The Toads: Refocusing the Lens (Voices)
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Reflections on Amanda Messer’s “The Toads: Refocusing the Lens" | Andrew Stremmel and Ben Mardell
Amanda Jo Messer begins her article by explaining that, as a preschool teacher, she “learned to hear and respect the voices of children and to hear and respect” her own voice as well. The article is indeed a testimonial to respecting the capabilities of young children and the value of giving voice to teachers. In this introduction to her lovely piece, we want to highlight narrative as reflective inquiry and the power of this story in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Toads” as reflective inquiry
As Messer’s narrative suggests, it may well be that the best form of teacher professional development is reflection on one’s own classroom experiences. Reflection is an essential part of the inquiry-oriented paradigm of teacher education, which holds that teachers should develop habits of inquiry: for example, the ability to think intentionally and introspectively and to be self-monitoring, adaptive, and active decision-makers. Reflection is a powerful tool for making sense of one’s actions. Dewey (1904) reminds us that it may be more important to develop an orientation toward children based on our reflections on the meaning and significance of experiences than it is children to acquire behavioral competencies.
While reflection or teaching reflectively are critical elements of teacher research (the focus of Voices of Practitioners for many years), it is a disciplined method of framing a question based on observations and assumptions, gathering and analyzing data, and making interpretations that may lead to further examination or improvement in one’s practice. However, like teacher research, narrative reflection (as is presented in this article) is purposeful, intentional, and distinct from ordinary thought. Messer’s story of the toads is about an experience she had more than a decade ago. It is an example of slowing down, paying attention, appreciating, and carefully considering an action or a response.
This story is a wonderful example of reflection in the midst of experience, which often happens in encountering unexpected or surprising situations—in this case, children’s ideas concerning the death and resurrection of toads. Reflection enabled Messer to respond more thoughtfully in the moment; to increase self-awareness as a teacher; to respect children’s points of view; and to encourage meaningful conversations about children’s ideas, feelings, past experiences, backgrounds, and ways of understanding complex situations. All of these are qualities we need in our changed world.
“The Toads” and COVID-19
Writing this introduction in April 2020, we are well aware that early childhood educators may face a very different landscape when this article is published. Despite this uncertainty, we are sure that COVID-19 will continue to loom large. When we are able to be together again with groups of children, they will want to talk about what matters to them, their worries, their losses, and their confusions. Teachers will be confronted with pedagogical moments in which they must act in the moment and through reflection to make sense of and learn from the experience later.
As Messer describes, there is not only one way to handle these situations. And if we, like Messer, handle them with the belief that young children are capable of and have the right to engage in serious conversations, we will promote meaningful, important learning. As Nehyi Quintero from aeioTU (a network of early childhood centers in Colombia) has observed, “Children are resilient and . . . they build that resilience from seeing examples” (Lopez, Quintero, & Guzman 2020, n.p.). Messer provides an example of honesty, caring, and respect that all children deserve.
In our living and dealings with children in normal times, nothing is ever completely foreseeable, predictable, plannable, or manageable. This is even more likely to be true in extraordinary times like these. What is this current experience like for children? How can we provide them comfort, understanding, and sensitivity? How might our reflections on what is occurring change how we are as early childhood professionals?
Andreas Roepstorff from Aarhus University has observed to us (in personal communication) that the pandemic has made, for better or worse, “people more of who they are.” We hope that this is true for the early childhood field in a positive way—that we become even more inclusive, caring, and respectful of the voices of young children and their teachers. We invite you to use “The Toads: Refocusing the Lens” as a provocation for reflection on who we want to become in our transformed world.
Dewey, J. 1904. "The Relation of Theory to Practice in the Education of Teachers." In Third Yearbook of the National Society for the Scientific Study of Education, ed. C.A. McMurry, 9–30. Bloomington, IN: Public School Publishing Co.
Lopez, M., N. Quintero, & L. Guzman. 2020. “An Early Childhood Organization’s Courageous Response to COVID-19.” Blog. https://www.popatplay.org/post/playful-home-learning-series-4.
The experience described in this article happened over a decade ago, but it is one that I still carry in my heart today. I call on this experience as I am working from home: a virus has changed the fabric of our day-to-day work with children, and everything is uncertain. More than ever, I am calling on the strength of this experience as I anticipate future interactions with children—interactions that will need the same thoughtful balance between pedagogical reflection and responsiveness.
