In order to progress in the field of Education, the world needs teachers who do not always do things because they are popular or because they have been done a particular way. Teachers should be willing to experiment, to take risks, and to be audacious, recognizing that not just any education is good enough.
Mayra Tubac is a Graduate student currently enrolled in the Boulder Journey School Teacher Education Program. Mayra is completing her residency in one of the infant rooms at Boulder Journey School. Maureen Condon, Boulder Journey School Mentor, sat down with Mayra to pick her brain about the professional competency of courage.
Q: What have you learned about courage while teaching during the 2021-2022 school year?
Q: What opportunities for learning about courage exist within the context of teaching during a pandemic, when circumstances consistently change?
Q: What have you learned from children about courage?
Q: What have you learned from your fellow Boulder Journey School Teacher Education Program cohort members about courage?
Q: What have your fellow cohort members learned about courage from you?
Below, Mayra joyfully connecting with a child in her class.
This year’s cohort of Teacher Education Program Resident Teachers experienced changes in our national society, the likes of which have not been seen in our lifetimes. Through it all, they remained dedicated to learning alongside and from the young children in their classes.
Rachel Lurie, Resident Teacher, 2019-2020, submitted the following paper as the Culminating Assessment of her year enrolled in the Teacher Education Program. She spoke to her growth, her challenges, and her hopes for the future.
I grew up in an unstable home where children did not have a voice. As we grew into adults we were expected to be stable and communicative. This translation was not possible. What we learn in childhood translates to who we are as adults.
I became a teacher six years ago to empower children, yet less than a year ago I truly began to understand what it means to hold a strong image of the child. Children are innovative, brilliant, powerful, and empathetic. Throughout this past year working at Boulder Journey School as well as learning alongside and from some of the most beautiful minds in the Early Childhood Education world I find myself becoming less of a teacher and more of an advocator and lifelong learner. The word “teacher” has taken on a new meaning for me.
This experience has opened my mind to the importance of families and communities and how to partner with them. I have learned of my own biases and how to acknowledge and work to diminish them. I learned to celebrate diversity and many different cultures for they are the fabrics that weave together to make our school whole. And, most importantly, I have learned about the young learners in all of their magnificence – how to honor their voices, how to learn alongside them in their wonder, how to advocate for their rights, how to document their curiosities. The child is powerful beyond all measure.
During this time I have grown not only as a teacher, but as a person. One extremely noticeable change is in my leadership abilities. Visionary leadership is defined through the Boulder Journey School Professional Qualities as, “your capacity for being a leader in your professional context who inspires others. You will possess a vision for the present and for the future and understand how your daily actions and interactions with children and adults does or does not model elements of your vision. You will view yourself as a leader who wants to co-create other leaders.”
To speak to this growth I first need to establish what my baseline was prior to the Teacher Education Program. My undergraduate degree was in psychology. I did not have formal training in education and thus possessed a sense of imposter syndrome. I would never have considered myself a leader, I barely considered myself a teacher.
During the Fall semester we began our learning adventure creating a solid foundation that we built upon during the Spring semester. However, halfway through the Spring semester we were plagued with COVID-19. When the pandemic swept the world the families of our classroom turned to us with questions – What do they do? How do they teach their children? How can they continue learning at home?
In that moment we became much more than teachers, we became confidants. We were the experts for the families and the friendly faces for our students.We quickly became the leaders in this unprecedented time. We were the stability in all of the chaos. We had daily Zoom meetings every morning which our students along with their siblings and parents would attend. Parents would email us asking us specific behavioral questions, how to spark imagination and creativity in their child, how to extend the learning to home. School buildings may have been closed, but it did not end education. Their home was also functioning as a school.
To me this encompassed the foundation that Reggio Emilia schools were built on – parents and teachers working alongside each other to give students an authentic education. We, as teachers, set the pace and the families followed our lead, but it was a dialogue to make sure both the needs of the teachers and the needs of the families were being met. Because we opened up and communicated more it allowed the parents to do the same. In the book, Possible Schools: The Reggio Approach to Urban Education the author speaks to the same effect, “When . . . asked about families . . . families surprised us every day with things they would never have done before . . . She explained that our increased communication with families showed them we respected them and their children. And they were proud, not only of their children but of the school” (Lewin-Benham, 2006, p. 145).
