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.

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.

 

 

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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?

 

 

 

Critiquing the un-critiqueable

Twenty years ago, Arlene Croce, writing in the New Yorker, declared that she felt that Bill T. Jones’ work exploring his own AIDS diagnosis and the terminal illnesses of his performers made his work “undiscussable” – beyond the reach of criticism. She coined the term “victim art” and vented her frustration at the way she felt manipulated by art that seemed more about issues than it was about aesthetics.  Now, I don’t agree with Croce, but I’m finding myself this morning sympathizing with her frustration.

I’m frustrated because I’m struggling with another type of performance that we do treat as undiscussable, performances we don’t dare to critique, not because the performers are victims but because they’re just so darn cute.  I’m talking about performances that are so far away from Bill T. Jones as to hardly be in the same universe.  I’m talking about the school concert.

I have been part of school concerts as a music teacher, classroom teacher, director, and parent.  I’ve spent long hours rehearsing kids for all sorts of shows, some good, some bad, some cringe-worthy.  I’ve toiled in the trenches of recorders, boomwhackers, and box steps.  I know how much work it is to put on one of these shows, even the worst of them.

So, I’m reluctant to criticize, really I am.  But, I just can’t hold it in any more.  We need to take a hard look at this ritual and ask ourselves some big questions.  Like, why in the world are we doing this? What’s the value? What’s the point?

I attended the annual concert at my children’s school recently and found myself so uncomfortable watching it that I couldn’t stand to stay past when my children performed.  Part of that discomfort was the hard metal chairs and part of it was a sinking feeling of frustration at the image of the child that we seem determined to cultivate in our culture.  Their concert was full of what we’ve come to expect from these sorts of events: lip-synching, children trying to sing over-top of a recorded vocal track, and vague, gestural dancing whose lazy choreography hides some children in the back rows while others are featured.

When did we decide that children’s voices needed to be covered up by adult vocals?  When did it become okay for children to pretend to sing instead of actually singing? What’s the value in spending hours and hours of class time preparing a performance whose relationship to the Arts curriculum is tangential at best, if it exists at all?

Here’s what happens when children are forced to sing over recorded music: they don’t sing, they yell.  They force their little voices to shout so that they can hear themselves.  They can’t hear their peers so they can’t match their pitches to each other and they aren’t singing melodically at all both because the recordings often offer a very poor vocal model for children (a low chest voice instead of the head voice that children use) and because the recording is overpowering so they loose the melodic line almost as soon as they start to sing.

So, here’s an alternative: sing acapella.  If there isn’t someone in your school who can accompany the children on a guitar, a piano, or a ukulele (anything, really, most of this music isn’t complicated), let them sing without accompaniment.  I’ve accompanied kids on a tambourine and a hand drum just as a way of keeping the beat for them.  They sounded beautiful.  Another idea: sing with them.  No one expects you to be Celine Dion but I’d much rather hear children singing along with their teacher, regardless of her singing skills, than have to sit through another concert of yelling.

And then we come to the dance, oh, the dance.  For me, this is the hardest part.  It is like nails on a chalkboard having to sit through a dance performance that clearly has no relationship with the children who are performing it.  Our Arts curriculum in Ontario is very centred on children’s creativity and on facilitating children’s creative ideas as they develop in sophistication through the grades.  It is not about step-touching your way to a more developed understanding of compliance as an educational value.  Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 7.48.35 PM

I had to watch my beautiful boy struggle through a dance that used none of his skills as a creative mover, none of his choreographic ideas, and none of his physical skills but instead featured him repeatedly being bumped from both sides as his classmates struggled to maintain the two horizontal lines they had been placed in and two of his classmates lip synched and danced at the front of the stage.  He came home crying several times prior to the concert because he was so frustrated.  Where is the pedagogy, the inclusiveness, the art, frankly, in that?

That these performances are accepted unquestioningly by so many parents and teachers speaks powerfully to our image of the child.  We blithely accept that children don’t have a voice, they don’t have agency, and they don’t have anything to contribute.  We have to do it for them.  We have to sing for them (or some adult does), we have to micro-manage their movements, and we have to limit their expressive choices so severely that they’re left with only two options: comply or act out.

