A good traveler leaves herself open to chance.
-- Alison Gopnik (2009, 126)
is a balancing act. Teachers—at once in time and space—attend to the sometimes
congruent, sometimes incongruent demands of curriculum, professional
expectations and the multiple needs of children. Amid all this, teachers also
question how to teach, what to teach, why they teach, and whom they are
teaching (Palmer, 1998). Asking these questions regularly is essential to good
teaching practices (Flinders & Thornton, 1998). As a teacher with 17 years classroom
experience, I pursue these questions with the aim
of planning a day rich with a variety of engaging activities. I believe that
children in the early primary grades need equal measures of physical play and
creative pursuits, such as centre-based free play, in balance with a focus on
skill development, such as literacy and numeracy. An image associated with
centre-based free play might be one of groups of children scattered about the
classroom, some playing with blocks, others with paint, while others might be
listening to recordings of books at a listening centre. An image associated
with the development of skills might be one of children sitting at tables
practicing their printing or creating patterns with coloured math
manipulatives. In the first image, children are working with the flexibility of
physical movement and choice. In the second image, children are working at
their seats, contained by their table space, following the directions of the
teacher. The intent of sharing these two images, and the associated words of
'flexibility,' 'containment,' 'choice' and 'teacher-direction,' is not to posit
a good/bad paradigm of these classroom activities. Rather, I share these images
to remind us that children need all kinds of movement and engagement in their
learning, and that teachers need to make pedagogical decisions that enable
children to experience a balanced range of activities in a school day.
Despite my best
intentions to maintain an equal balance of the physical flexibility associated
with play and the containment associated with seat-work, my teaching practice
has slowly tipped from the latter to the former. This tipping towards teacher-
and curriculum-driven skills and programming, in favour of other developmental
needs of children, is a result of a variety of external pressures. These
pressures include curricular and systematic expectations (which are arguably
misaligned with the children's age and development) such as accountability,
standardized testing, and an over-emphasis on skill-based academics (Christie
& Roskos, 2006; Elkind, 2007; Tyre, 2008). As this balance has tipped, it
has been my fearful observation that the energy for engagement in my class has
waned. We have trundled along in our routines, following our day plan, learning
skills, trying our best, and fulfilling curriculum outcomes. Over the years, I
have learned to manage the class in a manner that is calm, predictable, safe,
and well …controlled. I don't question the importance and necessity of
following routine and addressing skills in Grade 1—my life lessons as a
classical musician and athlete have taught me the value of practicing technique
and daily perseverance—and I don't question the need for a calm class
atmosphere both for the benefit of students and myself. But, as my years of
classroom teaching unfolded, I began to wonder what creative spark and energy
flow was being lost in the action of tipping, in this over-weighting of the
In order to
reflect on this pedagogical tension, I began a Master's in Education in the
Urban Learner Cohort program at The University of British Columbia in 2006. The
Urban Learner Cohort program is designed for educators who wish to investigate
matters of pedagogy, curriculum, lived experience, and personal agency within
the contexts of their classroom and school community. I entered this program
questioning how the arts might serve to strike a more equal balance between
academic skills and creative outlets within the context of public education,
how I might best support engaged happy learners in the classroom, and how I
might reinvigorate my teaching practice with energy and inspiration. In this
paper, I share my learning throughout my Masters by describing an action
research project that I undertook with my Grade 1 students in 2007, which was
oriented towards my on-going inquiry into these questions.
intent for this project was to work with students to create a
multi-disciplinary show. It would be a show that was born out of the ideas and
themes brainstormed by my students in response to a teacher-led directive and
question: We're going to create a show! What do you want to do it about? It would be a show that was planned,
rehearsed and produced for public performance. I have worked with children to
create such shows before with great success: success for the students, parents,
teaching community, and for myself. Creating such a show with children would be
a breeze! It would be fun! We would learn lots!
The idea for
creating a show for public performance would keep me in the role of
teacher-in-control. It would be an art form that I was highly familiar with. I
would direct the show, rehearsing planned scenes over and over with the kids
until they had it just right. In the role of director, I would bring my classically
trained musician's background to the students' theatrical experience, with the
desire for repetition within rehearsal, the desire for lines to be delivered
just so, and for choreographed dance numbers to unfold in synchronicity.
