Saturday, December 31, 2011

What habits are you trying to break?

In the spirit of new year resolutions, I thought I'd share a fun conversation I had with the children the other day about "bad habits."

One little guy woke up from his nap with dried blood around his nose - it was clear that he had been repeatedly picking his nose as he slept. This was a "hot topic" for this little guy. His family had asked me to encourage him in breaking this habit and, most importantly, he himself had been working very hard not to pick his nose, saying to me "I'm not a little kid anymore!" He was newly four and ready to take on the world, but, alas, while napping, that automatic response had come back. The little guy was embarrassed and frustrated, and somewhat defeated. (Who knew bad habits could continue subliminally while sleeping? Yikes!)

I hugged him close to me and gently wiped away the dried blood, trying to soothe and encourage. His classmates' eyes were on the little guy and his bloody face.

I asked, "Do any of you have bad habits? Things that you do that you wish you could stop? For example, I bite my fingernails sometimes, even though I know I should not. That's a bad habit."

Three children exclaimed, all at once, "Me, too! I do that!"

A girl added, "Sometimes I bite my toes."

Another, "Sometimes I pick my nail polish."

A boy, "Sometimes I pick my nose."
A girl, "Yes, sometimes I pick my nose."
Another boy, "Sometimes I pick my nose and if blood comes out it scares me."

A girl, "I fight over my brother."

Another boy concluded, "I'm trying to stop swimming lessons."

This last comment made me chuckle! Young children discerning the semantics of language - bad habits you want to stop doing? Or things you just don't do anymore?

I believe this simple discussion was another small step in cultivating empathy in my classroom, for children to understand one another a little better. I remember Dan Hodgins's wisdom:

"Watch out for ways in which we turn 'developmental issues' into 'moral issues' - and this is so unnecessary. It is developmentally in the norm to:
- pick your nose
- push and shove
- not listen
- take toys.
How much better to determine if it is really a problem, and then to simply redirect the child to the appropriate thing to do, without the moralizing overtone."

It is important not to over-moralize with children, but to help them set their own goals for themselves. We need to recognize certain behaviors as developmentally normal, and, also, to remember our own inability - as adults - to follow through on what we know better. Humans are frail! Children are tender. Let's be respectful in our teaching.

I love these unexpected conversations with children. They are true gifts. I am reminded how pleasurable teaching can be when I allow and cultivate these surprise moments of learning.

2011 was an excellent year for me, in early childhood education. I hope it has been a great year for you, as well. My top five experiences:

- mentoring four beginning early childhood teachers in D.C. public schools, August 2010 through June 2011, encouraging them to teach from their heart, to experience the true joy of teaching.
- participating in the Bev Bos conference this past July 2011, surrounded by like-minded educators, learning and reaffirming many great ideas for my preschool classroom.
- July 2011 on - opening and working at the Inspired Teaching Demonstration Charter School, my first foray into teaching full-time in a public school setting, working alongside passionate educators.
- working alongside a beginning teacher, grooming him to lead his own preschool classroom next year, one which will embrace the child-centered, exploratory learning that is so right for these early learners.
- being in relationship with so many wonderful children and their families.

I am so lucky that most of these positive experiences will continue in 2012! Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

What did you say about elephants?

I introduced a brand new engineering problem to my preschoolers recently, and it was a big, big hit with all of us! Our book was
Twenty One Elephants by April Jones Prince which tells the true story of the parade of elephants that marched across the Brooklyn Bridge when it was newly built, to prove its safety and strength.

As usual with my engineering lessons, I only read part of the book at first. Here, I read up until the point where the elephants went on the bridge...then we predicted whether the bridge would remain standing with 21 elephants on it. Two-thirds of my class predicted the bridge would fall; everyone else didn't know what to think. The children simply couldn't imagine that any bridge could support so many elephants. Obviously, 21 elephants was a lot! We counted slowly and aloud to 21. We played "London Bridge is Falling Down." After many laughs during this fun game, it was time to begin our engineering. The children were gripped.

For our engineering problem, we decided to build a bridge out of recyclables that was strong enough to support many elephants. We created bridges throughout the classroom, suspended between two chairs. We tested the bridges by standing five toy elephants on them.

There were so many unexpected gifts from this project.

It proved a fantastic opportunity to teach teamwork!

Several children jumped into the engineering and industriously worked alone, but the frequent result was that their bridges failed.

The children soon realized - "organically," [not dictated by me, but from the situation at hand] - that working in small groups on one bridge was the most successful approach. This way, while one student held up the bridge (between two chairs), others could add supports and/or tape to reinforce the structure. The children offered supportive ideas to one another, often scaffolding off one another’s suggestions.

Several children were so excited by the bridge-building that they worked on more than one team to create a bridge. I must admit it was particularly exciting that these were girls in the class - doesn't our world need more persevering, determined female minds like Sukey, Salma, and Eleanor?

Now, of course, this engineering problem didn't whet everyone's appetite. I had several students build just for a moment and then take off, not wanting to test their bridges. I entreated one young girl to revisit her bridge, with the comment/question - "How might you make it longer?" She looked at me puzzled. I continued, "Look - is it a problem that your bridge is so short? See, does it reach from one chair to another? " to which she quickly replied, "Oh, Ms. Ingram, they will jump!!" and she raced off to play dress ups. Well, perhaps engineering will delight her another day. We are not all in the same place at the same time.

Another unexpected gift of this engineering effort has been the children's continued thinking about bridges. Many of the children are building block bridges now, racing cars over them. Some are drawing sketches of bridges. We have enjoyed the fanciful folktale The Three Billy Goats Gruff, which caused us to think about bridges in a whole new way! This next week, before our winter break, we hope to walk around the neighborhood in the direction of a bridge, to see the bridge from afar. What do we see? How is it supported? What is it made out of? Why does it work so well? There are lots of questions on our minds, now that we have seen how difficult it is to create a successful bridge.

*One last note - I wish I could share all the photos of the children engaged and excited by this engineering challenge - unfortunately, I have yet to hand out photo waivers to my families, so that their children's pictures might be published here in my blog. You'll just have to imagine! But, I've included a few "sanitized" photos of our fun, to give you a visual of the children's work.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Oh no! That's louse-y news!

Please, no.

The BIG CATS have lice.

My preschool class has had a couple of cases in recent weeks.
Here we go again.

Check out any of the major health websites and you see mention after mention of early childhood classrooms.

Info from the Center for Disease Control begins:

Head lice are found worldwide. In the United States, infestation with head lice is most common among preschool children attending child care, elementary schoolchildren, and the household members of infested children.

WebMD begins:

Head lice are usually found in hair, most often on the back of the neck and behind the ears. Head lice are common in preschool and elementary school-age children. Adults can get them too, especially adults who live with children. says:

The bane of many parents, the head louse is a tiny, wingless parasitic insect that lives among human hairs and feeds on extremely small amounts of blood drawn from the scalp. Although they may sound gross, lice (the plural of louse) are a very common problem, especially for kids ages 3 years to 12 years (girls more often than boys).

Lice are, unfortunately, very common in early childhood classrooms. Children are in close community, hugging, and sitting alongside each other.

Yes, louse-y news.


Some of my young families are very anxious. Understandably.
I have had lice twice in my life; my boys, too. I know - truly, I know - the work involved in treating it. I remember vividly how I felt when I first had lice...when I found out that two of my three boys had them. UGH! Right to the barber we went, where I quietly but urgently explained about our situation. I insisted he cut my hair short, and the boys - buzz cuts. Voila!

Yes, louse-y news.

It's very much on the kids' minds. This during hospital play - one child peering at me, "You have worms in your ears." Her classmate pretends to look in my ear, too, "There are bugs in you!," she exclaims.

Little do they know, I am seeing those bugs everywhere, too!


A girl shouts, "Let me show you some yoga!" I turn to see her somersault and then six friends join her, landing in a big, happy heap of entangled bodies.
What do I see? Entangled hair.

Greeting one another at gathering - full body embraces.
What do I see? Entangled hair.

Playing together, sharing toys, a child yells, "I need that toy," quick swish of arms! grab!
What do I see? Entangled hair!

Dancing, moving to Laurie Berkner, pretending to be dinosaurs fast asleep.
What do I see? Entangled hair.

Exciting things in the sensory table, a child squeezes in next to his classmates.
What do I see? Entangled hair.

Playing house or hospital or restaurant or cars and trucks, children playing so close together.
What do I see? Entangled hair.


- jackets in shared cubbies
- simple t-shirt smocks
- stacking cots after nap
- piles of belongings when the aftercare kids arrive in the classroom
- soft pillows in the book corner
- the big cozy chair
- the gathering carpet
- our dress ups

The odds are not in our favor.

Yes, that's louse-y news.

(I bet you are scratching your head!)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

What about older students?

For years, I've worked at a preschool that was simply that, a preschool - a sweet campus full of two, three, four, and "just turned five" year old children.

This year, my preschool class of three year olds is embedded in an elementary school, a brand new school that has children through third grade (and in subsequent years, we will grow one older classroom a year until we are a campus of preschool through eighth grade).

I am really enjoying having older students in the same building.
I am noticing many very special relationships forming.
I am noticing that there are so many positives for both the younger and the older children.
And their teachers.

Each of the younger classes has been paired with an older class. My preschoolers are paired with Ms. Kopsidas' first grade class. Every Friday, we visit one another for 20-30 minutes (just long enough, from a 3 year old's perspective!)...we read books and do art projects together. We have even done some engineering together!

Visiting the first grade classroom is a highlight of the week.

I love how my students look up to the bigger kids. My threes look at these older students with pure admiration. (My most rambunctious children go positively quiet - in awe, perhaps?) Our time together is consistently sweet.

In addition to these planned, whole class get-togethers, we have nurtured relationships between individual elementary students and the preschoolers, as part of our school-wide discipline approach.

We teachers are committed to having a school environment that pays attention to the social-emotional needs of all our students.

Since this is our very first year - a brand new school - the older students (first, second, and third graders) have educational stories that we don't fully know - mysteries really, that we are trying to discern.
Some of these students - although no more than seven or eight years old - already have powerful internal voices that shout
"I'm not capable!! I can't!!"
Perhaps they feel unsuccessful at reading, or math, or making a friend.

Their teachers see the frustration and anger played out in all different ways, ranging from
shutting down, going quiet, and refusing to participate
flailing, yelling, and even hitting.

For these children, having little ones on campus is an extraordinary gift.

As a staff, we asked ourselves,
What do these challenging older students need?
We decided to do a pretty radical thing. We agreed to welcome older students as visitors to our younger classrooms...when a scene change is needed.
We welcome the older student to visit the younger classroom and start anew.
We don't chastise the visitor.
[You won't hear us speak sharply, "Sit over there and be quiet!".
Where did we get the idea that children won't do the right thing without consistent rebuke and recrimination?]
Instead, we invite them to join us in whatever we are doing.

I have had students arrive during our centers time and begin to play alongside. They have joined us at nap time and helped us pat the children on the back, to get them to sleep. Sometimes they come into the classroom and read books to my students.

Let me share an example:

Recently a third grader visited us during centers, a big scowl on her face. I knew something must have been going wrong in her homeroom, but I smiled at her and welcomed her to join us. I invited her to help the children at the clay table and she immediately put on a smock and rolled up her sleeves. She showed the children how to make a clay mold of their own hands. I was amused and delighted by her observation about the children, while using the clay – “They sure use a lot of materials!” [Yes, preschoolers do – and this is how our learning works best with this age group, a materials rich environment, open-ended, exploratory, allowing children to make decisions for themselves, to feel less threatened – to provide the sense that there are ample resources.] This young girl stayed with us only for about 15 minutes, during which time she witnessed a tantrum by one of my students and she helped to soothe the child. She returned to her classroom with her head held high.

Whenever my students are at the clay center, they still try to create a clay mold of their hands - just like they learned from their older friend that day.

Preschoolers are thrilled to have an older student visit. To have an older child walk into the room is to have a rock star stop by! The children gleefully call out his name and they race to his side.
I love how the older student swells with pride,
whatever was wrong is forgotten.
They are the cool person now.
Competent. Able. Needed. Important.
I believe this empowers these children, helps them feel needed, that they belong, that they have purpose.

