How Many Feathers Does it Take? A reflection from the 2017 Boulder Journey School Summer conference

Boulder Journey School (BJS) hosts an annual two-day conference to support participatory exploration of topics related to quality and innovation in education. The conference welcomes participants from around the world to visit, engage, participate, and explore. Below is a reflection by Haley McPherson, 2016 – 2017 Boulder Journey School Teacher Education Program (BJSTEP) graduate student.

Many of the attendees at the 2017 BJS summer conference traveled from states across the US, including Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. We also had groups travel from other cities in Colorado, including Denver and Fort Collins. With this diverse group of individuals came an even more diverse set of theories, questions, practices, and most importantly, experiences.

We took advantage of this diversity among our community and spent two days reflecting and engaging in thoughtful dialogue with one another. Our hope, as hosts, was to offer experiences that educators from various backgrounds could integrate into their daily interactions in the field of education.

One strategy used was time for educators to ‘mess about’ with materials. The materials were offered as invitations, based on work that had taken place in the BJS classrooms and BJSTEP during the 2016-2017 school year.


“If teachers can join us in mapping paths into subject matter, they are on their way to being able to do so for children.” – David Hawkins

On Earth Day, 2017, a group of graduate students in the BJSTEP created a community pop-up event at the Boulder Farmer’s Market. The topic presented to the community was the dynamic interplay of Nature and Technology, especially as it relates to the connection with early childhood. As the graduate students interacted with the community at the Farmer’s Market, they observed children who, when presented with the materials, were determined to make a wiffle ball fly.

Community members playing at the pop-up event, April, 2017.

One of the invitations to play at the summer conference was inspired by this observation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The photo story below captures a collection of moments, experienced by Troy Byrne, a pre-primary teacher at the Children’s School in Atlanta, Georgia, as he experimented with materials presented in combination with a wind tunnel.

Troy shared his initial thoughts on the challenge as he began the process of messing about, “I wonder how many feathers it takes?”

He proceeded to test, changing the arrangement and number of feathers, until, at last, success!

Troy’s experience with the wiffle balls, feathers, and wind tunnel demonstrates the type of learning that can be offered to children and adults.

While this experience should be considered standard practice, it is more often thought of as a luxury. I invite you to think about why this is relevant to what we are doing in early childhood.

If we want to promote early childhood as a time for learning, experimenting, growing, and indulging, we should start with ourselves as educators. How do we experience learning, experimenting, growing, and indulging, and how do we translate these moments into our work with children?

 

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Personal and Professional Impact: Reflections from Reggio Emilia

Each Spring, the entire class of graduate students in the Boulder Journey School Teacher Education Program travels to Reggio Emilia, Italy to attend the US Students and Professors Study Group. Below is a reflection from Cassie Sorrells and Kacy Grady, 2016-2017 graduate students.

The week began on Sunday afternoon with a gathering at the International Centre Loris Malaguzzi to meet fellow conference participants. The nearly 200 conference participants represented teachers, administrators, researchers, artists, and even an actor. It was eye-opening to see how the Reggio philosophy drew professionals from a wide variety of backgrounds and regions of the world. We toured the city, hosted by several kind volunteers from the organization, Friends of Reggio Children. Reggio Emilia is a beautiful Italian city; modern-day avenues form a hexagon around the old city, in the footprint where the medieval city walls once stood. The colorful buildings have been rebuilt and re-appropriated many times within the centuries since their founding, so that what was once a nunnery, today may serve as a local police station.

Part of the conference was dedicated to offering us hands-on experiences in several “Atelier” settings within the International Centre. One of the ateliers focused on Living Organisms and Life Cycles. During this experience, the atelierista illustrated the beauty in living things throughout every stage of their lives and how everything can be repurposed. There were beautiful displays of living organisms for us to observe and reflect on: decomposing foods (fruits, vegetables, bread) and plants of all varieties. We were invited to create a piece of artwork based on our reflections on the Atelier.

Another Atelier, Border Crossings, focused on the learning that occurs at the intersection of nature and technology. We were instructed to explore the area outside of the Centre, and return with images and materials that reflected that natural space. We used infrared cameras, projectors, light, plastic, and metal objects to create an artistic interplay among the materials of these seemingly disparate realms. Our first attempts were quite goal-oriented, and we abruptly found ourselves at a creative standstill. The atelierista offered us some insight: “As adults,” he said, “we often approach a project with a goal in mind. But it is the process, the creation that is the goal.” As we shifted our mindset to one that more accurately mirrored that of children, we found that our creation blossomed.

That afternoon we began our visits to the schools, an experience that everyone had been very much looking forward to. Participants were given the opportunity to visit several different contexts, each of which offered a unique example of the Reggio Emilia Approach in action. We gathered in small groups at the bus station, located near the International Center, and took buses to our school sites.

Salvador Allende, an infant/toddler facility, located on the outskirts of Reggio Emilia, is characterized by its extensive outdoor park. Upon first glance, Allende’s classrooms seemed strikingly bare. The typical Reggio use of vertical space was noticeably absent, and the only materials found seemed to be those being used for an investigation. Upon reflection and through conversations with the teachers, it became clear that this intentional simplicity encouraged deeper investigation. The simplicity of the classrooms was mirrored in the outdoor space. We were immediately struck not only by the natural beauty of the rolling landscape, but also by the total lack of man-made materials. This lack of materials, while creating an ostensibly simple landscape, did not detract from the complexity of experiences possible in the environment. One member of our group actually began crying as she observed the stunning willow tree, the free-roaming rabbits and ducks, and the unassuming swings made out of rope. Allende was a powerful reminder that the natural world can be a phenomenal provocation for learning, without our assistance or intervention.

                          

Iqbal Masih Preschool is located on the same property as the recycled materials facility, REmida. REmida promotes the idea that waste materials can be resources, and feeds these materials into many of the preschools in Reggio. The Centre collects, exhibits, and offers alternative and reclaimed materials, obtained from unsold stock and rejects or discarded materials from industrial and handicraft production, with the aim of reinventing their use and meaning (REmida, 2012). It was inspiring to see the ways in which recycled materials can be offered as provocations. We reflected deeply on the idea that materials have multiple functions, and that every child can find a different use for the same material. This is a refreshing idea in a world that promotes the possession of single-use plastic toys.

(Photos provided by Sam Prince, who visited the Centre, and by Google Images)

Our four days at the International Centre were followed by two full days to explore Italy in any way we chose. Most of our cohort chose to branch off into small groups, exploring Venice, Cinque Terre, Florence, and Milan. These days of travel were an incredible way to end an already life-changing experience. They provided an opportunity to further cement the strong bonds we had formed with our classmates during the course of the trip. Our group of six chose to explore Milan. We ate, drank wine, and explored this huge metropolis that is such a contrast to the sleepy town of Reggio Emilia. Although we were technically finished with the school related component of our trip, our conversations (typically held at dinner over incredible spreads of pasta) tended to spiral back to the themes and experiences we had gleaned from the study tour.

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The personal and professional impact of this experience is evident in the way our classroom practices have changed since we returned. Not only have we been able to draw upon the many examples of quality work seen in Reggio as inspiration for our daily provocations, we have also been reoriented towards the philosophy underlying our work. We have started circulating conversations around the idea of clearing out our playgrounds of all toys and “unnatural” materials, offering a space with only natural material provocations. In addition to its impact on our immediate practices in the classroom, spending a week in the company of such innovative and inspirational early childhood educators reminded us that the work we are doing is part of a larger movement towards a future in which children are seen and valued as true citizens of our world. We could not be more grateful for this experience.

 

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Blog authors, Kacy and Cassie

REmida Retrieved April 16, 2017 from http://zerosei.comune.re.it/inter/remida.htm

The Mosaic of Marks: Reflections from Reggio Emilia

Each Spring, the entire class of graduate students in the Boulder Journey School Teacher Education Program travel to Reggio Emilia, Italy to attend the US Students and Professors Study Group. Below is a reflection from Sam Prince, a 2016-2017 graduate student.

Each Spring, the entire class of graduate students in the Boulder Journey School Teacher Education Program travel to Reggio Emilia, Italy to attend the US Students and Professors Study Group. Below is a reflection from Sam Prince, a 2016-2017 graduate student.

My trip to Reggio Emilia was overwhelming in the best way possible. An abundance of important and thought-provoking experiences were packed into a very short period of time. In the days after leaving the conference one moment is sticking with me as being particularly remarkable.

On the second day of our conference, I attended a learning experience in one of the ateliers in the Malaguzzi Center. The setting: twenty educators situated around two small tables to spend open-ended time with a set of drawing materials. My tendency when confronted with a large group of unfamiliar people is to slip into the background as much as possible. I go out of my way to go unnoticed.

Early in my time at Boulder Journey School, Alison, Boulder Journey School Education Director, told us to run towards areas of dissonance. Messing about with open ended materials is an area of dissonance for me. Working in a large group is an area of dissonance for me. I fought my tendency.

To attain the right frame of mind, I had to ignore the atelierista, her assistant, and a translator who perused the room, scribbling furiously on clipboards and talking to one another.

I focused on the materials.

What were they meant for? How could I tweak their meaning? What could I create? What did I want to create? What had I never seen before? What seemed appealing to play with?

I let myself go.

I felt the teaching team gathered behind me. My concentration slipped in an out, fighting with slight anxiety and a whole new set of questions.

Was I using the materials right?  Was I not being loose enough?  Was I acting like I thought I should be acting instead of letting the moment simply exist?

Eventually a tap on my shoulder pulled me out of my own head. The atelierista in training and I talked. She asked me what I was doing and how it was going. It was inquiry disguised as idle chit-chat. She pointed out the colors I was using, the way the shadows were interacting with the page. I hadn’t noticed. We took turns exploring, using our hands to make shadows on the page.

Then a mysterious light appeared on the page, a reflection. We tried to see if it was her watch; not the culprit. A metal pen; nope. The atelierista joined in. She tried more objects that could possibly be responsible. Eventually, through some more experimentation, we realized my name tag had made the light. No language was needed. We shared ear to ear smiles, pointing at what we had figured out. No translator was needed.

At the end of the session we debriefed as a group. Someone asked about what had happened between me and the team. The atelierista included the following ideas in her response:

Documentation and observation are forms of caring. They are a way that we show people they are valued, that their process is valued. When we co-construct with someone we open ourselves up to great joy—the joy of discovering, of exploring, and of empowering. What happened there clearly was of great benefit to the person being observed. It was also of great value to the observer. It incites in both a feeling that reminds us why we are teachers. 

It is okay to not be good at something. Even teachers who have been in the profession for two and three decades aren’t good at everything. Running towards the dissonance is the only way to get better. If I had faded into the background, embracing my most base level instinct, the profound moment I had the fortune of sharing wouldn’t have been possible.  I would not have felt the overwhelming joy of discovery, neither would the teacher who co-constructed with me.

The trip to Reggio has been a time of great reflection for me. Over the course of this year I have been given multiple opportunities to evolve as an educator, from optional workshops to mandatory classes to insightful conversations with colleagues in passing. This year has been designed for me to grow. I’ve embraced it as much as I can. The trip to Reggio Emilia felt like a culmination in a sense, a time of realization that I am not the educator that I was nine months ago.

Below is a panel Sam created from photographs of the experience.

Mosaicofmarks 2

Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum Course Pt. 2 : A Focus on Integrating Technology

We introduced the Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum course in the blog post Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum Course. If you missed that one, we recommend going back to understand an overview of the course as a whole.

The Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum course is divided into 5 parts. While the process of documentation is critical to all 5 parts, each part has its own focus:

  • Part 1 focuses on the preparation of materials.
  • Part 2 focuses on the formation of learning groups.
  • Part 3 focuses on developmentally appropriate strategies for integrating technology into the early childhood classroom.
  • Part 4 focuses on how to extend the curriculum beyond the walls of the classroom, outdoors, and in the community.
  • Part 5 focuses on various roles teachers can assume in learning experiences.

Intern Teachers are encouraged to innovate new classroom practices with regard to each of the foci listed above. Thus, the course promotes ongoing teacher professional development in relation to classroom experiences.

For example, for Part 3 of the course, which focuses on developmentally appropriate strategies for integrating technology, Intern Teachers conducted an initial assessment of the technology used in their classrooms. They composed a list of the many technological tools they find useful in their own lives. Next, they highlighted which of these tools they are using in the classroom, and finally they marked which of the tools they are not using that could offer potential for learning in a classroom of young children.


In class, Intern teachers discussed the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) position statement on technology and interactive media that was adopted in 2012:

http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/PS_technology_WEB2.pdf

They discussed and debated the following:

  • Should technology be present in early childhood classrooms?
  • How can we expand our thinking about technology beyond television and computer games?
  • How can we develop a strong image of young children in order to trust them with technology?
  • What are developmentally appropriate uses for technology in early childhood classrooms?
  • Can we develop ideas for the use of technology in which students are active, not passive, learners?
  • Can we innovate, implement, and document positive examples of using technology in early childhood classrooms?

 

The Intern Teachers shared the following thoughts:

“Technology can be active, engaging, and provoke children in different ways. It is important to change the way we think in order to create classrooms that are welcoming to the inevitable changes of the world…I feel that it is my responsibility as a teacher to use my own experiences with technology and try to relate that to my students.” – Intern Teacher, Grace Gaglione

I want to experiment with technology more on the expressive side, like through music or digital creation.” – Intern Teacher, Conor Vidulich

“When I started to think about how to incorporate technology into the classroom, I wanted to build upon the children and teachers’ existing interests…I should consider the balance of familiar and novel materials and activities when integrating technology into an experience.  Having an appropriate balance will support children’s focus and engagement.” – Intern Teacher, Katie Kunin

Now, the Intern Teachers took action!


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Dan-Vi expanded our definition of “technology” by choosing to introduce a more rudimentary technological tool, an apple peeler, into her toddler classroom.

 

 

“I have a more rounded idea of what is considered technology and how it can be used to support children and their investigations. It isn’t something that teachers should fear or shy away from because it can be a helpful tool in learning and teaching.” – Intern Teacher, Dan-Vi Hoang


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Paige offered a keyboard to the 2-year-old children in her classroom. She provided plenty of uninterrupted time for the children to explore and experiment with this new addition to the classroom environment. She noted that we often think of technology as something that isolates people, yet, in this case, in the classroom, the technology provided a platform for socializing in new ways.

 

“I noticed that the children were constantly looking at each other, laughing, and experiencing the sounds together. This social learning continued as they quickly learned that the buttons above the keys affected the sounds the keys made. They explored all of the buttons, finding that some of them created songs. This prompted the children to get up and dance around the room together.” – Intern Teacher, Paige Laeyendecker


Marcy decided to use technology to extend the investigation of flowers that was unfolding in her 3-year-old classroom. The children were painting and drawing images of flowers, as well as manipulating and arranging real flowers. Marcy wondered about the potential of a large scale experience with flowers. She wondered how the children might use their bodies to engage with flowers in new ways.

“I found a YouTube video containing time-lapse photography of flowers blooming that was choreographed to music.” – Intern Teacher, Marcy Sala

Marcy projected the video on the wall and added other materials to the space.

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“When choosing what props to provide, I decided that the presence of real flowers would be important to help bridge this experience with the other experiences they have had. I also wondered whether the real flowers might serve a role in helping to bridge the potential divide between the real and virtual worlds the children would be experiencing.” – Marcy Sala

After carefully designing this experience for children, Marcy observed and documented how the children responded.

