Friday, August 13, 2010

Don't Fence Me In! (With Marshmallow Painting)

I read the blogs of other early childhood educators for the inspiration and ideas, but one of the downsides is that there are many teachers out there doing things I admire and respect, but that I know I'll never in a million years be capable of doing. 

It's been particularly difficult for me these past few weeks as I've read about teachers preparing for the new school year (ours doesn't start for another month). Specifically, I'm talking about those posts on arranging the furniture, planning stations, hanging amazing bulletin boards, putting together thoughtful curriculum plans, and making exciting supply purchases. I love what you guys are doing. I'm impressed, blown away even. Seriously, who knew there was so much preparation one could do for preschool? It's hard not to feel inadequate especially since I know that I am constitutionally incapable of doing it myself.

Sometimes I plan out a week's worth of activities, but generally speaking, I'm lucky if I know what's happening at school tomorrow. More often than not, I plan the day while driving to work, and most of that planning involves reflecting on what happened the day before in order to figure out which directions the kids seem to be going so I can run around in front of them and pretend I'm their leader.

A case in point is the marshmallow painting project we did this week. On Tuesday Charlotte said she wanted to "paint with marshmallows," so that's what we did on Wednesday.

The idea was for the kids to make marshmallow paint brushes by skewering one on a toothpick, dip it in paint . . .

. . . and go to town. (There was a bit of supply depletion due to unauthorized consumption, but Remick's dad Doug, who was our parent-teacher managing the project, told me that the incidence was much less than he'd anticipated.) That was my interpretation of Charlotte's idea and she seemed satisfied, as were her classmates who produced dozens of paintings.

I'm not a planner. I'm more comfortable going with the flow. I like letting it emerge from the children as we play together, their parents, and even my own passing fancies. When I first started teaching the Pre-3 class the contract called for me to submit a month-by-month curriculum outline at the beginning of the school year. I asked that this stipulation be removed before I would sign it. Don't fence me in, baby! How can I possibly know what games we're going to want to play tomorrow, let alone next next week, month or season?

I usually don't even know what we're going to do at circle time each day until I'm sitting there in front of the kids, looking at their faces, feeling their energy, picking up snippets of their conversations. Sometimes I just start making up songs about what I see them doing or chanting goofy rhymes (parent educator Dawn Carlson calls it preschool freestyle rap) until they've settled in. Sometimes a raised hand will lead to conversations about bloody owies or volcanos or picking berries. Sometimes we're done in 10 minutes. Other times we go for more than 30, even with 2-year-olds.

I do have a fairly standard supplies purchase that I place with Discount School Supply at the beginning of the year, but I'm also stopping off at the hardware, garden, grocery, art, craft, or drug store 2-3 times a week throughout the year. At the same time, I've learned that it's important for me to have massive amounts of storage because the only way to prepare for spontaneity is to have well stocked cupboards.

I'll be happy if our bulletin boards get a fresh layer of butcher paper before the new school year.

The furniture will probably be more or less where it's always been, except when it isn't.

Sometimes our days will be quirky, chunky disasters and other days will be spectacular, but that's always true in preschool no matter how much or little we plan.

And if anyone is interested in how marshmallow paintings turn out, here are some samples:

If you click on this picture to enlarge it, you'll see that Vivian
left several toothpicks and marshmallows on her canvas.

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Cathy @ NurtureStore said...

I'm with you Tom. I'd rather keep everything flexible to go with what the kids are interested in rather than try and mould them into a lesson plan which was written 3 months before. Of course the over arching early learning framework is always there - but everything can be shared through the child-led play, can't it?

Kari said...

Painting with marshmallows - very cool idea. I think older kids would like this just as much as your littles - I want to try it with my first graders :)

Scott said...

There is a lot to be said for listening to the children and following their lead. Your kids are learning to be curious and explore that curiosity...and they are discovering so much about the world and how it works. What more could a preschool teacher want?

Unknown said...

I believe in your style of planning, Tom! I do make lesson plans in advanced (because I'm neurotic)but I don't always follow them. Most of the time we go with what the kids are into at the moment. :) You are an inspirational teacher and one should never compare their "inabilities" to others. You rock the class room Tom!

Juliet Robertson said...

Hi Tom

It is recognised good practice that early years practitioners observe, listen and facilitate the children's learning, building on their interests and schematic play.

To have projects and a structured curriculum is arguably harder to justify. Pre-school is about so so much more

In the UK pre-schools are inspected externally. I'm enclosing a link to Cowgate U5 Centre which has an outstanding report. You could take the comments in this and relate it to your own practice.

If you look closely, the report barely mentions planning...!

Gaylene said...

Your teaching "style" sounds just like what we here in Australia have been intoducing to our Early Childhood classes over the past few years - "The Emergent Curriculum" !!! Well done, love reading your Blog Teacher Tom, keep up the good work

Let the Children Play said...

I'm just the same as you are Tom. We have a basic weekly plan for big events eg Tuesday bushwalk Wednesday cooking. Otherwise we will get to the end of the day and based on what the kids were interested in / exploring that day will plan for the following day. I find most of our planning happens on the spot (so you can't really call it planning then, can you?). We see kids doing something, and then add the resources or ideas to extend it or challenge them or build on their interest.

So really, I have hardly any idea what will happen next week! But I believe that in this way we are really able to respond to the kids needs and interests and challenges as they arise.

