The Anacostia River, a Kindergarten Project.
The idea hatched from Kindergarten teacher Alysia Scofield’s relationship with it, crossing it daily, venturing near it, on it, learning to love it. This major body of water running through DC is part taken for granted part wasteland and part beauty.
As the classroom teachers explore and document what the children know, their theories, the river and it’s history, water and it’s scientific properties, what lives in it, what grows in it and around it and above it, Shad harvesting and releasing, experimenting, ecology, pollution, their river collectons, geography and more, there is a different study also going on in the studio.
The sensory, the wonder, and the poetic languages of water and of the river.
Just like the children, my primary relationship with the Anacostia River was from above.
The first encounter on Friday February 17th was enchanting, exhilarating and multi-sensory.
There was a cacophony of sound, texture, smells, sight, touch, sensation and feelings.
WATER By Luke, Jasper, Stephen, Maya, Ra’kyia
When I was feeling the water it felt like it was soft
The river water, you could hardly feel it at all, like no texture
Like a splash
Like a couple of little splashes
The water was going slowly. Tiny waves everywhere
The water was going this way
NO it was going that way
NO it was going North
NO that way
It was going both ways
I ran across it
Like a tornado
When you step in it, small circles
Then bigger and then bigger
There are so many circles
By Luke (The lower front shows a child putting his foot in the water and creating ripples)
MUD By Sylvie, Dominic, Alexander, Katie, Sophia
The ripples were like an upside down V
Blue green brown
My boots squooshed in the mud
It felt like squishy jello
I felt like I was walking in the middle of a mud monster’s home.
I was an ant walking in jello
It was so big
I was so small
I was stuck in the mud
Every footstep was hard
Like quick sand
My foot stuck like glue
Really the mud monsters were sucking my feet down.
SAND By Robert, Gabriel, Amira, Jai and Brooke
I went in the deep sand
It felt like you were sinking
You could sink in to the passageway
To an imaginary castle made of sticks and mud
To a zombie house
To a magical fairy house
Or the the North Pole
Santa would ask,
Where are you from?
From the Anacostia River!
There is always the unexpected on trips like these. What we were not expecting was to witness Anacostia High School on fire. It proved to be huge part of this river trip.
THE FIRE By Lena, Bridget, Charlie, Emma, Patrick, Han
It was dark in the sky
It was foggy below
I saw the smoke
It looked like clouds that were
About to begin a thunderstorm
The air was black and misty
It looked soft but it’s not
Some people were scared
Some people were not
And the fire?
What is the fire and smoke?
It sounded like a flashing sound
100 persons blowing a whistle
Like Han ringing the bells
FIRE By Luke, Jasper, Stephen, Maya, Ra’kyia
We saw a fire
So blazing hot
We could kinda feel the warmness
It had blackish grey smoke
Like the color of a sperm whale
The smoke was big
Like a giant
Like a planet
The very real was tempered by the very magical. Everyone encountered “The Castle” and a few “The Treasure Chest.”
CASTLE By Sylvie, Dominic, Alexander, Katie, Sophia
It had little rocks on the top
They felt rough and pointy
Like a porcupine
Like a cactus
Like thorny plants
Flowers were growing on the little rock squares
We stood on the top
Like a bird
Like a queen
Like being on a creature’s house
Like a guard fighting off people who were going to steal the gold and diamonds and copper coins and chocolate coins.
