The Next Step of the Journey

Well, I have been dreaming of this day for quite a while, and it is finally here: the day when I publish my own website. Project: Preschool is becoming more and more of a reality, a way for me to share my passion for early childhood education with other teachers throughout the world. My website launched on March 5th, and I am going to start moving my old blog posts over to that site. This will be the last new post for Uplifting Freedom.

The web address for the new website and blog is www.projectpreschool.com. On the site you will find information about workshops that I am doing and new blog posts for you to check out. I just posted a new one there this morning. I will definitely miss this space and the small community that we have here, but I hope that you will check out the next part of my journey as we build a new tribe around our passion for children and education.

Leaving the Past Behind

Recently I was confronted with a situation in which one of my ex-coworkers was discussing problems with her center, many of them reasons why I left the company. The news of what was going on opened up the deep disappointments that I had felt while working there, and I thought about writing a letter to the corporate office to express my concerns. I voiced my thoughts to my colleague, who urged me to do it. So I began composing the letter, and while all of these disappointments began to bubble to the surface, a funny thing happened. Actually, several funny things happened: I didn’t sleep good that night, and yoga the next day was impossible. Not only could I not center enough to do yoga, but I couldn’t quiet my mind enough to meditate. When I got to work my co-teacher repeatedly asked me what was wrong. My mind felt foggy and I couldn’t concentrate well on what was going on.

After I finished the letter I had an uneasy feeling. Did I really need to do this? I talked to my fiancé about it and he urged me to really examine my motivation for sending the letter. After all, it really wasn’t going to help me any to send it. I wasn’t planning to go back to the company, and I had already voiced my unhappiness by leaving the company in the first place.

And then it hit me: I didn’t have to send the letter, and I didn’t have to worry about what was going on at my old place of employment. It didn’t concern me any longer because I no longer worked there. I didn’t have to write anyone a letter and tell them anything. I had moved on to something infinitely better, and all of that stress and drama was in the past.

As soon as this realization sunk in I felt the weight of what I had been carrying lift off of my shoulders – the weight of issues and concerns that weren’t even mine. It is hard to carry around so much when you have so much that you are already carrying. I felt happier and the fog lifted. And I thought to myself, “How much of this have I still been carrying around? Have I been carrying this around inside me ever since I left my old job? Have I been pushing away opportunities to connect here because I have been holding on to things from my old job?”

Because of these questions I have begun to really examine my interactions and my frame of mind in my classroom to see if I am holding myself back from having the best experience I can possibly have at this center. I work in a great, Reggio-inspired environment that affords me more opportunity than I ever had at my previous job. The best thing I can do at this point is to make sure that I am fully enjoying the journey, and I am sure that I will be doing plenty of meditation to that end. After all, the past just weighs us down. It is the present that lifts us up.

My Confession

My way of ringing in the New Year has always been to look back on the past year and figure out what I can do in the next year to improve upon it. Rather than just picking out some random things that I would like to do and creating resolutions or goals to that end, I think about my journey thus far and the next steps that I want to take to further that journey. For example, I started writing my book in 2014. For 2015 I am planning on scheduling my time and creating goals for completing my writing because I am not getting as much accomplished on that front as I’d like. It wouldn’t make much sense to me to create a goal having to do with going to the gym because that isn’t a passion of mine. If I just started doing it because I think I should do it, I wouldn’t get anywhere with it. I’ve proved that with that very goal for several years; this year I am being smart enough to not join a gym. It all goes back to my belief (that has become stronger in the past couple of years) that life is a journey, and you need to focus on the road that you are taking. Once you focus on the road, when you come to a fork you will be able to better decide which direction to take.

One of my big accomplishments in 2014 was graduating with an associate degree in Early Childhood Education. Ever since I graduated I have been contemplating my next steps for educating myself. I’ve discussed options with my director, and thought a lot about what I want to do but the thing is, the answer has been in front of me the whole time. For a really long time, actually.

Ever since I was in high school, I have wanted to study psychology. People fascinate me. Why they do what they do fascinates me. But my fascination has become a lot more specific since I began studying education, because a lot of what I have been studying has a lot to do with psychology. How people learn fascinates me. How they think, what they think, how they solve problems, all of that fascinates me. The brain fascinates me. How infants and toddlers learn so much so quickly fascinates me. Not the fact that they learn so much, but how they learn so much. All of that is a big, wonderful puzzle that I am dying to uncover.

