Thursday, December 11, 2014

Conversations with Nature: Preschool One Explores Natural Materials

“We often forget that WE ARE NATURE. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.”
                                                                                   ― Andy Goldsworthy

Autumn in New England is full of natural beauty – from golden leaves floating to the ground to acorns nestled in the grass to branches blown free by the winds.  These objects call out to be touched, gathered, collected, and children often do just that. Pockets that were empty before the trip to the playground return crammed full of bark and twigs and stones. Long sticks are brandished like swords and left unwillingly beside the door until they can be used again. These things entice us, draw us in, and call to our creativity. They are one of the hundred languages, and, if we make space, we can speak through them. This is Preschool One’s story.  

Rivers and Tides
We began our work with natural materials in the Studio by watching pieces of the documentary, Rivers and Tides.  This documentary features the work of artist Andy Goldsworthy, who creates beautiful installations – some in museums, but many of them outside – using entirely natural materials. I love this documentary because it not only showcases Goldsworthy’s breathtaking creations, it also shows his process. You can see his attention to detail in finding the perfect piece to add to his creation, as well as his frustration when one of his projects collapses midway.

I projected the video on the wall without sound, occasionally prompting children’s conversation with questions, such as “What does that remind you of?” or “What do you think he is using?” Here are some of their thoughts about what they witnessed*:

Alisa – It’s a snake.
Y. – Did you know there’s paths like that?
N. – Maybe it’s a drawing.
Justin – Maybe it’s lava.

E. – Hey all those are blowing away from the snake.
Justin – There’s something inside them – a sea snake.

A. – We see ice.
F. – His hands are cold.
Y. – What is he making? He’s eating it. Ew.
E. – It’s cuz all the other pieces are just like it and he can stick the pieces to the pieces.
All – BRAVO (when he finally sticks his last piece of ice).
N. – It’s a snake tree.

Justin – Maybe he’s making a nest.
Arnaud – Maybe he’s making a nest out of trees.

A. – I think he is making a house for him. He’s using stone.
Justin – Looks like a pile of rocks.
Gus – Maybe it’s melting – now.

Alisa – It’s a web.
Y. – You know why it’s not a web, because there’s a hole on a stop sign.
F. – Why is there a hole there?
Y. – Maybe so it can be a stop sign.

The Building Process
Following the video clips, I moved away the projector, spreading out several work surfaces on the floor, as well as baskets filled with many of the same materials that the artist had used. As children began building, I could see ways in which Goldsworthy’s work directly influenced their designs and their methods. Their great care in building creations using sticks, rocks, pine cones, acorns, and leaves seemed to echo the deliberation and concentration we had witnessed in the video.

As Gus surveyed the materials, he asked, “Can I make like he did?” beginning to collect sticks for a “nest.” Later, when he wanted to make one of the sticks stand up, “like a tree,” he made use of a glass jar as a stabilizing device. When A. laid out a small circle of rocks, she said, “I made what he made. I saw he made a hole with rocks, so I made a hole with rocks.” El. created a long line using all of the rough-edged rocks available. Arnaud and Justin built intricate traps, where each acorn cap or stick had a job to do.  N. enjoyed making matching stacks of things, such as a series of tree ring towers. Phineas overlapped a series of sticks, which he described as “just a design.”  E. worked to cover the entire surface of the different squares of wood set out alongside the materials. She would search for the perfect rock to fill each space, creating an orderly mosaic of materials.

Questions of Scarcity
I noticed that order and space became very important for many children over the course of the visit – lining up a series of sticks that were big enough to stretch across two other sticks like a bridge, filling a small square with only smooth stones… This meant that many conversations arose around the issues of scarcity – not having enough to finish a project you had begun – and stockpiling – holding on to many things in order to use them for future projects. Such conversations are part of the preschool milieu – how do you share space and resources with 15 (or, in this case, 4) other kids? The unique piece of this Studio experience was that this was a space dedicated to using just these particular materials, leaving more room for these discussions to happen. In many cases, the children discovered that their worries about someone else taking “all” or “too many” of something were unfounded, or that they really did not need all of the pieces they had been fighting to keep. For instance, when Gus was working to create his “tree,” the glass jar he wanted was full of sticks. He quietly sat down by the jar and began to empty it out. A. and E., who were working nearby, watched him.

