Monday, March 2, 2015

A Fishing Story: The Power of Imagination

J was standing in the tower. He dropped a jump rope through one of the holes. For a moment he stood completely still. Then- almost out of nowhere- he jumped up and pulled the rope in as fast as he could!!! "Melinda!! Come over here!! I caught a shark. It's so big!!"

I walked to him as his hands moved all over, trying to hold the shark still. His eyes grew bigger and bigger as he wrestled his catch to the ground. His body was still on the ground as he sighed to me, "He got away."

J laid there a moment with a sad look on his face. I nudged gently, "I wonder what you'll catch next?" He jumped up with excitement, "An octopus!!!!!!" He started to drop his rope through the hole again but I stopped him to note, "Wait! You didn't put your bait on yet!"

Puzzlement met my eyes, "Bait?" I nodded, "Bait is what you put on a hook so the animals want to check it out." J nodded, "Yeah! Then them get a hook in their mouth and you reel them in with your fishing stick." I explained a little further, "Usually people use something the animal they want to catch might want to eat. What might octopuses eat?"

J thought for a moment, "Them eat worms. I'm wrapping works all around the hook part. It's right here. Then I'll drop my line in the water." He did just that then sat down and waited for an octopus to wander by.

Our entire exchange was less than a few minutes but was so full of vivid imagination. The shark wasn't just in J's mind- it was there with us! I could see it as he moved to hold it still. As his body slumped to the ground I knew it had escaped before he even told me. His imagination was as immersive as my favorite book, a movie in a theatre, or a larger than life ballet performance. I let reality slide away from me and joined him there. The connection we had in our imaginations filled us both with joy and purpose. Imaginations can be powerful, powerful things.

Monday, February 23, 2015

It's Like the Sky!

Painting and art has been one of our favorite moments during the day in cohort 6. With the beautiful weather of this early spring the children have been inspired by the things we see through the windows while they are painting. The it often evolves into their favorite things. And then we have opportunities for practicing our negotiating skills as each child finds what they need to do this work they envision.

Like other mediums (clay, paper, drawing, music, play, loose parts, etc), paint gives the children a way to tell their story.  I find it fascinating to watch how their story begins, evolves based on what they noticed within the paint process or involve what the other children are saying, and finally at which point they feel finished.

Today we did a simple provocation involving blue, white, and black paint on white paper, with a thin brush and a thick brush.

E: You know what I'm making?
C: No I don't
H: Is it a train?
E: Not any more
V: Is it a train?
E: no
It is quiet for a few moments.  The brushes move across the paper in individual ways: circles, curved lines, back and forth, long straight.

H: I'm trying to get all the white off
V: Me too!
E: Me too
H: I want to cover it. I want the blue on top.
H: You can see E!  He's doing round!
E I'm not. You are
H I'm going around
E me too!
V. I'm making a fire truck. I'm making a bus
E I'm making a bus also.

This running dialogue continues for a while, until each child finds an ending spot that feels right for them.  They ask me to hang up their art.  They wash their paint brushes and hands, then move on to the next activity.  

Monday, February 9, 2015

Reflections on Opal School Visitation Days

A few weeks ago I was able to step out of the classroom for a few days and take part in Opal School Visitation Days.  Opal School is a private preschool and a charter elementary school (K-5) associated with the Portland Children's Museum.  You can learn more here and here.

One of the wonderful things about participation in Visitation Days was being in a large group of educators with different backgrounds, educations, and careers who all had one big thing in common: a driving curiosity about education and a strong belief that children deserve the best we can offer.  It was wonderful to be a part of this group and even better to engage in so many group discussions with people who are passionate about education.  

There was one discussion we were asked to structure in the following way: Connect, Extend, Challenge.  That is: how can you make a connection with your work and what you knew before?  How can you push and extend your thinking in new directions?  What do you find challenging; what is causing you to question or wonder?  I've decided to structure this post in the same way.


