Saturday, November 17, 2012

More Outdoor

My delightful colleague, Dr. Christine Schull, who teaches at our sister Nova Campus in Alexandria, wrote me that she enjoys my blog, and uses it as a resource in some of her classes. She said she particularly likes my posts on outdoor learning. As an enthusiastic people-pleaser, I must (and am happy to) dedicate this blog entry to her.

I am aware that outdoor education is a broad umbrella encompassing adventure camps, zip lines, nature trails, and simple outdoor gardening. All of this is wonderful stuff. My own children participated in Arlington's Outdoor Lab when they were in elementary school and they were always very energized by the experience. It led me to wonder why outdoor experiences were parceled out in such stingy servings.

Now outdoor education, or outdoor classrooms, are gaining popularity in preschool and childcare centers, and it is a real shot of energy to what otherwise has been a rather static approach to early education. Static, you say? Haven't we gone beyond coloring sheets and cookie-cutter art? (Well, some of us have.) Aren't we well into developmentally appropriate practice, NAEYC accreditation, Star rating systems,  and other improvements that have made our profession a Profession and our centers and schools immensely beneficial to children? Emphatically, YES! But we continually move ahead.

I myself, as both a teacher-educator and teacher of young children, am struggling to catch up with all of the great information on outdoor learning for preschoolers. In the mean time, we provide opportunities that my children did not have in preschool (but that I had, without preschool!)--opportunities to be intimate with dirt and water, sand and grubs; opportunities to identify birds by their nests and calls, and opportunities to sit in cobbed playhouses with dirt floors playing bakery. At our center, aside from two sand areas we also have a dirt box and shovels that look like adult gardening shovels but sized for young children. Very young children make holes they are proud of, then stand in them to measure themselves against a playmate who is not standing in a hole. "Look! Now I'm shorter!" They switch places and exclaim, "And  now I'm taller!" Other, older children, say they are digging dirt to make a road. They mix the dirt with water to "pave" the ground. Across the street is a huge construction project that they have visited on a field trip. They have seen paving in action. Integrated curriculum works outside, just as it does inside.

Here is a video about outdoor learning that will give you an overview of the idea of learning outdoors. For me, having learned and grown up outside until age six, this is a no-brainer.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Creativity and cognition go hand in hand

In my course, Art, Music and Movement for Young Children we talk about process versus product. We discuss open-ended learning opportunities. These phrases become a mantra for Early Childhood Teachers who are serious about making art experiences into learning and development experiences rather than simply craft products to take home to Mommy and Daddy.

    "Creativity becomes more visible when adults try to be more attentive to the cognitive processes of children than to the results they achieve in various fields of doing and understanding." Loris Malaguzzi.

The founder of the Reggio Emiglia program tells us that creativity and cognition (thinking) are interrelated. As the old song says, " can't have one without the other...". Why do teachers of young children still ask them to replicate their own craft models, such as snowmen, jack-o-lanterns, Christmas trees et. al? These practices, proven to be less then optimal for learning and development, persist in preschools and even kindergarten classes throughout the country. As many teachers point out, these activities teach children to follow directions. Granted, they do, but let's not pretend they are art experiences, or exercises in higher order thinking because they are most emphatically not. They are cute presents a child brings home to his or her family. And frequently they aren't even done by the child. The pieces are cut out by teachers, and teachers tell them where to put the glue! Where is the creativity cum cognition there?

I can get rather bent out of shape about this. Steam comes out of my ears when an adult student tells me that a colleague takes a piece of paper from a child and puts it in the "right" place after the child has failed to do the activity "correctly".

