Published August 15, 2006
Volume 14, Number 8

Teaching Starts with Listening For Imelda Acosta

By Jay Hipps

Teaching young children is a task filled with subtleties. How is it possible to take a child’s natural curiosity and help direct it while at the same time instilling a sense of personal empowerment and responsibility? The answer, says Imelda Acosta of Hacienda Child Development Center, is listening.

“That’s the most important thing for me because from years of experience, I know that children learn differently. I think you have to listen for things you don’t hear, and then you hear.”

If that sounds self-contradictory, like a Zen koan, it’s meant to. The distinction she is making is that subtle. “A lot of times children keep telling you things, and you listen to those things, but at the same time there are things that they will never tell you, so if you don’t listen closely, you won’t hear them.”

Acosta grew up in the Philippines, on the island of Cebu. “My dad was the administrator at my high school, which was one of the first co-ed high schools in Cebu. It was hard to have my dad as an administrator in the same school—and it was high school—but I just admired his strength.” She went to college in Manila, switching early on from accounting to education, influenced by her father and a friend who was studying psychology. “I thought if I switched to teaching it was going to be more fulfilling.” Looking over her career, it’s hard to disagree with her decision.

After college, she spent three years teaching at an experimental school called “The Community of Learners,” which combined special education children and those with no unusual needs in the same classroom. “Their whole philosophy was to have the regular students help the children that were learning their life skills. They had to learn how to get dressed, pay attention, just observe things. In a way, I felt that the regular kids were learning from the special kids.”

She spent three years there before her parents fled the Philippines as the country grew chaotic towards the end of the Marcos regime. She joined them in the Bay Area and the family made its new start in San Jose. Acosta’s mother taught high school chemistry in the San Jose Unified School District and introduced her to the Early Learning Institute, which was then a new school with a cutting-edge philosophy. (Now, it is the group that runs Hacienda Child Development Center in the park, Hacienda Elementary School on Stoneridge Drive, and several other facilities around the Bay Area.) “San Jose was the second school that they built. I looked at their school and their philosophy and I thought, ‘Wow, this is such a great school to work for.’ I mean, I could teach and have a job anywhere else, but this is the job that I want—this is where I want to be.” She got her wish—she spent 17 years in San Jose and is now in her third year in Hacienda.

As indicated above, her experience has led her to some not-so-obvious conclusions about different teaching techniques. If listening to what is not said seems confusing, she also offers another explanation.

“Someone who is very quiet in the classroom, who doesn’t speak so much, who doesn’t tell us anything, I will just observe the child,” she says. “I observe the habits; I observe how he moves around the room; I observe his interests, where he gravitates to. Is it more social? Is it literature, does he want to read books all the time and doesn’t want to talk to anybody? It’s things that we don’t have any training for—you just learn it naturally as a teacher. A lot of times, they won’t tell you anything but you just say, oh, is there something that you want to ask me? You start by questioning, and sometimes if the child is verbal enough they’ll tell you, but sometimes they don’t, too. There’s a lot of probing that you do but at the same time you keep that respectful space.”

Observation, she says, is important out of the classroom as well.

“Most of the time, what I train my staff to do is to listen to their conversations among each other, because that’s when you really learn. I think the playground is a key place where you see all these things happening—playground is where children are themselves. ‘I’m talking to my buddy, so who cares? I’m going to let my hair down.’ So that’s when they talk to each other, that’s when you really see. Social interaction is very basic and social skills are very basic. I think children need to know ‘I can’t hurt you and you can’t hurt me,’ that’s number one, respect. The reason you can’t hurt me is because I have rights. And then with those rights, you can do whatever you want to do, but you’re also responsible. You just don’t do whatever you want because there’s that responsibility.”

Her favorite task in teaching, however, is teaching her kindergarteners to write poetry. That may sound like the pedagogical equivalent of herding cats, but Acosta has found ways to make it work. “For them, poetry is very difficult. You get a pencil and a paper and you don’t know where to start with your thoughts. I just tell them, (don’t think about poetry,) think about different things. First of all, what happens when you sing a song? And then they tell me that’s easy because they know the words. So then I turn on a tape for them to listen to and ask if they can write those words that they’re saying in the song, so they write those. I say you don’t have to write whole sentences—it’s just words you like, it can be something you like, don’t like, whatever. And then we talk about ‘What did you feel when you wrote those words?’ So I get them to feel that you can do anything you want, you can learn anything you want. I use different kinds of strategies in teaching them poetry. It could be asking them to highlight things, give details to objects in the poem, just a slew of things. We talk about their dreams but it could be anything. I tell them not to worry about how the words come out.”

In the end, it seems, what is important is not so much what ends up on the paper but instead, teaching them how to recognize what they’re experiencing and how to connect those things to words or thoughts. In that way, she helps her students grow.

“For me, ‘grow’ is a very appropriate word because I feel that, when you see that expression in their eyes where they go, ‘Oh yeah—that’s really fun.’ They’re like a sponge—they take in so much.”

With the subtleties involved in observing and nurturing a child’s psyche, it seems the best teachers take in a lot as well.


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