Saturday, May 9, 2020

A Metaphor for Learning: Threads, Tapestries, and an Ecology of Meaning-Making

LW walks into the classroom.  They have a smile on their face and I can see they are excited for the day ahead.   That smile, that excited feeling, are both a part of what has been woven into the tapestry of meaning that LW brings with them.  This tapestry is also made of the experiences of family, of context, of meaning-making, the weaving together of threads of meaning, which continues to refine and create their tapestry.  LW has come from their home, their primary environment, which is itself a tapestry of meaning(s), interwoven and shaped by LW’s family- their mother, their father, and their brother.  Additionally, the wood that lines the floors of their living room, the light that shines through their bedroom window, the plant that rests above the sink in the kitchen- all of these create the tapestry/tapestries that inform Lincoln’s own tapestry, their own weaving of meaning. 

Their family is not exempt from this effect; their mother, father and brother are also made up of tapestries of meaning, informed by one another, by LW, by the weavings that make up their environment.  And so, the threads that make up each of their tapestries are inextricably linked to all who, and all that, has shaped their experience(s). 

As LW moves further into the room, they encounter me and the tapestry of meaning that I have brought with me, as well as the certain transference of meaning that LW associates with what it is to be a teacher, a caregiver, an adult.  They say, “Hi Cody!”, and I return the greeting as I work my own tapestry in order to mirror their tapestry of feelings, desires, and expressions.  They glance at the threads of meaning that I have woven into this environment this morning in the form of a provocation, made up of multi-colored stacking blocks, lined up next to one another at equal intervals in front of a three-foot-tall square mirror.  As LW considers this tapestry, they no doubt layer it with the threads of meaning that they have extracted from similar provocations, as well as those meanings that the colors, shapes, and sequence display, as they are interwoven with the meaning of reflection of the mirror.  However, LW turns their gaze from this, and it moves towards the wooden ramp that is positioned in the back corner of the room, near where I am sitting. 

LW steps up the ramp and then stops at the top with their sock-covered feet.  As they begin to slide slowly down the smooth surface of the wood, my mind quickly moves to a memory of this same experiment the day before.  They, and their friend OS, climbed up and slid down this ramp many times, eager at the end of each slide to return to the top for another attempt.  This, I recall, is not unlike the investigation that they have been conducting outside where they have been using various objects such as the cones which have fallen off a nearby alder tree.  LW and OS have been sliding these cones through a five-foot-long plastic pipe from the summit of a large box they have been standing on, ending in a small collection of cones, near the base of the pipe.  Though this was an altogether different tapestry of environment through which to explore sliding objects, LW's thread of meaning that they have begun to weave into this morning’s tapestry has no doubt in some way been transformed and transferred from their previous experience.

As I consider this, I begin to filter this meaning through the tapestry of my own experience and wonder what new thread may provoke a further exploration for LW.  It is at this point that I remember some small, smooth pieces of colored glass, as well as some half-inch pieces of painted ceramic tiles that I had come across that same morning.  I had not planned on these fragments to help weave this morning’s tapestry of experience; nonetheless, I quickly retrieve them from a shelf nearby. 

LW is intrigued by the introduction of these new materials as I say, “I’ve noticed that you have been enjoying sliding down this ramp in your socks, and I’ve begun to wonder how other objects might slide down it as well.  Here are some pieces with different shapes, sizes, and textures.  How do you think they will slide down this ramp?”  LW quickly embraces these new tools of exploration, grabbing some from the tray I’ve placed beside the ramp.  They say, “I’m going try this one!”, holding a square piece of ceramic tile, painted on one side over a textured-swirl design. 

When they begin by trying to slide the unpainted and course side of the tile down the ramp, they quickly notice that it will not slide without some continual force being applied by their hand.  LW repeats this process again and notes, “It doesn’t really slide very well.”  I respond, “I noticed that too, LW.  I wonder what would happen if you turned the tile over and tried to slide it on its painted side.”  They immediately turn the tile over and place it at the top of the ramp.  This time the tile slides with ease and only requires an occasional nudge to give it new momentum.  LW exclaims, “It’s working now!”  I affirm this and ask, “Why do you think the tile slides better on the painted side?”  They reply, “I don’t know.” Then I tell them to feel the two sides.  “What do they feel like?” I ask.  LW slowly moves their finger over the painted side before turning the tile over to feel of the course side.  “This side feels kind of slippery,” they say, as they point at the painted side.  They continue, “But the other side doesn’t feel very slippery.” “You know, I noticed that too,” I respond and add, “The painted side of the tile feels slippery and it slides well, but the other side isn’t painted, isn’t slippery, and doesn’t slide very well.”  “Yeah,” they say. 