I will always consider myself to be first and foremost a teacher—specifically, a preschool teacher. It is in a preschool classroom where I feel I will always learn the most, teach the most, and be the most alive. I was given the great gift of spending my preschool teaching years at the Child Development Academy at Marshall University, in West Virginia. It was there that I learned to hear and respect the voices of children and to hear and respect my own voice as well.
In 2006, our preschool classroom (a mixed-age classroom of 20 children between the ages of 2 1/2 and 6) had two toads as pets. I had been with most of the children for about two years, so we were a tightly knit classroom family. One day, I came to school and discovered that our toads were dead. I was upset. I was tempted to avoid having a difficult conversation with the children and dispose of the toads by myself, but I have long believed in a child’s right to explore life and death cycles and to have conversations about hard things.
The deaths of our classroom toads was one of those unplanned moments with the potential for the kind of learning that stays with children long after school is over, and I eventually discovered that the children had much to teach me. I brought the toads to our group meeting for a class discussion. I told the preschoolers that our toads were dead. We talked about what it means to be alive and what it means to be dead and how we knew that the toads were dead. I had anticipated a discussion that would lead to a toad burial and funeral.
I had buried classroom pets with children on many sad occasions, and our classroom and school community had even developed rituals to accompany such losses. We had a place under the old willow tree that stood outside of our playground fence for burials and traditionally said goodbye by singing “Red River Valley” together. It was not uncommon for classrooms to come together to say goodbye and to sometimes even bring in food for a post-funeral reception. At the time, literature and information about helping children deal with death and spiritual matters was limited, but I did have this firsthand experience.
During our group meeting to discuss the toads, I heard some of the language I had been expecting from the children. This language included: “If we put more water in, I think they will come back to life. Toads only need water,” “If we put water in the tank, then they are never going to be dead ever again,” and “They’re dying right now so they are going to heaven and they are going to get back to life.” In reflecting on this language, I see it as both hopeful and curious: it explores what happened and whether what happened is permanent or possible to fix. It is a typical human response to ponder death, so why shouldn’t children have their own ideas about what happens after death?
A pedagogical moment: A child’s faith in action
At one point in our large group discussion about the toads, Ben (4 years old) said, “We just need to lay hands on them [the toads] and pray for them, and they will come back to life.” This was when I realized I was in for a deeper experience than I had anticipated when I came to large group with a box of dead toads. At this point in our time together, the children had learned that sometimes I needed time to think things through before providing them with an answer or decision. But in the pedagogical moment, one must act. The children grasped the seriousness of Ben’s idea, and I finally said, “I don’t know about that really. I am willing to let you try. You can put your hands on the box where the toads are. I don’t want you to touch the toads’ bodies. That can make you sick.” Ben stepped forward. He put his hands on the box and prayed. Nothing happened. He waited. He looked around. He said, “I need some help.” Slowly at first, and then more quickly, children started to join Ben. They put their hands on Ben and on each other while Ben’s hands were on the box in my lap.
As I watched, the children all prayed for the two dead toads. I was in awe of their reverence, faith, and fervent prayers. After they had finished praying, they waited, but nothing happened. They all sat back down. They looked at each other. They looked at me. I said, “What would you like to do now?” Ben said, “I heard sometimes these things take three days.” I replied, “Yes, I’ve heard that too.” We all sat in silence for another moment. My silence was due to the fact that I had no idea how to proceed in the moment. The children were waiting for me.
A pedagogical moment like this one requires practical knowledge and reflective action. There is not much time to sit back and deliberate on what to do. I said, “I am not willing to leave these toads in our classroom for three days. Dead bodies can make us sick. They will certainly start to stink. It is not safe to leave them in our classroom for three days, but I am willing to put them in the freezer. How would you feel about keeping them in the freezer for three days? At the end of three days, we can take them out and see what has happened.”
The children decided that this was a good idea. We put the toads in the freezer in the staff break room. I did speak with and get permission from my wonderful director, as well as notified all the staff so that no one inadvertently opened the box of dead toads. I realized that I had three days to prepare the children for the reality that the toads would stay dead. I thought, What just happened here? How are the children experiencing this? Did I do or say the right thing? The value of reflecting on our actions is that it allows us to focus on how we react to various situations, why we react as we do, and whether our reaction was the appropriate or most responsive way to react given the context and people involved.
