Back to Basics: 5 strategies for success in Kindergarten

The first few weeks back at school have had me going back to my roots in Kindergarten.  I’ve had the pleasure of visiting many classrooms and interacting with lots of curious and capable kids. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but there’s always a part of me that’s struck by the timelessness of early childhood.  As much as we lament the way society, or technology, or time changes children and families, there are some constants that remain, regardless of the specific moment we find ourselves in.

I’ve had two kids this week tell me that I look like their grandmas (because I don’t dye the grey out of my hair – I’m 41) so perhaps you’ll indulge me in a little walk down memory lane.

  1. The floor is where it’s at.

As Karyn Callaghan so eloquently describes in this video, children quite literally see the world from a different perspective.  They are closer to the ground than we are and it’s important that we get down on the ground to see what they see. Often when an educator tells me she can’t figure out what a group of children is doing or how to move their learning forward, I suggest that she spend some time sitting on the floor, watching the students or even playing alongside them.  Creating your own drawing or building or ramp or pattern that pushes the learning forward by increasing the complexity or the height or the structural challenge can be as effective (or more) than verbally prompting a child.  So much of our communication – regardless of our age – is nonverbal and you will miss a lot of what’s going on between children if you always remain at adult height. Make the floor your friend.

2. Go outside

Those kids look too old for kindergarten, you may be thinking.  You’re right. That’s my son and one of his friends. They’re much older but they’re still fascinated by building things outside, playing outside, all things outside. Technology is seductive but outside is absorbing.

Time spent outside with your students is never time wasted but, like being on the floor, it helps if you’re close to the action.  Watching from afar rarely allows you to understand what’s going on. You’ve got to be in on the action.

Irrigation, erosion, dam buiding and water management are hot topics in the fall.

Grab a shovel or a stick and go with them.  You’ll have a much better idea of where to take the learning if you’re there when the questions (verbal or not) are being asked.

3. Move

Sitting is bad for us. Sitting is the new smoking. Sitting is sufficiently problematic that many of us wear alarms that chide us when we sit for too long. And yet…

And yet…

Too often we expect young children (both in Kindergarten and beyond) to sit for far too long and then we get upset because many of them can’t. Even when they can, it’s often not because they’re attending to what we’re trying to teach, it’s just that they’ve become expert self-regulators. They rub their legs or tap their fingers or zone out so that they appear compliant, don’t get into trouble but still manage to cope with the stress of remaining immobile for so long. Consider limiting your carpet meetings to 10-15 minutes.  You’ll get more bang for your buck, children will attend to what you’re saying and you’ll have less negative behaviour to manage.

4. Sing

Somewhere between the days when Kindergarten teachers spoke to everyone (bank tellers, police officers) in a sing-song tone and today, we’ve lost the connection between Kindergarten and singing. I’ve visited too many classes where there is hardly any singing. This summer I was giving a workshop and a teacher asked me if there was a website where all the songs I was teaching were available so that she could stream them on her SmartBoard and thereby avoid actually singing. We have become singing phobic.

Maybe I should blame American Idol but many teachers are convinced they can’t sing. I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the kids are not Simon Cowell and they really don’t care how great your voice is.  Another secret: being “good” at singing is mostly about practice.  I’m always amazed when I have the occasion to sing Happy Birthday with people who go to church on a regular basis.  They harmonize effortlessly, they stay on the beat and they all find the same key.  It’s not because they’re formally trained in vocal music, it’s because they sing regularly; they are good at it because they practice.  You’ll get better too, I promise.

The other reason singing is so important is that it is one of our best strategies for developing phonemic awareness, the bedrock upon which we build literacy skills. The way that sounds are segmented, emphasized, and placed into rhyming patterns in songs helps children to build their awareness of sound to symbol relationships. Song lyrics can also be used as shared reading text and then posted for students to read and sing together which continues to build their developing literacy skills.

Finally, singing helps to smooth out transitions (lining up, walking in the hallway) and builds routines that kids look forward to. Singing feels good and it gives kids something to do during times when they might otherwise find themselves at loose ends and irritating each other. Sing your transitions and you will find they are much more manageable.

