Friday, November 30, 2012

A Kindergarten Readiness Check List

A couple nights ago, our parent education topic was "kindergarten readiness." Although there are some schools, sadly, that expect 5-year-olds to already possess certain literacy and math skills, most are more concerned with self-help skills like zipping up jackets, putting on shoes, and using the toilet, as well as knowing vital information like their own last names, their parent’s first names, their addresses and phone numbers.  I don’t currently teach most of these things, at least not consciously, although I did teach these skills as a parent. I'm inspired to put a little more emphasis on those things, but have also found myself thinking about what "kindergarten readiness" skills I am trying to teach.

The ability to function effectively in a group
Most of my kids are heading off to Seattle Public School kindergartens, which means that they'll potentially be in classes of 20 or more, with a teacher and an assistant of some kind. If Woodland Park kids are going to thrive, it will help to have a little experience with navigating a class of that size. That’s one of the reasons I like larger classes in the context of a cooperative preschool. My ideal class sizes are 20 plus. This might sound outrageously large, and it would be in a traditional preschool, but because of our cooperative model we maintain child:adult ratios of between 4:1 and 2:1 depending on age, whatever our class size. 

Children who can focus on a single activity, even one in which they might not at first be interested or with which they struggle, for 20-30 minute stretches will be ready for the kind of curriculum that naturally emerges from the 10+:1 child-adult ratios found in kindergarten. As a teacher, when you alone are responsible for so many kids, you need them to have the capacity to engage in activities – even “challenging” ones – without a ton of adult guidance or persuasion. We begin practicing this skill with circle time, stretching the kids out as they get older. For our Pre-3 class, this might mean 20-25 minutes by the end of the year. As I wrote a few days ago, our 5's class has already demonstrated an ability to stay focused, as a group, for up to 45 minutes!

Public speaking
I like Woodland Park kids to be confident in front of an audience, and its a skill we concentrate on with the 4 and 5 year olds, making sure each of them has a turn in front of the class at least once a week. Public speaking is like a muscle: exercise it, or it will whither. It doesn’t have to be a nerve-wracking experience. Raising hands is the entry level version of public speaking, but during their Pre-K and 5's years they find themselves in front of the room during their weekly “sharing time” (show and tell) as well as during “journals” (I read their journal entries to the class). By the time they “graduate” they will have had opportunities to sit in the “birthday throne” to talk about their lives, and an unlimited number of opportunities to present their stories from the front of the room.

American’s consistently report “public speaking” as among their greatest fears, often ahead of “death.” Given how important that skill is, and how pervasive the fear, it only makes sense to work on it at a young age.

Identifying and engaging the basic concept of fairness is an important social skill that we actively teach at Woodland Park. Children who expect to be treated fairly and who seek to treat others fairly, will not only tend to attract more friends and grow up to be better citizens, but they will also be better equipped for standing up to bullying.

Question authority
I want our kids to have a strong sense of what they know and to have the confidence to question adults when they are being told things that don’t fit their reality. The children at Woodland Park learn early that Teacher Tom often says things that are flat out wrong and it’s their job to set him right. When I say that I want them to question authority I don’t mean it in a defiant sense, but rather in the sense of our best educational traditions.

“Academic” skills
I’ve spoken to a number of kindergarten teachers, from both public and private schools over the years about what they’re looking for as far as “academic” skills. They are not expecting the children to be reading, nor are then expecting them to be familiar with mathematical algorithms. It’s enough that they know the alphabet, can write their own names, count to 10, and be able to cut on a line with scissors. I’ve never gone out of my way to teach any of those skills, but we’ve never sent a child off to kindergarten who hadn’t mastered them.

There’s a much longer "list" of things I hope to teach children, but these are sort of the nuts and bolts essentials, I think. A child well-grounded in these is prepared for kindergarten. Ideally, however, as my educational ally Deborah Stewart at Teach Preschool points out:

 . . . it is the job of our schools to get ready for their incoming kindergarteners, not the kids’ job to get ready for kindergarten. This is because kids come in such a wide range of skills and developmental needs.

