Sunday, August 24, 2014

What I learned at the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance Conference--Albuquerque, Summer, 2014

I won't go into the Reggio conference itself. Needless to say I heartily recommend doing one of these splendid conferences if not actually going to Reggio Emilia (I want to!). But after listening to these amazing master-teachers for three days I came back with a renewed confidence in the children's capacity to question, analyze, and discuss.

Here is a tiny example:

On our daily walk into our building the children had formed a habit of, after picking grass with "pom poms" at the top (their term), and placing the stems of these pom-poms into holes in the cinder block walls on the way to the bathroom. Now, as any preschool teacher can tell you, if you need to walk in a line with fours, and you want them to go to the bathroom before lunch, you need to keep the line moving. No matter how much we admonished them to stop picking the grasses that were growing from the cracks in the sidewalk or along the brick wall outside the school, they stooped quickly and swiped their prizes. Once we entered the building they fondled the soft ends of these treasures...

They were kind of like this, only more scraggly!

And gradually, over days, they began to place them in the little holes along the cinder block walls leading to the bathroom. I realized that part of listening to children, a core Reggio value, was watching them and validating their interests. So during small group time I took them outside to pick grass! They were ecstatic! It was like watching a game show where a person is given the choice of a TV or a trip to Bermuda! Then we took our grasses inside to create what I called an art installation. Because it was! They loved calling it art. They told all of the other children not to touch their art! The next day we went into the classroom and found holes, which led to conversations and questions about what a hole was. If it was square, was it still a hole? Was the top of an empty butter tub a hole? And what made the holes?

Here are some of their ideas on what made holes in the cinder block:

"Someone could have been picking at the walls.""Maybe a people got sharp thing and stick it in the walls.""Because maybe they want to put a design in the walls, they get like a knife…""It could be there from like electricity wires.""There might be a nail inside and someone was trying to drill it and they kind of got it wrong.""Maybe they put a screw in the wall and then try again to put it in a different place.""Maybe some bad guys came in the school at night and drilled holes in the wall."

This wasn't the conclusion of this line of inquiry, but a tiny sample. I want to demonstrate that something teachers often (not always) see as a nuisance or distraction may be something important to a young child, and a portal to inquiry. If we don't pay attention to their interests, how can we ask them to pay attention to ours?


An end of the year project: Child Care, Reggio-style.

Wall display of child-designed games

We have ended our school year at our Reggio-inspired Child Care center. Our last Pre-K project was about games. The children were indignant if we didn't put out board games with activities each day, So Sue and I asked them to design their own games. Which they did with gusto! Where do you begin? Where do you end? What is the objective of the player? What are the hazards and rewards? Actually, the children knew these questions before we asked because they had internalized the idea of what a children's board game is. After designing their own board, they decided on either a die or a spinner. Creating a die was chosen by only two children, the rest loved creating a spinner, with our help. Fashioning the playing pieces ("people" they called them) involved using differently shaped wood pieces, pom-poms, small marbles, and connecting them with white glue. The children glued their players together, and, after heart-breaking discoveries in the morning ("my pieces fell apart!"), I used a glue gun to repair them. 

Then came the game tournament! We turned activity time into a gaming festival (no electronics needed)! Children played their own, and each others games. Individually, they reflected about what they liked about their games, and what they might like to change (mostly nothing...they were delighted). Sue displayed the games in our stairwell, along with the baggies of playing pieces (the baggies didn't like being on the wall, so they fell). Parents and others coming up the long two flights of stairs could admire each game, and children could narrate the story line of each.

Enter emergent literacy! When I asked each child I worked with about their game, I prompted them to tell the "story" their games told. They seemed to understand that starting somewhere, overcoming obstacles, and finishing victorious (you get the lollipops, the cloud heaven, the rainbow, or the bad guys) was a story. Children understand such concepts in a general sense. One little girl told me only, "Well, you WIN!" That was enough for her!

If we'd done this project earlier in the year, I would like to have laminated the games. But it is the time for new beginnings. These children are going to kindergarten in two weeks! The "little kids" (their term) are coming over to our side of our huge, lively space, and even younger ones are coming up from the first floor. New projects are in the future

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Inside and Outside: Teaching Naturally

Sometimes life in a child care center is routinely extraordinary. We live our lives together, adults and children, looking for every opportunity to learn and to teach. In our program we blend the outside and the inside to create an organic whole where our children make connections no matter where they are, and they contribute at least as much to the curriculum (as defined by NAEYC, our professional organization) as we teachers do!

Even though we went on several amazing field trips via walking and metro, the crux of our exploration has been the connection between inside and outside.

It rained recently and a child noticed while the windows on one side of the room had raindrops on them, the windows on the other side did not. She commented on this and asked why. So my teaching partner, Sue, brainstormed with our older children on what might be the reason. Here are some of their hypotheses: "The rain is grey and camouflaged",;"One side is used to it"; If you are close to the window you see more"; and "The wind is blowing the rain sideways".

