K. Building Imagination: A Curriculum of Blocks

After teaching Building Imagination for three years now, I’ve sorted out four sorts of learnings going on: Cognitive, expressive/therapeutic, artistic and social. Cognitive: This is the mathematical and engineering side of things: how would you design a staircase, how could you make this road ramp up at an angle, can we imagine where the foundation would go before we build it? In the past, we’ve built the Mayflower from simple plan and elevation drawings, we’ve built Gulliver after first imagining what postures were do-able within the constraints of our blocks. Often the students just think they’re playing. Or as one student said, “This class is really hard but really fun.” Expressive/therapeutic: The children have strong desires to build particular things. More than once students have vetoed what I thought would be the perfect challenge for them, and I have had no choice but to follow along and lead from behind. Sometimes there is a quality of “playing house” or “playing race cars” in their building. Or happy discoveries, as when last year we built a dragon, and a child jumped over the dragon, but subversively because he presumed it was wrong, but then I invited all to jump over the dragon, as that had been the plan all along. Artistic: We play with balance, stability, symmetry, representational and non-representational, etc. At the end of class, I often have them look at each others work, “like you were walking in an art museum.” Although they can’t yet articulate why, the children can tell when something is beautiful — there is often a gasp, and then silence, or comments of “That is so cool.” Social: Sometimes students work well together, sometimes it is a challenge. There are many exercises I use to teach them to cooperate, for example: “Work in pairs and in silence. Take turns, you add one block, then your partner adds one block, then you add a block. Your goal is to make a wall that has a pattern.” I have been teaching this class for several years now. The last several weeks of the Fall of 2012 offers a great illustration of the kinds of tasks your students will be performing in this class: Building Gulliver — teacher-led, the tallest and most impressive structure we built. The tallest student had to climb on top of a chair, on top of a table, in order to complete the project Decide what you want to build — it was their call, the opposite of Gulliver. They ended up building a city complete with zoo, runaway dinosaurs, garbage dump, police and ranger station Build the school — our most representational project, in which we began by taking a “field trip” through parts of the school. I built them a miniature of a chair in the classroom, which they thought was very cool. Build an abstract sculpture  — or as I said it to the children, “build something that isn’t something and that looks cool.” I then demonstrated two aesthetic criteria, balance and pattern, which many incorporated into their creations. and finally, Build something that doesn’t exist — abstract or representational, their choice, but hopefully using balance and pattern. Initially I will try to nudge them towards working together, but that may be beyond them. Most of their work will be without my assistance. By the end of the course their building skills would have improved in terms of mathematics, architecture and engineering, their self-expression and in their abilities to work with one another and represent that which they observe.

K. Building Imagination: The Castle, the Challenge, and the Secret Hideout

Parent Krista (mother of Riley) observed class yesterday and has generously shared her observations. I was able to observe my daughter’s class this week and found it fascinating. The kids were building a castle with blocks. I watched them negotiate their thoughts about the construction project…., “no, I think this round piece should go here in the corner because it looks more like a castle that way”. I noticed that the kids naturally broke into smaller groups of 2-4 to conquer a section of the castle. There was a side project going on in which the kids were trying to fit different shapes together to match the shape of a rectangle. Some really got into this and praised other kids when they thought of a creative way to do it different. What a fun class! I see my daughter learning team building skills and early geometry lessons all in one! For another view, our castle-building in pictures.  I wasn’t able to get a good shot of everyone, but this will give an idea of the overall circus, with its three simultaneous rings.   First Ring: The Castle Second Ring: The Challenge Third Ring: The Secret Hideout Epilogue:

MathGames: The Seven Ravens

[From a class last year at Berkeley Arts Magnet.] I’d like to describe our classes by telling you about Wednesday’s class. We began The Seven Ravens, Grimm’s fairy tale number 25.  In my retelling, the hero, now a girl, faces three challenges before she can turn her brothers and sisters from ravens back into human form.  The first challenge is to count the stars. I threw out over a hundred small plastic balls for them to catch.  Then their challenge was to count them all.  At first they looked like the chase scene of a Buster Keaton film, with everyone walking by themselves, not working together, maniacally counting “One, two, three …” but they were inadvertently kicking the balls around so their counting wasn’t getting anywhere.  I waited them out for a couple of minutes and someone saw that it was all madness, and commented, “We’ll never be able to count the stars. They keep moving around!”  Next another student got the idea of grouping the balls by color — which makes sense enough, they are skilled at grouping. But when we counted one pile (27) and then the next (16), they realized that since they don’t know how to add, and so that wasn’t going to work. I then decided to help them out by suggesting groups of ten, and showed them that a triangle formation of 4 + 3 + 2 + 1 (like bowling pins) yields 10.  So they set about arranging the balls into triangles, but since the rug and floor made for a hard surface,  in order to not have the balls roll around, the students needed to place them very carefully and to work together to get all balls into triangles of ten. Finally it was time to count.  But even with our neat triangles of ten, most of the students still didn’t “believe in ten”.  They started counting individually within each triangle: “One, two, three … “  I let them do this for several minutes.  But at one point [a student] looked at the orange balls and at a glance proclaimed, “There are 41.”  I stopped the class. She had understood the four groups of ten + one extra.  I pointed this out to the children, and now they counted all the balls by tens: “Ten, twenty, thirty, …” There were 121 in all.  That is a lot of adventure to count the stars, and the hero of The Seven Ravens still has two more challenges to go before she can change her brothers and sisters back into human form. The next challenge involves a pesky old dwarf who only talks in negatives:   It’s not the tallest, not the smallest, It’s not the round one, have you found one? The final challenge will involve a path with steps numbered 1, 2, 3, … 30. They children will have to figure out a hidden step by guessing: for example someone guesses “12” and my thumb indicates that the hidden step is “higher” than 12; perhaps the next clue indicates that the next step is “lower than 25.” They have to keep these clues straight as we hone in on the number. We have done five fairy tales so far, and like The Seven Ravens, they turn into puzzles that challenge them to think creatively, to work cooperatively, and to use their bodies, either in small motor movements or full-out games on the playground.  We may also use drama by having them act out the story. The story: your children scared me last week, every one of them, by how attentive they were in listening to the introduction to The Seven Ravens.  We had been doing games from the previous stories for three full weeks, and that was my mistake, that was too long without a new story.  So they prodded me, “Can you tell us a story?” and when I said yes, they immediately assumed their positions on the rug, on the couch, crowding around me.  And they waited with such a sense of anticipation.  Teachers always want students to “listen better”, but I had better be careful what I ask for.  Right before I began, I had an odd memory.  My high school calculus teacher was fond of saying that “mathematics is the language of science.”.  But your children have taught me that fairy tales and stories are the language of mathematics. 

Build the World: description and rationale

A year ago, the PTA Afterschool Committee had asked if I could teach a new kindergarten class, an in turn I talked with kindergarten teachers to ask what skills are the students lacking that I could help teach. Their answer: fine motor coordination is something almost all of them need, even children who are doing well in academic subjects. This has evolved to Build the World, first offered in Fall, 2012 at Malcolm X. The initial class description has proven more or less correct: This is a crafts course for kindergarteners in which students build and animate a world.  They will start with a mass of clay and sand which they will sculpt with their hands into land, a mountains, a river, a cave. Weaving with twigs, they will make a bridge, a fence, and stonework to make huts.  Using a wet felt technique, they will create animals and people.  All this the children can do, largely on their own,  with solid materials, no veneers, no tape no glue, just hand manipulation.  And each week I will tell them a creation myth from around the world as we shape our world. We’ll do a couple of things differently in the upcoming Spring class: 1. More fantasy play for the children. We will re-use the stars, rocks, and twig walls from the world we built In the Fall, so that we’ll be able to build a more complete world sooner. My goal is to quickly get to the animate part of creation, so the children can start imagining and acting out stories. We will have a great locale, complete with archetypal cave, mountain, water, plain, and step rocky ascent. Here I have been inspired by “Godly Play”, a Sunday School curriculum started a while back by an Episcopal priest, in which the children do storytelling and fantasy play with figures, usually commercially made, for example, a set of figures to do the Noah’s Arc story.  I’ve seen this in action and am have assisted in teaching Godly Play stories at a church, where it is used for grades 1 and 2. In the Build the World, we play do a secular version of Godly Play, plus making our own figures and dioramas instead of buying commercial products. 2, More stories. The stories affect them deeply, and I would like to do more. The technical difficulty is how to arrange things so that they can work on their craft while listening to the story. There is a tricky balance between how challenging the craft is, how much they need my help to do it, and how well I can tell them, and they can really listen to, the story. Last class, craft and story were separate; this class I will try combining them more.

Building Imagination: curriculum

[Each class is different, but here were the last several weeks of a particularly strong class a couple years ago.] Dear Parents, Thursday is our final class.  You are welcome to come early, to watch or play with the children.  Their final challenge: Build something that doesn’t exist.  There has a been a rhythm to the sequence of challenges I have given them.  In the past few weeks we’ve had: Building Gulliver — teacher-led, the tallest and most impressive structure we have built Decide what you want to build — it was their call, the opposite of Gulliver.  They ended up building a city complete with zoo, runaway dinosaurs, garbage dump, police and ranger station Build the school — our most representational project, in which we began by taking a “field trip” through parts of the school. I built them a miniature of a chair in the classroom, which they thought was very cool. Build an abstract sculpture  — or as I said it to the children, “build something that isn’t something and  that looks cool.” I first demonstrated two aesthetic criteria, balance and pattern, which many incorporated into their creations. and finally this week, Build something that doesn’t exist — abstract or representational, their choice, but hopefully using balance and pattern. In our initial discussion, I will try to nudge them towards building something together. but that may be beyond them.  Most of their work will be without my assistance. They have gotten much better at building together.  You may recall that the dragon they built a couple of months ago, judged by their abilities now, was a fiasco.

