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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.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Problem with Cute

At a staff meeting today we were discussing the idea of daily documentation and our director challenged everyone to try it.  Some of the staff were unsure of how much time this would take and what it would look like.

I've been doing daily documentation for a bit so I brought one to share with the group.  I was hoping to use my example as a catalyst for conversation and collaboration.  

What I got instead was the response "yeah, it's cute" from a colleague.

                                 This is the problem with cute.

I was hoping for genuine feedback.  Acknowledgement of the work that I had done.  Even critics.  

         What I got was a brush off.

As dejected and angry as I was with this response, it really made me reflect on my ongoing dislike of the word "cute" in relation to children and their work.

Telling a child that the work they do is "cute" is sending them a brush off.  It's telling them that their work is not valued.  That it's not worth being looked at closely and given a thoughtful remark.  

When we use the word "cute" to talk about children we are sending a dangerous message.  We are telling them their ideas are not what we value, that instead we value their physical appearance.  By placing an emphasis on cuteness we diminish all that make children wonderful, including their flaws and "badness".  When children hear adults tell other children that they are "so cute", they begin to internalize cuteness as something to be desired.  What does this do to our buoyant, busy, exasperating, but still amazing children?  

So let's stop giving children the brush off and stop using "cute".

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Reflecting on the Spaces Where We Teach

It's been about a month since I started teaching at my new school (while also managing 3 other professional jobs, but that's another story).  And it's been nothing but changes and new experiences!  I think at this point I'm moving through my over-scheduled days by pure stubborness.  My role in this school is multi-faceted.  On Mondays I am the studio teacher for the young 3's class, the 3's class, and the JK class.  On Tuesdays and Wednesdays I teach a young 2s program within the studio space.  On Thursdays and Fridays I teach a 2s drop off class in a classroom that is used by the 3s on Mondays through Fridays.

To sum up, that is 5 groups of children in 2 different shared spaces.  I should also mention that the programs are all in the morning...so I see 5 groups of children all before 11:30!

Dizzy yet?

So, aside from often feeling like I am running around in circles, I have learned to be intentional and reflective about the spaces in which I teach in a whole new manner.  I have no other choice.  The 3s and the JK have different interests and developmental needs so they are working on 2 (sometimes 3 or 4) different projects on Studio Mondays.  The young 2s need an inviting and appropriate place to play within the studio two days a week.  The drop off 2s have different needs than the 3s we share a room with.  This means that several times a week (or even several times a day) I am physically moving furniture and selecting materials.

This constant state of change hasn't been totally negative.  It has stretched me as a professional in a good way, a growing way.  Now I'm literally forced to reflect on the environment and its role on the children's play more than during initial classroom set up.  And I think that's a necessary thing.  Even if I wasn't teaching five groups of children in two shared spaces, I still think that regular reflection on the environment is useful.

This is kind of the "default" studio set up.  It's really only like this when it's not in use or when children and teachers stop by to choose materials.

This is one of the ways the studio has been set up lately because the JK class is working on large collaborative painting.  It'll look even different tomorrow because the 3s are playing with large mirrors in their study of the sense of self.

And then each week, I set up the studio to welcome the young 2s group.  This is just some of the ways it has looked.  It depends on what materials I want to introduce or they are interested in.

This is the room that is a space for 3s Mondays through Wednesdays and a space for my drop off 2s Thursdays and Fridays.  Every week my co-teacher and I put plexiglass on the ladders of the loft, have to put materials meant for the 3s up on the loft, rearrange tables (we like the 8 person snack center table and the 3s group uses a smaller snack center table), switch out manipulatives and dramatic play items, lower the legs on the sensory table, and beautifully set out the items we plan to introduce.  And then on Friday we do the reverse so the room is ready for the 3s on Monday.  EVERY WEEK.

The outdoor environment is very important to me as well.  I use the outdoor garden with both sets of 2s and there is a lot of thought and care put into this space as well.

All of this requires a lot of effort, both physically and intellectually.  But it's also something that is important in supporting the play and development of the children.  I'm sure these spaces will change hundreds of times over the course of the year as the needs and interests of the five groups of children change.  But this state of change and adaptation is a part of the learning process.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Space for Wonder and Risk and Relationship

I've been filled with many emotions (awe, anxiety, excitement, guilt, disbelief, un-certantity, and drive to name a few!) since accepting and starting my new job.  I'm going to put those emotions on the back burner and reflect on them in a later post.  (Especially the guilt and the disbelief; I've never had access to so many resources in a school I've worked at before.)

The studio space on my first day.

But those reflections are for another day.  Today I have been thinking about a lot about the studio space that I am responsible for maintaing in our Reggio-Inspired nursery school.   I've set up many early childhood classrooms; this space is different.  The studio is not a classroom and is not owned by one teacher/teaching team and class of students.

Shelves above the sinks. I place items that I hope the children and teachers  will view as beautiful and inspiring.
The studio is a collaborative space for the school community.  This idea that the studio is a community place was one of the driving forces behind the decisions I made in preparing the space for the beginning of the school year.  I want this space to be a place where all of our little students and their teachers can feel wonder and joy and curiosity.  I want them to feel compelled to touch the materials, to look up and marvel at the items above, beside, and below them, and to feel safe in taking risks and trying new things.

