Sunday, August 20, 2017

Project Approach: Connecting with Community through Inquiry

In June, Somerville was fortunate to host Sallee Beneke, a leading expert on The Project Approach. We co-hosted this event with Tufts University and Charlestown Nursery School - partners who also know the value of inquiry based early childhood curriculum.  Sallee's website, Illinois Projects in Practice, has both theory and practices related to project approach, as well as links to Early Childhood Research and Practice (see this great project about a car wash) which has great examples of projects.

As you begin to plan for the coming school year, think about what children will bring to your classroom. What will they want to learn about?  What provocations or ideas do you have in mind that you think your children will want to study and expand upon?  Are there current events, places of interest, in your community that children can directly experience that you would want to study?

During the workshop, teachers actually engaged in their own project based on their interests and so they experienced directly how rich the learning is when you follow children's interests as the project unfolds AND root children's learning in the community.  This is important for young children and older children alike and is often referred to as Personalized Learning. Personalized learning opportunities offer children co-ownership of curriculum which leads to greater engagement in learning experiences. Teachers also learned about how this approach supports standards-based learning and addresses content across curriculum areas.

But what to study?  There are so many topics and some teachers may have specific areas of study they must do as part of their school or district curriculum. Sallee helped us to make a distinction between a theme and a project. Part of the goal of the Project Approach is to connect with authentic experiences in a child's life or immediate environment that they can touch, learn about, and have a real interaction.  One can always do a theme about bears and learn about them, but unless there is a way for children to really experience something related to bears, this isn't a good subject for Project Approach.

Before the workshop began, I scoped out the neighborhood in East Somerville near the Capuano Early Childhood Center where the workshop was held.  Sallee has asked that we identify some local businesses and organizations where workshop participants could do "fieldwork" in the form of a visit to learn more and design a course of study. Making a trip to visit an expert on your topic or inviting an expert into your classroom is a key component of Project Approach.

  • They visited.
  • They conducted surveys and talked with customers and business owners.
  • They brainstormed and webbed.
  • They hypothesized
  • They researched.
  • They planned.
  • They constructed something to represent their research.

But something even deeper happened.  The teachers, upon visiting their sites, had powerful experiences in our community.

  • They discovered a market they didn't know existed and saw that there were fresh fruits and vegetables for sale there, as well as ingredients for making dishes from Latin America.  They got to know the owner and the customers. 

  • They visited a local laundromat and realized it was a place where people gather and wondered about how to connect with families who patronize it.

  • They got to know the owner of a local cafe and learned how proud he is of both his heritage and beginnings in Portugal but also how deeply he cares about the local community in Somerville.

  • They learned about a group of artists devoted to working in clay, how they connect with the community, understood more about the science and art of pottery.  

  • They discovered that the Beautiful Stuff Project, a local creative reuse center that many teachers regularly go to and get classroom supplies, functions as a non-profit and that its director searches far and wide to get the materials for teachers, families, and children in Somerville. 

For their final experience, teachers created a documentation panel to tell the story of their learning. Creating these kinds of displays with children and including photographs, text, surveys, children's writing, etc. makes learning visible to children, families, colleagues, and administrators.

Sallee Beneke watches the teacher presentations.

Projects are wonderful.  They engage children in interesting topics and bring depth to a study beyond a weekly theme.  But we learned about the power of connecting with people right here in our community.  Dinosaurs are fascinating to children, but they can't touch them or interact with them. So as you begin to plan for this year's curriculum, consider engaging in a long-term project that connects children with the community they live in.   You'll be glad you did!

Scroll down to see some of the components of the Project Approach that teachers practiced in June.
Customer survey at Amigos Market.
Teacher web of ideas for future study. This can also be done with children.

Asking children to come up with questions about the topic helps guide the study.  This is an example of what workshop participants wanted to know about Mudflat, a local clay studio.

Questions generated about a local art studio and creative reuse center called The Beautiful Stuff Project.
Teacher web about The Beautiful Stuff Project.

Teacher web about the Ola Cafe.
After learning as much as they could about the place they visited, they developed a plan of study and had to build something to represent their learning.  The Ola Cafe group developed a strong connection with the owner and learned about his life in Portugal before he came to the United States.

The Ola Cafe has a European-style juicer which teachers build as their representation of their project.
Teachers who were learning about Mudflat, the local clay studio, built a working replica of a flywheel out of recycled materials.

Monday, June 5, 2017

What Does Balanced Literacy Look Like?

I am old enough to remember the phonics vs. whole language debates when people divided themselves into two camps - one camp advocated for direct instruction in phonics - teaching letters and sounds, sounding out words, etc.  The whole language approach took a more global view that stories generated by children were important and children would absorb language rules by exposure to story and text. I was working in a Montessori program in the early 1980s during this time and the Whole Language work seemed like the perfect complement to the robust phonological and phonetic work that is part of Montessori language and literacy curricula. I couldn't imagine tossing out the introduction of sounds and symbols in favor of what was being deemed a more "organic" approach.  

Couldn't we all just get along?

Of course we know that we need both and that they complement each other beautifully.

