REaChing for the stars
Empowering English Language Learners
Another first for me, I attended the 25th Annual VT Kindergarten Conference. Like the Diversity Conference I attended last week, it was also at the Hilton Hotel and was a day of inspiration. The theme of the conference was “The Arts as a Tool for Learning: Nurturing the Imagination in Children” and the workshops I attended stayed true to that theme. The great thing about this whole day, is even though it wasn’t specifically geared towards English language learners, everything discussed had value for making instruction more accessible and engaging for ELLs.
Lisa Condino gave a passionate keynote presentation about her work as a Teaching Artist with VSA’s “Start With The Arts” Program. She first urged participants to consider the connections art can inspire in our reflective process by having participants create a pipe cleaner sculpture inspired by a mentor. Using these sculptures we did a traditional turn and talk that was enriched by how this small, simple piece of art helped us connect in a visual way to the person we spoke about. She then described her experience with the “Start With The Arts” framework of arts integration in schools and childcare centers using the example of reading the book version of Baby Beluga to a group of often reluctant young learners. Her animated and prop filled storytelling included white t-shirts to transform learners into little whales, a large flowing peice of fabric that could create a beautiful wave for students to swim and play in, dozens of tissue paper squares in shades of blue to litter the table, and soft clay that others could use to shape whales. You could see how she had prepared for her audience and allowed for student’s curiosities and hesitations in way that helped all engage. She adapted her lesson as she observed students actions and interactions, for example she created small pools of construction paper for students to use who seemed to need a contained space for their discovery. Condino’s argument for arts integration: “When we provide children with the space to actualize their imagination, we are offering them the opportunity to find their voice and synthesize their thoughts...They are communicating their thinking in nonverbal ways.”
As participants, we also got to get our creative juices flowing by looking at a popular student text and brainstorming ways the story could be brought to life through the arts. Our group chose The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. We thought you could also easily incorporate a large piece of white fabric or a white sheet that could become the snow covering everything, and the snow falling on Peter’s head when he whacks a stick on a snowy tree. We also thought about using shaving cream on a table or salt trays for students to create the different tracks like Peter does in the story. Acting the story out in real snow would absolutely be the best, but without real snow acting out in the classroom can also be fun (I’ve done this.) Another idea was to also use white clay to make track imprints or little snowmen. A mixed media collage combining different textured papers to layer a scene like the colorful scenes in the book could also be fun. What if you had students use paint or something that reacts to water and melt some real snow or an ice cube on the collage to see how it changes with the melting snow, as the snow melted in Peter’s pocket when he tried to save it for later? Once you get started, the ideas just start flowing.
In the morning, a colleague and I attended a session entitled “Math, Math, Everywhere” that outlined the many ways in which two preschool teachers embed math in their daily Responsive Classroom routines and activities. A morning meeting includes a greeting, that can use math objects as a way to bring students together. For example, a morning message question might provide an opportunity for graphing how many children are in a student’s household, or how old they are, or the month they were born. A greeting activity called “Shapes in the Middle,” where students each get a shape that only has one match must find their match and greet them, can easily be adapted to be numbers in the middle, equations in the middle, etc. Skip count greeting, or roll the dice and count that number greeting around a circle can also help students internalize counting by 2s, 5s, etc. Morning meeting activities that can be turned into movement breaks included rolling two dice, 1 a number and another a customized action (clap, jump, snap, etc.) and all students do that action the number of times dictated by the number di. “I have, who has” is a great activity that can be used with so many different concepts, but I liked the idea of having a visual of an actual eye next to the words “I have”and an owl next to the “Who has?,” something they found on Prekinders.com. At tables beyond our experiential learning circle were several different “settling in” activities that were hands-on, play-based and would be perfect for a mindfulness block, explore time or even as a math station that could be available to students who needed a break from whole group instruction. Some of these activities included games, like Face off!, fill the crowns with jewels, and Race to Trace, but others were measuring cups with rice, number marble mazes, salt trays for number copying and counting with moving objects using tongs.
