New Blocks

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An educator friend was getting rid of her wooden Cuisenaire rods. She wondered if I might have any use for them.

Lovely colored, wooden blocks?!?!!! OF COURSE I can use them!

Happily, my students are as excited by new materials as I am! As I put them into containers yesterday, this conversation ensued:

Them: “What are they, Miss James?!!”

Me: “New blocks!”

Them: “New blocks?!?!!! For us?!!”

Me: “Yes!”

Them: “What are we going to make with them?”

Me: “I don’t know. What are you going to make with them?”

As others gathered — helping to put the blocks into the containers — conversations and gasps of delight erupted around me.

I love when excitement, joy, imagination, creativity, conversation, problem solving, and possibility surround me. And when it’s precipitated by wooden blocks saved from the trash bin, it’s extra special.

 

 

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Label Your Build

Labeling is part of every build in our classroom. Sometimes my request for labeling is met with a bit of grumbling. “Labels? Do we have to label? Why do we have to label things, Miss James?”

I always respond the same way. “Yes, you have to label things. Everyone find at least three things to label.” and “Why label?!?!!! You have to label things because when you label them, everyone else gets to know and understand your great ideas and creations!” Once they get over the need to stop building in order to label, and any hesitancy they have in their ability to write things that others can read, the labels begin popping up all over the build site.

Here are a few from this year’s Thanksgiving build.

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(bed, home)

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(bed, pillow, home)

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(food place)

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(person, Lilly)

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(mountain)

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(person)

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(crib)

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(trap door)

There’s tons of value in each of their labels. I can assess their phonemic awareness, and their ability to encode the sounds they hear. I get a deeper understanding of their thinking and building. And, perhaps best of all, they get to share their thinking and work with everyone who visits the build.

My favorite thinking shared this year (and mind you, they are ALL fantabulous and bring me great joy) was this one.

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(For you, Mayflower. This corn is for you.)

We learn that the passengers of the Mayflower stole corn from the Native Americans. At first, the girls respond with outrage. “That wasn’t very nice! Why did they do that? That’s mean!” I acknowledge their observations and feelings, agreeing that it does sound mean, and not very nice. But then, I encourage them to think a bit about what the passengers of the Mayflower might have felt — and what we sometimes experience in our own lives.

“How do you think the Mayflower passengers felt when they arrived?” I ask. “They were on the boat for 66 days. The Mayflower wasn’t very big and there were a lot of passengers.” My students are silent, clearly trying to figure things out. They begin to share their recollections and thoughts — “There were storms. People died. A baby was born. Maybe they didn’t have enough food. They were probably cold. Maybe they were hungry.”

One asks “Why didn’t they just ask the Native Americans for some food?”

“Good question.” I respond. “Why didn’t they?”

At first they are silent again. Then I ask them. “Did the Native Americans and the passengers of the Mayflower looked alike? Did they dress the same? Do you think they spoke the same language?” They quietly and thoughtfully respond “No.”

Now I am silent. For a moment or two I let them sit with that information. Then I ask them “How do you think they felt?” With a greater of empathy they respond, “Maybe they were scared.” I shake my head, “Yeah, maybe they were scared.” Wanting to bring the two ideas together, I continue “It wasn’t nice what they did. They shouldn’t have stolen the corn, but it’s good for us to remember they might have been afraid, and hungry, and didn’t know what else to do.”

When the girl made those bags of corn, she showed them to me. “I decided to make these for the Mayflower. I’m going to leave them by the boat so they see them. Then they can just have this corn, and not steal ours.” I responded, “That’s a great idea. I bet they’ll be happy to find it.”

There is so much I love about her thoughts and work. Kindness. Empathy. Problem-solving. Offering without being asked. Leaving it with a note — therefore forgoing a thank you. Believing this will help them, and keep them from taking your things — without telling them not to take yours. Lastly, I love that the build, and the labeling, allowed this student to show the depth her understanding, empathy, kindness, and problem solving. May she keep it, grow it, and use it all her days!

Bringing Ideas to Life

Creativity is an interesting mix of thinking and doing. It’s about having new ideas, conceiving of new ways to do things, imaging a particular physical product — and then working to bring any, or all, of these things to life.

Both the thinking and the doing require a significant amount of

  • curiosity
  • wonder
  • imagination
  • team-work
  • risk taking
  • confidence
  • playfulness
  • resilience
  • perseverance
  • knowledge
  • research and learning
  • struggle
  • pro-typing and iterating
  • the seemingly magical, but often hard won, moments of “aha” and resolution

My girls worked on their Thanksgiving build from the beginning of November until winter break. They had a plethora of ideas. Some were created, some were not. Through out their thinking and work, the girls exhibited all the things listed above.

Some of the most interesting observations for me, occurred as they struggled to negotiate, and embrace and enhance each other’s ideas and thoughts. It’s a tough line to walk — advocating for your own ideas while at the same time being open to the ideas of your friends and fellow workers. It’s especially problematic when other’s ideas are significantly different than yours. Emotions occasionally ran amuck, and sometimes required interventions — with recommendations of alone time, breathing, thinking, listening, and sometimes suggestions of how to speak to one another to understand and resolve differences.  Particularly interesting to me is how similar these young work groups are to the work groups I belong to as an adult. New ideas are not always welcomed, different ideas are sometimes hard to imagine or embrace, old patterns are sometimes very strong, and emotions often make things more complicated.

I loved their conversations and subsequent research as they wondered, and imagined things they would have liked to have as a citizen of England and Holland, a passenger of the Mayflower, or a Native American. — Would the castles of England and Holland have had elevators? What about trap doors? Where did the Native Americans get their food?  Did they have toys? Was there a hospital on the Mayflower? Did people fall in the water? How did they save them?

So much about my students, and their thinking and work fascinated me! I often laughed out loud in awe and enjoyment of the fantabulousness of their ideas, and their beautiful confidence.

This person did it for me this build:

IMG_9226I don’t recall any other student making a person with  three-dimensional components. I exclaimed “Wow. I love that! What a great idea!!” when I noticed her work.

She responded as though surprised by my awe. “I just think it, and I do it, Miss James!” I think I laughed out loud AGAIN when she said that to me. That is some beautiful confidence — in her thoughts, and creative ability.

Other times, my delight and fascination came from stretching their thinking, as well as their belief in their own abilities. One student this year wanted to make a dog. Her first try was lovely, and she was quite happy. I chuckled to myself as I opened my mouth to speak. “Would you mind getting your person? Let’s see if this would be a good pet for her.” She looked at me with a bit of incredulity, and perhaps even the slightest annoyance, but she quickly went and retrieved her person. Her dog’s head was the bigger than her person was tall. She reacted with amazement and a bit of disequilibrium! But, she was used to making dogs this size, didn’t believe she could make it any different, and told me it was fine. I laughed and asked her to stand up. When she did I asked if she would want a dog this big (and showed her how big her drawn dog was compared to her person). She laughed and said no, but when I suggested she re-draw her dog she said she couldn’t. I pushed back a bit and told her “Of course you can! Give it a go.”

She redrew that dog at least 10 times. The first 6 were almost identically sized. We cut the paper smaller, and she only fit the on the paper. Finally at about try 12, she created this:

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Perfection!!! She added a speech bubble filled with barks, and gleefully added her dog to the build.

Both experiences are valuable parts of creativity, thinking, learning, and life. Sometimes you simply believe in yourself and know that you can “just think it and make it!” Other times, when it seems impossible, and you doubt your ability, you have to struggle, and keep trying over and over — sometimes embracing the encouragement and pushing of someone you love, even when it’s uncomfortable  — until it happens.

With luck — and reminders from me — the one with belief in her abilities will be able to access that confidence when she has to work hard in order to succeed, and the one who had to struggle will experience those deliciously magically moments of creative ease.

WOW!

 

Yup, that about covers it. “WOW!”

Well, perhaps, “WOW!” and “Boy, oh boy, do I need a nap!”

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It’s the beginning of our Thanksgiving Build 2017. All of this block thinking and work happened in less than 20 minutes!

It was amazing to experience and help facilitate it.

Prior to beginning the actual build, we prepped the room and ourselves.

  • We decided on a good spot for the tables.
  • We checked to be sure we could still move about the room as we need to for other activities.
  • We counted tiles on the floor.
  • We did some research — watching videos, reading/looking at books, and discussing our finds and understanding.
  • We chose our groups (citizens of England and Holland, passengers on the Mayflower, Native Americans).

Finally we met for our first day of building. Before working with the blocks, we held a quick planning meeting. I acted as the scribe, and recorded their ideas. Each group excitedly generated an extensive list of things they would need in their area of the build. Often their ideas played off of each other. I worked to keep the group focused and positive, accepting all ideas, confident that we would discover and modify anything that might need to be changed as we did the build.