Above is a partial picture of a dearly creative youngster. (Privacy is sacred, y'all) She began with the picture of herself with rainbow hair. Then she proceeded to convert herself into a "squid". I asked her if her squid had rainbow hair and she said, of course! But then she did something that perhaps a teacher of the cookie-cutter craft mold would have been anxious about. This girl began scribbling color all over the paper. As she worked, she told me that the squid lived in rainbow water. I asked a few more open-ended questions and she made it clear that the squid had to have color over and around her because, " she lives in rainbow water". The picture began looking like an aquarium from another planet. Blue, green, read, yellow, orange flowed over and around the "squid", which had tentacles hanging from the former body of our artist.

Here is the cognitive process at work. Here is a child drawing her conception of what it would look like if the ocean were rainbow colored and a squid lived in it. Both words and marks flowed from this girl. She was in the midst of artistic process. At our school, no one will ever tell her the ocean isn't rainbow colored, and that she can't turn herself into a squid. She knows that better than anyone.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"Your children have so much personality!"

Here you see a girl drawing a line in the dirt of our playground. She is focused, and calm. The dirt is endlessly fascinating. It holds many treasures both in and on it. Soon she will go off to climb or collect other treasures, and stop again to experiment with other tools, both manufactured and natural. Her friends do the same, both boys and girls. There is time for this in the day because it is essential to the growth of her mind. She will need to discuss what she discovers later in morning meeting, or at lunch, or during activity time. And she will have the opportunity to try out her drawing using other media. She will extend and expand on what she has learned outside.

In our day we discuss every aspect of our curriculum with the children, and they easily offer tips and suggestions to us. Everyone has a say. We ask important, open-ended questions and expect answers not only at the time but after, while we are on the playground, for instance, or at lunch. We eat with our children and everything is discussed. I don't mean to make it sound like a graduate dorm! The children are under five and conversations can become silly and even naughty! But they know that anything they say has value to us, and we will take their comments and questions seriously, whether about the construction project across the street (is that a dump truck?), the lines they are drawing in the dirt (I can make a rectangle!),and the food we are eating (ugh! you brought mushrooms?). Perhaps partly because of our program's emphasis on individual inquiry, and partly because each teacher is open as a person to the children, our children have a reputation to the various adults who come to observe. A former college student of mine said, "they are lively, but so well-behaved". And each year those who come to observe for both state and county licensing say something even more interesting. They say, "They have so much PERSONALITY!" 

I think this says volumes. When the state and county regulators go to other childcare centers do they see children who are not as inquisitive, not as lively? Do they see children who are marched through the day doing coloring and worksheets, or going from activity to activity every fifteen minutes or half hour? Do they have concrete playgrounds instead of outdoor environments? 

Possibly we just have more interesting children coming to our center!  I can't say for sure, but I must admit, they do have so much personality!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Cob Isn't Just for Corn

Children stomping on mud. What more could a child want? But stop for a minute and wonder: If children stomping in the mud could result in building birdhouses, sculptures, even playhouses, would this be an optional fun activity for young children or part of a learning project that touches on all developmental domains and content areas?
Consider the following: Our children discovered, while digging in the sand under the climbing equipment, that there was clay at the bottom. They knew that we were going to be building cob birdhouses and they wondered if the clay they found could be used for such a purpose.
Cognitively, they were making plans to use something they had (as far as they knew) discovered for the first time. They knew that cobbing required clay, made into mud.  Their playground playhouses were made of the stuff, and they were very familiar with its use. So when they "discovered" a lode of clay, they volunteered to mine it. Working purposefully, they continued to dig, placing clay into a bucket for the work that was to come. I love seeing the children work so intensively to create something that is needed. Children are so often asked to do activities that have no relation to real life. These activities are implemented by well-meaning teachers in order to teach skills and content, but the work the children do has no relationship to the adult world. When our children discovered clay, they made a connection from what they were doing to something larger than themselves and their learning needs. They knew they were a part of the larger community that created an environment for living things.

