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? – NYTimes.com

Posted 04 Aug 2014 — by Jennifer
Category Uncategorized

Why Do Americans Stink at Math? – NYTimes.com.

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.”


The Hands and the Mind

Posted 31 Jul 2014 — by Jennifer
Category Uncategorized

photo 3

William James, renowned psychologist and philosopher wrote in 1910 about “manual training,” what I would call hands-on learning. Interesting to see what deep value he places on working with your hands.

It a long quotation but I didn’t want to shorten it (my emphasis).


“The most colossal improvement which recent years have seen in secondary education lies in the introduction of the manual training schools; not because they will give us a people more handy and practical for domestic life and better skilled in trades, but because they will give us citizens with an entirely different intellectual fibre. Laboratory work and shop work engender a habit of observation, a knowledge of the difference between accuracy and vagueness, and an insight into nature’s complexity and into the inadequacy of all abstract verbal accounts of real phenomena, as lifelong possessions. They confer precision; because, if you are doing a thing, you must do it definitely right or definitely wrong. They give honesty; for, when you express yourself by making things, and not by using words, it becomes impossible to dissimulate your vagueness or ignorance by ambiguity. They beget a habit of self-reliance; they keep the interest and attention always cheerfully engaged, and reduce the teachers’s disciplinary function to a minimum.”
James, William. Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1910. Print.


In Memorandum: Margot Adler

Posted 30 Jul 2014 — by Jennifer
Category Uncategorized



Sixteen years ago, Margot Adler came to my school, the Model Early Learning Center, to find out more about the Reggio Approach. I was saddened to hear of her death Monday, from cancer.

Here is the transcript from Morning Edition, February 1996, of her interview with us:

Margot Adler Visits A Washington, D.C. Preschool : NPR.

Adler’s early death was a  great loss for NPR, and for all of us who appreciated her insightful and compassionate reporting.



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.


Opal School has a new ebook!

Posted 27 Mar 2014 — by Jennifer
Category Uncategorized
Opal School, a public charter school in Portland, Oregon, just put together their first eBook, based on a preschool story Caroline Wolfe and Lauren Adams  Creating Possible Worlds: The Teacher’s Role in Nurturing a Community Where Imagination Thrives.
Here is a summary and review from the website:
“This book documents a project that was facilitated by teachers Lauren Adams and Caroline Wolfe in the Opal Beginning School preschool classroom with children ages 3 – 5 years during the 2012 – 13 school year. The story that you’ll find contained in these pages was written and presented by Lauren and Caroline for the Opal School Summer Symposium in June, 2013. They inspire us to wonder together: How does the world of imagination and storytelling support the world of science and reason? How might the languages of the arts support children to make sense of their relationship with one another and together negotiate meaning of the world around them? What if adults worked with children to bring their ideas to life? What might be possible for us all?”
“Creating Possible Worlds is an invitation to educators to be curious, self-aware, humble, and contemplative. The book illuminates both the inward thinking and the collegial conversations that guide Opal School educators as they join with children to explore questions that matter. It is both provocative and encouraging, as it asks educators to claim a strong role in constructing knowledge, neither shying away from nor overly asserting their right to active participation in investigation and learning alongside children.” Ann Pelo, author of The Goodness of Rain and The Language of Art

It is a beautiful documentation project – 70 pages filled with great photos that tells a delightful and powerful story.

It will be released the second week of April, and the ebook is very affordable at $11.99. 

Organizing for Drawing

Posted 17 Mar 2014 — by Jennifer
Category Uncategorized

Last week I had an opportunity to work with children involved in drawing a portrait of a friend sitting in a chair from different points of view, front, back and sides. Organizing the materials, and preparing myself, I reflected on my own drawing process (see previous 2 posts).


I taped the paper to the boards, instead of using a clipboard. I liked the stability this offered me, knowing the paper wouldn’t move around when I was making a careful line.

I offered different sizes of paper, and put out extra paper, so that a)children wouldn’t feel the pressure of only having one “chance,” and b) so that children could determine the size of paper that best fit their point of view

There were black markers, and hard and soft pencils, and erasers. Before we started, we tested the different drawing implements to notice different qualities. Pencil and erasers leave more room for error, black pens are very precise, and nice to draw with.




IMG_0568I removed the table and put cushions on the floor, one for each child, each a different perspective. In the center would be a chair (see 4 options in front of the table), and the model (an enthusiastic volunteer).