I have no doubt that our school-wide approach to focus on the social-emotional first and foremost is pivotal to these elementary school students becoming great learners. Unless we help them in social-emotional terms, academic achievement is not in their grasp.

It is so very special to have older children in the same building!
I love this community of ours.

The most unlovable child is the most in need of love.

Friday, November 25, 2011

What's happening with engineering this year?

I've been having a lot of fun doing engineering projects with my preschoolers this year.

I've created an engineering center, where six students can work at a time, with some help from me as needed. (Threes often have trouble cutting tape - their imaginations run faster than their fine motor skills!). Since our center time lasts about 45 mins to an hour, I typically need two days to allow each of my 23 students the chance to build their engineering solutions.

The children use a variety of recyclable and discarded materials to create. I have one "underbed storage container" that lives in the center, with a much larger bin of materials stored elsewhere, as backup. Families help me keep this well-stocked with egg cartons, meat trays, paper towel rolls, fruit nets, wine corks, etc.

Recently, I introduced the story Who Sank the Boat? by Pamela Allen, a simple fiction story wherein five animals going "rowing in the bay" and, of course, the smallest animal - the mouse - manages to sink the boat.

I posed the problem of building a boat out of recyclables that could support five animals (counting bears, in our case) and not sink. We would test our boat in the water table.

My problem with this project was that ALMOST EVERYONE wanted to make a boat immediately!

What a morning we had! The weather cooperated - offering a steady downpour that prevented us from getting out to the playground at our usual time...we had some 90 minutes of engineering time.

Imagine - three year olds staying engaged on one thing for this long! This is the power of open-ended engineering. Scissors, tape, bins of recyclables, no directions, only time - what's not to love?

As the children worked at the engineering center, we looked through the materials and discussed which ones would work best in the water. What would happen to cardboard in water? Foil, cork, plastic, foam, bubble wrap - these were the best materials for use in water.

The variety of boats was wonderful. The ideas (and children's own descriptions) were even better. Let me share a few of these...

Engineer Lucca tells me–
My boat is a valid choice. That’s a big word!

Engineer Naia, explaining where the animals will go on her boat, declares
Where these go is under the foil, so that they don’t get all wet.”

Engineer Ahmad creates a large flat boat using a cereal box, foil, assorted plastic pieces, and tape, tape, tape, and more tape.
I’m making a barge. It will not sink. It will not fall over!

Engineer Oscar is preoccupied with the water.
How to make sure that his boat doesn't sink?
He creates an entirely transparent boat, using a Ziploc bag...adding all sorts of details to the interior of the bag.
I want the bears to go inside because the water is wet,” he explains.

Engineer Zaki creates a very detailed boat beginning with a cardboard base, which he covered w/foil.
He adds foam and plastic pieces to create compartments for the animals.
Finally, he adds a ramp on his boat -
I made a slidey thing.
He considered how the animals would get on the boat!

One engineer (Liam C.) created four different iterations of a boat before he was content with the outcome. Talk about perseverance!
1) He cuts out two long thin cardboard strips and holds a net from oranges. “Ms. Ingram, look - these are fishing poles, these are nets.
Then he realizes that the cardboard will disintegrate in the water.
2) He decides to use foil, to make the boat more waterproof. He has difficulty cutting this and molding it into the shape he desires. Finally, after working with it and getting somewhat frustrated, he smashes foil into ball, “My boat is a ball.
3) He cuts two long sections of cardboard, about 3 inches wide, 12 inches long; wraps them in foil, wrapping last four inches of them together tightly. “They are also tongs, so they can get dinner.
Then he realizes that the five counting bears must fit on his boat.
4) His final boat is made from a recycled meat tray and bits of cardboard.

The reality was - 90 minutes was enough time to create a variety of boats, but it was impossible to test the boats at the water table as well. We decided to launch the boats the next day.

When the children arrived at school the next day, most had only one question for me -
"When are we testing the boats?"
The excitement was unending.

At our gathering circle, in preparation for the tests, I asked - "What if we put the five bears on the boat and the boat sinks to the bottom of the water table? What will you do? Will you throw yourself down on the floor and wail -'My boat didn't work! I am so mad! Waaaaa!' " and I gave my best dramatic imitation of a full-blown tantrum. The children laughed - they were on to me now. Several called out, "No! We will go back to engineering and fix our boat!" Yes!! These threes understand the engineering process: Plan, Build, Test, Modify, Test Again. A circular process.

Yes, I have a fabulous new group of engineers this year. They are engaged, persistent, creative, and questioning. They love to solve problems! They love to work together and help one another. We are having a whole lot of fun together.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

What about those sharing struggles?

A vignette.

Six children working at the clay table,
rolling, patting, pounding.
They have recently discovered the clay knives, and they are cutting things out, digging deep into the clay.

One shows me the tunnel he has made and inquires,
"Do you want to know how I do this? Well, I scooted this [tool] into bottom of this hole and then I lift it out, see?"
I smile.
Things are moving merrily along, everyone is happily engaged, when all of a sudden . . .

I hear a loud shriek from one of the children-
"He took that from me!"

Time stands still.

She had been using a blue cutting tool, and I see that another boy is now using it. He used to have a red one.
[Funny, how this fact stayed in my mind...why do I even remember that this was how the tools were divvied up?]
I'm thinking and watching, as she continues to shriek,
"He took that from me! From ME! From ME!"

Hmmm. I haven't seen this boy take things from others before. Well, it's not my place to presume. Just deal with the tension. Help the children to solve this conflict together.

Time stands still.

I turn to the boy, "I see you have a blue tool. I remember you having a red tool."
He points to the girl, "She has it."
The girl gives an angry glare, fists are knotted, one is knotted tightly around a red tool.

Ah, the stuff of threes. Mind you, these two tools are virtually identical.

Time stands still.

I turn to the girl, "I see you have a red tool. I remember you having a blue tool."
She continues her angry glare.
I add, "You are upset that you don't have your blue tool. How did you get a red tool?"
She responds, "I took it from him. I wanted it."
Me, again - "Oh. Did you take it because he had taken your blue tool?"
She gives me an angry glare. Clearly, I am missing her point!

The boy speaks up, "She took my red tool. And then, I took her blue tool. I need one for my clay."
Oh. "How did you feel when she took your red tool?" I asked the boy.
He answers, "I no like it. I need it."

