Saturday, March 7, 2015

Integrating Curriculum: Sometimes Learning is Messy!

This is a display of our Imaginary Land Project. It grew out of several strands from previous weeks. My small group (The Star Moon Drummers!--Great name for a rock band, no?) was fascinated by bridges and bridge building. The Drummers (four girls, four boys) built bridges from cardboard, huge wooden blocks, small wooden blocks, and their own bodies. They created stories about their bridges, and associated their understandings with actual bridges they knew or had heard about. One boy was so entranced that he became the expert on suspension bridges, and, with his scientist father, built them in his own basement, sharing pictures with the other children.

Out of a curricular strand on maps that we shared with the other Pre-K small group (The Runaway Missing Names--it's a long story...) came an interest in the ubiquitous world maps we teachers brought in from Doctors Without Borders (bless 'em). I cut the maps I had into quarters and gave each child a piece. I asked them to outline the countries, and as we did, we discussed them, and the children's knowledge of them ("John is from Australia! Senka is from India! Remember Irini from Greece?"). They knew that, on a map, white equaled ice and snow, and blue indicated water, so their interest was piqued by the colors of the continents and countries they outlined. Next, they glued their maps to larger paper and created art by coloring areas with Creamy Crayons. As they colored I asked them to imagine their own country, or "land". I recorded their ideas on my trusty phone, and later typed them up for display. The children sounded out the names of their lands and wrote them on their maps. But that wasn't the end.

Children are most comfortable realizing their vision in three dimensions. This is why so many learning materials in preschool are blocks, math manipulatives, and clay. Just emerging from the sensory-motor stage of development, and not yet at ease with two-D representation, children think, and represent in 3-D. Using bodies in movement is another 3-D, kinesthetic route for cognitive growth. Yes, movement is a form of thought. Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences has been around for years, yet schools still seem to push 2-D thinking as the gold standard. 

How could we represent our imaginary lands in three dimensions? With ice, dirt, greenery, and desert? First the children painted huge cardboard, scavenged from old boxes, in blues and greens. This was the water their lands would inhabit. Then they made their own clay from a recipe in Mudworks, a book I have used for centuries (well..a long time, anyway). They enjoyed the clay-making, because children love messes, and this is a messy activity! They created paper outlines of the land they wanted to create, and chose either one continent or several islands to portray. They laid out the outlines on their clay and cut around them with plastic knives. The land masses were glued to their cardboard oceans with Tacky Glue

Next was painting the land according to their own ideas of where in the world their land was. Was it near the equator, or perhaps in temperate zones? Was it near one of the poles? We used a globe to imagine this. Being fours and fives, though, they wanted some of each, so many of their land masses were a combination of brown, green, and white. Their ideas of their lands altered as they created their three-dimensional displays. Ice came into their stories that had none before.

We caucused about what they wanted to build, and with what. My suspension bridge boy had heard of building with sugar cubes and there was no doubt after that what the building medium would be! The children built bridges across water, and buildings on land with sugar cubes, tiny sticks and Tacky Glue. The last step was painting buildings and bridges. Voila! They were done. I asked if they wanted to make sugar people, and to my disappointment, they did not. C'est la vie. The project was theirs, not mine!

Within a group of eight children ages 4 1/2 through 5 1/4 there are many differing talents and abilities. One child might build like an engineer and another tell a fabulous story. Each child needs a different level of support throughout the process. This whole project took several weeks, and at various stages I had another well-trained adult working with us. Children cried at times with frustration because their ability didn't match their vision. We worked with them to come as close as possible. The children were proud of their work, and eager to take their creations home. I took pictures for my 2-D wall display. 

It is indicative of emergent, project-based teaching that boundaries between what is art, language arts, social studies, science, math and other subjects get blurry. That's why parents and some teachers may see an integrated curriculum as just too messy for "real" school. But every child gets individual attention and validation for their thinking and efforts.

Here is one imaginary land story for you to enjoy: "Once upon a time there was a Color Man. He makes crayons and colors. He gives them out to people. He goes on the line (map boundary) to take colors to everyone. He goes to different countries to give colors out."
This is a land I would love to visit. Wouldn't you?