A Report from Tinkergarten

This is my 8th year teaching for the University of Florida Online Master of Arts in Art Education program. Through the years, I have had the opportunity to work with art educators across the country doing amazing things. I showcased a few in this space with posts dedicated to their capstone projects (See “Time to Brag” and “Creamery Hill Racers,” for example). I intended to make that a regular column, but time got the better of me. Maybe this winter…

As any educator knows, one of the greatest gifts our students can give us is coming back with reports of how a course one taught, a reading one assigned, or a comment one made changed the way they think or behave. And so it was with great pleasure that I found this post on our program’s Facebook page one day this summer.

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Another item on my perennial list of the “things I’ve wanted to do in this space” was to invite students and alumni to share their ideas and experiences. With that in mind I asked Natalie to write something about Tinkergarten. According to their website, “Tinkergarten provides high-quality early childhood learning in the healthiest classroom of all—the outdoors. Families connect with trained leaders in their local community for play-based kids classes that help develop core life skills, all while having fun!” The following are Natalie’s thoughts on the program, drawing on her knowledge and experience as an art educator.

“Natural Education” by Natalie Davis
Sydney darted across the park with her backpack yelling “Miss Betsy! Miss Betsy!”  She was so excited to show her teacher her red galoshes.  It was mud day and my three-year-old little girl was extremely excited to get dirty and start her play-based outdoor classroom, Tinkergarten.

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What is Tinkergarten?
It is not your typical classroom.  In fact, it is the complete opposite of a brick and mortar school.  There are no walls and there are no desks. Children are not required to walk in single file lines.  Use of digital technology is prohibited.  Rather, a Tinkergarten class takes place in a park or other green space in the local community.  The concept is simple: playing in nature and learning go hand-in-hand.  Sticks become drawing tools, mud becomes paint and flowers become collage items. The outdoor play-based activities are not only fun but also cognitively stimulating because they encourage children to explore. The learning environment is as authentic as the surroundings.

Why Tinkergarten?
As an art educator and mamma, I was drawn to Tinkergarten’s philosophy of play-based learning.  I welcomed the opportunity for Sydney to learn through innovative approaches to curriculum I was familiar with from art education like Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, Forest Kindergarten, and Montessori (Tinkergarten, 2017). Like Dewey (1925), Froebel (1887), Lowenfeld (1949) I know it’s important for young children to be in and explore the natural world, and use their biological desire of playing to inspire and enrich their thinking. As an art educator, I followed this philosophy in my own teaching career and witnessed success first hand. I wanted that kind of learning for my daughter.

How does play turn into learning?
The word play sometimes can be misconstrued as useless recreation.  This is definitely not the case during a Tinkergarten class.  The class has a trained facilitator referred to as the Leader. The leader sets up playful invitations and activities designed to enable the children to take an active role in learning.  The children’s natural curiosity guides the learning experience. I strongly agree that these types of activities are “the best way to help nurture kids’ development and ready them for academic success later in life” (Tinkergarten, 2017, para 4).

The Leader’s role is not to ensure completion of the activity as might be assumed.  Instead they are there to help guide children into deeper understanding by capitalizing on situations that excite interest in each individual child.  They use these opportunities for educational enrichment.

For example, my daughter came across a worm and a bug while digging in the mud.  Her discovery led to conversation.  The leader prompted my daughter and the class to talk about the worm and bug.  They discussed their purpose, textures, and colors.  Digging in the mud was turned into making a “worm hotel habitat” out of a mason jar.  In another area of the park, a child found a rock while digging in the mud.  The little boy held up the rock and announced his discovery to the class.  As more children gathered around to see his treasure, he dropped the rock into a large bucket of water.  The Leader seized the opportunity for enrichment and suggested to the group to make a special “soup”.   The Leader’s suggestion led to an outpouring of imaginative responses from the children.  They began discussing the “special soup ingredients” and ran off helping one another to gather them.  They collected  foliage, rocks, and flowers to name a few.  In this moment, the children were working on social skills, motor skills, collaboration, creativity, and problem solving.

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Final Thoughts
A few years ago, in a course in graduate school, I read an article that intrigued me on the subject of technology in the classroom.  The article described a trend among Silicon Valley CEO’s who enroll their own children in nature-inspired Waldorf Schools (Richtel, 2011).  I was fascinated to learn that technology leaders saw value in using nature and limiting technology in their children’s education. I added it to the list of reasons I might pursue such experiences for my daughter.

