Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Teasing Curricular Threads Out of the Fabric of Children's Play; or What's In a Metaphor?

Our curriculum is built by teachers around the interests we see in children’s play.

Lately we’ve been thinking about how to find children’s interests and questions in our observations, extend children’s learning over a longer time, and connect it to more fundamental questions, rather than staying on the surface of their learning. We often call these underlying questions, interests or themes “curricular threads.” 

Each week, a teacher from each classroom comes together at our center for professional development we call "weekly provocation". I often plan these mini-workshops with the admin team or with Katie. Today we came together today to practice finding these threads.

Thinking about threads… real threads.

The metaphors we choose tell us something important about what we are thinking. Why do we think of persistent questions or themes as “threads”? Our table was decorated with fabric and other examples of “threads” for us to consider as we entered. We spent some time describing thread together:

·        We use threads for some of the oldest human activities, it’s ancient.
·       We use thread for … practical things; baskets and fishing nets … across cultures.
·        It doesn't come to an end unless you cut it, it seems like it could go on and on.
·        There are many pieces to one piece of thread…intertwined.
·        You might add to it and make a knot.
·        Thread can be very orderly; the spools of thread in my sewing room are very orderly and they're all wrapped up, but if they're on the floor they're a mess and they are impossible to take apart.
·        Two weak, little threads can make a very strong seam.
·        Thread has a curved and windy journey in fabric.
·        Something so simple goes into something so big and meaningful. [When you hem shorts] something so little as a thread can make such a change in something big.
·        You can use different materials... but one thread can [bring them together].
·        They make connections that can hold things together. Small pieces can build upon each other and make something larger.

Next we looked at old notes and pictures about children who examined machines over four months. As we read, teachers hypothesized about possible curricular threads that may have been woven into the work. Throughout this conversation we differentiated between the content (the superficial, visible interest) and the curricular thread (the developmental struggle, big question, underlying theme), often with gestures signifying the surface, or the depth. 

I told about two different three year old classrooms (in two different centers and two different years) who were doing a lot of fire-fighter play (content). One group was so interested in fire; what it was, why it was scary, why it was so important for fire fighters to put it out. Another group was interested in the feeling of reunion, of rescue. They were all new to group care, and focused on the moment when the fire-fighter saved the person and brought them back to their family. You can see how this play might look the same on the surface; same props, running to get hoses and put out the fire, saving moms and dads and cats, but how children's interests are quite different. We all referred back to this example as we spoke. It was not easy, to identify the threads and we sometimes missed.

Some of the interesting details that we noticed that were probably not curricular threads were:
·        Color, size or other visual aspects of the machines
·        Wheels
·        Things that turn on and off
·        Chains

      These details or interests are meaningful to the children, but they are different from what we can pursue over months of curriculum. They are useful aspects of children's experience that we might include in provocations, but they're different from the curricular threads we're seeking today.

The curricular threads we identified were:

·        How do mechanical things work?
·        How can we keep one another and ourselves safe in unfamiliar situations?
·        What is the relationship between the function of the whole machine, and functions of the parts?
·        Names, labels, categorizing or taxonomy
·        Cause and effect
·        Finding ways to control things; making them stop and go
·        How do machines connect us to the adults who use them?
·        Wondering about and trying on “real” things, adult things
·        Making connections between bigger grown up machines and children's own things
·        Finding a new, more intimate relationship with everyday things

Pilar, Danielle, Tracy and Sarah looking for threads in the stories of children's work.
Finally, we looked at our own documentation over the last year and tried to identify curricular threads that children pursued over time.

We guessed that it was easier to find the threads in the collected documentation because it was already gathered together around a shared theme. We wondered together if it's easier to find curricular threads in children's work when looking back at what's already happened, rather than looking at curriculum that's still in process. Since our documentation process is always inviting us to look backward and forward, we have a unique tool to assist us in finding these threads. We also talked about how once we are following a thread, smaller moments that may have been ignored before stand out as we see children integrating their every day play into whatever theme they are working on in the moment.

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