By: Dawn Irwin
These past several days have been something else. Things are changing so rapidly - locally, nationally, globally - I haven't been able to think about the future in terms of weeks, or even days. I literally think in hourly increments.
Like everyone else in the world, I am terrified. Terrified and feeling so alone.
Unable to think about anything except what I'm going to be doing in the next 60 minutes because if I start to think too far ahead, I get overwhelmed about the state of the world, my own life, the lives of those I love, and my brain short circuits. It's a state of mind I am not familiar with and I would really like to keep it that way.
After some much needed time of self-reflection, I think I've realized where a lot of my turmoil is coming from.
I am a helper that feels helpless.
I am not doing what I am suppose to be doing. I'm not engaging with my students and families the way I want and should be. I can't participate out in the world in the ways I'm use to. I can't fix the problem and I'm a fixer, so as you can imagine, this has created quite the mental and emotional struggle for me. And, I know I am not alone in these feelings.
All of us - educators, community leaders, parents, our kids - feel completely out of control of our lives and the world around us. We feel isolated and alone without any real sense of what lies ahead of us. And, when we think about that too hard and for too long, anxiety and fear kick in.
Luckily, I am an optimist. This means that these past several days have been a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows, but it also means that when I'm in the low I know I won't be there for too long.
I can't help but think about what good can come out of the bad.
Yesterday, when I felt myself inching back towards to top of the coaster, I started thinking about other places that have dealt with enormous tragedy and what good they were able to find in the bad. Almost immediately, Reggio Emilia, Italy, came to my mind.
In the mid 1940's, Italy was decimated from WWII. Everything had been destroyed, including their educational system. In a small area near Reggio Emilia, the community, particularly the women, decided they were going to create the early childhood educational system they felt their children and families deserved. Now, almost 75 years later, the Reggio Emilia Approach has been studied, emulated, and celebrated all around the globe (full disclosure: I am a card carrying member of the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance). The folks of Reggio Emilia took the darkness and devastation of a tragedy and turned it into one of the most beautiful examples of early childhood education in the world.
They turned helplessness into resiliency. Isolation into collaboration. Hopelessness into encouragement. Tragedy into triumph.
They made the impossible...possible.
Now, as I sit here writing these words, all I can think about is this - if they could do it, so can we. Let's use this unprecedented time to our advantage. Let's turn the fear, helplessness, and anxiety so many of us are feeling into hope and inspiration.
Let's become the agents of change we've always
wanted to be.
It's time to create the early childhood education system we have always dreamed of. It's time to build the future we know our children, families, teachers, and communities deserve. We're early educators. We do the impossible every day all on our own. Imagine what we can do together.
To learn more about the history of the Reggio Emilia Approach click the links below:
By: Dawn Irwin
I can't believe it. It's finally here. It's finally really HAPPENING.
After an incredibly long and difficult road full of way more bumps, potholes, wrong turns, and roadblocks than I thought was humanly possible, we are here.
Growing With Wonder has a home! A place to call its own. I can already hear the sound of little kiddos' feet scampering around the space. I feel their energy filling the classroom with curiosity, excitement, joy, and love. I see them putting on costumes, dancing in front of the mirrors, building amazing structures out of blocks, creating beautiful artwork to hang on the walls, and quietly reading books in our bean bag chairs. But, most of all, I am engulfed by the incredible potential oozing out of the idea Holly and I created. It's ready to seep into every nook and cranny of the building, every human interaction, every member of our community.
I cannot even begin to show the proper gratitude I feel for all of the folks that believed in us every step along the way. We are truly humbled by the love, support, guidance, donations, time, and energy so many of you shared with us over the past several months. We would not be where we are today if it weren't for you. You helped make our dreams come true and we will never ever forget it.
One of these days I will write a post about all of the trials and tribulations we have gone through since last June, but today is not that day. Today I am focusing on the future and what it holds for us.
It's time to put all of our passion, love, experience, and joy where it belongs. Into our very own school with our very own students, helping them, their families, ourselves, and our community grow into our best selves.
Here. We. Go.
The last few weeks have been such a blur. An exciting blur for sure! We are growing from two passionate educators to two business owners! Our passion for teaching is only growing as we develop and cultivate the school of our dreams. Everything we have worked for, dreamed about, and wished is all coming together. Stay tuned! We cannot wait to share with you.
By: Dawn Irwin
As I type this on my laptop keyboard, flying on a plane heading back to Vermont after attending the Save the Children Action Network Advocacy Summit in Washington, D.C., I can’t help but sit here and think about what has brought me to this moment. The past three days have been a whirlwind of workshops, discussion panels, meetings, dinners, and networking, and it still doesn’t feel real. Honestly, I never ever saw myself heading to our nation’s capital, sitting in congressional offices, and speaking on behalf our of country, and ultimately, the world’s most vulnerable population. But…here I am.
So. How did I get here?