A.: Oh no, he’s taking everything!
E.: Oh no, and I need sticks!
At this point, Gus left with the jar, leaving a pile of sticks on the floor.
E.: Oh, he just took that jar.
Katie: Did he take everything?
A.: No, he left those.
Katie: All he needed was the jar, so he left the sticks for you.
E.: That was nice of him. I guess I only need a few sticks.

Where the River Meets the Sea: The Big Picture
Through this experience, the children gained practice in appreciating, using, and re-using these natural materials. Treated as loose parts, the possibilities of sticks, rocks, and leaves multiplied, while children’s concerns over quantity and ownership gradually diminished. My wish is that this way of being can extend beyond the classroom into the greater natural world, where we can recognize forests, mountains, rivers, and more as treasures held in common, worth defending to be appreciated again and again by generations, rather than used up for the sake of one. We are the stewards of the earth, and we are charged with the task of passing that stewardship on. The best way I can think to do this is to help children engage with nature, cherish it, and not merely preserve, but share it in good faith. 

*The pictures featuring Goldsworthy's work are screenshots from Rivers and Tides.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Open Studio Snapshots - Exploring Paper

Last month, I invited families to join their children here for our first Open Studio of the year. Seeing as paper was the first material that children used in the Studio, it only seemed fitting that this be the subject of this initial Open Studio. Here are some photos of an evening spent exploring this remarkable material (with some tape thrown in). 

Simon and his mama, Kendra (our pedagogista), spent a long time playing with really big pieces of transluscent mylar and white paper. Simon summed up some differences he learned: "This one (the white paper) doesn't make any sound and this one does. This one (the mylar) is fast and this one is slow."

Maddy and her dad, Justin, worked with colored cardstock. Maddy made the snowflake decorations you see on the table by layering strips of blue paper over each other and taping them together. She went on to make many other creations, such as a phone made entirely out of paper. 

Anna and Julie, two sisters, played with the paper hanging from the ceiling. After much pulling and tugging, they finally managed to pull down a thick rope of brown packing paper.

O. brought pieces of colored acetate and tissue paper over to sticky contact paper taped to the window. She carefully arranged each piece, beginning with a series of vertical lines, then adding some horizontal ones. 

Harlan and his mom, Sky, worked with tape and paper. Harlan created a three-dimensional haunted house, with many curving pathways. Sky used black tape to collage a black tree against a blue background.

It really is beautiful to see so many children and parents from across the classrooms of PTCC join together, creating and exploring side by side, in one room. Thank you to everyone who participated in making our first Open Studio a huge success! 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Starting off the Studio: Ruminations and a Paper Investigation

How will we use the Studio? 
Which material will we use to begin our Studio journey?

These questions are constantly on my mind, not only at the beginning of each school year, but during all the months that follow. Each year, the use of the Studio shifts a bit as we try to navigate the ideals we hold as a Reggio-inspired center and the realities of serving 90 children, infants through preschoolers, spread throughout three separate buildings. Now that we are settling comfortably into the routines of the year, I want to take some time to reflect on the questions that have driven these shifts, to share some thoughts about what I do and why, and to tell a little about the subject of our first Studio adventure - paper.

How will we use the Studio?

Right now, children's visits to the Studio are primarily centered around getting to know a few key materials one at a time, building a repertoire of expertise that will serve them throughout the year. A few groups have also started visiting together to explore particular themes of interest, such as ramps and balls, music and movement, and building train tracks. This really points to the fluid and flexible nature of the Studio - it is an art room, a laboratory, a meeting room, a dance floor, a recording studio... and the list goes on. However, throughout all of these pieces, it is a place for focused work of one form or another. This focus may come from the side of the materials ("We're going to explore wire today! How can we change this piece of wire?") or it may come from the side of ideas ("Today is about building our animal sculptures together! What parts do we need? What materials should we use?") - but in either case, the focus is there.

This is a practice that has taken me several years to develop, and it is something I am still working on. When I first took on the job of atelierista, this element of focus was already partly in place, but there was also a sense of "free play" - of doing whatever you wanted with any of the materials. At first I went along with this, knowing that this is how things had been done, but I felt that there was something missing - something that I believed was at the heart of the Studio. I saw a lot of children using materials for the sake of having them - gluing piles of beads and glitter to paper or wrapping sticks with a mile of tape simply for the sake of taking them home to their mommies and daddies. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but, as my fellow atelierista, Anna Golden from Sabot at Stony Point, writes, "... that's not what studio thinking is all about."

So what is studio thinking about? It can be stated as a framework, a set of eight habits of mind, such as "envisioning," "developing craft," and "engaging and persisting."  For me, it is about learning about materials in order to use them to create the things you want to create and to follow through on your ideas with success. It is also about developing a practice of using materials intentionally and respectfully. It is about recognizing that every material has potential that is worth exploring. These are the ideas that I strive to embody through our use of the Studio, whether the children who are using this space are 5 months or 5 years.

Which material will we use to begin our Studio journey?

In the same blog post, Anna asks three important questions regarding materials for a Studio:

How do children use materials? 
Which materials serve children, considering Gardner's multiple intelligences?
Which ones have most potential for creative thinking?

The Studio is home to a variety of materials - paint, clay, glue, yarn, cardboard, tape, fabric, markers, wire, wood, and more. I feel that all of these can be used in multiple ways, can serve as outlets for sensory experiences as well as expression, and have a lot of potential for creative thinking and problem solving. The question is, where should we begin this year's journey in developing the "studio thinking" already mentioned?

This year, I chose paper as our starting place.

Paper is a material with a huge amount of potential. It is extremely malleable, yet it also has structural integrity - it can hold the shape into which it is twisted or folded. It comes in a variety of colors, weights, sizes, and textures. It is also very accessible - it is my go-to material for infants at the start of the year. A fellow teacher, Lise White, and I once followed an extensive investigation of young toddlers and paper. As one of the proverbial hundred languages for creative expression, paper is one with a wide and fascinating vocabulary.

Paper also offers a challenge. It is a material that we often use as a surface only - a place to draw and write. We don't often use it on its own, for its own unique properties. In offering paper to children, I was beginning the year by asking them to look at things - this material specifically - in a new way.

In order to really get at this idea of learning a material's own unique vocabulary, I initially offered paper to the children entirely on its own. No drawing utensils; no scissors; no tape; no glue. Just paper. Granted, the paper itself did not take just one form. For visual simplicity, all of the paper was either white or black, but some of it was small, and some was big; some was hanging from the ceiling, while other pieces were spread on the floor or arranged on a table; some pieces were flat and untouched, while others were already wrinkled from being crumpled; the weights of the paper ranged from thick watercolor paper to very lightweight tracing paper. In order to invite children to start thinking about the many possibilities of this material, it seemed important to offer up a variety of possibilities as to what this material could look and feel like to begin with. 

At first, many children asked, "Where are the markers? We need scissors!" Even some very young toddlers entered with the question, "Markers? Draw?" The challenge I had foreseen was clearly there - these children were used to acting on paper in a two-dimensional way. I was interested in seeing what they could do when they started to think more three-dimensionally. I gave them one question as further provocation: "How can we change this paper using just our hands and bodies?" Here are just a few answers from children across the center ...

Sam shook and waved the paper, sometimes wrapping it around his body into a big "mountain." 

Phineas, Harriet, and Alisa used a big piece as a house. "Come through the door in the front, not the back."  

Morgan ripped the paper into smaller and smaller pieces. She found that if she pulled it in one direction, it ripped easily, but if she pulled it in the other, she couldn't rip it at all.

Raphael scrunched different papers next to his ear. "This one sounds different. This one sounds soft. This one sounds loud."
Alvida and Lundy pulled down the paper from the ceiling. "Reach up," Alvida said, encouraging Lundy to help her try to pull down the pieces that remained. 

Justin ripped a piece of paper into small scraps. Arranging theses careful, he announced, "This is my control station. These are the controls." Each piece of paper became a button or a lever. 

"You can make shadows on it," Jone said of a big piece of paper lying on the floor.
E. folded the paper as she explored the different textures of its two sides.

Through this experience, the children learned a great deal about the properties of the different papers. For instance, some were easy to rip, while others were nearly impossible. The diaper table paper was flexible enough to  tie together, while the cardstock and watercolor paper could actually stand on their own if they were folded the right way.

