Sunday, February 23, 2014

How do you plan?

In recent weeks, I have been intentionally working on 'planning' with Melissa (Teaching Resident), trying to show her how I create instructional units and daily lessons for preschoolers. I'm trying to provide her insight that will help her not only in our classroom, where we team together on the children's learning, but in her future classrooms where she will have new and varied demands.

I want ... I hope ... to open her eyes to the amazing possibilities of preschool curricula.

How do I plan lessons? 

For me, this simple and straightforward question does not have a simple and straightforward response.

So, why not try to write a blogpost that gets to the heart of how I plan? I have been wrestling with this writing in much the same way that I wrestle with my planning discussions with Melissa.  Planning - and writing about planning - is a very creative process, where I focus on several things simultaneously and thus find myself a little tongue-tied in my explanations.  Bear with me, please!

CHILDREN FIRST - children learn best when they are choosing the learning. My years with preschoolers are my guide, my informant -  I know what they need, what they enjoy, how they learn best.  As Bev Bos says,

Kid need experiences to attach words to...if it’s not in the heart, hands, bones, it’s not in the brain. 

Young children need to "do," to actively experience their learning.

All my preschool plans rely on these techniques or tools:
  • dramatic play - letting children act out stories
  • building something big (from cardboard usually), so children can experience the topic with their whole body
  • sensory, tactile, and hands-on connections
  • engineering, inventing, building
  • some sort of on-going project work - so that children could learn the basics of revising, editing, modifying and watch something grow bigger and better over time,  
  • messy, process art activities 
  • guessing games
  • storytelling - documenting children's individual stories, in their own words
When I create learning experiences that involve these elements, preschoolers are engaged and happy. Ideally, all or several of these activities are happening at once. I love centers that provide varied activities and allow children to be individuals "in charge of their own learning" - exploring in different ways, at their own pace, at their own choosing.

THESE CHILDREN FIRST Also - more importantly - I believe the students themselves should be the drivers of the "theme"/the "topics." Each year, when I get to know a class of preschoolers, they lead me towards new fun ideas for exploration. It is essential that what I prepare to do with children be of interest to the children in this class.  This means that I spend a great deal of time observing, listening, and documenting what they are doing, saying, questioning - and their questioning is perhaps the most important aspect of the observations. If I can figure out what the children are wondering about, I have a great catalyst for learning experiences. I am continually surprised and enlightened! 

WHAT DO THEY NEED TO LEARN - No matter what the topic, there are big skills I want to cultivate in preschoolers:

social-emotional - being a friend, listening to others, asserting oneself, how to share, how to take turns, how to handle tough emotions in socially-acceptable ways, being in control of one's body, being empathic;
cognitive/academic habits - such as focusing, questioning, recalling, connecting, synthesizing, persevering,
pre-literacy - such as letter recognition, beginning writing, storytelling, love of reading;
mathematical - especially counting and quantifying, measuring, recognizing shapes.

This is probably not a complete list - just one that comes to me off the top of my head. However, these skills are the essential elements of any planning for me. These skills are what I want to nurture in children during preschool - how I best prepare them for elementary school and beyond.

These skills can be cultivated through innumerable themes, in so many different ways.

DATA AND REQUIREMENTS - the reality of teaching in a public preschool is that I am required to collect and keep data on students. [My first many years of teaching preschool were in a private preschool setting, and these requirements were not as rigorous.]

However, data does not drive my instruction but it is an intentional element "behind" my instruction.   Data happens from my instruction and informs my planning, showing me what students are working on, what is challenging them, where they are developmentally.

I know that I am required to collect data on certain things and I weave those data requirements into the plans.

For example, I am expected to keep data on children's ability to write alphabet letters. There is no need for me to set up a specific lesson on this - tasking children, one-by-one, to practice writing the alphabet. [I can't think of anything more boring for three year olds!] However, I intentionally plan writing elements into all that we do - having children sign their own name on projects, writing letters and cards in the writing center, creating grocery lists in dramatic play, drawing blueprints for block-building and engineering, etc. etc. etc. These activities are playful and reflect my goal of "children first."  Plus, I get rich data from these activities - they tell me who loves to write, who is not interested, who is struggling. Writing becomes an integral part of all that we do, something the children begin to perceive as routine and valued - reflecting the higher goal of "what do they need to learn."

Teachers need to work with these larger school/system expectations but I don't believe they have to be limited by these. It is a personal goal of mine to teach the way I have always taught, to provide the playful, rich, exploratory experiences that I believe in my core are the best for children - and to show how I can still meet these outside expectations/requirements.

I work hard to show the learning behind the play.

WHAT DO I NEED OR WANT? - Honestly, another essential element of my curriculum planning is  ME. What do I enjoy doing? What jazzes it up for me? When the children see me happy and excited about some learning adventure we are on, this fosters enthusiasm in them. I see this with engineering - I love to build with recyclables and I have whet the appetite of many children in so doing.

I shy away from teaching the same thing in exactly the same way each year. This is what keeps my work stimulating and fun for me.

One of the best examples of putting myself "in the mix" of my planning is our current overall theme - Ezra Jack Keats. This past fall, I went to see an Ezra Jack Keats' exhibit in Philadelphia (which I mentioned in an earlier blogpost)...and I decided I wanted to introduce him to my preschoolers as an author study.

