The courage to make a fresh start

Published by Lori Pickert on January 1, 2009 at 04:06 PM

When I was running my Reggio-inspired school, our classroom for children age 3 through 5 was enormous, with its own huge art studio, a stage with musical instruments and costumes, two dramatic play areas, science area with microscope and other tools, reading lofts, huge block area, etc.

The art studio was stocked with several sets of shelves filled with bowls, trays, and jars of art supplies, several easels, a giant loom, a light table large enough for four or five children, and entire clay area.

Visiting teachers would blanch, then tell us (again and again) that their children could never handle such an excessive amount of available materials, tools, areas, choices.

So we would explain that when the children came in on the first day of the school year, the classroom would be nearly empty. There would be only basic materials in the art studio and the ordinary blocks in the block area and a good selection of books in the library. Then, as the children mastered each area and each material, we would slowly add in more. After several weeks, the children could move about the entire classroom with access to all their materials without being overwhelmed and over-stimulated, knowing exactly how everything was used and put away, and the teachers could concentrate on working with individual children or small groups while the students confidently used their space.

One particular pair of teachers who shared a classroom visited in the middle of the year. They told us about their students and their struggles, they observed what was happening in our school, and they listened carefully to how we began each year. Then they returned home.

Two weeks later, I had an e-mail from them. When they got back home, they went into their classroom and took everything out — every book, every block, every art material — and made the classroom a completely blank slate. Their children returned on Monday morning very surprised, as were their parents — and the school administrators for that matter. Then, they slowly introduced each area of the classroom as we had described, as though it were the first day of school. And two weeks later, their classroom was transformed. The children were taking responsibility for the materials as never before, so the teachers could give them more. Things were put where they could be taken out by the children, and the children put them carefully away again. The teachers felt like they had an entirely different group of students, and they went forward confidently to try to build the curriculum they now felt their students could handle.

When you are in charge of your own program (as all homeschoolers are), you can make changes on the fly — you can decide at any time during the year that you aren’t satisfied with how things are going, or maybe you just want to try an exciting new idea, and you don’t have to wait for anyone’s permission or fill out any paperwork. You just get up the next morning and put your idea into action.

I was astonished by those public school teachers — in a great way — that they were strong enough and determined enough to begin again from scratch, midway through the school year. It took a lot of bravery for them to stop and start again.

I love the new year, a time of looking back and looking forward, a time to focus on plans and goals and dreams. But it’s important to remember that we can have a fresh start any time we need it — no matter what time of year, no matter how invested we think we are in what we’ve done so far. We can sweep the table clean and begin again if we want to. And it doesn’t have to be a big change — it can be just one small, new thing.



See also: Curriculum of Curiosity: “Rather than put every material out on the first day of school, we added things throughout the year. Rather than announcing any new addition as a special treat and drawing attention to it (which creates the additional problem of 15 children wanting to use it at once), we simply added things and let them be discovered. Then the children told each other and showed each other.”

The importance of meaningful work

Published by Lori Pickert on December 16, 2008 at 03:42 PM


What gives work its meaning?

Meaning comes from within. We must give meaning to our own work.

How do we help children do meaningful work, so they can learn to recognize and appreciate it and seek it out on their own?

Rather than challenging children to find purpose in the work we give them, we need to help them do work that is already important and worthwhile to them.

We can require hard work, and we can tell children that it is necessary in life, but how do we communicate the joy that is possible when you work hard on something that really matters? To do that, we must recognize and value what they find meaningful — they define that for themselves.

The value of work

Published by Lori Pickert on December 11, 2008 at 01:17 PM

A visiting teacher is standing in our preschool classroom, surrounded by three-, four-, and five-year-olds who are busily working and playing.

There are children in every part of the room doing every type of activity — reading, writing, drawing, painting, building, singing, dancing, playing house, putting on a puppet show.

Her: How much time are the children required to spend working on their project?

Me: None.

Her: So, they are required to do anything?!

Me: No.

Her: They why do they do it?!

Now, I understand what she was saying, but I still find it a little depressing. So, two ideas:

Work is enjoyable.

Healthy, happy people seek meaningful work.

Do you agree with these statements? Do you believe them for adults? Do you believe them for children?

Do you believe them for yourself?

In my experience, young children eagerly seek out meaningful work, and once they have the opportunity, they apply themselves to it joyfully.

The word “work” can have negative connotations — for grown-ups and children who associate it with “something I don’t want to do”. Play and leisure become identified with “things I want to do”. A child can be taught that “work” is something that he has to do, whether he wants to do it or not. And he can remember that lesson forever.

Many teachers — and administrators, and parents — beileve that children must be coerced to do work. They can’t believe that children would choose to work when other choices are available.

The other day we asked the question, Can you teach an autodidact without being an autodidact? Can we foster values in our children that we don’t actively live ourselves?

That teacher recognized something happening in our classroom that she wanted for her own students. But she was held back by her beliefs — her belief that work is a negative thing, and her further belief that children would never purposefully choose to work when they didn’t have to.

Can we help our children find the joy in meaningful work if we haven’t found it ourselves?

I believe children have the right to meaningful work as well as play, that there is joy to be derived from each, and that they are not mutually exclusive. I know that children don’t have to be coerced to work, but a school or family culture that celebrates work is more likely to introduce them to its pleasures. And once they have experienced it, they will seek it out on their own.

Once a child is on a path in which work brings as much joy as play, and the two mingle freely, I believe they are on the path toward a happy adult life. Not a life without problems, without mistakes, without strife, but a life rich with possibility. To give them that life, we may need to change our beliefs — we need to believe in what is possible in order to show it to them.


See also: The Work/Fun Conundrum

Homeschooling autodidacts

Published by Lori Pickert on December 8, 2008 at 07:04 PM

I want my children to teach themselves.

