Looking Through the Viewfinder

Looking Through the Viewfinder
"I'm looking through the viewfinder...I see you in mine! Do you see me Ms Hartings?"

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Drama Literacy

Lately, I have been reminiscing about the great inspirations in my life- people, experiences, and the places that have allowed me to grow and blossom as a teacher with a passion for the arts. At my core, I am driven by a powerful need to listen and understand the essence of each individual being in my classroom. What lights them up inside? What worries them? What do they feel their strengths are academically and artistically, inside and outside of school? What do they feel their weaknesses are? What terrifies them, excites them, makes them want to scream out with joy!? The arts pull these truths forward. Art brings out all of the colors- some beautiful and some quite harsh, and can paint a magnificent picture of the whole human being. I literally live for teaching and getting to know what children need and want out of their school experience. I live for making their vision and dream become possible through setting up experiences, facilitating their exploration of possibilities, and offering up all of my energy in search to find the perfect materials and books to light that spark. I don’t mind if I feel drained and exhausted at the end of the day if my children feel full of life and inspiration. For the children have given me so much- unwavering patience, listening skills, and they have allowed me to experience beautiful moments with them as they laugh and marvel at every little wonder life offers up. Perhaps it is the listening skills I continue to refine throughout the time I spend with children that I am most grateful for. We all want to say we are great listeners, but listening is an art in and of itself, and it didn’t always come easy to me. I continue to train and refine this skill just like any craft an artist strives to develop.  

Recently, I have been asked to think about my own experience with the dramatic arts. Of course drama is something I incorporate in my classroom daily, but I rarely think back to the methods I studied or MY life as an actor. I use drama to help bring learning to life with my kids, to motivate them, and provide opportunities for performance and culminating projects. So when a friend asked me to think of teaching drama in terms of the way I studied years ago in New York, I lost some sleep. The time I spent in college studying acting methods, in particular the Meisner Technique, was a tumultuous time of anxiety, excitement, confusion, self expression, and a great deal of self discovery. The goal was to “live truthfully under imaginary circumstances”. I was constantly struggling to truly comprehend who my characters were at their very core; understand the purpose behind each word they spoke, and every move they made. I put a great deal of effort into understanding the needs of my characters. Then, once I had done all of the work of character development, I was asked to put my characters on like second skin and live inside of them- leaving my old self alone as if I no longer existed as Jessica for the moment. Letting go of self consciousness completely and focusing every ounce of energy on what was going on around me in a new role was magical; reacting authentically to every stimulus in the scene as someone new was terrifying and exhilarating. All of this was completely overwhelming to me as I studied; however, in my teaching world now, this experience is a gift to be passed on and shared with others. During this time in my life I went through a transformation. I learned the first steps to truly listening. I learned to move beyond empathy to a point where I actually became someone new and understood a new life much different from my own, as if it were my own. It wasn’t until I got to step outside of my own life and experience the world from a new perspective that I truly got to know myself. Not only did I get to know who I was, but I started to pay close attention to the stimuli in my life I would react to daily, and I learned invaluable skills to gain control of my reactions through the practice I received while playing out similar situations in a make believe world.

Don’t we want our children to understand who they are, what they want out of their school experience, and how to react to negative and positive stimuli in their life in a healthy, appropriate way? Don’t we want them to develop a sense of empathy for “the characters” in their lives? Don’t we want them to understand the core of a character study, character motivation, and character development from an author’s standpoint? Isn’t it true that we want our children to be motivated to read, write, and invent new characters and situations? Don’t we want them to have a voice, and understand what drives them? Don’t WE want to understand what drives them? My training in the dramatic arts was trying, but that is what made it so precious. My experience in the education world is often trying, but our success stories are pure magic.  I look forward to facilitating a deep exploration of this artistic craft with my students as a tool to learn empathy for others and to gain a better understanding of themselves in the context of their lives. It is a key to motivating young readers and writers, and I believe it is an extraordinarily powerful tool.

The link below will lead you to an article that “sings to my soul” as a teacher. It is the foundation of how I teach literacy, encouraging drama and inventive spelling

I am a drama person. My training in drama inspired me to teach. I believe that drama can give children strength, confidence, and motivation. Perhaps most importantly, it gives them the tools they need to READ and WRITE and make meaning of what they read and write.

