Learning to Live Together

I am so happy to share the following article which I have composed in collaboration with two incredible educators and human beings from Roong Aroon School in Thailand. I had the privilege of teaching in RA’s English Program Kindergarten (EPKG) for two years along side Fern and Gift who are both deeply attuned and inspiring early childhood educators. After reflecting on my time at RA, I felt that there were truly profound values and approaches to education that needed to be shared. Over several months of discussions, writing, and editing, this article came into being. It barely scratches the surface of the magic that happens in kindergarten, but at the very least, I hope it shines a glimmer of light on what is possible.

Learning to Live Together

Three educators from Roong Aroon School in Bangkok, Thailand decided to spend time discussing kindergarten and their experiences teaching at this Buddhist and holistic inspired school. Over a series of virtual conversations, Gift (Piyada Pichitkusalachai), Fern (Nattanich Sirodom), and Andrea Laubstein looked together at what made kindergarten at Roong Aroon School so special. In beginning this inquiry, there wasn’t a plan as to what this article should describe and instead, we shared stories and looked together at what deep values the school was bringing to its youngest students. It is from these open-ended dialogues that we explored our first-hand experiences in and beyond the classroom. These conversations laid the groundwork for the inception of this article. Our inquiries and revelations were organized into a combination of stories and reflections to shed light on holistic early childhood education. As you read this article, we invite you to hear our stories, inquire alongside us, so we may ultimately, learn together. 

We start from wise living

Please take a moment to ask yourself, why are you reading these words? Why is this reading, this opportunity for learning, important? How is this important for my life, for the lives of those around me? How do you feel before reading this article? Take some time to look at these questions deeply, to look at yourself. In this process, we allow ourselves to start from a place of wise living which naturally brings forth awareness, understanding, and meaning. We, as parents, educators, administrators, humans, learn by looking together and therefore, this article is an exploration of deep, transformative learning that emerged from such a process. 

Making Noodles 

This is the first story shared by Gift of her journey in learning to cook alongside her students. As teachers in Roong Aroon, we cook with our students on a daily basis. When she began teaching kindergarten at Roong Aroon, Gift didn’t have much cooking experience. Her class began by exploring flour and how it can be used, such as to make pancakes. Then, Gift thought together with her students about what else flour might be used for. The children suggested that they could use flour to make noodles. The first batch of noodles they made together barely resembled a noodle at all. The shape, texture, and color were all wrong. This led to an opportunity to try something different in the recipe the following week. The students suggested that they could add more eggs so they tried the recipe again with more eggs. This helped a little, but the color still wasn’t right. They had an idea to add even more eggs, but that still didn’t achieve the color they were looking for. Finally, the children decided to try and add pumpkin to make them yellow… success!  The class opened a pumpkin noodle shop at the end of the term and the children had a deep sense of pride in knowing that they could make noodles by themselves. There are even accounts from parents who shared with Gift that when the children go to the grocery store with mom and dad, they will ask their parents to buy the ingredients needed for noodles so they can do it at home on their own. 

At the start of the term, both the children and Teacher Gift didn’t know how to make noodles, but their willingness to make mistakes and learn together led to a meaningful lesson. Cooking is an important real-life skill. We start from wise living. In kindergarten, we start with the basic things of life such as sleeping, eating, cooking, taking care of our belongings, and taking care of ourselves. Just in doing these basic activities of daily life, there is so much to observe and learn. In the process of making noodles, many obstacles and mistakes emerged. It is natural that in daily life, as we face various situations, things will not go perfectly. In the classroom, when we face such situations and those obstacles occur, it is a beautiful opportunity for learning that, when embraced, creates a potential for a depth in understanding that otherwise may not occur. Teacher Gift helped to create a space where the misshapen and oddly colored noodles became an invaluable opportunity for the students to problem solve, hypothesize, and see their ideas actually become a reality. In doing so, the children took a deep ownership in their project. They were excited to share their ideas, participate, and take home what they had learned. It would have been very easy to stick to the plan without adapting to the reality of what was actually happening, and in doing so, miss the moment of real-life learning. 

