Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Enhanced Leaf Rubbing: Engaging "The Masses"

Each year, I trot out the leaf rubbing material. Typically, the most exciting part of the project is taking the tour of our neighborhood to collect leaves. After that, each step of the process becomes less popular with the result being that maybe a couple dozen leaves get successfully rubbed, mostly by one or two kids who really get into it. That's enough for me, that only one or two kids milk something for everything it's worth. It's one of the things I value most about teaching in a cooperative: we don't need to jettison activities just because they don't engage "the masses." We have enough arms and legs around the room in the form of parent-teachers (child:teacher ratios anywhere from 1:2 to 1:4 depending on age) that we can usually afford to let a station run, and run well, for the edification of the few.

Still, I'm always looking for ways to expand the appeal of projects, especially traditional ones like selecting an attractive Fall leaf, then using a crayon cake (or the edge of an unwrapped crayon) to transfer its delicate structure onto tracing paper. It's a challenge for most preschoolers to hold the paper still as they rub. We used to solve this problem by taping the paper down over the leaf, but the time that took often caused us to "lose" the kids with shorter attention spans, who just wanted to get busy coloring. Then we hit on the idea of using clip boards as a kind of "third hand" to keep things from moving around so much.

Of course, at bottom, the real challenge of leaf rubbing with preschoolers is that it's a technique that requires the touch, experience, and patience usually found in older children, which is why I was interested to give it a go with our new 5's class. It was purely serendipitous that both Duncan and Addison had recently begun to talk about land artist Andy Goldsworthy and had both expressed an interest in trying to create "art like him." Duncan, in particular, had told us that the important first step is to "look around and see what nature things we can find, then make art from them." I sold the neighborhood leaf walk as a Goldsworthy-esque hunt for "nature things," which is why we came back with our bags full of more than just leaves. After a session of arranging leaves, sticks, seeds, fruit, and rocks into artwork in the outdoor classroom, we still had plenty of pretty leaves left over to use later for leaf rubbing.

But before getting there, we needed to make our own crayon cakes, the first step of which was to pick the paper off old crayons and sort by color. I knew that this activity, in and of itself, wouldn't hold our attention for long (I've done it often -- it's both tedious and painful on the fingernails), so I wanted to figure out a way to melt the crayons as we went, which, I thought, would add some glamour and motivation to the project.

Look at all those careful fingers. Holding children competent is always it's own reward.

We have a classroom crayon melting rig that I know will liquify the wax, but it involves balancing little pots in a pan of boiling water on a portable stove burner, and I wanted this to be as hands-on as possible, so instead I thought we could try the hot plates we normally use to make encaustic monoprints. I tested them out prior to class and found that they could, indeed, melt crayons, but they didn't get hot enough to melt more than 1 or 2 at a time. It would be a slow process, but hopefully engaging.

I love that the kids got an extended opportunity to freely explore the way wax melts.

And it was engaging, especially for the handful of kids who stuck it out, remaining at the workbench for nearly an hour at a time. We did this over two class sessions, with the kids discovering for themselves, through trail and error, that we were only going to be able to melt a little at a time. I'd provided craft sticks to use for stirring, which they discovered helped accelerate the process. Slowly, but surely, we made our crayon cakes, adding melted wax to our molds by the teaspoon-full, a process that looked painstaking to me, the teacher peering over their shoulders, but it was enough for the kids, who showed an impressive amount of concentration and patience.

After a couple hours of work spread out over two days, we wound up with a 8 completed crayon cakes. 

Now remember, we were going through all of this by way of enhancing the leaf rubbing experience. So far, all of the 18 kids had had a hand in some aspect of the project. I made a big deal out of the cakes we'd made, peeling the wrappers off in front of the group to show them what "we'd made," then demonstrated how they could use a clip board, and this very thin paper, and their brand new crayon cakes to "do the magic trick" of making a detailed an delicate impression.

