Friday, December 2, 2011

Joyful Reading

Reading has been on my mind a lot lately.  I was searching through research on how children learn to read and the best methods for teaching reading.  We know that the best methods don't work with every child and that some questionable methods seem to work with some children.  I was challenging my reading class to make sure they always use multiple methods to reach children who are struggling with the reading process.  One thing research clearly indicates is that it is the attitude of the teacher that is the number one factor in reading success in a classroom.
It is often difficult to help a struggling child keep a positive attitude about reading.  For many children it becomes a daunting and impossible task.  It is up to the adult working with the child to do everything possible to instill in the child a desire to be successfull and a feeling that she can become a reader.  That is a challenge for us all.  How do we help the child become excited about something that  she feels unsuccessful doing?  I think that tracking (grouping children by ability) is one of the mistakes teachers often make.  Reading researchers indicate that tracking is one of the worst things that can be done for a child on or below reading level.  She has no models for success and she may mentally label herself as "dumb."  Those are hard issues to overcome.  Mixed level groups and activities seem to be the most successful for struggling readers.  I had a lot of success in my own classroom with mixed groups.  It was a beginning step to instilling that desire to read in a child who originally had that excitement when she started school.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Children Who are Read To Just Know More!

We were discussing in our reading class this week how research indicates that children who are read to on a regular basis simply know more when they get to school.  Besides preparing the child to be a reader, being read to increases vocabulary and allows for more discussion and conversation. Combine that with the regular model of reading fluency from the adult and you have a prescription for a successful reader. We also know that children must be explicitly taught reading kills. Having the language background of hearing and participating in stories provides a wonderful foundation for those reading skills to make sense. It also provides a connection between print, reading and talking. That connection is not automatic with many children.
We don't know for sure what type of a world our child will have in 15 years. One way we can help him is to arm him with skills he will need no matter what the world looks like. Reading is one of those skills.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

It's All Bones

I was helping in my grandchildren's classrooms recently and was struck by the thought of how easily children will take control of their learning if given a chance.  One of the components of the HighScope curriculum, which I think is the most child-friendly approach to early learning, gives the child an opportunity each day to plan what she is going to accomplish within the guidelines of what is happening the classroom.  This opportunity to plan gives the child control of her learning and gives her a stronger sense of direction and purpose for the play and learning of the day.  I was assigned to help a kindergarten class make skeletons out of macaroni.  Although I did not have the opportunity to allow the children to plan everything they might do for the day, I decided to allow as much planning as possible.  I was given directions for a skeleton project, but decided to allow each child the opportunity to plan how to complete the project.  What great ideas they each had!  I was again reminded about allowing the child to take control of the project and not get caught up in the directions  that we adults may want to give. After all, it should be her project, not a copy of what the teacher wants to see.  That is how I learned that penne pasta makes pretty good ribs on a skeleton.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Following up with my last blog post about the Common Core State Standards I have been interested in how the new standards constantly stress using a piece of literature and a piece of informational text when teaching each reading lesson.  I have challenged my student teachers to do this as they are using the CCSS lesson plan format to teach reading.  I have been impressed with how successful their lessons have been when incorporating the two different types of texts.  My understanding is that one of the reasons the CCSS include both types of texts in every lesson is that students graduating from high school had much weaker comprehension skills when using non-fiction texts than they did for fiction material.  The emphasis is to teach children how to use different strategies for different purposes.  It is appropriate that it would begin in kindergarten where comprehension strategies are being established.  I have been challenging every early childhood teacher to choose a fiction and a non-fiction text, read both to their group and then discuss the differences in the text and the format of the books.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Common Core Standards and Early Childhood

