Saturday, December 31, 2011

Pink Toys, Blue Toys

When I was a child, lo these many moons ago, gender identity was fixed and well-policed by cultural mores and taboos. As a young girl I preferred my brother’s doctor kit to the nurse kit Santa brought me, but my mother patiently explained that I was a girl, my brother was a boy, and we got the toys meant for who we were. How different it was back in the fifties. Or was it?
I read in The Washington Post, in an op-ed by Peggy Orenstein, that Legos, Inc. is aggressively marketing new sets that are aimed at little girls. Primary colors have always been the mainstay of Lego sets but what with the onset of girl-marketing the colors they are a-changing. The new sets, Creative Cakes, Butterfly Beauty Shop, and Stephanie’s Cool Convertible, to name just a few, feature pastel colors to match the pastel themes of each. No doubt these sets will find eager fans. I teach young children and those of us in this business are deeply aware of the power of pink (and violet) on young girls. I myself recently sponsored a pink crayon/marker drive at school to satisfy this lust among my pink-starved girls. To be fair, I included green in this effort to satisfy my boys who, contrary to popular belief, prefer it to blue.
But what’s to prevent this trickle of pastel blocks from becoming a torrent of aspiration-dilution in girls? Already my girls worship at the altar of the Disney Princesses. Once upon a time (my time) Cinderella had her own identity, as did Snow White. Perhaps they were defined by their relationships with men, but at least they weren’t lumped together and interchangeable. How far will this go?
After reading Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain, my commitment to providing learning experiences for girls and boys that allowed for playing in cross-competencies was reinforced. If boys wanted to build, girls would be encouraged to build, and their minds seeded with the idea that Betty could build as well as Bob. If boys wanted or appeared interested in drawing and writing, their minds would similarly be engaged at any level that appealed to them. Perhaps, as Ms. Orenstein writes, this was behind Legos interest in making building kits for girls. Perhaps it was only a profit motive, taking advantage of the tyrannical gender separation that begins at age four. In any case, seeing these sets incites me to a sense of radical commitment to encouraging competencies in every area of children’s creativity, regardless of color (pastel or otherwise). If your daughter adores the Disney princesses you are not duty-bound to provide them with a steady diet of girly play opportunities (Pink markers and crayons are okay).You can guide them beyond the pink curtain in a playful and loving way.
For years I’ve taught the Nutcracker Ballet to fours. My unit always starts with asking children what they know about ballet. The boys invariably state that ballet is for girls (ugh) and the girls begin to pirouette. We talk about story-telling through movement, watch a video of the ballet in stages, and practice the difficult leaps and sprints they see on the video. By the end of the unit the boys might still say ballet is for girls, but leap and twirl to the Nutcracker’s music, asking for toy soldier dress-ups. Minds change gradually. Be a part of the change.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Virtual Classroom for Young Children?

November 27, 2011
On: Washington Post “Virtual Schools Expand Territory” Lyndsey Layton & Emma Brown.
My hair stood on end. That’s the best way I can describe my reaction to the article in the Washington Post reporting that Virginia public schools were paying for some young children to learn “virtually”. 
 When I think of virtual education, my mind goes immediately to the online course I teach for Northern Virginia College’s Extended Learning Institute, a course for adults who need college credits in their field and find that online learning helps them maintain their sanity by cutting out driving to “brick and mortar” classrooms. They are already working full-time and raising families. Online learning for them is the perfect solution.
Why would virtual education for young children make my hair stand on end? Because the courses I teach at Nova are on Early Childhood Education. I teach that young children do not learn subject matter in separate categories. Quality programs do not teach science for one period, language arts for another, and physical education in another. Young children learn all of these things all of the time through working with other children and knowledgeable adults. They learn not only how to write, but how to share pencils; not only how to observe a science experiment, but how to discuss that experiment while jockeying for position around the science table. Learning about vibration, letters, math facts, and insects goes hand in hand with learning to disagree without being disagreeable; to encourage a friend; to converse about a topic of interest.
According to the article, the most successful virtual student has a learning coach/parent at home to supplement the lack of social-emotional learning that is crucial to a child’s future, but that definition of success is test-scores. Test-scores don’t measure ability to get along in a group of diverse children. In the workplace that ability will be as important as the ability to do math or to read and write. Relating to your loving mother just won’t replicate this experience.
Most young children are also kinesthetic, or physical learners. According to my friend, Rae Pica, a nationally known expert on movement education, children learn best through movement. How much better can a math lesson get than when children learn to count, add and subtract by participating in a game involving the whole body? Physical cues integrate the various areas of the brain involved in learning all subject areas.
Creativity also gets short shrift in today’s test-driven world, but those we most admire in society, from the late Steve Jobs to Gloria Steinem, have lived on the creative edge, pushing for change to improve the lives of millions. I pose the question: Can young children who are educated by sitting in front of a computer from the age of four be able to access their own creativity when that treasure chest inside their body/minds is relegated to last place in their educational toolkit?
According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), children learn through play in a nurturing learning community of peers and knowledgeable adults. Does this image match that of the child sitting alone, or with his/her mother in front of a computer screen? You decide.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

