Wednesday, November 30, 2011

But Wouldn't You Know It . . .

The basic set up for this is a fully loaded tape machine (a large multi-roll tape dispenser), scissors, and something on which to stick tape, which in this case was an overturned table, a couple of our wooden boxes, and a few chairs. I arranged everything to create a sort corral for tape play, one the kids could finish creating as they played, but also one that I hoped would concentrate it to a single area of the classroom.

I've done this kind of planning many times before, relying on thought experiments involving the children in my mind, only to have my expectations blown away by the first wave of real live kids, so I was a little curious as to how we'd handle it if and when the tape play spilled beyond those implied boundaries and into the rest of the room where history has shown the sticky tangle of tape will take over. As anyone who's read here long knows, I'm not inclined to boss kids around, especially in their school, so I was prepared, despite my best planning efforts, to spend a morning pointing out how tape here or there is making it hard for other people to play and expecting that this will cause kids to chose to honor their friends' desires for tape free spaces.

But wouldn't you know it, this time it worked! Without any adult badgering that I heard, the kids kept their tape construction/deconstruction within the corral, even when it got crowded. I might finally be getting the hang of this teaching thing.

Both the 3-5 and Pre-3 classes got into the act on successive days, pulling off long pieces of colorful tape, then cutting it down, over and over again.

For two classroom sessions, with kids ranging from 2-8, it ebbed and flowed as a truly fantastic example of free-form, child-directed cooperative play.

Tape was put up and cut down and put back up again. We talked and objected and agreed and schemed.

And in the end, we cut it down one last time and threw it all away.

. . . Okay, so then I went back after class and salvaged it. That's right, I thought we might like to have a tape ball around the place as a kind of memento of the time Teacher Tom got it right. But then I had the idea that they'd been playing inside the corral long enough and it was time to turn those tape ponies into the pasture, but that's a much wilder, less sanguine story for another day.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Little Red Hen Is A Jerk

When it's going well, we're approaching each day, each project, each activity as an experiment, if for nothing else than to stave off the bane of rote for both the kids and me.

It was in the spirit of this that I read The Little Red Hen at our closing circle. To summarize for those few of you who don't know this old folk tale:

The Little Red Hen does all the household work, while the Goose, Cat, and Dog (in our version) each decline to help out, saying, "Not I," each time she asks. When she finds a grain of wheat to plant, her lazy housemates continue to say "Not I" as she does the work of tending, harvesting, threshing, milling and finally baking a loaf of bread. The big finish is that when the Hen asks the others if they will help her eat the freshly baked bread, they all say, "I will," only to find that the long-suffering Hen has decided that since she did all the work, she gets to eat all the bread.

Last year's group rebelled against the whole concept, recoiling at the idea that the Hen would withhold a slice of bread from her friends. The response lead me to speculate that the kids were probably just not quite developmentally ready for the concept. Some readers agreed suggesting other stories or other versions of this story that did a better job of getting the message across, some blamed the illustrations in our version of the book, while many sided with the kids, one reader even writing that her teenage son after reading the post responded quite succinctly, "The Little Red Hen is a jerk."

It was with this sentiment echoing in my head that we read the book yesterday. But first I wanted to make sure the kids really understood the story I was reading, slowing down to emphasize at each stage that the Hen was laboring away, while the others gossiped, primped, and lazed. I don't always read our books with this much focus on meaning. Usually I'm just trying to put on a good show to wind up our day, but as I read, it dawned on me that lacking knowledge of cultural judgments about these "negative" traits, the kids might well be interpreting gossip as talking with friends, vanity as good hygiene, and laziness as taking a nap, all fairly positive things, things for which they receive praise.

Even as I read yesterday I considered stopping to have a discussion about gossiping, vanity and laziness, but dismissed it almost as soon as the thought entered my mind. They have the rest of their lives to form these judgments and they'll do it without my help. Instead I tried to remain focused on the key issue: the Hen is doing all the work while the others are saying "Not I." A couple times I even stopped to point out the expression on the Hen's face, "She looks like she's working really hard," and "That would be a lot easier if someone helped her."

