Tuesday, September 18, 2018

How to put the puzzle pieces together?

I am participating in the
Tuesday Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers.
All participants are writing about one moment, one part of their day.
A big thank you to Two Writing Teachers for providing this unique opportunity
for teacher-writers to share and reflect.

Have you ever watched a group of preschoolers create a floor puzzle together? Everything that children need to learn about sharing can be learned through this one activity. Simply place the puzzle box on the floor and invite children to join you - and, wow, watch the fun unfold!

The play begins wildly, boldly, instantly, and selfishly, with each child automatically grabbing one or two pieces and trying to shove their own pieces together. Three year olds are used to playing with things by themselves and for themselves. They are not accustomed to working with others. The first few moments of puzzle-making are fast-paced motion...the grabbing of a piece or two, trying to connect the pieces, dropping puzzle pieces in frustration, and moving onto another piece immediately to see if it matches. Many hands moving quickly, mashing pieces together on the floor, stepping onto pieces or bumping into a classmate, whirling, spinning, commotion.

Most preschoolers seem to readily grasp that the pieces fit together in some way; I have never had to explain this. There are typically about 20 pieces, meaning a small group of preschoolers can grab one or two pieces each, and each feel very powerful. Of course, in reality, there's not much exciting about one or two pieces of a puzzle. There's not much to see or make, with so few.

Often, one child will walk off to the periphery of all the commotion, clutching a piece, not seeking out any other pieces, and, seemingly, feeling no need to participate in the puzzle building. This savvy child! They may look disinterested, but they have claimed some very valuable real estate. Yes, they are holding what will be the LAST piece of the puzzle...ha! This piece is being ignored right now, but, without a doubt, it will become very important very soon.

As teacher, I try simply to moderate the overall process. I try not to direct the children to follow 'my approach.' For example, I don't say - "Hey, let's grab all the straight edges first." - which was definitely the way I was taught, many years ago. I enjoy watching preschoolers find their own way, to figure it out...I trust that they will. I sit back a bit, and use my voice mostly to guide - helping them work together.

Sometimes the puzzle piece that you simply must have is in another child's hands, and, here, it's often easiest to just grab the piece out of the other's hands. Teachable moment! I pepper them with questions - "Who had that piece first?," "Did you ask her if you could have that?" "Where do you think it goes?" "What makes you think so?" "How do those two match up?" Many instinctively know to turn the piece around and around and around, exploring new positions, to see if the pieces will connect.

As the children work, I begin to build some ground rules with them - "If two pieces are connected, you leave them be and try to match your piece to the connected ones. Don't take apart what is already working." Somehow, this often seems to surprise preschoolers - as if, "Wait, I didn't match those pieces! But, you expect me to leave them be?" Another important rule, "We don't take pieces out of our classmates' hands." Also, "Puzzle makers move slowly and purposefully, they don't stand on the puzzles."

I am frequently amazed at the ferocity and motion involved in making a puzzle together. Around and around and around they go, testing this piece against the other.

after a short while,
seemingly arising out of thin air,
bubbling up without any plan of action other than 'every child for herself',
the puzzle begins to form,
with interconnected sections becoming more apparent.

I often wonder if this is the very moment that young children become aware of the power of team work..the very moment they become aware that, wow, perhaps each person has something to offer to the process...the very moment each child begins to literally see how what they are doing connects with that of others.

Although the puzzle begins with every child feeling and working solo, in the end, it is completed by the work of many...it takes a team.

The learning from such a simple 'toy' is truly profound. Children learn to be more observant of one another and of the puzzle, noticing details on each individual piece. They begin to interact with one another, communicating - "Does this go here?" "Put yours there." "Here!" "Look! These go here!"

And that child who might have wandered off with that one piece? Oh, yes, we need her now! You can't finish without a floor puzzle without including everyone.

Floor puzzles have two distinct phases for preschoolers -
the first, egotistical, self-absorbed, every child for him or herself; and
the second, enlightenment, the mind opens, the realization comes - we do better when we work together.

There's always a big round of applause at the conclusion of a puzzle! Go, preschoolers!

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Are you able to bear the responsibility?

I am participating in the
Tuesday Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers.
All participants are writing about one moment, one part of their day.
A big thank you to Two Writing Teachers for providing this unique opportunity
for teacher-writers to share and reflect.

Second day of school. Early dismissal for preschoolers. 12 noon. Three of them wait to be picked up. Tick-tock, tick-tock. 12:10. One child helps to sweep the floor, one child dances on carpet, one colors at a table. These three watched every other child get picked up. Oh, here is a family! Down to two children. Three teachers, two preschoolers. 12:15  I lean down to tie the dancing preschooler's shoes; no sign of his parents yet. Oh, here's another family! This Mom has questions, I turn to answer her -  "yes, we need napping materials for tomorrow's full day..." and, quietly, invisibly, unexpectedly, he slips out. Elopes. Right by me, standing three feet from the door of our classroom. He, my dancer, the last child, waiting, desperately, for a Mommy or Daddy or another loving adult who never comes. He is impatient, he is three. He has just watched every classmate get picked up. 

In a split second, he was gone. 

Just a minute more, maybe only 30 seconds later, I knew he was gone, too - and I bolted from my classroom, down the hall, towards the front desk - only to be met by Mom and Grandmother, holding him firmly by the hand. Mom was livid - "I did NOT find him right here in the hall! I found him out front, coming out the front door of the school!" 

Her angry eyes will stick in my memory forever - devoid of trust, filled with hurt and anger.

I rambled,

"I am SO sorry. I am SO sorry. I need you to know, this is on ME, I am responsible. He was just here, and he slipped out, and that SHOULD NEVER EVER EVER have happened and I am totally at fault. I am so sorry. I have never had this happen in all my years of teaching and it won't happen again, I promise."

She was LIVID.

Words are nothing but nasty air when one's most important possession has almost vanished.

I continued,

"Please, this is horrible. I invite you to speak to our principal about this. It is a terrible mistake and you should report it. I can assure you it won't happen again. I'm sorry."

I moved automatically to find my principal, and I breathlessly told her, "Please speak with this family, they are so upset, as they should be - their preschooler in my class slipped out the front door of the school at early dismissal."

My principal asked with remarkable calm, "Did we find the child?"

"Yes! His family was walking right up to the school when he was walking out - they grabbed him and brought him back to me."

My principal continued to me, before talking to the family - "This is a blessing. Hear me, it's a blessing. He was found. He is safe. Now we know. We revise our plan. We continue on." 

As she walked toward the family to talk further, I dissolved into tears. 

It is hard to bear the responsibility.

Epilogue -

Even now, a whole year later, it is hard to think about this day.

My principal and colleagues gave me tremendous support and perspective, and I am so appreciative. We revised our 'end of day' routines, and there was never another such incident all year. I worked hard to rebuild trust with the family; I am very close to this family, now.

Truly, on this day, my biggest fear about working with young children happened: losing a child...that one might simply disappear, no matter how hard I try to keep my eyes on them. Whenever I hear one of those nightmare stories about a child who walks away from school, I think "but for the grace of God" - and I am filled with compassion for everyone involved. It takes a village!!

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

What is most important?

I am participating in the
Tuesday Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers.
All participants are writing about one moment, one part of their day.
A big thank you to Two Writing Teachers for providing this unique opportunity
for teacher-writers to share and reflect.

My beloved colleague Connie came up to me and said, "I'm going to tell you something that is going to make you mad, and, here's the thing, you can be mad for a minute and then you are going to get over it and we are just going to get it done." I looked at her surprised, wide-eyed, perplexed - and then asked cautiously - "Well, what is it?"

Connie quickly told me what the problem was, and the necessary solution. I'm not sharing what the problem or situation was, because, honestly, it doesn't matter. Teaching days can be filled with problems like this. Suffice to say, it was annoying, and small, not a big deal.

Her preceding words echoed in my head: "...you can be mad for a minute and then you are going to get over it and we are just going to get it done."

I stared at her a moment and then I burst out laughing, amused by Connie's clear-eyed insight about me. I said "Well, let's skip my 'getting mad' part and just get down to it." We laughed together as we worked. And, yes, we got it done.

I want to celebrate Connie's approach with me.

She held a mirror up for me to see myself - and she did so in a caring and amusing way. She made me laugh about my own foibles. She was showing empathy and understanding for my expected frustration with her news, while simultaneously urging me to not get bogged down by my annoyance and, instead, stay focused on the larger goal and complete the task.

It was more important to get past my frustration and anger and to just shine in our work. 

I wonder how long I will carry this wisdom: don't let my anger keep me from doing what matters. Or, maybe I should state it this way: save my anger for that which matters. I know anger is a powerful tool for change...I don't need to squander it on the small stuff.

Stay focused.
Don't get bogged down by what doesn't matter.
Don't get distracted.
Keep on with my purpose.
Be joyful.

Thank you, Connie. Such powerful insight for me at the outset of a new school year!

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

What about the first day of school?

I am participating in the
Tuesday Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers.
All participants are writing about one moment, one part of their day.
A big thank you to Two Writing Teachers for providing this unique opportunity
for teacher-writers to share and reflect.

Today was the first day of preschool for this school year, 2018-19. What an amazing day we had together!  We worked hard to prepare the room for them...and I believe the children felt both comfortable and safe right away. 

Although we only met for half a day, I am totally worn out in the happiest of ways. Here's to the year ahead!!!

For this Slice of Life, let me simply share my note to the families -

Happy first day of school!

We had a fabulous day in the Big Cats! There were so few tears - and these lasted only a brief moment. Your children loved dancing, playing, singing, running, painting, exploring, building, writing, and reading together! We tried to take lots of pictures of their fun together. Here are a few things we noticed them doing:

  • loving babies
  • finding sharks
  • painting with marbles
  • reading books
  • creating tall mountains of sand
  • making tea parties
  • being Mommies
  • racing cars
  • build a castle to the ceiling

We are learning the routines of school each day. Today, we played ‘follow the leader’ to investigate every center of the classroom. We practiced:

  • washing our hands,
  • lining up together and walking quietly through the hall, and
  • ‘going quiet and listening’ when the teacher calls for our attention.
We learned a couple ‘call and response’ techniques - 1) when someone calls “Agoe” [do you hear me?], we answer “Amay” [I am listening to you]. 2) when someone says “bop bop ba bop bop”, we answer “bop bop.”

Our books today: From Head to Toe by Eric Carle and Owl Babies by Martin Waddell.

Again, such a special day!! Thank you for sharing your children with us!

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

What do you remember about school?

I am participating in the
Tuesday Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers.
All participants are writing about one moment, one part of their day.
A big thank you to Two Writing Teachers for providing this unique opportunity
for teacher-writers to share and reflect.

On our first day of pre-service this past week, the teaching staff wrote reflections about key educational events in their lives that brought them to where they are now as teachers. Everyone went back through their memories of school and classrooms, and considered what stood out. Here's one of my school memories -

The butterfly was painted with every color of the rainbow, and it spread its wings across the entire front of my bright orange sweatshirt. It was a tween's dream - it looked magical, beautiful, and fabulous. I was in eighth grade, a new student at public junior high, and a recent transfer from a parochial school where we wore the same stale uniform every single day. The butterfly sweatshirt was my exhale, my celebratory release. It was also a gift from my Dad, who was in the Navy and had just left for Vietnam. This sweatshirt splurge was his way of saying "I love you and I'll miss you" to his 13 year old daughter.

The first day I wore the sweatshirt to school, it was unusually warm. I had worn it over another much more boring top, and that turned out to be a good thing...I couldn't stand the sweaty feel of both layers and by mid-morning, I had slipped off the sweatshirt and hung it in my locker. I double-checked the lock after closing the door. I hoped it would be cooler when I walked home from the bus stop; I knew, even if it wasn't, I would 'suffer for beauty' and put that sweatshirt back on, hoping to impress my friends. I raced off to my next class.

At the end of the day, I excitedly opened my combination lock - only to discover the locker empty, the sweatshirt gone.




I couldn't believe it. It didn't make sense. I know I locked the locker. Where did the sweatshirt go? Who would take it?

This 'underground' world where students surreptitiously broke into others' lockers was new to me. I had never had a locker before; I didn't know it was possible. But, yes, it was. This was my sad reality, my tough learning.

It was a hard loss, not something I could easily replace.

The very next day, as I made my way through the halls after lunch, there was Ramona Carter wearing my butterfly sweatshirt! Well, what was left of it. She strutted down the hall in a bright orange sleeveless sweatshirt - yes, sleeveless. At the shoulders, the arm holes had all those tiny triangular edges where the sleeves had been cut off with pinking shears. The body of the sweatshirt - with its beautiful multi-colored butterfly - was covered in signatures. Yes, it was signed in black permanent marker by 100 or more of Ramona's closest friends.

My sweatshirt. Destroyed. Vandalized. Ruined.

I didn't know Ramona. I only knew OF her. She was tough and cool and ran with a very different crowd than mousy, awkward me. I was very afraid to confront her.

I didn't know what to say.

I didn't know what to do.

She stole my beloved sweatshirt! Out of my locker!

I went to the Assistant Principal and told him what had happened. I hoped to get his advice and input. I remember he listened to me and didn't ask me a single question or clarification. He was quiet for a brief moment and then he said, "I'm sorry but you can't prove that the sweatshirt is yours. You'll just have to get over it."

I think his reaction hurt worse than the theft itself.

I walked out of his office, stunned, numb, and surprised. I am still so saddened at his lack of effort to help with the situation. His reaction made me feel both isolated and, somehow, wrong. I spent the rest of my time at junior high school avoiding Ramona.

As the years have passed, my reflection is - what a missed opportunity for conflict resolution, for restorative practice. We have to grab onto these challenging moments between students and help them to hear one another, to consider each other's perspective. Without a doubt, this Assistant Principal had a huge influence on me in my teaching - I work hard to help students resolve their conflicts.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

What does it mean?

I am participating in the
Tuesday Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers.
All participants are writing about one moment, one part of their day.
A big thank you to Two Writing Teachers for providing this unique opportunity
for teacher-writers to share and reflect.

Loved seeing this bird on a recent walk!
I love a nice long walk, whether in the woods, through the neighborhood, in the city, by the shore...it doesn't matter where, I simply love to walk. I walk and I notice. I look for 'signs' - signs of what? Well, I don't know! Signs of the unexpected, signs of surprise, signs of wonder.  

We have had a lot of rain this summer, here in the Mid-Atlantic. We have had powerful storms, light drizzles, long days of rain, brief squalls...it has come in all shapes and sizes. We've broken records for rainfall. After a rainstorm, I love to wander down to my local walking path and explore what's new, what has changed. This walking path is alongside a creek. A couple of the rains have been so mild with no thunder or lightning that I have been able to throw on my raincoat and take a walk in the park during the storm. Walking in the rain is a delight all its own. Several times this summer, the storms have closed the park (thankfully, only for a matter of hours at most), as the water from the creek rushed up over the banks and threatened the road...I avoid the walking path at these times, and wait for the park to re-open. 

In recent weeks, due to all the rain, the creek runs fast and brown, with the soil from the bottom swirling about. There is sand and sediment on the walking path, and debris woven into the fences of the foot bridges, the trees and shrubs along the bank. It's not unusual to see plastic bags and other trash hanging from the branches of trees, as if reaching back to the creek. The shrubs along the bank are also flattened, pressed down at an earlier time by over-flowing water. Many trees have toppled...each rainstorm brings down a few more, lifted up out of the ground by over-saturated roots. I notice that there are often very few if any birds or other wildlife immediately following a storm - it's as if the area is briefly abandoned.

I am fascinated by one tree that - rather than coming up by its roots - cracked open about six feet from its base and toppled onto the ground with its two enormous forked branches falling on either side of a recently-installed park bench. Smaller branches and twigs are strewn every which way. The park bench sits in the midst of this destruction, intact and happy:

Why did the tree break like this? The trunk did not appear ravaged by decay or termites or anything. I didn't see a line of similar damage, no other trees in the vicinity broken in the same way  - which I know would have indicated a wind storm. Hmm. Mystery. 

What does it mean? Here's my thought on this last day of summer - may I be like that park bench, strong, resilient, in the midst of whatever wild storms await me this school year. When those heavy demands rain down on me - may I remember to breathe in, breathe out, resilient. 

Goodbye, summer. Here's to the new school year!

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

What's special about summer?

I am participating in the
Tuesday Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers.
All participants are writing about one moment, one part of their day.
A big thank you to Two Writing Teachers for providing this unique opportunity
for teacher-writers to share and reflect.

My 2018-19 journal
Here it is, July 31st. I know what that means: summer break is coming to a much too rapid close. I return to school on August 8th (yikes - next Wednesday!), for two weeks of professional development and then the start of the new school year.

Two small purchases this week cemented this transition for me:

- A school journal for 2018-19! I love selecting a new one of these each summer...imagine all the special snippets that I will write in the months ahead - notes about children, lesson plans, workshops, and more.
- A large wall calendar for my kitchen, where I have begun to enter this year's schedule...all the school holidays and special events, along with all my family celebrations, appointments, and events.

I am having an absolutely fabulous summer...one with so many days of true leisure that I am often unsure what day it is. Is there a better luxury than this? Here are my top ten pleasures of this summer:

  1. So much sweet time with my husband, Tony; he's retired, and summer means we both have free, open schedules. We are able to be truly present with one another.
  2. Finding time every single day to write...challenging myself to write a couple pages each day, and finding this time so meaningful and well spent, such a joy.
  3. Reading novels, devouring novels, enjoying novels - reading for the fun of it!
  4. Long, meandering walks with no real time limits - so much more relaxed than the 'must do' exercise squeezed in at the end of a teaching day.
  5. Visiting with others, catching up with old friends, traveling to Maine and Georgia to visit family...leisurely meals, excursions, relaxed conversations with family, friends, and neighbors...reconnecting with dear ones is a highlight
  6. Weeding...I actually enjoy working in my yard when I am free to start and stop when I like.
  7. Tony and I finally figuring out how to turn on Netflix without one of our sons showing us how to do it - and then browsing movies and shows.
  8. Indulging in #7 in the middle of a rainy day! 
  9. Sitting outside and noticing all the nature around me, especially the birds...whether a plump mourning dove balancing on a stair railing, bright yellow goldfinches darting out of the purple coneflowers, a single hummingbird at the feeder, there is always so much to see.
  10. Sleep..waking without an alarm, daring to take a nap in the middle of the day...yes, this is a delirious pleasure.
Oh, summer...please don't disappear on me!