Looking closely

In addition to questions related to documentation, the SDSU group came to Opal interested in learning more about how to help children create detailed observational drawings. It was spectacular happenstance, then, that some of the visitors and I came across Mary Gage working with a small group of students in Opal 1. We walked out of Opal 1 thrilled: We had witnessed a master class on just the issue we were hoping to come across.

O cooper's hawkLook with all your eyes, look.  

I had the good fortune of spending Thursday and Friday with a study group visiting Opal School from the Fishback Center for Early Childhood Education at South Dakota State University. Our time together was spent observing in classrooms, discussing what we saw and connecting it to their context, and investigating documentation processes and panels.  It also led me to reflect on a conversation I had with our colleagues in the Ashoka Changemaker Schools network who were exploring ways we might use LessonCast to extend attention to empathy in all schools.

In addition to questions related to documentation, the SDSU group came to Opal interested in learning more about how to help children create detailed observational drawings.  It was spectacular happenstance, then, that some of the visitors and I came across Mary Gage working with a small group of students in Opal 1. We walked out of Opal 1 thrilled: We had witnessed a master class on just the issue we were hoping to come across.  

MG line drawing

When I wrote to Mary Gage following the session, she dismissed the interaction as something that she hadn't given a lot of thought to.  So for both Mary Gage and any other readers of this blog, I'll share a quick list of some of the essential characteristics that we observed from outside the circle:

  1. The experience was connected to broader meaning.  This group of children were drawing pictures based on photographs of birds. The topic led from a previous encounter of wonder and amazement when the group came across a hawk in the meadow and watched it for an extended period. The group's longtime interest in birds intensified, and the teachers decided to hook into birds as part of the class' investigation of our relationship to the natural world.
  2. The experience was supported by aesthetic presentation. When children arrived to the table, the photographs were set up on stands. Each student's drawing space was prepared with a large sheet defining the space, a fine point pen, and a small sheet of heavy bond paper to draw on. When a student finished his drawing and was ready to leave the table, Mary Gage involved him in considering this dimension, asking him what he could do to leave the space in a way that would be inviting to the next artist who came to the table.
  3. Mary Gage brought herself fully to the table as a co-learner.  She drew next to the children and talked about what she noticed as she was doing so.  She made visible both her drawing experiments and her documentation notes with the other learners at the table.
  4. Relationships and trust pervaded every aspect of the interactions. We watched as Mary Gage sat with one student, nurturing his attention to details with a steady stream of questions guiding each step.  What do you notice about the shape of the head?  How would you describe the texture of the feathers?  When a child across the table showed frustration, Mary Gage looked at him with a big smile on her face.  "Isn't it frustrating when your drawing doesn't look just like the photo?" He replied in equally good humor, having had his experience affirmed, and returned to his efforts. Ten minutes later, when he was frustrated again, Mary Gage responded by encouraging him to pick just one part of the drawing to focus on: the part of the animal that was most interesting to him.  As the children were wrapping up the experience, she encouraged the children to turn to each other and discuss what they drew – and how they might extend the drawings. Throughout, it was the children making the core decisions regarding their work.

An approach based in these connections doesn't lend itself to banks of lesson plans.  It is a pedagogy of listening and relationships, one of decision making based on values and beliefs rather than prescribed sequencing. It is one which relies on principled storytelling, inquiry and reflection to change practice.

What have you looked closely at lately?  

How have you shared it with others to stimulate their growth?

3 Comments

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  • After I posted this, Mary Gage sent me the following email, clarifying her process:
    Just read the blog post (thanks for capturing that moment and reflecting on it). I wanted to clarify that I didn’t mean I hadn’t given thought to it, I meant that I didn’t feel like I knew exactly what to do going into it. I came in with a lot of possibilities in my mind (and talked with my own children and Lauren too about observational drawing) but it felt new to me working with observational drawing with this group of children (their age, their interest and how they might respond to a challenge that felt really hard with a person who they don’t know as well as their own teacher). More than anything in the moment it was rapid fire- trying something, reflecting and responding. I honestly didn’t know how O would respond but I wondered if I kept it playful and helped him feel connected would his interest move him beyond any frustration. I knew he came in wildly interested in birds- was hoping the relationship would be my hook. I really just wanted to help P slow down and notice, to begin building that relationship with the bird. You may have also noticed that I let S get really frustrated, tear his paper and leave the group- I didn’t follow him.

    So, it wasn’t that I wasn’t thinking much about it, it was more like I came in not feeling like an “expert” by any means. In the end this probably requires more thinking than if I had.

    Matt Karlsen Reply
  • I have come across this blog at the right time for me. I don’t have peers familiar with Reggio, which has been a strong influence in my teaching for many, many years. When I read the teacher observations of Meg working with children who were drawing by representation I thought I had magically relived my own experiences doing the same with preschoolers. The conversation could have, (has) come from my mouth verbatim! I share this observation to tell you how your experience with drawing told here, has helped me realize that I have been on the right tract. I should not quit due to my sense of isolation and lack of self confidence. I am actually on the right road! Sharing this story on this blog has been so reassuring to my self confidence in teaching. Thank you!

    Sue Stone Reply
  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Sue. One of the goals of this blog – and the Opal School workshops – and Opal School, for that matter – is to fight that isolation through connecting with each other to deepen our understanding. I’m glad this post came at the right time for you!

    Matt Karlsen Reply

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