Tuesday, December 21, 2010

No, it's real teaching

I had an interesting conversation today in the hallway with a parent. His son is in the Kindergarten class in which I interned in the fall, and the whole family had been a delight to know. I told him the happy news that I am now teaching Pre-Kindergarten just down the hall from his son's class.

His reaction was not what I expected. "Oh," he said, with a look of commiseration on his face, "well, I'm sure it's just a foot in the door, and they'll move you up to Kindergarten soon."

I was pretty stunned. Since then, I have thought of perhaps a dozen or more things I would say, but in the moment I had children to attend to, so I merely said, "No, it's real teaching. It's a good thing."

Now, I know perfectly well that early childhood educators have an image problem. But it still stopped me in my tracks to see his look of disappointment on my behalf. The idea that those who teach preschool are teachers who aren't quite ready for prime time sounds ludicrous to me, but it's a perception that's alive and well out there.

If I had a moment more to talk with him and formulate my thoughts, I would have talked about the crucial importance of the four-year-old year. I would have mentioned neuroplasticity. I would have sited studies on the life-long value of a quality preschool experience. I would have told him that it's not just real teaching, but that it's real learning, too. I would have told him that I'm exactly where I want to be, that I will have a life-time supply of intellectually stimulating challenges in this environment, and that I can well imagine teaching Pre-Kindergarten for the rest of my life.

I'll have my one-minute speech on the value of early childhood education better prepared next time. One parent educated, a few million more to go.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Grades are for Dogs

My eight-year-old daughter is in third grade, and therefore now receives report cards. The first one came home not long ago. She did fine, but it gave me a pang that this form with its boxes and letters was meant to summarize the skills of this joyful, unconventional child and her particular quirky genius. I didn't love the "outstanding" "satisfactory" and "needs improvement" system of last year, but I liked it a lot better than this. I did what parents do: I praised her, and then we brainstormed some ideas she could use to raise a couple of the grades. And then I worried. Because eight seems mighty young to spend precious energy strategizing to raise grades.

I just recently, however, I came across the following in a stack of her drawings, stories, and notes. (By the Way, George is one of our two dachshunds, who we adopted from a rescue society last summer.)

George's Report Card

Sleeping Skills A+
Racquetball skills C-
Talking in class B
Eating the trash A+
Shares his bone B

I shouldn't have worried. If the kid can write a report card for her dog, I think she's got this in perspective.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

My new school is a happenin' place

My new school, where I will begin teaching in just a few short weeks, just won a local human rights award for its outstanding efforts in parent outreach and inclusion. I am so excited to be a part of this!

You can read a short blurb about it here.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Giving Thanks for my new JOB!

I have some good news to share with you. I interviewed for a position on Friday, and I was offered it over the weekend. I'm employed!

I will be a Pre-K teacher in Arlington Public Schools, part of what is known here as the Virginia Preschool Initiative, or VPI. This program, funded by the state lottery, offers a high-quality preschool experience to four-year-olds from low income families.

I start in January, just a couple of weeks after I graduate with a Masters in Early Childhood Education in mid-December. I'll teach in a public school just 3 1/2 miles from my home (it's the same school where I had the good fortune to do my internship). I already know and admire my new colleagues.

I'm just pinching myself. This is exactly the work I hoped to do. I am grateful down to the soles of my shoes that I get to have this opportunity, and that it starts so promptly after my graduation. No waiting! Step right up and start your new life!

So, this is how this story ends. I've been wondering for so long now....when I'm done with this degree, where will I teach? What will happen next? And now I know the answer. This story is ending, and another one, a really interesting one, is about to begin.

I have so much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, even in addition to the great bounty of being with my family. Wishing you a peaceful Thanksgiving full of blessings!

Friday, November 19, 2010

I think he was talking about classroom management

"What you do
speaks so loud
that I cannot hear what you say."
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Serious Play

PLAY: the heart of an early childhood classroom. Vital to learning. Vital to childhood.

In a recent class project, I had the opportunity to defend play in a pre-K classroom to an adult who comes in the room and wants to know why the children are "just playing."

I'm glad you asked! My response:

When you describe the children as “just playing,” I feel you may be defining the word “play” as a time filler between sessions of “real learning” with a pencil and a worksheet. An alternate definition of play I offer is that play is a crucial process that contributes to learning throughout the life span, and motivates learning in addition to contributing to cognitive development (1). Simply put, play the most powerful and efficient way for children to learn and remember what they learned (2).
Serious benefits await children who engage in serious play. According to researchers Bodrova and Leong (3), play builds foundational skills and complex cognitive activities, such as memory, self-regulation, distancing and decontextualization, oral language abilities, symbolic generalization, successful school adjustment, and better social skills.
Children at play not only hone these cognitive abilities, but they also develop specific literacy, math, and social studies skills that connect directly with Virginia’s Foundation Blocks for Early Learning: Comprehensive Standards for Four-Year-Olds (4). As these standards astutely note, four-year-olds have serious work to do. But it can be accomplished with joy, enthusiasm, and engagement; in short, through play.
I integrate play with standards through careful observation and documentation of the children’s self-directed play. When I observe recurring themes, I develop whole group and small group activities to deepen their base of knowledge, their understanding, and their mastery of skills. I organize my classroom so that every play activity builds literacy, number sense, social interaction, and information about the world around them. Their dramatic, constructive, and exploratory play is richly layered with the core standards. They are building the skills they need to excell in their school careers and in their lives.
Play is an even more important component of a young child’s school day than it was in the past, because the nature of children’s play at home has changed; that is, not all children come to my classroom knowing how to play, and I must teach them how. “Nowadays, young children spend less time playing with their peers and more time playing along, graduating from educational toys to video and computer games” (3). When I see children struggling to play cooperatively and constructively, I scaffold their abilities with well-placed play props, questions to get them thinking, and interventions when needed to help them develop these essential skills.

1. Myck-Wayne, J. (2010). “In Defense of Play: Beginning the Dialog About the Power of Play.” Journal of Young Exceptional Children, 2010, 13: 14.

