Wednesday, January 20, 2016


If you had to choose a personal symbol, what would it be?

This is one of the first questions we ask children when they start our preschool.  

While we use these symbols as a provocative bridge to literacy, they also serve the practical purpose of helping children find their hooks, mailboxes and belongings. We have come to see that these little symbols have a much deeper significance for the children.

From the first day of school symbols are placed around the preschool, conveying the message that each child is welcome and is a part of our school.  The symbols help to establish a strong sense of community.

The children take great delight in looking at each other’s symbols and it doesn’t take them long to learn the symbols of their classmates.   Symbols quickly become an important pathway to connection between the children. 

Every year the children come up with new and inventive ways to use their symbols.  This year,  the three and four year olds in the Garden Room created a beautiful “symbol tree”.  They enjoy connecting their magnetic symbols together with those of their friends -- a delightful way to depict developing friendships.

Children have also taken to attaching collections of symbols to their bodies, again, a charming way to represent their connection to their friends.  
  Symbols have even found a way into our curriculum this year as the children work together trying to figure out how to project symbols using an overhead projector, tying into our exploration of light and its properties. 
We have come to understand that the children’s symbols represent to them 
a strong sense of belonging.  This became very apparent last spring when a 
substitute teacher joined us for the very first time.   
Sarah was new to the school and so we invited the children to help her feel 
welcome.  When she worked with a group of children they explained that 
they each have a symbol and that they attach symbols to their completed work.   
The children then asked Sarah what her symbol was and when she replied 
that she didn’t have one, the children insisted that she needed one.   
Since Sarah had recently moved from Florida she drew a palm tree and 
colored it green.  Several children then took it upon themselves to carefully 
copy Sarah’s symbol so that she would have some extras.  Children also 
attached Sarah’s symbol to work that she helped them with.  

Children create copies of Sarah's symbol (original on right)

Later that day, long after the children had gone home, we discovered that 
the children had carefully arranged Sarah’s extra symbols in an empty 
compartment of the symbol storage box beside all of theirs.  The children 
had found their own way to make a place in our classroom for our new 
It seemed very fitting that the children welcomed this newcomer in the way 
that they themselves had been welcomed into our community – with a symbol.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Making Plans: Going a Step Beyond

We ask the children to draw a plan before they begin their day because it reduces impulsive thinking, helps children focus, and supports them in centering themselves. An added bonus is that drawing their plans hones their fine motor skills, while telling a teacher the plan and watching her write it down strengthens communication and literacy skills.
A child talking with a teacher about her plan 

This January, after winter break, we decided to expand on our idea of having each child make a plan. On our work day before the children returned from their two week holiday, my co-teacher Sarah Anne and I sat down together and talked about each child. We have observed the children, listened to them and worked with them for several months now. How well do we know them? What are each child's strengths, her passions, her enthusiasms? And once we discussed those things about each child, we talked about what our hopes are for that child: such things as connecting further with others, engaging more deeply in activities, strengthening certain skills, or feeling more secure in the classroom.

Our aim was to see what would happen if we teachers suggested a possible path for each child. So instead of asking children to draw a plan of where they would like to begin their day, we guided their thinking with suggestions based on what we saw as their deepest passions. After we had our suggestions ready for the children, we could hardly wait until they came back to school the next day.

We were not disappointed by the children's reactions to our preparations. We saw an explosion of activity, many eager faces, and a lot of dedicated work. It seems we were correct in our identification of the children's interests. These positive teacher-child connections nourish both the children and us. It is gratifying when we find a way to offer meaningful work for the children. We get excited too!
This child created his deeply cherished  lovey, "Tag," out of paper

One child has shown us repeatedly that he is quite adept at creating paper hearts, so we asked him if he would like to make a plan to teach others how to do this. He agreed with a smile, and a small group spent a long time creating and decorating hearts. What a sweet way for this child to take on a leadership role, share a skill, and connect with peers.
Demonstrating how to make a paper heart

The final heart, decorated

Another child planned to make a tea cup so she could have tea with her daddy, affirming Sabot's belief that children will engage deeply when the subject is meaningful to them.
Writing a note to our studio teacher to help the child complete her plan

The tea cup, finally finished

This child's face lit up when she drew her beloved gymnastics class; another way to connect life at home and life at school. Actually, we noticed that several children wanted to draw family members, those most important people in the lives of young children.
"I'm going to draw the roads. Gymnastics: it's really hard to get there."
Completing her plan: roads and three people. Is she thinking about how she and her friend ride to class with  a parent?

