Songs & Emergent Literacy

“Songs & Emergent Literacy” was originally published on October 25, 2018. We are posting it in celebration of our up coming professional development workshop Emergent Literacy using Objects on November 21, 2019.


Drum and LiteracyIf you visit our toddler and twos classes you are bound to hear joyful voices singing songs as they begin their morning routine. The classes sing hello to each student, use songs during their morning circles, and to help ease transitions throughout their day. While a chorus of young voices is undeniably sweet and fun, their singing is helping to set a strong academic foundation by strengthening the children’s pre-literacy skills.

Songs & Vocabulary

When children hear a song, they are exposed to new words. The words that young children hear, whether spoken or sung, are the words that form their vocabulary. The repetitive nature of many song lyrics, combined with the fact that children are likely to hear the same song many times, gives them the opportunity to fully learn new words. Later in their academic lives, this understanding of a variety of words will help with their ability to read and their overall reading comprehension.

Songs, Sounds, Rhymes

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For very young children, listening to songs exposes them to the many different sounds that make up our words. As you sing a song, you emphasize certain sounds and by doing so, you highlight the building blocks of our language. Singing gives the youngest children the opportunity to mimic and communicate with these sounds in a way that is ideal for toddlers. When singing, they are given the freedom to be loud, let their voices ring, and play with sounds. Additionally, a child whose words often slur together or who regularly skips words while speaking is often able to sing a tune in such a way that an adult will know what they are singing. This can hold true even in cases where the adult is not able to understand many of the individual words being sung. Children rely on the sounds they learned while singing when they start sounding out words and when they are developing the ability to read.

As young children develop pre-literacy skills, they begin to have the ability to rhyme. Singing songs such as Willoughby Wallaby Woo, Down by the Bay, and Silly Nilly Name Song allow children to explore rhyming sounds while singing. Pausing before you say the rhyming word can give the children the chance to fill it in, which helps children progress from hearing rhymes to creating their own rhymes. These singing games can provide hours of entertainment while challenging young children to explore sounds and rhymes.

Songs, Symbols, & Letter Recognition

A crucial component of learning to read is recognizing that the letter “m” means the sound “mmm”. In order to learn this, children must first understand the use of symbols, because the letter “m” is a symbol for the sound “mmm”. Children begin recognizing symbols well before they are ready to read and symbol recognition is considered an important pre-literacy skill. While using songs to help children understand letters may seem unlikely, song cards offer the ideal opportunity to pair singing with symbol recognition.

Songs cards are images that are used to represent or be a symbol for a particular songs. For example, an image of a sun might be used to represent Mr. Sun and a star might be used to represent Twinkle, Twinkle.  When using song cards, make sure that image is large, engaging and/or colorful. Also be sure that the images are double sided and laminated for durability. Then dramatically spread the song cards out in the middle of the circle and encourage the class to explore the cards. As they pick up the images, sing the corresponding song. Over time, children will learn that specific images represent their favorite songs and will go out of their way to find these images. Young children love using these song cards because it helps them to communicate what songs they want to sing  without having to come up with the name of the song or even the tune. In essence, song cards help young children to learn about symbols in a way that is appealing to them by helping to fulfill their need to communicate their wants and desires.

Join Us & Learn More

Singing is one of many ways that can help young children develop pre-literacy skills in a way that is developmentally appropriate and intrinsically rewarding. At SEEC, we use books, art, and objects engage young children in literacy. If you are interested in learning more, come to our professional development workshop Emergent Literacy using Objects on November 21, 2019.3:30 pm.

 

Our second posting in our Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Series.

i-jgMbrGZ-X2The Journey

People familiar with Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) will often describe it as a journey or a process. Now that I am a couple of years into my own DEAI experience, I can finally say that I understand what they mean. Each time I feel like I make some headway, I find that something comes along and reminds me that I still have work to do.

