Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Building Skills with Blocks

On January 12 our Art Focus Group met for a focus on block play. It was met with great enthusiasm by all participants.
We began with a simple exercise designed to encourage focus, concentration and non-verbal communication. Pairs were seated at a table with a sheet of paper and identical sets of blocks. Builders took turns building and following, with the only requirement being that they pair not speak - they were to use non-verbal communication to lead and follow.

We also discussed how a similar activity could be done "back to back" or with a partition to prevent seeing the partner's blocks. Then the challenge is to develop a workable and descriptive language for describing placement and interaction of pieces so the partner can replicate the design without seeing it.
Either way this activity improves focus and concentration while offering kids an opportunity to work collaboratively and take turns as leader and follower.
As we continued with our discussion and exploration of building materials in the classroom, there was a general consensus of the delight in bringing blocks to the table to offer each child a spot to build and a small group of blocks for building. As we spoke, participants changed and played with different designs, exploring balance, symmetry, layering and just having fun.
While many classrooms have a blocks center or class set of blocks used during play and exploration time, this bringing blocks to the table helps to make more transparent the great learning that is going on in building in a classroom. It allows the adults as well as the kids a chance to focus in on one material and the many things kids can do with blocks.
For our explorations, we continued with adding drawing as a way to reflect on our buildings. Each participant built a structure or design and then sketched this design with a pencil.
Reflecting afterward on the experience, the main description was "intense" - careful observation and representation of space and objects in drawing is intense - for adults and for kids. I think it is this intensity that I so enjoy observing when children draw what they build. Having built and manipulated the blocks first, they have an added felt knowledge of their building and a commitment to representing and saving their built idea on paper.
We also discussed teachers using drawing as a visual note-taking to record children's buildings. Time can be a constraint and most participants (myself included) use photography as it is quicker and easier. We discussed the important modeling that can happen if kids see adults drawing as a way of remembering and note-taking.
Often it seems adults hesitate to draw with and around kids for fear of influencing or intimidating children with their greater skill. At the same time when the drawing is purposeful and a real act of observation it serves as a great model for kids of ways to record and remember. Just as adults taking notes doesn't shut down kids' desire to write, adults taking visual notes doesn't have to shut down kids' desire to draw. It is really about the adult being engaged in his or her own process and in that way modeling engagement for the child.
The following article presents some great examples of the advantages of teacher visual note-taking of children's block buildings:
We also discussed using blocks and building to access things that kids (or adults) may know with their hands and their senses but not yet be ready to explain in words. Often children may have knowledge and ability with materials that is greater than their language development. Learning can be frustrating not because they don't understand how to DO but because they don't understand how to represent on paper and tell about it. One way to build on these children's strengths is to focus on what they build and work toward the linguistic and symbolic communication by asking how they could represent or give directions to another builder to replicate what they have done. This act of recording and remembering can help move from the in the hands knowledge to linguistic and symbolic communication of that knowing. One book that describes this process and the hand-brain learning connection quite well is The Hand by Frank R. Wilson.
Our block building explorations throughout the evening were full of joy and excitement and many great stories of the strengths kids show in building in the classroom.
Here are a few stories of building and drawing in the studio lab at Art at the Center for further examples of the rich explorations that take place with building materials:

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Light Painting with the DC Area Reggio Study Group

The DC Area Reggio Study Group gathered at Art at the Center on December 13 for an evening of exploration drawing and painting with light.
Light painting has become a winter tradition at Art at the Center with an annual Light the Night painting event held on the longest night of the year each year.
With this smaller, more intimate group it was possible to explore light drawing as well as discuss some of the implications on learning of this sort of activity.
Reggio-inspired educators stress intentionality and learning from process-based experiences. In this case the phenomena of light movement captured by camera became the provocation for our discussion.
An advantage of this group gathering was the participants' abilities to describe personal experience as well as to reflect on how this might impact our experiences with this media with children.
Below are some of the photos created followed by observations and reflections.

Feeling uncomfortable - this was something new, something never tried before.
Complete misunderstanding of the idea based on the verbal description ...until given the opportunity to try it...then it made sense, the participant had to see and participate to understand.
There was a need to start with the basic idea first and then build toward more complexity, with experience came the ability to predict outcomes.
Another participant found that she had the most joy and delight in just playing with light and movement and that when she tried to think and plan it took some of the joy of the moment out of the experience. She saw a connection to the infants she teaches and their ability to be fully in the moment with wonder and joy.
In our set-up the camera was connected to a monitor for instant feedback. The light drawings were displayed immediately after they were made. It was discussed how the experience might be different without the instant feedback, if, for instance, the photos were not seen until they were printed and brought back to the group.
Based on the feelings and experiences shared above, we discussed how using a medium that is unfamiliar to adults puts adults on the same page as kids and allows them to experience some of the uncertainty and discomfort of trying something new. This sort of activity could be a good discussion starter for a group of parents or teachers.
We also discussed the idea of creating an "alphabet" or vocabulary of light images based on different movements with children. This would allow children to explore re-creating and remembering their experience. In addition to creating a physical record of the movement, they could work from a collection of types of marks made by movements to compose more complex movement paintings.

To prepare for this meeting, we read the chapter "Ray of Light" from the latest Wonder of Learning exhibit catalog by Reggio Children.
The quote below seemed to relate to our own experiences of wonder and joy in this process as well as our reflections on bringing the experience to children and community groups.
Our challenge is to stand beside children with an approach to reality which provides oxygen to and makes sense of the scientific thinking which is already a natural part of the hman species, but which needs to be exercised, supported and informed.
It is therefore important to offer specific and stimulating contexts and situations focusing on the idea that science questions, and is curious about, what cannot be explained by the senses - what lies beyond the visible - and seeks out starting data in order to research, test, and establish connections between things which are un-joined, observe the results and develop further tests and hypothesis.
Reggio Children, 2011 p123

Centers and Provocations - a Response

This post is in response to a post that has popped in my inbox several times in the last several days from different sources and has me thinking about the subtle difference between centers and provocations as we present materials to young artists.
As a bit of background, I work in a small independent studio where children come for weekly classes. Our weekly meetings are an hour to 90 minutes and the studio is set up to be choice-based. My centers based approach is inspired by TAB Choice Teaching as well as by the work of Reggio-inspired schools and teachers who share rich experiences with children through the books of Reggio Children and individual teachers blogs. Art at the Center is designed to be a working studio for children and families. We focus on routines and processes in different media and invite children to create from areas of personal interest. Classes progress from introductions to various media available to on-going work individually and in small groups on themes and stories. The goal is for children to explore, discover and make meaning in a materials-rich environment with tools, instructors and peers as supports for their inquiry and creation.
I was initially surprised to see the characterization of a provocation as more child-directed centers as more teacher-directed. I think in my initial choice to have a centers-based studio I was wanting the kids to decide the direction. Initially I also noticed that often I would think I had a great provocation or problem or theme for the day and would find it was just not where the kids wanted to work - I was too complex and they wanted to just explore materials or I was too simple and they were ready to do more.
I think the challenge of both centers and provocations is knowing your artists. Careful observation and attention to interests, developmental stages and use of materials can help tailor centers that will produce engagement, curiousity and wonder in both adults and kids.
It seems that when a material is first introduced just the material is provocation enough - what does it do? What tools can we use? How can we make a mark, shape or make meaning with this material? It is a delicate balance between staying out of the way for kids to explore and learn and stepping in to encourage observation, reflection and sharing to facilitate thinking about the process.
There is a need for a certain comfort level with materials in order to be ready to move toward a challenge or provocation. In beginning working with younger kids I found my mistake most often was to expect making meaning with a material when I hadn't really offered enough time to explore and reflect on the material itself.
The set up of centers can offer provocation by how things are presented, what tools are offered and problems to explore and engage. At times centers focus on techniqe but I find that more often technique is learned in the context of a story to tell or a problem to solve.
Recently I have had a group of 4 and 5 year old artists become so interested in map making that they come back to this theme in various media over several weeks. They are setting up their own provocation and sticking with it as new participants, themes and variations emerge.
I guess in some ways this is the real goal - moving kids toward self-starting on themes of interest to them.
So in thinking about the skills artists use and young artists working in a studio practice, it seems that centers provide a valuable way to teach routine and aspects of technique. The more kids take ownership of the use and care of materials they use, the more that can be done and them more smoothly things run for the artists - young and old. Centers provide a way to introduce routines, tools and care of materials in paint, clay, collage, construction and other assorted media.
The provocation is a way to stretch and focus the use and meaning making of that media. I often find that bringing a media front and center and setting it up in a new way can increase the focus and interest in a familiar center in the studio. Inviting students to explore as a group a concept or question can allow us to find themes of interest for work over several studio meetings. Building agency and encouraging intrinsic motivation are key here as our provocations allow us to collaborate with young artists, building on their interests and helping them to work as artists problem-finding and making meaning through the use of materials.
Maybe the difference also has to do with adult attention. In setting up centers, my goal is for kids to work independently with materials in areas of their interest. The centers are designed as environments to be a "third teacher" providing the resources necessary for meaningful work with a material and the opportunity for self-guided learning and learning from peers. Part of this is also to allow children to work in multiple media at once - to give them choice and make it possible for the adult to facilitate that choice.
When I set up a provocation, I often present something familiar in a slightly different way and my goal is to see how artists respond and how the group explores the concept.
Blocks are often a good example. Rich play happens in our construction center at every meeting. Structures transform and grow as groups do the groups of builders. I am interested and aware but just at the periphery of my interest as painters at another table often require more attention.
Bringing the blocks to the main tables and beginning a class with an invitation to focus on block play changes my attention as well as the children's. Now I can see and observe more carefully what is happening, noting patterns of construction and interaction. I can see who is more interested in shape and form and balance and who is using the blocks as the spring board for a story. Themes develop and children are invited to record these in drawings, photographs and oral descriptions.
This invitation might lead us toward additional drawing or toward sculpture or paintings inspired by the stories that emerge. It might even lead to more play with blocks. The provocation mainly enables me to gather information and to focus - the work I see on the day we focus on blocks is likely a continuation and/or beginning of work that will happen in more open-ended centers work in previous and future sessions. It is that balance between interaction and independence, choice and guidance. Ultimately we want children to take from both centers and provocations habits that will enhance their sense of competence and ability to figure things out, to discover and explore problems of their own finding and to share these interests and discoveries with others.

Monday, January 9, 2012

a@tc Internship: Art Explorers, Thursday, 11.3

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a@tc Internship: Sharing Inspiration

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