Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Animals and Winter

We are currently  talking about winter animals in our classroom and I introduced a few new exercises.

First, I added a tray on our literacy: drawing a penguin. I made up a little booklet showing the children how to draw a penguin from scratch. Every time they turn a page, they add to their sketching until they have a cute little penguin looking at them!

The children have also practiced their writing ( I got the sheet from KidsSoup). First they had to trace around the outline of the penguin. once they were done, they coloured it.

And finally, they cut out the template. I then used cello tape to stick a wooden lollipop stick at the back of it to create a little puppet. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture of the end result. But you get my drift. And believe me, kids got so excited with their puppets... They made up stories about lost penguins on an iceberg.. Look out, here is a killer whale. It was fantastic to see all the facts they have learned about Antartica taking life in the classroom!! (By the way, I will post about our study on Antartica! I just haven't got around it yet. But as you guess, penguins would be a huge part of our continent study. Themes overlap quite often and this is just an example).

  (TUNE:  Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star)
Penguins, penguins having fun
Waddling in the winter sun.
Waddling fast and waddling slow,
Waddling to and waddling fro.
Penguins, penguins having fun
Waddling in the winter sun.

What else?
We  have added  an animal tracks game (I downloaded i from Montessori for Everyone.  I introduced this work at group time and showed the children each animal and its track in the snow or in the mud .  I colour coded the picures with stickers placed on the back of the tracks and the animals. Control of error is a key startegy in all of Montessori materials and it was important to le the children work on their own, once I had shown them how to work the cards.

And we have made our bird feeder too!! What a husstle and bustle around this activity this morning! This is the 3rd year I am making bird feeders and this is always such enjoyment. We have talking about birds and what happened to them during winter. I have left some old binoculars on the shelves for the children to observe our garden birds as they fed on the nuts I regularly put outside. They have learnt the names of  Blue Tits, Great Tits, Tree Sparrow, Robin, House Sparrow.  So this was a nice conclusion to our study.

So here is how we made our bird feeders: first, I collected as many as I could and had them drying and opening up on my stove.

Next, I gathered pine cones, string, peanut butter and bird seeds. I poured all the seeds in a huge bowl, tied the string around each pine cone and helped the children to cover their cone up with peant butter (before you do so, you need to make sure none of your children have nut allergy. Thank god, this has never happen yet in our classroom. If you cannot use peanut butter, use lard.). Have the children roll te pine cones in the seeds and pat the seeds properly. This is a great sensorial activity: the feel of the seeds between their fingers is quite an experience and many of them were giggling as they plunged both hands in the bowl!! Just check the photos I took last year right here.

That's it for today! See you soon!

Monday, January 30, 2012

My rant on the Anti-bias Approach !!!