The next step was to collect the clay, and measure the hole they had dug. We gave them tape and a long shovel so they could mark where the hole came to on the shovel. Later inside they would compare it to a tape measure, learning that they had dug a hole fifteen inches deep. Here were math skills used in service of the larger project. Some of the children carried the collected clay into the school where it would be combined with shredded paper and water to make the material for the birdhouses. The recipe for cob is clear. There is a certain ratio of clay to paper (or straw) needed. The children helped work out how much more clay was needed. More was needed, so while we used old clay from our crafts closet, the children continued to dig for more.

After kneading outside and in, the cob was applied to a wooden frame that will eventually become a birdhouse for our playground. This is a work in progress, but more learning is to take place as the children use their journals to reflect on what they themselves have contributed to the project.

All subjects are covered in a project-oriented curriculum. All domains are covered as well. Yet we do not use cute materials or teacher-made felt-board sets to teach. We teach, and the children learn, through their own serious and focused efforts to contribute to the larger world.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Rhyme is the Thing

Sometimes my fondness for a children's book drives my approach to teaching children. Since I particularly adore Mittie Cuetara's book Terrible Teresa and other Very Short Stories because it uses a form of poetry I loved as a child, I use it to teach rhyming, sequence, and creativity. Children love the farcical stories that each four-panel cartoon tells. Their favorite is the title story,"Terrible Teresa"  which ends with the line, "you must go to baby jail", and has a drawing of a toddler in a crib. They laugh the side-splitting laughter of the newly initiated fan of comedy. They want to emulate this. What can a teacher do but provide the opportunity, materials, and help so that they can do it?

First we demonstrated the process by pinning four papers to the bulletin board and asking the children to suggest a protagonist. Once they agreed on one, we had them generate ideas for the first line of the poem, to be written on the first panel. My teaching partner, Sue, wrote the line and drew the character, a whale. Then we pointed out the last word in the line and asked for as many words as possible that rhymed with the word. I wrote these on the dry erase board. The children supplied ideas and we suggested ways to order the wording so that the rhyming word was at the end of the line. After perhaps five minutes we had a four-line poem, and rudimentary illustrations. Several children asked if they could write and draw their own "Terrible Teresas".

The next day we put out small rectangles of white paper.  I invited two or three children at a time to the art table to create their own story, using the same method we had used with the large group. The difference was that the children drew their own illustrations and generated the ideas for the poem, along with rhymes. Some children needed more help than others, of course, but it was very exciting to see that they "got" the idea. Each child wanted to continue until they had completed four panels, even if they had to wait until the next day to do it. We now have eight of the children's stories mounted on construction paper taped to the wall outside the classroom where parents can admire them. Those who did not do stories are now motivated to try, because they want to see their work displayed. Peer pressure is a powerful force in teaching!

Using  humor with children is motivating. They want to emulate models that are clever and strike their funny bones. From this adorable quality comes rich creativity, and the practice of diligent work.

Here is the text of the above story, written by a five-year old:

"Rainbows made him scaredy-cat.
He told him Mom about that.
On the rainbow his skateboard sat.
He slid down and fell flat."

It doesn't scan like James Thurber, but by gosh, it is good stuff for a preschooler!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Learning sequencing skills through the Arts

I want to tell you about a project that started with a child's need to understand the concept of sequence. There are eight hundred ways to teach this concept but this one involves many children, puppetry, storytelling, and art.

Older preschoolers love stories and understand so much about what is going on in them, even though they don't all communicate what they know. If you ask a child about a story you will hear an episodic account, and if you ask for a story you will get something like a dream or a joke. Perhaps a combination of both! If a child does have a story to tell it will include elements of other stories and loved elements of their own lives. You might hear a beginning, middle and end, or you might not! (Joke: "Here's my story: 'Once upon a time...THE END!!'" Insert gales of laughter here!)

Sue wanted to do Three Bears,  and puppets. I wanted to do the children's own versions of Three Bears, and a book of all of those versions with illustrations. We ended up with both.

