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?

 

Small World Play: The Benefits of Miniature Fantasy Lands

Six times a year, Boulder Journey School collaborates with Hawkins Centers of Learning to hold evening workshops, open to the community. The topic of each workshop varies; however each experience offers time and space to engage in the three phases of Messing About, as proposed by David Hawkins.

Screen Shot 2017-05-19 at 11.01.27 AM

“[Fantasy] is the mother of all possibilities where, like all psychological opposites, the inner and outer worlds are joined together in a living union.”

Carl Jung

As part of our Professional Development series, Messing About with Teaching, we invited educators to explore the history of small world play, as well as to spend time engaging with miniature fantasy lands.

As participants entered the room, they were greeted by hundreds of miniatures, ranging from medieval characters to marine creatures. Amidst these figures were a series of loose parts and trays that could act as landscapes. In some settings, the figurines and landscapes were a logical pairing; in others, they were incongruous.

The participants examined the tables and chose which sets to sit near.

“Each of us have such different spaces. You look at some of these different classes or visit and think, ‘Oh I wish I had that.’ But you work with what you have, and the children work with what they have. How you set things up highlights what you have already. And I think that was a really big learning experience for me.” – participant reflection

To begin the evening, we explored the history of Small World Play – a practice rooted in psychotherapy and inspired by science fiction writer, H.G. Wells.

The ‘World Technique’ in play therapy was developed by Dr. Margaret Lowenfeld in 1929. The goal of this methodology was to offer children an avenue to explore and communicate their thoughts and feeling through non-verbal strategies. (http://www.creativecounseling101.com/sandtray-therapy-class-history-of-sandtray-therapy-student-1.html)

Her outstanding contributions sprang from her recognition that play is an important activity in children’s development and that language is often an unsatisfactory medium for children to express their experiences. She consequently invented non-verbal techniques that enabled them to convey their thoughts and feelings without resort to words. – The Dr. Margaret Lowenfeld Trust

Lowenfeld herself was inspired by the book Floor Games by H.G. Wells (1911), in which the author of The Time Machine explored fantasy lands with his own children.

(http://www.creativecounseling101.com/sandtray-therapy-class-history-of-sandtray-therapy-student-1.html)

Lowenfeld’s work has extended into classrooms, where teachers and children create and use these settings and figures to explore intra- and interpersonal relationships, as well as to explore the world on a manageable scale. Careful observation of children, and as we discovered during the workshop, ourselves at play with these small worlds offer myriad insights into personalities and learning styles.

Participants “shop” for figurines to use in their play.


Consider this dialogue excerpt from the reflection session at the end of play*:

Kathy and Steve know each other, but in a very limited capacity. Andrea, Brian, and Emily all work closely together, Andrea and Brian as co-teachers, Emily as their Pedagogical Support. Nina and the rest of the participants in her group all teach at the same school.

Alex (facilitator): How did you react to the spaces that you had?

Kathy: I’m very introverted, so to avoid that, I stepped away. I really like ledges and small spaces, so I wanted to take my figures over to the small space.

Steve: I was worried that I had co-opted your space. But it turns out we are of a very similar mindset.

Andrea: It’s interesting that you thought about that. I didn’t even consider infringing on someone else’s space. I just built, and he started building this way, and I was like, well, that’s the edge.

And, I don’t like to work in small spaces. I would have preferred to work on the floor, but I didn’t feel there was adequate space for it.

Brian: It felt like it was a small space, but I embraced it. I mirrored [Andrea’s]. It’s kind of how we work in the classroom; we’ll mirror each other. I mirrored this, and I just worked with my space. Emily’s phone ended up in my way, so instead of just moving it, it became a wall to my space. I felt like the space was too small, so I shifted the scope of my idea. I used the phone and built around it.

Andrea: Whereas, if Emily’s phone had ended up in my space, I would move it to a different space and define, “Here’s your space.”

Emily: And Brian would just work around it.

Nina: The way our table was set up, with the mirrors on each side, it didn’t even occur to us to split up or to change the setting in any way. There was this big piece in the middle that anchored us and drew us to play together.

