More Than Just Cute Kids in Costumes

Halloween

Last fall the Preschool held its annual Halloween Parade where students and teachers dressed in their favorite costumes and walked around campus.  You could hear remarks like, “oh how cute,” coming from students and teachers as they saw super heroes, princesses, and even Elvis stroll by them.   There is no doubt, these preschool children were adorable!  However, I could not help but wonder if our admirers realized these children were far more than just cute kids in costumes.  They are amazing learners, thinkers, explorers, investigators.  Do they realize how critical these early years are in a child’s development?

These children are young and have lots to learn.  Parents might ask if it really is necessary to start Walker in Preschool.  Research says a definite YES (Estes, 2004)!  According to Ms. Estes and many other researchers, the first 5 years are paramount in setting a foundation for the future.  Children are born with a vast number of dendrites in their brains that are just waiting to make connections and expand.  If those connections are not made early, they will eventually prune themselves to make the brain more efficient.  Recently Dr. JoAnn Deak, researcher and brain expert, visited Walker.  She stressed the importance of taking advantage of windows of opportunity for learning that appear in the brain during the first few years of a child’s life.  These “windows” represent the prime time the brain is ready to learn.  When missing this optimal time, learning is more difficult.

As educators, we need to help our students make many, many connections to create a strong foundation on which children will build future learning… connecting both hemispheres of the brain to enable them to work together.  But the children just play, many might say.  With young learners play is their work.  They use manipulatives, props, materials for trial and error to discover and investigate possibilities…to problem-solve and cultivate a spirit of wanting to know.  They answer open-ended questions and think for themselves to envision options and possibilities.  This empowers children with self-confidence and a willingness to take risks.  The brain loves it when we make mistakes so that it can carve new routes for neurons.  This allows the brain to grow and create more connections and strengthen those already established.

Walker’s Preschool has many resources that make it the right choice for a young child and his/her growing brain.  Students experience co-curricular areas of art, computer, library, music, physical education, science and Spanish multiple times each week.   The early years are prime for learning a foreign language per Dr. Deak, so students go to Spanish class 3 times each week.  These co-curricular teachers are trained in their specific subject areas, trained to teach young children, and experienced as facilitators to encourage critical thinking in our youngest learners.  For example, one library class read the book, It’s Not A Box, and discussed how a box may not be a box, but a canoe, a guard house or a sled, if we use our imaginations to examine it in different configurations.

We also have a learning specialist who is trained to spot a bump in the learning journey that may be addressed early before it becomes a stumbling block later.  We have a licensed counselor and registered play therapist who, again, is trained specifically for young children and their needs.  She visits each classroom for monthly guidance lessons about topics such as being a good friend or bullying prevention.

Young learners are amazing…when exposed to developmentally appropriate activities, they blossom and grow, all the while establishing strong foundations on which to build as they progress with their education.  Some of these activities include place value and patterning that prepares students for higher-level concepts in algebra; and decoding, and critical thinking that improve fluency and comprehension in literacy.  I am passionate about preparing our youngest students to be ready for what lies ahead of them.  We align curriculum so that Preschool students are well prepared for what is required of them in Lower School.  This allows learning to be fun and children to be successful rather than struggling to catch up and learn background information before being able to move forward with the curriculum in their grade level.  It simply isn’t fair to ask our children to address concepts that have not been introduced and ask them to make academic connections that were not established as background knowledge earlier.

I love my job!  Who wouldn’t enjoy working with bright, energetic young children and dynamic, enthusiastic teachers every day?  This energy and excitement is contagious.  We get excited together as we discover how magnets jump in our hands or discover how to program a Beebot robot to travel on the path we have designed.  These students are certainly adorable children who were cute when they dressed in their favorite costumes at Halloween.  They were cute when they toured parents around the Preschool Art Show and explained their artistic creations.  They were cute when they dressed for the tea party or the homecoming pep rally in their Walker wear.  But they are so much more!  They are serious learners who are embarking on an important educational journey that is crucial for reaching their potential.