Sue has a rap she does of the story of the Three Bears. All of our children adore this and it was a good place to start because music cements learning in many different centers of the brain.  The children enjoyed several good versions of the story in book form, especially Byron Barton's simple picture book which we placed in the library for morning reads with departing parents. Repeating the story allowed the children to internalize its structure. I gave a short lesson in Morning Meeting on how every story has a "who, what, when, and where". I explained that each of them could write their own version of the story of the three bears and that all they had to do was change the who, the what, etc. and voila! They would have their own story. I wanted to teach beginning, middle and end, but wasn't satisfied with any of the methods I saw online.

I woke up the following morning with an image in my head for teaching story structure--the head of a horse was the beginning, the middle was the middle of the story and then end...well, as Sue said, the end was the "horse's ass"! I drew a large horse in the meeting area for the children and continued to take story dictations. The array of stories, with characters ranging from three chickens to three elephants, and interlopers ranging from vampire bats to pigs, was staggering. Few outside of early education know how four and fives can generate so many versions of an old fairy tale that everyone knows.

Sue, meanwhile, was asking children to choose which of their characters they would like to represent as puppets. These were made from scratch out of materials brought from home. We used no models or lessons in how to create the puppets. In keeping with our Reggio philosophy, we provided materials and consultations. No two puppets were alike, and each was a recycler's dream! Baby food containers, plastic bottles, paper towel tubes and even beer bottle caps became torsos, legs, arms, and eyes. Our idea was to ask each small group to write a story including each puppet, thereby asking the children to attempt to leap their characters from their own stories to the group story. After this the puppet show would commence, creating one of two culminating projects. The other would be an illustrated book of the children's parodies of the Three Bears. I asked each child to create a drawing with markers of a scene from their story. This helped with the sequencing objective because I needed to communicate to each child that they needn't draw the whole story, but just one part of it. With coaching they rose to the occasion eagerly!

In the end we had a colorful book of Three Bear parodies for our library, and a hilarious puppet show in school. My group's story was totally collaborative, and I worked to help them achieve their own goals, making some conciliatory suggestions when no one wanted their character to be "the bad guy".  In the course of the creative process situations from several stories the children had studied appeared in this work. Perhaps you will notice them, having read my blog about other lessons. Here is my group's story using their "Three Bears" characters:

"Once upon a time there was a man who lived in a house in the woods with his pets: A panda, a bear, and a chicken. They lived all together in a tree house. A hungry wolf came by and started sniffing around their tree so they lowered a rope to catch him by his tail. "Got him," the man said. "He'll never eat us, now", said the others. The wolf said, "If you let me down, I won't eat you and I'll be your friend!" So they let him go and made friends with him. They decided to go to the beach. While they were there they met a duck who gave them a tour of the beach. They saw surfboards and went surfing. A little fish jumped onto their surfboard and started gasping for air. They all shoved him back into the water. "Thank you, " he said. Then the man, panda, bear, chicken and wolf went home to their tree house. The fish and duck made friends and played on the beach. The End."

My group created a story with a beginning, middle, and end that included characters, settings, and structure. Learning through the arts, being immersed in an environment of literacy and creativity, they easily used their learning to create something new. How good is that?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Learning Naturally

Outdoor learning is the name of the game at my center. We have an amazing array of possibilities linking classroom to playground. Our playhouses are cobbed. We have piping all around the fences so that we can attach a hose to any outlet for making wet sand and mud. Our shed, also cobbed, has a garden growing on its roof to keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and a gutter system for dripping rain into a rain barrel! Our children are encouraged to get wet and dirty, not discouraged from it.

Last week we put out easels. We brought out paint, glue and water for the children to mix and encouraged them to collect natural materials to include in their art. Using natural materials in art is not new. When I was first aider for my daughter's Girl Scout troop we encouraged the girls to find natural materials to make centerpieces for the tables on camp-outs. Usually this consisted of a jumble of leaves and pinecones but it served its purpose: Natural beauty arranged as artistic expression. I was skeptical of the artistic worth of this enterprise but now I am coming to see how amazingly this practice encourages children to explore nature, satisfy their curiosity about the sensory qualities of sand, dirt, leaves, plants and sticks. It's sensory learning but more important it contributes to a sense of connection with nature.