*participants’ names have been changed


Through our work with these materials, and with each other, we gained understandings of the learning process. Following this workshop, we found ourselves watching children’s work with figures and playscapes through a new lens.

Do you offer spaces for small world play in your context? Share those experiences in the comments.

 

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.

null

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.

 

null
Blog authors, Kacy and Cassie

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

A Farm Tale: Story From a Practicum Site – Boulder JCC

The Jay and Rose Phillips Early Childhood Center at the Boulder JCC has been a Boulder Journey School Teacher Education Program Partner School for the past three years. As a practicum site, the school hosts graduate students and mentor teachers. One of the resources the school incorporates into their curriculum is the Milk and Honey Farm, located adjacent to the Boulder JCC building.

Milk and Honey Farm at the J is a 2+ acre educational sustainable farm that brings the greater community together via experiential programs and activities designed to ignite wonder and discovery, grounded in vast Jewish heritage, tradition, and values. It provides a place for individuals to connect on the simplest level with soil, plants, animals, and people, for the health and well-being of themselves and the larger community.

-Boulder JCC

img_7869

On this particular day in February, a class of 2-3 year-old children was invited to visit the geodesic dome greenhouse to explore and participate in planting. They explored the plants that were already growing, as well as the fish in the aquaponic pool.

Aquaponics (/ˈækwəˈpɒnᵻks/) refers to any system that combines conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as snails, fish, crayfish or prawns in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment.

-Wikipedia

The class was introduced to the baby parsley plants, started from seed by the resident farmer. They observed the leaves and root structures of the tiny plants. They discussed the process of starting seeds in trays, like the one pictured, and then transferring them to soil so the roots can spread out and the plants can grow to maturity. As the conversation unfolded, teachers documented the experience, so it could be revisited and reflected upon at a later time.

img_7902

 

The parsley itself is culturally significant. Parsley is one of several symbolic foods that is traditionally offered on the Passover Seder plate. Passover takes place near April each year, so these parsley plants were ready for harvest in time for the holiday. 

The Boulder JCC is part of the JCC Network of North America.  The JCC is an inclusive organization, open to members, teachers, and students of all backgrounds and cultures.A strong part of the ECC’s philosophical approach to early childhood education is the Sheva Framework. Described in detail below, the Sheva framework represents an expression of the Jewish tradition that is reflective of the inquiry and inclusiveness held by all in this community.

The art of inquiry within Judaism is a time-honored tradition. Teachers and students are on a continuous cycle of asking questions, researching answers, and co-constructing knowledge together.

The following seven values of the Sheva Framework help us to focus our intentions and serve as Jewish ‘lenses’ through which we see our curriculum and the life of our school community.

MASA/JOURNEY
מסע

Reflection, Return & Renewal
In order to move forward in a meaningful way, we must reflect upon the past.  Our travels are more important than the destination.

TZELEM ELOKIM/DIVINE IMAGE
צלם אלוקים
Dignity & Potential of Each Person
The image of the child as capable and competent is a core Reggio philosophy value.  We view children, families and colleagues with dignity. This is a lens of accountability, empathy and self-worth.

BRIT/COVENANT
ברית
Belonging & Commitment – Community
A bound and trusted relationship allows us to unite with others in pursuit of a shared vision.  It enables us to grow, take risks, and share with honesty.

DRASH/INTERPRETATION
דרש
The spirit of inquiry within human nature is the drive that aides in reflection and growth.  To question, to debate, to interpret, and to communicate are all essential components of the Jewish tradition.

HITORERUT/AWAKENING
התעוררות
When we as adults take the time to slow down, we become more aware of the miracles that exist in every moment, allowing gratitude to flow freely through us.  Young children are more apt to wonder, naturally embracing life with exuberance.

TIKKUN OLAM/REPAIR OF THE WORLD
תיקון עולם
Repairing the world is done with a spirit of generosity and a partnership with families and children to continuously make a difference in our community.  There is a sense of responsibility to perform social “acts of kindness” every day.

