Learning from children—Some Great Books!

I recently visited an elementary school in Japan to see how teachers were implementing the Ministry of Education’s plan to have children start studying English at a younger age. I have not been in an elementary school for at least a decade and I not only found the children refreshing but also I remembered that my aim when I started college was to become a kindergarten teacher.

But during the second semester of my freshman year, my English teacher said that I seemed to like writing and literature. Because of this, he suggested that I consider majoring in English rather than early childhood education. He said that because I had studied Spanish in high school I should consider a double major since I could then teach Spanish and English.

I switched because in fact I did like literature and writing. Had I visited a few elementary schools at the time and seen the same curiosity I observed a few weeks ago in Japan, I might not have.

At any rate, though I relished my Spanish classes, the focus was on reading literature so when I graduated, my spoken Spanish was not great. I thought that I should improve my Spanish before I applied for a job teaching Spanish. President Kennedy announced the formation of the Peace Corps just as I was about to graduate. So I said, “Wow, what an opportunity. I can be a Peace Corps Volunteer in Latin America and improve my Spanish.”

When I contacted the Peace Corps, I was told I would have to wait a year to be posted in Latin America but that I could join the first group of volunteers bound for Nigeria. I did not want to wait a year so I accepted the invitation to join Nigeria I.
I was assigned to a teacher training college where one of my responsibilities was to “supervise” primary school teachers. I put supervise in quotes because the teachers I visited each day during practice teaching all had 2 to 10 years of experience. I had practice taught for one semester in college.

But I relished seeing the primary school students because of their curiosity and energy. One book for every few students, one pencil per student, no books at home. But they started to read and write in English from their first year in school.
My recent visit to an elementary school in Japan brought back those memories of Nigerian children and my original goal of being a kindergarten teacher.

More importantly, the visit reminded me of some books that have greatly influenced the way I teach and work with teachers and how all too many teachers today have forgotten the lessons of the pioneers of childhood education. Mainly, the books I am rereading respected the intelligence of the children they worked with.

Decades ago, the University of Chicago Press issued a series of books they called “The Great Books.” The series included Plato, Aristotle, Cervantes, Fielding.” “The Great Books” that I am suggesting you read contain mainly the voices of children rather than adults.
Here is my list of authors and some titles.

Maria Montessori who died in 1952 wrote many books and since many have written books about her. You will be refreshed by anything you read that she wrote or that others have written about her educational ideas and practices.
Sylvia Ashton-Warner wrote Spinster and Teacher, among other works. She developed her teaching practices while teaching Maori children in New Zealand. Her teaching methods were not accepted in New Zealand but an American Publisher was excited by her work and so published her books.

I just discovered Wally’s Stories by Vivian Gussin Paley, which contains conversations in kindergarten classes. Wow. How differently children think, which is a theme of both Montessori and Sylvia Ashton-Warner as well.
Eleanor Duckworth sums up the refreshing thinking of children in the title of one of her recent books: “The Having of Wonderful Ideas”.
Alan Bennett who you might associate with older children since one of his most well known books is The History Boys has written The Uncommon Reader. Only 120 pages and the pages are only 5 inches by 7 inches.

I suggest these books to remind you that we can learn so, so much about teaching ESOL from other fields. And one of the richest and most refreshing areas is early childhood education. The natural curiosity that we all have before we begin school, where often it is stifled, is celebrated in the books I have just mentioned.

As T.H. Huxley, 1825-95, self taught zoologist, interpreter of Darwin’s ideas, medical doctor, Leader of the Royal Society, etc. wrote:

“Sit down before what you see and hear like a little child,
and be prepared to give up every preconceived notion,
follow humbly wherever and to whatever abyss Nature leads,
or you shall learn nothing.”

Flesch Reading Ease 57% 9.7 Grade Level