Saturday, August 24, 2013

Becoming a Life-Long Learner

I will start backwards, since backwards design is the rage...
This is the Welcome Symbol of our stairwell ocean. He/she is an octopus made by children, stuffing shredded paper into stockings and gluing buttons on the tentacles to represent suckers (Wiki Answers says they are called that. I'm not making it up!). I suggested that, as younger children are starting in a week, we may have to give the octopus a smiley face, to make sure they aren't put off preschool permanently.

Seriously, though, the ocean in the stairwell is painstakingly designed and executed by creative teachers and eager children. The children take full ownership, calling it "Our Ocean". I shiver with delight when I hear this.

Since I do teach integrating the arts with curriculum, and emphasize project learning, this is a terrific example for me to document. What is at the top of the ocean? At the bottom? In the middle? What are these zones called? The stairwell answers and illustrates them answers. Our incredibly creative teacher, Carrie, made the adult signs for explaining to parents what we all have been teaching. There are various zones of depth that have differing amounts of light, and the sea life of each zone is adapted to that light. I do not intend to explain that here, but would rather show pictures and comment on the cross-curricular opportunities afforded by teaching this way. To have children just barely four and children turning five and a half participate in a project where each child has a creative role and can explain their own understanding of the learning appropriate to their developmental level is what we call "best practice" in the business. I call it amazing.

Our children used reference materials to illustrate their understandings. Sometimes they strove for accuracy and sometimes for whimsy. Being young children they usually combined the two to some degree.
Invented or developmental spelling is a literacy element in the project. Children sounded out the zone beside the adult explanations of each zone.
The most colorful and elaborate part of this exhibit is the coral at the top of the stairs. Children painted the coral and cut out sections. They helped tape the pieces up with teacher guidance. Fish and other sea life were added to show how they lived among the coral, which itself is alive.

The deep water has unusual sea life, not often shown in children's storybooks so it is helpful to portray it.
Jellyfish, made with coffee filters and either yarn or paper curls, were very popular with the children. They enjoyed both making and helping to hang them.
At the bottom of two flights of stairs lay the "trenches" where the life that can live with little light resides. Here we have an example of that life, an explanation, and a child's attempt to write the name of the zone. Accuracy isn't the point. The attempt to express meaning through letters and pictures is a hallmark of early and developmentally appropriate literacy practice.

I could go on, but I hope I've made my points. As I wrote in my first post about this project, children in the fifth grade are learning this material. And they are doing most excellent reading and writing, listening and discussing, I'm sure. When our children arrive at the fifth grade, they will have had this grounding experience of having been immersed in the life of the sea, a virtual world in the stairwell of their school. During the years between now and then we hope they will retain their keen love of participating in their own planning of projects, and that they will own their own learning. This is what we as educators want for our children. This is what makes a "life-long learner".

Thursday, August 1, 2013

How to teach complex ecosystems to young children.

When walking down the stairs becomes walking to the bottom of the ocean...
Carrie, my inventive colleague, is creating the ocean in our two-floor stairwell. She read to her group about the different sea life at different depths. Her group is almost all four now, and they can explain, in their amazing way, what kinds of sea life is found, and what they need to live. Since I close the center two days a week I have the luxury of listening to them share the book with me. This is how I know they comprehend depth and light at each level, and some of the creatures who inhabit them. I must tell you something amazing: When I came to work Monday and started up the stairs, I had the uncanny sensation of being at the bottom of the ocean, walking up to light. I also perceived something similar to what I perceived entering the Rothko room at The Phillips Collection: Profound mystery.

The week before she had large paper out, different shades of blue paint, and children were helping her create her stairwell masterpiece. So I knew something was up, but not exactly what. She has presented our teaching team with a wonderful challenge to invent different ways for the children to interact with our "ocean". Sue and I are discussing sharing Sue's scuba diving hobby, and my own interest in teaching concepts through music and movement. Carrie and her partner Anne will be initiating art activities to populate the ocean with dwellers at each level of depth. Perhaps we will visit an aquarium. There are so many possibilities opening for project work because of simple paint, paper, and a mundane stairwell.

The stamp of approval came from an unlikely source. One of the local elementary school principals came to observe a future student (they do this routinely, kudos to Arlington Public Schools) and remarked, on ascending the two floors, that she should bring her fifth graders to our stairwell. They are learning about the ocean ecosystem. Experiencing it virtually (not digitally) would help their learning. Quite a feather in a certain teacher's cap, I'd say.

Learning to learn

A month and a half later, we are sitting in morning meeting, and I show our group a flyer from the Washington Opera's coming 2013-2014 season. On the front there is a color picture of the three ladies from Magic Flute confronting the (two-headed!) dragon over the fainted body of Tamino. I show this flyer to our children and they exclaim in joy--"Magic Flute! Look at that dragon!". A visiting former student asks, "Is he dead?". A student patiently  explains, "He's the prince Tamino". Another: "He fainted when the dragon came." They begin reminiscing about the performance, and who was whom, leaving the visitor baffled. She had never heard of this story that our four/five year old children know so intimately and recount with such enjoyment. And she is almost seven! 

I have written about the benefits of the project approach, and about how music connects with language in the brain to form richer concepts, and improve long term memory. But what about what I consider to be the dirty little secret in early childhood education? Many practitioners do not know how to or want to share the realms of art with young children because they themselves do not feel comfortable with them (the realms, that is). My adult students are usually enthusiastic about learning new ways to provide arts experiences, but many teachers have difficulty envisioning going beyond the traditional format of providing pre-cut pieces of paper or even coloring sheets to cut out and form scenes or stick puppets, or other "art". Thinking outside the box is possible but going there? Maybe not. Using classical music is considered great for "calming" children but giving them the experience of music and drama? Maybe not. If teachers think that learning about new children's authors is exciting and fun, they do not always think so about learning to appreciate opera and ballet. Yet young children are so drawn to these forms of art when the teacher is also open and enthusiastic about them.

What is needed is training that demonstrates to teachers that they can learn about anything new (as they expect their students to). Just as they learn about sea life to teach about it, they can learn about Mozart (start with Mozart's Magic Fantasy). They can explore Wikipedia and YouTube. They can talk to friends who are familiar with these theater arts and ask questions. Just as children ask questions to learn, so can we, the "big kids" who teach them. The teacher's brain must continue to make connections in order to be fresh and open to everything children can learn. And they must not underestimate their own ability to learn, anymore than they do their students'.