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.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Talking About the Election with Young Children

"I didn't mean to vote for that bad man!  I made a mistake!" (A. Age 6)
"We don't say bad words, right? Why is he saying bad words." (E. Age 4)
"I will miss my friends. My mom says we can't live here anymore." (I. Age 6)

This week the election brought a range of emotions into our homes, schools, and communities.  It brought some emotions that children can identify and others that are more complex.  Faced with confusion and curiosity a young child might say of a crying friend, "He is sad." or "Why is he crying?" This is the foundation of social emotional learning and how we respond further shapes how children feel and develop understanding.

In many communities children observed adult behavior related to election and responded.  They felt the tension in the months and weeks before and in the days that followed. They were exposed to the media and conversations and thus experience emotions they cannot identify or come to terms with. They feel confusion and often fear.

I spoke to educators across the country this week, especially my early childhood counterparts in Cambridge and Boston, and the stories were the same.

  • Children being asked by peers if they were born here. 
  • Girls being called "fat pigs" and being told, "now we can say that".
  • Being told, "Go back to your country!" from across the cafeteria, playground, campus, etc.
  • High school students in our communities are snap chatting photos of their suitcases as a symbol of what might come. 

What should we tell the children?  In many cases it depends on the children and what are they asking about and talking about.  What fears might they have? In places like Somerville, with immigrant communities, the fears are palpable.  Children are afraid of being sent away, of being separated from friends and family.  The Somerville Family Learning Collaborative, the family engagement arm of Somerville Public Schools, hosted a gathering for families just after the election, with bilingual family liaisons present, to answer questions about what the results will mean for them.  Over 100 families attended demonstrating a need for information. Schools and communities are addressing the election results with strategies often used in trauma situations.  And this is the right approach for many children and families who need reassurance.

I spoke to some teachers who questioned how they might engage children in the democratic process in the future. Many children had direct experiences with the election through a typical mock voting activity.  I saw many classrooms where teachers had pictures of each candidate and children could vote by putting their own small photo under the candidate.  I strongly question the efficacy of this exercise.  The day after the election brought guilt for children who felt they had made a mistake, voted for "the bad man", or were chastised for their vote by others. A more appropriate voting activity might be to have children vote for something that is meaningful to them like the color of the next batch of playdoh or which story to read at meeting.  In this way children experience developmentally appropriate disappointment, a perfectly okay feeling to experience, and the process of decision making in a group.

A four year old used a stencil and her own details to express her desire for change.

Debbie LeeKeenan from Lesley University and John Nimmo from Portland State have written extensively about and addressing children's issues via an anti-bias stance.  Their piece about talking with children in challenging times provides some direction for teachers to use this week. They advise:

  • Begin with self reflection.
  • Create a climate for dialogue and inquiry with children and adults.
  • Unpack and be prepared for possible classroom scenarios.
  • Move beyond either/or thinking.

Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, provides guidance and resources for teachers on a variety of topics - a few of the ideas in this post urge us to:

  • Begin within - How will you prepare yourself to engage in conversations with children?
  • Get back to instruction - What read-alouds make sense in the coming weeks?
  • Strengthen the classroom community - How will you build connections and kindness?

On a basic level, being an early childhood educator is about teaching kindness, as this blog post from the Newtowne School in Cambridge demonstrates.  

We would love to hear your stories of how you are handling the post-election climate, get more resources to disseminate, and to know what children in your classroom are saying and doing.  Please share your stories with us at

Children are asking.  Children are watching.   What will you say?  What will you do?

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Everybody's Working on Something - Talking About Ability with Young Children

"Everybody is working on something."

Whether you are starting out the year with a completely new group of children or have children who have been with you since summer or the year before, at this point in the year we should have a good sense of what each child can do well and what they may struggle with. While we want to help children feel confident about their abilities, it is also important to help children name the things they find challenging.

Early in my teaching career I was introduced to the book Is it Hard?Is it Easy? by Mary McBurney Green, illustrations by Len Gittleman.  Here is my latest well-loved copy.

I sometimes get a call about a child who is experiencing difficulty the classroom, often behavioral. Sometimes the call is about a group of children who aren't accessing curriculum in quite the way a teacher had hoped.  And teachers are often unsure about if they should talk to children about what they are having difficulty with.  

But we must.  It is especially important to engage children in this conversation.

The first step is to normalize the experience of finding something challenging and showing children that everyone is working on something, that we all have different abilities. This helps each child identify what they find easy and hard, but it also sets the stage for conversations about what peers are working on.  This builds empathy for others and an understanding that everyone needs support in one way or another.

When there is a child in the classroom who experiences difficulty coming to meeting or sitting still, or children have outbursts and behavioral issues, we often skirt around these difficulties with the entire group.  Using a book like this one to foster conversation allows us to say, "It is hard for Cheri to sit at meeting but it is easy for her to add lots of details to her pictures." "It is hard for Michael to control his body all the time but easy for him to do the monkey bars."  Here are some examples from drawings children ages 3-5 did after hearing this book and being asked,

"What is hard for you to do and what is easy for you to do?"  The pages were made into a class books to be read over and over.

When we communicate that everyone is indeed working on something we allay children's fears about the outburst of a peer, the communication skills of a classmate, their awareness of their own difficulties, and teachers now have language to address the inevitable situations where children experience frustration and notice their efforts compared to others.

Some colleagues in Somerville found this video of Is it Hard? Is it Easy? on Youtube. Others read the book and are making their own class books to share.  All classrooms have a range of learners and at a time when were are striving for inclusion being able to speak openly about children's needs creates a level of equity and empathy in our classroom communities.

What are you working on?

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Starting the Year off Right: Developing a Choreography of Practice

Our last post was way back in June and is worth a review as you start your year.
What do our children want and need as they start school this year? Somerville teachers brainstormed last spring and will be revisiting this list throughout the year as they begin to develop a curriculum approach and framework (with a generous grant from The Taly Foundation) that meets the needs of our diverse learners in Somerville. For the last few years I have been listening to teachers talk about the struggle of balancing academic content with the play they know children need.  It is tricky business and teachers work in an environment of competing interests - what they know children can do, what they need to do it, and what the curriculum demands ask them to do.  And things don't always match up. Here is their list:

Children can....Children want to...
  • Talk about their home life and family
  • Feel like they are part of a group
  • Touch, explore, create, discover
  • Be independent
  • Think 
  • Be challenged
  • Be taken seriously
  • Feel successful 
  • Make connections
  • Be seen and known
  • Play

Children need....
  • To feel loved by their community
  • To use their imagination
  • Language(s)
  • Interesting materials & motivated by interesting experiences
  • To repeat activities
  • Time
  • Choice
  • Confidence
  • To feel safe
  • Respect
  • To have leadership opportunities

This list is more than just the collective wisdom of experienced early childhood educators. An article last year in The Atlantic that has been making the Facebook rounds again is worth digging into and supports what our Somerville early childhood educators are trying to accomplish. 

"New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that over-reliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning."

So what to do?  It seems there are some unintended consequences of a well-intentioned focus on readiness. We have to pay even more attention to the relationship between instruction, the materials & experiences offered to children, the environment we set up, and strong child-child and teacher-child connections.

Again from the Atlantic: "We neglect vital teacher-child interactions at our peril. Although the infusion of academics into preschool has been justified as a way to close the achievement gap between poor and well-off children, Robert Pianta, one of the country’s leading child-policy experts, cautions that there is “no evidence whatsoever” that our early-learning system is suited to that task. He estimates that the average preschool program “narrows the achievement gap by perhaps only 5 percent,” compared with the 30 to 50 percent that studies suggest would be possible with higher-quality programs. Contrasting the dismal results of Tennessee’s preschool system with the more promising results in places such as Boston, which promotes active, child-centered learning (and, spends more than twice the national average on preschool), lends further credence to the idea that preschool quality really does matter."

To be clear:
This is NOT a call for a "just let them play" free-for-all approach.  We know that children flourish when they have freedom within structure, and when teachers engage them in compelling, challenging curriculum.  This requires much choreography behind the scenes and micro-practices that need to become part of teacher education and professional development. The blog this year will focus on the practices required to do this dance of competing interests and create early childhood settings where children and teachers build relationships that promote learning. 

Here are links to some past posts that are particularly appropriate to this topic and to the start of the school year:

Boss of the Paints
Sensory Tables
Choice Time - Executive Function
Choice Time - Self Regulation
Save My Work

Hope your year is off to a good start!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Children can...Children want to....Children need.....

For many teachers the school year is winding down.  Others are gearing up for summer programming and still other teachers in childcare continue to support their children's growth all summer long. Whatever your context, it is always an insightful exercise to think about what our children can and want to do and link that to what children need.   Early childhood educators in Somerville, in preparation for conversations about curriculum and assessment, recently took some time to think about just this.   The teachers engaged in a Chalk Talk after doing some thinking about what children can and want to do.  It was a reminder for teachers about their deep-seated values related to teaching and learning.

Children can....Children want to...
  • Talk about their home life and family
  • Feel like they are part of a group
  • Touch, explore, create, discover
  • Be independent
  • Think 
  • Be challenged
  • Be taken seriously
  • Feel successful 
  • Make connections
  • Be seen and known
  • Play

It is a powerful list. Imagine classrooms where this happens all the time.  How might our teaching support this image of the child"?  Loris Malaguzzi, the education pioneer behind the Reggio Emilia approach spoke often of the importance of building strong images of children:

What we have to do now is draw out the image of the child, draw the child out of the desperate situations that many children find themselves in. If we redeem the child from these difficult situations, we redeem ourselves. Children have a right to a good school — a good building, good teachers, right time, good activities. This is the right of ALL children.

At the same time that teachers generated their ideas about what children can and want to do, they also made connections to what children need in order to learn - beyond of course the basic needs of food, shelter, etc.

Children need....
  • To feel loved by their community
  • To use their imagination
  • Language(s)
  • Interesting materials & motivated by interesting experiences
  • To repeat activities
  • Time
  • Choice
  • Confidence
  • To feel safe
  • Respect
  • To have leadership opportunities
This equally powerful list speaks to children's need to feel their power as learners. This is cultivated by compelling and interesting provocations and the list begins to address some practices that support children's learning experiences and their evolution as learners.  

Teachers in Somerville will be thinking about this as they work on curriculum and assessment development in the coming year with generous support from The Taly Foundation, an organization committed to making sure every child has access to high quality preschool education.

Whether you are winding up your year and thinking ahead to the fall, or continuing to teach this summer, consider what you think children can and want to do, and what they need to do it.  Do you provide the space for the things you believe in?  Why or why not?  What would need to change for you to have your teaching experiences reflect these lists?  

We will continue to blog this summer share ideas and practices - what would you add to these lists? How would your colleagues or staff respond?   Might you wind up or kick off your school year with this exercise?  We would love to hear about your images of children!