Sunday, April 2, 2017

Learning Together With Families

This week we highlight three Somerville Public School classrooms where teachers are partnering with families to increase engagement that supports children at home and at school.

Author Celebration: Georgia O'Keefe - Argenziano Preschool

Children spent a month working on writing books and then celebrated their work by inviting families in for a special breakfast and publishing ceremony.  There is also a "mystery reader." Parents sign up to come read to the class but the children don't know who it is until the parent arrives. Parents  love this opportunity and the children get so excited about the "mystery."


Published books on display

The authors with their books

Mystery Reader!

Beautiful Buffet

Oobleck Adventure: Lori Hight - Capuano Preschool


We read the book, Bartholomew and the Oobleck By Dr. Seuss, in 3 reading times.  The morning of our last reading, we surprised the children by making oobleck! A parent volunteered to help the children add ingredients and involved himself in discussion with the children about how the oobleck felt, what happened when they handled it and thinking about whether it was a solid or a liquid.  I have been very fortunate to have parents volunteering throughout the year for extra special activities we do.  With parent support, we are able to do whole class activities and assist children with fine motor work during extra special small group activities that are related to a theme we are focusing on.  I truly appreciate their time and energy to build on the children's learning and fun at school.

Parents help make ooblek

Playing with ooblek - Why does it feel and move this way?

Breakfast Literacy:  Jess Ferris and Veronique LePaix - Healey Head Start Preschool

Our class spends half and hour each morning in the cafeteria to eat breakfast.  Parents and family members stay as long as they can, some for the duration.   Earlier in the year we had books for children to read after they finished breakfast, but we noticed an opportunity to infuse this time with more learning.  We have added name puzzles, clothespin activities that focus on identifying beginning sounds, matching letters of the alphabet with images that start with that letter and sound, counting syllables and soon rhyming.  The children are more focused on finishing their food so they can have game pieces, parents are engaging with their children and others as they work on the activities, and children are getting more exposure to literacy concepts.  It has also been a great opportunity to demonstrate to parents some simple activities they can do with their children to work on literacy learning and also to get a concept of their child's understanding of literacy.  The time at breakfast flies by and the class and families seem to really enjoy doing this work together!

Clothespin picture-letter matching

More picture-letter matching

Name puzzle



Monday, February 27, 2017

More on How Choosing Helps Learning

Last month we blogged about the importance of choice time. This short follow up helps illustrate what it looks like when children make choices from shelves during a work period. When we trust children to make choices we are perpetuating an image of the child as capable.  This image is rooted in a few important beliefs:

  • All children are competent, capable, and bring a wealth of knowledge to the classroom.
  • Children are always in the process of developing self-awareness: as learners, in friendship, and as members of families, culture, and communities.
  • Play-based experiences take many forms.
  • Children need opportunities for discovery and play AND guidance, modeling, and support to be successful learners and develop positive identity.

In rich learning environments, discovery and explicit instruction coexist. From Dewey (1916) we learned that all children need time to tinker, build, experiment, and hypothesize. Montessori taught us that they also need instruction or modeling in technique, social norms, and how to extend play experiences (Lillard, 2005). This intentional modeling is important because for some children an engaging school day can mediate risk factors outside of  school that make learning challenging. While discovery and free play are important, some children cannot simply be left to figure things out solely on their own.
  • Imagine a child trying to use a dry brush with watercolor paints. The child may never discover why the paints don’t work and painting is consequently unsatisfying. Teachers must coach children to become the “boss of the paints” via intentional teaching of how to use a brush and watercolors, a very Montessori and Reggio approach (Curtis & Carter, 2008, p. 124).
  • Imagine children going into dramatic play and dumping all the pretend food and dishes in dramatic play. Children need someone to introduce a scenario such as shopping or preparing food, a practice rooted in Vygotsky’s ideas of socially constructed learning and in Montessori’s approach to presenting materials in a systematic way (Bedrova & Leong, 1995; Lillard, 2005).
  • Imagine “academic” experiences that are only offered via coloring pages or worksheets.  is a very different experience from hands-on materials that children can interact with. Showing children the techniques and routines that accompany certain materials or play experiences supports success.

These “lessons,” can cover everything from learning to put on a coat, social interactions, as well as instruction in using specific materials.  For young children there is no lesson too small; opening a lunch box, carrying blocks, interrupting politely, and using a paintbrush all require instruction. When children don’t use materials with care, it is usually because teachers have not taken the time to carefully unpack the steps, purposes, or interactions.  Then we fall into the trap of having to police behaviors we don’t want to see rather than introducing behaviors we do want to see.

Things to try:

    • Show children how to be purposeful with all materials: Use a small workmat at meeting to define your space as you carefully show materials. Demonstrate how to carry, setup, and do specific activities. Practice before you have the children in front of you.
    • Go into different areas to demonstrate: Gather in the block area and say, “This is the block area. This how we carry the longest blocks. Who would like to try?”  Keep the language minimal, specific, and include key vocabulary.
    • Slow down your movements: Children will imitate you and if you move fast and carelessly, their imitation will be even sloppier.
    • Offer step by step instruction and then release and check in; this is scaffolding!: After presenting say, “Now, when you go to the table for (collage, making books, sorting, etc.) remember to …”  Then check back with children periodically to see what supports they might benefit from.
      Giving careful presentations of materials and showing children what choices are available using objects that represent the choices helps children to get started  in an area or with an activity.

When shelves are set up clearly it is easier for children to make decisions about what to do, know where things are, and be able to put things away.

Bending down, carrying things, actually supports motor planning and builds confidence and independence.
Look around your room and do a quick check:
  • What materials do you need to demonstrate?
  • Do children know how to use everything and put it away?  
  • Are your shelves organized in a way that children can access materials easily by themselves during choice time?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Choice Time: How Choosing Helps Learning

New Year's Resolutions:  For me it meant organizing 30 years worth of teaching materials in my basement - which was all about the right tubs from Target and a spiffy label maker. But this got me thinking again about our classrooms. 

It isn't just about the clutter. It is about children's access to high quality choices.  What does choice time look like in your school, program, classroom? How have your organized your environment for learning?

All choice time is not created equal.  For some it might mean putting materials on tables or offering pre-set areas like blocks or dramatic play, and then inviting or directing children to where they should go. Once at tables or an area there is wide variation in what happens next.  In some settings children must stay at a table or area until a teacher tells them they can move. In other classrooms children can start at that table or center and then move when they wish. In some classrooms children move by putting their picture or name on a choice board to indicate where they are going next and whether an area is full.  And in yet other environments, children can go to areas of the room, choose things from shelves, and take them to the floor or table in their own time and cycle.

What does choice offer children?  Why incorporate it into their day and into our instructional practices? How can we offer choice to children in a way that best supports learning?

"Center time" or "choice time" is a mainstay of early education and leads us to believe that children are making free choices, when in reality we may have simply offered them a limited selection of activities that were teacher determined. Of course all classroom environments are full of things that are chosen by teachers, but how we offer them can foster a greater sense of independence, confidence, discovery, and physical development. 

What does this mean?:

  • Independence = I am trusted to make my own choices.
  • Confidence = I am in charge of myself and can choose my own work.
  • Discovery = What will I do with this today, how will I explore it and discover what it can do?
  • Physical Development = When I bend down and choose something from a shelf, carry it carefully to table or mat on the floor, I am learning how to move my body in space and develop motor planning skills.

Putting materials on tables with interesting provocations for children's activity and discovery is a perfectly fine strategy and should not be abandoned. However it can't be the only entry point for children's engagement with materials. And limiting children's mobility as they move about the classroom ultimately doesn't allow children to develop important decision making skills. 

For me, it is an equity issue.  When we limit children's ability to make decisions we rob them of a critical life skill. We actually teach them that other people must make decisions for them.

We need to shift our thinking from, “What will I put on the tables today?” to “What is on the shelves in the classrooms that children can choose?” and “How can I make the choices more complex given what my children are interested in or ready to do?” Using compelling materials offered in an organized way is rooted in Montessori and Reggio approaches that trust children to choose what they need.  It means that teachers, much in the way museums do, must curate materials, putting like things together so children develop a deep repertoire of activity.  "Curate" literally means to pull together, sift through, and select for presentation.  This is an important part of our job. 

Non-curated shelf - random items in random places.
Teachers at Elizabeth Peabody House in Somerville begin to curate their writing center.
How we offer materials matters. We tend to offer large quantities of everything; picture a large tub of bristle blocks on the table day after day. I have seen children sitting at tables, waiting to be "served up" the materials they will play with, to have them dumped on the table or floor in front of them. And, tubs, while convenient for adults, make it hard for children to see materials while on shelves or when the tubs are on the tables. 

Is this storage for teachers or accessible materials for children. What is in those tubs?

This is storage, not choice for children. 

The way we offer materials sends powerful messages to children about what we think they can do.  When children know we trust them to choose they begin to develop a healthy sense of self. 

When we tightly control children's choice we rob them of the opportunity to do for themselves and develop self-regulation, develop relationships with others, and the freedom to move about their classrooms to make decisions about their learning. Dierdre Sharkey, Ed.D, an education leader in Texas and board member of the School Reform Initiative says, "Schools can create an environment so potent that at least for 8 hours a day we can overcome the conditions our children experience outside of school."

What is the content here?  Math! And the teachers at Henry Frost Children's Program in Belmont change the materials weekly or monthly, and there are some materials that stay out all the time.

At Community Preschool in Somerville teachers very intentionally set up the dramatic play materials in a way that helped facilitate easy clean up as well as ease of seeing and choosing just what they needed to play.

This block area at West Somerville Neighborhood School also helps children choose the blocks they need and facilitates independent clean up.

Make sure your block area is labeled.  At the minimum with the cutouts of the block shapes.

The are materials at Bright Horizons Teele Square in Somerville are set up in a designated studio space.

The studio materials are easily visible and set up for access and easy clean up. 
Manipulatives and sorting materials at Charlestown Nursery School, with one shelf of adult storage at the top.
These toys at Spring Hill Montessori in Cambridge give very young children the ability to see choices and know where things go.
Trays and baskets make things easy to see. Plants and animals on the top shelf beautify the classroom.

Things to Try:

    • Set up a shelf with a few choices children can choose from.
    • Put activities on trays or in baskets so children can see the work.
    • Co-locate shelves near rugs or a table so it is clear where children can take materials. 
    • Make sure you demonstrate an entire cycle of activity so children know how to take something out, do it, and then put it away so it is ready for the next person to do.
    • Offer new provocations at group time or to small groups: “Can you build something today that can hold the farm animals and is as tall as the block shelf?”
    • Increase the level of difficulty or shift the focus or materials by dropping in more complex provocations and supporting materials throughout the week.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

5 Steps to a Renewing Winter "Break"

This week we are lucky to have a guest blogger, Deb Shine Valentine!  She has her own terrific blog and is a long time early childhood educator who has worked with children and adults her entire career. She has some thoughts for us about how to take care of ourselves when we eventually do get a break from the work we do with children and families.  Happy Holidays and Happy New Year everyone!

It’s that time of year when those amazing folks who provide care and education for children feel life speeding up and slowing down at the same time.   Some of you are looking forward to a week (or maybe 2 weeks!) off work.  Some will have only a couple of days off, but perhaps also fewer children in class and a slightly more relaxed day at work.  Some will be off “work,” but home with their own children—which is lovely, but not exactly a “break.”  But I imagine most of you are hopeful.  Hopeful that you will find some renewal, so you can enter 2017 feeling like you just took a deep breath in and are ready to go.  

So, how can you make this “break” work for you?  Well, in part, that depends on you.  Some people will thrive on the energy of activity.  Others crave silence and a chance to quietly meander through the day with no agenda.  That’s why I suggest you take the following steps to increase the chance that this year your break will be what you hope for most.

Step 1:  Pause. Take time to get clear on what you want most from your “break.”
I know. You want ALL the things.  You want to get a massage and clear all the clutter out of the basement.  Go on a date with your spouse and prep all your lesson plans for the first week of the new year.  Relax all day in your PJs and magically also re-organize all your files, bake cookies, make all your children’s dreams come true, and OH YEAH, start running again. But perhaps, just perhaps, you won’t manage to do everything you hope to do in the next couple of weeks.  And that’s okay.  Really.  If you pause and choose now I can just about guarantee that you will get what you want MOST, and that will be enough.  Choosing is hard, but finding out too late that what you wanted most is the thing that fell off the bottom of your “to do” list is harder.  So, are you with me?  Okay, then spend 10-20 minutes brainstorming about every possible thing you’d love to do during your break (or between today and Dec. 31 or Jan. 2 – whatever works for you.)  Add the tasks you feel you must do - like finish gift shopping etc.  Then move to step two we’ll tackle HOW to figure out which of these things you want most (which is often the hardest part!)

