24 April, 2015

Curiosity and Emergent Curriculum

I recently read this article written in the Scientific American about how curiosity is linked with the storage of long-term memory.  I also read a response to the article, directed at teachers, which concluded that we need to strive to "make children curious about our subject matter." While this interpretation makes sense in the context of a widespread understanding of education and the way the current system is designed in our country, I found myself at odds with that conclusion.  What I thought when I read the response was No way! We as teachers need to strive to look at what children are already curious about, and give them more opportunities to explore that.  I have in the past few years felt a deep frustration with the schools where I have taught because it has felt as if we are creating extra work for ourselves by trying to induce a state of curiosity in students rather than engaging in (what I feel) an approach that requires some reframing, but which in the long run, I believe leads to less frustration (both for students and teachers), and a higher degree of engagement (again for both students and teachers).  The philosophy of education that I studied and that I feel committed to, is called emergent curriculum, and I would like to take a few minutes to share about this philosophy, and  what I believe is possible if we rethink our current practices.   
Because it involves the teacher observing to find out what the children are already curious about, emergent curriculum flips on it’s head some of what we hold to be evident about how to run and to "manage" a classroom.  In this post I will write about two classroom scenarios, the first is from a real classroom that I have (sadly) worked in, and is based on a more traditional (albeit “play-based” classroom). The second is more in line with an emergent curriculum approach, and is how I believe a classroom could look, if we were willing to alter our approach, and to let go of a small amount of control. 

The case for Sam and his love of blocks:
Sam (a real child who I worked with but whose name I have changed) is 4 years old.  Sam loves blocks.  If he could have his way all he would do all the time is play with blocks.  He loves to stack them, to knock them, to line them up, and when there are other children around you can hear him inviting them into his play by saying, Hey! Want to build a transformer bad guy with me? There are two more things about Sam that the teachers have seen. One is that he is a very sensory seeking child.  He is constantly touching everything, falls out of his chair on a regular basis, and insists on taking off his shoes multiple times a day.  Sam also seems afraid of getting things “wrong” and often cries to the point of shutting down completely when he senses pressure from adults.  Whenever he perceives that an adult is upset with him he asks, Am I being a good boy? And Can I give you a hug?

Sam in classroom scenario number 1 (Note: this scenario actually happened in the classroom where I worked for a year.  It was a school which proclaimed to value "play-based"education and "student voice"):
Sam comes in in the morning, eats his breakfast goes through the routine of morning meeting. He makes it to “crew time” a chance for a group (predetermined by the teacher) to work together in different areas.  Sam’s crew is assigned to blocks as their first center.  Sam says, YES! and quickly begins building, and working with other children. 

Thirteen minutes go by and the teacher announces, “two more minutes to play”, indicating that there will be a transition soon, and that the children will need to clean up and switch to a new (determined by the teacher) area.  In the block area, the teacher reminds them, this means they need to “stop now” because the mess is so big, and begin to clean up so the area will be ready for the next children.  Sam begins to cry.  The teacher comes over and says, Sam you need to learn to say “no big deal” go use a tool to calm down. Sam goes over and squeezes the thera-putty (which has been set up for children who are learning self-soothing techniques) for a few minutes and when he is calm he comes back to the carpet where the children are sitting to find out where they will be sent next. 

The teacher rotates the crews and Sam’s crew ends up at the still life drawing table.  Again Sam begins to cry, and starts to scream.  When he tries to explain to the teacher how he feels, by telling her I’m sad, because I want to use blocks. The teacher responds, Here at school, you are part of a group, and you need to go where your crew is. Sam screams louder, and the teacher says, Stop crying.  You are not in charge.  If you don’t stop taking over the whole class with your screaming you will have to leave the room.

Sam (through tears, and knowing that if he doesn’t listen he will get an X on a behavior modification chart designed to "help" him by taking away his lego play, (his favorite thing to do at home) when he "misbehaves" a certain number of times) says, okay… I'm sorry I'm being a bad boy and takes a deep breath.  With his shoulders hunched forward, his head down, and shuffling his feet, he goes over to the still life area to join his crew.  When he sits down, he picks up a pencil (very loosely and with his hand shaking) and makes some marks on the paper.  He then begins to cry again.  The other teacher comes over and says, what’s the matter Sam? He crumples up his paper, throws it on the floor and says (again through tears) I can’t do it! The second teacher works with him step by step to choose a new paper, select a colored pencil, and breaks it down piece by piece for him to be able to get started on using these tools in order to complete the “assignment”.

The goals in this area are for the children to draw what they see, including shape, color, and texture (without touching it), and putting their names on it.  Sam quietly cries the entire time he is at the still life area, and the second teacher spends the whole time one on one with him in this area (afraid that if she leaves he will disassemble the still life the other children are working on because he wants to touch the soft things in the box, wander away, or just sit there crying).  As she is working one on one, she is unavailable to the rest of the class to help solve conflicts, to observe what children are doing, or to help set up the next part of the day.  After 15 minutes the children are told it’s time to clean up, and Sam (tearfully) puts the pencils back in the jar, and then asks, Now can I go back to blocks? To which the teacher must (because of the way the system has been designed) respond, No. You have to wait until your crew goes there again (another day).

