Critical Thinking Skills and “Little Red Riding Hood”

Education, Front Page, Government and Politics, Teachers' Corner


     With a new year beginning, teachers’ thoughts turn to statewide exams. In some courses, math as an example, most questions have but one correct answer. But in other courses, such as reading, history, or English, students need to have knowledge of the three basic kinds of questions so that they can understand what is being asked of them. This knowledge can help them in the classroom, on the ever-present exams, and even in later life. One way to learn about the three basic kinds of questions, which seems to stick with students, is to discuss FACTUAL, INTERPRETIVE, and EVALUATIVE questions as they relate to one little story almost everyone has read, “Little Red Riding Hood.”  When I taught seventh and then eighth-graders from the Junior Great Books shared inquiry method, the first thing to do is to have students know which kind of question is being asked. Teachers and parents may need to help with these critical thinking skills.

     A FACTUAL question has only one answer. If students have read the story or the piece of literature assigned, they could just place their hands over their mouths and POINT to the ONE answer. Using “Little Red Riding Hood” as an example, pretend the question after the story asks, “What color is the little girl’s hood in the story?” Only one color is correct. It is not purple, mauve, orange, green, blue, or rainbow-colored. The one answer is red. Any student could just point to the answer in the title, but all students agree that only one answer is correct. So, factual questions, as seen on many standardized tests, can only have one correct answer. There is no discussion or disagreement.

     An INTERPRETIVE question about a short story, a poem, or longer piece of literature is a question where there could be more than one correct answer, but the person answering the question must go into the story for proof and explanation about the answer chosen. There is no way a student can just point to the answer. These questions are sometimes dreaded by students, because they KNOW they must prove their answer with evidence. These are the sometimes dreaded discussion questions. Using “Little Red Riding Hood” as the story, an example of an interpretive question is this: “What kind of mother was the little girl’s mother?” Some students may say the mother was very nice and use as evidence that she had baked cookies for her own mother and was teaching her daughter to be a giving and benevolent person. Or they might mention that her clothing in the picture looked well-kept and clean, and therefore she must have been a considerate and neat mother, not a neglectful one. Other students may say she was a particularly bad mother and use as evidence that the mom had sent her young, innocent daughter into the woods known to be roamed by wolves. Or they may mention that the mother SHOULD have gone with the little girl in order to be sure she was protected. But these interpretive questions cannot be answered with just “the mom was good” or “the mom was awful.” Explanations from the story are needed as proof. It’s harder to answer these questions and bluff one’s answer without having read the story assigned.

     EVALUATIVE questions are easy to answer, and the answers may come from one’s own experiences. A student can answer an evaluative question without even having read the assigned story. An example is this: “Should parents make their children learn by experience?” Now the students go into their own backgrounds to answer the question. One student might mention that parents do not have to stand their children on a railroad track with a train bearing down at sixty miles per hour to teach the dangers of standing on railroad tracks. After all, there would be no way to use this lesson later if the child were killed…at least not for THAT child. Another student might answer that he was warned to stay off his older brother’s skateboard since he might break an ankle. And then he DID break his ankle when he secretly got onto the skateboard as a toddler. These are fine answers, but they do not relate to the story in any way. In fact, the story does not even have to be mentioned in the answer. Evaluative questions are where some students who have never read the assignment may shine, but that does not mean they learned anything from the reading assignment.

     In math, most answers are either right or wrong, so one could say that many, if not most, math questions are factual. After all, two plus two equals FOUR, not twelve or nearly four. In history, the date of a certain battle has but one answer. In science, there is one symbol for oxygen, and one alone. But in literature, all three kinds of questions are found, as they are in life itself. When teaching students or one’s own children about answering questions, it is really great to then make them look at today’s news stories or political happenings and ask some factual, interpretive, and evaluative questions. Ask them, “Who won the electoral college vote in 2016?” There is only one answer. This is how critical thinking is ingrained. Be careful of what children watch on television and read online. Much of it comes from people with their own ideas, their own evaluative answers to OUR well-being, and these people’s ideas may not promote critical thinking or our well-being. Discuss what is being put out there as factual. Even many people who are on television as “commentators” and “journalists” might not be as smart as seventh- and eighth-grade students who know about the three kinds of questions.

