Thursday, January 23, 2014

On Teaching Preschoolers

I have recently read articles about accelerating preschoolers learning math (place value) and colors. Both articles suggest that preschoolers are capable of learning more than we give them credit for...I agree. But both articles also suggest that we should be setting standards for preschoolers to demonstrate their math and color knowledge...I wholeheartedly disagree.

I also recently discovered that my Preschool Engineer is "twice exceptional." He is gifted and he is autistic. Since his diagnosis I have been trying to understand his twice exceptionality in many ways - how much of him is nature and how much has been nurtured? In my most recent IEP meeting, during which I shared his diagnosis with his teachers, I confessed that I have always been good at identifying his interests and his strengths and scaffolding that learning but that I have been at a complete loss for getting him to work on his weaknesses. (Autistic people are apparently notorious for avoiding the uninteresting or unappealing.) My husband agrees that I have done amazing things for Mikey's learning - I have taught him SO MUCH.

How much credit can I take for Mikey's learning and giftedness? If I hadn't taken the opportunities to say, "yes, that is a car," and further elaborated by continuing briefly, "it is a car that is red," then would he have tested as being "gifted?" I don't know. What I do know is that I have worked very hard to strike a balance of letting him play on his own and engaging with him in teachable moments.

Teachable moments? What is a teachable moment? It is just that...a moment. A moment caught at the right time. The child is interested and open. The teacher is present and receptive. In my case, since my son had no real verbal language communication ability, it required a great deal of attention and intuition on my part. I had to pay attention to what Mikey was doing, what he was looking at, how he was investigating it. I had to be ready for him to look at me, questioningly, so I knew he was ready to hear me when I spoke. And I had to be prepared to "take it to the next level" - manipulating the toy in a new way.

Finding teachable moments for Mikey was time-consuming and sometimes exhausting. We are lucky that I could stay at home with him and attend to him the way I did. My parenting of Mikey when he was a toddler looked very different than my parenting of Anna as she is a toddler. Of course, many differences are because circumstances are different, because I have learned how valuable it is to step away and allow for independent play, and because the children are so different from each other. But one thing remains true for teaching both children: as Vivian Paley wrote, "Possibilities for connecting play and outside events are fleeting, but the teacher who listens carefully has many opportunities to apply the glue."

In order to listen carefully I have to slow down. I have to put away my phone, ignore my list of things to do, and attend to my children. I have to watch them and listen to them. I have to bite my tongue, lest I intrude at an inopportune moment. I try to find some inspiration or entertainment from being with them, lest I feel bored and inattentive. However, finding teachable moments is no longer time-consuming nor is it exhausting. When I commit myself to giving all my energy to Mikey and Anna for a mere twelve minutes (12 because that is how many they usually choose) then we all seem to feel fulfilled. In those twelve short minutes I always have an opportunity, or two, to "apply the glue" or otherwise find a teachable moment.

There is a conversation of sorts going on right now about what a teachable moment looks like in preschool and what the goal of those teachable moments should be. Some parents, teachers, and other professional advocate for a child's right to a childhood - one free from the pressures of learning academics. Others are suggesting that pre-academics needs to be beefed up so that children are both kindergarten ready AND demonstrating as much "knowledge" as we can coax out of them. I lean pretty heavily toward protecting childhood. However, it is in my own nature that I talk with my children and share experiences with them. In doing so, I have supported my children to excel at pre-academics.

"The key is curiosity, and it is curiosity, not answers, that we model. As we seek to learn more about a child, we demonstrate the acts of observing, listening, questioning, and wondering. When we are curious about a child's words and our responses to those words, the child feels respected. The child is respected. "What are these ideas I have that are so interesting to the teacher? I must be somebody with good ideas." Children who know others are listening may begin to listen to themselves... (Paley (1986))"
Preschool engineers are naturally curious about how stuff works. It has been my pleasure to learn about the hows and the whys of machines. By nurturing my own curiosity alongside Mikey's, we have learned together about how stuff works. Along the way of learning about machines he has learned numbers, letters, colors, pre-physics, and pre-engineering. In the end, I believe we have maintained his childhood in a way that supported his pre-academics.

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