As a leader, I feel that I gained a lot of confidence in knowing that I held an expertise viewpoint based on knowledge acquired from classes such as Social Supportive Learning and Contextual Curriculum, but additionally I felt confident as a leader in being able to delegate to parents and share the information that I possessed. I felt that I could be a reliable resource for them. Going forward, I can’t imagine returning to a state where I feel as if I am not an expert in my field, imposter syndrome is completely gone. Going backwards is not an option, and not including families in this extremely important time in their child’s lives isn’t an option. Together we foster the children’s sense of self, we are their community.
With this, I developed tremendously in another area: courage. The Boulder Journey School Teacher Education Program Professional Qualities describes the quality of courage as, “your capacity for taking risks and challenging the status quo. You will be courageous to go against the grain and to not always do things because they are popular or because they have always been done a particular way. You will be willing to try things out (with both children and adults), to take risks and be audacious – not just any education is enough.”
In the midst of COVID-19 we had another huge moment in history: the dramatic rise of Black Lives Matter, a revolution that has been coming for centuries. With three white women as teachers and a class of all white children the questions arose: Do we approach this topic with the children? If so, what would be a developmentally appropriate manner? How will the families react with us opening this conversation?
The phrase “against the grain” kept repeating itself in my mind. By ignoring the systemic racism or simply not acknowledging what is going on outside of our school is denying the children their right to be part of the community. It is also suppressing those who are oppressed and not being an advocate for change.
We must discuss this topic, but how? I went to a Black Lives Matter protest on a Sunday and came to school the next day to open the discussion. I showed them pictures, explained why we were coming together to protest. I answered any questions that I could and was honest when I did not have an answer. We did have one instance that I felt nervous in addressing: a child in my class heard a police siren and became frightened because his parents told him that the police were killing people. What do we do? My mentor teacher felt that we need police officers to help us when we get into trouble, I felt that they weren’t being helpful and the child had every right to fear them. Do we continue to teach that police officers are community helpers or do we discourage the image that they have traditionally held in our minds?
We made the decision to teach against the grain, which was quoted beautifully by Cochran-Smith, “Teachers need to know from the start that they are a part of a larger struggle and that they have a responsibility to reform, not just replicate, standard school practices . . . Teaching against the grain stems from, but also generates, critical perspectives on the macro-level relationships of power, labor, and ideology” (Zeichner, Bowman, Guillen, & Napolitan, 2016, p. 281).
To honor the children’s inquisitive nature of the world around them as well as collaborate with the families to form a cohesive community, we chose the courageous route – not the one of ignoring or of ignorance, but one of reality. Previously, we had done a deep dive into the wonderings on morality, courageously, and honestly, we talked and learned together again.
In order to continue to honor the children and their right to be a citizen of the world I feel that I will continue to engage them in these types of conversations and listen as they form their own opinions. In addition, I believe having a growth mindset as well as being open-minded I will be able to collaborate with future co-teachers despite us having different opinions.
As much as I have grown throughout the past year, I have found myself feeling limited in two capacities.
One being finding difficulties breaking the barrier and engaging with parents. Communication and collaboration is a space where I feel that I fall short, especially written communication.
Something that I believe has inhibited this growth to bloom fully is the families in our class engage with my mentor teacher more comfortably. I believe that as I continue on with our current students next year, and my mentor teacher moves onto her next opportunity, a natural progression will happen where the families will feel more comfortable communicating with me. I also believe that I held this belief that families were intimidating. However, one of the positive outcomes from COVID-19 has been the breakdown of that barrier. I also believe that practice in communicating will naturally help this as well. When my role shifts from resident teacher to mentor teacher I will take on a new set of responsibilities, including communication. Reading about effective communication strategies will also be of big assistance.
One other space where I feel there is room to grow is in literacy of technology. Children have the right to engage with the world around them, which includes technology. During COVID-19 our entire curriculum became virtual. Once we were able to return to in classroom learning I held a disdain for technology while the children now craved it – they incorporated it into their play making computers out of folded pieces of paper and having Zoom calls with one another through them and using dominoes as cell phones and calling each other from across the classroom. Technology became their norm. I was burned out from technology overload from trying to stay connected during the pandemic. However, is that fair to the children?
I would like to incorporate technology into our contextual curriculum and I believe that to do so I need to become more aware of what is available other than a computer. Collaborating with other teachers to learn what they are using in their classrooms as well as speaking to those who are outside of the classroom setting such as Alex Morgan or Jacie Engel and find out what they would advise could give our children more of an opportunity to engage with technology.
The Maymester course Messing Around with STEM brought to light different views on the importance of technology. “The kind of knowledge children most need is the knowledge that will help them get more knowledge . . . Instruction in programming the computer and thinking about how to develop a complex project was like teaching her to catch fish. With these skills she could build her software and transform her thinking about fractions.” (Papert, 2000, pp. 139-140). Technology can be incorporated into authentic learning, and learning what different types of technology are available is a good first step. Also, revisiting older technology such as simple machines or light tables would enhance the classroom environment.
Despite all of the challenges this year has thrown our way with a global pandemic and a revolution rightfully taking place, we as a cohort have maintained a growth mindset. We are resilient beyond all measures and for that we will be graduating with our masters degree and a new appreciation for our rising generation. May they be as strong and brilliant as this Teacher Education Program has made us.
Lewin-Benham, A. (2006). Our Families, Other Educators. In Possible schools: The Reggio Approach to Urban Education (pp. 130-147). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Papert, S. (2000). The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. New York, NY: BasicBooks.
Zeichner, K., Bowman, M., Guillen, L., & Napolitan, K. (2016). Engaging and Working in Solidarity With Local Communities in Preparing the Teachers of Their Children. Journal of Teacher Education,67(4), 277-290. doi:10.1177/0022487116660623
Graduate students, enrolled in the Boulder Journey School Teacher Education Program (BJSTEP) are assigned readings and discussion topics to influence their daily classroom work. They use these readings and discussions to influence the experiences they offer in the classroom, outdoors, and in the community, then submit reflections that integrate their practical and academic research. Graduate students’ reflections are read, and feedback is offered by course instructors and classroom mentors. In this way, graduate students are offered space for theory to inform practice and practice to inform theory.
For the Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum (DAC) course, graduate students,, observe students, document their observations using a variety of tools, reflect on their documentation with colleagues, and develop and implement curriculum plans throughout the semester. To read an in-depth description of this course, refer to this blog post: Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum Course. Part IV of the DAC course asks graduate students to examine ways to extend the curriculum outdoors and into the community.
The following post is taken from a paper written by Meghna Gopal, graduate student in the 2017-2018 cohort, for the DAC course, Part IV.
In a world where violence appears to be on the rise, and media outlets are casting a negative outlook on the future, fear has begun to control the actions of society. In many cases, it seems that people are so focused on the negativity existing in the cultural environment, they are unable to enjoy themselves and take advantage of all the good life still has to offer. Unfortunately, this type of mentality is especially impactful on our youngest citizens. Parents seem hesitant to allow their children to play outside for extended periods of time or to wander too far out of their sight. Thus, many children are now spending more waking hours inside of their homes, as opposed to exploring the outdoors.
In addition, the rapid growth of technology and emphasis on standardized testing in schools have played a role in limiting children’s contact with nature. It is common to see young children staring at a digital screen for hours on end or having their recess compromised for more instructional time in the classroom to prepare for state testing. Given this, it is no wonder that a large percentage of children are suffering from sensory-related issues. Spending time outdoors gives children opportunities to freely release their energy, foster creativity, and enhance self-control. (Natural Learning Initiative, 2012). For this reason, it is crucial for both educators and parents to provide opportunities for young children to actively connect with and learn more about the natural world.
In my own classroom, I was considering ways I could create a palpable experience for the children to further discover the different aspects of nature. How could I bring the learning that was happening indoors into the outside environment? Over the past couple of months, the children have been extremely interested in the exploration of clay. My mentor teacher and I have designed various provocations involving clay, paired with other materials that could be incorporated into the experience. On one occasion the children explored natural materials, including pine cones, wood, shells, and rocks, with the clay. While the children seemed to enjoy deepening their understanding of the versatility of clay, they also actively engaged with the natural materials, pressing the materials into the clay to make imprints. Given their attraction to the natural materials during that particular experience, I decided to recreate the same provocation, but in an outdoor setting. I thought that the learning could be more meaningful if the children engaged with the natural materials while in a natural setting.
I chose to set up the provocation on a table located in the garden. The children often view this outdoor space as a peaceful escape from the action of the other outdoor classrooms. I felt that the calm atmosphere would offer them the chance to focus and fully participate in extending their learning.
To prepare for the provocation, I laid out clay boards on the table. I cut slabs of clay and placed one on each board. I also gathered a variety of natural materials, including pine cones, rocks, fall leaves, and sticks, that could be found in the garden. I placed the materials in the center of the table, as well as on the clay boards. I was curious to see how the children would interact with the materials in an outdoor environment, and whether or not they would draw inspiration from the previous provocation.
On a Friday morning, four children were invited to explore the materials that had been arranged in the garden. Almost immediately, they each picked up a stick and began poking the clay to create holes. One child also used the stick to create lines in the clay. The children made imprints with the rocks and pine cones, as they had done in the earlier experience.
Maya discovered that the pine cone could also be rolled back and forth on the clay to produce a pattern.
Moving the pine cone in this manner inspired her to explore rolling the clay itself. She folded her clay slab in half and began rolling it back and forth across the board. Two of the other children took notice of what she was doing, prompting them to also experiment with moving their clay in a back-and-forth motion. It is noted that toddlers tend to mimic the actions of their fellow peers, as well as adults (Colorado Early Learning and Development Guidelines, n.d.).
Perhaps, the highlight of the provocation was the creation of clay birthday cakes. Maya positioned a pine cone and a stick on her clay piece and started singing “Happy Birthday” to herself. Once she had finished singing, she pretended to blow out the candle, which she had represented with the stick. Not surprisingly, this resulted in the other children also wanting to construct cakes. They started shaping their clay and gathering the natural materials they wanted to use in bringing their creation to life. After the cakes had been made, they took turns singing “Happy Birthday” and pretending to blow out the candles. They each sang “Happy Birthday” to Maya, and not to themselves as she had done. Perhaps, this was their way of acknowledging that Maya was the one who had inspired them to create their own cakes. Or maybe they were following her lead and singing for her as she had done. Either way, it seemed as though Maya was able to celebrate her birthday a few months early with clay cakes.
It was certainly interesting to see how different each child’s representation of a cake was. While Maya’s cake was fairly simple, with just a stick and pine cone, Anna wrapped her clay around a pine cone and added leaves on top, possibly as decoration. Both Anders and Eli used a single pine cone for their piece of decoration. Eli had lines on his cake that he had drawn earlier with a stick, adding a little more intricacy to his creation.
Juniper, an older sibling who joined the experience, neatly arranged each material on her clay piece. She placed a big and small pine cone toward the center of the clay and added rocks and leaves in the spaces around the pine cones.
According to the Colorado Early Learning and Development Guidelines (n.d.), toddlers “use abstract things to represent other things in pretend play” (p.78). In this experience, the children were using their imaginations to depict the clay as cake. They also most likely used the natural materials to signify decorations, using the sticks for candles.
Looking back on this provocation, I was impressed by the children’s creative utilization of the natural materials presented to them. They were able to guide the exploration of these materials in ways that gave purpose and meaning to their learning. When the children were using the pine cones, rocks, and sticks to produce clay imprints, it is possible that they were connecting to a previous experience in which they also made patterns in the clay with similar materials. When Maya rolled the pine cone back and forth in the clay, she broadened her awareness of how the pine cone can be used with the clay.
