The Great White North, Land of the Midnight Sun, The Last Frontier, The Great Land, otherwise commonly known as Alaska. I am beyond happy to be home spending time with my family and soaking in the mountains and yes, even the snow and ice.
You should see the snow removal dump up here. This is where they dump all the snow that they plow and pick up off of roads and parking lots. There are multiple dump sites around town but the one closest to my sister’s house is acres in area and the size of the mounds are epic – taller than three story buildings. There are bulldozers running around on top, leveling and making space for the new stuff. There is no significant snow in the forecast and the stuff on the ground is slowing melting, maybe a foot deep at this point. But up here you never know, a major snow storm can sneak up on them with little warning. This snow dump is, as you can imagine, the last thing to melt. It can take into July or early August for the last vestiges of the snow mountain to disappear in preparation for the next year’s haul.
Even though I have lived in Oregon for a long time, this place – Alaska – will always remain the keeper of my heart and my one true home. As soon as we begin the descent and make the run up Turnagain Arm before making the big sweeping turn over Fire Island that lines us up with the runway, my heart turns to a puddle of mush and I breathe in the sense of home.
Home means something different to everyone. For some it is a place, for others a person, for some it is food and for others it can even be music. What evokes that sense of home for you? Wherever or whatever that is, I hope that you too get a chance to “go home” periodically. To a place or mental space that brings you calm, connection and peace.
This winter in the classroom has been filled with growth and change for your children. They are constantly learning and growing, developing and changing. Sometimes it is hard to see it when you are with them day in and day out and focused on daily living.
We have seen the children in the 3s class gain confidence in their relationship with the school and showing signs of sweet friendships. While I spent the first four months of school with three to four little friends constantly glued to my body, even these children have come to a level of comfort and confidence in their space so that they move away from me to play with other children and explore new parts of the classroom. And as these children are beginning to turn four, we see even more changes as their awareness of their social relationships blossoms and they begin to experiment with the roles of ‘leader’ and ‘follower’. This exploration interacts with the continually blossoming expressions of their temperament, and the development of their core identities. So we see children trying out being the one in charge attempting to dictate the play of their peers.
This often brings about a struggle of wills and is the point where we work with the children around the ideas of being ‘friendly and flexible’ because play is a dynamic beast. The people involved tend to stay involved when there is a open flow of ideas and roles, and that requires the ability to demonstrate flexibility.
We are also seeing forays into experimenting with inclusion and exclusion. This again is a normal developmental step. It involves a desire to have control over their environment and happens as the children are dividing the world and people into categories and archetypes in a drive to understand and find meaning and predictability. Gender awareness and identity development is happening concurrently and it becomes very easy for children to try to divide their play groups up by gender. “No Girls Allowed”, “I don’t like to play with boys” become statements we encounter frequently as children turn turn four and for several years beyond.
Again, our strategy to address inclusion and exclusion is to explore with the children why they are having that thought. Asking a child to “tell me more” before launching into any corrective narrative can give you tremendous insight into their thinking and give you the ability to help them become stereotype busters! And once again, we ultimately support the message that at our school (in the words of the great Vivian Paley) “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play”. But we can help you figure out what you are worried about and help you with language to say what you need and what you are thinking.
For the 3s class as they move into next year, this will be among their big work. Prepare yourselves parents. The social world of a preschool student can get pretty complex!
Our 4’s class spent a winter with many of the children exploring the idea of superheroes and taking on roles and engaging in big body play. Their drive in this area has us jumping as teachers to find ways to honor their curiosity, let them play in a fluid and creative manner and teach appropriate boundaries for safety. Their little bodies move so fast through space and as their excitement level grows their ability to regulate their actions diminishes.
While not all the children are engaged in the themes of superheroes and good vs. bad, all of the children are working on making appropriate decisions based on their environment and thinking through the consequences of their actions. Themes carried through from their three year old year of leadership and control of the play experience and play partners is still there and is a source of much discussion and negotiation, and sometimes hurt feelings and tears.
These themes tie in directly to the development of executive function (EF) in the frontal lobes of the brain. They are little and just as their external body and skills have a lot of development and growth to go through as they grow up, so does the brain. Every child is born with the potential for the development of healthy frontal lobe function including strong EF skills. In typically developing children in order for this development to take place the child needs a healthy, warm and loving environment AND they need lots of opportunities to observe others in the use of EF and the opportunity to practice and learn to call upon these skills themselves.
Executive Function can be organized into two groups: Organization, which includes the ability to gather information and structure it for evaluation; and Regulation/Inhibitory Control which includes the ability to take stock of your surroundings and change your behavior in response. The development of these abilities depend on the solid development of working memory, mental flexibility and self control.
So as we are moving into the last two months of school, 4s class parents may have noticed me reacting to the children in a different manner than I did when they were three year olds. We are working to transfer the responsibility for making appropriate choices to the children with our guidance and coaching, but also allowing them to experience the consequences of the choices they make.
I can give you a couple of quick examples of what this might look like. We know that our 4s class is just plain loud, even when deeply engaged with their play/work and everyone is happy. And we also know that there is a group of children who have a strong drive for big body play and they sometimes get restless and have a hard time settling in with an activity. With this body restlessness they will begin a game of chase or something else rambunctious in the classroom. Depending on the point of the day, I am usually pretty accommodating and will run them outside so they can get what they need. But in the last couple of months before I do that, I will call them to a stop and get their attention. I have them take a couple of deep breaths and then I ask them to look around them and tell me where they are. (Go up two paragraphs – I am asking them to take stock of their environment.) I will often ask them to touch something made of wood or touch the floor (I am trying to ground them to their environment.) And then I ask them to reflect on what they are doing, is it a good match for where they are right now? If it is early in the day, I will ask them to think of something that they can do together that is a better match, with a promise that we will get to their desire to chase/be panthers soon when we go outside.This is such good practice for them in terms of developing those foundational regulation skills.
