Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Pre-K Play: The Giant Nutcracker

(Note: I really, really, really want to write about Barack Obama's misguided education policies as being carried out by education secretary Arne Duncan, who wants to do to the rest of the country what he did to Chicago's schools. They are hell-bent on privatizing large chunks of our educational system based on nothing but anecdotal evidence. I'm stunned that they want to measure their success by actually increasing the amount of high-stakes standardized testing, in spite of its near universal condemnation by actual educators. And their emphasis on using schools for vocational training at the expense of art, PE, and the humanities is simply backwards. But I'll hold myself back today and just point you to this terrific Democracy Now report. I couldn't care less about the "scandal" that leads into the piece. The real news starts once they get to Pauline Lipman, professor of education and policy studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago.)

Our Pre-K play has become an annual rite for the oldest children at the Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool. I've been reporting on the progress of this year's production, in order of appearance:

First Draft: The Pre-K Play (in which I share the actual original script as co-authored by 11 kids)
The Pre-K Play Second Draft: Featuring An All Lilac Fairy Cast
The Pre-K Play Third Draft: Still A Lot Of Lilac Fairies
The Pre-K Play Fourth Draft: Only One Lilac Fairy

Now that the script is finalized (more or less) we've been turning our attentions toward manufacturing our set and props.

You would think I would have learned my lesson after 7 years of directing these amoebic plays, but I jumped the gun a couple of weeks ago and had us all make our fairy wands (paper towel tubes painted with glue and rolled in glitter). There are no longer any fairies in the cast.

Our "beautiful castle with walls painted pink" is ready to go (a washing machine box), although when we used it during our most recent rehearsal, Ella complained, "I meant that the inside walls would be pink too." This gave us a chance to talk about the illusion of stagecraft and the importance of considering the perspective of the audience, who will only see the exterior walls. Judging from Ella's expression, we may still need to paint the interior pink.

I've already posted about our progress on our Maleficent puppet (scroll to the bottom of that post for the terrifying picture).

And for the last few weeks we've been working hard on our "giant rainbow nutcracker." Our first attempt was to just unfurl a long piece of art paper and paint it. I drew a basic human figure with a Sharpie to get everyone working on the same model. We selected a rainbow of paint colors, then got to work. Everyone was disappointed with the result. At least one painter didn't honor the Sharpie lines and our rainbow colors got smeared together into a giant gray and brown smudge.

During a productive circle time discussion, Katherine noted that it looked more like a "swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming, pool, pool, pool, pool, pool," which not coincidentally is an important part of our play since the characters jump into the pool at least 3 times. There are still a couple kids lobbying for a blue pool, but the majority is satisfied.

That's when we decided we were going to make our giant rainbow nutcracker out of paper mache. I gathered some cardboard tubes and cans and we worked together with the glue gun to assemble the frame of our basic figure. We blew up a balloon for the head, then went to work tearing up newspaper, soaking it in our flour-water paste and applying it. After three good sessions, this is what we have:

We are going to need a couple more layers on the head so that it doesn't collapse when the balloon pops and we'll probably want to add some sort of nose, I'm guessing, but we're getting close to being ready for paint. After our first failed attempt at a nutcracker, I'll bet we're going to see a need for more planning when it comes to applying the paint.

I had originally thought that the larger cardboard "can" would be used for the chest, while the smaller one would serve as the hips, but the kids (all girls at the time) thought it worked better the other way around. At a meeting on Monday night, one of the moms said, "They wanted a girl nutcracker." You know, with hips. That hadn't occurred to me.

It's not exactly giant, but at around 4.5 feet, it's taller than the kids.

The real challenge, however, is what comes next with this nutcracker. The Pre-K kids have decided that after the play is over, they want to turn it into a "real statue" that stands as a permanent fixture in our playground. Thomas is particularly interested in making it a concrete statue. I'd love to figure out a way to make it happen. If anyone has any ideas, please pass them on!

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

7 Sure-Fire Ways To Squelch Creativity (And An Owain Update)

I recently came across this list from the book The Creative Spirit by the Daniel Goleman, Paul Kaufman, and Michael Ray. I normally like to do my own writing around here, but it was such a great reminder for both teachers and parents that I wanted to share. The book is based on a PBS series from over a decade ago -- I might just have to see if I can find that in the PBS archives.

According to the authors, these are the most common ways that adults discourage creativity in children. To me it reads like a list of the things we do when we aren't putting the child's agenda ahead of our own:

Surveillance — Hovering over kids, making them feel that they're constantly being watched while they are working . . . under constant observation, the risk-taking, creative urge goes underground and hides.
Evaluation — When we constantly make kids worry about how they are doing, they ignore satisfaction with their accomplishments.
Rewards — The excessive use of prizes . . . deprives a child of the intrinsic pleasure of creative activity. 
Competition — Putting kids in a win-lose situation, where only one person can come out on top . . . negates the process [that] children progress at their own rates.
Over-control — Constantly telling kid how to do things . . . often leaves children feeling like their originality is a mistake and any exploration a waste of time.
Restricting choice — Telling children which activities they should engage in instead of letting them follow where their curiosity and passion lead . . . again restricts active exploration and experimentation that might lead to creative discovery and production.
Pressure — Establishing grandiose expectations for a child's performance . . . often ends up instilling aversion for a subject or activity. . . .  Unreasonably high expectations often pressure children to perform and conform within strictly prescribed guidelines, and, again, deter experimentation, exploration, and innovation.  Grandiose expectations are often beyond children's developmental capabilities.

