While comparing changes in the syllabi of an annual professional development seminar held on the topic of human development over the lifespan, I bumped into what remains the only documentation I have found (though I suspect the culture of listening was pervasive) of the Descriptive Processes done in the classroom, by children. The piece, Discussion of Change: Living, Growing, Dying Things by Susan Donnelly and the West Group of 4 1/4 to 7 year-olds, is also unique because the children are not describing works of art or writing, but rather natural objects, works of nature. A longitudinal representation of open-ended inquiry, it is spare, potent and arresting. I felt immediately challenged to repeat this simple pedagogical experiment with the even younger children in my preschool classroom. One cannot deny that serendipity is a guiding force in archival research. Having received my challenge, I returned to the hunt for human development over the lifespan, and to my classroom.
Our school, Burlington Children’s Space, teaches and cares for children from infancy through preschool. Both preschool classrooms are two-year classrooms, teaching 3, 4, and 5-year-olds. We are located in an urban neighborhood in a small city on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain in Vermont. One Monday morning in November, I brought in some examples of different mosses and lichen from a weekend woodland adventure. We sat around a table together, taking turns observing and describing the specimens, while I transcribed the descriptions in a small notebook.Moss Specimen #1
-I see grass and a little bit of wood chips.
-It feels like a dry fish in your hand.
-I notice it has leaves on it and it has flippers and wings.
-I notice that there is some hops and some grass and wood chips and flippers in it.
-I see this long stem has a little round seed at the top.
-This looks like it got white layer attached to it and it goes up and up and up when you pull on it. On the bottom it has a little dirt and grass.
-It smells like it has an injury. It will poke the animal’s face when he smells it but it won’t hurt.
-What I noticed is that I see very closely a grasshopper inside it.
-It looks like a little bit of moss. It feels like a pine tree.
It took a few more sessions of this practice to create a ritual of respectful listening, deep looking, formulating observations and using descriptive language to share them. The notebook, and the act of my writing, became central to the ritual; when I tried making an audio recording rather than transcribing, the group could not maintain focus. Once our practice was established, the children dictated a letter to me, asking their parents to help them find more specimens for description.
When you pick us up, we would like to find some creatures to bring in to school. Or a plant, like a bigger, bigger one, like this short. Please maybe in a jar. We want it because it’s better to put it in.
We are going to use them because we are discovering things after naptime about plants and moss and animals. Could you try and find them for us? It doesn’t have to be out in the woods, it just can be anywhere outside when you’re walking. You might find something interesting. Like seashells or crab bones or if you’re fishing maybe some fish’s bone. Rocks are interesting maybe with moss on them.
No live animals, please, because they make such a mess and they might destroy the other specimens.
With those contributions we continued the same practice for seven months, at which point we purchased a binocular stereo scope, and began to make comparative observations of the same specimens, without and then with the microscope.
Given that these were our oldest students, I became interested in what, if any value there might be in using Prospect’s language-based descriptive processes in the pre-verbal and emerging-verbal classrooms, a population not represented at the Prospect School. Bringing the question to the entire staff, we met in three consecutive professional development sections to describe Donnelly’s documentation and discuss the possible pre-verbal applications. I summarized the emergent themes and brought them to the assembled staff during a fall inservice meeting.
We concluded that building a school culture of observation through descriptive language can certainly begin in an infant community; using the five senses as a basis for constructing knowledge. Babies and toddlers are experts in sensory exploration! Another key element of building this culture is time. Allowing as much time as a child needs to explore an object, facilitating multiple exposures, and using a ritual format (such as passing an object around in a circle), are ways to make use of time to the best advantage for our children to form their ideas through their own experience.
By repeating our processes of exploration and having rituals of description, we build a consistent practice of observation and description with clear and reliable expectations of listening and respect. Modeling descriptive language by paying attention with the kids does more than teach a style of talk. It builds skills of observation within the observer, and gives respect to their interests, privileging the construction of knowledge from the inside out.
My working theory on the intertwined development of observational skills and descriptive language in both children and adults, individually and in community, was informed by this collective inquiry. Observation is the cognitive element of a sensory experience. It can be done alone. It can be done without words. Preverbal children observe and build the language to think or explain the observation at the same time; the receptive and generative cognitive processes intertwined. Noticing, like observing, reflects a relationship between an object or stimulus and an observer, with another twist. Notice has the same root of the word “note”: to make a record or communication. Noticing is a social observation, a step between observation and description. It is where the silent process of observation takes shape in verbal form. Description is the communication of the noted observation in language from observer to listener; it requires an audience either in person, or extemporally through written language. On this continuum, observational skills and descriptive language co-develop, both in the young mind, and even in older minds when we engage in collective epistemic inquiry, as with the Descriptive Processes.
Thanks to serendipity, Susan Donnelly, the Prospect School and Center, Burlington Children’s Space, and the University of Vermont, I took a fruitful diversion in the Prospect Archive of Children’s Work, along a path of building descriptive language in the preschool classroom, and through the resulting theoretical implications, finally connecting the work back to my original research on human development over the lifespan. I am at present compiling seven months of children’s descriptions of natural objects into a richly illustrated book.
Donnelly, Susan and West Group students 1987-88, Discussion of Change: Living, Growing, Dying Things. Prospect School and Center for Research and Education Archives, Special Collections, University of Vermont Library.
Mack, Rebecca and Burlington Children’s Space Blue Preschool, Description of Specimens 1-17. Private Collection.
Mack, Rebecca and Burlington Children’s Space Blue Preschool, Letter to Parents. Private Collection.
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