A “Secret Garden”: Cultivating Community and Social-Emotional Learning

May 12, 2009 at 10:17 am Leave a comment

posted by Alisa Algava ‘08, leader of a small Hudson Valley progressive school

alisanephew

“Surprising things can happen to anyone who, when a disagreeable or discouraged thought comes into his mind, just has the sense to remember in time and push it out by putting in an agreeable determinedly courageous one. Two things cannot be in one place.

‘Where you tend a rose, my lad,
A thistle cannot grow.’”

~Frances Hodgson Burnett

It started with a garden.  A “secret garden” on the edge of the woods tended by a few of our younger Upstairs girls.  They cleared little paths, protected newly growing wild plants, and even planted seeds of their own.  Others joined in – boys and girls, ages 6-11 – and contributed their enthusiasm and ideas.  Irrigation systems, complete with PVC piping and hand-dug trenches, emerged.  Using hollow wooden blocks, they began to make their own bricks out of mud.  About 30 feet away, a new garden area was cleared by a group of younger boys.  gardenThe plan for watering the garden started small, with an angled pipe, a hose, and a trench that ended in a little waterfall over a dam made of mud.  It developed into an extensive system of pools and channels.  Every day the changing groupings of kids engaged with each other and with the environment around them.  Teachers noticed, asked questions, stepped back to observe, mediated disagreements when necessary.  This was Outdoors Time at its best – learning that is in-depth, creative, ongoing, child-directed, social, intellectual, and physical all at once.

I noticed all this extraordinary learning when I spent some time outside last week.  Amazed by their canals and irrigation systems, I was reminded of how human beings discovered/invented agriculture and irrigation more than 8,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.  Our gardeners have constructed this knowledge completely on their own using their hands and minds.  I thought about the curricular connections already being made by the Upstairs teachers and students – math gardena math garden planted in back of the school, stories written by kids, Spanish lessons on seeds and spring, plants that had been studied earlier in the year.  I wondered which came first…  The play during outdoors time?  The curricular experiences during Math and Language Arts and Social Studies and Science and Spanish?  I thought about how we might support our kids to deepen and extend this learning.

I also noticed the complex social interactions between individuals and among small groups of children.  These gardens are not utopias for kids.  They are genuine experiences of “real life.”  As our elementary school learners work together on the self-created, self-defined garden projects, their collective energy leads to innovation.  At the same time, they struggle with making decisions, resolving conflicts, and understanding how to contribute.  They are challenged by the constant negotiations that happen through words and actions, the ones that involve a small changing of an idea or a big shift in how the group approaches the project.  They wonder about ownership and feel frustrated when something doesn’t fit with their idea of how it should be.  Interestingly, the initial founders of the gardens are the ones who seem to feel the most worried or disappointed about how these creations have evolved.

By the end of Outdoors Time on Thursday, it became clear that a moment of reflection was necessary.  A group of kids had abandoned the project because it had changed so much.  One child had taken apart a dam that someone else had built and retaliation happened before we had a chance to talk – “Alisa, I taught him a lesson” was how I heard about it.  There were questions of how they would make decisions – “Everyone has to agree before anything can be changed” was one approach.  So we sat down together in a circle in the Carriage House, just before their afternoon play rehearsal, and asked them to think about how they were feeling.  Using I-statements – “I feel…when…because…” – each child shared a thought or feeling about that day’s Outdoors Time while everyone else listened with attention and intention.  Some spoke about the excitement they feel from digging with their friends and others described the sadness or anger they feel when people change things or don’t ask for their opinions.  When we reached the end of the go-around, we simply asked them to think about something that one person said that might have made them think differently.  And then we asked them to consider one change they could make next time that might help that person.

garden2This is community.  One person, or a few, start something.  Others join in and that something inevitably changes.  How we talk together, resolve our differences, learn from new ideas or different approaches, treat our friends when something upsetting happens, change our own minds – these experiences transform us.  This is the learning that teachers cultivate.  This is how our children grow into thinking, contributing, courageous individuals.  I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Alisa Algava graduated from Bank Street’s Leadership for Educational Change program in December. For the past 14 years, she has taught and learned in public, private, and charter schools in NY, NJ, and RI. She has written a handful of postings in the past four months about her experiences leading and learning in a small progressive school. Alisa loves learning. She loves moderating The Alumni Blog. And she really loves her nephew.

Entry filed under: collaboration, community, constructivism, curriculum, democratic education, dialogue, early childhood, environmental education, social-emotional learning, teaching tolerance.

Counting Up, Counting on Each Other: Constructivism in Early Childhood Math Where the Buck Stops: Classroom Management and The Teacher Effect

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