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Certified PreK-6. Masters in Child Development. Advocate for play, teacher & children choice, & the family's voice. Believe in volunteering as social justice.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Journey On

"You cannot change your journey if you are unwilling to move at all." (Ally Condie)

New Year's Eve has come to represent new beginnings. It's a time to reflect on the past year and look forward to the future. As a teacher, I used to mark the start of a new year by the academic calendar rather than New Year's Eve. This made sense as I spend time preparing a classroom and anxiously waiting the moment when I would meet my new students and their families.

To an extent, I still mark the start of a new year by the academic calendar. September seems to be another time of new beginnings as school starts, a new semester of grad school begins, and volunteer projects jump into action. And yet, seven years ago I also began to mark New Year's Eve as a time of new beginnings. Seven years ago, on New Year's Eve, I moved to Chicago for a new teaching job. This was a significant point in my journey. I was moving past the comfort of living within close proximity to my friends and the safety of working with a mentor teacher in the same school to a large city that I had only ever spent brief moments in without knowing where I would live or having the safety of having my closest friends nearby.

I can still vividly remember arriving at a college friends's apartment in the dark and snow and craziness that tends to reign on New Year's Eve. More scared than excited, I brushed it off and sent my parents on their way. I remember thinking, "what have I done", as friends counted down to the New Year. I spent the week in a haze and then all of sudden Monday was upon me and it was time to venture to a new school, a new set of colleagues, and a new set of children and families.

I've learned a lot since that crazy move seven years ago. I have learned how to navigate life in the city, how to grocery shop when you rely on the train to get around, and I learned how to teach. In the past seven years, I have learned the type of teacher that I want to be, what beliefs I hold about education and young children and their families, and how to fight for what I believe to be the best for my students.

And now, on the eve of another new year, I reflect on all I still need to know, on the things that I still need to wrestle with and make sense of. Seven years after nervously leaving the small city where I went to college, I am on the verge of graduating from grad school. I feel poised and well equipped to move onto the next stage of my journey. If only I could figure out what that next stage will be.

I am so fortunate to be at an internship that allows me to try new things and allows me the opportunity to get to know faculty and staff at my grad school more deeply. I am blessed that the several part time jobs I hold are at such places as a large not-for-profit that works in support of young children and at a children's museum. I know that these opportunities are amazing and are preparing me for the future and I am so lucky that these opportunities have also made my presence known to many influential people in the field of early childhood education.

And so now it is up to me. It is up to me to reflect on my journey and to open myself up to the future. Maybe I'll end up back in the classroom. Maybe I'll end up overseas. Maybe I'll end up as a teacher coach. The possibilities do seem endless. And maybe that's okay. Maybe it now becomes my job to filter these possibilities and allow myself to pick a direction. Because it seems that whichever direction I pick will be a good choice and will help me continue to work in defense of play, learning, children, and teachers.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Pushing Past the Darkness

"It is the small things, every day deeds from ordinary folk, that keep the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love." (Gandalf, The Hobbit)

Like everyone in the nation and across the globe, I am devastated by the school shooting in Connecticut last week. This devastation felt especially hard in the education community. As I sat and watched the news, the toddler that I teach and care for on Fridays was safely asleep in his crib, peacefully unaware of the evil that can permeate the land. I sat in his living room sobbing; heartbroken over the fact that our youngest children were attacked and grateful for the teachers doing all that they could to protect the children.

Even in their own incredible fear, the teachers continued to put their children first. This is what teachers and other caregivers do every day. They put their children first. Day after day and year after year. And I will always be grateful for this. I will always champion and support this incredible love.

At the end of the day on that Friday, the toddlers parents came rushing in to the house, relieved that their baby was safe and spared from tragedy. I left among tears and gratitude for keeping their most precious baby safe. Then I went to an event with a set of friends not inside of the education world. Saddened beyond comprehension, I was hesitant to go, but was hopeful that the company of friends would help. Not one of them knew what had happened in Connecticut. Not one of them was sad or scared or heartbroken.

And I then felt so terribly alone.

I left the event early and went home and cried myself to sleep. The next day I took to Twitter for distraction and found a community full of sadness and fear and confusion. I found those people that I always find to remind me that I'm not alone in the feelings I have. Those wonderful and varied educators and parents that make up a global learning community. I later read @happycampergirl's candid blog post that you can and should read and felt as though it would begin to be okay.

Not right away and not all at once, but I will be able to help my broken heart heal. We all will slowly heal. We won't forget. We should never forget. But we will begin to heal.

We will begin to heal as we do when every crises and small moments of fear and sadness envelop us. We will begin to heal by doing good. We will continue to do the little things every day that push the darkness away.

For classroom teachers that means that you will continue to teach and inspire and protect and love your students. You will continue to do everything you do that makes your student's days a little brighter and a little safer. For administration this means that you will do what you can to support your teachers and students and to do it all in love and hope.

The small moments of love-the smiles, the hugs, the little notes to let each other know that we are not alone-these will be the catalysts to chase away the darkness.

And then we will continue, or begin, to do the big things that will further encourage hope and light. We will serve others in need. I often tell people that the reason I volunteer so frequently is because social justice is not an option, it is an obligation that we all must participate in. I believe this more than ever and have to have faith that in our large and small acts of social justice that we will begin to heal and that we will begin to enact change.

For if enough of use are able to heal and then bring that healing to others, think of all the change and hope that can arise.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Words We Speak

“Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall.”  (Jodi Picoult)

Words hold a deep power.  We can encourage, teach, comfort, share, and create with words.  If we let them, words can also belittle, deflate, hurt, and shame.  With this power of words, comes a great responsibility to choose our words cautiously and to use them with respect.  I believe this to be especially true of educators.  As educators, we have a great influence over children, parents, and each other.  We need to be mindfulness of this influence and how the words we speak shape our influence.

When the school year started this year, I was astounded by the amount of posts that were popping up with the theme "what teachers wish that parents knew".  I was more astounded by the largely negative tone these posts took.  Earlier this month, I was engaged in a discussion on the appropriateness or not of homework in kindergarden and was again confronted by the use of very negative descriptions of parents.  

Words matter.  Even when written down and you think that certain people won't see them, words still matter.  They matter because when said out loud or written on paper they are given life.  And that life makes them true to the speaker (writer) and to those who the words were directed at.  Even if that person never hears or sees the words.  Think about that for a minute.  By using derogatory words to talk about a parent or parents as a whole, even if the parents don't hear or read the words, you are making them true in your mind.  This is because words are an expression of our thoughts, otherwise they wouldn't be needed.

Everything that it said and written about parents becomes true in our minds.  So if you are writing that parents are clueless and lazy, this representation of them becomes true to you.  Once it becomes true, it becomes impossible to act as though it is not true.  This means you start to teach and behave in ways that are not respectful of parents.  And from this the children learn that you don't like them.  Because, to a child, they are their parents.  Whether you intend to or not, when you use hurtful and demeaning words to talk about parents, you are being hurtful and demeaning to the children.  

And then what happens to the positive relationships?  They begin to disappear.  And without relationships, there cannot be learning.  This is the power of words.  Words can create or destroy relationships and in turn encourage or dismiss learning.  