KEDUSHA/HOLINESS
קדושה
We envision holiness in terms of sacred time, spaces and intentions.  We find holiness at distinct times in the Jewish calendar, such as Shabbat and holidays.  We also unearth holiness in our daily experiences as we observe the interactions of children, listen to their voices, and discover life together.

-Boulder JCC

By creating opportunities for children to experience the life cycle from planting to eating, the children can develop ownership and care for their food in a rich and complex way. The values expressed in the Sheva framework offer a powerful lens through which to think about the significance of experiences such as this.

As the spring weather takes hold and a new outdoor growth cycle begins in all the spaces of Milk and Honey Farm, the school will continue to explore ways the children can explore and research the farm-to-table cycle.

hands leaves

  • How do the cultures reflected in your school impact the experiences offered to children?
  • What resources exist in or around your school community that can offer possibilities?
  • What kinds of opportunities can you offer children to build close relationships with the food they eat?

 

The Dynamic of a Band: Story from a Practicum Site – Boulder Journey School

“In order to act as an educator for the child, the environment has to be flexible: it must undergo frequent modification by the children and the teachers in order to remain up-to-date and responsive to their needs to be protagonists in constructing their knowledge.” – Lella Gandini, “Education and Caring Spaces”

At the beginning of the school year, the children in Room 14 at Boulder Journey School expressed a strong interest in performance and music. The teachers observed the children frequently discussing and engaging in play around performance and instrument design, especially in the outdoor classroom. According to Erin, the mentor teacher in Room 14, “It started with two children using materials to represent different instruments. There was a wooden platform outside that they made into a stage, where they performed.”emergenceofguitarsviashovels

The children used shovels or flat, long “loose parts” to represent guitars; they would play them together in groups. Microphones were represented as fairly tall objects that either stood on their own or could be propped. Erin recalled, “They used tall stable objects, such as shelves to balance sticks or tubes to be hands-free and reach their mouths.”

 

In addition to their interest in representing instruments, the children showed a strong interest in using their instruments to perform songs for others. Erin recalls that many children shared an interest in songs by Jeff and Paige, a local children’s group. They sang these with and to one another. They also sang pop culture hits, and made up their own songs. Ultimately the children’s’ shared interest in music and performance sparked a year-long investigation into the concepts of music, performance, and instrument design.

As an assignment for the Teacher Education Program (TEP), the teachers reflected on the incorporation of technology as an essential learning tool into the classroom. One goal of the TEP is to seamlessly weave together current theory with classroom practices. As the graduate students learned about the changing role of technology in the early childhood classroom, they also engaged in dialogue with their mentor teacher to uncover the ways this assignment would fit with the current work taking place in the classroom. Building on these conversations, the children were offered videos and projections of professional live performances to act as references in their understanding of guitars and microphones. The children were then asked to reflect on and share their observations of the videos and photos.  

Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 2.14.28 PMAlongside their digital investigation of professional performances, the teachers worked to deepen children’s understanding and interest in performance and instrument creation through adaptations of the classroom environment. While the children started the year performing their songs outside on a wooden platform “stage”, over time the children and teachers worked together to create a performance stage with open ended materials for instrument design and exploration within the classroom. The performance area is an example of a responsive environment, one which develops in relation to the children’s interests.

guitarstrapstapeThe children also added new elements to their instrument creation. Wire, fabric, and string were used to represent the straps, plugs, and wires of guitars, banjos, and other string instruments. Room 14 teachers continued to observe the children’s interest in music, and offered new materials and provocations to spark further exploration. Teachers introduced tape to the children and supported individual and collective exploration of the properties of tape over several weeks. As the children developed their understanding of the properties of a variety of materials, including tape, teachers presented a question to the class: “Is there a way you can make microphones stand up so you can play your guitar and sing at the same time?”

The children also offered a challenge to themselves: to make a more accurate looking guitar that had a strap so you could let go of the guitar.

 

Over the course of several weeks, the teachers and children in room 14 explored and worked with multiple materials to create their own microphones and guitars. As they worked, they became more aware and intentional about the physical elements of design.

guitarprototype“With trial and error, a design was created that fit the criteria of the children,” recalls their teacher. For example, the children designed a shovel with a wire going through the hand hold and wrapped around the neck as their first prototype for a guitar. Over time, this design was adapted, and the final prototype for a guitar was established as a long piece of wood with tape used to depict frets, binder clips to hold lanyard, and wire to plug into the amp.

