Saturday, December 29, 2012

When People Stop Telling You What To Do

At one point during his 5-year-old year at Woodland Park, Isak started thinking about construction paper. "Why is it called construction paper? We never construct anything with it. We just use it like regular paper." He then proceeded to experiment at home, arriving in class with a crude construction paper cube or pyramid or other shape manufactured with scissors and tape. He made his point with me, although not necessarily with his friends, who admired his handiwork and even watched patiently as he demonstrated his techniques, but afterwords went right back to using construction paper to make 2-dimensional objects.

One of the bedrock principles of how I work in the classroom is that I strive to not boss kids around, "strive" being one of the key operative words here, because it's a really hard thing to do. And when I say "boss around," I mean that I try very hard, every day, to avoid directional statements like, "Do this" or "Don't do that." And, yes, I still consider it a personal and professional failure when I desperately tack a sweet "please" on the end of it, as if the command isn't already out of my mouth.

I've written quite a bit on why this is important, but at bottom, I suppose, is that I've found that children, even very young children, especially while attending a school with a play-based curriculum, don't need to be told what to do. Practicing the skills of independent exploration, thinking for oneself, making one's own decisions, and operating autonomously in the world is what we're here to do. Commands from adults prevent that from happening by highjacking the kids' thought process, replacing their agenda with ours. No, the only way to practice these independent thinking skills is through free play, and as a 5-year-old child once succinctly put it, "Play is what you do when people stop telling you what to do."

Okay then, so how about when I come across a really cool idea like this one from Roopa over on the delightful Putti's World blog? Could this be a way to achieve Isak's dream of a classroom of preschoolers using construction paper to make 3-dimensional objects? 

Her basic idea is for kids to roll strips of paper around pencils, then make a colorful collage from the resulting coils. When her daughter did it, it made an attractive finished piece of art, but right away I knew that while I might be able to inspire a child or two to do it the "right way" without directional statements, there was no way I'd be getting an entire classroom full of independent explorers, thinkers, decision-makers, and players to do it any way other than their way.

This is how I try to approach all of our activities, thinking first about how it will go without someone there to boss the kids around. In this case, I imagined what might happen if we provided strips of colored construction paper, pencils, a large piece of mat board, and some sort of adhesive. Even if an art parent was there role modeling the coiling technique, I knew that this would be only one of a million different ways the kids would find to use the materials, and while it would still be an art exploration, I was interested in the children experiencing something different than the usual flat glue collage project. If nothing else, I was hoping to provide them with some experience with the 3-dimensional constructive properties of this kind of paper we call "construction paper," but rarely, as Isak noted, use in that way.

I started with the idea of a community art project, because if we weren't going to tell kids what to do, we'd want to try to inspire them, and no one is more inspiring to a young child than another young child. I figured that if only a couple kids got into the coiling technique, that might lead to others giving it a try, which could snowball into something exciting.

Secondly, I ruled out pencils and glue: they are such open-ended tools that I knew they would likely take kids off into all kinds of tangents.

Finally, I settled on a single piece of gold mat board in honor of the holidays, on which I made a grid of double-sided transparent tape (a technique inspired by this project). Instead of pencils, I provided chopsticks. And, of course, I cut lots of strips of construction paper. I then finished the set up by making one coil which I stuck to the center of the mat board and another bent paper shape. When the art parent arrived, I showed her how I'd made the coil, encouraging her to role model it. I told her I was hoping the kids would get some experience in constructing 3-diminsionally, although it was their project to do with as they saw fit. And, because there always needs to be a back up plan, I pointed out that the scissors were available should the whole thing be a flop, another open-ended tool, just in case, that can pretty much save any day.

I know it sounds like a lot of detailed planning on my part for what could have been, in a different kind of school, a straight-forward craft project, but that's one of the consequences of the teacher having an agenda in a classroom where it really ought always to be about the children exploring on their own, thinking for themselves, making their own decisions, and operating autonomously in the world. It was an agenda I was curious about, but one I knew I had to be ready to give up if it got in the way of the kids.

The kids, as their project snowballed, started referring to it as a water park: a little mid-winter anticipation of the warmer months to come, which explains all the swoops, loops, and curls. The sharply bent parts, I was told, are the stairs.

