Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Burst of Bloom Ensues

"Like the soil, the mind is fertilized while it lies fallow, until a new burst of bloom ensues." - John Dewey, Art as Experience

The "new burst of bloom" that inspired this post came from a young toddler, Yoshi, during his most recent visit to the Studio.

At the beginning of the year, during our clay exploration, Yoshi was often more interested in the opportunity that the Studio afforded him for having conversations with adults than in the provocations set out in the space. He loved to ask questions, point out what he saw in the room or out the window, and stay close to the teachers in the room. Although I knew that one piece of this was Yoshi's social nature and general interest in the goings-on of the adults in his life, I also wondered whether the clay, as a material, was less interesting to him than something else might have been.

Fast forward several months to the present:

Yoshi's Studio group has now returned to the clay. When they last entered the Studio, they found one table covered with paper and various drawing implements, and one table housing several boards topped with pieces of red clay. They had access to open shelves with clay tools for them to get as they need, as well as many beautiful and strange objects arranged on other shelves around them.

After a brief stop at the drawing table, Yoshi moved to the clay and began to work. He found a wooden clay hammer, which he used to give his clay a texture of bumps. He then found a long, thin tool to poke holes deep into the clay. On the back shelves, he found an array of recycled plastic parts, which he pushed into the clay, removed, and rearranged. When some of his friends discovered buttons on a shelf, he gathered some of these to add, followed by some small, recycled tubes. With each iteration of clay decoration, he would say, "Look," standing back to proudly survey his creation, before returning to work on it. He spent over thirty minutes absorbed in concentrated effort with these materials.

Those thirty minutes reminded me how important it is that we, as adults and as teachers, not close off the possibilities of children's interests and explorations. Yes, through our observations and the time we spend with them, we are able to understand facets of a child's personality, tastes, and learning. However, these are not static, and should not be written off as such. To use another quote of Dewey's, "The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action." All of us - adults and children alike - make choices that add to our experience, our knowledge of the world, and our potential actions at future choosing points. The choice we might make at one juncture is often quite different from that which we make at another, and it is the process of "continuous formation" that occurs between these points that is responsible for this difference.

Among the many inspiring ideas that Kendra has shared from her visit to the schools of Reggio Emilia in Italy, one that stood out to me was that of the "relaunch" - the revisiting of a thread of investigation that lost steam earlier in the year. This classroom's return to clay strikes me as something of a relaunch, and Yoshi's response in particular suggests that he now sees far more potential in the clay than he did the first time around. How glad I am that we returned to this medium and provided Yoshi with the chance to show us his new ideas! We will never learn what a child is capable of if we assume we already know.

Do you have any ideas of an activity, a medium, or an idea to "relaunch"?

Looking back over the past year, where have you seen "bursts of bloom" happen for the children in your life?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Building Habits of Mind

“We’re real artists.”
The Studio can be many things to many people. For Preschool 2, it became a place to explore and practice painting. We started out with watercolors, which allowed us to practice washing our brushes between colors and mixing colors together in the empty spaces on our palettes. Some children continued with watercolors for many sessions, experimenting with what it looked like to draw with sharpies before adding color. Other children explored acrylic and tempera paints, while still others tried out oil pastels alone and in combination with watercolors.

After so much time to experiment, practice, and refine their skills, these children were coming to understand the principles of these media just as artists do. With this in mind, we, the teachers, decided to offer up a provocation around the idea of taking time on a painting or drawing, the way artists do. In the end, all of the children spent at least two Studio visits working on their piece, and many requested a third time to finish. At the beginning of our second session with our paintings and drawings, we held group critiques. Children had a chance to share what they liked about each other’s paintings, ask questions about them, and provide their peers with suggestions about how to make their paintings even more beautiful (which the artist could choose to incorporate if they wished). Here are a few examples of the final, finished work of the children, alongside the words of their peers from the critique session. 

IAN’S PAINTING: My House and Family with a Rainy Sky
Ariv: I like the house. I like the roof, because it’s a different kind of shape.
R: I like the Christmas tree, even though it is blue, not green.
M: I like the people, because it reminds me of my family.
R: Why did you paint the sun blue?
Ian: Because it’s beautiful and someone can see that.
Ariv: Why is the Christmas tree blue?
Ian: I saw a Christmas tree outside and is blue. I have in my house.
Ariv: He should work on the clouds. [They were just black at the time.]
R: And add some umbrellas for the rain.

GAIA’S PAINTING: A Swirl and a Person
J: I like the snake… it’s like a sleeping snake.
Gaia: It’s not a snake, it’s a road.
Nina: I think I like the girl, because Gaia painted the inside and not the outside.
Katie: I wonder what you will add to your painting now.
Gaia: I will add more colors.
NINA’S PAINTING: Houses and a Castle along a Road with a Story about a Princess who Lived There
Gaia: I like the flowers. I like that she did two of these same.
[B. and J. point to the flowers, too.]
J: I think you could paint that sun.
ARIV’S PAINTING: A Truck, a Rocketship, a Stop Sign
R: I like the stop sign and the yellow in between.
M: I like the green part, because my mom likes green.
R: What is the yellow?
Ariv: That’s to keep the wheels together.
R: Why is it not attached to the truck?
Ariv: It’s magic and the car is using it.
R: Why are there little thingies inside the wheels?
Ariv: Those are telephones.
R: Spikey ones?
Ariv: Those are… they keep strangers from coming in.
Katie: I wonder if you are going to add something new.
R: Like people.
Ariv: No. I might make the hands very long on accident.
R: Just remind yourself you need short hands.