In addition, in this story we can see the importance of learning together. At the beginning of this story, Teacher Gift was also new to making noodles and she shared with us her own apprehension and uncertainty to teach about cooking. She didn’t have the answer for her students as to how to adjust the recipe and make them the desired color. Instead, she took advantage of the problem and she looked for the solution together with the children, including them in the process, and was truly open to their ideas. It can be hard for us as adults to be so open and willing to make mistakes. We have high expectations of ourselves, especially as teachers. This story invites us to ask ourselves if we can allow ourselves to make mistakes, to acknowledge and take ownership of these mistakes, and even see them as beautiful opportunities to learn and grow with our students. Learning can happen in every moment, and sometimes, especially in the moments we least expect it. This means that we have to be ready and open to those unplanned moments that arise, often directly from the children, and take them up as valuable experiences to learn.

Natural Learning with Nature

Teacher Fern and Teacher Gift both have a collection of stories pertaining to the children and their direct experiences of rain. They revolve around the way the children observe and are even enchanted by the rain. Even with our weather apps, the rain is not something we can plan for. At Roong Aroon School, all the kindergarten classrooms have a thin boundary between the indoor space and the outdoor world. The rooms are thoughtfully designed with large windows that are almost always open, patio spaces, and natural lighting. When it rains, it is easy to see, hear, and even feel the cool water falling from the sky. When it rains, it is inevitably a topic of conversation among the children as they run towards the windows to see it. As teachers, we want to encourage the children to learn from this real-life, unplanned, natural occurrence. Here are two stories of learning from the rain:

Raindrops on Puddles

Teacher Gift shared a story of watching the rain with one student while they sat together during lunch. This boy wasn’t much interested in eating, he was mesmerized by a small puddle on the ground outside that he could see from his chair. He asked T. Gift, why the water splashes up when the water drops down on the puddle. He was eager to understand the physics of this phenomenon, why the water responded in the way that it did. Teacher Gift didn’t answer his question directly, instead, she suggested that they continue to observe to try and understand together. 

The Giant Puddle

Teacher Fern shared a story about the day after a big rain when the playground had formed a huge puddle in the sand. The children played in the water, jumping, and splashing with incredible joy. By the time it was time to finish, most of the children were soaking wet. The teachers and students worked together to help each other get changed into dry clothing and even shared with their friends who didn’t have a change of clothes in their bags. Six months later, during online learning, some of those children recalled the experience and talked amongst themselves of their fond and impactful memories of that day.

            In these precious moments, the natural spontaneous circumstances that arose in the day presented incredible opportunities for deep learning. The natural world is spectacular in this way, it is constantly offering us things to observe and engage with. To simply allow our children the chance to be exposed to the natural world on a regular basis will bring out such situations. However, it is also more than just being in nature. There is an attunement of the teacher that recognizes and is willing to embrace both the child’s curiosities and the boons of nature. In the first story from Gift, we clearly see her follow her student’s interest in the rain. The lesson plan and objectives for the week may or may not have included a study of the rain, but that doesn’t mean we don’t take time to explore it when it arises naturally from our student’s observations. In the second story, Teacher Fern follows what the natural world has provided that day, a giant puddle! There was no plan to have all the children dripping wet, but when life gives you lemons… 

            Learning happens in real situations, in unexpected moments, and often, in relation to the natural world. It requires some flexibility on the part of the teacher. We often discover that when we take up these moments, rather than always redirecting ourselves back to the plan, the content and deeper learning can emerge. We can see how the children are building skills, gaining knowledge, and forming values in these precious times. We can even build upon these moments and create a deeper project or theme for the following week that helps us explore something further. As Teacher Fern shared, we allow the academic content to emerge naturally from the project the children are interested in. If we follow the students and the real-life situations in this way, the children will be more engaged and take ownership in their own learning. 

