Thursday, June 27, 2013

Questions, Spaces and Stories; How We Illustrated Our Image of the Child This Year

This month our weekly provocations are opportunities for teachers to tell us about their team's innovations. We are hoping to share practices that other teams may want to try, and the methods of innovation - how we come to new ideas and fold them into our work. 

Our annual intention is to reflect upon our "Image of The Child" and how it appears in our environments, documentation and curriculum. This week, all three innovations demonstrated our trust in children and our eagerness to know more about what they are playing, working and thinking about.

The Question of the Day 
Erin shared with us the way that her preschool class uses the“Question of the Day.” She and a colleague learned this technique from a teacher at the Advent School . Each day in Preschool 1, kids and their families stop at a clipboard. The adult reads the question and the child answers it.  The question ranges from "How are you feeling?" or "How did you get to school today?" to "How do trucks work?" or "What happens when you go to the doctor?"

The Question of the Day offers:
  • A ritual at the entrance to the classroom. A daily and immediate reminder that school is a place where we stop to think and where our voice is heard.
  • A way to model for families how we honor children’s words by writing them down without comment or correction. This can be a struggle for some parents who have developed a habit of helping their child figure out a correct answer. This question is one where teachers always want to hear children’s unedited thinking. 
  • An engine for curriculum, putting children's theories about the world onto paper where they can be looked at together, extended, challenged and fleshed out. 
  • Another way to know children more deeply. As Erin told us "It helps you see how each child thinks over time. Somebody always has this fantastical, long poetic answer, and somebody else has this clear cut answer you would find in a book." 
Teachers asked some great questions. Tracy asked "What would you do, if someone didn't speak English?" Erin assured her that they invite families to translate the question into another language and to write their answers in that language, with or without translation. They also sometimes draw pictures. 

Transforming a Classroom Environment. 

Over the last year a lot of construction has been happening around us. As a result, all of our classrooms moved into a modular building for six months or so and then moved out again into their own spaces.This was a chore, of course, but it was also a great opportunity to look at our permanent spaces when they were empty and to learn from living in a different space. This experience profoundly affected Tracy, Monica and Miwako, and they used what they learned to shift the space in their room to everyone's benefit.

There were some changes that the teaching team made in their modular room that were based on necessity.
  • Because their new space was so open,  each area of the room flowed into another.  "It was this vast square." Tracy said. Teachers observed that with less divisions, children moved their play fluidly from one area to the next.
  • The only tiled area of the classroom was near the entrance, so this is where they put the mini-atelier. Our first impression when entering the room was filled with beauty and focused work.
When the class returned to their old space, the teachers kept these serendipitous changes with great results. 
  • This classroom structure had been static for many years, and teaching teams sometimes found traffic jams, or had problems when many children wanted to work or play together. Taking some inspiration from the more open classroom in the modular, the teachers created space for dramatic play and blocks to share one large space. Tracy told us that the space contributed to more intricate, collaborative play.
  • The more centralized atelier attracted children to creating their props for their play. It's old location, in the back corner of the classroom usually attracted children who wanted a quiet experience, but the new space is usually occupied by children in the throes of some dramatic adventure, or intense recreation.

It's clear that children, teachers and family all feel at home in the new arrangement. The team used their observations to reflect on what was working in one environment and then adapted it to another. Surprise! The same process that helps us plan curriculum can help us plan our environments too!

Image credit below.

Infant South adopted the Learning Story convention and stream-lined their documentation.

At our center, teachers have a great deal of agency in deciding how they want to make the life of their classroom visible through documentation. Lise's team was ready for a change. She said "It felt like the old format was quite a long process of busy work, sifting through several weeks of photos, feeling compelled to put as many photos as possible because they were there, and feeling like there was not enough time to go in-depth. I wanted to think in-depth about children. I wanted to highlight our role as researchers, rather than summarizers. I'd heard of Ben Mardell's idea of writing Zooms.  It's a way of looking closely, but they didn't feel quite right. We talked to Kendra, and said 'Here's what we want: Photos and observations go to families, we invite families to respond, we as teachers keep learning from our documentation'. Kendra said, it sounds like Learning Stories might be just what you're looking for." 

