Collaboration & Collective Knowledge

This week’s blog is from April Brooks, educator extraordinaire and founding member of Teach The Future, a fellowship of private and public school teachers dedicated to connecting and collaborating with Savannah’s creative enterprises and industries so students can interact and learn directly from our community’s technology and innovation experts.  Read on as April shares what happens when teachers, students and the business community combine their collective brainpower. FYI – – The Creative Coast’s blogspot is Savannah’s sounding board for local thinkers, innovators, wanderers and wonderers. Guest bloggers share their thoughts, opinions and creative noodling from all over the map…

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. Collaboration expands our collective knowledge. I believe when people come together through exploration, discussion and play, it ultimately becomes a more powerful experience. Collaboration can be done at any age! You would be amazed at what four year olds can learn and do! As the artist Alexander Calder said, “My fan mail is enormous. Everyone is under six.” I have been teaching for 20 years and every year is different. With each passing year I evolve as a teacher. Why? Because learning is constantly constructed and reconstructed. Working with young children is my passion. Creativity at this level of child development is pure, not encumbered by years of being told what to do and how to think. Donna Stafford, a mentor and veteran teacher of Kindergarten embraced the importance of play. Her classroom environment was warm, inviting and filled with happy children busy at their work, busy at play. I began to ask and explore what this meant to my own practice of teaching. This journey of incorporating play with collaboration began with my personal love of art and how it inspires my teaching. I saw my first Calder piece in Chicago. Alexander Calder was a sculptor known as the originator of the mobile, a type of moving sculpture made with balanced or suspended shapes that moves in response to the touch or air currents. The viewer can’t help but think…This is play! The first time I tried to integrate this method of art into my classroom we created one small mobile with a collection of 16 pieces of clay, one from each child. This wasn’t exactly where I wanted the learning to go, so it was time to reconstruct. I wanted the final product to be made up of unique individual pieces contributing to a larger collective whole. I had no idea where the project would go, but knew I wanted to get started with shapes, an essential basic skill for students at this age. I provided opportunities for my students to explore the concept through the medium of clay, which offers a kinesthetic and exploratory opportunity for children to build their knowledge. Each child crafted six shapes, painted and fired with primary colors, to emanate Calder’s work. Our lower school art teacher, Sharon Eswine, was so gracious in offering materials: clay, glaze and the kiln. It took several firings to complete 198 pieces! The students then moved on to play with mobile design. Using sticks, yarn and paper shapes, they built mock-up mobiles that would later become the inspiration for their final piece. It was at this point that the problem set in. We didn’t have a unifying art form, just 198 pieces of pottery in 33 separate mobile designs. I began to ask myself essential questions…Mobile1B How can we create one piece that becomes a collective interactive experience just like Calder’s work? How can we make this process collaborative? How can we provide an experience where the children’s art is more than the individual pieces of clay, or individual mobiles, but rather combines everyone’s work into one collective form? My goal was to facilitate an experience where the child, as the artist, was not just a passive observer but an active participant, discovering/interacting – in a sense being at play. We had a vision. I had to look outside myself to find a larger network of knowledge: collaboration. Reaching out to a community of resources became essential. I am an expert at teaching young children but I am not an expert at metal works or design. Aaron Heisler, father of my student Sophie and locally recognized artist and teacher at SCAD happened to be right in front of me. His excitement in the project assured me we were onto something. My fellow teacher, Sarah Gordon, and I visited the Industrial Design Department at SCAD. Aaron felt it important to also include two of his graduated students, Gwen Polich and Shawn Horsey. They worked with us to bring this vision to fruition and further enhance the children’s learning. Heisler and his team came up with some mock designs based on the children’s work. We had a plan: construct and reconstruct. Reviewing the graphic designs, Heisler and his team were able to build a framework that could be utilized to display individual mobiles as one interactive piece. Our culminating piece was on display as a part of our Annual Pre-Kindergarten Art Show in late April. It was exhilarating to see the children experience and interact with the artwork, to see how all the parts came together with each child celebrating their part in the collaborative, universal aesthetic experience. We are now in our third year weaving art into the basic academic tenets for this age group. Art is play in its finest form: higher level thinking through exploration and problem solving. It is making. It is failure. It is collective. Young children are not afraid to experiment, to fail, to reconstruct, to play. As I reflect on this experience, I think about what I have come to understand on my professional journey. Collaboration and collective knowledge are essential to creating life long learners. And isn’t that the goal of education? I encourage other educators to use community resources to bring learning and the arts alive for everyone. As a member of the inaugural group of Teach the Future Fellowship I have had the amazing influence and support from other educators and from community resources. I thank my team members Sarah Gordon, Barbara Wilkes, Debbe Furey and Debra Mamalakis in their tireless efforts to bring the children’s work to life. Most importantly I am grateful for the influence of Dr. Paul Pressley, headmaster emeritus whom I started working under in 2002, for leading the way in innovation and for trusting his teachers’ visions for education at The Savannah Country Day School. April]]>

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