So let us remember that the child is part of the parent.  Let us remember that it is our job to build strong relationships with both the child and the parent.  Let us remember to be mindful of the words we use.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Authenticity and Cultural Relevance: Holidays in the Classroom

This post was inspired by a twitter friend and fellow educator @hechternact who spoke up about the inappropriateness of the way many early childhood teachers present the holiday of Thanksgiving to their students.  Every time a holiday season rolls around I cringe because I know that there will be an onset of holiday themed crafts, worksheets (which are cringe-worthy in and of themselves), baking activities, games, and the oh so dreaded themed bulletin boards and classroom decorations.  With the United States' Thanksgiving right around the corner, the internet is ablaze with colored turkeys, inappropriately portrayed Native Americans, Pilgrims, and corn.  Classrooms across the nation are bogged down with out of context and culturally insensitive activities revolving around turkeys and a one-sided account of a historical occurrence.

No, this post is not about the political correctness-or not-of Thanksgiving in the United States.  This post is about bringing authenticity and cultural relevance into the way holidays are presented in classrooms.

Best practice in teaching young children revolves around context, we know that young children learn the most successfully when what they are learning is context based so that they can build on prior knowledge.  By interrupting a topic of study to interject a teacher led holiday agenda, we are disrupting the carefully placed scaffolding that the children have been building within their topic of study and risk throwing of the balance of the classroom creativity and exploring all so that we can bring in activities that are outside the context of the current day to day within the environment.

Our children also deserve to be active participants in authentic activities.  The holiday themed coloring sheets, cookie cutter craft projects, and commercialized decorations are so far removed from the realm of authenticity.  The activities that so typically represent what teachers bring into the classrooms for holidays are not developmentally appropriate, nor cognitively challenging.  By introducing them to the children we are wasting their time; time that could be instead spend investigating the world as it is happening around them.

The onslaught of teacher led holiday activities are also not culturally responsive.  By dedicating days and weeks to the completion of these types of activities, we are not respecting the children and the families in our programs and classrooms.  Our children represent an ever increasing diversity and this diversity should be celebrated in everything that happens in the classroom.  This means that teachers need to save their holiday exuberance for their homes and families.

Finally, the materials and stories that most teachers are using to talk about holidays is not historically accurate.  Instead they are presenting the commercialized versions of the holidays (I'm looking at you Thanksgiving Turkeys-how do you even make sense?).  This is done at a huge disservice to our students who deserve to learn about the correct historical significance and contexts behind holidays and celebrations.

I'm not saying that we should ignore holidays.  Holidays and celebrations are a part of children's lives and are interesting to them.  What we should do, however, is make sure that we are teaching about holidays in a way that is respectful to all children, is not commercialized, is within the context of the curriculum, and is historically accurate.

Instead of dedicating precious time to insignificant and inappropriate holiday bustle, we can make celebrations an everyday part of our classroom life by asking families to share photos and stories of how and what they celebrate.  We can talk about the history behind celebrations with our students. There is much we can do to make sure that holidays are authentic and culturally relevant-let's embrace those ideas and let go of the old ways of thinking that include holiday crafts and out of context information.    

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Active Listening Does Not Require Sitting "Criss-Cross Applesauce"

Today, I came across a poster that a preschool teacher had posted that had a child sitting with his legs crossed and the words "Good Listening" written across the top of the poster. There were then labels pointing to various parts of the child with what the teacher had determined to be traits necessary for "good listening". An arrow towards the eyes with the words "eyes forward", an arrow toward the ears with the words "ears open", an arrow towards the hands with the words "hands in lap", an arrow towards the mouth with the words "mouth closed", and an arrow towards the legs with the words "sitting criss-cross applesauce". Not only do I find these types of posters quite disrespectful to children and classroom communities and in stark disregard to child development principles, but this particular poster is also an inaccurate representation of quality active listening; which is what we should be teaching children to engage in.

Active listening does not require a child to be sitting in a particular position, or even to be sitting at all. The position of a child's body in no way influences whether or not they are engaged in a lesson or conversation. Consider this, when you participate in a workshop or a meeting adults are sitting in many different positions. Some are sitting cross legged, some with both their feet flat on the floor, some with a leg tucked under their bottom, some leaning against the wall while standing, and some pacing in the back of the room. Different people are comfortable in different positions and it's expected to accommodate these positions so that everyone is comfortable and able to participate. The same needs to hold true for children. So long as a child is not interfering with another child's comfort, there is no reason they should be required to sit in a prescribed manner. In fact, by requiring them to sit a certain way, we force them to spend more effort and thought worrying about how they are sitting rather than what is being said.

Active listening also does not require a child to keep their hands in their laps. Again, it comes down to an issue of comfort and personal choice. Who are we to tell anybody, including children, how they should hold their body. If the intent behind this is to prevent children from harming others, then be explicit about that. Talk with the children in your care and discuss boundaries and a person's right to feel comfortable and safe and as a result we need to be careful of the way and when we touch people. By forcing children to sit in group times with their hands in their lap, we are again forcing them to focus more effort and thought on where their hands are than engaging in a conversation.

By requiring children to keep eyes "up front" we are making the assumption that all children are visual learners and need to be facing the teacher or a particular manipulative at all times. Rather than insist that children are only looking at the front (I take this to generally mean the teacher in the cases where these posters are present), teach the children how to focus attention so that they can learn how to look at a person who is talking to them or at an item that is of importance for a particular moment in time.

It's also a misinterpretation of active listening to require children to have their mouths closed. A large part of active listening is asking questions and responding to what the other person said. How are children going to learn to listen and then respond in a relevant and respectful manner if we insist that they just quietly sit there? Instead, we need to model and prompt them in engaging in a back and forth dialogue that creates the skills of critical thinking and collaboration.

Ultimately, what it comes down to is what we are teaching the children. If the goal is to teach children how to be active listeners who know how to question, debate, and respond to conversations then we need to teach them the skills to do so. And these skills are not what is taught when we require children to sit like quiet statues.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Reflecting on the NAEYC 2012 Annual Conference: The Role and Responsibility of NAEYC

(I just want to put the obligatory disclaimer out there: As with everything on this little blog of mine, this post represents my opinions and observations. While I am a member of NAEYC, I am in no way an official voice for the organization.)

This year's experience at the conference was a different one for me. As my professional role is shifting from direct work with children to supporting teachers, I spent the conference exploring a few traits of my new professionalism. As a result, I went to less of the pedagogy and activity sessions and to more of the ethics and policy sessions. It was an enlightening experience and one that I know I will continue to reflect upon, but for now, here are some initial reflections.

This morning I went to a public policy forum regarding the very early stages of drafting a position statement on the role of play in early childhood. I went because I am interested in research and quite passionate about play and am quite surprised that NAEYC hasn't issued an official statement regarding play. Of course, play is mentioned in statements regarding development and developmentally appropriate practice, but there is not a position statement dedicated to play. As a leading organization for early childhood education, this should not be the case. The forum was eye opening. For one, I was the only participant under the age of 45. This was a bit discouraging as the younger generation of early childhood professionals needs to step up and create change, not be absent from policy discussions. Secondly, I observed that even in a room of professionals passionate about play, participants were unable to agree on a common language regarding what constitutes play and the role it plays on a child's development and cognition. Finally, from what I heard, the majority of the participants were reluctant to collaborate with kindergarten through third grade professionals and spoke of a divide between the birth to age five children and the kindergarten to third grade age children. This is not okay for many reasons, the pure fact that early childhood education is defined by birth through age eight for one, but mostly we must see a collaboration among the infant-toddler programs, the preschool programs, and the elementary programs if we are going to see sustainable change. As I mentioned, the organization is in the very early stages of developing a draft position statement. I am curious to see how the process develops and will continue to provide reflection and hopefully we will have the opportunity to share our thoughts and provide guidance and influence towards the creation of the draft.

