Back to Basics: 5 strategies for success in Kindergarten

The first few weeks back at school have had me going back to my roots in Kindergarten.  I’ve had the pleasure of visiting many classrooms and interacting with lots of curious and capable kids. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but there’s always a part of me that’s struck by the timelessness of early childhood.  As much as we lament the way society, or technology, or time changes children and families, there are some constants that remain, regardless of the specific moment we find ourselves in.

I’ve had two kids this week tell me that I look like their grandmas (because I don’t dye the grey out of my hair – I’m 41) so perhaps you’ll indulge me in a little walk down memory lane.

  1. The floor is where it’s at.

As Karyn Callaghan so eloquently describes in this video, children quite literally see the world from a different perspective.  They are closer to the ground than we are and it’s important that we get down on the ground to see what they see. Often when an educator tells me she can’t figure out what a group of children is doing or how to move their learning forward, I suggest that she spend some time sitting on the floor, watching the students or even playing alongside them.  Creating your own drawing or building or ramp or pattern that pushes the learning forward by increasing the complexity or the height or the structural challenge can be as effective (or more) than verbally prompting a child.  So much of our communication – regardless of our age – is nonverbal and you will miss a lot of what’s going on between children if you always remain at adult height. Make the floor your friend.

2. Go outside

Those kids look too old for kindergarten, you may be thinking.  You’re right. That’s my son and one of his friends. They’re much older but they’re still fascinated by building things outside, playing outside, all things outside. Technology is seductive but outside is absorbing.

Time spent outside with your students is never time wasted but, like being on the floor, it helps if you’re close to the action.  Watching from afar rarely allows you to understand what’s going on. You’ve got to be in on the action.

Irrigation, erosion, dam buiding and water management are hot topics in the fall.

Grab a shovel or a stick and go with them.  You’ll have a much better idea of where to take the learning if you’re there when the questions (verbal or not) are being asked.

3. Move

Sitting is bad for us. Sitting is the new smoking. Sitting is sufficiently problematic that many of us wear alarms that chide us when we sit for too long. And yet…

And yet…

Too often we expect young children (both in Kindergarten and beyond) to sit for far too long and then we get upset because many of them can’t. Even when they can, it’s often not because they’re attending to what we’re trying to teach, it’s just that they’ve become expert self-regulators. They rub their legs or tap their fingers or zone out so that they appear compliant, don’t get into trouble but still manage to cope with the stress of remaining immobile for so long. Consider limiting your carpet meetings to 10-15 minutes.  You’ll get more bang for your buck, children will attend to what you’re saying and you’ll have less negative behaviour to manage.

4. Sing

Somewhere between the days when Kindergarten teachers spoke to everyone (bank tellers, police officers) in a sing-song tone and today, we’ve lost the connection between Kindergarten and singing. I’ve visited too many classes where there is hardly any singing. This summer I was giving a workshop and a teacher asked me if there was a website where all the songs I was teaching were available so that she could stream them on her SmartBoard and thereby avoid actually singing. We have become singing phobic.

Maybe I should blame American Idol but many teachers are convinced they can’t sing. I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the kids are not Simon Cowell and they really don’t care how great your voice is.  Another secret: being “good” at singing is mostly about practice.  I’m always amazed when I have the occasion to sing Happy Birthday with people who go to church on a regular basis.  They harmonize effortlessly, they stay on the beat and they all find the same key.  It’s not because they’re formally trained in vocal music, it’s because they sing regularly; they are good at it because they practice.  You’ll get better too, I promise.

The other reason singing is so important is that it is one of our best strategies for developing phonemic awareness, the bedrock upon which we build literacy skills. The way that sounds are segmented, emphasized, and placed into rhyming patterns in songs helps children to build their awareness of sound to symbol relationships. Song lyrics can also be used as shared reading text and then posted for students to read and sing together which continues to build their developing literacy skills.

Finally, singing helps to smooth out transitions (lining up, walking in the hallway) and builds routines that kids look forward to. Singing feels good and it gives kids something to do during times when they might otherwise find themselves at loose ends and irritating each other. Sing your transitions and you will find they are much more manageable.

5. Recognize the good

It is very easy sometimes to fall into the habit of managing behaviour by saying “no” a lot.  I’m not advocating that you allow behaviour that is anti-social or dangerous but it is often so much more effective to recognize what’s going well.  Most children will notice when other children are being praised and will rush to join the club. This works equally well with teenagers.  You can even do it in a song!  Developing a practice of noticing when kids are doing well will also shift your perspective towards the things that are going well in your classroom. Too often we fall into despair about how much work there is to do and we forget to acknowledge how far we’ve come. It’s October… to paraphrase Robert Frost, we have miles to go before we sleep.

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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.

