Sunday, March 27, 2011

Push down

I wanted to make sure you saw this article over at Slate. I didn't know about these two, independent studies on the importance of play in early childhood, and I am really glad to know about them and their consistent but independently reached conclusions that play is essential. Two more studies to point to in the growing body of data calling for a focus on play in early childhood education.

I think about this issue every day, about the pushing down of curriculum. I think about how my pre-K classroom for at-risk four-year-olds is what many people envision a Kindergarten classroom to be. I bend over backwards to keep our learning fun and hands-on and full of light-hearted exploration, but I'm still asking them to come meet me in what I have designed, and it normally involves numbers, letters, and concepts that they are expected to know before they get to Kindergarten in my school district. I jealously guard their precious self-directed time, but it's still not enough in a day of so much curriculum to get through. I think about how many middle-class peers of my low-income students, in their private preschools around town, are getting lots of richly resourced, free exploration time.

There are times when I'm proud of what my students are learning and all the fun they're having while they're learning, and then there are times (when I read this article for instance) and I think, yowza, my program is part of the problem.

I have a lot to think about.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


I was getting to the point where I hated rest time. We would be on the playground, running and playing and getting fresh air, and I would already start to dread going inside, because it meant minutes on end of policing a wiggly group of pre-K children who would rather do anything, anything, than lay quietly on their mats. I tried offering them books. One book. Two books. Unlimited books as long as you stay on your mat. I tried little stuffed animal friends. I tried passing out everyone's journal. I tried letting them choose their own spots, and I tried assigning spots. I tried music and no music. I tried singing a little ritual song as they lay down. I tried guided relaxation. I tried stern looks. I tried shaking a little egg shaker when they were too loud (which was always). The only thing left, the thing I'm not permitted to do, was to get rid of rest altogether.

Besides, they are only four, and a whole day at school is a very long time when you are four, so a true rest would be a good thing. If only I could figure out how. Instead, they were subverting any rest rule I made, and I was spending a chunk of each afternoon in the role of police officer, which is by far my least favorite role. I would sit at my computer and try to accomplish something (this is supposedly my planning time/lunch break, because they are supposedly asleep), and chaos would erupt behind me. (Sadly, I have a built-in wall desk in my classroom, so having my back to the action while I'm at my desk is not something I can fix.) I hated rest and so did they.

It was time to try something completely different. It just wasn't working as read aloud time, so I recast it as read aloud time. I read aloud to my own children at home almost every day, even though they are now eight and eleven years old, and it's something I love to do. I can read aloud quite happily for long stretches of time.

I told the children that today there won't be books to look at, or animals, or journals. Today I would read a book that's just words, no pictures. They will lay on their mats just like statues and listen, just like a statue stands in a garden and listens to the birds. Then I read aloud from a book of fairy tales.

On the first day I tried this, seven children out of fourteen fell asleep. This is up from zero. And the other seven were as quiet as, well, as statues. The next day, nine fell asleep. The next day, eleven, out cold. My wonderful assistant, who is out of the room for most of this on her lunch break, says that listening to me read fairy tales in our darkened room, in my purposefully lilting voice, is hypotic, as if we are all in Sleeping Beauty's castle under a deep spell.

I love rest now. True, I'm still not ticking anything off of my endless to-do list, but I am getting a mental break, a dose of deep quiet, and a journey to never never land in the middle of my day. More importantly, the children are, too. The rest of the afternoon, after we open the blinds and fold away our mats, is noticably smoother.

Now the number of sleepers tends to hover around nine or ten. Today, one child asked me if we were having rest (we don't have it on Wednesday due to an early dismissal, so he was making sure today was a normal day). Yes, I said, and he said, yay! My clearest indicator yet that I'm onto something. Something hypotic.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Society's preschool investment: a bargain

I love reminding people I meet that while Virginia spends millions to run the Virginia Preschool Initiative (the program in which I teach), to prepare 4-year-olds from low income families for Kindergarten, that's actually a bargain.

Sounds like Mr. Bernanke thinks so, too.

"In the long run...the most important fiscal issue is whether the structure and composition of the government budget best serves the public interest. Research increasingly has shown the benefits of early childhood promote the lifelong acquisition of skills for both individuals and the economy as a whole."

- Ben S. Bernanke, Federal Reserve Chairman

Saturday, March 5, 2011

parents and teachers and conferences

I just held my first round of parent/teacher conferences with the parents of my pre-Kindergarten students. In some ways this felt extraneous, since I see these parents every day when they pick up their children (it so happens that I don't have any bus riders this year). But in other ways it felt absolutely essential, because most of them speak Spanish as a first language, and my Spanish is only good enough for a casual conversation, not for an in-depth discussion. (I am working on this. I need to improve my Spanish, stat.) At the conferences, we have time devoted just to that one family, and I have a translator, and I have materials ready for them to see and for us to talk about. So it's very useful and very artificial at the same time.

To cut down on the artificial quality of it, I try to keep it as conversational as possible. I greet them at the door, to communicate that they are my welcome guests, not an appointment. I offer them cookies and water. I sit next to them so we can look at the portfolio and discuss it together, not across the table from them like I'm conducting a job interview. I ask them if they have questions or concerns or comments, so I'm not talking the whole time.

I've been the parent in this equation at many, many parent/teacher conferences, and I would have liked (and occasionally received) this kind of treatment. But the bottom line, what I always wanted to know (especially when mine were really small, as the children in my class are) was this: is my child loved? Is my child safe? Does my child have friends?

So that's the message with which I start and end the session. I'm so glad to be your child's teacher. I love your child. Your child is safe here. Your child has friends. Frankly, how many letters your child knows, or how high your child can count, feels like small potatoes compared with that. Or, perhaps what I mean is that any academic issues feel solvable after that.

I'm humbled after all these women and men up-ended their schedules to sit down with me and attend so carefully to every word I said. I'm reminded what a huge gift and responsibility I have to care for and educate their little ones, every day. It's the way I feel about all my own children's teachers. I am trusting them with so much.

My parenting life informs my teaching life every day.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The book that has it all

Well, no book has it all, and that's why we need a million, but The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Erik Carle comes pretty close. Sometimes I think I could develop a year's pre-K curriculum around it.

Rich vocabulary? Check.
Rhythmic text? Check.
Colors? Check.
Counting? Check.
Growing pattern? Check.
Shapes? Check.
Days of the week? Check.
Opposites (little, big, hungry, full)? Check.
Science lesson on metamorphosis? Check.
Science lesson on the effect of healthy and unhealthy foods? Check.
Social studies lesson about the value of restraint? Check.
Gorgeous collage artwork to study, discuss, and try for ourselves? Check.
Big guffaw laugh on the Saturday page? Check!

I love this book. Mr. Carle, thanks.