About Me

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Early childhood education has been my life for over 30 years. I have taught all age groups from infants to 5-year-olds. I was a director for five years in the 1980s, but I returned to the classroom 22 years ago. My passion is watching the ways children explore and discover their world. In the classroom, everything starts with the reciprocal relationships between adults and children and between the children themselves. With that in mind, I plan and set up activities. But that is just the beginning. What actually happens is a flow that includes my efforts to invite, respond and support children's interface with those activities and with others in the room. Oh yeh, and along the way, the children change the activities to suit their own inventiveness and creativity. Now the processes become reciprocal with the children doing the inviting, responding and supporting. Young children are the best learners and teachers. I am truly fortunate to be a part of their journey.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Snow table

In October 2015,  I built two trash bin apparatus from plastic waste baskets.  We had been using the two white trash bins at school for recycling.  The school got nice new recycling bins and no one wanted the old white bins.  I decided to claim them to see if I could make something new for the sensory table.  When I was done making, one of the new trash bin apparatus looked like this.
Through the middle of the bin, I embedded a large, wired-reinforced tube made from strong flexible plastic.  I wove a smaller flexible tube from the top of the bin through the bottom and out along the side of the bin.  And finally, I embedded a clear plastic tube diagonally through the bin.  I set it up at the sensory table with water.

A couple of weeks ago, I was outside playing in the snow with my grandson.  The snow was hard and crunchy and there was meager supply to say the least.  I thought I might be able to extend our outdoor play a bit if I could find some tubes to use with the snow.  My original idea was to have us fill the tubes with snow.  I did pull out some tubes, but I also found the trash bin apparatus I had built in 2015.

I set the bin on the seat of our picnic table.  My grandson was already on top of the table busy breaking the ice and smashing the hard snow.  Since there was no good snow on top of the table, we had to search for some decent stuff in another section of the yard.  We found some in a section of the parking area where the sun doesn't shine.  We filled a green bucket and brought it back to the table.
As he started to put snow in the end of the clear tube, I found a plastic chute to connect to the tube.  The idea was to create a path to the ground for the snow dropping out of the tube.  However, the chute kept falling down when the apparatus moved as he scooped snow in the tube.  Offhandedly I said the chute wouldn't stay connected.  To that my grandson said I should use some duct tape.  He knows me too well.  I followed his advice and used some green duct tape to connect the tube to the chute.

For over 45 minutes and several trips to mine some more decent snow to refill his green bucket, he scooped the snow into the clear plastic tube.  In the process, he would constantly check to see if it came out the other end and to see if the chute to the ground was filling up with snow.

He used a broken ice cream scoop to shovel the snow into the tube.  When the end of the tube was full, he used a duct-taped piece of wood to push it down the tube.


Snowtube play from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

After pushing the snow with the piece of wood, he took a measure of his work by looking down the clear tube.  

I had hoped to extend our outdoor play a little.  It did that an more.   It inspired a whole set of operations that my grandson created to constructively transport the snow through the tube and down the chute. 

Oh, and by the way, we had a lot of fun, too.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Classroom metaphor of the year

Last week I posted my 2016 classroom picture of the year.  I borrowed some aerobic steps from the adult ed program in our building and set them out on the large muscle mat in the classroom.  In the hands of the children, the aerobic steps turned out to be large loose parts for the children to move and stack.  Consequently, these big blue steps created the foundation for my classroom picture of the year: a child launching himself high into the air.  
For me, this is a perfect example of the power inherent in children: the power to shape and act upon their own world with a cheerful willingness that comes from feeling confident and competent.  That is why I called this my classroom picture of the year for 2016.

I could have featured many other pictures or videos showing the children shaping and acting upon their world using the aerobic steps.  Just the act of stacking them took strength and persistence.  Below is a video showing exactly that.