5. Recognize the good

It is very easy sometimes to fall into the habit of managing behaviour by saying “no” a lot.  I’m not advocating that you allow behaviour that is anti-social or dangerous but it is often so much more effective to recognize what’s going well.  Most children will notice when other children are being praised and will rush to join the club. This works equally well with teenagers.  You can even do it in a song!  Developing a practice of noticing when kids are doing well will also shift your perspective towards the things that are going well in your classroom. Too often we fall into despair about how much work there is to do and we forget to acknowledge how far we’ve come. It’s October… to paraphrase Robert Frost, we have miles to go before we sleep.

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It’s all about you

This year, for the first time, I’m teaching one of my own children.  Now, it’s only for 75 minutes a week, but it’s an adventure nonetheless. My son, who’s 8, is having a very hard time separating Mommy from Miss Emily and it’s a challenge for me to manage his needs effectively when I have 9 other kids to teach at the same time. It’s usually not pretty and I often leave with a nagging headache.

But this week, for the first time in several weeks, I managed to sleep through the night uninterrupted prior to teaching his ballet class.  Instead of going into the class feeling exhausted and edgy, I went in feeling pretty good and I even had enough energy to teach the following class without worrying that I’d fall asleep on my feet.

I’ve been doing some extra reading about how to best teach younger boys in ballet class (there are 3 boys in my son’s class) so I’ve been putting some of those strategies into place for the past few weeks (floor exercises instead of centre work, movement games, team ballet ‘battles’, and lots of fun breaks between the serious bits… in case you’re wondering) but this was the first week when it felt like the dynamic had shifted.  For the first time this year, I felt successful with this group of kids and I didn’t get so frustrated with my own child.

After the class was over, I found myself reflecting on why things had shifted.  Was it because I had tried some new things that were more developmentally suited to that group of kids or was it because I was more well rested and better able to teach effectively and be present in the room?  How much of my frustration with the kids was really about me and my state of mind?  I had been blaming my negative experience of the class on them… but was it really all about me?

We get into this kind of thinking a lot in education.  Too often, I hear teachers talking about being “saddled with behaviours” in their classes, as though the children are choosing to overwhelm their teacher, as though their behaviour is a personal affront to the adults.  We talk about kids in a way that dehumanizes them, that ignores their individuality and that focuses exclusively on their deficits.  I have, many times, observed teachers who have become blind to the amazing things that children are doing right in front of them because they have become so focused on what their students aren’t doing that they can’t see anything else.  It’s one of the most challenging parts of my work: trying to push back against that negativity and advocate for the kids while at the same time not alienating the teacher.

Children are capable… what does that really mean?  Does it mean that we can never talk about the challenges we’re having with kids?  Does it mean that we have to adopt a Pollyanna tone in our conversations so that everything is about sunshine and robins who perch on your finger as you sing a merry tune?  No, I don’t think so.

A colleague once described me as a creative pragmatist, something I took as a great compliment. I don’t want to suggest that problems don’t exist; we all need to vent sometimes and it’s good to have people with whom you can let out all your frustrations. But when venting becomes the tone of all our conversations about children, we have a problem.  Children come to school with all sorts of experiences and it is our job, our mission, our vocation to help them learn.  They are children, we are adults; it’s not their fault, it’s just their turn.

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Courtesy of Anita Simpson @asimpsonEDU

This week has been an excellent reminder of the power of “yet” in my life both personally and professionally.  When things aren’t going well, I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that they’re not going well… yet.  Keeping that mental door open to the possibility of change makes all the difference in my perception of the problem.  As my perception changes, the problem changes too and I start to be able to see solutions that weren’t obvious when I was in full venting mode.  In order to be there for kids I need to be there… really in the room, wide awake (both literally and in the Maxine Greene way), and present, prepared to advocate for them even when it’s uncomfortable and prepared to make the changes in my own practice that will make a difference for them.  You’re the only teacher they have and so am I; what we do and what we say matters.  There are no mulligans in childhood.

Critiquing the un-critiqueable

Twenty years ago, Arlene Croce, writing in the New Yorker, declared that she felt that Bill T. Jones’ work exploring his own AIDS diagnosis and the terminal illnesses of his performers made his work “undiscussable” – beyond the reach of criticism. She coined the term “victim art” and vented her frustration at the way she felt manipulated by art that seemed more about issues than it was about aesthetics.  Now, I don’t agree with Croce, but I’m finding myself this morning sympathizing with her frustration.

I’m frustrated because I’m struggling with another type of performance that we do treat as undiscussable, performances we don’t dare to critique, not because the performers are victims but because they’re just so darn cute.  I’m talking about performances that are so far away from Bill T. Jones as to hardly be in the same universe.  I’m talking about the school concert.