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Passion, Progress, Purpose

BRAIN_temp coverIn our fifth grade class meeting last week, I had one of those moments that we, as teachers, hold sacred.  It became apparent to me that my students still didn’t quite understand the symbolism of the rubber bands as they relate to learning and the brain research presented by JoAnn Deak. In early January, JoAnn Deak visited The Walker School and shared her latest brain research…and the example of how rubber bands symbolize areas of strength (large, stretchy rubber bands) as well as areas of weakness (small, inflexible rubber bands).

So I reread Deak’s Your Fantastic Elastic Brain book aloud to them. Although they enjoyed practicing the pronunciations of the words amygdala and cerebellum along with me, I could tell they still didn’t realize the significance. There was no connection. I got smiles and polite nods, but not a single light bulb flickered on.  I tried a new tactic. I asked them to guess what my largest, most elastic rubber band was. I heard things like:

“Speaking!” “English!” “Reading!” and “Writing!”

“Yes!” I said. “Those are my PASSION bands, and do you know how they got sooooo stretched? I loved writing and reading books and teaching others when I was young. I told them stories about how I used to come home from school and play “school” for three hours until my mom called me down for dinner. (Some of the looks of disgust/incredulity from my students were priceless by this point.) I went on to tell them that I remember fishing through the trash for discarded workbooks on the last day of school so I could use the unused pages for my imaginary students at home. (By this point the chuckles grew louder.) And then I dropped the bomb.

“Guess what was happening to my brain every time I read, and wrote a story, and pretended to be a teacher in my little classroom upstairs? IT WAS STRETCHING! The areas required for those tasks were getting worked and stretched and expanded and strengthened, but it didn’t feel like work at all. I was just following my passion.”  

I then made it personal: “So, Shane, you know all those basketball videos you make on iMovie with your buddies for fun? You are doing EXACTLY what I was doing when I played school. You’re having fun, exploring your passions, and stretching parts of your brain that might not have otherwise been stretched.”

Rhodes chimed in, “My stretchiest rubber band is definitely organizing. I love it.”

“Mine is definitely talking,” said Adam (one of my highly communicative students).

I continued on to talk about my small “PROGRESS” rubber bands – the ones I wish I’d stretched more as a child. I talked about math with Mrs. Herrmann and Mrs. Hussey…Mrs. Rhodes’s dreaded physics class…Mr. Parkhurst’s chemistry course…and even my public speaking courses in college. (My class was shocked to learn that I would much prefer speaking to parents one-on-one than giving a large lecture on Parents’ Night.) These were all taught by amazing teachers whom I still respect and admire to this day, but because the content was not my passion, I didn’t ever grit my teeth, press on, and really S-T-R-E-T-C-H them.

We ended our discussion by viewing Shane’s video entitled “Elite Dudez: Episode II” and it was everything I had hoped it would be. The flawless technical editing on iMovie, musical overlay, exaggerated celebration, and passion encompasses everything I love about teaching fifth graders.

What’s important about moments like these? I am reminded that the power of knowing this information about the human brain is, I believe, better than any knowledge I impart to my students this year. Understanding these seemingly silly, symbolic rubber bands can literally open doors that would have otherwise remained closed. Who knows where Shane’s videos will lead him? Where Rhodes’s passion for organizing will take her? What doors will open up because of Adam’s quick wit and ease in speaking? We, as adults, can only look back and wish that we had stretched our bands more. How wonderful it is that we are showing these young minds the power of stretching both their PASSION and their PROGRESS bands!

If you’d like to see what stretching looks like (and you need a good laugh), please check out Shane’s latest basketball video. It’s a priceless reminder of progress, passion, and the purpose behind everything we do here at Walker.

About the Author: Mrs. Kate Carter (’99) is the fifth grade Language Arts teacher in the Lower School. She has been at Walker since she was in Preschool but has been teaching for six years at the school. Mrs. Carter currently serves as the upper elementary Language Arts coordinator.