Another example is something that happened recently with the 4s class with the balls in the upper playground. There was a group running all over the playground with the balls, throwing them at each other and falling down laughing. All was good. Then they shifted to pitching the balls over the roof of the cob house. Still good with a caution about being aware of the fence.
The next iteration was one of our friends staring at the roof of the cob tree (which if you remember is a big 8’x8’ platform) and saying that he wanted to throw the ball up onto the roof. I asked him what he thought would happen? He hypothesized that it would just bounce off. What else? “It might get stuck?” Hmmmm. Then I said, “I just need you to hear that if it does get stuck, I will not be able to get it down.” You know what happened next! Ball went up and of course got stuck.
‘Teacher Marty! Get it down!” “I’m sorry, I cannot reach it.” “Awwwwwww.” The gang arrives and they had a chat about what to do. Claims of “I can get it down, I will just hit it with this other ball” ensued. Slowly, one by one they continued to go at it and all six balls wound up stuck on the top. Before they started I made sure they all understood that I would not be getting any stuck balls down.
When they were all up there and stuck, they had another idea. “GET THE FRISBEES”. And before you knew it ALL the balls AND ALL the frisbees were on top of the roof. “Teacher Marty! Get them Down!!!!!” Not happening kiddos. We dealt with our disappointment. We grumbled about what else we could do now that everything was stuck. And then we moved on.
This episode is actually a great example of many things. It was a science experiment. It was an example of group cooperation and attempts at problem solving. AND it was an opportunity to ‘do things based on your experience and adjust your actions” – one of the steps in executive function. So, we had some learning together and we survived our disappointment. And the next time we went to the upper playground with all the balls, they were reminding each other not to throw them up on the roof of the tree. Score!
I gave Kim some photos for this newsletter of block play from the last Friday before Spring Break where the 4s class used every single block from every single set we own in a massive group building project. Their structure covered the entire rug in the block area. There were probably at least eight different children who worked on the structure. Some were there the entire time and some came and went. There was no squabbling. It was true collaborative play. It was fluid and there was a tremendous exchange of ideas and strategies. They were flexible. No one turned themselves into a wrecking ball to knock down the work of others. When there was a collapse, they issued a large, full volume moan, “Awwwwwwwwww!” and then they picked up the pieces and rebuilt. These kids were showing the huge amount of developmental growth we have witnessed since last year at this time, and even from three months ago. It demonstrated lots of skills and growth in their access to their regulatory centers of the brain. It is hard to find the words to describe how joyful I felt observing, supporting and documenting their work. It was play based learning at its best.
With our Pre-k class all of these themes are continued with the added elements of being five and some even turning six before school gets out. We are a smaller class (11 students) and we have several children in our class who have some neuro differences and several who struggle with some pretty big anxiety issues. Our whole year we have been learning more about how to be in community with each other, develop our preferred friendships while being friendly and flexible with the added elements of being actively welcoming and topped off with a big dose of practicing forgiveness for mistakes made and understanding that we all learn differently and everyone needs different types of support and guidance in the classroom. Making space for each other. Supporting classmates who are having a tough day. Massive skill development that has allowed everyone in our class to develop a sense of belonging and group identity. This is learning that will serve each of these children so well as they go through school and life.
So now we enter April and the start of our last two months together in this school year. We have more fun projects coming up of course. We are sincerely hoping that our peas which we planted before the break are seedlings when we come back. We will do some indoor sprouting and planting as well. Caterpillars will arrive so that we can watch their progress and metamorphosis. Fish shirt making. Clay plaques. Bike Day. Another field day hike. Maybe a bowling trip. All things to look forward too in these last two month.
I hope you all got the message that our inservice days have been changed from our original calendar. We HAVE school on April 5th and 6th. However, I will not be in those days. My son is coming for a visit from his home in Houston and I really want the chance to spend a little time with him. But Teachers Lisa and Amanthus will be on duty and all will be well.
We do NOT have school on April 12th and 13th. I will be holding parent teacher conferences on the 12th, 13th and 14th. The sign up sheet will be posted in the cubby room when you return from break.
Make sure that you plan to attend our April General Meeting on April 19th. This is our last meeting of the school year and it serves as our Annual Meeting. We have to have a quorum so that we can adopt a budget for the next school year and elect our next Co-President. We have one candidate who is interested in serving in this role, but it is important if you wish to be considered for this role for you to contact me or one of the existing co-presidents so we can have an open and inclusive process.
In addition, we are preparing to make the financial aid awards for the 2018-19 school year. If you need financial assistance for next year make sure that you have completed an application and submit it along with the first two pages of your 2017 tax forms. Place it in an envelope, address it to MPS Treasurer and then give it to me and I will make sure we address your need. Just as an fyi, we will open a second round for awards in August to address anything that came up over the summer. And as always if your circumstances change during the course of the year, you can submit a request and we will respond at any time.
In closing I want to thank everyone once again for all the work and the tremendous generosity you brought to our annual auction this year. We were very successful and are in good financial position for the coming year. And we still have an online auction coming up this spring. Stay tuned for that!
Happy Spring Everyone. I love you to infinity and beyond!