 

 

It’s all about you

This year, for the first time, I’m teaching one of my own children.  Now, it’s only for 75 minutes a week, but it’s an adventure nonetheless. My son, who’s 8, is having a very hard time separating Mommy from Miss Emily and it’s a challenge for me to manage his needs effectively when I have 9 other kids to teach at the same time. It’s usually not pretty and I often leave with a nagging headache.

But this week, for the first time in several weeks, I managed to sleep through the night uninterrupted prior to teaching his ballet class.  Instead of going into the class feeling exhausted and edgy, I went in feeling pretty good and I even had enough energy to teach the following class without worrying that I’d fall asleep on my feet.

I’ve been doing some extra reading about how to best teach younger boys in ballet class (there are 3 boys in my son’s class) so I’ve been putting some of those strategies into place for the past few weeks (floor exercises instead of centre work, movement games, team ballet ‘battles’, and lots of fun breaks between the serious bits… in case you’re wondering) but this was the first week when it felt like the dynamic had shifted.  For the first time this year, I felt successful with this group of kids and I didn’t get so frustrated with my own child.

After the class was over, I found myself reflecting on why things had shifted.  Was it because I had tried some new things that were more developmentally suited to that group of kids or was it because I was more well rested and better able to teach effectively and be present in the room?  How much of my frustration with the kids was really about me and my state of mind?  I had been blaming my negative experience of the class on them… but was it really all about me?

We get into this kind of thinking a lot in education.  Too often, I hear teachers talking about being “saddled with behaviours” in their classes, as though the children are choosing to overwhelm their teacher, as though their behaviour is a personal affront to the adults.  We talk about kids in a way that dehumanizes them, that ignores their individuality and that focuses exclusively on their deficits.  I have, many times, observed teachers who have become blind to the amazing things that children are doing right in front of them because they have become so focused on what their students aren’t doing that they can’t see anything else.  It’s one of the most challenging parts of my work: trying to push back against that negativity and advocate for the kids while at the same time not alienating the teacher.

Children are capable… what does that really mean?  Does it mean that we can never talk about the challenges we’re having with kids?  Does it mean that we have to adopt a Pollyanna tone in our conversations so that everything is about sunshine and robins who perch on your finger as you sing a merry tune?  No, I don’t think so.

A colleague once described me as a creative pragmatist, something I took as a great compliment. I don’t want to suggest that problems don’t exist; we all need to vent sometimes and it’s good to have people with whom you can let out all your frustrations. But when venting becomes the tone of all our conversations about children, we have a problem.  Children come to school with all sorts of experiences and it is our job, our mission, our vocation to help them learn.  They are children, we are adults; it’s not their fault, it’s just their turn.

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Courtesy of Anita Simpson @asimpsonEDU

This week has been an excellent reminder of the power of “yet” in my life both personally and professionally.  When things aren’t going well, I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that they’re not going well… yet.  Keeping that mental door open to the possibility of change makes all the difference in my perception of the problem.  As my perception changes, the problem changes too and I start to be able to see solutions that weren’t obvious when I was in full venting mode.  In order to be there for kids I need to be there… really in the room, wide awake (both literally and in the Maxine Greene way), and present, prepared to advocate for them even when it’s uncomfortable and prepared to make the changes in my own practice that will make a difference for them.  You’re the only teacher they have and so am I; what we do and what we say matters.  There are no mulligans in childhood.

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The Best Laid Plans

Welcome to the new school year!  I hope it’s been a great experience so far, full of the excitement and rush of newness.  In the spirit of that classic September assignment “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” I’m going to tell you about one of the adventures I had this summer and the way it’s changing my thinking about the work that I do.

A colleague and I had the good fortune of leading a 3-day summer workshop for Kindergarten teachers hosted by our provincial teacher’s union (If you’re reading this from outside of Ontario, you may be thinking: “Your union provides PD… what’s up with that?!?” We’re a lucky bunch.)  This workshop was focused on the new Kindergarten Program Document and the assessment framework laid out in the Growing Success Addendum for Kindergarten.  We also wanted to touch on some of the themes (eek! that word!) of our Kindergarten program: the teaching partnership, the classroom environment, outdoor inquiry, and the thoughtful use of materials.

It was a jam-packed agenda for three days together and we approached the planning with some jumpy nerves.  How could we plan for three days of learning without knowing who we were going to be working with?  When you’re presenting about a student-led, inquiry-based program, it doesn’t make much sense to plan everything out minute-by-minute.  We felt that the meta-message of the workshop needed to align with the messages coming out of our mouths.  You can’t credibly tell people: “You need to be flexible and responsive to students’ needs.”  while simultaneously ignoring the learning needs of the people in front of you.

So we began with enough material for the first two days, with the intention of planning the third day responsively, but after the first morning it became obvious, based on the questions that teachers and educators were sharing and the notes they were sending forward to us, that we would need to re-think our planning sooner than that.