The studio is not a traditional classroom.  It will not be used in traditional ways.  In the studio I will work with small groups of little learners between the ages of 2 and 5 for varying amounts of time.  Some work will be projects that last for extended periods of time and involve many people contributing to their evolution.  Some projects may last only a moment and be captured only by photo.  Some work will be experimenting and tinkering and playing with space and objects in unexpected ways.  Some work will be left and returned to when the child is ready.  Some work will be left and never returned to, but perhaps adopted for play by another child.

Though I will be working with 2 year olds in the space two days a week for an extended time period, I am trying to challenge them and myself to play in new ways.  And so, even though it was offered, I turned down typical dramatic play furniture and instead am starting the year with large boxes with stools and baskets of fabric inside.
I don't yet know all of the possibilities that the studio will provide.  I do know that I will try to be observant and reflective and intentional in the ways in which I maintain the space.  I will use the space and my relationships with the children and other teachers to challenge and question and inspire new ways of looking at the world.

I made a decision not to put chairs in the studio.  Instead I set the tables low and am stacking carpet squares along the wall in a hope that the children won't feel chained to a particular spot, but will feel free to move around as the work beckons.  Should our work lend itself to it, I will raise the table legs and create an elevated space that we can stand around.  

And so the studio may be set up to welcome children, families and teachers to the beginning of the year, but it is not done.  It will never be done.  It will be always evolving and adapting as we use it for our own risk taking and learning.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Exploring Names

This is kind of a departure from my usual posts. As in it's not really reflective, it's more my suggestions of the way things could be.  Though, when I think about how this came up, I suppose even this is reflective.  During my graduate school internship, I was working with a group of instructional coaches who work with PreK-3rd grade teachers.  One of the coaches and I were talking about ways to help her PreK teachers understand that there is so much more that needs to be done in PreK than having children sit down and do drills on writing their names.  So this is what I came up with (based on knowledge of child development principles).  And because I do believe so strongly in play and exploration I thought that I would share it with you.  (I also believe that these are solid ideas for kindergarten as well as Prek.) 

Exploring Names in Prekindergarten: It’s Not about Name Writing

Value of Name Play in PreK
  • Recognizing one’s name helps children feel important
  • Recognizing others’ names builds community
  • Introduces concepts of print
  • Begins the process of site reading
  • Supports beginning math concepts
Fine motor skills must be developed before writing begins.
  • Focus on drawing with details (self-portraits, observation drawings in nature, sketches of creations in block area)
  • Playing with play dough (rolling with palm on table/between palms, squishing with fist, using finger and thumb to roll balls)
  • Drawing/tracing name in salt/sand trays 
  • Using tweezers to transfer object and eye droppers to transfer water
Names in daily routines:
  • Write each child’s name next to their photo and place in cubbies
  • Write each child’s name next to photo and use in home or school chart
    • Children move their name from home to school upon arrival and from school to home upon dismissal
    • Can integrate math into routine by exploring which column of chart has more names, how many children are in school, how many are at home
  • Write every child’s name on a sentence strip (or several) and laminate. Place in a basket where children can use the names to label block creations, art in process, etc.
  • If you have a word wall, the children’s names should be the first words that occupy the wall.
Name Activities:
  • Name puzzles; write child’s name on an index card, using magnetic letters/letters on bottle caps/cut up index card write name again so it can be moved around.
    • Talk about how many letters are in child’s name, what is the first letter in their name, what other letters do they see in their name
  • Tactile letters; use tactile letters that spell the child’s name for the child to finger trace.
  • Build the letters in their name with pipe cleaners.
  • Place child’s name card next to sensory bin with letters buried in sand and have child find the letters that match their name.
  • Name Sorts
    • Sort the children’s names by placing name cards under the correct letter that each name begins with.
    • Sort the children’s names by length.
    • Sort the children’s name by matching individual names to that child’s photo.
  • Create a class book with each child’s name and photo for children to read during choice time.
Writing their Names:
  • Children are ready to learn how to write their names when they 
    • are showing an interest in writing their names 
    • are holding pencils with the correct grip
    • are creating recognizable drawings
    • are able to tell you the letters in their names
  • At this time, it is important to guide children in the correct formation of the letters that make up their name.  Working individually with the children who are ready, model for them how to form each letter in their name and help them practice how to do so.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Fear: #kinderblog13 Challenge Five

Sometimes we need to push past the fear of the unknown so that we can forge our path.
This week's #kinderchat blog challenge is to write about fear.  I'm afraid of many things, some irrational and some not.  

I'm afraid to walk too close to the edge of the eL platform even after living in Chicago for 8 years because I'm convinced I'll fall onto the tracks (and that it won't be all awesome and romantic like it is in "While You Were Sleeping").  Small talk makes me frantic; I can speak eloquently about my work and child development, but talking about the weather and what teams are doing well is so awkward. Doing art in front of people makes me clammy and crazy embarrassed.  

Yet, I take the eL several times a day.  I must if I want to experience life in this crazy city I live in.  And I network and attend conferences and talk about the weather and people's children and what movie I'm planning to see over the weekend.  How else will I build relationships and make connections?  And I paint and sculpt and draw and make paper in front of both friends and strangers every day.  If I can't let go of my embarrassment over my lack of artistic talent how can I expect my students and families to take risks and try new things?

Fears are not inherently bad.  In fact, a little fear is a good thing, it provides perspective and keeps us from doing some stupid and dangerous things.  It's when the fears keep you from forging your path and living your dreams that they become a problem.  

