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.