A Clash of Philosophies

Today I went to visit a school. I had visited it before, and came away with the feeling that it was a very nice school. This is a school for early childhood students, ages 2 through kindergarten. The directors are very nice and extremely proud of their school. They should be proud. Their school has a reputation for being one of the best early childhood learning facilities in town.

During my visit I asked the director about their educational philosophy. “Oh, we are very academically oriented,” she stated. “Our pre-k is usually reading by the time they move on to kindergarten.” Indeed, a glance around told me that they are very academically oriented. There are very few toys in the classrooms, and a lot of tables and chairs. I recalled that during one of my previous visits the director mentioned that they only get the small amount of centers materials out to play with when their state consultant comes to visit. During our discussion about educational philosophies the director said, “I know that there are a lot of centers out there that are more hands-on…manipulative-based…” She was searching for a word. “Free play. They are more centered on free play. I have found that a lot of chain centers are like that. Are you like that?”

I said, “Yes, I teach through play. Hands-on, project-based learning. I write workshops designed to teach others how to teach that way as well.”

Her demeanor towards me changed almost imperceptibly after that. It was almost as if she felt that I had been contaminated by them. Those play-based educators who have no idea what they were doing because all they do is let the children play all day. Do their children read? Before kindergarten?

When I left the center, I felt disheartened. I understand that the directors of this center have the freedom to have whatever kind of center that they want, and the parents of the children enrolled there have the freedom to have their children in whatever type of program that they want. However, I know from educating myself on developmentally appropriate practices that children who are in a play-based program develop better social skills, creativity, problem-solving skills, and other life skills better than schools that simply focus on academic achievement. The school’s enrollment is quite high; the director said that most of their classes are full, which means that a lot of the parents in this area value the academic approach for their children.

It is all about value, after all. The directors of this school and the parents who enroll their children value academic achievement above all else. And as a culture we have been taught that academic achievement has to be valued in order to have a successful life. But the tides are turning. Innovation, creativity, and the ability to problem-solve are valued more by today’s businesses. Innovation, creativity, and the ability to problem-solve are best learned through playing with ideas, developing strategies through brainstorming with others, and using imagination to create. These skills aren’t built through simple academic instruction.

I remember a boy who was in my class at the age of two. He was bright and precocious, creative and full of fun. He had a wonderful sparkle in his eye and a curiosity that ensured learning. He left my class and enrolled at this school. He came to visit a few months after he left, holding a worksheet that he wanted to show us. The sparkle that I had so loved about his eyes was gone. I have never forgotten the change that I saw in that child from just a few short months in a purely academic environment. His parents were proud. I was shocked.

As I said before, it is all about values. His parents obviously put more value in the academic education than the building of creativity, imagination, and social skills that the play-based environment provided. Some parents do. Perhaps most parents do. Our culture has taught them to.

Broken Relationships

Usually when I post about relationships on this blog, I post about building positive relationships. Today, however, I experienced broken relationships in my classroom, which is why I have felt prompted to write about them.

Child: “I don’t like you, Ms. Sarah. I don’t like your kids, either. I’m going away and I am not coming back.”

These are the words that I heard today when I was out on the playground. Now, the child had taken another child’s shoe and wasn’t giving it back to them, even as the shoe-less child was screaming “GIVE ME BACK MY SHOE!” I told her to give the shoe back to the other child. After she did, those were the words that she said to me. 

It had already been a long day before this happened, and for some reason I was extremely tired. I knew this, so I was fighting to breathe and keep my calm through all of the emotional turmoil that seemed to be going on around me today. After all, if the teacher can’t respond to turmoil calmly and consistently, there really can’t be a feeling of safety in the classroom. I had been trying so hard to figure out just why I was so tired and why I felt like I needed to breathe just to get through every moment. I knew I hadn’t slept well the night before, but I didn’t think it would cause the kind of day I had been having.

But I should know better. One of the things that I teach during my workshops is that:

In order to be an authentic teacher, you must take care of yourself first.

Being authentic can mean many different things to many different people, but in order for anyone to be authentic – to be truly them, they have to take care of themselves first. I know that when I sleep at night, I have to have the room cold. If the room is not cold, I will wake up and I will not be able to go back to sleep. I know that I have to have eight hours of sleep a night, or I will have no patience and I will feel bad. And yet I did not check to make sure that my room would be cold. And I didn’t get eight hours of sleep. I didn’t take care of myself first. Because of that, I had a really rough day in which I was tired and low on patience in a room full of three-year-olds. 