I noticed that the children were far more engaged with the natural materials than they have been in the past. While they had explored the imprints that could be made with the various materials in a prior experience, they seemed more interested in the versatility of the clay itself. Their actions primarily consisted of squishing, flattening, and rolling the clay into the desired object. Thus, I concluded the natural materials simply did not yield as many possibilities as the clay. The hard surfaces of materials like pine cones and rocks prevented them from being easily manipulated into different shapes or objects. However, after observing how the children interacted with these same materials out in the garden, I have been reconsidering this earlier assumption. What was it about the experience that made the natural materials more attractive to the children? Did the outdoor setting play a role? Perhaps, the children were inspired by their surroundings.. In the movie, Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten, it is mentioned that nature has positive effects on a child’s creativity. The large spaces give children more freedom and opportunities to express themselves (Richter & Molomot, 2013). For this reason, being outside could have helped the children be more creative in their use of the natural materials, incorporating them into the making of the clay birthday cakes. The environment is often referred to as the third teacher and often greatly influences the learning that occurs during a particular experience.
In planning for future provocations, I want to continue integrating the outdoors . Given that nature plays such a big role in ensuring the healthy development of a young child (Natural Learning Initiative, 2012), it is important for children to have plenty of opportunities to fully understand and appreciate what it has to offer. Perhaps, I could present the same provocation to a different group of children or even in a whole group setting. Would the children be as interested in the natural materials as the first group was? How does a large group differ from a small group in terms of how the children interact with the materials?
In addition, I could offer the same provocation, but in a different outdoor space. How would materials in that space contribute to the children’s explorations? Natural materials could also be used with forms of media other than clay. For instance, a painting provocation in the garden could offer the children the experience of exploring how paint and natural materials interact, as well as the possibility of expanding their own interpretations of them on paper.
Additionally, I could take the children on a nature walk through the school neighborhood. We could collect various objects that we find along the way and add them to our classroom to produce a more natural look. Seeing these objects on a daily basis may also provoke the children to talk about their experiences on the walk.
Moreover, I would like to find a way to involve parents in the children’s learning. Maybe, we could organize an event at a local park where families could explore different classroom provocations in a community setting. Materials of interest to the children, such as clay, paper, and drawing utensils could be set up with more natural ones found in the park. How might the children extend their learning beyond the school environment? How might their families learn alongside them? Bringing the learning into this type of space would offer the children the opportunity to make connections between their experiences at school and in the community, helping them gain a deeper understanding of the world in which they live.
I feel it is imperative to expose young children to the outdoors. Nature allows children to process thinking and learning in ways that the inside classroom simply cannot. As mentioned earlier, the children in my class were able to more readily connect with the natural materials and use them to enhance their clay experience, something they had not quite done when engaging with the same materials inside. For this reason, I think educators and parents need to take into consideration the many benefits of nature to a child’s learning and development, and spend more time exploring the outdoors with children. In today’s society, it is becoming easier for our youngest citizens to lose touch with the natural world. Rather than let that happen, we should help them in cultivating a respect and love for the beauty and wonder that is nature, which will hopefully be passed onto future generations of children.
Boulder Journey School classroom teachers, mentors and interns, compose blog posts for the families in each classroom 3 – 5 times weekly. These blog posts offer reflections on daily experiences, question possibilities for future research, and form connections between home-life and school-life.
The following reflections are from a classroom blog post shared with families, composed by Cassie Sorrells, Boulder Journey School mentor teacher in a toddler classroom.
I had big plans for today, plans that I put in place almost a week ago when I filled out our Weekly Planning Document.
The planning document is a shared document that is filled out by all classroom teachers and directors. The document is printed and posted for families in the classroom. After the planned experiences, teachers reflect on the document and use their reflections to plan the following week’s experiences.
Today I planned to invite a group of friends to take pictures with an old digital camera. I was so excited to see the fine motor skills they used to manipulate the camera, to watch what objects they chose to photograph, and to see how they behaved socially when they viewed the photos together later. I was planning to project the images in the classroom, inviting my friends to revisit the experience.
But my friends didn’t want to explore the curriculum ideas that I had in mind for today.
They wanted to run outside, play, and enjoy the beautiful weather.
So I listened. I put away my agenda. And we had the most incredible day.
I’ll put the digital camera experience back on the planning document for a later date. It was a good idea – just not the best idea for today.
