Classroom Managers?

The relationship between teaching partners in a classroom can be a tenuous one.  At our school, our classrooms are very diverse in how these partnership works. Some of our classrooms operate more in a traditional Lead Teacher/Assistant Teacher model, where the lead teacher is responsible for virtually everything (documentation, assessment, planning) and the assistant teacher performs tasks when asked by the Lead.  In other classrooms, Assistant Teachers help with planning and documentation and give ideas, but the Lead Teachers still write all of the Progress Reports and handle all parent communication.

Other of our classrooms operate under a Co-Teacher model, where teachers should share equally in classroom responsibilities. In a few of these classrooms, Co-Teachers communicate well with each other, and the classroom runs smoothly.  In others, teachers struggle to split up classroom tasks, and one or the other of them often feels that she is doing the lion-share of the work.

I’ve been reflecting on these relationships this summer, especially in light of the increased responsibility our classrooms have in monitoring children’s progress and documenting children’s work.  I wonder: should we abandon some of the autonomy our classrooms have in favor of more explicit “job descriptions?”

Ann Lewin-Benham, in Twelve Best Practices in Early Childhood Education, advocates for each classroom having a “Classroom Manager.”

When children are new, [the Classroom Manager] observes all the children not working in a small group with the teacher. In this stage of a class’s life, managers are constantly on their feet, moving to different children who need guidance, and making notes so the teacher can see how children are using their time….

Once all the children choose work and [can] stay involved for long periods, the Classroom Manager, along with the teacher, can converse with small groups of children, read books, make music, or give lessons…..

So I wonder: how might we use some insights from this Classroom Manager model to not only create more harmonious classrooms, but also to further the deeper learning work we are doing?



A Reason to Learn

“When students have a reason to learn, they will seek the basics, rather than have the basics imposed on them.” (Exerpt from Yong Zhao, Deeper Learning, 98).

As an early childhood educator, I found this quote to be particularly polarizing.  Early schooling is all about “the basics.”  After all, we are the ones responsible for teaching children how to read, how to write, and how to understand numbers.  If we don’t teach them that, how will they be able to learn anything else?

In every literacy training we attend, we are taught to follow a lock-step, teacher-directed curriculum.  We are encouraged to incorporate skill and drill lessons into every day, sometimes even for over an hour. We are instructed that this repetitive practice is the way that children must learn.

But what if even teaching “the basics” in this new age of education could look differently?

Research on project-based learning and brain-based instruction techniques consistently illustrate that our brains want to learn things that are important and meaningful, and when instruction is presented through engaging, high level projects, students consistently work harder and learn more.

How might we apply these principles to “the basics?”

What if, instead of teaching teachers how to teach or follow a specific curriculum, we instead made them masters of child development – sages with a deep developmental understanding of the progressions and skills held within literacy, math, and writing?

What if those teachers were then empowered to learn about the students in their classroom in a deeper way – what do they love? what are they interested in? what motivates them?

And then – here’s where the magic happens – what if teachers could then co-create, with their students – projects that both speak to children’s interests and passions and gives them the instruction and motivation to learn “the basics?”

I think this question is perhaps the most difficult and polarizing one facing us today.  Most of the PBL examples we read about discuss Middle- or Upper School student work. Even in a few chapters of “Deeper Learning,” younger students are discussed, but then the authors clarify that these “younger students” are 4th graders (in my world, those are very big kids, who are developmentally very different than my littles).

How do we, as educators passionate about creating deeper learning experiences for younger children, forge a new future where we create experiences that engage, challenge, and instruct children in “the basics” in ways that utilize and incorporate our knowledge of developmentally appropriate practices and neuroscience?

How do early experiences affect a child’s ability to identify passion and purpose?

