The child has a hundred languages (and a hundred hundred hundred more) but they steal ninety-nine. The school and the culture
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.
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!
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.
This is the third and final installment of children’s poetic reflections on their architecture projects. To read about the project in its entirety, please use the search term “architecture” in the search window below.
The Big Apartment Building
It’s kind of big and also people who live here don’t have to live in little houses, they can live in big buildings.
And also they don’t have to live out of houses.
It took a long time to build it.
The sides are really big and the building’s really big
There’s lots of places for people to live inside.
Sometimes they have to break it down because it’s not working well.
They make designs so that the building doesn’t fall down
and they glue the bricks so it doesn’t fall down on the people inside.
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.
The Fire Fighter Station/Gymnastics Place
We put the roof on top and it can move a little.
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.
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.
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 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:
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.
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.
Last week, Teacher Tom posted this article about climbing. In it, he shares photos of some of the amazing climbing contraptions that his students build in their outdoor play space. Some of them took my breath away; a plank balanced on a swing – wow! Now there’s something that could cost a public school teacher her job! Looking at that picture, I find myself feeling equal parts jealousy and awe. It takes a lot of courage and trust on the part of any teacher or parent to let children explore the environment and materials to that extent. Chutzpah… serious chutzpah.
While I do plenty of things that may make other people shake their heads, I’m not in that league, much as I admire it.
This puzzling over my own comparative cowardice led me to think about how the work done in Reggio Emilia during the last 60-odd years gets translated as it moves around the world. How many times have I heard teachers talk about “doing Reggio” as though putting coloured water in glass jars will somehow transform their pedagogy? My wonderings brought me back to Jerome Bruner who discusses the value of locality in the schools of Reggio Emilia. He writes that:
The idea of locality and a sense of local identity are absolutely essential. This is the heart of the Reggio model, it is the model of living within your locality and being conscious of your local tradition. This does not mean that you need to ignore what is universal about mankind. The great task is to translate the local into the universal, and the translation of universals into local use. Politics is local, morality is local, knowledge is local, meaning is local. The process of making these local matters into universals is a process of negotiating.
To be ourselves we must first be local: Reggiani, Modenesi, Bolognesi, Londoners, New Yorkers. It is a sense of our locality that helps us to appreciate the universal. This is what the Reggio schools help children to do – to see the universal in the local. That is how we can become ‘global’ without losing our sense of our own local identity. And that is what Reggio stands for. The ‘Reggio idea’ is a local idea. Yet, what is so striking about it is that is has inspired an international movement. Its international message is that you must take your local task seriously. (Bruner, 2000, p. 12)”
One of the things I struggle with as a public school teacher is how to reconcile the necessities of my job with my ideals. There is a creative pragmatism that grows out of this wrestling. Sure, kids can probably climb our chain-link fences safely, but we have a school rule against that and, if I want to have the relationship collateral with my administrators and custodian that I’ll need to embark on my next slightly insane art project, I might have to scale back the climbing a bit. Please take a moment here and imagine what it’s like to be the custodian in any school I’m working in… exactly.
So how do we translate those global Reggio ideas into a local context that not only has pretty strict rules about safety but also a mandated curriculum? Maybe it has something to do with pushing just to the edge of those structures, to see how far they will stretch. In the dance world we have this notion of structured improvisation – two terms that seem at odds with each other but that, in practice, work beautifully together. You can sketch the outlines of a dance – first we enter one at a time, then we move forward and backward, then into pair work and then we exit one by one until only one dancer remains on stage – without actually deciding in advance what you’ll be doing in those moments. Structure without choreography. You can push right to the edge of chaos without going over, hovering there on the precipice with your arms circling.
That’s what my locality feels like to me, exploring the tension between child-led pedagogy and curriculum, between risk and safety, between climbing and falling. Sometimes it’s about letting them climb the stump instead of the fence.
Sometimes when I’m reading teacher questions about inquiry, I come across something along the lines of: “I don’t get it, the kids were really interested in subject X and now they’re not. How can I get them to do an inquiry when they don’t stay interested inanything?”
Sing it sister (or brother – as the case may be).
I hear you, I really do.
One of the most challenging aspects of teaching this way is trusting the natural ebb and flow of children’s interests and questions.
I recently took my Senior level qualifications so that I would be officially qualified to teach grades 11 and 12. It’s been a long time since I’ve taught high school and I was pretty rusty. The whole unit planning process was bewildering to me after so many years of teaching in an inquiry-based classroom where planning comes more as a response to the children than it does as a top-down process that adults impose upon them. Going back to the process of writing formal unit plans caused me to reflect on the challenges of inquiry. Maybe some of our frustration with the in-and-out nature of inquiry comes from our expectation that it will look like those unit plans. Do we expect it to be linear? Do we expect that after the children introduce a topic, that they will then proceed to engage with it in a linear sequence of activities, ending with a culminating experience? Big finish, jazz hands, curtain closes, ta-da!?
I think that may be at least part of the problem.
Here’s an alternative way to think about it. Be a detective… notice where things pop up.
This week, we’ve continued to work on our Architecture project but we’ve let it ebb a bit, just to see what would happen. I haven’t been pushing the cardboard sketches as hard as I did last week. The materials have still been available but I haven’t put them out as an invitation. Here’s what I’ve noticed instead:
Creating tile mosaics that look very much like architectural drawings from the “plan” perspective
Children using the architectural examples we’ve looked at and their own prior knowledge to inspire their own buildings.