In all of my conversations about furthering my education that I have had with other people (except for the ones with my fiancé), they have told me that it would be hard to get a job if I study psychology. But I don’t want to just be a psychologist. Psychology is a vast area of study with many different branches. I want to study educational psychology. I want to study how people learn, how different people learn differently, and I want to apply the knowledge that I gain in a classroom. That is what I want to do. That is what I’ve wanted to do for years now, and it is high time that I stop listening to everyone around me and do what I really want to do.

This whole thing reminds me of the Sir Ken Robinson video that I passionately share with anyone I encounter who is at all interested in education; in it Robinson states, “You were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that.” That is pretty much what every administrator I have talked to has said about my ambition to study psychology. The problem with this advice is that they don’t know that I won’t get a job doing that, they don’t know about my absolute passion for the field and how long I have been holding this passion, and their goal is to have teachers in their building with the highest level of ECE education that they can get. Their goal shapes the words that come out of their mouth, and their goal is different than mine. My goal is to learn how people learn and how they think. For once I need to be true to myself, that self that has long wanted to study psychology, and do what I really want to do. And that is one of my goals for this year.

My New Mindful Year

‘Mindfulness’ is a term that has been bandied about quite a bit recently on the internet; I didn’t even know this until just a few weeks ago when I discovered just what mindfulness means to me. I was looking up information about mindfulness in teaching when I realized that there is a trend going on. I’ve managed to stay out of the general trend of mindfulness as it deals with the masses. I don’t like getting caught up in the trend stuff because it cheapens it for me. It makes it almost faddish, and that isn’t a good thing for an idea that has meant so much to me lately.

So what does mindfulness mean to me? It means being aware of what is going on right now, and being less concerned with what is going to happen in the future or what happened in the past. My mind practically lives in the future. It lives in the “what would happen if I do this” or “wouldn’t it be nice to do this in six months” place where nothing is really happening yet because I am fantasizing about something that can’t possibly happen yet because there are many steps to get there. Yes, I know – that was the worst run-on sentence in the world, but that is just how my mind works sometimes. On and On and On and On. Constantly.

As you may know from a previous post, I just finished reading Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray. In it, he talks about how pressure takes away creativity and the power of play. He quotes several authors who say that in order to write a book, you can’t think about your audience or the critics or anything else; you simply have to write the book. I haven’t necessarily been struggling with this, but it did make me think about the whole writing process, especially since I have been stuck (with no good reason to be). Actually, I’m stuck because I was thinking too much about the audience or what other people would think about what I was writing. I attempted to revise an entire chapter because of a conversation that I had with someone. There was nothing wrong with the material that I had at first, but I chose to try to re-work that chapter, and it failed. Miserably. I really tried to make it work, but I know that it doesn’t. So I have to go back and re-write the whole thing because I didn’t trust my own judgment. And the kicker is that this material that I am writing on has already been tested – I’ve done several workshops on the material, and they’ve all been very well received. So there was no good reason for me to change the material.

Because of this, and the fact that it just happened a month ago or so, that part of the book really resonated with me and made me think about my intent to be more mindful. Of course, I want to inject mindfulness into every aspect of my life, not just my writing, but this example shows just how much can be impacted if I stop thinking about the future or everyone else and simply worry about the next step that I need to take in order to do what I want to do.

I recently saw a video of an interview with Oprah in which she talked about the concept of mindfulness and how everyone has a path. You know when you are on the wrong path because your body and mind tell you that you are on the wrong path. Be mindful of the signs and do what you can to get on the right path. Everyone has one. That is mindfulness.

The Year In Review

If there is one thing that I hate, it is New Year’s Resolutions. To me, it is a bunch of hyped up junk about things that we want to do, but we never really say how we are going to do them; we just state that we want to do it. And so we set off with great intentions, only to fizzle out a couple of weeks, a month, two months into the year. So I stopped doing the New Year’s resolution thing several years ago. Instead, I like to take a look at everything that I have done in the year past and celebrate the year that it has been. I think it is more motivating this way; if, at the end of a year, I can be proud of my accomplishments, it makes it a much more productive year than if I state half-baked goals at the beginning of the year and then don’t complete them. 2014 brought a lot of interesting changes to my life:

  • I got the live workshop portion of Project: Preschool up and running, only to put it on hold after I changed jobs.
  • I graduated last May. No more school for a while.
  • I started writing a book about classroom management.
  • I ditched my high-stress, low-autonomy teaching job for a low-stress, high-autonomy teaching job.
  • I tried (and failed) and tried to start blogging more regularly.
  • I bought a bicycle so that I could enjoy the great outdoors more. And then I promptly didn’t use it.
  • I continued doing the yoga that I started when I was completely stressed out last December. I don’t know how I lived without it before, and I surely don’t want to live without it any more. I can tell when I don’t do my yoga. From what I hear, everyone else can tell, too. But I’m stronger than I was a year ago and more flexible, too. And much less stressed.
  • I started doing some meditation. It is amazing how much meditation has helped me as far as focus and slowing down. I haven’t really been that consistent with it, but it is amazing when I do put forth the effort to include it in my routine. And the more I do it, the more amazing it is.

As far as I’m concerned, 2014 was an amazing year. It definitely had its ups and downs, but overall it was great. I’m going to carry that greatness into 2015. I have a lot of things that I want to do with 2015, like

  • Start offering online workshops for Early Childhood Educators
  • Finish my book. Or at least make a lot of progress on it.
  • Do some research about play. I’ve already started this one.
  • Take up photography. I’m planning on getting myself a camera for my birthday.
  • Continue my yoga. I can tell how much stronger I am now than I was at the beginning of the year. There’s no telling what I will be able to do at the end of 2015.
  • Be more consistent with my meditation. I use a timer app for my meditation practice. It tracks how much meditation I do based on when I use the timer (and I use the timer every time I meditate). This morning I looked and it said that I had meditated 36 times since I started using the app, which was last December. There are 365 days in a year. That’s just pathetic. Especially with all of the insights and progress I have made with meditation lately.

Will I do all of these things? I don’t know. I’m not sure if the online workshops are going to happen. That used to be higher on my priority list, but now writing the book has taken over that spot. I am learning a lot from the research I am doing for this book, and that alone is motivating me a lot to try to work on it more throughout this year. Plus, I try a lot of new things in my classroom based on the research that I do, so you will probably be seeing a lot of that this year. I haven’t done quite to much research or experimenting since before I was in school. That alone should make 2015 a year to remember!

 

“I’m Telling!”

This past weekend I spent most of my time reading a book that I have spent much of the past year saying that I would read: Peter Gray’s Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Now that I’ve read it I really have to wonder what in the world took me so long. Maybe it was school. Or recovery from school. Or switching jobs. Anyway, now I’ve read it, and I will be doing a review of the book sometime in the near future. For now I will just say, if you have wanted a good read about how children learn, this is the book for you.

Today I want to talk about one phenomenon that this book caused me to think about: tattling. Now, before you run out and buy this book because you think that it will help you solve your tattling problems in your classroom, let me make one thing clear: this book never specifically mentions tattling in it anywhere. What it did mention, however, caused me to think about implications in the classroom, one of those being tattling.

Peter Gray talks a lot in this book about how children, when they are left to play on their own with very little involvement or interruption from adults, will negotiate and compromise their way through play. The reason why they can do this is because they realize that if they make someone mad, then that person will leave, and play will stop. No child wants play to stop, so they work on rules and circumstances in their play that will make everyone happy. Gray poses this story in the book to show the point:

Annie (age five years, eleven months) and Beth (five years, two months) were video-recorded by researchers Hans Furth and S. R. Kane as they played an imaginary game in the dress-up area of their after-school day-care center. Annie started the game by saying, “Let’s pretend that we had a ball tomorrow night and we had to get our stuff ready.” Beth responded by picking up a dress and saying, “This was my dress,” thereby demonstrating her implicit acceptance of the play idea and her eagerness to get the prop she wanted most. For the next twenty minutes, the two picked their clothing and accessories and discussed what would happen at the ball. Much of this time was spent haggling over who would play which role and who would get to use which props. They haggled over fancy items of clothing, a telephone, a table, a pair of binoculars, and where each would sleep the night before the ball. In each little argument, each girl gave reasons why she “needed” or “should have” that prop or role, but did so tactfully so as not to offend the other player.

Then, when Annie and Beth had come to a fairly satisfactory agreement on these issues, another little girl, Celia (age four years, nine months) came into the dress-up area from outdoors and asked to join them. They let her in, and then all three began a new round of negotiations about props and roles to include Celia. Each girl felt strongly about such matters as which clothes she would wear, what exactly would happen at the ball, and who was older and had higher status in the play. For the play to go on, they had to reach consensus on every major issue.

