Saturday, March 7, 2015

Integrating Curriculum: Sometimes Learning is Messy!

This is a display of our Imaginary Land Project. It grew out of several strands from previous weeks. My small group (The Star Moon Drummers!--Great name for a rock band, no?) was fascinated by bridges and bridge building. The Drummers (four girls, four boys) built bridges from cardboard, huge wooden blocks, small wooden blocks, and their own bodies. They created stories about their bridges, and associated their understandings with actual bridges they knew or had heard about. One boy was so entranced that he became the expert on suspension bridges, and, with his scientist father, built them in his own basement, sharing pictures with the other children.

Out of a curricular strand on maps that we shared with the other Pre-K small group (The Runaway Missing Names--it's a long story...) came an interest in the ubiquitous world maps we teachers brought in from Doctors Without Borders (bless 'em). I cut the maps I had into quarters and gave each child a piece. I asked them to outline the countries, and as we did, we discussed them, and the children's knowledge of them ("John is from Australia! Senka is from India! Remember Irini from Greece?"). They knew that, on a map, white equaled ice and snow, and blue indicated water, so their interest was piqued by the colors of the continents and countries they outlined. Next, they glued their maps to larger paper and created art by coloring areas with Creamy Crayons. As they colored I asked them to imagine their own country, or "land". I recorded their ideas on my trusty phone, and later typed them up for display. The children sounded out the names of their lands and wrote them on their maps. But that wasn't the end.

Children are most comfortable realizing their vision in three dimensions. This is why so many learning materials in preschool are blocks, math manipulatives, and clay. Just emerging from the sensory-motor stage of development, and not yet at ease with two-D representation, children think, and represent in 3-D. Using bodies in movement is another 3-D, kinesthetic route for cognitive growth. Yes, movement is a form of thought. Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences has been around for years, yet schools still seem to push 2-D thinking as the gold standard. 

How could we represent our imaginary lands in three dimensions? With ice, dirt, greenery, and desert? First the children painted huge cardboard, scavenged from old boxes, in blues and greens. This was the water their lands would inhabit. Then they made their own clay from a recipe in Mudworks, a book I have used for centuries (well..a long time, anyway). They enjoyed the clay-making, because children love messes, and this is a messy activity! They created paper outlines of the land they wanted to create, and chose either one continent or several islands to portray. They laid out the outlines on their clay and cut around them with plastic knives. The land masses were glued to their cardboard oceans with Tacky Glue

Next was painting the land according to their own ideas of where in the world their land was. Was it near the equator, or perhaps in temperate zones? Was it near one of the poles? We used a globe to imagine this. Being fours and fives, though, they wanted some of each, so many of their land masses were a combination of brown, green, and white. Their ideas of their lands altered as they created their three-dimensional displays. Ice came into their stories that had none before.

We caucused about what they wanted to build, and with what. My suspension bridge boy had heard of building with sugar cubes and there was no doubt after that what the building medium would be! The children built bridges across water, and buildings on land with sugar cubes, tiny sticks and Tacky Glue. The last step was painting buildings and bridges. Voila! They were done. I asked if they wanted to make sugar people, and to my disappointment, they did not. C'est la vie. The project was theirs, not mine!

Within a group of eight children ages 4 1/2 through 5 1/4 there are many differing talents and abilities. One child might build like an engineer and another tell a fabulous story. Each child needs a different level of support throughout the process. This whole project took several weeks, and at various stages I had another well-trained adult working with us. Children cried at times with frustration because their ability didn't match their vision. We worked with them to come as close as possible. The children were proud of their work, and eager to take their creations home. I took pictures for my 2-D wall display. 

It is indicative of emergent, project-based teaching that boundaries between what is art, language arts, social studies, science, math and other subjects get blurry. That's why parents and some teachers may see an integrated curriculum as just too messy for "real" school. But every child gets individual attention and validation for their thinking and efforts.

Here is one imaginary land story for you to enjoy: "Once upon a time there was a Color Man. He makes crayons and colors. He gives them out to people. He goes on the line (map boundary) to take colors to everyone. He goes to different countries to give colors out."
This is a land I would love to visit. Wouldn't you?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Play: Learning in Motion

I read in the Washington Post today about a preschool classroom in Arlington.  In the column, the teacher, Launa Hall, describes her struggles to teach reading skills to preschoolers while feeling guilty about not being able to allow them to play. The Pre-K standards she uses are doable in a play environment, but the mandated curriculum in which they are delivered, as we say in the trade, are not developmentally appropriate. The joy of childhood is a secondary characteristic, not a primary one, in public Pre-K programs. 

In our program, children are given multiple opportunities to construct their own knowledge. During our early morning, late afternoon, and outside times, when we set the environment for learning, they do just that! 