Sam in classroom scenario 2 (made possible through the use of an emergent curriculum model):
Sam arrives and eats breakfast.  He goes through the morning meeting routine until “project time” where children select which of the on-going projects they want to work on for the next hour (the teachers have worked with students and used their observations of how children have used the space to set up each area based off of what the children are interested in, and what they have seen them learning so far).  Sam chooses to continue building a giant transformer out of blocks. 

Once all the children have selected their area, a teacher comes over and sits with the children in the block area.  The teacher notices Wow, your transformer has a lot of parts!  Can you tell me which shapes you used for his arms? Sam responds by pointing to the different blocks, and naming some shapes.  The teacher writes down what he says on a clipboard (incorporating literacy as an important practice in the classroom) which is hanging in the area to help document the learning that has happened in this area over time. She then asks wait… how many triangles did you use? And Sam works to count them (she is checking his one to one correspondence skills, so she can make sure he is meeting the state standards for children his age, and to be sure there are no concerns that need to be raised about his development in this domain of learning). 

Since the children’s work is on-going, the teacher has noticed that Sam has come to block area every day this week, and that he doesn’t often choose to join projects that require writing implements.  She brings over a jar of pencils and a clipboard with a piece of paper.  She says to Sam, Sam, did you know that designers use these tools to help them remember the work they have done, and to work on creating a plan?  I can see how hard you are working to design your transformer.  Before you continue your work will you draw a picture of your transformer? (this invitation is designed to meet the same goal as replicating the shapes you see in classroom scenario number 1) Sam takes the pencil (loosely) and makes marks on the paper.  He begins to cry, I can’t do it! he says.  The teacher says, I have an idea. Why don’t you take a block and trace the shape, to help you practice getting it the way you want it to be? Sam decides that is a good idea and chooses the blocks he wants to trace. The teacher looks at his work and says,  Oh! And don't forget to write your name on it, so we know who made that transformer. 

While he is working the teacher has her eyes and ears open for other areas where children might be having a conflict, and while Sam is working independently on tracing the block she walks away for a few moments to check on other children, ask them questions, and document what they are doing.  She returns a few minutes later to take photos of the transformer (which she will have on hand to discuss with her co-teacher, to print hang in the block area as an invitation to the children to reflect on, and use as a reference.  She will also save the drawings and photos to help children make decisions about how to move forward with their project.  Depending on what area of learning she has observed, she may ask a variety of questions regarding next steps.  Some ideas are whether they want to change the size or materials of the transformer, or if they want to begin to build other things to go along with it).

There are several other children working in the block area as well, and they periodically ask Sam questions about his work.  At one point Sam tries to take a rectangle block from the structure of another child, and the other child gets upset and yells at him.  The teacher comes over and asks what happened.  When they tell her she says to Sam, Remember Sam, here at school you are part of a group.  I can tell that you were hoping to use a rectangle in your work.  Did you ask Anna if she was done with that block? Sam says, No. Then the teacher asks, Where else do you think you could get a rectangle? To which Anna replies, You could get one from the shelf! The teacher says, Did you hear that Sam? Thanks for that suggestion Anna. Sam gives the rectangle block back to Anna, and gets another one from the shelf.  After 45 minutes the children are given a five minute warning until it is time to clean up, and a reminder that they will be able to continue their work later if they don’t feel that it is done.

In both scenarios it is expected that Sam try to draw what he sees.  In both scenarios Sam finds using a writing implement difficult, and in both scenarios Sam is provided with scaffolding to support him in doing the work.  The main difference in these scenarios to me is how the environment feels, both to Sam and to the teacher.

In the first scenario Sam spends a great deal of time in transition (every fifteen minutes), feeling like he is missing out on what he would rather be doing (playing with blocks), experiencing limits on his desires (not touching the still life), feeling like he can’t do what is being asked of him (draw what he sees) without explicit adult support, and probably getting the message that the teacher isn’t there to help him, but to force him to comply.  He is also getting the message that in order to “be part of group” he has to give up his own interests and desires, and that expressing how he feels makes him "bad"and that expressing his feelings leads to punishment (having his favorite activity taken away at home).

In the second scenario, Sam spends a great deal of time (45 minutes) working in the area that interests him.  He is offered support that allows him to figure out how to do what is asked of him (drawing what he sees by being able to touch and trace the blocks) and he is getting the message that the teacher wants to work with him to expand his ideas, and that there is more to building than just putting blocks together (math, literacy, and fine motor skills are all part of this work). He is getting the message that “being part of a group” means that everybody’s work is important, that the teacher cares about his work and wants to help him get what he needs, but that it is his responsibility to speak with other people about his idea in order to get what he wants, rather than just taking it.  

I feel a deep sadness about my participation in the first classroom scenario, and how frequently children experience this type of environment.  When I am in this type of classroom I find myself spending all my time redirecting, hovering, saying no and enforcing rules, and there is no space for me to experience my own curiosity about what it is that Sam knows, or to try to engage in figuring out how to best support him in showing it.  

The article about curiosity was a reminder to me about my own learning, and growth as a teacher, and has helped me remember why I am so committed to the emergent curriculum philosophy, model and practice.  I hope soon to be able to return to the joyful and exciting part of what it can mean to be a teacher, and I hope that other teachers can find the places in their own work for curiosity and growth.

Side note: I am currently looking for work.  If this post resonates with you, and you work at an infant/toddler or preschool center (in the Boston area) where this approach is happening and you are hiring (or looking for someone to come in and consult/ offer feedback on your teaching based off of observations) please contact me.

10 June, 2012

What does it mean to be powerful?

The following post is based off of two journal entries I wrote several years ago when working with a group of preschoolers.  I still find them to be relevant, and thought I should share them.

"What does it mean to be powerful?" This is a question I see arising daily in my classroom.  Today a mother asked me about the ratio of boys to girls in our class. "There are nine boys, and three girls" I told her. "Oh... [nodding her head] I thought so.  Your room just seems to have that boy energy."  While I tend not to put much stock in gender based categorizations, as my understanding of gender is that it is a non-binary social construct, what she said echoed assumptions that I have heard over and over.  And it  got me thinking. I'm assuming based on the behaviors that exist in my class at this moment that what this mother (and many other people I have talked to in the past) called 'boy energy' was most likely rambunctious and sometimes violent. This got me to thinking about the role of violent play in my classroom.

Over the past few days there have been many interactions that end with (both boys and girls saying) "well, then I'm going to shoot you!"  When I hear children making statements such as this I don't go to a place of fear or anger but to a place of sadness.  I wonder, "how powerless must someone feel to think that the only way they can get power in a situation is to threaten the use of violence toward the person with whom they have a conflict?" (granted most children don't have a firsthand knowledge of the real impact of shooting someone, which is why other threats like, "then you're not coming to my birthday party!" or, "fine! then you're not my friend!" to me have the same impact). 

If this is the talk and energy that is being associated with boys, doesn't that tell us that our boys are feeling powerless?  If so, I think we should be asking ourselves about the ways we can empower them.  I feel that the traditional model of education and even the traditional response to the threat of shooting someone (which is usually in essence "threats aren't allowed, so you can't say that") does exactly the opposite*. By ignoring the underlying need to find power we doing children a disservice, and perpetuating their feeling of powerlessness.  I'm wondering what opportunities, strategies, and examples we can offer of non-destructive ways for all children (because seeking power is not limited to one gender) to find the power they seek. 

The research question in our classroom right now has to do with the power of friendship.  I believe that there is power and bravery in kindness and in caring.  I have found that often there is  more strength in being a friend and in working with those with whom you disagree, than in overpowering someone physically or emotionally.  When threatening and destructive statements run rampant (as they seem to be in my class right now) it seems to lead everyone to operate from a place of fear and defense.  I have been asking myself,  how can I help children make the shift between these two drastically different understandings of power?  How do we as people grow into an understanding of the power of caring/being connected with someone else?  How can I foster that within my classroom?

A glimpse into the classroom:
Three children (Sam, Joe, and Bill) are in the large motor space.  Sam picks up a block, aims it at Joe and Bill and starts yelling "bam, bam, bam!" They start yelling for him to stop.  Since they seem to be getting upset.  I decide to intervene, telling Sam that guns aren't allowed at school(*as noted above I have mixed feelings about this response and as I say it I am in the process of thinking through other options) to which he replies,"It's not a gun. It's spraying gumballs." 

I think for a minute... Realizing that my concern with "shooting" games is twofold.  My first issue is that (in my experience) children use the "shooter" to overpower other children, which happens regardless of what is being "shot" (besides gumballs, I have heard of shooting fire, goo, candy, water, soap etc.) In my mind the intention of this game is to make someone else feel less powerful (or yourself feel more powerful) by using a weapon of some kind. My second concern with this game is the assaulting volume of  "psh psh psh" or "bam bam bam!" sounds coming from the weapons.  I also realize that if these concerns were not present, I actually wouldn't have a problem with stuff being shot, or children using guns.  

"Okay Sam..." I say, "...but if you want to shoot Joe and Bill with gumballs you have to ask them first." He turns to Joe. "You want me shoot you with gumballs?" Joe thinks for a minute then responds, "Yeah!"  Sam shoots him, and they both collapse on the floor laughing. Sam turns to me and asks, "can I shoot you?" I say, "sure." then when he shoots me I pretend to catch a gumball and eat it.  Sam continues shooting and Joe and Bill begin pretending to collect gumballs.  

It seems that when the shooter asks for permission (and respects the answer) the game changes from one of domination to one of invitation, joint understanding, and shared enjoyment.  The other thing that changes is that when a child gives another child permission to say "no" they are actually giving them power rather than taking it away, and they discover that acceptance of a good idea can feel powerful as well. 

So what:
It seems to me that if at a young age we empower children to find ways of feeling powerful in their own right, through use of real materials (see post soon to come on materials) and sharing power rather than through the use of threats, violence, coercion, and power-over others as adults they might feel more powerful and a stronger sense of connection with one another.

29 April, 2012

Food for thought: what is really meant by "food curriculum"?

