Observation Frustration

The child has a hundred languages
(and a hundred hundred hundred more)
but they steal ninety-nine.
The school and the culture

(Loris Malaguzzi)

Children can draw from observation.  They have an eye for detail and they can reproduce those details with remarkable accuracy.

Even very young children, only just able to hold a pencil, can draw the concentric petals of a rose or the long lines of stalks of grass.  But what happens when children forget that they can draw?  When they insist that they can’t?

I’ve been faced with exactly this challenge this year as most of our students have resisted drawing from observation.  Every time I or my colleagues have put out a drawing invitation, we’ve been met with motifs: flowers with happy faces and 6-8 identical petals around a circle, for instance.  When I’ve asked the children to show me the flower they were drawing, they’ve resisted, shrugged, and declared “that’s the only flower I know how to draw.”

I’ve trucked out my usual strategy of sitting and drawing with them; perhaps they’ll realize that Madame’s flowers aren’t perfect representations either and maybe watching me struggle will encourage them to try.

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I’ve put out the work of a variety of artists whose work ranges from representational to abstract, hoping that it might encourage them to try a new way of drawing.  We’ve even had group conversations about the mechanics of drawing what you see – moving your eyes and hand together to draw.

Unlike other years none of these strategies has met with much success.  While a few individual students have been engaged, the idea has never really caught on.

But I’ve kept at it and finally, in the last month of school, victory!

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What’s the magic? Was it the subject?  Maybe dandelions, that most common of flowers, is less intimidating than roses, faces, and block towers?

Maybe it’s just time having its often miraculous effect.  Maybe it has taken a year for the cultural message of sameness and cuteness to be washed away and for the children to realize that their own representations, however different from each other, will be valued as much, more even, than any smiley face.

Wouldn’t it be great if they didn’t have anything to unlearn?  If their interpretations were always valued?  If we allowed the aesthetics of childhood to exist without needing to modify them to suit our own adult ideas about what childhood is?  Wouldn’t it be great if children’s interpretations of the world were as precious to us as the motifs that the media presents as childhood for sale?  That would be a smiley-face moment.

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Architectural Voices – Part 2

This is the second post in a series of children’s poetic reflections on their architecture projects.  You can read more about their projects in earlier posts on this blog tagged with “architecture” as well as here.

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The Fire Fighter Station/Gymnastics Place

We put the roof on top and it can move a little.

I want

A door that opens and closes

If there’s ever a fire, you just run inside for help.

When you’re all done with the slide, you can just lift it up.

I wanted to do that to the ladder too.

We had to take one thing at a time.

When we make it we had to think up ideas

And when it falls apart we have to do it again.

It’s a place to go and do gymnastics, like I do gymnastics.

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The Shoe Factory

The roof is pretty crazy.

It looks like something that I don’t know what it is.

There are 3 rooms.

I made a model first.

I thought of the idea because my auntie told me about it.

This one won’t break because it has glue and not tape and it’s made out of wood.

I dreamed about the roof.

I like it because it looks like a crazy head.

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The Squirrel Hotel

It’s a playground hotel for one squirrel.

There’s a ladder,

A little shelter.

The roof is shaped like a diamond. It has wings

A flying house.

It has a window.

They can lie down on the ground

So they can sleep at night.

Architectural Voices – Part I

In documenting our architecture project, I’ve struggled with how much to interrogate the children about their buildings.

Tell me about your building?

What’s this?

What’s that for?

All of the questioning gets a little tedious for both of us and the buildings themselves speak so strongly on their own that I wonder about the need to layer text on top of that.

Part of this project, for me, was to validate building as an important language of expression by really digging into in and creating longer-term building projects instead of the build and break construction projects that kids create every day using blocks, tiles, cups, etc…

I’m astonished by the diversity of their work and by how clearly they’ve communicated their own personalities and thinking without using a word.  To say that they are different from each other isn’t enough – in many ways they are their buildings.