How often do we allow our adult agendas to take precedence over organic moments of learning?
How often do we honor our vulnerability and allow ourselves to reflect on moments that confused us, surprised us, shook us from our plans?
Resiliency and Humility are part of the professional qualities that we seek to support our graduate students in developing throughout their 12 month teaching and learning experience. The ability to recognize when our intended path must diverge, and to continue learning and growing with the new path is a quality that is useful in the classroom and beyond.
Reflective Observation: This quality speaks to your capacity for close and careful observation and how to use your observations in ways that raise the quality of work and life for those with whom you are in contact. Through reflective observation of yourself, of children, and of other adults you will develop a keen level of self-awareness, awareness of your work environment, and awareness of the world around you that can be used to make informeddecisions regarding your professional work. You will engage in a mindful attitude of work with children and adults. Through reflective observation of children, you will be capable of giving words to the children’s gestures and actions, as well as capable of silence and listening to the children. You will be capable of a micro gaze even when you are in a macro environment, and you will understand what is going on enough to notice, capture moments, value these moments, and use these moments to re-launch ideas.
Observation is integral to the work we do at Boulder Journey School. It is one of the most powerful tools we can use to keep pace with the children as they rapidly learn and grow. Regular observation allows us to design dynamic, high-quality experiences and environments. It allows us to cater our approach to suit the developmental level, cultural background, and personality of each child. Most of all, it invites the voices of the children into these processes–even those who are not yet speaking–because we work in response to what we observe. Most educators, I would bet, can get behind that. Traditional and non-traditional settings have long required teachers to perform formative assessments, inviting educators to tailor their instruction to each child’s observable signs of learning. We think observation can be taken even further.
In the context of our school, observation is not just an occasional tool of assessment. It is a frame of mind, a cultivated skill that becomes second nature. We use it to know the children, to know ourselves, and to know our surroundings. We strive to be in a constant state of observation because we believe that people are–by nature–in constant pursuit of their own learning. Using observation, we join the children on that path, learning alongside them and negotiating an emergent curriculum together.
What does it look like?
To give a sense of what observation looks like at Boulder Journey School, I posed a few simple questions to my colleagues:
When is the best time to observe?
What are your favorite tools of observation?
What do you do with your observations?
Their responses were anything but simple. Let’s start, for instance, with tools of observation.
There are certain tools that are popular by consensus: still and video cameras, audio recording, and good old-fashioned note taking were commonly listed. But the difference is in the details. As each educator described their tools of choice, they often elaborated–insisting that different tools were best-suited to different tasks: video gives us insight into gesture, context, relationships. Audio recordings help us focus on the expressive potentials of voice, breath, language, and silence. Note-taking invites us to jot down quotes, noticings, interpretations, sketches, questions, and ideas for the future. Most teachers, for this reason, described using a combination of tools to work toward a diversity of data.
But how do you know where to look, what to listen to, and when to start recording? The answers, again, varied widely, running the gamut from: “All the time!” to “When I have a specific goal in mind”. Everyone agreed, though, that whether you meticulously prepare or discover a meaningful moment off the cuff, observation is a process that carries the promise of surprise. You just neverknow what the children are going to do! Our Studio Teacher, Jen Selbitschka, described the balance between intention and happenstance this way:
“Sometimes I go in planning to observe something specific, but experiences with children take so many paths that I cannot predict ahead of time, and I find myself constantly making moment-to-moment decisions about what is important to capture at the time. I often uncover stories I was not aware existed when I look at my photographs after an experience.”
This brings me to my next question: what do you do with your observations after the fact? Here, the responses were pretty consistent: we share them, we use them, and we reflect on them. Our educators described sharing observations with co-teachers, with directors, with parents and–especially–with the children. They discussed using their observations: to inform decisions, to theorize, to spark conversations, to develop curriculum. And everyone described a process of reflection. So what does that mean?
What is Reflective Observation?
