PreKTransformationThe study of transformation in prekindergarten provides an elegant example of how learning happens at Nueva and illustrates teaching practices repeated throughout the grades: thematic, multidisciplinary, and child-centered.

Thematic
Themes in prekindergarten emerge from the interaction of three elements: the carefully prepared environment; the behavior of the children encountering the environment and revealing their thoughts, feelings and capabilities; and the deep listening, documentation, reflection and charting of the teachers. According to Carolee Fucigna, prekindergarten teacher, “We never choose the theme for the students; we make offerings and provocations, and then we observe, document, and plan.”

As the school year began, Carolee and Riley Wise, prekindergarten co-teacher, offered students a network of experiences. Among the offerings were mortars and pestles, simple but ancient tools that, together with some muscle, allow the user to transform materials. As the students began to uncover what these tools do, they asked to gather and grind new materials, even bringing in herbs from home. Observing their efforts, interests and questions, teachers could see that transformation of materials was clearly compelling.

Transformation, defined as a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance, happens around us all the time, and makes a wonderful theme for learning in any grade. A seemingly big concept for prekindergarten-age students, it was perfect as a unifying idea: real-world, active, tangible, and observable.

Grinding almost anything they could, students transformed grains and other materials — seeds, acorns, cinnamon sticks, and coffee beans — into smaller particles. They crushed them, observing how large materials became “splintery pieces and powder” through their work. Transformation was the lens students looked through to examine what they started with, what they did to it, and what they were left with. It helped them understand in a meaningful way.

Multidisciplinary
While thematic elements were everywhere, prekindergarten science truly came alive. In class meetings, students collectively predicted what would happen to each material they were going to crush. For example, “rice [will become] soft, mushy, sticky,” and, “cinnamon [will become] chunks and powder.” They tested alternative materials and new crushing methods to try to get different results. Every experience involved doing, looking, recording and discussing. The seeds of scientific inquiry were sown!

In their literacy work, reading Corn is Maize by Aliki became an entry point to history and culture. They were exposed to ancient Mayan worship of corn and to the idea that people in our world have different names for God, a conversation that has come up frequently in subsequent months.

Corn Is Maize also introduced them to parts of the corn plant and other grasses. Related hands-on experiences included a field trip to Arata’s Farm in Half Moon Bay, where they closely examined corn stalks, and a Nueva campus “grass walk,” leading to identification of grasses and the emergence of scientific pattern recognition as they examined plant after plant.

Broadening their scientific inquiry, the students had a study session with two 8th graders who were studying the question, “How is the whole world going to continue to be fed?” Not only did the 8th graders provide reference materials and a fun tour of their garden, they modeled the scientific curiosity of Nueva middle school students. According to Carolee, “It is always powerful for prekindergarten students to interact with older Nueva students in a deep, meaningful, and thinking way.” Science study continued when grinding berries into a potion yielded a beautiful, purple color; their excitement led to work testing various natural dyes, an entirely new, rich area of study!

Play, an essential and age-appropriate part of the prekindergarten program, indicated to teachers that students were connecting to their study and learning. Transforming things was fun: using the mortar and pestle inspired scripts of “stirring the brew,” making potions, and the science of chemistry. Some students brought their grinder results to the prekindergarten fort, and teachers listened closely as comments frequently turned to food, cooking and baking topics.

As they wondered if the “powder [they] made from barley [was] enough for pancakes?” teachers created opportunities for conversations and experiences related to food. Corn is Maize connected them to Central and South American dishes that feature corn, and framed their experience making arepa, Colombian corn cake, from scratch with a parent volunteer. They ground barley, wheat and corn meal in a Vitamix so they could make pancakes, cookies, and muffins, and they took time to write recipes during Writer’s Workshop.

Math practices were also integrated as students began to build habits of collecting data and thinking more deeply about what they observed. Using simple “yes, no, and maybe so” choices, they practiced the language of quantification by tallying preferences for the aroma of ground cinnamon, coffee beans, mint, and other materials. In the kitchen, they practiced with measuring tools as they made food for snack-time.

As a special ending to this study, Carolee and Riley brought in Carin Sauerwein, a professional textile designer for Old Navy and an expert in indigo, who taught students how the color blue was made from natural materials. During their work with natural dyes, students had expressed the desire to make blue, but had never achieved the result. Carin taught them the history and process of indigo dyeing, showed them many examples of patterned fabrics, and demonstrated the techniques she used to produce them. The most exciting part was when she worked with each student to create a tie-dye t-shirt or a bandana utilizing some of the techniques of shibori, the Japanese word describing the variety of ways to embellish textiles by shaping and securing it before dyeing. The students enjoyed the swirling, crimping, clamping, folding, and dipping!

Student-centered
The most essential ingredient of this highly successful study of transformation was the teaching process: the connectedness to the students, the deep listening by the teachers, their constant observation and documentation of each day, and the collaborative charting of the next offerings. Class meetings were essential as teachers brought each exciting event into the students’ consciousness by talking about it, by looking together at images taken of the students doing their work, and by comparing expected results to their actual results. According to Carolee, “This is how prekindergarten students reflect and think about their thinking; it makes it real to them.”

Carolee and Riley both honor the seriousness and beauty of their relationships with their students. Carolee said, “The students are always talking while they’re working. We observe and listen closely. Our listening to them nurtures their efforts.”


February 15, 2016

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