Mirror, Mirror- A reflection of the 9x9x25 experience

This experience began as a chance to put my money where my mouth is. After years of promoting (and yes, requiring) reflective practice with my own students, I figured it was time to practice what I preach. At first, it seemed challenging to know what to write.  My mind swam with thoughts surrounding the justification of my discipline, which sadly is a cause to advocate.  It was a valuable exercise to take the time to articulate those issues surrounding my field.  When I was new to Early Childhood Education, my passion was exploding. I felt like it was necessary to climb  mountain tops to promote the research that validated the need for MORE attention to be given to our youngest citizens of the world. Now, fifteen years into this part of my career twist, I sometimes forget that what I’m teaching, promoting, advocating for is new to my students. Regardless if I have shared the same information a hundred zillion times (I couldn’t resist, that is a ‘kid number’, right?), I have to remember that it may be their first experience with the material. Even IF students feel they ‘know it already’, it remains my responsibility to present it with fresh enthusiasm and passion.

Upon reflecting on the last 9 weeks of writing, I did notice several things about my practice:

*Yes, I like to write! I started out as a journalism major in college.  A mentor suggested that rather than majoring in something about writing, perhaps majoring in something I was passionate about would provide me with a topic for writing. Yep! Those were wise words,and I’m grateful that my career took this turn. Writing this blog rekindled my love of writing and I hope to continue in some capacity.

*I do love my job! Even though thoughts of being worn out, bogged down and over committed does seem to be a theme, coming eye to eye with my chosen profession has reignited a passion.The trick now is to really look at choice I may have to make the position more balanced, and less stretched. I cannot give my students my best if I am stretched too thin.

*We’re surrounded by amazingly brilliant people! I have always known that we can learn so much from one another.  As a matter of fact, our office neighbors, department mates and committee colleagues all have much to share.  The nature of our work at the college level does feel isolating. (compared to working with teammates in the public school setting). It was common practice for my 17 years in the classroom to plan together, use everyone’s strengths to accomplish tasks and most importantly, laugh!  Writing is powerful, but just hanging out with others in a culture that promotes conversation, community, support, humor and care is irreplaceable.

This was a valuable experience for me. An opportunity to look in the mirror.  If my work here is a reflection of me- then I have learned something. Learning- yep, that’s why we’re here.

So Todd, I think you can say, “mission accomplished”. Thanks for driving this 9x9x25 bus along the way!

Perspectives

The semester is winding down, and with only a few class sessions remaining, I find myself in a familiar funk.  Perhaps it is simply a feeling of being worn out, perhaps it is the point of the semester when my reflection muscles get over used, or maybe it is simply the way our lives just roll.

Worn out? Yep! Teaching a full load of classes, no two being the same prep has its own challenges. Add on the role of observing students in area classroom practicum placements, (anywhere between 12 and 30 classroom observations/visits per semester) complete with written evaluations and video feedback is valuable, yet time-consuming.

Add on to that, a commitment to serve on a faculty committee, a peer review committee, 2 advisory boards, a community work group, managing two grants, advising an active student club and planning an annual conference…..no wonder fatigue sets in.

I recently was ‘slapped’ into realizing the depth of my distracted brain when I managed to FORGET three things in three days! Oh man -how embarrassing to have to ask your supervisor to pick up, deliver and look for items left on another campus! YIKES!

While all of these tasks are an integral part of maintaining and growing a program, not one of those tasks or roles should be more important than the time I spend preparing for classes and working with students in our courses.  It is important to me to strive to model highly engaging learning experiences; that student’s experience a learning environment that ignites a passion for them to pass on to their future students. I want them to know what it feels like to be valued as a student, to not be allowed to be invisible in class, that each person is challenged to reach a new level of learning and gain perspective that will help them in their future- no matter what their end goal may be. Of course, with these ideals in mind; I often feel that I have fallen short.  I am constantly reflecting on what worked, what didn’t and how I can tweak things for the next time around. We are very fortunate in our field that we have a clean slate to work from- 3 times per year! Whether or not we teach our courses fall, spring and summer- instructors have the opportunity to re think and re design our courses.  I am grateful for this- I figure that when I don’t care about changing it up to improve a course, it must be time to retire. Someone once told me that teaching our classes should be like ‘doing the laundry’. She meant that our classes were the mundane ‘chore’, so that we could move on to other projects. I didn’t agree with that statement then, and I don’t agree now. If teaching becomes the ‘chore’ so I can get to other things…then I KNOW it must be time to retire. We are here to learn to teach and teach to learn. There are so many resources available to us to achieve this successfully. Whether it is a summer/winter institute, conferences, webinars, 57 second Blackboard Tips- AND of course, so many opportunities for our own disciplines.  It can be overwhelming to sort through the options, to be clear on our own goal setting that will improve our teaching- figuring out what will raise student learning. As much as I think our egos might like to think that we can change a student’s life; it is not a one way street.

