Thursday, October 12, 2017

Our first Umbrella Project!

Investigating Together:

Exploring the Charles River as a Center

“Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water. Through an active, reciprocal exchange, teaching can strengthen learning how to learn.”
-       Loris Malaguzzi

The idea of embarking on an umbrella project came from work that is done in both Reggio Emilia, Italy and in the Sabot School at Stony Point in Richmond, Virginia. It is a center-wide investigation undertaken by children & teachers that continues throughout the year, in various forms both big and small. Together as a center, we defined what the topic of an umbrella project might be:

“A compelling, enticing, accessible, physical thing, event, place or idea (a noun) that elicits a emotional and metaphysical response between people. A catalyst with opportunities for investment in deep, dynamic connections, new ideas (growth).”

 For our first umbrella project (which we investigated during our 2016-2017 school year), we chose the subject of the Charles River – a unique and beautiful piece of nature in the midst of our urban surroundings. The river has always been a part of our school’s landscape – it can be seen through the Studio and T2North windows, and it is a location for occasional walks – and this year we sought to strengthen our relationship with and understanding of it through this investigation. For many classrooms, even the act of allowing children to get out of the buggy by the river was a revelation in itself. For others, the process of returning again and again led children to ask for and recognize just what a “river walk” meant. In addition, our attention and consciousness of the river opened our eyes to the way in which it changed over the course of the year – from the blooming flowers in summer, to the falling of the leaves in autumn, to the freezing of the water in winter, to the appearance of goslings in the spring. 

In order to share just a fragment about what I found to be a powerful center-wide experience, I used some of the headings from Ann Pelo’s book, TheGoodness of Rain: Developing an Ecological Identity in Young Children : walk the land, learn the names, embrace sensuality, explore new perspectives, create stories, and create rituals. Pelo describes these as ways in which we can foster children’s relationship with and stewardship of the natural world, and I believe they were all present in our investigation this past year. 

Walk the Land ------------------
Returning again and again to the river throughout the year allowed us to broaden our knowledge of its terrain. We learned the best places for children to throw rocks and sticks, or to look out over the river, to collect, to watch boats, or to gather flowers. Children grew familiar with the landmarks they would pass on the walk to and from the Charles. Teachers marked the evolution of children’s ability to traverse the challenges of uneven ground, long grass, mud, and tree roots.

At the beginning of the year, the prospect of walking along the river was a bit daunting for some. Many classrooms began with buggy and stroller rides, not yet venturing to let the children down to explore. However, over time, both teachers and children became more comfortable with the river and its banks, finding places where they felt safe to investigate beyond the buggy. Even our youngest infants spent time sitting, laying down, or crawling near the river. Building a relationship with this place allowed us to broaden our comfort zones  and place more trust and autonomy in children.

Create Rituals --------------------

Over our year of visiting and revisiting the river, many classrooms developed rituals to help build community and to strengthen children’s connections with place. In some cases, this took the form of finding a “spot” that a group would visit during each trip to the river. A gated ledge that allowed children to view the river up close without fear of actually entering the water became a favorite place for many to search for sticks to throw in on each walk. One classroom always stopped to look at the “turtle stone” that they passed on the walk to and from the river. For some children, it was important that everyone have a turn to push the crosswalk button as we waited a the juncture of memorial drive and DeWolfe street.

Embrace Sensuality --------------------
The sound of waves lapping after a boat has passed… the honking of geese… the feel of wind against your face or the sun on your back… the smell of autumn leaves, of chamomile buds, of daffodils… the softness of milkweed seeds… the prickle of burdock and sweet gum pods....  the sour taste of sorrel … the spicy taste of wild chives…

The river invited us to explore with all of our senses. We opened our ears to the sounds(after hearing a jet ski zoom back and forth, one child remarked, “It’s like a motorcycle!), and our skin to the feel of the  river’s offerings. Our eyes took in the many delights on display – the colors of autumn and spring, the ice and snow of the winter. We searched out opportunities to smell and taste where we could. Each visit became so much more than a walk – it was a full-body experience.

Explore new Perspectives ---------------
Our commitment to the Charles River led us to witness its beauty through a variety of lenses and from a variety of places. We watched it through windows, through the pillars of the John Weeks footbridge, and up close on its banks. We represented it in multiple media, and we took note of the ways the river itself changed through the seasons.

Visiting the river also offered teachers an opportunity to take on a child’s point of view. Infant teachers wondered at the view of the trees a baby might see lying on their back. Toddler teachers noticed how a seemingly small hill provided a real challenge to children still learning to walk. Preschool teachers shared the joy of being able to gather flowers without the restrictions of more manicured environments. The sight of a goose on its nest or a snail on the path brought as much excitement and interest to the adults as to the children.

Learn the Names ---------------------
As we move beyond the generic names of nature – bird, flower, leaf – into the specific, we are building our relationship with the natural word, just as we would a person. Over the course of the year, children and teachers across our center developed a greater intimacy with many of the things we encountered near the river.

Young toddlers came to know the difference between a goose and a swan, while older children (and teachers!) grew knowledgeable about some of the plants that grow on the riverbanks (“Watch out for burdock – it’s so sticky!”). We revisited these things in a variety of ways – not only on the walks themselves, but by bringing remnants into our rooms through photographs, collections, drawings, and field guides.

Create Stories ----------------------------
As we build relationships with a place, we begin to collect stories about it. We remember the things that we have seen, the special encounters we have had, and the changes we have noticed as a result of our kinship with this landscape. Through our documentation, teachers remind children of these stories and share them with those who were not present.

