Dialogue at Opal School and Beyond

I experienced my second Opal School Summer Symposium at the end of June - an experience that produced 20 pages of notes, photographs of inspiring environments, a reading list that might last me until the next symposium, new relationships, and deeper existing connections.  

The symposium is a unique experience: in my visits, I have looked at my teaching, and education in general, on a bigger scale, while simultaneously developing an understanding of how that plays out on a daily, weekly, and yearly level with children.  

My Opal School experience did not change my mind about my work, but it helped me find a way to articulate it, to move forward.  This is a place where I am consistently stuck.  Without other people to bounce ideas off of, to reflect with, I feel limited.  Getting out of the Play Lab studio and connecting with other people is something I crave - just as I did when I was a classroom teacher, eager to see other schools and meet other teachers.  I went to the symposium to listen, and to talk about children’s voices; I left with an understanding of where I can help amplify children’s voices even more: through dialogue.

 

Dialogue as a Big Idea //

Dialogue is an interaction with the world: with one thing or many things, with people or with objects or materials.  We can have dialogue with ourselves, with food, with places.  Listening to that dialogue can be challenging.  Acting on that dialogue in a way that moves us forward?  That is intimidating.  

The teachers at Opal School told stories of children’s explorations and dialogue around big ideas: dialogue with cardboard, clay, democracy, hate, power, story characters, the city of Portland - and each other.  There are projects and topics, but the underlying message is the people and the world they share.  The way we frame and create environments for children is important, of course, but the real work is in the community - and dialogue affords us the opportunity to build those relationships.

 

In Context //

The week after the symposium, I taught a one-week summer camp called Playful Textiles.  I planned for the camp and chose the materials and the projects before heading to Portland for the Opal School Symposium - and when I returned on Sunday evening, I looked at my plans and wondered who wrote them.  Who decided to do closed-ended projects everyday?  Who left no room for exploration, for children’s ideas?  Oh, that was me, in a mentality clouded by parent expectations for products, and what I perceived as limited time (10 hours total) with 6-10 year olds I had not worked with before .

Here’s what I know now: Just because it is a sewing class does not mean that all of the learning to be centered around sewing.  Sewing is a vehicle for a community experience, just like a math class, a birthday party, an overnight summer camp - can be.  We can’t ignore the possibility of the impact of a group dynamic on learning.  This is what I believe about Play Lab installations:  its not about the cardboard or the tape or the clay.  It is planning for playful interaction - yes, with materials, but also with space and people.  The experience of picking play dough out of the grass underneath a table with another 4-year-old is something new, something memorable - and I cannot plan for that.  What the learning looks like cannot be dictated.

And maybe that is why I am not, by most standards, a great sewing teacher.  These kids didn’t learn about seams or grain lines or what different stitches are called because of a carefully planned lesson.  They learned some new skills and some new terms that they will definitely be able to apply to their future sewing; or perhaps their curiosity around making things has been piqued.  There was some playful exploration of materials, but there could have been more:  I feel a certain pressure for children to create concrete, take-home products from these series classes, and that is something that is asking for some personal reflection.  There was not one way to make a pillow - children chose their fabrics from the store, along with accessories, creating their own design and plan.  But, everyone made a pillow.  One adult with seven children does not exactly afford super individualized projects.  But there is that attitude again: I could have planned for more open-ended, engaging explorations, a dialogue with the materials that are common to the practice of sewing.  My planning was lacking in imagination and in openness.  The kids had a fantastic week, and I did too.  But I am also feeling like my understanding of framing explorations of ideas with children has been blown wide open.

Sewing Camp is not necessarily about becoming an expert.  It is about gaining new skills in a playful, exploratory way that, hopefully, sparks your interest in continuing to sew and make things.  Your blanket stitch will come in handy when (read: IF) other adults in your life don’t get overpowering when you just want to tinker around with sewing.  Our attitudes about right and wrong are an enormous influence on children - and if a five year old isn’t mastering the blanket stitch, I can’t get frustrated - I need to meet her where she is.  I think we can appreciate having space for dialogue with different things in our lives, getting to know new people, places, and ideas.  

 

Playful Textiles // Documentation

In dialogue with materials, looking at properties and the shapes they might offer a sun print.

In dialogue with materials, looking at properties and the shapes they might offer a sun print.

Loose Parts + Sun Prints

Loose Parts + Sun Prints

Planning pillows in our sketchbooks

Planning pillows in our sketchbooks

A self planned and executed pillow project.

A self planned and executed pillow project.