I have been part of school concerts as a music teacher, classroom teacher, director, and parent.  I’ve spent long hours rehearsing kids for all sorts of shows, some good, some bad, some cringe-worthy.  I’ve toiled in the trenches of recorders, boomwhackers, and box steps.  I know how much work it is to put on one of these shows, even the worst of them.

So, I’m reluctant to criticize, really I am.  But, I just can’t hold it in any more.  We need to take a hard look at this ritual and ask ourselves some big questions.  Like, why in the world are we doing this? What’s the value? What’s the point?

I attended the annual concert at my children’s school recently and found myself so uncomfortable watching it that I couldn’t stand to stay past when my children performed.  Part of that discomfort was the hard metal chairs and part of it was a sinking feeling of frustration at the image of the child that we seem determined to cultivate in our culture.  Their concert was full of what we’ve come to expect from these sorts of events: lip-synching, children trying to sing over-top of a recorded vocal track, and vague, gestural dancing whose lazy choreography hides some children in the back rows while others are featured.

When did we decide that children’s voices needed to be covered up by adult vocals?  When did it become okay for children to pretend to sing instead of actually singing? What’s the value in spending hours and hours of class time preparing a performance whose relationship to the Arts curriculum is tangential at best, if it exists at all?

Here’s what happens when children are forced to sing over recorded music: they don’t sing, they yell.  They force their little voices to shout so that they can hear themselves.  They can’t hear their peers so they can’t match their pitches to each other and they aren’t singing melodically at all both because the recordings often offer a very poor vocal model for children (a low chest voice instead of the head voice that children use) and because the recording is overpowering so they loose the melodic line almost as soon as they start to sing.

So, here’s an alternative: sing acapella.  If there isn’t someone in your school who can accompany the children on a guitar, a piano, or a ukulele (anything, really, most of this music isn’t complicated), let them sing without accompaniment.  I’ve accompanied kids on a tambourine and a hand drum just as a way of keeping the beat for them.  They sounded beautiful.  Another idea: sing with them.  No one expects you to be Celine Dion but I’d much rather hear children singing along with their teacher, regardless of her singing skills, than have to sit through another concert of yelling.

And then we come to the dance, oh, the dance.  For me, this is the hardest part.  It is like nails on a chalkboard having to sit through a dance performance that clearly has no relationship with the children who are performing it.  Our Arts curriculum in Ontario is very centred on children’s creativity and on facilitating children’s creative ideas as they develop in sophistication through the grades.  It is not about step-touching your way to a more developed understanding of compliance as an educational value.  Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 7.48.35 PM

I had to watch my beautiful boy struggle through a dance that used none of his skills as a creative mover, none of his choreographic ideas, and none of his physical skills but instead featured him repeatedly being bumped from both sides as his classmates struggled to maintain the two horizontal lines they had been placed in and two of his classmates lip synched and danced at the front of the stage.  He came home crying several times prior to the concert because he was so frustrated.  Where is the pedagogy, the inclusiveness, the art, frankly, in that?

That these performances are accepted unquestioningly by so many parents and teachers speaks powerfully to our image of the child.  We blithely accept that children don’t have a voice, they don’t have agency, and they don’t have anything to contribute.  We have to do it for them.  We have to sing for them (or some adult does), we have to micro-manage their movements, and we have to limit their expressive choices so severely that they’re left with only two options: comply or act out.

I spent part of last week at the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance (NAREA) conference in Toronto.  Besides taking so many notes that I felt like my hand might fall off, I was struck by the enormous contrast in the image of the child between the Preschools and Infant-Toddler Centres of Reggio Emilia and the average North American public school.  As part of the conference, I got to visit the Wonder of Learning exhibit that will be housed in the basement of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel until November 23rd of this year (you should go!).  Included in that exhibit is the documentation  that is featured in the Reggio Children book Dialogues with Places. This documentation tells the story of a group of children who wanted to prepare a gift for a new school building.

“The children explored the Loris Malaguzzi International Centre while construction on the site was still underway. They chose a space that was interesting to them and designed a work of art, a gift conceived in harmony and in dialogue with the chosen place, respecting its identity while at the same time modifying it.”

