Children’s Drawing

One year, at the end of the year, all the kindergarten classes that I taught put together a book of their drawings, which they gave to me at the beginning of the following year. They did this because I saved their drawings from their English class which I had sorted into three (because there were three quarters in the year) books of English Drawings.

In the process of sorting the drawings, it became clear that many kindergartners forget to put their names on drawings. But it also became clear, that most of the time, I could tell who drew what, even though my sample of students was 162 students.

How is that possible?

Each student had things that he or she liked. Each one had a specific way of putting together images. Some of them were “more advanced” than others: they knew how to draw things behind each other, or how to draw the clothes on a person better than another; conversely some had very little idea how to show space, but were excellent at expression.

It was interesting to see how these drawings related to the students’ social and academic ability. Being their English Teacher my knowledge of their developmental progress was limited. I endeavored to speak only in English, and although I didn’t always succeed, the language barrier meant that the children didn’t confide in me as much as they did in their classroom teachers. Nor did they have the capability in English to express very much.

But because of their drawings, and how quickly or slowly they learned vocabulary, or solved the tangram puzzles that we used as support materials, there was already a lot of incidental information about my students’ developmental progress available to me.

When I collated their drawings into books, I wished that I had more time to look at each student’s drawings. That I could talk to them about their drawings instead of just asking them to name the plane or the cat in their drawings in English. This inability to connect on a deeper level to my students’ progress was sometimes quite stifling, and one of the reasons that my final year in Spain, I wanted to work with older children.

Now, I’m at a crossroads. In order to teach in the U.S. I need to get a certification which means more school. Since I have to do more school anyway, I’m thinking about studying Art Therapy.

The observation of those hundreds of drawings laid out on tables and chairs in the teacher’s lounge as I put them into the little booklets was one of my most moving experiences as a teacher. It was a concrete showing of what the young learners were coming to understand, and even more, it was like looking in their heads like the mother in Peter Pan who shuffles through her children’s thoughts while they are dreaming.

Looking at their drawings, I can’t remember anymore who did what but I can still see things about who these children were and where they were in the course of their growth. I’d love to see some of their drawings, now that they are in second grade. I’m sure they are quite different and quite the same.

Looking at the drawings of the girls I lived with, I can see a big difference from when we began our lessons and three years and a bit later when I left Madrid. They gave me some of the newest drawings to keep, and have mailed me more. This transformation is very dramatic and beautiful, and I wish I had the tools to better understand it. It is like some key to a room that I can tell is there, but inside of which lies I know not what!

Small v. Large

As I’ve discussed in other parts of my site, my teaching experience is with both small and large groups. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Ideally all learning should have a mix of small and large groups. All of the following observations are based on my experience as an English Conversation Fellow (A sort of assistant teacher, but sometimes with half classes [10-18 students] and large groups [1-7 students]) and private teacher (groups of 1-3 students).

