Matches Struck Unexpectedly in the Dark

Imaginative Education: Provoking Excellence Across the Curriculum Presented by the
Conference Presentation Abstract: In this workshop, Kristin Eno will provide a multimedia presentation including portions of several of the videos she has made with children since 2001. She will discuss and invite dialogue surrounding these issues in relation to making videos about children’s play: adult play-facilitation and how it helps children access their zones of proximal development; intellectual empowerment and growth through spontaneous storytelling; the poetic voice of children’s voiceover narrations; the relevance of playing, teaching and learning in natural outdoor settings; the great potential of more artistic, poetic children’s media; the viability of video-stories as teaching strategies for a range of curricular goals; the role of video as connector of diverse populations of children throughout the world; and the accessibility of digital video technology to teachers.

This conference was a wonderful opportunity to connect with teachers and professors of education across the world. I was most honored to present my work when Vivian Paley was in the audience. I have been admiring her work as a pioneer of storytelling/story-acting in the classroom ever since I first discovered her books in my elementary education classes at Dartmouth College. Vivian's response to my presentation was that the videos had captured "the authentic voice" of children's play. That sort of stamp of approval is something I do not take lightly. If anyone could make sense of the beauty and profundity of life as seen through the eyes of a child, it would be Vivian, who in her eloquent Keynote address, reminded us that our relationship with children is one that encircles the very mystery of the meaning of life itself. She invoked Virginia Woolf's words in To the Lighthouse: "What is the meaning of life? . . . The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one...Mrs. Ramsay saying, 'Life stand still here.'" By calling up the words of this book I have so loved through the years, and applying Woolf's words to the context of young children's play, Vivian herself struck a match unexpectedly in the dark, and made life stand still. As Resa Matlock of the Childcare Collection at Ball State U. commented later at the conference, there is something about Vivian's voice that somehow helps us see what children are capable of teaching us, in a way that so few can. She is the rare teacher-thinker-writer-poet-friend to children. There should be many more of her kind in the world. We can try to do her legacy justice by taking her words to heart: "Just a few moments of spontaneous drama tell so much. Their storymaking spirals in pursuit of ideas, and in the midst of chaos, there is shape: life stands still here, the children are telling us...Watching children play invites philosophical discourse. Why do children do this, if not to prove the very necessity of their existence? They solve one problem and create another situation. The have a reason to exist, and it is to be with others, to prove that they are necessary to each other. They keep telling a story over and over as if to understand it. The child practices her thoughts, listens to her thoughts, so that she will understand her thoughts better. She will practice, practice, practice. We who spend our lives with children are surely trying to erect a listening community. The children will show us how it is done, if we give them the time."

Also at the conference I was pleased to see Beth Ferholt present her dissertation work towards a PhD in the UCSD Communication Dept., done in collaboration with a K-1 grade class on a military base Southern California. She and colleagues at USCD and universities in Finland (Pentti Hakkarainen, U. of Oulu) and Japan have been studying “Playworlds," a term that describes full engagement in imaginative play by both children and adults, and stems from Vygotsy's analysis of creativity and imagination, by way of Gunilla Lindqvist's work (The Aesthetics of Play: A Didactic Study of Play and Culture in Preschools, 1995). Beth shared her play world project based on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, including video clips that documented Beth and her colleagues' costumed interaction, in character, with the entire class, over the course of a year. As the adults played with the children, creating variations of the original book by C.S. Lewis, they developed an ongoing cross-generational spontaneous interactive story. As Beth was narrating through the video of the children and adults enacting the story, in full costume, with elaborate props that took up major portions of the classroom, I had the distinct feeling that this work was something truly special. The adults had made a huge effort to not only put on a show for the children, but to invite them into the show, so that they could all live and breathe the story. This effort was obviously not lost on the children, who could be seen to be experiencing the deepest, most profound joy at the progression of their play, which culminated in the whole group chanting "party, party!!", at the moment when the faun, Mr. Tumnus, was freed from the White Witch. Seeing the children's otherworldly happiness on the video footage was worth more than any words could say. It reiterated to me that the video medium is so powerful for us as adults, as we peer into the world of children's play and attempt to understand it.


DSW at the ICAF World Children's Festival

On June 24, Digital Story Workshop made four imaginative videos with small groups of young children on the Mall in D.C. for the 2007 World Children's Festival, hosted by the International Children's Art Foundation. This event brought hundreds of children to D.C. from all over the country and the world, and thousands of children with their parents from the surrounding area.

See the videos here. Here are stills from our play with four groups of 4-10 year-old children from all over the world:

Sean did the camera work, and then we edited with the children on-site, under a tent, immediately following our twenty minute play/videotaping sessions.

This was the first time that we worked with children to edit their own videos. Children as young as 4 were invited to see their play footage and interact with us as we edited in iMovie on a Mac laptop; 8-12 year olds participated in the editing process and learned the software with amazing speed. One young collaborator, Jonathan, 8, from Chicago, simply took off, editing quickly and intelligently, moving the mouse around to drag and drop scenes from one place to another in the timeline, to move scenes to the end of the video for a "Behind the Scenes/Making Of" segment. This prompted a whole new consideration of the role of editing in Digital Story Workshop projects. Could we figure out a way to use the editing activity in first and second grade classrooms, whether to teach story sequencing in literacy lessons or simply to teach technology education? I can only imagine how skilled Jonathan and others of his age could become at this task, if given the opportunity to edit video once every day, for fifteen minutes. Would any school in this country offer that as an option for him? Should it?

The other exciting element of this project was the spontaneity of the groups, from the four-year-old girls in the first group that included a child from Turkey and another from China by way of Virginia--the little English that the girls both knew provided a few words for them to say to each other, but for the most part, the play happened silently, with many facial expressions and a lot of body language (see "See Me Play")....to the mixed-age group of five 6-11-year-olds, from all over the world, the older of whom took roles as directors/documentors/prop assistants. The collaboration of this group of four, some of whom had only met moments before, was exciting. The improv team took their places, played their roles, had a cathartic experience, and life rolled on. The joyous result was "Superhero versus the Villain:" take a look at the fun these kids had! Since they were able to see their play on the computer screen shortly after they did it, and manipulate their actions within a storyline that they were developing together as they went along, even after the play itself, the learning experience was very tangible, and most of all, became like play.


Kindred Spirits Grow in Tulsa

My friend and colleague Heather Oakley's dream has come true: Global Gardens, an educational garden project for children in Tulsa, OK, is up and running! Through her garden workshops at Eugene Field Elementary School, Heather has combined her love for children from all over the world with her care for the earth, infusing her work with characteristic joy, hope and wisdom. The creation of a community garden with 31 student, family, and teacher garden plots (each with a theme, from "Oklahoma" to "Literary" to "Berry" Garden!) is providing a wonderful forum for members of the school and local community to learn about each other and the earth in a cross-disciplinary way, with science and peace education constantly interacting and informing one another. Heather's amazing method of gardening and teaching reveals to students and friends that physical, tangible growth is a vibrant manifestation of the growth of the soul. She is offering to the children a bridge from inside to outside, a solid link between their learning and their real lives. The centrality of documentation and blogging to the project provides yet another bridge--from the Eugene Field and Tulsa communities, to the world around them. I am looking forward to inviting children in NYC to dialogue with the Global Gardeners...

Global Gardens is a nonprofit, educational organization that provides schools and neighborhoods the resources that they need to incorporate educational, multi-disciplinary, science-based gardens into their curriculum and community. Global Gardens' primary goal is to establish student-centered garden spaces, where students and their families have ownership of the implementation, progress, maintenance, and activities of the garden. Global Gardens believes that these experiences encourage personal growth and lead to individuals becoming empowered to live healthier lives and become agents of change in their communities.


Bringing the Outside In

Two weekends ago, starting on a farm in western MA and ending up in Cambridge at Lesley University, I did video documentation for a wonderful Reggio Emilia Institute led by Dave Kelly of Grand Rapids Child Discovery Center, Cathy Topal of Smith College, Brigid McGinn of Pratt Institute, and Lella Gandini, U.S. Liaison for the Dissemination of the Reggio Emilia Approach. I am grateful to Kristina Lamour of the Art Institute of Boston and Brigid for inviting me to document this weekend full of beauty.

This three day experience was an amazing combination of a beautiful misty morning by the stream, summer camp, a personal hike through the woods, a journey into the minds of young children, and a collective, organic process of artmaking in reference to natural materials. The collective unconscious was truly at work, as pre-school teachers from all over the United States were invited outside to make sculptures that had a relationship with the land, and inside to manipulate clay such that its shape would echo seedpods, shells and branches. I felt that through the video camera lens, I was seeing my own artistic dreams played out by many hands. It was beautiful to see so many teachers be artists; and to think that this was all done in the service of becoming more attuned to the lives, thoughts, dreams and learning styles of 2-5 year olds. . . and on up through 5th grade and beyond, was truly life-affirming.

This event also called to mind the book I have been reading, Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv. The Children & Nature Network has many resources regarding the issue of children's outdoor play, and the more I think and read about it, the more I realize that outdoor play is the primary type of play I am advocating for, through the Digital Story Workshop videos. Children need to have freeing, beautiful experiences living and learning outside of school walls, far out in the meadows, forests, gardens, creekbeds, beaches, and mountains. We educators who are aware of the potential of outdoor adventures and projects to improve upon the life of the mind and spirit must be sure to provide such opportunities for the children around us.


The Imagination is a Very Powerful Thing

Last week, my friend Kathy's son, Milo, 9, watched Ark for the first time, and he made these effortlessly profound statements and descriptions:
Are they looking for the sea or what? Are they looking for a map of the sea?
• It's like a scavenger hunt.
• I guess they're using their imagination. The imagination is a very powerful thing.
• Oh look, it comes back to the beach; I always thought that would happen. It could go to all these places--to China!
[The narrator of the last scene says "cause if you don't tell a dream, it might come true. I knew that it was gonna come true."] Sometimes the universe speaks to you in dreams. The universe spoke to her.
• It was hard to open. . . probably because it was very, very old.
• They kept on adding dolls. . . through generations.
• The universe is very strong to that family.
• The dream was completely true about everything. Every single thing.
[The children put the box in the ocean]. Just as it has been, for generations and generations.
The contemplative Ark seems to have held the gaze of this thoughtful child who I thought was at the higher end of the age spectrum. Turns out that Kids First! Film Festival's child jury named Ark an official selection this year, and the festival labelled it appropriate for a 5-12 year old audience. That was a jump into the older regions of childhood, for Ark, but after hearing Milo's fascinating commentary, I agree that the 9-12 year-old set should definitely see it.

Notice that above, in Milo's drawing of the lid from the box, which the children discover and interact with throughout the story, he includes a representation of the photograph that is part of the inside of the lid of the box, so it's a drawing of a photograph, but not only that: Milo has drawn the box itself into that photograph. Once he told me that, I pulled out the real box itself and showed it to him, and he checked to see if the box was there in the photograph, inside the box lid. It was not. But shouldn't it have been?

Here are two more works of art Milo made that day, "Deep Space" and "Abstract":


Children's Video Art at NAEA

Mystery Castle with a Lot of Treasures was featured in the NY Children's Video Festival at the National Art Education Association Convention in NYC, on March 16. George Szekely, artist, writer and professor of art education at the University of Kentucky, and Renee Shaw of Barrett Elementary School in Arlington, VA, hosted this event. I was so impressed with the amazing diversity of the work produced by Renee's 2nd-5th grade students. Claymation, stop-motion, digital storytelling, the works. Beautiful, hilarious, experimental, and everything in between. Renee will curate next year's NAEA children's film fest and made a call for submissions from art/media educators. Brigid McGinn, an atelierista from Brooklyn, attended this session and remarked that the videos were refreshing because at the convention this year we had not seen nearly enough images of children themselves, but instead had been inundated with ideas (in the form of research studies about art education) and stuff (to buy from the art supply vendors who had set up booths at the convention). I agreed, and wondered what we might do to change that.

I saw a beautiful and exciting presentation given by Ricardo Rubiales of the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo at UNAM in Mexico City, who started the Reggio Emilia-inspired atelier/art studio at the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City. I was so encouraged to see the imaginative learning that took place in the museum when the children were given the time to think and question before looking at the art in the museum. The projects he showed us--of explorations of pirates and monsters--had come out of the kids being given the time to explore. Their drawings and constructions were intricate, meaningful and full of story--universal marks of truly engaged child art. Ricardo mentioned that when questioned by parents who wondered why their young children needed to stay in the atelier/art workshop for three hours, he would reply that they were working within "Reggio Time."

Also at the conference, I was happy to see Olga Hubard, my Ed.M. advisor, who does such wonderful work in her own art and in teaching in museums and at Teachers College.


Childhood Regained

This Monday and Tuesday I went to a conference that the Art and Design Education Department at Pratt hosted: Childhood Regained. Vea Vecchi, first Reggio Emilia atelierista; Kieran Egan, Imaginative Education Research Group founder/director; and many others contributed. The work of Vivian Paley was woven throughout the conference, as presented by Patsy Cooper (NYU) and Jane Katch (who worked with Paley). I was struck by the film, "My Own Backyard to Play In," a document of children playing in the streets of Hell's Kitchen, c. 1950, by Tony Schwartz. Because it combined voices from so many of my influences, with the addition of this film document that I had not known about, the conference was quite a powerful experience.

I was riveted by Vea's invocation to us as early childhood educators to "explore the digital environment." She presented the most beautiful images of a project from a school in Reggio in which the children (4-6 years old) explored the shadow/reflection of a window on a wall in the new Malaguzzi Center, created in honor of Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia schools. The children photographed, discussed, traced, and created an animation of their drawings based on this window's moving image on the wall. Children's exploratory thoughts about the shadow: "The wall is crooked." "The sun is attached to the wall." "When the sun is straight, the shadow is straight." "The shadow went back into the window." "It's a sneaky shadow." "This shadow tells lots of stories." "It's pushing hard to open." "Listen--its heart is beating." "When it goes away, it takes the memory with it."

