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Learning at its Best

Engaging with Godzilla

I am Godzilla!  Hear me roar!

I am Godzilla! Hear me roar!

“We are bad Godzillas!”  I heard the familiar husky little voice of a 4-year-old student at my school while I was out working in the recess yard.  This boy, Vlad often exhibits a somewhat negative influence on the world around him, and is the source of many student complaints and staff hand-wringing.  His verbal warning here was clear: Vlad, and his little three-year-old protégé, Thomas, were bent on destruction.  They were out to terrorize and pillage the land.  During their roaring parade through the yard, I overheard one teacher warn, “it’s okay to pretend to be Godzillas, but not really hurt.”

“We’re not pretend!  We’re REAL!”  Vlad retorted.  Followed by, “You’re stupid!” and on they went.  This message also seemed pretty clear.  Vlad did not appreciate being seen as impotent.  He was powerful, strong, and pissed!  He had real feelings, real thoughts, and was to be taken seriously.

I later learned that this had already been a really rough morning for little Vlad.  In a few short hours he had escalated misbehavior from knocking down another boy’s block train to locking a girl inside the chicken coop to pushing a boy off the play structure.  And clearly, by the time he came into my awareness, he wasn’t through giving voice to and explicitly manifesting whatever turmoil he harbored in his heart, mind and belly on this day.

A brief word about the context here: our early childhood classroom could be accurately described as multi-aged, play-based and Reggio Emelia inspired.  There is a lot of space for kids to author their own learning.  There is also a lot of emphasis placed on social and emotional development.  Antisocial behavior such as Vlad was exhibiting that morning might typically have been initially dealt with in conversation: “How do you think it felt for Helen to be locked in the coop?  How would you feel?  Are you angry today? What words could you use? Etc.  It would also inevitably result in some limit-setting and then ultimately with the teachers reflecting on their own practice.  “What does this child need from me?”  I would hope this key question is one which all teachers are asking themselves regularly.

Amazon Maloca

Amazon Maloca

Anyway, not knowing any of the background from that morning, I was approached by these two bad Godzillas.  Meanwhile, I was fully engaged with my work:  Years ago on our play yard, I had built a hut with my older students based on an indigenous architecture from the Amazon.  It was a simple round wood frame around which we had planted “basket willows.”  Now, every winter the willows shoot many feet into the air, and students and I weave some of the shoots into the dome hut that has evolved.  We also prune the many extra shoots and stick them directly into the ground to root (Willow is an amazing plant!)  In this way, we can create new living forms and structures.  So that’s what I was doing.  This year I was re-planting new shoots, forming them into a long s-shaped crawling tunnel.  Older kids had come and gone stopping to help as they saw fit.  Then the Godzillas arrived and Vlad picked up a 10-foot shoot.  Trouble.

Despite this apparent recipe for disaster – volatile 4-yr-old armed with 10-foot pole, I assumed the best of intentions, not out of any well-planned pedagogy, but because I was authentically engaged and frankly busy.  The Godzillas paused and watched for a moment as I grunted and twisted, my hair tangled in branches, clippers working away, and then Vlad asked, “What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to make something.” And I kept working.  A minute or two later I realized Vlad was still there, the other Godzilla had wandered off.  “Here, Vlad, can you bring that stick over here?  I don’t know if you’ll be strong enough, but can you try to push that end into the ground somewhere along this line?”

“Well,  but…see… I am Godzilla…”  Yet he couldn’t resist, he tried his luck at this task and rose to the challenge.  Eventually, he got his stick to stand vertically in the earth.  “Is there another stick?”

“Yeah, there’s a whole pile over there.”

“Okay, I’m a bad Godzilla, but I still sometimes can help people.”

We worked together for twenty minutes.  Sometimes his work was truly helpful.  Sometimes it wasn’t quite up to snuff.  My communications with him were brief and direct, giving him advice or helping him to be more effective.  We were gathered around meaningful work, and the interactions were genuine and authentic.  And little Vlad thrived.  It wasn’t long before he

Little Godzilla?

