Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Bringing the Studio to Our Classrooms

The times Toddler Two South children have used wire in the Studio, there have always been interesting moments – Yoshi using one wire to hook another, D. trying again and again to poke wires down into the plug of the sensory table, S. creating a ball by smooshing the wires in his hands. However, when these endeavors became frustrating (or once they have been accomplished) the children would lose interest in the material, testing to see which of the handles and curtains in the room they can play with.

This led to a few trial weeks of bringing the Studio into the classroom. In other words, I would bring materials into the Toddler Two South room, set them up at the table, and remain there for a few hours, inviting children to join me in exploring what I had brought.

I noticed a difference in how our exploration of wire felt as a result of this change in scenery. First of all, each time that I have done this, all of the children came to the table and participated in some way. A few children (especially those newer to the classroom) were content to sit and observe, or perhaps hold a wire and stretch it out with their arms. Other children came to work at the table for an extended time, and many revisited the wire provocation in small bursts throughout the time it was available. There was still a space set up for careful work with the wire – a space that I felt was, in part, defined by the constant presence of a teacher – but children were not tied to it the same way they are in the Studio. If they felt finished with what they were doing or needed a break before coming back to try again, they were perfectly free to do so. At the same time, I felt comfortable reminding children of what they had been working on and inviting them back into it later on. This allowed children like Yoshi - who had considered the wire's possibilities as a hook - to extend ideas begun at an earlier date through more practice and new experiments. 

As a teacher, I felt as though a weight had fallen from my shoulders as I spent time in the classroom with the children and the wire. The burden of constantly keeping so many minds engaged with same material all at once was gone, and instead, I was able to focus in on the children who were interested in the material in the moment. If someone left the wire table after a few minutes, I did not feel worried or discouraged the way I might in the Studio. In the Studio, a child leaving the activity often creates a distraction, if not for the whole group, at least for the teachers who hope to re-engage them. In the classroom, a child leaving the activity meant opening up space for a new person to join, or an opportunity to tidy up the table a bit, which often attracted someone else’s attention.

All of these observations tie back into a lot of what has been on my mind lately about both the role of the Studio as a physical space and my role as the atelierista, who is responsible for that space while also being responsible for work happening in all of our classrooms. I am excited by the success I have felt in Toddler Two South and other classrooms when I have brought materials to them and helped to define a more focused area for work within their everyday space, and I am excited, too, about what this might mean for the Studio space I leave behind. My vision is that, as we are building more space for focused work in the classroom, the Studio can transform into a laboratory – a place where groups of children invested in an idea or a problem can work together to solve it or where a teacher can bring a small group for close observation in order to further her research questions from the classroom.

When do you find a separate, focused space helpful in your life, and when do you prefer to be in a place with many options, people, and ideas in play at once? 

What themes do you see continually resurfacing in your child's classroom? Do you have any ideas you could share with teachers about how we might bring these themes to the Studio? 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Waiting for the potty IS our curriculum! Thinking about our hidden curriculum with videos

A beloved colleague said the above when teachers complained about the parts of the day that seem to take time away from learning. What he meant was that young children are learning from every experience in our care, and that the ways that we choose to care for them are another way of teaching. These moments are part of the "hidden curriculum", and provide an opportunity for us to learn about ourselves as people and as teachers. When we look at how we help children with their coat, or sing a song to them we learn about who we are, which informs how we teach. 

We spent a few weeks examining our hidden curriculum so that we can shift our practices and allow even incidental moments to be informed by our highest values and our best thinking. Each week, a different group of eight teachers came together and read an excerpt from the first part of Parker Palmer's brilliant essay "The Heart of a Teacher".

Here is a little of the wisdom teachers and staff shared in reaction to this piece:

Katy: When something doesn't go well, we pick it apart, "Why is it hard?" When something is going well, we rarely reflect on it and think "What did we do well?" so we can remember that. This is true in supervising staff as well.

