Tuesday, December 17, 2013

SOLS A fun new ritual

It is Tuesday and this is a "Slice of Life" (SOLS) for Two Writing Teachers.  Check out their website for lots more reflections on teaching.

This is a really small slice - I am borrowing my husband's computer, because mine is being repaired. (An unfortunate accident with absolute consequences - I spilled my tea on the keyboard....) I didn't want to miss the Tuesday slice though!!


We have a new ritual in the Big Cats this year - read-alouds in both English and Spanish. My Teaching Resident (Melissa) is bilingual...plus there are oh so many great picture books that are available in both English and Spanish.

Today we read Mo Willems' Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!
(No Dejes Que la Paloma Conduzca el Autobus!)

This is such a fun book by Mo Willems. Both Melissa and I got such a kick out of the children yelling "NO!!" every time the pigeon tried to talk them into letting him drive the bus - whether he made his demands in English or Spanish! Very, very cute!

We read these familiar books with lots of dramatic flair - trying hard to mirror each others intonation, in both languages. The children are riveted by these bilingual read-alouds.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

SOLSC What good is the data?

It is Tuesday and this is a "Slice of Life" for Two Writing Teachers.  Check out their website for lots more reflections on teaching.


She is full of energy, and endless motion.
She visits every center, every day, several visits to each one,
never staying very long.
She loves the sensory table.
She is always busy, up to something.
I have to keep my peripheral vision on her,
if not my full attention.
Yes, she is a "dumper" -
if I'm not right there next to her,
she will dump the beads all over the table,
empty the blocks onto the carpet,
fill a purse with all the pretend food and
dump it out elsewhere in the room.
She is happy and non-stop.

I wasn't surprised by the alphabet assessment.
She didn't recognize any of the letters.
She's just not ready to see these yet, I rationalized.
This is a mover and a shaker.
Her pre-literacy will be song, dance, books, and stories...
we'll get to letter recognition much later...
if not this preschool year, then perhaps pre-k.

At least this is what I was thinking until yesterday.

She was frenetic at the end of the day,
trying to get into the closed sensory table,
reaching for scissors to cut paper into small bits,
opening up the paints at the easel, long after they had been closed for the day.
I didn't want to say "no" anymore.
I scooped her up into my arms, saying,
"I need a minute with you - I need a hug!"
This freed me from having to follow her around,
while dismissing children to their families.
This kept her from getting into any more mischief.

While perched there,
head at my head level,
she surprised me.
She began reading a sign I had posted for adults...
putting her finger at each letter and reading aloud,
each letter,
one by one.


My data says,
consistently says,
she does not know any letters.

Yet, here she is,
reading every letter accurately.


What does this tell me about my assessment?
What have I learned about her?
How will I help her to focus from now on?
What else have I missed about her?
What have I assumed?
What good is the data?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

What about the Three Little Pigs?

At morning gathering, the children and I were re-telling their favorite tale of The Three Little Pigs, with me pausing to ask oh so many questions - How many pigs were there? What was the first house built of? And the second house? third house?  - knowing that they know this story by heart.

I puzzled - "Why did they have to leave home? Why did their Mommy say it was time for them to leave?" They seemed positively surprised by this - hmmm, growing up and leaving home?

The storytelling continued, with the wolf approaching the first pig's house of straw. We dramatically recited the well-known lines together, clapping feverishly on our thighs for the strong knocks of the wolf, gruffly calling out "Little Pig, Little Pig, let me come in!" and squeaking together the words "Oh, no, not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin!"

Then, I paused the story -

"And then the Big Bad Wolf huffs and puffs and . . . Wait. Wait. Wait.  
What is the problem here?" I asked.

The children cried out, enthusiastically, "The wolf is going to blow his house down!"

"Oh you think so? Hmmm. What if you were building the house? Could you build a house that the wolf could not blow down?"

Immediately, lots of excited voices...talking all at once, determined -
"Oh, yes!" 
"Yes, I would stick it to the ground!" 
"I would have lots of bricks!" 
"I would not let the wolf."

The challenge was to build a house using only ordinary household recyclables, found objects, and tape.

I reminded the children - engineers always test their solutions, to ensure they work.  How might we test these houses? I asked. The children seemed puzzled.

