Learning from Prep Professors

By Jess Waters, Year 1 teacher

** Jess reflects on her five years as a Prep teacher 

I have a belief in children as being very capable human beings. They have a lot to offer, whether they’re 5 or 12. I see children as active participants in their world. I taught in prep for five years at Wooranna, and I don’t believe that the children in prep should be thought any less capable than the children in Years 5 and 6 when it comes to discussing topics of philosophy, to understand relationships, to have their own deep curiosities and passions, to have the need to explore, you know, the hundred languages in expression. All children the capacity to engage, as long as the learning experiences are scaffolded and they are provoked in a manner that connects with them. 

I was involved in a project in called Prep Professors. Subsequently, we didn’t replicated the project, but it was a turning point for the philosophy of prep, and how we reimagined the curriculum annually. Each year, we ask, “How can we give these five-year-old children the feeling that they can have a responsibility in their learning?” How can they be experts or mentors? How can we make them aware that they have something to offer other children, even those who were older than them …  teachers as well.

Children as active participants in their world

I have always been aware that a lot of children have great knowledge and expertise in particular areas. For instance, we have had high-functioning autistic children with an ability to hold knowledge of a particular passionate in incredible ways. Actually that’s true of any child that who has a passion for something, you know. When you find what you’re interested in, the everyday school learning of maths and literacy is reached through this avenue.  It’s the vehicle through which you can teach children many things. It’s the vehicle that you can use, or, to use another analogy, it’s the lens you can look through to teach them the foundational skills that they need.

For me, the idea of Prep Professors happened from a conversation. I was sharing a house with one of the Grade five-six teachers, and she was explaining to me what she was doing in five-six: how her students were writing out their own timetables.  They were signing themselves up for target teaching sessions that they felt that they needed and to workshops that they wanted to go to. 

And I suddenly thought, “five-year-olds can do that too!” So I had a conversation with my team team and I just said, “Let’s just see what happens. Let’s just ask the question of the children. “If you could be a teacher for a day, what would you do?” Implied in my question was, “If it wasn’t the adults that were in charge, what would you do?”

In that group of 72 children, who are now in grade three, only eight children put their hand up and said, “Yeah, well, I could do that. I could give that a go.”  It’s a quite a small number when you think about 72 kids. Nonetheless we accept their verdict and took the opportunity to have further discussions around what they thought that teachers do. What’s the role of the teacher?  What are we here for? If they were going to be teachers, what were their responsibilities? We talked a lot to the group outside the group of eight volunteers. The most common thing we heard from the 64 was, “We don’t know as much as the teachers … teachers know everything …  how could we possibly be teachers?”

Our conversations became more and more about , “We are all really good at different things, that’s what makes us unique and special. You know, we all have ‘something to bring to the table’. We all have something to offer. So what is it that you really like doing that you think that you could teach someone how to do?” 

This lead us onto directing the group of eight children to pick one activity which they believed they could share with their peers. One child made an origami flower. We had a boy who felt he was an expert in Lego and how to build things in Lego. We had a girl who loved maths, and especially numbers. So she made an addition machine where the preps got to drop in things from two sides to count them together. One of our boys taught children how to write their name in Japanese. 

Previous to the day of Prep Professors, the eight children presented what they were doing with the group, and then the rest of the cohort got to sign up for the workshop they wanted to go too. Once there was 10 in a group it was full and they had to pick their next preference. Now, because the children knew who was going to be in their group,  the boy who was writing names in Japanese symbols could prepare his workshop with his mother. She came in the morning and provided him with a written out list of the ten names in Japanese. He understood he wasn’t at the stage of remembering each symbol for the alphabet. Instead, he ran the class knowing whose card belong to each of the 10 children in his group. I felt that it was a great example of a parent engaging in their child’s learning as well. And for us in the team we just witnessed the program stepping outside our unit. It was really beautiful. 

After that, we had other children gaining confidence around their abilities ‘to teach’. For instance, we had a little girl who had very, very limited English. It was what you would consider low if you mapped her against the curriculum, so she really didn’t have any of those foundational skills. She’s struggled to learn her alphabet. It was the end of the year and she still didn’t know her alphabet. She found it hard to feel success with her peers because she was the one that ‘couldn’t do it’ or ‘didn’t understand’ or needed someone to help her all the time.

When she put her hand up, and had made a flag of her country and the sense of pride that she had evident. This had come about when she had asked me  ” You know what my flag is?” And I said, “No. I don’t know what colors are in your flag.” So then she said, “What do you mean you don’t know?” Suddenly she realised, she knew something that I didn’t know, she had something to offer others.

What we know

The word, knowledge, alarms me when it’s about regurgitating things or used to compare who has the most knowledge in a competitive way. Instead, I think that the message I’m trying to give children is that it’s not so much about having the most knowledge or having a lot of knowledge but its about lifelong learning. 

That means,  there is never going to be a point in your life when you have all the answers. You develop knowledge and you’re learning as you go through life, but the knowledge that you have or that you may have developed as a child, or a teenager, even a young adult needs to be viewed from different perspectives. That leaves me prepared to challenge the knowledge that I have at any point in time. 

