Learning How to Communicate in Human, from Concrete to Abstract

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by Chelsea Roberts

When we speak of moving from the concrete to the abstract in the elementary community, we’re often speaking about presenting an aspect of mathematics or geometry with a tactile experience before presenting a formula that represents this model. A wonderful example is of the Binomial Cube, that children manipulate in the Primary classroom, matching color and height of the pieces of a cube made of two layers. In the elementary, after a child has used other material to find the result of cubing a binomial with specific values, we reintroduce their old friend to reveal the possibility that we can use other terms (like a and b) to take the place of our predetermined values, and find the value of ANY binomial. Enter the old refrain we adults know well: (a+b)3 = a3 + 3(a2b) + 3(ab2)+ b3

(Mrs. Magana told me a story about how, when in 8th grade, her son and his Montessori friend told everyone at the end of their first week in an algebra class that they could “see” the algebraic formulas, much to their classmates’ wonder and befuddlement.)

We do find a similar pattern repeating through all our lessons because we (the elementary teachers) know that every year, while lessons are presented and re-presented and practiced, we are able to introduce another nuance, or another granule of complexity, or bring forth from the children another aspect of their understanding and context. Moving their experience from the concrete (e.g. this is this and that is that) to the abstraction (e.g. this is like this and this is like that and perhaps this represents that). 

It is also true that our elementary children are moving from concrete to abstract concepts (both communicating and interpreting) in their interpersonal relationships with their families, school community, and while observing the world stage. The simplicity of the ‘black or white’ model of the world which served a younger child so well will not satisfy the elementary child, or serve them in their interactions, debates, arguments, heartbreaks, wonderings, conversations, expectations & disappointments, or decisions. A wide gulf of gray may seem to suddenly appear, and it becomes the role of the adults in the childrens’ life to guide them with compassion and patience through this new world. 

One (of so, so very many) ways we work within a boundary in this abstraction may be during class meetings. I was recently reading about an approach to class meetings from the perspective of the folks who developed Positive Discipline

“Students need [lessons] before they can be effective in Positive Discipline Class Meetings. Without [lessons] they may use the “skills” they are used to: blaming, punishing others, avoiding accountability for fear of receiving punishment.”

The lessons they refer to include forming a circle, practicing compliments and appreciations, respecting differences, using respectful communication skills, focusing on solutions, role-playing, and brainstorming, using the agenda and class meeting format, and understanding and using the mistaken goals.

So yes, I thought, in working to guide the children through the gray, I will give these lessons. It wasn’t lost on me that without explicit mention and examples and conversation about the skills listed above, the children may rest on some of those other “skills” that certainly served them in a previously unambiguous world. It is in that world where tattling has power, an adult is the arbitrator, and children may develop a vested interest in casting others in the role of ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ if they continue to be valued or rewarded for being arbitrarily ‘good’ or ‘right.’ So, yes, I’ll also bring some self-awareness here and steer our work with conflict resolution in a direction away from a place where any one has to go down for another to rise. 

And then, as it always does, an opportunity presented itself. I’m sitting at a table, finishing up a lesson, and a child who I will call D walks over, to tell me about another child, who I will call T:

D: Ms. Roberts! T said a bad word! He called this a ‘dumb book!’ and then took it from me and tossed it on the ground! 

I stand up, walk over to where both children are now. They face one another and look up at me. I make a small smile, eye contact with both, and calmly watch. I decide in this initial moment to bite my tongue and listen first.

D: T, why did you call this a dumb book?

T: Well I really wanted to read it and you weren’t letting me read it!

D: Ok but that doesn’t mean you have to say a bad word about it.

T: Yeah but I really wanted to read it and it’s not fair that you wouldn’t let me.

D: Why did you have to say that though?

T: Well…I know I shouldn’t have said that. I should have just said “I wanted to read it” but that’s not what came out. Something else came out instead.

D: Why did you feel like you needed to call it that?

T: I don’t know…

The children actually get to this part (where it seems like the issue of the use of the word ‘dumb’ has been resolved) and they giggle a bit at each other. So on to the next matter. 

D: Do you know what patience means?

T: Yes, it means to wait for something. (smiles)

D: Yes. You can wait to read this book until I’m done. I’ll put it back in the library as soon as I’m done reading it. I’ll show you. 

The children walk over to the small book collection and D shows T where she will return the book when she has finished reading it. They talk for another moment there and then D walks back to where she was reading and T moves on to something else. 

Am I saying that I taught the children these exact skills? This explicit format? No. An infinite number of iterations of grace may have unfolded in this scenario.

Does it always unfold just like this? No – and that’s where I’m glad to be nearby to respectfully interject with a question, or reframing, or reflection, or reminder about a skill with which those children have been working.

But am I willing to remove the threat of blame or punishment (even if only perceived) so these children can practice these exquisite exchanges as they navigate the gray abyss of human emotion, preferences, needs, and desires? Yes, every day, in any situation (assuming here that safety is the highest priority – there are some behaviors that aren’t up for debate or discussion, but that’s not the scope of this consideration).

You won’t see it on our shelves, but this is the work that the elementary child chooses.

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