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.

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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.

Process-based painting

We tend to think of art as a product: a thing to hang on a wall.

We, that is, those of us who aren’t artists, miss out on all of the messiness about and tossing aside that happens long before you have anything to hang up.

As a choreographer, I know how many ideas I try on for size before I hit on one that I like and that works with my dancers.

Young children approach the creative process differently.  Their art is, quite literally, ALL ABOUT PROCESS.  We often talk a good talk in education about process-based assessment and about looking beyond the product for insight into learning but at the end of the day we remain quite concerned about what’s on the paper; the product.

Many kindergarten students couldn’t give a hoot about what their painting looks like when they put down their brushes.  They are interested in how the painting changes as they add layers of paint, how the paint behaves, how it mixes together.  They will often start with an image and then paint over it.  Their process often has more in common with storytelling than it does with paint-by-numbers.  SH, for instance, began by painting a robot and then added several layers of paint over top.  You can just glimpse the robot underneath.

robot painting covered by red paint

This art work challenges us to closely observe children’s process as they work through their creative ideas and not to settle for assessment that is only interested in the product.

An awesome boy

Let me tell you about my friend LB.

LB is one of those kids that you follow around sometimes because, often, when he chooses to do something, it’s something worth noticing.

LB is curious and creative.  He is also verbal and physical – when he’s upset you know it and when he’s happy he lights up a room.

When LB arrived at school last year he rarely put pencil to paper.  In fact, I documented the few times he produced something on paper last year because it was so rare.  He had very little interest in drawing but was intrigued by the properties of the material… what can you do with paint? How does it feel?

Here is one of those rare moments from LB’s first year at school.

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And now… now as I prepare for the melancholy and bittersweet task of saying goodbye to the children I have been with for two years… just look at how far he’s come.  The detail, the imagination, the self-expression.  I’m in awe.

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Observational Drawings… les lilas

This weekend the lilacs bloomed. My own small daughter, while walking past them, poetically named them “blueberry daffodils” which, in my totally biased opinion, was very apt. This morning, the children began observational drawings of some lilac blooms I collected on my way to school. We’ve been noticing, in several contexts, how much stronger their observational skills have become over the course of the year. It was interesting to observe how differently, and how much like themselves, they draw. Some have little patience for details while others are extremely detail oriented and spend a long time perfecting their drawings. Others create several drafts before settling on one they like.  Others still use the initial stimuli (the flowers) as a jumping off point for something else entirely. AC used it to help her draw a flower print wedding dress.  We observed the children giving each other feedback about how true-to-life their drawings were.  Should you put a sun in your drawing when there isn’t a sun in the classroom?

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A holiday from holidays

“Some people think that Ebeneezer Scrooge is.

Well, he’s not but guess who is… all Three Stooges!”

~ Adam Sandler, The Chanukah Song

It’s spring in the North Country.  Actually, that’s not really true.  It might be Spring soon but for now we’ll make due with a bit of warmth from a slightly closer sun as we walk down the street, still having our cheeks stung by a fierce winter wind.  The tiny rivulets of water sneaking under the snowbanks give us some reason to hope.

Spring brings Easter, just as winter brought Christmas and autumn brought Halloween.  Traditional kindergarten classrooms have been organized around these holidays.  They are the stars around which we have orbited.  Crafts, activities, field trips, songs… everything has been created in the service of these holidays.  We have become enslaved to them.

One of the things that has made me worried and uncomfortable about this approach has been the cuteness of it.  Cuteness always makes me suspicious.  Children don’t do cute.  They may be cute but they don’t create things that are cute.  Cuteness is a hallmark of an adult inserting her agenda into the process.  Adults often view children’s lives as being cute but are they, really?  Are we viewing our own childhoods through rose-coloured glasses instead of being realistic about the emotions and events we experienced as children?  I am worried about children whose only expressive opportunities at school are geared towards maintaining our adult sense of an idealized childhood.  How can they express their own experience if they’re only ever allowed to make a handprint turkey or a ladybug with hearts?  How can school be relevant and meaningful if it’s completely divorced from their lives?  I don’t know about you but if I had had the opportunity as a child to create Christmas artwork that actually reflected my experiences, my art would have had more to do with intoxicated adults and crushing anxiety than with cute snowmen, but maybe that’s just me.