Teachers are so busy taking care of everyone else: the children in the classroom, families (if they have them), parents, lesson plans, ideas for the classroom, etc., etc. But it is important for us to remember that, in order for us to be able to take care of everyone else, we have to take care of ourselves first. Even those of us in professional development need to remember that.

I saw a great quote on Facebook yesterday about being authentic: “You actually have to practice being authentic, because the world puts so many layers of ‘should’ onto you.” I saw this quote on the page of Baptiste Yoga. I do yoga a lot. I used to do it in the classroom with my kids. I do it at home in order to make myself slow down and breathe and calm down. It is one of the ways that I take care of myself first. I find that if I do yoga and meditate, my patience level is much higher and I can slow down and think things through better before I simply react. Working with any age requires that you slow down and think about how you are going to respond to situations in the classroom. After all, these children are looking at everything we do. If we act emotional and out of control, so will the children. If we act calm and in control, the children will, too. It is important to be the calm that we want others to be. And it is important that we take care of ourselves first so that we can make that happen.

Tomorrow, I am hoping to repair the broken relationships that were caused by my lack of good, quality sleep. Three-year-olds are pretty resilient, so it shouldn’t be too hard. Plus, we are working on making a zoo and we are learning all kinds of cool stuff about animals. I’m sure we can come up with some absolutely amazing animal activities that will help repair the broken relationships of today.

But for now, I am going to bed – in my cold room.

Thinking About Art

On Tuesday, I am presenting Project: Preschool’s inaugural workshop series: Encouraging Creativity in the Classroom. I am super excited and nervous about it, as it will be the first time that I have presented my own material, outside of this blog. I have no doubt that everything will be fine, because I have spent the past two days making sure that everything is prepared. I even found a huge technical glitch today that I thought had been resolved months ago – I am definitely learning the lesson about checking behind myself.

Over the weekend I have had a thought bouncing around in my brain. It never really rested and solidified until today. I was thinking about children and art. Since the workshop is on creativity (and I am working on another one related to art in the classroom) I have planned for participants to complete an art project. But in the beginning, I had prescribed what they were supposed to create while doing the art. The thoughts that bounced through my head were questions about why I was structuring the workshop activity in this way, especially since I am discussing the points of motivation having to do with autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Obviously, prescribing an end that participants should meet would give them a purpose, but I’m not sure that is the type of purpose that I am going for. It doesn’t give participants autonomy, because I am telling them what to create. I guess I could argue for mastery, because participants would get better at creating whatever it was that I told them to create, but to what purpose am I telling them to make it?

If you are confused yet, I am sorry. But the entire thing made me stand back and take a hard look at just what exactly I was calling “open-ended” or “child-centered” art. Of course, sometimes when we do art, we do have to prescribe an end. But for most art projects, simply giving children materials and letting them create at will teaches us a lot about their interests and their character. It also shows us what skills they have and what they need to work on, and gives them the freedom to experiment with tools and materials in ways that interest them.

I’m sure that I will be thinking and talking about this subject more after my workshops. One of the cool things about teaching is that you are able to learn as much as you are able to teach. I am looking forward to learning more from other teachers while we discuss different aspects of creativity, and I am looking forward to diving deeper into the activity that we call art.

Keep Brainstorming

This is the sixth in a twelve-part series based on an article by Michael Michalko entitled “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught In School About Creative Thinking.” You can view the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth parts by clicking on the links.

My first idea was to offer live workshops for teachers. It was a good idea, and I am still putting it into action. My next good idea was for online workshops. I have that idea waiting in the wings. I have thought of many great ideas for expanding the scope of Project: Preschool, but since the business is still a baby, it isn’t ready for any of these ideas yet. I have been brainstorming about workshop topics, and constantly making the ones that I have already thought of even better.

I keep brainstorming and thinking about the direction I want the business to go and the ways I can create something tangible for it. Michalko does a very good job in his article listing some of the possibilities that were there for other inventors, but weren’t pursued until later, by other people. The key is to never stop thinking about what is possible, about what directions you can take an idea, and about how you can make your ideas better.