I learned a new game called “Pig” that is so simple, but I can see the students having a blast playing it. Using a di that has a pig on one side, and a big bin of unifix cubes, students take turns rolling the dice and collecting the corresponding number of unifix cubes, connecting them. They are able to roll as many times as they want on their turn, but if they get the pig, all the cubes go back in the bin. Once they pass, the cubes they have remain with them until the end of the game. Students quickly learn that if they roll too many times they lose their cubes. The game continues for three rounds around the circle, and the winner is the person with the most cubes. There are variations too. The teacher can have a set of winner cards that are drawn to indicate winning by different criteria, like by who has the most yellow cubes. The teacher also plays the banker in the beginning, distributing cubes, until students become more independent.
I shared with the group a hands-on math learning activity that my kindergarten co-teacher, Courtney Bryan, and I did recently with play dough called “Smash!”. We made subtraction equation cards and laminated them along with tens frame mats, then rolled dozens of play dough balls for the students. We showed them a video of a little girl playing Smash, where she looked at an equation, counted out the number of balls needed, and smashed the number taken away. The students shared what they noticed and then we modeled how you could do it with a partner. Our entire class of diverse learners were fully engaged in this learning experience, and suddenly subtraction made a whole lot more sense to those who struggled with it beforehand. Every time we make an effort to make learning more play-based, hands-on or interactive we are rewarded with happy students who take away lasting learning.
In the afternoon, I attended “From Van Gogh to Calder: Kindergarteners Learn Mathematics Through the Arts” a presentation organized by three educators at the Integrated Arts Academy (IAA), a magnet school in Burlington’s north end, which also just happens to be my polling station. Having had a taste of some of the arts integration work done at IAA through a previous presentation by my colleague Beth Evans on the Northern New England TESOL board (NNETESOL), I was curious to hear more about the magic that happens here. In kindergarten, it really is magical. The students get to immerse themselves in artist studies, of Jasper Johns, Keith Haring, Georgia O’Keefe, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, and Alexander Calder, that build critical thinking, fine and gross motor, self-expression, planning, revision and spatial skills. But, it doesn’t stop there. Content is delivered through the medium of art. Students learn their numbers by painting them in primary colors in the style of Jasper Johns. They go through a Visual Thinking Strategy process with intriguing pieces of art and geometric visuals that familiarize them with a transferrable cycle of noticing and justifying ideas that they can later apply to written text and mathematical problem solving. As they create life size student versions of Keith Haring’s figures via “human sculptures” and then on large paper surrounded by different styles of lines, they learn about colors, curvy, straight and zigzag lines, and then they also use lines to create representations for math equations. Students count with a partner while they create physical shapes with their bodies that are silent and still, but build on one another. Evans taught this one in one of her NNETESOL workshops and my co-teacher and I love to use it, though it has morphed into an interpretive dance activity. Van Gogh’s sunflowers provide a beginning of the year study where students not only create their own beautiful sunflowers, but use sunflowers seeds and petals for counting. Alexander Calder helps students understand 2D and 3D shapes. The result: engaged learners who love school and have tangible products to display that show perseverance and creativity.
Two participants in this last session asked about how testing and curriculum play into all of this learning. Their disbelief at the possibility of implementing such artful learning at their own school was visible. With administrative pressures and evaluation practices that are often at odds with what we know children actually need and can do, it is no doubt a challenge to let go enough to explore more meaningful ways of engaging students in learning. It reminded me of an article I’d read this week in Education Week Teacher, entitled “Finding the Courage to Teach Past the Fear of Getting in Trouble”. Judy Klima, the Arts Integration Coach at IAA, responded, strongly stating the gains to the student population and school community that aren’t reflected in test scores, and emphasized how the true results of such integration aren’t short term gains, but seen when students actually go out into the world and function in society. Packaged curriculums and summative assessments have their place, but no one can argue with approaches that engage the whole learner, and that is what this day was about.