Practice, practice, practice, after all, makes perfect.
already knew the outcome of such a venture, having done it many times:
The kids will
have great ideas. I will (ahem) help form those ideas into (ahem) better, more
stage-worthy plans. We will practice, practice, practice. We will spend more
time practicing herding on and off stage than anything else. Performance night
will be a madness of hyper energy and excitement. The children will be dazzled
by the stage lights. Some will love it; some will forget what to do. The
parents will love it (but, are they laughing with the children, or at the
children?). When it is all over, the kids will feel both proud and completely
relieved. As will I.
Instead of the
planned, prescribed show, I invited something new to enter onto the stage of my
teaching practice, and welcomed into my classroom the reflections of
performative inquiry and the imaginings of role drama. This combination of
theoretical framework and methodology opened the possibility for me to inhabit
at once the roles of teacher, researcher, and participant in the action of
learning. These multiple roles would allow me to fulfill my professional
responsibilities, provide me with a framework to reflect as a teacher, and a
platform for conducting my action research. Specifically, this framework would
allow me to respond to my questions: What happens when students and teachers
work together to create an on-going role drama during the school day? What
happens when I let go of the control over children's learning outcomes? And,
what would happen if I were to (without fear) invite magic and wonder back into
my teaching practice on a daily basis? I framed my inquiry as a "what happens
when" study to encourage the asking of questions based simply on curiosity: What
happens when we do this…or that? What if we tried…? What now? Asking such questions allows the
teacher-researcher to be open to any and all learning that has the potential to
emerge from a lived, performative experience.
Children are at the centre of teaching. Our choices as teachers
are made in direct consideration of the well-being of children in our care in
any given classroom moment. Van Manen's (1991) conception of a pedagogical
moment reflects this. He suggests that in the busy momentum of teaching
children, the pedagogical moment lies in the "concrete and practical response
to the question, What to do here?" (44). Pedagogical action in response to a
pedagogical moment is thoughtful, reflective, and is "always concerned with the
child's self and development" (33). Van Manen further asserts that pedagogy is the relational sphere that coexists between adults
and children, and reminds us that good pedagogy is
conditioned by our sense of love, care, hope and responsibility for children.
It is our awareness of children, and how we choose to respond in any given
moment, that is essential to good teaching.
conceives of moments of pedagogical awareness and choice in terms of what he
calls, 'the stop,' This is when the "onrushing momentum" (ix) of life is broken
and we are opened up to new possibilities, new ways of being, of thinking and
imagining. Appelbaum asserts that such moments are the "advent of an
intelligence of choice …either to remain habit-bound or to regain a freedom in
one's approach to an endeavor" (xi). The stop is that precise suspension of
time we experience when deeply engaged in something—such as working in the
classroom with 24 young children and their diverse needs—and we then are
confronted with something remarkable and new—such as that moment when an
excited child brings a curious seed pod to class in the morning, discovered on
the walk to school, on a day when the day plan says "study fairy tales."
Appelbaum speaks of this moment of choice in terms of standing before two
diverging pathways, where: "One leads to a repetition of the known, the tried
and true, the old, the established. It is safe, secure, and stale. The other
finds a renewed importance in the unknown, then uncharted, the new, the dark,
and dangerous. The moment I speak of is not choice in the sense of deliberative
reason but an action that choice itself stands on …the stop is the time of
I turn to
performative inquiry (Fels, 1998) as a theoretical framework for this research,
because it embraces performed experience and pedagogical response within the
complex process of learning as shared between students and teachers. One
example of a performed experience in the classroom is a role drama, acted and
improvised in response to a piece of literature or a social problem. The crux
of performative inquiry lies in those singular 'Aha! Moments' or 'moments of recognition'
that arise (whether in the immediacy of the experience or later upon
reflection) as a result of being confronted with a new way of thinking. It is
from such moments that learning and possibility emerge. Fels (2004b) explains
inquiry is a research vehicle that recognizes performance in action and
interaction as a co-evolving space of learning and exploration" (5). In
performative inquiry the teacher-researchers take an active, participatory role
in the experience along with their students and lay themselves open to
listening for and paying attention to the deep inner moments of awareness and
discovery that emerges.
together van Manen's (1991) assertion that pedagogical action is a practical
and caring response to the many pedagogical moments that arise when teaching
children, Appelbaum's (1995) image of 'the stop' as being that precise,
energized moment when we are confronted with new possibilities and choice for
new directions, and Fels' (1998, 2004a, 2004b) notion of performative inquiry
as a means to attend to remarkable moments of learning within a lived,
performed experience, I would like draw attention to a clear connection. If we
are fully engaged in an action, there is the possibility for learning to emerge
from those moments in time when we are confronted with, and open to, choice.
