The Environment

Literacy Development the Natural Way

As a progressive educator, I have the privilege of weaving in many philosophies in my teaching practices. One thing that I really love about Waldorf curriculum is the slow awakening to the instruction of literacy.  The philosophy lends itself to inspiring creativity and imagination first, foundational components to literacy development that often are underestimated.

But the truth is that with the more opportunities to listen to and to create their own tales and stories using props and imagination, the more children find joy in literature and stories.  Joy is the most important step in the early years of reading and writing.  It is motivation.  Motivation for knowing and wanting to learn more.  A child is ready to learn the characters of the alphabet and enhance their comprehension skills when they ask for the information.  When the ask for you to scribe their stories, how to write a letter from their name, to read a book… then they are ready.

Many Waldorf practitioners refer to storytelling play as “learning for the heart” and not learning by rote memory or practice.  This is critical in preschool.  Our most important job as a teacher is to create connections and relationships, to create moments for “learning for the heart”. There are many ways to do this.

Providing invitations for children to connect to the world of stories and imaginary places is one way to support their natural journey to literacy based learning opportunities. Waldorf often does this with props for storytelling.  Their characters are made of natural materials such as wood, wool, felt, fabric, and pieces from nature. I have often been enchanted by these little small world props. I have created some of my own in the past – fairy worlds, castle scenes, farm worlds, and forest scenes. But recently the children have been in love with a small autumn fairy and pumpkin village.  It is a decorative one set up in the front of the school entryway.  They check on it often and seem to be so connected to the idea that it is a real living village! So this weekend I spent a little time creating some props for their very own pumpkin gnome/fairy village. I quite like the way it has turned out.  But, I think next time I will stick with keeping the props faceless.  Although it looks eery at times, the intention behind the expressionless faces is to allow the children to imagine their own expressions and feelings of the characters – uninfluenced by the pre-created details of a doll/character. I actually am intrigued by this and would like to try it. I leaves the whole story in the hands of the child.

But, for now I have a little pile of gnome people with wood platforms and a real carved pumpkin house. I will stage the invitation on the light table.  I can only wonder what stories and conversations that will happen here, a place designed for “learning for the heart”.20151025_211745 20151025_211715 20151025_204639

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Childhood Joy and Preservation, The How To Dos, What is progressive?

Not because I said so…

classroom 148Standards, checkpoints, milestones, learning objectives, etc…  Our education system is framed around goals and expectations that children are pushed to meet at certain age/grade levels.  As educators we are told to scaffold development and differentiate instruction to meet children’s needs.  However, there is also a push to ensure a child meets a set of standards by the end of a school year – despite the fact that meeting a learner on his or her level is important.  When asking No Pro followers what is challenging in the teaching arena – the response is clear “fighting the urge to do xyz because kids who are six are supposed to do xyz”.  But, who defines XYZ?  As educators we need to find resources that guide us to accurately define what XYZ should be.  This is difficult because our surrounding teaching peers, traditional teaching arenas, and state/federal recommendations may send the message that a child should be able to perform at a certain level along a certain timeline.  The first step to feeling comfortable about allowing children to grow at their own pace (no matter what XYZ states) is to back yourself up with research.  Research allows educators to feel confident about the decisions they already know are the right ones – and back these decisions up with powerful evidence.  Decisions made based on Developmentally Appropriate Practice and educator based research is more solid than following XYZ because the standards and cookie cutter assessment tools said so.

What research is out there that supports children growing at their own pace?

Developmentally Appropriate Practice

In the 3rd Edition of “Developmentally Appropriate Practice” Carol Copple and Sue Bredekamp define excellent teachers as educators whom recognize that “learning goals are usually identified for groups of children within a given age span.  But, teachers must determine where each child is in relation to a goal and
adjust their teaching accordingly” (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009).  As educators, we know our children best.  We can gauge what experiences a child is ready for, asking for, and interested in.  A manual or checklist of standards can not tell us what capabilities each individual child is ready to achieve or not.  Cookie cutter checklist leave out critical contextual factors such as environment, culture, and emotional development.  Developmentally appropriate practice is having a knowledge of how typical whole child development progresses and combining it with the ability of individualizing it to each child and classroom.

Language of the Wolves

Lisa Murphy the Ooey Gooey Lady provides educators with a document “What to Say When the Wolves Come Knocking” (http://www.ooeygooey.com/handouts/generalwolf.pdf) that empowers teachers with vocabulary that helps defend play practices.  This document will provide a tool box for sharing how play is learning.  Sometimes meeting a child where they are is about taking what they choose to work on – documenting it and translating that documentation into what benefits, developmental stages, and standards are being met during their explorations.

Children Know What they Need

Alfie Kohn shares the importance of considering what children know and want to know:

Taking kids seriously: In traditional schooling, as John Dewey once remarked, “the center of gravity is outside the child”:  he or she is expected to adjust to the school’s rules and curriculum. Progressive educators take their cue from the children — and are particularly attentive to differences among them. (Each student is unique, so a single set of policies, expectations, or assignments would be as counterproductive as it was disrespectful.) The curriculum isn’t just based on interest, but on these children’s interests. Naturally, teachers will have broadly conceived themes and objectives in mind, but they don’t just design a course of study for their students; they design it with them, and they welcome unexpected detours. One fourth-grade teacher’s curriculum, therefore, won’t be the same as that of the teacher next door, nor will her curriculum be the same this year as it was for the children she taught last year. It’s not enough to offer elaborate thematic units prefabricated by the adults. And progressive educators realize that the students must help to formulate not only the course of study but also the outcomes or standards that inform those lessons -(Kohn, 2008).

The following link provides more information from Kohn about how progressive education caters to learning with children and not pushing them to be a part of a system that does not fit them individually: http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/progressive.htm.

When the Time is Right

Take a page from Waldorf.  Waldorf education waits until about third grade to introduce academics in a structured format.  It is not to say that the children are not intellectually challenged but their childhood is preserved in their younger years.  Concepts are introduced through rich play, story telling, and artistically expressive experiences.  Whether you adopt the entire Waldorf premise it is important to consider that Waldorf has a large following and history.  If Waldorf’s school of thought supports children being children and allowing children to be introduced to concepts “when the time is right” and these children have grown successfully as a whole child ( including academically) in society then why are public schools removing play from the early years?  Why is the focus of elementary education (and now pushing into early childhood) on XYZ by a certain age?

What are you trading?

Finally consider – If you are pushing your child or student to achieve XYZ what ABC are you sacrificing.  In other words consider that some children are great readers at 4.  A rare find.  But, most fluent readers at this age are lacking something else.  Often they are not internalizing the story and lack comprehension skills.  But, even more prominent in young prodigy readers we see a need for social skills to be more developed (cooperation, empathy, socialization).  So these young readers can translate the text into speech but they fail to be able to work in a reading group.  This is only one example.  But, stop and think if XYZ is pushed before its time what ABC is being sacrificed – what part of childhood are we asking children to give up so that they can be academic superstars.