Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Box Full Of Simple Things

I feel like we get more than our fair share of former elementary school teachers coming to school with their preschoolers at our Woodland Park Cooperative Preschools. It intimidated me at first, being a new teacher, having a roomful of parent-teachers with more experience and training than me. I quickly discovered, however, that no one is more supportive than those other teachers, especially when I'm really screwing something up or am at a loss. I've come to look forward to sentences that begin with, "When I was a teacher . . ." This is almost always followed by an anecdote involving the help of a colleague or advice from a mentor. Maybe this isn't true for every teacher, and probably less true in those public schools that are trying to motivate teachers by having them compete against one another for their "merit pay," but I can trace nearly everything I know about teaching to this ongoing apprenticeship that began when I was a cooperative parent with my own daughter and continues to this day.

One piece of advice I received during my very first year was to "write everything down" so that it would be easy to remember from year-to-year what we'd done that worked and didn't work. I wasn't blogging at the time and the idea of writing things down seemed like such a pain, so I didn't actually take her advice, although I did start filling up boxes with all the leftovers from the seasonal activities (e.g., Halloween, mid-winter festivals of lights, Chinese New Year). I suppose this method isn't as efficient or precise as writing things down, but when I pull out those boxes the experience is a little like going through a trunk of keepsakes you've tucked away in the attic: Oh yeah, that was fun! and Ooo, I wasted a lot of time trying to make that work.

When I dragged out the Valentine's Day box this year, I found these felt heart puzzles I'd made that first year and have used without much fanfare ever since. They're simple things, obviously, but just complex and challenging enough that a good cross section of 2-5 year olds take some time to either figure them out or demonstrate their mastery. I don't recall my thinking when I put the numbers on the pieces, but they're useful for the older children when they're trying to orient the various parts when attempting to fit them together.

I also found this larger 5-piece heart puzzle in the box. I used to have at least 6 of them, but repurposed the felt when we discovered that they were far, far too complicated for preschoolers. This photo represents the closest I've ever seen a child come to putting one of these monstrosities together without lots of help, and I've had some real puzzle masters in my care. Most adults struggle with them as well. It's amazing to me how simply cutting a heart into 2 more pieces adds so much challenge. I've kept this one, the easiest of the lot, as a kind of connection to my first Valentine's Day as a teacher. I always tell the kids it's the "hardest puzzle in the school," and that usually motivates one or two kids to wrestle with it, while the others take it as a warning and work on something else.

Another thing I forget about and am then reminded of when I dig through that box full of pink and red and hearts and cupids, is this Bingo-style game that may or may not be of my own invention. Every year, too, I'm underwhelmed by it and am tempted to not break it out, but I'm always glad I did. We played it all last week and I don't think there was ever a moment during which a game wasn't in full swing.

The game is simple. Each player receives a heart shaped card (which I made those many years ago with tag board that I then laminated) featuring six small heart shapes all of one color. 

We take turns rolling a color die and when your color turns up you get to add a candy heart to your card. The goal is to fill up all six spots on your card. It's played differently depending on which parent-teacher is in charge of it, sometimes it's competitive, sometimes cooperative. I love how cheers periodically erupt from that part of the classroom, usually everyone together. (Before you ask, yes we do lose a few of the candy hearts each session to little sweet teeth who can't help themselves, but our warning that the candy is 9 years old and very dirty usually discourages most of them.)

I've already shown you our Love Rats, who live in the Valentine's box most of the year, but they share that real estate with their soul mates, the Love Duckies (technically called Sweetheart Duckies), who like swimming in pink water. 

This year, they did so with various water movers like this cool little hand pump, a syphon, and a collection of squeeze bottles and squirters.

Not to mention the heart confetti I scooped out of the bottom of the Valentine's Box, dumped there sometime in the past as I was rushing to transition from the season of love to the season of Teacher Tom's birthday, I'm guessing.

You might notice that the water on one side of the sensory table is more "milky" than the other. That's because children were using it to wash the pink and purple paint off their hands after working on their large paper hearts at the easels.

That's not all we've done to honor of this celebration of love this year, but those are the simple highlights.

Sitting here now at the end of the week leading up to Valentine's Day itself, I'm kind of thinking we're done with it. Yes, we'll exchange cards on Monday and Tuesday, and there may be one more V-Day related art project in the offing, but in my mind I'm already heaping all the leftovers back into my box for next year: my version of writing things down.

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shar said...

I have boxes too but I kept forgetting to look in them or they were under too many other boxes and the task seemed too arduous. A blog is so much more fun.

Your blog is a great record. So many fantastic ideas, and I love that you are able to share them. I live my teaching somewhat vicariously through your blog as I am working in a very structured environment that frustrates me and wears me down a bit.

Juliet Robertson said...

Hi Tom

I permanently suffer from feelings of total inadequacy. When I was 17yrs old and just trying teaching "for a laugh" my lecturer hauled me out of a class because I was making the children "suffer unduly" with my approach to the lesson.

26 years later I still have mixed success. Some lessons go wonderfully well and others are flatter than a tyre with a puncture. Does this matter? Yes it does. I work with teachers who often have limited opportunities to work alongside other teachers. It can be reassuring for them to see me make mistakes too and learn from them. It creates understanding and realism that we cannot all be perfect all of the time. Somehow it makes us more of a team.

Several years ago, one of my schools was formally inspected. The inspector needed to see 8 hours of teaching in my class. That's a lot of opportunity for things to go pear-shaped. I was incredibly lucky that all went smoothly and I'm delighted to have on record that I'm a "very effective" teacher. Am I really? Maybe sometimes. What I have learned that the journey as a teacher doesn't end. Every day brings new learning and surprises. For me as much as the children. And that's why I still work at the front line. Because ultimately the thrill of experimenting and learning alongside children keeps me going ad infinitum.

Anonymous said...

WHO CLEANS YOUR ROOM???? Lol. So many of your posts make me think "Oh! That is soooo coool....thyen I think...I'd have to clean that up!" You rock, teacher tom!

Darcey said...

Your blog and keeping a box are both great ways of keeping records. I love all the Valentines ideas. The sweet heart duckies are really cute and we have a set of those too. Ive included your post on my weekly favorites hee: