Thursday, January 31, 2008

What No Child Left Behind Leaves Behind

"As children, we spend much of our time in a kind of perpetual openness and wonder, attuned to the magic and mystery that plays beneath the surface of life. Many people have intimations of their true nature in childhood—the sense of benevolent presence guiding their life, a radiance that shines forth from all things, or a current of love that unites us all. In his "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," William Wordsworth puts it well:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell'd in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream."

—Stephen Bodian, Wake Up Now, Mc Graw Hill, 2008

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Senseless Acts of Beauty

One of my favorite bumper stickers reads:


This is exactly what America needs: kindness and beauty.

Kindergarten is a good a place to plant the seeds of kindness and beauty. So, even though kindergarten is supposed to be narrowly focussed on literacy and numeracy, I am determined to find time for empyrean pursuits.

Good manners sweetened our tea. We invited Mrs. Frech.

Last Friday we concluded KIDS club with a semi-formal tea party—with scones jam and real whipped cream provided by Madeline's mom, Shelly. It was lovely. The scones were light and fresh. We enjoyed imported jam. I served ginger tea made in Sebastopol.

After what better accompaniment for a homemade dessert than homemade music? If you tune a guitar or ukulele to an open chord great music can emerge even from a band of young maestros.

Have you seen the original Parent Trap with Hayley Mills?
Here's our Hailey, there on the left, actually strumming the guitar.
Let's get together, yeah, yeah, yeah!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Three Rules

Rules change, for good reason.

I find I run into problems whenever I apply any rule too rigidly.

For years now, I've had three fundamental rules in kindergarten. All the students know them: Be Safe. Be Happy. Be Kind.

The Safe-Happy-Kind classroom rules have worked well over the years. They are simple, easy to learn and remember, broadly applicable, and are readily accepted by students. That's a lot.

But I've noticed that a few students interpret that second rule, "Be Happy," to mean something like, "Be Assertive and Get What I Want." When this happens, I've had to explain exactly what I mean by the words "Be Happy." I tell them that happiness arises as the result of taking care of the people around you. Five year old children are notoriously egocentric. For some students finding happiness by helping others is a brand new idea.

My goal—that students feel safe and happy in kindergarten—remains the same. But the expression of that goal would benefit from rewording to avoid misinterpretation.

Be Helpful

Since happiness in a classroom setting depends in countless ways on people helping people, the rule should say simply and directly, "Be Helpful."

So from today the three fundamental rules are: Be Safe. Be Helpful. Be Kind.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Back to Writing

In today’s post I’d like to try to answer a couple of questions from James who asked some questions.

“I'm really intrigued to learn more about how "writing strengthens the neurological links to the brain."

The idea that writing strengthens neurological links between

• the visual processing areas in the back of the head and
• the auditory processing areas at the sides and
• the language processing regions at the front of the brain

has been confirmed by research done at UCSF by Jeannine Herron with whom I became acquainted last summer.

Herrron’s interest in this was sparked when she and her husband, Matt, took a sailing trip from New Orleans to Africa with their two school aged kids. She observed that both of her son’s and her daughter’s reading skills improved dramatically when they began write regularly as they kept a logbook of the voyage.

(For the non-educators in the audience, reading and writing have traditionally been taught separately as if they were as different as, say, music and painting. For the record, when I first began training to be a teacher, it took me a while to understand this distinction between reading and writing; at first I saw them as the same skill.)

Herron suspected that the act of writing helped kids get better at reading. A lifetime of research later, she has convincing MRI evidence that it does.

The theory that would explain this is that when we teach reading we are running a circuit of neurological impulses as listed above:

visual >> auditory >> language.

Writing reverses the flow:

language >> auditory >> visual.

Standard practice for remedial reading is to teach more reading. Herron would suggest that we teach remedial reading by spending more time on writing.

Is that more true for writing with a pencil than typing on a keyboard?

Herron would probably say no. She began a business called “Talking Fingers” that is based upon keyboarding to elicit writing. One clear advantage of typing is that it is much easier than writing with a pencil. Another is that when typing on a computer, you can have the computer make the sounds you're typing. This is how her program works. I think Herron would argue that controlling a pencil requires a lot of cognitive effort which could distract from the essential work here: linking visual symbols “seen” in the rear of the brain with bits of auditory information "heard" at the sides for assembly and processing in the language centers up front. She could be right. I'm not so certain. It could be nothing more than the Luddite in me who prefers pencils to 'puters. A Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil is simpler, sustainable.

I read somewhere that the ancient Romans learned to write with a stylus in beeswax. How does that tactile sense affect your deep knowledge of the letter forms?