But when I got to the end, there was still a chorus of: "Why isn't she sharing?" "They're hungry!" and "She should give them some too!"

Last year's experience had prepared me for this. I flipped back through the pages to remind the kids that there was more to the story than the picture at the end depicting the self-satisfied Hen surrounded by her mournful housemates, but to no avail. 

"Maybe they were too tired to help." 

"Maybe they were busy." 

"Maybe they forgot." 

"Maybe they were sick." 

"Maybe they were hurt." 

"Maybe they didn't think it would be fun."

I know my English professors would have wanted them to support their theories "from the text," but in the real world those would all be legitimate reasons for not helping, ones we've all used in our lives without sacrificing a slice of bread at the end. Maybe young children are naturally communists. I don't, of course, mean big state Leninist commies, but on the deeper, personal level. Maybe young children do understand we all sometimes do things for others without any expectation of a reward or any other kind of return other than the sense of satisfaction of having accomplished something. It's the same sentiment that's behind those little gifts children bring me unprompted; pictures to hang on my wall at home, pretty leaves or flowers they've found on their way to school, buttons or do-dads or parts of things that they hand to me saying, "This is for you." It's a very anti-capitalist notion, a Christian notion, a Buddhist notion, a Jewish notion, an Islamic notion, this idea of doing pure good. It stands outside of our cultural version of exchanging this for that, tit for tat.

No one is making the Hen do the work. It's a self-selected activity. She asks for help, but she never warns anyone that the consequence of not helping is no bread. In fact, she doesn't even tell them about her plan to make bread. In all the pictures, she wears an expression of cheerfulness. Is it surprising that her friends didn't feel a compulsion to pitch in? Can you really blame the others for assuming that she, like them, was simply following her own heart?

If the Goose made some new friends through her long chats at the fence, would she refuse to introduce them to the Hen because she didn't help? Maybe the Cat, through her daily regime of grooming and hygiene, will discover that regular hand washing helped keep her healthy. Would we think it was okay for her to hold that important information to herself? Or what about that well-rested Dog, what amazing dreams he must have that can be woven into stories to entertain the others during those long winter months when the wheat doesn't grow. (Admittedly, the Dog's the hardest one to defend.) 

The point, I think, that the children, over the course of two years, have been trying to make is: who knows what activity, if pursued with a passion, will lead to something that will benefit us all? And if we make that discovery, shouldn't we share? Yes, we adults all know that hard work and planting seeds and so on will lead ultimately to a loaf of bread, but apparently none of the characters in the story do, nor did the children to whom I was reading the story. And while there is nothing in the text that leads us to believe that even the Hen herself knew what she was doing, if she did know all along that she was heading toward that loaf of bread, putting on that cheery face, while making a show of all her hard work, then planning to punish the others with no bread . . . Well, then she is a jerk.

So maybe young children really are communists at heart, or at least they understand this story at a level far deeper than simply commerce.

Of course, it's more likely that they, being children, view the Hen as a mommy figure. In their lives this is what parents do. Performing chores around the house is part of their role, which makes it even more understandable that when she refuses a slice a bread to her "children," the kids are upset, shocked, and confused, further cementing The Little Red Hen's status as a jerk.

UPDATE: This post generated a lot of comment both here and around the internet. Here is a follow up post that carries on this discussion.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

"Get Off!"

A week or so ago, I posted about how the kids made a teeter totter that turned into a kind of balance beam. The older kids found it again last week as the rains came down.

On Monday, Charlotte took it on, balancing across the teeter totter, clearly setting out to master the thing. She walked quickly to the pivot point, then carefully across it until the board tipped under her weight, then turned around and went back again.

The problem was that there were soon other kids who wanted to play on the new toy, which really bollixed up her plans. 

"Get off! Get off!"

It was frustrating. As soon as she convinced one person to step off another stepped on.

"Get off! Get off!"

Last year as a 2-year-old she would have likely pushed someone, but the only time she put her hands on other kids on Wednesday was in an attempt to focus their attention on her, to get them to listen to what she had to tell them: "Get off!"

She wanted the board free for her experiments, but others wanted to play with it too. Charlotte was forceful, but under control. Each, "Get off!" sounded to me as if she would have appended it with, "I just need it for a couple more minutes," if she'd thought of it.

