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