Monday, December 19, 2016

The Power of Loose Parts

What is a “loose part”?
Loose parts are essentially materials that can be moved around and manipulated in many ways, and which don’t necessarily have a single assigned “job” or use.

Why should we play with them?
In the 1970s, the Theory of Loose Parts was developed by architect Simon Nicholson in response to what he saw as a lack of opportunity for children (and adults outside the realms of architecture) to play around with concepts of building and construction in their daily lives. The principle of the theory is as follows:

“In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.”[1]

In other words, when people interact in a given space, the more options they are offered, and the more the available options can be combined and recombined, the more interesting and diverse the results. The repercussions of this idea for the early childhood classroom are clear – when we offer children more materials that are unscripted, hold multiple possibilities, and can be put together and taken apart in numerous ways we see more creativity, engagement, and discovery on the part of students (and I would argue on the part of the teachers and parents as well!). And these benefits are not limited to the realm of building and spatial thinking, but can extend far beyond, into the realms of dramatic play, artistic expression, literacy , and mathematical thinking… to name a few.

Below are just a few instances of children at work with loose parts in our center. Where do you see inventiveness and creativity at work through these materials?

Tubes of varying sizes inspire Alec and Grace to investigate stacking them and trying to fit them inside each other. Grace tried to cover one long tube with several smaller ones, while Alec tried to see if he could nest two tubes of the same size. 

Atom discovers that these small plastic containers stack one on top of the other very nicely. He builds a tower, taller, taller, taller, until it begins to wobble. When it falls down - crash! - he picks up the pieces and begins to build again. 

J and F investigate the structural integrity of this "house" made of carpet squares. It was able to hold several heavy blocks for its "roof" before it finally collapsed. 

Julius and Quinn examine a tube stuffed with mylar together. The mylar is crinkly, sparkly, and noisy, and the tube is tricky for small hands to manipulate. It rolls and tips as they try to angle it just so, searching for the best way to look in and pull out the mylar. 

Leon and Cathy found some pieces of sheer fabric in the movement studio while they watched a projection of some Riverdance performers. They used the fabric as costumes, as something to hide behind, and, finally, as something to hold behind their backs, the same way some of the dancers held their hands behind their backs. 

Jihye and Emmett discovered a wooden place-mat and a piece of bumpy, translucent plastic in the Studio. Looking through them, they noticed that their view of the world changed! The other children in the Studio also noticed that it changed the way Jihye and Emmett looked, making it hard to see all of Jihye's face, and making Emmett look "foggy." 

[1]Nicholson, S (1972). The Theory of Loose Parts: An important principle for design methodology. Studies in Design EducationCraft & Technology 4, (2), 6. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Professional Development For Teachers/ By Teachers/About Teaching

At 9:00 AM, on our annual Day of Learning, 58 educators gazed around a circle expectantly, wondering about how they’d spend their day.
At 9:01 AM, a teacher stepped forward to write a question she wanted to discuss on a big piece of paper. Then another teacher stepped into the circle, then another, each sharing an issue that needed attention. Soon our agenda was full and teachers were off to their first session. No one told them what to do, where to be, or what to work on for the next three hours.

How did this come to be? First,  a little background:
For seven years, our teachers gather with educators from other centers for workshops and a keynote. We appreciate meeting and eating together, being inspired and celebrated. We’ve had some great workshops and a few incredible speakers. We’ve been satisfied, but we’ve also heard that teachers wish they had gotten more out of the day for a variety of reasons. Simultaneously, our directors are trusting teachers more to influence our shared pedagogy and share expertise with one another and others.

