Saturday, April 30, 2011

Crossing The River

A few days ago, I posted about a large cache of new, free art supplies that recently came our way. In my enthusiasm and gratitude for all that liquid watercolor and all those wooden boats, I don't think I mentioned that the haul also included several gallons of tempera paint, the lifeblood of any preschool, two of which were blue. Blue has been an issue for Woodland Park this year. For whatever reason, both of the blue gallons that came with my large online order from the beginning of the year were defective. And by that I mean, the paint was way too thick, clumpy, almost like cottage cheese. I tried diluting it with water, and that thinned it some, but there were still globs and chunks in the final product no matter how much we shook and stirred. I know I should have sent them back, our supplier is good about those kinds of things, but in the rush and crush of making a school year happen, it never rose to the top of my to do list, which is a long way of explaining why acquiring 2 gallons of blue via the "bag lady" black market was such a boon.

And it left us with a gallon and half of the chunky variety to use up. We started by flipping the art table, lining it with paper, then laying a balance beam across it.

We then squeezed and shook as much of the blue paint into our "river" as we could coax from the jugs.

The idea was to then remove our shoes . . .

. . . and see if we could balance across the water without falling in.

We've only done this once before in my tenure at Woodland Park, several years ago when our supplier accidentally included an extra jug of red in our order, telling us we should just keep it when I called to inquire about returning it. (Mom raised me right.) In that case we played the game of balancing across hot lava and, like then, there weren't many takers to start. Preschoolers aren't always the caution-to-the-wind demographic they're portrayed to be. Most of them tend to hang back, having the wisdom to check things out before diving in. A little distrust is a good thing, especially when it involves crossing a river on a 2X4. 

Only two brave souls made the attempt right off, but sadly their efforts didn't convince the crowd, so it was up to me to demonstrate. On my first attempt, I "successfully" balanced across, but the next time I "fell in!" Yikes! (Thanks to Calder's mom Brooke for the photos.) I narrated my sensory adventure for the children, using descriptive words like "cold," "gooey," and "slippery," trying to convey a sense of what they might expect if they tried it too.

And I know what some of them were thinking, "Too messy!" so I also demonstrated how we could wash off our feet in the tub of water set there explicitly for that purpose.

That cracked the door open a bit, and while only about a quarter of the kids gave it a try, and only 3 or 4 of them really loved the project, I'd still call it a good use of defective paint.

It was a slippery, slide-y, gooey mess of a project, with the balance beam, as it had with the hot lava game, becoming incidental to the play. It took 3 parent-teachers to manage the project when it was at its peak of popularity, one to help with shoes, one to hold hands (because it was slippery, indeed), and a third to help with foot washing.

When Luca's mom Megan first arrived in class and tried to make sense of what was in store for her as the day's art parent, she asked, "This isn't fly swatter painting, is it?" "No," I answered, "but it will be just as messy." There was a clean-up project at the end, one for which I hope to some day be forgiven.

And as I've written before, if there's one thing I know about projects in the Pre-3 class that involve tempera, even chunky tempera, it's that they always wind up as finger painting.

After all of that, however, we were still really only able to get about half of the paint out of the jugs so we took them outside and made a real river.

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Friday, April 29, 2011

Nature Circles

As a new teacher, I eschewed "kits." I'm a do-it-yourselfer at heart, usually frustrated whenever a professional needs to be brought in. I would cut my own hair if I could. I would perform my own appendectomy. So when we were looking at electricity during my first year as a teacher, I went the whole nine yards, assembling a lemon powered clock from copper wire, zinc-coated paper clips, pennies, foil, and a dismantled LED display clock. This monstrosity took three interconnected lemons, and after a lot of fiddling, it worked! The kids and their parents let out a genuine "whoop" of eureka when we finally could read those numbers on the watch's tiny face.

I might have run with the home made lemon clock for one more year, but it wasn't long before I broke down and bought the kit. In fact, I now own two of them. It's a lot tidier, less fiddling, and it works every time, which means we don't get the eureka whoop, but the basic concept of an electrical circuit is much clearer.

