Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Conversation about a Castle, A Reflection on Fairness

A group of older preschool children have been working hard to build a castle out of clay.
During our last session in the Studio, the following conversation unfolded.

R.: Excuse me, Susan, Ian, Nina, E., can I make a bridge on that castle?
Nina and Susan say “Yes”. E. and Ian say “No”.

Katie: Why not?
Ian: It goes down.
E.: Because it might fall down.

Katie: Can you show us where you want the bridge to go?
R.: (points to a space across the top of the castle.) Can I make it go this way, E. and Ian?
Both: No!

R.: Why?
Katie: Why?
Ian: No, because that's like a sky.
E.: Because it will fall down inside.

Katie: Maybe you could show us what you want the bridge to look like?
R.: (to me) Can I use your clay?
Katie: Sure
R.: Is it okay if I do something like this? (She draws lines on the clay and holds it up for everyone to see.)
E.: Yes, that's okay.
Ian: No.
R.: Why?
Ian:  no answer
Katie: Well, now we have three votes that say yes, and one for no. If we are voting, it's okay. 

As R. began to draw the lines for her bridge, Ian seemed hesitant as to whether or not to accept them at first. However he began to nod his head and point to other places he thought the bridge could extend to.

This happened over a week ago and continues to resurface in my thoughts. Even in the interaction, I wondered about my words and my influence on the situation, about the values I was upholding in moderating the moment. Specifically, I’m thinking about fairness and all of the possible ways to present a decision or action as "fair."

Why Did I Suggest a Vote?

I suggested voting as a way to answer R.'s question as to whether or not it would be okay about making the bridge. Later, I wanted to analyze why I jumped to using this form of problem-solving rather than allowing the conversation to continue until everyone felt happy with the agreement.

Time Pressure
First, I recognized in myself a feeling of pressure about time. Studio only takes place once a week for forty-five minutes, which means that these children have a limited amount of time to work on their projects each week. Although I knew that hashing out the issue would be very valuable on multiple levels I also worried that if I didn't help to resolve things quickly, they wouldn't be able to make any progress on the castle.
This is reasonable of course, but looking back I wouldn’t prioritize time if I had it to do over again. Next time, I think I’d give the children time to resolve their issues, even if that did mean we would have to wait until the following week to enact our decision.

The Power of No
By the end of the conversation I was unsure whether Ian's continual "no" was rooted in a true aversion to the idea of the bridge or whether it was rooted in the power of saying "no" in the face of so many saying "yes." I wish I had waited to ascertain this and let R. try to work more closely with Ian to try to achieve a compromise before I offered a solution. Even if his ideas had revolved more around power than around the actual bridge question, I would have liked to hear the discussion the children's discussion about this.

The Majority Rules
Finally I knew that these children were familiar with voting and had suggested it as a problem-solving method before. But now I wonder if this was the right way of handling this particular argument.

Is Voting Fair?

Now I wonder why, in a bigger context, this idea of voting rose to my mind (and comes up elsewhere in our school) as a means of solving disputes "fairly."

On the one hand, voting is an essential part of America's political problem-solving system. It is what we hold up as being a fair way of making a single, united decision for a large group of people. Perhaps, because of this, it is ingrained in those of us who grow up here that voting is a fair and just way of making decisions and resolving disputes.

On the other hand, voting compromises the feelings of the individual for sake of the majority. Decisions are reached more quickly without having to appease every dissenting voice. When I think about it this way, voting feels less than fair to me, and it is not the ideal tool I would like to give children for solving their problems.

So, what would I prefer to advocate?
  • I think of the consensus-building exercises we have undertaken as a staff this year, where we have worked together to reach an agreement "we can live with" about issues like the possible adoption of a school-wide playground policy.
  • I think about the ways in which we constantly try to provide children with a sense of their own autonomy in as many aspects of their lives as possible, including decision-making.
  • I think about the fact that, even though there is a necessity for schedules here, there is also a lot more breathing room here than these children may encounter in other settings of their future lives.

I think that I would like to make more space for children to undertake the hard, sometimes grueling process of consensus-building, even at the expense of time and action. I would like them to feel in their hearts that fairness is important, that it can be hard, but also that it is attainable. And I would like to be a teacher who supports them in discovering this. I suppose I have found my new year's resolution!

What do you notice about the conversation I documented?
What perspectives do you have about fairness and problem-solving?

Do you ever find yourself interfering in a similar way, and how do you react in those moments?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Boys ironing and girls shooting nerf guns

Many of us have been spending time online or in stores shopping for gifts for loved ones lately. Much has been made of the "gendering" of toys, the color-coded packaging, the narrow boxes of behaviors that boys and girls are welcome to enjoy. The degree to which EVERYTHING is proscribed in this way can make even the most open-minded parent feel funny about shopping for their child in the "wrong" section.

Well, a Swedish toy manufacturer has done something really unusual. They published a catalog (filled with toys made by Toys 'R Us) that has pictures of boys and girls playing together with every toy. Click here to see some images. This was done voluntarily, but, according to the Wall Street Journal's blog, the toy store had been criticized by the national ad regulator for contributing to gender stereotypes with it's catalogs in the past.

Have you bought your child a toy that has been assigned by our culture to the opposite gender? How did that feel to you? How did your friends and family react? I think that changes like this one could take some of the pressure to follow "gender rules" off of us when it comes to getting toys for our children.

