Is It OUR Fault?

The other day, I heard something that truly upset me. It seems that some pre-k teachers in my district are teaching sight words. Not because they're in our standards - they aren't. Not because their students are advanced and need a challenge (and let me make it plain, memorizing sight words should NOT be considered a way to challenge bright students). No, they're teaching sight words because, since switching to full-day pre-k, they want to make it clear that they're not "just babysitting". So their answer was to add sight words to their curriculum. A curriculum that only includes 20 minutes for free play. Yes, 4 year olds in my district are only getting 20 minutes of play time in a 6+ hour day. But boy, they've got time for sight word instruction! It absolutely appalls me. And I seethed over it.

But I did nothing.

Recently I've been wondering how things have gotten so out of control. Just 6 short years ago I was on my district's Kindergarten Committee which met several times over the summer to iron out a pacing calendar and make decisions regarding curriculum. I remember that we had a long, passionate discussion about sight words and we finally decided 20 sight words would be the goal - including words like mom and dad and love. We pushed to keep play time and snack time and nap time and do what was developmentally appropriate. And it worked. We left with a Kindergarten Pacing Calendar that was realistic and attainable and still allowed time for students to be what they are - 5 year old children.
Then came Common Core and once that left (yay Oklahoma!) somehow things were different. My district (and many others in the state) seems to have lost sight of what learning looks like in pre-k and kindergarten. Maybe its the influx of teachers who haven't taken the Early Childhood classwork (alternative certifications, testing into ECE with an Elementary Ed. degree etc.) As teachers struggle with managing behavior in larger and larger classes due to the teacher shortage, In any case, more seatwork became the norm because its easier to manage a class when they're sitting down than have eyes on everyone when they're in all different corners of the room. It's easier to pass out a packet of worksheets than manage center time. And in light of new teacher evaluations, it's easier to collect data and prove you're teaching with worksheets and tests and lists of 100 Sight Words.

The other day a friend told me, "A few years ago, a teacher switched from Kindergarten to 4th grade and told me she was glad because there wasn't enough "progress" shown in kindergarten.". We both laughed because at this point in the year, we can see progress DAILY. At the beginning of the school year many couldn't hold a pencil or write a letter, they couldn't count to 5 let alone 20, they couldn't express their thoughts in a complete sentence. And now, they surprise us daily with conversations that reveal a depth of knowledge or character that we didn't know they had. They create amazing symmetrical buildings in our Block Centers, paint their friends' names at the Art Center and make complex patterns with manipulatives at Math Center. And they do it joyfully, because they're playing. One sweetie wrote the whole alphabet (upper and lower case!) in order on a dry erase board in Writing Center, simply because she was "playing school".
But, all of that cannot be caught up on a spreadsheet. That kind of progress cannot be measured and quantified. A teacher cannot be rated "Highly Effective" based on the kind of structures her students build at Block Center. A teacher gets no credit for conversations among students, even if they're using math terms like "same amount", "less than" and "I just need 2 more to get to 10!" during a game at Math Center. If they can't click the right answer with a clunky mouse that is likely 2 times too big for their hands or they can't determine that "fox" has 4 letter sounds even though we teach that "x" says "ks" then forget it, it won't count on any of our evaluations.

And for some reason, that evaluation has become more important than the welfare of the children in our care. Oh, I get it. I have 5 kids of my own and a military husband - my paycheck is important to our family. But I consider teaching to be a calling. And part of that calling should be, just like a medical professional, to above all "do no harm". Can we honestly say as teachers that we "do no harm" to our students when we cut out play time or recess because we have to fit in more test-prep? Can we say that we are doing no harm as we push more and more down our students throats even knowing they're not ready, because we have to get a good evaluation? Does impressing our administration matter so much that we can implement strategies and curriculum that we KNOW are not developmentally appropriate without even a twinge of guilt?

It reminds me of a quote by Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." If you look at education today, the focus on data and testing and the push for our youngest students to have to learn even more, it's obvious what happens when teachers don't speak up. When we go along with things because we want to keep our jobs.
I've been guilty of this as well - oh not in my own class. In my class we dance and play and sing all day. Half the time the children think we're "playing games" during Math time. I break out the finger puppets and felt pieces during reading so even when we're sequencing events in a story, it seems to them like we're playing. We have an hour of free choice centers daily - and during that hour my assistant and I are sitting in teeny chairs or crawling on the floor "playing" with our students. We have an hour for recess daily too! And during that time I'm writing letters in the mud with my kids, counting pecans, admiring sticks shaped like letters (we found an "F" stick the other day!!) and sometimes even racing them (I always lose because I don't have cool, light-up shoes like theirs!) I hold hands, give hugs, wipe faces and fingers sticky with spaghetti sauce and I love my students.