Owain update
Owain’s dad Alex reports mostly good news and everyone is hoping that Owain can finally go home tomorrow. This is how Owain puts it on his CaringBridge page:
"Well, I got the blood transfusion, and my cheeks are a bit pinker and I am feeling a bit better. I woke up and I saw some chips, and I was like 'oh, chips!' I am eating some chips. Nothing much else is going on. I'm not doing much . . . I am reading my Star Wars Lego Dictionary. I hope I can come home tomorrow."

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Dangerous Easter

My most memorable Easters were spent in Greece when I was between 9 and 13 years old. It was the highest holiday, as it should be. It seems to me that resurrection is a much bigger deal than any of the other miracles. Americans tend to put Christmas at the center of our Christian calendar, but we all get born. It's the coming back from death that seems the more celebration-worthy feat!

Everyone carried candles home from church at midnight, a beautiful ceremony that filled the streets in candlelight, and used them to "burn" crosses over their front doors. What a miraculous thing, as a boy, to be entrusted with a candle to carry all the way home. And what a manly thing for dad to paint that cross in soot over our door. It was a powerful experience to walk under that cross for the next several weeks. We've never celebrated Easter at Woodland Park because we're a community of many faiths, but if we did, this is one of the things I'd want to try to recreate.

I never cease to be amazed at how many children express fear when I light candles at school, which we do at Halloween and for the occasional Pre-K science experiment, such as when we melt lead figurines. When did candles become dangerous? Of course, we need to be careful around fire, but that was what made carrying those candles home in the dark so miraculous, the fact that we, as children, were being entrusted with something as powerful as fire. It wouldn't have crossed our minds to be careless as we struggled to keep our flame alive, while avoiding the drops of hot wax that managed to elude the piece of cardboard protecting our fists. When dad showed us how to pass our fingers through our flames without burning them (quickly, smoothly, carefully) the experience of mastery was as complete as it gets.

We died eggs at Greek Easter, but the only color was red -- a deep red unattainable with our US dyes. The red represents the blood of Christ and it is indeed blood red. And so beautiful, but the only way to attain that is to cook your eggs in the dye for 10-15 minutes. If we celebrated Easter at school, this is the way I'd want to dye our eggs, just the way we cooked our most recent batch of playdough on an electric burner set on a table low enough that the kids could peer right down into the pot as it cooked. I would want them to experience that face-full of vinegar-y steam as we cooked up a batch of bloody eggs. I would want them to handle the hot eggs and to rub them with oil to make them lustrous.

For my brother and me the absolute highlight of Greek Easter were the egg fights. Everyone would choose an egg and then gently tap the tips together until one broke, the whole egg being the winner. The discovery of this game completely superseded any egg hunt. Sure, the loser was expected to eat their egg, but the competition was a blast. To this day the 14+ of us who celebrate Easter together engage in a sort of March Madness egg cracking tournament. My brother's oldest daughter Sarah was last year's champion and she remembers it. This ranks right up there with the annual Hobson family Christmas wrapping paper fight. If we celebrated Easter, we would definitely have egg fights.

Sure, the Greeks had plastic eggs that got filled with candy, all red, but the ones I remember most were ones that were designed for the tips to be fitted with little plastic "caps" that would explode when you played the egg fight game with them. Pow!

And we ate lamb in Greece. We were once guests at an Easter party at which several whole lambs were being roasted over huge pits of coals in an olive orchard, while we kids ran around them playing tag and hide-n-seek. The sight of those entire carcasses suspended on spits over fire was a bit grisly for us foreigners, but what a memory, and like everything cooked outdoors over fire, it smelled and tasted better than anything. Now that's the kind of Easter experience I'd love to be able to recreate with the Woodland Park kids!

When we returned to the US, our traditions seemed, frankly, lame to my brother and me: pastel-colored eggs dyed in tepid water, plastic eggs that didn't explode, no fire, no being out after midnight. We still get our egg competition, but we both know the experience is weaker than it could be.

I may have to separate these experiences from Easter, but I'm going to set myself the goal of seeing how many of these experiences we can recreate at Woodland Park during our week after the break. I'll let you know how it goes.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Important Costumes

(Note: My thoughts have been on Owain for the past 48 hours, so I thought I'd share one of the things I've been thinking about. The great news is that Owain is in "good spirits," and his family is hoping he can come home tomorrow. If you want to join Owain's Army, you can access his CaringBridge page here.)
Up until Owain arrived in my classroom, I'd had a "no costumes" policy, just as I'd had a
"no toy's from home" policy. We had classroom dress-up clothes, of course, but somehow I had the idea that allowing costumes from home would be too distracting. What an idiot I was, and Owain showed me that.

He was relentless in his desire to go through life dressed for the occasion, and to his mother Heather's credit, she let her 3-year-old wear his US Air Force flight suit to school, a gift from his grandmother as I recall, in spite of my policy. I now know she must have been thinking, It's your damn policy. You try enforcing it. 