While the photographs of their work are stunning, seeing a video of the dance they created was a revelation.  This was a dance of running, of leaping, of hiding behind pillars, of chasing, of spinning, and of falling down – not a step-touch or a gesture to be seen.  It was a dance that, while guided by an atelierista (artist-in-residence), was of the children and their creative voices were both strong and visible in the work.  It was a piece of art that was both discussable and critiqueable because it was thoughtfully created with children not pinned on them like ill-fitting clothing.  It was not about them being cute and it did not treat them like objects who exist to be passively viewed by adults.  It was a performance that celebrated their agency, their energy, and their individuality.  It was beautiful.

What is stopping us from giving children these same opportunities to express themselves?  The world is changing so that our creative skills are becoming more and more valuable but we are, largely, still stuck in a model of education that values compliance far ahead of creativity.  We do children an immense disservice by valuing their cuteness ahead of all else.  They are people with ideas and opinions and agency; they deserve to be treated that way… yes, even at the school concert.  Discuss.

 

 

 

Artists in deep

DSCF4130We have had a wonderful project running in many of our schools over the past few years, a project that brings working artists into classrooms to work with young children and their educators in and through the arts. I hope you’ll have a look at the incredible work they’ve been doing, share it with your networks, and leave them some comments. I look forward to hearing your thinking! Visit them at: https://4elementslivingartsreggioproject.wordpress.com/

Cultural Navigation

I had an interesting experience this summer watching the musical Fiddler on the Roof.  Produced by one of our local community theatre groups, I had been following the rehearsal process with interest and was looking forward to finally seeing the show after hearing great reviews from friends.  Now, you should know that I’m Jewish and that I live in a small city where most people aren’t at all familiar with Judaism; for this Northern town, Jewish is exotic.

The show was very well done; beautifully staged and directed.  The performers were committed and deeply in role.  They were physically present and their characters were wonderfully embodied.  It was a great night of theatre.

But I had a strange reaction to the play, one I hadn’t expected.  At points during the evening, I felt very uncomfortable.  It was unsettling to watch actors pretending to light Shabbat candles and bless bread and wine as an act of entertainment.  These are rituals that I perform every week as part of our Shabbat meal either at home or at synagogue.  To see them on stage was very odd.

Later on in the play when Tevye’s third daughter, Chava, marries the non-Jewish Fyedka, the actor playing Tevye inserted the mourner’s kaddish prayer into the script, to make the point that Tevye now views his daughter as dead.  Again, I had that ticklish feeling of discomfort.  Here’s a very solemn prayer that we only say when we have a prayer quorum or minyan of 10 adult Jews (or 10 men, depending on your branch of Judaism) and there it was being performed on stage.  I found myself reflexively muttering “amein” under my breath at the appropriate moments.

My final moment of discomfort came during the scene when the soldiers arrive to advise the residents of Anatevka that they have to leave.  Behind me, a woman whispered “it’s the Germans.”  “No!”, I wanted to shout back… “It’s the Russians!”  Having that historical inaccuracy hang in the air, uncorrected, really bothered me.  It itched at me the whole way home.

Altogether, it was a revealing experience; this is what it’s like to have your culture on display, represented as entertainment… appropriated, to some extent.  Now, I’m not suggesting we halt all productions of Fiddler on the Roof.  It’s a great play; if I were a rich woman I’d see it again.  But I think it was a really good experience for me to go through that discomfort.

In the community where I teach, we are confronted daily with the legacy of First Nations residential schools.  We are struggling as a system to find ways to reach out to First Nations communities, to repair the damage that years of at best assimilationist and at worst genocidal policies has created.  One piece of that effort has been to ensure that there are opportunities for First Nations students attending our schools to have the opportunity to study their language and culture while at the same time building some cultural literacy among the non-native students too.  Sometimes, this work involves having First Nations teachers and elders presenting cultural teachings to classes, to familiarize all students with First Nations cultural beliefs and practices.

Last week, I was asked to come into a class to follow-up a cultural teaching with an arts-based activity.  Now, as far as I know, I have no First Nations heritage.  My children have Haudenosaunee heritage but, alas, not from me.  So it’s awkward, to say the least, to be in the position of having to support teachings that I’m not that familiar with and which don’t belong to me.  It’s additionally loaded with meaning because of the many ways that First Nations Art has been appropriated by the mainstream culture over the last several hundred years, including some particularly egregious examples in the past few years.  The optics of a white lady standing in front of a class “teaching” First Nations Art… it’s not good.