I'll bet at least 8 kids made more than one rubbing. Progress.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Lesson Of Just Saying, "Screw It"

They're called jelly marbles or water marbles or clear spheres and have been all the rage among blogging preschool teachers for the past several years. And they are fascinating. Made from a super-absorbent polymer, they start as tiny seeds that when placed in water for a few hours, grow into a slippery, squishy marble many times the original size. 

Other teachers swear by them, but, to be honest, I find them frustrating. For one thing, I've not been able to figure out a way to prevent them from winding up all over the floor without spending a lot of time bossing the kids around about how to play with them. These are slippery, round, bouncy little balls that find their way into every corner of the room. The few times we've played with them, I find them under tables and chairs for weeks afterwards. Then there's the annoying fact that in any group there is always a kid or two who take great gratification in simply crushing them into little gelatinous pieces, a condition from which they never recover. If left to their own devices, these kids can render the entire 1000 sphere collection into rubble in a matter of minutes, leaving a mess and wrecking the fun for everyone else. And finally there's the matter of what to do with them once we're finished using them. I know you can let them dehydrate and store them in a plastic bag for later use, but that requires a large space where you can spread them out on towels, or a giant colander, and let them sit, possibilities I don't have at school, and I hate throwing them out, so typically, for months afterwards, they live in a tub which is constantly underfoot until I finally just take them outside and let the kids use them up.

All of this, I'll readily admit is a problem with me, not water marbles or the kids. I suppose this is a bit like how other teachers feel about glitter, something that has never bothered me, but apparently makes others want to pull their hair out. And despite this, I keep trying out the jelly marbles, envying the fun other schools are having, I suppose, but with low expectations.

I've had a batch under foot since the first few weeks of school, so, thinking of them as creepy Halloween eyeballs, I just dumped them into the sensory table yesterday, hoping that this time would be different -- the definition of insanity. The kids fell on them instantly (kids always fall on them) scattering them all over the room, and crushing them in their fists. Sigh. I tried to just stay away, letting a parent-teacher be in charge of my frustrations.

Across the room, we were using filleted mini pumpkins, gourds, and ornamental corn as painting tools. The idea was to dip them in red, yellow, or orange paint, then make prints on paper. That's where I hung out, painting with some of the few kids who were not so fired up about jelly marbles. It's the nature of this particular art project to get your hands messy, which is part of the idea. I like the opportunity for kids to experience this sort of tactile, sensory exploration of the materials. Naturally, once they were done, they wanted to wash up. When Audrey P. held up her paint-y fingers, saying, "I'm going to wash my hands," I suggested, at least a little out of my frustration with the clear spheres, "Why don't you see if the jelly marbles can clean your hands?"

She smiled like an imp.

From then, it was only a matter of minutes before our official "art project" had been abandoned entirely, as the children began moving back and forth between the art and sensory tables, purposely besmirching their palms, then washing them off in the marbles. The parent-teacher responsible for the art table, became the parent-teacher responsible for wiping up the floor, a job that became even more vital when a couple of the girls had the idea of taking paper over to the sensory table to take prints off the marbles.

I'm still not sold on water marbles, especially since I now have a tub full of them, marinating in orange tempera that is liable to wind up underfoot, but I did enjoy being there as the kids made it their own without much bossiness from me. I just gave up and watched it happen. And maybe that's what I need to learn from water marbles: the lesson of just saying, Screw it

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Monday, October 29, 2012

"Now I Have A Jack-O-Lantern"

There should be more pumpkin carving in preschool. 

Like nearly everyone, my history with pumpkin carving goes back to childhood: it's one of those things most living Americans have always done during the month of October. Dad did the honors in our house, starting by angling a paring knife into the top, cutting a circle around the stem. The angle was important, he explained, because then the top wouldn't then fall into the cavity of the pumpkin. He always then cut a triangular chimney to "create a flow of air" to help the candle stay lit.

After we scooped out the pulp and seeds, using a big kitchen spoon to scrape down the sides, he would draw a face in pencil, then go to work carefully carving out the triangular eyes and toothy grins.

