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circle time preschool practices

Creativity: Four Apples = ?

Sometimes I think of the teaching I do as training creative Jedi. Just think of me as Yoda for the pre-k set. From 3- 5 years old children experience a burst of creativity. Children are able to move from their imaginations to the real world seamlessly. It is the last outpost for the imagination. When kids get in kindergarten they start to hear adults first, and then their friends say, “I can’t draw.” “I’m not creative.” “I can’t sing.” Then they doubt, “Can I sing? Am I creative? I want to fit in with my freinds, and none of them are creative, I should probably not be creative either. Piaget may have accidentally set this up by describing the preoperational stage of development as hierarchically lower than the concrete operational stage. It is as if a child who sees the world for what it is, (4 apples is 4 apples no matter what shape they are in) should not see the world for what it could be, (4 apples cut in to is 8 pieces and boiled can be applesauce).

Why isn’t creativity important in our schools? The easy answer… it is hard to test. Concrete understanding of the world is easy to test. If you don’t know that 4 apples is 4 apples then you don’t get it.

There are some rubrics that attempt to judge creativity but in general, much of our appreciation for creativity, like her sister beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. In a recent discussion about creativity with someone on the decision making side of the education game I asked why creativity isn’t considered a school readiness indicator. The response was, “It is the only indicator of school readiness that was deemed unreliable in several states.” It was also said that many teachers are not creative enough to recognize creativity even if it bit them in the patootie. Well that isn’t what was said but it is close enough. Why don’t we expect teachers to be creative? Why don’t we epect children to be creative?

On the dinner table of school, creativity is often considered the frosting on the cake. However, in life outside of school, it is often the difference between a home cooked meal and fast food. In “real” life, ie. life outside of the socially constructed definition of school, creativity is what makes things happen from finding cures for diseases to selling everything we know. We can’t test the future ability to find a cure for cancer. To borrow a metaphor from my wife, in schools we only test if kids know the recipe not if they can cook.

Here is my question… Why?

Why aren’t some teachers able to recognize creativity when they see it? Why isn’t creatvity taught as a skill?
Any art teacher can tell you that much of making art has more to do with experimentation with and mastery of materials than with innate talent. We expect this in language arts, why not life? If we can teach kids the creative writing process, why can’t we teach them the creative living process? If we are going to survive the “unknown” future we are going to need new ways of looking at problems to meet those challenges. If everybody knows the recipe but nobody knows how to cook, how are we going to live much less live well?

Image from: http://api.ning.com/files/vT0cCRtGT-WQgiNdKtNlO0lz6hW7GFWHp*nzcmE9zAIwGK4m4S6eUef8gY1KvKemdqqzhzkcxpQ0DsshcmVDrhwXw*xDLTwu/fingerpaint.jpg

Hart & Risley Turned Inside-Out

In Clayton Christensen’s book, “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Transform Education.” I have finally come to the dreaded chapter on early childhood. In chapter six Christensen says flat out that America shouldn’t invest in voluntary preschool because it won’t work. He then uses one of the most important studies of early language learning, Hart and Risley’s “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children”, to argue that pre-k is too little too late to help kids’ language development. The only supportive evidence he sites is this study. I doubt Hart and Risley would agree that preschool should not be funded because kids make the most gains in language development from 0-3 years old.
Christensen states:

“Rather than funding programs that hire people to substitute for parents who aren’t succeeding at preschool talk, quite possibly we might have a greater impact if we taught children how to b e parents before they become parents.”