I love that the Studio can be used as a place to not only build on children's interests, but to challenge them to build new skills and try on new perspectives. By investigating paper on its own, in this focused environment, children across our center discovered so many more uses for it than merely drawing or painting on it - they began to appreciate it as a unique material in its own right.

Do you see "Studio thinking" at work elsewhere in our center? 

What memories do you have of being introduced to art materials - of getting to know these "languages" ?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Teachers are Learners: Illustrating a Year of Project Work, Part 3

The following is the third and final part of a series of posts illustrating the ways our teachers took on the different principles of project work last year. Click here to find the first part and the second part.

Bring the small group work  back to the larger group and find ways to integrate the work into larger classroom life.

From the early stages of her group’s music project, Serena encouraged the budding musicians to share their work with their classmates (and our resident musician, Wayne). In the beginning, their experience of performing a song in progress allowed them to get some feedback to help them improve. Later, they worked to catalog important vocabulary words and use them to write new songs, one of which they also performed for their classmates and parents. As their vocabulary became more nuanced and consistent, Serena encouraged them to share their new system as useful tool for other songwriters in the classroom. Through this practice, the work of denoting and writing new songs has spread into the greater culture of the classroom, adding new focus to a general interest in music making.

Choose your small groups carefully, thinking about their relationships to the concepts and with one another.

When Tracy was considering the composition of her sea monster group, she took into account the different possibilities that the project held for each child. For some children, the experience would help them practice listening to others’ ideas and integrating them into their own. For others, it offered the possibility of a leadership role – getting to speak up and gain confidence as an “expert” on sea monsters. In her careful formation of the group, Tracy brought together children who had normally not played together much before, but who shared an interest in sea monsters and could benefit from each others’ strengths.  Among the group, there were storytellers, artists, safety advocates, and trap-builders, each working to make the lore of the sea monsters richer through their contribution. In bringing together this diverse group of children, Tracy not only helped build a successful project group - which they collectively named Team Blueberry Pickle - but also helped to foster new friendships and a greater sense of community throughout her classroom.

Stay curious about what you observe.
We were unsure what project work would be like for babies and young toddlers, but we were certain that our teachers would find ways to collaborate with some of our youngest citizens. While Cathy watched how babies played with balls and ramps for inklings of understanding, Eileen studied friendship, reflecting upon the demonstrations of empathy and fondness that she saw to draw her conclusions. Brae thought long and hard about how babies communicate with sign language and then with speech. She wondered why children chose one mode of communication over another. This team had deep, thoughtful conversations about their projects, and how they could continue to explore side-by-side with babies. On the other hand, when Henna joined the Toddler Two North team in the middle of the year, she had to build new relationships with the children in her class, while also listening for that special spark of interest that indicates that a topic might be worthy of deeper investigation. She knew that food held a special fascination and offered a number of different ways for the children in her class to relate to it. She was persistent in her study of the children in her care and their relationship to food, and offered a number of different and delicious provocations to her class.  

Celebrate and honor the children’s work by ending it in some meaningful way.

As our year (and our projects) come to an end, we are excited to see what celebrations unfold for these many projects. Clearly these children and teachers will continue to learn more, about the workers in their community, about how buttons influence the world around us or how to communicate with one another. However, one way that we honor children's collective exploration is by following the waxing and waning of their interest - by helping their work together form a shape with a beginning, middle and an ending. Part of the practice of progettazione in Italy, and the projects that happen elsewhere in Boston and all over the US, is to recognize the work that's happened, look at it as a whole, and celebrate it with families and children. In the final weeks of our school year, teachers, families and children marked this moment, honoring the learning they did and relationships they built. Seana planned a plane-decorating party for her paper airplane group, Carmel and Aline invited families to co-create a bird guide that will live on in our center, and Miwako’s group invited their classmates and parents to the final performance of the play they created, to name a few. What a wonderful end to an amazing year!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Teachers are Learners - Illustrating a Year of Project Work - Part 2

The following is the second part of a series of posts illustrating the ways our teachers took on the different principles of project work last year. You can find the first post here.

Emphasize dispositions such as critical thinking, perspective-taking, intellectual and emotional risk-taking, persistence, and bold imagining.

From the outset of her group’s investigation of ramps, Irene was guided by the question that inspired the project, “What happened?” As she brought children together to work at both building and using ramps, she also helped them to build the language, skills, and endurance of scientists and engineers. Over the course of their investigation of ramps, Irene offered children opportunities to make, test, and revise their predictions, as well as to solve problems and obstacles that arose during their tests. If a piece of their ramp broke, she supported them through the process of working together to fix it, make sure it worked, and realign it if not. She helped them to expand their repertoire of questions to include not only “What happened?” but “Why did that happen?”, “How can we fix it?”, and “What will happen if…?”

Watch for opportunities to integrate learning domains such as literacy, math, and scientific processes.

Throughout the center, teachers have found numerous ways to integrate learning domains into their projects. Although they were working with very different age groups, Irene and Seana both encouraged children to work at making predictions, testing them, and observing the results. Seana and Monica helped children stretch their writing muscles through writing lists and letters, while Tracy encouraged her younger preschoolers to write their intended messages on the sea monster signs they created.  Two teachers also used checklists to help children remember their work and analyze it later; the checklist made for Seana’s airplane group helped them note down their observations of how different airplanes flew, while Kerry’s group used a checklist to keep track of which colors of moon sand the different classrooms wanted them to make. In addition, by helping the children in her group follow the recipe to make the moon sand, Kerry gave them experience in both measuring and counting.

Find a starting place.

“How will I find a project?” This was on the mind of many teachers when we first started discussing project work. During the weeks that followed, two Preschool 2 teachers found their respective projects in very different ways, illustrating that there is no right way to begin a project. For Seana, inspiration came from an ongoing interest in paper airplanes already present in her classroom. After inviting several children to hone their airplane making and flying skills, she identified a dedicated group who came together again and again to fold, fly, and observe their planes. For Monica, on the other hand, the seed of a project sprang from a single lunchtime conversation. When a small group of children began to discuss the prospect of building a house for their classroom, she was struck by the enthusiasm and practicality of their conversation. She brought the group together for more conversation, and soon the House Group was born. Although each teacher found inspiration for a project group in very different circumstances, in both cases their projects grew out of their careful attention to children’s interests – whether ongoing or just beginning.

Write documentation that allows teachers, children and families to reflect on what's happening and contribute.

Documenting project work is unique in that it’s important that the larger class be made aware of what the project group is doing and because of the sheer volume of work children are creating on a regular basis. Kerry’s documentation in Toddler Two South honored the thoughts and questions of children by sharing them with everyone as the project progressed. She placed large pictures at children’s eye level so that they could reflect upon and revisit their work together. The size of the photos allowed multiple children to consider the pictures at the same time. The Preschool One team found that they were meeting so often with their groups, they didn’t feel they could adequately make a polished piece of documentation about every meeting. They knew that it was important to capture all of the children’s ideas, and record all of the different provocations that were part of the work, so M., Kara and Tracy started collecting “raw” notes in a binder that children and families could peruse. The notes allow anyone to get a real sense of the work that was happening, and provided the team with an organized way to reference their notes in team meetings when planning curriculum.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Teachers are Learners - Illustrating a Year of Project Work - Part 1

The following is the first part of a series of posts illustrating the ways our teachers took on the different principles of project work last year. You can see the second post here.

Aim to generate rather than answer questions.

When considering possible provocations for their respective projects, Sarah (investigating water) and Amy (investigating simple machines) always sought to challenge children’s thinking. Whether offering a new perspective on the materials (such as envisioning a stream of water falling continuously from the ceiling) or providing opportunities to explore an interest with greater focus (by constructing new wheel and latch boards for the classroom), these teachers were always creating opportunities for children, families, and the teachers themselves to develop new questions. In attempting project work with infants, they found that just as much can be learned through the asking of questions as in the answering of them.

Seek to increase the complexity of the study.

When the button project first began, Erin looked at how children worked with buttons. One aspect of their interest was social; they liked to have control of a button that someone else wanted. She looked deeper at buttons, and how they help children's attention and had a hunch that they were seeking to influence invisible, and interconnected systems. Thinking with one and two year old children about something this complex can be difficult. Anyone might struggle to get at this idea, which is physically obscured by the casings and exteriors of the buttons themselves. But Erin was undaunted. Over the course of their project, the pushing of buttons has given way to the creation of machines – from levers and catapults to wheels and axles. Together, this group is learning some of the mechanics at work behind the light switch they so love to flip, gaining a peek into the hidden systems that make our world run each day.

Create opportunities to represent and
re-represent ideas in multiple "languages."

Kara’s great love of and experience with yoga, as well as the investment that many children in her classroom have shown in its practice, made this a natural choice for her project this year. The question was, how could she help them to take their understanding of the poses they practiced to a new level? One way was through the use of multiple languages to represent the way their bodies looked while holding different positions. Children were already gaining much experience with movement when practicing yoga, so now she asked them to slow down, look at each others’ bodies, and recreate them using pencils and sharpies, clay and wire, and paint. These experiences gave the children an acute awareness of their bodies and how to represent the important parts of each pose, while offering Kara insight into the children’s understanding of the poses and how the parts of their bodies work together to compose them. When Kara invited the children to create their own poses and yoga flow, she had prepared them to use these skills for a new purpose – drawing their own yoga cards and teaching their flow to others!

Find ways to keep families abreast of your work, and to invite them into the process of planning.

Having chosen a single, class-wide project focusing on birds and children’s observation of them, the Toddler One South team of Aline, Carmel, and Danielle worked hard to apprise the families of the children in their care about the nature of their investigation. Through written documentation and weekly emails, the team recounted their provocations and observations around this project in the classroom, inviting families to contribute. As parents and grandparents began to share photos and stories of encounters with the birds around them, the teachers integrated them into the classroom environment – photos were added to the display board in the back of the room, while the stories were added to the book corner. Soon, parents were not only paying more attention to birds alongside their child, but also offering ideas for provocations they would like to bring to the classroom to support the project. Thanks to the teachers’ effort in keeping families abreast of their project work, as well as parents’ commitment to replying with their own reflections and ideas, the project grew far richer and more meaningful for all involved.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Teachers are Learners - Illustrating a Year of Project Work - Introduction

Every year our staff shares an annual intention; a shared idea that we bring to our different conversations and curricula all year long. This past year our center explored in-depth project work, an approach to child-centered curriculum that we share with teachers all over the world.

Project work (or progettazione, as it's known in Italy) is a way for adults to demonstrate that we see children’s competence by working beside them to pursue a big idea. Many Americans first encountered this idea through an exhibit in the 1990s called the Hundred Languages of Children, which showcased the work of teachers, children, and families from Reggio Emilia, Italy. This exhibition challenged many American educators to rethink their understanding of what children are capable of and the possibilities for their self-expression through artistic media, and it clearly continues to resonate with us today. Here at PTCC, project work seemed like the next logical step stemming from our emergent curriculum. We imagined it offering a new, more collaborative way for children and adults to interact with one another, a more rigorous way for teachers to plan curriculum and different ways for children to learn the dispositions of artists, friends, scientists, teachers and learners.

We started a full year ago, considering examples of project work from other schools and centers. We spent a day with Sandra Floyd, a mentor teacher from Seattle, Washington who has worked on in-depth explorations with children and teachers for more than ten years. We talked together about the conceptual framework that sustains project work, and about the nuts and bolts work of making time and space for this sort of collaboration among and with children. Together, we created the following document to guide us on our journey. 

After much conversation, our studio schedule and Katie’s role were shifted to support project work, making more room for small groups to do what they needed to do to focus on their project. We spent the fall encountering and practicing with the art media that children would later be asked to use to represent their thinking. Teachers listened for the seeds of projects, and, after our winter break they began to dive in.

As a staff, we sought to answer several big questions about this work. Given our commitment to justice, and to caring for each child, how might we honor the ideas of children ready and willing to take part in project work while honoring the children whose learning this year happened outside of small groups. One classroom decided to pursue one project as a class, while another had small, flexible groups whose participants shifted over time. Teachers found ways to integrate their project work into the larger milieu through documentation, provocations and circle times. We wondered how to do this work, usually associated with preschoolers and older toddlers with our youngest children.