P.S. Metro Map as Art

Before we went on our field trip we reviewed the metro maps so the children would understand how they worked. Since the D.C. Metro names its lines after colors, the children were especially attracted to lines that were named after colors they favored. The Orange Line, Yellow Line, Blue Line, Red Line and Green Line all had their fans. Since there was an interest in the visual aspect of the maps, we invited the children to create map art. Above is one representation.

Dem Bones: Our Fabulous Field Trip

How do you take sixteen four-year-olds and eight parents to the Smithsonian? By metro, of course! We decided to finish our project on bones by visiting the exhibit, Written in Bone . The advantages of working with children in a center located near a metro stop can't be exaggerated. The trip was easy, the learning monumental. 

We prepared the children with personal metro maps easily printed from the internet. They consulted their maps frequently and asked questions such as, "How many stops until...?" and, "What's the next stop called?", all while hugging poles or sitting in seats, giggling, as the train moved and rocked, . Including this practical literacy element made my professional heart quiver. Embedded Language Arts! Project learning! The children weren't thinking of such things. They were learning and using their learning outside of the traditional methods of worksheets and flash cards. We had examined deer and cattle bones. We'd played physician's office and hospital with xrays and a light board, leg braces and slings. We'd created art, both small and large, representing our own skeletons. Now was the time to see what the professional anthropologists did with bones.

We reconnoitered on the Mall, a sweeping vista that mocks the usual meaning of the word in American culture, and walked to the Natural History Museum. I won't describe the marvelous exhibits to you. Visit the museum or its website for the details on those. Suffice it to say the children were enraptured, and they impressed their parents with their new vocabulary words and knowledge, as well as their burning curiosity about every aspect of the exhibit. They greeted the adventure of eating in the museum cafeteria with equal enthusiasm. That's the rapture of early childhood.

We will return to the human body this year. Already the children express interest in muscles, ligaments, and organs through their book sharing. The Magic School Bus and the Human Body has become a popular book in our small library. For now we say adieu to our project. I encourage you who teach young children in traditional programs to embrace a more project-oriented approach. The learning goes on and on.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


I went to another Hybrid training course. It was three  hours of rehashing of what I have learned in other Hybrid Training courses, except that I do pick up some neat tricks each time I am required to attend one. This time I learned about Wordle, which is a site for creating art through words. Here is the Wordle I created for this blog.

Wordle: Arts and Young Children
I think that it is much smaller than it appears on the Wordle site, but you can see how lovely something you create out of simple words can be. The site is here.
Enjoy the fruit of my morning in another training class!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Dem Bones: Integrating Art and Science

Our two groups of four/fives took a walk before Halloween to see the neighborhood decorations. Skeletons adorned some of the trees and the children began talking about how they were scary. My teaching partner, Sue Nellor, and I talked about bones, and how we all had them. This led to our bone study. Since the arts are an integral part of our curriculum, we did more with bones in art than most schools would. Dramatic play included bone x-rays on a light tray. A human skeleton puzzle, created by Sue was on the science table along with cattle, and later deer bones. Books about the human body abounded around our large room. White chalk on black paper served as the medium for skeletal drawings. Several children made their skeletons look mean, and some cheerful, using the art experience to express their feelings. Other projects included making skeletons with sticks and using clay to explore a more 3d representation.

In staff meeting we discussed the ways we could enrich the learning and we came up with the idea of body tracings that included bones. The children had sung "Dem Bones", looked at posters about the skeleton, and felt their own rib, knee, back and shin bones on their own bodies. Would they be able to draw their own skeletal bones on their tracings? Would we end up with princess outfits and ball caps? We needed to see.

