Monday, December 28, 2009

We got a little snow.

This photo is from just before Christmas.

snow tunnels

snow forts

snow angels

snow people


sledding and shoveling and loving all this


I thought a lot about this post from Kristin at her wonderful blog Preschool Daze, although I regret to say we didn't actually do it. Perhaps it's not too late...

Friday, December 25, 2009

Peaceful, hopeful, joyful

My first semester of graduate school for my early childhood education license has been put to bed. I've had few days to reflect on it, and I'm more glad than ever that I've started this project. I'm learning so much, and it really won't be that much longer until I'll have a teaching license in my mitts. As much as I enjoy being a student (and I'll always be a student--there is always more to learn), I can't wait to get back into a classroom. I miss it so much.

We're visiting my parents for the holidays, and I'm pleased to report that finally, this year, we came to a "gifts for the kids only" agreement, and we actually stuck to it. With so much less stuff around, we're focussing on sharing food and sharing stories. I'm with my loved ones, and it's a quiet, lovely Christmas. I hope your holidays are joyful and peaceful.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Music in the classroom

Before my current student phase, I was a Kindermusik teacher. I read a lot of research while I was doing that about the myriad benefits of music on the human brain, especially the young, developing human brain. More synapses are firing and more sections of our brain are in use when we make or purposefully listen to music than when we do any other activity. When I think about my future classroom, I think about songs, dances, rhythmic storytelling, and little tunes woven into the fabric of our day.

I came across this video on Kindermusik's blog, called Mind on Music. Sometimes this blog can be a little too much about Corporate and not enough about education, but often there are gems, like this summary of Northwestern University's research on the effects of musical education on language development. Really nice graphic representations here of their data.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I'll have ice cream with my pi

I just completed the second of two math courses I need before I can earn my teaching license in early childhood education. These classes are called "endorsements" in the parlance of the Virginia Department of Education. Every state has endorsement requirements, and Virginia has some of the most stringent in the country. For grins, I checked on the requirements in some other states where I've lived, and my current undergraduate transcript met the requirements in each of them. But, here I am on the Virginia side of greater DC, so I took the math.

Were they a waste of time? Or were they a worthy pursuit on my way to a teaching license? I'm still not sure.

On one hand, I rather enjoyed the work. I had moments in the middle of an equation when I could forget the rest of the world and just get very deeply into an alternate mathematical state. It was a glimpse, I think, into why people absolutely love math. I was an English major and words are my first love, but I think I understand "number love" a little better now--and that puts me in a better place to inculcate "number love" in my students. I also seem to have put old math anxieties to rest, so that alone was probably worth the cost in time and money. I think of myself as a life-long student, and studying math at age 40 certainly fits with that vision of myself.

On the other hand, I have a bachelor's degree from an accredited university, and I took the required amount of math for that degree (one class). Why isn't that enough? Also, Virginia requires a passing score on the standardized test called Praxis II, one-fourth of which is on math. I passed the Praxis with flying colors, but I still needed the two extra math courses. Doesn't that constitute a double-check for the same body of knowledge? I'm all for high standards for teachers, but I'm also for applicable standards, and I'm not certain that three college level courses in math, plus an additional standardized test, all for a license that's good through 3rd grade, is the best use of state resources.

I regret to tell you that these two math classes (plus an economics class and a geography class, by the way) were responsible for a couple of years of prevaricating before I finally decided to bite the bullet. Now that I'm here and I'm doing it, I'm sad about losing that time. Shame on me. They weren't that hard. But they were a huge mental road block on my way to a teaching license. And I had to pay for them. And I had to study for them, studying time I could have applied to researching a teaching philosophy, reading a case study, or practicing a teaching technique. Time is precious, you know?
It's water under the bridge now--I've done it and I'm deeply relieved to have them behind me.
What do you think? Is Virginia a little overboard on the endorsements, or is this exactly what should be required?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

My teachers

When the student is ready, the teacher appears.
- Buddist saying

Some of my teachers are obvious, such as my professors I have this semester. One in particular is so wonderful, so full of information, so funny and insightful, that I'm not close to digesting all the information in each class. This is my Foundations of Literacy class, and she is a linguist with a special interest in how young children develop language and literacy. I'm grateful to her investment in teacher training.

