The missing ingredient

I attended my first meeting about full-day kindergarten in the Spring of 2010, 7 years ago now.  In the intervening years, I’ve worked as a classroom teacher in FDK and as a support person for FDK classrooms.  I’ve thought hard about the progress we’ve made and the progress we’ve missed as I’ve observed and documented, reflected and refocused.   And I have to say that, although there are some shining examples of excellence, our progress, across the province, hasn’t been where many of us would have hoped.   We are, in many meetings, still talking about the same issues we were discussing 7 years ago.

Why? Why haven’t we, in spite of our best intentions, been able to move the needle on some of these critical issues in early learning?  Why is my daughter still coming home from her second year of Kindergarten with worksheets and fixed-result crafts?  How can I possibly be having the same conversations with her teachers that I was having with my son’s teachers in 2012? They’re getting tired of it and so am I (imagine for a moment the delight a teacher feels when I walk into their classroom information night… oy).

I’ve been thinking hard about these questions a lot this year, especially as I’ve been working with the teachers, educators, and artists in our Artists-in-Residency (AIR)(education) program (generously funded by the Ontario Arts Council).

Without exception, the artists working in this program bring an entirely fresh perspective to the classrooms they’re working in.  They see things with new eyes.  They don’t have the same preconceived notions that many of us in education do about children, their capacities, and the possibilities for learning in the classroom.   Let me give you an example.

In one of our schools, we have had an artist working with both a kindergarten teacher/ECE team and a grade 3 teacher.  The same artist also worked in the school last year but this is the first time we’ve extended the program beyond kindergarten.  She has been in residency, typically spending two half-days per week in each class, for 8 weeks.  As the grade 3 teacher pointed out, that’s the equivalent of 9 months of Visual Art instructional time according to the minutes allotted in our board (which are comparable to instructional time allotments across Ontario).

During this time, the grade 3 students have made plaster casts, abstract maps, and clay pots.  They’ve experimented with linocut printmaking and copper tooling.  They’ve also made their own paper and learned about 3-dimensional drawing techniques.  It’s been a rich and rewarding experience for everyone and represents a particularly brave leap for the teacher; grade 3 is a testing year in Ontario and many teachers would be reluctant to give so much time to an Art project.

But we’re here to talk about Kindergarten so let me tell you about the project in that class.  Last year this artist worked with the students’ interests and curiosities to create a very detailed 3-dimensional model of a coral reef, including a reef sculpted in wire, covered in plaster bandages, and painted in bright acrylics.  This year, the class began working on a few projects to test the water and get an idea for where the students wanted to take the project.  They began with the students’ existing fascination with building which prompted tall paintings (à la Holton Rower) and architecture-inspired floor plans and building designs.

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tall paintings mounted for display

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Kindergarten blue print
The project quickly shifted, however to a focus on space.  Space.  As we had done the previous year with the coral reef, this direction prompted some soul searching on the part of all the adults.  Space seems an awful lot like a theme.  Was this really where we wanted the project to go?  Did it have enough to do with Art? Was it a genuine place of curiosity for the students or was there a bigger question we were missing? But given that we didn’t have any other obvious direction, we decided to go for it.

I ordered batteries, wires, and LED lights while the artist’s receipts revealed purchases that stretched from one end of the dollar store to the other.  The students made a planetarium out of a giant cardboard box, featuring constellations that were wired together and used finger pressure to connect the circuits.  They created Mars rovers and a dramatic play centre that featured plaster bandage helmets and moon shoes.  They created a cave populated with crystal sculptures.  The project went well beyond where anyone would have predicted at the outset. The teacher and ECE reflected:

“It was interesting to observe an inquiry progress through the arts. The children’s questions lead us. I wonder how our project would have looked if we had not used the techniques introduced by the artist?”

And that’s the rub that we’re facing, 7 years in.  We’ve tried to adopt Malaguzzi’s broad view of 100 languages without bringing in the translators he used.  We are like aliens, fish out of water.  We don’t know how to navigate and though we’re trying, gamely in many cases, we keep reverting back to our old languages of reading, writing, and mathematics because there isn’t anyone to bridge the cultural gap for us.  The gulf between the culture of school and the culture of childhood remains in large part, I think, because the people who could comfortably stand on both sides of the divide aren’t in schools.  We haven’t asked them to come in.