This year, we tried something different. We spent our morning in Open Space and our afternoon implementing the plans we’d made. We trusted teachers to co-create their learning the way that we trust children. We had already begun planning this Day of Learning, when I encountered Laurie Calvert's white paper "Moving From Compliance to Agency; What Teachers Need to Make Professional Learning Work." and I was encouraged by her words:
"constructivist theories are grounded in a body of research  that shows people
gain knowledge and meaning from the interaction between their experiences
and beliefs... for real learning to take place, the adult learners must be
both decision makers and the subjects — and agents — of their own learning. "

Harrison Owens invented Open Space Technology  by  to make workshops more like the coffee breaks in conferences, where he saw the most excitement. Open Space has facilitated whole school systems, corporations, unions, NGO’s, neighborhoods and other communities answering questions or solving problems that are big and urgent. Sometimes over a whole week! We sampled hour-long Open Space sessions at past Days of Learning with success and were ready to unleash the power of teacher’s hearts and minds making them the decision makers.
Generally, Open Space organizers propose a broad theme and then participants spontaneously co-create the agenda. Meetings are composed only of people who feel passionately about the topic, so conversations are energetic and lively, and the learning is deep.
Our theme was  “What Would Mr. Roger’s Do?”
In a world of learning standards, digital distractions and injustice…
How do we make room for play?
How do we nurture children's interior lives?
How can we model challenging bias and building a fairer world?
How can we offer children the compassion, humor, attention to detail and radical respect that Mr. Rogers did?”

We shared some of his work with attendees in advance, to whet appetites and educate some of our international staff's who were unfamiliar with Rogers. He and his work were our point of departure and inspiration for the day.

Here are a few of the sessions that teachers convened:
How can we advocate for peace in our classroom while honoring conflict and struggle?

How do we encourage self worth and positive body image in a world that’s constantly telling kids that they are cute?

How should we facilitate and make room for weapon play?

Given the bazillion necessary transitions in ECE classrooms how do we realize rich curriculum?

How can we become collaborators in children’s learning (rather than dictators, playmates, or silent observers) and still do everything we need to do everyday?

Sessions were filled with thoughtful teachers leaning across tables, talking quickly and excitedly or thoughtfully and deliberately, laughing, crying and creating new solutions and ideas. It was incredible to witness and it was facilitated by a very simple structure.

Open Space has One Law and Four Principles. Here's how they looked for us:
“The Law of Mobility” (AKA “The Rule of Two Feet”)
You can come and go at any time. You are obliged to move if you aren’t contributing or benefitting from the session. Pairing freedom and obligation has powerful results:
[In one session about racial justice, children and families] “I felt like I immediately messed up, and I really felt so raw and uncomfortable and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I have to leave because I don’t think I can challenge myself on this right now.’ But then I was like, ‘No no no, you’re staying.’ I could change my mind about that.”

“Usual PD, you have to sit there and keep your eyes open even when it’s boring.. The first session, was a hard topic to talk about. If I wanted to bail for any reason, I could leave and go somewhere else... but I didn’t, actually. I stayed.”

In a group of care-givers, this mandate to take care of oneself and one’s own learning was radical.

Whoever comes are the right people.
A preschool teacher and an infant teacher decided to bring their children together. Our center values cross-class collaboration, but a series of scheduling emails can’t generate the same level of excitement as an unstructured conversation. Instead of working to find commonality, two teachers wondered about the same question and shared inspiration which will inform their shared work.

Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
Our Day of Learning was three days after the 2016 presidential election. Many teachers were worried about the outcomes for education, their health care, the safety of their bodies or the bodies of their loved ones. They’d been balancing their feelings with the crucial and absorbing work of care-giving. They needed to balance bringing their whole selves to work and leaving some of their strong emotions outside the classroom.

The group grieved, told stories,  shared worries and fears. They took turns witnessing and  supporting one another. When the hour long session was “over”, they knew that another group would be arriving to have a new session, but they were not even close to done. They trusted in the principles and moved their session outside for at least another thirty minutes. After exploring their feelings, the conversation became more solution-oriented.The group named ways to care for themselves and have a healthy boundary and then shared those with the larger group.

When it starts is the right time.
Only two teachers showed up for one session about how to ground curriculum in the natural world. Their talk ranged to a general discussion of the Reggio Emilia approach and both figured they wouldn’t get to the topic that brought them together. Three other teachers arrived twenty minutes later, and it was suddenly clear that the moment was right and their work was more powerful because it started when the conditions were right.

