Category Archives: Social

Milk Shop

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One day this spring, my students took it upon themselves to organize an especially elaborate play scenario. It began when a student brought me a cup of (imaginary) milk. I playfully asked, “What is this? A milk shop?” to which she replied, “Yes, it is!” Soon, most of the class was participating. This sort of thing happens all of the time, of course. But this particular episode was remarkable for its complexity and for the extent to which students organically incorporated lessons from throughout the school year.

For one thing, everyone behaved with outstanding kindness. The usual leaders emerged, as expected, but they were welcoming of their peers’ ideas. I didn’t hear anyone reject anyone else’s suggestions. At one point, I heard a student ask, “Do you want to make a sign?” Often, children are inclined to make more commanding statements like, “You make the sign.” But our students are gradually learning to use more considerate language. In another instance, a student realized that one of her friends is allergic to dairy and therefore decided that she should sell almond milk, too.

But I was most surprised by the ways that students skillfully incorporated academics, often without any encouragement. For example, students naturally took to negotiating the price of milk (something that we practice regularly). They also began counting coins and plastic chips while making their purchases.

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Then one student decided that the shop needed a sign. A few others agreed and they headed off to grab some art supplies. If this had happened back in the fall, each of these students would have asked me how to spell ‘milk’ and ‘shop.’ But this group has become so much more independent and confident since then that they made their signs without any support.

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When the children decided to close the milk shop for a short while, another group of signs told customers that the doors would reopen at 4.

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As promised, when the (toy) clock struck 4, the doors opened once again.

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I have been feeling quite nostalgic recently, as I’ve recently announced that I am relocating to Washington, DC. I am going to miss my students, their families, and my coworkers quite a lot. This is but one example of the many memorable days I’ve had. I wish I had time to write them all down.

Golden Rule Misgivings

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“Treat others as you want to be treated.”

Teachers often employ some variation of that maxim in their classrooms—sometimes as an explicit lesson, sometimes in response to a conflict. (E.g., “Would you like it if someone did that to you?”) It’s a useful tool in many situations. But the golden rule, as it’s known, leads to a few notable problems. Consider the following examples:

Brian is using wooden blocks to build a house. Lucy asks if she can help, and Brian agrees. Lucy then adds a ramp on one side, but Brian responds by declaring that there’s only entrance, on the opposite side.

Meanwhile, Shauna and Mario have decided to be members of an imaginary family. Shauna wants to be the mother, she wants Mario to be the big brother, and she wants to pretend they are going to a movie theater. Mario, however, wants to be the dad, and he wants go to a restaurant.

Let’s say that I want to help Brian be a bit more inclusive of others’ ideas. I can ask him to imagine that he’s in Lucy’s place, but if he’s honest (i.e., if he’s not simply saying what he thinks I want to hear), he will likely still prefer that there be only one entrance. That is how he thinks the house should be, regardless of his role in the social interaction.

Similarly, Shauna and Mario have differing ideas about how their scenario should play out. Ask Shauna to exercise the golden rule and she might conclude, “If I were Mario, I would want to be the brother and I would go see a movie.” To her, that sounds like the most fun.

What Other People Want

Different people want different things, which is what the golden rule often fails to address. A more complicated version of the rule might ask children to imagine not just that they are in a different position, but that they also have different thoughts and feelings. However, that’s a difficult task for a young child, especially in the midst of fast-paced social interactions.

I suggest skipping that convoluted process. Don’t ask Shauna to imagine that she is Mario and then imagine what she would want, given his situation, his thoughts, and his feelings. Instead, just ask her to figure out what Mario wants. In my experience, this approach opens a dialogue that quickly reveals children’s preferences, thus clarifying what they must do to make each other happy.

The Golden Rule in a Diverse World

From a much broader view, I wonder if an overreliance on the golden rule has left us ill equipped in our modern struggle to accommodate diverse cultures. It might lead us to believe that other people are more like us than they truly are. And when that disposition is ubiquitous, people in the majority culture will probably be less likely to integrate those in the minority, and those in the minority will be pressured to assimilate.

Although that speculative assertion lacks any evidence that I’m aware of, I believe there’s some truth behind it. If, to some small extent, I can remove the default thought, “Other people want the same thing I want,” and replace it with “Other people want to be happy just like me, but they might want different things,” then I believe my students will be better prepared to navigate the complex social and cultural environments they will encounter throughout their lives.

Ambivalence Toward the Classroom Calendar

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Classroom calendars have been a mainstay in preschools and kindergartens for some time. You can find one in most classrooms. While some teachers have rejected calendar routines altogether, my feelings are more equivocal.

The daily calendar routine often represents a bit of a contradiction. Educators who scorn teacher-directed activities—or anything that has the flavor of direct instruction—paradoxically ask their students to sit and listen while they go over the calendar. If only one part of the day involves group instruction, then the calendar is a poor way to spend that time. It can become excessively repetitive, and its utility has limits.

However, calendar routines retain some considerable value. Here are some reasons I chose to keep the calendar but diminish its role, instead of removing it entirely.