With my lens always with the littles, I think about the experiences we give to children and how much that affects not only their overall outlook, but even how their brains learn about the world around them.  I have been thinking a lot about this study – which shows that formal schooling changes our brain – and I wonder what that means longitudinally for children.  As a species, our brains clearly have an amazing ability to adapt to the environment they are given.
I also think a lot about how do we grow and develop children who learn both a wealth of “life worthy”  topics, and also learn that they can, and should, explore topics that they are interested in.  Reading the diverse topics of students’ interest at the REDI Lab of Colorado Academy made me think about how some Preschoolers become summarily obsessed with certain topics (trains, dinosaurs, bugs, etc).  I see it happen within the Preschool, but not with every child.  Certain kids, around age 2, become obsessively interested in a topic and want to learn everything they can about it.  (even big grown-up vocabulary words).
Of my three children, Bennett was the only one who had one of these obsessive interests.  From age 2-5, Bennett could not get enough of trains.  Graham and Regan never had a love as deep as Bennett’s love of trains.  And now – I feel like I can see the effects of that for Bennett.  He is, of my three kids, the best at identifying what HE likes to do and what HE is interested in, both within the topics they are studying at school and outside.  My other two kids follow directions and get their work done (mostly), but not with the same passion and vigor that Bennett has.  I see that same pattern with other of our Preschoolers who have that type of single topic interest.
If our early environment changes our brains and how they interact with the world, I wonder – is Bennett better at identifying his interests and passions because he had such a strong experience from age 2-5?  What will that mean for him when he is older?  And – what does that mean for me or for those of us who teach the littles?  While Bennett does not necessarily remember all the facts that once came so easily to him about trains,  can’t help but think about how that experience changed his ability to attend and focus and concentrate.

Metacognition in Early Childhood

While reading Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick’s chapter, Dispositions: Critical Pathways for Deeper Learning (from Deeper Learning, 2015), I found myself wondering and brainstorming about metacognitive practices in early childhood classrooms, specifically with children who cannot yet fully read and write, or whose skills in these areas are still emerging.

Metacognition, or the ability to “think about your own thinking” is defined by Costa and Kallick as:

our ability to plan a strategy for producing what information is needed, maintaining that plan in mind over a period of time, being conscious of our own steps and strategies during the act of problem solving, and reflecting on on and evaluating the productiveness of our own thinking. 

Whoah.  Seems like a pretty tall order for little people and their teachers.  In classrooms where play reigns supreme, the idea of including metacognitive practices might seem daunting, too prescriptive, or too teacher-directed to some early childhood educators. But think about it: who better than young children (who love to narrate their play, explain every detail of their block structure, or painstakingly dictate a caption of a photo of their work) to benefit from (and even teach us about) thinking about their own thinking.

I love this blog post about metacognition and the assertion that incorporating metacognitive practices into classroom life, can “blur… the lines between teacher and learner” – giving children’s thoughts, ideas, and voice more power into the planning that goes into classroom curriculum.  Isn’t that what we should be doing anyway?  Shouldn’t we look to the children first — their interests, loves, developmental levels, academic abilities – before we plan for them?  How can we use metacognitive strategies to help us with that?  And – what are some of those strategies that we can use with our littles?

For that, I turn where I always do – to the amazing teachers I am so blessed to work with.  This year, one of our classrooms experimented with the idea of children’s “play plans.”  The classroom teachers, Liz Aull and Stacey Whalen, after discussing the available materials within the classroom, ask the children to make plans of what they would do during the day.

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Initially, the children would dictate these plans to their teachers, who would write it on the white board.  Teachers would then allow children to play, but did not direct or re-direct children to complete their plans. At the close of the day, children would revisit their plan and talk about whether they fulfilled their plan (or not).  Over time, the children grew in two areas:

  1. their ability to identify the materials or center they were most interested in (i.e. to make an accurate plan), and
  2. their ability to talk about and discuss their work.

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The teachers were able to expand on these play plans through other high-level project work in the classroom as the children’s metacognitive abilities grew. As children grew in their ability to represent their thoughts, their plans increasingly involved drawing and sketching.