When it's over, it's over.
During our agenda creation, one teacher asked a great question, and others were interested. Later, those interested teachers must have chosen other conversations because the convening teacher stood by her question looking eagerly around. After about ten minutes, she left to find another session that interested her; and she brought the lens of her question with her to other discussions throughout the day. This flexibility comes naturally to many teachers who adapt throughout their work day.

Three hours after that first brave teacher stood up and picked up a marker to begin creating our agenda,  we heard from teachers about the day:
“This felt much more productive and thought provoking than other professional development.”

“This is the best day in my history of Day of Learning.”

“This validates what we do.”

“It felt great to navigate my own learning. There’s usually one agenda, and I could choose my learning today.”

“I really needed this today.”

“I’m grateful to be surrounded by so many people who are thinking critically, and reflecting and questioning and acting.”

After reflecting on our process and offering gratitude and appreciation for one another, we examined the next steps that each session offered. We indicated which we would be willing to spend our time and energy pursuing by adding checks and stars. (Each person got three checks and one star to “spend” to communicate their enthusiasm.) Some of the next steps were:

Creating a “family shelf” tradition to emphasize the idea that “Everyone has a culture.”

A new practice of “refreshing” morning provocations, or offering a new provocation in the middle of the morning.

Developing a habit of trying a few different approaches to offering materials to children.

Writing to legislators about our priorities for families, teachers and children.

Teachers from three different centers will create a blog whose audience will be the general public in order to raise awareness about the importance of social emotional learning in the early years.
Initiating a preemptive conversation about aggressive play styles and narratives with toddler families and teachers BEFORE their children enter preschool.

Each of these next steps COULD have been the outcome of a particularly moving workshop, but organizers would have to choose specifically the right presenters for the sixty teachers in attendance. Our humble, open-hearted director said “My question was “What do teachers really need?” and we answered it; You need time and space to process....” With Open Space, each teacher had the opportunity to grow and learn about whatever was most exciting (or upsetting, or curious...) to them. Staff alumni attended as collaborators and co-thinkers, not “presenters” . Everyone (directors too!) inhabited the roles of learner, witness and teacher flexibly. Teachers were given the afternoon to follow up on their initiatives in their teams, and they spent lunchtime sharing stories of their mornings together.
I recently had the pleasure of seeing James Noonan speak about his dissertation, and his words from a blog post entitled "Professional Development (and Teacher Agency) As We Know It" rang in my head as teachers departed at the end of the day:

"In my research, I asked teachers to tell me about their most powerful professional
learning experience and about a corresponding professional learning experience
that they “would like never to have again.” ... Among good and bad experiences I
found ones that were both expert-led lectures and decentralized learning communities,
school-based and external, content-focused and more cerebral, years-long and hours-long, pedagogically experiential and didactic.... I am increasingly convinced that agency is one
of the most salient distinguishing features of powerful professional learning. Indeed, of the
25 powerful learning experiences I studied, 21 involved some degree of teacher agency. Of
15 corresponding negative learning experiences, 13 were mandated. The contrast, while
certainly not conclusive, was striking and suggests to me that instead of carefully balancing
the scales between agency and compliance it is preferable to tip them toward agency."

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Our Neighbors, The Robins Have Some Eggs!


 We have watched as a pair of robins built and then rebuilt their nest.   
Now the mama is sitting on her eggs each day, and in a week or so, there will be babies!

This nest is outside the piazza window of the building where our youngest children spend their time. After a toddler built herself a step out of large box to better see the nests, I put a sturdy stepping stool beside the huge window and now anyone who can walk and climb a ladder can get a little closer to see the robins care for their eggs. 
Watching animals in their natural habitat helps us build empathy, curiosity and our powers of attention. We learn about natural systems and that humans are only one species among millions of others. These dispositions of naturalists will serve children over their whole lives.


“Our work as teachers is to give children a sense of place — to invite children to braid their identities together with the place where they live by calling their attention to the air, the sky, the cracks in the sidewalk where the earth busts out of its cement cage….

