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.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

IERG Summer Training: Day Three

Imaginative Education Summer Training
Vancouver, British Columbia

Learning in Depth

And now for something completely different ... perhaps. On Day Three of this training, we veered into a different idea for curricular implication entirely. While Imaginative Education offers frameworks for planning class lessons and units on topics of every field, Learning in Depth (LiD) is a proposal for what might be considered enriched learning time for students as individuals. Here the proposal, from the LiD website:

Learning in Depth is a program in which each child is given, during the first week of schooling, a particular topic to learn about through her or his whole school career, in addition to the usual curriculum. Topics might include such things as apples, ships, the circus, cats, the solar system, etc. Students will meet regularly with their supervising teachers, who will give guidance, suggestions, and help as students build personal portfolios on their topics. The aim is that each child, by the end of her or his schooling, will have built genuine expertise about that topic. The expectation is that this process will transform for most children their relationship to, and understanding of the nature of, knowledge. It should transform for each child the experience of schooling.

You best believe that last part resonates with me. If we could all be so lucky as to experience a transformation in our relationship to knowing, learning, and schooling ... !!

To clarify, the proposal is to introduce an opportunity for students to become experts on a particular topic by having them research it from Kindergarten through 12th grade. Nothing like this has ever been done before, so it's hard to say what the results will be. However, as Egan says in his book on the proposal (in press): "Because there is no data about its results, we can't implement it, and if we can't implement it, there will be not data. This seems a bit Catch-22-ish. ... This view would, of course, have prevented every educational innovation in history from getting off the ground."

Most of the morning was spent on introducing the proposal, anticipating objections and responses, and examining the criteria for such topics. At the moment, the major criterion is that topics need to be complex, varied, and multi-dimensional in the following ways:

- Sufficient breadth, sufficient depth (e.g. apples, ants, the wheel, etc.)
- Connections within ourselves: cultural ties as well as emotional and imaginative ties
- Not concerned with material that will lead to depression or violence (e.g. weapons)
- Not too technical
- Not too general nor particular ("animals" is too general, "tigers" is too specific > "cats" will do)
- Must provide an equivalently rich experience for all

In small groups, we discussed additional criteria. One prevalent theme that came up was the cultural slant of topics. It was clear from the list that Egan's team has already generated that the ideas for topics had come from a Western mind. Does this mean they will be culturally offensive? Not necessarily, though "sacred buildings" might be objected to, for example. Egan is certainly always open to new topics, and I would be very curious what topics are generated from non-Western minds. But the criterion of "no cultural offenses" was discussed as a clarifier to the criterion that already addresses culture.

I had an additional idea later that the topics should not be abstract concepts (as some of the suggestions Egan has received have been): love, for example, or loyalty, courage, etc. It seems they need to be concrete, observable, researchable topics with materials that students can interact with. Obviously, such abstract concepts can and "should" be found and examined through the study of concrete topics, as all of learning has both concrete and abstract meaning. But that's just my take.

We were lucky to have some teachers from Corbett School District, that have implemented both an IE curriculum model, and the LiD proposal into their schools. They shared some portfolios and stories of their students, largely praising its many consequences. Interestingly, the most positive of these consequences were largely unexpected by Egan and his team behind the proposal; for example, several teachers mentioned the social networking among students that has really bloomed as they identify connections between each other's topics and even encourage each other by bringing in valuable information sources, materials, etc., that relate to each other's topics. Friendships are even being forged through topic connections, as one teacher reported.

While I was pleasantly surprised by this outcome, I had to kick myself for being surprised at all. Of course! In a graduate course on Socialization, the big message we all got from the research we looked at is that children are primarily socialized by their peers, with parents, teachers, and other adults trailing far behind. Why shouldn't they, then, look to their peers to further their independent learning?

Social networking is certainly an active niche of research at the moment, one that I am not entirely familiar with at the moment. However, it was inspiring to think of what this kind of proposal could allow to observe in the classroom: how children learn when left to their own devices. What sources do they seek? What questions do they pose? What kinds of understanding do they express in these actions?

What insights would answers to these questions offer on the validity of Egan's theory of cognitive tools and kinds of understanding? Or any other ideas about how children learn, for that matter? I can just hear Kieran Egan saying: "Well that's a great question. Why don't you write a dissertation on that?" Who knows? Maybe I will do just that ...

IERG Summer Training: Day Two, More thoughts ...

Imaginative Education Summer Training
Vancouver, British Columbia

More thoughts ...

