Time to wonder and make things happen: Some thoughts inspired by The Wheel on the School

by Mr. Sheehy

An older and wiser man than I once told me that his wife’s legs were connected to her heart: whenever this couple began to walk together, she began to spill the contents of her heart to him.

I often thought my own legs were connected to the part of my brain that generates ideas, possibly as a power source. When on the verge of something particularly good, I hop out of my chair and walk, usually on some sort of errand because I am too self-conscious to pace. I like to think John Adams experienced something similar, as he was noted for stretching his legs along the acres of his farm in Braintree as far as five miles a day, a habit he and his son continued even while living on the outskirts of Paris (McCullough).

Methods of wondering and thinking vary widely, obviously. My daughter explained to me yesterday that the character in her book stares into her wooden shoe while she thinks, and another character, the village’s grandmother, rocks back and forth while sucking on a wine ball.

Walking, rocking, or staring into a shoe–the particular method seems to matter less than a common element to each: there exists ample time to use it.

The idea of leaving time to think is one I’ve explored before, but I am convinced it is also intimately tied to the concepts I mentioned this week about play and the structural inability of school or institution to provide an environment for independent and creative play.

Given the constraints of the system, the natural and understandable constraints of a place with hundreds of people guided by dozens, how can school be a place where time is provided for wondering?

This summer I read Susan Winebrenner’s Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom and in one section she discussed allowing gifted students to pursue research projects in place of content they’d already mastered. When doing these projects, she pointed out, students might need to research for a number of days to discover what they’re curious about. They might even need to change their topics after doing quite a bit of work, if they discover that their chosen topic is not interesting or deep enough. The idea behind the method was clear: allow the students to follow their curiosity and form their own project. Let them wonder.

Too often I grow frustrated by students’ lack of curiosity, but too often I do not connect the lack of time to wonder with that lack of curiosity.  If there’s one thing we do well in school, it’s fill the students’ days with prescribed activities. At least, I do it well. It’s admittedly the heart of my classroom management technique: if they’re busy, they won’t have time to misbehave.

Yet I wonder about the unintended consequence of my strategy. Do I help train out of students the initiative to live a healthy life of the mind, one unafraid of time to think? Do I deprive them of the most important tool for problem-solving–time to work on a solution?

The book my eldest daughter is reading (well, having read to her), the one with the wooden shoe and the grandmother’s wine ball, is Meindert Dejong’s The Wheel on the School. In the first chapter the main character, an elementary student in a small class, reads a paper wondering why there are no storks in her town. The teacher seizes upon the idea and asks each student what he knows about storks (all the other students are boys). The final boy’s answer leads to a wonderful tribute to the power of wondering, a tribute that has started me to wondering how I might foster curiosity in my students.

Elka thought a while. “I’m like Lina, Teacher; I know little about storks. But if storks would come to Shora, then I think I would learn to know a lot about storks.”

“Yes, that is true,” the teacher said. “But now what do you think would happen if we all began to think a lot about storks? School’s almost out for today, but if, from now until tomorrow morning when you come back to school, you thought and thought about storks, do you think things would begin to happen?”

They all sat still and thought that over. Eelka raised his hand. “But I’m afraid I can’t think much about storks when I don’t know much about storks. I’d be through in a minute.”

Everybody laughed, but the teacher’s eyes weren’t pleased. “True, true,” he said. “That’s right, Eelka. We can’t think much when we don’t know much. But we can wonder! From now until tomorrow morning when you come to school again, will you do that? Will you wonder why and wonder why? Will you wonder why storks don’t come to Shora to build their nests on the roofs, the way they do in all the villages around? For sometimes when we wonder, we can make things begin to happen.

“If you’ll do that—then school is out right now!” (6)

Is it really that important to create an environment where students can wonder? Does wondering increase reading scores and math scores? My bet is yes, because “sometimes when we wonder, we can make things begin to happen.”

Thanks for reading.