Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"It's A Fire Contraption!"

Half-inch PVC pipe should be a staple in any classroom.

From a teacher's perspective it's convenient to have around for putting together all kinds of quick and sturdy structures, such pendulum painters, monkey bars, and sandpit plumbing for a mud pie kitchen.

And for kids, it's a sky's-the-limit building set for making big things fast. Most of what we have, I cut into 4 standard lengths many years ago, hoping they could be used kind of like unit blocks to create simple geometric shapes, but frankly, I'm primarily the one who takes advantage of this feature. The kids tend to create more linear things.

In the past they've used them to make marble runs and motorcycles, but by far the most popular things to manufacture are weapons. The problem we have with this is that the children always chose to ban weapons, both real and pretend. This class has gone deeper into the school year than any previous class before making this rule, but last week, for the 10th straight year, the children have elected to ban playing guns.

Adults will ask me if we pressured the children in any way. I know I didn't, unless very subtly. We do have a standing policy that you may only "shoot" or otherwise involve others in your games or stories with their permission, and I cannot vouch for what parents may be saying at home, but up until this week there was a small group of occasional "weapons players" in our midst. There had been a few instances of one child insisting that another "stop" shooting at him, but I genuinely didn't see this coming. In fact, I was stewing on the post I was going to write in June about our fully-armed school year, trying to figure out what made this year different than the others.

Then, last week, during circle time, Rex raised his hand, "I have a rule."

"Rex wants to suggest a rule."

"No playing weapons."

Rex is a bold, middle-of-the-action kind of kid. In fact, I know he's taken part in some of the gun play this year and hadn't seemed at all unsettled by it.

"Did everyone hear that? Rex suggests we make a rule that says, 'No playing weapons.'" I scanned the group, waiting for a response. I made eye contact with the boys who had been having fun with dramatic play involving weapons. "That means no guns, real or pretend." We make all our rules by true consensus, all it would take would be for one person to speak up against this rule. This group has rejected other proposed rules, so they know how it works. 

Ordinarily, that would be as far as I go before saying, "Okay then, that's a rule," and writing it on our lists, but I really wanted to make sure everyone understood what we were deciding. "Rex, why do you think we should have this rule?"

"Because people might get scared."

I asked the group in general, "Does this mean no shooting?" There was general nodding and a few vocal affirmatives. I again made eye contact with the boys who like playing these games, giving them a chance to speak up, but they were nodding too. "And this means no pretend guns, right?" Nodding. "And this means no pretend swords or knives, right?" Nodding. I let it hang again, almost hoping that one of the pro-gun play guys would speak. At least two of them are not normally shy about speaking up, but they were not only silent, but giving all the outward signs of paying close attention and agreeing with the decision of the group. "Okay then, that's a rule: no playing weapons . . . Because we don't want to scare our friends."

Then I finished as I do after making each of our new rules, "So if you see someone playing weapons in school you can say . . ."

And the kids finished for me, "Stop!"

". . . and that person has to stop because they're breaking the rules we made together."

Yesterday, when I turned the PVC pipe over to Addison's mom Jen, our parent-teacher at the work bench, I made sure she was aware of the children's new rule, but that I didn't want her to be "too hardcore" about enforcing it. I didn't want to stomp on anyone's fun unless it somehow upset the other kids.

The children built all kinds of non-gunlike things at the work bench with our PVC pipe collection. For instance, Lily made a bench, but she worried that it wasn't "sturdy enough" for actual sitting and involved others in helping her. Gray and Addison also created impressive inventions, but it was Rex who really went to town, putting together a long piece that he seemed to enjoy holding.

"What do you call this?" I asked.

"It's a fire gun."

Despite my words to Jen, I couldn't help myself, "But you just made a rule against guns!"

"Oh yeah . . . It's a fire . . ."

I waited for a bit, then began to offer vocabulary suggestions, "Contraption? Apparatus? Machine? Thing-a-ma-bob?"

"It's a fire contraption!"

He held his fire gun for a while longer, then wanted to put it down in a "safe place." 

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Monday, January 30, 2012

With Us All Gathered Around

Teaching, of course, can look like a lot of things, and often like nothing at all when it's time for us to step out of the way.

As a cooperative, the parents of our students are also their teachers.

Naturally, they've always been their own child's teacher, their first teacher, but now they're in the middle of all the kids: out there in the rain, in the splash zone.

Teaching, of course, can look like a lot of things, but so often it looks like it does in these pictures, huddled up, gathered around, heads together: all those great heads together, all of us learning together, all of us teaching one another.

I tell adults who come to visit our school that they should come prepared to be put to work, not necessarily by me, but by the children who have learned to look at every adult as their teacher, someone to call on, to ask, to involve.

Everything we do is marinated in this community of families.

Teaching, of course, can look like a lot of things, but around here, it often looks like this: with us all gathered around.