After yesterday's exercises and thoughts on responding to my students' interest in Tricksters, I fell asleep thinking a bit deeper on what IE generally brings to the emergent curriculum; in other words, how IE could be used in the emergent curriculum without getting in the way of what emergent curriculum is all about. Here's what I've got, as I begin what I'm sure will be a longer thinking process:

What I find the cognitive tools useful for in the emergent curriculum is for getting at the deeper draw children feel to particular materials, topics, phenomena of the world. As I worked with the frameworks, I struggled to find answers to the questions posed to help me design a lesson on a topic. The tipping point came when I began to answer those questions with questions to ask students, themselves.

As I remembered my time talking to my students about Tricksters, I imagined myself asking questions derived from the cognitive tools of both Mythic and Romantic kinds of understanding:

(from Mythic...)
Forming images: Imagine you woke up one day, went in the bathroom to brush your teeth, looked in the mirror, and - gasp! - you had become a trickster! What would you look like? How is your face and body different from when you were a kid? What else is different about you? ...
Pattern, rhyme, rhythm: What do you notice about Tricksters across all the stories we’ve heard and read? Within a story, what does it sound like when the Trickster walks, speaks, laughs ... ? (What is the music / song of a Trickster?)
Metaphor: What do Tricksters remind you of in your life? In other stories?
Mystery, Puzzles: What makes a good trick / Trickster “good”? What makes a bad trick / Trickster “bad”? Can a good trick end up badly? A bad trick well?
Joking and humor: Go ahead. Make up your own story about a silly Trickster!
(Games and Drama: This is where I just sit back and observe, asking myself questions about how and where Tricksters emerge from dramatic play and from the stories they tell. Games that might introduce trickery in a safe environment include card games like Poker and Go Fish, or board games like chess.)

(from Romantic...)
Humanizing meaning / Personification: What makes a Trickster a Trickster? You’re walking down the street, and - boom! - you see a Trickster? How do you recognize him/her?
Revolt and Idealism: Is a Trickster a good guy or gal to have around this community? What’s the effect of their presence.
Literate Eye / Graphic organizers: What if there were a secret Trickster Clubhouse? As a member, you’re given a special medallion to wear around your neck to show your membership. What does it look like? (Also, transfer knowledge of oral stories to picture and storybooks of those stories. Or, create your own Trickster book from images generated by provocation questions.)
Collections and Sets: How many Trickster characters are there in the world?
Extremes and Limits: What are the limits of trickery? When can a good trick go bad? What is the most outrageous trick you have heard of or can think of?
(Change of context and Role play: Again, this is my opportunity to observe where and how students are taking these ideas into other aspects of classroom life and learning. Change of context lends itself well to inspiring such transfer into the materials, as well.)

I’ve conveniently avoided the central features of both kinds of understanding - binary opposites and heroic features. I’ve done this partially because they are both, perhaps, the most difficult, abstract aspects of a topic. However, they are also the central pieces of what drives intrigue for a topic. But that’s precisely what I would be looking for when I ask students questions like the ones I mentioned. So, I’ve also purposely avoided those central features because I can’t know them until I understand more about my students’ experience of that topic. And that is beginning of how emergent curriculum may inform IE. Working through all those prescriptive formats is just another form of "lesson planning" that privileges teachers' conceptions of a topic over those of the students. Children are such eager learners and sense-makers of the world around them, and, I would bet, could unearth and express the use of Egan's cognitive tools on their own.

Remember, for example, that those binary opposites and heroic features will differ between individual students. Even if they are understanding Tricksters with the same cognitive tools, that understanding differs according to their experience of the Trickster in their lives. I mentioned the one boy who was a behavioral challenge; his entire demeanor changed whenever we were talking about Tricksters and their stories. What was up with that? What drew him into stories about Trickster behavior that might have provided insight into his own behavior? Perhaps, if I had asked more questions derived from the cognitive tools dominant in his thinking at that point in his life, I’d have a better idea.

In one of our sessions, Kieran tried to guide our frameworking with the comment, "Because we know so much about our topic, we forget to feel about it." He was trying to get us to remember what is emotionally engaging and, perhaps, emotionally at stake, in the topics of the curriculum. I understand the value of such a comment for a teacher planning out the day, the lesson, the unit ... by why exclude the students from that process? Why exclude those who know best how to feel about what we learn?

How can emergent curriculum and Imaginative Education inform each other? This has been my first stab. No doubt, more thoughts will result once I actually return to the classroom (rather than simply imagine myself into it), as well as I continue to learn more about both approaches. I keep thinking of myself at the base to two very large beanstalks. I’m not sure why, but rather than feeling I need to choose to climb up one beanstalk or the other, I feel called to climb them both by pulling them together into a double-helix, hanging on to both stalks as I go.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

IERG Summer Training: Day Two

Imaginative Education Summer Training
Vancouver, British Columbia


Ok. We have the back story, we have the new idea ... now what? Application! If only it were that easy ...

Today was a day mostly of trying to transfer our knowledge of IE into real applications for the classroom. We began this a bit yesterday with several games and small group work, focused either on getting our heads around IE concepts or getting our heads into our curricula. Both kinds were quite helpful for me.

Today was a bit more difficult, as I was really trying to stick my head in my teaching field - emergent curriculum - to see what I saw in the context of IE. First, a few preliminary thoughts ...

- Egan introduces and describes the cognitive tools of each kind of understanding as to be expected of children as they grow and continue to observe and interact with their surroundings. In the midst of all of our hypothetical work today (What activity would you do to bring Jokes and Humor into a unit on eels in the 5th grade?), I found myself reaching for this idea: in the classroom, cognitive tools are the children's first, and the teachers' second. I am drawn to and can make sense of any subject matter for myself, but, in the emergent classroom, I'm more interested in what sense the children are making of it.

- Thus, when I was sticking my head back into the image and experience of an emergent curriculum classroom, what I found was I was observing students' reactions, behaviors, and engagement with questions like: "What cognitive tools are at work here?" ... "What binary opposites is this student feeling the tension between in their experience with this material?" ... "What heroic quality is that student drawn to in that content?" ...

We had been asked to bring with us a topic from our curriculum that we were interested in fleshing out with the IE frameworks. Coming from emergent curriculum, this put me in a slight conundrum, of course. We don't have curricula to work with at the beginning of the year. As the name suggests, a curriculum emerges from the several provocations, reactions, and interactions that occur in one classroom, from each of which will emerge, of course, a slightly different curriculum. So, I chose to think back to an interest that arose among my students when I was in the thick of the K-3 summer program last year. It was not hard to remember ...


I didn't particularly like Trickster stories, mind you, but I must have told the one that I did know, and about 10 kids were all over it, maybe 5 really into it, and one asked me to tell a Trickster story every single day. So, I went to back in my mind to remember and try to imagine what was drawing them to those stories. Some more thoughts ...

- First, with an age range of K-3, it was most likely - if not, definitely - the case that the children were drawn to the stories for different reasons. For example, I remember a conversation I had with several students about what the difference is between a good trick and bad trick. One Kindergartner piped up with no hesitation: "A good trick is when you don't get caught, and a bad trick is when you do." A 3rd grader protested, providing the more nuanced observation: "A good trick is when you're working for good, and a bad trick is when you're working for bad, when you want something bad to happen, versus something good."

- Further, I'd suspect that even in the case of each age group, say K-1 and 2-3, each child within that group was processing those stories using a different constellation of cognitive tools. I remember one particular boy, the one who asked me to tell a Trickster story every single day ... was the one student with the most behavioral - specifically aggressive - difficulties. He had just finished 1st grade, I believe, and also very aural, re-telling stories in exactly the tone and rhythm, in which I had spoken. Even if children his age were feeling the tension of the Trickster figure between good and bad, the significance and meaning of "good" and "bad" to him was, I suspect, vastly different than to other children.

So, stay with me, with my head stuck back into the emergent curriculum classroom, looking around with the spectacles of IE ...

Monday, June 28, 2010

IERG Summer Training: Day One, Part Two

Imaginative Education Summer Training
Vancouver, British Columbia

Part Two

So ... the juice! What are these "kinds of understandings" Egan is talking about? In an attempt to be more concise than my last post, here are the basics:

Building on the notion of recapitulationist theories, children acquire cognitive tools, with which they make sense of the world, in a similar sequence to that which humans, as a species, have acquired. Egan presents language as the primary medium, through these tools are represented and communicated. If we work, then, from the development of human language, we get the following stages (and what they become as "kinds of understanding"):

Pre-linguistic (Somatic)
Oral language (Mythic)
Written language (Romantic)
Thinking about language theoretically (Philosophic)
Turning language over on itself reflexively (Ironic)

Zoom in on any one of these stages and we find the cognitive tools involved with making sense of the world through each of these kinds of understanding:

Pre-linguistic (Somatic understanding): without oral symbols to communicate, we rely entirely on our bodies and sensory capacities to understand the world around us, including the use of
- Bodily senses
- Emotional responses and attachments
- Humor and expectations
- Musicality, rhythm, pattern
- Gesture and communication
- Intentionality

Oral language (Mythic understanding): with both bodily and oral symbols, with which to communicate, our experiences of the body inform our language of understanding with
- Story
- Metaphor
- Abstract binary opposites (and mediations thereof)
- Rhyme, rhythm, pattern
- Jokes and humor
- Powerful images
- Dramatic play

