Tag Archives: curriculum

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Beginnings

As a new school year begins, we know we’ll be thinking about ways we can help children develop a sense of community, getting to know each other well, sharing experiences and ideas, making connections. There are always systems we can use from year to year to help this process along. For example, we know that if children have photo albums in the classroom with photos of themselves and their families, they’ll use those albums first for personal comfort and to have a sense of their family’s presence in the classroom, then begin to talk about the photos and share with teachers and classmates. Soon children will approach each other, even without a teacher, for these conversations, and to set up spontaneous meetings so that they can share common experiences and talk about home.

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Sometimes children find their own way to build community, and think about why and how they might form relationships. In this year’s youngest group, it was conversations about shoes that got this process started.

We noticed that a few children consistently compared their shoes and feet when they sat side by side at meetings or other whole group times. We’d hear whispering as children wondered who has the biggest shoe. For a few children body size was part of the conversation as well. One child, when learning the name of another child said during the first week of school, “You are a baby because you are so small, but you do have many good words!”

It is by listening to these quiet conversations that teachers can often find important themes to incorporate into child-driven projects. Happily, in the case described above, the physically smaller child was pleased to be noticed and accepted the friendly tone of the bigger child, so that when a teacher joined to clarify that people of all ages are all different sizes, that you could be bigger or smaller when you were older and that our classroom had school children but no babies, play and friendly conversations moved on easily. But it did become clear that whether or not we teachers brought it up, children were looking at each other and making comparisons as one of their strategies to get to know each other.

We decided to offer a project about shoe sizes, since many children were interested in the sizes of shoes and feet. We started by taking photos of everyone’s shoes, since children thought this would be helpful. We did find we could identify which shoes belonged to each child in the photo, but looking at the photos didn’t really help us know much about the relative sizes of shoes and feet.

On another day, we offered unifix (small blocks, all the same size, that connect) as a way to compare shoe and foot size. If we knew that some shoes were longer and needed more blocks to be the same size, those must be the bigger shoes! At meeting, everyone who wanted to have a turn estimated how many unifix would be needed for their shoes, and we discovered that most had shoes 9 unifix long, some had longer shoes (10 unifix), and some had shorter shoes (8 unifix).

Many children continued to measure various parts of their bodies (primarily arms and legs) and some measured their whole length. The process of measuring brought children with similar interests together, and we found that there was an interest in finding ways to share materials and ideas for the sake of this beginning collaboration.

We haven’t pushed further on these activities, but are listening carefully as we find many children continue think about how big they are now that they come to school. One child made a row of unifix and said, “This is how big I was when I was a baby; I’m bigger now.” Others have begun to share the many things they can do for themselves now that they are bigger, and we often talk about how small the children were as babies as a point of comparison to their size and skills now that they are school children. We’ll keep this interest in measurement in mind as we continue to offer children opportunities to find common experiences that can form the foundations of their relationships and community building.

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“Organic” Math

This year many of our youngest children (primarily 3 year olds) showed strong interests in math, and an opportunity to collaborate on a big mathematical problem came up on our last day of school.

We have been using a rolling calendar all year, marking the number of days we’ve shared at school, and watching the roll of paper get bigger and bigger. Our plan was to unroll the paper on the last day so that we could see how long our school year was. We also planned to cut the paper up afterwards, so that each child could take a part of their school year home.

Rather than lead this process completely, a teacher asked an “I wonder” question once the children marked day number 163 on the calendar:

“I wonder how we could figure out how many days each child can bring home today. We have 163 days and we have 15 children here.”

Many children spontaneously began to share their estimations – (“we’ll each get 2… I think 8…I think 4…. I think more than that…”)

Someone pointed out that we could figure it out if we had something to count. A teacher thought out loud about what we had 163 of in the classroom and remembered that we have many periwinkles, and the children thought we should count out 163 of them. When the teacher pointed out that this would be a very big job, and asked if they really wanted to do all that counting, many children enthusiastically said yes.

At this point, the children needed a bit of guidance, so a teacher suggested that we could count the 163 shells and then make a pile of shells for each child from those 163. Then, if we counted each pile, we’d know how many days could travel home with each child.

Again, teachers asked children to think about how big the job would be. We’d have to find a big enough space for 15 piles, and make sure no one combined piles, or moved them until we had counted out all the shells. About half the group decided they would get the job done.

It took a long time, but we did manage to count out the shells and create 15 piles. And children discovered that some would take home 11 numbers, and some only 10, but that was ok because we only had 163 days.

Before cutting our days, we worked together to unroll the calendar to see how long it was. Too long for the hallway! By this time everyone was working together, since it took all 15 children to hold “our year” in place.

