Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Rough Start

I  thought that my third year teaching would be a piece of cake. I had a core curriculum prepped and ready to go. My second year, I had tweaked a lot of projects that hadn't quite worked as well as expected. Now in my third year, I would get to just enjoy my students, and whiz through the planning stage. Well planning is not from scratch that is for sure but I am always seeking new things that will engage my students. And somehow getting out materials, putting them away, and figuring out when to do what takes more time than it should. And there is always prep of new materials or something.

I haven't yet figured out a good rhythm this year. Unexpected and frustrating, constantly feeling not ready for school, unsure of what I'm doing that day. Actually most days go well and I am ready, I just don't feel like it. Having this cloud of feeling unprepared hanging over my head is a joy robber, an unexpected challenge this year.

I've had a lot of crying kids this year: anxious that mommy will in fact return for them. For many this is their first time away from family, a huge growth step for them. R broke my heart last week. He is quiet, limited English and doesn't talk to me yet. Not uncommon in my class where the majority are learning English as a second or third language. But he is happy, engaging easily in our varied activities. We left our circle time rug to put on our coats and he started to cry. Heart wrenching sobs that he was trying so desperately to control because it wasn't manly to cry but they forced themselves out anyways.

Our coat area is a small confined area and I thought that he had gotten hit or something as we have several children still learning to control their own bodies and wait their turn. Enforcing methodical orderliness is not one of my strengths. "Are you hurt?" "Did someone hit you?" No answer, just tears and more tears and choking sobs. He clung to me and eventually stopped crying part way through recess but wouldn't engage in any kind of play.

Thankfully Dad is perceptive  and sensitive and he gently talked with R. He informed me that R thought since we were putting on our coats that it was pick up time. R's daddy was nowhere to be seen so he started to cry. He wasn't able to grasp that none of the other parents weren't there yet so it actually wasn't pick up time yet.

Then there is N. He missed several weeks of school because of an injury. He still cries but not as long or as inconsolable. He wants to be near me, on my lap, touching me for reassurance. It is challenging to attend to the other children's needs as N starts to cry as soon as I move away from him even though he can still see me.

Everyday it gets better and he engages by himself in brief periods of play. Breaking through the anxiety are wonderful glimpses of a happy, inquisitive child. He talks to me constantly, earnestly in another language. I smile and nod. Sometimes I can guess the context and respond in English. Other times I am sure he wonders why I am so stupid and give such odd answers to his questions.

Then there is M that needs to hear that yes Mommy will return whenever something makes him anxious which some days is a thousand times in two and a half hours. Or A that didn't want Mom to leave because her best friend was sick that day and she didn't know who she would play with. Or S that has uncharacteristically started crying when Gramma leaves. He is large for his age yet very sensitive and somewhat shy. I think the other smaller yet aggressive boys intimidate him. He doesn't know how to tell them to leave him alone. He is very polite and they are very rude and that is a new experience for him.

Routine. The security of young children in new situations. We altered our routine this week to visit our make shift pumpkin patch. Pumpkins for sale scattered on the church's hillside lawn. A few bales of hay to sit on. We talked about going out to the pumpkin patch during our opening circle time. Lack of English and prior experience made it less than effective for preparing the children for a new experience.  So we get our coats on when it isn't time yet. We line up at a different door. We walk through another classroom where we haven't been before. We wend our way outside, along the fence, past a few big pumpkins lined up along the edge of the walkway, over to the edge of the pumpkin patch. (We don't actually go into the pumpkin patch because eventually the lawn is bordered by a very busy road so we experience the patch from afar.) We sit on the bales of hay and listen to some songs and a story that is difficult for us to understand. By now we are stressed. Many are apprehensive, some are crying. M has started his constant litany "Mommy come back?" with tears in his eyes. R is crying because his coat is on but daddy isn't here. N is on my lap crying. A few are listening. Most are overwhelmed with the newness of it all. I am glad when it is over, seriously questioning the validity of it all. But who am I, a mere teacher, to suggest that we alter the established, highly anticipated "trip" to our pumpkin patch.  

Tuesday I brought in two very large pumpkins as it is pumpkin theme week. Some of the children spent all their free play time pounding golf tees into the pumpkins.  A child's measure of the success of the activity. It was more satisfying for the morning class as there were no holes and they actually had to pound to get the tees to go into the pumpkin. I pulled the several hundred tees out for the afternoon class to start over again. However the pumpkin was now full of holes into which the tees easily slid a second time. No resistance and a less engaging task but the children still enjoyed the activity.