Opal is an inviting, open space, filled with small parts and art materials much like what you might find at Tumbleweed.  During the first day I was a visitor at Opal, we were given time to explore each classroom, empty of children but ready for their arrival the next morning.  It was fun to look through the Beginning School (preschool) classrooms and see provocations similar to what I set up every morning and see in the preschool cohort.  The atmosphere of these classrooms within a museum was quite different from the homey feel of the Tumbleweed Houses, yet I could see and was inspired by the similarities in thought between what Tumbleweed and Opal teachers of young children were up to.

It was easy to see connections with my work at Tumbleweed not only in similarities in provocations and some environmental setups, but also in the values of both schools.  In the classroom environments and the interactions of children and teachers at at both Tumbleweed and Opal, I see a trust and respect for all children, and a belief in children's right to be seekers of knowledge.  I see a shared appreciation for the natural world, a love of play, and a belief in the power of collaboration, teamwork, bridge-building, and differences.  While there are some differences in etymology and phrasing, the language at both schools is respectful of children, and the open, comfortable nature of interactions between adults and children reflects this.


When we were invited on our second and third days at Opal to observe the classrooms in action, I was particularly curious to see how this inquiry and provocation-based education would translate and grow in the older classrooms, particularly in the 9-to-11-year-old classroom that makes up Opal's oldest group.  I was so excited by what I saw there: fourth and fifth graders in small groups, each of them actively participating in a project that asked them to look at a complex question from multiple angles, to consider ambiguity, and to look to texts, models, and to each other to find answers to questions, rather than to teachers or other adults in the room.

It struck me that my work is often about presenting materials to children in a way that will provoke interest, inquiry, and exploration.  As children get older, teachers begin to present ideas in a way that provokes interest, inquiry, and exploration.  The materials then become tools to help students explore ideas.  

This evolution happens at Tumbleweed as well, I see it in the Preschoolers' circle time discussions, in my cohort's own inquiries about the world outdoors, and in all sorts of other daily situations at our school, but seeing it in a very different context (with children 8 years older than those in my cohort) helped me to make that connection.


The question that kept coming up for me when visiting the beautiful classrooms at Opal, well-staffed with passionate teachers who are given ample time for planning, documentation, and research, was this: what can everyone in the room take back and use in their work?  The resources at Opal are beautiful, but they aren't realistic for most of the educators who participated in visitation days.  Whether it's a lack of time or money or space, most schools simply don't have the ability to engage children in playful inquiry every minute of every day.  I am lucky to work at Tumbleweed, where teachers are given resources to fuel this kind of education, but I wanted to challenge myself to think bigger, to think with the teachers present who were going back to try and bring some of this work with them to very different contexts.  So what is universal?  What could we all take back to work with us and hold close as part of our teaching practice?

To me it came down to one thing: let us all help children to feel big, not small.  Let us all find ways to help children see what they can accomplish and what they deserve.  I thought of a charter elementary school in Brooklyn where several of my friends work.  Pedagogically strict, with long hours in class and rigorous homework, in most ways it has very little in common with Opal School.  But when I visited that school in Brooklyn, I saw children who believed in their own ability to learn, and in their right to knowledge.  They felt big, and important, and deserving.  I saw this at Opal as well, and I see it every day at Tumbleweed. This, I think can apply to all teaching: let's create situations for children to feel big.


I took many notes over my three days at Opal.  There was so much to take in, and to discuss, and I'm still digesting some of what I learned.  I did want to share the last thing that I wrote:

"To trust in the power of what children know, what is innate, what connects us.  To trust that the power of children is real, and that it doesn't need our permission to be strong, alive and full.

So then, what is our job as teachers?
We create spaces where children can be as powerful as they want to be, where they can challenge themselves, where it is safe to take up space and demand recognition, where it is understood that the baseline is trust, love, and belief in one another.  We give time.  And we get out of the way.  We support where it's needed with respect.  We create documentation so the exploration leaves traces that can be built into scaffolding to be climbed up and over.  We evolve the environment so it follows the children's interest and continues to challenge.  And we get out of the way again."

