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.
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
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.
“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.
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.”
“Why do you think two family members of this group chose books?”
“Because you can read to make your mind grow!”
“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.”
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.
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.
This year at SWS, I have three new classrooms of children to interact with. For the first time we have two 3 year old preschool classrooms and one classroom with non-categorical medically fragile children.
Because they are located on the ground floor, many people have not had the opportunity to greet the possibilities that grow with these new populations.
In a Reggio context, this has been an opportunity to truly believe in the concept of the 100 Languages.
The idea that children are able to express themselves through 100 Languages and that teachers/facilitators need to be “Visual Listeners” to observe, understand and extend that conversation (especially non-verbal conversations) has always been a tenant that I embrace.
In the context of our new classes, the pre-school children do not necessarily possess the strongest ability of expression verbally and with the medically fragile children, the majority are non-verbal.
With the preschool children, my goal has been to engage the senses, develop their capacity to be in a small group that gives and receives, and the experience/environment to express themselves and their theories and for them to find value in this.
“There’s something on the round carpet for you to see. Please walk around it, look closely, have a seat, and think about what it is.”
“It looks like a snowflake!” Abbey
“Green stripes!” Joe-Joe
“Green pictures!” Oskar
“A flower and the petals.” Miles
“Like the sun!” Emily
“It looks like a spider.” Coby
“I think it looks like a spider web.” William M.
“It looks like a diamond.” Elana
The previous week I had the children paint and asked them what they “saw” or imagined in a painting. Because of this, they returned to this type of thinking and few children noticed or verbalized that everything was green without prompting.
I attended a conference where a presenter shared that because of the extended time young children are spending on ipods, iphones, and other close range viewing screens- children are not developing full spectrum color sight as well as full long range distance sight.
As an artist and human this appalled me. To counter this possibility, the intention was to get the children to observe all the nuances of color outside, especially in our vibrant garden.
After an exciting and intense green hunt, the children engaged in painting only in green. It also was an opportunity to introduce small brushes and small paintings, another way to make marks, learn to take care of paint colors, and have a shared experience in the studio.
“What do you think of your small green paintings?”
“This one (green color) is kinda blue. The dark green, it is melting all the light colors up.” William T.
“Mine is beautiful.” Jillian
“They look like the grown up paintings.” Simon
With the non-categorical medically fragile children I began a journey of non-verbal communication and relationship through materials and the senses.
My goal is to develop a relationship of caring and trust, a community of “makers” and an awakening of senses through projects and materials.
The beauty of eye contact and a pat from a child who initially stayed across the room and by week three began to join me and “make”, observing a child realize they are making marks instead of watching others make marks, the reactions to cause and effect, the feel and sound of materials, the lightness of being when I began spontaneously singing to engage them in a new project, the non-verbal greetings of joy when I walked in by week four, the deep beauty and surprise of touch (both human and materials.) The richness in these small moments of connection is vast.
The continuity of the garden and nature explorations and inspirations continues with the Prek 4’s and Kindergarten classes.
I have such gratitude for the community (led by Jennifer Mampara and Nicole Mogul) in creating and maintaining the garden that greets every child, family member, friend, and visitor as they enter our school.
At a staff meeting last month, 2nd grade teacher Erika Bowman spoke with great admiration and awe at a community who makes it a value to create and grow a bountiful garden, the first year existence in new location.
For the PreK 4’s, all the project work has been about facilitating the development of visual voice to express their observations in the garden.
Each small group picked a vegetable to touch, observe and then sketch. Before beginning each child was asked to observe their plant silently and think about something they noticed after looking really really really closely. Then we took turns sharing and listening, learning that listening to your friend is an important part of the curriculum. Listening to another child gives the group new ways of thinking, seeing, and doing. This is a practice that I want the children to value.
Here’ a radish conversation:
“Whoa, there’s a pink thing down there!! Charlie B.
“There’s spikes on the stem.” Liam
“The leaves are a little pokey.” Priya
“There are lines on the leaf.” Julia
“The shape on the leaves is blurry like, wiggly.” Santino
One of the cabbage groups had a very interesting conversation that developed into theory building:
“I can see little holes in the leaves.” Myles T.
“Caterpillar must have ate it.” Quinn
“I see a bubble. It’s a bubble of water.” Melin
“Why do you think the leaves have those bubbles?” Ms. McLean
“I think maybe a bumble bee came. I think a bumble bee came and sting the leaf to make a bubble” Edwin
“I think it’s juice that someone spilled.” Quinn
“I think it’s bumble bee honey. I think a bumble bee ate the leaf, then licked it and the bumble bee made a juicy on the leaf.” Anais.