That’s a question I cannot answer. But something I suggest to all parents is to write messages on their child’s backs in big uppercase letters. Feels good, and can’t hurt.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Important Book: Bud

Here is Bud's page in The Important Book. I hear he's up in the mountains snowboarding the weekend.

Have fun, Bud!

And to all the class, enjoy the wet weekend. What a storm!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

5 moments

A day in kindergarten contains many magical moments—little jewels of time—each day.

Before I began blogging I could not find a way to share these fleeting gems with anyone outside the classroom. Over the years, I have dropped them into our dinnertime conversations, regaling my wife with stories of kindergarten—often without regard to whether she might be interested. I think she knows something about kindergarten alchemy.

But I'm not sure I'm able to convey all this magic in words. It is difficult to capture in words the twinkling in the eyes of a child who's suddenly just "got it."

Even blogging misses most of these magical moments. But it sure beats the old paper newsletters I used to send home on Fridays. But, like unicorns, the best moments in kindergarten evade capture in words or photos.

Today, for example, right at KIDS program dismissal we had a fine little hootenany. I tuned three kids guitars to an open G chord so they would harmonize with the steel drum. We added a djembe and some custom-made lyrics (a get-well verse for Kiyana's little sister) and we mixed it all up and got, well, joy.

Belle's mom got to see the last minute of it. The way she was beaming, I know she knows. She said what I was thinking,

"I wish I had a camera!"

A camera would have missed the music, and the somehow even a good part of the magic, too. You kind of have to be there. Oh well.

Once in a while I do manage to pull my camera out. Here are a few of the pictures I've taken recently:

Olivia makes quite a design with the pattern blocks!

Mrs. Frech took this one of Isaac jamming with Mr. Gurney

Trey's ready for PE with Ms. Campbell.
(This photo was taken last Friday when the sun was out.)

Kaylee lost her second tooth last week.

And she can read all the Soundabet key words!
Yeah, Kaylee!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Moral of Yesterday's Story

The Moral of Yesterday's story:

If a door-to-door salesman came to your front door peddling junk food, violence, sex, junk news, and mind/heart numbing entertainment, you might think to call the police.

Especially if you realized he was mainly interested in getting this stuff into your kids' minds.

Yet that's exactly what mainstream media brings into many American homes through TV.

At the Creek

I'm told there is some more nasty cold gray and wet weather ahead for us—straight through till Sunday. Just last Friday it was sunny, remember?

Maybe these photos taken at the creek will be just the thing to lift your mood. We went down to the creek with our fifth grade buddies to hang the bird feeders the kinders made by filling pine cones with peanut butter and rolling them in bird seed.

Belle and Alejandra hang up their feeder.

Miguel and Diego

Izzy, Loren, Blaine and Madeline across the creek

Vivian and Michaela, Izzy and Blaine

We went up to the pond.

We found this water-borne gelatinous egg sack and several others like it.

Elias and Paige investigate what's in the water.

Tomorrow, miscellaneous accomplishments in Room 2.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Creepy Old Uncle and Aunt: An Allegory

Please note:

While at the California Kindergarten Conference, I attended a workshop on Media Literacy. The presenter offered alarming research about the unhealthy effects of the media (TV, movies, video games, popular music, and yes, even the Internet) on young children.

I'll post later about tools to help parents to help keep their kids media safe.

But for now, I offer you this allegory.

Note: This is a work of fiction. The characters are not real people. Nat and Amanda represent corporations. Corporations are not real people either, but the law gives corporations many rights just as if they were people.

When I opened my front door, it took me a second to recognize my parents’ best friends, Nat B. Carter, and Amanda B. Carter.

I hadn’t seen them in years, not since 1969 when I’d left home for college. They still looked cheery and optimistic—but how could this be?—they looked younger than when I knew them 20 years before. Plastic surgery? Personal trainers? Make overs?

Maybe just the fact they were so incredibly wealthy and well-connected. Everyone knows them. They’re even friends of the President.

They expected to be the center of attention.

“Uncle Nat and Aunt Amanda! Wow, you guys look fantastic! The years have been good to you. Come on in,” I said, wondering why I was getting a such creepy feeling. Was their impossible youthfulness?

“Thanks, Dan! May we stay?” they asked, as they pushed their way past me into the living room.

“Make yourselves comfortable,” I said, trying to suppress my annoyance at their presumption in barging into my house. I had known Nat and Amanda throughout my childhood, but had lost track of them. They were, as I said, my parents’ best friends. In my youth, they came over to our house after supper several nights a week.

Nat and Amanda were by far the most entertaining people I’d ever known. They took a special interest in us kids, the five of us. They told stories, played fun games, and kept us up to date on everything we needed to know. They seemed incredibly well-informed about the world— objective too—but I was beginning to learn that they had actually shaded the truth far more than they wanted me to know.

