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The Bird in the Window

Posted: 2009-08-04

For Pete, wherever you are.

This excerpt is from Ask Ms. Class, available from Amazon.com at shockingly low prices.

Metaphors are important. At the risk of incurring the wrath of her husband, who says he's very very tired of hearing about the bird in the window, here it is.

Early in her career, Ms. Class was fortunate to encounter a beautiful little essay titled "The Bird in the Window," written by the philosopher/science educator David Hawkins. The metaphor has remained her guiding principle and passion for more than twenty years. Hawkins points out that there is an essential lack of predictability about what's going to happen in a good classroom, not because there's no control but precisely because there is control, of the right kind--the teacher bases her decisions on her observation of actual children in actual situations.

Such a classroom makes room for accidents, the unexpected happening that directs attention in some new way. Suddenly there it is. The bird flies in the window, and that's the miracle you needed. If the teacher is ready for and is able to make educational capital out of the interests and choices of children and out of this accidental appearance of the bird, then great things happen. If the bird coming in the window is just a nuisance, interrupting your planned lesson, then you don't deserve it, and in fact, it never happens. If you deserve it, the bird will fly in the window.

Ms. Class treasured this metaphor for years, and then one day there was a bird in her window. Well, close to the window. She noticed that Pete, the second most obnoxious student who had ever graced her classroom, was staring out the window. This wasn't unusual. Since Pete could not read and could barely write, he looked for other things to occupy his attention. Ms. Class asked Pete, "What's up?" and he pointed out that for several days he'd been watching a bird sitting in a nest with three eggs.

Pete was shocked when Ms. Class handed him a Polaroid and told him to go outside and take a picture of that bird's nest and eggs. Pete knew as well as Miss Class that a sacred rule of the school was Never let any kid out of your classroom--particularly a kid like Pete.

Ms. Class told Pete: "I'm writing you a pass that says you are outside the building on essential business. If any adult gives you a hard time, be polite, but tell him to take it up with me. Tell him I said this is an extraordinary circumstance; tell him it's an emergency. That's exactly what I'm writing: EMERGENCY PROJECT."

After all, how many times does a teacher have a robin's nest right outside her window? Ms. Class never doubted that Pete had to go take that picture. Here she was, a teacher who had tried to work under the principle of a bird in the window for twelve years. And now she had one, and she certainly wasn't going to ignore it.

Pete thought Ms. Class was nuts. He did not return to class and write a five-hundred-word essay on birds' nesting habits. He did not read a book about robins. But he seemed pleased by the pictures he took. When he thought nobody was looking, he took his out of his pocket and looked at it. And he grinned. And Ms. Class noticed that he didn't curse for six days. And she grinned.

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