Two years ago in early April I went to Reggio Emilia, Italy to study the magic that happens when children are given the freedom to explore and to construct their own knowledge of all that is happening in the world in which we live. Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio Emilia schools, once said, “Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water.” Now, two years out from the Light the Fire grant and my trip to Italy, I’m still learning how to ride down that river of experience along with my children.
I have found that the more I watch my children, documenting what I see, the more I learn about what is happening with each child. The documenting is the toughest part, for it often goes by the wayside in the rush of the day. The camera is my most reliable tool to preserve those moments I want to remember with the children, and the images I capture give me a frame of reference to use when I need to clarify my thinking.
The children have been writing persuasive letters as a part of their Writer’s Workshop, and their work as been meaningful to them as they are finding a true use for their writing. They have written letters to Mo Willems encouraging him to continue to write Piggy and Gerald books, they have written to Mr. Jenkins to have the outside water fountain repaired, and they have written to the first grade teachers promoting Choice time in that upcoming grade level. They defended their position logically and in such a way that their arguments were spot-on. Their writing has a real world purpose, and is a part of their lives. They want to learn how to make their writing more easily read by others, and as a result they are working to include as many sounds in their words as possible. It is a wholistic manner of teaching, and the children are constructing their own knowledge according to the needs they recognize as they work.
I have come to recognize that the more I can preserve the whole-ness of the day the better it is for my children. Chopping the day into sections stops the flow of learning, and the multiple transitions from one area of learning to the next is difficult for many children. This is often when we see behavioral issues crop up. I truly believe that providing our children with a healthy, uninterrupted Choice time is one of the most empowering acts we can do for our kiddos. It provides them with the opportunity to read, to write, to draw, to create, to daydream (!), and to plan what they would like to do next. It is unbridled constructivist education.
Now, what does the teacher do during all of this open-ended creativity? Sit back with the camera, drink some coffee and eat bon-bons? The teacher is the orchestra conductor, the one who keeps the ball spinning, the cook who is putting the delicious meal on the table. It is up to us to set the table with opportunities that will stretch our children, giving them the idea that there is more to play than just putting legos together. Our job is to think carefully and creatively about what we want the children to learn, whether it is about hatching eggs, what makes a good public park, or what makes certain words strung together chime as poetry. We set the table, and give the children the opportunity to come to their own conclusions through their exploration of all the ingredients we have put before them.
It is much easier to just give children a work sheet, an activity that all will “perform” rather than undergo the messiness and unpredictability of a variety of activities that are presented for exploration and for self discovery. It takes a measure of trust in the child, knowing that children are burning to discover the meaning and truth in the world. When we provide the children with these open-ended experiences and opportunities, their educational experiences are rich and unique to each child, for each of them finds what they are striving to learn.
I recently put out clay, hoping that the children would make people to populate the park that we had made, much like the clay people that the Reggio children had made in the picture at the beginning of this post. My ideas were clear, but the children made their own path. Suddenly there were dogs and bears and balls as well as skateboarders, swimmers, and old men with canes. Some dogs looked like blobs, but the children knew what they were and could give each a name. Next they will be able to write a poem about their creations, putting words to the clay images they have made. Or…perhaps they will have another idea, and we will float down the river together, making discoveries along the way that neither of us had imagined.