Conclusion: Aesthetic Play’s Clues, “Unquiet” Understandings, and the Makings of Self/World
From a very early age I understood and valued play as a means to make sense of my world. I recall many hours wandering outside-walking along the beach, through woodlands, up and down my street, and in my backyard. I found purpose within these ventures, and the connections instilled a trust in process and a boldness to navigate from within these experiences that very much extends into who I am today. One incident in particular marks the self-investment within my play that Dewey (1934) describes as the complete merging of playfulness with seriousness (p. 279). I grew up on the west coast, right by the sea. In the winter months there were some foggy mornings that provided much fodder for my imaginings as I found my way to school. My Dad called it pea soup fog: “It’s as thick as pea soup out there,” he’d say. As I ventured from my home I encountered the wonders of a world anew, thick with magical discoveries. Unable to see more than a step ahead, my attention was drawn to the given immediacies brought by each step taken. The school building suddenly happened upon me, though my venture often mused with a building I was somehow unable to locate. It was after one of these foggy venture-full mornings that I sat in my gradethree classroom, third row, right at the front. The teacher, Miss Moore (pseudonym), was a tall, lean, stern woman. The classroom was orderly and safe and though I would not describe Miss Moore as fun or warm, I liked her; I liked school. The classroom was silent. We were practicing cursive writing. I started diligently on the task but the letters quickly became words, and the words images; and the pea soup foggy morning meandered into a marvelous story. I was completely absorbed in the creation of my story when Miss Moore happened upon me. She had been walking up and down the aisles and as she got to the front of the third row she glared down at my writing. She abruptly interrupted: “Margaret, this is atrocious writing! Start again!” Bewildered and startled I quickly responded, “But, Miss Moore, the ideas come out of my head so fast, I cannot possibly write them down fast enough.” She curtly responded with “Stop being so cheeky. On task now!” I decided that it was an oversight on her part and continued to like her, like school-but obviously I never entirely forgave Miss Moore. I have since recalled that incident many times as a teacher and parent. I am cognizant that teachers can incite learning, teachers can impede learning, teachers can grow learning, and teachers can halt learning. Of course, it could easily be argued that I was indeed off task. But I was learning. Miss Moore could have acknowledged my story, yet redirected me to the task at hand. But Miss Moore did not see me-a student who rarely said a thing and was almost always obedient. Miss Moore did not really hear my response nor read my story. I recall being genuinely surprised and disappointed. I confidently knew I was doing important thinking. “Idea and act” were “completely fused” (Dewey, 1934, p. 278). Labeled a creative, imaginative child, my report cards often relayed these adjectives as distractions from learning. But my parents paid little heed to such
feedback and invested in art, dance, and music lessons for me. And I knew that if indeed I had found myself unable to locate the school building on any one of those foggy mornings, my mom would have always welcomed me back wholeheartedly at home. That incident served to map out the terrain for my life’s work of understanding what teaching is or ought to entail. After all, the fog can serve as a metaphor for the play-full-work of learning. Fog created a space for deliberation, exploration, and speculation. Through deliberating, exploring, and speculating, I sought meaning. I translated these ideas-adapting, changing, and creating a story. The space generated a movement of thinking that invited and valued my participation. I recognized myself within my story; it drew on my experiences, it negotiated connections I was making, it anticipated directions I did not see coming in advance. Belongingness had been negotiated and was undeniably at stake when Miss Moore interrupted me. Seeing with potential in self, in others, in situations, is a necessity as a teacher. This entails a knowing concomitantly of past and present, with implications for the future. A teacher cannot guide learning without attending to what students bring to situations and how these relational complexities might intersect to promote learning. Teachers cannot say what students bring is not enough; nor too unfamiliar to possibly work with; nor what she/he might/might not prefer. The place to begin is amidst the fog, with what is given. And what is given ought to be seen as a gift. I have learned most significantly about the gifts each child brings through my own children, Anna and Will. Each has taught me about difference. From their beginnings in my womb their differences were felt. One was a serious kicker, the other, a serious sleeper. At birth their needs, desires, and responses were unique and thus the relationships forged through the years are necessarily different. Alongside my partner, Bill, we marveled as new parents at how they each created and made sense of their world. I see two distinct individuals, each with wonderful strengths. Their identities are precious to me. And these precious identities are very much in the making, forming, and re-forming. I want my children to flourish, finding plentiful sustenance to feed and nurture their identities. Through Anna and Will, I gained a deep respect for Van Manen’s (1991) insistence that teaching ought to show itself as “openness to children’s experiences,” “as subtle influence,” “as holding back,” “as situational confidence,” “as improvisational.” Teaching ought to “preserve a child’s space,” “save what is vulnerable,” “prevent injury or hurt,” “heal (make whole) what is broken,” “strengthen what is good,” “enhancing what is unique,” sponsoring personal growth and learning. Teaching, therefore, entails “meditating through speech, through silence, through the eyes, through gesture, atmosphere, and example, giving new and unexpected shape to unanticipated situations, converting incidence into significance, never forgetting that teaching always leaves a mark on a child” (pp. 64-173). The learning risks and opportunities afforded to each child as identities in the making are different, but the significances are similar-greater cognizance of self
in relation to others and the necessity of others toward enlarging all of our understandings; instilling confidence in the processes of learning; comfort with the fog of learning ambiguity; and energized by not knowing as part of the felt difficulty/enjoyment of learning. As human beings we are all fundamentally creative. How we make sense of the world is through creating meaning. As we create meaning, we create ourselves. We negotiate our identities and we increasingly understand that this is a lifelong undertaking. When we remove these undergoings and doings of learning processes, we rob students and teachers of locating their own identities within the fog. The attention to process required of all students of the work of learning positions learners as creators of meaning. Within the ensuing undergoings and doings of creating meaning awaits the powerful and empowering learning consequences that matter-now, and for the future. The ensuing costs of not doing so have been vastly underestimated. So, my continued efforts and hopes are for educators to claim the creative space of classrooms; creating meaning, creating self-adapting, changing, building meaning with students as co-creators. This is the needed play-space, embracing teaching with life, for the well-being of individuals and our future.