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Why I Teach Head Start

I recently had the opportunity to write an article about why I love teaching for the Learning Matters blog. If I had written this before my “break” as an administrator I would likely have said that I loved teaching because I felt like I made a difference. After having had that time away I found that my explanation of why I teach was much more emotional than I thought it would be. Below is an excerpt from the piece:

I went back to the classroom a little over 10 weeks ago — because I love teaching. For the two and a half years before that, I provided support and supervision to 16 classrooms in our Head Start program. It was responsibility without immediacy. Each day I would see the interactions teachers were having in their classrooms and I would feel like an artist walking into someone else’s studio. As an administrator I could see the result of learning but never the beauty of it. I realized, through talking to children and their passionate teachers, that I missed creating learning more than I could bear. I also missed the huge responsibility of teaching children like Daniel.

Foundation of Health from Harvard: Early Childhood Counts

I have been rediscovering the importance of the earliest years in human development as a child development specialist for our Early Head Start Program. I encourage anyone to watch this video for a primer on the foundation of a healthy life found in early brain development. Oh, and Jack Shonkoff is the bomb-diggity.

The First Day Back

Frenetic. That is the best word to describe the energy in a 3 year-old classroom. The kids were really excited about my guitar. One of my students thought it was a piano. We didn’t spend too much time with it because we need to build up to having more than a two minute attention span. To feel how long two minutes is when you are teaching 3 year-olds click start on the video below and finish reading this post.

The best part of the day was center time. The kids made plans to play in different parts of the room. We used a bulldozer to pick up counting bears. I had one long disjointed conversation on the phone with Rashia. We couldn’t really get past the, “Heay! What you doing? I’ll call you back.” stage of the conversation but it was a start. A boy and a girl put on plastic tool belts and filled them with plastic tools. We banged on stuff with plastic hammers. We banged on a lot of stuff with plastic hammers and we pretended to use power drills. In case you didn’t know, power tools are always cool. Later, we all put on hard hats to build a playground. Kieon put one on me. It was awesome. (Yes I just said wearing a plastic hat that is too small for my head was awesome.) Taniah, who also wanted to have a, “Where you at! I’ll call you back!” conversation started to engage with some materials. Together we built a swing from a shoe string and a piece of plastic. We tried to make a plastic boy swing but his legs didn’t bend so we decided to build a slide. Taniah really had a hard time moving beyond a constant chatter and cursory engagement with materials until we started working to together. Another boy, George, came over to join us. Then Taniah decided she was going to build her own swing. We got distracted and then it was time to clean up.

After that interaction it was like something changed with Taniah. She didn’t test me as much. She also didn’t fuss with her friends as much either. It was like before, she was a balloon being bounced around the classroom never settling in one place. After that is was like I had fastened a string to her. She still bounced and tugged but we were connected.

I love teaching.

(By the way, none of these names are real.)

Digging in My Toy Box

My teacher leader friends and I have often pointed out that administrators lose touch with the reality of the classroom within the three years. I have never really believed it because I was teaching. Then, in 2009 I left the classroom. I felt connected to the teachers I was supervising, so much so that I overlooked some procedural trespasses because I understood what they were doing. Over time I became less sensitive to their day to day life. I swooped in, did my 2 hour observation and left.

I recently found out I will be going back to the classroom. As I have been imagining what it will be like I realized I was rediscovering skills and knowledge I had forgotten. I had forgotten the songs I used for transitions, the details of the reading curriculum, even the books I loved to read so much to the kids. Now that I am planning for my classroom it is like am rediscovering old toys in my toy box. Most of these skills and knowledge will still be useful but some of it won’t. I just spent the last hour loading my old “kids” music on my ipod. I went to a classroom today to play guitar for a little boy who made a special request. As I sat there with my guitar in my lap, I couldn’t remember some of the songs.

But, I muddled through. Then I went to the class next door and played the same songs. It was like night and day. The kids had a great time and so did I. If I hadn’t decided to go back to the classroom I might have lost all of those skills and knowledge.

Can’t wait to read the story above to my students.