Reflect is one of those great words that carries two oppositional meanings. The first refers to the way a mirror reflects. This definition describes the interplay between waves and particles of energy and the surface of an object: instead of absorbing light, the mirror bounces it back, creating a reflection. It is a moment of active contact: energy collides with an object and is ricocheted back, sometimes seeming to be multiplied. Imagine echoes in a tiled room; bright sunlight on a fresh snowbank; trees mirrored on a still pond. These are all forms of reflection. The second meaning of reflect is an internal, mental process. To reflect is to think deeply, carefully, intentionally. Unlike the first, this type of reflection requires absorption. Where the first is a product of energetic movement, the second implies a stillness that is necessary to process information.
So when we describe observation as reflective, you might expect that we mean the word one way or the other. But here, we mean it both ways. That’s because our job as educators is not only to process and interpret what we observe internally, but also to bounce it back to the children and adults we work with. When we reflect inwardly, we deepen our work; when we reflect outwardly, we amplify it. It’s the dual action that offers access to the metacognitive processes that so enrich learning.
So, when the educators at Boulder Journey School described the process of reflecting, it naturally took on many different forms. Journaling, thinking, watching and re-watching video, looking back at photos, transcribing conversations, analyzing, researching, synthesizing, wondering, questioning. Reflection, in short, is the action we educators take to learn alongside the children, using our observations as our guide.
How can you get started?
Reflective observation is a complex and individualized process. It looks different for every person. No matter what form it takes, quality observation requires flexibility, openness, focus, and rigor. So pick a tool. Pick a time. And remember that it doesn’t end with watching, listening and recording. Reflective observation is ongoing. It has a quality of reverberation, creating waves that affect change both inwardly and outwardly. And as we cultivate these skills and habits, it is a process by which we can become ever-better versions of ourselves.
There was a time early in my teaching career when I felt deeply isolated. Each day I set up, cleaned up, and closed down my classroom by myself. I spent lonely nights and weekends hunched over my computer, planning lessons. Left alone with my thoughts, I suspect that sometimes I went too far. I began coming into school on Saturdays to prep. I used my free time to watch videos of myself, scrutinizing my teaching for errors. I spent hundreds of dollars purchasing books and toys and supplies. And during those lonely times, I felt a strong and mysterious aversion to seeking help from others. I felt that my success was up to me. My colleagues were friendly and supportive, of course, but our brief conversations were most often just exchanges of complaints. And the fact was that I cherished the few moments of solitude I had in my room–it was the only time during the long work day that I didn’t feel like a performer on stage.
This was my reality before I joined the staff of Boulder Journey School. My classroom was an island. I was the lone intrepid explorer, taming the wildernesses of early learning. I wonder now how many others have felt like I did–so all alone in a field that is, at its core, about relationships.
That is why, when given the opportunity to reflect on our school’s Professional Values, I felt compelled to begin with the quality that challenged me the most when I began the Teacher Education Program: Communication and Collaboration.
Communication & Collaboration – These qualities speak to your capacity for articulate and effective communication that will ultimately support your ability to work effectively with children and adults. You will know how to engage others, as well as who to engage. You will see value in the process of gaining the perspective of others and develop social and cross cultural skills that will enable you to better take on the perspective of the other. You will be able to clearly articulate and defend a vision for the future and how your work supports that vision. You will view teaching as a collaborative process among children and adults and understand that relationships are a cornerstone of education. You will take ownership for being responsive and proactive when difficult conversations are needed. Your approach to communicating and working with others will be inclusive and empathetic, and you will have a sense of intimacy that is translated to the children. You will also be effective in written communication.
For me, the key challenge here was understanding the value of engaging others. And this is where I have to make a confession: the isolation I felt in the past was partially the result of the system I was working in, and partially the result of my own habits.
I’m one of those people who likes to feel in control. Maybe you know someone like me. We like predictability. We like getting things “done right”. And we often prefer working by ourselves–I, after all, I am the most reliable person I know! The fact is, I like doing things my way because I know I can usually succeed! Trying things somebody else’s way carries a lot more risk of failure.