So we did, and we continued to plan in the same responsive way over the next two and a half days.  We also talked to each other about our plans, right in front of the workshop participants, because we wanted to model that collaborative teaching partnership that is so important to a successful Kindergarten classroom in Ontario.  Sometimes it probably looked like we weren’t organized but, while the type-A part of my brain squirms uncomfortably at that perception, I know that the structured improvisation of inquiry-based planning is often what dictates its success in keeping it closely tied to the learning needs of the students.   It’s going to look a bit messy; by nature it’s not a tidy process.

In reflecting on the process of those three days, I’ve been thinking about the nature of the professional development experience in education.  We are very accustomed to receiving our professional development in a tidy, packaged format.  We’ve been schooled in being good consumers and we often expect to be passive receptacles of information that’s delivered to us in a well-polished box.  I know that I’ve been guilty of those preconceptions.  What does that do to the process of professional development?  When it’s so one-sided, what are we really learning?  How does it impact on changing professional practice when the process is so divorced from the needs and interests of the people around the table?

The learning for me, as a person who’s often at the front (side, back – I like to wander) of the room, has been that shifting those perceptions about what professional development “should be”is a challenge.  Our expectations are a strong fortress.  They protect us, true, but they also confine us.  Teaching responsively requires not just an attitude of curiosity but it also requires honesty from both sides of the process.  You can’t meet people’s needs when they won’t share them.  It really distributes the burden of responsibility when the “leader” isn’t always the one in charge.  The success of our professional learning suddenly isn’t someone else’s responsibility; it’s ours.

I was at a meeting last week, led by a teacher who has been seconded to our provincial Ministry of Education.  At the beginning of the meeting she announced, with a twinkle in her eye:  “I have an agenda for today, but really, it’s nonsense… we’ll be going wherever you want to take us.”  And so we did, and it was great.  It was a little bit chaotic, and we didn’t always know what would happen next, but we left having learned what was relevant to us.  For each of us that was different.  And we were okay with that.  I wonder what would happen if this started to be our new normal.  Would some of our cynicism about teacher PD dissolve if we felt more responsible for our learning, if it were more responsive to us?  Would we rise to the challenge?

 

 

 

The Christmas Quandary

I’m a bit of a scrooge, I’ll admit it.  I do not slip easily into the holly-jollies of this time of year.  I’m pretty serious by nature and it’s a difficult posture to shake.  I find it hard to toss life aside, to suspend disbelief, to step outside of myself for a while.  I’m working on it.

The contrast between my scrooge-ish tendencies and the general December explosion in schools is always a bit jarring.  The tinsel, the Santas, the trees, the gingerbread men, the sparkly, doo-dad, whoop-it-up craziness that barrels into most schools on December 1st and overtakes programming until the end of the calendar year always feels more like a tidal wave than I’d like it to.  There I stand on the beach, watching it tower over me, unable to stop it.  I can’t run away fast enough.

When I had my own classroom I would actively buck the trend,  looking for ways of acknowledging the cultural significance of the holidays without completely giving into the madness.  And, in case you’re wondering, this isn’t about the much vaunted but largely fictional “War On Christmas” that we hear so much about in the media.  For me it was more about creating an oasis in the classroom, a place where my students could rely on a routine that would be sustained, a rhythm that would be protected, even while the rest of the world was going mad.  

Kids are tired right now.  In most Canadian schools, we haven’t had a holiday weekend since the middle of October.  That’s nine weeks without a day off.  Oy.  Kids are also up late, eating foods with a lot more sugar, and very excited about the big day(s).  My own kids have been having full-blown Hanukkah meltdowns.  Eight crazy nights… picture it… let’s just say it doesn’t lead to Norman Rockwell scenes of familial peace and harmony.  It’s more like eight nights of cage-match parenting.  As much fun as Hanukkah is, I’m always happy when it’s over.

One of the biggest obstacles to fundamentally changing practice in Kindergarten classrooms is our adult attachment to holidays.  We seem to be very stuck on how to manage without “doing Christmas” or “doing Easter.”  

Here’s my observation, for what it’s worth: we are our own worst enemies.  We complain that the kids are “crazy” at this time of year but we feed into the craziness by completely giving our classrooms over to Christmas.  We abandon routine, we abandon inquiry, and we steer children in the direction of focusing on one event at the expense of everything else that might be interesting to them.  We complain about the madness as though it’s something that’s happening to us instead of something that we are actively participating in.  

We have this idea that we’re “doing it for the kids” but I really question whether that’s true.  Yes, the children like Christmas but they don’t like it at the expense of everything else in the universe.  For them it’s one tile in a mosaic of interests.  They don’t stop building because it’s Christmas.  They don’t stop making art because it’s Christmas.  They don’t stop dramatic play because it’s Christmas.  In fact, when I surveyed my documentation from Decembers past, I couldn’t find a single instance of children “playing Christmas” spontaneously.  