“Yeah, I think it’s from a bumble bee licking it.” Myles T.
In the following weeks children used their sketches from the garden with a corresponding photo of the vegetable and used paint to make an observational painting in the studio.
This time the children had to be extremely observent not only about line and form but color.
Going through the same thinking process, children were asked to silently look closely and observe the color and then we went around the table and listened to each other’s observations.
“The white on the leaf is cause the sun is shining.” Mason
The following week each group progressed to making Observational Art of the same vegetable, this time using materials.
First they had to shop and collect materials. Next they had to arrange the pieces so it made sense using their photo, observational drawing and observational painting as a resource.
“Why do you have all the colors if we only need greens and red and pink ?” asked Gabriel. He had a radish and was a little disappointed when I asked him if his radish had all the rainbow of materials color that he had placed on his paper.
“Because then I would be doing all your thinking. You get to make your own decisions and this is how I can see your thinking. It’s hard but your brain will grow.” Ms. McLean
Before gluing, I ask children to place the obkects on the paper, allowing them to edit and change, unti shape, form and space begin to come together and make sense into the form of their vegetable plant. When I see they have solid ideas forming, I place the glue down for them to use. Because of this process, children usually continiue to add and delete objects as they observe nuances not noticed before.
Sometimes a child will need what is called scaffolding.
“I see the red stem very clearly. What do you see inside the leaf?
Andrew then went back, getting more materials to show his new observation. (below)
Children are learning to make visual metaphors by using objects to represent and symbolize real thinking and observations. This is no different then learning that letters symbolize words that can represent thinking and observations. This is literacy.
When looking at their representations, I avoid having children at this stage present their own work.
Here are the two “scripts” I give them:
“Please share what was difficult or hard about making this observational painting.”
(With the Materials Observational Art project, each child was asked to “read” the art of another child’s work in the group and respond,) “When you look at Ingrid’s Observational Art, what is it telling you she noticed.”
This intentional reflection practice encourages children to utilize visual thinking strategies (instead of “I made a stem.”), listening (the artist is eager to hear what his/her friend sees in his/her art) and another layer of observation development. It also illustrates the belief that every child has something to learn from another.
Using the garden and nature as a provocation with all grades, (but with a different approach) allows for a continuity and collective understanding for the representations throughout the school.
The Kindergarten children were challenged to tackle symbolism and meaning through color and objects.
In this provocation, they were asked to make a plan for a collaborative sculpture where every color or image had to represent or symbolize something from our garden or nature experiences.
These plans stayed up on the big whiteboard in the common are. They were a constant reference point and guide as children made choices as to which part of their plan they wanted to create to be added to the collaborative group sculpture.
Here’s Noah working on wrapping blue fabric around sticks he had painted yellow. “It represents the sun and the sky.”
Each week Kindergarten children returned to see visually what the next step was.
Last week many of the small group sculptures were assembled.
The process was truly an act of trusting the group, as the head became unbalanced and balanced as the children took turns drilling and adding pieces.
An unintentional lesson was in fact Balalnce.
Nature Garden Centerpiece/Sculpture (Orange/Gold Variation) 10/22/13
My sticks look like flat oranges. It represents oranges. –Lilah
I planned to do the stick. I painted it gold. The gold represents the sun. –Dorian
I made it be like an acorn tree. I painted it blue like water around the earth. –Aksel
I painted the head golden like hot lava. –Gabriel
I made the thing about some flowers that are in our garden. They are kind of colorful and they are are very soft. And they are small. The petals are warm. Flowers are important in nature because they are beautiful. –Anabel
I painted the golden part on the head. I was thinking of rocks. Some rocks are golden.
The acorns represent the sky, the blue acorns. The sky has clouds. The sun shines on it. –Sofie
Nature Garden Centerpiece/Sculpture (Blue Variation) 10/22/13
I made flowers. They help bees and butterflies live. –Mira
Flowers make the world a beautiful place. –Willa
I did the sun. It helps flowers grow. –Dylan
I made grass. Grass is good for the world because it makes people walk on it. –Willa
I made a flower. Flowers help butterflies and bees. Butterflies make pollen. Bees make honey for us. If they weren’t alive we would have no pollen or honey. And then we wouldn’t be happy because if there was just plain yogurt, you would want honey in it. It doesn’t taste so good, if you mix it up with honey it’s good. -Ibby
I made some sticks that I painted yellow. It represents the sun. And the blue that I put on, represents the sky. –Noah
The red roses, they can grow good and live like if you water them a bunch they will be good. They will grow better. –Isaiah
The blue face represents the water and the sky.
Nature Garden Sculpture/Centerpiece (Orange/Blue Variation) 10/16/13
The flowers represent nature. -Isabel
Flowers make earth look beautiful. They bring pollen for bees and butterflies, to help other flowers grow.
The leaves represent flowers. If there were no leaves then the flowers would never have water. Cause the leaves have little tiny strings that go into the tree that gives water to the flowers.
After you grow cucumbers you wash them. You can cut it up and then you eat them. You can turn them into pickles and eat them too. –Benjamin
The tree represents growing things.
The head represents the sun. The glasses represent water. The water makes things grow.
The carrots symbolize eating. And they also help you grow. –Samuel
The leaves give us air. -Madeline
Nature Garden Centerpiece/Sculpture (Green/Brown Variation) 10/15/13
I painted the head green and brown. The brown symbolizes dirt. The green symbolizes leaves, spinach, and grass. –Riley
I made the sticks like with the tomatoes. The beads represent the tomatoes. -Lusa
Birds like gardens because they like fruit and stuff. –Gael
The apples represent a tree. When you eat apples you get very healthy. The apples stick on a tree for a reason, so they don’t get bruised. –Dominic
The carrot grows. The root grows from the bottom, and the carrot is part of the bottom. You pull it up from the leaves. You wash it, and then you eat it. –Tate
So leaves, they survive on trees. So it is beautiful.
The caterpillar and the butterfly symbolize nature because they live in the dirt and nature is in the dirt. -Audrey
Nature Garden Sculpture/Centerpiece (Purple/Brown Variation) 10/15/13
The brown paint represents the dirt in the garden and also the earth. –Harvey
The carrots go in the dirt. –Eric
The necklace represents the rocks of the ground.
On top, the stick represents trees with berries.
It symbolizes a flower to the branch. I see a carrot tree, there also might be an acorn tree.
The purple is for the whole wide world to grow. If people die, the purple takes their spirit and buries them.
The flowers symbolize prettiness.
The jewels symbolize a shiny thing, like the sun shining down. It also makes music, like a jingly.
I no longer am teaching the older expanded grades of (this year) 1st and 2nd.
The growing pains of a Reggio Inspired school are , How do you keep the continuity, caring and intimacy of a small community, while at the same time expand to secure a vital future and create a new revolutionary model of public education?
This questions helped me to develop some small “interventions” to cross-fertilize the entire community through creativity.
The first small intervention I just recently tried, is inviting two first grade children to be studio assistants for an hour while I have a 3 year old group.
My first two friends were Kayden and Remi from Ms. Scofield’s class. I wanted them to experience being in a different developmental bracket, so I asked them to visit while a had 5 three year olds in the studio.
I broke their time in to two segments. Before I went to retrieve my three’s, I invited Remi and Kayden in.
“The three year olds have been exploring nature around the school. They have such wonderful ideas about the changing of the seasons and the leaves right now. However, you have the experience to illustrate and respond to their ideas, like an artist who does the pictures for another writer.”
They took this work seriously. They didn’t laugh or question the validity or ideas of the three year old children, they simply, responded visually.
I will continue to explore the possibilities of these types of new interactions.
Last week many of the teachers attended a professional development at Washington International School, in conjunction with the DC-Project Zero (Harvard Grad School of Education Research Collaborative/Institute.)
One of the speakers, Ben Mardell said, “We can make children (young children) big or small.”
At SWS, our youngest smallest children are not considered small. We see them in big ways, as individuals and as part of the community.
The first ever SWS Yarn Bomb was the second intervention or act I facilitated to bring the community together in a creative cacophony of joy and color.
As I view the images of children/adults of all ages equally participating, it clearly makes visible the strength of honoring every individual at their current stage of development.
People stop by and ask me, How’s it going? What do you think of this big place? How’s the change? Do you like it?
This is a great experiment in expanding the heart. It is beating, it is warm, it is vigorous non-stop beating, it is at times exhausting, but it is, truly wonderous and just the beginning of a ripple of change. A ripple that will keep on moving outward, one heart at a time.
(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.
“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.
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.
“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
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.”
.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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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