When I wrote my post on the Anti-bias approach and the continent boxes, I never realised I was going to open up such an interesting debate. Karen, Fiona and My Boy’s Teacher have helped me walk through my journey of multiculturalism awareness and I thank them so much for that. It prompted me to think a bit more. I asked myself if children are actually aware of racism? Aware of differences?  Louise D.Sparks believes that they are. I wouldn’t be so sure here in Ireland. And this is where my teacher probably turns into a blind ideologue as My Boy’s Teacher mentioned in her comment. You have to be realistic, objective and true to what is actually going on at your own doorstep. Ireland’s ethnical and cultural diversity is far from being as profuse and extended as in the USA, where the Anti-bias approach comes from. Yes, we have welcomed thousands of Eastern European immigrants to Ireland for the past 15 years and the number of asylum seekers has considerably and steadily risen too according to Irish statistics. However, the differences my teacher or Louise Sparks are talking about are definitely not as noticeable as they make it. If children notice a child with a different coloured skin, a different language or with a disability, I don’t believe they would actually be aware of racism or behave in any racist way. Maybe I am na├»ve. But this is what I can observe in my classroom. If children are much aware of racial differences, they do not act upon it. Not at their age. They ask why the little boy is black or why he is in a wheel chair, get an answer (hopefully an answer that is completely anti-bias!!) and move on. The child will not ponder on it. The difference will be accepted as normal and acceptable if explainedproperly. However, I do agree with Louise D.Sparks that avoiding talking about differences will not turn the child into a non-prejudiced human being! The problem is that children learn the prevailing social attitudes toward these differences whether or not they are in direct contact with people different from themselves. And they learn these attitudes from us.
So, as a childcare practitioner (and a Mam of 4), what do I do? Yes, I know.. I can hear my teacher.. Follow the goals of the anti-bias approach and apply them in my curriculum. I understand that. I appreciate that and I think I have already done a good job. Yet, as many of you have said, we are dealing with children of 2 to 4.5 years of age here. Well, in my classroom at least. As My Boy’s Teacher simply said “a three year old engaged in critical thinking about social justice? Really? Does that sync with what we know about how a 3 year old thinks?”. Let’s go back to theory. Piaget believed that children build intuitive concepts from immediate hand-on experiences, allowing them to develop more complex and logical thoughts. Yes, children see differences. And the answers they get when they ask questions about these differences are extremely important. A three- to five-year-old in Piaget’s pre-operational stage will be mainly interested in observable differences: physical differences and cultural ones (the way we dress, the way we talk, the way we eat). Hence the importance of our continent boxes in our classroom as a constant reference to other cultures. These boxes can revisited all through the year, whenever we want to. OK. So, children observe. But their experiences are very limited and when they are confronted to something they don’t recognise or something new, their first reaction is to use a past experience or memory to explain it. Piaget called the children “egocentric”. I can give you one example: last week, a little girl came back to school after a 10 days absence. She had been quite sick and had spent 3 days in hospital. She had been treated by a black doctor in Wexford Hospital. A few days later, as she was going to Penney’s, she spotted the security guard at the entrance of the shop. He was black.  Her father told me that she pointed straight at him and said to her father: “look, here is my doctor!”.  
Their second reaction when confronted to something new is to “classify”. Just like that little girl did. In Montessori, classification is a very important skill we work on in the classroom because  classifying helps children to get information about the world around them, as well as to develop their thinking and reasoning. Classifying can start as early as toddlerhood, when a child might put items together by attributes. Children love putting together objects they think are alike and this help them to closely observe and organize according to specific characteristics. Anyway, I am starting to rant here. All this to say that children ask questions or make comments which reflect the way they classify in their heads. How can you look different and still be in the same group? An example comes to my mind: we have a little girl in our classroom born in Ireland but whose parents are both non-nationals. We had been talking about languages and I mentioned her parents spoke a different language just like I do or just like Bibi (our substitute teache) do too. A few days later, a boy asked her:
-          “ you are not Irish?”
-          “yeh…”
-          “but your mam speaks different”
-          “but I am Irish..”
-          “well, not really..”
Of course, I stepped in and used this incident as a teachable moment and explained that the little girl was born in Ireland and that you could be Irish and speak 2 or 3 different languages.

My point here is that most of the time, here, in a preschool setting (2 to 5 year olds), in rural Ireland, children’ s developmental stages have to be taken into consideration before jumping into the conclusion that they are having a racist attitude (derived from what their parents said, what they have seen on tv or from any stereotypes they might have encountered).  Though becoming aware of the impact we, adults, can have of these malleable and absorbing little minds is important to put things into perspective and realize that theories and approaches created in America do not apply word for word to every situation here in Ireland. My teacher is doing her job by opening up our mind and opening discussions among childcare providers. However, she should not be narrow minded, especially when she herself has no experience in childcare. She has worked as a social worker and has been trained in equality and diversity . She has mainly worked with Irish travellers. The ABA arose from an deep-rooted American societal and cultural issue; America is  a big “melting pot” and is a nation originally created by several other nations. Ireland ‘s diversity is much more tamed. In community groups where traveller children are sent, it is important to respect their culture and ways of life and explain it to the other children (though from what I gather from colleagues, most traveller family do not want to singled out and would rather blend in). Though there is a very small percentage of ethnical or cultural diversity, the differences in our rural society are much more socially and economically embedded. And preschoolers would not be as aware of that type of differences. So at that stage, my role is to open up my preschoolers’s horizons, prompt them to ask questions and give them the “right” answers…. OK.. What a rant!!! My apologies for such a lengthy post but it has helped me putting my thoughts in order…

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Are our continent boxes tokenistic?

