Sunday, 26 May 2013

balance, pattern, rhythm and awe

I have been experimenting with loose parts as artistic expression for a few years, more on my own or with my children, but as I learned about Reggio-inspired classrooms and saw images of students creating installation-type artwork in primary classes, I began to see the possibilities for my Kindergarten class. Another way I like to think of it: I stopped putting out glue as a way to capture natural materials in artwork, and started playing with balance, pattern, movement and time.

Two boys collaborated to make "Disneyland: a perfect day to go to the park". The problem-solving that took place in the creation of this park was remarkable.
Those who follow me on twitter, vine or Pinterest have seen this as my icon.

Last year I began rather small, with a table-top centre containing sand, stones and pine cones we collected on neighbourhood walks, daily collections of more ephemeral things (dandelions, leaves and seed pods, flowers and blossoms from trees, feathers). At the left is one of my favourite images from that centre: a theme park with many rides, a partly-cloudy sky in behind, and brightly-coloured flags soaring high above the waterslide and pool.
I brought some smooth, flat stones from my nearby beach and added materials from around the room as more and more students took an interest. We made a Voicethread story to share the creations made (note: sound quality on my previous computer is rather bad!) after I showed the children some videos and images of my favourite land artists. Many of those artists were shared at the "sticks and stones" workshop, and thus linked in my previous post.

This year I made a concerted effort to collect materials that would provoke my students. During the year, previous large-group inquiry projects had taken over much of the room, spilling from the wonder table to nearby tables, to the carpet, to the walls. I hoped my enthusiasm for creating "ephemeral art", or works that cannot be hung up on the wall when finished, would be catching.
Each trip to my local beach meant taking home a bucket of stones, bricks, and beach glass, and boxes of driftwood in all shapes and sizes. Class walks to the park lead to a growing collection of pine cones, feathers, and dandelions. My friend and teaching partner D loaned me tree slices from a recent pruning. After students explored the materials for a week or so, I began to introduce photos and short videos about the artists who work with sticks, stones, and other natural materials. The excitement was palpable. "Oooh's" and "Aaaah's" when I showed my photos from when Peter Reidel last came to create his seemingly impossible balance sculptures at the local beach (click here to see photoset of Peter's work). Complete, awed silence when I showed clips of Andy Goldsworthy's stone balance works, followed by applause. When the lights came on and students "tip-toe'd off to activities", loose parts began to spread about the room. I have to admit, my heart soared.

Precariously-perched or perfectly balanced? Peter's visits always leave me in awe.
There are many images to share, and as I began collecting for this post, I realized that once again I had much more to say than would fit sensibly on one page. As at our workshop, where we shared various different aspects of working with natural elements at different exploratory centres, I will break up the land art inquiry projects into sections as well. The first spark that caught, initially from the materials set out and then from the images shared, was the balance work of Peter Reidel (click here for P.R.'s stone balancing site). I have met Peter on several occasions over the years, stopped to photograph him at work as he selects and stacks the enormous, flat stones on Long Branch beach, and this spring asked if I might share those photos with workshop attendees and students. He graciously agreed. I had told a few students about seeing his creations pop up at the beach, first in March and then again in May. Their interest soon spread, and I knew I had a new project to follow. Here are some of the wonderful creations that my students made at play.

Adding mirrors to their work add complexity and interest for S, and A (above).
F says: "Because it is a balance type of staying well, it won't fall".

I have noticed in past posts that video clips show up on the laptop or computer but not on the iPad. I have several short vine clips from moments that students asked me to capture, and in order to make them user-friendly for iPad owners I will add them here as links. Note: in some browsers 'vines' open with the volume set to mute; if you wish to hear the sound simply click on the speaker icon on the top left of the image.

Two friends building together: (vine clip one)
J made a sculpture: (vine clip two)
R's sculpture building with rocks: (vine clip three)
E tests how he can use "stable and unstable rocks": (vine clip four)

One aspect of loose parts play that differs from other visual arts projects (but not from music or dramatic arts, I notice) came to me as I watched my students last year and this: loose parts play is almost always collaborative. The problem-solving and complexity of the play is astounding. I will revisit this "aha" in more depth another time.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

sticks and stones

The first workshop attendees walk down the path from the Board Office building. A Loris Malaguzzi quote frames our view.