When he walked into the room as a 3-year-old, wearing that flight suit, even his older classmates were impressed, but it was more than just the clothes, it was the way he wore them, as if he were conscious of the duty, pride and honor they implied. How could a child that young understand these things? It's crazy, but that's how it struck me.

And it wasn't just me. There were some kids for whom the day hadn't started until he arrived, full of information and ideas, a man in uniform, ready to get something going. At the time, I rationalized the involuntary flexibility in my policy by making a mental distinction between a uniform and a costume, but I lost my hiding place when he moved on to capes and his Transformer costume. I never invoked the policy because, frankly, my fear of distraction (whatever I even thought that meant) never materialized, and instead I saw nothing but good.

Owain opened my eyes to the important role costumes can play in the development of a strong self-image for some kids. A big part of the job of young children is to be "powerful" in the world, to try out the traits we ascribe to our "heroes," those to whom we associate characteristics we admire. In a very real sense, donning a flight suit, or a crown, or a cape, imbues the wearer with those traits. My own daughter Josephine wore a crown of some sort nearly every day for the better part of 2-years, even to school, and I saw not only how it made her behave like a princess, but how others treated her like a princess. When she met Sophia, another crown-wearer, it was love at first sight. (Eight years later Sophia is still a friend with whom she "plays" aspirational games with clothing, music, and make-up.)

I used to spend a lot of time monkeying around with our classroom costume collection, trying to figure out why only the princess stuff was ever used. We had cowboy hats, baseball shirts, and animal costumes, but they rarely left the hooks unless an adult sort of "forced" the issue. Naturally, we didn't have any superhero or military stuff -- my adult brain associated those with violence -- but here was this boy Owain showing me that the real power associated with these heroes was in their boldness, goodness, and fearlessness. 

It's not all superheroes and princesses in the costume world. At different times, our classroom has hosted children trying out the costumed power of dinosaurs, ballerinas, astronauts, construction workers, doctors, monster trucks, and even mommies and daddies. Often their "costumes" are little more than t-shirts with pictures allowing them to borrow that particular kind of power for a time, but the common theme is that I can't pick their meaningful costumes for them. Our classroom dress-up clothes will always, at best, be stand-ins for the important costumes they have at home.

That's what Owain (and Heather) taught me. Without their bold insistence of making me confront my idiotic policy, I might have squelched our be-caped Alex, or Charlotte, who wore her cowgirl costume almost every day for a year, or Ava, who often came dressed in her firefighter ensemble. Not to mention the super team of Ella, Josephine, and Katherine who spent last Thursday "flying" around the classroom in the wonderful, non-commercial capes Charlie L.'s mom Shelly recently made for us, finally giving us classroom "stand-in" costumes the kids will actually wear beyond the princess gowns.

But the important costumes, the most powerful ones, will always come from home. And they're welcome at Woodland Park.

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

"More later, Owain"

Last summer I was writing about the challenges and importance of teaching the preschool rule You Can't Say You Can't Play, and shared this story:
. . . a group of older kids were using our loft as a superhero hideout. It was a noisy, exciting game involving ropes. It attracted a steady stream of younger children to check out the action. Owain took up a position at the top of the first flight of stairs. As newcomers arrived, he would block their way and ask, “Are you a good guy or a bad guy?” Most answered, “Good guy,” and were ushered into the designated part of the loft. The few who answered, “Bad guy,” were shown to another part of the loft.

My initial impulse was to put an end to this game that involved blocking the stairs, but after a moment’s reflection I realized Owain was following the You Can’t Say You Can’t Play rule to the letter, including the corollary. An established game was in progress. Newcomers were not being excluded. On the contrary they were being offered a choice of appropriate roles in the game.

I stood watching as everyone who approached was included. As the loft filled up with good guys and bad guys, everyone looked satisfied. A few minutes later an adult stepped in and broke up the game, but I still recall it as a shining moment, one I hope is recreated throughout the children’s lives.

This anecdote is Owain in a nutshell. He's a guy with ideas around which to organize others. He was a preschooler confident in his super powers who has grown into a 4th grader whose intellectual curiosity and ability to share his passions draws others to him. The fact that he could understand the complexities of a classroom rule like this, internalize it, and put it into practice with both authority and empathy remains one of the most amazing things I've ever seen in our classroom. And while he always strived to be a force for good within our rules, he had the confidence to speak out when he saw the rules applied unfairly. Everything he did, he did boldly, powerfully, and with the courage of his convictions.

I was lucky enough to catch glimpses of him in action even after he graduated from Woodland Park by virtue of his visits to the classroom with his younger brother, and I've managed to stay in touch with his family through the wonders of social networking. He is in training for the 50-mile Livestrong bicycle ride fundraiser to fight cancer. I can say that today Owain continues to be that same bold, powerful, intelligent, and courageous boy he was as a preschooler. I can't wait to know him as a man and be witness to the good he'll do in the world.

