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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.

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.

Hope in 2013

Last week I was fortunate enough to be able to facilitate an art workshop (as one of my many jobs as an Arts Learning Educator in a children's museum) in which the children and families were making wish amulets. The beginning of the workshop started with a discussion on why people may choose to make resolutions at the New Year and that by making a ritual of making a goal the goal seems more attainable. I then asked the families if they would think about wishes for this new year instead/in addition to resolutions. This led to a mother explaining to her child that a wish is a something you hope will happen.

A wish is a hope. That struck me as a wonderful way to start a new year, particularly a year that will be full of many changes in my own life. Inspired by the families in the workshop and by Scott's post on his one word for 2013 at his blog Brick by Brick, I have decided that my word for 2013 will be hope. Hope will guide me as I begin the new year and as I embrace the changes that will come.

But true hope cannot exist without action. True hope requires one to act with intention and choice, with faith in their actions. No, 2013 will not be a idle year of making wishes and expecting them to come true just because I am hopeful. Instead, 2013 will be a year of action and new experience, guided by the hope that my actions will lead me where I want to be. I will use hope to give me courage as I graduate from my master's program and make decisions on how I want to use my knowledge, skills, and experience to shape early childhood education. I will use hope to guide me as I continue to fight for social justice through my small actions of volunteering and acts of kindness. I will use hope to remind me that I believe in what I do and that the struggles are worth pushing past. I will use hope to help me bring hope to others.

My hopes for 2013 include more respect and trust in the voice and experience of teachers, more respect for play and the essence of childhood, an inclusiveness for all types of families in our schools, parks, and daycares, more collaboration among educators and parents, deeper understanding of child development over content to guide our practice and decision making, and a start to a world where children are fed, safe, and joyful.

I am starting 2013 with hope. Will you join me?