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

We Let Dragons Flow Through Us

The children and I have been teaching each other about dragons for several years now, connected to our celebration of Chinese New Year (which we are celebrating tomorrow and Tuesday due to a snow delay). I don't have any more information about dragons than do the kids: we all pretty much only know what our books tell us, although Violet did come to class this year with the knowledge that this is The Year of the Water Dragon.

But that's okay because I've come to understand that learning about dragons is a creative, philosophical, and artistic process, one that like all life's great mysteries, will never yield conclusive answers, just ideas that make us ponder.

This year as we explored the dragon archetypes presented to us in Demi's illustrated books Dragon's and Fantastic Creatures and The Boy Who Painted Dragons I was struck by how often the words "flow" and "flowing" are used to describe how dragons interact with the terrestrial world on a day-to-day basis, and how incredible it is to have a 3-year-old announce, "The Creative Dragon is flowing through my mind right now!" or a 4-year-old say, "The Mountain Dragon was flowing through me when I went skiing."

This demonstrates to me a remarkable faculty for understanding and playing with metaphor, the foundation of all thinking. And this is ultimately why we study mythological dragons in school, to expand our inventory of metaphor. The larger our collection the more clearly we think, the more intellectual complexity we can handle, and the better we can communicate the nuances and textures of our thoughts. 

I frequently pause in our discussions to remind the group that dragons are pretend, that it's fun to pretend, that we will never come face-to-face with the fierce and fiery dragon the way Ping the dragon painting boy does when the Heavenly Dragon comes to visit him. But these dragons, as ancient symbols for the great forces of nature are only superficially pretend. As they live within our collective minds as a flow of big ideas, comparisons, and contrasts, they are as real and true as any quadratic equation.

This year the children began to ask about the gender of the various dragons we examined. "Is that one a girl?" "I think that one's a boy because it has whiskers." "That one's a girl because it has rainbow colors." Although the text in some places uses male pronouns, I assumed that dragons would have to come in both of the sexes, like with the Greek gods, or else, you know, what's the point of gender? 

As the title of Demi's book suggests, however, there are mythological creatures other than dragons depicted in our books and this year we took a look at some of them. There was a unicorn (quite unlike the western variation), an elephant (not too different from what we know), a butterfly lion dog that made us laugh and say, "What the . . .!?", and a phoenix. Demi provides short, descriptive poems about each of the creatures, some of which I read, some of which I didn't. I'm sure I've read the phoenix text before, but because of our ongoing dragon-gender discussion it struck me this time: the phoenix is "the dragon's wife."

I looked around at the other adults in the room for a little help. Surely, one of them would be able to refute that. It challenged me on so many levels: 1) here we are admiring dragons as these ultra-powerful, cool, kind, wise beings and they're all male, 2) how can two entirely different species mate?, and 3) I'd been misinforming the kids all along in our dragon-gender discussions. All of these thoughts are battling it out as I sat there before the assembled kids showing them the picture of the phoenix. 

That's when Luella said, "No, Teacher Tom, that's not true!" followed by a chorus of agreement from her classmates. We then went back to discussing whether or not The Thunder Dragon was a boy or a girl. These kids apparently already have a well-developed sense of balance and equality, one that cannot be shaken by ancient prejudices and stereotypes.

It was still pretty cool when on the following day, as she played in our rice-filled sensory table, Sasha noticed the picture on one of the Chinese food carry out boxes. "Look, Teacher Tom, it's a dragon and a phoenix. That's the dragon's wife." We've been playing with those boxes for years and no one has ever noticed that before, let alone understood the symbolism. Now we know. I will be seeking out stories of the phoenix for next year.

We have another, lesser known book in our collection of Chinese mythology entitled Eyes of the Dragon by Margaret Leaf. It is apparently the only children's book she ever wrote. Like Demi's story of Ping, it's another tale centered on the process of painting dragons. It's a dramatic, frightening story, one that I don't usually read to the kids, about a great dragon painter who is commissioned to paint a giant dragon on the protective wall encircling the village. He leaves off the eyes, but the magistrate refuses to pay him until he paints them in. He reluctantly does so, grabs his money, and leaves in a hurry knowing what is to come. The dragon, now with eyes, come terrifyingly to life and flies off, leaving the villages walls in ruins.

The note at the end of the book says that Leaf based her story on an ancient legend and a Ming-era essay on the philosophy of dragon painting, which says, in part: "You must paint with a sweeping brush . . . so as to bring out the life of the muscles and the bones, but in order to express the essence of the spirit of the dragon perfectly, you must give him awe-inspiring bloody eyes . . . then, when the eyes are put in, he will fly away."

It's not my pedagogical high point, but each year I use a Sharpie to draw cartoonish dragons for the children to paint with water colors. The "creative" part is that we encourage them to name their dragons, to tell us of their powers. I wouldn't want this kind of "art project" to become a staple of our school, but it has become a tradition (at least for me). If I'd read the endnote in Leaf's book before this year, I'd forgotten it. I was proud to think as I drew all those dragons in preparation for the kids that I was using sweeping strokes, keeping them fluid and loose.

