Why this blog?

"... Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves ... Do not search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." - Letters to a Young Artist, R. M. Rilke

Rooted in the promise and challenge of growth ...

these are letters from a young teacher.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The geography of story

"Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water."
Loris Magaluzzi, founder of Reggio Emilia pedagogy
and author of The hundred languages of children

I attended this professional development workshop at Opal School, a public charter school influenced and inspired by the Reggio Emilia pedagogy of Italy. I had attended their Summer Symposium in June 2009 and left extremely impressed with the general Opal approach to teaching and found that the Reggio Emilia inspiration resonated well with me. It was an invaluable opportunity to return again for this day-long workshop on the more focused topic of Story Workshop, an integral segment of a week at Opal.

We began in a brief whole group introductory session, then quickly dispersed into smaller groups to observe Story Workshop in different aged classrooms. I arrived at the Pre-K/K classroom just as they were gathering in a Good Morning Circle and going over the “Flow of the day”. The teacher, Laura, transitioned into Story Workshop by first remembering with the children “Things smart writers do”, as gathered on a poster with pictures and words, including:

    • Use words that grab attention
    • Put unexpected surprises in
    • Make audience want to know what happens next
    • Put dialogue into your stories (Make the characters talk)
    • Make your reader wonder

The children were asked if one would be willing to share their story from the last Story Workshop (SW). Kyle volunteered and was chosen to share. At his request, the teacher read his story out loud while he held up his painting that had informed the story. The students engaged well with the sharing, and offered questions, comments, and compliments at the close. “What happens in the next chapter?” someone asked. “I don’t know yet,” he replied, but you could tell he was thinking about it ...

Then, Laura invited all of the children to share their stories from the last SW in pairs, sharing “knee to knee and eye to eye”. My assumption was that this was an exercise to help the children get back into the mind space of SW and remember where they had left off. As I learned later, the goal of each SW session is not to complete an entire story, but simply to explore the possibilities of a story through the use of one of several art materials, such as clay, paint, found objects, blocks, etc. (See attached handout for more examples) Most likely, it takes several sessions before a child has achieved a full, rounded out story. For this reason, sharing with their peers about the last session helps children prepare to continue that creative process by reconstructing their prior thought process.

After this brief sharing, it was time to go to the materials to discover: “What will help tell your story today?” Several tables were already set up in what I now call, for myself, “Opal style”, because I have never seen such conscientious preparation as I’ve seen at Opal. You look at a table with a piece of paper on matting, pens, pencils, and simple, yet intriguing objects in the middle to observe (see above) in just such a way that you feel genuinely invited into the world of your own creativity.

In this particular session, the materials I remember as available to use were paint, found objects, cut-out paper shapes, blocks, and dramatic play. I sat myself in one corner and could not see the entirety of the classroom. What I did get to observe up close, though, was the paint table, where Kyle returned to continue the story he had told through his last painting.

Next to the table was an easel, which is where he wanted to work. There was already a piece of paper pinned on, so he set right to work, first with a thick Sharpie pen for a thick black outline. As in his last painting, he drew a dinosaur, beginning with the body, and ending with a very detailed image of the mouth. You could tell it was this part of the dragon that would play the biggest role in the story. Indeed, I looked away from his drawing at two other students at the paint table - it couldn’t have been more than 3 minutes - and when I looked back, I was stunned at the detail and simply sheer sophistication of his drawing. Sure enough, the dinosaur now had a person in its mouth!

“What’s your second chapter, Kyle?” came Nick’s voice from the paint table.

“You’ll see when I’m done,” replied Kyle, with no signs of disrupted thinking by the question.

“Ok,” said Nick, and the two continued.

