Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Time to Watch the Snowflakes

Let me take a moment to describe my morning as a twin mama before I write about all the things I did wrong in my Heartfelt H lesson today...

My kids overslept today, and since I use them as my alarm clock, I also overslept.  I enjoyed the extra 18 minutes of rest, but that 18 minutes in bed meant a somewhat frenzied morning and a break from our normal routine.  The change-up frustrated my son, who most certainly did not want to get dressed before he ate his breakfast, and his tantrum frustrated me as I swept through the house picking up toys, piling laundry, checking my kids' backpacks, and collecting materials for my H lesson.  By the time we were crying our way to the car, I barely noticed the snow falling outside.  I certainly didn't think to grab a broom or ice scraper - or my snow jacket and mittens.  It wasn't until I pulled into the school parking lot, ready to teach my first preschool lesson, that I realized my car would be sitting in the lot for the next 2.5 hours and that I would need to clean it off in order to drive home.  I sighed as I looked at the blanket of snow already on the ground and the man in his warm hat and jacket shoveling the walks of the preschool.  I figured I would end up having a title for my blog today - something along the lines of  "why my fingers fell off from frostbite."  Luckily, the falling snow was wet and heavy, and it didn't stick to the car.  Thank goodness, or I would be typing this blog with nubs.

The heavy snow altered the morning lesson today as my mentor teacher seized a teachable moment and ushered the children, armed with borrowed mittens and black construction paper, outside.   Like the kids, I was fascinated by the snowflakes that landed on our paper.  Of course, after last week, I now know that a snowflake has six sides, and after today, I truly understand the beauty of these crystal creations.  "I got a perfect one" became our class cheer, and we huddled around the paper to admire the snow.  Catching snowflakes gave me new perspective on nature's creation.

Back inside, it was time for my Heartfelt H lesson.  I had no time to think, or to worry, as the children slid around the table and I spread out the supplies. 

"What are we making today?" a child exclaimed.

"An H," another answered.

My mentor teacher helped me settle the class. Off balance, I took a breath, trying to remember the routine I had practiced in my head. 

"When you come to the table, remember to put your name in the bucket," I began.  Then I demonstrated cutting the H.  "An H has a lot of straight lines," I said aloud as I made the cuts.  "I think it is easiest to cut into the paper on both lines and then turn the paper to cut the last line."  I snipped the first hole away. 

"What do I have here?"  Answers of "square" and "rectangle" filled my ears as I held up the paper that was not a perfect square.  I explained how it was close to a square, but not quite, and I wondered whether I should have measured the H to make it more clearly one or the other.  I flipped my H to the other side, asking the children to help me remember how I had cut the first set of lines. 

With my H cut, I said, "Do you know what I notice about an H?  It is the same on both sides."  Before I could prompt them for the word, a girl next to me exclaimed, "It's symmetrical!"  I smiled and moved to the pile of heart stickers on the table.  My mentor teacher reminded me to write my name on the back, a routine I had forgotten in the flow of the lesson.

"That's right, and since it's symmetrical, I think I will decorate my H symmetrically.  I'm going to try to make it the same on both sides."  It's not easy to create a symmetrical H on the fly, I realized, and by the time I had 6 hearts on my H, I felt that it was time to move the lesson along.  As a final invitation, I offered to help them write "H" words on the rectangles that they cut.  I demonstrated by drawing a hat and labeling it "HAT."

In writing that word, I reverted to the only knowledge I had working with young children.  My own kids have been working on capital letters, and I write mostly upper-case words with them.  My mentor teacher reminded me to use little letters, something I will need to start doing at home as well as in school. 

With only 6 stickers, visually my H was boring, but the children surpassed my model, creating vibrantly decorated letters.  Some of them were symmetrical, and a few children realized that they could flip the H and decorate the back due to its symmetry, something that had not occurred to me in my lesson planning.  Their creativity and insight surpassed  my expectations, and their final products were truly eye-catching.  About half of the children drew pictures of "H" words on their disposed rectangles, and by the end of the lesson we had a stack of words to add to our class list.  Unfortunately, I spelled all of those words with a capital H.  I'm still learning...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Heartfelt H

I am teaching tomorrow, a lesson I've never taught before.  I'm teaching the letter H.

