Friday, December 16, 2011

The Art Of Teaching

A couple weeks ago, our Pre-K class tried an experiment in which we made ramps from blocks and rolled various types of balls down them. We'd laid down tape lines on our rug, then put a corresponding array of tape lines on individual papers, the idea being for each child to roll his balls, then "graph" the results. It was our first attempt at graphing, I did a poor job of explaining things, and the end result was that the kids had a good time rolling balls down their ramps and drawing lines on their papers, but I doubt that many of them came away with any new understanding the abstraction of graphing.

Not that it really matters, of course. The graphing had been my idea, something to which I'd decided I wanted to expose them, but they learned something else that day, probably not so much about the physics of balls and slopes (after all they're all 4 and 5, and have confirmed and re-confirmed these basic principles over their time on the planet.), but something else. 

These are photos of last year's Pre-K class doing a different activity with the catapults. I
didn't have my camera out for fresh pics.

In any event, as this week rolled around, I still had all those tape lines on the rug, so I thought I'd take another bite at the apple, this time with our catapults

Unlike with the balls and ramps, this time I allowed for a fairly extended period of free form experimentation, giving them a chance to figure out the dynamics of these simple machines on their own, through playing together. This is how the profession of teaching works in a play-based curriculum, the teacher learning right along with the kids, not the same things the kids are learning, but rather how each group interacts with activities and materials in a constant process of adjustment and planning.

Although I had all those lines just waiting there on the floor, although I had an easel set up with several pieces of fresh paper and a stack of multi-colored rolls of tape at hand ready to create graphs, although I had a basket of various objects to test out in the catapults, I was equally prepared for this to be what we did this day, just learning how the catapults worked.

And that, I've found, is the art of teaching in a play-based curriculum, always being prepared to set your own agenda aside when it conflicts with that of the kids. It takes an understanding that it is not the kids' responsibility to learn what you teach, but rather that you teach in the way that they learn.

And being prepared for when Sena walks away from the catapults and says to you, "Let's do something else now," and you can say, "Okay."

I announced to the group, "Sena thinks we should do something else now and I have an idea for a game. I want everybody bring their catapults over here and line them up side by side." And so we were set up perfectly for my graphing exercise. Would we get there? We divided up into teams because we had 8 children and 4 catapults. I reminded them of the tape lines on the rug. I pulled out my basket of objects: balls of various weights, beanbags, popsicle sticks, corks and pieces of origami paper. Each team got matching balls, then on my call each team let loose, while I made informational statements like, "Your ball went to the red line." And, "Your ball also went to the red line." And, "Yours went a little past the red line."

As we went through the basket of objects one at a time, I kept looking for an opening during which it would make sense to introduce the graph idea, but it didn't really come up. I could have forced the issue, but at the same time, we had 8 young children fully engaged in an activity, together, none of whom were saying, "Let's do something else."

I like including a piece of paper in these experiments. We first try them as they are and when they go nowhere, I suggest the kids try balling them up and viola! we have projectiles. When we got to the origami paper, Jody and Archie went first, their piece of paper, as per the program, going exactly nowhere. The second team of Sadie and Addison had the same experience. By the time we got to the third team of Sasha and Sena, however, having witnessed this first two attempts, they were already folding their paper into a smaller package one step ahead of me.

"Look at that!" I said, "Sasha and Sena are folding their paper. I wonder what will happen?" When their paper ball traveled as far as the black line, the others all began folding and balling-up their paper as well, each launching their paper farther than it would have otherwise gone.

We never got around to making an actual graph, but we got a step closer. Maybe next time.

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1 comment:

Kierna C said...

Once again you have hit the nail on the head - I think the idea of not being in total control is what freaks some teachers out about a play based curriculum. I love the whole sponteniety of teaching this way - everyday/activity is different!