Friday, October 28, 2011

Building Literary Roots

The group gathers daily for stories and song.
  As I sit down to write this, four and five year olds are riding bikes and scooters and tricycles downstairs in what we call The Trike Room.   Diana, a parent volunteer, has finished helping children  begin the first step in making candle holders for a craft project that we will continue to work on during our Halloween Carnival on Monday, October 31st.    Upstairs in the North Room, Eileen is reading Ray Bradbury's complex and compelling Halloween Tree to our primary children.  They are drawing what they hear and are off on an adventure worthy of reading every year.  (As a part of our curriculum last year we looked at the connection between All Hallow's Day, All Saint's Day, All Soul's Day and The Days of the Dead (El Dias de los Muertos).  This year we have not focused on the history of the holiday, yet the children are reviewing what they learned before as they listen to Eileen reading aloud.  Soon the children will come up from the Trike Room and join Laura on the rug as she reads a chapter from Pippi Longstocking, the classic Astrid Lindgren novel.
      We devote a lot of time to reading aloud.  Research has proven that reading aloud to your child at home is the key factor in developing a literate human being.   (Parents are the first and best teachers in this regard.  One of the best books about reading at home is Dorothy Butler's, Babies Need Books.   I love to give a copy of this book to a new parent;  out of print, it is widely available second hand. Not only does it discuss books for babies, but introduces the parent to the joys of shared reading all the way through age six.)  Our interests range way beyond research-proven literacy benefits.  What we do in the classroom when we engage in reading aloud is make space in our circle and our day for a whole host of characters and events to join and belong to us.
      When I was very young, probably two, my father read a great book very hard to come by even then because he found it in a barn in New England and its publication date was 1920.  Called The Tale of Johnny Mouse this book by Elizabeth Gordon was read and reread all the way through my earliest childhood. A line from that book became a line that our family repeated with regularity when the occasion called for it,  "Hold on, for we shall go swiftly!"   When we were driving and came to a steep hill, or riding a trike and taking off, or careening downstairs in a cardboard box, someone might say, "Hold on, for we shall go swiftly!"  In the book, the action centers around Johnny Mouse as he is given rides by various flying animals as they help him fly to the moon.  Each animal in turn says to him, "Hold on, for we shall go swiftly!" The line allowed for us to transcend the moment and became for my family an inclusive saying that we evoked often.  It gave us a sense that we were a unit and had had shared experiences.
    The same thing happens in the classroom.  When I read The B.F.G. by Roald Dahl, we get to know the big, friendly giant who gets his words mixed up.  He says to Sophie, "Little girls chitter all the time."  He means they chatter--they talk nonstop.  In the middle of the classroom at work,  I might say, "Too much chittering;  we need to get back to work."  Everyone knows what I mean by that.  We have brought the BFG into our classroom and he is now a part of our communal experience.
      When Eileen reads about Pipkin, the perfect boy's boy in Bradbury's novel, the children are right there with her and with him.  He has come into the classroom and can be referred to in the spring.  When Laura reads about Pippi who is the strongest girl in the world, all of the children imagine that they know Pippi as a real person.  When Tom takes out a picture book and reads about the Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything, who isn't even scared when two big shoes go clomping down the road behind her, we (the Big Room children, and I, too) want Tom to read that book again and again because  even though we know what is going to happen, we want to re-experience a little of the ruacuas, laughing  joy of it again, and yes, a little bit of the spooky strangeness of it, too.When   I read The Iron Giant, were surprised to find that we are rooting for him.  At first, we thought that he would take the role of the one who must be ultimately done away with.    But  under poet Ted Hughes' empathetic words, we want the giant to be fed and accepted.    All of the above examples are simply that-- examples that narrow down to the essential: we read not because we are required to read, but, if we have been given literature as children we know what it is to live with literature.  We read because we are hungry for it.
Merna telling a scary story
        Yesterday, we were privileged to have our board member, Merna Hecht, tell us Halloween stories.  Merna is a professional storyteller and librarian and has worked broadly with children and teachers in literacy education.  She brought folk tales to life as she told her stories.  Without looking at pictures in books, and without even seeing the words on the page, the children looked at Merna's face and hands and were brought right in to the middle of the story.  Such telling allows us to be right there with the storyteller and the story.  There is no one making the pictures for us.  We are truly "living" story when we just listen.
         Next month, we will be turning our attention to the bardic tales of Robin Hood as we get ready to attend the Seattle Children Theater's production of the legend.  As we engage with the characters of Robin and all "his merry men" and of Maid Marian, we will be learning of the place the spoken word holds in the development of poetry.  We will study some of the many ballads that have been collected and come to appreciate the fact that the tales of Robin Hood, as in many stories of folk origin, have no single author.  They have come down to us via the spoken tradition.
           We will be asking families to bring in books and materials that relate to the Robin Hood legend.  We would love costumes and pretend bows and arrows and will be turning our dramatic play area into Sherwood Forest.  All of the children will be participating in hearing the story told and in making it their own.  We will keep everyone posted about when we attend the theater and will include four year olds in the trip.  We are saving seats for each four year old to have a parent in attendance.  Although there is dramatic, fighting action in the play, we will be discussing the choreography behind the action.  We have found that when the children are well prepared, all ages really enjoy seeing a play that has some substance to it.  

