Friday, October 3, 2014

It's circle time!

Circle has been part of our routine ever since we opened up. This is a very special moment for the children and its a time for them when they can express themselves, learn, express their feelings and ideas and gain confidence as they do so. It's  during circle time that children are introduced to various concepts/topics and to the world around them. The simple fact of behaving appropriately in a group is a learned skill preparing pre-schoolers for more formal education.
There is no set way to "hold" a circle time. Every teacher would run it differently. But I am sure everybody follows a certain routine during their circle time. Children would know what comes first (for example the weather song and the days of the week). Obviously, circle time need to be flexible and as a teacher, I need to be responsive to the needs and interests of the children. I may start talking about the weather but should a child start talking about what he did at the week end, I follow the rhythm and let the children jump in and share their own experiences.
Circle time also must involve the children. It has to be interactive . In the picture below, we asked the children to go and retrieve red items around the classroom and to bring them to the mat, placing them directly onto the red page. This hand on experience reinforce their colour recognition. When children are  physically touching and manipulating items, it helps to further their understanding of a concept or a topic.

During circle time, I like to provide the children with objects they can touch, thus creating a visual experience. It could be a prop to a song or a picture for them to put up on our magnetic board. For instance, this year, I have changed the place where we hold out circle time. It used to be in a corner and I had a big magnetic board nailed to the wall. As I have added more corners to our classroom this year, I had to find a different place. But where? I couldn't push the walls or even add another one. So I bought a blue mat for €2 at a car boot sale and this is where we now sit down, beside the painting area. I bought a smaller magnetic board and attached it to  a cork notice board with hinges. I then nailed the board to our sink cupboards and voila!. When circle time is over, I closed the board. It doesn't take any room at all. I place the little white painting table we use for painting back in its place right against the board. It's not in the way at all!

When we sing our weather song, the children are asked to describe the weather today. When they give me the right answer, they can come up to the board and place the picture representing the weather. We do the same with our description of clothes. Describing clothes help the children notice the changes in the weather and the passing of time as seasons change.  I also get the children to touch items we have brought up to the mat to introduce a topic. I often have boxes or bags filled in with objects related to the theme or topic in question. This week for instance, Tanya brought lots of leaves, dying flowers, and sycamore seeds from her garden and placed them into a bag. I added acorns, conkers, apples, straw and carrots. The children were very intrigued. We started explaining the concept of season and got them to notice the changes happening outside: some vegetables and fruit are being "harvested", while leaves are changing colours and falling from the trees. The colours in our garden are changing. As we talked a bit more about what is being harvested, I showed the children what was left after the wheat had been cut by farmers. The children got to hold the straw and listen to the sound it makes when crushed. It feels dry and crispy in our hands. So do the leaves. When the children rubbed the leaves in their hands, it made a  rustling noise. Some said it felt prickly. By touching all these items, the children will remember better!

Throughout my circle time experiences, I make sure to integrate time for music and singing. I rely on lots of music and action songs which means I have spent a lot of time learning songs and action rhymes that I can whip out anytime I need them.  Some songs may fit along with a book I am reading or a topic we are exploring and some of them may just be something the children love (our favourite one at the moment is "Rolly Polly"). I don't have any picture to show right now, but I like to use props  when we sing with the children. I get pictures representing the song/nursery rhyme in question, laminate them, then stick them up onto a lollipop stick. Children adore using them and it's also a great way to get them to participate.

Though children are allowed to move and do the actions for these songs, I find it important to teach the children how to concentrate and sit as still as possible throughout circle time. For years, the children used to sit on the mat provided. Then we used cushions to define their space on the mat. staying still for 10 to 15 minutes can be very challenging for some and they would be laying down, rolling, wiggling and thus kicking others in the process. So this year, we tried Tanya's method and we now get the children to carry a chair to the blue mat and sit down. I have to admit that it works wonders. I find the children focus better and wriggle a lot less.
We do have a separate "story time" in the library corner.

Yet, reading story or looking at picture books at circle time would be part of our circle time experience. I spend a lot of time choosing the books very carefully, taking into consideration the age of the group. books must be engaging and I like to use them to as a  bridge to other learnings in our classroom.

If you have any tips for circle time, please leave a comment to share with everybody. Thank you.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Learning about work ethics and cooperation

The last 2 weeks have been very busy and of course, as we have many newcomers, we have to help the children settle down into a routine, learn the rules and get used to their environment. I love to read The Little Red Hen at the beginning of preschool each September.
You will find that fairy tales and nursery rhymes carry all the major facets of any early year curriculum. They also help to introduce various topics or themes and in this particular case, this is what we have been learning together through the tale:
1. We learnt about cooperation and work ethics. I extended the learning by showing how to clean hands, dry hands, using the toilets, sweeping the floor, dusting, watering the plants, tidying up etc.. The Little Red Hen tale gets the children talking about how they can help their Mam at home or how they can help each other in the classroom.
2. At circle time, I ask the children whether they live in the countryside like the little red hen or in a village/town? Do they live in a house or on a farm? This fits in with our "All About Me" topic. Children love to get a chance to talk about themselves and it encourages confidence and builds up their sense of belonging.
3- Science: I like to get the children to think about the difference between real hens and "pretend" hens? What can a real do? Can it talk or bake? Does it wear clothes? etc..
4- Pretend play and role play: using salt dough, the children created pizzas, rolls, breads, hot dogs, cookies to be used in our kitchen area. They have become a permanent feature on the kitchen shelves and the children use them a lot when playing and acting in the homecorner. This really tied in with sensorial learning as well as the children had to feel the dough and work it hard to obtain the shape they wanted to create! I have to say our classroom smelt like a baker shop for a few days afterwards!!