I've been feeling a little overwhelmed (dare I say fearful) by the expectations of me and opportunities I have been given.  Parents and other professionals ask me questions about child development, I am given chances to present at conferences, and my mentors tell me they will go to bat for me in the job search and offer me opportunities to work with them.  I'm blessed.  But I'm also terrified that I will not know the answers and that I will be exposed as a fraud.  And I have to get over it.  I'll keep the fear because it keeps me modest and reflective, but I can't let it keep me from following the professional path I want to walk.

I want to grow and lead and try new professional challenges.  Fears and all.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Dream: #Kinderblog13 Challenge Four

This is a short little post for the #Kinderchat blog challenge.  A little post on dreams.  Not the post I was going to write. But the post that I was inspired to write.  

Dreams are where ideas begin and passion grows.  Dreamers are hopeful.  Dreamers are the innovators, the artists, the advocates.  Dreamers believe that just because something is a certain way right now that doesn't mean it will always be that way.  Dreamers see the future not as something inevitable that will happen to them, but as a possibility that they can influence.  

Children are dreamers.  We can see their dreams as they pretend.  We can see their dreams as they build with blocks.  We can see their dreams as they paint and sculpt and color.  We can see their dreams as they run and dance.  We can see their dreams as they play.

And it is OUR responsibility to protect their dreams.  

It is our responsibility to protect their play.

We must. For what would the world be like without dreamers? 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Change: #Kinderchat Blog Challenge Three

I've got to hand it to my friend Amy (@happycampergirl); who knew that one word prompts could elicit such a high level of reflection?  I know that each of the prompts has elicited strong emotions in myself and I get the sense that it has in other's as well based on the content in their posts.  This week's #kinderchat blog challenge centers on the idea of change and stirs up those same strong reactions.  (Which may be why it took all week to actually write it!)

I really lucked out with this shot at the beach. It's kind of breathtaking. 
Once I got Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" out of my head (drat, there it is again), I began to think about the changes in my life lately.  And there certainly have been enough of them in the past year.  Changes beyond the big ones (which I've also had too many off!) such as moving in with a roommate for the first time in years to save money and graduating grad school and saying goodbye to the people who most support me as they move across the country in search of jobs and adventure.  But also changes that were more subtle.  Changes like becoming the type of professional I want to be, learning to advocate for myself, taking chances and pushing myself to try new things in the field.  

And of course, there are still many changes still in progress.  Obviously there are the big changes still ahead (starting a new job, somewhere, sometime and starting a new decade of life), but there are also the small changes, those habits of mind, that need to be cultivated before the large changes can happen.  Specifically, I am trying to be more open minded and forgiving...of myself.  

I am constantly giving others another chance, another opportunity to grow and change, another stab at friendship when I've been let down, but I don't give myself those same passes.  When I don't interact in the manner I would like with a family at the museum, when I have an awkward interaction with a colleague, when I disappoint a supervisor; I dwell on these moments.  I agonize over these moments.  I do not let them go; I do not forgive myself.  And this is something that needs to stop.  Both for my own peace of mind, but also for my professional life.  How can I give the best of me to children and families if I don't give the best of me to me?

I am also trying to be more open minded, flexible may be a better word, in terms of my future.  At graduation, I had a strong opinion of what it is I would be doing in the next stage of my professional life.  I had come to this decision after a year of internship and fellowship and reflection.  I had a plan, darn it, and being a high achieving brat, those plans were going to happen.  Because I said so! Well, we all now what they say about man making plans.  I've spent the summer frustrated and sad and completely unsure of my future.  And then a classmate called me and told me of a job opportunity she wanted me to consider applying for.  She told me to just listen (she had been in seminar with me for a year, so she's quite familiar with my plans) because she really thinks this is a good opportunity for me to explore.  So I listened.  And I reflected.  And I decided to be more flexible in my plans and to apply for the job and see where it takes me.  Is it what I want? Not exactly, but it's also not what I don't want.  And maybe that's okay; I know my non-negotiables, those things that I definitely don't want, and this job has none of them.  In fact, parts of it are very appealing. Maybe the fact that I don't not want it is a good start to being flexible.  I have an interview Monday and as part of changing these habits of mind, I am being flexible with my thoughts going into it.  

Because, it may end up being something I do want and I can't let the fact that it doesn't fall into the plans I had in May detour me.

So, thanks for hanging in there for this rambling post on change.  But seriously, those habits of mind, I think they are the hardest things to change, but the most important.  And the same can be said for our students and colleagues.  No real change can happen until with shift our mindsets.

He had no idea that I took this photo. It's so optimistic; thought it was fitting.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Brag: #Kinderblog13 Challenge Two

This week's #Kinderchat blog challenge asks us to do a little bragging.  For many reasons, this is a difficult thing for me to do.  It's part personality and part not feeling as though I have anything to brag about.  This has become a problem, however, in my search for a job.  The very essence of finding a job requires bragging.  In order to get interviews I know I must write a cover letter detailing why I would be awesome for the positions.  And then I must tell potential employers that I am awesome at interviews.

And I am stuck.  Stuck at the cover letter writing stage (well, and seeing job postings for jobs I want, but that's a whole 'nother dilemma) because I feel so very very weird about bragging on my skills and experiences and trying to convince people to give me a chance.  And it's that chance I need, because I have a feeling I could do something meaningful if only I could get a job.