As soon as Infant South started using this method, they adapted it to suit their specific team. 
  • They chose to address their writing to the families of the babies instead of to the babies themselves.
  • Danielle, Lise's teammate, started using the "See/Think/Wonder" protocol to guide her reflections, and her team followed suit. "See is the observation, Think is our own thinking that includes knowing ourselves, our knowledge of development, and of an individual child. Wonder is questions we write at the end. I started writing those questions directly to parents. This has felt really successful and manageable....We've gotten a similar depth from parents. We send them out once a month and people write back. 
  • The team worked over the first few months to balance "coverage" with just following their curiosity about their observations. Now they each write a few stories each month (so each child gets at least one monthly) post them all at the same time.

I really admired the bold, long-term, reflective process this team took to figuring out how to best document their classroom in a way that served the needs of children, families and the team.

Improving Our Practice Without Adding More.
As our teachers take on more and more depth in their work, it can feel overwhelming because it feels like adding to what we already do. Learning stories, a more open classroom, and the Question of the Day have helped these teams go deeper into their research, their curriculum and in their relationships with children and their families without feeling overwhelmed. Rather than adding another thing, these innovations made space and smoothed out old ways of doing things.

Here were some of the ways these teams worked to bring in these new practices to their classrooms:
  • They looked outside of themselves; Erin visited the Advent school, the Preschool 2 team moved to the modular, and the Infant South team asked me if I had any idea.
  • All three teams discussed the change before it happened and then reflected on how things were going, making changes in some cases.
  • They connected this one aspect of their work to the broader themes in their classroom and the center.
  • They communicated with families about the new aspect of their work through email, signs and documentation. All three classrooms have heard from families that they are excited about these innovations.
If you're a part of our center, what's your take on Learning Stories, Preschool 2's environment and the Question of the Day? If you're not, do you have any advice to share about innovating at work?

yours truly,

Friday, June 21, 2013

More posts are coming...

Hello everyone,

Please consider this blog post a space holder. Katie and I each have posts in the works, but because we're being super careful about checking with folks before we post about them, we don't have anything to share with you just yet.

This whole process is still feeling new and exciting to us.

Please feel free to leave a comment on this (or any) post to let us know what you think of the blog, and how we're using it.

See you next week with more stories of children, teachers, families and what we're learning.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Working with an Installation

Our older preschool classroom had a wonderful opportunity to work with the artist Zoë Blatt, a student in the Arts in Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and one of three current artists in residence at Project Zero down the road. Zoë created a beautiful installation for the children to interact with. With its combination of flowing threads, colorful blocks, woven nests, and flowering shapes, the children all found something wondrous to explore.

The children came in three small groups, and I was struck by how differently each group worked with the materials at hand. The first group was particularly interested in the hanging yarn - some combination of children was always walking through the pieces, exclaiming at how soft and funny they felt.

The second group nearly all became involved in building an elaborate creation using the blocks, woven nests, eggs, and twirly shapes they called "octopuses" and "spiders." Ian said, "The eggs are all people.... this [nest] is a house hat - it looks like a real hat." 

The third group were particularly interested in the eggs and nests. They noticed that the eggs felt strange to the touch - not like a real egg. Gaia dedided, "I'm gonna take the nest... I'm gonna put it in the tree." When some of the eggs fell out, a game was sparked. "Oh no," Gaia said, laughing as she and her friends gathered up more eggs into the nests, "The eggs are gonna break! I'm gonna hide it. I'm gonna hide it somewhere in a tree." 

The next day, Zoë joined six of the children in the Studio, where they had access to the same materials she had used. Zoë's provocation was for the children to create something they wished to add to the installation.

Ariv and Ian each decided to make a rainbow attached to the top of a stick. The rainbows were made of pipe cleaners curved and taped together.