Visiting Opal School along with so many other educators was a wonderful experience, and I'm very grateful for the time it gave me to observe, reflect, and learn.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

This is the Way We Wash Our Hands!

The children of Cohort 9 are growing!  They've progressed from wobblers to young toddlers and are starting to turn two!  This growth comes with an exciting push for independence.  These girls want to be doing things for themselves!  All the time that we've put into establishing routines for self-care activities is showing as the girls use each routine as a tool: if a child wants to do something for herself and she knows all the steps and has learned how to do all those steps, then she can do it for herself!

We wash hands many times every day - as we arrive in the morning, after each diaper change, when coming in from outside, and before each meal and snack.  Washing hands is a simple, routine way in which we take care of ourselves, and the Cohort 9ers are very proud of washing hands all by themselves!  I stand close by, and help to remind the girls of steps they might miss ("You can turn the water off before climb down from the sink.") and some of the children still need a hand with the hand soap pump bottle, but largely they have taken ownership of the whole hand-washing routine.
First, we climb up to the sink when we are ready to wash hands!
Next, we turn on the water and get our hands wet.  Usually the temperature
just right, but if it's not, we are learning how to adjust it.  Which way makes
the water warmer, and which way makes the water colder?

We get soap on our hands and then "rub, rub, rub!"  We love to see the
bubbles forming on our hands as we lather up the soap.
Sometimes we sing a song while we we wash!
Next, our hands go back under the water, and we rinse off all the soap.
We talk about how the water carries the soap and the soap carries the dirt
down the drain!
When we are done washing, we grab a towel from the basket on the left.
We dry off our hands, and put the towel in the basket on the right.

We climb down, and we're all done!

We can even practice washing our hands outside!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"I DON'T Like You!"

"Friendship is a joy found quite often through pain, sometimes great pain. That's why it feels so good when we get there."- Teacher Tom

This is a blog that I've needed to write for a while. The subject has been weighing heavily on my mind: as parents and educators how do we deal with the incredibly large emotions our kids feel? Especially preschoolers! Then I logged on to Facebook the other day and saw that Practical Parenting (from our good friend Tracey Biebel!!!) had reposted a blog from my most favorite person: Teacher Tom. Amazingly, it was on this exact subject and you can find it here.

Not only did Teacher Tom touch on the rejection that we as parents and educators feel when the children we love and care for are rejected but he talked about something even more difficult to handle: when your own children reject others. As an educator I'm somewhat removed from these feelings, I can see that the child's rejection isn't necessarily about the other child but the moment they are in. I can remember that sometimes children are attracted to playing with certain kids more often due to their personalities just "fitting" that certain way. I recall how I as an adult have people I love, people I like, and people I put up with. I'm just more clued in to the socially acceptable ways of not liking someone else. I know how to navigate the trickiness that comes with the territory of not wanting to hang out with someone in a friendly manner. Children are still learning these skills- how to be a friend to someone who isn't being a friend to you, how to approach someone you don't like... and lots of other skills that even adults sometimes can't manage to be successful at. I can remember this as a teacher in my classroom and I can remember that it's my job to help children with these skills and to model behaviors for them. It's part of social learning after all.

I can also remember how fleeting emotions are: for both children and adults. "I don't like you!" is often "I don't like you right now because you didn't let me use the ball first." or "I don't like you right now because you were yelling and it's too loud for me."

However, as a parent it's pretty hard to not roll up in a ball when your child feels rejection. As a parent it's almost impossible to not try to correct my child's behavior when he rejects someone else. And as a parent of a Kindergartner I've been feeling his rejection and the need to control his rejection of others pretty often these past five months. My son comes home crying because so and so kicked him in line outside. He's bawling about going to school because so and so intentionally pushed another kid into a desk and he got hurt in the fray. In the beginning of the year when his teacher was still new to him, he was sobbing because he Teacher Joe* didn't protect him from the other kids.

