Rotten Eggs

teamworkSomeone asked me recently about which classroom projects both foster and challenge community. Challenging the notion of community is just as important as supporting it for kids to learn why it matters. As I thought about it, I realized that really any activity that requires teamwork among kids will typically test the strength of the community.

Last year we were studying the U.S. postal system and the mail process. The class worked on many independent activities that involved writing postcards and mailing letters to parents or friends, learning how to address envelopes, and understanding the steps a letter goes through to get from point A to point B.

One of our group projects was an effort to learn how fragile items were packaged and safely delivered in the mail. We decided to pack and mail a raw egg to ourselves.

The class talked in a full group about the texture and properties of the raw egg and hypothesized about which materials would protect it as it traveled through the postal system.

The class was then divided into four small groups. Each group was given a raw egg, packing peanuts, bubble wrap, paper, tape, boxes, and various other materials for packaging, and sent on their way to pack their egg.

The group I was supervising spent the majority of their time arguing over who was in charge of packing the egg.   I didn’t intervene but it was painfully obvious that this was not going well.   My group of four kids were fighting over who would hold the egg, over how to place the egg in the box, and over what materials to use and how to arrange them.   They were even pulling things out of one another’s hands – each one wanting to take the lead. Each unable to work together or negotiate or problem solve.

I looked over my shoulder at the other two groups.   They were talking through a plan; coming up with a strategy and taking turns with various materials. When there were differences in opinions, they worked through it and came up with resolutions.

My group ended up lobbing the poor egg into the box and all hands shoving in the extra materials. While fighting over the tape, the kids almost taped their own hands to the outside of the box.   When they were done, they passed over a smooshed box with crumpled tape wrapping all around it. They looked at me defeated, as if they knew exactly the fate of this egg.

We gathered again as a group to discuss and reflect on the project – a very powerful way to complete these small group activities. It helps for kids to hear others’ experiences with the same activity and process what they just learned.

I asked them all how it went.

“Great,” said one kid from the other group. “Our egg is not gonna break!” His fellow team members echoed his satisfaction.

The second group enthusiastically said they were the best packagers. “We figured out how to float the egg inside,” this team said.

My group was quiet. Then one kid from my group said: “We were fighting.   ‘X’ wouldn’t let me have the egg!” He was indignant.

‘X’ argued back. “You wouldn’t let me!”

Another from this group, exasperated, said: “Our egg is not good.”

I took the three boxes to the Post Office and mailed them back to the school.   A few days later, they arrived.   We gathered again to open them. I left my group’s package for last.

The first two, we opened with great fanfare.   We pulled off the tape and unwrapped the brown paper and took out the bubble wrap and packing peanuts and all the rest.   The eggs were both intact! The packing teams cheered.

There was a foul smell coming from the third box.   My team looked apprehensive as I pulled off the packaging. As the wrapping unfolded, I thought I was going to vomit. The child sitting next to me actually gagged.   The egg had broken and smeared all over the box.   The kids recoiled at the smell.

“Well,” I said, “looks like this one did not make it.”

The group that packed this now broken, rotten egg sat silently.   I asked what they thought had happened.

“We did a bad job,” one of them said.

I asked what he meant.

“We didn’t pack it right. We were fighting too much.”

It is difficult for such young children to think in abstract terms (ie: if we worked together, the egg packaging would have been more successful), but the concrete examples of the egg and its demise did make them ponder.

Working together is one important aspect of community; a shared goal and shared experience in working toward it. Creating these opportunities for successful and failed projects can be powerful tools in creating a stronger classroom community.

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Everyone Needs a Little Group Therapy

appreciation group hug

We joke in my classroom that anyone is welcome to come join our group therapy sessions at any time. Feeling sad?   Need to vent? Want some support? Come join our morning meeting!  

Part of our daily routine includes a morning meeting where the class comes together as a group and we check in. While it’s predominately a time for literacy, math and curriculum content, it is also an opportunity for social and emotional skill development. We try to leave time for discussion on anything that is on the kids’ minds, which leads to unpredictable, organic, often pretty funny conversations.

