How Emergent Curriculum Lands

Parents often ask for classroom activities in advance—last year, our accreditation consultant wanted to see our weekly plans during her visit to our School. We know that local preschools going through accreditation will doctor up a week’s worth of lesson plans that hit all the right notes, on paper, for the validators to look at during their observations. Some teachers and administrators are big on advance planning and a lot of these educators are serving as gatekeepers and squeeze chutes in the education business. Teachers find themselves on inescapable tracks to prove that their lesson plans meet core academic standards. This does not make them bad teachers. It is a hoop that has been placed in front of them. Teachers are creative and they are able to figure out to cook the books, i.e. meet children’s needs at the same time as meeting regulations and administrator’s needs.

We do not have day-to-day, moment-to-moment plans. These would run contrary to our philosophy of education. We do have thematic units with flexible beginnings and endings, for example our Into the Forest fairy tale unit was at least 3-weeks shorter last year than the year before. We do not want to share these units in advance either although they seem to pop up year after year, because I am more than willing to heave ho something that isn’t working. The only exception to this is in the Tracks class -- there are two culminating art projects. In the pursuit of those two projects the way is open enough for the journey to wiggle and zig and zag along the way.

Within each unit there is wiggle room with the projects and pursuits, but each activity builds towards a whole “something”.” These projects do not necessarily carry over from year to year. This is simply because much of our material lists are changeable and collected/recycled/repurposed at a moment’s notice.

Projects and activities must also must be flexible and responsive because individual and group dynamics and needs change with each class of students. And finally, we cannot remove the adult-presence from the conversation. I learn more each year I teach from the children and from the adults.

The Reggio philosophy frames the “child as researcher” or as Lilian Katz and Judy Harris Helm frame it, “child as investigator.” In their book, Young Investigators, they define project work for us.

Although the word project has many meanings, when used in the “project approach,” it has a specific meaning. A project is an in-depth investigation of a topic worth learning more about.

They continue this definition that in the project-based approach (and I would add in the Reggio-model), the research is conducted by a small group, sometimes an individual child and is pursued to reveal, in detail, the information the child or small group has revealed regarding the topic.

At our Cooperative School, we seek to include the group in a cooperative learning environment (a cooperative through-and-through), so you will not often see individual threads being pulled from the cloth. We straddle the line between Teacher-Directed Inquiry and Projects.

In regards to our stance on teacher-directed inquiry, Andrea and I are very responsive teachers in practice—the children’s voice is quite present in the discussion. A good example of this is the Bugs’ “shadow” research. Our projects are both teacher and child-initiated, but as mentioned earlier, we like the whole group to be involved in the pursuit.

We believe, and have seen time and time again, those opportunities for skill-building, academic facts, and content knowledge can absolutely be woven into the exploration as long as teachers and other adults remain responsive and aware of opportunities. For instance, we know that the names of colors and shapes have been infused early on and what about grammatical rules? There is some constant, some natural progression, and steady exposure. There are times though, that we must construct opportunities for information delivery. For instance, we know that letters must often be formally introduced and practiced. These rarely are learned spontaneously.

So, we do not write out daily plans, rather we shake out themes that are usually interesting to young children and can be enriched through literature and/or materials. We choose activities and pursuits that provide opportunities to introduce and practice the “academic content,” but more importantly, we seek out activities that will build creative thinking, gross and fine motor skills, and opportunities to exchange the language of ideas and social interactions between peers.

As part of our reflective practice, we use weekly reviews, staff meetings, and ongoing discussion with parents and children to consider the successes and flops. In turn, these should help parents (and our validators) envision the wholeness of our program.