Friday, August 27, 2010

What a book!

I just read the most fantastic book: Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America by Paul Tough, an editor at the New York Times Magazine.

Paul Tough spent five years shadowing Geoffrey Canada, creator and visionary of the Harlem Children's Zone. The book details Mr. Canada's extraordinary efforts to stop the cycle of poverty.

Geoffrey Canada truly tries to do "whatever it takes" to break the cycle of poverty for all the children, all the families in Harlem. He draws from exhaustive research into theories and practices about poverty, education, and professional success. He consults a variety of sources - academics, child psychologists, social services, neurologists, and corporate executives. He is determined to find out:

...what specific resources did middle-class children have that allowed them to succeed at such higher rates than poor children? What skills did poor children need to help them compete? And, most important, what kind of intervention in their lives or in their parents' lives could help them acquire those skills? (p. 39)

Here's one example of what Mr. Canada found as he looked into the differences between middle-class and poor families:

Regarding research by Betty Hart and Todd R. Riley, child psychologists at the University of Kansas, studying the intellectual development of young children:

"By comparing the children's vocabulary scores with their own observations of each child's home life, they were able to conclude that the size of each child's vocabulary correlated most closely to one simple factor: the number of words the parents spoke to the child....

...some 481 "utterances" an hour in professional homes and some 178 in welfare homes...

What's more the kind of words and statements that children heard varied by class. The most basic difference was in the number of "discouragements" a child heard - prohibitions and words of disapproval - compared to the number of encouragements, or words of praise and approval. By age 3, the average professional child would hear about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the welfare child, the ratio was the reverse - 80,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements.

Geoffrey Canada decided - let's teach poor families to talk to their children. Let's teach them HOW to talk. Let's teach them about positive discipline. Let's give young parents good information, support, and guidance. Geoffrey Canada recognized that the best programs never stop - they take a child from birth to college, ensuring success. He recognized the limits of so many social welfare efforts that end up being only a brief stop in a child's journey - when the program ends, the child regresses back into the negative situation he/she was once striving to leave. Mr. Canada envisioned an all-encompassing support system, and, at the time of the book's publication, he had already created:

- a "Baby College," for new and expecting parents to learn the basics of healthy parenting and discipline,
- a "Three Year Old Journey" program, for parents of young children, that builds on this;
- The Promise Academy, a rigorous preschool, elementary, and middle school for students; and
- after-school and weekend programs (creative arts, sports, enrichment, and intensive academic support) for students.

The book was published in 2008; it is highly possible that Geoffrey Canada now has the high school to college portion of his vision in place. I need to look into this! Each of these Harlem Children's Zone efforts is provided free to participants. Geoffrey Canada is a remarkable spokesperson for his vision - his nonprofit has support from a variety of philanthropists and public donations. The cost of the programs is considerable; however, the cost of not doing them seems exponential.

I am profoundly sad at how many barriers stand in the way of many of our children. Paul Tough provides many painful and honest anecdotes of the challenges poor families endure. As an example, early in the book, there is a lottery system for spots in the new school being created by the Harlem Children's Zone, and you can't help but feel uncomfortable at the realization that many needy families will not get one of the coveted slots. It is painfully clear - we need a systemic approach, for one and all. It can't be just for certain ages, or just hit or miss, luck of the draw - you get to succeed, but I don't. Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children Zone is remarkable in its all-inclusive approach to helping children live successful lives.

This is a truly inspirational book.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What is a classroom family album?

I think it's important for preschool classrooms to feel like "a family." It's important that we help children connect to a whole new community that loves and supports them. One way for this to happen more smoothly is to bring the child's own family into the classroom as much as possible - at least, figuratively! If you show honest interest and affection for the child's home life, you will begin to gain the child's trust and the family's support. With very young children, both of these - child's trust and the family's support - are important elements in establishing your new classroom community.

Every August, before the school year begins, I send families two special scrapbook/album pages to complete and create alongside their child. I complete them, too, about myself! When the child comes to school on that first day, we place these unique pages into a special binder - creating a classroom family album. I keep this special book out and available, in our book corner - at "the ready" for children to pour through. I got the idea of this book from Deb Curtis and Margie Carter, in their book "The Art of Awareness." The questions include:

What makes me happy?
What makes me sad?
What does my family like to do together?
What do I love to do?
What is something I want to learn to do?
Who is someone my family admires?

See, here are my two album pages, one about my family and one about me:

I love seeing children just happen upon it - and squeal with delight when they see their own family photos or those of a classmate! It is a fabulous tool for the child who is having a rough day - to be able to see who loves him, to read aloud his special memories.

Through the years, this book has become an intrinsic part of my teaching. These family pages help me choose some of the books and materials I use during the school year. At circle and snack times, I read aloud a special page or two - everything but the name of the child - to see if children can guess who I am talking about. It becomes a tool for getting to know each other better, for connecting us as one special classroom family.

