Tuesday, November 30, 2010

We Did A Craft!

I think the world is becoming a better place, in part, because of the renewed interest in crafting. It's a branch of the do-it-yourself mentality that can ultimately, if those of us who understand the power (and joy) in this movement continue to role-model and recruit, help wrest control of our economic lives back from giant corporations. I know, I know, most of you don't see crafting as a political act, but it is. Every time we do or make something that we could have purchased, or better yet, every time we teach a child to do or make something instead of buying it, we all gain a little more control of our own lives.

For most of the kids, applying those eyes was a bigger
fine motor challenge than adding the feathers.

So, you know, I don't mean any disrespect to crafters when I say that we rarely undertake craft projects at Woodland Park, for which I provided my own definition in a previous post:
More rarely, we engage in the "crafts," which I define as an activity at the art table with the goal of manufacturing a pre-determined object. You can usually tell it's a craft when the art parent feels compelled to announce, "Today we're making spiders," or "Everyone's making flowers," as children approach. Craft projects also tend to be those that require a lot of adult intervention to produce the objective, especially when working with 2-3 year olds. More often than not our craft projects are chosen because they encourage children to explore certain classroom skills (e.g., cutting on a straight/curved line, operating a stapler/hole punch) or work on fine motor skills (e.g., using brads, lacing), with the "art" being a motivator.
Not only do we rarely engage in crafts, but we've also never done any kind of Thanksgiving-related activity other than to share, after the fact, what we did, who we got to see, and what parts of the meal we did and didn't like. But when I saw the brilliant Pink and Green Mama MaryLea's Clothespin Turkey Fine Motor Practice post, I was inspired to turn it into a craft by way of extending the clothespin practice we'd already had in building The Den Experiment during the prior couple weeks. The fact that it was Thanksgiving-related was just an added bonus.

It's interesting that most of the kids arranged their feathers
off to one side, rather than around the top as I'd expected.

On the weekend I swung by Daiso, the Japanese version of the dollar store (although everything there is $1.50), and found miniature clothes pins, then got into school early on the Monday before our Thanksgiving break to manufacture 150 clothespin feathers using my handy-dandy glue gun. It was about the time I'd completed this task that it became clear that school was going to get snowed out. In fact, we were snowed out for the rest of the week, leaving me with an actual Thanksgiving craft on my hands and no little hands to undertake it.

Ava got to the project a little late in the morning. Knowing this
she told me that I'd have to wait to beat the drum for clean-up
time until she was finished, which I did.

So this is all just a long-winded way of explaining why the Woodland Park kids have extended our celebration of the holiday into this week.

Isak was very proud of his turkey and really wanted to make sure I got a
picture, although either he or I couldn't stay still long enough to get a 
non-blurry shot.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

Balancing Act

We started off by proving to ourselves that we could not balance a 6-inch long stick on the tips of our fingers, before switching over to our tree part balancers, with which we were successful in balancing on not only our fingertips, but also the ends of pencils, the backs of chairs, and the tips of our noses.

As impressive as that is, however, a group of nine 4-year-old boys had the toy mastered in a matter of minutes and Teacher Tom felt there was still a lot to explore in the concept of balancing, so we headed into the gym for a little full-body experimentation.

Some of us learned that lowering our center of gravity made balancing an easier task . . . At least until we'd gotten comfortable.

Some of us worked on finding a balancing point on either the small homemade balancing board or the larger manufacturing pattern.

Finding that balancing point on a ball was the hardest (and a lot more fun than this picture makes it look).

Balancing takes a lot of concentration and technique. Some of the guys found it helps to go fast, while others preferred the cautious approach.

And others took time to learn by watching before jumping up and trying it for themselves.

Then once we'd thoroughly explored the physics of balance with our bodies, tiring them out a bit in the process, we began the mathematical exploration of balance with our scales, including this nifty number that uses 10 gram weights to demonstrate the concept of a balanced equation as well as introducing the geometric concept of symmetry. 

(Note: I've mentioned many times before that this is the first time I've taught a class of all, or even mostly, boys, so much of what we're doing is an experiment. I knew that we'd need to skew things towards full-body learning, but what I hadn't expected was how much they would want to do everything together, like a team. Even during the parts of our day when I sort of compel them into small groups, it's generally only a matter of minutes before they've all gravitated to the same activity. Interesting.)

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

This Daughter Who Teaches Her Father

Today was my daughter Josephine's Bat Mitzvah ceremony.

She stood before her congregation and taught them about dreams.

