Saturday, May 10, 2014

Inside and Outside: Teaching Naturally

Sometimes life in a child care center is routinely extraordinary. We live our lives together, adults and children, looking for every opportunity to learn and to teach. In our program we blend the outside and the inside to create an organic whole where our children make connections no matter where they are, and they contribute at least as much to the curriculum (as defined by NAEYC, our professional organization) as we teachers do!

Even though we went on several amazing field trips via walking and metro, the crux of our exploration has been the connection between inside and outside.

It rained recently and a child noticed while the windows on one side of the room had raindrops on them, the windows on the other side did not. She commented on this and asked why. So my teaching partner, Sue, brainstormed with our older children on what might be the reason. Here are some of their hypotheses: "The rain is grey and camouflaged",;"One side is used to it"; If you are close to the window you see more"; and "The wind is blowing the rain sideways".

Some of these answers show where the children are in their cognitive development. One child says the windows on one side are "used to it", indicating personification of an object, a classic sign of preoperative logic.  Another comments that the dripless side isn't visible because the rain is grey and in camouflage, an generalization from prior knowledge of how things can seem invisible. The last comment comes closer to the truth (wind makes rain move). A great guess!
Sue designed an artistic experiment by giving the children paper, pipettes, and blue water. The children dripped water on paper and experimented with turning it in different directions, waving it about, to see how the drips traveled. No final decisions were made about the cause of the dripless window, but the children learned about the effect of gravity and movement on water drops. Here is the result:

The Virginia Foundation Blocks, our Pre-K standards, state that children should be able to "ask questions about the natural world related to observations" by the end of the year. This was what that first child did, and it resulted in a learning activity related to both science and art.

Looking for worms

The boys above are looking into a raised bed filled with dirt. They are looking for worms. As every preschool teacher knows, worms and slugs and bugs excite preschool children, both boys and girls. They worked with some worm-loving girls to create a "worm hotel". It's interesting to note that another field of study has been building and construction, so hotels are an interesting application of that learning! Here is the worm hotel:
Worm Hotel

Worms gathered for the honor of staying in a ring-shaped hotel with sturdy rubber walls rest or dig in the dirt. They also can lounge on an "easy chair" provided by a leisure-loving girl:

Worm on a chair.

The whole worm hotel is situated in our dirt box, a wood-bound dirt pile specifically dedicated to digging. In dirt. With small shovels that are modeled on adult models. Yes, we encourage getting dirty, and yes, the children are encouraged and cheered on in this endeavor. My adult students express frustration with their own situations when I share this information with them. They work in centers where parents are unhappy that little Sarah or William are dirty at pick-up. The teacher is held responsible, and the administration doesn't support this research-based, "best practice". Shame on them! Playing in dirt is healthy.

Inside/outside learning is the most healthy and natural kind of learning for young children. It is engaging and whole-child oriented. We read a book on worms inside to support the engaged exploration of the children outside. 

Outdoor learning is becoming more respectable these days and with good reason. In my next post I will share some examples of indoor/outdoor music. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Preserving the old, preparing the new.

This 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, in 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. Here is one example of a digital documentation of teaching both visual art and mathematics to kindergartners, and here are examples of lessons for grades 5 through 8 addressing both social studies and language arts.

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.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Peinture en Plein Air

Ou, la la! The story of Pigasso and Mootisse continued today!

We have been experimenting with colors indoors, mixing black and while, black, white and green, and the usual primary colors into secondary colors on paper with tempera. The children delight in "discovering" combinations. Some already know that blue and yellow make green. They've read Little Blue and Little Yellow for some time. Fewer know The Color Kittens, but are veterans of science experiments where other combinations have been tried. I asked my small group what they would like to do that the characters in When Pigasso met Mootisse did and one little boy suggested painting the fence!

Instead, we painted a big piece of cardboard.

I brought out a variety of bright colors, along with white and black. The children took turns being painters and art critics. The art critics were to tell the painters what they liked about what they were doing and what colors they saw evolving. This was slightly challenging since there were other children playing on the playground while they were critiquing their friends' art! Considering the distraction, they did well. 

Next we added leaves. This girl decided that, rather than stick leaves to the paint, she would make sure the leaves stuck by painting them individually. This worked well. 

The task took longer than I imagined it would, and so we stowed the painting in the shed to continue with tomorrow. We will see what transpires! 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

You say Pigasso, I say Picasso...