Sarah: I really resonated with the second paragraph. It took me a long time to realize that everyone who is a teacher feels stupid or worthless or that they're not good at their job sometimes. Sticking with the cycle long enough, I've gotten to more self-compassionate practice. I'm a flawed person and I'm a good teacher.

This week, we considered transitions, which make up a big part of our day, by watching teachers and children transition together.

We started with a ten second video by way of introduction. Sara, a toddler teacher, walks with three children to a play yard. Afterwards, I asked the group "What are these children learning in this moment?"

  • to stay together (They are all holding hands.)
  • that the destination is exciting ("Here we are! Yay!")
  • there are many ways to get there (for example, waddling like a penguin)
  • learning about Sara as a teacher, her sense of humor... if I were with her I'd feel safe
  • they know to hold hands, they know they can leave their room together and get somewhere fun together
These are the kinds of things that all children are learning when we don't realize that we are teaching. Sara is a master teacher and she was teaching these children as she skipped and celebrated with them in this tiny moment. I believe that the more that we watch each other and ourselves teach, the more we practice paying attention, the less our curriculum is hidden and the more children are learning the kinds of things we want to be teaching.

We spent the next hour or so watching three videos: a toddler 1 class getting ready to go outside, a toddler 2 class waking up and getting ready to go outside and finally a preschool classroom cleaning up their classroom. Teachers had three protocols to choose from to focus their thoughts as they watched. One was about limited resources; tracking time, space and attention and how they were allotted. The next was grounded in our Reggio Emilia inspiration examining the role of the teacher, the role of the child, and the role of the environment in the clip. Finally, Some teachers used a list of Howard Gardner's multiple intelligence to see what kind of learning was taking place.

Monica: I noticed that even though they were running back and forth and doing other things, they were trusted by their teachers. the kids who needed attention, they got the attention they needed

Mari: I was thinking about our Reggio inspiration...the image of the child, the trust. Each [of the children] were focused on something different, touching  a basket, looking out the window, looking at [the class next door through the window]. This was a situation where it could be chaotic for a teacher "Don't' touch that! Come here! Your coat, and here's your hat!"  

Sarah: There was a lot of room for intra-personal learning, one kid is lying on his or her mat, taking care of themselves, waking up. Phineas is given the choice to eat inside or outside, when he is frustrated they say "I just didn't hear you, it's not a big problem." Teachers helping children learn who they are as individuals.

Debbie: I was struck by the kinesthetic part... that once they got their coat on, they weren't just sitting on the bench, they were running through. There was energy that was all allowed and encouraged.

H: I noticed the role of the teacher: I liked all the questions, asking for teamwork, asking "Can you show me where this goes?" instead of just picking it up.
Athletes watch videos with their coaches to really see the way that their bodies work, the consequences of their choices as they work. We use videos in our professional development for the same reason; to notice things from the outside that we can't from the inside. Our center values collectivity, so we watch videos together. 

The ones we watched were all taken in one hour last week, we didn't prepare for them in any way. I just showed up with a camera and asked permission and teachers graciously assented. Every time I share video of a teacher to other teachers I'm humbled by the willingness of the watched to share themselves and by the gratitude, sensitivity and recognition offered by the watchers.

Monday, November 18, 2013

When do we teach them and when do we let them wonder?

October's Provocation: What Do the Principles of Reggio Emilia Look Like Here?
Last week, four parents of children from 1-4 years old joined Katy and I for our first family provocation to talk about what we mean when we talk about the “Reggio Emilia approach” in our context.  We started with some parent questions about our history - about how and when we found this approach and started bringing it to bear on our pedagogy at PTCC. Katy, our director who is celebrating her thirtieth year working here, was incredibly helpful at this stage. She told the story of how PTCC came to be, and how we came to our approach  (gradually, over the last fifteen years or so.)

