Monday, February 9, 2015

Reflections on Opal School Visitation Days

A few weeks ago I was able to step out of the classroom for a few days and take part in Opal School Visitation Days.  Opal School is a private preschool and a charter elementary school (K-5) associated with the Portland Children's Museum.  You can learn more here and here.

One of the wonderful things about participation in Visitation Days was being in a large group of educators with different backgrounds, educations, and careers who all had one big thing in common: a driving curiosity about education and a strong belief that children deserve the best we can offer.  It was wonderful to be a part of this group and even better to engage in so many group discussions with people who are passionate about education.  

There was one discussion we were asked to structure in the following way: Connect, Extend, Challenge.  That is: how can you make a connection with your work and what you knew before?  How can you push and extend your thinking in new directions?  What do you find challenging; what is causing you to question or wonder?  I've decided to structure this post in the same way.


Opal is an inviting, open space, filled with small parts and art materials much like what you might find at Tumbleweed.  During the first day I was a visitor at Opal, we were given time to explore each classroom, empty of children but ready for their arrival the next morning.  It was fun to look through the Beginning School (preschool) classrooms and see provocations similar to what I set up every morning and see in the preschool cohort.  The atmosphere of these classrooms within a museum was quite different from the homey feel of the Tumbleweed Houses, yet I could see and was inspired by the similarities in thought between what Tumbleweed and Opal teachers of young children were up to.

It was easy to see connections with my work at Tumbleweed not only in similarities in provocations and some environmental setups, but also in the values of both schools.  In the classroom environments and the interactions of children and teachers at at both Tumbleweed and Opal, I see a trust and respect for all children, and a belief in children's right to be seekers of knowledge.  I see a shared appreciation for the natural world, a love of play, and a belief in the power of collaboration, teamwork, bridge-building, and differences.  While there are some differences in etymology and phrasing, the language at both schools is respectful of children, and the open, comfortable nature of interactions between adults and children reflects this.


When we were invited on our second and third days at Opal to observe the classrooms in action, I was particularly curious to see how this inquiry and provocation-based education would translate and grow in the older classrooms, particularly in the 9-to-11-year-old classroom that makes up Opal's oldest group.  I was so excited by what I saw there: fourth and fifth graders in small groups, each of them actively participating in a project that asked them to look at a complex question from multiple angles, to consider ambiguity, and to look to texts, models, and to each other to find answers to questions, rather than to teachers or other adults in the room.

It struck me that my work is often about presenting materials to children in a way that will provoke interest, inquiry, and exploration.  As children get older, teachers begin to present ideas in a way that provokes interest, inquiry, and exploration.  The materials then become tools to help students explore ideas.  

This evolution happens at Tumbleweed as well, I see it in the Preschoolers' circle time discussions, in my cohort's own inquiries about the world outdoors, and in all sorts of other daily situations at our school, but seeing it in a very different context (with children 8 years older than those in my cohort) helped me to make that connection.


The question that kept coming up for me when visiting the beautiful classrooms at Opal, well-staffed with passionate teachers who are given ample time for planning, documentation, and research, was this: what can everyone in the room take back and use in their work?  The resources at Opal are beautiful, but they aren't realistic for most of the educators who participated in visitation days.  Whether it's a lack of time or money or space, most schools simply don't have the ability to engage children in playful inquiry every minute of every day.  I am lucky to work at Tumbleweed, where teachers are given resources to fuel this kind of education, but I wanted to challenge myself to think bigger, to think with the teachers present who were going back to try and bring some of this work with them to very different contexts.  So what is universal?  What could we all take back to work with us and hold close as part of our teaching practice?

To me it came down to one thing: let us all help children to feel big, not small.  Let us all find ways to help children see what they can accomplish and what they deserve.  I thought of a charter elementary school in Brooklyn where several of my friends work.  Pedagogically strict, with long hours in class and rigorous homework, in most ways it has very little in common with Opal School.  But when I visited that school in Brooklyn, I saw children who believed in their own ability to learn, and in their right to knowledge.  They felt big, and important, and deserving.  I saw this at Opal as well, and I see it every day at Tumbleweed. This, I think can apply to all teaching: let's create situations for children to feel big.


I took many notes over my three days at Opal.  There was so much to take in, and to discuss, and I'm still digesting some of what I learned.  I did want to share the last thing that I wrote:

"To trust in the power of what children know, what is innate, what connects us.  To trust that the power of children is real, and that it doesn't need our permission to be strong, alive and full.

So then, what is our job as teachers?
We create spaces where children can be as powerful as they want to be, where they can challenge themselves, where it is safe to take up space and demand recognition, where it is understood that the baseline is trust, love, and belief in one another.  We give time.  And we get out of the way.  We support where it's needed with respect.  We create documentation so the exploration leaves traces that can be built into scaffolding to be climbed up and over.  We evolve the environment so it follows the children's interest and continues to challenge.  And we get out of the way again."

Visiting Opal School along with so many other educators was a wonderful experience, and I'm very grateful for the time it gave me to observe, reflect, and learn.

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