Yesterday, we learned that he's been diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytice Leukemia. I haven't been able to completely stop crying, but they aren't just tears of sorrow. They are also tears of pride for the fight he is going to fight. I've been imagining him in the "real" air force flight suit he used to wear to class, and the capes, and the Transformer costume. And, of course, I'm thinking of his incredible family and the power of their love for one another. "Owain's Army" is a mighty fighting force, and make no mistake, he is our leader.

I'm not sure where the lines of privacy are on this right now so I'll stop short of broadcasting direct contact information, links, etc., but if you want me to pass on any words of encouragement, leave them in the comments. If you know Owain's family and have lost touch, please email me and I'll get you hooked up.

If you want to do something more, Owain's father Alex writes on their CaringBridge page, ". . . please consider becoming a blood donor. Owain will almost certainly have a transfusion tomorrow. This is possible because healthy people donate blood. This saves lives. The marrow donor registry thing is also very cool. I didn't know about it, but will sign up now that I do."

And this is Owain's message from yesterday:

Owain here. My back is hurting, but other than that I am fine. The doctors did something I called sleepy test again today. It is where they put a milky fluid through your IV, which makes you fall asleep. Then they stick a couple of needles in ya. That's what happened to me today. Today was for chemotherapy, but the first time was to test for leukemia. More later, Owain.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

We'll Just Have To Do It Again

A while back Sherry and Donna over at Irresistible Ideas For Play Based Learning posted about the miniature wooden house blocks they made from scraps of wood.

I found out about it from Jenny at Let The Children Play who took the idea, but added her own twist by letting the kids do (most) of the painting themselves.

I figured it was Woodland Park's turn to evolve our own version of the concept this week.

As you can see, I didn't wait to find or cut the wedge shapes that my Australian "sisters" used (what are they building down there anyway to come up with those specific scrap shapes?). Instead I pulled out one of our many boxes of (American?) rectangular scraps of plywood, a box of wooden bits and pieces, and a box of picture frame corners.

Every preschool should have a good relationship with local framing shops. Not only will they usually give you their scrap mat board, which is great for collage projects, but they periodically have to throw out their wall of frame samples to make room for the new models. These even have spots of velcro on the back so that they hold their position when placed on the rug.

We've had a sort of free-form painting station set up adjacent to our block area all week (where we are also adding to our mushroom collection) and the kids were encouraged to paint the "new blocks" any way they want. As you might guess, we have many, many more painted blocks by now than I'm showing in this picture.

After Jenny's blocks were finished, she then reported that "Pretty much anything that didn't move was painted." Now we were doing our painting indoors and while I strive to keep up with Jenny in her efforts to keep things child-centered, I couldn't just turn them loose on the classroom, so we took the paint cups outdoors.

Before long I spotted a gang of kids at the far end of the playground, gathered around the "horse stable" we built yesterday.

I've learned to not be surprised when Dennis' dad Terry
is in the middle of this kind of action.

First they had augmented the stable structurally, then took the concept of painting their own blocks (just as I had from Jenny and she had from Sherry and Donna) and were applying it in their own way:

Finn V. wanted to make sure I got pictures of his
number 10's

Then they took the idea a step beyond, painting "pretty much anything that didn't move."

If you can't tell from the photo, we now have "glitter" stairs . . .

. . . and a glitter table.

We're just using tempera paint and it rained pretty hard yesterday evening. I suspect we'll just have to do it again!

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Other Side Of The Coin

I often boast about the fact that most of the children in our 3-5 class have been coming to the Woodland Park Cooperative Preschools for 2-3 years (or more if you include their years of dropping off older siblings), and how that deep familiarity with one another, the environment, our routines, rules and expectations, not to mention the teacher, leads to a level of continuity and confidence that's hard to come by in other preschool settings.

We've been seeing the other side of that coin lately when it comes to our outdoor play -- at least that's the theory I'm working on. It's been almost a month now since we dramatically overhauled our playground, taking our functional, but fairly spartan space where we did the best we could, and turning it into a genuine outdoor classroom. Not only did we change the physical space, but we've also implemented a new schedule that puts us outdoors for twice as long as before and a new outdoor curriculum that creates more focus and variety at our various "stations."

I've been frustrated, however, about the lack of real engagement with our new construction/tinkering area. Certainly, there has been some interest in hammering nails and sawing wood, and Katherine did build us a house for Little World . . .

. . . and she and Anjali have worked hard on creating their own rubber band boards . . .

. . . and our "project shelves" are starting to fill up with what I hope are the beginnings of longer term projects . .  .

. . . but there has been very little of the sort of free form construction-type experimentation that I'd expected to come from an area full of blocks, wood scrapes, lumber, pipes, window screens, picture frames and pallets. In fact, most of that stuff has sat undisturbed. I've tried moving items around in an effort to make them more attractive, but nothing was happening unless it was presented by an adult on the pink work bench. My research has lead me to understand that children will "know" what to do with this stuff. I was under the impression that if we make these kinds of "loose parts" available, they will find creative and cooperative ways to incorporate it into their play. I've told the working parents that it's perfectly fine for the kids to drag parts from this area into the sand pit, Little World or the garden if they so chose -- I've even upon occasion made a big show of moving parts from place-to-place myself, hoping to role model the behavior. But there it has all sat, getting wet and dry as the weather dictated, contributing nothing to our play.

