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The 'Ball Toss'

Emergent Curriculum Infused with Empathy

By Matt Karlsen

Matt Karlsen is Opal School Teacher-Researcher at the Portland Children's Museum Center for Learning.

October 17, 2013

Opal School, a private preschool and public elementary charter school in Portland, Oregon, is a member of the Ashoka Changemaker Schools network. At Opal School, a commitment to children’s social and emotional personhood isn’t set apart from the rest of the curriculum—it’s infused into all we do. Like the pre-primary municipal schools of Reggio Emilia that inspired Opal’s formation, we view curriculum as a ball toss—a playful back and forth between children and adults. This means that teachers go into the school year without knowing precisely what will happen. Instead, the year’s content is emergent—co-created between children and teachers. The teacher tosses a question or materials as a way of provoking the children and pays attention to the reply they throw back. The teacher listens carefully at all stages, documenting what she hears the children saying and what she sees them doing, and she reflects on that documentation with colleagues to make sense of the exchange. That reflection process leads the teacher to make a decision about what might be the best next throw for the group; the back and forth means that the group continually gets stronger and more capable as the game continues.

Co-creation means that the degree of control and authority purported by standardized curricula is lost, but control is replaced by relationships, community, empathy, and creativity. And the increased flexibility gives the children room to exercise agency over their learning, thus building independence, as well as confidence and courage in their abilities as leaders. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum - each grade has a “big idea” that the we’ve noticed seems to energize children at different ages and connects to Oregon’s State Standards – but these are themes that the teacher identifies connections between each group of children’s interests and ideas and the unique opportunities present each year rather than a confining space to teach from.

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What are some of the investigations this approach has catalyzed?

  • In the preschool, a child reaches for a clipboard and finds it’s a little too high for his grasp. When the teacher mentions that before long he’ll be tall enough to get it, he suggests that the class needs a “measurer” to track that growth. This sense of what is needed to learn about their own changes leads the group of three- and four-year-olds to dive headfirst into a prolonged study of measurement, a months-long investigation into “sizing.”
  • In the kindergarten, the teacher notices that the group connects in a more caring and imaginative way when they are in one area of the outdoor space than in the classroom. She projects a photo of that area on the wall of the imaginative play area in the classroom and watches what happens. The children’s relationship with each other and the natural world leads the class to write a field guide for a city-wide audience, inviting other visitors to Hoyt Arborteum to enter into the same degree of empathy the children feel for the space. 
  • In a class of nine- and ten-year-olds, the study of US history leads children to want to connect across time. They decide that they need a time machine, and they use that time machine to send children representing different periods of American history back to the Constitutional Convention, advising the Framers to incorporate their perspectives into that foundational document. The study of civics and history is strengthened through fully embracing children’s capacity to imagine and take multiple perspectives.

The ball toss approach precludes the ability of a teacher or school to enter the year with a predetermined sense of what will happen. Opal School embraces that uncertainty because our experience has shown that it allows children to surprise us in their capacity to relate to each other and the content with which they’re engaged. We know that listening allows us to stay open to the unpredictable happenstance that emerges when we allow it to.

Carlina Rinaldi writes, “To be open to others means to have the courage to come into this room and say, ‘I hope to be different when I leave, not necessarily because I agree with you but because your thoughts have caused me to think differently.’” The ball toss keeps us in a pedagogical tradition that focuses on listening and relationships, where the curriculum becomes inextricably infused with empathy.

Join Portland’s Opal School in the “ball toss” through their workshops, summer symposium, and publications, and follow their development through the blog.