The approach at our center blends the outdoor learning movement with Reggio-inspired teaching and learning quite "naturally". Which among our outdoor artists will grab hold of the idea and run with it? How will our teaching staff continue to provide opportunities for these particular children to realize their creative vision? These are liberating questions for teachers who are tired of inventing artificial learning activities with no relationship to a child's reality.

Our teaching is more labor-intensive than paper and pencil teaching. While we have cupboards to hold many different types of materials, including traditional buckets and shovels but also including tubing and pipes, we must haul many inside materials outside, such as paint and paper, brushes and paint cups. What we provide outside is also always an important question. Never satisfied with what we have, we look for better ways to provide the necessary environment for children to work for long periods of time building, creating, and exploring.

We meet daily to discuss who is doing what both inside and out. We don't always agree on how to go about things, but we come to consensus rather quickly. In early childhood, which spans children's development through age eight and therefore through third grade, can traditional schools meet the challenge of providing rich learning experiences through the natural world while using computers and textbooks at the same time? Can teachers collaborate to follow the child's lead? I believe so, and am sure someone will tell me who is already doing it. I am eager to hear from you!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Integrating Language Arts

Sue and I did a three-day brain gym training ("Brain Gym 101"). We are interested in whole brain learning, as our field has long espoused teaching "The Whole Child". As far back as 2004, when Educational Leadership devoted a whole issue to this special subject, I have tried to teach children as whole individuals. In the Early Childhood field we teach that a child learns through play, and that play involves all aspects of the brain and body. Play is the serious work of childhood. I maintain that play can also be the serious work of adulthood, if by play you mean being alive and creative. 
In a previous blog post I recounted an encounter with a graduate of our progressive preschool program who was  now in a (good) public kindergarten. He marveled at the difference between his experience in our program and his present one, where he was told he couldn't play because he "had to learn". More recently a former student visited our playground and told me he had only "fifteen" minutes morning and afternoon to play outside. Our children are in for a rude shock when they enter the "real" world of education.
It doesn't have to be that way, of course, but, as teachers have lamented for years, only non-educators need apply when policy is made. These policies are forced on schools and schools must respond with less movement, more worksheets, more focused lessons on content areas (Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies).
Above is a picture of a plate crudely crafted on our carpet with that magnificent magic tool of early childhood, masking tape. The children were interested in food preparation and (surprise!) eating, so we decided to sneak some content into the mix by introducing the new dietary guidelines. You can see that words are printed in each quarter-plate for the food categories (Content areas: Language Arts; Math). The first day I asked the children individually what food they wanted to "be" (no sweets, boo hoo) and then invited them to stand in the appropriate quarter. The children debated among themselves where each of them should stand, which made this collaborative (Content area: Social Studies). The next day I had laminated pictures of food for them to place in the quarters. We discussed cooked and raw foods (Content area: Science). In each whole group activity the children were moving, talking, listening, and reading. Oh, and learning, too. 
I believe that for Sue and myself the Brain Gym training reminded us of the importance of movement for teaching the whole child. Sometimes teachers fall asleep. That is, we go into automatic pilot and do what we usually do, such as talking..talking...talking. That's when we need to wake up in our own bodies and teach from "The Whole Teacher".  If would be excellent if we could send policy-makers to Brain Gym training, or any other workshop on developmentally appropriate teaching and learning, so that they could "wake up" to their own learning potential. They might concede that whole-brain learning is right for children, too.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Student's Feedback

I so enjoyed teaching Art, Music & Movement for Young Children this semester. I teach it often, but for some reason this time was special. I think having my blog available to students to see how I teach the arts myself helped make what I told them more credible. I wasn't just teaching out of a text. Working in an arts-oriented program also helped me do the best work I could which served as a model for them. One of my college students was so intrigued by my presentations about my work "in the trenches" that she came to observe our program to take notes for one she is forming for her church.