Along the same lines, I've always avoided the butterfly kits. I'm not really sure why because I'm sure not going to succeed in creating a do-it-yourself chrysalis, but this year Calder's grandfather Dick, who apparently loves to peruse educational product websites in his free time, asked if we would want a couple and I said, "Yes."

For nearly a month, both the Pre-3 and 3-5's classes have been watching these creatures grow from their larval stage all the way through to painted lady butterflies. We have 6 of them now in their "viewing chambers," with perhaps two more still to emerge from their chrysalid.

All the way through the process, they've been in a place where the kids could see them, albeit a little out of their reach because there are lots of admonishments in the materials about "delicate stages." I bridle at that a bit, but at the same time, they're living creatures and I'd rather them not suffer the fate of some of the worms from our worm bin who are occasionally handed to me by 2-year-old hands with the word, "broken."

And at each circle time, from the larva stage through butterfly, I've been slowly moving around the group, giving them a chance to get a close up view, a time during which the children make their observations, ask questions, and make connections that we can all talk about. In the 3-5 class in particular, the kids have demanded their butterfly time, calling out, "You forgot the butterflies!" when I've tried to skip them, inadvertently or otherwise. We've also, spent time each day, reviewing what we've seen and/or what we expect, using the poster-sized chart that came with the kit to prompt us.

We've been doing it together, me leading them through the "story" of both what has happened and what we predict will happen, leaving blanks for the group to fill in: "Before we got them they were . . . Eggs! By the time we got them, they were . . . Larva! Then they ate their food and grew into . . . Caterpillars! Once they were big enough they made their . . . Chrysalis!" (At this point, many of the kids say "chrysalid" since we've learned that's the plural form.) "And when they're inside their chrysalis, they're call . . . Pupae! Then they come out of their chrysalis and . . . Their wings are stuck together!" (This has become one of the "official" stages because it's on the chart.) "Then they spread their wings and are . . . Butterflies!  Then they lay eggs and the circle starts again."

We have a song with hand gestures indicating the caterpillars, chrysalid and butterfly stage, maybe every preschool does, that goes:

Fuzzy, fuzzy caterpillar.
Crawling, crawling by.
Don't you know that someday
You will be a butterfly.
Don't you know that someday
You will be a butterfly.

The 3-5's class now sings a version that has no rhyming or rhythm that includes the egg, larval, pupae, and wings stuck together stages. The old version no longer makes it.

I've used this as a chance to talk about the other classic nature story of metamorphosis: tadpole to frog, which we've looked at through pictures in books. At the same time, we've been talking about the life cycle of plants. We kneel down and pretend to be seeds, covered in dirt. We feel the rainwater and the warm sun. Then we sprout using our hands over our heads, palm together as if praying. We get our first leaves, spreading our hands apart. Then we grow, grow, grow, grow, grow, slowing emerging from our crouch into a fully standing position our "leaves" still over our heads. Then we get flowers, our palms blooming toward the sun, fingers spread wide. Then we grow fruit, our hands forming into fists. And inside the fruit are seeds, and we return to our crouch going through the process again and again, often until we're breathing hard, shouting together the words I've italicized here.

We talk about how all of these stories are circles; "nature circles" we call them. We talk about the other nature circles, like the seasons. In the 3-5's class, the kids are sharing other examples of the nature circles. Dennis recently saw and ostrich egg at the zoo and told us about that nature circle. We've shared the nature circle stories of worms, of bunnies, of dogs, of dinosaurs, and even of space aliens as we've sat there together, the butterflies from the kits now living creatures feeding off orange slices over my shoulder. As the children think of other nature circles, they tell them to me throughout the day, excited to share their eureka moment.

And, of course, we've noticed one other circle story, one that isn't exactly from nature, but isn't exactly man-made either: the electrical circuit we made to run our lemon powered clock, a circle that wasn't so clear in my DIY version.

