Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Rules of the Playground

As the school year starts, my little students are inundated with new information and new experiences. Because they are so overwhelmed, I try not to say "No" to them too often, instead using their actions as an opportunity to teach them about how things work in preschool.

"At school, if you want a toy your friend is playing with, we don't take it from them and then hit them with it."

"At school, tables are for coloring and gluing on, not jumping off of."

"At school, we use crayons for coloring on paper, not coloring on the walls."

But I do have some hard and fast rules on the playground, rules that need to be adhered to. There are only three, and after the first couple weeks of school, my students can recite them to me.

1. No standing on the tire swing; it only took one child going to the emergency room to have me be very stringent about this rule.

2. No throwing sand; if you have ever gotten sand in your eyes, you know that this is a biggie. And while it is hard to get sand out of my own eyes, it is truly nightmarish to have to hold down a three year old to rinse out his eyes.

3. No putting sand in the water fountain. Kids love playing with sand and water, and it is a natural inclination to use the water fountain to get water for that type of play. The only hitch is that when sand gets into the water fountain, it ceases to function. And a water fountain is a big necessity on a playground when the temperatures go up to 112 degrees. So, we tell the kids, if you need water, ask one of us and we will turn on the hose.

We are well into our third month of school, and my students shout these rules to me every day as we are about to go onto the playground. Occasionally, I will ask them why these rules are in place. Last week, I got the standard answers....

"Why don't we stand on the tire swing?"

"It's not safe!"

"Why don't we throw sand?"

"It hurts when it gets in your eyes!"

"Why don't we put sand in the water fountain?"

Now, the reasoning for this one is admittedly a little beyond my students' grasp. In general, I get some blank stares, and I remind them that if they need water, to come get me or another teacher to turn on the hose. But this time, when I posed the question, a particularly astute student shouted out...

"Because it is a drinking fountain!"

A sea of light bulbs went on over my students' heads. They all got why that rule was so important now. Of course you don't put sand in a drinking fountain - that is silly!

A little boy then asked, "Why do you call the drinking fountain the water fountain?" I don't know, I told him, but from now on that is what I am going to call it.

And funny, this year, the drinking fountain has had less sand issues so far than in years past. Funny, how one word can make such a difference. And amazing how a three year old thought of it.


Monday, October 27, 2008

Where is the Teacher?

This past weekend I went out of town. Because of this I missed a day of work, something that rarely happens. My director was my substitute, and she came in the day before, and let the class know she would be taking my place for the day. Wow! Was my class ever excited. They immediately wanted to count how many sleeps it would be until Mrs. S was their teacher. They began to wonder aloud..."I wonder what Mrs. S. will do in our class?" As their grown-ups arrived, each child excitedly exclaimed that they were having a substitute teacher on Friday.

Can I just say I was a little put out? Not one child said they would miss me. No one asked why I wouldn't be there. No one was unsure about having a different teacher. Everyone was gung-ho to have someone different in the classroom. So, while I should have been relieved to leave my class in such good hands, I was harboring some bitterness towards the director, who I know is an amazing teacher. I was going to have to win them back, but Mrs. S. is so good, that was going to be a hard battle.

So, off I went to Mexico.

I came back, unsure of what my reception would be. Would they be sad I was back? Would they ask when the next time would be that Mrs. S. would be their teacher? Would they think I was boring now? Less funny? Less awesome? (Mrs. S. seriously rocks).

I walked in to find written on my white board: "Where is Mrs. V?" with these answers written underneath...

She went to see Santa.

She might go to Dinosaur Land.

She went to Las Vegas.

She went to see "Princesses on Ice".

She went to the zoo.

She is on an island.

She went to see the Itsy Bitsy Spider.

She's at Disneyland.

She went to the stars.

Of course Mrs. S. would make her time in my classroom all about me. She knew my kids would be tentative, and she helped them deal with it.

As the kids arrived with their parents, here are some of the questions their parents asked...

"How was Disneyland?"

"What island did you visit?"

"Did you go to a planetarium?"

"Where is Dinosaur Land?"

"Um, you took the day off to see Santa??"

How funny that once the kids thought about where I might be, it became a reality to them. This point was illustrated when a student asked me about a new necklace that I was wearing, one that I had gotten while I was in Mexico. When I started to tell the story about this piece of jewelry, she immediately tuned me out and said, "Did you get it at "Princesses on Ice?" Yep, sure.

Mrs. S. also had the kids make me a "Spooky Chair". They decorated a chair with all kinds of scary spider webs, spiders, bats (all Halloween type stuff), bugs, etc. When it was all decorated, they hid it. The big plan was that I would sit on this spooky chair at snack time and get the tuna salad scared out of me.

They were so excited to scare me, they pointed out the chair right away. I was appropriately scared, and they all laughed and laughed, after they assured me that it was all pretend scary stuff. I sat on the spooky chair at snack - and assured them that sitting on a humongous plastic spider was indeed quite comfortable.

(Thanks, Kate! You rock!)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Teaching...Scottsdale in the Fall

As I rambled about in my last post, teaching about Fall in the Arizona desert is a challenge, to say the least. And even though I have abandoned it, my colleagues (who teach older children) have forged onward, hoping to someday come up with the perfect way to talk about Fall to children who live in a climate where that season simply doesn't exist.

Last week, one of these dedicated women walked into my classroom, hands on hips, wearing the fall uniform of tank top, shorts and flip flops, with sweat running down her cheeks because even though it was only 7:30 in the morning, it was already 95 degrees outside, and she says, "How the heck do we teach Fall when it is still Summer???" She didn't say "Heck", though.