Sometimes, the Studio is about learning a new technique or discovering a new material. Sometimes it is about exploring a particular theme or idea. I also see it as a place for children to expand their ways of thinking about the world and about their place in it. It is a place where we are given uninterrupted time to investigate something very closely, and so it is also a place where we can practice and hone our skills as investigators. To me, this indicates the refining of “habits of mind,” which are defined by Arthur Costa as “a disposition toward behaving intelligently when confronted with problems, the answers to which are not immediately known… It suggests that as a result of each experience in which these behaviors were employed, the effects of their use are reflected upon, evaluated, modified and carried forth to future applications.”

In the instance of the Preschool Two painting and pastel exploration, we began by building our understanding of the materials themselves – acquiring a set of particular “tools” that could be drawn upon and referenced in future. We then moved towards the practice of planning out our work – thinking about what we wanted to represent before we began and what elements were important to include. We then began to develop an understanding of our artistic creation of an extended, ongoing process that could draw inspiration from all around us. Our paintings were not simply the result of sitting down to paper and paint or pastel, they were the product of hard work, of thought and inquiry, of evaluation and re-evaluation, of our own ideas as well as the ideas of others. Children developed new means of extending their work, and they began to look at it in a more reflective way. If a child reached a point where they felt “done” working, rather than moving their piece straight to the drying rack, they took some time to walk around, looking to the work of their peers and the beauty in their environment for inspiration. During critiques, children listened respectfully to the comments and questions of their peers, and they felt able to incorporate the suggestions they were given as they saw fit. In turn, the children offering their opinions on another’s work seemed to be really thinking about the artwork before them.

“We’re real artists,” B. said during his second session with his painting. I do feel that this process of returning to and re-examining our work with care has helped to foster many of the habits of mind employed by artists, but I also believe that these practices will be useful to the children in many future instances where “the answers are not immediately known.” I believe that one of the miracles of art – in its viewing or its making – is its ability to inspire us to look more carefully and with deeper intention at the world around us, and I felt that these young artists were experiencing this alongside me during our visits together.

What habits of mind do you feel the children were employing through this experience?
What habits of mind do you feel are most helpful or important to you in your life?


Reference: Costa, A. & Kallick, B. Describing 16 Habits of Mind. Retrieved from  

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"There are always things we learn when they ask questions of us"

Throughout the year students and teachers from around the world visit our center. Each year we host a group from Iceland, one from Japan and one from Singapore. We discussed this with Lella Gandini when she visited a few months ago and she asked 
"And why do they come?"
"Because we say 'Yes'?" said my director, Katy with a smile.
"and you say yes because there are always things we learn when they ask questions of us."

Of course, Lella is exactly right. We learn from their questions and from seeing our center through their eyes. Today I visited with some students of early childhood education from Singapore. They work at centers with the same age range that we do. It was a joy walking around with twelve young women as they peeked into classrooms, sat down to play with children, pored over our documentation, and pointed out details of our environment to one another.

Here are some highlights of our conversations together today:
  • I learned that it is very common for centers to be open there between 7 am and 7 pm daily "or longer, if they have parents who work late" said one of the students.
  • They were struck by the fact that we had male teachers. After some conversation about this someone asked if male teachers were allowed to change diapers, and told me that this was not allowed in their centers even in the rare cases that they have a man working there. "They can only teach a class, like maths." This is interesting, because of course, although male teachers are "allowed" here in the US, they are not the norm, and we have to work hard to recruit male teachers because we believe that children benefit from having men and women in nurturing roles in their lives. The students were all excited because they believe that child care teachers should be men and women, they'd just never seen a male teacher before.
  • After watching a dad spend snack time with his child's class during an extended drop off time, students asked questions like: "How long are parents allowed to stay in the morning?" and "How many days during the year are parents invited to visit the classroom?" It was clear to these students that we welcomed families, and it felt a little unfamiliar to them, but they were excited about it, too.
  • The students were lucky to come just days after our annual Showcase, so we had extra special and extra large pieces of documentation all over the center. They compared what they saw to the report cards that they issued to families at this time of year, and said that they saw "the whole story of each child" when they looked around our center. They marveled at pieces of documentation that welcomed families' collaboration. A couple who were familiar with Learning Stories were happy to see something familiar.
  • They were surprised that we don't take showers each day. Singapore, they told me, is so hot that children take a shower between lunchtime and naptime to cool off before they rest. The recent weeks have been so muggy, I felt envious when I heard this.
  • They were touched by how children talked together. "The children are so encouraging with one another!" they said.
  • They asked about our dress code, and were surprised that we are allowed to wear shorts to work.
  • "It is obvious how children's work is valued here." one said, reading the stories of the children of Toddler 1 North.
  • "Children must walk in and think 'This is the place where I belong!' every day." said one student.
Teachers also learn just from having visitors in their classrooms, not from what they say, but from their very presence. The observer effect in a classroom is one that usually results in straightening our backs, looking around at our classroom and imaging what another sees. I'm happy that in our center, this usually results in a sense of satisfaction for teachers, and an opening of blindspots.