I turned to the girl, "How did you feel when he took the blue tool from you?"
She continues to glare. But I can see that she is thinking about this. Truly, it is the thought that counts.
I let the question soak in. Silence, for a moment. Then I ask, "Do you wish you had both tools? Do you want to have BOTH of the tools?," I ask the girl.
She nods.

"Let's begin again. Ask him if you might use the blue tool for awhile. He might say 'yes,' he might say 'no.' But he is using it and you must ask him before taking."

"And the same goes for you," I said to the boy, "If you want to use the red tool and she has it, you need to ask her if you may use it. Let's start over..."

I return both tools to their original "owners." I coach them through their respective scripts. As I expected, the boy says "no" to giving up his blue tool. He goes back to working on his clay. There is no further discussion or negotiations.

But, my girl still has her angry glare. I know that she hasn't totally bought into this resolution.

I put my arm around her shoulder. "You want it all, don't you? It is hard to be using the clay tools with others. But, we are working together - all of us are sharing the same materials. We need to take turns with the tools."

This vignette also shows the necessity of slowing things down for children, making time stand still, taking the time to listen to children and allowing them to listen and learn from each other.

I don't always have such patience, but I strive to.

Threes vary so much in their developmental ages. This little girl still has a lot of that "all about me" behavior that one associates with two year olds. She is reacting to others, but not yet demonstrating a lot of concern about others.

Slowing down to negotiate these conflicts with children (rather than for children) fosters social-emotional growth, encourages the development of empathy.

I know that there will be many more of these sharing issues in the weeks and months to come. It will feel - when I have the same discussion over and over again - as if time is standing still. I'm okay with that. I believe these sharing struggles offer some of the best learning opportunities for children.

I know it will take time.
I know it is time well spent.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

What about clay?

First days with clay in my classroom.
Natural red clay.

I love watching children explore this for the first time. A big ball of clay.
What to do?
How to touch it?

Should you use two tools at once?
We have more tools...why can't we have more hands?

We practiced making little balls and bigger balls, rolling the clay in the palm of the hand.

We soon realized that the really big clumps of clay required us to roll them on the canvas placemat, with the leverage of the table top, in order to create a ball.

Children happily created clay pizzas, cookies, and other fun shapes.

Clay triangles, circles, squares.
I made a snake!” one child shouted, showing us several itsy bitsy snake pieces. And then he showed us how he pressed and whirled the clay - demonstrating, wordlessly, totally engaged.

We used the end of tools to make patterns all over the clay.

The children have loved pounding the clay with fists and special hammers.
One hammer makes three holes!
One makes a big rectangle!
One makes it flat!
One makes one hole!

Hammer! Bang!
How good this is for my frisky friends.

This new center has been a big hit. The children have enjoyed this natural material, and have been very responsible with its care. I have been impressed with the “buzz” in the classroom as the children work with this material – calm chatter, happy faces, and focused movements. They work with the clay on canvas placemats, using a variety of tools. At the end of center time, they roll their creations up into a ball, so that the clay can be used again another day.

Here's to further clay exploration...seeing how their creations change over time.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Why have dramatic play?

Today's post is really a "guest blog" - my dear friend Janise Allyn Smith happened to send me a newsletter that she sent out to her class families recently, and I asked her permission to copy it here for all to read. Janise teaches three year olds at Silver Spring Nursery School.

Janise is not a blogger - but, you tell me, after reading this, don't you think she ought to be? Enjoy!

I attended a workshop at the P.A.C.T. conference by Geetha Ramani, Assistant Professor of Human Development, University of Maryland, entitled "Superman and Cinderella; Benefits of Dramatic Play." Superheroes and princesses seem to play a large part in many preschoolers’ lives, and the question is not whether there are benefits from dramatic play but what this type of fantasy play has to offer.

Dramatic play offers abundant opportunities for children’s development. Children develop interpersonal skills, particularly cooperation and conflict resolution, and improve their language and problem solving abilities in pretend play. Their social skills are promoted as they communicate and negotiate their roles and actions. Children use language more frequently and more elaborately in make-believe play than they do in virtually any other activities.

Play is pleasurable; it is freely chosen, actively engaging, and most importantly, in the moment. Superhero or princess play focuses on children’s fantasies of bravery, danger, good/evil, and above all, power. We’ve got Batman, Superman, and Superwoman being brave, facing danger, fighting the bad guys and winning. There are fairies, witches, and unicorns who can cast spells, make things go their way, and put them in charge of others. Monsters have sharp teeth and claws; princesses dress up and dance at the ball. All of these fantasies allow children to feel as powerful as adults. It makes them feel powerful and invincible in a world where they often feel very little control over their own lives. Think about it – we are telling our children what they have to do or what they can’t do all day long. Fantasy play gives them a sense of empowerment.

There are emotional benefits to superhero play. It provides a way to understand and act out feelings. Through play, feelings can be explored through symbols: monsters = fear; wands = take control of the situation; guns/swords = stopping what feels out of control or harmful. If children are fearful or confused over things they have seen or experienced, it can be played out in a fantasy.

Okay, so we know why children enjoy fantasy play, but how do we keep them safe and how can we help them understand the difference between reality and pretend? First, we’ll talk about safe play. Limits need to be clearly established.

When playing a game with superheroes/guns/swords, where and when are the activities allowed?
What are the rules of the game?
What happens if a rule is broken?
What can children do if someone is treating them unfairly in the game?
Do they know how/when to stop the game?

All of these need to be talked about BEFORE the play begins – or at least when you see that this is the game they have started to play. Set the children up to be successful.

“Okay, it looks like you want to play Spiderman. Where did we agree that the game could be played?” Outside.
“Good, and what are the rules for the game? You do not use your body or objects to hurt your friend’s body. This is a game, and you don’t want to hurt one another. If someone does get hurt, the game will come to an end. Is everybody clear on the rules?”

