Friday, December 11, 2009

This Is What Cooperative Preschool Is All About

As I’ve mentioned many times here, I cannot imagine teaching anywhere other than in a cooperative preschool. Yesterday, as I prowled the classroom looking for places to usefully insert myself, all I found were parents happily working their stations, engaging the kids, and making everything work the way I’d imagined when I set things up in the morning.

Mitchelle was managing the slot car track – that’s right we’ve had a battery powered slot car track at our table toys station this week, but with only two cars and 22 kids, it takes intense adult management to prevent it from turning into a brawl. I managed the track myself during our Tuesday afternoon Pre-K class for our examination of electricity, which is where I figured out the technique of designating “driver’s seats,” and a waiting list put together on a first-come, first-serve basis. It’s a cheap track I purchased for my own daughter when she was a preschooler, one of my many failed efforts to interest her in the toys of my own childhood, and I’d fully expected it to be destroyed on Tuesday. The fact that it has survived through the week is amazing. I’d asked Mitchelle to talk about “breaking the circuit” each time a child got overly enthusiastic and disconnected his controller cord, but by yesterday other electrical problems were developing (like one of the slots wasn’t providing a steady flow of electricity to the cars) and every time I dropped by her station she had a group of kids around her as she fiddled with the cars, the tracks and the controllers trying to eek one more lap out of the things.  Fiddling around is the best way to figure out how things work and this was a brilliant example of role-modeling how to tinker.

Eva was in charge of the art table where we were making the classic preschool cinnamon dough holiday ornaments. The dough is made from a mixture of cinnamon, apple sauce and a little white glue, but I never remember the proportions. That doesn’t really matter, however, because we have the kids make their own dough. As they came to the table, Eva shook out a pile of ingredients and let them go to town, helping them get just the right consistency by talking about concepts like “too wet” and “too dry.” As they rolled out their dough she was advising them to not make them “too thick” (or they would take weeks to dry) or “too thin” (or they would be too brittle). It was messy, chaotic and made the whole room smell like a party.

Jaimee was our drama area parent where we’d turned the table upside down and arranged chairs to make an airplane. Throw in some suitcases, old clothes and some café trays (I know that food service is disappearing from air travel, but it’s still fun to pretend) and they had a rollicking good time gallivanting around the globe, talking about all kinds of locations from Grandma’s house to Hawaii. It’s always a gamble to try to direct the dramatic play of children like this by pre-determining a scenario like an airplane. Without Jaimee’s constant vigilance about the airplane theme (both as a participant and stage manager) it could have very easily just been an upside down table, chairs and a pile of old clothes, instead of a lesson in transportation and geography.

Last weekend I got 200 holiday bows for $8 and since we already had a pretty darned good sensory experience going on at the art table, I tossed them into the sensory table, along with a dozen sturdy boxes that were donated by a photography studio, and some jingle bells. We’ve been playing with them all week and I told Aya that she would probably have a slow day since the kids had probably already had their fill. And I was right for the first half of our free-play time, but the second half turned into a gift-giving extravaganza as Aya acted the part of young, fit Santa, sending her elves off into the room with gift boxes containing combinations of bells, bows and chiffon scarves.

I’ve always sort of dreaded the days when we have our trains out in the block area. It’s an amazing construction toy that has an abiding appeal for young kids – especially boys – but there is always so much conflict over tracks and engines that I spend most of my train days assisting in negotiations, which is hard work. Yesterday, Amanda dropped to her knees and handled her station so beautifully that I wasn’t involved in a single conflict. Speaking softly and staying focused on the play as it developed, she seemed to always be right on top of matters before they got out of hand. At one point they’d build a track that snaked around the entire area, employing almost every piece of track in a single magnificent train system, so unlike the usual warring fiefdoms that too often develop.

It was such a good day that about half the kids forgot to take a break at the snack table.

It’s really amazing how much we got done in a single morning. This is what cooperative preschool is all about.

If you’re interested in more reading about how cooperatives work, here are some of my past posts on the topic in order of appearance:

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Michelle said...

I was a co-op parent in my twins 3-5 class and it was the best experience. Each parent had to "work" twice a month and since I had twins I was there every week. Not only did I love watching my own kids learn & grow, but participating in the classroom gave me so much more... ideas & experiences I use today in my own "classroom."

Deborah Stewart said...

My sister works in some company that I cannot describe or understand but at one point, it was her job to help a community determine a way to establish an early learning program so the children would be better prepared for elementary school. My sister contacted me and after listening to what she was looking for - I suggested a cooperative preschool would probably be best. I hadn't worked in one but I had visited several and knew others who had. She followed my advice and went to set it up. This was several years ago, I will have to ask her how it is going. I am wondering if it takes the right type of teacher to really pull this off well. A teacher that embraces many different styles of learning and teaching as well as has the ability to develop a good rapport with parents. I am enjoying learning more about the cooperative program through your thoughtful daily perspectivs.

Scott said...

You have some great parent leaders. Your kids are learning so much about being a part of a community through the interactions with each other and the adults. And they're having a lot of fun, too.

Unknown said...

I hope our next baby will be able to attend one : )