Thursday, September 30, 2010

Floating Powder Paintings

It's been a long time since we last had to purchase powdered tempera paint. For the past several years we've been feeding off a the dozens of jars of the stuff donated by an artist who was clearing out his basement, but last year, down to mostly brown and black, we finally finished them off in a frenzy of mixing it up into a thick pasty, mud-like substance and applying it with masonry tools to a large piece of cardboard.

It's about 5'X3' and I still have it around. Maybe it should go up at Diva as well.

And while making "thick paint" is the main reason we like keeping powdered tempera around, the other is for making floating powder paintings.

We set our three pans of shallow water (I use the plastic drawers from a storage unit) and fill spice shakers with the tempera powder. The idea is for the kids to shake the powder onto the water, which will initially float on the surface, only sinking once it's completely saturated. 

The idea then is to float a piece of paper on top of the water and let it soak for a bit. I don't know if was the brand of the new paint we purchased or if we'd just grown accustomed to using ancient powder that had somehow become transformed with age in to something more absorbent, more easily dissolved. Or perhaps our old stuff was just of a much higher quality given that it had once belonged to a professional artist, but whatever the case, the kids had to let their paper float longer than in years past to achieve their results.

This period of waiting, naturally, lead to many of the children try shaking yet more powder onto the backsides of their papers as they floated.

The results were less swirly and marbled than in past years, but I kind of like chunky landscaped textures created by the tablets of undissolved powder that got trapped in their own crust on the paper. I suspect that if families hang these on their walls, they will enjoy many months of these mini time bombs releasing their powder onto walls and carpets when subjected to random breezes and bumps. 

If you click on the individual photos, you'll see detail.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Update On Our Diva Espresso Art Show

A little over a month ago, I wrote about our school's art show at our neighborhood Diva Espresso coffee house. They had originally been gracious enough to lend us their walls for a two weeks run, but apparently they've decided they like our work enough to keep it around awhile longer and the show has been extended indefinitely. Not only that, but we've sold 3 pieces!

We sold the canvas on the right in the above picture, which is one of our super-sized marble paintings, and also two of our robot paintings. That's my kind of fundraising!

Located at the corner of Greenwood and 80th NW (7916 Greenwood Ave. N, (206) 881-1213) in Seattle, Diva is a favorite hangout for our Woodland Park families. It's a friendly neighborhood place serving amazing coffee from the small Highland's Coffee Company, an independent roaster also located in North Seattle.

I'm hoping they want to continue the relationship beyond this show because the kids have been working on some new pieces that I think will look incredible at Diva.

For instance, we just finished trying out Jenny's super-sized string painting idea from her inspiring blog Let The Children Play. A gallery owner once told me that tryptychs tend to sell better than stand-alone art, which was perfect because I just removed three plywood shelves from my basement.

Like Jenny, we started by using sponges to paint the background. We chose purple. Then we used string dipped in some leftover silver and gold acrylic craft paint to create the foreground. We were a little more freeform than Jenny's kids, but I think we still turned out some nice artwork.

When I see the panels in this photo, I'm tempted to call
them, from left to right, "Night," "Morning," and "Noon."

I also think the broken tile collage we made this summer would look great at Diva.

This is a pretty good sized piece, measuring 3'X2'. It would
be quite a statement on someone's wall.

And we also have a patented Woodland Park regular old random parts glue collage in process, under which I think any espresso would taste better.

The last time I asked, the kids don't think we're finished yet, but we have already started talking about what color to spray paint the whole thing when we're done. Green, red and gold are currently the leading contenders. I suspect we'll wind up going with all three.

I just love helping the kids make cool stuff. I hope Diva Espresso loves it too. And if you're in the neighborhood, make sure to swing by for a coffee and a cookie.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Those Are The Facts

Facts are not negotiable; they are the undeniable things that we all have in common.

The sun rises in the east. Check.

2 + 2 = 4. Check.

It takes two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom to make a water molecule. Check.

Facts are things we can prove, measure, and test. They are things we know. And I'm not interested in any freshman year philosophical questions like, "But how do we know that we know?" When the preponderance of evidence is there, we owe it to ourselves, our fellow man, and even our god to behave as if it's true. This is how the species progresses.

