About Me

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Early childhood education has been my life for over 40 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, June 30, 2018

Milk carton cascade

I dove back into my archives of pictures I took over 20 years ago.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a milk carton cascade for the water table that I had completely forgotten about.  The setup below consisted of two clear toddler water tables.  I removed the legs of one of the tables so its tub rested on the floor.  I taped six milk cartons together in a cascade formation and then taped the structure to both the top water table and the bottom water table.

I cut a panel out of the top of each milk carton.  Children could then pour water into any milk carton of their choosing.  Water emptied out of each carton into the next through each of their original spouts.
Once the water reached the bottom, the water exited the bottom milk carton into the tub on the floor.

Axiom #6 on the right hand column of this blog asserts that children will stop or redirect the flow of any medium in the table.  In the picture below, the child nicely illustrates this axiom because he blocked the flow of water from the cascade with his hand.  In addition, he poured enough water into the bottom milk carton to make it overflow. 
Why would he do that?  My guess is that he plugged the cascade so the cartons would fill up.  When he removed his hand, he actually increased the rate of flow through the cascade.  

I have seen in early childhood catalogues that cascades are for sale.  They are durable, they are beautiful and they are guaranteed for life.  They are usually advertised as outdoor equipment with outdoor water tables.  The good ones are almost $2000.  And that is just the cascade piece.  

Can you guess how much this milk carton cascade cost?  

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Conference reflections

For the past five years, I have been reading books in the Contesting Early Childhood Series from Routledge Press that are edited by Gunilla Dahlberg and Peter Moss.  The series questions common assumptions in the field of early childhood education and "...examines the possibilities of risk arising from the accelerated development of early childhood services and policies, and illustrates how it has become increasingly steeped in regulation and control."

The first book I read in the series was called Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care: Languages of Evaluation.  The book basically questioned the concept of quality and how is it measured in early childhood education.   Before I started reading the book, I thought I knew what quality was.  After all, I had honed my craft for over thirty years. The book asked me to be critical about who gets to decide what quality is and for whom.  Since quality is a political, social, cultural and ethical construct, the concept of quality can be examined from multiple angles.

Two weeks ago I was in Austin, Texas, for the Professional Learning Institute of NAEYC.  Many of the conference attendees were trainers, administrators and researchers.  In other words, many of the leaders in the field who shape the discourse around such things as quality.

Sonia Nieto, professor emeritus from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, gave the opening plenary session.  Much of her work has been in the area of emergent bilingual education.  In her own way, she troubled the dominant discourse around bilingual education.  She asked the attendees to see and appreciate children's strengths and potentials rather than their perceived risks and deficits.  She even questioned one of the prominent constructs in education, namely, best practices.  She never uses the term because from her point of view there are no best practices for all children.  Each practice is contextual and needs to adapt to the cultural, political and ethical exigencies.

For the sessions I attended, I did my own troubling of the dominant discourse.  Many of the sessions privileged language and literacy.  Usually there was an added emphasis on social and emotional learning.   What was missing for me was some mention of the children's need to move to shape their own learning.  If movement was talked about, it was usually directed by adults and always in the service of learning academics.  Where was the language of children's actual play and exploration?  Where was the language of children's own movement and their dialogue with materials?

Children's actions are their thinking.  To question their thinking or the ways they think, adults need to step back and observe their play and exploration.  Sometimes they use words, but often times their actions are pure play and exploration with the materials.

Below is a Duplo ramp.  Basically it was two Duplo panels attached to a wooden frame and set on an incline.  Children used Duplo blocks to build various configurations to alter the flow of water down the ramp.

This apparatus offered a couple of good examples of children's thinking in motion as they play and explore pouring water down the Duplo ramp.

In the first example, the child poured water from a pot down the ramp.  When the pot was empty, he dropped it back into the table and ran around to see the water come down the ramp.  He got to the end of the ramp before the water.  As he watched the water drop into the tub in rivulets, he said the water was "leaking."  

In this example, his words were important as he made sense of what he experienced and saw.  However, the language was just the culmination of his actions.  His body said that he had an idea about what would happen when he poured water down the ramp.  His body said he was excited to test his hypothesis.  His body said that he was surprised that the water  streams off the ramp in rivulets.  Only after all that body language does he try to make sense of what he saw with words.  

In the second example, a child completely filled a container with water from the tub at the bottom of the ramp.  As he lifted the container out of the tub, he surmised it was too full so he poured a little bit of water out of the container, not once but twice.  He lifted the container which was still pretty full and started walking around the table.  As he walked, he sloshed some water on the floor.  When he got to the other end of the ramp, he lifted the container and poured the water---at least most of it---down the ramp.  After emptying the container, he hurries back around to catch the water coming off the ramp.

Physical challenge from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The were no words in this episode.  His body said he wanted to fill his container as full as he could.  His body said that the container was too full.  His body said that he was strong enough to attempt to carry the container around the water table.  His body said that he was strong enough to attempt to lift the container to the top of the ramp to pour all the water down ramp.  His body said that he wanted to do it again.

In the first example, there was a lot of action before there were words, a precious few words.  In the second example, there were no words at all.  Often times, teachers ask children to talk about what they are doing; they ask the children to put words to their actions.   The request for children to verbalize what they are doing often times sounds like an interrogation.  It is almost as if their actions must be validated with words.