Second, how can we help the children with understanding the difference between reality and fantasy? Look for those teachable moments. With princesses – do the children know about real princesses or only the ones in movies? What does a princess do? With heroes – discuss the qualities of the superheroes. Who are the real heroes in our world? Get non-fiction books that tell what a princess does or about the jobs that people such as police or fire fighters do. What kinds of things do they do to help others? After watching the movies of princesses or superheroes, initiate a conversation about what is pretend and what is real. A “reality check”, if you will. Talk about what they could have done in a real life situation – even if it was fun to watch what they did in the movie.

Pretending to be someone else clearly has many benefits. I am not advocating squelching the fun and fantasy of this kind of play. Parents can actively encourage dramatic play at home by capitalizing on their children’s interest at the moment, developing themes from stories their children have heard or movies they have seen, and providing props for pretend play. But it’s important to check-in with where the play is taking them. If it’s just become all about fighting, then maybe they need an outlet for that energy; karate classes, gymnastics, bicycling, baseball or soccer. If it’s all about the dress and looking in the mirror, then we want to move them outside the box. Encourage them to do things that a princess would do while dressed-up; painting, sewing, building things, dancing, reading, helping others, playing music, or taking care of animals.

With careful adult guidance and lots of discussion, children can understand the difference between fantasy play and how we ordinary human beings deal with good and evil that we encounter in the world. Now excuse me while I go get my cape and tiara on – I’m late for soccer practice.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Divine Dissatisfaction

I had my first formal observation this past week. This unscheduled, surprise visit left me awash in reflection...things I would have like to have done differently.

Actually, each day when I drive home, I'm thinking about how I could have changed things, how I might improve my teaching tomorrow.

I flashed on this past summer's professional development with Inspired Teaching, which encouraged us teachers to practice "divine dissatisfaction" -

I'm really excited about xyz that I am doing...
but, I wonder, how can it be better?

This concept of "divine dissatisfaction" was originally said by Martha Graham, American modern dancer and choreographer, to her friend Agnes de Milles' comment:

"I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be..."

Martha Graham responded:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time. This expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.

No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

Aleta Margolis, Executive Director at the Center for Inspired Teaching, notes how the word "might" is perhaps her favorite word to inject in reflections...

How might I have done this differently?
How might the children have responded if I had...?
How might the environment affect...?

Teaching is art.

Recognizing this, I will embrace my divine dissatisfaction - try to make peace with my unrest.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What do children do with their fears?

This past week, sadly, someone tried to break into our school. When staff arrived, we found the front glass door shattered, by a thrown brick. The police were called and we had to delay the start of school by an hour and a half, so that they could check the scene, collect fingerprints and evidence, etc.

We staff rallied to create some normalcy for children and families. We sent out a mass email to families, but, even so, many families did not get advance word of the situation.

Like staff, many children arrived at the shattered door...only to find themselves ushered to another school entrance. I was put on "sign-in" duty, whereas many of my colleagues were supervising the early /non-notified arrivals. We set up several classrooms to host these children.

Imagine - three year olds,
so dependent on routine and predictability,
arriving to find a shattered door,
having to say goodbye to families,
finding themselves in an all new classroom,
with lots of children from other classes, and
without their regular teacher.

By the time I got to my little guys, it was nearly 10 a.m.

I knew we were off to a wild day.

I put on some soft jazz music and opened up centers.
I gave every child an individual hug - "Oh, I missed you!," I exclaimed.

Our favorite place these past couple of weeks has been our cardboard bus, where we take all sorts of trips all over town. (Singing, "Wheels on the Bus," of course!) This day, on the cardboard bus, I overheard some dramatic discussion about:

"There's a robbery on the bus!"
"Quick, let's get the police!"

On the playground, the police play continued.
"Oh, thanks for keeping me safe, police!," I declared as the children police ran by me.

This is how young children process stressful situations - out loud.
I think we adults have a lot to learn from children in these situations - they are so honest and up front about what they are feeling.

For our part, as adults with children,
on rough and stressful days,
dare to do a little less, and
hug a little more.

Read children their favorite stories, sing favorite songs.
And reassure them - they are safe, they are safe.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

How do you get them to sleep?


I have long been in awe of the nap ritual at all day programs.

I have taught since 2000, but have always taught in part-time, half-day programs, where this ritual of the daily nap was left up to families and home caregivers.

This past year, I mentored several teachers who taught in all day PreK programs and one important part of every day was having the children nap. Visiting their classrooms, I was fascinated by the expectation that all children would nap, that the teacher would get them to sleep.

One school had an open classroom concept - some 60 three and four year olds would nap every day together! I was amazed when I watched this unfold. This large open classroom had one of the softest, most inviting routines for children to nap:

Throughout the open space, some soft melodic music played.
All teachers' voices became near whispers.
Teachers and assistants helped children get out their special mat and placed it on the floor -
somewhere in the classroom, throughout the classroom,
wherever there was space to be somewhat alone.


Nap time is no longer a spectator sport for me.

I am teaching in a full day program.
Every day, my twenty-three preschoolers are expected to take a nap.

This past summer, I got the melodic music ready. I heard Ken Kolodner playing beautiful instrumentals with hammered dulcimer, dulcimer-mbira, and fiddle, and I thought to myself - This is it! What lovely music to play at nap time, to softly signal our time to relax, to rest, to sleep.... I purchased his CD "Out of the Wood" and I was very hopeful about this new ritual in my teaching....

[If you'd like to hear a sample of his music, check this out.]

I just knew I could do it!

I looked forward to the nap time expectantly. This two-hour block is also the closest thing to a break that I is my opportunity to plan with my Resident, to enter data into Teaching Strategies Gold, to eat my lunch, to reflect.

That is, once I get these twenty-three three year olds asleep.

I'm ashamed to admit, nap time in my classroom has more in common with Whac a Mole than with sleeping.

What are you supposed to do with the non-sleepers?
What are you supposed to do with the loud ones?
Is it realistic to set up napping cots throughout a preschool classroom and expect children to sleep?
Doesn't it look more like a slumber party?
Doesn't it beg for dancing on one's cot and talking to your neighbor?

As it turns out, several families told me that their three year olds do not ever nap at home. Several more rarely nap at home. Still others sleep in a room of their own.

Of the wide-awake ones, at least five have only one volume to their voice - loud. And they can't stop talking.

So, here's what nap time looks like in my classroom:

there we three adults are,
moving constantly through a sea of preschooler cots,
whispering calming words,
patting and rubbing backs,
reminding them about quiet,
pulling up blankies,
finding a special lovey to hold,
around and around and around the room,
over and over and over again.

