Monday, April 3, 2017

hard risks and soft risks (is that a thing?)

We want our children to be risk-takers. I want that for my students and for my son. Often, my mind goes to the realm of physical risks as an early childhood teacher when I encourage tree climbing and jumping from stumps, or cutting wood with a junior saw. It sounds so wild and free 'risk-taking' but really the phrase is imbued with the concepts of assessment and management. As we encourage risk we are simultaneously teaching the art and skill of assessing and managing risk. It's a wonderful, organic, and necessary process.

But risk-taking is so much more than puddle jumps, tree climbing, or working with tools.

For some, risk-taking is: speaking during Morning Meeting. It is joining a group already immersed in play. It is asking for help to open a lunch box. It is crying in front of peers and teachers. It is not knowing when you really want to know.

And just as we risk assess outdoor and indoor play spaces. We assess and manage the risk of our student's internal world. Our classroom culture: Do we nurture a space safe enough to fail and cry? A space where we can support children in their emotional ups and downs of the day? How does it feel in our small the classroom world for a child to take a risk?

All of this has come to mind because of a risk I took last week. I presented at a conference.

A handout from the session: All about strategies to encourage a student-centered, conversation-based circle time.
It might sound silly to some but this felt like one of the biggest risks I have taken in my adult life. Risk means different things to different people. For me, the thought of speaking in front of fellow educators brought a tight know to my belly and a quick beat to my heart. I thought about canceling. I half-hoped I might develop pneumonia.

But here's the thing...I know the value of risk-taking (and the implied risk assessment and management as well). So I pushed forward. I managed my risk by preparing and tweaking, editing, and re-editng until the day of the conference. And my mental assessment went something like this, 'be prepared...and hopefully things will be okay...and if I get pneumonia perhaps that's for the best'

I am writing about the experience though not to self-congratulate...but because it was so powerful to do something so scary and come out on the other side. I am left feeling the enormity of the shift in confidence by being brave and taking a risk. I am lucky that there are many kind and supportive people in my life. My husband and brother let me practice the presentation with them. And I have friends who I asked for feedback provided kind and constructive feedback.

All of this leads me to a new point of recent reflection regarding the vital need, in childhood and adulthood, to take risks. I want my classroom to be a place where those hard risks (think tree jumps) and soft risks (think entering group play) are well supported for every child. Your BIG risk may not be my BIG risk and we need to know those important details about every child.

And personally, I am going to bask in the happiness of being brave for awhile...and then pursue my next risk.

What is your most recent risk taking experience as an adult?

Saturday, January 21, 2017

the space we make

Space has been on my mind.

In our classroom children often walk past the art tables each day without much of a second glance and head straight to the block area, pretend play, or the carpet for some puzzle action. Our two resident artists are the exception.

So what could it be?  This has been our question all year.

It could be the group is developmentally seeking more collaborative and social play experiences. It could be that the prompts and provocations are not inspiring enough - or connecting to the children's interests in a meaningful way. Or perhaps the location of the art area is not visible enough or inviting enough to capture attention.

We have, of course, made tweeks and changes over the year but nothing seemed to inspire.

But then something interesting happened.

It rained....

and rained...

and temperatures dropped...

and dropped.

We are, of course, sturdy preschoolers and venture outdoors every morning for play but recently we have stayed inside for the usual second outdoor play of the day when the weather is truly unruly.

And on these days, while many children are still napping, we play in the hallway. Our hallway has a long, wooden table recessed in a nook.

Suddenly art was being created. Making, creating, messing about with paper, wire, tape, and more was exciting.

hammering holes through bottle caps for threading onto wire. M is making a swing.

And we were left to wonder...what is it about this space? Is it the fact that children sit in a long row? Is it the light, which streams through the window behind them? Could it be the time of day?..or simply the excitement of simply being in a different space?

I know what you're thinking...ask the kids!

We did. But it seems, at least for the moment, a difficult sentiment to put into words. It's a question we will re-cast and perhaps over the next weeks and months some will be able to elucidate the matter.

A computer, complete with baby blue tape keyboard for ergonomic typing.

But for now we are enjoying this space and have opened it as an additional play space during our morning play. A long line of art materials flank the table and wall. Our tinkering goggles are even present as we are thoroughly enjoying hammering holes through bottle caps.

And the space - although it can not yet be explained what makes it more inviting than our art table - is happily being used and even given a new name.