I was sitting in a meeting recently with a group educators and we were talking about the impact of the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) on early childhood.  I mentioned that I had spent the summer on a state committee looking at our preschool language arts standards and making sure they are preparing a child for success in meeting the new standards when she attends kindergarten.  Our committee discovered that our preschool standards were very strong in preparing a child for that success.  We also discovered, however, that we did need to change some terminology and begin to help educators make that smooth transition from preschool to the CCSS in kindergarten.  We also learned that it will be good practice to begin to talk more about fiction, non-fiction and the writing process, which in preschool is drawing and responding to stories and texts.  The CCSS is a different direction, but in my opinion, a good direction.  Through those standards we can help children delve more into the reading and writing process and more thoroughly understand the printed word.  I hope early childhood educators will help children in this learning process and realize that remaining developmentally appropriate will help children be successful with these new standards.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Getting Ready for Kindergarten

I have spent many years working on helping children be prepared for kindergarten. I have always thought that it was imperative that parents know what truly is important as their child moves into the foundation year of school. When I began teaching kindergarten approximately 25 years ago, many of the children in my class had never attended a preschool. I remember that I preferred that a child not even know how to write her name to having her arrive at school writing it incorrectly (all in capitals). I could teach a child to write her name correctly, but it was twice as difficult to un-teach a child with a learned bad habit. We know that there are critical preschool skills that are important for kindergarten success (being able to identify alphabet letters) and there are skills that are actually not so critical prior to beginning kindergarten (knowing letter sounds). I'm pleased that we completed an I'm Ready for Kindergarten backpack this year. It contains parent-friendly activities that zero in on skills that will be critical for kindergarten success. It is my hope that it will assist parents and preschool workers in preparing our young ones for what I consider their most important beginning. I have two grandchildren who started kindergarten this year. They have had lots of support along the way and I feel confident they are ready for this big step. I wish I could help every kindergartner be that prepared.

Monday, August 29, 2011

We Need Good People to be Teachers

School began at the university again last week. It is difficult to believe that another school year has begun. I am teaching an "Introduction to Teaching" course this semester and I have a wonderful group. I am thrilled with the caliber of people who are considering being a teacher. It always reminds me of the hope I have for the best people to be in the classroom. I know it doesn't always happen because a teacher's salary is not very tempting, at least in my state. It is also a demanding and difficult job at times. I hope, however, that most of these top students decide to stick it out and become an educator. It sometimes becomes difficult for me to put a positive spin on negative reports in the media. But, I just try to constantly remind them that the most magical place on earth can be an effective classroom, because it changes a child's life. Many of the folks in my class this morning are there because they had a great teacher who made their life better. I wish all teachers realized what a difference they can make.
I was also thinking this week about my student teachers from last year who are now beginning their teaching career in a classroom. What an experience they are having and will continue to have if they keep their focus on why they decided to teach. Some of the best people I have ever met were in that group and I know they will influence lives for the better.
The best and the brightest, with the focus on the kids, makes all the difference for a child.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Hummingbird Knows

I have always been able to attract hummingbirds wherever I have lived. For many years, whether in the country, the suburbs or in the middle of downtown, I have always had at least one hummingbird feeder. While some acquaintances have struggled to attract the little creatures, I have always been able to coax them to my feeders. Those adaptable birds have even found me in the middle of the city.

Currently, during the summer months, I sit on my front porch most mornings reading the paper. With the hummingbird feeder nearby, I get to witness their early morning visits for food, their rituals for attracting the opposite sex and the fierceness they exhibit when defending their territory. These birds seem to adapt to any situation that provides them with food.

Hummingbirds are such busy creatures, rarely stopping for longer than a few seconds. Our lives have become much like that busy bird. With the advent of so much time-saving technology, multi-tasking is a common practice and is becoming an essential skill. I often think about the young children we are teaching now. We have no clue what it will be like in the future when they are adults. Yet, we are supposed to be educating them for that future. Think how in the last 5 years our cell phones have changed from being a convenient phone connection to housing our entire schedule and life information. How can we educate our children for the changes that will occur during the next 5, 10 or 20 years?

I think the answer is teaching children thinking skills and allowing them to take charge of their learning. I don't think filling out worksheets will prepare a child for the year 2025. However, encouraging a child to discover the answer to a problem on their own just may be the best preparation for an unpredictable future.

