Saturday, December 18, 2010

What does it mean to role model?

I read an article in the Washington Post recently about a family that exercises together under the guidance of their grandmother, Margie Weiss, a personal trainer. "You like what you're used to," says the former competitive gymnast. "It's just what we do." Her son Michael Weiss (two-time Olympic champion in figure skating) says the key to getting kids to move is to do it with them. "I never say, 'You go do this.' It's always, 'Let's go do this,'" says Michael.

This struck me as both simple and profound, and applicable to many things you might want children to do. It is an important nugget to keep in mind, whether you are a preschool teacher or parent. Rather than lament, "She refuses to do xyz!" or "I can't get him to do anything!" or "Did you see them take off as soon as I said they needed to....?!," dare to work alongside them. Show them how. Most importantly, show them that it interests you, that it is worth doing.

If you want children to learn to clean, you need to clean alongside them. Telling preschoolers to clean while you stand by and watch strikes me as futile. They will learn best with you modeling how, they will learn best when they have your adult companionship, they will learn best when they realize cleaning is important to you and not simply something that is relegated to them. In my classroom, clean up is a game. I say, "Wow! Look at this room! Do we think we can get it straightened up before the song ends?" Then, we race to clean the room before the end of Sweet Honey in the Rock's "Oh My Goodness, Look at this Mess!" At home, when my boys were young, we often had "60 minutes" of cleaning frenzy on Saturday mornings - we would confer first about what areas of the house most needed cleaning; then we would put on our favorite rock and roll songs and everyone would run around cleaning. When the boys were very young, we would have them work as a pair with my husband or myself. The five of us could get a great deal done in an hour, and, in general, we had a lot of fun doing it.

If you want young children to do their homework (hopefully, this is NOT an issue with preschoolers!!), you should consider setting them up at the dining room table with you, as you work through bills or your own office work. Giving children this studious example is very wise - you are modeling how to focus, how to work quietly. You are available to help them through their frustrations and mental roadblocks. You may convey a real love of learning - how important is that?

If you want children to learn to cook, you need to have them working alongside you when you are in the kitchen. I remember vividly how much my boys enjoyed playing at the sink, washing/rinsing potatoes for me in a sinkful of water, when they were all of 2 years old. Now, my youngest is 15 - and check out these delicious chocolate cookies he decided he just had to make from scratch! Of course, now I'm practicing my own self-regulation skills by avoiding these yummy chocolate treats.

The next couple of weeks will bring lots of family togetherness, with schools closing for winter break and holidays. What a great opportunity to be alongside your children, doing something together that you hope they will find engaging...something that will be so automatic and acceptable to them in later years that they will say, "It's just what we do!"

Friday, December 10, 2010

Moments that linger

I've been blogging for almost a year now, enjoying it very much. As you can probably tell, I try to make at least one blog entry a week. Some weeks I do better than that, some weeks (like this past one) it doesn't even happen. But, as I suspect is true for most of us who work with children, each day is filled with moments that are meaningful and important...regardless of whether they are put into print.

The past many days have been very full indeed and I have been searching for which moment to spotlight here in this blog. And then it dawned on me - why not share several? This is the reality of being with young children - it is a whirlwind of small but powerful moments.

Consider these moments that linger...

- Sitting at a table with several 3 year olds, working on shape puzzles, when several friends wander off to new classroom pursuits and I find myself alone with one young boy who is focused on solving these. He completes another model and then notices that all the shapes on the table are available for him to use. He gathers them into one big pile, much like King Midas, and begins spontaneously to search for each and every circle piece - creating a long line of circle pieces across the table. I, to test him, offer him a diamond piece, and he shakes his head in seriousness and says, "No, just circles," but then he reconsiders, "Hey, let me see that!" And next to his line of circles, he begins to create a new pattern, using nothing but diamond pieces. "Help me," he says, "We must find all these diamonds!" This is why I work with children - I love watching them think, I love being present as the world opens up to them. (Oh, but where is my camera!?)

- Starting my day with a group of 4 year olds, when a little girl comes up to the teacher and laughs, "I whip my hair back and forth!" The teacher laughs in delight and says to her, "Good morning to you, too! Ask Ms. Ingram if she knows this song, you must share it with her." The little girl sings it to me, all the while shaking her hair. She adds, "There is a video!" and I tell her, "This song is new to me. I will look it up on my computer when I get home and I will think of you." That evening, I find this song video by Willow Smith, and I think not only of the 4 year old but of her incredible teacher, embracing this child's connection to home, seeing her sharing as a positive greeting, not dismissing it or ignoring it. I marvel at teachers who embrace children's interests, knowing that these are the foundation for the very best learning.

- In the block corner, I am relaxed and stretched out on the floor, alongside several children working on their masterpieces. A child that I have never met before sees me and an open invitation: quite unexpectedly, he throws himself on top of me, laughing at his surprise attack. "Well! hello!," I say and I give him a quick hug. Children don't hold back, do they? I love how real and "in the moment" children are.

- Two four year old boys, two different classrooms. Both so similarly sad, both with thumb in mouth, tearful; both dragging behind their classmates as they walk down the hall, or as they gather at the carpet. Everything is hard for them today, they don't want to participate, they can't seem to follow the routine. And the two teachers, unknown to one another, miles apart in their schools, both said to me, I am wondering what is up with him; I need to talk to his family about whether this sadness is true at home, too; have they seen this? I wonder if school is feeling too hard right now? And why? I wonder if he needs more tasks to do independently, away from the crowd of classmates? Both of these teachers are so similarly aware of their little ones' behaviors, carefully observing and considering, seeing themselves as the problem-solvers, the child interpreters, that they are. I am filled with hope about our educators.

- It's the end of the day, and a teacher reports to a grandmother that her 4 year old granddaughter had a rather rough day, having many tears. (The teacher had earlier told me that this child's parents are newly separated, getting a divorce.) The grandmother stoops down to the child's level and says, oh so severely, "Don't you EVER let me hear of you crying in school! You have GOT NOTHING to cry about young lady! If you need something to cry about, I have it for you. But you are too big for crying. And don't let me hear about you having to be held by the teacher - you are too big for that. You hear me?" I am stung by her cruel response. I think about the enormous work of teachers - working with young children and their families - the tense, concentrated work one must do, negotiating a minefield of varying beliefs and approaches about children, learning how and when to assert yourself, always advocating for the children.

- It is evening. I am working with new teachers, sharing my engineering curriculum. Using recyclables, they are building houses for the three little pigs, hoping to make one that is strong enough to prevent the wolf from knocking it over. (The wolf is my blow dryer!) I see one of the teachers blow on her house, to test it herself, before calling me over. I laugh with delight - yes, we need teachers like this teaching our young children - able to become thoroughly engaged with the work, to be playful and curious.

- A message from NAEYC in my email inbox, reminding me about the ongoing on-line event for the new release of the Anti-Bias Education by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards. I am moved by their opening quote, "Early childhood teachers want each child in their care to feel powerful and competent. They strive to welcome every child and to show respect to each family as best they know how. However, beyond individual teachers’ hopes, beliefs, and actions is a society that has built advantage and disadvantage into our many institutions and systems. Inequity of resources in society, and the biases we use to justify that inequity, have an enormous impact on children’s lives." The on-line discussion is full of concerned questions and thoughtful responses; I am in awe of the numerous, dedicated educators who are striving to eliminate prejudice and inequity in their classrooms, in our world.

These are the moments that linger for me this week...some sad, many beautiful, all very rich experiences. I am so thrilled to work with both children and their teachers.