2. Elkind, D. (2007). The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally. Da Capo Press: Cambridge, MA.

3. Bodrova, E., and Leong, D.J. (2004). “Do Play and Foundational Skills Need to Compete for the Teacher’s Attention in an Early Childhood Classroom?” Spotlight on Young Children and Play. National Association for the Education of Young Children, Washington, D.C.

4. Viriginia Department of Education (2007). "Virginia’s Foundation Blocks for Early Learning: Comprehensive Standards for Four-Year-Olds." Retrieved on November 15, 2010 from www.earlychildhood.virginia.gov/documents/foundationblocks.pdf.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An Ending and Many Beginnings

I just came to the end of my 11-week long internship. It was dreadfully hard to say goodbye to the children! I know how lucky I was to be part of their lives for a while. I learned so much! My mind and my heart are full. Now I buckle down to a few more weeks of intense course work, and then I graduate in December! Almost there!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Make lots of mistakes

This message is written on a white board in my school, in a hallway I traverse several times a day. It helps me relax and take a breath every single time I pass it. Make lots of mistakes. Who ever this fellow teacher is, I thank her or him.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Five-year-old children

I'm on a campaign to refer to "Kindergarteners" as what they are: five-year-old children. Not students, pupils, or class members, but five-year-old children. "First graders," likewise, are not that if I had my way, but rather six-year-old children. I think calling them so makes it easier to remember both that they are whole people, interested in and capable of a range of human activities--not just academic ones, and that they are very, very young.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Half way through it

I am now half-way through this internship. It is something like finals week, except for 12 weeks in a row. The workload is extraordinary. I am learning so much that I can hardly keep up with the new ideas and new perspectives. I wish I was recording more in this blog, but truly, I'm doing all I can for the present. In mid-November I'll be through with the internship, and then I can pause, think, and write. And sleep. Oh, yes, there will be sleeping. And then I'll begin the process of searching for a teaching position, with applications and job interviews. Oh, my. Any tips for me, experienced teachers?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

great article on neurodiversity

What am I more excited about: this article, or the existence of this magazine? And how did I not hear of Ode Magazine before? Good reading. Have a look.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Child Cannot Wait

“Many things we need can wait. The child cannot. Now is the time his bones are being formed, her blood is being constituted, his brain is being developed. To her we cannot say tomorrow. His name is today."

- Gabriela Mistral, Chilean poet, stateswoman, and teacher. She was the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1945.

Many thanks to the Minds on Music Blog, by Kindermusik International, for this and many other inspirations.

Friday, September 3, 2010


I loved this animated talk, and I wanted to share it. It's only 10 minutes long, and every minute is compelling. I love how the study of child development is an important part of the conversation here.
Jeremy Rifkin on "the empathic civilization" Video on TED.com

This also puts me in mind of the Roots of Empathy curriculum, a Canadian program that I came across a couple of years ago. Very exciting ideas.

I'm also reminded of the work of Kenneth Dodge, a psychologist and researcher at Duke University who is interested in (among other things) studying children with aggressive and violent behavior. He and his fellow researchers are finding out that these children (and adults) haven't built the skills of reading another person's facial expressions and body language, and therefore are less able to empathize with the other person's feelings. Since they are unable to decode the others' cues, they tend to assume the worst and then act out. One of the things they are doing is breaking down the complex process of reading the cues of others, and then teaching these children how to do it, one step at a time.

There is very good work going on out there.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Your ideal classroom

A little later this semester, I will have the chance to design my "ideal early childhood classroom." In this assignment, money and existing buildings will be no object. I can dream big! Ahh, doesn't that sound lovely.

What is the design feature/area/organization technique that you wouldn't live without?

What is the one element that isn't in your environment, but you pine for it?

What websites or books are your favorite sources for ideas on classroom design?

Thanks, friends. I have seen many versions of ideal classrooms in your education blogs, so I know you have been exploring this.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Starting from the beginning

Yesterday was the first day of my internship AND my first day of this semester of evening classes at George Mason University. Last night I slept like a stone dropped to the bottom of a blue sea.

Most students in my program do their internships in the Spring--a few of us are doing them now, and I think we're lucky. Yesterday, for example, I was there when my cooperating professional, E., opened her classroom door with the key. We surveyed the piled furniture in a corner, the supplies stashed willy-nilly along a wall by others who had used the room over the summer. We sniffed the air. Then we dug in. E. described where and how she needed things, and A., the assistant teacher and I, set up. It was a very good lesson for me to see the state of a classroom when a teacher begins her year. An enormous shelf that she'd relied upon for storage had also disappeared over the summer, so the set-up had to be different from last year. We discussed and schlepped and labeled, and it was a very good day. It's a privilege to be there from the very beginning.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Ready, Set, GO.

Tomorrow I begin my internship. I've been both eagerly anticipating it and fretting about it for so long, that it's a great relief that it's finally here. It's going to be hectic--no doubt about it--with my classes and my own two children and lots of logistical gymnastics, but I welcome it. It's not a sustainable schedule for the long term, but doable for one semester. My husband is extremely supportive of all this, and we'll manage it together.
I can't wait to meet my new people. Teachers, assistant teachers, administrators, parents, and most of all, twenty-something five- and six-year-olds who are about to start their first ever day of Kindergarten. I'm honored that I get to be a part.
I should mention before this internship begins that I intend to share the inspiring aspects of my school and classroom, the good stuff that I learn from and that make me a better teacher. These will be ample to keep me a very busy blogger. If there are moments that frustrate me, as there are in any human endeavor, I'm going to keep those to myself. This approach means that I run a risk of a Mary Sunshine Cheesecake kind of a blog, I suppose. But this isn't one of those anonymous education blogs. I'm Launa, a real person at a real school with real colleagues and families, and I'm interested in sharing the best. All indications are that there will be tons of that. Thanks for coming along!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Aditi Shankardass: A second opinion on learning disorders | Video on TED.com

This TED talk struck me as one we early childhood educators should know about.