Written language (Romantic understanding): with the development of visual symbols, so is our understanding of the world shaped by them - not just the alphabet, but numbers, symbols, tables, maps, and other visual organizers - as well as by the effects they have on human culture, including
- Heroic narrative
- Humanizing meaning
- Revolt and idealism
- The literate eye / graphic organizers
- Collections and sets
- Extremes and limits
- Role play

Thinking about language theoretically (Philosophic understanding): with increased practice and skill in the use of oral and written language, we can begin to deconstruct the meanings these arbitrary symbols have come to have in our word, which may be confirmed and/or challenged through
- Meta-narrative of theory
- Analysis and synthesis
- Search for authority, truth, evidence
- Alternative theories
- Anomalies, ironies, ambiguities
- Bringing ideas to life in one's own life

I must admit, we have not gotten greatly into turning language over on itself reflexively (Ironic understanding) in our discussions as of yet, because it is not a stage even high school students have not yet obtained, so I'm not as confident reporting on that. However, where Philosophic understanding falls short ("All generalizations are false" are the opening words of Egan's chapter on the last stage), there Ironic understanding takes up the reins, as learners begin to turn their knowledge over on itself and examine knowledge as a subject, itself.

What to make of all of this? Quite frankly, I don't know. Not yet, at least. If you've made it this far, I congratulate you and appreciate your persistence. I'm so full of thoughts and still making sense of this all for myself, it's hard to think critically about it and respond properly. Just because I can summarize this all does not at all mean I understand it. Really, it would be best for me just to go and erase all I've written up to this point and start anew ... in a classroom ... with students ... and a topic, say, "eels" ... oh dear.

IERG Summer Training: Day One, Part One

Imaginative Education Summer Training
Vancouver, British Columbia


After the keynote talk last night, now we are into full-day course work. I've realized that I'm a bit of an odd man out, though certainly not the only one. I do not belong to the two dominant groups of educators from schools that are actively working to implement Imaginative Education in their schools. One cohort has a year already behind them, so they make up most of Level 2, while the other is just starting, like myself, so we are considered Level 1.

So, for us in Level 1, today was all about introductions, information, and intention. What is the point of Imaginative Education? What does it consist of? What are the fundamental theories? Well, I'll do my best to tell you, so far as I understand it ...

First of all, the underlying theory of Imaginative Education is best read in Kieran Egan's The Educated Mind. Looking back on his earlier work, I can see how it has built up to a book like this. It's quite comprehensive, something to sink your teeth into, but not so complicated and involved that you're going to lose your teeth entirely over it.

The introductory chapter, "Three Old Ideas and a New One", provides the premise: Three dominant paradigms of educational thought are sort of duking it out in the current education system, making only for conflicted and confused educators, unsure what the real purpose of education is. These three ideas include the two purposes I mentioned in my post yesterday - socialization and academics - plus the more newly developed purpose of education to stimulate children's development. As I re-read this introductory chapter last night, I realized that these ideas represent the three waves of educational paradigm shifting in Western human history.

Before Western and Eastern worlds, there was just one human world, and in this world, education served one purpose alone: socialization, and, we might add, survival. Oral cultures used both apprenticeship models of teaching and stories to acculturate their youth into the customs, values, and beliefs of their cultural community, as well as their individual roles in it. We see this purpose today in moves toward democratic education, as well as in the "basics" of reading and mathematics deemed crucial to functioning as an adult in our society.

Fast forward to Plato. Now, Plato is not the first philosopher of Greek society (Socrates being his most significant predecessor), but I'm going to dare to say that he was the first philosopher responsible for a conception that would become Western society (the Enlightenment being its birthing, perhaps). His work, The Republic revolutionized education by suggesting that education was meant not as a service to society, but to the advancement of the individual mind. From Plato we have the Academy, and from the Academy, of course, academics: the "core curriculum", as it is called, of areas of study deemed necessary to study in the course of one's life. (Seeing as his heroic, exemplary "philosopher-kings" would have to undergo up to 50 years of education, it was a societal role reserved for the elite, capable few. Today, this is called tracking. Thank you, Plato. Really.)

Fast forward again to the 19th century, when Jean-Jacques Rousseau begins his masterpiece Émile with the observation that we "are always looking for the man in the child, without considering what he is before he becomes a man." Boom! If Plato is responsible for the conception of the Western world, then Rousseau's mental DNA contributed greatly to the birth of child development. With 20th century scholars Jean Piaget and John Dewey added into the mix, we have, in today's world, the developmental purpose of education: to stimulate children's psychological development in the grasping of advanced mental concepts, ideas, and theories of mind. We cannot expect children to add and subtract numbers, they say, before we allow them to experience the concept of number to begin with. Piaget, especially, is well-known for his series of "tasks" that children of a certain age cannot complete, due to their developmental stage. Besides the fact that this serves to utterly humiliate the actual capabilities of children, it helps us understand that children's ideas and knowledge of the world develops as they grow, much the way human ideas have developed throughout history.