I wonder what would happen if we shared these photos with some of our older children. (Preschool teachers? Are you game?)


Friday, November 23, 2012

Looking for our beliefs about children in the materials in our classrooms

What do we mean when we say "image of the child"?

The image of children that the educators and families in Reggio Emilia, Italy hold is quite radical. It may sound ordinary to say that children are whole people, that they are protagonists of their own lives, that they can be in control of their own learning. It's not. If you go to a local playground, watch parents and their children, and try to infer what they believe about children, you'll find that most of us act as though we think children are out of control, that
without adult reinforcement and coaching

they will be unkind, in danger or that they won't know what or how to play.

Here, we try to let our image of the child guide us in our work. When a teacher says to two children who are not yet two years old “What do you think we should do to solve our problem?” you see what it means to trust children. Teachers all over the world who are inspired by those in Reggio Emilia are struggling to define our image of the child in these terms.

This year our center-wide intention is “Bringing Our Image of the Child to Our Work”. One way we can see what a center believes about children is to look at how spaces are designed and materials are stored.

For example, in our classrooms:

  • three year-olds have a range of art materials available to them at all times.
  • Two year-olds use porcelain pitchers to pour milk at snack.  
  • One year-olds carry around framed family portraits and have access to musical instruments.
Our classrooms embody our image of children in these and other ways, and we wanted to look together to see where we could do some more work and where we were succeeding.

Each team coordinator took some time to visit another classroom and reflect on what the space communicated about how the inhabitants see children. We used a protocol that invited us to think about how we described our image of the child back in September. (See the inset list). Then we came together at our monthly team coordinator meeting to share feedback.

Over and over again, teachers told us that they could see that teachers believe that “Children are capable and deserving of respect.” Some of the examples people shared:

  • "T2N did an amazing job with their mini-atellier, and all around the room I saw spaces for collaboration... The message was 'I trust you with tape all the time.' The forks and spoons were out where kids could get them when they need them."
  • "T1S also shined... They took all the railings off a climber, which I’ve never seen anyone do before".
  • "Everything was available! There were no gates to bathroom, plants and fish bowl are  available to children."
  • "The [P1] room gives [the children] the opportunity to explore or confront the rigid constraints of materials. You could see that all toys are props for play".

We asked teachers about what parts of our image were harder to see in classrooms.

This could be because of our own biases and agendas as “lookers” or because of what was there in the environment. We heard it was harder to see:
  • "That children are constantly in relationship to people and materials. I could see notebooks and I know that certain things happen, but I couldn't see it in the environment."
  • "Partnership with families. I could see family photos, but does that really tell about partnership?... I didn't feel like I saw partnership."
  • "It was challenging to see an emphasis on process over product in the infant room, since babies don’t “create” in the same ways that invite us to concentrate on the product."

It was clear that teachers really appreciated the feedback, and the glimpses they got in to each others' classrooms. As teachers, we often find that we have “our heads down”. We’re so focused on our own tasks, our own classrooms, that it may be a few days or weeks before we notice the documentation or new climber down the hall. This is part of why we love opportunities to really see what each other are thinking and working on: weekly provocations for teachers, this blog, our annual showcase, and our hallways full of documentation are opportunities for seeing this place through someone else’s eyes. 

Grounding our observations in our image of the child seemed to help us formulate our feedback, and translate it immediately into changes in the room. Right away, teachers seemed to see their own rooms differently, and the changes that some people made in the following days and weeks were made because they looked at their rooms through the lens of our image of children.

When you first came to PTCC, what could you infer about how we view children?

How do you feel to get or receive feedback from your peers or colleagues?

 We didn't have teachers assess our common areas. (The piazzas, outdoor space, grown-up bathrooms and the yard) Do you have any feedback about them?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Open Studio

 Our first Open Studio of the year was (I feel) a great success! Nearly every classroom was represented, and many children were able to share their knowledge of clay not only with parents, but also with siblings and with classmates who they don't usually encounter in the Studio. 

In preparing for this Open Studio time for families I thought a lot about some of the tendencies that we have when we work with clay around our children, and how they fit in with our work as a Reggio Emilia inspired center. Our knowledge of clay is often guided by an understanding of it as a medium for creating recognizable "things," and we are eager to share this understanding with our children. This is an understandable urge and a beautiful one! But what does this mean for the child on the receiving end? Sometimes it can simply mean joy in the wonderful gifts a parent has shared. Sometimes it can become hard to see the clay for its other possibilities. Sometimes it can feel disempowering when their young hands can't make the perfect shape the way an adult's hand can. 

All of the teachers at our center are constantly grappling with questions like, "When do I step in to help?", "How can I be supportive without infringing on a child's agency?", and "How can I ask questions to understand a child's mind without imposing my ideas on them?" In thinking about this year's first Open Studio, I really wanted to expand this culture of careful, critical thought, opening it up to parents through some questions and prompts posted on the wall:

The issue? How to ensure that parents read them. I agonized over this question beforehand as I was setting up. I planned to point them out to parents as they entered (which I did) but I was not so sure what to do to help them follow through. I wanted to offer them an opportunity to learn a bit more about our work as a center, but I was not comfortable with taking on the forceful approach necessary to make sure everyone read it. However, I knew that this meant that some parents might read these questions at the end, at which point they might feel as though they had done something wrong. "Well," I thought to myself, "This is an experiment I have never tried before, and I won't know how well it will work until it's over." In the end, I decided to try out my initial idea of mentioning the information to parents as they arrived, then seeing what happened. 

