I love early childhood training workshops. No matter what the topic, I always walk away with some morsel of new insight, something new to try in my classroom. I find myself considering a new approach. But it is a very rare pleasure when I have had a hand in organizing a training that features an inspired educator who is also a dear friend. This past Tuesday, March 15th, was that rare and wonderful day.
I am President of the Potomac Association of Cooperative Teachers, a nonprofit organization that provides training opportunities to preschool teachers in the Washington, DC area. Most of these schools are cooperative preschools, where parents work alongside the teacher in the classroom. This past Tuesday was our Annual Spring Conference and our presenter was Marla McLean, "Dreaming Utopia into Reality- Creativity and Young Children: The Power of Reggio Emilia Inspired, Project- based, Material-rich Curriculum." There were some 200 early childhood teachers in attendance.
I want to tell you about the workshop and the questions that it raised for me, in hopes that it stimulates some thought and reflection by all of us working in early childhood. Here goes!
Marla McLean is a Reggio Inspired artist/educator, working 14 years as the Atelierista at School-Within-School (SWS) in Washington, DC. Visual artist that she is, she provided us with many beautiful images of children at work in her studio at her Reggio-Emilia inspired school, as she told us about her educational approach. She noted that an underlying premise to Reggio Emilia is that "theory and practice are two pedals on a bike," the teacher is researcher - provoking, observing and reflecting.
After telling us a little about her work at School-Within School, she asked us teachers to brainstorm a list of things that mean happiness, that provide us a sense of well-being.
I wonder how much brainstorming - spontaneous sharing of ideas, where all ideas are valid - we are doing with young children? I wonder how we can remind ourselves that children need to share their own unique perspectives, to know that their own ideas have merit? Is there enough flexibility in our day to encourage this?
Then Marla had each of us teachers work in small groups to select three of these ideas and create a machine that illustrates them, using a variety of recyclables and other extras.
I wonder how much "teamwork" we are doing with small children? Do we welcome this lively, animated, active interaction? What are the benefits of having children work together, consistently, for an in-depth period of time each week, with the same small group and no one else? Is there power and possibility in this?
During our snack break at the conference, many teachers slipped up to the materials table and took their favorite pieces ahead of time, before we were supposed to do so.
I wonder if we would tolerate this same behavior in our classrooms, by our preschoolers? What is our response to children when they challenge our rules and routines?
All of the attendees supported this project work by donating odds and ends - we had a 'buffet' in the front of the room filled with these inexpensive, frequently discarded materials. I was amused to see the wire that I found curbside on trash day turned into an inspirational mobile.
I wonder if these teachers will look at "extras" and "discards" in a new light and begin storing, sorting, and collecting? I wonder if children and families would enjoy this, too? I wonder if this encourages higher-level thinking in children, nudging them to consider new uses for things, to think more abstractly?
We worked in teams. I must admit I wandered away from my team, abandoning them to devise our happiness machine on their own, while I took lots of photos.
If I were a four year old, I wonder if my teachers would have permitted me this off-task behavior? Would I have been allowed to wander, do my own thing? Would it have been welcomed and supported? I wonder, as Marla said, how do children feel about themselves when their language isn't heard?
I was so pleased to see such beautiful and intricate sculptures appear after some 45 minutes of allotted time for the experience.
I wonder how many young children get to immerse themselves in project work at school for such a long period of time? How might we let children linger on their work, to bask in their creativity, to "move the clock" so that this can happen in early childhood rooms?
Marla shared with us her detailed documentation of children at work on similar projects. One video of two boys working with modeling clay in her studio was profound with its absence of a teacher's voice - children being allowed to delve into their work without an adult interrupting their thoughts, insisting on an adult agenda. For me, this illustrates a kind of 'slowing down' and being with children, celebrating their growth, seeing their development - it is tremendously respectful. Marla noted that she tries to "make sacred the ordinary."
I wonder how many teachers document the work of children? Has the pace of our teaching become so frenetic that teachers cannot create these thoughtful mirrors? Are we allowing ourselves to slow down enough to see the powerful thought and growth by children, rather than minimizing or discounting it by quickly getting to the next part of our day? How do we fully see and understand our children if we are not observing and documenting?
It was marvelous to spend the day hearing Marla speak on creativity and children. It was a journey to another way, a "visit" with another approach...an approach that is different enough for many of us that we may fear it, aware of how much we'd have to change the way we do things now. But, we have been enlightened. I have no doubt.
"There are big stories in small spaces." - Marla McLean
School website: www.schoolwithinschool.org