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Peace, Love, and Play: Our Future Generations

Education, Front Page, Human Interest, Science, Teachers' Corner

Peace. Love. Play.

This motto perfectly describes the Mamma Mel’s Learning Center, a bilingual, progressive early childhood program in Rincón, Puerto Rico. The school offers a full immersion model, exposing the students, ages 3-8, to English and Spanish every day, all day. Melanie Smith, the program director, believes that children learn through play, and she has created a beautiful, eco-friendly space for the kids, including an art studio, organic vegetable garden, yoga classes, and music.

The Mamma Mel’s curriculum emphasizes respect and love for the environment and our small community… which is where I come in. Since August, my Tuesday afternoons have been filled with the laughter of K-2 students during our weekly oceanography workshops. As a marine scientist, who spent nearly 10 years in academic research, I have discovered my true passion involves ocean education and outreach. Teaching my community, and especially its children, about the sea, a crucial resource that we are inextricably linked to, provides an incredible opportunity to “give back”, after having the privilege of living my dream of becoming an oceanographer.

A firm believer in hands-on education, I have an amazing opportunity to teach these students outside, at the beach. They take a stroll to the ocean for lunch and play;  then we begin our lessons about the deep blue sea. Their eagerness to learn, week after week, astounds me, and they can hardly wait for the topic of the day to be announced. We have covered everything from biology to geology, from the ocean zones to how beaches are formed. The children have created their own marine food chains, learned about sea turtles, built a coral reef, and imagined life as the tiny, microscopic plankton that support the entire ocean food web.

My favorite workshop focused on marine pollution and debris, which is a huge threat to the health of our oceans. Plastics are, by far, the worst offender. Did you know that ~74 million pounds of plastic are spread throughout the world’s ocean gyres (circular currents)? Over 50% of all marine mammal species on the threatened list have been observed entangled in or ingesting plastic. Tiny, toxic micro-plastics have increased 100 times in the North Pacific Gyre over the past 40 years and are eaten by marine life, which then are consumed by us.

After discussing the problems with ocean trash and how long it takes to biodegrade, the students happily (and quite enthusiastically) helped with a beach cleanup, filling an entire garbage bag in less than 15 minutes. They were so proud of every piece of trash, and my heart filled with joy while observing their precious hands tidying Mother Earth. To wrap up our lesson, we made a pact to reduce the amount of trash we created, pick up litter during every beach visit, and share what we learned with friends and family.

As I watched the kids walking, with lunch boxes in hand, back to school, I realized the importance and impact of spending time with our future generations. It truly makes a difference. We are leaving this planet to these brilliant and passionate children, who deserve a beautiful Earth to enjoy and care for.

What can you do to help minimize marine debris? Use less plastic. Recycle. Opt for reusable bags. Cut apart plastic 6-pack rings before disposal. Avoid single use plastics (straws, utensils, plates, to-go cups, water bottles, etc.). Bring your own to-go containers.

I dedicate this piece to my mom, Cindy Schwierzke, a beloved Flour Bluff ISD kindergarten teacher, who passed in 2012. Her legacy shines bright.

Source: One World, One Ocean. The Plastics Breakdown: An Infographic.

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Sorry I Forgot I Am Here

Education, Front Page, Opinion/Editorial, Science, Teachers' Corner

Courtesy of


     If the title of this article seems a bit ambiguous, it is.  I did not write it; my 8th-grade granddaughter did.  When I dropped her at school just as morning was breaking, I asked her to send me a text when she got inside the building so that I would know that she arrived safely.  She agreed, then promptly forgot.  When I finally received her text, I laughed out loud.  Had she arrived safely, or was she distraught at not knowing the status of her existence?  Texting, tweeting, and other modes of short, fast communication are ruining the fine art of writing.  Add to that a general lack of practice in the modern English classroom, and we find that we have a generation of kids who are not adept at producing good writing.  Let’s face it.  They text and tweet more than they write formal compositions, which means they are practicing bad writing all day long.  But wait, there’s more!


