Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Listen to the Rain and the Children!

There will be rain, lots of rain and then at nine forty-five there will be a twister! You will need to go inside for two minutes. Go down to the basement and do not use your computers and you will be safe down there. Then you can come up and it will be sunny after two minutes.”

This report was given “live” by Nina in the classroom after several children decided to turn our dramatic play center into a weather station/TV/Radio station. We had read several books that talked about the machines, devices and computers that helped meteorologists determine the weather, and then how the information gets to the public. We had some keyboards, and phones. We covered the stove and refrigerators with paper and drew on buttons and gadgets. We made large cardboard monitors and then downloaded various weather maps to fill the screens and line the walls. We added headphones from the listening center and clipboards and writing utensils to write the reports. We also added appropriate wardrobe for the weather reporters.

When they first started reporting the weather panic ensued. Twisters were coming and the reporters were screaming and running off the set. We then discussed the role of the reporters and the media being one of warning the public and helping calm them down and giving them good information that would help warn them and save lives. It is clear that many children hear weather reports at home as they can use the language of a weather report quite well. I wish I could include the videos of some of the reports-they are absolutely precious, “A twister is coming, it will be scary, you will be okay, even though it will be scary, you do not have to run, but you might want to run.”

It is funny, also, how we live in the northeast, a place where very few, if any tornados touch down, and yet, according to our class weather station, they happen every day around here!

The weather investigation has gotten off to a sunny start with very curious children asking so many questions. We have been studying the effects of rain as it has been pouring. We’ve been making it rain inside the classroom as well with various condensation experiments and a very large window box that I managed to hang from the ceiling. The children reach up to fill it and then it actually rains down over the water table. We have measured wind direction with bubbles and are just finishing up making our own weather vanes that will also measure wind direction.

My assistant and I are trying to make lightning in a jar with little success based on an experiment I read about in a book. We want it to work before we try it with the children. This does bring up a good reminder about testing procedures before you try to do them with the children. I didn’t do this with a new clay recipe I was attempting a couple of months ago and it lead to a very frustrating experience for us all.

At the end of a story today about a fictional rainbow, A Rainbow of My Own, a child sees a real rainbow in his room. I paused before reading the last page which explains how the rainbow is formed. Before I read that part to the class, one of my students was able to explain how the light was shining through the glass of the fishbowl and making the rainbow on the wall. Another student suggested that we bring cups of water outside tomorrow when it is sunny and try to make rainbows. So we will. We will also bring in prisms and read more books and try more things, but isn’t it amazing when the explanation, and the further study ideas come from the children, and the teacher’s job becomes getting the cups!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Professional Connections are as powerful as Mother Nature

Sometimes a fresh pair of ears and eyes is what you need. I have been struggling with what emergent topic my students have been interested in exploring. I have been saying that I haven’t sensed a strong pull of direction from them. My assistant and I have been thinking about it and discussing it over the past couple of weeks, somewhat perplexed.

The other day I hosted a workshop in my classroom and was discussing this dilemma with our Educational Consultant. She asked me what sorts of activities I had been providing and what provocations I had put out to spark interest.

While explaining this to her, someone who isn’t in my classroom every day, it suddenly became much clearer to me. The children with their tornado game, children using the K’nex to make weather fairy wands, a parent telling me that her son was talking about the temperature changing outside and asking about thermometers, being frustrated by having to play inside due to long periods of rain, noticing how it felt when the sun finally came out…..

And then this incredible storm hit us!! We have been out school for the last week. Many children have experienced the horrendous winds, the loss of power and can see the devastation as they drive around town. The topic of Weather was not only a clear interest to the children before the storm, but now it is what everyone is talking about. I’m sure the children have many questions and many stories to share.

Even without this storm, though, it was clearly on the minds of the children. It just took me trying to explain my class interests to another colleague who isn’t so close to the situation to see this more clearly.

I encourage you to make these professional connections. Being reflective is such an important part of our role as teachers. Sometimes asking a colleague the right question and dialoguing can help her see herself and her class in a new way.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. I started this blog to share my stories, my successes and my struggles, but, I’d also like to use it to form these important connections.

Until then, my bags are full of books about weather and until school reopens, I’m going to enjoy this sunshine!!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Wheels of Change

The wheels are literally turning in the classroom with our three year olds. The teacher in this classroom is experimenting with Emergent Curriculum for the first time this year.

