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?