Ok. Now what? A new theory? A new idea? No and yes. Or yes and no. I'm not sure what Egan is suggesting is so much a "new" theory as a new idea regarding the relation these three theories have to each other in the educational world. Which you might, of course, call a theory.

His premise: these three theories are inherently incompatible with each other; not that they are inherently incorrect, but that they cannot be compromised when pooled together conceptually. One always prevails above the others, and each has served as the dominant educational paradigm of the recent past of educational thought. In other words, if these theories make up the points of a triangle, they pull and pull on their respective ends, trying to make their point the top of an isosceles formation, rather than reach towards each other in equilateral formation.

If we want to re-conceive education as fulfilling all three purposes simultaneously, while keeping it free of conflicting paradigms for instruction, then we must re-conceive our notion of these purposes. Socialization reaches beyond the society; Academics reach beyond knowledge; and psychological development reaches beyond the brain. When each of these ideas reaches beyond their perceived boundaries, they do, indeed, connect with each other. Where? Egan calls them "kinds of understanding".

He begins with Russian educational psychologist and thinker Vygotsky, "He argued that we make sense of the world by use of mediating intellectual tools that in turn profoundly influence the kind of sense we make." (Egan, p. 29) In other words, as the child interacts with its environment, s/he picks up on the ways the world is represented, observed, and made sense of by others, and eventually comes to adapt these tools already in use. "So the mind is not an isolable thing like the brain inside its skull; it extends into and is constituted of its socio-cultural surroundings, and its kinds of understanding are products of the intellectual tools forged and used in those surroundings." (p. 30)

Surroundings ... children learn to socialize themselves by grasping onto these cognitive tools, as they observe and interact with them in their surroundings. Kinds of understanding ... require different kinds of knowledge, but this knowledge is not the determinant factor of one's understanding of the world. Intellectual tools ... children move through stages of life, in which they more readily grasp certain tools before others, the journey of which is, by itself, a process of development. None of the original ideas is refuted in Egan's new idea, but they are observed through a different lens that seems to allow them to cooperate better with each other.

And this is all just back story! I haven't even gotten to the juice! I'll keep you on edge, just a bit, while I compose the next post.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

IERG Summer Training: Hello, Vancouver!

Imaginative Education Summer Training
Vancouver, British Columbia

I know, I know ... I've just gotten my Master's, what on earth am I doing traipsing off to this education symposium in Portland and that training course in Vancouver ... ?! The eternal student within just can't help it, I suppose.

Here I am, making a switch now from thinking in terms of "emergent curriculum", "the pedagogy of listening", and "child as protagonist" - to - "cognitive tools", "binary oppositions" and "learning in depth". It may seem like a violent swing - and it is, in certain ways - but one of the precise reasons I am here is because I get the impression Reggio Emilia and Imaginative Education share several fundamental philosophies, especially regarding the image of the child. However, as their vocabularies imply, the practices that have emerged from each are quite different.

Part of this has to do with how each is choosing to respond to the traditional curriculum. IE is making far more of an effort to work with the system of established standards and curricula, not nearly as concerned with WHAT students are learning as with HOW students are learning content. Reggio is very concerned with WHAT students are learning and HOW, so out goes the traditional curriculum with the bathwater and: What happens when we redesign the school from the children upwards? (That is, building a curriculum from the interests they express, in one of several forms.)

Is there some middle ground? I don't know. That's kind of why I'm here. And already, the analyst in me is having a hey-day, let me tell you!

Here is my first predicament: Tonight, Kieran Egan opened with a lecture on "Dividing the School in Two", making the point that, since the very conception of modern Western schooling, the socializing and academic purposes of education have constantly been confused with each other. I agree. Think about it: Why do we study Social Studies? Are we primarily learning to be good, democratic citizens? Or are we studying the philosophy of human communities? (How's that for a S.S. topic, Dad?) Put in other words, do we go to school to become acculturated to our society, or for the academic benefit of our individual minds?

Both, you'd probably say. Both, says the school system. Both, as depicts a several-years-old Venn diagram I drew in my journal once of the overlapping services I perceived inherent to my position as teacher (service to society / service to students).

Both ... but how can education serve one purpose without slighting the other?

