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

A is for Aesthetics

Google “alphabet chart” and you get over 16 million results.  Most of them look like this.

81nR8RxehtL

Q is for quilt, D is for Duck… we’re all pretty familiar with these – they’re ubiquitous.

They’re also inexpensive, available at every teacher supply store and online, and they’re bright and colourful – kids like that kind of stuff, right?

Well, I’m not so sure – I’m not sure that kids’ aesthetics are actually what we think they are.

I think that as adults we tend to see childhood through a hazy lens: all idealized, sun-shiny, primary-coloured innocence.  Is our point of view skewed by our own need to frame our childhoods in a positive light?  Is it motivated by our need to protect our kids and place their childhoods in a box that we feel is known, something predictable and, we hope, predictably safe?  The coexistence of this cutesy aesthetic alongside the hyper-sexualization of children in so much of popular culture is bewildering – we seem, as a culture, to want it both ways.  We want to cute-ify childhood by rounding its edges and trimming off the ragged, risky, fun bits, while at the same time chipping away at it from the other side by pushing children to grow up too fast.  The mind boggles.

After years of watching kids draw, paint, dance, and build I’ve become convinced that our adult ideas about childhood aesthetics are mostly wrong.  Kids are, by and large, very uninterested in cute.  They are also very uninterested in products.  For most of them it’s all about the process.  The things they draw, paint, and build aren’t cute – most of the time they aren’t beautiful either.  They’re interesting, they’re puzzling, they’re absorbing, they’re real.  Often, like a post-modern artist, they’re more interested in the properties of the material than they are in the visual effect.

Kids have emotions that are as strong, or stronger, than adults; when was your last temper tantrum? They experience the full emotional range and they express their experiences in their artwork.  We shouldn’t be surprised that their aesthetic sense has very little relationship to our manufactured ideal – we made that, they didn’t.

So what do they make when they’re given a chance?  When we pay attention to their expressions of understanding, what sort of alphabet reference do they create?  I’m sure they make lots of things that we miss but we did catch this one and I wanted to share it with you because I think the contrast is illuminating.  What it’s not is as important as what it is.

Have a great March break!

student-led alphabet chart
Printed on vinyl, images altered so that each letter remains coloured while the background is in black and white

 

How did this alphabet chart come to be?  Here’s the story:

The E – made with snap cubes – came first. The child shared it with us spontaneously and our ECE created a provocation with it. She taped 26 plastic pockets along the wall, each with a question mark in it. In the 5th one she put a black and white copy of the photo showing the child holding her snap cube E. When kids asked us what the pockets were for we responded by asking what they thought they were for. Eventually, they figured out that they could fill in the blanks with other letters. Then they started creating letters in lots of different ways – play dough, blocks, tiles, bodies – and we would share them and add them to the wall.  Later we edited the photos to make the letters stand out and had them printed in three long pieces.

Teaching tips from the verge

It’s really, really hard to write resources for inquiry-based teaching – it’s hard to even think about how to write them.  It’s easy (or at least easier) to write reflections, questions, wonderings, and documentation of that teaching and learning but resources, in the way we traditionally think of them… that’s tough.  This way of teaching (or not teaching, as it sometimes appears) resists the consumerist bent of our culture.  It is impossible to sound-bite.  It does not reduce well and it is so individual that every person’s path will be quite different.  We want that individualism, that diversity – we don’t want to teacher-proof this.  Who we are matters and that can be very empowering, especially when so much of education leans toward soul-crushing standardization.  So, I can tell you about an inquiry my students have worked on but that doesn’t create a plan for an inquiry you might do – you and your class have to walk that path on your own.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

The teacher is not an automatic fountain from which intellectual beverages may be obtained. He is either a witness or a stranger. To guide a pupil into the promised land, he must have been there himself. When asking himself: Do I stand for what I teach? Do I believe what I say? He must be able to answer in the affirmative. What we need more than anything else is not “textbooks” but “textpeople.” It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget.

Teaching becomes, on purpose, a much more intellectual act than it has often been.  We have to think hard about what we’re doing and we can’t follow a prescriptive lesson plan.  Play isn’t prescribed.  It is an improvisation, a never-ending work-in-progress, a call and response dance that demands that we be active listeners and observers, deeply in relationship with children, bringing our whole selves to the table and asking them to do the same.  This is a stance, a paradigm, a perspective – it’s not a list of activities.

The process reminds me very much of contact improvisation.

So… I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of teaching tips from the verge – I hope that’s okay.

But, to make this blog visit worthwhile, here’s one for your trouble.

When you’re introducing natural clay in the classroom (and you should, it’s wonderful), use small canvases that you can get at the dollar store as workspaces.  Students can work with the clay inside the canvas.  It absorbs the moisture, the clay doesn’t stick, and you avoid the ire of your school custodian by keeping the clay off the tables.

girl handbuilding a mug with clay

Have a messy day – the best kind!

No Drama

We are lucky enough to have an education researcher who visits our classroom once a week to give us feedback on our work and to help us collect documentation.  This week, as we were debriefing, he looked quizzically at me and remarked… “hey, I’ve noticed you don’t have a dramatic play centre any more.”  It’s true – we don’t.  We haven’t for a few weeks and I’m pretty sure that last year we stopped having one at around the same time of year.  Here’s why: we don’t need one.

I’ve started each of the past three years with some kind of dramatic play area – often a play kitchen – set up in the classroom.  We’ve allowed this to morph into other things: a pet store, a forest, a doctor’s office, a fire hall, a camp site, etc… using input from the students and donations from their families.

It serves a purpose at the beginning of the year; it’s a good bridge for those who have been in child care and it helps them all to feel secure, having a centre where they know for certain what they’re supposed to do.  Role play in familiar roles like mother, father, doctor, and nurse is a type of play that most children have encountered before coming to school either at home or in child care.  But… it really loses its purpose after a while and it seems to create behaviour problems as students move the materials from that centre all over the room, requiring reminders to return it all at the end of the play block.

What I’ve noticed is that over time, the whole room becomes a dramatic play centre.  To quote my amazing ECE “wherever they are, they have dramatic play – they make every centre a dramatic centre.”  Here is a snapshot of what was happening during one five-minute period this morning.

Some are kids are playing cats, others are playing butterfly tag on the carpet – waving their arms the way we practiced at the dance studio, tagging each other and giggling uproariously.

girls playing butterfly tag on the carpet

Three children are playing banana car (a car that brings bananas) in the block area. “LG: Madame, we made a banana car and TN and BQ are on the banana car!”  Next to them, two girls are building a house and playing inside it. The kids from the banana car approach. “LG: Pretend it’s a babies dance show – it’s time for baby’s dance show… get on the train.”  They get back on their banana car.

One of the girls in the block house says “this is the baby’s house so everyone step back” and the kids from the banana car join in the house play.

FN and SN are playing doctor in the library and several boys are playing doctor’s office inside the cube.

one girl using a toy otoscope to look in another girl's ear

The marble run also has dramatic play components as the children seem to imagine themselves as the marble, moving with it as it goes down the run and celebrating its descent as though they are the ones who have run a race.

boys playing with wooden marble run

This is in five minutes! Five minutes!

We just don’t need a dramatic play centre any more; it can’t be contained in one space.  The drama is nowhere because it is everywhere!

Assessing the Silence

It’s report card time again and I’m filled with that familiar feeling of excitement and dread that seems to accompany this season every year.  This year, I’m finding myself particularly challenged.  Partly, this comes from having a bigger class than I’ve had before and struggling to know the children well enough to write what is essentially a personal essay about each of them.  Partly, however, it’s a familiar discomfort as I try to put wordless learning into words.   How do you assess a student who rarely speaks, who is shy, who seems uncomfortable with the adult attention of documentation?  When an adult arrives and the play stops… how do you write a report card?

Here’s an example:

KN is playing with magnets in a bin of sand.  When he notices me watching him as he plays with the magnets, he gets up to leave.

Me: No, KN, don’t leave, Madame wants to know what you were working on.

KN: I was just magneting stuff together

Me: and what did you notice?

KN doesn’t respond, he goes back to working in the magnet bin

LH and SN join him – KN almost leaves but decides to stay.

LH – Madame, look! She shows me magnets stacked up on a magnet wand.

KN, LH, and SN continue running sand through their fingers and playing with the magnets.  LH and SN have an imaginary scenario developing using the magnets as characters but I’m trying to stay focused on KN.

TN arrives at the table and KN leaves, followed by TN, who takes KN’s hand and tries to engage him in play. They wind up together in the nature centre (where we have a tent set up – a hiding place?), KN’s body language isn’t encouraging but TN persists, KN has a fixed but polite smile.  They both go to the cloakroom to get their lunch bags, KN waits to eat until TN joins him at the snack table.  (At this point I’m observing from a distance, hoping that I’ll get something more concrete if I stay farther away)

I went over to KN because I was interested in what he was learning or experimenting with.  I was hoping that he’d let me observe and ask some questions but my presence alone was a deterrent to his play and to his learning.  Maybe he’s not ready to share, maybe he just wanted to be alone, or maybe there’s something else going on.  It’s really hard to know for sure.

There are also those time when my teacherly questions seem – in hindsight – pretty ridiculous.

hands tyeing scraps of fabric around a plastic block tower

Last week PB and CM were building a tower with Magnatiles.  Then they started to tie scraps of fabric around the tower.  I thought this was pretty interesting.  I’d never seen anyone use those two materials in that way.   I asked them why they were wrapping fabric around their tower.   They looked at me, then at each other, shrugged, and PB replied: “We just wanted to decorate it.”

Of course.

Report card writing, especially in Kindergarten, is as much art as it is science, as much inference as data analysis.  With some children, it’s like trying to capture a shadow in a jar.  I don’t think I’ve quite got it figured out.