Monday, February 28, 2011

"She Feeled About Sad"

I haven't shared any of the children's stories here for quite some time. In fact, some of these are from last year. If you're curious about how we tell our stories, click here.

This first batch was from the beginning this this school year. Enjoy!

Mine is about Buzz Lightyear and the Lorax. The Grinch lift up tape off. Then the Grinch started to tip his head. And he tipped his bottom. And he runned over a monster truck. Then runned over a car monster. And they runned over ghost. And they runned over a Lorax and a tree. The Lorax got into the box and got into a Charlie Brown.  --Charlie L.

It's all about swords. A sword hit a truck. Then a car bumped into a ghost. Then a truck ghost came and bumped into a care and runned over a car.  --Ariya

So my story is about light swords. Then they ran over a truck and the truck ran over whole lots of junk. And it ran over some bad buys and some bad guys ran over a boars. And it a boars ran over Kung Fu Panda. Then Indiana Jones comed and whapped his whip. --Charlie M.

It's all about birds. Some birds flied over a tree and landed in their nest. The eggs hatched. And then the birds flew to get food for their babies.  --Sylvia

Ariel was on the water. Then she swimmed. She swimmed deep, deep under water.  --Jasper

It's about Buzz Lightyear. At Florida it was about Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story movie.  --Hisak (Isak's favorite letter is "H" so he spells his name with a silent "H")

About Vikings. A dragon blowed fire on the shield. A sword hit the table and all the paint falled down. Some lightening crashed on the tree and the tree falled down.  --Orlando

It's called a ghost gets lost. Then a monster trunck runned over him. Then another monster truck runned over him. Then Orlando banged the ghost on the head. Then a monster comed and picked up a truck and throwed it at him.  --Charlie B.

The big hairy green monster. The monster bumped into a truck. A ghost bumped into a wheel.  --Charlotte

It's about a ghost and a wicked witch. They had batteries and a scary, scary, scary truck bumped into them. And then they bumped into a tire. (Mine is pretty long. And pretty scary.) They splattered paint on their head and they stealed treasure. They went up to a bad man and stealed their treasure. And they came and stealed them back. And they dumped the pirates in the sea. And they splattered them. That scared her. And they splattered all these people and even Connor. They banged the ceiling. And they broke everything.  --Benjamin

Cinderella lived in a castle. Her step sisters were mean. She feeled about sad.  --Sasha

I have a little baby here. Well once the baby fell from the branch. She's not a very good climber. She also fell down a hole. She slipped. Well, she landed. I caught her.  --Cora

The man drove a thing. Well, he fell into the mud. And then he lifted him back up onto the road. And then he drove to his parking spot. Well, he went back and then his thing went up. And then he got out and then it closed. This closed. Well, he rested down on top and slept well. The other woke up and he ran down. And then he jumped up and went into here and into the truck and drove to the clipboard. Well, the tree crashed down and then his engine broke. Well, his back couch was loose. When it let out everything fell out and his thing came unconnected and it slid down on the road. And he was happily ever.  --Connor

Here's a batch of stories I found on the back of my clipboard from the end of last year.

Gaa Gaa Goo Goo Puppy. And then he bumps his head on the floor. And then I hope he didn't roll over. Oh no, he did! And then he goed to the farm and seed if there was a cow milk there. And then he found some. And then he spilled it on his sister. And then the sister screamed out the window. And then the sister bumped his head right on the window sill. And then she bonked it on her puppy who brought the milk home and poured it on his sister.  --Katherine

The man bonked his head on the floor and bonked his head everywhere. And he put lemon juice on him and then he bonked into a pancake. A baby cried on him. A monster come and killed him. And then him bonked on his chair. And then him bomped some pancakes on his chair. And then him banged some paper again on his head. And then him bonked his bottom on his heard. And then him bonked his chair on his dead and him was a monster.  --Lachlan

A monkey ran up a tree. It crawled up the ground. Then he ate his tooth. Then a pig saw the monkey's tracks. Then the pig caught the monkey. Then the monkey jumped off his back and pulled his tail. Then he fell over. He fell on the ground.  --Luna

Kiran . . . (I can't think of anything.)  He keeps taking all the pots out. I keep wanting to put it away. Kiran keeps taking my art supplies out. I keep wanting him to put it away.  --Anjali

