Friday, February 25, 2011

A lesson learned on group work

We had a lot to accomplish in a short, two-day week.  As my lead teacher revised the lesson plan, trying to fit in an opportunity for the children to act out Goldilocks and reinforce the "big/medium/small" concepts, I suggested that I do the activity with small groups while she worked on the project.  She agreed to let me try it.

In my mind I structured the activity.  I thought I would call the students in groups of four, assigning each one to a character in the story.  As we recalled the plot together, the group would identify the "big," "medium," and "little" bowl/chair/bed from the cut outs that the teachers had created.  Because my mentor had used the phrase "act out," and because I love theater, I wanted the children to use their voices and bodies in our reconstruction of the story.  For this reason, I set up shop on the rug, rather than at the table in the corner.  I made a list of the students' names so that I could check them off after they had a turn, making sure that every child participated in the activity.  I called the first four children on my list, and as they came eagerly to meet with me, I checked their names. 

Those four checkmarks proved to be the only ones I made.  Things did not go exactly as I had envisioned...

Group work is nothing new to me.  As a student teacher in college, I introduced my mentor teacher to the idea of cooperative learning.  After I planned, implemented and assessed a unit on voting and democracy, where the students nominated, identified, campaigned for, and elected candidates, he said to me, "You're good at this cooperative learning thing.  You should keep doing it."  So I did.  I have routinely used group work at all levels of my teaching, and so it was natural for me to suggest working with small groups in the preschool classroom.  I wasn't prepared for the management issues that my activity would create.

Though I had only called four children to join me on the carpet, several of the others, who were engaged in free play near us, saw the excitement of the activity and wanted to join the group.  I allowed them to do so, and for the first telling of Goldilocks, I had 6 participants.  The numbers actually worked well, as I assigned children to deal with the bowls/chairs/beds, and I was able to assess even more clearly which individual children understood the big/medium/small concept.

After the first time through the story, the children excitedly said, "Now I want to be Goldilocks!" or "I want to do the porridge!"  It was clear that I would not be able to send my original group away to work with a new group, and the activity shifted as the children enjoyed the game.  They moved in and out of our circle at their leisure, a few of them staying for each telling until I wrapped the session.  We had lessons on taking turns and being patient as children waited to play their favorite part.  The game certainly reinforced the concepts of the day, and it allowed me to give individualized instruction to the few students who needed help.  It encouraged play and confidence as the children theatrically called "Who has been sitting in my chair?" in their appropriate character voices.  Overall, it was a great activity.  But it wasn't small group work.

I now understand why so many of the storytelling lessons I've seen at the preschool have been large group activities.  In every class where I have read a story, the children have been captivated.  They love to listen and to retell, and the acting extension of the story engaged them even further.  Though I could have, and perhaps should have, structured the activity so that every child had a turn (I think, as I allowed the children to take over the activity and simply monitored their play, two boys and one girl in the class did not choose to participate), I was so taken with their excitement that I simply abandoned my plan.  And quite frankly, I was so busy assigning roles and guiding the story that I forgot to call to other children to join us.  My list remained hidden behind me on the floor.

Next time I will think harder about how to structure the activity to meet my goals - and theirs. Perhaps in the preschool classroom, the large group would be the better tool for this task.

Twins to 12

My stomach lurched and my heart stopped, just for a moment, when my lead teacher called across the room, "I have to take him to the potty.  Are you good?" 

I looked up from the two children working on tracing Bs and smiled, "No problem," I answered.  Then I surveyed the room.  There were 12 children engaged in a plethora of activity.  A small group near me had set up a restaurant in the kitchen.  Another group was playing with the train set.  A pair of boys had the bucket of toy animals spread across the rug.  Across the room, which suddenly seemed cavernous, two children worked on their craft and two more stood at the easel.  In the space of a second, this mother of twins had gone from my comfort zone, working with two preschoolers at once, to a place of anxiety.

