Saturday, December 31, 2011

What habits are you trying to break?

In the spirit of new year resolutions, I thought I'd share a fun conversation I had with the children the other day about "bad habits."

One little guy woke up from his nap with dried blood around his nose - it was clear that he had been repeatedly picking his nose as he slept. This was a "hot topic" for this little guy. His family had asked me to encourage him in breaking this habit and, most importantly, he himself had been working very hard not to pick his nose, saying to me "I'm not a little kid anymore!" He was newly four and ready to take on the world, but, alas, while napping, that automatic response had come back. The little guy was embarrassed and frustrated, and somewhat defeated. (Who knew bad habits could continue subliminally while sleeping? Yikes!)

I hugged him close to me and gently wiped away the dried blood, trying to soothe and encourage. His classmates' eyes were on the little guy and his bloody face.

I asked, "Do any of you have bad habits? Things that you do that you wish you could stop? For example, I bite my fingernails sometimes, even though I know I should not. That's a bad habit."

Three children exclaimed, all at once, "Me, too! I do that!"

A girl added, "Sometimes I bite my toes."

Another, "Sometimes I pick my nail polish."

A boy, "Sometimes I pick my nose."
A girl, "Yes, sometimes I pick my nose."
Another boy, "Sometimes I pick my nose and if blood comes out it scares me."

A girl, "I fight over my brother."

Another boy concluded, "I'm trying to stop swimming lessons."

This last comment made me chuckle! Young children discerning the semantics of language - bad habits you want to stop doing? Or things you just don't do anymore?

I believe this simple discussion was another small step in cultivating empathy in my classroom, for children to understand one another a little better. I remember Dan Hodgins's wisdom:

"Watch out for ways in which we turn 'developmental issues' into 'moral issues' - and this is so unnecessary. It is developmentally in the norm to:
- pick your nose
- push and shove
- not listen
- take toys.
How much better to determine if it is really a problem, and then to simply redirect the child to the appropriate thing to do, without the moralizing overtone."

It is important not to over-moralize with children, but to help them set their own goals for themselves. We need to recognize certain behaviors as developmentally normal, and, also, to remember our own inability - as adults - to follow through on what we know better. Humans are frail! Children are tender. Let's be respectful in our teaching.

I love these unexpected conversations with children. They are true gifts. I am reminded how pleasurable teaching can be when I allow and cultivate these surprise moments of learning.

2011 was an excellent year for me, in early childhood education. I hope it has been a great year for you, as well. My top five experiences:

- mentoring four beginning early childhood teachers in D.C. public schools, August 2010 through June 2011, encouraging them to teach from their heart, to experience the true joy of teaching.
- participating in the Bev Bos conference this past July 2011, surrounded by like-minded educators, learning and reaffirming many great ideas for my preschool classroom.
- July 2011 on - opening and working at the Inspired Teaching Demonstration Charter School, my first foray into teaching full-time in a public school setting, working alongside passionate educators.
- working alongside a beginning teacher, grooming him to lead his own preschool classroom next year, one which will embrace the child-centered, exploratory learning that is so right for these early learners.
- being in relationship with so many wonderful children and their families.

I am so lucky that most of these positive experiences will continue in 2012! Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

What did you say about elephants?

I introduced a brand new engineering problem to my preschoolers recently, and it was a big, big hit with all of us! Our book was
Twenty One Elephants by April Jones Prince which tells the true story of the parade of elephants that marched across the Brooklyn Bridge when it was newly built, to prove its safety and strength.

As usual with my engineering lessons, I only read part of the book at first. Here, I read up until the point where the elephants went on the bridge...then we predicted whether the bridge would remain standing with 21 elephants on it. Two-thirds of my class predicted the bridge would fall; everyone else didn't know what to think. The children simply couldn't imagine that any bridge could support so many elephants. Obviously, 21 elephants was a lot! We counted slowly and aloud to 21. We played "London Bridge is Falling Down." After many laughs during this fun game, it was time to begin our engineering. The children were gripped.

For our engineering problem, we decided to build a bridge out of recyclables that was strong enough to support many elephants. We created bridges throughout the classroom, suspended between two chairs. We tested the bridges by standing five toy elephants on them.

There were so many unexpected gifts from this project.

It proved a fantastic opportunity to teach teamwork!

Several children jumped into the engineering and industriously worked alone, but the frequent result was that their bridges failed.

The children soon realized - "organically," [not dictated by me, but from the situation at hand] - that working in small groups on one bridge was the most successful approach. This way, while one student held up the bridge (between two chairs), others could add supports and/or tape to reinforce the structure. The children offered supportive ideas to one another, often scaffolding off one another’s suggestions.

Several children were so excited by the bridge-building that they worked on more than one team to create a bridge. I must admit it was particularly exciting that these were girls in the class - doesn't our world need more persevering, determined female minds like Sukey, Salma, and Eleanor?

Now, of course, this engineering problem didn't whet everyone's appetite. I had several students build just for a moment and then take off, not wanting to test their bridges. I entreated one young girl to revisit her bridge, with the comment/question - "How might you make it longer?" She looked at me puzzled. I continued, "Look - is it a problem that your bridge is so short? See, does it reach from one chair to another? " to which she quickly replied, "Oh, Ms. Ingram, they will jump!!" and she raced off to play dress ups. Well, perhaps engineering will delight her another day. We are not all in the same place at the same time.

Another unexpected gift of this engineering effort has been the children's continued thinking about bridges. Many of the children are building block bridges now, racing cars over them. Some are drawing sketches of bridges. We have enjoyed the fanciful folktale The Three Billy Goats Gruff, which caused us to think about bridges in a whole new way! This next week, before our winter break, we hope to walk around the neighborhood in the direction of a bridge, to see the bridge from afar. What do we see? How is it supported? What is it made out of? Why does it work so well? There are lots of questions on our minds, now that we have seen how difficult it is to create a successful bridge.

*One last note - I wish I could share all the photos of the children engaged and excited by this engineering challenge - unfortunately, I have yet to hand out photo waivers to my families, so that their children's pictures might be published here in my blog. You'll just have to imagine! But, I've included a few "sanitized" photos of our fun, to give you a visual of the children's work.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Oh no! That's louse-y news!

Please, no.

The BIG CATS have lice.

My preschool class has had a couple of cases in recent weeks.
Here we go again.

Check out any of the major health websites and you see mention after mention of early childhood classrooms.

Info from the Center for Disease Control begins:

Head lice are found worldwide. In the United States, infestation with head lice is most common among preschool children attending child care, elementary schoolchildren, and the household members of infested children.

WebMD begins:

Head lice are usually found in hair, most often on the back of the neck and behind the ears. Head lice are common in preschool and elementary school-age children. Adults can get them too, especially adults who live with children. says:

The bane of many parents, the head louse is a tiny, wingless parasitic insect that lives among human hairs and feeds on extremely small amounts of blood drawn from the scalp. Although they may sound gross, lice (the plural of louse) are a very common problem, especially for kids ages 3 years to 12 years (girls more often than boys).

Lice are, unfortunately, very common in early childhood classrooms. Children are in close community, hugging, and sitting alongside each other.

Yes, louse-y news.


Some of my young families are very anxious. Understandably.
I have had lice twice in my life; my boys, too. I know - truly, I know - the work involved in treating it. I remember vividly how I felt when I first had lice...when I found out that two of my three boys had them. UGH! Right to the barber we went, where I quietly but urgently explained about our situation. I insisted he cut my hair short, and the boys - buzz cuts. Voila!

Yes, louse-y news.

It's very much on the kids' minds. This during hospital play - one child peering at me, "You have worms in your ears." Her classmate pretends to look in my ear, too, "There are bugs in you!," she exclaims.

Little do they know, I am seeing those bugs everywhere, too!


A girl shouts, "Let me show you some yoga!" I turn to see her somersault and then six friends join her, landing in a big, happy heap of entangled bodies.
What do I see? Entangled hair.

Greeting one another at gathering - full body embraces.
What do I see? Entangled hair.

Playing together, sharing toys, a child yells, "I need that toy," quick swish of arms! grab!
What do I see? Entangled hair!

Dancing, moving to Laurie Berkner, pretending to be dinosaurs fast asleep.
What do I see? Entangled hair.

Exciting things in the sensory table, a child squeezes in next to his classmates.
What do I see? Entangled hair.

Playing house or hospital or restaurant or cars and trucks, children playing so close together.
What do I see? Entangled hair.


- jackets in shared cubbies
- simple t-shirt smocks
- stacking cots after nap
- piles of belongings when the aftercare kids arrive in the classroom
- soft pillows in the book corner
- the big cozy chair
- the gathering carpet
- our dress ups

The odds are not in our favor.

Yes, that's louse-y news.

(I bet you are scratching your head!)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

What about older students?

For years, I've worked at a preschool that was simply that, a preschool - a sweet campus full of two, three, four, and "just turned five" year old children.

This year, my preschool class of three year olds is embedded in an elementary school, a brand new school that has children through third grade (and in subsequent years, we will grow one older classroom a year until we are a campus of preschool through eighth grade).

I am really enjoying having older students in the same building.
I am noticing many very special relationships forming.
I am noticing that there are so many positives for both the younger and the older children.
And their teachers.

Each of the younger classes has been paired with an older class. My preschoolers are paired with Ms. Kopsidas' first grade class. Every Friday, we visit one another for 20-30 minutes (just long enough, from a 3 year old's perspective!)...we read books and do art projects together. We have even done some engineering together!

Visiting the first grade classroom is a highlight of the week.

I love how my students look up to the bigger kids. My threes look at these older students with pure admiration. (My most rambunctious children go positively quiet - in awe, perhaps?) Our time together is consistently sweet.

In addition to these planned, whole class get-togethers, we have nurtured relationships between individual elementary students and the preschoolers, as part of our school-wide discipline approach.

We teachers are committed to having a school environment that pays attention to the social-emotional needs of all our students.

Since this is our very first year - a brand new school - the older students (first, second, and third graders) have educational stories that we don't fully know - mysteries really, that we are trying to discern.
Some of these students - although no more than seven or eight years old - already have powerful internal voices that shout
"I'm not capable!! I can't!!"
Perhaps they feel unsuccessful at reading, or math, or making a friend.

Their teachers see the frustration and anger played out in all different ways, ranging from
shutting down, going quiet, and refusing to participate
flailing, yelling, and even hitting.

For these children, having little ones on campus is an extraordinary gift.

As a staff, we asked ourselves,
What do these challenging older students need?
We decided to do a pretty radical thing. We agreed to welcome older students as visitors to our younger classrooms...when a scene change is needed.
We welcome the older student to visit the younger classroom and start anew.
We don't chastise the visitor.
[You won't hear us speak sharply, "Sit over there and be quiet!".
Where did we get the idea that children won't do the right thing without consistent rebuke and recrimination?]
Instead, we invite them to join us in whatever we are doing.

I have had students arrive during our centers time and begin to play alongside. They have joined us at nap time and helped us pat the children on the back, to get them to sleep. Sometimes they come into the classroom and read books to my students.

Let me share an example:

Recently a third grader visited us during centers, a big scowl on her face. I knew something must have been going wrong in her homeroom, but I smiled at her and welcomed her to join us. I invited her to help the children at the clay table and she immediately put on a smock and rolled up her sleeves. She showed the children how to make a clay mold of their own hands. I was amused and delighted by her observation about the children, while using the clay – “They sure use a lot of materials!” [Yes, preschoolers do – and this is how our learning works best with this age group, a materials rich environment, open-ended, exploratory, allowing children to make decisions for themselves, to feel less threatened – to provide the sense that there are ample resources.] This young girl stayed with us only for about 15 minutes, during which time she witnessed a tantrum by one of my students and she helped to soothe the child. She returned to her classroom with her head held high.

Whenever my students are at the clay center, they still try to create a clay mold of their hands - just like they learned from their older friend that day.

Preschoolers are thrilled to have an older student visit. To have an older child walk into the room is to have a rock star stop by! The children gleefully call out his name and they race to his side.
I love how the older student swells with pride,
whatever was wrong is forgotten.
They are the cool person now.
Competent. Able. Needed. Important.
I believe this empowers these children, helps them feel needed, that they belong, that they have purpose.

I have no doubt that our school-wide approach to focus on the social-emotional first and foremost is pivotal to these elementary school students becoming great learners. Unless we help them in social-emotional terms, academic achievement is not in their grasp.

It is so very special to have older children in the same building!
I love this community of ours.

The most unlovable child is the most in need of love.