A monster in a truck ran over the car. And then the car died and then the monster truck died too. And then the monster tripped out of the monster truck. Then he hurt his knee and then the monster died.  --Hisak

"I don't care. Meow, ouchie, ouchie." That's what the kitty's saying. She's saying, "I am tired. Meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow." I'm saying, "Ouchie, ouchie, ouch." It's the duckling. "I'm a ducky." "Meow, Meow, ouchie, meow." "Quack, quack, quack, quack." "Meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow." "Quack." "Bye bye."  --Ella

If these aren't enough stories for you, here are previous storytelling posts in the order in which they appeared:

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Society Of "We"

Yesterday 100,000 teachers and their supporters turned out in the cold and snow to protest against the effort by Wisconsin's governor to, among other things, take away their right to collectively bargain, and hundreds of thousands more gathered at their state capital buildings and other places across the country to show their solidarity.

The governor has privately stated that he intended to just "wait them out," expecting their outrage to consume itself, the winter weather to drive them indoors, the fear of reprisal to bow them down, but the opposite has happened. Protests that started with fewer than 10,000 people have now grown more than ten fold and continue to grow each day. Middle class people of all stripes, average Americans, parents, students, firefighters, and now even the police, have taken a stand with Wisconsin's teachers.

Yesterday, I wrote about teaching children how and when to be followers, and how if they learn to follow in the right way for the right reasons, they will possess the skills necessary to start their own movements. In the first few days of this movement in Wisconsin, the protesters were dismissed as a few angry, selfish teachers (lone nuts), but they persisted in doing this great thing, publicly, and simply enough that it was almost instructional. The first followers were crucial. Now clearly a tipping point as been reached and it has become a genuine movement one that has people from all sides rushing to join it. This is how great things get done in a democracy. Change and progress has never come from the people we call "leaders," because in a democracy we don't elect leaders, we elect representatives. And then they forget that the strength of our system is that the people lead, it is incumbent upon us to remind them.

In the past I've written about my frustration that our schools are increasingly being viewed as mere institutions of vocational training, instead of the incubators of citizenship that our founding fathers envisioned for public education. Whether you agree or disagree with the aims of this particular movement in Wisconsin, there can be no doubt that these teachers understand their role as citizens and are right now, through their actions, teaching their students how to be the kind of followers who make things happen in a democracy.

Sometimes I fear that with our current emphasis on standardized testing and the narrowing of our educational offerings to a core of math, literacy and a smattering of science, we will bring up a generation that is ignorant about its role in our grand experiment in self-governance. These are ideas and skills we risk losing when we cut the humanities, the social sciences, history, government, and civics education as we've done, making them, at best, little brothers, standing in the shadow of the all-important "job skills," much the way art, music, drama, and PE are pushed off into the dark corners, if not all the way out the door, today.

This is what we risk when we go down that narrow, narrow educational path: the knowledge that we are obliged to stand up for ourselves, and the skills necessary to do so collectively when those with more money or more guns try to wrest control of our government from us.

It is my hope that we are entering a period of increased citizen activism, lead as in Wisconsin by teachers and parents working together to leave our children a legacy of courageous grassroots democracy, one that swings the pendulum away from the society of "me" and back toward a society of "we."

(Note: If you're an email subscriber, I understand that many of you received your post yesterday with the video striped out of it. I don't know why that happened or if it will happen again today with the videos I've embedded in this post. If so, you may view the videos by going to the blog itself, where they appear to be running okay, or you can view them on YouTube. Click here for yesterday's video on starting a movement. Click here to view the first video in this post. Click here to view the second video in this post.)

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Follow The Leader

When you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first person to stand up and join in.     ~Derek Sivers

Back in our pre-preschool days, years before I ever considered becoming a teacher of any kind, my daughter Josephine and I used to attend a Gymboree class once a week. It was essentially an open gym with lots of mats and climbing apparatuses appropriate for the under 2 set, followed by a robust circle time lead by a woman whose name I've forgotten, but whose energy and enthusiasm lives on in me almost every day.

It was never explicitly stated whether or not the adults were expected to join in the singing and group large motor activities, but after a couple sessions it was clear to me that the parents who sat and watched this circle time tended to have the children who sat and watched, whereas those of us who jumped up and down and wiggled our fannies along with the teacher had children who participated.

