the final touch

The last day of the year. Makes me think about how things wrap up, how things become complete, how things are started and then how things have a "final touch." Today is my last post for this year, my final touch to two thousand ten.

Have been thinking about the steady hand of children who are focused in their experience. As an educator, it is brilliant to witness the thinking of a child as s/he adds "just one more bit" to their work.

It is all about the balance.
To observe the concentration, to observe the use of materials, to observe the assessment of space on paper or carpet as a child - in the one exact moment - decides that this final block, or dash of paint, or placement of a dot is Just Right.

Happiness is so simple.
Ironically, so many people who meet an early childhood educator - yet do not have experience with young children - have sympathy for our chosen career path because 'certainly, children create mad messes everywhere they go'. Ahhhh, well, this is not true.

This piece absolutely goes right here.
Children create the most marvelous pieces of deliberate work, sometimes independently, sometimes collaboratively, all day long in so many incredible schools.

dot, dot, dot, dot.
 Here's the secret (alright, it isn't a secret at all): if given the time and materials, if given the time and materials, if given the time and materials...we each learn how to add the final touch to our own valued work, our own masterpiece.

This should fit right here, exactly, excellent.

star pyramid

Anything that transforms is pretty cool for any child. To actually transform something into something else when you are three-years-old is developmentally quite spectacular.

Colin decides to duplicate the idea of a magnet star pyramid to a paper version. With an amazingly clear plan, Colin makes his own star pyramid in 12 steps:
step 1.

step 2.

step 3.

step 4.
 and then...

step 5.

step 6.

step 7.

step 8.

and now, of course....

step 9.

step 10.

step 11.

step 12.
voila. transformation complete.

the mermaid, the girl and the book

My five-year-old friend Mimi loved to draw. That's all she really loved to do.
Hmmm, let me be more clear: Mimi really really loved drawing mermaids.

Mermaid, by Mimi.
Really loved drawing mermaids.

Mimi would draw mermaids on everything. Sometimes, it would be one rather large mermaid that would fit on one whole paper. Sometimes a whole school of mermaids, looking quite similar yet with just a slight swish of tail difference in each one, would be across many many papers.

Mimi's challenge in class, however, was that she really couldn't be bothered with making friends. She would prefer to be alone, drawing mermaids, even if other children would ask her to join in their play. After a while, the children stopped asking, and Mimi kept on drawing mermaids.

The challenge as a teacher is to uplift the gift of drawing to which Mimi was already devoted and also to 'draw' Mimi into the class social culture.

At the time in our 4s/5s classroom, each of the children had their own blank spiral notebook call a Morning Book. They would use these as their own drawing book, using any page, upside down or backwards, crayons, pens, any images, crazy doodle, whatever they wanted. We used our Morning Books during arrival time - children could choose their Book to draw, or build in the block area, or read a book until parents departed. Mimi would usually choose her book to draw more mermaids, yet she would often sit at an empty table to be alone.

I decided to start using our Morning Books during other times in class, creating some small group experiences based around drawing and using descriptor language. Twice a week for about a month, we had Free Drawing time where groups of four to six children could lay on the floor in a circle with their own Morning Book and drawing tools to share.

As the groups began, I would slowly start making observations about how children used color, or how their line swooped this way, or how some images were small or tall. I would start asking open ended questions "wondering about this area" on someone's paper, or "curious about those lines near the top" of someone's page, or "seems like some of those letters are part of your name?" to someone else.

This Free Draw time was a no-assignment, no-direction, open time for children to use their Books, feel cozy laying on the floor, and to offer comments or remarks about what they might be exploring in their own books. 
"I am making a storm with all the colors."
"Here is a rainbow with a butterfly and two flowers under it."
"This castle has a knight guarding it."

Over the weeks, Mimi - surprisingly - became very comfortable with her peer group. She easily and quickly became the expert mermaid drawer and friends wanted ideas as to how to try to make a mermaid just like Mimi. She would tell children about the colors she liked for mermaids, how the head was looking straight, how the tail was tricky because it was sideways but "just do it like this..."- and Mimi would swoosh out a tail on her own paper to demonstrate.