Stacking the aerobic steps from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Early in the video, the child asked me for help.  I could have helped, but I made the decision that it was too early to intervene and that she was really doing quite well by herself.  Both she and I were rewarded because she did it on her own and my decision as a teacher was validated.

There was also a certain level of risk as they acted upon their world.  The child in the first picture was jumping from a height of six aerobic steps.  The child below climbed on top of a stack of eight aerobic steps.  That took whole body strength and the ability to continually shift her balance.


How will you get down? from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

What made this child's action so risky was that the stack of aerobic steps was wobbly when stacked this high.  Consequently, she had to compensate her actions to the wobbliness of the stack in real time.  She used every muscle in her body to continually shift her balance as she got to the top step.  Her classmate first exclaimed: "Wow!"  Then she asked her twice: "How will you get down?"  The child was so preoccupied with her accomplishment that she had not thought about how she would get down.  In response to the question, she just shrugged her shoulders.  If you are wondering, she did not jump, but basically slid down the side of the stack of steps.

Even as children acted to shape their world, risk was relative and children figured that out.  Below a toddler found a way to take a risk while standing on only two of the steps.  Standing on the aerobic steps, he spun himself around several times.  As he spun, he almost lost his balance but caught himself before he fell.


Spinning from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Why did he decide to spin on top of the steps?  Spinning has a certain amount of risk even on the ground because you can get dizzy which may cause you to fall on the ground.  However, even this toddler felt the need to engage in some risk taking.  When he almost lost his balance, he pointed down and said: "Fall."  Maybe in his toddler way he was actually saying: "I almost fell down."  Interestingly, though, that did not stop him from spinning some more.

There were actually innumerable ways the children used the aerobic steps to shape and act upon their world.   One group of children stacked all ten of the steps on top of each other.  That was no easy task because the stack of aerobic steps ended up to be taller then them.  For that operation, they had to use plenty of strength and agility to create one stack of steps.
Not only was this a test of strength and agility, but it also became a de facto math lesson; they each took turns counting the steps they had stacked.  This was not a rote math lesson.  Rather, they authored their own counting lesson using real objects that they manipulated.

One interesting way the children acted and shaped their world with the aerobic steps was to create their own obstacle courses, often times bringing in other objects to jazz it up.   Objects like Biliboes or even a rocking chair.
 
One time their obstacle course actually took the shape of a path that led from the large muscle mat and spilled over into the block area.  Interestingly, it ended with the rocking chair that the children had to step into without touching their feet to the ground.


Aerobic step path from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

After watching this video several times, I have decided to create a new category for a year end summary.  I call it "metaphor for the year. " In this case, the metaphor is the path the children created by themselves that spills into other areas and ends unexpectedly.  In other words, children, as a group,  create their own path to learning in the classroom that each child traverses in her/his own way that is not contained to one area of development and that is crowned by a totally unexpected end.  What do you think?

 






Saturday, December 31, 2016

Classroom picture of the year 2016

For the past three years, I have been writing a post I call "classroom picture of the year."  I have an ulterior motive for such a post.  I usually write exclusively about what happens at the sensory table.  With this post, I feel like I can give myself license to talk about something wonderful that happened in another area of the classroom.

My classroom picture of the year for 2016 comes from the large muscle area in my classroom.  For me this is one of the most important areas because young children need to be able to move when their body tells them to move.  The large muscle area is defined by a 5' x 12' blue gym mat.  I usually change what is available to the children every other week.

One of the places I store some of the large muscle equipment is a closet off the cafeteria.  It just so happens that is also where community education stores some of their equipment for adult education classes.  For several years now, when I went into that closet, I would see blue steps for step aerobics.  This year, I decided to borrow some of them and set them out in the large muscle area.

In the hands of the children, the aerobic steps turned out to be large loose parts for the children to stack.  Consequently, these big blue step created the foundation for my classroom picture of the year: a child launching himself into the air.
The children started stacking the aerobics steps on top of each other in order to create a perch from which to jump.  On this particular day, they settled on six steps .  The six aerobic blocks were shoulder-height for this child.   When he jumped, he went vertical almost another foot.  He was flying; he was defying gravity.  He measured his own risk and proved to himself his physical skills.  Imagine the exhilaration this child must have felt.

