Tuesday, July 26, 2011

SLANT - what is it good for?

This past school year, I frequently heard reference to the acronym "SLANT," an expectation that teachers should have for their students - even the preschoolers:

S - Sit up straight
L - Look and listen
A - Ask and answer questions
N - Nod your head
T - Track the speaker with your eyes

Pardon the pun, but this simply doesn't sit right with me. Certainly, not for three year olds - who, developmentally, simply should not be held to such foolish physical rigidity. You are setting them up for failure, for rebuke.

Honestly, I'm not sure it is a "solution" for any age student. I could perhaps make a case for it to be guidance that you give to teens, almost an etiquette training, for how to conduct themselves during an interview.

However, insisting that everyone do this, all the time, while the teacher is teaching? Is this conformity necessary? Does anyone see this as a little bit spooky and surreal?

I wonder and argue - isn't it possible that you may look like you are attending, but you are not?

Case in point, my darling mother - who has dementia. Honestly and truly, Mom has mastered SLANT. It is the last vestige of her social skills. She sits with family and friends, looking and acting as if she is hanging on to their every word:

- she sits up straight;
- she listens closely;
- she grabs onto the last few words said and repeats them with an inquiring voice - "you went to the house?" (Often she will sigh or make a chuckle, affirming the emotional tone of the conversation - her ear for this is remarkable);
- she nods her head; and
- she doesn't take her eyes off the speaker.

I can assure you - my Mom is not following the discussion. We have sadly lost the ability to actually dialogue with her. She's just faking her participation, a last hopeful gesture to mask her dementia, to pretend to the world that all is well.

Isn't it possible that SLANT by students is similarly not an indicator that they are actively engaged?

Shouldn't we have more meaningful opportunities for and indicators of engagement?

Or have I missed the point of SLANT?

Perhaps it is so that children will be seen and not heard?

Yes, I have real issues with this.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What to do to promote writing?

I have a lot of fun encouraging a love of writing in my three year olds:

- I play a variety of group games where children have to guess what is different?, what has changed?, or ask questions for more details. Although there may be nothing written during these exchanges, we are thinking like writers – working on our observation skills.

- I make storytelling a routine part of gathering circles. We write simple stories together and act them out – often changing them, doing some parts a little differently, and noting what changed.

- When children arrive, one of the first things they see is a "question of the day." Children work with their family member to read the message and write a response. (Please note - it is important for children to have the pleasure of exploring writing without anyone standing over them insisting they print words in a certain way.) Everyone seems to enjoy this daily ritual. When we meet as a large group at morning circle, I read everyone's responses aloud and we discuss the question some more.

- I continually draw children’s attention to details and the need to write down special accomplishments; for example, “Did you see how you swung from one bar to the next, all the way across, on the monkey bars? That was the first time you’ve done that! We need to write that down on our ‘What We Did Today’ list for the families.”

- I try to be intentional about introducing writing practices – “Let’s see if we can look that up? Is there anything in this room that tells us about this? How about writing this down, so that we can do it again tomorrow, so that we can remember it forever? So that we can revisit?”

- I frequently write down what children talk about at the sensory table, in blocks, and at the playdough. Similarly, I take time to interview children about what they are building or painting and I write down these descriptions for them. Later, I read their words back to them and encourage them to draw pictures to accompany the words. (Often I provide a photo or a sketch of what they were doing or take – both of these actions, when presented with the child's own words, honor the child's thinking and do much to cultivate a love of writing and storytelling.)

- Often, I post the children's words (with the accompanying picture, sketch, or photo) near where they were working, at children's eye level. This will draw the attention of all the children and encourage their questions, comments, and remembering. Sometimes, children will repeat their earlier efforts or, better yet, extend them.

- I also like to make a game of what I heard - for example, using my written observation notes, I read “Overheard in the Block Corner” during snack later in the day and I encourage children to guess who was saying what, why they might have said that, and/or what happened next. Here, children aren't holding a writing tool, but they are thinking like writers.

As you can see, most of these writing ideas are simply a matter of letting children see and explore writing at their own pace. This is so important in our three year old classrooms.

A final reflective note - there is one "Catch-22" with which I constantly wrestle:

I also believe too much emphasis on observation notes can lead to a "distancing" from the children themselves. It is a delicate balancing act to decide -

How much do I observe and record?
How much do I stay present and "in relationship" with the children?

With young children, the emphasis must be on the latter. I love writing, I love observing, I love catching children's words, but I am continually reminding myself to err on the side of being present. The children benefit more from my engagement and play than from pages of notes about the day and my detachment.

(This mental wrestling is one reason why I have placed clipboards and notepads at the ready throughout my classroom, so that I may catch their words when I am so moved - but the decision is mine, not an absolute.)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why are you doing that?

A big part of my professional development this summer has involved reflecting about the way that I automatically do things as a teacher - and daring myself to change when necessary.

A big part of mentoring new teachers involves this same intellectual stretching -
daring to ask them:

Why did you do it that way?
Was it successful? What were its drawbacks?
Is that what you hoped to accomplish?
Is there another approach?

Teaching necessarily involves being open to learning new approaches, taking risks in the classroom, and revising again. It is essential to have time and space for reflection about our teaching. It is so wonderful when teachers can be mirrors to one another, helping each other to reflect and to look at things differently.

A group of new teachers worked with a group of five year olds to create an "emotional continuum" - encouraging the children to think about their emotions, all the different things they feel. This was a fun, engaging, and creative curriculum idea - a lovely exercise at the beginning of a school year, or, in this case, summer program, to help young children get in touch with the range of their emotions and how we all feel differently at different times.

The group quickly came up with a few "tried and true" emotions -

Yes, happy.
Of course, angry.
Sometimes, scared.

The teachers were thrown a few "curve balls," when a free-thinking five year old said:

"I feel excitire." She wrote the word on the board for us, and explained that excitire was "when you are so excited you feel tired."

Another five year old suggested:
"I feel Chicken Wings!" and began to flap his arms as wings and move furiously about the room. We learned that Chicken Wings is a particular kind of silly.

Still another, feeding off of this creative surge in the brainstorming, added:
"I feel ezcere;" he, too, wrote the word on the board for us, and explained that ezcere means "you are trying to do something and really focused."

Everyone had a lot of fun dramatizing each of these emotions - both the "tried and true," familiar ones and the brand new creations by the free-thinkers. They acted them out as a class and I took photos of everyone - both students and teachers - "being" that emotion.

The next day, I came into the classroom to observe the new teachers. I saw that the emotion photos were printed out and posted along the meeting rug area - lovely! Throughout the summer program, the children will have a daily ritual of "checking in" in the morning ( and anytime they feel like it during the day) and then placing a clothespin (labelled with their name) on the emotion they are feeling.

But, on closer inspection, I saw:

the three "curve ball" emotions were not included in the emotion continuum.
I was puzzled.
I knew that we dramatized these wild creations - I remembered taking the photos myself.

Ahhh...I see...
Perhaps these made up words aren't good enough?

How often do we do this to children - trump their ideas with our adult beliefs?
How often do we ignore their playfulness or wit, in the interest of time? In the interest of accomplishing our own goals?
What is the value of including and running with children's own ideas in our curriculum planning?
Why might it be difficult to include children's ideas?
How flexible is the curriculum plan? Is there room for children's own input?
How might children's engagement in the topic be affected?
What is your intention as teacher - to fill children with your wisdom or to light a spark within, so that they seek to fill themselves?
What changes can you make in your planning so that children's ideas are more welcome?

This became a teachable moment for the new teachers about the value of using authentic student work. It was also a teachable moment for me, as I realized how suddenly and unexpectedly good teaching can be undone or stalled because we are focusing on time and efficiency, "getting the curriculum across."

Teachers need
time to reflect, and
colleagues who act like mirrors.

Why did you do it that way?
Was it successful? What were its drawbacks?
Is that what you hoped to accomplish?
Is there another approach?

Friday, July 15, 2011

What will the new school year bring?

I visited my new school.

It is remarkable to see the stark, open space that will be my classroom this next school year.

I am thinking about the transformation that will occur this August, when the furniture and materials arrive...when I begin to create our new environment...a welcoming space.

Right now, walls are being patched and painted, floors are being redone. It is a time of much work.

I am working, too -
Reflecting. Remembering. Reconsidering.

I am thinking about the room arrangement.
I am thinking about layouts that have worked so well in past years, things that I must replicate in this new space.
I am recalling all the organizational mistakes that I don't want to repeat.
I am wondering about the surprises and challenges this new space and new year will bring.
I am filled with hope and excitement.

I am filled with questions.

Where will the tables go?
What about the easels?
The blocks?
The cozy, quiet area?
The big comfy chair?
Where's the best light for the plants?
Where will we gather together on the carpet?

Some trepidation - will I get it all done?

Of course! Of course! Of course!
Work fits to time allotted, right?

I'm imagining all the children in the classroom -

moving and dancing,
building and creating,
laughing and talking,
eating and resting,
painting and exploring,
reading and playing.

This large bare room, filled with children...what will the new school year bring?

How very exciting!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Coaching new teachers

Coaching new teachers at the start of a summer school program -

so much to impart, so little time...

Perhaps it is simple:

first, get to know the children - build a good relationship with each of them;

second, run with what they love and work the academics into this...you can teach anything and everything when you teach through their interests;

third, laugh and have fun as you teach.

All will be well with this approach.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

What's in the back of your mind?

Happy Summer! Happy 4th of July! Yes!

My mind is many places at once this summer...I am doing some fabulous professional development for my new position at a brand new and exciting school, the Inspired Teaching School in Washington, D.C.
(I have no doubt that I will be blogging about this endeavor in future posts...)

Today, I am thinking about my mind being in many places at once...and I'm amused at the thought. Isn't this always true of me? Is there a teacher for whom this is not true? Isn't it true of all of us?

It is funny to me, all those threads that I hold onto, all the pieces I am juggling in the back of my mind, fragments of things that I've caught and held onto and don't know quite what to do with....

...children's words...
...small actions...
...profound pieces of information from articles read or workshops attended...
...odds and ends that I'm sure will be great in a future project...

On some passive level, there are so many peripheral things that I am continually putting brain energy into - things that I believe will matter to me "in the future."

These are strands,
future somethings,
that I'm just barely feeding,
fascinated by,
but on a quiet, low-key, backburner...

I am busy and engaged, and yet always "holding onto" morsels in the back of my mind...things I am working on in a passive but consistent way.

For me, these are treasures.

For example, for a long time now, I have been taking photos of interesting patterns, variations, textures that I see in the world around me.... I don't know why. I'm moved to do it. Perhaps I am "channeling" Tana Hoban, whose work I have long admired, whose picture books are an essential part of my preschool classroom. I love the way that she makes the ordinary become extraordinary, isolating different parts of common objects for children to explore.

I know this photo interest was triggered, too, by my preschoolers - because they have pointed patterns out to me, seeing something special in the ordinary...
"Look, Ms. Maureen, see all the long roads on the bricks!"
They have opened my eyes.

And I've found myself messing around with this a bit.

These days, my camera's almost always with me, like my notepad has always been.
I am learning to use my camera a little better...snapping photos...no serious end in mind, but enamoured.

I've been a young child, noticing the patterns in things I've seen.

For me, this is kind of a release...
...it captivates me...
...it entertains me...
...it restores me...

I sometimes hear an admonishing internal voice:
What about these photos?
Where will these go?
Will they linger on this laptop, squirming in the back of my mind?

Honestly, I don't know what it is about. Maybe I'll share them with students one day...my collection of patterns....

Are our minds ever 100% on anything?

What about our children?
What "snippets" do children they have on their minds?
What are they beginning to collect?
What are they thinking about?
Do we respect these mental wanderings?
Is there room for them?

What is in the back of your mind as you work so hard at other things?
What captivates you?