It is the most exhausting part of my day.

Monday, October 10, 2011

How does your story begin?

Let me share another wonderful Bev Bos idea that I am running with this year in my preschool class....

How does your story begin?

This summer, in my visit to her Roseville Community School, Bev shared her delight with collecting children's responses to this open-ended question. Each day, she tries to ask each child this question. She writes down their responses verbatim. She makes a photocopy of the story response and then gives the original to the family, keeping the photocopy in the child's file. At the end of the year, each family receives a small book of these story treasures authored by their little one.

I love storytelling with children. This idea of Bev's was right down my alley.
I decided I, too, would pursue these "How does your story begin?" treasures. As she suggested, I asked one of my most talkative students first...and she readily volunteered an enchanting story about her dog. At the end of the day, at our closing gathering, I read her story aloud to the class.

Magical things happened. Immediately, everyone wanted to share their story with me!

It is true, everyone has a story.

Weeks have gone by now and the magic continues. I have a far simpler storytelling goal than Bev's - I strive for one new story each day, being sure to rotate through each of my students. I look for opportunities when I can have a one-on-one chat with the child, when I can cozy up to them with my clipboard and hear their words. Many days I will get four or five new stories from children, but my goal is to get just one.

Amusingly, I realized right away that my handwriting was so illegible, I couldn't easily pass these treasures on to the families. I take the time to type their stories into my computer. I now have a treasure trove of stories by little ones.

This simple gesture - transferring their words onto the computer - unexpectedly charmed the children. One day early on, as I read a child's story aloud, another asked - "Do you have my story from yesterday?" and I said, "Actually, I do - I typed it onto my computer last night. Let's look it up. He couldn't believe that I had his words on my computer! What a message of value and respect I had unexpectedly conveyed. Seeing their words appear on my computer, there has been literally no end to the stories children want to share with me.

At day's end, it has become a lovely ritual for all the children to hear their classmates' stories. Bev advised us not to insist that children listen to the stories (believing that they are egomaniacs at this young age and they are only interested in their own stories), and I do not insist that anyone listen. But, I am happy to report, everyone is listening, everyone enjoys this daily ritual. It is a soft and welcomed part of our day.

"How does your story begin?" began simply as a curiosity on my part, to see what the children would say. But, it has proven to be so much more.

I have discovered what is on their minds.
I am expanding my curriculum and books, based on their interests, fears, happy memories.
I am learning about them academically - their vocabulary, their recall, their logic and cognition.
I have discovered a way to meld our community - to link the children together, for them to get to know each other better...through their stories.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

I love unexpected gifts!

I had an unexpected gift this week...naptime was imploding; very few children were succumbing to sleep. My teaching resident took some nine tykes to the playground; I had six asleep; and I was passively supervising another eight children, who were quietly drawing.

One child suggested I read Red Light, Green Light by Anastasia Suen.

Of course, I immediately read the book. What do you do when some children are sleeping? You do anything necessary to keep them asleep. I may not have planned to read the book (it was on my bookshelf, but not my lesson plan), but with sleeping children at risk, I would have read the Encyclopedia Britannica aloud! For me, there was no debate.

"Yes, let's read this!," I entreated the small group.

All eight children gathered around me to read the book quietly.

Well, that simple book reminded one child (Naia) of a song...and she quietly and spontaneously sang to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star:

twinkle, twinkle traffic light
around the corner, shining bright
red means stop
green means go
yellow means moving very slow
twinkle, twinkle traffic light
around the corner, shining bright

This simple song was the opening of the gift. It was so lovely to have this young girl dare to sing a solo, and to see this small group of classmates listen reverently. But then - what transpired! Each child needed to share a song.

Liam C. sang the traditional twinkle star,
Estee revised the lyrics to include daddy's hugs,
Alex merged "Twinkle, Twinkle" with "Baa, Baa Black Sheep,"
Eleanor offered a song about pool safety,
Oscar sang what he remembered of Naia's song,
Gideon shared the words to "Yellow Submarine"
Zaki offered a tonal "ooo, oh, onk, onk, ooo" that everyone found delightful and started to beat out on their thighs and hands.

Children taking turns.
Children singing solos.
Children listening to one another.

It was magical.
It was a small group.
It was a sign of our community jelling.

An unexpected gift.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

All is well with my world

It's September 11th.
Ten years since that dreadful day.

Here's a soft "hug" that I give myself each year at this time with my preschoolers -

I play a recording of

Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World

and show the book by George David Weiss and Bob Thiele,
illustrated by Ashley Bryan.

No, I don't have any discussion about the day, the tragic events of 2001.
There's no need to draw these little ones into this adult pain,
these adult problems.

But, listening to Louis Armstrong,
seeing my preschoolers' faces,
watching them dance - instinctively, impulsively, freely - to his sweet notes,
I feel so hopeful.

All is well with my world.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Don't you know better?

The start of any year is a rollercoaster - planning, imagining, rushing, welcoming, surprising, soothing, observing, rethinking, orchestrating, fixing, laughing, crying, exhausting.

This year's start is a particularly wild rollercoaster.

I am working in a brand new school, in a public school system that is new to me, where we are creating systems and routines as we go.

I have a large class of three year olds, 23 total. (There are 3 adults - don't freak out!)

I have an all new position - working in a "fish bowl," as "Master Teacher" - I work alongside a Teaching Resident, helping to shape him (yes, a male!!) as a preschool teacher.

Master Teacher means I know better, right?
Don't I know better?

I am most surprised by the many "let me out of here!" moments - times when I've just needed to have the whole scene "freeze," Harry Potter style, mid-motion - so that I might be able to pause and think clearly, to consider what reasonable move to make next, or, even, to have a "do over."
Of course, one doesn't get to pause with preschoolers.

There have been daily moments when I have really botched things up, and I'm just stuck with the mess I've made.

I will dare to share three:

"The Fire Drill Practice."

I have long known that it is my responsibility as teacher to be sure that I have collected each and every one of my three year olds and herded them out the door to safety. Three year olds cannot possibly be responsible for getting themselves to safety in an emergency. For years, I have taken these wee ones outside the building, just before the alarm rings, so that they might hear the alarm at a more "gracious" level and not be completely undone by its sound. I know how to practice fire drills with threes! Yes, I know!