Listening to these young children's profoundly beautiful observations about a moving shadow on the wall, I was again convinced that it is truly great work to encourage children to come into that space within which they can arrive at such conclusions. They are poets, as Richard Lewis of Touchstone Center reminds us. They teach us how to live, how to be poets, how to see.

To go one step further, seeing the inherently visual nature of Vea's presentation about an activity that for the children had been so visual, and yet scientific and literary, reminded me that the teachers at the Reggio schools have consistently showed us the power of adult facilitation of children's visual, and by extension cognitive, understandings. We have the responsibility to help young children take their explorations of the world to the next level, cognitively, by sharing with them more tools to explore, and by showing them how they can use these tools for deeper exploration. Vea showed us in her presentation how important digital media, particularly stop motion with still images like the children's drawings, have become to the Reggio atelier. She challenged the audience to mine the digital mediums available to us, to fully employ the "digital environment," as she put it, and I heard her loud and clear.


New discoveries....new lenses on children's play

Tish Shute has created a wonderful project, UgoTrade, which has as its mission "Crossing Digital Divides - tracking innovative uses of technology in new environments," and not only that, she has gone a step further with Ugonet, "a video sharing community focusing of films and videos coming from 'off-grid' communities." This is a thrilling find and I am starting to upload DSW videos.
Through Ugonet, I have discovered the good work of filmmaker/photographer/writer Marcelo Fortaleza Flores and director Dirce Carrion of Imagem da Vida (Image of Life). They're working on a lovely project called "A Meeting of Eyes," which establishes an exchange between children and communities that have similar cultural roots, but have been separated by the history of slavery. In this case they have focused on Dakar and Gorree Island in Senegal and Sao Lourenco, in Northeastern Brazil. This cross-cultural dialogue between children has massive potential and dovetails my work with Digital Story Workshop.


Drawings by children in scene 4 of Ark

These drawings were done by Keziah or Isiss on the way back from Coney Island, shortly after shooting scene 4 of Ark (April, 2002).

shine beauful nice

"This is cool"
"Really cool"
"I knew" [what would be inside the box]

Then we did a puppet show with little people


Ark, revisited...

I ran across these notes I had made on the day we filmed the last scene of Ark, in April of 2002, out at Coney Island in the freezing cold, with Keziah, Isiss and Rodney, ages 7, 6 and 5.
I had asked the children, during our shoot: What could be inside the box?

- I don't think we should open it because someone might be looking for it now.
- Let's just open it; it's just a treasure.
- Maybe all the way when some Indians lived at the beach and they buried it in the sand and some pirates be looking for it! For 15 years. . .
- I think it's fairies or I think it's golden shiny rocks and golden shiny jewelry.
- I can't imagine what's in it--let's just open it!

And then they opened the box. See this portion of Ark on the Digital Story Workshop website.


Early Childhood: Listen to the Children Play*

Last week I attended the latest meeting of the New York Voices for Childhood, a group started by Deborah Meier in the Spring of 2006, as a reaction to the recent developments in "school readiness" as put forth by the national and local departments of education. Rather than test pre-kindergarten children to see if they are "ready for kindergarten," the professors and K-12 teachers who have been attending these meetings believe that educators should be supporting the youngest children as they play, not teaching them how to take standardized tests at age 4. This group, NY Voices for Childhood, in collaboration with the Alliance for Childhood, is developing "a campaign to restore creative play and hands-on learning to preschools and kindergartens." Their goals are as follows:
1. to develop and implement a public information, engagement, and advocacy campaign, with outreach to educators, parents, policymakers, and others concerned about the well-being of our nation's children.
2. to cultivate multi-faceted media coverage--including print, broadcast, and web-based--that focuses on the broader picture of childhood and the need for creative play and hands-on learning.
3. to realign the education and professional development of early childhood educators with the tenets of experiential learning.

It saddens me that it has come to this, that our supposedly modern society has allowed our educational system to turn into a bureaucracy that has abandoned what Dewey and the progressives taught. We are plummeting backward at a steady clip, such that if we can ever get out of this quicksand of assessment-based education, we will have to re-learn those long-lost innovative and creative teaching strategies that once promised to positively transform society through education. Digital Story Workshop is but one tiny tool that can help interested artists, teachers and citizens to counteract the stranglehold testing has on our schools and, by extension, the children we have the responsibility of raising.

*with apologies to Manuela Testolini Nelson's organization, which is working on a documentary called "In a Perfect World . . . Listen to the Children."