I love the lights. I unapologetically love the visual bliss this season brings.
I could do without the barage of advertisements, mailings, and catalogs that bombard me to buy stuff. It’s a lot of paper to put in recycling. The advertisements geared towards children often sicken me. Gender-specific everything saddens me.
And then there is the disturbing trend to market computers to children as young as infants like in the case of the ipad bouncy seat!
Despite all this consumerism, I love the collections of paintings and objects I’ve accumulated from my travels that surround me, my new boots bought online, and treasured gifts from friends.
This blog is about an ongoing project called Objects and Meaning.
It is the perfect antidote to the season as we admire, buy and succomb to all the stuff around us.
This project idea came about because I am enrolled in a year-long course (with Kindergarten teacher Mr. Jere) with The Smithsonian Museum of American History called Pass it Forward Teacher Institute. This Institute encourages Object Driven Curriculum to teach History. My challenge is to take this older elementary and up process and make it relevent to young children. (Ms. Hannah was thrilled with the ideas Jere and I proposed and has joined in this exploration.)
In both Hannah and Jere’s Kindergarten classroom, children talked about collections, made a collection box, and in each classroom approached personal collections in a unique way.
I saw the children thrilled with their boxes of collected stuff. But, do children see collections outside of their own personal stuff?
I tested this question by asking the kids to close their eyes and imagine that they are walking into their home. I asked them to look around their home but NOT go into their bedroom or playroom. What collections do your family have? What collections would I see if I came in their home for the first time?
It was hard.
“My family doesn’t have any collections.”
I heard this in every small group.
“Look in your kitchen, your family room, where you eat, even your closets. I believe every family has collections.”
Slowly the light came on! Children began to figure this provocation out and SEE.
Gabriel M. was really stuck. Finally with some scaffolding questions, he said, “I got it!”
Dylan sat for a long time, maybe a half hour.
“My family does not have any collections, they don’t have any stuff they picked up and collected.”
His definition was defined by going on nature walks and “collecting.” Once I explained that collections can be found, bought, or received he immediately got it!
“My family has a collection of glass bottles.”
How often are children interpreting questions in a way that makes them stuck? Once Dylan and I had the conversation, he immediately visualized a collection in his home.
The awareness to see a collection of others (in this case their family) is a form of empathy. The noticing of the other, their lives, likes and interests can be observed if you take the time to notice.
I decided to read Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel to kickstart the children into a deeper provocation concerning Objects and Meaning.
This book would be the first foray into history.
It begins, “She could have chose a chiming clock or a porcelain figurine, but Miss Bridie chose a shovel in 1856.”
The book tells the story of a young woman who immigrates to America. The shovel is a constant on every page from farming, to keeping the food and home warm due to the shoveling of coal into the stove, to helping her in a flood, to clearing a skating rink. The shovel is present through marriage, mid-life, old age and the death of her husband, and birth of her children and grandchildren.
The book ends with the opening line, “”She could have chose a chiming clock or a porcelain figurine, but Miss Bridie chose a shovel in 1856.”
The children were absolutely spellbound by this book.
I then handed the children a sheet of paper with two rectangles.
I instructed them: “Right now you are going to pretend. You must leave Washington DC immediately and move to another country. Your family and pets will come with you. Your parents have packed your clothes, food, and water.
What is the one object you will choose?”
and after you do that, “What is the one object you think your parent/parents will choose?”
Some children knew immeditely what they would choose, while others thought long and hard.
Thinking about what their parents would bring was even more difficult for many of the children.
I decided to share this exercise at Thanksgiving Dinner in my home this year.
I excplained The Miss Bridie premise and asked my family, “What would would you take as your one object?”
Some guests said, I just don’t know.
My son immediately said, “My guitar, I could earn money, bring people music, and keep busy.”
My husband said “…for survival, my GPS watch”, my daughter said, “Surprisingly, I would not pick something sentimental, I would choose something useful to help us out, like a rope.” My 81 year old father said, “All my photos and work are on a cloud that I could retrieve. So, I think I would choose something from when me and your Mom first began our relationship, an early photo album.” My mom said, “Hmmm, I just don’t know.” About 20 minutes later she said, “I got it! I would bring a deck of cards!” I said, “I think I would bring Grandma’s rolling pin. Mom let me have it when I left for college. It has moved with me on every move and made may deserts and breads. And it has multiple uses.” My daughter looked at me, “But what about your rocking chair.” Hard decision…
Try it out with your family or friends. it made for a wonderful dinner conversation.
The next progression of this project was, drum role please…ART STUDIO HOMEWORK.
Children created a special folder for transporting the work. It built anticipation and excitement. Their homework was to get their parents to do homework.
The following text and paper went home with each child:
KINDERGARTEN HOMEWORK & THE STUDIO HOMEWORK FOLDER.