As I began to reflect on this week's challenge and my own weariness with "tooting my own horn", I also began to reflect on this unease as a whole within the early childhood field.  It's not news that early childhood professionals are not the best at bragging.  I know that a lot of people have a lot of different reasons for why this may be from gender to personality to the very virtues of the jobs themselves.  To be honest, I don't know why this tends to be the case, nor do I really care.  What matters to me is that we reverse this trend.  Right now.

It's an uneasy time in the world of education.  Between "reform" efforts and corporate interests in education and standardized tests and teacher bashing and the increased attention on early childhood education, people are paying attention to our field in ways that they never have before.  And we need to have a say in what people are paying attention to.  As the teachers and administrators and parents and social workers and consultants and faculty members and playmakers and everyone else out practicing and making things happen in early childhood education, we need to brag.

We need to brag about the importance of play and what that looks like in our programs.  We need to brag about the successes.  We need to brag about the little things we do that are making a difference.  We need to brag about our innovations and show that what we are doing is in the very best interest of children's development and learning.  We need to brag about the advocacy we do for children and families.  We need to brag because we need to set the tone of the conversations that everyone is paying attention to.  If we don't brag frequently and effectively, then those who are louder will overshadow us and we can't let the naysayers set the tone.  We are the professionals in the field, we are the ones who need to set the tone for children and families.

And this includes me.  If I want to do the things I say I want to do for children and families, then I need to brag too.  No matter how much I loathe it, I need to brag and get those cover letters out there.  And then I need to brag some more on behalf of the children and families and early childhood professionals so that I can help set the tone.

So here I go.  I am a reflective and thoughtful practitioner; I know that there is rarely a black or white situation and that I have to dig in the grey area to find understanding and a course of direction for the next best steps.  I believe in the importance of relationships in learning and have become skilled at making connections and looking at the larger context when working with children and families and other professionals.  I am organized; after three years of juggling graduate classes and 4 or 5 jobs at a time and an internship and volunteering I have become adapt at multitasking while still focusing on each individual task.  I can write.  I have a deep understanding of child development and have learned how to share this knowledge in ways that families and those not in the field can understand.  While juggling multiple jobs and internships I have gained an interesting intersection of experience in the policy world, the education world, and the social justice world that will be a powerful combination in my work.

Okay, that's as much bragging as I can do.  But it's a start.  Now it's your turn.  Brag.  Brag on yourselves and brag on our practice.  The conversational arc depends on it.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Confessions: #Kinderblog13 Challenge One

Nothing brings me more calm that my beautiful Lake Michigan; here's hoping it brings calm to this confession!

I have to admit that I had a crazy hard time sitting down to write this first post for the #kinderchat summer blog challenge.  I could tell you a variety of mundane confessions like I'm slightly terrified to turn 30 next month or that I cannot fall asleep without the t.v. on or how my favorite snack is still a bag of dry cheerios (toddler style).  But I am going to be brave and confess something that I've been reflecting on since the start of grad school and am still trying to find peace with.  Ready?  Please don't kick me out of our lovely little community...

I don't want to be a classroom teacher, to have my own classroom within a school or a center again.  For a girl who thought of nothing more than being a classroom teacher all through undergrad and who got a masters in child development, this is a difficult thing to admit.  For many reasons.  Because it was always the plan to be a classroom teacher, I still feel as though I am letting a lot of people down.  And obviously, I love and adore and deeply respect teachers.

The thing is, teaching in the traditional sense just isn't the direction in early childhood I want to focus.  And, of course, I want to work in the early childhood field; how could I attend the graduate program I did and not want to stay in the field.  I have a strong passion for play and learning and social justice.  This I know.  But I also know that the field of early childhood is a wide field and allows for a huge range of opportunities that are not all as classroom teachers.

I want to continue to advocate for children and families and play and learning and teachers and communities.  I want to be a source of support for those professionals who care for our littlest learners, but still need someone to coach them and guide them and advocate for them (trust me, it's quite difficult to be an infant or toddler or 3's teacher with little training or support).  I want to keep facilitating play and conversation among children and families in nontraditional settings (seriously, my job at the children's museum is still my favorite).  I want to help build bridges between home care centers and preschool centers and primary schools.  I want to use the child development knowledge crammed in my head combined with my classroom teaching experience and passions to do my part for the early childhood field.

So, no, I don't want to be a classroom teacher.  But I do want to teach.  It's just a broader definition of the word "teacher".

And while I still worry that I won't have a place to fit in or that I'll be rejected by the very same teachers I love and respect or that I'll always be working 5 part time jobs, I think I need to come to peace with my confession.

So there it is, my big early childhood confession.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Finding Me

It's that time of year again, the #Kinderchat Summer Blog Challenge.  Just when I begin to think my blog is stagnating due to inactivity, along comes the challenge.  To learn more, you can visit the information page here.

The first challenge was a warm up. The intent, I think, was to give us a quick way to introduce ourselves. We were asked to tell the what and why and where behind what we do in 250 words or less.

Easy, right? No. The state of transition I'm in meant that this caused me much angst, tears, and moments of being shouty. Once I pulled it together and found solace in my journal materials, I discovered that I can answer these questions. Even as I sit here newly graduated from grad school and without any hint of a full time job.

And as for why I do what I do and where I do it? I believe that social justice is not a choice and that it's not passive; that it's the active responsibility of us all. And I believe that authentic teaching and learning are some of the best examples of social justice.  