     In the August edition of the Texas Lone Star, a publication of the Texas Association of School Boards, writer Ellie Hanlon addresses this topic in Texas.  She refers to an article in the Education Post that describes the “angst of employers who have to manage far too many employees who cannot produce comprehensible written material.”  She further notes that writing assessment results in Texas have been poor, with only 72 percent of seventh-grade students meeting even the very basic standards in 2015.  As a teacher who taught writing successfully for nearly thirty years, I will add one more reason for the lack of writing skills in Texas: ten years of over 80% of Texas schools using a heavily criticized, error-riddled, “teach-to-the-test”, scripted, K-12 online educational curriculum (CSCOPE).  Teachers are struggling to recover from its adverse effects in many areas, only one of which is writing.  Because it was in existence for so long, even many graduating college students are unable to write a decent sentence or paragraph these days.

     Prior to CSCOPE, teachers who asked their students to write regularly, deducted points for style and mechanical errors, and insisted on complete sentences for all responses created good writers. Writing is one of those subjects that only has so much to learn in terms of the mechanics of the skill. Once students learn the rules, that’s it.  No one is inventing new ones.  However, as the saying goes, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”  In Frans Johansson’s book, The Click Momentthe author contends that “deliberate practice is a predictor of success in fields that have super stable structures.” For example, in tennis, chess, classical music, and writing, the rules never change, so you can study up to get better and even become a master.   One of the many weaknesses in CSCOPE was its lack of direct writing instruction coupled with lots of independent – not group – practice.  When teachers and parents fail to insist that their children use the skills they have acquired – well and often – they will lose them.  Students must practice good writing at least as much as they are practicing bad writing.  So, how can the teacher and the parent help the child become a better writer?

     Hanlon’s article offers up a few valid questions for all educators to ponder as they attempt to overcome the deficiencies in reading, writing, and speaking:

  • Are students reading, writing, and discussing ideas every day in all classes?
  • Are students reading and writing a variety of text types?
  • Are students revising and editing written work by incorporating feedback from teachers and peers?
  • Are students learning how to use reading, writing, and thinking skills to learn new material and develop ideas in ALL content areas?

     Reading, writing, and speaking skills may be taught in the English class, but they must be practiced in all classes and – yes –  even at home.  Here’s a list of questions I devised for parents of these little destroyers of the language:

  • Are parents discussing matters of importance with their children and asking them questions that promote thoughtful responses?
  • Are parents asking their children to tell about their daily experiences using rich detail and good story order?
  • Are parents taking the time to read articles from newspapers, magazines, and books with their children to prompt such discussions?
  • Are parents insisting that their children speak clearly and explain or defend their thoughts?
  • Are parents checking homework for legibility, clarity, and logical thinking and asking their children to re-write the responses when even one of these elements is missing?
  • Are parents asking questions that encourage the children to be more specific in their responses?  That is, are they teaching them to elaborate?

     Even pre-school children can carry on intelligent conversations, think logically, articulate their positions on a wide variety of topics, and turn those thoughts into elaborate, coherent stories. Texas kids and teachers are recovering from the Dark Ages in Texas education, (aka, the CSCOPE era), a time when a one-size-fits-all curriculum traded creative thought and lively discourse in the classroom for mindless group work and repetitive lessons that were geared toward a test score instead of an education.  If our children are to become adept at writing, we must ask them to read the master writers.  When Arnold Samuelson interviewed Ernest Hemingway and picked his brain on how to become a master writer, Hemingway handed him a piece of paper and said, “Here’s a list of books any writer should have read as a part of his education… If you haven’t read these, you just aren’t educated. They represent different types of writing. Some may bore you, others might inspire you, and others are so beautifully written they’ll make you feel it’s hopeless for you to try to write.”  When students read great writing regularly, their brains are exposed to the patterns of language in a meaningful way.  The titles are below:

  1. The Blue Hotel (public library) by Stephen Crane
  2. The Open Boat (public library) by Stephen Crane
  3. Madame Bovary (free ebook | public library) by Gustave Flaubert
  4. Dubliners (public library) by James Joyce
  5. The Red and the Black (public library) by Stendhal
  6. Of Human Bondage (free ebook | public library) by W. Somerset Maugham
  7. Anna Karenina (free ebook | public library) by Leo Tolstoy
  8. War and Peace (free ebook | public library) by Leo Tolstoy
  9. Buddenbrooks (public library) by Thomas Mann
  10. Hail and Farewell (public library) by George Moore
  11. The Brothers Karamazov (public library) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  12. The Oxford Book of English Verse (public library)
  13. The Enormous Room (public library) by E.E. Cummings
  14. Wuthering Heights (free ebook | public library) by Emily Brontë
  15. Far Away and Long Ago (free ebook | public library) by W.H. Hudson
  16. The American (free ebook | public library) by Henry James
  17. Not on the handwritten list but offered in the conversation surrounding the exchange is what Hemingway considered “the best book an American ever wrote,” the one that “marks the beginning of American literature” — Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (public library)

     Long before Hemingway’s advice to Samuelson, Benjamin Franklin knew the importance of emulating the masters.  He was so embarrassed of his writing skills that he sat for hours copying the writings of the literary greats.  He knew something then that many have forgotten or just ignore:  Practice makes perfect.  Even the latest brain research supports what ol’ Ben was doing; he was learning the patterns of writing by practicing what good writers do. If we want to get better at anything, we must put ourselves in situations where we can hone the skill by learning the simple patterns of language that lay the foundation for understanding and producing more complex patterns through regular practice.  Leslie Hart wrote in a scholarly article about how the brain is a pattern-seeking device.

The brain is not logical or sequential in the ways it takes in and makes meaning of input from the world outside. Instead, it is constantly searching for patterns to understand in the surrounding environment. In their instruction, teachers should allow students to identify, understand, and apply patterns. We cannot predict what any one particular child will perceive as a pattern because so much depends upon prior knowledge, the existing neural networking of the brain used to process the input, and the context in which the learning takes place.


       To be clear, my granddaughter knew what was wrong with her text, and she chuckled about it, too, but we had “the talk” anyway. She is not offended when her granny points out or corrects her errors. After all, everyone makes a mistake now and then, even Granny. (She really enjoys catching me out, as do most of my friends and family.)  Her cousin got a similar talk from me when he was doing his math homework last week.  He tried to use a sentence fragment to answer a math question that required that he give the reason behind a wrong answer from a make-believe student. He wrote: “Because she multiplied by 2 instead of 3.” I made him erase and write a complete thought with proper punctuation: “Because the girl multiplied by 2 instead of 3, she got the wrong answer.”  I learned this from my seventh-grade English teacher, Miss Waterman.  Thanks goodness she set me on the proper path of using complete thoughts because my senior English teacher, Mrs. Lawson, required that we stand and address her in proper English, which meant using good grammar, good sentence structure, and clear speech.  It was good training. (She would be proud that I don’t allow children, mine or anyone else’s, to mumble an answer.  Clear speech is as important as legible handwriting if the message is to be conveyed.)  We must serve as the examples for proper speech and writing, planting language patterns in the brains of our children if we want to help them get better at such an important skill, a skill that is in danger of destroying our ability to express our thoughts.

For more information on how the brain works, visit:

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Oso Bay Wetlands Park Is Great Place for Kids and Adults

Corpus Christi, Education, Front Page, Outdoors, Teachers' Corner


     “Look at the giant bird!” squealed a four-year-old girl from the backseat.  She had just laid eyes on the towering metal structure of a great blue heron holding a fish in its mouth.  The children at the Greenhouse Preschool were on a field trip to the Oso Bay Nature Preserve and Learning Center.  Their teacher, Christy Zamora, is a firm believer in letting kids learn through being in nature.  Sara Jose (aka Ms. Sara), the recreation coordinator at the center must be a believer, too, because she gave the little ones a day of learning they won’t soon forget.  It quickly occurred to me that the best way to see the new park is through the eyes of a child.