Those who know me today may find it hard to believe, but overcoming the sense that I would look like a great big oafish fool was a major challenge for me, one only made possible by what I considered to be the best interests of my child. I was impressed by this Gymboree teacher, an adult woman, no longer young, who threw herself into this activity without any apparent shame or reservation. So while carefully avoiding eye contact with any of the moms in the room (and they were all moms in those days) I threw myself into it, following her lead the way I wanted Josephine to do it. But the Gymboree teacher forced her eye contact on me, just like I was one of the kids, welcoming me with a smile, drawing me into the center of this movement of children and parents, swinging our hips and chanting things like, "Wishy washy, wishy washy, wishy washy, weeeeeee!"

It's just one kid sitting on the giant tube.

The first follower is quickly followed by the second.

And now we have a movement!

Most of us, if pressed, would admit to wishing leadership skills on our child, and we should, I think. The ability to lead with confidence is a relatively rare and vital talent. What we don't say aloud, however, but what is far more important throughout most of our lives is acquiring "followship" skills. It's hard to even write that because, of course, no one wants to raise their child to be a mere follower. The word connotes mindless devotion, giving into peer pressure, being a lamb lead to slaughter. We want strong children who know their own minds, who can say, No!" when it doesn't feel right, who can blaze their own trail, and all of those things are true, but what is also true is that we spend much more of our lives as followers than leaders, if only because it's exhausting to always be at the head of the parade.

There is great power in following, more than is generally credited. The ability to unselfishly look at what someone else is doing and, with an open mind, say to yourself, That looks great. I want to do it too! is really the foundation upon which all meaningful human activity is built.  I was inspired yesterday by a video a friend forwarded to me, and the commentary by Derek Sivers, founder of Muckworks and Now Now Now. It struck me as I watched the video over and over that as much as we claim to value leadership, we spend most of our time with young children helping them learn to contribute as followers in a proper and meaningful way. In our leadership roles as teachers we strive to make things so simple that they are instructional. When we're at our best we understand that the children following us are our equals. And if we really watch what's going on in our classrooms, the rest of the kids are, more often than not, following the other children, not us the teachers.

When we fail as teachers, and we all do, I think it's often because what we are doing simply isn't great enough or instructional enough to attract that first follower. But when we succeed, once we've inspired that first follower, watch out!

But just watch the video, it says it much better than I can:

"The first follower transformed the lone nut into a leader. The best way to make a movement is to be the first follower and show others how to follow." As the tipping point is past in this video and all of those people who were once uncomfortably, perhaps mockingly, watching a lone hippie dancer begin to leap to their feet and rush to be part of his movement, it moves me almost to tears. What a powerful thing we become when we are able to move beyond our self-consciousness, our sense of shame, and leap into something new, even if, this time, it's only because we feel hidden in the larger group. Maybe next time, we'll be the first follower.

Indeed, as teachers we do spend most of our time helping our charges learn followship skills. And that's as it should be because they, like all of us, will spend most of our lives not leading, but making judgments about who and what to follow, then following them, not just because others are following, but because they see a lone nut doing something great and have the courage to stand up and join in.

That's why we must, as much as possible, give kids a choice about whether or not, and when, to follow. Compelling children only teaches obedience to leaders, a dangerous thing. But choice in the classroom gives them the opportunity to really practice how to follow, to learn to think for themselves, to not follow blindly, but rather with the idea of expanding the great thing that lone nut is doing.

And when we're the lone nut, we'll know how to treat our followers.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

"Way To Go! You're A Genius!"

When my wife Jennifer and I were kindergarten shopping one of the schools we looked at required an I.Q. test. I recoiled at the idea, phoning a child psychiatrist friend, looking for support for my knee-jerk response: Of course testing the intelligence of a 5-year-old is a bad idea.

Richard responded by saying he’d spent his entire career around these tests and had never seen them damage a child in any way. In fact, the kids he tested usually enjoyed taking them. “But,” he added, “I’ve see a lot of parents use the tests to hurt their kids.”

"You're nailing a bottle cap to a piece of wood."
He explained that a high percentage of parents who have their children tested also tend to be of the high strung, hovering variety, and that these tests just give them one more way to pass their anxiety on to their kids. That’s kind of what I’d expected him to say, but then he went on to add something that hadn't occurred to me. He said that these tests are just snapshots and not predictors of the future. “I try really hard to make sure parents hear me say that I.Q. test results for a 5-year-old are only valid for 6 months, but they just don’t listen. If they get a high score, parents like sticking the label of genius on their kids as if it’s a badge they get to wear for the rest of their lives. Then they burden them with praise.”

"You're painting with tiny, delicate strokes."

Praise is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to our children.

10-year study of New York City 5th graders conducted by Carol Dweck while a professor of psychology at Columbia University, found that praising kids for their intelligence might actually be causing them to underperform academically. It seems that children who have been praised for their innate intellectual gifts tend to give up more easily when challenged, suffer more emotionally when they fail, and avoid taking risks when they perceive there is a chance their genius could fail them.

Teachers should focus on students' efforts and not on their abilities. When students succeed, teachers should praise their efforts or their strategies, not their intelligence.

I would assert that this is not only true for intelligence, but also for anything that could be construed as “innate,” like beauty, athleticism, or artistic ability. Effort is where praise is best applied because unlike inherent traits, it is something a child can actually control. In Dweck’s study, the children who were praised for their effort rather than intelligence were far more likely to persevere, try new things, and be less hard on themselves when they failed.

"You're putting a red bead on a tan pipe cleaner."

But what about self-esteem? How do we help our children build that without praising them?

. . . it is more likely that good performance leads to high self-esteem rather than the other way around . . . (T)he researchers found that efforts to boost self-esteem have not been shown to improve academic performance and may sometimes be counterproductive.
In other words, self-esteem is not built though hollow praise, but rather from mastering skills, which can only be done through experience and hard work. We help our children build confidence by giving them the opportunities to try, try, try again. Encouragement, not praise is our greatest tool.

"You're sawing right through that cork."

Recently retired North Seattle Community College Instructor Tom Drummond takes it one step further. He recommends avoiding praise altogether unless it is absolutely genuine, claiming that children, even very young ones, know the difference between sincere and insincere praise. He asserts that an endless barrage of “Good jobs!” teaches children to seek external validation rather than looking into themselves for motivation. Instead, he advises teachers and parents to concentrate on observable facts about a child’s activities.

"You're carefully balancing that MLK robot on the very top."

Instead of, “What a beautiful red circle!” one might simply say, “You used a red crayon to draw a circle.”

Instead of, “You’re a terrific jumper!” one might say, “You’re jumping very high.”

Instead of, “You’re so smart!” one might say, “You worked hard at that.”

In the end, it seems to me that this is really the most important gift we can give to our children: the capacity to continue to strive even when things are difficult. And ultimately that can only come from within.

So now you’re at the end of this post. “Way to go! You’re a genius!”

"You're climbing that tree."

(Re-posted, with editing, from 8/29/09)

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

What If Whales Could Fly?

I've written a lot about water play here, including yesterday. When children are playing with water, indoors or out, in the cold of winter or the heat of summer, I always remind them, "If you play with water, you might get wet." When a child subsequently comes to me complaining about getting wet, I ask, "Were you playing with water?" And when they answer in the affirmative, I reply with a knowing nod or a comment like, "That's probably why you're wet," then help them figure out if they want to change clothes or not.

Most of the younger kids, the ones who are still learning the connection between playing with water and getting wet (i.e., the natural consequence), have spare clothing in their cubbies, but even the one's who haven't brought extras from home have access to Woodland Park's ample supply of spare shirts, pants, underpants and socks. Sadly, we can do nothing about shoes, but after all, we live in Seattle where wet toes are the norm for 10 of our 12 months, where both children and their mothers (but, oddly, not their fathers) wear rubber boots as day-to-day footwear. Getting wet is part of our lifestyle.

That said, some children absolutely detest getting wet. They steer clear of the sand pit when the pump is running. They avoid watering plants in the garden. They go no where near the sensory table if there is anything at all moist in it. I long ago stopped trying to lead these "horses" to water, let alone make them drink it. It's a temperament thing, I guess, part of their make-up by the time they arrive in my classroom, and while they may eventually outgrow it, my job in the present is to accept it, and where possible give them non-dampening ways to experience the properties of fluid.

One of the ways to do this is flax seed in the sensory table. As I wrote the last time I was lauding flax seed:

Flax seed is the king of sensory materials. The tiny, smooth oily seeds glide and slide over your skin, leaving them soft and good-smelling . . . There is something almost liquid about the way they move, flow and ripple together. Several years ago 2-year-old Aiden made this connection and tried drinking a cup of flax seed, which turned out to be a bad idea.