I helped her clear the decks a couple times by stating the fact, "Charlotte wants everyone to get off," which gave her a couple opportunities to scamper across unimpeded, but it didn't last as the next wave of curious classmates arrived out of the rain, hooded, with zombie-like persistency, to be on that teeter totter board with her.

At one point there were so many kids standing there, it seemed momentarily hazardous, so I stood on one end, my body weight keeping the whole thing from tipping. The kids on the opposite end, Charlotte included, rose into the air.

The other kids jumped off the side, but Charlotte stayed on, turning on the springy, raised end of the board as if it were a diving board over a swimming pool. She began to jump, once, twice, thrice then launched herself into the wood chips. A few of the other kids then gave it go, or rather, they walked out on the plank and jumped off, but only Charlotte tried the three bounce swan dive.

The following day it was raining even harder. Violet and I found ourselves together near the teeter totter. I asked, "Have you played with the new toy."

"This?" She got up on it, standing pretty much in the center. I stood on one end, raising the opposite end like I'd done the day before.

Violet walked out to the raised end of the board, jumped once, twice, thrice then launched herself into the wood chips. She did it several times. I was probably cheering aloud for her. At least, looking back that's what would explain what happened next. Within a matter of minutes nearly every child in the outdoor classroom was lined up for a turn, a queue of close to 20 children that stretched well into the sand pit.

The rain beat upon us as we jumped from our improvised spring board. Most of us landed on our feet, but some, like Gray, chose the belly flop, and he wasn't the only one.

So this is an instance when I, as the teacher, wasn't just observing or making statements of fact: I was performing a vital role, serving as dead weight. I reckon I'll do it again today.

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Sunday, November 27, 2011

And Please Know, I Do Love You

The difference between my neuroses and everyone else's is that mine make sense. ~Teacher Tom

I know I'm a jerk. I wish I wasn't, but I am. I've always been a poor correspondent and there are days when this whole online community thing feels a little bit like one big obligation to "stay in touch." This isn't to say that I think I'm right or justified. It's one of my neuroses, one that goes hand-in-hand, I think, with my phone phobia. People say to me, "But Tom, you write all the time. Can't you just drop me a line? Come on, man, get with it!" And they're absolutely correct. 

Please accept this post as an apology for all those times I've read your blog, been inspired, but neglected to leave a comment. I do it a lot; too much. Same goes for all those times you've left a comment or asked a question and I've not responded. I read everything, I make a mental note to write something insightful or witty, then I put it off, then it seems like it's too late. For whatever reason, correspondence has always required that I summon up my internal resources, pull myself together, and get motivated. I suppose at bottom is an irrational fear of rejection (or at least a fear of sounding inane), but I'll save that for the therapist, and instead beg for your understanding

Today, I'm going to try, at least in some measure, to make amends. So enough with the confessional navel gazing and on to my nominees for the 2011 Edublog Awards, or "Eddies."

Best Teacher Blog:  Let The Children Play
Jenny's remarkable blog was one of the first I encountered upon starting my own 2+ years ago. She was on one of those tears she goes on, in which she was discovering inspiring outdoor play spaces and sharing them with her readers. This experience was one of the most influential things that has happened to me as a preschool teacher, taking me on a journey into outdoor education that has lead our school's community to design and build two outdoor classrooms in the past couple years, not to mention developing a whole new curriculum to go along with them. So beautiful and polished was her work, that I simply assumed she'd been blogging forever and tentatively began leaving comments. Little did I know that she was just starting out as well. Jenny, more than any other single educator, has helped me really understand what it is we progressive, play-based teachers are doing on a day-to-day basis. Thank you, Jenny, you are one of my heros!

Best New Blog: zella said purple
Sometimes Jeanne just blows me away with her insights into the inner life of the children in her charge, and through them children in general. Sometimes it's her thoughtfulness about our profession. Sometimes it's her wit and creativity that takes what might look like a simple art project, for instance, into the realm of great wisdom. And always, it's her incredible photos, which she uses so purposefully to illustrate and illuminate. Not only that, but she is such an incredible, supportive presence on the internet in general, both through her blog and her use of other social networking media.

