Monday, November 18, 2013

When do we teach them and when do we let them wonder?

October's Provocation: What Do the Principles of Reggio Emilia Look Like Here?
Last week, four parents of children from 1-4 years old joined Katy and I for our first family provocation to talk about what we mean when we talk about the “Reggio Emilia approach” in our context.  We started with some parent questions about our history - about how and when we found this approach and started bringing it to bear on our pedagogy at PTCC. Katy, our director who is celebrating her thirtieth year working here, was incredibly helpful at this stage. She told the story of how PTCC came to be, and how we came to our approach  (gradually, over the last fifteen years or so.)

Next, we read PTCC’s mission statement together, and spent extra time on phrases from the second paragraph, where we get specific about what we do here.  I asked the parents to work in pairs and identify examples from their experiences here at the center. Here are some highlights:

Sarah: The children are co-constructors as well. For example, I love the “Question of the Day”. One time the question was “What makes trains go?” One child said people make trains go. Two said coal makes trains go. Two said electricity makes trains go. One child said a motor makes trains go and two said batteries make trains go. My child said batteries make trains go since she was thinking of her toy Lego train at home. The other child said batteries make trains go really fast. All of them were right and they were very different and it was a wonderful question. As they're talking about the answers, they listen to each other and they think about it differently."

Andrew: For my children, transition can be very difficult. The "Question of the Day" is a welcoming ritual for my family. As they enter the classroom, they're being grounded by thinking about their life outside of it.

Rick: From the kids' perspective; they spend so much time here. I can imagine it being disconcerting if you did not have a connection with home.

Abby: [This] last [sentence] stands out for me because of the documentation. I see this all the time. I am used to seeing pictures and a verbatim story about my son, and what he said, and then a reflection from a teacher. I know what my kid is doing at school.

Jumping In and Stepping Back

Rather than simply reading a list of principles we share with our colleagues in Italy, our conversation surrounded one "cognitive knot". Striving to untangle these sorts of knots is not just the work of adults in our tradition:

"Just as a knot (whorl) in  wood grain impedes a saw cutting through it, and just as a knot (tangle) in thread stops the action of a sewing needle, any problem that stops the children and blocks their action is a kind of cognitive knot." (pg 157, The Hundred Languages of Children, Third Edition). 

To hear our staff think about these kinds of knots, read this post.  Suffice it to say, we value them, we welcome them and we know that they help us to grow and learn when we try to get them undone. 

The knot we discussed is tangled around the questions:
"When do we step in and when do we step back?" 
"What is the role of an educator or parent in a child-centered curriculum " and 
"What do we let children explore and what do we "teach" them?" 

These questions could be a whole other post, so I'll just share that we had a great chat that included:
  • What's the difference between attentive inaction and inaction?
  • Is it ok to let children work under a flawed or completely incorrect theory about the world? For how long?
  • How do babies acquire a new skill? How can an adult support their learning?
  • How do we acquire or build knowledge?
  • What and how do children learn when we don't teach them?
  • Valuing frustration as the starting place of innovation and learning.
We didn't answer any of these questions (sorry, everyone, you'll have to keep working on these knots yourself!) but we had a very lively and satisfying (to me) conversation that left us all wondering further.

Next, we each read a piece of documentation written by teachers. Writing about children is a big part of our practice, and we value it for several reasons. It's a great place to look to learn about what it means when teachers and staff here say that we're inspired by the educators in Reggio Emilia. Reading pieces from infant, toddler and preschool rooms we noticed:
  • that documentation can give us a window into the classroom, set the context so that we can better participate when we're there
  • a teacher describing her internal dialog, her own struggle about how to respond to some children's conflicting ideas
  • a teacher allowing children to linger and move through the transition from naptime at their own pace, playfully
  • it's hard to know what a baby is intending or preferring before they can communicate very intentionally, and one teacher/author spent time considering the possibilities for one child in one moment

Finally, I asked if anyone had any unanswered questions, and we all agreed that the question of when do we help our children or tell the "the answer" lingered. 

  • I recommended the book Talking Their Way Into Science by Karen Gallas. It's by a teacher researcher about a classroom of 7 and 8 year olds, but the principles are absolutely valid when thinking about younger learners. It's short and fascinating and a great read.
  • We talked about our practices with babies and young toddlers and how many teachers are also inspired by Magda Gerber. A blog by one of her students, Janet Lansbury, can be found here.
  • Andrew gave us a beautiful synopsis of the big ideas behind constructivism (here's an interesting link he passed along) and suggested an article in Wired about emergent learning in the older grades. We also discussed the TED talks of Sugata Mitra, which detail how children learn without being explicitly taught.
This blog is one way that we can continue this conversation. Where do you fall as a parent or teacher on the "stepping in" or "stepping back" spectrum? What are some of the flawed theories your children have shared with  you as they constructed their ideas about the world?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Evening Parent Provocations; a New Practice at PTCC

When we say "provocation," what are we talking about? At our center, the term has come to encompass many encounters with many different audiences - children, teachers, and, now, parents - yet they all stem from a belief in working together to deepen our thinking.

Provoking Children:
The word "provocation" comes to us from our Italian friends. Because teachers and children are collaborating together, we often find that it is our role, not to "teach" but to "provoke" exploration, innovation, or reflection. It sounds strange when you first hear it, but we want to be "provoked" by our environments, materials and our peers to see our world differently, to participate in it's construction. When you see materials or ideas displayed beautifully for children to encounter in a child care, that is a provocation. It's part of the shared jargon of our approach and I feel that it's quite helpful and specific.

