One Sunflower

teaching the classics

Two years ago I presented a session to early childhood teachers about supporting literacy in second language learners.  A key piece of my presentation was focused on what I believe is an important responsibility of mine: to familiarize my students and their families with fairy tales, fables, classic tales and nursery rhymes.   It is especially important for my ELL students because their families may not be familiar with these stories that have become such an important part of what we call “American culture.”  My students will encounter references to “the big bad wolf” and “slow and steady wins the race”  for the rest of their lives and I want them to be able to identify those references and make the connections.  Besides, there is a reason why they are “favorites,” children love them.

At mid year I begin using nursery rhymes instead of songs to gather the students at circle time.  I find I have more success with them if I begin later in the year.  I think my ELL students need their ears “warmed up” to hear the rhythm and rhyme.  I begin with nursery rhymes that have stories that make sense – in other words, I begin with Jack and Jill and Humpty Dumpty, not Old King Cole.  This year I’m drawing the stories out as another way to demonstrate drawing people, scenery, etc.   The kids are begging for them, which is fun!

The past few weeks have been spent exploring versions of The Three Little Pigs and learning some real facts about pigs.  We’ve been drawing houses and pigs,  and building houses with blocks, legos, dominoes.  It has been a great way to cycle back through techniques for drawing and making houses, something my older students achieved 4 months ago but my 3-4 year olds need to practice.  I also shared a book about The Three Little Wolves and The Big Bad Pig.  The kids enjoyed the contrast – my boys especially love the picture where the big, bad, pig blows up the wolves’ concrete house with dynamite.

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This is the time of year that raspberry vines are bundled.  I pass the workers in the field at sun-up wearing leather gloves, their clippers and ties ready.  When I’m coming home, the tangled vines I passed in the morning have been tamed into trim hoops, neat arches stretching to the horizon. 

I’m feeling a bit like those field hands.  The thorny and wild work of my classroom needs pruning.  I’ve been delaying putting on my gloves; I haven’t been sure of where to focus my clippers.  But the time has come and I’m heading out into the brambles.

The last few days of trainings with David Matteson have helped me figure out where to start.  Yesterday was our monthly professional development session with our HeadStart partners.  We reviewed the work of the past month when we practiced using a rubric to score our student work, specifically the story elements that our children are putting in their drawings.  Do they have people?  Have they identified a setting?  Are there details that indicate emotion or an event?  Are any of them beginning to write below the line – if so, are they using their letter/sound knowledge?  We began to look at the oral language side of the rubric.  Are the students making one or two-word comments about their pictures or complete sentences?  Can they come back at a later time and repeat their stories?  Do their stories have beginnings and endings?

I have been doing this work now for a year while most of my HeadStart colleagues have only been exploring journal work since September.   Yesterday was the first time I felt the learning really take hold for everyone.  Personally, I got more out of my dialogue with the teachers sitting at my table then I did from David’s presentation.  Sharing my work helps me identify key understandings. 

My processing continued today as the K and preK teachers in our district met with David and focused on new directions we want to take in this work.  I came away with a tighter understanding of how to support individual students in their writing and how to document this work in their journals. 

Our journal work is my raspberry field.  I want to direct my interactions with my students in a way that energizes their thinking.   I’m entering a territory of tangled stories – determined to clip, tie and tame the wildness.  I’m thinkin’ hoops, baby, rows and rows of tidy hoops.

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Dear Superintendent,


Thanks for inviting me to be a part of the task force today.  I noticed many of the teachers in the room have been a part of leadership teams in the past but there were some new faces. I was also pleased that a member of the school board sat with us for part of the day.

You called this meeting to revisit our current teacher standards; your reasons were compelling given the present climate calling for improved practice among teachers.  It was heartening to hear you say this work is important regardless of whether there is money attached to it or not.  Many of us in the room found it satisfying to review comparable documents today and find that our current set of standards is pretty good and won’t need much tweaking. But having them in place is only half of the process.  As one teacher put it, they are only words on paper if there aren’t protocols and systems to use them as benchmarks for teacher performance.

I get the feeling the principals in our district squirmed when you questioned them in December about their own levels of performance as instructional leaders. I also know this group of principals is an especially responsive group of administrators and they have been ramping up their efforts to improve teacher practice and help us truly evaluate our work and intervention strategies. 

Good role models won’t be enough in this work but I think they are a great start.  Kudos to you for your bugle call, your transparency, your consistent hammering that our core beliefs be at the center of our work.

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