Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Saturday, May 5, 2012
We lately dedicated a full two week's school time to presenting The Story of Jumping Mouse as a musical. Children from the nearby Central Branch Preschool attended our performance during the day of May 3rd; that evening, we played to a parent and friends audience. The tale is originally from the indigenous peoples of the American plains. Retold and illustrated by John Steptoe, it received a Caldecott Honor Award in 1972. We were fortunate to have Ellen Cooper and Joseph Seserko, the writer and composer, respectively, in our evening attendance. (They co-direct, Anything is Possible, a Seattle based theater school for children.)
The tale tells of a little mouse who hears of the "far off lands" and wishes to go there. Although she is a creature of the prairie, she ventures to other geographic regions and encounters animals of the forest, desert and mountain. The North Room, under Eileen's guidance, learned the technical term for a region when living specimens are incorporated into the environment: a biome. The children were divided into research groups and presented their learnings about the areas first by painting a mural of each, and later creating a group diorama to showcase their knowledge in a three dimensional manner. The diorama included not only collage materials, but clay creatures, as well. Alongside of these, each child put his learning into writing and illustration as he created a book about the specific animal he researched.
I mention all of the above to give a context to what I am going to say next. After the success of the performance the night before--and it was a truly successful evening for all of us; we could not have felt happier with each child's achievement and with the wonderful audience response--I found myself the next morning seeing a clear example in the work that the North Room was engaged in of what we mean by a child-centered curriculum. One never knows what day will hold that most meaningful moment that is so elusive to capture and yet represents what we work all the time to achieve: the perfect blending of content with the child's own purposes when the teacher is able to take hold of that possibility, recognize its meaning, and translate it to others. It may not be noticed so readily by the outside observer, and it stands in contrast to the teacher directed show that the children participated so happily in just the night before, but what happened that next morning was the children's own. Because we were moving the Big Blocks downstairs in the afternoon to free classroom space for new pursuits, Eileen decided to have her children build that morning with the blocks one last time. She gave them the task of working again in their biome groups; but now they were going to make a museum and present an exhibit to adults in the building and the children in the kindergarten.
Each visitor to the exhibit was given a slip of paper to take to the four regions. Upon learning of each area, the museum-goer received a stamp to show that she had participated. The presenters were the children who had created the dioramas and the books; each one became even more knowledgeable about his particular area as he was asked to comment about it and to read his own book many times. Because the children were creating a museum, and not just presenting in a staid fashion in front of the class, active "learning by doing" was taking place. Drama was involved, the kind of drama that comes when children are recreating the real world and are reinvesting it with real meaning. Intellectual content was being reviewed; skills at public speaking and presenting were being practiced. Younger children came away with the sense of having had a special moment in their school year--a museum right here at school. I came away wanting to write about the experience for me as a teacher; the organic nature of the moment re-taught me what I most believe in. I was witness to it; that particular transcending classroom experience reminded me of why we go to school together, children, yes, and teachers, too.