Little Miss Muffet’s Legacy

Once when I was young and naïve, I was a counselor at a summer camp. (Summer of 1972, Lake Geneva.) My “class” was a group of 4-year-olds. I had been using the art-form or focused conversation method in my teaching, so I decided to try to use it with these little ones.

I decided to use the nursery rhyme “Little Miss Muffet” as my starting point. First we said it all together:
“Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey.
Along came a spider
And sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.”

First I asked them who were the characters. “Miss Muffet and the spider.”
Then I asked them what words they didn’t understand and explained that a tuffet was something to sit on (like a tuft of grass), and that curds and whey were cottage cheese.
Then I asked them what happened first, then, and then….. They responded with the stages of the plot.

My next questions were “What does this remind you of? ” and “Where has something like this happened to you?” I got several stories of spiders and ants in their tents, and other scary surprises. There were also a few tough-kid stories of not being afraid.

Then I asked, “So what is this story about, for you?” There was a short silence. Little Dana Caruso looked blank for a minute, then her eyes lit up. “It’s, it’s about when something scary happens, you can decide whether you are going to run away or not! And, and, next time I’m going to think before I run away!”

I didn’t even have to ask the final question, “What will you do differently because of what you’ve learned from this story?” – she had answered it.

Now Piaget would say that 4-year-olds could not think at this level. But when you ask the questions in order, it is like peeling back the layers of an onion, and even small children can take a step deeper in understanding.

I use this story when I’m teaching the focused conversation to adults – I have them answer the questions as themselves (what it reminds them of often includes when a really scuzzy sort sits down next to them in a bar… or something similar) and then tell them how the 4-year-olds answered it. The power of the method to unlock deeper thinking becomes clear to them.

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