As spring begins and the tiny yellow-green mulberry leaves start bravely out from their branches, students begin picking them. They pick them with the same care their parents use when making breakfast. In the classroom they feed the leaves to silk worms. The worms raise tiny faces to look into the children’s eyes, clinging to hands with hind feet. Pulling them off feels “weird.” The students’ reverence is akin to awe. By May the silk worms are spinning their cocoons and the art department has a box full of pure white silk amulettes as light as two raffle tickets and as big as your thumb. Students dye the cocoons turning them into all manner of marvelous creations, and make thread which they use in other works of art.
Cute, but is this activity really essential? Is this the kind of thing that should be going on in school?
The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness is a book I have been waiting for my whole career. In it Ned Hallowell lays out his “cycle of success:” connect, play, practice, progress, recognition. Essentially, Hallowell is defining the context in which schooling must occur in order for students to get an education, as well as for people to have a life.
In the silk worm/fiber art projects, students experience themselves intimately connected to the web of life. To know that everything goes somewhere, and to know that you have the power to make the going good and the somewhere great, is a very important learning. Natural vs. man-made? It’s all one thing to children who experience themselves as just one link in a complex chain, rather than puppeteers manipulating life. The context in which schooling takes place makes all the difference, and a context in which students feel connected is the most important element of that context. Connecting to nature, to friends, to adults, to meaning, to deep motives, to emotions, to the playful side—this is essential, not just something to think about if we find the time.
Context is the most undervalued element of our educational system. Good teachers instinctively know its value and create a place where the students will feel connected—connected to each other, to the teacher, to the walls and the floor and the furniture and the books, to kids in other classes and other rooms, to other adults. A good teacher knows that “have fun,” is not a “lite” invitation, but a commandment. The main value of “parent involvement” is more its contribution to the web of connectedness than the actual labor.
Once you have a relationship with a silk worm you have a cognitive-emotional container for learning about all forms of life—how they, grow, relate, change and die. Complex, multi-dimensional activities like this that affect the brain at all levels are the fertile soil for planting the seeds of reading, writing and arithmetic.
Teachers are taught how to build a curriculum, assess students, plan lessons, differentiate their instruction, address special needs, design special projects, evaluate performance, and all are important. However, making sure that this activity occurs in a social context where it is safe to be yourself, and where taking care of others is as important as mastering the work in front of you is critical. It is certainly necessary. It may even be sufficient.