Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Tuesday SOL - Slow down, summer!

Not much of a "slice of life" to offer today,
I can't believe
Thursday means August.
July has been lovely.
Time to think,
sleep, relax, exercise,
connect with friends,
travel with my family,
cook new recipes,
enjoy movies, books, games
and even
reflect and prepare for the new school year.
Kinda sad to see July go.

A few more story props created for my book corner - thank you, summer:

Knufflebunny by Mo Willems

Peter and the Wolf (my version - by Vladimir Vagin)

The Gingerbread Man (my version - by Jim Aylesworth, illustrated by Barbara McClintock)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Tuesday SOL - How to bring nature in?

Tuesday Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers

I had a fabulous bike adventure, just a week ago. My husband and I rode the C and O Canal for four days - all the way from Cumberland, Maryland to Georgetown, Washington, D.C., a 184.5 mile trek. It was my first time participating in "The Great Bicycle Tour," which supports the San Mar Children's Home in Boonsboro, Maryland.

Although there were some one hundred participants, we were spread out, riding at our own individual paces, and I found myself quietly and happily alone, riding along some of the most beautiful natural scenery - the Potomac river on my right, rocky cliffs on my left, and a long, muddy, rocky trail, as long as the eye could see, stretched out in front of me.

I did a lot of thinking, pedaling those many miles.

Mile after mile of
on dirt,
mud puddles.

One thing that I could not stop thinking about...and I truly hope I hold on to...was a profound gap in my teaching this past year -
my inability to give the preschoolers access to green space, the natural world, the great outdoors, on a regular basis.
I am determined to do things differently this next school year, to make it happen.

Exploring outdoors, freely, openly, is an essential part of preschool. I know this, I have always taught this way.

Mile after mile of
birds, even
a great blue heron.

Until this past year, it has always been so possible. I've never had to think about it or plan for it. I was surrounded by grass and dirt, places for children to dig, to look for pill bugs and worms, to garden, to jump in mud puddles.

Until this past year.
Our school moved to a new location in Washington, D.C. and we are surrounded by concrete, brick, and asphalt. All play happens on these surfaces. Our daily walks were to watch construction, sprinkled with play on a metal playground and running a groomed baseball field about once a week.

Mile after mile of 
the river,

I told myself it was enough. The children were outside daily, getting fresh air.

It is not enough.

Pedaling so many miles, lost in thought, I realized deep in my core that it is not enough.

It is a deprivation to not have the experience of nature.

Mile after mile of
wind and breeze.

There is a beautiful national park about three blocks from my school - Meridian Hill. We visited there several times this past year, but it seemed a formidable undertaking with my class of twenty-two preschoolers on a walking rope. With a mere hour in our schedule to be out and about, it seemed that we no sooner arrived at the park when it was time to turn around and head back to school.

Now, I'm determined to question these limits, these constraints - to turn them into possibility.

What if I designate one day a week as our park day? Why do I need to limit this to one hour? Why not spend the morning at the park, every week?

What if I cultivate family volunteers to support our outings on this weekly basis?

What if I plan for water bottles, sun screen, bug spray, rain boots, extra kleenex, hand sanitizer, etc - have these organized and at the ready? Oooh, what if I gathered drawing pads, so each child could record observations...

What if I get over to Meridian Hill this summer, and figure out a specific part of its 12 acres that could be the Big Cats ritual location? An area that they could discover and play in, to watch change with the seasons? 

How can I help my families to understand the value of this time outdoors? That it is not aimless, pointless play? How do I make sure that they are "on board"?

I am no longer pedaling in nature, but I am still lost in thought and possibility!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Summer fun - creating story props

Summer is a great time for getting a few miscellany projects done for the classroom that I never seem to have time for during the school year. I am having fun this summer creating additional story props for some favorite picture books. Each year, I notice how much the children enjoy retelling their favorite tales through these. I only have a handful and I am determined to build my collection. 