I am not saying verbal language is not important.  I am saying that it is not always the language that should be privileged.  I am trying to make a case for adults to listen to a very specific language of children that is primary for young children.  I am advocating for listening to the language of their actions.   That can only happen when we set up the conditions for uninterrupted play and exploration.  That can only happen if we cultivate a disposition to privilege their actions as thinking.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Making cookies

I am in Austin, Texas, this week for the NAEYC Professional Learning Institute.  On Monday, I did a session on children's scientific inquiry at the water table.

Below is one of the videos from that presentation.  The children were busy making suds from a giant sponge that covered the bottom of the water table.  One child filled an empty coffee can with suds.  She then slowly inserted a plastic bottle into the the coffee can.  In doing so, she displaced the suds from the coffee can.  One of the other children saw what she was doing and called it a suds fountain.  In addition to exploring the properties of suds, she was working with such things as volume and substance. 

One thing that has always intrigued me about this video is the chatter of the children as they explore and play.  A child asked: "Do you want me to give you some of my sponges?"  The child answers: "Yeh. I need a lot of sponges."  A third child asked: "To make cookies?"  To which the child answers: "Yeh. Chocolate cookies."

In trying to understand that simple dialogue, I asked my mentor and colleague, Lani Shapiro, to help me deconstruct what was important about the dialogue.  I thought the chatter gave the episode authenticity.  This was not a scripted dialogue.  It flowed naturally from child to child as they each did their own thing while still paying attention to what each other was doing.

As Lani pointed out, it was even more complex than that.  The child who collected sponges knew the sponges were not cookies.  However, he was using the sponges to represent cookies.  That is important because for children to be able to read, they need to have plenty of practice understanding how representation works.  To read, children need to understand that a mark represents a letter.  That a letter represents a sound.  That letters together represent a word.  That a word represents an object.  What about sentences?  What about paragraphs?

Talking about sponges being cookies can now be seen as a deep dive into pre-literacy.  It is not just about their talk; it is also about their own penchant to play with representation.  Of course that includes the words the children use in their dialogue, but it also includes the manipulation of the materials which encompasses the nonverbal work they do with their hands and bodies.

Given the time, space and materials, children know how to inhabit a space of learning.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Filling the bucket

Can we fill the bucket?

That sounds like such a simple question.  However, a simple question like that can tell us a lot about how children think.  The underlying assumption of this statement is that thinking and doing are synonymous for young children.

Below are two videos in which children started with the question: Can we fill the bucket?  I would venture a guess that they did not start out with that question.  Instead, their actions began by simply transporting the sand out of the table into the bucket next to the table (see axiom #1 in the right hand column of this blog).  At some point, they filled the bucket enough, that the question of filling the bucket became real.  This is the point at which my narrative begins.

A child filled his pot with sand.  His objective was to carry it around the table to fill a five gallon pail on the other side.  Another child accurately assessed that the pot was heavy so he attempted to help the child carrying the pot to help. That child carrying the pot saw his overture, but dismissed it.  That child who wanted to help then started to back up as the child carrying the pot started walking forward. The child who wanted to help still found a way to help. He darted ahead and gently moved a child out of the way so there was room for the child carrying the pot to empty his pot into the bucket. As the pot emptied, the child who had tried to help got more and more excited as the level of the sand in the bucket got higher. By the end of the video, the children screeched with excitement at how full the bucket was getting. 

Filling the bucket 1 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

From the video, the question looked more like a dialogue between the children.  Some of that dialogue was verbal and some of it nonverbal.  Some of it looked like a question: How do I help?  Some of it looked like an answer to the question: I'll clear the way so he can pour the sand in the bucket.  And some of it looked like commentary on the process: the screeching and jumping up and down with delight.

The children filled the bucket within an inch of the top.  They could have put more sand in the bucket so why did they stop there?  In any case, this was how full they decided they wanted it to be.  At this point the questioned morphed into: Can we lift it?  This is where the second part of my narrative begins.

One child decided to see if he could lift the bucket full of sand.  As he strained to lift the bucket he said: "Help. We need help." The child right behind him stepped forward but did not offer help.   Instead, he said he wanted to try. This child strained and was able to move the bucket a little bit by himself. He even asserted: " I kind of lifted it." A third child stepped forward and said "let me try now." He was not able to lift or move it. A fourth child stepped forward and said: "I bet I can do it." He tried but he was also unsuccessful in his attempt to lift. The child who first tried to lift the bucket and asked for help then stepped forward to grab the handle of the bucket. As he did that, he uttered a simple command: "team work." He repeated his command implored the others to grab the handle together. With mighty grunts, four of the children grabbed the handle and started to lift. They were able to lift it and move it slightly. The bucket actually ended up on top of that child's foot. "Ow!" he exclaimed. As the video ended, the three other children helped get the bucket off his foot.

Filling the bucket 3 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

As the children answered one question, another one presented itself.  In the process, their thinking became more complex and eventually even more coordinated.  They worked out taking turns without anyone---meaning an adult---telling them when and how take turns.  They worked out lifting the bucket together without anyone---meaning an adult---telling them when and how to. 

Teachers are not always so good at asking questions.  Too often we ask questions of fact.  Even such a simple question of filling the bucket uttered by an adult too easily morphs into a lesson in which we ask another question such as: How many cups do you think it will take to fill the bucket? Those type of questions don't promote or get at children's thinking.  Not every moment has to be a teaching moment.

Children, on the other hand, are a source of good questions.  Given the time and materials, children's questions, both simple and complex, present a window into their thinking.  Not every moment has to be a teaching moment, but every moment is a learning moment.  Children's questions may be the best measure of how and what they are learning.