Thursday, May 9th was the evening of the annual Kindergarten Conference held for K teachers and DECE's in Peel. This conference is a major event each year, with fantastic keynote speakers, wonderful workshops to choose from, and dinner shared with hundreds of early years colleagues from all over the PDSB. I have attended this conference every year since 2005, either as a participant or as a presenter, and I always leave invigorated by the energy and new ideas shared. The theme of this year's conference was "Inspirations and Contexts, Kindergarten Play and Inquiry", and after the barbeque participants were able to visit two workshops from an amazing selection, fourteen in all. My only regret about presenting is that I was unable to visit any of the other presentations, which all looked so inviting! Our workshop, way down at tent #2, was "Sticks and Stones: Collaboration with Nature". If you were one of the many educators who attended the workshop, thank you for participating and making the trek down the garden path to play with us! I enjoyed meeting so many new people but also seeing so many familiar faces over the evening. 
What lies behind the apple tree and frame, above. Nearly ten years in the PDSB, only this week  I discover the wonder that is the old farm on the Board Office grounds. I arrived late afternoon as the clouds were beginning to clear to see this magnificent view. We were fortunate that the sun shone through brightly, just in time for our first guests.

I have been extremely fortunate in that I've worked with ELTs (Early Literacy resource Teachers) in the Kindergarten Network. This year I was invited to join Bev Moate and Amanda Giberson, both ELTs with a passion for the arts and early years inquiry. Collaborating with such knowledgeable educators is truly an honour. The process of preparing a workshop with them allowed me to focus deeply on an aspect of my program while having the professional feedback from colleagues. It helped me broaden my professional knowledge, so that I was able to problem solve, anticipate questions or concerns, and offer participants ideas based on experiences I have had.

We three: Amanda, me, Bev. Photo credit: Pam Taylor
For the workshop "Sticks and Stones" each of us brought several exciting invitations to share. Bev set up a wonderful light and shadow table, with provocations and ideas for simple materials to use such as the diy lightbox. She also created a mosaic centre which proved to be a very popular provocation: the salt dough squares and recipes were all gone by the end of the sessions. Amanda  set up a beautiful still life painting table, DIY clipboards made of various materials, and a "wonder box" full of provocations and guiding questions for teachers. Together we created a weaving centre complete with grasses, yarn, torn fabric and found materials to weave with. In order to show how simple materials may be used creatively, we each made our own weaving frames to bring for participants to try. To our delight, each frame was completely different, with fencing, empty frames, a trellis, and garden edging: all materials our participants could find and use on their own.

Setting up the "sticks and stones" and other loose parts in the warm afternoon sun. Still to hang: signs, ministry expectations from the visual arts, and inspiration posters.
Jim Grieve delivering the keynote speech to a receptive audience.

Our keynote speaker was Jim Grieve, who was once an important part of our school board but who now serves a much larger community of learners as "Assistant Deputy Minister for the Early Learning Division of the Ontario Ministry of Education". His message about capable, creative young learners was enthusiastically received. The few quotes I managed to tweet (#peelK) give an idea of the tone he set for our evening of learning together:
"Kindy readiness: readiness for K is NOT about being ready for grade one, grade two, etc. Get it right in early learning: ready for life"
"Children are capable of self-advocacy. We just need to listen".
"It's about learning for life. Brain growth for development: epigenetics: it's about connections that fire the imagination".
"News for grades 1 through 12: who says play-based ends in K? First we take kindergarten, then we take grade 1..." (This was met with cheers).
"The environment as third teacher: the reason for our indoor/outdoor Kindergarten conference. Like Finnish kindergarten, outdoors".
"Play is learning: purposeful play by provocateur educators. Don't engage right away. Listen, provoke. Stay with the moment".

I'm certain the final minutes were fantastic, but I knew I had to make it down the long path back to our workshop tent, so I rushed out before he finished to find the last of our signs now hung and the finishing touches complete. We were ready for our participants to, as we had described in the conference flyer: "experience, respond and play with the provocations found in nature to create something beautiful, employing the inquiry process as you create" (FDEL-K 2010, pg 15).

Picture book inspirations, weaving and hanging centre, mosaic dough display.
Bev adding final touches to sculpture, mosaic, and mandala table (loose parts, mirrors and frames).
Light and shadow invitations, DIY clipboards.
Still life invitations, see-through clipboards, wonder box.

