Archive for the ‘role of teacher’ 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.




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.

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.

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.


Are we shrinking from challenges?

Posted 25 Feb 2013 — by Jennifer
Category role of teacher

Jay Matthews, in his Washington Post column “Missed Challenges More Worrisome Than Tests” makes a good point:

“As a society, we shrink from giving children challenging lessons.”

Matthews referenced Ken Bernstein’s recent popular article which “apologized to college professors for our high schools’ failure to prepare students” for, as Bernstein states,  “the kind of intellectual work that you have every right to expect of them.”

I often feel that as educators, we don’t set the bar high enough where it really counts, and I don’t mean test scores. I think we shy away from situations where children are out of their comfort zone, or where they claim boredom when really they are afraid of taking risks. I think we don’t challenge enough because we are, in some way, worried that we will damage them by interfering with their “creativity.”

In the Reggio Approach, following the interests of a child/children does not mean abandoning the role of the teacher as instigator and provocateur of complex, challenging and stimulating opportunities for growth and learning.





Photoshop 101: Buck v. Dragon, lessons learned

Posted 20 Jul 2012 — by Jennifer
Category hundred languages, role of teacher, technology

This week I took an intro to Photoshop class at the Corcoran, and I learned a lot–about the program, about myself as a learner, and about teaching. Here are some reflections:

1. Learning something new is exciting and challenging, uncomfortable and exhausting. For the first time in a long time, I was completely out of my element. I knew how I wanted my final project look, but I couldn’t get it there (buck v. dragon, above, is not the project, I am still working on the assignment)! My project is visually unattractive, sloppy (not intentionally, it’s harder to cut and paste objects skillfully than you might think), awkward and naive.  Many in the group had some visual design experience and I was, of course, comparing. I wanted to hide my screen! A sense of humor really helped me here. I could fortunately laugh at myself, but I had to first accept I was in a state of learning.

2. GROUPS: The dynamics of the group were really interesting–students taking pre-requisites, designers wanting to deepen their knowledge, two 65-70 year old women changing over from film to digital photography. One of these women, we’ll call her Beth, was much slower than the rest of the group, and often got lost and confused. She dropped out on day 3. Those of us sitting next to Beth tried to help her out, but I, for one, got lost myself if I tried to give her support. I could see her patience wane, as well as the patience of the  teacher, and the other students. I felt badly for her, and after Beth left, I became the one with the million questions. I was self-conscious, but I knew that if I didn’t ask, I would never be able to proceed independently. Thinking about a big classroom of 25 children, how often are questions unasked because children are afraid of being the one who doesn’t know? How does a teacher manage such a wide learning discrepancy? This was an intro class-but intro to Mr. Designer and intro to me and Beth is a different story altogether.

3. QUESTIONS: I noticed how precise I had to be in order for the teacher to understand my question. I had to call on my budding Photoshop vocabulary and communication skills to get my point across. I had to rephrase and ask again if the answer was off-base. Is there time for this in classrooms?

4. THE ZONE: On day 3 when the assignment was announced, I began working, and was the only student who could not put something on the page. I tried and tried  for a good 40 minutes to enlarge my image to the canvas size, but it was always blurry. I was unbelievably frustrated, almost to the point of tears. I left 5 minutes early, but before leaving I asked the teacher for assistance and he said to look for higher quality images. I went home, found new images, and came back the next morning–same problem. Luckily Jill,a very nice person sitting next to me, was picking up on my frustration (giveaway: the foul-language spewing from my mouth). Jill watched what I was doing, leaned over and said gently, “press return.”  Hours of agony for a simple return key? So obvious, but not at the time. She said the only reason she could offer advice was because the same thing had happened to her. I think this speaks to observing and documenting, and understanding the processes of learning–if Jill hadn’t watched me work, she would have never picked up on the fact that I wasn’t hitting enter afterwards. And this also speaks to that mysterious zone of proximal development–we have to know each and every child’s (or adult’s) edge, and get to them before they fall off, like Beth.

4. CONTEXT: Many times I had to ask the teacher, “so when would a technique like this be used–for what purpose?” We would have been through the entire lesson on the mechanics of, say, creating a path, without me knowing why there would be a need to create a path in the first place. So the knowledge becomes useless its application can’t be imagined.  A good example of context and instruction is found in The Ashley Book of Knots. Ashley tells you how to make a knot, but first explains what kinds of situations would require that knot, for example: “The axle hitch may be used for emergency towing.” He gives you the history and background of groups of knots, and these stories help to remember the function and purpose of the knot. How often do we give information without context? This has parallels with the Theory of the Hundred Languages in that learning mechanics and techniques and are necessary to build an alphabet–a vocabulary of a language. A language, though, is (among other things) an expression of those techniques; the story, not the letters. If materials and techniques are separate from experience, from context, the relevance of action is diminished.

