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".