The Grade 1 classroom is rich with pedagogical moments, and role drama is rich
with creative possibility. It is in this combined site of possibility—the
classroom and the arts—that I centered my inquiry.
Role drama is a
method for creating meaningful learning opportunities in class. In role drama,
"participants take on roles or positions of responsibility and together,
co-create an 'imaginary world,' which has a logical coherence in which
decisions, actions, and words are performed spontaneously" (Fels, 2004b, 84).
Participants in role drama are invited to think, act, and talk like another
person or character. There is no script to follow. There is simply the frame of
a situation (imagined or real) to explore. In this way role drama is
improvisational—not unlike life itself. Inviting children to participate in
role drama provides a platform on which they can examine their thoughts and
experiences of others, and through this examination they can develop social and
relational problem-solving skills.
There are two
significant features that distinguish role drama from scripted drama: purpose
and relational dynamic. The purpose of a scripted drama is public performance
(such as in a theatre) so that an audience can engage in meaning-making,
whereas role drama is process driven, with the aim of participants exploring
issues of personal, social, or subject-based relevance (Cornett & Smithrim,
2001). The relational dynamics of scripted and role drama are also very
different. In the creation of a scripted drama, a distinct relational dynamic
exists: director and actor––the director directs, the actor follows, which is
coincidently not unlike a traditional teacher-student dynamic. In role drama,
the teacher takes a role within the drama, thus having the potential to subvert
and alter a traditionally held student/teacher dynamic (Tarlington &
My method was
simple. One January day after recess, I invited the students in my Grade 1
class to participate in a role drama by presenting them with a large box,
sealed with packing paper. As I put the box in front of the class, I asked the
question: "What do you think is in the box?' I invited the students
to assume various roles in order to discover, reveal, and respond to their
ideas. Each day for six weeks, between recess and lunch, the students and I
co-created an imaginary world that resulted from this launching point. Each
daily role drama session began with a brainstorm to remind ourselves what had
happened in our emerging story the previous day, and to clarify our new roles
and directions. Each session ended with a class-wide debrief to discuss moments
of discovery, moments of particular excitement or difficulty, and personal
moments of learning that the student's experienced. All discussions and
debriefs were scribed by myself on large pieces of chart paper in bright
colours. My data from the role drama sessions were collected in four ways: the charts resulting from the daily debriefs, writing
samples from participant journals, the observations I made in role as either the
reporter John T. News or the scientist Dr. Gerhard Wunderbar, and notes from my
reflexive journal, in which I paid particular attention to moments of
difficulty or resistance. All 18 students participated in the role drama
project as part of my classroom-based arts program. I received assent and
consent from 15 of the students and their parents to participate in the study.
It is the data collected from these 15 students that formed the basis for my
Drama: Acts I, II, and III
early primary classroom.
students are sitting angelically on the carpet.
Mr. Hughes is perched perkily on his comfy teacher-chair.
Mr. Hughes: …and tomorrow, we will begin our role drama!
Children: GASP!! (An audible gasp of excitement).
I am reminded
that children are engaged and excited by something new. Even though they have
no idea what a role drama is (yet), they are ready and willing to jump on
board. I am reminded of the importance of creating engagement when working with
students. I am charged with being excited and inspired myself.
Act I: The
A sealed box
was delivered to the classroom from the office by the principal. It was wrapped
in black paper and tape, bearing mysterious seals and symbols. Attached to the
side was the cautionary label:
Please do not open
until all precautions have been taken.