5. PROBLEM-FINDING: Learning is about “problem-finding” (to borrow a word from my good friends Jennifer Kesserling and Kacey Davenport from Riverfield School in Tulsa, OK). With every design decision I made, I had new problems to find. These problems make the work interesting, but also very demanding. Without the proper support I would have been stuck. Sometimes after exhausting my own knowledge base, I needed a small key to unlock a new world. That key could come from the teacher, other students, or on-line tutorials and information. When a child hits a road block, how many ways does he know to go around? Sources of information are unique to the scenario-what works in one instance doesn’t work in all.

6. MANNERS: I was shocked at the behavior of many of the students. They checked Facebook or email at every spare moment-and then some. Even while the teacher was explaining something! They could not attend to the teacher for longer than a few minutes. This climate is pervasive in our culture, and it needs to be turned around. Call me old-fashioned, but manners, courtesy, and grace should be part of every school’s–every family’s–values.

7. CRITIQUE:  I shared my final project at the group critique. Even though my project was one of the least accomplished, I did not feel anxious about receiving their thoughts. The students had good comments and phrased feedback in beautiful ways, many asking questions: “Did you think about doing _______? ” “What about if you tried ________?” Some gave suggestions: “You might want to try the sponge tool there.” Knowing how to give feedback is crucial to having an honest dialogue, and I will take a page from the students’ book.

In my next post I will share the protocol for a group critique used in my fiber class at MICA.

Playing the game

Posted 09 Mar 2012 — by Jennifer
Category image of the child, role of teacher

Yesterday I was on the Walker Jones Farm with a group of children and teachers. It is quite distance from the school, and of course as soon as we got there, Johnequa (not her real name) needed to use the bathroom. We raced over the field, slowly and carefully crossed the street, then resumed our race to the front door. Laughing and panting, Johnequa showed me a bottle of blue nail polish she had in her pocket as we entered the school. I told her how much I liked the color and asked if I could try it while she was in the bathroom. Johnequa was delighted to see my blue nails, and wanted me to tell her classroom teacher that I got my nails done at “Johnequa’s nail salon.” She asked if we could race again back to the farm.

I felt like I was doing something wrong, having this much fun at school. Other classrooms stared at us whizzing by. Did we break the rules? No, but we broke the cultural norm by laughing together, bonding over nail polish, and running like the wind. When it came time to draw the spinach seedlings, Johnequa gave it her all, adding many tiny roots and details. I think she enjoyed sitting next to me as much as the drawing part, and I too was happy to have shared something special, something of myself, with her (I am a runner).

I don’t mean to imply that we should be “friends” with the children. But I do think that we put up a teacher facade that doesn’t allow us to truly form relationships with children. I don’t believe that we lose control from having these kinds of close connections–in fact, I think we gain more respect.  Children know it’s a game, and they can choose to play or not.

From Not Just Anyplace, a video from Reggio…

“So I believe that our work is to stand beside the children, not in front or behind the children but at their side, and to accompany the children on their discoveries about life and their world, to highlight their differences and their subjectivities, trying to give value to their thoughts and their ideas and their theories.”    –Antonia Monticelli, teacher at Gianni Rodari Municipal Infant-Toddler Center since 1992


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…

Grizzlies and brownies are not bears.

Posted 29 Nov 2010 — by Jennifer
Category role of teacher

Look at this photograph—I just love it—my son is on the left, surrounded by men 30+ years older, learning how to tie flies at Urban Angler in Virginia. I sat on a couch nearby for 3 hours, for 3 Mondays.  And I learned a lot.

I overheard an entirely new vocabulary and way of speaking—I learned (or began to learn) another language—hackle, the big-bushy, dubbing, building up the head, tying in, keeping it on edge, wrapping through it, parachutes, grizzlies, brownies—but overall there was a respectful hush at the table.

I watched a skilled teacher deal with different ages and abilities, balancing attention and support with grace and incredible patience.  He never seemed frustrated, and had different strategies to offer if the person didn’t get it the way he demonstrated the first time. He encouraged and complimented and at the same time corrected and critiqued.

I saw students asking questions and learning from each other, as well as the teacher.

My favorite part was observing the different expressions of concentration on the students’ faces—a tongue hanging out, a crooked smile, a furrowed brow, a tongue in cheek—the mark of people truly in the zone.

I wish I observed more moments like this in classrooms—children truly engaged and invested in their work, with teachers who know well the dance of teaching and learning; an unhurried pace, with extended periods of time to work out problems and try different variations; more men teaching our boys and girls in early childhood classrooms; different generations coming together; and having and pursuing a hobby that connects the hand and the mind.

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…