Quick Tip Tuesday: Wonder Centers

January 18th, 2011

Is there place for wonder in your classroom? For this week’s Quick Tip, here is a excerpt from Georgia Heard’s recent book, A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades. First Georgia talks about the importance of having a “place for wonder” in your classroom and then shows how she and coauthor Jennifer McDonough introduced Wonder Centers in Jen’s classroom.

We invite you to stand back and observe your classrooms. Where are the places of wonder and discovery? An observation window? A shelf displaying shells, rocks, and other natural objects? Are there living creatures (including plants) that children care for and observe? What places in the classroom would the children mark a wonder X on? And if we extend our wonder maps beyond the classroom, are there any natural resources near your classroom that the children could visit and explore?

Our children’s lives run the risk of becoming two dimensional in the present day’s technology-driven society. The worlds of Internet and video games are becoming just as substantial to children as their reality. One student in San Diego commented that he liked to play indoors because that’s where all the electrical outlets are (from Richard Louv’s The Last Child in the Woods).

Classrooms can provide alternative environments to lure young children into continuing their passion for learning. Creating a “wonder” classroom environment is the foundation from which deeper and more sustained explorations can take place.

After I gave a workshop on creating a wonder environment, Ms. Buck, a wonderful primary teacher in Canada, wrote to me about setting up a wonder environment in her kindergarten classroom. She sent this letter to the parents explaining and preparing them for the important work the class was embarking on:
Our class is planning to launch an exploration of a new theme—The Wonder World. I am hoping this theme will help my students respond to the natural world with wonderment and awe. We will further extend concepts . . . by gathering data through our senses; we will do sound surveys during outdoor walks; we will look at objects great and small. There will be opportunities for students to wonder, to ask questions, and to pose problems and then we will explore ways to get answers. We will be using our study of the Wonder World as a springboard for math, language, science, art, and music activities.In this chapter, we map out a menu of ideas to create a “wonder world” that will help encourage children’s curiosity and exploration. These ideas can be set up as centers, if you already have the routine of centers established in your classroom, as Jen did; if you don’t have center time established, you can introduce  these ideas during a nonfiction writing study unit. The questions generated from the centers, as well as the group research on a particular question, model the exploration students will do later on as they write nonfi ction. Other teachers have explored wonder centers once a week, and throughout the year, as a way of encouraging curiosity and wonder all year long. We encourage setting up wonder centers early in the school year so that when any natural wonder occurs—the wind sweeps the leaves off the trees, the snow begins to fall, or a bird lands on the windowsill—the children will be ready to write it down!

Wonder Centers and Projects
1. The Wonder Center
2. Wonder of the Week
3. Pondering Time and Whole-Class Shared Research
4. Pet Observation and Wonder Journals
5. The Discovery Table
6. The Observation Window
7. One Small Square
8. A Listening Walk
9. The Wonder Club

The Wonder Center
When my son was younger, he asked many questions whenever we drove in the car together. It was often diffi cult to drive and concentrate on answering the questions at the same time: “Why is the sky blue?” “Where does rain come from?” “What’s in outer space?” As I stopped at intersections or changed lanes on the highway, I tried to explain some of the ways the world worked. I made a promise to myself that I would always do my best to answer each of his questions as thoughtfully as I could. I didn’t want to dampen his enthusiasm for exploring the world. Sometimes he would stump me, and I’d have to say, “You know, I don’t know the answer; let’s look it up when we get home.” Some of his questions were deeply spiritual, which surprised me, and made me really think about what I believed.

All young children have an enthusiasm and curiosity about the world that we can nurture at home and in school. We wanted to make a place in the classroom where children could write down their questions during center time or writing workshop time and throughout the day. Questions that are valued by teachers and are then included in the curriculum.

When the kindergartners arrived one morning, Jen had written “The Wonder Center” in big letters on a bulletin board in the back of the room. She placed several yellow sticky note pads and a handful of black pens in a basket on a nearby shelf. She gathered the children together for morning circle and said, “I’ve been noticing that you’ve been asking me so many questions. I’m amazed at all that you wonder about! Your questions keep growing and growing, and so I’ve decided to set up a center in the classroom where you can write down your questions. I think we’ll call it “the wonder center.”

The kids turned to one another and smiled. Two boys gave each other high fives. Jen continued, “The wonder center will be one of our centers during center time. But you can also use the wonder center anytime during the day. When you think of a question, and you want to write it down to remember it for later, you can write it on one of these sticky notes, and then stick it to the wonder center board. Not only that, every Friday we’re going to have some time to talk about your questions.”

The kids looked at each other wide eyed, with excitement on their faces. Jen said, “When we have center time today, you can also choose the wonder center as a place to go and jot down the questions you have.” That afternoon during center time three boys, Collin, Kyle, and Ryan, stood at the wonder center and wrote their questions on sticky notes. Collin wrote, “I wonder how slugs are made?” Then Kyle wrote, “How do snakes get their venom?” Ryan connected to Kyle’s question and wrote, “How come there are such things as cookie cutter snakes?” “Oh, I have one,” Collin said. “How do snakes shed their skin?” Ryan said, “I’m on my third or fourth.” “This is awesome!” Kyle said.

After they finished writing, they stuck their questions on the white board. When their ten minutes of center time was up, they moved to the next center, and a new group of students reached for pens and sticky notes on which to write their questions.

One week later, the wonder center board was filled with yellow sticky notes. As we read through their questions, we were amazed at their variety and scope. We decided to revise the center and replace the sticky notes with large chart paper to provide more room for questions. Jen also labeled a gift bag—“the wonder bag”—and placed all the children’s sticky note questions into the bag for future discussion.

We encouraged the three boys who were writing about snakes to explore and research their questions. They began their fi rst nonfi ction writing piece using questions generated from the wonder center. Be on the lookout for authentic nonfiction topics that will emerge from the wonder center.

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday

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