Sunday, January 30, 2011

What is your favorite truck, Ms. Maureen?

We experienced the "dreaded wintry mix" this past week, here in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. What a nightmare! Our old neighborhood, with its power lines strewn in and amongst large trees, was beaten and bruised by this wet, icy snow. My house was without power for 63 hours - three long, cold, dark nights.

I thought about my preschool families. How were they handling this time with their young families?
No school. No heat. No lights. No sounds.
What a test of family togetherness!

On the last day, the power company finally appeared in our neighborhood. Bryce (age 15) and I were glued to the window, watching their every move.

I realized, he was probably 4 years old when I last watched trucks with him so passionately.

We knew them all.

Trucks, trucks, trucks.
Garbage trucks.
Front loaders.
Concrete mixers.
Dump trucks.
Trucks, trucks, trucks.
Pickup trucks.
Tow trucks.
Trucks, trucks, trucks.
Log carriers.
Street washers.
Moving trucks.
Trucks, trucks, trucks.

But, which truck is the very best of all? Oh, that's easy, now! Thank you, bucket trucks!!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

How do we get across the river?

Let me tell you about yesterday's engineering with my theme class of a dozen children, ages 3, 4, and 5.... (I hope my words will paint the picture because, unfortunately, I was without a camera.)

Yesterday I chose the story "Where the River Begins," by Thomas Locker as the basis for our engineering fun. This beautiful picture book tells the sweet story of a grandfather and his two grandsons journeying together to discover the beginning of a river and is accentuated by Thomas Locker's gorgeous landscape pictures throughout. I figured it was just the right opening for the problem I posed - what if the grandfather and his two grandsons wanted to get to the other side of the river, without getting wet? What could we build to get them to the other side?

I was only a page or two into the book when one enthusiastic student called out - obviously not stunned into quiet reverie by the beautiful landscape photos of the book - "What are we building today? What is the problem?!" I recognized that I had perhaps given enough "lead in" for the project, and seeing his words as enthusiasm for engineering, I introduced the problem:

How can they get to the other side of the river?

We had a whole group discussion about how to solve the problem:

What could we build that would get people from one side of the river to the other?

Several children immediately thought of building a bridge, and we shared ideas about all the different types of bridges that we knew about - some just for walking, others for cars, and what about the ones for trains? One child suggested building "something that could jump you across," and was followed by, "something that you could fly!," "no, we could make them a boat," and "what about swimming?" We even had a brief discussion about catapults.

The children were eager to hear about our test: I had removed the long tray from the base of an easel, filled it with water, and thus created a narrow, long river. For the test, we would put three small toy people [dollhouse figures] in/on each device, to see if the device carried them across the water without the device breaking or the people falling in the water.

There was immediately a flurry of activity, some 20 to 30 minutes of impassioned construction - all the eager children gathering materials with which to create, working at the tables with scissors and tape, calling out to us three adults - "I need some help here!," as they tried to cut plastic or tape, or to adhere two odd pieces together. (3, 4, and 5 year olds have a vast range of abilities; some may not have great fine motor skills but have fabulous imaginations - I love to help them make those imaginations become visible.)

Then there was the "enticing" of those children who were not so interested. Two 4 year old boys went immediately to run in the classroom, with only eyes for playing with each other. I became a sideshow carnie, calling out, exciting, motivating, "selling" the effort enthusiastically to the two of them, probing them for their ideas, getting their insight as to how they might cross the river - I felt successful when both sat at the table to create.

We tested all the projects over our makeshift river. A small group of children hung out for each and every test, loving the different projects, cheering for their friends. One young engineer was too busy perfecting her bridge to join us for the early tests - she worked for almost an hour, cutting cardboard and netting (her chosen materials) and adding tape "just so." Another persevering engineer modified his boat three times to pass the test - his first boat wouldn't fit in the river, his second design sunk, and his third one was just right, carrying all three doll figures down the river. I was so excited by his determination, his positive response to failure - try, try, again! This is my engineering class at its best.

But, of course, it wasn't all about the engineering for every child! Simultaneous to the tests, a couple others began a frisky game of wrestling and play fighting...aieeee. Yes, this makes sense, too - it is January, it was only about 20 degrees outside; we've had lots of icy days and I have no doubt that these children have been cooped up inside too much. This rambunctious behavior is the result of that! (Time to get some whole body movement activity going....)

Then there was the momentary sideline by the little 3 year old who finished his project surprisingly fast, and made his way to an intriguing corner of this new classroom, promptly dumping several bins of ridiculously small things into one "sink" - I teach in someone else's classroom; I had no idea these small items were even there. Well, a mathematical sorting game has unexpectedly landed in my lap. Ugh! (My new friend and I worked together to put everything back in its place.)

I switched gears a bit, for these outliers, staying on "theme" - we had snack a little earlier than planned, while I dramatically read The Three Billy Goats Gruff by Paul Galdone. After snack, we built a large block bridge that children walked across (and pretended to fall into the river), all the while acting as billy goats and trolls. The trolls were well played by my frisky wrestlers. At the end of the day, we headed up to a large, open space to play all sorts of cooperative games, including many enthusiastic rounds of "London Bridge Came Falling Down."

If you were a parent who came in at the end of the class to pick up your child, you would see that the children created a variety devices to get three small toy figures across the river, including:

- one footbridge, tightly woven with pipecleaners and straws and tape, only wide enough for one person at a time;
- a catapult device that was inspired by Star Wars and sent people flying through the air, over the river, to the other side:
- a large bridge complete with observation deck, to watch the fish in the river;
- a canoe-like boat, to sail across the river;
- a bridge with a climbing wall for the people to climb up onto the bridge and then across the river, back down another wall to the other side; and
- a bridge with a fort to hide in so that you could play awhile and rest before continuing across the river.

It was a great morning of exploration. I hope my words have adequately captured our engineering fun.

*Check out just these great books for children about bridges and other structures:

Bridges! : Amazing Structures to Design, Build & Test by Carol A. Johmann
and Elizabeth J. Rieth ; illustrations by Michael Kline.

Bridges : From My Side to Yours, written & illustrated by Jan Adkins.

Built to Last : Building America's Amazing Bridges, Dams, Tunnels, and Skyscrapers, by George Sullivan

Fantastic Feats and Failures, by the editors of Yes mag.

How do you plan for everyone?

I'm thinking today about how to prepare lessons for young children. I am well aware that my teaching plan is dependent on the engagement of my class - if they aren't that into it, than I need to change it up or throw it away. This is the daily juggle of teachers...and it has led me to today's blog reflection:

how to lesson plan for everyone? how do you engage them all?

I love the whole idea of "backward design" wherein you first think about what is essential that children know and then you back up and figure out how you might best lead them to this. For example, I want children to realize :

- they can create solutions to problems;
- they may fail first, but that they can always try, try again; and
- every story has a problem hidden in it.

I also want them to simply engage in exploring found materials, discovering new ways of looking at and working with ordinary things.

When you start to plan for these "big ideas," you realize what flexibility you actually have as a preschool teacher - there is no "one way" to accomplish these. My engineering lessons have proven to be a flexible and engaging way for children to discover answers to these essential questions. Many children love to build things - and I think it is particularly inviting when you have the flexibility to build things in your own way, by your own design. It is no small thing that I, too, love to build things, therefore this type of curriculum is near and dear to my heart and the children pick up on my enthusiasm. We have a lot of fun together, exploring in this way.

At the end of each engineering effort, when parents and caregivers come in to pick up their children, I routinely hand them an interesting object created from recyclables and a brief description of today's engineering problem:

WHAT IS THE PROBLEM? The storybook problem we explored
HOW SHOULD THE PROBLEM BE SOLVED? A brief description of what we will try to create
TEST: A brief description of how we tested the device
TELL US ABOUT YOUR PROJECT: (The child's own words go here...)

This project description is just a hint of the fun we had (and hopefully a great catalyst for additional conversation between parent and child). However, my "behind-the-scenes" lesson planning has never been this straightforward. Certainly the lesson description is the "heart" of it...but it is never all I do.

The way that I lesson plan reminds me a great deal of the way my sons were taught to write in elementary school in the 1990s -

Come up with your main idea and write down every imaginable thought related to it, creating a web of ideas

[This is completely different from how I was taught writing when I was in elementary school (late 1960s): tell them what you are going to say, say it, tell them what you said.]

Once I come up with my primary activity or idea - the essential questions I want to pursue, the "heart" of my lesson - my thoughts and planning go in so many different directions:

I try to make sure that I have thought of ways to get the children excited about the topic through different intelligences -

Yes, we'll be building with cardboard, scissors, and tape, but what might we sing or chant?

Is there a movement/dance or two that I could do?

Do I have other books, to buttress the theme? Especially, "real" engineering books for those who want to go deeper?

Is there opportunity for children to work a long time on their creativity? How about a chance for them to work together?

What about the children who aren't so interested - do I have a way to reel them in? Do I have any games or other materials elsewhere in the room, to go with the theme?

Will I have a good adult-child ratio for this project, to help/guide children in various ways? What exactly will the adults be doing?

I also think about a "parent piece" - some sort of takeaway for the families. I always try to document what their child has done and, ideally, offer ideas for extending the exploration at home.

I find that when I spend time "webbing" all these questions, thinking through the possibilities, I am able to be more present with children and less likely to be thrown off by the surprises that always crop up.

Obviously, my lesson planning is not very efficient. With time and practice, I have had to write down less, but in some ways I "run around" more - gathering all sorts of materials and extras to make the plan work for everyone. Are all preschool teachers juggling like this? Is it possible that there are teachers who simply plan one project in detail from start to finish and that is that? How do they do it? Are the lessons successful? Please, share these techniques with me!

(To think, I haven't even mentioned how one reflects on how the lesson went, considers what to keep or change, and then organizes all these lesson ideas to have them at the ready through the! There's a topic not easily resolved in a blog....)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Who sank the boat?

Yes, yes, yes, I haven't shared anything from my classroom in only too long!

Let me share some fun photos from my morning with 3-5 year olds. Each Friday this month, we are exploring engineering with recyclables. Today, we read the book Who Sank the Boat? by Pamela Allen, and discussed the story's problem: the boat sunk!

Would it be possible to build a boat?

How about one that wouldn't sink?

How about if we only used recyclables and tape?

Would it be possible to create one that could hold small toy animals, much like the story?

Would the boat float if we actually tested it in water?

The answers are yes! yes! yes! yes! yes!

Children selected from a variety of leftover materials, including:

- Cardboard rolls
- Egg cartons
- Shoeboxes and other small cardboard boxes
- Yogurt and other small plastic containers
- Scrap paper
- Styrofoam trays and containers
- Paper cups, bowls, plates
- Brown paper bags
- Craft sticks
- Aluminum foil

Everyone designed their own boats, being sure to create room for each of the animals. Each child told us about their creation and then launched their boat into our bin of water.

We had a whole lot of fun!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

How to celebrate with children?

Thanks to visiting different classrooms this year, I have expanded my repertoire of ways to celebrate children's successes...silly ways to get everyone's attention about something good. It turns out, I'm not the ony one who hams it up with children, with a boisterous "pep rally" kind of cheer....

Here are ten fun ways to celebrate how great your little ones are - children love to act these out!

1. Cowboy cheer (stomp feet, stomp feet, clap 2x, “eee ha!” w/pretend lasso);

2. Train horn (fist up, pull down, “tooot! tooot!”);

3. Truck driver (fist up, pull down, “hooooonk!,” and with deep voice, “Good job, Dude!”)

4. Brain kiss (kiss fingers, touch forehead);

5. Rollercoaster (2 hands in front, parallel, moving up- "chugga, chugga, chugga;" at top, hands sweep down and up, over two hills, w/ a “Weeee! Weeeee!”)

6. Silent cheer (arms/hands w/closed fist moving wildly up and down, as in regular cheer, but no sound/voice)

7. Pat on the Back – lean one hand over the shoulder and pat on yourself on the back

8. Hug Yourself – fold arms around yourself and squeeze tight

9. You Shine – sing “na na na na, na na na na, hey hey-ey, you shine!

10. Firecracker – clap hands together, moving them upwards, hands move away from each other, fingers wiggling (raining down), with a “pshhhhhoooooo” and a final “pop” from lips smacking together.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!

A simple entry to start the year, some "food for thought"...

This comes from a book entitled The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson, Ph.D.

He notes that when you are doing what you love, what you are meant to do, the time and effort required is irrelevant. He notes that many people refer to this happy state of focus as being in a "zone" and adds:

Activities we love fill us with energy even when we are physically exhausted. Activities we don't like can drain us in minutes, even if we approach them at our physical peak of fitness.

When people place themselves in situations that lead to their being in the zone, they tap into a primal source of energy. They are literally more alive because of it.

We - as parents, teachers, and caregivers - have a beautiful window into just what this zone is for the little ones in our life. We can use this information to guide them in the future. Simply by watching children play, we can see their gifts, their strengths, their passions. As Ken Robinson continues,

This is about looking into the eyes of your children or those you care for and, rather than approaching them with a template about who they might be, trying to understand who they really are. Left to their own devices, what are they drawn to do? What kinds of activities do they tend to engage in voluntarily? What sorts of aptitude do they suggest? What absorbs them the most? What sort of questions do they ask, and what type of points do they make?

Want to hear more from Ken Robinson? Check out these two videos from TED Conferences where he has spoken about creativity and education:

Happy New Year, everybody!!