Aditi Shankardass, a brain researcher, says that it's a funny thing that we typically only evaluate symptoms when we diagnose brain disorders--we don't look at the brain itself. She points out that if someone makes a diagnosis regarding another part of the body--say, heart or bones or blood, we take a look at it first before we proceed. So, she invented a new means to LOOK at brain waves and what they are telling us, with fascinating results. This one's just 7 minutes.

Aditi Shankardass: A second opinion on learning disorders Video on TED.com

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Pigeon Post

This is a continuation of my last post....

We just finished Coot Club, the fourth in the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome, and we've begun Pigeon Post. I've been eagerly waiting for this book; this is the one I read when I was a kid. It's delicious it is to revisit a book that I loved so long ago, and share it with my two children, who love it, too.

When I was 8 years old in the mid-seventies, my family lived in what was then West Germany, near Frankfurt. My father was stationed at a now-defunct American Air Base. It was July, and my family was on a summer vacation in our bright red, 1965 VW camper. We were trying to hit as many countries as we could in my father's three weeks of leave, and one afternoon found us in a bookstore on Trafalgar Square in London. I had begged to go in. I had blazed through the books I'd brought along for the many hours on the road, and I was intrigued by this place--with its dense walls of shelves to the ceiling, it felt like a bookstore I'd seen in Frankfurt, yet these books I could read. My parents said I could choose a book to keep me company as we journeyed to Scotland, and I chose Pigeon Post. I had no idea it was #5 in a series, and I didn't learn this until a couple of years ago, when a British friend and I were chatting about beloved books from our childhoods, and she filled me in on what I'd missed.

I decided to start the series from the proper beginning with my own children. Finally, instead of checking out the next book from our library, we are reading the musty, yellowed Penguin Paperback that's been sitting on my shelf all these years.

It's better than I remembered. It's wonderful. And I keep having these marvelous moments of short-term clairvoyance: like when Rodger gets a surprise package on the train, and I realize that I know what's inside of it. Or when Nancy comes back from the High Topps full of news, and I know what she's going to report. Thirty-two-year-old memories that I didn't know I had. It's a tale of brave, funny, daring children (eight of them!) and their summer at the lake, doing their best to avoid adults and scare up some proper adventure.

What a great way to end our summer together.

Monday, August 16, 2010

We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea

That's one of the titles in a series of novels for children by Arthur Randsome. The series starts with Swallows and Amazons, where we meet four British schoolchildren on their summer holidays in the Lake District, circa 1920. They learn to sail, camp entirely alone on their own little island, and all around have the most fabulous adventures you could hope for. Yet the characters never for a moment stop being believable--you're sure that if you knew your nautical knots just a little better, were just a little handier with a pocket knife and a campfire, and had your courage bolstered by your brothers and sisters around you, that you, too, could do and dare. They are wonderful tales, and my kids and I are sailing through them as read-alouds. Highly recommended.

Also, We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea describes exactly how I feel about this blog. I meant to take a little time away to get into the house we just bought and paint a few walls. But oh my goodness, I didn't mean to sail off for the entire summer. How did that happen? It feels great to be back, and if you're here reading, then hey, thanks! I appreciate it. I look forward to sharing my adventures as a student teacher. My internship begins in two short weeks in a Kindergarten classroom right here in Arlington, Virginia, right outside Washington D.C. It's just what I hoped for. It's a terrific assignment, and it's bound to be an epic voyage of learning for me. Thanks for sailing along.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A brief mention of two great friends

Gratuitous dachshund picture. I could not resist.
We just adopted George this weekend, the charming little guy on the left.
He and our dog Lacey, on the right, are already inseparable. It's a joy to watch them play together.
George lived with three different families before he was rescued by the Dachshund Rescue Association of North America. At the last house he was kept outside, all through winter. His ears were severely frostbitten. Remarkably, the hair grew back, though the ragged edges remain as a reminder of what he went through. I plan to keep him toasty warm for the rest of his life.
You'd never know George has had it so hard. He is gentle, loving, patient, and assumes everyone he meets, especially children, have come to see him.
A quick note about keeping a dog outside: um, why? Why take a pack animal from its pack, bring it into your "pack," but then not actually let live with your pack? Also, many breeds, like dachshunds, don't grow undercoats of fur. They are unable to withstand cold temperatures. This story of frostbite is not uncommon.
I love watching my two children with them. Caring for animals gives children a unique opportunity to develop nurturing skills and empathy for other living creatures.
George and Lacey are curled by my feet right now. Great dogs, both. Back to education topics next post!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Home plate

My ideal house in 1976, when I was six years old. I made this plate on my grandmother's kitchen counter.

We are moving into our home! We just signed the papers and it's ours.

(This is, by the way, a different home from one I mentioned in a previous post. That one didn't work out, which was deeply disappointing at the time. But now we adore this one. Things have a way of working out, you know?)

We have moved a lot, and I've collected some anecdotal evidence about how moves, whether from one house to another or from one state to another, are HUGE events in a young child's life. They require a lot of conversation to help a child understand. If a child in your class or family is moving this summer, it's worth checking his or her understanding of what's going on.

For example: Before a previous move, my then-5-year-old daughter and I were perusing an online real estate site. In one group of house photos, we paused on a little girl's pink bedroom. "I like that bed," Leah said, "so let's get this house." She had made the perfectly logical assumption that moving house meant leaving all our things, too, her toys and dolls and bed, and assuming all of their things. How stressful that must have been for her, to think that. It was a good lesson for me in thinking about a young child's perspective and frame of reference, and making sure I provided all the important details.