Three years ago, I was talking to a teacher friend of mine about how hopeless I was feeling about the fate of our world. It seemed as though everything was getting worse by the day, sometimes the hour, and it was hard not be consumed by it. I was observing, as well as experiencing, the hardships young families in Vermont are facing due to the childcare crisis. I was stuck in a broken system that no one seemed to care about, let alone want to fix. On top of it all, I was a huge Bernie supporter. His defeat and the rise of Trump was a reality I was having an extremely hard time comprehending. The helplessness I was experiencing was getting out of control and I didn’t know what to do to make it better. I remember saying how much I wished there was something, ANYTHING, I could do to change the trajectory I felt like our world was heading in. That’s when my friend told me about an organization called Let’s Grow Kids. I had never heard of it before so she explained that it is a non-profit organization working towards the goal of creating real change for our field and the children and families affected by it. She said they were looking for volunteers to help get the word out and advocate on behalf of the kids and families in our state.
At the time, trying to make any kind of difference felt impossible for two reasons – I did not feel like I had anything worth value to contribute and even if I felt like I did, I assumed any efforts put in on my part would have been in vain. But, I decided to put what Bernie had preached throughout his campaign into practice – I had to become an active member of the community and be the change I wanted to see in the world. So, I hesitantly told my friend that I would attend the next Let’s Grow Kids Burlington Action Team Meeting with her and see what it was all about.
The excited nervousness that was racing through my body was both terrifying and exhilarating. I had never been to a meeting like this before. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I couldn’t stop playing the What If Game in my head. You know the one…What if I don’t know anyone? What were we going to talk about? What would the people be like? What if I said something stupid? What if they didn’t like me? Or, worst of all, what if they told me to leave because they realized I actually didn’t belong there in the first place?
I walked in the door to the meeting room and all of my worst fears evaporated immediately. I was greeted with smiles and a warm, welcoming atmosphere that made me feel comfortable almost right away. From that night on, I was hooked. Three months later, I attended my first Let’s Grow Kids Advocacy Conference. Since then, I have never looked back.
I never imagined I would be politically active. I thought, why would anyone listen to what I had to say? What difference could I make? I had never met any legislators, let alone talked to one. What could one person really do to affect change?
Well, it turns out, that one person can do a lot.
The folks at Let’s Grow Kids believed in me and my ability to become an effective advocate for change. They took a person that had no experience, as well as zero confidence, and taught me that passion and a willingness to try new things goes a long way. They offered me opportunities to use the skills I already had to build new ones. Slowly, but surely, through tiny supported steps outside of my comfort zone, I began to believe in myself.
But, most importantly, they made me believe that real change was actually possible.
Since that first fateful action team meeting, I have collected petition signatures, tabled various events, participated in door to door canvassing, phone banking, been an active member of two action teams, initiated direct correspondence with legislators, talked with representatives face to face, event set up a meeting between a local legislator and some of his constituents. I’ve given a speech about advocacy, and also supported others in their evolution to becoming effective advocates. Then, just about a month and a half ago, I was given the opportunity to up my advocacy game.
Save the Children Action Network hosted an event in Burlington. Actor and activist, Jennifer Garner, and the CEO of Save the Children Action Network (SCAN), Mark Shriver, gave a talk about Save the Children and work they engage in to support families, children, and early education in America. They also talked about SCAN and what they are doing to create policy change at a national level. After the event, Holly and I were both invited to fill out applications for the chance to be one of five Vermont representatives to attend the 2019 Save the Children Action Network Advocacy Summit in Washington, D.C. At the summit, we would be learning about national policy change focused on issues revolving around early childhood and education, as well as the challenges facing children and families on a global level and what we can do as Americans to help protect the world’s most vulnerable population.
As I’m sure you can guess, Holly and I jumped at the chance. We both filled out our applications, were interviewed, and ultimately accepted as two of the Vermont representatives. We were so excited to be able to take the skills Let’s Grow Kids had taught us in a local setting and apply them on a national scale. What’s even more amazing is that we didn’t feel nervous at all! What we felt was motivated, energized, and confident. We boarded our plane to D.C. ready to meet this new challenge head on.
Thinking back over the last three days, I just can’t believe it really happened. We took the bull by the horns and made the absolute most out of the time we had there. We were up early every day and went to bed late every night. We filled our time with workshops, panel discussions, long talks about national policy, hearing remarkable personal stories told by amazing advocates from around the country and the world, interviewing folks about advocacy – including Mark Shriver (Whaaaat!?!) - for our new podcast (don’t worry, you will see more about this soon), making new friends, sharing our passion for teaching and early education everywhere we went. And, last, but certainly not least, we went to Capitol Hill and advocated for policy change with representatives from each Vermont’s legislators’ office. Honestly, so many things have happened in the last 72 hours, its hard to keep it all straight in my mind.