In a final exam one student expressed her enjoyment and learning from this course by saying, "This class taught me a lot because there were manydifferent topics that we talked about. I had no clue about them or justhadn’t realized them. I’m really glad I took this class. Prof. Multop was agreat teacher and she taught this class very well. It was full of greatexperiences and activities. My favorite in particular was when our class got upand listened to different types of cultural music and we danced around in acircle. It was a lot of fun!"

What more could a professor want?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Project learning: Peter and the Wolf

Posted by PicasaThank goodness I work in a center that values children's inherent passion for and interest in learning through the arts! Where would I be if I didn't? I would be creating lessons to make seasonal crafts each month, Jack-O-Lanterns in October, Turkeys in November, Christmas trees and Menorahs in December.  Instead we watched the opera Hansel and Gretel in December, and began a unit on music and sound exploration after Christmas that is still going strong.

We began with exploration of sounds, including jars of varying amounts of water that the children tapped to hear similarities and differences in pitch and timbre. Musical instruments were mixed with boxes, Boomwackers, and paper plates on an exploration table. My teaching partner brought in real band instruments for the children to try, and my director brought her collection of world instruments and made a presentation. Parents and siblings came to share their own instrumental talents. I contacted the local high school band director and asked if we could bring sixteen four/five year olds to observe a band rehearsal. Soon we were walking to the high school with parent helpers, and watching a musical education program created just for us! The children were enraptured. They already knew so much, and displayed their knowledge when asked questions by the band director. This experience helped the children own and consolidate their new knowledge, which led to the next phase: Peter and the Wolf.

While I had some misgivings about the length of the piece, the children scuttled those quickly. Listening to the story, moving to the music, they were fully present to the work. They created simple headbands that served as costume designations and began spontaneously rehearsing this half-hour drama every morning before morning meeting, during activity time. All I had to do was put on the CD. There were arguments about blocking and characterization, and settling of differences through more rehearsal. My partner and I knew then that we had a "hit" and went further with the children. We planned a staged version of Peter and the Wolf to perform for the younger children, the threes and fours.

I can't say that everything went smoothly. Having been in opera and concert work before getting into education, I didn't expect it. There were the ego crises we solved, for instance. How to put on Peter and the Wolf, a play with six major parts and an indeterminate number of hunters. We solved our problems by asking each child who wanted to play a popular character (Peter, for instance) to share the role, dividing up the program into sections. Surprisingly, because, I believe, we included the children in the ongoing trouble-shooting, they easily accepted solutions that gave them a chance to be who they wanted to be. We created a tree from paper and indoor climbing equipment. The bird could climb up and be away from the wolf's jaws. We used blue paper for the duck pond. Our scene design sufficed for the children to imagine themselves in the play. My partner and I debated how to do some of the "stage business". I wanted to mime the part where Peter attaches the rope to the wolf's tail, but Sue won out, using a rope and clips to make that part of the play more real to the children. It worked well.

What especially impressed me was not only the self-assurance the children demonstrated, but also the attentiveness and sensitivity they displayed for the changing moods of the music and narrator's words. The bird flapped, the duck quacked, Peter skipped and danced, each to their own musical themes. When they music changed, their bodies reflected each cadence and tempo. We did not tell them to do anything specific, in keeping with our philosophy of education that insists on creative authenticity for our children.
What did these children learn? Did we "do" math, Language Arts, Science, Social Studies? Not in the traditional method of separating skills and inventing activities to target them. These areas were naturally embedded in the project. They learned and practiced such math concepts as seriation, patterns, and one-to-one correspondence. Language Arts became part of the mix through speaking, listening, reading (the book about the story) and writing (captions of pictures they drew of their favorite scenes. Science came into it when the scenery fell and we problem-solved how to keep it up! Our children displayed inventiveness in all stages of the project along with a strong motivation to master the necessary skills. In early childhood education how can we as teachers offer anything less?

As for the younger children who served as the audience, after the show they asked their teachers, "When can we do a play?"

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The arts as cultural identity.

This is a child's mask from Nigeria. Children love masks as much as they love to pretend. We say that children use pretend play to consolidate knowledge, practicing skills. They use it to become larger than themselves. The arts throughout human history have facilitated people's knowledge of themselves, and of who they want to be. Children do the same.

We have been working with sound, have graduated to instruments, and now have come full circle to our original theme, not documented here: Visual art. My group of children created "talking drums" by designing and then reproducing their designs on paint drums with multi-color sharpies. My hope is that we will use these drums to call children to singing circle, using drumming as a way of communication. The art on the drums signifies the personal expression of my group and their communication of who they are.

My teaching partner wants to do the sense of taste next. Food is another way people express themselves and their culture through folk art. Art can be more than decorative. The exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, Central Nigeria Unmasked, would be a good field trip for us. I think we are headed that way!
As many of you know, I teach Art, Music and Movement for Young Children at Northern Virginia Community College. I have just started another eight-week Hybrid course and a student posted in her journal this comment, which I will share with you.

"I can't believe what an eye opening experience this class has been for me!! I am taking this course for professional development to keep my teaching certification up to date. It just shows that no matter your age, career, or life experiences we truly need to keep growing and learning. I have gained so much knowledge of the arts and the importance of cultivating art and creativity in young children in the last 2 weeks…unbelievable!
Art is everywhere. It surrounds us on a daily basis. Having read the text chapters, Gail's blogs and watching videos, I realize I have been really lacking in my own use to explore the arts more with my students and with my own young children. I actually feel guilty, as if I have missed years of opportunities to be a better teacher and mom. So, it's time for a change! Just yesterday, my son came home with an art project that he called "horrible". It really made me sad to hear him say that. He told me the teacher said it wasn't right, that he did not follow the patterns correctly. Now, I am mad. My son is already very critical of his work, and hearing this from a teacher just made it worse. So, I told my son "Art can never be wrong. It is you expressing yourself and that makes mommy happy". I also added that I loved his use of blues and pinks and how he made it a swirl pattern. In the past, I would have given the usual reply of "That's great, cool, or pretty".
All I can say is,  "you CAN teach an old dog new tricks". " All I can say is, this is why I teach!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Our Sound Unit

It began when I opened one Wednesday morning and had to set out the "Question of the Day". This is an activity children do with their parents as they enter the childcare center. On a table is an intriguing question to answer through some sort of experimentation. This particular morning I set out musical instruments alongside various objects that could, in some way, produce sound. Maracas sat next to chopsticks and paper plates. A cow bell sat next to a gift wrap tube. The table was full. The question was: Which of these objects make music?
It was a trick question, of course. Anything can be used to make music.

Next we began exploring sound with real instruments, from children's rhythm sticks and our director's collection of world instruments to actual band instruments such as a horn, a trumpet, a clarinet, and more. The children learned about what makes high and low pitches on a xylophone or a thumb piano, how items such as beans or popcorn make unique sounds in a shaker, and how to produce different pitches and timbres by striking glass jars containing varying  amounts of water. My partner, Sue, brought in the band instruments and it gave me an idea. I emailed the local high school band director and the next week our class, with many willing parents, were seated in a rehearsal room listening to a wondrous demonstration of how different families of instruments combine to play music.

This led to...Peter and the Wolf! We played it before lunch the next day. Sue and I modeled movement to each  character's musical theme. The children followed. We learned more about some of them than we ever knew, about how one boy could totally inhabit music and express it through his body. How would we have known this if we hadn't taken the risk of playing Peter and the Wolf for sixteen four year olds? 