When I began the Teacher Education Program at Boulder Journey School, I suddenly found myself up to my neck in exactly that kind of risk: I knew how to teach my way, and relinquishing that control was deeply uncomfortable. I was used to delivering lessons; now I was expected to offer provocations. I had been trained to identify measurable learning objectives; now I was observing the children and seeking to understand the many possible interpretations of their behaviors. I was comfortable with my rigid and consistent schedule; now I was asked to maintain a constant state of flexibility, open to the opportunities that each child, each teacher, and each chance encounter might offer us. These differences fundamentally undermine the traditional image of the teacher as the “sage on the stage”–re-positioning them, instead, as a participant whose contributions are one part of an educational project. As my notion of the role of the teacher began to evolve, I began, slowly, to give up the idea that I was in charge of things.
This was how I came to understand what collaboration could be. And it scared me. Sometimes I felt adrift. Sometimes I craved structure. And yet–never once did I sense the desperate pressure, the sink-or-swim feeling that I have had working in other settings. On the contrary, I felt supported by the network within our school. I understood, intuitively, that my mistakes, my questions, my uncertainties were good, because, for the first time, I was positioned as a learner alongside the children. The research tells us that learning is a socially mediated process–that our brains are wired to connect and we learn best with and from one another. This is the belief that motivates every person in our school to be generous with our time, our thoughts, and our resources.
And so, as I stepped beyond my comfort zone and began looking to others more, I found myself asking for help in new ways. Can I observe your classroom? Any time! Can I borrow this material? Of course! Can I pick your brain? Let’s meet! I marveled as people at every level–children, peers, families, directors, professors, and mentors–generously shared their time and ideas with me.
But even as I benefited from these generous acts of collaboration, deep down, I still believed that I could work better and more efficiently on my own. My coursework as a graduate student finally forced me to set down that final, isolating belief.
During my second semester of the Teacher Education Program, I was working with a group of peers to advocate for the creation of a “Boulder Children’s Day” to be recognized officially by the local government. Wanting to engage our school community in the project, our group proposed creating an interactive hallway display at Boulder Journey School. We needed permission. We got it. We needed approval for our content. We got it. We needed to execute a professional-grade, aesthetically-pleasing, succinct and on-message display. Here, things got tricky.
The controlling side of me was not optimistic. I knew that, alone, I could put together something that would meet expectations. And so, when we met one evening after school, I arrived prepared to lead my group in creating my vision. But as we worked together, discussing ideas, experimenting, and sharing solutions to unforeseen problems, I made a startling discovery: my idea wasn’t that good. In fact, when we tried it out, it didn’t work at all. But because we were working together, what would have been a huge setback to me alone was a minor hiccough in our shared process. As a group, we moved seamlessly past that idea, creating in its place a product that we were all proud of. The work we did together was, without a doubt, much stronger than anything I could have created alone. What’s more, at the end of the process, instead of feeling exhausted, uncertain and lonely, I felt energized. I felt proud. I felt confident in our work. I wondered: did I ever truly feel confident when I was working alone? Or did I always question–how will this really be perceived?
That, ultimately, is the strength of collaboration. Working alone, you can only see with your eyes, hear with your ears and think with your mind. Even as I write this post, I find myself wondering– am I communicating my message clearly? Will my tone hit the mark? Can I really convey my experience to this imagined reader? So here’s the truth: by the time you read this, many, many eyes will have passed over this post. My collaborators will have cut words, asked for clarification and suggested changes. And this post will be better for it. I am beyond believing that isolation leads to success. If my goal–as an educator, as a communicator, as an advocate–is to reach as many people as possible, then I must collaborate. I must ask for help. I must share and give and receive.
In a setting where collaboration is the rule, we stand to gain immense benefits when we share our work. Whether it’s planning, writing a difficult email, tweaking an area of the classroom environment or researching a complex topic, collaboration enriches both the process and the result.
Armed with what I have learned at Boulder Journey School, I hope to never find myself on an island again.
We are currently educating children for a future that is rapidly changing. To prepare ourselves, we have to consider our role as learners – open to change, seeking possibilities, and compelled by the unknown.
The Boulder Journey School Teacher Education Program has developed a working list of “qualities” that we seek to support our graduate students in developing throughout their 12 month teaching and learning experience. The Professional Qualities are a response to the question:
How do we educate teachers, in order to educate students, for the current and future world?
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