But even still, we want to help children be prepared to be successful as they move ahead in school. The most important thing that I think Pre-K teachers can do is keep school fun and help their students love to learn. Encourage their curiosity, interest to discover and explore, and creativity. We want them to love learning and have a desire to learn more.

Ultimately, that's the kind of kid who will thrive in kindergarten and beyond.

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

All The Hallmarks Of Mastery

It's true that our classroom can get a little rowdy at times. It's exciting to be with your friends and to be someplace where you get to set the agenda. It's a fine line we walk as teachers, trying to help the children figure out where their freedom to swing their fist ends and where the chins of others begins. We're not here to help them avoid mistakes, and each time we do we stunt their learning a bit, but we can help them understand the consequences of those mistakes and how to make things right again. Being in the world with other people is why we're here, of course, but it's a very complex thing, one that takes a lifetime to master, if that's even possible. 

In fact, the older I get, the more I come to understand that relationships are the journey philosophers talk about, complete with long trudges, smooth downhill glides, and steep, rocky climbs. And strive as we might, no one ever gets good enough at being with the other people that we can avoid the work and pain and tears. That's why it's important to really enjoy it when your flywheel is singing, the wind's in your hair, and you get to laugh and laugh while your body is pressed up against someone you love.

These guys aren't the first to empty our stuffed animal basket in order to wear it on their heads, but I'm pretty sure it's the first time that three of them have squeezed in there together and attempted to walk around the room. They were swinging their proverbial fists as they staggered around our small space, trying to figure out how to get three sets of legs going in one direction. It's the kind of endeavor, apparently, that requires wild giggling and the occasional shriek. Naturally, there was bumping against furniture and the process involved the very complex operation of falling down and getting back up. 

I hovered around them, not too close. As they entered certain parts of the room parent-teachers would issue the universal reminder to "be careful," but I'm pretty sure if the guys heard them, it was only at a subliminal level. Happily, no one got hurt, or angry, or frustrated before someone decided they'd had enough and the rowdy, sweaty, hilarious game was over. For them it had been an all-around good time.

I worry sometimes that the rowdy play will consume the classroom; that all that proverbial fist swinging is at least threatening the chins of children who are more cautious and careful; who are working on different aspects of their relationships with the other people. As I shadowed their game I tried to keep a look out for evidence they were disturbing or intimidating anyone. It's true that most of the other kids left a sort of space bubble around them as they moved around the room, but just as many went right up to them, laughing back through the mesh, some even tried to climb up in there with them.

And, in fact, over on the blue rug, often within a few feet of this staggering, giggling, clot of boys, an earnest lecture was taking place, as one child taught another everything he knows about our map of the United States.

This time, at least, the flywheel was spinning joyfully and the rowdy relationship game showed all the hallmarks of mastery.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"We Probably Learned It From You"

Much of what we do as preschool teachers is to plant seeds. Sometimes we get to see them sprout and grow, but quite often we never really get to see what happens with those seeds. For instance, we sing the song Little Boxes in school. On the surface, we're using it as way to talk about the concepts of "same" and "different," but at a deeper level I hope that some day, and that day will come, when someone is trying to get them to do something they'd rather not do, they hear those words in their heads and think, Hey! That person is trying to put me into a little box! 

I've been teaching Luella for three years now. On Monday, she was building with our giant "Lincoln Logs." A friend invited her to play elsewhere. She declined. The friend wouldn't take "no" for an answer and began to badger her, first trying gentle pleading, then ramping up to foot stomping and threats.

That's when I heard it: "I'll be the boss of me, you be the boss of you." Those are my words! That's one of my seeds!

Later I shared this story with her mom Molly, who I see almost every day because her son is now enrolled in our Pre-3's class. She said, "We've been using that phrase at home, especially when she's bossing Gio around. We probably learned it from you." 

I'll live off this for weeks!

