Sunday, December 14, 2014

Badges? Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges!

On the left is a picture of a powerful symbol. I am not talking about police in the news, here. I am talking about a symbol of power to a four year old boy.

In a preschool classroom there might be one or more boys obsessed with superheros, police, firefighters, and the like. These same boys, these days, are also obsessed with guns, firepower, and other armaments. Boys will make a gun out of anything. The hardcore badge-and-gun aficionado will make badges out of paper and stick them to themselves. They will be listening for any mention of law enforcement, or the use of it, in any conversation or story. Was Goldilocks arrested for breaking and entering? If you (teacher) died, would they call the police?

I want to report on the marvelous path we have taken in our classroom to derail the guns/badges obsession, at least for a while. We are producing a newspaper. One early morning (between 7 am and 9 am) my teaching partner set several children up with clipboards and pens. She asked them to be reporters, to question other children about what they were doing, and to write "stories" (enter pretend cursive scribbling, here). The children, both boys and girls, ran around "covering" stories. "What are you doing under the loft? Who is there with you?"Certain children wanted to know if reporters had badges. We talked about press passes. Close enough!

A school mom, who works for The Post, came to share about her job. This is how we include families in our emergent curricular process, and it is a powerful tool. Her visit energized the children for the process of creating a newspaper.

I have always taught the elements of story as "who, what, when, where, why". I applied these questions to fairy tales, and asked children to write their own with creative results. How easily these questions, the basis of a good news story, fit our newest project. Granted, newspapers themselves are dying, to my grief, but enough of the children have parents who read either print or online Washington Post articles. When I brought in a bagful of them, they were attracted like moths to a flame. The children investigated how newspapers were laid out, how there were various type sizes and fonts, and that there were such a thing as comics! They cut out their favorite images, words, and, yes, comics, and pasted them to construction paper in imitation of layout. We had read about the various aspects of making a newspaper by reading the book, The Furry News. I had used this book several years ago at another school to make a newsroom out of the dramatic play area. Soon, with help, they began using developmental spelling to write headlines. Sue typed the first story, along with a child's headline. We plan to add stories, pictures, and headlines next week.

The badge/gun aficionados? They have been converted. They run for a clipboard and pen when they come into the classroom, instead of making paper badges. We hope to be in this for the long haul. Can you think of a better way to make reading and writing exciting?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Is it for a girl or a boy? Does it really matter?

What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails
And puppy-dogs' tails,
That's what little boys are made of.
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And everything nice,
That's what little girls are made of.

When I was a little girl, this doggerel was very popular. I heard it sung (imagine!) on many variety shows during network TV's Nauseatingly Sentimental Christmas Special Season (NSCSS).
I was confused. I remember thinking that sugar and spice were nice, but, I was not "everything nice". I was out-spoken, to say the least, not a valued quality in a girl of the 1950's. My brother, Bob, wasn't into snails either. When we were given medical kits, Bob got a doctor's kit and I a nurse's kit. I asked my mother why I hadn't received a doctor's kit and she patiently but firmly explained that girls were nurses, not doctors. Little did she know, I learned later! The first woman doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell,  died in 1910! 

So when I became a mother, and then a teacher, the issue of gender in toy marketing became pretty important to me. Here is a flow-chart that appeared on Facebook, recently, that pretty much summed up the issue:

Hysterical, I thought. But it over-simplifies the issue. The masculine and feminine ideals come from mythology, not biology. Children consume the myths of our culture without critical thought. If their parents and teachers supply toys that convey these myths of masculinity and femininity, they simply become part of their children's ideas of who they should be! Television, computer games, and all of the other usual culprits, massively generated by a toy industry run amok, feed children's identification with stereotypes. Putting girls into a straight-jacket of prettiness (my dear mother's favorite compliment for a girl, next to "sweet") steers them away from active pursuit of more robust skills. Four year old boys who aren't comfortable with aggression have a difficult time becoming part of boys' play groups in preschool. We see these situations all the time.