I saw seagulls trying to fly above us
I saw the stream leading to the Anacostia River
THE TREASURE CHEST By Josie, Natalie, Sophie, Bailee, Carrington
It was in the water
In the dirty water
The Anacostia River water
It was gold
It was brown
It was brass
It had golden beads
We knew it was a treasure chest because it had a curve
It was stuck in the mud
Water was coming around it and making squares or rectangles
Inside it we imagine
Carrington saw it first
Stephen thought it was just a piece of metal
MUSSELS AND MUD By Josie, Natalie, Sophie, Bailee, Carrington
A little baby mussel
Like 50 of them
I put them in Ra’Kyia’s cup
They are not clams
They have food in them
You can eat from them
They live in the mud
It was really squishy
It was making a noise like sucking–your-tongue-noise
Squish squoosh squash
It got in my sneaker
When you picked it up it felt like
Soft and hard mixed together
Soft as a blanket
Soft like a cookie
Soft like a cushion
Soft like a pillow
Soft like a bed
You’re making me sleepy
STUFF WE FOUND By Robert, Gabriel, Amira, Jai and Brooke
You can find stuff
I think I saw an alligator
Turn it into a machine
Turn it into a special sculpture
Turn it into materials for the Art Studio
RIVER STUFF By By Robert, Gabriel, Amira, Jai and Brooke
The river has stuff in it that’s nasty
People throw it out
They throw their bottles in the river
They sit on a bench and drink and just throw it
I think they don’t have trashcans in the Anacostia River
The people were being careless
The birds and the animals feel sad
The ducks can’t live in the river,
They can’t go home
IN THE WATERBy 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
Seeing was so nuanced on this trip. Watching the children “look” was like watching a dance performance.
By Sylvie (in the lower left side you can see how Sylvie represented a friend bent over and collecting)
The birds were as much a part of the river as the river itself.
BIRDS By Luke, Jasper, Stephen, Maya, Ra’kyia
They were making a sound
Flapping their wings
Like a door slamming
Up in the air like a plane
Like a phoenix
THE TRAIN By Robert, Gabriel, Amira, Jai and Brooke
The train was on the track
When it went past it was going DING-DING-DING-DING
It was as loud as
A police car
The fire bell in School
It sounded like a building crashing down
THE BRIDGE Robert, Gabriel, Amira, Jai and Brooke
It moved like an ocean
Under the bridge
The river looked crazier then the bridge
Because it moved like a crazy person under the bridge
The bridge was calm
But it looked like it was moving
Immersed in this project, I find myself singing water and river songs. Funny how so many are about letting go, forgetting, sailing off, rebirthing, and becoming new.
So I leave this post with songs in mind but within a context of discovery and joy, of memory and feeling, of hearing and seeing, of smelling and touching, of the very real Anacostia River mixed with the intangible sense of magic.
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Sail on Silver Girl,
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
If you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
So Wade in the water
Wade in the water children!
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
The year started, well…big.
First there was an earthquake (in DC!?) and then there was a hurricane.
Then it rained. Not just rain, but RAIN, for a week. I believe that this all happened within the first 2 1/2 weeks of school.
The rain flooded the landing to the playground so much, workers were brought in.
The rain and the puddle did not deter fun. In between the lightening and thunder, the kids went out.
Room 11 (Ms. Ricks and Ms. Fineran even requested boots for this exploration.)
Water, the essence of survival. The joy it brings to every sense.
The qualities of water are soothing and invigorating, and exploration is endless. As an adult, great films , literature and works of art rely on the many metaphors and qualities of water. One of my favorite films is titled Water.
While squeals of delight mix with my my often heard voice in the Common Area, “What do you need to do when you make a big spill on the floor? Why do we need to clean up spills? Keep the water in the water table…”, the concentration, discoveries made , and social interactions are rich. The warm water is soothing. The funnels, pulleys, measuring cups, tubes, water wheels and marbles lead to the unexpected. This is the beginning of theory development. These moments connect to understanding concepts.
In addition to water, the Nature Play Space outside is a rich environment and never ceases to amaze me. Children create soundscapes;
Create rich make believe (birds with eggs game)
There are so many versions of King of the Hill games. When was the last time you spontaneously made up a game with friends, complete with rules and fantasy? This is complex stuff for any age disguised in play.
Testing physical limits while being connected to trees and stones is important. Children are drawn to this area, more so than the manufactured play equipment. And while the equipment is good stuff, the Nature Play Space allows children to move what they climb on into new configurations, expand, change and create.
I initiated this natural area after being inspired by so many creative outdoor spaces ( great blog from Australia about nature Play Let the Children Play and this 20 Ways to Creat Play Environments for the Soul ) so I wrote a grant and made it happen. Since natural materials decompose, we are often in search of fresh “tree cookies” and loose parts to keep this area vibrant. Feel free to contact me to add to the space.
Inside the school additions and traditions in the studio and common area keep things evolving.
