Monday, December 3, 2012

The Literacy Specialist

Last week I was on a tour through central Illinois leading concerts in church basements and fellowship halls for families involved in the Head Start program.

(Head Start is a federal program that provides comprehensive education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families.)

It was at one of these concerts that I spotted a literacy specialist doing exactly what early childhood literacy specialists do best.......looking for opportunities to help young children actively listen and make sense of the language around them and helping them learn to pay special attention to those parts of the language that are known to aid children in becoming successful readers.

I suppose this person caught my eye, at first, because he was a man.  It is still uncommon to see men working in the early childhood field and I’m always happy when there are, at least, two of us in the room!    

But what kept my attention was the way that this gentleman interacted with the child next to him. 

At one point in the concert I led everyone in one of my rhyming games. The "Poison Ivy" song. 

Poison ivy under bushes.
Poison ivy under trees.
Poison ivy in the forest.
Poison ivy on my knees.

Poison ivy makes me scratch, scratch, scratch........
Itch and scratch my knees.

In the beginning of the song I noticed the literacy specialist playfully and enthusiastically "scratching" his knees as I sang the rousing chorus. The student next to him watched him and laughed.

Then, as I sang the lines of the second verse (leading up to the chorus), I saw that the literacy specialist had tilted his head a bit and was making a point of acting as if he was concentrating closely on the words:

Poison ivy by the daisy.
Poison ivy by the rose.
Poison ivy by the flower
That I smelled with my nose.

As I sang the chorus about scratch, scratch, scratching my nose, I saw the gentleman pretend, once again, to scratch his nose.  He turned and faced the student (a young girl) and, of course, the child joyfully “scratched” her nose as well.

During the third verse the specialist would alternate, dramatically, between listening to my words (with the obvious rhyming cues) and making eye contact with the student.  It was almost as though he was saying, "Do you hear what I hear?  Listen....."  

And then, of course, he and the child excitedly "scratched" along once again.

This kind of play went on, over and over, for the five verses of the song. 

The literacy specialist, through his play, demonstrated the active part of the song to get the student's attention. But then, through his subtle cues, he also indicated that if she listened to the words she might also start to guess the rhymes before I even sang them!

Anyone watching could have seen the teaching, the learning and the laughter!

But here is the best part of the story.  The man is not a professional literacy specialist......or even a staff member at Head Start.  He is a dad.  A dad who, at that moment, was simply sitting next to his daughter and playing. 

He is fortunate enough to be involved in a program that offers opportunities for children and adults to have proximity to one other and to interact.  In my experience, adults have a natural inclination to become teachers in this way when they are sitting next to the children they care about.  And, with guidance, those caregivers not inclined to get involved can become better at doing so. 

Thankfully, there are programs all over the country that encourage this sort of proximity and interaction and, when needed, offer guidance.   Public libraries offer story times for children and the adults that care for them.  There is a wonderful program called Parents as Teachers.  And, of course, there is Head Start.

When these programs do it right, moms and dads and caregivers do the work of literacy specialists.

And, from the smiles and laughs I observed last week between that dad and his daughter, I know this:

In this instance, in his new role as a literacy specialist, that dad didn't mind going to work at all!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Toy Boat

The beginning of the school year is the perfect time to consider the importance of play in the early childhood classroom and the role that we adults have in creating opportunities for children to make profound discoveries through play.

One incident that I remember, from years ago, always makes this clear......and makes me smile.

I was visiting the Whitney Young Early Childhood Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana and had shared, during my concerts there, a song that I created to celebrate the tongue twister "Toy Boat." At each concert, after singing the song, I led the preschoolers and kindergarteners in a follow-up game.  Children could take turns coming forward to say the words "toy boat," in the microphone, three times.  And, of course, they had to say the words fast.  That's what makes a tongue twister challenging and fun.  It's what makes a tongue twister play.

You know the results. 

"Toy boat, toy boit, toy boit!"

And so on.

In between concerts I joined some of the preschoolers out on the playground and overheard a number of them continuing to attempt to complete the challenge.

"Toy boat, toy boat, toy boit." (laughter)

"Toy boit, toy boit, toy boit." (more laughter)

One little boy ran up to me excitedly and said, "Hey Jim Gill!  I've got a new one!"

I wasn't exactly sure of what he was referring to, so I asked him what his "new one" was.

He looked straight at me and proudly said, "Foy foat, foy foat, foy foat."

I smiled a big GENUINE smile.  Then I gave him a playful challenging look. 

"Oh yeah?  Moy moat, moy moat, moy moat!"