Our students have a responsibility too.  We can’t care about learning more than they do. We can create a safe, inspiring classroom. We can create high quality, well planned learning experiences. Ultimately, our students must meet us part way. They will get out of the courses what THEY put in. I’ll go miles to help a student succeed- but they have to show an interest, a desire- a spark!

It is this time of year when reflecting on my work can be tricky. Figuring out how to prioritize, be effective and be moving a program in a positive direction is where my passion lies . Luckily, as the next weeks come and go- I’ll again have time to take a few steps back from the many tasks at hand.  I’ll be able to perhaps look at this daily work from a new perspective.  What matters, what doesn’t? How can I do better next time?  This ability to stop, wait, think and be renewed is so important.

…..and then we’ll do it again!

$9.38, $53,000 & 36 million kids

I recently received a message from a long time friend. Her question was not a new one; at least not one that I don’t contemplate in my own mind about 1,000 times a year.  However, this time, it struck me with a fresh sting.

She said, “Oh Le Anne, how can you work with pre-service teachers in this current climate? ”

“With all that is going on in education today, locally and nationally, how can you encourage others to go into this field?”

“Morale is so low, what a difficult time to be in considering a career in education!”

These are  $1,000,000 question(s) for sure.  I do continually ask myself these questions. We live in a time full of contradictions.  Science has concluded that the 90% of a child’s brain is developed before they walk into a kindergarten classroom. Research shows time and time again that a QUALITY  preschool program, with highly educated teachers and caregivers in classrooms,  makes a difference for a child’s long-term outcomes. We employ a workforce of over 1.3 million teachers and caregivers to serve those infants through pre-kindergartners. Did you know that in most states, those teachers and caregivers can go to work in a classroom with merely a high school diploma? Many states are working to require higher education. The stakes are high…..the responsibility is enormous to prepare children to be healthy and prepared  to thrive in the k-12 world. Yet, did you know that the average wage for those teachers is $9.38 per hour? (http://www.bls.gov/ooh/personal-care-and-service/childcare-workers.htm#tab-6). There are many of those employees that ARE in school learning the skills necessary to improve their daily service and interactions with young children. Earning certificates and degrees. For many, it is like jumping out of an airplane and THEN receiving instruction on how to deploy their parachute WHILE the are tumbling through the air.  And yet, after years of working full-time, taking a class or two a semester, and YES!, finally, earning that Associate’s Degree, guess what? They now earn an average wage of $9.38 per hour! It is no wonder that the turn over rate for these employees is over 30% per year.  (http://www.childresearch.net/projects/ecec/2012_04.html). These high turn over numbers are difficult to absorb. Think about the consequences of working to develop safe and trusting relationships between children, teachers and parents, and then having to repeat that over and over again.

Let’s imagine that those preschool teachers go on to their bachelor’s degree. Two more years of education. They are hired as a public kindergarten teacher. They now make a national average of $53,000 per year.  (http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/kindergarten-and-elementary-school-teachers.htm#tab-1) (note: that first year kindergarten teacher in many regions may be closer to a $35,000 per year salary). The demands are great. The responsibilities are not completely unlike their preschool counterparts ( readiness to share, listen, learn in a group, work alone, work with others, be creative, innovative, curious, able to follow directions, be respectful, oh, yes and measurably show learning…..)  The magnify glass now becomes stronger! This kindergarten teacher, usually alone in a room with 24-32 children, is expected to and usually guides their children through these tasks with amazing ability and grace! Those preschool teachers that worked so hard did their part to prepare them for these later school experiences. The foundation to learn was set and those 1.5 million elementary school teachers receive the baton and take their beloved classroom full of children as far as they can.