So, we brainstormed: What if we separated the socializing from the academic activities and experiences of schooling? What would that kind of structure look like? Would it be divided into morning and afternoon session? Separate "Soc" and "Ac" schools, as Kieran suggested? How do we go about re-thinking schools for this separation.

And here is where I get stuck. I'm not sure I like the idea of this kind of separation. Yes, they can begin to smother each other if we don't keep track of them, but won't an increased awareness among teachers suffice? Why the need to separate?

Let me confess: I'm an American. I went to a good old American Master's program, which means I'm well versed in our favorite American pedagogue John Dewey. And John Dewey is all about mediating the dichotomies. One extreme or the other is not the answer, it is within the tension between the two that we exist, in every realm of human existence. So it is with education: the opposing forces we often feel at odds with each other in schooling each provide essential pieces to the puzzle, and it is through their interaction that dynamic education emerges.

Kieran disagrees. When you let them interact with each other, everyone gets lost as to the point of the current activity at hand, students and teachers alike.

The other question rising inside of (the emergent curriculum thinker inside of) me in opposition to this idea is: Where are the students in this conversation? Perhaps they are not able to make the separation of social from academic aspects of the curriculum. Perhaps it is not that the social and academic are mixed, but that they are not properly acknowledged and balanced in the everyday classroom that things are so muddled.

I can't say I'm convinced either way, to tell you the truth. And, by this point, I feel I'm just trying to write my way into some profound thought that will surely not come tonight. But perhaps I can put it out to you - whoever has made it, reading this far - and invite your ideas and comments. Surely they are not as tired as mine ...

Friday, June 25, 2010

Self and Storytelling

That's a vague title. I'm having trouble determining what the most fitting title for this entry would be. Let me just tell you the story ...

Now that it is summer, I am back substituting at the Reggio Emilia-based school I taught at last summer. Today I was in the toddler classroom with mostly two-year-olds. As I am wont to do, on occasion, over afternoon snack, I told the story of Coyote's Whiskers, about three little mice to sneak into Coyote's den, one after the other, and steal a whisker to take back to their mouse village. By the time the third mouse is up, Coyote has caught on and pretends to sleep ... that is, until the third mouse arrives, when he raises his head, howls loudly, and then proceeds to chase the mice out his den and up a Douglas fir tree, where all the mice can still be found today, hiding in the Douglas fir cones. That's the short of it, anyway.

Not thirty seconds after I was finished with the story, Peter burst out with the following narrative:

"Once, when I was in the woods, I saw a coyote and I sneaked up on him and stole his whiskers, and then he gave a big "RAR!" but then I put him in a cage!"

Hmm. What to make of that? His enthusiasm took me more by surprise than the changed ending. I didn't have time to think of much else at that point, as Nathan chimed in with his own narrative:

"Can I tell you a story? I was in the woods once, and I went in the door and stole Coyote's whiskers, and he went "RAR!" but then I put him, I put him in jail!"

Before I knew it, Peter and Nathan were going at it in a kind of narrative duel, back and forth, each trying to out-do the other's ending.

What the heck?! What a powerful insight into the minds of these two-year-olds! The only sense I can make of it is that they are in that phase, in which everything is experienced through the perspective of their own self, and only their own self. If they relate to the mice of the story, they become a mouse, they become the agent of the story.

Wow. I'm still trying to sort out other possible meanings to make of this. Perhaps it is simply what it is, and I should just let it be that (we/I have an awful tendency to overdue the potential analysis of children's behavior). But it was a story I simply had to share.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Opal Summer Symposium, Day Three

"Nurturing Habits of Heart and Mind"

I get to play!

Saturday is traditionally the day of the symposium when teachers get to "play" with the materials that students get to work with every day. It is, by far, the favorite. And no wonder - how often do teachers get to be students?! (The fun kind, I mean...)

It was today that I realized a bit more about what draws me to this school, and why I feel so comfortable in this environment. Today, as I sat, again, in front of the materials, remembering how I felt the first time I was here a year ago, I felt the student inside me experience such satisfaction, I'd no idea how long it had been since I'd been in touch with her. Working on my Master's, I'd been a very good student on the outside, going to classes, writing my papers, wrestling with ideas and considering the future ... which is all good and well ... but I realized I'd lost touch with myself as a student on the inside, in the last crazy and stressful months of thesis writing and graduation preparation. So, it is to her - my inner student - that I dedicate this day of my life, and will let the photos speak for themselves ...