Head Start Recess: Time to Go Outside and Eat

The other day I was feeling a little down. After I had checked my 20th lesson plan when I went out to visit my Head Start sites hoping to get to interact with some students and teachers. I purposefully try to schedule the Southside Child Development Center for Friday visits because I am reminded why I love pre-k when I go there. The site is a non-profit child care partner of our Public Head Start program. They have an excellent staff and dynamic director. This particular Friday I showed up while the 3 year-old class was outside. Since recess is one of the things I miss most about the classroom I was stoked. I went outside to find the lead teacher in the back part of the pla ground. She and her little boys and girl were picking the last of the Kale from the garden. They had picked the last of the broccoli a few weeks before and enjoyed it as a classroom cooking project.

The students were having so much fun helping the teacher. They were discriminating color, shape, and textures of different types of leaves and picking them to give to the teacher. I am sure the teacher would talk about how healthy it is to eat. The students kept saying, “My grandma make Kale Ms. M___.”

It made my day.

Children get the same types of experiences at the William Byrd Community House that not only has an edible garden for the Head Start students there but a farmers market that takes Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) cards. The program, formerly known as food stamps, is trying to help families with limited income to eat healthy by making vegetables available through farmers markets and even as seeds and plants for SNAP gardens.

I was excited to read that in California the Western Growers Foundation had recently provided 100 $1000 grants for preschool edible gardens. This is the type of investment in an idea that can transform not only the preschools but the lives of children. There are so many things that can be learned from growing a garden, from care for living things to seeing and describing transformations. With the current crisis in childhood obesity it looks like schools are going to have to start making nutrition education a priority. Of course parents want to do the best for their children but parents are not able to make the time in hectic lives for such a subtle body of knowledge.

The good news is children will finally get to play with their vegetables.

Thankful for Nicholas Kristoff and Arne Duncan

Hey We Agree!

As an early childhood educator it comes naturally to me to be hopeful because I see potential in the eyes of students every day. When I started getting into researching and writing about early childhood policy I started to get a little more tarnished if not actually jaded. I ran into people who didn’t think pre-K was a good idea. I felt the same way my friend Marsha Ratzel, an economist turned teacher did:

“No duh is what I always want to say. I’m no EC whiz kid, but it only makes sense. After listening to a report a few years back on the long term impact of Project Head Start on people 20+ afterwards, I’m sold. What else do people need besides common sense and a little data to nudge them over the edge?”

It was a no brainer to me too but then I ran into Jo Lynne DeMary who challenged my thinking in an educational policy issues class to convince her that funding pre-K is important without only using the economic argument. She had been the State Superintendent of Virginia and even though she supported the beginning of state funded pre-K during her tenure, when it came down to money, pre-K was always the first place to look at for a cut. To her it made sense, in a pragmatic way, to invest in kids in middle school who might drop out or might not depending on what we do instead of kids who had most of their educational career ahead of them. Since then I have tried to take a different track. I have tried to tell  stories about why pre-K is important and use a more palpable logic in my arguments to support pre-K. Still, it does make me happy and thankful when a respected conservative finally gets the head-slapper and agrees with most early childhood people when he says invest in pre-K. Some day I hope to personally thank Mr. Kristoff for saying this publically,

“the question isn’t whether we can afford early childhood education, but whether we can afford not to provide it. We can pay for prisons or we can pay, less, for early childhood education to help build a fairer and more equitable nation.”

I also want to take a second to thank Arne Duncan. I have had many misgivings with Mr. Duncan’s tenure as the Secretary of Education, but thankfully not as many as I had with the last Secretary of Education. Just recently Duncan’s office announced it was creating an office of Early Childhood Education and appointed Jacqueline Jones to lead it. The office will focus on supporting education Birth to age 8. I am thankful for Arne Duncan because he is the first Secretary of Education to acknowledge the critical important of early childhood by speaking at a NAEYC conference and now he has created an office in the department of education. For years public pre-K has been grant grant funded and always the first on the chopping block. This move makes it even more likely that funding for pre-K will become more systemic and embedded in state funding structures.

KinderTown App-itude

Thanks to Richard Byrne at free technology for teachers, I just found a great resource for early childhood learning apps for iPads, iPhone, and iPod. KinderTown is a free learning app clearinghouse for parents and educators. It develops, tests, and promotes apps for all types of skills and knowledge development. Every app is reviewed by educators so you won’t find nonsense QUOTE learning games, or apps that just don’t help kids. Its free, so check it out and increase your App-itude.  Now if we can just get those developers to make games that grow with kids.

