Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Defending the Early Years

CCSS 1.OA.D.8:
"Determine the unknown whole
number in an addition or subtraction
equation relating to three whole numbers."
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) provide fodder for debate amongst educators, researchers, administrators and the political machine that drives the incessant cycle of instruction and assessment.

We all go 'round and 'round but what are the main concerns?

This week I read an article released by the folks at Defending the Early Years (DEY) detailing Constance Kamii's critical examination of the K-3 CCSS for math. The piece clarified some of the issues.

The article states that DEY is "an organization of early childhood professionals dedicated to speaking out with well-reasoned arguments against inappropriate standards, assessments, and classroom practices.  We are concerned about the rising emphasis on academic skills in early childhood today.  Increasing teacher-directed instruction is leading to the erosion of play-based, experiential learning that we know children need from decades of theory and research in cognitive and developmental psychology and neuroscience" (Emphasis is mine)

The issue Kamii has with the CCSS seems to rest with the fact that educators are now being forced to replace child-centered experiential learning - through play and inquiry - with developmentally inappropriate instruction. This is huge. In essence, she argues we are teaching skills in first grade that children will master without instruction in second grade (and so on).  Why the rush? Why are we wasting the child's time? More importantly, is the sacrifice worth the price when you consider what is lost?

As an educator, I am not resistant to the CCSS. My experience with implementation has been mostly positive.  The majority of my first grade students - with the exception of my English language learners - excel at math. They enjoy tackling the challenging material and using different strategies to solve complex word problems and equations.  I had trouble understanding the hubbub and derision surrounding the practical application and value of the CCSS.

The take away from Kamii's article seems to be a matter of could vs. should.  Just because children are capable of doing the work, is it in the child's best interest to do so?  Is the "forced" and "inappropriate" learning merely surface level "verbalisms" lacking depth of understanding?  I cannot answer that or fight the machine to alter that expectation.

What I can do is remain diligent and strive to achieve a well-rounded curriculum for my students while operating within the confines of the CCSS.  One that includes time for the arts and allows for child-centered learning through blocks, dramatic play and student-led social interactions.

As the CCSS are tweaked (or eventually thrown out) I can provide children with daily, meaningful learning experiences.  Teachers can still make a difference.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Les enfants à Paris

"Paris Plages" transforming Paris
into a series of themed beaches
New York City encourages children to take a cultural bite out of The Big Apple but offerings in The City of Lights (La Ville-Lumiére) shine just as brightly. 

I was first struck by this as I strolled along the right bank of the Seine River and stumbled upon the inviting golden sand and blue umbrellas of the annual summer event, Paris Plages (Paris Beach). 

Children can frolic in the floating pool while enjoying live music or lounge on a beach chair with a book from the mobile library. We also witnessed bike safety lessons for the wee ones, pet stations/stops and booths selling food, beverages and trinkets.  

Later, I entered the Place du Carrousel located near the open end of the courtyard of the Musée du Louvre.  Nestled within the covered arches before the Rue de Rivoli were framed posters promoting "Les Ateliers Enfants".

This program resembles those of my beloved Met Museum with tours and activities to spark an interest in French culture, art and history.

La Petite Academie, Paris
At every turn I saw child-centered activities peeking out from windows and doorways (La Petite Academie, P'tit Vélib') or advertised on billboards (Les Minions!, Vice-Versa - the French title for Pixar's Inside Out - and the newly released Le Petit Prince).

It made me think that early childhood educators in Paris had it pretty good too.

When I returned home I discovered a blog posting about taking a group of children to visit museums and landmarks in Paris.  The photographs of children eating lunch and posing in front of The Eiffel Tower and the Louvre is reminiscent of the class pictures I took of my students outside The Statue of Liberty and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The post even includes some children's drawings.

I may have found my Parisian counterpart and definitely see new experiences unfolding in my future. There must be openings at the Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

New York City is our Classroom

New York City!

I cannot imagine a better place to teach.  The Big Apple offers school children culture, history and a sense of wonder.

It breaths life into the words we read in books and helps children connect to the lessons in tangible ways through visual, tactile and kinesthetic modalities.

NYC lets kids get their hands dirty.  She encourages them to question and explore and offers a great many oohs and ahhs.

New York City is a great teacher.

This year we expanded the walls of our classroom with trips to Liberty Island and The Statue of Liberty, Governor's Island Learning Garden, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rockefeller CenterTop of the Rock, The Fire Zone, The New Victory Theater, Children's Museum of the Arts, Central Park, The Staten Island Ferry,  Green Meadow Farm Festival of Cultures and Lincoln Center.

