Google+ bakers and astronauts: 01.09

27 January 2009

Forest Project : Culmination

After work began on the trees in the classroom, we spent two weeks buzzing with energy about our classroom forest. Trees went up onto the walls around the room, and our apple tree hung right in the middle. Because of its delicate nature (it was made of paper, after all), we made sure everyone who came along knew not to touch.

Using small groups of children, we set off to create the other major components of the forest that the children had decided to make: the pond, the train, and the secret playground. Mud and trees were incorporated into all of the areas, because we see those all over the forest.

It was decided that we should be able to go into the pond; and paper is too delicate and would rip. We talked about what our clothes are made out of, and how strong it is. The children decided to use fabric and paint it the colors they saw in the pond: green, blue, and brown.

The finished pond included cattails along the banks (which were originally referred to as sausages).

The train is an important feature in our forest; commuter trains zoom through the forest every 10 to 15 minutes. It was natural to draw it on long paper, and to place it up above our heads. We walk through a tunnel to get to the secret playground, and the train runs over that tunnel, so the children decided it would be way up high, and close to the playground.

The trees were places all over the classroom, and the branches made the forest pop out of the walls. While hanging the trees in places designated by the children, they also decided to give the trees a three dimentional effect. By the end, trees were all over the walls, and the branches were attached to the walls and then out to the ceiling.

As we were constructing the forest from our "What Should Be In Our Classroom Forest" list, one girl asked about the mud. Where will the mud be? How shall we make it? The first idea was to use the mud in the sensory table. We could get in the table and then walk around on the floor! This was a moment when we had to have the children brainstorm a little longer. The children talked about the color of mud, and how we had made the pond out of fabric and paint. The idea of using a shoe dipped in brown paint and printed onto a piece of fabric became the vision.

It was executed using one of my wellies. This was one morning when parents were quite intrigued by the set-up at the art table. A few parents complimented me on my creativity, and I had to say that it is their children who have the best ideas, not me.

The final planned component was the secret playground, which is a playground in the Sonian Forest. It was decided that instead of drawing or painting it, like we had done for many of the other parts of the forest, it would be built from blocks, and the structures would stay up for a few days. The planning process included a lot of drawing and looking at photographs. Then I worked with a small group of children to tape off where the different parts of the playground would be on the ground in the block area. It was an interesting experience to talk about the birds' eye view that we were taking on the playground, and they children were not totally prepared for that understanding. But in the end, spaces were planned.

The next day during choice time, children chose to go to the block area and work on different parts, including the airplane, the slide, and the picnic tables where we eat our snack. Children gathered blocks from all around our classroom and we borrowed from other classrooms as well, so a few kinds were used.

At this point, the classroom forest as it was planned was finished. But some unexpected weather put a twist on our plans.

We got a light dusting of snow in December, and making snowflakes became all the rage. They were taped to the windows, and as we began to run out of space, we began getting requests to hang the snowflakes. I spent at least thirty minutes one day standing on a table with a roll of tape, with a steady stream of children bringing me snowflakes and yarn to hang from the ceiling. Just like that, it began snowing in our forest.

With just a few days left until our winter holiday break, and since we were in a place that felt like a conclusion, we decided to celebrate the hard work in the classroom. The children had been talking about wanting to show the forest to their former nursery teachers, and to their friends in the other preschool class. This soon evolved into siblings, and siblings' teachers; so we had invitations to make! Every class in the Early Childhood Center was invited; and every class that had a sibling of a child in our class was invited. We came in on the final day of the first semester and got everything ready: the secret playground got a few more details, the pond was straightened, and the snowfall got heavier with a few last minute snowflakes.

The children were excellent tour guides, and our guests loved the forest. Many of the older children knew about some of the different locations we had made and recognized them before the preschoolers even said a word -- and that made them so proud. Sharing the work with others really brought the project together, because the children showed their expertise.

Here is a video tour of the classroom forest:

Throughout the course of this project, everyone was a writer, a mathematician, an artist, a hiker, a cartographer, a biologist, a researcher, and a member of an amazing think tank. Although we took down our trees and put the blocks back on the shelf, this topic is bound to resurface in some form. We have not been in the forest as much as I would prefer, but we'll be back in soon. In just a few short months, the forest floor will be covered in bluebells, and we just might have to show our appreciation for that in our classroom. We'll see what emerges!

