This year is likely to be the coldest Washington, DC has perhaps ever experienced.
look like lamps.
The snowflakes look like stars.” –Maya, PreSchool 3
For me, it is thrilling in the context of the work I do with children. This isn’t a slushy kinda cold season, this year it is frost and sparkle and whiteness from ice, snow, and salt that changes the entire space both inside and out. It is felt from toes to nose.
I recently watched an interview of Carla Rinaldi, one of the visionaries who helped develop the pre-primary schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy.
She says, “School is an expression of the vision and values of a community.”
School as an EXPRESSION of vision and values.
This idea resonates deeply with me. In fact, since hearing this phrase I have co-opted it as my definition of school and my practice in the Atelier (and community) at SWS.
It allows me to quickly reflect and re-shift during the day. I can reflect, “Do my deeds, actions, and interactions express my values right now?”
What a treasure these words are.
So much of the planning and discourse at SWS is centered on an expression of values.
On December 20th, 2013 SWS celebrated Winter Solstice. This is a special ritual in our school. It is anticipated, talked about, and I am pretty sure will be a memory when the children leave our school.
Every year children begin in advance creating lanterns that transform the environment on the awaited day.
This year, children made photo transfers on recycled glass jars. The preparation and process was enthralling.
For the youngest children, it is difficult to explore how the light changes, the gradual creeping darkness is not apparent to them yet. Their memories of late summer evenings of light is difficult for them to remember.
So how did I explore with the 3 year olds? I made a cave. And in this cave (like a bear) we went. In this dark cozy place I read a book about light rituals around the world. Quickly each child became excited to talk about Christmas or Chanukah. I then introduced a very hard concept for the youngest children in our school. I asked each to hold the lantern and make a wish or say something kind about SOMEONE ELSE. At first it was really hard. “I wish for my Mom to buy me _____” was an oft heard phrase. With some support and further questioning children began to think of others near and dear.
Peyton: I wish my mommy has a good day.
Liam: I wish Santa brings my mommy and daddy presents.
Scarlett: I wish for mommy and daddy to play with me.
Lincoln: I love Nate.
Nate: I wish my family don’t get sick.
Winter, a hibernating time, is an optimal season to help children reflect in new ways. It is an ideal time to develop and practice capacities to broaden their thoughts.
The shared experience in the “cave” gave time and care to thinking about seasonal changes to a 3 and 4 year old’s world in a relevant way. Sinatra: Its scary when there’s no light. When it’s dark you need light. A ghost might be hiding. So the light makes you not scared.
The day of Solstice is almost epic in scope at SWS. It is shear beauty and light.
It started this year with an all-school community meeting with songs of light and love, with children sharing what light means to them.
Everyone is in pajamas and the smell of pancakes, waffles, bacon, and maple syrup eminates.
In the studio, the annual Solstice Ceremony and Ritual occurs.
There is almost a reverence when the children join hands to make wishes, dance, give wishes, and receive a small pendant/symbol which reminds them that they are indeed a shining star in the universe. That they are connected and interconnected to each other, the community, their families, the natural elements, and the greater world
This year, when children returned after two weeks of holiday, the cold weather increased.
I continued the exploration of these great changes with the children, all the children.
In this fashion of learning, the one day iconic snowman picture is not what happens.
What happens is the expression of the culture and values of SWS.
Theories are developed. Materials become metaphors for the changing landscape all around. The cold is not just viewed from the inside as spectator.
Winter, Solstice &
The earth turns and gives the sun to other places and gives the snow to Washington, D.C.
You have special things like cinnamon rolls and apple cider.
On the shortest day, when it’s dark, you give love and you are nice.
The sun goes to Chinatown. The earth tilts away. It feels freezing.
The winter is white and you have to put on your snow jacket, your snow boots, your snow mittens, and your snow hat. In the summer you just go out and play!
We make lanterns.
People put up wreaths on their doors. So when people walk by they can see the door is decorated.
-Myles T., PreK
We stay happy by playing inside. –Anias, PreK
Yeah, like we play Pass the Bean Ball. –Melin
On Winter Solstice you go in pajamas and celebrate the night and the sun.
And my Dad makes turkey meatballs for Winter Solstice. Does your family make turkey meatballs for Winter Solstice?
In the summer the plants come back to life.
-Bryce B., PreK
People decorate their homes with light.
Every year me and my family gather ‘round and sing the Holly Song.
Some family traditions are different then others.If you are British you celebrate Chanukah. If you are not British you celebrate Christmas or Kawnzaa.
I celebrate all the Jewish Holidays, like Chanukah. I’m Jewish not British.
People don’t put up regular lights like light- bulbs. They put up lights that are beautiful.
Scarlet’s ice art : “I see glass, water made of ice.” Joe Joe, PreSchool3 The world is felt, explored, observed, and yes EXPRESSED.
“The years are changing. They go by so fast.”
And I for one am listening. This is the definition of school. What’s yours?
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.
Scarlett, one of our children from our first SWS 3 year old PreSchool program and Ayanna, who is in Ms. Maureen’s non-categorical class next door
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.
Using the outdoors and the garden as a provocation to “see,” I set up this provocation in the studio.
“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.
“There are 100’s of greens in the world, and we are going to hunt for them in the garden today.”
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
Continuing the provocation of nature and the garden, I facilitated embodying leaves and the concept of metaphor within the concept of the fall leaves and three year old children.
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.
At first I was a little timid. How much can I touch, move, adapt with these young children. What is safe for them? What is a good risk? How much can I expect? (Making musical percussive shakers)
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? “Red lines!” 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.
Cora’s cabbage Melin’s cabbage
Ava’s Swiss Chard
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.”
As children progressed in making all the small symbollic pieces, the counter became a bounty and source of ideas.
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.
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
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 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.”
Here are there responses.
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.