Friday, September 20, 2013

Paper and Problem-Solving

When I brought down a bag of papers for our youngest infants to explore in their classroom, there was a wide variety of shapes and sizes - crinkly, refracting mylar; fragile tissue paper; smooth butcher paper; long, crumpled diaper table paper; letter-sized drawing paper and watercolor paper. 

While many of the other papers were bigger, more noisy, or more colorful, this last piece - the (relatively) small rectangle of thick watercolor paper - became the most intriguing for me, and for one of the infants, Morgan. 

Morgan first noticed this page after she had spent several minutes grabbing, squeezing, and mouthing some of the diaper table paper. It was easy for her to grab this paper anywhere and hold it up to her face, crinkling it as she needed in order to put her mouth around it. However, on her first attempt to pick up the watercolor paper, Morgan discovered that she could not use the same techniques to pick it up. The paper was so stiff, it did not bend or crumple easily in her hands. In order to pick it up, she had to search out the edges of the paper, grip them, and keep a tight hold as she lifted the paper.

Next came the problem of how to maneuver the paper for tasting. At first, Morgan tried bringing the paper flat up to her face. However, the paper pressed against her face while remaining flat - she could push her mouth against it, but not around it. She couldn't taste and suck on the paper the way she wanted to. Again, she had to work through several trials of rotating the paper and pulling at its edges before she was able to bring a corner to her mouth. Satisfied, Morgan mouthed the paper for a minute, then began to re-examine the paper, searching for a different place to taste and try. After much trial and error, she succeeded in folding the paper and half. Holding the paper closed, she then brought the folded spine of the page to her mouth to tray out. 

Watching Morgan's investigation of this particular paper, I thought of how different an infant's understanding of this page was from an adult's. Although this paper was thicker than most of the paper we adults use in our daily lives, it was more similar in size and appearance to the computer paper we so often print and write than most of the other papers available to the infants that day. Adults' experiences with long strands of diaper paper, big sheets of butcher paper, and swaths of mylar are undoubtedly much more limited than those we have with single sheets of white, 8.5x11 paper. Yet, for Morgan, this particular format required far more manipulation in order for her to answer the series of questions, "How do I hold this? Now how do I pick it up? Now how do I taste it?" than the others did. While the others were bigger, longer, more fluid, and seemingly unwieldy, this rectangle was actually more unwieldy for Morgan. Also, as her teacher, Sarah, pointed out, the piece of paper was quite large from her perspective, and it required her to position it carefully if she wanted the paper low enough to rest her mouth on it. 

In broader terms, Morgan's interaction with this paper seems to me a very physical example of examining a problem from different angles in order to come to a solution. Morgan was literally investigating the many angles and perspectives of the paper, and through this process, she was able to discover the best ways to mouth it the way she wanted to. It also speaks to something that our pedagogista, Kendra, shared at our Center's Parent Night - babies are moving through the cycle of inquiry (asking a question, proposing a theory, testing the theory, revising the question) all of the time!  

Reflecting on Morgan's paper experiment, I am reminded of how important it is to take the time to investigate the many sides of a problem. If you don't turn it over in your mind, you may never fall upon the solution that eludes you at first. If you don't turn a piece of paper over in your hands, you may never have the satisfaction of tasting it for the first time. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Some Questions (and Answers) about Project Work

This year, our center is interested in supporting project work on a new level. In light of this, it seems important to take a closer look at the term project work and what it means in the context of our practice as a Reggio Emilia-inspired childcare center. So, without further ado, here are:

Some Questions (and Answers) about Project Work

What is project work?
Project work is a long-term, in-depth investigation of a question, idea, or theme that engages a small group of children and a teacher. It can begin from any number of places and it ends with a celebration of the group’s work together. Teachers invite children who have shown interest in the subject of study or who feel like a good fit socially. From there, the project group returns again and again to their area of interest, re-investigating their questions and re-representing their theories through multiple media in order to gain new perspectives on their thinking. Parents are invited into this work through teachers’ documentation, as well as through shared conversations about the project’s progression and possibilities for parent contributions.

How does it start?
The development of project work is not set or static. Our colloquial understanding of the term "project" may include a clear beginning, middle or an end like a construction project or an art project, but we are describing something in development. We use "project" in relation to the Italian term “proggetazione.” In Reggio Emilia, children work on projects like this without a clear end in sight, with only a challenge or a question to define them. In The Hundred Languages of Children, project work is “not child-centered or teacher-directed, [but rather] child-originated and teacher-framed…. On the other hand, the curriculum could be teacher-provoked and then child-engaged” (248). We look forward to this kind of collaboration among children and teachers. As children begin to develop theories about a piece of the world around them, their teachers are alongside them, helping to identify those theories and possible ways to test and refine them. Project work may arise from a single chance encounter, or it may originate out of continual patterns of interest and behavior that are only noticed over the course of time. Teachers notice an interest in children that holds possibilities for expression, collaboration or transformation, and decide with their teaching team what might be starting place for a project.

How does a project group form?
Teachers create a group to surround the original player(s) who inspired the project work. They select children who are particularly interested or invested in this particular problem, theme, or material, those who might fulfill a particular social role in the group, or who might have particularly interesting theories or experiences to add. They – together with one collaborating teacher - become a project group.

How does it progress?
A project group will develop special times to meet all together to talk about and work on their shared investigation. The teacher will communicate clearly to children about these special times, why they are meeting, and what they are going to think about on that particular day. These times might be spent in the Studio, taking time to represent and re-represent children’s ideas through the languages of multiple media; on a walk to visit a place that is tied to their investigation; in a specially designated part of their classroom for a group conversation to generate ideas; or in other ways.

Although the project group is made up of a particular set of individuals, it does not exist in a vacuum. The teacher brings observations of the group to the members of her or his team in order to parse out what the children’s focus point is, what theories they have developed, and what questions they are asking. Together, the team of teachers thinks about how to further challenge children’s thinking, providing them with a new perspective or lens on their work. The teacher will also invite the parents of the children involved to think about the project’s progression, offering them an opportunity to contribute to the project. Teachers use documentation as another means of communicating what has been happening to their fellow teachers, to families, and to other children in the classroom. In addition, the children of a project group might share their work with the rest of their peers at moments when they need fresh perspectives, more information, or an additional audience to appreciate their hard work.

How does it end?
Projects do not necessarily have an end goal when they are first conceived. Often a shared goal is developed over the course of much work and thinking together. When a shared goal is reached, this can often signify the end of the project, and the group takes this opportunity to celebrate their hard work together in a meaningful way. This idea of celebration would also be part of a project that does not necessarily have a final product, but finds its end through the solving of a problem or a general feeling shared by the children and teacher. Such celebrations pay homage to the work and commitment of the group, recognizing the journey they have taken together.

Why try it?
As Ann Pelo writes in “Try It Out and Test It”: Children as Researchers, “We wanted to strengthen in the children the dispositions to linger with questions, to take new perspectives, to collaborate, to stick with an undertaking even when their assumptions are challenged – the dispositions of researchers.” What better way to honor the children in our care than to provide them with opportunities to develop such powerful dispositions?   

 Pelo, A. (2009). "Try it out and test it": children as researchers. Research Exchange, September/October, 51-55.