This summer, my family made a trip to the City Museum in St. Louis. It's hard to describe. It's like a giant sculpture you can climb through, explore and get lost in. There's a giant whale, rebar tunnels, underground labyrinths, a limestone cave, a 10 story swirly slide, a giant turtle tank, a forest, a shoe lace factory, the world's largest pair of underpants, and an adult size ball pit (no head shots!)
As I chased my children through impossibly tight spots and crossed my fingers that they would turn up at our pre-arranged meeting times (they did) I found myself developing an extended metaphor for the type of emergent curriculum building we do at Prairie Creek. (Really, I did. I have the notebook scriblings to prove it.)
The museum is 10 floors of possibilities. There is no single path through it. In fact, at the information desk, someone has taped the words "NO MAPS." One enters and starts in a direction that looks interesting.
I feel that way at the beginning of the year. We are all giddy and wide-eyed when we meet on the plaza next Tuesday. Where will we go? I have some ideas and I've created a classroom space that is full of potential sparks but, just as often as the class ventures down the path I have predicted and prepared for during the summer, they veer in a new direction. It's incredibly exciting when it happens - the momentum is phenomenal and I join them in their exploration, quickly researching and learning as much as I can so that I can stay a step ahead. (On my first visit to the City Museum, my then 2 year old daughter went through a hole in the wall that was too small for me to follow her through - I took a deep breath, sent my 4 year old after her as I dashed along the wall to find a bigger entrance into the world behind.)
When a class learns in a progressive setting, they sense that their learning is new and fresh. They don't feel as though they are just the latest ones to march along a well-worn path. They know that we are discovering together and that I don't have all of the answers. I don't have a map that tells us exactly where we are going to end up and how to get there. Together we will set a course.
The city musueum isn't for everyone. I overheard one woman peppering a staff member with questions about how to get to the top of the 10 story slide. His suggestion was to go up. She wasn't satisfied and asked again. He pointed the direction and she huffed, "Do I have to crawl through anything to get there?" I looked down, my knees were damp from exploring a crevice in the faux limestone cave that has unlit, wet passages. I ducked behind a column -- I had recommended the museum to this woman in the hotel's breakfast room. Oops.
There are parents and teachers (some quite good) who feel the same way about emergent curriculum. They like to know at the beginning of the year exactly what they will be doing on day 10 and on day 110. I had a teacher from another school ask me, "Why do you re-invent the wheel every year?"
My answer was perhaps too flippant but had some truth in it, "I learn more about the wheel every time I invent it." There is no more exciting way to teach than to be responsive to the passions and needs that arrise in one's classroom. I never follow the same path twice (although I sometimes re-visit some familiar places). The students and I take turns leading and following.
So as the year begins, know that it will be a grand adventure. We'll squeeze through some tight spots. We'll find unexpected treasures. We may get a little lost from time to time. We'll decide which way to go together and we'll be astonished at the places we end up. I invite you to join us along the way.