During the second part of my morning, I was invited to attend a focus group regarding NAEYC publications. Much of the session was spent sharing what we liked and didn't like about the book offerings for members and brainstorming in regards to topics for further publications. What I found most interesting was the response of the focus group when I spoke of my desire to be able to purchase e-books directly from the NAEYC store or even from offsite sellers because currently books published by NAEYC are not often available to be downloaded. I expressed my thoughts on the convenience and commonality of e-books and how I personally didn't buy as many NAEYC books as other published professional books because I prefer to buy e-books. The good majority of the focus group disagreed and said that they didn't think there was a need for e-books in our field. To me, this is a huge indicator in the work we still have to do in educating our fellow professionals on the use of technology-or at least helping them to overcome the fear of technology.

After lunch, I went into the exhibit hall to browse the current research trends published in book and journal format and to snag some markers at the art supply booth, my one indulgence in the free sample arena. As I walked around I began to observe the interplay between the vendors and the participants. As always, I was disappointed to see such an overwhelming amount of commercial vendors-those companies selling borders, pre-printed bulletin boards, workbooks and canned curriculum, and oh so much cute (you know how I feel about that four letter word in the education word) craft projects, plastic toys, and character themed books. What's worse is that a majority of the participants were swooning over these vendors and walked out of the exhibit hall boggled down with bags of this junk. In general, these are the participants who are classroom teachers, many of whom are still working towards their degrees and certifications. These are the teachers who depend the most on the guidance of their professional organization in terms of developmentally appropriate practice and classroom environments which is why I suspect they walk out with so much junk from the exhibit hall. These teachers that need the most support are the ones most preyed upon by the vendors. In my opinion, this is a huge lack of responsibility on NAEYC's part. This is an organization who's mission is to guide the developmentally appropriate practice of educators. By inviting these vendors to the national conference they are endorsing them. And this endorsement is not appropriate. If NAEYC wants to endorse vendors, they need to take the responsibility to critically examine whether or not the vendors' products meet the guidelines of appropriate practice. They need to remember that their members look to them for guidance.

The biggest idea I took from today's interactions is the consideration of what are the roles and responsibilities of an educational organization. This is a consideration that I think we all need to examine and reflect on. And then we need to act. We need to engage and get involved and ensure that the organizations we let represent us are representing us in ways we believe in.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Building Intentional Trust and Relationships

Last night, I summoned up some courage and participated in the TechOnDeck networking and play session at the NAEYC conference. My courage was not for playing with the tech, my courage came from having to engage in small talk within a room full of professionals whom I hadn't met before. This is no easy task for me as I become nervous and am still attempting to form my own professional identity and confidence. Nevertheless, I soldiered on and was able to engage in some very interesting conversations.

It took a lot of trust that my ideas would be welcome in conversation.

Move to this morning where I attended a session focused on trust and professionalism. Though much of the session was focused with building trust with children and their families, I really began to reflect on the importance of building trust among professionals. Relationships are the cornerstones of learning. We know this and are intentional about building relationships, and thus building trust, with children so that they can learn and grow.

Why have we so often forgotten about this same need in teachings and collaborating with adults? We must be just as intentional on building relationships with the adults we work with so that we can build a bridge of trust. Only then can we expect professionals to grow and learn within their practice.

This need to build relationships and trust among professionals is one of the reasons that I am seeing a need to shift away from traditional one stop workshops as professional development. These sessions, much like the ones at the very conference I'm at, are great for sparking ideas, passion and interest. But we mustn't stop there. We must provide professional development that allows professionals to develop relationships over time so that they can dig more deeply into those ideas and passions that were sparked at a workshop.

It will take time. It will take trust. It will take collaboration. But it will create a generation of engaged and reflective practitioners.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Teaching Can Be an Act of Rebellion

This morning was the first time that I had voted in person, on the actual Election Day. As I stood in line waiting for my turn to cast my vote I began to reflect on the pure rebellion that voting once was in this country and still is in many other countries. Today, most of us take voting for granted. It is a right granted to us by the nature of being American citizens and being over the age of 18. This wasn't always the case; I am forever grateful to the women who rebelled and refused to be silenced during the women's rights movement so that I could vote and expect the same rights as a man. I recognize the huge sacrifice that many made in order to rebel for the right for Blacks to vote during the civil rights movement and am further grateful for their courage. In countries all over the world, people live in countries in which they have no say in who is in power. In some of those countries there is rebellion and brave citizens insist in their right to cast a ballot and choose who is leading them-even at the expense of their own lives. My advisor shared a story with me today about voting in her home country and being surrounded by men with guns because they were attempting to overthrow a dictator by voting and now, the pride she has in being able to vote for a president as a citizen in America.

Rebellion, bravery, and a belief in fighting for what is right. These are traits that draw me to the voting booth. These are also traits that push me to fight for social justice through volunteering. These are also some of the same traits that I believe belong to good teachers.

In today's world of teacher blaming, push down academics, and heaps of standardized testing, teaching can become frustrating. Many teachers succumb to the pressures and abandon their teaching beliefs and instead adopt a prescribed curriculum. Many more quit. But, it is those resilient and rebellious teachers who keep on fighting. These are the teachers who find creative ways to bend the rules and keep their teaching practices alive. These are the teachers who embrace the importance of play and relationships over test scores. These are the teachers who continue to be passionate about children and learning and who find innovative ways to reach every member of their classroom community. These are the teachers who lead classrooms of young children with such grace, joy, and humor.
Teaching is an act of rebellion. We are courageous every day when we make our practices visible, inviting feedback that pushes us to strengthen our practices. We are brave every day when we guide 15, 20, 30 five, six, seven, eight year olds in inquiry and problem solving even though it exhausts us and challenges us in ways that canned curriculum does not. We fight for what we believe when we intentionally design our classroom environments to promote conversation, emotional competencies, and risk taking.

Teaching is an act of rebellion. And for that I am proud to be a member of the education profession.

In a huge act of rebellion, teachers went on strike for what they believed was right. Rebellion doesn't need to be huge. We rebel every day when we teach how we believe.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Trusting in a Teacher's Professionalism

I've been reflecting a lot on the professionalism of teachers lately. Particularly, why teaching is the one profession in which the professional is not regarded as such. Most professionals-lawyers, doctors, accounts-receive their credentials and then are expected to fulfill their jobs responsibilities. And, what's more, they are trusted to do so, they don't receive mandate after mandate telling them what to do. Instead, other professionals are trusted to do what is right in their field. This is where the idea of professional judgement comes in. But, the same is not true for teachers. You don't hear people referring to the professional judgement of teachers to assess their students, instead you have government people with no teaching experience telling them how to assess their students.

This doesn't sit well with me. In order for schools to improve, teachers' professionalism needs to be trusted. In order to trust teachers' professionalism....well, that is something for further reflection.

reflecting through the tangle of vines that is education

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Teachers Learning Through Play

I'm attempting to blog at least a little every day this month as a way to reignite my blogging and reflection.  I'm hoping that I can become motivated by the masses that are participating in National Novel Writing Month and National Blogging Month, but can't guarantee that I'll remember to sit down and write every day or that I will have something of substance to share every day, but here's hoping for a solid effort!

As I continue to reflect on the Technology in the Early Years conference I attended this past week, one of the things that keeps coming back to me is the idea of teachers and play.  Professionals who support best practice recognize the importance of play as the learning vehicle for young children.  We fight for play in our classrooms, libraries, parks, streets, and homes and design our classrooms and lessons so that children can engage in meaningful and collaborative play.  And yet, that very same philosophy could apply to adults, but is so often taken out of the equation when planning for professional development of teachers.

