What Are They Trying to Say?

Today was a big day in our classroom. We have been incubating eggs for about three weeks, and over the weekend several of the eggs hatched. Today was the day that the children got to meet the chicks.

Incubator with thirty eggs

Incubator with thirty eggs

We had talked to the children about chicks and birds and eggs a little bit, but there wasn’t a whole lot of interest in it. After all, when you look at eggs for twenty-one days, they really don’t do much. There isn’t a lot to get excited about. But when they hatch – oh, when they hatch!

We decided to make a project out of it. We had the children draw pictures of what they thought the chicks were going to look like before we brought the chicks in for them to meet. The pictures were very interesting, but even more interesting were the quotes. One of the things that I usually do when I have children draw pictures of learning opportunities is ask them to tell me about their pictures, and I write down what they say. It gives me a different perspective – the children’s perspective – when it comes to where the project should go and what topics we should explore.

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The first chick

I usually don’t take a lot of time to look at the quotes and really check them out, but this time was different. I’m not sure if it was all of the work that we had already put into this budding project, or the fact that this time I really wanted to try to do this right, but I really took the time to notice where each child was coming from and what they were trying to explore through their pictures. It was amazing. Some children were focused on gender and how to tell if the chick was a boy or a girl. Some were focused on how the chick would move or fly around. Some were focused on the different parts of the bird. There were many different areas of focus, and each one was worthy of its own place in the life of our project. It was amazing to slow down and really look at what the children were trying to say.

I’ve said this a lot lately, but it becomes increasingly true every time I do something involving my classroom: slow down and look. Listen. Find out what the children are saying through everything that they do. Everything that children do has purpose and meaning, but sometimes we get so involved in teaching that we don’t slow down and listen to them. What are they trying to tell us? What are they trying to teach us? Today, they taught me that if I just slow down enough, I can hear wonderful things – not just in their words, but in their pictures as well. After all, children do have a hundred languages.

It’s Just a Popsicle Stick

Or is it?

I’ve become very interested in adding different types of loose parts into the classroom, but I am very methodical and intentional about what I add. Most of the time I view my classroom as my laboratory, to experiment with what kids will play with and how. The best part about it is that every set of kids will interact with materials differently. Sure, there are some similarities and some broad themes that will likely be seen, but no two groups of children are the same.

We have been doing a lot with letters lately, and I have been trying to encourage children to write. It hasn’t always been successful. I think I have a lot of anxiety in my classroom when it comes to writing.2015-03-05 15.43.08 So I decided to introduce the concept of making letters out of different materials. The material that we started with was popsicle sticks. I introduced the popsicle sticks during our large group experience so that there would be a lot of sharing of ideas and children could observe the creations of other children. They really seemed to enjoy creating letters (and later, shapes) with the sticks. But what I was really curious about was what would happen after the group experience was over. I left the popsicle sticks out and let the children know that they could play with them if they wanted to. What happened next was pretty spectacular. All sorts of shapes were being created. One boy made a “Y” with a tail that stretched out across the room. Some children were creating houses by making squares out of the sticks and putting people inside the squares. It was really interesting to watch their work. 2015-03-05 15.44.18

I decided to introduce some other materials into the play to see what would happen. I gathered some large glass beads and some small stones and gave them to the children who were experimenting with the materials. Rather than incorporating those into their figures that they created, their play changed entirely. Their focus became filling containers with the beads and the stones and the sticks. They completely forgot about the figures that they had made on the floor and focused instead on filling. I had not anticipated this change in dynamic and tried to encourage them to put some of the materials inside the shapes that they had made, but they were having none of it. They wanted to fill and transfer, and the sticks made new tools, as well as another material to use to fill containers with. This shift has caused me to rethink how I am presenting these materials to the children, but that is a topic for another blog post.

The Flow of the Project

I’ve been doing some form of project work with my classes for the last two or three years. It hasn’t been quite as structured as I’m learning to do project work because I didn’t have as much knowledge about it, but it has been there, based on what I learned through the reading that I did do. As I work in a center that is more focused on providing opportunities for project work as an educational philosophy, I grow to appreciate the flow of the project and of the day. There are times when the teacher has to facilitate a discussion, or plan an activity, or devise an addition to a center to enhance play. And then there are times when the teacher needs to just stand back and watch it all unfold.

