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?