This goes for the classroom as well. As teachers, we should never become complacent about what is happening or what is in our classrooms. Classrooms should be dynamic places, constantly changing to add new experiences to children’s lives. We should always be thinking about how to improve upon what is there and how to tie each area of the classroom to what is currently being learned. And if we get a new and better idea than the one we had before, we should use it, because children deserve our best ideas.

We should also be encouraging children to build upon the ideas that they have. It seems sometimes like they do this naturally, but it is our job to make sure that they never get out of the habit of trying to improve upon the ideas that they have, or to pursue any idea that they have.

Imagine the Possibilities

This is the fifth in a twelve-part series based on an article by Michael Michalko, entitled “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught In School About Creative Thinking.” By clicking on these links, you can view the first, second, third, and fourth posts.

Possibilities are everywhere, and your mind is capable of coming up with a lot of ideas and possibilities. Michalko urges us not to discard any idea on the basis that it might be too far out there to achieve: “When trying to get ideas, do not censor them or evaluate them as they occur. Nothing kills creativity faster than self-censorship of ideas while generating them. Think of all your ideas as possibilities and generate as many as you can before you decide which ones to select.”

In my classroom, I have come up with a million ideas. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if…” is how the idea usually starts, and then I brainstorm ways to make it happen. Some of my ideas are way out there and some of them are more low-key, but I always take each one into consideration – especially since I know that any idea can be altered if it has aspects of it that may not work. I have been grateful for the co-teachers that I have had that have been the voice of reason from time to time, and I have learned a lot from ideas that I have implemented that had unintended consequences that I could learn from. Creativity and learning is a process, and censoring ourselves in the middle of that process may mean that we don’t learn as much about what could be as we could have. And it may mean that our children miss out, as well.

We need to pass the skill of brainstorming ideas on to our children in the classroom, too. We need to let them know that it is okay to have some wild and crazy ideas, because through those ideas come the gems that mark real creativity and innovation. We need to respect them enough that we don’t censor their ideas, and teach them how to turn those ideas into methods and ideas that work. This is problem-solving at its best, and the businesses of today are looking for people that know how to problem-solve in these creative ways.

So go out there and imagine the possibilities!

 

Imagine What You Want to Create

This is the fourth in a series of posts based on the article “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught In School About Creative Thinking” by Michael Michalko. Here are the links to the first, second, and third posts.

Your brain has the ability to learn from scenarios that you imagine. In the last post, we talked about how you have to practice being creative in order to do it, and in order to do that you must have vision and determination. According to Michael Michalko, “You can synthesize experience; literally create it in your imagination. The human brain cannot tell the difference between an “actual” experience and an experience imagined vividly and in detail.” This means that your brain can learn from the experiences that you actually imagine happening. This can train the brain to think in relation to that being your reality.

All this time, all of these self-help gurus have taught us that visualization is a powerful tool in realizing our goals. But the way that the brain operates, we can use our visualizations in practicing to be creative. Imagining what we want to accomplish helps build the same pathways between neurons as actually sitting down and working to be creative every day.

So why shouldn’t we just imagine ourselves creative? Because even if we imagine a scenario all of the time, there is nothing like actually living it. We don’t get the same kind of thrill from a visualization because we aren’t there, actually creating something. I have talked before about how addictive creating and working can be. Visualization is the same in some sense, but it doesn’t have nearly the power behind it as the feeling one gets when they have actually created something of value. Visualization is an important part of getting to that point, but it should not be the only way that one goes about working their creative muscles.

Training Your Brain to be Creative

This post is the third in a series based on the article “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught In School About Creative Thinking” by Michael Michalko. You can view the first post here and the second post here.

Whenever you are in the process of learning something, you are training your brain in that area. New connections are made between neurons in your brain, strengthening your ability to accomplish the tasks that you have been practicing. While we think about practicing in order to increase our ability to do things like play sports or musical instruments, it also helps to practice other skills that we want to learn – even being creative.

Like a lot of people, I used to view myself as someone who isn’t creative. I looked at things that other people created with envy, wishing that I could be that creative. It took me a very long time to realize that I could be creative like that. The two keys that I found: a vision and determination.

I started out with a vision. Because I have done so much independent research into learning, thinking, education, and creativity, I felt that I could offer my knowledge to others. I created a vision of what it would look like to offer workshops to other teachers so that I could pass on my knowledge to them. I broke down the vision into pieces and tried to figure out what I needed to do to make each piece happen.

