During the holiday season, it's not infrequent to receive a note from someone you haven't heard from for a while - and it's always a treat to reconnect with old friends. The following post arrives from Elisa Merrifield, who works at Ventana School, a Reggio-inspired school serving Pre-K – 5th grade, in Los Altos, CA. Elisa was enrolled in Opal School's Mentorship Program 2012-13. She currently teaches in a 1/2 grade combination class with Julie Kelsey.
Living Inside Our Hearts by Elisa Merrified
When I was first introduced to Story Workshop three years ago, I was struck by how the materials engaged children in rich conversation and collaboration about their stories. They entered the creative process so smoothly and seamlessly. Today, I try to craft questions and find materials that excite and inspire children into story making. I also learned at Opal that a good question is one for which I do not have the answer. I know I have found the right question when I am as engaged in finding the answer as the children. Here is a recent question on which my co-teacher, Julie, and I have been working.
What is MY story? What is OUR story?
Ventana School, like Opal School, is a school where relationships are central to our work. Given this value, Julie and I were curious about how we could build an inclusive and supportive community of learners. We asked ourselves:
“How will the ideas and stories of each child in our class help us to learn about each other and ultimately who we are as a community together?”
We began with the ideas that live inside our heart. We read mentor texts such as The Relatives Came and The Ghost Eye Tree to show the children how authors use real life events and friends and family to inspire stories. Then, to get the children thinking about all of the people, places and memories that might be special to them, we asked them,
“If you could draw a map of what and who lives in your heart, what would it look like?”
At the center of their heart the children drew the most important people in their lives. They also drew pictures about special places they visited with family, as well as about things they loved to do and were good at! Each heart was truly unique and held many different ideas. We wondered how they would use these hearts as inspiration as they work on their stories.
During Story Workshop we set out materials that we thought might help children think deeper about the memories they had illustrated in their hearts. We asked them:
“What material might help you find a memory that lives inside your heart?”
Children were invited to use different materials to find the stories that lived inside of their heart. Many were resistant to finding a “true” story as opposed to the fictional stories that they had worked on previously, but the materials worked their magic and engaged children in this new question.
One boy found his story in the natural materials:
"Wisconsin- I go fishing, but in the woods. It is a club called Coleman Lake Club. It is out in the woods and there is a bunch of little cabins. I go out on the porch and build little tepees from the sticks and things. My favorite lake is Coleman or Moon Lake."
“I wanted a pumpkin. I went to the pumpkin patch but I couldn’t find the perfect pumpkin!”
The children became very invested in their memories, but we still wondered, “Are they learning about each other through these stories and how are we building community through this process?”
As children crafted their stories, we then began to see the powerful role Author’s Chair played in sharing these stories. As children shared their memories with each other they saw how their lives made connections, big and small, with other children’s lives in our class. As a class we were learning about each other and how to support one another as writers. We were learning how to give feedback and how to receive feedback. We were learning how to work together.
It is within this work where I see our community growing- day by day, story by story. Learning takes place through the sharing, connections and context of our community. A strong community supports deep learning to take place. Our story as a class is being written every day.
I often wonder what other questions and materials teacher-researchers use in their classes during Story Workshop. What questions inspire you and your students to find the stories that live inside your hearts?
Thanks for your post, Elisa! I hope that readers will reply to your question - and that people who have been inspired by approaches they discovered at Opal School will follow your lead and share their research with the world.