But, once they take their buildings home all we will have left are photos and text, so I decided, in the interests of posterity, to ask them to tell me whatever they thought they would like people to know about their architecture. I’ve formatted them as poetry because it seemed to fit – one language for another. Here are the first two:


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The roof is straight and not bendy.

The steps help you get up and down the slide.

There’s a stove on the roof.

That part (the V) is for bad guys to trip… it’s the tripper.

The chimney is for smoke.

The flower is for people to see it.

The diving board is for people to jump off; water is there.

The square behind the slide is for bad guys not to get in the house.

No Santa allowed in the house; there’s no more Christmas!

The hole is for people to pop up. There’s an invisible trampoline underneath.

It’s all done.


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I don’t have any chimney

There’s a window in the wall and in the roof.

There’s a gate and around it is to hold the gate up.

There’s a triangle mouse hole on each side ‘cause the mommies and the daddies go in one hole and the babies go in the other hole.

There’s a surfboard on the roof.

The glue is snow.

There’s a chair inside the back door.


I couldn’t have made them more different if I’d tried – the buildings or the girls who built them.  I’m still not sure about how much to value the text but I’m hoping that we are becoming more multilingual these days; maybe we can speak architecture and English without privileging the latter.

Something you’re great at

I worry about our dance parties.  Do we have too many of them? Is there such a thing as too much dancing?

I worry about our artwork too.  Clay, paint, wire, beads, pastels, collage, photography, murals… how much art is enough?

And the dramatic play – goodness, that never stops.

Then there are the marching bands and the singing – what a racket!

Is it all too much?  When do we get down to the real school work?  How will we know when we do?

I worry that other people think it’s too much, that parents may think it’s too much, that some nebulous person in the upper echelons may disapprove.  My husband says I worry too much; he’s probably right.

Elementary school teachers have to be all things to all students.  We have to teach everything; unlike our secondary colleagues we don’t have the luxury of teaching only to our strengths.

Don’t feel confident with History, Math, or Music?  Too bad, you’re teaching it.

Fake it ’till you make it – that’s my usual advice.  Kids pick up on your enthusiasm (or lack thereof) and if you present the material with a sigh, they’ll feel your wariness and trepidation and adopt it as their own.  How much of our own math anxiety was actually inherited from teachers who themselves were anxious about teaching math?  Young children love to play with numbers and quantity.  How much of that excitement is drained away when teachers approach teaching math in the same way they approach a rendezvous with a root canal?

So, that’s my usual advice – find an entry point that you’re comfortable with, slap on a smile, and give er’.  Say YES, as Tina Fey would advise.

But then I heard comedian Jessica Holmes speak at a conference.  While much of her presentation was light and hilarious, toward the end she became more reflective.  One of the the things she said that stuck with me was this:

“It’s harder to get good at something you’re bad at than it is to get better at something you’re great at.”

Hmm… that’s interesting advice for teachers.  In education, we’re always looking for places to improve, doing gap analyses to find out where we can grow – usually that’s because there are things we’re not doing very well.  You’ll get no argument from me that there are things we should improve in schools.  I’m not suggesting that we stop trying, not at all.  But, how often are we looking at things that we already do really well and asking ourselves how we can do them better?  How often do we get to direct our energies towards our passions? How great would that be?!?

That’s where I’m at as we slide towards the summer holidays.  We have 5 weeks left together and I’m going to keep the arts humming in my class.  Not because we’re not working on the rest of the curriculum – we are – but because it’s what I’m great at and the kids deserve to be with adults who are pursuing their passions with a smile.

children dancing with drum accompaniment

Some kinds of help

Our architecture project continues and we’re moving towards building scale models of our 3-D sketches.  This has been a challenging part of the process for us as it requires more adult helping than I would usually be comfortable providing.  While the children are able to take on some parts of the process, they are often assuming more of a fore-person role in directing the adults as we wield the utility knives and the super-sticky glue.  It’s been challenging in other ways too as the educators have been forced to develop skills that aren’t usually part of our jobs; precise measuring, cutting wooden dowels, using ratios to adjust the size of the model to suit the materials; balsa wood, it turns out only comes in certain widths.  We’ve also had to think about our own roles as teachers who may want to influence the process (towards making a building a little simpler, for instance) but who are trying to remain true to the students’ creative intentions.