I continued watching Kyle. It was obvious he was thinking, and thinking hard, because this wasn’t just a random act of creativity, this was creativity with a purpose. He reminded me: All creativity has a purpose that drives our thinking and processing and creating. How little attention we give to these moments of concentration, preferring the feeling of completion a finished product offers, as if it has more to say about the artist. A major theme of the day was beginning to take form in my mind: It is the process of creativity and imagination that provide the richest information about students’ thinking, not the product. Yet, the product is so much easier to take in and to display as proof of the process. Ah, but it does not capture the process. It captures “Look what I made!” but it does not capture the journey behind that declaration.

The bell rang, indicating it was sharing time again, this time about the story in students’ minds today. “The dinosaur ate me,” Kyle related to Nick, “but I tickled him and then I came out of his mouth. And then the baby dinosaur hatched. This is the dinosaur and that’s me and that’s the baby dinosaur. It’s coming out of its shell. Where’s your story, Nick?” ...

At the close of SW, Laura called the students together and - as if she could read my thoughts - said, “Even if you didn’t write a story today, you were working with something that will help you write a story tomorrow, maybe.”

* * *

Back as a whole group, we recalled what pleased us as observers of SW:

  • The children were surrounded by provocations, not just in materials, but in questions posted on the walls and tables
  • Materials were stored openly, allowing the children to access whatever they needed whenever they needed it. It was observed that children used this access appropriately and always put things back.
  • The teacher became invisible in SW - not in a bad way, but invisible like the cameras and notebooks they carried with them to document the children’s processes. Teachers sat near students, but did not engage them in conversation, allowing the children to do so if they desired.
  • There was a sense about the classrooms that everything has a story to tell, that you can find a story in any object or material. What an amazing sense of possibility to have permeate a learning environment!

We also raised some questions, including:

  • How are students introduced to SW at the beginning of the school year?
  • How do you address students using the same themes / characters / plot lines over and over again?
  • How do you address themes of violence?
  • How are the “basic skills” of reading and writing addressed and taught? Within or separate from SW?

To get any more into that discussion would entail too much for this summary, but suffice it to say it was clear that what we all enjoyed observing, the teacher enjoyed equally in practice; likewise, the questions we brought up are also questions that teachers work with in practice, as well. However, using those questions to inform their observations, it is also clear that they are addressing these questions proactively, and, in most cases, they gave comprehensive answers.

Finally, one of the pivotal conceivers and developers of SW, spoke in-depth about what’s going on in a SW session. The questions that guided the inquiry of teachers interested in developing SW were:

  • What does it mean to be literate?
  • How does literacy development help us make meaning in our lives?
  • What is the role of story in supporting literacy development?
  • How do the arts support story-making?

The fundamental belief teachers at Opal work with is the conception of the child as communicator. As teachers, we may be there to guide and share the journey of learning with our students, but we must be careful to remember that children have incredibly valuable things to say and share, themselves. What a gift that we may be the ones they choose to tell.

How are the arts and literacy connected and how can the arts support literacy development? It seems Opal teachers have found that the definitions of these two terms have long been conceptualized too narrowly. Indeed, I wonder often how narrowly we have come to conceive the entire traditional curriculum, and perhaps, even learning itself! (Though, perhaps this is simply the connection-maker coming out in me) What I appreciated most about my observation of SW was that I felt I finally had a concrete example of what that buzzword “holistic” really means in the context of education. The “basics” are not ignored, and neither is “structure” or “discipline”; they do, however, look different in a classroom that derives its curriculum primarily from observation and provocation of students. Likewise, the opportunities students have learn, such as in SW, provide just the amount of room they need to explore and expand their creativity in just the way each student needs.

For the purpose of this entry, I do not want to delve into a more detailed break-down of how SW is structured and facilitated, because I do not wish to undermine the immense efforts the Opal teacher team put into putting on this professional development workshop. I can only highly recommend that you check out Opal Charter School for yourself and inform yourself about upcoming workshops and symposiums.

