Saturday, May 19, 2012


I am an avid user of Pinterest: it is in the top tier of websites I check daily, and I often pin useful links for work during my free time.  When I first moved into my preschool classroom, one of the first things I researched and added to my Pinterest board was attention-getters.  I found some extremely useful ones, such as the list on this website.  I chose "Start doing silly exercises with a few children" as the most promising-looking suggestion, and pinned it to my preschool ideas board.  I also found this list, which has some valuable ideas.

Source: via Frances on Pinterest
Looking back at these pins, now that I have more experience with this particular group in this unique classroom atmosphere, I have a different perspective.  The suggestions that appeal to me now are not the ones that sounded good then, perhaps because my previous classroom work was Montessori or smaller groups.

I also have a better idea now of what I mean by needing to get my class's attention.  For example, we sing "Everybody Have a Seat" to transition into Circle Time, and the children know exactly what is expected of them when I begin the song: put their books on the shelf and sit on the circle rug by the time the song is through.  But there are also times I need their attention for just a moment, to explain where we are going next or what the next task will be.  For those times, I need a faster attention-getter, such as these.

Source: via Frances on Pinterest
We have made use of both "Hocus Pocus"/"Everybody Focus" and "ABC"/"Easy as 123," to various degrees of success.  I prefer "ABC"/"Easy as 123," since it is sung, where as "Hocus Pocus"/"Everybody Focus" can easily be shouted at a volume that causes some friends to cover their ears.  I did recently have to remind the class that singing "ABC"/"Easy as 123" means that they need to then give me their eyes, rather than ignore the prompt or sing "Easy as 123" and continue playing.

And now that I have more experience in this kind of boisterous classroom, I have a suggestion of my own to add to the table: SING EVERYTHING.  We are a musical group, as our classroom is in an music- and arts-based preschool.  And I have found that anything I have to say to the class, if said in song, will be heard.  Whether I sing that "I need a line" to the tune of something we have recently sung together or to a random tune, I always have their ears.

Here is a Kid Quote pertaining to my recent haircut:
Co-teacher: What's different about this lady?
. . .
Four-year-old: Her name is FRANCES!

Tutoring: Early Literacy, Bilingual Edition, and Holding Attention

Working with my preschool class, I can keep their attention in a group or individually as long as I need to in order to accomplish a task.  Some days it's a battle, but I know how to get their attention back when I lose it.  So it was a surprise to me when I began working with my preschool-aged English language tutoring student and could not seem to keep her on task.

Because her English vocabulary is limited, I was not at first opposed to working on conversation as much as literacy, but I have come to feel that we can accomplish more if we are more focused.  Then came the challenge of keeping her on task.  My usual tactic for working on literacy is making frequent trips to the library and keeping a healthy stock of books in the child's area of interest.  However, that tack did not work where we could not keep our attention on the book.

So last week I took a different approach, to successful results.  I took a package of pipe cleaners to our session, and we constructed our own tactile alphabet, à la this pinterest post:

Source: via Frances on Pinterest
As we worked through the alphabet, I formed a capital letter and invited my student to do the same.  I then repeated the same with the lower case letter, forming it with a new pipe cleaner and giving her time to follow suit.  We discussed which was the capital and which the lower case, when we use each type (she already knows how to write her name with a capital first, which was helpful), what the letter is called, and what sound it makes.  In a few cases, we had time to imagine words that begin with our letter before her attention wandered, but mostly we moved along at a brisk pace.

I was pleased with this method and plan to continue introducing projects such as this one: incorporating fine motor skills, movement, and review of the alphabet.  Next session, I plan to finish building our alphabet, then work on putting together words, starting with her name.

Here is a Kid Quote, the context for which I wish I had written down:
Six-year-old (whispered): "If it looks like a hat, you should try it."

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Preschool: Advanced Early Reading

In our wide range of ages in our classroom, we have some students who have not quite turned three, and at least one who is entering kindergarten this fall.  Lately I have been working with one of our pre-kindergarteners on reading and writing skills, and she is in turn helping me teach the other older students.  It's a method I picked up in Montessori schools: the most effective way to learn something is to teach it.