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Are Any Of Them More Important Than This?

From the time we decided last Spring that we would for sure run an afternoon 5's program this year until about mid-summer, I felt quite a bit of pressure to come up with at least a daily schedule to show prospective families. I had kind of an idea, of course, but I dragged my feet as long as I could, reluctant to commit to anything. After all, I'd taught 5-year-olds before, but never an entire classroom full of them. How could I possibly know what would work until I was actually in the midst of it?

One thing I'd not planed on, for instance, was show-and-tell, but on our second day of class, as we convened on our blue rug for circle time, Elena raised her hand and proposed it, saying, "Everybody brings things from their house to show everybody and tell them about it -- show and tell." Her new friends were enthusiastic, so I figured why not? It's a classic early years school activity, providing great public speaking practice, and had the shining virtue of having emerged directly from from the kids. I was tempted, on the spot, to suggest some guidelines, you know, so it didn't get out of hand with the potential for 18 kids bringing something every day, but decided on the spot to let that part emerge as well, in the form of waiting to cross that bridge when we came to it.

When a kid announces that s/he needs to use the "demonstration zone," everyone turns their backs on me in order to focus on the strip of bare floor just off the other end of the rug. The kids in the front row, kneel, while the ones in the back stand. This is a system they have pretty much worked out on their own. 

By the end of the second week, this activity having become by far the most popular thing we do at circle time, we were standing ready to cross that span. After a day in which we spent over 30 minutes alone on show-and-tell, I wondered aloud if we shouldn't come up with a system by which each child only brought in one item per week. I was surprised when the kids, as a body, were in favor of this, and we devised a system. I informed them that I'd send an email to their parents detailing our agreement, but forgot.

The following day, kicking myself for having forgotten, I braced myself for another long session, but when I looked in to the show-and-tell box, I only saw 5 items. I said, "We only have a few things today."

Wyatt raised his hand, "That's because we're only supposed to bring one thing every week."

I found that hard to believe, frankly. "Really? Hey, raise your hands if you brought a show-and-tell item today."

Five hands went up: the five hands our new system would have predicted. "No way! You guys remembered that? I forgot to send an email to your parents. Now I don't have to. I'm impressed." This was not empty praise.

The "demonstration zone" is a little crowded on this day, with all those blocks encroaching on the space, but it's pretty impressive the way the kids, for the most part, keep themselves on the rug while their friends share their show-and-tell items.

For more than a month now, show-and-tell has been self-regulating. Occasionally, a kid or two has violated the system, but only when they have something particularly exciting to show us. What most of the kids seem to be doing is bringing in their favorite/newest toys. We've innovated what we call "the demonstration zone," a piece of bare floor just off the rug, in which, if you have something that requires demonstrating, you have the space in which to show us what you've got. It's a functional, but awkward solution to the children's natural inclination to crowd around. I'm thinking we may have to devise a more formal "demonstration zone," like a large round of plywood, that can be deployed in the center of the blue rug. (We could just make a circle on the rug with tape, but many of the demonstrations involve vehicles which need a harder surface upon which to operate, hence the plywood idea.)

At first, I asked our presenters questions about their items, guiding them through the telling part of the activity, but by now most of them need very little prompting. This means that I am increasingly able to just sit back and let the kids go, which is the gold standard in a play-based classroom.

Yesterday, however, our first day back after the Thanksgiving break, the show-and-tell box was full to the brim, our system having clearly broken down. I'm hoping it's just that there was a lot of pent-up demand after a few days off. It took us 45 full minutes to get through circle time. Forty-five minutes! That's unheard of, yet every one of the kids was engaged, the moving back and forth between the demonstration zone and the "regular zone" apparently serving as enough physical action for the squirrel-ier kids. Forty-five minutes is almost as long as my college classes.