When my son was five, we lived in Alabama, and we knew when we moved there in June that we'd move away the following June. A few weeks before my son's birthday in December, I asked him who he'd like to invite to his party. "Well," he said, "maybe we won't be here for my birthday." So, when my husband and I said, "Just one year," we knew what we meant, but my little boy couldn't yet envision what a year was. He only knew that some day soon, bags would be packed. I almost cried when I realized how much uncertainty he was living in. Another great lesson on a young child's need for context and examples and lots of detail to understand a big idea.
One more: We lived in our current neighborhood for two years, then moved to Ohio for one year, then moved back here to this current rental house last summer. So my children's friends have seen us take off before. This came very clear a few days ago when we told my son's best friend that we bought our house. He grew pale, gulped, and said in a very small voice, "Is it in Virginia?" Never mind that he knew we were looking for a house in the neighborhood. He knew that we'd left before, so as far as he was concerned, we were perfectly capable of moving again to Ohio or Timbuktu. I decided we needed an object lesson, so I loaded my kids and the three friends they had over to play in the car, and I drove them to the new place, just up the street from their elementary school. "This is our house," I announced in my best radio announcer voice, "and we're staying right here."
Everybody cheered.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Excellence vs. Competence

"Test scores don't measure excellence, they measure competence. I didn't send my kids to school to learn competence." John Young, as told to Gary Cartwright.

These are the cleanest, truest two sentences on standardized testing I've come across yet.

Read this commentary for more clear-thinking on education reform from John Young. It hinges on a compelling metaphor: would you blame the mechanic for struggling to repair a neglected car, whose owner never changed the oil or checked the oil pressure? No, you would not. It makes as much sense to blame the teacher for struggling (though still in there, trying, every day) to educate the children whose home lives are marked by the corollary of human neglect. John Young is a recently retired columnist for the Waco Tribune Herald. Lucky for us, he's still keeping an eye on education politics and writing about it.

Another gem from Young's article: "No one craves assessments — quality, diagnostic assessments — more than a teacher, or at least the vast majority of true classroom professionals."


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Reading Up on Reggio: Possible Schools

Between textbook readings, I'm trying to read up about the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. I just finished Possible Schools, by Ann Lewin-Benham. Have you come across this one? It's not new: published in 2005, it chronicles the life and times of the Model Early Learning Center (MELC) in Washington, D.C. For a few short years in the early 90s, this school went from being choked with problems (running through several new directors within months, and many issues stemming from the poverty of their students and families), to becoming a truly child-centered learning environment that deeply, meaningfully involved their families. They were so successful at adopting Reggio's philosophy, that the Reggio Children organization, in Reggio Emilia, Italy, adopted them into their network of schools. This meant that Reggio Children supported 37 schools: 36 in Reggio, Emilia, and the MELC in Washington, D.C! But, then there were subtle changes in leadership and vision, and that proved to be enough to dismantle the hard-won gains. The school closed.

Possible Schools is an honest account of this school's life, and I'm grateful for that. Lewin-Benham celebrates the huge accomplishments, but she also lays out the glaring shortcomings and disappointments. She doesn't hold anything back about their early days, including the arguments among the teaching staff and their confusion about Reggio. Then, once they achieve the magical learning environment that was the MELC at its apex, she shows how fragile it was, and how susceptible to being dismantled by outside forces. It's a sobering tale. It's also a hopeful one, as the title implies. Lewin-Benham seems to be saying, okay, this was our attempt. This is was we made possible, even if briefly. What will you make possible?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Spring in DC

We managed to get tickets to the White House Egg Roll this year, along with 30,000 of our closest friends! While it certainly was crowded, it was a treat to see the White House while standing on the South Lawn. I'm happy to report that it looks great up close, especially with all the Spring blooms. The people you see here were members of an orchestra.

How exciting to get a look at the new White House organic veggie garden, pictured here. This garden was part of a whole display on healthy foods at the Egg Roll, part of Mrs. Obama's "Let's Move!" initiative. I'm hopeful her program will lead to changes in public school lunch (more on this in another post.)

And have you heard of Mrs. Obama's apiary? Yep, right here on the South Lawn. This makes me so happy. I realize this one apiary is not the same as a sustained nationwide effort to protect honey bees, but I appreciate the symbol. I believe in the power of a well-placed symbol.

And DC just enjoyed the legendary cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin, too. We went one evening for a dinner picnic while blossoms snowed down on us. Oh, my, I loved it. I must get my future students to a spot where they can stand under a storm of cherry blossoms.

I hope signs of Spring are all around you, too.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

on teaching writing

I’m looking forward to teaching writing. In fact, I predict it'll be one of the things I love the most about teaching young children, because writing has great meaning in my own life.

Before I became a teacher, I was a writer. If I met someone new, I would tell them, “I’m a writer,” and for a while in my late twenties, I could even say that without cringing. I could point to my Masters in creative writing, and the few poems and short stories that found willing publishers in small, literary journals. There was the smattering of book reviews and articles that appeared here and there in those years. I even held an editorship of one of those small literary journals, doing my part to save a piece or two from the depths of the slush pile. Writing was serious business for me, and I worked at it.

But then I had children. I stopped sending pieces to publishers, and my confident, level-gazed assertion of being a writer faded quietly into the daily rhythms of motherhood. I wondered who I was and what I’d do next, and I wrote those questions in the multiple journals I stashed around the house. I wrote snippets of poetry on grocery lists, and I jotted notes for essays on the back of receipts. When my children went to preschool and I became passionate about early childhood education, I wrote about that, too. I sure wrote a lot for someone who wasn’t a writer anymore. And that, I finally realized, was all in my head. The problem wasn’t a lack of publication credits. The problem was that I didn’t accept and enjoy my writing in the organic way it was woven into my life. All healthy people find a way to express creativity, and my way was a collection of words and bits of prose with which I formed a nest around my children and me. I wrote because it helped me think. I wrote because it made me feel human. When writing wasn’t my work anymore, it became a valuable element in a rich, creative life. For me, this was a new way to see the use of writing, and it gave me a sense of peace as I transitioned to my new work as a teacher.

Now I see writing in a third way: as a part of my students' curriculum. Some may be writing for the very first time. I will make sure that they have sharp pencils and sturdy paper, word walls full of sight words, phonics lessons and spelling lessons—all vitally important building blocks toward the skill of writing.