But there I was, trying to figure out a way to compliment a cultural teaching on the subject of long hair through a Visual Arts activity that wouldn’t just devolve into cultural theft.  I wanted to share with you what I came up with, not because I consider it some kind of authoritative solution to what will remain a challenge, but both because I think the wrestling itself is a meaningful process and because I think it’s important to share our discomfort and to respectfully ask for guidance.

One of the things I have taken away from my years in Kindergarten is a healthy respect for materials, guided by the practice in Reggio Emilia of establishing material-rich ateliers in schools.  I’ve been trying to position myself as an atelierista, a provider of materials, of techniques, of curation, but not an instructor with any particular end in mind.  So for a teaching about long hair (here are two videos if you want to learn more), I decided to work on the ideas of personal identity and expression of belonging that seemed central to the teaching while working with textiles, to link to the idea of hair.  I taught the students how to braid, presented the materials (beads, thread, pipe cleaners, and wicker) and off they went.   They produced amazing work that had symbolic meaning for them, using the cultural teaching as inspiration.  A perfect solution?  Likely no, but maybe a step forward.

long hair art

I will never forget the feeling of discomfort I experienced sitting in that darkened theatre watching Fiddler on the Roof.  I hope it remains fresh because it’s helping me to approach this aspect of my job with a greater sense of understanding and compassion.  I think it’s making me a better teacher.

A good school

Earlier this week, I wrote about our children starting at a new school. It’s a “good school”, that’s what everyone says. About their old school, they said less flattering things; it’s a rough school, a bad school. I always felt like I was on some kind of affirmative action campaign, trying to dispel those myths because, well, we loved that school. It was a great school.

Now, the new school is a good school too but my point here is that the perceptions we have about our local schools are very often based on little more than dust in the wind, snippets of conversation and rumours.  Sometimes the perception is entirely based on standardized test scores and media reports about them – a very narrow window into a very big world.

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I spent this week working in a school that is very much like the school my children used to attend. If you asked around at swimming lessons, or on the side of the soccer field, you might hear that this school is a bad school. You might assume negative things about the students or the staff. You might avoid it for your own children.  You would be wrong, very wrong.

This is a great school. I have seen great teaching here this week and I have been so impressed by the ways that these teachers and administrators are carefully considering how to best serve their students. I haven’t heard a single disparaging comment about a child or a family and I have witnessed incredible compassion. These kids need great teachers and they have them.

We who hang out on the sides of soccer fields, holding Starbucks lattes in our hands need to think carefully about how we define good schools and how we talk about all schools. Is it really just about the test scores? Don’t we want more from schools than test scores? I know I sure do.

Maybe we should hold our opinions, like the foam on our lattes, until we’ve walked a mile in those hallways.

Oh very young one

Today while we were out and about, my son nuzzled into me, pushing my arm over his head and onto his back, demanding my closeness. He’s 7; every time he wants to be that close is a gift. I know that soon he’ll start pushing me away, he’ll start finding me embarrassing – and not just when I sing and dance in public.

He goes back to school tomorrow and so do I but, for the first time in my career, not to students of my own. There have been no cubbies to label with names, no parents to meet with, and no anxiety about the work of meeting the needs of 30 small people. Instead, I spent last week unpacking boxes, organizing a storage space, setting up a 4’x6′ cubicle, and learning about my new job. Unlike all of the years I spent in the classroom, I may actually sleep tonight.

For him, things are changing too. He starts in a new school tomorrow, away from his friends and the comfort of the teachers he’s always known. He’s been down the stairs three times tonight, unable to fall asleep. As I walked him back to bed this last time, he asked “Mommy, can you Google ways to help kids cope with starting in a new school?” My heart aches for him. I know how the system works, how hard it is to make friends sometimes, how slow things are to change. I want him to walk into a transformed school: experiential, experimental, expressive – I know that’s not what he’s getting. There will be too many worksheets and too much time in a desk. There won’t be enough Art or enough time spent outside.  He’s creative and kind, sensitive and imaginative, insightful and curious. Schools can be tough places for kids like him. They can be tough places for lots of kids.  We need to do better because, frankly, we know better.

I will catch my breath as he gets on the bus in the morning. I will mutter a prayer under my breath and wave goodbye. I know, in my teacher way, that he will probably be fine but, oh very young one, how I wish for something better than fine for you. I promise that I’ll keep working on it.

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