"We need a wolf, right? The good news is, I was able to find a wolf to come help us blow down our houses."

The children looked at me surprised...and they squealed with delight when I whipped out a hair blow dryer for the test!

Yes, these preschoolers were hooked on today's engineering project.

Every engineering problem has five basic steps in a cycle -

1. Define the PROBLEM.

Can we build a house that the wolf will not blow down?

2. Make a PLAN.

I always have paper and pen at the ready and set the expectation of them creating a plan, helping them to get into the good learning habit of "first, plan, and, then, build."

Honestly, here in the Big Cats (preschoolers who are three years old and newly four years old), this second and important step is often given short-shrift. Pausing to draw a diagram when one's fine motor skills are not totally there yet - many are not yet holding a pencil - seems to be an unnecessary hurdle!
Once the children lay eyes on the bin of recyclables, their "plans" are spoken orally - shared aloud, as we choose materials to create with and excitedly get down to the work of step three - BUILDING.

Here are two of the drawn designs for The Three Little Pigs engineering effort:

3. BUILD a solution.

This is where the children are riveted. I work alongside them at the table, managing a small group of five or six children at a time. Preschoolers are still working on their scissor cutting skills, so I have prepped this table both with rolls of tape and a pair of scissors for each child plus pieces of cut tape hanging from its edges, allowing them the choice of cutting their own or taking the prepared, whichever their creative process requires.

Building is a feverish process, with many needs at once -
Can you help me with this?
I need that!
Look what I did! 
I need more tape!
The Big Bad Wolf can't knock it over!
Look, it's connected together!
He needs to knock on the door right here.

I am alongside them, with both camera and notepad out, capturing their work. Simultaneously, I am asking questions -
Where is the door on your house, where does the wolf knock?
What is this part?
How are you making your house strong?
What keeps your house from blowing over?
When the wolf comes and blows on it, will your house be strong?

It is near impossible for me to record everything. One day soon, I will videotape this dynamic process. There is so much fun stuff going on, all at once! This is the "happy buzz" of a engaging classroom.

I love seeing how busy their hands are,
how pursed their lips become,
often tongue between their lips.
Their bodies tell me they are engaged by this open-ended process of engineering,
delighted to create their own individual design,
working hard to make a house,
focused on choosing just the right pieces of recyclables,
determined to connect pieces together,
concentrating on cutting tape,
happily exploring.

4. TEST the solution.

Finally, it is time for testing. We sit in a gathering circle, and test the houses one by one, using the blowdryer. 

I am amazed at the children's rapt attention at each other's work - engineering nudges them from "all about me" into open curiosity and interest about their classmates' work. We are working together!

I ask each student,
What's your prediction - will the wolf blow it over or will it stay strong? 

I call out, "drumroll!" and the children make a brief drumroll on their legs, as I turn on the blowdryer. Everyone is very excited.

The testing is not the final step. Engineering is a cycle, with a fifth step -

5. SHARE ideas, consider modifications, and start again, if need be.

After each test, we talk about what happened, what worked, what would change the results.

Before the first test, I reminded the children - "So, if the blowdryer knocks over our house, will we burst into tears and throw ourselves on the floor in a tantrum?" Everyone laughs at my pantomine of a tantrum.  "No! We will take a deep breath and say, hey, why didn't that work? And we will ask our classmates - does anyone have any ideas how to make it stronger?

This reflective discussion by the whole group is extremely important. 

As I anticipated - and, as in real engineering efforts - a couple of the houses failed. When we turned on the blowdryer, they did not stand strong but, instead, blew over.

Now we have a real engineering challenge! I declared, 
What ideas do you have for making this house stronger? 
What might you add or change, so that it does not fall over or blow away?
How does this house compare to the one we looked at before? What is the same or different? 
Let's share our thoughts about why one house is standing, but another has blown over? Why is that? 

This engineering process,
based on a familiar and fun folktale, and
using simple, inexpensive materials,
provides children the opportunity to experience 'failure' or 'less than perfect' results in a safe, playful environment.
Children are driven to figure it out - to build a house that passes the test.

I love watching how each child engages with the problem,
I love seeing their different approaches to learning.

Let me conclude with one special anecdote from our The Three Little Pigs engineering:

Jasmine drew a very clear plan for her house, but seemed to lose sight of this for a bit. She was fascinated by some wispy packing materials in the recyclable bin - and spent some time adding tape to these, cutting and trimming. I was concerned that these would simply blow away, so I "nudged her" with the question, "I see you have found some soft materials to build with. What is your prediction, when the wolf comes to this house, will it be strong?" To which she answered, "Oh it's okay! I'm making the first little piggy's house!" Delightful.

A little later, Jasmine began helping Ellie with a particularly strong house - Ellie had found an amazing variety of pieces and worked diligently to create a chimney and several rooms. [An aside - Ellie worked for 40 minutes on her house. What does this tell us about children's attention spans? We need to reflect on the tasks and experiences we give children - is it their attention span that is lacking or the nature of the task? What engages them?] Ellie asked Jasmine to help her hold the chimney up while she taped, to which Jasmine happily complied. [How's that for a social-emotional skill - working together!! This is a BIG successful interaction for preschoolers - a lovely byproduct of this engineering effort.]

After working so successfully with Ellie, I noticed Jasmine return to her wispy house and begin working with renewed energy. She added several heavier pieces of recyclables, one recognizable as a chimney! Her wispy materials were completely covered by these stronger pieces. Yes, her house passed the test easily, standing strong against the blowdryer wolf.

Check out her final project and her original plan - am I the only one who sees a similarity? She planned and constructed a solid house.

These inexpensive loose parts and the open-ended problem-solving of engineering provide preschoolers with the opportunity to develop essential skills and habits, such as

curiosity, perseverance, flexibility, determination, resilience, teamwork.

And a great time is had by all!

We are engineers! We solve problems!

Friday, November 29, 2013

What do you have to do?

Happy Thanksgiving!!

It is kind of funny to me that my last blogpost was all about calmness, mindfulness, being present...and this writing was followed by some of the most hectic, jam-packed teaching days that I have had in awhile. Ironic? Or did I feel it in my bones? That post was "the calm before the storm." The ten days before Thanksgiving break were absolutely wild for me...too much to do, get done, make happen.

Now it is a Thanksgiving weekend, and I am thankful to immerse myself in writing again.

Writing is a real priority for me - and yet I haven't written a blog post in two and a half weeks. How does that happen?

This is one of those periods of time when I wasn't in charge of creating or following my priorities,
but, instead, school/teaching priorities "ruled." Let me share -

Our first trimester was coming to an end and we had our evening "Learning Showcase," where all the students come back to school with their families, to see and learn about everything we've been doing for the first many weeks of school. A lot of prep goes into this event...making sure that every student has their work represented in the classroom, creating both wall and table displays, writing the documentation of the children's learning. [I shared the children's beautiful found object artwork, their special stories, plus their self-portraits.] It is a big, exciting event - especially for preschoolers.   Imagine - coming to school two times in a day! Coming to the classroom with family! Coming to the classroom when it is dark outside! The preschoolers were beside themselves with excitement, both in anticipation of the event and in the classroom that evening, during the event. I looked around the room and saw so many beaming faces...such a full room...so many children, so many adults. Everyone lingering, reading the displays, watching the slide show, studying the artwork. We took time for families to re-introduce themselves to one another, connecting as a community. It was a very special evening. A lot of work, but very special.

Simultaneously - the same week as our Learning Showcase - the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) conference was in D.C.  About once every four or five years, this conference is here, in my hometown.  It is an extraordinary conference, a "must do" for early childhood educators - four days of non-stop workshops and training sessions on every imaginable early childhood topic - guidance and discipline, curriculum, advocacy, special education, on and on. I "devour" this conference, loving to hear the latest research and theories about teaching, loving to see and hear the strong, inspirational voices of early childhood. But, this year, NAEYC was a very different experience for me. This was my first time attending NAEYC as part of an elementary school. In previous years, I was working at an early childhood center, where the school calendar respects these days as days off for all staff. (There was one year when my Director flew all of us to Chicago to attend the conference, that's how essential this conference was considered to be!) Now, I'm at a preschool that is part of an elementary school, and school wasn't closed. Six of us (preschool through kindergarten, master teachers) were given the privilege of attending this conference. There was insufficient coverage of substitutes, making it impossible for all six of us to be at every day of the conference.  Here I was, only two metro stops away from the conference but unable to spend every minute there. Instead, I spent the four days stretched between school and conference, juggling plans for subs, readying for the Learning Showcase, reading the conference program and highlighting the "must sees," searching for windows of opportunity to slip out, rushing out during nap times, starting my day with teaching, racing to the conference in the afternoon. Yes, it was a little nutty, to say the least. This year, for me, NAEYC was a  bizarre combination of utter exhaustion and delightful motivation.

Of course, Learning Showcase and NAEYC were not the only two priorities of the past many days of teaching. Report Cards were also due at this time. If there's a Learning Showcase, then, the trimester must be ending...and trimester means writing each child's report. So, in and around my teaching, in and around the Learning Showcase, in and around the NAEYC Conference, I had to think about report cards. At preschool, these are anecdotal. There are no grades to offer or test results to share...we write brief synopses of how the child is doing in our school, highlighting our four "I's" -   Intellect, Imagination, Inquiry, and Integrity. Three years into our school, our format for these reports continues to change - we were told to write one paragraph, only four or five sentences long; this past Monday, there was a revision to this edict - "one paragraph for each student, approximately 200 words long," due the next day, by end of the day. Oh my, back to writing, Maureen! (But, forget about writing a Tuesday Slice of Life blogpost!)  Write, write, write. Share about each child's social-emotional, literacy, math, and cognitive learning, share what I see them working on, share what I see them engaged by...share what I love about each of these sweet preschoolers. Families will receive the report card in time for our December family conference; these paragraphs will set the stage for our discussion together. It is a lot of work to create these individual reports, but hopefully very meaningful for families.

Let's not forget my teaching . . . This past Monday and Tuesday, throughout the whole school we celebrated "Changemaker Days" - two days of service learning, where we work with the students to identify problems they'd like to solve and then to work on creating positive change. What an interesting concept for preschoolers to grapple with . . .

At Gathering, we discussed What is a changemaker? What does it mean to change things?  The children first focused on the word "change" - 
"you have to stop playing and do something else, like go on a walk"
[It was not lost on me that this is the profound and difficult work of preschoolers - transitioning from one activity to the next, especially when directed to do so rather than deciding to do so on your own!]
"when you change to rainboots because it is raining outside"
"when you change your pants in the bathroom"
They definitely had great examples of what change means.

I redirected - 
How might we change things for the better? What can we do that helps other people? How might we help one another in the classroom? What helps our school?
Out came a torrent of ideas.
"not making messes"
"when you clean up"
"sharing toys"
"you have to be nice"
"you do not hit your friend"
"put paper towels in the trash can in the bathroom"
"firefighters - because they help people"
Yes, they were getting to the essence of being a changemaker...preschool perspective. I was impressed.

My intention during our centers time was to get the preschoolers cleaning - wiping down the railings of the school stairs, scrubbing tables with shaving cream, taking care of our school. We also planned a fun process art activity...my Teaching Assistant, Ms. Casstevens, is visiting a teacher friend in Nepal over winter break; the preschoolers began work on a beautiful painted mural for her to take to this classroom.


We also decided spontaneously to build a firetruck in the block corner - what better way to practice being a changemaker?  We used every block in the classroom, plus several of our chairs. We pretended to have many emergencies - sitting in the firetruck, sounding the pretend alarm, driving quickly to the emergency, spraying pretend hoses on the fire, returning to the firehouse, and then rushing to the next emergency... over and over.

It was clear to me that the children wanted to be with me, close at hand - the crazed demands of the past many days had taken me from them mentally, if not physically. When I was in the room, I was preoccupied with "What conference panel is next and can I make it?" or "Did I print out the stories for the Learning Showcase?" or "I must remember to write about that on [John's] report card." Yes, it was time to be present, to play with the children.
I gave myself permission to do so.
It is what I had to do!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tuesday SOL When are we present?

It is Tuesday and this is a "Slice of Life" for Two Writing Teachers.  Check out their website for lots more reflections on teaching.


I've introduced several mindfulness practices into my preschool curriculum this year, drawing heavily from a couple of books suggested by my friend Amy:

The Mindful Child by Susan Kaiser Greenland
A Handful of Quiet by Thich Nhat Hanh
Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village Community

One activity that fascinates me is "Following the Leader," where you - the adult - follow the child's lead, playing along with whatever interests him/her...following, not controlling, not organizing, not deciding...

therefore you are... 

...staring out the window,
...turning over a leaf in your hand,
...stopping frequently on a walk, just to look at the ants,
...humming to yourself,
...coloring haphazardly on paper, over and over, the same color, the same stroke.

When do adults ever do this with children? 
What would it feel like? 

It seems all too rare.

A happy memory...
several months ago,
my husband and I,
visiting a preschooler,
our grand niece,
taking her out for an early morning muffin in downtown Chicago,
so that newborn baby sister and parents could rest,
so that the house would be quiet...

She was dressed as a princess.

We walked a few steps together and 
she unexpectedly called out, 
as if we had rehearsed it,
my husband and I froze mid-step.
Her delight was extraordinary.

Over and over, we did this,
she and us,
walking together,
she calling out "Freeze,"
the two of us stopping,
followed by her heartfelt laughter,
then, marching on,
us joining her,
until the next command of "Freeze."

For a brief morning,
we were at her beck and command,
following her lead,
delighting in what delighted her,
and it was 
an amazing gift.

An incredibly special time.

This is a gift that seems beyond my grasp in the classroom,
with so many competing needs, desires, and demands,
too many children to follow,
curriculum plans to pursue,
data to acquire,
administrative concerns to consider,
professional development,
the daily schedule,
busy, full days of time management.

This is a gift that seems beyond parents,
with so many competing needs, desires, and demands,
readying children for daily routines,
get up, get dressed, prepare, gather, hurry, make food, clean, put away, settle down,
work responsibilities and burdens to shoulder,
household necessities and concerns, things to buy, fix, organize,
busy, full days of time management.

What of the child who must adhere to these incessant demands, schedules, expectations?

What future are we preparing the child for,
if this is all he/she ever experiences?

How can we change our lives so that following the child's lead becomes less rare?

How might we indulge in this gift more regularly,
this gift that delights 
both adult and child?

Mindfulness...allowing ourselves to be present.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Tuesday SOL Do you see what I see?

It is Tuesday and this is a "Slice of Life" for Two Writing Teachers.  Check out their website for lots more reflections on teaching.

In this month of gratitude, 
I am thankful for preschoolers 
who remind me 
of the joy of play. 

I placed a basket of safety goggles in the science corner recently, with no particular goal in mind - simply because I had them.

The children were delighted! Although we had many "real" activities planned, all they wanted to do was wear those goggles and create their own special fun. 

Everything is more fun with safety goggles on.

Safety goggles are essential for most table top activities!

Here, a loud, rambunctious game of underwater shark is improvised! Who knew that safety goggles were a dramatic play prop?

You see the world differently through safety goggles.  
I'm thankful for children who remind me of this, each and every day.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Tuesday SOL What about imagination?

It is Tuesday and this is a "Slice of Life" for Two Writing Teachers.  Check out their website for lots more reflections on teaching.

I am fascinated by what makes children think "outside the box."  What makes them imagine?

For me, working with found objects and recyclables are often the catalyst...an inexpensive and fun way for them to unleash their wonder.

We've been delighted by these in recent weeks. 

Everyone collected 10 or so small, inconsequential, extra items from their homes. At morning gathering, everyone dumped out their objects and we studied them. 

(Well, almost everyone dumped out their objects...preschoolers are fickle beings, new to sharing. Several children were very sad about having to share these treasures with others, and I suggested that they return their objects to their backpacks, until they felt ready to share. Learning to share can be very difficult - even leftover, small "extras" from home.  Children get attached to small things, even things that seem ‘without purpose’ to us adults.)

We discussed what we saw. The children were very interested in all the different materials, textures, purposes. With these materials in hand, the children began discussing the purposes of objects, how things work, what they might be used for, what was similar about our items, what was different...and, also, imagining new uses for things. 

After gathering, I moved to a table and worked with a small group - six students at a time - continuing our exploration of found objects, but allowing the children to be more focused in their observations.  We had set out the found objects on trays and the children took whatever they wanted, exploring these in the smaller space at the table.

From this one small group activity, I gained so much insight about children's different approaches to learning (and understanding about how to engage them in the future) -

I saw lots of "logic" - children creating categories of objects, sets, lines of materials...often putting “like” items together. One little girl was fascinated by keys, searching through the trays for all the keys.

Many seemed fascinated by touching the objects, perhaps enjoying the sensory sensation...

one played with a ribbon strip, stroking it over and over, rubbing it onto other objects, totally engrossed,
another lined up a collection of objects and then, discovering a small brush in the mix, stroked each item, one by one,
one child delved into the pile of objects and seemed to select items simply by touch or feeling; "I love this pom pom!" she told me.

Several children told stories, picking up the items and inventing different make-believe purposes -

"The dragonfly takes off and look what happens - he flies! Hold onto the rope, ready! 1, 2, 3, 4, 5...I need the butterfly because it saves the bad guys...it doesn't live in this town."
Another..."I'm making an enchanted forest."
And another had endless imaginative ideas, unable to settle - "I building a ship's tower, no a castle tower. No, I'm making a fish design. Now it is a trap!"

Still others were fascinated by how things work, manipulating the materials in different ways -

one child with a piece of foil, rolling it up, unrolling it, wrapping things in it, unrolling it again;
another student, full of questions - "What are you using that for? How does this work?";
still another, laying out pieces, connecting objects inserting a ribbon through holes in the objects, and
one other, putting objects inside one another, as if to create a container.

Certainly, some children had only a fleeting interest in the objects - landing momentarily at the table, then running to the dress-ups or elsewhere for a bit (but they often returned to inspect the materials again).

Overall, however, I was delighted by the children's concentration -
one child created a large design using a variety of objects, and not saying a single word - seemingly following a plan that I could not see;
another child worked for some forty minutes at the table, holding pieces up individually and studying, adding a "Look, Ms. Ingram!" every now and again and then laying the pieces down as if solving a puzzle...

Over the next several days, we spent some time dividing the found objects by color, in a variety of clear glass and plastic containers. We created jars of red, yellow, blue, green, gold/brown, silver/gray, purple, black and white materials. So much fun!

Last week, I read the story Regards to the Man in the Moon by Ezra Jack Keats. Here, Louis is being ridiculed by peers because his father runs a junkyard...his Dad insists that it isn't junk - all one needs is imagination...and the next thing you know, Louis and pals create spaceships and head to the moon. My challenge to my preschoolers - can you build a toy or something fun out of our recyclables and found objects? Then, they blasted off!

This story was great for our first engineering effort. The children were allowed to build whatever they wanted. Everyone drew a plan [or ‘blueprint’] first, before starting to create with the recyclables and tape. We had many varied creations, including:

The tallest tower in the world,
a wiggly thing,
a boat,

a beach,
a mountain,
a police car,
a helicopter,
a spaceship,
a book.

Here are a few things I've overheard, as they explore the objects and create - 

"need to make something!!
Look - I found a blue thing...I know where it goes!
This one is bendy.
I’m trying to hook this.
What is this? I don’t know what it is!
I don’t think they use this anymore.
Ms. Ingram, I’m making a little helicopter...I’m making a helicopter cable that hangs down.
What is this?!
I’m making a rollercoaster.
I’m making a parade – see!
This is bendy, bendy, bendy.
How to get this thing out of here?
Hey, I got these apart.
La, la, la, squish, squish, squish.
This is hard – listen [taps it on side of containers].
Look, I catch the tiger! (using ribbons, necklace to create a lasso around a toy animal)

And, in the midst of building, an enthusiastic  - "I need to go get some more!" [recyclables] 

Hoping to instigate on-going exploration with these materials, I expanded our science area to include the found objects and simple recyclables, plus tape. My hope is for the children to dare to touch, explore, consider, create. Thus far, the children are mesmerized.  We are having fun with our imaginations!