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!

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