If I’m visualizing it, I see it as kind of ball that is constantly moving. I moves almost like lava by flowing out and then retreating again.   And depending on where you are in your life, like, how old you are, what experience you’ve had, where you are in that moment, the position of where you see that sphere changes all the time. 

I think that knowledge continually grows, but so does how we see it its value,  apply its use and, how you believe knowledge is connected to change and experience as itself an ever-evolving and growing thing.

We know now that even in old age we don’t stop developing. No one ever stops learning. This means we need to understand the way we use the term, expert. It’s not that an expert has all the answers within a particular area. Rather we trying to get children to see themselves as skilled in something that is of value to them, something they felt proud of. We can consider them expert in the way they have the skills to pass something on to somebody else. It’s not that they have all the answers. But like the little boy that taught other children to write their names in Japanese,  he was still on the road to learning all the alphabet in Japanese. It’s the fact that he has skills that are above the level of his peers, and his teachers, and that he can share his expertise with us. 

Joyful Learning

The idea that learning is joyful is an interesting one.I think it’s important to note what happens before that moment of ecstasy. From teaching in prep for five years and now in grade one, I’ve notice how joy is connected to a child’s sense of being resilient. If  their attitude demands instant gratification, which comes with making the most minimal effort for the desired response, it’s hard to children to achieve feeling a love of learning

It’s takes effort to learn and without that effort you don’t achieve a great sense of pride or excitement. Barbara Ward introduced me to the phrase ‘pleasantly struggling’.  She says our jobs as teachers is to enable our students to pleasantly struggle. If we see them moving into that drowning kind of mood, that’s when we step in again, but only so that they can get them back to pleasantly struggling again. No, I don’t see children feeling joy unless they’ve had that challenge beforehand. 

Having said that, I know the picture is complex to read. We have children who parents reward them through more and more screen time. Every child under the age of eight now is born with an iPad. So, very young children now know how to swipe to open a device. Somehow, in ways I don’t understand, their passivity in front of a screen is affecting their ability to meet ordinary learning challenges. I’ve observed that many children are not having those experiences in early childhood that make them risk takers. 

By contrast, we have children in our classroom that have suffered immense trauma at an early age. I’ve been doing heaps of research about trauma and how the brain develops sequentially but also laterally. So, it depends what side of your brain is in development, and when the trauma hits you as to how it affects you. Consequently, I feel that what I’ve been doing here at Wooranna is trying to help children believe in themselves, telling them  that they aren’t sick, so they can have the same image of themselves as I do: as capable, with something to offer, no matter what their home lives are lacking, no matter what they’ve had before, they are worthy.

I want to be continually communicating to them that they mean something, that we care about them, that they’re important no matter how far they push us. We’re all human and we’ll show annoyance sometimes but that it is a safe place for everyone. Therefore,  before you have moments of discovery, before you have moments of joy in yourself, you deal with the challenges.

We teach children who are constantly in fight or flight mode,  who can’t take in any new learning, that we have to mark them against the curriculum, and get to sit NAPLAN tests. And we teach children who are ‘given everything’, brand-new iPads which they treat disrespectfully – screens are shattered so they move onto another device.  Every family at this school, I reckon, has a smartphone in their family, every single one, but there’s a big percentage of children that don’t get food every day. 

Future Prep Professors

After we completed Prep Professors, we want to further deal with the fact that there was such a small percentage of students that feel they had anything to ‘teach’ or perhaps they felt they just hadn’t been given the opportunity. As we put Prep Professors in motion, we also used part of the day where we got all the children to get into groups to choose which  Learning Agreement space they liked the best. For instance, the children had to talk as a group about whether they gravitated towards a construction space or some other provocations. In other words, they had to explain to their peers how they would feel engage if they were put in that space. 

What we noticed was that all the children displayed a sense of ownership in their space, far more than when the teachers dictated what happened. It was a community kind knowing, “We’re all on the same level, we’re taking everybody’s ideas, and putting that into place.” That was at the end of the year for that cohort of children  and in the years that followed we didn’t repeat Prep Professors day because we were of the view that the activities arose from the children, it became their project.

We noticed that this group approach helped us greatly faced a situation in the classroom of a very challenging child who needed to be restrained nearly every day. He was violent. He had ADHD. He had autism. He would pull other children, for no reason. He was a danger to others and himself. That day, I’ve never seen him more engaged in the classroom ever.

He got to sign up for a workshop he was interested in. He barely needed the assistance of teacher’s aide. He sat with his legs crossed and looked at his peer teaching. He didn’t interrupt. He didn’t get up and leave. He didn’t throw scissors across the classroom. It was unbelievable. We couldn’t believe it. 

Show and teach

I was lucky enough that the following year to have a person in the team who had witness the boy’s transformation that day.  It spurred us to say that we needed to create opportunities for children to feel that they have something to offer to their peers. So we started doing “show and teach” rather than “show and tell” because we had a group of kids that we were obsessed with bringing in their things from home. “Can I share this? Can I share this? Can I share this?” All the time.