But the most important lesson I want to share with my future students is that writing can make them feel human. Not only do I want them to be able to pick up a pencil and write down a thought, I want them to want to. I will tell them, you can have a thought—a unique thought that belongs only to you—and you can put it down on paper. Then I can read it, and I’ll understand. It’s a way of saying, “I am human! I exist!” and both of us will know it because there is your unique thought, right there on the paper. What power! I think this has the potential to be a great joy for a brand new writer. Perhaps it will become the way in which a child expresses himself or herself the best. Or perhaps there will be another way, but that child will know about writing, too, and take pleasure in the act writing for years to come. In the parlance of the Reggio tradition of early childhood education, writing will be one of my students’ hundred languages. I feel fortunate that I’ll be a part of that discovery.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

your favorite baby and toddler books?

I have the opportunity to buy a baby gift for an expecting friend, and naturally I want to buy books. A big basket of magical books that I'd like to give to every baby, you know what I mean?

The basket will need to include a volume of Mother Goose. My children and I especially liked this one, edited by Iona Opie and illustrated by Rosemary Wells, which sends me into a little reverie of nostalgia just looking at the cover.

And I think a Tana Hoban title or two is in order.

But I'd love to hear from you if you work with babies and toddlers, or are parenting them, or just remember your family's best books from that stage.

What book would you put in the basket?

Monday, March 15, 2010

a popcorn poem

This child's task was to practice writing the classroom "popcorn words" on her white board. "Popcorn words" are sight words, or words that the children are encouraged to memorize and know on sight, without needing to decode them--as quickly and effortlessly as popping a kernel of popcorn. It's a pretty good task--it's empowering to know those popcorn words, and everybody likes writing on (and erasing) the white boards.

She did this at first, and then she was struck with the idea of trying to make sentences with them. I think she went beyond even writing sentences, and wrote a poem.

I was assisting at that literacy center, and I'm pretty sure that technically, my given task was to discourage the fancy outlining of the letters, and encourage her to carry on practicing writing the popcorn words instead.

But I pretended I didn't notice. When she finished, I took a photo and told her I felt she had written a poem. She gazed at the white board for a while, then carried it around to share with her friends. She created learning for herself and others that was far beyond the original task.

Everyone read it, even children who are struggling to read the popcorn words. We all understood it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

shadow and light

A classmate and I are creating a unit of curriculum for a Kindergarten class hovering around, and expanding from, SHADOWS. We're having a great time dreaming up ideas and researching, but I know there are more ideas out there.

Will you share with us your classroom explorations with shadow? We would be so grateful to learn from you. All ideas are very welcome. If you are using a projector in your classroom, as many Reggio Emilia classrooms do, I'd especially love some info, a book reference, or a link to your ideas with that.
The sun has just made its welcome return to the DC area, so it feels like perfect timing to dream up ideas with light and shadow. I hope the sun is shining where you are, too.

Monday, March 1, 2010

lunch box poetry

I pack my children's lunches every day. When my son was in Kindergarten, I also carefully included a note, every single day. I tried to vary them to keep them interesting--a drawing, a sticker, a new word I knew he'd learned to read.

All that creativity was a hard act to keep up first thing in the morning, and as the years went by, I did it less and less. My daughter got notes once in a while, and now, neither of them has received a lunchbox note in a long time.

Well. Yesterday, I happened to be standing next to a Kindergartener who was getting ready for lunch. He had just fetched his lunchbox from his locker, and having a moment to spare, he opened it and pulled out a paper towel. Carefully, with both hands, he smoothed it out, and I then saw that it wasn't just the napkin for his lunch, but something very special.

I love you! oxo, Dad

He saw that I was looking, and he read it to me. Then another friend read it over his shoulder.

The little boy unzipped a side pocket on his lunchbox and pulled out five more paper towels that he had saved from previous days. One by one he smoothed them and read them to us. Every one of them said,

I love you! oxo, Dad

The little boy wasn't interested in creativity and variety. He was interested in his dad's notes. He loved them and saved them, and shared them with pride.

Which was the more beautiful poem: the dad's notes, or the little boy's face as he read them? It's a toss up.

This morning, I wrote both my children notes and put them in their lunches.

I love you! oxo, Mom

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


You can observe a lot just by watching. ~Yogi Berra

I've just begun my field experience for this semester. I'm lucky enough to have the chance to observe a Kindergarten class. Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but the most interesting part of this student teaching observation is that I have the chance to observe. Mindfully so. How much does this come up in life, that you can just sit quietly and watch it all happen?

Even in these usual circumstances, I don't sit much. I'm constitutionally unable to sit while others are working, so I figure out something useful to do in the classroom I'm visiting and I do it. Even so, there are moments when I really don't have a job, and all I can do is watch.

When I'm simply watching in a classroom, instead of being either a teacher or a student, I see things I wouldn't otherwise see. For example, I used to know a teacher (not the current teacher I'm observing, who is absolutely lovely, by the way) who didn't like to be kept waiting when she called on a child whose hand was raised. She would say the child's name, and if he or she took a long pause before speaking, she was say, "Too long!" and move on to another raised hand. This teacher had a lot of great qualities, and no doubt she picked up this technique somewhere as a means to teach children to think through their responses before they raised their hands.

But I wonder if she would have kept using this technique if she saw what I saw. She was busy, thinking about several things and trying to deliver content at the same time. But I was just observing, so my eye could linger on one little boy who had just received a "Too long!" His face sagged inward, he slumped his small shoulders, and he looked down at the carpet. Did he learn the intended lesson, that he needed to think through his responses before he raised his hand? I don't know. But through watching him, I could gather that he learned that raising his hand is not something he planned to do again anytime soon.

What else would I learn if I had the chance to sit and observe my own classroom? It's a great argument for videotaping class sessions, and going back over them later, to pick up the small cues that I missed in the moment. Does anyone do this? What did you find out?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My new friend TED

So, I've just crawled out of my cave, where I've clearly been living, to learn about TED. I'm pretty amazed it's been around for so long without my notice.