References

Tinkergarten, 2017, Retrieved from https://www.tinkergarten.com/leaders/betsy.modrzejewski

Dewey, J. (1925). Experience and Nature. Chicago & London: Open Court.

Froebel, F. (1887). The Education of Man. (Translated by Hailmann, W.N.) New York, London, D. Appleton Century.

Lowenfeld, V., & Brittain, W. L. (1970). Creative and mental growth (5th ed.). [New York]: Macmillan.

Richtel, M. (2011, Oct. 22). A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute. [Essay on New York Times]. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html

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See you NOLA: NAEA 2015

So, once again my proposals for the National Art Education Association (NAEA) annual convention were rejected. But this time around I’m not letting that stop me from attending “the world’s largest art education convention.” Last year I stayed home and (kinda sorta) regretted it. I’ll be blogging along the way so feel free to follow along. I’ll also be posting photos to Instagram (jodikushins). I’ll try to tweet (@jkushins) a little but I’m not promising anything. (I’m still just not feeling the love on twitter…)

Sadly, I’m not getting in until after Tim Gunn’s keynote dialogue and “Critique Boutique IV,” but I am bookmarking a wide range of sessions on STEAM, maker culture, young children, art education history, teens, community-based practices, and cyberspace. I also have plans to spend time in the exhibition hall observing and talking with practicing teachers about what they are learning and experiencing from their time with the vendors and their “studios.”

When I talk about the NAEA convention to friends and family I always note the wide range of constituents the event draws; from rural elementary school-based art educators to museum folks from Manhattan, Research I university faculty and arts administrators at community art spaces. This year I hope to sample a little of everything.

I also hope to have a good bit of fun, catching up with old friends, classmates, and mentors, seeing some sites, and walking and eating my way through The Big Easy.

A (Virtual) Visit from Art21

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 7.54.13 PM The University of Florida Master of Art Education online degree program is rounding out its fifth year and it’s taking me about with it. I’ve never had a job this long and it’s nice to feel like I’m grounded someplace. And not just any place, but in a program I’m proud to be a part of.

One of the things that we’ve been exploring over the years, and which I’ve written about here before, is how to work as a community of learners. How can we create a sense of togetherness as individuals with a lot in common, and going through a common experience, but with great distances keeping us physically apart?

My colleague Elizabeth Delacruz created a course on “Globalization, Art, and Education” which includes lots of activities to help students find, create, and maintain their own online professional learning networks (PLNs) using social media (Facebook, Twitter, ArtEducation2.0) and bookmaking tools (Scoopit, Pinterest). The connections students make in these venues bring them together in new ways outside the somewhat stifled space the institution provides for coursework. They also bring them in communication with other educators and artists. Relationships in these venues can be more dynamic, visual, personal. They are, to use one of Elizabeth’s favorite adjectives, robust.

From campus, Craig Roland and Michelle Tillander host summer studio courses (taught by studio art faculty) peppered with collaborative artmaking challenges. Students often speak of their weeks on campus as one of the most transformative aspects of the program. This is attributed in part to the quality of the classes and opportunities they provide these busy folks to focus on themselves as artists for a moment, and in part to the time they have with their peers, people they have gotten to know online but have not been, and may never again be, with in person.

They also plan annual lectures (on campus and online) that bring us together in new ways. Some of these have been on campus lectures shared through a live stream, others presentations have been planned specifically for us and delivered through out virtual meeting space. Over the years, we have heard from Olivia Gude, Oliver Herring, Terry Barrett, and just this week, Joe Fusaro – senior educational advisory for the PBS contemporary art series Art21.

Craig crossed paths with Joe at a few conferences and was eager to bring him in contact with our students. In addition to his work with Art21, Joe is the Visual Arts Chair for the Nyack Public Schools in New York. This combination of activities, building on more than two decades in the classroom, made Joe the perfect person to speak to our students about “Teaching with Contemporary Art.” He doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk.

For many, the idea of sharing contemporary art with students seems daunting, if not dangerous. Such work can be confusing for people unfamiliar with it since it often doesn’t look like art at all. And oftentimes, contemporary artists challenge normative society in ways that make parents and administrators uncomfortable. Rather than seeing these as excuses for leaving it out of the curriculum equation, my colleagues and I see them as reasons to include them. But sometimes students, like children, need to hear from someone other than their teachers, their in loco parentis.