I love four year olds! They are in a transition stage of development, at the cusp of separating reality from fantasy. You can see the wheels turning in some of their amazing brains, shifting gears from, "Is this real?" to "Of course it's not real". I can see it when I bring out my puppet, Melvin the Monkey (named after my beloved first voice teacher, Mel Hakola). "He's not talking, YOU are!", they say, at the same time speaking with Melvin directly. "Melvin, do you want a banana?" 

We read When Pigasso Met Mootisse, and I carefully explained that there were real artists named Picasso and Matisse, showing them pictures of the artists and their art. But throughout the subsequent activities related to the story, each time I said the artists' names, they corrected me. One little boy, a concerned look on his face, said, "Gail, you mean Pigasso, right?". I admit I caved. That "G" started creeping into my pronunciation. 

Here is how we did our Pigasso, er, Picasso art project, and the objectives you as an early childhood educator can reference if you do it with children. 

We gathered at morning meeting and listed our choices for activity time, as usual. On the art table Sue had prepared a long mirror down one side of the table so that the children could draw a LARGE circle, eyes, nose and mouth, looking at themselves while they drew, sitting three at a time.. Children, speaking their thoughts aloud, said, "My face is a circle", or "Mine's an oval". Some, remembering the cubism we discussed prior to the activity, said, "I'll make my eyes triangles like a pumpkin". 

The next step was to cut their picture into five largish pieces (these instructions were to prevent the inevitable cutting into shards and iddy-biddy pieces that often happens when we say, "cut"). Sue had demonstrated in morning meeting that pieces of a drawing could be reformed into a "new face", just as Picasso, I mean Pigasso had done. 
We saved the pieces for each child by putting them together with a paper clip with their name attached. The next day they pieced their "new faces" together on a sheet of construction paper of their choosing. After gluing them down, they used my favorite colors, Creamy Crayons, to give vibrant colors to the new faces. As these are children of varying age within the "fours" bracket, not to mention varying individual interests and passions, the result was a broad range of "new faces" to put up in our stair well.

On the subject of directions, which I raised in my last post, we only provided those I have already mentioned except for encouraging children to color pieces so that the idea of a face be preserved. They were left to interpret that direction as they wished. Our direct instruction was not to tight, not to loose. Hopefully, it was just right!

Virginia Visual Arts Foundation Block 1: Visual Communication and Production, all four objectives.
Virginia Visual Arts Foundation Block 2: Art History and Cultural Context, objectives b and c.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

When Pigasso Met Mootisse

This story has many admirers among art teachers. There should be more admirers among early childhood educators. It has everything! War! Grudges! Messes! Hurt feelings and most importantly: Making up. The story is based loosely upon the friendship of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, with animals subbing for the historical humans. 

The children are enthralled with super-heros and fighting, as so many children are. When I started reading When Pigasso Met Mootisse to my kids two years ago I was not convinced it would hold their attention. What I discovered was that the concept of an "art attack" hit the sweet spot in their fight-loving brains. Subsequently I also discovered that fighting for fighting's sake wasn't what they were really interested in. They were in love with the brio of the battle between opposites.  In super-hero stories, it was the battle between good guys and bad guys. In this story it is the battle between two different styles of self-expression. Feelings run very high in either case, but the idea is the same. 

So we are thinking about doing a "unit", as we say in the biz. 

The children mostly favored Picasso's style of art, which is cubism in the story. All of the blogs I've looked at show children's versions of Picasso portraits. They are way cool, folks. I applaud the teachers who give explicit directions, teach art style, and still get creative, individual results. I'm of two minds about this. I love the result. The children get away from houses, butterflies, ninjas, etc. for a while, as my friend, Angelique, says in her blog. They produce something original, with a set of learned skills and techniques. There is so much value in this. The children, as another art teacher friend has said, need to be taken seriously. On the other hand, in our program, which values process over product, we usually give materials, scaffolding, and time. We ask them for their ideas. We even wait for them. Can we resolve these two approaches? 
Should we ask them to produce their own Picassos? Or should we expose them to Picasso and give them the materials and time to see where their inspiration leads? 

What do you think?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

How to Use an Opera to Teach Nearly Everything--An Integrated Study for Pre-K

I sang with Frederica Von Stade twice at the Washington Opera. I was one of six "spirits" in a wondrous Canadian production of Cendrillon, produced there when I was (ahem) young. Soon after, when I began teaching young children, not knowing that children weren't supposed to be taught about opera, I introduced Von Stade's performance in Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel from the Metropolitan Opera to my unsuspecting young students. And not knowing that they weren't supposed to understand opera, they fell in love with it. I developed a unit for the opera and the story that included writing, drawing, acting, singing, and what I called "stage magic" (making something appear to be real when it is not).