Sometimes after we go through attendance, the calendar, the daily schedule, weather, and other news, I just say: “Is anyone having any problems today?” My class this year was particularly expressive and comfortable with such discussions, so this question would incite all hands to go up. The topics would range from everything from being angry at their parents for not letting them bring candy to school to having nightmares to the difficulties of having a younger sibling, to the fact that they were sick and tired of the rain.

One day, a little boy raised his hand during morning meeting:

“I am so tired of having a baby,” he said (referring to his one year old brother). “He hits me and bites me and I can’t do anything about it.”

The other kids in the class comforted him. Some shared their own tragic situations about their own younger siblings.  

He continued: “Last night, I was just sitting in my rocking chair and my baby came over and bit me on the hand for no reason!”

The rest of the class was indignant. They gasped.

“And I got so mad … I didn’t know what to do,” he paused. “I wanted to kill him.”

The class looked at me. I waited for this little boy to continue.

“But I couldn’t because the Elf on the Shelf was there in the room.”

I burst out laughing. – the image of him like a little old man sitting in a rocking chair, and the tiny baby terrorizing him and his helplessness as the Elf on the Shelf looked on while he considered killing his baby brother, was too funny.

The other kids did not think this was funny at all. They continued to express empathy for their friend with the baby brother.

One of them said, “He sounds like a monster baby.”  

We all laughed. The little boy smiled too. His body relaxed a little. The class suggested ways to help; some ludicrous (shoot him like a slingshot across the room) and some more pacifist (go tell your mom), but overall I was struck by the camaraderie and total support of the group.

“Group therapy” is good for everyone. It fosters connections between children as they identify with what another is struggling with. It helps bring perspective to problems that seem overwhelming and isolating to one child. And it ultimately solidifies the bonds of the community; creating trust and intimacy among the group.

The Monster Baby became a legend in our classroom. Every time he came with his mother to pick up his brother from school, it was like Elvis was in the house. Someone would shout that he had arrived and the class would surround him and stare at him while he babbled and smiled sweetly.

“He doesn’t really seem like a monster,” some kid eventually remarked.

 And even his brother had to agree.


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leavesThis past spring when we finally escaped the deep freeze of our long winter, my class had much welcome time exploring outside. This unstructured time was such a welcome and refreshing change from the cramped, stale classroom.

A particularly resourceful, and extremely cute little boy in my class discovered some rocks, sticks, leaves, and other natural materials and he got down to work creating a campfire.

He carefully put each of the rocks around in a symmetrical pattern and added little twigs and grass in the middle and even pretended to roast marshmallows with otherl materials. A child who could easily be described as hyper-active and excessively energetic inside the classroom, he was focused and calm as he worked diligently and deliberately on this project.

After watching him for a while and admiring his hard work, I mentioned to him that the school garden was starting to produce some amazing fruits and vegetables. Knowing how excited he had been to plant the seeds, I asked him if he wanted to check it out with me. He enthusiastically joined me, leaving his campfire behind. We spent a little time picking and eating strawberries and examining the lettuce, and then he went back to his campfire.

Unfortunately, when he returned, someone else had come along and taken all of the campfire materials to make a bug playground – and a pretty amazing one at that. The leaves and twigs of the campfire had been transformed into swings and slides for bugs. The rocks had once methodically encircled the campfire in a careful pattern were being used for a bug climbing structure.

I took a moment to appreciate just how cool this new creation was and marveled at the ingenuity behind it. Then I saw my campfire friend starting to come, full-on with arms swinging to attack the bug playground kid.

I physically put my body in between the kids while the first one protested that the rocks and sticks and leaves were HIS. Then he looked at me, infuriated, pointed his finger and said: “It’s YOUR fault! You made me go look at the garden!”

This was, in fact, true and I felt a horrible pang of guilt. By this time, the bug playground creator was standing in front of his project with his legs spread and his arms out wide.

“I didn’t know if was yours. Don’t’ wreck my bug playground!” he said in a panic.