I think we forewent pumpkin carving during the years we lived in Greece, but otherwise I've pretty much always had at least one carved pumpkin around the house this time of year, even in college. 

When our daughter was born on Halloween eve, pumpkin carving took on a renewed importance. At my peak, I was carving upwards of 40 pumpkins each year in celebration of her birthday. They would decorate our lawn, our trees, our potted plants, lining our driveway, sitting atop the fence posts. Indoors, smaller ones lined our mantle and accented tables.

It took me working every evening for a week and by Halloween itself many of them were beginning to decay. I could knock one off every 10 minutes if I really got in a groove. There were battles with squirrels and crows, but that's where having hounds comes in handy. I would wait by the door with three different dogs, peering out the window until just the right moment, then release them to chase the invaders back into the trees. I tried sprinkling the jack-o-lanterns with cayenne pepper, but it didn't really stop anything, especially the crows who actually seemed to like it. I came to accept a certain amount of gnawing and rot as part of the "creepiness" of carved pumpkins.

Most of my carving now takes place at school and always in the company of the children. I tell them about the importance of angling your knife when cutting the top and, of course, explain why we always cut out triangular chimneys. I sit in the midst of the classroom, carving and chatting with the kids, then sing about it once we're done. "Now I have a jack-o-lantern, a jack-o-lantern, a jack-o-lantern with a bright shining face!"

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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Say "No" To Charter Schools

I voted yesterday, sitting down with my wife at our dining room table and talking our way through the candidates and ballot measures. We cancelled one another out on one judicial candidate, but otherwise saw things eye-to-eye, which didn't surprise us given that we regularly discuss politics and government, both among ourselves and with our friends and family. Voting is important, but those discussions are the real backbone of democracy.

One of the national public policy topics I've often discussed here on this blog has been my staunch opposition to charter schools. The people of Washington state, where I live, have already thrice rejected charter schools at the ballot box, but advocates, supported by the deep pockets of billionaires and big business are relentless in attacking our public schools (and their real target, teacher's unions), and are hoping, I guess, that they can just wear us down. If you live here, please vote "No" on Initiative 1240, which would divert millions of dollars away from our public schools into the pockets of private operators, weakening our schools in favor of an experiment that is failing everywhere it's been tried.

Let me repeat that: this is a well-funded, corporate experiment, based solely upon the discredited theory that competition always results in the best results. It is an experiment in which our children are the guinea pigs. It is an experiment that even in the best case scenarios are producing results on par with public schools, while enriching for-profit corporations who come to feed at the public trough. It's an experiment that further weakens our public schools, pits neighbors against one another, teachers against one another, and children against one another.

If there was even one single peer reviewed piece of research indicating that charter schools produced substantially better educational results, I might listen to what these corporate "reformers" have to say, but there is no evidence to support their claims. In fact, what data there is indicates that charter schools make things worse. A widely cited Stanford study found that only 17 percent of charter schools perform better than public schools, while 37 percent perform substantially worse, with the rest doing about the same. This is pure snake oil.

Yes, I know there are a few shining lights out there in the charter world. I know that people will leave comments here sharing anecdotes about a successful, popular school near where they live. For every one of those anecdotes I can find at least a dozen cases of successful, popular public schools. You will lose the anecdote battle.

Yes, I know that I-1240 ostensibly creates "nonprofit" schools, but there is nothing to stop for-profit contractors from being hired to run those schools -- which is exactly what is happening across the country -- or to prevent school administrators from taking outrageous salaries -- which is also happening across the country. For-profit schools transform children from students to be educated into human resources to be exploited for profit. Already our education policies force children to spend more and more of their days preparing for the all-important standardized tests. It doesn't take much imagination to envision charter schools as Dickensian testing mills, especially since I-1240 doesn't create any new funding. These for-profit businesses will not exist as corporations in a competitive marketplace, but rather as publicly-funded for-profit entities, meaning that they will be motivated to drive kids to produce high test scores at the lowest cost in order to maximize their profit. This is Econ 101, folks. The idea frightens me beyond belief.