And so I do what I do.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Faces of Advocacy

It's been too long since I sat down to write a post.  The ideas have been flitting in and out of my head, but I suppose I got caught up in preparing for and taking my comprehensive exams and graduating from grad school.  I actually meant to write a post about advocacy back in April when I went to Springfield with The Ounce of Prevention Fund to encourage funding for early childhood care and education programs in Illinois.

The Ounce's Advocacy Day consisted of those who work in childcare, preschool, and home visiting programs, parents who's children benefit from those services, and community members who recognize the value of early childhood experiences.  Participants were encouraged to email, call, and personally talk to the members of the governing body to share with them the benefits of these programs and to ask their legislatures to protect funding for the programs.  It was exciting to see so many people actively speaking up for our youngest citizens.  Ultimately, this form of advocacy revolves around relationships.  It is through the relationships that we make with those who determine where the funding goes that influences a share of the money for the programs we believe in.

Advocating in the manner is important as it not only educates those with the decision making power, but it can serve to educate the masses and rile people up for action.  This ability to draw in the crowds can be seen by the tireless groups of parents, teachers, and community members working to educate the public on the inner going ons of the city's public school system.

Advocating though speech making and marching and rallying is important because it's loud, noticeable, and draws in others to a cause.  But it's not the only form of advocacy, nor is it the type of advocacy and social justice activity that I generally participate in.  Words and marches have value, but to me the heart of advocacy is action.  And I see no higher form of action, no better way to act for social justice than that of volunteering.

I believe that social justice is not a choice and it's not passive, that it is the active responsibility of us all

This is why I spend time volunteering and leading other volunteers in service.  Although I participate in a wide variety of service projects, and have been since the time I was a young child, one of my favorite days of service is the Chicago Care's Serve-a-Thon.  In this annual event, thousands of volunteers are lead by hundreds of volunteer leaders in a day of service that benefits Chicago's public schools, parks, YMCA's, and Senior Citizens.  Yesterday I led my 7th Serve-a-Thon project.  As a primary volunteer leader I rallied 10 volunteer leaders to lead 100 volunteers in painting 3 hallways/stairwells, planting flowers in the playground, building benches, bookcases, and planter boxes, and creating inspirational banners, murals, and mosaics.  And while we spend the day doing hands on work that will serve to add a touch of beauty to a school, in the end the day is about so much more than that.

In the end, it comes down to actively taking a stand for social justice.  By spending the day working in an often forgotten neighborhood you are showing your willingness to stand up for children and families and the communities they live in.  The volunteers at the elementary school my project took place at yesterday showed the children, teachers, and community that somebody cares for them, somebody believes in them, and that they are not forgotten.  Volunteering provides a platform to actively fight for social justice.  Because while powerful words are motivating; without the action to back up the words change won't happen.

And if by spending the day leading others inservice encourages even one volunteer to come back and serve in another capacity, then it's a start.  It's a start of a social justice movement through action and love and respect.  And I can't hope for anything more powerful than that.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Print Making and Risk Taking

The Education Studio at Columbia College

Today I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop at Columbia College called "Print Making in the Classroom".  Columbia is known for its fine art programs and is also known for its early childhood certification program because the program is deeply inspired by the practices in Reggio Emilia, Italy (all of the students in the program get to visit Italy during their student teaching).  While I was quite excited to attend the workshop, I was also extremely nervous.  The workshop was open to anyone, but students at Columbia were admitted without cost.  This meant that I was going to be taking a class with a bunch of talented artist types.

Art still makes me self-hesitant. No matter how much I believe in art as a language of children, or how deeply I respect the process, not to mention that I teach in the art studio in the children's museum, I still do not see myself as a "good" artist.  I enjoy collaging and journaling, like the feel of a paintbrush over water colors, and am inspired by playing with art mediums.  But I would never call myself an artsy person.  So to be attending a workshop with artists who are going to be teaching was intimidating to this teacher who uses art.  

The studio had a shelf full of tape!

 So I took a risk.  I let myself play and explore and delight in the process of print making.  And it was fun!  And I felt a little more like an artist because I was focused on my process rather than debilitated by the end product.  The experience is a powerful reminder of setting up an environment for our students that allows them to take the same risks and to focus on their process.  If we can create a space and a feeling of trust for our children to play in, then we have done our jobs.  For without that environment no true learning and discovery can really happen.  And for that reminder alone, the workshop was worth it.

We used found materials with fun textures, layers of tape, paper shapes to make the collage prints.  
We rolled the ink directly on the "stamps" we created then set the paper atop of the "stamps".
As a bonus,  I also came away with an exciting new art process for children to explore.  The way we played with prints today does not require a printing press or even expensive materials.  We used ink and special rollers and smoothing stones, but I'm betting that in a classroom the process would still be interesting with tempera paint, student rollers, and hands as smoothing stones.  

This is my experiment with textures.
My collage "stamp" with ink.

These are some of the prints that resulted from my texture collage.
These "stamps" were made by using a pen to sketch designs on thin foam. The pressure of the pen creates indents.  I also played with using the outside of one piece to create a border in a different color.
These are the prints that resulted from playing with my foam pieces.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Definition of a School

Early this year, I wrote a post detailing my problems with the way we use titles to separate educators in an attempt at creating a hierarchy that ultimately serves no one; you can read about that here.  Then this morning I read a post where a, I'm sure well intentioned, kindergarten teacher wrote about how he believed that daycare is not preschool.  