Children play so freely and with complete abandon.
What types of walls are preventing adults from doing the same?
In the afternoon portion of the conference, participants were invited to explore several hands on workshops.  The workshops were intentionally and very thoughtfully designed so that the participants could get up close and hands on with the materials.  The first workshop I attended was set up to model a studio that you might find in an early childhood school.  There were blocks arranged temptingly alongside a wall that featured projections of castles, several rhythm instruments and natural and found materials next to contact microphones, colored pencils and paper, and a visualization from a computer music program projected onto poster paper with markers near by.  I walked in to the workshop late and saw a handful of adults standing uncertainly in the center of the room.  No one was playing!  Throughout my years in grad school, I've started to loose some inhibitions in regards to play so I approached the blocks and began building a top the table, curious about the way the shadows from the blocks interacted with the projections on the walls.  I left my little building and went to investigate the found materials that the facilitator had set up in the audio play area.  (You know what is fun? Shaking beans near a contact microphone.)  After a while, I began to sit in a corner and write in my journal-send out some tweets-and when I looked up I noticed that other buildings had cropped up next to the one I had built and that a group of women were drawing in tandem with the lights on the wall.  It took a bit of nudging and courage, but once the participants started to play with the materials the conversation in the room took off!  Throughout the space, participants were sharing their experiences with the new materials and questioning each other as to how they could interpret the ideas within their own contexts.

The play had allowed the participants to take ownership of their learning.  This was a powerful interaction for me to watch.  Throughout the course of my internship, a big idea that I have been playing with has been how the current model of teacher PD is not effective and how I can influence the course of PD to flow in a new direction.  Watching the participants play with the materials was like a bell going off.  Could it be so simple?  Could designing spaces and providing time and support for play change the ways in which teachers learn and their attitudes towards attending professional development events?

A fortune I received while at dinner at the 2011 NAEYC conference.
Perhaps it is time to heed this advice and teach teachers to play like children.

I'm in the process of designing a new system of networking for teachers within my internship and have been facing hurdles in how to get a group of stressed, over loaded with district mandates, and often frustrated teachers onboard with the use of technology to network and learn.  Maybe I need to simplify it, to bring it back to play.  Rather than sharing success stories and ideas, I need to give the teachers time to create their own success stories by allowing them time to play with the very tools I want them to embrace to enhance their learning.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Strengthening Relationships Through Technology

Through the course of my internship I've really been pushed to articulate my reasonings behind choices that I make. In particular, I have been focusing on articulating why the use of tech tools to supplement in person relationships. Essentially, the program I am interning with works to provide support and professional development to pre-k through third grade teachers in ten of our city schools. One of the goals of the program is to create a community of practice across the pre-k to 3rd grade levels within each school and across the ten schools. One of the challenges is that the schools are spread throughout the city and are not all on the same academic calendar. This means that it is often difficult to provide space and time for the teachers to meet in person to network and build relationships in which to get support and reflection. That's where I come in. It is my role to develop a framework that will encourage the teachers to engage in dialogue via virtual means.

To me, this seems pretty straightforward as I have found tools such as blogging and Twitter to be invaluable in reflecting on my practice and connecting with others passionate about early childhood. What I'm realizing is that it's not so straightforward to everyone. It's easy to get caught up in the abstract idea of technology versus the idea that technology is just a tool that can help support relationships. I created a mind map to help illustrate the interplay among tech tools, other tools, reasons for networking, and relationships that seemed to bring the team back to the root of our goals. Relationships.

Just as in teaching children, when supporting teachers through professional development, relationships are the heart and soul of the process. Everything that I have been suggesting we explore to network our teachers is focused on building bridges to relationships-on connecting teachers when distance and time prevent them from doing so in person. For it is within relationships that we learn. It is within relationships that we learn to trust in reflection and feedback. It is within relationships that we grow as individuals and professionals.

With relationships forefront on my mind, I attended a conference today, Technology for the Early Years. Coming home, I looked through the tweets I sent (and which ones started the most conversation) and through my journal. One word stood out repeatedly. Relationships. At a conference focused on the intentional use of technology in early childhood, the focus was on relationships. A panelist talked about the ability of technology to create strong, focused, and beautiful documentation. Documentation that helped bridge the relationship between families and school. Another presenter talked about redefining technology from the days of an isolated child alone at a computer to one of children working in collaboration and research around a tech tool to deepen their experience within the classroom. As I observed teachers playing with a variety of tech tools, I watched them engage in conversation-in building relationships with each other over a shared experience.

It is quite clear to me that relationships are the integral piece to both childhood learning and to teacher development. By whatever ways we can, we must foster relationships and collaboration.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Surviving "Those Days"

Thinking about the #kinderchat summer blogging challenge, question 6, has been interesting. This question asks:"If we're honest, we all have days when, for any number of reasons (lack of sleep, family issues, minor illness, idiopathic crankiness...) we are just not at our best. There are days when, in any other line of work, we would probably call in sick, but we don't because we know the impact of our absence is so great. What are your survival tips and tricks to get yourself and your students through those days in one piece? Special supplies to keep on hand? Treats that get you through? Lifesaving lessons or activities?"

This is something I admit I was not the best at my first year of teaching. All too often I let the frustrations and isolation get to me and as a result, the entire class ended up having not the greatest days. Then I stopped and reflected and over time have grown into a better teacher. With it, the ability to seek out support to avoid the isolation and strategies to keep going past the frustrations.

I live my life with the mission of being proactive, rather than reactive and this extends into my work with children and families. This means that I work with the children and adults in the classroom (home) community to create and maintain a strong sense of community and relationships at the beginning of our time together. It's my hope that by establishing these relationships and rituals early that the bad days become minimal.

In all reality, however, I know that not every day will be the best day. There will be those days in which the Chicago winter forces us inside all day, when school photo days interrupts our peaceful existence, or when members of our community are just out of sorts (it happens, human emotions are meant to fluctuate). It is in those moments that I personally rely on large amounts of diet soda and the support of others.

In the classroom (homes), there are a few fallbacks, however, that keep the children and myself going forward:
*Using the tables, chairs, cubbies, hallways, etc to create obstacles for children to climb through/on/over.
*Blowing bubbles indoors.
*Dancing and yoga.
*Books on tape.
*Indoor snowball fights with yarn balls.
*Shaving cream on tables.
*Attempting to pull (clean) plungers from the floor or walls. (Try it, it's amazing!)

And of course, there's always being honest. I have no problem telling my children when I have a migraine or the flu. Children have bigger hearts than adults and are amazing at adjusting themselves when the adults (children) that they love are not at their best.

Finally, forgiveness. These days happen. Forgive yourself and move on so that tomorrow is a better day.

What Do We Limit When We Say No?

Lately, I've been reflecting a lot on how adults too often jump in and break up groups of children when it appears as if the slightest hint of conflict is happening. All too frequently I see caregivers/parents/nannies/teachers rush to a group of children at the sound of raised voices and, without pausing to observe what is happening, tell the children to stop. Frankly? I think this is incredibly lazy and harmful to the social-emotional growth of the children. In particular, because often what the adults interpret as anger and conflict is actually the sounds of the children trying to solve a problem.

