- "A child said, What is the grass?
fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?
I do not know what it is,
any more than he."
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1900
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When I was in fifth grade, I had Mr. Lewis for my teacher. Mr. Lewis drove a sparkly gold Sunbug, and had the full hair and handlebar mustache of Burt Reynolds (think “Smokey and the Bandits”). He was young, energetic, and most importantly, one cool dude.
But as far as I was concerned, the most important thing about Mr. Lewis was that his classroom was unlike any other I had experienced. The year was 1973, and in Mr. Lewis’s fifth grade room, Language Arts meant putting on plays and memorizing really cool poems. Handwriting meant learning calligraphy – with pens that you dipped in black ink. A group of us were even allowed to dispense with spelling altogether, and in a rare break from some of our previous learning experiences, Mr. Lewis actually spoke to us as if we were people.
But if you asked me what was the one thing that changed learning for me the most in fifth grade, it was the giant cardboard forts. Oh, and the pillows.
Recognizing that ideal classroom set-up for teachers isn’t always the best learning environment for children, Mr. Lewis relegated the heavy classroom desks to one side of the room, and allowed us to create our own learning spaces. It has been forty years since I set foot in Mr. Lewis’s classroom, but I still remember the refrigerator boxes, and the pillows and blankets and forts under desks, and the corners of the room that we created, decorated, inhabited and embraced.
The irony is that our tucked away corners and caves did not isolate us from each other, but in fact helped us connect, and be more present in our surroundings. We had been given permission to shape our own environment, and the process was a group endeavor. Instead of hiding my book inside the opening of my desk and reading while I was supposed to be listening, I could now read openly in a refrigerator box. Instead of sitting in a “collaborative” grouping of four desks pushed together, we were allowed to find our own group spaces – on pillows in a corner, or tucked side by side under a table. Mr. Lewis was one cool dude, and we had one cool classroom.
I’m not advocating trashing all desks and decorating classrooms with refrigerator boxes; I’m sure my recollections of fifth grade have been built up by time and a child’s desire to hold on to the part of a memory that speaks to her. But I’ve never forgotten the hold fifth grade had on me: how a teacher’s personal philosophy, appreciation for the aesthetics of classroom environment, and respect for the needs of ten year-olds meshed to create a learning environment that actually made me wake up, put down my book, and pay attention.
There is no one-size-suits-all learning environment for children of any age: each classroom needs to reflect the vision of its teachers, the age of its students, the philosophy of its school and the economic and physical realities of the school community. But within an individual classroom, the physical environment can be a powerful force that invites and inspires children to ponder and wonder. In the Reggio Emilia early childhood learning philosophy, classroom environment is described as the “third teacher.” Founder Loris Malaguzzi wrote,
“We value space because of its power to
organize, promote pleasant relationships
between people of different ages, create a
handsome environment, provide changes,
promote choices and activity, and its potential
for sparking all kinds of social, affective and
I like to believe that the classroom environment can be the “third teacher” for students of all ages. Whether you are parent or child, college student or pre-teen, teacher, secretary or scientist, a classroom should welcome you, and invite you in. It should comfort you, relax you and encourage you to express yourself. It should provoke you to think, dream and explore. It should be flexible, and be adaptable to a theme of study, or a style of collaboration. It should celebrate nature and objects of beauty. It should inspire you to be curious and creative.
So this year, I’m changing things up. I’m confident that in our PreKindergarten classroom we have a pedagogy that inspires and a curriculum that sparks. But I think our actual classroom environment could do more to inspire creative thought, and to reflect what goes on inside. To steal a term from the business community, we’ll call it our “growing edge.”
This summer I unearthed and reread one of my favorite books; Designs for Living and Learning, digested a new one called Inspiring Spaces for Young Children, pored over hundreds of photographs from other Reggio-inspired classrooms, created an iPad replica of our classroom and furniture, and began to learn the basics of the Rating Observation Scale for Inspiring Environments (ROSIE), which I plan to use as a rubric to help me assess our PreK room.