The students’ creative process has been interesting to observe.  Several students worked on their 3-D sketches over the course of many weeks, adding small details every few days.  Now, they have to make their sketches more permanent and they’re torn about what elements to keep and what they’d like to change.

U.E.’s curved, sculptural house with a courtyard is being simplified as he re-creates it. He’s particularly fond of his new asymmetrical doorway.  We’re still not sure how to tackle the roof, which he also wants to be curved.

The tape is there to hold the pieces while the glue dries.
The tape is there to hold the pieces while the glue dries.

F.I.’s building has changed significantly as we discovered that museum board can be cut to create curves and that it holds its shape much better than cardboard or plastic.

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M.K.’s tall building has stayed true to its original design but she has added a perimeter fence as well as two mouse holes on opposite sides of the structure so that the mice can run through.  It’s a delightful combination of pragmatism and whimsy.

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Embedded in Ontario’s Arts Curriculum document is the Creative Process Chart.  Teachers are asked to facilitate student creativity by becoming aware that their ideas will flow through this process and that they should be given an opportunity to revise and refine their work after it’s been presented for feedback at an initial phase.  For grown-up architects, scale balsa wood models and drawings are their preliminary works.  For our students, however, the scale models are the final product they create after having refined and revised the ideas they developed by creating 3-D sketches.  Being an observer and a contributor to this process has been both challenging and fun.  It’s hard to know where the line is between being a “usefully ignorant co-worker in the thick of the action” (McWilliam, 2008) and taking over the project.  We’re all learning as we go.  Part of our learning as educators has been to think about how much help is too much help when we’re in the throws of a project that requires some adult assistance to be safe.  It’s a balance we’re still trying to find.  It reminds me of the line from the Shel Silverstein poem Helping:

And some kind of help is the kind of help

That helping’s all about.

And some kind of help is the kind of help

We all can do without.

I’m interested to hear how other educators have handled this dilemma.  How much help enlivens creativity, allowing students to bring their ideas to life?  How much deadens it?  How much is too much?

Inquiry and the Gifted Child

I have a confession to make (I think I may need a support group).

My name is Emily and I was a gifted child.

Joking aside, it’s something that I always feel awkward admitting – a bit shameful.  It smacks of elitism, this gifted label.  “What, you think you’re better than me?”  I don’t.  I really don’t.  I know all about the pitfalls of intelligence testing, of narrow definitions of intelligence, of sub-tests that were later thrown out.  The day I took the intelligence tests is one of my few clear memories of early elementary school.  I can remember tearing through the verbal/analytical part, flying through the general knowledge, and grinding to a halt at the spatial reasoning – darn those puzzles. Was there a puzzle of a duck?  I’m pretty sure there was.

I can remember being called to a little room by one of my classmates as she returned from her test and being told to fetch the next child when I came back.  Neither of them joined the program.  The reasons why we were chosen for testing and why we did or didn’t get invited to join the program were mysterious to us.  No one ever explained and the whole thing was spoken of in hushed tones.

girl creating a tree using a stick and blades of glass
Creating her own tree using a stick and blades of grass

My parents were very uncomfortable with the whole thing – embarrassed even.  My scores weren’t something I should ever talk about – I didn’t even know what they were until I found them as an adult – I knew not to ask.  I can remember telling a friend about what we did ‘in gifted’ and being admonished not to talk about it – I might make her feel badly.  As a child it was very confusing but as I got older I started to understand more about the complications of privilege.  What we did at school on Wednesdays during our pull-out program wasn’t a subject of conversation at school or at home but, and here’s the kicker, it was, by far, the best day of my week.  From grade 5 to grade 8 I lived for Wednesdays and from grade 9 to grade 13 I survived because of the space that the school allotted for gifted students to work and hang out and the events that they organized for us.