Next, we read PTCC’s mission statement together, and spent extra time on phrases from the second paragraph, where we get specific about what we do here.  I asked the parents to work in pairs and identify examples from their experiences here at the center. Here are some highlights:

Sarah: The children are co-constructors as well. For example, I love the “Question of the Day”. One time the question was “What makes trains go?” One child said people make trains go. Two said coal makes trains go. Two said electricity makes trains go. One child said a motor makes trains go and two said batteries make trains go. My child said batteries make trains go since she was thinking of her toy Lego train at home. The other child said batteries make trains go really fast. All of them were right and they were very different and it was a wonderful question. As they're talking about the answers, they listen to each other and they think about it differently."

Andrew: For my children, transition can be very difficult. The "Question of the Day" is a welcoming ritual for my family. As they enter the classroom, they're being grounded by thinking about their life outside of it.

Rick: From the kids' perspective; they spend so much time here. I can imagine it being disconcerting if you did not have a connection with home.

Abby: [This] last [sentence] stands out for me because of the documentation. I see this all the time. I am used to seeing pictures and a verbatim story about my son, and what he said, and then a reflection from a teacher. I know what my kid is doing at school.

Jumping In and Stepping Back

Rather than simply reading a list of principles we share with our colleagues in Italy, our conversation surrounded one "cognitive knot". Striving to untangle these sorts of knots is not just the work of adults in our tradition:

"Just as a knot (whorl) in  wood grain impedes a saw cutting through it, and just as a knot (tangle) in thread stops the action of a sewing needle, any problem that stops the children and blocks their action is a kind of cognitive knot." (pg 157, The Hundred Languages of Children, Third Edition). 

To hear our staff think about these kinds of knots, read this post.  Suffice it to say, we value them, we welcome them and we know that they help us to grow and learn when we try to get them undone. 

The knot we discussed is tangled around the questions:
"When do we step in and when do we step back?" 
"What is the role of an educator or parent in a child-centered curriculum " and 
"What do we let children explore and what do we "teach" them?" 

These questions could be a whole other post, so I'll just share that we had a great chat that included:
  • What's the difference between attentive inaction and inaction?
  • Is it ok to let children work under a flawed or completely incorrect theory about the world? For how long?
  • How do babies acquire a new skill? How can an adult support their learning?
  • How do we acquire or build knowledge?
  • What and how do children learn when we don't teach them?
  • Valuing frustration as the starting place of innovation and learning.
We didn't answer any of these questions (sorry, everyone, you'll have to keep working on these knots yourself!) but we had a very lively and satisfying (to me) conversation that left us all wondering further.

Next, we each read a piece of documentation written by teachers. Writing about children is a big part of our practice, and we value it for several reasons. It's a great place to look to learn about what it means when teachers and staff here say that we're inspired by the educators in Reggio Emilia. Reading pieces from infant, toddler and preschool rooms we noticed:
  • that documentation can give us a window into the classroom, set the context so that we can better participate when we're there
  • a teacher describing her internal dialog, her own struggle about how to respond to some children's conflicting ideas
  • a teacher allowing children to linger and move through the transition from naptime at their own pace, playfully
  • it's hard to know what a baby is intending or preferring before they can communicate very intentionally, and one teacher/author spent time considering the possibilities for one child in one moment

Finally, I asked if anyone had any unanswered questions, and we all agreed that the question of when do we help our children or tell the "the answer" lingered. 

  • I recommended the book Talking Their Way Into Science by Karen Gallas. It's by a teacher researcher about a classroom of 7 and 8 year olds, but the principles are absolutely valid when thinking about younger learners. It's short and fascinating and a great read.
  • We talked about our practices with babies and young toddlers and how many teachers are also inspired by Magda Gerber. A blog by one of her students, Janet Lansbury, can be found here.
  • Andrew gave us a beautiful synopsis of the big ideas behind constructivism (here's an interesting link he passed along) and suggested an article in Wired about emergent learning in the older grades. We also discussed the TED talks of Sugata Mitra, which detail how children learn without being explicitly taught.
This blog is one way that we can continue this conversation. Where do you fall as a parent or teacher on the "stepping in" or "stepping back" spectrum? What are some of the flawed theories your children have shared with  you as they constructed their ideas about the world?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Evening Parent Provocations; a New Practice at PTCC

When we say "provocation," what are we talking about? At our center, the term has come to encompass many encounters with many different audiences - children, teachers, and, now, parents - yet they all stem from a belief in working together to deepen our thinking.

