Thursday, September 28, 2017

What's going on in there?

The genesis of project work in a preschool classroom

In an experiment, an
Oak Room student closely
watches a snail move toward
either a tomato or new shell.
Here at Sabot at Stony Point we are often asked how we determine project topics for our students. Since we don't have pre-set thematic curricula in place like some early childhood programs, visitors and parents want to know how we choose a course of research for the classroom; and, how we  scaffold engaging experiences for these inquiries. Our first response to these types of questions usually centers around how we listen, notice, observe, and document- all great tools that we utilize to help us really understand (hopefully) what questions the children are asking. We ask ourselves, what is the big idea here?

Pair these observations with our prior experiences as teacher researchers in the oldest preschool classroom. What are the common knotty questions of older 4s and 5-year olds? What questions often engage the social-emotional and intellectual world of this age group?
A student closely observes the raw documentation
on our classroom panel- including photos, children's
observational drawings, and teacher notes.

Ultimately, however, we try to stay open-minded as much as possible about the children's work and words. Each cohort of children- despite the similarities in development- are, in fact, unique. So we discuss, reflect, and deeply consider the words and actions of our students. The resulting provocations- activities available in the classroom designed to provoke an interested response and further inquiry- will help us determine if we are headed in a direction of sustained engagement, healthy disequilibrium, and joy.

This work is never done. The cycle of listening, documenting, and reflecting continues throughout the entire life of a project- indeed, throughout the entire life of the classroom.
Oak Room students have many theories about the hidden
life inside conch shells. These girls are using the shells
to call mermaids and each other.
At the beginning of our school year (just a few weeks ago), my co-teacher and I noticed a universal interest in the magnifying glasses on our light table.
A student observes layers of
transparent color up close on
the light table with a magnifier.
It appeared that the initial intriguing aspect of the magnifiers was seeing detail up close. But later, the children starting asking questions about the hidden characteristics of an item.

A group of children working at our studio table set up with 
magnifying glasses, a snail habitat, and natural items (beehive,
conch shells, acorns, flowers, seashells).
Observational drawing of
a snail shell; snail habitat
on table as well.

Listening to two conch shells!
With these two interests in mind, we provided a space with more magnifying glasses, some paper and pens to represent thinking or to develop predictions, and of course, interesting materials for examination.

The snail habitat and conch shells were of particular interest. One student asked if we could break a conch shell open to see if an animal was still living on the inside. The magnifying glasses couldn't see inside these shells, but we could hear sound whooshing through them. Some children wondered if animals stilled lived inside these shells. After all, our snails are living animals inhabiting similar types of shells.

In one experiment, we watched a snail closely to see if
it would prefer to crawl to a new shell, or crawl to a tomato.
The magnifying glass allowed us to observe the snail's out-
stretched antennae and mouth.

The tomato was the preferred choice!

Many questions and a few theories about the snails were generated from our observations and reflections.
For example, how did the snail shell grow with the animal?
     -Maybe the mommy created the shell around the baby which lives in the center. 

Why do snails' antennae stretch out?
     -That's how they show they feel safe. When the antennae are pulled in, they feel scared.

And also, if we offer a snail a new, larger shell, will it crawl into it and live there, or would it rather eat a tomato?
     -It was hungry, so it went to the tomato.

Are snails afraid of light?
     -It still moved toward the tomato even with a small light behind it. 

The lines of inquiry regarding conch shells and snails continues, and a follow-up blog will dive more deeply into these threads, and include our reflection.

One student noticed the similarity in
shape of these shells, but a large
size and color difference.
We haven't actually broken a conch shell as of yet- this place of healthy disequilibrium is the perfect spot to slow down, stretch our thinking, and explore these questions intentionally, thoughtfully, and with a variety of media.

And, coincidentally, look at what we now have in the Oak Room:
Monarch chrysalis on left side of photo.

A monarch caterpillar hitched a ride on a plant given to me by a native plant grower recently. It pupated into a chrysalis within a day and now it's the center of attention in the Oak Room.

What's going on in this hidden world?
A digital microscope magnifies the chrysalis- but we still can't
 see what's happening inside it.

After 10 days of creating theories about the chrysalis,
a monarch butterfly emerged.

The Oak Room students and teachers are still residing in that happy place between things we know for sure, and things we don't- particularly about the chrysalis and the butterfly. Watch this space for further documentation and reflection regarding this miraculous process and our feelings, observations, theories, and narratives about this transformative and captivating metamorphosis in our classroom.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Illumination in the Dark: Our Dark Classroom Part 1

"So the darkness shall be light, 

and the stillness the dancing" - T.S. Eliot

After spending a month exploring the unusual spaces around our school (attic, basement, secret doors, etc) we noticed that the children seemed drawn to the dark, often creepy, places of our building.  Every time we ventured into the attic, the children insisted on visiting the dark cedar closet we often referred to as the "attic's attic".  

