Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Gifted - Interested

I was out for lunch with Finbar this weekend. We went to one of our favourites restaurants in NYC, "Osteria Morini" (if you live here or are in town you should try it out). We were talking about food and I was telling him that it amazes me how much I like cooking. When I lived in London I had learnt to cook, and I liked it, but I was never all that ambitious at the time. I thought that cooking was magic, something only the gifted could do. But now, I have started cooking more ambitious dishes, and I'm having a great time.

He asked, what is different now? I said that now I cook because I am interested in cooking, and not because I need to eat. Because I am interested, I have started to try new things. And, I have learned that it's not magic, it's not limited to people with special gifts. With practice, I can cook too!

Sometimes people are gifted in an area, and it comes naturally to them. It's easy to think they're the only people who can be good at what they do. But it's not true! Someone who is interested in something can practice, and become good at it or even master it. There is research that shows that expertise in a skill depends mostly on practice. Talent helps, but practice is far more important. People with talents tend to practice because it's fun to be good at something. But, people who are interested can practice something because it's fun - and that way they become good at it! The key in education is to try to tap into that effect, to help the children discover new interests wherever possible. Wherever we can find the fun, we can practice without it being work. Of course, for each child there may be things that aren't fun; but what a gift  it is when we find new things that are!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

I Wonder & iTravel

I have been teaching kindergarten for quite a while now. Let's say that when I started teaching, telephones were not cordless, we had televisions where you had to stand up to change the channel, portable music meant a "Walkman," and hi-fi music was on vinyl.

The world is in constant change, and so are the children. Some people believe that if you teach the same year over and over you can simply fall into a routine... and that is so not true. The curriculum may continue to be the same, but the children are not.

The presentation of the curriculum must be adapted from year to year according to the needs and preferences of the children. 

Last year my classroom was mainly populated by firstborn children: this year I have lots of siblings. Last year, "Percy the Park Keeper" was the preferred book; this year they prefer the "Large Family" collection. Last year they wanted to "Wonder" about things, while this year they want to experience them.

So instead of "I Wonder," we will have "iTravel" on Fridays. Every other Friday the children will find the classroom chairs lined up in rows, like seats in an airplane. We will take the children, in their imaginations, to another country. We will have preflight briefings, and suitcases, and passports, to make it more vivid (the suitcases and passports are made out of cornflake boxes). Up on the board they will see where they are going, on a map, and we'll talk about how far away it is.

When landing, they will get their suitcases and passports and line up to go through passport control and get stamps on their passports, and they will be greeted by someone in the language of that country. After that the country guide will be waiting for them, to take them to see something representative of the country. (As you can imagine, I will play multiple roles during all this!) 

The children will mail a postcard from "the country" (actually from the school, of course!) to their parents, telling them where they have been. 

iTravel is based on an awesome book, which has all sorts of great ideas for us to use:
iTravel's launch generated enthusiasm from the children that exceeded anything we had expected. They LOVED being on the airplane, and lining up with their passports, and doing Flamenco dancing and saying "ole!"

During all this fun, we do have some sneaky ulterior motives. You see, we can slip many of the learning objectives for the year into the iTravel theme. For example, one of the things we talk about early in the year is "All About Me," where each child can talk about themselves, including where they are from, where their parents are from, what they eat there, what holidays their families celebrate, and what their country's flag looks like. We talk about "friendship" and "citizenship," and we talk about "processes" (such as getting on the plane, flying, getting off the plane, going through immigration...). 

Toward the end of the year, we will pull it all back in again to ask, "Where Are We?" We will zoom in, from looking at the whole world, to look at the United States, and then New York, and then to our own neighborhoods. We will talk about what makes a neighborhood, how they are similar and different, what all neighborhoods need, and the people in our neighborhoods and what they do.

We must reinvent ourselves every year and make learning interesting and above all FUN!

Happy travels!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Club - for 6-year-olds?

For me reading is a passion. I am completely taken to another world when I read; I feel I am part of the book. I cry, I laugh, I read the best parts over and over again. I can imagine the characters' voices and the scenery.

I am always saddened when I hear that someone does not like to read. We teach reading at our school when the children are 5 and a half, and I have taught reading to even younger kids at other schools. I have always been careful not to make a "task" out of the process of learning to read. From the very beginning, in our classroom the children are encouraged to have fun, to engage the listener by using different voices, showing expression and, as I say, playing with the words.

Because of the concern that I have, that reading becomes more of a task than a pleasure for many kids, I lead a book club as an extracurricular activity. This year I will have two book clubs going: one for 6 year olds (J1) and, next semester, I will also have one for 7 year olds (J2).

Yes, a proper book club - just like an adult one. It's not a "class," there are no evaluations. It's just for fun! We eat and drink something together and we discuss the book, share our opinions, talk about the characters and question their intentions. What will they do next, we wonder. What if...?

When we teach reading in the classroom we follow a reading system. Even though we try to make it fun and interesting, there is an implicit message that the children pick up on. The children can see that as they progress there are different levels of difficulty, and they deduce that the point of reading is to move up the levels of difficulty. Of course, in the classroom I don't move the children to a new level until they can read with expression, but when we have book club there are no levels: all of us are reading the same book, and the level doesn't change as we go. I'll say it again: in book club there are no levels: we focus only on reading with expression, on getting engaged in the story, on seeing reading as a source of fun. I have noticed that there is a shift in the perception of reading - often a sort of "aha!" moment - as the children realize that it's not about achievement or levels, and as they experience the real point of learning to read. Suddenly, the children are more involved, and are not passive readers: they learn to "feel" the book.

"Ms Marra - I have movies in my head!"

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Peace Table

Once, someone told me a story. Maybe it was true, maybe not! According to the story, a woman asked Ghandi to talk to her husband, because he (the husband) had committed to fast for a week, but never seemed to get around to actually doing it. Ghandi agreed to talk to the husband and ask him to fulfill his commitment, but told her he would only do it in a week's time, and to come back with her husband then.
The woman did as Ghandi asked, but of course she began to wonder why he had made her wait a week, so on the return visit she asked him. He answered, "I would never ask someone to do something I wouldn't do myself!"

The story haunts me at times. I teach the children some very basic life skills - but I realize I don't always do the very things I ask them to do!

One of the very important skill sets I try to work on with the children is to deal with conflict - and how not to let differences of opinion become unecessarily emotional or personal. I talk to them about how to recognize their own emotions, and to think about how their friends may be feeling. I talk to them about differences of opinion, and about how their friends may disagree with them for good reasons, and that it doesn't mean they don't like them anymore.  Another important insight, for them, is to realize that sometimes things happen by accident, and sometimes things are done on purpose.

How do we teach the children to deal with these situations? First, they have to learn to recognize their own feelings about what is happening. Second, they have to learn that attacking - whether physically or verbally - is not an appropriate response. Third, they learn that talking always helps: talking about why they feel upset, or about why they are having a difference of opinion, or about why the accident happened.

We have a Peace Table in the classroom, exactly for the talking part of the exercise. Whenever any of the children wants to, (s)he can invite a friend to come to the Peace Table to talk about whatever is on their mind. Early in the year we introduce this concept to the children, and they are amazingly open to it and simply start using it. I hope this will help them to grow up as adults who don't bottle things up inside - and who also don't explode in reaction to things people do (like I sometimes do!).