Monday, December 7, 2015

Making Plans: A Window Into A Child's Thinking

MAKING PLANS   to begin the day can be a way of helping children enter into the classroom with an idea of where they would like to play for a sustained time with materials they wish to explore. Taking some time to think about and draw a plan where a teacher writes down their thinking helps children begin play with a sense of importance and purpose.

Our classroom has been writing plans each day and we have seen children really noticing  materials that interest them.  They think about how they might use the materials, and their plan includes a drawing of their idea.  This thinking incorporated one child's relationships with important people in her life at home to her life at school. Emerging before our eyes is this beautiful story of how a child, missing her mommy, included her mother in her plans as she discussed their shared love for race cars, an interest also passionately expressed by other children. This process of slowing down and purposefully drawing a plan helped this child make connections from her mommy at home to her life here in our classroom. This opportunity seems to have been a catalyst for her to work through her fear of separation and to empower her to form new relationships with friends and and teachers in the Forest Room.

"My mommy. Dear Mama and Papa."

"I want to play with the race cars. I want to draw my Mama.
My Mama 10/19/15

Here's Papa. Mama likes purple. Mama wants some race cars.
Mama's Body 10/20/15

Dear Mama, I want to play with the race cars.
Mama's Body 10/20/15

Following through with her plan. Is she thinking of wheels?

Making connections by pairing materials

She shared materials with other children.

"I want to build a race car."
Tracing bottle cap and a toy race car

Continued interest in one to one correspondence with materials. Is she thinking of her Mama and Papa sitting in the car with her?

She finished her race car after playing with the materials for a long while.

"I want to build a race car."

          Her plan includes a drawing of the car body (crate) and wheels (bottle caps).

Because of the time she spent messing about with the materials, she is able to draw car parts in relationship to each other. Two year olds can see relationships of different parts and how they fit together. They can represent these relationships on paper and playing with materials that are similar to specific parts of something can help them solidify their placement in an accurate drawing.

Finding a mouse to ride in her car, she smiled with satisfaction.

This child came to school each day for two weeks with the idea of building a race car. As she drew her plan and then played with the materials she chose, I noticed that she talked about how her Mama and Papa could play with her. She seemed to make a cognitive leap  bridging her love of Mama and Papa and race cars at home to her desire to join in the play in her classroom at school. Her determination to make a race car out of found materials seemed to provide her with the latitude to solve more than one problem. She could see new relationships forming with Mama and Papa where she is not actually with them but can include them in her desire to have them be near her.  She also notices relationships of the materials she found and began to see how they could be put together to form her idea of a race car.  She has since joined other children as they build race cars with blocks or become race cars as they run around "tracks". The process of making a plan gave her a way to express her feelings about missing Mama and Papa and then opened opportunities for her to form relationships with materials, teachers and new friends. This is the important work of two year olds.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Frog theories

Recently a small frog was discovered in our classroom sink. It looked like a blob of clay under the dish rack. Coincidentally, plastic frogs had been washed over the weekend and were drying in the rack right above where the frog was sleeping. Hmmm....

After some research, I learned that this frog is actually a gray tree frog that can change color slightly to fit its surroundings. They live their whole lives in trees, only coming to the ground to mate in the Spring or to hibernate in winter.

So I shared the story of the frog's discovery with the children at our end of the morning circle (see earlier post about morning meetings!). We wanted help with thinking about how the frog got into our sink. Lisa and I were engaged in magical thinking- maybe a plastic frog came alive! But we kept our idea to ourselves so that our students could generate their own theories.

Many students have created small forests with natural
materials for our small classroom friends: earthworms,
snails, and now our tree frog.
We know that at this age children often combine magical thinking with their knowledge of the physical world to explain natural phenomena. Often their theories demonstrate an intuitive sense of scientific laws, but are explained using magical or whimsical descriptions. Like when we observe rainbows in our classroom on sunny mornings: there's a general sense that light is shining through our window (through hanging prisms) creating these spectra, but children will often try to catch the rainbow, or personify it with human or animal features. The narratives that children create around a mysterious occurrence help with processing their observations and with tweaking their theories. Playful investigation is part of the young child's pursuit of scientific thinking.

