Planting seeds…

I certainly haven’t been huge on this whole blogging phenomenon, but it seems like the easiest way for me to keep track of my ideas and thoughts and goals related to my new job as an environmental education specialist at an early learning center and after school program. I’m keeping this thing private right now, so anyone reading this should know what my background is and where I’m at. If that changes, I’ll make appropriate adjustments.

I spent this morning with the Roadrunners, a preschool class with a lot of students who just missed the Kindergarten cutoff. The lead teacher, Christel, gave me a lot of great positive feedback and there are also some lessons on general ECE class management that I’d like to remember from her:

  • During snack time, one student stated that he needed a spoon. Instinctively, I asked another student to pass him a spoon. Christel said, “One way I would have approached that is saying, ‘Ben, what are you going to do to make sure you get a spoon?'” I tried to practice this approach throughout the day, both with the pre-K kids and with the 1st graders later on. Amazing, simple way to empower students! I love it. I told her to keep this kind of feedback coming– so helpful!
  • At lunch, she went around the class counting “trash items” in each student’s lunch. They’re keeping a class tally. In conversations with friends and family, I’ve been very resistant to this approach to environmental education, but Christel did a great job of encouraging kids to think about the “why” (e.g., Do you want to live next to a big garbage pile? Neither do other people or plants or animals…). She pointed out that it was easy to see who the “experienced” Roadrunners were, since they had their lunches in all reusable containers (totally true).

Other thoughts on classroom management: I know pre-K students have a short attention span. I experienced this today during “morning meeting.” I felt like I was trying to balance my ideals of “this should be free-form and organic” and “kids just need to play” with “I need to provide some structure.” There were some kids who were clearly tuned out, and I decided to basically ignore it and definitely not take it personally (although I was worried that it would make such an awesome teacher as Christel think I was a bad teacher or something). Here’s how morning meeting went:

  • We (Christel, 9 students, and I) sat down in the meeting area. Christel started to introduce me and then told me this was my soapbox, so I rolled with it (she had already told them I was “the environmental specialist, whatever that means.” This prompted a longish conversation about what it might mean, including kids relating my position to playing the violin and other things that sounded similar to “environment.” Hilarious).
  • I told them that I would be visiting their class for a little while once a week to talk and do activities about things like plants, bugs, and rocks. There was lots of chattering, so I introduced my “deer ears” strategy (which is not exactly a proven practice but I just like it so much). We talked for a bit about how different animals hear differently. One student asked, “How do bunnies hear?” I said, that’s a great question. Christel handed me a pen, pointed to a flipchart easel and said, “You can use this if you want to write things down” so I did.
  • There were lots of other questions. The easel heading was What We Want to Know About. Later I added the word BUGS since one of the students (or Christel) brought out a giant basket of toy bugs and this sparked lots of questions, such as “Which bugs bite?” “Why do Red Ants bite?” “Why are bugs different colors?” I hope we can get to these questions in the coming weeks. Some lesson/activity ideas I have so far are:
  1. Bringing pictures/examples of bugs and asking kids to decide whether they’re “harmful” or “helpful.” We can discuss characteristics that are harmful (biting, stinging, eating our food, making us sick, etc.) and helpful (making honey, eating harmful insects, helping plants grow, etc.). Then if there’s time we could work on creating our own “perfect” bugs.
  2. Sorting toys/pictures by color, shape, size, etc. Maybe some kind of game associated with this?
  3. Making up or reading stories about why bugs look like they do. Or why they bite..
  4. I could pretend that (and even dress up like) I’m a certain bug, and they could interview me like I was a guest on a TV/radio show. That way they could ask me some of the specific questions they have without me being the “expert.”

Alright, so these are just some ideas, but it’s good to get them out. And I’d love to hear any thoughts!

After the bug talk was fizzling (they were starting to fight over the bug toys a lot, and arguing over whether a spider was a bug a lot, and starting to tell lots of war stories about when their moms got bitten/stung by spiders/bees/scorpions), one of the students asked “How do bones sink into rocks?” I asked what he meant, and he started telling me all about fossils. So that’s on the question list.

Then another student asked, “How do plants grow?” There were lots of immediate responses in which students talked about “seeds,” “sprouts,” and “roots,” and at the same time other kids were complaining of feeling very tired, so I decided it was time for a plant parts dance. I also suggested the sleepy kids get a drink of water, but this was clearly not part of the classroom routine (I misread Christel as the hippie sort who thinks a drink of water will solve all problems. I’m kinda relieved that that doesn’t seem to be the case. But I will have to come up with some other alternatives to “suck it up”).  I started teaching them the singing/dancing to “My Roots Go Down,” but I didn’t follow any sort of logical teaching sequence (movements first vs. singing first, etc.), and I kinda just let the kids take over with their own suggestions until it got just a little too silly. That’s when we all became seeds.

This was the highlight of my morning. Christel had to step out, so I was alone in the class with 9 kids, seven of whom were crouched in tiny balls on the ground. They were arguing over who would get to water them, and I was all about delegating roles, but it became apparent that I should play God/Mother Nature in this scenario. I watered them by brushing my hands a couple of times down each student’s back, then I pretended to be the sun by tapping my fingers gently on their backs. This quickly turned into playful tickling, but not out of control. Still cute and hilarious. I asked “is there anything else I need to do?” and of course there were too important things I was forgetting: soil, and love (kids are amazing). So first I tucked them into their soil beds, and then I said very nice things to them and sang a bit. The two girls grew into flowers that conveniently matched their clothes, but somehow the boys all turned into poison ivy (which has three leaves and a red stem, or so they told me). I touched the boys and got very itchy, so they must have been right!

After that we went back to the deer ears (kids were getting very antsy by that point). I walked around the circle and cupped my hands just behind each student’s ears to demonstrate how loud it can sound. I really like using this as a “quiet down” exercise because it helps kids realize how loud sounds can get overwhelming. We practiced our ears some more, then we looked at some plants they had found at Bartram’s garden. We looked at one round, tennis-ball looking object for awhile, trying to decide what plant part it was (we eventually decided that it was a fruit with a seed inside, but maybe not a fruit people could eat). Then we washed our hands and got ready for lunch.

This was all within the course of about an hour (beforehand was outside play time, after that was lunch). I’m not even going to bother with after school right now– Even though it is the bulk of my job, I feel more prepared for and comfortable doing the after school stuff since I can relate the experience to summer camp so easily. That said, my learning curve is still veeerrrry steep there as well.

All in all, a big, exciting first day of teaching. I’m looking forward to meeting the other pre-school classes this week and beginning to chart out my interactions with each of them!

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