Boy number one was on the verge of a full-out attack and I had to physically remove him, kicking and screaming, from the playground for fear he would hurt the other kid. He cried and he yelled at me and he protested how unfair this was. And he wept about his campfire. I did not let him go back to it. I let the bug playground continue.

I look back on this now and I am conflicted, as I often am as these problems unexpectedly come up throughout the year. I want to be fair. That is really important to me in the way I teach. And I want to teach fairness –to model it for the kids and let them practice it on their own. But often in the classroom, as in life, it’s just not all that clear. And you’ve got to make an instant decision.

Sometimes when I think back on certain situations, I wish I could either apologize or do it all over. This was one of those times. It’s not that I regret taking this boy to see the garden – he was fascinated by our harvest and I knew it would be enriching for him. I regret that I somehow lost his trust and betrayed him when I handed over his creation to another child.

There is, of course, no easy solution to this kind of thing. You can’t own rocks and sticks from the playground; and when you walk away, someone’s bound to pick them up. And when tempers are escalating too quickly to have a productive discussion, you have to react.

The frustration my first little friend must have felt is still palpable to me. It’s one of the hard things about teaching young children, and one of the ways teachers must keep learning all the time. Sometimes the solutions are not all that clear but experiences like this one help inform the next time it happens.

Maybe next time, the bugs could go camping after they play on the playground?

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Dead Dogs, Goldfish, and Bob Marley

This year in my class, we had a lot of death going on. More than one grandparent passed away, a beloved family dog died, several of our own classroom fish perished, and while studying Jamaica and reggae music, the subject of what happened to Bob Marley came up more than once.

On an annual basis, parents come to me and ask how to handle the issue of death with their children. Many of them are in the midst of grief themselves if a relative has died, and others are baffled by their child’s newfound interest in death. Sometimes it seems out the blue, but it is very common for kids at 4 or 5 years old to become almost obsessively curious about death.

This year, a mom called me in the middle of the day to tell me that the family dog was dying unexpectedly and when her child came home from school, it would be dead. What should she do? she asked me. What should she tell him? Should she let him see the pet to say goodbye? How could she explain this to him?

There are no easy answers when explaining death to kids and it is a personal decision depending on religious beliefs, family dynamics, and the child’s own temperament. It’s helpful to take the child’s lead by seeing what kinds of questions they have before doling out too much information. But it’s complicated regardless.

We often talk about the life cycle in the classroom in the simple context of a seed turning into a flower and then dying. Unfortunately the real world is often more complicated and sometimes kids have to face tragedy and loss in unexpected circumstances. Dogs can get sick and medicine doesn’t help. Accidents can occur. Bob Marley decided not to have treatment for cancer in his toe.

In the classroom this year, one little boy talked frequently about the recent death of his grandfather. The little boy did not seem disturbed when he talked about him but was rather enthralled by the whole experience; almost as if it was something so unbelievable that it was like reading a fairy tale.

“He died and then we buried him in the ground,” he said, wide-eyed. The other kids in the class listened attentively.

“Why?” One asked, looking a little horrified. “Why did they bury him in the ground?”

“It’s a cemetery,” another chimed in. “With big rocks around with names on them. Dead people’s names.”

Looking around the room, it occurred to me that about half the kids had never even heard the word cemetery, never mind contemplated the morbidity of the bodies under those rocks; while the other half had some understanding of the rituals around death.

“My dog died,” the little boy who lost his pet said. “And he looked like this.” The little boy closed his eyes, stuck his tongue out, and hung his head to one side. The class roared with laughter.

When he composed himself from his own laughter, he protested: “It’s not funny! It’s sad. My mom cried.”

A little boy who had been listening said: “My mom’s mom died when she was little. Her name was Mary Anne.” I felt a pang.

Several other kids added their own list of long lost relatives to the list of the dead.

“Is your mom still alive?” (a question I get asked frequently by my class) a little girl asked me. The class waited intently for my answer.