In the end, Opal teachers have found that both the arts and literacy skills are fundamental media of discovering who we are, so that the connections between the two are endless! I can only agree and add my own long-standing intuition that endless possibilities exist when considering all fields and opportunities for learning. However, I have to leave it to the children to say it best. As one student said about using art materials in SW (as shared by a teacher): “Words are just black. [Painting] makes me think of more words because it brings out colors more than black and white.”

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Master's Thesis Proposal

Storytellers as educators: Inviting new voices into pedagogical and philosophical considerations of teaching

Researcher: Avery D. Hill
University of Washington

From a historical perspective, the origins of education can be traced back to the tradition of storytelling, which emerged within human culture as the first form of teaching. Thus, we might think of storytellers as the world’s first teachers. Today, teachers and storytellers may not be considered to have much in common, because they have evolved along different ideological directions into two distinct traditions. Yet, what remains of the original storyteller in the modern teaching profession? What can teachers learn from storytellers about teaching that they would not otherwise think about in the current world of education?

This study seeks to explore the following question: What insights into teaching and being a teacher are gained from today’s storytellers?

In the current literature on storytelling in education, much attention has been given to stories, their underlying meaning(s), and how and what can be learned from listening to them. However, we forget that stories are passed from one learner to the next by the tellers who tell them. This study seeks to feature those who tell stories and to acknowledge their ideas and reflections as educators, whose thoughts on teaching and being a teacher are relevant to contemporary educational discussion.

Due to the novelty of this topic of research, this study is strictly exploratory. Data will be collected from a small sample of participants (4-6) in one-on-one interviews, and then analyzed for content and theme. The goal of analysis is to identify patterns in participants’ responses, particular insights into teaching and the idea of being a teacher, and potentially rich considerations for further research.

Download the full-length (7-page) version of my proposal from my Teaching Portfolio.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Sharing part 2

I am a genius. Not to get all full of myself, but, really, I feel like one today.

As I've mentioned in a past post, sharing is an unbelievably difficult concept to teach well, partially because it's so counter-intuitive to the 3-year-old brain, yet so drilled into our psyches that, by the time we're teaching it as adults, we're more apt to teach it as "something we just do", with no real exploration or explanation of what's going on.

I made my first attempt to approach this differently today:

There were three children playing with magnets, one of whom clearly was monopolizing the majority of them. When a fourth child joined and wanted some magnets, the monopolizer was not going to budge. I watched as the fourth child distressed a little, then turned to me for help.

First, I tried scaffolding the negotiation process of simply asking to play with materials, which is a regular practice on my part. "Tina doesn't know you want to play with the magnets until you ask her. Try it like this: 'Tina, could I play with some of those magnets?' " So, the child tries by actually vocalizing her want, but still to no avail. I encouraged her to point out to Tina that she has an awful lot of magnets, and she'd just like three of them for now. Still didn't work.

That was when the epiphany came. I jumped in: "Tina, I notice Amy here would like to join you at the magnet table, and there are four chairs, so she should be able to have some magnets to play with." I get a guilty look from Tina, who is clenching her magnets.

I could take them from her, I think to myself. I could tell her to share and be done with it. But I also want to give her some agency in the situation. As I wrote before, I don't want them to share because I tell them to, but rather because they choose to.

"As far as I can tell, Tina, it seems you really want to play with ALL of those magnets. Which I can understand. Magnets are great fun. At the same time, the materials in the classroom are for ALL students to play with. That's why we have to figure out different ways to share them, like right now with the magnets.

"I've got two ideas for sharing the magnets. Tell me what you think: Either, you can share the magnets, themselves, by giving some to Amy, and then you can play for as long as you want with the magnets and with each other; or, if you really don't want to give up any of those magnets, you can share the time you have with them. I'll set a timer for five minutes, and when five minutes is up, you'll have to give all those magnets to Amy to play with, and find another place to play.

"What do you think? Share the material or share the time? It's up to you."