I actually agree with the above statement that some prevention, especially parenting courses at the middle school level in health classes, would help prevent some language delays in all children. But, the reality is that Hart and Risley’s study, published in 1995, did not account for the current economic environment. It was also completed before welfare reforms which required poor parents to work. At the time, teaching poor parents how to talk to their children may have been the only intervention needed but now, that would not be enough. What Hart and Risley do not say, and what Chirstensen takes for granted is that it is too late for a child who is 3 or 4 years old to gain language at a rapid pace.
This is why Head Start has, for approximately 15 years, included parent involvement and parent literacy training in its comprehensive services offered and required of parents. In fact, our program recently received an Early Reading First grant through VCU to implement, as part of a holistic literacy program, family literacy strategies based on Hart and Risley’s work. To say that children learn most from 0-3 is not the same as saying kids don’t learn from 3-5. Shouldn’t poor kids have the chance to catch-up even if they do start out behind?

Olympian Michael Phelps and Preschool – (an ADD Story)

When does a deficit become a strength? When does who a child is become more important than society’s norms? When and how do we decide if a child, especially a pre-k student, needs a medical intervention for behavior? When does a bunch of energy become “too much” energy for a parent or a teacher?

My beautiful wife told me about an interview with Olympian Michael Phelps’ mother in the New York Times. It was arranged by a pharmaceutical company that Ms. Phelps is representing as a “celebrity mom” of a person who grew up with Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder or ADD . The strange thing is that Michael never took the drug company’s medication. He was, however, on Ritalin for two years from age 9 to age 11. Then Michael and his mother decided he didn’t want to be on it anymore. His mom, a teacher, listened to the advice of his doctor and teachers who identified his lack of focus and attention in school as ADD. The “signs” were identified early.

Starting with preschool, teachers complained: Michael couldn’t stay quiet at quiet time, Michael wouldn’t sit at circle time, Michael didn’t keep his hands to himself, Michael was giggling and laughing and nudging kids for attention.

As he entered public school, he displayed what his teachers called “immature” behavior. “In kindergarten I was told by his teacher, ‘Michael can’t sit still, Michael can’t be quiet, Michael can’t focus,’ ” recalled Ms. Phelps, who was herself a teacher for 22 years. The family had recently moved, and she felt Michael might be frustrated because the kindergarten curriculum he was getting in the new district was similar to the pre-K curriculum in their old district.

“I said, maybe he’s bored,” Ms. Phelps recalled saying to his teacher. “Her comment to me — ‘Oh, he’s not gifted.’ I told her I didn’t say that, and she didn’t like that much. I was a teacher myself so I didn’t challenge her, I just said, ‘What are you going to do to help him?’ ”

In my years as a pre-k teacher I have encountered true ADD only a handful of times. Every time a child I taught was put on medication it was because the parent couldn’t handle a kid, not because I couldn’t. Often parents have asked me, do you think she needs medication? I always have to say I don’t know, she seems to be able to learn just fine. There are some things about ADD and attention that we confuse when we talk about learning. When we look at the description of Michael’s pre-k experience his learning is never an issue. It is only behavior when he is not learning and how he effects other kids that is an issue for the teacher. Many times teachers confuse attention with learning. When we move our perception of learning from what kids do to what kids know as shown on age appropriate assessments then we take the child’s “behavior” and separate it from learning.

When Michael’s mom told his teacher, “Maybe he’s bored,” the teacher was offended. She thought that if he was bored that he was not within the range of normal child development. That he couldn’t be bored unless he was gifted. This isn’t the way it works. As many pre-k teachers can tell you active learners need to be engaged physically and intellectually. Michael’s mom mentions that in Kindergarten the curriculum was similar to the pre-k curriculum Michael had just completed. This happens to children who are in pre-k all over the country. When a child leaves my class knowing all 26 upper-case letters, lower-case letters, and letter sounds and then goes to Kindergarten with kids who don’t have any of these skills, the teacher can’t stretch far enough to keep up the accelerated pace pre-k students expect. Many times pre-k kids expect appropriate teaching as well, which may include center work, gross motor learning games, and alternated active and passive learning through out the day.