For me, this is a perfect example of the power inherent in children: the power to shape and act upon their own world with an alacrity that comes from feeling competent.  And that is why I am calling it my classroom picture of the year for 2016.



Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Lesson plans---or not

For the past couple of years, I have been questioning my role as a teacher in an early childhood classroom.  What did I really teach?  There was a time when I would look for and try to think up new and better ways to do art, literacy and numeracy.  There was a time when I would write lesson plans---although I was never very good at it, especially when it came to goals.  And to make matters worse, I always had this recurring dream that I was given a class to teach and inevitably I would loose total control because I did not have a lesson plan.  Yikes!

During the period of questioning my role as a teacher, I have gone without a lesson plan.  In place of lesson plans, I would work on provisioning the room, especially the sensory table and the large muscle area.  When the children arrived, it was their room to explore and investigate.  As a consequence, I have found myself stepping back more and watching the children interact with the materials, each other and the adults in the room.  I found myself continually astonished with those interactions.  What I saw, changed what I thought was important in the classroom.

For example, something as simple as a toddler putting a bowl on his head for a hat became significant.
Why would he try a bowl on for size?  What is he thinking and how will he keep it balanced on his head?
 
Children blowing bubbles in new ways had to be appreciated.   Children love to blow bubbles, but it became even more eventful when the child discovered for himself that he could blow bubbles through a rubber tube that he found on the shelf. 


Blowing bubbles from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

His expression tells it all.  His success did come at a price of swallowing a little soapy water and hence the big smile.


As the children delighted in the silly, so did I.  One child decided it would be fun to to step into the bucket of feed corn to bury his feet.  And if one child could do it, so could another---and maybe even dig her feet in a little deeper into the corn.




  
My admiration for their work included the self-proclaimed hard work by the children themselves.  The child in the video below was scooping corn into a pot with his hands.  Near the end of the video, the child looked up at me and said: "I've never worked so hard in my life."


Hard work from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.


Notice that as the teacher, I was not the task master.  He was the task master of the job he created for himself.  My role was to recognize and admire it.

Sometimes I am totally blown away by what transpires.  Below is a video of a child who was hit with a scoop but was not fazed in the least.  He was kneeling next to a tub playing with a tree cookie in the muddy water.  On his right, a red scoop appeared.  As the child with the scoop tried to lift some mud out of the tub, she lost control of the scoop and hit the boy kneeling at the tub.  It happens in the blink of an eye, so watch carefully.


Getting hit with a scoop from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

What amazed me what that he rolled with the punch, and, without a word, went about his business.  How many children---or adults---do you know who would take umbrage with such a slight.

I even valued the children taking risks on their own like standing on the lip of the table---in play high heels. 
How could I not appreciate how they were willing to take on the physical challenge of climbing and balancing to gain a new perspective on their operations?

I even marveled at the sublime.  In the video below, three children have a lovely exchange while they each work on their own operation.  The exchange included an offer, an acceptance, a question and an answer.  The first child offered: "Want me to give you some of my sponges?"  The second child accepted by saying: "Ya, I need a lot of sponges."  The third child asked the second child: "To make cookies?"  The second child answered: "Ya, chocolate chip cookies."


Making cookies from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I am in awe with the natural flow of the interchange between the three children.  It flows in a way that can only happen between the children.  There is nothing didactic here; there is no lesson plan for this kind of stuff. 