Mimi gave gifts of mermaid art to all her friends, including me.
There is a deep felt joy when you see - SEE  - a child become a friend. It is powerful and almost unexplainable.

In early childhood, when you make a friend it is solid and true and dependable. It was as though in one flash Mimi had friends, was a friend and was eager to be part of a bigger world to share her love of mermaids.

"I need dirty water"

Four-year-olds at work water painting the steps.
Three four-year-olds boys are outside, water painting the wood steps that lead up to the sand box slide. They had filled small cups with water from the outside faucet and then gathered paintbrushes. The boys began working their way up the steps as a team.
When 3-year-old Aaron came outside to play, he noticed the boys doing this work. He watched them and starting asking them about their brown water, wondering why they had brown water. The boys didn't answer Aaron and kept on painting in silence.

Aaron wanted to join in.
I had been standing nearby, watching and listening. Aaron quickly turned to me and stated, "I need Dirty Water."
He repeated this a few times, perhaps hoping I would deliver his Dirty Water to him. I asked Aaron what he thought we should do, where we might get Dirty Water. We looked at what the boys were using and decided to get the same things they had - one cup and a paintbrush.

Now that Aaron had the tools, he still had his problem of needing Dirty Water in order to be part of the group.
Aaron went to the outside faucet to fill his cup with water, holds onto to his paintbrush and walks over to the edge of the garden. Aaron pours his water into the dirt and watches it soak down..."Oh, that's not right," says Aaron.
He stands there for a moment then leans over to the muddy dirt with his now-empty cup and starts scraping up some of the wet dirt into his cup. He walks back to the water faucet, fills his cup again and stirs it with his brush - voila, Dirty Water!
Aaron goes to the boys to tell them,
"I have Dirty Water, I have Dirty Water...!" The boys look at him and realize what he was trying to do this whole time. "You didn't need dirty water," they tell him. 
"I have dirty water..." Aaron repeats as he walks up the wood steps, sits at the top of the landing next to a new friend and starts painting.

Aaron happily water paints with his new friend.
Aaron's process for joining the big-boy group is a beautiful example of social function at its best. Aaron had arrived in the outside play space, admired children doing something he wanted to do, and seemed to believe that his way into the activity was to have exactly the same tools that the boys were already using.

The need for Dirty Water did not give Aaron pause at all. He requested my help to figure out HOW to get dirty water, yet I only questioned him in order for him to resolve his own needs.
Once Aaron had the dirty water, he confidently knew he could join in with the boys.
Aaron never hesitated.
He never asked permission.
Sometimes, all you need is dirty water to make a new friend.

For water activity ideas: check out NurtureStore's Water Play Link Up!

trapeze girl

Getting into costume to be trapeze girl.
A short story only my four-year-old friend Charlotte could have invented and one which makes me SEE her flying in a blue wig on a trapeze...
 "When I grow up - when I am sixteen and a half and 17 inches - I am going to be in the circus! Not the ice skating part but really inside where the trapeze is.
I am going to climb up the ladder and when the trapeze swings back I will catch the trapeze with my hands!
Then I will put my knees down on the trapeze part and flip off and go around and around with the pink jump rope sticking out so people know it is me up there!
 Also, I need a blue wig - that will make me trapeze girlWhen I take off my wig people will say 'hey, that's not a circus star trapeze girl - that's a little girl!'"
-charlotte, 4yo.-
Ready to be trapeze girl.

Charlotte always had a lot to say.
Usually, it involved HER in the middle
of some sort of adventure.
She would incorporate bits of true life
and many bits of
some other life she dreamed of living,
even at the age of four.

sophia's train

The Middle
It was a new school year. In my class of four-year-olds, we had just started using the term "Plan" to think out our independent work.

Planning is a beginning for children to articulate an area of the classroom that they'd like to work, perhaps some materials with which they'll start their plan, and perhaps a concept already in mind ("I want to make a castle with blocks in the block area").

Children can change their Plan, their materials, and area in which they play any time they want - ideally, though, they will articulate that they are changing ("I am done in the block area - I want to plan to use the magnets with Alison in the science area").