I stood, moving across the room to the craft table, where the children looked like they needed some help.  My gaze swept back to the Bs.  How would I keep them on task while I was across the room?  My gaze swept to the kitchen.  What if they started throwing the food?  I thought their rebellion was imminent with one teacher out of the room.  Rebellion would most certainly happen in a high school classroom under these circumstances, and I've even seen graduate students who have failed to remain on task when I've run back to my office to grab some supplies.

In the two minutes it took for the boy to go to the bathroom, somehow I transitioned two children into the craft and one more into the easel work.  I helped those who were finished to place their work on the drying rack, and I replaced all the supplies the new workers would need.  When my mentor teacher returned, she said, "You're good!"  I didn't feel it.  I felt I had completely abandoned my charges at the B table, but what I realized was that the room continued to run smoothly despite her absence.  The children remained on task, not looking for a way to push their boundaries while their teacher was out of the room. 

Though the preschool classroom is not always a panacea of behaved youth, it is a far cry from the secondary rooms where teens try to work the system and to get away with as much as possible.  Motivation is so much different in these two settings, and I wonder how much can be attributed to age and how much to the demands that we place on students as they mature.  As I picture the sweet faces of the 3- and 4-year-olds, I wonder what they would look like in my high school English classroom a decade from now.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Belly of the B

Reflections on teaching the B:

Today I was in charge of the writing table and accompanying craft.  The goal of the activity was to practice writing a capital B.  My mentor teacher introduced the uppercase and lowercase B during the morning song, where she demonstrated how to write each. 

"You draw a straight line down, and then come back to the top and make one big belly," the children giggled, "and another big belly."  I liked the description, and I stuck with it during my work at the writing table.  Remembering the lesson I had learned last week about teaching children to write letters, I intended to have my charges trace the outline of the B with their fingers and then guide them through the motions demonstrated by their teacher, using the language she had used as they completed the task.  With time running short in the morning, I needed to pair the children for the activity, and I soon realized that tracing and guiding each of them would be difficult.  Instead, I let them trace independently, prompting each of them to "start at the dot and draw a straight line down."  I demonstrated with the crayon before I handed it over.

I know that I cannot expect all of the children to follow my directions independently, but the outcome of the activity leaves me with a glaring question:  Why did every child except one start at the dot, ignore the straight line down, and move immediately to trace the top big belly?


Is it because they inherently know that we read from left to right, so their eyes were taken in that direction?
Is it because they like the curve, or perhaps the image of the "big belly"?
Or is there something else going on here?

It would seem to me that drawing the straight line would be easier than the curve  - my son who has a curvy letter in his name routinely complains that the curves are "hard."  I continue to be stumped by what happened, and I wish that I had thought sooner to reinforce the drawing of a B by having them sponge paint their craft as if they were writing the B itself.  Though the children had fun with the paint, decorating their Bs in 13 unique ways, perhaps my goal would have been better met by giving a little less freedom in their work on that task.

The Many Wardrobes of Teaching

I have never been extremely fashion-savvy.  Though I no longer think that wild pink floral matches blue and green plaid, an outfit I picked to wear one day in Kindergarten, I still do not have many designer clothes in my closet.  It's an area where I constantly struggle between the self who wants badly to be accepted and admired and the self that just doesn't care.

This morning, as I stared at my closet, thinking about my morning ahead as a full-fledged substitute for the 3-year-old class, it struck me that I do not have much of a wardrobe for teaching preschool.  I skipped over the row of skirts and dresses, knowing they were completely impractical for sitting on the floor or the small chairs in the preschool room.  Glancing through my dress slacks, and thinking about the blouses that went with them, I thought of the painting projects that the children would do today.  An image of myself struggling with a fully covered, dripping wet, easel-sized bear had me pushing the slacks aside.  Like many days as I stand in front of my closet, I announced loudly, "Ugh, I have nothing to wear."

The dueling nature of my fashion personality has put me in this predicament since I began student teaching.  As a young teacher, one who was often asked for her hall pass by veteran faculty, I wanted to set myself apart from my students.  It was important for me to dress professionally, and after I graduated college, I began to develop a professional wardrobe, one that might not have been considered the most fashionable.  As I grew in my tenure and my confidence in the classroom, I wanted the teenagers in my charge to relate to me.  I didn't want them to see me as a geeky English teacher, and I knew my appearance mattered.  My wardrobe, with the help of one of my fashion-savvy colleagues, shifted to something more hip, more age- and geography-appropriate.