Take this snippet of my morning at the playground with a toddler as an example. The toddler and I were sitting near a piece of equipment that had a small horn shaped object on the top of it. The front of the horn was wide open and the back had a grate. As we sat and watched, a toddler from the local daycare that was visiting the park came over with a stick and began to push the stick through the front of the horn and out of the back. Fascinated, the toddler I was with grabbed for the stick. Toddler one resisted giving up his stick and instead handed my toddler a different stick. Satisfied, my toddler began to attempt to replicate toddler one's success at pushing the stick through the horn with much guidance and modeling from toddler one. As I sat near the toddlers I showed curiosity and excitement for their problem solving. My verbalizations attracted several other toddler boys from the daycare group. Curious, they crowded around the first 2 toddlers and eagerly grabbed for the sticks. As the original two toddlers resisted control of their sticks I suggested that we explore some of the many sticks on the ground to see which ones would also go the entire way through. And that's exactly what they did. With a lot of excited (loud) voices and a bit of jostling to get into position and have a turn, the toddlers experimented with different sticks to see if they could get the same result.

I suppose from the outside it looked as if a lot of pushing and arguing was going on. Suddenly one of the daycare teachers came running over and started to tell the boys to stop, yelling at them to drop the sticks and to leave "that lady and her baby alone". Being me, I didn't keep quiet. In my eagerness to share the boys' accomplishments I told the teacher that one of her children had discovered that he could make a stick slide through the horn and that the other boys were now exploring this phenomena. I told her that if she stood back she would hear their conversations and see that the boys were not fighting, that they were attempting to figure out how to get a turn and how to watch what the other children were doing. They were not fighting. They were discussing the ideas of fairness ("let me have a turn", "I do it too"), the properties of the sticks ("your stick is fat", "do this one"), and they were observing ("it's stuck, mine now"). I told her that, all because one of her young students initiated an exploration, that the boys were now engaged in scientific inquiry and were able to practice solving conflict problems.

What would those boys have missed out on had their teacher simply made them disperse before finding out what was happening? What had the teacher missed out on learning about these boys? That's a huge price to pay, missing out on learning about what your children are learning, by being too quick to rush in. This is why I say that it's lazy. It's easier to use your power as an adult to make a child or group of children stop something rather than taking the time to observe and then facilitate (if needed) among the group. We owe more to our children. We owe them the best use of our power as adults, in many cases the willingness to relinquish this power and to back up and let the children figure things out, so that our children can grow up to be problem solvers and innovators. Yes, it is hard work as an adult to do this. It requires us to trust the children and to honestly listen and observe. But it's work that must be done.

As the toddler and I got ready to leave the park for the morning it struck me by the amount of adult voices I heard yelling (from a far) at children telling them no. "No, don't touch that child's ball." "No, get down from that block." "Stop digging a hole." Lazy. As a caregiver/teacher/nanny/parent it is our responsibility to our children to facilitate and encourage problem solving and innovation rather than simply suppressing it because we can't be bothered to walk over and engage with the children, to truly see what they are doing.

Let's provide our children with opportunities to face a brick wall and figure out how to get over it.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Strengthening Relationships: A Mini Intro of Me

For week five of the #kinderblog2012 challenge we were asked to create a photo post showing five things from our homes, describing them in 140 characters or less, that provides the community with a glimpse into who we are perhaps outside of the education realm. This was surprisingly more difficult than I thought, but I thought I would give it ago and simply use the cropping tool to hide the scattered mess that my little basement apartment tends to be!

Two things I do completely for myself and where I find balance and growth, but that tend to branch out to my work.

My love of scrabble, turned into a drive to create, inspired by the ways I try to live life.

This shelf is my metaphor; a mix of grad student, professional, avid reader, eclectic.

A bit random, a bit off center, full of potential. Chaos that works within structure. The way I work and live.

World's meanest cat. (Don't let her small size fool you.) Rejected by 6 families, my weakness for the outcast gave her a home.

Perhaps this tiny glance into my world outside of play and learning adds a little insight into what I tweet and post. Or perhaps it has confirmed the fact that I'm a bit off the wall!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Mama Mia! A Teacher's Hidden Dream.

After a bit of serious and reflective posts, I thought it was time for a bit of levity and question four for the #kinderchat2012 blog challenge provides just that opportunity.  This question asks, if you were not teaching, what would you be doing?"

This is an interesting question because upon first reading this most of my thoughts flowed towards things that I'm in the position to pursue and/or very likely will do in the future.  For one, I am currently in the midst of a teaching hiatus as I embrace grad school and new opportunities.  This, however, doesn't quite count as something new as I'm attending a graduate school in child development and will be completing an internship in which I will be working with teachers.  So though I'm not a classroom teacher, I still consider myself a teacher at heart.  I also thought that I would write about how I would open a yoga studio for children and families and spend my days helping children learn healthy habits and how to use yoga to calm anxiety.  Well, that's still education related and a dream that I will pursue when finished with grad school, so that doesn't count for thinking outside of the box either.  Okay, I've got it, were I not teaching or in grad school I would join the peace corp.  Nope, this doesn't quite stretch the imagination either as this is still a path I could very likely take after school (and will probably involve teaching, so no dice!)

Are you ready?  My secret fantasy, the one that sometimes surfaces in my dreams at night, is that I am a Broadway musical star.  Never mind that I have the worst sense of rhythm that even country line dancing provides challenging for me.  Forget the fact that when I sing in guitar class I do so so quietly because I know that I'm off tone.  It doesn't matter that though I sing all day long when with children I know that I don't stay in any kind of a lovely tune.  Let's not even forget that I'm still quite nervous and shaky speaking in front of large crowds.  Regardless, I think that being a star on Broadway would quite possibly be the best job on the planet.

I have seen RENT from the front row every single time it has come into town (waiting in line for hours to get the $20 rush tickets), I cry at the end of Wicked every time I see it-heck, every time I hear Defying Gravity, I watch the DVD versions of my favorite musicals over and over since I can't watch them at the theatre every night.  I love musical theater.  And despite the fact that in high school I spent my drama club days frolicking in the background as a wicked stepsister in Roger and Hamerstein's Cinderella or as a green leotard (I'm not kidding, it was horrendous) clad guardian of the gates in 'Oz while my friends belted out the leads as Cinderella and Dorothy, I had a blast.  And there is a little part of me that wishes I had the talent to be on stage.

But then I wake up and I remember my passion for children and education and social justice and I'm quite content that my closest brush with the Broadway stage was when we bought onstage tickets for Xanadu and I sat next to the daughters of Zeus waving my little glow stick proudly.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The City as a Playground

This summer I decided to take on the monumental task of throughly reading "The 100 Languages of Children", first the advanced reflections version and next the newest version in which the educators discuss how their thinking has changed throughout the years in Reggio Emilia.

As I concluded a chapter on the spaces in which children learn I was struck by this particular quote, "the many ways in which the familiar space of the city can become the stage for and subject of activities and constructive explorations" (Reggio Children, S.r.l, 1987,1996). I began to reflect on how underused our own city, and outdoors in general, has become. Yes, Chicago has many amazing museums that our children should off course have the opportunity to visit. But our city is more than the museums, and in fact the museums are very disconnected from the daily life of the children. In a city like Chicago where there are dozens of neighborhoods with their own flavor and vibrancy, shouldn't our children have the opportunity to explore their familiar surroundings in a deeper manner? Think of the learning that can be constructed right outside the schools, daycares, and homes!

Shadows are such a fascinating phenomena and are of particular interest to young children. Consider the different shapes and designs that familiar, city objects make on the ground. What an opportunity to play with light and the child's own initiative right outside our doors.

Children enjoy the exploration of interesting shaped places and, when given the time and space to do so, will peer through the cracks in fences, gates, bridges, buildings in order to see things in a different manner.

