Monday, May 31, 2010

Just Try To Stop Us!

Juliet over at I'm A Teacher, Get Me OUTSIDE Here! has a post up about the ridiculous lengths some schools go in the name of keeping children "safe": teeth-grindingly ridiculous things like banning blindfolds, string, and dirt! Things we play with at Woodland Park every day.

It's a product of worst case scenario thinking run amuck. Naturally, we should be prepared for the off-chance that something really bad will happen (e.g., living in an earthquake prone area we have plans and supplies on hand in case a big one hits) but we can't live in fear of it happening. Can a child hurt himself with a piece of string? If I let my brain run freely through my nightmares, I can come up with a few horrific possibilities, but realistically it ain't gonna happen. If I let my fevered imagination go, I can think of far more terrifying scenarios involving children being allowed to ride in a car, or walk out the front door, or get out of bed.

Life is an inherently risky proposition. Yesterday, I heard a spokesperson of some sort talking on the radio about his industry. He made the comment, "No one has ever died from being over-protective." Really? People are killed and maimed every day because of their lack of experience in assessing risk. They do stupid things because they don't know any better and the price nature often makes humans pay for ignorance is pain.

In addition, I fear that the instinct to be over-protective too often results in environments that give children (and adults) such a false sense of security that they behave in ways about which they would think twice if we didn't "round every corner and eliminate every sharp object, every pokey bit in the world." For instance I consider our large, soft foam blocks to be the most dangerous single item with which we play at school, not because they are inherently dangerous, but because both children and adults perceive that they are harmless and therefore play with a kind of recklessness that hard wooden blocks simply don't encourage.

I tell my parent assistant teachers that the primary way we keep the children safe in preschool is to use our own eyes, ears, and hands -- you know, pay attention to what's going on. I also tell them that our job isn't to prevent children from being hurt, but to prevent them from being seriously hurt. I'm firmly convinced that every pinched finger we help a child avoid today is just a pinched finger -- or worse -- that we push off into the future. Naturally we would step in if a 2-year-old was balling up a length of string and shoving it into her mouth or wrapping it tightly around a friend's neck (two things that I've never seen an actual child do with string, although I can fearfully imagine a child doing it), but do we forbid that child the opportunity to wear the necklace she has carefully made from it on the outside chance that she will somehow manage to strangle herself? She is infinitely more likely to die in a car accident on the way home, yet we don't think twice about putting her in that car.

Yesterday, I found myself in the midst of Seattle's annual Folklife Festival at Seattle Center where I found the Center For Wooden Boats tent jam-packed with children and their parents taking their lives into their own hands by using hammers, nails, and drills.

They were making their own wooden boats using real tools at this 
huge public event: all that intense concentration right there 
in the midst of clowns, stilt walkers, and music. Very impressive.

Right next door, children were making beautiful mosaics with these horrifying choking hazards:

And later, at the International Fountain, I saw everyone from toddlers to grandparents risking their lives playing on its slippery concrete slopes on a cool, rainy day:

Seriously, it was so slippery that those boys are sliding all the way down as
if on skateboards.

We are designed by our maker to take risks. Just try to stop us!

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

We've Come A Long Way: We Have A Long Way To Go

If you've been reading here for awhile, it won't surprise you to learn that when I reflect on this amazing school year, the cherry on top has been the creation of our new outdoor classroom, our all-hands-on deck, community-wide effort to transformation our small, urban courtyard, and through that our curriculum and our community. It was the effort as much as the finished product that made this year special.

One of the important characteristics of this space, for me, is that it not remain static, but rather evolve based upon the interests and talents of not just the children, but of our whole community. I expect to always view our outdoor space as a work in progress. In that regard, I'm trying to think of it like I would a science experiment or a piece of collaborative art, it will change a little everyday, sometimes by design, but mostly through happy, unpredictable accidents. It will be what we need it to be for a time, but only for a time, and then become something else. I wonder if the children who graduate this year will even recognize the space when they return to play with us a year from now. I kind of hope they don't. That will mean that the children who have come after them have made it their own.

This is where we played last fall:

This is how we transformed it this winter:

And this is where we were playing on the last day of school this spring:

I'm going to take it as an omen that this plant, which has always been in our garden, but has never shown us its flowers, bloomed for us this spring:

We've come a long way: we have a long way to go.

