Book Review: The Baron in the Trees

To date, all of my book reviews on this site have been related to books on education. Which, if you think about it, is really kind of silly. Am I suggesting that non-fiction books about teaching and learning are the only books which can inspire teaching and learning? Of course not. Literature has been inspiring people from all walks of life for centuries.

Italo Calvino is my favorite author. His writing is magical, challenging, imaginative, and infused with an unmistakable love of the natural world.
Once upon a time, somewhere between the innocence of childhood and the pluck of the bold rebel, a young Italian nobleman called Cosimo exercised his right to dissent after twelve long years of abiding by the inherent societal norms of his aristocratic title and refused to eat beheaded snails defying parental authority. In order to avoid the wrath of his authoritarian father, Cosimo climbed to the top of an enormous holm oak situated in the garden of the family estate and promised to never touch the ground again for the rest of his life. 
It made me wonder about those kids we have all met, the ones who seem like they don't belong, the non-conformists, the ones who see a power structure and challenge it. Normally, the reigning powers that be will halt the behavior, remediate it, attempt to "cure" the individual of their rebellious ways. Like the 18th century aristocracy tried to do to Cosimo. Except he didn't let them. What at first seemed like a childish game from an impudent child, turned into a remarkable life. Cosimo ended up not being the rebel on the outside, but rather a hero to many.

What if we allowed our children to rebel? Do students need a safe place to act out against a society which they might not fully comprehend? How can we provide opportunities for them to challenge the status quo?

It is not as simple as it sounds.

Often, we worry that our children will be left on the outside, isolated and alone, with ideals that don't match the rest of the world around them. I worry about it as a father. I want my son to think for himself, look at the world critically, and carve his own path. Yet, I worry that by doing so he will be too different from others. I want him to challenge power structures, but I also want him to be happy. To live life and enjoy it.

Cosimo stuck to his ideals. Life was not always easy for him. He struggled with depression and lacked certain human traits that we value. But, he possessed other things that we value as well. He was inventive, adaptive, curious. He saw the world like no one else did. From up on the trees, everything looked different, time moved in strange ways, and the patterns of the world were all around him. He was in tune with the forest.

Yet, he could not leave it. He could explore beyond where the line of trees stopped. He could only stare wistfully at the sea and wonder. His choice benefited him, but it also constrained him. Limited his choices and options. He spend his whole life living within those confines, but he never regretted it.

I see the same with learning. We cannot focus on everything, learn all there is to learn. By choosing to focus on one, we forfeit another. Our choices as teachers and learners enable us, but they also constrain us. Like Cosimo, we need to be aware of why we are constraining ourselves, why we are focusing on this, instead of that. And we need to be more in tune with what is enabled by our choices, and how they are going to guide our teaching and learning.


Simple models, please.

Our students are actively using inquiry cycles, reflecting on what it means to inquire. Each year uses a different model (that may vary from unit to unit). We are focusing on making it Visible.

Students are encouraged to reflect on and consider the process. What is the difference between Wonder and Explore? Why is Reflect in the middle? What do you think we are doing right now? What makes you say that?

We have simplified the cycle.

with REFLECT in the middle

There is no order, no flow, no directionality. Inquiry is not simple and does not happen at the same time, in the same way. We have found the model needs to be simple in order to investigate the complexity.

In EYP, our youngest students, the cycle is even more simplified.

Inquiries may take weeks. Or months. Or a whole day. Or they may be over in a matter of minutes (or even less!). Our job is to look for those inquiries, document them, encourage discourse, and then allow fresh ones to arise. 

Book Review: The Hundred Languages of Children

I could go on and on about this book. It is so very inspiring. Instead of writing until I am bleary eyed, I will focus on one aspect, one which is resonates closely to me. I have been calling it "Emergent Curriculum" for years, but the author of this book (the book is actually a series of articles) calls it by a different name. It encapsulates the idea of "Emergent Curriculum" much more succinctly. As an Early Years educator, it is a philosophy that guides my work. I highly recommend this book, not only for those of interested in Reggio, but for all teachers, at all levels.

Negotiated Learning.
The curriculum is child-originated and teacher framed. The children, through their natural curiosity and enthusiasm, bring up issues and ideas from their personal realm of understanding, and the teacher reframes those ideas into more achievable and contextual academic goals. This is done through three components; design, discourse, and documentation.

Design. Children and teachers are encouraged to design their thinking and ideas by making records or plans. This addition to the natural play asks the child to take their mental ideas and make them symbolic for an audience. This may look like a drawing, a clay figure, a photograph, or other media. The designer (child or adult) must be aware that their design is going to be read and interpreted by someone else, so readability must be considered.

Discourse. This is more than talking, it reflects the constant struggle to understand others and their varying perspectives and shifts of viewpoints. Learning happens best when we approach an idea or belief with an open-mind and evaluate our assumptions and let them grow and expand. The teacher or the child may provide points of discourse.

Documentation. This refers to an artefact that helps others understand the behavior or thought recorded. The most important aspect of documentation is that it includes an interpretation or description. These interpretations are evaluated and reevaluated by children, teachers, and parents, and act as a focal point of future discourse and learning engagements.

An Example. The children ask a question. They discuss their theories (discourse) and create a drawing (design) that explains their theory to others. The drawing are the interpreted by the teacher and parents (documentation) and this leads to further questions (discourse) to help them grow their understanding of the idea. The children take the new questions and wonder (discourse) and then revisit their previous drawings and re-evaluate them (design). The teacher records the process (documentation) and reflects (discourse) on how the children have grown and changed.

When it all starts to fit together...

It used to be a unit about homes. Now, it is a unit about how living things adapt to different environments.

It used to be a unit about ancient civilizations. Now, it is a unit about how evidence is used to analyze the past.

It used to be a unit about plants. Now, it is a unit about how matter changes over time.

The students will still learn about homes. They will still investigate ancient civilizations. They will continue to look thoughtfully at plants.

But they will be learning so much more.


A problem with worksheets...

... (no matter how well intentioned or well worded or well designed or carefully constructed) is that it is an isolated entity, an artefact that a student will encounter only once in their life. It is not recursive, it is focused only on the now, and the what (topic). It is a small piece of time, a sliver of knowledge, captured at one point. It is not something a student will carry with them beyond their schooling days.

A Visible Thinking strategy on the other hand, is more.

It is a tool for thinking.

It is a structure for focusing our thoughts and being aware of them.

It is a behavior that our students will use.