              October 28, 2011

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Emergent Curriculum in Action

As I looked to bridge the long summer days spent outside in the Pacific Northwest with our annual return to the classroom in early September, I decided to create a small science corner with a display of seeds and seed pods, along with containers of fall blooming flowers. The idea was to generate conversation and begin the habits of careful observation and inquiry.  The display also gave me a chance to get to know the students in the North Room as I listened and watched them interact with the natural materials, tools to assist in observation, and with each other. It turns out that small seed, planted in late August as we prepared the classroom for students has been watered and fed and is really starting to germinate.

First day in the field with science journals.
 In the weeks that followed families brought in seedpods from their gardens for students to explore. We opened them and counted and sorted seeds. We looked at the different shapes and learned about the many ways seeds travel. So far this year we have taken weekly trips to many of the local parks, including the Colman Park P-Patch. In the parks we looked closely at plants and leaves and seed pods and thought about the ways they grow. We considered their variety as we drew the many interesting shapes.

In the classroom students use both the eye and hand to help them see.
Both inside and out we have been reading books about seeds and plants. We have generated lists of questions about seeds. As we practice asking questions, we hold off on finding quick answers so we can grow more comfortable with the process of inquiry. What at first glance looks like a simple question with a quick answer, given some time, can bloom into a question that scientists have already spent hundreds of years exploring. It is exciting to join this group and feel the connection with those who have asked these questions before us. All the while we are learning to listen to each other. One question leads to the next, a related question that is clearly following a shared path of inquiry.

Our first visit to the Colman P-Patch led us to wonder about the Lake and Park School having a garden of our own. Like the City and Country School that inspired Camille to found Lake and Park, we all felt we could learn so much if we were able to add an outdoor “classroom” in the form of a garden we can tend throughout the seasons. The P-Patch has the space available and the students are enthusiastic as we begin to plan and to prepare the beds and paths, and to learn what it takes to make a garden grow. We hope our whole school community will want to be involved.

Stephanie gives primary grade lesson in plant life cycle
Already Walter’s Aunt Stephanie, a Seattle Tilth educator and local gardener, has visited the classroom, bringing scarlet runner bean plants for exploration and dissection. This was a perfect plant to use to introduce the plant life-cycle because on a single plant we could see both the blossoms and the pods. Children picked the pods and opened them to reveal the beans/seeds. Stephanie answered children’s questions and inspired more questions such as, “where does water come from anyway?”

Making plans at the garden.

And so our curriculum grows, turning and winding as the children’s skills and understanding develop.  The prospect of tending our own garden together now exists like a seed in the good soil our inquiry has created. We all share the anticipation and excitement of helping it thrive.

A garden is a natural focus for building community. With a common purpose, everyone contributes meaningfully. As we nurture the plants in our garden, and eventually provide our own snacks and food, we also support each other as creative thinkers and doers.

Please consider ways you might participate in the Lake and Park Garden at the Colman P-Patch. we welcome comments and suggestions.
Weeding and measuring.
Please share your ideas in the comment section below.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Words and Images of our First Month

learning to jump rope on a sunny day in September
Since school began one month ago, we have moved into a comfortable rhythm to our days and weeks.  Each Monday and Friday we keep open for outside the school exploration or in house projects.  On Wednesday afternoons, a group of children head to nearby Franklin High School to do woodworking under the guidance of Mike Lawson, Franklin’s industrial arts teacher, and his students.  On future Wednesdays, other activities will take place such as Brazilian dance and chess.  On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons the Big Room children join with first graders on literacy, with first graders working on penmanship and beginning reading and all the children joining in on making books of their drawings and dictating their stories to the teachers, who then read them to the whole group and make time for them to be acted out.  On Thursday, that group joins together for movement class with Eric Johnson, while on both afternoons the children in grades two and above participate in guided literacy groups with Eileen and place value work in mathematics with Laura.

We are making the most of our units, having taken our scheduled fire drill with the Fire Department as an opportunity to learn about our local fire station.  Do come up and see the children’s art work in the hall that relates to their interpretation of the poem by William Carlos Williams about the number 5 in gold on a red firetruck moving through the city in the night.  After bringing the poem alive with oral interpretation, accompanied by triangles for clangs and lights being switched off and on to simulate the following:
            Among the rain
            And lights
            I saw the figure 5
dramatic play in "fire station"
            In gold
            On a 

Later, we looked at a reproduction of a painting by Charles Demuth that was his direct response to the Williams’ poem.  Do have your child show you details in the painting.  It will be in the upstairs hallway along with the children’s work throughout the next week.
      We then toured our local fire station, drew and wrote about significant aspects of the station and rebuilt the station at school with blocks.  Children had time to read books about fire trucks and other fire related topics and to pretend to ride a fire engine as we turned part of the Big Room into a fire station.