But I do nothing for the others. The ones who might have been mine...but for the fact they live on the other side of town. I thank God daily for my own principal who knows that my kiddos need to move and dance and make noise, but I do nothing for those children who don't have teachers and principals fighting to give them what they need. I look at my own district, and although I'm incredibly thankful to have a job and I think my district is doing amazing things - I don't speak up when we aren't. I share tons of articles about the benefits of play and recess on my blog and my Facebook website, but am I just preaching to the choir?

So today, I'm doing something different. Today is a "day of service" not a "day off". And my service today is an email to my district superintendent and assistant superintendent. They are both great people who believe in providing quality education to the students of our district. I know that the push for more academics in pre-k is not coming from them. It's something teachers are doing on their own. Like the Kindergarten teachers I know who started giving weekly spelling tests, not because anyone told them they had to, but because it would give them "good data" to show the administration how much they were doing. How much of what is happening in Early Childhood Education today is the result of teachers trying to "show" that they are good teachers? How much is because other teachers didn't speak up when they had a chance?

So today I'm speaking up on behalf of all of the children in the district, not just my own students. I'm going to start making my voice heard - at the district level, but also at the state level by contacting my state representatives. A politician once said that teachers are the least likely to vote, which is why their opinions aren't listened to. Well, this teacher votes, and she's going to start making sure her voice is heard too. Will you stand up with me and have your voice heard too? Will you write a letter to your newspaper, your governor, your superintendent?

We have the chance to make a difference, will you join me?

What Can We Learn From Play?

Play Based Learning Activities in Kindergarten

Lately I've been seeing a push for extra recess and learning through play in early childhood classrooms. I'm thrilled! Yet, I've also see teachers wondering how they will "fit it all in" and what academics they will have to give up in order to fit in "play". The benefits of play based learning however, outweigh any other consideration!

Yes, it can be hard to lose instructional time. At a recent staff meeting at my school some of the teachers were disgruntled because they lose 20 minutes of the Language Arts block every Monday for our weekly Wakin' & Shakin' assembly. I love my principal to death - his reply? "Guys, its 20 minutes..." the implication being that 20 minutes here or there shouldn't matter if the rest of the time you're providing quality instruction! My district mandates 90 minutes of Language Arts, 60 minutes of Math and we have 40 minutes of PE or Music daily. Add in 30 minutes for lunch (breakfast is before school) and that's only 220 minutes out of 405! That's 185 minutes for everything else - like recess and play! (I integrate my Social Studies and Science Standards into my Language Arts and Math blocks.) 
But honestly, I see the most growth and learning not when I'm teaching a lesson and trying to keep the attention of a whole group of squirmy kiddos who get distracted by their shoelaces, the lint on the carpet, or licking their hands from palm to fingertips (eww!). I see the most growth and learning when they're playing. So, I decided to share with you what we learned this week in play, it's way more than I could have ever taught them in 100 lessons!

Dramatic Play Center:
We have our Ikea Market Stall up still - this was introduced in December when we transformed Dramatic Play Center into a Gingerbread Bakery. The kids absolutely loved it, so its going to stick around a while. It's just a run of the mill restaurant now, with a very eclectic menu. My students have had to learn to negotiate who gets to wear which apron, who gets to use the cash register and who gets to write down orders. They've gone through 2 notepads so far, and they've gone from vague scribbles, to random letters to now attempting to copy words off of our wooden food blocks. They're starting to identify coins now, and will attempt to count out change. You're still likely to get more money back than you came with, but it just proves they've learned generosity!
These boys decided to have a smorgasbord of food at our dining table. They were pouring tea and declaring things "Delicious!" They had a conversation about healthy foods - note the broccoli and pineapple included on their plates! One little guy decided to be the cook. He has some articulation issues, but the whole class understood when he called out "Order up!" It was the loudest thing he'd ever said! Putting himself into the role of chef allowed him to forget his speech difficulties! Oh, and the little girl who stutters? She doesn't stutter when taking your order, or informing you that what you want isn't available....she'll cheerfully tell you they're out of something but quickly suggest a replacement item instead lol!

Sand & Water Center:
We had fake snow, penguins and gems in our table. The gems had letters and numbers written on them with a Sharpie. After they exclaimed about finding "treasure" they quickly identified the letters they knew, including turning the N sideways to make a Z and the M upside down to make a W! One little girl went on a mission to find all of the number gems and line them up. She got sidetracked by a little boy who decided to make a mountain and hide all of the penguins in it. He was so excited about the "cubes" and tested to see what they were made of by knocking them against various things in the classroom. They're plastic, not glass or real ice, he finally decided!
They made it "snow" several times, and yes, that glitter did get EVERYWHERE. But part of that center is sweeping up, so they got some gross motor practice with brushes and dustpans. They discussed how penguins lay eggs, and that these penguins must live in Antarctica because there's snow. They made families out of the different figures and engaged in pretend play where the mommies would go off to find fish, leaving the daddies at home with the babies. This led to some real-life connections - some of our mommies work, and then the kids get watched by daddies, sometimes both parents work and the kids go to a daycare, sometimes the mommy stays home while daddy works. There were lots of different scenarios, but as one boy put it "They still love us!"

