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?

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