“Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”

Parker Palmer from the Courage to Teach

Pattern Blocks Help Teach Community

by Marj

A classroom is full of interesting manipulatives, often to be used for math lessons. Manipulatives can be defined as “something to think with.” It can provide a concrete picture of a concept that is more abstract.

In my first grade classroom, we had a time each day called Choosing Time. The children could choose anything to use within the planned learning environment. The classroom environment was planned to contain items useful for the current curriculum. One of the manipulatives on the math shelf was a large box of Pattern Blocks.

During this Choosing Time the children loved to make beautiful patterns with the Pattern Blocks. As the design grew on the rug, other children would join the child building. They were drawn to the activity by the excitement of a colorful repeating pattern growing on the floor in front of them.

One day the Pattern Blocks were spontaneously repurposed. After this first day, this became a tool used fairly often, sometimes at the children’s request. This particular day, the children came in from recess all riled up. The children picked up their writing journals and sat down to work as they were supposed to, but little angry conversations kept erupting. Very little writing was getting done. I grabbed the Pattern Blocks and called the children to the rug.

First I built a small, beautiful symmetrical pattern.


Next, I took a handful of the blocks and put them down in a scattered pile.


“Which of these designs looks like how our classroom is feeling right now?”

“Which design looks like you would like our classroom to feel?

We soon got to the bottom of the issues and how the children were feeling about each other. The Pattern Blocks provided the concrete picture of a more abstract idea – that of community dynamics. The conversation that ensued was very rich. I directed them to talk to the group, and as they talked, they continuously pointed to the blocks.

Why is this work important and worth the time it takes? You are teaching to current and age-old wisdom. It needs to be taught in context.

There is an intuitive “knowing” inside all humans. All the children agreed. It feels better when they can talk about what is bothering them. They also could feel the difference within them as the community began to reform – re-form.
What you face will erase. What you resist will persist. Neale Donald Walsh talks about this in his books Conversations with God. The children would have kept their anger going and it would have again erupted at lunchtime. Spiritual leaders are saying that internal, unattended negative emotions keep us in “ fight or flight” mood and can contribute to illness. The children faced their community problem and came up with solutions. They were practicing with a real life situation.
Feelings are the language of the soul. Parker Palmer in his book A Hidden Wholeness talks about keeping role and soul together. Often in teaching and other jobs, we leave our “inner knowing” at the door as we go through our workday. We are diminished by this, and often loose track of why we choose our work in the first place. We experience sadness and burnout. CHILDREN can experience the same thing if their education is only driven by mandated curriculum and testing demands. We are human beings – we need to BE, not just DO. We all need to experience and give: love, respect, nurturance, compassion, empathy, and forgiveness.
At the end of this first experience, I was given a sign of how effective this work can be, and how safe the children felt. As the discussion went on that day, one of the boys, whose life was quite complicated, raised his hand and said,


“Mrs. Steiner, there is another way the blocks could show how I feel.”

I asked him to show us. He picked up some of the blocks and scattered them on the outside of the beautiful design I had built.

“I am feeling calm like that design, but my family feels like this, “and he pointed to the scattered blocks. “That makes it hard for me.”

Others joined in and the discussion was deepened once again.

The children were drawn to this Pattern Block activity by the excitement of feeling in control, of the skills they were learning by the repeating pattern of growth within them, as such activities were repeated. It could be said… that one way education can be measured is by the “identity and integrity” the children have learned and display as they come out of our educational system.