Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thoughts to end the month

As the great Southern writer Flannery O’Connor wrote in a letter to a friend,

You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you.

This age is pushing mighty hard against children, against educators, and against the very concept of good education.

Let’s all push back as hard as we can.

-- Diane Ravitch

Monday, March 28, 2011

Must I be a tiger mom?

I doubt I'm the only one who has been thinking about the parenting advice by Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. (Actually, I haven't read the book, only her much shorter article in the Wall Street Journal.) The lines that I keep reflecting on are these:

"What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it...To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences."

I think it is true that it is fun when you are good at things. And, certainly, you must practice, practice, practice to become truly great at anything. But, otherwise, I respectfully disagree:

1. Preschoolers love to work, love to focus - especially when they see it as play, especially when they work alongside loved ones.

2. Excellence, ideally, involves both practice and passion - keeping at something that you have a proclivity towards.

3. The journey to becoming great at something can most certainly involve lots of fun.

One of the most important things that a young child’s mind needs in order to learn is relationship. There needs to be a bond with the adult. If you want a preschooler to be interested in something, to be good at something, do it with them!!! You, alongside, will move mountains. Preschoolers provide uninhibited insight into what their passions are. These are great years to present them with all sorts of opportunities and exposure, to books, music, art, sports, nature, plus museums, concerts, and other field trips - to share with them your interests and passions and to dare to explore theirs.

Another important aspect of a child becoming accomplished at something is devoting time to it. I think there is a lot to be said for throwing away the clock and letting a child get absorbed in their work. This is the tension of a school day – with its interrupting specials, assigned playground and lunch periods – schedules that are needed for a school to run smoothly but, unfortunately, "throw a wrench" in lengthy, focused work by students.

Thus, as parents and teachers, we should work to find a way to allow for children's projects – to leave work out, to allow things to be left "mid-process," perhaps to put it up on display as it is being worked on; to allow and encourage children to revisit projects, to revise and continue. These are great years to work on perseverance, to show the value of how things develop. When possible, get your video camera out at the beginning of a new endeavor and photograph the child's efforts over time – let a child see how his/her work has evolved.

"To bring up a child in the way he should go, travel that way yourself once in a while."
- Josh Billings

(The photograph I've included here is an extraordinary mural that I walk by regularly - "From Edgewood to the Edge of the World", located near the Rhode Island Metro in Washington, D.C. and created by several youth artists in 2009. I have no doubt it was created with a lot of hard work, talent, and enjoyment!)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Have you considered another approach?

I love early childhood training workshops. No matter what the topic, I always walk away with some morsel of new insight, something new to try in my classroom. I find myself considering a new approach. But it is a very rare pleasure when I have had a hand in organizing a training that features an inspired educator who is also a dear friend. This past Tuesday, March 15th, was that rare and wonderful day.

I am President of the Potomac Association of Cooperative Teachers, a nonprofit organization that provides training opportunities to preschool teachers in the Washington, DC area. Most of these schools are cooperative preschools, where parents work alongside the teacher in the classroom. This past Tuesday was our Annual Spring Conference and our presenter was Marla McLean, "Dreaming Utopia into Reality- Creativity and Young Children: The Power of Reggio Emilia Inspired, Project- based, Material-rich Curriculum." There were some 200 early childhood teachers in attendance.

I want to tell you about the workshop and the questions that it raised for me, in hopes that it stimulates some thought and reflection by all of us working in early childhood. Here goes!

Marla McLean is a Reggio Inspired artist/educator, working 14 years as the Atelierista at School-Within-School (SWS) in Washington, DC. Visual artist that she is, she provided us with many beautiful images of children at work in her studio at her Reggio-Emilia inspired school, as she told us about her educational approach. She noted that an underlying premise to Reggio Emilia is that "theory and practice are two pedals on a bike," the teacher is researcher - provoking, observing and reflecting.

After telling us a little about her work at School-Within School, she asked us teachers to brainstorm a list of things that mean happiness, that provide us a sense of well-being.

I wonder how much brainstorming - spontaneous sharing of ideas, where all ideas are valid - we are doing with young children? I wonder how we can remind ourselves that children need to share their own unique perspectives, to know that their own ideas have merit? Is there enough flexibility in our day to encourage this?

Then Marla had each of us teachers work in small groups to select three of these ideas and create a machine that illustrates them, using a variety of recyclables and other extras.

I wonder how much "teamwork" we are doing with small children? Do we welcome this lively, animated, active interaction? What are the benefits of having children work together, consistently, for an in-depth period of time each week, with the same small group and no one else? Is there power and possibility in this?

During our snack break at the conference, many teachers slipped up to the materials table and took their favorite pieces ahead of time, before we were supposed to do so.

I wonder if we would tolerate this same behavior in our classrooms, by our preschoolers? What is our response to children when they challenge our rules and routines?

All of the attendees supported this project work by donating odds and ends - we had a 'buffet' in the front of the room filled with these inexpensive, frequently discarded materials. I was amused to see the wire that I found curbside on trash day turned into an inspirational mobile.

I wonder if these teachers will look at "extras" and "discards" in a new light and begin storing, sorting, and collecting? I wonder if children and families would enjoy this, too? I wonder if this encourages higher-level thinking in children, nudging them to consider new uses for things, to think more abstractly?

We worked in teams. I must admit I wandered away from my team, abandoning them to devise our happiness machine on their own, while I took lots of photos.

If I were a four year old, I wonder if my teachers would have permitted me this off-task behavior? Would I have been allowed to wander, do my own thing? Would it have been welcomed and supported? I wonder, as Marla said, how do children feel about themselves when their language isn't heard?

I was so pleased to see such beautiful and intricate sculptures appear after some 45 minutes of allotted time for the experience.

I wonder how many young children get to immerse themselves in project work at school for such a long period of time? How might we let children linger on their work, to bask in their creativity, to "move the clock" so that this can happen in early childhood rooms?

Marla shared with us her detailed documentation of children at work on similar projects. One video of two boys working with modeling clay in her studio was profound with its absence of a teacher's voice - children being allowed to delve into their work without an adult interrupting their thoughts, insisting on an adult agenda. For me, this illustrates a kind of 'slowing down' and being with children, celebrating their growth, seeing their development - it is tremendously respectful. Marla noted that she tries to "make sacred the ordinary."

I wonder how many teachers document the work of children? Has the pace of our teaching become so frenetic that teachers cannot create these thoughtful mirrors? Are we allowing ourselves to slow down enough to see the powerful thought and growth by children, rather than minimizing or discounting it by quickly getting to the next part of our day? How do we fully see and understand our children if we are not observing and documenting?

It was marvelous to spend the day hearing Marla speak on creativity and children. It was a journey to another way, a "visit" with another approach that is different enough for many of us that we may fear it, aware of how much we'd have to change the way we do things now. But, we have been enlightened. I have no doubt.

"There are big stories in small spaces." - Marla McLean

School website:

Monday, March 7, 2011

What do we want education to be?

Public school teachers, schools, and budgets are in the bull's eye right now, the target of unreasonable wrath. Let's shift the discussion.

Tell me, what problems do you imagine today's children will face when they grow up? What kinds of things will they need to figure out? To solve?

Think about this for a moment.

Now consider, as communities, parents, teachers,
What do we want to nurture in our children? What skills will they need?

I've asked these questions at a variety of workshops and classes with educators. The adults quickly brainstorm:

The ability to see many sides of issue
Kindness and compassion
An awareness of outside world
Respect for everyone
A fresh outlook
Considering something from multiple directions

These skills come from a diversity of learning experiences – curriculum that is not “scripted," pre-packaged, identical in every classroom. These skills are nurtured by teachers who are fascinated by each child individually, and who go home at night, unable to stop thinking about the children in their class. Teaching requires daily reflection, daily accounting, daily flexibility – What went right today? Why didn’t that work? What might I try? Teachers are skilled at looking for signs of struggle and helping a child work through these; they are skilled at recognizing the different and important achievements of each of their students.

Such teachers are encouraged by their communities and leaders.

I am so thankful for the leadership of Joanne Busalacchi, a.k.a. "Ms. B," Principal of New Hampshire Estates Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland, where my children went to school in the 1990s. She respected and involved teachers, parents, and community in her school. This was a Title One school, with some 85% poverty level. Ms. B embraced the economic and cultural diversity of her school, recognized it as a gift, and celebrated it. I have no doubt that she went home every day, awash in reflection, thinking - What didn't work today? What might I try tomorrow? Consider these snapshots -

- Ms. B at the front door of the school, saying hello to each child by name, as they arrived for school each morning;
- Ms. B taking her staff around the community on a school bus, to meet the children during the summer;
- Ms. B singling out parents and community members with "more" (whether it be time, talent, or money) and asking them to do more for the school.

There were so many signs of the community coming together as one -

- parents visiting and volunteering at the school throughout the day, in a variety of ways,
- local police officers eating lunch with the students in the cafeteria,
- mobile Health Clinics and mobile Public Libraries parked out front at the school, for families and community;
- a vibrant Parent-Child Center in one of the classrooms for those of us with children too young to be enrolled, filled with play activities and parenting advice;

- PTA meetings that met not just at 7pm “white-collar” time but Saturday mornings and unusual times mid-week;
- all community meetings translated into Spanish, Vietnamese, and other languages; and
- a variety of special nights every month, for children and their families, to celebrate learning - math game nights, international nights, Young Author nights.

Ms. B treated her public school like it was the heart of the community - and it was.

She was a staunch advocate for children. She rallied the staff to come together as one, to be respectful. A former parent remembers hearing Ms. B assert to her staff, "There is entirely too much yelling around here. We will not yell at children. Let's talk about this." Her staff was inspired and motivated - one teacher told me that Ms. B never told the staff how to do something, she “moved them towards the light,” and gave them both independence and responsibility. She did the same thing with parents. And this positivism, flexibility, and determination trickled down to the children.

This is exactly what we say we want for our children: for them to have independence, flexibility, responsibility, perseverance, determination.

It seems to me, we cultivate these skills in our children by being this way in our adult daily lives - in the way we interact with each other, in the way we solve today's problems. We must model this. Just as Ms. B and her staff modeled it.

Public school teachers and schools are in the bull's eye right now, the target of unreasonable wrath. Let's shift the discussion.

Teachers, parents, community, leaders – we have such an important role in making a bright future possible for our children. There is no one way. Those of us in the trenches – because we have children in school, or because we are teaching in schools, or because we are visiting schools - we need to speak up and repeat, repeat, repeat:

We are building our future.
Public education is the foundation of our country, the cornerstone of what will come.
We want our schools to continue to be filled with energized, knowledgeable, dedicated, caring, and respected professionals.
Our children deserve no less.

How can we ensure that Ms. B's kind of excellence is the norm of our public schools?
How can we ensure that teachers have the flexibility and autonomy to think about the needs and gifts of the individual child?
How can we ensure that families, even in the toughest circumstances, are welcomed, supported, and elevated by their child's school?

Let’s change the way we talk about teachers and public education.
Let’s envision together.
What do we want education to be?