Soon after this exchange, LW begins testing the smooth glass pieces before they are joined by OS, who aids them in racing the various objects down the ramp, after noticing the speed of the sliding glass.  OS too brings with them a tapestry, woven together with the threads of meaning, experience, and context.  Because of this, the tapestry of our environment changes as new meanings are made in the interplay of the simultaneous tapestries that are present. 

Looking back on that moment of co-learning in the classroom environment, I realize that the threads and tapestries that I’ve been describing here could otherwise be described as an ecology of meaning.  With each new thread, meaning is woven into each individual and collective tapestry which then are transformed by their relation to other tapestries and their inherent threads.  This ecology of meaning can be seen in the tiniest tapestry of an ant, made of its many threads of size, shape, color, bodily processes, etc., to the tapestry of a mural painted on the ceiling of a cathedral.  Everything that exists is a tapestry because nothing has its meaning apart from the relationships that make up its many parts.  In this perspective, even the thread that I’ve spoken of here is a tapestry because its inherent meaning is made up of, and through, the experiences and previously constructed meanings (threads) of its host.  In this way, no meaning exists in isolation; each thread is only derived through an ecology of other threads, an ecology of meaning. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Conflict and Opportunity

“Hey I want that helmet!”  “No, me want the helmet!”  “No, me!”  “Me!” I hear these words as I stand on the playground on a brisk winter morning.  Turning towards the commotion, I see that two children are both vying for a blue bicycle helmet, the only blue bicycle helmet that happens to be on the playground today.  I start moving towards them, careful not to rush in too soon, but also aware of how quickly the situation might escalate. 

This is my second day as one of the teachers of the Preschool House after visiting and observing the children three days previously.  On all five of these days, this has been a common occurrence: these two children having a conflict over the same object or toy.  But as common as this occurrence is, what is even more common is these two playing together!  Every day during outside time these two find one another in the yard and quickly commence their time together.  In fact, the situation described above is the direct result of their attempt to ride bikes with one another. 

As humans, as well as animals, conflict is a phenomenon that occurs all around us.  It occurs as a result of desire, of love, of hardship, of need, and a host of other reasons.  In spite of the rate of this occurrence, we find a myriad of ways to avoid it.  These ways are sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, but present nonetheless.  This is understandable as we have witnessed some of the damaging results of conflict; one only has to tune in to the national news these days to glimpse this reality, which makes the ability to navigate conflict all the more urgent and necessary. 

When I was in Reggio Emilia, Italy (home of the Reggio Emilia Approach) a pedagogista there, Annalisa Rabotti, was asked by another educator from the United States how to avoid conflict between children.  Annalisa responded that conflict is certainly not something to be avoided, but rather, “conflict is the pretext for learning how to be together.”  I thought her words were poignant and spoke to the heart of the opportunity created by conflict.  Whenever I see these two children entering into the space of conflct, what I see is opportunity - opportunity for growth, opportunity for connection, opportunity for relationship.

 I kneel down beside them.  I say, “It sounds like you both want the same blue helmet, but there’s only one blue helmet.  What ideas do you have to solve this problem?”  They pause for a moment to think.  “He could use the black helmet,” One child says, as he points to the one hanging nearby.  “No! I want the blue helmet,” the other child responds.  I say, “So, your idea was that he could use the black helmet, but he said no, he still wants the blue helmet." To the second child, I asked: "Do you have any ideas?”  He says, “We could take turns!”  I say, “His idea is that you could take turns.  What do you think about that?” “No, me don’t want to take turns,” the first child responds.  Then something curious happens.  The first child pauses once again and then says, “He can use the blue helmet, and me make dinner.  Then me use the blue helmet.” I reflect his words to the other child, “Oh, he says you could use the blue helmet while he makes dinner, and then he could use the blue helmet.  What do you think about that idea?”  “Yeah!”, the second child responds, and they rush off to begin their newly negotiated ideas. 

In the midst of this conflict, the two friends learn something about one another.  They move closer in, they encounter one another anew, and depart having existed in the presence of one another’s vulnerability, and thus, have moved deeper into relationship.  This is a monumental gesture, one that has the opportunity to change not only them and their bond together, but also the fabric of the society of which they are a part.  The psychoanalyst Scott Peck says in his book, A Different Drum, “There is no community without vulnerability, and there is no vulnerability without risk.” This young friendship is instructive in this way and offers us further insight into the relational opportunity posed by conflict.