Let me just say, that I respectfully, but quite loudly disagree.  

And here's why.  Preschool simply means the experiences young children have prior to entering kindergarten or first grade (depending on what year of school entry is mandated by your state/province/what have you).

Research has shown time and time again that early experiences matter.  We know that between the ages of birth to five a child's mind is incredibly malleable and that it is during this time that it is essential that we are providing children with rich experiences.  It is during these first five years that a child's language and cognition increase by leaps and bounds and it is during these years that children's curiosity and initiative direct their play and, therefore, their learning.  We also know that in order to capitalize on these biologically determined growth patterns, we must be providing our youngest children with high quality, stimulating, socially-emotionally supportive environments in which to play and discover.

These young learners must be given the space and the time to engage in rich fantasy play, to create, to build, to read and be read to, to explore writing in a developmentally appropriate manner, to investigate, and to play with numbers.  They must also be provided with nurturing care that supports the development of their self-identity and independence as they learn to take care of their self-help needs such as serving their meals, successfully using the toilettes, and dressing themselves.  These young children must also have their social-emotional development supported as they learn how to interact among other children, how to use failure to keep on trying, how to problem solve, how to focus on interesting play.

When I think about the needs and experiences of our birth-five year old children, I am not restricted to a classroom that happens to be located within an elementary school.  The traits that I described are seen every day in homes where children are cared for and taught by family members and nannies, in children's museums, and yes, in daycare centers.  These are all preschool environments that are supporting a young child's cognition, language, and social development.

Aside from the semantics of it all, which truly contribute to creating divisions among all of us who dedicate our life to young children and their families, there is also an underlying issue of culture and context that I feel I must address.  As professionals who work with young children and their families, we need to be aware that individual children and families have a wide variety of needs and live in a wide variety of social contexts.  It is not our place to judge them for the decisions they make in regards to how and where they are choosing to provide preschool experiences for their children.  Culture and social circumstance matter.  Some families choose to provide rich experiences through home based care and social groups, others need all day care.  Neither is in the wrong and both are valid preschool experiences.  If we truly want to do what's best for our youngest learners, we need to keep in mind that there is no one right way to do preschool.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Learning by Doing: The Education of Social Justice

Every January I am fortunate to be able to to lead one of the project sites for Chicago Cares Celebration of Service. This is an annual event that connects volunteers and social service agencies to honor Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy and to further promote his messages of hope, peace, and social justice. Throughout the city, volunteers work alongside colleagues and friends both old and new to provide small pieces of beauty to these agencies by creating mosaics and murals, freshening up a hallway with a new coat of paint, or by building benches and cubbies. The volunteers also come together to bring a little joy to the various senior citizens, adults with special rights, and children who receive services from these agencies.

As I gathered the 70 volunteers for instructions in the morning, I told them that I believe that social justice is not a choice, that it is our responsibility of members of a broader community. As I described the different projects we would be doing that day I could see that there was some hesitation from various people. Including my three volunteer leaders who would be leading each individual project. As leaders, we had all attended training and knew the scope of the day's projects, but there was still a bit of hesitation among them regarding actually leading and completing the projects.

One of the projects involved the volunteers, a large majority who were high school students, organizing and leading crafts, party games, and dancing for the adults with special rights who attend day programs at the agency. For many people, this is a population of citizens whom people don't know how to approach due to fear and uncertainty. I watched as the leader of this project sent the volunteers off to lead various activities and how many of the volunteers stayed around the perimeter of the party unsure of how to interact with the clients. As I made my rounds I reminded the volunteers that these adults were just like them in that they want conversation and fun and to be respected. I then watched as the clients started to approach the activities and the volunteers. They were excited about the party and were not going to let inhibitions keep them from enjoying it. And this, the clients themselves, is what drew the volunteers in. All my talking isn't what made the day run happily or provided the volunteers with a new perspective and experience. It was not until the volunteers and the clients began to interact and engage in a shared experience did the volunteers learn something about interacting with those who appear different.

My other two leaders were elsewhere in the building leading volunteers in the creation of mosaics and murals. Tasks that I learned they had never done and were quite nervous about leading. In particular, one of my leaders was having a bit of a panic over how long the act of breaking and laying tiles was taking and how they would ever get to the grouting stage. I took him aside and encouraged him to take a breath (and go watch the joyful party happening upstairs!). When he came back I went over the steps for grouting again and reassured him that it was a faster process then the tile laying and that the mosaics would be left to dry over the remainder of the weekend at the site. I left to do some other tasks and came back to find the tiles laid and the grout being applied. The leader had a visibly calmer look on his face and shared how he was more confident now that he had done the task. After much worrying over the abstract pieces of the task, the act of doing it made it less scary.

And isn't this what good education entails? The act of doing. The act of trying new things even when scared and unsure. What I expected of my leaders and volunteers is what we expect of our students every day. We expect them to have trust in our guidance and in their own willingness to jump into the unknown.

Ultimately, we do service because it is our right and responsibility to push for social justice in our communities. Those that we serve enjoy the process and the end results, but in the end, it is those who are doing the volunteering that are learning and growing. And so we should engage in social justice. But we also should remember that we are not doing it purely out of an altruistic good, we are also doing it to grow our own selves.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Parent Contact is Not a Punishment

I take issue with behavior charts. At best, I find them ridiculous and completely out of context (I'm looking at you any behavior chart that tries to disguise itself as some cutesy theme item). At their worst, I find them controlling and manipulative (you heard me behavior chart that tells me I must conform or I miss out on something exciting).

