Sunday, November 8, 2015

"Once there was a baby tree..."

"Once upon a time there was a baby tree who was lost in a big, dark woods. She couldn't see her home because it was too dark. She asked a leaf, "Where's my home? Have you seen it?" The leaf said, "I saw a brown tree like you!". "Thanks," said the baby tree. "I see something brown and straight", said the tree, "That must be my home!" And it was. THE END.

This was one of the many stories my friend, Opal, told in our woods. Other children are joining us. I've resorted to using my iPhone recorder rather than writing, as I would in the classroom. Taking dictation is better, because the storyteller sees the progression of the words from left to right, and has to slow down to make sure you are getting all of her/his words down. They patiently repeat what you don't get the first go 'round, which is immensely humbling. But in the woods, writing is awkward. Maybe you could do it. I am using technology. 

In any case, as difficult as it sometimes is to record stories and watch other children in the woods--I am supposed to be supervising, after all--I am delighted to accommodate the storytellers. Their faces shine with the light of discovering that their own imagination can create something very much like the stories they read in picture books. 

The story Opal told also demonstrates that children's stories reveal universal themes of being lost, found, searching for home, and wanting to be with one's own kind. Vivian Paley wrote about this very thing in her amazing books. This video link shows how seriously she took children's words. "Cute" wasn't a part of her vocabulary. A child's words were important to her. And so I will continue to listen to their stories as long as they want to tell them. Ms. Paley would approve, I'm sure.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Stories in the Woods

Anyone who knows me knows I worship Vivian Paley. I have asked children to tell me their stories for over 25 years, and we have acted them out in the classroom.

This school year I have a new job teaching young children half days where the playground includes a wooded area that provides children with the opportunity to do what children love to do in the woods. Running through, staying still, gathering natural items in their hands and pretending these items are supplies for soup or ice cream, they are free to do what I loved to do as a child. They are free to be children. So how does this relate to stories?

I have a new friend I will call Opal. Inexplicably, Opal has adopted me and made me a member of her group of friends who gather in the woods and tell stories. Much of the time the stories are more like newspaper headlines such as, "Do you know what wonderful thing I am going to do? I am going to Disney on Ice!". Today Opal found me on the playground and asked me to come into the woods and tell her and her friend, Annie, "scary Halloween stories". So I went. We sat in our usual place, a crossroads of tree roots, covered with fallen leaves. Here I began recounting the story, The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything. Opal and Annie didn't know the story, so they were trying to "help" me by including monsters and ghosts, then, when they understood the nature of the benign evil in the story, underwear that walked on its own. I offered that maybe they would like to tell a story of their own. "I can't tell stories", Opal wailed. "We don't do that in my class". So I started a story about one of the many children who had come over to us to see what the fuss was. Soon each child was adding part of the story, and even more interestingly, an item from the woods. Children came and gently laid bark, berries, sticks, and leaves in my open palm as if conferring  a sacrament. With each item we named the next character of the story.

I couldn't write it down, and with so many children coming and going with pieces of nature in their palms I don't think I'll ever remember what we said. But we left the items in the "story circle" for another time. The next time I'll come with paper and pen.

Story offerings

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Dramatic Play: How it can hold everything together.

Children were building castles in the block corner, explaining the different areas by using terms such as "great room", and "battlements" (we had been reading castle books to them). My small group had just finished a long project on bridges, and drawbridges came up in conversation. For teachers who believe in emergent, project-oriented learning, these facts were like a blinking neon sign that said, 


Coincidentally, the Dramatic Play area was due for a changeover. I have been giving workshops called "Projects and Provocations", which were heavily influenced by the Reggio approach. Some teachers from other preschools dropped their jaws when I told them that dramatic play needn't always be a house corner, or that it could be changed over when their students' interest lagged. I thought of them when Carrie (a gifted teacher at our center) and I changed the area into the Great Room of a castle. 

Fireplace in Great Room
The fireplace was especially fun. While we created the mantel and chimney, the children used various artistic media to create a stone-like surface. I brought in electric candles for the table, and found that Carrie's group had decided, when I had been on the playground, to put them in the fireplace for a more authentic effect.

The morning "question of the day" for parents with their incoming children was this one:
Question of the Day
Having had multiple time-travel stories about Medieval times read to them, children were very clear about what they liked and disliked about the idea of living then. 
Battlements best. No cannons worst!
For one girl, the worst was "war". Seige was a part of every story about castles.

In the writing center we left rolled up pieces of paper for "scrolls". When children wrote on them and brought them to a teacher to "read", hilarity ensued. "By this proclamation, all teachers will leave and go to Starbucks. Children are in charge of the school!" Many invitations to "balls" were issued:
Queen Ball Room
Musicians were in the castle books, too, so I downloaded music from iTunes appropriate to the era. The children brought drums to the great room, and I played the music for them. 
Girls drumming to "Music of the Crusades"

Then one morning, a boy spoke words dear to my heart: "Let's make our own castle, Gail". So my small group began working on a castle model, made of corrugated cardboard, tubes, and pieces of shoeboxes. We are still working on it, because one thing led to another, as is the way of projects. They made a moat (and we had learned that moats were NOT clean!), battlements, a dungeon, a kitchen with a fireplace and chimney cut through the roof ("Gail, we need a hole in the roof for the smoke to get out"). A "keep" was created by including another shoebox. 
Castle with moat, drawbridge, and Keep.
Of course the children wanted to create little knights and princesses. I pointed out that those lovely people were not the most important people in the castle. Without the cooks, farmers, and others who produced food, the royalty would have starved. Immediately one boy created a cook for the kitchen.

I have been so pleased with the depth of learning that has taken place throughout this project, aka. "unit". The children have been fascinated by the topic, we integrated science, social studies, math, and language arts easily without doing rote practice drills. This is the beauty of integrated teaching and learning. I wish it for every child.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Parents: If you aren't angry, you aren't paying attention!

On the left is an example of an "arts" activity in any classroom for young children. If you find your child is bringing home these pre-cut, adult-directed gems you should bring them back to school with this question: What the heck is this teaching my child?

The teacher might say that the class is studying bugs. She/he might say she is teaching the skill of "following directions". She might also say, "I've been doing this activity for fifty-eight years and it has always been a success. Kids love it.


Where do I begin?

I recently finished teaching a course called Art, Music and Movement for Young Children. My emphasis is on integrated curriculum: Teaching the arts and teaching content in a kind of beautiful soup of connectivity. There is so much to learn. Art forms, techniques, terminology, standards in both the arts and the content areas. The students need to learn the stages of children's creative development. and the stages of social play, so that they can plan appropriate activities and units for each age. I find that I fall short every semester. I know I could have done more to communicate all that needs to be learned.

The final course project is two activities that teach math, science, social studies or language arts through and with the arts fields of music, drama, movement, and visual art. Each activity needs to emphasize an arts field and a content area. It is a hard assignment. I look for the ability of the children involved to make intelligent choices. According to many of my adult students, who seldom have seen the arts as anything other than a frill, their view radically changes (or they say it does) about teaching through the arts. 

Why do I begin with the example above? A student changed this idea to "make it more creative" by giving children pre-cut circles of differing colors. They had a choice, then. The children still had to conform to a model, and couldn't try out different ideas of how to demonstrate their knowledge of bugs (ladybugs are not the only bugs on the planet--I have child students who like ants quite a bunch). Why not look at bugs in paintings? Why not give them different materials, and ask them which bug they are choosing to create? 

Why not? Aww, but look at that ladybug! It's so cute!

Don't fall for it, parents! It's a trap made of decades of busywork cuteness in preschools across the country. It is lazy teaching. Tell the teacher that you will be assessing your child's knowledge, and looking for real creative projects. Tell her/him that you value creativity and honest intellectual inquiry from now on. Take charge of your child's learning.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Integrating Curriculum: Sometimes Learning is Messy!

This is a display of our Imaginary Land Project. It grew out of several strands from previous weeks. My small group (The Star Moon Drummers!--Great name for a rock band, no?) was fascinated by bridges and bridge building. The Drummers (four girls, four boys) built bridges from cardboard, huge wooden blocks, small wooden blocks, and their own bodies. They created stories about their bridges, and associated their understandings with actual bridges they knew or had heard about. One boy was so entranced that he became the expert on suspension bridges, and, with his scientist father, built them in his own basement, sharing pictures with the other children.

Out of a curricular strand on maps that we shared with the other Pre-K small group (The Runaway Missing Names--it's a long story...) came an interest in the ubiquitous world maps we teachers brought in from Doctors Without Borders (bless 'em). I cut the maps I had into quarters and gave each child a piece. I asked them to outline the countries, and as we did, we discussed them, and the children's knowledge of them ("John is from Australia! Senka is from India! Remember Irini from Greece?"). They knew that, on a map, white equaled ice and snow, and blue indicated water, so their interest was piqued by the colors of the continents and countries they outlined. Next, they glued their maps to larger paper and created art by coloring areas with Creamy Crayons. As they colored I asked them to imagine their own country, or "land". I recorded their ideas on my trusty phone, and later typed them up for display. The children sounded out the names of their lands and wrote them on their maps. But that wasn't the end.

Children are most comfortable realizing their vision in three dimensions. This is why so many learning materials in preschool are blocks, math manipulatives, and clay. Just emerging from the sensory-motor stage of development, and not yet at ease with two-D representation, children think, and represent in 3-D. Using bodies in movement is another 3-D, kinesthetic route for cognitive growth. Yes, movement is a form of thought. Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences has been around for years, yet schools still seem to push 2-D thinking as the gold standard. 

How could we represent our imaginary lands in three dimensions? With ice, dirt, greenery, and desert? First the children painted huge cardboard, scavenged from old boxes, in blues and greens. This was the water their lands would inhabit. Then they made their own clay from a recipe in Mudworks, a book I have used for centuries (well..a long time, anyway). They enjoyed the clay-making, because children love messes, and this is a messy activity! They created paper outlines of the land they wanted to create, and chose either one continent or several islands to portray. They laid out the outlines on their clay and cut around them with plastic knives. The land masses were glued to their cardboard oceans with Tacky Glue

Next was painting the land according to their own ideas of where in the world their land was. Was it near the equator, or perhaps in temperate zones? Was it near one of the poles? We used a globe to imagine this. Being fours and fives, though, they wanted some of each, so many of their land masses were a combination of brown, green, and white. Their ideas of their lands altered as they created their three-dimensional displays. Ice came into their stories that had none before.

We caucused about what they wanted to build, and with what. My suspension bridge boy had heard of building with sugar cubes and there was no doubt after that what the building medium would be! The children built bridges across water, and buildings on land with sugar cubes, tiny sticks and Tacky Glue. The last step was painting buildings and bridges. Voila! They were done. I asked if they wanted to make sugar people, and to my disappointment, they did not. C'est la vie. The project was theirs, not mine!

Within a group of eight children ages 4 1/2 through 5 1/4 there are many differing talents and abilities. One child might build like an engineer and another tell a fabulous story. Each child needs a different level of support throughout the process. This whole project took several weeks, and at various stages I had another well-trained adult working with us. Children cried at times with frustration because their ability didn't match their vision. We worked with them to come as close as possible. The children were proud of their work, and eager to take their creations home. I took pictures for my 2-D wall display. 

It is indicative of emergent, project-based teaching that boundaries between what is art, language arts, social studies, science, math and other subjects get blurry. That's why parents and some teachers may see an integrated curriculum as just too messy for "real" school. But every child gets individual attention and validation for their thinking and efforts.

Here is one imaginary land story for you to enjoy: "Once upon a time there was a Color Man. He makes crayons and colors. He gives them out to people. He goes on the line (map boundary) to take colors to everyone. He goes to different countries to give colors out."
This is a land I would love to visit. Wouldn't you?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Play: Learning in Motion

I read in the Washington Post today about a preschool classroom in Arlington.  In the column, the teacher, Launa Hall, describes her struggles to teach reading skills to preschoolers while feeling guilty about not being able to allow them to play. The Pre-K standards she uses are doable in a play environment, but the mandated curriculum in which they are delivered, as we say in the trade, are not developmentally appropriate. The joy of childhood is a secondary characteristic, not a primary one, in public Pre-K programs. 

In our program, children are given multiple opportunities to construct their own knowledge. During our early morning, late afternoon, and outside times, when we set the environment for learning, they do just that! 

New York City

The picture above is New York City. Several children have been to New York recently, and, have parents who talk WITH their children, rather than down TO them. They come back to school with a fund of knowledge that flashcards and lesson books can't teach. If you look hard enough, you will see the Port Authority, and the Empire State Building. The builders were inspired by each other, and as an impromptu small group demonstrated their knowledge in the block corner. This whole enterprise was preceded by a flurry of drafting in the drawing/writing center. 

Design Team 

Our modeling of drawing, planning, and building all year contributed to this project, but the children did it on their own.

We went on a hayride in October but children are still conspiring to create their own. These girls asked me for rope, but I didn't have any. I was at a loss on how to help them, but one of them "got an idea" and organized a committee to create a "hayride" out of a wagon, scooter and tricycle. They did it themselves, based on their own past experience playing on our playground, and interacting with us and other children.

After the snow, children wanted to create "plows". Here is a picture of their idea:

Snow Plows
The boy on the left has worked out that a Tonka truck with a tire and a seat on it, pushing a shovel, makes an admirable snow plow. The boy on the right is using his friend's idea to make his own plow. Children learn from each other, as well as from adults. Vygotsky explained this many years ago. The children learn within a social network. That network includes each other as well as their teachers! 

Our program is alive with discovery and design. Interactions with adults are frequent, and powerful,but not coercive.We "teach" through setting the stage, following the learners and enabling their ideas with materials and methods. A program for preschoolers needs to be rich in materials, ideas, and loving interactions with knowledgeable adults.Those adults must, daily, discuss among themselves where and how the children are going with their learning, knowing that math, language and science are inherent in children's interests. The children are on their own developmental train riding into the future. We need to climb aboard. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Newsroom: A dramatic play center for literacy

We continue to encourage the children to interview staff, and other children for our newspaper. How utterly dear it is that they continue to be passionate about gathering news and stories. Before the holidays, parents presented our Pre-K children with real pens and notebooks. They carry them to assignments with pride!

Young boys going to an assignment

Taking their new notebooks and pens, John and Phillip (not their real names) proceed down the stairs to interview one of the teachers of the twos, Sarah. They talk to one another on the way down, trying to decide what questions they will ask her about her job. They enter the classroom, welcomed by the twos teachers, and sit on the floor, ready to write. Here are some of the questions:

Where do you work?    
What's your schedule?
What days do you work?
When do you go to work?
Why do you work?
and lastly,
What time do you go to bed?

These questions are simple, and maybe even obvious, but Sarah treats the children with respect, appearing to contemplate her answers before she gives them. She explains that she works at our center, that her schedule varies each day,and  that she works every weekday. She pauses at the question, Why? How do you explain the reasons for working to small children? She makes the answer seem totally obvious! "I work because I love children, and I need money to buy food". One of the boys admits that his parents work to earn money as well. Sarah decides to say that she goes to bed at ten every night; something the boys understand--they also have a set bedtime! 

During the interview John and Phillip write down the answers, asking Sarah for spelling when they feel unsure of their developmental writing skills.

The next step is to format this edition of our paper, inserting the interview, with pictures taken by myself. Parents will read the stories on the walls of the school, and other children will get to interview our Director. Some stories have been about the new marble run in Creation Station, or about a mother's visit to tell about her newspaper job at the Washington Post. 

Organically, we integrate developmental spelling, drawing, speaking and listening skills into a whole. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Not only are we integrating literacy and social studies, but we continually nurture connections within the community. Teachers, parents, children are all linked in a learning journey. In a Pre-K program, nurturing relationships between and among all members of the community makes for excellence in education. This is how it should be.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Numbers, numbers, who has those numbers?

I received a comment from a professor about my second last post. "Those numbers are a great idea! Where did you get them?" Well, I got the idea from a long-ago workshop about behavior management for children with sensory issues. In the workshop, the trainer (I do not remember her name. Mea Culpa.) explained a system where the children had numbers beneath their names and corresponding numbers on the floor so that every day they would know exactly where to go. This technique taught numbers, number order, and personal space. A neat, efficient way to give children their own spots on the floor or rug. If there were arguments, they weren't about favoritism. They were about who had what number. That kind of argument is constructive. We want children to argue constructively; it nurtures verbal and cognitive skills. 

I got the numbers themselves from Jan Brett. As you can see by clicking on the link (no, she isn't paying me for this referral! I wish!), the numbers come in different sizes, and the larger ones are those I use for the floor. The smaller ones are push-pinned under the names of the children, which are posted all year in alphabetical order. (So the children learn alphabet awareness, also.) As you can also see, there are little pictures from Ms. Brett's books to correspond to the number displayed. So if a child does not yet recognize numbers, that child can practice counting the little hedgehogs on his or her very own number. An elegant example of integrated, differentiated curriculum! 

Putting the numbers on the floor is easier on tile. My assistant, Mary Kehoe, and I put them on tile by simply using clear contact paper over them (or, rather, Mary did this, and I cheered her on. I'm not handy with contact paper.). This was at another center. On our rug at Clarendon, we have used colored duct tape, carpet tape, masking tape, and other ideas. They aren't as stable on a carpet but that is what we have. Budget time for repairs!

Young children in a group tend to get a bit panicky about someone else getting their spot, chair, toy, etc. Wouldn't you? Giving them a spot of their own every day for lining or sitting (with Mary, we used the numbers for circle as well) provides some sense of security. They understand that, if numbers are rotated, they will always get a chance to be number one.