Small additions to the playhouse has brought big excitement this year ( I love a good hardware store and thrift store!)
A very special hand operated machine
The beauty of this pulley, is that you need a friend to collaborate with you.
A small tray with handles and a fiber woven tea set provoked an elaborate playtime. While this might seem banal, there was an intense amount of negotiating and agreed upon management of materials, as well as debated role playing. Freetime is an intentional part of learning and offers guidance to teachers, not only on social climate-but on what is interesting the children and what is difficult for them. You usually will find me scrawling on a clipboard while observing the children. Often I watch quietly, while other times I join in to offer support or a challenge to provoke new thinking.
A new opened ended provocation allows children to “sew lines.” Doing this sewing works best with two, and I am thrilled by the way the children direct each other and decide where to place the needle to make a desired shape, Almost like looking at clouds, the children exclaim, It’s a rocket ship or It’s a car! Everyday it gets more and more filled with color and line.
I finally bought the missing small piece of hardware that has expanded the piano play. A double jack! It is beautiful to watch the many interactions here.
While the next two experiences are not new in the studio, they are new to all our entering children. The snow globe collection and the whirly plate machine. I challenge any computer to elicit this kind of wonder, awe, and thought…
And the simple pleasure of painting during free time, choosing from multitudes of colors and varieties of brushes created these complex and organized representations. Sylvie’s palette is cool and breezy and notice the details like the bird flying above the two smiling figures.
Alex painted a Matisse like painting, filled with movement and brightness:
This year, the Kindergarten students spent their first few weeks in the art studio working at a furious speed to make ceramic pendants. Every year, Kindergarten children make a gift for all the new students in PreK and K. We created a ritual of gathering, all together, a circle within a circle to greet new faces (including all the staff), sing songs and give kindness. We have this tradition in response to September 11th, and it is called Kindness Day (just click on Kindness Day to the left for the full explanation.)
It was the first year the Kindergarten created not only a ceramic necklace for a new child, but an identical one for themselves too. This new idea was inspired by a conversation between Mr. Jere , Ms. Scofield and myself about upholding traditions while at the same time adding new layers of thought/intention.
What is kindness?
“Being polite” -Luke
“Making a card.” -Caroline
“When the Kindergarteners gave us a bracelet last year! I wear mine all the time. Alex is his name who gave it to me!” -Ava
“When you say, ‘Do you want to play with me?'” -Brooke
“Being nice and helping them to do stuff.” -Joseph
Ms. Cross led us in song, I asked each Kindergarten friend to say “Hi, my name is ________, what’s your name?” and then present the gift, Mr. Burst introduced all the staff, and we all closed by singing You are the Sunshine of My Life.
Look closely at the images. The earnestness of the intros and gift giving. The joy of community. Tenderness and pride. It is refreshing and hopeful.
I love this small moment captured between Emma in Kindergarten, and new PreK Tessa:
Adinath and Gabriel make their new friends Archer and Emmett laugh by pretending their necklace is some type of transmitter /phone:
New Kindergarten student Anja helps another Kindergarten student Sophia:
The beginning of the year is about developing new relationships that nurture the spirit to grow and expand (kids AND adults.) It is about creating a safe and creative space that offers boundaries and room for risk-taking. It is about getting to know each child as an individual and as part of a group. It is about caring. That is what I felt I needed to share, more than the emerging projects.
The Prek children just started a project observing Swallow Tail caterpillars and representing their observations in their new sketchbooks. The Kindergarten children have begun a project about costumes, and have begun planning in their sketchbooks. I can’t wait to post these emerging projects in the next blog.
I will end this blog with a favorite bit of prose which truly explains what the start of a new school year is like. It is why this work is always filled with wonder, research, joy, challenge and surprise. It is a metaphor of The Hundred Languages of Children. Welcome to a new school year at SWS. I hope you will feel comfortable sharing your comments and thoughts. My intention is to blog every two weeks, so check back soon!
Each new year is a surprise to us.
We find that we had virtually forgotten the note of each bird,
And when we hear it again, it is remembered like a dream,
Reminding us of a previous state of existence…
The voice of nature is always encouraging.
-Henry David Thoreau