Such was the case at a recent educator workshop I was co-leading, Never Too Young. Going into the workshop, I was feeling confident and prepared. Overall the morning went well and there were many meaningful conversations. During the section where we discussed relationships with families, we asked participants to split up in small groups and talk about one of a variety of scenarios that we described as, “difficult conversations.” As each group shared their thoughts, it became clear that some of the participants were uncomfortable because the scenarios portrayed lifestyle choices with which they disagreed. It was a conundrum; the focus of the workshop was to help educators create an inclusive environment where children can develop a positive sense of self.  Yet, I could see that the discussion made some people uncomfortable and moreover, these participants had stopped listening.

i-pKMtvLP-X2As a facilitator, I recognized my role in their discomfort and I felt like we needed to reconsider our approach – we were talking about inclusion after all. I had several questions:

How do we navigate conversations when peoples’ ideals are not aligned with inclusivity? Was it my role to challenge those ideas? What are SEEC’s priorities when providing these types of training? And most importantly, how do we keep the children’s best interests at the center of what we do?

At the next session of the workshop, I made a few modifications. We added inclusive language to our introduction so that participants knew what to expect and understood we would talk about some issues with which they many not agree. Before the scenarios, we reiterated the role of the caregiver as the decision maker and the role of the educator as someone whose role was to make a child feel safe and loved. I think this helped, but we are definitely still thinking things through.

DEAI and Educator Programs

i-bH6jtnR-X2In addition to this specific experience, we have been thinking about our entire menu of educator workshops through a DEAI lens. Some of the changes are small and obvious, and others are still in the “thinking” phase, but as I said….it’s a journey. Below is a list of ways we are thinking about DEAI in terms of our professional development options. These perspectives are with us as we rethink content and introduce new conversations to our educator programs.

 

 

 

  1. Demonstrating how objects can tell stories of similarities and differences.
  2. Exploring ways community visits can:
    • Provide children with experiences to connect with peoples and cultures that are different or similar to their own, which may not always be the case in their classroom.
    • Create opportunities for children to build social emotional skills, especially in terms of empathy and considering perspectives other than their own.
    • Provide real-life examples of people working for change.
    • Provide real age-appropriate experiences for children to make change.
  3. i-LbjP8rd-X2Considering how the museum community views families and young children and how we can help museum professionals understand that children are capable and should be respected. Helping museums think through how to make their spaces accessible to families, and how to support family learning.
  4. Strategies for talking to children in age appropriate ways about history, culture, and current events.
  5. The role silence plays when educators don’t acknowledge bias in the classroom.
  6. Ways of building classroom lessons and environments that authentically weave in diversity and inclusion, and avoid tokenism.
  7. How educators can build strong relationships with families to establish a community in which everyone feels respected, even when there are disagreements.

Teacher Truths: Working with Toddlers

Welcome to Teacher Truths presented by the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, SEEC. Each episode of Teacher Truths take place between two SEEC faculty members and explores a topic related to education. Have a topic you’d like to hear about? Email SEECSocialMedia@si.edu.

This week features a conservation between Kat Schoonover and Shannon Conley who are both toddler teachers. They spoke about working with toddlers and focused on toddlers growing independence and need for communication. Please listen and enjoy!

Highlights from the conversation between Kat and Shannon:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inquiry Tools

A few years ago several of my three-year-old students asked me a question, and I responded, “How could we find the answer to your question?” They stared at me and said, “We’re asking you because you’re a teacher, and teachers know everything!” While flattering, I had to tell them that I most certainly do not know everything. Instead, there are many other ways in which we can seek the answers to our questions. This moment illustrates the importance of directly teaching children the skills, even as young children, to find the answers to their wonders.

At SEEC, we define inquiry as asking questions, but also as the process to find the answers. In order to ask effective questions and have the tools to seek answers, children must be curious, know how to observe, describe, make connections, and communicate. From infants to kindergarten, our classes foster these skills to ensure our children leave our school with a love of learning, a ferocious curiosity and the ability to find the answers to their questions.

Recently, one of our four-year-old classes, led by Will Kuehnle and Jessie Miller, spent some time discussing what it means to be curious, and what tools could help them explore their curiosities.

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To begin their experience they went to the National Gallery of Art to see The Thinker (Le Penseur) by Auguste Rodin. They looked at the sculpture and pondered how its body language depicted thinking. They even tried to pose themselves.

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Next, they discussed four tools to use when we have a question: asking an expert, observing, reading a book, and/or going to a museum. After discussing these inquiry tools in the gallery, the class headed outside to the National Mall to make these ideas more concrete through play.