Of late another false dichotomy has emerged:  dictation vs. child writing.
I was recently talking with some colleagues about journaling with children.  When I mentioned that teachers were writing down children's stories they looked askance.  "Doesn't that communicate to children that adults are the only ones who can write?" I had recently heard this before from others teachers who were careful not to do much writing for children lest the children rely upon adults to write for them. I wondered how 3 and 4 year olds would develop narrative fluency, discover the power of their own stories, and see writing modeled if adults didn't support their story telling ability by listening and writing down what they said.

Then there is the copying-invented spelling divide.  We want to give children rich vocabulary, but some say that copying robs children of the opportunity to do invented spelling, a much needed cognitive skill that leads to children being able to generate their own writing using phonetics.  Yet, we often see children working in the absence of meaningful, relevant vocabulary that complements their drawing and interests. Shouldn't we be giving children words that are meaningful to them? This is especially relevant for children who are learning English and need vocabulary-rich experiences.

Invented spelling is a crucial skill.  It is time consuming and it must be taught.  There is no substitute for sitting with a child and helping them to sound out words and we have to make the time to do it daily with children. Test yourself with some writing I saw this week (hint: the children were studying the life cycle of the butterfly and watching them emerge from their chrysalids).


How did you do? It is great stuff.  And, just what we want to see. But how did these children, whose teacher also took dictation of stories, engaged in Story Telling Story Acting, wrote group stories with the whole group to model writing and sounding out, labeled children's drawings, provided word/picture cards with relevant vocabulary, and had children draw and write daily, learn to dive into invented spelling?

The key is that the teacher did all these things.  
  • She conveyed, very intentionally, that there are many ways to communicate through writing.
  • She intentionally told children that writers don't write by copying everything or having someone else write for them, they think about the words, the sounds, and put them on paper, from brain to hand to page.
  •  She watched children carefully so she would know when a child was ready to move from dictation to sounding out their own words. 

Initially children may want only labels.  Then they want to tell a whole story.  Gradually they want to be the ones to write and there may be a combination of child-led and teacher writing. Children eventually learn that for their work to be able to be read by everyone, they must follow certain conventions and by first and second grade, the idea of correct spelling comes into play.  But for 4 year olds, or even a 3 year old who shows you she is ready, getting the letters down on paper and seeing oneself as a writer is the key, and teachers must balance a variety of complementary approaches - hence, a balanced literacy approach.

Labeling Children's Drawings

Taking Dictation

Somerville uses a Balanced Literacy approach.  This means that we use complementary approaches to language and literacy, balancing attention on all elements of literacy exposure and instruction in speaking, listening, writing, and reading. For PreK this means a focus on:
  • Oral Language and Vocabulary
  • Book Knowledge
  • Print Concepts
  • Writing
  • Physical Development and Writing Mechanics
  • Phonological & Phonemic Awareness: Listening for and playing with sounds, words, and syllables
  • Phonics: Linking sounds and pictures, sounding out words

“Balance” also refers to the way teachers engage in multiple resources and activities tailored to children's diverse learning needs throughout the day.  There is also a balance of instructional configurations: whole group, small group, individual, and the “handover” - where children independently engage in activities alone, in pairs, or small groups without the need of constant adult intervention.  This last part relies on really good Guided Discovery presentations that foster independence.

And of course, you need a place in the classroom where children can access materials to become strong writers and readers. How are you achieving balanced literacy in your classroom?

Monday, May 8, 2017

Kindness and Fairness: Somerville Celebrates the Week of the Young Child

Each year we ask the Mayor of Somerville, Massachusetts, Joseph Curtatone, to write a letter to the children of Somerville. This year's letter, coming on the heels of the election and how we addressed it with children, asked children:

What would make Somerville a kind and fair place for everyone?

The Kindergarten Readiness Group, teachers from center-based and public school preschools and kindergartens, developed curriculum to support explorations in classrooms leading up to our Week of the Young Child celebration at City Hall in Somerville on April 27. This included:
  • Two social stories: one about City Hall and the Mayor, another about being kind and fair.
  • Songs about the Mayor and being kind, composed by Maura Mendoza, a family liaison and local musician, were distributed to teachers so children could learn the song. 
  • Curriculum Guides with activities and project ideas.
Children came up with lots of ideas and brought their projects to City Hall to present to the Mayor.  Over 300 children gathered in the Aldermanic Chamber to sing, meet the Mayor, and celebrate the importance being kind and fair citizens. 
Children from 13 schools joined the fun.
What do you do to be kind and fair?

Children brought their class books and projects to the Mayor.

The Mayor, with Laura Pitone, School Committee Chair, and Mary Skipper, Superintendent, gave a speech about the importance of caring in our community and how everyone is welcome in Somerville.
Maura Mendoza and Brant Grieshaber led everyone in original songs Maura composed just for this event?

After the ceremony in the chamber children engaged in activities all over City Hall. 

Children voted on their favorite ways to be kind using refurbished voting machines that "ding" when you turn the crank!

Children saw police, firefighter, and other city vehicles up close.

The Somerville Family Learning Collaborative launched The Talk Campaign about the importance of parent-child communication.

Children made crowns with Beautiful Stuff 

 Some children wanted to make a statue with a mirror for a face, so when you look at the statue you might see what kindness and fairness looks like.

When you look in the mirror, do you see someone who is kind, fair, and works for social justice?

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.