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2018 Early Learning Institute

The University of Tennessee’s Early Learning Center for Research and Practice hosted the fourth annual Early Learning Institute on June 1st and 2nd. Educators from across the southeast came together for two days of engaging professional development. There were 130 educators and program directors in attendance at the conference, which was focused on supporting children’s development of a sense of place, natural learning initiatives, and pedagogical documentation. Sessions illustrated the ways children and teachers explore their relationships with each other, with the natural and urban world that surrounds us, with learning materials, and with interesting topics such as culture, storytelling, art, and outdoor play. Sessions also encouraged the deep exploration of the methodologies of pedagogical documentation and the ways it supports place-based curriculum and project work.

Featured Speakers and Conference Background

Each year, conference organizers work to choose featured speakers that reflect the work going on at the Early Learning Center and the inquiry of the staff. The first keynote address was given by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, as his thoughts on nature-based learning resonated with ELC educators as they embarked on a journey to get children and families connected with nature.

For the second annual ELI, Dr. Lilian Katz was chosen to speak as she is, in the words of ELC director Dr. Robyn Brookshire, “the matriarch of project work”. The educators at the ELC had spent the year revisiting the basics of solid project work and they knew that sharing Dr. Katz’s work with ELI participants was a good fit. As Dr. Brookshire stated, “Good project work should be the backbone of curriculum planning, whether it’s nature-focused or built around other areas of intrigue”.

In 2017, conference organizers brought Claire Warden to Knoxville from Scotland where she is the founder of several nature kindergartens and a leader in the field of nature pedagogy. Warden was a great influence on many of the ELC classrooms that year, both for her nature pedagogy knowledge and the brilliant Floorbook concept, which many ELC educators have experimented with.

Dr. Bob Coulter and Dr. Mary Jane Moran were chosen to speak at the ELI this year as the staff at the Early Learning Center have been examining the connections between nature pedagogy, place-based education, the development of citizenship in young children, and pedagogical documentation.

Dr. Coulter is the director of the Litzinger Road Ecology Center in Cincinnati, Ohio and is the author of the books No More Robots: Building Kids’ Character, Competence, and Sense of Place and Building Kids’ Citizenship Through Community Engagement. Dr. Coulter’s work resonated with the ELC staff this year as many classrooms explored the idea of community and children’s identities as citizens in the classroom and the broader community context. ELC preschool teacher Katie Denton-Walls wrote, “I particularly love his description of inquiry as ‘an active, personal quest to know’ because it calls to mind the hands-on, fully engaged work I aspire to with my children every day (Coulter, 2013, p. 35).”

“Dr. Mary Jane Moran is always at the ready to jump into dialogue with us about documentation, pedagogical design, or administrative topics, and we are so honored to share her expertise with our network of ELI participants,” said Dr. Robyn Brookshire. Dr. Moran serves as the department head for the Child and Families Studies department at the University of Tennessee and has a rich research history on the topic of pedagogical documentation and teacher professional development, which made her a great fit for this year’s ELI.


Friday, June 1st

This year marked the Institute’s first year solely on UT’s campus after calling the L&N STEM Academy home for the past three years. The Min Kao building served as the backdrop for registration, morning mingling, sessions, and coffee- lots of coffee! Snacks were provided by ELC families and were enjoyed as conference-goers read their program materials and checked out all of their fun gifts including a coffee mug, backpack, pins, and festive temporary tattoos with the “Go Outside” catchphrase that graces most of the ELI promotional materials.

Dr. Coulter’s Friday morning talk focused on ways teachers can increase children’s active engagement in the classroom and in their communities, but also introduced the idea of teachers becoming and embracing their role as “witnessing professionals”. He implored teachers to find ways to bring stories of what childhood should be and what children deserve to the forefront. This idea resonated with participants as did his thoughts about how to help move our culture toward a learning society by; developing lifelong learners; being reflective, inquisitive educators; cultivating mission-oriented institutions; and by building communities that value education.

Katie Denton-Walls, Emily Harlow, and Elizabeth DeMartino Newton also addressed the group Friday morning during a session titled Cultivating Citizenship: Shared Ownership in the Construction of a Democratic Community. Katie and Emily are classroom teachers in the Eastside preschool at the Early Learning Center and shared their experience with handing over the responsibility of identifying classroom expectations into the children’s competent hands. The teachers, along with pedagogical coach Elizabeth, explored how the process of creating agreements changed their perspective on how children come to be citizens of their school community.

Conference participants spent the afternoon having a delicious lunch onsite at the ELC schools from a favorite local barbecue restaurant, Sweet P’s. Participants networked with each other and ELC educators while also checking out the Gear Shop for fun goodies. After lunch, participants were invited to get to know the school buildings during a new feature for the fourth ELI called “ELC Explorations”. Educators showcased things that were special about their classroom, highlighted materials they love to use in their classrooms, and documentation from the school year. Participants spent time engaging with documentation, exploring materials, and conversing with ELC staff about various topics including writer’s workshop for preschoolers (a crowd favorite), toddlers in the outdoor environment, digital projections with infants, art practices, and room design, among many others.