     Ms. Sara led the little ones to a shady spot just beyond the play area for a little story time.  There she read What Kind of Turtle Am I? and talked with the children about looking at characteristics of animals to group (classify) them.

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     Then, Ms. Sara had the children pick a partner.  She gave each pair a color card.  “You and your partner will be on the look out for your color in all that we see today,” she said.  Then, they set out on their hike through the park.  How excited they were to see every shade of green, purple, red, yellow, white, and brown as they looked at plants, flowers, insects, and birds!

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     The children followed their leader down a winding path that made them ask, “Where are we?”  “Where does this go?”  Just as they were certain that they were lost, they spotted the long wooden and steel walkway leading out to the hawk watch area.  Suddenly, the hot, thirsty, tired tykes had a burst of energy.  When their feet hit the walkway, they could not help but run all the way to the end.  There, Ms. Sara had them act like the birds they observed, classify wildlife from the area by playing a classification game, and waddle like ducks as they left the hawk watch.

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     The next part of the field trip led them to the play area.  There they ran up the hills and slid down them on the giant, blue slides.  They spun on cattails, climbed into a birdhouse, walked on lily pads across the pond, and had lunch in the bright sunshine.  It was a wonderful day for all!

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Preparing your Child for Kindergarten

Education, Front Page, Teachers' Corner

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     It is hard to believe that it is already March again. Where has the time gone? For parents of young children, many are anxiously anticipating the start of kindergarten in a few months. They may be flipping through flash cards, helping their child learn to write his name, working on kindergarten readiness computer programs, teaching him to tie his shoes, or any other number of tasks geared at making sure the child is ready to start school. However, many parents must work and are faced with the daunting question of, “Where will little Johnny be going to preschool?” So parents begin visiting schools, taking tours, doing interviews, getting on waiting lists, putting down deposits, and praying that little Johnny gets into the most prestigious preschool in town. At this point, as a preschool teacher, I want to pull the emergency brake on this runaway train and prevent it from crashing and burning! How did we get to this point? Parents now view preschools the way they once did colleges. The biggest problem is that these children are 3, 4, and 5 year olds. They do not have career paths laid out yet, nor do they need to do so. The million dollar question is: How do we ensure that children are prepared for kindergarten while still allowing them to be kids?

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     We live in a world that is very different from when many of us were growing up. We once spent hours playing outside with our siblings and friends. We didn’t have cell phones, iPads, computers, or handheld game devices. Our televisions didn’t have thousands of channels from which to choose, and toys didn’t fill our houses to the ceiling. Kids created games to play with each other outside. They rode bikes, climbed trees, made mud pies, collected insects, and lay in the grass soaking up the warm sunshine. It was during these fun-filled hours that kids learned to problem solve because they knew that going inside to ask for help might end the game. This also taught them how to get along with each other when they disagreed on something. They relied on their language skills to help them resolve disagreements so that they could get back to playing. These play times did not have to be scheduled as play dates and were not interrupted by little Johnny having to be at soccer practice, Tae-Kwon-Do, swimming lessons, piano, or baseball. Now, we are always in a hurry to get from one activity to the next with our children. There is no down time for kids to simply be kids. We have over-structured our lives and the lives of our children, and by doing so, we have created stress for everyone involved.

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     When I taught kindergarten, I saw this same phenomenon occurring in the classroom. Teachers, forced to squeeze as much learning into a school day as was humanly possible, found only 20 minutes of unstructured free play in a seven-hour day for their kids. The rest of the time was spent teaching whole group and small group lessons at a break-neck pace inside the confines of our classroom walls. In those five years, I saw technology go from 1 or 2 computers in a classroom for station time to class sets of iPads, COWS (Computers On Wheels), SMART boards, SMART tables, and technology labs with all of the bells and whistles that you would expect to see in Best Buy and Apple stores. Kids were no longer connected with each other, the teacher, or the outdoors. We were wiring them to be connected to a device at all times. Yes, you heard me right. “WE” were wiring them that way. Kids are not born this way. They learn it from us.

