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 3

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

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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.

 

The Pretty Triangle (A-frame)

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There’s a big window.

You slide the door open.

I like that it’s a triangle.

It looks like a face with eyes open or eyes closed.

 

The Villager Hut

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L: It kind of looks like a farm.

T: It would look like a real farm if the windows were down there.

E: It looks like a villager hut from Minecraft.

When the rain falls down

it will fall off onto the roof.

The roof is a sesame circle.

It’s for Lego guys – villagers.

 

K’s House for my Family

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The stairs they go up

roof.

the

to

way

the

all

And the windows are not square

‘cause they can look out of more places.

The fence has a little door

and they can go

straight to go inside.

The chimney is where Santa goes down.

 

Z’s House

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The roof is made out of paper and the rest is made out of wood.

There’s no ladders to go inside the window ‘cause that would be weird.

I have a chimney.

Santa Claus fell through the window – he’s stuck in there now.

I have a square window.

The door looks like a square

But

It

Isn’t.

 

The Playground (an almost haiku)

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This is a chimney.

There’s a slide and a diving board.

It’s to play in.

 

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.

Versions of Risk, Versions of Reggio

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.

boy climbing stump

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.

girl landing jump

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.

girl jumping

Things pop up.

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 in anything?”

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:

Bridge building

boy adding a stick to a bridge over a ditch  boy walking over bridge built with sticks

Creating tile mosaics that look very much like architectural drawings from the “plan” perspective

children building with mosaic tiles on a whiteboard

Children using the architectural examples we’ve looked at and their own prior knowledge to inspire their own buildings.

architectural drawing of Mumbai apartment
Architectural drawing of a proposed Mumbai condo development with swimming pools in every apartment.

child building with magna tiles

child's version of the Mumbai apartment
O.N.’s version of the Mumbai apartment

And today, B.W. using her own prior knowledge and what we’ve learned about design to create her own city.

child's city constructed with wooden blocks
“One part is Toronto and one part is New York. The part with two towers is New York and the part with the CN Tower is Toronto.”

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!

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.

New Bloom's Taxonomy
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.