As I was tidying up alone last week after our Pre-3 class, I noticed that one of our fabric shelf covers had fallen off. It happens from time to time given that they're just held on by small strips of velcro. It was gratifying to me that even though that shelf was stocked with very attractive toys, our 2's and young 3's had known enough about how our classroom operates to leave them alone. We usually spend the first several months of school telling them that the curtains indicate that the shelf is "closed," and redirecting them to the toys that are "open," and by now they all understand the concept. In fact, the main reason I was surprised that the shelf was still exposed was that usually one of the children takes responsibility for closing it without being told -- there are often fights over who gets to do it!

But that's when it hit me: maybe our comfortable, confident, well-taught kids are carrying this piece of education with them outdoors. Maybe they just don't know that the loose parts are open. 

Yesterday, I stored the glamorous hammers, saws and nails away, and told Josephine's mom Eva (our construction/tinkering parent) and Max's mom Callie (our sand pit parent) that their job was to play with the loose parts, to build stuff, and to generally demonstrate to the children that the "shelves" were not "closed." They started by leaning several boards against the wall in our sand pit and covering it in some of our burlap bags to create a "lean to." Eva even crawled inside and "took a nap." A few children tentatively tried it out and Lachlan got an earful of sand when he decided that he wanted to take a nap.

Eva then got busy using some of our outdoor blocks to build a structure on one of the pallets, narrating her actions for anyone within hearing. Soon she had Luna engaged with her and they built a fairly impressive "house." Several other kids came by to investigate and even got inside to try it out. Luna said she wanted a roof, but was disappointed to find that none of the blocks were long enough. Right there beside us was a stack of old fencing planks that would have done the job, not to mention any number of other bits and pieces that could have served the purpose, but, I'm theorizing, in her mind they were "closed."

I showed her they were "open" by grabbing an old window screen, saying, "This will work." As we tried to position it, I actually heard several children saying, "No it won't." Luna and I got it in place and I said, "Yes it will." That's when I made myself scarce, hoping that the ball was rolling. They wound up working together to create a horse stable.

That wooden rocking horse is heavy. It took several kids
to drag it across the playground and onto the pallet.

They wound up using another window screen, several pieces
of lumber/scrap wood, a bucket of sand, and a strip of fabric
from Little World.

Yay! It took a lot of adult help to overcome those lessons learned during the preceding 2-3 years. It's probably going to take a lot more. We left this structure standing at the end of the day, along with the sand pit lean-to. Hopefully, their existence will spark even more loose part play.

I think we're on the right track. We're going to have to do a little un-teaching. As Callie said to me, "This is how I grew up -- with all kinds of junk around to play with outside. We all have such small and tidy yards now that I don't think any of these kids have ever had this kind of experience."

There's always another side of the coin.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Pre-K Play Fourth Draft: Only One Lilac Fairy

It's been a couple weeks since I updated you on the Pre-K play. If you want to start reading from the beginning about this new form of evolutionary theater, here are the links:

First Draft: The Pre-K Play (in which I share the actual original script as co-authored by 11 kids)
The Pre-K Play Second Draft: Featuring An All Lilac Fairy Cast
The Pre-K Play Third Draft: Still A Lot Of Lilac Fairies

We've had a couple rehearsals since last I wrote and the Lilac Fairies are falling like flies. I wasn't surprised when Finn P., a passionately devoted Thomas the Tank Engine fan, decided he wanted to switch back to being a Train two weeks ago, but last week our original Lilac Fairy Ella declared that she was going to be a Superhero. Yesterday, our last rehearsal before spring break, several of her cast mates broke from the Lilac Fairy ranks as well, leaving us this morning with but a single representative of this once mighty race. This last Lilac Fairy is Thomas, who was not in class yesterday. In fairness, we're going to have to give him a chance to switch, and I fear that will be the end of the Lilac Fairies.

It was coming anyway, but I gave it a nudge yesterday by announcing that this was going to be their last opportunity to make changes in the script because after the break we go to work on costumes. So here is our cast by the close of business yesterday:

After having tried out being a Duck, then an Apple Tree, Anjali has stuck on Black Kitty. For a long time she had been one of the few hold outs when it came to the radical notion that "all the characters do everything together," but as of yesterday the Black Kitty is mixed up in all the action.

During our discussion about "final decisions," Annabelle proudly announced that she is the only one who hasn't changed her character. From the very beginning she knew she wanted to be a Unicorn Pegasus and she's still a Unicorn Pegasus. She already has the costume at home. She is also one of only 2 independent cast members who do not always join the other characters in their various forays.

Ella amended her Superhero to be a Pink & Purple Striped Superhero. She started as Sleeping Beauty and was the first to switch to Lilac Fairy. When she raised her hand yesterday, I was concerned she was going to change yet again, but she just wanted to confirm that she was "sticking" with Superhero.

Josephine was the original Black Kitty, then joined the mass migration into Lilac Fairy-dom. She missed class last week for a family vacation and I think was a little discombobulated with the sudden dearth of Lilac Fairies. She's going with Pink Superhero, but let us know that she would still wear her Purple Superhero skirt.

