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!