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..


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Catching up - part 2

Here are a few more photos:

Catching up - part 1

Here are a few photos to show you what've have been up to these past few weeks: 

I am back!

Hi everybody! I am sorry for being absent from this blog for so long! I have a lot of catching up to do!

But first things first... I wanted to acknowledge that the picture I have borrowed for my blog is a picture taken by a good friend of mine, Karen, who holds a lovely blog (Little Acorns). Karen works with preschool and kindergarten children and brings a little bit of magic to their world each day. She is very good at wood crafting and has created many faith-like scenes for the children, using felt and wooden peg people. I wish I could do this and add a bit more magic to our small world shelves! If you would like to see a bit more of her work, please read this post and this one too.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Small world play ideas

These activities teach kiddos so much, even though it looks like they’re “just playing”.  The small world play lets children practice their language skills, as well as cooperation with others.  It also lets them use their imaginations a
nd play act what they’ve been learning.  The sensory aspects of this play engage the kids on different levels via their five senses. This allows them to learn and react in a physical manner.
I wrote a little bit before on the value of Small World play (SWP) last August. SWP is imaginative play where children are provided with a small world for them to use as a canvas to transfer their thought, their ideas and their experiences. If you check online, other bloggers have written a lot about the value of SWP (Twodaloo, The Imagination Tree, An Every Day Story) and posted many photographs to illustrate various  SWP. Often you will see that the objects used are open-ended such as wooden boxes, blocks, shells, stones, seeds, sand, fabric etc.. What I like about it is the fact that SWP provide children with a clearly defined private and enclosed space for them to explore the materials alone or with a peer. The children in our classroom are quite young and past experiences with homecorners had proven to be chaotic and disastrous as the children felt "lost" in the corner and ended up messing rather than playing or pretending. What I like even more is the fact that even though it looks like the children are "just playing", SWP teaches them so much. It lets them practice their language skills as well as cooperation with others. The sensory aspect of this play also engages them on so many other level as they smell, touch, and feel, allowing them to react in a physical manner.
At the moment, we have 2 main SWP trays available in our shelves, besides our sensory table ( see our post on our sensory table right here). And let me tell you that the children absolutely LOVE playing with them. They like the fact that they can play on their own and I often observe them as they chat to themselves, completely engrossed in their imaginative play and their creation. It is a very therapeutic play that calms spirits, arouses senses and calls to their creative side.
Here is our Dinosaur World:

This is a great sensory activity too as you can see, thanks to the rough and rugged aspect of the wooden sticks, the feeling of wood shavings 9used for the beddings of the animals or for "pretend" grass/hay", the pebbles smoothness, the sharpness of the shells, the "prickliness" (??) of the pine cone.. It is all working together and the children have already had so much fun with the dinosaurs.

And here is our Farm World:
Again, this tray appeals to the senses of the children. Little fingers  LOVE digging, scooping, and shovelling the orange grit. There are also the softness of the green felt and the bales of hay adding another dimension to the play.  verbal interaction and great imagination the farmer and his wife talk while tending to the animals. And today, there was even drama at the farm as the little pig was sick and they had to call a vet... I improvised and gave the child one of my wooden gnomes to stand as the vet! This is the beauty of SWP: it support the children's creative development as they enjoy and respond to familiar playthings and start to pretend, inventing stories which, sometimes, are based on their own life experiences (the little boy who asked for a vet lives on a farm and obviously reproduced what he has witnessed at home).



As our unit on Winter and related topics is still on going, I have also added the following 2 SWP trays:
Look at our Artic world tray!
I used some flat pieces of polystyrene packaging  and covered a small bowl with a sheet of polystyrene I found in the office, to create an iceberg. It does look realistic especially as I used a layer of bubble wrap at the bottom of our blue tray. It looks like water or ice. I placed silver and blue pearl necklaces too to create a "icy" atmosphere to the lot. And of course, our tray wouldn't be complete without the polar bear, the arctic wolf, the arctic hare and the penguins! I even found some polystyrene eggs and the children can pretend they are either penguin eggs or blocks of ice! I thought about adding real ice cubes but I realised it would destroy the polystyrene items very quickly. We have a tray with ice cubes for the children  to melt or pick at this month on our shelves anyway (following our science experiment with water and freezing temperatures). So they are definitely not missing on the sensorial learning in that department.

And here is our Hibernation tray:

A bear, a hedgehog and a frog.. A wooden cave, a nest with sticks and hay, brown felt for pretend mud.. There is so much more I could add but I am still looking for a bat, a snail and a ladybird that could fit in our tray.

I added a little book I made about hibernation with the picture of animals hibernating in winter (you can see it on the first 2 pictures of the hibernation tray).  This gets the children to think and exchange knowledge among themselves. It always helps them to add details to their stories.
What I loved today was this little girl who pretended the animals were talking to her. We have been reading a new book called " A winter's tale" at circle time. She explained the animals on the tray how she kept warm in winter. What a great re-enactment of our story! I was so proud!
A Warm Winter Tail is a cozy nature book about how animals adapt to winter weather. But it is told from the perspective of baby and mama animals . It's absolutely brilliant to get the children to think about what we, humans, do to keep warm.