Actually, our Ezra Jack Keats plans are a great example of all of the above -

  • planning for children first, 
  • these children first, 
  • what do they need to learn
  • requirements and data
  • what do I need or want

I sat down with Melissa to plan out this author study - How would we share Ezra Jack Keats with our preschoolers? What do we want them to take away from this experience? What do we want them to explore?

With all this in mind, we created a curriculum web of our plans - really, a diagram of our brainstorming. It included what books we would read, what activities these books might lead to or be best supported by, and what the "grand finale" might be for our efforts. (We will present children's work at our next Learning Showcase/parent night).

Cover image from Dreams by Ezra Jack Keats

Ezra Jack Keats has been an awesome unit for the Big Cats, and has taken some six weeks to fully explore. Let me share our fun, in no particular order:

The children have loved, loved, loved the characters in his books. His stories are inter-connected, with characters appearing across several books. I think this is one of the most special aspects of Ezra Jack Keats' books - he introduces us, book by book, to a community - a neighborhood - with its own children, its own families, its own problems. This is something the Big Cats understand beautifully. Here are some of our favorite books to date:
  • The Snowy Day (a favorite story that we also did as a bilingual read-aloud, in both Spanish and English), 
  • Goggles (we had a great discussion about bullying, and conflict resolution techniques that are peaceful), 
  • Peter's Chair (what have you outgrown? who has a younger sibling? who has an older sibling?), 
  • The Trip (have you ever moved? what would it feel like to go somewhere new, to leave your neighborhood?), 
  • Letter to Amy (tied this into writing Valentines and love notes), 
  • Regards to the Man in the Moon (engineering effort, creating a toy of our own design), 
  • Dreams (preceded by a picture walk, where we tried to imagine the words for each page)

During all our read-alouds, the children try to guess what the book is about from the book cover. Additionally, have they seen the character(s) before? What previous book had that character?

We created a cardboard city from tri-fold boards, much like Ezra Jack Keats' apartment buildings. The children sponge-painted brick on front and drew decorative interiors. The first set of apartments lasted nearly three weeks - and then a new set was needed for fun. We also painted a beautiful large sky out of fabric, so that we can pretend to be in his stories. (I have been documenting the children's stories as they play "city" - typically involving several mommies, daddies, babies, babysitters, doctors, and monsters; often, there is a large firetruck racing through the city.)

We have had an on-going project of engineering individual apartments or houses out of recyclables. The children have created their own stories to accompany these. Melissa has encouraged the children to revisit their home design many times, to ensure that it includes as many details as the child has hoped to include and to make any modifications that are desired. These have been a fun way to assess children's knowledge about spatial relationships; while she works with small groups of children or one on one with a child,  Melissa asks such questions as, What is next to your bed? Is there a room above you? What is behind this? 

We have taken pretend elevator rides at whole group time. Here, we jump in close together as if getting on an elevator together; someone calls out a floor number and we pretend to move to that floor, steadily moving our bodies up, up, up, taller. Then, the pretend elevator doors open and we are in another story by Ezra Jack Keats. I lead the children through a dramatic re-enactment of a scene, the story's problem, perhaps some well-known line from the story, to see if the children can recall the characters' names, the title of the book. This is almost a guessing game for the children, and it is received enthusiastically. Children love to dramatize and I believe it helps get knowledge "into their bones."

Almost every day has included another fun, process art experience - where we create different designs and textures on paper. We have used chalk, pastels, watercolors, shaving cream, sponge stamping, and much more. Our Learning Showcase will feature each child's collage art from these special papers, imitating Ezra Jack Keats' artistic style and sharing a personal story. 

We are now working on an Ezra Jack Keats-inspired piece for our Phillips artwork. [Our school partners with the Phillips Art Gallery each year, creating an exhibit of our students artwork for their Young Artists Exhibition. This year's theme is storytelling and our Ezra Jack Keats focus has dovetailed beautifully.] Our art teacher, Brianna, worked with the children in small groups to observe the surrounding city buildings from the top floor of our school. From this high perspective, the children drew city buildings and skylines. These will be collaged onto a beautiful, vibrant "sky" background. Accompanying this artwork will be the children's own story about "The Big Cats in the City."

Believe me, curriculum planning can feel confusing and hazy at times...seemingly unending, spiraling into never-ending possibilities. You are continually trying to plan from the perspective of the child - What entices them? What keeps them engaged? What would be fun? Of course, you then have to fit the plans into the actual preschool day, in and around our walks, naps, visitors, field trips and special events, and, in recent weeks, snow days and delayed openings.

However, wrestling with planning in this way is invaluable. Our Ezra Jack Keats' unit has nurtured our interests in family, home, friendships, city, and community - topics that are near and dear to these preschoolers.

Seeing the children's interest in his imagery, Melissa has begun planning her own unit that is a tangent of our Ezra Jack Keats work: shadows and light.

I love planning this way - it is creative and "alive." And, yes, unending.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Maureen, what a rich post, should be an article in a journal! Love the final part about your Ezra Jack Keats work-and the elevator-just fun pretending! My reply to so much from our school too-choice and needs. As our students grow, we hope they will begin to take more responsibility for knowing their needs, needs for growth, needs for skills. There is a wealth of possibilities in choice, isn't there? To arrange many kinds of activities meets many kinds of needs, from the youngest to our oldest. Thank you for taking such time in writing this. Have a terrific week!