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Pre-K Play: Epilogue

Yesterday I posted a video of our Pre-K play, A Beautiful Nightmare, and find myself this morning with a few more things to say about it, so I'm including it again at the bottom of this post on the off chance that there is still anyone beyond myself and the children's parents who are as keenly interested in this as I am.

In the comments yesterday, Jenny from Let The Children Play mentioned her usual skepticism about preschool performances because they so often seem to be so adult directed and "put on for the purpose of the adults involved rather than the children." I don't think anyone who watches this video will see any of that -- this is the children's production from stem-to-stern.

Speaking as an adult, it takes a leap of faith each year to just turn it over to the kids. I mean, parents take vacation days to be there and grandparents actually fly in to see it. It's hard to not worry that they'll be disappointed, but at the same time I know that they won't be disappointed as long as I simply make myself a servant of the children's creative expression. A few years ago, my daughter was performing in a production of Moliere's The Miser with the Seattle Shakespeare Company. I ran into her director in the lobby before opening night and asked, "Are you nervous?" and he answered, "Why would I be nervous? It's their play." That's the attitude I try to take toward these productions: all that matters is that the children are satisfied and that is the surest way to satisfy those loved ones in the audience.

Everything you see on the stage, every costume item, and every line in the play was a subject of discussion and debate during the past 5 months. There is a story, often a long one, behind even the most insignificant prop or line. The fact that our Black Kitty Anjali "waddles" in, for instance, can be traced back to the fact that her character began life as a duck, and was briefly a penguin. I kept waiting for someone to mention the fact that kitties don't waddle, but it never came. On the other hand, in earlier drafts, Thomas, Marcus and Jack were all "Mean Black Kitties," and their characters "drove up" to the stage. Thomas eventually became the Forklift, Marcus the Car, and Jack the Tooth Fairy. It never bothered Jack that his Mean Kitty "drove up," but he insisted that the Tooth Fairy must "come up." I could bore you for months with annotations like this.

We did talk about our audience from time-to-time, of course, because that's an important consideration in any performance, but it was almost always in the context of our younger classmates and siblings who we knew would be there. For instance, we had a lot of discussion about whether or not the "bad" Maleficent puppet head would be too scary for "younger kids." We worried that they might cry or run away.

Our "giant rainbow nutcracker" probably engendered the most discussion and the most work of any single part of this project, even though it's role in the actual production was relatively minor. Here is how it tuned out:

We planned all of the colors and patterns out as a group, including
the "silly face," and the yellow shoes with butterflies and hearts, 
then executed each part over the course of several weeks.

One of the most fascinating parts of this entire process for me was that in spite of all of our discussion and effort surrounding the nutcracker, when it came time to choose what music we would use for the dance number, they rejected Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker overture, opting instead for ABBA's "Dancing Queen." This is the first time in the history of our Pre-K play that the Nutcracker overture was not selected, although it was the first time that our play actually had anything to do with the classic ballet.

I briefly mentioned at the end of yesterday's post that we turned most of our set and prop pieces over to the class at large on Thursday, building a stage from blocks, setting up the "beautiful castle with walls painted pink," wheeling in the small robot and its large bath tub, propping up our blue tree and giant rainbow nutcracker, and bringing in the rocket, Maleficent puppet arms, stars, car costume, and, of course, the ABBA Gold CD. A few of our items, like Finn's train costume and Sarah's Maleficent puppet heads, had already gone home with the day before, but there was plenty with which to work their imaginations.

Charlie B., inspired by the the performance of his older classmates, arrived in class dressed as a superhero. Next January, I will challenge him and his Pre-K classmates to "do something together for the whole school." I will provide examples of things previous classes have done, such as making our birthday throne . . .

. . . or building a castle . . .

. . . but I have very little doubt that they will chose to write, produce and perform their own play. I wonder if Charlie B. will still want to be a superhero or if Max will stick to his declaration on Thursday that he plans to be a "ghoul."

Some version of Annabelle's Unicorn Pegasus character crops up almost every year, but it has always been played by a girl, while next year's Pre-K class is comprised entirely of boys. (I've never even had a Pre-K class with more boys than girls, so it'll be a new experience for me.)  Of course, yesterday, as I read the script aloud, over-and-over, for the children, each of them spontaneously taking on whatever role they wanted, Lachlan chose the Unicorn Pegasus, so we'll see.