One parent was kind enough to reflect on her experiences surrounding these prompts at Open Studio:
I heard you say that there was something I should read on the panels against the window, but I assumed it was documentation about the studio and I planned on reading at the end of my time in the studio. After I'd been in the studio, [my partner] tapped me on the shoulder and told me I should read the stuff on the panels, but I still thought it was just documentation and that I'd read it before I left. At that point I thought it must be really great documentation, but I still didn't know it had anything to do with my opens studios. Even thought I didn't think I needed to read it at that point, I could see it from where I was sitting and started to read it from across the room. As I read it, I was holding a ball of clay that I had just loudly said I would turn into a monkey and I did feel I wanted to rewind and take back all of my references to representational use of clay. I also started to make a concerted effort to think of clay as a sensory activity and engage or prompt [my child] in ways that supported that view of clay.
... So the prompts definitely achieved the goal of deepening my understanding of Reggio, clay, and the studio. My only fear is that if [I hadn't been told] a second time to read the posters, I would have read them at the end and felt like I did the whole thing wrong. I'm really happy to think about Reggio teaching and try new things, so it also would have felt like a lost opportunity.

This parent's words are encouraging in that they suggest that parents at our center are willing and interested in engaging with the pedagogical philosophy that runs our school. At the same time, they show me that what I was worried about happening had happened. 

So, how can I better design an Open Studio that will encourage parents to engage with some of the ideas that drive our center's practice? The parent above suggested the possibility of having my questions as handouts, or of posting them by the door for people to read before even entering the Studio. In addition, she offered the idea of a sort of exit question for parents to respond to via email or this blog later on. 

Dear parents -
Did you attend Open Studio and read these questions?
Did they affect your time in the studio?
What do you think reading them now?
How can I best invite you into our center's pedagogical practice?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Willingness to Change: Reorganizing from Set Groups to Interest Groups

In discussing some of the positive aspects of having set Studio groups, I also mentioned one of the major drawbacks of this style of Studio distribution - the fact that it leaves very little room for re-organization around common interests. My grand hope for our Studio is that it may function as a space for children and teachers to really dig deep into the possibilities of a medium, a theme, or an idea. But I sometimes find myself scratching my head as to how to get to this point when each child in a group seems to have a different interest.

This was the problem I brought to my meeting with one of the preschool teams two weeks ago. I had noticed that, when the children in the set groups were provided with a provocation - such as rolling slabs - a few of the children would be interested in what was offered, some would insist on crumpling their slab or on using the rollers as parts to build with, and others wanted to add water and explore the same sensory experience we tried out early on in our clay investigation. In other words, three distinct interests had emerged through the clay: rolling slabs for use as a writing and drawing surface, building, and getting messy.

Although this teaching team had decided to use set groups at the beginning of the year as a way of mitigating the stress and confusion of assembling Studio groups in the moment, they were willing to reassess and reorganize the groups in order to better suit them to what the individual children were actually interested in. We now have, in fact, four Studio groups for this classroom: a group exploring writing on clay; a group who is investigating long-term building projects; a group experimenting with water, clay, and the messiness that results; and a group specifically exploring the vocabulary of clay.

These children have only had one full week with their new groups, and I can already feel a difference in the time we spend together in the Studio. Some of the children with an interest in building are working to create a train together, while Y. is working to construct a model of the airplane he rides when he flies to Israel. In the drawing/writing group, children are excitedly drawing the symbols they use to represent each other in the classroom and sharing them proudly with their peers and teachers. The vocabulary group created a list of words describing the things our hands can do with clay, and worked hard to try them all out. Today, the sensory group first explored their sticky, wet clay with their hands, then with paintbrushes, noticing the effects of the brush bristles on the clay's surface and of the clay-covered brush on black paper. A. and Kerem found that their hands could work like paintbrushes, too, as they smeared and smoothed clay across the paper's surface.
I am excited to see where these interest-based groups will lead, and I am so grateful to the teachers for being willing to revisit and reorganize their Studio groups to allow for this to happen. I am curious to know the thoughts of teachers and parents about this process of reorganization and reassessment in contrast to the constancy that I have discussed before. What benefits do you see in each of these approaches? Do you see any ways to compromise the two? Which approach do you prefer as a teacher (or would you prefer if you were a teacher)? Which do you think you would prefer if you were a child at our center?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Anti-bias work at the costume shop

At PTCC, we create "anti-bias curriculum". This means that we have four goals to help children counter the biases they encounter in their lives. The four goals are:

1. Each child will demonstrate self-awareness, confidence, family pride, and positive social identities.

2. Each child will express comfort and joy with human diversity; accurate language for human differences; and deep, caring human connections.

3. Each child will increasingly recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness, and understand that unfairness hurts.

4. Each child will demonstrate empowerment and the skills to act, with others or alone, against prejudice and/or discriminatory actions.

(These goals were originally written by Louise Derman Sparks in her book "Anti-Bias Curriculum for Young Children and Ourselves" and are excerpted from a pamphlet by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.)