5- Art & Craft: the children also created a little ornament with the salt dough and various seeds or them to bring home and hang in their own kitchen!


For more activities based on the Little red Hen tale, please have a look at my post written last September 2013.

New beginnings...

God, it has been so long since I last posted on this blog! But here I am, and I promise there will be much more regular updates from now on. Things have changed a little bit in preschool. My partner in crime for the past 7 years decided it was time for her to seek new adventures. I was very sad to see her go.. I was quite upset to be honest as we had been working so well together for so long. She was there at the very beginning when I opened the preschool and we made it work together! She could read me like a book and she was also a very close friend! But I shouldn't have feared! Tanya came along this September and I am blessed to be working once again with a very good friend of mine. What can I say?Tanya was born to work with young children. She is so patient, so caring and completely dedicated to them. She is a real gem!
What else? Well, those who follow the blog regularly since the start, would know that I like to move things around and that I love change and variety. I took this year as a new beginning and as many of our "newcomers" were a bit younger than last year group, I re-shaped the classroom to add a little kitchen/restaurant corner. I didn't want to buy one of these plastic kitchen you find in any toy store. I actually hate them. The idea behind a home corner is to encourage communication, language, cooperation, and imagination. Plastic doesn't leave much for the imagination, if you ask me. Following the Reggio Emilia guidelines, I was looking for open-ended materials (wood bowls/plates, pine cones, corks etc..) and for real kitchen tools. I used old wooden wine crate to create a little space on a simple classroom table covered with a cute table clothe. A few plants here and there. And voila! I will keep adding items in the corner along the way.
Have a look for yourself!
As you come in, on your right hand side, the painting corner, the science are, and the jigsaw unit.

In the back, you can see our practical life exercises shelving unit beside the Sensorial materials. The blue little table in the centre is our sensory bin!

As you come in, this is what you have on your left. The Montessori insets and the numeracy & literacy shelves. Our library is by the double door, with a green mat. I am hoping to get a wooden easel soon and I will place it right before the library. It should be a nice addition to the class to encourage children to write.

And there is our little kitchen behind the library.

I have also added a little corner just for a farm.

Construction corner with our doll house. A lot goes on here..


Monday, June 9, 2014

Pebbles for numeracy and literacy

This year, I have tried to follow the Reggio Emilia principles  to enhance my children's learning . Now, there is no text book as you know and it is sometimes hard to figure out which way is the best. However, from what I have learnt so far, I understand that the materials I use are extremely important. This year, I have tried to select very carefully each materials I use for their potential to enhance learning and discovery. According to the Reggio approach, materials
must be picked for their aesthetic qualities. And this is why I love using open-ended and natural materials.  With natural materials, you make learning active and fun, turning a whole activity into a positive experience.
In the example blow, a little boy decided he wanted to use the pebbles to draw pictures on our mat in the block area. I expected lines and curves.. Yet, I got a full pebble man. The little boy was very careful to details and of course, his achievement was then copied by several others! This was a great pre-writing exercise!

Another day, 3 little boys playing in the block area decided to build their houses and to make roads linking them to each other. Cute, indeed, but that's not all!! This is not just an exercise here using imagination. There was a lot of discussion involved: my road is longer than yours, I need more pebbles to finish mine etc.. The concept of more/less had to be used as well as comparison. When you observe the children and their play, you realise how much learning is at stake in a simple fun imaginative activity such as this one. This exercise required a lot of problem solving too. One little boy in particular ran out of pebbles. he asked for the others to share with him (which they did) but had to redo his road and get a "short cut" as he explained!

Here, a little girl had started working with the Montessori rods. She decided that it was not enough for her and went to get the basket of pebbles from the block area. She then placed a pebble on top of each unit on the rod, counting loud. And that's what I really love.. a mixture of Montessori and Reggio Emilia. Strict Montessorians might be pulling their hair right now if they can read this post, because I let the child use her own initiative and construct her own learning. Montessorian teachers would remind me that of the more traditional way to present and use this material. I find this too rigid. I like to direct children but why becoming an hindrance ? Why should I put obstacles in the child's way when what she is doing obviously work for her?  Flexibility is a key word in my setting and I like to be progressive. I strongly believe the way this little girl used the materials work for her better.

Wasting our time and our enthusisam...

