Sunday, November 28, 2010

What is intentionally planned play?

How to lay the groundwork for a delightful day at preschool? I believe the delight is in the details. Perhaps it seems like a contradiction in terms - you must intentionally plan your open-ended, exploratory fun; you must intentionally plan the learning through play.

Let me showcase a recent classroom I visited. Minutes before the children arrived, I walked around snapping photos of everything the teacher had prepared, realizing I might be able to give great visuals of the thought that necessarily goes into a delightful day.

Children "come as they are" at ages 2, 3, 4, and 5. The teacher spends her day juggling these often varied personalities; the wise teacher provides a welcoming activity for each, appealing to their different learning styles. In this classroom, there are places for all the different personalities to land happily - to be able to enter the room and immediately immerse themselves in something that is very much to their liking.

Let's see...

There is the sensory table, right near the entrance, for immediate gratification. Young children often have mixed feelings separating from their loved ones at the door - immersing one's hands in a sensory activity, such as sand or water, can be just the right fix for these troubled emotions.

You will see in this same photo, above, another table that holds a work in progress - a puzzle that the children started the day before and asked to continue today. This idea of keeping work out - allowing children to add onto their efforts of the day before - demonstrates tremendous respect of children's play.

There is an art project, where the teacher has already ensured that each interested child will have the materials he/she will need. Having materials at the ready helps children to stay focused, to work longer on their creative efforts.

Also prepared is a concentration game, laid out, in position, ready to play. There will be no need to search for something to do. The game is simple, clear, and inviting. And look - it reflects the Thanksgiving theme!

It's important to point out - none of these tables is "static." This is just today's "look." Each day, a new plan - new activities. (In fact, this is just the welcoming/start of day "look." Once the morning is underway, the teacher will clear a couple of these tables for a cooking activity - today, the children will be making pumpkin muffins.)

But I haven't finished telling you about all the activities that have been prepared throughout the classroom for all the different learners. Across the room is a jumping spot for kinesthetic fun. Don't you know a child or two that needs to run and jump lots and lots before they can focus? Wouldn't that child be happy in this classroom!

In a corner of the room, there is a quiet table with a rather academic manipulative that is just the right place for a more introspective sort.

Last, but not least, on one side of the classroom, the teacher has fenced off a large running area and opened up the rabbit cage. The rabbit explored merrily and soon his familiar friends would be here to play with him, under the watchful eye of an adult.

(This rabbit was so happy and quick, I had trouble getting a good photo until a pal arrived....)

Oh, these lucky young naturalists, learning how to care for this dear little animal, showering him with love and attention.

This classroom exemplifies the intentional planning that goes into creating a playful environment for preschoolers. What a wonderful variety of activities! This is going to be a delightful day!

Friday, November 19, 2010

What about photos?

I went to a marvelous teacher training at the National Zoo this past Saturday. One part of the workshop was simply to provide information and insight into all the different educational opportunities for children (and teachers) at the zoo. Additionally, the workshop allowed us to "roll up our shirt sleeves" and explore how you might teach math simply by studying birds. We did a variety of fun activities - exploring different aspects of birds including colors, sizes, shapes, beaks, habitats, nests, and eggs.

At one point, we took a short walk through the bird exhibits....check out these photos I took.

"Bird" - it is not just one thing, is it?

I've always known that animals are a great way to capture children's interests and get them thinking. I believe you could teach them any subject with animals as your starting point - reading, writing, arithmetic, roar! :-)

But photographs themselves are an extraordinary tool to open children's eyes to the world. If they aren't lucky enough to traipse through the zoo with you, give children a slideshow, surround them with photos, discover Tana Hoban and other photographic books, give them visuals, visuals, help them remember.

Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.” —Chinese Proverb

Friday, November 12, 2010

What makes a great teacher?

Each Sunday in the business section of the Washington Post there is a section called "On Leadership," where a question is posed and several "leaders" respond...for whatever reason, I ritually glance at this. This past Sunday, the question asked was something to the effect of "What should President Obama's next move be after the backlash of the midterm elections?" As I perused the varied responses, I was struck by the parallels between great teachers and great leaders. Great teachers are inherently great leaders.

Colonel Charles D. Allen, (U.S. Army, Ret.) Professor of Cultural Science in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College:

"When plans and strategies appear to falter, the simplest questions are often the ones that are the most overlooked: 'What were we trying to accomplish, and why?"

Such reflection is a daily if not hourly practice in the classroom. Teachers put a lot of effort into their planning and preparation, but when a given lesson or activity falls apart, they reflexively ask themselves, "Whoa, why did that happen? What was the point of this? What was I trying to get at? What did I hope the students would learn?" and, quickly, "So, if that went wrong, how might I accomplish the same objective differently? What else might I do? What's another approach?" (and they eagerly seek advice from colleagues and others on these new techniques). Discernment is a natural part of the job. Humility is a natural part of the job!

Susan Peters, vice president of executive development and the chief learning officer at GE:

"Good leaders seek new answers - and for those answers they might not like, they figure out both why they don't like them and why they are being said."

Teachers must juggle demands and expectations of students, parents, principals/directors, colleagues, and even state or local standards. They get accustomed to hearing other requirements, other goals - and, with a strong sense of self and purpose, they find ways to incorporate these new demands in a manner which reflects their personal values and style. Great teachers know what they bring to the table, they know what they want, they are confident enough to listen to others, let in new ideas, and stick to what is important. I think these teachers are the very best "negotiators" - bridging differences, flexible with a strong core.

Michael Useem, Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania provided an anecdote about a fire crew that

"...gathered every evening to study the day's decision and decide on the next day's action...."

Four questions were asked:

"What had been planned for the day?
What actually happened during the day?
Why did that happen?
What should be done tomorrow?"

These leaders..."recurrently refashioned their strategy," - much like great teachers do, to meet the changing and evolving needs of their students and administrators. Teachers and schools go through periods when there is a lot of turbulence - changes in administration, budget shortfalls, perhaps a local crisis or emergency, or simply a new but difficult class. Great teachers respond to these more trying times much like this fire crew, taking a daily pulse and resetting daily goals. They stay focused and determined, working within the limits of the situation and achieving as much as possible.

Great teachers have the unique talent of being everywhere at once - being attentive to all the varying needs in a room and aware of how individual students learn best. Interestingly, when teachers do have successes (in a preschool classroom, such exciting moments as catching a child "using words" rather than lashing out physically at a classmate, or seeing a child persevere - try, and try again - at a new activity), these successes are never the teacher's personal bragging moment. Great teachers celebrate the student, giving praise and recognition for their new mastery, truly thrilled at their students' achievement. (And then they consider how they might build on this learning, revising their plans yet again!)

Why aren't more politicians former teachers?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Would you like to have your hair done?

Another delightful first meeting with a preschooler.

It was "choice time," which is as close as I get to the "free play" period of my 3s classroom of years past...I was observing a teacher in a PreK classroom, seated at a table near the block corner, taking observation notes on my clipboard. All of a sudden, I feel someone running fingers through my hair, and a little girl asks:

Would you like to have your hair done?

Well, I am having a bad hair day.” (me)

OK, let’s do it. Do you want it straight or curly?”

I’d like it straight, I think. “ (me)

I think you should have it curly,” she insists.

Oh, okay; I trust your opinion since you are the hairdresser.” (me)

She begins to twist my hair, saying, “Once my mom did it curly and it hurt so bad. I moved while she was doing it.”

Oh, my, that must have hurt.” (me)

Yes,” she says, simply, concentrating. She begins to sing and hum while she works, “Sha-sha, sha;” then, “Okay, you have to lean back, it’s hot water, be careful and I’ll dry it.” And I sink down in my chair and throw back my head, pretending along with her. She laughs with delight, and adds, “Okay, it’s finished. Do you have a rubberband?”

I check my pockets, “No, I’m sorry, I don’t have one.”

She is amused that I looked in my pockets. “When I keep twisting it, it might stay by itself,” she reassures me. “I want you to show your Mom this and your friends! I’m fixing some straight and some are fat. Straight like a statue. Everybody, look at her hair, it’s so pretty!” She calls out to no one in particular; she is fully immersed in her dramatic role. “Ooopsie, stop moving your head! Okay, I have to do this part now. I want you to stop moving, okay? And it’s going to hurt…it’s not fake hair, it is real hair. Stop moving.”

I’m really trying not to move,” I apologize.

She makes a squirting noise. “It don’t hurt.” (Squirt, again) “It’s grease, it don’t hurt. It smells good. Don’t you think it smells good?”

Oh, yes, I do!,” I play along.

“Do you want to have some potatoes when I’m finished with you here? I’m cooking some.”

Oh, wow, I’d love some.” (me)

How’s it look to ya?” and she jumps in front of me and gives me a big smile. “That’s what I did to make your hair curly!”

Thank you, I know I need to pay you. I’m going to give you a big tip, because you did beautiful work," and I pretend to count out invisible dollars into her hand.

She smiles at me, and goes to play at the playdough table with friends.

About an hour later (I have long since finger-brushed my hair back into its original state), I am on the playground with the class, and she comes up to me, still in her dramatic role, and scolds me: “Why did you mess your hair up? Why did you go outside?!” She shakes her finger at me and runs off.

Really funny!

How fortuitous that I had my clipboard at the ready, to capture her words. How delightful it was to see a child be fully immersed like this, creating an entire story as she played.

I feel so privileged to have been present.