Teaching tips from the verge

It’s really, really hard to write resources for inquiry-based teaching – it’s hard to even think about how to write them.  It’s easy (or at least easier) to write reflections, questions, wonderings, and documentation of that teaching and learning but resources, in the way we traditionally think of them… that’s tough.  This way of teaching (or not teaching, as it sometimes appears) resists the consumerist bent of our culture.  It is impossible to sound-bite.  It does not reduce well and it is so individual that every person’s path will be quite different.  We want that individualism, that diversity – we don’t want to teacher-proof this.  Who we are matters and that can be very empowering, especially when so much of education leans toward soul-crushing standardization.  So, I can tell you about an inquiry my students have worked on but that doesn’t create a plan for an inquiry you might do – you and your class have to walk that path on your own.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

The teacher is not an automatic fountain from which intellectual beverages may be obtained. He is either a witness or a stranger. To guide a pupil into the promised land, he must have been there himself. When asking himself: Do I stand for what I teach? Do I believe what I say? He must be able to answer in the affirmative. What we need more than anything else is not “textbooks” but “textpeople.” It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget.

Teaching becomes, on purpose, a much more intellectual act than it has often been.  We have to think hard about what we’re doing and we can’t follow a prescriptive lesson plan.  Play isn’t prescribed.  It is an improvisation, a never-ending work-in-progress, a call and response dance that demands that we be active listeners and observers, deeply in relationship with children, bringing our whole selves to the table and asking them to do the same.  This is a stance, a paradigm, a perspective – it’s not a list of activities.

The process reminds me very much of contact improvisation.

So… I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of teaching tips from the verge – I hope that’s okay.

But, to make this blog visit worthwhile, here’s one for your trouble.

When you’re introducing natural clay in the classroom (and you should, it’s wonderful), use small canvases that you can get at the dollar store as workspaces.  Students can work with the clay inside the canvas.  It absorbs the moisture, the clay doesn’t stick, and you avoid the ire of your school custodian by keeping the clay off the tables.

girl handbuilding a mug with clay

Have a messy day – the best kind!

Advertisements

My arranged marriages

The environment is the third teacher, this much we know.  That’s the Reggio way; we think of the space itself as a teacher, which, of course, it is – even when we don’t acknowledge it as such.

Then who are teacher one and teacher two?  Teacher two, that’s the child – they teach me new things all the time.  In Ontario, we are uniquely placed to have both a teacher and an Early Childhood Educator (ECE) in the classroom occupying the role of the first teacher (this year I’m extra lucky – we have two teachers and an ECE in our classroom – does that bring us to five teachers?).

The language around these relationships is fraught and still evolving.  Is she my ECE? Does that make me her teacher?  The power dynamics can be a minefield as some teachers have been uncomfortable sharing their space, their desks, and their expertise.  ECEs have, in some cases, come into classrooms that are hostile to their presence and ignorant of their expertise.  There have been hurtful comments about status and college vs. university education.  Did you know that ECEs learn how to design a learning space, how to arrange centres, and, in many cases, how to create pedagogical documentation?  They sure didn’t cover those things in my Bachelor of Education program!  Parents too, have struggled with how to frame their relationships to these new professionals in the classroom.  How can you ensure that important information about your child is communicated to both adults who have responsibility for her care?  Is the teacher in charge of the ECE?  Does the teacher supervise the ECE?  No, but parents can be forgiven for their confusion.  We are all still learning the steps of this new dance as we go.

Teaching has, for generations, been a very private enterprise.  You close the classroom door and go about your business.  Now, all of a sudden, we have to negotiate, discuss, communicate, and compromise – not just with children but with this other adult too – more skills they didn’t cover in teacher’s college!

I’m writing this tonight because I’m feeling wistful.  My ECE – yes she’s mine, just like my husband is mine and my kids are mine, we belong to each other – is going on parental leave in a few weeks.  I will miss her.  We have broken each other in and, like a great pair of shoes, we fit.

Teaching with another adult these past two years has been a transformative experience for me.  I have learned so much from both of the ECEs I’ve worked with.  I learn just by watching her interact with kids, I learn when I see how she sets up a centre, how she coaches a child through putting on his socks (by taking off her own socks and patiently, oh so patiently, putting them on with the child), I learn when I see that she models play for the students who don’t yet know how to play imaginatively – she gets right in there and takes on a role.  I also learn just by having another adult to bounce ideas and information around with.  Her experience of the children can be, amazingly, quite different than mine and the conclusions she comes to are different too.  I can’t rely so heavily on my own perceptions and I’m forced to really confront the subjectivity of my own assessment in a way that I never had to do when I was alone in the classroom.  We can, and do, produce documentation on the same event – it looks quite different – imagine that!

So, while I’m sure that the new ECE coming into our class will be great, I will miss my ECE.  These arranged professional marriages are tricky things, they need chemistry and luck, true… but most of all I think they need trust, respect, and a willingness to change, stretch, and grow.  If we want our students to demonstrate these traits, we need to model them in ourselves… just like putting on those darn socks!

ECE and child carrying stick towards the school
ECE and child carrying sticks towards the school

No Drama

We are lucky enough to have an education researcher who visits our classroom once a week to give us feedback on our work and to help us collect documentation.  This week, as we were debriefing, he looked quizzically at me and remarked… “hey, I’ve noticed you don’t have a dramatic play centre any more.”  It’s true – we don’t.  We haven’t for a few weeks and I’m pretty sure that last year we stopped having one at around the same time of year.  Here’s why: we don’t need one.

I’ve started each of the past three years with some kind of dramatic play area – often a play kitchen – set up in the classroom.  We’ve allowed this to morph into other things: a pet store, a forest, a doctor’s office, a fire hall, a camp site, etc… using input from the students and donations from their families.

It serves a purpose at the beginning of the year; it’s a good bridge for those who have been in child care and it helps them all to feel secure, having a centre where they know for certain what they’re supposed to do.  Role play in familiar roles like mother, father, doctor, and nurse is a type of play that most children have encountered before coming to school either at home or in child care.  But… it really loses its purpose after a while and it seems to create behaviour problems as students move the materials from that centre all over the room, requiring reminders to return it all at the end of the play block.

What I’ve noticed is that over time, the whole room becomes a dramatic play centre.  To quote my amazing ECE “wherever they are, they have dramatic play – they make every centre a dramatic centre.”  Here is a snapshot of what was happening during one five-minute period this morning.

Some are kids are playing cats, others are playing butterfly tag on the carpet – waving their arms the way we practiced at the dance studio, tagging each other and giggling uproariously.

girls playing butterfly tag on the carpet

Three children are playing banana car (a car that brings bananas) in the block area. “LG: Madame, we made a banana car and TN and BQ are on the banana car!”  Next to them, two girls are building a house and playing inside it. The kids from the banana car approach. “LG: Pretend it’s a babies dance show – it’s time for baby’s dance show… get on the train.”  They get back on their banana car.

One of the girls in the block house says “this is the baby’s house so everyone step back” and the kids from the banana car join in the house play.

FN and SN are playing doctor in the library and several boys are playing doctor’s office inside the cube.

one girl using a toy otoscope to look in another girl's ear

The marble run also has dramatic play components as the children seem to imagine themselves as the marble, moving with it as it goes down the run and celebrating its descent as though they are the ones who have run a race.

boys playing with wooden marble run

This is in five minutes! Five minutes!

We just don’t need a dramatic play centre any more; it can’t be contained in one space.  The drama is nowhere because it is everywhere!