I did my obligatory self righteous "I don't teach Fall, so there" shrug, when I suddenly had an epiphany. Why don't we come up with what Fall means to us? Here in the Arizona desert? And maybe put it into a book that could be used year after year? We would be famous!

So, my colleagues and I set about trying to come up with what Fall means in Scottsdale....

Everyone is sick of the heat.

The kids need school clothes but the stores only have winter clothes in stock (one of the greater mysteries of living in the desert).

The pool is too cold for Mom to go in, but everyone else thinks it is great.

The stores all have the Christmas stuff on display.


And...that was all we got. So, I went to our best resource - the kids. "What does this time of year mean to you?" I asked anyone who would stand still long enough for me to get the question out.

Some answers....

I started school.

The pool is too cold for Mom to go in, but I still love to swim.

We open the windows at night.

We planted a garden.

Oohhh...these were good. I could see a book coming together.

Yesterday afternoon, I was sitting on the playground with a couple of kindergartners; former students of mine.

Ann: "Mrs. V, have you ever made a huge pile of leaves and jumped into it?"

Me: "Why, yes I have. Have you?"

Ann (wistfully staring into space): "No, but I read about it in a book once..."

Me (inside my head): Wow, are we depriving these desert children a right of passage by not having them be able to jump into a pile of leaves??

John (excitedly):"There is a huge pile of leaves over by the fence! Why don't we gather them together and jump in them?"

The two of them then ran over to the "huge" pile of leaves - probably 12 leaves all together - and they gathered them into a "pile" about 4 inches in diameter. Then they took turns jumping up and down on that little tiny pile of leaves. They took the resulting leaf dust and made pies and cakes out of it, and served it to their friends.

So, they didn't jump into a pile of leaves. But as I recall, that was never as much fun as you thought it was going to be. Raking leaves for me was a chore - man, I hated Fall. And if I ever did decide to jump into the pile of leaves I painstakingly raked together, inevitably I either landed on a very sharp stick or dog poop. I am thinking that Ann and John's version was way more fun. Fallen leaves are a novelty, and not something you see very often. Therefore they are truly appreciated here in the desert. And maybe that should be part of this book that I think we should write.

This morning, one of my students arrived, and spun around in pure delight. (Only a very young child can spin around in pure delight. Older people just get dizzy). "Oh, Mrs. V," she said. "Isn't it just beautiful outside today?". And it was. Temps are finally a little cooler at night, and it was a wonderful morning.

"I just love the Fall" she continued.

"The Fall?" I asked, excited. Finally, I was going to find out what Fall meant to a three year old. "What does Fall mean?" I got down on my knees to hear her answer.

She stopped spinning, and looked at me with that look of pity. That look that says, "Does this woman know nothing?" (I get that one a lot.)

She bent down, picked up a leaf, and said, "Mrs. V., Fall is when leaves fall from the trees. That is Fall."

Hmmm....perhaps I have been trying too hard. Fall is when leaves fall from (some) trees. Does it really need to be more than that when you are three?

Scottsdale in the Fall

When I first started teaching (not really all that long ago), I felt it was important to teach my students all about the seasons. Spring, Summer, Winter and Fall. I mean, these were basic facts, and everyone needs to know them, right?

Summer was easy. It is a kazillion degrees in Scottsdale, Arizona in the summer, it is easy to teach that. Summer = Hot. You swim in the Summer. You pile on the sunscreen in the Summer. Easy. All the kids got Summer.

Winter was also easy - but try talking about snow to a three year old who has never seen it. The first year I taught, I read one of my favorite stories, The Snowy Day. As I am using all my best vocal inflections to convey the wonder of freshly fallen snow, a student blurts out, "Why is everything all white in the story?" It occurred to me that my favorite part of the story, when the little boy drags a stick in the snow, would make absolutely no sense to someone who had never seen how snow covers the ground. "Well, this was not a good story choice!" I berated myself. I filed that Oops under "Live and Learn."

Spring was easy as well. Because even in Scottsdale, we get excited about Spring. After surviving harsh temperatures in the low fifties for weeks on end, we wait breathlessly for that first 80 degree day. That day when we know that the thermal underwear will soon be put away, and that we can leave our warm homes to play without the risk of becoming slightly chilled, (you think I am joking...we who live in the desert are a fragile bunch). Seriously, though, Spring in this neck of the woods is breathtaking. All the desert flowers bloom, and the one tree in the neighborhood that lost its leaves is getting them back again. Spring is an easy concept to pass on.

But do you teach Fall? In Scottsdale, Fall is not all that different than Summer. Temperatures above 100 degrees? Check. Swimming everyday? As much as we can. Lots of sunscreen? You bet. Shorts, tank tops and flip flops? That is formal wear in September.

So, how do you teach it? There are no visual clues (there is only that one neighborhood tree with the changing leaves), and all the other sensory aspects of a seasonal change are absent.

My first year, I talked a lot about leaves changing colors and falling from trees. I even went up north (Fall is on full display a mere 90 minutes from home, but I think that Field Trip is a bit ambitious for three year olds) and brought down a whole bunch of fall leaves. I put them in a pool in my classroom and let the kids play and frolic in them. But the whole concept of Fall Leaves that Fell From Trees Because the Season is Changing was completely lost on them.

As I popped a Benedryl to calm my runny nose and scratchy eyes from breathing in Leaf Dust that covered my classroom due to the frolicking that took place, I decided that I wasn't going to teach seasons to my three year olds. We would learn about stuff that happened in the seasons instead, like how pumpkins grew, what things were made from corn and all about apples.

And, it has been a pretty fun time for all!