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4 days before the Christmas holidays: “Now you’re just like me, we all have capes.” ~ superhero play

If we believe that play is a window into a child’s inner life, then what can we learn by noticing the absence of Christmas in their play?  Maybe we’re not “doing it for the kids” after all. Maybe we’re doing it for us and maybe, just maybe, if we want December to be a more productive, more pleasant, less crazy time in schools, we’ll need to dial back our adult preoccupation with all things green and red and offer our students a more neutral space, a space into which they can project their own values, create their own celebrations, and express their own sense of festivity, unencumbered by an adult agenda.  There are other colours out there… we can choose a wider palette. 

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Accidental Assessment

I’ve had several anguished conversations with friends in the past few weeks.  These are people with young children, particularly boys, who are watching their kids disengage from school, start to feel anxious about school, begin to dislike school.  Whereas backpacks and shoes used to fly on in the morning, now they have to coax and cajole to get their kids out the door.  They feel powerless to change the classroom environment and they are desperate for their kids to feel successful and happy at school. They are at their wits’ end.

What’s happening?  I have one word: assessment.  Assessment is happening to these kids.  Assessment is the reason that teachers have all kids sitting at desks doing the same task at the same time in the same way.  Their success on that task is assessed based on whether they’re doing it the ‘right’ way.  This is the way assessment gets done in many classrooms.

So let’s talk about assessment for a few minutes.

How do you assess student learning?  What tools do you use?  What data do you consider relevant and what data do you exclude?  Does assessment information only count when it comes nicely packaged on a piece of paper?

Here’s an example:

I was in a kindergarten class earlier this week.  I noticed a little girl lining up dominoes on a cookie sheet.

As she finished, I approached her and said:

“I like the way you’ve arranged those dominoes.”

She replied: “They’re not dominoes, they’re cookies.”

“Oh”, I responded, “can I have one?”

She nodded and I took the cookie at the top of the left-hand row.

I pretended to eat it and asked if I could have another.  Pointing at the row from which I had taken my cookie, she said: “You have to eat this one first.”

dominoes

I asked: “I have to eat the whole row?”

She replied while pointing at each row on the cookie sheet: “Yes, this is the first row, this is the second, this is the third, this is the fourth, and this is the fifth row.”

We have a curriculum expectation in Ontario related to understanding ordinal numbers in Kindergarten.  It reads:  “As children progress through the Full-Day Early Learning–Kindergarten program, they use ordinal numbers in a variety of everyday contexts.”

Clearly, this little girl understands what ordinal numbers are and knows how to use them.  For me, this photo and conversation sample is all the assessment data I would need to feel confident that she is progressing well in this regard.  The idea that I would need to stop her play, sit her down, and formally assess her on this expectation using a paper and pencil task is ridiculous to me; why wouldn’t information from her play be enough?

I don’t have an answer to that question.

What I do know is that we are imperiling student engagement on the altar of assessment and it’s a completely unnecessary sacrifice.  There is lots of good data out there; children show us all the time how much they’re learning, in all of their 100 languages.  We just have to be open to seeing it.

The Capable Child

I believe that children are capable.  If my teaching life has a base, that’s it.

I’ve started so many experiences with that assumption that it’s become second nature.  I’ve tried, over the past few years, to make that assumption really clear and obvious to children, parents, and colleagues.  Sometimes it’s a bit of a challenge: You think kindergarten kids can’t do that?  Let’s try!

They can’t climb and jump?  Let’s try.

They can’t paint with acrylics?  Let’s try

They can’t play with sticks?  Let’s try.

They can’t play on the ice? Let’s try.

They can’t build scale models?  Let’s try.

As a society, we place so many limitations on children, I take some mischievous delight in challenging them.

Sometimes it’s me that gets challenged.

This morning, I worked with some Kindergarten students, introducing them to clay for the first time.  I was expecting the usual progression: some exploration of the properties of the material, followed by some basic sculpture-building using the tools and techniques I had shown them.  Maybe in a few days, they would build something interesting.

Wrong.

This is what they built… in the first hour.

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So, yeah, children are capable.  Often more capable than I could have imagined.

The question that remains for me is this: how much of this capacity do we miss when we don’t allow children access to these rich materials?

I had a great conversation with a teacher of older students this morning.  We were talking about how her students, as they worked on printmaking, were having a hard time dealing with the fact that their prints didn’t always look exactly the way they had envisaged. Their discomfort at seeing art-making as a process with surprise embedded in it, prompted me to wonder how much of this anxiety is related to our cultural stigmatization of mistakes and how much is related to the product-based way we teach art.

One of the kindergarten sculptors took his piece apart three times and in the end didn’t have a final product.  He was fine with that.

The grade 6 students were upset when their prints weren’t “perfect”.

What happens in between?

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