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.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Why Clay? Why Together?

This year, Peabody Terrace Children's Center is undertaking to explore a shared material - clay - across all of the classrooms. Children's interactions with this medium will primarily take place in the Studio with me, although teachers will also be encouraged to make space for this work to extend to their classrooms. As we begin this exploration together, I hoped to take a moment to elaborate a bit about the "whys and wherefores" behind this shared investigation and why it has the potential to be really powerful. 

I am so excited for us to all explore the same medium together for several reasons. First of all, I love the idea that this may create a shared language across the center – that it will give both children and teachers in the different classrooms something in common. The possibility for growth, for shared experience, and for teaching that this offers seems very rich to me.

Secondly, I believe that this commitment to a single medium will help us, as teachers and observers, to focus in on what the children are doing with the clay presented to them. Sometimes there are so many different directions to go in the Studio, it can feel overwhelming as to which to choose. And sometimes this plethora can be as distracting for teachers as it is for children. Using clay as a centering point will, I hope, offer us a chance to deepen our use of the cycle of inquiry in relation to the Studio, and help us to build a practice that will outlast the three months we explore clay.

Now, you may be wondering how this “enforced” medium could possibly align with our practice as a Reggio-inspired center. How can this work still be student-led? In answer, I would say a few different things. I would say that our initial choice of a material does not preclude the idea of our engagement in the Studio being led by the children. In fact, by sticking with this material for three months, I believe we are giving ourselves an opportunity to really dig in and allow the children to “lead” us through their interactions and interests around this material. It is our job to look closely at how they are interested in using it and to think about how we can best support this interest. 

I would also say that, to me, one of the many roles of the Studio is to introduce children to new media – to new ways of seeing, interacting with, and representing the world – and to offer up these media as parts of the world we live in. In this light, our clay investigation is an opportunity to introduce our children to clay and to allow them to develop a deep and meaningful relationship with it. Through clay, they are getting to know the world, and they are developing a new language through which they can interpret it. This, to me, is very much in tune with the idea of the hundred languages of children, which are so central to our work here. 

In addition, I would say that clay is not a regimented material. It offers up so many different possibilities. I do not feel we are limiting either the children or their Studio experiences by choosing to work with it for three months. Finally, by creating alternate “Open Times,” the schedule this year will allow for other explorations in the studio in addition to clay. In other words, the experiences of children in the Studio need not be “limited” to clay at all. There are still other opportunities to be seized!