Step 2:  Check in with the smartest part of you.  (Hint:  It’s not the logic of your brain)
In American culture we’re taught that decisions should be made through logic and reason and that our body, intuition and emotions are generally not to be trusted. The problem with this theory is that when we follow it we are missing out a HUGE chunk of information that our bodies and the non-verbal parts of our brain know already, and the logical part of our brain does not. (It’s also, by the way, a very male-dominant way of viewing wisdom, which just maybe isn’t a great fit for our female-dominated profession.)  So, I want to encourage you to check in with your BODY to help you figure out what you want most.  If you’re skeptical, that’s okay, just think of it as an experiment.  Here’s how I suggest you try it.
  • Take that list you made, a pen or, if you have them, two different colored highlighters, and sit down in a comfortable spot where you can be alone for at least 15 minutes.  (Sit in the bathroom or hide your closet if you must!) 
  • Think of a time in your life that you never want to experience again and notice what you feel in your body—this is the worst part of the exercise, I promise!  (A knot in your stomach?  A tightness in your jaw?  A feeling of pressure in your chest?  An impulse to run?)  This is your NO-WAY-DON’T-DO-IT-EVEN-IF-YOU’RE-SUPPOSED-TO feeling. If you have a highlighter choose a color that will represent this feeling.
  • Now, literally shake this yucky feeling off.  Shake your arms and hands, your whole body if you want to.
  • Next, think of a favorite memory and feel how that feels in your body.  (A fluttering in your chest?  A lightness?  An urge to smile?  A sense of calm in your belly?)  This is your ABSOLUTELY-YES-EVEN-IF-IT-SEEMS-SILLY-OR-UNIMPORTANT-OR-SELFISH feeling.  If you have a highlighter, choose a color that will represent this feeling.
  • Then, go through your list one item at a time and note what you feel in your body about each one.  If you have highlighters use them.  If not you can just write YES, NO, MAYBE next to the items. For some items you will have a very strong reaction, for others maybe not much of one.  That’s fine.  Just notice what you notice and keep moving down the list. 

Step 3:  Pick three of the ABSOLUTELY-YES-EVEN-IF-IT-SEEMS-SILLY-OR-UNIMPORTANT-OR-SELFISH items and commit to making sure that no matter what happens these will. 
Put them on a post-it note on the bathroom mirror, on your calendar, on the fridge.  Tell your family or friends.  Post your commitment on Facebook.  Do what you need to do to be sure that barring an outbreak of Scarlet Fever these three things are non-negotiable.  WHICH means - that everything else is. 

Step 4:  Get rid of the NO-WAY-DON’T-DO-IT-EVEN-IF-YOU’RE-SUPPOSED-TO items.
You will believe that you can’t possibly miss Aunt Martha’s annual holiday party even though it makes you break out in hives.  You will believe that you can’t possibly tell your kids that you just don’t have it in you to make gingerbread houses this year, their pain will be too great. BUT YOU CAN.  You may disappoint someone (but I promise you both you and they will live through it.)  OR you may find that your loved ones are quite happy with whatever it is that you are able to do. 

Alternative for the faint of heart: if your body says “no way,” but you want to go ahead with the task, think of a way to improve it.  Maybe call ahead to Aunt Martha and tell her you’ll only be able to stay an hour.  Make the gingerbread houses, but buy premade pieces.  Make Christmas dinner, but don’t make every single traditional dish possible.  Extra hint: If you choose to keep some of these NO-WAY items on your list, don’t procrastinate on them.  Finish any that you can as soon as possible and feel the lightness that rushes into your body once you do.

Step 5: Don’t worry if you couldn’t do the above steps perfectly. 
As women and caregivers we often don’t have much practice with noticing what we want OR making sure we get it.  It takes practice.  You also may be so out of touch with your body that it wasn’t that much help.  It’s okay.  If you’re still unsure, just choose ONE thing that you’re pretty sure you want for this break.   A little tiny step towards caring for yourself is not NOTHING. 

I’ll be here cheering you on. 

Thanks so much all you do to care for children.  It matters.  So do you.  Happy Holidays!

Here are some other blogs Deb recommends:

As a teacher, Deb Shine Valentine really wanted to “save the world,” but (surprise!) she couldn’t quite manage it.  Now she just tries to be happy and as it turns out it’s helping her to be more effective in making a difference in kids’ lives too! She’s on a mission to help other educators and moms do the crucial work of caregiving while feeling energized and happy themselves.  If that sounds good to you check out her free guide Six Ways to Go From Surviving Your Day to Loving Your Life.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

One Month Later - Young Children Processing the Election

A month has passed since the election and our last post.  Teachers all over the country figured out a multitude of ways to address children's observation and questions.  In Somerville, a kindergarten and first grade teacher each embarked upon longer term investigations to support children's understandings of the election.