Marcus was one of the 3 Mean Black Kitties who had decided enmass to join the Lilac Fairy trend. He definitely wanted to change his character yesterday, but it was clear he hadn't given much thought about what he wanted to change to. On the spot, he went for laughs by saying he was going to be a "Drum." After several "Are you sures?" and "Remember, you won't be able to changes," he decided he was going to be a Car. Last year, Elliott T. was a Race Car: those are fun costumes to make.

Jack broke ranks with the Mean Kitties-turn-Lilac Fairies last week by becoming the Tooth Fairy. He has announced that his older sister Sophie has been losing teeth lately, so I imagine this character is a mighty one around his house these days. He raised his hand to confirm his intention to "stick" with Tooth Fairy.

Luna arrived yesterday wearing a pair of construction paper bunny ears and let us know right from the start of class that she was switching to Bunny. She has been The Girl, a Lamb, and a Lilac Fairy up to this point. The Bunny retains the magical powers to "stop the battle."

For a long time, Katherine was the Big Fairy, holding out against the Lilac Fairy surge, but gave in a couple weeks ago. I think she's happy with her decision to instead join the ranks of superheros, declaring  that she wanted to "stick" with Pink & Purple Superhero.

We were all shocked when Finn P. raised his hand to declare that he was going to switch to being a penguin. I reminded him several times that "after today," he couldn't switch back to Train. Even his friends joined in the effort to persuade him to reconsider. We've all known him for a long time and the idea that he wouldn't be a Train is simply unthinkable. He was determined. He was going to be a penguin. We all knew he would live to regret this decision. In fact, I'd already decided that I was going to be prepared to allow him to switch back in spite of my firm warnings. Finally, after our attention turned to other things, he let us know that he was going to "stick" with Train after all. The announcement caused a small, spontaneous cheer from his friends. Friends don't let train-loving friends be penguins.

From the very start Sarah did not want to choose a role in the play, so as I've done in the past with reluctant performers, she has the important job of Assistant Director, which means the only expectation is that she sit in a chair beside me and "help" when she thinks I need help. I've found this to be a good way to allow stage-wary children to find their own role without pressure. Sarah has been incredible. Not only has she agreed to operate the small robot (which we haven't yet made) who "puts a bathtub on a battle," but she has actually whispered very thoughtful stage direction ideas to me during rehearsals.

Her biggest contribution, however, has been to agree to operate our Maleficent puppet. As is often the case with these plays, no one wanted to play the "bad guy." I'm reluctant to allow adults on stage, but in the past our antagonists have been giant puppets operated by a parent. For instance, a few years ago we made a hippo that ate one of the characters. In our rehearsals, Sarah, via her role as Assistant Director of course, has been performing the role of Maleficent. I'm really proud of her. Yesterday, we made the head of our Maleficent:

For reasons we won't go into here, I have at least a dozen of these styrofoam heads in my basement. We agreed on angry eyebrows (which I drew) and orange eyes. As we emptied our box of party-colored toothpicks onto her head and face, there was a lot of discussion about how frightened the "babies" (several of the kids have younger siblings who will be in the audience) would be, and we agreed that this Maleficent was way scarier than the one on the movie. The idea is that this will be mounted on a headpiece of some sort for Sarah to wear. We will then make special long arms for her to manipulate.

Near the end, the script calls for Maleficent to turn from "bad to good," so we needed to make another head to represent that:

Several of us agreed that we're going to have to give her a smile if she's really going to look "good."

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

There's No Telling What I Might Do (And Tape-Off Update)

Isn't this lovely?

I'm rarely conscious any more of the fact that I'm a grown man who spends large chunks of his life in paint besmirched clothing, with glitter in his beard, and stickers on his butt. Most of my pants have holes in the knees. When I get undressed at night, sand, coffee beans, and other debris form a circle on the floor around my bare feet. When I reach into my pocket for change, I pull out a fistful of marbles, rubber bands, and hair clips along with my pennies, nickels and dimes.

I arrived home yesterday to discover that I had made a deposit at my usual bank branch, shopped at my usual grocery store, bought coffee at my usual coffee shop, walked the dogs, helped a stranger jump start his car, and chatted with the parents of my daughter's classmates while waiting to pick her up after school, all while wearing this delightful piece of jewelry. I was wearing short sleeves.

That I forgot to remove this item that Charlie L. urged me to wear as part of our superhero play (it's my power braclet) isn't all that surprising. That all those people saw it on my wrist, some of whom know me quite well, and didn't say a thing, even sarcastically, has me wondering about how others see me. I mean, it's not the kind of thing you wouldn't notice, right? They thought I was wearing it on purpose! And not as a joke, but as an intentional accessory to my jeans-and-t-shirt ensemble.

What others think about me, I know, is none of my business, but knowing that I can wear something like this without comment, now that I'm over the initial shock, as me wondering what else can I get away with. Maybe I can wear my kilt in public . . .

If I didn't have a teenager to keep me in check, there's no telling what I might do.

International Tape-Off Update

Things have been quiet lately on the International Tape-Off front, that is until Kirstin over at preschool daze "submitted" her last two posts (here and here). In fact, her kids are so far out in front of the rest of us in terms of variety and creativity that I'm tempted to simply concede! (Type "tape" into her search box to see what I mean.)