Banana Trees

Teacher Gift describes an experience of learning about banana trees and an overarching theme of giving and gratitude. There is so much that the banana tree provides from the fruit to the leaves. The children were interested in observing the trees, noticing the shade they provided, but not yet making a deeper connection to giving or gratitude. Teacher Gift noticed she was pushing the greater theme too soon and trying to pull out of her students a sense of gratitude. She realized that it was more beneficial to listen to what the children were naturally sharing about, even if it had nothing to do with the trees. Later that term, when a group of students were looking for a place to sit outside, one child suggested “under the banana tree” because it gives us shade. He then proceeded to find a large fallen banana leaf, bring it over the group, and hold it up as an insightful solution. 

Again, we see an example of learning from a real situation. The group was looking for a place to sit outside for their Thai literacy session and they used the knowledge of the natural world to help them solve the problem. The children can see directly the benefit of the banana tree and how the shade it provides can make their lives better. There is certainly patience involved as deep learning and values aren’t instilled on command. If we guide too much, or are overly focused on what we as the teacher want the children to learn, we miss out on what they are learning naturally, through their lived experiences. In this story we can also see the students’ potential for closeness and connection to nature. We want the children to be close to nature when they are young in the hope that they will take care of nature later. The lesson plan is not simply about the usefulness of the banana tree, it is there as a subject matter to help develop a deeper quality of love and appreciation for nature. Learning a subject independent of engaging with nature doesn’t necessarily develop this quality. Ideally, all the lessons that we plan for our students are just a bridge to build their identity and characteristics; a pathway for them to discover who they are, what they can do, and what they are good at.

Again, we can pause and ask ourselves, why do we need to learn about the banana trees, jump in puddles, or make pumpkin noodles. Is participation in an activity inherently valuable to our students? A common project across the entire school, including in kindergarten, is to participate in gardening or farming. When the children plant a seed, sometimes the reality is that it doesn’t grow. This could be for a variety of reasons. The child will worry about the seed and ask why it’s not growing… is it dead? The child makes a connection between themselves and the seed, just like them, the small seed is young and dependent, growing and gaining strength day by day. Teacher Andrea shared a story of one student who once asked her if he could bring his plant inside during a lesson, because as he adamantly expressed, “my plant wants to learn too.” There is a deep connection that develops between these emerging sprouts and the students. They are developing a quality of being that will support their caring for nature for the rest of their lives. 

Teacher Presence

Teacher Fern observing sunflower sprouts with students

In many ways these qualities come from the teacher. Their presence, mannerisms, responses, and behaviors are readily absorbed by the students every day. Therefore, teachers need to be deeply aware not only of their students, but of themselves. We don’t need to constantly jump in and tell them what to do thereby limiting their own creativity and potential for problem solving. By being too quick to tell children what is good and bad, we exhibit a quality of always judging and the children will jump to judge others as well. It is twofold, the teacher brings their own natural qualities and they also bring an awareness of the present moment to create opportunities for active learning. This means that as teachers we need to take time for reflection and self-awareness. 

At Roong Aroon School, the teachers are invited to reflect regularly, it allows us to see ourselves in new ways. Gift, Fern, and Andrea all shared stories of times when they “made mistakes” in the classroom. These moments helped us become more aware and accepting of the fact that we will ourselves still have faults and places where we as teachers can learn and grow. This recognition of imperfection helps us to decrease our own ego and makes space for love, learning, and acceptance of ourselves and others. This started to open our understanding of the presence of the teacher and how the teacher brings their qualities to their students. The more we know ourselves, the more we can know and support our students. The practices of reflection we do as teachers will come through in our interactions with the children. Teacher Gift shared her experience coming to teach at Roong Aroon and how she was initially quite prideful, feeling that she was always good and in the right. After spending time at a meditation retreat, she began to see herself more clearly. She started to see her own imperfections and take ownership over her own faults. If teachers can see the truth in themselves, it will transfer to the students.

