This is the third blog post in the Reclaiming Joy series. I am only in the classroom as a pedagogical companion/consultant now. But I do remember: for me, teaching often felt like play…fluid, creative, guided by flexibility of thinking and mental rules, and self-directed (Peter Gray). I found myself in a state of Flow on a regular basis. I knew how fortunate I was to love what I was doing as much as I did, but I do believe I took it for granted a bit.  As a witness to what’s happening in education (and the world) today, I’m grappling with the question, “How can all educators discover or recover a sense of awe and wonder (and therefore experience, once again, the joy) of teaching and learning?” I find myself dissecting my own experience in order to answer the question. One of many elements that engendered awe and joy for me was witnessing what children were able to create, and seeing in their representation how symbolic their thinking was.

First Impressions of Children’s Representation in Reggio Emilia

I recall what I was thinking when I first encountered the images of children’s representation from the schools of Reggio Emilia, more than 30 years ago, The memory is deep, because the experience was such an emotional one. I’d been teaching Kindergarten for more than a decade at that point, and, in my experience, children didn’t represent their ideas with the depth, precision, and expressiveness that I saw in the representation from Reggio Emilia. When my students drew (with fat crayons or markers, may I add), they drew what they knew: houses, flowers, rainbows, stick figures, etc., and they were not, I later learned, using drawing as a language for expression. Rather, they drew in superficial and fairly static ways. If asked them to talk about their drawings, they described the elements (“This is a flower. This is a house. This is the grass….) and their drawing did not seem to change much all year long. So Reggio education’s use of media as languages, children’s deep engagement and sustained effort to represent, and the way in which children represented complex stories and systems were quite novel to me. It occurred to me, briefly, that these representations must have been done with an adult’s direct intervention. I soon learned that not only were they actually the expression and creation of preschoolers, but my students (now preschoolers) were  capable of the same.

A clay cat sculpted by three 5-year-olds in order to show our class cat, Spice, how big she was when we got her.

Five-year-old Charlotte’s representation of a magical interaction

Once I put into place systems for supporting children’s representation, and they discovered the power and competence they felt when they were able to make their ideas visible, I spent my days in awe of their symbolic thinking and its expression. It never (over decades!) got old. So what occurred to enable the children to go from fat crayons and rainbows to thoughtful and truly expressive representation?

Protocols for Mining Imagination in Drawing

I’ve chosen to use drawing as an example, but what follows could well pertain to any expressive medium, in two or three dimensions.

I use the word, “protocol,” because this is NOT a “how to” blog post. In fact, scripts and “how to’s” can be the killers of the spontaneity that allows us to be surprised by joy. A protocol is a way of thinking “if…then,” of offering children just enough support so that they can realize their intent, but not more than they need. Protocols allow us to be helpful but not usurp children’s ownership of a project. Protocols are the “mental rules” to which Peter Gray refers.

The Drawing Protocol has many moving parts: guidelines, “if-thens,” conditions for optimal learning, and support for the thinking teacher to support the child.

  • Materials are key. We want to provide a wide range of good-quality media and surfaces and store them in a way that is accessible to the children. Children can choose from thinking pens (thin black felt tips, Sharpies, or other smooth, dark, thick pens) for detailed work, colored pencils, colored thin markers, thick markers for filling in large spaces, oil pastels, etc. They have many sizes, thicknesses, and colors of paper available. In time, they learn to connect the media with the idea, making choices as to which materials will best to justice to specific ideas.
  • When a child declares intent to draw something specific but is struggling to draw it, you might try the Study Protocol. In addition:
  • Think about the child’s emotional state when she is struggling with drawing something. If she is often frustrated or avoids drawing, chances are the support she needs is confidence co-regulation. We want to send her the message, “I know you can do this. I will stay with you until can do it on your own.” The help you offer, at that point, will vary depending on where the problem lies. Is it that she doesn’t know enough about the subject of her drawing to make her idea visible? Is it that she knows what it looks like but doesn’t have the motor control to draw it? Is it that she is struggling to put the parts together? Or does she need only moral support? (See the blog post, The Study Protocol, link above, for guidelines).
  • Create a culture of drawing. Unless a child is too under-confident with drawing, if her friends are drawing she will too. Leave room in the daily schedule for free drawing in small groups. Let the children (or each child) decide on the subject. Drawing helps children mine their own imaginations for topics and get them out and onto paper.
  • Invite the children to tell stories about their drawings. This might look like the teacher asking, “What’s happening here?”, listening to the child’s story, having a conversation about what’s happening in the story, asking the child if she’d like you to write the words of her story, and writing those words faithfully. When you read her words back to her she will begin to understand that writing a story down anchors and makes a permanent trace of what was heretofore only temporal. It gives you and the child an opportunity to return to the story, maybe as an invitation for classmates to act it out (a la Vivian Gussin Paley). It fortifies her confidence.I remember Isabelle, barely 5 years old, who, during our first story workshop for which I asked the children to “draw something happening,” sat in front of her blank paper for quite a while. She started to cry quietly. When I checked in with her, she said she didn’t know what to draw. “That’s OK. Thinking of what to draw is part of the job,” and I started asking her questions about her life at home and her interests. “I like anacondas,” she said. “Then you DO know what to draw!” I responded. Isabelle began to draw. She told a truly compelling story about the anaconda, one that captured the imaginations of all her classmates to the degree that we had a months’ long research project about anacondas, exploring extreme length and measurement, which was what seemed most compelling about anacondas for that group of children.

Isabelle’s first anaconda

  • Just as we listen with an open heart to children’s verbal language, we want to listen deeply to children’s symbolic representation. How are they using images to express something deeper? How does their drawing uncover the child’s philosophical thinking? What about life does her imagination reveal? In what way is the child’s expression bigger than she is?

If the children have the tools and know the power of representing their ideas, and if we are listening deeply, we open ourselves up to being moved to our core. And then, how can we escape joy?