If you do the math, there are over 36,000,000 children that are eager to step into a welcoming, organized and stimulating preschool classroom. Over 36,000,000 children how are hungry for a safe, trusting relationship and environment to learn to love and love to learn. Sadly, yes, the political and social climate for teachers to feel valued in their chosen profession is depressing. The expectations of them are tremendous, while they face so many uncertainties. Will their efforts prove their accomplishments through test scores? Will they successfully navigate the ever-changing evaluation process? Will their professionalism be respected by their community? Will their school close so the school board can address their budget deficit?

It’s true, we are not in ideal times to recruit prospective students into the field of education. There are many difficult realities that teachers at every level face. But where does that leave those millions of children? Children  still need a smiling face that cares about them. Someone that cares enough to plan and implement engaging and active learning opportunities. Someone that will be willing to lead, inspire and be part of the next generation of the most important job on the planet. TEACHERS! In the face of all of these uncertainties, we just can’t give up.  It is more important than ever that we are recruiting amazing and capable people into this profession. Yes, there are a lot of broken pieces to the system. Come on people, let’s work to get this right….for the kids!

Pushing a big, giant boulder up hill!

Two issues have collided as of late! At first glance, they may seem unrelated, but the more these events percolated in my thoughts, the more the connection became clear.  First, I had one of those ‘accidental’ teaching moments that became a very powerful moment.  A few weeks back, I was holding a ‘quiz review’ session for a class. I had previously given out a study guide for the students to complete to help them prepare. (Yes, they did ask if I would simply provide them with a guide, with answers and concepts included…NOT!!!!…but that’s a different topic) A few days later, we met for a quiz review session.  Being ‘early childhood me’, I had chosen to utilize a game setting for the review.  Digging back into my elementary teaching days, I pulled out the old ‘baseball game’. I had prepared questions that were worth a single, double or triple. Students divided up in teams, scorekeepers were chosen to sit at the white board.  Then, me, the umpire, set the rules….After going over the time allowed to answer and make clear that” the other team can’t steal,” I said that there was really only one other rule.  “While we play, you can sit anywhere in the room, except in a chair”.   This ‘rule’ was met with enthusiasm for sure. The students rearranged themselves, and we were off and playing. After several  minutes of playing (aka reviewing), students realized that they hadn’t scored too many points.  The  ‘triple question’ was harder to achieve than they thought. It was then, after an especially tough question was asked, I saw a student trying to ‘sneak’ some notes or words from their study guide to the ‘up to bat’ student…..and then things got hilarious! With a collective guilty look, I saw my students look over at me.

Then someone sheepishly asked,  “Wait-can we look at our notes?”, I responded by simply saying, “We have one rule: While we play, you can sit anywhere in the room except in a chair”.  Bedlam followed, the notes came out, the study guides (some complete and some not) came out.  From that point on, the game took on new life. Actually reviewing the material became the focus. Students helped each other, clarifications and new explanations were asked for and shared.  The results of the quiz were decent, but that wasn’t my ah-ha.  It was the process that had me thinking.

We talk a lot about critical thinking skills. This unexpected critical thinking lesson reminded me of how often we like to think that we’ve taught them how to do it….however, it’s the application that is so often missing!

The unrelated event had to do with a conversation I had with some colleagues in the field of early childhood. These good-hearted, hard-working folks oversee several early childhood programs that serve children daily. They are committed to increasing the quality of their programs. They support their teachers in the pursuit of certificates and degrees in ECE through scholarships and are receiving ‘coaching’ from a separate agency to improve daily practice to prepare for a quality assessment.   What troubled me was hearing that a blanket statement had been made in regards to ‘not being allowed’ to use Berenstein Bears or Dr. Seuss books in their preschools.   Now, I am not arguing that there aren’t thousands of quality and appropriate children’s books to use with children. I’m not even defending Dr. Seuss! (Some of his books are LONG and beyond a whole group of 16 -3 year olds to sit through during a circle time). But…..there are wonderful pages full of rhymes, nonsense, creativity and biblio-theraputic possibilities with the Berenstein Bears. What bothered me the most was that those teachers and caregivers were just ‘told’.  These professionals were not valued enough to talk about how to be discriminating when choosing children’s books. They weren’t exposed to a criteria for selecting appropriate children’s books for THEIR children,  children they work with each and every day.  No, they were simply told a rule.  No questioning assumptions, no problem-solving….. no opportunity to draw their own conclusions.  What scares me the most? If there is an expectation for educators to promote critical thinking in even our youngest children, then why can’t we model that with those that are working with them? Yes, I have a plan to bring this up to those that can help resolve, or at least reflect on it. Another reminder of our need to constantly collaborate.