You've heard about it, no doubt. But just in case, you, too, are a cave-dweller, here's the story in brief:

At the annual TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, speakers are asked to speak about one big idea for 18 minutes. No more, no less. (I haven't yet found the reason for this specific number, so if you know, fill me in.) It started in the 80s with people who were connected to the Silicon Valley, so the ideas shared were largely about technology and design. But the concept has evolved to encompass the scope of human thought and endeavor, so the speakers now come from a huge variety of disciplines. They speak before a live audience, and then their talks are disseminated on the web. Because, as the tag line goes, they are "ideas worth spreading."

You know how once you know about something, you suddenly see it absolutely everywhere? This has been my experience with TED. They just had their 2010 conference, so it makes sense that there is an up-tick in internet traffic about it.

For example, I read about Jamie Oliver's 18 minutes on educating children about healthy food on a couple of Blogs I Love, Teacher Tom and Bakers and Astronauts. Then, a friend forwarded to me a link to Aimee Mullins stunningly great 18 minutes on making use of adversity. And then, someone on Facebook posted Sir Ken Robinson's compelling 18 minutes, in which he asks if schools kill creativity. Intrigued, I dug into the TED archives on their website, and found another education-related 18 minutes from Dave Eggers that I'd love for you to see.

18 minutes is just long enough to cover the topic, but short enough to feel like you can just sit and watch one (or two) without clearing your schedule. (By the way, the TED site seems to offer some 6-minute and even 3-minute presentations, too.)

I can tell my beautiful new relationship with TED is just getting started. What are your favorite TED talks?

A side note: the Sir Ken Robinson talk was posted by a very socially conservative Facebook friend of mine. I wasn't sure that I'd relate to a view of education that this friend agreed with enough to post in his status. As it turned out, I loved what Sir Robinson had to say, which reminded me that my sources for inspiration and growth can surprise me, and it's best for me to keep an open mind. This, I would venture to say, is what the spirit of TED is all about.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Heavy lifting for your book list

A couple of months ago, I read Johnathon Kozol's Letters to a Young Teacher, and I promised myself I would read more of his sobering work.

So, I read Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. (It came out in 2005, so I bet many of you have read this.) I thought while reading, why haven't I heard this perspective more frequently, from more quarters? Why aren't we talking about this? Indeed, it's a question that Kozol poses himself toward the end of the book. "It's hidden in plain view," he says.

In brief, his point is this: too many black schoolchildren go to schools that are nearly 100% African American, with very high rates of poverty, with extremely low graduation rates and even lower college admission rates, with over-crowded classrooms and decrepit facilities. This has the effect of cutting them off from the mainstream of American society, which carries over from their school days into limited opportunities in their adult lives.

While I was reading this book, someone saw the cover and said to me, "Apartheid? Well, that's overstating it a little, isn't it?" I didn't say anything at the time, as I had just begun, and I honestly wasn't yet sure if I thought Kozol was overstating his case or not.

Now that I have read it, I do not think Kozol is overstating the separation of the races in American public schools today, nor the negative impact of that separation. "Apartheid" is a razor-sharp word, and makes readers extremely uncomfortable--a reaction, no doubt, that Kozol and his editors were specifically going for when they chose the title and stark cover design for this book.

Interestingly, though, the prose within doesn't match the cover. Kozol is an excellent writer and debater, highly skilled at probing points and dismantling opposing viewpoints, but he is not shrill or coarse as this cover might lead you to expect. Instead of being hammered with angry discourse, I found passionate but polite discussion. It's a really good read, and vitally important to anyone interested in a macro view of the American public education system.

Which should be every American citizen, you know what I mean?

I am really interested in how much Kozol's position on how to intercede for black schoolchildren is in direct contrast to the ideas laid out by Mike Feinburg and Dave Levin (founders of KIPP schools), and other educators who have created highly structured curricula for inner-city children living in poverty. I also recently read Jay Matthews' book Work Hard, Be Nice, which chronicles the development of the KIPP system of schools. I thought that was a fascinating must-read, too. I love the accomplishments of the KIPP schools, and I admire the work and determination of the KIPP educators. But how excited can I get about a program in which I would not want my own two children to enroll? I want nurturing education for my kids. I want open-ended exploration of ideas, and I don't get that impression from KIPP or other programs that are similar to it. Do I think that the needs of inner city children in poverty are really so different from my suburban kids?

Kozol is emphatic that their needs are not different, and that poor black children should get the same forward-thinking education that administrators and teachers tend to arrange for their own children.

I'm thinking this over. I know I have much to learn. I feel a heady level of discomfort talking about the educational needs of inner city children, as I have just a little direct experience (I used to teach a parenting class for teen mothers in an alternative high school in west Dayton). But I also feel that my discomfort is a pretty good indicator that I should read and think more about race, poverty, education, social justice, where they intersect and where they don't and what is our next step.

Read it and let's talk!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The classic roots and wings debate

As I learn about and think about emergent curriculum and the project approach, I wonder about that boundary.

You know the one? The dividing line between how much to direct an activity, and how much to stay quiet and see what develops. When to step in and when to step back. What to limit, and what to purposefully free from limitations.

I'm reminded of the swallows that used to annually built their nest just outside my parents' bedroom window. My parents would lay on their bed and watch the swallows busily craft their new home. Every year they followed a certain pattern somehow passed down to them in bird lore. But the new nest was also a distinct creation, suited to the materials they had at hand, and possibly (may I anthropomorphize?) suited to their own sense of beauty.

Except one year, the swallows got disorganized. They didn't seem to know what to do, my parents reported, and while they worked and worked, they never did come up with a nest that hung together.

I think about balancing this dual need for pattern and no pattern constantly during our Odyssey of the Mind meetings, and it's in the back of my mind as I study early childhood education.

Children need something to start with. A framework. A template. A paradigm. But it must be structured just enough to stimulate creativity without clipping it.

I've recently found Marla McLean's teaching blog, and her long-term dream house project helped me a great deal in thinking about this boundary. She gave very specific rules to follow at some steps along the journey, and then some steps were as wide open as the ocean. She also started with a story, so that the children were all working from a shared frame of reference.