NAEYC (The National Association for the Education of Young Children) validates our center's approach to play materials. Toys that are rated by researchers as either gender-neutral, or "moderately masculine", are more likely to "encourage children's physical, cognitive, academic,musical and artistic skills" than those that are considered feminine. Here is what some girls and boys constructed with our large wooden blocks recently:

This structure has inside spaces for hiding, and pretend play. We had our "hollow blocks" open for four weeks to accommodate the children's passionate interest in building, and we limited the number of children to four, for better behavior management. We intentionally created a team of two boys and two girls each day to ensure that the girls could freely choose blocks. If we only ask for volunteers, the boys raise their hands ("me!! me!!") and the girls mysteriously disappear into the dramatic play area. 

Because our professional field supports our practice, we can makes these choices. But parents are at the mercy of the rampant culture of consumerism. Their own favorite toys may have been G.I. Joe, or Barbie. Grandparents send these toys as gifts. Their own children lobby for what they see on TV, and what their friends already own.They passionately campaign for the newest girl/flirt or boy/warrior commodity, and the parents, unprepared for this onslaught, cave. How can parents fight back?

No Gender December is a campaign promoted by an Australian group called "Play Unlimited: Every Toy for Every Body". They have a Facebook page (who doesn't?) and are calling on parents to boycott toys saturated with gender stereotypes. NAEYC gives parents ideas about what toys are good for children. Maybe if I'd been given a doctor kit, I might have considered medicine. Or maybe not, but I would have had this empowering idea in my mind, not the limiting one left by the gender stereotyping of toys.

Do our boys and girls deserve to view themselves as fully human people who happen to be boys or girls? Or should we leave them to be raised by those who seek to gain wealth by creating boy and girl segregated toy aisles? We must decide.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Challenge of Behavior: When it is Out of Bounds

I write about how the arts enhance early learning, and in fact, must be central to it. That's my thing and I don't mean to veer from that theme. But there is a huge issue in early care that trumps all others: Challenging Behavior. In an arts-based, project-oriented center or classroom there should be ample opportunity for children to be wholly engaged in learning to the point that they themselves can be authors of the curriculum. In Reggio-inspired centers, the children know they are protagonists in the theater of learning. They are welcome to contribute ideas, and to even critique teacher decisions. This happens where I teach. It certainly keeps the teachers on their toes. No overused, tired themes and units for us! Our children are invested in everything that goes on in our little world.

Challenging behavior happens everywhere, even in the best of programs and centers. Defining it isn't really hard. Behavior that is annoying to teachers but developmentally appropriate and is even a welcome sign of maturing isn't what I'm talking about here. All fours are silly, potty-mouthed little beings. All fours are physically exuberant. If you as a teacher expect perfect behavior your are in the wrong profession. But there are children who go beyond the "norm". Those children who hinder the rest of the learners, and themselves by attention-seeking, even violent behavior that seems unpredictable and dangerous. These children are the ones who, still, are the most expelled individuals in education. 

In a center that prides itself on never expelling a child, such a ours, it is imperative to have both a uniform expectation for children's prosocial behavior, and the means to teach this behavior. Teachers meet to discuss learning progress and social-emotional issues, as well as evolving curriculum, every day. Planned, continuing observations inform discussions about what strategies to use to manage behavior, and to teach self-management, without the use of external rewards such as stickers and other non-relevant rewards. These rewards backfire when children cease to be interested in stickers, or up the ante by demanding better rewards, in order for them to be interested in prosocial behavior! If a chart is used, the child must be a part of the planning for the way it is used, and what the achievement will be when the chart is filled with his or her own check marks. "Rewards" must be meaningful to the child. 