I spent part of last week at the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance (NAREA) conference in Toronto.  Besides taking so many notes that I felt like my hand might fall off, I was struck by the enormous contrast in the image of the child between the Preschools and Infant-Toddler Centres of Reggio Emilia and the average North American public school.  As part of the conference, I got to visit the Wonder of Learning exhibit that will be housed in the basement of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel until November 23rd of this year (you should go!).  Included in that exhibit is the documentation  that is featured in the Reggio Children book Dialogues with Places. This documentation tells the story of a group of children who wanted to prepare a gift for a new school building.

“The children explored the Loris Malaguzzi International Centre while construction on the site was still underway. They chose a space that was interesting to them and designed a work of art, a gift conceived in harmony and in dialogue with the chosen place, respecting its identity while at the same time modifying it.”

While the photographs of their work are stunning, seeing a video of the dance they created was a revelation.  This was a dance of running, of leaping, of hiding behind pillars, of chasing, of spinning, and of falling down – not a step-touch or a gesture to be seen.  It was a dance that, while guided by an atelierista (artist-in-residence), was of the children and their creative voices were both strong and visible in the work.  It was a piece of art that was both discussable and critiqueable because it was thoughtfully created with children not pinned on them like ill-fitting clothing.  It was not about them being cute and it did not treat them like objects who exist to be passively viewed by adults.  It was a performance that celebrated their agency, their energy, and their individuality.  It was beautiful.

What is stopping us from giving children these same opportunities to express themselves?  The world is changing so that our creative skills are becoming more and more valuable but we are, largely, still stuck in a model of education that values compliance far ahead of creativity.  We do children an immense disservice by valuing their cuteness ahead of all else.  They are people with ideas and opinions and agency; they deserve to be treated that way… yes, even at the school concert.  Discuss.

 

 

 

Artists in deep

DSCF4130We have had a wonderful project running in many of our schools over the past few years, a project that brings working artists into classrooms to work with young children and their educators in and through the arts. I hope you’ll have a look at the incredible work they’ve been doing, share it with your networks, and leave them some comments. I look forward to hearing your thinking! Visit them at: https://4elementslivingartsreggioproject.wordpress.com/

Cultural Navigation

I had an interesting experience this summer watching the musical Fiddler on the Roof.  Produced by one of our local community theatre groups, I had been following the rehearsal process with interest and was looking forward to finally seeing the show after hearing great reviews from friends.  Now, you should know that I’m Jewish and that I live in a small city where most people aren’t at all familiar with Judaism; for this Northern town, Jewish is exotic.

The show was very well done; beautifully staged and directed.  The performers were committed and deeply in role.  They were physically present and their characters were wonderfully embodied.  It was a great night of theatre.

But I had a strange reaction to the play, one I hadn’t expected.  At points during the evening, I felt very uncomfortable.  It was unsettling to watch actors pretending to light Shabbat candles and bless bread and wine as an act of entertainment.  These are rituals that I perform every week as part of our Shabbat meal either at home or at synagogue.  To see them on stage was very odd.

Later on in the play when Tevye’s third daughter, Chava, marries the non-Jewish Fyedka, the actor playing Tevye inserted the mourner’s kaddish prayer into the script, to make the point that Tevye now views his daughter as dead.  Again, I had that ticklish feeling of discomfort.  Here’s a very solemn prayer that we only say when we have a prayer quorum or minyan of 10 adult Jews (or 10 men, depending on your branch of Judaism) and there it was being performed on stage.  I found myself reflexively muttering “amein” under my breath at the appropriate moments.

My final moment of discomfort came during the scene when the soldiers arrive to advise the residents of Anatevka that they have to leave.  Behind me, a woman whispered “it’s the Germans.”  “No!”, I wanted to shout back… “It’s the Russians!”  Having that historical inaccuracy hang in the air, uncorrected, really bothered me.  It itched at me the whole way home.

Altogether, it was a revealing experience; this is what it’s like to have your culture on display, represented as entertainment… appropriated, to some extent.  Now, I’m not suggesting we halt all productions of Fiddler on the Roof.  It’s a great play; if I were a rich woman I’d see it again.  But I think it was a really good experience for me to go through that discomfort.