Provoking Teachers:
Our center has an novel practice that we call “Teacher Provocation,” a weekly gathering of teachers from every classroom that contributes to our quality as teachers and to the culture of our center. When the studio at PTCC was built 8 years ago, it became clear that many teachers did not have enough experience and comfort with art media to offer them to children. Once a week, a floating teacher who was also an artist welcomed one teacher from each classroom to spend their planning time working together with clay, water color, pencils or wire, and thus “teacher provocation” was born.

After a couple of years of these materials-based provocations, our staff felt confident with using the Hundred Languages with children, and began to spend the time together thinking about other areas of our practice. Then, as a teacher, I helped create themed, constructivist mini-workshops for us to share each week, and today this is a favorite part of my work as pedagogista.

Teacher provocation is valuable not simply because of the content (such as reading an article about something, sharing and responding to documentation, or talking through a dilemma with a peer). We value protected time to consider big ideas in the midst of our day to day work. In a center with 8 classrooms, three buildings, and a staff of 37 it can also be hard to know everyone. We have several opportunities for professional development as a whole staff spread throughout the year, but even that time is often spent in teams or in a large group, unable to connect with many of the individuals by our side. At provocation, each teacher has the opportunity to sit at a table with seven of their colleagues and usually most of the administrative team. We work as a large group and in smaller groups or pairs to answer big questions, articulate our positions and come to agreement. We are doing the same work together that we support children in doing.

Provoking parents:
Which brings us to parent provocations today. We are always seeking ways to collaborate with families, and it occurred to us that our teacher provocations provided a helpful model because they offer us precious and regular opportunities to:

  • connect with people in our community
  • take part in a conversation about something important and relevant
  • create shared ideas, and contribute to our organizational knowledge
  • practice the same kinds of collaborative, constructive learning that we choose for the children in our care
We’ll be provoking parents one evening each month until May. We'll talk about big ideas like what it means for children to share, how children play about violence and what it means to be child-centered educators.  I’m eager to see how this practice changes over time, and how it can support families and their roles in our center. I love seeing that this practice born of necessity (we need teachers to use artistic media with kids, our planning time is set up so that we can only get one teacher from each room each week) has developed into something that is absolutely critical to our work and our identity as a center, and that it's still transforming to become more valuable to our community.

Do you have a habit or practice that started as a necessity (i.e. walking to work) that has grown into something that is important to you for ideas that you couldn't have anticipated (i.e. sharing time with the friend you walk with, or getting into shape)?

Friday, November 1, 2013

Sand & Glue: A Work "on" Process

When a group of children from Toddler 2 North arrived in the studio, to continue the work with glue that we started a few weeks ago, I asked them "What can we do with glue?"

Phineas answered, "We push it out."
N. said, "We squeeze it," clenching and unclenching her hands.
E. added, "We brush it away,” describing the way we use brush-like tools to spread our glue.
This conversation set the tone for my thinking that morning. I found myself paying special attention to children's interest and mastery over the processes of using the provocation's materials (glue bottles, glue spreaders, shakers of colored sand, and flat, wooden tiles set in trays). 

When Phineas first picked up his spreader, he said, echoing E.'s earlier idea, "I'm going to spread it away," moving the tool across the mound of sand and glue piled on his tile. 

N. actually squeezed glue straight onto the spreader, then sprinkled sand on top, then spread the materials onto her tile. She was not interested in shaking the extra sand off of her tile at all.

K. built up layers of sand upon glue upon sand, stopping now and then to shake off the extra sand.  

When children emptied their shakers of sand, they were offered spoons for scooping the sand. E. used his spoon both to refill his shaker and to transfer sand directly onto the glue. Phineas figured out how to remove and return the lid of the shaker without help. He also noticed the glue and sand sticking to his tile. He began to find a rhythm: take off the lid, add some sand, put on the lid, shake some sand, "dump it out and see it stick." 

Watching all of this, I had a habitual thought, a kind of a early childhood proverb: "It's about the process, not the product." Early childhood educators emphasize that children's early work with materials is about exploration, and the tangible work produced is simply a byproduct of that time, not a piece of art to celebrate as it is for most older artists. This idea is nothing new to me; however, the work I saw today forced me to reconsider the word "process.” Usually “process” seems to me to mean something ethereal, fluid, abstract, the opposite of the solidity of a product. “It’s about the moment, not about the artwork,” you might say. However, “process” can also be concrete, something created or collaborated upon. It can be a set of steps needed to accomplish a task, to make something work, or to solve a problem.

These steps intrigued the children. They explored the ones we described when we came together (add glue, add sand, then shake off), and then recombined the different tools and materials to determine new processes with potentially different outcomes. True to the clich̩, they were less invested in the product of their work РN. was not even interested in finding out what her glue looked like under all that sand Рbut their participation in the process moved beyond said clich̩ into something more.

Sometimes an idea becomes so familiar that we forget to take time to examine what it really means. Watching these children work with these materials, I was reminded to review my own understanding of what "process" means and why we stress its importance in the investigative and creative work of children.

Our center's teacher provocations for the past month have all been focused on how to stay curious - curious about the families we work with, about our teammates, and about our environments. This visit from Toddler 2 North seems to suggest a fourth possible topic - staying curious about the language and concepts that inform our teaching. Part of our work as reflective teachers is to think about what we witness in our classrooms, what it means, and why it strikes us as important; another part is to consider ourselves within the greater nexus of the work we do - the principles that inform our thinking.

I found myself reconsidering my understanding of a precious axiom with greater care thanks to how it was beautifully illustrated by Phineas and his friends as they worked. I am grateful to be reminded that the words we try to live by still deserve a second or third look in light of our observations, and lived experience.

Which parts of your everyday life are “about the process” and which about “the product”?

What are the axioms or principles that you live by that have had deeper meaning by considering them in light of your own lived experience? How did you become curious about them?