Tomorrow I will be demonstrating the craft, where the children will cut out the letter H and decorate it with Hearts.  I prepped for the lesson today by designing my template H (harder than it sounds), cutting it out, and tracing it on 15 pieces of construction paper.  I also watched my mentor teacher with an eagle eye while she demonstrated today's craft.  I noticed how she reminded them of routines, including putting their name stick in the jar to show they had completed the craft and writing their name on the paper before beginning the activity.  These are reminders I hope I don't forget tomorrow.

Then she modeled the construction of the houses that the children would create today.  Like any composition, the children had to plan ahead, visualizing their homes in their minds and selecting roofs, doors, and windows in the appropriate colors.  This type of planning is something I have noticed each day during the craft activity, which I have come to think of as "composition" time.  The teachers help the children plan ahead and select the tools that will help them create their final products.

While my mentor glued her own house together, talking aloud her decisions, I wondered whether she would keep the product she was creating.  Would she save it to show the students next year?  Would it serve as a model, a sample product for the same lesson?  I realized, however, that a model product wouldn't be needed in future lessons.  What the mentor teacher was demonstrating for these young writers was process, not product, and no matter how many houses she might have filed away from years past, next year, she will make another.  How can I, as a teacher of writing, take this realization into my own classroom?  Is it enough simply to write with my students and to model my own process and share my products?

I will continue to ponder these questions as I work with my teacher-ed students this semester.  Tomorrow, however, I will embrace the process, showing my preschoolers how to compose a heartfelt H.  Maybe I'll suggest that they make them symmetrical...

A snowflake has six sides

Things I learned at preschool last week:

Symmetrical is a hard word to say - and an important concept to teach.

Password, the game, has educational merit.

Four-year-olds can do their homework on the computer.

And all snowflakes have six sides.

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One of the best things about visiting another teacher's classroom is  finding tips and tricks for my own teaching.  I steal and tweak regularly, and I advise my teacher education students to do the same.  I truly believe that the best teachers borrow ideas from other great teachers and adapt them to their own contexts.

Last week, I put a new phrase in my toolkit.  As the children were finishing their snowmen, decorating the cutouts with various crafts, my mentor teacher asked them to name their creation.  Most children provided a name immediately.  A few thought carefully before announcing a name.  Some names were rather creative.  Other names mirrored the child's own.

As the last child, a boy who cares deeply about "getting it right," even at the age of 4, handed his finished snowman to the teacher, she asked for its name.  He stood there, looking back and forth,  unable to offer a word.  I watched as my mentor sent him off to play, to "think about it," away from the pressure of the task.  She and I proceeded to clean the table and put away the craft supplies, and just before she moved the class into the next portion of the morning, she called to the boy:  "Thinking time is over."

I love the phrase, and I love the notion of letting a student off the hook, of letting him or her have some "thinking time."  As a writer sometimes I struggle for the words, and a break from the task sometimes helps.  For this young writer, all he needed was thinking time.  He returned to the table and named his snowman.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

I want to do the spot

I have been experimenting with reflective blogging in my teacher education classes.  I ask my students to post thoughts about their teaching experiences and to consider their practice in relation to, or in contrast to, theory and research that they read for class.  Reflection is an important part of learning to be an effective teacher, and I hope to practice what I preach by reflecting on my experiences teaching preschool in the next few months. 


This week, I observed the concept of "the period" being born.  Until I saw it happen, I had never thought about how children come to understand "the spot."  For me, periods just exist.  I know that children need to learn about sentence boundaries.  In fact, I explain this idea in my "emergent and early literacy" lessons in my teacher education classes.  But until Thursday, I never thought about how, or when, this conceptual awareness of language becomes something tangible to children.  When do they notice "the spot," and when do they begin to use it in their own writing?

As my mentor teacher modeled the writing activity for the day, she explained to the children that they were to draw a picture of something they liked to do in winter.  After they had finished their picture, one of the teachers would help them write a story on the lines at the bottom of the paper.  Again, she modeled the process and wrote her own one-sentence story.  At the end of the sentence, of course, she put a period. 

Before she could move on, one child asked, "Why did you put the dot?"  The question surprised me for its simplicity and for its import.  By noticing the period, this young girl was moving forward in her understanding of print literacy.  I was excited to see how the lesson unfolded.

The teacher explained to the children that a period ends a sentence, and she offered to show them later in a book that they were reading.  It was a beautifully organic moment of mechanics instruction, and I was even more amazed to see its impact as the children wrote their own stories.  One little girl emphasized to the teacher writing her story to "put the dot" at the end of her sentence.  Another child said emphatically, "I want to do the spot!"  He happily took the marker and made his own period after the teacher wrote his sentence.