Today, I created a simple set for Owl Babies by Martin Waddell. I love this book! These adorable owls experience a preschooler's biggest fear at the outset of a school year - is Mommy coming back? The book is momentarily harrowing and suspenseful, and concludes with the reassurance that Mommy always comes back.

Here are my story props for Owl Babies:

The tree that the owls live in.

The owl babies - Sarah, Bill, and Percy.

Mommy Owl.

I try to reduce the story to just a handful of pieces - its main characters and the setting. I purposefully create these props very simplistically: recycled manila folders as card stock, colored pencils, an hour of drawing, and basic laminate (or even clear tape for small pieces) adds up to the proper mix for me. I think the simplicity of the story props makes the whole storytelling much more accessible to the student (and often leads to them trying to creating stories on paper themselves).

I think it is important that the materials and my time/effort to be small enough that I don't feel frustration or anger if they are torn or damaged. I want the children to use these over and over; I understand that they will be tugged on and used roughly at times, while children learn the process of taking care of these pieces. These story props can be repaired quickly and cheaply with clear tape!

[Wouldn't it be great if picture books came with card stock replicas of the main characters of a book?]

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

How hard is it to paint an impressionist painting?

Tuesday Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers

[Trying my hand at a poem today, hoping to illustrate the hard work of growing a school. It's summer - I'm just playing around, trying to be more creative!]

I think
growing a school
is like an impressionist painting.
It starts with a vision.
The picture begins
with intense spots of color.
The artist works fervidly,
moving about,
different parts of the picture,
varying and adjusting the palette,
many areas at once.
Focusing on
one small area,
there is only a blur,
lack of clarity,
not much more.
It takes much blending,
repetition of strokes,
attention to tone,
It takes time,
stepping back,
consideration of the bigger picture.
It takes thinking and re-thinking,
the true picture,
the masterpiece,
is evident.

Entrance to the Harbor by Georges Seurat

Friday, July 12, 2013

Reflecting on hard work

The year ended with some difficult feelings -
"not knowing," confusion, frustration.
There were intense discussions about tough subjects.

It strikes me  -
these feelings we have,
as we face the daunting task of growing a school,
these feelings are what every student experiences when learning something new,
when challenged,
when the work is hard.

I expect joyful, excited, compelled.
I forgot "not knowing," confusion, frustration.

You have to
keep on,
stay at the table,
see it through,
be resourceful,
stay open-minded,
consider different ideas,
keep questioning,
try again.

You are learning as you go.

And it isn't straightforward. It isn't always clear.

What do you try next?
Is there only one way or many ways?
How do you ensure you are moving in the direction you desire?

In the midst of the hard work, you wonder,

Do I have the "grit" and "perseverance" for this? 

Yes, this is exactly what students feel as they experience hard work.

Learning and creating don't come easy.
It is good to be reminded of that.

Is grit something you only know you have when you are looking backward, 
in hindsight, 
seeing what you accomplished? 

Maybe you don't know you have it when you are doing it?

Hard work.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Tuesday SOL What do you learn from a beginner?

Yesterday, I noted how I'm beginning the summer lost in thought about teaching, schools, education. In particular -

How do you sustain a motivated staff?
What makes teaching doable and enjoyable?

I've been thinking about the power of the Teaching Residents...how refreshing and invigorating it is to have this bonded group of beginning teachers on our staff.

I realize, these beginning teachers are a huge part of what sustains me.

Like curious and engaged students, the Teaching Residents instigate us - the Master Teachers.

The term "Master Teacher" embarrasses me most of the time - I don't feel perfect at what I do, I am not always ready to be observed, and yet, I signed up for a teaching position where being continually observed is one of the expectations.  The beginning teacher - Teaching Resident - watches my every move, sees both successes and mistakes.

We spend our days together, from August through June, like a couple in an arranged marriage. (A couple who, inexplicably, have many, many new children the same age.)