And here they were 20 years later, Nat and Amanda, visiting me in my own home. They took their place in my living room as if they were on display and expected to be the center of attention. Well dressed. Slim. Great complexion. Perfect hair.

“So, Dan, your mom and dad tell us that your wife have kids, of your own now,” Amanda smiled. “We’d like to get to know your kids. We love kids. We can tell them some stories. Like we did for you.”

“They’ve gone to bed,” I told Amanda. "I don't want to wake them up." Their immediate interest in my children aroused my suspicion. When I was growing up Nat and Amanda had been more dignified and respectful. I noticed something else: The slim briefcases that used to carry pictures of their travels had been replaced by wheeled carry-ons. What was in them?

“Oh, come on, Dan. We can tell them a bedtime story. Can't we at least peek in their bedrooms?”

My mind flooded with disturbing memories. I remembered that they told scary stories that upset me when I was a in grade school.

I was now actively suspicious of them.

“Your bags are huge,” I said. “You used to carry a slim briefcase. Care to show me your stories?”

Nat’s discomfort got harder to hide.

“Oh, sure.” A flash of discomfort crossed Nat’s face, but he composed himself, pulled some file folders out of the front of his carry-on and said, “Here. Here’s a story about the penguins in Antarctica.” Before I could really I look it over he handed me three more. “Here’s one about conservation efforts in the rain forests. Here’s another. This one can teach your kids to read. Are your kids interested in sports? Here's one about the Super Bowl.”

“Wait,” I interrupted him. “Slow down. What’s that—in the back of your bag?”

“What, this? Nothing.” Nat’s discomfort got harder for him to hide.

“Show me what’s in the back of your bag, there, Uncle Nat.”

“I’d rather not show you that material,” Nat said.

“We’re talking about my kids,” I said, remembering the times Uncle Nat and Aunt Amanda scared me, hurt me, and enticed me to eat junk food, and told me more about the facts of life than I wanted to know.

“I’m afraid I’m not going to show you any of that material,” he said.

“This my house. Hand it over.” My uncle and aunt may be entertaining people, but the safety and happiness of my kids comes first.

“No,” he said.

I’d had it. I grabbed his carry-on bag and went through the whole thing. I pulled out one file after the other. And what did I see? Pictures of murder scenes. Scantily dressed women. Sexual situations. Blood. Violence. Crime. Drugs, both legal and not. And endless images of junk food being eaten by happy looking children. I knew if they actually ate the stuff they'd be fat and miserable.

“Get out of my house! And don’t ever come back!” I opened my front door and threw the both of them out of my house.

My amoral uncle, Nat B. Carter, and aunt, Amanda B Carter, (NBC and ABC for short) and all their other cousins, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN etc. have never been allowed in my house.

They are not my friends. They are unwelcome in my home.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Red Grammer

Dan Gurney, aka "Mr. Kindergarten" with Red Grammer January 19, 2008

If you've stuck around to hear me and Fred sing on Thursday mornings, chances are you can remember hearing us sing in two-part harmony one of our favorite songs, "I Think You're Wonderful" by Red Grammer. The chorus goes like this:

I think you're wonderful
When somebody says that to me
I feel wonderful, as wonderful can be.
It makes me want to say
The same thing to somebody new
And by the way, I've been meaning to say,
I think you're wonderful, too.

This song, like practically all of his songs, is not only musically satisfying, especially as sung in his stunning tenor voice, but generously infused with his human values. Red's children's music is consistently positive and upbeat.

At the California Kindergarten Conference last weekend, Red provided the after dinner entertainment. He sang for about 90 minutes, just Red and his guitar, with a little help from the audience from time to time. He sang a number of songs from "Be Bop Your Best,"his newest CD emphasizing positive values like responsibility, perserverance, and kindness.

You can see an online video of Red singing here. There's other stuff on this website for kids, too.

After the concert Red stayed to talk to fans, me among them (I was the last to leave.) We chatted quite a while and I thought to get a photo to share with you.

Red, I think YOU'RE wonderful.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

California Kindergarten Conference

I'm just back from two days at California Kindergarten Conference in Santa Clara.

I always have a fabulous time there. I get to talk to many interesting and thoughtful early childhood educators from all across the Golden State, and beyond.

In the days ahead, I'll share some of what I learned from the inspiring people I got to meet.

The Important Book: Blaine

Here is Blaine's page in our Important Book.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Hand 'em a Pencil

Along about January many kindergartners are ready to do some writing of their own. They're launched into author land with just a little nudge to use the sight words they are learning to read (words such as "I" and "like").

Today's writing center — a table full of boys — produced three short works of nonficition shown here.

