Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Exploring Light (After Dark) in Richmond

Going together to see the InLight celebration at Monroe Park seemed a logical choice for the Forest Room children who have been fascinated by the light studio in the basement of our school. We explore light in a variety of ways there with a light table, disco ball and overhead projector for shadow play. We were all very excited about this opportunity. I brought my family and could identify with the dynamics of noticing how cold it was, how dark and really difficult it was to see each other even as we stood elbow to elbow. There were lots of people there waiting and anticipating an evening exploring light.

We met on the steps of Sacred Heart Cathedral where people were invited to make lanterns to carry in a parade.  There was loud drumming music and many people had already gathered by the time we arrived.   It was very cold and our families huddled together as we waited for the parade to begin.


  We filed into line with all of the shivering                                                                                               masses and were awed by some people wearing                                                                                       costumes that lit up, and others who swirled                                                                                             luminescent hoops in the air.

Back in the classroom, a few children shared their observations.

Luna: "I heard loud drumming music (covering her
ears) like this ( then patting her knees with her hands.)
I liked the colors on the walls. Some of them
were moving quickly and some moved slow!"
                                                                                                 Giuseppe: "I liked the man lit up."

Fran and I wondered how our children and families felt about the evening. It was bitter cold and there were so many people. The drumming was loud and frightened some children in the darkness. It was interesting to me to see illuminated figures appearing among the crowd. Some buildings were lit up and children were exploring their shadows there. Sacred Heart Cathedral came alive as projected images of colored bubbles moved up its outer walls. It is interesting how those things that caused  fearful reactions were the most celebrated in retrospect! 

We would like to invite you to share your thoughts about our InLight excursion. What was your experience at InLight?  What was your child's?  Did this classroom trip change how you view our city of Richmond?  Please comment and let us know.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Everything was going along as usual, children writing their letters on sign-in sheets every morning, minding their own business, maybe adding some colors, decorations, or even a letter or two of their last name.


Then, suddenly Bryce started his name with an A instead of a B!  He was making a joke, playing with letters, seeing what would happen.  He was so tickled with his alterations, giddy with delight.  And he kept it up, rearranging the letters in his name every day, making patterns from his letters, even straying all the way into graphic design - symmetry, design, and patterns.

A few days later, we lost control of George too; first signing-in as DAD,  then, he crossed the line when he signed-in as his friend ELLIOTT!  Well, as you might imagine, ELLIOTT felt the need to reciprocate so he signed-in as GEORGE.  That's when we lost all control.  Everyone signing-in as someone else, writing letters that aren't even in their names, new letters, hard ones too.  It was chaos.

This is why we set up our rooms and systems with the intention to inspire rather than teach.  Each classroom has systems, materials, and provocations to support and encourage literacy in an age-appropriate and engaging way so that a natural interest can emerge as children seek to decode the symbol system of our written language.  

Zack adds numbers
Zack signs-in with pictures
Zack transformed his letters into symbols

Samuel uses stars because he just
learned to make them in that fun way.
Samuel signs-in backwards
Zoey signs-in as Pricilla
Three people sign-in as Elliott
Elliott and George sign-in as Bryce
Kai signs-in as George and Marlowe signs-in as her dog

Samuel as Mary Claire
no one signing in as themselves!

 I love the way the exploration of literacy develops each year from the children's ability to bring playfulness into their daily routines.  It is non-threatening; it is inspired.  Some years they string impossibly long chains of  Scrabble letters together and ask - "read this!" 
Sometimes they cover the front of the desk with sticky-notes filled with words, real and invented.  This year their playfulness pours across our sign-in sheets, everyday signing-in as other friends.  We can't wait to see what they think of next.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Finding the Path

Last week we took our young two- and three-year old children into the forest for the first time.  In years past we have seen many responses to the forest:  anxiety, fear, joy, apprehension, elation and excitement.  Some groups get part way into the woods, stop to play on a log or chase each other and never go any further.  Other classes are goal oriented and want to walk and walk, to see what lies around the next bend.

