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Learning at its Best, School Stories

Excuse me, I would like to talk to you about my son’s chick!

I wanted to let you know that I haven’t given up on the work of the Co-op. The past few weeks have been wonderfully hectic as I try to draw some threads together before the end of June. The following entry is also posted on my personal blog space, but I was always get different eyes here, so I thought I would cross-post!

My two young boys attend a day care center that is based on a Reggio Emilia-inspired approach to teaching and learning. The Reggio approach, named after the northern Italian city where it originated, is grounded in some very specific beliefs about the way that children, especially young children, learn:

  • Children must have some control over the direction of their learning;
  • Learning is most powerful when seen as a sensual experience; children learn through experiences of touching, moving, listening, seeing, and hearing;
  • Children have a relationship with other children and with material items in the world. Children must have the opportunity to explore these relationships.
  • Children must have endless ways and opportunities to express themselves. All symbolic languages, including dance, drama, sculpture, and writing are  considered to be valuable and honoured forms of expression.

Over the next few weeks, I wanted to share with you a few of the stories that have emerged from our experience of having two young boys in this program, and some of the connections that I’m beginning to make between early learners and my own philosophy of education.

“Look at my chick, Daddy!” My son, Sean, grabbed my hand and led me to a wall of brightly coloured creations outside of his classroom.

“I’ll show you mine,” he said with enthusiasm, as he climbed up on the bench positioned beneath the display. He pointed to chick near the top.

“Oh,” I said. Having paused for a few seconds to take in the scene, I realized that, save for the colour, my son’s chick bore no resemblance to the others in the display. I put a hand on Sean’s shoulder and commented, “Well, yours is the most interesting one up there. Did you give your chick a name?”Can you guess which one is Sean's

“Nope, just chick”, he sighed.

As Sean settled into his classroom for the day, I called his teacher over and, with tongue firmly planted in cheek said, “Excuse me, I would like to you about my son’s chick.”

“Oh?” Miss Barb said.

“Yes, it’s…it’s…well, it’s different than all the rest.”

“Oh, that’s OK,” she assured me, “We encourage each child to be creative. We simply provide them with a few instructions, the materials that we’re using, and the rest is up to them!” In our brief conversation, Sean’s teacher recalled having the same type of reaction when she first started being trained in the Reggio approach. After all, it’s hard not to concentrate on the final product and compare student’s efforts and abilities according to what they produce.

“So, it’s not like they were following a pattern or anything,” I suggested.

“Nope, a few ideas from us, and then they’re on their own.”

There was something very reassuring about the explanation, but I couldn’t resist adding, “Well, it looks like his chick hasn’t quite hatched yet!”

When I got home that evening, I went back to a newsletter that the school had given us when we first arrived. I found an article by Danielle Lalonde, R.E.C.E on the difference between art projects and craft/science projects. In a Reggio-inspired art project, she writes:

  • the process is the thing;
  • the goal is personal expression;
  • students should be given many choices of materials;
  • products will usually be very different;
  • things are always open ended;
  • an idea or model only as starting point;
  • the focus is on being different.

I think of my own earliest experiences with visual arts. I learned very early on that the work that I produced in school never came close to that which my peers produced. I was enthusiastic enough about using crayons, scissors, construction paper and glue but what I came up with never quite looked like it was supposed to! Or did it?

We’re happy to have found a program for our children that nurtures a sense of expression and honours the process over the product. I’m not naïve enough to think product will never be important. In fact, in a consumer-driven culture, product is a very important thing. In these early years of development, however, encouraging a sense of exploration and uniqueness in our children is much more important to us than having them able to reproduce something that hangs in unison on a classroom display wall.

I go back to Danielle’s description of the values with which children in a Reggio-inspired program engage in their artistic explorations. I wonder how many of these could be extended beyond the pre-school years and find a home in our elementary schools and, perhaps, beyond.

Is self-expression and the development of a unique voice part of the way we see school-based education? Does the idea of school as a place of socialization—a place where we learn to conform—conflict with the idea that difference and individuality is a good thing? Who and what is threatened when we hold up one goal as being more important than the other? Although I lean more towards the difference/individuality end of the spectrum now, will my view change as my children become more immersed in the experience of this place we call school?

Your thoughts, insights and expertise are very welcome here!

About Stephen Hurley

After working for over 30 years in Ontario's public education system, I continue to work passionately throughout Canada, still very committed to the idea of effective, powerful learning experiences for all participants. A musician, technology-watcher, father, husband, I find life in the world of education, even when the conversations get a little contentious. If I were to be doing anything else right now, it would be hosting my own syndicated radio program on--you guessed it--education. I blog in a few spots. My personal blog can be found at I can also be found hanging around and, most recently, I can be found on twitter as @stephen_hurley


14 thoughts on “Excuse me, I would like to talk to you about my son’s chick!