Coloring the Mandala

Teacher Fern shared a story of how one student told her that while coloring the mandala, “I cannot speak to anyone.” Fern astutely asked why she cannot talk to anyone while coloring and she replied, “because it will not be beautiful.” Fern wanted to go deeper with her, while also giving her some language to understand herself. Fern supported her student by suggesting: “You focus and pay attention to what you are doing, but if you talk you will get distracted, right?” Later in the conversation when explaining about molding the clay, that child used the same word that Teacher Fern had used (in Thai) and said she also needed to be focused when molding the clay. The children need some input and then express and understand themselves better. Therefore, Teacher Fern helped her student to understand herself and what she was doing in her process of coloring and working with clay. 

“I love the Trees”

Teacher Gift shared another story of deep listening and helping her student better understand himself. During good-bye circle time one day, one student shared “I love the trees.” Teacher Gift had to think about why he said that. She remembered that earlier that day this boy had climbed the large tree on the school’s campus for the first time. She reflected with him based off of that experience and asked, “Do you love the trees because you climbed the tree for the first time today?”

            This is one of the secrets of the school, to reflect and use good questions that will lead us back to explore ourselves. These questions develop self-awareness and help us to see our own value. When we can see the value of ourselves, we can see the value of others. Similarly, when we can admit and accept our mistakes and faults, we can find space to grow. The Buddha says that the faster we are aware of our emotions, the faster we will enter mindfulness. Three questions are often used in kindergarten to support this awareness 1) How do you feel before (an activity) 2) how do you feel during, and 3) how do you feel after? Since children cannot participate in meditation in the same way as adults, this is a way to lead them to mindfulness. We can use these questions to make them more aware of their own feelings and support the development of self-awareness. It can happen individually as in the stories above, or in a group reflection that allows us to see our friends and how we can help them.

Trust and Transformation

Teachers at Roong Aroon develop themselves through reflection and bring their own self-realizations to the classroom. When you can observe and understand yourself, you will be much better equipped to observe and understand your students. There is a keen awareness of the students by teachers and a mode of observing the children to uncover who they are and what they need to learn and grow. It comes from acknowledging what is happening in the present moment and following what the students show innate interest in without needing any persuasion from the teacher. It essentially requires a basic trust in the children, a trust that they will learn and grow if we give them the chance to. How can we trust our students more?

Bottle Cap Tops

Teacher Fern reminded Andrea of a time in their classroom when one boy had discovered that the bottle caps, he found in the school’s recycling center could spin and be played with as a top. Andrea remembers her initial response was to ask this student to put the bottle cap away, she was worried it would be a distraction. However, Teacher Fern noticed that this child was deeply interested in playing with these tops; he would ask questions and think about how and why certain tops would spin better than others. Although tops were not part of the theme for that term, Fern helped develop his interest into a project in which several children enthusiastically made dozens of tops from bottle caps and chopsticks and taught others how to play.      

  When children are interested in something, they have a natural movement of learning, it is real and doesn’t come from the teacher. What we can do is support and facilitate what is already happening organically with our students. This however, requires us to leave space, to trust our children, that they can be the owners of their own learning. If we provide too much instruction and direction, children receive the message that the teacher will figure it out for me and it’s not my responsibility to learn . We want our children to feel empowered, that they are capable of learning, because the truth is, they always are.

            There is an incredible transformation in the relationship between the teacher and the student when such trust is established. It is an intangible grace to trust your students; to believe that they will have brilliant ideas about how to make noodles more yellow, or wonder why a puddle makes a splash. In return, children can feel the trust that their teachers have for them and in this deep, trusting relationship, we live, learn, and grow together. 

            It is with the utmost regard and reverence that I thank Gift and Fern for joining me in this journey of composing this article. Their profound wisdom of life and learning with young children is some of the most insightful I have come across in my life! As the three of us listened and reflected over our series of conversations, every dialogue seemed to reveal more and more about what it means to be a kindergarten teacher. The process itself was a transformational reflection and helped us to understand what it means to be a teacher. May we all continue to inquire, reflect, and learn together. I extend this article as an invitation to all readers to take up a similar process within your own school, family, or community. Why do you teach? How do you live together wisely with your children? How do you feel? Our lived experiences and stories from the classroom become an incredible platform to begin our reflection, to move towards self-transformation, not just as kindergarten teachers, but as whole human beings.