The story that
emerged was about the mystery of the sealed box. The children formed into
cooperative groups to discuss and brainstorm what might be inside the box,
where it might have come from, what precautions must be taken, and what roles
would be needed to study the box. As a class, we played the role of scientist,
doctor, reporter, veterinarian, robotic engineer, language expert specializing
in ancient languages, and archeologist to prepare for the unsealing of the box.
The students, on their own initiative, prepared a medical and a veterinary
clinic (for any potential emergencies), a stock-piled chemical arsenal (in the
event a creature emerged that might attack), they interviewed the principal and
evening custodian about the delivery of the box, and hosted a science
conference reception to welcome scientists—famous the world over—complete with
"Hello My Name Is" tags, nibbling on imagined cookies and juice, in
anticipation of revealing the contents of the box.
Who gave us
this box? (Jonathan)
Maybe it's a
tiger or a mouse, because there are sounds coming out. (Mary)
did it come from? (Bella)
should get a scientist. We should wear protective clothes. We should be careful
of the thing that is in there. (Betsy)
was, of course, fantastic. He entered the room carrying the box. It was heavy,
and he struggled in.
Mr. Hughes, this box was delivered to the school and it says, To the Great and
Noble Members of Grade 1. That's you, right?
Oh yes! Thank you for carrying it all the way up to the third floor. What is
don't know, but it says it came from the Ancient Tar Pits of Alberta and I
heard growling coming from the box as I walked up the stairs.
internal thoughts: Oh goodness, don't suggest anything to the kids. I want
them to create their own story about the contents.
to be letting go of control. Haven't I already suggested a "story" for the kids
to follow by putting a return address on the box that is from "The Tar Pits of
Ancient Alberta" and including dinosaur bones inside the box? So bite your
tongue and go with it.
Act II: Chaos
The box was
unsealed with much anticipation. Many hands were needed to draw incision lines,
cut and retract the black paper. A photojournalist was on hand to record the
momentous occasion. A brown cardboard box was revealed. Much vocal exclamation
was heard over the discovery of words on the box, each word sounded out quickly
by those closest to the action: M-A-S-T-ER B/R, B-OYS B/R, G-IR-LS B/R. Smaller, wrapped boxes were discovered
within. Scientists with stethoscopes and magnifying glasses took over, debating
whether or not they heard sounds coming from within the small boxes. The
opening of the smaller boxes was postponed due to the ringing of the lunch
In advance of
the opening-of-the-smaller-boxes session, I came up with the notion that the
role drama work of the first week was, well, without enough direction. I felt I
enough as a teacher.
So I decided it was important to frame the work of opening the smaller boxes
with a lesson plan that focused on cooperative learning. I wrote my plan out on
the computer, scripting my questions, highlighting specific comments and
classroom management directions. It was a well laid-out plan. I felt very
prepared and quite pleased with myself: Look at how well I do role drama. Look at how organized I
am. I am going to get some great data today, I just know it.
The session was,
of course, absolute chaos. For the kids, the opening of those smaller boxes
(boxes containing little paleontologist kits, with miniature excavating tools
and plaster dinosaur bones packed in sand) had the anticipation and energy of
Christmas, Easter, Halloween, and everyone's birthday all condensed into one
half-hour of ripped-paper madness.
It was fun to
pretend to be an adult scientist: I liked walking around pretending to walk
like a scientist. (Mary)
It was fun
when we opened the box because some people said, "It's scary," and some people
said, "It's okay." (Eva)
It is just
plastic made to look like dinosaur bones. I think it is supposed to make us
think we are archeologists. (Brian)
is...what is a role? (Jonathan)
Today I found it very difficult to be in role: I had difficulty relaxing. The
students were very excited: it had the constant potential to spill into chaos.
David was being a silly scientist, putting the paper on his head and spinning
about with the magnifying glasses. Alex followed suit, as did two others. There
was pushing and grabbing from each group as the kids struggled to get a piece
of the paper. So much for sharing and cooperation. This drove me crazy and I
didn't bite my tongue enough.
Recovery and Discovery
After the chaos
of the previous day, I changed tactics. My new lesson plan: Be Open to
Possibility and Have Fun. Nothing more complex than that. For the final three
days of this phase of the role drama, I invited interested students to join me
in a brainstorming session each morning during shared reading. During these
conversations, we reviewed what the scientists had discovered the previous day,
and we thought about how those discoveries might be realized and played in the
upcoming session. Through these morning collaborations, the students and I
co-created a story that took on a life of its own, propelling the class and
myself forward into each new day.