This little lecture has been brought to you out of my reaction to reading Deb's terrific post over at Science@Home explaining in terms understandable to children why daddies tend to be bigger than mummies. Deb is a scientist, educator and mummy, all of which are evident in her clear, concise, fact-based post. It's exactly the kind of explanation that I'd hope my own young child would receive from her science teachers. (I urge you to head on over there and have a look around.)

Sadly, in many parts of the US, the contents of Deb's post, if delivered in a public school classroom, would land her in the principal's office to face angry parents over evoking such scientific consensus as evolution, her matter-of-fact discussion of procreation, and statements like, "we are animals and work on the same rules as the rest of the world." And while there are anti-science zealots everywhere, no other modern nation teeters so close to edge of having it's public science education curriculum fall into the intentional blindness of fundamentalist faith. Polls taken over the course of the last decade, for instance, consistently show that between 25 and 30 percent of Americans believe that "creationism" or the junk science of "intelligent design" should be taught in science class alongside evolution. Really? I do hope that this is just the result of poorly crafted polling questions because otherwise it means that, at minimum, one in every 4 people with whom I come into contact on a daily basis does not understand the difference between science and religion. Or worse, actively seeks to blur the line in the furtherance of his own particular religious or political ends.

It's insane, too, that after writing the above paragraph I must, as a matter of form, quickly and apologetically offer the disclaimer that I, of course, have nothing against religion. Damn it, I do have something against any religion whose adherents seek to force its mythologies upon me and my child, be it in the public schools or through laws that serve no purpose other than to enshrine religious intolerance (like banning gay marriage).

If democracy is going to work, we must be able to agree that facts are facts. Other nations seem to understand this. We can and should debate our beliefs in our philosophy and religious studies classes, in our churches and synagogues, even amongst willing friends and families, but when your beliefs are contradicted by fact as determined through the rigors of the scientific method and the weight of academic consensus, you don't get to insist that we change those facts to suit your illogical, however spiritually gratifying, belief. Period.

Our public schools have wavered, but so far the courts of both law and public opinion have compelled them back onto the path of democracy. It's crazy that we must constantly defend our educational system like this, always fighting back those who would have us return to the dark times when religious leaders, not scientists, commanded that the Earth was the center of the universe, that disease was caused by sin, and that cats are in league with satan.

I've often written here about my conviction that the purpose of public schools in America is to educate children so that they can function as citizens in a democracy, while expressing concern about the vocationalization of our curricula. While I find many points at which these two purposes are at odds, one point upon which they share interests is in children receiving a fact-based science education. I've spent my entire adult life (mostly via my wife) in the company of business executives and business owners, people whose economic success depends upon our public schools producing adults who can think logically and lucidly, who possess a grasp of what is factually knowable about the world. Some of them are religious, some not, some are conservatives, some liberal, but I've never met one who would hire an employee whose understanding of science was based on creation myths.

In a democracy, I get to believe as my conscience guides me, as does my child, who as a 12-year-old decided to embrace a faith different than my own. If I walk into your church, if I ask you about your faith, then have at me, evangelize away. But when it comes to science classes in our public schools, belief does not trump fact. When it does, we are all lost.

I've had enough experience with this debate in recent years to know that I'm setting myself up for attack. I'll be called an atheist, which I am not. I'll be directed to so-called "peer reviewed" articles that cast doubts on evolution, all of which will be from the Discovery Institute, a "think tank" based here in Seattle, which exists solely for the purpose of muddying the waters around the teaching of evolution. I'll be told that evolution is "just a theory," a position that demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works. They will be wrong.

Those are the facts.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

The Evolution Of The Tree Part Toys

Any of you who followed this blog over the summer know I got on a kick of making toys and art from the laurel, hemlock and cedar branches I was pruning from my yard.

Some, like the cookie tree and the tree blocks have since proven themselves in the outdoor classroom, their popularity ebbing and flowing, but getting used regularly and pretty much as I'd expected. The kids have developed some "looping" techniques for hanging the cookies, which is an innovation that takes a lot more concentration than just hanging them in a vertical chain . . .