Last September 2011, I started a course on Diversity and Equality in childcare practices. The core of the course is based on Louise Derman-Sparks’s Anti-bias Approach. The Anti Bias Approach is focused on what educators and carers can do to work against discrimination. In effect the Anti Bias Approach is saying that by teaching from a social justice perspective that respects and includes all cultures, children’s learning will be more meaningful. For those who might not have heard of Anti Bias Approaches, a short history follows.

The Anti Bias Curriculum (1989) began in the United States from a group of activist educators who were “dissatisfied with current curriculum for helping children learn about diversity” (Derman-Sparks,1989).

Louise Derman-Sparks

So, the curriculum occurred in a political and historical context influenced by the USA civil rights movement and the feminist movements in the 1960’s. In other parts of the world similar work also emerged because children’s services staff recognised the importance of dealing with issues of multiculturalism and antidiscrimination in their daily work. This international work grew out of policy changes, human rights movements and activists who were determined to make a difference in the lives of children and families.

The main principles of this way of working with children include:
• construct a knowledgeable, confident self identity (for children to be confident about who they are)
• develop comfortable, empathetic and just interaction with diversity (for children to be accepting of difference)
• develop critical thinking (for children to be critical about injustice)
• and the skills for standing up for oneself and others in the face of injustice (for children to act upon injustice)

Some of you might talk about multiculturalism instead of Anti-bias Approach. It is important to distinguish between both approaches because both ideas play different roles in children’s services and society, but both are equally important. In some ways, Multiculturalism is seen by many as a way of ‘including all cultures’ or ‘celebrating culture’ which gives the impression that all cultures are equally valued in society, but of course they are not. Unfortunately, it is often shaped around Government policy that has the power to allocate resources to institutions. An Anti Bias Approach, on the other hand, has been created specifically in the context of children’s services. This is an approach that is embedded in each service and can be adapted to each method of education, each philosophy, whether you are using A Montessori, Steiner or High Scope way of teaching. This  AB approach sets out to recognise the existing bias, discrimination and injustice that many people experience on a daily basis.

One of the great risks to meaningful work around multiculturalism and anti bias work is ‘The Tourist Approach’. Louise Derman-Sparks (1989) discusses the dangers of visiting a culture “for the day” in order to learn about difference, instead of meaningfully sharing cultural experiences, stories and ideas. Vajda in The Anti-Bias Approach in Early Childhood (2001, 31) shows the problems of a ‘Tourist Approach’:

A ‘tourist’ approach to an anti-bias, multicultural curriculum is better than denying the ethnic and racial multicultural nature of (…) society, but it can itself be limiting and even in some cases destructive. It forgets that culture, race, ethnicity and family influence children every day of their lives, not just on one special day of the year. A tourist approach is more likely to encourage stereotypes than to dispel them.
(emphasis added)

So, the challenge for children’s services staff is to seek ways to avoid tokenism and the ‘tourist approach’ and instead share meaningful experiences. In a Montessori environment, a Directress would present the children with the Common Needs of People (sometimes referred to as the Fundamental Needs of Humans). This series of lessons is meant to show students that throughout history, humans have demonstrated the same common needs:food, shelter, clothing, surviving, communication, etc… Maria Montessori believed it was important to study what humans have in common to instill in the child a greater sense of belonging to the universe. In a Montessori classroom, through the curriculum, children learn about similaritites and differences of different people around the world, building a connection and creating a great sense of belonging.   The Montessori curriculum strives to create a connection between home and school environment. And shows the children that it is okay to be different, along with the need to respect the differences of others.
The first thing I usually do at the beginning of the year is to get to know the families I welcome in my setting. I asked parents to fill in a few forms asking for the child’s birthplace, the family members and names, the languages spoken at home, their religion and special customs or traditions, the traditional cultural items/food they could share with the other kids etc…
I thought about displaying the information I will gather next year using a large world map in our Montessori classroom as a wonderful visual reminder to the plreschool community that we are all a celebration of cultural differences and similarities. This would be a great way too to involve families even more throughout the year as you study the different cultures around the world.
We also have our Montessori geography curriculum which goes on throughout the year. And one thing I started doing last year, shortly after creating my blog, was to put together “Continental Boxes”. Many of my blogger friends around the world (homeschoolers or preschool teachers) led the way and inspired me to do the same. You can study each continent for a week or a month, depending on how many materials you have and how in-depth you want to take the study. You can check a few of the boxes I have made by linking to my categories on the right hand side of the blog.

