Thursday, January 24, 2013

Playing in the Dark: The Tao of Shadows

"In Chinese philosophy, the concept of used to describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another...Yin and yang are actually complementary, not opposing, forces, interacting to form a whole greater than either separate part...Everything has both yin and yang aspects, (for instance shadow cannot exist without light)...."  --Wikipedia
The Taijitu symbol, which represents this concept or philosophy, shows light and darkness, or white and black, encircling each other, almost like twins in the womb (I lived through this experience), with each element containing a small dot of the other; the elements are inextricable, and Taoist philosophy generally seems to pass no moral judgement on either element, suggesting that each is simply part and parcel of life.

It is easy to see how Taoism might fit in with the mission of a nature center.  Naturalists and teachers here at Dodge spend a lot of time pointing out how inextricable life and death are, how one gives rise to the other in an endless cycle, or circle (there's that Taijitu symbol in actual form).  But what do yin and yang have to do with preschoolers here in the classroom?  Well, I'm extending a metaphor to illuminate curriculum that has recently emerged in the Spruce Room:  shadows.  

We've been "romancing shadows" and "playing in the dark" here in the classroom (my apologies to Toni Morrison).  While our shadow inquiry hasn't been overtly philosophical, the fact that we are learning that shadows are wonderfully complex things begins to allude to the deeper mysteries of life.  Philosophies seem to emerge when humans mull over the more complicated physical mysteries of existence.  Despite Taoism's neutral stance on lightness and darkness, historically, shadows are often scary or mysterious things.  The dark can be inscrutable or unpredictable, especially for young children.  In our American culture (if such a thing can be generalized), shadows also seem to have a bit of tantalizing, nearly delicious danger, like Halloween.  On yet another hand, sometimes, in stories, shadows personify playfulness or trickery (remember Peter Pan?).  Physically, shadows are darkness, the absence of light, and yet they exist because of light.  You can make some shadows, and control some shadows.  Shadows move with objects, or around them.  Some shadows contain light, or color.  

Preschoolers know what shadows are innately, physically.  Preschoolers understand physics through actual, physical experience.  However, putting experience into words, forming hypotheses about something you already know on a certain level is a challenge.  Shadows exist; kids know this innately, but, What is a shadow?  After shining a light at a classmate, one preschooler answered:  "There is no shadows without light!"  The answer was arrived at by discovering the absence, the negative space, if you will, and putting words to the discovery of relationship.  Things are related.  This is a big discovery.

overhead projector in the loft
How did this shadow play begin?  Well, we needed to move some things in our classroom, and we could not find the right spot for our big rectangular light table.  "Stick it up in the loft," we said.  And so we did.  We threw some transparent materials up in the loft, with the light table and attended to the rest of the room.  By and by, kids drifted upstairs to play with the stuff, and they had fun, but it wasn't really grabbing them.  And then my colleague, Joey, who is always reflecting on our classroom materials, and turning possibilities over in her mind, resurrected an old workhorse of ours:  the much out-dated, outmoded but super-fun, overhead projector.  Sure enough, the old projector got the juices flowing.  Kids applied transparencies and objects up above, in the loft "Light Studio," and projected them on to our classroom wall down below.  Classmates came to dance and play in the resulting pictures, or projections.  We added colored papers to the mix, and just like theater gels, kids could use these to alter or set the "stage" down below.  

dancing in the projected light down below
The children dancing in front of the wall, discovered their own shadows.  Hands became puppets.  And then paper became puppets.  And one day, my other co-teacher, Luzia, drew a marvelous dragon on black paper, cut it out, and mounted it on a stick.  The children were ecstatic.  The dragon inspired puppet-making.  Enter Joey, stage right:  "I'm going to go find that old puppet theater " (a wooden folding screen that we had employed to make a giant pinhole camera the year before).  She found it and the puppet theater window was covered with a white sheet and set strategically in the stream of light from the overhead projector.  And just like that, we had a shadow puppet theater!  Luzia fashioned a rabbit, a jaguar and a tree puppet.  At Group Time, she re-told a favorite old Brazilian folk tale, with the new puppets and then...

Luzia tells a Brazilian folk tale with shadow puppets

Hair seemed to light on fire!  Sometimes you can almost actually see a catalyst ignite children.  We had a frenzy of puppet making.  When children discovered they could make puppets for anything they could imagine, any story inside their heads, they set to work as if possessed.  We ran out of materials.  And then children began to write stories for the puppet theater in their journals...