Description of Concept Positive in Small Group Negative in Small Group Positive in Large Group Negative in Large Group
Distance Groups larger than 5 can allow students to interact with each other as well as the teacher, allowing an adequate learning gap. Groups less than 5 students can create dependency instead of independence. Students mimic teacher. Whole classes (above 15 but below 35) can do multilple permutations of group assignments with good teacher direction. Students in any size above ten students may see the teacher as an adversarial rather than dialectic coach.
Time The smaller the group the better, the teacher may provide higher quality interaction to individuals. Sometimes one-to-one time with a teacher can be intimidating for students, and they clam up. If the class is properly organized, a teacher can provide time to work while doing one on one time, but this is only possible in smaller (10-22) students. Usually classes are bigger than 22, so usually there is very little individualized time with students.
Grading In smaller and individual classing grading is qualitative rather than quantitative, but… Qualitative grading is not widely accepted especially with the current focus on linking test-scores to teacher performance. In a classroom the teacher may challenge the students to grade each other (for a portion of their work) thus creating the need for meta-cognitive assessment which can further learning. When the volume is very high (say 150++) there is a trade-off between quality grading time, and quality planning time.
Interactive learning
In medium small groups, the children become friends, and that can be very positive, allowing them to leap to new places by intra-group competition and play. Small groups can sometimes be too comfortable, where the students get used to gaming the teacher. Conversely, the interaction with the teacher may remain stilted. In small classes (10-15) usually students can socialize even if they wouldn’t normally get along and this can open their eyes to the possibilities of otherness, especially in cross-cultural settings. In very large groups, often the social elements of the class can distract the students from learning, especially when (as in much of the EU) each class may be the same students from K-12.
of Projects
In small groups, the teacher has more time to devote to preparation and interaction, so very ambitious things may be tried even with badly behaved groups. But some things which require lots of input from all sides will not work with small groups. Alphabet books are an example, because the group’s collective attention span may be too short to complete the project if it’s too small. The teacher can create great group interaction projects in classrooms because there are more students to work with, there are more hands to contribute to a large scale project. Like making a poster to go in a hallway. Projects requiring a lot of parts and labor are difficult in big groups. Sometimes the instruction of crafts is difficult because with large groups everyone asks at once. For example I’ve had mixed experience using Origami in EFL classes.
These observations are not comprehensive. This is just a blog entry to help me think about my experiences and maybe to provide you, the reader, with a novel point of view. My general conclusions were that each kind of group can be good for students, but that hopefully, whether in-school or out, the kids can get some of each kind of learning. They can learn different meta-cognitive and social skills in the different kinds of teacher-student and student-student interactions that each kind of learning experience provides.
As for myself, I’m not sure I’ve drawn conclusions about what kind of group I’d like to teach in future. But it makes me consider which kind of group interactions best use my skills as an educator:
Do I want to get certification and become a bilingual classroom teacher? Do I want to start an educational consultation business using art and language? Do I want to study Art Therapy and work with smaller groups in a more formal setting? Have I finished exploring the possibilities? Which one uses my skills most effectively? Which one would be the most fulfilling for me?
What about you? Have you had similar experiences? Different ones? Where do you like to work? Do you work where you like?

Deaf Culture: Another Kind of Bilingualism

I just finished reading a book that my grandmother gave me years and years ago called Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World. It is by Leah Hager Cohen whose father, Oscar, was a longtime Superintendent at Lexigton School for the Deaf in NYC. She writes about her own family, her relationship to the Deaf Community, and about a couple of students at Lexington around the middle nineties.

It was interesting reading about the ways that they teach in this kind of community. There are many parallels with any other dual-language curriculum, even though ASL and English are perhaps much more similar than other languages to each other, the very visual way in which English must be presented to the Deaf feels very related to the CLIL techniques we used at the bilingual school where I worked in Spain.

The book was also interesting to me, because while Hager Cohen has a much deeper and longer running relationship with the Deaf Community than I do, many of the things that she said were very familiar. It made me miss my Deaf friends.

I say that ASL resembles English, and in some ways it does. But really it is a complex and beautiful poetry all to itself. It has a relationship with written English in a similar way to colloquial spoken English, at least where the spoken English is non-standard. What I mean is, ASL has its own form of grammar which follows English directly, but which also cuts things away and adds other things. So to say, “How are you?” in ASL you only make the signs for “how” and “you,” but you must also make a facial expression and show with your shoulders that you are asking a question.

I’m not very fluent in ASL (anymore, if I ever was) but I love to sign.

One of my favorite passages in the book describes a Literacy Day activity where Oscar, the author’s father, reads a story to the children. He asks if they want him to voice the story, or to sign it. The children want him to do both so that they can learn more words. Oscar is bilingual in ASL, an uncommon thing for a hearing person, because his parents were both deaf, and so he learned to sign before he learned to speak. He explained things about the slightly complicated story very well, and I liked the questions that he asked the children at the end.

Many of the issues that were facing the Deaf community at that time are still true, and many of them are the same sorts of issues that any minority language culture faces in a larger culture. They were talking about how to teach children English, so that they could get good jobs, and about the tension between the families and the school. This is true for many immigrant children who are forced to play translator for their parents as well.

One difference is that Deaf people are native-readers of English, and that there is a stronger thread connecting English to ASL than English to Chinese, Polish, and maybe even to Spanish. Another difference is that there will always be a degree of non-fluency for the Deaf, even if they are good at voicing and at reading lips because they cannot hear the sounds that they make.

That said, hearing isn’t such a big deal most of the time, and there are things– besides sign language– about not-hearing that make Deaf culture more special.