“She is not anymore,” I responded. “But she was really great and we had a lot of fun together.”

“Why did she die?” a little boy asked.

“She had a bad sickness that medicine couldn’t help,” I said.

“But why?” a couple of kids said in unison?

They appeared worried for me. But more importantly, they appeared worried for themselves.

It occurred to me that what kids need most around this whole death issue is reassurance that they are not going to be abandoned. That the primary people in their lives (usually the parents), aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Processing death is complicated at any age and the grief of losing a loved one (pet or person) is one of life’s greatest trials. We just can’t answer the question “why?” But it is important nonetheless for kids to understand that life does not go on forever. It inevitably occurs in their own world.

Developmentally kids see death in an egocentric way (maybe we all do to some degree). They fundamentally want to make sure they are going to be okay. The rest of it is just a mystery.

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Little Bullies


I was watching a group of 3 girls playing the other day. They had a smoothly operating system going – a little assembly line of sorts, measuring and weighing different containers of materials.  Another child came over to join them when one of them announced:  “You can’t play here.  There can only be three of us.”  The fourth child looked horrified and hurt.   

The entire group looked over at me, including the one doing the excluding.  She looked equally surprised; almost as if a couple seconds of reflection was all it took to regret what she’d done.  It was clearly not premeditated; more an instinctual defense against this fourth girl.   

The fourth girl interrupted the flow and delicate balance of this play.  It is complicated for kids to negotiate how to work together and once they do, it’s intrusive and disruptive to try and incorporate a new peer.  I felt for them and understood where the exclusion was coming from, but also felt for the excluded child. 

The girls, savvy and clever as they are, rebounded before I had to say much to them.  They saw the pained look on their peer’s face.  One of them quickly said: “No, that’s okay.  You CAN play with us. Here use this,” and handed her a container.

Later that day, a little boy on the playground left a shovel on the ground and another kid picked it up and began to use it.  The first boy ran back over and began hitting his peer; fighting over this shovel.  I told him to sit down and take a break and calm himself down.  A few minutes later, I told him he could go back and play but he didn’t move.   I asked why he was still sitting there. 

“I’m trying to think of how I can be nicer,” he replied unassumingly.  He then lay down on his back, crossed his ankles, and looked up at the sky.  “I think I’m feeling mad,” he said calmly.  “My big brother is always mean to me.”  

I was shocked at this not-even-yet-5-year-old’s capacity to self-reflect and express himself.  This boy was playing out aggression directed at him at home.

We had a new child enter the class in the middle of the year recently.  He doesn’t speak English well and is trying to acclimate to a class of kids who have already bonded deeply for the past several months.  

During our morning meeting the other day, he said something in Korean that I could not understand.  I leaned forward to try and get some clarity from him when a little boy across the circle began to laugh at him. It was literally once of those “Ah haa haa!” teasing laughs that I thought only existed in cartoons. 

I snapped my head around to look at this child.  He was pointing and laughing at our new Korean friend.   A thousand reactions went flashing through my mind.  Instead I stopped and looked around at the other kids.  

Not one of them was laughing.  Not one of them was participating in this “bullying” behavior.   I watched them.  They watched me.  We looked at the hurt child.  We looked at the kid who was teasing.  We all processed it.   The teasing kid’s jeers eventually lost steam and he actually began to look embarrassed.  

After a moment, another kid said:  “That’s not funny.”  The rest of the class concurred.    I felt victorious.   I didn’t do or say a thing. The kid who had been laughing shrunk.   The class had come to the defense of the little Korean boy. 

I have been doing research for a workshop on the topic of bullying in the early childhood years.   It’s such a hot topic in education today.  Schools everywhere have initiatives in place to protect kids from bullying and it’s interesting to think about it from the perspective of early childhood education.

As I was reflecting on the term “bully” something about the word seemed inappropriate and harsh applied to young children. Bullies, mean girls, bad kids – are these labels valid in a classroom of 4 and 5 year olds?   The labels imply a certain premeditated intent that I don’t think most young children possess quite yet.