Superheroes figure importantly in boys' imaginations. Clayton likes Spiderman.

Love of siblings is among my favorite sentiments.
Here Henry writes about his baby sister, Abigail about whom we often sing.
Look in the left corner of the photo here, and you'll see Abigail and Ty helping her.

And Aden likes his brother, Noah, in second grade.

The prize for the year's first bullseye is being mentioned online. Congratulations, Elias!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

KIDS activities

The first week of the KIDS program is going swimmingly.

Here are three photos to give you an idea of what we're doing.

Aden, Elias, and Bud using tangrams.

Because of the small group setting, we're able to go into far more depth than the classroom setting allows. Our work is interactive and child centered. The observations I am able to make are more detailed and specific. The setting is relaxed.

Kaden uses interlocking cubes to measure the length of a block of wood.

Bud plays "When the Saints Go Marching In" on the lap harp.

Olivia's Big Day

Today Olivia showed me that she's mastered the Soundabet. We took a minute out of daycare time and she rattled off the uppercase King's cards. She's holding the prize for learning the King's cards: a deck of the Queen's cards to master using the same method: practice only those she knows until she demands another card be added to the practice deck.

Today was also her first day in after school piano lessons. Another step towards a household of full of readers and home musicians!

Yeah, Olivia!

Crab Feed Decorations

Vivian paints her crab.

First grade mom, Kristen Robbins, came into kindergarten to lead a crafts project this morning.

We added pipe cleaner legs to crabs made from paper plates and then sponge painted them. Extra texture was added to the wet paint by dabbing it with bubble wrap. The final projects will serve as decorations at the PTO's crab feed this Saturday. (I'll be out of town at the California Kindergarten Conference.) For details on this event, call the school office.

Writing Center

The "official" reason I take time to run a writing center in kindergarten is to give students the opportunity to witness firsthand how writing works. Students come to the circular table and dictate a story. I stretch out their words and write them down, occasionally underlining the Soundabet sounds as they come up. For example, if you click in to get a closer look at Hailey's story, you will see that I underlined /th/ in "with," the /sh/ in "she," and the /ar/ in "part." My intention is that students will see how writing works and then venture to try some writing on their own. If your child begins to write, praise their efforts! And, please, generously overlook spelling errors. It takes courage to write!

A more important reason for having a writing center is to listen closely enough to show I care. Stories of significance sometimes arise in these sessions. Hailey's tale here relates the death of her first hamster, Popcorn. Writing in kindergarten is an occasion for connecting, not simply a dessicated exercise in learning the mechanics of writing.

If you think about it, connecting is the reason to write in the first place.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Special Gift

If you've had a peek at my blogger profile you may have noticed that I list homemade music among my interests.

My interest in music was born early in life when, as a lad, I enjoyed getting up early on Saturday mornings to play my mother's baby grand piano. I never took piano lessons; I played entirely by ear. I mostly noodled around. I would try to pick out simple melodies. I played "Chopsticks."

Most satisfying was trying to find combinations of notes that sounded good together. I enjoyed pressing the pedal so I could hear notes resonate deep within the piano and decay slowly towards silence. The pleasure of the music was enhanced whenever my mother would compliment me on my pianistic perambulations.

Later I would learn to play the trombone and tenor saxophone in school bands. But my heart was never in music that required music stands. As far as reading music went I was essentially dyslexic. Preferring folk music to marching band music, I ended up learning to play the guitar. By following my heart, I found something I loved to do.


This morning Daven handed me a CD wrapped in a paper napkin and tucked inside a plastic sandwich bag.

"Is this for me?" I asked.

"Yes," Daven told me.

"Can I play it?"


"OK. I'll listen to it at home or maybe in my car on the way home. Thanks, Daven," I said.

This evening I popped Daven's CD into the kitchen radio/CD player as I was washing the dishes. I heard the most lovely piano music, homemade by Daven. It's slow, mostly one note at a time with lots of pedal work to allow the resonance of the piano deepen the sound. It reminded me very much of the kind of music I used to play, piano by ear and from the heart. Daven has the a special gift for music.

Daven at work late last year.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Awards, PE, Buddies

I photographed a few moments of our day in kindergarten Friday. We began, as we almost always do, in song. After singing and roll call we walked next door to the Community Room for an awards assembly to honor of students who participated in the PTO's Walk-a-thon.

Awards Assembly
The student council awarded medals for the top money earner in each class and a medal for the boy and the girl who walked the most laps in the event. Here is a picture of the winners in Kindergarten.

Kaylee (left) and Clayton (right) walked the most laps. Blaine (center) was top fund raiser.