As a university professor, I walk the line between professional and comfortable.  Early each semester I step up the game, setting the tone for professional interactions.  At most school and departmental meetings, I select from the professional side of my wardrobe.  When I visit teachers in schools, I typically revert to my "hipper" outfits, wanting the teens I interact with to see me as approachable and not as "the professor."  When I am in my office with no meetings scheduled, I wear jeans - without fail.

On my first day of preschool, I selected an outfit that would allow me to move around with the children, but it was professional in nature.  I wore dress shoes, flats, and a comfortable sweater with my oldest pair of slacks.  The next day I wore my "dressy" sneakers, and I haven't veered from them since.  Moving, on my feet, is a constant in the preschool classroom.  Painting threatens to stain any article of clothing I wear, and I have not yet developed the skill for keeping the paint completely away from my body.  This talent must come with practice because my mentor teachers wear beautiful sweaters, and some of them wear lovely slacks - and I have not yet seen a drop of paint on any of them. 

So comfortable and practical is the wardrobe I need for teaching preschool, yet the professional me, the one who for six years had to pay to wear jeans on "jeans day" and who feels guilty when the dean catches her in the office in jeans, has a hard time picking jeans off the shelf for her preschool attire.  Luckily, this morning I found my brown corduroys hanging on the far end of the rack, and I smiled as I noticed that I matched my mentor teacher, who had also worn her brown cords. Perhaps we were both thinking about bears, our focus for the week. Regardless, as I worked with the children on tracing Bs and sponge painting them with brown paint, I thought that I had chosen wisely.  And as I read them the story of Goldilocks while they sat rapt with attention, giggling at my "very big" Papa-bear-voice, I knew that my comfortable look was perfectly acceptable to these young students.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Abraham Slinky and The Value of Money

Today's lesson built on the work we did yesterday in the 3-year-old class.  Like in my high school classes, where I routinely connected ideas back to previous lessons, the teachers asked the children to "remember" from yesterday.  Also like in my high school classes, they were sometimes faced with blank stares.  My favorite moment of the morning was when the teacher asked for the name of the President on the penny.  She held up Abe's picture, and the crickets began chirping.  I was not surprised that the children could not remember the name; my son could not tell his father last night, and despite my coaching, he could not remember in the car on the way to school this morning either.  I was surprised, and delighted, however, when a young boy finally called out "Abraham Slinky."  It makes me chuckle even to write it now.

I learned today how I might teach (coach) young children to write letters.

Step 1:  Write the word (letters) in dots.

Step 2:  Have the child trace the letters with the pointer finger.  Provide physical support if they need help making the motions.  Combine this physical help with verbal explanation of how to start and create each letter.  (e.g., Push out and come around; Start at the top and bring it down.)

Step 3:  Show the child how to hold a pencil (if they aren't already using a finger grip).

Step 4:  Allow the child to connect the dots of the letters.  Again provide physical guidance when needed (and only when absolutely necessary) and a verbal explanation of how to form each letter.

Unfortunately for a few of the children, I learned this lesson after I led one of the centers where they were working on writing their names.  Next time, I will do better.

Yesterday I ended my blog post with a question about the concept value of money.  Today I realized that it's not too early to introduce the concept, and the teachers did just that through the use of two non-fiction texts.  The great divide between fiction and non-fiction, narrative and exposition, at the secondary level continues to dominate my thoughts when I watch my preschool colleagues integrate all kinds of texts in the service of thematic learning.  Perhaps we spend too much time in the upper grades studying texts, when we should be using texts, all kinds of texts, to inquire into real-world issues.  Seems like another lesson to take from preschool.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

5 Quarters or 10 Pennies: Which is More?

Presidents' Day is coming up, and it's time for civic education, preschool style.  Ironically, this afternoon I participated in a doctoral comprehensive examination, where the student's writing focused on the ideals and goals of a democratic education.  Earlier today, I observed the introduction of 3-year-olds to two famous Presidents, the American flag, a patriotic song, and the value of money.  Now I'm wondering what John Dewey would say about preschool.

My extended visit in a 3-year-old class began today, where I was impressed once again by the seamless integration of math, science, social studies and language arts into the morning's activities.  The teacher began the day by introducing Abraham Lincoln and George Washington to the children.  As she showed their faces on laminated cut-outs and then again on the coins we use every day, I wondered about the word President and the bigger concept it represented.  As Americans, we must understand, respect, and even honor, this position and the individuals who hold it.  That concept, however, is probably far beyond the cognitive grasp of a 3-year-old.  For many of them in the room, my own son included, it may have been the first hearing of the word itself.  In this case, the word will be followed by the concept.

The three centers blended motor skills with a history lesson (sponge and finger painting George Washington's cherry tree), math with science (counting logs, which come from trees, and creating Abe Lincoln's log cabin) and allowed children to identify pennies and quarters with their friends. The centers were designed with increased independence - while the teacher had to provide much support with the log cabins, the children painting cherry trees needed little assistance, and the coin counters worked independently.

After the centers, the teacher used a patriotic song to introduce the concepts of "red, white, and blue" and the American flag.  As part of her instruction, she showed the children how to write a capital and lowercase H, and the children found 24 ("a two and a four") Hs hidden in the words of the song!  A final chorus of the song led to the craft for the day, where again children worked on creating a pattern of red and white stripes and counting the number of stars they painted on their American flag.  They heard that we all live in the United States of American, but I think conceptually most of them still live at home.

Throughout the morning, the room pulsated with energy.  Whether it was the age of the children or the nature of their personalities, this class was much different than the one I visited in January.  The structure the teachers provided them through centers and individual lessons during craft time kept children focused and moving.  During their free play they were encouraged to "make the right choice," and with the exception of one girl who forgot her impulse control in the kitchen, it seemed that they did.  They played collaboratively, read independently, and interacted freely with me.

The highlight of the day's activities was the sharing of the "surprise box."  Off came the top, out came the red, orange, green, yellow, pink tissue paper, the colors of which were called happily by the children as the teacher tossed each piece into the air.  In the bottom of the box, the children found pennies and quarters, which they compared and contrasted.  This work of finding similarities and differences is one that dominates education in the upper grades.  Today I saw the beginnings of the development of this thinking.

When each child had selected a coin, identified it as a penny or a quarter, and placed it in the appropriate line of currency, the class counted each set.

"How many quarters?" the teacher asked.

"Five," came the chorus of response.

"Show me your five," she prompted as the children held out their hands with five fingers raised.

"How many quarters?" she continued.

"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, TEN!"  The children raised all of their fingers.

"So which is more, 5 quarters or 10 pennies?"  I smiled, thinking this was probably a trick question for me.  And as the children shouted "PENNIES" and scurried off to snack, I wondered at what age the value concept for money kicks in.

5 Uses for Cookie Cutters, without the calories

Here's what preschoolers (and their teachers) have taught me about the uses of cookie cutters.  (And I thought I was crafty...)


With a cookie cutter, we can

1.  Paint stars on an American flag.

2.  Dab glue and decorate a Valentine bag with glitter hearts.

3.  Create a farm of animals out of play dough.

4.  Trace it on paper.

5.  Wear it as a bracelet.

All without the calories.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Whirlwind Tour of the 2s, 3s, and 4s

Since I entered the classroom more than a decade ago, winter weather has always affected my plans.  During particularly bad winters, I would entirely recreate assignment calendars for my students, printing new copies several times during the season.  I learned that flexibility is even more important from December through March than it is during the rest of the year.

My plans for preschool have been similarly adjusted these past few weeks.  My hopes to see at least a full week in each classroom, experiencing the continuum of lesson design and delivery, have been stymied.  With the snow of last week, I did not get to say goodbye to my new four-year-old friends, but I had planned to move to a new classroom this week, and it was time to see some three-year-olds in action.  With more hurt in my heart than I would have expected, I wrote a thank you note to my January friends, hoping to drop it with my mentor teacher in the morning so that she could read my goodbye to her class. 

