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!

 

 

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!

A real girl builder

Our partner architect visited the class for the first time yesterday; what an exciting visit! As MF exclaimed… “a real girl builder!”

architect speaking to kindergarten class

She had so many great ideas to share with our students and we all (adults included) learned a lot.  As non-architects it’s a big leap for us, as educators, to help the children through this inquiry and her visit gave us a much-needed shot of confidence.

She had a great strategy for teaching perspective drawing.  She brought in two green peppers and used them as a substitute for a building because, as she pointed out, peppers have walls and interior space.

architect demonstrating drawing techniques using a pepper

She showed us how to draw the pepper from the front (architecture term, elevation), from the top (plan), and with the front wall cut away (section).  The children were captivated by the idea that there was more than one way to draw an object.  They asked great questions and had amazing ideas about what kinds of buildings architects design (prisons, hospitals, shopping malls).

architect demonstrating drawing techniques using a pepper

KC shared that it was important to make a diagram of your building and we talked about how we might measure our drawings so that a builder could follow them accurately.  Our architect then showed us how to measure our model buildings so that we could translate them into drawings too.

architect showing students how to measure model building

She showed us how we could draw our buildings from elevation, plan, and section perspectives – this was especially interesting because it got the children thinking about shape; a triangular building looks rectangular when you view it from the top.

architect demonstrating measurement techniques  architect drawing a model house

After all that learning we got the chance to do our own drawings!  The children amazed us by applying their new learning so immediately and by using rulers, for the first time, with confidence and precision.

children drawing a model building  children drawing a model building  children drawing a model building  child measuring her drawing on grid paper

 

I just used my imagination…

Where do ideas come from?

While A-frames were a popular building style in the 1960s and 70s, most children aren’t familiar with them.

And yet SN built one.

a-frame house built with cardboard

Where did she get the idea?

She says: “I just used my imagination. It was a little bit easy to build cause you could grab the two squares and put them together and then make a box around it.”

In her reflection, she captures the ease of building that made A-frames so popular 40 years ago.

When I was at Bennington College in the late 90s, the college had recently undergone a process known as Symposium.  This re-thinking of college life had seen the elimination of Art History as a discipline and the re-evaluation of the reasons for teaching the history of art.  In my own dance classes, Dance History was taught as a required, but not-for-credit, section of a dancer’s course work.  The rationale we were given at the time was that we were there to make dance history, not to read about it.

What interested me as I moved out into the world was the ways that we, knowingly or not, make and re-make the histories of whatever discipline we are working in.  Often what children make, whether they are building or dancing, reflects the history of the form.  As in the development of concert dance, children will often make narrative dance/dramas before they are ready to venture into abstraction and post-modern chance dances of pure movement.  We are seeing the same kinds of explorations in our Architecture inquiry, as children are drawn first towards the forms that they are familiar with (square and rectangular boxes, with flat and pitched roofs, then towards forms that are different but easy to build and next… who knows?

Michael Lee Chin Crystal

We can’t wait to find out.

 

3-D Sketches: An ‘ah-ha’ moment!

Good news!  We have been fortunate to be selected to undertake an experiential learning project funded by the Student Success Policy Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Education.  The project we’ve proposed is focused on building and design, prompted by our students’ insatiable desire to build in more and and more interesting, complex, and creative ways.

tower built with wooden blocks

Here in Northern Town, we are very lucky to have a brand new School of Architecture, one that is open to working with the community on projects like ours.  With our professorial partner at the School of Architecture, we are working on new ways to challenge the children and provoke them to design and build in new and ambitious ways.

Part of this project has been to examine our assumptions about the design process.  I’ve always assumed, supported by quite a lot of reading, that we should be encouraging children to first sketch what they want to build before sitting down to work with materials.  It’s never worked but I’ve kept trying.  I keep asking children: “Would you like to make a plan?  How about we make a plan first?”  Never… not once… but I keep hoping.

boy drawing his Lego building
F.I. drawing his Lego house… after building it.

At least, I kept hoping… until last week.  When we met with our partner architect – she has a PhD in Architecture – to plan our project, she casually mentioned that they never ask their students to draw before they build.  NEVER.  They always get their students to create what she called a “3-D sketch”… a rough construction using cardboard and masking tape.  Then they refine their ideas by creating a more detailed and precise 3-D sketch using museum board or balsa wood.  THEN THEY DRAW IT!

Cue the open-mouthed gape.  How did I think that 4, 5, and 6 year-olds were going to draw plans of their 3-D designs when undergraduates can’t do it?  Apparently, it’s not just hard for kids… it’ s just plain hard.

So… new plan.  Today we started working on our first 3-D sketches, using cardboard and masking tape.  We were delighted by the results.  The children dove in with enthusiasm.  Look!

flat-roofed building with overhand made with cardboard and masking tape cardboard building, no roof, with door cut into the wall, masking tape doorknob

cardboard building with double doorstall cardboard building with sloped roof and triangular dormer window

Changeling Children

“In the morning they came up out of the ravine and took to the road again. He’d carved the boy a flute from a piece of roadside cane and he took it from his coat and gave it to him. The boy took it wordlessly. After a while he fell back and after a while the man could hear him playing. A formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin. The man turned and looked back at him. He was lost in concentration. The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a traveling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves.”

~ Cormac McCarthy, The Road ~

Have you read The Road, by Cormac McCarthy?

I read it when I was on maternity leave.  I read most of it in the middle of the night, balancing a tiny screen while nursing a tiny baby, riveted awake by McCarthy’s prose and my own terror.  It is a terrifying, post-apocalyptic read – not usually my thing, really.  I’m not even sure why I started reading it but it was so good, so absurdly well-written, and so compelling that once I got started, I couldn’t stop.

I find myself coming back to The Road again and again, it’s become one of those touchstone books for me.

I think of it especially when I find myself somewhere desolate: a big city in November, an empty field in the middle of winter, early spring when the snow is half-melted and dirty.

This afternoon I had a Road moment.

The greenspace at the back of our school, which I’ve been writing about all year, has been devoured.  We went back there this afternoon and it was clear that some giant piece of machinery had eaten it.  All that was left were mounds of snow and dirty dead grass, topped with broken tree limbs and masses of pointy twigs.  It was sad and frustrating and ugly and bleak.  I was devastated.

piles of snow and sticks, grey sky

But then I noticed the kids.  They climbed over the mounds of snow, they pulled out the sticks and carried the broken branches.  They lay down in the snow and looked at the sky.  They didn’t say anything.

kneeling girl holding a branch next to a pile of snow

They didn’t seem at all phased by the change in the landscape; they just accepted it and moved on.  Not a single child asked what had happened.  Maybe they figured it out because of the tracks in the snow.  Maybe they assumed that their green space was still intact, hidden under the snow.  I was so awed by their silence that I didn’t feel right asking them; it felt intrusive.  It had become a formless space, somewhere that they could approach as though new.  While I was busy grieving, they were exploring – venturing bravely into a new world.

boy kneeling on snow pile, girl walking away from camera