This is the contents from The African continent box - Counting Coconuts Blog
Back to my course… I will spare you my whole frustration with this course. My assistant Rachel and I have been studying together and we find the teacher quite narrow-minded and her teaching excessively repetitive. Anyway! When she asked some of us what we have set up in our classroom that would complement the goals of the Anti-bias approach, I mentioned my work on the continent boxes. I explain what they were for, how we use them etc.. Her reaction left me speechless. Apparently, these continent boxes are just what she calls “tokenism”. I looked up on the internet to make sure I got the correct meaning of the word:
1. The policy of making only a perfunctory effort or symbolic gesture toward the accomplishment of a goal, such as racial integration.
2. The practice of hiring or appointing a token number of people from underrepresented groups in order to deflect criticism or comply with affirmative action rules: "Tokenism does not change stereotypes of social systems but works to preserve them, since it dulls the revolutionary impulse" (Mary Daly).

OK. Not what our continent boxes are at all. I have obviously given her the wrong picture and I am definitely going to bring one or two of them with me to the next class to make sure she understands how efficient these boxes can be when trying to open up horizons. I know some clogs from Holland or beret from France might look very tokenistic and might present information about each group much like a tourist would experience it when visiting another country. These could be seen as stereotypes such : “all Latinos dance and eat tacos, all African Americans are athletic and eat collard greens, and all Native
Americans wear headdresses and do war dances, etc”. But the continent boxes are so much more. Continent boxes traditionally contain information, photographs, and objects related to the study of a particular continent. In a complete study of the world, you’ll end up with seven continent boxes. You can have pictures and/or postcards of the flags (though my teacher reckons flags are also very tokenistic!!!), people, places, animals, plants, and culture of each continent. There could be specific categories in each box such as the food, artwork, or musical instruments of a particular continent. We all add objects we find to represent the continent such as plastic animals and plants, real money and stamps, souvenirs, miniature dolls in costume, etc… Is this tokenism? What do you think? Is she right? Am I wrong? Am I the one who is narrow-minded? Am I kidding myself?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Learning colours

Last year I made up a nice little matching game for the younger children (2-3 years old)  in our classroom. I had put it away at the beginning of Septermber and only thought about it after Xmas. It is now sitting on our sensorial shelves and to my surprise, even the bigger children (3-5 years old) love using it. Obviously they would know all the colours by now but they love talking about each picture they pick. SO it turned out to be a great language activity too. I cannot remember exactly where I saw the idea. I know I adapted it for our own purposes.

The game is composed of laminated colour coded bottle with a little pocket in front of each to slide corresponding pictures into. There is one for brown, purple, red, yellow etc.. And then there are a wide range of random laminated pictures in blue, black, pink etc... The child has to pick a picture and fit it into the right bottle. Quiet simple but very effective when teaching colour matching with the little ones. It is just an extension of the Montessori colour tablets.  At the beginning, the child might not even know the names of each colour but learns how to match all the red pictures together, all the yellow ones together etc... Then we move on to naming each colour as we match them.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

January Montessori work

I can't believe that the month of January is nearly coming to an end.. January always feels like a long Monday but we have been so busy this month that it flew buy!! Many children have been sick, unfortunately. So I hope everybody is now better and ready for more action!! For those who were out, here are a few of the activities we went through last week.