Let me pause for
a moment to explain the story of The Sealed Box. The story was lived and played
out by the student participants and myself each day. It was refined and
reflected upon during the group brainstorms preceding each session, as well as
in the debriefs following each session:
A rich man
named Master BR had a big collection of museum artifacts that he wanted
studied. So he sent them in a large box to our science laboratory called The
Dinosaur Excavators (TDE) for the scientists to study. TDE is located in
Burnaby. The box arrived via a late-night motorcycle courier, which was
witnessed only by the night custodian. It is the job of TDE to prepare the bones
for a museum exhibit. This museum exhibit would be a tourist attraction,
suitable for tourists arriving by busload, with cameras around their necks.
Roles that the children assumed included: scientist, medical doctor,
veterinarian, archeologist, security guard, chemical expert, custodian, the
sign and museum designer, the language specialist, and Miss. Kitty—the reporter
and radio announcer. My roles were John T. News (reporter), and the scientist
Dr. Gerhard Wunderbar.
It's a bit
noisy but very exciting. (Patti)
figuring out what the symbols meant because it made me think about being a
to be a person sitting in a park. It felt very good. (Jesse)
I think my
favourite part of the two weeks was today when Dr. Gerhard Wunderbar passed out
in the middle of the lab due to the sight of the blood. I got to totally ham it
up, which I love. We all had a good giggle over that.
interesting that Tom has assumed the role of Security Guard/Army Guy (his
words) and is handing out blue tickets to scientists in the lab who are
misbehaving. Three tickets and you are fired! He has just made a deal with Dr.
Sun Sun (who was caught bashing the bones) that he won't give him a ticket now
for this infraction, but if he does it again, he will give him two at once.
What mirrored surface am I seeing reflected back to me here?
As I walked
about the lab in the role of Dr. Gerhard Wunderbar, I found it hard not to ask
questions that were…well, teacher-ish: Content driven questions, questions that
suggest a right or wrong answer. My multiple roles are: teacher, participant,
and researcher. I perceive myself on equal footing with the students when I am
in role as a drama participant, but I wonder what the students think. After
all, I have chosen to be head
of the science lab. What would happen if I took on a role that has no perceived
As I sift
through the words and stories spoken and played out by my students during The
Sealed Box, and as I look for the lessons offered by my reflective journal in
search of my "better, truer idea" (O'Reilley, 1993, 114) of teaching and
learning, three themes have emerged: The first theme is the power of
possibility that comes from the shifting of teacher role, the second theme is
of the releasing of control, and the third theme is of the living of engagement
that contributes to meaningful learning. These themes are reflections of my
learning as a teacher. In experiences of role drama, the reminder by Fels and
McGivern (2002) that, "a collective sharing of experience and reflections among
participants following the performative exploration: what happened…what
insights of feelings or questions emerged, what might have been learned from
the experience?" provides critical insights into learning. In this case, my
learning is about my teaching process and how I respond to pedagogical moments.
This learning is reflective of my purpose in undertaking this work to consider
how I might best support engaged happy learners in the classroom, and how I
might reinvigorate my teaching practice with energy and inspiration.
early primary grades are called upon, everyday, to inhabit a multitude of roles
to meet children's needs. At once, we assume roles of teacher, guide, coach,
entertainer, nurse, advocate, lawyer, psychologist, parent, disciplinarian,
nurturer …and so on. Such roles are necessary in helping young children
navigate the complex world of schools, classrooms, and playgrounds. Aitken, Fraser,
and Price (2007) assert that stepping outside of traditional teacher roles,
such as illustrated above, allows new spaces of learning to open. This new
space holds the seeds for authentic, personal and meaningful moments of
discovery and growth. For example, the student who observed, "I liked
figuring out what the symbols meant because it made me think about being a
scientist" had the
opportunity to think as a scientist, to think creatively about the meaning of
the mysterious symbols on the box. In doing this she followed her own train of
thought and creativity, unencumbered by teacher direction, and discovered her
own space of meaningful learning.