TEP mentor and intern teachers worked to scaffold and deepen the process of learning by revisiting and reflecting on the instrument prototypes with children. Teachers presented children with complex materials and questions that encouraged them to engage in the reflective process of critical thinking and learning.

In the children’s process of designing a microphone prototype through open-ended exploration, they considered four main elements: design, height, functionality, and stability.  While many children engaged in an independent process of design, they also tested different designs out with one another, as well as with older children in prekindergarten Room 12, who have an expertise in design and construction work.

Currently there are a few prototypes for microphones. Most involve tape, wire, tubes, and cut pool noodles, with a large container with a weight in it to act as the base of the microphone. Erin noted, “The class now seems to have a fairly strong idea of the elements that they need for each microphone. The challenge of stability is now the biggest obstacle in their path.”

exploringmics
“Our microphones keep tipping over.” – Adam, age 3.5 

As the children continue to explore the concepts of stability and functionality through their design process, they also express a passion for innovation and creativity. In addition to the elements of design, room 14 continues to explore and incorporate the various social aspects of performance into their classroom culture.

microphoneprototypeErin recognizes that the goals of the class have evolved, “We have started to look into the

different elements of performance, including dance and music, and consider the children’s interests relating to these elements. The dynamic of a band is really interesting to them right now. The social negotiation of who is going to take on what role in the band is very interesting.”

As the children continue to delve into the social aspects of performance, the teachers in room 14 hope to continue to support children’s social-emotional, cognitive, and physical learning around the art of music, instrument design, and performance.


Gandini, L. 1998. “Education and Caring Spaces” in Edwards, C., Gandini, L., & Forman, G. The Hundred Languages of Children. Greenwich, CT: Ablex.

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

The Professional Quality Series: Reflective Observation

This post was contributed by current Mentor Teacher Meagan Arango. It is part of a series on the Boulder Journey School Professional Qualities.

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 informed decisions 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.

Why Observation?

qUbY57UHxNO6I4E96RNejFQMU2UqdPuMiz8hxKxinZkOxpLiX5Tp5Nz3a1s7KRfb0i_7MivRdU7cEIAVobg0QUJhOXWcjbq7RG7bDYG-AFOcH0IVEM49aPWkraqHSFbTWTkEHDI_3NJlYVU9V8KnrYYDUMABD-3EjAeNukEACcUj68gLR89DvyykG5Observation 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.

67Rp-_dbsoXmSTYX5AO5WQygpH8yhZQ1c3LUmKH-lG-BAbdQ5FRbruVMKp_lViBI1f6vSBMpqVHc6SoozP89NcaYCc_n0KKUjgZ_ww9dM9igQBua7GlkUl7FxeOoDfBu5YsI9MKvfFhbve26uXJN_FCjASP0A6pTR2X2JQHrjoQr54yNltAX3P_2b9In 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.

Screen Shot 2017-04-04 at 6.57.00 PM

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.

CZCCj1m2gFHpNAWuZFfLTdcfgz4XR1yrJAvIzk7Odspz5vwcIA22IUkFBoKfs2oI0Hv5NicjpbGgRC7VJ2N_MYTdDvKRb-HKeFv7SoQGwTS10oYbCwqehJKN57vLFNfbtbLJZThUqqEm726tnxLpMZKhLizT_XoybLdFvPeCGvXAgFtMW4Z3k2x6rj

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 never know 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?

IcGmjxur4OPpKi1gJBtseE0tRRxsTmRQiQtKNgRLv3WqLSGH5wkphNiC-XbSvUQ8V-gMHPHysTeZQh5AgXNfgtHlImUV45bscOSfjcQgpwzoSyLlTnmwQB3IRNYVRQ33CRl2DeLqMi_YNeIveMncmlpzlFSA1pUTMkB6nP_viwUmPNAMkODSsZVxkaReflect 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.