I'm not going to get into all the reasons why behavior charts are not the way to go, my friend Amy at Miss Night Mutters does a beautiful job writing about that particular issue. I'm not even going to dive into the strikingly important difference between punishment and logical consequences (another day, another post).

This reflection is in response to a particular behavior chart that I recently came across on the internet. This was your run of the mill color coded, move the clips up and down behavior chart with "Outstanding" at the very top-presumably meant to instill pride (no, scratch that, a reward), "ready to learn" in the middle-the desired green card, and at the very bottom "parent contact"-that dreaded bright red stop sign card.

Whatever your thoughts about behavior charts and your rational for including them in your day, placing parent contact in a negative context is a dangerous and disrespectful thing to do. Think about what message is sent to a child when having their parent contacted is treated as a punishment? In it's simplest form, this sends the message that tattling is okay; that if you do not behave in the manner I dictate I'm going to call your mother. Is that what we want our students to think? That they are going to get ratted out for everything they do, possibly losing privileges at home too? Using parent contact as a form of punishment, whether you intended it to or not, tells the students that you so not have any influence in their day. Threatening to call parents when students are not doing as you wish tells the students that you are out of balance in your own classroom. Why would anyone listen or respect anyone who is seen as out of balance?

Past sending these messages about yourself to students, using parent contact as a form of punishment sets a negative climate for the classroom community. It's important to remember that the classroom community consists of much more than the children and the teachers. Parents and families are an integral part of this community. Families are the child's world, as a teacher you are just a visitor (often a loved visitor for sure, but a visitor nonetheless). This means that part of our job is to support the relationships that the families and children have with each other. Using parent contact as a form of punishment does nothing expect break those relationship ties. When parents receive call after call and note after note about "how bad their child is being" they begin to lose hope. They start to believe that their child is to blame and needs to be fixed or they believe that they did something wrong that is causing this contact and this wears down the family-child bond. Even if the parents are strong and understand that the teachers notes and calls often have much more to do with the teacher than the child, this breaks down the parent-teacher relationship. And that is as detrimental to the child's learning and social-emotional well being.

Parent contact is not a punishment. Parent contact should be one of the most important and joyful parts of everyone's days. Parent contact involves greeting the families in the morning and wishing them well in the afternoon. Parent contact is sending home notes and newsletters and emails celebrating a child's or a class' learning. Parent contact is the families and teachers working side-by-side, vested in the interest of the student. Parent contact is the teacher lending or finding support for families who need extra love.

When was the last time you stopped a parent in the hall just to tell them something positive about their child? If we can't quickly answer that, we need to re-imagine how we approach parent contact.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Definition of a Teacher

While I draw a lot of my beliefs from my "formal" teaching experience, I don't believe that the walls of a classroom define a teacher and have learned just as much from my recent work as an in home caregiver and in my work teaching in less formal settings such as the children's museum and in after school programs within the city. Because of this, I've always had a bit of a struggle with the ways in which we try to define and separate ourselves in the field of early childhood care and education. In particular, with the ways we use definitions to belittle our colleagues.

In the centers you have teachers, master teachers, lead teachers, assistant teachers, and teacher aides. Then you move into the primary schools and you have teachers, aides, assistants, and paraprofessionals. That doesn't even get into the discussion that often occurs between teachers of kindergarten and up and teachers who teach birth to age 5 in which many people are of the school of thought that those who teach in a center or a home are "only" providers and not teachers. Oh, and let's not forget those nannies, tutors, museum educators, and camp leaders! Let's place them even below the center and home teachers.

Having worked in a government funded program and within a public school, I do recognize that often these labels are used by funders as ways to ensure that certain staffing qualifications are met within the agencies they are funding or by states to find a way to determine teacher qualifications. It becomes a necessary evil to define the levels of education the adults within a learning environment have when trying to determine who may be best suited to lead a particular group of children. And different positions and age groups require different skills and knowledge basis.

Here's where my struggle comes in. It lies in not respecting that all those titles that I listed above bring with them a PERSON who has skills, knowledge, and a desire to work with young children. When we use these definitions to put ourselves above a colleague, it becomes not okay. When we use these labels in the context of saying "well, I'm a REAL teacher because I teach in an elementary school, but you are not because you teach toddlers" or when a lead teacher cannot find value in her assistant teacher's expertise, this is when the problem starts.

We know that early childhood education is important-I'm sure we could all pull out the facts and figures that support this. What we tend to forget is that early childhood is birth through age 8. That means the folks who teach and care for children from birth through third grade are supporting this important time period. This means that we must all work together and that we must all respect the work that each other does. Regardless of what our title may or may not be.

Consider this, Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the verb "to teach" as the following:

1. to cause to know something, to cause to know how, to accustom to some action or attitude, to cause to know the consequences of an action

2. to guide the studies of

3. to impart the knowledge of

4. to instruct by example or experience, to make known and accepted

Now, to me, this definition describes every single one of the variations on the term teacher that I listed above. Everyone of those people that I listed is a teacher of young children. Everyone of those people is the embodiment of the definition "to teach".

Let's start respecting and supporting each other, regardless of what our official title may be. Only then can we support our young learners and their families.