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The play plans, and the act of back and forth, give and take conversations between teachers and children in the classroom around them, allowed this classroom community to become a more emergent learning environment where children’s interests and voice, coupled with teacher passion and engagement, produced a deeper learning environment for these children.

Reflecting on this amazing year, and these amazing teachers, I am left wondering:

  • how can we expand on this work to incorporate all aspects of metacognition highlighted in Costa and Kallik’s definition?
  • are there other ways that young children can evaluate their planning and execution skills?
  • how can we scale this experience into other classrooms – particularly those with younger children?
  • how can we give teachers more time to think about their own thinking – to allow for teacher reflection to really drive classroom learning?

As in every summer, I am so excited about the possibilities of what this year can bring.  I look forward to exploring it with all of our #mvlittles

An Administrator’s Summer Learning

One of my favorite things about the life of a school is the opportunity for rest, renewal, and reflection during the summer months.  While I strive to find reflective moments during the school year, the pace and responsibility of the two side of my life – home and school – make quiet reflection a little tougher from August to May.

Last summer, I was blessed to have the opportunity to attend three separate weeks of professional development:

All three impacted our work and practice in the Preschool in different ways, and I continue to unpack aspects of those three experiences as I plan our professional development for this next school year. With Judy Harris Helm joining us for professional development during pre-planning in August, and other Preschool faculty attending FUSE and the Early Math Summer Institute, I am excited to see how these experience continue to further our work.

I am home-based this summer, choosing to allocate my professional development resources toward sending faculty away to professional development, and bringing resources to school for the coming year. Therefore, my summer’s professional development is an exercise in reading and conversations.  I’ve shared some highlights of my reading list below and the reasons I am excited about each:

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I had the opportunity to read the 2nd Edition this work of Lilian Katz during graduate school. I’m excited to revisit her words through this 3rd Edition.  Lilian’s commitment and passion for growing learners intellectual capabilities – not just their academic capabilities – is one of the most important themes we talked about with our faculty this year.  This resource offers teachers a theoretical view into the project approach and gives teachers of preschool- and elementary-aged children the inspiration they need to provide their students with experiences that build upon and foster curiosity and give children a voice in the development of projects within their own classrooms.  This idea of voice vs. choice (i.e. teachers planning the entirety of a project, but giving children pre-planned choices vs. teachers observing and documenting children’s interests and conversations to allow student voice to drive project development) is going to be the crux of our coaching around curriculum development in Preschool this year.

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This second book in Judy Harris Helm’s Young Investigators series, this work is designed to build upon teachers’ prior experience with project deveopment and offer more resources to deepen that work within classrooms.  While I read this work as part of Judy’s Summer Institute last summer, I am revisiting it this year with my faculty for a more intense study.  I am excited about the conversations we will have around Mind, Brain Education (the connection between neuroscience, psychology and education), and about a more intentional use of Provocations within our classrooms to both give teachers a window into children’s thinking, and to further their understanding around a particular project topic.

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I am truly blessed to work at a Preschool-Grade 12 school who belives at its core that Curiosity and Passion Drive Learning and that student success should be measured by so much more than their ability to parrot back a set of facts delivered by a teacher. While much of what I have read and studied in my career has been focused in early childhood, I am excited to delve into the work of the Buck Insitute around Project-based learning. While I believe, at their core, the work of Judy Harris Helm, Lilian Katz, and the Buck Institute strive for the same level of student engagement in project development, I am curious about the different lens this book might offer in my growth and understanding of project development.

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As someone with a lot of fantastic ideas (of course they are!!), and leading a faculty of amazing, brilliant teachers who also have ideas, I look forward to reflecting on my own leadership through the lens of Adam Grant’s work.  I want to be the kind of leader who can both listen to and foster the ideas of my own faculty, and more effectively communicate my own thoughts and ideas to the other leaders around me within my school community.

Building Collaboration in Early Education

Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, Critical Thinking: these skills are widely regarded as a crucial part of education. How might we foster these skills in our students? How do we set up conditions for them to develop, even in our youngest learners? A recent experience observing our Preschool students led me to one conclusion: get out of their way.

