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!