Little Godzilla?

proclaimed “I am still Godzilla, but I am a good Godzilla and I help people when they need help.”  A few minutes later his mom came to pick him up and the little Godzilla proudly gave a tour of his work, escorting his mom through every inch of the tunnel we were creating.  He beamed (and mom was proud and relieved too.  I think pick-up time is often laden with teachers’ tales of misbehavior and is not a cherished moment for her.)

In this case, at least on this day, meaningful work and authentic engagement was exactly what this child needed, apparently.  I will be thinking for a long time about this little “success.”  Where do we go from here with little Vlad?  How do I follow up next week?  What implications are there for his schooling and for the program in general?  I certainly don’t believe this “problem” is “solved.”  Something is going on for Vlad that requires attention.  So was this afternoon a step in the right direction?  Does it offer us insight?  Or was it merely a momentary and welcome distraction?  I’d love to invite you all to share your thoughts.  What does this story bring up for you?


About Paul Freedman

I am the founding Director of The Salmonberry School in Eastsound, WA. I have taught elementary school in public and private settings for the past 19 years. I serve as a contributing editor for Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice (Formerly the Holistic Education Review.) I also serve on the faculty of the Self Design Graduate Institute. I hold an MA in EDU from Goddard College.


15 thoughts on “Engaging with Godzilla

  1. Reblogged this on What Else? 1DR and commented:
    With all the emphasis on testing and pacing, how often is this question acted upon? Teachers think it, but their work now depends on academics development, not human development: “What does this child need from me?” I would hope this key question is what all teachers are asking themselves regularly.” Read this example…from Paul Freedman.

    Posted by Sheri | January 13, 2013, 12:00 pm
  2. This story brings to mind my own youngest son. He is 9 now and very physical, meaning he does things. He’s a mover, a doer with a LOT of energy. When he was 3, he was a terror! He was into EVERYTHING and such a handful that I was having trouble just getting through the day. He’d never been to daycare or even out of my sight for longer than over night when I was suddenly placed in the hospital for a week.

    While I was there, my husband who is a psychologist, had full dealings with our little guy and said he had no problems with him. When I was home, recovering, I watched their interaction and discovered something. They would be involved in things I knew were more for older children, like playing chess at three. He had to be challenged and mommy wasn’t doing it, THAT’S why he was “acting out”

    Some children NEED structure, some need to be challenged. Perhaps the work you’re doing is challenging him or, perhaps, being needed is his thing. Perhaps his teachers should engage his help as much as possible and see if that’s what he needs to thrive.

    Posted by I'm taking a nap | January 13, 2013, 2:08 pm
    • Outstanding advice, my friend. I’ll pass it on to the teachers. I suspect Godzilla might be a little bored, might need to move, might need to be needed and might need some “real work” to do. Other things to know: he has a brand new baby sister in his home, two working parents, and is a limited English speaker. So maybe just a little one-on-one attention and validation is in order?

      Posted by Paul Freedman | January 13, 2013, 3:20 pm
  3. This example is elementary focused, but as a high school teacher I can’t help but think that students are really not much different. They all have needs for power and a healthy view of themselves. Most are still trying to figure out who they are and often lack confidence in themselves. You really have me thinking about how I can help students develop a good self-image and build success and confidence.


    Posted by Michael Kaecheleke | January 13, 2013, 5:09 pm
  4. Thanks for this Michael. As a parent of two teens, I do know what you mean. In many ways they’re still very much preschoolers albeit in unnaturally elongated bodies, governed by emotions they struggle to control and understand. RIght now I’m thinking about regardless of age, how much real work and real responsibility can we trust an individual with? I think in many cases it is much more than they have at the present. What benefits could be gained by raising these expectations and challenging ourselves to trust?