The plays we create and perform in our classroom are intentional tools I use to give children a deep understanding of reading and writing.

This is an excerpt from the piece Currents in Literacy Drama Literacy: Center Stage By George Branigan you will find when your follow the link above:

We all know that there are many “senses” of the term literacy being kicked about the discursive landscape of education and culture. To me, literacy has to do with powerful ways of understanding and interpreting a world invented by and structured by print. This is the world of contracts, news, laws, sacred texts, dictionaries, and declarations. It is the world of prose, poetry, and drama. It is equally the world of formulas, calculations, blueprints, and maps. It is a planned world, a constructed world, a world built out of words. It is a world that, once constructed, gives us ideas about words, and, through words, gives us ideas about ourselves. It behooves us to understand the world made out of words, or as Olson has said, the “world on paper.” I consider the acquisition of literacy to be a gradual process of "demythologizing" the world made on paper by print. We learn to see how this world is constructed by people who are functioning within social, cultural, and political spheres and to realize that we could be one of those creators of the worlds on paper just as easily as the next person. This realization exposes the arbitrariness of power within this dynamic and realigns the controlling functions exerted by print. For example, the dictionary loses its "mythic" authoritative status as the final word on meaning or spelling or pronunciation when understood to be the product of teams of people combing through other texts to first produce the work and only to revise it periodically as meanings, pronunciations, and spellings change.

To help children see how they can be co-constructors of these worlds of meaning -- either through engagement with someone else's text or through their own production of a text -- is the task of literacy education. I have found that learning to "read" dramatic productions of texts and to monitor our reactions to performances of those texts (either our own or those of others) provides an access to expanding literacy.

What of the elementary school and children who are just learning to cope with written texts? What does sophisticated theatergoing have to do with their emergent literacy? Think of kids as audiences for bedtime story readings. Think of kids as natural actors in touch with very pure emotional resources. Think of them as powerful meaning-makers ready to observe that the king has no clothes. Situate them in a relation to meanings as producers rather than consumers. And what have we got? A head start on literacy of all kinds.

Carol Chomsky very cogently argues that writing is more accessible than reading for young children. Among her reasons is the observation that the child's relation to meaning differs in the two tasks. For reading, meanings are unknown to the child, while in writing meanings originate with the child. Thus, when children come to read their own writing, they already know the meanings and can spend some cognitive time exploring (and gradually discovering) how what is read is organized to represent the meanings that it does. She made a similar argument when called in to the Randolph schools to address a problem they had with some of their fourth graders. These children had learned to decode, that is, they were successful with phonics tasks in isolation. However, they still could not read. She aptly asked: After Decoding: What? Her answer seemed somewhat surprising -- memorize. But in light of altering one's position to meaning, it makes perfect sense. If children were helped to memorize whole texts (as actors do), just like beginning writers, they would already know the meanings encoded in the print. Cognitive space could then be freed up to explore how the text said what it did. Thus, any kind of re-instruction in letter-sound systems could be built upon their prior knowledge of those texts.

This is what we do. This is why first grade readers can write words for characters they create like “We must use our wisdom and responsibility”, and then be able to read back the words fluently and with intention. They are able to do this because they have actively participated in the creation of the text. It is breathtaking to watch children become active participants in the construction of their own knowledge. BREATHTAKING!

M's sketch of her costume and character traits

M's brainstorm for "Save the Earth"

E loves the song "Heal the World" by Michael Jackson. He wrote a piece to the tune of the song.

E's rough draft of "Save the Earth"
Z highlighting her lines

"The Girls" rehearsing their lines
This picture is from our first play. "The Strange Land of Dragons". This piece dramatically changed the way the children worked together collaboratively. It taught them how to listen to each other, share ideas, and cope with social/emotion issues through the use of characters that faced obstacles. The confidence, poise, and sense of responsibility this play gave to E was AMAZING. He followed through with his first play to the very end. He even made programs and designed costumes with the help of his incredibly gifted mother.

