By Graham Vogt
My daughter loves puzzles. Of all her wonderful interests at the core of her beautiful spirit, this endless pursuit of the classic jigsaw puzzle pleases her doting father to no end. Witnessing her deep immersion in the seemingly unforgiving challenge of compiling 1000 tiny pieces into an otherwise forgettable monochromatic landscape brings unparalleled peace to the dining room, her psyche and mine. I will also admit to deep pride – as in, it is hard not to brag to the other parents. Perhaps the sense of all-consuming peace is for the simple reason that she is not fighting with her brother. More strongly, peace is an outcome of the extreme detraction from all else in our world. Being a passenger in the life of a 10 year old can be a little crazy. Driving from one activity to the next, the growing pressures of school (homework!), the increasing complexities of a social life, and those big, BIG feels. The many short-attention-span-modes of entertainment consuming our kids. Of course, all of this, from a father’s perspective, is felt in the context of a complex world awaiting her at the alarmingly close edge of that rye field.
The power of the puzzle is that it clearly focuses the moment, and then many moments on end, stacked into hours at a time. Urgency is an enemy of the puzzle. A clock has the power to undo. In this way, a puzzle either requires or inspires calm, breath, A sole focus on the outcome may lead to torture throughout the journey. Yes, from the context of teaching and learning, the jigsaw puzzle is rich in analogy. The larger picture displayed on the box – like say graduating from highschool – may convey the destination, but it does not begin to describe the multitude of experiences and learning within. A puzzle requires strategy, and that strategy can be refined again and again over time, growing in sophistication. Patterns, grouping, deductive reasoning, problem solving, attention to detail. Improved memory and visual-spatial reasoning. Not to mention patience, focus, determination and sheer will.
Maybe all of this is my long way of expressing my concern for our students. I worry about them. A lot. In worrying about them, I don’t blame them (and isn’t my job to worry about them?). As we all know, they have been through a lot. Too much. The level of external messaging our students receive is astounding. It is also powerful, relentless and loud. Too loud? Well, on bad days I certainly feel it’s too loud to overcome. Giving into the noise, however, is probably the same as giving up. Our job as educators is to draw our students away and in. Immerse them in the excitement of the puzzle, without being overwhelmed by its mass. Sometimes that seemingly perfect piece just won’t fit. Hang onto it though, as it’s sure to fit somewhere else. And, no, I cannot do this for you. The objective is not to finish, it is to learn. Stay in the moment, young Skywalker.
In my daughter’s life, the clear juxtaposition to her passion for puzzling is her weekly spelling test. Much to her frustration, she has received the Vogt-spelling-chromosome. Like my father, brother and myself, and generations preceding, she is challenged to spell according to convention (I actually love the pure and logical though often creative phonetics she employs). The tension starts on Monday when the new list comes home, builds throughout the week, and crescendos over breakfast on Friday with a last round or two of review: nervousness and stress sometimes manifesting as full-on-meltdowns. It is actually madness. It is of course the perceived judgment that distances her from the process. She arrives home on Friday with a number at the top of her page, and that number profoundly affects her perception of self. To her it is a measurement and communication of her intelligence. In her assessment of self, she reflects more strongly upon her spelling test results than say her love of puzzles, books or incredible art creations. It is a relentless amount of work for us as parents to distance her from the outcome, and I’m not always sure how successful we are in refocusing her outlook. Can we talk about how hard you worked to learn the spelling of these words? Can we talk about your ability to overcome frustration and self doubt? The clear strategies you’re using, and how those strategies can be applied in other and all areas of learning? Can we talk about what it FEELS like to finally spell “ultimate“ properly?
It is the advantage of an educator and a parent to be continually provided with the deeper perspective of our kids. We should all be in awe of their spirits. It allows us to be in awe of the human spirit at large. My kids effectively ground me in what is actually important, and so I continually find myself immersed in a humbling level of reflection. What is the actual experience of the students at our school? To what extent are they overwhelmed by the larger picture, the multitude of puzzle pieces? To what extent do they leave each day feeling judged as opposed to supported? Do they leave with a sense of shame, feeling inadequate, perhaps because the puzzle is not yet perfectly assembled? Even more humbling… to what extent, however unintentionally, is MY approach perpetuating this impression of school, learning and education, perhaps even manifesting as stress and anxiety?
How might we ensure immersion in the excitement of the puzzle?
So what is it that keeps my daughter so immersed in the puzzle? The escape from the regular flow? The calm she feels, the quiet she experiences? The excitement of building and honing a skill, a set of skills? Maybe it is the excitement realized in each of the 999 small victories that lead to the penultimate prize. Whatever the reason, it is clearly ensured by the distance she somehow maintains from the outcome. Her pure objective – her continuous draw to the puzzle – is something other than just getting it done.