We also thought about how to follow children’s interests while inserting our own, teacherly perspective, and how to plan for learning when it’s emergent. We tried out Backwards Design tm  as a way for teachers to plan for learning while leaving the outcomes and options open to children’s choices and discoveries. (Backwards Design is a method that is “Backwards” because teachers first consider what they hope children will understand by the end of the project, planning back from there.) When Erin suggested that we make some kind of visual organizer to help teachers to work with this method, we came up with two that you’ll see displayed around the center. One is shaped like a tree and the other is shaped like an oval, but they contain the same ideas. Both helped teachers approach children’s theories and questions with some rigor, decide what they wanted children to understand about their explorations and make space for children to co-lead the project and determine next steps.

This past year has been an amazing journey - for children and for teachers - and we are grateful for the opportunity to reflect on all of the hard work that went on here at PTCC. In a series of upcoming posts, we will illustrate the ways in which our teachers embodied the above principles and key "ingredients" through their projects.

- Katie & Kendra

Monday, June 30, 2014

Families at the Center, and Children in Public Life

The center where Katie and I work is called Peabody Terrace Children's Center, but we mostly call it PTCC. Peabody Terrace is a collection of towers of graduate student dorms at Harvard University built in the 1960's as "married dorms." This year we celebrated fifty years of child care at Peabody Terrace. While our organization hasn't been around for fifty years, children have been cared for in these spaces for fifty years.

When we talk to our colleagues from Reggio Emilia, they emphasize that their approach is a moral and a political one. They must remind us again and again because it's easy to gravitate toward the beautiful environments, respectful image of the child and use of art media as a thinking tool. And more difficult to think about child care as a political act. Universal child care in Italy was a part of supporting women's right to choose work outside of the home, and part of rebuilding the country after World War II. Child care at Peabody Terrace was part of supporting women's burgeoning role in academia, and the rights of academics to have a home life.

Children learning that mothers' lives can be rich, varied and include more than parenthood is a powerful part of their education about what it means to be a man, a woman, a parent or a teacher, and an integral part of our teaching tradition. In my first year as a teacher here, during a parent meeting about friendship, a mother whose husband is faculty at Harvard shared with us what it felt like to be a child growing up on a college campus in the 1970's, with a mother who was an academic. In these times, our institutions of learning are still learning how to support families, and we are proud to be supporting them.

It's said that this collection of rooms at the bottom of these towers were the first space on Harvard's campus designated for children. This is also a political value that we share with our Italian friends; that children are part of public life. This year we've walked together with children up and down the Charles river hunting for sea monsters, talking with community workers, flying airplanes from upper story windows, visiting the acclaimed American Repertory Theatre or observing the habits of local birds. When we make these sojourns, we are continuing the story of childhood at Harvard, making our learning visible to passers by.

This short article describes a little bit about the history of childcare here at Harvard (and Radcliffe) and our relationship to it. For those of you who follow our blog, it may be helpful for you to know more about the context in which we operate. Check out these photos and how universal some aspects of child care are. Here at Peabody Terrace Children's Center, we let children learn through their play and so we don't look that different on the outside than we did in the 1960's.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Searching for Workers, Finding our Community

As many teachers at our center have embarked upon project work this year, they have sought ways to delve deeper into children's shared interests and to provide them with new perspectives through which to view such things as sea monsters, paper airplanes, ramps, and birds, to name a few. As with most new things, this has involved moving beyond our comfort zones, literally as well as figuratively. "Going deeper" has often included straying beyond the familiar walls and playgrounds of our school and into the city around us. These experiences have added a new dimension to the projects - the opportunity to get to know our community.

One example of what I mean occurred just over a week ago. As a part of their project work around the people at work in our community, a group of older toddlers, their teacher, Kerry, and I ventured out on a walk around our school's neighborhood, to "look for workers."  

As we started walking - 

Yoshi: Look! A delivery worker!
F: What’s your name?
Katie: I wonder if any of those packages are for our school.
Yoshi: (seeing a big diaper box) Those are for babies.
F: (points to the packages piled all the way to the handle of his cart) That’s too many!
A: Can we take your picture?
The delivery worker apologized for being too busy to stop and talk to us right then. As we continued our walk…
A: Look at that delivery truck.
Katie: This reminds me of when you guys did deliveries, too.
Kerry: Yeah! What was the name of the thing you guys used to make deliveries?
Yoshi: Some boxes were heavy and some weren’t.
Turning the corner, we noticed that a courtyard by some nearby apartments had been torn up.