Students gathering greens at Governor's Island Learning Garden
During our travels the children learned about nutrition, gardening, healthy habits, history, art, design, color, shape, geography, world cultures, perspective, transportation modes, performance styles, mythology, respect, rules, cooperation, fire safety, creativity, plants, life cycles and themselves.

Thankfully our principal is very supportive of field trips for the elementary grades and recognizes their value. For many of our students class trips are the only opportunity they have to experience first-hand the treasures that NYC has to offer.  That is true for me as well.  I had never visited Liberty Island before this year!

Next year we will continue to open our doors to venture out while continuing to invite New York into our classrooms through children's book author visits, theatrical performances and Broadway Books First Class.

With all this it is easy to sing out, "I love New York!"

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Rose

The One Hundred and Fourth Annual Commencement ceremony for our graduating Eighth Grade students included a recently added tradition called Presentation of Roses.

Each graduate stands on the stage and presents a rose to an adult they deem deserving of thanks and recognition for the love, support, and guidance they've provided.

The decision does not come without a lot of contemplative handwringing.

Last year, I was honored by my tearful little cupcake who was filled with such emotion that she could not finish explaining why she chose me.  This angelic child found a way to touch my heart one last time before she flew off into the world.

This year the scene unfolded a little differently but I equally moved.

First, there is a little backstory.

In 2012, the graduating Eight Grade class asked me to be their keynote speaker.  I prepared a brief speech outlining some life lessons based on Curious George.  As I spoke I tossed out a little stuffed George every once in a while just to make sure they were paying attention.

This year one of the 2015 graduates quietly asked if I had any of those stuffed Curious George toys left. The message was clear.  This really cool eighth grader wanted a Curious George stuffed animal. Adorable!  So, I brought one to the commencement ceremony to give to him afterwards.

It turns out that when it came time for the presentation of the roses he called my name.

On stage he handed me the rose and I handed him the stuffed George.  When we quickly hugged he said, "I love you man!"

These fabulous kids, they are killing me!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Catching Up With...Michael

Class Pictures
Top Left: Preschool 2000-2001 - Michael is on the far right in a white shirt
Top Right: Preschool 2001-2002 - Michael is top row, third from left
Bottom Left: Kindergarten 2002-2003 - Michael is top row, second from left
Bottom Right: First Grade 2003-2004 - Michael is center row, third from right

It is rare that an elementary school teacher has the opportunity to work with the same student for four years, but I did.  I had the happy privilege of steering Michael through two years of preschool, then kindergarten and first grade.

I first saw Michael when he was just three-years-old.  He was standing in the school lobby next to his stunningly beautiful mother and was clearly not at all happy about having to hold her hand.  He looked ornery and angry as he kicked at her ankles with his little feet.

I thought, "This boy is a handful".

Luckily, I like kids who are handfuls.  Instead of being deterred by his antics, I found him incredibly endearing.  He was just too cute to pull off that temper tantrum.  By the time we were introduced he was all smiles and over-the-top charm.  He even pronounced my name as "Gawy".  Somehow that just upped my fatherly instincts to protect and nurture this child.

Michael in Pre-K sporting
blonde hair
I have so many vivid memories of Michael as a preschool student but the story I am most fond of telling is the one about his nap time routine.

He slept with his head inside the pillow case and was not easy to wake up.

My co-workers Maggie and Marilla would often look to me to do the job.

It routinely went something like this...

Me: Michael, it's time to get up.
Michael: (silence)
Me: (gently shaking him) Michael, wake up.
Michael: (pokes his head out from the pillowcase, yells and slaps me hard across the face)

We all found it endlessly amusing and it only endeared him to me more.

Later, after four years as his teacher, his mom and I joked that I should just stay with him until he graduated.  She promised that she would keep in touch and one of these days I would attend his high school graduation and we would all share a very emotional moment together.

Through the years Michael would stop by for a visit. It is wonderful to see this little boy grow into a funny, kind, and stalwart young man.

In May 2009 and March 2012

This past June Michael graduated from high school.  He sent me a message the night before to invite me but although I wanted to attend I had another batch of children that needed me and I just couldn't work it out.

Michael started Brooklyn College this summer and is working at Potbelly Sandwich Shop.  He says he is "struggling to do school and work at the same time".  As a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA) he is interested in majoring in American Sign Language and wants to do something related to sign as a career.

He added, "I remember how great a teacher you were.  You always connected with students with your high energy, passion and your sense of humor".

And then he slapped me hard across the face.


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