Immediately after the awards ceremony, I noticed that some of the students seemed a little fractious. I was glad we had P.E. right after the assembly so the class could stretch its legs and to brighten their mood.

Ms. Campbell led us in a few minutes of P.E. outdoors.

Ms. Campbell leading us in outdoor exercises

We followed P.E. with our usual table time activities. I am very grateful that our Friday parent volunteers are flexible enough to stay later than usual so that we can still do our small group activities on Fridays.

After table time, I noticed that the students still felt
querulous, and I had a hunch about what might have caused it.

I grabbed Archy, and we had a talk.

"Archy, you look grumpy!"
"I am grumpy, Mr. Gurney."
"Why, Archy? What's wrong? You can tell me."
"I'm afraid you don't like me."
"Don't like you? Why would you say that?"
"I didn't get a medal. I wasn't even in the Walkathon. I don't even have any legs."
"Archy, you don't need to win a medal for me to like you."
"I don't?"
"You don't even need legs. I like you just the way you are."
"You do, Mr. Gurney?"
"Of course I do, Archy. You're a fine mouse puppet. I've always liked you, and you've never won a medal."
"Oh. I'm glad you still like me, Mr. Gurney."
"I do, Archy. Do you feel better now?"
"Yes, Mr. Gurney. I do."

I put Archy up on the chart stand where he could look at the class. Without anyone asking, Clayton and Kaylee took off their medals and lent them to Archy.

The Buddy Program
At the end of the day we launched a new feature of kindergarten, the Buddy Program. In it, we partner fifth graders with kindergartners for a wide variety of activities. Friday's activity was to make a little poster to show what each pair's favorite food, book, and sport and what they want to be when they grow up.

Partnering across grades like this has so many benefits. It's good, first of all, for the kindergartners. They get to know "the big kids" at school and they glow under the light of the caring from the big kids.

It's good, too, for the fifth graders who employ their skills for the benefit of the younger ones. They get to serve!

And I enjoy working with my former students—most of these fifth graders went to kindergarten here—now more grown up. One of the deepest satisfactions of teaching kindergarten in a small school that you get to know children—and their families—through seven years of childhood.

The fifth graders have been asking for kindergarten buddies since the early this year and our principal, Mrs. Wilding, found a curriculum (really a binder full of ideas and activities) that fills the bill. The bonds formed this year will hold next year, too, when they become sixth grade/first grade buddies.

These photos will show you what I'm trying to describe:

The room was crowded with students focused on their work.

Morgan helps Sierra and Madison think about their favorite foods.

Paige helps Elias record his favorite book.

Sarah and Sergio smile for my camera.

Jacob and Aden work on their Buddy Chart.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Important Book: Belle

Here is Belle's page in our Important Book:

Tomorrow, look for pictures from Friday's activities. We had an awards assembly, P.E., and our first fifth grade buddies activity, all duly photographed.

See you then.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Website for Reading Practice

Here's a website to try out reading skills online.

Try it out, tell me what you think.

If you have others you like, please share it by posting a comment with a link to your favorite.

Friday PE

Tomorrow's P.E. lesson is scheduled for the same time slot as centers, right at the beginning of the day.

Friday table time activities will be preempted by P.E.

If you're a Friday volunteer, you 're furloughed for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Your Business

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open....

--Martha Graham

This quotation is meaningful to me because I believe it to be true for everyone, and most especially it's true for my students.

A big part of keeping the channel open is to be in a place where you feel safe, happy, and friendly, hence the "rules" of my classroom.

I am lucky enough to see children energize their life force as they open up to new learning.

For example, I can see the confidence and determination in a child's face when he or she has decided that riding a two-wheeler is something they've decided to learn.

I see it when they tell me, as Sierra did today,

"I know the Soundabet. I want you to test me today."

The way Sierra said that, I knew she knew it. I really didn't need to test her. Of course, I tested anyway. She knows the Soundabet, and she went home with a deck of the Queen's cards today. A year from now, she won't remember a time when she could not read.

Another place you can clearly see that open channel is in children's art work. When a child opens their channel to art, great things happen, as with my brother, Jim. If you're interested in art, check out his weblog. There's a link on the left there, Gurney Journey. I don't know of any more interesting place on the blogosphere.

Here are the drawings of the Cat in the Hat they did the first hour back from winter break. I hope you love these drawings as much as I do. Look how each is different, each catches the insouciance of that Dr. Seuss character.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Tuesday's Tip for Teachers

My Tuesday's tip for teachers is: Bring your digital camera to school.

I left mine home today. My intention tomorrow is to bring the camera so that I can put up some pictures tomorrow. I'm also planning to bring my video cam corder, the first step in getting some video up here.

Room 2 News

If I had remembered to bring my camera today, I could have shared a photo of our first P.E. lesson with Ms. Campbell this morning. She's already learned everyone's names and taken us through our first lesson. She'll be back twice a week (Tuesdays and Fridays) to enhance the kindergarten P.E. lessons. I really welcome this support, as I believe that P.E. lessons are valuable not only because they're good for the body, but also because well-taught P.E. lessons build character and teamwork. I'll try to post pictures of Ms. Campbell's Friday lesson.

KIDS Program
Look for a note that I will send home tomorrow about the KIDS program. It will tell you which week your child is scheduled to participate. Sign and return if you wish to take advantage of KIDS.

Felt Board Chicken Little
Using a felt board, I told the story of Chicken Little to the class today. It's amazing how captivating low tech felt finger puppets can be in these post modern times. The class was completely rapt.

Ask your child to retell the story of the hen who thought that the sky was falling. What made her think that the sky was falling? (A horse ran by and a pebble hit CL on the head.) What did she do? Whom did she tell? One of the farm animals needed extra reassurance. Who was that? (The sheep) Who told Chicken Little that everything would be OK? (The farmer)

Monday, January 7, 2008

We're Back in 2008

Last week's strong winter storm blew the chain link fence off its posts. I snapped this photo early Monday morning before school.

KIDS Program
I met with Mrs. Wilding and we discussed the plan for the KIDS program. With your input, we've decided to go with the plan outlined in last Thursday's post. Everyone will participate in the beginning. Look here Thursday for the schedule.

I didn't have the January snack calendar ready in December, but it's out now. Just to be sure: Belle's day is Tuesday, Blaine's got Wednesday, Bud Thursday, and Clayton Friday.

Today's notes
It was sure nice to get back to school. We started off singing, as always. After a few nervous tears, everyone is settled into their new groups.

Students drew a portrait of Dr. Seuss's Cat in the Hat and we've put them on display in the front of the room.

Those strong winter winds seemed to blow almost every piece of litter off the playground. When we patrolled the yard for garbage, I was able to find only a half dozen or so pieces to pick up. Daven and Elias, however, were more resourceful than I. They sifted the dirt where the fence once stood and were able to find more than 80 items of garbage, many of them small. We counted 93 pieces of trash at the end of the day.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Walk the Talk

Note: This is Sunday Soapbox Day, and I'm inviting my wife, Sarah, to get up there today. We live in Sebastopol, a small (population 7,800) town in Western Sonoma County, California. Sebastopol is about 8 miles west of a much larger city, Santa Rosa, California. Though she is on Sebastopol's City Council and has been Mayor of our town, Sarah used to work in Santa Rosa. She moved her office here recently. This story tells why:

Walk the Talk

I have to confess that it’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to realize that I could actually live and work in the same town - our town.

For years, I’ve been making about 8-10 round trips to Santa Rosa each week to run my own business. Some days, I’d drive those Highway 12 miles back and forth more than once. Some weeks, I’d spend Saturday or Sunday in my office, catching up.

All the while, like so many of my generation, I’ve been dutifully worrying about the “seventh generation” and diligently trying to reduce my ecological footprint. I’ve done all the trendy things, from recycling to riding my bike. I’ve changed out the old style light bulbs, installed a tankless water heater, and even suffered Prius envy.

At the same time that I’ve been preaching to other people to “think local first,” I’ve been conducting my business in Santa Rosa,

It’s discomforting how blind I was to my own hypocrisy until I recognized it, staring me in the face. One day, it finally dawned on me, in a way that I finally understood, that I could do more, much more deeply more, to save the earth and support our town by moving my business here. I could align my values and my work life.

I’ve known a lot of people who understood this ahead of me. After all, with my politics and philosophy, I’d picked a local doctor, dentist. grocer, banker, insurance agent, teachers for my children, and so on. These folks have enjoyed living and working in the same town for their careers. They were already walking the talk that I was just talking.

Walking is a very enjoyable means of transportation. It’s so slow that it allows me to see what’s all around. Now that I’ve relocated to South Main Street, I’m looking forward to investigating just what our community is like in the daytime, with all its busy-ness and traffic. I’ll get to see what’s here, what’s happening and what’s missing. There will be time at lunch to do errands downtown, sample the local restaurants, and shop for the occasional gift. I’ll learn just how pedestrian and bike friendly this town is.

By becoming a local business, I’m able to lower my green house gas emissions, to participate more in the local economy, and to enjoy all that extra time that I would have spent behind the wheel.

If all of us brought our businesses or services here and we patronized each other, think what a lively local economy we would have.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Soundabet Beginnings, Part 3

In the last post I talked about how pressure began to build on kindergarten teachers to teach basic early literacy skills. In 1996 I went to a workshop where I learned to use a pre-reading assessment tool developed by Roland Good III and Ruth Kaminski at the University of Oregon. Their tool is called Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy, or DIBELS, for short.