Some of these answers show where the children are in their cognitive development. One child says the windows on one side are "used to it", indicating personification of an object, a classic sign of preoperative logic.  Another comments that the dripless side isn't visible because the rain is grey and in camouflage, an generalization from prior knowledge of how things can seem invisible. The last comment comes closer to the truth (wind makes rain move). A great guess!
Sue designed an artistic experiment by giving the children paper, pipettes, and blue water. The children dripped water on paper and experimented with turning it in different directions, waving it about, to see how the drips traveled. No final decisions were made about the cause of the dripless window, but the children learned about the effect of gravity and movement on water drops. Here is the result:

The Virginia Foundation Blocks, our Pre-K standards, state that children should be able to "ask questions about the natural world related to observations" by the end of the year. This was what that first child did, and it resulted in a learning activity related to both science and art.

Looking for worms

The boys above are looking into a raised bed filled with dirt. They are looking for worms. As every preschool teacher knows, worms and slugs and bugs excite preschool children, both boys and girls. They worked with some worm-loving girls to create a "worm hotel". It's interesting to note that another field of study has been building and construction, so hotels are an interesting application of that learning! Here is the worm hotel:
Worm Hotel

Worms gathered for the honor of staying in a ring-shaped hotel with sturdy rubber walls rest or dig in the dirt. They also can lounge on an "easy chair" provided by a leisure-loving girl:

Worm on a chair.

The whole worm hotel is situated in our dirt box, a wood-bound dirt pile specifically dedicated to digging. In dirt. With small shovels that are modeled on adult models. Yes, we encourage getting dirty, and yes, the children are encouraged and cheered on in this endeavor. My adult students express frustration with their own situations when I share this information with them. They work in centers where parents are unhappy that little Sarah or William are dirty at pick-up. The teacher is held responsible, and the administration doesn't support this research-based, "best practice". Shame on them! Playing in dirt is healthy.

Inside/outside learning is the most healthy and natural kind of learning for young children. It is engaging and whole-child oriented. We read a book on worms inside to support the engaged exploration of the children outside. 

Outdoor learning is becoming more respectable these days and with good reason. In my next post I will share some examples of indoor/outdoor music. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Preserving the old, preparing the new.

This is one of the WPA mosaic tiles built into the walls of the North End Pavilion at Spring Lake (NJ) Beach. That pavilion was totally destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. The tiles, we heard, had been removed for safe-keeping before the storm. The new pavilion is an almost exact replica of the old one, which is such a joy to those of us who thought that a new construction would be a new look. Even better, there are replicas of the old tiles in place. To those of us who love the Jersey Shore, this was the right thing to do.

New and original architecture, and new art are good for culture and society. New and original people are, too! Once the WPA employed artists were the breath of fresh air, the innovators, the vanguard of art in the early 20th century. When I think of how the government actually financed them, I feel such pride that the U.S. Government saw employment of artists as equally important as employment of steel workers or machinists. This attitude towards the arts has not been carried along into the new century.

Ironically, teaching through the arts has been shown in research to be the most integrating path to healthy, mature and consistent learning. I find that using the arts as a pathway motivates students to bring all of their own "human capital" to their efforts. Just as those early WPA artists, paid by Uncle Sam, threw their best efforts into working with other craftsmen to produce useful and beautiful buildings, our students will work through the arts to produce beautiful "products" that demonstrate what they have learned. New and original people are the human product of this approach. 

Teaching through arts integration is rigorous. Students must address learning standards in both the arts and in other subjects, such as history, literature, science and math. They use their hands, bodies, voices, feelings AND intellect in the learning process. This is what we call, in the Early Childhood field, integrated curriculum. There are many ways teachers can learn this approach, one being at the Kennedy Center's CETA (Changing Education Through the Arts) program. Becoming a CETA school means getting teaching artists into your building. Wolf Trap also works with schools to train teachers to teach through the arts. There are many online resources ask well. Here is one example of a digital documentation of teaching both visual art and mathematics to kindergartners, and here are examples of lessons for grades 5 through 8 addressing both social studies and language arts.

An old building is not always worth replicating. Certainly old teaching methods aren't, either. We need to teach to the whole person, preserving the best the arts and education have to offer. Let's not ignore this challenge.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Peinture en Plein Air

Ou, la la! The story of Pigasso and Mootisse continued today!

We have been experimenting with colors indoors, mixing black and while, black, white and green, and the usual primary colors into secondary colors on paper with tempera. The children delight in "discovering" combinations. Some already know that blue and yellow make green. They've read Little Blue and Little Yellow for some time. Fewer know The Color Kittens, but are veterans of science experiments where other combinations have been tried. I asked my small group what they would like to do that the characters in When Pigasso met Mootisse did and one little boy suggested painting the fence!