Let me tell you,  I love my job…but sometimes I feel like I’m pushing a big, giant boulder up hill!

Why ECE?

Across the country, momentum is building for creating stronger systems in early childhood education. In the past ten years, we hear more politicians, business leaders, teachers and families speaking out  in favor of expanding access to high-quality early childhood education programs. In Arizona, we are currently implementing much-needed strategies to ensure that by age five, children are ‘ready for school and set for life’. Through First Things First, the 2006 voter approved initiative, Arizona is committed to improving the lives of young children and families.  With the growing body of research available regarding  the importance of the first five years of a child’s live, this work is critical!

Access to high-quality experiences impacts the lives of millions of children by improving school readiness, which is essential to later academic success and high achievement. The general public may be immune to hearing the term ‘high-quality’…but what does that really mean?  Being ready for school is much farther reaching than knowing their ABC’s and counting to 10. Research shows that trusting early relationships, being showered with rich language, as well as intentional play and exploration cannot be underestimated in supporting a young child’s development.

Criticisms, however, are often based on misconceptions about early childhood education. Because high-quality early learning is exceptionally important to the future strength of our nation, it is imperative that we get the facts straight.

 Child care and Preschool are too expensive?

While the upfront price tag for high quality early care and education might give some people sticker shock, investments in young children pay for themselves over time in the form of reduced costs associated with grade retention, special education, and crime. In fact, studies show that children exposed to high-quality early childhood education:

•Are 40% less likely to need special education or be held back a grade
•Are 70% less likely to commit a violent crime by age 18
•Have better language, math and social skills, and better relation-ships with classmates
•Have better cognitive and sensory skills and experience less anxiety
•Score higher on school-readiness tests.

 It doesn’t really matter who takes care of little kids?

The body of research demonstrating clear benefits from positive early care and preschool experiences are well-established. Two well-known longitudinal studies were among the first to establish the long-term and far-reaching impacts of early childhood education: the HighScope Perry Preschool Project; and the Carolina Abecedarian Preschool program. These studies provided intensive interventions and showed not only immediate academic gains but also benefits into adulthood, such as reduced need for public assistance, lower crime rates, and higher earnings.

The scary thing is, with all of research and knowledge that is known, we are still underfunding undervaluing those that are most effected.  As a start, Arizona is launching a quality improvement/rating system, so that early care and education programs can receive coaching and incentives to improve their programs.  Families will be able to receive financial assistance to enroll their children into the most highly rated programs.  College scholarship programs are also now being made available to caregivers and teachers to support them with the knowledge to improve the daily practice of their most important work.  Many of our ECE students are working for minimum wage, with or without a higher education certificate or degree. We must value higher education requirements for those that care and educate those young minds for it is imperative they are knowledgeable and effective each and every day. They need to feel like professionals, be valued and compensated for their critical role in preparing children for school and life!

The results are in! Early Childhood Education is a critical component to a healthy, thriving society.  Do what you can to support young children and their families……at the least….express your support when you vote!

A Savory Sampling…

Call me a nerd if you like, but  coming up with a teaching strategy that creates active learning and student participation feels as good to me as tasting a yummy dessert. For this week’s blog entry, I thought I would document and reflect on a couple  recently used teaching strategies that proved to be effective with my students. Both strategies have enriched classroom discussion and improved the comprehension course material.