08 January 2009

Forest Project : Hands-on work in the classroom

Something that used to confuse me about the using projects was what happens after the field work. You can go on a field trip, have an expert come in to talk to the children about a topic and answer questions -- that part is easy to understand. But what next? How are we supposed to keep them excited after that?

The answers have become much clearer through this particular project for me. I'd like to sum it up with the word creativity, but that would have frustrated me before now. So some tips... If you think it might work, try it. If a child suggests something, try it. If you can't think of anything, talk to a colleague...they probably have an idea to extend the experiences in the classroom. I used to think that if no one was interested in materials I had presented in a certain area, the project was over.

One idea came from a child one afternoon in the forest. He suggested that we gather some mud and bring it back to the classroom. It was in our sensory table for a week, for the children to experiment with. Many of them found it interesting that it "turned into dirt" after being in a dry classroom for a few days.
The interest in bats that was sparked by our bat house tours continued in the classroom. We checked non-fiction books about bats out of the library and used computers to find videos about bats. One amazing resource was a video we came across that shows a bat using echolocation to find a moth in the dark. Another wonderful resource was Gail Gibbons' book Bats. The second time we drew bats together, many children added her visual interpretation of a bat using echolocation.
We were creating so many bats of our own in the classroom, that the next move was very natural. The children began hanging the bats on the walls of the classroom. Through conversations with the whole class and with small groups of children, they talked about creating a forest in the classroom. The idea began as changing the dramatic play area into a forest with bats, but it soon evolved into plans to transform the entire classroom because of what they wanted in the classroom forest. Every plant was mentioned, from cattails to trees; many animals and insects were listed as well. But the big work came with the different areas of the forest they wanted to include: the secret playground, the pond, the train, the mud, and the trees. These are all distinct areas of the forest for this group of children, and all were equally important to create.

We began with trees, because everyone agreed that the trees are everywhere, and we needed to make a lot of them. We measured from floor to ceiling and got paper that would create trees that big. Then we drew the trees and painted them in small groups.

The first tree was the most exciting, with everyone contributing a stroke or two. The children that drew it decided it was an apple tree, and later on it came to represent the apple orchard in the classroom.
When we trimmed the sides of the large paper we drew the trees on, the long, skinny strips were quickly gathered up by a small group of children and they decided that those would be the branches. The branches were colored, and they began to stray from the browns and grays and blacks that were used on the tree trunks -- our forest took a colorful turn at this point!

I promise to be back (in less than three weeks!) with how our forest project culminated, including our finished classroom forest.

Forest Project: Field Work

The field work component of a project is so important to its success. Our topic gave us the opportunity to have experiences outside the classroom as much as we liked because the Sonian Forest was right outside of our door.

Throughout the fall, we went to the forest every Thursday morning for one and a half hours. In November, I began taking the children out two additional times each week in small groups for one hour. After an initial period of exploring the different places we could go, we began to stop each time to do observational drawings. The children drew what they saw in their journals using black felt tip pens.

Because we were able to go to a pond, an apple orchard, a playground, a beaver dam, and mud puddles all of the time, the topics were always fresh and exciting.

As interest veered towards bats, we called in an expert: an outdoor education teacher on campus. She took us through the forest one Wednesday and showed us all of the bat houses that had been installed be older students, as bats are an endangered species in Brussels. We were able to use her binoculars to look up at birds' nests as well.

There was a portion of the path that was always muddy, and the children definitely became interested in mud, especially the noises our shoes make in it.

Our forest adventures were well documented with photos, drawings, and video. The children saw all of that documentation, which helped keep them connected to the topic on all of those days when going to the forest was not possible. This also allowed us to make a smooth transition to our hands-on work in the classroom.

I'll be back soon with details about the hands-on work we did in the classroom, and then with how we celebrated our work and finished our project.

05 January 2009

Today was our first day back from a long, restful holiday. There are two inches of snow in Brussels and it continues to fall. This is an easy transition back to teaching - there were only eight children in class today.

I hope you are continuing to visit, despite my lack of posting over the past three weeks. Now that I am physically teaching, there is a little more inspiration.

I'd like to share a quote that I wrote down before the holiday - a child asked me to draw a princess for her. I said that her drawings were her job, not mine. And another child turned and said, referring to me, "Yeah, her job is to take us on walks and to take photographs."

I'm thrilled with that description.
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