We are in the beginning stages of this expanded way of thinking about having children make plans. So far we have noticed deeper engagement from everyone as they follow through with their intentions, and this deep engagement spills over to the rest of the day. There is more buzz of conversation in the classroom, more interest in other children's work, and more sustained collaborative play. These relationships--among the children themselves, and between children and teachers-- are a foundation for social and democratic learning.

Another child begins to draw her family

Her family on the road, going to Little Einstein's

At the end of every day now, we think about the children again. What did they do with our guided suggestions? Were our ideas appropriate and have we correctly understood at least one of their passions? Do we need to revisit and rethink our ideas for anyone? How can we expand on what they have done so far?

This child's plan was to make a cake for her mother.

We have just begun to share their work with the whole group at circle time. Will the children's ideas and creativity impact their peers? Will we discover other areas of interest? Is there a small group with similar interests who might work together on a project? We don't yet know where this way of thinking will take us. But we wait enthusiastically to find out.
A group making a plane, with grass underneath; then cutting the grass

Monday, January 4, 2016

Rainbow Room/Our Richmond

The Rainbow room children, parents and teachers took an excursion through the city by bus, from Sabot to the City Hall observation deck. It was an opportunity to explore Richmond from a new perspective- seeing the city from above, or from the window of a slow moving GRTC bus. 
Charlie- I can't wait!  I'm going to close my eyes and dream about this!
Harry - Why are we going on the field trip?
John- To Learn!
Charlie- To see what's there!
What will we see?
Pierce- Buildings
Sam M - Trees, Leaves
Audrey - trees
Charlie - snakes and dinosaurs
Will- Will we make stuff at New City Hall?
How will we get to the observation deck?
"Elevators!" everyone shouts

Once on the observation deck, the children ran around and around, looking out the windows from all 4 directions.  video
Earlier, Teachers asked "How will it look from the observation deck?"
Henry - People will look small like ants
Ila - We will see people and babies
Henry - When you go really high the ants will be really really small and you can't see them.  We might see dinosaurs and fossils!

The trip was a happy one. Children talked about what they noticed at circle the next day.
Sammy I heard feet running around
Miles I heard echoes. An echoes is when you say something and it  just bounces off of a wall!
Will I heard 'bum-ba-bum-ba-bum-ba-bum-ba-bum!' (moves his feet in time)
Henry I heard a Camaro!
Pierce I smelled good cooking french fries!
Audrey Cookies! Zoey I smelled ice cream
Ila I smelled bus gas. Elaine Did something surprise you? Pierce A ice skating rink. Harry I saw a dumptruck with stinky garbage. Ila I thought that Mommy was not living there, but her was.(Mommy's office).

We will see what will happen next as the children and adults continue to reflect on the trip and all that they saw, felt, heard and smelled. The teachers will take these threads that the children present and weave a project together with them.

But before the field trip, the children practiced for the ride on the bus!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Making Plans: A Window Into A Child's Thinking

MAKING PLANS   to begin the day can be a way of helping children enter into the classroom with an idea of where they would like to play for a sustained time with materials they wish to explore. Taking some time to think about and draw a plan where a teacher writes down their thinking helps children begin play with a sense of importance and purpose.

Our classroom has been writing plans each day and we have seen children really noticing  materials that interest them.  They think about how they might use the materials, and their plan includes a drawing of their idea.  This thinking incorporated one child's relationships with important people in her life at home to her life at school. Emerging before our eyes is this beautiful story of how a child, missing her mommy, included her mother in her plans as she discussed their shared love for race cars, an interest also passionately expressed by other children. This process of slowing down and purposefully drawing a plan helped this child make connections from her mommy at home to her life here in our classroom. This opportunity seems to have been a catalyst for her to work through her fear of separation and to empower her to form new relationships with friends and and teachers in the Forest Room.

"My mommy. Dear Mama and Papa."

