Paths of light come in so many forms…

The 2012 new school year has been an exercise on how a community of people can truly make change. Personally, it has been both exhausting and extremely inspiring.

Using our new space, neighborhood and place based learning as a framework for planning curriculum this year, stretches me. So many concepts and questions have emerged.

(Ellie transforms the map of our school neighborhood)

While space, place and neighborhood are intertwined ideas,

for the PreK’s I am thinking and questioning how they observe and explore.

For my Kindergarten aged children, I am thinking and questioning around the idea of construction.

For the 1st graders, I am interested in how they become proficient in expressing and telling their stories and understandings through 100 Languages, provoked by the neighborhood we are inhabiting.

 

I noticed the children making gingerbread houses in Ms. Ricks class.

It’s the season of these magical constructions. Our very own Margi Finneran (assistant to Kindergarten teacher Margaret Ricks) is a White House Pastry Chef who creatively constructed the White House Gingerbread Garden! Take a look at this slideshow on Huffington Post! Margi will be sharing the experience with the Kindergarten classes who are expansively exploring the idea of construction this year.

 

I went with Sarah Burke’s class back to the construction site documented in the last post.So much had changed.

 

This time, each adult had a small group. After a period of silence each adult asked first, What do you see?

 

Amelia: There are no windows. The crane is inside the building

 

Fionn: A giant white crane waits for the cement truck to finish pouring cement and then the cement is dropped at the top.

 

Tessa: When the cement carrier, when it’s done, they bring it down.

 

Eva: The crane moves the big pot forward and backwards. Some are landing down and some are not.

 

Colleen: Cement is going down the white chute into a basket. It’s connected to a cement truck. I saw someone waving to us!

 

Mikal: The crane is moving the handle back and forth. And then it goes and stops and then it picks up another cement .

Mikal: I see a reflection of the crane in the mirror of that building.

 

Gus: They were fiddling around the bucket of cement.

 

Wesley: I see a little house.

 

Mira: I see one of the workers talking to another worker.

 

Then we asked, What do you think?

 

Mira: I think the workers are tired at the end of the day.

 

Zuri: I think the cement truck is going to empty out the cement.

 

Bella: I think those (beams) are for the building so they can build on the top.

 

Lane: I think they are thinking about safety. I think they are trying to be careful.

 

Mikal: I think when the crane moves, the bottom part goes back and forth.

 

And then each adult asked

What do you wonder?

 

Amelia: I wonder why they have all those poles.

 

Mikal: I wonder how they stop the cement. I wonder why the crane shows up in the window?

 

Eva: Are they going to have stairs? Or elevators? Or escalators?

 

Gus: What made the crane sway?

 

Bella: I wonder how they get the white posts through the next floor?

 

Michael: I wonder if the crane can hurt them (if they are wearing) with a hardhat.

 

Brian: I wonder if they are building a house or a school.

 

Remi: I wonder when the building will be done.

 

Mira: I wonder if the workers have to work a lot.

 

So why have many of the SWS teachers adopted this protocol for responding to visual artifacts or events?

 

From the Harvard Project Zero site, Making Learning Visible is this printed answer.

 

Purpose: What kind of thinking does this routine encourage?
This routine encourages students to make careful observations and thoughtful interpretations. It helps stimulate curiosity and sets the stage for inquiry.

 

Too often adults ask What  do you see? and then the conversation is over. Or what do you like? Or Yes/No questions like: Do you see the cement truck? In which case the child says “Yes.” And the conversation is over.

 

One of the most difficult parts of inquiry based learning is thinking about good questions to ask and developing thinking and listening routines based around questioning for the children to engage in with and even without adults.

 

A powerful statement and metaphor came from Eva during the construction site visit:

Some of the children were having a hard time when asked
What do you think” and “What do you wonder?”

I suggested that if they just look and concentrate silently for a while, ideas would start coming.

 

“Just like you have to concentrate on the stones when you balance them!” Eva offered.

 

These types of moments let me know that the transdisciplinary approach of learning is working. She was able to connect balancing rocks to construct Stone Cairns in the studio to concentrating on inquiry during a classroom fieldtrip to a construction site.

 

“Where transdisciplinary learning is different from traditionally themed or integrated units is that students not only have an opportunity to work in depth, through  a range of disciplines, but also recognize, through practice and reflection, the innate value and challenges in applying a range of disciplines to a topic. This quite naturally opens important questions about thinking, and provides a perfect opportunity for students to realize that disciplines are constructed, are continuously changing and can be questioned.” Complete article here by Darron Davies

 

A small anecdote to the adventure, one of the consruction workers, Mr Ricky came over to talk to the children. He explained he had a radio for the crane operator.

“Are they listening to music up there?” asked Amelia. He explained the radio was for communication.

You can ask the crane operator a question, he volunteered.

“Well, are there girls up in the crane ever?”

Yes, many women work in a crane.

Thoughtful looks from all the girls as they imagined.

 

Back to the Gingerbread houses… I started to think about Hansel and Gretel and the metaphor of leaving paths when you go into the woods.

 

In the context of my work at SWS, the children, myself and the community are constantly going “into the woods.” The woods being the unknown, the wild, the untamed.

 

With the PreK children I have been curious how they explore and observe in the context of a project. There is still so much magical thinking that happens combined with reality for our youngest students here.

 

When Jere, Hannah and I took both PreK classes to the IMAX Monarch Migration film at Smithsonian, they sat in the theatre and reached out their small hands into the 3d images, into the air trying to catch the butterflies. It was beautiful.

 

Is the “unexpected” a vital component of exploration and observation for young children? Is it the necessary thing that keeps one searching (at any age?)?

(Riley becomes a butterfly)

 

Kay Taub, an entomologist and educational specialist brought her insects, specimens and expertise to the SWS Atelier/Studio.

Handing out live insects to two groups of twenty 4 year olds was definitely an experience of “going into the woods.”

 

Here are some of the photos documenting this riveting experience.

(That is a Leaf Bug!)

(That’s a Stick Bug, so fantastic.)

