Feats of Concentration
“Works of art are feats of concentration. Imagination is the instrument of concentration.” ~ Sven Birkerts, Changing the Subject
There’s so much in print these days about kids’ inability to focus for extended timeframes. The magnetic pull of the internet, promoting what Birkerts calls “disengaged engagement,” ( p. 13) seems all powerful within society today; and there’s no stopping its imprint on kids.
That said, our daily observations at Cushing CommunitySchool are just the opposite. We notice kids wrapping their minds around topics that mesmerize them, and they stick with them like glue. First thing this morning Evan brought in a book called Orangutans are Ticklish by Steve Grubman.
New information about tigers, lions, and orangutans propelled a surge of original ideas about the animals students had selected. Kids generated an extensive list of attributes, like symmetrical and collaborative, which succinctly described their beasts. Next they wrote in their journals. Notating details to add to their art, they were quick to transcribe them on paper. Kids were energized, determined, and kept their focus for 120 minutes straight.
One girl told me about how she became interested in sea snails. “One day my dad came from an island where one of his friends is. And he brought a bag of curly shell snails. I was also looking at a normal snail. I noticed that they were different colors. One had a swirly spiral shell, and one actually had blue on it.”After she described exactly how to hold them so they “won’t go back into their shells,” she reassured me, “I released them after 6 or 7 days. They could be anywhere by now.”
A boy wrote a story about how he and his partner had designed and collaborated on a fox. Using dialogue and quotation marks, he recorded every interaction as it had taken place between them. Next he wrote about how foxes hunt at night. Throughout the morning, second graders confidently conveyed what they knew or had just read in books, while connecting new bits to ideas that had already taken hold.
In a world which is increasingly committed to numbers and data, Birkerts wonders if there’s room for beauty? Cushing Community School’s second graders would say yes.
Applying new techniques Susan had taught them earlier, they made monoprints of the animals they love. Before our eyes we saw decorative butterflies, a cat with a curly-cue tail, and the majestic head of a dog that had emerged in print. Works of the mind and works of art are indeed feats of concentration. Capable of giving this study their full attention and heading courageously into new territory, second graders ended the day with the same positivity with which it had begun. They chose attributes to describe themselves. Here’s the combined list: smart, creative, compassionate, thoughtful, caring, kind, polite, patient, funny, clever (and good at many, many things.)
With two days of printing ahead of us,