Dear Families of Kindergarten Children,
As part of the Collection Project we are also thinking about objects and what they mean.
I read the book Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel By Leslie Conner (in the Studio.) It is the story of a young woman who chose one object to bring to America in 1856.
The children then thought about the one object they thought they would bring and filled out a sheet with a picture and words.
I also asked them to think of the one object their mom or dad would bring. Once again they illustrated and wrote the words.
Now I am asking you to do the same exercise.
*Please fill out the enclosed sheet. Please draw a picture and write the words of the one object you would take and the one object you think your child would take.
You may choose to have one parent fill it out or two.
Please do not ask your child what they chose until after you have filled out the paper.
(Please note that it is assumed you would have your pets, necessary clothes, food, and water packed)
PLEASE RETURN THIS HOMEWORK IN THE STUDIO HOMEWORK FOLDER. Your child will bring it to the studio, where we will share the enclosed sheet.
There will be more “HOMEWORK” coming home in this folder. Please take the time to be a part of this project as we delve deeper into the idea of collections and objects.
Ms. McLean, Atelierista and
As you can see, each child signed the homework, letting the parents know it was from them and me.
I am proud to say, there was 100 percent participation. OK, I did chase down a few parents, but the children did a phenomonal job engaging their parents in the project. I even heard their was a facebook post devoted to the stress this was causing the parents!
When all the parent homework came in, I created an interactive documentation board, so kids could engage in analyzing the data and share what their parents drew and wrote.
“I think my parents are right. Even though I didn’t pick it. I think I would take my stuffed dog.” Aksel
In small groups they learned how to categorize the data. What a great opportunity to use some math and science skills.
“We don’t know what our parents would bring.”
“Lots of people guessed a lot alike, they guessed wrong. But, it’s still interesting.
It’s hard to choose what objects you or your parents would bring. It’s hard to choose because there’s lots of different stuff you like and your parents like.”
“I DID NOT GUESS had the most symbols.”
“I DID NOT GUESS has the most symbols and MY PARENTS DID NOT GUESS had the 2nd most symbols.”
“My parents guessed what I would take because I sleep every night with baby.”
As more groups met for small group conversation the board became increasingly filled. In the end, Ryan expained the conclusion of the gathered data. “Most kids did not guess their parents, and most parents did not guess their kid’s object, but some parents guessed their kid’s.” He even decided that he preferred his parent’s choice for him to choose even better then what he had chosen.
But the heart and the soul of this project emerged from the conversations that occured.
For some groups, they began to understand values within their family:
“I guessed my mom would take her phone, but she said, “I can always get a new phone, but I can’t get a new baby book.”
“My parents would take pictures so they can always remember me as a baby.”
“It’s hard to guess what your parents would bring cause they have so many things that are special to them.”
“I said my dad would take his Kindle, but he would take his Viola and because it’s really old and he can play it even though he doesn’t play it so much cause we are busy.”
“Out of this group, 5 of your families chose photos. Why do you think so?”
“So they can see me when I was a baby and laugh.”
“Samuel’s dad wrote why:
“A book of our family pictures. These tell us a story of who we are and where we came from. Through pictures we remember stories of time together, and recall the loved ones who have passed.”
“How come your parents did not choose fancy cars and Diamonds to bring?
“You can’t just get stuff to remember people in a store.”
“Yeah, it’s special stuff.”
“Yeah, it’s like stuff to remember your ancestors.”
Many families chose books or literature as their object:
“Why do you think two family members of this group chose books?”
“Because you can read to make your mind grow!”
Another realization that surfaced was the value of choosing something that was connected to “creating” :
“How is what Noah’s mom chose, (a blank book,) and what Sophia’s dad chose, (a mandolin,) and what Isaiah’s mom chose, (a rolling pin) alike?”
“They all are using their hands!”
“To make music!”
“They all are making something!”
Many children realized their parents knew them better then maybe they know themselves:
“I noticed many of your parents chose different objects then you chose for yourself. What do you think?”
“I think they’re right, I would take my bird because I like my bird better. I always sleep with him at night.”
Sometimes I meet with children at the end of the day. They are tired. Sometimes the practice of actually having a conversation must be implicitly discussed for success.
Conversation is a learned value. When a small group I was meeting with was having some issues listening to each other respectfully, I stopped everything.
“We are having a conversation. The expectation is when you finish speaking; you stop and listen to your friends. What I am seeing is some people speaking and when they are done they start playing or disrupting others. The cool thing about a conversation is you get to learn so much from your friends. It’s a back and forth.”
“Ohhhh, it’s like the golden rule!”
At that moment the conversation shifted with focus and respect to include religous and cultural values.
“That’s true Maddie. Except in a conversation it is so great because you get to know and learn all these new things from another kid.
