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Educating the Whole Child

February 2014

Integration in Holistic Education It is ridiculous to think that a teacher or parent can educate just a part of the child, but that is the traditional approach, with each subject taught separately, relying solely on books, pen and paper. I hesitate to use terms like Holistic Education or Whole Child, because these terms are embraced by educational businesses (such as tutoring agencies), and by the Common Core Curriculum, both examples of non-holistic education. The "whole child" view implies that the whole child is influenced by everything, and interacts with everything, with the whole world. In turn, the whole world is interacting with the child. Our children are aware of far more than they can express, and they are learning all the time.

Taking this view, I can never fully plan what a student will learn. My understanding of their learning happens in hindsight, as I watch their development and reflect on the experience. Most often the child reaches for or receives something unplanned. The nature of this learning can be social, linguistic, creative, physical, mental or logical, or all of the above. It is impossible to plan or foresee this, because each child is different and each situation unfolds unpredictably.

Take, for example, the Big Crowd Project, mentioned in Part Two of Seeing Young Children With New Eyes, by Sydney Gurewitz Clemens. Preschoolers meeting just after summer were asked about their memories of the beach. As a teacher, I imagined the educators had planned lessons on marine life (seashells), earth science (tides and sand), poetry about the beach (language arts), perhaps map-making of the beach, and so on. But starting with the children's perceptions, the curriculum focus became the crowd. This is a startling reminder of a four-year-old's perspective of the beach, full of knees at eye-level, and bathing-suited strangers running about- it can be a daunting environment for a preschooler. The educators' approach was Reggio Emilia, to respect the child and perceive the child as a whole being who comes into this world with gifts and a unique awareness. This attitude meant that the teachers would listen respectfully to the children and take their experiences seriously. The Big Crowd Project became a course in sociology, perspective, language, point of view, art, and more.

Ms. Clemens writes:

During the Crowd Project in Reggio Emilia, the children learned and practiced many sub-skills including how to make profiles, studying perspectives from which people can be seen, sculpting clay human figures and developing a process for making - from paper - people who could stand and talk with each other. For the triumphant finale of the Crowd Project the boys made a crowd in clay, and the girls fabricated another crowd using paper.

From the first conversation about crowds and the subsequent baseline drawings of crowds, (which came from the teachers' review of the conversation about the beach, and their astute discovery that the children were more interested in crowds than in beaches) the community of children and teachers devised a long and complex process of learning to represent a crowd.

This extraordinary, extended project shows us how the Reggiani take a small - but emotion-laden - report from children and transform it into a magnificent study, enhancing the children's disposition to go into an area where they're not skilled, do hard exploration and representation, and emerge with new skills well and truly their own.

Not only did these children actively learn at a surprising level for their age, but they also built self-awareness and self-esteem, conquering the fear of the big crowd by creating and understanding it. That is truly educating the whole child!

Listening is the key to teaching and the key to learning. This is markedly evident in the interview course that I am currently teaching to middle schoolers. A good interview means the interviewer is listening more than talking. We are likelier to think of good questions when the goal at hand is not to ask a good question, but to listen to a good story. The question seeks to prompt personal storytelling, and the interview is conducted with the goal of listening to someone else talk. Keeping that goal in mind fosters respect to the interview subject, and even a loving approach to the formulation of questions. We develop new respect for people's stories and for the lives of others. The learning experience is multi-disciplinary, often eye-opening, sometimes even emotional. Children hear stories that their grandparents never told before, or discover a neighbor's connection to a distant part of the world, or meet a politician or actor or profession for the first time. The course takes a holistic approach to the students and their world, connecting them hands-on to other people and places, to new issues and ideas. After all, one of the main ways we all continue to learn is, unpredictably, from each other.

When I meet parents and other educators they are surprised to find that I teach every age, from preschool to adult. Lately it seems that I tend to teach teens more than any other age group, and I started to wonder why. This is particularly curious since my favorite age to teach is eight years old. This is the age when skills like reading and writing are often developed, but the child still maintains a sense of wonder. They aren't yet jaded, or ruined by a lackluster school system. But I do not choose my classes or age groups; they choose me. Most of the courses I teach are taught at the request of the student or parent. So why are so many of my students teenagers? I think it is because I take a student-directed, whole child, holistic approach to education. I respect my students and listen to them. This may be most important to teens if they have been disrespected and ignored for a long time. But this approach is also the reason why I can teach any age. It is easy, when you listen first -with respect- to learn what it is that they want to learn, and to guide them on the next step in their development. It is a path we share together, as we interact with each other and with the world, knowing only that we are each whole individuals wanting to learn more.