Children will look at every day landmarks in a new way. These landmarks will cause them to imagine what it's like to be a different character; they can become lions or live among giants.

The city is waiting for the children to embrace it and make it their own. Step outside of the classroom and allow the children to construct meaning in their city. They are after all our youngest citizens.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

To Me, Cute is a 4 Letter Word and Other Random Annoyances

The third question in the #kinderblog2012 challenge is to tell the group about your pet peeves. While I tend to have many (I'm looking at you people who refuse to move away from the eL doors when there is an abundance of room inside the cars), for this particular reflection I'll stick to some topics that have recently been bothering me in terms of education and schooling.

I have a huge problem with the word "cute". Not only do I find it disrespectful when used to describe a child, I also think that it's quite unhelpful in terms of feedback. By telling a child that they themselves are cute they are hearing that their physical attributes are something they should focus on. By telling a child that their work is cute they are hearing that all of their effort, dedication, problem solving was not important and that what matters in the end is a pleasing product. I also take issue with the way the word "cute" is thrown around when planning activities for children. When I ask a teacher that I am working with why they chose to have the children complete a particular activity (most often these end up being the cookie cutter art projects that end up looking the same for every child and match a holiday) and they tell me it's because the activity is cute I seriously question the validity of the activity. Choosing to do an activity because it is cute is not developmentally appropriate and focuses too much attention on the end product and not the process of getting there.

Along the same lines, I also am bothered by the abundance of false and meaningless praise. All too often I hear well meaning adults telling children "good job", "you're so smart", "that picture is beautiful" and it tends to grate on my nerves. "Good job" does not provide the child with any feedback on what skills they are using are actually successful or what it is about their work that was done in the correct manner. Telling a student "you're so smart" or "you're so artistic" treads on the dangerous territory of focusing on what may be perceived as innate traits rather than on the effort and determination used to reach a goal. As I have written in my posts about the mindsets of education, this can be quite detrimental to a child's willingness to try new things. Finally, praise such as "that picture is beautiful" not only draws attention away from the process of the child, but can also end up being counterproductive. Children are smart. They know when they have created something that is not necessarily beautiful and they are okay with that (in fact I've met children who use art as expression and quite purposely create art that is "ugly" or "angry" because that is how they are feeling, they most certainly don't want to hear that their picture is beautiful". Hearing an adult tell them that it is beautiful when it's not tells them that the adult isn't really looking at their product.

I hate flashcards and worksheets. This is probably abundantly clear to anyone who reads this blog or my tweets.

This one may cause a bit of discontent among my readers, but I'm going to list it anyway because as members of a professional learning community I feel that it's healthy and productive to disagree from time to time. I cannot stand factory created signs, borders, decorations, etc inside of classrooms. A classroom should reflect the community that resides in it and store bought decorations do not promote this. They are also too busy and primary colored for my educational beliefs. I want the children's learning space to be natural, encouraging curiosity, and representative of who we are. As such, the only things I believe belong on the classroom walls are the children's work, expectations that the children and teacher have come up with together, class and project work (for example chart papers with the recordings of a meeting discussion that the children and teachers refer to), a visual schedule created by the teacher using student's photos, and photos of the children and their families. I'm all for signs informing the parents and visitors about the learning taking place in each center, but signs created by the teachers.

I've recently began to hate the terms "academic preschool" or "academic kindergarten". To me, these terms not only devalue the other classrooms or programs without those titles by inferring that they are not as rigorous, but they also strongly disrespect play. Play is the academics of early childhood and we should defend that and shout it from the rooftops. Play is valuable and does not need to be minimized by saying that one room is academic and one room is play-based. In early childhood these are one and the same and the less time we spend trying to hide play and more time highlighting play the better.

Finally, I've lately been struggling with teachers who are anti-collaboration and have the "my room is my island" mentality and with teachers who have an unwillingness to try new methods or materials. As someone who is a teacher, a student, and a teacher mentor, these two things are very frustrating. But, as these are also two qualities that I know I will have to learn to work around and inspire change, I also know that I will have to not let them annoy me, but rather allow them to push me to be better and to share by example the wonders of collaboration and risk taking in learning among adults.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Growth Mindset and the Opportunity to Play

As I've written earlier I've recently read Carol Dweck's "Mindsets: The New Psychology of Success" and was struck with the implications it has on education. In particular I began to reflect on the growth mindset and the opportunity to play.
Play is the integral learning of children. It is both enjoyable and frustrating. It is fun yet difficult. Play defines how children learn to process their selves, their emotions, their world. It is through play that children learn to negotiate among other people, to solve problems, to persist. When Dweck talks about the growth mindset she talks about people who believe that through effort they can change their intellect, abilities, and skills and that within the growth mindset there is the thought of learning and creating. What she is describing are all attributes that are developed through high quality play. Through spontaneous play and play that occurs in quality learning environments children are teaching themselves and each other how to have a growth mindset.

Through play children are learning what it means to take turns, how to deal with both winning and losing in a manner in which they still feel good about themselves, and how to ask for help.

Through play children are learning how to cooperate, how to help each other, how to try something new.

Through play children are learning the courage to investigate something new, to dig a little deeper when they don't understand.

Through play children are learning to take a chance, how to let their curiosity lead them to new learning.

Through play children are able to feel safe in creating and looking at objects in a new way.

Through play children learn that they can keep trying if they fail the first time.

Through play children are creating a growth mindset. Let's defend the children's right to play and with it their right to grow their mindset so that we are teaching a generation of people who are free to take risks and challenges, who are excited to learn and create, who know that if they fail it is only the start of a process not the definition of who they are.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Mindsets and Education: The Learning of Students and Teachers

(Just a brief little note, these are my reflections after reading Dweck, C. Mindsets: The psychology of success. 2006. Random House. New York, NY. The concept of the mindsets belongs to Dweck, I'm simply reflecting on them in terms of my experience with education. Thanks!

I have recently read "Mindsets: The Psychology of Success" by Carol S. Dweck and much of what she wrote struck a chord with me, especially in how teachers view students, how students view themselves, and how teachers view themselves. I'm not usually one to buy books that have words such as "psychology of success" in their titles. However, when attending a conference last summer one of the presenters mentioned this book and I thought it would be interesting so I downloaded it to the Kindle. And then it sat there for a year. Finally this summer I decided to revisit the book because I was intrigued about the way mindsets can become helpful or hindrances in learning.

Carol Dweck describes two distinct mindsets that contribute to how people handle success, setbacks, and life. First there is the fixed mindset. In this mindset people believe that a person's qualities, intellect, and abilities are set in stone. They believe that you either can or can't and there is no changing that. On the other hand, there is the growth mindset. In this mindset people believe that your abilities, intellect, and qualities can and should change. They believe that a person can change and grow through experiences and practice. A big defining line in terms of the fixed mindset and the growth mindset is in regards to effort. Those with the fixed mindset believe that by putting forth effort you are showing that you are not smart enough, not good enough; that in order to do something you should already be good at it and not have to put in effort. Those with the growth mindset believe that effort is growth and through effort you can improve. To them, effort is something to be valued not something to be scorned at.

In thinking about how teachers view students, the idea of the fixed and growth mindsets is of extreme importance. A teacher with a fixed mindset who views their students as unchanging is to me a huge contradiction. If a teacher has a fixed mindset then they will rely on tests as the only markers of a child's worth in school. Think about it. If you believe that a person either can or can't and that there is no changing that, why would you place any effort into educating students who initially, or at some point, perform low on a test? You wouldn't. You would believe that that child is just not able and would stop expecting things from them. These are the teachers (and administrators) who believe in grouping students into fixed groups at the beginning of the year and not adjusting their groups as children progressed. For a student who has a teacher in the fixed mindset they are stuck because their teacher will be unable to see their potential. By the way, this fixed mindset is why I believe those in charge of education are keeping a tight grasp on standardized tests. With their fixed mindset, they see these tests as the end all in terms of a child's ability rather than as a marker in time, which is what a test really is.