Finn P., who played the train in our "official" production chose to operate the small robot during most of our informal run-throughs, while Marcus (the Car) enjoyed playing the running crew "part" of Sarah's mom Lisa, making sure props like the rocket and stars were ready on cue. Jack and Thomas worked together to expand the stage by adding more blocks. Katherine, Ella, and Josephine stuck to their own superhero roles, leading the ever-changing team of the two Charlies, Ariya, Orlando, Peter, Isak, Finn V. and Alex through their paces. It was not always clear what roles they imagined themselves inhabiting, but they followed their older friends' lead with gusto.

And all the while ABBA Gold played in the background.

2010 Woodland Park Coop Pre-K Class Play from rob mcgarty on Vimeo.

I can't promise that this will be my last post on our play because I still have things I want to say, but for the time being I'll save them for the parents.

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Friday, May 28, 2010

Pre-K Play: Our Performance

Wednesday was the big day for our Pre-K students. At long last, after 5 months of rigorous, collaborative, creative work we performed our play: A Beautiful Nightmare.

I have been documenting our process since February. Here are those posts in order of appearance:

First Draft: The Pre-K Play
Pre-K Play Second Draft: Featuring An All-Lilac Fairy Cast
Pre-K Play Third Draft: Still A Lot Of Lilac Fairies
Pre-K Play Fourth Draft: Only One Lilac Fairy
Pre-K Play: The Giant Nutcracker
Pre-K Play: "A Beautiful Nightmare"

I don't expect anyone who hasn't been following along from the start to go back and read all of those posts, but if you did I think it would show that this has been rich, deep, and meaningful for the kids, something they "own" collectively. It's important to me that the children of Woodland Park share the experience of working as a team to pull off something bigger than they alone could accomplish. This is how great things usually get done in the world, with people working together. It's a project spread out over a long time, one that calls on each of them to contribute, compromise, and stay focused. The play finally came to be our entire curriculum during the final couple months of school. Nearly everything we did during our special 2.5 hour session each week came to in some way bear upon this singular effort. We were a writers' workshop, a scene shop, a production team, a troupe.

And no less members of our ensemble are the three parent assistant teachers who worked with me each Tuesday afternoon this year to support the kids in making their vision manifest. I've known all of them for a long time. All three of Lisa's kids have been with us, Hannah, Eli, and now Sarah. Deirdre's daughter Ailis was part of the very first class I taught for 3 full years, and now her baby brother Finn is a kindergardener. And Gloria's daughters Aria and Luna are "lifers" as well. All three families are now moving on. I'm a lucky man to have had them in my life.

In the video you will see these three women, all of whom I love and respect, working as our running crew. I try to focus on the kids when I'm at school so I'm not always aware of what a well-oiled machine our parent community is. I count on these people without even being aware it. That's how good they are. You'll see a lot of Lisa as our prop master who helps the kids from behind the stage, and Deirdre, who served as our house manager and all-around fire-putter-outter. You'll see less of Gloria because she was behind the scenes working with the talent, helping with costume changes, entrances and exits. In this video, you'll get a glimpse of what really makes our school work, our parent assistant teachers.

On the day of the show,  our school day started as usual, but at 10:30 I discretely told the Pre-K kids it was time to get ready for the play and they slipped out, leaving their younger classmates, next year's Pre-K class, in sole possession of the room. There is a special feeling when this happens. This is next year's team. We played awhile together, just us, cleaned-up together, then had a circle time, just us, a preview of our Tuesday afternoons next year. We sang Little Boxes together, completely unaware of the gathering crowd and giddily excited peers in the next room.

When I got the "all clear" sign from Deirdre we wrapped things up. I told them that we were going into the gym to see a play put on by their friends. For some of these children, it was clearly the first time that they'd ever been made aware of "Pre-K." I warned them that there would be a lot of grown-up people in their gym, but they were, of course, still a little overwhelmed by the moment of entering the gym. This video begins as we're getting them seated up front.

Without further ado, here is the video shot by Thomas' dad Rob.