. . . and many of the tree blocks have become part of the "loose parts" that bestrew the space, turning up in all kinds of places . . .

The bottle bush has had a rockier experience in the classroom. The kids, especially the younger ones, enjoy decorating it, and it seems to offer just the right amount of challenge, but the branches have proven to be a bit brittle, requiring lots of repair jobs . . .

You can see the hardened repair glue oozing out like sap.

. . . and I've never quite been able to shake my nervousness about broken bottles. We've only so far lost one blue vase, which was made of thinner glass than the bottles, but I'm never quite able to relax when the bottle bush is out, so it doesn't get out of the storage room as often as it needs to in order to ultimatelly earn a permanent spot in our limited space. I think if I could figure out a way to temporarily install it in the sand pit, with its softer landing zone, I'd feel better. I'm not giving up yet, but time is running short.

The tree part balancers are fun, especially for the older kids, but I've discovered they're best used as part of more organized group activities. If they're just left out for the kids to find, they have a tendency to be pulled apart and repurposed for all kinds of other things. I put too much work into them for that, so I'm going to try them out as part of our Pre-K science explorations, and perhaps has part of one of our table toys stations.

That said, by far the biggest disappointment up to now has been the performance of the tree part construction set. I'd created it in my garage with high hopes.

It seemed to offer limitless possibilities . . .

. . . and it wasn't entirely ignored when it appeared in the outdoor classroom . . .

But the truth is that it was simply too small for the wide open spaces of outdoors. The parts got scattered, repurposed, and lost quite quickly out there, and to be honest we have plenty of other objects that can serve the same purpose as these pieces, so I've had it packed away for awhile.

Last week I reintroduced it as an indoor table top toy with much more satisfying results.

Of course, I think that combining it with our Pacific Northwest native animal set really helped get the kids involved with it.

When I make these things, I always have an idea of what they'll do with them, but I also know I need to let the kids really show me how to play with them. I'd assumed this was a construction set, and it is, but what has really impressed me is how the kids are spontaneously using it for exploring sorting, matching, sets building, and other mathematic activities.

It's fun, and sometimes a challenge, to watch the toys evolve.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Foam Paint

People ask me quite often why it is that I became a teacher. I have several different answers, all of which are an aspect of the truth, and most of which pivot upon the idea that I've never cared what I did professionally, just so long as I got to be surrounded by brilliant minds, and there are none more brilliant than those of young children.

Deep down, however, in the recesses of truth that I only occasionally allow to bubble to the surface, the real reason is that I want to play with their toys, and none more so than foam paint. Essentially, it's colored shaving cream, which the 3-5's can mix-up for themselves (for much less, I might add), but with the benefit of it not stinging the eyes when it inevitably goes there. That's why I buy it exclusively for use by the Pre-3 class, because every time I've ever tried shaving cream with 2-year-olds (and it's only happened twice) I wind up with a classroom full of weeping children who need their eyes flushed with water.

Typically, only 4-5 of the 20 or so kids in the class intentionally allow the stuff to touch their actual hands, however, and maybe another 4-5 are willing to touch it with the various "tools" we make available for manipulating the stuff. The rest have a tendency to either ignore it entirely, or hover around the edges, watching, but refusing all invitations to belly up to the table. 

Ah, but this year's crop of 2-year-olds is asserting its uniqueness early. From the very start they kept Suriya's mom Aya busy re-charging their trays with more and more paint to mash and mix. That's the art form as we do it at Woodland Park. I always have paper handy, just in case someone wants to try making a print of their rainbow mess, but what you see here in the pictures are finished works. Usually we don't even wipe off the trays between artists.

Check out that little green hand in the upper right corner of this picture!

Most of the kids started with a tool of some sort, but very quickly ditched them in favor of fingers, hands, and even arms, to swirl and blend the colorful mess in front of them. There's not usually much talk amongst 2-year-olds, so there's plenty of empty aural space in which adults can judiciously drop descriptive and informative statements about what we see happening, providing vocabulary, adding perspective, and giving evidence that what they are doing is being noticed, without taking over the project with our adult directions, questions, or small talk.

