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

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

High-Y-Nest

Kids are fascinating creatures.  They are perplexing and curious, bewildering and bewitching.  Frequently, when I document a conversation or an event, I look back at it and think: “What was that all about?”  It’s often not immediately clear; it may never be clear.

Yesterday, when we went into the greenspace, N.I. perched himself in the little rock alcove that they’ve all decided is their chair.

high-y-nest

M.P. said: “It’s the chair of high-y-nest.”

I thought at first he meant “highness” – like a throne for a king.

But when I asked him what he meant he told me “it’s because the rocks are high.”

Oh… okay.

Then, as we continued our walk, the children started to push their way through a dense patch of bush near the back of the property.  They said to each other: ” We’re going to the camp high-y-nest in the high-y-nest city.”

On our way to high-y-nest camp
On our way to high-y-nest camp

I’m standing there thinking: “Like hyenas? Does this have something to do with Africa? The Jungle?”

Then we got to the edge of the bush and a white dog dashed out and started barking at us.  His exuberance was met with a solemn: “Look, Madame, we found a high-y-nest dog.”

Of course you did.

high y nest dog

At this point, I probably looked a lot like a confused dog with my head cocked to one side and a perplexed look on my face.

Now, if there’s one thing that I wish I could change about school in the interest of furthering inquiry, it would be to remove the schedule.  I wish we could eat when we’re hungry, go outside when we like, and stay out as long as we want.  But, that’s not the reality of busing and contracts and bells.  Part of my perplexedness (it’s really a word – I checked) is because I can’t always stay with something as long as I would like to, as long as the kids probably needed to in order to develop this high-y-nest narrative to the point where it might have made sense to me (maybe it never would).  It was time to go in so we trooped back towards the school, with the world of high-y-nest remaining mysteriously elusive, at least for the adult among us.

PS: If you ever want to read a great story about ditching the schedule (and more), check out William Ayers’ To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher – fabulous book.

Guns and their cupcake cousins

Some teacher friends and I have been talking about guns for a long time.  It’s an open question for us, one we’ve struggled with over the years.

I’m not a gun person.  As a child I fired a hunting rifle a couple of times – meh… it’s not really my thing.  I don’t pretend to understand some people’s love of guns but I try to separate my discomfort with guns from my relationships with the people who like them.  We have a lot of avid hunters in this area and many of our children have very responsible, safe relationships with guns at home.

I started my teaching career in a very challenging school context where guns were a daily fear for staff and students.  Because of that experience, and in an effort to implement school rules, I have often taken a very hard line when it comes to gun play in my classes.

And it comes up all the time.

“No guns at school.” – I say that almost as often as I say “walk”.

I understand why it’s a rule; we want children and adults to feel safe at school.  It’s hard to feel safe when someone is pointing a gun (pretend or otherwise) at you.

But still they play with guns – they make them out of sticks, out of blocks, and out of snap-cubes… oh, the snap-cubes!  We always wind up putting them away because they lead almost immediately to gun play.

children's hands holding snap cube guns

So I understand why it’s “no guns at school” and generally I adhere to that maxim but then I find myself torn.  Most of the time, I pay extra attention when children are very engaged in something and, let’s be honest, they’re VERY engaged by gun play.  They are totally captivated, riveted, and engrossed.  They’re not actually hurting each other but they are playing at hurting each other.  Where is the line between acceptable play and unacceptable play?  I have so many questions.

I don’t have the answers to any of those questions but I do have some student voices to add to the mix.

Some students are particularly savvy about rationalizing their gun play so that it will be acceptable to adults.  This week alone I’ve been told that what looks like a gun is actually:

  • a laser – “And it’s okay Madame, because the lasers on Star Wars don’t really hurt people.”
  • a ketchup squirter
  • and my personal favourite… a cupcake thrower (reminiscent of that moment in Ghostbusters when Dan Ackroyd conjures up the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man – “the most harmless thing”)

A colleague also has some great video of a child holding a snap-cube gun who, as the teacher approaches, flips it around and declares with a smile: “Look Sir, it’s an L.”  This one is particularly brilliant as it shows that the child knows that teachers are so fixated on literacy that making a letter might deflect any reprimand for what was clearly gun play.

These kids are aware that they’re transgressing school rules by playing gun games.  They’ve even come up with alternate explanations to placate the adults.  That’s some pretty sophisticated theory of mind going on.

So I’m left wondering: is there any place for this play in the classroom?  Is there something to value here?  The kids are obviously very engaged and that’s usually my bellwether for valuing.  What do you do in your classroom when kids are engaged in gun play?  I’d love to know!

 

 

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.

DSCF6161 DSCF6151

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.

DSCF6162

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?

Art, Perspectives, Flipped

How did that happen?  Where did it come from?

Those questions are so important when we’re teaching from an inquiry stance but tracing things back is sometimes hard.  Ideas are so organic that we can struggle to identify where the ignition point was.

This was not one of those times.

When our partner architect talked to us about drawing from different perspectives, it got me thinking about other ways that we could get the children to consider multiple view points.

Then, serendipitously, Teacher Tom sent out this blog post.  In it, he wrote about cutting wooden blocks for something he called “tall paintings“.  What are tall paintings, I wondered?  So I clicked on that link which brought me to another post of his and then to this video.  Wow.

Now, I do not have much in the way of woodworking skills so I sent the video out to the parents on a Friday and by Monday (Monday!) we had several boxes full of mini tall painting towers.

We got busy with the glue gun and tiny cups of acrylic paint.  What amazed us was the way that this art project appealed to children who very rarely visit the art studio.  Its structural elements and the kinaesthetic quality of pouring the paint mesmerized some of our reluctant artists and kept them engaged for the entire morning play block.  Then they begged to do it again!

tall painting and child's hand two tall paintings with child pouring paint

The finished products are mesmerizing, even hypnotic, and I’m particularly intrigued by how different they look when viewed from the top versus from the side.  This part of our architecture project has been a great reminder of how important it is not to dismiss a child’s lack of engagement with a particular subject – it may just be that they want to approach it differently.  Providing those multiple entry points is so important!

tall paintings tall paintings tall paintings tall paintings tall paintings tall paintings

 

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!