It was interesting to make the lists together. They were invested in the process and shared their ideas with enthusiasm, but at the same moment, they were straining against the confines of the table, chairs, and list making. Their desire to begin the build was visible, and when I set them free, the room erupted into a spirited burst of conversation and movement.

They talked to one another as they moved to gather blocks and tools. Sometimes one of them would think of something else they needed, and give me a shout — “Bears! Add bears to the list Miss James!” For now the lists are posted on our whiteboard. We’ll revisit them at various points of the build — to see what has been done, what needs to be done, and what needs to be added.

Many things have to remain in balance as the build progresses. Of course, the blocks themselves must remain balanced. Given the inherent instability of certain block formations, and the sometimes whirlwind like movement of kindergartners, this is often more difficult than it sounds. But, many other things are also always in a delicate, sometimes beautiful, sometimes precarious, state of balance.

As the build facilitator I want to encourage and enable student agency, freedom, discovery, and creativity. At the same time I want to infuse their creativity with the all important ingredient of usefulness. I work hard to encourage thinking, comparing, noticing, and rethinking, without discouraging their ideas and budding understanding. Sometimes this means I have to refocus my gaze and perception. I need to look at the build not as a product alone, but as a process. And, I need to consider what my students knew before beginning, what they are expressing with their work, and what is most important.

Keeping the social emotional energy balanced is imperative. The collaboration — both physical and mental — that occurs while creating in groups is huge! Sometimes we aren’t used to this type of work, and disagreements or power struggles ensue. These moments are often fraught with emotion, but once breaths are taken, the disagreements and struggles become awesome opportunities for conversation, learning and growth.

Another area of social emotional balance involves my comments and suggestions. I have to be aware of the times when my interjections are causing too much disequilibrium in my builders. I want them to think, to struggle and to reach new levels of understanding. I don’t want them to doubt themselves or their work.

So, back to their work. We will build until winter break. Things will be added, taken away, and modified. This is just the beginning. And a great beginning it is!

Remind yourself of their age, their task, and their timeframe. And be awed!

England and Holland

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The Mayflower

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Native American homesite

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Imagination

I never cease to be amazed, and amused, by the imagination of my Kindergartners! Here are some examples from the first few weeks of school.

Every year, the kindergartners regularly take what is, and transform it into what might be. This year is no different. The other day two of my girls excitedly exclaimed  “Look, Miss James!!! CAMERAS!”  First they used them — photographing anything that sat still — then they shared them with me.

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In a similar fashion, imagination filled our space with ringing phones. The K architects and builders had to get the building inspector (me) to come inspect their buildings prior to giving tours. Blocks and popsicle sticks were quickly taped together to create phones which rang loudly — often with shouts of “We’re calling you!!!!” — as they tried to get me to come review their building.

Imagination soars as blocks, objects, and ideas, are combined in new ways to create fanciful builds during our social studies work. Stories, even more elaborate than the building  itself, accompany each new structure  — “In order to get in, you have to use sticky shoes, climb up this tower, stand on the top, and LEAP to the balance beam below!”

They use their imagination as they struggle to understand the new, and its connection to the known. At these times they construct theories as to how what is, might have come into being. While playing in our sensory table, one of them said, “Miss James, did you paint this beans to look like cows?!”

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I almost burst out laughing – imagining myself painting each bean. I didn’t though. Instead I affirmed her observation “Wow those DO look like cows. I never thought of that!” Then we looked at the many different types of beans in the bin and marveled that the beans grow this way!

I always tell the Kindergarten parents their children’s imagining is important. It may be entertaining, but, it’s so much more. It’s powerful and valuable, and must be affirmed, encouraged, supported, and grown.

Imagination enables them, and us, to make meaning, understand, explore, investigate, test, and create new ideas and things. Strengthening the skill of imagining –the ability to think, see, conceive of, and believe in, things that are not before us — as well as strengthening our belief in its efficacy, is remarkably important.  It’s meaningful and necessary now, and for the future.

Imagination fuels our creativity. The great scientists and researchers, trying to solve any of the many problems facing us will not succeed without imagination. They must be able to imagine what does not yet exist — new ideas, new combinations, new structures. They have to be able to imagine a world without the problem they seek to solve — no more illness, hunger, loneliness, pollution, war, hatred, to name just a few. And, they have to imagine themselves conceiving of the solution.