Our program is built upon the concept of graduated release where, throughout the course of the year, the Teaching Resident takes on more and more responsibility. There is a somewhat abstract calendar of the month to month release - and each of us Master Teachers wrestled with just how to do this.

This year, I began - and continually - asked my Teaching Resident, Laura McCarthy, "What do you want to learn? What do you want to get out of this? What do you want to try?"

I had such a great year, teaching alongside Laura. She came into the classroom cautious, wide-eyed, and uncertain.  I had the thrill of watching her transform into a confident, reflective teacher, one who truly loves working with children. Of course, she came with so many gifts - organized, motivated, delighted by children, great sense of humor, easy-going personality. All I did was give her the space and opportunity to share those gifts with the students.

I think this idea of "giving space and opportunity to share those gifts" is perhaps my biggest challenge professionally - and one that, like all good challenges, sustains me as a teacher.

I had to let Laura lead the classroom even when I wasn't sure she could.

Mentoring a new teacher is no different than working with students - you have to let them be in charge of their own learning, you have to let them take risks, you have to let them see things fall apart and figure out how to persevere.

I had to learn to not be in control. I had to learn how to close my mouth, back away, to sit on my hands. I trusted myself that I could 'regain equilibrium' in the room if things fell apart. I reminded myself that, chances were, tomorrow would come and there would be  a chance to "do over" - to repeat, review, reflect.

I learned so much from Laura. She helped me be more explicit in my teaching, more intentional with my goals. She helped me practice the art of failing in front of others, with grace! (This remains hard - admitting, wow, that didn't work!) Together, we took risks in curriculum (for example, our hero exploration), that I had never done before and I have no doubt I will repeat in the future. And, I have a whole new repertoire of songs to sing to children!

Yes, there's no end to what you learn from a beginner.

Working alongside beginning teachers, I am again reminded that what we do is called "teaching' which, right there, shows the process involved.  It is not called "Taught" or "Teach" or "I know everything, do exactly as I do." It is process. It is constant. You are in the midst, in the thick, teaching is a moving thing. It's also called practice. Over and over, you practice.

All of our Teaching Residents are in the same alternative certification program, with The Center for Inspired Teaching. They begin working together as cohort the summer before being assigned to a classroom; they are in classes together in the evenings and weekends throughout the school year. This creates a tight-knit relationship amongst them, perhaps like living in the same college dorm. Their mutual respect and collaboration is a genuine gift to our school.

An anecdote from last fall -

We were at a staff meeting, and our task was to create a plan for the upcoming "Learning Showcase" family night. It's an exciting event in the fall of the year, an opportunity to "show off" the school to families, making that all important first impression of the child's school year. I remember being at the staff meeting preoccupied with my own 'to do' list and thinking - "oh my, let's stop the chatter and get back to our rooms so that I can get some real work done,' when this ground-swell began amongst the Residents, who were wrestling with a way to make this Learning Showcase unique. The Residents were full of questions and ideas, playing off one another's thoughts, considering all aspects of the event with an energy level I was currently lacking.

Our school had moved to a brand new location in downtown Washington, D.C., and they seized upon this move as a theme - introducing the idea of creating "metro lines" with colored tape on the floor, throughout the school. We would pair classrooms as "ends of lines," so that families might understand the partnership work between these two classrooms [my preschoolers were paired with a kindergarten class all year - reading, doing art projects, and other endeavors together]. These metro lines became a fun opportunity for families to find their way in the new building. The evening was a great success, one that energized students, teachers, and families and strengthened our school community.

All year long, these Residents help us plan, dream, imagine - asking questions. There is something genuinely 'youthful,' or 'unbridled' in the way in which they respond to challenges. It is so good to be reminded how to 'build' on things rather than settling into an almost reflexive 'well, I've always done it this way.'

It is good to be questioned, to have to think about why you do what you do.