So… I’m left with a dilemma… I don’t want to deny children the opportunity to enjoy holidays – they’re obviously an important part of their lives.  But, I also don’t want them to take over and become the focus of everything we do, eclipsing all other subjects and interests.  Somewhere between Ebeneezer Scrooge and Martha Stewart is what I’m going for.

Here’s how I handle it.

  1. I use ‘holiday stuff’ as open-ended materials.  Instead of prescribing crafts for the children to do’, I allow them to use the materials however they want.
an open-ended material
an open-ended material
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Eggs and Easter grass… what can you make?

2.  I honour their experiences, and mine.

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They made ornaments
for our tree!
for our tree!

Yes, we had a tree and yes, we made ornaments but they were their ornaments, not mine.  I also invited in one of our parents to talk about the Christmas story and I stashed a menorah in the corner. menorah

3. I try to make it a sensory experience

Scoop the goop!
Scoop the goop!

Holidays are multisensory: the food, the music, the emotions, the smells – it’s not just about the visuals.  Our classroom experiences should be equally multisensory.  Let’s eat together, sing together and build together because memories are always more powerful when they involve more than one sense.  I learned fractions by dividing long pieces of licorice into halves, quarters, etc…  I remember that.  I’ve blocked out the handprint turkey.

Explorations in Expectations

I’ve been asking myself a lot about expectations lately.  What, as teachers, do we expect from children? What do we expect from ourselves?  How do we define our roles in schools and how do those roles, in turn, define us?  For instance, how does what we expect from children affect how they behave and what they do in the classroom? 

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague last week.  She asked me why my students are so calm at lunch.  I tried hard to explain to her about self regulation.  I mentioned that they’re rarely told what to do so they’re pretty skilled at making good decisions for themselves.  They decide when to eat, who to sit with, what to eat, and where to sit.  But I think it goes deeper than that.  It helps me to sit back sometimes and to really listen carefully to their conversations.  Here’s one that I found particularly revelatory.

N is a 4-year old who often has trouble self-regulating.  He yells a lot and sometimes gets very upset when he doesn’t get his way.  J is also 4-year old.  She is very verbal and likes to tell very complex stories about the work that she makes in class.  One day they were together in the art studio working on a project. 

When I arrived, J was gluing acorns, shells, and rocks onto a long line of glue.  N was watching with interest but not participating actively in the creation.  In the video, I can see him periodically looking out into the classroom when interesting noises catch his attention but he stays with J.  Something about what she’s doing is holding his attention.  J passes the acorns to another child and then says “I need glue, I need glue”.  She gestures to another child at the table and asks: “Can I have your glue?”  Then she says to herself “Oh, yeah, there’s glue over there.”  She goes to get the glue and proceeds to add more glue to her artwork.  N watches all of this with interest.  When I shift the camera to another child, N calls me back:

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N: Madame, Madame, J is making this for me.

Mme: Oh, she’s making it for you.

N: Yes, ’cause I was a baby.

Mme: You were a baby.

J: Yeah, we were playing a game.

At this point, N picks up one of the bottles of glue and begins making little polka dots of glue on the page.  J says: “We need lots and lots of glue.”  It’s the first time N has taken an active role in the creative process.  They continue adding glue.  Eventually other children claim the glue bottles while J and N are occupied gluing shells. 

J: It’s full. (meaning the line of glue is full of shells)

N: We need some more glue.  (noticing that the glue bottles have gone missing)  Hey, we need that glue! 

This is the point at which N would usually start yelling and might have to be removed from the environment.

Instead, J says to the child with the glue bottle: “B, can we use this for a minute?”

Then she says to N: “You just have to ask nicely.”  At the very end of the video, we can hear another child asking: “Do you need this glue?”  N replies: “We already got some.”

I know this little interaction might seem pedestrian but here’s what I found incredible about it: I could have stepped in at any point.  I could have encouraged N to participate more actively, I could have instructed J to change her design (perhaps to align with some particular curriculum expectation), I could have asked them to use different materials, less glue, etc… I certainly could have stepped in when N started to get upset.  I chose to say almost nothing.  Why?

I confess that it’s a bit difficult to articulate. 

I believe that they can figure it out and I believe that the process of doing so is more valuable than instruction from me ever could be.  I also believe that the lessons they learn about self regulation when they figure things out for themselves are far more sticky than any formal character education I could ever do.  I believe they can and so they do!