Friday, May 2, 2014

The Friendship Can

After a day long training on teaching social and emotional skills to young children one of the facilitators approached me after the course and offered me the "friendship can" she had made as a teaching tool, for encouraging friendship. I gladly accepted. The can sat on my desk for weeks. I finally pulled it out recently with the intent of trying it at circle time, to just see what would happen.

Teaching a mixed ability class while wonderful and ideally what I strive for as a teacher, is not always easy. Full Inclusion doesn't actually translate to four and five year old children who are developing friendships, learning to share, communicate and form bonds over shared interests such as Batman and Princesses. The children that are struggling to communicate, who have more significant delays in their skills often end up alone during play, or observing the other children wistfully while the classroom staff try a variety of methods for encouraging interaction and successful socialization. Moments of social success are seen often with the "typically developing" peers. They are aware of their classmates differering abilities but not motivated to reach out to them without adult direction. And this is where something as simple as a "friendship can" has made all the difference.

Each child puts their name in the can at the start of our afternoon meeting. We do the mandatory preschool routines of the calendar and a discussion about the weather. Each child is offered the opportunity to share an idea or thought with the class about their lives. Sometimes the discussion is cohesive, sometimes it isn't. Everyone is however offered a turn to talk. Then I ask them about what it means to be a good friend. How can we be friendly to each other? How can we be kind and respectful? "Don't take toys!" "Don't kick!" "Don't say mean words." While rudimentary, these are in fact exactly what it means to be a good friend. I close the circle by randomly drawing two names from the can, and those two children are then encouraged to discuss what they would like to do together for the next several minutes of class. The children have learned to greet peers they ordinarily would never choose as a play partner, and to share materials, space, and ideas with each other.

The classroom itself during this time of deliberate partnership is incredibly calm. All the children are busy, engaged,  practicing empathy, communication and are learning to appreciate their differences. For a child called Alejandro, who almost never speaks and typically always plays alone there has been a significant shift in his affect. He looks happy, he is laughing out loud. When Daniel sidled up to him while Alejandro was cooking in the dramatic play area in the face of two other peers attempting to take over the space and the game and said to him, "I'm going to make the coffee while you do the cooking." Alejandro felt seen, heard, and appreciated by someone he'd never had the opportunity to communicate with before. Daniel on the other hand, practiced a social skill he'd not yet used, looking out for someone else, being protective, loyal, and empathetic.

The "friendship can" does not always produce a perfect pairing. Charlie was devastated that he was paired with Alina instead of Austin with whom he had bonded the day before over a shared love of Mario and Luigi. He sat next to Alina at the art table and cried for twenty minutes. I told him that he could calm down, say hello to Alina, make a picture next to her and then I would know he was ready to go play with Austin. He took a few deep breaths, got himself a piece of paper, and began to draw Mario (of course). With prompting he said "hello" and "goodbye" to Alina who was busily engaged in learning to write "Happy Birthday to her mom. The next day when Charlie came to afternoon meeting he sat right next to Alina and said " I hope I pick Alina today! She's on my team!"

After several minutes of play together, sometimes ten, sometimes thirty depending on the activity level of the classroom my staff and I let the children know they can say goodbye and thank you  to their friend and choose another peer to play with if they are ready. More often than not I will hear, "Nah Teacher I'm gonna stay with her today."

The change in the social atmosphere in my classroom is palpable. Happier, more productive children who feel good about the ways in which they are learning to be good friends. The Social Emotional Trainer after observing in my classroom recently suggested that I rig the can, to intentionally pair higher functioning children with lower functioning peers. I told her I can't. Part of the beauty of the name drawing is the children watch me close my eyes, they know it's random, they know I believe that each and every one of them has something to contribute to the other, to the group as a whole. No matter how difficult or challenging someone can be to play with, there is always a way, an opportunity to learn something new about oneself and about someone else. Now more than any other time, is when to learn and to teach these social skills.