Fast forward many years and we come to a holiday season when my teaching partner was going to be in her native Australia for three weeks, and I was planning for sixteen rather than eight children. What to do? Duh! Hansel and Gretel, of course!

I introduced the unit with storybooks, like any good unit about a fairy tale. This story in particular isn't devoid of controversy. Teachers routinely caution me about it. "The mother tries to get rid of them. It has a witch. It isn't appropriate for preschool." Well, yes, the mother, or step-mother is a problem. I use at least two versions of the fairy tale, especially Beni Montresor's version.
Signor Montresor created the picture book from the opera's libretto, which has the mother shoo her children out the door to pick wild strawberries in the woods. They get lost and the rest of the story is more or less the same. We also read James Marshall's version, which is comic to adults, but still has the mother trying to lose her kids. We discussed the two stories and I polled them on their favorite one. The children were split. The more nurturing the children, the more they preferred the Montresor. The more exuberant preferred Marshall.

This is when I brainstorm with them about how stories can be told, and introduce the concept of singing a story. Do you want to see the story sung? Well, what do you think they said?

We watched the video of the opera bit by bit over a few days. The children asked many questions as we watched, such as, 1.) Why are the people are always singing?  2.) Is that Hansel a boy or a girl (the role is a "pants role". 3.) Is the witch really flying? (she is in a harness and flies in on wires) 4.) Why is her tongue green? (Let's suck on a green candy to find out about stage magic.) and on and on!

We sang "Brother will you dance with me?". We created a giant cardboard cookie to use to pretend to turn each other into one, like they turn the witch into one in the opera. Then the question came up, one that other classes haven't asked before: "Can we do it as a play?" One boy in particular lobbied to be the witch.

Ah! The emergent curriculum teacher rejoices! "Well, of course!" And so it began.

Gail casting the production.

First we have to agree on who is doing what. It isn't nearly as difficult as you might think. Four and five year olds can be highly motivated and focused when they want to do something together that involves every part of themselves. They easily accept double and triple casting so everyone gets to do the roles they wish to portray. They accept direction (not always true of divas and divos). You don't have to talk to them in high motherese. You can direct them and yet accept  their creative proclivities at the same time. It is a joy, pure and simple.

It helps a teacher to know the opera plot well. There are characters the children adore that aren't in the storybooks, such as the dew fairy and the sandman, or all the enchanted animals portrayed by children in the video of the opera production. They revel in the happy ending, when the mother and father find the children and everyone sings and dances in jubilation (this was their favorite scene to portray, besides tearing up and pretending to eat the gingerbread witch). It is sort of a "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead", but the music is Wagnerian (Humperdinck was a student of Wagner).

Originally I had planned to have the children make a book to contribute to the library for the other children. I honestly believe they were more prepared to do this after they had explored the story and it's themes through drama. So I gave each of them a scene from the opera story to illustrate, and we used new art material for the illustrations: Sharpies and Creamy Crayons.
The first step

The first step was for each child to draw what they remembered about the scene they were assigned. The above picture is one girl's favorite: The angels coming from the wings and above to guard the sleeping children in the forest. She chose triangles because "they would be pretty" as angel regalia. 

The second step was to use the colors. The above girl chose to color only the angels. 
Others put color into their illustrations to represent the set...

"I wanted the ceiling to be blue, the walls brown, and the floor green. It's Hansel and Gretel in their house, and I drew a frog, because I like frogs." 

The book will be laminated and bound next week. I will be delighted to share their reactions when it happens!

So how have I proved you can teach everything through a project like this? I can use standards to show how they have been met. 

The Virginia Foundation Blocks for Early Learning include standards for visual arts: Create specific works of art based on a common theme, .and: Develop and use fine motor skills necessary to produce two...dimensional works of art. For Language Arts, they list: Use size, shape, color, and spatial words to describe people, places, and things.

I thought that these standards were addressed and then some, so I took a look at the Kindergarten SOL's for visual art and language arts as well: "The student will describe the sequence of steps in making a work of art", and: "The student will comprehend fiction by retelling familiar stories using beginning, middle and end. Also: Discuss characters, setting, and events."
When a teacher uses the arts to teach, standards are met naturally. In fact, standards are exceeded. 

Let's revisit the classroom to see what the children decided to do after they had digested the story of Hansel and Gretel thoroughly, acted it out, and made a book out of it. I asked them if they would like to invent their own version of the story. I suggested they add a helicopter, a la Gianni Rodari, an idea that tickled them. They took turns speaking, and this was the result.