Then came the determination.

I had to MAKE myself do something toward realizing that vision. Every day. I couldn’t skip a day, or I would get lazy. My brain would stop coming up with ideas. I would stop trying to figure out how to implement them. I would stop imagining the end result. I would stop dreaming. And working.

I set a goal every single day, and set out to accomplish it no matter what it took. Some days were harder than others. Stress gets in the way sometimes. I have two kids, a full time teaching job, and I am going to school part time, so finding time to plan workshops gets tough. But the motivation is there. I love the vision and the knowledge that I have. The idea of sharing that knowledge with others inspires and motivates me. Working every single day toward realizing that idea and that vision has made it easier to do. I am now in the marketing phase for my first workshop, to be offered in a face-to-face (as opposed to online) format. Every time I hit a new phase, I have to push myself again. Each phase is harder than the one before, but each phase brings me closer to realizing my vision.

It takes work and determination to put forth the effort to train your brain in anything. Many of the people who have written about creativity say that creating a routine is essential. It helps to train your brain if you have a routine, and it helps keep your brain involved in the process if you take time to be creative frequently.

Everyone has the capacity to be creative. The key to training yourself to be creative is to find your passion, and then use your vision and your determination to work on that passion.

Creative Thinking Is Work

This post is the second of a twelve part series based on a post about creativity by Michael Michalko.

I saw a very interesting video last night. In it, a boy named Jacob Barnett gave a TEDxTeens audience some insight into how to be creative. In his very young way (he is 14), he told the audience to stop learning and start thinking. Now, this is a boy who was put in special education when he was younger. His parents were told that he was autistic and would probably never talk. Since he had that diagnosis and was put in less restrictive learning environments, it gave him time to think about other issues. Now he is filling out college applications and having Princeton physics professors trying to disprove the work that he is not only doing, but publishing research papers on.

There is a disconnect between what learning is and what thinking is. This disconnect is caused by the nature of our education system. Jacob Barnett encourages teens and others to stop learning for twenty-four hours and start thinking about something that they are passionate about. He recognizes the motivators: the ability to autonomously think about something that you are internally motivated by because of passion. 

He told a room full of teenagers to stop leaning on others for their knowledge and start thinking for themselves.

Doing this is hard work, especially if you haven’t done it before. However, once you begin to allow yourself the time and  attention that it takes to immerse yourself in your passion, it spreads through you like some sort of disease – only much, much better. Your brain begins thinking and making connections, and it is an exhilarating feeling to know that your brain has the capacity to do that much, to make that many connections. It is addictive; I would rather spend any vacation time that I get working on the ideas that I put forth in this blog or researching other ideas to put forth or present than do anything else. Because of this addiction that I now have, I am working harder than I have ever worked in my life and am busier than I have ever been in my life.

Creative thinking is work. It is hard work.

I have created many things. Many workshops, many blog posts. Most of the workshops that I created before were not that great. Some of my blog posts aren’t that great either, but I keep typing away because it is what I am passionate about. I work hard every day to create a workshop that will be inspiring and will allow participants to learn in their own unique way. It takes a focus and a passion and a patience that I didn’t know that I had. But I do, and you probably do, too. Find your passion and the rest will come with it.

This same type of focus and passion are necessary for an effective creative classroom environment. I am constantly changing things in my classroom to find out what works and what doesn’t. I work hard to apply the concepts that I discuss here in the classroom environment to make sure that they work. I have to be patient, because sometimes results don’t come right away. I have to be flexible, because sometimes the children have a different agenda than I do. And I have to be focused; I can tell when I didn’t plan very well. The children can tell, too. There is not a moment in my classroom when I am not working. Even when the children are sleeping, I think about incidents that happened throughout the morning, what they mean, and how to extend learning because of them. I think about individual children and what I need to do to help them learn. I think about class projects that I want to do. I plan how I need to change materials around the classroom to help them learn different things. Teaching, like learning and thinking, is dynamic. It should always be working and evolving, never sitting still.

Creative thinking is work. I am working harder now than I ever have in my life, but I love every second of it.