I suppose, just like the hummingbird, we will all adjust to changes in the environment. However, the best thing we can do for children is to prepare them to think through problems and be willing and able to tackle new information. I hope our children will have the skills to find the feeder in the middle of the city whatever future form that may take.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

There's More Than One Answer

While teaching a creativity workshop recently, the discussion turned to how important divergent thinking is to problem solving skills. Divergent thinking allows children to look at a problem and explore the many ways it can be solved. I dislike scenarios where there is only one answer. I know that 2 + 2 will always equal 4, but for problems that offer the possibility of multiple answers, we should give children that opportunity.
I am a big believer in classroom meetings and introducing problems to children. Teachers often try to solve all the problems and make all the decisions. Parents do the same at home. I often use one example from my own classroom. In exasperation one day I noticed that the art center was a mess after we 'cleaned up' the room. I could have lectured or told the children how disappointed I was in their lack of follow-through. Instead, I drew the students' attention to the art center and asked if they could identify what was wrong. Of course they knew the center was not cleaned up properly. I asked for volunteers to clean the center. After it was appropriately cleaned I drew attention to how it should look after clean up. I then asked the children what we were going to do about the problem of having centers left in disarray. They had a variety of ideas, which we adopted as our procedures, and the problem of messy learning centers improved 100%.
Lecturing to the children was one ineffective approach to the problem. However, using several suggestions from the children solved the issue. Divergent thinking can rule the day!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sometimes It's Just a Slinky

A group of us were looking at new early childhood product possibilities recently and we saw this large, colorful slinky. Everyone was so excited and thought it was so cool. A product developer said, "Yes, everyone thinks it is great. But what do you do with it?" That became the big question. They gave me the slinky to try out with my grandchildren to see if we could think of activities to do with the slinky. This was a difficult assignment. Because the slinky is prone to knot and bend and really was too big to do the token 'walking down the stairs.' We did have fun shaking it up and down like a parachute, but beyond that there wasn't much to do with it. I certainly realized I couldn't write an activity guide to accompany the slinky. It was a lesson learned about how sometimes things are cute and attractive, but not very useful in building skills. I see early childhood products like that occasionally. Sometimes they're just a slinky.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Never Give Up!

I ran a half-marathon yesterday and was suffering the last few miles. I had purchased running shoes which had been 'fitted by experts' that did not provide the support that I needed to run 13 miles. I broke my foot in a car accident in 1996 and that old injury came back yesterday at about mile 9 because the shoes I was wearing did not provide enough cushion to run that distance. I regularly considered stopping to walk, even though I knew that I was running a very fast race (for me). I tried running with my foot at a different angle, lengthening my stride, shortening my stride, running on a different part of my foot, etc., until I finally found a way to make the discomfort bearable. I finished the race well ahead of my usual running time.

I was thinking about this yesterday, as I was trying to recover, and I thought of the number of classrooms I had been in this year that experienced discomfort, gave up and started to walk. I know that we have very challenging behavior issues today in our school classrooms. However, I do get frustrated when I see the teacher has 'given up' because 'nothing works.' It is my belief that a teacher should never 'give up' on helping a child achieve acceptable behavior in the classroom. The teacher needs to try difference angles, maybe lengthen or shorten the stride of what is happening. But, continuing to do the same unsuccessful intervention is fruitless and may lead to reinforcing the negative behavior. If I choose to run another race in the very same shoes I used yesterday, the same thing will occur and will probably eventually lead to an injury or weakness. Why do some teachers think that if they continue to use an intervention that does not work, it will eventually work (the big culprit here is 'time out')?

My student teachers this last year will tell you that I continually reminded them that they might have to try 20 intervention ideas before they find something that works for a child that is disruptive. When a teachers tells me that 'nothing works,' I tend to think that she just doesn't want the child to comply bad enough. If the teacher did, she would continually be trying new things or looking for additional resources.

