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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Bringing Mom to First Grade

There’s nothing “half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats,” said Water Rat in the Kenneth Graham classic, Wind in the Willows. The fun of just messing about in and around stuff.

The sheer joy of it all!

And there’s nothing quite like bringing your mom into first grade so children can get to know about her life, the times she lived in and what she valued.

I had this pleasure recently at the Mulgrave School in Vancouver, British Columbia. On a not too unusual cloudy February day, I brought pictures of my mother, Elizabeth Ferguson Barell, into Monique Vodrey’s class to model how one might challenge students to become good observers and questioners of folks who lived before them. They were studying change across generations and I’d already admired some of their family trees.

I showed the students six or seven photos of Elizabeth from age twelve to eighty-five and asked them to arrange them in chronological order. This they were able to do upon the second or third try. What distinguished one photo from another was my mother's height, “She’s taller here!’ and the presence or absence of her son, me.

Then I focused on one black and white picture, that of her standing next to a Model A Ford probably circa 1927, the first year of production. It was most likely her father’s black car and I’m sure he took the picture in front of their house in LeRoy, NY.

I asked kids to observe it closely and tell me what they saw: “the car—not like my Dad’s car at all!” and lots of comments about the car, the windows, so many, the hood, the tires without hubcaps, the running board and the roof. They were fascinated by the roof. They were curious about the windows, why so many, the car’s color, why black, and the spoked wheels.

The point was to help them become good observers, because inquiry starts with being keen observers of objects and experiences. Go here to view a video clip of students making their observations: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vg3j3-1wzwg

Next, I wanted them to pose good questions. I was sitting on a couch and held up a color picture of my mother and me when she was about 85. Then I said, “If my mother, Elizabeth Barell, were sitting right here, what would you ask her?” You can hear from the tape how kids asked questions about life when she was born and then they asked a question that really surprised and delighted me, “What was her life about? (View: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWMaYbM7l04 )

Wow! “What was her life about?” Behind me were all the pictures arranged in chronological order and one wonders what she might have said in response.

“What did she like the best?” one other student asked.

I think her life was about total devotion to her children, loving them, sacrificing for them especially when there was a family need. As a single working mom, she drove from Wellesley, MA everyday in her later life to work at Dana Farber Cancer Research Center in Boston as a researcher, then drove home, made my sister, Robin, a delicious meal, without ever, ever complaining, or asking Robin to make it herself.

But it was also about loving life. She was one of the most curious persons I’ve ever met. On her shelves, before she passed away last September, were books about Leonard Bernstein, nuclear physicist Richard Feynman, stories by A. A. Milne, and Ann Taylor and audio tapes of her favorite comics, Bob and Ray. And, scattered about the apartment were cross word puzzle books galore!

Now that she’s gone we miss her and find different ways to keep her in our lives.

At least first graders in Vancouver got to meet a lovely lady who once summed up the meaning of her life thusly: “Mind your own business! Because if you don’t, somebody else will.”