Yes, I've heard the specious argument from corporate reformers that they are only trying to give parents more "choice," but that's not how I-1240 works. In this case, "choice" comes in the form of the most aggressive "trigger law" in the country: all it will take is a simple majority of parents or teachers to sign a secret petition for your local public school to be closed and replaced by a charter. There aren't even any performance standards attached to this trigger, it applies to high achieving and low achieving schools alike. And there is no provision in the law for converting back to a public school should the charter, as it is statistically liable to do, not be an improvement. Think about how this "choice" will play out in your school. These corporate privatizers have already proven to be relentless. There will be charter school petitions circulating in every school, all the time, pitting the parent community against one another, teachers against one another, and when their well-financed efforts finally achieve 50.00001 percent, then Bam, your neighborhood school is now a privately-owned charter school and there's nothing you can do about changing it back. Not only that, but you will no longer have a say through your PTA or elected school boards or other places where parents traditionally have a voice in education because I-1240 creates an unelected, partisan state charter school commission, answerable only to whichever politicians happen to hold power. That's the vaunted "choice" being offered here: all or nothing.

Make no mistake, the charter school movement is a well-funded political and corporate effort to privatize education, to redistribute public funds into the pockets of private individuals, and to bust unions, all in the guise of "helping the children." Our public schools could be better, of course, but the last thing we need is to create charter schools that will siphon-off money at this critical time and cherry-pick the best students, leaving public education underfunded and responsible for the children most difficult to teach. And that's the sickest thing of all about the charter movement: even if these schools do succeed, despite all the evidence to the contrary, they do so by defeating their public school "competition," creating losers, which is always the ugly downside of competition no one is ever willing to talk about. And in the charter school scenario, the losers will always be the kids who need good public schools the most.

I've written all of the above mostly in the hope that you'll click through to a couple of other, better pieces on the topic of charter schools. Please take a moment to read Diane Ravitch's piece in the Washington Post, where she's writing about a similar effort in Alabama, doing so in a much less emotional, soap-boxy manner than I've done here. And if you live here in Washington state, please have a look State Representative Marcie Maxwell excellent piece on I-1240.

Those that would privatize our public schools, which are essential to democracy, are not going to give up. Nor can we.

(Note: I'm still having issues with the blog that makes it impossible for me to leave comments on my own posts. In the past, the topic of charter schools has resulted in a pretty healthy discussion, so I apologize in advance that any further "comments" I make will have to take the form of "updates" within the post itself.)

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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Inventing Halloween

Our "Big 3" holidays are Martin Luther King's Birthday, Chinese New Year, and Valentine's Day, but not far behind them is Halloween.

Our overhead projector is a fun way to explore shadow and color.

I've not written anything about what we've been up to this year, mainly because I've already shared a lot about our seasonal activities over the past three years, principally in these pre-photography posts:

"I Am A Powerpuff Girl!"
It's A Big Circle
"Trick Or Treat"
"Halloween Is Not Scary"
"It's Not Natasha!"

But you will also find Halloween-related posts here, herehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. And there are dozens more which are most easily discovered by clicking the "Halloween" tag in the list of topics over there in the right-hand column.

So yes, I have a lot of Halloween "material" to pull out around this time of year, much of which is always a "turn-key success," which is why Halloween as a classroom theme worries me, and why I rarely go back and look at my old posts about the season.

Despite the "reputation" of pumpkin guts as something with which children like to play, I've found that most kids don't really want to engage the gooey stuff with their hands. I've carved, literally, hundreds of jack-o-lanterns with young children and in any given group of 10, there might be 3 who are willing to even touch the pulp, and maybe one who really enjoys getting in up to the elbows. This year, however, we were floating small pumpkins in water in our sensory table when a few kids asked me to "open" one. This was an eye-opener. There was almost universal engagement with the pulp and seeds. It didn't bother them so much, I guess, with so much water available to instantly clean off.

School should never be turn-key, not for me and not for the kids.

That's one of the central elements, I think, of a play-based, emergent curriculum.