Teachers work with different materials in different classrooms: clay, watercolor, wire, fabric ...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Opal Summer Symposium, Day Two

"Nurturing Habits of Heart and Mind"


Another round of inspiring speakers, including further thoughts on the purpose of documentation. Especially resonant were the comments of Patricia Hunter McGrath, a well-known atelierista in the Reggio community. She spoke of documentation "as a way of listening to children that projects their voices to the whole world", and of artistic materials as "the text of early childhood education". What would happen, she demanded, if we designed a school for listening? What would it look like? What would it sounds like? I enjoyed the exercise of imagining such a school in my mind ...

For now, though, we can look to what other folks are doing. To keep moving with this idea of documentation, I continued to document, myself, the different kinds of documentation I found at Opal.

This is a poster on Community Building in the preschool classroom. Beneath the title at the top, it begins with the questions of the theme: What is a community? What does a strong community look like and sound like? What agreements would you like to make for our community?
A description follows of how teachers spoke with children and invited their voices (in the language of several artistic media) into conversation about community. The blue panel on the right features the transcription from a conversation with the kids. Below, there is some of their artwork, as well.

These panels are on a longer, more detailed theme: "Investigating the big idea of transformation." Here, not just examples of the children's work are included, but photos of the children in action are included, as well. What was that about children as researchers? Researchers, indeed!

In the K-1 classroom, a big theme that emerged this year was caring. Below are several documentations of the class' on-going learning process and experiences around that topic.

What does caring look like? Students created individual artistic representations, then worked together to create the collaborative mural below:

Here, the site of growing tadpoles. Questions anticipate their coming transformation: "What will the frogs be looking for in their new habitat? What will they need to survive?" Learning to care for other living creatures sometimes helps us think about caring for our own kind ...

How do we design a classroom, a school, a community, that values this kind of listening?

This afternoon's talk on the foundational principles of Reggio Emilia helped me with this question, as I began to think of ...
  • Child as protagonist
  • Child as collaborator
  • Child as communicator
  • Teacher as partner, nurturer, guide
  • Teacher as researcher, engaging children as researchers
  • Environment as teacher
  • Parent as partner in education
  • Documentation as communication
  • Organization as foundational
What does this kind of school look like in your mind? In your community? In these times?

Such fascinating questions to be ruminating on, such food for thought, and for the passion I have for this work ...

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Opal Summer Symposium, Day One

"Nurturing Habits of Heart and Mind"


Whenever I arrive somewhere, I always have to take a moment to walk around and take it all in. That's how I found the following exhibit put up by another Reggio-inspired school (a preschool) from California. It documents an on-going theme of the environment that has become a part of life in that school, in many ways. Documentation is one of the foundations of Reggio Emilia pedagogy, and can take many forms, as this exhibit exemplified.

Documentation: An integral element of the Reggio Emilia approach. Instead of prescribing a curriculum of lessons before school begins, teachers allow curricular themes to emerge from children's play, questions, and observations. As a result, more time can be put into documenting that process, and presenting it for students to see and remember, for parents to hear more of their children's learning, and for the general public to celebrate in the journey of learning.

An interactive felt board of poetry and photos. Part of the documentation shown above.

There were also poems written by the students, art work they had created to publicize their concerns about public littering, and other gems of children's lives that teachers had the privilege to observe and share.

Opal classrooms are similarly full of a variety of kinds of documentation of students' learning. As students get older, they can start to help make their own documentation, such as the family history story books below.

Children are authors, whose works are displayed in various classroom locations.

Sometimes, children's work just speaks for itself, like the following collaborative project:

Part of the culminating 5th grade project: a design for the new Opal playground.

There were several speakers today who spoke of the school as a place of research ... of children as collaborative researcher ... of learning as developing habits of the heart and the mind ... of dialogue as a conversation with a center, not sides (attributed to Meg Wheatley) ... and of teacher language as determinant of students' ability to grow their thoughts. It is humbling to be among these thinkers, these reflective practitioners. But it also feels familiar, comfortable. I feel like I've found my crowd.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Opal Summer Symposium, here I come!

From my journal:

It's been a year since I first discovered this place for myself, and I'm taking this moment to ponder, again, why I feel so drawn here ... what continues to bring me back?

Is it the concept and pedagogy of emergent curriculum? - This exciting pedagogical idea, new on my radar, that resonates deeply with my sense of self and style as an educator?? ... Is it the community I observe at work here? - This community of conscientious, passionate, intellectual thinkers, who call themselves teacher-researchers?? ... Is it the values and philosophies I see embodied in their practice and scholarship?

I am sure it is all of these things. But today, I am remembering one moment on one day, one year ago. It was my first visit to Opal, my first real encounter with the Reggio Emilia pedagogical approach. We were all invited to "play" with several materials provided in each of the different classrooms. As I sat down at a table in front of a large fern frond, with an empty page in front of me, watercolors to my left, and a brush to my right, I remembered what it was to be a student.