For “show and teach” we created boxes in which we placed three tins.  Each week someone would take home a tin to be filled it with artifacts, then on a Monday morning. We linked to our speaking and listening program by creating a video that went on our blog. It was part of our assessment, an authentic assessment for the children through which they would come in and teach the children about what they had done on the weekend. It also involved parental engagement and learning at home as the children had to do the task with their parents.

We had one little girl, she did boxing bring in her boxing gloves, and teach how to do the one, two punch. We had other children that were ballet dancers, so their parents had put clips and photos onto a USB stick, and their child talked through these videos. We had little girl, who did tap dancing. So we got some tiles out and she brought her tap shoes, and she did a little tap dance and, you know, so the children got to do too. Again we spoke to them about the idea of what it means to teach someone. Why, for instance, bringing a toy that you bought from Kmart, might be exciting, but let’s think about passing our knowledge about something on to other people.

When every child had had their turn they said “Could I have the box again?” So,  it was something that we continued throughout the year and repeated the project the following year. 

Encyclopedia of Thoughts.

The ‘show and teach’ project then evolved in the Encyclopedia of Thoughts. It came into being because the particular cohort we had that year were a very anxious bunch. All they seem to say was, “I can’t, I can’t do this.” We didn’t expect this from them as a group because when we knew them in kindergarten environment the year before they seem confident.  But as soon as they walked into school, like, big school, it was has if they thought they were completely incapable of anything anymore. Like, “Oh, I can’t write. I can’t read. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.” It was a strange kind of transition that had happened.

When we’d ask them, “What do you think about this?”,  they’d all just sit there and stare at us, waiting for us to answer our own question. None of them had the confidence to share their ideas. They were always very worried that they didn’t know the answer. Consequently, we set up many contexts in which lots of conversations occurred that invited them to share their ideas. At the same time, we made a big deal about how an idea wasn’t either right or wrong, it was just your thinking. So our project for that year became about being confident to share their ideas.

For us, it was kind of like enabling the children to see themselves like philosophers. We impressed on them again that even though they might not know the answer, their opinion, ideas and thinking was still something they could contribute. We emphasised how these qualities in people sparked things for other children which could be built on. 

But at the start of the year, they all sat there like mutes. None of them would speak. As a result, we asked them to draw their answers to challenging questions like, “Oh, how do your eyes work?” Immediately, they drew beautiful images of how they thought their eyes worked.  Then got them to talk, not by opening a book but by wanting know how they thought their eyes work.”  Then we asked, “How does hearing work? How does listening work? And the children drew these beautiful fine line drawings of an ear, and a tube and words walking into the tube. 

Moving on we asked, how does your brain work? How does thinking happen? You know, those kind of things. We said, “What do you think? Draw.” You know, that was the language that the kids really seemed to respond to, drawing. They could communicate their ideas the best with that. It made it a level playing field for the children who really couldn’t write. But if the children wanted to write, they were welcome to do that too. But they did their drawings to show what they visualized when we asked them, “How do you think this happens?” 

One little boy cried. He was tough little Maori boy who normally never cried. He said, “But I don’t know.” And I said, “Well, I don’t know either. But I just want see your idea of it. How do you think our brain controls our body? How do you think all this works?” So he took a piece of paper and he went off and when it was time to pack up, he was still drawing.  When I announced that time to finish, he answered that he wasn’t finished.

I vividly remember the incident when I was sitting in a Reggio Emilia conference, REAIE conference in Melbourne, a couple of years ago. I remember the keynote speaker saying how children developing understanding, knowledge, and ideas in the act of doing. So once he had that piece of paper and he started drawing, he started to develop this understanding. He drew this body and then he drew the brain, and he came up to me with his piece of paper and said, “Miss Jess, the brain is everywhere.” I was stunned!

So that’s why it’s now the huge cut out that’s in Ray’s office that’s got all the squiggly lines through it. The children thought that was it amazing that a little piece of artwork could be blown up to this really big image.

So, rather than being a professor in that year, it was more about the philosophy of sharing your thinking, and developing confidence and resilience to have conversations and to provoke each other, and, to build on ideas by many brains. The idea of being a professor remained through kids teaching and the children feeling real ownership over particular Learning Agreement spaces. And after engaging in those spaces, they said, “Oh, couldn’t we try this?” 

Space Facilitators

So then we engaged the children in designing provocations in the Leaning Agreement space.  We had prep children designing an activity for a particular space, in which they would act as mentor and the expert in that space. So rather than have teachers as roamers and facilitators in the space, we have target teaching, so the children became facilitators of spaces. And that was how they were mentors and experts.

What followed was children asking each other questions rather than always coming to the teacher for answers and, you know, telling them, “Ask three friends, ask three before me, ask three of your peers, because you might find that you’re sitting next to somebody who has the skills that you need. Ask before you ask an adult. See each other as sources of knowledge, you know, avenues of resources.” One child, who all the children knew they needed to log on to the computers or anything to do with Minecraft, was identified early. But eventually, each child found their own level of being a facilitator and mentor in their LA space.

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