The next step is referral. In the article cited above, mental health referrals are recommended. After you document behavior over time, parents need to be given choices for referrals. Presumably, you have already conferenced quite a bit about their child's learning, and its interruption by anti-social behavior (but don't call it that!). Child Find is also a good resource, if you believe that some developmental delay is involved. It's free, too. Make sure that your center submits a referral in conjunction with the parents, so that the experts don't assume that the parents aren't cognizant of behavior that is age-appropriate. It is also important for the center or school to refer so that the behavior isn't minimized, as parents so often say things like, "Well, she hardly ever does that at home...".

I didn't start this post thinking I was going to write a "how-to refer" piece! What I wanted to especially mention is that childcare centers, even the best of them, can be difficult places for many children. Walking in line, at any age, is purely for the convenience of the school or center. When do adults walk in a line? We "get good" at it in school, if we are lucky, then never use the skill again, unless we join the armed services. When I am at my best I sing us along the way. I try to give the children a sense of communal belonging and shared intent. We do "silly walks", or play "follow the leader". During transitions, when children are waiting to go outside with their coats and hats on, we read or play games until the last child is ready. Our newest intellectual game has been integrating the lines:                                                                                                                                                          
Numbers for lining up.

Children line up in two lines, one odd, the other even. We go down the stairs in two lines and then the children integrate themselves into one line, number order, all by themselves. We  have a list of names and numbers in case someone forgets (they do, of course). This exercise gives them ownership of the process, they each have their own place in the line, which changes every day. The first thing the children do when either Sue or I come in is ask, "Did you change the numbers?". They are fully invested. This is integrated curriculum. Math skills play alongside social skills and give each child his or her own place to "own". I recommend it for Pre-K and over.

But for the "out of bound" child, more is needed. Special strategies are a must, and referrals are necessary. For this you need experienced, well-trained teachers, and an administration that is committed to keeping all of the "friends" in the group. Let me know what you think about this issue.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Integration of Curriculum Outside

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

The four and a half year old girl on the left drummed a pattern, quarter note, quarter note, half, over and over. She told me it was a "pattern".

 Another boy found a bowl that sounded like a bell when he struck it. He was experimenting with the different sounds it could make, and comparing it to another item. His face was lit with joy as he struggled to find words to describe his discovery. My job, and the job of all teachers of young children, is to assist him in finding the words he seeks. (Kindergarten SOL's are cited here, to show that these preschoolers are on the way!)

Why did these little ones make music around our tree?

Because we had set the environment time after time for the pleasure of outdoor music making. With our hammock-like xylophone, our trash can and dry-wall buckets, our drum-sticks and shovels, we modeled the pleasure of rhythmic expression. Dancing and singing happen spontaneously.

Our playground is set up for such activities. The tree (shown before the bench was enlarged to allow tree growth), is a focal point for music, shows, hide and seek, and ball-hiding (in the crook of the tree), and other adventures invented by the children. The playhouses were constructed with cob (see earlier post) for the children to enjoy (and drag everything from toy trucks to old tires to dolls inside).

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

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

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Connecting the dots between language and music development

What is this child doing?

One of our mothers came in to share her love of the piano with our two small groups. She presented both the piano, and piano music, and explained that, like letters forming sentences, musical notes form musical sentences. The children were in awe of this phenomenon--making music by reading it in print, just like reading words on a page.

I made manuscript paper for activity time. As anyone in early childhood knows, children this age have no inhibitions about trying something without knowing how! So they imitated how music looked to them (see the paper in the picture) and then "played" their compositions. We attempted to record an ensemble of three playing their compositions, and moved to the hallway because of the background noise. A girl said, "We need a quiet place to do this! It's too noisy". In the hallway we recorded the music that each child "wrote". They were very satisfied with the experiment.

