Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How An Emergent Curriculum Works: Following A Leader

(For the past 3 days, I've been using examples from our classroom by way of trying to define what we mean at Woodland Park when we call what we do an "emergent curriculum." In one case our "project" emerged as if by some sort of wordless magic. In the second post, I described a "project" that emerged from my own agenda. In yesterday's, post I discussed a full day of learning about spiders that the children constructed from their own collective knowledge and experience. Today's example is about how a dramatic play project continues to emerge, sparked by the driving interest of a single student, complicated by the fact that we are dealing with the challenges of working with "intellectual property.")

Addison arrived in class on the first day this year talking about something called "Creativity." Given that last I'd seen him in the Spring he'd been a huge Harry Potter fan (the books, not the movie), I figured it was a new book series he was into or maybe some sort of role-playing video game. 

He worked hard to "sell" the idea, whatever it was, to his friends, once even taking the microphone (we have an old karaoke machine) to lecture us at some length about the mystery and danger and adventure of Creativity, but it was met with blank stares. I was feeling sorry for him, his excitement not getting through to the others, especially once I found out from his mom Jen that Creativity was, in fact, an entire world he had invented on his own, that it had "consumed most of his summer play" and was "very important to him."

That bit of knowledge in mind, I decided that I'd try playing along a little, since it didn't appear the kids were getting it.

I'd heard him talking about "portals" at some point, so as we hung out together in the outdoor classroom, I pointed up into our cedars and said, "I'm pretty sure I saw a portal into Creativity up in that tree."

He took it up, "Are you sure? They move around."

"I'm pretty sure it was a portal into Creativity."

"It looks like a swirling mass. Was it a swirling mass?"

"Yes. That must have been it. Maybe we should get the ladder and climb up there." I figured lecturing alone wasn't going to work to get the masses engaged, but I did know that anything involving moving our homemade ladder always draws a crowd.

I waited for his go-ahead and got it, "Good idea, Teacher Tom!"

Together we put out a call, "We need the ladder! We need the ladder!"

As the kids rallied to the cry, Addison filled them in on the portal we'd spotted in the trees: the portal that leads to Creativity. As the adult, the one ultimately responsible for safety, I wasn't particularly keen on how the ladder wound up positioned against the trees -- it was wobbly, there were a lot of kids jostling around for a turn -- so in the interest of not letting the excitement dissipate, I took responsibility for re-positioning the ladder, finally deciding, with Addison's agreement, that the portal had moved, and that the best place for the ladder would be against the fence.

Addison went first, climbing to the top then peering over the fence at the common, everyday world outside it. He pointed up into the branches of the large cedar that stands near our gate and said, "There it is, the swirling mass. I feel it pulling me in." Since he had been speaking directly to me where I'd positioned my body near the top of the ladder so as to catch anyone who slipped, I amplified his words to the line of children waiting their turn below: "Addison sees the portal in the tree. It looks like a swirling mass. He feels himself being pulled in." He then climbed back down the ground, throwing himself into the wood chips, shouting, "I've been pulled in! I'm in Creativity!"

It took a long time for each of his classmates to climb to the top of the ladder, to peer over the fence, and to "find" the portal. Some saw it in the tree like Addison did. Others, however, spotted the portal disguised as the garage door across the street, others spied it up in the clouds, and some couldn't find it at all, proving Addison's point that the portal into Creativity has a tendency to move around. I repeated each child's comments to the other kids below, then as they prepared to climb back down, I asked, "Do you feel it pulling you in?" Those that answered "yes" then threw themselves down on the ground in imitation of Addison.

Then an interesting thing happened, something with which I've never before had to deal as a preschool teacher. We gathered on our blue rug for circle time, the kids buzzing about Creativity. Several of the kids let us know that they'd seen the portal, the swirling mass, and had been pulled in, then Cooper, who was sitting directly beside Addison, said, "There's a magical forest in Creativity."

Addison suddenly looked ashen, "No there's not!"

Cooper looked at him wide-eyed, "Yes there is. I saw it!"

"There's not a magical forest in Creativity! There are beasts! You have to watch out for the beasts!"

Cooper responded and the boys went a couple rounds of "Yes there is!"/"No there's not!" before I interrupted and managed to get us moved on. Normally, in such a clear, well-mannered debate, I'd have tried to use it as an opportunity to help guide the boys to some sort of resolution, but frankly, I lost my nerve in the moment, knowing that Creativity was a precious thing to Addison and I wanted more information before proceeding to do anything that might damage his own, personal dramatic play creation.

The following day, Friday, Addison stayed home ill, and I figured that was probably the end of it, at least for awhile: a day without him and a weekend would wash things away, but I was wrong. The children arrived at school and immediately launched into playing Creativity, this time without any of the "constraints" placed on us by its creator. Fairies and skeletons and airplanes and super heros and sharks began to appear. The kids positioned the ladder in a new location, organizing themselves to take turns looking for the portal, using the term "swirling mass," but also giving it colors and other characteristics not supported by the "original text."

Still, I thought the weekend would take care of things until we sat down for show-and-tell. Cooper had written and illustrated a 5 page book about Creativity, filled with an impressive amount of detail. This wasn't going away. Addison had succeeded in attracting other children to play is game, but now they were making it their own. Normal stuff for preschool, I suppose, but in this case it felt like we were dealing with a kind of "intellectual property." Certainly, he maintained certain "rights" to his invention, yet certainly the rest of the kids maintained their rights to go where their own imaginations took them.

I wrote to Jen about how things were developing, suggesting that if all of this bothered Addison, I could work to at least convince the kids to change the name of our school's magical place to something else: reserving Addison's right to the name "Creativity." She had a discussion with him, and while he was excited and impressed that his friends were still interested in Creativity, he wanted to maintain some control. Together they came up with the idea that each of his classmates would have their own "property" within Creativity that they alone could control. She let me know that Addison wanted to make the pitch himself and was prepared to talk about it at circle time on Monday.

When we convened on the blue rug, I goofed around a little, then mentioned Creativity, before turning the floor over Addison. He did a very precise job of describing the plan, saying, "I control Creativity, but everybody has their own property that they control themselves."

Cooper didn't wait to raise his hand, "In my property there's a magical forest and a red airplane that flies the portal around!"

Addison answered, "That's great. But remember, Creativity is huge and everybody's property is miniscule."

There was silence. I was not going to define this word for the kids if I didn't have to, in the interest of avoiding an argument about "property size."

Then he continued, "In Creativity 'miniscule' means 'huge.'"

This "project" continues to emerge.

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Jen said...

I love that you not only gave Addison a chance to share his imaginative world with everyone but also gave him the opportunity to figure out a way let others be creative in Creativity! I asked him about it on Monday after class and he sadly told me that the other kids wanted to participate in Coopers land in the Creativity world instead of his. I tried to ask more questions but he didn't want to talk about it :( I am interested to see how it all unfolds...

Anonymous said...


You wrote: for awhile
You probably meant: either "awhile" or "for a while"

You wrote: to play is game
You probably meant: to play his game

You wrote: turning the floor over Addison
You probably meant: turning the floor over to Addison

Meagan said...

Wow! 2nd Life without the coding constraints.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Typos really bother you a lot. I hope you were able to see through them and see the point of the post!

Laura said...

lol, love it, "In Creativity 'miniscule' means huge."