Here is the list of theories for how our frog arrived in our sink:
He came up the drain in the sink. (We now know the frog is a she)
He hopped all the way up the building and came in the window to the sink (the window is right above the sink, too)
Downstairs, a robber sneaked him up here and dropped him in the sink when the police came
It climbed up the wall, over the ceiling, and fell in the sink
It climbed up the fire escape and came into the window and then into the sink
He has sticky feet to climb up a building wall

In reflection, the children's theories were pretty heavily scientific, or practical, except the one about the robber (and that was a fun story!). They seem to understand something about frogs, and how they navigate the world. We've never had a "lesson" on frogs- that's not how we operate. But we can think together about this frog and clearly the Rainbow Room students have a strong sense about frogs already.

Perhaps they have connected the dots between what they have heard or read or seen about frogs or other small animals and what drives an animal to resort to a human dwelling. I can see critical thinking at work here. And creativity. The opportunities for thinking and learning about our world are all around us, even in our classroom sink.

Our female gray tree frog, now a classroom pet

Seeing the signs

Loose materials collage; one way children
tell us what they are thinking
Children have the right to be listened to. Really listened to. Not just during a conflict, or when someone is hurt or upset, but all the time. As adults living in a world with children, we must read between the lines, consider the deeper meaning to what is said or shown us. We owe this attention to the youngest members of our world. This deep listening and contemplation is necessary for mutual connection and understanding.

Words are not always used; children utilize many ways to communicate with the other humans around them. While as adults we are used to spoken communication, children express themselves through many languages, not just the talking kind. Expressive movement, block construction, food science, clay sculpture, dramatic play, natural material collage- all are vehicles for expressing one's inner thoughts, feelings, and conflicts. By providing the space, time, and open-ended materials for this self-expression, we learn about the child as an individual with interests, proclivities, fears, ideas, and opinions.

Ila's forest for the snails and worms;
one of the knotty questions we
are noticing: what is a forest?
Behavior gives us a great deal of information, too. As teachers, we closely watch the engagement with the classroom materials, or the emergence of common threads during play and investigation. Big ideas surface over and over again, telling us there's a knotty question being explored. We ask ourselves, what is important to the children about this type of play? What are they trying to say through these materials and/or these actions? What materials or opportunities can we provide that will support further investigation or deeper engagement? What seems to be working in the classroom and what needs to be tweaked?

Since the beginning of our school year, we have included a "morning meeting" as part of our classroom routine. This early circle time provided us the opportunity to share information, to allow for children to show their work and share their thinking, and to explore some big ideas or questions that have surfaced in the work of the classroom. My co-teacher Lisa and I were feeling pretty strongly that this time was valuably used- after all, this time was perfect for co-constructing as a group and for planning the rest of our morning. We also saw the value in practicing a large group activity to prepare for the expectations of kindergarten, where our children will be going next year.

However, the morning meeting started to fall apart as the weeks progressed. Clearly our children were more interested in each other than in the topic of discussion. Lisa and I had to put on our thinking caps to address this challenge: we knew we were reflecting their own ideas back to them, so why the disinterest? Why all the giggling and side conversations? Why were children laying down on the carpet and telling us that circle was boring?

John made this card depicting
two people talking during
morning meeting.
So we brought a question to the children: how can we get your attention during morning meeting?
Many suggestions were generated, from sign-language, to clapping....and then Pierce proposed using cards, or signs, to throw on the carpet when someone notices someone else not paying attention. This idea put the onus on the children to monitor each other, not just the teachers. Everyone agreed. So we made cards for everyone to use during circle.

Problem solved? Well, not exactly. We tried the cards for a couple of days. They worked for a little while, but the distraction in circle continued. What was going on here?

Lisa and I put our heads together again. We could continue to bring this problem back to the children, or we could really listen to what was being demonstrated to us: morning meeting was the problem. Notice my earlier question did not really capture the essence of the issue. I should have asked, what feels hard about morning meeting? I suspect the answers would be pretty clear: we want to play and spend time with our friends. I have more clarity now, but in the moment my earlier question felt appropriate.

One of the cards Pierce created
for morning meeting.
So we let go of our morning meeting, in our minds only temporarily. And the engagement of small groups of children increased. We observed productive play, investigation, and connection.