Since we had been together as a new class group for only a few weeks, the teachers did not expect in depth plans at this point. More so, we wanted the term 'Plan' to begin to be incorporated into our shared language in class.

This day with Sophia in the art area turned out to be a special day to observe a very focused child who was already comfortable with supplies and - most definitely - had a Plan.

This story is from many years ago and I have shared it whenever I have talked with new teachers about listening and documentation:
The Upper Left Corner

I find Sophia working in the Art Area during the early morning work time. I see that she is working quite intently with her markers and crayons, having already done some cutting and careful application of red and blue tape around her work.

I am curious about her focus and also wonder about the one small piece of red tape in the middle.

The Bottom Right Corner
As I approach her, I ask Sophia about her work, wondering out loud about her tape and the interestingly cut paper...

"Oh, yes," remarks Sophia, "I had thought a lot about this before I did it.

I cut it like this to make a tunnel.
You see? The tape around the sides is the tunnel part. And the black circle coming through is the train. 

"It is a train coming through a tunnel.
The red tape in the middle is the light you see when you see it coming straight through."
"It is a train coming through a tunnel." sophia, 4yo.
Understand that this is the amazing part about working with young children.
You must listen to them and give them their time and let them teach you.
They always have so much to teach you.
As soon as Sophia explained to me about her train,
the only thought that entered my mind was... 

the color yellow

It is like the color yellow, I suppose, how memorable moments arrive. Even if you don't like the color yellow, sometimes things are just so bright - like an entrance or an announcement. Yes, the color yellow is like an announcement.

The day Sam came for a special visit was my first yellow day. It was the day that Sam was to leave our school and he brought me flowers.

There I was, eating lunch with the other teachers in the break room. Noise and laughter were at the table yet I could hear some voices down the hallway. My four-year-old friend Sam and his father were whispering as they neared the door: "Yes, Sam, it's o.k. ... let's see if she is in here..."

Footsteps. I can still hear them. Sam and his father approach the open break room door. As I turned my chair to look toward the door, they were already there. Sam is standing still, bowl haircut just above his eyes, bouquet of colorful flowers in his hand. "These are for you," says Sam. His father tells me it was Sam's idea, that he needed to bring me flowers. Sam had told his dad that is what people do when they love people.

The color yellow, bright and memorable.
Being a teacher is like that: It is like being handed the color yellow.

She is upside-down on the pyramid climber. Her tangled hair and glasses are all intertwined. Today is skirt with pants, long shirt with colored sweater, missing buttons, high socks and orange shoes.

Four-year-old Kat is upside-down when she sees me coming into the play yard. Her smile is bright and I begin my funny greeting to her. We like to make rhymes together and invent silly words. I begin a funny trail of ideas and I watch Kat become right-side-up, sitting atop the pyramid. I believe my wit is quite fantastic, perhaps my best ever, yet Kat is looking straight at me, focused with a slight grin.

All of a sudden, she interrupts me: 
"I have a gift for you. I brought you flowers today."

Yellow. Oh yes, the color yellow.

The two stories of Yellow are not about getting flowers. The two stories represent something deeper than that for me in the moments in which they occurred. Both events stopped me in my tracks, made me think different about these children, and made me realize that the relationships we build with children are true relationships with real attachments for children AND teachers. The flowers themselves don't matter. The idea of the flowers is the treasure.

start with a sharpie

Many teachers have asked me over the years HOW to document children's work -  HOW did I "get" the children to say the things they have said.

My answer has always been this simple: Start with a sharpie in your hand - or in your pocket, or hooked on your shirt, or attached to your belt - start with a sharpie.
(Ideally, you'll have a camera, also, and will need to learn how to ask good questions but these will be for another blog post.)

Sharpie brand pens are The Pen - keep one with you at all times.
If you allow yourself to keep a pen with you at all times, you will start paying attention to what children say, what they do, how they do something. You will start hearing - more clearly - a child describe the process of their magnet experiment, the problem with the blocks falling over, their discovery of blue mixed with red. The pen will help you be accountable for connecting with children, for authentically representing the learning that occurs that day in the classroom or outside. It is a process to learn to document - you don't need to write down every word the child says, you don't write down every "ummm" or every rambling "and, and, and". Documenting takes some skill at both listening and editing to some degree, and confirmation from the child that what you are writing down is what they ARE saying, believing, meaning.

