Archive for the ‘observation’ Category

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.




The Fieldwork of Our Profession

Posted 09 May 2014 — by Jennifer
Category observation, role of teacher, Uncategorized


I watched carefully as a male catbird puffed up his chest, threw up his head, and crept closer to a female sitting on the telephone wire.  Puff up chest, side step to the right, puff up chest, side step to the right, until a second male came in for a challenge. Nonplussed, the female flew off, both males trailing her through the woods.

I surprised myself, being able to read the language of birds. After a one-semester class on animal behavior, I have learned how to look, how to observe, and how to figure out some of the culture and communication of animals. Before this class I would have noticed something going on with the catbirds, but I would not have understood the behavior. It took a mediator, the teacher and the other students in the class, and above all, field work–real time observation of animals with colleagues–in order for me to learn this language.

The same kind of mediation, or scaffolding, is helpful in learning how to observe in our classrooms, learning how to read and interpret what we notice, and also to notice more. I remember a story published in Innovations (V. 18, n.1, Winter 2011), called Francesco and the Paper Tube.  Francesco (about 6 months old), playing with large paper covering the floor, tears off a large piece. It rolls up on itself, and he picks up a marker and puts it into the paper tube. A common situation-which could have a common interpretation about cause and effect, or balance, or gravity. But the educators in Reggio saw something else in that episode, they saw the empathy with which Francesco held the paper tube to keep it intact, his sensitivity–he didn’t crush the paper tube, but was delicate, and careful with his touch.

Before reading the article, I never would have thought of empathy in that situation.  Making the documentation–the story and the interpretation–accessible to others helps me to see differently.  I have a new point of reference in my repertoire, a different sense of what could be, what is possible. The power of documentation is this incredible opportunity for us to see the world through more points of view, to offer additional perspectives. Reflecting together, analyzing and synthesizing collaboratively, “doing together,” is the field work of our profession.



Posted 23 Jul 2012 — by Jennifer
Category observation

Art school staple: the crit.

My fibers teacher, Annette Couwenberg, offered up some questions for us to think about. I will share them here with the hope that they will be useful to extrapolate for other kinds of discussions.

From my notes, October 2, 1997

How do you look at your own, and other’s work?

How to approach it? Analyze it?

First, it is an intuitive feeling.

Environmental/physical level.

Process is a part of it.

How to take it apart?

Look at the difference between size and scale.

Concept of a piece, the idea.

Context of a piece, the environment: what surrounds it? Where is it placed? What idea does it conceptualize? The title can help put it into context.

Formal analysis: Color? Movement? Balance? Size? Shape? Construction? Proportions? Light and shadow? Artist’s hand?

How do you react to the work physically? Emotionally? Intuitively? Intellectually? Formally?

Describe it–what do I see?

What do you think about it? Is it complete, incomplete? Over-complete?

Does it relate to other work, work done before?

Where do you place yourself within the art world?

Personal insights you bring to the work? Insight into my culture, my life?

What does or doesn’t work?

Suggestions for change.





Riffles and pools

Posted 30 Mar 2012 — by Jennifer
Category hundred languages, observation

My son’s friend Sam studies a tributary of Rock Creek on our walk home from school:

Sam: “That’s a good pool for fish right there, next to the side of that riffle.”

Sam’s dad is an avid angler.  Sam was taught how to read the river, hence, Sam knows where the fish are.

How many secrets could we unlock if we knew how to “read” other languages?

“He who seeks beauty will find it.” -Bill Cunningham

Posted 11 Nov 2011 — by Jennifer
Category observation

I just finished watching Bill Cunningham New York.

I have been reading his column,On the Streets,  in the NY Times Sunday Style section for as long as I can remember, and I see a strong connection between the work he does and the role of documentation from the point of view of an educator inspired by the Reggio Approach. Every Sunday, Cunningham documents a trend that he notices on the streets of NYC–houndstooth, man-skirts, bold-striped shirts. What I love about his work is that he goes out searching for something unseen, something new, but what that something is, is not known. In his words:

“You see, I don’t decide anything, I let the streets speak to me. In order for the streets to speak to me you’ve got to stay out there and see what it is, you just don’t manufacture in your head that skirts at the knee are the thing, and you go out and photograph people’s skirts at the knee. You’ve got to stay on the street and let the street tell you what it is.” -from Bill Cunningham New York

I think this is exactly the same process we encounter when we are documenting an experience with children. You go into it knowing that you are looking for something, a special moment, or an episode or gesture that shows the intelligence of a child, a strategy, or an expression of a relationship, but you never know until you are deeply involved in the experience itself what will emerge, what will be revealed. Without taking time to become immersed, to look, or more importantly to listen, or as Cunningham says, “to stay on the street,” the experience will not speak, and it will easily become a recitation, a regurgitation of what happened.

At the same time, it is important to have a point of view. In Cunningham’s case I think novelty, originality, non-conformity, beauty, style, bravery are lenses through which he captures his images.  “It isn’t really what I think, it’s what I see…suddenly I see something, then I see it again, and I think…ahhh, there’s an idea. And other times I’l see it and I’ll think “wow-that’s an idea” and then I’ll look for it, but I’ll be doing ten other ideas at once.” So entering into this process in the classroom, it is not that as educators we come unbiased, or without a perspective, but it is important to create a balance between having a point of view and being open to seeing.




Posted 06 Jan 2011 — by Jennifer
Category image of the child, observation, role of teacher

Two scenarios, played out at different schools:

Scenario 1: A group of children are having a conversation about the birthday child, then drawing what they have agreed to make him for his birthday. While drawing the draft of the gift, a car, I noticed one child (we’ll call her Johnequa)  getting very upset. She turned her paper over, crossed her arms and said “I don’t like this.” When I asked her why, she said “because it looks like a smiley face.” Johnequa had drawn her car  like this (my sketch of her drawing):

I asked her to show me how she was looking at the car–from the top, side or bottom. She said side. I asked her to count the wheels, she said “four,” without counting. I asked her to point to the wheels and count “One, two….two, there’s only two, the other wheels are on the back.” Johnequa then redrew the car like this:

(Only more detailed, with TAXI written on the side). In my conversation afterwards with the teacher, she remarked how normally she wouldn’t take the time to revisit the drafts, that she really just wanted to get to a decision about what the birthday gift would be, especially since the birthday was soon and there wasn’t a lot of time to work on the gift.

Scenario 2: Another school, also working on a birthday gift. Children were deciding on one image out of many (60 or so) they had taken. Looking at the contact sheet, they wanted to cut them out and sort them. The teacher got out the paper cutter. When I asked why the children couldn’t cut them out, he said because children had cut through the images (in the past) when they did it with scissors.

I remember Giovanni Piazza, atelierista at La Viletta School in Reggio, talking to me about intelligent solutions–not tape instead of glue, not sticky paper instead of glue–yes, it is messy. Yes, there is a learning curve in terms of amount of glue to use, pressure for squeezing, where to put the glue, and so on, but if we give shortcuts and easy solutions to children, we short change them, and deny them the opportunity to figure things out on their own, deny them time to explore and master tools and techniques. WE find the solutions and solve the problems, instead of children.

Both scenarios remind me how important it is to take time, and to not focus on the end product. To enjoy the ride, and take time to smell the flowers. Every moment along the way is as important as the final destination…

The Green Pumpkin

Posted 17 Sep 2010 — by Jennifer
Category observation, projects, role of teacher

I had a great discussion yesterday at Walker Jones EC. The school and the community have an urban farm, in an empty lot across the street from the school. Preschool children have begun visiting the farm in small groups, and teachers are recording observations and conversations, and collecting graphic representations and video of the first forays into this new environment. A group of children is fascinated by the green pumpkin growing in the patch–most often the pumpkins we see, especially around Halloween, are orange. Teachers planned to have children mix colors of paint to match that of the pumpkin, and paint its portrait. In this format I cannot share the entire discussion, but some really important things emerged.

1. Slowing down. Teachers had been recording and documenting, but not REVIEWING the documents together with colleagues in order to make decisions and organize provocations. These provocations–the bounce back to children, are the most , or should be the most intelligent and sensitive decisions we can make as educators, all the while staying very close to children. The documents we collect also serve as a memory, and so giving time to the process of revisiting and analyzing is possible. If there is a richness and complexity to the situation, children’s enthusiasm will be there in a few days.