Over the past few weeks I have been thinking a lot about my place of work, and how much I value what we offer children. 

One of the biggest points of pride for me is our culture around food.  Our children come from a variety of food environments.  Some come from families with lots of access to nutritious food, and information about what is required for children to be healthy.  Others come from families with little access to this information, or to the quality or quantity of food needed to adequately meet the nutritional needs of their children.  Our program is lucky enough to get funding from the state, reimbursing us for the meals that our cook (Erinn) expertly and lovingly prepares for the children each day. (check out her blog at: www.bcslunchlady.blogspot.com)  I am grateful for this funding, and appreciate the fact that Vermont is trying to make nutrition a priority for young children.

With all of that said, I also find it off-putting how narrowly (and in my opinion falsely) the state defines curriculum.  I am concerned by the promotion of activities rather than experiences and relationships as being the primary way that children learn. And I am frustrated with the lack of recognition of what happens at our center as a valid form of  curriculum.  

A glimpse into our environment:
As you walk into the toddler kitchen (where 18 1-2 year olds gather to eat snack and lunch each day) you see multiple 11x14 photos of the children, taken during a variety of food experiences (at our weekly summer trips to the farmers market, in the lunch room, cutting fruit, spreading jam on toast, eating, setting the table etc.)  

One of the walls in the kitchen is painted with chalkboard paint giving children the chance to write/draw what we will be eating for snack and lunch on a given day.  On part of this wall are black and white photos of the children at mealtime. In these photos they are talking, eating, and laughing.  

On one of the shelves is a laminated sheet with questions generated by the children that they can ask each other at mealtimes (i.e. what is your favorite part of this meal? What was your favorite part of the morning? What book are you going to read at rest time?). 

The rest of the shelves are filled with natural materials for children to use in building centerpieces for the table when it is time to help set the table and prepare for meals. 

From the window in the kitchen you can see outside onto the playground where there is documentation of the garden that the children planted the year before.  There are photos of them hauling the compost from the big pile in the parking lot and spreading it into the dirt on the playground.  There are  images of them watering the garden, picking, looking at, cutting up, and tasting the cucumbers that the garden produced.  

Also visible from the window is the window box full of basil and other herbs that the children grew and tasted (along with tomatoes that they bought at the store during an outing, and cut up themselves).

In the classroom there is a kitchen area with varying food related items (wooden fruit, cupcakes with removable frosting that can be decorated, bread dough made by the children, many containers, rolling pins, and lots of other tools including plates, tea-cups and napkins to help facilitate dramatic play related to food).  

On the shelf there are more photos of children cooking, using dough, and participating in dramatic play "parties" and "dinners".  There are also observations posted on the walls with the conversations the children have had during mealtimes.  

A glimpse into a mealtime conversation:


Five children are sitting together with a teacher in the kitchen.  The table is set, and there are bowls of purple cabbage, rice, oranges, and chicken.

Child 1: I love cabbage!
Child 2: I love cabbage too!
Child 3: I don't.
Child 4 [to the teacher]: This is my favorite kind of rice.  Did you know you can make curry rice too?
[Child 5 (an ELL student) takes a bite of the cabbage]: It's crunchy!
Child 4: I tasted it, and I thought it was sweet.
[Child 1 has eaten 6 slices of orange.  She looks over at the table of younger toddlers who are having grapes, and says to the teacher]: They are having grapes for their fruit.  So we can have lots of oranges! [she looks over to another table of older toddlers] Hey, does anyone at your table want oranges?
Child 6 [who is sitting at the other table]: I don't.  

What I see:
In this conversation there are many things that stand out for me.  The first of which is how much of the conversation is being driven by the children.  When given a choice children (and I think adults too) will talk about what they are interested in, and it is clear from this conversation that they are interested in food.  They love to describe the taste, and the texture of the food they are eating. 

It is also an opportunity for them to learn about themselves, and others. They have the capacity to decide what they like and what they don't like, to try new things, and to stick with their own preferences.  They are learning that it's okay to disagree.  

One child makes the connection between food he eats at home (curry rice) and the food they are eating now.  Another child uses this time as a way to take care of others, making sure that everyone has a chance to have some oranges (even though, or perhaps because they are her favorite).  

There is so much more to this mealtime experience than classification of food, and ability to repeat the names of fruits or vegetables (which you may have also noticed happened as well.  Without teacher prompting). 

A glimpse into a professional development training offered by the state:
The woman who supervises our food program arrives, and after walking through the spaces just described settles into the preschool kitchen (an environment also rich in reminders of children's experiences with food) to talk to us about "food curriculum".  She tells us she is going to teach us some ways of getting children to learn about food (I wonder if she has taken the time to look around at all).  She then proceeds to pass out papers with the outlined shape of a squash drawn on them, along with some squash seeds.  She tells us that we can practice doing this "fun" activity and then offer it as a way for the children in our classrooms to learn about squash. Then she instructs us to glue the squash seeds inside the outlined shape of the squash on the paper. (I am dubious that paper and glue have anything to do with eating squash... and find it hard to participate in this "fun" activity.)  

Several teachers make patterns within the outline using multiple types of seeds to create visually appealing versions of the squash.  When we have finished she looks around at the variety of squashes and then tells us that we should encourage children to fill in the squash entirely, using the seeds from only the one particular type of squash, to help them understand that this is the type of squash that it grows. (I am still at a loss for the connection she is seeing between this piece of paper with a shape on it, and the experience of eating a buttery well prepared piece of summer squash... or the process of growth for that matter.  The materials I associate with the growth of vegetables are earth, water, sunshine, and the outdoors...)    

At the end of the two hour training (after we "learn" several more activities, including some "new" songs about how things grow) she again walks through our classrooms, and past our documentation, and as she is about to leave she says, "We really do recommend that every program we give funding to try to implement some kind of food curriculum."

So what...
Over the course of this training I went from being frustrated, to being offended by the the complete and utter lack of recognition of the opportunities we provide and the relationship that our children have with food as a valid form of "curriculum".  

As teachers we work hard to make all of our environments not only educational, but meaningful and nourishing to children, and I feel that our food environment is one of the strongest ones at our entire center.  We understand that children learn from experience, and I am concerned that the people who are charged with "educating" teachers about nutrition don't seem to understand that children benefit more from the opportunity to stick their hands in soil, plant seeds in a garden, pick the squash when it finally comes up, cut it open and find the seeds inside, help prepare it, and enjoy tasting it in the company of friends, than they do from sitting still in a chair and being told how to glue seeds to a piece of paper.  

The frustration that I experienced from that training has driven me to create a book (that will hopefully be for sale soon) that shows the culture of food that exists at our center, and frames environment, relationship, and experience as an integral part of what I/we define as curriculum.  

I believe that through our food program our children have developed a deep and meaningful knowledge of food.  Listening to our children talk during meals, watching them taste (and often finish) all the food on their plates, seeing their deep interest in the growing process, their curiosity about ingredients of food, their sheer joy at sitting down to eat together, and their constant desire to share the experience of eating with others, to me, is the most important evidence of not just learning, but a life well lived, which is for me the top priority.

30 January, 2012

What is my real work?

As I mention at the beginning of this blog, one of the reasons I have started to write about my work is to call into question the assumptions about the work that I do, and to advocate for it's value.  I often feel an incongruence between my understanding of what is happening in my room, and what others might see from looking in.  For example, when I tell people that my concentration was (in part) Women's Studies I am often met with confusion. "You're going to teach toddlers about feminism?" 

This question is the underpinning of what I believe to be a set of assumptions about education that have led us astray.  The assumption that teaching means passing down pieces of information, not working together to understand the world around us.  That "feminism" (or anti-racism, or peace and concepts of justice) is somehow taught and not lived, and that what we do in the classroom is limited to that particular space.  I think that people also often assume that what looks like play is just that, play.  But I ask you to consider what is really happening in a "simple" play scenario. 

A glimpse into the classroom:
Several children have gathered around a sensory table filled with magnetic wands and several metal pieces.  Two of the children are holding the wands, and watching as they attract the pieces of metal.  One of the children looks up and says, "wow this sticks to everything."

A glimpse into my mind:
This child has just formed a "schema" or an idea about how something works.  Magnetic wands stick to "everything" because "everything" in the bin is metal.  What will happen if I introduce another non-magnetic material?

The next day...
I have added some wooden pieces into the bin along with the metal pieces from the day before.  When the children arrive the same child goes over to the sensory table.  She picks up the wand and starts attracting the metal pieces.  When she gets to one of the wooden pieces and it doesn't stick I point it out. "Hey!  I remember yesterday, you said that that wand stuck to everything.  What happened?  Why isn't it sticking?" The child considers this for a moment and then begins to walk around the room trying to stick the wand to other things she finds.  

So what:
The reason that this is interesting to me is not so much for the answer to the question "why isn't it sticking?" or even of the eventual discovery of the fact that metal sticks to magnets and wood doesn't.  What is important to me here is the internal conflict between what happened yesterday (when the wand stuck to "everything") and the experience that has just occurred (it only sticks to some things).  What I am interested in is how this child makes sense of new information, how she processes what she experiences given what she thinks she knows (or her previous understanding of the world based on her prior experiences).  Does she choose to embrace this new information, or reject it as incorrect or inconceivable? 

In one of my sociology courses (also part of my concentration) we learned about how prejudice forms.  Someone has an experience with a person, and it leads them to have an idea about that type of person (someone with glasses, someone in a wheelchair, someone with AIDS, a white person, a person of color, someone of a particular religion etc.) This seems clear.  What was interesting to me (and relevant to my work) is the way the brain then responds when someone with the same characteristics acts in a different way.  We learned that there are two general ways for the brain to respond to this new information.  The first is to recreate your schema (this wand sticks to everything...) and accept that you may have only had a partial understanding of that person (oh no, wait, it only sticks to some things... i must not have had a complete picture of how this wand works, or all of it's properties) which may lead you to a desire to find out more about them (what else will this wand stick to?) and gain a more complete understanding of the world (ah! It sticks to metal, but not wood...) Alternatively, some people's brains are more predisposed to create what are called "outliers" to help explain this inconsistency.  When this happens they continue to hold their original belief about the person, believing that the new behavior is an exception rather than an indicator that they have an incomplete knowledge, and they are not led to try to learn anything else.