As you may know, here at Dodge, children keep story acting journals in our classrooms.  These journals already function as places to write screenplays, as we act out the stories at Group Time, but now a child writing in her journal can choose to write specifically for the puppet theater.  With a little nudging, we followed the kids' lead and instructed everyone to "write a shadow story."  And they did.  And then they did it in reverse, staging shows that they then dictated into words and pictures in their journals.  Now the animals we are studying show up in journal stories, and puppet shows too.  As they imagine, dictate, write, read, draw, trace, cut, tape and staple, the kids are experimenting with the nature of things, with the physics of light and dark.  At Group, we discuss transparency and what "opaque," means.  We talk about light travelling and bouncing.  And all of these terrific discoveries are being made because the kids just want to play.

behind the scenes in the puppet theater

Play, as Joey, points out, is driving this inquiry.  It is the love of entertaining one another, of delighting in thrilling or funny stories.  It is the competition to direct a show, the control of running the projector or designing the lighting, the excitement of standing up high in the loft and looking down at your creation on the wall, the pride of being in the spotlight on your own, the fun of being in the audience together and the power of seeing your ideas become "real," that drives these kids.  The kids learn through play, as they always do, responding to the presence of new, or familiar, things and people in their environment.  Children are shaped by their entire experience; they have a relationship with the world.  These experiences inform their play and the play itself generates new experiences.  Play and learning are as inextricable as light and shadow.

projecting art and words

The Spruce Room had a request to perform a shadow play for the Willow Room.  So we wrote a story for them.  It is a squirrel story, because we are studying squirrels.  The story features a "dust puddle," because some of us are very fond of vacuum cleaners, and it has a spaceship in it, because, well, space is always cool.  Each child dictated several lines to build the story at Group Time, just as you might have done around the campfire as a kid.  The resulting story is of course hilarious, but we have shaped it into three acts and Joey ran us through our first rehearsal this morning.  There was a bit of a tussle back stage.  One puppet got broken.  There was some arguing.  Some children cannot remember to keep their heads out of the frame, others insist on chatting through the performance, veering from the written plot or abandoning their puppets in the middle of the action.  The staging is rough, to say the least, but when asked, "What did you like about the show?"  They said, "Everything."  And when asked, "Which parts do you think are working?"  They said, "All of them."  We will practice more for our show, and perhaps this will develop some more critical thinking skills, but at the moment, we are enjoying the moment-- the entire moment.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

January & "The Alert, Interior Silence"

Well, here we are:  2013.

How did we get here?
It was such a rush!  So noisy!  So chaotic!
And now it is--take a deep breath--January.  Shhh.  Go to yoga class.  Breathe.  Wake up in the dark.  Go to sleep in the dark.  But enjoy the clear blue sky and the low sunshine and those long purple shadows.  January will take a while.  So will February.  And March...well, let's not talk about March right now, let's enjoy some solitude.

This is a good month to have a bonfire and sit and stare at the flames until the fire dwindles to embers and you move into something beyond cold.  It is a good month to look at the stars when the air feels brittle, to follow animal tracks as far as they go or to build something so big out of snow that you sweat through your parka.

January is a good month to forget about the vacuum cleaner and the pile of laundry for an afternoon or two and just read a very good book, all by yourself.  If you are a grown-up, read, "The Windows of Brimnes," By Bill Holm.  Sadly, as my kids would say, Bill is dead now and I truly wish he wasn't.  I reread "Brimnes" on a plane back from "Out East."  I was leaving my family in Boston, flying toward my family in Minnesota.  In "Brimnes," which is a great meditation on living away from America in the comparative silence of Northern Iceland, Holm writes, "Victory, revenge, money, success, power-- all devour the alert, interior silence that lets us truly see the single snowflake in its tiny flickering of life..."  Holm was a real music lover, and worlds smarter about it than I am, but he also writes, "Real music...cannot exist without silence."  This is a nice metaphor for reflection and understanding the world around us.  So I was leaving Boston, and Boston is a noisy glittering city tech bubble city right now, literally and figuratively awash in oysters and champagne.  I was flying away from the decadent noise of East Coast fast money, heading for the sound of reality:  teaching in Minnesota.

What is the sound of teaching in Minnesota?  Well, I don't hear the rustle of bills, but I do hear other things in my classroom.  I hear the vibrant chaos of a mixed-age group of young kids, I hear the joy and tumult of companionship, and sometimes I hear the value of long silences, of solitude, of January.

The best way to understand what I mean is to read a transcript of a a recent daily e-mail I sent to the families of my afternoon class students.  Every day, at the close of class, one of the classroom teachers composes a summary of the day's events and sends it off to our families electronically.  This summary always includes a copy of "The List" too, which is a daily journal of sorts that we keep with our students by dictating their response to the question, "What did you do today?"  Some days, we don't have quite so much to say in this daily e-mail.  Some days, we have more to say.  And some days, we don't have to say much, because the kids say it in their very own words.  1/7/13 was such a day:

Spruce Room M/PM  1/7/13
Happy New Year and Welcome Back!

We missed you (and still miss those that weren’t with us today).  And thank you, once again, for those wonderful “Happy Holidays,” thoughts and generous tokens of appreciation; you overwhelmed us with your generosity.

We began outside, and, you know, because it was so very balmy, we stayed outside for quite some time.  We hiked through the Spruce Forest, to look for owls (we’ve found tons of interesting mini bird poo under the trees and in the branches—plus a few little owl pellets so we are hoping to make an owl sighting soon).  Alas, we didn’t get lucky in the forest today, but we had a lot of fun stopping at our old stomping ground, “The Mammoth Tusk,” dig sight (aka, upturned tree).  Kids scaled the root system and balanced on a multitude of fallen trunks for a very long time.  Their feats of daring do amazed us.  Everyone was clearly energized by being back together. 

After a time, half of the group mosied over to the prairie to check our other owl scat sight in an overgrown cedar and juniper clump.  More scat there, so keep your fingers crossed!  We also found at least 10 deer beds, deer poop and pee and followed a deer trail back across our own trail.  We eventually rejoined with the rest of the group and meandered back to school through the marsh, where we spied many mouse holes and tunnels through the snow.  The light was beautiful and low, the shadows long and blue.  It was a truly lovely afternoon.

Back at school we had a asetic’s snack of saltines and juice (our grocery order arrives tomorrow).  We had a enough time for a fun, and an unexpectedly poignant Group Time:

We began practicing a “fox pose,” doing some breathing and a little movement.  We then passed the Talking Rock, sharing what we were up to over the break.  I followed up with the book, “Fox’s Dream,” by Tejima.  This is a wonderful book, if you don’t know it, please borrow our copy or find it at the library.  The wood block art is beautiful and the writing is great.  So great, in fact, that it inspired your students to a fairly extended meditation on family connections, life and death.  In short, the story follows the fox through the winter woods, where he has time on his own, in solitude to hunt and to consider unexpected beauty all by himself.  What he encounters in the woods, on his own, inspires memories of his own childhood, with his mother and siblings.  Back in the present, he continues along in solitude and as morning breaks, he comes across another fox.   The story arrives at this “happy ending” very quietly, and the fox's time alone weighs just as much, and is just as positive as the prospect of companionship-- I think, anyway.  And this all struck a big chord with the kids.  Here are some of the things we heard, right in the middle of the book:

“He doesn’t live with his mother anymore”
“But you can visit your parents anytime you want, when you grow up”
“You have your own kids”
“And they have kids”
“You visit them”
“Your parents get old”
“They don’t live forever”
“They die someday”
“We’ll die someday”
“We eat healthy so we won’t die too soon”
“We can live a long time if we eat healthy”
“But you shouldn’t eat too much”
“So you don’t die too soon”
“We’re going to grow up”
“That’s the way it all works”

I don’t know how your afternoon was, but ours was pretty important. 

You know, I visited with my brother out in Boston, over the break.  He is a computer systems analyst (not sure if I have that title right) and he makes a lot of money.  Necessary work, to be sure.  We don’t make a lot of money, to be frank, but look at what we get to do for a living.

The List:
-had so much fun outside
-found deer beds
-played Gymnastics
-walked on ice
-saw deer pee
-saw deer poop
-saw owl poop
-ate snow
-climbed the big tree
-poke in my eye
-played Godzilla
-Harper came to school
-saw geese

All the best,
Amanda, Luzia & Marlais

So, It's January.  If you are a grown-up, read, "Brimnes."  And if you are a kid, or a grown-up, read, "Fox's Dream."  I dare say that Holm and Tejima have something in common:  the understanding that there is beauty in the balance between companionship and solitude, between summer and winter, life and death, happiness and sorrow and we honor ourselves and our children if we remember to seek out solitude for ourselves, and to encourage our children to find it too, once an awhile.  The world is a beautiful, hectic mess, but on a still day in January, you can see a single snowflake fall from a branch, glittering in the sun.