2. Reading between the lines. Interpreting children’s words and making meaning from our documentation is difficult, to say the least, and requires a leap of faith and good intention. This is where I think the values of a school and the influence of ‘fields of knowledge’ (to use a phrase from Reggio) play a big role. In the green pumpkin situation, I think we can go beyond the portrait, beyond measuring the pumpkin’s size, or charting its weight-go beyond activities about the pumpkin. For what the children might observe in the changes of the color of the pumpkin is mimicked in the leaves on the trees, and is also a sign of the coming of fall. Seasons, change, even death, might become important to this conversation. But we must not jump to conclusions without going back to #1-the action of revisiting.

3. Our bias. I asked the teachers to look and listen more closely on their trips to the farm. To observe with open minds, and not rule out possibilities just because they don’t fit into a pre-conceived schema of a farm curriculum. Maybe the butterflies are intriguing, maybe the fruits and vegetables, or the beautiful colors of the garden, or the farmer who tends the farm. Or maybe the action of crossing the street or weaving their bodies through the rows of string beans or the sounds of the insects and cars. As educators we need to be able to hear/see things that don’t necessarily fit in the box. This kind of sensitive and open listening is central to the work.

I hope to be able to post more about the continuation of this project…


Posted 29 Aug 2010 — by Jennifer
Category observation

Twice this week for workshops I used a video of myself from a long time ago, working with two children who were building a bridge in clay. One of the questions I had prepared for teachers to discuss in small groups asked them to critique the teacher–what she did well, what mistakes she made, what might have been done better. As I walked around listening in on the conversations, teachers stopped talking if I was in ear shot for this question.

Critique is not commonly part of the culture of our schools. In fact, it is rare that situations occur where there is a forum for dialogue, exchange and critique of this kind. And in my experience when there is opportunity to observe a colleague or review a video or read a conversation, most educators focus on the actions and words of children and avoid those of the adult. Fear of hurting another’s feelings prevents dialogue and exchange that can greatly (and positively) impact teaching. Perhaps if we considered uncertainty, doubt and mistakes as resources in education instead of liabilities, we would feel more available for this type of exchange, but in the current climate of assessment of teachers, a mistake translates into a sort of demerit. Many teachers are alone or with one colleague in a classroom at best. If we don’t use each other as resources, how will we grow?

Eyes that see

Posted 26 Jul 2010 — by Jennifer
Category observation

It is taking me some time to figure out what this blog will be about and I assume the focus will evolve and change over time. I originally thought of using a blog as a way for people to find me, and to know more about the work that I do as an educator. But as I consider what I want to post here I can’t separate what I do at work with what I do in life, with what inspires me, with what I am thinking and talking about with others. So instead of procrastinating and not posting anything because I can’t figure out how to make sense of everything, I am going to begin…

The other day my good friend Emily–check out her blog about Thedford House, an assisted living home for people with dementia–suggested I watch Herb and Dorothy, a film about the Vogels, an unassuming couple (Herb was a postal worker, Dorothy a librarian) who amassed one of the most important collections of Mimimalist and Conceptual art. I love this drawing by Will Barnet, Study for the Vogels (Herb with hands on chin):

Study for the Vogels (Herb with hands on chin)

The artists, curators and friends interviewed for this film talk about the Vogel’s keen powers of observation–

Richard Tuttle: “Then you meet someone like Herb and Dorothy who have eyes that see…”

Will Barnet: ” The thing that’s very important is the fact that they had what I call an aesthetic eye.”

and Will Barnet again, commenting on the above drawing: “…he saw something and he got very excited and ran towards the painting and I thought of it when I made my drawings, how he moved, not the fact that he was just looking but he was looking very intensely and he was leaning over and he was bent…”

I wonder if, or more honestly I doubt that schools today (or historically, for that matter) consider the aesthetic eye an important element in the education of children. Beginning with the often offensive physical environments of schools, to the lack of room for subjectivity in curriculum, the action of seeing and a deep respect (and time) for observation is sorely missing. The aesthetic eye is sometimes innate, and sometimes needs cultivating-I recall a passage in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma where he talks about going morel hunting with a mycologist friend. For some time he could not find any morels, until his friend pointed them out–showed him how to notice them. Then Pollan saw morels everywhere.

Is cultivating “eyes that see” important to our society? Is the development of an aesthetic sense on par with learning algebra or writing a good book report? I believe strongly that it is and as Vea Vecchi, former atelierista at Diana School in Reggio Emilia has said, “beauty is essential for life.”

To see more of the Vogel collection go to: