Sunday, November 29, 2009

Caution Cones

When I first started at Woodland Park, I taught the 3-5’s class, while Teacher Jeanne was charged with the Pre-3’s. I liked sharing a classroom with Jeanne and I learned a lot from her, but it wasn’t exactly a partnership made in heaven. She was a wonderful teacher, but we came at it from opposite directions. While she strove for the Montessori-like ideal of calm, serenity, and focus, my classes tend to be more on the energetic, rowdy, “C’mon every body!” end of the spectrum. While she favored a larger, more spread-out classroom with lots of quiet spaces, I’m a fan of a small, compact classroom with nowhere to hide. While she favored an orderly storage room, I employ the strategy of closing the door so no one sees my mess.

For some of the kids, moving from Teacher Jeanne to Teacher Tom was the best thing that ever happened to them. They were itching to break out, break loose, and howl. For children on the other end of the temperment spectrum, however, the transition could be a bit of a shocker. Many slower-to-warm kids had to start all over again with a new teacher, even if it was the same classroom and classmates, which meant weeks, if not months of revisiting separation anxiety.

When Jeanne left Woodland Park, it was to leave teaching altogether, and while I was sad to see her go, and sorry for the children who will miss out on her love and dedication, I wanted the job for the sake of those look-before-you-leap kids. I wanted the chance to prepare them for the next step.

And it’s worked more or less as I’d hoped. We now do most of our work of getting the kids comfortably settled with Teacher Tom and the rigors of school life before they’re 3. Dealing with the challenges of separation anxiety has gone from being a daily fall occurrence to a rarity in the 3-5 class, while it is one of our primary focuses during the first couple months of the Pre-3 year.

That first year teaching the Pre-3's, however, was rocky especially since many of my tried and true textbook techniques (e.g., reading, distraction, silliness) didn’t work as consistently for the 2’s, which meant developing new material, so I spent a good part of that first year vamping.

For instance, there was one boy who would be perfectly fine until something didn’t go his way. He would then start crying, pleading for mommy, stopping for nothing until I beat our drum that indicates it’s time for a transition. The drum worked every time, even though it occasionally meant transitioning the whole class for the benefit of one child. There was a girl who I learned to calm with the kinds of spinners that come with board games. Another girl could only be soothed with paper, a crayon, and the project of “making pictures for mommy.” Hot Wheels worked for some kids and dinosaurs for others. To this day there’s more art than science in helping them over the hump, and it often changes day-to-day.

Yesterday, while writing about using our “real tools,” I mentioned a boy who was finally comforted by the presence of dozens of orange traffic cones.

Henry was a member of that first Pre-3 class. He did not like being at school. He did not like being there even with his mom, and it was clear that the noise and hubbub that characterize one of my classes was overwhelming. He was a very verbal 2-year-old and had no problem telling us how he felt, often loudly. When his mom was there, Henry stuck to her, but when she left him, he tended to hook up with his buddy, a dad named A.J., who would sit with him near the books reading and talking. One day, A.J. pulled me aside and informed me, quiet seriously, that Henry had declared his intention to “break the whole school.”

During those first few weeks, Henry would alternate between hiding out in his corner near the books and taking sudden forays around the room, running, seemingly just this side of being out of control. He never broke the whole school, but you could tell it was on his mind. Fortunately, he seemed comfortable with me, and his mom reported that he spoke highly of me at home, even while not being so sure about school itself.

This went on for about a month, when one day Henry arrived with a long, excited story about all the “caution cones” he’d seen on his way to school. There was something in there about backhoes, but his main interest was the cones.

I said, “Maybe we should have caution cones at school.”

Henry furrowed his brow and nodded. That evening I grabbed a couple of cones from my garage that the AT&T guy had left behind, and emailed the co-op families with a plea for any cones they might be able to contribute. Within a week we had enough cones to open our own construction site.

Henry had been enthusiastic about the advent of my own 2 caution cones, but I’d kept the rest of them squirreled away in a closet until we’d reached critical mass. I was excited for Henry to arrive on that following Tuesday. I’d flooded the classroom in caution cones. It was a mountainscape in orange from the art table to the upper level of the loft. And to top it off, I’d filled the block area with diggers, dump trucks and our full collection of toy tools, along with a length of orange snow fencing.

Henry stood in the doorway, stunned I think. You could see his shoulders relax as he gazed into the room, his face wearing a small, unconscious smile. He spent his morning earnestly arranging those cones, “Making the school safe,” as he explained. He touched base with A.J. a couple of times, but mostly kept himself busy in the middle of the classroom, focused on his work in spite of the noise and swirl around him.

The cones became a permanent part of our classroom for the better part of the next month (so much so that one of my mid-year evaluations from a parent said, “Enough with the construction play!”). We gradually removed the cones, repurposing them as outdoor toys, and while this wasn’t the end of Henry’s concerns about school, it was the beginning of the end.

As a member of my first class of students who stayed with me for a full 3 years, I had the honor of getting to be part of his growth from over-stimulated toddler to rock-solid kindergartener. While his fascination with construction ebbed over the course of his time with us, his imagination and his ability to translate that into narrative dramatic play, drew other kids in and put him at the center of most of the “big games.” Not surprisingly, he also became our classroom expert on order, rules, and safety. I’ll never forget one week during which he decided to be the classroom police officer and spent his days patrolling the room with his hands on top of his head serving as his flashing lights -- palms forward, fingers vibrating. When he caught a classmate breaking a rule, he would “remind” her of the rule, then report to me. He did it with a polite, official manner that caused his friends to really listen.

I spoke with his mom shortly after Henry started kindergarten. It was in a public school with a large, rowdy classroom. She told me that she’d had her doubts about being at Woodland Park at first and had considered switching schools, but was now “so happy Henry went to preschool here." She’d expected some first day nervousness, at least, but instead he just walked right into the classroom “without looking back.” 

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Mama said...

perfect. This story makes me even prouder to be a teacher.

I hope Henry's teachers always pay attention, always serve him as well.

Monkey's Mama said...

What a great story. Your kids are lucky to have you.

Reservoir Dad said...

Mate, your passion for you kids and what you do is obvious. And inspiring.

Michelle said...

It's amazing the different things that work with different kids, and kudos to you for finding what works with them rather than being a one trick pony and then blaming the kid for not following the path (as the mom of a special needs kid, you REALLY don't need to get me started there). Mister Man would have been the policeman in your classroom. Right now, he tells me that his job at school is to keep the other kids from fighting. He holds meetings to go over the rules. And yes, we're trying to explain that while it's wonderful that he wants to help and follow the rules, socially he's gotta learn to keep the target on his back smaller, as he does so many thing -- unnoticed by him -- that so quickly make the target grow. (tangent, I know)

Unknown said...

Oh, I just adored this story. I love that he was better able to take on Kindergarten after having been at Woodland Park! And most of all, I love that you cared so much, that you listened to his love of cones and got him some. You, teacher Tom, are an inspiration!