Defining My Own Direction

I have been inspired, which is great because school starts here in three weeks. I am beginning to define the direction of my classroom. Is it odd that I want to define a direction three weeks out, before I even have had an opportunity to observe the children in the space to come up with a direction that is in line with their interests?

No. My planning has to do with me. I have specific things that I want the children in my class to learn this year. They need to learn to recognize the letters of the alphabet and how to write them. They need to sharpen their counting and numeral recognition skills. But these are academic skills that every three-year-old begins to learn. There are other areas of knowledge that my students need to learn. And I ask myself these questions in order to prepare:

  • How am I going to teach my children social skills this year? How am I going to help them interact with each other productively?
  • What sort of discipline methods am I going to put into place?
  • How am I going to go about creating invitations to play this year – something that I have always wanted to incorporate, but haven’t had the time to plan or coordinate? And how am I going to plan and coordinate this?
  • What about science activities? How can we incorporate cool science activities that will help these children understand cause and effect and learn more about their world?
  • How can we incorporate music exploration? How can we make music in the classroom more hands-on and more interactive than simply using rhythm sticks or tambourines, or dancing to music that has already been made?

As you can tell from the links, I have more than enough inspiration to work with. I want the children in my class to have a fun, exciting year that will pique their curiosity and inspire them to create on their own. I think we all want that. But the art of teaching (and it really is an art) is to reflect on what we have done in the past and figure out ways to make it better in the future. Even though I have not had a chance to observe the children as a group in the learning environment that we will call home for the next year, I can still plan ways to encourage productivity for our entire classroom experience. So while I continuously encourage planning through observation – and use that skill myself – I also acknowledge that it never hurts to reflect on the classroom as a whole and make changes accordingly.

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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.

 

Rediscovering the Child Within

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Sometimes I look around at the people that I work with and I think, “I really am just a big kid.” I enjoy doing things with the kids. Experiencing life with them is eye-opening, because it causes me to slow down and really think about aspects of life that I probably take for granted.

Have you ever seen a child when they are satisfying their curiosity? I have a boy in my class who is simply as “boy” as they come. He comes in the morning completely “on” and he wakes up from nap completely “on”. The other day I put together a fishing activity in which I put strings of yarn on magnetic wands and paper clips on paper fish. I gave the wands to the kids and they began to fish. But about fifteen minutes later, I looked at this child. He had developed a pulley by using the hand that was not pulling the string in place of the wheel that most pulleys are made of. I watched him pull the yarn back and forth through his finger. He was absolutely oblivious to the noise of the other children in the classroom, completely intent on the actions of his hands and the magnet. A little later he explored the effects of the magnet as a pendulum, but he did not stay with that exploration for very long.

Little moments like this define the direction of my classroom. Sometimes I worry that someone will say that my classroom is out of control, simply because children tend to use objects in ways other than their intended purpose when their patience with the intended purpose has lapsed. It is in these moments that children’s true capabilities can be seen.

As adults we are so intent on each tool we use or item we have having a specific purpose, with no room for exploration of other purposes. We are stuck on not breaking something or not messing anything up. I very easily could have told the boy that “we don’t use the magnet like that!” But I would have lost out on seeing his calm, deliberate actions as he explored his pulley, and he would have lost out on the experience of exploring the pulley for himself.

It makes me wonder, how many moments do we miss out on as adults because we simply don’t slow down? How many ideas do we miss out on because we take so much of what we think we know for granted? Do we stop to entertain ideas – no matter how crazy they may seem? Or are we too busy trying to be “normal”? Perhaps we need to search for the child inside us – the one who is curious about everything because everything is new and different and exciting. Maybe we need to pause for a moment like the boy did and discover just how many things we can do with an object, or try to do something a new way, just to see what it is like.

The point is, we need to rediscover that child within us. We need to remember what it feels like to be excited about the little things in life, and slow down enough to experience those little things. There is so much that we miss out on if we continue through life at breakneck speed.

Stigmatizing Mess

In a recent post I wrote about how our education system has stigmatized mistakes and how we could possibly be missing out on creative genius simply because we are viewing mistakes as negative feedback rather than as attempts to understand. Today I want to address how mess has been stigmatized.