Last week I moved furniture left and right and forward and back, and put together a tentative skeleton – a work in progress – of what I hope will ultimately be a more visually inspiring, thought-provoking classroom.
The ROSIE observation guide uses the metaphor of a plant growing to mark one’s progress in developing an inspiring classroom: from sprouting to budding to blooming. We are definitely in the sprouting stage: our new school year begins tomorrow, and our students will show us which elements of the classroom work, and which ones need improvement. Since highlighting children’s work is at the heart of an inspiring classroom, our students will have much to explore, create and share in order to make our classroom begin to bloom.
Here’s to a new school year, and another amazing journey of discovery.
Pigs, wise men, musketeers. Veni, vidi, vici. Waltz, minuet, scherzo. Red, yellow, blue. Larry, Curley and Moe. Triangles!
From the very beginning of our Fairy Tale theme, our PreKindergarten class latched on to the Rule of Three with passion, preoccupation and persistence. Six weeks later, they are still going strong; finding threes in everything from the days of the month to the number of clouds in the sky, to the words that fall from their teachers’ lips. (“Ms. Pratt, you just told Khoi to put away the playdough three times!“)
Of course, an exploration of Fairy Tales is the perfect venue for that magical number three, and its deliciously concrete foundation is perfect for this age. When we read a new tale, eyes shine, ears sharpen and hands itch to shoot in the air with yet another example of that magical number to share.
The three building blocks of a CRS classroom (constructivism, creativity and connections) allow us the freedom to respond to the interests of our students, and adjust our curriculum accordingly. For our fairy tales theme, this meant taking the number three and running with it mathematically and literally – in the true sense of the word.
Paul Galdone’s version of the Three Little Kittens, is a dream of a book; it rhymes, it repeats, the sequence is clear, and that whole kittens-lose-things-and-mommy-gets-mad-so-they-don’t-get-pie thing just plays right into the psyche of a five-year old. After reading (and singing) it together as a class, we challenged our students to sequence the story from beginning to end.
Why write the sequencing of four and five year olds on a whiteboard? Children love to see their words in print (even messy print) – it gives them validity and importance. As they dictated and I wrote, children raised their hands to make the following observations:
- There are eleven different things that happened in Three Little Kittens!
- They go just like a book: across, and then down and over and across again!
- Why does each thing start with T?
- Each thing starts with Th! I see They and The!
- It says “The End!”
The next day’s morning question sported three mysterious plastic counting bears. What were they doing there?
The three bears on the morning question made our students think of a variety of things, some of which they spelled and wrote themselves. BARS (bears), BIG, MED, SMALL; DRTH MOL (the Star Wars character Darth Maul apparently sports the same bright red of the middle bear); sizes; MAE (me – Arturo does look like a teddy bear!); PATTERN and BOOK. Answering the morning question is all about reading, thinking, writing, language, speaking and listening – all of the language arts in one fell swoop.
The inevitable three little piggies made their first of many appearances one Wednesday morning, as part of Thematic Explorations time. In search of a more global version, we read The Three Little Javelinas, by Susan Lowell. The story structure is similar to the classic version, but the javelinas make their houses out of tumbleweeds, saguaro cacti and adobe bricks, and the wolf is replaced by a coyote.
Once we had read the story, we challenged our PreKers to build houses that that their teachers (The Two Ms. Coyotes) could not blow down, using classroom building materials. We paired them up, and put them to work:
Thematic teaching means watching for the “sparks,” those moments of collective excitement and engagement, and fanning those sparks into flames that inspire further exploration. A true test of the educational value of an activity in PreKindergarten is whether or not students in the class choose to recreate it, explore it in greater depth, or carry it further of their own accord. So Vanita and I were more than thrilled when our students asked us to “put out these things again tomorrow so we can build some more pig houses.” Here they are the next morning, during their free play time.