How often do teachers take the time and care to remember that?! And how did I feel there, as a student at Opal?

I felt capable.
I felt a trust in me.
I felt creative and challenged and, yet, calm in it all.
But most of all,
I felt welcome,

Philosophically, pedagogically, socially ... yes, I am intrigued, I am drawn back to this place and these people, once again. But it is that first moment as a student in this school that I carry with me when I leave, and that always brings me back.

So, here I am again. Hello, Opal!

Last day of school ...

What do you get at the drawing table on the last day of the preschool year?

"I'm drawing a green bee ... with purple hair!" - Georgia

Our insect unit was about a month ago, I wonder where this came from in the depths of her three-year-old memory. Interesting: after this picture, she left to play with other children, then returned later. Why draw just one bee, when you can draw ...

"Look at all your bees!" I said.
"Yes," she said. "Papa Bee [left], Mama Bee [right], and Baby Bee [above]."
She can imagine a green bee with purple hair, yet the very real structures of her life come through as well ... always a balance of the abstract and the concrete ...

The bee theme continues: Tommy is splotching all over his paper with a black marker. "What are you doing?" asks Kevin. "I'm making bee footprints," responds Tommy, without breaking a mote of concentration.

Kevin goes with it: "Are you gonna draw the honey, Tommy?" Tommy grabs a yellow marker and begins drawing with it. "Yeah," he says, "right there." "And the flower?" Kevin continues, "And the honey in it?" Tommy continues drawing without once looking at Kevin.

It is amazing to me the zone children seem to get into when they are engaging in art. It is such an informal, yet very involved and intentional act. As we see above, it seems to be a platform where children are expressing, sorting out, making sense of what they have learned. But they are not in their own little worlds, as we might imagine the more eccentric artists of the world. Though they mostly stick to their own canvases, there is an interplay of questions and ideas, out of which a certain theme - in this case, bees - emerges. As the teacher, who is trying harder to listen than to talk, it is my chance to observe how each student is processing this theme. Georgia seems to be taking bees over into her known world, while Kevin is making the rounds on his current scaffolding of bee knowledge, though it is clear there is still room for it to develop (honey is not found in the flowers, the bees extract nectar and make honey from it in their hives). And who knows what Tommy is thinking, whether he set out to make bee footprints, or if his vicinity to and awareness of Georgia's bee family helped him give meaning to what he was doing.

It is good to know that, even on the last day of school, the children are still learning. They will continue to do so, every day, every picture, every thought ... that is indeed, good to know.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

"The End. And then ..."

David, I have found this year, is quite the storyteller:

"I'm drawing me and my sister and my mommy and my daddy. The whole family. This is my daddy on the mountain when he was falling down. There's a bad guy, but my sister beat the bad guy..."

David is drawing and telling simultaneously, and it's hard to tell whether the drawing is inspiring his telling, or the other way around. Whichever it is, David makes no pauses.

"Then there was a dragon. He had large eyes, teeth, big head, long legs. [No drawing.] He scared that bad guy away. [Draws multiple images of the same picture: four blue people on the far left.]"

Teacher: Who are those other people?
David: A bad guy.
Teacher: Four bad guys?!
David: No, that one's running away. He got so small he lost his face. The End.

With this explanation, I gain a new perspective on David's artistic representation of his story. The four blue figures on the far left are all the same person. "He got so small he lost his face." ... !!! ... I don't know why that resonates so deeply with me, I suppose it is simply a small look into the language of children that is so primitive, yet expresses the truth of the matter so much better.

"Then there was trouble again. [Begins to draw over original family characters, filling them in with solid colors red and black.] A robot ... toy robot ... my robot. We lived happily ever after. The End. And then there was big trouble again. [Draws in original character of himself with blue.] I got blue on my face and my brains and my legs, too. The End."

And then, just as quickly and as rashly as he had told his story, he was done. "Done!" he chimed, "Can I hang it up?"

Of course, David. Of course!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

June 10 Performance: "When are you gonna grow up?!"

I'm honored to be the Seattle Storytellers Guild's featured storyteller at their monthly series "Tales for a Thursday Evening". Here's the skinny:

My favorite stories are the ones that show you how to be an adult without letting go of the child within. Come hear about some of my journey to adulthood as I share some personal stories and some favorite tales to tell. I spent most of the past year working behind the scenes on publicity for the Guild, while writing my master's thesis on storytellers at the University of Washington, so I'm excited to step up on stage.

Free. Refreshments provided.

Thursday, June 10, 7:00pm
Haller Lake Community Club
12579 Densmore Ave N., Seattle, 98113

For more information: