Friday, May 6, 2016

She Will Not Be Silenced: Or, the "Appropriateness" of Being Five

I've been reading a lot of really thought-provoking pieces lately about early childhood as a profession and childhood as a whole. This post from Language Castle about the "cute" debate (a topic I've tackled in this space) and this one from Happiness is Here about the misuse of the term "play based learning" have really given me pause and encouraged me to reflect on some of my own practices as an early childhood professional and the mom of a young kid.

Childhood is loud. Most children, my own included, are still discovering the world around them on a daily basis. They brim with excitement and enthusiasm when they make such discoveries. When good things happen to adults, we cheer, we high five, we get excited. So why does it always seem so socially unacceptable for kids to exhibit the same behaviors?

Recently, I was at a bookstore with my five-year-old daughter. We were in the children's section of the store and my kid was reading and discussing her book with anyone in the vicinity who would listen - and even those who wouldn't. Yes, she was reading rather boisterously. The volume of her voice continued to grow louder with her enthusiasm for the book she was reading. After a few minutes of this, I noticed a woman - presumably another mother, as she was sitting with two small children in the same section - giving my child less than friendly glances as her volume increased. After her stink eyes failed to phase my child (who honestly didn't even notice), she began to direct her stare at me. Initially, I considered reminding my own kid to lower her voice but then I didn't. Why should she be expected to be any more quiet or any less boisterous than the other children running around the children's section of this store? The whole area was loud. Why was this woman singling out my kid?

After several minutes of my pointed ignorance of the situation, the woman actually approached me and said something along the lines of, "You really need to teach her to be more quiet in public." Um...what? I am rarely at a loss for words, but I have no trouble admitting here that I was struck silent by this admonition. Seriously...what?

Shortly after this, the woman collected her children and exited the store. My own kid, blissfully unaware of what had just taken place, continued to comment excitedly on the book she was reading. I sat down with her and joined in the discussion,  never once considering asking her to lower her voice.

This incident, along with much of the reading I've been doing lately, has me considering the larger implications of what people think of as "developmentally appropriate" for young kids. Sure, there are social conventions that kids will certainly adopt as they navigate their growing understandings of the world. But the last time I read an awesome book, I excitedly squealed over it with a friend who had also recently finished it. And guess what? We were in public when the exchange took place. In my own excitement, maybe I simply missed the hairy eyeballs turned my way, if they were there at all. So why shouldn't kids be afforded the same courtesy? No one challenged the "developmental appropriateness" of my volume or actions.

I think this really circles back to child agency.  If adults can't control the actions of the children around them, the world devolves into chaos...right? Look, I get it. There are times and places where kids do need to understand that loud voices aren't the best choice. But when reading a book, in a children's bookshop? I just don't get it.

Child agency is something I think about a lot, and it's something that I wrestle with in my own practice. But I can't help but worry that instances such as this get internalized, particularly by girls. The messages girls receive, both implicit and explicit, often convey that their voices aren't as important, that their opinions are somehow less, that their thoughts don't carry as much value. So what lesson is my kid taking from a situation in which someone attempts to silence her? Thankfully, in this case, my kid was absorbed in an activity that brings her immense joy - losing herself in a book - and she didn't catch it. This time. But what about next time?

I pride myself on being pretty straightforward with my own kid, and the children I teach. I take every opportunity to reiterate the importance of critical thinking when opportunities present themselves. But still, I have to wonder: when did reading a book loudly become socially unacceptable? When did enthusiasm become something undesirable? What does the attitude of this woman toward my child imply for society at large? These are questions I can't really answer, only wrestle with and consider to inform my parenting and my teaching practice. I'm certainly inspired to continue advocating for children - all children - to own their voices and not be afraid to speak up.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Defining Masculinity as the Absence of Femininity - A Guest Post at Her Next Chapter

Recently, I had the thrill and the honor to be the guest blogger at Her Next Chapter, where I shared a story of masculinity in my preschool classroom, by way of temporary tattoos.

Hop on over there and let me know what you think!

Monday, December 7, 2015

A Sense of Ownership

How do we convey respect for children on a daily basis? It isn't always the grand gestures that are the most significant. Sometimes it is as simple as honoring their processes and saving their works in progress, helping them advocate for the hard work they are doing, honoring the choices they make and the reasons they make them.

I am often struck by how much I can learn when I really stop and listen to what the children are telling me. "Can we save this?" really means "We are working hard here. We want you to recognize and respect the work we've done and give us the opportunity to have ownership here." How can I deny them access to their process? It's not about my power in the situation, it's about theirs.

It's not my classroom; it's ours. Respecting that ownership contributes to the richness of our community. Partnerships flourish in a community of respect. Ideas come to fruition when there is time to explore and create. "Can we save this?" Of course. I want them all to know that I eagerly anticipate everything that is yet to be.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Moving Past "Cute"

I spend a lot of my professional life trying to be in dialogue with those around me, as I have learned over the years that I have much to learn from those I encounter in my work. So it is with a bit of chagrin that I begin this reflection. If I'm being perfectly candid, I feel the need to rant a bit.

I was recently documenting some work my students had done when a colleague walked by and commented, "Oh, how cute!" I understand that this comment was surely meant with only the best of intentions, but come on! Is there no better word we can use to describe the work the children are doing on a daily basis? Is there no other way to describe the learning that is clearly taking place? Can we not dig a little deeper and recognize the ways in which children display their understanding of the world around them?

I was using snapshots I'd collected for the entire semester to showcase just a fraction of the amazing things the students in my class engage in regularly. The cute comment struck me as just one of many ways we underestimate children. It bothers me that every single thing associated with children is labeled as cute. Yes, kids are adorable. That's part of what endears them to us. But they are so much more than that. If we want to foster a strong image of children as capable, competent, autonomous individuals we need to move past only seeing them at the surface level. We need to take time to appreciate the work children do and value their contributions to the classroom communities in which they spend so much of their lives.

If we want to truly honor the hard work that children do on a daily basis - work that is thoughtful, purposeful, and meaningful in their lives - we need to get past "cute" and acknowledge the commitment that goes into each experience and creative offering they bring into being. Puppies are cute. Teddy bears are cute. This work is so much more.

Children value what we think of them and how we respond to their contributions to the world. What are we really telling them when we focus solely on the surface? Looking at the photographs here, many words jump to mind immediately, and not one of them is "cute": imaginative, creative, interesting, careful, patient, inventive, surprising, intentional, meaningful. Children brought forth these offerings through the process of sense-making. We owe it to them to put a little more effort and a lot less flippancy into how we speak to them about that sense-making. We owe it to them to offer support in ways that lets them know we appreciate their efforts and want to learn with and from them. We can't do that if all we see when we look here is something "cute."

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Honor (Them) System

It is the age-old question in programs that are emergent and child-directed: What do you do when the children are interested in something that doesn't exactly mesh with your beliefs as a teacher, the culture of the classroom, your personal ideologies?

As a younger teacher (if I'm being honest, even as a more seasoned teacher), I tended to ignore these opportunities for exploration. I figured if I quietly ignored these topics, they would simply fade away. It's true that this tactic has had some measure of success, but as topics and ideas recur year after year, I've had to really ask myself what I'm really trying to do as an early childhood practitioner who is learning alongside children every day. As the years have passed, I have attempted to move farther and farther out of my comfort zone, but currently I have an inquiry emerging in my classroom that is forcing me to do some major soul searching: princesses.

I: "Look, I have on a princess dress!"
It's not that princesses have never been a hot topic in my classroom before. But it's becoming more and more evident to me that in order to really honor the children and respect their burgeoning abilities, I have to set aside my own discomfort and meet them where they are.

It's not princesses that bother me, per se, but more what princesses represent in our overly-sexualized, Disney Princess consumer culture. I am bothered by children, especially girls, striving to emulate characters that focus on outer beauty and "getting a man" as their main goals in life, and more importantly, characters that lack agency and autonomy. (For some helpful resources regarding princesses, click here, here, and here).

