Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Vale Maurice Sendak

I had all intentions of writing a post about boys. How we can engage them more effectively in learning opportunities and change our approaches to better meet their unique needs and interests. However, an event occurred last night Australian time that changed my mind.

I went to work with the knowledge that acclaimed author and illustrator of numerous children's books, Maurice Sendak, had died.

I'll admit that for much of my life I was only aware of one of his creations. "Where the Wild Things Are" is still one of my all time favourite children's books. I wasn't a fan of the movie version though, but this is not the time or place to get into a debate about that. I have since discovered that he was responsible for writing, illustrating, and in many cases both, dozens of stories. I was quite surprised to learn that he created the "Little Bear" series, which I was only aware of via the animated television series from the '90s.

The main reason I am writing about this is that it sparked a series of quite spontaneous experiences and discussions with the young children in my care. As I drove to work I developed a rough idea in my head that I wanted to broach the subject of Maurice Sendak's death with the children, but in a way that didn't overly worry the children.


First of all I sat with the children, showed them my copy of Where the Wild Things Are and told them that the man who wrote the story had died. One question came immediately back to me, "Why did he die?" I told them he was old and had been sick. I then went on to explain that while this news might make us sad we should remember all the good things he did. I informed them how he had written and/or illustrated lots and lots of books that have made many people very happy.

I also said to them that dying is part of life and that everyone dies sometimes. We even have some of us here who have had pets who have dies. In response to that I get over half the children sharing how their dog, cat, fish, bird and cow had died. What followed was lots of sharing of stories about what these children remembered of their beloved pets.

We read the story with the children acting as the Wild Things. I then said I would place the book on the drawing table if anyone wanted to look at it so they could draw a picture to remember Mr Sendak with. Many of the children were quite keen to do this, but one youngster came up to me and said, "I don't want to draw a picture from the book. I want to draw a picture for my Jersey" This had been this boy's pet dog who had passed away earlier in the year.

That got me thinking. I went round to all the children individually and said to them if they wanted to draw a picture for their pet, whether they had died or not, I think they would love it. You know, I've never seen the drawing table so busy. We had to set up 2 other tables and borrow some crayons and pencils from other rooms.

When I wrote the daily diary I came to the section titled, "What's next?" What would I follow up this experience with? I thought for a few seconds before the idea struck me like a lump of 2x4. I would ask families if their child had any pets that had died and if so then if they had a photo of said pet. My idea being that we could make an area a pet wall of remembrance. A place that could spark discussion and evoke wonderful memories of joyous times spent with said pet.

This was well received by every single parent and carer I spoke with.  I must admit I was expecting some hesitation, but I underestimated my families. Just like I believe in the capabilities of the children to cope with this sort of subject matter when addressed with care, compassion and respect, I must remember to do the same with their families. Respect  their point of view of it differs from mine, but have the confidence in them that they value what I am teaching their children and also respect their capabilities.

A few parents had even already had talks with their children about death, because of the pets or in some cases actual family members. These children will cope with death in their own way, just as we all do, but telling them the truth about such matters and being honest and up front about stories of death and illness will empower them to be better equipped to handle such events when and if they occur.

I understand not everyone will agree with this approach and that's ok, but I truly believe that we are better teachers when we are honest with the children, honest with their families, and most importantly of all, honest with ourselves.

15 comments:

  1. Beautiful post, Greg, about a very difficult issue. I think you've handled it beautifully and that you are right - we need to be honest and open about death with children. The remembrance wall is a lovely idea.

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    1. Thanks Alec, I'm not aware of anyone doing a remembrance wall before. I'm sure there has been and would love to hear about it. Honesty is important in all our dealings with children. They deserve no less.

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  2. Telling the truth is an invaluable piece of authentic parenting. It is fundamentally needed in order for a child to internalize and model it as a dominant behavior.
    Children who are permitted to have their own experience (of death, as well as other predictable, inevitable parts of life) develop skills and confidence, along with care, compassion, and respect. this is where the opposite of the learned "bullying" behavior originates, and we would do well to educate, and allow for expression of these human emotions.
    Thank you for your contribution.

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    1. I didn't even think of the anti bullying aspect of this. I must be really lucky because All of my parents have been very positive and supportive about this. Many even shared that they have broached the subject with their children already due to circumstances.
      Thanks for your support and acknowledgement.

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  3. Just lovely, Greg! It's such a tricky subject to broach and you handled the whole thing beautifully. Having a remembrance wall is a great idea, and one that will be so very meaningful to the children. :)

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  4. Greg, this is my all-time favourite post of yours. Well said in the post, well managed with the children and parents. I wish every carer was as willing to deal with the hard stuff. Our kids need carers like you.

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    1. That's so kind of you to say Annie & I kind of agree with you. Although I resist calling any post my favourite, I am definitely proudest of this post and it's content.

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  5. I love this honest and caring post! Young children accept death as part of life and it is only later that the reaction changes. I have had adults contact me and seek advice on how to support their young child with the death of a favourite fish or even dog but are then surprised how matter of fact the child is. We can argue that they do not yet realise the finality of death. One of the little children in my Kindergarten died unexpectedly and we were heartbroken. His 4 year old sibling told us that his parents were sad, I agreed that I was sad too and then another 4 year old told us that his snail had died and he was sad too. The sibling needed to re-enact and talk about his brother and also made him things and still does. It was important to be truthful and allow everybody to share their feelings in a way that was appropriate to them. Thank you!

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    1. Thanks so much Niki. For the support and for sharing your story. It was so raw to hear how much that boy still holds onto the memory of his sibling and in a positive way. It also speaks volumes about children that a snail's life can mean as much as a human's. It's all relative..

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  6. Bravo! What an inspired teaching moment, how lucky your students are to have you! I think Mr. Sendak would be quite touched as he was an animal lover himself and included his beloved dog, Jennie in many of his books. He wrote one in particular about her titled Higglety Pigglety Pop!

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    1. Thank you so much Vannessa. I was unaware of the fact about his dog until today when I watched a special from 2 years ago about him & then I find you've mentioned it here. It means so much to me that you think he would approve.

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  7. Honesty and answering questions in a simple, understandable way is SO important. I think Mr. Sendak would be proud of the students sharing their pet pictures. My guess is he too found inspiration to create from his experiences.

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    1. That's the important part JoAnn, being honest and talking about it in a way that helps them understand and relevant to them. I think the fact that they related it to their pets who had died proves that they are capable of understanding and dealing with even the heaviest of topics.
      Thanks :)

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  8. Just started following your blog. I love it! Look forward to reading all your posts!

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