I have long been a proponent of observation as a key – THE key – to high-quality teaching. There is no way to know what the class is interested in without observation. There is no way to know what the children are learning from discussions without observing them as they play to see what aspects of the discussion they are carrying with them and using. There is no way to know what direction to take the project without watching observing to see what the children are wondering or what misconceptions they show through their play. There is no way to truly understand the hearts of the children in the classroom without observing them.

Observation is so important, and taking the time to observe actions, words, and interactions is the key to being able to figure out what truly needs to be taught. Academic knowledge is wonderful and it has its place in my classroom, but I like to think of myself as a teacher of life. In order to teach about life, I have to clue myself in to the lives of the children in my care. I can’t do that by standing in front of them spouting out facts and then viewing their play time as a time for me to get some of my busy work done. I am just as involved in their play as they are, but I am noticing, noting, planning, questioning, and documenting. I am finding ways to help their learning come alive. Taking time to be still and let the children show me their lives is an essential part of the flow of the project.

Gain a Sense of Direction

Recently I wrote a post about writing down goals in order to be successful at fulfilling them. However, that was only part of the advice that I wanted to give.

As you know – if you have been reading this blog with any kind of regularity – I am in the process of creating a workshop for teachers in early childhood education. The experience has been very thrilling because I am going back and doing many things that I should have done the first time I tried to create this workshop. The main thing that I have done is gained a sense of direction for the workshop, and I have done this by writing everything down. Not just the goal of doing the workshop or what the different workshop sessions will be generally based on, but the direction of each session and what I want the participants to gain from it.

It hasn’t just been thrilling, but very eye-opening as well. As a teacher I see the impact that gaining a sense of direction has on the quality of the lesson and the information that I want to relay. I can see how important it is in any teaching capacity in order to be truly effective. It is a lot of work, but all of the work has been worth it because I am creating something that is truly magical and inspirational to share with others. And that is how our classrooms for children should be as well: magical and inspirational. It is worth the time and effort of the teacher to provide this for their students.

I am a big proponent of emergent curriculum and project-based learning. When implementing any of these teaching strategies in the classroom, planning and direction is a must.

Motivation, Play, and Observation

As we have seen in the past few posts, one of the keys to motivation is the welling up inside us of a desire to achieve a certain goal. That was the point of the last post, in which I described my frustration with school. In a classroom, the goals can come from the teacher or from the student. It is the job of the teacher to use observation to discover the desires of the students and develop goals to achieve based on those desires.

This morning I have been doing a little more research into emergent curriculum – research that I have been wanting to do for a while but have not really found the time to do. Because this blog has taken the direction that it has – into the realm of creativity, motivation, and interest – concepts of emergent curriculum are highly relevant.

The concept that I want to address today is that of play. As I pointed out in yesterday’s post, children really don’t need a lot of motivation to play. They do it automatically. When we observe children during their play, we find that they explore many different concepts and ideas during their play. They explore building, going to the doctor, having a birthday party, going to the movies, a restaurant, or any of the other experiences that have been memorable to them. Our job, as teachers, is to pick out the themes of their play and use those themes to develop activities and lessons that can extend their learning through this play into other areas.

A key point about using play to develop learning activities is to make sure that children have enough time to dive deep into their play. Remember that some key points about allowing children to be creative include time, tools, and tolerance. In the book Emergent Curriculum in Early Childhood Settings: From Theory to Practice, Susan Stacey writes:

Emergent curriculum places extremely high value on play as a generator for curriculum. Play provides an opportunity for children’s exploration, problem solving, incubation and development of big ideas, and therefore, learning. It also provides the teacher, as researcher, a prime opportunity to watch and listen carefully in order to generate further understanding of the individual child. All of which means that for children to fully develop their ideas and for the teachers to watch, interact, and write notes, a generous amount of time must be allotted to play.

While children are playing, it is important to write notes about observations that are made and responses that are given as teachers interact to clarify the child’s understanding of what they are doing. This process is talked about more in-depth by Stacey, who gives a few examples of interactions between children and teachers and the way that teachers have used their observations. One key feature about using observations is communication between teachers in the classroom. Teachers should be in sync about the direction they want to take an interest of the children. An example that Stacey gives is of a girl creating a face with eyes made out of buttons. The girl explains that when the buttons are covered with tape, the eyes can’t see. There were several different directions that teachers could have taken this observation, including how the body works, how eyes work, etc. They decided to focus on perspective taking, not just visually, but socially and emotionally as well. The teachers then came up with environment modifications and activities that could be done to extend thinking about perspective taking.