"I want to play with the race cars. I want to draw my Mama.
My Mama 10/19/15

Here's Papa. Mama likes purple. Mama wants some race cars.
Mama's Body 10/20/15

Dear Mama, I want to play with the race cars.
Mama's Body 10/20/15

Following through with her plan. Is she thinking of wheels?

Making connections by pairing materials

She shared materials with other children.

"I want to build a race car."
Tracing bottle cap and a toy race car

Continued interest in one to one correspondence with materials. Is she thinking of her Mama and Papa sitting in the car with her?

She finished her race car after playing with the materials for a long while.

"I want to build a race car."

          Her plan includes a drawing of the car body (crate) and wheels (bottle caps).

Because of the time she spent messing about with the materials, she is able to draw car parts in relationship to each other. Two year olds can see relationships of different parts and how they fit together. They can represent these relationships on paper and playing with materials that are similar to specific parts of something can help them solidify their placement in an accurate drawing.

Finding a mouse to ride in her car, she smiled with satisfaction.

This child came to school each day for two weeks with the idea of building a race car. As she drew her plan and then played with the materials she chose, I noticed that she talked about how her Mama and Papa could play with her. She seemed to make a cognitive leap  bridging her love of Mama and Papa and race cars at home to her desire to join in the play in her classroom at school. Her determination to make a race car out of found materials seemed to provide her with the latitude to solve more than one problem. She could see new relationships forming with Mama and Papa where she is not actually with them but can include them in her desire to have them be near her.  She also notices relationships of the materials she found and began to see how they could be put together to form her idea of a race car.  She has since joined other children as they build race cars with blocks or become race cars as they run around "tracks". The process of making a plan gave her a way to express her feelings about missing Mama and Papa and then opened opportunities for her to form relationships with materials, teachers and new friends. This is the important work of two year olds.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Frog theories

Recently a small frog was discovered in our classroom sink. It looked like a blob of clay under the dish rack. Coincidentally, plastic frogs had been washed over the weekend and were drying in the rack right above where the frog was sleeping. Hmmm....

After some research, I learned that this frog is actually a gray tree frog that can change color slightly to fit its surroundings. They live their whole lives in trees, only coming to the ground to mate in the Spring or to hibernate in winter.

So I shared the story of the frog's discovery with the children at our end of the morning circle (see earlier post about morning meetings!). We wanted help with thinking about how the frog got into our sink. Lisa and I were engaged in magical thinking- maybe a plastic frog came alive! But we kept our idea to ourselves so that our students could generate their own theories.

Many students have created small forests with natural
materials for our small classroom friends: earthworms,
snails, and now our tree frog.
We know that at this age children often combine magical thinking with their knowledge of the physical world to explain natural phenomena. Often their theories demonstrate an intuitive sense of scientific laws, but are explained using magical or whimsical descriptions. Like when we observe rainbows in our classroom on sunny mornings: there's a general sense that light is shining through our window (through hanging prisms) creating these spectra, but children will often try to catch the rainbow, or personify it with human or animal features. The narratives that children create around a mysterious occurrence help with processing their observations and with tweaking their theories. Playful investigation is part of the young child's pursuit of scientific thinking.

Here is the list of theories for how our frog arrived in our sink:
He came up the drain in the sink. (We now know the frog is a she)
He hopped all the way up the building and came in the window to the sink (the window is right above the sink, too)
Downstairs, a robber sneaked him up here and dropped him in the sink when the police came
It climbed up the wall, over the ceiling, and fell in the sink
It climbed up the fire escape and came into the window and then into the sink
He has sticky feet to climb up a building wall

In reflection, the children's theories were pretty heavily scientific, or practical, except the one about the robber (and that was a fun story!). They seem to understand something about frogs, and how they navigate the world. We've never had a "lesson" on frogs- that's not how we operate. But we can think together about this frog and clearly the Rainbow Room students have a strong sense about frogs already.

Perhaps they have connected the dots between what they have heard or read or seen about frogs or other small animals and what drives an animal to resort to a human dwelling. I can see critical thinking at work here. And creativity. The opportunities for thinking and learning about our world are all around us, even in our classroom sink.

