Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Connecting the dots

Our first sign of spring found outside, brought in for a visit today: pillbug!

In February, I shared a story from my Kindergarten Specialist AQ class: we had a discussion about our heroes or mentors in education, those people who we listen to and think: "That's the way it's done!", or "I'd like to teach like that". I had said: "...several years before I'd hear the terms: "self-regulation", "Reggio-inspired", "emergent curriculum", and "inquiry-based learning", I met a teacher who embodied all those ideals in her teaching practice". I was delighted to hear that she was invited to speak to our class for our last Saturday session, because I remembered that above all, Nancy Thomas advocated for the importance of play.

Now it might seem a funny statement: "the importance of play", when speaking about Kindergarten teaching. Of course play is important! Lessons should be fun, and animated, so students will want to participate. That is what I believed, having taught in Kindergartens as a supply teacher, and then with my own. Make it fun, sing a song, do a dance, teach a rhyme. But what of play? Play as a reward for finishing a learning task, or play as the method of uncovering new ideas, these are very different understandings of "play-based learning". So it is that in my early years of teaching, I thought I was all about play, but then I would attend one of Nancy's workshops, and I would see glimpses of the bigger picture:
  • No need to worry about the child who chooses the train centre day after day and eschews your invitations to the painting table. 
  • No need to teach every child every expectation from the document as if they were discreet skills and not pieces of a larger puzzle. 
  • Play as the deep, meaningful expression of a child's interests and ideas. 
  • Science as the most natural topic of day-to-day learning, not "themes" or holidays, or whole group lessons, but getting down eye-to-eye with a student at the nature table to ask what they see, and what they think. 
  • Play as the authentic expression of what a child is thinking about in the moment.
When I spoke to other teachers in my course, I couldn't pinpoint exactly what it was about her message that so inspired me. From the workshops I attended, I saw that Nancy focused on science, or perhaps I would better describe it as "wonder", while many other workshops offered ideas about literacy, numeracy, personal and social growth, or the arts. I wondered if that was the reason I so connected with her message: I am happiest in the woods or at the lake, listening for birds or exploring local flora. I love a good storm, wind in the leaves, "lovely light" time, and treasures found in low tide. With my own kids, I try to share the every-changing nature of our world by exploring the outdoors in all weather. Teaching Kindergarten means every day being able to indulge in my senses and share the wonderment with my students.

My girl cradling a vole found at the bottom of our sledding hill.
A windchill can't keep us inside when there's chickadees to feed!

On Saturday, Nancy shared a slideshow of pictures from schools in Reggio Emilia, where I just learned she had been to study before I had met her. As I looked at the now-familiar images of beautiful, light-filled classrooms and well-stocked ateliers, I once again began to see a bigger picture emerge. As I heard about the teaching approach in Reggio Emilia schools in Nancy's words, I connected the dots between so many of the ideas now informing my day-to-day decisions in the classroom. The first compelling message from the Reggio schools is that of "the environment as third teacher", wherein real or authentic objects are present for daily use, such as glass, china and wood. I remember that when I read about this approach, while I immediately loved the aesthetic of a beautiful, natural classroom, I worried about the addition of breakable objects into a busy room. What I discovered, however, was exactly what the literature described: children treat their environment with care when they see a reason to. Plastic dishes and bowls are meant to withstand being thrown, stepped on, or worse. Why on earth would we want that for our children?

As Nancy spoke about the incredible projects in the art studios, or the learning shared in all classrooms through documentation, I saw more connections emerge. Carol Anne Wien (whose workshop last month inspired three of us twitter friends and attendees to coin "a new 3R's"of the role of the teacher in an inquiry-based classroom), worked with Nancy and other Reggio-inpired educators, resulting in the wonderful: "Emergent Curriculum in the Primary Classroom".

No matter which slide we were looking at, a theme was evident throughout, one which she touched on again and again when describing the freedom of students in a Reggio classroom to take risks we never would or could allow in North American classrooms. Nancy saw in the pictures aspects of life in Reggio Emilia that I had missed: everywhere there was evidence of children being being trusted to explore their limits both physically (climbing up ladders or on tabletops to participate in a project) and socially (students working alone or practically heaped on top on one another while enjoying group play). She outlined the image of the child in Reggio Emilia society: "Children are strong, resourceful, and capable. So, naturally, more is allowed to happen in class and outside". 

Further to this, she contrasted the Reggio approach with the North American model concerning the difficulties of students whose learning styles don't fit with the overall needs of the mainstream classroom. I was surprised to find tears springing to my eyes when I heard: "In Reggio schools, children have special rights, not special needs". This way of honouring the multitude possibilities inherent in every human being is one that I had never heard before, and it framed the purpose of following the interests of the child in an indisputable way. Every child has a right to an education that serves their needs and interests, and those who learn in a subtly or dramatically different way from most others are not excepted.

So, when I connect the dots, the picture that emerges is as clear as a constellation on a moonless night. What made Nancy's presentations so compelling for me was her constant message, consistent to this day in everything she says: the child comes first. That's it. Deceptively simple, and yet it took me years to understand it. The child comes first, not the curriculum, not the fashionable new trend in teaching, not the politics nor the patterns of what worked before, not the size of the class or the program being applied. The children and their interests drive the direction of the inquiries and the depth of their engagement in topics.  A skillful teacher listens, joins in the conversations, and adds just enough support to keep the spark burning, while capturing the learning and helping the children reflect upon it.

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