Wednesday, 6 March 2013

A new 3R's

The "Co-constructing Contexts for Meaningful Engagement" Conference at Charles Sturt University was one of those PD opportunities I wish I could share with all Kindergarten teachers in Ontario and beyond. I have been thinking about Saturday's experience all week. When asked at school how the conference was, I gushed. However when pressed about why, I realized it was hard to pin down exactly the one reason I was so transformed. Now I think that it was more than the exceptional choices of presenters and speakers. It included the opportunity to network at length, to reflect, to probe new ideas, to explore the big ideas of the morning's talk with a group of likewise inspired educators.

Following Lilian Katz's keynote speech, we were given time to sit with a smaller group of people, some 20 or so per room. The facilitator in our room encouraged us to think about key messages we'd taken from the talk, and to reflect upon what it meant for our own professional practice. I was happy to share my table with teachers, university instructors, and my ETFO AQ instructors whose two courses have been such a large part of my ability to take risks and embrace new program directions. We discussed how Lilian outlined how to choose or find a worthy topic for deep, extended project work. I brought up an image that has been in my mind for some time, building on the idea that an interest which spawns from a child's wonderment is often called "a spark". As a child, I loved to help my father when he built a fire in the fireplace or the woodstove. It is a task that requires timing and attention to detail in order to get right: the need for kindling right when the spark catches, the deliberate choice of smaller wood to catch before the long, slow-burn logs can be added. It seems to me that inquiries in the classroom are much like this: you have to be there to catch the spark, and kindle it quickly with questions or connections before it goes out. Adding layers of research, experimentation, or writing to the project requires it to be well-stoked and burning on its own (that is to say, the children have ownership of the exploration and rely on the teacher more as resource support by this time). Connections can be like coals: a fire long burnt-out, but deep below the heat still resting and quick to catch anew with added fuel. I have seen this too, where explorations I thought were over come roaring back to life when a new student takes interest or some new discovery ignites the play all over again.

At the risk of seeming cliche, I think that a good PD experience may answer your questions, and leave you with fixes for your problems. A great PD experience, however, leaves you with more questions than you had going in - new questions, sparked by "aha" moments or ideas that challenge your way of thinking. Indeed, I felt both relieved (Oh, so many people out there who are doing emergent curriculum and proving its value) and also humbled (Oh, but look at how much more I could be doing).

My first small workshop was with Carol Anne Wien, whose knowledge of Reggio pedagogy is but one of the reasons she is held in high regard by so many Reggio-inspired teachers in Ontario. She used intensely personal stories from a childcare centre where she had long been a partner in order to illustrate how teachers can let go of outdated practices and embrace a more wholistic, emergent curriculum. Her framework detailed how "the teachers' stance" as educators honouring children's experience involves "attentiveness, empathy, authenticity, and appreciation of the child's voice". The stories were painfully personal and left more than one of us in tears, and in awe. My main take-away from the session was an echo of something Lilian had said earlier about children tackling big ideas and doing "hard work": "Building stamina takes being connected to the project - motivation to work hard comes from genuine interest in the work". That it is the same for teachers should come as no surprise, but it was an "aha" moment for me nonetheless.

Critical thinking prompts left for my students at our interactive art piece, inspired by Project Zero.

My next workshop I picked by title alone, and was later delighted to find it was hosted by Joanne Babalis, whose blog "Transforming our Learning Environment into a Space of Possibilities" was one of the first places I knew to explore the process of changing one's practice by changing the environment or learning space. While I have followed Joanne on twitter, Pinterest, and joined her and others in the fantastic "We Can See" Project Blog, we had never met. The title which so intrigued me: "Children’s Treasures: Toys and Tinkering as Powerful Entries for Curriculum and Research" really spoke to the year I have had. In past years of teaching I regret that I saw toys from home as a distraction from the important learning at school. Last year I began to reform that idea and began to find ways to allow personal treasures to enter everyday play in my classroom, and was delighted with the wealth of new ideas to talk about every day. We were sorting by categories we never dreamed of before: wheels or no wheels, faces or none, toys that speak or make music, toys that are silent, toys that are soft, toys that are shiny, hard, "spinny", huggable, fast, funny. That was just the beginning.
As Joanne put it: "When students' toy treasures are welcomed in the classroom, they provide endless possibilities for meaningful engagement, inquiry, and learning". Joanne's ongoing projects, as displayed so lovingly in photos, document binders and even videos, were a testament to what is possible in the new FDK program with teachers who embrace the teachers stance as outlined by Carol Anne Wien. My main take-away from her talk was the vignette about a boy whose exploration of magnets was difficult to interpret at first: "When you aren't sure where the play will lead, it's good to keep listening for clues, for points of entry". Joanne is the model of the responsive teacher.

At the end of the day, three of us twitter friends who'd just met in person continued to tweet our connections and reflections. Tracy (@TracyPick) and Nancy (@world_of_k) noted that we had a "new 3R's" to move our thinking along as educators: Risk, Reflection, Relationships. This was a response to Carol Anne Wien's stance as a teacher, and I think it's a good model for how to expand our learning together.


  1. This was a wonderful conference! I could have listened to Lilian Katz all day. I was also in Joanne's session and I'm always very impressed with the work she is doing. I also used to think the toys from home were a distraction, but what a wonderful entry point to learning. I find that I'm constantly looking at things differently and pausing to think how a certain action or interest that a child demonstrates could engage them in different ways. I love that these conferences give us opportunities to connect with each other.

  2. I agree, it's not just the presentations but the time built-in to connect to others that made the conference such a high-impact event for me. Connecting with online friends (those I've made through twitter) over the course of the day was also something new for me: live-tweeting highlights of the talk meant I was able to have a conversation with others in the room hearing the same messages and reflecting on them.
    Joanne and Carol Anne continue to light the way for those of us who may not ever have the chance to visit Italy or spend time learning from "pedagogistas" from Reggio Emilia schools. I was thrilled with both presentations, although I would have loved for another day to go visit some of the others as well. The good news for me was that my fabulous Kindy AQ instructors, who presented a workshop surrounding inquiry play outdoors, will be sharing a similar message this year at the Kindergarten Conference in May.

  3. I believe a couple of my colleagues attended their presentation and quite enjoyed it. I would love to hear them as well, but I'm also presenting this year. I'm sure I'll have a chance to hear them at a later date.

    1. Sergio,
      I regret that I will also miss their presentation for the same reason! I am delighted to be involved, however, because I do find so many new ideas bounce around from the workshop participants that I go home reinvigorated, excited to try new things. It's also fun to peek inside the other rooms and see what your neighbouring workshops have to play with. I do hope you'll pop in and say hi!

    2. So great that you're presenting! Funny, I just noticed that your critical thinking prompts are part of my workshop title. We'll definitely touch base!

  4. Wow!

    I must admit I read your post and was quite impressed before the March Break. Laurel, you are extremely reflective and have the gift of words! Your post was very insightful and engaging.

    Thank you kindly for attending my presentation and for sharing some of your learning on your blog. It is an honour to be mentioned!

    I hope that I can continue to share all that I have learned and light the way for others working with young children! It is my new mission in life!!

    Thank you again and I look forward to continuing to follow your blog!



  5. Joanne, I am in good company then, because your posts are likewise insightful and reflect your thinking and your learning along with that of the children. Thank you!