Folding Paper, Constructing Meaning, and Following a Child’s Lead

October 20, 2009 at 7:02 pm Leave a comment

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

alisanephew“We know only what we do, what we make, what we construct; and all that we make, all that we construct, are realities.”
~ Naum Gabo, constructivist artist, 1890-1977

Folding and flying paper airplanes has got to be one of the greatest things about being a kid.  You can take the simple, traditional five-fold approach; you can follow instructions from paper airplane books; you can even design your own.  During the past few weeks in the Upstairs (that’s what we call the place/program where the kindergarten through 4th grade groups are at my school), paper airplane folding has been HOT.  In the morning, I often walk up the stairs and find someone standing at a table, a piece of paper already creased and on its way to becoming airborne.  There are test flights – for distance, tricks, turns.  There is artistry (with scissors especially).   And there is collaboration.  This is the kind of work and play that inspires younger and older kids to work together.  Last week, Jordan came into the 2-1-K room looking for Liam so that he could teach him a new design.  And then Liam passed it on to someone else.

Last Thursday, I was lucky to spend an hour or so with the K-2nd grade group after lunch.  We came in from Outdoors Time and they explained to me that this is the time they usually read or draw quietly.  I know that after-lunch-time-of-the-day well — it’s a time to engage in activities that help us slow ourselves down, do some quiet work, feel ready for the rest of the afternoon.  Some of the 3rd and 4th graders had been flying planes outside.  As soon as we arrived in the room, one of the 1st graders immediately began folding an airplane and, naturally, wanted to keep working on it.  I suggested maybe we could draw some planes instead.  Jerry stapled together a few papers to make a book and brought it to the table.  He started with a title, and together we sounded out how to spell FLIERS!  PAPER!  AIRPLANES! (The “upside down i’s” at the end of each word were his idea).  I thought he was simply going to draw the planes that he had already folded or even the ones he might imagine.  Jerry’s first drawing was a rectangle with a line drawn down the center.  When I asked him about it he told me that it was the first step.  We then realized that an instruction manual would be a great project.  It wasn’t always easy for him – drawing the lines and shapes, showing with arrows how to fold, sounding out words, writing letters – but Jerry’s determination and deep interest allowed him to create one of the most amazing step-by-step manuals I’ve ever seen (by a first grader or anyone else).

It’s a beautiful thing, to be able to see a child’s interest and help him use what he cares about in a “school” kind of activity or project.  As Jerry worked on folding his airplane and creating his manual, he was developing and strengthening his spatial and sequential ordering skills, his letter-sound recognition, his fine motor abilities.  Did he know that?  Probably not.  But we see him, we see what he can do, we see how he can reach and stretch, and we help him along the way.  And, at the school where I work, there is a structure to the day that allows children to delve into what they care about, to extend their thinking, to construct their own meaning from their own experiences.  I’m so thankful that I happened along at just the right quiet time.

Alisa Algava graduated from Bank Street’s Leadership for Educational Change program last 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 on the Alumni Blog 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: assessment, classrooms, collaboration, constructivism, curriculum, early childhood, integrated curricula, literacy, math, social-emotional learning, the arts.

Owen and Mzee Motivate Reluctant Writers On the Shoulders of Ted Sizer

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