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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Fish! Gyotaku!

This is 3-year-old Seamus' gyotaku fish print of a trout.  Isn't it wonderful?   

Our grand cultural curriculum includes all the lessons and materials, stories and books and glimpses we share, of humans and cultures, of animals and plants on this earth.  Some topics we touch on every year, some will wait a few years before they cycle back again for a new set of kids.  We spent quite a bit of this fall learning about the cosmos - the earth and sun and moon, the planets and stars - the big picture.    Now we have brought our focus in to Life on this earth.

Because winter is no time to learn about invertebrates (we can't find any outside in the cold), we have started the cycle of the vertebrates - fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.   This cycle we try to do every year, and of course a 3-year-old experiences it very differently than a 4- or 6-year-old. 

Your children all know what a fish is.  It is our task as educators to bring them to life, to make these diverse creatures vivid and interesting.  17,000 species (and still counting) of fish in our oceans alone - think of it!  And 70% of the earth is covered by water.  It is more than we can comprehend, and at the same time, vitally important that children begin to sense their connection to this grand array of life.  How are they different, and what do we have in common?

So we break the information down into small, manageable pieces.  We always have sets of 3-part cards, for whatever topic we are doing; they can be used in a number of engaging ways.  Charlotte is working with this set of photo cards showing a dozen distinct fish species. She matched the photos and the word cards too, and then we played "bring me" - bring me the lion fish, bring me the gold fish.    Ava is laying out the cards that show all the parts of the fish, including the specific fins - dorsal, ventral, pectoral, caudal.  She worked hard to create her own booklet of the parts of the fish.

We read lots of books about fish, and they were in constant use, especially the ones about sharks!  And we spent some wonderful half-hours on those cold, rainy days watching sections of the BBC's "Blue Planet" series.  To see those unbelievably weird but real deep-sea creatures, the unfolding wonder of the coral reefs, the crashing, stormy seas - they all make such a huge impression.

My favorite fish book is Eric Carle's "Mr. Seahorse," which is both beautiful and educational.  It was the inspiration for their beautiful collage fish art.  We make great use of all the easel paintings that we don't send home (did you know they're stashed under the brown rug?)  Morgan was the first to do this project; you can see her here with the Eric Carl open before her, carefully cutting the fins for her own seahorse.  The middle fish in the set is Leila's.  She called it "happy fish" and she cut it all by herself, at just barely 3 years old.  

After several weeks of fish work, last Thursday was our culminating "Gyotaku Day."  I bought a whole trout at Bale's.  In the morning I gathered the children in 3 small groups, and we looked at it up close - "yes, you can touch it!" - and they all did.

The children opened its mouth and looked inside, felt its tiny, sharp teeth and rigid tongue, and opened up its gill flaps to see the feathery gills inside.  I told the story again, of the fish taking water in by its mouth, and shooting it out through its gills, and the gills gathering the oxygen for its body.  Now the picture card or book that explained how fish breathe in water began to make sense!  The smell got stronger as the morning went by, and that too made a sensory impression.  Sight, touch, smell....  I should have bought another trout and cooked it, for taste (I just thought of that....)

Our culminating activity was that every child got to paint the fish and make a fish print.  In Japan, "gyotaku" is a traditional art form, using sumo ink; it arose from fishermen's wanting to record their catch, in the 19th century.  For the children, this was a process of such enrapt discovery that photos doesn't do it justice.

As they painted the fish, the children would begin to wonder and ask, "but how can I keep it?"  The magic of print-making!  I would say, "just keep painting."  Then together we would press the newsprint down, rub the body all over, feel its fins again, and finally, carefully,  lift the paper up, and behold....

Your children each had their own, one-on-one painting experience with this fish.  Many of them began to say, "thank you Mr. Trout."  Whether the print came out perfect didn't matter; each one was unique; and now you know the story behind the art!

The last part of making the print was that each child washed the trout in a tub, to get it ready for the next child.   That single fish held up through 13 paintings and washing last Thursday! In fact, at the end of the day I wrapped him up double and put him in the fridge, for the two children who weren't present - they get to do it on Monday. They too will have their own process of discovery and expression.

Well, actually, washing was not quite the last part....  On Monday, after Rex and Lucy are done, we will bury the fish in one of our raised beds, mark the spot, and place some very special plant over it in the spring.   The great circle of life, up close and personal.  And again the reminder that "...all things are connected with each other to form one whole unity."