If you want to get fully up to speed on the "tape-off," click here and read from the bottom up. Let me know if you think your kids have what it takes to compete in this very, very important event.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

This Morning I'm Proud

This morning I'm proud to be an American. This morning, I've set aside the feelings of anger and frustration I've felt toward my elected representatives who were called n*ggers, f*ggots, and c*nts, and spat upon yesterday, as they made their way to debate, then vote for an historic piece of legislation.

This morning, I know, perhaps for the first time, that I did enough, I fulfilled my role as a citizen in this self-governing nation. This morning we proved that if we work together, we can defeat corrosive corporate influence.

This morning, I fully understand how hard we have to work to make even incremental changes in this country.

This fight for health care reform in America has been ongoing for at least 100 years. Teddy Roosevelt first took it up in his first run for the Presidency in 1912, and failed. FDR took it up, and failed. Truman took it up, and failed. Johnson finally won the first important victory when he helped enact the legislation that brought us Medicare. And he did so against the same kinds emotional, fact-challenged arguments, fear-mongering, and name-calling that are being used today, and against, in many cases, the very same opponents. Carter and Clinton failed.

This morning, I see that there weren't actually any failures, but rather demonstrations of the kind of tenacity and perseverance required to overcome entrenched corporate interests. This morning I see that we have to keep coming back at them again and again if we are going to succeed. Maybe it shouldn't be so hard to enact the will of the people, but it is, and after this morning of celebration, I am prepared to fight just has hard, and push my representatives just as hard, for the next baby step forward.

I still find it abhorrent that we allow corporations to reap profits off the the pain and suffering of sick people. I still find it abhorrent that I will be forced to rely on these corporations that profit not from helping people get healthy, but from paying out as little as possible toward medical care. And because of the rapaciousness of this amoral drive toward profit and ridiculous executive compensation, I'm nervous about the time between this morning and the full enactment of the legislation. I do not trust them. Most of the provisions of the bill won't take effect until 2014, although some important parts of the bill are scheduled to be in effect within the next 6 months.

Still . . .

. . . for the next 6 months for-profit "health" insurance companies in America will refuse to insure sick children.  If parents want to have their uninsured child's medical bills paid, they will still be forced to spend their life savings, go into debt and possibly declare bankruptcy.

. . . for the next 6 months for-profit "health" insurance companies will refuse to continue to pay the medical bills of sick children because they reach an arbitrary "lifetime" or "annual" limit, whatever the status of that child's health.

. . . for the next 6 months for-profit "health" insurance companies will simply drop coverage for children when they get sick, even if their families have been paying premiums for years.

. . . for the next 6 months for-profit "health" insurance companies will require families to rely exclusively on their own "internal" appeals process if they believe a mistake has been made, an onerous, time-sucking processes that rarely finds in favor of the patient. A parent's only access to an "independent" appeals process will be to try to sue a multi-billion dollar corporation.

. . . for the next 6 months for-profit "health" insurance companies will kick children off of their parent's health plans on their 18th birthday, even if they continue to rely on their parents economically as they finish their high school and college education.

Today I celebrate, tomorrow I get back to work.

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

More Spore

The Pre-3 class went nuts on Friday and we're now up to 60 paper bag mushrooms, when combined with our 3-5 class' output, for our anticipated Spore Project installation.

It was a real pleasure watching them work through the difficulties of painting them. For one thing, they're balanced on bamboo skewers stuck into styrofoam so it's a 2-handed job: one hand to paint and the other the steady their wobbly fungi. The crumpled and twisted paper bags do not present the usual smooth surface, so angles had to be considered. And then there was the usual challenges of sharing "canvases" and paint cups.

I'm planning to let the kids keep creating them next week, with a goal of at least 100, but I'll bet we wind up with more.

To be honest, we started this last week simply because it looked like a fun art project that would look good in our Little World, but the more I've learned about artist Doug Rhodehamel and his "Spore Project," (an effort intended to "raise awareness about art education and creativity in day-to-day life") the more excited I've become, especially since the kids seem to be getting into it. Next week we'll be looking at pictures of other mushroom installations and each of our classes will get to use the full collection to make their own group art project.

I think they'll look wonderful in Little World, but I'm also hoping that at least one of the groups decides to plant theirs in our new coffee bean "pea gravel", donated by our friends at Upcycle Northwest:

I also think it would be fun to take them up to our neighborhood playground and create an installation in the grass:

I can imagine our Pre-K kids plotting out a pattern on paper in the classroom, then executing it in real life. These beauties won't do well in the rain, so I hope the sunny weather forecasts for the latter part of the week come to pass.

If you're thinking of making your own Spring time Spore Project installation, here are Doug's step-by-step instructions

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Blaming The Teachers

If you've read here for awhile, you'll know I'm a political progressive and, generally speaking, a supporter of the Democratic agenda, but let me tell you the President has finally pissed me off when it comes to education. I've tried to find common cause with his administration on the subject, but they seem hell bent on pursuing expansion of the failed idea of charter schools and the absolutely insane strategy of blaming and punishing teachers.

