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. 

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