Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Teaching, the first taste

This is a Tuesday "Slice of Life" for Two Writing Teachers. Check out their website for lots more reflections on teaching.


As part of the interview process,
he was given the lesson ahead of time.

The children were four and five years old,
two groups of seven students each.

First, he watched her lead a small group,
and then he was observed leading his own small group.

His impression was that he
made so many mistakes,
spoke too fast,
made no sense,
hurried the children,
garbled his words,
should have highlighted one thing rather than rushing to introduce another,
hemmed and hawed,
confused himself with his own instructions,
knew he was a disaster.

He realized,
it's hard
it's hard to communicate
to grasp what they need
in the moment.
There you are fumbling,
they just get confused.
He knew
there were lots of things he could have done better,
and, yet,
time had never passed so quickly.
It seemed he had just begun when the lesson was over.

She asked,
"Did you have fun?"
And he replied,
"Yes, I did."
She continued,
"I think, your first time, it went really well, you are a natural. We'd like to hire you."

My son, Wade,
newly-minted B.A. in Music in hand,
recently became employed with a company that offers music to early childhood and after school programs. I, of course, am thrilled that he is working with this age group and that - some six weeks into this experience - he continues to find this teaching to be engaging and satisfying.

I loved his reaction to his job interview/observation.

I think he has all the personal dissatisfaction that is inherent in a teacher.
I shoulda…
I coulda…
next time…
I wonder…
It is a reflective practice!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tuesday SOL What about the Art Center?

This is a Tuesday "Slice of Life" for Two Writing Teachers. Check out their website for lots more reflections on teaching.


I am loving the art center in my new classroom. It is an ideal space, with a beautiful big window right nearby, giving such great light to all that we do here. Plus, it is equipped with a sink, cabinets, and counter, allowing me to set up and clean up with ease.

This area includes a table for small group work, a clay station, and two easels. There is a place to hang art that is drying. There is a small shelving unit, filled with art materials that the children have learned how to use through various "guided discoveries" this school year - glue, paint, scissors, collage materials, oil pastels, yarn, recyclables and other "junk."

I am slowly but surely making it into a space where children have total flexibility with their creative explorations.

We make sure there is paint set up at the easels at the start of each day. I love the way children wander over to the easels, sometimes grabbing a smock from the bin, sometimes not, and they just begin painting. The easels are in almost continuous use from the moment the classroom door opens each morning. 

The clay table has ample room for three artists but I've noticed that it is often home to just one artist at a time. How nice this is for the artist! Here, the children enjoy pounding and cutting the clay, making designs with clay tools, and rolling and patting it back into balls…I think it is a very nice corner for solitary exploration. The children are also intrigued by how to take care of the clay, enjoying the responsibility of adding water to it, keeping it moist and pliable. 

At the small group table, we set up a variety of process art activities, with materials for the children to create and explore with abandon. There aren't specific rules for this work - children consider what they want to do with the materials at hand and begin creating as they desire. It is magical and free-flowing work. 

Typically, we'll do the same exploration all week long. 

The children love this area of the room and it is in constant motion.


I love how they are free to choose between so many creative activities on a daily basis…
paint? clay? glue? cutting? three-dimensional? mixed media? 
The choice is theirs. 

I know this area of our classroom is working well when I watch the children…
  • Simona, lost in concentration, with the perspective of a scientist on the brink of a new discovery, holding a length of yarn in each hand, dipping the center into paint, pulling the strand taut, seeing her paper instantaneously covered in speckles; she greets this discovery with sheer delight and dares to repeat the process over and over, seeing nothing but beauty in the speckles that also cover her face, arms, and table. 
  • Naima and Evan, together at the clay, mashing the clay with hammers, over and over, and then realizing that, rather than using the tools in the manner intended, it would be much more fun to puncture the clay with tools, creating a 3D sculpture of these; this pursuit unfolds and they laugh out loud at their funny creativity, begging each other to see what the other has done - "Look at this!
  • Paxton, discovering the table set up for four potential artists but empty of children; he works quietly on one piece, using 'junk' (various wheels, balls, small cars, other) to stamp and press paint onto the paper…still no one else has arrived at the table, so he moves on to create a second painting, and then a third, and then makes his way to the fourth and final, delighted by his find, delighted by this exploration, delighted to have the place to himself.
This is the concentration that I love seeing in preschoolers, a direct challenge to textbook notions of preschoolers having fickle, "less than ten minute" attention spans. 

It is essential that our classrooms provide them with time, possibility, and choice. 

Yes, the art center is becoming a place that echoes my goals for my early childhood classroom. And, the best thing - the sink is right there for them to clean off those messy, creative hands when they decide they want to do something else!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tuesday SOL Let's play with blocks

This is a Tuesday "Slice of Life" for Two Writing Teachers. Check out their website for lots more reflections on teaching.


The block building begins quietly, with Mateo and Julian suggesting a wall around the edge of the table, "for the animals." Lately, block-building means animal homes, as well. The children are loving all the small, realistic toy animals we have.

Often they build by themselves, but today I have chosen to build alongside, to see what I can learn about these sweet children and what I can provoke.

I am in the midst of the play,
  • soaking in their happiness, energy, focus, and pursuit;
  • listening to what interests them, and storing these for future read-alouds and other lesson ideas, what excites them?
  • considering ways they might engage with a classmate rather than simply play alongside, fostering team work;
  • cultivating friendship skills, ready to offer guidance should conflicts arise, helping them to be together, to be aware of one another and not hurtful; 
  • repeating their ideas aloud, often paraphrasing with bigger vocabulary, trying to broaden and deepen their language skills;
  • posing questions for more details, building conversational skills, sometimes suggesting ways to build or extend on another's ideas, letting them see what tremendous resources they are to one another;
  • fostering their mathematical thinking - they do it instinctively, but I coach the terminology, such as above? behind? near? alongside? between? under? through? next to? and, similarly, there is lots of counting (how many blocks do we need to complete the wall?).
"The blocks go here, all the long way," suggests Mateo.

Me - "Another word for the edge of the table, is perimeter - we are building around the perimeter."

Malcolm, Simona, and Kaelyn join us. Katherine and Ella aren't far behind, and many small hands are at work. It seems as if no sooner than someone builds something, another knocks it down, usually with the expressed delight of the builder. When mistakes are made, the children work together to recreate the original design - or tweak it to be something all new.

"This fits here."
"This is a door."
"A wall will not fall down."
"I am making a house for the zebras."
"We need a house for the dinosaurs. And the sharks."
"Sharks need water."

Block building is fast, impulsive, ever-changing. Things exist for only a moment or two, intentions change, blocks morph from one idea to the next.

Making a wall around the table leads to finding groups of animals…several are searching for all the sea animals, others want the tigers, still others want a zebra area. Julian, Nicky, and Micah create Magna Tile airplanes and "hand-gliders" at a neighboring table, and they jump over to see if these can fly around the blocks. 

A big door is made in the wall, "opening for airplanes."  The next thing we know, many blocks have been hit by airplanes, tumbling to the floor.

"These are the forests," says Julian, standing many tall cylindrical blocks together. Almost immediately one falls over, toppling the others like dominoes, and this becomes the new goal - to build and see them fall over. "The forests are breaking!", he squeals with delight, needing to fix them again.

Wesley pops in, followed by Naima, James, and Dmitry. They set about building underneath the table (where many blocks had tumbled). This opens up new possibilities - purposefully getting things stuck in table legs and then trying to get them out. One thing leads to another.

"We need to make an animal hospital for hurt animals," suggests Wesley.

The children build together and by themselves, self-selecting their fun, building both on and under the table, and at a second table nearby. Some stay for many minutes, creating and re-creating, while others land only momentarily, wandering in and out of the area, doing things elsewhere in the room and returning to the block corner for additional fun. They are filled with curiosity and investigation, trial and error -
  • which blocks fit inside the arches?
  • which tall ones stand, making the best trees?
  • how to make a floor?
  • how tall can we make it?
  • what happens when you drive one block through the others?
  • how to make a continuous wall?
  • how to make it longer?
  • which is biggest?
  • how to make a seat or a bed?
  • will these balance on top?
  • what fits under?
  • why is this stuck here? 
  • how to get it out?
My note-taking cannot keep up with the story lines…so many snippets …

walls for our house, 
making homes for animals, 
the dinosaur is attacking, 
wind blowing through trees, 
hand glider flying on top of the buildings, 
making axes to chop things down, 
animals getting hurt, 
veterinarians taking care of animals in the hospital, 
a house for me over here, 
this is a city, 
people live here and animals live outside, 
train going through the station, 
this is the airport, 
these are big doors.

It seems as if everyone in the class stops by at one point or another, to check in, to play for a bit. Later, I'll consider who didn't visit and why that might be; but, in the midst of the play, there's no time for such reflection. The play is fast-paced, animated, and involved. I smile as their small bodies move in and around and over me, faster, faster, knock down, rebuild, re-think, new idea, try again, consider this, build, build, build...

They are playing,
they are working,
I am working,
I am playing.

I love the block corner.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Please stop these challenging behaviors!

There's one part of our new playground where children are continually in competition,
all wanting to use the same piece of equipment.
We call it "the motorcycle,"
with its bike-like seat and
companion chair -
you hop on and rock, rock, rock.
One child is particularly fond of this, heading immediately there as soon as we enter the playground, and
she will spend the playground session on this one seat,
if we let her.

Of course, she's not alone in her interest in this motorcycle,
so a long line of children forms around her and
we practice all sorts of ways to take turns.

I wish there were more than one of these darn motorcycles! I am spending so much time in this vicinity, helping children negotiate the sharing.

The other day, she came running up to me,
smiling with delight, and explaining,
"Ms. Ingram! I let my friends have a turn!"

Every day previous,
after she had been on the motorcycle for a good long while,
I had gone up to her and said,
"It's time to let your classmates have a turn,"
as I simultaneously extended a hand to help her off the bike.
Usually, she would burst into tears, saying,
"I want to do it! I want to do it!" and
I would persist in helping her off,
throwing in both comfort and teaching words such as,
"I know it would be fun to stay here all day long!"
"Thank you for sharing with your classmates."
"I know you want all your classmates to have a chance to play on the motorcycle."
"I wish there were more motorcycles out here - imagine if there were! How fun would that be!?"

On this fine day,
she had shared the motorcycle on her very own,
without my instigation.
I gave her a big high-five, saying
 "I am so proud of you - what a great sharer you are!"

When I think about it, there are so many, many small challenging behaviors in a single day in a preschool classroom -

grabbing toys from a classmate
leaving toys and other things on the floor
stepping on books
moving too fast (for example, running in the classroom)
moving too slowly (for example, taking too long to line up, showing no interest in clean up)
hurting a classmate
shouting or screaming
tantrums and crying (with sometimes unknown causes)
misplacing an item
knocking over a toy
and all sorts of refusals, such as refusing to
  • share,
  • put away one's things,
  • do something for oneself (for example, put on one's shoes)
On and on.
Truly, anyone who teaches preschool knows -
this is just the beginning of a list of challenging behaviors…
there is an endless list.

Because these behaviors are so commonplace, daily, and, even, developmentally normal, here's where teacher's voice and overall classroom tone comes into play.

What do I want my classroom to feel like? 
What do I want my children to sense, as they enter my room? As they play alongside me?
How will I respond to these challenging behaviors so that my classroom remains an overall joyful place?

I find it so much more effective and pleasant to lead children to more appropriate behaviors
by focusing on the positive,
by explicitly stating the larger goal,
by giving them a specific action,
rather than simply 'bossing' them into stopping the challenging behavior.

[But - to be honest - there is an internal voice screaming "STOP!"]

One of the things that makes the start of a school year so challenging for me is all the new staff. Each year, we have many new adults because of a new cohort of Teaching Residents, additional new faces at our before and after care programs, and, often, new folks leading the various specials.

And, each year, at the outset of the year, I hear so many reactive voices, and
they are, for me, like fingernails on a chalkboard -
"Stop putting that in your mouth."
"Stop running."
"Pick up those toys."
"Don't say that."
"Don't touch that."
"Give that to your classmate right now."

I understand it completely.
You -the adult - are in the midst of doing something, and
up comes some challenging behavior from the seemingly endless list …

However, I've learned,
no matter what I am doing,
the most important teaching is really my response to these challenging behaviors.

I am their role model and
what I do and say means so much to them.

What do I want them to know and understand?
What is the behavior that I want to stop?
What would I rather see? 
Can I name this replacement behavior?

I try to restate the desired behavior in the most positive action words,
setting positive expectations.

We are all the happier for it!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Tuesday SOL Taking a 'read-aloud' for a spin

This is a Tuesday "Slice of Life" for Two Writing Teachers. Check out their website for lots more reflections on teaching.


My new Teaching Resident was reading her first book to the children, and,
for a moment,
I was transported back in time,
to the challenge of those early read-alouds.
Now so ordinary,
now so expected,
so terrifying.

I'm not talking about selecting the book,
but the sheer performance of it,
the act of reading it aloud
to so many children at once.

How to
get their attention?
keep their interest?
hold the book so all can see?

How to
help them settle in,
to prepare them for the book ahead? 

How to
hold your body for authority and assuredness?
check on everyone with a scan of the eye?
reach out a hand for a gentle squeeze,
in the midst of reading?

How to permit certain behaviors and squash others?
How to distinguish between these?

How to
deal with interruptions?
greet the unexpected?
ignore certain things or make them teachable moments?

How to solicit good listening?

How to
project your voice?
speak differently as narrator or character?
use your voice as a tool
inviting engagement,
bringing quiet,
holding suspense?

How to sprinkle questions
without losing overall pace or children's attention?
How to spark their curiosity,
encourage predictions,
expand their understandings?

The essentialness of all this,
at first so challenging, a new skill;
so automatic, tried and true.

It looks so easy, but there is so much involved.

To watch someone for the first time
is to realize the many parts to success,
how much there is to consider,
to juggle,
in the midst of a simple picture book.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tuesday SOL We have mixed emotions

This is a Tuesday "Slice of Life" for Two Writing Teachers. Check out their website for lots more reflections on teaching.


I am exploring emotions with the children, developing our "emotions continuum." For this, I highlight the different expressions from characters in our read-alouds and have the children consider what that character is feeling. I photocopy each of these pages and add the named emotion as a label. Each of these pages is posted in our comfort corner (so that emotions are in full view, as children work through their various tough moments). I am trying to cultivate their emotional intelligence, to help children "read" their classmates' faces, to see that we often feel differently about things. Slowly but surely, we are learning how to deal with our many emotions - what is appropriate in the classroom, what might not be.  Truly, it feels right now that there is no end to this curriculum topic…that I could spend the year on it! Here are some of the emotions we have identified to date:
from the book What A Wonderful World by George David Weiss and Bob Thiele,
illustrated by Ashley Bryan


from the book Owl Babies by Martin Waddell

from the book Dogger by Shirley Hughes

I know the children are working hard to understand these emotions (and feel quite proud to be naming them), because they are talking about emotions pretty much all the time. Our morning hello has become significantly longer, as each shares aloud what they are feeling! It feels to me that they are "ripe" for this learning, that it engages them and supports them, allowing them to see things in a new way.

The children loved the book Those Darn Squirrels by Adam Rubin, and I decided that the main character Mr. Fookwire should be part of our emotions continuum. I showed them the picture:

and we debated what he was feeling. One student said "angry," and I said that we already had the word "ANGRY," from the book Anh's Anger - a picture of Anh's face when his block tower crumbles. (This particular book is a lesson in how to work with one's anger, and we have been practicing breathing deeply to this strong emotion.)

However, I continued with the children,
our picture of Mr. Fookwire was something more than anger, 
perhaps "annoyed" or "furious."
The children seemed unfamiliar with the word "furious," though they made me chuckle with their understanding of "annoyed" - "My dad gets annoyed when he is driving," said one boy. So, we teachers acted out the two words, trying to dramatize the distinction and then the children had quite a debate - was Mr. Fookwire furious or annoyed? We decided to 'vote with our bodies' - have children move to one corner with Mr. Rude (our paraprofessional), if they thought the photo showed "Annoyed," and towards Ms. Kim (our Teaching Resident), in another corner, if they thought it was a better image of "Furious." In the end, we had 14 votes for "Furious" and a mere 8 for "Annoyed," so "Furious" became the picture's label.

The next day, in our physical education special - led by other teachers - the children were in whole group doing some floor exercises, when one little girl hit the little boy next to her - and, by luck, I happened to see it.

He cried out, more in indignation than pain, and I swooped over to see what was going on.

(I frequently wonder how much I miss. Certainly, I can't be expected to see or know what is going on during specials. This makes me wonder, how are other teachers responding to these challenging behaviors? Are we approaching these the same way? Does it matter?)

To her, I said - "Wow, I just saw you hit [Jack]; what is the matter? What happened that made you hit him?" [I tried to speak calmly, objectively, respectfully.]
She replied, "I am feeling furious!"
Uh, oh. There's our new vocabulary out for a drive.
I continued, as gently as I could muster, while embracing the little boy and rubbing his shoulder, and saying to the girl who hit, "Oh my! You look furious. Did [Jack] make you feel furious in some way?"
"Oh, no. I just feel it."
"Oh, well, hmmm, when we feel furious, we need to work out this strong feeling without hurting classmates. We are all safe, in the Big Cats. This is a good time to go to the comfort corner, and breathe - like Anh did, with his anger. You might have to breathe a lot, since you are furious, and not just angry."
"Oh, okay. I'm not furious anymore."
"Oh, that's good. Would you check on [Jack's] body, please? Ask him if he is okay?"

Then, to Jack, I encouraged, "Tell [Annie] that your body is 'not for hurting.' Tell her in your strong voice."

Yes, they keep me on my toes, keep me guessing, keep me wondering.

Is it expecting too much, for preschoolers to explore these emotional words?
Should they be a little older, a little more experienced?
Or is the future brighter, since they are striving to understand these words now?

How much we have to learn!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

What about friendship?

The other day, I stepped out of a store only to find several friends of mine having breakfast together at a restaurant's sidewalk table. For one split second, I was immobile - realizing I wasn't included, feeling left out, unsure what to say. Their eyes met mine and we all broke into big smiles, and we shared what we had been up to; they insisted I sit down and join them, and I explained where I needed to be next, said goodbye, and headed on my way.

I look forward to getting together with them soon.

Here I am, beyond mid-life, still sensitive about friendship. Have I been a good friend? Reached out regularly? Been attentive? Been a good listener? Have I been available? 

My preschoolers feel this "tension" about friendship on a daily, constant basis.
These three year olds - some newly three, some closer to four years of age - don't have years of experience to fall back on, as they play with one another.
In fact, for three year olds, this is often their very first experience of playing 'together' - truly, playing together - not simply alongside, as one did as a two year old.
They have a lot of learning to do about friendship.
What does it mean, 
you are building a block road when I want to use the same blocks to build a house? 
What does it mean, 
we are having a tea party and you leave me to play superhero with someone else?
What does it mean, 
when you need more clay and I am using it?
What does it mean, 
when I want to create the puzzle by myself but you keep placing pieces in it?
What does it mean, 
when I bring a special toy from home and you try to take it and play with it?

The children and I,
we are doing lots of talking together.

I am using our whole group discussions to consider -

what can we do when we are frustrated?
how can we be angry and safe at the same time?
how might we share toys?
how might we include another friend in the play?
what can we do to make a sad friend feel better?
what do we say if we want to play? 
how do we join in?
what might you say if… ?

I use read-alouds to share about emotions, friendships, social skills…hoping to build the children's  understanding of what it is to be in community with others.  I use puppets and role-play, too, to reinforce the "how" of getting along with others.

I am the 'guide on the side' during their play,
ever alert to the most difficult moments,
nudging children towards each other, towards various play possibilities,
helping them find words with one another,
challenging them to think about their interactions, especially the effect on others.

Even when I am vigilant,
we've had
hurtful, challenging behaviors.

Yes, we are in the thick of this learning right now, and it will go on all year - some moments quite happy, others quite sad.

I am answering families' questions,
quelling their fears,
trying my best to communicate that
these challenging behaviors are a sign that
the children are discovering the most important work of the preschool classroom.

This is our laboratory.

A friendship laboratory.

It is filled with promise.

It is so important to build relationships with others and to keep working at these, regularly. A friendship isn't a static thing - once achieved, you aren't 'done'…in fact, your efforts are just beginning. It is a dynamic process, with a great deal of give and take.

You reach out, a friend reaches out to you,
you make mistakes, you make amends,
you crave to be together, you spend time with others or alone,
you laugh, you listen, you care.

It is the work of threes.
It is the work of adults.