Kaminski and Good had reviewed the research that identified the skills that beginning readers use as they become good readers. The research made it clear that students who would become good beginning readers could do three things much better than students who would later struggle with beginning reading. The three skills are:

Alphabet Naming:
The ability to quickly identify the names of letters, in both upper and lower case forms.

Initial Sound Fluency:
The ability to identify the first sound of a word.

Phoneme Segmentation Fluency
The ability to take words apart into their component sounds.

Kaminski and Good’s contribution was to develop a test of these three skills that could be used by classroom teachers with a minimum of fuss and training. The idea was to help teachers identify students who would be likely to struggle in early reading lessons and help them before they experience trouble. I thought that this was a great idea and I began using DIBELS with enthusiasm right away.

DIBELS results confirmed what I had guessed intuitively about which of my students were struggling, and DIBELS gave my intuition solid-seeming numerical scores as evidence of my concern for them.

The other gift DIBELS brought to me was to bring into clearer focus just what phonemes English employs. In the phoneme segmentation subtest, I would ask students to break simple words into their component phonemes. I would say a word like “March” and the student would be expected to break it into its three phonemes: /M/ - /AR/ - /CH/.

You’d think someone who had been teaching kindergarten for some years would be able to tell you exactly what sounds our language has, but I couldn’t do that, and DIBELS helped to bring me closer.

As I gave students the tests, I became acutely aware that I was testing skills I hadn’t taught them. It felt unfair to do that.

So I began, haphazardly, to teach my class those “extra” sounds that English has. Most of these sounds are usually spelled with two letters. Their written forms are called digraphs, and they will look familiar to you: /NG/, /TH/, /SH/, /CH/, /OU/, /OO/, /OY/, /AR/ and so on. I noticed immediately that when I taught my students these sounds they could do better on the DIBELS assessments.

It felt disorganized, though. I presented these letters one by one to the class, and sometimes I felt like I was giving too much emphasis to some of these sounds while ignoring others. The dissatisfaction I felt about the disorganization lasted more than a year.

One day, as I was driving to the hardware store, for whatever reason, I was thinking about the ABC song. Someone long ago must have felt much the same way about the letters of the alphabet themselves. They decided to make a song out of it, borrowed a children’s tune written by Mozart (Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star) and made a memorable song, the ABC song. We all know it. It gives the letters a fixed order from A to Z and helps us rehearse it until we know it.

Like a bolt of lightning, the solution to my problem struck me: The genius of using a song to hold the ABCs together, I realized, could be extended to include all these extra sounds. Within an instant Soundabet was born. I felt like a new father. It seemed to me to be an earthshakingly good idea. It would make learning to read so much easier for students if they were taught all the sounds they might be expected to decode, from the start.

I spent the next few weeks thinking carefully about exactly what sounds Soundabet ought to include and which sounds I ought to leave out. I carefully considered which spelling to include for the various sounds. I consulted several books on the subject, especially Diane McGuinness’s Why Our Children Can’t Read.

Over the next year I began to use Soundabet in my classroom. The results were spectacular. Parents got excited. People began to talk. It wasn’t long before the Sonoma County Office of Education’s Reading consultant, Kevin Feldman visited my room. He saw Soundabet in action and asked me to do a workshop at the County Office of Education.

I agreed to do it, thinking back then there would be only one workshop. About 25 teachers showed up at that first workshop and a few tried Soundabet in their own schools. Their enthusiasm led to another workshop, then another, and another and soon I was asked to do a CD and a video, and before long I opened an Internet store.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Important Book -- Aden

Brief post today, as we have a strong winter storm here in California. Lots of rain and wind took the power out. We're staying close to home.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Philosophy/Room 2 News/Puzzle solution


It's tempting to dismiss the writings of a guy like Fred Rogers as kid's stuff, sandbox sayings. I understand that. I enjoy delving into intricacies and nuances in my areas of interest. It's satisfying to travel as far into an intellectual forest as your wits, intuition, and fortitude can take you. You get to pick up nuggets of golden wisdom, stuff them in your knapsack, and later, take them out to share them with your friends.

I've noticed, however, that in emotionally challenging situations, those nuggets of wisdom go out the window. Simpler messages—those sandbox sayings—are more likely to come to mind and serve as guides when I need help. That's why I love wisdom like Mr. Roger's.

Here's one I'd like to share with you:

"In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers."

It was a real revelation to me, years ago, when I realized that as a teacher I didn't have to know all the right answers, or even all the right questions. It's enough to ask questions and really listen to the answers. What a relief to learn that!