Edit: A thoughtful parent challenged the way  these goals are phrased. He mentioned that it language sounds final, as though once one is finished with these goals, dusts off one's hands and congratulates oneself, even though what we're describing is a life long journey. I want to say thank you for this feedback, and agree. We are never done with this work. 

Teachers and admin staff here at PTCC are always working on these four goals with one another as well! We work hard to see injustice and to listen when someone brings it to our attention and to change it to the best of our ability. Thanks for the feedback!

At PTCC we sometimes summarize these by saying:

1. I'm okay.
2. You're okay.
3. That's not fair!
4. Let's do something about it.

There is SO much to learn about anti-bias work, and about how we form and counter our own and our children's biases. Today, I'd like to share a short video about these issues that  focuses on Halloween costumes.

The "What Would You Do?" series is really enlightening and tackles issues of  interpersonal issues of homophobia, sexism and racism in a way that is easy to talk about with other people.

In this episode, there's so much! We often define our selves and others by what we wear. Questions about gender and sexuality are addressed by moms in just a few subtle sentences. I wonder how their words sound to the child?

When we listen to the last woman who intervenes, I can hear her modeling all four of these goals for the little girl. Can you? I think that this story isn't a simple one, even though a seven minute segment can make it seem that way.

What are your thoughts?
How does your family talk about Halloween costumes?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Building Relationships in the Studio

Jordan, Max, and Maddy enter the Studio to discover three big lumps of clay set out on the floor. Before long, the three toddlers each have a big block of clay that they identify as their own. Maddy lifts her clay up, even though it is soooo heavy.

Maddy: Mine's the biggest. Look, I caught it.
Jordan: Can I try it?
Maddy: No this is my ones.

Jordan contents herself with scraping her fingers across her clay. Maddy jumps on her block, balances, and, a few minutes later, returns to the earlier conversation.

Maddy: Okay, now you can have mine.
Jordan: Okay, and you can have mine.
Max: Here's another trade comin.' You want to trade with me, Maddy?
Maddy: Okay you can have Jordan's.

Many similar conversations happen each week in the Studio as groups of children return to revisit clay together. The majority of these children come together consistently - the same children with the same teacher each time they see the clay.

This sometimes makes me wonder - what does this constancy mean? To me, sometimes it can mean feeling restricted or tied down. The practice of set groups makes it hard to reorganize groups based on specific interests of children as they emerge. I might see different children in different groups drawn to the same activity, but our group arrangements don't allow these three children to be reorganized into a new Studio group (unless it is arranged as an extra Open Time). These moments leave me feeling frustrated by this system, longing for more leniency, more give-and-take with how our Studio functions.

However, this constancy also has beautiful potential - the possibility to build relationships between children as well as between a child and a material. As groups of children continue to encounter the Studio and its gifts together, they also find themselves learning how to negotiate the sharing and use of this space with their peers. The clay they see before them is not merely a material to explore - it is an entity that they must either take possession of or relinquish sole possession over. It can be viewed as either a finite quantity to be treasured, saved, and used for one's own purpose, or as a bounty to be shared, combined, divided, and recombined as needed. In other words, the Studio becomes a microcosm of the social learning that is already so predominant in the minds and lives of young children.

Of course, this question of possession versus collaboration would exist for the children whether or not they came in the same groups each time. However, what would most likely not arise (or would at least take longer to arise) would be the building of a shared culture around this work for the children involved. By coming to the Studio with the same group each time, the children are able to build trust, to develop a language for tricky situations, to set precedents, and to recall those precedents later. In other words, Studio can become an ongoing conversation around children's relationships with each other and a material, rather than discreet, disconnected points that all involve clay.

I look at the small fragment of Jordan, Max, and Maddy's visit together, and I see an important foundation being built. What do you see happening for these children in this brief encounter with clay and with each other?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

What is the most important thing we can teach your child?

Last week I had the good fortune to teach in P1 one morning when a lot of teachers were out sick.

I had a wonderful time with old friends and new ones. I rode on a make-believe-train, cared for some beautiful babies, sang songs with Wayne, pretended to be a monster and then witnessed a really interesting game of queens and kings. In a Reggio Emilia-inspired classroom we carefully watch children's play, identify the learning that's happening so that we can extend it and record it, then offer it up for children, their families and our peers to think about. In an hour and a half I saw:
  • literacy skills: as children wrote notes about the babies they were practicing drawing letters, sounding out words, and growing their understanding  of how written communication functions
  • math skills: as they made sure that there were enough seats on the train for everyone, adding them and subtracting them as children joined and left the game, and arranging them in symmetrical shapes
  • social skills: They asked for a turn, named problems to be solved, resolved conflicts, stated needs and balanced them with the needs of others
These are all important skills and are part of the conversation when we talk about "school readiness". However, through another lens, I saw children developing what we call "dispositions", what Paul Tough calls "character" and what a lot of people are talking about in education circles today.

Perhaps you've heard about Paul Tough's new book, "How Children Succeed" about how certain character traits seem to help students succeed academically and elsewhere even more than IQ does. Or perhaps you heard him and others discussing "non-cognitive skills" on This American Life last month. If you haven't, take a look. It's fascinating, and makes intuitive sense that success comes from more than just the abilities to remember facts, integrate them, communicate them and create new knowledge. In early childhood, when we talk about character, or about what we want for children's futures, we often talk about children's dispositions. The Reggio Emilia approach encourages children to develop not just skills, but the dispositions of artists, of scientists, and of leaders and citizens to name a few.