As I indicated in the parentheses, I believe that there is a direct correlation between challenging children to re-think their schemas, and developing the type of brain that is not only okay with inconsistency, but utilizes it as an opportunity to gain a more complete understanding of the world, and the people in it.  I believe that my work doesn't just help children understand the properties of materials and how they interact with one another, or that one plus one is two, but that my real work is to help children develop brains that are not beholden to binary systems (which I believe are so frequently not the reality) and to become people who use internal conflict to become better citizens in the world by seeking to understand, not shut out what they don't yet know.  

31 October, 2011

What is fair?

Often in my work over the past few years I have heard teachers telling children "you have to share." or children running up and saying "so and so is not sharing with me."   My question is, what does it mean to share? Too often I think our answer is that, one person has to give up what they have, so that someone else can have it instead.  Perhaps sometimes we mean that something must be split fairly between people.  But what is fair? And who decides?  In my classroom one of the only rules is that when there is a disagreement the children can't proceed until everyone involved in the conflict is satisfied with the outcome.  When this is the expectation, the solutions are often ones that I couldn't have imagined, and that meet the needs of each child in a way that I couldn't have done on my own.

A glimpse into the classroom:
We are at the playground and two children have been climbing up the rock wall.  One of the children reaches the top, then rushes down the slide, and runs in front of the other child who is about to begin climbing.  The child who was about the begin his assent starts to yell, and when the other child keeps climbing he asks me for help.  I tell the climber to get down so we can figure out what to do.  The following conversation ensues between Child 1 (C1) Child 2 (C2) and the teacher (T):
C1- I was about to climb up there, and you just got right in front of me.
C2- I really wanted to climb up.
C1- But I really wanted to climb up!
T- It seems like we have a problem.  You both really want to climb up.  What can we do?
C1- I know!  We can take turns.
T- That sounds like a good idea, but how will you know who will go first?
C1- I will.
C2- No.  Me.
T- It seems like you are still stuck because you both want to go first.  I wonder what you can figure out so you will both be happy.
C1-I have an idea.  How about since he just wants to go so bad right now, he could climb half way up, then jump down, and then i could go two times.  How does that sound?
T (to c2)- what do you think of that idea?
C2- yeah!
Child 2 climbs halfway up, then jumps down and child 1 climbs up twice in a row.  Both seem happy, and continue to take turns one at a time.

On another day...
Two children are arguing over a toy dinosaur they have found in a basket.  They are pulling the dinosaur and yelling over one another.  I walk over and ask what is going on.  The following conversation occurs:
C1- I really want to use that dinosaur and I had it first!
C2-No!  I had it first!
C1-No!  I did!
T- Well I didn't see who had it first.  Why don't I hold on to it, until you can work something out that you both agree to, and then I will give it to whoever you decide.
C1- We could share it.
T- What does that mean?
C1- I don't know.  We could take turns?
C2- Yeah, and I will get it first, then you can have it.
C1- No.  I will have it first then you can have it.
Child 2 shakes his head
T- I notice there are lots of other dinosaurs.
C1- yeah!  How bout you use this one (brings over another one) and I use this one (pointing to the one that the teacher is holding).
C2- No!  I want to use that one (pointing to the dinosaur the teacher is holding)
C1- how about if he uses that one, and I have this one for five minutes then I give it to him?
T (to c2)- what do you think of that idea?
Child 2 shakes his head no.
T- He doesn't agree. I guess we will have to think of something else. (to child 2) Since you don't like his idea, what is your idea?
C2- Just, I have it for a few minutes then trade.
Child 1 shakes his head no.
T- It doesn't sound like you are in agreement.  I wonder if there is a different way to decide who gets it first.
C1- I know!  How about if you hide it somewhere in the classroom and we have to close our eyes and try to find it, and whoever finds it first gets to use it.
T (to c2)- Does that seem like a good idea?
C2- Yeah.  I think so.
T- So you both agree that whoever finds it first will get to use it first?
Both children nod their heads.
C2- But don't hide it somewhere easy, because then if we both find it at the same time, we will have to do this all over again!
C1- Yeah! And no peeking!

So what...
What is beautiful to me about these two scenarios is that they demonstrate what is possible when two people forced to talk and one person doesn't have the upper hand.  So often in our classrooms, and in our communities there is one person (or group of people) holding the power, and another who gets the short end of the stick.  So often both parties miss out on the opportunity for deeper understanding of each others needs, and of their own capacity to compromise.

It is easy to create a space with equal power in a classroom when all you have to do is hold a toy and ask questions.  But how can we create those spaces in the rest of our world when the expectation isn't about everyone being happy, and power is clung to SO tightly.  How can we re-create the power dynamics so that it is possible for everyone to be heard and to get what they need?

My thoughts this evening are drawn to the Occupy movement, and it's potential for taking steps in this direction.  I am grateful to all of  those who are working toward this end, no matter what it looks like, and I hope that in making this the expectation for children at a young age, it will be easier, or come more naturally to them as they become older and move out into a community that sees them as part of the society.  Perhaps they will even come to expect it of each other.