I found myself with some free time in the afternoon as supervising the tee pounding was less demanding. I sat on the rug with three partly crying kids on or crowded up against me. We proceeded to play with the items in my orange bin. I added three, small pails graded in size and some large brown pompoms. Well the pompoms turned out to be the attention grabber. We filled small plastic jack o' lanterns and other assorted orange objects as well as the pails. Then I counted them as I removed them and they started all over again. Soon other children were drawn into the open ended activity of filling, emptying and counting. I thoroughly enjoyed the moment. I felt the satisfaction of also meeting one of my goals this year. To schedule in free time for myself so I can interact with the children on a more spontaneous level. It is hard because our free play time is limited and usually there is some art project, or alphabet page project or theme project that demands my time. Also worthy experiences but balance, as always, balance is the key.

We also did an experiment to see if pumpkins float. It was not as successful as it could have been because it was all watching and not enough hands on for the children. I had hoped to have a center set up beside the tee pounding for children to experiment themselves with various objects to see what floated and what didn't. Then we would conclude the day as a class with seeing if pumpkins float, which they do. The classroom center never got set up because the tee pounding took all my time and attention. So when we gathered as a class at the end of the day, all the children wanted to do was touch and do for themselves and not just watch so I doubt that they really got the point of the experiment. I knew this would happen but did the activity anyways.

I started this blog to reflect on some of the things that can steal away the joy of teaching. I got diverted into crying children and ended with several of our pumpkin activities. Maybe more later on joy robbers. For today this is enough.  

Friday, May 30, 2014

Year's End

Tuesday was our last class room day. I put water in the sensory table. The children played remarkable well without a lot of splashing. I also set up the easel and some dot painting. The easel painting was by far the favorite activity of the day. It even surpassed the water table which surprised me. I had the kids paint me a picture.  I couldn't keep up with offering them a new piece of paper so many of their pictures turned into "mud".  They didn't want to stop painting so they kept adding more and more paint.

We managed to use up most of the assorted containers of paint. I cheated and threw away the recycled baby food containers instead of washing them as I was supposed to do. We can get more so I am not sure why we are supposed to wash them but we are.

 I wish I could figure out a way to make easel painting a more independent activity so the kids could paint more often as they love it so.  But I can't. The kids need help getting the paper on the easel.But more importantly,  I can barely get the painted pictures onto the drying rack without making a huge mess so I know that my three year olds would not be able to do this unassisted. Part of the problem is we paint on newsprint which is so flimsy. The other part is the drying rack requires that you clothespin the pictures to the wires. It is a definite challenge to hold the paint loaded newsprint up against the wire with one hand and get the clothespins on just right so they hold the painting with the other hand.

We said good-bye to the kids but most of them didn't understand the meaning of the last day of class. It won't be until next week when they want to come to school and Mom says, "School is over for the year. It's summer vacation." that they understand. I forgot my camera so didn't get any last minute year end photos. I have few to no pictures of the seven or eight kids that joined our class from February to April.

Thursday, yesterday,  was our field day, the last day of school for the children. The weather was less than perfect, cloudy with a raw wind blowing, but at least it didn't rain. We got upstaged by a baby mole. The children were lined up singing a few songs for their parents when a tiny mole appeared and darted through the grass in front of them. Everything stopped.

 He tried to hide in a clump of grass but I was afraid he would get trompled  on during the games. I grabbed one of the comes and eased him into it. I wish I had stopped a bit longer for the kids to see him as they were all clustered around but I didn't. We transported him across a tarred walkway and  dumped him into the grass. He scurried between the blades. One little girl in particular was fascinated with him and said "Good bye". We finished our singing. I didn't realize that they had such a pointed snout.

The organized games were brief but fun. Bean bag toss at an inflatable octopus. I then set up cones to weave amongst. We carried the ball to the end and back. We carried a balloon and popped it at the end. A couple of kids had trouble popping theirs. It kept popping out from under their foot. Zach chased his a good distance before he mastered the art of stomping hard enough to break it. Grace grabbed hers on the ground with her hands and squeezed. Mom cheered her on.  She then leaned her whole body weight into it. Finally it popped and she was ecstatic.