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     These devices have replaced reading to your child, counting with your child, singing with your child, going on walks with your child, cooking with your child, exploring with your child, talking to your child, and bonding with your child. Yes, a child can play some amazing academic games on their devices. Yes, you can even download books on the device that will read to your child. Yes, they can download all of their favorite songs and sing along with them. When used as a supplement and in extreme moderation, all should be fine. The problem occurs when the devices start to guide our children – and us – in our daily lives.

     What if I told you that there is one tool that you can use to teach your preschooler everything that she needs to know to be ready for kindergarten? Better yet, what if I told you that it is free and that we all have access to it any time we want? I assure you that I am not a con artist or a scammer. I simply bring you the truth. The one thing that all children need and benefit from is nature. The great part about this is that nature is all around us. It doesn’t have to come in the form of a forest or something that you would see on a postcard. It is a backyard, a field, a garden, a pond, a farm, a beach, a park, or any other outdoor area with plants, animals, and natural landscape. According to the National Wildlife Federation, “The average American boy or girl spends as few as 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day, and more than seven hours each day in front of an electronic screen.” As a result of this we are seeing childhood obesity rates increase as well as the stress levels of children. We are seeing more children diagnosed with ADD and ADHD as well as depression.

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     When I was teaching kindergarten, I saw more and more of this each year. In 5 years I never had a class where at least one child wasn’t being medicated for one or more of these disorders. At first I was oblivious to the possible causes and how I could become a solution, but over time it became apparent to me. My students started school at 7:45 and dismissed at 2:45. During that time they had one 20 minute recess where they were allowed to play outside. Lining up for recess was always the noisiest and most anxious part of the day. They were chomping at the bit to get outside. When the doors opened they would flood down the sidewalk and onto the playground. The air was filled with the sound of laughter and squeals. Then, in the blink of an eye, the 20 minutes was up. I would blow my whistle and wait for the children to line up. The second we walked back in the building that carefree feeling was gone. I began to understand that being outdoors was the key to a child’s soul. When they were outside they were at ease and free. They allowed their senses to take over and guide them. They didn’t worry about being right or wrong because in nature you are always learning something new from your observations and experiences. No one is judging you.

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     After spending five years in the public school system, teaching and observing children, I came to the realization that I no longer believed in how I was being asked to teach children. I envisioned what I believe to be a better way for children to learn. Please hear me when I say that I am not condemning anyone for teaching in other ways. I know that teaching is an art and that each teacher has her own style. I, too, have tried various methods in my teaching career, but what I have found is that the one thing that always works is nature.  In fact, I read a book a few years ago called Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. He writes in detail about how times have changed and how children no longer have a relationship with nature. He explains the physical and mental changes that we have seen in children in the past few decades and how they are related to a lack of direct experiences with nature. Louv also goes on to explain how we, as parents and teachers, can close this kid-nature gap that has become the norm.

     I’m sure that right now many of you are thinking, “Dirt?! Bugs?! I don’t like any of those things.” First, don’t panic. You don’t have to hold the bugs or roll in the dirt (although if you’d just do it once you’d probably find that you like it). Second, have an open mind and allow yourself to engage with nature using all of your senses. If your children or students see you enjoying, relaxing, and exploring when outdoors, then they are more likely to do the same. On the other hand, if they see you being fearful of things in nature, they too will likely become afraid of things in nature.

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     The main thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong way to expose children to nature. Maybe you are not yet a nature enthusiast. Don’t worry. Use your time outdoors to develop this love of nature with your child. They will not only form bonds with the natural world around them but with you as well. Children will follow our lead and once they feel comfortable, they will venture out on their own to explore.