On the other hand, think of a teacher with a growth mindset (the type of mindset we should hope all teachers have!). These teachers will see the potential in all of their students and understand that as a teacher it is their role to help each child grow and change. A teacher should not stand for stagnation, but should instead insist on growth. This doesn't mean that a teacher with a growth mindset will think that all of her students will develop into super geniuses, just that they will believe that all children can grow. And what's more, these are the teachers who will be able to see that growth in all children and will be able to document this growth, showing that even in the case of a student who may not read at grade level at the end of the year, that the student did make progress, that his progress is just on a different path than those of his peers. The growth mindset allows teachers to see the individuality and potential in every student.

Carol Dweck really says it best when she says that the difference between a teacher with a fixed mindset and one with a growth mindset is the difference between the thought of "can they learn" to "how can they learn best" in terms of their students.

After reflecting on how the mindsets affect how a teacher views children, I was struck again by how a particular mindset can cause children to view themselves. To me, it is important to understand the mindsets so that when teaching you can recognize the mindsets in children. In this way you may be able to better understand why a child acts out (perhaps they have a fixed mindset and are frustrated because they feel as though they won't get it anyway) and hopefully recognize the fixed mindset and help the child learn to change their mindset so that they can embrace the joy of learning. At one point in our lives as educators, we have all come across those students who seem to deflate after a mistake, are too afraid of failing to venture a guess, who feel that they are smart already and don't need to work. Those are the students who have a fixed mindset and their way of though prevents them from growing. As teachers, rather than scold, embarrass, or fail these students, it is my belief that we need to teach them the skills had by their growth mindset peers. These growth minded peers believe that they can learn and even when they fail they start again and keep on trying rather than slumping over and quitting. These are the students who come up to you after an exam and ask you what they need to do to do better next time, who keep trying to build that block tower that just won't stay up, who courageously enter the art area even if they think that their painting isn't the best in the class.

As educators, I would venture that one of our main jobs is to facilitate learning so that all of our students have this ability to grow and to think that they can grow. It is important to model an attitude of perseverance and to be cautious in the ways in which we speak to children. In this era of a fear of making children feel low self esteem, there is an effort to combat this through an excessive amount of praise. Build up the child so that they don't fall. I've always thought this was a huge mistake, how will a child learn to get back up if they don't fall? Dweck specifically writes about the dangers of praise in a way that really took hold of me as an educator. She wrote that by praising a child's skill or intellect you are sending a message to the child that they are not worthy unless they are able to maintain that level of competence. And then when they are not, they feel like a failure. Rather, she said it is important to praise the effort behind a child's task and in this manner they will learn to understand that they may make mistakes or they may have successes, but that it is their effort and time and process that is what is relevant. As a child development specialist, I know this to be true. Isn't it what we teach all teachers of young children, to comment on the process of a child's work and play rather than their final product? After reading "Mindsets", I have pledged to be even more careful in the ways in which I praise a child. I want the children I meet and work with to have a faith in themselves and their processes and their ability to fail and get right back up.

Finally, Dweck's book had me considering a teacher's mindset in how they view themselves. Though similar to how they view children, there is a subtle difference in how the mindsets play out in their own professional development. Teachers with a fixed mindset are those who dread going to conferences and workshops because they feel as though they already know what they need to know to teach. These are the teachers who when a new technology is introduced run away saying they "don't do tech". Their fixed mindset prevents them from trying a new approach or integrating a new material into their classrooms. I've seen firsthand teachers with this fixed mindset and it can be quite frustrating to work with them. However, just as teachers don't get a choice about which students they teach, nor do I get a choice in which teachers I work with. After reflecting on this book, I feel at least more prepared to recognize teachers who hold a fixed mindset and rather than getting frustrated when I hit a brick wall in their development, I will now know that before I can attempt to get them on board to try a new method or technology that I will first have to listen and help them at least become open to the idea of a growth mindset.

I would love to have all growth mindset teachers, those who ask questions and crave professional development and are eager to try a new method or to do research within their own classrooms. But that's not reality. Instead I will hope to use the growth minded teachers to inspire and help change the mindset of their fixed mindset peers.

I have to have the hope that those with a fixed mindset can change, otherwise I will have found myself trapped in the fixed mindset as well!

Spaces and Places: Learning Through the Environment

Alright, here's the second question in the #kinderchat blog challenge. This one really had me reflecting on whether or not my teaching environments honestly reflect what I believe.

"Tell us about one (or two, or a few) of the classrooms you have had over the years. Not the kids, the ROOMS. What have you loved? What have you hated? How did you FEEL in the space? What did you DO with the space that, looking back, seems ridiculous? Or brilliant? We all spend so much time in our classrooms, we really do develop a relationship with the physical space. Tell us about that (those) relationship(s)."

Looking back, I'm rather embarrassed about the physical environment of my first classroom. Fresh from undergrad with a brand new teaching certificate in hand I rolled into a Chicago Public School determined to get it right. I had spent the semester before student teaching in a kindergarden classroom in rural Michigan and couldn't have walked into an environment more different than that if I had tried. My cooperating teacher was a great teacher who happened to love calendar time, borders, and "cute" bulletin boards and so this is what I assumed to be appropriate for an early childhood classroom. When I met the other first grade teachers at my new school, the year was half over and their rooms were cluttered and also full of calendar time routines, borders, and those "cute" bulletin boards.

Walking into my brick wall, windows facing a street full of abandoned lots and broken windows, empty save for 15 desks and boxes of text books I felt as though I had better hurry up and fix up my classroom before the children transitioned to my room in the next 2 days. So what did I do? Up went materials for a drawn out calendar time, a word wall, and oh so many borders on the bulletin boards. This room now looked like any other early childhood room in the school and quite frankly I hated it, but at the time didn't have the knowledge as to why I hated it. I stayed in this room for two years keeping it pretty much the same and wondering why I was so frustrated every day. Once I left this school and settled into my preschool classroom, it hit me. I disliked this classroom so whole heartedly because it was generic and not responsive to the students. I set this classroom up in a manner that I was taught, but not in a manner that I believed in.

As I moved into my preschool room, again a brand new class with no previous teacher, I knew that I would do things differently. How could I not with the pure fact that it was a full day preschool classroom and needed to be arranged into centers for the children to play. My first year in this room was better than in the first grade room, but still too generic and modeled after the other classrooms in the center. I listened to the Head Start rep who said that all my centers must be labeled and all my materials must be labeled and there must be clear cut boundaries between my centers. Okay, so now here's this preschool classroom that appears as a classroom should, but it still didn't feel right. The children were rowdy, they didn't care about the hundreds of word labels I had around the room, and to my annoyance (and slight fear of the Head Start rep and director) they kept moving materials from one center and into an other!