When a father looks at his daughter, he sees in her every age she has ever been. Yesterday, as she ran through her d'var Torah in her final rehearsal, the first time for me to hear it, when I saw before me what an accomplished, intelligent, poised, thoughtful, and beautiful young woman she's grown into, I felt as if I was offered a glimpse into every age she will ever be. I used to think that she was a girl upon whom a light always shined, but it has become clear that the light is her own, one that will make the world a brighter place as she now steps forward in the tradition of the Jews and accepts the full rights and responsibilities of life in her tribe.

Those who know me understand that I'm not temperamentally suited for sitting in churches, mosques, or synagogs no matter how much singing and dancing we do. Since I was a child, I spent my time in the pews with my eyes on the windows, imagining myself out there. I am a spiritual person in my way, but I've never been able to get my mind around the idea that some guy behind a lectern or some dogma can tell me anything more about the condition of my soul than I already know. I am a communal person in my way, but I've always found that spiritual connection with my fellow humans in other places, like amongst the families of our Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool. I'm a reflective person in my way, but I find being alone with the dogs in the woods to be the proper place for meditations.

That said, I've made a mistake in all of this. When Josephine first began talking about her Bat Mitzvah over a year ago, she did so with a certain amount of ambivalence. As she learned more about all the work it entailed, she confessed to me at least that she didn't want to do it at all, that she felt compelled, that she didn't have a choice. I take comfort in the knowledge that we're all stupid parents sometimes and with the pride of an idiot I took that to mean that she wanted me, her father, to save her. I had made my escape from organized religion, she was my daughter, of course she would want to join me on the other side of those windows.

With my help she was able to stand up and say, No, I will not do this. And it was only once she stood there before God, family, and the world having said No, I think, that she felt free to make this decision for herself.

Within a few days of having her No accepted, she turned around and committed herself fully. Maybe I thought that her occasional griping meant that she was going to change her mind again and she would need me to be waiting right where I had always been. But that was part of all the ages my daughter had ceased to be. The young woman she has become is one who makes commitments and sees them through no matter how hard the path or how easy it would be to give up. That was my mistake, seeing only my little girl and not this powerful woman, this daughter who teaches her father.

I'm excited for her and incredibly proud. She is the greatest gift in my life and I love her more than she will ever know.

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Picture Hunting

The underlying principle of our school is that the primary reason the children are here is to learn how to live with one another. If we were a full-day program, we would seek out more opportunities for the children to have time on their own, to rest, to lose themselves in a book or drawing a picture. But since we're done by noon each day, our focus is on building the skills and experience needed to live rich, vital lives as members of a community, leaving most of that independent learning and reflection to take place off our radar.

That being the case, we engage in a lot of group art projects, the kind of things where we simply unfurl a large sheet of paper and let them at it. Yesterday's post was a classic example, and this is another. We call it "picture hunting" or "letter hunting."

We start by taping stencils and rubbing plates to the table top, roll out the aforementioned paper, and break out the "big crayons" we made by melting like-colored crayons together in muffin tins. We've done it with hot plates and in ovens. Sherry and Donna over at Irresistible Ideas for Play Based Learning  have even shown us how they do it with sun power!

The room fills up with their shouts of discovery, "I found a G!"

Or, "It's a bus!"

Or, "Look! A girl jumping rope!"

And the older kids enjoy helping out with the change-over when it's time for new paper or new stencils. Picking out the shapes, letters and numbers for their friends to find.

Some of the young guys, foreshadowing our car painting project (which actually took place after this one), got a feel for the bumpy terrain offered by the paper over templates.

And others couldn't help peeking under the paper, I suppose to see if rubbing in that spot was going to be worth the effort.

It's a vigorous project, the way we do it, on our feet, the chairs moved back against the wall.

This means some bumping and jostling, some negotiations over space and who gets to find which shape, but also conversations, looking over one another's shoulders, and ah-ha moments of connection like, "Hey Sarah, I found your letter -- S!" Just another way of saying, we're all in this together.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

What To Do With The Men

Driving vehicles in paint is an old standby for us, as it should be for every preschool classroom. It takes seconds to set up, only a bit longer to clean up, and the play value is outstanding.

Our big innovation this year was to insert a trio of large wedge-shaped blocks under one end of the butcher paper to create a short ramp.

We limited our color pallet to red, yellow and orange, dolloped out into styrofoam meat trays, mostly because those were the jugs of paint most readily at hand.