It took several days of immersion in the rule of three before PreKers made a connection between our fairy tale threes and the shape and parts of a triangle. No longer just any old shape, but a shape with three corners and three sides, the triangle took on new importance in the classroom. We worked on drawing them:
And we discovered that depending how you turn them, triangles can look a bit different from each other.
We even had a triangle treasure hunt, where we challenged our PreKers to find objects in the room and make triangles. Each triangle had to be made out of multiple pieces of the same material.
It’s funny how thematic trajectories like our students’ obsession with the Rule of Three ends up drawing us into their world. They haven’t let go of threes yet, and neither have I. I’ve renamed a particularly tight group of mischievous boys,”Hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil.” Vanita and I have created a song for the May Day Assembly entitled “Big Bad Wolf Mashup” which contains three kittens, three bears and three piggies. And did you know that the popular hand game Rock, Paper, Scissors contains three items? PreKers are particularly fond of choosing “rock,” and whacking fellow “scissors” with a fair amount of force, causing – you guessed it – blood, sweat and tears.
It is mid-morning on a warm and cloudy October day, and the sounds of the playground are at full pitch. Balls are bouncing, swings are creaking, children are talking, laughing and shouting as they run, dart and climb. Meanwhile, a small group of four and five-year olds is huddled in the sandbox around a good-sized hole. Using shovels, scoops, a yellow plastic construction digger, and in one case a large plastic dinosaur, they continue to dig deeper. After a bit, one child puts down his shovel, leans head first into the hole and shouts, “Ollie, are you down there?”
Before you worry where this story is headed, Ollie is not in fact buried in the sandbox. But in the minds of his fellow classmates, he might as well be. Ollie has taken a trip with his family to China, and his friends are determined to make contact.
Earlier that day, in an effort to demonstrate Ollie’s whereabouts, I held up a globe with one index finger on Massachusetts and the other on China. To a four-year old the enormity of the world is inconceivable, but the idea that Ollie was on the other side (roughly) of a very large ball captured their interest. With the curiosity and imagination of true scientists, they looked at the globe and began thinking, What if…
The notion that children demonstrate scientific behavior in play is not new; I would even suggest a corollary – that scientists demonstrate playful behavior in the laboratory. Play is, by its very nature, creative; it opens one’s mind to new possibilities and allows the freedom to explore the “what ifs,” the “if, thens,” and the “if not, then whats?” The scientific laboratory of the four-year old won’t win medals for organization, cleanliness or rigorous standards; it is in fact gloriously messy, randomly inspired and riddled with compromise, but most importantly, it is full of wonder, curiosity and the confidence to explore.
Play in the early childhood classroom is not one behavior: at times it is an open-ended exploration of materials, at times a pile of wrestling puppies, and at times a group facilitated endeavor or game – a community hole digging project, for instance. But all play behaviors share distinguishing qualities. Boston College professor Peter Gray defines play as embodying five main characteristics:
“(1) Play is self-chosen and self-directed; (2) Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends; (3) Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players; (4) Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life; and (5) Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.”
Child’s play is just that – play by and for children – and as a rule, we teachers deliberately limit our role to surreptitious observation, and support with finding materials, solving conflicts and cleaning up messes. Whether and how we join in play on any given day is part of the larger philosophical question of how to balance that early childhood teacher role: where do we observe, facilitate, scaffold, listen and lead? Where do we stand back and let our children fail? How many dead ends do we allow them to pursue before making an observation, asking a question or providing helpful information? Seeing our PreKindergarteners as scientists exploring in a laboratory helps us to clarify those edges and give reason to each aspect of our role.
Psychologist Alison Gopnik, a well-known expert in children’s learning and development, has spent her career looking at the cognitive development of children. Her research has centered on the concept of what she terms “theory theory;” the idea that children intuitively act like scientists in their play and exploration. Like scientists, she argues, children rely on three general cognitive behaviors to gather information: they look for patterns, they experiment, and they observe the experiments of others. They integrate newly observed information with their prior knowledge and even make broad generalizations.