Instead, we painted a big piece of cardboard.

I brought out a variety of bright colors, along with white and black. The children took turns being painters and art critics. The art critics were to tell the painters what they liked about what they were doing and what colors they saw evolving. This was slightly challenging since there were other children playing on the playground while they were critiquing their friends' art! Considering the distraction, they did well. 

Next we added leaves. This girl decided that, rather than stick leaves to the paint, she would make sure the leaves stuck by painting them individually. This worked well. 

The task took longer than I imagined it would, and so we stowed the painting in the shed to continue with tomorrow. We will see what transpires! 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

You say Pigasso, I say Picasso...

I love four year olds! They are in a transition stage of development, at the cusp of separating reality from fantasy. You can see the wheels turning in some of their amazing brains, shifting gears from, "Is this real?" to "Of course it's not real". I can see it when I bring out my puppet, Melvin the Monkey (named after my beloved first voice teacher, Mel Hakola). "He's not talking, YOU are!", they say, at the same time speaking with Melvin directly. "Melvin, do you want a banana?" 

We read When Pigasso Met Mootisse, and I carefully explained that there were real artists named Picasso and Matisse, showing them pictures of the artists and their art. But throughout the subsequent activities related to the story, each time I said the artists' names, they corrected me. One little boy, a concerned look on his face, said, "Gail, you mean Pigasso, right?". I admit I caved. That "G" started creeping into my pronunciation. 

Here is how we did our Pigasso, er, Picasso art project, and the objectives you as an early childhood educator can reference if you do it with children. 

We gathered at morning meeting and listed our choices for activity time, as usual. On the art table Sue had prepared a long mirror down one side of the table so that the children could draw a LARGE circle, eyes, nose and mouth, looking at themselves while they drew, sitting three at a time.. Children, speaking their thoughts aloud, said, "My face is a circle", or "Mine's an oval". Some, remembering the cubism we discussed prior to the activity, said, "I'll make my eyes triangles like a pumpkin". 

The next step was to cut their picture into five largish pieces (these instructions were to prevent the inevitable cutting into shards and iddy-biddy pieces that often happens when we say, "cut"). Sue had demonstrated in morning meeting that pieces of a drawing could be reformed into a "new face", just as Picasso, I mean Pigasso had done. 
We saved the pieces for each child by putting them together with a paper clip with their name attached. The next day they pieced their "new faces" together on a sheet of construction paper of their choosing. After gluing them down, they used my favorite colors, Creamy Crayons, to give vibrant colors to the new faces. As these are children of varying age within the "fours" bracket, not to mention varying individual interests and passions, the result was a broad range of "new faces" to put up in our stair well.

On the subject of directions, which I raised in my last post, we only provided those I have already mentioned except for encouraging children to color pieces so that the idea of a face be preserved. They were left to interpret that direction as they wished. Our direct instruction was not to tight, not to loose. Hopefully, it was just right!

Virginia Visual Arts Foundation Block 1: Visual Communication and Production, all four objectives.
Virginia Visual Arts Foundation Block 2: Art History and Cultural Context, objectives b and c.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

When Pigasso Met Mootisse

This story has many admirers among art teachers. There should be more admirers among early childhood educators. It has everything! War! Grudges! Messes! Hurt feelings and most importantly: Making up. The story is based loosely upon the friendship of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, with animals subbing for the historical humans. 

The children are enthralled with super-heros and fighting, as so many children are. When I started reading When Pigasso Met Mootisse to my kids two years ago I was not convinced it would hold their attention. What I discovered was that the concept of an "art attack" hit the sweet spot in their fight-loving brains. Subsequently I also discovered that fighting for fighting's sake wasn't what they were really interested in. They were in love with the brio of the battle between opposites.  In super-hero stories, it was the battle between good guys and bad guys. In this story it is the battle between two different styles of self-expression. Feelings run very high in either case, but the idea is the same. 

So we are thinking about doing a "unit", as we say in the biz. 

The children mostly favored Picasso's style of art, which is cubism in the story. All of the blogs I've looked at show children's versions of Picasso portraits. They are way cool, folks. I applaud the teachers who give explicit directions, teach art style, and still get creative, individual results. I'm of two minds about this. I love the result. The children get away from houses, butterflies, ninjas, etc. for a while, as my friend, Angelique, says in her blog. They produce something original, with a set of learned skills and techniques. There is so much value in this. The children, as another art teacher friend has said, need to be taken seriously. On the other hand, in our program, which values process over product, we usually give materials, scaffolding, and time. We ask them for their ideas. We even wait for them. Can we resolve these two approaches? 
Should we ask them to produce their own Picassos? Or should we expose them to Picasso and give them the materials and time to see where their inspiration leads? 

What do you think?