Monday, September 17, 2018

Stimulating Brains through Stories in Shishi...

Our first full fall semester is well on its way here in Shishi, China. One of the most exciting changes we are undergoing, during this spin of the wheel, is the empowerment of our Chinese team to guide our community in the cultural regenerative efforts by bringing back to life the dusty bones of the ancestral stories and songs seldom told, far less sung.

Three times a week our kindergarten gathers for Kric? Krac! (the name Originateve International has adopted from our Haitian Creole bards to honor the our gatherings around the globe for storytelling and song with children ages 0-12). On Mondays, we celebrate a wide breadth of folklore from a good number of English tunes gathered from every corner of the world where the Anglo-saxons long since carried their lore. Molly Malone, from the capital of Dublin, cries out among us trying to make a sale, just like "her father and mother before", on some fresh, a-live, seafood. The infamous jolly swagman from the land down under reaffirms the rebellious nature we each carry within by swearing to all that seeks to squelch our innocence that "you'll never catch me alive!" On Wednesdays, however, our songs, now, ring out in Chinese. Excitingly, our children are empowered in their bilingual curriculum of enriched literacy and lore to call upon both the eye-less and rumpless tigers of the east, as well as calling upon the memory of the great hunter Houyi and his beloved Chang'e who now longs for him from the moon where she ascending, long ago, into her immortality.

These two lovers are the legendary goddess and hero of the beloved chinese myth of the Jade Rabbit. This story in particular is remembered each year around the western celebrated time of Mabon. As teacher: Peng Xue Ting brought the story back to life for the children of our kindergarten, I looked out at a sea of children clearly entranced by the language and imagery of her story and the rhythm and beat of my drum. I was instantly reminded of the posit Sir Joseph Chilton Pearce made in his influential essay on "Imagination and Play",

"Let's look at storytelling. The child responds to storytelling very early, even before they can talk. The word comes in as a vibration: sensory input. And that challenges the whole brain, not just to create an image in keeping with each word, but to create moving imagery, fluid imagery that follows the flow of the words. It sets up an inner-world scenario, a whole inner-world scene in which the scene is constantly shifting according to the shifting of the words themselves.

This has been found to be a major challenge of the brain. The job is so enormous that the child goes into total entrainment. That is, all of the energy moves into this visual process of the inner world. The child goes catatonic: body movement ceases, the jaw drops, eyes get great big and wide. They are literally not in this world. Their eyes are wide open, but they are not looking at anything outwardly. They are looking at the marvelous world forming within them."

Pearce goes onto explain, in a much more technical language, that it is in these magical instances that the child's brain is being completely reconfigured.

"...the telling of the story challenges the brain into entirely new routing every time. Each new story necessitates the forming of new neural connections between all the fields involved in imagery; a reworking of the sensory maps of the brain involving the establishment of new fields and connections between them. The brain has to continually expand its neural connections. And it’s the neural connections that count, not simply the number of neurons...And since each new story demands a complete new, re-routing of the neural patterns themselves, the brain has to continually expand—operations, auditory, visual, sensory fields, and all the rest of it—with each one."

Awareness, alone, of what Pearce is articulating here on the affect of storytelling on the brain of our children is catatonic in and of itself. As I drummed along, I too, drifted into that place where we must all frequent often. There I was acutely aware of that faith that is required of all of us involved in the "medicine-work" of childrearing. We cannot always know what sort of neural connections are taking place in the brains of the little ones entrusted to us. Nonetheless, we can trust the reason that stems from our research and experience that something magical is at work.

What am I left with, when the story comes to its end? The satisfaction that, as up and coming bards in this southern nook of our planet we are doing what we can to bring story back to life, fully aware of the neuro-benefits for the children but also a keen sense of a fair bit more yet to be given language to.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Meet Dragon!!!

Every Kindergarten Instructor knows the broad spectrum of possibilities for how a toddler may respond to their first day of school. Though there are some who come with a puppy-like curiosity that seamlessly blends into a wag-tailing joyous acceptance of their new environment, others

, upon catching even the slightest whiff that they will be leaving their mother's company, burst into a mythological metamorphosis all within kicking distance better beware of. Allow me to outline a few of the signs to look for should you encounter such a terrifying spectacle. Please remember however that though menacing in appearance, these children, like all children are absolutely docile and entirely lovable beneath the spectacle of its beastly transformation:
  1. What once used to be soft buttocks swiftly jet out into a fish-like tail whipping at all within reach 
  2. Their milky soft skin hardens and becomes scaly like a coy 
  3. Like snakes to be feared they wrap themselves around the bottom limbs of their parents resisting any possibility of being left behind 
  4. Their bellies harden like a clam under predatory threat
  5. Their heads begin to bob like camels confirming to all within view that they are most definitely NOT interested in a starting their 20-some year long life of schooling 
  6. Their tender toddler fingers morph into prehistorical claws threatening all within reach to back up less then lose a bit of their own flesh in the social adjustments transcending
  7. There are no high fives on a first day with children like this. The palms of their hands turn into the paws of tigers. They can withstand all dragging across the floor if teachers were to need to drag them to their first class. 
  8. Their ears stretch out like those of cows becoming capable to hear their mommies voice even 45 minutes later having safely arrived home. 
  9. Though 8 or some years away from puberty, they grow out the beard of a goat and their bleating sounds very much like a curse from hell from which 
  10. their horns grow out like a stag
  11. and their eyes darken into those of a demon. 
In my 10 years as an early childhood educator I have seen many of these traits present themselves but never, ever, had I witnessed them all at once...and so suddenly. Meet Dragon!! A fantastical representation of the Chinese heroic creature from which we aptly appropriated his new English name. Though we have been through these "tricky" first timers before, when one is in the thick of the madness it is often hard to believe in the peace after the storm. 

There was certainly some crying in the morning when Dragon came to school. But he was always quick to get on with the activities of the day and wipe his own tears away. His fierceness however would strangely erupt at pick up time. Just when all the other children were so happy to see their mommies, Dragon who had been a tame beast all day would transform, once again, into his fiercest manifestation. For me the whole thing was pretty funny. But I remember Dragon's mom being tremendously confused and overwhelmed. Soon enough, she was not in charge of pick up anymore. Apparently, only Dragon's daddy could calm him. 

Dragons are supposed to have a good appetite. And our little dragon most definitely did but he sure didn't like the idea of having to eat by himself. But, slowly but surely, within the first month at our school, our little dragon gave in and rather than starving he learned to eat on his own. 

Potty training was the big one for our dreadful monster! I remember him getting so mad at me upon peeing his pants! You see he used to stare at me with a fierce glare and I can only imagine that what he really wanted was for me to help him walk to the bathroom and pull down his pants and hold his penis so he wouldn't drip on his underwear. NO WAY! Not me! Not at MT:) Our primary goal for the first 3 weeks of school is for all children to be potty trained, eating independently and enjoying a healthy balance of playing by themselves and with others through out the day. With little dragon every aspect of his integration into the program happened with quite a bit of ease but when it came to pee-pee time we all had to cover our ears in the presence of his roar! 

Sleep time was never difficult for our little dragon. I can only imagine that when it was time for the children's nap, he fell to sleep with considerable ease due to the exhaustion of his potty training:)

Now, 4 months after he has joined our school, Dragon is an example for all other young toddlers to follow. Those who see him applaud his interaction with admiration. But only those of us who were near him through his process of assimilation know the terrible beast he once used to transform into!