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Jonshā Harris

Jonshā Harris is a preschool teacher at Pacific Primary in San Francisco. Jonshā spoke with Casey Federico about making and tinkering in her classroom.

Right now in our class we are learning about “the art of expression.” We are doing all types of different things – we have a Polaroid camera that kids are taking pictures, we have a digital camera, they’re taking pictures. When they do we let them hang their photos and art around the classroom. The classroom is decorated by them for them.

They are also learning that I trust them. And when they know that you trust them, they’ll handle (tools) with care.
Jonshā Harris

I want to learn about how you became the educator you are. How did you learn about making in your own family?

My dad works on cars. So I’ve always watched him and helped him put stuff together, take stuff apart, and so it makes sense to me. So when the kids want to make something, I know anything my kids want to create, we can make it. You want to make this? Let’s figure it out. Where do we start? What do we need?

Many years ago I was working with you and a man came to fix a gate. Other teachers might have moved their kids out of the way and let him work, but not you. That was the lesson that day, all your students were interviewing him and learning about how to fix a gate. They kept giving him tips!

With something like that, they are interested, so if we are going to stand there, we should ask questions! They are capable of doing anything they put their minds to! That’s why I let them use real stuff. We have a real toolbox in our class that we let them use. Last week, they even drilled their own hole in the shelf where they needed it. And I’m happy they did, they made it work.

That is awesome, they are real makers. What is it about you as a teacher or your program that makes you feel like you can give them real tools?

I want them to have a real experience. Play tools, those plastic tools? They are good for Play-Dough but with a real tool it is different. And there is so much more fine motor involved in turning a real screwdriver. I don’t feel like that’s dangerous. I don’t feel like I’m putting them in any danger. We explain what the tools are and that you need to talk to an adult before using them. They know that if they see the tool at home, sitting there, they need to talk to a grownup. They are also learning that I trust them. And when they know that you trust them, they’ll handle it with care. They will be more careful if they feel like you trust them. And I do trust my kids.

Along with tools, what kind of materials do you offer to your class for tinkering?

Well, in our class, we have a lot of loose parts. We have plastic tops, and the pull-off bottle tops. We have lots of little hooks. We have stickers, we put everything in our loose parts area. Our families bring in so many cool things, so we have an abundance of stuff to put in there. And we have like a little tinkering station for two kids.

We have been thinking and talking about making and tinkering as an equitable practice. I want to explore that. To put it plainly, is tinkering important for Black and Brown kids?

I feel like it’s important because we don’t get those opportunities. Not all of those kids are coming to the museum. So I feel like it’s good to bring tinkering to them. Let them see something different. When we started tinkering in the classroom with the Tinkering Studio, the kids became comfortable. Like, they looked forward to it every week, it was a treat. When we first started working together, I was a new teacher. So I had to like, make my own experiences and come up with my own ideas. Maybe it might have not been something that a teacher would have done 20 years ago, but this is what my kids need. I know how to provide for them. Now I know how to individualize for my class to make sure that they’re getting the proper tools that they need.

This is making me think of the time, about four years ago, when you made it snow in your classroom! You brought in a piece of styrofoam and let the kids tear it apart. And as a parent and cranky old teacher, I thought, this is going to be such a mess, what are you doing? But, you know what? It was so joyful. And I bet those children still remember that.

And it doesn’t snow here! So why not bring the snow to us? Like, I mean, it was everywhere. But it was the experience – the kids loved that day and spent all day playing in the “snow.” And my co-teacher was into it. You have to have that that support within your teaching group. Big time, you guys have to be on the same page. Because if I would have done that, and she wasn’t comfortable with it, then the children would have felt that. You also need a great leader. My supervisor came in that day, and she said, “wow, that’s not exactly something I would have done. But I am glad you are doing it!” So that kind of support makes being creative possible.

Are you still doing a lot of making on your own and in front of the kids?

Yes, I feel like, if I can do it from scratch, they can do it from scratch. I’m a regular person. I’m not like somebody that they’ve seen on TV making something or putting something together. So if I have something to make or fix I want to do it in front of them so they can process it. That way they can figure out how to do it themselves. I ask them, How would you do it? How would you change it? I’m just like, inspiring their creativity and their ideas!