We have a display about ferry boats ongoing in the Big Room block corner and will focus on our region’s ferry boat pathways and islands over the next several weeks.  Please know that we plan to ride the ferry to Winslow on Bainbridge Island on Monday, October 17th. This will be a whole school venture.  Please have your child at Triangle Park with 1.25 bus fare by 9:15.  We will board the bus soon after and walk to the ferry terminal from a downtown bus stop.  We will then walk off the ferry and spend time at a playground on the island within walking distance.  Children will eat lunch at the park.  We will return later that day and are planning to meet parents in Mt. Baker Park at 4 pm.
Eileen reading a story at the Mt. Baker viewpoint
     On Friday of that week, we will spend the day at Lincoln Park in West Seattle.  This is a great location and will afford us a day to study the ferry boats coming and leaving the slip on Vashon.  We will also get to explore a salt water beach, something we do rarely as a school.  We are hoping that parents might be inspired to provide us with a tasty picnic lunch.   We will have a sign up for lunch and see if we works out for that.  We would  love to have someone to barbecue hot dogs and another parent to bring chips,   We will be asking parents to drive to Lincoln Park and pick up there at three.  We will post a sign up so that parents may be in touch with one another about driving arrangements.  The Friday event will be cancelled in case of real rain.  Both these excursions are planned with four year olds in mind;  they are welcome to join us for the day.

scientific observation
While we are off site, we take advantage of all that the outside offers us to further the academic learning that can take place away from school. Children will be drawing and recording their observations;  they will be engaged in first hand social studies and science  as well as art.  We will have time on each trip for silent reading and read alouds.  

The following week, the last week in October, we will devote our thematic focus to  Halloween.  We are asking children to bring in pumpkins, but please wait for the last week. Also need small wheelbarrows—great fun is had putting pumpkins in wheel barrows in the Big Room.  We will look forward to Merna Hecht’s ninth year in telling us Halloween stories—this takes place Thursday afternoon on the 27th.  We will have a party on Halloween Day;  all children are welcome to wear their costume to school that morning.  We are hoping to have a Carnival experience in the afternoon in the Trike Room, with parent volunteers manning and supplying various booths that we can come down to and explore.  There will be a sign up for those volunteer jobs as well as for supplies to make it a festive day at school.

on the bus
There is no school on Friday, October 14th, due to a teacher in service day.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Lake and Park School

In naming this blog The Ampersand, we refer to the symbol that abbreviates the “and” into one icon, and to what is discussed below in terms of the school’s name.  It is our hope that the blog will allow us to find a way to step back from the daily work that we and the children are doing and position it in such a way—through still photo, video clip, child’s painting, child’s spoken and written word, teacher commentary, outside expert commentary, etc., in order to offer an inside look to parents and others whom we choose to share the material with.   

In choosing the name for The Lake and Park School, I wanted to emphasize two concrete aspects of our environs that are a prominent part of the school experience.  The location of the school on the beautifully appointed Hunter Boulevard is one.  As part of the Olmsted Parks Legacy, our locale is decidedly not a rural one; rather it is that of a planned human influence on the landscape—a park in the urban sense, albeit designed to bring the wild into the city.  We are definitely a school in a city; our fortunate place within that city is one where the park system defines the neighborhood.

The neighborhood exists in one area of the shoreline of Lake Washington.  We have ease of access to the lakefront and make it a frequent place of exploration.  The children dig in the sand, search the water and sky for bird and animal life, pick up beach glass and rocks and use water as a natural medium for play.   As we return to the same shore month after month, we experience a familiar setting in a variety of conditions, and begin to establish a sense of our place in the natural world. The simplicity of the name evokes two concrete aspects of the child’s world—water, earth.  By mention of the concrete it draws attention to the fact that the child learns first from interaction with the stuff of the real world.  In our classrooms, we may go beyond the concrete to the symbolic and abstract, but we do so, even in the older grades, by referring back to the concrete.  Thus the classrooms are outfitted with real materials and children work with real tools as they explore those materials.

Perhaps most importantly to my thinking, The Lake and Park School deliberately echoes the name of Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s The City and Country School,  begun in 1914, still in existence in New York.  It was started by Carolyn Pratt, a progressive educator who invented the unit building block, a staple of our classrooms here, and was renamed after the school expanded into two locations in order to allow children the opportunity to explore distinct aspects of the modern world.  Our school’s name pays tribute to this legacy in seeking to understand  all that went on during the progressive era in American education, as well as to our intent to maintain that heritage.

Camille Hayward