Sunday, February 23, 2014

Play and Standards in a Kindergarten Classroom

I have a wonderful grade-level team and we have great conversations about teaching kindergarten every week. It may be funny stories of classroom events, ideas on how to be successful in the classroom, moments of celebration when a child meets a goal, or the sharing of challenges that we have to overcome. It seems lately, there are more stories of challenges than in previous years. This directly relates to the increased pressure on young children to perform at the highest level possible without regard to developmentally appropriate practice or research.

When I first began teaching, the value of play was well-known in kindergarten. Sure, there were already talks about how play was valued much less than previous years. Still, the curriculum was given to me in the expectations that I would use it as needed and in a way that met the needs of my children. My children received more than an hour of unstructured playtime (imaginative, artistic, constructive) each day. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Now, the same curricular constraints are placed on a five-year old as they are on a 12-year old.

In my kindergarten classroom, I am trying to balance reading standards (both from the state and from my district), math standards (again from the state and district), and the emotional and social needs of my children. I need to include 90 minutes of reading and 60 minutes of math with my five and six year old children. Yet, there are numerous studies that show a play rich environment for our kindergarten learners is best, not direct instruction. Students who are pushed at a young age do not achieve more than students who are given a playful kindergarten experience, it is actually the exact opposite (see Alliance for Childhood and NAEYC). Standardized assessments prior to age eight have been proved to be less than 50% accurate (Alliance for Childhood). Each year, the standards for K-12 are increased and the emotional and social needs of the child are proportionately decreased, despite research and facts from real experts (those with a background in education who have taught for more than just a few years as well as those who have completed unbiased research in the area of education). 

How is a teacher that values early childhood education supposed to handle this? I have struggled with this question this school year and I think I am starting to grasp what I need to do if I am going to stay in the classroom. It isn't a big surprise that we need to find balance between what is required and what we know as educators is best for our children. It is heartbreaking that the two are separate, but knowing that early childhood educators were not involved in the creation of the common core standards I know that this is in fact true. I find that I need to focus more on how I can creatively combine standards and the needs of my children. I know the standards are not going away anytime soon, so I must do what I can and stay positive if I want to continue as a teacher.

Providing this balance requires constant effort, more effort than it takes to lesson plan or assess as a teacher would traditionally. It can be overwhelming and disheartening to have to go through this process. The standards are there and I will try my best to help my children meet these standards in a developmentally appropriate way. This includes the use of art, play, inquiry, and guidance to meet standards rather than a day full of direct instruction. The beauty of guidance and inquiry is that it is effortlessly differentiated and meets the needs of all learners.

As I get frustrated and overwhelmed, I find myself doing three things. I rely on my grade-level team and husband to help me make sense of all the standards and requirements that are pushed on our young children. I correspond with educators on Twitter and follow many blogs that keep me thinking of solutions and help me know that I am not alone. I also keep the words of Fred Rogers in my head:"When we treat children's play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that's to be found in the creative spirit. It's the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.”

"Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Social Media: A Focus on Relationships and Communication

As teachers, we all have to find tasks and objectives that deserve our attention and others that are okay to leave behind. We cannot do it all. I started doing this after receiving good advice at a kindergarten conference about five years ago. The educator speaking (I wish I could remember her name) mentioned that we cannot devote our time to everything if we want to be an effective teacher. If there is an area that you do not find important and are only doing it because it is a routine, drop it. I have made choices over the years, dropping many items off my list of to-do's. One area I have given more attention is the use of social media to promote global relationships and communication.

Personally, this advice gave me permission to drop fancy bulletin boards and job charts. This is not to say that if a person uses these things they are making a bad choice; to each his/her own. These were just items that I chose to do without as I felt they were not important to the children. Rather than a pretty bulletin board full of posters and borders, I use year-long word walls and vocabulary walls. Instead of a job chart, volunteers take care of responsibilities in the classroom and we get to talk about how kind it is to offer your services freely. Now, my extra time is devoted to our classroom blog and social media pages.

The children started writing their own blogs this year. I tried many different platforms and finally decided on Kidblog for our class and individual student blogs. The main reason is that we have 1-1 iPads and the app for this site is very user friendly for young learners. I do pay the yearly fee (without it you are limited to 100 pictures and video). Children at this age prefer to post pictures with their text. This also makes for a valuable portfolio as the children can take pictures of their work and reflect. After the blogs were set-up, we made our first posts and shared them with our families. Most parents commented (for those that didn't/couldn't, I asked fellow teachers to comment on blogs). We also started participating in a blogging challenge with K-1 classrooms around the world. The children were excited to have comments and the chance to make comments on other blogs. There were some excellent conversations and we will have a great reflection platform for the remainder of the year.

Another way we have used social media was by posting to Twitter and Facebook. Twitter has been the best way to communicate with classrooms around the world, while Facebook is the best way for us to communicate with families. We have had several meaningful conversations and activities because of this communication. For instance, we had classrooms from Australia, Korea, and China comment on our Lego projects. This provided the children with feedback and more ideas for further exploration. We have viewed posts about good books to read, games to play, and differences in cultures around the world. This has given us a lot think about. Parents have also commented that they have a way to start a meaningful conversation about school when their children get home, as they have been informed of highlights from the day. These are great tools because I can post quickly from my phone no matter where we are, taking very little time.

The reasoning behind my choice to utilize social media in the classroom is simple: social media tools promote relationships and communication. The ability to communicate both in the classroom and globally relates to standards in every level of education, including kindergarten. There is also a lot of research promoting social media use in the classroom under the guidance of the teacher. For more information, feel free to check-out my social media site. I put it together for a presentation I gave at a local workshop.

We are always looking for more classrooms in which to follow/like/converse. Visit us on Twitter (@Mrslembke), Facebook (MrsLembke), or our blog (