And let's face it, our young learners are often much better at this than we are. As I was writing this post, I asked some friends of mine on Twitter to read it before I sent it out into the world. As a wonderful and timely example, from one of those conversations came the following story from @happycampergirl's classroom:

C: My dad is my teacher.
P: No he’s not, Mme Amy is your teacher. And Mme Chantal. You dad’s not even a teacher. He’s on the radio. (C's dad is a radio DJ.)
C: Yeah, but at home, my dad teaches me things. So he’s a teacher, then, right?

And those little voices sum it up better than I ever could; a teacher is someone-anyone who teaches you something.

Huge huge thanks to @tori1074 @happycampergirl for reading the post, encouraging me to publish it, and for inspiring me!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The One Center Child

This post is also published on the Kinderchat Blog as part of the community's participation in NaBloPoMo. You should definitely head over to the blog and read a month's worth of posts from a variety of teachers, administrators, and others who work with young children!

This is the reflection of a conversation and ideology that began when I was teaching preschool and has recently reappeared in conversations among classmates. One of my core beliefs about teaching young children is respecting the child's right to free play. As a teacher, I see one of my most important roles as providing an inviting classroom space that promotes exploration, curiosity, conversation, and problem solving. In other words, the centers within the classroom are the sun to which the children's and my day revolve around. It is within these centers that the children are free to become who they are. It is within the block center that a 5 year old girl, let's call her Lyla, taught me the importance of keeping centers open to children. Even if they are like Lyla and choose to only play in the block center.

Which brings me to the idea of whether it is appropriate to close a particular center if a child chooses to spend all of their time in only one center. I am arguing that it is not appropriate to close a center, nor is it appropriate to require any child to play in a center that they are not interested in. Now, I do recognize that there are many brilliant teachers who don't believe this to be true and may not have the luxury of teaching in a full day preschool program where I was able to allocate a solid hour and a half of free play every morning with more occurring after nap. But, in order to stay true to my beliefs about a child's right to play and my knowledge of child development, I chose not to close the block center to the 5 year old girl from my class and I would make this decision over and over again.

Lyla came to my room as a quite 3 year old who spoke only Spanish. She had spent her past two years in the toddler classroom down the hall and was quite attached to one of the teachers in that room. That teacher had been the first person aside from Lyla's mother and grandmother who had been a primary caregiver. This teacher was warm and a native Spanish speaker. When Lyla transitioned to my room, she was leaving the comfort of this teacher's embrace and the relatively small classroom with only 7 other children and entering a room with 19 other children who ranged in age from 3 to 5. My classroom was large, with a separate alcove where the blocks and cubbies lived. It was also busy with the sounds of 20 children creating and two, English speaking, teachers facilitating the mess. It doesn't surprise me that Lyla found comfort in the alcove. It's a smaller space where the bigger girls often brought the dolls to play amongst the blocks.

As a three year old, Lyla began to work with the small blocks building row after row of horizontal structures in her cubby. As she became more accustomed to the classroom she began to branch out and would talk to the bigger girls and their dolls. Lyla would occasionally visit the dramatic play center on the tail of those big girls, but was always drawn back to the block area. As Lyla grew up, her structures became works of intricate art and she blossomed into one of the most friendly, curious, and talkative children in the class. At five years old, she was now one of the big girls, active in morning meetings and meal times and kind to the other children...and she still spent most of her play time in the block center.

Over the course of Lyla's time in my classroom, the children and I had to play host to a multitude of program monitors, directors, and coaches. Many of these people, especially my director, asked me why I did not just close the block center so that Lyla would be forced to play elsewhere in the room. I refused. Lyla was obviously thriving within the context of the block center. I knew the arguments being used as evidence for me to require her to play elsewhere; the need for her to be doing more writing, the need for her to be interacting with more of the children in the room, that ever present push in the inner city of "getting her ready for kindergarten to compensate for poverty". My answer was that my classroom and I were to adapt to the children, not to make the children adapt.

Rather than take the choice away from the child, I would be more flexible in how I set up centers. It's much easier to add things to a center than to force a child to play where she doesn't want to play. So Lyla stayed in the block center. And into the block center went baskets of paper, clipboards, pencils, books, cameras, rulers, tape, string, blocks, clay. Into the block center went photos of buildings which included those that Lyla and her classmates had created. Into the block center I went where I joined in the excitement of constructing and where I put up a sign next to something we had created asking others not to remove it and describing what it was. Into the block center went an invitation to continue to create and to expand on the creations by adding signs and labels and new materials. Into the block center flocked the other children drawn by Lyla's enthusiasm and creativity.

I think that part of our job when working with young children is to reflect on why children do what they do and how we can respectfully respond. There are many reasons why a child may favor one center over the others. A child may show a passion for it as did Lyla with the blocks or they may find comfort in the familiar objects in the dramatic play center. I've seen many children with special rights show strong preferences for certain centers whether it's due to a need for sensory input (or less sensory input), an emotional need, or a need I haven't yet discovered. There are opportunities to bring new experiences to the familiarity of a preferred center in order to scaffold learning. It's also important to remember that it's within free play that children are scaffolding their own learning and if a particular center allows them to do that, then that should be celebrated rather than taken away. There are many times in the day in which we dictate where a child should be and what they should be learning, but free play isn't that time.

There was no need to restrict where Lyla chose to play. She left preschool with a love of writing and drawing and reading and building. She left preschool confident and creative and full of joy. She left preschool able to solve problems and negotiate space and people. She left preschool ready for the adventure of kindergarten.