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.

iPhone Image 3188A7 iPhone Image 3188DE iPhone Image 3188F7 iPhone Image 318902


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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?

iPhone Image 318930

 

A is for Aesthetics

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

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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!

My arranged marriages

The environment is the third teacher, this much we know.  That’s the Reggio way; we think of the space itself as a teacher, which, of course, it is – even when we don’t acknowledge it as such.

Then who are teacher one and teacher two?  Teacher two, that’s the child – they teach me new things all the time.  In Ontario, we are uniquely placed to have both a teacher and an Early Childhood Educator (ECE) in the classroom occupying the role of the first teacher (this year I’m extra lucky – we have two teachers and an ECE in our classroom – does that bring us to five teachers?).

The language around these relationships is fraught and still evolving.  Is she my ECE? Does that make me her teacher?  The power dynamics can be a minefield as some teachers have been uncomfortable sharing their space, their desks, and their expertise.  ECEs have, in some cases, come into classrooms that are hostile to their presence and ignorant of their expertise.  There have been hurtful comments about status and college vs. university education.  Did you know that ECEs learn how to design a learning space, how to arrange centres, and, in many cases, how to create pedagogical documentation?  They sure didn’t cover those things in my Bachelor of Education program!  Parents too, have struggled with how to frame their relationships to these new professionals in the classroom.  How can you ensure that important information about your child is communicated to both adults who have responsibility for her care?  Is the teacher in charge of the ECE?  Does the teacher supervise the ECE?  No, but parents can be forgiven for their confusion.  We are all still learning the steps of this new dance as we go.

Teaching has, for generations, been a very private enterprise.  You close the classroom door and go about your business.  Now, all of a sudden, we have to negotiate, discuss, communicate, and compromise – not just with children but with this other adult too – more skills they didn’t cover in teacher’s college!

I’m writing this tonight because I’m feeling wistful.  My ECE – yes she’s mine, just like my husband is mine and my kids are mine, we belong to each other – is going on parental leave in a few weeks.  I will miss her.  We have broken each other in and, like a great pair of shoes, we fit.

Teaching with another adult these past two years has been a transformative experience for me.  I have learned so much from both of the ECEs I’ve worked with.  I learn just by watching her interact with kids, I learn when I see how she sets up a centre, how she coaches a child through putting on his socks (by taking off her own socks and patiently, oh so patiently, putting them on with the child), I learn when I see that she models play for the students who don’t yet know how to play imaginatively – she gets right in there and takes on a role.  I also learn just by having another adult to bounce ideas and information around with.  Her experience of the children can be, amazingly, quite different than mine and the conclusions she comes to are different too.  I can’t rely so heavily on my own perceptions and I’m forced to really confront the subjectivity of my own assessment in a way that I never had to do when I was alone in the classroom.  We can, and do, produce documentation on the same event – it looks quite different – imagine that!

So, while I’m sure that the new ECE coming into our class will be great, I will miss my ECE.  These arranged professional marriages are tricky things, they need chemistry and luck, true… but most of all I think they need trust, respect, and a willingness to change, stretch, and grow.  If we want our students to demonstrate these traits, we need to model them in ourselves… just like putting on those darn socks!

ECE and child carrying stick towards the school
ECE and child carrying sticks towards the school

My problem with the problem with sticks

There are a lot of things that get my knickers in a knot in schools.  Worksheets, for starters – why… just why?  The lack of attention we pay to the Arts.  Our obsession with testing as though filling in bubbles and making children who are more unique than snowflakes all complete the same task is going to provide us with magical insight that will transform education forever… oh, I could go on and on.

Right at the top of my list, however, is this kind of nonsense… the kind that I recently read about in this great blog post called Dear Public School: It’s Not Me, It’s You. In it, a mother details some of the nonsensical rules and, quite frankly, borderline abusive behaviour that she witnessed as her son started kindergarten.  It’s enough to make you weep.

“The kindergarten class didn’t have grass. I was told that there’s no running on asphalt.  “It’s not safe and can cause really bad scrapes.” By definition, scrapes are not really bad.  Scrapes, bumps, and bruises should be a part of childhood—they’re how kids learn to manage risk. Scrapes now prevent worse decisions later.

I was told that the school could not meet my child’s energy needs and that instead he needed to get his energy out at “running club” every morning. The thought of five-year-olds running laps to provide an energy release for what they should be getting through creative play at recess was stunning.”

Read the whole thing – it’s worth it.

Mercifully, mer-ci-ful-ly, we don’t have anywhere near this level of control in our schools here in Northern Town and, as I think it would be in most Canadian schools, a “no running outside” policy would be considered lunacy.  However, there is a very well intentioned tendency to manage risk to the point that there is no fun left outside for children.  As teachers, we become not just the ice police, we become the fun police.  Our job becomes to suck the life out of outdoor play in order to mitigate risk; we are playground vampires.

The embodiment of this paradigm is our relationship with sticks.  We have, forgive me, a stick up our you-know-where when it comes to sticks. We confiscate them regardless of whether they’re being used dangerously on benignly.  It’s “no sticks” just like it’s “no running.”

