Friday, January 25, 2013

Building a Nest, Building a Culture

I want to take you back to December 13th, 2012. A group of preschoolers had finished their work for the day on a ceramic sign for their classroom. As they still had some time left in the Studio, they used some leftover clay to work on their own individual experiments. A few minutes in, T. decided, "I want to make a nest. Can you help me make a nest?" F. echoed him. "I want to make a nest, too."

Their seemingly simple request actually held a lot of meaning for me, and for them. These children had embarked on a clay exploration last year, and the result had been a deep investigation of the creation of baby birds/eggs and nests to house them in. One artifact of this process was a set of plans or recipes for making these forms, which helped the children remember the steps that they and their friends had previously deemed necessary for success. 

I still had these recipes in the Studio, hanging from a hook on our clay shelf. As I turned to reach for them, thinking I could offer them as one way to make a nest, F. added, "I need a plan to make a nest." I turned around to show him what I was holding. "Is this the plan you mean?" "Yes! I need the one that shows a nest." "I need one, too," said R., who had also been a part of last year's nest-and-bird making. M. and A., who had not tried nest-making before, were also interested in this idea and came close to look at the plans. 

The children examined the plans, carefully following each step, stating aloud the work they had to do: "Make a ball, poke a hole, then pinch"..."I need mine bigger so I'm pinching more"..."Here's my baby. Let's see if it will fit." R. in particular made an entire family of birds, which necessitated an especially large, open nest. With this complete, she then created one big, one medium, and one small egg, crafting a separate nest to fit each size.

Why has this interaction stayed with me so strongly that I still feel the urge to write about it over a month later?  

Two words: History & Culture

These two words are, of course, inextricably linked, for without the building blocks that a history provides, it is impossible for a culture to develop. For me, the plans are a piece of history - of my history as a teacher here, of these children's history in the Studio, of the medium of clay and the way it has been used here. They are, as I said before, artifacts that speak to an important journey. The fact that the children remembered and asked for these tools in their work nearly a year later suggests the establishment of a culture - a culture of planning and looking back to what we know and have learned in order to achieve a goal. The practice of "making a plan" is, in fact, used in many of the classrooms here. A plan helps children to slow down and focus their ideas, thinking hard about what exactly they are working towards and all of the steps, parts, and pieces necessary to fashion it. It holds them accountable throughout the process of construction, but it also acts as a testament to their hard work when the project is completed. Integrating this idea of plan-making into the everyday work and play of classrooms and schools helps to build a culture where thoughtfulness and follow-through are key, and where each step of the creative process is honored.

This particular encounter in the Studio also speaks to the way in which a long-term relationship with a material helps to foster a culture, as well. In this particular instance, the children's combined knowledge of nest-making and their greater level of expertise with clay allowed them to bring their ideas to fruition more easily and with more accuracy than would have been previously possible. For instance, R.'s nests have become more complex - custom-made to fit the problems she poses for herself - because she has had time to develop her understanding of space and volume as well as her confidence in working with clay. 

This story reminds me of how important it is to look back at where we are coming from and to continue to practice with the tools we have appropriated in our travels. Something we might think had already served its time might prove useful at some future point. It also makes me think of all the ways that we craft our own cultures in the many spheres of our lives through the roots of the unique histories and the artifacts we carry with us. 

My wonderings are: 
What culture do you perceive in your school, at your work, in your home? 
What is the culture that you strive to inculcate, and how does your history help to inform this ideal?

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