Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Slice of Life - the challenge of public preK

My Tuesday morning mentoring is cancelled this beautiful spring day, because that school is on a different spring break schedule than the rest of us. I have a "found" morning - let's write!
Better yet, let's try my hand at the "Slice of Life" challenge...

"Slice of Life" is a weekly writing challenge on the Two Writing Teachers blog, which I have recently discovered and I encourage you to check out, too. These are some inspirational teachers!

They write:
"Each day we read a little and write a slice of life."

So, I'll take my cue from them.

I read in this morning's Washington Post:

"Funding for early-childhood education declined between 2009 and 2010, even as the Obama administration urged states to increase pre-kindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year olds, according to a study released Tuesday.

[Education Secretary Arne] Duncan said yesterday that the cuts present "real challenges to young people who are desperately fighting to enter the mainstream."

Funding challenges aside, teaching 3 and 4 year olds in our public schools is pretty much a given in many locations throughout our nation. (For example, D.C.)

But, I wonder (or, perhaps, I vent)-

Who decides what that education looks like?
What are the differences between private preschools and public ones? What are the similarities? Are there bridges between?
What is the effect of having preschool in an elementary school - does it change the tone of the program?
How do we ensure that learning through play is the foundation of these public programs?
How do we ensure that preschool classrooms reflect the individual children and community within?

I've taught at private preschools for years. I am now mentoring PreK teachers in public schools. I have been reflecting lots about the two worlds.

I've never had to teach a stand-alone math period.
Yet, my teaching is rich with counting, measuring, problem-solving, logic.

I've never had to teach a stand-alone language period.
Yet, my teaching is rich with reading, vocabulary, word play, writing, storytelling.

I've never had a scripted curriculum.

I've never had to give my children tests.

I start with children's interests - the children in my class. The curriculum themes emerge.

I intentionally weave reading, math, social-emotional, music, physical, art, engineering, sensory, and other opportunities into every topic.

Give me your child-centered, playful topic and I will tell you the learning possibilities. I will even provide you with data and documentation.

For me as teacher, this is an exhilarating, dynamic, and intellectual pursuit - I am continually observing, learning, and changing.

Is this approach unique to private preschools?
How might we ensure that it is not?

Strong leadership is essential to secure funding for public preschool.
Strong leadership is also essential for how it is executed - how public preschool plays out, pun intended.

Monday, April 25, 2011

What about those princesses?

I've written enough entries to see that I have some recurring themes in this blog. Here's one:

I believe we are called to be both present and a passage with young children.

"Present" in the sense that we need to be fully engaged with them, watching and observing as we do so - and be thankful for the little bit of insight we receive about their interests, their joys, their fears, what they are currently "working on." We should dare to go lightly with them, to see the world through their eyes.

"A Passage" in the sense - we need to consider where this might lead. What is valuable about what they are doing? What is the merit in it? What does it tell me about this child? How might I change what I am doing to make this a more positive opportunity for them? Is there a way to introduce or stretch some learning? How might I channel this for them?

I think this need to be both "present and a passage" is particularly important when our children are doing something we don't like or understand. (Though, here, we may want to add an intermediate step - reflection - take a moment to ask yourself, why is this bothering me?)

Today's example: princesses. (Aren't they on everybody's mind this week, with the royal wedding?)

One obsession that crops up in my 3s classes each year has been princesses. Little girls get so excited about this. Unfortunately, this is not always an obsession that the parents share. Some parents become concerned about their girls associating clothing, accessories, etc. with self-worth. Especially when they see 2-3 year old girls on the look out for one another at morning arrival, very interested in what each other is wearing. Especially when they can't get their little girls to wear anything other than a princess dress!

When our little girls throw on those princess dresses, we don't need to fear it as a statement on their self-worth but instead see it as the emergence of "self-aware" (and, simultaneously, "aware of others" - finally leaving the 2 year old "all about me" stage).

It is time to read the classic series about children's developmental stages and traits - Your Three Your Old by Louise Bates Ames.

Girls and boys are discovering themselves at this age. They are choosing their outfits and dressing themselves for the first time. They are all eyes and ears for their same sex role models; their genders are often very much "on display" - and "test-piloted" for the next couple of years. Children love to play around and even to blur the lines - girls dressing in construction gear, pirate costumes; boys putting on ball gowns. (One friend laughs of her young daughter running around "with a Nerf gun while in a tutu," following an older brother.) Children are starting to see, and be more aware of, differences between people.

These are very dramatic years - they love to dress up, play make believe. Knowing this, my response as teacher has been to have lots and lots of costumes and fabrics in the dress up corner of my room, for my 3s to delight in and explore. Typically, I throw myself into the mix - I am Queen Maureen, and I insist that we speak to each other with formal and polite tone:
"How do you do?"
"I am well, thank you, and yourself?"
Yes, I try to be present, in on the fun.

We also get concerned about the way in which girls compliment one another. One father mentioned his concern that the girls in the class were too caught up with what they are wearing - complimenting each other on "pink" and "dresses."

To an extent, these compliments are "parroting" - what children hear on their TV shows (Disney anyone?), throughout our media, and even what they hear at home/out and about. We are a pretty visual society! Step back and listen to what adults compliment each other on - "Oooh, I love your hair!," and "Where did you get that dress? It looks great on you."

I see the girls' compliments - as superficial and simplistic as they may be - as an opportunity. Children this age are beginning to see each other as 'friends' - compliments are a lovely start, I think. Throughout the day, I help children see what they are good at/what their gifts are - I try to compliment them on good things I see them doing, rather than what they look like. ("You are adding so many interesting details to that painting," or "What an enormous house you have built," or some such.) I might try to interject a new subject, if they seem to be dwelling on one thing (but I would also observe to see if I could figure out why this is the main topic of discussion).

This princess chatter is a reminder to embed my curriculum with friendship opportunities - specifically, teaching them about compliments. I have even done mini-lessons on "Giving a Compliment;" one simple idea, rolling a ball to one another and giving a compliment as you role the ball...teaching the recipient to say "thank you." To me, it's all good!

There are so many ways to channel princesses to a higher level. I have read old-fashioned princess tales and their modern counterparts, getting children to consider what is different? why? This is higher-level thinking. We have explored hopes and dreams - what would you do with a magic wand? One colleague and I had a lot of fun setting up a "royal quest" obstacle course, letting the children do all sorts of fun physical endeavors. There's no end to the possibility, if you open yourself up to it a little - to be present and a passage.

One last note: I haven't read Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein, and I hope it doesn't refute what I've written above. However, I've done a little internet searching about the book; Peggy Orenstein provides some excellent ways to "provide a passage" about princesses under the Resources page of her blog. Teachers and parents - check these out!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Where is the dollhouse?

I have always loved dolls. I had a dollhouse as a young girl, but I had to give it away when I turned 13 to a White Elephant Sale - my mother explained I was too big to play with dolls.

My mother was wrong.

I am still very partial to dolls.

I missed that dollhouse for many years.

One year when the boys were young, my husband bought me a dollhouse for my birthday, much to my delight. I painted it the same colors as our real house. I made furniture for it.

I kept the dollhouse in our family room and the boys played and played at it. I provided toy furniture and toy people, near at hand, freely tossed into accessible bins...but the children brought many other treasures to the dollhouse.
Sometimes Thomas the Tank Engine was in the dollhouse.
Sometimes it was simply zoo animals, particularly elephant families.
Sometimes we built enormous cities, with roads that led right to the dollhouse.
Sometimes it was just one doll figure, over and over again, using the toy toilet.
(Sometimes that one doll figure was Han Solo.)

When the boys entered elementary school and I had my own preschool class, I brought my dollhouse to my classroom...and watched lots of the same play again.

Yes, I find dollhouse play to be an extraordinary window into what is on a child's mind.

I don't think I am alone in this thinking. All of the classes at my private, cooperative preschool had dollhouses. My colleagues and I would frequently write down the conversations we overheard in the dollhouse and share them with the child's family. Sometimes we would continue discussions at circle time that had begun in the dollhouse - discussions about sharing or missing Mommy or other social-emotional concerns.

It dawned on me recently that I have yet to see a dollhouse in any of the public (city) preschool classes that I have visited this year.


What does this mean?

Is this important?

Where is the dollhouse?

Monday, April 11, 2011

What are we interested in today?

"Sculptures - Part II" was a bit of a bust. I brought a variety of wire, ribbon, pipecleaners, and party streamers for the two year olds to explore. I thought they might enjoy revisiting their sculptures, wrapping and tying these pretty extras onto last week's sculptures.

There was a very brief exploration of the wire by a few children - Toby bent a long piece over his head and declared, "I have a hat!," but this was the extent of his interest in the wire this morning. He paid no attention to his sculpture from the week before.

Eva was thrilled when I showed her a curlicue I made by wrapping the wire around the end of the scissors. She and Greyson both had fun trying to do this, too. Eva loved the ribbon and added many pieces to her sculpture - "I love pink!," she declared, as she wrapped her sculpture in pink ribbon.

Greyson enjoyed the wire the most - mashing it with his hands, adding it onto and into his rocket. He wrapped the wire around his wrist and we scooched it off and he studied the large, loopy ringlets it made. I loved watching his hands bend, smush, fold, and stuff the wire - Greyson exploring its properties, what it could do.

Rather than work on their sculptures, Henry and Toby worked together building a long Duplo train.
We had a special math moment:
"Wow, look at all the train cars! How many do you have?," I asked.
We counted together, "1...2...3...4...5...6...7...8...9."
"10!" I added, counting the engine.
"No! That's not a car," Henry corrected me, "That is an engine. There are 9!"
"Henry, you are right - the engine is pulling 9 cars," I agreed.
Henry gave me a big smile for this correction.

It was a gorgeous spring day, already in the 80s, and bright sunshine. These sculptures and wire had to wait - we needed to be outside!

We rolled the sensory table outside, into the courtyard, and the children played in its birdseed.
We discovered ants in the cracks of the concrete landing, running every which way, and they made us think about our families - "Is that a mommy? A daddy? Look, another!"
Ms. Karen brought Ron Weasley, the guinea pig, outside to play. Henry, Eva, and Toby enjoyed petting him, laughing as he scrunched up his face in response to the breeze.
We drew on the courtyard in chalk.

Greyson found a slug. He fed him a leaf. Then he wrapped the slug in the leaf. "He's not moving!" he exclaimed, concerned. I explained that slugs move very, very slowly. Greyson, Eva, Toby, and I practiced moving like slugs. Then we put the slug back into the ivy embankment - and it was soon beyond our eyesight. "Where is it?" Greyson asked over and over, unsuccessfully looking for it. "The slug is happy in its home," I assured him.

And, of course, there were books and songs and dancing. Don't forget the delicious snack. Plus, the big playground and being in the sandbox with our bare feet.

Yes, "Sculptures - Part II" was a bit of a bust, but we had a lovely morning together, all the same. That is how it is with two year olds - you set up the fun, but let them lead the way.

Monday, April 4, 2011

What about sculptures?

Today we made sculptures in the 2s classroom, starting with a cardboard base and adding all manner of recyclables of the children's own choosing. There were no time limits, no explicit rules, only free-form exploration and creativity, using the simple tools of tape and scissors. I was letting the environment set the limits - one bin of recyclables in easy reach, an open table with a place for everyone to work.

The children worked at their own pace and in their own way - and Ms. Karen and I stayed right there near them, working with children who needed extra help cutting tape or fastening one object to another.

Quinn had virtually two different projects - for much of the morning, he had a minimalist "one cork" sculpture. But then he saw the paint. "Oh, I want purple paint!," he declared...and immediately he began to modify the sculpture, adding three small boxes, painting each one thoroughly and enthusiastically. So thoroughly, in fact, the boxes lost all dimension and wilted into a flat purple mass. "I like purple, I like this, I am done!," he declared.

Several children knew from the outset what they wanted to build - and each idea was unique. Greyson, a rocket; Toby, "to see through" (I think a telescope?); Eva, a computer.

Henry started off thinking about James, the red engine from Thomas the Tank Engine. But, he loved all the paint colors and decided to add new parts to the structure and then more paint.

"Look at this - they match!" said Toby, noting a tape and scissors that were the same bright yellow. He decided these two objects belonged together and worked diligently with these for quite some time.

The children worked alongside one another and chatted, comfortably. "Wow, I like yours!," said Caitlyn, "It is so pretty!"
"Yes, it's really a computer!" said Eva.

Caitlyn could not get enough of the tape - and created a wild, spontaneous, free-form tape sculpture (Calder, anyone?).

We put all the sculptures in a safe place to dry. We will return to them next Monday. I am very, very curious what these 2 year olds will make of these - a full week away. Will the sculptures still have the same meaning? Next week, we will explore some all new "extras" to fancy it up and add special details - I'm thinking wire, ribbon, yarn, pipecleaners, beads. We'll see!

Our morning together flew by. The children were so happy and easy-going. This is the gift of open-ended exploration - no conflict, just curiosity and engagement. A delight for one and all.