This space was extremely dark with the only natural light coming from small slats from an attic vent. With only flashlights, groups of children would navigate this unusual space often at a run but would also stop to shine lights on the unusual shapes coming out of the darkness.  
With the aid of a flash, the children can be seen moving quickly through the dark.
 Why were the children draw to the areas that were darkest?  Were we witnessing the process by which children explore their fears or how they examine a property about which they know very little?


 So many children expressed a fear of the dark only to later feel compelled to dip their feet into the depth of darkness whenever the opportunity arose.  Does their interest come from the fear or the need to understand?  How can we support children in this endeavor?  We took a break from exploring these spaces knowing that over time if we listened to the children the path we needed to take would be brought to light.

"In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present"- Francis Bacon

Curiously, the path to our research into darkness originated at our light table.

 Test tubes of liquid water color and jars of water led to a discovery by CR that the color of the liquid changed based on how the light shone through the container.

Taking it a step further, GP brought a small flashlight to the table so that he could better alter the angle of the light. He found that passing the light through the blue liquid not only changed the way the liquid looked in the beaker but also allowed one to shine blue light onto other objects such as paper.

A small group now joined in the activity by gathering flashlights to shine through their beakers and jars.  However, the children quickly realized in order to fully appreciate how light changes the liquid they needed darkness.  With 20 windows in our large classroom even with the lights turned off there are no spaces that seemed to satisfy the kind of dark they desired.  
"We need dark"
"I can put it under my shirt"
"The fireplace?"
"under the table?"
The group settled on the staircase next to our classroom leading to the attic. 
With the lights turned off the children perched towards the top of the stairs where it seemed darkest. 

 In the dark, the light and colorful liquid transformed into objects that were described as "powerful". Why did the dark create such a drastic change?
The magical feel of the light and color in darkness inspired the children to recall the story they were writing about Fairies who lived in the attic.  GP began to sing a song about the
power and magic of the light and the dark.  

Sitting on stairs with beakers of water was a recipe for disaster and the children did not need much convincing they would need to find another solution for finding darkness.
 "We need to make the classroom dark!", several children responded.
 "How?" was the question we asked them.
 "We need to cover the windows" was the answer that motivated our trip to the materials center to look for suitable window coverings.  The children brought back 3 options to try on the windows before deciding by vote they liked the red long pieces of hard plastic that appear to have come from an old Circut City sign.

In some of the most cooperative work we have seen this year, over the course of 3 days, nearly everyone in the class participated in the task of hauling the boards up the two flights of stairs, where they pulled them apart, planned where they should go, and then handed them piece by piece to a teacher for placement at the window where they were secured with tape (of course!).

 The room became darker and darker...

and darker!

Now what do we do?  Some children actively avoided the large classroom and instead spent the bulk of the morning in the bright small classroom space.  Others tested their bravery by spending small amounts of time in the darkness staying close to a teacher or a friend.  While others reveled in the dark. These children embraced the mystery brought on by the transformation of our large classroom space.  Dark stories were told.  New strings of lights were brought in and the overhead projector helped the children experiment with the properties of light and dark.  We discovered that for some children "Light" seemed to be a language in which they could express their thinking.

Only in the dark...

our smaller lights took on new properties and prompted inquiry into how light changed when placed under a sheet of blue/green glass or was gathered in white spheres.

shadows became more solid looking against the light from the projector, and light passed through colored glass could create magical effects on their bodies and walls while creating fantastic shapes on the ceiling.

 The use of a few table and floor lights allowed us to keep the windows boarded while allowing all children to use the space at least for some portion of the day.  After a week or so of living in our dim classroom, we sat the children down for a very dark "morning meeting" (the only lights were from a small strand of battery powered LED lights).  As researchers ourselves, our experiences led to us to wonder:
Were the children changing their perspective on the dark?
Was all of this exposure to the dark through play changing the way the children felt about the dark?
What did they think about their classroom space now that it had been changed so radically?
Did they want to discuss taking the boards down now, bring back the light?