Older 4s and 5s are really socially motivated people. There's a strong need to connect to one's friends. This connecting is the hard work of early childhood. It trumps anything put before it, like morning meeting. We realized that our students had no time to feel connected to each other: we were scheduling our morning meeting right after hand-washing, signing-in, and observational drawing. It's not a question of should we have a large group meeting, it's a question of when to have it. So now we are having one at the end of the morning, before dismissal. And there's a much better vibe!

Children playing ghostbusters first thing in the morning
Will we every have a morning meeting? We hope so- we'll try again in January.  But we'll be listening and taking feedback. As for the knotty questions that emerge, we can discuss them in small groups, or wait until the later circle. Our classroom work is still rich and provocative.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Picture Day

When we told the children that our photographer friend Meghan was coming to school to everyone's picture, one of the children asked, "Well, can we take her picture?"

We checked with Meghan and she thought that was a great idea.

So, here's a behind the scenes look at Picture Day through the children's eyes.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Reaching Out: How Young Children Connect

How do young children connect? How do relationships form? We observe that all children want to connect with each other, and they go about it in nuanced ways, using eye contact, body language and, of course, a smile, to forge new friendships. It is the second full week of school and we are already seeing these children reach out to one another with joy.                                                                         

Without using words, these children shared strawberries, delighting in their communal play.

Laughter is a great connector.
Acts of compassion, even those from pretend play, foster positive emotions and strengthen bonds. Here the children are helping each other out of the "mud."

These children mirrored each other's actions for several minutes, becoming more engaged with each motion.

Finding connections fosters a sense of security and increases self confidence.

Stepping Back: Watching Children Solve a Problem

Uh oh. A ball got stuck in a bamboo pipe. How could we reach it? Of course the children's first idea was to come to a teacher, but I put on my best innocent, quizzical face and said, "Oh dear. It's stuck. Does anyone have any ideas for getting it out?"

Many children assured me they could help, but their hands were too big to fit in the pipe. They also tried to push it out with another ball, but that didn't work either. They could think of no other way to solve the problem. Since they were stumped, I suggested we write a note to another classroom of older children to ask for help. They wrote a note to the Garden Room.
Another ball did not push the stuck ball out.

It's really far down in there.

The Garden Room children were eating snack, but one child had an idea right away. "I know how to get it out! You need something smaller to stick in it. We could try my sword."
A Garden Room child pushes the ball out with his sword, while a Forest Room child watches.

After watching the Garden Room child carefully, this Forest Room child promptly came back to our classroom and stuck the ball back in the bamboo pipe. I watched as he started to put his hand in, then stopped. I could see him thinking. Was he remembering that his hand didn't work? He looked around the classroom and found a magnetic wand, which he used to push the ball out. He was so pleased with himself that he repeated the process many times.

Magnetic wand in hand, ready to pop the ball out.

How capable young children are! By not interfering, but only supporting, I was privileged to watch an older child help a younger one solve a problem, and watch the younger one apply this new knowledge in his classroom. We love these cross-age learning opportunities, and the constant ways children show us their thinking, if we only step back and allow them the time and space to do their work.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Building Relationships: Exploring Our Richmond With Visitors From The Institute

Our school invited interested visitors to come and see our work with children, using the Reggio approach, during our spring Institute. Visitors were able to see children working and playing in our classrooms, hear Lella Gandini, who has led the United States initiative to spread Reggio concepts, and Ben Mardell, who shared his experiences with Project Zero. Our guests were also able to hear about our experiences here at Sabot at Stony Point from preschool and lower school teachers. On the last day of the conference, Anna Golden, our studio teacher, gave the visitors a provocation: to co- construct a structure using a choice of materials or musical/movement interpretation to make visible how the teacher connects the child to the city. This provocation was inspired by our school wide intention to study "Our Richmond" this year as a way to bring our children to the city as contributing members of the community. How would the children view the city and what ways would they think of to interact with the places and people they encountered?

The Forest Room's interest in the Light Studio made our decision to provide building materials reflecting or obstructing light a natural provocation for our visitors in the Light Studio. The visitors worked together collaboratively to construct their vision of the teacher connecting the child to the city. They used the materials to represent the child looking through a tunnel pathway leading to a city of color and magical illumination.The participants also thoroughly explored concepts of connection and reflection as they worked.

The visitors left the structure in place so the Forest Room children could see it. The children approached the structure and stood around it, moving from carpet square to carpet square to get a view from different angles.