Ian: This is for spin. I'm gonna put this rainbow on the tree so someone cant touch and spin it. 
Ariv: This is my rainbow and there's a button and pipecleaners. The button makes the rainbow even better. 

Susan and L. both worked on different climbing structures. L. first drew and colored a plan of a slide, then taped down pipe cleaners over her drawing, using the same colors of tape that she had colored with. Susan's popsicle-stick, tape, and pipe cleaner creation included many sides for climbing on and a pole to slide down.

A. decided to make a nest, taking a moment to examine a photo of the nests Zoë had made before beginning. "Hey, those nests are made out of string! I can do that. The pom poms can be the eggs." 

B. found that carrying out his plan to make a block was tricky to accomplish, given that so many of the materials available were malleable things like string and tape. At last, he used paper and popsicle sticks to create a "block-shaped" rectangle that he could hold up.

These creations will be added to the installation, which has been relocated to Project Zero. We are hoping to organize a field trip for the preschoolers to visit the new site and see their pieces on display.

This was such an exciting experience, not only for the children, but also for me. As an alumni of the Arts in Education program, I was happy to be able to help Zoë to set up and carry out her installation project. Much in the way that the children were pleased and enlivened by the opportunity to share their work at the end of their Studio visit, I was also proud to be able to share a bit of my work here at PTCC with Zoë and other people involved at Project Zero, including my former professor, Shari Tishman, who joined us in the Studio.

Part of what makes moments like this - work that brings us into contact with our greater community - so important is that they allow us all the chance to share parts of ourselves - our questions, our ideas, our art, our jobs - that are important to us. We offer them up to people who we may not know very well at all, and we ask them to honor, respect, and answer. It is a very powerful feeling, to commence such a relationship. I am so curious to see what will happen when we take the next step and the children see their work displayed in a slightly more public place.

Friday, June 7, 2013


As many teachers around the country are getting ready for weeks of vacation, the teachers at our year-round center are still in the thick of things, but starting to look to our transition in August. During the last week of July, we'll have a week of professional development, and hard work on our physical environments, and then at the start of August, we'll be ready to welcome children to their new classrooms. This is a wonderful moment to pause, reflect on the year that is drawing to a close, and begin planning for what we'll do next year.

Each year, our teachers collect new ideas from outside our community, in books, articles or at trainings and conferences and adapt them to our context. For instance: 
  • The symbols that many classrooms  use as tools for building identity, community and pre-literacy skills came from my experience at Hilltop Children's Center in Seattle. However, we've never heard of anyone using symbol curriculum in an infant room the way that Jen, Sasha and Mari did.
  • Our focus on loose parts and recyclable materials was inspired by the book "Beautiful Stuff" by Cathy Wiesman Topol and Lella Gandini.
  • Our implementation of anti-bias curriculum was grounded in  Louise Derman-Spark's classic book.
  • The work of Magda Gerber really transformed our ideas about respect for babies.
  • Teachers meeting together for professional development is a common practice in centers that use the Reggio Emilia approach, however our weekly provocations are unusual in their scope, variety of topics, attendees (one teacher from each classrooms and our non-teacher staff) and flexible format.
Our weekly teacher provocations in June will feature teachers talking about innovations they've made this year. This is different from our annual Showcase which will take place in a few weeks, which invites teachers to show off what they are most proud of. Instead, I'm asking teachers to talk about specific innovations that I think other teachers may want to try. My focus is not just on the practice, but on the teachers' process of innovation.

I've been learning over the last few years about "organizational knowledge"; how an organization can learn and hold information and ideas. In Reggio Emilia, all processes are collaborative. Ideas always involve the collective rather than the individual. This reflective, community-minded approach combined with an emphasis on documentation leads to organizations rich in historical memory that can hold a lot of knowledge. This month's provocations are opportunities for us to share and for me to document some of the innovation taking place at our center, and contribute to our center's store of knowledge. Over the next month, I'll be describing our conversations here.