In recent studies, both Gopnik and psychologist Christine Legare have explored children’s ability to predict both causal and counterfactual relationships in play. (Think of a typical causal relationship as a child’s reasoning that wearing rain boots will keep his feet from getting wet, and counterfactual reasoning as the same child with wet feet, saying “If Mommy hadn’t forgotten to pack my boots, my feet wouldn’t have gotten wet today.”) Legare’s recent work has concentrated on presenting children with materials that behave in a consistent, predictable manner that enables children to identify causal relationships, and then introducing an anomaly into the presentation. “Why did that happen?” she asks. “Can you tell me more? Do you have any other ideas?”
Legare has found strong evidence in her work that children respond to inconsistencies in causal relationships with increased curiosity and interest. They spend more time exploring the materials, summoning prior knowledge, making and trying out hypotheses and crafting verbal explanations for what they see. We see evidence of this heightened interest in our classroom daily; the inconsistencies are as simple as the block that won’t balance properly and as complex as the conflict that arises when three participants in a dramatic game want to be the Mommy. When we step into these situations and try to “fix” them or influence the outcome, we rob our students of the chance to be physicists and peacemakers.
Meanwhile Ollie is still in China, and PreK’s efforts at reaching him through the sandbox are going nowhere quickly. One particularly informed five-year old has shared the exciting news that there is hot burning lava in the center of the earth, and the anxious faces of his classmates suggest that this is an area of great and grave interest: what will happen to us if we keep on digging? Gradually, concern that flames lurk just under the surface of the sandbox prevails, and the children step warily back from their hole.
In the laboratory of the sandbox, the children have not been able to prove their original hypothesis, a→b, and they conclude that digging a hole in the sand will not lead to Ollie. That flaming ball of lava in the middle of the earth provides great fodder for counterfactual reasoning (“We would have been able to reach Ollie if the fire hadn’t been down there!”); the very idea is both exciting and scary, which makes its pull irresistible.
As much as we would like to, Vanita and I are unable to provide our students with the sophisticated digging equipment they need for further research (a fireproof earth bisecting submarine?). Sadly, our PreK Science Laboratory has fallen prey to the same funding shortages plaguing most scientific research. In a grown-up laboratory, PreK’s attempt to dig to China would be considered an unsuccessful experiment. In the science laboratory of early childhood play, however, each failure is simply an anomaly worth further investigation: a starting point for new ideas and a search for a greater depth of understanding. New questions have arisen from the digging experiment. Why couldn’t we dig that hole? What is under that sandbox, really? Is there fire? Is it poisonous?
The phrase “teachable moment” has become cliché, but Vanita and I sense that we have reached one. Our playful scientists have exhausted their resources and funding, and are looking to us for new avenues of support. Their play has initiated a heightened level of interest in the earth, and what goes on beneath the surface. They are ripe to make meaningful connections with a good book.
Faith McNulty’s How To Dig A Hole To The Other Side Of The World is met with rapt attention, many questions and thoughtful observations. McNulty invites our PreK children to travel deep down through the earth and learn about rocks, geysers, basalt, hidden pools of water, the mantle and that flaming hot core at the center. (Which, we point out, is way way way far away from our sandbox.)
It has been a couple of weeks now since our PreK children first dug their hole to China. To the joy of his classmates, Ollie has returned unharmed from his journey. Meanwhile Hurricane-Post-Tropical-Cyclone-Superstorm Sandy has blown through, dumping wind and water, taking out part of the 6th grade roof and giving us a couple of unexpected days off from school. We return to find our classroom and playground reassuringly intact.
That is, except for the sandbox, where the PreKindergarten hole to China has undergone a surprising transformation. Our children crowd around in fascination, alternately extending a foot to touch the surface and bending over to stare in. There is no need to worry about flames anymore, for the hole is deep and full of water. As the children lean over the hole, we can hear their voices rising with excitement.