I'm glad I persevered enough and found a way to make it to the finish line yesterday. It wasn't easy, but at the finish line it certainly was rewarding. Helping a child curtail disruptive behavior isn't easy, but it can provide long-lasting rewards.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Early Childhood Standards

I am currently working on a committee for my state to see how closely our preschool standards are aligned in preparing children for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for kindergarten. It is always delightful to work with a group that is in tune with what is developmentally appropriate for early childhood children. A number of times during our meetings we have come to the conclusion that it is most appropriate for a certain skill to begin in kindergarten, not preschool. It has also been a pleasant discovery to find that our state preschool standards are providing adequate preparation for most kindergarten skills that are in the CCSS.

While serving on this committee, I have expressed my desire that we provide a usable document that an early childhood teacher can use "at a glance" to prepare her lesson plans. Sometimes we create large documents that many teachers do not take the time to read completely or we use terminology that is not always easy to understand. While I think it is critical for us to create a solid complete document, I also think it is important to have a simpler road map for teachers to use on a daily basis. Unfortunately, teachers don't always have access to complete professional development to help them 'decipher the code' of a government document. Hence, my request that we make a document usable for the masses. We must do that if we want the standards taught regularly in the classroom.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A New Beginning

I just watched 23 of my student teachers graduate last week. Now they are actively interviewing for jobs as the local school districts are slowly posting their openings. Five of these soon-to-be new first year teachers already have a job. I was thinking recently about my first year of teaching back in 197... I always tell my students that everything I learned in college about teaching I did the first week. Subsequently, everything I said I would never say to children I had said by the end of the second week out of desperation. Then, I had to learn to be a teacher.

The teacher preparation programs are so much better now. I like how my students spend almost an entire school year in a classroom. They get to see, participate in and create procedures and curriculum from the beginning of the school year until almost the end. At the same time, they learn and plan classroom strategies in college courses and then return with that information to the classroom. This scenario worked well for my wonderful cohort group this year. There were several who actually surpassed their site teachers ability to create an even more efficient classroom.

Yes, times have changed. Teacher preparation programs are much better now. The breakdown in the system now comes when a new teacher does not receive the strong support necessary to continue the growth she started as a student. Even the best new teacher needs continual support and advice to be successful. I am hoping that each new teacher leaving my program will receive that support. I feel much like a parent sending my child out into the world. I hope each one will become the successful teacher I can see inside her/him today.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Counting the Laps

I was brainstorming with one of my former student teachers about a child she is working with who exhibits violent behavior when everything doesn't go smoothly in class. During the conversation I was reminded of a student I taught a number of years ago. He had been the 'terror of the school' prior to coming into my 2nd grade class. I was baffled how a K-1 student could cause such problems in a school setting.
Jimmy had a violent temper and when angry he would hit anyone in his path, including adults. He was a little leery about me at the beginning (his first male teacher), but soon settled into his usual routine. Since he was so physical, I decided to capitalize on that energy. Our classroom was near an outside door that led to a large playground. I made a deal with Jimmy and told him that he could have some fresh air time if he ever felt angry and wanted to hit something. I told him that from that point on I wanted him to excuse himself, go outside and run to the fence and back until he calmed down and felt like he could re-enter the room. I made sure he knew this wasn't a punishment, but an opportunity to calm down. For this particular child, it worked and by December he could calm down by putting his head on his desk.
In the meantime, I found out a little more background about Jimmy and found there were violent episodes in his home. It makes sense that children who observe violence may react in the same way. With the social worker also involved in teaching Jimmy coping skills, he lost the title of 'terror of the school' and became a successful student.
Talking with my student teacher reminded me of the steps that I go through when working with a 'challenging' child:
1. Work on building a positive relationship with the child.
2. Try to find out the root of the problems.
3. If necessary, replace physical aggression with physical exertion.
4. Keep working on the problem. It may take 20 different procedures to find one that works for that child. Don't be cynical, be systematic.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Science of Discovery

Recently, we were talking in one of my university classes about creativity in science. Our discussion led to how important it is to help a child 'discover' or learn about the world around her. In fact, in this age of technology and electronic gadgets, I think that many people fail to observe what is happening to the Earth around them. It usually takes something devastating, like the earthquake/tsunami in Japan, to bring people back to the reality of how our world functions. Providing science discovery activities in the classroom can help the child understand when events like this do happen.