And then summer rolled around and with a lower attendance I was able to attend the North American Reggio Alliance conference in Chicago. My whole world changed after attending this conference. I realized that my classrooms were not child centric no matter how much I protested to myself that they were. This preschool classroom was just as cluttered and full of un necessary junk as the first classroom. This was the summer that I became a rebel for children. I went into my classroom and took off the tacky labels (so what if that was the one piece I got knocked off for in my ELCO ratings) in favor for a true print rich environment that included a child made word and picture wall, children sign in books, books made by the children, documentation showing the children's work, process, and words, signs made by the children protecting their work or asking each other questions, and clipboards full of children's notes in every corner. Away went the borders and bright colored butcher paper in favor of black paper only to highlight the children's work and learning process. The classroom received a big overhaul in collaboration with the children, the parents, and our teaching team. Now our centers were still arranged so that it was evident to a stranger (i.e. a monitor or director) that there were in fact all the necessary centers, but now they flowed in a manner that suited the children and there was no more nonsense about not bringing materials from one area to the other. Away went the miniature sized plastic dishes in the dramatic play and in came real sized ceramic dishes. Live flowers were placed around the room, the art area became alive with the everyday availability of paints, charcoal, pastels, crayons, and sharpies. The library was used in appropriate manners with the addition of baskets for the books rather than an overwhelming bookshelf and pillows, and a tent.

Finally I allowed myself the opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of the environment as the third teacher and for once I felt at home in my classroom. And what's more important, so did the children. Never again will I go back to borders and anything considered "cute" in a classroom I teach in. Gone forever is the ridiculous and time consuming and makes no sense calendar routine and materials replaced with authentic work from the children. Bring on the curtains and real dishes and vases and authentic materials and animals and plants.

And you know what? Along with the physical change made to the preschool classroom came an unexpected change in transitions. As in I stopped having so many and allowed the day to flow in a more smooth manner (who says all the children must eat snack, go to the bathroom, or even go outside all at once?). And along with a better environment and better(less) transitions came happier and more productive children.

You live and learn. And I for one will never go back to having a classroom that is cluttered with teacher junk and instead is neatly saturated with children's possessions and ideas.

(Wishing I had pictures to share, am very unsure where they went!)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Learning Curve

Needing some blogging motivation, I have decided to participate in the #kinderchat summer blog challenge.  Here is question number one:

What did you learn this past (or, for our southern hemisphere friends, what ARE you learning this current) school year that you couldn't have learned any other year, from any other students or colleagues or administrators or parents? What lessons did this particular year, this particular setting, these particular children bring into your life?

As I stepped out of the classroom this year to better focus on grad school, I stepped into the role of full time in home teacher to a (now) 4 year old and a (now) 18 month old.  I had expected this to be a less challenging year than a year of teaching.  Thankfully, I was utterly wrong.  This was a challenging year which means that it was a growing year.  These two boys and their parents have taught me invaluable lessons in regards to where I am headed professionally to how I react personally.

I met my two boys last summer and spent the summer teaching them how to become explorers and artists and builders and adventures and loving every minute of it.  I grew to learn their idiosyncrasies, how they communicated nonverbally, what phenomena fascinated them, how to encourage them; in short, how to see each child for the individual they are.  By the end of our year together I have come to completely know who these boys are and who they are constantly evolving in to.  This was pretty powerful for me.  I have always claimed that I knew how to see children, to see them for who they are as individuals and what their individuality brings to a classroom or daycare setting.  In reality, I did my best and had good intentions, but always let the group setting prevail and in that failed to see and notice a lot of what made each child unique.  I missed out on using their uniqueness to really create the classroom community I had been preaching and claiming to have.  After spending an intense amount of one on one time with these boys, I have learned what it is to really see.  I have discovered how to look and listen to a child in a way that transcends observation notes.  In spending this time with these children, I have learned what makes true documentation, the learning and the child made visible.  Made visible to everyone, including me.  I'm grateful for this lesson and it's my hope to carry this ability to really see the person into my work with teachers.  Both allowing me to really see and listen to the teachers, and to assist in seeing and hearing the children in their care. 

Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned was the parent perspective.  This was a lesson that hit me hard and was completely unexpected.  I'll admit, prior to my learning at Erikson, I worked in environments that preached parent involvement, but never lived up to their words and I was fine to just go along with the flow rather than advocate for parents.  This will never again be me.  I'm so fortunate to go to a grad school that forces you to reflect on how you work with parents and families.  As I stepped out of the classroom last year, I vowed to do better by parents inspired by my instructors and classmates.  As I stepped into the boys' home, I quickly learned that I had better practice what I believed.  I started the year with the promise to myself and to their parents that we would be a team in raising and educating they boys.  This is what made this year more work than being in a classroom to me.  There were no portfolios mandated (though I did keep them, I just love documenting), no conferences required, no lesson plans due (to anyone but the boys).  The work was in establishing a powerful relationship with the parents.  I was in their house, this was their world, not the world of my classroom, and I needed to acclimate to this world.  As the year progressed the parents and I butted heads over many issues from what to eat to my distaste for flash cards.  The difference was that I listened, truly listened, to the parents and attempted to understand them before I spoke.  It didn't matter what I knew about child development, it was more important that we worked together to come to an agreement.  I found that this listening led to the parents' trust and the parents' trust led to me being able to offer my opinions and research on ways to help the boys.  And you know what?  They were more receptive than any parents I've yet to have in my classroom.  

In the same manner, since I was the person dropping the older boy off and picking him up from preschool, I was able to experience schooling from the other side of the wall, from the parents' side.  And I didn't like what I saw!  I was met with a wall of resistance from the older boy's teachers when I attempted to have conversations about why he was getting trouble in his (30 minute) circle time or why his outdoor time was being taken away because he was not sleeping at nap time.  As a parent de facto, I was shut out by the teachers and I was not pleased.  (The same was done to the parents.)  A month into the school year, we got a note saying that the teachers and principal were requesting that no parents or caregivers drop their children off in the classroom, they were to drop them at the main door and pick them up outside.  They wrote that this was to promote independence (which is not at all true in terms of development), but the fact was that it alienated parents.  It put parents on one side of an unbreakable wall.  There was no way to promote the parents as members of the class community.  And it made me livid.  I had come to be very attached and concerned about the boys (that's what 10 hours a day/5 days a week will do to you!) and how dare a teacher exclude me from his school life.  This outcry that I felt was the beginning of a long period of reflection (you can see how this played out on this post) on how teachers purposefully or not purposefully treat parents.  It shed light on the type of inclusive teacher I want to be and the type of inclusiveness I want to help teachers become.  Had I not had the opportunity to work with a family in their home, I never would have had such a powerful teaching on how a parent can come to feel as their child starts school.  It was as though I really was "walking a mile in their shoes".  Being on the other side of a classroom door has forever changed the way I will speak to and work with parents for the better.  

This year also taught me a lot about how I handle stress and frustration.  Working so intimately with a family provides a lot of opportunities for upset feelings and long days and times when you want to scream.  Throughout the course of the year I learned that I needed to make time for myself and I turned to yoga for stress relief and found that I was a better teacher, a kinder caregiver, and a better listener when I forced myself to stop and breath and to take care of myself.  It was quite the lesson as I had transitioned from a job where I felt as though I had to go above and beyond to the point of physical and emotional exhaustion just to stay afloat in the shark tank I worked in.  Never again will I allow a job to take my life so completely that I stop breathing and stop acting in ways that I believe are right and instead allow myself to be bullied into behaving contrary.  

Finally, this year brought about the first "thank you" I have ever gotten from an employer.  I'll admit, when I stepped out teaching for grad school, I was broken from a toxic environment and had began to doubt my path in early childhood.  The simple grateful act of a thank you invigorated me to keep going, to do the work that I have passion and commitment to.  I don't know if the family will ever know how much they have taught me, healed me, and pushed me this year.  But I am grateful.