In 2012, when I was part of a study group visiting the schools and meeting with the educators working in schools in Reggio Emilia.
The diverse group of 68 educators gathered together with the intention of using what we saw in the schools to help spark a discussion focused on developing a greater view of the possibilities for educating children. The group consisted of teachers of very young children, elementary school teachers, college teachers, administrators, and consultants. The tangible outcome of our discussions can be found in the recently published book, The Teacher You Want to Be. Our Statement Of Beliefs and an introduction by Alfie Kohn begin the book, followed by fifteen essays and interviews.
One of the study group participants was Susan Mackay, the director of the prestigious Opal Charter School and the Portland Children’s Museum in Portland Oregon. Susan is inspiring because she not only has a clear vision of what education should be, but she allows it to happen in her child-centered school, where the many positive advantages of a constructivist education are visible. Her recent TED talk, School is for learning to live, not just for learning, says it all in her articulate and passionate presentation. I hope that you will take a few minutes to listen to this video. It’s so much worth your time.
Lately, I’ve been both depressed and angry at the inappropriate curriculum that has been imposed on young children. Then, every once in awhile, I encounter a teacher who is defying the move towards test prep, test prep, test prep and academic pushdown at the expense of joy, inquiry, exploration and play. I’ve decided to start sharing the work of some of these teachers. I hope it make you feel good. Sharing it is good for my soul.
This week I’ll begin with a study that was done by the wonderful Amy Meltzer. Amy teaches kindergarten at a Jewish Day School, the Lander Grinspoon Academy in Northhampton, Massachusetts. Amy refers to the school as a Gan. When I looked it up it seems to be (and I hope I have this correctly!) the Hebrew for an enclosed garden.
Believe it or not, she and her class did a study of Fungus! Here is Amy’s blog post about her study.
Many, many people have wondered why we study fungus in the Gan. It’s not a typical unit of study in many elementary schools, but in my opinion, it ought to be. First of all, fungi are just amazing. They pop up overnight in the strangest and often most overlooked places, and they are both complex and beautiful. They are in great abundance in the wild in the Fall, when we typically delve into a science topic in our Writing Workshop. Many varieties can be purchased at supermarkets, farmers markets and asian markets, allowing children to investigate, compare and contrast numerous varieties. As nature’s recyclers, they help teach important lessons about conservation, awareness and life itself. (If you haven’t already read it, check out the article in last week’s Sunday Times Magazine about mushrooms.)
We are visual creatures; to us, forests seem places made of trees and leaves and soil. But all around me now, invisible and ubiquitous, is a huge network of fungal life, millions of tiny threads growing and stretching among trees, clustering around piles of rabbit droppings; stitching together bush and path, dead leaves and living roots. We hardly know it is there until we encounter the fruiting bodies it throws up when conditions are right. But without fungi’s ceaseless cycling of water, nutrients and minerals, the forest wouldn’t work the way it does. Perhaps the greatest mystery of mushrooms is that they are the visible manifestations of this essential yet unregarded world.
Our unit began with a trip to Arcadia, to see a variety of mushrooms and begin to learn about their important work – clearing the forest floor and helping to turn dead matter into rich soil. As a nice surprise, our guide happened to speak Hebrew! The children each took at least one photograph of the amazing specimens we saw that day. The pictures are on display in the Gan.
We then began our close observations of the most well known mushroom, the white mushroom – the ones that come in blue plastic boxes and wrapped in cellophane in the supermarket. We practiced working like scientists, trying to document what we noticed in our science journals.
After becoming well acquainted with your average mushroom, we headed down to Tuesday Market and visited the booth of New England Wild Edibles.
Thanks to some generous contributions, we were able to purchase five varieties of mushrooms to study. This time, we recorded our observations in clay – but not until we had a chance to do some free exploration with this new medium!
Our mushrooms are being fired and should be ready to come home at the end of the week.
As we continued to document what we know and observe in our science journals, we added a bit of whimsy into our study. After looking at images of some of the most beautiful mushrooms on the planet, we designed imaginary mushrooms – featuring the parts of a real mushroom – but with imagined colors, shapes and designs. Aren’t they gorgeous?
Speaking of whimsy, we are singing this song every day. Debbi Friedlander taught at our school many years ago and stopped by last year for an impromptu concert. We hope she’ll return this year some time.
And of course, many of you have seen our new “class pet”, a shiitake mushroom growing log from MycoTerra farm. We’ve already harvested a few dozen mushrooms, and today we’ll be picking some to make spore prints.
This week, we are winding down our mushroom unit with a little foray into yeast, part of the fungus family. We watched a very cute video which described yeast cells as “yeast monsters” who burp carbon dioxide. We are trying to catch and grow some wild yeast in a mixture of flour and water to create our own sourdough starter.
I could probably spend a whole year learning about fungus, but all good things must come to an end wind down at least a little.
I’ll keep looking for early childhood teachers who take their students on exciting journey’s of exploration. It’s good for my soul!