10 October, 2011

Let's talk about differences...

Today I am thinking about the difference between equality and equity.  As a Quaker I believe deeply in the equality of all people.  But how does that translate into my work?  Does equality of Spirit correlate to treating everyone the same?  

As a white person I am aware of the way in which my tendency to "not see difference" or to say that "we are all the same" actually undermines efforts to truly achieve equality.  And I have learned that these statements for me do not have integrity (another Quaker value I hold dear).  

A glimpse into the classroom: 
One of the children "Sandy" in my class of young toddlers has down's syndrome.  She has low muscle tone in her legs and often sits alone on the playground.  When we heard that Sandy needed a push toy as a way to build muscle tone my co-teacher and I had a discussion which revealed a lot about our differing understandings of what equality looks like, and about our fears regarding fairness.  My co-teacher took the standpoint that we couldn't possibly introduce this toy into the classroom because it wouldn't be fair to the other children who would want to use it.  She also didn't want to stigmatize Sandy by giving her special treatment and opening her up to the possibility of embarrassment, or ridicule. 

I understood where she was coming from, and I too didn't want to create a difficult situation for this child, and I responded to my co-teacher: Of course other children will want to use that toy. My question is, do they need to use it?  I believe that if we are honest with children about the difference between wanting something and needing something that they can understand this concept, and will actually be much more accepting than we fear they will be.  

In fact I believe that children may have a greater capacity for this type of acceptance than many adults do, and that often in our "good intentions" of denying differences that are clearly there (i.e. skin color, physical conditions, visible deformities, behavioral outbursts etc.) by telling children not to notice, we are actually teaching them that difference is something that we can't talk about, that it is bad, and I believe we are teaching that it is to be feared. 

So... after many conversations, we brought the push toy into the classroom.  Several children were, as my co-teacher expected interested in using it.  When they asked, we would answer, "Did you notice that Sandy is still learning how to walk? This toy helps her be able to walk better, and that's why she has it. You already know how to walk. So you don't really need that toy.  If there is a time when Sandy isn't using it, and you want to try it out, you can, but if Sandy wants it back, you need to give it to her."

And the children understood.  After about a week they started bringing the toy to Sandy, cheering for her when she took her first steps, and even running over to announce to the teachers what a great job she was doing at walking.  From an adult perspective this might seem condescending, however for these children their excitement for Sandy was real.  It was the same excitement they felt for themselves when they accomplished a new task (something they work hard to do every day) or completed something that made them feel like a "big kid".  I believe they were celebrating Sandy's growth and accomplishment right alongside her, and as I watched I wished there could be more times like that in my adult life, when members of my community would be willing to support me in such a way.

So what...                                                                                                                                                   
An Early Childhood Educator from Reggio Emilia, Elena Giacopini writes:
Inclusion does not mean starndardization and it does not mean integration.  Inclusion requires and demands differences in dialogue.  It doesn't require that one adapts to the other but, rather, mutual adaptation, the invention of a new way of being together.

This is my hope not only for children in my classroom, but for our world as a whole.  And I wonder, how often do I let my assumptions, my belief that my own experience is reality, and my fear of that which is unfamiliar shut down the possibilities for community, and for dialogue with those who's experiences are different than my own?  What could be gained if I let go of my fear, and my desire to be right?  What might I learn? 

09 September, 2011

Are we allergic to sadness?

I want to start this particular post with a disclaimer:                 
As you read please be clear that I'm not (nor am I ever) trying to suggest that a certain outcome is inevitable for the children with whom I work based on the scenarios about which I speak.  I am however trying to point out some things I notice about our culture and our values that I see reflected in the way that we treat and educate our youngest citizens.  Many of these things do not sit right with me and I hope that by calling attention to them, perhaps I can raise awareness (even if only within myself) and become more adept at practicing the things which I believe will lead to a more full, loving, accepting, honest, and real community (both in my classroom and in the world as a whole).  

That being said, today I want to write about how I see our society's allergy to "negative" feelings being played out in early childhood centers, and the impact that I believe it has on many of us later in our lives.  

A glimpse into the classroom...

One of the 3 year olds in the room next door "Jimmy" always seems upset when his mom has to go to work.  Every day he clings to her leg and a cries.  She works as hard as she can to reassure him that he will be okay, and that she will be back.  Then, given that she has to be at work at a certain time, and that that time is fast approaching, she begins to get frustrated, and eventually leaves with him still crying.  

Each day as this is unfolding one of his teachers comes over to help the mom leave, and get Jimmy to stop crying.  The teacher brings him a puzzle, reads to him, and tells him he should play.  When Jimmy doesn't stop crying, more teachers get involved.  They begin to get more and more frantic trying to find a solution that will make the crying stop.  Other children begin to notice and come over to ask what is wrong.  The teacher tells them "Jimmy just needs some space.  Why don't you go play?" Eventually after several minutes of unsuccessful efforts to console him the teacher resorts to telling him to stop.  "You're a big boy Jimmy.  You shouldn't cry."

A glimpse into my personal life...

Several years ago I went through a fairly traumatic break-up with someone who I cared for a great deal.  When we broke up I have to admit I was a bit of a mess.  Each day I would wake up with this sadness hanging over my head, not quite knowing what to do about it.  What made the situation more challenging was that before every time we would get together, my (very well intentioned) friends would ask, "are you okay?"  This question was one of the most challenging parts of the break-up for me, because each time I would have to evaluate if I should bother to go or not.  I felt like, if I wasn't "okay" then no one would really want to spend time with me, so I spent a lot of time pretending I was okay (when I wasn't) or going off on my own when I could pretend no more. 

As I sat in the classroom with the toddler crying because his mom had to go, and watched all the hubbub that was created to stop him from crying, I was acutely aware of the connection that I shared with this child.  His teachers weren't offering him puzzles just because they had an interest in his well being, and nor were my friends asking if I was okay because they really wanted to hear the answer.  They were asking me if I was okay so that they would know how to "deal" with it if were to suddenly burst into tears.  My friends and the teachers alike were so uncomfortable with our sadness that they just wanted it to stop.   Our sadness (or at least the expression of it) made them feel so powerless that they tried everything they could think of to stop it.  What they missed in their efforts to control the expression of our feelings, was the one thing that would actually help us feel better; to know that it was okay... for us to be sad.

A glimpse back into the classroom (run differently)...

Jimmy's mom drops him off in the morning.  He is sad and he cries.  A teacher walks up to him and says, "Jimmy.  I see that you are really sad.  You're mom does have to go now, and that is really sad for you.  If you need to cry for a few minutes to help yourself feel better that is fine.  I will sit here with you until you are ready to do something else."  Jimmy continues to cry.  The teacher continues to sit with him.  Soon she says, "You know Jimmy, sometimes I miss my mom too.  She lives really far away.  Do you know what I do sometimes when I'm feeling sad that I can't see her?  I write her a note.  Would you like to write a note to your mom?" Jimmy looks at her and shakes his head "no".  

Another child comes over, and says to the teacher, "What's wrong?  Why is Jimmy crying?" The teacher replies, "Jimmy is feeling really sad because his mom had to go to work.  Have you ever felt that way?" The child thinks for a moment, "Yeah.  I sad my mom go too." Then the teacher asks, "What do you do to help yourself feel better when that happens?" The child stops to think.  The teacher says, "sometimes when I am really sad I need a hug, or I need to talk to my friends.  Sometimes I just need to cry, and sometimes I like to do some artwork, or read a book."  The child says, "I read a book." The teacher suggests, "Do you think that it might help Jimmy feel better to read a book?" The child nods her head, runs over to the book shelf, grabs a book and comes running back.  "Let's ask him." the teacher suggests.  "You wanna read a book?" the child asks.  Jimmy shakes his head "no".  The teacher says, "hmmm.... I wonder what will help him feel better?"  

Another child comes running over with a toy car.  He tries to hand it to Jimmy.  Jimmy says, "mmmmmm!" and turns his head away still crying.  "I guess he doesn't want to use that car..." the teacher says, "I wonder if there is something else that can help him?" At this point Jimmy has stopped crying and has started to look around the room.  Also four or five children have gathered together to help in this quest.  Jimmy, the teacher and the other children begin to walk around the classroom together looking at the things that are available.  "Playdough" one child suggests to no avail.  Then as they enter the kitchen they see several toys placed out on the table to dry.  

Jimmy sees a toy carrot laying on the table.  He looks at the teacher and says, "I will only feel better if I can use that toy carrot."  The teacher passes him the carrot and Jimmy goes off with his classmates smiling.  

So what...

In the first scenario Jimmy is  given a puzzle and told he is okay, whereas in the second scenario he is offered some options, and he learns that he is in fact okay.  This to me is a key difference, and it makes me think about the people in my life who I have seen struggle with addiction.  

I believe that for many of them they sought out substances to numb themselves because they're whole lives other people had taken it upon themselves to "fix" the "problem" of their sadness, grief, anger or other strong emotions, and they no longer understood that it was within their power to emerge from that discomfort as a whole human being.  They had been told (probably since the age of 5) that they should "be a big boy" and had, like me felt the need to isolate themselves unless they were "okay" because their friends wouldn't know how to deal with it. 

By the time my ex was 20, when he was sad about our break-up I literally witnessed him wedged between the wall and the couch, covering his face with his hands and curled into a ball having a panic attack and repeating over and over "I feel so unsafe right now, I feel so unsafe right now." because he hadn't cried since he was seven.  Is that what it means to "be a big boy?"  

For me this issue extends far beyond the classroom.  Each time I think about giving someone a metaphorical puzzle, or telling them "it will be okay" I stop myself, and instead think about the opportunity I have to bear witness to their own capacity for self-healing and their need to perhaps not be "okay" but just to be.  I think about the fact that when I was in the throws of my depression all I really wanted was someone to sit with me quietly while I cried without judging me, or fixing me.  

In looking at the second classroom scenario, Jimmy walked away smiling.  I believe that the community that was built by allowing sadness to be a part of it, was a much more deep and true one than if all the children were walking around afraid to cry and unable to smile, and I hope to be able to build that type of community in my school as well as in my life.