Social emotional work is an important part of the early childhood curriculum and incidents happen on a daily basis that look like an awful lot like bullying.  If not addressed, these kids can very well turn into bullies as they get older.   But experimenting with aggression, exclusion, teasing, etc. is actually a very normal and necessary part of child development. 

Teaching and modeling empathy, negotiation skills, self-regulation, and compassion is powerful.  Kids in a classroom setting have a forum to experience all sides of the equation.  Sometimes they are the victims, sometimes they are the perpetrators, sometimes they are the community of supporters. 

If we as teachers are tasked with preventing future bullies, it begins with understanding the root of the behavior and guiding our kids to see the impact their behavior has on others. 

Children develop “Theory of Mind” around the age of 4, which allows them to understand that others have separate feelings and opinions than themselves.   This provides us with a great opportunity.  Early childhood educators have the luxury of catching kids before they are too self-conscious, too affected by outside influences, too fixed in their ways.   

The classroom that gives kids room to experiment, self-police, and fix their mistakes is one that leaves no room for a bully. 

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Are Bad Guys Real?

Superman_Shield Superheroes_ Theme  Song CDs  Home_of_Superhero Theme Songs

4 and 5 year olds believe there is a bad guy out there, and they are going to get him.

Every year it’s the same play scenario with some slight variations.  Sometimes it’s the police out to get a burglar.  Sometime it’s the super hero out to get a monster.  Sometimes the airforce is defending against the enemy.  Sometimes, it’s a firefighter off to rescue a victim.  At times some unfortunate kid gets targeted as the “bad” guy (that’s subject for another blog entry) but typically the target is some fictitious, invisible character.

Child development theory talks about the importance of “bad guy” imaginary play for children to work out fears and try on different, more powerful roles.  They are given a chance to gain some control over their worlds in these play scenarios.  The scarier and gorier the better.   They create fear to prove they can conquer it.

The wonderful and talented author and early childhood educator, Vivian Paley even wrote a book on the subject called:   “Bad Guys Don’t Have Birthdays”.   Her kindergarten class created rules of play that included “bad guys aren’t allowed to have birthdays, pick blueberries, or disturb the baby.”

Last year, my class was obsessed with the police and putting bad guys in jail.  I finally got two police officers to come in and show the kids their real badges, handcuffs, and guns and talk about how they actually do get the bad guys to jail.

This year, my kids are busily building and setting up booby traps to capture everything from bad guys to monsters to dangerous animals.  They have each assumed a powerful identity to protect the rest of us from this bad and scary thing – all the while gleefully coming up with wildly imaginative, gruesome story lines.

The kids vascillate between doing something really ghoulish like cutting him into pieces and burying him alive (no joke), to something totally ludicrous like throwing soccer balls at him until he falls down or putting toilet paper in his eyes or squirting him in the belly with their water gun, to telling him he must go in time out for 1 billion years.

I told my class this year about my pumpkin disappearing off of my front steps one day.   They immediately leapt to my defense, assuming a thief had taken it (probably true) and for days, their play centered around how they were going to find this pumpkin thief (creating maps and plans), what they were going to do to him when they found him (flush him down a toilet, throw bubble gum at him, trap him in a dark cage), and how they would heroically deliver my pumpkin back to me.  No one is more valiant than a 4 year old boy going after a pumpkin thief!

I once heard a teacher complain:  How do we get this superhero play to stop? And I sympathized with her.  It can be loud, raucous, chaotic, highly intense play that is always on the verge of getting out of control. Always on the verge of someone getting hurt – or scared.   Different kids have different tolerance levels for this kind of thing as they try to differentiate between fantasy and reality – a common developmental theme among 4 and 5 year olds.

It is important to resist the urge to soften this play; to protect the kids from their own imaginations and the danger of scaring themselves.  It’s important to let them play it out.  Presumably since they are they ones making up the rules of the game and negotiating the plot line, they are going as far as they need to without going too far with the fear factor.  They are creating a scary scenario that is benign enough in their own minds to actually handle emotionally and ultimately master the fear.