One example of the development of a story came early on in the year. Many children spent time painting under a large oak tree near the footbridge. Then, one day, some other children discovered that part of the tree had cracked and fallen. Over the next few days, children from many different classrooms encountered the tree in various stages of removal –from branches being cut to a stump in the ground, to an empty patch of dirt. This is a story that many preschoolers still remember and will reminisce about as we cross Memorial Drive.

This year, we are exploring sound as a center. Stay tuned - I'm sure there will be posts about it as the year progresses!

- Katie 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Anti-Bias Education is Not a Concept or a Skill, it's a Learning Disposition

Last Wednesday, we welcomed fifty educators as part of Boston Area Reggio Inspired Network’s 2017 series. We reflected upon how we’ve brought liberatory teaching into our own practice, and planned strategic next steps using Margaret Carr’s structured view of learning dispositions.

Learning Dispositions are “situated learning strategies plus motivation”.
-Margaret Carr, Learning Stories; Assessments in Early Childhood

Teaching and learning are situated within a specific group of people with a variety of identities and within our larger contexts; our classrooms, communities, nation and world. Anti-bias teaching starts out haphazard and ad hoc sometimes but before long we realize our work must be strategic to stay accountable to our goals. We are motivated to do this learning and teaching by its obvious urgency; children’s worldview, culture and safety can be at stake.

“Becoming is better than being”

Carol Dweck’s “process goals” and “performance goals” describe two different approaches to learning, and it is crucial that we are not perfectionists in the work of education for freedom. Dweck researches learners’ orientations to errors and other challenges. Learners with “performance goals” and a fixed mindset want to get it just right without effort. They want to “be” smart or strong, but dislike making mistakes, and feel uncomfortable with the struggle it takes to “become” smart or strong. “Process goal” learners have a growth mindset and seem to enjoy struggle, and recognize that good outcomes; the right answer, for example, or a new skill, come out of hard work and mistakes. They are willing to do what is needed to “become” better.

We can’t wait for anti-bias education until we are ready, worry about achievement or get it right the first time. We can only counter bias through the invaluable process of becoming more knowledgeable, more open, more awake, more willing to act and move through our errors with humility.  Because biases and unfairness are in the world, they are in our classroom and in us.  We will struggle and we must be ready to listen when folks tell us that we’ve made mistakes.

We need a view of learning that sees “development as the transformation of participation” (Carr, again, naturally). These domains take a process orientation for granted and measure that process through a narrative built of observations.

She identifies five domains of a learning disposition:
Taking an Interest,
Getting Involved,
Persisting with Challenge or Uncertainty,
Expressing thoughts and feelings and
Taking Responsibility.
These domains are a perfect way for us to understand our own growth as teachers for liberation.

Learning from History
Many years ago, I asked our mostly white staff to self-identify; whether they knew nothing, something or were experts about anti-bias curriculum. Everyone RAN over to the “experts” part of the spectrum. (I didn’t know what I didn’t know about people’s poor ability to accurately appraise themselves about things they don’t know much about, and I underestimated the personal drama of being asked to do it publicly.) People in the “expert” area explained themselves;  “I have an Asian neighbor.” or “I don’t see color.”

These folks were beginners, but they thought they were experts. I learned from my mistake; this time, we used Carr's domains as an objective yardstick to help us figure out what kind of learning we’ve done and what kind we are headed into.

After a short presentation about our collective journey with anti-bias education at Peabody Terrace Children’s Center, we used a protocol to create our individual narratives of engagement with anti bias education and reflect.

Then, we brought in the key element of feedback. We shared our stories with others and they helped us determine which of the learning domains we were working within. Finally, well-informed, we identified for ourselves what kinds of actions might help us move forward from where we are.

Domains of Learning Dispositions:
Learners taking an interest are developing:
  • A view of self as interested and interesting,
  • Interests,
  • Expectations that people, places and things can be interesting,
  • Abilities and funds of relevant knowledge that support their interests.
Learners getting involved are developing:
  • A view of self as someone who gets involved.
  • Readiness to be involved, pay attention for a sustained length of time
  • Informed judgments about the safety and trustworthiness of the local environment, Strategies for getting involved and remaining focused.
Learners persisting with difficulty or uncertainty are developing:
  • A view of self as someone who persists with difficulty and uncertainty
  • Enthusiasm for persisting with difficulty or uncertainty,
  • Assumptions about risk and the role of making a mistake in learning
  • Sensitivity to places and occasions in which it is worthwhile to tackle difficulty or uncertainty and to resist the routine.
  • Problem-solving and problem-finding knowledge and skills,
  • Experience of making mistakes as part of solving a problem
Learners communicating with others are developing:
  • A view of self as a communicator.
  • The inclination to communicate with other in one or more of the 100 Languages, to express ideas and feelings,
  • Responses to a climate in which learners have their say and are listened to,
  • Facility with one or more languages, familiarity with a range of context specific ‘genres,’ script knowledge for familiar events.
Learners taking responsibility are developing:
  • A habit of taking responsibility in a range of ways, to take another point of view, to recognize justice and injustice, a view of self and others as citizens with rights and responsibilities,
  • Recognition or construction of opportunities to take responsibility
  • Experience of responsibility, making decisions, being consulted, an understanding of fairness, strategies for taking responsibility
(Adapted from table 2.1, in Margaret Carr’s Assessment in Early Childhood Settings: Learning Stories)

As someone who thinks not only about individual development, but also about how our organization grows and changes, these domains also helped me to see which domain our center is exploring. We have firmly established interest, involvement, persistence and communication about anti-bias teaching. We are on the edge of taking responsibility; this is our next frontier. This framework takes for granted a "growth mindset" and in situating teachers' development within the realm of learning dispositions, it is my hope that teachers work to let go of their hangups that come with performance goals.
Does this structure help with some of the feelings of unsettledness, inertia, or hopelessness that sometimes accompany this work?

How could we use this way of understanding with families?