So much that is important that happens in preschool can't be planned for. So much is the support you give to their social and emotional development - and that happens as needs arise.

Yesterday one little soul walked in the gate and said "I want to make a fairy garden today" so that is what we did - gathered up other interested kids, went for a walk collecting materials in the bush, came back and decorated a garden which then led to collected sticks to make houses, which then became garages for trucks. On the spot planning, or flying by the seat of your pants planning :)

Sheri said...

I LOVE it Teacher Tom! You inspire me! It takes a SUPER teacher to go with out a plan--if you ask me! :)

Deborah said...

Hi Tom,
There are days I wish I could be more like you. Just go with the flow and see where the interest leads - be more emergent in my approach. But the truth is, that for me, part of what I love about teaching is the investment I make as a part of the process too. I love to design a plan for learning but within that leave all the room I can for processes and activities to emerge. I enjoy finding new music for example then expanding on it throughout the content. So for me, if I were told that I have to just show up and go with the flow - I would not enjoy my job as much as I do. I think that it is okay for teachers and students to find their own reward in teaching and learning in whatever way works best for them.

Pam said...

A huge portion of my bulliten board is covered once at the beginning of the school year with bulliten board paper and the words "Art Gallery"...then all those paintings, art work, 'marble painting :), whatever the children want to have up in the art gallery gets tacked to this board. The other small section is the "Parent Board". Except for the menus and parent notes it stays virtually the same all, needless to say, you aren't the only one who is not so fond of putting up bulletin boards :) I also believe that some of the best teaching happens when you have a general plan of attack and then the details are worked out as you see how the children are engaged in the project. You may not do planning in the traditional sense; but you do plan a great can see it in your blog! You reflect on your teaching and how the children are engaged, you extend activities, you plan new activities/opportunties/'re doing at least as much planning as every other preschool teacher- and in many cases, probably a lot more!

Teacher Tom said...

@Deborah . . . I hope I don't leave the impression that I'm judging others because I'm not! Since none of us are teaching to get rich, we must be doing it for the sake of the children and, it seems, to express ourselves creatively, be it through the music, through crafts, through art, or whatever. I've seen the bulletin boards some teachers work up, for instance -- those are works of art and bringing art to children is always good. When I read the posts from teachers about their classroom preparations, their excitement pops off the screen -- bringing our excitement to children is always good. When I read about how teachers take a single theme and weave it throughout their days or weeks, I see nothing but passion for meeting all the children on their level -- again, bringing passion to children is always good. There is no one way to be a good teacher and I mean it when I say I admire and respect the work that everyone is doing. =)

Deborah said...

Tom - if there is one thing I have come to deeply appreciate about you is your heart for both the children and families you serve as well as those of us who are colleges in the field. I know that you admire the passion of others and I always appreciate your words of support and encouragement immensely:)

Deborah said...

Colleagues, not colleges - LOL!

Unknown said...

Very Smart to get that taken out of your contract! That would kill your program. . . I admire what you do and if I had a kid I would look for someone with your skill set. By the way I added you to the VERSATILE BLOGGER AWARD chain. Thought you like to know. You can check it out at It is a fun award if you feel like passing it down.

Play for Life said...

Tom we used to plan out our fortnight in advance, in fact we did it that way for years. Now with the 'emergent curriculum' we record our 'plan' ... well actually our outcomes ... at the end of the week.

Like you I totally respect every teachers individual way of teaching but for me and Sherry the idea of rehashing the same program over and over again, year after year would do very little for our enthusiasm and as the children's interests each year prove to be completely different from the year before, we naturally we have to adapt with them.

We're very much 'make it up as we go along kinda gals' it's just what works for us and our children. The best part is that from one simple interest MANY ideas can flow constantly taking our learning in new directions. In fact we find that by coming up with ideas to support the children's interest we are forced to constantly learn new thing ... and that certainly keeps us inspired and on our toes!

Donna :) :)

Saya said...

Dear Teacher Tom,

I agree with you 100%. I am fenced in, though... I am required to make "lesson plan"/"weekly activity plan" each week for the following week... granted I plan it from my observation notes and what kids ask more questions about, some days, plans go out of the window because of unplanned events like moose outside of the window happens... even then I am expected to follow my weekly plan, which I just don't like. I love going with the flow, but my place of employ does not agree... plus a lot of parents are expecting old-school, ditto sheets type preschool and I am totally opposite. So... I envy you for what you do!

I love reading your posts, by the way, gives me the courage I need to do as much as I can for the children in my care. :) thank you!

Anonymous said...

I love that you were able to get the planning part cut from your contract. I can't do that, so I just make sure the administrator knows that I will get the plans in eventually. they are on my zip drive...I do them AFTER the week is in full swing and get them finished by Friday in order to turn them in on Monday. A little date doctoring and nobody's the wiser. I freestyle in the classroom either with in the guidelines of our grade level expectations. After 35 joyous and wonderful years, I kinda know what I'm doing...and there is always something new to learn especially when the kiddles are driving the instruction!

DSS Blog Team said...

What a fun idea! Painting with marshmallows sounds like a blast. Thanks for the shout out to Discount School Supply as well-- it's so fun seeing our products out there in the "real world," being used by little learners. Also, if you ever wanted to submit a preschool activity idea on our site, you can get a $50 certificate for Discount School Supply if/when we publish the idea. (Marshmallow painting, for example, would be a fun one!) Thanks again for your great post.
-Laurel from Discount School Supply