Building Center:
I got out the Magnatiles for the first time this week. They quickly learned that a one sided structure isn't very stable. This came crashing down moments after I snapped the picture! They learned to wait their turn and make sure the other child's piece was securely in place before trying to position their own, otherwise it would crash. They learned to use triangles to make squares, and to invert triangles to make the roof. They learned that if you built it up, you could remove a piece at the bottom to make a "doorway" and as long as the other sides bore the weight it was okay.
 Math Center:
I brought out Penguin Sledding "Plinko" board. I have "Price Is Right" flashbacks when using it lol! To play, one person gets the white cubes, the other the blue. You slide your penguin on the board and wherever it lands, that's how many cubes you add to your tower. This was great for comparing numbers and early addition skills. I heard one little boy crow about how he had "the same amount!" as his partner. They quickly learned to predict who was going to win - if one landed on 5 and the other on 1 they knew it would be very hard to make up that difference. We started talking about "how many more" one tower had than the other - a hard topic when I taught 1st grade! With the towers right in front of them, my kiddos got it quickly - identifying that one had "2 more cubes!" than the other.

Since only 2 people could play the Penguin Sledding game at a time, the other children at the center played with various manipulatives. This little guy carefully sorted all of our Teddy Bear manipulatives by color, then started working on size. He was perfectly happy working solo on this, and it absorbed all of his attention for the entirety of center time.
Others chose our magnetic 2d foam shapes. This little girl decided to figure out how many shapes she could create by combining other shapes. Look at the variety she came up with! The pride that she felt at the end was evident all over her face!

Play Dough Center:
I added a Snowman cookie cutter to our center, which led to all kinds of excitement. The kids learned how to estimate how much play dough they needed to fit the whole cookie cutter. They learned to negotiate with the other kids for small amounts of other colors. They learned to take small pinches and roll them into balls for the "buttons" They figured out that cutting a small triangle of orange made a pretty good carrot nose. They learned if they rolled the dough too thin the snowman would tear when they tried to move it. They had great conversations about melting snow (when they were packing up the center they pretended the snow was melting as they placed the snowman back in the container) and why it was only raining outside instead of snowing. They sang the "5 Little Snowman" song we learned during Calendar Time and tried to remember all of the words and act it out. 

Art Center:
Art Center was rather simple this week - scraps of paper (boy, do they get enthusiastic over construction paper!), scissors, glue and crayons. Again the letters came out - any time they have a writing instrument in their hands, they practice letters almost instinctively (it happens on the playground when they have a stick and dirt too!) Whole stories were told as they were drawing. Little tongues were poking out as they struggled to manipulate our craft scissors to get the perfect shape. Form, color and composition were all explored as they created various pictures, some 3d as they glued pieces together.

Block Center:
Block center saw some pretty extensive buildings this week. This was the start of one. It was scrapped and started over several times as the little girl tried to get it just right. She learned perseverance, and the value of planning. She learned about balance and stability and that you probably should make sure no one is sitting behind your block tower just in case it falls over (he was fine!). She learned that if a rock is under the carpet, it's going to be really hard to build a stable creation, because the foundation is the most important part! She compared her tower to different classmates - it was taller than our shortest friend, but not as tall as our tallest student!

We did get some recess time this week, although due to the cold and rain it wasn't as much as usual. They learned that when the teacher gets cold its time to go inside. If they complain of cold they get their jacket zipped up and told to run around for warmth. They learned to blow on their fingers to keep them warm, and that pulling their arms in their sleeves can keep them warm, but also make it hard to run! They learned the metal gets really cold and can sting their hands if they're hanging on the monkey bars. They learned that the kickball goes really fast down the slope of the sidewalk. They learned that just because someone doesn't want to play doesn't mean they're not your friend. They learned that sticks come in many shapes, and some of them look like letters! They found L, F, T, V, and Y sticks this week. They learned that the pecans that were so abundant in the Fall are hard to find now. After a thorough search they only scavenged 2 whereas one day in October we found 400+:
I didn't get pictures of the other centers - sometimes life happens that way. I got so engrossed watching a trio doing a floor puzzle on Friday that not only did I not take a single picture, Center Time ended up running 15 minutes over! Sometimes it's important to put the camera and clipboard down and just be the willing audience for a one-man puppet show. Some days I'm so busy changing out the cds for listening center and refilling paint for the Art Easel that I don't get a chance to take a breath much less a picture.... that's okay, they're learning anyways!