Being a preschool teacher, I'm around a lot of newborns, not as their teacher, but hopefully their future teacher, as they come to school to drop off their older siblings. My standing joke had always been to look under their little blankies and say, "Come back to me when you can walk and talk, then we can be friends." I've not said it since discovering parent educator Janet Lansbury's self-named blog. Inspired by the work of Magda Gerber (for whom she is an important evangelist) Janet has changed my entire way of thinking about babies and very young children, giving me insight into the brilliance and competency of our youngest humans. It's almost impossible to pick out one post to nominate in this category, nearly every one of them pierces into some core truth about young children and our relationships with them, but the one that had the most impact on me was The Secrets of Infant Learning. The video she shares of a baby scientist at work, and her careful observations, belies so many of my long held assumptions about infants that it's like she's opened a door to a whole new world. A close runner up for me is the post Don't Cramp Your Toddlers Style -- The Power of Trust in which a little girl inspires by just lying on a beach. Holy cow!

Sherry and Donna won in this category last year, so that's where I'm nominating them again (because, you know, two is a group). But frankly, they could and should clean up in any one of the Edublog categories. I am 100 percent certain that I would not be blogging today without my Australian colleagues' support. They are such incredible supporters that they even took care of my parents for an afternoon when they visited Melbourne. When the well feels dry, this is the first place I turn for inspiration and I doubt that anyone has more fun playing with young children than these two. You probably already read their blog because they are among the most popular early childhood bloggers out there, but if not, it's time to get on the stick. They're popular for a reason!

Best Twitter Hashtag: #teachpreschool
Deborah Stewart is the queen of early childhood social media. Ah heck, she's simply the queen of all media! No one, no one, no one has done more for bringing the early childhood education community together online like Deborah has, through her blog Teach Preschool, her music CD Simple Songs for Preschool, her regular television appearances, her prolific tweeting, and her wildly successful Facebook page (with over 25,000 followers). Like with Sherry and Donna, I could have nominated her in any category, but since this hashtag is her latest foray (of which I'm aware), and it has become my go-to spot on Twitter during these past few months, I hope she'll understand that I had to choose just one.

Best Individual Tweeter: R. Scott Wiley
There is no one more thoughtful and generous in our community that Scott. We first met each other through his blog Brick by Brick and his capacity for looking deeply into the things that most of us take for mundane and unearthing insights into young children is astonishing. I often drop by there expecting to learn about a project, but come away feeling inspired about life. In the past year he has become an indispensable Tweeter, sharing mountains of valuable links and information, piling up the followers, and spreading the preschool love right across the internet. I think of him as my Nashville brother.

Best Individual Blog: Marla McLean, atelierista
Yes, I wish she posted more often, but then I wouldn't have the sense of anticipation I feel each time I see in my reader that Marla has written something new. I'll confess, I don't always know what to make of her posts at first: they are sometimes so poetic that they seem to come to me from another world. I've told her before that I find myself returning to each of her posts 2, 3, or 4 times. I love the way this artist/teacher's mind works, the way she weaves her many life experiences together in these artworks that seem almost like a kind of magical spell has been cast in which walls are knocked down and new connections made. I'm inspired both by her commitment to the Reggio Emilia approach, of course, but even more so by the way she approaches each post as a work of art in which she's put careful thought into every detail. 

There are so many other blogs deserving of recognition that I hesitate to even post this because of those left out, three of which are I'm a teacher, get me OUTSIDE here!Child Central StationLearning for Life. The only reason I'm not nominating them, is that they've already nominated this blog and apparently if I turned around and nominated them, we would cancel one another out, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't nominate them. And keep in mind, if I've nominated you, don't nominate me! 

So, again I apologize for being a jerk. I hope I've introduced you to at least a few new blogs. And please know, I do love you despite my neuroses.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Saturday, November 26, 2011

"Does That Sound Fair?"

