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

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