And today, B.W. using her own prior knowledge and what we’ve learned about design to create her own city.
Maybe instead of thinking about inquiry following the rhythm and organization of a unit plan, we might want to think about it more like a garden. Some plants you seed intentionally, other plants just pop up, their seeds carried by the wind or by a passing bird. It’s all about noticing those surprises, valuing them, and seeing how they fit into the bigger picture. Look for them – they’re there!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Google “alphabet chart” and you get over 16 million results. Most of them look like this.
Q is for quilt, D is for Duck… we’re all pretty familiar with these – they’re ubiquitous.
They’re also inexpensive, available at every teacher supply store and online, and they’re bright and colourful – kids like that kind of stuff, right?
Well, I’m not so sure – I’m not sure that kids’ aesthetics are actually what we think they are.
I think that as adults we tend to see childhood through a hazy lens: all idealized, sun-shiny, primary-coloured innocence. Is our point of view skewed by our own need to frame our childhoods in a positive light? Is it motivated by our need to protect our kids and place their childhoods in a box that we feel is known, something predictable and, we hope, predictably safe? The coexistence of this cutesy aesthetic alongside the hyper-sexualization of children in so much of popular culture is bewildering – we seem, as a culture, to want it both ways. We want to cute-ify childhood by rounding its edges and trimming off the ragged, risky, fun bits, while at the same time chipping away at it from the other side by pushing children to grow up too fast. The mind boggles.
After years of watching kids draw, paint, dance, and build I’ve become convinced that our adult ideas about childhood aesthetics are mostly wrong. Kids are, by and large, very uninterested in cute. They are also very uninterested in products. For most of them it’s all about the process. The things they draw, paint, and build aren’t cute – most of the time they aren’t beautiful either. They’re interesting, they’re puzzling, they’re absorbing, they’re real. Often, like a post-modern artist, they’re more interested in the properties of the material than they are in the visual effect.
Kids have emotions that are as strong, or stronger, than adults; when was your last temper tantrum? They experience the full emotional range and they express their experiences in their artwork. We shouldn’t be surprised that their aesthetic sense has very little relationship to our manufactured ideal – we made that, they didn’t.
So what do they make when they’re given a chance? When we pay attention to their expressions of understanding, what sort of alphabet reference dothey create? I’m sure they make lots of things that we miss but we did catch this one and I wanted to share it with you because I think the contrast is illuminating. What it’s not is as important as what it is.
Have a great March break!
How did this alphabet chart come to be? Here’s the story:
The E – made with snap cubes – came first. The child shared it with us spontaneously and our ECE created a provocation with it. She taped 26 plastic pockets along the wall, each with a question mark in it. In the 5th one she put a black and white copy of the photo showing the child holding her snap cube E. When kids asked us what the pockets were for we responded by asking what they thought they were for. Eventually, they figured out that they could fill in the blanks with other letters. Then they started creating letters in lots of different ways – play dough, blocks, tiles, bodies – and we would share them and add them to the wall. Later we edited the photos to make the letters stand out and had them printed in three long pieces.
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 andan 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!
It’s report card time again and I’m filled with that familiar feeling of excitement and dread that seems to accompany this season every year. This year, I’m finding myself particularly challenged. Partly, this comes from having a bigger class than I’ve had before and struggling to know the children well enough to write what is essentially a personal essay about each of them. Partly, however, it’s a familiar discomfort as I try to put wordless learning into words. How do you assess a student who rarely speaks, who is shy, who seems uncomfortable with the adult attention of documentation? When an adult arrives and the play stops… how do you write a report card?
Here’s an example:
KN is playing with magnets in a bin of sand. When he notices me watching him as he plays with the magnets, he gets up to leave.
Me: No, KN, don’t leave, Madame wants to know what you were working on.
KN: I was just magneting stuff together
Me: and what did you notice?
KN doesn’t respond, he goes back to working in the magnet bin
LH and SN join him – KN almost leaves but decides to stay.
LH – Madame, look! She shows me magnets stacked up on a magnet wand.
KN, LH, and SN continue running sand through their fingers and playing with the magnets. LH and SN have an imaginary scenario developing using the magnets as characters but I’m trying to stay focused on KN.
TN arrives at the table and KN leaves, followed by TN, who takes KN’s hand and tries to engage him in play. They wind up together in the nature centre (where we have a tent set up – a hiding place?), KN’s body language isn’t encouraging but TN persists, KN has a fixed but polite smile. They both go to the cloakroom to get their lunch bags, KN waits to eat until TN joins him at the snack table. (At this point I’m observing from a distance, hoping that I’ll get something more concrete if I stay farther away)
I went over to KN because I was interested in what he was learning or experimenting with. I was hoping that he’d let me observe and ask some questions but my presence alone was a deterrent to his play and to his learning. Maybe he’s not ready to share, maybe he just wanted to be alone, or maybe there’s something else going on. It’s really hard to know for sure.
There are also those time when my teacherly questions seem – in hindsight – pretty ridiculous.
Last week PB and CM were building a tower with Magnatiles. Then they started to tie scraps of fabric around the tower. I thought this was pretty interesting. I’d never seen anyone use those two materials in that way. I asked them why they were wrapping fabric around their tower. They looked at me, then at each other, shrugged, and PB replied: “We just wanted to decorate it.”
Report card writing, especially in Kindergarten, is as much art as it is science, as much inference as data analysis. With some children, it’s like trying to capture a shadow in a jar. I don’t think I’ve quite got it figured out.