New York City

The picture above is New York City. Several children have been to New York recently, and, have parents who talk WITH their children, rather than down TO them. They come back to school with a fund of knowledge that flashcards and lesson books can't teach. If you look hard enough, you will see the Port Authority, and the Empire State Building. The builders were inspired by each other, and as an impromptu small group demonstrated their knowledge in the block corner. This whole enterprise was preceded by a flurry of drafting in the drawing/writing center. 

Design Team 

Our modeling of drawing, planning, and building all year contributed to this project, but the children did it on their own.

We went on a hayride in October but children are still conspiring to create their own. These girls asked me for rope, but I didn't have any. I was at a loss on how to help them, but one of them "got an idea" and organized a committee to create a "hayride" out of a wagon, scooter and tricycle. They did it themselves, based on their own past experience playing on our playground, and interacting with us and other children.

After the snow, children wanted to create "plows". Here is a picture of their idea:

Snow Plows
The boy on the left has worked out that a Tonka truck with a tire and a seat on it, pushing a shovel, makes an admirable snow plow. The boy on the right is using his friend's idea to make his own plow. Children learn from each other, as well as from adults. Vygotsky explained this many years ago. The children learn within a social network. That network includes each other as well as their teachers! 

Our program is alive with discovery and design. Interactions with adults are frequent, and powerful,but not coercive.We "teach" through setting the stage, following the learners and enabling their ideas with materials and methods. A program for preschoolers needs to be rich in materials, ideas, and loving interactions with knowledgeable adults.Those adults must, daily, discuss among themselves where and how the children are going with their learning, knowing that math, language and science are inherent in children's interests. The children are on their own developmental train riding into the future. We need to climb aboard. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Newsroom: A dramatic play center for literacy

We continue to encourage the children to interview staff, and other children for our newspaper. How utterly dear it is that they continue to be passionate about gathering news and stories. Before the holidays, parents presented our Pre-K children with real pens and notebooks. They carry them to assignments with pride!

Young boys going to an assignment

Taking their new notebooks and pens, John and Phillip (not their real names) proceed down the stairs to interview one of the teachers of the twos, Sarah. They talk to one another on the way down, trying to decide what questions they will ask her about her job. They enter the classroom, welcomed by the twos teachers, and sit on the floor, ready to write. Here are some of the questions:

Where do you work?    
What's your schedule?
What days do you work?
When do you go to work?
Why do you work?
and lastly,
What time do you go to bed?

These questions are simple, and maybe even obvious, but Sarah treats the children with respect, appearing to contemplate her answers before she gives them. She explains that she works at our center, that her schedule varies each day,and  that she works every weekday. She pauses at the question, Why? How do you explain the reasons for working to small children? She makes the answer seem totally obvious! "I work because I love children, and I need money to buy food". One of the boys admits that his parents work to earn money as well. Sarah decides to say that she goes to bed at ten every night; something the boys understand--they also have a set bedtime! 

During the interview John and Phillip write down the answers, asking Sarah for spelling when they feel unsure of their developmental writing skills.

The next step is to format this edition of our paper, inserting the interview, with pictures taken by myself. Parents will read the stories on the walls of the school, and other children will get to interview our Director. Some stories have been about the new marble run in Creation Station, or about a mother's visit to tell about her newspaper job at the Washington Post. 

Organically, we integrate developmental spelling, drawing, speaking and listening skills into a whole. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Not only are we integrating literacy and social studies, but we continually nurture connections within the community. Teachers, parents, children are all linked in a learning journey. In a Pre-K program, nurturing relationships between and among all members of the community makes for excellence in education. This is how it should be.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Numbers, numbers, who has those numbers?

I received a comment from a professor about my second last post. "Those numbers are a great idea! Where did you get them?" Well, I got the idea from a long-ago workshop about behavior management for children with sensory issues. In the workshop, the trainer (I do not remember her name. Mea Culpa.) explained a system where the children had numbers beneath their names and corresponding numbers on the floor so that every day they would know exactly where to go. This technique taught numbers, number order, and personal space. A neat, efficient way to give children their own spots on the floor or rug. If there were arguments, they weren't about favoritism. They were about who had what number. That kind of argument is constructive. We want children to argue constructively; it nurtures verbal and cognitive skills. 

I got the numbers themselves from Jan Brett. As you can see by clicking on the link (no, she isn't paying me for this referral! I wish!), the numbers come in different sizes, and the larger ones are those I use for the floor. The smaller ones are push-pinned under the names of the children, which are posted all year in alphabetical order. (So the children learn alphabet awareness, also.) As you can also see, there are little pictures from Ms. Brett's books to correspond to the number displayed. So if a child does not yet recognize numbers, that child can practice counting the little hedgehogs on his or her very own number. An elegant example of integrated, differentiated curriculum! 

Putting the numbers on the floor is easier on tile. My assistant, Mary Kehoe, and I put them on tile by simply using clear contact paper over them (or, rather, Mary did this, and I cheered her on. I'm not handy with contact paper.). This was at another center. On our rug at Clarendon, we have used colored duct tape, carpet tape, masking tape, and other ideas. They aren't as stable on a carpet but that is what we have. Budget time for repairs!

