On the way to her classroom one morning, five-year-old Honor saw some birds in a Kindergarten classroom. She asked the teacher with her to take a picture of her with the birds, but there was no camera available. So Honor came up with a plan to get that picture. Once in her own classroom, Honor drew a picture of a bird on a little card, presented it to her teacher and told her it was for the calendar, to mark the day when she could go to all the classrooms in the building and take pictures of the classroom pets. Honor and the teacher talked about Honor’s idea for a while. Through an exchange in which Honor would propose her vision, the teacher would respond with regulation (this is possible instead of that idea that would be exclusionary or disruptive, for example), encouragement and tools/technology. Then Honor would add to the plan and the exchange continued, until they eventually agreed that this could be a collaborative project, that the pictures would be taken with iPads, they would make an eBook with them and that the project could start that very day.
At Morning Meeting, Honor presented her idea to the class. As the children discussed the proposal, there emerged a conversation about what constitutes a pet, a distinction that had to be made a few times in the course of work on the project.
“Flowers cannot be pets because they don’t have any skin.”
“And they’re not alive.”
“And they don’t have any brain.”
“And they can’t walk.”
“And they don’t have any dresses on them.”
Do class pets usually have dresses? No? So what’s the difference between a plant like a flower and an animal?
“Plants can’t breathe.”
“Only if they have water.”
“Animals can move. Flowers don’t”
“They can move in the wind.”
“Well, animals can move in circles. And the wind can’t make the flowers move in circles.”
“Flowers don’t have horns so they can’t be an animal.”
Does (classroom therapy dog) Lucy have horns? No? Then is she a flower?
Laughter and many voices: “No!”
After Meeting, the project group set off with an iPad to answer the question, "What class pets are in the Lower School?" and to document their findings.
In a third grade classroom we found Pixie the hedgehog, whom the children thought was both funny and scary.
In the Science Room the children found fish and a chinchilla.
The children’s understanding of “pet” was challenged by two teachers on our visit. One fourth grade teacher told them that there were pets in the classroom and presented three stuffed animals with names. Even though the teacher and students in that room identified the animals as pets, the JKers decided that no, the stuffed animals did not meet their criteria. Then, when the children visited another fourth grade class and asked if they had any pets, the teacher said, “Yes,” she had pets and began to name the students in the class. That gave the JKers pause. The people were alive, they can move, they can do all the things the children had said pets can do. But after a bit of hesitation, they dismissed the joke (I don’t think they thought it was funny at all) and explained to the teacher that people cannot be pets.
"What's Being Learned Here?"
Years and years ago...so long ago I can't find the reference any more...I read in Lilian Katz's work the question, "What's being learned here?" Throughout my development as a teacher, I used the question as a guide, a mirror and a boundary. If I asked of myself "what's being learned here?", it helped take me right to what really mattered. Two children in conflict? "What's being learned here" helped me stay focused on the opportunity for learning for both children. If I wondered whether certain materials were worth replenishing, "What's being learned here?" helped me discern their value at the moment. And if I were asked to support my pedagogical philosophy, answering the question, "What's being learned here?" was all that was needed.
Through the Class Pets project, initiated by one child through her desire to know more about something, five five-year-olds engaged a number of dispositions toward learning, skills and understandings. It's what was being learned.
- The children gained experience and found pleasure in collaboration, shoring up the disposition toward collaboration and acquiring the skills of working with others toward a shared goal.
- They worked on finding their voices with adults they did not know, articulating their project, asking if there were pets in the classroom, asking questions about the pets and even arguing with a fourth grade teacher that students are not pets.
- They deepened their understanding of the definition of "animal" and the criteria for membership in the animal classification.
- They experienced the documentation process and learned how to use an iPad and an app to do it. Taking photos and recording captions or stories became a regular medium for the children, who taught the others in the class how to do it.
- They developed their sense of agency. That is, they saw that their opinions, plans and ideas were important to group process, which encouraged them to pose them again and again and to expect that they will be able to make their ideas visible if they just try.
- They studied through drawing the pets they saw, using their photographs as referents. This was an early exercise in symbolic representation, which they practiced in various ways for various reasons all through the year.