Thursday, September 20, 2018

the case of two curious moments

I'm thinking about the gift of being curious.

I struggled with whether to say the gift of curiosity or being curious but really I am talking about the excitement - the joy - during the experience of being curious. Yesterday, two moments occurred that left me filled with joy, wonder, and honestly excited about the rest of our school year.

I'll share both stories through photos:

Act One

It started with a line. One long line. Then another and, slightly shorter. Then several small lines.

I watched and I was struck by the uniqueness of the drawing. I don't often observe three year old children drawing in this way, with distinctly sized vertical lines. It felt meaningful, especially as he lay the paint pen down and traced his pointer finger along each line.

Yet, I was left with only my sense of sight to make sense of - and wonder about - his approach. This artist speaks Chinese and I do not, so for the moment, I was left with wonderment.

This school year I do not speak the same home language as any of my students. That is a challenge in several important ways, yet in this moment, I was grateful for our language gap. Without the ease of simply listening in or asking and telling I was left to think. Yes, think.

I thought about this particular student's past painting and drawing experiences. I thought about his joy for sensory play. I thought about his age and the fact that, this may not be a representation of anything - and simply a joyful art experience. I thought about how interesting it was that he followed the line with his finger. Why, why, why did he follow the line? It must represent something to him, I thought. I thought about the possibilities, as this idea of line and movement grew into a thought cloud of potential provocations.

The joy of thinking is well, a joy.


I recorded several videos of this student and in one he did engage in private speech. As I shared the videos with the wonderful teaching assistant I work with, who happens to speak Chinese, she shed light on the entire scenario. This boy shared that this was a 'fast train' in his private speech, which also made sense of his finger trailing the lines and the sounds he uttered as well.


I am thankful to know the story behind his lines, but I am also thankful for the gift of thinking. It feels good to be curious about our children - it feels good to move through cycles of inquiry and live as a teacher researcher.

I am left thankful for this moment.

Act Two

Three children and a basket of vibrant paint sticks.

The moment was beautiful in and of itself. The three children shared space, allowed lines to merge, and moved around the table like one organism.

Then, more happened.

Not just more, but more completely of the children's own interests and agency.

First one cup, then another, and another...writing tools began to fill the table. They worked as a team, back and forth retrieving cups of markers and pencils, lining them upon the table.

And suddenly, their table space ran out.

Near silently, they agreed to a plan.

Stools were lined up and ever so carefully these cups bearing writing tools filled the tops of stools.

I watched the expressions on their faces. There was such focus, they were doing serious work. I was reminded of my childhood. I grew up in Florida and our little townhouse community had access to a small inlet. There, my best friend and I found sea foam and we concocted a plan to sell slime. Do you remember the gumball machines that sold sticky slime and putty in the 1990s? Well, we set about a new business plan to sell our sea slime and make our fortune. I'm sure our faces showed the same tenacious, serious expressions.

Childhood is filled with these moments and I felt such honor and privilege to observe this moment between two boys - who are new friends - with just a few weeks into this school year. Adults are not needed during these moments, unless called upon. I made my way to the sink and tidied up quietly to give them space, but to allow myself a vantage point to observe and marvel.

Yes, indeed it was a lucky day to be left in awe of childhood, remember my own, and wonder about what we can do tomorrow.

Monday, September 10, 2018

an ode to time and space

A timely article was published this week by Angela Hanscom in the Washington Post about the time and space we afford children during the school day. Transitions have been on my mind as I enter a new school year in a new school. The time and space we create for and with children is of the highest, highest importance.  

We all need time. Time that feels authentic and uninterrupted in our day. Time to move rhythmically from one part of the day to another. Children need this, but really we all do. Consider your perfect Saturday. What does it look like? What does it feel like?

My perfect Saturday is quiet and begins with slowly enjoying coffee while playing on the floor with my son and husband. I have the freedom to move upstairs and downstairs to access different materials that support our play needs. It is calm. There are snuggles on the couch to read. A bike ride outside leads us to eat our lunch and then rest. Wake up with a little sweet snack and another cozy read... 

The day is fluid. There is a rhythm to our time and a warmth of the space.

And how does it feel? 

The day feels peaceful and relaxed. My cup feels full!

I mention this wondering - how does it feel - because I can feel it physically in my body when I am rushed. I feel a quickening of my heart and a tenseness in my back. I feel this with loud transitions. I feel this when I am asked to move quickly from activities.

This all leads me to consider how my preschool program feels for me and, most importantly, how might it feel for our sensitive and feeling three year old children? 