But there I was, readying myself and them, at a whole group gathering, for our first fire drill. My plan was to take them on the walk, to show them the route, hours before the bell would actually ring, to introduce the concept of moving quickly, together, in this new and important way. I was wondering, with this new group of students, who were my runners (my 'flight risks')? Who might run in an all new direction than I anticipated? A practice walk would reveal this.

So, there I sat, with all my threes around me, and I got no further than "Later today we are going to have a practice fire drill..." when one little guy screamed in terrified response, "NO! LOUD NOISE!! NO!! NO!! NO!!" and ran for the door, crying huge tears, repeatedly wailing, "NO! LOUD NOISE!! NO!! NO!! NO!." Two others burst into tears, echoing him - he must know something horrible that they didn't know. And suddenly no one is sitting, everyone is up, talking at once, scared, confused. I try to take the terrified little guy onto my lap, talking soothingly about the process, but it is irrelevant - the Big Cats are on the run, pandemonium is in place. No one can hear me. I am not teaching. I am trying to stop the hemorrhaging.

And, of course, in the midst of it all, I see my principal walk by, giving some adults a tour of our lovely school and our inspiring techniques.


"The Dump Bucket."

We don't have a sink in our classroom. The bathroom is across the hall. I thought it would be a good idea to have a "liquids" bucket next to the trash can, so that children might toss their leftover drinks into this rather than making an unexpected, unnecessary burden for our maintenance staff. This is a simple routine, a two step process - trash into the can, liquids into the bucket. And, of course, after snacks and after lunch, I or my colleague empty the bucket immediately, with one or two preschoolers helping. Threes love to help!

But there I was reading a book to the entire class, all of us but one ensconced on the carpet, engaged in the book. There's always one who doesn't join circle right? It's okay, he's moving about, but - he's listening. Kinesthetic learner, I am thinking.

In a flash, this frisky three year old grabs the dump bucket.
You see it, too, don't you?
"NO!" I shout, loudly, "NO, DON'T!" This is not my preferred teaching voice.

I know better, I know better, I know better,
but I did not empty that dump bucket after snack.

A sea of milk and water pours out over our floor....


I'm the one who called it the dump bucket.

"The Redirect."

My Resident is reading a story to the class as I set out lunch. There, in the midst of the gathered children, one frisky three year old begins nudging his neighbor with his shoulder. She squawks - "Stop it!" and he is fascinated by her reaction, and begins to kick her instead.

I'm thinking - he's a guy that needs to move, he needs a lot of personal space. He is learning to respect classmates' personal space, how to get along with others, but this learning is very, very new to this only child. He is also fascinated by cause and effect. Wow, this learning (and teaching!) is rocky and unpredictable at times.

I'm thinking - I'll support the Resident by redirecting this little fellow, quietly and unobtrusively, so that the story can continue without interruption.

But, I'm not fast enough. The one being kicked begins to cry and yell; I quickly grab the aggressor and bring him to my lap, and whisper, "Let's just sit here together, on the edge." He is so stunned by my unexpected swoop that he looks at me wide-eyed and screams. Yes, he begins to scream at me, wailing, squirming, resisting me! I have startled him in a way that his classmate's reaction did not. I have taken him from the story, I have taken him from his classmates. I suspect he feels violated. (It doesn't help that lunch is late, and therefore his much-needed nap is late, too.)

How did I manage to provoke him in the very way that I didn't want him to bother his classmate? I know children are startled by unexpected sounds and movements.

I now have two very unhappy preschoolers, a whole class of onlookers, and I have brought an abrupt end to the story time. How does one read a story over the wails of a child?


Nothing is automatic in the first weeks of a school year, in the beginning of a school. We are all in transition - children and adults.

I know better, I know better, I know better.

But I still regress. I make mistakes. I jump for perfection and land squarely on human.

I will have many opportunities for "do over." There's always next time....

Sunday, August 28, 2011

What do you mean, "Use your words!"?

Here's the scene:

Three year old children, playing alongside each other at the same activity; one child grabs something from another, and both children start squawking. There is a swift hit or maybe a quick scratch by one child. The child runs quickly from the other, clutching the desired toy.

It all happens so quickly. Children hurting one another.

And there's the adult voice:

Use your words!

I think all of us have done this.

It can be so exhausting at the beginning of a school year, when Threes are thrown in together, forming a completely foreign entity called a class.

Wasn't it just yesterday that they were self-centered, "all about me" two year olds, playing alongside classmates, but separately?
Playing with their own stuff (as long as we had enough of everything!), leaving one another alone?
Why aren't they leaving one another alone?
We just told them to stop behaving this way!

It seems as if Threes go looking for conflict, purposely engaging with their classmates in willful ways - grabbing, dominating, demanding.

Yes, it is true.
Threes are leaving parallel play behind - and seeking to interact.

They see their classmates,
they want what their classmates have,
they want to do what their classmates are doing,
they want to play together.

But they don't have a clue how to do it.

They do not know what words to use.

This interaction - friend to friend, classmate to classmate, child to child - is all very, very new to them.

It is our job as adults to GIVE them the words.

Rather than say "Use your words!," give them the words that are appropriate to the situation. For example:

"We don't take toys from one another."

"Did you want her to take that toy? Tell her, 'I am using this! I will give it to you when I am done.' "

"He is using that now; say, 'May I use that when you are through?' "

"We are safe in this class. I cannot let you hit her. I see you are angry - let's breathe in and out together, until you feel better."

"Ask her, 'May I play, too?' "

"Hands are gentle with one another. People are not for hurting."

"Your face tells me you are really frustrated - it is hard to wait. Would you like to play with this, while you wait?"

"Ask him, 'May I use that now?' "

"Tell him, 'You may not hit me.'

"Your face tells me you are really sad; let's write a letter to Mommy together, telling her how sad you are."

"In this class, we are all safe. Was that a safe thing to do? What are some safe things we can do while we wait to use that toy?"