Right.. I guess this post is going to be another one of my rants!
Last April, I started a course entitled "Literacy and Numeracy in early years".. I didn't need the qualification to meet the new qualifications requirements. I just did it to maybe improve my teaching methods and for the benefits of the children in my care.

I don't know if you are aware but for the past year in Ireland, the early years sector has been in turmoil since bad practices in big crèches were televised. This created a huge debate on the need for further qualifications for all workers in the sector. Needless to say that the media made it look really bad, generalising the poor professional practice of certain crèches to all childcare practices. This is not a fair picture and definitely not the reality. One of the main argument is the lack of qualifications for may childcare workers.

Anyhow, the course I took was organised through an organisation working to promote Adult Literacy. I don't know the course ended up being offered to early childhood practitioners. There are a lot of politics at play here. And I am sure it started as a good idea. I was very excited about the module and couldn't wait to start. There were limited amount of places and I had advocated my case to make sure I could get in.

What a disappointment it was!! What a waste of my time!! The course lasted 42 hours altogether. I reckon about 24 hours would have sufficed to go through everything the organisers had planned. We wasted hours playing games to get to know each other, hours reading hands out during the session (while this should have been done in own time at home). By the way, we were handed 3 photocopied hand outs and there was no further reading recommended. The whole course was based on the 3 learning theories: maturation theory, behaviourism theory and constructivism theory. We were asked to see how they applied in our environment and what we could do to enhance literacy and numeracy through these theories within our setting. We had  2 lesson plans to organise and 1 collage and rationale in terms of our own journey as a learner. That was it!! I simply couldn't believe it.  As I left the course, I reflected on what I had learnt. What did the course bring me? The answer is simple: NOTHING! And many of my colleagues felt exactly the same way, though some of them couldn't say it out loud as they needed the module to reach the new requirements of qualification. Many felt they came to the course just to tick another box on their list. Where is the quality here? The Board which organised the course boasts about Quality Standards. What quality I ask again? The course lacked substance and definitely didn't bring any quality back into the sector.

When I committed to this course, I expected to receive an in-depth training that would provide me and my colleagues with the latest research-based information on how to teach children fundamental literacy and numeracy skills. We were not offered any guidance at all. I expected the course to help us develop skills, strategies and thinking processes to help children become successful pre-readers, listeners, speakers and pre-writers. We were offered no access to research based, balanced frameworks and there were no concrete illustrations of how all the elements of effective literacy/numeracy development could be incorporated and developed into effective plans. The focus remained on the environment. There was no recommended further readings for any aspect of the course. I expected to be given various examples of best practice with links to a wealth of online resources, websites and literacy programmes. We were provided with a couple of photocopied chapters by the tutor, which we had to spend reading in class for nearly an hour.  The course completely failed to offer a thorough overview of key cognitive strategies children need to acquire in order for them to become more proficient in numeracy and literacy within ECCE settings. Our tutor was not even an expert literacy practitioner for early years and her lack of knowledge in the field failed to provide all of us with an on going guide and resource. She was completely unaware of the different methodologies used across the globe to develop literacy and numeracy, limiting the learning process and reflective journey of all participants in the course. For example, she had no knowledge of how counting, pre-writing and pre-reading skills are being taught in settings using the Montessori, High Scope, Reggio Emilia or Head Start approaches. Furthermore, the course did not provide any guidance or learning on how to support literacy and numeracy learning outcomes across the developmental stages of children within the ECCE sector. This is another huge let down. Nor did the course tackle obstacles to the promotion of literacy and numeracy such as learning disabilities (dyslexia and dyscalculia), developmental disorders, the dynamics of poverty and disadvantaged areas etc.. It barely brushed the topics of parental involvement and assessment tools. The course has been very unsatisfactory and lacked substance.
The delivery of the course itself has also been extremely disappointing due to its lack of organisation and its lack of guidance. The method used by our tutor was very poor, while the attitude of our tutor was questionable. On one occasion, she had one of my colleagues in tears. She was very patronizing and we were treated like children. She was extremely disorganised and didn’t seem to master the ins and outs of the module. For instance, we were asked to provide hand-made resources less than a week before we were due to hand in our assignments!!!!! Participants had been led to believe until then that photographs of the resources were sufficient. Many of my colleagues based their lesson plans on proper Montessori materials belonging to the settings. They were told the materials had to go in with their portfolio. As the material was used daily in the classroom and belonged to the setting, they had to go and make up a similar equipment from scratch, 7-9 days before the due date! The tutor had been talking with them for weeks and never ever mentioned that the material had to be taken away too!! Needless to say that some of my colleagues were under extreme pressure at the very end, due to no fault of theirs! This is unacceptable. The contents of the course could have been taught within 3 session at the most, the rest of the sessions being completely redundant.
I have written to the organisers of the course to let them know how I feel. I asked them to  revise the contents of the course or to lower the level of the course. As it is, it is not worth a FETAC level 6. I also reminded them that we need courses which will bring quality and value back into the childcare sector. Courses should not be run just to hand out qualifications. Qualifications are needed but they need substance and quality and need to be tailored exclusively around childcare with input from experts in the sector..