We will never go a year again at Woodland Park without those butterfly kits. I'm a convert.

Thanks, Dick!

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

How A Play-Based Curriculum Works

I thought I was done writing about the collection of bits and pieces we've been playing with this week (which I've already done here and here), but the children won't let me. The more familiar they've become with the stuff, the more creatively they're using it, finding new breadth and depth with the materials themselves and with the ways these materials can interact artistically, scientifically, mathematically, socially, physically, dramatically, and literacy-ly. (Hey, I'm not claiming to be Faulkner or Joyce, but they made up words too!)

I did refresh the materials a bit, adding some new things to make up for the items that had been subtracted when the Pre-K class used our invented toilet paper tube-yoghurt drink bottle construction technique to make sword props for their upcoming play (the short one in the picture is, in fact, a light saber). 

For instance, there were a couple boxes of wooden "pick up sticks" the kids hadn't seen before, which were almost instantly put to use spelling names.

I like the way Sylvia came up with the technique of using a bit of string, from the can of string that had for the past two days sat virtually untouched amongst the other stuff, to form the curves of her "S," an idea adopted by Violet.

Isak followed suit by writing his name as well, making sure to include the "silent H" that he has added to his name this year.

"H" is Isak's "favorite letter," and has been a source of bonding between he, Sarah and me (Thomas) since we all now share a silent H in our names.

The string and cord also became the centerpiece of Dennis' artistic and scientific endeavors. I noticed him standing with a wad of the string in his hand while carefully unfurling it onto the ground. I thought it was a "mere" experiment until he said, "It's a dinosaur! It's a T-Rex!" Upon further inspection, sure enough I could see it, with the head there at the top, the tail curling out near the bottom. Whether he set out to make a dinosaur or simply "discovered" one when he was through arranging the string is really immaterial as he then continued working on it, adding wine bottle corks for the teeth.

When he added a bit of orange string around the teeth, he said, "This is the head." I answered, "We know what color dinosaur bones were because we've seen them, but no body knows what color their skin was. Maybe T-Rex's were orange." It was the kind of tangental comment that I've learned to make from working with children. The orange string sparked a connection for me between this moment and something I'd read long ago about the color of dinosaurs and, like the kids do at circle time, I shared my random thought.

The way Dennis continued looking at it, walking around it, seeing it from different angles, told me he wasn't finished. His dad Terry was our parent-teacher at the nearby art table so I pulled him away for a minute so he could watch what was going on.

As I explained what had lead up to this moment, Dennis began arranging foam packing material and large yoghurt containers atop the string.

When he was done, he looked up at us and said, "I made it's skin!" Oh boy! He'd taken off on my comment and built a dinosaur from the bones outward. Was it a piece of art or a scientific exploration? 

At one point the area of loose parts got rowdy as three boys invented a game that involved taking turns climbing into the now empty foam packing material box, while those on the outside beat on it, a game right on the edge of being out of control. Sylvia's mom Toby did a masterful job of managing the play so that we didn't have to break out the first aid kit, gave them time to explore their bodies and those of others within the context of the game, which at one point involved two boys at a time squeezed into the one boy box, then helped them wrap it up because as fun as this game was, it was also the kind of thing that tends to make the area entirely "un-playable" for the rest of the kids who aren't in a wrestling mood.

As the group play moved on to the sensory table and into the loft, this re-opened the space for quieter play, more mathematical play. Finding new ways to use the pick-up sticks, for instance . . .

. . . or assembling the parts from an old marble run game purposefully picked out of the box of wood scraps.

If you look closely, you'll see she formed circles out of 1/4 circle arcs.

While others used circles to form new shapes.

Once finished, he counted each row of the equilateral triangle, noting that there was one fewer specimen cup in each subsequent row as he moved up toward the point.

Each day in preschool is a revelation. The whole world is right there, everything we need to learn, contained within those loose parts that others might call junk.

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