I have had the pleasure of visiting some really wonderful schools over the past ten years. A study tour in Reggio Emilia, the Secret Garden Outdoor Nursery in Scotland, and Opal School in Portland, to name a few. I got to add another school to that list last week.
I love visiting schools, but perhaps not for the traditional reasons. I love seeing physical spaces and documentation of thinking and learning , but more than that, I love to see a school’s individual culture. Every school I have worked at has been unique, and every school I have seen has been unique. If they were not, there would be no reason to go to more than one school. Being at Sabot at Stony Point last week and interacting with the teachers there gave me a wonderful sense of what students, families, and faculty experience there on a daily basis.
Sabot at Stony Point is a Preschool through Grade 8 independent school in Richmond, Virginia. My main interest in visiting was the preschool, of course – a Reggio Inspired program. It has helped inform the curricular planning of the lower (K-5) and Middle (6-8) school as the school has grown, and touring classrooms for older children who have the time and space for inquiry based education was definitely interesting. Because it is a private school, families who enroll their children in those older grades are passionate about the way that children are taught. I have been in touch with Anna Golden, the Atelierista at Sabot, for some time now; I imagine that some of you read her wonderful blog.
What struck me most about Sabot was the thoughtfulness of the teachers. They truly live the philosophy that teachers are co-constructors of learning along with students, with an incredible amount of trust for children’s ideas, theories, and interests. Andrea Perotti, a third grade teacher-researcher, spoke with the visiting group about a shadow project that her class embarked on a few years ago, and she said something that I plan to post on wall by my desk: “Children need our life experience, and we need their fresh ideas.” The patience of these teachers to listen to children, to understand how to nurture inquiry – those are the things that make inquiry-based programs work. I have spent a lot of time too far away as a teacher, not finding the thread of inquiry because I was too timid to even suggest an idea to children.
Here is a misconception about emergent curriculum: when we see children engaged with a certain idea (trucks, play dough, cats), that is the topic. I cannot count how many times I have gone down a road because of something I observed in dramatic play, only to be frustrated at the end of the week, when no one said anything meaningful in a conversation or interacted with the invitation to explore the topic more deeply. Through experience, I have a better idea of what it means to find the umbrella concept instead of the very concrete "thing" that I see, but my thinking was pushed even further at Sabot.
I’ll paraphrase Andrea again (who is working on a piece for Innovations with Lella Gandini, by the way): We have hopes for children, and as adults, guiding children towards more tangible options (rather than the flashy ones) means that children can truly be hands-on and test out their ideas. She used the example of the children’s interest in volcanoes when it came time to learn about a science thread on “how does the earth change”. She was honest with these eight- and nine-year-olds: that would be a lot of time looking at books and making models – there is not a local volcano. I agree with Andrea – we can help guide children towards the tangible option, the one where they get to truly solve puzzles and problems.
If we want to inquire with young children, we have to think about the tangible and the flashy. That time when you see a spark in the group, and you have introduced an idea to deepen children’s thinking: that is the hardest part of emergent curriculum. I’ll be stepping into that uncomfortable place next week as we move forward with a theory at school. Right now, there is what I would call a “traditional” preschool interest emerging amongst the three-year-olds – they enjoy using vehicles, and looking at books about machines and vehicles. So, what will make that spark into a flame? Is it motion? Things with wheels? Moving the earth? Speed and trajectory? Size and scale? Vehicles are a bit flashy, and I want to spend time over the next few weeks watching and listening and offering, looking for the tangible. I am always wary of topics like construction vehicles and animals because it is starting from such a concrete place, when what we are really looking for is the underlying idea that children are exploring.
Meeting wonderful teachers always gets me excited about getting back to the classroom afterwards. I had a conversation with some of the Kindergarten staff in their studio, talking about the kind of school that Sabot is. They acknowledge that it is not for everyone. One of the teachers spoke about a parent whose main goal for their child was for them to have a good time. I have been thinking about that a lot this last year, and I agree with the teachers that sweeping things under the rug or solving problems for children does not teach them what the world is really like. Good things happen, bad things happen; some things will affect us personally, some will not. But when we co-construct the world with children, there are far more opportunities for understanding. Think about the things that you understand well and can really, truly explain. How did you learn those things so deeply? Can you pinpoint some of the learning experiences for yourself, and why you were engaged in learning? It is easy to forget facts when we have just memorized for the sake of memorizing, but when you get to touch it, hold it, poke at it, ask a question, make a hypothesis, be proven wrong, ask another question – these are the things that we remember.
One of the preschool educators at Sabot told me about a group of children who are trying to solve a problem at the overhead projector: when they put a small paper with a drawing on it on the projector, the picture does not show on the wall – it is a dark square. This is an opportunity for inquiry and problem solving, and it has been engaging this group of boys as they test out theories, and the teacher supports them with material that they request and questions and statements to help them expand their thinking. As I listened to this teacher share the documentation on this emerging thread, I wanted to mention that it seemed like they are getting close to knowing that if the picture is printed on transparency, they will be able to see it. But I stopped. Why do I assume that is the end goal? They get to solve the problem – I have some life experience, but my answer might not be their answer. I can think of a dozen times in the past month when I have not waited, not supported, not stepped back and said “Hmm. That is interesting! What do you think you can do?”
The best professional development does not leave you with a photocopy of key points and specific activities to do when you return to your classroom. It makes you crave reflection and dialogue. I spent hours that evening after being at Sabot looking at my notebook and my photographs, thinking about the link between my beliefs, values, and philosophy in light of the work at Sabot. The act of visiting a wonderful school requires that you synthesize information - you don't get to read it in a book or see an activity broken down. I know that I will return to Sabot one day, and I am already starting to daydream about the other schools I will visit.
If you are interested in learning more about Sabot at Stony Point, I suggest making a cup of tea, heading to their website, and looking at the "Blog Central" links on the bottom right sidebar. The thinking of the children and the teachers is thoughtful, inspiring, and very visible. You can also find opportunities to visit Sabot, which I couldn't recommend more. Thank you to all of the wonderful educators, administrators, families, and children for sharing your learning so openly with others.