Like from this group I learned about all of you AND your families!
Maddie, thanks to listening to you, this group knows your mother would choose to take her Ketubah.”
Does anyone know what a Katubah is.”
“Well, it’s the paper that says your married.”
“It’s even more special. It is a very beautiful document with lots of designs on it and swirly letters. Like your Mom drew it. It is a special paper you sign when you get married if you are Jewish.”
“I’m not Jewish.”
“No, but today we learned Maddie is. Some people are Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or other religions. And now everyone in this group learned something new from Maddie.”
“I am Jewish and I celebrate Hanukkah, Thanksgiving and New Years.”
Issa explained his Mom chose her meditation beads. When I asked him to tell about meditation beads, he explained simply they are very very special.
“I can tell you about meditation beads!” said Sonora, “You close your eyes and breathe and think of one thing, and you hold the beads like this. It is relaxing. And then a bell rings and you open your eyes and you are like calm.”
Tali’s Mom chose Shabbat candles and so Tali explained why to the group.
“It’s like we have a holiday every Friday night. It’s on Saturday too. If we had to move somewhere there might not be Shabbat candles. And it is very special and important to light the candles.”
In this last conversation, the purpose and reason of Atelier/Studio learning and this project in particular became incredibly clear.
In the following small group, a shift occured and the conversation was about people who had died.
I was moved by the intimacy of the conversation, especially with Harvey and Eric sharing some difficult memories.
Suddenly, objects weren’t of worth because of their advertising, but because of the connection to a person, or a memory.
I wrote Harvey’s Mom and Dad an email. I did not want to share any personal information that might be considered private.
I am cutting and pasting our correspondance.
Subject: Something Harvey said
A small group of children were having a conversation with me, that became very serious, yet appropriate. I am pasting the conversation below, because I would like to include it in documetation for the Objects and Meaning Project.
I want to find out if this is ok with you before I include it as a part of the documentation. I will respect what you decide.
In each small group, conversation took very interesting turns. Many of my questions revolved around values. I was surprised at things children understand and often brought up; life, death, monetary value versus emotional value, religion, culture.
“Many families in this group chose things that do not cost a lot of money. Many families chose photos. Why do you think so?”
“To remember people.”
“So you can remember family from before. Like if they died.”
“I have a picture of me and my pet before she died. She was a great pet.”
“I have a photo of my great great grand daddy. He went to the hospital and then he died.”
My Dad’s brother died because he was taking drugs.
What are drugs?
Like medicine except it’s really bad for you.
There’s a picture of all my cousins and me and Uncle Bernie. He died and he was in a blue and gold coffin with a cross. My cousins have that picture but then they made copies for all of us.
From conversation 12/3/13
Here’s The Craig’s response. Please click on it to make it larger.
I am honored to be surrounded by such inspirational children and adults.
Brave and beautiful.
Honest and thoughtful.
I feel closer and know more about every child and family who participated in this work.
The children in turn also know.
And all this came about by taking the time to think about what objects mean to the child-self and the adult-self.
Turns out that in this period of excess, in the end, the important objects are about relationships- for surviving, enjoying, enduring, inspiring, connecting, calming, and remembering- even when it is difficult.
A wonderful reminder, for any season.
The end of the school year brings such urgency, for the children, the staff and myself.
For some children, some type of recall memory emerges. The project they started and forgot about long ago, sudennly, MUST be completed in the last week of school. These children don’t just want to complete the “forgotten” project quickly, no, suddenly there is great attention to detail and one more thing that must be added. While many I did not photograph, here are a few.
Cate’s favorite place that she loves is her livingroom. You are unable to see this, but she upholstered wood pieces and sewed all the cushions.
Then there was Emma’s (PreK) family on a picnic and Camille’s birthday cake.
Laura not only had to finish herself skating at the ice skating rink, but insisted there had to be seating.
Here is Christina dancing on the ballet bar.
In an urgency to get everyone in the studio and working, I did not get to photograph the epic Elephant Drum by Henry B. and the Dog House with Dog by Chiara. You can only imagine the detail and design that was put into these creations.
A week before Mrs. Ricks Kindergarten closing play, it was discovered that the zebra costume had disappeared. Somehow these three children worked furiously for 3 days to make a new one in time.
For me, there is much that is urgent at the end of the year. One is to tell those stories that never got told. Like the day Sara, Mani, Canon, and Chiara made God. Now I am not sure how this happened. I was watching them build together. Soon, they were excited and HAD to tell me what they had done. “This is God!”
“Really,” I replied. “Explain it to me.”
Well this part (where the fabric hung) is God and the city and land is all around.
This is how God sees EVERYTHING, like infinity:
and this is God’s power:
Because they had built right outside Mr. Jere’s PreK class, a few children came out to look. This was the first time the large building materials were in a shape not figurative. Airplanes, the titanic, and bridges had been built, but this was an amorphous shape.
“What is it?” They asked.
“Oooooooh”, said Brooke.
“How?” asked Amira
Alexander said, “Well that is not God.”
I explained, “This is what is so wonderful about being an artist. You have the opportunity to show your ideas and make them. Alex, you would make God differently, and that is what is so wonderful about ideas. They can be different.”
A few minutes later , Sara, Mani, Canon and Chiara showed some of their Kindergarten friends what they made.
“WOW”, marveled Emma, “it REALLY DOES look like God.”
In that moment, my relationship with those large plastic connecting pieces took on new possibilities. It was through this small group that the use of those materials was expanded.
In the last few weeks of school I had another urgency, all those things I wanted to do, had not been done. I decided to go for it. There was a preK class that I felt I had not done enough facilitated collaborative projects and building with. Now was my chance. In small groups of 5 or 6, I told them that they had a ‘play project’. This ‘play project’ was to build a fort or house, using the big plastic pieces, fabric, clothespins. The trick to this project was for most of the tasks, you need to ask a friend for help. I tried to clothespin 2 pieces of fabric together, and showed them it just wouldn’t work. So what should I do? I asked.
“I can help you!” Carrington said.
That’s it! But not just the fabric. It is super hard to get these big pieces to connect. Most everything you do today, you will need a friend to help.
I watched as they began. All separate.
“Ask for help”, I urged.
So they would shout out, “Can someone help me?” and no one would respond.
It was too generic. I realized they needed some modeling.
“Here’s how to get help. First call someone by their name, and then ask them to do something for you specific. Like this…”Luke, can you hold this fabric together so I can clip it together?'”
Stephen practiced, and realized he had to hold the fabric. “I’ll clip it” Luke offered.
I know this sounds elementary, but often we forget that one does not know how to help without specifics. Modeling this technique changed the dynamics of the interactions. And yes, I did have to walk through the modeling many times, but soon, I was released from this duty. Children who usually strayed from group play were drawn in. Kids who didn’t care to share, needed help. Soon amazing breakthroughs were happening.
Maya and Caroline worked to build a swinging baby bed. However, Jasper realized that if they wanted to leave the baby, then they needed to build something for a baby monitor. The level of play in their newly built house was inclusive and open to new ideas.
While one group built a telephone center, the next group was interested in building stairs, that then transformed into a kitchen:
Soon they decided they needed supplies. They pretended there was a delivery man. In another group, they all went to the store, but then, there was a rainstorm. They had to wrap “the baby” up and get him out of the rain:
Having neutral toys that do not tell children what to play, are necessary for creative and imaginative play. Too often corporate branding hijacks play. While I am not opposed to children’s movies as a whole, I do find TV and movie marketed toys as limiting to idea development and construction.
All this play was temporal. It was kept up for only a day in the common area. In that way, there was excitement of seeing something new developed as well as anticipation for when you got to build and create your idea.
Soon new interactive ways of playing collaboratively became explosive.
Here’s the DC High, DC Low Gym:
First you jump over the blue part like Eli. Then you go on the treadmill like Elise (and yes, she is play talking on a cell phone as she exercises!) and then you go low like Kiran:
and skate like R’Kyia
When they were all done, R’Kya said urgently ,”WAIT, we NEED a security system!!!”
“What’s that?” asked Kiran
“It’s something that goes off if someone breaks in and takes stuff.”
So, they went and got bells from the Art Studio.
While Eli put the security system in place, he turned and said. “We won’t have to use these very much.”
Another group returned to the bridge and water theme. But this time, Josie figured out how to make herself into a Mermaid. Soon many were becoming Mermaids. Josie came up to me and said in a quiet voice “Why is EVERYONE being a mermaid now?”
I smiled and said, “Josie, it’s because you came up with a really wonderful idea. Now others want to use your idea. Isn’t that great? Your ideas are spreading.” She broke out in a huge smile.
My last urgent story to share ( I do have a million more) is the wonderful engineering of the teletubby zipline brought to you by Dominic and Eli T. This invention brought lots of excitement and joy to the whole school. I am betting it will become a regular fixture of play.
With time zipping past, it was time to shut down the art studio for the year.
Urgent packing and meeting and reflecting. All we did not do, all we wanted to do, all we did, all we could have done better, the joys, the frustration and yes, before the year ends…urgent planning of intentions for next year. Plans that make your heart beat in the midst of the chaos of shutting down a school year.
Han, wandered in on one of the packing days and grabbed both my arms, he looked at me in the eyes and said,
“Ms. McLean, where are…where are…where are THE CHILDREN?”
“It’s time to pack up Han. Me and all the children will be back next year.”
PS click this link to find inspired and incredibly cool ideas!