When I went outside with the children from Preschool 1, F. immediately asked me "Will you be a monster?" I said "Yes!" and tore after him with my arms high above my head, growling and gnashing my teeth. (F and I have had lots of practice playing monster together.) He ran beneath the bushes by the fence.

F: This is my safe spot.
Kendra: It sure is, the monster can't get in and get you! I turned my attention from F to K. I experimentally growled at him and he smiled, so I growled at him again. Some children grabbed onto Erin. K ran from the monster and then turned to face her with his teeth bared. 
T: grabbed the monster. "I've got you!" 
S: Can you be a person? Can you be a person?
Kendra: Sure, S. I can be a person. In a little while I'll be a monster again.
S: Some people were a little bit scared.
Kendra: Some people like to be a little bit scared and some don't.
R, T, F and M: I DO! I like to be scared! 
K2: I like the monster game too!

Later, F was playing in the little house outside with some friends.
Y: Can I come in?
F: Sure! It's only for kings and queens...and you're a king.
E and J watch Y sit down with F and R at the table. F points to the spectators.
F: and you're a princess and you're a king.
Emma: running inside with J. What's T?
F: T's a king too. Here, have some soup. This is my cup. You can have it.
Emma: Thank you, F.

Here, I see tremendous self-awareness, bravery of different kinds... running from the monster, standing and opposing the monster, or advocating for their own and their friends' needs when they feel scared. I see real integrity in S and K2 knowing themselves and speaking up in the monster game, and such flexibility and open-hearted generosity in F's kings and queens game. These kids are developing the dispositions of care-givers, of collaborators. This is the kind of learning that may determine how these children will navigate the struggles they encounter later in life. For older children some of these habits of mind and deed can be discretely taught, but at this age, they are best learned through the kind of struggle and negotiation that occurs in children's unscripted play. Educators of older children are learning about how to teach these habits later, and debating whether or not these traits should be quantified the ways that other kinds of learning are.  As teachers and loved ones, we can encourage these dispositions, avoid squashing them and help children to build character through our attention (both in the moment and through documentation). 

Lillian Katz, a professor, writer, editor and early childhood educator has spent much of her career thinking and writing about learners' dispositions. She defined “a disposition as a pattern of behavior exhibited frequently . . . in the absence of coercion . . . constituting a habit of mind under some conscious and voluntary control . . . intentional and oriented to broad goals” (Katz,1993). For me those words "intentional and oriented to broad goals" really resonate. Our goals for children are broad indeed. When we try to make lists of what we want children to do, have, know and be, they are endless. Rather than teaching them everything we want them to know, let's teach them to be great at learning, at looking closely, at trying, at loving one another. This is what we do when we focus on dispositions.

 When I worked in Seattle, I ran the Big Kids' after-school program at a preschool that used a Reggio Emilia inspired approach. I met the kids' teachers at their public school when I picked them up to bring them back to our program. Over and over I heard from veteran teachers of all grades that they could recognize the children from our program; they spoke up in class with a respectful and confident manner, they asked a lot of thoughtful questions (and challenged the teachers!), they made logical leaps right away, spoke up about unfairness, approached their work with the same excitement that they brought to their play, they were very creative and comfortable with a range of artistic media, or they loved reading and writing. These teachers were describing exactly the kinds of dispositions that we tried to engender at my old center, and that we are fostering today at PTCC; the dispositions of artists, scientists, thinkers, authors, journalists, investigators, and historians to name a few.

Here are just a few ways that PTCC teachers help children to develop the dispositions that we want them to have:

In Infant South, teachers check in with our youngest babies, letting them know before they get picked up. They let babies encounter one another without a lot of adult intervention. This fosters self-determination and independence that can later become the dispositions of self-love and critical thinking.

In Preschool One, children answer "the question of the day". They think about all kinds of questions then dictate or write their responses. Their parents and teachers respect their meaning-making by transcribing their exact words and reflections without interpretation or correction. They are encouraged to develop the dispositions of scientists and big thinkers whose ideas are valued, who wonder about things, talk about them, test out their theories and change them when needed.

All over the center, children's art work is hung up with great respect so that children and adults can consider it. Children are invited to think about the work they did in the past, and add to it if they like. This fosters the dispositions of artists, the ability to take new perspectives, to think graphically, and to continue concentrating on their creation over time.

It feels great when we get to read in the newspaper about the kind of teaching that we're doing here! It's also beautiful when something links the learning happening across ages, and character education does just that.

What dispositions did you learn as a child, and which did you have to learn as an adult? 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Why a blog?

Blogs are an interesting part of the internet. There are people who read blogs (me) and there are people who don't. Here are some questions people who don't read blogs sometimes ask me:
  • "What's the difference between a blog and a webpage? Or a tumblr?" 
    • Well, a blog is a kind of webpage that gets updated with words and pictures on a regular basis. Tumblr is a webpage where you can have a little blog that's not very long.
  • "Who reads this stuff?" 
    • That really depends on the blogger. Some people share their work with friends and family and others broadcast it to the whole internet.
  • "Why would you want a blog? Why not just send it in an email to the people you know? Or put it up on Facebook?"
    • Some people have a blog about a special topic, bikes for example, or yoga, or cooking. Or their vacation, or their baby, or the costumes they knit for their cats. A blog is a way for them to reach out to other people who share their interest. (Take a look on the right, under "Beautiful Blogs" for links to some of the blogs that Katie and I follow.)
    • Other people have a blog as a storage location; a place to keep their writing or photographs or big ideas.
    • Blogs can be community sites too. A blog with an active readership is like a cafe bustling with people who are interested in the same things. "Love Isn't Enough" is a blog I follow that is concerned with "raising a family in a color struck world". Readers there engage in real conversations about difficult topics. 
We've been thinking over the past few years about starting a blog, but we've also thought about not doing it; it's some extra work, it may go unread, like any regular practice, there's the possibility of failing to keep up. This year Katie and I decided that we are ready.

There are two parts of my work this year that will be served by a blog; making teachers' work visible, and partnering with families. I'll use this blog to document the documenters. Your teachers have spent years painstakingly putting together storybooks, powerpoints and beautiful slideshows about the work your children are doing; I'd like to use this blog to highlight teachers, their learning and their work. I'd also like to help families to learn more about what we mean when we say that we are inspired by the teachers and families of Reggio Emilia, that our curriculum is anti-biased, play-based and child-centered. I'll demystify some of our jargon and hopefully, I'll invite you into conversations in the comments about things that are important to all of you.

We can also use this blog as an archive. If we post regularly, then it will hold our ideas and our history for us to pass them on to later staff and families. If people wonder what the center used to be like, if we want to see how much we change every year (and we change so much!) we can look back at the blog. It can also help staff with our professional development. Currently, if we want to remember what article we read at the "Reggio Roundtable" we held about outdoor play and learning, or remember how that other preschool classroom dealt with a fascination with Pokemon, we have to ask each other, look back in old notebooks and try to remember. However, if we keep this sort of information on our blog, teachers can easily search and use our blog as a resource.

We hope that you enjoy reading this blog and that it can be helpful to our community. Please read it often and comment when you read so that we hear as many voices as possible.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Too-Big Train

There are so many different things to do and see in the Studio. This week I saw a glimpse of the great potential this space holds for the children of our center. Although we are investigating clay as a center this year, that doesn't mean that clay is the only material we are exploring in the Studio. In addition to our scheduled times to work with clay, the Studio calendar also houses "Open Times." Classrooms can sign up for these Open Times, giving small groups of children a chance to try out another medium or bring an idea from the classroom to fruition in the Studio.

This past week, my friend and fellow teacher, Erin, told me that building trains from blocks had been a major interest in her preschool classroom. She suggested the idea that building a "real" train for the classroom might be a fruitful project. I spoke with a few of the key players in the train play (Theo, R., and T.) at lunch that day, and in the afternoon they joined me in the Studio. I had set 12x18 sheets of white paper on the table, along with black sharpies. 

Katie: I heard that you guys really like to build trains in the block area in your classroom. I was wondering if you have any ideas about how to build another train here in the studio that could live in the classroom?"
R: This is the windows. She started by drawing squares through the horizontal space of her paper.
Theo: Seat belts, seat belts, seat belts. He made many swirling oval shapes. 
R: This is the upstairs, now I'm doing the downstairs, adding another layer of squares. And here's the people.
T.: He had worked with quiet concentration before now, pointed proudly to his drawing. Look! Did you know I can do a train? Here's the person giving the train gas. And here's his gas thing - the gasser.
Theo: Looking over, But where's the people?
T.: Right here and here's his train.
Theo: Look I did my train!
T.: That's a too big train.
Theo: I like a big train.
T.: Why?
Theo: Because it goes around and around.
T.: Oh, yeah. Now I'm going to do a railroad track. This is so cool. Can I show it to my other friends? Lookit this! I built this whole thing!

Since he was finished with his drawing, T. started to think about what the next step would be with their drawn plans. "You know what would be cool? If we tape it together." R. and Theo agreed, and everyone worked to tape the plans together, into one big long train. R. showed us a "trick" with the tape. "You can do it on the line, too, like this," she said, setting a piece vertically between two pages, rather than horizontally.

Having made this big plan, we talked about the parts we would need to make our train a reality.
Our current list is:
the door
the bathroom
the big roof
a steering wheel

We also thought of some of the materials we would need:

duct tape

I am so excited to share this Studio time, because it left both myself and the children involved feeling invigorated and excited. I found myself thinking, "This is what I want Studio to feel like." 

What do I mean by this? 

Part of this feeling comes from the genuine interest and excitement shown by the children. From the first minute, they were all engaged in their drawings, speaking aloud without prompting, sharing with me and with each other as their trains progressed and they came up with new ideas. Even though the idea for this train was something suggested by teachers, the children tackled the problem of designing it with such fervor that the project really became their own. Erin was right on the mark in offering this prompt, and, as a result, the ownership of the project shifted from our shoulders to those of the children. I relish the moments where children truly take charge of their own learning and their own work, putting more effort into a project and taking another look at their work through their own initiative or the critiques of peers rather than through the prompting of teachers.

