I Went to Preschool - Here's What I Learned
Yesterday I took a personal day and headed to my son's preschool to help with a class project. My son was over the moon that I was there and couldn't wait for me to see all of his friends and the cool things they get to do every day. He was allowed to sit outside of the "circle of friends" so he could sit on a chair next to me (more on that later). While sitting next to me, he quickly started to tell me who everyone was and what they like to do. And as the day began, I started noticing some wonderful teaching happening. Here's what I noticed.
#1 Attention Getters
As the class settled in, all of the young minds were chatting with their friends about TV shows, games they play, what their siblings did that morning, or even their super cool tattoos! There were 19 little scholars on the carpet vying for each other's attention, right when the teacher needed it to begin class. And instead of raising her voice to the level of the class, using a stern tone, or simply "waiting", she started to say a rhyme.
I can't recall the rhyme for the life of me (thanks to old age...).
But within a few seconds heads began to turn, voices were turned off, and ears were listening. When all their attention was turned to the teacher she asked the kids if they were ready for her to begin reading. Yeah, she asked the kids! This simple action allowed her scholars to use their voice in the classroom and show they were ready for the day.
Later in the morning it was time for the star of the day to head to the front of the room and share the items he brought for show and tell. The young man shared his items, which naturally stirred the interest of his classmates. (I was particularly intrigued by the fishing lures he brought with him.) Scholarly interest turned into a busy classroom of little voices, and the attention began to fall away from the star of the day.
Enter the odd jar of liquid and green glitter.
Again, the teacher launched into a little rhyme that included the use of the glitter jar. As she spoke, the glitter dispersed evenly in the liquid, and the scholars joined in the rhyme as they watched the glitter fill the entire jar evenly. Voila! The class was back on track and the young man was given the attention due to him.
What was so impressive, throughout the morning, was the use of multiple "attention getters" that were quiet, kind, and involved the participation of the scholars. The teacher's voice was never used in a rough or unkind tone. Scholars were not scolded as a class for the behavior of a few. And the multiple rhymes, silly sayings, and use of manipulatives were more than sufficient in getting the scholars back on track.
So my mind began to race as to how do I take these techniques and help my middle school educators appropriately adapt them for use in their own classrooms. How do I learn enough of these practices to then be the lead learner for my staff as we finish the year? What steps can I take to intentionally prepare for leading this type of work in our building?
#2 Positive redirection
When the entire class had spent time creating the craft I was there to help with, we all settled back on the carpet to launch into the next activity. My friend with the super cool tattoo was busy making the sounds and motions of the character that was stamped on his arm. His enthusiasm had gained the attention of his classmates and many were facing him. This young man happened to be tucked into the back row.
It was at that point the teacher made the following request, "Scholar, would you mind coming up to the front of the carpet where the sun is shining. I would just love to be able to see your eyes shine as bright as the sun coming into the window."
And just like that, the scholar moved, the behavior stopped, and the kiddos were back on track!
There were a few other moments throughout the morning when the young scholars energy took control. Each and every time the teacher in the room kindly, but intentionally, made a request of the scholar and appropriately redirected the behavior. She made these requests with a care and kindness appropriate for the age and relationship she had with the scholar. There was no belittling, talking down, or using language that was out of the comprehensive reach of the scholar. The educator used what she knew about each scholar, the age she was working with, and the setting they were in to kindly and appropriately redirect the scholar back to the appropriate task.
How often did I as an educator become agitated by a scholar's behavior and use sarcasm to redirect their behavior? Or how often was I unkind with my own words when redirecting the behavior, but aiming my unkindness at the student? Did I allow myself to see the behavior more than I saw the scholar?
It's easy to fall into the place of frustration or aggravation with a behavior. The important piece is to remember that you are frustrated or aggravated by the behavior and not the scholar! Remembering this may allow you to interact more positively the next time you need to redirect a scholar's actions.
#3 Free Choice
My son and I planned on leaving his class early so we could enjoy a daddy and son day. We had lunch plans and some ideas for what we could do once we had full bellies. So, when we finished the craft I asked my son if he was ready to go. He leaned over and asked if we could stay until free time was over. How could I say no to free time?
And then the secondary educator in me woke up and I started having visions of kids running around wild, pulling out technology to watch the latest Youtube video, or putting their heads down to catch a few extra z's.
But that didn't happen.
You see, the free time my son experiences in preschool... is structured!
That's right folks, free time is a structured activity. This means that the teacher spent time thinking through her lesson and included activities she wanted her scholars to be doing during "free time". Of course the scholars had no idea that this wasn't free time, because the activities they engaged in were decided upon by them! Because the scholars got to choose what they wanted to do, they felt free.
Even better than the structure was the fact that every single activity offered during free time connected back to the content the class has been working over for the past few weeks!
Yeah, I know!
While the kids were playing dress up, sinking their hands into the kinetic sandbox, rustling through confetti paper, or doing a scavenger hunt, all of the activities tied back to the overarching theme (please read as "goal") of the class. It was clearly and intelligently done this way by design. The teacher knew what activities would be of interest to her scholars and made those interests connect to the goals of the class.
This is exactly what so many lead learners are looking for when they go into classrooms. Educators who do this are excelling on a whole different level. To design activities that will be chosen at will by scholars which connect to the content goals is mastery teaching.
Yes, it takes time. But that time is SO worth it in the end. I watched as little scholars moved from one thing to the next, actively and willingly. Each time they made a move from one task to another they were (although unknowingly) making connections to different parts of their brain using the same content. The kind of connections being created in brain are so fantastic and so long lasting. Designing an environment that pushes scholars' brains to form these connections while having fun is exactly what we need to be doing all the time in education.
When I recall my time in teacher prep, and none of the time I spent in that prep work focused on items #2 and #3 in this post. In fact, I didn't even have them on my radar when I stepped into my first classroom. My main focus was on my content and how I was going to deliver that content. These parts of education that make the work so much easier and so much more meaningful for scholars was simply not taught to me in college.
Maybe it was because I was in secondary education rather than elementary education. My argument to that is, these educational practices are important for all educators! Using positive redirection and structured free time is meaningful and productive for scholars of all levels! So why not ensure that all educators that are about to enter the field know how to do this work?
If you are an educator who is currently doing all three of these, or two of these, or working toward using these practices... hooray for you! But maybe your an educator like me, who never really learned these practices, I strongly encourage you to work with a colleague who is using these practices and using them well. Get out there, observe other colleagues, read blogs, books, or other sources to increase your base knowledge. And then try it! It won't be perfect, there will be bumps, but the work will be worth it in the end!
For colleges and universities, please take the right steps and educate all on these practices. Inform them what they are, how they work, and most importantly... why the work! Help them to practice these techniques. Show them multiple ways of doing these practices. Have them read books about these practices. Encourage them to look for these things while they are out in the field. Push them to be educators who not only know of these practices, but that actually use them!
And to my son's teacher, well done! I am thankful that my son is in a classroom that celebrates parent participation, that pushes my scholar to learn in multiple ways, and that values him as a person. Thank you for taking the time to get to know 20 little ones in a way that informs your practice and the content you provide the students. You are truly doing great work!