Young children in a group tend to get a bit panicky about someone else getting their spot, chair, toy, etc. Wouldn't you? Giving them a spot of their own every day for lining or sitting (with Mary, we used the numbers for circle as well) provides some sense of security. They understand that, if numbers are rotated, they will always get a chance to be number one. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Badges? Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges!

On the left is a picture of a powerful symbol. I am not talking about police in the news, here. I am talking about a symbol of power to a four year old boy.

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

Is it for a girl or a boy? Does it really matter?

What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails
And puppy-dogs' tails,
That's what little boys are made of.
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And everything nice,
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).
I was confused. I remember thinking that sugar and spice were nice, but, I was not "everything nice". I was out-spoken, to say the least, not a valued quality in a girl of the 1950's. My brother, Bob, wasn't into snails either. When we were given medical kits, Bob got a doctor's kit and I a nurse's kit. I asked my mother why I hadn't received a doctor's kit and she patiently but firmly explained that girls were nurses, not doctors. Little did she know, I learned later! The first woman doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell,  died in 1910! 

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

The Challenge of Behavior: When it is Out of Bounds

I write about how the arts enhance early learning, and in fact, must be central to it. That's my thing and I don't mean to veer from that theme. But there is a huge issue in early care that trumps all others: Challenging Behavior. In an arts-based, project-oriented center or classroom there should be ample opportunity for children to be wholly engaged in learning to the point that they themselves can be authors of the curriculum. In Reggio-inspired centers, the children know they are protagonists in the theater of learning. They are welcome to contribute ideas, and to even critique teacher decisions. This happens where I teach. It certainly keeps the teachers on their toes. No overused, tired themes and units for us! Our children are invested in everything that goes on in our little world.

Challenging behavior happens everywhere, even in the best of programs and centers. Defining it isn't really hard. Behavior that is annoying to teachers but developmentally appropriate and is even a welcome sign of maturing isn't what I'm talking about here. All fours are silly, potty-mouthed little beings. All fours are physically exuberant. If you as a teacher expect perfect behavior your are in the wrong profession. But there are children who go beyond the "norm". Those children who hinder the rest of the learners, and themselves by attention-seeking, even violent behavior that seems unpredictable and dangerous. These children are the ones who, still, are the most expelled individuals in education. 

In a center that prides itself on never expelling a child, such a ours, it is imperative to have both a uniform expectation for children's prosocial behavior, and the means to teach this behavior. Teachers meet to discuss learning progress and social-emotional issues, as well as evolving curriculum, every day. Planned, continuing observations inform discussions about what strategies to use to manage behavior, and to teach self-management, without the use of external rewards such as stickers and other non-relevant rewards. These rewards backfire when children cease to be interested in stickers, or up the ante by demanding better rewards, in order for them to be interested in prosocial behavior! If a chart is used, the child must be a part of the planning for the way it is used, and what the achievement will be when the chart is filled with his or her own check marks. "Rewards" must be meaningful to the child. 

The next step is referral. In the article cited above, mental health referrals are recommended. After you document behavior over time, parents need to be given choices for referrals. Presumably, you have already conferenced quite a bit about their child's learning, and its interruption by anti-social behavior (but don't call it that!). Child Find is also a good resource, if you believe that some developmental delay is involved. It's free, too. Make sure that your center submits a referral in conjunction with the parents, so that the experts don't assume that the parents aren't cognizant of behavior that is age-appropriate. It is also important for the center or school to refer so that the behavior isn't minimized, as parents so often say things like, "Well, she hardly ever does that at home...".

I didn't start this post thinking I was going to write a "how-to refer" piece! What I wanted to especially mention is that childcare centers, even the best of them, can be difficult places for many children. Walking in line, at any age, is purely for the convenience of the school or center. When do adults walk in a line? We "get good" at it in school, if we are lucky, then never use the skill again, unless we join the armed services. When I am at my best I sing us along the way. I try to give the children a sense of communal belonging and shared intent. We do "silly walks", or play "follow the leader". During transitions, when children are waiting to go outside with their coats and hats on, we read or play games until the last child is ready. Our newest intellectual game has been integrating the lines:                                                                                                                                                          
Numbers for lining up.

Children line up in two lines, one odd, the other even. We go down the stairs in two lines and then the children integrate themselves into one line, number order, all by themselves. We  have a list of names and numbers in case someone forgets (they do, of course). This exercise gives them ownership of the process, they each have their own place in the line, which changes every day. The first thing the children do when either Sue or I come in is ask, "Did you change the numbers?". They are fully invested. This is integrated curriculum. Math skills play alongside social skills and give each child his or her own place to "own". I recommend it for Pre-K and over.

But for the "out of bound" child, more is needed. Special strategies are a must, and referrals are necessary. For this you need experienced, well-trained teachers, and an administration that is committed to keeping all of the "friends" in the group. Let me know what you think about this issue.