Sunday, December 14, 2014
In a preschool classroom there might be one or more boys obsessed with superheros, police, firefighters, and the like. These same boys, these days, are also obsessed with guns, firepower, and other armaments. Boys will make a gun out of anything. The hardcore badge-and-gun aficionado will make badges out of paper and stick them to themselves. They will be listening for any mention of law enforcement, or the use of it, in any conversation or story. Was Goldilocks arrested for breaking and entering? If you (teacher) died, would they call the police?
I want to report on the marvelous path we have taken in our classroom to derail the guns/badges obsession, at least for a while. We are producing a newspaper. One early morning (between 7 am and 9 am) my teaching partner set several children up with clipboards and pens. She asked them to be reporters, to question other children about what they were doing, and to write "stories" (enter pretend cursive scribbling, here). The children, both boys and girls, ran around "covering" stories. "What are you doing under the loft? Who is there with you?"Certain children wanted to know if reporters had badges. We talked about press passes. Close enough!
A school mom, who works for The Post, came to share about her job. This is how we include families in our emergent curricular process, and it is a powerful tool. Her visit energized the children for the process of creating a newspaper.
I have always taught the elements of story as "who, what, when, where, why". I applied these questions to fairy tales, and asked children to write their own with creative results. How easily these questions, the basis of a good news story, fit our newest project. Granted, newspapers themselves are dying, to my grief, but enough of the children have parents who read either print or online Washington Post articles. When I brought in a bagful of them, they were attracted like moths to a flame. The children investigated how newspapers were laid out, how there were various type sizes and fonts, and that there were such a thing as comics! They cut out their favorite images, words, and, yes, comics, and pasted them to construction paper in imitation of layout. We had read about the various aspects of making a newspaper by reading the book, The Furry News. I had used this book several years ago at another school to make a newsroom out of the dramatic play area. Soon, with help, they began using developmental spelling to write headlines. Sue typed the first story, along with a child's headline. We plan to add stories, pictures, and headlines next week.
The badge/gun aficionados? They have been converted. They run for a clipboard and pen when they come into the classroom, instead of making paper badges. We hope to be in this for the long haul. Can you think of a better way to make reading and writing exciting?
Sunday, December 7, 2014
- What are little boys made of?
- That's what little boys are made of.
- What are little girls made of?
- That's what little girls are made of.
- When I was a little girl, this doggerel was very popular. I heard it sung (imagine!) on many variety shows during network TV's Nauseatingly Sentimental Christmas Special Season (NSCSS).
- So when I became a mother, and then a teacher, the issue of gender in toy marketing became pretty important to me. Here is a flow-chart that appeared on Facebook, recently, that pretty much summed up the issue:
- Hysterical, I thought. But it over-simplifies the issue. The masculine and feminine ideals come from mythology, not biology. Children consume the myths of our culture without critical thought. If their parents and teachers supply toys that convey these myths of masculinity and femininity, they simply become part of their children's ideas of who they should be! Television, computer games, and all of the other usual culprits, massively generated by a toy industry run amok, feed children's identification with stereotypes. Putting girls into a straight-jacket of prettiness (my dear mother's favorite compliment for a girl, next to "sweet") steers them away from active pursuit of more robust skills. Four year old boys who aren't comfortable with aggression have a difficult time becoming part of boys' play groups in preschool. We see these situations all the time.
- NAEYC (The National Association for the Education of Young Children) validates our center's approach to play materials. Toys that are rated by researchers as either gender-neutral, or "moderately masculine", are more likely to "encourage children's physical, cognitive, academic,musical and artistic skills" than those that are considered feminine. Here is what some girls and boys constructed with our large wooden blocks recently:
- This structure has inside spaces for hiding, and pretend play. We had our "hollow blocks" open for four weeks to accommodate the children's passionate interest in building, and we limited the number of children to four, for better behavior management. We intentionally created a team of two boys and two girls each day to ensure that the girls could freely choose blocks. If we only ask for volunteers, the boys raise their hands ("me!! me!!") and the girls mysteriously disappear into the dramatic play area.
- Because our professional field supports our practice, we can makes these choices. But parents are at the mercy of the rampant culture of consumerism. Their own favorite toys may have been G.I. Joe, or Barbie. Grandparents send these toys as gifts. Their own children lobby for what they see on TV, and what their friends already own.They passionately campaign for the newest girl/flirt or boy/warrior commodity, and the parents, unprepared for this onslaught, cave. How can parents fight back?
- No Gender December is a campaign promoted by an Australian group called "Play Unlimited: Every Toy for Every Body". They have a Facebook page (who doesn't?) and are calling on parents to boycott toys saturated with gender stereotypes. NAEYC gives parents ideas about what toys are good for children. Maybe if I'd been given a doctor kit, I might have considered medicine. Or maybe not, but I would have had this empowering idea in my mind, not the limiting one left by the gender stereotyping of toys.
- Do our boys and girls deserve to view themselves as fully human people who happen to be boys or girls? Or should we leave them to be raised by those who seek to gain wealth by creating boy and girl segregated toy aisles? We must decide.
Sunday, November 23, 2014
Saturday, November 8, 2014
The four and a half year old girl on the left drummed a pattern, quarter note, quarter note, half, over and over. She told me it was a "pattern".
Another boy found a bowl that sounded like a bell when he struck it. He was experimenting with the different sounds it could make, and comparing it to another item. His face was lit with joy as he struggled to find words to describe his discovery. My job, and the job of all teachers of young children, is to assist him in finding the words he seeks. (Kindergarten SOL's are cited here, to show that these preschoolers are on the way!)