    Posted by Paul Freedman | January 13, 2013, 6:52 pm
  5. Paul. Thanks for the post. Your questions — What does this child need from me? And, what does this story bring up for you? — caused me to reflect on a child that I knew and had been wanting to write about. If you are interested, I’ve enclosed a link for you to read the post. Here’s a part from the post:

    “None of this had anything to do with what school is supposed to be about, to get kids career and college ready. None of what I’ve written about had anything to do with standardized testing, and couldn’t be measured in any way but the heart. Yet, this (and others) have been some of the most important moments that I’ve had in school. Perhaps for some children, too.

    Beyond that. What I learned from Larry was how powerful listening can be. How, away from the storms, time and effort can caulk a leaky hull and make a boat seaworthy once again. How being known and understood is nearly everything. That most people would rather be known as good, than bad, if good is an option.

    The final thing I learned was that a life is a building project. That each of us will sail the vessel we build to whatever ports we wish, or must. That’s our joy, and our sorrow.”

    Posted by Steve Peterson | January 13, 2013, 11:19 pm
    • Hey Steve,
      Thank you so much. All Co-op readers should follow Steve’s link and go “inside the dog.” Such a moving post there about third grader, Larry, as well as so much other good stuff. And in regards to your statement: “None of what I’ve written about had anything to do with standardized testing, and couldn’t be measured in any way but the heart” it reminds me of the quite that Einstein supposedly had hanging over his office door at Princeton: “Not everything that is counted counts and not all that is counts can be counted.” This is the stuff that counts. (The quote actually comes from sociologist William Bruce Cameron, often misattributed to Einstein).

      Posted by Paul Freedman | January 15, 2013, 12:18 am
      • Thanks for reading, Paul! I appreciate the time you took to write your piece and to engage with others like me.

        I love numbers. Numerical data elegantly presented can tell a story that I can’t begin to tell with words, and reveals patterns that my “narrative self” couldn’t see, or misunderstands (see the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.) I’m also thinking, just for instance, of Vi Hart’s videos on doodling in math class. (E.g. That dude, Pythagoras, comes across as a pretty interesting guy. Cool beans.)

        But, also, isn’t it interesting that an “account” of a relationship, no matter how meaningful and instructive for me as a teacher, doesn’t “count” in the story we tell about what needs to be done? And that everyone knows respect, connection, passion, and patience are integral to learning, but in our Race to the Top we imagine that these crucial qualities are fluff?

        Thanks again, and
        Take care,

        Posted by Steve Peterson | January 15, 2013, 8:56 am
  6. This really hits home for me as it reminds me of my son. Last year he was in a morning preschool program and every day at pickup, my husband and I dreaded the conversation about the day’s behavior problems. We had many conferences with his teacher and tried a mix of positive feedback, incentives, and privilege loss in an attempt to improve things. Despite everything, things never got better and we became increasingly frustrated, especially because his behavior was so different from the generally sweet, helpful, kind, and gentle boy we knew at home. Things were bad enough that his teacher feared he would not be successful in public kindergarten, and would instead need a smaller private school class.

    My son’s preschool was very focused on play and social skills with sweet, nurturing teachers – important factors for us. The pre-K class also did some kindergarten-readiness academics, like learning about one letter each week and very basic counting – things we looked forward to back when we choose the school for him as a two-year-old attending a couple mornings a week. As the youngest child in his pre-K class, and by no means mature for his age, my son’s social skills were very much a work in progress and quite different from the girls in his class who were nearly a year older. On the other hand, my son had started reading when he was three, and he would regularly request we give him math problems to do in the car to pass the time, as he could not only count and skip count, but also do basic addition and subtraction.

    This situation was a poor fit for him, and I did not truly grasp the problem until pre-K was almost over and he visited a private kindergarten class for a day. Here he did new things – challenging things that allowed him to be successful and shine – and his behavior was great, not just for his age, but any age. Moreover, he loved the experience and earnestly asked me to let him change schools and stay in that class effective immediately. All of this was a bit of a shock, and in reviewing the day, I strongly suspected that success was the piece missing from his preschool experience. At preschool, while he struggled and felt unsuccessful in social skills compared to peers, he was unchallenged going through the motions of “learning” things he had known for some time.