I started with Dolch sight words for preschool:

Sight words are words that children are encouraged to memorize rather than read phonetically, partly because their phonology is not always immediately apparent in phonetic reading, and partly because of their high frequency. As can be seen in the above chart, most of these words are function words: grammatical words that perform a function rather than contain informational content (in contrast with nouns, verbs, and adjectives, for example).  Function words occur frequently, so the more familiar children are with them, the more fluent their early reading will be.  

I sat down with my student and a few ideas, which we bounced around between, following her attention span.  We began by working on these sight word flashcards:
Source: via Frances on Pinterest
I am generally not a fan of flashcards because they smack of rote memorization to me.  But to initially familiarize my student with these sight words, it felt like the most efficient way.  After that, we could get into the real fun.

The favorite lesson for both my student and myself was this one:
My student read the words to me as I cut them apart, and she arranged them in order to make sense grammatically, then pasted them to a piece of blank paper.  We liked this lesson so much that we started to make our own sentences.  My student wanted to make silly sentences by arranging the words in nonsensical ways, but I wanted to keep grammatical syntax, so we used the Dolch words in the graph at the top of the post to form our own silly sentences such as "Red can jump."

My linguist's brain did cartwheels when my student demanded to know how to spell "an." Normally, children at this age are not yet aware of this article.  At this point in the language, "an" is a feature of Standard English that is not used by all speakers. Though for many people it is second nature to say "an acorn" rather than "a acorn," it is either taught in school or learned naturally at an age much later than four. So I knew my student's demands to know about "an" were not really about the article; rather, she was asking about "and." When I showed her "and" on the chart and read it aloud, she said "'an' is just without the 'd'" and crossed the 'd' out on the paper. Here is why this made the linguist in me so excited: we often don't pronounce that 'd,' so it was natural that she did not recognize it. I especially loved that she insisted that there was no 'd' in "and." She is confident in what she has heard, and she's not wrong!
Here's a Kid Quote to say thanks for reading:
Four-year-old: "Ms. Frances, did you know dogs are allowed at weddings!"

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Tutoring: Teaching Natural Selection

After reading the extremely enjoyable 11 Experiments That Failed,

my ten-year-old English Language tutoring student told me he likes books about science.  Since much of what I do with my tutees is based on reading books together, I was eager to increase the science-themed books in my library bag.  Also eager to increase the difficulty of the books that I bring, I opted for a science-themed chapter book that looked promising, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.  I started reading the book in my freetime, intrigued in part by this beautiful cover:

I am a fan of young adult literature in general, and I am enjoying this book in particular.  As the title suggests, the book deals with evolution, natural selection, and Darwin.  I chose it for my tutoring because, as a budding naturalist, Calpunia has a fervent interest in science.  Here is the synopsis from Good Reads:  

"Calpurnia Virginia Tate is eleven years old in 1899 when she wonders why the yellow grasshoppers in her Texas backyard are so much bigger than the green ones. With a little help from her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist, she figures out that the green grasshoppers are easier to see against the yellow grass, so they are eaten before they can get any larger. As Callie explores the natural world around her, she develops a close relationship with her grandfather, navigates the dangers of living with six brothers, and comes up against just what it means to be a girl at the turn of the century."

It occurred to me of course that evolution can be a controversial subject, so I checked with the parents before introducing the book.  Though the book may not mesh with their personal beliefs, these parents agreed to evolution being discussed, a philosophy of education I heartily admire.  

I introduced the book last week, and found that my student had a few misconceptions about how the theories of natural selection and adaptation work, so I started a search for an illustration that would help demystify the theories.  I found this website with a good lesson that I intend to modify to my objectives.

Source: via Frances on Pinterest
In the lesson, the students play the predator and eat the happy-looking Teddy Grahams with their arms up, allowing the sneakier sad-looking bears to survive for more generations.  

I thought it might make more sense to get two colors of bears and two pieces of felt for habitat color, such as chocolate bears and brown felt and vanilla bears and tan felt.  The bears who blend in with either habitat will survive for more generations than the bears who stand out, as we pretend we are both near-sighted bear-eaters.  I will let my student chose which flavor he would rather eat (I anticipate chocolate), and hand him the felt of the contrasting color (tan).  We will spread a handful of both colors of bears on each piece of felt and eat the bears that stand out more.  After repeating for several generations (or several handfuls), we will find we have more bears left who blend in with the environment than bears who stand out.  

I like this variation on the original lesson because it illustrates how the environment has an effect on who survives, a point I tried to make by drawing tall trees, short trees, giraffes, and horses last week but without great success.  I also like this method because it meshes well with Calpurnia Tate: she begins her journey as a naturalist by noticing the yellow and green grasshoppers and their ability (or lack thereof) to blend in with their environment.  

I am a little concerned that my ten-year-old student will think a Teddy Graham illustration beneath him, but I am hoping that the thrill of getting to eat his homework will counteract any "I'm too old for this" feelings.  I am also aware that he may not ever get interested in a book about a girl coming of age in 1899 Texas, but I like the book so much I want to give it a chance.

Here is an original Kid Quote from a recent session:

Six-year-old: "Knock-knock."

Who's there?

Six-year-old: "T-Rex!"

T-Rex who?

Six-year-old: "There's a T-Rex behind your door! . . . You want to know his name?"


Six-year-old: . . . 

What is it?

Six-year-old: "FRANCES!"

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Preschool: Earth Day . . . Try Again Next Year

Kids say hilarious things.  That is one of the reasons they are such a joy to work with: you never know what they're going to say.  We love to ask our children something leading, to see what they come up with, such as this project, found on Facebook:

Or when a former teacher was moving to California and we helped our friends make goodbye cards, which they filled with advice like "Watch out for snakes" and "Take a bunch of tigers in your car." 

For Earth Day, I thought I'd try a prompt like this one:

I made the mistake of asking the class when they were all seated at Circle Time, so misunderstandings spread like wildfire.  We had just discussed keeping streams healthy from this book,

and that played into what they said.  I asked the class what they do to take care of the Earth . . .

"I kiss it."
"I hug it."
"I get a thing and put it in the water and then I catch a fish and my dad eats it."
"When it's dark, [whispers] fish, fish, fish."
"I pick up trash."
"I pick up fish."
"My daddy picks up gumballs."
"Rake stuff and then I pick up stuff with a . . . a . . ."
               "A TRASH FORK?"
               "--a shovel."
"I pick up duckies from the park!"
"Pick up some duckies."

Adorable, but barely understandable out of context.  This was not the only instance in which Earth Day did not really go as planned in our classroom.

We did make a delicious dirt pie that was a hit; the kids especially loved being allowed to smash up the oreos.  We also attempted this cute project, without great success:

Source: via Hailey on Pinterest

Getting the jello out of the straws was not easily done, and maintaining the worm shape was impossible, so I passed out the straws at snack time and instructed the class to squeeze or drink the jello out of the straws as they wished.  The best part: no one minded that they didn't have real gummy worms to eat with snack; they were perfectly delighted to have bendy straws and jello.  When you're a kid, what else do you really need?

Here is an Earth Day-related Kid Quote with a little backstory:
Before every meal, the class sings
"The Earth is good to me
and so I thank the Earth
for giving me
the things I need:
the sun and the rain and the appleseed.
The Earth is good to me."

After this song one breakfast, I tried to manage these competing misconceptions:

Three-year-old, pointing to the sky, thus, space: "The Earth is up there!"
Me: We're on the Earth!
Four-year-old: "The Earth is a book!" (Presumably the environmental book above)
Me: The Earth is the planet we live on!
Four-and-a-half-year old: "The Earth is under the ground!"
Me: The Earth is the ground!