Things That Are Not Taught About Creativity

I ran into an article about ideas and beliefs that we are not taught about creative thinking. It really spoke to me because there are so few people who truly view themselves as creative. I used to be one of them, but through finding what I love to do, who I am, and how to express who I am through what I love to do, I found my creative self. I want to help others find their creative selves, as well. The article cites twelve points, and my next twelve blog posts will cover each point as it relates to the field of Early Childhood Education.

POINT ONE: YOU ARE CREATIVE

As I said above, there are so many people out there that feel that they aren’t creative. It simply isn’t the case. The article points out that creative people believe that they are creative, and people that don’t believe that they are creative don’t feel the need to put forth the effort to be creative.

I think that there may be a little more to it than that. Yes, creativity does involve an attitude – a certain way of thinking about yourself and your surroundings. But some people feel trapped by circumstances. In early childhood education, I know a lot of teachers that want to be creative, but feel like they can’t. Maybe they feel that the administration won’t go for their ideas. Maybe they just aren’t sure where to start. But part of being creative means taking the risks that are associated with it. Talking to the other people that have an affect on what goes on in your classroom can go a long way. Starting small and work your way up to the big ideas.

One of the factors involved in showing creativity as a teacher in Early Childhood Education is to ensure that our creative ideas do not endanger the safety of the children in the classroom. As teachers, it is our job to come up with creative ways to teach children, as well as keep them safe. Administrators are also responsible for the safety of the children, and are ultimately the ones who answer to the parents. Because of this relationship, it is a good idea to be in communication with your administrator about your ideas. I know that I have had several ideas that, while they were wonderful, wouldn’t have been as wonderful in the execution. I tend to think big, and because of this it is vital that I have a sounding board, someone who will listen to the idea and find the issues with it that need to be ironed out before the execution. An administrator can be that sounding board, because in most cases they have been in a classroom environment before. Because of their responsibilities to the center, the staff, and the parents, they are uniquely positioned to be a vital resource when it comes to ideas about what will work and what won’t. Administrators also tend to respect those who come up with new ideas, and who are not afraid to take risks associated with executing new ideas.

The bottom line is that everyone is creative. If you don’t feel creative where you are, you may be in the wrong place. If you feel that you have road blocks when it comes to showing your creativity, you need to examine what you think those road blocks are and work on getting them out of the way. I am a firm believer that a person cannot be truly happy unless they are unleashing their creative potential in the field that they love. Because of this, it is vital to make sure that you are doing something that you feel is worth your time. It brings to my mind the Holstee Manifesto. Check it out when you get a chance.

 

Twelve Things You Were Not Taught About Creativity by Michael Michalko

 

Building Positive Relationships: Teachers Make Mistakes, Too

I read something about mistakes and consequences the other day that made me think back to an incident that has happened countless times in my classroom, usually at lunch or snack time. I will be pouring milk and I will inevitably spill some on the counter or the floor. After this happens, the children start going nuts, talking about how I made a mess.

Of course, this all comes back to stigmatizing mess and mistakes. Everyone makes a mess at some point, and if you are anything like me, you make a mess several times a day. But the key is to clean it up and move on.

So I model this for the children. If we make a mess, we simply clean it up and move on. Since I have been working with two-year-olds, messes happen on a continuous basis. We simply clean it up. They clean up their messes. Sometimes they even clean up messes that aren’t even there. One child was wiping a wall in the bathroom, and I asked him, “Are you cleaning the wall?” To which he replied, “Yes, I am wiping your clean wall.”

Recently I helped out in a different classroom and a child spilled their milk. It was treated as a capital offense, and the child lost it. I instructed her to get some paper towels to clean up the mess, and she cried for half an hour. Over spilled milk. I haven’t seen anything like it in my classroom, so it was a bit unnerving to watch the process of this child go through what looked like humiliation over a cup of milk. I never want to see it again.

Messes happen. All of our lives we will be cleaning up messes. If you are anything like me, your house has several messes that need to be cleaned up right now but this blog post is a convenient way to postpone the inevitable. Teaching children that messes are a part of life that need to be cleaned up in order to move on is a life skill that we should be cultivating. Messes should not be treated as a punishable offense; if they were, we would all be punished, because we all make mistakes. What we should do instead is teach children the skills needed to make less mess. Pouring proficiency only happens with practice. Depth perception is only cultivated if we use the skill. Hand-eye coordination happens when we practice. And we can all use this practice. After all, teachers make mistakes, too.