Provoking Children:
The word "provocation" comes to us from our Italian friends. Because teachers and children are collaborating together, we often find that it is our role, not to "teach" but to "provoke" exploration, innovation, or reflection. It sounds strange when you first hear it, but we want to be "provoked" by our environments, materials and our peers to see our world differently, to participate in it's construction. When you see materials or ideas displayed beautifully for children to encounter in a child care, that is a provocation. It's part of the shared jargon of our approach and I feel that it's quite helpful and specific.

Provoking Teachers:
Our center has an novel practice that we call “Teacher Provocation,” a weekly gathering of teachers from every classroom that contributes to our quality as teachers and to the culture of our center. When the studio at PTCC was built 8 years ago, it became clear that many teachers did not have enough experience and comfort with art media to offer them to children. Once a week, a floating teacher who was also an artist welcomed one teacher from each classroom to spend their planning time working together with clay, water color, pencils or wire, and thus “teacher provocation” was born.

After a couple of years of these materials-based provocations, our staff felt confident with using the Hundred Languages with children, and began to spend the time together thinking about other areas of our practice. Then, as a teacher, I helped create themed, constructivist mini-workshops for us to share each week, and today this is a favorite part of my work as pedagogista.

Teacher provocation is valuable not simply because of the content (such as reading an article about something, sharing and responding to documentation, or talking through a dilemma with a peer). We value protected time to consider big ideas in the midst of our day to day work. In a center with 8 classrooms, three buildings, and a staff of 37 it can also be hard to know everyone. We have several opportunities for professional development as a whole staff spread throughout the year, but even that time is often spent in teams or in a large group, unable to connect with many of the individuals by our side. At provocation, each teacher has the opportunity to sit at a table with seven of their colleagues and usually most of the administrative team. We work as a large group and in smaller groups or pairs to answer big questions, articulate our positions and come to agreement. We are doing the same work together that we support children in doing.

Provoking parents:
Which brings us to parent provocations today. We are always seeking ways to collaborate with families, and it occurred to us that our teacher provocations provided a helpful model because they offer us precious and regular opportunities to:

  • connect with people in our community
  • take part in a conversation about something important and relevant
  • create shared ideas, and contribute to our organizational knowledge
  • practice the same kinds of collaborative, constructive learning that we choose for the children in our care
We’ll be provoking parents one evening each month until May. We'll talk about big ideas like what it means for children to share, how children play about violence and what it means to be child-centered educators.  I’m eager to see how this practice changes over time, and how it can support families and their roles in our center. I love seeing that this practice born of necessity (we need teachers to use artistic media with kids, our planning time is set up so that we can only get one teacher from each room each week) has developed into something that is absolutely critical to our work and our identity as a center, and that it's still transforming to become more valuable to our community.

Do you have a habit or practice that started as a necessity (i.e. walking to work) that has grown into something that is important to you for ideas that you couldn't have anticipated (i.e. sharing time with the friend you walk with, or getting into shape)?

Friday, November 1, 2013

Sand & Glue: A Work "on" Process

When a group of children from Toddler 2 North arrived in the studio, to continue the work with glue that we started a few weeks ago, I asked them "What can we do with glue?"

Phineas answered, "We push it out."
N. said, "We squeeze it," clenching and unclenching her hands.
E. added, "We brush it away,” describing the way we use brush-like tools to spread our glue.
This conversation set the tone for my thinking that morning. I found myself paying special attention to children's interest and mastery over the processes of using the provocation's materials (glue bottles, glue spreaders, shakers of colored sand, and flat, wooden tiles set in trays). 