Our female gray tree frog, now a classroom pet

Seeing the signs

Loose materials collage; one way children
tell us what they are thinking
Children have the right to be listened to. Really listened to. Not just during a conflict, or when someone is hurt or upset, but all the time. As adults living in a world with children, we must read between the lines, consider the deeper meaning to what is said or shown us. We owe this attention to the youngest members of our world. This deep listening and contemplation is necessary for mutual connection and understanding.

Words are not always used; children utilize many ways to communicate with the other humans around them. While as adults we are used to spoken communication, children express themselves through many languages, not just the talking kind. Expressive movement, block construction, food science, clay sculpture, dramatic play, natural material collage- all are vehicles for expressing one's inner thoughts, feelings, and conflicts. By providing the space, time, and open-ended materials for this self-expression, we learn about the child as an individual with interests, proclivities, fears, ideas, and opinions.

Ila's forest for the snails and worms;
one of the knotty questions we
are noticing: what is a forest?
Behavior gives us a great deal of information, too. As teachers, we closely watch the engagement with the classroom materials, or the emergence of common threads during play and investigation. Big ideas surface over and over again, telling us there's a knotty question being explored. We ask ourselves, what is important to the children about this type of play? What are they trying to say through these materials and/or these actions? What materials or opportunities can we provide that will support further investigation or deeper engagement? What seems to be working in the classroom and what needs to be tweaked?

Since the beginning of our school year, we have included a "morning meeting" as part of our classroom routine. This early circle time provided us the opportunity to share information, to allow for children to show their work and share their thinking, and to explore some big ideas or questions that have surfaced in the work of the classroom. My co-teacher Lisa and I were feeling pretty strongly that this time was valuably used- after all, this time was perfect for co-constructing as a group and for planning the rest of our morning. We also saw the value in practicing a large group activity to prepare for the expectations of kindergarten, where our children will be going next year.

However, the morning meeting started to fall apart as the weeks progressed. Clearly our children were more interested in each other than in the topic of discussion. Lisa and I had to put on our thinking caps to address this challenge: we knew we were reflecting their own ideas back to them, so why the disinterest? Why all the giggling and side conversations? Why were children laying down on the carpet and telling us that circle was boring?

John made this card depicting
two people talking during
morning meeting.
So we brought a question to the children: how can we get your attention during morning meeting?
Many suggestions were generated, from sign-language, to clapping....and then Pierce proposed using cards, or signs, to throw on the carpet when someone notices someone else not paying attention. This idea put the onus on the children to monitor each other, not just the teachers. Everyone agreed. So we made cards for everyone to use during circle.

Problem solved? Well, not exactly. We tried the cards for a couple of days. They worked for a little while, but the distraction in circle continued. What was going on here?

Lisa and I put our heads together again. We could continue to bring this problem back to the children, or we could really listen to what was being demonstrated to us: morning meeting was the problem. Notice my earlier question did not really capture the essence of the issue. I should have asked, what feels hard about morning meeting? I suspect the answers would be pretty clear: we want to play and spend time with our friends. I have more clarity now, but in the moment my earlier question felt appropriate.

One of the cards Pierce created
for morning meeting.
So we let go of our morning meeting, in our minds only temporarily. And the engagement of small groups of children increased. We observed productive play, investigation, and connection.

Older 4s and 5s are really socially motivated people. There's a strong need to connect to one's friends. This connecting is the hard work of early childhood. It trumps anything put before it, like morning meeting. We realized that our students had no time to feel connected to each other: we were scheduling our morning meeting right after hand-washing, signing-in, and observational drawing. It's not a question of should we have a large group meeting, it's a question of when to have it. So now we are having one at the end of the morning, before dismissal. And there's a much better vibe!

Children playing ghostbusters first thing in the morning
Will we every have a morning meeting? We hope so- we'll try again in January.  But we'll be listening and taking feedback. As for the knotty questions that emerge, we can discuss them in small groups, or wait until the later circle. Our classroom work is still rich and provocative.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Picture Day

When we told the children that our photographer friend Meghan was coming to school to everyone's picture, one of the children asked, "Well, can we take her picture?"

We checked with Meghan and she thought that was a great idea.

So, here's a behind the scenes look at Picture Day through the children's eyes.