Dancing to the beat of a special guest drummer- bringing out the joy of learning!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Joy of Presenting to an Authentic Audience- YouthCAN Challenge at Fairchild Botanical Gardens

On February 17th, my class, the 1st and 2nd graders of La Scuola in Miami, participated in the YouthCAN Challenge at Fairchild Botanical Gardens. "YouthCAN, a youth run organization, unites environmentally active youth to exchange ideas about the environment and empower others to make a difference in their own communities. This conference is a unique opportunity for students to meet and share their ideas and projects about environmental issues and conservation." (YouthCAN Flyer 2011) Every student that participated was engaged in a variety of hands-on activities as they presented and listened to other presentations from their peers. We were the youngest class to represent a school at Fairchild this year, however, besides the fact they are mini sized, you wouldn't have guessed they were the least experienced based on their ability to present the information they feel passionate about with poise and confidence.

The day brought tears to my eyes because I saw this as a first step among many my students will take to reach out into their community and create change and excitement through expressing their interests, concerns, and vision for a better future both within our community and world. When Louise and Ashley Cadwell lead a workshop at our school, they asked our staff to write a few words about our dream for La Scuola. The idea of seeking out authentic audiences for our children feels absolutely vital to the work we are trying to do within my class and as a school. As we think about sustainability, we are always trying to consider how our actions and words can have a tremendous effect on the way others in our community and world will do things concerning taking care of our earth AND each other. Also, the valuable resources available in our community are there, just waiting for us to discover them, bring them back to our home to share, make meaning of, and create personal connections to through exploration, questioning and the 100 other ways children learn and make sense of the world. Finding authentic audiences for my children to share their strong, capable, passionate selves with the community is my dream for our children, and this experience was a precious first step toward achieving it.

Please let me know if you are aware of other opportunities in or outside of Miami for our children to share. We are excited and ready to step up to many other challenges.

The project itself grew out of our larger overarching question “What is Water?” The question was born out of watching and listening to the children talk, read, and create work related to water. Water is very much a part of the identity of Miami. It makes up our ocean, flows through the Everglades, and we experience VERY wet seasons, and extreme draughts as well. Children's interest in water grew organically, and we have explored the many questions that fall under the larger question throughout the year. The idea of water conservation, which turned out to be the heart of the project the children presented at YouthCAN, was sparked by spending time in the school garden and feeding the plants with rainwater caught from our rainy season. The children became interested in measuring the rainfall and keeping track of how much rain was being caught each day. In addition to measuring rainfall, the children became excited about the idea of measuring the amount of water we were using as a class each day by tracking how many times we flushed the toilet, showered, took a bath, and ran the sink. This was measured in gallons and the children were able to visualize the amount by using milk gallons.

After finding out they were each averaging about 50 gallons a day and we were not catching a single drop of water of rain day after day, the children made the connection that we were using a lot of water, but we were not catching natural rain water because we are in the dry season and experiencing a drought. The children expressed interest in creating more rain barrels to catch additional water during the wet season "so we would not run out of natural rain water when the dry season comes again" They also made a pact to take less baths and shorter showers, turn the sink off while they were brushing their teeth, and share this information with their peers, family members, and community.

Next, the children began designing beautiful rain barrels. In conjunction with their rain barrel designs, they also planned to start another garden so we could enjoy the beautiful plants that benefit from the rain we catch. Throughout the process the children learned countless 21st century skills as well as everyday skills that are important to a child’s 1st and 2nd grade year of school. Among these skills were measuring in inches, centimeters, feet, cups, ounces, and gallons; perimeter and area, researching, effective communication skills, collaboration skills, presentation skills, persuasive writing, and many more.

I am unbelievably proud of my class, and I am confident this is just the tip of the iceberg for them. We hope to face many more challenges and think critically about what we can do to contribute to our community positively.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Cooperative Learning

Measuring the perimeter of our garden

Designing garden cinderblocks- creating our own raised garden beds

Painting a class mural based on three designs created by the students and inspired by "The Great Wave" by Katsushika Hokusai
As a teacher, I feel that most children learn best socially. Sure, some tasks call for the student to work independently with absolute concentration to every detail, but the experiences children have during their school years while working as a team to achieve a common goal are some of the most meaningful in my eyes. Most children seem to feel the same way as I watch and listen to them in action with a small group. The laughter, dialogue, excitement that is present most of the time is such a joy to watch. The times that are well...not so joyful, often turn out to be wonderful learning experiences and growth opportunities for the whole group. During these times of observation I often feel I am gathering the most information about the children's interests and their abilities. 