Another piece of the feeling lies in the sense of specialization surrounding this work. These three children were here because they shared a particular interest in the classroom. This project was essentially created with them in mind. Although my ideal is to foster a relationship with the Studio where children will be the driving force behind these projects in every aspect - from coming up with the idea of building the physical train to asking to bring it to the Studio - this first step felt very successful. It was allowing space for children with shared interests to come together and delve into that interest more deeply despite the constraints of child-teacher ratios and pre-set studio groups.

The final piece, I think, lies in the children's thoughts about the future of this train. The fact that they were thinking about its future (both in terms of building the train itself and sharing their plans with their classmates), not to mention excited by the prospect, filled me with joy. I want Studio to become more to this center than "that place you go once a week to see what Katie sets out." I want it to be a place of creation and plans and imagination and following through. I want it to be a place where projects live that are important to the children who start them. I want it to be a place where children ask to journey to, where the work we do there is remembered and returned to through children's initiative rather than teachers.

This train feels a little bit like that. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

"What about our feet?"

What do children learn when they encounter clay with their feet?

Touching a material with our feet sometimes reinforces what we learn with our hands. The touch of a material against our skin will probably feel very similar whether we use our palms or heels. The feeling of the clay against our toes might be cold and smooth, just as it is against our hands. Fingers and toes can also have similar effects on the clay. L. and Y. (two preschoolers) describe the action of dragging their toes through the clay as "digging" and "scraping" respectively, words that also describe work that their fingers do. G. and Jone (two toddlers) notice that some of the clay sticks to their feet, just like it does to their hands, and they explore this property by squishing even more clay with their toes, trying to stick pieces of clay to their feet, or scratching at their clay-covered limbs to get the stuff off. In these instances, our words and actions around clay remain very much the same, whether our hands or our feet are being used. We are learning about the clay, but also about the similarities our toes and fingers share - their ability to scratch and scrape, to feel, to stick...

However, exploring clay with our feet can also teach us new aspects of the material itself. Working with a part of our bodies that is less prehensile then a hand, we can discover exactly how much control and pressure it takes to make a mark in the surface. When Ariv (an older preschooler) stands on the clay, he finds that wiggling his toes causes them to burrow into the clay. It doesn't take much effort on his part to sink his feet into the soft surface. However, in order to sink them deep, deep into the clay, he needs to press harder. He kneads his toes into the clay so deep, it's as though he is balancing en pointe. He is exploring the give-and-take of the clay in a different way than he could with his hands. He learns that the clay is at once pliable enough for his feet to sink through and strong enough to hold them in place (and the rest of his body up) once they are lodged inside.

In some ways, feet are better tools than hands for exploring the impressionable nature of clay's surface. If we press hard with our fingers, we make holes in the clay. If we press with our hands, we might make a slight mark in the clay. When we step across the clay, though, we lend those steps all of the weight of our bodies. The mark left behind is therefore much deeper, much more clear. Many children notice this as they run across the clay. "I make a toe," says N., pointing out the indents of his toe-prints. He runs across again, looking back to see if there are even more. He is figuring out how to leave his mark on the clay, discovering that even the action of stepping onto the clay (perhaps without the intent of changing it) has an impact.

Interacting with the clay through our feet can also lead to a greater awareness of our bodies and the way they move around this material. When Molly (a young toddler) tries to step onto the clay for the first time, she wobbles and steps back onto the ground. The tall clay with its squishy, slippery surface provides a tricky obstacle. She tries again, testing her weight on the clay a few times before pushing up and onto the clay. Once there, she wobbles a little before centering her body on the clay. "Balance! Balance!" She is proud and excited by her accomplishment! She is testing her own body's limits, using the clay as a tool to improve her own control and strength. 

Harlan (an older toddler) has a similar encounter with the clay and his feet. The first time he tries to step onto an uneven lump of the material, it shifts sideways under his feet, causing him to quickly step off. "Whoa, whoa, whoa! It bounced!" He tries stepping up onto the clay several more times, discovering which steps cause the clay to shift beneath him, and which steps help the clay to stay strong. He is learning about the potential leverage of the clay, but also about the powerful effect his body can have in enacting this leverage.

Soon, the older children at our center will begin to work with clay at a table, using their hands and building up their competency with various clay tools. Why was it important to provide older children a chance to visit the clay in this fashion first? How do you think the children will react differently to the clay when it is set on a table, rather than the floor?

Many of the younger children will continue to encounter the clay on the floor, with the option of exploring it with bare feet. How will we extend their investigation of this material? What tools will we introduce? 

What tools would you like to try with clay if you had the chance?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Work of Many Hands

What do children learn when they meet clay with their fingers?

During their first encounters with clay, children throughout the center discover many ways of exploring it with their hands. P., a young toddler, begins with soft, gentle pats, feeling the cool, smooth surface of the clay without trying to change it. J., an infant, explores the clay in a similar way, slapping it with energy, then leaning forward to get a closer look. They are learning about the exterior of the clay and the touch of it on their skins. They are learning that a light touch will not make a big change in the clay's surface. 

Many children - preschoolers and toddlers alike - break into the clay with their fingers and nails. They scrape and score long rows in the gray lump. They are learning about the texture of the clay below the surface, as well as about one of the many ways they can change the clay from a solid block into something else. They learn how to change the outside by making it ridged and "bumpy." They explore the inertia of clay, learning just how much they have to push and pull to make an impression on its surface. 