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The children got into groups and went through stations, each representing one of the inquiry tools they previously identified. At the “Ask the Expert” station, the children dressed up and pretended to be experts on different topics. One child would ask a question while the other child listened. The conversation would continue back and forth while one child spoke and the other waited and responded. The teacher could step in and model this for the children as well as praise them when waited for their turn to speak. This was a great opportunity for the children to practice patience and listening.

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At the “Observe” station, children observed what they saw on the Mall and recorded these thoughts through writing and drawing. This was an open-ended activity that allowed the children the freedom to observe anything in their surroundings. It gave the teachers a glimpse into what the children find most interesting and, since SEEC uses an emergent curriculum, will serve as a guide for possible future topics for the class

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The “Read a Book” station contained several books where children could flip through and gain knowledge through their reading.

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Lastly, the “Go to a Museum” station had blocks for the children to build a museum where they might be able to answer their wonders.

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Back at school that afternoon, the class had an opportunity to play at the stations again if they wished.

 

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Recently, during storytime a child asked a question about something in the book. The other children were quick to suggest finding a book on the subject or visiting a museum to find out more information. The teachers have also observed students using language such as “curious” and “inquire” more often in their day-to-day conversations. By spending time practicing listening, vocalizing questions, and exploring how to find answers, the students have built a strong foundation that will serve them as they progress in school and life.


Join us on January 17th to learn more about Fostering Wonder with young children.

Caregivers and Play: A Sneak Peak at Our Upcoming Seminar

Play at SEEC

Though our school is not strictly play-based, it recognizes the importance of play and incorporates it into our unique brand of object-based learning. Much like other early childhood schools, you will observe our children engaging in play during classroom choices and playground time. You can also find our children playing in the museums, but not just in the play-based spaces. We think creatively about how to safely incorporate play into our museum or community visits.

Caregiver Perspectives on Play

Over the years, we have heard from educators that often caregivers don’t appreciate or understand the value of play. I won’t lie, I too, was at one point one of those parents. Before beginning my career in early childhood education, I enrolled my daughter in a play-based cooperative preschool and one of my biggest concerns was if they would incorporate letter/number recognition into the curriculum. That was more than ten years ago and my outlook has drastically changed.

I have also observed sentiments similar in parents today. I recall a specific conversation with a parent whose child had recently transitioned from a play group to a SEEC program. The parent was happy about the transition because she felt like all the kids did “was play.” Through discussions with other educators, in and outside of SEEC, I have found that other parents share a similar concern about the role of play in the classroom.

I don’t mean to suggest that all caregivers feel that play is not important or even that they don’t see ANY value in the act of playing. In fact, there was recently a heated discussion at the school one of my children attends regarding recess. Some of the students had been missing recess due to make up work or for disciplinary reasons and that did not sit well with our parent community. I think it is important to note that there is a range of parent perspectives on play.

Starting the Conversation

At the same time that we have been reflecting on how parents feel about play, our team has also been focusing in how we can support our parent community and the community at large. It occurred to us that our upcoming workshop, Play: Engaging Learners in Object Rich Environments would be an ideal venue to explore parent attitudes towards play and strategize ways we can engage parents in a dialogue about the value of it.

In order to have this dialogue, we feel it’s important to better understand caregivers’ beliefs surrounding play. Therefore, we have begun to collect data that will inform that understanding and thus far, we have hit on some themes:

  • It’s a waste of money to pay for someone to watch their kids just play.
  • Play doesn’t look like traditional learning.
  • Play doesn’t look like hard work, so it’s not important.
  • Playing won’t teach them how to hold a pencil, read, or write.
  • Playing won’t give them the skills to be successful in life.
  • Play looks like chaos.

Over the next few weeks, we will be collecting more feedback from parents and look forward to sharing their perspectives at our upcoming seminar in July. We are excited to think together about this as a group and look forward to sharing more broadly in future postings.

Book Club: Free to Learn

For our most recent book club we read and discussed Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray. We were initially drawn to this book because of how it embraced play and we were excited to read, learn, and discuss teaching methods that are not often embraced by the public schools. Our book club meeting was lively and you can find a recap of our discussion below.