How does it feel when people visit your classroom or workplace? Have you visited our center? What was your experience?

Monday, July 1, 2013

How do we honor children's hard work?

We might honor it in the moment by observing it, commenting on it, and supporting it. When I see a child has spent time with an idea or a creation - thought about it, struggled with it, maybe had to make changes -  rethink some of its aspects - I want them to know that I was a witness to the process.

We might honor it later by taking time to reflect on what we observed. In reflecting, I feel I am peeling away the layers of the moment, seeking out the glimmer of insight that first drew my attention. I take a second look again at what I sa, turning it over in my minds, like a puzzle box. I search for its intricacies, for its angles, for its potential. I try to use it as a window into children's minds - their understanding of the world's mysteries. More importantly, perhaps, I try to draw back the curtain to look beyond what they know and seek out what it is they want to know.

We might honor it through documentation. I find it liberating to set my thoughts down on paper, sharing all of my musings with children, teachers, and families. It allows me a sense of pride in my work, on the one hand. On the other, it opens up possibilities for further reflection and a sharing of knowledge. Displaying my interpretation of an encounter, I am inviting the community to share in a conversation.

We might honor it by offering further provocation. Mother, art educator, and blogger, Rachelle Doorley writes, "Children who set up their own problems are invested in the process of learning and are motivated to see a project through completion." I constantly strive to offer children provocations that will present them with potentially interesting problems - problems that they will want to work hard and long to solve. I want to follow along with them as they question and probe and discover, and I continue to ask my own questions as we take the journey together. My provocations are one way of saying, "I have been trying to listen to what you are telling me. I'm not sure I am understanding it completely, but here is one idea I had. What do you think?" 

We might honor it with celebration. Right now, our center is preparing for a grand celebration of the past year - our third annual Showcase - and teachers and children alike are so excited for the chance to share  our work with families and friends. Of course, celebrations do not always have to be on such a large scale. Just a few weeks earlier, a group of toddlers held their very own special exhibit during their Studio time, to celebrate all of the hard, focused work they have done together this year. Maddy, Max, and Jordan have been coming to the Studio together, along with their classroom teacher Cathy, since September, and they have continued to use clay as their primary medium, even when nearly all of the other Studio groups branched off into new directions. With each visit to the Studio, this group of children has continued to build on what they had worked on previously, developing a unique, complex, shared vocabulary. Together, these children moved from flattening clay by pressing and peeling if off their boards, to tossing it in the air over and over to shape it into a "baby head," to building up castles from a shared block of clay, to adding glass pebbles (which they named "peekies"), wires, and water to make their creations "more stable." The Studio now houses an entire shelf of their clay sculptures, which were part of the inspiration for our exhibit. 

While parents hear about these bi-weekly Studio sessions through Cathy's documentation, they have not had many opportunities to visit the Studio to see the work first-hand. We decided to create just such an opportunity, setting aside a Studio time for a private exhibition of the children's work, words, and process for the parents to visit. We also decided to offer the adults a chance to learn from their children, working alongside them with the clay, peekies, and wire that they know so much about. 
 The exhibit, which was attended by the mothers of all three children, proved a wonderful celebration of the trio's hard work. Maddy, Max, and Jordan were extremely excited to show their moms their creations, and even more excited to show them how to work with the clay. As conversations developed around the clay and its uses, the children were always ready to answer any questions the adults posed.

Scarlet (Max's mom): How do I take clay off, Max?
Max: You just grab it.
Maddy: I need more water. Here's a brush.
Shawna (Maddy's mom): How should I use it?
Maddy: You have to wipe it on the clay like this, then poke like this. Bump bump bump.
Leigh (Jordan's mom): Why are we adding water?
Jordan: To make it sticky. 
This special celebration gave these children a unique opportunity to share an important piece of their year at our center with some of the people who matter most to them. Watching their interactions with their moms and the clay through the lens of my camera, I was struck by how self-sufficient they were, and how easily they were able to solve any problem they ran into with minimal prompting. One moment, in particular, stood out to me, making me realize how much these children had taken on the role of the teacher in this situation. As Maddy began to rub the surface of her wet clay castle with her hand, she turned to Shawna, asking her questions that we often will ask children: "How does it feel on your hand? Do you like how it feels?" 

This process of exhibiting the long-term work of these three children is what prompted me to think about all of the different ways we can honor children's work through our practice. I felt as though this particular even allowed for a very special form of honoring that I was able to share with the children and their parents on a more personal level. The fact that the children later suggested having a "dad's day" at the Studio too makes me think that this must have been a powerful experience for Maddy, Max, and Jordan, as well.

How do you see yourself honoring children's work?
What great feats have you celebrated with your loved ones or with the people you work with? 
What do these celebrations mean to you?