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Carol Vaage - Educator, Author, Artist

Retired and loving all three interests!

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A story starts at the beginning, and the beginning of this tale originates in the mid-sixties, at the height of Beatlemania, with a fresh young teacher, with only two years of university. My grade 1 class was set up in rows, class management was a non-issue, and whole class instruction was the norm for all subjects. For reading, I had three groups and we chose different selections from an authorized reading series. The principal walked by and nodded if my class was quiet, and I was proud. The only professional development was the teachers’ convention.

Every afternoon, I would start to yawn from boredom. I was seeking some alternative way to bring life into my teaching, and so when a spark of interest developed in the caterpillars outside, I set up a little habitat for them. I tried to hide my fear of caterpillars when the kids asked more questions and wanted to see them up closer. I brought one caterpillar out to the table at the back of the room, and put him on a paper, so we could observe him better. I had a magnifying glass, but that caterpillar was on escape mode and was crawling so fast, no one could see him. Ridiculously naïve, I thought if I taped down the back of his body to the paper, he would remain still so that all the kids could study him up close. As I was snugging the tape closer to his body, he reared up in defense and self-preservation. I threw my hands up in shock, and slapped the boy standing nearest to me… I will never forget the look on his face – of utter disappointment. I learned so much from that incident – the need to be authentic and real as a human being; the true desire of kids for the “real” in learning; and that each living entity deserves respect and dignity.

We held a class meeting after we set the caterpillar outside. How much better it would have been had I had a carpet area, so I could have gathered the kids in close. I confessed apologetically to them my fear of caterpillars and why I reacted so strongly. The conversation that developed from that meeting guided me on my conversion of teaching styles – and opened me to learning from the kids. You see, the children forgave me, and told me stories about things that they were afraid of. Then we problem-solved to see how we could investigate caterpillars more closely but keep their dignity intact. We created a habitat in an old aquarium, and it grew and grew as children brought in more species with more plant life to feed them. We learned to let them go after a couple of days because we didn’t want any to die. That is the first memory I had of good teaching.

Because those were my baby-making years, I moved on to substitute teach and saw so many different classrooms – some stale and stagnant, where the children were given discrete tasks for the entire day – teacher controlled and managed. Other classrooms were more open – with the teacher leaving comments like, “depending on the children’s response…” that showed me ways to build in the voice of the child into everyday learning.

I left teaching with the birth of my third child in three years and became an educator mom. How soon I learned another lesson – from my children. So many times, I planned a great recreation activity for us, and it seemed to fall flat. But the days when the blankets came off the beds and a fort was created in the living room, real adventure happened. When I followed the lead of my kids and brought in materials or a drama role or extension learning opportunities - that was when our days passed full of happiness and fun.

I returned to university as a mature student, with four children at home, and specialized in Early Childhood. I finished my B.Ed. then went on to get my Ed. Dip. in Early Childhood. That was the year I found pedagogy that matched my own learning and understanding, and life was exhilarating. This was the year that I learned how important it was to observe children, to determine their interests, needs and skills. We had a practicum at the University Lab School, and I had so much fun developing an area of interest in cars for the boys in the block area. For our assignment, we had to describe the week of learning, and write about what curriculum was covered. I could not believe just how many of the outcomes were met, just by facilitating this dramatic play. This style of teaching just made perfect sense to me after my life lessons as a fledgling teacher and as a mother.

I continued my studies to acquire my M. Ed. in Early Childhood and became very familiar with Vygotsky, constructivism, and philosophy. I had learned to think on my own, finally. My research was done in grounded theory – hermeneutic phenomenology – looking at children’s work to see what could be learned from it. The wealth of knowledge I discovered filled my thesis… and I soared high with excitement.

Now as I transitioned from the university ideological embryonic cocoon into the real school world, my confidence was shaken. I had 25 children in my gr. 1 class, many of whom had exceptional needs and differences. They had already learned to follow the teacher’s direction from their kindergarten classes and did not trust that I truly wanted their input into the choice of our studies. I was struggling to meet the needs of the literacy curriculum yet honor the interests of the children. I vacillated from beautiful learning scenarios to teacher-controlled full class instruction, not knowing how to bridge from one extreme to the other. By the end of the year, I was holding on to control of the literacy and math in the morning and doing more open-ended project work in the afternoons. I assumed all failures for learning were my fault – that I hadn’t had my act fully together. So, a couple of children never reached their full potential in reading. I hadn’t let the parents know about the challenges they faced in learning to read. I had hoped it would all come together by the year end. My lesson that year was to be truthful with parents from the beginning, knowing that a full partnership will lead to more success for each child. I brought in parents into my classroom from that time on with an open-door policy because I knew now that parents really want their child to succeed, no matter what their learning skills and challenges may be.

I moved into kindergarten after that year, and because the curriculum was so much more flexible, I found my niche for emergent curriculum, and thus start my learning adventure stories. After 15 years of teaching kindergarten, I moved back into gr. 1, and found a way to merge emergent curriculum and the heavy mandated curriculum. One pedagogy and philosophy that helped me move along was the Reggio Emilia wealth of resources and inspiration. Reggio inspired learning includes documentation, environment as the third teacher, image of the child, teacher as researcher, 100 languages of children, social constructivism, emergent curriculum, and community connection. I learned ways to make my teaching better which continued until my retirement. That was my truth – the best teachers are the kids in my classes.

My experience has helped me to know certain things. I know that children have many broad interests about living things which include animals and plants and nurturing them - including creepy crawlies, birds, reptiles, dinosaurs; they are curious about their life cycles. Weather, especially severe weather, fascinates them – the sun, clouds, shadows, reflections, wind, snow, temperature, northern lights. They love building things out of any material – especially boxes; and the bigger the project, they more they love it. Space intrigues them – the moon phases, planets, stars, galaxies, nebula; and travel in space draws them like a magnet. Water calls to kids – the rivers, lakes, seas – and the appealing unique creatures that abide in the water. The earth in its splendor intrigues them – canyons, volcanoes, rocks, mud, and hills. Kids wonder about other places around the world – not just their own neighborhoods – but in the North, Africa, China, or Australia. The world they live in now is shrinking – what used to be beyond their experience is no longer. Using technology, we can bring the world right into the classroom for up close and personal encounters – and this is an expectation of our young kids.

Connections to their out-of-school experiences cross over into the classroom – sports of all kinds can become a major interest, pets, music, dance, skating, cooking.

Story and books fan these interests, and so my classroom was full of books of all kinds. If the interest is high, children are so motivated to research and find answers to their questions that they almost learn to read through osmosis. Books are only one print media and thanks to technology, we have far more rich media to supplement research materials.

  • quality fiction to draw them into the world of story
  • non-fiction books to give them the background and hook their thirst for knowing, for the pictures and research
  • magazines for visual research
  • Internet for the most current info and resources and to access experts
  • newspapers for local reporting

My favorite words during the year were, “I wonder…” in which I modeled pondering, thinking, pausing, taking time to just think of possibilities. By taking a few moments at the most interesting statements that you’ve read, talked about, viewed, we open imagination and free thinking – which leads to a more involved questioning and hypothesis-making attitude.

My big idea objective/goal for my class is that EACH child can walk out the door in June and say to themselves, “I can learn anything I want to.” Believing that they are capable learners that can take on any challenge that interests them is the foundation for success for the rest of their lives.

The bulk of my memoir contains learning adventure stories. These are not themes, not curricular outcomes. They are special projects based on the interests of the children, and because they were in-depth and extensive, they no longer felt like a topic study – they took on a life of their own. They became an adventure that was being created by kids and teachers alike – both co-creating the story line.

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