When it comes to elephants, children aren’t afraid. Although huge, they seem approachable. Maybe it’s because they don’t have claws or fangs or scales. Maybe it’s because that curling trunk and tail are odd but happy features.

And who doesn’t want to whisper into those enormous ears? A secret could be lost in there forever.

Maggie was crazy about them when she was a little girl. Her comforter was imprinted with Victorian zoo elephants in elaborate gazebos. She had a collection of souvenir elephants. When her class made kitchen magnets for the parents, she drew Ella, her favorite stuffed animal.

When Cliff taught first grade, it was an elephant who finally turned the tide with a difficult class. They were a group of mismatched spirits given to arguing, refusing to compromise with each other. Knowing it would be a long, unhappy year, he decided to show them the value of creating a community by creating a gigantic task that could only be successful as a group effort.

An elephant saved the day.

They studied India as a lesson in geography and culture. Traditionally kids drew maps or gave historical reports about the country, but these were solitary endeavors. Cliff changed it up by announcing they would draw a life-sized Indian elephant and divided them into groups: the eye committee, tail committee, front leg committee, etc. They researched their assigned dimensions, a process that forced them to talk to each other. Then he asked them to bring in newspapers, which tells you this happened before the days of the internet. As a class, they estimated how many sheets they’d have to tape together to form a large enough surface to draw the animal. They pushed all the tables and chairs against the wall, another maneuver that required them to work together.

Each group had a roll of tape and stack of newspaper. Each member had to get a turn taping. More cooperation was required because everyone couldn’t hold the tape at once.

Then they realized the eye couldn’t be drawn until the head was sketched in. The tail couldn’t hang in midair. The stomach had to wait for the leg placement. Much conversation ensued. Kids were patient with each other. Markers were handed back and forth. They positioned themselves around the perimeter and began to cut–without bumping each other.

Instead of accusing and blaming, the room was filled with giggles and silence as the elephant took shape. The scraps were collected, and it became a lesson in recycling, too.

When the amazing animal was drawn, Cliff extended the lesson by asking questions requiring educated estimates and concrete actions like: How many children can line up on the length of a trunk? How many of your feet equal the length of the elephant’s foot? How many hands fit on the eye?

Children once determined to get in front of each other, scooted over for someone else to add a little hand. They guessed together and listened to each other.

Yes, they created a huge elephant. More importantly, they learned a huge lesson about the power of cooperation.

Any teacher can present facts. Any teacher can grade fill-in-the-blank worksheets. Only a remarkable teacher can create invaluable life lessons. With the help of an elephant, he showed a class how to see each other.

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