Her class so far has studied Babies since so many of the children’s mothers were pregnant. The day they did their research on the live baby was quite interesting! I’m glad they had a very brave mother willing to help out with that endeavor.

They also studied Paint including a discussion of Rembrandt followed by painting under the tables to simulate painting the Sistine Chapel.

They are now undergoing an investigation of Wheels. I asked the teacher how this started in her class and she explained to me that several of the children had been bringing in cars from home to show her each day. She had put out various cars in the block area to recognize this interest and the children became enthralled. Adding a few ramp blocks increased the interest exponentially and a new idea for investigation was born.

She then brainstormed with the children different objects in the world that use wheels and the operators of those vehicles. The children came up with quite interesting answers including steering wheels and baby carriages.

We then had a discussion of how to generate questions that the children might have about wheels or vehicles. It is very hard to sit three year olds down and ask them if they have any questions. Usually when you do this, they will tell you something about themselves. “My car has wheels.” “I like race cars” “I have a red car.”

As we were discussing this, one of the staff asked, do children have questions about this? My father likes to tell the story of how as a young girl of three or four, we went on a very long hike for several hours and I proceeded to ask questions the entire time, absolutely exhausting him. Young children do have questions and will ask them, but not when you sit them on a rug in isolation and ask them what they are.

For young children you need to expose them to objects and experiences and then listen to them. What are they noticing and asking at the time? Put out books and materials and touchable objects for them to react to and then record their wonderings.

I suggested taking a walk through our upper parking lot to look at the various vehicles that the staff drives and noticing the different wheels that each has. As the children notice things or ask questions aloud, record these thoughts. Then later, they can be shared with the group. “We noticed that not all the wheels were the same size, why are some wheels bigger?” “We noticed that the motor cycle only has two wheels, does every vehicle have 4 wheels?” (we are a really cool staff, but, alas, it is our neighbor who has the motorcycle.)

Then these questions can be the basis for your discoveries.

It is a work in progress as we try this new approach in this classroom. It is important to point out the importance of reflection and collaboration. It can be disconcerting to leave behind the comfort of what you “have always done” to embrace the direction the children are taking you. I applaud this teacher and all risk takers willing to embrace change. Keep those wheels turning!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What Next?

One of the most difficult parts of the process of emergent curriculum is often getting started.

During the past couple of years that I have been exploring this with my students, we have seemed to flow from one topic to the next. As the interest in one topic waned, the excitement in another area seemed to develop just as intensely and we’d be off on our new adventure.

Of course, now that I have decided to write about these endeavors, this is not the case in my classroom.

A few weeks ago we finished an amazing exploration of the Polar Regions. It came to a close just before our February break. Usually we would have talked about where we were headed next, what we were interested in, and started to formulate some questions. I would have been able to have the classroom ready with books and some activities to spark these interests upon their return.

We had been watching a few children acting out fairytales out on the playground, under the strict leadership of one of the children. So we were thinking that they might be interested in fairytales, or drama-putting on a play, but the interest in that seemed to have ended.

We had a couple of boys who liked to yell, “Tornado!” and throw all the pretend food and dishes in the air and run across the classroom spinning. We briefly thought about a weather study, but after spending time trying to find these boys some more constructive uses of their energies inside, and the tornado game not catching on, that idea, also passed.

I find that once you’ve been doing emergent curriculum for a bit, the parents get excited and start offering suggestions. Towards the end of the Polar Study, they’d pop in and ask what we’d be doing next. My reply was always, “I don’t know yet, I am watching the children to see where they’ll take us next.” Then they’d start offering ideas. “The Olympics would be really cool.”

So I would take this time to explain how we figure out what direction to go in next by observing and listening to the children. Some parents did understand it better and would say, “My son has been asking me a lot of questions about weather lately and telling me about how it feels outside. Maybe you guys should study the weather.” This child should definitely learn more about the weather, but is a good part of our class interested? A tornado is weather…..

So what did I do? The past few weeks I have been putting out a variety of materials to spark interests. Magnets, puppets, play dough, all new books that vary from fairytales to number books to pirate ships, really freshened and opened up all of the centers for free exploration with new materials added here and there for interest.

It does pose the question. Do I need a new emergent topic? The classroom is a buzz of activity; the children are engaged and intrigued by the various materials and manipulatives. There are what I call “light bulb moments” happening with the children¬-when something clicks within them and they get a particular skill or concept.

But something does seem to be missing. And perhaps only the adults miss it. So, I watch and I listen and I reflect. The children are still teaching me-what is it I will learn from this?