When we talk about the natural world, we often speak in generalities, using categorical names to describe what we see: "a bird," "a butterfly," "a tree." We are unpracticed observers, clumsy in our seeing, quick to lump a wide range of individuals into broad, indistinct groups. These generalities are a barrier to intimacy: a bird is a bird is any bird, not this redwing blackbird, here on the dogwood branch, singing its unique song.”
(Ann Pelo, A Pedagogy for Ecology. Rethinking Schools, Summer 2009)

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Mightiness of the Pencil, Crayon, Pastel, and Marker

“Drawing is the discipline by which I constantly discover the world.”
- Frederick Franck

For over a month, children across our center have been coming to the Studio to draw. They have been drawing with a variety of materials - from markers to pencils to pastels - and they have been offered a number of provocations. The results have been by turns energetic, controlled, colorful, monochromatic, expansive, minimalist, exploratory, expressive, abstract, and representational. Working with children of all ages as they continue to explore the world of drawing caused me to reflect on why this process is so powerful, and has been throughout human existence. For most artists, even those who work in three-dimensional or technological forms, drawing is a necessity. In the case of James Castle, an artist who was born deaf, drawing became the means of communicating his inner life. It is, in many ways, an essential "language" for us as human beings. 

This leads me to wonder:
What does drawing offer to young children? 

Drawing works a variety of important muscles – the grip of the fingers, the flexing of the wrist, the bending of the arm. It helps to build fine motor skills, but it can also be an outlet for gross motor movements. 

Drawing translates their movements into creation - each gesture leaves behind a trace. If your arm moves in a circle, your mark also curves round and round. Pushing your drawing tool straight forward leads to a sharp, straight line. A pencil in each hand means twice as many marks appearing on your paper. Many fast, back and forth movements leave a tangle of zigzags on the page.

Drawing invites children to work as individuals to bring their ideas to life – they conceive their own concept, they choose their own materials, they determine the composition. If they return to the same work over and over again, they come to recognize the drawing as their own.

Drawing offers children opportunities for collaboration – they find space alongside each other to work on the same surface, they share materials and ideas, they discuss, dispute, and compromise. 

Drawing invites children to make connections – they connect the lines and shapes they create with the world around them, with symbols, with movements, with each other. Drawing from life - whether doing portraits, self-portraits, landscapes, or still lifes - invites them to look closer at sights they see every day, to notice and appreciate their nuances. 

Drawing helps children enter into multiple literacies – they imagine their series of squiggles becoming words, they see lines connecting to form letters, they begin to draw representationally. Zigzag lines across a paper become a letter written to parents being missed. Three dots remind someone of their symbol, or a curved line looks like the S in someone's name. 

There are surely more things to add to this list - these are simply the ones that come to my mind when I think of the power of drawing. 

What additions would you make? What does drawing offer the young children in your life? What does it offer YOU? 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Schema Theory; Following The Threads of Children and Teachers

“There’s a thread you follow.
It goes among things that change.  
But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you
are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.”

From The Way It Is by William Stafford

January’s teacher provocations unpacked Schema theory. This theory recognizes repeated patterns in children’s play as threads that connect children’s learning over time. Most of us have encountered a child who throws everything they can, who spends lots of time on the swings learning how to jump off, and who watches an airplane move across the sky. This child might have a “ trajectory” schema. Children who fill buckets or bags and make deliveries may have a “transporting” schema. These two examples are physical presentations of schemas, but someone with a circular or rotational schema may enjoy spinning things (and themselves) and enjoy drawing circles and thinking about how a jet engine, a bicycle pedal or a Ferris wheel works. For some depth on schema theory, look here. For a practical chart to help you start identifying and planning for schemas, check out this chart and remember this is NOT a comprehensive list. There are as many schemas as there are children.