Dialogue in the Dark

   The videos below were taken during this meeting.  When we first sat down the classroom was so dark I could not see the children at the other side of the circle. Some children said they could not see their shoes.
   Although over the course of the morning meeting our eyes adjusted (a fascinating development for many of the children), the camera remained only able to pull in the limited light of the classroom so that the viewer is left with primarily the audio to follow what was taking place.
  Listen to each of the videos, in order, to catch a unique glimpse into the process by which children formulate initial hypotheses about a concept, refine their ideas by expressing theories AND being challenged by their peers, and lastly through this course of reflection and debate arrive at not only a deeper and more considered understanding of a concept but also an incredibly philosophical understanding of their world.  In this case, the concepts the children seemed focused on is their sense of "place", "transformation", and "darkness".

In case the audio is hard to understand here is a rough transcript of what is said (Elaine led the circle conversation while I managed the camera...):

1. Magical Thinking

Solace: There is no light and now it's Wackamazooland.
Elaine: Is Wackamazooland always a dark place?
Solace: ...It's  (never) daytime, Wackamazooland is always dark and there is always a moon out.
Elaine: Who agrees this is no longer the Rainbow Room?
Solace: I agree!
A chorus of "Me" sounds from the children.

2. As ideas are expressed the children begin to reflect

- We hear the end of an answer to the question "Why is it no longer the Rainbow Room?"
Viviane: Cause it's dark
Elaine: Anabelle, why do you think it's not the Rainbow Room?
Anabelle: Cause the Rainbow Room doesn't have all those card boards
Elaine: OK
Solace: (shouts) Is it Whackamazooland or what?!?
Elaine: Because we covered our windows, we are no longer the Rainbow Room? Is that what I'm hearing you saying?
Several children exclaim: Yes!
Lisa: Is there anyone who still thinks... (Cole cuts in as he is thinking the same thing)
Cole: It's still the Rainbow Room!
Lisa: Yes, Is there anyone who thinks it's still the Rainbow Room?
A few voices: Yes
Elaine: Is there anyone who thinks it is still the Rainbow Room?
Cole: I think it's still the Rainbow Room
Tessler agrees
Some discussion occurs but the video is not easy to hear.  The conversation continues a short time later.

3. A different perspective elicits new thinking

Elaine: Is it still the RR but different? Ok, turn your attention to Miles.  Why do you think it is still the Rainbow Room?
Miles: Because it still looks like the Rainbow Room (our eyes are adjusting by this point)
(Elaine repeats his remark for the class)
Miles: It still has all the same stuff.
Elaine: You are right.  It's still the same stuff.  What else is still the same around here?
(unidentified voice): Same stuff, same people
Elaine: There are still the same people.
Viviane: and NO zombies!
Elaine: Giuseppe, why do you think it is still the Rainbow Room?
Giuseppe: A wizard and magic are not real. So you can't change the classroom into a different room.  
Elaine: What makes it stay the Rainbow Room?
Giuseppe: There is still the same class and same light.  I can still see some light there and see the class
Elaine: What if the class was completely dark and we are just sitting here talking?
Solace: We would be really scared!!
Elaine: You might be scared but would it still be the Rainbow Room?
Solace: No! It would be Wackamazooland!!
(A few people agree and the children start to buzz with side conversations over how they feel.  Disequilibrium has entered the thinking of the children)
-Lisa asks in a sidebar to Cole sitting next to her: Cole do you think it's Wackamazooland? No? (he shakes his head) Then say something, raise your hand. (she gets Elaine's attention to introduce Cole's different point of view)
Elaine: Rainbow Room... I'm going to call you that for now even though we are having a debate about this
Elaine: Cole, Do you think if we were in complete darkness we would still be in the Rainbow Room?
Cole: YES
Elaine: Can you tell me why? I'm trying to figure out why you think that.
Cole: It's because it would still have the same stuff and we couldn't see it but we could feel it.
Lisa: That's such a good point
Elaine: So if you go home at night and you can't see the stuff here, is it still the Rainbow Room? 
(Chorus of voices): Yes, Yesssss
Elaine: So the Rainbow Room stays here even when we can't see it.
(Unidentified voice): YEP!