While researching a bit for this post, I was thrilled to discover the article by psychologist Lev Semenovich Vygotsky, entitled Imagination and Creativity in Children. He writes:

 

Imagination is not just an idle mental amusement,

not merely an activity without consequences in reality,

but rather a function essential to life.

(Vygotsky, 2004,  p13)

 

RESOURCES:

Vygotsky, L.V. (Jan-Feb 2004). Imagination and Creativity in Children. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, vol. 42, no. 1, January–February 2004, pp. 7–97. Retrieved from http://lchc.ucsd.edu/mca/Mail/xmcamail.2008_03.dir/att-0189/Vygotsky__Imag___Creat_in_Childhood.pdf

 

 

 

Creativity in Unexpected Places

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My students have been cleaning up the building area this week. 

This is what I found when I came back into the room today. Beautiful isn’t it!?!!

With a bit of freedom, growing love for aesthetics, and joy-filled support, even cleaning up can be filled with moments of creativity and beauty.

 

Thinking, photographing, and conversing in the block center

Blocks are a fascinating medium. They provide endless opportunities for exploration, learning, growth and joy. While they have always been a part of our Kindergarten classroom, this year they are an integral part of our curriculum.

Blocks enable the girls to participate in all three domains of learning – cognitive, affective and physical/kinesthetic. The girls engage in mapping and spatial planning, collaborate with each other as they build, negotiate for space and use of blocks, and finally, when finished, conduct tours, as well as answer questions regarding their designs and buildings. The depth of thought and engagement is fantastic!

While building, the girls must think creatively and critically. What will they build? Where will they build? How will they create the various shapes and levels? What if the blocks they want are being used elsewhere, can they create that same block using other blocks? What if their structure is unstable and falls down, how can they re-engineer it for greater stability? Additionally, creative and critical thinking abounds as they furnish their buildings with accessories and special features, and as they create the community of persons who live in, or work in, their buildings.

My absolute favorite part of the process is documenting their work through photographs, and conversing with the girls regarding what I see.

It is incredible what I see, and don’t see, as I look through the camera. And it is fascinating and fabulous what I learn – about the girls, and their buildings – as I ask questions.

  • Can you tell me about your thinking?
  • What is this?
  • How does this work?
  • How did you make that? Is there any other way you could build that?
  • Tell me about this.
  • Hmmm. Could you create a way for …?
  • Why do you think …?
  • Oh wow! How did you decide to do that? How did you decide to do it that way?

Look …

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Do you notice the two people? The builder was hesitant to add people to her structure – although it had a multitude of spaces where people would congregate, play, and live. Finally after a bit of conversation, she added the larger figure. I admired the figure, listened to her explanation, and continued to photograph the other girls. When I looked back, I noticed she had added another person … on top of the first person’s head! I chuckled and said, “Is she standing on his head?” She looked at me as though I knew absolutely nothing and said “No, Miss James, he’s giving her a piggy back ride!” I responded, “OH MY GOSH! Of COURSE!!!! I get it now.” How else would we show that? She continued creating people – some standing on their heads, some on their feet, and stacked them 10 high on the original person’s head. Evidently, the circus was in town and the acrobats were staying at that apartment building!

Now, do you notice the face with blond hair and a crown? The girl added that to her castle when we were talking about adding people. Hmmm, I thought, I wonder what that is? So, I asked. “Hey, A. What is that? A ghost? A head with no body?” As with the other girl, she looked at me like I was a bit silly, chuckled and said, “No, Miss James, it’s the old queen.” I didn’t get it yet. “The old queen?” She continued her explanation, “Yes, a picture of the old queen, on the wall! Look here is one of the old king!” I laughed and said, “Oh! I love it! Pictures of the people who used to be here. Fantastic! Does someone live in the castle now? Will you be adding them to the castle?” She assured me that she would.

Finally, do you notice the doorway (archway) that appears to have two entrances? I loved it as a structure and architectural detail but I was intrigued to know what the girl was thinking when she created it. “M. would you tell me about this?” She launched into a detailed description – complete with a demonstration – regarding the planning, purpose and use of the doors. Evidently there are good and evil people in her realm – of varying sizes. The good people, big and small, can enter the castle using the appropriate opening. But, should an evil person approach the doorway, the single arch magically moves to block their entrance. And, I believe, should they have somehow made it past that safety measure, there was a trap door waiting for them upon entering!

Fabulous, isn’t it? Their ability to imagine is quite remarkable, eye-opening and entertaining. But, had I not engaged them in conversation with open ended questions, I would not have understood the depth of their thinking!