We have worked a lot on colour recognition with the younger kids in the classroom:

Grading shades of colours

Matching jigsaw

A little bit of work on getting new vocabulary and learning about animal habitats:

The children love working with the peg game I introduced on our shelves last week. This is a great way for them to become familiar with letters and it promotes letter recognition in a fun way:

Lots of work in our sensorial corner. I printed several pictures of work using the Brown Stairs and the Pink Tower, laminated the A4 sheet and hung it on our shelves besides the Pink Tower. We had been using both of these Montessori sensorial materials in a much more conventional way so far and introducing these little variations have proved very successfully.

Some of their work as you can see are not exact but let's not burst their little bubbles!! They were so proud of what they had achieved. As they do it again, they will solve the difficulties themselves, working as a team.

And of course, the metal insets are still very popular. This is a brilliant exercise to teach children to write from left to right, top to bottom, and to improve their pincer grasp skills. A great pre-writing activity.

Last week, I showed them how they could make geometric figures on a big A4 page and starightaway, little fingers got to work. Amazing work here!

A popular math material in my classroom is this Hanging Bead Stair. The child needs to hang the bead stairs in ascending order and correctly sequence the number tiles accordingly to the beads.  Once they have mastered this exercise, we hang the beads in random order on the hooks and have the child match the number tiles accordingly.  This is a variation we came up with last year but I haven't reached that stage yet with any of the children...But I will take pictures as soon as we have a winner!!!!


So this is a little overview of what went on in our classroom. Tomorrow, we are staring to talk about winter animals as partof our winter theme. So keep in touch to see what we came up with! And if you have any suggestions, please leave a comment!!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Party fingers!

To celebrate the New Year, the children made little calendars.

Little happy partying fingers with party hats!! Cute, eh?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Here are a few winter activities we have been doing in our classroom. None of them are very original but the children absolutely loved them.

This is a new Maths activity on our shelf. I found it on Kidssoup (they offer great preschool resources and I do recommend them highly). SO what do you do with it? The child picks a card, counts the snowflakes and places the wooden peg on the corresponding number. There is no control of error. This is the only thing I don't really like (and as a Montessori teacher, control of error is very important to encourage self-esteem and independence). So, I basically show each child how to play this game. I then tell him/her to do it on his/her own but I ask for them to call me when they are finished for me to check their work. Two of them had a go at it and believe me, they didn't forget to call me back... they were so proud of their work!!

I have replaced a few tools on our play dough tray and added a few items. I showed the children how they could make snowmen by flattening the dough with the roller and by cutting circles with the different sized objects I provided them with. They then added buttons, scraf scarf etc... God, they are now fighting for this activity!! I love it because it overlaps several fields in our curriculum: fine motor sills development, language,  art and crafts and even maths as I ask them to count all the buttons they are using on their snowmen!

Using some styrofoam nuggets used for packing, we made some igloos with the children. We have started talking about Antartica  (I will write another post about this) and the children were very excited about making their own igloo!!

And finally, as we are practising recognising/reading/writing our names, we wrote our names using paper cirlces and piling them up on top of one another to make snowmen. Some of the children are a step ahead of others and can now write their name all on their own. But they still enjoyed this exercise. This reinforces letter recognition and is a fun pre-writing or pre-reading activity. Try it!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Back to school!!

Well, vacation's over and it's back to work!!  I spent 3 days at school  getting all the Christmas stuff put away and getting out new activities.  Below is a glimpse of some of what was new for the students:
First, I wanted to add a bit of spice to our knobless cylinders. The children love them and we have used them in any possible ways as taught by Maria Montessori.  For those of you not familiar with the Montessori method, the knobless cylinders are four sets of wooden cylinders, each a different color that correspond to the cylinder blocks, are used in early childhood development to help children begin to understand the concept of dimension. So I went to Montessori Print Shop and purchased 2 set of knobless cylinders pattern cards. I printed some of them and bound them together. The children will now be able to make shapes with the different cards, mixing them and learning to appreciate variations of height and width within each patterns. . This will definitely encourage additional sorting and comparison drawing as well as making the building process more difficult. I think it is quite good. My little man was the first one to say so...