4.  Reflection and accommodation of new way of thinking

Elaine: So if it's dark, it's still the Rainbow Room?
Class: Yes
Elaine: Is it?  
Class: Yes (louder and together)
Elaine: Who thinks it is?
Class: Me Me Me...
Elaine: So what you are saying to me is that the Rainbow Room stays here even through time.
Class: Yes
Elaine: So last year when you weren't here, was it still the Rainbow Room? When you were in another classroom?
Voices from class: yes
Elaine: So you are telling me the Rainbow Room stays the same through time.
Lisa - Do you all feel like when the lights are out the room feels changed and that's what you are trying to describe? That's the Whackamazooland?  When you can't see things, it feels different? Doesn't it?
(children nod and some fidget... this is close to what feels uncomfortable to them)
Elaine: Does that feel scary to think that it could be something different? A darkland?
(Unidentified voice): Or a spooky bat cave!
Everyone chimes in with their own spooky place

5.  A deeper understanding, a more abstract philosophy,... the multiverse?

Elaine: Can you hold both of those ideas in your head at the same time?
Voices from the children: Yeah... yes
Elaine: Can you understand that it's still the Rainbow Room, because what I think I hear you saying to me is... This is the Rainbow Room but we can PRETEND it's something else or it can change a little bit but it's still the Rainbow Room.  You can hold those 2 thoughts in you head.
Solace: NOooooo!  You are hearing  that it can only by Wackamazooland AND other worlds at the same time! It can be the Rainbow Room at the same time!!

**This is a grand conclusion and a terrific example of the power of children's ability to consider disparate theories and arrive at a new way of thinking they can share with peers.  

Elaine: So you are saying they can be both at the same time?
Solace: I'm saying it can be the whole world at the same time... every planet, everything! That's what I'm saying!  

The discussion loses steam and devolves into recreating bodily noises and sharing fears of vampires.  They are 4 and 5 year olds after all..  

This conversation, taking place in a setting that felt risky to some, allowed the children to talk to each other, guided by teachers, to consider their understanding of "place" and the role of darkness and transformation.  By allowing the children to construct their own understanding by examining their thinking, debating with each other, trusting that their words would be respected not only by peers but by their teachers who did not simply fill in the standard "right answers" the children were able to arrive at more sophisticated conclusions.  

"Every moment of light and dark is a miracle" 

- Walt Whitman

At this point in the typical 4-5 year old's development they are only just begininng to understand that properties will persevere even through some change, a developmental concept referred to as conservation.  For the first time, they are using rules of logic, holding different points of view at the same time, thinking back to what something looked like before a change (or in time) - referred to as logical reversible thought.  As children have more frequent opportunities to think for themselves and construct knowledge with others (or on their own) they strengthen these skills.  
They create change within themselves and impact the thinking of those around them. 
 As a teacher researcher, I am blown away by the profound statements the children make on a regular basis.  They inspire me to keep my mind open, to look to the world in wonder, and to seek the many worlds that seem to exist right along side the one I am residing in right now.  

Up next in our investigation of dark and light... exploring the affordances of light and light painting!

Friday, December 2, 2016

Looking for the Meadow Room

As mentioned in our previous blog post, a group of children have been hunting tirelessly for the old Meadow Room. Two Rainbow Room children's older siblings were students in that classroom, so we know it once existed. But what happened to it? (For those of you relatively new to our school, the preschool used to have a fourth classroom, called the Meadow Room).

Anna has been meeting with a small group of children to figure out this dilemma: how can a classroom just disappear? The children researchers know that the space is still there- after all, that's our current movement studio. But the idea of the Meadow Room, its original identity, must be out in the world somewhere. Perhaps the children are demonstrating disequilibrium about this identity change? Or uncertainty about why or how something can fundamentally change? (And is the search becoming the real goal for this group- with all its mystery and excitement?)

The small group took a research expedition to the third floor, or attic, too see if they could find the Meadow Room. A "secret door" was detected in the ceiling. Anna found out that Pippin is the only person who can access this door. The group started to wonder if the Meadow Room, with its teachers, chairs, and stationary bicycle, were actually located behind this secret door.
On Thursday, Pippin showed us what was behind this door. There was no Meadow Room classroom, but instead Pippin showed us something unexpected:
Our school's technical expert Melissa set up an Ipad with video

The whole Rainbow Room came to see what was behind
the secret door.

We could see what Pippin saw from inside the door.
The attic-style door opened to a ladder

The secret door actually opens up to the roof!

Pippin's video showed us the roof, treetops, blue sky, and the garden

Where will we search for the Meadow Room next?

For more in-depth reading about young children and place, here is a link to Anna's insightful thinking:

Monday, November 21, 2016

Finding our place

How do young children research place?

Is place a language? Do children use the affordances of particular spaces to express their deep thinking? To connect to others?

I'm not sure about "place" being a language- for me the jury is still out. The environment is considered the third teacher in our approach to teaching, so inherently place provides the foundation for individuals to express their thinking...