This year's group walked quickly down the path to where it splits: the left hand path leads to Virginia Urology and the right hand path goes deeper into Larus Park.  The group opted to go right, so we headed that way, walking down, down, down until we could go no further as the path was too wet. After lugging sticks around, investigating holes, climbing logs and finding and covering up a worm, we began the trek back to school.  When we got to the fork in the path, I asked them which way we should go:  left or straight?

Covering a worm
The children confidently pointed ahead, so, even though we knew this was the wrong way, we walked on with the children.  Soon they came to Virginia Urology and realized this building was not their school.   I wondered if they would feel concerned or worried, but they confidently and matter-of-factly turned around and retraced their steps.  At the fork, they chose another path.
"Is this the right way?" I asked a child.  "Oh yes," he assured me.  Not a single child seemed to have doubts, to think they might be lost.  They had tried one path and were completely comfortable with the fact that it was wrong.  They were walking on a new path and were totally sure this would lead them back to school.

I was thrilled and amazed with their persistence, willingness to take risks, and their utter trust in us and in each other. It was late and they were all tired and hungry, but they walked on happily.  When at last we got to the top of the hill, they said, "There's our school!"  "There's Sabot!"  One child turned to me and said, "We did it!  High five!"

Resilience, curiosity, persistence, risk taking:  characteristics we value at Sabot and try to nurture in our children.

It starts as young as two-years old.

And that's pretty wonderful.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Building the James River Together

Recently I realized something about myself: I have always lived in a city near the James River. I grew up in Lynchburg (a city situated along the James), attended the College of William and Mary (located between the James and York Rivers), and for the last 18 years have lived in Richmond (a city divided by the James).* I've even worked in very close proximity to the James: years ago as an archaeologist in the Williamsburg area, I literally worked alongside the river every day for 3 months, feeling its welcome breeze in the stifling Virginia humidity. More recently, I've been observing my children getting to know the James River in ways I never experienced growing up. My 13-year old has been paddle boarding up and down the James and has seen parts of its shoreline only approachable by water craft. My younger child craves the rushing water of the James, communing with its current on the large smooth boulders near Belle Isle in what appears to be the deepest of private meditations.

So now I'm serendipitously considering the James River in a classroom context as part of this year's Umbrella Project. I'm embarrassed to admit that I haven't often thought about this great river. Perhaps I just took it for granted; maybe I became complacent about my surroundings, or got too caught up in my daily life to really reflect on the beauty and bounty around me. Thankfully this year's Umbrella Project has motivated me to consider more deeply the city in which I live (and full disclosure- I actually live in North Chesterfield, but totally consider myself a Richmonder!) and I'm realizing that the James is the center and the soul of my city.
A display of various projects, including houses,
wildlife, a bridge, and a thunderstorm placed
around a teacher-created river

The construction of the river
To my delight, the children in the Rainbow Room have demonstrated a similar sentiment. One day about a month after school started, Tucker noticed the large map of Richmond displayed on our wall. It didn't take long for the river to get the children's full attention: it's a prominent geographical feature bisecting our city. Once a dialogue about the river began, many children responded with their own personal adventures or experiences with this part of their hometown. For some children, the bridge crossing the river to and from school is their experience with the James. For other people, the fun of playing in the water at Pony Pasture or visiting Texas Beach is their favorite part of the river. (Another dialogue occurred, too, in which children brainstormed about where they live, discussed their favorite places, and explored mapping these features with Lisa and Anna. The James River is one tangent of the Umbrella investigation in the Rainbow Room).

It made sense, therefore, to provide props and materials in the classroom to enhance and support this interest in the James River. We created a small river provocation with blue glass beads and Kapla planks and placed various children's projects around it. Several children made a bridge in the studio that we placed over the river. Children's representations of their own homes composed of tiny bricks held together with clay were placed along this river prop as well. It became clear, however, that this interest in place would continue to grow. We needed a bigger area for the children's play and creations. We needed a river, something large and permanent.

