This is the beginning of my Throw Back Thursday #tbt posts. From my last post about how I emerged into the world of Reggio Emilia, I wanted to share some starting points in my career as a Reggio-inspired teacher. I was teaching Kindergarten at the sweetest little school in Saskatoon, SK. For those of you who are not familiar with Saskatchewan, it’s in Canada and is an absolutely stunning prairie province. My Kindergarten class at the time was a fierce little group. They were spunky and busy and I loved them to pieces! I was blessed to have the smallest group of my career at 13 students. It was a teachers dream! They were such a fantastic class to begin my journey.
Ok, so this isn’t the greatest invitation ever created, but it was a start. Know that you always have a place to start, no matter how small. Where I began with this invitation, was that we had been outside the school yard and some of the children had watched a squirrel running about. They brought their excitement inside that day and told stories to each other about the squirrel. I had listened in on their conversations and began to wonder if this could be the place where I could start. My parents happened to have a squirrel living in their backyard. “Earle the Squirrel” has lived in the yard for years (maybe not always the same little guy!) I had the opportunity to gather pinecones that Earle had half-eaten, thrown down from the trees, or completely stripped bare. I took several of these pinecones to the classroom, as well as some pine branches, leaves, and a furry little play squirrel I found at Michaels.
I was shocked! And I mean shocked at how excited and interested the children were in this invitation. They were thrilled to see pinecones and other natural materials on the table, and immediately started playing with them. There was an entire story being told by the children. I watched and snapped some photos, excited to see what would happen next.
I found this extremely exhilarating! It worked!! Just like we had talked about during that beautiful weekend at the Wondrous Places to Learn and Grow conference. I wanted so bad to believe that children would dive into invitations and that conversations, and lessons would flow naturally from their discoveries, and it really happened! I was hooked!
I tried to guide the children in their thinking, by asking specific questions. We decided to gather ourselves on the carpet to organize our thoughts. The kids had so many questions…
What happened to the pinecones?
Why does the pinecone look so funny? (half-eaten)
Are these leaves from the squirrels home? Do they use leaves and branches to make their house?
Where do squirrels live? Do they live in trees?
The questions were coming wildly from each child, I could barely keep up with writing them down. The children seemed to focus primarily on the squirrels home, and I shared this observation with them. I wondered out loud if as a group we wanted to know more about squirrels and their home. Yes yes they did! Thank goodness for being in a small school of about 275 students, because we were able to run up the three flights of stairs to our library and immediately start researching and gathering any and all books that might help us find answers to our questions.
Through research and read alouds, the children focused their learning on squirrel homes. With this new information we discussed how best to ‘show our learning.’ This is a phrase that I have come to use with every project that my students have started. “How do you want to show what you have learned?” This doesn’t narrow their ideas in any way, they are able to show what they have learned in what ever avenue they decide. (I have to say, as an aside, that I do find it very helpful that when beginning projects with a group at the start of a new school year or for the first time yourself, that I find it easiest to begin with a large group project. Something that all the children focus on. The kids are able to understand how the concept of projects work and what to expect. Then with the second or third project or inquiry, you can open it up to small groups, then individual projects.)
So as a large group, the children decided to build squirrel homes. We talked about the ‘criteria’ for our project. What did everyone’s project need to have so that we all know that we understand and learned about squirrels? The children decided that they needed to have “real things” that the squirrels had in their homes, such as leaves and twigs. They also needed to create a squirrel. For some, they used toilet paper rolls, construction paper and markers. Other children made a drawing that they stood up with popsicle sticks. The children also wanted to include a piece of food that the squirrel would eat. (This criterion had us scoring the school grounds for pinecones for each child) I did a large drawing on chart paper, as we discussed our criteria, we labelled our drawing as the children helped to sound out words and write a sentence to explain what we had learned. Now it was the children’s turn to try this on their own. They got their little notebooks that we proudly labelled our “Project Work.” On a fresh page that designed their squirrel house, what they wanted it to look like and labelled it as well.
After recess, we discussed the materials that we would need in order to create such beautiful squirrel homes. This is where your “beautiful things” will come in very handy! As a group, we looked at our beautiful things for inspiration for a few minutes then gathered together on the carpet to share our thoughts. We definitely needed toilet paper rolls, we needed to gather items from outside, and we needed kleenex boxes (which the children brought an empty one from home within the next couple of days).
The following few days, the children worked tirelessly on their squirrel homes. They did this independently, using the materials that they had decided worked best for them! I never once told them no. It was completely free. And you know what?? It was the most beautiful learning experience that I have every witnessed! I know that sounds corny, but really! It was fantastic. I was overjoyed. I discovered that day that allowing the children to have a voice in their learning in the way that they are able to express themselves, allows them to engage in learning like never before. It’s really incredible to witness.
Were the squirrel houses beautiful? Maybe not to many, but they were a symbol of something so much more…of creating a fire in the minds of young children. Those kids could explain every single part of their squirrels home and why they had chosen the materials that they had. They could list of several things they had learned and had also built on writing and reading skills at the same time! This was it! I was never going back to teaching out of a booklet with sweet little pictures of cartoons or perfectly created art projects. I was going to embrace these child made masterpieces!