The dark cedar closet
in the attic- was the attraction
to this space the darkness?
But then I consider the unique setting in which we find ourselves with our students on a daily or weekly basis, and I the affordances of our special spaces at Sabot invite more investigation of place? The 1920s Larus mansion is full of surprising twists and turns- from secret doors, to an attic's attic; a large
One of the favorite spots when
visiting the attic was the dark
cedar closet- or the "attic's attic" as
it was phrased by our students.
black human-like bunny painting in the basement to vacant fireplaces, mysterious doorbells, and a hidden pocket door- and has inspired an interest and excitement in its unexpected features. The environment entices children to create magical explanations for these uncommon characteristics. The darkness at the top of the stairs next to our classroom has invited inquiry- what's behind that door, behind that darkness? -leading to thrilling visits to the third floor, or attic, for a couple of weeks. The most popular stop during a visit to the attic, is the attic's attic, or dark cedar closet, where flashlights are required to navigate the various objects stored there. This closet is naturally dark, with little natural and no artificial lighting. The children are unsure about the darkness, but any uncertainty is trumped by the draw of this room's mystery and possibility.

As the children safely confront the fear of the dark at the top of the stairs, and the mystery of unknown worlds, story-telling becomes a satisfying way to explore these experiences and to share it with others. Tales from the attic has become a multiple chapter story, written by several Rainbow Room students, that the authors want to make into a movie. Whimsy and magic thread these stories, connecting the real world attic to an imaginary fairy world. Interestingly, the Rainbow Room is the ultimate destination in each story; the protagonists consistently return to their classroom to share their adventures. Is this one way that place is a language for our students?
After exploring the attic over many trips, a group composed, then performed Tales from the Attic for the rest of the class, then took feedback from their peers.

The consideration of place, too, challenges the schema that young children have about time. An abstract concept, preschool children are beginning to understand the relativity of time, including past and future, and our "place" is certainly full of history and apparent change. Recently, a group undertook an inquiry into: where did the Meadow Room go? One student's older brother attended the Meadow Room only a few years ago, and now that space is our movement studio. A small group of children surmise that it must have moved somewhere. The tricky part seems to be the identity- the location is still in existence, but the identity has changed. Can a known identity just disappear?  Even though the students clearly understand that there's no more "Meadow Room", the pursuit of its location continues (it must be behind the little door in the attic!)
While working with Anna on the inquiry into where is the Meadow Room? the small group kept encountering unusual features in the mansion, leading to its own investigation. Here's a double locked door in the basement- must be hiding treasure! A secret compartment under the basement stairs reminds us of the former family's need to hide things.

To further explore the mansion and its affordances, small groups started to visit the basement. For those children new to Sabot, a visit to the basement can feel daunting with its dark, wet spaces, the noisy furnace (a behemoth!), the echo-filled light studio, and the mysterious and possibly sinister black bunny wall painting. For the seasoned visitor, the basement inspires its own form of magical whimsy- shadow play, echo exploration, and black bunny narratives.
The anthropomorphic black bunny; shadows in the light studio in the basement; more dark spaces to explore

The forest next to our campus is another provocative space, with its unpredictable wildness and otherworldly peacefulness when one steps into its midst. We've observed children using this space to challenge themselves, both physically and socially, through "safe" risk-taking of terrain exploration and relationship-building. Do the mysteries of the remote forest create more uncertainties, taking us out of our comfort zones?

 We find unexplored terrain in the forest (where does the tunnel go?); challenge our bodies and minds; and rely on each other for reaching our goals.
The classroom itself was a novel space at the beginning of the school year, with some new routines,
new relationship opportunities, new materials. A certain reservation to this new place is expected, but we have lately noticed an emerging mastery of the classroom's use. To this end, the Rainbow Room students have undertaken the manipulation of our large classroom environment. The desire to create a
Even the bathroom is a space for learning-
here children draw a toilet for their house
in the block area.
Our morning meeting was an experience new to many of
our students. We collaborated on a social story to describe
the expectations of this gathering.
dark space (or perhaps to recreate the dark spaces from other parts of the mansion?) has led to the covering of our windows. This newly darkened classroom is now the perfect environment for students to pursue their latest inquiry- how light transmits color through water color, and how to paint with light (using a camera).
Presenting their observations about water color and light, the catalyst discovery
that prompted the creation of our dark classroom
More opportunity for shadow exploration in our dark classroom; the well-lit classroom was not ideal for exploring the
relationship between light and water color as seen here.

Darkness is necessary to observe the affordances of light, water color, and glass
The dark space sets the stage for light exploration, including the intensity, color, and ephemeral-quality of light

Taking photos using long exposure, interesting flowing forms are captured in a single snapshot

Can a large space change completely to something else? Is it the same place if the affordances change? Watch this space as the dark classroom journey unfolds!