The results are breathtaking, but it's really the process that is so beautiful. Have a look here, here, here, and here to follow the evolution of their dream houses. Oh, heck, just read the whole blog. And if it's taking a moment longer than usual to load, it's because of the gorgeous photos she posts, and they are worth waiting for.

AND, they are not done yet. Now they are writing about their dream houses.

Thanks, Marla!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

In the key of snow

The snow fairies came for a picnic.

More snow, another foot or so, is due any time now. The refrigerator, the book basket, and the craft supplies are all well stocked. My own little family is doing just fine in the biggest snow in DC in 90 years, but I worry about the people in my town who are out of power, or who are sick, or who must go to work. I know how fortunate we are.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Emu teeth and other internet lies

This is a real emu. See his beak?

This is fake.

You probably knew that, but allow me to share a little story.

My daughter is doing a report on an animal in her 2nd grade class, and she chose an emu. She wanted an animal 1, with a funny-sounding name, and 2, that she knew nothing about before doing the report. I admired both those reasons.

So we sat down at my laptop together and went to a few reputable sites on animals, and she wrote down some facts on emus.

Then she decided to print out a couple of pictures. We went to google images, she typed in "emu," and picture #2 above was the first one that popped up.

Wow! We said. That's astonishing, I said. I explained to her how surprised I was, because I'd never heard of a bird with teeth before, let alone canine teeth, and we talked about how the kind of teeth you have shows what kind of food you eat. I said I was surprised that what we'd read so far hadn't mentioned anything about teeth, and we needed to do some more research. I was thinking of the platypus which is only one of two mammals on the planet that lays eggs, and the platypus is also from Australia, so could the emu be another example of species blending that I'd never heard of? The sad truth, gentle reader, is that I bought it. Of course this emu with teeth is just someone online having a bit of fun and doctoring photos.

So we did further research and found out we'd been had.

I was embarrassed, but this was a teachable moment if I'd ever seen one, so I called to my 4th grade son, and we all studied this photo carefully and talked about how real it looks. Never, I said, think that just because it's online, it's true. Especially stuff drawn randomly in a google search. There is a wealth of wonderful and useful information, but there is also a whole flotilla of silly jokes and downright lies, and it's up to us to check and double check any information gleaned from the internet.

And other sources of information too, for that matter.

I hope they remember this. Ha! I hope I do, too!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Leaders in education

I have a cool assignment this semester in my policy class: I need to select a leader in education, research his or her life and work, and write a profile.

Who are some heroes of yours? Who do you recommend?

[not] an ode to passive voice

One of my textbooks has been written entirely in the passive voice. Assessment has been chosen as the subject matter. Coma has been slipped into. Disbelief is registered that editing wasn't applied. Teeth are grinding.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pen, paper, and a new idea

I love my teaching literacy class. Today, in small groups, we went through a stack of student writing samples. We talked about the stages represented in the writing:

pre-phonemic: strings of letters or near-letters without any attempt at word groupings

early phonemic: some matches of initial consonants with their corresponding phoneme, evidence of word groupings

phonetic: letters represent phonemes, some evidence of knowledge of sentence structure, beginning, middle, and end consonants, often readable by others without assistance from the author

transitional: a vowel in every syllable, a lot of phonemic accuracy, accurate spelling on sight words, attempts at other conventions

conventional: most conventions of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and syntax in place

But these stages are points on a continuum, of course. Thinking of a writing sample in a particular stage is only helpful if we're not too rigid about it.

There is a big emphasis in this class on teaching writing as an essential part of the literacy package--we don't teach only reading, but reading and writing together. Like cross-training for an athlete--training in one sport builds skills in the other, and vice-versa.

My happiest memories in school involved a pen, paper, and a new idea. The freedom! The possibilities!
I love those early writings so much--the intense labor. The inventiveness. The brave willingness to say, well, I don't know much about this, but I'm willing to give it a go.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Helping children help Haiti

We adults may donate to Haiti relief and get involved in bigger, more direct ways, but I'm intrigued by some of the small ideas people have out there. Because small donations add up.

My children's elementary school is collecting coins. This encourages the children to give from their own piggy banks--a size of donation that's in their grasp. But all of it together will add up to something.

I'm reminded of a favorite quote of mine:

I am only one
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything.
But still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
- Edward Everett Hale

Monday, January 25, 2010

a note about home

This piece is called "Never Leave Home Behind," an original painting by an artist in El Paso named Danita (she goes by her first name only). This one is sold out, but you can see her other work in her Etsy shop, here.
My husband and I just bid on a little house in our neighborhood (we rent right now). We have moved A LOT, and settling down feels so good, I hardly have words for it. We don't actually have our offer approved, so I'll keep you posted, but I have a good feeling about it.
We decided to go with a cozy, 1944 cape cod that needs a lot of TLC, but is on a wonderful, treed lot on a dead end street. We have friends on this street, and there are a dozen or more kids, and it's walking distance to our schools, the Metro, and a little bevy of shops and restaurants called Westover village here in Arlington.
It's going to require jettisoning some of this stuff we've accumulated over the years so that we can shoehorn ourselves in there, but honestly, that sounds good. Purge. Simplify. Lighten up. Settle in. Come home.
My fingers are crossed.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A tale of two classes

I have two classes on Thursdays, back to back, and they just met for the first time yesterday.

Boy, is that pairing going to be interesting.

The first is called Assessment. I had a chip on my shoulder when I walked into the room, because I didn't feel happy that 3 credits of this 32 credit program are on assessment alone. This spoke volumes to me of where current public education priorities lie.

But (I bet you saw this coming) the first class already challenged my preconceived notions and forced me to think more deeply about the big picture of assessment, not just the standardized, high-stakes kind that were on my mind. There will be a lot of discussion in this class about informal assessment, and how to use it to evaluate my own teaching. This is a focus that makes sense to me. And regarding standardized testing, the sharp and extremely prepared professor said: "There are rules to follow that are in state law, and I will help you understand them, because you are a professional, and you must know the law."