Every year, I'd noticed that most of the children start by painting the eyes, and often they only paint the eyes, sometimes applying so much paint they virtually black them out. This year as I watched them do it, it was through the prism of these new dragon metaphors, especially the lesson of Ping who learns that as frightening as dragons are, it is only when facing ones fears that we grow wise.

As Leaf points out, it is the eyes of the dragon that give them life, and these children, who have been looking for eyes since the day they were born, apparently don't need to be told this as their brushes are drawn inevitably to the center of their dragons' life and power.

What a lot of interesting thoughts we have when we let dragons flow through us.

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Applying Pigment To A Surface

As we ramped up to our snow delayed celebration of Chinese New Year last week, we were playing with rice in the sensory table. Some of the "tools" we included with the rice were familiar to everyone, such as small baskets. Some were only familiar to a few of the kids, like leisees, Chinese food carry out boxes, and chopsticks. 

These are materials I associate with sustenance, celebration, tradition, and commerce, put together this way for the children to explore with at least 4 of their 5 senses (we discourage tasting for health reasons). I know, of course, at least something of what these items represent in the wider culture, but like the children, my knowledge is incomplete.

A few years ago, a mother of Chinese heritage rushed into the room and began pulling the chopsticks from where I'd stuck them in the rice, gathered them all in a bundle, and laid them down. "It's unlucky to stick chopsticks in rice like that," she explained. It's impossible to prevent the children from sticking the chopsticks into the rice, but since then, when I prepare this new year sensory table for the children, instead of making a chopstick forest, I put them in a velvet box that once housed a tea set brought to me by a relative who had returned from traveling in China. I hadn't really thought about it until this year, but I guess it's my way of accommodating this knowledge, a way of warding off the bad luck.

As I watched the children play, there was the usual scientific explorations of scooping and pouring, filling and emptying, stirring, sprinkling, piling, and digging, but I was particularly struck by the art they created with these materials: the boxes became houses, the chopsticks becoming trees or skis or flagpoles upon which red envelope flags fluttered. It was the kind of art we might call avant guard street art, I suppose; transient, participatory, and fleeting, an art form as old as play itself.

This is fundamental. This is how we construct meaning, taking raw materials and making from them artifacts that help us better understand our world. We always have. We study prehistoric man through the paint he applied to cave walls, for instance. We must make art to understand. And we must understand that art is more than applying pigment to a surface: it is how we construct meaning, something every bit as vital to being human as discovering some universal scientific or mathematical fact. In fact, it is often the only avenue to those discoveries.

At one level that's all we ever do in a play-based curriculum. In the broadest sense, we create art from everything we touch, coming to understand the world through constructing our own meaning from it. 

How important is it that these girls know that dominoes is an ancient
Chinese game? That they play according to the rules?

When this structure ultimately fell, she said, "I knew that would happen."

In this "business" we all discuss art as a process, yet indeed, everything we do is a process whether or not we hang other labels on it. We make art and make art and make art, engaging in a process of divergent thinking, of manipulation, of invention.

It's the destiny of all human things to fall. We know that will happen.

We showed them how to play dominoes, but through the process of making art with them,
they practiced living with much greater truths than simply how to match up
arrangements of little dots.

I suppose there are some who would argue that this isn't art at all, wanting to narrow a definition that I seek to expand. To me art and play are synonyms. 

We create dramatic scenarios, stages upon which we act out both the
imaginary and real.

How can anyone say this is not a piece of performance art? 

History, science, math, literacy; these other terms we use to divide up education are merely the practical applications. Art-play is the process through which we understand.

Sometimes we make our art for others, constructing meaning that communicates, like Rex did when he surprised me by writing my name from letters he collected from around the outdoor classroom. That fits the narrow definition of art, the kind that's decorative or useful.

The art-play that connects us to our prehistoric ancestors is a purpose unto itself.

This aquarium was once a root farm from which we still occasionally harvest a carrot, but has
spent most of the school year evolving into something else, filling with rainwater.

For the past few weeks the 2-year-olds have been constructing something new with it,
adding rocks, toys, statues, and whatnot, then standing back to observe and 
understand their handiwork before getting back to work on it.

I don't need to understand what this piece of art means, but it is clearly a work in progress,
construction that evolves, that tells stories, that has by now a meaning far different
than mere water, rocks, and toys.

The narrow definition of art is one that says, "Today we are making sock puppets," that engages the brain within the limits of convergent thinking. It tells a story of right and wrong; beginning-middle-and-end. 

Art-play is applying pigment to a surface, creating a new reality that helps us to finally understand the old one.

This is food.

Art-play is rearranging and re-purposing the hidebound or meaningless into something new, something never before seen, something true that has perhaps never before been true.

This is a pie.

This is a process we chose for ourselves; we invented together.

Then we stand back to admire and understand before moving on.

Art-play is the invention of ideas. It is the invention of meaning. It is applying pigment to a surface.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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