We continue on this journey. We learn as we go. Science, language arts, social studies and math naturally spring from this work. There's no need to compartmentalize. We all learn together.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Game Project

This is not my project. My partner, Sue, did this with her small group. They exhibited an interest in games. She asked them to bring in games from home and they began discussing the common elements of the games they were playing. Board games have paths, cards, spinners, and tricks, traps and freebies. The children quickly picked up on this. Sue asked them to design their own game, and she interviewed each of them to help them decide what the rules of their game would be. There were many steps to the process and a lot of hard work on both children and Sue's parts. The results were worth the efforts because the children each had a play-able game to take home, built on foam-board. A serendipitous event allowed the children to meet a sixth grader who had designed his own game, in response to his experience with cancer. Make-a-wish foundation facilitated  
the game-making so that the result was professional and beautiful. Our children eagerly asked the young game-maker pertinent and knowledgeable questions about how he designed his game. They looked up to him. Wanted to be like him. The children had a concrete example of who they could be in the future as creative people. The goals of education are that children grow up knowing that the knowledge they gain, not just isolated facts, but skills and dispositions, will make them the people they want to be. This was an example of that kind of education.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Snowy Day: Teaching Art, Teaching Tolerance

I am breathless with excitement! The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats, is fifty years old, and a commemorative edition is out. I’ve already ordered it after reading about it in the Washington Post Style section today.
I was ten when book came out and felt that I was way too mature to look at a mere picture book, but I did happily read it to my daughters when they were little. Since we were living in the D.C. area and only visited my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio a few times in winter, the magic of snow in the city was mostly unfamiliar to them. Those few times that we did visit home, they made snow angels to their hearts’ content, as did the story’s protagonist Peter in The Snowy Day. We never talked about Peter as black. He was a little boy, just like some of the little boys they knew in school.
When I began teaching young children, Keat’s stories became a regular part of my curriculum. We went outside in the snow (with boots on!) to make snow angels and throw snowballs at trees (not at people!). The children enjoyed making tracks in the snow with sticks, as Peter did. They experimented with footprints, and we looked for animal tracks. I even photographed snow-tracks of different animals for guessing games. After reading Peter’s Chair, the children voted on a design of a chair we would sand and paint for the school’s auction. One little boy asked his mother to bring his baby sister to school for show-and-tell. Peter had a baby sister, so he wanted to share his!
Once I began teaching Language Arts for Young Children at Northern Virginia Community College I required my students to do an author report, sharing curriculum ideas, biographical, and bibliographical information. Much to my surprise, and a testament to the truism that teachers learn by teaching, I discovered that “Jack” was not black. He was a Jew of Eastern European descent, and that he changed his name to Keats from Katz because of the anti-Semitism he experienced in New York. My own mother experienced such anti-Semitism in urban Cleveland during those same years. A simple story about a little boy became intensely personal for me.
Keats expressed his love for his tumbledown urban, integrated (“diverse”) neighborhood through his art.  Keats’ love of art, of his life in a city of graft and graffiti, inspired his storytelling even as both he and his subjects suffered from prejudice and bigotry.
Teachers can take Keats’ work as a springboard for many activities that inspire interest in science, art, literature and math. They do this all the time. African-American teachers can and do use The Snowy Day for Black History month, since Peter was the first black child featured in an American picture book. What else can we do?
A large part of teaching young children includes emotional literacy: Knowing and understanding your own feelings in order to understand other people. Can we talk about how Keats felt a kinship with his black protagonist because of his own experience in a less than tolerant country? Can we talk about feeling left out or disliked with young children by asking them to journal about their own experiences? Can we talk about understanding others? Even as my mother and her family suppressed her roots to get by in twentieth century urban American, (the family name, Mansfeld, was changed to Mansfield), Keats changed his name to hide his own roots. We don’t want children to feel they have to do the same thing with any aspect of their identities. We want them to become fearless in art and fearless in communication, bridging divides while expressing themselves authentically, just as he did. How do you do this in your teaching practice? Share your thoughts.