Through all of their center time, they learned socialization skills that will last a lifetime. They practiced leadership skills, taking turns, talking out problems and resolving issues BEFORE coming to an adult. They counted, added, subtracted, did geometry, drew, wrote, colored, jumped, skipped, climbed, hopped, talked and most of all LAUGHED. They expressed excitement and curiosity and best of all,

Why Poor Classroom Management Is EVERYONE'S Problem And How To FIX it!

How to help a teacher STRUGGLING with classroom management!

Lately, classroom management has been on my mind a lot. It is hard to struggle with classroom management, and its even harder to watch someone else struggle with classroom management! You may be thinking that your class is fine, so why should you worry about your neighbor down the hall, or you may be thinking that you don't want to overstep or come across the wrong way. 

It's a tough line to walk - allowing other teachers to have their own classroom management styles, to fight their own battles and make their own decisions while still trying to help them with behavior management. It's like correcting someone else's child in the grocery store - most teachers cringe away from stepping on another teacher's toes. Even my husband said to me the other day, "Why do you care what happens in that room?"

So I've broken it down into the  
 4 Reasons Why Poor Classroom Management
(even in one classroom)
Affects The Whole School:

1. It ties up resources like the counselor, principal, tutors etc. Everyone is flooding into that room to try to calm the storm. Meanwhile, when the rest of the staff have an issue or a question, they have to wait. Our students have to wait. That places an undue burden on the administration, but also on the other teachers who have to continue on without guidance or help on other matters.  

2. The class that misbehaves in the hallway, assemblies and cafeteria is setting a bad example for the rest of the kids. Students watch that class and wonder "Why can't I dance down the hallway?", "They're not getting in trouble for pushing in line, why do I?", "My teacher gave me "the look" when I whispered to a friend, but those kids are yelling!". This means they'll test limits and push back against rules to make sure that nothing has changed - it shakes their foundations and worries them. Children need the safety of rules and procedures, seeing other out-of-control classes threatens their faith that all is right within their school world.  

3. Teachers with good classroom management are often the ones that have to take in the misbehaving students when they're sent from their own classrooms or excluded from activities like field trips and recess (and don't even get me started on why it's NOT OKAY to take away recess!) Some administrators even load certain classes with behavior challenges because they know certain teachers can handle them better than others. Our classrooms are disrupted by these children who are crying out for attention, safety, acceptance, love and/or challenge in their own classrooms. I'm all for being a team player and pitching in to help out, but let's face it, when it's the same kids from the same class being sent to my room over and over....well, it's not the student who's the problem.  

4. Good kids, kids that I've taught, whose families I've come to know, enter those classrooms and change. It's frustrating and heartbreaking to watch a bright, well-behaved child turn into a terror because their classroom is so chaotic. OR, those good, sweet kids get shuffled into the corner and ignored because the behavior issues take precedence. They're not learning, and their future is imperiled, because nothing can get accomplished in that class. Obviously, classroom management then becomes an issue for ALL teachers and staff at a school. Whether it's my student, your student or a 5th grader from down the hall, each student at the school deserves a safe learning environment with consistent discipline, rewards and  consequences. We cannot ensure that EVERY CHILD has that, if we have a mind-our-own-business attitude about what is happening with another class due to classroom management issues. It is morally unacceptable to shake our heads, close the door and just teach OUR class.  

So then, what? What can we do?
1. Well, the first step is offering our assistance to the teacher who is struggling. Provide them with tips and strategies, a sounding board for ideas, even a shoulder to lean on when tough days are too much for them. ASK THEM the best ways to help.You may be surprised at what they need!

2. Don't let them give up! Insist that they keep trying, keep working on their own management style and trying different interventions with their students. Don't let them decide in November that this is as good as it gets and they're just going to have to suck it up until May! If you let them give up, you're letting down a whole classroom full of children.

3. Step in when necessary! Don't stand back and watch that teacher flounder and the students flout the rules and procedures. Let the students know that YOU will hold them accountable, even if their teacher isn't at that moment.

4. Lend your materials and ideas. Whether its the latest Ron Clark book, an article you saw online or a Pin about classroom management, share, share share! If you have extra manipulatives or items for small group time, lend those too. Often, behavior problems can be linked to boredom, so giving that  teacher some extra materials may help!

If we work as a team, helping those who are having issues, then not only can we serve our OWN students, but we're ensuring that EVERY child has a positive school experience - no matter who's class they land in!

What's YOUR best advice for helping someone struggling with classroom management?

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