2010 Woodland Park Coop Pre-K Class Play from rob mcgarty on Vimeo.

Yesterday was our last day of school, our newly anointed kindergardeners returning to "visit" their preschool friends, our newly anointed Pre-K kids. I brought all the props and set pieces into the classroom. We built a stage out of blocks then acted out the A Beautiful Nightmare again and again, all of us together, one last time.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

"Anything?" "Yes, anything."

I had some time to kill last weekend and popped into my favorite art supply store to browse. Right there by the front door was a stack of pre-stretched, pre-primed canvases under a sign reading, "70% off." I had to do a double take, but I snapped up two large canvases normally priced at $100 for a mere $30. I don't recall the exact dimensions, but they are larger than the kids.

I leaned one against the wall outdoors and within a few minutes it looked like this:

A little later, it looked like this:

Are you kidding me? This is a masterpiece and it was mostly created by a group of boys who rarely engage in art projects indoors. When the canvas was finished, they kept right on going:

The kids are really digging on being allowed to paint anything outdoors. "Anything?" "Yes, anything." And thus, most surfaces have hosted least a smudge of paint during these past couple months. Yesterday, we had several alumni students at school for our Pre-K play (I'll try to get the video up in the next couple days). They had never played in our new outdoor classroom and explored it thoroughly afterwards, putting it through the kind of paces only graders can manage.

It had been raining for the preceding 12 hours and Eli shared one of his discoveries while wiping his hands on his pants, "You know Teacher Tom, when it rains it makes all this paint runny. It gets on everything." He was right. I felt a little sorry for the parents who had to return to the office yesterday afternoon. I hope their colleagues didn't ride them too much for the paint stains on their suits.

Of course, rain also means we get to paint everything again, even the canvas:

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Metal Working With Preschoolers

I started collecting aluminum beverage cans with a project in mind that never materialized, so I've been living with several bags of them taking up space in the office-turned-workroom-turned-storage-room for the past month. I was on the verge of dumping them into the recycling bin when I came across this post from Kami over at Get Your Mess On! in which she writes about discovering that she could use her hand-held die cutters to punch out shapes from the very thin material from which they manufacture cans these days.

Luckily enough, I'd just purchased a pair of these tools a few days before when I discovered a local craft supply store selling them for 40 percent off. Whoo hoo! Now I'm going to run out and get a couple more.

I was a little nervous about the potential for kids to puncture themselves on the metal (I've done it to myself just opening the damn cans) so I used a pair of kitchen sheers to carefully cut the edges smooth, then tried mightily to impale my own fingertips without success. I assess the risk at about the level of a paper cut, although it might bleed a bit more if it happened.

When I demonstrated the process to the kids, I heard several voices rise up in a half-whispered, "Cool," at the idea they were going to be cutting metal. Some of them needed a little help squeezing the handles hard enough, but once they realized that it took two hands and real force, most of them managed it. It was a good thing we were wearing our safety glasses because some of the pieces really took off. Fitting the curved metal sheets into the slot was actually a bigger challenge. Next time I'm going to try to flatten the metal sheets: a night under something heavy will probably do it.

Kami strung her resulting discs of metal together to make sun-catchers, but we nailed ours to pieces of scrap wood.

Check out this brilliant technique!

Notice how our new workbench top is thin enough to
allow us to properly clamp the wood.

I can think of a number of ways to use this scrap aluminum now that I know we're not going to be spewing blood all over the place. After class, I was the first to mar the new workbench surface by testing to see if I could make an impression of a quarter in the metal by pounding it with a rubber mallet. I got a nice round shape, but no George Washington profile. I did, however leave a perfect circle in the wood below. (Sorry, Rob.) Something with a stronger relief might still work with this technique, which I think the kids would enjoy.

Of course, I'll bet our craft store sells tools for embossing paper that would work . . .

. . . or we could just use nails to draw pictures on rectangles of aluminum we've nailed to a board . . .

. . . or use nail holes to create patterns in the metal . . .

. . . or make perforated tea candle holders from the bottoms of the cans . . .

. . . or use the metal to manufacture vibration robots, vehicles, or other things . . .

. . . or string together sun-catchers (a la Kami) to hang in the garden to frighten off birds . . .

. . . or maybe we could fold it like origami . . .

I have some experimenting to do!

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