By: Dawn Irwin
It’s been exactly one month and five days since I have returned to school from a six-month maternity leave. I feel so lucky that I was given that opportunity. I’m very aware of the fact that most caregivers in our society do not get that long at home with a new child. Some can only afford a couple of weeks, which honestly, is another topic I could go on and on about. I digress.
Having the space to get to know my new baby and giving our family the time we needed to adjust to this new normal is something I will be eternally grateful for. However, I have to say, it feels so good to be back.
While savoring quiet snuggles with my baby at home, I also longed for the beautiful, orchestrated chaos of a room full of twenty children and four teachers. I missed my students and co-teachers more than words could ever properly describe, but I’ll do my best to try.
I missed the sound of blocks crashing together. The look of pride and accomplishment on a child’s face when she feels finished with her painting. The laughter and camaraderie felt with families. The soft and supportive words of a fellow teacher helping a child say goodbye to his dad at drop off. I missed the excitement felt between teacher and student when they’ve uncovered a new discovery. The spontaneous hug from a friend while playing outside. The organic, teachable moments found in a multi-age classroom. The natural flow of a day full of uninterrupted play. The intricate dance created working in a classroom side by side with three teachers I respect and love.
But, most of all, I missed the magic of emergent curriculum.
Observing my students in the classroom, creating provocations based on those observations, and building a curriculum thread from the results of those provocations is one of my favorite aspects of teaching. It permits me to follow a child’s interests, trust in her sense of wonder, and present items, ideas, and events that will challenge or gently push her pursuit of knowledge to a deeper level.
For me, reflective curriculum planning creates a perfect marriage with emergent curriculum. Thinking back on conversations, moments in play, and books I’ve recently engaged in with my students, or witnessed them doing without a teacher’s involvement, allows me to ensure that the provocations I am setting out in the morning directly correlate with something that has peaked their general curiosity. Reflecting back on the success, or interest, in the provocation helps me figure out what path the children are trying to lead us down. If a provocation isn’t a success, I can analyze the reasons why and make adjustments from there. Lucky for me, a month into my time back at school I am knee deep in a thread that just keeps growing.
One of the other great things about emergent curriculum is it supports following and exploring the interests of everyone in the classroom, including the teachers. It encourages educators to share their interests with their students to help expose them to new experiences and ideas.
I love music. I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. The emotional connection that is created when I pour myself into a piece of music is the closest I’ve ever come to an out of body experience. I lose my sense of self in the very best way possible. I’ve always wanted to share my love of music with my students. I did my best, but felt that my inability to play an instrument really put a damper on it. Last year, my amazing boss creatively turned one of our professional development sessions into a ukulele lesson. After about an hour, I was hooked. I spent a lot of my time on maternity leave learning new songs and practicing them in front of the perfect audience – my four-year-old son. By the time I came back, I felt confident enough to sing and play for my students.
The provocations started out with instruments we already had in the classroom. The children would come over to investigate, perhaps play an instrument or two, or ask to sing songs. When my then seven-month-old baby was in the group, the older students loved showing her how to tap the wooden sticks together, ring the jingle bells, rub the sand paper covered clappers together, and clapped joyfully when she was successful – a wonderfully organic example of the magic of multiage education. Don’t worry, we will chat about this incredibleness later. As interest grew in the instruments, I brought my ukulele into the classroom. Again, it started with a general fascination and evolved into a desire to play. We grew from a small group experimenting with our instruments and singing classics like “The Wheels on the Bus” on the rug of our main classroom to a big group of students building stages and backstage curtains, putting together costumes, playing various instruments (including my ukulele), and performing original songs. When our more elaborate productions began happening, I had my most successful reflective curriculum planning session to date.
At the end of our school year, we host an event called Luncheon on the Green. Teachers, students, and their families spend the last day of school eating a picnic lunch together on our playground to celebrate the year and time we’ve spent together. Last year, our students decided they wanted to sing “Puff the Magic Dragon”. They painted a big mural and sang the song together on our stage for their loved ones. There wasn’t a dry eye for a mile around.
While watching one of the videos I took of the students’ performances in our Quiet Room last week, I thought about Luncheon on the Green and had an epiphany. Holly has been working on sewing projects with friends since the beginning of the year. They’ve designed and sewed tons of original clothing items and have been putting together various fashion shows for Davis Studio patrons. Dominique has been exploring and expanding our students’ ideas around paint. They’ve created beautiful, thought-provoking paintings and also took on the challenge of refinishing two chairs for the classroom. Elsa has been building elaborate structures with friends out of plastic rods and connectors. Through her encouragement, they’ve pushed themselves to follow their imaginations, building anything from an underwater shark infested animal hospital to a loop-da-loop castle with a tunnel room inside. I realized that just by following the interests of our small school community we had provided our students the perfect opportunity to present a culmination of their learning throughout the year. I excitedly brought up my idea at our most recent staff meeting. We could merge curriculum threads all four teachers have been following with our students into a spectacular curriculum showcase! As I looked around the table, I saw every single teacher’s eyes shining with delight. The room was buzzing with possibilities. You could feel the electric charge our energy and passion was creating.
And that, my friends, is emergent curriculum at its finest.
Holly Beckert and Dawn Irwin are moms, early childhood educators, and advocates. Please enjoy reading all about our adventures inside and outside of our classroom!