Sive Mbolekwa, PRAESA literacy mentor, reflects on his sessions with Grade R children using the picture book An Extraordinary Egg by Leo Lionni (IQanda elinguMmangaliso). In this story, three frogs discover a beautiful white egg. Though they’ve never seen a chicken egg before, they are sure that’s what this must be. So when the egg hatches and a long, green, scaly creature appears they call it a chicken. The Storyplay team had discussed ways to bring the story alive. This included taking eggshells to class to help animate it and see what thinking and imagining this might prompt in the children. Sive notices the learning opportunities these young children seek out and what the teacher promotes and enables, and what she restricts or denies. He raises some critical issues about power relations: between adults and children and also between children themselves, with the consequent and interrelated expectations and attitudes that appear to form and inform one another.
I put some eggshells outside the classroom, next to the playground, and then I asked the children to come outside with me. Once outside, I drew their attention to the eggshells. Acting surprised, I asked. “Haibo! What could be happening here?”
“It’s eggs, teacher. They are broken,” said one. “Miss N was eating eggs. Maybe she put these here,” said another. “But Miss N put the eggshells in the dustbin in the classroom,” corrected yet another.
While we were wondering what could have happened, two boys crushed the eggshells into fine pieces by stepping on them. Genuinely surprised, I asked them to pick up the small pieces of eggshell and throw them in the dustbin. One girl voluntarily started to help them – actually doing most of the work. I stopped her: “Child, please allow them to pick up the mess of their own creation.” Of course, I was a bit disturbed that they could just decide to stop the fun of the rest of the 12 children who were interested in interrogating the mystery of the broken eggshells; choosing to do so despite the free access to the rest of the playground that had attracted the other 15 or so children who were now climbing and playing. In hindsight, I could have asked them why were crushing the shells. My understanding is that girls are raised to be responsible not only for themselves but also for boys and I brought this into the situation: I did not hold myself back from stopping the girl cleaning up because I was worried about perpetuating this understanding that girls are brought up to look after males. This might not actually have been the case here. This could have just been a little girl who is kind and helpful.
I then asked the rest of the children who were interested in the investigation what could have hatched out of the eggs. “It is a baby bird. While I was coming to school I saw a bird. It is small, it came out of there,” said one boy child pointing to the eggshells.
I followed the children to the playground and asked them if they knew where the baby bird went. “Teacher, me I saw a red bird that was flying,” said a boy, picking up on the red bird idea. “Where did it come from, perhaps?” I queried with curiosity. “It came there from the egg,” he replied. “Where is it now? Let’s look for it,” I suggested.
“There it is!” said a few children, pointing to the neighbouring school’s roof.
“It went there to Comp [the neighbouring school]. Me I saw it. Walking that way to Comp side. There it is. On that red roof,” said the boy, taking his idea from the group back to himself. And indeed, I saw a few pigeons on the neighbouring school’s red roof basking in the winter sun, reminiscing about summer days.
After that, we proceeded to read and discuss the story in An Extraordinary Egg. In particular, the question of how Marilyn (a frog friend in the book) knew it was an egg, a chicken egg. Their answers were interesting:
Child 1: She had seen it.
Child 2: The problem is that she is seeing that it is white.
Child 3: She smelt it.
Child 4: It [the egg] looks like it has been smeared with white cement and she thought it is white.
Child 5: The problem is that she sees the chicken inside [of the egg].
The very last one was very cute! Cute in that the child not only uses knowledge of the story to think of possible reasons how Marilyn could have known that it was a chicken egg, but also uses imagination – she imagines Marilyn sees the chicken inside the egg. Magic! Could this mean that she understands that in storyland anything is possible? Or was she simply using the knowledge of the story to think about how we get to know things. Was she saying that we mainly know things because we see them? This was a beautiful discussion about how we get to know things. It left me with the question: were they saying we get to know things by thinking and using our senses – smell, touch, sight, taste…?