I've mentioned before, that this is my final year teaching the "boy bubble" that has been working its way through our school for the past three years, all 9 of my older Pre-K students being boys. They have taught me a lot about the importance of car play and that's who mostly played here, along with our oldest 3-year-old boy. 

Setting this up on this particular day wasn't left up to chance. I'd been watching the parent work schedule just waiting for Ruby's dad Chan's turn to come around as the parent-teacher responsible for the art station (for those who don't know, we're a cooperative preschool, in which the parents also serve as my assistant teachers). And he didn't disappoint, keeping up the chatter, organizing races, getting the "track" going in one direction, then another. You know, playing like a stereotypical boy. I think Ruby was the only girl who put in any time at the art table race track, but even she was soon lost to the doll play taking place next door.

But mostly it was self-directed play, carried out by a group of guys who've known one another for their entire lives, playing with toys for which they all have varying degrees of passion, making orange tracks together for well over an hour.

They carried on casual, shoulder-to-shoulder conversations the way grown men do, comprised of short, functional sentences or echoing Chan's coach-like exhortations. They were on their feet, always moving, focused, a team. I'm sure there was some bickering, but they seem to have solved things on their own, in their own ways, because it never rose to the level that it involved me, nor did it in any way slow down the play. It was the kind of ebb and flow creative play that teachers live for; that makes us step back and be simply awed by children.

I read somewhere, a long time ago, and I've not had any success in finding the source of this, but I believe it was an anthropologist who postulated that the central, unspoken question of every society is "What to do with the men?" Sometimes we're used for war and conquest, sometimes for exploration and discovery, sometimes our role is largely economic, and sometimes we build things, hunt, or grow food. Whatever the case, and however we answer this question, I know that as we drove our cars through paint the other day we, the men of Woodland Park, were a shining example of men, together, at their best.

I'm quite proud to know that these are the men we will be sending out into the world.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

As Big As That Perfect Everything

"Say, Thank you." 

It's an instruction, a demand even. When we're children it comes from the adults in our lives, raising us to be polite. As adults it takes the form of obligations like thank you notes, leaving tips, hostess gifts, and the circle of courtesies with which we wind up our every day exchanges with strangers ("Thank you," "No, thank you.").

We all recognize it for what it is, I think, a play of manners that evokes the name of gratitude, without necessarily embodying the emotion. I'm not suggesting we drop the pretenses, humans need these kinds of social formalities. They're a large part of the knitting that holds us together, especially with the people on whom we rely without ever actually knowing them -- the cashiers, the bus drivers, the voices at the other end of the phone. These pleasantries are small acknowledgments of one another's humanity. If anything we need more of them.

But does it have anything to do with actual gratitude?

Juliet Robertson, everyone's favorite outdoor learning expert, currently has a post up entitled, Relationships Are All There Are, a thoughtful and genuine expression of gratitude for her fellow humans, which includes this quote from writer and organizational consultant Meg Wheatley:
Relationships are all there are. Everything in the universe only exists because it is in relationship to everything. Nothing exists in isolation. We have to stop pretending we are individuals that can go it alone.

It reminds me of something my daughter said when she was 3-years-old. I was trying to end her whining with the classic bit of parenting philosophy, "Josephine, nothing is perfect." She sat quietly for a moment, then replied, "Nothing is perfect, except everything."

In a social and political climate in which there are loud, persuasive voices touting the so-called "virtue of selfishness" and the credo of "every man for himself," it remains an unavoidable truth: we are, in fact, all in this together. It is only in those moments, however brief, that we are at peace with that fact, I think, that we can actually feel the deep emotion of connectedness that is gratitude. It's impossible for me at least to understand how thankfulness can exist without that acceptance of the vital, essential humanity of all the other people and our connectedness with them.

When we sit around our Thanksgiving tables tomorrow, taking a moment to share what it is for which we are thankful, listen to what your friends and family have to say. We may joke about being thankful for the things in their lives, but our hearts will betray our gratitude for the people and their relationships with us. We may stop ourselves tomorrow in our expressions of thankfulness by only naming those closest to us, but if we're honest, genuine gratitude only exists when we stop pretending we can go it alone, when we embrace the perfection of everything. Gratitude, to be real, must be as big as that perfect everything.

Being thankful is too often placed within the context of serving and being served, or giving and getting, but that has more to do with commerce than gratitude, which is, at bottom, about the simple contact between human beings, that moment in which we can genuinely express, It's enough that we're here together.  

This is one of the many things young children understand and unlearn as they get older. Relationships are all there are, everything is perfect, thank you.

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