Lauren, our studio teacher, asked the children to see themselves as part of the city.

The tunnel, representing the magical pathway of connection


 The beauty and  the complexity of the mirrored blocks, light sources and  images projected on the wall were inspiring to the visitors as they made connections to their representation of beauty and complexity in the relationships between the teacher, the child and the people of the city. 

The children told us what they noticed:

Z: "Look right there in the tunnel."
J: "I wonder why there's a tunnel."
G: "If we go under the tunnel it will take us way over there."
G:"I notice the light turning round and round but never getting mixed up too bad. Things are going crazy."
Z: "I saw a house and the bird goes inside and goes 'tweet tweet!'"
A: "A bird is flying into the house over there by Zoe."
G: "I see a crown."

Children playing at the light table after these observations called the structure a castle and immediately began fixing  food and medicine for sick puppies and kitties.

Lauren wanted to see how the children interacted with similar materials in the classroom and studio. Could they replicate the structure in any way? We placed pictures of the structure at the light table, the easel, and the block area.

                        We continued to provide materials from the structure on the light table.

I. wanted to see if the globe fit over the tube and J. dropped various building materials down the tube. He played a game of making the materials disappear and then giggled when he lifted the tube while watching them fall out.

L's airplane

S made food for G.


Making a pathway to the structure


What we noticed was that the children used the materials in ways that made sense to them. They "messed about" and created stories about their ideas. They played together, taking on roles and then leaving the ideas so they could explore how to get a golf ball out of a container with a narrow neck. We have seen children interact with each other and "new materials" in this way before they are able to use them in new ways.

Making pathways has been an interest of the children as they make roads with the carpet squares in the light studio, taking them to "Grandma and Grandpa's house", to the fire, and now to the new structure the Institute visitors left for us. We have taken the children's interest in pathways to the classroom when the children are signing in by asking them to drawing their houses to see if they could represent the roads between their homes, our school and other places of their interest in our city.

We kept bringing the children back to their idea of mapping their homes and their city. Lauren provided some ribbons to represent roads on the light table, and by using their favorite cars from the classroom they created a hospital, an ice cream store, a toll bridge, a train station and train track.

A made a bridge over water and started a toll bridge game.

The toll cost money.

The bridge connected the town where several children lived.

There was an ice cream shop and a hospital.

J built a train for I's track.

In the classroom we brought the children back to the city map of Richmond where we had placed origami houses in September to represent where our homes were in relation to Sabot School. It was fun to use string to form the roads connecting each other's houses. The children were reminded of how the places we live are in relation to our school and the city of Richmond.

One day a group of children were getting really excited while playing and were invited to bring their fire truck game to the art table to draw a story. They drew the fire station and placed the fire trucks there waiting to be called when suddenly Guiseppe yelled out, "My house is on fire!" The fire trucks drove from the station to his house to put the fire out. Other children came and added their houses and roads, connecting them to each other. A child from the Rainbow Room joined them and, after waiting to understand their game, he added Sabot School and his own house to the map which developed from telling and drawing the story. 

Burning house, fire station, roads and Sabot School

                                                        Alices' smiley face and family

Sabot School by Rainbow Room friend

Isaac's fire station

It has been exciting to see the youngest children respond to the structure the visitors from the Institute left for them. They were surprised by the structure's beauty and intricate pathways, as indicated when they pointed out the tunnel and wondered about why you would need a tunnel in the city. The Forest Room children have developed strong relationships with each other this year as they tell their stories, moving through the space of the light studio.  After a period of time messing about with the materials from the structure,  they were able to represent their stories in more ways as they interpreted distances between where they "live" and the places they love to meet each other, like the ice cream store and the toll bridge. The children have once again explored their internal map by moving through the space in the light studio, exploring with the materials until finally they were building and representing places that were important to them by drawing them on paper as a map. The children's stories were about helping each other to get from their house to visit a friend, to help put out a fire or to get ice cream together. There were toll roads, bridges and rivers. They built a hospital to help those in need and they built their beloved Sabot School. The Forest Room children have created a replica of their city noting the places that are important to them. We now have a view into "Our Richmond".

"Parents have to have an idea of a school in motion, because the children move around all the time and not only physically; for their minds and social exchanges are in continuous motion, just as their language is." - Loris Mallaguzzi