I recently asked the three children what we should call the area and a student spoke up right away, "the work bench area!" And so it is. We still have our art table - but now a very serious work bench area.
Planning for the playground, a small group project inspired by M's swing.

The building of a playground using balsa wood, tape, wire, tinkered loose part, and beads.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

the joy of the plan

Oh winter vacation. It's amazing to me how time to rest, drink copious amounts of coffee, and play with my son make space for recommitting to work life. With a few days left of the winter holiday I find myself planning and thinking about the joy that Monday will bring when I return to work. Okay, okay, it's true I have an especially enjoyable job as a preschool teacher...maybe this would be less true if I were

Today I will simply share a planning document I use that works particularly well for project-based learning. Next week we will begin a new unit of inquiry, in the spirit of project-based learning. You can read more about this way of teaching and learning here. As we will begin the first phase of our project, the focus will be on exploration, which you can see from the simplicity of the initial plan.

One truth I have come to discover over the years is that I have to create my own planning form. I remember during observational visits to other schools I would be intrigued by the planning documents of fellow educators and during my visit to Reggio Emilia...well I was blown away by their planning sheet (If I remember correctly it was on A3 paper!) I meticulously sketched the forms in my journal and took photos...but you know would never completely work for me. It's a personal business - teaching - and it requires knowing and understanding our own needs, learning styles, and organizational styles.

Don't worry all of those sketches and photos are still stored on my book shelf - and in my brain - but they are now my inspiration. The format I use below has bits and pieces pulled from my learnings and experiences of the past but it is the result of fine-tuning over time. I'm sharing it just in case it might be useful inspiration for someone else.

An important element to note is the inclusion of observations and next steps. This planning document is also my tool for recording student dialogue and notes. This year all three teachers in the classroom will have a hard copy of this form to *hopefully* help us to organize and share our observations and ideas for next steps. I would also like to note that this is the daily planning and observing guide but the bigger picture is mapped out in other ways - and in other spaces. To be shared another day!

Sunday, December 4, 2016

the continued saga: some days are just meh

And so...did we let the light and sculpture project fizzle or push on a bit? We did push a bit and I'm here to share the story.

Before laying out the details of the continuation of the mini-project. I'd like to share why we pushed on a bit.

First, is the idea of persisting and seeing something through to an end. This idea was resonating with me as it felt timely - our children seemed ready - for the challenge of sticking with an idea. This also felt like prudent timing as we will begin an extended unit of inquiry in January under the umbrella of 'tinkering.' Each year the trajectory of this tinkering inquiry looks and feels quite different depending on the interests and actions of the group but it is a three-month inquiry and it seemed wise to introduce the group to this way of engaging through inquiry. This also lends itself to modeling the way we think during an inquiry - there was a great deal of teacher-led wondering and we viewed and discussed our own photo and video documentation daily (visible thinking). The emphasis on building foundational habits of mind necessary for inquiry (even if teacher-led) felt necessary. These are really the biggest reasons I persisted in asking the children to persist.

Ultimately, I am happy we did and I do think children were really proud of their individual and collective work in the end. It was difficult for me to feel like I was the engine encouraging us to chug ahead. There is a palpable discomfort I feel with that. Yet, I think this discomfort in itself was also helpful as it begged of me to reflect and assess along the way.

So! some of the the exciting habits and outcomes from the process:

  • rich discussion-based morning meetings on the topic
  • viewing video of children telling their stories and talking about these stories
  • reinforcing the thinking routine 'see, think, wonder' with frequent discussions framed this way
  • pride in work! working with wood and creating sculptures made children feel like sculptors
  • growth as storytellers through multiple invitations to use sculptures and light for the purpose
  • encouraged collaboration among the children
And now for the project. Below is really just a brief explanation of the process (this was a 4-week project). When I first started teaching in a project-based way - examples really gave me guidance. So for anyone beginning their journey, perhaps this will be helpful.

To begin where we left off in the previous post...we looked at the sculptures and stories of friends who had already made their creations (before our long weekend). And one by one over the next 8 days children made their own sculpture - first building an impermanent work of art and later using glue to permanent-ify their sculpture.

Then children shared stories inspired by their sculpture. We printed a photo of their sculpture and invited our little ones to write their story in the white space below the photo. When they read their story aloud, we transcribed their words onto a separate paper as well.

And...when all was said and done. We carefully presented all of the sculptures on a platform along with lights and two flashlights. This prompt greeted the children one morning and inspired several pairs of children to tell stories together.