Interactions between participants, classroom materials, the environment, and ELC educators were invigorating and inspiring to see. Visiting educators could be seen listening intently as an ELC teacher described a classroom practice while other participants were vigorously taking notes as they watched a video about writer’s workshop. One thing that makes the Early Learning Insitute unique is the way it encourages connection, participation, and reflection.

Participants enjoyed an afternoon snack from Insomnia Cookies and of course- more coffee! One participant said, “I have never been fed so well at a conference!” The Early Learning Center staff aims to make people feel welcome and cared for, and one of the ways they accomplish that goal is through food. In fact, the conference organizers would describe food as one of the team’s love languages, often choosing potlucks to celebrate birthdays, special occasions, or just another Wednesday!

As the conference wound down for the day, participants were busy planning their evenings in Knoxville and participating in another new addition to the ELI– the #ELIchallenge. Check out the results on Instagram by searching the hashtag and prepare to be entertained!


Saturday, June 2nd

On Saturday morning, the group of participants arrived energized and ready for another full day of meaningful professional development. The morning began with breakout sessions hosted by ELC educators and a talk given by featured speaker Dr. Mary Jane Moran. Her interactive session titled Pedagogical Documentation: Learning to See and See Again, inspired educators to think about documentation as a process of knowledge construction of children’s learning and teacher practice. Participants explored the concept of being “critical friends” to one another, analyzed videos of young children’s work, and explored the idea of documentation being a living and breathing part of their classroom. Educators came away from Dr. Moran’s session ready to evaluate their own practices and consider the multiple lenses they use when reviewing documentation.

After a full morning, participants enjoyed a picnic lunch in the courtyard from Knoxville favorite Tomato Head and hummus from the ELC kitchen. Some participants chose to attend one of two Lunch & Learn sessions, designed to continue conversations and highlight areas of interest the ELC staff has noted from their study tour participants this past school year. One session was focused on pedagogical documentation and another was a last-minute addition focused on one classroom’s work with emotional intelligence in their preschool classroom. The documentation session was hosted by Dr. Robyn Brookshire and Dani Rose Thibus, the ELC’s media coordinator. There was lively dialogue throughout the session about the purposes of documentation and the ideas educators had about how to incorporate different styles of documentation for the many functions it serves. The ELC community intends to continue to explore documentation practices in the coming months and will likely be a continuing theme for next year’s ELI.

The afternoon brought more breakout sessions hosted by ELC educators. There was quite a range of topics geared toward teachers of infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners, as well as a session focused on teacher practice. Here is a sampling of session topics:

  • Paint as a Mediating Experience to Build Relationships and Sense of Belonging
  • Developing Rich Dialogue Around the Rights and Responsibilities of Teaching: Constructive Engagement Beyond the Classroom
  • The Language of Connections: Exploring Culture, Identity, and Sense of Place in Kindergarten
  • Writer’s Workshop: A Participatory Exchange with the Eastside Preschool Teacher
  • Moments of Wonder through the Eyes of the Infant Class
  • Once Upon a Time in the Land of Maple: Cementing a Sense of Place through Rich Storytelling

These session titles reflect both the diversity of topics explored by ELC educators this year and the connecting threads that emerged throughout the year.

The afternoon large group presentation was given by Jessie Barber of the Magnolia older toddler classroom, and Dani Rose Thibus, who served as the pedagogical coach for the Magnolia classroom this year. Their talk, titled Imagination as Provocation: The Relationship Among Imaginary Play, Literacy, and the Outdoors explored the imaginary play journal Jessie created for and with the children to document their imaginary play experiences and also encourage early literacy development. Jessie walked participants through the journal which was rich in children’s words and ideas and showed the clear, rapid development of children’s storytelling throughout the year. Connections to The Hundred Languages, authentic documentation practices, and Italian influences were also explored in the talk.

As the day came to a close, all participants and ELC staff came together for the closing session which was full of reflections on the two days together and gratitude for all involved in the participation and planning of the event. Participants wrote notes to themselves that the ELC will send to them after the beginning of the school year to remind everyone about the inspiration they found, the practices they want to try, and the encouragement to serve the youngest members of our society well.

Overall, the Early Learning Institute is a celebration of early education. The participants that attend the institute are engaged, passionate, and aspire to grow as professionals. One participant said, “I was really able to walk away with deep food-for-thought that is applicable in the real world in my classroom and teaching practices in general.”

Early Learning Center educators gain a great deal from the experience as well. “What I have come to realize is that the ELI has actually informed my practice and helped me become a more thoughtful and effective teacher.  With each passing year, I am inspired by our guest speakers as well as our ELC community. It has helped us to grow into a stronger unit, deepened our commitment to our school and the greater community and has shaped our teaching practices to make us better teachers,” said Tracy Lee, preschool teacher.

The ELC team is already busy at work reading feedback and planning for the 2019 Early Learning Institute for June 6-8, 2019. Stay informed of conference plans by joining the mailing list here and visit the website for updates in the coming months.