In their recently published book, Students at the Center, Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda explore the concept of student-centered learning through the lens of the Habits of Mind. When describing what a child-centered learning environment looks like, on a day-to-day basis, the authors attest that it manifests itself as "... a balance of things happening simultaneously. It's a great deal of flexibility, collaboration and creativity."
Just over a week ago we culminated our opera residency with a
performance of We Are All From Somewhere Else. The opera told the key events in the history of immigration to the United States with song lyrics created by the children. The narrative for the story, written and researched collaboratively between teachers, children and college students, explored and celebrated the arrival of immigrants and refugees to our country. The above quote caught my eye because the act of creating the opera over thirteen extremely busy and tightly scheduled school days was very much a balance of many, many things happening simultaneously!
Students At The Center highlights four key psychosocial attributes that are always being developed in a child-centered learning environment: Relevance; Growth Mindset; Self-Efficacy and Sense of Belonging. In my reflections about the opera project, I found these attributes, and associated habits of mind, to be a useful framework.
Relevance: "This work has value for me"
The authors explain this attribute by emphasizing the importance of work that "challenges the student to apply his or her unique understanding to complex and intriguing problems." The immigration theme provided the children and teachers with a space to consider and converse around very relevant issues - locally, nationally and globally. In our school community, everyone has an immigration story. Knowing more about history of immigration to the United States - be it through coercion, opportunity or as an escape from hardship elsewhere. The study of history of immigration into the United States provided the children with prior knowledge from which to consider the relevance of our theme to their own lives and experience in a school community. The time travel narrative was a construct designed to help the children develop a story where they could consider what it means to be inclusive, generous and kind in their own world. In the language of the Habits of Mind, they were remaining open to continuous learning and drawing from past knowledge and applying it to new situations.
Growth Mindset: "My ability and confidence grow with my effort"
Throughout the opera, the children were challenged to practice the habits of Taking Responsible Risks and Persisting. All of the children engaged in dance and song that took them to a place of vulnerability. From a kindergartener's perspective, just imagine what it must have been like to look out from that stage and see an audience of over 700 people! As for persistence, any one who has ever engaged in a dramatic performance knows that repetition of practice and rehearsal is essential in the work towards a common goal. The St. Olaf students were impressive their enthusiastic belief that our children could, and would, be able to create, learn and perform complex music, song, dance and dialogue.
Self-Efficacy: "I can succeed at this"
The habits supporting self-efficacy during the opera clearly included Striving for Accuracy and Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision. I observed many of the small group rehearsals that were constantly in progress during the residency. Typically, they involved a handful of children working with college students learning song-lines, dance moves and lines of dialogue. The detail and precision of this work was impressive. Each day, the St. Olaf students would head back to college and review their groups' progress and establish new timelines, goals and next steps for the children. I think this was invaluable modeling for our children; they gained an insight into the hard work that goes into creating a big performance like this. They lived the value of attentiveness to time and detail. It's an important learning habit that is attended to when children work through class themes, or complete projects.
Sense of Belonging: "I belong to this community"
In Kallick and Zmuda's words, a sense of belonging "...refers to how individuals fit in a community and how the community accepts and celebrates differences." In the act of creating the opera, the teachers and college students were always considering how to be inclusive of all children during the process of creating our musical. The immigration theme also centered on ideas relating to community and togetherness. Children learn about the history of the larger community that we all live in - our country. Together we wrestled with important questions: How do the different stories of immigration to the United States come together in our understanding of who we are as a community of people? What are the opportunities and challenges of living in a diverse society? What does it feel like to arrive in a country as a refugee - leaving behind friends, family and familiar culture? Indeed, how do we accept and celebrate the differences in each other?
Outside of school, our children are witness to some pretty fractious discourse around these big questions right now. Perhaps school now has a particularly important role: a place where children, guided by intentional and caring adults, can practice the life-long habits of thinking interdependently and listening with understanding and empathy.
The arts create a wonderful vehicle for this child-centered work. So why not an opera? Yeah, an elementary school opera put together in a couple weeks by a collaborative group of teachers, professors, college students and 180 wonderful children.
Forgive me if I sneak in a reference to one last habit in this post...Awe and Wonder anyone?