The Power of Project Work: Researching Sharks With Middle School Students

I feel so grateful to spend my days engaged in meaningful work with children. It really gives me a sense of purpose.  I constantly feel this profound happiness in knowing that I am part of a school that really values children and encourages them to find their unique strengths, whatever they may be. The school that I am a part of sees learning as a collaborative endeavor. Learning is a lifelong process of discovery, reflection, and rediscovery. What an inspiring way to spend your days as a student. I am equally as inspired. Every day I wake up anticipating what new things I might discover. What I might discover about the unique learning process of each child, what I might discover about myself, and what I might discover about life. This is a school I dreamed I could be a part of as a child. This is a school I am elated to have my children be a part of. I am so grateful to my boss (and close friend) for envisioning this school. She is at the heart of real change. Those of us helping to bring her vision to life are like activists for a special cause. In my opinion, we are helping to make the world a better, more authentic, more beautiful place.

Last Thursday, I spent the entire day engaged in the type work that makes me excited to get up each morning. It was more than a field trip…my co-worker (and good friend) called it an expedition and that’s just what it seemed like. It was definitely one of those memorable experiences that birthed so many new learning opportunities. I found this experience (as well as the context that led to it) so powerful that I thought I’d share about it.

As part of our school-wide research of migration, the middle school students at my school are researching the migration of sharks. A few months ago, they connected with a local scientist who was kind enough to mentor them. She sent them a relevant article to dissect, they wrote her essays detailing their thoughts on the article, and they engaged in a productive Skype session with her where they asked her many meaningful questions relevant to their research.

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She then connected them with a team of scientists who regularly go out to sea to tag sharks. The scientists were eager to help the children research further. They offered the children a great rate (only covering the cost of the boat) but it was still more than we’d ever collected for a field trip. We were worried that we might not come up with the funds in time. Through constant collaboration with our school family and a lot of hard work, the children fundraised over $700 to offset the cost of this special research expedition.

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Last week, we set off with the team of local scientists to study sharks. I spent much of the trip in awe of this opportunity. I watched as the children engaged in meaningful conversations with community members. I watched as the children worked together (and worked really hard) to bait and set out lines tied to 50 pound weights. I watched them anticipate the sharks they might encounter. I watched as they pulled in what seemed like about 20 lines. Many of the times they pulled in empty hooks but they did not falter. I mean, an empty hook is just as important to their research as pulling in a shark.  So many empty hooks signify how difficult it is to pull in a shark. It means that scientists must be resilient, determined, and optimistic. Throughout the course of the day they did pull in three sharks. The joy in their faces proved that hard work pays off. Eagerly, the children worked with the scientists to measure, tag, and collect samples of each shark. Data that is invaluable as it will help shape what we understand about sharks in the future. We all knew that this was a very special day. It was an authentic day filled with joy and discovery. A day we will never forget.

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Stella Explores Edible Paint

I am constantly on Pinterest searching for interesting sensory experiences suitable for infants. I do this not only for my 6 month old (Stella) but also as a way to find ideas for the Baby Nido class at my school. One idea I really loved was edible paint consisting of only two ingredients: yogurt and food coloring. I decided to prepare some on this beautiful gloomy morning for my daughter, Stella.

I mixed half a cup of organic plain yogurt with three drops of food coloring in a small bowl.  I did this three times to create three colors for Stella to explore. Then, I placed a blanket outside with Stella’s Boppy underneath to help support her in sitting position and I placed Stella on the blanket. Stella gets so excited when she is exposed to something new that she hardly contains herself. She immediately pushed her body towards the blue shade of yogurt paint and picked it up .

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She put the bowl of blue paint down and thought for a moment.

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She reached for the yellow paint, pushing the blue paint out of the way.

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She picked up the yellow bowl of paint and mouthed the side…her first taste of the yogurt.

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I think she liked it…

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Then, she noticed the puddle of yogurt paint that had gathered by her feet. She rubbed it with her hand for a moment before she decided to explore the purple paint.