" We can provide our children with opportunities for play with their peers. We can offer them suggestions for compromise, and we can intervene when necessary. But our greatest gift may be the examples we set in our own friendships. It is from us, I believe, that our children are likely to learn best."  - Making Friends by Fred Rogers 1987

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A little note

I'm not an artist, but I'd like every child in my class to think of themselves as one.  There are certain foods I do not like (canned tuna fish for instance)- but I want each child who sits down at the table with me to feel brave enough to try something new that they did not like at all yesterday. I hated math as a student, gave up on my own number sense when I was six, and yet I think about math and how to incorporate problem solving and mathematical reasoning into meaningful play activities so these children will feel competent when asked to solve word problems in high school. I am not a scientist, but I'd like to instill an awe of the natural world and intrinsic motivation to understand how things work, are made, die and are recreated in new forms. No, I am not an artist. I am a woman, a sister, a partner, a step parent, an aunt, a friend, and a preschool teacher who believes that when a child creates anything out of paper, dirt, twigs, tape or air it should be validated, celebrated and hung on the wall.

I will provide the materials my students need, to experiment, to play, to create, to begin the life long process of discovering the world and how they fit into it. I will model open, honest, and non biased communication and conflict resolution skills to the best of my ability. I will continue to remind children that if someone does not want to play? it doesn't mean they aren't your friend and it's okay to play alone or with someone else for a little while. Sometimes, you can be your own best company.

I deeply respect the childhood of these young people. I am grateful and I am so very lucky to come to work everyday and to sit at the circle with fifteen four and five year olds. If you're happy and you know it?

Clap your hands.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Tea with Murray

Dear Murray,

On the occasion of your retirement from the Bank Street Family Center where you have worked tirelessly and passionately as the Family Support Coordinator (for more years than I even know) I'd like to dedicate this blog post to you, your work, your commitment to children, families, and teachers. An ironic choice I know, as you have confessed to me on more than one occasion that you do not read my blog, as it's too technical. Alas, I will write it and make sure a hard copy makes it's way into your hands. Your career, your gifts to me as a teacher and a person deserve a public recognition, a standing ovation, a high tea with scones and real butter.

The first time I met you, was my first year, my first month in New York City.  The role you served was my academic advisor, professor and conference group supervisor. You were the first person to question constructively my teaching (granted, it was brand new). You asked me why I didn't do circle time with two year olds... and pointed out the theoretical and developmental  reasons why it was beneficial. In California, at Mills College, we didn't do circle time. As a young professional I had never questioned what I had learned thus far. You were the first person to teach me, that teaching is an ongoing learning experience, one in which there is always room for discovery, for newness, for making mistakes and for trying again. For this, I am grateful. Circle time has become for me as a teacher a sacred experience ( I am in California again after all, "sacred" is the kind of word we use here). Each child has a voice, a place, a part in the classroom community that is unique to the particular group of children I serve. When I was teaching young children with Autism, circle time  was more than just a time together to sing songs: it was a teaching tool that encouraged language, communication, reciprocity, joy and a social experience not possible in other curriculum activities. For this? I thank you.

I thank you for making room in your busy schedule to support me when I was having difficulties communicating with a new boss. When I was the director of a school that quite literally flooded? You made time again every week to hear me out, to provide a sounding board, to provide care and support to keep me afloat. You also made me tea.

When we were colleagues working together, collaborating to support the children, families and teachers of Room One? I can't think of anything I have enjoyed more in my professional life.

If there was one moment that I feel I learned just from watching you, it was the first time we did a block group together in the loft room. It is a rare gift to see toddlers, to enjoy toddlers, to know how to play with toddlers. But it is pure magic to bring a group of three ego centric, toddlers together in such a way that feels seamless, genuine, and ultimately extends the learning and feelings of efficacy for the children present.

As we have become friends over these many years, I have always admired how much you love your work. How deeply you respect and fight for those you hold in your mind.

Murray you set limits for me when I expected to be able to rewrite a paper that I had not gotten a good grade on when I was twenty-four. You encouraged me to not only survive my first year in New York (hanging from the edge of a glacier by my finger nails)... but to thrive. I find it interesting that I can't remember saying goodbye to you when I moved back to California three years ago to continue the work we both treasure on this far west coast. Sometimes it's hard to say Goodbye. Sometimes there are not enough words, or feelings, or time to adequately thank someone for all they are and all they have done.

Perhaps the best example was when my own nephew at fifteen months of age was visiting from California. He pulled a hot cup of tea onto his body and was rushed to the hospital with third degree burns. When I got the call at the Family Center from my sister, you encouraged me to go. And hours  later? You were there too. In the burn unit, showing up, being present, holding myself, my nephew, my family in your mind. You told my sister that he was okay. You could see he was responding to their care, that he was expressing his pain and discomfort as a typically developing toddler should. He has no scars, no memory of this traumatic event. Someday I will tell him you were there, and why it mattered.

Murray. You are a gift to my life. A gift to children. A gift to parents. A gift to teachers. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

There's some room in your schedule now. California needs to see you. I promise to make you tea, and serve you real butter with your scones.
Murray, Watching toddlers at play in Room One, Bank Street Family Center 2007.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

A Soap Box of Sorts

Here is the challenge... in a play based curriculum how does one not neglect specific needs of specific children? Are we doing our jobs truly, by not intervening when we notice difficulties that arise? Are we sending these preschoolers off to Kindergarten (who have been so blessed to PLAY their entire childhood thus far with very little adult direction or co-construction) without more structured experiences... are we doing right by them entirely?

I do feel that children learn through play. No question about it. The explorations of the world start there, putting an interesting object in the mouth in infancy, banging things together, throwing, crawling, touch, taste, pretend... these are the the building blocks of learning. But so is the relationship between the caregiver and the child. If there were a soap box about primary care, in an Infant Toddler Program, I would stand on it now. If there were ever an argument for keeping infants and toddlers with the same teachers and peers for the first three years of their lives, it would be now. A play based curriculum without the foundational care of a primary relationship? exists for me, philosophically speaking, in a vacuum. 

You can't have one without the other.

So this is the dilemma. These children of mine range in age from 3-5 years old. They need different things from me as their teacher. The environment is set up for them to play, and to play well. Procedures for how to use materials and toys are deeply ingrained in these children who have grown up in this school, progressing from one classroom to the next based on age and the achievement of developmental milestones. They know what to do, do they know how to be? Sometimes yes. The push for independence is high, the lack of interdependence is astonishing. The role of the teacher is viewed, in my experiences thus far as something remote. One stands, guards, sets up the environment, talks to the children when they need re directing. And yet, it feels empty. These kids, like all the kids I've ever taught in the last fourteen years of my career, need an adult attachment figure while they are apart from their parents. It doesn't matter if the child is four months old, or four years old. It looks different, it feels different, yet these children need that co-regulation partner the same way an infant does. Children learn literally in the context of their earliest relationship. An adults caregiving style, and skill, the bond between the adult and the child, quite literally affects and maps how the early brain develops. It isn't play, it's relationship. Babies and children learn to play when they feel safe, when they are cared for, nurtured, and responded to. They venture out, they explore, they return to the safe base of the adult when needed. Some children if they can't regulate their emotions, their bodies, (something established in infancy in the context of the primary caregiving relationship) get to the pre-k class and don't know what to do.

A four year old girl freezes up every time a child says something she doesn't like, every time she can't complete a puzzle she started, every time she needs to say something and can't quite find the words. She stands in front me with large eyes filled with tears about to overflow, incapable of asking for what she needs. I see her inability to regulate herself, her feelings, her fears, her desires in tandem with her inability to communicate. So what is my role? Primary Care. I can't wear this child, it would be developmentally in appropriate. But I can provide the safe base she needs, give her the words she is searching for, and the faith in herself to figure out a complicated puzzle. Without me caring for her, providing a relational context, she cannot, will not access the rich play environment set up for her and her peers. She's four. And this is an opportunity to talk about the role of the teacher in such an established, respected, and cherished school for children not as the only the facilitator, the person who stands at the gate, but also the partner in learning for both children, and their parents. 

Play is the thing, but it is not the only thing. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Step Lady.

A year ago things were different. Very different. I was living alone in Oaktown. I went out every week with my single friend Betty. My grandmother had just passed away, my second niece born, and my best girl was about to get married. All of these events wrapped up in an immensely single red bow. My best girl promised me that if I was still single within a few months she'd move me into their spare room so I wouldn't have to live alone any longer. I mean, what other option would there have been if I wasn't already a happy cat lady? I liked her cats at least.

The plans always change. No matter what. We make choices, sometimes without thinking, seeing or knowing. But we do. My romantic ideals of being married young, having kids young all changed without me knowing the second I stopped going to church, moved to New York City, pursued an education and a career in Early Childhood Special Ed. I made these choices, and have not regretted a single step on that path. I mean, I could have done without that year the preschool I was directing flooded and all the kids got lice for three months... but such is life. I didn't shave my head and looking through hair with popsicle sticks became a consistent dramatic play theme in my classroom.

