Crystallize, Don't Paralyze!

Frost crystallization on a shrub. From

How do you approach teaching?  When you are with students, how do you act?  What do  you say?  Are you engaging and encouraging?  Are you curt and sarcastic?  Are you somewhere in between?  (These are questions I ask of you and of myself…we’re in this together, after all. 😉 )

In the book I am currently reading, Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom (2009), the author, Thomas Armstrong talks about “Crystallizing and Paralyzing Experiences”  and I found this way of thinking about what I do as a teacher very catchy and insightful.

Crystallizing experiences are a concept of David Feldman (1980) out of Tufts university and were further developed by Howard Gardner.  These are “turning points in the development of a person’s talents and abilities” and can “occur anytime during the life span” although many happen in early childhood. (28) Imagine the time when you were introduced to an object or concept that struck your curiosity, imagination and heart all at once.  That event inspired you to discover more, play more, challenge yourself and grow into what your potential is.  Imagine a time when the undiscovered musician was brought to his first concert as a child, or a budding artist was given the opportunity to make a mess with paint and her feet.  Imagine when the right student was shown that a microscope could open up a whole new world or that you could speak in a language of numbers.  These experiences are, as Armstrong states, “the sparks that light an intelligence and start is development toward maturity.” (29)

Armstrong has made his own converse term “paralyzing experiences to refer to experiences that ‘shut down’ intelligences.”  These, of course are the ones we want to avoid and yet, we find them everyday in classrooms across the country.   I have come across so many adults in the workshops I give who have told me the horror story about when their music teacher asked them not to sing because they were ruining the sound of the chorus.  Woah! Or maybe you know that kid who was yelled at when he brought the frog into class.  I bet an afternoon sitting outside the principal’s office made him never want to share his love of nature in school again.  Ouch! How about the fidget-er?  You probably had this one in class.  He can’t seem to sit still, needs to stand while working, taps his pencil, keeps getting up… if only he were allowed to move throughout the day, he might not hate sitting and working on his studies.  Sigh…

I think of my buddy, Dr. Richard Selznick, author of The Shut down Learner, who has devoted his career to helping so many students and families of children who have started to shut down simply because they do not work well in the traditional educational system.  Imagine if students were not paralyzed in their curiosity and natural tendancies, but were encouraged and taught how to use those skills to their advantage and advancement?

I was just reading a post from Daniel Petter-Lipstein, who wrote a guest post on the Un-Schooled blog about his experiences with Montessori schools.  He made some very good points about how these schools not only encourage students’ own curiosity, but they develop it.  This is a wonderful example of “Crystallizing.”

We may not have control over every part of our students’ lives.  We are not in their homes, we can ‘t help them get ready for each day and we can’t wait up for them late at night, but we do have them for six hours, 180 days a year.  We can give in to the “Six Hour Retarded Child” and provide a day of paralyzing experiences that help a child shut down in class, or we can take true advantage of the time we have and inspire our students, and ourselves in the process.

As the saying goes…  “The choice is…” well, ours.


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Article by Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth Peterson has devoted her life to education and to reaching out to other teachers who want to remain inspired. Mrs. Peterson teaches fourth grade in Amesbury, Massachusetts and is the host of She holds an M.Ed. in Education, “Arts and Learning” and a C.A.G.S. degree with a focus in “Arts Leadership and Learning.” Elizabeth is author of Inspired by Listening, a teacher resource book that includes a method of music integration she has developed and implemented into her own teaching. She teaches workshops and courses on the integration of the arts into the curriculum and organizes the annual summer Teacher Art Retreat. Mrs. Peterson believes there is a love of active, integrated learning in all children and from their enthusiasm, teachers can shape great opportunities to learn.
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  1. Melissa says:

    Wow! So many thoughts are racing through my head after reading this awesome post that I am not sure how to make sense of them all … but I will work on that! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas!

  2. Michelle Howell-Martin says:

    Wonderful post! You have certainly given me a lot to think about. Thank you!

    • Melissa and Michelle,
      I’m glad this post struck a chord with you! The whole intro chapters of the book I refer to struck so many chords! Armstrong’s words were like a bunch of slaps across the face. “Wake up! Your kids need you. Now get to it!” I think we all need that every once in a while… Please come back again and add your ideas and thoughts to this site!

  3. Mary Ann says:

    Having experienced a time when I was told not to sing because of lack of tone, I totally understand the paralyzing treatment and what it can do to a person. Well, I have overcome some of the hurt about my singing because I love music and think it really helps some of the students remember facts but makes the learning fun. I do sing a lot with my younger students and need to develop some more courage to sing with my older students.

  4. Tori says:

    I love theater! But I am much more comfortable behind the scenes….is it because as a child, I was the tree or a group part? I never had the lead, or even a speaking part to my recollection. (There was one, I was the angel who announced baby Jesus, “and here a babe in swaddling clothes…” at church). In high school I joined the theater group and was in the make-up department. Hmmmm…..perhaps that is why as a teacher and when a child expresses that they want to be the “lead” in one of our two yearly school productions, I put my faith in them, encourage them, work with them and am proud of what they accomplish, no matter what it “looks” like in the end! Finding your way in life is hard enough….I will never be the person who squashes the frog lovers dream!

    • Marcia says:

      Each year when we do our class play there are always surprises. Often times, the people who end up with lead parts are not the students I would have predicted. I love those surprises!

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