Serendipity and the choices we make

Educators probably make hundreds of choices every day. What do I attend to? How do I balance my instructional goals across the curriculum? Which children should I be working with right now? What should I purposefully ignore? It can be overwhelming and sometimes the relentlessness of the classroom environment leads to inertia. We start making fewer and fewer teaching moves so as not to have to make a choice. That too is, of course, a choice.

The story of these choices becomes how the year unfolds and how we all, students and educators alike, experience being part of the classroom community. Our choices have an impact, whether we’re being thoughtful about them or not. Many times, especially in early learning, those choices come to us serendipitously and we have to react in the moment, deciding which threads to pull on and which to drop.  Here’s the story of one of those threads.

I was visiting a classroom recently when I noticed a child drawing a spiral.

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I asked him about his drawing and he initially didn’t have a lot to say.

“It goes smaller and smaller in the middle.”

In my best Doug Clements imitation, I introduced the vocabulary of a “spiral” and asked the child where he had noticed shapes like that before.

He replied that he didn’t know and pointed back to his page: “I drew it here.”

It was then that serendipity struck.  I recalled that earlier in the day another child had asked the classroom teacher about the contents of one of the boxes on a shelf and she had replied that it contained shells that someone had donated. I wondered if there might be a spiral-shaped shell in that box.

We went to look and found that there were several large conch shells in the box. This discovery inspired the usual listening to the ocean sounds but once we’d all had a good listen, we went back to the table where we’d started and I challenged the children to draw the spiral shapes that they observed in the shell. IMG_9447.jpg

G, the child who had drawn the original spiral, struggled to capture the details in the shape of the shell while maintaining the spiral shape.IMG_9438.jpg

When he reached the edge of the paper, he declared that he was “done”.

I wanted to know how he knew his drawing was finished.

“Because the paper is done, no more.”

In spite of saying he was done, G continued to add more zig zagging lines and then, frowning, said: “I want to draw another one. It’s so hard.”

His friend and I had also been drawing the shell and we looked at how all three drawings were different from each other.

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We also noticed that R, another child at the table, was drawing a different shell and was paying close attention to the detailed lines on his shell.

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I wondered aloud whether some magnifying glasses might help them look closely at the shells so that they could all do what R was doing.  We fetched the magnifying glasses and G made a second attempt at drawing the conch shell.

This time, G looked very carefully at the shape of the shell and followed with his eyes as he drew.

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He drew more slowly and paid close attention to the details.  He frequently paused to change the angle of the shell on the table.

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The first drawing (left), the second drawing (right)

The resulting drawing is on the right. You can see how his attention to the shape of the shell led him to more closely replicate the roundness of the conch.  When I talked to the students about how G’s drawing had changed between his first and second attempts, R said: “one is a circle and one is more a square.”

 

When the class gathered at the carpet, we shared with the other children our drawings and our learning about the shapes we had found in the shells. We also shared the new vocabulary we had learned: spiral.

The inquiry might well have ended at that point as the students went to eat lunch and then moved outside for their outdoor play block but serendipity struck again. As I was wandering around the edge of the schoolyard, looking for places that the class might explore and engage with nature, I noticed that some of the terrain had been disturbed by a piece of heavy equipment. Soil was turned over, it was muddy and snowy and there were tire tracks everywhere. When I walked over for a closer look, I noticed some small objects sticking out of the ground. Amazingly, they were snail shells, dozens of them. Some were broken but many were intact and they were all covered in semi-frozen mud.

I called the children over and they began plucking them out of the ground with their cold fingers.  The students who had drawn the shells earlier in the day were particularly excited when they noticed the obvious spirals on the snail shells.

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We theorized about what the broken shells would look like once we washed the mud out of them and the students debated intensely amongst themselves: were there snail guts in there or was it just mud?

I had to leave the school at that point but I left them with the shells and a plan to wash out the mud and report on what they observed. I also sent them a copy of the book Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman.

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There’s a lot going on here: children are investigating concepts that, in a traditional academic context, would slot themselves nicely into the subject boxes called Biology, Mathematics and Art. For children, these are a whole.

To paraphrase Ken Robinson, children aren’t aware that subjects are “an available condition.”

None of what happened with G, R, and their classmates that day would have been possible if I hadn’t had my ear to the ground, if I hadn’t been open to the potential for magic to happen. In his book Mathematizing, Allen C. Rosales writes that “students’ optimal learning opportunities occur when their hearts and minds are focused on the topics or ideas they have decided to investigate at the moment.”

Finding that context and being open to the serendipitous choices that are available to us every day depends on how well we listen to kids, how closely we watch them and how much we care about creating curriculum that is relevant to their holistic way of seeing the world.

Children’s theories about ice

It’s been really cold here in Northern Town: freeze your eyelashes together cold.

We’re a pretty hardy bunch but even we have our limits and we were stuck inside for a few days while the wind blew itself out and the temperature came up a few degrees.

What to do, what to do?  What do you do inside with 35 children when it’s -35˚C outside?

We decided to play with ice!

Our amazing ECE led the children in filling balloons with coloured water and braved the weather to place them outside.

two rows of coloured balloons, filled with water, sitting in the snow
water… meet your new friend cold.

We waited…

Today during our outdoor inquiry time we ripped open the ballons and found that the water had frozen beautifully and that it had produced an interesting effect.  All of the colour had migrated to the bottom of the balloon and rows of air bubbles were visible within the orb of ice.

a sphere of ice, blue towards the bottom, clear on the top, bubbles throughout.  the top of the sphere is flat

When I showed the children this photo on the Smartboard, I told them that I wondered (je me demande…) why all of the colour had gone to the bottom of the balloon.  What did they think?

MN:  Because the water’s lighter than the food colouring so the food colouring is at the bottom and the water’s at the top

PB: The water froze so it was turned into ice so you cut the balloon so you can see the ice and the bubbles are inside

UN: If you drop it it will crack open and you can’t get a new one.

CF: The gravity was pushing it down – the blue – because of the the bubbles.

MP:  The water is pushing it down (the food colouring)

At this point in the conversation there was some back and forth about the bubbles so I asked: What are the bubbles trying to do?

LT: They’re trying to get out

Another child disagreed.

TN: The bubbles are trying to stay in place in the water

LT replied: No, the bubbles are trying to get out to make a puddle

UF: I think the bubbles are trying to escape the ice because there’s a little hole at the top

BU: Maybe they’re trying to swim up and get on someone’s head and have a ride

BW:  I think the ice is growing and the bubbles don’t want to pop.

AQ: The food colouring wants to get out of the balloon from the bottom – it wants to dig through the ice.

UN: I think the ice is growing and the bubbles are going to break the ice and when the ice is broken they want to run away and go back to their home.

I find their thinking fascinating.  It opens up a window into their minds and gives us precious information about how they’re making sense of the world and how we might help them to develop their thinking.

Some of them are drawn to creating a narrative using the bubbles, water, and food colouring as characters.  Others are interested in the science of the process and are trying to figure out how it works.  Others still are using what they already know about the world (gravity, weight) to create a hypothesis.  Another group of children is more interested in how they are personally affected.

XC, for instance, said: “If you drop it, it might break” – she has a point!

There will most definitely be more cold weather ahead – let’s see where else the ice can take us!