He stopped for a moment.  I could see that he was thinking, just by watching his face.

His reply:  "Doy doat, doy doat, doy doat!"

The young child was, of course, making phoneme substitutions.  Substituting letter sounds like this is a very important early literacy skill.  Beginning reader books, like Dr. Seuss' famous "Cat in the Hat," were created to exercise this ability.

And this young boy just discovered it for himself.  He began by playing a tongue twister and, once playing with words and sounds, began to play with different sound (letter) substitutions.

No worksheet was needed.  No computer was needed.  All the child needed was a caring adult to share a silly word game and some play time for him to expand on that game.

What makes this story so memorable to me, years later, is that when this young boy shared his creation, he not only shared his discovery but his excitement about the discovery.

Play is inspiring.  Not only is it inspiring for children to learn and master a new skill, but the discovery process itself is inspiring. 

No one can say the same about worksheets or “screen time.”    

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Nancy J.

I met Nancy J. at Chicago’s Midway Airport while we both waited, during a delay, to board a plane.  As I was sitting in the waiting area I noticed an elderly woman in a wheelchair inching towards me from over in the pre-boarding area. 

It was Nancy.

Nancy had seen my banjo and wanted to know about my music. 

“I love music,” she said.  “It makes life better.  I’ve lost most of my vision but none of my ability to appreciate great music!” 

When I explained that I create music –mostly musical games- for young children Nancy got a big smile on her face.  When I told her that I was on my way to speak (and sing) with a group of Head Start teachers, her jaw dropped.

“Years ago I directed a Head Start program in Texas!  It was back in 1967, soon after the program started.”

She then volunteered the philosophy that she ensured was the foundation of her program in Texas. 

“I told the staff not to teach, but to let the children play.  Now, of course, we’d step in and help if a child was frustrated or needed help, but my philosophy was – and still is with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren – that children learn ten times as much when playing than they would if we decided what they should learn and if we were simply satisfied with that.  And, more than that, we learn so much about the children by watching them play!”

She went on to describe her excitement, after more than 40 years, for the way that Head Start provided a boost for the entire family through some of its innovative programs and included children with special needs. 

But it was Nancy’s insight about play that was so inspiring to me.  She mentioned, over and over, the fact that play provides an opportunity for us to learn about the children as much as it does for the children to learn.  And, of course, that knowledge makes us better teachers. 

“You just have to watch and pay attention.  I’ve got macular degeneration so I’ve lost my central vision, but I still watch my grandchildren play and learn with my peripheral vision!” 

Nancy ended up reserving a seat on the plane for me so that we could talk throughout the flight.  When I was ready to leave (she was staying on the plane and flying on to Dallas) I told her how much I enjoyed meeting her and talking with her about our enthusiasm for play.

“What a coincidence,” I said. 

“It may not be a coincidence,” Nancy answered.  “It could be that we just pay closer attention to the things that connect us.” 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

One Difference

At a recent school day concert I was able to observe, right before my eyes, one of the differences between early childhood educators and elementary educators.  Within 50 minutes there were two examples of different approaches that may reveal a great deal about the way that these professionals look at their work with children.

The concert involved preschoolers, kindergarteners and first graders at the school.  All of the children joined in with enthusiasm: clapping, dancing and guessing the silly rhymes that would complete phrases in my songs.  Overall it was a great event and what I am about to describe were small incidents that did not interrupt the concert in any way.  This sort of thing happens many times during the course of a school day. I only noticed all of this because I was facing the teachers and students as I led my concert.

And I have a knack for observation.

About half way through my concert, I noticed that two girls in one of the first grade classes began to chat. Soon, rather than clapping and singing along with me, they were engaged in their own games: poking at each other, giggling, etc. 

This is common, of course.  Young children can be easily distracted.  (Adults can too.  Instead of poking and giggling, adults text.)

I watched this develop over a couple of songs and then noticed a first grade teacher walk over to where these children were seated, scold them a bit, and, after that, return to her chair on the far side of the room.  Almost as soon as the teacher walked away the two young girls were at it again.  The teacher returned after a few more minutes and, once again, scolded the children and pointed towards me, indicating that they should "pay attention." She then walked, again, to her seat on the side of the room.

After another song the children began their poking and giggling again.  When the teacher returned a third time the two girls were brought out in the hallway.  They were gone for a few moments and, when they returned, they were separated.  Each girl had tears in her eyes. For the rest of the concert these two young girls sat in a slump and pouted. And, for them, the singing, clapping and rhyming was over.