Last week our public schools set aside Monday-Wednesday for parent-teacher conferences, so along with the Thanksgiving holiday break the kids had the full week off, while the preschool remained in session. We've always maintained an open door policy at Woodland Park, in which older siblings are welcome to join their younger brothers and sisters for a morning of preschool if they have no other plans. Most of these older kids are children I taught as preschoolers or as part of our summer program, so they know me well enough, and they know our program, and I know them well enough that we can usually work together quite well.

Less common, however, is to have some of these older sibs join us for our Pre-K (4-5 year-olds) afternoon which happened last week when Sylvia's brother Zachary and Violet's brother Elliott, both second graders, came to play.

I like to use this once a week opportunity of having my older students all together and undistracted to begin to address community-wide issues and challenges. Our swing set use has been a brewing matter for some time now with only two swings and, often, more than two aspiring swingers. I know for awhile there, the kids, with a little help from me, adopted a "count to twenty" system for allocating swing time. That is, if you were waiting for a swing, you counted up to twenty, which was then the signal for a switch. I've not made this system widely known among our parent-teachers, hoping that the kids themselves could operate and adapt the system on their own, but things had clearly broken down during the past few weeks as children were increasingly 1) neglecting to count in favor of nagging, shouting, or glowering at the other swingers, and 2) refusing to give up a seat to those who waited. Violet's mom Cheryl reported actually hearing one of the children use the word "injustice." Nice.

I laid out the situation for the kids on Tuesday, including our two second graders, making sure we all saw the dynamics the same way, as well as agreeing upon a need for some kind of solution. We were all on board with both suppositions.

"Okay, so what should we do?"

Zachary's hand went up first, "There should be a 10 to 20 second time limit."

I wrote the idea down on a piece of butcher paper, describing our old "count to twenty" system and asking Zachary to confirm that this was the kind of thing he was proposing.

"What else could we do?"

Sasha was next, "We could ask, "Can you share please?"" 

I clarified, "So, if you want to swing you ask the person on the swing, "Can you share please?""

I wrote that down as well.

"What else could we do?"

There was a bit of a discussion rather than specific ideas at this point, but it bore fruit in the sense that the word, "fair" came up.

"So we want it to be fair, right?" When everyone agreed, I wrote that on our list too.

"What else?"

Violet suggested, "We could build more swings."

Although I perhaps should have just clarified, then written it down like I had the other proposals, the idea immediately sparked a number of supportive comments, which lead me to say, "Let's talk about that idea little bit. How many more swings would we need?" I drew a crude representation of our two-swing swing set, then began adding swings. The children finally suggested increasing the number to 24, the enrollment of the entire class, although I didn't draw all of them.

This is when Elliott brought up the real-world concern of cost: "It might be too expensive."

I asked, "How much do you think it would cost?"

One of the older boys authoritatively suggested "$150,000," so that's the number we ran with for the purposes of the discussion.

"We don't have that much money. How are we going to get it?"

I don't recall all the specific ideas we had, but most of them involved making things like lemon popsicles and selling them. We took a few of these ideas and tried the mental experiment of determining how much we could "realistically" expect to make from each of them. This part of the discussion was largely owned by the older boys, with the 4-5 year olds following along as best they could, but in none of our scenarios could we come up with a number anywhere near $150,000. In fact, even with all of our ideas combined, we only got up to $155.

That's when Zachary finally put the nail in the coffin of the idea by saying, "And we haven't considered the issue of space."

I clarified, "I was wondering about that. Here I've drawn 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 swings. We're talking about building twice as many. Do we have enough room out there for all those swings?"

There was a lot of shaking of heads.

This discussion is only one of many ways the older boys contributed to class on Tuesday. 
For instance, when it was time to clean up, they took it upon themselves to "color
code" our wooden cubes. They helped elevate and focus all of our discussions and activities. 
When we worked on "patterns" it was great to see them demonstrating concepts beyond
the basic A-B-A-B patterns. I love being able to stretch our age range like this,
even if it's only temporarily.

"So, let's go back to our list. We have the idea of a 10-20 second time limit. We have the idea of asking, "Can you please share?" And we want it to be fair." Frankly, I was assuming we were headed for the time limit as our primary solution, but the kids had other ideas. Sasha, Sylvia and Violet, three of our most enthusiastic Pre-K swingers, and therefore the most invested participants, wanted to further examine the idea of asking others to share.

I asked, "So, are you suggesting that when someone is on the swing and you want to swing, you should go to them and say, "Can you please share?""

They nodded.

"What if that person says, No?"

I thought for sure we were now going to start talking about the "count to twenty" system. There was a pause before Sasha said, "Then you ask them again."

"If the person says, No, then we ask them again, "Can you share please?""

They nodded.

"What if that person says, No, again?"

This time there was no pause, "Then you ask them again."

"So if the person says, No a third time, we ask them again, "Can you share please?""

I could see that this might go on for some time, and apparently so did Elliott, who said, "Then after three times we could use the time limit."

There was general agreement.

Click! "Okay, so let me see if I understand our plan. If you want to swing and someone is already on the swing, we will ask, "Can you share please?" If they say No, we will ask them again, "Can you share please?" If they say No, we will ask them again, "Can you share please?" If they say No this time we will invoke the time limit."

Despite the word "invoke" the kids agreed that this was a good plan.

Then I asked, referring to the notes I was keeping on the butcher paper, "So now we just need to decide if it's going to be a 10 or a 20 second time limit."

There were opinions on both sides, so we voted. The 10 second limit won.

"Alright then, so this is our plan: if you want to swing and someone is on the swing you will ask them, "Can you share please?" three times. If they keep saying No you can invoke the time limit by starting to count to 10. When you get to 10, that person has to get off the swing and you get on."

Yes, that's what we'd decided.

"And what happens if you're on the swing and someone else wants a turn?"

Zachary spoke for the group, "The same thing."

I asked, "Does that sound fair?"

Everyone agreed.

On Wednesday with a lot of the kids already gone for their holiday break there weren't enough swingers to try out the new plan, so we'll likely be testing it on Monday. I'm still hoping for it to become a child-managed system, with our Pre-K kids serving in leaderships roles as our second graders did on Tuesday. We'll see . . .

Thanks to Zachary and Elliott for helping us get to a solution (and feel free, guys, to correct me if I got anything about this discussion wrong.)

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Friday, November 25, 2011

This Looks Like Something To Knock Down

I found myself with extra time on my hands while setting up for Wednesday's 3-5's class, so I built this structure.

I thought, You know what this looks like? It looks like something to knock down. And doesn't it, though?

I used to build "starter buildings" in our block area every morning, usually not this elaborate, but with the idea of getting the kids off to a running start. I stopped doing it when I finally realized that, inevitably, among the first two or three kids through the door there would be one who would knock it down, usually by kicking it. 

One of our rules is that you can only knock down a building you built yourself unless you ask the person who built it first, usually expressed as, "This is not a knocking down building," or "This is a knocking down building."

Connor was one of the first in the room. He tried to walk up them like a stairway, but without knocking them over.

Luca was next. While telling me about his adventures getting to school in the rain, he inadvertently kicked out the blue, yellow, and pink blocks supporting one of the lower corners of the structure. Amazingly the rest of the structure remained standing, leaving a cantilever of three blocks. I said, "This construction technique is called a cantilever." Connor and Luca looked at it without comment.

And in fact, the structure was never knocked down, but instead was cannibalized for other building projects until it no longer existed. 

Violet built a large building adjacent to one of those big orange boxes you can see in the pictures, large enough to stand in. She demonstrated how she could jump off the box to land inside her building without knocking down the walls.

River complained to me, "Violet used all the blocks and I don't have any." Violet overheard him.

I said, "You'll have to talk to her. She built a building to jump into."

River and Violet took turns jumping into the building without knocking it down, then Violet said, "We can knock it down now," which they did, together.

Parker brought his grandpa to class on Wednesday who, while watching the kids build, joked, "Do the adults get to play with these blocks when the kids are done?" I answered, "The adults get to play with the blocks right now!" which was all the invitation he needed to drop to the floor and get busy with his grandson. The next time I returned to the block area, they had, with the help of friends, erected an impressive edifice, with windows employing the cantilever technique, that again used nearly all of the blocks.

No one complained and when it was clean up time, everyone helped knock it down.

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