Cowboy up!

Giddy up!Last September the class was simply obsessed with horses. We launched into a huge horse project, and of course the cowboys and cowgirls needed horses to ride. We made these stick horses in class with heavy duty cardboard tubes (a fabulous donation from a local business), socks, yarn, buttons, and batting. The kids enjoyed stuffing the socks and sewing the manes, but mostly they enjoyed riding their trusty steeds.

This afternoon my daughter and I headed out in search of ice cream and spotted the same little boy in this picture in front of a store on his horse. I laughed with delight, and waved madly. I was especially impressed when I noticed he added a bridle and reins to the getup. I bet he couldn’t tell you what he got for Christmas or his birthday, but this sock and cardboard creation still captures his imagination. That, my friends, is the very best kind of educational toy.

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Making peace with here

Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures.

—   John F. Kennedy

In my heart, I work in a progressive play-based program that fully integrates indoor and outdoor play, and honors the natural rhythms not only of the day, but of each person. Most importantly, in my little dream world, every parent and educational professional is fully dedicated to maintaining the dignity of the learning process by empowering each child. In reality, I work in a school district that would never be mistaken as progressive. I could whine about the institutional mess I see, and at times conform to, but it wouldn’t be very productive in the end. Instead I’ve decided to make peace with it, because while this place certainly isn’t progressive, it is making progress.

My administrators give me a wide berth in our classroom projects, and gently reassure the parents that their children are learning when we paper mache, play with parachutes, and make all manners of gooey messes. I have a great relationship with several community leaders who regularly volunteer their time and donate all kinds of stuff for our budget-strapped room. By introducing even a smidgen of progressive early childhood practices, I’ve noticed a significant difference in the parents who have had multiple children come through the classroom. They support the process of learning because they’ve seen it work.

I may not have the classroom space, parental support, administrative guidelines, or material resources that I dream of, but I do get to see on a regular basis that what I do matters. One day I will work alongside like-minded people in a program that lines up more closely with my personal educational philosophy, but until that day comes, I am content to be here in this space. What I know for sure is that I am far more fortunate to have met and worked with each child in the class than they ever were to have had me for a teacher.

Now I am at least trying to slow down and simply enjoy the process of progress.

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Hello Sunshine!

In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.
Kahlil Gibran

One of the things I want to be better about is building and maintaining a classroom community. It should literally feel like a second family. This atmosphere of acceptance and belonging takes a little work on the part of teachers and staff, but it is time well spent because the routines and rituals we put in place really do shape the attitude of the class as a whole.

The past few days I’ve been thinking about how to start each day off in the most positive way possible. I love the greeting apron, and have been using it for several years now. (I made my own, but you can look here to get the general idea. I prefer to have the choices on velcro tabs to freshen up the greetings from time to time.) The kids get a kick out of choosing their method of hello, and eventually the job of morning greeter (and the joy of wearing the apron!) moves from me to the kids. It is one of the most popular classroom jobs.

Some months ago, I ran across this simply brilliant idea for arrival and attendance. I love how the routine of checking in each morning supports the ritual of affirming the importance of each child to the school family. I’m going to have to find a slightly larger cookie sheet, but I’m excited about adding this to our class.

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You’ve got mail

The dogs and I made our daily walk to check the mail today, and I was delighted to find a letter from one of my kindergarteners-to-be. The sweetly scrawled addresses and an off-kilter stamp made sure this treasure made its way from Jae to me.

Before I ever read the note from her mother, I knew this was a building plan. Toward the end of the year the students often drew at least their initial building plans. This stemmed from my frustration over the block area degenerating into sheer chaos, where not one block was on top of another…ever. One day I donned a hard hat and told the group I was the “building inspector”. In order to get their building permit (a construction paper ticket) they would need to show me their building plan and I directed them to some paper and pencils. The kids were incredibly thoughtful about this, and really considered the shape of the blocks, how they would balance or fit together to support other blocks, and would even return to the table to revise a plan. Upon completing their construction, we would compare the building to the drawing, noting any differences. Drawing or writing plans became an activity the kids extended to art activities and some dramatic play events, because rather than stealing the spontaneity of play, the plans served as a framework to build on and actually extended the play. Receiving this letter from Jae speaks volumes about the impact drawing plans has on promoting independence and problem solving skills, not to mention fine-motor, literacy, spatial recognition and a host of other early childhood benchmarks. We’ll definitely incorporate the planning process in our routines earlier this year.

In case you were wondering, the picture is for a sandcastle Jae wants to build on her family’s upcoming vacation to Florida. The note from her mom said Jae insisted on making a copy for use in Florida and sending the original to me. I am truly honored. I just wish I were there in the sand to watch her build this masterpiece!

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I did it myself

Today I fixed my lawn mower. I did it by myself…all by myself! I  It took me nearly two hours, but I figured out why the hunk of junk wasn’t running this time (it needed a new battery), and I fixed it. It took me nearly two hours to do what I know most mechanically sound folks could solve in half and hour or less, but time was not the issue today. Today was all about achieving success.  I mowed the lawn with a smile on my face, not because the knee-high blades were being chopped to a height more favorable to the neighbors’ liking, but because I solved my own problem.

It occurred to me that the pride and confidence I felt in that moment is exactly what I wish for my students. I want them to be persistent problem solvers who use failure as a step up to success. Growing these problem solvers requires a tender balance of support and space. Supporting a child’s growth often means giving her the space to fail, and sometimes to fail miserably, offering the bare minimum of input needed for the child to figure things out. This process is not only empowering, but creates an authentic love of learning…and I need to be much better about giving students this space to grow. I need to build in the structure and opportunity that will foster these tenacious victories.

I don’t know exactly how to do this better…but I will. I think I’ll go ponder this while I wiggle my bare feet in freshly cut grass.

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Reflections and revisions

To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.

—Anatole France

It’s summer vacation. Snow cones, beaches, great novels, roller coasters and garden fresh produce are definitely on my itinerary. But so is August 9, when a new crew of little ones will pile into the classroom. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about which tenets of my teaching plans worked, and more importantly, which ones didn’t work. I’ve been making mental lists of things to change, add, and tweak.

There are so many exciting changes in store, the most dramatic of which is a new classroom that includes several amenities the old space lacked like a bathroom in the class, large built-in storage cabinets, and a sizable section of tile floor for messy play. Of course, I’m excited to set up this new space. Visions of a well stocked mini-studio and basket-lined shelves make me smile.

Authentic family involvement in the class was a weak area. As much as I would like to pawn it off on the families, I need to take ownership of the fact that in order for these families to connect, I need a better plan of action to invite families in and involve them in a meaningful way. I’m looking at freshening up celebration rituals, especially for birthdays and new siblings. A new classroom will mandate some changes in some of our daily routines, so those need to be thought out as well.

I find that going through this reflection and revision process in the summer is soothing. There is time to stretch out and ponder the possibilities of what might be possible and to remember all the reasons why I love my work. I imagine all the ways we might be more successful, more peaceful, more connected as a classroom family than we have been in years past. Those dreams lead to plans and those plans guide the action to come in the following weeks. Isn’t it amazing what a person can accomplish curled up in a hammock with a glass of iced tea at hand?

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Enjoying the season

I hope this space serves as a means to explore and document my experiences, research, and antics in early childhood education, as well as a means by which to connect with others who are passionate about honoring and nurturing each child’s short season in the preschool years.

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