Okay. 10 minute sprint across campus, and I'm in my Education Policy class. The welcoming, engaging professor shows us a documentary about some young students who organize a cross country trip for their friend with Duchenne's Muscular Dystrophy, which becomes an awareness-building tool for wheelchair accessibility and a fundraising tool for DMD research. How their own awareness grew and how they built their coallition was meant as a model for our work in education. She said this: "Anyone who works with young children is an advocate. You are an advocate, and you need to understand policy, so if someone tells you, well, that's the policy and we can't change it, you'll know whether that's true or not."

All five of my classes this semester are challenging and useful, but the juxtaposition of these two classes--these two roles to envision myself in--is likely to break open my head to a lot of new ideas. Break open my heart, too.

PS. I highly recommend that film, Darius Goes West. It's a powerful story, a marvelous cause, and it manages to still be light-hearted and joyful while it takes on a heavy issue. There is no cure for DMD, a genetic disease. It is 100% fatal to the children, mostly boys, who are born with it, and they normally die in their late teens or very early twenties. I just checked, and it doesn't seem to be on Netflix, but I bet it will be in a good public library in your area. Or, if you choose to buy it for $20, $17 of that will go to Charley's Fund, which is working to find a cure within the current DMD kids' generation. Check it out here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A new semester begins

I went back to school today; it's the first day of Spring semester at George Mason University. My break was long enough that I felt rusty and unsure of myself again. I could handle all my classes last time, but can I this time?

It feels a little like taking in a deep breath, and letting it out in mid-May.

So I went to class with a little of the first-day jitters, but now that I'm on my way again, I'm relieved. Clearly, I'm doing what I should be doing, because I love it. I'm one semester closer to my teaching license. My sense of purpose is very strong as I commute on the Metro, as I find my way to class, as I take my notes and ask my questions.

Welcome, Spring semester.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Odyssey of the Mind

I'm the coach for my 4th grade son's Odyssey of the Mind team. While I mean to mostly discuss EARLY childhood eduation in this space, Odyssey is so eye-opening for me, and such an amazing education journey, that I want to share a little about it here, even though the participants are a few years older.

Have you heard of Odyssey of the Mind? A quick overview: in the 70s, a professor of engineering at a community college in New Jersey wanted to get his students excited about their end of semester projects, so he staged a contest. The students loved it, and stimulated by the friendly and open-ended competition, they created some stunning projects. He did it the next year, and then they competed against another college, then some local high schools got involved...and now it's an international non-profit that organizes regional, state, and a world competition each year for kids from Kindergarten through college.

Each team of 4 to 7 kids is given an open ended problem. They have 8 minutes to perform their solution at the competition. To get there, they must work together, learn through trial and error, and dream big.

The white-hot center of the Odyssey experience is a rule called "no outside assistance." This means coach, parents, teachers, siblings, friends--we must all keep quiet. The team and only the team dreams it, plans it, builds it, and performs it. The kids totally own it, from beginning to end.

As coach, I am there to watch for safety issues, to gently remind them of the passing of time, and to make sure that every team member's voice is being heard. Mostly, I'm there to learn. Sometimes I have to cover my mouth with both hands to keep a suggestion from popping out. But I know from experience (this is my fourth year coaching) that if I resist that urge and see what the kids come up with, they will eventually figure out what I had noticed. Or--and this is the magic--what they figure out far outstrips my conventional, ho-hum, grown-up idea.

In Odyssey, the shy perform, the boisterous focus, the artist calculates, the planner dreams. The kids exceed their own expectations. And the adults pray a lot, because all this magic looks exactly like chaos until impossibly late in the game.

This year my son's team is building aircraft that perform different kinds of flights. I'm so worried, because they've talked so much and build so little and the competition marches nearer every day. And at the same time, I'm not worried at all. Ah, Odyssey.

Read more about the program at http://www.odysseyofthemind.com/

Thursday, January 7, 2010

How young is too young for the SAAM?

Edited to mention that this sublime painting is "The Girl I Left Behind" by Eastman Jackson, on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.

I don't go back to class for another week, so I've been filling my days with the kinds of stuff that is hard to get done when the semester is in full swing: I took the car in for a tune-up, went to the dentist, deep-cleaned the fridge...that kind of thing.

But I also went on a field trip with my son's 4th grade class to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I am so grateful any chance I get to go on a trip with them. Especially an art museum! Especially THIS art museum! Just to be in that building (the third oldest in DC, home of the first patent office, locale of President Lincoln's inaugural ball, home of the stunning new Kogod Courtyard) is enough reason to go, and then the art collection is jaw-dropping. Check it out here.

These fourth graders are getting pretty sophisticated. They were asked to walk through the museum for 1 1/2 hours, pausing to contemplate about 12 different works of art, and they did it. When they were asked for their input, they said things like, "The colors are vibrant." I don't think I knew the word "vibrant" in the 4th grade, ya know? They were great kids, a pleasure to tour with, and I think most of them gained a lot from the experience.

Since I am studying the education of little guys, they were on my mind as we made our way through the SAAM. Could I bring Kindergarteners here? What would I show them? How long could they last? What could I do in advance to prepare them?

My children's school takes the Kindergarteners to the farm. (And that's a terrific field trip. We all love it. Nothing wrong with going to the farm.) It's not until 4th grade that they take them to the art museum. And that seems reasonable to me.

But I didn't always live in the shadow of the Washington Monument. I'm a relative newcomer here, so I'm keenly aware of what a gift it is to be able to hop on a school bus, gaze at a few American treasures, and be back in time for lunch. You can go to a farm in virtually any corner of the US, but there are unique opportunities available when you live here.

So, how could I prepare a group of really young students to get something out of a resource like the SAAM? Perhaps we could study a particular medium, and try it many times ourselves, and talk about the life of a particular artist....and THEN go on the field trip. And only see two or three things before we regroup in the Courtyard (which is its own artistic achievement) to engage in a portable art project of some kind, and a snack. Then perhaps view one more work, then get back on the bus. And go on a January weekday, as we did, when we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

Have you tried taking little ones to a place like this, that requires prepping? How did it go? Does it sound like a good use of time and energy?