What does this have to do with language and music? Let's go back to an earlier developmental period. When a baby begins using one object to represent another in play (block for a phone) s/he is demonstrating that s/he understands that one object can symbolize another that isn't present. That other object is held in the mind of that child! The child understands that and represents it with something else. How wonderful! It is such an important shift in cognition. Later, in preschool, children begin to use symbols to represent thoughts. They draw, either scribbles that they can narrate to you (this is the bug, this is the storm...) even though you can't see what they are telling you is there (the reason we don't say, "What is it?", but "Tell me about it"). Later they can use letters to represent sound. They have caught on to the function of letters as sound bearers, keys to words that make real sentences. Again, it is such a joy to see this take place.

During this period of development young children have a developmental "window of opportunity" not only for language, but for music as well. Children learn to "think in language", but they also learn (if given multiple opportunities to listen to (not just hear) and to produce music) to think in music. They begin to hear music in their minds that they have heard before. When children learn through the adults around them that music is an important part of life, and that it can be represented on paper, just as words can, they will develop their own musical aptitude. (Yes, everyone has some musical aptitude).

So making sure that children's early years are music-rich, full of experiences that challenge them enough to offset boredom and acting out ("Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" gets old, teachers), should be a priority for all programs. Introducing children to musical manuscripts as well as instruments and sound exploration is a crucial step. Engaging the children in musical games such as pattern-making is another.

Teachers who see themselves as non-musical need to confront their fears and overcome them. This is important to the growth and development of young children. And such activities provide an unusual level of engagement that does, believe it or not, preclude horsing around. Isn't it worth it just for that reason alone?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Gender Identity: The New Frontier

My mind is bending, maybe a good thing. I just read the Washington Post's front page feature about Kelsey Beckham, a biological eighteen year old girl who doesn't feel like she is either girl or boy. As a child of the fifties and sixties I cringe at ambiguity, especially where gender is concerned. Don't get me wrong, friends! I love my gay and bisexual friends. Having been in opera and music for so long, I could hardly avoid the reality of their existence, or the pleasure of their company. But gayness seems much more open and shut than this new concept of a "gender spectrum".

In early childhood courses, when we were allowed to teach human development vis a vis early education (the psych people took over those courses some years ago--a sore subject), we discussed gender identity versus biological sexuality. Little girls and boys are socialized to either one or the other idea of who they are according to their biological sex. The sociological and cultural influences run so deep that who children think they are and what they should and shouldn't like isn't usually questioned by either children or their parents. That is what we taught. We needed to provide opportunities for boys and girls to play with gender-neutral materials and toys. Steer girls to blocks and boys to art. Kicking and screaming if need be. Gender was socialized. Sexual identity was a given. At that time, we didn't talk much about the awesome pressure of the cultural norm, and that it came from all corners of the Ecological System, as Urie Bronfenbrenner called the concentric circles of influence on a child's development. These pressures are powerful.

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

 In reading about this astounding (to me) new field of gender identity, fluidity, expression, etc. I come to the realization that when we work with young children, we must be alert, as always, to how children express themselves, and how we, as teachers, can help them express themselves more fully. We must educate parents to understand that this is important at home, too. Children need encouragement to try out the whole range of the artistic and athletic arts. Our acceptance of each child as an individual needs to include gender fluidity. We need to watch out for boys who avoid art simply because other boys don't want to do art. We need to provide opportunities for girls who secretly want to build with blocks or legos, but don't because the boys stake out the territory first and, by about four, tell girls that only they can do the building. It is not easy! I catch myself steering girls to the dramatic play when they aren't sure what to do. 

Last week, while acting out the children's stories, a girl wanted to play a father. Several children objected. I invoked "non-traditional casting" (theater term) and encouraged the girl to play him. 

The pressures are great to make children conform. It is so much easier because the children, after age four, are gender Nazis, guarding the purity of the party of one or the other. The parents laughingly (and understandably) go along with the cultural norms. What will the next child, confused about her/his identity, do? How will we, as teachers, respond? Can we make this a world safe for every preference and expression of gender identity? I hope we can.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Reading/telling stories

Gail on the floor :)

I read stories from either a chair or on the floor, but I especially love being on the floor with the children. In this instance, I prep them by singing, "It'll be coming around the circle as it comes", to the tune of, "She'll be coming around the mountain". This helps cut down on the cries of, "I can't see it", when I am showing the book to one part of the circle. I think that sharing a book this way encourages patience and a sense of community--why not enjoy your classmates faces enjoying the story before or after you have? 

Even though it is totally OKAY to read a story to children word for word (how many books can one memorize, after all?), it is so much better to really know your story ahead of time. After you have read a book many times you begin to know it so well that you know the structure of the story (is it a repeating, or expanding pattern story? Does it have places where children can be asked, "What do you think s/he will do?" or "How do you think s/he feels?". Is there a refrain you can include the children in so that they are part of the telling? (believe me, the more they are able to participate, the better they pay attention!). After a time with the same group of children over the course of a year, I've found that some of them will guess what kinds of questions you will ask, or what the pattern of the story is.

Using props is also a very effective way of involving children in a story. Felt board stories still excite young children. If you drop a piece, they will laugh and you can be in on the joke. Mistakes by a teacher create community, too. Sharing a story in this manner is an age-old technique. Making puppets for the story is also effective. The advantages of using props is that, not only can you "hook" the visual learner with moving parts, but then you may also place the props in a literacy center for use by children. They enjoy retelling the story with them. You encourage memory and understanding by involving the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic modalities of learning. If you are all thumbs with felt, and don't have money for those expensive sets, you can use Google Images to find pictures to laminate and back with a magnet. Magnet board stories are just as effective.

I took a course at The Kennedy Center called Tiny Toy Tales, taught by the wonderful Sean Layne. We made boxes to house the props for a story, including little toy characters. They were based on story books, but we were provided with a script for retelling the stories that gave the children something to do to participate in the telling. The scripts were layered with the learning of concepts that are required in learning standards. But the children wouldn't suspect they were being "taught" these concepts. They just enjoyed the telling (and retelling). The box can then be put in the literacy center. One of my tiny toy tales (Trashy Town) was in our literacy center this week.

Story sharing from picture books needn't be a case of the teacher sitting on a chair while obedient (!) little tykes watch and listen. Children come in all different styles. We are told to differentiate instruction. We can do this with story-telling or reading, too. I have shared some of my thoughts about this. Please share yours, also. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Stories and Child Development: A Happy Marriage!

How do stories and child development intersect? 

Reading stories to children is often recommended to parents as a way to encourage later literacy. It also promotes healthy emotional development through the sharing of special time with parents. A parent reading provides terrific role-modeling for children--"my Dad/Mom reads! I will, too, when I'm bigger!"

Parents and grandparents telling stories should also be encouraged. Nothing in my early life do I remember more fondly, and with more enjoyment, than the stories my Greek grandfather, a survivor of Turkish genocide, told me about his early life as a boy in Asia Minor. The stories were always about a young boy who braved dangers all alone while running between towns selling goods for his father. Wolves, bulls, bears were all easily defeated by my grandfather's trusty knife. I thought he was the most amazing man who ever lived. In adulthood I learned that a Greek grandfather traditionally has a similar array of stories that he tells to his grandchildren--none of them true!  This influenced my teaching practice. I tell stories as well as read them. Some of them are even true!

The story language children hear from adults enriches their literacy. It gives them a structure that lodges inside their hearts and minds, helping them comprehend how a story works, Not only does it have a beginning, middle, end, or who, what, when, where, why. A story has a sense of conflict, and resolution of conflict. These are literacy conventions taught in elementary school. Children also learn about how others solve their problems, how other humans see reality and each other. Stories heard together bind children to each other and create a shared context for future discussions, or future stories.

When children go to kindergarten how many of them have created stories already? I don't mean captions on pictures, or vignettes. I mean progressively more complex and sophisticated stories that interest and entertain their peers? Vivian Paley, the most deservedly revered teacher/researcher/story teller in recent years, wrote about children writing their own stories and then acting them out. I have done this with young children for many years. I ask them to illustrate their stories as well, and we post them for all parents to see when they come to pick them up.

When I read children's stories aloud to the whole group, the look of pride and confidence in the eyes of the author is worth the price of admission. They glow.

Today I experimented with a new (for me) technique. See if you think this would work for you...

We bathroom after both outside times at our center. One of us usually reads to those who are waiting their turn. But each time we go to sit for stories some children scramble to sit in the teachers chair. Today I asked, "I notice that someone always wants to sit in the teacher's chair. Why do you think that happens?" One boy responded, "Maybe we want to tell stories". So I made a list of the children, checking them off one by one, as they came to sit on the teacher's chair and tell a story. Any story, but originals preferred. As each child came to sit and tell a short story, the children listened respectfully, with minimal horsing around (they ARE four). Spontaneously they began to applaud.

Development of social, emotional, and language skills is an important part of this practice. But what is more important to me is the development of a shared sense of community. As they say in Reggio, which I've written about earlier in this blog, everyone is a protagonist. Everyone is their own story, and their stories connect with each other.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Star Moon Drummers: The genesis of a small group name and the importance of rhythm to children.

As most of you know, my first profession was as a singer. I prided myself on being able to read complex rhythms, and to sing them with accuracy. I noticed throughout my career that many singers (and church organists, by the way) did not "get" complex rhythm patterns easily. No need to analyze that phenomenon. I leave it to music educators. But in preschool, rhythm patterns mean much more than most preschool teachers give them credit for.

Last week my small group needed to come up with a name. Children come into this with different ideas, many animals, and increasingly, media favorites. One boy wanted us to be the "minions"! A teacher said that "Gail's Minions" would be pretty cool! But I also knew that this boy had told me he was glad to be in my group because I liked drumming, and so did he. So I prompted him: "Remember you said you like to drum? Want us to be the Drummers?" That did it. Everyone wanted to be The Drummers. The next step was to find our descriptive words. One new boy said, over and over, "STAR!" Several girls said, "MOON!" in response. I was overcome. "What a beautiful name!", I said. "The STAR MOON DRUMMERS!" There was instant buy-in. We are the Star Moon Drummers. We have been drumming and scatting rhythm patterns all week.

Rhythm exploration is math. So providing drumming opportunities are an easy sell in educational circles. Rhythm work is social. The children we teach at our center become so much more organized and cooperative when they drum or use our hammock-style xylophone. Social-emotional skills are the backbone of kindergarten readiness.

Rhythm exploration is science. I hung our xylophone out this week. How may ways can you play one? I had never even thought of some of the experiments the children did. How does it sound if you crawl UNDER the xylophone and play it? How does it sound if you tip the beater back and forth, making it play with both ends? And of course, can I make a "glissando" (my term)? Heck, yes!! I did not suggest any of these alternatives, because the children are natural scientists, experimenting, processing data, coming up with new ideas and making observations. Here are some (albeit headless) photos of our children in action;

Drumming on the Playground

The xylophone is made from bed slats cut from large to small. The sound is not unlike Japanese wood blocks, The drummers soon dragged their drums over to the xylophone so that there was a sort of combo. The xylophone players looked like this...

Xylophone made out of old bed slats.

We look forward to a year of music experimentation. I will introduce videos of street drummers to this group to validate their awesome efforts on the playground. I would LOVE for them to see street drummers in person, to even participate. A field trip? Dancing to each others' drumming? Of course.

We must never underestimate the power of the arts to teach. We must not forget that, as Loris Malaguzzi said so often, in teaching we must do "Nothing without joy".

Sunday, August 24, 2014

What I learned at the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance Conference--Albuquerque, Summer, 2014

I won't go into the Reggio conference itself. Needless to say I heartily recommend doing one of these splendid conferences if not actually going to Reggio Emilia (I want to!). But after listening to these amazing master-teachers for three days I came back with a renewed confidence in the children's capacity to question, analyze, and discuss.

Here is a tiny example:

On our daily walk into our building the children had formed a habit of, after picking grass with "pom poms" at the top (their term), and placing the stems of these pom-poms into holes in the cinder block walls on the way to the bathroom. Now, as any preschool teacher can tell you, if you need to walk in a line with fours, and you want them to go to the bathroom before lunch, you need to keep the line moving. No matter how much we admonished them to stop picking the grasses that were growing from the cracks in the sidewalk or along the brick wall outside the school, they stooped quickly and swiped their prizes. Once we entered the building they fondled the soft ends of these treasures...

They were kind of like this, only more scraggly!

And gradually, over days, they began to place them in the little holes along the cinder block walls leading to the bathroom. I realized that part of listening to children, a core Reggio value, was watching them and validating their interests. So during small group time I took them outside to pick grass! They were ecstatic! It was like watching a game show where a person is given the choice of a TV or a trip to Bermuda! Then we took our grasses inside to create what I called an art installation. Because it was! They loved calling it art. They told all of the other children not to touch their art! The next day we went into the classroom and found holes, which led to conversations and questions about what a hole was. If it was square, was it still a hole? Was the top of an empty butter tub a hole? And what made the holes?

Here are some of their ideas on what made holes in the cinder block:

"Someone could have been picking at the walls.""Maybe a people got sharp thing and stick it in the walls.""Because maybe they want to put a design in the walls, they get like a knife…""It could be there from like electricity wires.""There might be a nail inside and someone was trying to drill it and they kind of got it wrong.""Maybe they put a screw in the wall and then try again to put it in a different place.""Maybe some bad guys came in the school at night and drilled holes in the wall."

This wasn't the conclusion of this line of inquiry, but a tiny sample. I want to demonstrate that something teachers often (not always) see as a nuisance or distraction may be something important to a young child, and a portal to inquiry. If we don't pay attention to their interests, how can we ask them to pay attention to ours?


An end of the year project: Child Care, Reggio-style.

Wall display of child-designed games

We have ended our school year at our Reggio-inspired Child Care center. Our last Pre-K project was about games. The children were indignant if we didn't put out board games with activities each day, So Sue and I asked them to design their own games. Which they did with gusto! Where do you begin? Where do you end? What is the objective of the player? What are the hazards and rewards? Actually, the children knew these questions before we asked because they had internalized the idea of what a children's board game is. After designing their own board, they decided on either a die or a spinner. Creating a die was chosen by only two children, the rest loved creating a spinner, with our help. Fashioning the playing pieces ("people" they called them) involved using differently shaped wood pieces, pom-poms, small marbles, and connecting them with white glue. The children glued their players together, and, after heart-breaking discoveries in the morning ("my pieces fell apart!"), I used a glue gun to repair them. 

Then came the game tournament! We turned activity time into a gaming festival (no electronics needed)! Children played their own, and each others games. Individually, they reflected about what they liked about their games, and what they might like to change (mostly nothing...they were delighted). Sue displayed the games in our stairwell, along with the baggies of playing pieces (the baggies didn't like being on the wall, so they fell). Parents and others coming up the long two flights of stairs could admire each game, and children could narrate the story line of each.

Enter emergent literacy! When I asked each child I worked with about their game, I prompted them to tell the "story" their games told. They seemed to understand that starting somewhere, overcoming obstacles, and finishing victorious (you get the lollipops, the cloud heaven, the rainbow, or the bad guys) was a story. Children understand such concepts in a general sense. One little girl told me only, "Well, you WIN!" That was enough for her!

If we'd done this project earlier in the year, I would like to have laminated the games. But it is the time for new beginnings. These children are going to kindergarten in two weeks! The "little kids" (their term) are coming over to our side of our huge, lively space, and even younger ones are coming up from the first floor. New projects are in the future

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?