Room 2 News

Daycare Improvements

I am pleased to announce that beginning in January Mrs. Frech will be the Dunham Daycare teacher for kindergartners as they bridge the gap between kindergarten dismissal time and dismissal for the rest of the school.

Mrs. Frech will strengthen the continuity between kindergarten and the already very good kindergarten daycare program.

K.I.D.S. Starts January 14

Beginning on January 14, I will start a new program, Kindergarten Increased Daily Schedule, called KIDS for short.

The KIDS program lengthens the school day so that it corresponds to the dismissal time for the rest of the school, 2:30 most days, and 1:30 on Wednesdays. The KIDS program will be similar to last year’s AEA program. I will serve small groups of students and offer additional educational activities appropriate to each group's interests and needs.

More details will follow, as they were not fully worked out before winter vacation.

I hope that all students* will participate in KIDS, by rotating groups of about four students, on a weekly basis, until the entire class has been served. After 7 weeks all students will have been through KIDS.

The remaining weeks, beginning in March and running through May, will be devoted those students who most need additional instruction.

* I request your comments on this. Mrs. Wilding prefers that I serve just the students who need extra help. I prefer to begin by having everyone participate in the KIDS program so that there's a shared sense of ownership and participation among the classroom community. Neither of us, Mrs. Wilding or I, is inflexible in our thinking on this matter, so I am interested to hear your thoughts. Please post a comment here to indicate your preference:

Yes, everyone participates, or

No, just students who need it.

Solution to Last Week's Puzzle

Thanks to all who sent in the correct answer to last week's cryptogram. The answer is:

"Take care of this moment, and you'll take care of all time."

Tiffany was first with the correct answer, but I sent prizes to everyone who answered correctly.

Thanks for participating!

Here comes the rain! Everyone stay cozy.

I'm looking forward to seeing you all on Monday, and I've enjoyed keeping this online newsletter as a way of keeping in touch, if only mentally, with Kindergarten.

Tomorrow look for Aden's page in the Important Book.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

3 Fingers Point at You

A kindergarten lesson:

Look up. Find something to criticize.

Point at it with your “pointer” finger.

Notice that three fingers point right back at you.

A grown up lesson:

I try to keep this phonmenon in mind whenever I’m tempted to point out someone else’s shortcomings.

It applies to everyone. Even Gandhi.

One of my favorite quotes from Gandhi goes like this:

“I have only three enemies. My favorite enemy, the one most easily influenced for the better, is the British Empire. My second enemy, the Indian people, is far more difficult. But my most formidable opponent is a man named Mohandas K. Gandhi. With him I seem to have very little influence.”

Gandhi obviously loves his enemies. Like Jesus taught. Loving your enemy is SO hard!

By George, I try!

It would be good for my fellow countrymen and women to take Gandhi’s enemy list seriously.

What’s wrong can be fixed most quickly if we look in the mirror first, in our neighborhoods second, and overseas last of all.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

New Year’s Resolution, Part 2

Good Enough, and Getting Better

Yesterday I talked about my resolution to be “good enough” and to “shine one little corner of the world.” I mentioned Mr. Rogers and how he often told his viewers, “I like you just the way you are.” Suzuki Roshi told his students the same thing, but with a twist. He said,

“Each of you is perfect the way you are...and you can use a little improvement.”

Little Improvements

If I can lighten up on myself, I know it will help give me the courage to make improvements. (Like many people I know, I can be hard on myself and get too discouraged to work on improvements.) Writing this blog is self improvement practice. Writing down—and sharing—my thoughts about teaching and living ought to help me learn more about...teaching and living. *

It turns out that Mr. Rogers, the guy who was always telling his viewers, “I like you just the way you are,” wasn’t easy on himself. He strove to improve. The love of his life, his wife, Mrs. Fred Rogers, writes,

“He worked hard at being the best he could be. In fact, it seems to me he worked a lot more than he played. Discipline was his very strong suit. If I were asked for three words to describe him, I think those words would be courage, love, and discipline—perhaps in that order.”

The little improvements I wish for me are the same that I wish for you: May you feel safe, happy, and kind, and may you help others feel that way, too.


*It’s really encouraging to hear from readers who like this newsletter. You don’t have to be a blogger to write a comment. Just choose an identity and chime in. Otherwise, a lonely blogger may imagine that he’s sending out messages that evaporate in the ether. My sister said, “Only mothers read blogs.” Well, that won’t work for me, unless heaven’s online. (Just in case: Hello, Mom. I love you.) So, please, write.

(See where it says "Post a Comment" in underlined fine print down there, just a little? Click on it, and write in the text box that comes up soon as you've clicked.