When I was a child, I was in a program called “Ideas in Motion,” directed by Jearnine Wagner. She became, not only my mentor, but also an inspiration to countless children and adults. I learned some beneficial lessons from Ms. Wagner about being a teacher/mentor. Here are a few:
How do you describe the unique potential of a child? How do you do it in a way that focuses on strengths instead of lacks? This is now called a “growth mindset,” which goes beyond the labels of “learning styles.” The first challenge as a teacher is to find qualities in a child that can be given opportunities to flourish positively. The second challenge is to find media, experts and other resources that will nourish the child’s imagination—the way water nourishes a flower.
Children—and indeed most of us—need real successes when we start to learn new things. We need to believe that we can solve problems, express ideas and innovate. Ms. Wagner was excellent in “showcasing” children’s work so that it could be seen in the best light. This might entail actual framing of a drawing, piece of writing or other piece of art. This might mean creating group forms that allowed each child to shine as part of a larger idea. For example, each child might do a self-portrait on a square and Ms. Wagner would assemble all the portraits into a colorful quilt with beautiful borders. When we operated the Children’s Garden in San Antonio at HemisFair’68, hundreds of children, each student would create a piece of art either using hot colors or cool colors. These were separated and use to decorate the facade of the actual building.
We used to say that Ms. Wagner had “collosal-itis” because she would help children see their work large-sized. She would have me or another assistant translate a tiny piece of art or writing into a giant-sized version. If she were around today, we would simply project a child’s idea large-sized on a wall. Sometimes the children were given giant materials to use in the first place. For example, we might hang sheets on an exterior wall of our workshop and give children fat paintbrushes mounted to long stick to use to express sensory experiences or emotions.
Nowadays, we might call her approach “cooperative learning,” because diverse children—different ages, races, backgrounds—were mixed and matched as partners and in small groups to think and create together. Everyone was expected to learn how to work with everyone. If we didn’t get along, we were expected to find a way to interact positively. The last major production we presented at the Baylor Theatre had about 55 children, ages 6 to 18, playing about 77 different roles!
What we called “doing a study” is now considered deep learning. Children would take a starting point—a subject, a theme, an object, an idea—and explore it from many different viewpoints. They would try to express what they learned in a variety of different media. In the end, they would learn deeply about the object of the study, but they would also learn about themselves and their own learning as their products revealed clues as to each child’s own best way of thinking.
Almost everything we did in the program was so much fun, we did not realize how many problems we were asked to solve, how many innovations we were asked to imagine, and how many obstacles we were asked to overcome. Children and their teachers gained great self-confidence and poise as they exercised their best ways of thinking. We learned to see challenges as exciting or intriguing, instead of scary and went toward them with enthusiasm.
Ms. Wagner died in 1997—much too young—but she left behind a legacy of enthusiastic, resourceful, persistent and creative thinkers and learners.