shifting into new roles and dynamics by both teachers and students is readily
facilitated by creating opportunities for role drama in the classroom. It
allows teachers and students to try on new social roles by stepping into
someone else's shoes and trying on that new voice or way of being (Tarlington
& Verriour, 1991). One student referred to this most explicitly when she
stated: "It was fun to pretend to be an adult scientist. I liked walking
around pretending to walk like a scientist." The experience of inhabiting the body of an adult and
imagining how a scientist would walk and move through space was both powerful
and enjoyable for this student. This trying on of new social roles has the
potential to build empathy, understanding, and consideration for the life
experiences of others. Jackson and Kerr-Norflett (1997) state this most
eloquently in terms of understanding multiple perspectives: "The simple
realization that there are other points of view is the beginning of wisdom"
also allows students and teachers to develop responses to challenging
situations. An example of this learning comes from observing the student who "assumed
the role of Security Guard/Army Guy and is handing out blue tickets to
scientists in the lab who are misbehaving." This student exhibited challenging behaviors in class and
was learning positive behaviors with the aid of a token system. This student
had the opportunity to become the behavioral authority, and in doing so
experienced a sense of empowerment that could not exist in our traditional
teacher/student dynamic. Haight, Black, Ostler and Sheridan (2006) describes
this form of social role play as being a means for children to construct
meaning from challenging situations, a way to "transform threatening events
into occasions for mastery or even celebration" (210).
importantly, shifting into new roles and engaging fully in the role drama
allowed new relational opportunities between my students and myself. Grumet
(1996) asserts, "relation is basic to education" (16). In our daily
brainstorms, it was the student's who created the imaginary worlds we occupied:
the science lab and the museum exhibit, with all of the players in them. They
were the Role Drama experts, not I. My job was to launch the conversation and
to scribe the students' ideas. By being a fully engaged participant in the role
drama I found myself having conversations with students that I might not have
had previously, and listening to students in a new way. This was most
profoundly experienced when as Dr. Gerhard Wunderbar I passed out on the floor
and listened to the students' debate how to move me to the hospital. As a
result of being in this role, I forced the disintegration of my status role as
a teacher and inhibited myself from directing their conversation or learning.
of shifting roles and of building new student/teacher relational opportunities
is a contribution towards a respectful, trusting, caring classroom environment
(Noddings, 1995). It encourages "a sense of collaboration and mutual risk
taking" (Aitken et al., 2007, 16). Such an environment will create a foundation
for rich, meaningful learning and is "essential if we are to provide the
necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin"
(hooks, 1994, 13).
There is a delicate balance in navigating the space-edge between the
positive energies of control and the dominating force of controlling. This balance is perhaps most epitomized
in dramatic experiences of learning where children's creativity is foremost a
driving force. Ravitch and Wirth (2007) caution that when teachers enter
controlling roles and "steamroll" (84) their ideas over those of the students
the chance for authentic learning from students and teachers alike is
I am reminded of the day I stumbled over the edge and imposed the
needs of my teacher-researcher self on my students and their energetic ideas.
Up to that point, the drama and its resulting data was certainly interesting,
but apparently (my inner critic informed me) it wasn't serious enough. I was
observing and chronicling conversations and anecdotes, but I didn't have any
stats, or interview sheets, or Likert scales that the students were filling
out. I felt I wasn't being enough of a teacher or enough of a researcher. Thus,
I created a plan that I drew from the science curriculum in reference to the
dinosaur bone kits. I imposed my ideas on the direction I thought the day should take, and what the children should learn. But the excitement of opening the
small boxes overtook any hope of following my plan and sideslipped into chaos.
The words "difficult struggle chaos silly" appear in my reflections. I wanted the
learning to be about cooperation and about learning strategies to record
scientific discovery, whereas the students just wanted to get inside the boxes
and discover their contents. They simply wanted to have fun. It was confronting
this energy and new direction that caused me internal conflict. Do I stick to
my plan (teach to an objective and get good data!) or follow the student's
direction (have fun and discover the mystery!)?
by the above example, my most powerful moments of 'stop' came when I found
myself confronted with the need to direct, guide, manage, get involved, control
the proceedings; moments when I ceased to be in my merged role as
teacher/researcher/participant and I allowed the teacher or researcher to
dominate; moments when I had to bite my tongue to prevent myself from answering
my own questions in order to fill the silent void that children's careful
responses require; moments when I had to bite my tongue so as to not get
involved with the cleaning crew when they muddled through a tight physical
space and say, go around the table go around the table, to maneuver the box into position; moments when I had to
actively resist the urge to get involved and control the proceedings.