How do you teach someone to teach themselves?

The other day I saw this sentence: “The goal of classical education is to teach the student to enjoy investigation and learning.” How do we teach a child to enjoy investigation and learning?

If you believe (or want to believe) that children are powerful and can construct their own learning — do you believe that about yourself?

Often we champion one form of learning while trying to transmit it in an entirely different sort of way.

Thus: The school that hired me to teach their staff about Reggio-inspired, project-based learning, but wanted me to ram it down their throats in a traditional “learn it, memorize it, repeat it back, start on Monday” sort of way.

No wonder education majors and new teachers are a bit wobbly when they are told “follow the interests of the children … and do it exactly like this.”

“We want to encourage curiosity, individuality, and self-expression … for the children, not for you. You, we want to follow directions and do as you’re told. Stick to the script.”

To champion a form of learning for your children that you wouldn’t use yourself seems … hypocritical at best.


If we want children to teach themselves, can’t we accomplish this best by modeling it? by teaching ourselves the things we want to know and sharing that process with our children?

If we want our students to be self-directed learners, shouldn’t we trust our teachers to find their own paths as well?

Can you homeschool an autodidact without being an autodidact?

A happy mood, Part 2

Published by Lori Pickert on December 5, 2008 at 04:59 PM

Too perfect, another quote I stumbled across this morning about play and work:

Lawrence Hill, author of Someone Knows My Name, on his first draft: “I was playing with sand castles, building them up and knocking them down.”

A happy mood

Published by Lori Pickert on December 5, 2008 at 12:28 PM


The researchers’ interpretation was that a happy mood broadens thought and leads to insight. — Peter Gray, The Value of Play

In other words, if you are happy, relaxed, joyful, you can play with ideas, play with problems — and accomplish more.

In Reggio Emilia, they say Niente Senza Gioia. Nothing without joy.

The necessity of diversity

Published by Lori Pickert on December 4, 2008 at 02:58 PM

I am a possibilist. I believe that humanity is master of its own fate. … Before we can change direction, we have to question many of the assumptions underlying our current philosophy. Assumptions like bigger is better; you can’t stop progress; no speed is too fast; globalization is good. Then we have to replace them with some different assumptions: small is beautiful; roots and traditions are worth preserving; variety is the spice of life; the only work worth doing is meaningful work; biodiversity is the necessary pre-condition for human survival. — Robert Bateman, naturalist

If we acknowledge that biodiversity is necessary for human well-being, why do we educate by checklist?

What happens when we iron out the wrinkles of diversity, uniqueness, individual strengths and aptitudes in our children?

When we embrace a standardization of education, can we simultaneously promote the richness of variety in ourselves?

If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place. — Margaret Mead

Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else. — M.M.

Checklist for learning

Published by Lori Pickert on December 2, 2008 at 07:32 PM

I once worked with a school that told me they couldn’t do projects (even though they wanted to).

Why? Because they had to meet the state standards. And to do that, they had to teach each standard one by one, checking them off a big list.

I pointed out that we taught to the state standards. They were astounded. How ever could this be? We followed the children’s interests hither and yon.

We crossed off each standard as we covered it, then we looked at what was left over and either looked for opportunities to incorporate that material meaningfully or simply taught it separately.

The administrator said to me, dubiously, “Well … but we don’t have a sheet for that.”

It’s not a matter of needing a new checklist; it’s only a matter of allowing people to use that checklist in a flexible way.

The only real difference is allowing teachers to check off items not in order. Don’t plan ahead; plan along.

Flexibility is a skill. If we want to encourage it in our children, we should probably learn to utilize it ourselves.

Points of entry

Published by Lori Pickert on November 24, 2008 at 02:15 PM

Picture the whole body of possible knowledge as a globe. Children learning through projects begin at a very particular place — like reaching out and touching the tip of one finger to the globe … and that interest spreads in lines of inquiry … which branch into new lines of inquiry … and if you were given infinite time, you would eventually go everywhere, know everything — all venturing out from that one spot.

Everything is connected.

Project-based learning allows children to apply — and develop — their basic skills while pursuing a strong personal interest. It supports and enhances general knowledge (reading, math, reasoning, problem-solving, creative thinking) and it respects and honors individual interests and talents.

In a project, we talk about points of entry — a topic should offer many different places to enter, like a house with many doors. A group of children can find different ways to relate to the topic, which honors their varying interests, talents, and temperaments.

If the topic is the bakery, some children might be very interested in cooking, some in the business aspect (the cash register, the money), some in the building, some in the machines (oven, bread slicer), and etc.  In this way, a single topic can hold wide appeal for a large number of children — in a classroom or in a family.

As they study and learn, even though they may have a strong interest in a very particular part of the project, they share their enthusiasm and their knowledge so that at the end, every child knows everything that was learned.

Even a child working on a project by himself will, following a single interest, touch so many related pieces of knowledge and, following a single line of inquiry, open so many other lines of inquiry. There is no part of our world that lives in a vacuum; to reach out and touch one part that particularly interests you is like touching the surface of a still pool of water. Everything you discover leads on to new and interesting territory.

Everything is connected.

See also: Limits can be so… limiting


Published by Lori Pickert on November 20, 2008 at 05:54 PM

The Respected Educator who looked at our classroom teeming with three- to five-years-olds on fire with enthusiasm for learning and said, “Not this way.”

The teachers who visited our school and stood in the center of a classroom filled with children working, talking, building, reading, playing, and said, “This won’t work.”

The visitor who shook her head over a group of children actively engaging in reading, writing, constructing, play-acting, negotiating, communicating about space and said, “This topic is too complex for preschool children.”

How often do we throw away what works just because it doesn’t fit with our narrow prejudices about the way things are supposed to be?