I may still have to send that email to the parents, reminding them of our show-and-tell system, but not yet. Show-and-tell is still evolving, a process that so far has emerged entirely from the kids. There is a real temptation to just let that be our circle time for awhile -- it's what the kids most want to do, there's very little adult "management" required, and we're learning more and more about our friends. Indeed, there are other good things to do at circle time that aren't getting done, but are any of them more important than this?

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Monday, November 26, 2012

"You're Stuck"

We have a couple little red wagons. Last week, I was sitting on the workbench, watching Donovan and Jasper pulling them around the outdoor classroom, playing a version of follow-the-leader. They were attempting to navigate through one of the more cluttered parts of the space when the "leader," Donovan, got stuck on one of our manufacturing patterns.

After attempting the technique of pulling harder, then yet harder, he looked up at the nearest adult, who happened to be his mom. She said, "You're stuck."

When I tell these stories, I'm always trying to pare them down to their bare essentials, but with another 20 or so kids following their own agendas, there's always a lot more to the stories than I'm telling. In this case, during the time that we wrestled with the stuck wagons, a third boy decided to put a chair in Donovan's wagon, in which he apparently intended to sit.

He pulled the handle again. She said, pointing, "It looks like that thing is blocking your wheels."

He only glanced in the direction she pointed, apparently convinced that his mom still offered the best bet for a speedy solution. Sticking with informative statements and offering minimal help is much harder when it's your own kid: this is the same person who not long ago needed you to do everything for him. 

She stepped closer, but fought the urge to simply nudge the wagon into a clearer path. "If you look right there, you'll see what's blocking the wheels." Donovan didn't want to have anything to do with this. He wanted mom to help him and seemed to be in the process of digging in. 

I was reminded of my own 5-year-old daughter saying to me on more than one occasion, "I don't like your teacher talk!" As a new teacher, still practicing the habit of speaking informatively with children and holding them competent, I knew what she meant -- it wasn't the way I normally spoke with her. It was "teacher talk." I answered, "You're right. What I should have said is that I don't want to help you because I think you can figure it out for yourself." She didn't necessarily like it any better, but she did appreciate that I'd pulled back the curtain on this teaching technique.

Up to now, Jasper, the "follower," had waited patiently, holding the handle of his wagon. While the "teacher talk" wasn't working so well with Donovan, it had apparently sparked Jasper to devise a solution. Without speaking, he dropped his wagon handle, took hold of the rear of Donovan's wagon, then shifted it a foot or so to the right, clearing the obstacle. With a tug, Donovan discovered he was free and off he went. I'm not even sure he knew that Jasper had been the agent of his freedom.

Jasper then started to follow his friend, getting hooked on the same damn manufacturing pattern. River's brother Hayden, a 10-year-old, was visiting us for the day. He'd been watching everything. With a sigh, he picked up the rear of Jasper's wagon and moved it into the clear.

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Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Imperative To Build Community

A couple times a year, parents show up on a Friday or Saturday to help deep clean and organize the school. My job is to be there to tell people what I think needs to be done, although there are always a handful who show up and say something like, "The cleaning supplies closet has been driving be crazy: that's what I want to do." Far be it from me to stand in the way of a mental health project. Still, most people chose tasks from my list. There's usually a pretty wide window during which folks can arrive and a fairly wide selection of things that need to get done, but the last person to arrive always winds up cleaning the toilets.

Last Spring, the mom with the job said, "I don't even do this at home," then cheerfully set about it. (I know what you're thinking, but before you go there, she hires a housekeeper.)

All the adults said was, "The stuffies go in this basket," then when it was full, "The basket goes under the loft."

I never ask kids to clean up the classroom, but on most days, when it's clean-up time, most of them do. And like the mom who doesn't clean toilets at home, even kids who don't clean up at home pitch in. Even kids who tell me to my face, "I don't clean up," almost always wind up taking on a job in spite of themselves. Yes, there was one boy, one year who would take a book and hide out under the loft for the duration of clean-up time, but he then entered kindergarten reading at an 8th grade level, so it wasn't time misspent and besides, "getting out of the way" is always an option, which is what he did.