So a year ago.... I didn't know I was about to meet The Tim. No one knew. I existed in a state of wondering. Longing? Missing people who were long gone, working in a classroom that demanded my heart and soul, and as it turned out, blood. No reciprocity to balance the scales. Not yet.  I grew weary of it. Hit that proverbial  wall that one only knows they've hit when they run smack into it and fall down. Should I have been wearing a helmet? Perhaps. But things shifted with all the life events of those I love. I shifted too with the death of my Grandmother, the birth of my niece, the wedding of my best girl. Time to own  the choices I've made to be a really good teacher, to stay single, to have chosen the elusive men who weren't gonna be there for me in the long run. Maybe they wanted to- it doesn't really matter does it? Because one Sunday almost a year ago I met The Tim. At my favorite restaurant, eating my favorite food. He was wearing red shoes, a quick wit and he was really into my big teeth.

 This isn't a post about teaching. It's about how life changes to make all things possible when we most need it. At 20, 25, 28, 30, all these birthdays have come and gone and my "plans" for a family with them. And now I have one. It's not what I planned, or expected. I have The Tim everyday. I have his kids, half the week, and I adore them. They are not mine, but I am theirs. Plus, Step Lady sounds much more elegant than "my dad's younger girlfriend," Don't you think?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Good Enough Goodbye

Sometimes there's no adequate way to end something, to say something that "sums" it up, or gracefully ties an appropriate knot.

The last days of school are a blur, they were over a month ago now, almost two. A visit to my home, to my city knocked the senses back into me. Daily yoga, naps, an attempt at reading a novel, several workers comp Psych visits, an MRI, Check ups and finally? A brain so relaxed that an appointment has been missed. I see myself in the mirror and I wonder, how did I get through those last months of school? I was injured, I was scared, I was anxious and I had a lot of work to do.

Sometimes theres no adequate way to say "Thank you", no words deep or wide enough to encompass the gratitude for those who made me returning to my classroom last January possible. My three Para's, my team, my hands, eyes, arms and voices. They were my steady beating heart in the midst of my anxiety and disequilibrium. These women did more than rise to the occasion, they made me being there possible.

After these several months of running on adrenaline, I am finally recalbirating back to my daily life. I will not miss the dread of a phone call from HR, my Principal illegally telling me to only make workers comp Dr. appointments, at the end of the school day (which I always did). I will not miss colleagues questioning why it's developmentally appropriate for young children to be resting at the end of their day, questioning what the children could possibly be learning in my classroom, a play based, child centered environment. No, I will not miss these things.

But I will miss the children. I'll miss hearing Alice say to herself "It's okay", even when it wasn't. I'll miss her saying my name spontaneously without prompting. I'll miss little Edward's joy as he barreled into Alice to greet her each morning. I'll miss the look on Lightnings face while he gleefully played chase, safely in the classroom without eloping into the world beyond. I will miss Francis earnestly requesting "Old Mac Donald", and starting to cry each and every morning when I asked him how he felt, only to see him smiling a few seconds later. I'll miss watching Sara blooming into a successful Kindergarten student who can paint mountains, make friends and speak her mind without hesitation or worry. I'll miss circle time, watching my kids come together daily to sit together and participate together in song, learning, in community. I'll miss lunch time, one child singing to another the words to Mr. Roger's song "It's You I Like", and the other child singing it back to him with eye contact, with intent, in shared meaning.
It's you I like,
It's not the things you wear,
It's not the way you do your hair--
But it's you I like.
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you--
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys--
They're just beside you.

But it's you I like--
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you'll remember
Even when you're feeling blue
That it's you I like,
It's you yourself,
It's you, it's you I like.
It's You I Like
By Fred M. Rogers
© 1970

I do not wonder or question or doubt what these children have learned by being in my classroom. They are as a whole, more flexible, more adaptable, better able to make transitions, make friends and they are better communicators because I  and my team were on the floor, in their faces reflecting, talking, and laughing with them.

I say goodbye knowing that it wasn't my best, I probably should have been wearing a helmet and a hazmat suit, but it was more than good enough.

And I am grateful. There are quite literally Blue Skies ahead.