My centres focused on investigations of some of my favourite artists who work with natural materials: Andy Goldsworthy, stone balancers Peter Reidel and Michael Grab, mandala artist Kathy Klein, and sound artist Ranjit Bhatnagar (who in turn was inspired by Mineko Grimmer). I have been experimenting with loose parts as artistic expression for the last few years, including my work for last year's workshop with Pam Taylor who was then the ELT for my former school. This year I made a concerted effort to collect many materials that would provoke my students. Each trip to my local beach meant taking home a bucket of stones, bricks, and beach glass, and boxes of driftwood in all shapes and sizes. My teaching partner and I took trips to the "Creative Zone" nearby our school for fabric, frames, yarn, and tiles. I created a section of short video clips to share with students, linked on my class site for families to use at home as well. While I did create a book for the workshop to display student explorations with these materials, I will save these photos for another post. Here I would rather let the photos share the story of our workshop evening. For those who were unable to attend, however, you may wish to visit some of the links we shared with the "Sticks and Stones" bitly bundle.

Hanging my "noisy ice sculpture" above a collection of metal bowls, tins, and wire racks.
This provocation provided extra entertainment when it crashed unexpectedly, giving me the perfect moment to share one of my favourite critical thinking prompts: "I used to think... but now I think..." while restringing it with stronger twine.

The re-strung noisy sculpture with two others, this time melting along perfectly. Reflection: next time, freeze the sculpture thin like the flower ice sculptures for faster melting (and thus a noisier experience).
Found art: frozen flowers for observing, drawing, spinning, etc. Flowers from the ground in a garden centre, but with students we use whatever we gather: leaves, feathers, flowers, pine cones.
Still life and hanging art invitation.
Mosaics, mandalas, loose parts play.
A participant at play: cherry blossoms and a spent tulip provide for a sensory artistic experience.
Capturing ideas as they float by - clipboards, whiteboards, chalkboards, iPads.
Participant creation - so lovely!
Sensory art with different textures: some students will play at such a centre for hours, creating stories with loose parts, designing beautiful vignettes.
D's tree blocks with the diseased wood showing through - a conversation starter.
Inspired by balance artist Peter Reidel (poster above table) by photos of student work, or by the beauty of the wood.
Our view of the board office building as we packed up our tent to go. What a glorious evening. Thank you to all who attended and made it such a collaborative creation!

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

We can see birds, part two

Some PM class friends watching starlings and robins hunting worms in the rain.
Last week I described how the current bird inquiry began back in early spring when two boys came to school excited about some "red birds" that they'd seen before school. I think back to my early days of teaching Kindergarten, when I didn't ever enter the classroom without a lesson planned for that day. Interesting stories bubbled up at entry, outdoors, and on the carpet, but they were never the "meat" of the program. Yes, I encouraged talk as it helped encourage listening, sharing, and using rich vocabulary. No, I didn't know how to use their interests to steer my planning for what to study, for how long, or with what materials. Some four or five years ago, I was introduced to Tony Stead by a teaching partner and friend. In his book: "Is That a Fact?" he offers ideas for teaching non-fiction reading and writing with strategies for even the earliest readers. I was intrigued by the idea of students using the illustrations and photos to gather evidence for their projects, and thus my first attempt at project work was born. It was spring and the lawns around the school were covered with robins hunting for worms, so introducing birds seemed the natural choice, not the least because I am smitten with birds. I used mixed-age groups that were already formed for rotation during activity time, for at the time I would work with one group each day. The groups were given a selection of local birds to choose from, and I gave four guiding questions: 1) What does your bird look like? (including male and female if different), 2) Does your bird stay, or fly away for winter?, 3) What does your bird eat?, and 4) What do your bird's eggs and nest look like? Groups each had a chart paper on which to draw and label what they found out in answer to the four questions. There were successes and struggles. I now see that the struggles naturally occurred because the groups were not self-selected, nor were all the children invested in the product. Thus, each group had one or two excited members who pored over the texts and drew elaborate pictures, while other members fidgeted, complained about their lack of space, or otherwise withdrew. It was an eye-opener to me to see how little my students knew how to work with a group. It was an eye-opener to see how little I knew about preparing students for collaboration, self-regulation, and stamina in project work.

A group of boys watch a movie about a bird feeder with many local songbirds. They call out the name as each new bird that arrives, and cheer when their favourite bird chases another away. The shouts and laughter draw a small crowd of onlookers until nearly the entire class are watching and cheering for their favourite birds.

In the years since I've abandoned thematic planning for a more reflective, collaborative method of preparing for each day, I have noticed that my students are much more engaged in their pursuits. Children have taken ownership over parts of the program to the extent that I don't know which centres will be open each day; I merely ensure I have plenty of materials to choose from. The most delightful discovery I've made since adopting an emergent curriculum is the way that students need little prompting to read and write, once they've identified a topic worth sharing with others. The photos below represent a range of artifacts created by students during the free-choice activity time. A few students requested pictures to use for books, so I took them to my computer and looked up colouring pages. I printed each one that they requested, and then let them use those pictures as they wished. The dedication to uncovering the facts is evident in the details of each work: accurate colours copied from field guides, labeled diagrams, research for self-made "I Can See" books.


In the FDEL-K the skills and attitudes displayed by children who undertake their own projects are best described by this expectation from the Personal and Social area of the document:

Overall Expectation 2: demonstrate independence, self-regulation, and a willingness to take responsibility in learning and other activities
2.3 demonstrate self-motivation, initiative, and confidence in their approach to learning by selecting and completing learning tasks (e.g., choose learning centres independently, try something new, persevere with tasks)
Full-Day Early Learning - Kindergarten Program (draft) pp. 63-64

Students in my classes know that in order to be asked to share during "sharing time", they must sign up with some sort of note, even if it is an artifact that they wish to share. During the last month, the topic of birds has led to interesting "noticings" being posted about different bird behaviours. Here at the left, two boys in the afternoon class are using binoculars, consulting the bird field guides, and writing a note to share with the class.

Here students are using the pictures and known words to learn about interesting birds to add to their collaborative research poster. I had put the blue paper out one day as a provocation, with the title "What We Know About Birds". I had chosen some recycled bulletin board paper to match the blue of our birdwatching poster. The invitation was taken up by J who carefully drew and labeled the body parts of a robin while a friend drew a woodpecker flying in from the side. When the afternoon friends saw the work, several students were excited about adding what they had learned to the bottom, requesting that I show the morning friends what they had to teach.

When my students are interested in a particular topic, even if it is a small group engaged in the inquiry, I like to find links to sites and video clips for them to explore further. I link these on my PDSB-hosted class site for students to access at home whenever they like. It is here that I share our Voicethread books, photos from each month in class, and news. For the growing group of birdwatchers I linked videos of specific local songbirds and one heart-breaking, lovely video about a robin's nest from egg to flight.

We were so engaged in our latest project that I was finding it difficult to visit the "We Can See" blog these days, with so much of our time at the end of the day being dedicated to sharing our daily learnings. I was happy with the direction of the talk each day, even if it meant some days there was simply no time even for a read-aloud. It was a very happy moment indeed, when morning friend J suggested we make our own "We Can See" book, not about spring, but about birds! I told her I would share her idea with the afternoon class, and gave her a high five for such a marvelous idea.
Here is our book, so far. The wonderful thing about making a Voicethread book is that it is very easy to add on each day as new ideas come forth. Next week the book will certainly have grown!

Last week, the morning friends and I went for a walk with our friends from down the hall: Ms. Silva's class. We had some exciting encounters, some of which are sure to show up in our Voicethread. The story of our bird-watching walk, along with some of the individual "I Can See Birds" books, will be the subject of part three.


Wednesday, 1 May 2013

We can see birds... everywhere!

How do you know when a spark is worthy of an inquiry? I often ask myself this question, as there are so many sparks igniting in a curiosity-driven classroom. Some day it seems I just keep saying: "Wow, what a wonderful idea! What else would you like to do with it?" over and over. I do wonder, too, if my own passions for certain topics give more weight to ideas than others. Certainly this is the case with the return of bey blades in the afternoon. I know that I could really embrace this play, challenge the players to new ways to play, notice, and plan, and I could begin focusing my documentation on them. I am, however, ready to move on from the wonders of things that spin. When we returned from March Break, with older inquiries winding down, I was watching and listening carefully to students at play, looking for possible new directions to explore.
From the FDEL-K document section pertaining to science:

"While engaging in science and technology, groups of children may undertake
projects that involve in-depth study of a particular topic. Such projects constitute
inquiries that involve children in seeking possible answers to questions they have
formulated themselves, in collaboration with the EL–K team, or that arose during
the course of earlier investigations. These projects are based on what children are
theorizing, predicting, wondering, and thinking. Many projects evolve from, and
contribute to, socio-dramatic play. Projects should include many opportunities for
representation that permit children to return to what they know, rethink, and integrate new knowledge. Children learn best from topics they can explore deeply
and directly. Abstract topics (e.g., rainforests, penguins, planets) are difficult for
children to conceptualize. The focus for any inquiry must be drawn from what
is familiar to children in their daily lives".
The Full-Day Early Learning – Kindergarten Program (draft) pp. 112-113

An illustration for a story about some noisy woodpeckers making holes in trees.

