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.”