Sunday, November 19, 2017

Closing the Achievement Gap: What is in your circle of control?

My team and I are just back from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) conference in Atlanta and the topic of the achievement gap remains in the forefront of everyone's minds. In the sessions I attended I noticed how quickly the topic passionately turned to parental and societal challenges that impact children's learning, and what communities can do to help address those challenges.  Certainly, the challenges are very real.  

Many of our families in Somerville work multiple jobs, live in less than ideal housing situations that impact food, sleep, social emotional development, and of course a child's ability to learn.  We must work tirelessly with policy makers and city leaders to overcome the factors that contribute to poverty and toxic stress impacting many families today. And Somerville is doing just that through our family engagement and inter-agency work, and the By All Means initiative out of the Education Redesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (more on that in a later blog). Playgroups, home visits, wrap around services, family liaisons, and health initiatives support families and children.

But we can't continue to focus only on societal challenges. 

Then, in one of the sessions at NAEYC this slide popped up:

Causes of the Achievement Gap
  • Injustice
  • Inequality
  • In-opportunity
More passionate discussion ensued.  Which is it?  What is the relationship between these things?  Can you have opportunity where there is no equality? Does injustice result from lack of opportunity or is it the other way around? These are huge and overwhelming topics. Of course these causes are interrelated but which to tackle first and how?

Depends on where you sit - and this is where another important narrative emerged.  

Maurice Sykes, Executive Director of the Early Childhood Leadership Institute at the University of the District of Columbia’s National Center for Urban Education, reiterated across two forums I attended that those of us who work with young children (and the teachers who engage them) have to maintain a strong focus on the best possible experiences we can offer for the time that children are in our care, or for the time we are providing professional development or coaching. 

And we have to think carefully about our Circles of Concern, Circles of Influence, Circles of Control.  Too much focus on Concern and we can become reactive and overwhelmed.  Too much only on Control and we lose sight of our role in the big picture.  The key here is the relationship between our Circle of Influence and our Circle of Control.  And teachers actually have more influence and control than they think they do. 

As teachers, your practice is at the heart of what you can control. Whether you have our children for 5, 6, 7, or even 10 hours a day you must continue an unrelenting focus on the experiences children have.  You/We must:

  • design beautiful and interesting environments that reduce trauma.
  • offer practices that keep children's interests, play, Big Ideas/themes, and their desire to communicate (in speaking, drawing, and writing) at the heart of what is offered.
  • make sure that we understand children's developmental trajectories in academic, physical, and social emotional learning.
THINK: What do I need to do or to learn in order to for my circles to have the greatest impact on the achievement gap? 

Here is a little inspiration from our classrooms as you think about your Circles of Influence and Control. Children are capable, curious, and want to learn.

Early childhood education IS rocket science and we have to start treating it that way. 

Receiving tiny notebooks to record drawings, ideas, representations, words.

Labeling block structures that represent the building the classroom is in.

Making maps with curated materials

Building vocabulary connected to an investigation base on the Big Idea: Where does our food come from?  

Monday, October 23, 2017

Dialogic Reading

Dialogic Reading - That's a mouthful and sounds like a medical term!  But if we look more closely we see the word "dialogue" in there. Dialogic Reading is a read aloud practice using picture books to enhance and improve literacy and language skills. The basis for this is asking simple questions and following up with expanded questions.

This is a nice link on Dialogic Reading strategies, one of which we used recently in Somerville during a professional development workshop - CROWD.  CROWD stands for:

We were lucky to have Allen Kesten, a former children's librarian, Head Start education coordinator, curriculum developer, and consultant to lead us in CROWD strategies. 

First Allen read us a story - and who doesn't love a good story.  This book by Gaia Cornwall had us on the edge of our seats and we waited to see if Jabari would indeed jump off the high dive at his local pool.  


As Allen read, he modeled the CROWD strategies and we became even more engaged in the story. 

Then our teachers worked in pairs to generate their own CROWD questions as they chose a book from among the low text, high interest books Allen brought for us.  Low text, high interest books support children's engagement in a story without having to rely on too much or overly complicated text. 

Back in their classrooms, teachers practices the strategies with children one on one, in small groups, and whole group read alouds.

We documented our professional development in a bulletin board aimed at families with a copy of the books, photos of the teachers learning together, and children reading at school.   A simple handout, translated into key languages spoken in our district, gave families tips on things they can ask while reading to children, and we included a booklist for teachers and families.

While reading a book with your child:
      Ask, “Tell me what is happening in this picture.”
      Ask, “Tell me about  . . .”
      Wonder, “I wonder how they will solve . . .”
      Ask, “Why do you think . . . ?”
      Ask, “How did . . .?”
      Ask, “What do you think will happen next?”
      Ask, “Have you ever . . .?”

      Recall, “Remember when       we . . .”

High Interest/Low Text Books
DO try this at home and at school!

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?