One Sunflower

Creature Feature

I was introduced to the book, Big Pumpkin, by a loud-mouthed colleague of mine ten years ago.  She would read the story with a cackling voice for the witch as well as a ghoulish accent for the vampire and high pitched commentary by the bat.  She snapped her fingers before saying “drat” and had the children (and me) in the palm of her hands for the entire story.  Then we would act it out, dragging our class pumpkin across the floor and falling on top of each other.

Since then, it has become a fixture in my October reading box.  But over the years I’ve learned to adjust my storytelling to fit the comprehension level of my mostly non-native English speaking group of students.  I use repetitive phrases instead of funny voices.  I will revisit this story in the spring when we talk about planting seeds and by then they will understand more of the vocabulary in the text.

This year I had another great idea.  Before reading the book, I made photo copies of each character and put them up on our white board in the sequence of how they appear in the book. Because we have been talking about and naming our emotions, I asked each student to identify which character they found the scariest.  This year’s students were much more knowledgeable about ghosts, mummies and vampires than previous classes!

It was a math activity, vocabulary and sequencing lesson reinforced by listening to the story.

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a Copernicus moment

There are all kinds of things we learn growing up that are “paradigm” shifting bits of information.  I can vaguely remember little epiphanies I experienced as a child when some grown-up revealed a truth to me and my world opened up and I was changed.

I chewed on my braids constantly as a child until fourth grade when some crackling film strip revealed all the teeny tiny bugs that live on our hair and eyelashes.  That was it for me, no more hair in my mouth.

I remember the first time I looked at an eclipse with a hole punched in a shoe box lid and saw that little crescent of a shadow; I never looked at the sun and moon in the same way again.

This fall I am teaching an after-school class for 5 precious second graders.  The goal of the class is to ask questions and read to find answers and generate more questions, of course.  Since they aren’t very good readers themselves, I do most of that work.  But they have amazing questions and we’ve learned a lot of cool stuff together.  Our latest research has been about cheetahs, a topic they all agreed they wanted to know more about.

We began by reading about “big cats” in general.  When I shared a page about how the pupil of a cat’s eye expands to let more light in so they can hunt at night, it was one of those Copernicus moments.  I could tell that this revelation was eye opening!

I’m sure they won’t remember when or how they learned this little nugget – I don’t remember when I first learned about eyeballs – but it sure made me feel cool to talk to the children about something so vital.

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step by step by step by step

I’ve said it before – but I’ll say it again – this is the youngest class I’ve had since coming to this school district.  Eleven of my students are 3 years old, leaving only four who are 4 or 5 years old.  I have two students currently not on site.  I started my year revamping everything I do with an eye for a class that is more toddler-like than PreK like.  I reduced the transitions even more and added in a lot of time for the ones we had to keep.  I shortened circle time activities and have worked each week to build skills.  Slowly, slowly, my students have built capacity and I am pleased at what they have learned in a month.

Reinforcing routines consistently and slowly means that my students have learned to take care of themselves and their peers in small ways that mean our day runs smoothly and efficiently.  These very young children have learned to empty a back pack each morning depositing their folder in my basket.  They’ve learned how to help each other up onto stools to wash hands before breakfast and are counting out the number of straws they need for juice and milk while looking at the cart to see if they need a spoon or not.

After breakfast they line up in a train – I know that lines aren’t necessarily developmentally appropriate for 3 year olds but they are figuring it out and we aren’t terribly strict.  We walk through the hall waving at the administration staff and the siblings, cousins and neighbor friends at work in their classrooms.

Brushing teeth at a table without a mirror isn’t an easy thing to do, but seeing a friend doing the same thing across the table helps.  Music on the CD lets them know how long they need to brush and the job of “toothbrush captain,” (the student who comes around with vinegar water to collect the toothbrushes,) is a coveted job each day.

The playground is like a park and has familiar playthings on it while the playshed is an echoing tunnel of cement and brick.  Learning how to take turns with equipment and keep balls from flying out the bay door takes energy and focus. Then we head back to class walking on the striped yellow safety lines, checking out the weather and neighborhood plant life on our way and after putting coats in a cubby, we come to mats for circle time.

Circle time has expanded from 3 minutes of songs, counting and recording weather to 10 minutes that  include a movement activity, story and graph response.  Each week has a new person leading the counting of the calendar and it is pleasing to see how fast these young ones are finding the number “1” and attempting the make their pointer tap along with the words.  Drawing circles on the weather graph is a chance for more fine motor work and always we are singing what we are learning to get this new language into our heads.

The bulk of the day is spent playing around the room and learning how to use unfamiliar materials like tempura paint and water colors, digging and pouring bird seed or water without making a gigantic mess and engaging in games and floor puzzles.  Figuring out how to take off dress up clothes and paint smocks to go to the bathroom or how to crawl on the floor without knocking over train tracks or an amazing block structure are feats the children continue to work on.   Susy and I have no trouble getting students to come work in their journal each day and although we are having to practice different skills in this journal work (a blog entry for another day,) the kids love to look at and practice this work.

Responding to the student whose job it is to ring the chimes by starting to clean up was a challenge that took about a week. They have finally narrowed the work of cleaning from 10 minutes to 5.  Thank goodness I have a few older students in the class who have learned to encourage and mentor their younger peers in this task.

The students have also learned the routines of our last circle together.  They look forward to my picture story writing and love to have a turn being a “story-teller,” coming up to retell what they see in my picture.  Some of them can only point at what they see while I give them the words, a few of them talk about their favorite parts of the story or mimic my tone of voice about my story focus.  Each day we have a different way to respond to my story.  Sometimes they are just practicing drawing people with heads and bodies, sometimes they have tracing activities to practice holding crayons and making marks with intention.  The students love white board days and eagerly bring their board to me so I can display it for the week.

When their work is done, they have learned that it is book time and head to our library corner to read.  The days are flying by and I can’t believe the students that came to me a month ago and doing all of this now.

But the time is coming to change up their table seating assignments…ah! I’m sure they’ll be able to handle it – but we might have a wobbly week when I do it.

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