 

It was breathtaking (and at times nerve wracking) watching as crickets jumped, children exclaimed, and a few screamed. One child managed to suck his thumb while supporting a worm perilously close to his mouth!

 

I am wondering if the richness of the unexpected moments from this provocation will lead to deeper inquiry and deeper imaginings.

(Dylan, PreK)

I quickly segued into Solstice Lantern Making without fully revisiting these moments with the children. Solstice was nearing and it was production time with a deadline.

(Augie, PreK holding up translucent wings to light.)

I am thinking all these interactions will connect as long as a pebble path is laid down as we go.

 

I wonder what constitutes a pebble path?

This blog?

Documentation at SWS?

Revisiting experiences with small groups and reflecting/remembering?

Using a myriad of languages (the 100 Languages) that trigger new and deep understandings?

 

I asked the children, “Why do you think this year we are making lanterns that are inspired by Butterflies this year?”

 

Samuel, PreK, “We saw the movie!” (Monarch Migration)

 

Noah, PreK “I think cause we painted them with water paint.”

 

Amira, First Grade “There’s the Honey Vine so the butterflies were here (in the SWS school yard).”

Isaiah, PreK, “There was one in here! (the Art studio)

 

Levi, PreK, “Well, our Monarch died.”

 

Matteo Z, Kindergarten, “Last year we had butterflies (at our Peabody location) and now we are HERE, and the butterflies are HERE. I wonder if that’s why?

 

I think these responses indicate small pebble paths are being laid. I wonder how to make sure they are not in fact, paths made of breadcrumbs that will disappear.

 

School expansion means 127 lanterns this year. At first I had to engage in deep breathing. It is not in my nature to have everyone make and complete the same object by a deadline.

 

The nature of light took away my fears. The plastic bottles crackled, and some of them when being painted made a wonderful percussive sound.

Using transparent and translucent materials mesmerized all grades.

 

Maddie, PreK, “Mine is glowing!”

Aksel, PreK, “I think mine is glowing because the paints are magic.”

 

Fiona, “Look, which side did I draw on?” (When holding up the translucent paper the image replicates on the back side.)

 

Tillie, “Look how it looks with the body and the wings together.”

Me, “Oh you really thought about making the drawing go with the painted body. It’s very coordinated, do you know what that means?”

Tillie, “No.”

Me, “It means it goes together really well, without being exactly the same or matching”

Ms. Scofield (who had walked into the studio and sat down), “Like peanut butter and jelly!”

Me, “Yeah, but not all people would agree.”

Ms. Scofield, “Like peanut butter and chocolate!”

Me, “Yes!”

Tillie, Kiran and Sylvie, big smiles.

(Mikal’s Ninja Butterfly Lantern)

(Emma A.’s Lantern)

 

 

 

Sometimes it is not so academic. Sometimes threads are just so very sweet, shooting the breeze, and sharing life together. Although I would say Ms. Scofield’s example of peanut butter and chocolate to illustrate the word coordinated was pretty brilliant.

I tell all the children that 1000’s of years ago, people who lived near where we live noticed how dark it bexame at dinnertime, how cold the weather felt, they said, ” Oh no, all the flowers have died!”, and they noticed the leaves fell off the trees and died. But then, they noticed one tree stayed green. And they thanked Mother Earth for leaving the Evergreen Tree to remind us that Spring will come. And they did this by singing, lighting candles and decorating with pine. They did things to make their own light and warmth.

 

Through this story comes a sharing of their traditions and celebrations they know about.

While many shared their Chanukah and Christmas traditions, Dominic shared a moment quite different.

Dominic (PreK) shared a story of light.

“When I go to my grandpa’s farm, we have these hats with lights on them. We go out into the dark and we see deer. And the deers eyes glow.”

 

I asked many of the children to create “Shiny Happy Things” in addition to lanterns to hang from our teapots and trees around school, since most of the plants died. You can see from these drying pieces the generous spirit and care that went into making gifts for the school.

 

And some more magic happened with the experimentation of materials.

 

And then came December 21st. Our very special Solstice Celebration. Preparation seems a littlr crazy, but then the day comes and yet another transformation happens.

 

The annual Moon Ceremonies in the art studio fill my heart.

Some of the children’s Solstice wishes they shared around the moon:

 

My parents and family are always healthy.

That all of us here are friends forever.

I wish for joy and happiness for everyone.

I wish I can live with my mommy and daddy forever.

I wish that everyone’s light shines.

Even when we’re far away, my love is everwhere.

I wish to play with all my friends always.

 

As Louise Chapman, said to me, it’s like these good thoughts become contagious.

 

 

 

The weeks before Winter Break and the build up to our school Winter Solstice Celebration always brings much reflection. Half the year has come and gone. Am I being intentional? Am I doing enough? Is the work rich and meaningful? Have I overlooked something or someone? Where do I go next, while still staying connected to what we have done? What can I do better?

 

And then surprisingly and magically, small little spontaneous moments were left in the studio. Many times.

Translation: Dinosaur Village. Do not touch. I’m serious. Patrick, Xavier

#1

 

and

 

#2 a week later, built by Patrick, Xavier, Amira, Carrington

 

Many adults have walked by these small worlds, and exclaimed, laughed, or taken photos on their IPhones.

 

Dino Village has become viral, everchanging from grade to grade, group to group. After one of Ms. Scofield’s created a new Dino Village, some of Mr. Tome’s class stood in awe.

“Look what they did!”

“I wish we would have thought of that!”

 

 

It was a great opportunity to talk about how Patrick and Xavier started Dino Village, and it in turn inspired others, and then came back and inspired them!

It reminds me of the work of the artist, Slinkachu.  Slinkachu is a talented artist based in London (a former art director) who now creates tiny scenarios in public places, then photographs and abandons them – to be discovered by no-doubt bemused passers-by.