It's early in the school year and our team of parent-teachers is still learning
the ropes, but I love how much physical space the kids have here, with adults
present, but staying on the periphery.

Most years, I spend a lot of time with my own hands in the paint, working to lure more children into the activity, but they didn't need me. The table was pretty much slammed throughout the morning, leaving little space for Teacher Tom, who very much wanted to play with the foam paint. Fortunately, there will be a next time.

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Fairness And Democracy In Action

A couple days ago my Australian colleagues Sherry and Donna at Irresistible Ideas For Play Based Learning posted about reading The Little Red Hen and how they augment it with finger puppets knitted to look just like the characters from the book. We don't have the finger puppets, but we do have the book, so we read it in the Woodland Park 3-5's class. Now, I'm sure the puppets would help with this, but I always forget between readings just how challenging the message of this story is to some preschoolers.

For those of you who don't know this old folk tale, the Little Red Hen does all the household work, while the Goose, Cat, and Dog (in our version) each decline to help out, saying, "Not I," each time she asks. When she finds a grain of wheat to plant, her lazy housemates continue to say "Not I" as she does the work of tending, harvesting, threshing, milling and finally baking a loaf of bread. The big finish is that when the Hen asks the others if they will help her eat the freshly baked bread, they all say "I will," only to find that the long-suffering Hen has decided that since she did all the work, she gets to eat all the bread.

As I read this story last week, some of the kids were moved to remark, "That's not fair," each time the lazy characters said, "Not I." Others commented, both proudly and maybe a little defensively, something along the lines of, "I help at my house." 

(Sena was one of the kids who let us know that she's a helper. I know for a fact, it's true. Her mother Ann wrote me a while back to say that as she brought water to the table for her big sister Ava, she said, "Here's your martinis dry.")

But the concept of fairness is not always an easy one for preschoolers. When we got to the end of the story, with the Little Red Hen eating all the bread herself, there arose a chorus of "That's not fair!" and "She should share with them!" and "They'll be hungry!" I took a moment to clarify the moral of the story, trying to get them to identify with the poor overworked Hen, but I got push back in the form of, "Maybe they were too tired to help" and "Maybe they were too busy to help." I'm guessing that many of the kids saw the Hen as a parental figure and the others as children, rather than it being a household of peers as the story is intended. And yes, it would be something of an outrage for a parent to withhold bread from a child, even a lazy one. Whatever the case, the point was missed by some of the children. That's probably true of most things we try to teach about social relations, which is why we have to revisit these kinds of things over and over, from many different angles, during the course of years, before it sinks in.

Really learning about fairness takes lots of practice. Board games are a fun way to work on those skills. I was fascinated last week while watching this group of boys playing the game Barnyard Bingo.

They were a self-selected group including two 3-year-olds and two 4-year-olds.

The centerpiece of the game is a barn that dispenses colored "coins" one at a time. The official idea is to take turns removing the coins and matching them by color to your own "fence." The first one to collect all 3 coins is the "winner." 

These guys were playing it their own way. Instead of starting the game with the barn full of all the coins, each boy held the 3 coins that matched his fence. 

When his turn came around, he would insert his 3 coins, then remove them one by one, before passing the barn along to the next player. There is no "winner" in this version -- the whole point being to take turns dropping coins into the top, then removing them from the bottom.

There were no adults involved in this game, and yes, there were some conflicts over whose turn it was, how long turns should take, and even which direction they were going around the table. There were flares of anger and a bit of grabbing, but I am proud of how these boys worked through their challenges mostly with words. (I am equally proud of all us adults who stayed out of it.)

But there were kindnesses as well, and concessions, and giving up on strongly held opinions for the good of the game. No matter how many rules about fairness we make, they remain nothing more than aspirational statements in the absence of a fundamental understanding of fairness: these are the skills necessary for every day fairness in the world beyond the benevolent dictatorship of family.

Looking at these pictures, I feel blessed to have been witness to this moment of preschool fairness and democracy in action.

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