Luckily the November Parent Dialogue was just around the corner. We recruited the classroom parents to construct a permanent "James River" as a gift for their children using various open-ended materials and two large canvas-covered panels found in the Sabot basement. The final result is a lovely, enchanting depiction of our great river running continuously along the panels, fitting together nicely to create one large river landscape. The glued-down stones, beads, moss, wood, and other natural objects, provide a pleasing tactile experience for the children of the Rainbow Room. And it's even geographically accurate: landmarks such as the Nickel Bridge and the old bridge posts near Belle Isle were included.

A group of parents finish their half of the river
 The following morning, the Rainbow Room children entered the classroom with a delightful surprise: their very own James River. They were thrilled with this new landscape and immediately adopted it as their own. With the additional materials provided, children added their own touches to the landscape, and even moved a bridge to the river from another part of the room. Small tigers were the center of some fantasy place in the river, while other children preferred to play with their very own dolls (laminated photos of each child in the room). Their comments were not only observant, but also reflected an immediate connection with this river:
It has lots of rocks!...It's very long!...Look, I'm swimming!...Look, I'm on the bridge!...
Vivian: I see little rocks and I was pretending to hop on them
Julian: It has two bridges
Jeremy: I see big rocks
John: I see that one (pointing to one).
Will: I want to share my snake. It will go in the river
Beckett: There is a big bridge and some green stuff
Charlie: I notice there's a big and little bridge and I was swimming
Tucker: I was trying to save him (Charlie)

Tigers playing in the river
Logan declared, "I love this!" and Julian commented, "They did a good job!" Yes, they did.

Now we will build around the river those parts of our city that are meaningful to the Rainbow Room. We are also planning a field trip to the river in December. Lisa and I will continue to reflect and write about the children's Richmond and James River experiences. I'm grateful to be a part of this exploration. It's an honor to support some of the youngest residents of this city as they explore its rich natural and cultural landscapes. I'm at the beginning of this journey as well, and will develop a connection to my city (and its river) alongside them.

*I also lived in Nottingham, England for 3 years

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Forest of So Many Things

When I was young we played in the woods behind our house.  I have no idea how big the forest was, but to us it stretched infinitely in all directions; the world beyond, dissolving into a distant dream.  Real life was in the woods.  I remember a part of the forest that we named "twin tunnels" where two run-off pipes emptied into the stream.  It was a challenge to cross there, which is why we liked it.   It was ours because we named it; not in the sense that we owned it, just that we belonged there. Separate from the world of grown-ups, it was as though we had stepped through a looking glass or wardrobe.

Traditions have already started among the children in the Meadow room as we go to, linger in, and return from the outdoor classroom.  How marvelous that there is a wall at the entrance, something to keep the ordered world separate from the wild.  As soon as we round the corner of the wall, we are free.  

So many things make you belong to a place.  In the forest the stick-dens are the backdrop for pretend play, places of nurturing and safety as well as jails and forts.  They are for coming together with a few friends and examining the world "out there".  

Already there are familiar paths of travel - up this hill and down that one, around that fallen tree and over the superfluous little plank bridge that crosses a path where water might flow after a rain.  Round and round they run.  Round and round committing the paths to memory for all time, not so much a visual memory, but the feel; the body sensations of going up, over, down, around; each one different and thrilling.  I remember flying, feet barely touching the ground.

So many experiences make you belong to a place.  The children have begun to make tools and weapons from sticks, and leaves, and string, and wire.  I tied a tiny bell on one of the dens and instantly the children wanted to decorate the others.  With Anna's help, they have made brooms for cleaning shoes, rakes for leaves, magic wands, bows with arrows, throwing stars, and hooks for hanging their jackets from the trees.  We planted our bulbs for spring, and we even found a twisted wood mask on Halloween!

So many rituals make us belong to each other.  When our time is up and we are making our way back to the wall and around, traditions have begun that focus on our connection to each other.  They mark our passage back from the wild.   The first children to go around the wall wait on the upper side and reach out to hold hands or high-five those passing by, bridging our two worlds.  

And as we leave the forest behind, the children place their hands on the shoulders of the child in front of them to form trains; long, zig-zagging trains that will eventually stumble and collapse into pools of laughter on the ground.

(special thanks to Kelly for taking amazing photographs)