When I set out to write a post or create a workshop, it is never a clean, straight-forward process. Books become scattered and piled up as I focus on research, papers scatter as I discard one idea after another, and I have an app on my phone and iPad that literally becomes clogged with virtual post-it notes and index cards. The paper that I am writing this post on right now is littered with notes in the margins for future posts, and scribbled editing notes to remind myself of entries when I type out the post. Yes, I am that old-school. I have to write by hand first. But the point is that creating and creativity is a messy business.

I have met a lot of teachers that frown on mess. And I can understand their point of view. I mean, why clean up more mess than you have to, right? But then I think about an activity that I did in my two-year-old classroom. Each child had an ice cube tray. Half of the wells in the tray were filled with water. Half of the water had yellow food coloring in it and the other half had red. Each child was given an eye dropper to use to move water around in the tray. The potential for mess during this activity was huge. After the children had mastered the steps needed to work the eye dropper, they began to experiment with dropping water onto their hand, or the table, or anywhere else they could observe the water that they dropped. I have done this activity many times with many different groups of children, and the progression of the experimentation is almost always the same. I become curious as to what the children would miss out on if I cut their experimentation short. I really hate to think about it.

Any time a young child experiments with a phenomenon, there is usually a mess involved. I had a child a few years ago who was obsessed with emptying baskets. While this behavior was an appropriate one for the child’s age, the act drove me nuts because all of the toys were on the floor and created a safety hazard for the other children. But we began to work on sorting skills as we put toys away. We turned the mess into a positive learning experience. And obviously, the child that continuously emptied baskets was gaining some sort of knowledge from it.

One of the unfortunate tendencies of many teachers and parents is to do things for the child in order to minimize mess. We talked in a Building Positive Relationships post about the negative effects of doing things for children, especially after the age of two when they show their first strong independent streak. We discussed a cookie-cutter craft in which the teacher had cut out pieces of a flower, provided the glue to the children, and showed them where to glue the pieces. Aside from the fact that the children obviously weren’t challenged by this craft, they didn’t learn anything from it. On the opposite end of the spectrum, three-year-olds can be provided with safety scissors, small bottles of glue, and construction paper so that they can cut and glue paper themselves. Using scissors and squeezing glue bottles helps strengthen fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, and increases a child’s feeling of confidence and independence as well. Will their finished product look like the cookie cutter craft? No, not at all. But in the cookie cutter craft the teacher did 95% of the work, so saying that the finished product is that of the child is a stretch anyway. By providing the materials for the child to do it themselves, we are assured to gain a product that is uniquely the child’s work. Is it messier than the cookie cutter craft? Infinitely more messy. But we can argue that the mess is worth it for many reasons. The child is gaining valuable skills in doing the work themselves, and they are productively engaged in an activity rather than just sitting at a table waiting for their turn to glue items onto a paper. When we do things for a child, it dampens the natural curiosity that children have – not to mention their independence.

Children have the uncanny ability, it seems, to know the skills that they need to work on. It is our job to provide the tools, the time, and the tolerance for children to be able to thoroughly explore their world so that they can not only gain an understanding of it, but a mastery of it as well. If we provide:

  • The Tools – Children will develop necessary skills only if we provide them the tools that they need to use rather than doing their work ourselves.
  • The Time – Children will develop necessary skills only if we provide them the time that they need to develop them. In my post on the Theory of Concentrated Attention I discuss being mindful of what children are trying to learn through their actions and providing them with the necessary time to learn the skill.
  • The Tolerance – Being patient with children is a must when they are learning. They do not have the skills that we have so we must be tolerant of their early attempts to master something, no matter how messy the activity gets. And if the activity poses a safety hazard to others, it is our job to be tolerant enough to figure out how to modify the activity so that it can be done without running the risk of hurting anyone.

We can’t do this by cutting an exploration short or simply not providing it. To do either would short-change the children and not allow them to develop the skills that they need to understand and engage in the world around them.

Documenting Children’s Learning

If there is one thing that I have become passionate about in the past year or so, it is documenting the learning that goes on in my classroom. Not only have I found it to be a wonderful way to see just what the children are learning when involved in different classroom activities, but I have found it to be absolutely crucial when it comes to figuring out how to use or augment the curriculum to enhance and further the development of the children involved.