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Trustful Parenting vs. Trustful Teaching

Gray describes trustful parenting as the belief that “children’s instincts can be trusted, that children who are allowed to follow their own wills will learn what they need to learn and will naturally begin to contribute … when they have the skills and maturity to do so” (26). He explains that this style of parenting has deep roots in human history and was used by our hunter-gather ancestors whose children were “allowed to spend most of their time playing and exploring freely” (28). Gray traces the decline of trustful parenting to the decline of neighborhood playgroups and the rise of fears about safety and future job employment opportunities for their children as well as the role of schools (213 – 218). Gray advocated for a resurgence of trustful parenting and argued that considering alternative schools might be a necessary step to becoming a trustful parent (226-227).

Since trustful parenting and the education system are seemingly at odds with one another. We decided to look critically at the parenting philosophy and see how if it could be adapted to a teaching philosophy that we could embrace at SEEC. In some ways, it was easy for our SEEC educators to say that they were on board with a trustful teaching philosophy. We fully embrace the importance of learning through play and exploration and believe in child-directed learning. We hesitantly agreed to the children’s use (or at least being exposed to) of adult tools, even the dangerous ones, because we believe that children learn through objects. At school, we are comfortable with children taking risks, while as educators we simultaneously try to minimize hazards. This balance between risk and hazards was what Gray was describing when he explained that children are trusted “to have enough sense to not hurt themselves” with “some limits”, such as the “poison-tipped darts or arrows (that) are kept well out of small children’s reach” (29).

There were reasons that we had difficulties embracing the philosophy of trustful parenting and therefore were unable to adequately adapt it. In many ways, being a teacher and trying to impart knowledge on a child goes against the philosophy of trustful parenting. As educators, we all felt that a crucial part of our jobs is to impart knowledge. This means that while being receptive and responsive to the children, we make lesson plans with the goal of opening their eyes to new things. We actively monitor our children to make sure that they are meeting developmental milestones and try to seek out ways to encourage growth in areas that children are not mastering by themselves. While we trust children to learn, we also hope that our children will trust us as teachers to help guide them.

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Rethinking Shame and Discipline

While Gray mostly focused on shame used as a tool against older children, we found that this argument could be applicable to the field of early childhood education. Gray explains that using shame as a tool to entice children to perform better actually causes an increase in cheating (73). While young children are unable to cheat, they are able to lie and we know that children are much more likely to lie about a situation if they are worried that they will disappoint us. For this reason, we decided that it is crucial to look at how we are treating children when we are disciplining or redirecting their behavior.

At SEEC, we never purposefully shame children into changing their behavior. But, we wondered if there were times when we might have been shaming unknowingly. While having this discussion, we came to another question, “What is the difference between correcting and shaming?” We decided that at least one key component of trying to change a problem behavior without shaming was to describe why that behavior cannot be allowed to continue. Rather than saying “Don’t do that!”, we should say “When you hit, it hurts my body” or ask an older child to explain why that behavior cannot continue by asking them “Is that hurting someone?”. These are pillars of SEEC’s behavior management philosophy and we feel comfortable using them. After reading Free to Learn and thinking deeply about the role of shame in discipline, we left the discussion unable to draw a distinct line between correcting and shaming. In the end, we decided that we all needed to go back to our practices and be mindful of this topic.

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Alternative Schools

Much of Free to Learn is a description and study of the Sudbury Valley School. Gray explains that to “visualize the Sudbury Valley School, you have to set aside all of your notions of what traditional schools look like, including your notions of what progressive versions of traditional schools look like” (88). We found this statement to be true. Sudbury valley is indeed “something entirely different” (88). The Sudbury Valley School is founded on the belief that the students, as a democracy, run the school and are in charge of their education. Staff members, which there are very few of, are not called teachers “because they recognize that students learn more from one another” (90 – 91) and must be reelected by the students yearly to keep their positions (90). Children are able to explore the entire campus whenever they want, do not have grades or tests, and do not have to join a single class. The principle tenet of the Sudbury Valley School is that “each person is responsible for his or her own education” (91).

In some ways, the Sudbury Valley School was almost impossible to compare to other schools. As a group we found this both frustrating and enlightening. It was frustrating because so many of the practices highlighted seemed impossible to adapt to other schools, particularly public schools. We discussed how some public schools want to be progressive, but testing and pressure make it impossible. The pressure on schools, teachers, and students is so overwhelming that no one is willing to experiment or try new educational methods. This problem also extends past discouraging teachers from experimenting with new educational methods. It was recently discovered that D.C. public schools graduated more than 900 students who had not earned their graduation last year. With this need to push children through the school system, rather than considering their needs, how can schools be expected to take a gamble and embrace such extreme teaching alternatives?

