Sunday, October 23, 2016

“Teachers, Step Away From Your Tables”

I’m a big fan of the Food Network show Chopped. In this show, chefs compete to create unique dishes using strange combinations of assigned foods, in a matter of minutes. After rushing around the kitchen to find additional ingredients and necessary utensils, preparing the food, and finally, plating it to serve attractively, the voice of the host rings out: “Chefs, step away from your stations.” The chefs step back, and their creations are frozen in time – whatever they were able to create in 20 minutes will face the judges.

This routine flows through my head in the morning as I rush to set up my classroom. Some of the tasks are mundane: set out seating mats for circle time, fetch snack from the kitchen, check that diapers are stocked and chairs pulled up to the tables. But then there’s the artistry – choosing materials and setting them out just so, attractive and engaging. My preschoolers can be as discerning about a tray of paint as a celebrity chef is judging an elaborate dessert. Racing against the clock, will I have enough time to set things out the way I want the children to see them when they enter the room?

Sometimes I wonder whether it’s worth the trouble. After all, children come ready to play, no matter which paintbrushes I chose or how the blocks are stacked against the wall. In a way, the materials, the arrangement, the environment doesn’t matter all that much. But in many other ways, it does. Some arrangements of materials draw children in, others send a message to go somewhere else. Some spark ideas and imagination. Some provide space to do individual work, others create tension and conflict between children. I’ve watched a child break down in tears because she couldn’t find a purple marker in the crowded basket, I’ve seen children focused more on grabbing the lone wheeled Lego from their neighbor than on building anything themselves. The chef who spills sauce sloppily over the side of the dish has made an unattractive mess. The preschool teacher who does the same with paint has created an invitation for the children to make an even bigger mess.

So I rush, glancing furtively at the clock. I have my bag of organizational tricks so I can try to easily pull out the paint, the blocks, the trays that I need. I have a back-up plan for the morning that happens all too often, when with 5 minutes left on the clock, the watercolor cakes are crumbled and the sensory table scoops are missing. Because the children will play, and my job is to do the best I can. Not the best there is, day after day, but the best I can for the children at that moment. The clock is ticking and I hear the children’s voices in the hall. It’s time to step away from my station and let the play begin. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Planning With Verbs

On the surface, “Emergent Curriculum” sounds easy enough. Observe the children, listen to their comments and questions, and find ways to extend what they’re interested in. Emergent curriculum often takes the shape of thematic curriculum, with the notable feature that the theme is something that the children introduced, not simply something the teacher decided on. A child brings in handful of leaves collected from the playground, another child brings in leaves from her backyard, and the emergent theme becomes “Fall” or “Fall leaves.” Several children choose to play with toy construction vehicles in the block corner day after day, so the emergent theme becomes “Construction”. Teachers plan art activities and select books, plan field trips, and choose materials for every area of the classroom to support children’s interest in the emergent theme.

But how do we know that what we as teachers perceive as the children’s interest is what the actual interest is?

One of the problems I find with planning thematic units is that they focus on a topic – on a noun adults assign to the category of objects that children express interest in. Leaves, trucks, colors, doctors, bakeries, etc. etc. As adults we zoom in on the “thing” that the children are interested in, and sometimes miss the reason that they’re interested in it.

We focus our planning on nouns when we should focus our planning on verbs.

When the children gather buckets full of leaves, are they really interested in the leaves themselves – their shapes and colors, the life cycle of trees, and their symbolic significance to regional seasonal weather? Or are they mesmerized by the texture and the sound of things that crumple and crinkle? Is it even important to the children that those are leaves in their bucket, or are they seeking out any available material that they can enclose in a container and transport across the playground? The things that they are interested in are important, but equally important, and often overlooked, is what they are doing with things that they are interested in. Our planning needs to involve verbs as much as nouns.

One way to do this is to view children’s interests in terms of schemas - the ways that children interact with, conceptualize, and construct knowledge about the world. Rolling a toy truck across the rug might not be an interest in trucks, or construction workers, or building sites – it might be an interest in motion, rolling, or speed. The bucket full of leaves might just as easily be a bucket full of rocks, or pompoms, or crumpled pieces of paper, and the interest is in transporting them from place to place. It’s easy for teachers to name the objects that the child shows interest in, it’s more challenging to observe what the child is doing with those objects.

But that’s what we have to do. To facilitate truly emergent curriculum, our observations and conversations need to hone in on children’s understandings and the concepts that children are grappling with. We need to look past the theme and discover the meaning through the child’s eyes. Sometimes a pile of leaves is about the leaves, but sometimes it’s a different thing entirely.