This is the link to click if you're looking for my "how to" on classroom clean up, but there's something else that goes on during this time that is more than merely talking informatively with children (what some people call "sportscasting"). It's that thing that makes people who never clean toilets at home, happily scrub them at school.

It took a long time and a lot of effort, but they pulled and tugged and wrestled that basket all the way across the room, together.

My wife, daughter and I have hosted our extended family's Thanksgiving dinner for the past 15 years. Last year was a time of change because we'd moved from a 3500 square foot home to our 1500 square foot apartment in the city. There were about 20 of us so we used the building's party room for our annual potluck and it worked out perfectly. This year, the group swelled to 35, with an influx of "orphans." Accommodating all those bodies meant bringing in extra tables and chairs, both from the backseats of people's cars and from the patio. We never asked for help, but friends and family, in their cocktail party attire, just went to work. And when the party was wrapping up, like magic those extra tables and chairs were returned to their places as if nothing ever happened.

I love few things more than taking part in all-hands-on-deck community projects. Rarely do I work harder than when I'm shoulder-to-shoulder with my fellow humans, undertaking a task not for money or glory, but simply because the job needs to get done and we're the folks who showed up to do it. That's what's happening, I think, when a pair of guys team up to carry and table unbidden. That's what it's all about when someone who never cleans her own toilets takes the brush in her hand. That's what's going on when 20 two-year-olds come together to tidy up after a morning of play. It's the biological imperative to build community, and doing things that need to get done, together, is the only way that has ever happened.

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Saturday, November 24, 2012

It's All Being Used

In response to yesterday's post, a couple readers, reacting to photos of children emptying glue bottles, asked me to comment on "waste."

When I first started teaching, this drove me crazy; the urge in some children to just squeeze until it's all gone. Not only did it strike me as wasteful, but it also tended to overwhelm whatever else was going on at the art table that day. I've never been in favor of bossing kids around, even as a neophyte teacher, so I knew I had to approach the "problem" creatively.

But first, I had to ask myself, why do they squeeze the glue and paint bottles until they're empty? I suppose I could come up with a list of things they may or may not be teaching themselves in the process -- cause and effect, air pressure, targeting, trajectory, gravity, viscosity, color mixing, whatever -- but I was, and still am, satisfied with knowing that if a child engages robustly in any kind of play, he's exploring something he really needs to understand. And when a lot of kids of a certain age do something, consistently, over years, such as emptying squeeze bottles, then whatever they're learning, it's probably something pretty important. It's enough for me to know that.

So, being a clever adult person, I put squeeze bottles in the sensory table, along with water, and let the kids knock themselves out, figuring we would do this for a few weeks, then when the glue bottles reappeared the kids would have learned what they needed to learn about emptying bottles and be ready for something else. I let it run for a couple of weeks, waiting for a day during which our little bottle squeezing activity lay largely fallow. Figuring this was a sign that it was out of their collective systems, I then reintroduced glue bottles. But no, what the kids taught me that day is the great truth that glue is not water, and as a different thing, it also needs to be fully explored by emptying bottle after bottle. Back to the drawing board.

As I was contemplating our glue bottles one day, trying to crack this particular nut, I noticed that some of them had larger holes than others. As I examined further, I even found one loose screw-on top with no hole at all. Wait a minute! This is how they all start -- the teacher gets to decide how big the holes are by how much of the tip gets snipped off. How about just ordering new glue bottles, then giving them tiny, tiny holes so the kids have to really work to get the glue out? Then they won't waste so much. Hmm? Hmm? Smart, huh?

A week later, equipped with what I couldn't help but think of as my "miserly" glue bottles, I was feeling pretty confident. The first several kids, after much effort, eeked out a  few drops or perhaps a thin stream of glue. Then one girl handed me her bottle, saying, "It's too hard. You do it." Then others did the same. Okay, so maybe the holes needed to be a little bigger. I carefully trimmed a bit from the top of each glue bottle until the children were no longer trembling as they squeezed. Some of them still were unable to manage it, so I trimmed a bit more . . . Well, needless to say, before too much time had passed, we were again emptying bottle after bottle.