All of this and the burgeoning feelings I've seen in my own classroom made me want to write a post about how to handle it when your children hear or say "I don't like you!" Then I read Teacher Tom's post and I cried as I reached this line, "We as parents, really are helpless and impotent when we try to do anything other than hold them, and listen to them, and feel with them." 

Much in the way that my friends cannot stop me from making mistakes like loving someone who won't reciprocate my feelings, extending myself beyond my abilities and means, or giving more of myself than I should in a friendship... we cannot stop our children from giving or receiving these feelings of rejection. However, we can always, always be there for them when it happens. We can hold them and tell them about our own failures, our own rejections, and our own emotional response to these things (when age appropriate of course). We can be available and just listen to how hard it was to feel that way. We can talk about why those feelings are there and what they might do next time. We can be present and available in any way they might need us. When they face those temporary rejections, we can offer them unconditional, permanent love. 

That is, after all, what love is. It's permanent. It's unconditional. It doesn't change no matter what the other person does. The way we love someone or how much we "like" them might change, but the love we feel for our children is forever. We can teach them that no matter what happens, we will be there to love them. We can teach them that no matter what happens, they will be there to love themselves.

*Name of Teacher Joe is fictionalized.

Growing Community with Communication

Today we look at the world of a Preschooler. At this point our cohort has moved into the stage of figuring out what it means to be a part of an environment and culture as we are building a community where everything is connected to our individual identities and expression. This transition has made me question how so many children find it easy to assimilate into many cultures while expressing unique needs and emotions. They must rely on some important social skills implicitly woven in the shared identities we have as a group. 

It seems like things are moving so fast at the Preschool cohort. From the outside, it can seem that we as teachers do a lot of the work to provide community, growth, and appropriate social cues to our students but often the children do much of this work. Most of what we do is be 'directive observers' the way a conductor behaves in an orchestra. This may include modeling behavior, narrating for children to give a voice to feelings, providing words or phrases to express emotions that reinforce successful communication and advocating for problem solving.

This last job has seemed to be an important need in our class lately. I have noticed that each child has to feel they can express themselves to feel safe and accepted. Sharing differences can often be as vital to building community as sharing similarities. I've watched as the beauty of uniting together through differences has enveloped our classroom. 

The children observe and communicate when they don't like something, when they do like something, when something happens, and when they have an idea of how to solve a problem. All of this goes a long way in building the community that exists in our classroom. Below are some examples

“Stop! I don't want to play because he is hitting and that's what i don't like." said LC.

"I have a plan! AS can sit next to me and CE can sit next to SC." said EF.

"You can use the swing when I'm done!" said SC.

"Maybe you can sleep all night in my house and be my sister." said AS.

"Hug, kiss, or space? Are you OK?" said AK.

"I can help(you on the swing)! How about this or that SC?" said RM.


"I have an idea! How about we all have two shovels" said TUS.

"Look at the dust! We can put it in our art!" said HM.

"She needs some help!" said CE.

"I'm worried he is going to hurt me. Don't hurt me, OK?" said JK.

"I'm not playing with you. I'm playing a different game." said QM.

 The process has become a part of us. We own it and with it we own the ability to enact change. Over time the consistency and continual use of accepted 'tools' like the examples listed above created our community and shared identity. In just a few weeks our shared identity in this culture has spread and with it the power to be heard, to be accepted and to feel connected to learning and growth.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Thank You Song

Part of our meal time ritual has always been singing a song to signify the start of our meal, to take a pause and acknowledge the good feelings of sitting together and to bring a sense of calm.  Just recently the children have been singing with me!  It is the same song we have sung since they first started, so they know it well.  I have enhanced our experience by counting off before beginning, so that we can all sing the same words at the same time.  We all feel those good feelings of joining in a song together which we all know and love.