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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Memorable Moments

Over the holidays, I was getting in some last-minute shopping when I heard someone call my name.  I turned to see two Walker Upper School students whom I taught when they were five years old.  Although I see them at school occasionally in passing, they stopped their busy holiday schedules to call me over.  What a treat to stop and chat with these young men for a quite some time.  I was impressed by their genuine interest in me and my holiday plans.  After catching up a little, we retold some of our favorite stories from kindergarten.   While walking away, I thought how proud I am of our continued relationship over the years.  They will always be partly “mine” because I am so invested in their lives….and maybe surprisingly, they are somewhat invested in mine.

About two weeks later, a Walker senior whom I taught in kindergarten, appeared in our building delivering a package.  We started exchanging news from our families.  He said, “I have a free period right now, so I can stay and talk a little while.”  He came into my office for about 15 minutes, and I found myself engaged in easy, interesting conversation…a conversation that I might have had with a colleague or peer.  I was overwhelmed with a sense of pride in my “boys.”

The visits with these young men brought my thoughts back to the days when I was privileged to have those students as curious five-year-olds…when the parents and I worked together to nurture them academically, socially, and emotionally.  I thought about the relationships that began 12 to 14 years ago….meaningful relationships that were established with young children that have remained over these many years.  What a joy to watch these boys transition into mature, responsible young adults…young adults that are critical thinkers with theories of their own they can defend…young adults who are caring and find time to have conversations with adults who have been involved in their lives.  I will be one elated educator as I, with their parents, watch these young men walk across the graduation stage and begin their next journey well prepared and supported.

A High Calling

Recently, an independent firm conducted a survey of our school to help us with our five-year strategic planning.  Many parents, students, and faculty participated and results found that one of Walker’s greatest assets is its teachers.  Students felt that teachers were willing to stay after school to help them with their academics and genuinely cared about them and their success.  Most of us can look back on teachers who have taught us and pull out one or two whom we felt truly cared about us.  For me, one was Ms. Shepherd, my senior English teacher and annual staff sponsor, who treated us as individuals with different talents…convincing me that I could be editor of our annual that year…an experience that I still treasure.

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins discusses the importance of getting the right people on the bus…the need to find the right folks for the right job.  Getting the right people on the bus can be a challenging process for schools.  It involves finding excellent teachers who are committed to students and to a school’s vision and mission.  It is finding the Ms. Shepherd’s of this world who built on her students’ interests and allowed them to shine.  Walker recruits and strives to retain the best, most-talented, committed teachers who are dedicated to giving their students a caring, engaging educational experience.  A few weeks ago I visited Mrs. Katherine Harrison’s Fifth Grade Spanish class.  I was amazed at how well the children responded as she conducted the entire class in Spanish!  She created groups and assigned projects according to students’ interests.  They were excited to be there, and I left wishing my French classes had been as well taught when I was in high school!

So how important are teachers really? Research indicates that teachers are key to student learning (Inlay, 2003). U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, believes that the best thing you can do for children is to get them in front of an extraordinary teacher (Net Assets, 2012). Teachers set the climate for the classroom and provide role models for their students (Bond, 2010).  They create a class culture where children feel a sense of belonging and feel free to take risks, to make mistakes.  This culture provides an atmosphere of collaboration that is less conducive to bullying, teasing, and exclusion.  At Walker, teachers of each division are passionate about their students…“called,” if you will, and specifically trained to teach the particular age with which they interact daily.  They know their students; they know when they are having a bad day or when they are celebrating a personal win.  They are happy with them and sad with them.  They cheer for them at plays, games, and assemblies.  This connection is one reason Walker teachers love to teach and one way they demonstrate their authentic interest in their students beyond the classroom, creating meaningful relationships that will remain in one’s memory for a lifetime.