Friday, August 7, 2015

Choices, Choices...What Will You Choose?

I love my job, even on tough days because I know early childhood education makes a difference. I especially LOVE my job on super fantastic days when I actually SEE the difference it makes: like today. :)

When you have a class of 8-12 students, it's tough to get 1:1 time, but summer session is perfect for it. My student is 7 years old. Academically speaking, that is 1st grade, but developmentally it still falls into the range of early children (see WHO for definition) which is how I currently approach it for strategic planning. Learning English as a second language is hard enough, but when it's compounded by developmental delays and medical issues, it could be a recipe for academic struggle (for student AND teacher).

It's important to give children choices in their learning process for lots of reasons. For me, student's responses to choice allow me to observe how each child learns, where they are in their developmental skills (i.e. Do they even know how to make a choice?) , and what personal interests they have that could be tapped into for future teaching/learning opportunities. Allowing choice within the framework of classroom structure (ask anyone who's been in my classroom, I run a pretty tight ship!) gives children some degree of autonomy in their learning without the classroom spiraling into chaos.

The trick is knowing when, and how many choice to give. I've been intrigued by how this translates in different cultural settings. I worked for almost 3 years in early education and orphan care in Haiti. In institutional settings, there is very little, if any autonomy. They are told what, when, and how much to eat, what to wear, when to get up, when to go to bed, etc. They never had opportunities to make choices in daily life, so when they got to school and I asked them if they wanted to color with blue, red, or yellow, they would either grab all 3 or stare blankly at me, unable to comprehend the question. They had no idea how to make a choice, or what they "preferred"! In that scenario, I had to simplify the options until they got the hang of it,"Do you want the fat red crayon or the skinny red crayon?" Choice isn't just about what the teacher wants vs. what the student wants. Giving choices is a great opportunity to build vocabulary, too. (especially for 2nd language learners)

Now that I'm teaching in Japan, I see a different challenge for young children when it comes to choice. Japan is a group oriented culture, so even at very young ages, in group settings children are hesitant to be the first to make a choice, or to choose something other than what everybody else chose. Japanese culture also places a high value on performance, which can put a lot of pressure on students (and people in general) to strive for perfection, and anything less is often deemed not acceptable. In my classroom this looked like students unwilling to make a choice at all, for fear of it being the "wrong" choice. I say that last bit in past tense, because thankfully most of my littles have overcome that mindset in the past year and a half and are quite adept at making [mostly] good choices when given the opportunity. :)

So back to my super fabulous summer session today! We had 3 hour learning block that looked like this:
Picture schedule found on TpT

We had the discussion that "lunch" wasn't technically lunch, since we finished at 12:30, but the visual worked well enough. Bible was added later, as a result of student choice/request. For morning work, we've been tackling the summer homework sheets sent home by the 1st grade English teacher. Today's paper was unscrambling spelling words and writing them in the space provided. This is not an easy task for an emerging reader with fine motor delays and a short attention span! Enter: choices! I provided colored gel pens instead of the usual pencil to write with and, VOILA, 60 minutes of engaged participation (and reading/writing/learning) later we had 9 colorful spelling words written correctly in the right place on the page! (I should mention we used letter tiles to physically unscramble the words first).

The summer session has focused on the book Caps For Sale, which is one of my personal favorites to teach, and happened to be covered in the 1st grade curriculum, however briefly, just before the end of first term, so there was some level of familiarity. During break time, the student had a few minutes to rest or choose an activity from any center  in the room. The "mobile" block center (I pulled it from the kindergarten room downstairs) was the winning choice. 

"Mobile" Block Center
The Final Creation

I was mostly a silent observer during this play time, and was thrilled with the skills I saw in practice! All the blocks were counted out (in English) and placed very deliberately into position. There was lots of happy humming and self-talk (in English AND Japanese), exploring theme-related vocabulary ("straight" walls) and math concepts ("One more tree, one more rock").

Before we got to story time, my student commented on an unused daily schedule picture ("chapel" - not pictured) that was on the board, and asked to read the Bible instead of Caps For Sale. I had to do some quick thinking to come up with a story on the spot that had relate-able themes or vocabulary... Zacchaeus! BINGO! We read the story, found words we knew - tree, and money - and determined that there were no monkeys in this story (possibly some monkey business), but there was a bird and squirrel pictured in the tree with Zacchaeus.
Our very "well-loved" bilingual Children's Bible

And despite the change in original plan, child prompted, we still had time to read Caps For Sale, and complete all the other activities on the schedule! Oh, Happy Day!!

*You can find the MGT Developmental Skills Continuum (which includes 2nd language learning benchmarks) here


  1. Excellent job to both teacher and especially student! Proud of that student and miss all if them. Blessings

  2. What a great idea to offer colored pens for motivation. It's so wonderful when something works so well.