To me, the biggest reason to provide great science discovery is to help the child enjoy and notice the beauties of the world. I think this discovery leads to more respectful citizens who value the earth and perhaps will be more inclined to care for our precious environment and resources. I also think that teachers who 'don't have time to teach science,' don't understand how science reinforces reading and math and science activities can be used just as effectively as activities we usually label math and reading. When I have children sort and classify seashells or leaves in the science center, they are using skills that will help them sort mathematical items and letters of the alphabet. All the world can work together if we just give it a chance.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Sense of Security

I was talking to a group of teachers at the California AEYC Conference about children needing security when coming into the classroom. It was freshly on my mind because I had told my student teachers the same thing. We owe it to the children in our classrooms to have a consistent classroom management plan and expectations. When a child crosses the threshold into the classroom each day, she should feel the security of knowing exactly what to expect for the day. We may think that a challenging child wants to be out of control, but that is not the case. Each child wants to know what is expected and to feel the security of that knowledge.

Our society is so unpredictable right now. As my student teachers work with an at-risk child, I remind them that the school day may be the only dependable part of of that child's day. He may not know what will happen when he leaves school. BUT, for the hours he is in the classroom, he should have the security of knowing exactly what will happen. When a teacher is inconsistent in classroom expectations and consequences, it throws that security off balance. That lack of balance actually creates more negative behaviors. When a teacher says to me, "I just can get the class (or child) under control," my first thought is that she has given up and doesn't want to make the effort to continue to search for something that will work.

One thing I want my student teachers to do when they become the only teacher in the classroom is to maintain good classroom procedures and be consistent in their consequences and rewards. Not only will that curtail negative behaviors, it will also provide the warm security blanket each child needs while at school.

Monday, March 14, 2011

It's that time of year. This week is St. Patrick's Day. I know it is that time not just because of the calendar or change of seasons, but also the shamrocks are beginning to pop up in my front yard. When those shamrock leaves start appearing, it brings me back to the years that I spent in Ireland. I had the opportunity to living there when I was in my early 20s. That began my love of Irish literature and folktales. I especially enjoy the author, Eve Bunting. Ms. Bunting moved to the US from Ireland and has become a prolific writer over the years. Although she has written many adolescent stories about critical issues for young people, I have especially enjoyed her books set in Ireland. They bring back such wonderful memories.
I always hoped that my students would have good memories of being in my classroom and the year we spent together. When I run into former students, I'm always surprised by what they remember. Many have told me about trying to catch the leprechaun. Who would have thought...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Multiple Intelligences

In 1983 Howard Gardner introduced his theory of multiple intelligences. The intelligences include:
Linguistic ("word smart")
Logical-mathematical ("number/reasoning smart")
Spatial ("picture smart")
Bodily-Kinesthetic ("body smart")
Musical ("music smart")
Interpersonal ("people smart")
Intrapersonal ("self smart")
Naturalist ("nature smart")
He has suggested additional intelligences over the years, but the bottom line is that we are all good at something and learn in different ways.
It is always interesting to have my university students do a multiple intelligence inventory. Some participants are surprised by the high and low scores that become evident during the inventory. Other students think the inventory does a good job of summing up their intelligence strengths. When we do this inventory, I always stress that the lower scores on their inventory are not weaknesses, but areas that may not play a key role in their daily lives. They also may be areas that have been difficult for them to use for learning. However, we know that intelligence can change. I know that my inventory scores are much different now than they would have been when I was in my 20s. This is mostly due to what I have chosen to do with my life. Linguistic and spatial skills have become more prominent in my life while logical thinking and music have become less of a focus for me.
We use the multiple intelligence inventory so that I can show my students that children have many learning styles and different opportunities to excel. When a child has a rounded view of life's choices, he can make educated life decisions in the future. Children who are not exposed to different learning areas do not understand all the choices that life can provide and they may have a difficult time learning new skills. This is another important consideration when working with young children.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