On the way to the preschool yesterday, as my kids jammed in the backseat to "Triangle", the Music Together CD that was currently in the queue, my phone rang.  

"Mrs. T, I need a favor," said the school's office administrator.  "I know you are supposed to change classrooms today, but can you help out in the four-year-old class until the substitute arrives?"

My heart flip-flopped.

"Sure, no problem," I said.  I smiled, thinking that I would see my January friends one more time after all.

This change of plan proved to be just the first of the day that became a whirlwind tour of preschool life.  Several teachers and administrators were out, and the office administrator was struggling to cover classes.  I spent 20 minutes in the 4-year-old class before heading to the 3s.  About an hour into my stay in that room, I volunteered to cover for a teacher who had to leave the 2.5 year class.  In one day, I observed three different levels, and though it was a bit of a whirlwind, I noticed key differences in the literacy development of these preschoolers. 

The Fours

As I walked into the 4-year-old class, I saw several children huddled around the wall calendar.  They pointed to the new month, February, and shared their excitement about it.  They told me that January had taken its place on the wall, and we laughed together when the sticky tack failed, and January came tumbling down.  One boy announced that Valentine's Day was coming soon, now that it was February, and he pointed out the date, which was adorned with an appropriate picture and accompanying title.  Before I left the room, I saw children writing their names on their artwork and their various compositions at the writing table.  A few of these friends sat together on the carpet and shared books with each other before settling down to read alone.  Nearly every task was completed independently in that first 20 minutes of school.

The Threes

In the 3-year-old class, I watched with a smile as the teacher created a menu, with the children's input, for the class "Cafe."  With offerings such as bananas, oranges, spaghetti, and lemonade, "The Cafe" and its menu became the center of much play that morning.  A boy came to me, across the room, handed me the menu, and invited me to "The Cafe," where he acted as waiter and another child acted as cook.  A rotation of children mimicked the game, always using the menu to select and serve the items in "The Cafe."  At one point a child picked up the pretend phone, answering it officially, "Hello, 'The Cafe.'  We are open at..."

He looked at me.  "What time are we open, he stage whispered."

"Nine," I replied, not missing a beat.

"Nine," he said into the phone.  "Tonight?"  He turned to me again.  "What time tonight?"

"Ummm, seven," I threw back at him, delighted with the game.

At closing circle, this little boy told the entire class how much he liked "The Cafe," which started with the teacher's act of literacy - the writing of the menu. [NOTE:  The cafe was actually named after my daughter, who was acting as the cook when the teacher wrote the menu.  For anyone who knows her name, feel free to re-read this section, replacing "The" with her name in the possessive form.  It was too cute.]

In addition to this wonderful play, I observed several children at the art easel, one who proudly wrote his entire name and another who was experimenting with "Ms" in his art.  I asked the teacher if these boys were representative of the three year old class, and I learned that most children will be able to write the first letter of their name this year.

Names played a big part of literacy in this class.  Children were dismissed to snack time as the teacher held up their names and asked them to self-recognize.  She prompted them with sound-letter correspondence and gave examples of other words that began with the same sound.  It was clear from watching this activity that the children were developing name recognition, a skill the four-year-olds seem to have mastered.

The Twos

I entered the 2.5-year-old class at the beginning of snack time.  Like their 4-year-old counterparts, they follow a routine that demands manners and respect.  Unlike the older children, however, they are not completely independent.

The children sat quietly during story time, listening to a tale about a groundhog, which they had learned about earlier in the morning.  They counted groundhog cut-outs together, and they sang as their classmates popped up out of a groundhog "hole."  The children followed the teacher, who was definitely the leader.  Some of the children followed the "pop up" and "go back down" commands of the song.  Others needed her guidance in this task.

The atmosphere was so different in the 2.5 class, partly because of the support the children need and partly because the class was smaller.  I was only with them for half an hour, but I'm looking forward to seeing this age for an extended period.  My plan is to hit them in March.  Hopefully the winter weather will not require too many revisions to my plan!