The pen will help you identify developmental differences in age groups - how a three-year-old's explanation of something might sound one way compared to how a five-year-old would explain the same thing. The pen will help you begin to communicate with the class as a group, with the guardians of the children, with the wider school community.

The pen will help you start on a journey that  - for me - is a privilege to continue to be on. Listening with and documenting for children is a surprise, a gift and an endless education.

Get yourself a pen. Keep it with you.

For further reading on Documenting you might enjoy:
Sophia's Train a documented art story 
or "I Need Dirty Water"  a 3yo makes friends using dirt and water

pencil cowboy

Delivery #1 of pencil art cowboy from Holly.

One of my very first and most significant memories of a young child using art to communicate and connect with me.

I was sitting at an indoor work table in the three-year-olds classroom. Children were engaged with various materials, experimenting with pipe cleaners, glue, markers, paint.

All of a sudden, Holly dashes over from another table with a scrap piece of paper with pencil scribble on it.
"Here, this is for you. It is a cowboy."

Immediate delivery #2 - gotta have the cow

Then Holly skips back to her chair.
I write down Holly's description on the art piece and keep it next to me on the table.
Moments later, Holly returns with a companion piece for her original art work.

 "Oh, I forgot," says Holly.
"This is the cow."

I was captivated by Holly's quick yet intentional pencil scribble on paper, the description of her first piece which seemed to make her rethink the word 'cowboy', and her wish to follow through on her rethinking by delivering the 'cow' that should, apparently, accompany any cowboy. Holly's use of art to connect with me - to trust that I would value her work and her words - was the start of my passion to listen to children within the process of their own important work. I still have the original pieces of scrap paper of cowboy and cow, priceless art by a priceless three-year-old.

tree tigers

Nathan gets his trike to go search for tree tigers.

The first year I started teaching, over twenty years ago, I worked with two-year-olds at a private preschool on the Stanford University campus. My plan was to only work at this preschool for one year to "play with kids" before I began my graduate work in clinical psychology.

Over the course of the school year, Nathan and I became buddies. He would look for me as soon as he arrived at school. He would sit with me at story time. He would seek me out when he needed help.

One day, when we headed outside in the play yard, he called to me to join him at the bike path. Nathan had his hands on the handlebars of the yellow trike, his left foot on the back of the trike and with his right foot pushed the bike like a scooter. He started riding around the circle bike path which had a gorgeous, huge tree in the center.  He kept going around and around, stopping now and then to go to the tree - tap, tap, tap - and then ride back around the path.

After a while, Nathan stopped riding. He came over to where I was sitting and grabbed my hand.

"Come, come...come help me look for the tigers in the big tree! Come, come. The tree tigers are calling to us and we need to find them in the tree! Come, come, come!"

I realized later that this invitation from Nathan changed my life - completely, literally, changed my life. His invitation for me to believe in him and to join him further in his world of the tree tigers was my first experience to see the world from a child's perspective. For Nathan, the tree tigers and the bikes and the afternoon outside was his entire world at that moment and I had the privilege to join him.

Because of Nathan, I devoted my career to being a teacher of young children and pursued my graduate work in education instead of clinical psychology. I know every child has their version of tree tigers in their imagination and on the occasion I get a glimpse into that marvelous world, then I can only thank Nathan.


My first post on my first blog.
Usually, I am a teacher of young children.
Usually, I am on the floor of a classroom, listening to children, facilitating projects, laughing, reading, writing, filling paint, opening juice boxes.

My life has taken an accidental turn.
I am home, not in a classroom, and have been going through the collected work of my teaching life.
I am realizing there is a different kind of lesson in the silence of being home.

I am realizing that whatever 'usually' was is now offering me an opportunity to reflect on how I became a constructivist teacher, to remember the children and their voices that made my classroom life such a truly rich experience.