“The street-based side of my work plays with the notion of surprise and I aim to encourage city-dwellers to be more aware of their surroundings. The scenes I set up, more evident through the photography, and the titles I give these scenes aim to reflect the loneliness and melancholy of living in a big city, almost being lost and overwhelmed,” 

 

Human beings have left paths of connection and understanding throughout civilization. From architecture, literature, inventions, musical scores, recordings, films, rituals, remembrances, paintings, to sculptures and research. It is when we as humans are at our best, when we search for meaning and purpose in the woods.

 

It is impossible to not be affected by the Newton, CT tragedy. It is darkness that is possibly too dark. I can only continue to be dedicated through work to making the world a better place in small ways.

 

Perhaps Patrick and Xavier and friends are aware of “the woods” in their lives, and perhaps they have figured out how to leave pebble paths for the rest of us. Pebble paths that won’t disappear. Pebble paths to follow, to be inspired by, or even to just notice.

 

This is important and good and beautiful.

I’m serious.

 

Happy precious New Year!

May the light always outshine and overcome the darkness.

And may you notice the many small paths.

 

 

 

 

Happy eARTh day!

 

(Yes, that’s my car.)  Happy eARTth day!

Last month I had the pleasure of attending a workshop panel and presentations with an international group of researchers called Speak Out: Art and Eco Activism. This was at the National Art Education Association Conference in NYC. I was thrilled to gain not only connections and new relationships with colleagues who share similar values and do tremendous work, but a new lexicon of phraseology.

My first and favorite of this new vocabulary has been singing in my ear causing new delight in my work with children at SWS.

Radical Amazement.

“To understand what it means to live on earth in a meaningful way is to create immediate, sensory, feelingful, and embodied connections with one’s changing environments. Aiming at awakening the senses or experienc-ing radical amazement (O’Reilly, 1998) mean that one engages in diverse and personal meaningful ways to observe, experience, feel, and connect with the environment. In short, this is a challenge to pause, note, and experience the extraordinary in the everyday and ordinary.”

My goal is to enact, provoke, kindle, evoke and incite radical amazement. Celebrating our very local and fleeting cherry blossoms with ritual and joy across the street in Stanton Park is an important ritual.

One of my favorite moments of our Cherry Blossom Celebration was looking over to see a group of boys playing very intense  game of soccer  with crowns of flowers upon their heads.

That’s “Our Ladies of the Cherry Blossoms” (Rachel Cross, Cynthia Copeland, myself, Cecilia Monahan) who facilitated musical parades and movement, bubble blowing land and cherry blossom crowns. These are the memories that connect us to “place” or to the rhythm of our geographic and cultural location. Children are inundated to consume popular culture and place in  non-stop media bombardment, even on the public transport and food packaging. It limits the ability to connect. A pre packaged culture does not allow one to add to the creation of where they are right now. And while popular culture and media saturation is here to stay, Radical Amazement empowers all of us to engage in joyful, creative, new and meaningful ways.

Last Friday, as part of the Kindergarten Anacostia River Project, we visited a new river park called the Bladensburg Waterfront River Park. It was a full day outside interacting with this body of water. Though still toxic from decades of neglect and dumping, it supports a plethora of wildlife. Chris from the Anacostia Watershed Society guided us all on a boat tour filled with wonder, silence and the sad realities of it’s current state and what we can do.

The fact that anything from the Peabody playground (from food to trash to balls) ends up in the Anacostia River made the connection very real. Our actions directly affect the river. On the first trip to Anacostia River Park in DC, Mr. Jere’s class (among other stuff) found a ball and brought it back as an artifact. The children were amazed to realize this connection. As we looked at the river,  more balls were spotted.

Despite the trash, the Anacostia River the children and teachers experienced last Friday had  both a  beautiful tranquility  and an energy teeming with life.

Brooke was worried about the boat ride and asked if I would sit near her. Her fear evaporated as she began experiencing the river from within.

Radical Amazement!

 

The day continued with the provocation of how to measure the river (and yes, both classes in small groups armed with yarn did some creative measuring that is to be continued with Mr. Jere and Ms. Scofield) singing and music with Ms. Rachel, observation, games and making memory lockets of the day from recycled caps with me.

(aerial view of the boat on the river)

(turtle and bird as seen from the boat)

Both the Cherry Blossom Celebration and the River Project support another important principal that I adopted from the workshop I attended.

Place-Based  Epistomology

“Developing caring, attentive, fulfilled, and protective relationships with one’s environment and its habitants requires a place-based orientation and epistemology, which acknowledges the environment as central to understanding one’s place in the world. Attending to the specificity of place supports a sense of kinship, emotional bonding, empathy, and revitalized perception (Jokela, 2007).”

While I have sought intuitively for this type of connected learning throughout my teaching career, adopting the lexicon gives gravity and intentionality.

An amazing and powerful personification of this priniciple is Kindergarten student Jasper. On our first trip to the Anacostia river as a community, all of us were dismayed at the huge amount of trash in and on the shores. This sparked great conversation, poetry and representations. I printed this poem in my last post, but I am reprinting since as you can see, Jasper was in this group of poets.

IN THE WATER By  Luke, Jasper, Stephen, Maya, Ra’kyia

There was a lot of trash in the water

Brownish

Mushy stinky

There was even a skittle wrapper in the water

Maybe they didn’t know they dropped it

Maybe their parents didn’t teach them

Not long after the trips and poetry and collections of artifacts from the river, Jasper’s Dad, Adam sent out an email.

“Hi all–At Jasper’s urging, we’ve found out that there’s an Anacostia river cleanup on Sat. 4/21 for Earth Day. It might be fun to have a bunch of us go together. The cleanup is in the morning, and there’s some kind of fair afterwards which we could turn into a class social/potluck. Anyway, we can figure it all out after spring break but I wanted to suggest it and invite everyone to put it on their calendar.”

Yesterday, I was honored to join the SWS contingent in cleaning up the river, as urged by Jasper. My sister Gale (co author and photographer of the book Craft Activism) was in from Connecticut and joined me. As we got out of the car, I told her the story of the project, the workshop I attended, and Jasper. As we walked along the river in search of the SWS kids, the first thing I saw was a dilapidated tv pulled from the river, and who should be examining it?
.Jasper!  What a great start to the morning. It turned out that parts of that TV were pretty darn interesting, so thanks to Maya’s Dad, Eric, (and his mother-in-law’s van parked nearby) there  will be some TV innards to transform into something this week in the studio.The clean up was both sad and joyful. So so so much trash.

and so so so much discovery.

There also was some excellent multi-tasking as the kids in addition to removing trash, collected natural materials to make Fairy Houses later this Spring.

Yet another concept or phrase that struck me is

Relational Learning – Recontextualizing Self as Interbeing

In February I decided to do some worm composting in the Art Studio. The classrooms had already started, and so I asked Margi Finneran (Assistant teacher in Room 11) who is a wonderful garden and composting expert (among many other things!) if some of her trained PreK children could help me set up mine.

So Piper, Carter, Emmett, and Electra became my experts.

Piper: They live in dirt but sleep in paper.

First step was ripping up the paper. But what a surprise when our music teacher Rachel Cross ended up in our worm bin!

Emmett: The worms will eat her up and poop her out. (Lots of laughter)

and then? She will help grow the flowers!

The experts had a lot of physical labor. And while drilling had a conversation.

Carter: They eat paper.

Electra: Vegetables

Emmett: Rotten stuff

Carter: The worms think it’s delicious, but we think it’s gross.

It was time to add the worms. I was touched by the simple kindness of the act.

Emmett: Don’t be scared little buddy

Carter: I’m giving you a home.

Piper: Don’t worry worm.

Emmett to Ms. Finneran “Can you talk to my mom to see if the worms can come to my house for a play date?

Electra: I’m glad we got a chance to dig in the worms.

Me: Well I’m glad and thankful that you came to help me do this. I didn’t know what to do at all.

Carter: We teach you and you teach us!

Each week I open up the bin to feed the worms. I do this during free time or in the common area. It never fails that I immediately have helpers to feed, turn and maintain and observe the worms. Radical Amazement. Recontextualizing self as interbeing.

“Humans gain a sense of purpose, belonging, and fulfillment through developing loving, caring, respectful, non-manipulative, non-acquisitive relationships with each other. But beyond human affairs, similar expanded relations with the environment are necessary to Earth Education. Beyond the obvious need to respect our environment, people who are committed to nature preservation and deep ecology arguably enjoy life more, have deeper relationships through a shared sense of belonging, and more emotional capacity to bond and to attend to experiences, such as fear and mourning in the face of social and natural events (Milton, 2002). Implicit in the notion of interbeing is the understanding that self-realization cannot be attained through heightened attention to the individual ego, but must be achieved in relationship with other people, species, living organisms, and even with water, rocks, wind, and earth. We suggest that, in seeking to achieve interbeing, people engage in collaborative and relational processes/projects with other artists and nonartists, particularly in the context of the natural world (Boldon, 2008; Bourriaud, 2002; The Green Museum, 2011; Jokela, 2008).”

One might wonder how worm composting is connected to art making. I felt no need to have the kids sketch the worms.

Experiences (such as the worms) activate the senses, understanding,  and connections. Because of the richness of the interactions these experiences become memory. Here’s why it is important to the creative process. Invention is often an act of recombination.

The inventor , George de Mestral went on a walk with his dog and returned to find his pet covered with burrs. As he pulled them off, he became interested and put one under a microscope. He noted the way the fiber was like a hook and latch. He soon invented velcro by putting nylon under infrared light.

By creating a transdisciplinary studio environment, filled with meaningful and memory laden experiences, children are building a reservoir of concepts and understanding. These reservoirs of experiences combined with  poetic languages, materials, inquiry, construction, representation,  community, ingenuity, trial and error, experimentation, practice,  and observation develops the mind set of creativity.

One morning I was working with a group of PreK students, when Lena from Ms. Scofield’s Kindergarten came in. She waited until I had a minute and said, “I was cleaning off the stuff we collected from the Anacostia, and I found something living. I think it’s a caterpillar, look!”

“Hmmm,” I responded, “it doesn’t look like any caterpillar I’ve ever seen. Let’s do a little research at the computer.” First I brought up images of caterpillars, and she agreed that it did not look like any of the photos. We tried worms, snakes and finally moved on to larvae. Low and behold, she found a match. It was a beetle larvae. We went on to see what type of beetle it would turn into. It was thrilling. And she went running back to her class.

I cringe when parents choose computer learning over hands on interaction, thinking it will give their child advancement in learning. I do believe in computer literacy, however  computer literacy without real life sensory interactions does not create intellect, it creates data entry ability.

While outside sketching, something surprising is discovered on the old logs.

Augie found a whole world of brightly iridescent insects.

Sometimes the shared experiences become challenge. For the Kindergarteners I asked, “How does an artists create water in their art? ” What does water really look like?” “How can you create water on paper?” I challenged them to experiment with materials that can be manipulated in experimental ways-oil pastel, paper towel, brushes and baby oil. I urged them to try a new way and another and yet another. To shout out when they figured out something interesting.

“Animating Art Knowledge as a Model for Understanding Nature- To develop a sense of interbeing with one’s immediate and larger environment simulates the process often experienced by artists engaging with the development of their art. This relationship is an animistic process, during which the artist and his or her work renegotiate their connection, and the meaning of existence in relation to one another. We suggest a similar organic and animistic relationship to be the goal between an individual, their communities, and environments. Altering one’s self to relationality and availability utilizing artistic, embodied, and emotional bonding allows all components to develop in meaningful relationality.”

It is hard to tell from this blog that we are a school located in the heart of a city.

Another phrase I heard again and again at the National Art Educators Association was “Embodying:

Once again including the entire body and sensory system  with experience, interaction and in this case, play. At SWS the nature play space is transformed hundreds of times every day. One afternoon I documented how children interacted freely with the environment. The choreography from contemplative to raucous, imaginary to reflective illustrates the importance of these open ended natural spaces, especially in a city school. Once again, children are creating their culture and play-not just consuming it pre-made.

I will end this post with some inspiring words from Peter London, who was one of the speakers at the conference I attended. I hope on this eARTday it speaks and resonates within you too.

 “But suppose we are Nature. Suppose we are one more interesting crop of
a universe whose nature is fecundity and whose manifestations are infinite. Suppose there is no divorce.
And that drawing closer to nature is not so much an outer journey to some distant exotica but a journey in
the exact opposite direction, inward to an awakening of what is already contained within. What we so
fervently desire to join is joined, just veiled.

And the artistic/creative processes
lift the veil.”

“…they scatter memories behind them like breadcrumbs…”

Sometimes life can feel incredibly complex to break down into small digestable bits.

Many rich projects have been occurring in the studio during this time of my playing hookie from blogging. This causes me to feel overwhelmed on what to include. (I mean I’ve been told my blogs are too long already.)

Sometimes I can see this same feeling within my students.

A provocation can seem overwhelming, draw a self portrait, build a chair out of clay, draw your nightmare and tell me about it. A big part of my work is teaching others how to break down what they see, feel, think, or hear into pieces, deconstructing what seems insurmountable.

 

Some background of what you are seeing: The “Chair Project” emerged in Ms Burke’s PreK class. Winnie drew a picture of the tables and chairs to illustrate the job of “snack helper.”  The table had about fifty legs and the chairs were represented as circles on top of the table. Dimensional thinking is complex, let alone representing it with pen and paper as a four year old. Ms. Burke found it fascinating, and we discussed it. I suggested giving the children the challenge of creating a 3d chair out of clay, and returning to the drawing later. The photos above from the studio include Hannah Birney scaffolding or asking questions to provoke understanding that would facilitate overcoming the challenge,  examples of  chairs in different postions to help children understand how they are  constructed, and Zuri giving peer support to Matteo.

50 percent of the children began by making a flat “drawing” out of clay initially.

90 percent of the children struggled with creating sturdy legs and balance. What you see plus the wonderful quality of clay-you can smoosh it when it doesn’t work out, led to enormous leaps of growths.

About 20 percent of the children came up with their own strategies  for making the chair upright. Platforms, bucket chairs and a chaise lounge were some of the ways.

When the children  finally manipulated the clay and created an upright chair, I had a few figures from the play castle for testing stability. After children “tested” their chair with the fugure, they went off to have some studio freetime.

In one small group, all but one child was done. Fionn was working with great intensity to tackle his chair. When he finally had success, I commented on how he stuck with this project, even when it was hard. I placed Fionn’s chair next to the other chairs still on the table that had a small figure seated.

“WAIT WAIT! He didn’t get to put a person on his!” Michael exclaimed from the floor where he was playing with the wooden castle. I had no idea he was paying any attention at all. I was about to just pluck a figure off the neighboring chair, when Michael rushed up with the small figure he was playing with. “There!” He pronounced, placing the toy he was playing with onto Fionn’s chair.

That small moment of caring, of equity and of kindness struck me as not just kind, but incredibly giving. Memories like these remind me of the tiny gestures which make humanity grand.

 How do I hold on to these small moments?  How can I catch them, and put them in my pocket, to be retrieved and written down before I forget them? And then, when do I remember to share them, with the person who made the moment, or the small gesture?

“…I wonder how memories can be here one moment and then gone the next. I wonder about how the sky can be a huge, blue nothingness and at the same time it can also feel like shelter. ” p.175 from Memory Wall By Anthony Doerr

After the chairs were fired in the kiln, I placed them on black paper and put up a stand so that black paper would be a backdrop for the chair. I wanted the children to see the negative space  black instead of the entire visual field around their chairs.

I wondered if the memory of mentally deconstructing a real chair and physically constructing a clay chair would support their dimensional thinking , allowing them to “see” and draw this complex object.

Mira’s chair with standing figure above.

I told the children that this was difficult for even grown-ups to do, and that they should expect to do a whole bunch of tries. That even grown ups have to do things a lot of times, and even then, it might still be difficult. As you can see from the above photos, the cognitive and tactile experiences paired with the expectation that it would take a bunch of drawings to figure it out, made for astounding development. I witnessed tremendous breakthroughs in this process.

 Dima

When it was discovered that a seat of a chair sideways makes a letter “L” shape, I showed everyone this finding.

This immediately made sense to Tessa (above)

Bella, below, was really trying hard to figure out how to draw her chair sideways. Her seat was a big circular shape, and the way she saw it, it was more from an aerial perspective. I know she was listening as I urged each child to notice that “L” shape on their own chair. When she didn’t find it, she added it to the bottom of her drawing as a bunch of “L” legs. Sometimes what you see doesn’t look like what others see. If you look closely, there is indeed a side view, just from a different perspective.

With each group, I left time at the end to reflect about what was hard or difficult as well as what they and or their friends figured out.

This intentional practice of teaching and modeling observation, critique and reflection is a way to make it a value or eventually an internalized practice for each child. At first it’s a little like pulling teeth, and then “pop” with ease and surprise great awakenings are verbalized.

Eva, throughout the process kept saying “I can’t do this.” I reminded her that “can’t is a bad word, but instead she could say, “This is hard! Can you help me?” She was however quite successful in in the end representing her chair, which she created on a base.

When we regrouped to reflect, Eva exclaimed poetically:

“If your brain looks into your creation,

Use the power.

And tell Mommy and Daddy, ‘You did it! Whoo Hoo!'”

I returned to transcribing the nightmare paintings. My goal was to complete this important process of writing down each child’s words with their paintings. I find these works by four year olds both brave and playful. While some children turned their nightmare into a dear friend like Simone,

or an element of power like Archer

 Ava S. expressed herself in an honest and touching way. I find her nightmare painting and memory as incredible evidence of the importance of  parents  protecting their child from even the  imaginary.

“Then he holds me by the shoulderss and looks me in the eyes and says,

We see things. Sometimes they there. Sometimes they not there. We see them the same either way. You understand?”

p169 from Memory Wall By Anthony Doerr

The intensity in the studio is coupled with the free time children are able to take, time permitting. While sometimes project time will use up the entire slot, I try hard to be cognizant of the merits of free time as equally important to the teacher facilitated period, and make space for it. Some children live for free time, especially those who seek the social emotional release and joys of dramatic play. While they might “live” for this free time, it does not mean it is easy. Negotiating friends, time, space, place and materials takes a multitude of thought and self regulation. Even those who prefer to make something on their own or play alone often have to defend their choices- all important habits of mind.

Here are some memories caught and documented during free time.

 Lane over the past weeks has sought out the drum during free time. He keeps a repetitive and steady beat, and loses himself in the concentration and rhythm. A few weeks ago, he began rearranging chairs and stools to make a seat and platform for his playing. He was experimenting with many configurations independently. “Can I sit on this?” he asked, rolling over the clay trash container on wheels. No child had ever asked this, so I told him to go ahead. After some bustling around, I realized the steady drum rhythm had returned. When I looked, I could see that Lane had created a throne for his music making.

Sophie this week chose to use clay to make something for her free time. She spent a long time crafting a teeny tiny sculpture. While she was welcome to take a big wad of clay, she chose to make something small and precious. When she was done she handed it to me. “It’a a platypus.” I turned it around in my hands trying to figure out how to even put one initial on it. When I determined an initial would overwhelm her piece I told her, “Sophie, this is so small, I am unable to put your name or letter on it. Please remind me that you made it after it’s been fired.”

Sophie looked at me in alarm and said, “But Ms. McLean, what if someone ELSE makes a platypus?!”

 Robert and Gabriel chose to work together making copious amounts of meatballs and spaghetti. For a half hour they made tiny pinch pots and squeezed out clay through the extruder with great excitement and seriousness. It was an epic amount of clay pasta, and their engagement and spirits were so high. Was this a fleeting moment?  or a memory that one day, when they are grown and cook for themselves,  will slip into their consciousness like a small little jolt?

What memories do we control? How can memories be utilized as a learning tool in intentional connected ways? How accurate are memories in reflecting or re-experiencing events?

Mant times when I lead classes to a museum, there is no photography allowed of the objects. In these cases, I speak very seriously to the children. “It’s important that you sketch what is interesting or gives you ideas. Since photography is not allowed, these pictures in your sketchbook will be your memory for you to return to.” I was floored by the intensity I observed when I led Ms. Ricks’ PreK class to the Museum of African Art. The line quality and pen strokes conveyed materials, features and intricacies of art and artifacts.

In the art studio, Raigan tends to complete drawings with speed and little effort.In the Museum of African Art she was transfixed, staring closely as she slowly sketched. I never tire of the phenomenon of young children enthralled and engaged in an art museum. So many parents tell me their children won’t draw or aren’t interested in looking when in a museum setting. These very same children, with high expectations that they are competent and able , seem to float into a zone where the rest of the world disappears. They create images, ideas and connections which they know are important and can see are strong work.

Shaw

Will

Zander

Loic

Sometimes memory is important  just for the reason to share a moment that was delightful. The first week back after Winter Break, folk dancers came to share dances around the world. Despite having an audience of over 80 four to six year old children, the performance was interactive and entertaining and the hour long performance was a hit.  Thanks to Arts for Every Student and Class Acts, this program was free.

The hundreth day of school was marked  by the Kindergarten students with a lot of numeracy and ritual. This year, I joined each classroom with thousands of craft sticks, wire, glue dots, paper towel rolls, egg cartons and some foam bits and pieces. In both K classes the children were given the challenge of using each one hundred sticks in some kind of sculpture that they make in an hour. A beautiful chaos of “making” ensued.

While most kids consciously or  unconsciously gave up on the idea of incorporating one hundred craft sticks, Emma Clare was determined to use all 100 sticks. With shades on, she created a skateboard storage area on her sculpture (that woud be the sticks as skateboards placed tightly in a paper cannister.) Brilliant!

 

This exercise of exploring and constructing without a plan was filled with engineering and ingenuity. It was however lacking time, so I found myself in a mad rush of cleaning up the gazillions of materials which sprawled, before the kids missed lunch or the bus. When I was leaving Mr. Jere’s class, clutching various materials I heard my name being called and felt a small person quickly following me as I zipped around. “Ms. McLean, Ms. McLean” I hurriedly said “What?” and spun around to face Anja. “Thank you for setting that up in our class. I really like doing that kind of thing.”  I felt a wave of gratitude and a little shame for being so curt initially.

I happened to bump into Anja’s parents one afternoon and told the story. It’s not often that someone even thinks to thank you for the everyday work you do, and especially not a 5 or 6 year old. This memory truly stops me in my tracks, and illuminates the great power of a small heartfelt thank you.

Memory is closely related to observation and discovery. I took one group in the art studio and decided to see if they were interested in some water experiments. The Kindergarten classes are in the beginning phases of The Anacostia River Project. Because the first visit to the river was cancelled due to weather, there were no first encounters to rely upon.  My idea was to observe water in altered states and sketch afterwards. I was not certain at all.

Dropping a golf ball in the water. Adding oil to water. Adding water color paints to water. Adding salt to water.

Stephen

Maya

Jasper

Perhaps the memory of the experiment will connect to what they see when they visit the river at the end of the week. To my delight, this one group of children (Jasper, Stephen, Ra’Kiya, Luke and Maya) were eager and enthusiastic scientists. They each documented the shared process and sequence and ideas- their memory of the multi step experiment.

Memory is called upon as a coping mechanism.With children, both the joy and the pain must be revisited with support and care to gain a sense of stability and understanding. “Remember when you were left out of your friends game? How did you feel? How do your friends feel when you leave them out? What do you need to do?” Children spontaneously bring up memories of grief, from a relative to a pet. These are great windows into life. I recently attended a funeral of my uncle. The power of memory and story is not only essential to the grief process but to each and every individual as a human being.

Piper

How and what we remember informs our very being.

Last Friday, a former student, Eva Epstein who is now in third grade came to visit me. After a big hug she looked into my eyes and said, “Ms. McLean, I came into here (the art studio) and all the memories came flooding back!”

“We return to the places we’re from; we trample faded corridors and pencil in new lines. “You’ve grown up so fast,” Robert’s mother tell him at breakfast, at dinner. “Look at you.” But she’s wrong, thinks Robert. You bury your childhood here and there. It waits for you, all your life, to come back and dig it up.” p.242 Memory Wall By Anthony Doerr

Slowly, I get to know each child, quite intimately. Helena often creates representations of her baby sister. The drawing above came about when I asked her, “What are you into? What interests you? What is something you think about?” My sister, she replied. When I asked her what her sister can do, she told me “crawl”. I bent a small figure in a crawling postion so she could figure it out.

 Previously, during free time she created her sister in her car seat out of clay.

There is an amazing way we, all people walk the earth. We bring our memories from home with us, wherever we go. They are invisible to others most of the time. For young children, they wear their memories  on their sleeves. The family memories bubble up and emerge. One moment they are playing happily and the next moment they think of their mommy, and briefly, the tears or yearning is vocalized. The next moment they are a part of a new group, building new memories, creating new pathways in their brains. Like Eva Epstein, who visited me, someday these memories will just bubble up. And define them.

“…every hour…, all over the globe, an infinite  number of memories disappear, whole glowing atlases dragged into graves. But during that same hour children are moving about, surveying territory that seems to them entirely new. They push back the darkness; they scatter memories behind them like bread crumbs. The world is remade.” p.242 Memory Wall By Anthony Doerr

 

 

Some wisdom for 2012

Birthdays, solstice, anniversaries and New Years are such wonderful triggers for reflection, memories and storytelling. While many make resolutions, I tend to think about experiences that have inspired my thoughts and actions. Returning to these memories or ideas provide me with a path for forward motion.

For five or six years I have hung words from The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) on the studio door at SWS. I often reread them as they deeply represent my beliefs. I wish I wrote them. What I can do is actualize them.

Yesterday, I took the Kindergarten students, teachers and parents on the annual trip to Baltimore to the AVAM. It is my favorite museum and favorite place to introduce  others to. For this post, I will share the powerful AVAM words from my studio door, with images from my work/life.

AVAM’s Seven Educational Goals

1. Expand the definition of a worthwhile life.

Images from visit to the Folger Theatre Costume Shop with room 9 Kindergarteners.

Natalie’s rendering

2. Engender respect for and delight in the gifts of others.

Nick Cave Exhibit at Mary Boone Gallery in NYC, 2011

Evidence of children at work…

AVAM Art Bus

Sanjay Patel Exhibit at the Museum of Asian art in San Fran, 2011

Yarn Bomb in SoHo, 2011

Horse Bomb at SWS, 2011

“A Flying Ms. McLean” By Fiona, 2012

3. Increase awareness in the wide variety of choices available in life for all…particularly students.

4. Encourage each individual to build upon his or her own special knowledge and inner strengths.

5. Promote the use of innate intelligence , intuition, self exploration, and creative self-reliance.

This happened a few days ago. During free time in the studio, Winnie (PreK) asked “Why are there letters on the bells? I explained that the musical scale has letters that go C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C and it was the same thing they sing up and down with Ms. Rachel in Music. She said,”Wait, say them again.” As I did, she arranged the bells in order and played them. I went about my own thing, and awhile later came upon this…

6. Confirm the great hunger for finding out just what each of us can do best, in our own voice, at any age.

(Katie’s Bluebird)

7.Empower the individual to choose to do that something really, really well.

EmmaClare wanted to making something that flies that she could carry like a purse.

Tremendous words of wisdom. For all. I am so thankful for the American Visionary Art Museum.

This morning I was reading an article in the Washington Post about the children’s author, Mo Willems. He wrote “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.”  and more. Once again, words of wisdom. I am ending this post with a quote from the article:

“He’s not afraid to show kids failing,” says Willem’s friend Tom Waburton, a fellow animator. “He’s not afraid to show that bad things can happen and good things can come out of that. There’s something underneath everything he does.”

That something is…humanity, perhaps? Compassion? Psychological strife? Or maybe it’s something simpler, like Willem’s explanation of how he writes for children as though they are all wise souls.

“Adults and children,” he says, “are members of the same species.”

“It’s one of those sentences that means nothing and everything, depending on how you read it.   (The author who revels in a small fan base by Monica Hesse, Washington Post, 1/7/2012)

It means everything to me.

Call them not your children. Call them your builders. -The Talmud

Happy New Year 2012

Not afraid of the dark

The darkness of this time of year, is actually our guide.

How do I greet and introduce this shift of our natural world with my young children that I share the bulk of my time with in the SWS Art Studio?

It is all to easy to shut out the natural occurrences with modern technology and a blind eye. With ritual and reverence, playfulness and curiosity, the journey into the darker days of the year become meaningful.

When  K teacher Jere Lorenzen-Strait sent me a link to an exhibit The Bright Beneath,  at The Smithsonian Museum of natural History, my heart skipped a beat. A resident artists was invited to explore bioluminescence through kinetic art installation. The two of us became fascinated by the idea that light and energy can occur where there is no sun, in the deep dark depths of the ocean. Together we went on a recognizance mission to see what it was all about. We were blown away. We quickly  planned to bring the children with their sketchbooks to this trans formative space. We had a sense that this multi-sensory environment would engage and sustain them and prayed it would be a slow and quiet day at the museum, so that they would have time. To prep the children on the day of the trip, I asked them to think about representing something really difficult: movement, change of color, form, light and sound in their sketchbook.

 

 

 

Joseph, above represented movement using undulating lines, while Katie stood up and danced the movement with her whole being immersed in the dark dramatic light, sound and color of the installation (below).

The children pointed, pondered, worked  alone as if in a bubble, or worked with a friend collaborating on how to sketch this enormous idea. The children were rapt for an hour, in fact, we had to stop them so that we could free up the space for the rest of the museum patrons. Several adults and school groups commented on the children’s intense creativity and attention. They were surprised at the children’s focus.

This trip filled my heart. It was values, belief and pedagogy made visible. Children indeed possess deep and thoughtful insights and must be given the time, respect and materials to document their ideas. This trip also was an illustration on how multi-sensory arts education is the great equalizer. Looking at this group, no one would know who has a hard time sitting in a chair, standing in line, or answering a question. All children were engaged in higher level thought and practice. Just beautiful.

The dark alters how we see things. Shadows are long. The overcast sky creates new hues. So with this in mind, I collected some favorite materials for some of the preK children to experiment with. I wanted them to see things in an changed state. While the end result would be creating a  kaleidoscope  of sorts, the process was the illuminating aspect of the provocation.

 

With the longer darker days come the opportunity of spending time inside creating, constructing, and reading. I grew up in Rochester, New York where it was cold and grey six months of the year. I attribute that environment in shaping my love for creating and imagining. As a child I spent hours taking things apart, playing under tables and creating small worlds, and noticing the light whenever a beam glowed in my bedroom.

With teacher Margaret Ricks and her PreK class, we walked to the US Botanic Gardens to see the extraordinary natural small world and trains created by Paul Busse of Applied Imagination in Alexandria, Kentucky. His attention to extreme  detail and fantastical creations makes me imagine him sitting for hours surrounded by leaves and berries and small light.

Despite the beauty and wonder, there is also a small bit of darkness. All these small creations possess the allure of fairy tales with their horrors that the protagonist must face and overcome. It is important for children to understand that adversity is a part of life, and it is through overcoming, that the self’s story begins to emerge. Here is a wonderful article to check out that speaks to this importance, and not just for children: once upon a time… we lived happily ever after

While Paul Busse’s miniatures make you marvel, here’s a link to a family that created their own life size fairy house as their home: Man builds fairy tale home. What a wonderful story of truly building your dreams.

After the botanic gardens we walked across the street to the Reflecting Pool with old bread to feed the birds. Just like in the fairy tales, Ms. Ricks warned the children of falling in, and that she was not planning on swimming that day. The joy and amazement that was elicited through this act of interacting with wild birds was exhilarating.

 

I am not afraid to admit that I scare easy. Sounds in the dark, nightmares, scary movies effect me deeply. In the studio, taking a cue from the sunless sky, I started a conversation with some small groups of children. Willa told me about the sounds she hears in the night, but her parents told her it was the radiator. Dreams were recounted filled with monsters, bad guys and characters from popular tv. I read There’s a Nightmare in My Closet and There’s Something in My Attic by Mercer Mayer.

With one group of PreK children I brought out black paper for them to create their own nightmares. Fionn exclaimed “I’m going to ask my mom for dark paper to paint with!” just thrilled with this project.

 

 

 

 

 

With a Kindergarten group I explored the same subject, this time using a coated paper, that reveals line/color as they  scratched away at the dark surface. Their stories revealed their more advanced language and development. Both groups equally were drawn into the provocation of sharing their nightmares.

Dominic’s Nightmare-age 5, December 2011

 I think there’s a poison ivy monster under my bed who drinks poison. I had a dream about it.

The poison ivy monster had two arms and I ran away from him.

He trapped me and then when it was morning time, my daddy shouted,

and my dream was over.

Robert’s Nightmare- Age 5, December 2011

My nightmare is a zombie and is has 1,2,3,4,5,6, 7 heads! It’s a seven-headed zombie monster. I am on top of his head. I don’t want him to find me. The car, motorcycle, skateboard and scooter are all crashing into the monster because I have a controller. I never fall off. They turn into one transformer and then the monsters fall because they really are sand monsters

I jump down before they fall.

Amira’s Nightmare- Age 5, December 2011

I am sleeping in my bed and I hear the monster. I wake up and I get my lasso.

The monster appeared quite suddenly. I call my mommy and daddy.

Then my bed starts roller-skating. Mommy and daddy pick me up and got me out.

My bed hits the monster and the monster starts to cry. My nightmare says, “What did you do to me?”

I said, “Well, see how fierce I am!”

My monster said “See how many heads I have?” Then he started being fierce again.

Then mommy and daddy said, “Look how fierce WE ARE!”

Then the monster started shooting pellets. But, I turned his body off.

The End

The very last day of the 2011 school year is marked by a lovely tradition at SWS, our Solstice Celebration. The entire community wears pajamas, cooks pancakes and bacon, cuts fruit, creates projects that respond to light and dark, enjoy a concert by Rachel Cross and her husbund Henry and friend John, and everyone attends a moon ritual in the art studio.

Here’s the rockin’ trio. What started out as a civilized concert turned into a joyful dance party.

Every year I lead the children through the Moon Ritual. I recreate the studio space and selectively choose music to create a whole body mind spirit shift. The golden moon, created by children 5 years ago hangs in the center of the space flanked by the children’s newly created and flickering lanterns. The overhead projectors create lightscapes of drama. Furniture is removed. By grace, it was a dark day outside, so it was especially dramatic.

The ritual takes them through singing songs (This little light of minds and I will be your friend), dancing to the song Dancin’ in the Moonlight while holding crescent moons that changed into smiles, frowns, tambourines and hats,  and a recitation with movements of Oh Look at the Moon poem. Most importantly, I guide them through thinking about the darkness and the changes in the natural world. I place a simple necklace of a moon around each child’s neck as a memory and give them a kiss on theri head and say Happy Solstice. I ask them to embrace the darkness instead of being grumpy or bored by creating, dreaming, playing, thinking, examining, singing, dancing and making their own light. While holding hands we made wishes for the darkest days.

“When you walk to the edge of all the light you have and take that first step into the darkness of the unknown, you must believe that one of two things will happen. There will be something solid for you to stand upon or you will be taught to fly.”
― Patrick Overton

Wishing everyone a Solstice Season of stories, memories and warmth. Embrace the dark and make some light!