Doing observations and using them to extend ideas such as this are motivating to the teacher and to the student. The teacher gets the opportunity to develop learning activities in the context of what the child is already showing an interest in, which means that the teacher gets the opportunity to think creatively about the direction that the classroom is going. The child is motivated because their own interests and ideas are being used to stimulate learning in the classroom – and they get to play. As teachers, we should all know how motivating it is for children when we become involved in their play. As teachers interact with students, children gather around and play seems to take on a life of its own. Asking children open-ended questions during these times of interaction gives the teacher an unending spring of information with which to plan learning experiences, and keeps the classroom alive.

 

Six Ways Observations Can Enhance Teaching

Observations can go a long way in the classroom. From watching a child explore a new concept to discovering how children interact with other socially, observation can be an indispensable tool when it comes to teaching skills in the classroom.

1. Observations Can Be Used To Plan New Classroom Activities

Through observing children, we can find out different concepts and ideas that they are interested in. Just as the boy inspired me to begin looking into pulley and pendulum activities, different activities and conversations around the classroom can be the basis for new activities and projects. I once had a couple of boys in my classroom who were obsessed with sliding trucks down the slide on the playground. This observation led to a long term project about ramps, roads, and bridges. Children obsessed with parties can wrap presents, bake a cake, and do other activities related to parties. The key is to find an interest and brainstorm ways to expand on that interest.

2. Observations Can Be Used To Teach Social Skills

Perhaps, through your observation, you witness one child take a toy from another child, who then retaliates by hitting the child. From this observation you can conclude several things. First, the child that took the toy needs to be made aware of how his action made the other child feel, and that this feeling prompted the child to hit. The child who took the toy also needs to be taught the words to use to ask another child if they can share or take turns. The child who hit needs to be taught the words that they should use to let a child know that they do not like it when they take their toy.

There are many different learning opportunities that present themselves when children interact socially, because children have not learned the necessary language needed to productively deal with others. Add to this the fact that most young children are egocentric in their thinking, and the atmosphere is ripe for the teaching of social skills.

3. Observations Can Be Used To Expand On the Use of Materials

I have a couple of boys in my class that like to put hollow blocks on their arms and pretend they are robots. I have another who stacks them end-to-end and pretends that it is a microphone. I have yet another who stacks a couple end-to-end and places a wide block on top as a TV. We have expanded on a few of these uses, including setting up a theater complete with a popcorn stand.

Children seem to have the creativity in them to use different materials in any number of ways. Observing the ways that they use the available materials can provide inspiration for other materials that may extend their play, or an activity that may expand their knowledge about the topic they are expressing interest in. Observations of the way children use materials can also help identify where they are developmentally.

4. Observations Can Highlight Children’s Thinking

There are several ways in which children’s thinking becomes obvious during observations. The first is the dialogue: What are the children saying while they play? Recording the dialogue (whether audio, video, or written) can help you determine their frame of reference in relation to the activity, and their misunderstandings or misconceptions about what they are thinking about. Recording these and reflecting back on them later can help you come up with activities or projects that will provide a new frame of reference or clear up any misunderstandings that are present.

Another way observations highlight children’s thinking is when abstract ideas are seen as themes during play. Children like to explore ideas that may be difficult for them to comprehend, like life and death, good vs. evil, caregiving, and other vague ideas. Sometimes they reenact a scenario that may have happened at home or at school that they either do not understand or did not like the outcome. By observing children and then reflecting on the observations, we can spot themes, misunderstandings, and the points of reference of children. This can allow us to help children explore these topics deeper.

5. Observations Can Explain Children’s Behavior

Have you ever caught yourself saying, “He did it for no reason!” to explain the behavior of a child? Children always have reasons for their behavior, but they may not have the language to articulate their reason, or they may not have the skills or knowledge necessary to do something differently. By observing the child we can gain clues that can help us figure out why the child is behaving as they are, which can help us figure out how to teach him more productive behavior.

6. Observations Can Tell Us About a Child’s Development

From language skills, motor skills, social skills, and others, observations help us understand not only where a child is developmentally, but help us determine how we can meet the child where they are in their development and provide appropriately challenging activities and projects.

Are there any other ways that you use observations? Tell us in the comments below! We love learning new things from other people!

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