For example, a little over a month ago (its probably been two months now) the children and I went outside to collect leaves for a project. One of the kids happened to look up and noticed the leaves that were falling off of the trees. Through asking open-ended questions I found out that most of the children in the class did not have the term “falling” in their expressive vocabulary (although it was present in their receptive vocabulary). Through documenting the children’s discovery and understanding of falling, as well as their ability to use the word as part of their vocabulary, I was able to come up with several different activities to enhance their understanding of falling, as well as giving the children more opportunities to use the word as they talk about falling.

By documenting all of this information through pictures, quotes from the children, and my own observations, I am able to see the changes in the children’s understanding and development through time. Additionally, the added documentation will lead to more activities that will lead to more discoveries.

I have often tried to explain to different teachers, as well as to parents, that – to me – documentation serves three purposes: it provides a timeline for development and a springboard for new activities for teachers; it provides the child with a set of “instructions” for how to revisit a project on their own; and it provides evidence of learning to the parent.

The idea that the child can look at documentation and use it to initiate a self-directed activity is an important one. If a child is genuinely interested in a project, they will use the documentation to help them explore a project again and perhaps expand on the knowledge that they have already gained from the project. I have seen this in my classroom, where my children are currently experimenting with ramps and bridges. Each time that we revisit the project (or the children revisit it themselves), their understanding of why objects act the way they do on a ramp or a bridge deepens.

I recently posted an article about observing during easel painting, in which I wrote detailed notes about what the children did, as well as what they said, while painting on an easel. This exercise was very eye-opening for me as I observed how the children interacted with the paint and the brushes, as well as how they articulated their thoughts about what they were doing. This information was priceless to me as I tracked their development, and the observations of the interactions led to more ideas for projects that would allow the children to explore with different materials in the same way that they explored with the paint.

For more information about documentation:

30 Days of Documentation – Yo Yo Reggio

Reflection, and a Look Forward

Well, it is that time of year again – the time when everyone looks back on the year behind them and plans (or resolves) what they will do in the year ahead of them. I believe that it should be no different for me on a professional level. So here we go:

2010 was an awesome year, in that I learned more about what it is that I do than I had in the past three years combined. The past three months has been a huge period of growth and maturity for myself as a teacher, but I would still describe myself as being in the “young-adult” years of my teaching career, in that I am trying to fine-tune my teaching philosophy and implement all of the wonderful things that I have learned. I will look back on 2010 as being a time where I soaked up so much knowledge so quickly that, even though I was mentally exhausted at times, I still kept pressing on, impressed by all of the amazing things that I was learning. I read some very informative books, a lot of which I will keep around so that I can dive back into them for some inspiration when I feel the need to.

2010 was not just a year of amazing knowledge-building. 2010 was the year that I changed the mood of my classroom. I still have a LOT of work to do, but I am proud to say that I am on the road to building my classroom into a community of children, families, and teachers, rather than feeling as if I am walking into a gauntlet made up of students every day. Because of this, I am enjoying my job much more than I did at the beginning of 2010. I do have a lot to do to keep building this feeling of community, and that brings us to:

My Goals for 2011

My first goal for 2011 is to continue to expand my knowledge about progressive and Reggio-Emilia inspired teaching practices. I am well on my way to achieving this goal already, since I received some wonderful resources for Christmas that will help me attain this goal.

My second goal for 2011 is to continue to implement the things I have learned and make them felt in tangible ways. This includes:

  • Developing a system by which I will offer the children in my class real and tangible things to experiment with and discover. I will find ways to display these items in ways that will inspire the children to experiment and create with the items that I offer the children.
  • Develop a better documentation system that will not only better inform the parents as to what their children are learning and accomplishing in the classroom, but will inspire the children to continue to revisit, experiment, and discover more about the projects that we undertake.
  • Make the families of the children in my care more a part of the classroom than they are now. Make them feel like they are welcome and included in the classroom environment. Find a way not just to inspire more parental involvement, but to make the parents and the children feel more like the daycare is an extension of their home rather than an entirely separate place that the children go to for a huge block of their day.
  • Make the day less regimented than it is now, which will make transition times less of a stressful time, not just for myself but for the children as well. Give them more options, and make the things that they like doing (such as painting) more accessible to them so that they can do it whenever they want to.

There are others, I’m sure, but these are the main ones. I would like to see more parental involvement and more knowledge given to the parents of what we are actually accomplishing in the classroom. I would also like to see the children given more opportunities to explore and experiment, and more items to do that with. I know that with the ideas that I am trying to implement, 2011 will be a great year as well, perhaps even greater than 2010.