The bad guy theme is pervasive in my class.  In our morning meeting recently, there was a discussion about how everyone was feeling.  A little boy said – with a huge and mischievous grin – that he was angry.  When asked why, he replied that a bad guy came into this room in the middle of the night and stole all his toys.  I asked what happened next.  He told me that he tore the bad guy’s leg off and poked him in the belly.  Then he laughed.    The rest of the kids did too.

After a moment, another kid raised his hand and asked:  “Are bad guys real?”

I paused, thinking about how I was going to answer this when another child emphatically stated:   “No.  Bad guys are not real.”

Another quickly said:  “Yes.  Yes they are real.  My mom told me.  There was a guy with a bomb and he went and hid in a boat and he bombed people and tried to get away. It was real.”

And just as I was about to respond, after a long pause, another child declared confidently:  “I’m batman!” … to which I could not help but laugh out loud.

When talking about superheroes and monsters and policemen and bombs and booby traps and pumpkin thieves, and bad guys coming into little boys’ rooms in the middle of the night, it’s hard to say what’s real and what’s not.

I told the kids bad guys could be real – but that we had lots of good guys to protect us.   They looked suspiciously at me, like they thought I wasn’t being totally straight with them.  But there is something about the triumph of good over evil that we all hope is ultimately true.

For this reason, I am a proponent of bad guy play in the classroom, despite the headaches it can bring on.  The talk of blood and gore is actually kind of therapeutic for certain kids.  And when the kids assume I am going to make them stop, I just play along.  I am of the camp that this kind of play really does allow kids to master their own fears and assert some control over their little – big – worlds.

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Channeling the Alpha Male

When I was thinking about writing this blog entry, I struggled with the title.   I kept wanting to say something like:  “Squelching the Alpha Male” or “Taming the Alpha Male” but it sounded so negative and counter to what I try to encourage in my classroom.

Anyone who has worked with a group of kids (or adults for that matter) knows that kids tend to take on different roles in the collective dynamic.  There is the quiet kid. There is the class clown. There is the anxious kid.  There is the kid who makes sure the teacher isn’t looking before pushing another one down.  There is the rule follower.  And a myriad of other categories that kids vacillate among over the course of the year.

And then there is the Alpha Male.  Sometimes there is more than one Alpha Male and sometimes it varies between the genders.  But there is always at least one Alpha.

The Alpha comes in a variety of shapes and sizes and can take many forms.  Something of a bully might come to mind at first thought, but the Alpha Male is not always.  He is, however, the most domineering personality in the classroom.  The loudest, the most assertive, the leader of the games, the one who speaks first and most often in a group discussion, and often someone who has trouble waiting his turn or hearing another point of view.  Others defer to him by virtue of his larger-than-life personality.  He simply demands attention of teachers and kids alike.

The Alpha can be challenging to work with and challenging to the cohesiveness of the group.  He can be bossy and overwhelming at times.  I always worry about the reserved kids who sit in lessons and listen to the Alpha Male(s), but don’t jump in with their own opinions unless prodded.  I worry that the Alpha sucks all the air out of the room and doesn’t leave any space for the other kids to express themselves and try on their own budding strong personalities.  I want to hear the voice of each child in my classroom.

And yet, on the other hand, I am also grateful for the Alpha.  Grateful that someone is shouting out the correct answer, that someone is getting the rest of the class to line up, that someone is coming up with an interesting project, that someone is organizing things at the peer level.

It occurred to me as I met my class this year and encountered a couple of these characters, that the answer is not to squelch them or tame them.   The answer is to channel their strong natures.  The world needs strong leaders who can rally others and lead negotiations and step up.  People who are brave enough to do the right thing.

If teachers can get these kids to use their skills in a way that supports and enables others – say, the more shy kids – to reach their own potential, it would be a successful dynamic.  The Alpha could possibly bring others up to his level and act as a model.

One of my goals this year is to do just that.  Take some of the Alphas and create positive leaders out of them.  Bring it to their attention that they can positively impact others and let them feel good about that.   It’s an experiment worth trying.