Charter schools are essentially private schools created by taking education dollars out of our already underfunded public education systems. We've had charter schools for decades. Nearly every study comparing traditional public schools with charter schools have shown no difference in academic attainment overall, while many have found charters underperforming their public school counterparts. There are lots of studies, but here is the summary of one conducted by Standford University (if you Google "charter schools vs. public schools," you'll find dozens more). And this is while charter schools have the advantage of being allowed to exclude the most challenging students, the "blueberries" public schools are required to teach, allowing them to pick only the best and the brightest. And still they can't do better than traditional public schools? This is the future of public education? Bleh!

Yes, there is quite a bit of federal stimulus money being directed toward public schools, and I applaud that, but Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made it clear that he expects a large percentage of that money to be spent on expanding charter schools. This, without a lick of evidence that it will benefit students.

But even worse, I think, is Duncan and Obama's outright nastiness toward public school teachers. I'm not saying there aren't bad teachers out there, but the overwhelming majority are dedicated, hardworking public servants struggling to teach in underfunded, overcrowded schools that require them to spend too much of their days preparing their kids for high-stakes standardized tests. Instead of listening to public school teachers, who would with a virtually single voice call for smaller classes and more autonomy to teach their students the way they know they ought to be taught, the Obama administration seems determined to keep following the advice of career politicians and business executives who may be well-intended people, but who are not education professionals.

The incident that prompted this post, however, the straw that broke the camel's back, was President Obama's recent support of the mass firing of teachers at a struggling Rhode Island high school. What!? I'm sorry, but this is like Bank of America firing all its tellers for bringing the world economy to the verge of collapse. The problem is not with teachers. This is a systemic problem. It's a problem of underfunding. It's a problem of thinking of schools as job training centers. And its a problem of families.

I'm the world's biggest supporter of parents. I teach in a cooperative preschool where I work with committed, dedicated parents every day, parents who value education so highly that they are willing to actually go to school with their children. I attended public schools in South Carolina through 4th grade, a state that is widely regarded as having one of the worst public school systems in the country, yet I got a solid education because my parents valued education and made damn sure I got a good one. There is no greater predictor of a child's academic success than their parents' involvement in, and attitude toward, their education. If you are a parent taking time on a weekend to read this blog, you are one of this kind of parent.

Sadly, most parents are not like us. Bill Maher is not everyone's cup of tea, but I wish I'd been the one to go on this tirade:

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Friday, March 19, 2010

The Spore Project

We tend to approach our art table as a place to explore. We provide a rotating selection of art materials, and perhaps a few samples or ideas to get things going, but otherwise the children are encouraged to make it their own. Sometimes they even create things that adults find beautiful, but more often than not that point of beauty is only a step in the process, a moment that is perhaps appreciated, but then moved beyond as the child continues his scientific examination of the concrete world at his fingertips.

This is what I have come to define as art in a preschool classroom. (I know that my Reggio Emelia friends approach preschool art in a different manner, one that intrigues me and has recently sparked some doubts about the sanctity of this "process" approach. I'm expecting my definition to change as I learn more, but for the time being, this is the one at the bottom of our work at Woodland Park.)

More rarely, we engage in the "crafts," which I define as an activity at the art table with the goal of manufacturing a pre-determined object. You can usually tell it's a craft when the art parent feels compelled to announce, "Today we're making spiders," or "Everyone's making flowers," as children approach. Craft projects also tend to be those that require a lot of adult intervention to produce the objective, especially when working with 2-3 year olds. More often than not our craft projects are chosen because they encourage children to explore certain classroom skills (e.g., cutting on a straight/curved line, operating a stapler/hole punch) or work on fine motor skills (e.g., using brads, lacing), with the "art" being a motivator.

Sometimes, however, our crafts are designed to be discrete parts of a larger art project, one that proves the assertion that "together we're a genius."

Yesterday we made mushrooms:

These creations were inspired by an installation artist named Doug Rhodehamel as part of his "Spore Project," a worldwide effort intended to:
. . .  promote awareness for the support for art education and creativity in day-to-day life. The project illustrates the importance of self expression, resourcefulness and creativity – specifically, how to look at one thing (a simple paper bag) and see what it can be instead of merely what it is. The project was created to build awareness, specifically to let people know the importance of art.
That's right, these mushrooms are made from brown paper bags, wooden skewers and tempera paint. His step-by-step instructions for making them are here. We discovered yesterday that we didn't need the glue gun and even the rubber bands were unnecessary, although both would probably extend the lifetime of individual mushrooms.

We also discovered that the process of shaping the mushrooms was a little beyond the abilities/interest of many of our preschoolers to master in one session, so there was, as with most preschool crafts, a lot of adult assistance here. I'm planning to have paper bags, skewers and paint available next week as well in the hope that 2-3 of the kids who were able to manage it will help teach their classmates. It works for making Chinese New Year paper lanterns and cutting out Valentines and it seems like it could take root here as well.

We started out working indoors, using those nice chunks of styrofoam you see in the pictures as a base, then took them outside where we continued painting and installing around Little World.

We will decide next week how many mushrooms we want to make and the other details of our installation, then take pictures and send them to Doug!

Here are a couple photos of other installations from Doug's website:

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