"Goodbye Miss Amy! Good luck and be careful not to bump your head!" - Max, age four and attending Full Inclusion Kindergarten this coming August.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Long Walk to School

A year ago Vernon had just turned four and would not walk into the classroom. Every morning his parents pushed, pulled and carried him into the room only to leave him on the floor where he fussed dramatically at my feet until they left begging him to please 'be good, have a good day at school." On one occasion Vernon  plopped himself onto the sidewalk in the parking lot, refusing to budge. Dad called mom from home, and mom joined dad on the sidewalk begging, pleading and attempting to bribe Vernon to please just get up and walk. A bystander alerted me to the drama unfolding in the parking lot and I walked outside to find Vernon on the pavement, rocking back and forth crying, his parents helpless on either side of him.  I crouched down next to him and said to him firmly, calmly "Vernon, we really need you in school. Time to stand up and walk with me." "Okay, Miss. Amy,"replied Vernon. He stood up, grabbed my outstretched hand and waved goodbye to his parents.

It is a long walk sometimes isn't it? I think about that moment, all three adults surrounding him on the pavement in that parking lot. Two concerned, loving, committed parents bargaining and worried that their child would not be able to do the very simplest act of walking through a door. But it isn't simple. My request and his positive response was not magic, it was a response to a clear expectation. As an educator, with emotional investment clearly but also with objectivity I know, I believe that Vernon was capable, is capable of a great many things starting with the walk from the car to the door of the classroom.  I have set the expectations very high, and because Vernon knows what my expectations are, and he knows I believe in him, he takes risks. He stands up, and walks into the classroom ready to learn, to let go a little bit of his worry, his need to control, his fear that the world might be too overwhelming, because sometimes it is.

I see Vernon's parents and I respect them. I understand that their concern, anxiety and their disappointment that their toddler, their precious baby was not learning to talk as expected, was not relating socially to others like his big sister did motivated them to seek medical help, educational intervention. Their worry became a fiercly protective bubble around their son, a constant list of what he cannot do runs in a loop in their minds because they care, because they are scared for him and will fight for him. No, I do not blame them for this. And when I sit across a table from them and tell them, "I want to mainstream your son in Kindergarten next year because I have every confidence that he will succeed", they look to the list of things he cannot do and ask when.

My answer is now. Vernon is five. Each morning he walks independently and proudly into the classroom, happily greets me, his teacher, his peers and waves goodbye to his father. He settles himself into an activity next to his peers, his friends. He has internalized the routines of the day, he assists me in leading circle time. He comments on his friends feelings in context. He knows how to play. And each time he says goodbye to me when he leaves the room and I have to work on the computer he says to me, "Goodbye Ms. Amy! Good luck and have fun!"

I encourage Vernon's parents to believe in their son's ability to succeed, because he has shown us that he can. If I believe, if his parents believe in his success? That truly is more than 90% of the battle. Sometimes successes come slow, others more quickly. Sometimes when we look for big changes, we miss the small, subtle miracles of minute to minute growth. I missed almost three months of Vernon's life. I was not there, and when I returned I found a boy who had not only met many of my hopes for him, but he has exceeded them. I want him to have the opportunity to learn to generalize the skills he has learned in my classroom and in speech therapy in other places in his world. Trying new things, being brave, sticking with something difficult and new like a sport, or learning to read... He can do these things. He has learned to make friends, he has learned to separate and reunite with his family, he has learned to have conversations that are meaningful and relevant instead of constantly scripting his favorite TV shows. He is a kid who can.

When Vernon's parents told me a year ago "We always say at home that Ms. Amy is so strict, but so loving," I took that as a compliment. I raised the level of expectation for them too. I challenged them to spend more time reading and playing with Vernon, and less time allowing him to watch television. I've asked them to sign him up for an organzied sport to expose him to other, typically developing kids of his age. I've asked them to believe that their son, is strong enough to pull himself up off the ground, take an outstretched hand and walk to his next adventure.

Soon I will be saying Goodbye to Vernon when the school year ends. He will know, and maybe not understand that the classroom he enters next Fall will be different, more challenging, new faces for him to memorize, a new teacher for him to build a partnership with. I will wave to Vernon and I will say to him "Goodbye Vernon. Good luck and more than anything? Have Fun!" I will tell his parents the same.