After a very cold winter here in D.C., Rock Creek Park was teeming with humans soaking up the first rays of spring. Bouncing off the white snow, the warm sun blinded. A father with a wailing newborn in a carriage passed me with a look of exasperation. I wonder if it was the first time that baby had ever experienced sunlight?We forget that everything is new for infants; we take for granted the stores of knowledge we have built; we have a different sense of time.
You know why I love the Reggio Philosophy? Because it helps me become a better human being.
Well, it never made it into the editorials in the NY Times, but here is my response to Gina Bellafante’s article, “Guiding Guided Play.”
The merits of progressive education may be beneficial to less privileged children. (Bellafante, “Guiding Guided Play,” New York Times, September 7, 2014). However, her description of environments such as the dramatic play area, misses the essence of complex play. It is not to “sound out the spelling of a word like ‘pizza.’” Rather, imitation, symbolic representation, negotiation, conversation, cooperation, and imagination are important benefits and should be valued equally with spelling mastery. Attributing a hierarchy to disciplines diminishes the importance of experiences that make a well-rounded, life-long learner. Society must recognize the inherent worth of all domains of learning to eliminate achievement gaps. What affluent children gain by “conversations about the mechanics of Congress …or the history of bagels…” is not information, but, as Ms. Farina knows, the ability to converse and sustain relationships, “some of the most important training of all.”
I think one of the reasons children don’t often revisit their drawings–go back to them and spend time on them, make revisions and edits–is because they are not articulating the problems in the drawing. Drawing is exhausting, it is a never-ending series of decisions and consequences. If you don’t have a problem in a drawing there is no mind attached to what you are doing. Maybe if we can find ways, words, or gestures to help children verbalize and articulate what they are figuring out, if we can create that environment of trust and respect where to care means you can share points of view, children will engage more deeply with their work because they are, by nature, problem solvers.
So many choices! At St. John’s, we are researching, studying, and re-thinking, drawing. It is complex to make choices about materials. I am overwhelmed with possibilities as I stare into our fantastic closet–filled with many years of accumulated and well-organized treasures. Organizing one area in a 4-year-old classroom with drawing surfaces, I needed to decide on the variables–all white papers? Colored and white papers? Colored and white and patterned papers? All the same size? Or maybe different textures? Or maybe different weight papers? Or a mix of everything? Of course, children will develop this area along with us, but as a provocation I need to articulate the choices that are made, and be intentional about materials that are selected, or curated.
The papers I decided on to begin with are all whites, and different weights, textures and sizes. White is the constant here, and I think that seeing variations of the most familiar drawing surface–white paper–could make a big impression. It will be interesting to discover with children, among other things, how the paper itself influences the quality of marks. I think that children (and adults) would choose a paper based more on their color and pattern preference than the difference in weight or tooth of the paper. The monochromatic palette forces subtle detail to the forefront, features that are often obscured when color and pattern are present.
You know what my two sons said about the first week of school?
Middle Schooler: “Ugh, enough of this get-to-know-you stuff. I am only learning something in my Chinese class, he’s the only one who’s teaching us anything.”
High Schooler: “Another week of review and routines, it’s boring.”
As an advocate of “transition week,” I am thinking/rethinking long and hard about the beginning of school, about how to establish routines and classroom culture while simultaneously engaging children’s curiosity and insatiable desire to learn.
Category hundred languages, materials, observation, role of teacher
When Valerie introduced herself to the group at my workshop “Clay as a Tool for Thinking and Learning,” she said she was “not creative,” and had “no experience with clay.” In the workshop we learned many techniques such as how to score and slip, basic hand-building techniques like slab building or coiling, and using armatures. One thing we did not talk about is sgraffito, a decorating technique where colored slip is layered on clay and then scratched off. Valerie discovered this technique on her own. The slip was made from a different source, and bluer than the clay participants were using for their animals. Valerie painted the top of the shell with slip, then etched designs into the surface with a pencil. When I walked around and pointed out the discovery to the rest of the class, Valerie beamed. She had inadvertently stumbled upon an ancient technique (vessels from Thailand date to 3000 B.C.)! Two things come to mind.
Valerie discovered sgraffito through play. I wish I had been there to watch her more closely. Did she notice the slip was a different color when she attached pieces, and therefore tried adding color to the shell? Did she want to smooth the surface with the slip? Did she “mess up,” and try to erase the clay this way? I don’t know for sure. When there is not a recipe or formula for how to do things and what something should look like, when experiences are open-ended, quality time and materials are available, and an attitude of learning, trust and joy pervades–things happen.
2. Knowing-not knowing-teaching-learning-observing-naming-seeing-valuing-giving meaning.
I am often asked when I teach techniques, and how I do it. I like to think of learning about a material as an exchange–between teacher and child (or adult), child and children, child and materials–always in connection with the environment. Information travels in many directions, like in Valerie’s story. Valerie invented something new to her because she needed to express her vision of a turtle, but basic actions with materials have history and are part of that material’s DNA–twisting wire, knotting thread, coiling clay.
“I want them to paint as an individual choice.”
“I want them to explore without having support or supervision.”
“I want to be comfortable letting kids go.”
“I want to increase their independence in this area.”
“I want them to know the systems so they can create freely.”
Teachers’ comments at Beyond Crayons and Markers: The Language of Paint and Color as Tools for Expression and Thinking.
I appreciate these comments–the desire to support autonomy and independence at the easel (or table), and to increase accessibility to paint and painting in the classroom. But I have to wonder if the desire for children’s independence stems from a hesitation to value painting, and art, as a worthy pursuit, or if instead the independence affords the teacher more time to focus on “important” activities.
I believe that what children (and adults) can learn through painting is not trivial, and deserves our attention. Color, composition, and movement, communication, expression and imagination are all part of painting. And so is process and planning and organization. There a cognitive aspect to painting that is too often not recognized or acknowledged. Painting is “fun,” but it also holds incredible potential as a tool for thinking and learning.
The building where I had my workshop for DCPS is, to put it mildly, depressing. It seems empty, until you peek in the small windows of the old classrooms and see people working away in their cubicles. The cinderblock hallways and stairwells are clean but lifeless, and the tan wall color does nothing to brighten up the space.
For a painting workshop, I brought in plants and flowers–weeds really– from my yard and neighborhood, and an assortment of fruits and vegetables.
As I was setting up, every single person who walked by commented on how beautiful it was, how good it smelled (there were some herbs in there), and asked if they could come to the workshop. People stopped at the table and spent time looking and touching. They congregated in the area and you could feel a change of mood–smiles, chatter, and laughter filled the hallway. Some people asked if they could have the materials after I was done with class.
Even the process of gathering the materials was a beautiful experience–I had so much fun selecting the plants, arranging them, considering their texture, smell, color and size. My two sons were exuberant at Best World –“Mom, you have to get them the tamarind”– picking out veggies for participants to study and paint.
I thought about the participants as I collected materials. I wanted them to be surprised, delighted, interested. I wanted to make the environment beautiful for them, because I cared about them.
Try talking about beauty in education circles–no one takes you seriously. You are labeled a flake, or at best, an idealist. Test scores, data, results–these are the things that make people listen to and respect you, that attract funding and resources and attention. But I know, and many of us know, that the roots of beauty are in care and empathy, and without it there are no real results.
I was struck by this quotation by John F. Kennedy, on the walls of the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, we aren’t there yet…