There is no specific script for helping preschoolers say the right thing in a conflict. How great it would be to be able to succinctly say, "Use your words!" - however, we must remember,

Using words for social, cooperative, interactive, conversational reasons is an all new skill for Threes. They simply do not know the words to use, however able they might be to speak.

My friend and Threes teacher Janise tells the story of a child who was directed to "Use your words!":

The child immediately shouted "WORDS!!"

There you have it.

What are the words?

We need to teach these words to preschoolers as if we were teaching math to a fourth grader,

breaking it into learnable chunks,

until they are able to run with this knowledge on their own.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

More from Bev

My three days at the "Good Stuff for Kids" conference (co-led by Bev Bos, Michael Leeman, and Dan Hodgins) in late July were filled with insight and reflection - and yet I never shared any of this with you, except for photos!

Well, it's the night before the first day of school. I am filled with excitement and anticipation, wondering what the day and the week will bring. I've decided to "decompress" a little by sharing a little more from the conference.

Roseville Community School in Roseville, California is a delightful place for children, filled with lots of incredible exploratory opportunities and a real sense of joy.

Bev noted several times how discipline problems are rare at the school - the children have so much to do, so much freedom of choice. For me, this point really resonated:

the more "powerful" experiences that you give to children, the more self-regulation they acquire, and the less discipline issues that arise.

What does it mean to support or provide power for a preschooler? Here are some thoughts from Bev, Michael, and Dan:

Hammering and sawing (using real tools - with adult guidance)
Provide lots of physical space
A variety of movable objects
Climbing walls
Allow children to raise their voices, to be louder than you want
Have a loud space (not just a calm down space)
Visual guidance (rather than adult voice)
Allow children to take things back and forth between centers/areas of the room
Give children choices; be flexible with them
Sword fighting with rolled-up newspapers
Ignore healthy "bullying" between children- such as - "Hey, go get that block for me" (retire the teacher's voice re: bossiness - especially if it's not an issue for the receiver)
Put out pretend fires
Construction - in as big space as possible (most workbenches are too small)
Crates for pulling and filling
Rough-housing and tumble play
Clay pounding
Dressups - especially capes
Tug of war
Arm wrestling
"London Bridge"
"Red Rover, Red Rover"
Boxes for kicking

In your classroom, put yourself in the child's place and consider:

"Can I keep it as long as I want?" [Yes!]
"Do I get one?" [Yes! There multiples of the same thing!]
"If I don't share, am I still good?" [Yes!]
"Do I have something to do while I am waiting?" [Yes!]

Bev Bos is a passionate advocate of classroom learning that begins with children's voices, children's interests, children's engagement. We shouldn't be spoon-feeding curriculum, but instead watching and expanding on their play. In real play, children decide:

- what to play,
- where to play,
- how to play, and
- with whom to play.

Are we providing early childhood settings that allow these choices?

Preschool environments must be child-centered, not adult-driven. Regarding books for read alouds, Bev notes - "If a kid doesn't say something on the first page, than I don't read it, I slip it away and choose another book."

Clue in! Be aware of activities that are not relevant to young children. They will tell you with their bodies, with their voices, with their movements.

The Rosewood Community School is clearly a place that has clued in to children.

Well, now I'll get back to my excitement and anticipation about tomorrow...
Here's to a new school year!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Where has the time gone?

I have set a somewhat arbitrary goal for myself of blogging at least once a week. This is really "blogging - lite," if one compares this to the regular and prolific posts of so many other bloggers...but, for me, blogging is a sideline, an outlet, a quiet release of my thoughts.

That said...I am truly being challenged in my blogging right now!
No time for sidelines.
No time for outlets.
No time for a quiet release of my thoughts.

The reason is simple: a new school year underway in a brand new school.

Where has the time gone?

The children arrive this Monday!
Our first day of school is August 22nd.
Oh my!

Where has the time gone?

We had a delightful "Meet Your Teacher Day" this past Friday - I met about half of my sweet 3 year olds and their lovely families. I am so jazzed!

But that glimpse of the wonderful children set off a frenzy of all the remaining "to do's" and the work continues non-stop.

Where has the time gone?

You'll hear from me again when ?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Bev Bos conference

I had the good fortune to attend Bev Bos' "Good Stuff for Kids" conference at Roseville Community School in Roseville, California this past week...I have no doubt that there are several blog posts that I need to write/share with you. Until I can sit with these thoughts a bit, let me share some photographs of art and science fun. Bev believes the best experiences for young children have no instructions - just set out the materials and let the children play!

Enjoy these!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

SLANT - what is it good for?

This past school year, I frequently heard reference to the acronym "SLANT," an expectation that teachers should have for their students - even the preschoolers:

S - Sit up straight
L - Look and listen
A - Ask and answer questions
N - Nod your head
T - Track the speaker with your eyes

Pardon the pun, but this simply doesn't sit right with me. Certainly, not for three year olds - who, developmentally, simply should not be held to such foolish physical rigidity. You are setting them up for failure, for rebuke.

Honestly, I'm not sure it is a "solution" for any age student. I could perhaps make a case for it to be guidance that you give to teens, almost an etiquette training, for how to conduct themselves during an interview.

However, insisting that everyone do this, all the time, while the teacher is teaching? Is this conformity necessary? Does anyone see this as a little bit spooky and surreal?

I wonder and argue - isn't it possible that you may look like you are attending, but you are not?

Case in point, my darling mother - who has dementia. Honestly and truly, Mom has mastered SLANT. It is the last vestige of her social skills. She sits with family and friends, looking and acting as if she is hanging on to their every word:

- she sits up straight;
- she listens closely;
- she grabs onto the last few words said and repeats them with an inquiring voice - "you went to the house?" (Often she will sigh or make a chuckle, affirming the emotional tone of the conversation - her ear for this is remarkable);
- she nods her head; and
- she doesn't take her eyes off the speaker.

I can assure you - my Mom is not following the discussion. We have sadly lost the ability to actually dialogue with her. She's just faking her participation, a last hopeful gesture to mask her dementia, to pretend to the world that all is well.

Isn't it possible that SLANT by students is similarly not an indicator that they are actively engaged?

Shouldn't we have more meaningful opportunities for and indicators of engagement?

Or have I missed the point of SLANT?

Perhaps it is so that children will be seen and not heard?

Yes, I have real issues with this.