Cooperative learning opportunities pop up everywhere throughout the day. The way we enter into projects as a class; jotting down thoughts and ideas, creating a plan, and engaging in dialogue with each other regarding our ideas and learning goals is a model for the children. I believe the time we spend together as a whole group planning for these experience is extremely important because we are creating an example for the way we want children to interact with one another when they are on their own with peers.

I spend a lot of time every single day reflecting on dialogue we have during Morning Meetings and mini lessons throughout the day. I am very critical of myself when it comes to how much I interject and redirect conversation so that we can be most productive. This is a constant process for me, and although I feel I have grown tremendously when it comes to facilitating, I am a work in process. However, when I see children taking turns talking, being respectful and welcoming when others present new ideas, and sharing a huge piece of work among their group in a fair way so that all members of the group feel equally challenged and important, I am filled up to the brim with joy. This is by far the most important skill a child can learn throughout their school years- how to work together with their peers in a respectful way.
"Save the Earth" student led impromptu chant :)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Writing Process

On Monday, January 24th, the children worked on personal narratives describing a meaningful experience they have had with water. Some chose to write about a time they played in the rain, swimming with family members, or being stuck inside because of bad weather. The children illustrated detailed pictures of this "snapshot" of their life before writing. One of the children stood in front of a mirror to help him compose an accurate drawing of his body. After drawing, they moved through the steps of The Writing Process. Almost all of the children chose to publish their writing after peer editing and revising. They are extremely proud of the hard work they put into their writing, and they had a great time reliving meaningful experiences throughout the process.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Eyes of a Child

I believe this quote will speak to you even if you are not one of the lucky ones who work with young children.

“Often in our work, and in our lives, we tend to look for confirmation of what we think and what we believe. We identify ours selves with our ideas and our theories. To change our minds, to reconsider our basic theories and beliefs so as to see their limitations, is often perceived as a personal defeat. Often the ensuing crisis is experienced as a loss rather than as the beginning of something new. The fact is that we are too firmly attached to our theories and to our ideas and thus we often close the door to new ways of seeing and understanding. But new ideas spring forth everywhere, particularly if we live among children. The children themselves stand for what is new for us and what is asking for acceptance. We can never predict the way in which the new will appear, but often it has the eyes of a child. We must, therefore, expect the new to appear, help it come forth, follow it, and nurture it.”

 ~Carlina Rinaldi from Louise Boyd Cadwell’s book The Reggio Approach to Early Childhood Education- Bringing Learning to Life

Reggio Emilia Philosophy

I am writing this post because it has been brought to my attention that not all of my friends have background knowledge about Reggio Emilia. I am sorry for not sharing right away.  I certainly don't want anyone to have to go googling to find out. I will share with you what I know, and then you can go from there. I can say that in Reggio Emilia, Italy, they do not usually practice this approach past Kindergarten. However, I can assure you that the core principals are quite valuable for children of all ages. This philosophy paired with Sustainability Education is a great match. To read up on Sustainability Education go to the Cadwell's website www.cadwellcollaborative.com. I am absorbing all of the information at the moment and I am finding it fascinating and exciting. I hope you can find this information interesting.

Reggio Emilia Philosophy

Piazza - Diana School, Reggio Emilia, Italy

These pictures are from Reggio children's "Open Window" series, they were scanned from slides and posted by a fellow blogger

The following overview of the Reggio Emilia Approach was taken from a packet of information available at The Hundred Languages of Children traveling exhibit:
Hailed as an exemplary model of early childhood education (Newsweek, 1991), the Reggio Emilia approach to education is committed to the creation of conditions for learning that will enhance and facilitate children's construction of "his or her own powers of thinking through the synthesis of all the expressive, communicative and cognitive languages" (Edwards and Forman, 1993). The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education is a city-run and sponsored system designed for all children from birth through six years of age. The Reggio Emilia approach can be viewed as a resource and inspiration to help educators, parents, and children as they work together to further develop their own educational programs. The Reggio Emilia approach is based upon the following principles:

Emergent Curriculum: An emergent curriculum is one that builds upon the interests of children. Topics for study are captured from the talk of children, through community or family events, as well as the known interests of children (puddles, shadow, dinosaurs, etc.). Team planning is an essential component of the emergent curriculum. Teachers work together to formulate hypotheses about the possible directions of a project, the materials needed, and possible parent and/or community support and involvement.