Tracks in the dirt. What made them?
Yoshi: Maybe there’s construction there. Don’t go on there!
S: There was a tractor here.
Kerry: You think there was a tractor? How do you know?
S: See the tracks?
Yoshi: I don’t think it was a tractor. (sees a ladder nearby) There’s a ladder! That’s what the tracks are.
We walked down the street, hoping to see some people at work. We saw a lot of cones – traces of construction work – and the children pointed out drivers of big landscaping and contracting trucks that passed. A. noticed a fire hydrant, saying, “A fireman.” Yoshi noticed a tree that had been cut down.  “What happened to that tree? It’s just a stump.” I noticed some really full recycling bins, which led us to talk about the trash truck that the children watch every day from their window.

As we neared the MLK School construction site, the children saw something very exciting…

Yoshi: A street sweeper! It cleans a dirty dirty dirty dirty…
The street sweeper hard at work. 
A: Street!
Yoshi: Yeah, street!
The children looked closely for the man inside the sweeper. At one point, F. said, “Oh, there! See the orange shirt!” A. also pointed out two mailboxes on the street corner nearby, and the children peeked through the fence at the construction in progress, although the workers had all gone home for the day.

What struck me about this walk was that, although we didn’t see as many workers as we were hoping, we saw many signs of different types of work done in our city every day. From ladders to fire hydrants to mail boxes to construction cones, our city is full of objects representing the workers who help it function. When I think about the work that this group has done for our school (such as making and delivering moon sand to other classrooms), I can identify particular objects that hold meaning for them in a similar way. For instance, they are always eager to pick out a smock to wear before making moon sand, and it is only after their smocks are on that they declare, “We are workers.” For these children, these objects are important symbols, essential to the identity of workers and their jobs. One of the things that has been truly wonderful about this project is the way in which it has opened up children’s eyes to the multiple meanings of the word “worker” – it no longer just means a construction worker, but also a delivery person, a gardener, a baker, a moon sand maker… the list goes on and on. The many things they identified as belonging to workers illustrated this very idea. We don’t just need builders to build a community… we need lots of other people, too! 
A peek into the construction zone.

This process of reaching beyond our classroom walls and into the greater Cambridge community has been one of the most amazing parts of our first venture into project work. Many groups have been venturing beyond our school's walls - even if it is just a little way - in order to expand their perspectives and bring their work into the "real" world. One of our preschool groups is intent on educating the public about the dangerous sea monsters they believe live in the Charles River, whether that means yelling out at passers-by "Beware the sea monsters! They will eat you up!" or posting signs along the riverbank. Another group, who is interested in performance, is planning to visit a local repertory theater in order to learn more about all of the work that goes in to putting on a play. 

In addition to expanding our sense of community through these trips outside our school, many projects have also offered opportunities for children to build and strengthen relationships within our center's walls. The worker group's experience making and delivering moon sand to other classrooms is one example - the children were able to visit and get to know classrooms, children, and teachers they rarely see. Children whose groups shared a similar interest - ramps - shared a Studio visit together in order to learn from each other. For one group, whose interest lies in gardening and plants, their understanding of our school community expanded rather accidentally on a trip to the garden to observe and draw some plants. When they arrived, our school's garden plot was being carefully tended by a different classroom. As we made our way to a spot to draw, one child asked, "What they doing in our garden?" As I explained that the garden belonged to our whole school and that many children helped to care for it, I could see her brow furrow in thought. "We take care of it, too," she said at last, before turning back to her clipboard. 

A "Beware of Sea Monsters" sign tied to a tree.
The educators of Reggio Emilia often discuss the rights and respect that children as active citizens of this world. As the town's mayor, Graziano Delrio, wrote in his contribution to the Hundred Languages of Children,"In this period of our history, the idea of citizenship has had a strong influence on the identity of the infant-toddler centers and preschools - the sense of belonging, the willingness to take care of one another, the wish to participate, and the desire to be an active part of a process of change toward greater prosperity for the world community." These experiences within our school and our city are a means of building this good citizenship, not only by introducing children to their community, but by giving them a sense of place and power within it. They may not be the only gardeners at work in this place, but their contribution is still important and necessary. I hope this is an understanding they carry with them as a result of this work we are doing together. 

How did you understand your community when you were young? 

How about now?