MathGames: Acting and Playing “The Wolf and the Eight Kid Goats”

The story for this week and last has been “The Wolf and the Eight Kid Goats”.  Last week I told the story and introduced a math game; this week we acted out the story and continued with our game.   Today I asked, “When we come to each new part of the story, if you know a character we’ll need to act our story out, please raise your hand to tell us.”  I received all manner of answers.  Two girls volunteered to be the door that is locked until  mistakenly opened for the Wolf..  The largest boy in class wanted very much to be the littlest baby goat that hides in the grandfather clock and escapes being eaten, and I trust that the role is good and needed for him.   Who could know what motivated the  boy and girl who wanted to be the bush that the Wolf and the Goats hide behind, but with arms outstretched they made a very noble and chivalrous bush.  Some others wanted to be the furniture that gets tossed every which way when the house is invaded by the Wolf, and I was reminded that when The Cat in the Hat was first published, it was deemed scandalously  inappropriate for children.  Like our story, it has a motif of a house getting wrecked while the mother is away, but there the house-wrecker is the  hero, here, the villain.  The children take the story very seriously.  I was touched watching the mother, who began the story by leaving the house after warning her children.  She then waited away from us in silence as events unfolded on the other side of the classroom, as the Wolf tried and tried and finally succeeded in entering the house and then eating the Kid Goats.  Only one child wanted the part of the Wolf, but he played it with enthusiasm, and I sensed that was the right part for him that afternoon.  Even when we switched from acting to playing our game, no one else would help him make moves for the Wolf, so he played alone vs. all, which he relished.   Today’s game was a very simple version of chess, Black Queen (the Wolf) vs. eight White Pawns (the Goats).  The Wolf wins if it can gobble up all the Goats.  The Goats win if just one of them can advance to the other side of the board and run to their Mother for help.  I taught them how the pieces move plus one simple tactic for each side:  how to move the Wolf to a square that threatens two Goats at a time — essentially seeing the intersection of lines on the board; and how one Goat can befriend another and protect it.  We played, all against the Wolf.  When two children initially declared that they didn’t want to play, and I let them sit out, but each was soon drawn into the excitement of the game.  All the children advised  each other with great enthusiasm on what the best move might be.  There were cries of shock and despair each time the Wolf ate up a Goat.  One child cried briefly when she couldn’t figure out what would be the best move to do; by that point,  the Wolf would eat a Goat no matter what.   A couple moves before the end, I asked them to stop and study the game to predict the future, who would win:  if each side moved the very best moves it could, who would have to win?  They discussed this as they had discussed everything else, and arrived at the correct answer.  The children take their story very seriously.

Building Imagination: More than “just playing with blocks”

After teaching Building Imagination for three years now, I’ve sorted out four sorts of learnings going on: — Cognitive: This is the mathematical and engineering side of things: how would you design a staircase, how could you make this road ramp up at an angle, can we imagine where the foundation would go before we build it? In the past, we’ve built the Mayflower from simple plan and elevation drawings, we’ve built Gulliver after first imagining what postures were do-able within the constraints of our blocks. Sometimes they figure out a cantilever and we use that in our constructions. I don’t usually verbalize concepts with them, so there may be a lot going on cognitively, but they just think they’re playing. Or as one student said, “This class is really hard but really fun.” — Expressive, therapeutic: The children have strong desires to build particular things. More than once students have vetoed what I thought would be the perfect challenge for them, and I have had no choice but to follow along and lead from behind. Sometimes there is a quality of “playing house” or “playing race cars” in their building. Or happy discoveries, as when last year we built a dragon, and a child jumped over the dragon, but subversively because he presumed it was wrong, but then I invited all to jump over the dragon, as that had been the plan all along. There was something deep and primal in re-enacting this archetype and they kept jumping for a while. I only wish we could have jumped the dragon at night, by a fire. — Artistic: We play with balance, stability, symmetry, representational and non-representational, etc. At the end of class, I often have them look at each others works, “like you were walking in an art museum.” Although they can’t yet articulate why, the children can tell when something is beautiful — there is often a gasp, and then silence, or comments of “That is so cool.” — Social: Sometimes students work well together, sometimes it is a challenge. There are many exercises I use to teach them to cooperate, for example: “Work in pairs and in silence. Take turns, you add one block, then your partner adds one block, then you add a block. Your goal is to make a wall that has a pattern.”