Thinking about children’s play and work this way helps teachers and parents take a new look at repeated play behaviors and see them as constructive, engaged learning actions. (Sometimes adults find themselves stumped or irritated by repeated behaviors and this perspective can help us identify the learning taking place even as the child is pulling all the toilet paper off the roll, or covering their arms and hands with paint.) Teachers can use our knowledge of individual children’s schemas to carefully prepare our provocations to support the ways our children are learning. Story cubes can help a child with a trajectory schema in co-creating a narrative, adding pieces of fabric to the block area might intrigue a child who has an enveloping schema.

Unlike many topics we explore together, this one was, for the most part, an unfamiliar concept. We did some reading from Getting Started With Schemas by Nikolien van Wijk (a book I bought in New Zealand where schemas are more commonly used to understand children’s play and work), and from other sources. We sorted photographs of children’s play by schema, drew stories of schemas we see every day and as we worked, we talked.

Over four meetings, I began to see threads of common understanding in how teachers constructed this idea of schemas and how they fit into our work. I think that some of these threads may be abstract schemas, habitual ways of considering new ideas. I don’t have enough evidence from these meetings to identify the repeated patterns for individuals but overall I heard teachers folding this new information into their existing expertise in a variety of ways. I’ve grouped them here to demonstrate the many different ways to consider new ideas about our work, and to demonstrate the parallel tracks our professional development and our teaching of young children can take.

Analyzing: Some teachers took apart the theory of schemas, looking at it from different angles.

“How does adult... interest or [action] impact a child’s schema? How does the child react to being seen this way?”

“I sometimes wonder, is that [repeated behavior] keeping them from doing other things? But I guess that is the thing, actually.”

“I’m becoming very aware of children’s and adult’s agendas.... I’m not attuned enough yet to see a pattern, but I see how schemas could help me see children’s agendas more clearly.”

Considering development: Some teachers fit the concept of schemas onto their preexisting knowledge of how children change and grow.

“It’s hard for me to see a schema NOT as something that naturally comes after one stage and before the next.”

“As kids get older it’s easier for me to see how much attention they can give to one thing.”

“How do I learn a child’s schema without being influenced by stages of learning?”

Self-reflecting: These teachers thought a lot about how their emotions connect with what they learned about schemas.

“Why does this behavior bother me? Why does it matter if he fills a bucket every day?”

“This helps me to reframe what I take for granted in children’s play.”

“Developing curriculum in this way challenges me to think about why I say no, make rules.”

“When I can put myself in a child’s shoes, I’m better able to teach. This is another way to do that.”

Questioning: These teachers tend toward big questions, and their learning about schemas catapulted their thinking into philosophical directions.

“What makes different kids develop different schemas?”

“What is the nature of learning?”

“So... schemas are always patterns but patterns are not always schemas, right?”

Strategizing: Some teachers rolled up their sleeves and immediately considered how this theory would function.
“This is a way of watching a child’s focus; not on one idea or activity but across themes, across materials and activities.”

“What a wonderful way to think about redirection... and about continuing in a direction!”

“Kids in my class are fighting, are being powerful and dominating one another. I’m not sure what schemas they’re exploring but I’ll take notes.”

“It’s a way of saying yes, which my team is trying to do right now. We notice and then say "Let’s find a way to make these things happen”.

“It’s a helpful way of getting to know new children.”

It’s important for me to note that these are not transcriptions of conversations. I sifted four different 90 minute conversations into these categories. I looked for patterns in the same way that a teacher looking for schemas will. Sometimes two people with different threads spoke to one another. It was challenging, but teachers here are used to communicating despite differences. Just as children with different schemas can be invited to play together by carefully designing provocations, adults with different approaches to new ideas can be invited to talk about them through careful provocation. The variety of activities (group text study, conversation prompted by quotations, illustrating a narrative, collaboratively sorting photos by schema) provided allowed folks with different preferred threads of investigation to connect.

Self-reflection is a teaching skill. The more we can see our own thread, the better we can find them in the work and play of others. Which of the above resonates with your way of wondering?

How do you see this kind of work happening with the third protagonists, families? What threads of habitual thinking do they hold through a variety of different experiences?