We have a moveable alphabet in our classroom. As we finish our study on the first Montessori set of letters (a,c,m and t), we will start using quite a lot to make up words phonetically. Until then, I wanted familiarise the children with all the letters of the alphabet. I could have used the moveable alphabet but I decided to create an exercise which should attract the children. I printed a few random pictures and glue them on one side of a coloured card.

On the other side, I glued the word corresponding to the picture. Using wooden pegs, I wrote each letter of each picture on top of the peg.

The idea is for the child to look at the picture, make the link betweent he picture and the word and then look for the corresponding letters. This a pre-reading activity but it also let the child practise his pincer grasp (essential for writing). So I am killing 2 birds with one stone!!

I have also added a few more seasonal activities:

  • Icicle making: the children use all the beads, the white straw and the snowflakes to create their own icicle.

  • A snowman grid game using a dice. 2 players. The first one to fill his/her grid is the winner.

Sorry I forgot to include te dice in the pic...

  • Stamps: the children will develop their pincer grasp control by using these stamps (I only found 3 winter animals: a rabbit, a reindeer and a polar bear!)

  • Gluing activity: making a snowflake following a pattern I made for them.

There are a few more activities I need to add or do witht the children. So keep checking  us up over the next few days. See you soon..

Friday, January 6, 2012

Put your coat on, Bro!

If you are a preschool teacher, you will know how frustrated it can be sometimes to get the children ready to go outside.. especially during winter when they need to be so well wrapped up. Some of the older children are more than capable of  putting their own coat on and zipping it up ; and they even help the younger ones to dress up. Yet, many are still struggling with this aspect of our routine.
Most parents are aware of the importance of teaching their child to be independent, but still do far too much for their children. And I am a guilty mother too! How many hours have I spent performing unnecessary tasks for my own children because it was quicker for me to do it? I often ended up feeling exhausted, drained and often resentful. And this can happen in our classroom too. If we spent too much time snacking for instance, we are sometimes rushing to get out and get a bit of fresh air and it is easier and quicker to dress the kids up. So I have been thinking a lot during this Xmas break. One of the main aspects of our curriculum is to teach the children self -reliance and to boost their self-esteem. Not doing a great job here in that department, are we?All the children need is to be given the tools to be independent. They need a strategy as well as the time and opportunity to try to do things for themselves. I need to show patience and to encourage them to be patient too. It takes practice to master any new skill, and for a toddler, it may take many tries for success. A 3 year old should learn to put his/her own coat and hat on but might not be able to fasten it up. A 4 to 5 year old should also be able to put on his scarf and gloves on all alone.

So this is what I have prepared.
Sasha on To the Lesson, has created a series of signs she posted by the children's cubbies to help them get dressed during those long winter months (see her post right here). This inspired me. So I copied her idea and I made an eye-catching little poster for the children to follow. It is now on the wall in the entrance where the children have their clothes hangers.

I also browsed the internet and found a simple but catchy little song that we will be rehearsing every time it is time to dress up. I have added the video below (it is from  ).

Put your coat on, put your coat on
And keep yourself nice and cosy
Put your coat on, put your coat on
And come on out to play

(Repeat with hat, scarf and gloves).

Of course, I will also be giving them the tools to be independent. According to Montessori, learning to put on one's own jacket not only develops independence but also muscular co-ordination. This can be an individual or a group exercise. Tell the child(ren) that you are going to show him/them how to put on a jacket. Take your own coat and lay it flat on the floor, making sure it is open. Stan by the collar side of the coat, place your 2 arms in the sleeves and swing back both arms together so that the coat slides into position. Then, you invite the child(ren) to go and get their own jackets and let them have an individual turn at putting on their jacket. Look at this video I found on You Tube. This is exactly what I am talking about:

What do you think? What do you do in your classroom?