, and six adults. The kids are mostly non-verbal with a wide variety of developmental differences and congenital conditions. The classroom can feel chaotic, with kids defying, rebelling, protesting, and generally acting out much of the time. The level of attention and energy required from their caregivers is extraordinary. They do wonders.

The teacher had not been expecting me — I’m sure many of the prior subs had not done well, and he probably just gave up on having anyone show up. He selected one student to work with me, and we sat down in chairs facing each other. I had an inspiration: one of the strings I’d brought with me is a fairly heavy nylon rope, about the width of a little pinkie and fused into a meter-long loop. I handed him one side of the loop and grabbed the other side with both my hands. We stretched and pulled it a bit, making shapes, and then I spontaneously began rocking the loop up and down, as if shaking the reins of a horse. He mimicked my movements, and soon we were taking a herd of horses for a gallop. At one point, I thought to start raising the loop up above our shoulders, and then immediately thought better of that move when he began trying to catch the loop around his neck. I said I thought the horses were getting tired and needed a rest, and we lowered the loop to the ground. 

We went for another ride, and soon four other kids had come over and joined the game. It was delightful, and I could see that it was accomplishing my main objective: to give the teacher a few minutes of release time from the constant vigilance he usually must maintain over his chaotic brood, allowing him to clean off some tables and prep the next activity. 

This spontaneous inspiration has already launched a series of reflections and explorations in my mind about similar activities I can use to engage these kids. I’m so thrilled to be back into face-to-face teaching! Giddy-up!

I presented a virtual workshop on

String Game Stories: Kindness, Collaboration, and Deep Learning  (grade level 1-3)

Saturday, Nov. 6th 

  • Session 3:  9:30 – 11:00 am  

at the Marion Cilker Conference for the Arts Education

sponsored by the Santa Clara County Office of Education