The level of interest and enthusiasm for taking on this counting challenge was quite impressive, as was the children’s capacity to stay on task for the extended time it took for all this counting to happen. Although the children weren’t ready to figure out on their own how to divide 163 into parts, once that suggestion was made, they helped each other stay on track, count accurately, make sure there was a pile for everyone, check their work, and then call on others to help manage the long length of paper representing our year.

Every child was involved in the project – each at his or her own level, each with his or her own approach, some counting by tens, some by ones, listening to and learning from each other. Contrast the learning that comes out of an experience like this to the learning that comes out of drill or worksheets.

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Map Project

This year many of our youngest children have been traveling and there has been lots of conversation about vacations and trips to visit family. We often talk about how children traveled: Was it so far away that you took an airplane? Could you drive? Did you need to sleep away from home? Where did you sleep? Did you go over the ocean or over land? As we talk together, our classroom globe is featured and we help children find where we are now as well as where they traveled, so that we can show how far the trip was on the map. This informal and often spontaneous conversation also leads to questions about the globe itself, and we often talk about the symbols children notice, whether they show land forms, water, continents, animals that live nearby, etc.

Teachers decided to see if a more formal project might develop from this interest. We decided to start by asking families to help by sharing places around the world that are important to each child’s family identities. We posted this information in each location on 2 huge hallway maps – one of the United States and one of the world. And as information came in, we began our project by taking children out into the hallway to find their names and notice all the places associated with their families.

What a powerful beginning this turned out to be! For some children, finding their names and the names of countries important to family members has been the primary focus. For others, the interest has been in the maps themselves: Why is a globe round and this world map flat? Why does the United States look so big on this map and so small on this one? We live in Massachusetts – where is it on this map? Why can’t I find my house on the map? Why are there dots or lines or bumps? Blue is the water – there is land and water. What makes this place an island?

Our next step was to invite children to work together on a map of our classroom. Because so few children are representational in their drawings now, we used shapes as symbols for our table surfaces, hoping that would help children visualize our classroom activity centers and other features. Children looked around the room as we decided the best shape for each area and how to place it. We noticed the shape of our whole room – where the shorter and longer walls are. We found doorways together and noticed that only one wall has windows. When children weren’t sure, we walked over to the room area in question with our map, comparing what we placed with what we saw in our classroom space.

Many children chose to continue this process by making their own maps and with a focus on both family identities and our immediate shared environment (the classroom) we found the maps that children made also held personal meaning. Many maps of children’s houses were made, along with maps of the route children take to school. Details included our neighboring mountain, the Great Blue Hill, and children have added the road that passes Houghton’s Pond, another neighborhood landmark. Other children drew themselves in the car on family errands to the store, or on the way to a favorite gymnastics class. Some drew maps they could use, like a map of the zoo that shows the way to see monkeys, elephants and giraffes.
When families supported this project by allowing children to bring in family photos or artifacts that represent important places and people, our conversations were deeply enriched and children made new connections to each other. Some families have brought in books featuring places important to their cultural identities too, and we hope that this will continue.

Right now children are finding maps around the classroom, asking for details, and finding places relevant to their family experiences and identities. The book “Me On the Map” by Joan Sweeny has stimulated many conversations as children clarify the scales of different kinds of maps, and we’ve found children drawing themselves on classroom maps as well. Books featuring global families or houses often have maps in the back, and now children find them on their own and ask for more details about where the stories or people they’ve read about come from.

And we’ve seen children begin to represent land areas in their art. One child, when she mixed a beautiful shade of brown new to her, decided to surround it with blues so she could make “an island” We find children using lines to connect shapes, and are hearing more and more children label their work as a representation of a “house” or “mountain” as they develop their capacity for symbolic thinking.

We are taking the time to observe and collect information on what’s most important to the children so that we can offer meaningful extensions to this project. We know we want to find ways to think more deeply about land forms. We know we want to extend our classroom mapping experience to other parts of our school environment. As the weather gets warmer, we may be moving outdoors for more experiences relating to our mapping experiences – thinking about the outside of our building and our playground, and thinking more about the landmarks and features of our neighborhood.

And we’ll continue to look for ways to include families in this shared experience. Our annual multicultural family lunch is coming up, and we are hopeful that at least a few of the foods we share will represent some of the rich diversity of family experiences and identities that are present in our community.

 

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Exploring Early Literacy at a Family “Open Door” Day

We recently invited families to join us for a family “Open Door Day” when we could talk together, share perspectives about how children learn and why we approach curriculum development the way we do, and focus on one important area of development that we are all thinking about. Our area of focus was early literacy and beginning reading.