I am invited to
re-imagine this edge of tension between control and controlling in a new constructive way through the
words of Lynn Fels. She imagines this edge as being a space where "we bring
forth possible new worlds" (Fels, 2004b, 80). This edge of learning is a
wonderful, energetic, sparking, expanding, turbulent, exciting place to be. It
is filled with hope and wonder, fear and desire, and holds at its centre the
opportunity to learn and shift. Remarkably, children will find meaningful and
necessary work with minimal adult guidance and intervention (Upitis, 1990). My
work with role drama certainly supports this claim. When provided with the
space and time to do so, children—like plants in nature—will blossom to become
the people that they are meant to be, to discover what they are meant to
discover (Brosterman, 1997).
children to find their own openings and discoveries in their learning requires
that I suspend my need to impose controlling in the classroom. Good teaching, or
"teaching on the verge of peril" (Schafer as cited in Smithrim, 2003, 58)
requires teachers to attend to the interests and needs of the students and to
trust that the learning will emerge. The most profound moments of fun and
engagement came when I let go and released my control by allowing my character
to become fully immersed in the unfolding story, such as a squeamish doctor
passing out at the sight of blood. Releasing control does not mean letting go
of safety considerations—a responsibility that all teachers of young children
are charged with—but it does mean not imposing teacher-held beliefs and ideas
on students (Ravitch, 2007).
I was not infrequently confronted with the need to bite my tongue
as students suggested ideas during our daily brainstorms. For example, when the
idea emerged that we were operating a laboratory called The Dinosaur Excavators
located in Burnaby (of
all places), my immediate desire was to suggest the
students come up with a more glamorous location. How about Paris, or New
York? Think of the dramatic potential of an international location! The
costumes! The accents! It
was the act of resisting the urge to impose my ideas on the students that
allowed them to create a story that was authentically theirs. It allowed for
students to gain increased confidence in the validity and importance of their
voices and ideas as positive members contributing to a democratic community.
co-creating the story of the sealed box with my students, I felt a daily buzz
of energy and excitement that spoke of the students' engagement in their
learning. They had fun. In our daily brainstorms, it was the students who
created the imaginary worlds we occupied: the science lab, the museum exhibit,
and all of the players in it. They were the role drama experts; not I. Shifting
creative authority from me to the students gave power and energy to their
ideas. It is this vital conversation and practice of students and teachers
co-creating meaningful, engaged learning experiences that allows us to shift
from notions of schooling to notions of education (Greene, 2001). It is this
pressing necessity to shift release live inside education in community with my students that will
spark magic and wonder, learning and discovery in the classroom.
study on arts-informed education entitled Learning Through the Arts (Smithrim
& Upitis, 2005; Upitis & Smithrim, 2003) investigated the relationship
between school-based arts programs and student engagement. One critical finding
was that student involvement in the arts at school contributes to increased
engagement in learning. Upitis and Smithrim note, "nearly all parents
(90%)—regardless of school type—reported that the arts motivated their children
to learn" (Upitis & Smithrim, 2003, 2). Active participation in the arts at
school might not necessarily make you smarter, but increased engagement in
school can have the effect of opening new doors and possibilities unimagined
before, and encourage students to deeply value education, learning, and
Children love to
play and have fun. These are two key ingredients towards engaging young
children in their learning (Michnick Golinkoff, Hirsh-Pasek, & Singer,
2006). Students become motivated to learn when they are deeply interested and passionate
about their learning (Aitken et al., 2007). As illuminated in the Learning
Through the Arts study, it is easy to make the connection that student
engagement and active participation contributes to success in learning.