Perhaps the key for the success with this concept is that it was, seemingly, an unplanned lesson.  It grew out of one child's astute question, and other children were eager to learn and apply the knowledge.  I continue to wonder how we can inspire these types of questions in children - and in adolescents.  How do we encourage them to want to make the spot?

Snow Day

My second day of preschool was a SNOW DAY!  Instead of entering the world of four-year-olds, I learned exactly how difficult it is to be the mother of two preschoolers when it snows.  My son was excited to play in the snow; he has been asking to go outside since the blizzard three weeks ago.  Timing and weather hadn't yet permitted it, and I couldn't devise a legitimate excuse this week.  After all, childhood in winter is all about playing in the snow.

So I pulled on my long johns and turtleneck and dug out the kids' snow pants.  By the time I had found everything, my daughter was throwing a fit because she did not want to go outside.  Alone with the kids (my husband was clearing the driveway), I told her exactly what I had just said silently to myself - "Winter is about playing in the snow.  You are going outside."

Learning from my friends, whose statuses have documented their frustration at having bundled their children only to have someone yell the dreaded words, "I have to go potty," I started our dressing routine with a trip to the bathroom.  It was my son's turn to throw a fit.  He regularly attempts to control his life, and mine, by choosing when and where he goes potty.  My request pre-snow play did not fit into his scheme.

But eventually they both had finished in the bathroom and by some miracle after my son was dressed in his snow pants, my daughter decided that she, too, wanted to play in the snow.  Bundling them, although tiring, was relatively easy, and after I gave up trying to get the "thumb in the thumb hole and fingers all together" and just shoved the mittens over their hands, we trekked outside. 

As I hiked up and down our hill, making a sled track, dragging the sled, and carrying a child, I ignored the cold and thought only of the calories I was burning.  Surprisingly, I enjoyed our time in the snow, and by the time we were ready to come in out of the cold, my sitter had arrived.  I was free to focus on my "to accomplish over my winter 'break'" list that is conveniently written on "sticky notes" on my computer.  (My favorite function on my new Windows 7 machine, btw.)  Having stayed home due to the weather, my husband set up shop in my home office.  Together, and independently, we worked the rest of the day away.  He called clients, returned messages, and monitored the market.  I wrote a grant.  Both of us dealt with interruptions from the kids as they peeked in the office, opened the door and requested our attention.

Throughout the day, as I toiled with the words and numbers on my computer silently, my husband commented several times on how hard he was working.  I ignored most of what he said, figuring he was somehow sending me a message that his job was hard.  But I already know that he works hard.  I also know that he doesn't truly understand the stresses and difficulties of my job and that he sometimes thinks that because I work often from home that I somehow don't work as hard.

Spending the day together in my office helped him to see that I do, indeed, work hard.  At the end of our afternoon together, he said, "You work hard.  You've been sitting there quietly working all afternoon."  With my back to him, I smiled as I hit the send button on the grant I had finished writing.  Then I turned to him and said, "I work hard every day.  This is what I do for my job."

He nodded and closed his laptop, leaving the room to change into workout clothes.  I stayed in the office, tackling my to-do list, for another hour before I ended my snow day.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A lot to learn

The day started with table top play. I scanned the little faces, seeking the one I felt confident to approach, the one who least intimidated me.  Nervous, I sucked in a breath and approached two girls at the writing table, their backs to me.  Instinctively, and from years of practice coaching writing with adolescents sitting at their desks, I knelt to ask the girls, "How's it going?"  Though this is the opening, stolen from Carl Anderson, that I use with older students, I didn't utter it today.  Instead, I asked the first girl if I could see the picture she was coloring.  She showed me sweetly, and I asked her name.  Her smile captured my heart.  I turned to her partner to see that she had written her own name on a piece of paper, which she was preparing to put inside an envelope to be "mailed", via her backpack, to her parents.  I said, perfectly amazed, "Wow, you wrote your whole name.  That's a lot of letters."  She replied, "I only write little r's.  I don't know how to make a big R."

I paused.  Was she asking for my help?  Should I show her how to make a big R?  Would I be breaking preschool protocol to do so?  I asked her, "Do you want to know how to make a big R?"  She said, "My mom is teaching me."  By this time the other girl had finished coloring her purple tree and waved it proudly in my face.  "Look," she said.  "It's done."  She turned away.  I wasn't needed at the writing table anymore.