The New CEO of the NBPTS

I am really excited about the new leader of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Ron Thorpe. He seems to be a great match for the organization that is primed to enter a new era and transform into more than a credentialing agency. Here is an excerpt from the post I just published on the Teaching 2030: Future of Teaching Blog I co-write with Jose Vilson and other future thinking educators.

The NBPTS holds at the ready what may be the most powerful untapped resource for educational change in our nation: 91,000 accomplished teachers. Ron, I hope you are prepared (and eager) to collaborate with these expert educators in authentic ways. I hope that you, an accomplished executive, are able to recognize the limits your expertise—learning from and leading with accomplished educators who have a deep understanding of teachers and teaching.

I hope that I get to meet Ron some day and get to know him a little better, and I hope that we get to know him through what he does, not just what he says.

Lesson Plans in Head Start = Family Involvment

On the blog I co-author with Teaching 2030 co-authors, mostly Jose Vilson I published a post about what lesson plans are used for in schools. In the past, lesson plans have always been a way for teachers to plan for student success based on the curriculum and goals. Lesson plans in a child centered early learning classroom are something different especially in Head Start.

Lesson plans in Head Start are way to incorporate parent voice in their child’s education. It is critical that the parents of the at-risk students in our program are involved in goal setting and curriculum. This step is often a game changer in how our parents approach school. Most have never had a voice in their education and working with a teacher to develop their child can be a very powerful experience for the parents and teacher. Here is an excerpt from that post.

In our Head Start classrooms every student has at least two individual goals that are revised based on observation and assessment in an Individual Learning Plan four times a year. Mathematically this teacher’s planning responsibilities look like this:

1 Teacher’s practice = (19 students x 2 goals) *4 (parent interactions for goal adjustment based on assessment) * (38 key experiences (read as standards)) * (26 upper case letters) * (26 lower case letters) * (26 letter sounds) * (Rhyming)  * (vocabulary) etc….

In this complex formula, in which early childhood teachers are responsible for everything from wiping noses to developing algebra readiness, teachers are accountable to parents and students at an individual level. My colleague’s lesson plans were to be displayed in the “Parent Corner” for all parents to see. Yes, in our Head Start program we publicly display lesson plans as an accountability measure and a way to teach parents about our curriculum. The Individual Learning Plans were to be incorporated into the plan in substantive ways.

Image: http://myvirtualpencil.blogspot.com/2011/01/paradigm-shift.html

Foster Grandparents in Head Start = Love

Head Start is commonly evaluated for effectiveness based on the gains made in emergent literacy. While this is an important aspect of the Head Start experience it is not the only important thing Head Start does. The organization collaborates with community partners to create opportunities that enrich an entire community. One approach that is used in many communities is the Foster Grandparent Program. This program uses grant funds to support grandparent volunteers. These volunteers spend each day helping to nurture some of our neediest children in the education system.

When I had foster grandparents in my classroom they loved to talk with the children about their lives and share their rich experiences. The last foster grandparent I had was named Ms. Granderson. She had lived in the school neighborhood almost her whole life. She had operated a dress shop, been a minister, and participated in a lunch counter sit in. She was 82 when she joined us and stayed for 3 years until her health got the best of her.

She was a big help in the classroom, always eager to participate in the learning experience and sensitive to the needs of the children. I learned a great deal from her as a human being. She was an inspiration. The opportunity to give back was so important to her and her warm presence helped my students get that little bit of extra love that made them feel as special as they are.

I can only imagine how important the foster grandparent program would be in an Early Head Start (EHS) program. Many EHS parents are young mothers, some not even out of high school. To have a grandparent figure in the classroom for 2 and 3 year-old children can not only help the children but also the young mothers who might need a bridge to span the gap left by negative experiences in school. Foster Grandparents are an important part of the Head Start picture because they deliver to students and families one of the most important things Head Start provides, love.

Thanks to Yasmina Vinci, Executive Director of the National Head Start Association for the link to the story that inspired this post.

Image: http://www.greatfallstribune.com/article/20110904/LIFESTYLE/109040308/Foster-grandparents-changing-shaping-children-s-lives?fb_ref=artrectop&fb_source=profile_oneline