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.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Integration of Curriculum Outside

We didn't put the trash can and dry wall buckets out for drumming around the tree yesterday. Drumming wasn't set up, but cooking was. We have laundry baskets full of plastic dishes, and metal cookie sheets, muffin tins, and bowls, along with plastic and wooden spoons. All are adult sized (why use children's expensive toys when the children themselves prefer what adults use?). Somehow, while my back was turned, these items were purposefully laid out all around the bench that envelopes our tree. And the children were making music.

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).

We talk about integrated curriculum constantly, now. Mostly it is discussed in the form of activities designed to teach certain skills and content areas. Some even integrate the arts. But children learn naturally by integration, and the job of the teaching staff is to scaffold (guide, then stand back) learning, including the learning of language and social skills. On our playground science, math, language arts, music and movement, and dramatic play all co-exist and intermingle through a carefully set variety of materials, with whole-hearted adult involvement. Children move at the speed of light (it sure seems that way sometimes) so adults need to think at that speed. Keeping ahead of their needs isn't easy (especially for a teacher of my age!), but to do otherwise is a disservice to the children.

I hear from my adult students about directors who do not allow materials that we use routinely because of safety concerns. I hear of teachers talking to each other teachers almost exclusively, occasionally shouting out admonishment to the children on my students' own playgrounds. I hear of my students' frustration when they want to try an idea from one of my courses (Northern Virginia Community College--Early Childhood) and then are shot down by an administration that prefers static playground equipment, with indoor worksheets and flashcards (inappropriate for early childhood). What a tragedy for children! Integration doesn't mean sticking two things together! It means that what is being done for children allows them to integrate organically! What better place to integrate curriculum than outdoors where the environment beckons? 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Connecting the dots between language and music development

What is this child doing?

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

How Ken Burns Renewed my Love of Arts-Based Learning...

Watching Ken Burns' "The Roosevelts" on WETA was a deep dip into the wise waters of liberal progressivism, While no one wants government to be "Big Brother", and we all have varying opinions on what Big Brotherism is, I have always had positive feelings about the New Deal. My parents' memories of their own poverty during the Depression, and their belief that FDR was responsible for their being moved to the new, clean public housing projects where they met, certainly influenced my thinking. One of FDR's signature programs in the early '30's was the Works Projects Administration. The above is one of the WPA mosaic tiles built into the walls of the North End Pavilion at Spring Lake (NJ) Beach. That pavilion was totally destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. The tiles, we heard, had been removed for safe-keeping before the storm. The new pavilion is an almost exact replica of the old one, which is such a joy to those of us who thought that a new construction would be a new look. Even better, there are replicas of the old tiles in place. To those of us who love the Jersey Shore, this was the right thing to do.

New and original architecture, and new art are good for culture and society. New and original people are, too! Once the WPA employed artists were the breath of fresh air, the innovators, the vanguard of art in the early 20th century. When I think of how the government actually financed them, I feel such pride that the U.S. Government saw employment of artists as equally important as employment of steel workers or machinists. This attitude towards the arts has not been carried along into the new century.

Ironically, teaching through the arts has been shown in research to be the most integrating path to healthy, mature and consistent learning. I find that using the arts as a pathway motivates students to bring all of their own "human capital" to their efforts. Just as those early WPA artists, paid by Uncle Sam, threw their best efforts into working with other craftsmen to produce useful and beautiful buildings, our students will work through the arts to produce beautiful "products" that demonstrate what they have learned. New and original people are the human product of this approach. 

Teaching through arts integration is rigorous. Students must address learning standards in both the arts and in other subjects, such as history, literature, science and math. They use their hands, bodies, voices, feelings AND intellect in the learning process. This is what we call on the Early Childhood field integrated curriculum. There are many ways teachers can learn this approach, one being at the Kennedy Center's CETA (Changing Education Through the Arts) program. Becoming a CETA school means getting teaching artists into your building. Wolf Trap also works with schools to train teachers to teach through the arts. There are many online resources ask well. 

An old building is not always worth replicating. Certainly old teaching methods aren't, either. We need to teach to the whole person, preserving the best the arts and education have to offer. Let's not ignore this challenge.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Gender Identity: The New Frontier

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.

A few years ago I had a young girl in school who said she was a boy. She was a passionate competitor, physically strong and agile. She felt right in a vest or “boy jacket”, and when we performed a child version of an opera with a prince, she was drawn to play him. She threw herself into the role, and none of the other children questioned that she would play a prince. The role seemed just right for her. She took my breath away. But she said she was a boy, not, as Kelsey says, that she was neither.

 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.