Monday, October 22, 2012

How An Emergent Curriculum Works: When The Teacher Has An Agenda

(Yesterday I promised to share examples of some of Woodland Park's recent "emergent" projects by way of trying to "define" what an emergent curriculum is all about, at least the way we try to do it. Yesterday's was what I called the "gold standard," one that emerged entirely from the children. This is an example of one that was more teacher guided than most, but I think still fits the definition of emergent and will perhaps provide some insight into what I see as the teacher's role in an emergent classroom.)

We have a two-level sand pit in the outdoor classroom, with a cast iron water pump installed on the top level and an old wooden row boat in the bulls eye of the larger lower level. The adults have always known that sooner or later we would need to deal with erosion as water, either from the pump or in the form of rain, combined with gravity would tend to empty out the upper level in favor of the lower.

When the 5's  were done digging out the boat, I left the wagon in the sand pit. On the following day I explained to the 3-5's class what the 5's had done the day before. They thought it sounded like a good idea and went to work taking loads of sand back up to the top of the sand pit. All of these pictures are from that digging session.

The advent of our 5's program, with it's 18 older kids playing out there on a daily basis has accelerated what had been a slow process. Part of how this class has come together here at the beginning of the year has been to create large, complex systems of canals, often all of them working together, digging, pumping, planning, and arguing. I can hardly call this something that has "emerged," because it's been there since our first day of class, the result, I think of good playground design. Every group of kids who plays out there, from young 2-year-olds on up, including older siblings who visit us from time to time, get a kick out of "flowing" the water down hill and some form of this play emerges every day we're out there.

Before September was out, however, I noticed that our row boat, which had once sat mostly on top of the sand, was now almost entirely buried. I made this observation as a group of our 5's had used gutters and shovels to create a river that flowed directly into the boat and were now standing at the top of the sand pit, shoveling sand into the gutters to be carried downhill by the water.

I said to no one in particular, "The boat is almost buried."

A couple kids paused to take note, but went back to their business. Not only was the boat filling with sand, but water was collecting there as well, despite the holes we've drilled in the bottom. I said, "And it's full of water." Of all the people out there at that moment, I, being the adult, was the only one who was aware that, at a minimum, we would need to deal with the standing water issue. 

"We're making a swimming pool, Teacher Tom." 

This is what had emerged from our emergent curriculum, a logical, classic, engaging, and educational project, one that included at one time or another every kid in the class. The problem was that it was costing us the use of our boat, not a big loss for these older kids, but for many of the younger children in other classes the boat is one of the main draws of our outdoor classroom. 

I took a seat in the sand beside the boat. I had an agenda, which was at odds with the current agenda of the kids. As I watched the boat continue to fill, I said, again to no one in particular, "I wonder how the little kids are going to play in here if the boat's full of sand and water?"

There was silence for several minutes as we watched the boat slowly fill with sand and water. Marit finally said, "We could dig the sand out." She's particularly sensitive to the needs of the younger kids, given that her brother is in our Pre-3 class.

Addison suggested, "They could just swim in it."

Marit answered, "My brother can't swim."

I said, "I like your idea, Marit, I'm getting my shovel." We store the adult tools in a shed some ways away. When I returned, there was already a team of kids in the boat, shoveling. I jammed my shovel in the sand and watched.

After awhile I asked, "I wonder why you guys put all that sand in there anyway."

Wyatt answered after a bit of thought, "We didn't put it there, it came down the hill in the water."

I said, "I wonder if all the sand is going to come down here." Several kids stopped digging to peer at the upper level. I figured now was the time for a vocabulary word, "I wonder if the whole top part of the sand pit is going to erode into the bottom."

Wyatt said, "We should take the sand back up there." With this he climbed out of the boat and carried his shovel load up to the top level where he dumped it. A few of his friends followed suit.

I don't know if my fellow teachers would consider all of this emergent or not, but I certainly do. Yes, I had an agenda and I was guiding, but I was expecting, all along, that the kids do the thinking. By sharing the problem as I saw it, "wondering" aloud, and making informative statements, I was hoping the kids would take up the challenge.

I can't remember who suggested that we us a wagon, but soon we were filling a wagon. We quickly found, however, that the weight of the wagon, the steepness of the hill, the narrowness of the gaps between the trees, and the slipperiness of the sand made it impossible for the kids to wrangle it to the top of the sand pit on their own, so I helped with that, although the kids got to dump it themselves. We probably hauled 5-6 loads back to the top in our counter-erosion efforts.

A few kids even took on bailing the standing water. Soon Duncan declared, "I found the bottom of the boat."

Moments later, however, someone was back at the top of the hill, pumping away, sending more water and sand down toward our now nearly empty boat. As the water washed over the sides and into the vessel there were both cheers and shouted objections: "Yay!" and "Hey!"

Cooper, one of our chief canal builders watched for a moment, then said, "I know, let's dig around the boat. He started by digging a hole in the sand to catch the water, then began to divert the water by digging a channel around the boat. Once his friends saw what he was doing, several joined in, digging like mad until they had water flowing all around, but not into, the boat. Someone said, "A boat with a moat." Not bad.

As we cleaned up at the end of the day, Elena reminded me to put away my adult shovel which was still where I left it, stuck in the sand.

My agenda had been fulfilled through this emergent project, one that the kids engaged in for several days afterwards. I had guided the kids, for sure, but it was important to me that I not "command" them, "coax" them, "get" them, or even "let" them fulfill my agenda, but rather tried to simply share my agenda with them and tried to stand out of the way as a solution emerged. The boat is slowly getting refilled, as is inevitable, but nearly every day now I spot a kid or two in there emptying it out as well, "for the little kids."

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1 comment:

Charles Leo said...

These kids are really amazing it looks like these little civil engineers are going to create mega structure building here.

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