The key to presenting students with a choice is being ok, as the teacher, with either choice you've presented. It doesn't help to give a child an option you don't really want them to choose. In this case, I was ok with letting Tina hog the magnets for a short amount of time. I figured it would be a lesson, in and of itself, both in time and in the sacrifice of not wanting to the share the material (you don't get to play with it as long).

Tina did, indeed, choose to share the time. Unfortunately, playtime was over three minutes later - oversight on my part :( - and though Amy happily moved on to find something else after the magnet situation, I was disappointed that I didn't get a chance to follow through with Tina. However, the moment of insight was enough to get my juices going in my brain, in anticipation of other such situations, surely just a day away ...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

"Ich bin all done mit meins"

One of the fascinating things about working at a language-immersion preschool is getting to observe my students negotiate two languages in their speaking. Whereas most students began the year speaking mostly English, we're now at the point of the year where they're starting to mix more, especially the children who have extra-curricular German connections (family, friends, etc). Here are some of my favorite quotes as of late:

"We decorated our Tannenbaum"

"I can das alleine machen"
[I can do it by myself]

"I need Hilfe"

"Schau mal! Ich bin Beauty!"

"Kann ich dir einen Hug geben?"
[Can I give you a hug?]

and, my personal favorite,

"Ich bin all done mit meins"
[I'm all done with mine]

For those kids with little background in the German language, the first words being incorporated are nouns (Tannenbaum=Christmas tree; Hilfe=help) and adjectives (alleine=alone, by myself). For those who come from bilingual homes, you can see here some more complicated grammatical structures that default to German grammar, but include English vocabulary.

I did study second language acquisition a bit in college, especially as I prepared to teach English abroad, but more informally, not in a formal course. I feel, though, that the richest knowledge I gained on the topic was from the very experience of being a second language learner, negotiating two languages in my brain, for myself. And I remember gradually moving from fitting German words into English grammar to using German grammar primarily, and substituting English words for the vocabulary I had not yet learned. Grammar is, obviously, more complicated than individual vocabulary, so it's an interesting shift to observe, both in oneself and in others.

I would venture to say that it is precisely the grammar the prevents us from picking up languages as quickly when we're older than when we're younger. By the time we are adults, so much of our thinking is rooted in the structure of our language that it is so uncomfortable to try to switch to a different structure of grammar. So, we start by putting individual elements into the structure we know, and work gradually ... oh so painfully, really ... to switch scaffolds. Some of us never do.

Kids are like sponges when they learn anything. When we think about language, they are still developing their own native language skills, so, as far as they're concerned, there's plenty of room for whatever there is to be learned. Some of our students are even learning three languages at 3 and 4 years old. What a gift! And what a fascinating process to take part in, to support, and to observe.

I will have to double-check some of my intuitions stated here with some of the literature, but my intuitions don't usually come from the far ends of some distant imaginative space in my head ...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Education as a moral endeavor part 2

Remember my cast of characters?

The fall is turning to winter, and so I turn from my generous reading of these moving authors to inhabiting their perspective, so that they may generously read my own story. This is not the story I wrote at the beginning of the quarter. It was while reading our last book of the course, Bingham's Authority is relational that I heard his voice in my mind reminding me of a different story, a story still very much in progress, unfolding with every day I continue to live, learn, and grow as a teacher, student, and scholar.

He argues that educational authority is not a unidirectional force, but a dialogical process. The authority of a Speaker exists only through the authorization granted by the Listener, and both contribute to the shared process of interpreting something - he calls it "text", but it could be any kind of learning material, I think. This shared interpretation provides the foundation for relations of educational authority between Teacher and Student, so that, ultimately, what students learn from interpreted material is so embedded in the relation of interpretation that "When a person takes part in the relation of educational authority, it is the relation itself that educates. It is the relation, rather than some predetermined content." (p.63)

When I read this passage, like I said, I heard his voice in mind. Literally, it was a voice that whispered: See? This is why you are a storyteller.