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She brought the bowl of purple paint to her mouth. In doing so, the purple paint dripped all over her foot. She noticed the purple paint on her foot and began to rub it with her hands.

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Then, she positioned herself so that she could see the paint on the blanket.

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She sat for a minute, touching the paint on the blanket.

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Then, she sat up and wondered what to do next.

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She stacked the bowls of paint on top of one another and then began to show an interest in the leaves that had fallen near the blanket.

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This experience lasted about 15 minutes which is a great length of time for an infant. Stella was engaged throughout the entire experience. She was quiet, concentrated, and content. Not once did she complain or seem to want the experience to end. When babies first interact with the world, they don’t have words to describe what they encounter, but they do absorb information through their senses. This is why sensory experiences are great for infants. A few benefits of sensory experiences are that they can be therapeutic, they can improve motor skills, they can raise awareness of how the world works, and they can contribute to language acquisition, all while being a lot of fun!

 

 

 

Scarecrow Night at School

Yesterday was Scarecrow Night at my school. This is a really special event where families come together to create a unique scarecrow using whichever materials they’d like. This way, each scarecrow has it’s own look and serves to represent the family who made it. These unique and beautiful scarecrows line the outside of the school for the following several weeks. It’s so much fun to create a scarecrow and add it to the collection. It’s just as fun to marvel at everyone else’s special scarecrow. This is a wonderful annual event that I felt lucky to experience as a parent this year. Shaun, Dylan, Stella, and I worked together to create our scarecrow. What a wonderful way to celebrate fall. I’m so glad that I brought my camera along to capture this special event. I will treasure these memories forever.

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Stella’s Experience in the Baby Nido Class

Stella takes part in so many wonderful experiences while in class at school. She has two wonderful teachers named Ms. Michelle and Ms. Maria . They are dedicated, nurturing, and seem to really enjoy watching as the children explore many new and interesting materials. I, as atelierista, plan with one of her teachers every week. Ms. Michelle and I work closely together to plan special experiences, reflect upon the experiences that have gone on in the classroom, and discuss ideas for the future. Over the past few weeks, Stella has taken part in several amazing experiences. She absolutely loves every new encounter she has. Whenever her teachers place her near a new material, she smiles, moves her arms and legs in excitement, and screams with joy. It’s really special to watch…

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Ms. Michelle and Stella during one special experience.
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Stella explores a special block of ice.

The block of ice is super easy to create. You just take a wipe container, fill it 1/2 way with water, add plants to it, and freeze it.

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Stella explores a sensory bag.

The sensory bag is also really easy to create. You just place oil and water along with a few drops of watercolor in a ziplock bag. You can also duct tape the ziplock  bag to a surface so that it stays stable during the exploration if you’d like.

A Special Invitation: Sensory Dough

Last weekend I prepared several batches of sensory dough. The sensory dough I prepared was comprised of flour, salt, cream of tartar powder, and herbs. I’ll post the recipe below. It’s such a simple and natural recipe that I knew would stimulate the senses while providing children with extended periods of exploration. I decided to prepare a double batch so that I could offer some to the Baby Nido class at my school and some to Dylan and Stella.

I placed a table cloth on our dining table, brought out a few clay tools and cookie cutters, and invited Dylan and Stella to explore.

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Stella immediately grabbed a piece of the dough and began to mouth it. I love how interested she becomes when offered something new to explore. In this case, she was mouthing the dough more than I thought was safe so I tried to pull it from her mouth. I was surprised by how upset she became. She looked so angry as she pulled the dough from my hands and towards her mouth. I was shocked.

 

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My husband took this picture once I gave the dough back to Stella. She immediately began to mouth it again.
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Then, she held the dough out to her brother.
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She began to whine…I think in order to get his attention.

That was a special moment between them for me. Stella is always so interested in what Dylan is doing. I think she really enjoyed this invitation, to explore alongside her brother. It seemed that she was trying to share her discovery with Dylan. Dylan was immersed in his own exploration with the dough so he didn’t really notice her effort in calling his attention. Once she whined, he looked to her and that was enough for Stella.

Stella seemed to be more interested in watching Dylan at this point so I held her in my lap and we watched Dylan together.

Dylan really enjoyed this experience. He was drawn to the chocolate dough. He held it to his nose and commented on how it smelled. I believe he said something like “delicious!”.

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Then, he created a little snowman with the dough. He used different herb-scented balls in creating his snowman. He stayed engaged in this exploration for at least half an hour 🙂

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Sensory Herb-scented Dough Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup of all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup of water
  • 2 tbsp salt
  • 1 tsp cream of tartar
  • Herb/Spice (2 tbsp of cocoa powder for batch 1) (1tsp paprika for batch 2) (2 tbsp of pumpkin spice for batch 3) (2 tbsp ground sage for batch 4)

Instructions

  • Place all ingredients into a pot, mix, and cook over medium low heat, stirring constantly until the mixture resembles a ball of dough.
  • Place ball of dough onto a piece of wax paper, let it cool, and then knead until the consistency you desire.

*You have to make a separate batch for each scent.

*I found this recipe on Pinterest. It was originally created by craftulate.com.

The Chicken Project

I am the atelierista of a very special Reggio-inspired school in Miami, FL. The school I am a part of is also a “Green School”that emphasizes long term project work. Most of the projects that go on in my school have a focus on the environment. Before I became atelierista, I was the lead teacher of a group of children that led a project we named The Chicken Project.

The Chicken Project is an ongoing project that began in 2014. Back then, the children in the class of the 2’s formed an attachment to the rooster that lived in our park, Co Co Co. They thought of many ways to earn the rooster’s trust including feeding it every day, making it bowls for food and water, thinking of a playground for the rooster, and more. Unfortunately, the rooster died only a few months after we embarked on that project.

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One of our students as she attempted to bond with Co Co Co.
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The children made the rooster food from scratch.
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Co Co Co often ate home-made rooster food from the bowl that we made for him.
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A few words about our special feathered friend, written by a first grader.

Since then, a new student, seeing that the children were mourning the rooster, offered to give us two chickens from her farm. Over the next several months, the children worked on designing a coop for chickens. They sent recorded summaries of the aspects they wanted for their coop along with their designs to my husband who is an electrician and carpenter. He watched their videos and looked over their designs. Then, he created a draft based on their designs and recorded his own message to the students.

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Two of these chicks were promised to the students.
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One potential design for our new coop.
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My husband drafts a new design based on the ideas shared by the children.

Once everyone was in agreement over the coop. The children fundraised for the materials, wrote a letter to Shaun which included the money they raised, and  then Shaun began building the coop. It took around 4 months to complete the coop. Shaun worked on it during the weekends and after work on some weekdays. I have to tell you it was completely a labor of love. Shaun went above and beyond with the coop. He is definitely a craftsman

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This year, the coop has been built and we were given two very sweet and special chickens, Milk and Chocolate. Some of the students in the pre-k 4 class have been a part of this project from the beginning. The children in this class are in charge of the chickens and have been engaged in many meaningful experiences with the chickens this school year. I will continue to update this post with pictures as the children continue to care for these new chickens.

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Stella’s Sensory Experience…

Today I decided to offer my daughter a special provocation. I prepared some of the noodles that my family made earlier this week and placed them in a plastic tub. Then, I placed Stella in the tub! She was completely engaged as she moved her hands through the ocean of noodles, spreading her fingers to catch a few at a time. She explored the noodles with he hands, with her feet, and with her mouth.  She was captivated.

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Through this experience she was able to work on her gross motor skills (sitting up), her fine motor skills (grabbing at and picking up noodles), her problem-solving skills (thinking about the properties of the noodles, what they’re for, why they stick to her, and how to get them off), and more.  There are so many meaningful connections that this experience helped to facilitate, all while being fun, creative, and messy.

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I should mention that she has these types of encounters daily at her school (which is the school I am a part of). Her teachers constantly tell me how much she loves these types of sensory, open-ended experiences. I, being atelierista, have helped to facilitate special encounters like the one above at school.

Here are a few of the experiences we facilitated at school this month (all featuring my beautiful daughter, of course).

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The Joy in Discovery…

Today, while I was making lunch, my son was exploring a bucket of water. I had given him these squeezable fish so that he could squeeze them, collect water inside the fish, and squeeze again to release the water. He loved that!

Then, he said “Mama, yook (look)!”

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There was something “fluttering” on the ceiling. He didn’t know where this came from. He looked into the bucket, then at the ceiling, and then outside. I asked him what it is and he said “Buh-ah-fwies (butterflies)”. What an incredible connection. The reflection of the water from the bucket appeared to be fluttering, perhaps two fluttering objects. Dylan thought about butterflies.

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He looked outside and pointed to something. Was he thinking the butterflies outside were making the reflection?

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Then, he looked into the bucket again and moved the fish around. He lifted one of the fish and squeeze the water into the bucket. He said something along the lines of “Mama, where butterfly go?” He looked back into the bucket and moved the water around. The reflection disappeared. In that moment, he realized the bucket was somehow responsible.

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This was a special (and unexpected) experience. It gives new meaning to “magic in the mundane”. Dylan was just playing with a set of plastic fish and a bucket filled with water. Mind you, that experience alone was something special to Dylan. Then, something unexpected happened. A unique fluttering object appeared on the ceiling. So many thoughts must have occurred in Dylan’s mind. What is this? Where did it come from? Can I touch it? Where will it go?

These types of explorations, where children question the possibility of something, are so essential. Dylan was wondering where this fluttering object came from and if it was even possible that something like that could occur. He was problem solving by trying to determine what the fluttering object was, what could have caused it, and where it went.

Lights and shadows, in particular, are wonderful provocations for children. Lights and shadows are magical, they, like the wind, are difficult to  explain. To a child, it is a magical occurrence. To an adult, it can be just as magical. When something is not so easily defined, it makes the process of wondering come natural. When Dylan encountered the fluttering objects, I too shared a sense of wonder with my son. That alone is something special, the process of wondering together.

A Meaningful Meal

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I love clay. I have worked with clay for 20 years. I love the feel, the malleability, and the fact that you can create whatever you imagine with this special material. I have a pasta maker that I use for polymer clay. I loved that I could just place a ball of polymer clay into the machine, turn the crank, and create smooth, soft, slabs of clay. I wondered how difficult it could possibly be to make pasta from scratch. I mean, I already knew how to work the machine. This inspired me to purchase a more expensive pasta maker in order to make pasta with my family. Today, while my son Dylan was napping, I Amazon Prime Now ordered a great pasta machine. 2 hours later, it had arrived. I was so excited to surprise my son with this special experience. Little did I know how much my family would love using the pasta machine!

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This was a special night for us. To be present together, in that moment, and to create something special to eat was very exciting. My son was engaged throughout the entire process. He was eager to have an important role in this experience. I believe that, because he was part of the preparation, my sometimes picky eater was was more inclined to taste the pasta. And what a delicious plate of pasta it was!

My Reggio-inspired Life…

Welcome to my blog! My name is Yemi. I live in Miami, Florida with my husband and two children. I work as an atelierista of a Reggio-inspired school here in Miami. For those of you that are not familiar with the term, an atelierista is basically someone who facilitates meaningful projects with children, who helps children develop their ideas using the whatever medium (or other form of expression) the child prefers, and who works with teachers to help bring depth and continuity to the projects going on in their classroom. This is my dream job. This is my happiness.I have fallen in love with the Reggio approach. I feel that it provokes the most meaningful, most magical way of thinking. To honor children, to make discoveries alongside them, and to focus on the aspects of life that are truly captivating is the most beautiful thing to me. To live in an authentic way is to feel fulfilled. I hope you enjoy my little blog. I aim to share the special moments and discoveries that make life worth living.

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That’s me with my two little ones.