Project Work: Projects, also emergent, are in-depth studies of concepts, ideas, and interests, which arise within the group. Considered as an adventure, projects may last one week or could continue throughout the school year. Throughout a project, teachers help children make decisions about the direction of study, the ways in which the group will research the topic, the representational medium that will demonstrate and showcase the topic and the selection of materials needed to represent the work. Long-term projects or progettazione, enhance lifelong learning.

Representational Development: Consistent with Howard Gardner's notion of schooling for multiple intelligences, the Reggio Emilia approach calls for the integration of the graphic arts as tools for cognitive, linguistic, and social development. Presentation of concepts and hypotheses in multiple forms of representation -- print, art, construction, drama, music, puppetry, and shadow play -- are viewed as essential to children's understanding of experience. Children have 100 languages, multiple symbolic languages.

Collaboration: Collaborative group work, both large and small, is considered valuable and necessary to advance cognitive development. Children are encouraged to dialogue, critique, compare, negotiate, hypothesize, and problem solve through group work. Within the Reggio Emilia approach multiple perspectives promote both a sense of group membership and the uniqueness of self. There high emphasis on the collaboration among home-school-community to support the learning of the child.

Teachers as Researchers: The teacher's role within the Reggio Emilia approach is complex. Working as co-teachers, the role of the teacher is first and foremost to be that of a learner alongside the children. The teacher is a teacher-researcher, a resource and guide as she/he lends expertise to children (Edwards, 1993). Within such a teacher-researcher role, educators carefully listen, observe, and document children's work and the growth of community in their classroom and are to provoke, co-construct, and stimulate thinking, and children's collaboration with peers. Teachers are committed to reflection about their own teaching and learning.

Documentation: Similar to the portfolio approach, documentation of children's work in progress is viewed as an important tool in the learning process for children, teachers, and parents. Pictures of children engaged in experiences, their words as they discuss what they are doing, feeling and thinking, and the children's interpretation of experience through the visual media are displayed as a graphic presentation of the dynamics of learning. Documentation is used as assessment and advocacy.

Environment: Within the Reggio Emilia schools, great attention is given to the look and feel of the classroom. Environment is considered the "third teacher." Teachers carefully organize space for small and large group projects and small intimate spaces for one, two or three children. Documentation of children's work, plants, and collections that children have made from former outings are displayed both at the children's and adult eye level. Common space available to all children in the school includes dramatic play areas and worktables for children from different classrooms to come together.
Features of The Reggio Emilia Approach

Teacher Role:
to co-explore the learning experience with the children
to provoke ideas, problem solving, and conflict
to take ideas from the children and return them for further exploration
to organize the classroom and materials to be aesthetically pleasing
to organize materials to help children make thoughtful decisions about the media
to document children's progress: visual, videotape, tape recording, portfolios
to help children see the connections in learning and experiences
to help children express their knowledge through representational work
to form a "collective" among other teachers and parents
to have a dialogue about the projects with parents and other teachers
to foster the connection between home, school and community

Projects:can emerge from children's ideas and/or interests
can be provoked by teachers
can be introduced by teachers knowing what is of interest to children: shadows, puddles, tall buildings, construction sites, nature, etc.
should be long enough to develop over time, to discuss new ideas, to negotiate over, to induce conflicts, to revisit, to see progress, to see movement of ideas
should be concrete, personal from real experiences, important to children, should be "large" enough for diversity of ideas and rich in interpretive/representational expression

Media:explore first: what is this material, what does it do, before what can I do with the material
should have variation in color, texture, pattern: help children "see" the colors, tones, hues; help children "feel" the texture, the similarities and differences
should be presented in an artistic manner--it too should be aesthetically pleasing to look at--it should invite you to touch, admire, inspire
should be revisited throughout many projects to help children see the possibilities

SPACE! Our Beautiful, Bright, Open, Lovely Space...