When Phineas first picked up his spreader, he said, echoing E.'s earlier idea, "I'm going to spread it away," moving the tool across the mound of sand and glue piled on his tile. 

N. actually squeezed glue straight onto the spreader, then sprinkled sand on top, then spread the materials onto her tile. She was not interested in shaking the extra sand off of her tile at all.

K. built up layers of sand upon glue upon sand, stopping now and then to shake off the extra sand.  

When children emptied their shakers of sand, they were offered spoons for scooping the sand. E. used his spoon both to refill his shaker and to transfer sand directly onto the glue. Phineas figured out how to remove and return the lid of the shaker without help. He also noticed the glue and sand sticking to his tile. He began to find a rhythm: take off the lid, add some sand, put on the lid, shake some sand, "dump it out and see it stick." 

Watching all of this, I had a habitual thought, a kind of a early childhood proverb: "It's about the process, not the product." Early childhood educators emphasize that children's early work with materials is about exploration, and the tangible work produced is simply a byproduct of that time, not a piece of art to celebrate as it is for most older artists. This idea is nothing new to me; however, the work I saw today forced me to reconsider the word "process.” Usually “process” seems to me to mean something ethereal, fluid, abstract, the opposite of the solidity of a product. “It’s about the moment, not about the artwork,” you might say. However, “process” can also be concrete, something created or collaborated upon. It can be a set of steps needed to accomplish a task, to make something work, or to solve a problem.

These steps intrigued the children. They explored the ones we described when we came together (add glue, add sand, then shake off), and then recombined the different tools and materials to determine new processes with potentially different outcomes. True to the clich̩, they were less invested in the product of their work РN. was not even interested in finding out what her glue looked like under all that sand Рbut their participation in the process moved beyond said clich̩ into something more.

Sometimes an idea becomes so familiar that we forget to take time to examine what it really means. Watching these children work with these materials, I was reminded to review my own understanding of what "process" means and why we stress its importance in the investigative and creative work of children.

Our center's teacher provocations for the past month have all been focused on how to stay curious - curious about the families we work with, about our teammates, and about our environments. This visit from Toddler 2 North seems to suggest a fourth possible topic - staying curious about the language and concepts that inform our teaching. Part of our work as reflective teachers is to think about what we witness in our classrooms, what it means, and why it strikes us as important; another part is to consider ourselves within the greater nexus of the work we do - the principles that inform our thinking.

I found myself reconsidering my understanding of a precious axiom with greater care thanks to how it was beautifully illustrated by Phineas and his friends as they worked. I am grateful to be reminded that the words we try to live by still deserve a second or third look in light of our observations, and lived experience.

Which parts of your everyday life are “about the process” and which about “the product”?

What are the axioms or principles that you live by that have had deeper meaning by considering them in light of your own lived experience? How did you become curious about them?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Talking and Joining In: Tips for Infant Parents

How should I act when I join my infant in the Studio? 
How can I be a part of their exploration without disrupting their investigation? 
Here is our Center’s culture around
talking about children’s work and taking part in the activity

in a child-centered way.

Talking about children’s work
Each and every material offers an infant so many new sensations to explore! Sometimes this can feel overwhelming – perhaps the newness is unsettling or maybe the material’s texture is unexpected and startling. Our best tool for understanding what they think about the medium in front of them is observation. Take a moment to watch the way your child is using the material. Is he interested in the feeling of it? The sound it makes? The different ways he can manipulate it? After your child has had time to work on their own, offer some observations about what you notice, and suggest some possibilities for furthering their interest.
“You really like to shake these materials with big movements!”

“I notice you really like to bring the paper to your mouth. Would you like to try this thick, heavy paper so you can mouth it longer?”

“That was so surprising to me when that happened! What do you think about that?”