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“There were some incredibly beautiful moments in which the children were really tuning in to the image on the screen, as well as to the projected images of their shadows and the reflected images in the large mirror. They interacted with both the flowers and the scarves in relation to the video and spent time both dancing to the music and interpreting the images they were seeing with their bodies. One thing that happened a lot, especially early on in the experience, was the act of using the real flowers to touch the virtual flowers. Two of the children watched the video from afar one time through before joining in physically.” – Marcy Sala

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Marcy reflected on the value of integrating technology in this way in her early childhood classroom.

“I thought that the integration of technology with this particular learning interest enabled a whole new kind of wonder and awe.” – Marcy Sala

 

 

 

Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum Course

For the Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum course, Intern Teachers 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.

The course objectives are as follows:

  1. Observe and document students for the purpose of planning and implementing a curriculum that is relevant, meaningful and contextual.
  2. Reference Early Learning and Development Guidelines and/or Colorado Academic Standards in curriculum planning.
  3. Use literature related to child development and learning theories to enhance the curriculum.
  4. Collaborate with colleagues to create and implement the curriculum.
  5. Prepare materials to provoke student learning.
  6. Organize group learning experiences that offer the potential for peer learning and the potential for a differentiated curriculum based on individual strengths and goals.
  7. Integrate technology into the classroom in a developmentally appropriate manner.
  8. Extend the curriculum beyond the walls of the classroom, outdoors and into the community.
  9. Reflect on the roles a teacher can assume within each learning experience.

 

Each Intern Teacher enrolled in this course is working in an early childhood classroom, supported by a Mentor Teacher who has already completed the Boulder Journey School Teacher Education Program. Intern Teachers, with support from Mentor Teachers, gather documentation from their classrooms in the form of photographs, video, transcribed conversations, notes, audio recordings, graphs, and charts. These documents become data that is analyzed with colleagues to better understand learning and teaching.

Intern Teachers reflect on their documented observations, using the questions below as a framework. This framework supports their understanding surrounding the significance of what has occurred in the classroom and what future learning experiences could be offered in order to extend the learning:

 

WHAT? – Why did you plan this experience? How did you organize for this experience? What materials did you collect? What spaces did you utilize? What feedback did your co-teachers/mentors give you, and how did you integrate their feedback? During the experience, what were your students doing? What were your students not doing? What were the students’ goals, strategies, and theories? What were you and your co-teachers doing? What were you and your co-teachers not doing? What were the teachers’ goals, strategies, and theories? How were the goals, strategies, and theories of students and teachers the same and/or different? What else did you notice? What surprised you? What made you laugh or wonder or pause? What do you perceive as the successes and failures of this experience?

 

SO WHAT? – So what does this mean in terms of child development and learning theory? What is significant about what happened? What connections can you make between what you documented and what you have read and discussed in seminar? How does this experience connect with the purpose of education? What connections can you make to the Early Learning and Development Guidelines and/or the Colorado Academic Standards? By reflecting on documentation of this experience, what do you understand about teaching and learning that you did not understand before? In other words, what did you learn from the analysis of documentation of this experience?

 

NOW WHAT? – Now what will you do next? How will what you learned from the analysis of documentation of this experience inform what you do next? How might this experience be extended? How might you further challenge your students? Based on your analysis of the documentation, how many possibilities for future learning experiences could you offer students? What actions will you take? What do you need to learn more about in order to better support and challenge your students? How will you extend your own learning? How can families participate?

 

By engaging in dialogue surrounding these questions, Intern Teachers develop new understandings that are translated into curriculum possibilities. The curriculum possibilities developed by Intern Teachers are then implemented in classrooms. In this way, Intern Teachers establish a strong connection between ongoing authentic assessment and curriculum planning.

This way of approaching the development of curriculum offers Intern Teachers opportunities to make active contributions to the classroom. Intern Teachers are learning by doing, rather than merely learning by observing their Mentor Teachers, which provides a higher quality of teacher education.

We will look at a few of the ways the Intern Teachers have applied this coursework in our next blog.