We finished the project with a special morning meeting, with the lights dimmed low in the classroom and told a shared story. Nearly every child took a turn adding a sentence or two to the story and when it was their turn they used the flashlight to show where their story was taking place in the large sculpture setting.

The sculptures now live in the block area and are part of our daily block play. A very important handmade element of our classroom play environment. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

some days are just 'meh'

Sometimes provocations are met with "meh..." in preschool.

A prompt left near the projector of black paper and scissors captured the interest of one.

We just returned from a lovely four-day weekend and we (teachers) wondered if the group would return to school with continued interest in light. Well...the jury's still out on that one but there was a general meh-ness regarding light, shadow, and light storytelling today.

wooden sculptures created by children last week were presented upon play silks, with
loose parts and

It's a fine dance with inquiry/project-based learning. Persisting is an important habit of the push to extend, continue, deepen, and persist is one of the teacher roles. There is also a place for boredom (meh-ness) in our life. Life and creativity are often born from those moments. So perhaps to feel safe enough to exist for a few days without, necessarily a spark, is healthy for our collective creative spirit.

...And then there is the wisdom of recognizing a different spark in our midst. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

a bit of a scary story

Light has emerged where we least expected it...under the table. Even as a rapidly aging "grown up" there was truly some magical element in playing under the table this morning. We covered the largest table we have...which really is not that large...with a blanket and left a prompt in the covered den. Two flashlights, a basket of wood cutoffs, wooden spools, and glass stones.

I shimmied under the table at first to get the first few started and then I sat outside the covered fort and listened...sometimes popping my camera under the blanket for a shot or video.

Build it and knock it down. One of the first to visit the space found it a safe space
 for constructing and deconstructing. 

And on the other end of the spectrum, a "house" built carefully over the course of 30 minutes that no one could take apart.
Later, a Stop sign was created that said "don't take it down" and taped nearby.

The photo above inspired a story that is too beautiful an example of play-based early literacy not to share. The story lasted three minutes and this video captures a portion from the middle. After she told her story I asked if we could show the video of her story to friends during circle time and she agreed. We all watched the video and then had a conversation about what we saw (using an organic, see, think, wonder framework for the discussion). The group remembered the elements of their friend's story...spoiler alert: the characters get eaten by a lion! And it inspired us to wonder about our own storytelling. It looks like we have a plan now to create our own sculptures using wood and use flashlights.  

Here is the story in its entirety...
Once upon a time there was 4 kids that were going to school. Then a wolf came and eat them. He came to ate the baby. And he bring him to the cave then and said, "where's my baby?" and walk to the cave and take him away so the wolf doesn't eat him. Then the biggest wolf in the world came and ate all those guys and bring him to his little lion. The lion did want to eat them. And then they tried to run away with the baby. The baby run away to his house. Then two crocodiles came and snap him. And they went back to their house. The End!
I will share more in the next post about the trajectory of this emerging project - where we started and where we are going!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

light within

Oh the coziness of late fall. As a Floridian it has taken me many years in colder climates to find joy in cooler temperatures and darker skies. Actually, I think it has taken 13 years to be exact. But I do see the warmth in winter now...and a lot of it is found in how we prepare our indoor environment.

An old light projector can add such an inviting glow to the room. Not to mention that block building (in this instance) takes on a whole new dimension!

We notice more children engage at the light table now that morning light no longer fills the classroom.

Sometimes we close the window shade in this area and the glow of the twinkle lights is even more pronounced. We created a covered, cozy fort for children to tuck away into and they bring flashlights in with them!

Our pretend play area has started to change into a welcoming forest, inspired by our weekly forest outings. We started with bare branches, collected during outdoor play, and discussed ways to turn the area into a forest.

Our brainstorming discussion began during circle time...

I first introduced a new Idea Book (we've been having beginning conversations about our brains and thinking of ideas - so this seemed like a natural progression). I showed them my sketch of branches on the pretend play wall and then as children shared their ideas I drew them into the Idea Book. And they did have wonderful ideas, like: painting leaves yellow and adding them to the branches, picking up the real red leaves we saw that morning on the ground to add to the branches, painting a forest, and making a dragon for the forest.

It's always a balance...moving forward is a give and take between the children's ideas and teacher ideas. Sometimes, we lead a bit more and other times the children do. It's a dance. At this point in the school year, modeling the excitement of thinking of ideas as well as the initiative and motivation to carry out ideas is foundational and vital. As the year moves on - the children gain confidence in this space (and the people around them) and their sense of agency becomes inspiring.

How do you fill your world with light during the winter months?


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