But, the thing I keep coming back to is this: None of this would have been possible, and I would not be the person I am today, without Let’s Grow Kids.
Because of Let’s Grow Kids, I’ve realized that I have a voice and a story worth listening to. I feel empowered, capable of creating real change. I have met so many talented, passionate, and motivated human beings, locally and now nationally, ready and willing to join forces to make a difference in the lives of their neighbors. And, I absolutely without a doubt WOULD NOT have had the courage to ask Mark Shriver, the CEO of Save the Children Action Network, for an interview if I hadn’t cultivated confidence in myself and my abilities through my experiences with Let’s Grow Kids.
But, the most important thing Let’s Grow Kids has done for me is given me the opportunity to teach my children the incredible role advocacy plays in our lives and the impact it makes on the world around them. My now four-year-old son has been right alongside me on this exhilarating ride. He’s been to countless meetings, collected signatures, shook hands and conversed with local legislators, and has been to the State House nine times. His enthusiastic participation at Let’s Grow Kids events is something I look forward to, almost as much as he does.
Four-year-old Lincoln observing the Vermont House of Representatives
The last time we went to the State House, we were watching the floor proceedings. Suddenly, Representative Marybeth Redmond, the representative from our district, stood up, acknowledged him by name, thanked him for the work as an advocate for Vermont kids, just like himself, and asked the Speaker of the House to recognize him. The Speaker recognized him and then every representative on the House floor stood up and clapped.
Every single member of the House of Representatives stood up and clapped for my son.
He stood up and looked at all of those important grownups standing and clapping for him with confidence, pride, and accomplishment oozing out of his little four-year-old body. His face in that moment is something I will never ever forget.
My son knows without a doubt that his voice, and his future vote, really do matter.
Since becoming an advocate, Vermont has started taking the challenges surrounding early childhood very seriously. In the last election cycle, both gubernatorial candidates made childcare one of their top policy issues. And, this legislative session the Vermont House has now passed two bills that specifically address issues facing Vermont children, families, and early educators.
On March 27th, H.531, the “Child Care & Early Learning” Bill passed unanimously (!!!!!) and on April 5th, H.107, the “Paid Family & Medical Leave” Bill was passed. These are two huge wins for Vermont, especially when only four short years ago most Vermonters, let alone legislators, had no idea how bad our childcare crisis truly was.
Even with these two steps forward, we still have an extremely long journey ahead of us.
So, I’m putting out a call for action. Let’s follow in my son’s footsteps. Let’s be brave and put ourselves out there. Talk to community members, reach out to legislators and policy makers on both a local and national level. Take those tiny steps out of our comfort zones, let our voices be heard on behalf of all of Vermont’s, and our nation’s, children. And, let’s not forget to celebrate. Celebrate what we’ve accomplished and the extraordinary future we are building together.
Please. Join Holly, myself, my son, and thousands of others. Speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves and create the change you want see in the world.
Because you can. Because you must.
My ten-month-old daughter, Virginia, Vermont's littlest advocate, hanging out on the House floor.
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.
By: Holly Beckert
“Our image of the child is rich in potential, strong, powerful, competent and most of all connected to adults and other children" ~Loris Malaguzzi
First, it’s a little spark that you see in their eyes,
Next, it’s their little hand reaching for yours directing you over to see something “quick, right now!”
Before you know it it’s their little body running full speed into your arms upon arrival.
It’s a picture drawn just for you.
It’s in the moments you spend together each day.
It’s when they call you “mom” and then blush and say oops, I meant “Miss Holly”
It’s when they come in with something exciting to show you from home because they just knew you’d like to see it.
It’s showing you an acorn, a rock, a stick, some animal tracks, a broken toy.
It’s playing quietly by themselves but looking back now and then just to make sure you are there.
It’s a long story about their weekend, a booboo they got, the last time they went to the library, when something funny/silly/scary happened.
When they trust you with all of their feelings, happy or sad, angry and disappointed, messy feelings, like they say, “warts and all”.
It’s truly being able to be themselves.
It’s trusting you, looking up to you, enjoying and resting in your time together.
It’s the children truly knowing, truly seeing, truly feeling that the teachers are here for them, the classroom belongs to them, that we are supporting who they are as individuals and we don’t want to change a single thing about who they are. This is the twinkling magic we strive for in our relationships with young children.
Because this is what matters, the children come into our space, leaving their families for maybe even the very first time.
There is nothing as important, nothing, as ensuring these children feel they belong, they matter, they are capable of anything. That our trusted relationship is the foundation from which all learning will emerge.
Here’s what they don’t need: top of the line materials, carefully scripted and crafted lessons teacher-directed in the name of “kindergarten readiness”, forced participation.
These little people come into our lives for such a short time and what we do with that time matters. Let’s choose to put relationships first. Achieve those sparkling, glittering, twinkling feelings and you’ll know you’re on the right track. It’s truly amazing what emerges when you do!