What?! What does storytelling have to do with educational authority relations?

And so, with this whisper in my mind, telling me things I wanted to believe, but could not yet figure the logic of, I put the course texts aside - we had read them all at this point - and returned to thinking about what not only brought me to this course, but has brought me through all of my studies in Education. It became clear there was another story there, begging to be told and to be listened to, generously, by these authors:

When I was eight years old, I decided I wanted to become a teacher. As most children are wont to do on such a momentous occasion as deciding what they want to be when they grow up, I announced it to my mother. Her response was not exactly what I expected or hoped for: “Oh, Avery, no matter what profession you pursue, you will always be a teacher.” What was that supposed to mean?

So began my pondering on the characteristics and qualities that teachers of all kinds embody. It was then that I began to learn that being a teacher implies both a kind of practice and a certain essence. In my imaginary play, I imitated the practice of my elementary school teachers by standing at a chalkboard and explaining what I had written to my imaginary students. But what if that practice does not reflect the teacher I am? What if the essence of my being as a teacher implies another kind of practice? I realize now that my mother’s words were entirely prophetic, setting the stage for a lifelong journey: the path of discovering what it will mean, in my life, to be a teacher.

Somehow I found my way from one experience to the next, and some have questioned the logic of my choices. That is an entirely different story. The story I want to tell here is this: Despite the vast differences between these experiences, they have one aspect of my personal teaching style in common – that is, there is one way in which I have always been and still remain a teacher in every educative context. I am a storyteller.

In every “classroom” – from first period English to the Kindergarten rug to the outdoor Learning Tree – I have employed stories both traditional and modern to illustrate concepts, to teach vocabulary, and to engage my students in conversation with new ideas and with each other. Storytelling has become integral to my teaching style, and I would not consider myself a teacher if I were ever to eliminate the use of stories from my teaching.

At first glance, my journey of becoming a storyteller would most likely not qualify as a moral dilemma. When we think of moral dilemmas, we might think of a decision one is faced with, a decision of right and wrong: “What is the right thing to do?” we imagine asking ourselves, “Why would doing it a different way be wrong?” What’s more, something is humanly at stake in a moral dilemma – perhaps there is something to “win” or to “lose”.

Yet, storytelling is so embedded in my sense of self as a teacher, it feels immoral to me to deny this tradition a rightful place in our education system and in our academic conversations about teaching and learning. I find myself asking moral questions: Why does it feel wrong to me that the ideas and concepts of the storytelling tradition are often avoided in today’s classrooms and teacher education programs? Why do I find it such a loss that public education continues to condone this exclusion of storytelling, favoring, instead, purely information-based curricula and assessments? What is at stake in today’s classrooms if the exclusion of storytelling continues?

Let me clarify: I know why I like using stories in my teaching. I know that stories are excellent teaching tools for a variety of reasons that cognitive scientists, philosophers and theorists of education, not to mention various storytellers, themselves, have expressed. I know that the only thing I love more than sharing the experience of stories with students is sharing the experience of my students with the stories that I have come to consider fellow teachers, for they invite and inspire growth in students in a way that I would not have anticipated.

What I do not know is why this practice and tradition of storytelling has such a hold on me as an educator, and, for that matter, as a learner. I cannot clarify - in a way that satisfies me - the significance I feel storytelling has in meaningful, life-long learning. I know only that I cannot say I am a teacher if I do not simultaneously express that I am a storyteller. Though my discoveries of what being a teacher will mean in my life are far from over, I have clearly reached one significant benchmark: being a teacher, in my life, means being a storyteller.

The story sort of just flowed out of me like a river downstream. I doubted, at first, that it was really a story of morals. I ran it by Donna, though, and she gave the me thumbs up. Now, it's just a matter of figuring out more of what these whispers in my mind are saying when I inhabit the perspectives of the course authors. This will surely be quite the mental exercise. Stay tuned ...