    Armed with the knowledge that challenge and success were important keys to bringing out the best in our son at school, we decided to give public kindergarten a try and even coordinated with the teachers and principal before the year started so we could hit the ground running. And you know what? We were right. He’s having a great year! He is a much more confident boy, he is thriving with differentiated academics and a well-rounded education, and although he continues to work on social skills, his behavior is on target.

    So, in response to your question about Vlad, I feel this is absolutely a step in the right direction. Give children meaningful, engaging, or challenging work that allows them to achieve success and they will rise to the occasion, because it feels great to matter, to learn, and to prove yourself.

    Posted by Erin | January 14, 2013, 3:14 am
  7. Thanks for this poignant story Erin. I’m so glad things have turned around for your boy!
    I have worked so hard founding and sustaining the sweet little independent school I wrote about here. Yet I have come to understand that as deeply as I believe in our pedagogy and mission, it is not an ideal fit for all learners. This is hard to admit as we really try to reach out and connect with each and every child. But sometimes these more “touchy-feely” approaches to coin an overused, insulting and derogatory phrase (which I detest) don’t always engage these very active kids who need challenge, action, and a little less of the talk, talk, talk.

    Posted by Paul Freedman | January 14, 2013, 10:57 am
  8. Thank you, Paul, for your poignant reflections on this all too familiar situation. All of the strategies and conflict resolution techniques you mentioned: checking in on his emotional state, encouraging him to use his words, helping him to understand how his actions may effect others, attempting to cultivate empathy – these are all really positive, progressive responses to the situation, and still, with youth who display the kind of recurring anti-social behavior you described, it often feels like putting a bandaid on a tumor.

    Creating an environment, indoor and out, where kids (and Godzillas) can engage in all sorts of ways – physically with fine and gross motor skills, creatively (and destructively), intellectually, emotionally, collectively and individually – is a huge step in the right direction. There is an art and science to creating such an environment. It often requires a deeper intuition as well, as we saw in your interactions with Vlad around the hut project. Still, this feels like it may only be treating the symptoms without identifying and working with root causes… This makes me think about the importance of open communications with parents, reports on family history and the situation at home, as well as parent education and support. From there, having some additional resources for families to turn to if necessary is ideal.

    All of that being said, the essential component which you mentioned, Paul, is the responsibility of the educator to look within and inquire – What is the need not being met? How can I respond authentically to the situation? Then, I suppose all that’s left is continuing to listen deeply and trust. Thanks for that reminder, Paul – I trust that with some patience and love, Godzilla can indeed be engaged!

    Posted by Michael Carberry | January 20, 2013, 1:37 pm
    • Hi Michael,

      So so good to find you posting your thoughts here! I hope we’ll here more from you. In regards to putting a bandaid on a tumor, I feel this way too. Sometimes I think to myself that the school is not intended a replacement for counseling. Ours is not a therapeutic Mission and our staff do not have the background or training to do that kind of work. But at other times that feels like a cop out.

      Is all the emphasis on curriculum and methods etc, properly conceived of as just a vehicle for nurturing the unfolding of the child towards their highest potential? Maslow’s “self actualization” Forbes’ “ultimacy” e.g.

      This little boy and others like him sometimes seem to be just killing time (not particularly joyfully) waiting for an adult who has the patience, commitment and unconditional capacity for love that can become the envelope for their growth and healing. This may not be exactly why I got into teaching, but if I really honestly ask myself, “what does this child need for me…”

      Posted by Paul Freedman | January 20, 2013, 3:44 pm
  9. Paul-
    I host a website & blog, aimed to help teachers tell the stories of their most meaningful work & then getting these out into the more public media — so that people begin to better understand the deep work of teaching and to better appreciate public education (which policy-makers don’t seem to get right now). Steve Peterson put me onto you. I’d love to share your story (and others I bet you have) on Teachers Speak Up, and see about getting it further out into the world. You (& others) can reach me at . Thanks!
    –Steve Zemelman

    Posted by Steve Zemelman | June 14, 2013, 11:54 am


  1. Pingback: What does this child need from me? | inside the dog… - January 13, 2013

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