Why did these little ones make music around our tree?
Because we had set the environment time after time for the pleasure of outdoor music making. With our hammock-like xylophone, our trash can and dry-wall buckets, our drum-sticks and shovels, we modeled the pleasure of rhythmic expression. Dancing and singing happen spontaneously.
Our playground is set up for such activities. The tree (shown before the bench was enlarged to allow tree growth), is a focal point for music, shows, hide and seek, and ball-hiding (in the crook of the tree), and other adventures invented by the children. The playhouses were constructed with cob (see earlier post) for the children to enjoy (and drag everything from toy trucks to old tires to dolls inside).
Sunday, October 26, 2014
One of our mothers came in to share her love of the piano with our two small groups. She presented both the piano, and piano music, and explained that, like letters forming sentences, musical notes form musical sentences. The children were in awe of this phenomenon--making music by reading it in print, just like reading words on a page.
I made manuscript paper for activity time. As anyone in early childhood knows, children this age have no inhibitions about trying something without knowing how! So they imitated how music looked to them (see the paper in the picture) and then "played" their compositions. We attempted to record an ensemble of three playing their compositions, and moved to the hallway because of the background noise. A girl said, "We need a quiet place to do this! It's too noisy". In the hallway we recorded the music that each child "wrote". They were very satisfied with the experiment.
What does this have to do with language and music? Let's go back to an earlier developmental period. When a baby begins using one object to represent another in play (block for a phone) s/he is demonstrating that s/he understands that one object can symbolize another that isn't present. That other object is held in the mind of that child! The child understands that and represents it with something else. How wonderful! It is such an important shift in cognition. Later, in preschool, children begin to use symbols to represent thoughts. They draw, either scribbles that they can narrate to you (this is the bug, this is the storm...) even though you can't see what they are telling you is there (the reason we don't say, "What is it?", but "Tell me about it"). Later they can use letters to represent sound. They have caught on to the function of letters as sound bearers, keys to words that make real sentences. Again, it is such a joy to see this take place.
During this period of development young children have a developmental "window of opportunity" not only for language, but for music as well. Children learn to "think in language", but they also learn (if given multiple opportunities to listen to (not just hear) and to produce music) to think in music. They begin to hear music in their minds that they have heard before. When children learn through the adults around them that music is an important part of life, and that it can be represented on paper, just as words can, they will develop their own musical aptitude. (Yes, everyone has some musical aptitude).
So making sure that children's early years are music-rich, full of experiences that challenge them enough to offset boredom and acting out ("Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" gets old, teachers), should be a priority for all programs. Introducing children to musical manuscripts as well as instruments and sound exploration is a crucial step. Engaging the children in musical games such as pattern-making is another.
Teachers who see themselves as non-musical need to confront their fears and overcome them. This is important to the growth and development of young children. And such activities provide an unusual level of engagement that does, believe it or not, preclude horsing around. Isn't it worth it just for that reason alone?
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
Sunday, September 21, 2014
My mind is bending, maybe a good thing. I just read the Washington Post's front page feature about Kelsey Beckham, a biological eighteen year old girl who doesn't feel like she is either girl or boy. As a child of the fifties and sixties I cringe at ambiguity, especially where gender is concerned. Don't get me wrong, friends! I love my gay and bisexual friends. Having been in opera and music for so long, I could hardly avoid the reality of their existence, or the pleasure of their company. But gayness seems much more open and shut than this new concept of a "gender spectrum".
In early childhood courses, when we were allowed to teach human development vis a vis early education (the psych people took over those courses some years ago--a sore subject), we discussed gender identity versus biological sexuality. Little girls and boys are socialized to either one or the other idea of who they are according to their biological sex. The sociological and cultural influences run so deep that who children think they are and what they should and shouldn't like isn't usually questioned by either children or their parents. That is what we taught. We needed to provide opportunities for boys and girls to play with gender-neutral materials and toys. Steer girls to blocks and boys to art. Kicking and screaming if need be. Gender was socialized. Sexual identity was a given. At that time, we didn't talk much about the awesome pressure of the cultural norm, and that it came from all corners of the Ecological System, as Urie Bronfenbrenner called the concentric circles of influence on a child's development. These pressures are powerful.
In reading about this astounding (to me) new field of gender identity, fluidity, expression, etc. I come to the realization that when we work with young children, we must be alert, as always, to how children express themselves, and how we, as teachers, can help them express themselves more fully. We must educate parents to understand that this is important at home, too. Children need encouragement to try out the whole range of the artistic and athletic arts. Our acceptance of each child as an individual needs to include gender fluidity. We need to watch out for boys who avoid art simply because other boys don't want to do art. We need to provide opportunities for girls who secretly want to build with blocks or legos, but don't because the boys stake out the territory first and, by about four, tell girls that only they can do the building. It is not easy! I catch myself steering girls to the dramatic play when they aren't sure what to do.
Last week, while acting out the children's stories, a girl wanted to play a father. Several children objected. I invoked "non-traditional casting" (theater term) and encouraged the girl to play him.
The pressures are great to make children conform. It is so much easier because the children, after age four, are gender Nazis, guarding the purity of the party of one or the other. The parents laughingly (and understandably) go along with the cultural norms. What will the next child, confused about her/his identity, do? How will we, as teachers, respond? Can we make this a world safe for every preference and expression of gender identity? I hope we can.