  1. Fascinating. I will have to investigate Reggio more, I had heard the name but knew very little. Could you please share what the article you cite for Reggio art project expectations has to say about the contrasting expectations for a Reggio craft/science project? These are among the most detailed and specific outcome and procedure descriptions for project-based learning that I’ve seen. Thanks for sharing!

    Fred Mindlin
    Associate Director for Technology Integration
    Central California Writing Project
    “Intelligence is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.” — John Holt

    Posted by Fred Mindlin | April 24, 2011, 1:43 pm
  2. And, Stephen, as an educator with a master’s in early childhood who also believes in the need for self-expression and the development of a unique voice, I look at your son’s chick for expertise, not sameness. What I see is a kid who drew/created from a different point of view–his perspective is from the side–a MUCH MORE difficult perspective to portray as a young artist–but one which your son attempted, and is proud of, as well he should be.

    So, for me, it’s not that his doesn’t look like the others, it’s that he sees the world through a different lens–and I want that lens to extend to others in the class. So, I would point out his and the other similar one at the bottom and TALK with the class about perspective and points of view, and work it into the block area, asking kids to draw their block structures from the top or side. I would work it into stories, reading books like The True Story of the Three Little Pigs ( I would take them outside and have them look at things (trees, bushes, buildings, playground structures,etc.) from all sides and learn to think beyond the 2-dimensional flat world we typically ask kids to represent in schools.

    Look at the other birds–someone held up an example, I would bet $100. And ALL those other kids have learned to “play school” well as they try to give the teacher what they think she wants…but YOU need to be proud. Your son didn’t–he went with the way HE sees that chick–and his is a more lifelike representation in many ways. He’s actually trying to portray 3-D, as you can see by the layers he attaches. It’s also more representative of the goals the school professes and what I would hope to see in my own child.

    You can tell him, if you want, that you shared this and a teacher who has 36 years experience teaching thought that was one of the best 3-D portrayals of a chick she’d ever seen!

    Enjoy the rest of your Sunday!

    Posted by Paula White | April 24, 2011, 2:26 pm
  3. Okay, in rereading, you clearly say the teacher says there was no pattern–so did she read a book beforehand? What was the purpose of “making” a chick? I really think there is NO way so many could look so similar if they hadn’t seen one made this way. 🙂

    Posted by Paula White | April 24, 2011, 2:30 pm
    • Thanks for your very detailed and expert comments Paula! I’m on my way up to tell him what you said!

      I had a similar thought about the lack of patterning. There may have been a model, or someone may have completed one that others copied. I’ll ask about that!

      I know that the philosophy of the teachers is to avoid leading students too much in their explorations, but…


      Posted by Stephen Hurley | April 24, 2011, 2:46 pm
  4. Paula,

    I just looked at the larger of the two pictures from your perspective, and I now see what you mean. I didn’t see it that way…perhaps it’s me that needs the work in perspective!

    Thanks again for your insights!


    Posted by Stephen Hurley | April 24, 2011, 3:05 pm
  5. In struggling to develop arts-infused experiences that speak to my individual students this year, I’ve come to treasure and appreciate students’ and artists’ unique works.

    Some of my students shy away from realism in their art. They are afraid of doing it wrong. Looking at something like a Renaissance painting is academically intimidating and produces little or no quality art from my students.

    However, those students that have chosen to paint love Impressionism and its offshoots like Fauvism and Pointillism. They have painted in those styles and they can explain those styles because they understand at some sympathetic, deep level that art can be about what you see and imagine. They are talented Impressionists, and for many of them, discussions about art are more concrete and appreciable than those about reading and writing. Working on art together builds a bridge for us to critiquing their reading and writing.

    When they look at something “too” realistic, they think they cannot achieve anything similar because it’s too specific to reality in their minds, not to the artist. They don’t see realism as an artistic choice – they see it as a academic mandate and so respond accordingly.

    My students love art over which they are clearly invited to take ownership. They learn from it. They spend days on their own paintings. One kid swore he’d finish a Pointillist palm tree on a 2′ x 2′ canvas, and did he ever – after weeks of work in between reading instruction stations.

    What I mean to say: we do need to start with what students want to own. We need to support the learning that goes along with what the students want to learn. We need to hope and expect that some idea, piece, or skill will bring them back again and again into a spiral of mastery over something that they love.

    “Read that book by this date and write this paper by this date and take this test on that date,” sounds exactly the same to students as, “Paint this Renaissance Portrait.” That kind of learning is a coerced exercise that triggers defense mechanisms in those unready to love and trust school – and why should those kids love and trust school when they are told that what and how they see and paint and learn is inadequate?