Joe spoke with passion about the artists he works with on Art21. He beamed as he shared his students’ work with us. It was as if he were demonstrating a principle I have tried to convey to students – teaching new artists and ideas is engaging for educators, not just our students. I’m personally looking forward to building on Joe’s talk in my classes and with students working on related capstone projects. He gave us lots of great questions to consider and strategies to try out. The occasion also inspired me to dig deeper into the resources available on the Art21 website, articles in their e-magazine, and to watch episodes of the program I haven’t seen yet. (It’s kind of hard to believe they are on their seventh season). Thankfully summer recess is just a few weeks away.

Holiday Crafting with PreSchoolers (and Glitter!)

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It’s no fun crafting alone! On this occasion we were hanging with Cora’s aunties in Seattle via FaceTime.

(My last post was all about holiday crafting with the teenagers in my life. This one is dedicated to my littlest studio mate.)

Crafty Cora and I haven’t made anything together in awhile. So, in the process of gathering holiday crafting ideas to work through with the big kids, I pinned a few for her too. But, the one featured here is something I made up while I was volunteering in her classroom this week. At the easel, her teachers set up the usual cups of tempera but had some festive glitter mixed in. I made the stars out of cardboard I found in the class recycling bin. Challenging myself to make things out of what the kids discard has become a pretty regular activity for me. I was also inspired by an observation Cora made during our first, and very early snowfall a few weeks ago. She was genuinely stunned by the way the snow glittered in the sunlight. Her appreciation for those natural sparkles inspired me to take a new look at glitter, an art supply I, like so many other professional art educators, rarely make use of.

Glitter is despised by art teachers working to disprove the notion that art is the icing on the proverbial education cake rather than a key ingredient in the cake itself. How could something so glittery and seemingly frivolous, not to mention messy, ever be taken seriously? The Onion ran a story a few years back that seemed to prove the point – “Cases of Glitter Lung on the Rise Among Elementary-School Art Teachers” (2005). Students and faculty in my department at the University of Florida maintain a Pinterest board called “Heard Craig Loves Glitter” in honor of our chair’s feelings for he stuff. The board has 239 pins.

So, it was with a hint of irony that I picked up a bottle of glitter on my holiday craft supply buying mission a few weeks ago. It was one of those moments where you imagine cameras are focused on you and someone, somewhere is watching you and laughing, like in The Truman Show or some still to be created Nielson ratings-crushing reality show about art educators. I picked out a bottle with not one, but two types of silver glitter and looked forward to pulling them out and making everything sparkle.

Yesterday, while visiting with my sister and her wife on FaceTime, I invited Cora to paint the stars I made at school and dust them with glitter. To keep the glitter from covering every inch of the just cleaned kitchen counters and floor, I found an old, large, shallow box. After Cora painted each star, we put them in the box and she was free to shake away. We’ll reuse what didn’t stick to add some bling to our next project. At the end, we still found a bit of sparkle scattered around the house, but I’m trying to look on the bright side.

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Happy Holidays (Craig)!

I Could Be at NAEA Right Now. Should I Be at NAEA Right Now?

I’m missing the National Art Education Association convention this year. While I would have loved to travel to San Diego (it’s snowing in Columbus tonight), networked with old friends and colleagues (Shout out Craig, Elizabeth, and Michelle. Love you Amy!), and heard some inspiring talks by new voices, I have so much going on at home it wasn’t in the cards. Perhaps if the proposal I submitted had been accepted I would have tried harder.

Back in December when I made my final decision to stay home this weekend, my colleagues were bummed and made me feel (just a little) guilty that I wouldn’t be there to hang out together and represent our program. That I could handle. In the abstract, I was fine saying no. I made the call based on issues unrelated to my academic self, for reasons that relate to why I’m a full-time adjunct and not climbing the mountain to tenure. I wasn’t yearning to go.

But then this happened:

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Hilary was one of my students at UF. She lives in Northern California and graduated in December. Her project was one of those I wrote about in my inaugural capstone round-up. Meeting her would have meant something. Her project was intense, and important to her personally and to me for the professional challenges it provided.

Our students meet one another during on-campus summer studio sessions in Gainesville. They meet the faculty who teach on campus as well. But I remain, primarily, words on the screen punctuated by a few video chats. Attending the conference is one of the few times we have together, live and in person, at least those of us who show up. This time I didn’t. Next time I will.