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I Don’t Have Time to Think!

One of the best and worst things about teaching is the schedule; early mornings with an insanely intense pace during the academic year, but complemented with vacations every couple of months and a summer that makes even those in the corporate world envious.   While classes are in session, teaching is a profession that is always on.  During working hours there is a constant need from students, parents, administration – and when the day ends it’s time for curriculum planning, assessments, report writing, professional development, and a host of other tasks that are impossible to tackle during the day.

This means that during the academic year it can be difficult to carve out time for reflection.  When I worked in consulting, we found that the most effective organizations built in time for reflection.  It proved significant for high functioning teams as well as innovation.  It wasn’t just a touchy feely luxury to foster corporate culture. It actually improved the companies’ bottom line.  We used to refer to such organizations as “Learning Organizations” – because they were constantly improving themselves and analyzing their operations and processes. We saw a direct correlation between reflective leaders and highly performing organizations.

Shouldn’t schools by their very definition be “Learning Organizations” too?  In an ideal world, education would have this same opportunity for teachers to reflect  – on what is working and what isn’t; on how the class is gelling, on how lessons are reaching the kids, and on how to bring emergent curriculum into the classroom.   Unfortunately, the teaching schedule rarely allows for this space of thought.

Summertime is a respite from the grind of the school year and a convenient time to decompress and gain perspective on the past year as well as the one coming up.  It can be a time of formal inspiration like seminars and classes, or more unstructured time spent recharging.  The less frenzied pace of summer allows for breathing space and from that comes valuable reflection time.

Personally, I am always reflecting on community in the classroom and ways I can enhance this concept with my own class.  Over the course of the summer I have been bombarded with new ideas and fresh perspectives on community.  You see it in summer camps, in family BBQs, on vacations with friends, in yoga classes, during clean-up days on the Boston Esplanade.  Community is everywhere.  Summer just makes it all more apparent.

I continue to be fascinated by the ways groups work well together.  How community can bring out the best in individuals working toward a common goal.  How strangers interact with one another and how intimate family members try to get along.  From what I’ve observed and reflected on this summer, the classroom environment needs to be a place where kids feel safe to be themselves and respected for their contribution.   It is the job of the teacher to enable that environment and help kids tap into their individuality as it pertains to the larger group.

Let’s reflect on that.

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Getting in the Flow of Things

Due to some unprecedented circumstances this year, my classroom has been understaffed, which has meant a lot of juggling around of our schedule, greater expectations of the kids’ independence, and the constant, looming threat of teacher burnout.

In many ways, this year has been an incredible learning experience for me as a teacher.  I have had to be creative in how I managed the group, flexible with our curriculum, and more energetic than I knew I was capable.

One fall-out of the lack of resources this year has been a less structured day with longer stretches of free choice periods.  Incidentally, the only way this has been both possible and productive is because of the particular class I have.   They are simply an amazing group of little individuals who are capable, resourceful, imaginative, kind, and respectful.  They have become the community I dream of building every year.

I experienced something like visceral joy recently as I observed a group of my kids collectively creating their own activity that involved all of the elements of teacher-directed, structured lesson time, without the teacher – or the structured lesson!

All of which got me thinking about a state of mind called “Flow”, a phrase coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist and PhD who studies optimal circumstances in which people are motivated. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. “To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task although flow is also described as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one’s emotions.”

I have witnessed this concept of Flow more with this year’s class than any other.  In part, this is because the inherent lack of structure in this year’s schedule allows for it.  But it is also enabled it through the community we’ve built in the classroom itself.  Flow, the way I think about it, can only work with a group of people who trust one another and enjoy building something meaningful together. The group must feel comfortable, absent of stress, intrigued by their task, and free to explore and experiment; thereby lulled into a state of total immersion and happiness in what they are doing, completely free of distraction.