The children traced each other on white paper from a huge roll. That was the first step. The second was that they drew in their bones, guided by several posters and books with drawings of the human skeleton. The children each took to the task with enthusiasm.  It was fascinating to see how each child perceived the skeleton bones and translated that perception; some were all ribs, some many joints, correctly and incorrectly placed.  Some children couldn't resist drawing a face. The spine became a line down the center, or a line half-way down. The pelvis was included in some drawings. One boy asked where the penis bone was. A good question!

Next week we will visit the Smithsonian Natural History Museum by Metro. Our plan is to visit the Written in Bone exhibit to take us through skeletons to Thanksgiving, history, artifacts and other related subjects. Who knows what other arts activities will be born from this exploration?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

"My teacher says we have to learn..."

Recently, one of our school's alumni, now a second grader, came along with his Dad to pick up his sister. His Dad said that this boy missed our program, and the boy told me that he "only had a half hour for recess", that the rest was "boring". He explained to me that his teacher told him that, while it might be boring, children had to learn, so they had to sit still and pay attention. There they are in school, then, sitting still, doing boring work, because they "have to learn". No one could have been more articulate about the frustrations of children in school than this boy. He knew intuitively what is well-known in the field: A child who is distracted by his body's need to move, or his mind's need to explore and create, is not going to be able to learn at his/her potential. This is canonical in Early Childhood Education and yet the public schools still insist on treating young learners as if they were "brains on sticks" . Child development is not seen as an important part of a teacher's toolkit. People who graduate from Master's Programs in Education come out with practically no knowledge of how children learn.  This should be an integral part of the Master's program. 

How much more this boy would be learning if the instruction was project-based and developmentally appropriate! But this type of learning is harder to measure for the test-mavens. Let's rally in support of educating young children, including second and third-graders, the way they learn best! 

Friday, July 15, 2011

How do you motivate teachers to be creative?

As anyone who reads my blog knows, I love to write with a picture in mind, even if the subject doesn't necessarily connect to the topic, I will make it connect. So if you read this, you can give me a thumbs-up or -down on how well I connect this picture to what I'm about to write!

In this photo, I am four and my brother is two. We were brought into a photographic studio of a tall blonde woman who had a large studio with big, rectangular shaped lights. I wasn't thrilled about having my picture taken with my dopey (sorry, Bob) little brother to begin with, and then we were asked to sit together on a table all cozy while the photographer struggled with her equipment. When she was finally ready to take our picture I had already had enough of her fussing, ignoring moi, and giving us curt commands. I did not want to smile and I definitely didn't want to look directly into the big rectangular light that  hurt my eyes. I fidgeted, and kept looking away. My mother, somewhere to my right, pleaded with me to cooperate. You can see from the picture that I did. but I was not happy about it!

What, does this have to do with motivating teachers to be creative, you may well ask, and with good reason! I will attempt to explain.

In the first place one has to consider that there are preschools where teachers and management have little interest in creativity in the first place. I am  not going to go there. They have their own reward, as they say in church. I am talking about how schools that have NAEYC accreditation, and have, in their literature, explanations of how their curriculum is creative, stimulating and developmentally appropriate. How does management--"heads of school", directors, and other administrators--motivate its teaching staff to go beyond creating the everyday, ordinary curricular learning experiences that usually satisfy the majority of parents who know little of what can really be done in the service of learning in its broadest sense?

One model I know of does it this way: Teachers are told to create exciting learning activities aligned with the school's yearly curricular goals and its literacy curriculum. Coming into the situation, a new faculty member believes that she can, within the parameters of the school's curriculum, create learning experiences that are as creative and interesting to children as possible, drawing from the world's cultures, traditions and arts to do so. But this teacher soon gets a surprise! Just as my four-year-old self came into a room of cold light, and admonishments to be still and smile, this teacher is asked to put aside her ideas and try to emulate other teachers, the reasoning being that if one teacher does something different, parents will demand the same from other teachers. Go ahead and be creative, but don't "show up your colleagues".

Imagine if the four-year-old, instead of being asked to sit still and stare while the photographer was getting ready, was given permission to explore the studio with parental guidance, and then asked how she would like to pose? I know, it isn't an analogy that quite fits (thumbs-down?), but there is some parallel here. Bear with me.

A second program expresses that it wants teachers to be creative, to bring their own strengths to the job of teaching young children. If teachers do projects that are different from those of other teachers, administrators encourage it, and when parents ask for the same in other classrooms, the pressure is on those teachers to be more creative, to make more connections, to go beyond the boundaries of the average aggregate of activities that are ordinarily used. That the administration has the back of the creative teacher ensures instruction and planning will evolve into new learning and new experiences.

Which way do you like? In which program would you want to teach?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Yoga for Kids: Discipline and play

How enthusiastically my students have always taken up Yoga! I started bringing the original YogaKids video to school quite a few years ago to find that the children actively engaged themselves in mirroring the poses of the young children they saw in the video. Amidst the usual silliness of fours there was a focus centered on doing the poses that I hadn't seen before. My co-teacher and I would walk around and gently correct the children who were willing, giving kind words of encouragement. Soon I had a large book of Yoga poses in the reading corner, and children could be seen laying it on the floor and trying pose after pose, talking to each other about how they were supposed to be done.

The day after our first session parents came in asking for the information on how to obtain YogaKids. The children had enthused about it at home and their excitement was infectious! Soon, parents and children were doing the video together.

Since then the Yoga for Kids movement has grown enormously! There are many resources out there for teachers and parents. I want to offer some of them here. Movement integrates the brain and energizes clear thinking. It enables children to use all of their resources for life in the "fast" lane. It also gives them a sense of what it means to be centered and focused. I myself have done Yoga for years and last year, after a year of practice, was finally able to do a headstand unaided. The accomplishment made me hungry for more Yoga and the self-confidence it generates. Imagine what it will do for your children and students! This is a blog entry about Yoga for kids, as well as other physical activities.  This is the Amazon link to Yoga Pretzels, a deck of Yoga pose cards for kids and grown-ups that was lovingly photocopied and laminated for me by a teacher friend. :)  Here is a lovely reflection on Yoga with your own children by a mom who knows.  A Yoga blog by a Yoga teacher for children!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Music and Movement: Inextricably Intertwined

How amazing it is to put music on during centers, put out a tote full of scarves, and watch children swarm the bag for the colorful banners of movement they would like to wield! If you are lucky and very sneaky you will be able to catch one of them in the act of finding their center and expressing the feelings evoked by the music, as I did in the photo. I have taught college students from several excellent texts that each emphasize a different aspect of what we call "Music and Movement", but these two concepts have no separate meanings to young children. They are inextricably intertwined. In Rae Pica's book, Experiences in Movement, she demonstrates the connection between music skills and movement skills. If the music is pizzacato--plucked strings suggesting light, quick movement, like in Benjamin Britten's Simple Symphony, Playful Pizzacato Movement--children can use movement skills like hopping or jumping. The creative movement becomes perfect for integrating science curriculum concepts about grasshoppers or fireflies blinking on and off! If the music is legato, or smooth and connected--like in Mozart's Rondo in A minor, K 511--children can use movement skills like sliding and swaying. These movements show the smooth movements of fish in water, or birds in the sky. 
Once I played this last lovely piece for my fours so they could move smoothly and freely. One little boy sighed and said, "I love this song...". How glorious to bring together the beauty and power of great music for young bodies to give expression to their innermost feelings through movement. 


Saturday, June 4, 2011

Should children be guided in their art?

On the left is a photograph of a painting, done in silk stick (soft crayon), and liquid water color by a four year old. This work was done in three half-hour sessions in an art studio with an art teacher who had read Through Georgia's Eyes to the class before the sessions began.

The guidance consisted of this: A choice of silk flowers were offered to the children as models for their work. Then the children were encouraged to draw what they saw in pencil. If the children's drawings were not accurate, the teacher asked them questions that highlighted the difference between the flower and the marks on paper. At no time were the children made to feel "wrong". All instruction was geared towards greater perceptual awareness and visual discrimination, an important skill in later reading instruction. Once the flowers were drawn, the children traced their pencil marks in Sharpie pens. They were then provided with silk sticks for color. Again, the teacher made suggestions about contrasting and complimenting color combinations, but she respected each child's ultimate choice. The finishing touch was a watercolor wash, with different colors over each section. The children chose purple over yellow, for example, or blue over green. The effects were striking. In a later school art show these pieces, "in the style of Georgia O'Keefe", were dazzling. And the children glowed with pride.
I have taught Art, Music and Movement at Northern Virginia Community College for years, and our emphasis, consistent with early education practice in the arts, is to value process over product. This is a good thing! We want to get away from cookie-cutter crafts that have been and continue to be rampant in preschools across the country. But I now believe that a loose interpretation of "process" art denies children the opportunity to grow in their creative, aesthetic and cognitive abilities. A little expert guidance seems to bring more out of a child that is there in the first place. What do you think?