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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.

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.