I began teaching children's literature to college students in 1997. As the years have passed, I became convinced about how important it is for teachers and parents to read children's and adolescent literature. Whether you are teaching 5 year-olds or 15 year-olds, I don't think there is any better way to remind yourself how children function than by reading literature featuring young characters. Each time I read a new children's novel I feel a deeper connection to kids. I believe that good teachers read children's literature.
I just finished reading the current Newbery Medal winner, Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool. Abilene Tucker, the main character, is sent by her father to the town of Manifest for the summer. True to it's name, the town and citizens reveal to Abilene their unusual history and how her father fits into their existence. The town folk also have a few things manifested to them as Abilene searches through the history of the town. I think the manifestation that came to me during reading is how children interpret what they are told using what background knowledge they have acquired. It reminded me again that when you tell a child something, your interpretation of those instructions may not be the same translation in the child's head. Children can create an entirely different experience out of the simplest suggestion.
You learn a lot about children by reading. Check out Moon Over Manifest and see what is manifested to you.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Air to Breathe

It has been a cold and snowy winter so far here in Utah. The older I get, the more I dislike cold weather. The other day when it was 7 degrees overnight, I went out the next morning to break a hole in the ice of our pond. We keep a pump going, but I like to make sure there is an oxygen outlet for the fish and turtles deep in the water. It always amazes me how they survive the cold winter, but they seem to adjust fine as long as there is oxygen.

I have had the opportunity to work with at-risk children routinely throughout the years and I have always viewed school much like that oxygen outlet. For some children, school can be a safe environment in an unsafe and unstable world. The classroom can provide support for a child who does not always feel supported in life. School can also provide challenges and opportunities to think that may not be encouraged outside the classroom. When a teacher creates an inviting and supportive classroom, it can be a haven for a child until the harsh winter begins to subside. Good teachers make sure there is a hole in the pond when it is 7 degrees by:

-Maintaining a strong positive relationship with the child

-Providing comfortable and effective routines that help the child feel secure

-Routinely reinforce social and emotional skills that help children grow friendships and feel part of the group

-Giving extra support to children who seem to struggle with compliance and obedience.

I wish that every child felt love, acceptance and support in every aspect of his/her life. Unfortunately, that is not the norm for many children. Until that time, we all must continue to break a hole in the ice for the children who surround us. Especially when the outside world is lurking with icy fingers and a temperature of 7 degrees.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Making Music

During the holidays, I had the opportunity to be in California with all six of my grandchildren. After a rousing Wii music game, three of my granddaughters picked up the ukulele and some costumes, then proceeded to serenade the rest of us. One of the adults present called out, "That sounds just awful." Maybe it did, but the effort impressed me. Here were three girls who were not afraid to take a chance and exhibited great planning strategies. We know how critical it is to teach children thinking skills and to take a chance. Sir Ken Robinson, an expert on creativity, says, "If they don't know, they will have a go." Children are natural risk takers, but adults often shut down their comfort level for taking risks. This has great impact on thinking skills and creativity. To encourage taking risks and developing thinking skills, adults should:

1. Allow the "awful music," realizing that the process the child developed is what should be encouraged, not shut down. Don't worry about the product.

2. Look for toys and materials that need a process of development. Instead of a coloring book (no thinking there), provide construction paper, scissors and glue (endless process). The end product doesn't really matter.

3. Encourage an atmosphere of taking risks. Recently, a child I know filled the sink with water and started floating her shoe in the water. I applaud her mother who did not get upset and yell, "What are you doing?" She simply asked calmly, "So, what are you doing with your shoe." Her daughter said, "Seeing if my shoe can float." "What did you find out?" asked her mom. After a great discussion they cleaned the mess and dried the shoe.

4. Do projects together. Routinely do projects with the child and allow him to suggest many of the procedures. Even if you know it may not 'work.' Trial and error is great for thinking. A wonderful resource book for doing projects is, "The Complete Book of Activities, Games, Stories, etc." by Pam Schiller and Jackie Silberg.

My granddaughters can serenade me anytime. It was music to my ears as I was thrilled they created a band. The right notes can come later!