There was nothing unusual about this incident in any way.  It is standard practice for elementary school teachers to monitor children's behavior and, when needed, correct it.  In fact, many teachers would say that this type of management is expected of them.

Almost as soon as the first graders were separated, however, near the end of my concert, two boys from one of the preschool classrooms began talking to each other and laughing - even tussling a bit.  They were no longer facing me, but facing each other as though they were unaware that my concert was still in progress.

The preschool teacher, sitting on the floor in close proximity to the children, noticed this right away.  She scooted up a bit and redirected the two boys by demonstrating the movements in the game I was leading.  Almost immediately the two young boys were engaged once again and playfully participating.

There was nothing unusual about this incident either.  It is standard practice for early childhood professionals to redirect young children rather than punish them.  By sitting right near the children and joining in the games, the teacher was able to help these two distracted preschoolers remain engaged. 

The preschoolers missed only a moment of my concert before the teacher helped to keep them involved. After her redirection, they actively participated until my concert was over.  There were no tears.

I want to be clear that both teachers were very professional, in their own way, and doing their jobs as they understand them.

It is likely that most people watching might not have even noticed the preschool teacher's intervention, but would definitely have witnessed the first grade teacher's repeated corrections.  That being said, I can't imagine anyone reading these accounts, as I have described them, would disagree with me that the more effective practice was carried out by the preschool teacher. 

My question is why is there such a difference between the two approaches?  First graders are only, at the most, two years older than preschoolers.  Do these small incidents tell us anything about the different ways that early childhood educators approach their work with young children and the way that elementary educators approach their work......with young children?

Friday, March 23, 2012

How Could You Do That to Beethoven?

She'd had just about enough.

She was one of about 200 people attending a workshop for early childhood teachers that I was leading and she had decided to sit right up front.  That gave me a clear view of her face.  She had a pleasant expression to begin with, but as the morning progressed I was finding myself distracted by her increasingly wrinkled brow. 

I have a feeling that, deep down, my high spirits and general good nature bothered her the most.  But I could watch her eyes roll and her brow really furrow when I sang songs that are some of my favorites to share at workshops - songs in which I set new lyrics to familiar melodies.  If you are acquainted with my music, you know some of the titles. 

"The Tempo Marches On"
"Stick to the Glue"
"Toe Leg Knee"
"The Irrational Anthem"

And, most recently, "Two for Tea" and "Beethoven's Five Finger Play"

At this point we were half way through the day and ready for a lunch break.  Instead of making her way to the sandwich line, she decided to confront me:

"How can you stand up here and do this?"

Even though I had a feeling that I knew what was bothering her, I asked, "Do what?"

"To take a song like the national anthem and put your Toe Leg Knee to it is just wrong!"

I'll admit that I'm a bit of a prankster, so I smiled and corrected her. 

"Oh no.....that's a different song.  Toe Leg Knee is sung to "Do Re Mi." My Irrational Anthem begins with ‘Oh say can you see me slap on my knee’......"

She was perturbed.  "You aren't understanding!  I assumed that this would be a workshop that would help me teach children about music.  Instead this is a workshop filled with games!"

 “……and how could you do that to Beethoven?  How could you take that beautiful music and make a ......a little game out of it?"

She was referring to "Beethoven's Five Finger Play." I explained to her that a composer with a graduate degree from the New England Conservatory of Music had collaborated with me on the piece and that I had performed my game with a number of symphony orchestras around the country.  She would not be persuaded.

"You don't get it!  My point is that YOU DON'T DO ANYTHING! You don’t write the music! You just make up little games!” 

I explained to her that I like to share songs set to familiar melodies so that early childhood educators can return to classrooms and sing the songs right away without the need to purchase any recordings.  I also explained that children can be heard singing these songs on playgrounds and schoolbuses and that we want young children producing music in this way.  

Finally I explained that I thought that she and I did not share the same idea of what defines beauty....or art......and that we would, most likely, never agree. 

She moved on and got a sandwich and I started thinking 2 thoughts:

My first thought:

This person obviously assumed, when she registered for the session, that it would be filled with lessons about how to teach young children about the beauty of music. And something –perhaps her disappointment- is keeping her from hearing the message I am sharing about the beauty of play that can be experienced through music. 

My second thought:

I hope she sits in the back row for the second half of the workshop!

She did.

Young children are not tiny adults.  They learn about music by being actively engaged with it. When young children are actively playing to music they are experiencing the art form in the most meaningful way.

The message that I share at each and every training workshop is that play, itself, is a child’s art.  If we keep our eyes open, we can be as inspired by the creative beauty of children’s play as much as any recognized great work of art.

I’m thankful that there were 199 other people in the room smiling as I shared that message.

If you are not familiar with “Beethoven’s Five Finger Play,” you can hear the music and watch families play my game on this video clip:

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Profound Consequences

Last week I offered a workshop on the value of play to parents involved in the Parent Education Preschool in Roseville, California, one of the many cooperative preschool programs across the country.   At a cooperative preschool, for those not familiar with the structure, parents are actively involved in supporting professional teachers in the classroom and in other duties essential to the school’s operation.   Because there is an expectation that parents are learning, along with the children, about the importance of these early years, cooperative preschools regularly offer parent education programs. 

It was not until I was on the plane, back to Chicago, that I had the idea that would have made the workshop complete.  This post will have to be my chance to finish the lecture.

At one point in the workshop I was explaining the (sometimes) subtle things that parents do, while playing with young children, that development experts have identified as effective teaching practices.  I used the example of playing with a puzzle along with a young preschooler.

It’s quite common for young preschoolers, in their excitement, to choose a puzzle that is too difficult for them to complete on their own.  They see the puzzle and, in haste, dump out all the pieces on the floor.  We all know what happens next. 

The child, on his or her own, is overwhelmed by the number of pieces and doesn’t even know where to begin.  There could be a meltdown or, more likely, an abandoned puzzle left on the floor as the child moves on to something that he or she can do. 

Any caring adult that witnesses this moment does not let the child melt down or move along to the next toy.  But, at the same time, that caring adult does not simply tell the child what to do to complete the puzzle.  It’s a bit more complicated than that.  You can picture the scenario:

As the child is sitting on the floor in front of the puzzle, frustrated and about ready to give up.

Adult:  (sitting next to the child)  “Just pick one piece.  One piece. “ 

The words may be enough to guide the frustrated child to select one piece to work with.  If not, the adult might point or take the child’s hand and caringly help him or her to select a piece. 

Adult:  “Exactly…..start with one piece!” 

The child starts trying to force the piece into the first slot that is encountered in the puzzle.  The piece, of course, doesn’t fit and the child becomes frustrated again.

Adult: “Try another place.….. Try another place.”   

Once again, the words may be enough to guide the child to keep trying different slots with that one puzzle piece, but, if not, the adult might try pointing or leading the child’s hand.

Adult:  “Why don’t you try that place?”

Given the difficulty of the puzzle, the piece is unlikely to slide easily into place.  In that case the child again becomes frustrated as he or she tries to force the piece into the slot.

Adult:  “Turn it a little bit…….Try turning it a little bit.”

Perhaps the verbal cues will help the child successfully place the puzzle piece into the slot.  If not, the adult takes the child’s hand and gently helps turn the puzzle piece, guides it to the correct location, and then releases the child’s hand just as the puzzle piece slips into place.

Adult: “Look!  You did that all by yourself!” 

Any adult who has spent time with a child has been involved in a scenario like this.   Over and over.  But, for me, the best part is still to come.  There isn’t an exact replay of the script.  The adult isn’t simply on automatic pilot for the second piece of the puzzle.  The child will likely be a bit more successful on this try, but still need some help and guidance from the adult. 

In other words, the child is not capable of completing the puzzle on his or her own.  The adult does not simply complete the puzzle for the child, but helps the child –to whatever extent is necessary – to complete the puzzle.  And that degree of help changes from moment to moment. 

In my workshops I always mention that development experts have identified the process I just described as the most effective teaching practice.  I also like to point out that it is a process that adults are naturally inclined to engage in as long as they aren’t distracted by an incoming text or a television show playing in the background.

It’s a simple process, but it takes our proximity and our attention.   

I also like to mention that as the children move along to grade school, they encounter the same teaching techniques.  But, of course, there is not going to be a big wooden puzzle involved.  It’s going to be some sort of math calculation or algebra exercise.  (That’s why students are asked to show their work.  This allows teachers to identify the moment in the process where students need assistance.) 

But only on the plane did it strike me that I missed the biggest point. 

When we engage in this sort of playful interaction we are doing more than teaching our children the tasks before them.  We are helping them learn how to learn from us.  In the playful process described with the puzzle, young children learn important lessons about strategy and perseverance.  That’s obvious to anyone watching. But they also learn how to listen for cues, sometimes subtle, from caring adults. That's a lesson they carry with them throughout their learning years. And, for the good of our species, they learn how to share those cues with the next generation when they become adults themselves. 

It’s a simple process with profound consequences.