Engagement begets success begets a sense of fun and the desire to learn more
and (hopefully) the desire to "be involved in the lifelong construction of a
state of wonder and serenity" (Upitis & Smithrim, 2003, 48).
disastrous results of my highly planned session, I recognized that the only
specific outcome I could 'plan' for would simply be to have fun. That would be
the plan from which the curriculum of the role drama would emerge. Having fun
is, of course, vital to the experience of young children. Asking the question "did
I have fun today?" is most often the barometer that kids use to determine
whether they had a good day at school or not. A fun activity more often than not means
playing in the block centre during activity time, or playing outside at recess.
I value the importance and necessity of building in time during my day to
address skills—after all, where would the concert pianist be without the
benefit of scales and arpeggios—but how often have I heard my students wax
enthusiastically about that fun printing activity or that scintillating phonics lesson?
asserts: "We need a curriculum that makes kids happy to go to school" (2). What
could such a curriculum look, sound, and feel like? How would it be supported?
What kind of physical spaces would be needed for such a curriculum to be
expressed? What kind of new school-based policies would emerge from such a
curriculum? What would happen if our shared, collective mandate were simply:
teach to a sense of fun and happiness? Imagine that. Imagine how that would
change the experience of all who enter a school: kids, families, and staff.
Imagine how that might change educational policy and expectation of what is
understood to be important in the education of children.
Why I Teach
I teach to live.
I teach to share. I teach to make a difference. I teach because that is what I
was called to do. I teach to pay my bills and secure my pension. I teach
because I love children. I teach because it is an important job. I teach
because I feel I am making a valuable contribution to society. I teach because
it is the right thing to do. I teach because I have been inspired to learn by
the great teachers in my life: classroom teachers, sports coaches, and private
music teachers. Most significantly, I teach to learn.
question, following a line of inquiry, reveals new questions and new
possibilities. Fels led to Appelbaum led to role drama led to van Manen.
Questioning leads to inquiry leads to discovery leads to possibility. Through
the inquiry of this role drama project I learned the importance that young
children place on having fun in school. I have learned (and relearned) that as
children work through and negotiate their personal discoveries, play really
does equal learning (Michnick Golinkoff et al., 2006). I have learned the value
of bravely asking children, what are you curious about; what do you want to
learn about today? …and,
to follow their lead. I have learned to lighten up in the classroom and to
limit my controlling instincts because then student learning has space to
emerge. I have learned a little about using the great tool of role drama to
increase student agency and engagement in their learning. I have learned to
listen attentively to my own 'stops' and moments of resistance, to help me be a
better teacher. I strive to teach not to grand social ideals but to this
child, this place right here, this moment right now. Mostly I have been reminded that
children's learning and development requires patience, pacing, and time to
unfold. And I have learned to trust that new horizons will continue to emerge
inside the classroom as my students and I share in community of learning.
Scene Culled from Memory
The end of the
listened to the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony: The Ode to Joy.
The German text includes the words Freude and Elysium: Joy and Paradise. I asked the kids: What is Paradise? No response. So I changed the question: Where
is Paradise? Hands went
up immediately. JD, in his infinite wisdom, said: You know when you are inside the classroom? And then you
leave to go outside
to play? That's Paradise.
Calm has filled
the room—the kind of calm that can only descend after students have fled the
classrooms and hallways for the freedom of Paradise outside the classroom. I am
at my table, ruffling through some written reflections about the day's role
drama. And I stumble upon a treasure, a gift that holds me, stopped by the
simplicity of its words. I translate it from it from its beautiful, brave kid
Today I was
working on a sign for the lab when I heard a loud YES!! Me and Bob rushed out
of the lab. It was Dr. Larvae. I was relieved there was something in his hands.
It was a dinosaur bone! We went back up the stairs a couple of minutes later.
He had a special presentation for the bones. It was so cool. Everybody was
happy today. Even the boss of the lab was happy about the bones. I liked today.
"Even the boss
was happy." That would, of course, be Dr. Gerhard Wunderbar—happy about the
successful excavation of bones by this capable team of Grade 1 scientists. But
it would also have been me, Mr. Hughes—happy that my students were engaged in
meaningful, playful, mindful work. Happy that I was held—suspended—deep inside
this experience. Happy that now, in this moment, magic and wonder was being
unearthed (and picked and bashed and shouted and ripped and unveiled and
created and acted and lived) and re-lived again in my classroom. I was happy
that, stopped inside a treasured moment, Paradise was found inside the
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