We then ran the cones with a huge bubble wand, blew some bubbles and ran back giving the wand to the next child. Each child received a medal and a balloon or two to take home. I left the bubble stuff out. Someone was blowing bubbles for the next hour or so of free play. I passed out watermelon and visited with some of the parents.

Four kids arrived just as we were finishing the games. They didn't know what they had missed so were happy playing on the playground equipment. One little girl arrived just as we were headed home. All the kids had gone and my assistant and I were just getting into our cars to head out as well. Her dad works nights and overslept. I gave her a medal and a balloon but she was still sad. Afterwards I felt that I should have stayed and played with her for a bit. Whether I should have or not, I didn't. Field Day was done for another year. School was now officially over.

I am ready for a break but it isn't real yet that my second year of teaching is done. Very different than my first. It felt more fractured. In part because I had less planning time in the fall so took advantage of repeating many of the activities from my first year. So we did lots of things but the parts never seemed to congeal into a whole. My afternoon class was constantly adjusting to new students as eight children joined our class from February to April. Many of them cried initially so this affected the atmosphere of the class and caused some of the adjusted ones to regress to separation anxiety.

I will end the this year with a quote from my daughter. "Mom, don't stress. You know all the things that you wanted to do but didn't. Just remember, your student's cups are full and their parents are happy with all the wonderful things that you did do."

Thursday, May 15, 2014

How Much is Enough?

Today was SCIENCE DAY. We were going to race some cars and make some informal guesses about which cars would go the farthest: ones with big wheels or little, big cars or small, heavy ones or light. I had a mother's helper for my morning class so I set her up with a ramp, a table full of various vehicles and a few brief instructions. "If possible after the kid's have experimented a bit, try and see if you can get the kid's to make some guesses as to which car will go the farthest ie the one with big wheels or the one with small wheels, the little car  or the big one etc." Throughout the morning I heard her asking the kid's these types of questions but was unable to hear their responses.

In the afternoon class since I was on my own and still a bit tired from my recent surgery, I was far less diligent in asking the kids questions. The activity was completely kid driven with one exception.  Periodically I would raise the ramp and insist that they pick up the cars piled up at the bottom of the ramp and put them back on the table.

I observed several things. They had absolutely no interest in how far their vehicle went. Once it hit the rug, they stopped watching it. For them the journey was over, time to launch another vehicle even if the previous one was still moving across the rug.  So the inevitable  pile up at the base of the ramp wasn't upsetting since they didn't care how far their car went.  And the majority didn't care if their vehicle went down the ramp slow, fast, or got stuck in the middle. In fact they seemed as intrigued with the "stuck in the middle variety" as they launched them over and over again, expecting that this time it would make it to the bottom.

So how much is enough? Was it enough to just let them play with the ramp and vehicles? Does this qualify as "science"? Or was there value in asking them leading questions, encouraging them maybe to be a bit more observant, a bit more analytical, nudging them towards an experiment type situation. I don't have definitive answers but I was still able to make some helpful conclusions.

I grossly underestimated how much time the children would need to "play" with the ramp and vehicles before they would be open to experimenting with the different types of vehicles, comparing distance traveled etc. Not just a trail run or two but days of exposure were needed. I seriously doubt that the morning class, despite all the questions asked, learned anything more than the afternoon one. They just weren't ready to focus in that way, still too busy exploring the materials.

So next year if I want to encourage something closer to an experiment, I first need to allow lots and lots and lots and lots of kid driven exploration first. I knew that they needed to be able to explore the materials first on their own. I just didn't realize that this could mean days not just minutes depending on what was being explore. Then when we do the experiments, I need to limit the features for comparison to two, no more than three and should probably choose a couple of the more obvious ones. And maybe the experiments somehow need to reflect their interest, getting down the ramp, and not how far it goes after that.

I want to do more "science" with my kids but it doesn't come naturally to me. Most days I am not even sure what that means. Today I was reminded that true science doesn't fit into a convenient fifteen minute time slot.  Each week a lesson or experiment to be unpacked on Tuesday and put away on Thursday.  I hope that through all my ups and downs of learning how to do science with my kids that somehow I manage to encourage their inquiring minds and instill in them, even though still young, a love of learning and finding out how things work.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


No classes today. I only teach two days a week although it feels like more. Today I have the joy of filling out a four page non-sensical  progress report for each child. It contains such helpful items as, Knows some letters. Almost every child knows some letters but how many, which ones. Maybe I am too detailed and precise.