Ms Cohen talks about how much more touchy-feely Deaf people are, and I’ve experienced the same thing. They also take care of each other instead of competing. They form the proverbial band of ten scholars touching the elephant trying to figure out what it is, and instead of arguing about who is right, or about the essential nature of the elephant, they weave it into answers and questions to help themselves as a community advance. This is because nobody within the community is ever quite sure he or she understands the hearing community. Some don’t want to, but even those who hate hearing people, usually must interact with them, so they share tips and tricks and news more freely than do hearing people.

Deaf Culture is as strong and valid as Hispanic Culture, or Black Culture, and I’ve observed it come into conflict with the “mainstream,” in little ways that I didn’t understand at the time. Now that I’ve been in Spain, those little things make so much more sense to me. Let me tell one story of my own, and you will see what I mean.

When I first arrived to Spain, I kept running into people on the street. By the end I didn’t. An Italian friend of mine living in London had the same problem in London, where I’ve never had a problem. I said to him, “You move differently,” which he understood to mean, “you change directions,” and he said, “No, I don’t change my path at all.”

This triggered a Eureka moment with relation to Edward Hall’s concept called “proxemics.” I ran into people in Spain, because until I adjusted to their culture, I moved differently from them. That is, as an American, I weave as I walk to avoid people, rather than slowly shifting along a longer arc. My friend did the opposite. He didn’t weave as he walked, he picked a trajectory and only modified it slowly. So in London, people would change their path at the last second, but not enough, because he didn’t move the way they expected him to move, and in Madrid, people wouldn’t change their paths the way I expected them to, so I would run into them.

There is a similar thing with the Deaf that I’ve observed on more than one occasion. When they are in public space, they spread out so everyone in their group can see everyone else’s hands. Once on the EL on the way from Chinatown to Lincoln Park, I was with a big group of Deaf friends who had just gone to celebrate Chinese New Year and eat Dim Sum. They formed a big circle through the middle of the train, and a couple of them kept running into the hearing people around them as the train shifted.

The hearing people had been there first, so they didn’t move, and the Deaf people needed to see each other to talk, so they didn’t move. The hearing people were getting steadily more upset that that guy next to him wouldn’t get out of his space (the Deaf guy wasn’t actually touching him, just standing “too close”), the Deaf guy didn’t notice at all because he was having a great conversation, and I grew steadily more embarrassed at both the hearing guy and the Deaf guy, but I didn’t understand why.

Now it makes more sense. It was embarrassing to me because I could understand both cultural motives, and couldn’t resolve the tension which resulted. They each had an extremely valid intra-cultural motivation for maintaining their claim on the space, and because they are both “English-speaking” Americans, neither could understand that the other was really, truly in a different cultural mindset. Therefore, neither one tried to make an inter-cultural bridge to solve the problem.

There was a conflict of “values:” The hearing guy felt he had claim, and in general had a larger personal space than the deaf guy, and the deaf guy felt he had claim to the space, and didn’t realize (because of his smaller concept of personal space) that he was even infringing on the hearing guy. It follows the same tenets that the proxemical relationships between other more acknowledged cultures do. Each of the parties had his own implicit idea of space based on the values and needs of his own culture, and they each behaved accordingly, which caused a friction between their two unacknowledged ideas about space.

Until hearing people in general realize that the Deaf have– by necessity and by choice– their own culture, these little points of tension will always occur. I wish I had an answer about how to alleviate these tensions, both for Deaf people and for other minority culture groups. The only thing I can say is, pay attention to how other people react to you, and try to modify your own behaviour according to context.

Anyway, I highly recommend the book. As well as Beyond Culture by Edward Hall.

More Readings…

The last week and a half has consisted of a lot of business and a lot of reading but not much writing. It is time, as they say, to reflect on what I’ve learned in my readings.

I’m reading a translation of Piaget in the form of a book called Six Psychological Studies translated by Anita Tenzer and edited by David Elkind. It is interesting to read what Piaget has to say about child development in his own– if translated– words rather than in the words of the many pedagogues and psychologists who cite him. Everyone who I have read who writes about him is writing about Active Learning which, rather than being his work itself, is an application of Piaget’s “Genetic Epistemology.” Both Piaget and the Elkind emphasize that what Piaget has contributed isn’t a system of psychology or of education, but rather a way of understanding the way we thought centuries ago, the way we think now, and the way we will think later by means of breaking down and naming the things that we seem to do as we grow up.