I asked the children to look silently at the model from their vantage point for a few minutes, and then to exchange observations. Remembering my own problem of deciding what to draw and when to start, I asked them to think about what they see, what they don’t see, and where they will start their drawing.


For my observation and documentation, I was looking for the starting points of their drawings, and the cognitive knots they would encounter (perspective, proportion, composition, etc).




Process of a Drawing

Posted 17 Mar 2014 — by Jennifer
Category Uncategorized


I love this space in my house, and there is a couch directly across where I can sit comfortably. photo-2





beginning.jpgI think: What part of this room will I draw? What will I include or exclude (the photo, above, reflects most of what I chose to include, but when I am sitting in front of the space, there is a whole lot more to consider)?  Where do I start the drawing? I begin with the chest, since it is central, and I think the objects on top will be fun to draw. I hesitate, and make a tentative mark. It curves to the right. 



big planter.jpgArrghh–the planter is too large. I consider restarting the drawing, but decide instead to see if I can work with it.





drawing done.jpg Further along in the drawing process, I am trying to make the straight lines of the door and wall (at right). I squint my eyes, to eliminate all of the extraneous stuff and focus on the negative space between the line I am drawing and the edge of the paper. I turn the page around so I am drawing top to bottom, not pushing the pen bottom to top. I am watching the space the line is making, not the line itself. 




I use the pen top and my thumb to measure the size of the top of the tall cabinet in relation to the dark wood chest. I still get it wrong, but oh well…





start painting.jpg

I begin to watercolor to the drawing, deciding not to outline the flowers on the wall in pen so they become part of the wall. I again start with the dark wood cabinet-excited by the wood grain. 






I stop here, fearful of overworking. Some big challenges:

The light was hard to capture, as it changed constantly. I had to stop and continue around the same time each day. All the walls are “white,” but not really…some light was warm, some was cool, it was hard to find the right value and tint. I noticed that putting in shadows really changes the drawing. Adding the dark darks-just small lines or areas–made spaces pop or recede. As I look, I see so many mistakes, but I learned from them. I can’t wait to start another!

A little background…

Posted 17 Mar 2014 — by Jennifer
Category Uncategorized

Inspired  to act by Austin Kleon’s blog, Think Process, Not Product, I am going to take the plunge and share the process of a recent drawing/watercolor, and how I have been connecting my personal process with my teaching. But first, a little background.

You should be aware that I really don’t draw. I’ve been told I am  ‘bad” at drawing, and I harbor a deep-seeded insecurity. I was inspired first by my husband, who picked up some Sharpies and a sketch book one day a few years ago and embarked on a journey he is still on. I was jealous of his intensity and focus, the way he loses himself in each page for hours at a time. I get that feeling, but never from drawing.

I started drawing during a snowy weekend at Wineberry Cabin the Shenandoah mountains. It was really cold, and there was over a foot of snow on the ground. Warm and cozy in the tiny cabin, I cracked open my new sketchbook and began drawing what was directly in front of me-the wood burning stove.







I made 2 more drawings that weekend:



There is something about drawing with Sharpies that is both intimidating and liberating– Sharpies are immediate and bold-you must make a decision and deal with the consequences…something about the permanence of the mark freed me, and I found I could take more risks. At the same time, I am forced to visibly deal with mistakes, not erase them, not try and get it “perfect.”

Another inspiration was a good friend, who did this crazy beautiful, yet technically incorrect, drawing of a kitchen. I love her drawing, the way her personality shines through–the quirkiness is what makes it interesting. I began to realize that maybe drawing isn’t about making something look exactly the way it is “supposed” to look, it is about making something look like who  I am, and howsee, and that’s my ultimate challenge.

By the third drawing (Sharpie and watercolor), I started to pay attention to what was going on in my head–I had a problem I was solving, I was trying to figure out how to distinguish the inside from the outside, and how to deal with the multiple lines and angles I was seeing from my point of view.

I think that figuring–what happens in that space in your brain when it’s clicking and firing away at a problem–I think that is the “art,” because your brain is stimulated in new ways-it is in uncharted territory without a formula or pre-determined solution.

Now on to the process…see next post…









Think Process, Not Product

Posted 11 Feb 2014 — by Jennifer
Category Uncategorized

Think Process, Not Product.


I really admire this blog, by Austin Kleon.

He is making the process the product, in a way, and it is so beautiful and inspiring to see the working-through, the creative process.

It makes me consider  documentation in a new light.