Teacher Blunder:"Are You On Fire?"
I stood beside my students, in the cafeteria with the sounds of the lunchtime swirling around me. Children were making their way through the line, past the salad bar, and around to their assigned tables. It's a common area, full of noise and commotion, where children can finally enjoy conversations with their peers, and relax for a few minutes before recess.
As one of my students jumped up, and began to run for the bathroom, I caught him and stated, "Are you on fire?"
He smiled up at me, and began to walk to the bathroom.
All of a sudden, the face of Fred Rogers came into my mind. This was a regular occurrence the longer I applied his philosophies of child development in my classroom. His face acted as an intentional gauge for my practice, reminding me of what was needed, and expected of a wise adult caring for children. It was as if God would bring him to mind as a kind reminder, "You might want to fix that."
Fred Rogers believed that children need to be told the truth, and the words we choose must be chosen with care. He would often halt production, and go to see his mentor and Neighborhood consultant, Dr. Margaret McFarland to ensure that the word choice was just so. In fact, his staff once made a pamphlet they called "Freddish" to showcase the meticulous care he took to choose the words for children viewing his program.
As recounted by my friend and biographer, Maxwell King, in The Good Neighbor:
“State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.” Example: It is dangerous to play in the street.
“Rephrase in a positive manner,” as in It is good to play where it is safe.
“Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust.” As in, “Ask your parents where it is safe to play.”
“Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive.” In the example, that’d mean getting rid of “ask”: Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play.
“Rephrase any element that suggests certainty.” That’d be “will”: Your parents can tell you where it is safe to play.
“Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children.” Not all children know their parents, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.
“Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice.” Perhaps: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to listen to them.
“Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step.” “Good” represents a value judgment, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them.
“Rephrase your idea a ﬁnal time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.” Maybe: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important
I turned to my remaining students and said, "Do you realize that I didn't really think he was on fire?" They nodded their heads and said yes. One little boy said, "You just didn't want him to run." Althpugh they understood what I had meant, a child learning English might not. When I was working with bilingual children, I would often be cautious about idoms and other figurative language which created confusion. A great book I used to illustrate this was a classic text: The King Who Rained. by Fred Gwynne 1988. It's a silly way of explaining idioms to children.
When speaking to families about word choice, Fred Rogers highlighted that adults often choose wording for their own comfort, regarding topics like death and divorce.
For example: "Grandma went to sleep last night and didn't wake up."
So, we skirted around the topic of "death, while creating a new problem at bedtime.
I certainly wouldn't want to go to sleep if I wasn't going to wake up! Thank you, Mister Rogers. It makes sense.
Here's a tip: children trust us to use words to ease their fears, explain the confusing and make sense of this complex world. Let LOVE lead your conversations. Love doesn't hide the truth for our own comfort. Love explains what is real. It sets us free because it's the truth.
What can you do to check for understanding?
Ask children clarifying questions/reassuring statements
What do you think just happened?
Why do you think it happened?
How does that make you feel?
What do you wonder?
What thoughts do you have about_____?
Did I use a word you don't know?
What would make you feel better?
I will answer all your questions.
I know this is hard.
I'm proud of you for _________________________.
I will be here the whole time.