In the community where I teach, we are confronted daily with the legacy of First Nations residential schools.  We are struggling as a system to find ways to reach out to First Nations communities, to repair the damage that years of at best assimilationist and at worst genocidal policies has created.  One piece of that effort has been to ensure that there are opportunities for First Nations students attending our schools to have the opportunity to study their language and culture while at the same time building some cultural literacy among the non-native students too.  Sometimes, this work involves having First Nations teachers and elders presenting cultural teachings to classes, to familiarize all students with First Nations cultural beliefs and practices.

Last week, I was asked to come into a class to follow-up a cultural teaching with an arts-based activity.  Now, as far as I know, I have no First Nations heritage.  My children have Haudenosaunee heritage but, alas, not from me.  So it’s awkward, to say the least, to be in the position of having to support teachings that I’m not that familiar with and which don’t belong to me.  It’s additionally loaded with meaning because of the many ways that First Nations Art has been appropriated by the mainstream culture over the last several hundred years, including some particularly egregious examples in the past few years.  The optics of a white lady standing in front of a class “teaching” First Nations Art… it’s not good.

But there I was, trying to figure out a way to compliment a cultural teaching on the subject of long hair through a Visual Arts activity that wouldn’t just devolve into cultural theft.  I wanted to share with you what I came up with, not because I consider it some kind of authoritative solution to what will remain a challenge, but both because I think the wrestling itself is a meaningful process and because I think it’s important to share our discomfort and to respectfully ask for guidance.

One of the things I have taken away from my years in Kindergarten is a healthy respect for materials, guided by the practice in Reggio Emilia of establishing material-rich ateliers in schools.  I’ve been trying to position myself as an atelierista, a provider of materials, of techniques, of curation, but not an instructor with any particular end in mind.  So for a teaching about long hair (here are two videos if you want to learn more), I decided to work on the ideas of personal identity and expression of belonging that seemed central to the teaching while working with textiles, to link to the idea of hair.  I taught the students how to braid, presented the materials (beads, thread, pipe cleaners, and wicker) and off they went.   They produced amazing work that had symbolic meaning for them, using the cultural teaching as inspiration.  A perfect solution?  Likely no, but maybe a step forward.

long hair art

I will never forget the feeling of discomfort I experienced sitting in that darkened theatre watching Fiddler on the Roof.  I hope it remains fresh because it’s helping me to approach this aspect of my job with a greater sense of understanding and compassion.  I think it’s making me a better teacher.

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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Observation Frustration

The child has a hundred languages
(and a hundred hundred hundred more)
but they steal ninety-nine.
The school and the culture

(Loris Malaguzzi)

Children can draw from observation.  They have an eye for detail and they can reproduce those details with remarkable accuracy.

Even very young children, only just able to hold a pencil, can draw the concentric petals of a rose or the long lines of stalks of grass.  But what happens when children forget that they can draw?  When they insist that they can’t?

I’ve been faced with exactly this challenge this year as most of our students have resisted drawing from observation.  Every time I or my colleagues have put out a drawing invitation, we’ve been met with motifs: flowers with happy faces and 6-8 identical petals around a circle, for instance.  When I’ve asked the children to show me the flower they were drawing, they’ve resisted, shrugged, and declared “that’s the only flower I know how to draw.”

I’ve trucked out my usual strategy of sitting and drawing with them; perhaps they’ll realize that Madame’s flowers aren’t perfect representations either and maybe watching me struggle will encourage them to try.

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I’ve put out the work of a variety of artists whose work ranges from representational to abstract, hoping that it might encourage them to try a new way of drawing.  We’ve even had group conversations about the mechanics of drawing what you see – moving your eyes and hand together to draw.

Unlike other years none of these strategies has met with much success.  While a few individual students have been engaged, the idea has never really caught on.

But I’ve kept at it and finally, in the last month of school, victory!

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What’s the magic? Was it the subject?  Maybe dandelions, that most common of flowers, is less intimidating than roses, faces, and block towers?

Maybe it’s just time having its often miraculous effect.  Maybe it has taken a year for the cultural message of sameness and cuteness to be washed away and for the children to realize that their own representations, however different from each other, will be valued as much, more even, than any smiley face.

Wouldn’t it be great if they didn’t have anything to unlearn?  If their interpretations were always valued?  If we allowed the aesthetics of childhood to exist without needing to modify them to suit our own adult ideas about what childhood is?  Wouldn’t it be great if children’s interpretations of the world were as precious to us as the motifs that the media presents as childhood for sale?  That would be a smiley-face moment.

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.

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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