As the year goes on, we have done math with the responses - setting up charts and venn diagrams, using the information written on the pages. For example, how many children have the same number of people in their family? How many pets do we have? Who has the most? The same? Which books, stories, and toys are their favorites? I've even used these family pages to begin or extend some of my storytelling at circle time, or to further a discussion about a special book - "Who in this class has a special dog cuddly toy, just like the boy in Dogger?". All these activities are very educational, and, simultaneously, help us to be more of a community! Yes, we are thinking and analyzing...but we are also becoming connected. A classroom family!

How to start the year with parents?

I'm thinking about all those preschool teachers who are very, very busy (and excited!) as they get ready for the new school year. Today's blog: It is really important to lay a strong foundation for good communication with parents and caregivers.

It's important to discuss issues as they come up and keep them “small," rather than ignoring things and letting something grow bigger. Open communication between parent and teacher is essential! I repeat these words over and over to families - at spring Orientations, fall Back to School nights, and in my monthly newsletters. But, how do you create an open relationship with parents and caregivers? How do you build the foundation for this kind of open communication?

My top five practices for building a strong foundation with families:

ONE - greet family and caregivers by their names! Learn these names. For many of us, this is the hardest part of our job - learning these. But it is ESSENTIAL. People need to be recognized. The first several days - ask them their names, repeat them aloud. When family members sign their child in, read those sign-ins and repeat them out loud again. Make up a rhyming jingle - some special hint that helps you remember. Whatever helps you learn these names, please do!

TWO - take photos of the child and loved ones on the very first day or visit to school. Post these photos throughout your room! If you have a classroom website or parents' email addresses, share the photos. (Make sure you have your school's and parents' permission, plus signed waivers.)

THREE - tell your parents something positive, right off the bat, those first few days of school. If possible, speak to them personally - as they are doing drop off or pick up, or give them a personal phonecall. Catch them while the child is being oh so good! Build a little trust. Yes, there may come a time when you have to say something uncomfortable or difficult - how much better to have a positive foundation in place.

FOUR - day one or end of first week - send out a glowing email to the whole class of families of what a delightful start you have had to the school year. Name special things that you have seen. No need to name individual students here - again, we want to avoid comparisons (singling children out for certain things invariably makes someone feel "lesser than"). Just summarize your happy start and how enthusiastic you feel about the upcoming year.

FIVE - Welcome and encourage families to share their own special interests and talents with your class – cooking, sharing a favorite song or musical instrument, helping create a special project, or simply dropping by the classroom and participating in part of the day. The preschool years are a wonderful time for families to be involved in their child's class! Children benefit from seeing their parents in the classroom. I have no doubt that it encourages a true love of learning, to have their parents participate in their school.

So, ask and encourage parents: Would you like to share your occupation/special interests/skills/talents with our class or the school?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What should we ask our families?

I love my work at cooperative preschools. Here, parents take turns assisting the teacher in the classroom. I thoroughly enjoy the dynamic nature of parents, teachers, and children learning together; each day is different, each year brings new rewards.

Before the year begins, it is important that I get to know the families. Some schools have the delightful ritual of home visits - wherein the teacher actually spends time with each family at their residence, learning about the child. I send a questionnaire to the families, asking specifically about parents' names, occupations, special interests, talents, and skills. I also ask about siblings and any relatives or friends living in their home or who are a big part of the children's lives. These basic pieces of information help "anchor" many a conversation that I will have with the children during the school year - I hear about parents going on travel, fights with siblings, big family parties, and so on. How nice to have a grasp of everyone's names!

I think it is also important to know if there any special holidays or traditions that a family celebrates, and, conversely, is there any holiday, event, or subject that they would be uncomfortable with their child learning about or participating in? We are a secular school program - but many families have strong religious or cultural traditions. Rightly so, children know and cherish their own family's traditions, and will chat and share about these openly, so it becomes important for me to be aware of these as well.

The more information I have about the child at the outset of the year, the better. Preschool children usually do not enter school systems with "records" - parents are the best reservoir of all information. I have tremendous respect for all they can share with me about their little one. Several things I would love to know about the child before that first day of school are:

1) What are your child's favorite interests?. This answer actually builds my September "welcome to school" books and toys - if a little one loves Thomas the Tank Engine, I make sure there is a book on the shelf. If a little one is obsessed with princesses, I make sure there are royal gown dressups in the dramatic play area. This is how you build trust in a new relationship - hearing and respecting!

2) What are your hopes for your child this year? Sending a child off to his/her very first preschool is often fraught with much better to consider the positive - what do you hope for? I love reading these responses. And they guide me. I revisit this answer at the parent-teacher conferences later in the year.

3) What is the best way to comfort your child? This is so essential - some children freak out at a hug from others, many feel comforted by nestling in someone's lap. It's important to know how to approach the little one, since those first days are fraught with confused feelings and tears.

It bears repeating - parents are the first and best teachers for a child. Let's work together!

Friday, August 13, 2010

What to do about competitiveness?