Is there learning going on?  Yes, but it is not in the teacher-directed life in the classroom.  Rather, it is a byproduct of a vital and appreciated life that is lived in the classroom by the children.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Idiosyncrasies

One of the perks of retirement is that I have more time for reading.  Between helping raise a family and building a career as an early childhood educator, I rarely found the time to read books in the field.  With more time, I am reading more in the field of early education than at any time in my life.  I come at these new reading endeavors from an interesting perspective.  I use the readings to reflect on my past practice.  That in turn gives the process a new purpose.  Instead of reading to improve my practice, I am now reading to find new meaning in that past practice.  I am no longer looking for better ways to do such things as numeracy or literacy.  Instead, I am using the readings to try to understand such things as: What were the conditions in my classroom that allowed children make meaning on their own terms?

One of the books in my reading pile is The Informed Vision by John Hawkins.  I actually read it a couple of years ago but could not grasp the depth of his writing on the philosophy of education.  I have just finished the second reading of the book and so much more makes sense to me in hindsight.  Let me take one passage and see if I can make sense of it from my past practice.  On page 25, he writes:

            The product number, of possible congenital patterns multiplied by possible early 
            biographies of children, is of higher arithmetical order than the total number of
            children, past, present, or future.  The probability is effectively zero that there
            should be two children presenting the same educational challenges and 
            opportunities. ... This requires from the start a recognition of individual 
            competency and situation.  Not to recognize the individuality is not to educate.

What could that possibly mean?  For me, it means that children all come with their own individual idiosyncrasies to any given situation---in my case for this blog, the sensory table.   When I say idiosyncrasies, I do not mean peculiarities as such.  Rather, I mean the distinctive endowments each child brings to the classroom.  It is what makes each child an original every day.

Below are some examples of what I consider distinctive endowments brought to something new at the sensory table.  The first shows a child examining the sand in an apparatus call horizontal channels.  The child is using his hands to explore the sand.  And it is not just running his hand through the sand.  He is actually using his hand as a scoop so he is able to feel the sand on the back of his hand.  


Discovering how the sand feels from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.


For some reason, it is important to him to feel the sand on the back of his hand both as he scoops and then as he lets it slide off.

The next example is a boy making a lot of noise by swishing the corn vigorously back and forth with a scoop in the box.


Making noise from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.


Children do like to make noise, but can his actions be construed so simply?  Why does he bend down when he rustles the corn?  Does he get more power and agency?  Is he trying to get a different aural perspective?

The third example shows a child taking animal bedding that he has gathered from the sensory table and depositing it in the crack between the provisioning table and the wall.


Finding the crack from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.


Children are compelled to put things in holes (Axiom #5 on the right hand column of this blog).  But why do this child find this hole/crack to deposit his animal bedding?

The fourth example is a child tracing her hand in the sand that has fallen on the floor from the sensory table.

Hand tracing on the floor from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

My guess is that this child has traced her hand before using a crayon or something on paper.  What makes her envision that she could do it in the sand on the floor next to the sensory table?

Maybe these are not idiosyncrasies.   Maybe it is just a child feeling the sand, another child making noise, another child stuffing animal bedding in a crack, or a child drawing her hand in the discarded sand.  I think not, because on any given day with any given child, the operations will necessarily look different.  My final example, which has two parts, is a case in point.  Two separate videos show two different children with the same object in the same context.  In both the videos below, children put a long-handled pot on their heads and then look in the mirror.  The resulting operations, however, are quite different.


Pan on the head I from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.



Pan on the head II from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.


In the first video, the child is intrigued by how he looks with the pot on his head.  He then uses the mirror to reference his actions with his hands on the handle.  In the second video, the child is also intrigued by how she looks in the mirror, but for her it is a transformation of self that brings great delight.

If these are examples of idiosyncrasies, the question then becomes: how do I as a teacher make room for them?  For me the distinctive endowments surmount what the children are learning because it is through those idiosyncrasies that they learn and learn best.


 




 


Saturday, December 3, 2016

Washing toys: the riches in between

For the past several years, I have set up the sensory table as a wash tub for toys that are to be put away for the summer.  The original intent was to lighten the staff's work load at the end of the school year.  Gradually, as the children took it over, it became something the children did willingly to contribute to the care of the classroom.