Children play with sticks; it is practically natural law.  Set a kid loose in a forest and within seconds she will have a stick in her hand.  They are magnetically attracted to them.  Our students have been seeking out sticks since they first wandered into the greenspace at the back of our playground.  We have a huge number of them right now since some brush was cleared to accommodate power lines.

They use them in myriad ways.  They use them as fishing rods, they use them to build cabins and tipis, they use them as walking sticks, to break ice, to dig, they hit rocks with them, just to see what kind of sound they make.  They also… it has to be said… sometimes wave them around, like swords.

two boys sitting on a log
they use them as seats

Now – I have seen children, little boys especially, turn chiffon scarves into swords – they will turn anything into a sword – absolutely anything.  Do they turn sticks into swords?  They do.  Do they occasionally hit someone with a stick?  They do.  Can we teach them not to do either of those things?  We can. We really, really can.

girl roasting a snow marshmallow
they use them to roast snowball marshmallows

Children can hit each other with their fists, they can kick each other with their feet… and yet we amputate neither.  We teach them not to; we work really hard at teaching them not to do that.  We can do the same with sticks.  We can choose to say: “here’s this amazing natural material that offers so many possibilities; we’re going to notice and validate the good and work on mitigating and modifying the bad.”  We can choose not to be absolutists and we can be intellectual enough to see the subtlety of the issue.  We want kids to run on the playground.  They need to run on the playground.  They also need sticks.  We rob them of so much when we take them away.

Have you see this? The Importance of Playing With Fire (Literally)

Watch it and then think about that for a minute.  What are we losing out on by constraining children’s play to the point that we remove all of the risk?  What’s left for kids?  What kind of adults will they be?  Think hard before you confiscate that next stick… please.

Qualities and Quantities

The supplies have started to arrive; it’s like a big birthday party.  We don’t often have new supplies arriving en masse in public education so when it happens we (and I’m referring to the adults here) get a little silly.  I performed a memorable happy dance in the hallway; I may never live it down.

I’m always amazed by novelty and the impact it has on children (adults too) – you would think it would get old, but it really doesn’t. When our carpet first arrived, all the children, as a collective, lay down on the floor and rubbed their cheeks against the nubby surface. They just soaked it in, loving the feeling and enjoying the warmth after 2 weeks of sitting on cold tiles. Simple thing, big impact on our lives.

Another piece of equipment that arrived at the same time was an instant favourite, as it has been every year. This toy seems to lend itself to sophisticated mathematical thinking; the relationships between 2-D and 3-D shapes, which shapes tessellate well and which do not, how to use one shape to build another. All of these things I had anticipated because I’ve seen them before. What I’ve never seen is the impact of having so many of a material on the quality of children’s play. This year we ordered double the number of tiles. Just look at what they’ve been able to accomplish!

Covering the surface of the light table with tiles and using that as a building surface makes the whole project glow.
Covering the surface of the light table with tiles and using that as a building surface makes the whole project glow.
I just love the glowing effect of the light table.
I just love the glowing effect of the light table.
Their sense of how the pieces can fit together becomes more sophisticated the longer they play.
Their sense of how the pieces can fit together becomes more sophisticated the longer they play.
We had just talked about building stable structures using bigger pieces at the bottom and smaller pieces at the top.  I think they're trying to prove me wrong!  I was impressed at how they were investigating volume here by using the wooden blocks to fill their cube.
We had just talked about building stable structures using bigger pieces at the bottom and smaller pieces at the top. I think they’re trying to prove me wrong! I was impressed at how they were investigating volume here by using the wooden blocks to fill their cube.
Next stop... the School of Architecture.
Next stop… the School of Architecture.

One of the best thing about having so many of these tiles is that while one group of students is using them on the light table, another group can be using them on the floor or on a table (or a couch in this case).  That’s what BG was doing last week.

And then this happened...
And then this happened…

BG called me over to show me what he had made.  He had used the equilateral triangles to create two hexagons which he had linked together, nearly making three hexagons.  We discussed what he had made and I introduced the name of his new shape.

Which led to this...
Which led to this…

DW had been watching us as we had this conversation and came over to show me that he could use two triangles to make a square.

BG then tried to make a square using his triangles but came up with a diamond instead.

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Why do some triangles make squares when you put them together while others don’t… what’s the difference? You can see in this photo that BG has completed his third hexagon.

The next day, I kept noticing more and more students using shapes (both tiles and wooden blocks) to make new shapes and experimenting with tessellation.  I’m intrigued at how these ideas spread.  DW was listening to my conversation with BG… did other students notice?  Were they observing on the sidelines without me noticing or is there some other process at work here?  This week we’re going to share these observations with the whole group – I’m excited to see where it goes from here!

A Blank Slate

I’m starting at a new school this year.  New challenges, new kids, and ta-da… a new classroom!

Unfortunately, I’m only allowed to look at it from the doorway; like Romeo and Juliet in the balcony scene, I can only love it from afar.

Floors need to cure and a window needs to be installed.  These things take time and nothing is ever simple.  Hopefully, we can get it all together by the first day! Say a little prayer!

If you have any ideas for the space, please leave them in the comments.  We’re all ears!

That plywood will be a window soon!
That plywood will be a window soon!

ELK2014 room2ELK 2014 room 3