PERSONAL LEGEND PROJECT
Malkah Bird, Cooperative kindergarten teacher
Entering this project, I knew that Malkah would have to be a part of it. Malkah Bird teaches in a Cooperative Kindergarten in Indianapolis. Her progressive approach to education earns her much respect and adoration around the city. She subscribes to an emergent curriculum philosophy and it produces some pretty amazing results. It seems like everyone I meet who is involved in elementary education in Indy knows her.
One especially exciting aspect of Malkah’s cooperative kindergarten class is the outdoor classroom. Once a week, Malkah and her students head into the woods for forest kindergarten; a half day spent outdoors rain, snow, or shine. Even in the winter, kids are excited to go outside, bundling up and having hot chocolate or warm bread they just baked to help stave off the cold.
The day I followed Malkah, I did my best to keep up with the kids as they scampered through the woods in search of clues on a scavenger hunt. It was fun and more challenging than I expected! Click here to learn more about Meridian Hills Coop. (Full disclosure: our kids attend MH. It’s an AMAZING SCHOOL.)
The following set of six questions will be answered by each of the subjects.
1) Some people call it a “true calling” or their “life’s work.” In the book The Alchemist, author Paulo Coelho calls it your Personal Legend. What do you consider to be your true calling, or Personal Legend?
I have been a teacher for almost 13 years. I love so many things about teaching, but have recently realized that the aspect that brings me the most joy is having the opportunity to make connections and build relationships with young children and their families. I am incredibly fortunate to get to teach at a school that values child-directed play, wonder, curiosity, creativity, and the natural world above all else. I get to spend my days alongside children as they discover what inspires them, where their passions lie and all of the ways that they want to be in the world and interact with their friends and communities.
2) When did you first realize that this was your calling?
I have always loved spending time with and playing alongside young children. This year, though, for the first time, we are using the outdoors and the forest as an extension of our classroom and as a centerpiece of our curriculum. Our Forest Kindergarten time has been transformative for me as a teacher and a learner. Personally, I have always loved being outside in nature, but it has been so eye opening to realize that this can be a powerful aspect of a school and a dynamic and inspiring facet of my teaching.
3) People often become completely engrossed, losing track of time or outside concerns while performing tasks related to their calling. This might be referred to as being “in the zone” or “flow.” When do you experience this most often?
The school days fly by for me. When the kids are deep into their play, we lose all track of time. Everyday we have at least one uninterrupted hour of free play, often more. Some days this happens indoors and many days it happens in the forest. During this free play time, the kids are deeply engaged and the ‘magic’ that is the childhood imagination takes over. I could observe this for endless stretches of time. I love watching as problems are created, discussed, solved, unsolved, and resolved right up until the next problem arises and the cycle begins again.
4) What is the greatest challenge or obstacle you’ve faced in pursuit of your life’s work?
Although I have no doubt that this approach to school and learning is right, these days, it is not necessarily the mainstream belief about early childhood education. It is not always easy to turn away from what is popular to do what feels right. Even when it feels really, really right.
I do think that the winds are shifting and parents, educators and researchers are starting to embrace play as a critical aspect of any early childhood program, but we still have a long road ahead as we learn to trust our kids as our guides to how and what they need to be learning during these earliest years.
As much as I love what I am doing and see profound benefits for my students, I am always aware of the many, many kids who, for a variety of reasons, do not get to have these rich, nature-filled childhood experiences. I would love to find ways to take what we are doing and bring it to a much, much larger population.
5) What has pursuing your Personal Legend taught you?
I have taught in so many different schools and settings to a wide variety of kids. At every step of the way, I have been able to find joy by connecting with my kids, their families and the school communities. There is no end game here. For me teaching is a journey, an introspective process of observing, growing and learning alongside my students. The real prize for me is in being a present and active participant in that process.
6) What piece of advice can you offer to others seeking their true calling?
A personal legend doesn’t have to be a grand sweeping thing. There is so much joy and meaning in small moments and connections.
(This post was originally published in April 2016 & was updated in May 2018.)
Are you following your Personal Legend? Please share your journey in the comments below!
For background on this project, check out our first post in the series.