At the start of class, I would dump toys that could be immersed in water into the table to be washed and then added water with dish soap.  On shelves next to the table, I set out scrub brushes, washrags, bowls and cups for washing the toys.  In the picture below, the children were washing a manipulative called Wedgits and long sections of a large muscle toy for balancing. 

At the end of class, I asked the children to help rinse the toys in clean water and then set them on towels on a nearby table to dry overnight.

Each new class period, I would dump different toys to be washed.   For instance, one day I set out all the "jewels" (glass beads from the craft store) we had been using with the plastacine.
There was quite a bit of plastacine residue on these glass beads so it took a fair amount of scrubbing and fine motor work to get it off.  In fact, there was so much residue that I also set the jewels out for the following class.

One of the nice aspects of the toy-washing activity was the friendly chitchat that emerged between the children as they worked.  This also turned out to be a great time for the teachers to sidle up next to the table and join in the work and the spontaneous conversations.

Did the toys get clean?  Judging from the water that was left in the sensory table, yes.  Some of that was due to the fact that the toys simply soaked in soapy water.  However, the children's contribution cannot be underestimated.  Besides scrubbing and pouring water over the toys, they created natural friction---which contributes to the cleaning process---just by moving the toys in and around the table.

For me as teacher there are at least two important understandings that go along with this activity.  The first is that I have to be happy with approximations.  What does that mean?  That means that I am not looking for perfection only for participation and effort.  Too often we judge children's work by adult standards.  If I wanted all the toys the children wash to be spotless, the activity would not have to power it does to contribute to the life and caretaking of the classroom, both physically and socially.

The second important understanding is that children do not have the same objective as I do.  I want the toys clean.  The children want to play.  That means that while they are ostensibly cleaning, they are really doing something else.  For instance, look at the picture below.  We were washing the Duplo train tracks.  This child decided to put the "clean" tracks together next to the sensory table.
If I only focused on washing the toys and having the children wash the toys, I might have stopped his building the minute it began.  Instead, my decision to what I saw as a provocation on his part was to not stop it.  Were the tracks going to get dirty again?  Not so much.  Could other children still wash toys if they wanted? Yes.  

Or here is a picture of a child who was a little more interested in filling a pot with soapy water on one of the shelves next to the sensory table.
This child's actions really had very little to do with washing the toys.  Rather, it was fulfilling her need to transport water from the table to fill her pot.  Again, my agenda for the activity was different than hers.  Is my agenda more important than hers?

Let me try to explain it a different way.  Recently I have been telling people about a realization that I have come to when taking care of my grandson.  I realized that going to the park with him was not so much about the end goal of getting to the park.  The important part was the journey.  It was the stick he found that he had to pick up and which he used to hit a telephone pole.  It was the snow he then discovered at the bottom of the pole that needed to be smooshed down.  It was grate that needed to be examined on the curb of the sidewalk   What I am saying is that the time between leaving the house and getting to the park was as rich as anything we did at the park.   If I was only focused on getting to the park, I would miss the riches in between.  And if I thought getting to the park simply meant using the equipment at the park, I was terribly mistaken.  The pound was frozen at the park so we looked for sticks and rocks to toss onto the frozen pond.  We wanted to see if the ice would break or not.  In fact on this particular day, the equipment was the least important feature of the park.  It was almost like another journey began once we got to the park.

Getting back to washing the toys, did I want the toys clean?  Yes.  But that was my agenda.  If my intention was to bring the children into the activity, I had leave room for them to create their own agenda along the way.  If I did that, it was a win-win proposition.





Saturday, November 26, 2016

Agency for children---and the teacher

This post will take me into uncharted territory.  Usually I write about an apparatus I have set up at the sensory table.  But the last couple of weeks I have been writing about the life of a cardboard box in the classroom.  In doing those posts, I began to think about my role in the classroom, and more generally, what type of agency does a teacher really have and how can others see it. 

There is a lot written about giving the children agency in the classroom.  How often do we really give children agency?  Do we really give children agency when we offer children choices so they will learn what we want them to learn?  Do we really give children agency when we work so hard for children to internalize our wants and desires so they see them as their own?  Do we really give children agency when we look for them to substantiate our world view?

Those are heady questions and not easily deconstructed.  One of the ways to deconstruct those questions is to raise the question: What is the role of the teacher in the classroom?

I will try to answer that by moving to another part of the classroom: the large muscle area.  I have a large muscle area as defined by a 5' x 12' blue mat.  This area is always open during the hour and a half of unstructured play time in the classroom.  I chose this area because I think I can easily find an example of the interplay between children's agency and my own.

A couple times a year, I set up a wooden climber and slide on the large muscle mat.  I do that because I know children need to climb and slide---even indoors and even at times other than at gym or recess.  However, there are metal shelves at the end of the slide so I have to cover them with other blue mats so children do not bump into the metal shelves.
I'll let you in on a little secret: they never do anyway.  Instead, they liked to launch themselves into the mats from the slide.


The children also liked to take the mats to cover themselves for rollicking games of hide and seek.





In essence, these mats became two big loose parts in the large muscle area for the children appropriate for their own uses.  Needless to say, there were many, many uses, but here is one fetching example of how the children used the mats as loose parts.  Two children covered the slide with the two mats.  One child held them in place while the other stepped onto them to slide down.  It was slower than they or I expected.  At the end, she declared: "That's a nice boat ride."


That's a nice boat ride from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Up to this point, my agency was setting up the invitation for large motor play.  When I saw that the children started to used the blue mats for their own purposes, I made a conscious decision to let them move the mats away from the metal cabinet because they were already regulating their own speed down the slide.  At that point, I became really curious how many different ways the children could use these mats.  That meant that I needed to take a step back to watch.  Not only was I going to watch, but I was also going to document how the children used the mats.

After watching how the children used the mats,  I decided that I could create a new invitation for play in the large muscle area by just setting out multiple mats.  I took away the climber and set out seven mats.  Now it was the children's turn to show their agency.  They did not disappoint.  They stacked them so they could jump.

They laid them all out on the big blue mat so they could pretend to go sleep on Christmas Eve only to wake up to see that Santa had left them presents.

Some of the children decided to try to build a fort with the mats to protect themselves from the bad guys.  As the video below shows, that was not so easy because the mats were flimsy and floppy and took quite a bit of effort to manipulate.


Mat fun from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

With the help of others, though, they eventually did create a decent looking---though quite unstable---fort.

I think it is easy to see the children's agency with the blue mats.  There manipulation of the mats both when the climber was up and when there was no climber was only limited by their imagination, both individual and group imagination. 

Where was my agency in all of this?   My agency can be clearly seen in the initial set up.  From there, though, I do not think it is so clear.  Was making the decision to let the children initially move the mats away from the metal shelves something that can be considered agency on my part?  Can observing and recording what they were doing be considered my agency.  What about the decision to create time and space for the large muscle play?  Can that be considered agency?  I think taking the children's lead by creating a new set up with just the mats surely showed agency on my part. 

If indeed all those things I mentioned fall under the rubric of my agency, I am struck by the realization of how much the children's agency and my agency are intertwined.  It is like a small game of soccer.  I kick the ball to them.  They receive it and dribble with it a bit, sometimes with moves I have never seen.  Then they kick it back to me in an unexpected way or direction that makes me have to shift my stance to receive and handle it.  Maybe I do a few dribbles, but then I kick it back to them in a way that gives them a chance to receive, dribble and kick in yet another new way.  Agency is not something I have or they have.  Instead, it is something that emerges in the context of the room between the materials, the children and myself.  It is not static, but ever changing.

Does that make any sense?