My son attended a lovely Waldorf daycare during our time in The Netherlands. I learned much from his warm teachers about the rhythm of a child and their day. Learning can not be unlearned - so happily the gift of understanding the importance of these rhythms has stayed with me in my own practice as an early years teacher. 

The openness of time and space runs on a continuum, from the tightly scheduled days Hanscom mentioned with 14 transitions in an early years room - to a Waldorf room with moments simply flowing into one another. 

We make space for our classroom to exist somewhere on the spectrum while meeting the expectations of our own unique school cultures. It does feel prudent for us all - parents and teachers of young children - to reflect on this and consider - where does your classroom lay on this continuum? 

I was reminded of Hanscom's article today as I observed a pretend play scenario unfold in the classroom this morning. It is a story that emerged from time and space...

A photo story from this morning:

Our classroom has access to a multi-sensory space, complete with wooden climbing frames and a large indoor sandpit. This morning, children used the climbing frame to jump, scale, run, and release some of their Monday morning energy. After 45 minutes, five children began to engage in pretend play. They were a family of sheep, with the girls taking care of their three baby sheep. The play was gentle, filled with language, and beautiful to watch. 

I went into the pretend play space in our classroom and brought back a basket of scarves. Laying them over one of the climbing frames - one sheep noticed.

Soon, more of the children settled in under their canopied home. And I brought them a few more items as unobtrusively as I could.

The sheep slept and were gently taken care of by their caretakers.

This play emerged an hour into our school day. They needed that time to run, jump, explore, and climb in order to settle into this lovely play scenario. That big play in the space also allowed them to know this space and explore it's potential. They discovered it is a space conducive to fast crawling for little sheeps, thanks to the soft mat and that it is filled with home-like spaces where five or more children can nestle together. 

I'm thankful for the freedom I have to give children the time they need to play for sustained periods of time. I still ring the chime and there are still 'hard' transitions in our day. I do sing songs during transitions as Hanscom mentioned in the article. I know that the soft lull of a tune can help children by adding a softness to a moment that can feel...well, not soft.

For now, it is important I consider time, space, and the rhythm of the day I craft with the children in my care. And to bring softness to the edges of our day.

Where does your day with young children lay on the time and space continuum? 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

open. upward. forward. okay.

Lisa Congdon: one of my favorites <3

My family and I just recently made a big move from The Netherlands to China. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about our last transition, six years ago, when we made the move to The Netherlands from New York City. I’ve searched my brain – was it this challenging? The short answer is no, it really wasn’t. We moved to a country where English was widely spoken. There were many cultural similarities. And in the classroom, roughly half or more of my students spoke English.

Yet, ‘no’ is not the whole truth. The transition to a new school culture was challenging. Learning how to work with new colleagues in ways that were unfamiliar to me was challenging. Transition is about finding your place in a new puzzle. It doesn’t work to press, push, and jam a puzzle piece. No, it needs to be looked at carefully,  turned around a few times, and hopefully makes a snug fit.

It’s helpful for me to remember this – to see the pattern – that transition simply is a challenge. Whether the move is bog or small, moving countries, cities, or moving to a new school. While it can feel like a thick, muddy, get-me-out-of here existence in the throws of transition. It is also lovely.

 Lovely? Yes, I really said that.


Well, the Buddhist saying “the tender heart of sadness” has bubbled up in my mind these over these weeks. There’s a softness to sadness. A vulnerable heart can also be an open heart. Through my sadness, and wish-I-were-anyplace-else moments, I could feel that tenderness and sit with it. It was actually a little warming, cathartic, and welcome this sadness.

I didn’t muffle the sadness. I embraced it. “How is your day?” an unknowing colleague would ask. “Not so great. I’m struggling” would be my response. The jury’s still out on how absolute honesty will pan out. But, it felt good to own the truth that transition is hard.

Then like a light being switched on in a darkened bedroom first thing in the morning, the intensity of my sadness was gone.

Okay, that sounds a little too good to be true.

Maybe it was a nightlight – not a bright and luminescent overhead light. Not the natural glow of the sun. Yes, a soft and pale light.

But that is okay. It’s light!

And each day since (it’s been about three days) has been a bit better than the previous day.

Back to China and being the puzzle piece. Here is what I know. We all have something unique and valuable to bring to the table, or the puzzle so to speak. Not only is it in our best interest to adapt and find our fit – when we do we also help complete that beautiful 500 piece puzzle.

I’m still thinking and looking at the puzzle. Seeing where I fit to turn the least number of times. But I will fit and I do want to be a part of this puzzle.

Transition can feel down right traumatic.

We tend to those wounds and move forward, eventually. For me, it has been a little over a month and I am just turning the corner. Around this corner I have a glimpse of acceptance, new growth, and a lovely puzzle.

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. 


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