Vea Vecchi, writing in the journal Innovations in Early Education writes:

“In the late 1960’s the decision was made to have an atelier and an atelierista in each municipal infant-toddler centre and preschool in Reggio Emilia. It was a choice that was revolutionary then and now because it changed a conformist way of thinking about education, of looking at knowledge and learning. This choice created a dialogue between social constructivist pedagogy and the poetic languages of the atelier. This decision was actually quite subversive. In a very short time after the original institution of the atelier, the culture of the atelier began to infuse throughout the entire school. The atelier brought certain techniques and certain culture into the school but also had an intense effect on all the aspects of the school.” (Fall 2012, Volume 19, Number 4)

The artists of the atelier are not teachers, just as our AIR artists aren’t teachers.  They bring a subversive set of eyes and hands and legs to the classroom and in the upending that occurs, the very nature of what school is changes.

Vecchi writes: “Loris Malaguzzi talked about the atelier as a being an “impertinent atelier.” This is a term that I like very much because it implies that the atelier is a place of provocation. The atelier is a place that guarantees that knowledge and learning are taking place with the mind and the hand as well as rationality and emotions connected.”

Learning with the mind and the hand… learning with emotions.  How many of the issues that we talk about in education, be it a better future for learners who identify as Indigenous, a focus on Mental Heath, physical literacy, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration are so obviously served by having artists present in schools, active in schools, integrated into schools?  How far could we move the needle on student Mental Health if kids had access to an art studio in their schools, if their teachers had access to an artist-in-residency… full-time? How much more creative could we all be if we had the kinds of opportunities that the students and educators involved with the AIR program have had?  What a difference it would make to the culture of school if we had fluent adult speakers of the 100 Languages in the building. I think we’re missing out, our kids are missing out, and our society is missing out.  Send in the artists. There’s no time to waste.

 

 

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There’s a lot to worry about in the world these days and I’m a worrier, so I’m finding that my plate is quite full most of the time.  I try to give each worry-worthy bit its own segment of the day but I’m running out of pie pieces to distribute as the list of necessary bits gets longer and longer.  So I’ve decided to do something different to assuage my anxiety.  I’ve decided to start thinking about the things I don’t need to worry about.  Between that and a strong cup of tea, I figure I should be well on my way to earning myself a piece of real pie sometime soon.

It’s also Kindergarten open-house season right now as parents visit their preferred schools to try and decide where the best place will be for their little ones.  It can be a confusing time and parents often have a lot of questions.  One of the ones I heard most often on those nights, and still hear from parents of young children, is “How will you teach my child to read?” or its variation “When will she/he learn to read?”

The older and more experienced I get, the more this question falls into the category of “things-not-to-worry-about”.  Now, I’m not suggesting that children don’t sometimes need adult help learning to read… some do.  I’m just not adding it to my list of things to worry about.  I’m also leaving off teaching children colours, numbers, shapes… all the usual “content” of kindergarten day plans.

 

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Writing new and familar words

My own observations as a teacher and a parent tell me that three things really matter in learning all this critical content: people, books, and materials.  When children are exposed to adults who care about them, interesting books, and materials rich in possibility, they will, almost always, learn all of this content through questioning, listening, play, and observation.  Very little, if any of it, will need to be explicitly taught.

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Circling (okay, not quite) the words “un” and “le” in one of her favourite books
My own daughter had almost no interest in print during her first year of Kindergarten.  This year she can’t get enough of it.  She is constantly asking how to write new words, she is finding familiar words in books, and she wants us to scaffold for her as we read aloud: “Which word is ‘six’ Mommy? Oh, that looks almost like ‘dix’ and they rhyme!”

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Doesn’t matter what the medium is these days… letters are the message.
I’ve observed the same pattern in child after child. The little boy whose only interest for the whole first year of Kindergarten was marble runs is reading independently halfway through his second year.  The little boy who was so shy that he would hardly speak through two years of kindergarten is plowing through books and reading them aloud in grade 1.  It happens.  It happens all the time.

One of my children walked at 17 months, the other learned to walk in the Hong Kong airport just days after her first birthday (I was wishing for a few extra days of non-mobility, frankly).  No one suggested remedial walking lessons for the first child.  And yet, we expect reading to happen for children in a predictable way.  We, parents of the latte generation, want our children reading based on our timeline and we get anxious if little Bailey isn’t exactly as precocious in learning his letters and numbers as small Sadie down the street.

Please, take it off your list.  They’re going to get it – keep reading to them, show them that reading is something you love and they will love it too.  Read for pleasure; there’s no better motivation for learning. Pretty soon you might find yourself wishing you had a few more weeks of iliteracy to luxuriate in, believe me… I’m stuck monitoring a complex points scheme that my children invented… apparently you get 300 points for pooping your pants and only 10 points for not whining.  If you need me, I’ll be in the laundry room.

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