Wow, it is mid-August. I remember summers when my children were little...summers were a time of much family togetherness. I would greet the summer jubilantly in June, as the school year drew to a close, with all sorts of activities planned and the promise of fun times. But, by August, my energy had waned, the children were getting on my and each other's nerves, and I was desperately seeking the return of a regular schedule. I suspect many young families are feeling this same tension now. A friend, with two small children "underfoot," recently asked me, how do you handle competitiveness, both competition for your attention and that negative exchange between two children, the "I am faster, better, bigger...."

Preschool teachers hear the same brazen words in the classroom. Sometimes it occurs between children that don't play much at all with each other, but most often it happens with children that are very close friends. It is perfectly natural behavior - but one that grates on our adult nerves. I have a variety of responses to this, depending on my mood and/or the situation:

1. IGNORE - To some extent, take the carping with a grain of salt - it pays to be able to ignore some level of the interaction. I remember one parenting class where we were encouraged to wear an ipod/earphones as we moved throughout the house, daring to ignore a large part of the banter. In my classroom, I work hard to make sure there are several engaging, exploratory activities for the children that will whet their appetite and allow them to interact with one another more or less independently. I am often a "fly on the wall" to their conversations, listening but not interrupting. Honestly, we don't have to tamp down on our children's every word, movement. Take it in stride, if you can. Remind yourself that the children are learning to play together and it takes time to become skilled at this.

2. REDIRECT - When the level of discourse begins to get out of hand, my favorite technique is to interrupt calmly and model a new way to do the activity or to suggest another activity - for one or both of the children. It I have the time and patience, I will often suggest an activity for me to do with both of the children, because it is great for children to have an adult happily playing alongside them. (And, if I feel one child is being particularly put upon, I often suggest an activity that happens to be one of this child's favorite things to do - his/her favorite story, for example). I believe this models how children can enjoy being together without struggling over who is better, faster, bigger. You simply changed the scene.

3. REFRAME - When it is brazen, "Mommy, I can do art better than Jane can't I?", it is a good idea to respond in a positive, unfrustrated voice, complimenting the specific achievement "You are proud of painting an elephant, aren't you?!" Often the child is simply feeling proud and wants to be acknowledged for it. Help your child learn to shine without denigrating others. It is good teaching to also add a positive word about the other child (if she/he is listening) - "And look - Jane likes to use blue in her painting...."

4. LIMIT - At some point, it can go too far. Perhaps you see it in one child's eyes - or hear it in their acrimonious voices. Time to be very clear: "In this classroom (in this family), we are kind to one another. See how hurt Jane is? You need to use kind words with one another. Are you able to use kind words?" and, if it continues, "I see this is hard for you to be together right now. I want you to play in the xyz area now." I recently heard from one mom a parallel idea that one could use at home (my children are teenagers/young adults, so, unfortunately, I can't really use this at my house!). When her preschoolers/young elementary children were caught up in fussing with one another, she would hand both children a dust rag and point them in the right direction, exclaiming "Time to clean the baseboards and give yourself some thinking time!" I really like that no nonsense approach. It is kind, but clear - we have limits on how we speak to one another.

Perhaps the best resources on how to deal with these hurtful, competitive interactions between children - and how and when to "draw the line" - are the numerous books by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, particularly: Siblings Without Rivalry. I particularly like Chapter 3 "The Perils of Comparisons," which warns how adults can fuel issues between children (often innocently, without malice of forethought) simply by comparing one child to the other. It is a really easy read that could help you find a new voice, a better response in dealing with competitiveness between children.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What to say?

I confess to having a writer's block for this blog right now. Perhaps it is the relentless summer heat? Perhaps it is my career transition?

I will vent today.

I just got back from visiting my parents. On the plane ride home, there was a young couple traveling with their two lively young boys - perhaps 1 and 3 years old. I cringed, over and over, as I heard their sharp, rebuking voices to everything the children did:


I gave them compassionate smiles, I affirmed "Oh, what dear boys...," but, mostly, I winced.

We have to stop this! We can't keep raising our little ones with this negative tone.

I think of a line from therapy - "Reactivity breeds reactivity" - are you getting the results you desire when you speak so sharply to your little one? I wonder, what do you feel inside yourself when someone speaks harshly to you? I freeze up, I feel blocked. I do not feel receptive, I do not hear.

What are our children feeling when we speak this way, over and over? Have you ever thought about how much of their behavior is being tamped down? Reprimanded? Angrily assessed? What must that be like to have your every movement negated? What are children learning from this? What do they "take away" from this experience?

It is developmentally right on for a one and three year old to be frisky in their seats on an airplane. It is developmentally right on for children of this age to have new, challenging behavior during this very new experience.

Expect the unexpected. Use a lighter voice, a softer touch, and a sense of humor. Pack some special books and activities for your travel. Teach them how to handle stressful new situations by modeling the appropriate behavior.

There - that's my vent. Thanks for listening!