So it is that initially I wondered if I was unduly influencing my students with the ongoing inquiry in both the AM and PM classes: birds. I am an avid birdwatcher and have been since I was a little girl, when my mom first taught me to identify local birds by ear. Back in March, the wonderful Lilian Katz had sent shivers through the assembled crowd at the conference I attended, when she spoke about a boy who asked for help so that he could explain some new idea. In the post about that conference I said: She described a child who had made a new discovery but didn't know exactly how to record what they just found out: "Show me how to write this!" he said. He, like all students immersed in deeply satisfying play, "learned the academic skills in service of his interests". 

Common redpoll photo credit: © Gerrit Vyn

In the months since that talk, I have thought many times about this "aha" moment when that boy discovered the power of writing to share an exciting idea. I thought about such a moment in my own childhood, one I don't remember entirely clearly but have heard told by my parents on multiple occasions. I was not yet in Kindergarten, so I may have been four years old. One morning, early enough that I was up before the rest of the family, I ran into my parents' bedroom yelling: "Mom! Mom! Come! We  have redpolls!"

Well, this is remarkable for two reasons. For one, redpolls are a fairly rare visitor to feeders in South Ontario, except in very cold winter weather. I had certainly never seen this bird before. This means I not only used the Peterson bird guides (shelved with the binoculars beside the kitchen window where we could see the feeder) to identify a bird from a page filled with similar-looking birds, but I also figured out how to read the name of the bird. My mom did indeed come running, and I was right - a hungry flock of redpolls were gobbling seeds below the feeder outside our window. I was learning to read non-fiction texts "in service of my interest". That is the power of allowing student interests to dictate the content and design of daily investigations.

Birds, a love of mine my whole life, began to interest students as robins and blackbirds first appeared back in March, followed by worm-probing starlings, mallard ducks in the creek beside the school, and the majestic vultures that have flown over once or twice this spring. Looking back over old 'tweets', I identified March 28th as the day it started: "New spark today when 2 boys say they saw a "red bird" but can't decide if robin or cardinal. Dug out poster, binocs".

Photo that accompanied the tweet.
The poster I dug out for them now hangs beside the window and is consulted daily. I set up a "bird-watching window" with binoculars, field guides and a few children's books on backyard birding. We went for walks to the park, taking the long way along the river to look for ducks. Students started to record their "noticings" to share with friends at share time. My love of birds means I have the tools and toys to explore them, so when students began to report their daily bird counts or ask about what they saw, I turned to my field guide and trusty "iBird" app on the iphone. I looked up birds by request, played the songs and calls, and before I knew it, birds were all some kids could talk about.

One cold, blustery day in early April, I went for a run with my friend and Kindergarten partner at school, D. We run along the lake and sometimes slow to pick up treasures (driftwood, stones) or make a note to return with the car. D's tweet about our finds that day: "Two K teachers on a run @KinderFynes ran with a bird's skull and then we returned to get an empty nest, birch log, and tiny pine cones".

Various nests collected over the years, shells left by wading birds, starling skull.
One of my PM boys who had asked for the poster was beginning to take a leadership role in the growing inquiry. I quickly noticed his interest and expertise when he would tell me little facts: "Nuthatches go down the tree" or "Woodpeckers eat spiders and insects", which are both true. I was truly impressed by his crow call. Still, when presented with the challenge of identifying the mystery skull in the glass case, I did not expect this student to teach me something new about one of our common area birds. F used the observable details (black feathers, long pointy yellow beak) and the bird guides, and came up with the following conclusions: "It is a starling. Starlings have black bills in winter and yellow bills in summer, so it must have been summer". This is a Kindergarten senior student proving Lilian's point rather beautifully: F used non-fiction texts to gain information, and drew conclusions based on evidence. I had never made the connection between the seasons and the colour of the starlings' beak. Someday I wonder if he'll be as surprised as I am to hear the redpoll story.

J, a student in the AM class, has likewise taken a leadership role in the growing bird inquiry group. She started a collaborative interest poster with a carefully labeled diagram of a robin. Her many pictures and diagrams shared with the group lead her to come up with a wonderful idea one day: "Let's make a book about birds". When I asked if she wanted to share with families too, which is what we do when we make our online Voicethread books, she added: "How about: We Can See Birds! A book about all the birds we see". This story and many more have unfolded in the weeks since I first hung the poster and set up a bird-watching window. Bird interest centres popped up in several places around the room, and students began making their own individual bird Voicethreads. That, however, is a story for another day.