I love stories, especially stories that speak to insight and research. This year, I began the process of looking at the Anatomy of Mark Making. This is because so many people proclaim that our school seems to produce children who are prodigious at graphic representation. Also, I had been asked to lead a course through Innovations/Wayne State University on said topic. This offered me a challenge, because the source of the inquiry is not a story.
I have always looked at clouds, initially to “see” an elephant, witch, crocodile or face. However, I vividly remember being thrilled in elementary school when I learned to recognize cloud varieties– Cumulus, Stratus, Cirrus.
In learning to name or classify clouds, the joy and the magic, the “seeing” did not cease. It actually gave me a new possibility for looking, and in many ways an opportunity to see deeper.
In the spirit of cloud watching, I began the process of naming and then classifying children’s drawings. (I did not include children’s writing as part of this process) I too, became curious of this culture of drawing at our school, and wanted to move from the more intuitive to the more intentional in my research. My first developed classifications were: Graphic Representation as Abstract Thought/Idea, Graphic Representation as Memory, Graphic Representation as Observation, Graphic Representation as Plan, Graphic Representation as Fantasy.
Soon I realized that my classifying system was slightly flawed, because there was hybrid or combined categories. I relate this to Cumulus-stratus clouds, that forms combine.
I was fascinated to learn that by classifying the representations of children, you not only begin to see more nuances, but you begin to widen your ability to understand and see meaning and intent.
So what does this teach me?
More than anything it supported my thesis that graphic representation/drawing is thought. It is language. Young Children are complex thinkers, and when given the tools and time and respect to do so, become fantastic communicators. This work is profound. It shows expressed theories, connections, ideas, and imagination.
While many adults look for schools that produce children who can decode and read above their age level, I theorize that these very children have been robbed of their voice and possibly their intellect. I can read a medical journal-but I have no understanding of content whatsoever. I devour fiction, art, education books and more – but I can add to the field of thought and conversation, and develop new ways of thinking when I read these books. My neuro pathways are engaged and challenged.
What if my parents never looked up into the sky and exclaimed, “Marla, do you see the castle?” (Whereby I most likely responded, “Where? Because I see a ship!”)
There is a solid possibility when the chapter on clouds surfaced in my 3rd grade science text; I would have lamely memorized the types to solely pass the multiple choice questions quiz.
(“I am thankful for my Grandma’s garden.” Julia)
Valuing and researching children’s drawings are more than sorting and classifying. It’s research of both creativity and thought. It is an ongoing provocation and a continuing conversation.
In the context of our school, it is powerful curriculum (and caring).
In Reggio and at SWS the role of teacher is as researcher. I have found, that when researching children, the researcher is equally the subject of the research.
The Pre-K children sketched a self-portrait, and then sketched themselves transformed into something/anything else. This research was fascinating. Looking at what themes repeated or the individual wants and needs of each child lent me information to revisit and reflect upon.
The next step, I decided, was to give the children the task of recreating their sketch in 3d, using various materials. This is challenging. Ideas such as balance, form, enlargement, space, organization, shape as well as following a plan, come into play. More importantly, the ability to problem solve and engage & persist in this new process was my lens for this part of the observation.
I put out a variety of materials on the floor in the art studio. Children were asked to take their sketch book and experiment/build like in the block area. When they found all the parts that they thought would work, they were to bring them to the table, where I would hot glue the pieces together. I told them, that sometimes a part might be missing or need changing, but that was no problem, they would just find a new way to make it work.
In every small group I noticed that some children tried to “match” the materials to the exact size and shape right on top of their drawing. This collage method invariably would not stand, plus, it was frustrating for them. In each group there were children who made materials choices in a way that clearly showed their understanding of the task. These children offered models of success, so that I was able to defer advice by asking them to look at these child created examples.
Children were told that they would work on the hair, clothes, fur and all manner of details at a later time.
Here are four observations/stories that offer some insight into 4 year old children, problem solving, and fostering an environment where children engage & persist when faced with a difficult task. It is also the story of how adults, namely myself, help or hinder these habits of mind.
The first story is Bianca. She transformed herself into a princess. “I would turn into a princess. Being a princess is cool. They do things cool. Like do high things, like jump high and stand high.”
While boys often transform themselves into superhuman or superpowers, girls this age often find their power models are princesses. Bianca sees her transformation as a princess, but not for the dress. To her, a princess is someone who does high things. From a 4 year old perspective, all adults have this characteristic. We are tall and possess the power. I make a note to myself to be aware when I am standing and talking to children, and limit this interaction only when absolutely necessary.
Bianca found her pieces and came to the table. I asked her to arrange them how she wanted them glued. In doing this she noticed she was missing arms. I noted that this is also a common missing part when children sketch people. She returned to the table and instructed me. When we stood her figure up, it stood for a moment and then fell. The legs were small and unable to balance the figure.
“Go back and find a material to add, so that she can balance. I think her legs are too skinny to hold the rest of her body.” Yikes! The second part of the sentence I should have asked her about, instead of telling her. She went back and found 2 caps to glue onto the feet, but they were two different sizes.
“Uh oh, it’s not working. What’s wrong?” She looked at it for a while and said, “they don’t match.” She found another two that looked similar but also were of different height. She tested it and looked at me. “Look closely”, I advised.
She took my advice and looked closely, and found materials of like size. I glued them on, and she tested the figure, it balanced.
It was a long process, but she did not get distressed. She even chose materials that illustrated the power of interest to her, height. I caught myself giving her one answer, but was able to switch gears so that her power to problem solve came from her and not me.
The second story is about Sofia.
She transformed herself into a radio. “I wish I was a radio cause I like the songs on them.”
She began by choosing a thin circular plastic piece to represent the radio, a round wooden piece to represent her face, and a plastic globe shaped piece to represent a radio button. She brought it to the table and I glued the face and button on. When I asked her to stand it up, it fell down.
She returned with two plastic pen caps and asked me to glue them next to each other on the back. It rolled upside down. She went back and brought back two more plastic pen caps and instructed me to glue them on the other side. While it stood, it rolled, so that the wooden head was on the side. She went back. She was taking a long time, so I said, “You can choose a different material if you want, I can even remove things.” (Honestly, I was thinking, this is not going to work, and it was taking all self control to not solve it for her.)
She returned with a fifth pen cap and instructed me where to glue it. To my delight, her approach was successful. She not only engaged and persisted, but she utilized the habit of mind called “envision” which is the ability to picture mentally what cannot be directly observed and imagine next steps to solve a problem. I wondered if my interjection of choosing a different material was a negative remark, or one offering other possibilities. Luckily, her focus allowed her to override my comment.
A third story is about Henry. He transformed himself into a ball “…so someone can throw me up into space and I’ll go there and go higher in space and then come down to earth, and bounce back up…” Once again, the theme of height comes into play. I become hyper aware of all the times in a day when I observe adults towering over kids while speaking to them.
I told Henry that his figure did not have to balance, but, it must not lay flat either. He set about finding materials, and after much experimenting and searching, came to me with two film canisters and beads. “Hmmm, tell me how to glue this,” I said. This time, I was trained to just be quiet, listen and look. He told me what to do, and I glued it. I was a little baffled how it could be a ball. When I picked it up, I was thrilled to realize, that the material sideways makes a circle.
He asked me how he could add some materials sticking out so it looks like it is bouncing. I told him I could maybe drill some holes next week if he needed to.
The 4th story is Owen’s. He wanted to transform himself into a blueberry “cause I love blueberries because of the juice!” Small and loved, and full of flavor. I think the transformation is fitting. I was curious how this simple drawing could translate into materials. He was decisive and clear, and brought me over some beads. “I think they will roll away, can you find a solution?” Once again he was decisive and clear, creating blueberries on pedestals. Even the material representing his face, has a small base.
Every child had an amazing story in this process. I was able to gather important observations to move me forward to support and expand upon their strengths as well as challenges. Most illuminating were the questions that revolved around my (or other adults) coaching and facilitating their growth.
How often is language used (inadvertently) in a helpful manner, but in fact, the help takes power and problem solving away from a child?
How can expectations for childrens work be set high while maintaining a climate where mistakes become a helpful and not stressful process of discovery?
When allowing for mistakes and the intentional development of problem solving & engaging, persisting, expressing and exploring, time must be given to ensure meaningful understanding and success. How can the community come to value the development of an idea that may only produce one or two products, as opposed to many many products, and adjust their expectations of what their child produces?
Maybe some of our answers can be inspired through Bianca.
So, let’s take our cue from Bianca’s princess and do high things. Imagine high. Invent high. Believe high. Create high.