What does engagement look like?

Today in the grade 1/2 class at Pelican Primary School I had an interesting exchange. The last child into the class, Ali, was in a very bad mood. He threw himself into the chair, and sat with his arms tightly crossed and his face screwed up in a dark scowl. There had clearly been trouble before coming into music. He snapped a response at his teacher and she whipped around, “Don’t talk like that to me! That is very impolite!” He scowled even more, and sank even lower into his chair. He was not happy.

Meanwhile, we started our class warm-up. After some initial work with names and rhythms I introduced them to my ‘magic chalk’, as I call it. I held an imaginary piece of chalk in my fingers, and explained that we were going to pass it around the class, and each person could draw something with it. Numbers, or letters, or a picture or shape – anything you like, I explained. It’s a lovely game for building a really quiet, intense focus in a group.

When it got to Ali he leaped out of his chair, threw the imaginary chalk on the ground and stomped on it, then looked at me, watching for my reaction. As if he hadn’t done this, the child who was passing him the chalk leaned over him, offered a new piece of chalk with his fingers, and passed it on to the next child. The game continued – but only for a moment. Ali watched the next child, but as it got passed along again, he darted out of his chair, intercepted it, and mimed throwing it across the room. “There!” he said. “It’s gone!”

I looked at him and smiled, but with my eyebrows raised. “You’re a good actor, Ali,” I said. “I like how you’re showing us everything. But you also need to stay sitting in your seat during this game. ” A look of pleasure flashed briefly across his face as he resumed his seat (and his previous facial expression) – I think he liked being acknowledged as a good actor, especially when he was having such a bad day. I think it came out of the blue for him.

What I love about this interaction is that all of Ali’s gestures were offers. He ‘accepted’ the chalk, rather than blocking it or denying it. He didn’t want to play, so he mimed actions that would put the chalk out of action. Which meant that he was playing. Or that he wanted to play, wanted to connect and participate, but didn’t know how to.

Sadly he got withdrawn from the class only a short-time later (his teacher following up whatever had happened immediately before music class, I suspect). But I hope that I’ll be able to build on this small glimmer of engagement and participation from him in my class.

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