For the past few months, students in our Preschool have been busy building “bunny houses” outside on the frontier, our natural outdoor space.  Built with tree cookies, sand, leaves, and an occasional branch, each day’s bunny house is a unique example of engineering with open-ended and found materials.

A completed bunny house.

At our school, we believe that curriculum planning is a dynamic process between student at teacher. Teachers act as facilitators – building in depth curricular projects around areas of demonstrated student interest, iterating and adjusting as children’s ideas and questions evolve. I knew that bunny houses had been an interest at our school for a while, and I saw the houses themselves become more and more complex as the weeks went on. As I set out to observe on the frontier one day last week, I fully believed that bunny house construction would likely be a window into our next major project, and I anticipated coaching the faculty around a project involving rabbits or construction.

What I found on the frontier that day surprised and delighted me in ways I did not anticipate. I found a group of four- and five-year-olds who created, with no teacher input, a fully functioning collaborative system. Each child played a well-defined, unique role, and each role furthered the evolution of the bunny house.

As I watched, I realized that the process of bunny house construction – not the end product – was what the children were truly learning from. What the bunny house looked like at the end of the day was not early as important to them as the roles they played and how they worked together throughout construction. Through months of work , they had developed an intricate system of collaboration that allowed each member of their classroom community to be important, valued, and accountable to everyone else. And they did it all with no teacher intervention.

Here is a short transcript of my observation with each role highlighted:

  • The Leaders: after the students had been playing on frontier for around 20-25 minutes, one student said to another, “Let’s do the bunny house” and it began.
  • Material gatherers:  Almost immediately, and with no verbal prompting, a group of three boys (who had not been playing with the two leaders) started to remove the smallest tree cookies from the deck and dispose of them behind a nearby shed, commenting “these are too small.”  One leader looked up and responded, “thanks.”
  • Sand and log transporters: two other boys, who had also been playing elsewhere with large yellow dump trucks, arrived on the scene.  One dump truck was full of sand he had gathered from the nearby pit, and the other had a large tree cookie that he had loaded from another area and brought.  They deposited their goods with a brief “here you go” and moved on. The leaders immediately started using their new supplies. The two boys returned multiple times during construction, bringing new materials with them each time.
  • Bunny expert:  after the bunny house had begun to take shape, a child arrived and stood next to the leaders.  One leader looked up and said simply, “Oh good, [L], can bunnies jump this high?” and pointed to a spot on the bunny house.  [L] responded affirmatively, “yes they can.”  His role of “bunny expert” complete, [L] left the leaders again and re-joined a group digging in the sand pit.
  • Builders: During construction, two more builders joined the two leaders on bunny house construction. Each one had a specific purpose in building – “mommy’s bed,” “daddy’s bed,” “snowman design,” and “playground.” These areas of bunny house were identified and discussed among the builders.
  • Leaf gatherer: As the leaders continued their work, a few more builders joined them.  One said “I’ll find the green leaves, ok?” and skipped off to pull leaves from a nearby plant.  She brought the leaves back to the group, and all were used by various builders on their portion of the project.

After around 20 minutes of construction, their teacher indicated that it was time to go back inside, and the students happily headed back into the classroom. As I reflected on what I had seen, I realized that we didn’t need to build a curriculum project around bunny houses. Instead, we needed to create more opportunities for children to have “bunny house experiences” — where play and collaboration connect to form truly authentic and meaningful learning experiences for our students.

As we strive to create learning that builds “21st Century Skills” in our students, let’s remember that perhaps the best experiences are those that the students create themselves when given enough time and when provided with rich, engaging, open-ended materials to explore. While teachers struggle to artificially create “authentic” in-class learning experiences, let’s remember that the most authentic experiences that any learner can have are those they they create themselves through joyous, play-based inquiry. And as we work to assess and document children’s progress, let’s not forget that the process of learning, the journey itself, is often more important than the end result.