For me, this is invigorating as a teacher - to be surrounded by inquiring minds. With the premise of our school being based on the "Master Teacher - Teaching Resident" model, each year will feel very new, as we welcome a new cohort of beginning teachers.

Of course, there are enormous challenges with being a school that teaches beginning teachers:

  • How do you ensure that they are getting similar experiences?
  • How can each of us share what we are doing in our classrooms?
  • What do you do if your "arranged marriage" is difficult? How do you support these Master Teachers and Residents who simply do not gel?
and many, many more....

It is a work in progress, just like teaching.

Let me close with a beautiful quote I read the other day:

Mentoring is the art of invitation – and the art of getting out of the way once a gift is invited. 
(Donna Schaper)

Monday, July 8, 2013

How to grow a school?

I am so delighted to have summer, to have days of quiet and reflection. We traveled last week, to visit my parents in South Carolina, and my husband's extended family in Georgia. Each day, I took time to journal, something I think I do every day of my life, but I saw that there were many days in the hectic pace of this school year in which I did not. So, summer is a time for renewal, reconnecting - both with people and with thoughts.

I find myself reflecting about school and teaching. In this quiet of summer, I have a chance to look both backward and forward, and think about education in general. I am thinking a lot about how to sustain myself, how to keep my eye on the prize - our full vision of a great school.

I fell in love with this school from the first whispers I heard about it.
We have the best of intentions.

In each classroom,

  • teaching is founded on students' interests;
  • we strive to cultivate and instigate curiosity, inquiry, thirst for more knowledge; and
  • students' ideas and voice are obvious and essential.
Our classrooms are joyful places.

As a staff,
we are constantly exploring new ideas,
reflecting on these, and
striving to work together and collaborate.

Perhaps my most favorite element of our school,
we are teaching beginning teachers how to do this.
Each seasoned "master teacher" works alongside a new Teaching Resident,
daring to teach on two levels - to the children, to the beginning teacher.

We are a demonstration school, meaning,
we seek to show all this in process...what it really looks like.
We want visitors to walk in and see this dynamic process in action.

This fall will be year three of our school.
I am still in love with this school, but I am less starry-eyed.

I hope we are done with its infancy, with its toddlerhood - the hectic, non-stop, oh my, we need to do this!, we forgot to do that!, all hands on deck!, we need it now! phase...

What do I mean?

When the school opened,
preschool through grade three, fall 2011,
that first year,
it was as if everyone did everything.
Everything was new, new, new. We were all constantly watching everything at once. Someone's metaphor - "We were building an airplane while flying it." The days were long and the year was, too. At year's end, I said to my husband "Wow! that was something!," to which he promptly replied, "And I don't ever want to go through it again." My supportive spouse was totally drained by the enormity of work and thought and time that went into this new school.

Reality check -
I teach preschool.
I teach three year olds.
It's meant to be joyful, for them and me.

How do you sustain a motivated staff?
What makes teaching doable and enjoyable?

Year two,
preschool through fourth grade, fall 2012,
we made considerable progress in defining roles and responsibilities,
in developing systems.
I set the personal goal of reclaiming my weekends - of observing Friday evening through Sunday afternoon as my personal time, my family time (I have yet to figure out how to avoid Sunday evening planning and preparations for the week ahead). I am really proud to say that I achieved this goal - made it a habit. But there was still enormous work and thought and time spent on the school. A typical day was to leave home at 7 am and return about 6 pm. My son Bryce told one of my friends, who had called one evening and found me not home, "I don't begin to worry about where Mom is until it is 7 pm; she is always working."

Reality check -
I teach preschool.
I teach three year olds.
It's meant to be joyful, for them and me.

How do you sustain a motivated staff?
What makes teaching doable and enjoyable?

I have no doubt, we will make even bigger strides this next year.

I hope we are done with this infancy and toddlerhood,
and now begin to "settle in"
to "growing" a school.

I love three year olds.
I'm confident I'm going to love this three year old school.