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.

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?