Do you have an old checker board at home? Maybe several of the checker board pieces have fallen out of the box and are now hiding in the dark and dusky corners of your game cabinet?  Or….maybe you have some poker chips lying around? You probably don’t have time for your poker game nights during the semester anyway, right? Well, these items make pretty good props for prompting classroom discussion. I have specifically used these to reinforce material from class reading assignments. First, I have a bag of two colors of game pieces. The students then grab a piece as they arrive in the classroom.  ( I change it up, so they are never sure WHY I have had them pull a red or blue chip or why they are now holding a red or black checker…..but building anticipation does help prepare a mind for learning.) On one particular day, the goal may be that If a student has pulled  a red chip, then they are expected to make a statement that demonstrates their comprehension about the reading. If a student has a black chip, then they are expected to ask a question about the reading in which others will respond. For the ‘questioners’,  it has also helped to provide a list of action verbs related to learning to help prompt higher level questions and not simply questions that are of the lowest level of recall.  (i.e. verbs from Bloom’s Taxonomy) This strategy can work for both small groups and whole class discussions. One can also have students pull from the bag several times, so that they may be responsible for adding additional comments and/or questions to continue the conversation. Usually, the chips act as an icebreaker to get  things rolling, and as the instructor, I can quickly observe which of my students have read and comprehended the material.

The second strategy is what I’ve come to call the bumper sticker activity.  Often when presenting historical perspectives and educational  philosophies, I notice that students tend to glaze over.  The mere length of text to form an explanation, or simply interpreting language norms of the 19th century can incite a lot of head nodding and complete classroom silence.  When these quotes and lengthy phrases are at the heart of the learning objective, then this small group activity can assist in providing clarity and understanding.  By dividing the class into small groups of 2 or 3 students I’ll give each group a copy of a lengthy quote or explanation.  Each small group is then charged with interpreting the text and simplifying it into as few words as possible…..even something that would fit on a bumper sticker.  This activity has also revealed misinterpretation and provides the platform for reteaching, clarifying as well as rich classroom conversation. Of course, if one wishes to put an updated twist on this, it would be appropriate to modify this from the ‘bumper sticker’ to the ‘tweet’!

Teachers at any level can never have too many strategies up their sleeve to create active learning and student participation.

Hearing a classroom buzz with ‘on topic’ conversations is a truly satisfying moment for a teacher. …………….On second thought,  that chocolate covered strawberry did look really good!

Duck! Rabbit!

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“For what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are.”
C.S. Lewis

Integrating children’s literature into all of my courses has become a powerful strategy.

Most of my students quickly learn of my interest….okay…obsession with children’s books.  At first glance, my adult students may brush it off, thinking, “Well, this course IS about kids, right?”

However, after the first several weeks have passed, I find that these selected titles become a beacon for understanding concepts, and can sometimes, simply, knock a student to their knees.  Literature that whispers powerful messages such as, accepting others perspectives, seeing the big picture, and perseverance,  can pack a big punch. It isn’t long before my students tell me that they have ordered these books for themselves. (you’re welcome, Amazon!)

As instructors, we may be sure that our students are cynical, jaded, or perhaps lazy and disenfranchised; all of which increases our stress level as we attempt to connect and inspire learning.  I’m usually amazed at how even the most disconnected student may come around with the use of these titles.

Many books intended for kids are worthy of any aged audience.  Most are NOT condescending (if there are worth the printing) or full of preachy parables. More often, the levels of absorption varies; depending on the age, development or life stage of the reader.

In addition to Duck! Rabbit!  by Amy Krause Rosenthal, referenced at the top of this post, here are a few other favorites:

One that comes to mind is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,  Sharing excerpts from  this book can remind us about love, what’s important in life and what you should never forget, no matter how old you are.

Challenging the reader to consider  what it means to ‘see the big picture’ is only one great reason to use the  wordless book,  Zoom.  For nothing is ever as it seems in Istvan Banyai’s sleek, mysterious landscapes of pictures within pictures.

Originally published in 1936, this recommended story of a bull who would rather stop and smell the roses than fight in the bull ring was seen as propaganda and banned by Hitler.  Naturally, Gandhi loved “The Story of Ferdinand” as a celebration of pacifism.

"The Story of Ferdinand" by Monroe Leaf
Lastly, when considering how technology may be altering our lives,  my students love, It‘s A Book by Lane Smith.  I’ve included the image of the last page of the book (which, yes, did stir controversy.  There is another version available for a younger audience, just so you know.)
If you can’t read the text from the last page,  it says, “It’s a book, Jackass”. Now, you want to read it too, right?
Cultures, reinforcing concepts, and opportunities to apply critical thinking and inspire creativity can all be found within the pages of some of our best literature…..and those books just so happen to be in the children’s section.