Alive with Curiosity
By Parul Roy, Head Teacher
“Genuine questions…mark the turning point when the act of teaching may become, simultaneously, an act of research.”
—Steve Seidel, “The Question Cannot Be Satisfied with Waiting,” from Making Learning Visible.
“Trees are not alive.” A short comment from a single child sparked a wealth of imaginative speculation during snack time one day in the midst of last fall’s Tree Project. (See facing page.) Teacher Rinna Sanchez-Baluyut was reading the group a book called A Tree Is Nice by Janice May Udry when 4-year-old Brandt made his assertion.
Sanchez-Baluyut stopped and asked, “Why do you think trees are not alive?” The ensuing dialogue was full of inquiry and reflection.
BRANDT: Because they’re stuck on the ground.
MILES: Yeah, they don’t move.
GEORGIA: Yes, they do … they sprout.
VERA GRACE: No, they’re not alive.
MAGGIE: They’re alive because the leaves are falling off them.
Sanchez-Baluyut then asked, “What do you think is alive? Are people alive?”
BRANDT: Yes, because we move and we have eyes and legs.
MILES: Yes, people are alive. They have feet to walk.
“Are cars alive?” asked Sanchez-Baluyut. “They move.”
BRANDT: Mmmm…no, because they don’t walk—they drive.
The teacher tossed out another challenge: “Are tables alive? Tables have legs.”
BRANDT: No, because they don’t have feet to walk on the bottom.
Next she said, “Are dogs alive?”
MILES: Yes, because they have feet to walk on the grass.
And then she asked, “Is the grass alive?”
MILES: No, because they’re stuck on the ground.
BRANDT: Sharks are alive. Whales are alive. They can go out of the water and get air. Letters aren’t alive, because they don’t have fins.
MILES: Or eyes, and ears and nose.
• • •
Later, additional children shared their theories.
MEI-MEI: Trees are alive because they grow.
JASMINE: No, trees are not alive because they’re trees and trees are never alive.
BRIANA: They’re not alive because they don’t have a mouth. They don’t talk … maybe they died.
JUSTIN P.: No, they’re not alive because they can’t move.
MICHAEL S.: Yes, they are alive because they’re real.
NICHOLAS G.: Yes, they’re alive because they have roots. The roots help it hold.
DANIEL: I think that trees are alive because they grow and they grow things. It’s alive because only things that live are born.
The episode was an exciting revelation of children’s ability to formulate ideas, articulate their points of view and consider the theories of their classmates. The children used words to paint pictures that captured the essence of their thinking. This verbal imagery illuminated the familiar experiences from which they constructed their theories.
The conversations were rich in child-to-child communication, yet the teacher was hardly passive. From the start, Sanchez-Balayut recognized the potential of an “ordinary” moment and provided room for dialogue, appreciating the complexity of the children’s thinking. She ventured guesses about their questions and prompted further exploration. She helped them zero in on key ideas by raising questions that shifted the focus back to earlier points.
“If a child asks a why question and you [merely] turn it back to the child, you have a good chance of reducing the number of why questions that child will ask in the future,” writes early childhood educator Alise Shafer in Teaching and Learning: Collaborative Exploration of the Reggio Emilia Approach (Fu, Victoria, Stremmel, Andrew, and Hill, Lynn. Prentice Hall, 2002). “After all, he did ask a question and wants some level of help. A child might enter a wondering phase with you, but he does not want to do it all by himself.”
The tree dialogue exemplified fruitful collaboration between a teacher and her students. By posing well-chosen questions, subtly steering the dialogue and later researching the topic with her class, Sanchez-Baluyut spurred the children to reflect on their assumptions and respond to each other’s theories, stretching their thinking and expanding their knowledge.