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Creativity and adaptability, as I was reminded over lunch yesterday, are often keys to effective classroom experiences for learners of all ages. Sitting with Dona Malan, who is a retired kindergarten teacher and a long-time volunteer leading tours of the Main Library for the San Francisco Public Library system, I was enchanted by her recollections of how she managed to make world events understandable and sticky to her very young audience.
Waking up one morning in Fall 1989 to news of the fall of the Berlin Wall, she didn’t need much time to shape that world-changing event into something a group of five-year-olds in Mishawaka, Indiana, could grasp at a visceral level. When her students walked into the classroom that day, they were greeted by a waist-high wall made from every building block Dona could find in the room. Half of the students were directed, through a breach in the wall, to the side of the room where all the toys had been collected; the other half of the group was forced to sit on the side of the room where no toys remained. No one was allowed to cross from one side to the other without Dona’s permission, and no one was allowed to pass toys over to those who had none.
“I was Checkpoint Charlie,” she recalled with obvious glee, and those who tried unsuccessfully to move through the learning-sized barrier in the classroom that day quickly learned, through their own frustration, the lesson she was trying to convey by constructing the wall and discussing it with them.
It didn’t take long for the principal of the school, who routinely walked by Dona’s classroom, to discover what she was doing. He quickly left the room, made a phone call, and, when Dona reconstructed the wall for her afternoon students, had provided two additional visitors: a reporter and a photographer from the local newspaper.
What strikes me about this generation-old story is that Dona, as an educator, was successful as much because of her creativity as for the support she had. That level of support for any teacher-trainer is critically important.
I don’t expect to be building or pulling down any replicas of the Berlin Wall when I’m next conducting a staff training session—that’s already been done; time to move on—but I do expect to continue following and sharing the examples Dona and so many others set by caring enough to make classrooms exciting places to be. And although Dona retired in 1995, it remains clear to me that she’s still teaching anyone smart enough to listen to her.

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