Friday, July 18, 2014

The Cute-ness Factor: Is It Worth It?

The #kinderblog14 week 2 challenge is more difficult than the first challenge, that's for sure! This week, we are supposed to write about an article that "pushes our buttons." I didn't find a specific article that fit this purpose because there are far too many about this topic to narrow it down to just one, and I didn't want to pick on a specific person. Also, confrontation is hard for me (what if I offend someone who has worked hard to create something for their students?), and I have a difficult time believing my opinions are worth being heard (what if I really know nothing about what I'm talking about?). Challenge is the perfect word to describe this post.

I've been in so many early childhood classrooms that revolve around cute. Every worksheet (ugh...), project, writing paper, and center is cute. There is cute clip art everywhere, and cute "art" projects hang all over the place. Teachers make all kinds of money selling their cute "art" projects and worksheets on Teachers Pay Teachers; they use their cute blogs to promote their cute products. I am certain you all know exactly what I'm talking about - those cute bumblebees the students created by cutting out the pieces and gluing them all together just so. They all look the same, with the exception of a few crooked stripes or wings here and there. Cute is everywhere in the early childhood realm. Last year, my classroom fit this mold. All year long, I asked myself, "Why am I asking my kids to do this "art" project?" (Is it really art if the artist is recreating something someone already created in exactly the same way?) Rarely could I actually answer that question, and that bothered me. I think what got me to fall into this pattern was the pressure to appear like the other classes; I didn't want to be the one classroom that looked less put-together or not kid-friendly. I had a deeply ingrained fear that parents and outsiders would notice how un-cute my classroom was and think I was less of a teacher because of that. I thought the best way to ensure I avoided all of that was to make project after project to hang all over my classroom.

To say I was conflicted is an understatement. I taught preschool for three years. In those three years I never did a prefab craft with my kiddos. My students created art. They used paint in all kinds of interesting ways. They built 3D structures with clay, pipe cleaners, and craft sticks (and whatever else they could get their hands on). They cut and glued and wrote and colored and explored art in meaningful ways. It was messy, fun, and open-ended. I believed in the process; I believed in the importance of allowing children to manipulate their environment and to use their imagination to create something. When I found myself in a kindergarten classroom in an actual elementary school , I lost that piece of me and I'm sad about that. As a rough estimation, I think my students did three prefab craft projects each week last year. They took so much time, and they stressed me out. By the end of the year, I simply gave the kids the tracers and the paper they would need and showed them an example of what the end project should look like. It was just too much to try to organize 19 5- and 6-year-olds to do the same thing at the same time. (How developmentally appropriate is that anyway?)

I recognize the fine motor practice involved in the cutting and gluing in these projects. I also recognize the power of a brain break; creating a fun something-or-other is a great way to give the brain a break from the academic demands of school. What I'm not sold on is the idea that creating cookie-cutter projects is a valuable use of time. I believe in creating authentic experiences for students. When in real life are my kiddos going to be presented with an example of something and asked to recreate that exact same thing in the exact same way using the exact same materials? Taking it a step further, I wonder if I am I teaching the value of creativity and individuality by asking my students to create the exact same thing? Also, can my students get the fine motor exercise in a more creative way, and can I structure the art project to be more open-ended to ensure students are exploring their creativity while giving their brains a break?

I'm not exactly sure what the perfect answer is. What I do know is I want to be the type of teacher who encourages students to share what they know with those around them in meaningful ways. I'm not convinced I am doing this when I ask my students to recreate something I've already created. What if I provided them with the materials and let them decide how they presented their knowledge? Let's say I'm doing a unit on zoo animals with my kiddos. Instead of giving them tracers and paper to create a giraffe from an example I have already created, what if I asked them to choose their favorite animal and use whatever materials I had available (paper, paint, pipe-cleaners, cardboard, etc.) to create a 2D or 3D representation of their animal? This way, I would be giving them creative control over their learning while still providing them with the fine motor practice they need and a brain break from the academic demands.

Next year will be different for me - that much I know. I want to get back to the core of who I am as a teacher and see where it takes me. I hope to say goodbye to prefab crafts and work to cultivate my kiddos' imaginations in more creative ways.

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