Somewhere deep inside, I was also preparing myself for the possibility of two resurrected toads. The faith the children displayed was enormous. I recalled a verse from the Bible, Matthew 18:3, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” I considered how we as teachers recognize children as capable, thoughtful, and powerful and invite them to express these qualities in their words and actions. Children should be engaged and should have voice in the serious matters of community and culture, and this can include matters of religion and spirituality approached in inclusive ways (Nimmo, Abo-Zena, & Leekeenan 2019)
Recommended Books for Children about Death
Over my years in the classroom, I have sought out books about death to share with children. Here are a few books that I recommend:
- The Goodbye Book, by Todd Parr (2015)
- I Miss You: A First Look at Death, by Pat Thomas, illus. by Leslie Harker (2012)
- Tear Soup, by Pat Scwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen, illus. by Taylor Bills (2005)
- Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs, by Tomie dePaola (2000)
- When a Pet Dies, by Fred Rogers (1998)
Pedagogy and thoughtful action: A delicate balance
I was in a very delicate situation, balancing reality and a child’s identity related to his faith and religion. As a class, we began to make preparations for either the toads coming back to life or the toads remaining dead. We read the book, Tough Boris, by Mem Fox. In this story, a pirate’s parrot dies and all the pirates on the ship send the parrot to a watery ocean grave. (For more book ideas, see “Recommended Books for Children about Death,” on this page.) The children decided that, if the toads stayed dead, they should have this type of goodbye. Our school is fairly close to a river and, with my teaching team, I began to try to figure out how to safely put the dead toads into the river. There were obstacles, but most notably, walking a group of 20 preschool children to a river can feel risky to many adults. While we considered the best way to safely get to the river, the children started to build a raft for the toads so they could float out on the water for their final goodbye.
After three days, we removed the toads from the freezer. They were still dead (which was not a surprise to me). The children and I made final arrangements for the watery funeral. Looking back, the most surprising thing for me is that the children were not upset. They were not shaken by the fact that the toads were still dead—they were not nearly as disappointed as I had anticipated they would be. They instead focused on the funeral preparations: they brought in flowers, planned the music, walked to the river (using our walking rope and following our established procedures for long walks to stay together and safe), tossed the toads in the water, and said goodbye. We planned for a reception at Max and Erma’s (a local restaurant chain). We had a lovely celebration of the toads’ lives. We sang songs and said words of remembrance. I will never forget it. In reflecting on the funeral and reception, I recognized that I don’t understand death, but being able to explore it with young and faithful children was as much good for me as it was for them.
After the funeral and reception, the children wrote and illustrated a book titled, Life Ends. It includes the children’s words, photographs, and artwork about the toads. When the book was complete, each child took it home, in turn, to share with their family. Some families even added notes to the book before it was sent to the next family. The book also includes a picture of a group of children holding flowers and standing over the toads. The children in this photo have very somber faces. Our teacher’s assistant, Mr. Justin, is also in this picture. His head is over the children’s heads, and his face is in such contrast to their somber looks. His face is a bright, brilliant smile. In different moments during this experience, I heard the children say (as I am sure they have heard me say), “People deal with death and grief differently.” When I asked Mr. Justin about this photograph, he said, “I was at work, and I walked with a group of my friends to the river to throw in dead, frozen toads. It was a good day.”
Pedagogical thoughtfulness: From reflection on action
John Dewey (1933) observed that we do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience. Furthermore, Carlina Rinaldi (2006) suggests that we must constantly examine and reflect on our understanding of children and possess an attitude of researcher or inquirer, a disposition of curiosity, and the desire to understand. The effective and responsive teacher searches for sense and meaning that is shared by the child.
I recognized that I don’t understand death, but being able to explore it with young and faithful children was as much good for me as it was for them.
By thoughtfully reflecting on their experiences with children, teachers not only think about the meaning and significance of these experiences; they also decide how they want to be as a teacher moving forward. That is, how one is as a teacher will not be clear until they have further opportunity to act in thoughtful ways, and further action will be situation-specific (context sensitive) and oriented to the particular children we are teaching and caring for. Teaching and being a teacher is a process that is dependent on a cycle of learning. We are always teaching and learning from children simultaneously. In the following sections, I provide a window into my own reflections about the pedagogical moments related to our preschool class’s experience with the toads, and I supply a framework that may be useful for other teachers when tackling difficult and complex topics with children.