Some of my teachers are less obvious. Many teachers I've found online, such as Allie in Brussels, making magic in a reggio-inspired classroom at the edge of an old growth forest, and Tom in Seattle, who leads a co-operative preschool at the zoo. (Warning: when you read his prolific blog, you will want to drop everything and move to Seattle just so you can be a part of his amazing preschool.) I have many more teachers online, some of whom would not call themselves "teachers."

Some of my teachers are in the house. Like my daughter, who recently said this: "You never know what's going to happen. You don't know if your lollipop is going to be orange or pink. You don't know if you are going to Antarctica. You just don't know, so you have to be looking."

Or my son, who at this moment is playing the clarinet with a focus and pleasure that I didn't know he had. We had tried piano and we had tried choir, and he really, really didn't want to do either of those. Even though I know better than to label a young child, I started to think of him as simply not the musical kind. Then he started fourth grade this year, when they have the opportunity at our school to start instrumental music. He went to an instrument petting zoo put on by our wonderful music teachers, and he saw the clarinet and fell in love. He loves the way the parts nestle in their protective case, and then how they fit together. He loves the black and silver. He loves the sound. And then, he could not get a single note out of it for over two weeks. Doomed, I thought. But my son persevered, and he is playing MaryAnn right now and honestly I can't think of anything that sounds more beautiful. He thinks he is a music student, but he is my teacher, too.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A little off balance

I feel happiest when I've created something during the day. Lately my creating has been strictly the academic kind--another paper, another discussion post, another test. This is okay, because I love what I'm studying, and I'm very focussed on the goal of a masters in early childhood education and its accompanying teaching license.

This is a tough season, though, to be at my computer instead of at my craft table. This year I've made no cookies, no handmade cards, no handsewn gifts, no crocheting, nor any other craft idea that is usually spread all over the house about now. I miss it.

And when I don't allow myself time to play, I find that I end up stealing time anyway, like writing a post for this blog and changing its banner. Or going out on the deck to visit our stalwart snowperson and offer him a hat.

And now, honestly, I must get back to work. Just 12 days left in this semester, and friend, they are packed.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Moving books from a master teacher

Vivian Gussin Paley is a very bright star in my constellation of teaching mentors. She has written a dozen or so books about teaching preschool and Kindergarten in Chicago. I admire her for several reasons:

- She has honed the use of children's stories in the classroom to an art.

- She takes children seriously. She sees them, in the words of my wonderful Foundations of Literacy professor, " worthy collaboraters in their classroom narrative."

- She understands children's feelings and motivations better than anyone I can think of. She notices children.

- After decades of teaching in the classroom, she now teaches teachers, so now her body of expertise is reaching more and more children.

I just read Girl with the Brown Crayon and The Boy Who Would be a Helicopter. I'm eager to read the rest of her books. I highly recommend them--both for what they gave me in new ideas for an early childhood classroom, but also in their emotional content--the children she writes about feel very real to me. They are extraordinary children, but at the same time I understand that they are the ordinary children I'd meet in every classroom, but they feel extraordinary in Paley's books because she noticed them and recorded their extraordinary qualities. She's not a literary stylist--don't read them for heightened prose. Her dialogue, especially between teachers, isn't very successful. But if you read them for insights into great teaching, I think you'll find a treasure trove.

Here she is, speaking last year at the 92Y (92nd St. YMCA, NYC) Wonderplay 2008 conference. In the last minute, she gives one piece of advice to new educators to follow if you follow nothing else. It's pure truth.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

art + poem

This interview made my day. Not only is Susan Marie Swanson a wonderful poet, but it turns out that she's also kind and generous to her fellow poets (I'm not surprised). She also spends huge swaths of her writing time as a writer-in-residence in elementary schools. Lucky children. Smart schools.

I also love it that I found this interview on Jean Van't Hul's lovely blog dedicated to art for young children, The Artful Parent. It would have been no surprise to find it on a children's literature site, but finding it on a visual arts site imbued it with that sense of serendipity, of cross-pollination, of unexpected composition, that I hope to create in my future classroom. Which I can hardly wait to get to.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Now that is a very long list of rules.