Active learning is an application of the understanding that Humanity learns by a process of equilibration, that is: we do things one way for any number of reasons and only begin to do them a different way when we hit some sort of barrier. With children, this means that they do things, sometimes accidentally, learn to enjoy them, become frustrated, try something else by accident, learn to enjoy it or find some other reward in it, become frustrated, et cetera. This is applied to teaching by presenting children with developmentally appropriate problems, and then giving little pushes and shoves in the proper direction.

Of course my one-sentence understanding is very bare-bones. There are other elements involved, one of which, the idea that babies do not distinguish themselves as being separate parts of the world, gives a new insight about why children grow in a certain way, and how they remain so jealous of things for so long in their development.

On the other hand I’m reading an autobiography of Edward T. Hall, the renowned Socio-Linguistic-Anthropologist famous for studying cross-cultural relations. He asserts something quite different from Piaget, though less directly. He says that people in different cultures develop ways of thinking differently and based upon what language they speak.

I’m not sure that their two theories– Piaget’s and Hall’s– need to be mutually exclusive, but it does throw off the proposed universality of Piaget’s Genetic Epistemology in context of the development of logic, which Hall says certain cultures develop differently because of how their language is constructed.

Hall’s Examples, so far in my reading, are the Hopi and the Navajo, neither of whom seem to value logical reasoning in the context in which Hall worked with them. The Navajo on a IECW dam-building project weren’t working their full shifts when Hall wasn’t around to supervise, and Hall was perplexed, because he had explained to them the logical reasons that they should work all the time. He spoke to a trader named Lorenzo Hubbell, who told him that the Navajo understood bargaining.

So Hall went back and talked to the Navajo on one site and asked them some questions about their work, such as what they thought they were getting and what they thought they’d have to give in return. The answer to what they thought they were getting was some free dams and the ability to work locally on their own land, and they didn’t understand what they had to give back, so Hall explained that the bargain was that to get these privileges the people in Washington were giving, they had to work an eight-hour shift every weekday.

This may seem just like logic to us. And it is logical, but the difference it is a logic of balanced give and take. It isn’t just if this then that, it is if this is that way there must be something I’m missing because it doesn’t add up. More like algebra than geometry.

Now, I’m not sure yet what to think of how to balance the theories of Hall and Piaget, both of which make sense to me. Piaget did his studies not just in France, but in other parts of the world, so they would seem to be universal, but the ethnographic studies that Hall has done are also from all over the world, and while the stories in this autobiography tend to be anecdotal, they line up with the rest of his more clinical work.

So to move on to another book that I’m reading, mostly unrelated to the other two, except by common aesthetic links, The Brightening Glance by Ellen Handler Spitz is subtitled Imagination and Childhood. It is about the nature and development of aesthetics in young children. The way she goes about defining aesthetic is, in and of itself revealing of how the book unfolds,

If you were to ask a child to tell you what an anesthetic is, chances are you would hear something like, ‘The stuff they give you in hospitals…to make you numb so you won’t feel anything.’ Many children know that an anesthetic blocks sensation…. …aesthetic has a lot to do with anesthetic, for one is the opposite of the other.

In the book she goes on to talk about Aesthetics not just in terms of what is beautiful, but in terms of being any kind of sensory experience that we feel or express.

I first read this book two years ago when I was beginning a paper on how my dual-career as Artist-Teacher isn’t just a benefit to me, as my work with the children inspires me, but by its very nature creates a circuit of creativity which is self-sustaining whereby both my work and lessons improve as I work more, and the children’s creativity improves which further sparks my own creation. Since then this book has been on my list of books to own, but living in Spain it was impossible to find, and it hasn’t been published in England, such that, even on my rare English-speaking visits, it was unavailable. Imagine my joy at finding it at the local second-hand bookstore.

So how does this relate to Piaget and to Hall?

Well, since Hall’s auto-biography is a series of vignettes that he uses both to tell the story and to explain some of his theories, the structures of the two books are related. Spitz uses short accounts of things that happened to her or to people she knows to illustrate her larger themes of how to make good aesthetic choices for children. As of now in Hall’s book, I’ve only read about his childhood and adolescence, so some of the stories ring very similarly. For instance when Hall talks about being forced to take a watercolor class, rather than getting a job, and the resulting knowledge and relationship to art from said experience sound a lot like the kind of challenging experiences that Spitz advocates.

And Piaget’s study relates because hearing about his interwoven theory of social, logico-mathematical, and physical helps me understand what the children in Spitz’s stories must be learning.