The topics are challenging and complex, yet compelling and developmentally appropriate - being brave and leadership. This is a longer post than usual, but there is a lot of detail from the classrooms and you might get some ideas to explore in the new year, especially as the inauguration approaches.

Being Brave In Kindergarten
Helen Schroeder - East Somerville Community School

Reflections From a Kindergarten Teacher - In Words and Books: 

The aftermath of the election required a lot of thinking, listening, and recalibrating. While the results didn't seem to register with some children, for others, it was very confusing and very real. The morning after, I had a student come up to me with panicky eyes saying, "but teacher, Donald Trump hates children!" I had some children saying some pretty confusing things that had clearly been filtered through parents, then siblings, to them. The election is so beyond what kindergarteners can truly understand and the palpable fear and tension the results produced in our community and in children and their families were very real to them. My first priority was making sure everyone understood how safe and welcome they were in the classroom and in our school, and sharing that message on our classroom door.

I found free downloadable everyone welcome here poster and added text with the message in the languages spoken by children in our classroom. We talked about how important it was for everyone to feel welcome in our school, talked about the woman in the picture, and took turns reading it before we decorated and hung it up.

In thinking about how to move forward in the following weeks, I decided to focus on the idea of being brave. We talked a lot about what it meant to be brave, "like when you're not afraid of the dark, or anything." We talk about how you could be brave for yourself and brave to help other people, like "Hey, leave my sister alone!" We explored the idea of different kinds of bravery, both individual and collective, through read-alouds and conversations. 

Here are some of the books the teacher and children explored along with the teacher's descriptions.

This book helped us think about what bravery was, and how you could be brave in big ways and small ways. We learned about individuals being brave, including a lot of kids.

In this book, not only does Carmen navigate a new school and language, but she teaches her new friends and teachers Spanish, and stands up to kids who make fun of her accent. This is a great book about an immigrant kid in a powerful role.

This book centers on a child with a physical disability who had to be brave in many different ways to achieve his goal of cycling around his home country of Ghana to raise awareness and visibility of people with disabilities. My students were amazed by all Emmanuel did for his family and how he kept getting on his bike even when he fell off, something many could relate to. 

We read a story about a brave kid who helped others in his class understand that there are lots of different ways to be a boy (and a girl). This book written in a wonderfully developmentally appropriate way, and is great because the hero both stands up for himself and has allies. It also prompted a great conversation about what it would mean to stand up for Jacob and be brave for him as his friend - the beginnings of bystander education.

We also read and talked about how people can be brave by working together in groups. Swimmy is a great introduction to this - it's much easier for the little fish to brave and chase the big fish away when they work together as one. 

People have been brave together for a long time. This book is so great because the beautiful illustrations do most of the talking, the text is very simple, and it focuses on children and a family and their experience at the March on Washington, taking a big event that can be abstract to young children and making it real and relatable to their lives. 

We also learned about how sometimes people sing songs to help them feel brave. We learned about the history of "We Shall Overcome," and added the song to our repertoire. While this book has big concepts, focusing on ideas of freedom, fairness and the many brave people featured in the story made it a powerful read-aloud for our class. My students loved singing along throughout the pages. 

I am trying to listen to my students and families as I think about next steps. I know that I want to start a family unit in the next several weeks that lifts up and celebrates family knowledge, stories, and roots. My students see many examples of people who look like them doing both amazing and ordinary things through our read-alouds and projects, and along with that, there is a need to know and understand the everyday experiences of people who are very different from them.  I am trying to make choices as a teacher that give my students power - solving problems like who will sit next to me during morning meeting each day together, when it would have been easier to solve on my own, produced a solution better than the one I was considering. Or, taking a child with a choice time activity request over to the choice board and letting her decide which choice her idea would replace. Helping children understand their ideas have value and can make things better. And that sometimes big ideas need bravery to become reality. This is what democracy looks like. 

What is Leadership? First Graders Explore What it Means to Be a Leader
Emily Voigt - The Brown School

Reflections from a First Grade Teacher - in Drawings and Documentation (Newsletter)

A leader helps the country.
I learned that Donald Trump won the election.