Free to Learn, pg. 165

I have done much more in my classrooms to try to allow children the opportunities to work arguments out for themselves, but one of the classroom phenomenons that has constantly baffled me has been tattling. Why do children tattle? Reading this section of this book has put me on a path toward an answer.

As teachers, we position ourselves as the final authority in the classroom. Children are expected to follow what we say, the schedule that we impose, and the rules that we put into place. We are like the president or policeman of the class, I suppose. So if a child gets into a disagreement with another child and something happens that they don’t like, it is much easier to go to the policeman of the classroom than try to work it out on their own. And we perpetuate this by choosing sides in these disputes rather than teaching children how to settle the disputes on their own. It is a lose-lose situation for us and the children; the child we agree with comes out of the argument feeling good, and the child we don’t agree with comes out of the argument feeling angry or upset. No one has learned how to compromise, and no one is more mature about how to work through relationships after an exchange like this. Relationships are all about compromise and working through disagreements. All relationships are built on this, from friendships in preschool to marriages in adult life. We all must learn how to negotiate and compromise so that everyone in the relationship is happy; if we can’t do that then the other person in the relationship will walk away.

I’ve done a little bit to try to turn this trend in my classroom, but to be honest, the children in my classroom don’t tattle too much. But when a child comes up to me with a problem that I think can be worked out, I usually say to them, “That sounds like something that you need to talk to (insert name of other child here) about. How about you say to them (insert appropriate words that can begin a negotiation between the children)?” And then I will observe what happens in an unobtrusive way. Usually one of two things happens: either they go over to the other child and begin to work things out or they decide that it isn’t worth it to them and they walk away. I don’t push them one way or another, and I respect what they decide to do. Even though I recognize that they need to learn how to negotiate, they will only begin to do that when they recognize that I will not be their safety net. And sometimes it really just isn’t worth it, which is why I try to accept what they decide to do. It is their play, after all. Not mine.

This is one of those situations where we have to trust the capabilities of children and trust their ability to learn how to get through those sticky social situations. After all, they aren’t going to have the policeman watching their back and their interactions for the rest of their lives, and they have to learn how to get through those moments. It is time that we gave them the skills they need to work it out on their own, rather than just handing down our own judgments.

 

Revision

He bounced on the board, testing its resilience. I moved closer, since any time that the children begin building with the boards there is the need for a more experienced voice to head off any disasters that may lead to injury.

2014-12-15 16.16.42

 

After he bounced on it several times, he decided to create a diving board and began to move the board and stumps around. I moved a little closer to the action but still managed to keep far enough away to not get in the way of the serious building in progress.

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He moved the pieces around and then stood on the board, testing it out. Then he would get off and move things around again, then get back on and test it out again. A couple of other children came around and asked him what he was building, but none stuck around to help him during this part of his creating.

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One end of the board was tied to the end of another board, and the jump rope that held them both together was looped around the fence. It added a little bit of stability to the structure he was building, but as he moved the pieces around it also affected the tension on the rope. He took note of this with every adjustment and at one point moved to adjust the rope itself.

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I was impressed with his dedication to constant revision, fixing things one way or another, trying different methods to see what would work and how it would turn out. After all, isn’t that what we do throughout our lives? If things aren’t working we make adjustments and work to make it better. Sometimes we try something new just to see how it will turn out. Revision is just a part of life – of problem-solving to make things better or different. As I watched this boy make constant revisions to the placement of the board and all of the pieces, I admired his tenacity. He never stopped, and eventually he moved on to making something so completely different from what he had started with.

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At this point I was standing very close by because the potential for an accident was greater, but I was still staying out of the play. I had made a few suggestions and even told him outright at one time that he couldn’t do something, but for the most part I stayed out of his way.

And isn’t that what we all need? Space to revise and to discover for ourselves what we need in order get through life?

Meditation

I’ve been practicing meditation on and off (mostly off) for the last year. In the past few weeks I have tried to make it a more permanent part of my routine. I am attracted by its claims to help increase focus and bring some stability of emotion to the day. And it does. On the days when I do my yoga and meditation I feel less impulsive when it comes to acting on emotion – something that is important when working with children. I have to have patience and the ability to think through my reactions before reacting. Meditation has helped me with that.

Meditation is not easy. Sitting by yourself in a room with your eyes closed for even five minutes is difficult, especially when you have no idea what in the world you are supposed to be doing for that five minutes, because we always have to be doing something, right? We always have to be showing in some way that we are being productive. At least, that is how I have felt. But what is the quality of our productivity?

I have been in the process of writing a book. I would call it a grueling process, but so far the only grueling part about it is my inability to truly focus on what I am doing. I’ll write a little, then pick up my phone and check Facebook. Write a little more and pick up my phone and play some silly game. Write a little more… The process goes on and on. Sometimes I have wonderful productive moments when I am in flow and nothing else matters, but these sessions aren’t as common as I would like them to be. Meditation has helped me be more focused on the process of writing the book and less focused on checking to see if anything new is happening on Facebook since I checked five minutes ago. It helps me develop the ability to let go of my wonder about what is going on in the Internet realm and focus on what is truly important to me – this book.

It is amazing to me just how scattered our attention spans truly are, and how easily we get sidetracked by the most mundane things, but every story that I’ve heard from people who meditate says that meditation helps them cut back on all the noise. Just today when I was meditating, I was able to let go of my wonder about how much time I had left in the meditation! This is a huge stumbling block for me because every time I open my eyes to see how much time there is, it breaks the concentration and that inner “looking”, all because of a clock. The trick is to learn how to push that worry away and focus on something else – breathing or a mantra or whatever. And that is a hard thing to do, but meditation is a practice of learning how to do it.

What We Do With Free Time

In the roughly one-third of the day that is free of obligations, in their precious ‘leisure’ time, most people in fact seem to use their minds as little as possible. The largest part of free time – almost half of it for American adults – is spent in front of the television set. The plots and characters of the popular shows are so repetitive that although watching TV required the processing of visual images, very little else in the way of memory, thinking, or volition is required. Not surprisingly, people report some of the lowest levels of concentration, use of skills, clarity of thought, and feelings of potency when watching television…the information we allow into consciousness becomes extremely important; it is, in fact, what determines the content and quality of life.

-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychologybof Optimal Experience

Happiness and Flow

I’ve been thinking a lot today about happiness because of a book that I got yesterday from the bookstore. The book is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, a psychologist who has spent years studying creativity. I had bought this book before but it hadn’t really done much for me so I sold it at the local used book store. Lately it has been on my mind, so when I saw it at the bookstore last night I bought this copy. This time it is really captivating my interest, especially since flow is such a powerful thing in my life. Flow is the term used to define the phenomenon of perfect focus – when you are so focused on an activity that time doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except the activity that you are doing. I know from my own personal life that flow is an exhilarating experience, one that I look forward to with anticipation and remember fondly when it is over. It is the feeling that motivates me to keep going when I feel like giving up on a project that I have been working so hard on.

One of the things that I have been trying to do is figure out how to bring the phenomenon of flow into the classroom. Children would greatly benefit from flow, and I feel that they probably experience it more than we do as adults. When we are adults we are busy doing all of those things that are expected of us, and not necessarily those things that we want to do. Experiences that involve flow are experiences that are personally satisfying to us, those activities that we are loathe to stop doing in order to do something else. How many times have children told us that they don’t want to clean up, that they want to keep playing? Is that flow? Do they get so involved in their own activities that time seems to stand still and nothing else is important? Probably. Children may experience flow a lot, especially those that are given the opportunity to choose their own work rather than being told what to do all day.

Maria Montessori developed the Theory of Concentrated Attention when she was teaching because she noticed a similar phenomenon. She noticed that when children were involved in a task that was challenging – but not too challenging – it was almost as if they blocked out the world around them and they were completely consumed by the task that they were working on. Montessori judged all of the materials that she used by this phenomenon: if the material led children to this concentrated attention, then it was kept in the classroom. If it didn’t, then it didn’t stay. I have tried to use this same method to determine what types of materials should be present in the classroom. Creating an atmosphere that is conducive to concentrated attention and flow isn’t necessarily hard, but it means that there will be a lot more loose parts in the classroom and not so many manufactured toys. It means that children have more choice, as well.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Mihaly’s assertion that creating a life where flow is more present creates feelings of happiness and productivity. I haven’t read all of the book yet; this is simply his assertion in the first chapter. He says that in order for us to feel that our lives are meaningful, we need to feel that we are in control of our lives. But he isn’t talking about the material aspects of life. He is talking about the mental aspects of life – our mindset and how we view our place in the world.

So far it looks like it is going to be a great read, and I hope to share more of my insights as I continue reading the book.