I picked up this book from my local library after my Rafe Esquith kick, because I had a suspicion that this is the guy Esquith upbraided for leaving his classroom for a book tour and a motivational speaker tour.

Turns out that hunch was right--this is the teacher. While I certainly don't agree with all Esquith's personal opinions on his fellow educators, I have to agree with him here.

The word that comes to mind: manipulative. In this list of 55 classroom rules, many interesting stories arise, and many are good ideas. But an equal number made me cringe for their deception, manipulation, and showboating.

For example, he tells a story about calling a student's parent and "lying through his teeth." He tells the parent that the kid is terrific, both behaving and performing well in school, in order to have a positive first contact with the parent. But the opposite is true. Then, after three days, he calls back and tells what's really going on, and this time the parent is on his side and disciplines the child. Starting out positively with a parent sounds like a great idea to me, but with lying? There's got to be a better way.

In another story, he tells us about his "famous Dorito rule." No student is ever allowed Doritos, ever. He relates how a student brought Doritos and noisily began to munch them, just so she could see Clark's theatrical confiscation. He is proud of this. It made me wonder what could have been accomplished in the time all this showboating took.

One more: Due to his great ideas and the huge scale of his projects, several years ago Clark was short-listed for the Disney Teacher of the Year award. He lands an anonymous donation to take the whole class with him to the award ceremony. But he doesn't tell them that. Instead, he gathers the students and their parents in the library for a big show of drawing three lucky students' names from a bowl. Just as he's about the draw them...he announces they're all going! Hurray! I felt bad enough for the children who were strung along like this, but to manipulate parents like that? Fellow adults who are your partners in the children's education? I would have been steamed if I were one of those parents, just so Clark could have his big Santa Claus moment.

To summarize: he's obviously got energy and ideas to spare, and I appreciate his enthusiasm. (55 class rules! Some of them are about how to clap or where to place your napkin at a restaurant!) But I am not drawn to this particular teacher's style.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A bit more on Rafe

So, I decided to go backwards and read There are no Shortcuts, the first book by Rafe Esquith, the fifth grade teacher who is parting seas and turning water into wine in downtown LA. Well, okay, he's turning 10-year-olds who speak English as a second language into Shakespearean actors on world-reknowned stages, and taking his math team to state competitions--which they win against private school competition. I'm deeply impressed by not only his level of commitment, but his skill. He's a master, and just by reading his books I am learning so much.

There is, as well, a disquieting egoism lurking in these pages--this book more so than his second. While I found this distasteful, I completely understand it. The teaching profession is so misunderstood and so maligned, that it's not surprising that one of its greatest practitioners must spend the bulk of his book explaining why he is so great. He has to tell us, because otherwise, we may not understand--or care--what it is exactly that he does that makes Room 56 at Hobart Elementary School a model for the rest of us. Far too many people would look at a fifth grade teacher and say, well, that couldn't be too hard. And a man, no less--so many would think, gee, if he's got any brains or talent, why isn't he using it to make some real money? So he has to explain it to us. His passion, his commitment to children's futures, his well-honed teaching skills. It made for an awkward read, but I get it and I'm glad I know some of what's happening in his classroom. It's inspiring, and I do intend to read his book that just came out this year, titled Lighting Their Fires.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


I went to a square dance tonight with my daughter, my husband, and about 150 other young Girl Scouts and their parents. (My son is at a party of his own.) L. definitely enjoyed herself, pigtails swinging, and my husband was a wonderful dance partner who patiently taught her steps and do-si-do'ed for a long, long time.
I wish every girl there were so lucky. There were masses of parents around, but perhaps half were dancing with their daughters. The other girls were left to their own devices, which more often than not meant swinging madly around until one of them slid across the floor or running around--you know, just adding chaos to the event--while their parents either chatted or checked their blackberries. As an extra adult, I asked several girls if they would like a dance partner, but dancing with someone else's mom was not an offer many of them took up. So, I had some time to observe the scene and ponder.