So here are the questions at hand:

If you teach pre-k or have a preschooler, when and how do you decide what is normal energy and what is ADD? What are some steps to take before medication? What has worked and what hasn’t? What is the difference between ADD in girls and boys? Finally, when are the teacher or the school at fault for creating the circumstances where a child is not successful and when is a child’s behavior so “out of the ordinary” that is prohibits success in the classroom? Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Photo from: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/46251-michael-phelps-gets-second-gold-us-wins-in-thrilling-fashion

its OK if I talk to myself

Yes, a researcher has given me, well at least my preschool students, permission to talk to ourselves. This is great because I already talked to myself and of course my students already thought I was crazy. Now I can use this research to show them they are wrong! I actually know what I am doing when I make those noises.
Adam Winsler a researcher at George Mason has conducted a study published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly that finds that preschoolers are better able to perform motor tasks better when they talk to themselves.
He said:

“Young children often talk to themselves as they go about their daily activities, and parents and teachers shouldn’t think of this as weird or bad,” says Winsler. “On the contrary, they should listen to the private speech of kids. It’s a fantastic window into the minds of children.”

In the study “78 percent of the children performed either the same or better on the performance task when speaking to themselves than when they were silent.”

This practice, of talking while doing an activity, is also considered a “best practice” in reading instruction when teachers talk about what they are reading and how they are understanding it as they read aloud to students. It develops metacognition of reading strategies can increase reading comprehension. I remember a particular third grade teacher who I watched do this with astounding skill. She has since moved I will always remember her as one of the most effective teachers I have ever seen.

So, research has confirmed something else I already “knew” but couldn’t prove because I am a teacher, not a researcher. I say this as I continue my doctoral program to become a researcher so please don’t read this as overconfidence, just a desire to possibly look at research in a different light. Am I to going into research to confirm what I already know or am I trying to generate new knowledge?

What was this researcher doing?

Save Humpty Dumpty!

I am always super excited when coincidence and effective practice converge in my classroom. I found out about the Super Why podcast yesterday and then read Karissa’s post on the Pre-K Now blog. If you are a Pre-K teacher and/or a Pre-K parent you might just know that problem solving in Nursery Rhymes and fairy tales is the premise of the awesome new PBS Kids show Super Why. You can even download free podcasts on itunes or another podcasting tool. Vanessa’s post about problem solving and nursery rhymes reminded me of a lesson we did a couple years ago in my classroom, inspired by my daughter’s preschool teacher who had students solve the problem of saving Humpty Dumpty from cracking. In my daughter’s class they used a real egg to represent Humpty. I was a little less keen on the prospects of eggs splattered all over the art area, so we used a plastic egg filled with jelly beans. Students solved the problem using materials gathered in the classroom. The picture below shows on of the pillows from the House area. We were able to talk about how and why Humpty did or didn’t crack. I know I will revisit this theme in the new year. Thanks for the inspiration Vanessa.

Circle Time

It occurred to me after looking at my google analytics that most of my website hits were from people looking for information about how to “do” circle time in a preschool. So, I decided to give the people what they want. I will not focus on the details of the enterprise, like specific songs, finger plays, etc. although I will include those. I will talk about how and why we do circle time and the strategies, as opposed to activities that are most successful at reaching those ends.

So I will start like I start circle time. I just start.

That is the key for me to getting the learning ball rolling. I will take down my guitar or just start singing. When I first began teaching I would try to get all of the kids quiet before I started. I wanted to make sure I was the center of attention.

Over time though I have realized that teaching is not really about me although I am the instrument for what it is about, learning. I know I can’t teach without engagement so I try to do something fun to start off. I also don’t wait for every student to be in the circle before I start. In my school we come from breakfast and must go to the bathroom and wash our hands first thing. Getting all 18 students cycled through this can be time consuming so, I focus on making “circle time” THE place to be, as opposed to in the bathroom or playing in the water at the sink.
With the weight of interest in the circle it is much easier to get the entire class moving in the same direction. Right now my favorite way to start is with the song: I Like the Way that They Stack the Hay by Ella Jenkins from This A Way That Away.