Yes, I have a box full of Halloween stuff, more than a decade's worth of experience in teaching through the holiday, art, sensory, science, math, large and small motor, dramatic, and outdoor projects that I can trot out, and those things come into play each year, but against that background there is a real risk that I'll try to somehow compel or force this year's classes into the molds created, then hopefully broken, by those that came before them.

We always have a dozen or so large pumpkins around the classroom as well, which we use for rolling, sitting, carrying, and, of course, carving.  They also make terrific "dry erase boards." This year's classes were particularly fascinated with using regular markers to draw on our pumpkins, then using damp rags to wipe them off to start over.

But now that we're only a couple of classroom sessions away from what will be our biggest all-school Halloween party ever, a night-time event that has always been crazy fun, but promises to be even more so with the inclusion this year of all the families from our 5's program, I don't feel so bad now perusing those posts, reminding myself of what we've done and where we've been.

A sensory table of beans, popcorn, sunflower seeds, mini-pumpkins, gourds, ornamental corn, plastic spiders, and Halloween-themed containers.

It's not just for the kids, however, that I want to avoid the taint of turn-key repetition, because another important part of a play-based emergent curriculum is that the teacher needs to keep learning too.

This year, many of the kids enjoyed tangling themselves in the string and yarn we used to make a "spider's web" on the bottom of a table.

During my first year in the classroom, one of our parents, a former elementary school teacher, advised me to keep detailed notes about everything we did, to make files, to organize our storage room by month or theme, saying, "That way you won't have to re-invent your curriculum each year."

It was well-intended advice, but I'm glad I never took it.  I want to keep inventing it; I want us to keep inventing it.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

"I'm Mad At You!"

(I'd forgotten about this post, written two years ago about a boy who is now nearly 5. I was reminded of it yesterday as I sat back for a time and kind of marveled at who he is today. This wasn't the first nor last time that he let us have it like this. His ability as a 2-year-old to "project" his emotions is legendary. Today, he's a popular kid, always surrounded by friends, cheerful, excited about school, imaginative, the inventor of games in which he invites others to take part. And, yes, he's still a master of letting everyone know exactly how he feels and what he wants. Yesterday, one of his buddies tried to get him to goof around during circle time. Some days he takes the bait, but this time he whispered, "I want my own self space." When play up in the loft got rowdy enough that a parent-teacher intervened, he simply removed himself from the situation, took a seat at the art table and lost himself in painting for several minutes before rejoining the gang, boasting to them about the painting he'd just made for his mom, which caused them to descend upon the art table to make things for their own mothers. At clean-up time he took the lead, saying, "Come on, guys! We have to move these boxes over there!" 

When this post first appeared, some read it as a condemnation of adults who were somehow doing it wrong, but that's not at all what I intended. I suppose it came off that way because I was trying to write from the perspective of an angry 2-year-old who was already not so sure he liked being left somewhere without his mom. In fact, the entire process of getting that diaper changed took a good half hour, with loving adults talking, guiding, explaining, being gentle, but, you know, he was pissed off and wanted everyone to know it. Today, he can still be quite loud, but that's only when he's joyful. When he's angry, he'll look right at you, lower his eyebrows and say, "I'm mad at you!" He's one of my heroes.)

You know what would really piss me off?

It would really piss me off if a large, strong stranger snatched me from my pleasures, carried me into the bathroom, laid me on a table, pulled off my pants and removed my underwear.

It would really piss me off if she robbed me of that familiar warm pungency that had been, from time to time at least, a part of me since before I can remember.

I would rage and rail at her, let me tell you. I would kick my legs and arch my back against her efforts, and it would only piss me off more to realize that fighting back was futile, she was going to do this to me solely by virtue of her greater strength. I would scream so that my voice pieced through doors and cinderblock walls, all the way to where the others were still playing while I suffered this outrage.

And even after she forced me back into my pants and stood me back on the floor, I would continue to bleat my complaint with every fiber of my being, showing hot red cheeks to the world. I would rage until my blue eyes showed red as well, swimming behind a volume of tears that would run down my face and drip freely to the ground. I would take my complaint outdoors, back to where I was first accosted, venting my righteous fury to the heavens.

I wouldn't stop when Teacher Tom beat his drum, boom-boom, boom-boom-boom, boom-boom-boom-boom, but my body would at least respond to its by now familiar message, even while I protested my recent indignity.

I wouldn't be myself again until we were seated on the blue rug, singing familiar songs.

Man, that would really piss me off.

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

How An Emergent Curriculum Works: "That's Why They Have To Be Burglars"

(For the past 4 days, I've been using examples from our classroom by way of trying to define what we mean at Woodland Park when we call what we do an "emergent curriculum." In one case our "project" emerged as if by some sort of wordless magic. In the second post, I described a "project" that emerged from my own agenda. In the third, post I discussed a full day of learning about spiders that the children constructed from their own collective knowledge and experience. Yesterday's post was about a dramatic play project sparked by the driving interest of a single student. Today is a look at how real life events lead to real life solutions.) 

A couple weeks ago, upon arriving at school, I unlocked the storage room to find stuff scattered all over the floor. It took me a few minutes to figure out what had happened, but finally realized that someone had broken a window and apparently knocked things down while climbing in. We lease our space from the Fremont Baptist Church. When I told Pastor Judy, she knew what had likely happened. Neighbors had complained the night before about some guys who had been sleeping in the alleyway behind the church and she'd had to call to police. "They were mad at me." We later found vulgarities written on the alley side of the church as well.

The window faces onto our outdoor classroom, so as our 5's assembled out there, we began to talk of the "burglar." No one seemed particularly worried, but several of them were quite excited, concocting all kinds of ideas about what we ought to do. Finally, one of the kids joked that we should have The Troll come protect our school, which lead someone else to suggest that we ask The Troll what to do. There was a lot of enthusiasm for this idea so we marched ourselves one block to where our street intersects with Troll Way and climbed up on The Troll's hand, where we closed our eyes and silently asked The Troll what to do. I believe it was Duncan who informed us that The Troll told him that we should use "sharp needles," then amazingly we learned that he'd given pretty much the same advice to all of us, in addition to such other ideas as nailing a piece of wood over the broken window, devising a trap, somehow employing "invisible broken glass," and using poison.

Back at school we continued our discussion, making a list of what we ought to do about the "burglar." There was some debate about the poison. "We don't want to kill him!" 

"No, it'll just be sleeping poison. Then when he wakes up we can tell him we don't want him to break the window again."

That settled, we surveyed our list. Cooper raised his hand, "I know! We could just put that list on the door, then when the burglar comes again, he'll just be scared!"

It was a good discussion about a real world event. By the time we returned to the outdoor classroom later in the day, Wally, the church's building maintenance guy, had already knocked off the first thing on our list: nailing wood over the broken window. The kids later checked out his handiwork and found it good. Still, I went home feeling like we'd only looked at the situation from our own point-of-view, a natural thing, but one that only gives us part of the story, limiting our pool of potential solutions to fortifications and traps, even if we didn't want to kill him.

So the following day, I shared what Pastor Judy and the police had said about the likely culprits. After talking about how we all sometimes do things we regret when we're angry, I asked the next logical question, "Why do you suppose those guys had to sleep behind the church?"

These are urban children. They know the answer. "Because they don't have a home."

"They don't have money."

"They don't have jobs."

"They don't even have toilets."

"They don't have food."

"That's why they have to be burglars."

The children knew all the answers. There was no lecturing required by me. I asked, "Do you think that's why the burglar broke our window?"

"He was trying to get food."

"We should give him food!"

"We could build him a house!"

The children already knew all the answers. We've scheduled a visit to a local food bank for our next field trip. We'll get on the bus with food in our hands and put it on the shelves. We'll keep talking about why people don't have enough food and about why they don't have a place to live and about why some feel they have no choice but to turn to a life of crime. We'll think some more about how to solve the problem to which we, as children, already know the answers, but too often forget as we grow up.

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