This happened to come right after I finished Rafe Esquith's book Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire. So much fodder for thought, especially his emphasis on behavior, standards, and striving for excellence with every minute. According to this teaching veteran, his students would never have behaved like that. They would have remained attentive so that they would have learned the dance steps. They wouldn't be crazy, to make sure they weren't interfering with anyone else's efforts to dance. They would have participated, had fun, and left feeling like they really earned their Girl Scout square dance badge. I feel like my daughter can feel that way--not because she has perfect behavior--she doesn't--but because she had a loving adult attending to her and making sure she got something meaningful out of the evening. I found myself asking, how would Rafe Esquith handle this situation? Of course, they weren't students in tonight's context. They were daughters, and their parents were present. They just weren't present.

By the way, I highly recommend this book. It's a quick read and gave me much to chew on about the possibilities of a single classroom.

Monday, November 2, 2009


I'm taking Cultural Geography, too, because Viriginia requires a geography class on my transcript before I can be licensed. I can imagine many worse fates than having to take geography--fascinating material. I'm writing a paper about population growth in Ethiopia, and its effects on--among other things--education. Simply put, girls are not educated in rural Ethiopia, and few boys are.

When I dispair, pondering the problems with our education system in the United States, I think it's helpful for me to put it in reference to education in Ethiopia.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

the depth of a single utterance

In my foundations of language and literacy class for my masters in early childhood education, we are delving deeply into a few utterances by children. We dissect them to discover what the child is showing about his or her language development, and what foundations for literacy they are laying. It's fascinating, and I've learned that even one utterance has enough material for an unending amount of linguistic research. Syntax, phonology, morphology, semantics....that's just for starters. We're going deep!

This marvelous A, by the way, is the work of Rhett Dashwood, a graphic designer from Australia, who pored over satellite images until he found all 26 letters.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

stretching my thinking

I just finished reading my first Jonathan Kozol book. I intend to read Savage Inequalities and Shame of the Nation as well. I'm intrigued by his life experience and what conclusions he's drawn from what he's seen.
He tells many jaw-dropping stories in this electic account, but one that really sticks with me is the story that began him on his education activist journey: when he dared to teach Langston Hughes to inner-city Boston black middle school kids, and he got fired for it. The parents and larger community got angry. They defended him and began a huge protest on his behalf. It was the kind of moment that defines a life, and now, 40 years later, Kozol is still testing boundaries, speaking his truth, and getting people fired up.
I had to ask myself, what kind of teacher am I? Where do I intend to teach? When I'm there, will I maintain the status quo, or will I challenge it? What is best for the children whose education will be entrusted to me?
I must protest, for a moment, on Kozol's treatment of teacher education personnel who come into schools for continuing education. He skins alive a woman who makes a reference to text-to-self connection. Meta-speak, he dismissively says. But framing our work in theroretical terms makes sense to my brain. If I know the theory, if I have a map, then I know where to drive and how I'm progressing. I can like theory and still speak plainly. They are not mutually exclusive.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Observing Glebe

I am observing in a 1st grade classroom this week at Glebe Elementary School in Arlington, VA. I feel very lucky to have this chance. Glebe has a very good vibe going--the staff and faculty smile and say a few collegial words to each other in the hallways. The children are engaged in good learning in so many ways, with good teachers and good resources. There is a busy hum here, and heck, look at this building! It's only five years old. It's a treat to enjoy this cutting edge educational architecture and design. Just to see the library alone is worth a trip to Glebe.
The teacher I'm observing couldn't be more kind or generous with her time and ideas. One of the things I need to develop is my classroom management skill, and I'm picking up many, many ideas from her.
The week is going too quickly--I already feel attached to these children, and I'll miss them when I'm done with the observation.
Thank you, Glebe!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

All journeys begin with a single step

Not that I'm on my first step--as a matter of fact, I'm well along my way, but I still have a long way to go. I'm getting my masters in early childhood education, as well as my license to teach in the state of Virginia, at George Mason University. When I'm finished in December 2010, I will be licensed to teach preschool through 3rd grade.

I hope this blog will be a good tool for me, as a record of what I've learned and to show the progression of my thoughts on education theories and practical techniques.

I hope this blog will join the many edu-blogs I admire that add something useful to the online conversation about teaching and learning in early childhood classrooms.

I hope this blog will eventually be a community tool for my future classroom. I most often envision it to be a Kindergarten classroom, but I would love to teach all the grades for which I will be licensed.

I wish I were already there! But, at the same time, this education journey has its own pleasures. Thanks for coming along!