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.

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