Evaluations. The things really worth evaluating rarely find their way on to forms and if they did, they would be hard to measure. Character. Perseverance. Problem solving. It can be frightening how early patterns are set in children's lives. If left undisturbed, these patterns become deep sometimes unhealthy ruts that last a lifetime.

O came to class a whiner. The second something challenges him, he points his finger and lets out a whine. Not words, not complaints just a  high pitch whine followed by repeated grunts. "Fix it now, His Royal Highness is not happy."

He barely gives the faucet a token touch before he starts his whine grunts. It is obvious that he wants you to turn the water on for him. With so many demands, it is so easy to just reach out my hand and turn the water on to stop the obnoxious sounds emitting from his mouth. Yesterday I stopped. Unlike many of my kid's he has a good grasp of English. "O, ask me to turn the water on please?" Silence. "O, say, 'Turn the water on please'" Stunned shock. After several more repeats, my words finally penetrated.  I wasn't going to turn the water on until he politely asked me to, so he opened his mouth and asked.

Disturbing the patterns. Will O ever develop any perseverance, I hope so. Or will he always expect things to be easy and when they aren't, give up at the first faint hearted token effort. I need to take the time to disturb the patterns in my kid's lives. It is so easy for me to get caught up in the daily demands of learning the alphabet and numbers, maintaining order and finishing an activity on time and loose sight  of the big picture, pivotal teaching moments that shape character.

My motto for my class next year. " I Can Do Hard Things" comes to me by way of my daughter who is such an inspiration to me as I watch her interact with her two gifted high needs children.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

First Post

My daughter convinced me that creating my own blog wasn't difficult. So this is my first attempt at my first post. Every blog should have a purpose I suppose and on the surface mine would be to share ideas, thoughts, and reflections on my journey as a preschool teacher of three year olds. Other aspects of my life will creep in from time to time: being a grandmother, being a pastor's wife, and being a child of God. Only a couple of weeks of school left so not the logical time to start a teaching blog. Yet the moment seemed right somehow, not logical but right, so here I am attempting to post my first blog.

 How does one state, "I am a master teacher" without sounding conceited. There is no doubt, however that God has gifted me in many areas and when I concentrate all that I am on my teaching amazing things happen.  I returned  to teaching my three year old preschool class today after an unexpected appendectomy.  It was a bit of a push, but with so few days left to be with my students I made the effort.

Most of today's activities were geared around finishing our alphabet books, a year long project. There was one exception however.  I am a huge believer in providing a multitude of sensory activities for the children. With that goal in mind, I have an on going collection of sensory type items I collect as I am able. My recent acquisition was a decent quantity of colored pebbles, the kind that weigh down flower vases so they won't tip over. I wanted to make sure that the children experienced these but our time is running out.

So even though it wasn't the best day for me, I combined them with an assortment of vehicles as our theme this week is transportation. I soon added some shallow cups as it became apparent that the children wanted something to fill as they were attempting to poke pebbles into every conceivable crevice of the assorted vehicles. All these items were placed on a metal oil pan on a medium sized table. A bit noisy but not as bad as I expected. The pan helped contain the pebbles. It is larger than our sensory table so allowed for more playing space as well as encouraged different kinds of exploration as the pebble were only one layer thick.

I wish I had the words to describe the magic of the moments of discovery as the children experimented with the pebbles. The air was charged with their focused attention, oblivious to everything else. The table was never deserted during our lengthy free play and often had eight or more kids clustered around it. Capturing a three year olds attention for more than five minutes is no small feat. One class was so captivated that they never made it to the kitchen center, one of their favorite free choice areas.

The pebbles themselves intrigued the kids. Their feel, their colors. It was amazing that numerous children managed to find the one defective pebble, a different shape and asked me, "What about this one?" Others made small piles of pebbles in front of them sorting them by some internal voice. Still others were fascinated to watch the pebbles being pushed aside as they drove their vehicles with purpose and determination. When I added the cups, the common goal was to see how many pebbles could be squeezed into a cup before they started falling out. Watching them, their intentness, their joy renewed my commitment to provide as wide a variety of sensory experiences as possible. Pebbles, vehicles and cups such small things yet they provided untold fascination and delight.