Temporal Language

Young children often struggle to comprehend temporal language, yet we can’t avoid using such language with them. They ask “When?” question on a regular basis, and the words at our disposal—yesterday, next week, tomorrow, in the summer, last night, etc.—have limited meaning for young children.

That may seems an acceptable reality; generally, when a lesson is too challenging for children of a certain age, we simply postpone it. But young children are frustrated and confused by their failed grasp of temporal language. They want to know what is happening in their lives and when. If they’re better able to anticipate events, they can prepare for them, which gives them a sense of control, perhaps even fostering some self-efficacy.

A calendar is a great tool for teaching about the passage of time, of course. It’s a visual representation that gives children a feel for how quickly the days, weeks, and months pass. Whenever a question arises about when something has happened or will happen, we reference our calendar. It is particularly valuable when preparing my students for a change in routines. As one example, before my recent vacation, I pointed out to my students which days I would be gone and when I would be returning. It helped quell some anxiety.

Applying Math Skills

Although the primary goals of our classroom calendar are stated above, a secondary purpose is to practice math skills. The calendar isn’t a great tool for introducing math concepts, but it provides opportunities to apply skills that we have learned elsewhere. Here are a few notable examples:

  • We count aloud, as a group, while a designated student points to all the numbers that have already passed in the month. Learning to count requires repetition. I find that repetition is especially helpful with numbers in the teens. Counting together can also help children learn to count with one-to-one correspondence (saying one number for each item). Also, children have a chance to practice recognizing numbers.
  • When it’s time to add a number to the calendar, I ask a student to look at the previous number and figure out what comes next. I say, “What comes after 12?” or “What’s one more than 12?” Early in the school year, many students have to back up and count a string of numbers leading up to the number in question (e.g., “8, 9, 10, 11, 12… 13!”). After some practice, most students no longer need to do that. It’s an important skill—one that Common Core for kindergarten specifically addresses.
  • We often look at the calendar to figure out how many days remain before a holiday or event. For example, I might say, “Today is April 19 and Earth Day is April 22. How many more days until it’s Earth Day?” Once, I even wrote out the problem (19 + __ = 22), a very challenging yet throught provoking representation.

Our calendar is messy, with its seven-day weeks and its years broken into uneven months (there has to be a simpler way!), but it nevertheless offers a chance to apply numbers in a meaningful and engaging context.

A New Approach to Classroom Guidelines

Every school year, I spend quite a bit of time in the first few weeks establishing a set of classroom guidelines. Although the discussions we have about how best to act are not the most engaging, the time we spend up front pays off big in the long run. Activities run more smoothly, the classroom is a happier place to be, and the time we gain allows us to accomplish many more things.

The National Education Association offers a helpful list of resources that explains the research base for such practice, as well as some specific techniques. There are many effective ways to establish classroom expectations. It’s hard to identify the most essential characteristics, but one seems to stand out: giving students a say in what their classroom should be like. When students help create their classroom rules and structure, they are more likely to remember them, and they are more likely to buy into them.

However, doing this with young students presents challenges. For one, when I ask my students to tell me some rules for school, I am usually flooded with ‘don’t’ statements, such as: don’t hit; don’t kick; don’t eat the crayons. Those are good rules, and there’s a place for them in our expectations, but I want positive behaviors to be more principally featured, and it’s rare that students come up with those on their own.

Another challenge is creating something visual. Very few young students can read, of course, so having a bunch of written rules to look at wouldn’t be very meaningful. I want our classroom expectations to be prominently displayed, giving children steady reminders of how best to behave, but it’s difficult to represent many of our expectations with pictures. Try drawing or finding a picture of someone saying “Can I please have that?” in a nice voice. It’s not easy.

So this year, well aware of those challenges and not expecting to overcome them entirely, I am trying a new approach. I presented my students with four broad expectations. I expect that just about every issue that comes up at school will fall under one or more of these broad expectations. They are:

  1. Be kind. Make people happy.
  2. Use nice words and nice voices.
  3. Take care of toys and other things.
  4. Try your best.

I included some clip art that at least alludes to each expectation, and I hung the expectations in a big open space right behind where I sit during our group activities.

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We went over my four guidelines as a group and the kids gave me specific examples of each. With that context provided, they were able to come up with many examples of positive behavior.

Later, during center time, I asked students to tell me specific guidelines, or “good things to do at school,” as I phrased it. Above my writing, they drew pictures of children abiding by those guidelines.  Then I began hanging their ideas below my four broad expectations.

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Having the students draw the pictures gives them a more active role in creating the guidelines. And though the drawings may be vague for most of us, the students who drew them can tell you what’s happening.

Throughout the school year, I will teach many of what I call social lessons. We’ll talk about different social situations and we’ll come up with ideas for how best to handle them. Some lessons will be on areas I’d like to see the class improve; some will address recurring conflicts; and some will deal with issues that frankly just bother me. With this new system, we can add new guidelines whenever we like. We have one new guideline so far:

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By the end of the year, there will be many more. I’m excited to see how my students respond.