What happens next? 
Scraping the clay may cause little pieces of the material to roll up on the fingers doing the work. Harlan, an older toddler, is surprised by this, and he shakes and shakes his hands, sending the pieces flying. He enjoys this so much, he reaches down to scratch more clay and repeat the gesture. Gaia, a preschooler, has a similar reaction, which she describes with the words, "Ah! It's sticking to me, get off, get off!" They are learning about the feel of clay on their hands and under their nails. They learn that clay can stick to your skin, and they learn how to get it off - by shaking! They also discover that the clay they shake off does not simply fall, but soars through the air. Most of the pieces land on the floor, but a few stick to the wall with a "thud." Through this, they learn even more about the "sticky" properties of the clay. 

For M., a young toddler, these little pieces allow her to share the clay with her friend, D., before he has reached the clay lump. She digs her fingers in deeper to grab an even bigger piece of clay to bring to him. She is learning that she can separate the clay into pieces, and she is figuring out the best way to do this. She is also learning about the reactions her friends have to the clay she brings them, as D. smiles and reaches for the gray handful she offers. 

J., a preschooler, explores the scoring motion with greater intent. "I want to make a slide," he says, using one finger to trace a long, curving line down the side of the clay. Another preschooler, R., also carries out a purposeful project, digging into the clay and shaping it up into an archway. "I'm making a tunnel," she explains. Her friend, Susan, smooths a part of the clay with both hands nearby. "Yeah, and we're making it so smooth, cuz we're making a house, right?" Having discovered the clay's malleability, these preschoolers are making use of this property to build or engrave marks of their own choosing. They are learning about the architectural possibilities of clay.  

A first encounter is a meeting place. We leave our mark on the clay, and the clay leaves its mark in our memories. Every touch of fingers to clay communicates something - be it about the clay itself or about the work needed to change it. Through these moments, we are beginning a relationship between these fingers and this clay. How will the things we learned shape our second meeting? 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012



I worked and studied in a center inspired by the teachers and families in Reggio Emilia for years before I ever heard the Italian word "Inserimento". I'd like to share it with you because I think it honors our mentors and heroes when we use their words. For instance, I'm the "pedagogista" (instead of the coach or coordinator) at Peabody Terrace Children's Center because I want to remind myself and our community that I am the intellectual descendant of generations of pedagogisti who have supported reflective teachers all over the world. And yet, I had never heard "inserimento" because it is associated with infant and toddler centers and I worked at a preschool with an after-school care for older children. In Italy, infants and toddlers go to one center and preschoolers go to another, and when a family first comes to childcare, they are embraced by the community; this is the process of inserimento.

Since families first started paying someone to watch children so that mothers could work childcare was viewed as a separation of mother and child. If this is the model, then child care workers have to try to lessen the pain of this separation, and help the child spend her time until her mother returns. Inserimento is another way of viewing this same situation. Literally, I'm told, it means "insertion"... We ask "How is this family added to the community?" rather than "How will these teachers substitute for mother?" For us, the process of bringing a child to the infant room is broadening her community, building new relationships upon the attachment that she already feels with her family. Our situation is one of addition instead of subtraction. In fact, inserimento is a process of teachers and families "opening oneself to others" (Bambini,114) not just teachers and children. The incremental way that we welcome families into our infant rooms, our home visits and extensive developmental histories, our documentation are all a part of how PTCC welcomes whole families into our community, builds trust and creates a classroom; how we do inserimento.

This tile wall is composed of the artwork of PTCC children over the years. It is a reminder to children and families that this place has its own history, that we are not the first teachers and families here and we won't be the last. We are part of something bigger than ourselves.
Unlike the centers of Reggio Emilia, however, we have infant, toddler and preschool classrooms. I have been looking closely over the last two months, as the children (and their families) all moved into new classrooms, with new teachers for evidence of our "never-ending process of growth, transformation and getting to know each other" (Bambini, 121). Comprehensive welcome packets, our piazzas, all about me books, family pictures and warm conversations in person are ways that the teachers of older children at PTCC continue the process of inserimento.
Family photos in many classrooms allow children to get to know each other's families and offer comfort to children when they miss their loved ones.
How do our families count?
When you thought about bringing your child to care, did you think of it as an additive experience or a seperation for your family? What has been your experience here at PTCC?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Getting to Know You: A Meet and Greet with Clay

This year, all of the classrooms will spend their first three months of studio time focusing on clay. For some children, this will mean getting acquainted with the material for the first time. For others, this will allow them an opportunity to share their expertise. However, for our first meeting with this material (and our first studio visits of the new school year!) all of the children in the center – preschools or infants – will first see the clay in the same form..

...a big block lying atop a canvas-covered floor.

All of the children will be invited to remove their shoes and socks (or will be helped to undress down to diapers), so that they can “get to know” the clay with their whole bodies.

The question then becomes, what will this invitation inspire and how will it look for the different age groups?

It is easy to imagine how this first meeting with clay might differ for a preschooler – who can run, jump, and stomp, let alone stand – and an infant who is not even able to crawl. This only makes the question of whether or not these meetings might also be similar all the more interesting.

At the same time, one might assume that the experience for all of the preschool groups will be much the same. This, in turn, inspires us to look deeper at the moments of contact with the clay – to search out the moments of difference as moments of power and possibility.