Joining in the activity
Art materials can be so enticing, you just want to play  with them, too! The trick is, how can you join in alongside your child without the focus shifting to what you are doing rather than what they are doing? Babies need time and space to test out these materials for themselves, so sit back and allow them to get comfortable before offering anything new.

Take a moment to look at the children’s work. How is your child using the material? Is he feeling it with his hands? With his feet? Try interacting with it in the same way that he is.

After your child has had time to interact with the materials as they are, enact some simple changes on one of the things at hand. Crumple a piece of paper up, or twist it like a rope. What will your child make of this transformation?

If you notice some other materials that you think your child might enjoy, move them closer. Does your child reach for them? Do they hold his interest? Is he more interested in what he already has?

Similar posts are available for parents of toddlers and preschoolers

Friday, October 11, 2013

Talking and Joining In: Tips for Toddler Parents

How should I act when I join my toddler in the Studio? 
How can I be a part of their exploration without disrupting their investigation? 
Here is our Center’s culture around
talking about children’s work and taking part in the activity

in a child-centered way.

Talking about children’s work
For many toddlers, the material is an experience – an opportunity to feel and move and try new things. While older toddlers with more words might begin to describe what they are doing or even what they are drawing, wait for them to identify their work rather than assuming it might be representational. Questions like “What is that?” sometimes make children feel as though their artwork has to be something.  Take a moment to watch the way your child is using the material. Is she interested in the feeling of it? The movement of it? The tools she has? Ask some questions or offer some observations about what you notice.
“How do you use this tool? What is this for?”

“What does it feel like on your fingers?”

“I’m so curious about that! Can you tell/show me more?”

Joining in the activity
Art materials can be so enticing, you just want to play  with them, too! The trick is, how can you join in alongside your child without the focus shifting to what you are doing rather than what they are doing?  So much of a toddler’s work is about their ever increasing independence, so give them room to test and try with minimal direction.

Take a moment to look at the children’s work. How is your child using the material? Is she feeling it with her hands or using a tool? Try interacting with it in the same way that she is.

If a child asks you to paint something for them, encourage them to try, or, if they aren’t yet doing representational work, talk with them about the lines, shapes, or textures of what they are thinking of.
If they hand you a brush or tool, make sure they have one, too. Try painting together on the same surface using the same strokes.

Similar posts are available for parents of infants and preschoolers.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Talking and Joining In: Tips for Preschool Parents

How should I act when I join my preschooler in the Studio? 
How can I be a part of their exploration without disrupting their investigation? 
Here is our Center’s culture around
talking about children’s work and taking part in the activity

in a child-centered way.

Talking about children’s work
It can be tempting to ask, “What is it?” However, the “what” is often less important than the “how.” Chances are, if a child is working on something representational, she will tell you about it even if you use open-ended questions. A great way to understand a bit more about what the child is thinking is to spend some time watching them work, identifying aspects of their process or painting that you find particularly interesting, and following with observations and questions like:
“How did you make so many different marks with the same paint?”

“You added a new color! What happens when it touches the others on your paper?”

“I’m so curious about that! Can you tell me more?”

Joining in the activity
Art materials can be so enticing, you just want to play  with them, too! The trick is, how can you join in alongside your child without the focus shifting to what you are doing rather than what they are doing? By turning the attention of the child to what we as adults are capable of, we intrude on their experience of the material. This can feel disempowering when their young hands can't make the perfect shape the way an adult's hand can, or when their idea becomes secondary to yours. So, instead…

Take a moment to look at the children’s work. What do you find most interesting? Ask the child whose artwork you examine, “How did you make this shape? Can you teach me?”

Notice the way the child is moving the brush, and use that as a guide for how to move yours. “I want to try swirling my brush around and around, just like you.”

If a child asks you to paint or make something for them, say, “I want to see how you would paint one. What shape do you think we need first?” 

How do you think these ideas compare to the ways in which you talk and interact with your child around art activities at home? Are there any pieces of this you might try to use? 

Similar posts are available for parents of infants and toddlers.