Alright then, this was going to have to go up a notch. If we need to learn about squeezing glue from bottles, then we were going to learn about squeezing glue from bottles. This was the advent of our first glue table, a place where it's important to empty glue bottles if you really want our garbage art to hold together. It's impossible to waste glue at the glue table.

Since then, I've learned that if you really want to use glue, and want kids to focus on something other than emptying glue bottles, and you don't want to boss them around, you just put the glue in a small dish with a paint brush. I do it not because I'm concerned about waste, however, but rather because some kids appreciate things when they don't involve pools of glue.

If it's too valuable to be used in excess, we don't bring it into the classroom. I want children to be able to explore and experiment freely at school -- that's what makes a play-based curriculum work. When it comes to educational materials, like glue, it's hard for me to think in terms of waste because it seems to me it's all being used in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. That's what the kids have taught me about squeeze bottles and glue.

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Friday, November 23, 2012

"The Right Way"

"I support the arts, not the crafts!" ~Frasier, indignantly, upon learning that the new art museum he was being asked to support was a doll museum

The idea was that this was going to be a Thanksgiving-themed craft. If you know anything about our school, you'll know that "craft" opportunities are few and far between. This is not out of any Frasier-esque snobbishness, because I've been known to enjoy getting my craft on with the best of them, but rather that, by definition, crafts are art projects with a "right answer," whereas we prefer our preschool art open-ended.

Still, every now and then we give the kids a chance to try out a step-by-step process at the art table, something with at least the possibility of a pre-determined goal at the end, you know, like a puzzle: "Today, we're making spiders," "Today, we're making flowers," "Today, we're making turkeys."

We tried versions of this last week with all the Woodland Park ages, 2-5, but this was also a week in which the public schools we're not in session so we had a number of elementary school aged kids visiting us as well. I told each of the art parents, the parent-teachers responsible for managing the project each day, that despite the fact that there was an "obvious" way to interact with the glue, the feathers, and the pre-programmed paper plates with google-eyed turkey heads, we were to avoid bossing the kids around about it. (Our older students used old CD's instead of plates, affixed their own eyes, and cut their own beaks, but otherwise it was essentially the same project.) Even though there was an obvious craft going on, I still wanted the children to have the chance to interact with the materials according to their own curiosities.

Yes, I pre-made a couple of "correct" versions in advance, as "inspiration." I was also wondering if our older visitors, those 6-10 year olds, would supply some genuine inspiration by sitting down with the preschool kids and role modeling a step-by-step approach to crafting turkeys. In other words, as should always be the case with school, it was an experiment and I was curious to see if we could, by these clever, non-bossy means, guide at least some of the kids into creating identifiable turkeys to adorn their family's holiday tables.

Even though few of the children did this craft "the right way," they still created their own step-by-step processes. Here's Step 1 . . .

That said, I'm happy to report that every single 2-year-old started by covering the pre-programmed turkey eyes with a nice thick pool of glue, then covering what used to be its face with feathers. Every one of them approached it this way. And you know what I'm most proud of?  I didn't hear a single adult say, "No, no, no, put the glue around the head!" I did hear a few request that the glue be kept on the table, as opposed to chair seats or the floor, but you know, that's mostly out of courtesy to the other people who might want to later sit or walk.

. . . Step 2 . . .

A few of the 3 and 4 year olds managed to create turkeys with visible eyes, although more often than not, those eyes were again mere targets for glue and feathers, despite the best efforts of our older visitors to demonstrate "how it's done."

. . . and Step 3, which involves even more glue!

The 5's class, when it was their turn, got into making alien turkeys: bizarre creatures with dozens of eyes and extra beaks, and other deformities.

With the CD turkeys we wound up putting wax paper under them to accommodate the glue.

And at the end of the day, there might have even been a few turkeys made "the right way."

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