Recently, the topic of princesses came up in a conversation about engineers (Huh?!). When I asked the children to tell me what princesses do, there were two recurring themes: they brush their hair and they get a man. I was horrified. Later, I asked a group of girls why they want to be princesses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they could not articulate what it is a princess "does" or why they wanted to be princesses in the first place. I find this completely fascinating. There was a pretty significant shift in my thinking about the idea of a princess inquiry in this moment - what could we do to open a dialogue about why these children are so enamored with princesses in the first place?

E: "When I sit like this, I look like a princess."
So, in an attempt to honor the children as curious, capable learners, I am moving to meet them where they are. Am I excited to spend the next days, weeks, possibly months discussing princesses? Actually, yes. I consider myself a teacher researcher and as such, I'm excited to at least try to get to the bottom of the infatuation with princesses. While I take issue with what I consider to be unhealthy about princess culture, I am excited to open up a dialogue and perhaps give children pause to think about things a little differently. The important thing is, we are on this journey together and I am doing my best to honor them as learners who have the right to be supported by their teacher. Stay tuned!

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Choice to Invite

The way we choose to display the materials in our classrooms communicates a lot about the way we view children. Being thoughtful with the materials, and taking the time to present materials in an attractive, inviting way, indicates to children, and the broader community, several things:

  • We value their thinking
  • We respect their work
  • We appreciate the processes in which they engage

In the busy and sometimes hectic world of early childhood education, it can be tempting to simply toss out a bucket of Legos and walk away. But taking the time to stop and reflect shows children that you respect them as thinkers, creators, and builders. It sharpens their sense of your view of them - as capable, inquiring minds who are ready to take on the wonders they encounter each day. It also conveys the message that you have a deep respect for the materials in the classroom and encourages them to internalize the same respect in themselves. Setting high expectations creates an opportunity for children to rise to these expectations; cultivating a community of independent, autonomous children requires this type of thinking.

When the choice is made to make the shift to creating invitations, as opposed to simply tossing out materials with no regard to their presentation, the results are amazing. I've reflected before on the ways in which children tend to be underestimated and I've now come to wonder if it is really on us, the adults, to create opportunities for children to show us just how capable they really are.

It has been fascinating for me to see how thoughtful invitations empower children to see themselves as capable. I often talk about the fact that children still manage to surprise me with their thinking on a regular basis. Never has this been more clear than when I set up materials in an engaging, attractive way and the children rearrange them into something unexpected and spectacular. It is heartening to me to see children take the initiative to set up invitations for themselves and their classmates, invitations full of wonder, beauty, and promise.

It is a wonderful testament to just how capable they are when they start creating invitations that are as intricate and interesting as any adult's!

"Children have real understanding only of that which they invent themselves." - Jean Piaget

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Wonder of Light

It is with a somewhat amused expression on my face that I write this post. Although I have been fortunate to work with children for the better part of the last ten years, I seem to somehow forget how often they surprise me.

We are currently in the middle of several long-term, large-scale projects and inquiries in our classroom. The value is immeasurable: the exploration, the reflection, the encounters in which the children are engaging. Really, it is difficult to articulate so much goodness. I am so proud of the work we are doing. And because of the exciting work happening in the classroom, I sometimes (often) forget to focus on all of the equally amazing things that are happening in the spaces in between - the spontaneous wonderings, the unplanned moments of inquiry, the observations and explorations that drive the moments of our days. Today, I was fortunate to have a reminder of how much the children have to offer, of how much I have to gain, when I spare thoughts for those moments outside of the bigger pictures, those spontaneous moments of goodness that give me pause. These are the moments that remind me to be grateful for the opportunity I have to learn alongside children every day.

"I catched the light in my hands, look."

"It keeps moving away."

"If I make my hands a circle, I can keep the light in there."

My gratitude for this moment is overwhelming. It reminds me to be thoughtful, to be respectful of those seemingly small moments. It reminds me to appreciate the spaces in between. It reminds me to take a moment to appreciate the wonder of light and the small hands that catch it.