    I see value in the kind of support that Expeditionary Learning schools offer kids in iterating their artwork and connecting it to class-based inquiry and the physical world, but I wouldn’t expect a student under any kind of coercion to produce a work of self-expression.

    Go, unique chick, go. Hatch into whatever it is you value and love.

    Best wishes,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 24, 2011, 8:27 pm
    • Great comments Chad! I’m finding real value in the idea that whatever our kids create offers us an opportunity to have a conversation. Sometimes the conversations are simple, sometimes they work into entire stories. Only rarely do they fail to reveal something new about the way they are thinking about the world.

      In working with students at my school in the area of the arts, I need to find more time to engage them in meaningful conversation about what it is that their work is expressing. Unfortunately, in 40 minute blocks I’m fortunate to be able to engage them in meaningful exploration of art!

      Thanks again for your insights.

      Posted by Stephen Hurley | April 26, 2011, 4:40 am
      • Can you give one block a week over to self-directed learning? When stations don’t fit because of time constraints, sometimes days or weeks do. What if we adopted a faux year-round school schedule and took two weeks between every curricular unit to work on student-driven PBL?

        Hmmmm. The game is afoot.

        Posted by Chad Sansing | April 26, 2011, 10:21 am
        • I would love to do this Chad. Unfortunately, so much of our scheduling up here is now determined by contractual planning time allotments. We’re gradually losing the ability to be flexible and creative in the way we approach our teaching lives!

          Posted by Stephen Hurley | April 26, 2011, 4:37 pm
        • I would love to do this Chad. Unfortunately, so much of our scheduling up here is now determined by contractual planning time allotments. We’re gradually losing the ability to be flexible and creative in the way we approach our teaching lives!

          Posted by Stephen Hurley | April 26, 2011, 4:37 pm
        • I hear you. Let me know if I can be of any help in mulling things over –

          Posted by Chad Sansing | April 27, 2011, 8:27 am
  6. Gosh, Chad, that is so true–“Read that book by this date and write this paper by this date and …” completely takes the pleasure out of reading or writing for many kids. I read a kid’s book this weekend and when I finished, i knew exactly which kid I teach would LOVE to read it. Took it to school today, called her over and told her I read it this weekend and I thought she’d like it and handed it to her. She grinned, turned it over to read the book blurb on the back and walked off smiling–but too minutes later she was back, asking, “How long do I have to read it, because I’ve got a lot of schoolwork this week–our Daily 5 folder is really full of worksheets.”

    My response? “However long you need it.”

    Posted by Paula White | April 25, 2011, 9:10 pm
  7. At our last parent-teacher conference, my daughter (7 y/o – grade 1 in French Immersion) was supposed to walk us through some of the stuff they do in class as a daily routine and show us the stuff she created in the past few months. The teacher handed out a checklist to each kid and asked them to cover the topics on the list with their parents, while she stayed at the side in case someone had a question for her. My daughter diligently started following the “script”. I was in pain watching her painstakingly taking stuff out of her cupboard to show us the drawing, stories, etc. she did and then ticking off the items in the list. I tried to take the checklist from her hands and scribble over the items instead of ticking them off, but she almost started crying asking me to stop as that was not how she was supposed to be done.

    I don’t think the teacher explicitly asked her to do it in a specific way — I know my daughter and I suspect she simply followed whatever loose instructions the teacher may have given them prior to the conference. What I fail to understand is why the teacher — and I suspect I can extend this to the entire school or even many schools — is using any tools to structure something that in my view should be free flowing. By putting a checklist, you’re almost imposing a structure as you’ve provided a tool to prevent errors. By explaining the structure — no matter how nonchalant you may be when doing so — you’re basically setting up rules how something should be done. Kids at such young age will be quick to either copy those rules and structure — which seems to be the case with the rest of the kids in your son’s group — or comply with the perceived rules and stay within the given structures — which was the case with my daughter.

    Luckily, when the student is passionate about something, they seem to grow immunity to rules and structures. My daughter is passionate about drawing cartoons and representing scenes from stories with her pencils or crayons, so her personal creativity and expression was visible in the stuff she did when the assignment was related to her passion — unlike some other stuff where she simply did what was asked from her. I think your son’s teacher should be commended for recognizing that each child has their own way to express themselves!

    The “upside” of being a parent of a kid that is being part of a system where rules and structures are imposed as a way to “educate” them is that you get lots of opportunities to break those rules and model a behavior for your kid that they don’t get to see at school 😉

    Posted by kima | April 26, 2011, 3:39 am

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