We teachers know that many family members wonder about the best ways to support their children’s literacy skills. An “Open Door Day” format offers a perfect opportunity to meet with teachers and other parents, collect information, and ask questions. After a discussion, the classrooms are set with activities that are engaging at school and that can be easily replicated at home. There’s no better way to get a feel for how developmentally appropriate, engaging, playful activities and interactions support learning than spending an hour or so playing with the children in the classroom!

We talked about many things, including:
• The importance of conversation – listening, talking about topics or experiences that are personally meaningful to children, sharing feelings and ideas about shared experiences
• The values of reading to children, even as they begin to read on their own
• The importance of developing a rich and expanding vocabulary
• The continuum of developing reading, from infancy on
• How children develop an understanding of symbol, and the importance of pretend play in that process
• The development of writing from drawing
• Using sensory materials like shaving cream, finger paint, or sand to support fine motor development, alphabet knowledge and writing
• Helping children develop an understanding of why reading and writing have value – reading and writing as communication
• Joining children as they discover print in their environment
• Developing language and an awareness of how lines come together through descriptive conversations about children’s artwork
• Beginning stories and storytelling
• The values of puppetry in developing a sense of story and character
• The relationship of musical experiences to early literacy
• Breaking down skills that children need to read, with an understanding that skill development without a meaningful context is insufficient
• Choosing good books for beginning readers

Here are photos of children, families, and teachers together:

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Night Forest Project

A good classroom project has a beginning, middle, and end, and as we finish the ninth week of our woodland and night forest project we are beginning to look for a way to share our work and find closure.

Back in October, we saw a strong interest in forest animals and the changing season. We stimulated the children’s thinking with a side table featuring seasonal leaves, pine cones, bark and twigs, and forest animals that children used to create pretend games. It seemed that even with many other activities and classroom investigations present, strong interest in this side table continued to grow.

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As we listened in on the pretend themes in the forest, we heard a variety of stories about animal families, animals looking for food, and animals looking for warm spaces. It became clear that we could connect the children’s interest in forest animals with storytelling experiences, and with our own relationship to the changing season, with its shorter days and cooler temperatures.

There were many informal opportunities to make connections, and we were conscious to use many. When children brought in a warm coat to play outside, we thought together about how animals might stay warm. We watched leaves change color and then fall from our playground trees. When we raked leaves outdoors, we thought about who might live under a pile of leaves and what that might feel like. We watched Canada geese flying overhead when we were on the playground, and thought together about where they might go. And we encouraged children to think about whether it was starting to be darker when they woke up in the morning or when they went to bed as we head towards the shortest days.

As children thought more about Halloween, walks in the dark, and worries in the night, conversations shifted a bit towards night time animals. What happens outside when we go to sleep? Which animals come out and which ones sleep when we do? Where do they sleep?

Flannel board and felt stories offer children a wonderful, and physical, way to focus their stories, so we used felt day and night time forest scenes at science to encourage storytelling. It became clear that the interest in night was strong. One child, who is a wonderful storyteller, created story after story about animals outside in a night time forest, and we began to see owls featured in many of the children’s stories.

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A visit from a local naturalist, who brought a great horned owl in for us to observe closely, stimulated an even stronger interest in owls and other nocturnal animals. We decided it was time to offer children an opportunity to create their own representation of a forest.

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We brought in a large box (thanks to the parent who donated it!) and asked the children what we might do with it. Children were fairly quick to agree they wanted to make a forest. Our storyteller stated that it should be a night time forest and our collaborative plan began.

Our first step was to ask children what they would need to do to change a box into a forest at night. We collected ideas over a few days:

  • We could paint the box black
  • We could use cardboard and sticks to make trees
  • We need leaves, feathers, grass and ground
  • We need stars and the moon – very bright white stars
  • We’ll add animals to the forest. Some will be in their homes. Some will be out in the forest. Some will be sleeping. Some will be out at night.
  • When the animals go home some will be in the ground, some in the trees, some in bunny holes, and some in a cave
  • Birds, squirrels, bumble bees, ladybugs, spiders and other insects will be sleeping
  • Owls, fox, skunks, raccoons, snails, and opossums will be out in the night
  • The animals should be with their families

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We’ve been working on our box – painting the inside and outside, adding stars and the moon, deciding how to build trees, over many days. Lately we’ve used the box with the same forest animals we used in October, and will be making some of our own animals soon. We may not realize all the ideas shared through our planning process, but when we all feel finished, we’ll invite our friends and family to celebrate our forest and our growing collaborative skills!

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