One Sunflower

could you elaborate?

on March 17, 2010

Portion of previous blog: I know that it is the pressure for assessing our youngest students that makes my fellow teachers feel it is necessary to teach with a more structured dynamic. I am glad that we are being encouraged to learn how to do these evaluations in a format that looks and feels like child’s play.

Questions by a reader: “Could you elaborate? How exactly is the pressure changing the way your colleagues teach? How are you learning to evaluate students in playful way? Can you give examples?”

This entry is a bit long-winded.  Sorry.  I think that teachers of early childhood are usually in this profession because they love and value the open-ended creativity of play.  But because of pressure to provide real and significant  intervention to families and children at risk that improves the children’s performance in the classroom, these same play-loving teachers have turned to old-fashioned structured teaching styles that aren’t necessarily best practice for young children.  

First a little background – which I think will illustrate the kind of pressure I’m talking about.   Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I used to teach in what I called a fairly open classroom concept.  Everything in the classroom was open for use pretty much all the time.  I had one circle time where I sang songs and read a story and we counted the calendar and talked about the weather.  I had some centers with activities that the children could rotate through – 5 to 6 students doing an activity and then they would move on and another group would come do it.   We played outside and when the weather was nice, we might spend the whole day in the sandbox.  We ate lunch from cute lunch boxes, made lots of big messes and I would report twice a year to their parents about their progress. 

Then in the year 2000, I was hired to work at developmental preschool in a school district alongside a special ed teacher.  Children had tasks in little baskets and they moved from table to table in a very regimented way.  Every basket and every table had a checklist to monitor progress.  It drove me nuts.  Preschool was all about intervention and moving students along a continuum. I had been hired to provide an “integrated approach” and so I pushed a bit against that regimen.   As the class came to include typically developing peers, it became a natural evolution to provide for more social interaction in play settings.  The special ed teacher and I found a happy medium between the two formats – her intervention with structure, tasks and close monitoring; mine with open-ended play and an emphasis on social emotional development.  We learned from each other and found value in each of our styles and beliefs about the possibilities of early childhood education.

That program has continued to evolve into one which is a collaboration between a school district and HeadStart.   There are assessments required by both stake holders.  Our district has had a preacademic skill checklist that has been in use since I first started working here but we are in the process of re-evaluating its use. It gives us a significant amount of data but some of that data is gathered by the HeadStart assessment already.  The district usually seeks to prioritize the HeadStart assessments because they are a major funder of the programming.   This year, because of some literacy grants and work with consultants, we have had other assessments added.  We are evaluating our student work and oral language progress using a rubric developed by David Matteson and his colleague, Deborah Freeman.  This involves using student journals as a curriculum component.  My classroom is piloting David’s early reading assessment as well – but I’m only doing it on 5 students. 

Our district has trimester reporting periods and the data gathered in the assessments is a huge driver for our intervention practices.  If students are found to be below the 60th percentile, the teachers are expected to design and carry out classroom interventions for those kids.  This is where the pressure comes in.

The problem is that most teachers – and I know I’ve been one of them – have often felt that the way to improve a student’s skills is through “teacher talk”.  I think this is mostly due to the fact that it is easiest – to plan and structure.

When I’ve been able to work with a team of teachers – brainstorming and sharing the work together – I’ve had a lot of success creating experiential curriculum where my students are talking and moving, getting messy, thinking and experimenting.  My involvement as a carrier of dialogue, asking probing questions, modeling action and thinking has provided the scaffolding and intervention that brings about the kind of progress I want to see in my students.  But it’s a lot of work and as I said, it is difficult to do alone.

Sometimes programs suffer because a single lead teacher is expected to do all the planning by his/herself.  Aides come in with the kids and leave with the kids and there is little collaboration and sharing of the thinking about and evaluating of the work.  Or, because lead teachers have to do all of the family contacts, data entry, and recording of assessments, aides are given cut and paste projects to put together.

What I am seeing change in our programs is: 1) aides are being trained along side of the lead teachers so that they have the knowledge to plan and carry out substantive curriculum components and scaffold real learning on the floor with the children.  2) curriculum is being carried out in a way that assessment requirements are embedded in the work on a daily basis so a teacher has input about skill development constantly. 

Some examples of assessment being embedded in curriculum and classroom routines:   Because we use shapes and crayons to create our drawings, I find out quickly whether my students know about ovals or yellow.   Another example is our calendar and weather activities.  I only use my calendar to practice counting fluency and number reading.      When so-and-so is standing at the calendar and I give him the pointer and ask him to find the number 1 and begin, I find out what that student knows about numbers.  When the “weather person” has to name the weather and choose an icon to put on our graph, it becomes clear over the course of a few months who understands the use of icons and the reading of graphs.  This week we’ve been learning about different animals.  Each day I gave two students an animal fact card.  They were supposed to look at the picture and talk about the color of the animal and whether they thought it had fur, feathers or scales.  Each pair came up to report to the class their thoughts.  It was easy for me to tell who knew the real names of animals – even though that wasn’t the task – and who remembered that birds have feathers and that the animals that didn’t have fur or feathers probably had scales. 

I think the key for me has been to figure out what it is I really want my students to  learn.  We use an assessment called The Creative Curriculum and it has 50 items listed in all the domains.  I’ve come to know the continuum for each of those 50 things – when I see it and when I don’t.  It has become almost second nature to be looking for those things or creating situations to see those things all through the day, over the course of weeks and months so that I can put a check in the box with certainty for each of my students.  Occasionally I have students that I’m not seeing one of those items happening and I have to pull them aside and do a “checklist” type of activity.  But thankfully that isn’t very often.

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One response to “could you elaborate?

  1. Just getting back to read this entry and I am connecting a lot to what you have written. As a program director, I am always trying to get my teachers to look for ways to assess development as children play instead of pulling them aside for a checklist. When we get to this point, we can better support the case for play!

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