Once upon a time there was a boy and girl named Hansel and Gretel. They lived in a forest. A  helicopter came and took them to another part of the forest. They thought they were at their house but they were at a witch's house. The witch came down in a plane, not wires (like in the opera). Gretel saw something to distract the witch, a tunnel. Gretel freed Hansel and when the witch was coming out of the tunnel they pushed her into the oven. She came out as a witch cupcake! They ate it. Then they danced. 
The End.

I think they "got" the idea of stories, don't you?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

How We Went from the Farm to a Phone Booth.

My totally cool colleagues created a phone booth for the children. How did we get to a phone booth? By emergent curriculum and the Project Approach.

Curriculum that emerges out of the interests of children and teachers has been very important to Early Childhood Education, at least in the preschool years when standardized testing has yet to make an appearance. It is a concept carefully explained in a multitude of textbooks from which I teach, and you can find many resources by googling the term. I want to describe a process from my own center, so that its example can be examined by others. Everything that emerges doesn't necessarily have to be extended or studied, but sometimes they are, and they become a project. In this case, a metamorphosizing project.

So how did a dramatic play area be transformed from a farm to a grocery store and then to a grocery store with an old fashioned (British-style) phone booth in it? Was this whimsy? Well,...yes, but read on!

In October we went on our annual field trip to the Potomac Vegetable Farm.. The children enjoyed a hayride, a walk through plantings both common and uncommon (who would have thought Coltsfoot was grown in a vegetable farm, but it is commonly used in stews in England. My teaching partner, Sue, told the children about eating it in wonderful, aromatic stews as a child growing up in Australia. We also ate cherry tomatoes straight off of the vines. Yum!)

The children enjoyed the pigs and hens. One girl almost fell into the pig pen by leaning as far out as she could. She wanted to pet a pig!
We ended with a picnic, and buying vegetables for our afternoon snack table at the center.

The dramatic play area quickly became a farm. The children made vegetables for planting, and used masking tape for rows. No, we did not use plastic vegetables. They are very colorful and fun, but they cut out a step necessary to our approach: The children need to do whatever they can to contribute to the project. We don't magically do it for them. They have ownership, an important part of self-esteem and self-efficacy. Fine motor skills get their due, without artificial activities to practice them.
After a while the farm idea got old. The children didn't play in it anymore and at the same time they began showing an interest in cooking and recipe writing. So...
I put out flower, oatmeal, sugar, salt, spices and water. I told them they needed to "write" a recipe before they cooked. So they drew pictures and invented spelling of the ingredients they wanted in their cooking, and "followed" the recipe on trays. We even put some of the concoctions into little cups, and put them in the fridge to see how they would change. The children predicted results ranging from actual cookies to "mush!". They wanted to cook again and again I decided that they needed to actually do the real thing. With Thanksgiving approaching we decided to make applesauce and pumpkin pudding. Of course they wrote recipes, first! The amazing thing about an emergent curriculum is that writing practice is painless. Children are motivated to use the tools of emergent and developmental writing when they have something they dearly want to do! Each child participates at his or her own level.

Pretend Cooking
Pretend cooking and actual cooking easily introduced the idea of where the crops go from the farm. Children are very much aware of grocery stores and what they can (and sometimes can't) get from them! They began bringing in empty cartons and containers from home. Our amazing teacher, Carrie, made shelving, and they were stocked by the children. We hauled out the toy cash registers. Did we use play money? NO! The children were more than happy to produce money at an alarming rate, and much of it had numbers on it (Ah ha! There's that emergent math!). They learned through trial and error that the money needed to fit the cash register drawers so they began cutting it down. All the while they were shopping and checking people out, taking their food "home" to the library and the loft. Social skills were tested through negotiating who would be checkers and who would shop. I suggested creating a crew of "Night Stockers" but that was voted down by my colleagues. The children never see the night stockers. They aren't a part of their shopping experience.

Which brings us to the phone booth...

When I was little, every grocery store had some form of public phone either inside or out. In Australia, Sue says there are still red, British-style phone booths. Phone booths are a part of our childhood memories, not of our students'. But we described them, each in turn, to the children, emphasizing that, once upon a time, people didn't carry phones in their pockets! There were public phones and people actually stood in line to use them. The children were entranced.

So Carrie and Sue made one out of cardboard, plastic, paint and duct tape. And the children began lining up to use it. It was and is a delight for all of us.

So here it is, a documentation of a series of projects and activities that emerged through the day to day life of a multi-age classroom of three and four year olds. I didn't even mention the books we read as part of our work with the children, but there were many. There was probably more we could have done. But having done this much has been a joy for everyone. And the emergence of curriculum will doubtless continue.