Archive for August, 2014

Sgraffito: A New and Ancient Technique

Posted 26 Aug 2014 — by Jennifer
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.

1. Play-flow-relating-sensing-touching-marvelling-wondering-thinking-acting-acting-thinking.

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.




Thinking about Painting

Posted 16 Aug 2014 — by Jennifer
Category materials, role of teacher


“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.

Looking Forward to Grace and Beauty

Posted 11 Aug 2014 — by Jennifer
Category environment, image of the child, materials


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…



A Good Bad Teaching Day: The Do-Over

Posted 06 Aug 2014 — by Jennifer
Category role of teacher, Uncategorized

“I’m going to start this class a little differently this morning, because I am feeling self-reflective. Yesterday was a bad teaching day,” I said to 17 DC Public School teachers who were part of a 3-day class I was teaching on color, tempera paint and watercolors. I was disappointed in the quality of the materials I had purchased. The tempera acted like watercolor and the watercolor behaved like tempera paint–it’s hard to talk about transparency and light as a quality of watercolor when the yellow paint can cover blue–and check out the transparency of the tempera paint:


I went home after Day 2 feeling disappointed in myself, and frustrated. I saw the participants’ faces and read boredom at my feeble attempts to salvage the day. I explained the material conundrum to higher-ups, saying that I might have to cut the 3rd day short if I couldn’t find a solution. Everyone was fine with that option, except me. I had 17 people who came to class excited, interested in learning something new, eager to participate and hungry for knowledge. And I had let them down. It would be so easy to blame the materials and cancel the class, so easy to blame the fact that I had to order from particular companies. I could have chalked it up to lack of participant’s experience with the materials (how many times have you said to yourself “the children can’t ________”), and  moved on to something else, but instead, I blamed myself. I revisited my teaching–the context, the environment, the provocation, the intent, and then I set out to fix my mistakes.  I rounded up better quality paper from my own stash. I left the watercolors open overnight so they would dry out a bit and not be as sticky. I experimented and came up with a way for participants to make washes with the colors. I change the brushes to a softer bristle. I found better words and tools to explain what glazing is.  I came back for day 3 with renewed vigor and determination.

This may not sound like a remarkable story, because it’s not, it happens all the time when we teach. We make mistakes, we aren’t adequately prepared for children (or adults), we don’t ask the right questions, or we miss crucial elements in our documentation. The experience did make me think though, about how many times in our classrooms we don’t acknowledge our mistakes, and just plow on through to get to the next “successful” thing. It is easy to blame bad teaching days on children’s behavior, or the week of rainy days, or lack of children’s interest, but I think in doing so we not only give up on ourselves but we give up on children. I learned a lot when I admitted to myself that I goofed. I forced myself to face the problem. I admitted my mistake to my class. I found solutions to the problems, and different strategies for teaching. And, and I think this is a key point here–I gave myself,  the participants, and the materials, another opportunity. If participants got nothing else out of the class, I hope they understood the deep learning that can emerge from the do-over, and the courage it takes to admit you need one.

Why Do Americans Stink at Math? –

Posted 04 Aug 2014 — by Jennifer
Category Uncategorized

Why Do Americans Stink at Math? –

I love the concept of jugyokenkyu explained in this article: a public “lesson study” for teachers where a lesson is taught, and observed discussed and critiqued. Green writes, “The best discussions were the most microscopic, minute-by-minute recollections of what had occurred, with commentary…By the end, the teachers had learned not just how to teach the material from that day but also about math and the shape of students’ thoughts and how to mold them.”