In fact, Aiden vomited on the spot and still holds the record for the longest sustained crying jag in my tenure at Woodland Park. That said, it was an impressive observational connection, one that I'd not made before then, and one we took advantage of last week on behalf of those who aren't wild about getting wet. We added our collection of whales (Orca, Sperm, Right, Humpback, Blue, and Dolphins) and "whale food" (smaller sea creatures and other whales). We had a couple whale books out as well to answer questions should any whale-related questions arise. (Sylvia suggested we could "just get a computer" for that purpose as well.)

The whales swam and fed just fine in their alternative milieu, and as always happens when we play with whales, many of them could "fly." Those pectoral flippers do have a lot in common with wings. What If whales could fly?

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Power And Joy Of Being Water

Our cast iron water pump had been out of service since about mid-November. Yes, it needed new leathers (the internal parts of the pump that help create the seal and must periodically be replaced) but the main reason was simply that big, muddy water play and cold winter weather aren't particularly compatible. Naturally, we still had a full rain barrel for the kids who needed to get wet, as well as our seasonal Pacific Northwest rains, not to mention the indoor sensory table that frequently features water. But there really is nothing like the pump which has been back in full operation for the past couple weeks.

I really haven't had to plan much else for outdoors given that the suck of the pump's piston draws kids in like they're water molecules themselves being made to move together in a big, cooperative flow that rushes, spills, eddies and ebbs. Sometimes there are conflicts over who gets to man the pump handle when we first hit the outdoor classroom, but after a few minutes most of the kids are just grateful that someone else wants to do the hard work of making the water flow.

Sometimes when the pumper gets too enthusiastic we threaten to flood the work bench area which would make for hazardous work conditions as the kids over there need to concentrate to use their tools and materials.

Wet feet won't help, so it's important to remind ourselves how to build dams that redirect the water and keep it in the sandpit.

Most of the time, there's a nice balance between those wanting to pump (meaning one kid) and those happy to play with the result of that effort (meaning everyone else).

Usually, the pumper is drawn in by his study of how the process works. How pulling up on the handle is a necessary step, even though pushing down is when the water is brought to light. If you look down into the cylinder as you pump, it's possible to see what's happening in there.

And, of course, the water then follows along the path of least resistance, coursing down to where our friends await.

And just in case there are any questions, we make a test of our theories by either not pumping until the others shout, "More water!" or by using something, like a little plastic fairy we found on the ground, to see if it moves the same way the water does.

Shovels are the main tool the kids are using these days to interact with the flowing water as it runs into the sand. Those construction vehicles you see are just in they way. One of the kids, it seems, always drags them into the sandbox, which is where they then sit, unused, in the way. No one complains, although I often round them up and pile them where they belong when they're not being used, only to find them back in the sand the next time I turn around. There is something about them belonging there, I guess.

It's amazing to me how no one needs to direct children how to dig out a channel in the sand, or to make a hole into which it can cascade and swirl.

They just do it with the kind of hive mind that is such a wonderful part of the human species, and so horrible as well.

This really is from where the continued thriving of humanity must come. It's what we want to do, milling around together, doing our part for a cause greater than ourselves, but too often this instinct becomes a destructive craze or pogrom or mob or political movement bent on destruction rather than construction. Maybe that's why those kids want the vehicles with them in the sand -- as a reminder.

I don't know about the larger world, but here in preschool, we have adults at hand to guide the flow of play when it threatens to flood or flow in undesirable ways, helping to create a core memory/feeling for how things ought to be when we're all in this together, including, flowing, imagining where we want to go, then going there, each contributing as he can.

There's a temptation, in think, among those of us who advocate for a play-based curriculum is to stand over the children, pointing out to others, Look there! See they're learning physics! or That's a pre-literacy activity! And that's an important thing to do given the current drive to make school into something akin to the drab work of a factory. But for those of use who've been doing it for long enough, and who are fortunate enough to not have to daily defend what we know is the right thing, that's all really a given, almost an incidental result.

We know that play is where we learn about the power and joy of being water, together. And that is perhaps the most important thing we teach when we let the children play.

Water is frail and feeble.
Yet it gets its water work done.
It moves toward its goal.
Just being water.
You know its power.
Just be water.  

                                             ~The Tao Te Ching

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