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Ways to Incorporate Ideas at SEEC

 At SEEC, we are lucky to be able to discuss concepts, adapt them, and implement them in our own ways. Even though our student population is under the age of six, we value their voices. Students as young as two years old regularly hold votes about what the class should learn about next. At the beginning of the school year, our four-year-old classes create a class contract, which explains the rules of the room, and the teachers and students sign it. We are able to embrace democracy within limits and still give each child a voice.

We believe that children are constantly learning from each other. Rather than try to solve disputes, we give children the words to create their own solutions. For example, if two children are fighting over a shovel, we could say, “It is Sally’s turn for five minutes and then it is Jose’s turn for five minutes”. Rather than forcing a teacher directed solution in that manner, we say “I see there is problem here. What should we do to fix it?” The children may very well choose a five minute on, five minute off solution, or they may decide that Jose should play with it because he is wearing blue shoes and the shovel is also blue. So long as both children agree, a SEEC teacher will happily accept this solution. We believe that when children are given the freedom to learn from each other, they learn critical thinking and real life skills. Our goal is to help children discover these skills and grow to love learning.

While we were unable to incorporate all the things that Gray advocated for in Free to Learn, we were able to have a vibrant discussion on the book. In the end, we valued Gray’s embrace of learning through play but advocated that thoughtful educators can have a meaningful place in a young child’s learning.

Music Monday

To help celebrate the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) Week of the Young Child, we are highlighting our music teacher Allison Brake for Music Monday! As SEEC’s music teacher, Allison visits each SEEC class, infants through kindergarten, once a week for music class.

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Allison has been teaching with SEEC since SEEC’s beginning back in 1988, but she has not always been the music teacher. In fact, Allison became SEEC’s music teacher relatively recently in the mid-2000s. In the time between she was a classroom teacher, assistant director, and a resource teacher. Even when Allison was not SEEC’s music teacher, she explained that she “always brought music into the classroom.”

This experience made her the ideal music teacher for SEEC. She happily took on the challenge of expanding the music classes to the youngest classes so the whole school had the opportunity to have a time focused on music. Allison explained that she loves using music as a tool for helping children develop starting in infancy and following them through kindergarten.

SEECstories (3)While Allison believes that music is a vital program for children of all ages, she focused on the importance of music with the youngest of children. In particular, Allison highlighted how hearing familiar sounds or songs helps infants learn to self-regulate and self soothe. She also discussed how music helps to build babies’ language development. She noted how she likes to start her classes by singing a song that includes each child’s name. With the babies, she explains that they very quickly respond to hearing their own name by clapping, bouncing, or smiling.

SEECstories (1)Beyond name recognition, Allison explained that singing hello to the individual is important for the start of each of her music classes. It gives her the opportunity to “build off who the child is” from the start of each class. She explained that it set the class up for social emotional growth opportunities since music class is the whole group singing with opportunities for the individual to shine.

When asked to offer advice to parents, Allison said “Don’t be too hesitant.” Music can be used for fun and to comfort. If as a parent, you still feel uneasy singing, Allison recommends buying and playing music. She clarified that playing music is different from putting on the TV because music allows the parent to continue to be present both with eyesight and in interaction in a way that is impossible with a screen. But in the end, Allison encourages all parents to sing to their children and says that your children “aren’t making judgement” so you should “free yourself from judgement” as well.

SEECstories (2)Her advice for teachers included using music as cues when transitioning in the classroom and repeating songs so that children can learn them. Once the class knows a song, then the teachers can add variety and build upon the songs so that they are challenging and offer new opportunities.

SEECstories (4)Lastly, Allison told us some of her favorite songs. She said that she loves “Popcorn” by Greg and Steve,because it helps children “lose their inhibition” and ties in disco, which is always fun. Another favorite is “Listen to the Horses” by Raffi and the “All the Pretty Horses”, which is a lullaby that Allison sang to her own children and said that it has a “soothing melody like a waterfall.” Don’t all these songs sound great? At SEEC we love hearing new music! What are some of your favorite songs to sing?