So the other day when I was observing a small group of children self-organize on the playground to create an assembly line of sorts, I couldn’t help but think of this. There was a collector who gathered leaves for a wheelbarrow, another who used a shovel as a catapult to fling sticks into the wheelbarrow, a wheelbarrow driver who took the collection over to another area of the playground where another child took the sticks and leaves to make “pies”, that finally the group organized in neat rows to sell.  They did this over and over again, each child with his or her role, working out any kinks in the process, until the whole system ran like a well-oiled machine!

As I watched this scene, it occurred to me that the kids had no idea I was standing there.  No idea there was anyone else around watching them. No self-consciousness.  They were totally immersed in this activity and invested in the productivity, efficiency, and teamwork of it all.  It was an exercise in problem solving, motor planning, sequencing, communication, cause and effect, and on and on.

Children need this kind of unstructured time to explore and get into the groove otherwise known as Flow.  They need teacher support to scaffold their work and play; and to lay the groundwork for the rules of cooperation.  But in the end, the time they are left to their own devices can be infinitely valuable.

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Learning from Failure

I read an article in the New York Times recently called “Learning from Failure” about America’s infatuation with success stories and the inherent danger that comes from this kind of thinking.  It talks specifically about how some organizations feel pressure to show progress in research, and innovations in science.   The article goes on to say that these organizations rarely make their failures transparent and what a shame this is “because it’s a basic principle of science that you get things right by analyzing what went wrong.”

This topic has been on my mind a lot in the past few weeks.  In my classroom, I have been noticing some, let’s say, inconsistencies in the kids’ development as of late.

I have been thinking just how non-linear development often is before learning takes a leap forward.   Maybe it’s not exactly a failure in science, but it’s a similar notion.  We teachers want to show successes just like any other profession, but it just doesn’t always work that way.

A parent approached me last week and told me that her son didn’t know his letters. She was concerned.  I was surprised to hear this and felt, at first a little defensive (Of course he knows his letters!) and then a little worried (He doesn’t know his letters?).

I took him aside to get an informal assessment on his literacy skills.   He was totally inconsistent.   He knew some letters.  Then changed his mind.  He said an “X” was a “Y” but then spelled the word “Yarn” correctly.   He looked at a “J” and exclaimed that it looked like a candy cane, rather than a letter.  Now I was feeling like a failure!

I’ve got to admit, my instinct was to begin drilling him.  I resisted the voice inside my head that said:  “He’ll know these letters by the end of the day!”  I played a couple of word games with him, trying not to show my concern when he couldn’t retrieve a letter’s name or when he continually referred to a letter by the image it looked like rather than the letter itself.

Truth be told, this little boy is behind the rest of the class in his letter identification.  And the other truth here is, I’m actually not that worried.

While sometimes, kids’ successes make teachers feel like they are having a professional success all their own (after all, your aptitude as a teacher is reflected in how well your class learns, right?), learning cannot be quantified simply in terms of things like “knowing letters”.   It’s really about each child’s thinking process, acknowledging where they are at in their own development, and determining how to motivate and support them individually.  And ultimately making sure that you can observe growth and expansion of thought over time.

Sometimes I need to remind myself to resist the urge to strive for the golden class.  The class that excels beyond the developmental benchmarks, whose academic achievements I can boast about.  The class that makes me feel accomplished as a teacher.

Learning from a rote standpoint comes easily to some children.  They know their letters.  Some are reading before they are 5 years old!  But, as I told the mom of my struggling little letter guy, until something is meaningful to a child, they often don’t get it.  Or more importantly, they don’t’ try to get it.

What is more significant, in my opinion, is that this child is expressing interest in a variety of materials and concepts that do have meaning to him.  Assuming there are no actual learning disabilities, his literacy skills will emerge through discovery and context.

Developmentally, early childhood education can be all over the place.  Some kids just look better from a cognitive perspective.  They have the traditional academic aptitude glow all around them.  Others are on a different trajectory.

A class of diverse learners can be complicated and challenging. But sometimes what seems like a failure in teaching can be an opportunity to investigate further, try another strategy, and create a success story of a different sort.





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