Reflections on my reactions when the toads died
By reflecting on my experiences with the children and the deaths of our toads, I saw that, until that moment, I had not fully grasped that children are prepared for this kind of learning. I saw that they are curious about death, the hardest of all things. They are interested in relationships with each other, with their teachers, and with nature. They worked on those relationships by supporting each other as they stood, one by one, to lay hands on one another and pray. They worked on their relationship with me as they patiently waited for my responses to their questions and ideas. They constructed so much learning about life and death. They built meanings about faith, including beliefs, words, and actions. Because of my experiences with the children and the toads, and because of my reflection on those experiences, my image of the child focused and grew.
To react in complex moments like this one in thoughtful, pedagogical ways, it is important to be mindful, to really listen to children, and to make sure we are acting on a strong image of who the child is. It means that, within a teacher’s plan and intentionality, we have to be willing to explore and experience moments fully with children, without always telling them what has to happen. Sometimes, this may mean holding back on filling pauses or moments of silence in conversations with children; instead, teachers should wait patiently, despite feeling uncertain or uncomfortable, and create moments long enough for children to share their thoughts.
Teachers who listen to and are sensitive to children tend to also be sensitive to those children’s backgrounds, experiences, ways of understanding, and particular qualities and characteristics. Indeed, this experience depended on my long-term relationships with these children and families. I had created solid relationships with them: the families trusted me with these explorations, and I trusted the families and the children. Looking back, I can see that without these strong, ongoing relationships, this kind of experience could not have happened.
Reflecting on experiences that we as teachers share with children and on the significance of the values embedded within them may help us heighten pedagogical thoughtfulness and increase the likelihood of demonstrating appropriate understanding in everyday living with children. Journaling can be a helpful way to encourage self-reflection and reflection within a teaching team. I always kept a journal, and I offered each support staff that worked in my classroom a journal too. I also made sure that we had a few minutes at the beginning or end of the day to reflect and write.
Reflections on the enduring lessons of the toads
In February of 2019 (13 years after this experience with the toads), I decided to share the story of the toads with our building at the Child Development Academy for the sake of professional development. I had realized that many aspects of our school community were still tied to this story:
- We still have toads in our building, and some of them have come from the legacy of those first two toads (some of our toads hatched from their eggs).
- One child who is featured in our book about the toads has a younger brother who is now in our preschool classroom. The mother of another child who is featured in the book is a professional in our building.
- One of our preschool teachers was a teacher candidate in my classroom when this story was unfolding, so living those moments and reflecting on them has influenced who she is as a teacher.
- At the Child Development Academy, there are still classrooms of children who frequently walk to the river, especially during the summer months.
What I would like to offer is a story of hope and resilience. The loss of the toads did not shake the children’s faith; it bound us all together with a shared experience.
In particular, by reflecting on and sharing this story of life and death, others may see that children are capable of dealing with sensitive topics. It is imperative that our strong image of the child is consistent with a strong image of the teacher and that those of us who are educational leaders play whatever role we can in support of teachers. As a new director at the Berea College Child Development Lab, my role is changing, and I strive to support teachers in their living and dealings with children—in particular, in developing the understanding that nothing is ever completely foreseeable, predictable, or plannable with children, as my story illustrates. It is only afterward that we are able to think reflectively about the significance of any situation.
Voices of Practitioners: Teacher Research in Early Childhood Education is NAEYC’s online journal devoted to teacher research. Visit NAEYC.org/resources/pubs/vop to
- Peruse an archive of Voices articles
- Read the Fall 2019 and the upcoming Fall 2020 Voices compilations
Dewey, J. 1933. “How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process." Chicago: Henry Regnery.
Nimmo, J, M.M. Abo-Zena, & D. Leekeenan. 2019. "Finding a Place for the Religious and Spiritual Lives of Young Children and Their Families: An Anti-Bias Approach." Young Children 74 (5): 37–45
Rinaldi, C. 2006. In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia: Listening, Researching and Learning. New York: Routledge.
Photographs: Courtesy of author
Copyright © 2020 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at NAEYC.org/resources/permissions.
Amanda Jo Messer, MA, is the director of Berea College Child Development Lab. She has taught in infant, toddler, and preschool classrooms and considers herself a lifelong teacher and learner with children. firstname.lastname@example.org