Did we make a rolled paper collage like the one on Roopa's blog? Not exactly. Did we achieve Isak's goal of using construction paper to actually construct? Not exactly. Did we achieve the ideal of not bossing kids around while still inviting them to experiment with 3-dimensions? You know, I think maybe we did.

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Barbara Zaborowski said...

We tried this last spring and--pretty much--no one was interested. However, we'll try it again soon. You never know what kids will take to.
Anyway, I thought you might want to read this blogpost since you're mentioned at the end.

Luke Jaaniste said...

The more I read this blog, the more it seems to have stories about Tom and what's in his mind, rather than what's going on for kids. And there seems to be lots of references to Tom's trying not to be the boss, trying to make it open and yet Tom is in the centre directing things... "I strive to not boss kids around" "I desperately tack a sweet "please" on the end of it" "I might be able to inspire a child or two to do it the 'right way' without directional statements" " I imagined what might happen if..." "I was interested in the children experiencing something different than..." "if we weren't going to tell kids what to do, we'd want to try to inspire them..." "I ruled out ..." "And, of course, I cut lots of strips of construction paper..." "It was an agenda I was curious about, but one I knew I had to be ready to give up if it got in the way of the kids."

The statement "the only way to practice these independent thinking skills is through free play" doesn't seem to match the story here, where the adult is first (subtlety) setting everything up, and the children come into that setting and play later.

"Isak's dream of a classroom of preschoolers using ..." Was that Isak's dream? I don't get this at all from the story. There is no part of the story given over to Tom inquiring as to Isak's story.

Your thoughts on this?

Teacher Tom said...

Luke, Thank you for asking.

This post was intended as an example of how I work with what Regio theory calls The Third Teacher: the environment. In a play-based curriculum, the teacher's primary job is to work with the other two teachers (the parents and the environment) to present children with engaging opportunities/challenges/invitations to play. In a way, this is the process of creating the "limitations" within which human beings best express their genius. My goal is not to have NO influence on children, but rather to avoid exerting that influence by bossing them around. If I can motivate, inspire, or guide them, then I'm doing my job.

And yes, this post, like all of my posts, focuses on Teacher Tom and what's on his mind. This blog is part of my reflective practice as a teacher, something I hope to encourage every teacher to embrace. =)

Luke Jaaniste said...

This sounds good: "to present children with engaging opportunities/challenges/invitations to play" and I suppose I do this as a parent in various ways at home. I like the idea of "strewing" from Sandra Dodd ( And reflection, yes that makes good sense too.

I suppose what I'm thinking about is what feels (in some general sense at least) like a kind of missing link here. Even saying "presenting children with..." is about the adult coming up with a situation or set up that the children then enter. But I wonder whether you think there is much there 'in' the children that could come out by following them rather than leading them?

And, seriously, how did you know it was Isak's dreaming for all kids to go 3D with the paper? (It is not in the story currently).

Without starting and remaining with what the children already have within them, developing and constructing and evolving meaning as they go along, then I'm thinking all we are going to get is comments like Barbara's: "We tried this last spring and--pretty much--no one was interested." Well, if you don't start and grow from the interests of the child...

Teacher Tom said...

Luke, I surmised that this was Isak's "dream" (perhaps some poetic license in the choice of that work) from the fact that he tried to teach his friends how to do it his way. I guess I didn't make that connection explicit enough in the first paragraph.

A few days ago, I wrote about a boy who kept peeking at some cars that were on a shelf that was "closed." Some suggested I shouldn't have parts of the classroom that are closed. I disagree. If everything we own was available every day, it would be too chaotic for most of the kids. We would struggle to to walk, move, focus, etc. . . . I know this is true from experience. A teacher's job, a parent's job, is to determine certain boundaries or limitations. Children do not thrive without them. Perhaps I make them too restrictive or not restrictive enough and the children let me know this by their behavior, not as individuals, but as a group. I think this project is an example of how I did a good job of setting up some parameters so I shared how I came up with them. Even after 14 years, it usually takes a lot more tweaking to get the balance just right.

island woman said...

I'm really pleased I found your blog.You put a lot of thought into the activities you initiate. Reminds me very much of the Montessori classroom. I was a teacher for 40 years and have always tried to view activities from the children's viewpoints, which includes trying out an art/craft activity myself beforehand. I also found that if you then use your own model as a "role model"it was SO inhibiting for the children. Much better to have an open-ended activity that allows for the children's own creativity.