So here’s the rub; I’m torn in two directions about giftedness.  On the one hand, I question whether it even exists.  Aren’t all children gifted in some way?  Children have so many gifts, so many talents, and so many ways of communicating them.  Doesn’t a narrow intelligence test reduce all of that complexity to a falsely simplistic score that can’t possibly capture all of the miraculous diversity of children’s potential? Yes, yes, and yes.  But then, there’s this first hand-experience of being outside of the norm, feeling different, weird even, and of being saved and supported by the very elitist programming that supports children who, popular wisdom tells us, will succeed regardless of what we do, even in spite of us.

So where does all of that angsty internal conflict leave me when it comes to my own classroom and to the children in my classes whose abilities lie outside of the bounds of that famous bell curve?  It leaves me flumoxed sometimes, to be honest.

When I was in grade 5, we learned (in gifted class, of course) about Bloom’s taxonomy.  We learned that acquiring knowledge about a subject – which was what we did most of the time in our regular classrooms – was only the beginning of learning.  We were aiming higher, towards the upper echelons of the pyramid.  Analysis… synthesis… evaluation… onward!

old pyramid for Bloom's Taxonomy
The Old Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning

This type of learning typified my experiences in those special classes – we were always pushed to go deeper, to think bigger, to look at problems from another perspective, frankly, to do what I now call “inquiry learning.”  Subjects were never assigned to us; we got to choose what interested us.  I can remember creating personal utopias and doing research in Dance History.  I even worked for the local Provincial Member of Parliament – I was 13. Follow your interests, that was the mantra.  Imagine if school had been like that every day.  Would the program have even been necessary?

Today Bloom’s Taxonomy looks different.  A new level has been added to the top of the pyramid: creating.

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The new version of Bloom’s Taxonomy

So where does that leave us in Kindergarten, when creating is at the foundation of everything we do?  For our students, knowledge doesn’t come first – it’s not a prerequisite – it often grows out of their creativity, not the other way around.  Children are creating from the very first day they come into the classroom; they’re creating from the day they’re born.  How do we frame this notion of giftedness when we’re tackling learning from a completely flipped point of view?

Another story: When I was in grade 6, our teacher decided that we needed an extra challenge so she chose a few students who would use a different spelling book for weekly dictations.  They were small pink books – hard words lived inside.  Each week, we would wait for our turn to have our own, super-hard words and sentences read out for our special dictation.  While I am grateful that I can spell chrysanthemum (that may have more to do with Anne of Green Gables than with grade 6 spelling), this experience represents for me the worst of what enriched programming can be.  Too often, our attempts to challenge kids just mean giving them more of the same; more surface learning, more rote learning, more but not better.

What I am most thankful for in Ontario’s Kindergarten program is that it gives all children the opportunities that I only got on Wednesdays.  In our class we spend most of our time creating and that provides children whose interests and gifts lie all over the bell curve with regular opportunities to problem solve and to ask big questions.  Children’s questions are spectacularly different.  Their play is as diverse as they are and sometimes what they do doesn’t fall into a neat, academic, curricular box.  But I have, without question, observed children who I’m going to call gifted (for lack of a better term) find challenges for themselves in play.  I have had students who have led read-alouds in their second year of Kindergarten.  I’ve had students learn how to crochet, knit, and play complicated string games.  I’ve had students create their own fashion designs.  I’ve also had students create marble runs and block structures of incredible complexity.  Today I had a student describe a long narrative about her block structure; she has a spectacular imagination.  Last week, FI problem-solved how he could create trusses for his roof using tongue depressors.

boy building roof trusses on cardboard model

It is often challenging to stay ahead of them, to remain nimble enough to meet their needs in a large classroom.  But I am heartened that, if education can remain focused on creativity, great learning will follow.  Like water trickling down the side of the Bloom’s pyramid, we will get to the knowledge if we start at the top.

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!