So I gathered my courage and approached a group of boys at the play dough table top.  I hate play dough.  I refuse to play it with my kids because I cannot stand when the colors get jumbled.  It's one of the few ways my inner OCD materializes.  But today, looking at just one lump of green play dough, I slid my way to the table.  I sat down next to a small boy with deep brown eyes, and I asked his name.  Then I turned to the other two boys at the table to get their names.  By the time I had committed the three to memory, the first boy handed me a ball of green dough.  "It's a meatball," he said.  "I made it for you."

He and his cronies proceeded, at my suggestion, to make me a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, and I realized that within 10 minutes of being in the classroom, these children had accepted me, had welcomed me into their community, and had trusted me enough to share their creations.

If only adolescents were so open.

There were many differences between the worlds of preschoolers and adolescents that I noted today, lessons I think high school teachers could learn by visiting their preschool colleagues.  Today's agenda, organized around a specific theme, followed a routine that made the children comfortable, but it also incorporated skill building in an interdisciplinary way.  Morning circle addressed math, science, and language as the children identified the date on the calendar by counting, assessed the weather conditions, and pointed out words on the bulletin board.  Children showed mutual respect - for each other and for the teachers - and demonstrated leadership skills in a low-risk environment.  "Thank you," said the "caboose" as he collected name tags from each child.  The room applauded for his leadership of the pledge of allegiance and patriotic song.The morning circle, non-fiction reading helped the students think about winter.  The ending circle narrative brought this theme and these concepts into a story.  The day was filled with singing and music, dancing and laughter.  In short, it was nothing like the secondary classrooms I have observed where disciplines are parsed, respect is fleeting and hard earned, politeness is mandated if practiced at all, and reading inspires little excitement about a topic.

Throughout my day, it was easy for me to engage with the four-year-olds.  They talked easily.  They answered questions spontaneously.  They asked questions eagerly.  They even told jokes, which somehow made me smile despite their nonsensical punch lines.  I couldn't help but compare my day in preschool to my experiences in secondary schools - and I kept thinking that the upper grades, and I, have a lot to learn from preschool.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Professor Goes to Preschool

I did not go to preschool.  And as research shows, it has seriously impaired my academic success.

Or maybe not.

I sometimes think that my desire to get my PhD was a subconscious effort to overcome those lost two years of formal schooling, but even my advanced degree has not taught me what it means to be a preschooler - or to teach them.

I began writing this blog in an effort to think hard about the various roles I play in life and to help find a balance between the working me and the mom.  Next week, I will blur the lines that I have built between these two selves.  On Tuesday, I am finally going to preschool. 

My three-year-old children amaze me daily as they grow and learn, sponging up information, concepts, and language.  They surprise me so often, and so many times their father and I look at each other incredulously, asking "did you teach him that?"  or "did you know she could do that?"  Somehow these two beings are becoming literate right under my nose, and I'm not entirely sure how I am facilitating this process.


In my teacher-education courses, where I work with middle and high school teachers, I lecture on the foundations of adolescent literacy, which begin in infancy.  Theoretically I know a lot about what young children can do and the rate at which they should progress in language, reading, and writing development.  However, my own children have made me realize that I have very little practical knowledge about how to teach them.  When they are teens, during the times that they allow me to help, I will know what to do, how to begin, and how to troubleshoot.  But I do not have those same strategies at my fingertips for them now.

As a teacher of literacy education, I think it is important for me to understand a range of ages and abilities.  I have over 12 years of experience teaching adolescents and adults.  I have spent extended periods of time working with elementary and middle school students.  I feel comfortable in recommending strategies to teachers of K-16 pupils.  But I have realized that I am missing a piece of my pedagogical knowledge.  I do not have any concept of how to teach preschoolers, children who are ripe to learn and easy to love for their innocence.  And I'm not entirely sure what skills they should learn or how a preschool setting helps them develop literacy skills that will, as research shows, give them a boost academically.

So beginning next week, I am going to explore the world of preschool.  Following my kids to their preschool, which has generously allowed me to enter as an apprentice teacher, I will observe, participate, and learn alongside the 2, 3, and 4 year olds.  With the support of my university chairperson and dean, I will focus a portion of my professional responsibilities this semester on this professional development endeavor.  And while I work with my university students on Monday nights, discussing theory, research, and practice, on Tuesday mornings, I will go to preschool, where I know that my mind will be just as challenged.