     At this point, little Johnny’s parents are scratching their heads and trying to see how having daily experiences in and with nature are going to prepare their sweet little Johnny for kindergarten. How will he ever learn the alphabet, how to count to 20, his letter sounds, how to write his name, his basic shapes, and all of the other skills that we expect young children to learn? As the teacher, I can sense their anxiety and take the opportunity to remind them what the true meaning of kindergarten readiness is entering kindergarten ready to learn. Yes, knowing letters, numbers, shapes, sounds, and colors are beneficial, but that is only half of the equation. Our job as preschool teachers is to ensure that our children are able to walk into a kindergarten classroom and do the following:

• Follow directions
• Focus attention
• Take turns
• Share
• Control themselves
• Solve problems with words rather than aggression
• Work independently
• Work well in a group
• Have age-appropriate social skills and the ability to make friends
• Communicate with other children
• Communicate with adults

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     The Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) did a study about what it means to be school ready. Part of the research was a survey where they asked parents, childcare professionals, and school teachers what skills children needed to be considered school ready. Over 75% of the 2,100 people surveyed said that the most important things were “the confidence to be in school without their parents and strong social skills to interact with children and adults.” The survey found that the least important elements were the basic academic skills. Therefore, while the trend in society seems to be moving more in the direction of academic readiness for preschoolers, research shows us that we need to spend our time helping children develop the social skills necessary for school and life.

     This can be accomplished by having some adult-led large group activities that are active and short. The most effective way to help children develop these skills is through unstructured free play. During this time, it is important to give children the freedom to choose what they play, with whom they play, and the materials with which they choose to play. We must also provide children with ample time for their free play to unfold and develop. The 20 minutes allotted for our kindergartners to have free play doesn’t even allow them time to scratch the surface. In order for children to be able to take full advantage of this time, we need to allow for an hour to an hour and a half each day. This time can take place indoors and/or outdoors. Either way, we must ensure that we have an appropriate play space available to the children.

     The indoor environment should have ample space for children to move freely. There should be areas for busy and noisy activities as well as areas for quieter ones. Children should have the freedom to rearrange the play area during the free play time. This space should also have a variety of objects for the children to use in their play. The objects should vary in size, material, texture, and purpose. The more open-ended the toys are, the more the children will use their imaginations to create.

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     The outdoor environment should have all of the same things that the indoor environment does -as well as more space to run, jump, climb, and play. Outdoor play equipment can be very expensive to purchase, but what I have learned is that it is not always necessary. Be creative in your outdoor spaces. Use pavers to outline a sandbox. Have baskets available with natural materials such as rocks, acorns, leaves, pinecones, sticks, shells, and other natural playthings. Take scrap lumber pieces and allow children to build with them. Collect old tree stumps for your backyard and just watch how quickly your children begin to climb on them, jumping one to the other.

     When we give children the opportunity to freely explore and play in these environments, they begin to develop their language and their social and emotional skills. When problems arise, the children will learn how to solve them usually on their own. It is crucial that we stop swooping in to save them right away. We must first observe and assess the situation. Give them time to process the problem and find a solution. If you see that they are struggling, then offer assistance and suggestions. As time goes on, they will become more independent in their problem solving and more confident in their ability to do so.  For many this may seem like the children’s learning is limited in an environment where the child is given so much free choice. How can they possibly be learning anything if all they are doing is playing? I see proof of it every day in my preschool.

Related article:  Texas School Sees Immediate Results

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The Importance of Having a Pencil

Education, Front Page, Opinion/Editorial, Teachers' Corner



     “Pick your battles,” the lady who had never actually taught school said at the teacher in-service training. “If a student fails to bring a pencil, just lend him one.”

     Then, she proceeded to tell the group of novice teachers how to set up a station where a student could simply borrow a pencil and then return it at the end of the class period. It sounded like a good idea since some parents had criticized my policy of giving after-school detention to students who came to class unprepared. I rarely had more than five kids for detention in any given week, but maybe that was too many. Plus, I only had one year under my belt. What did I know? Surely, the teacher trainer knew more than I did, so I tried it.

     I placed 24 freshly sharpened, yellow pencils with new eraser tops in a coffee can I decorated with colorful paper flowers. I put up a cute little sign that said: Borrow and Return, Please. I even drew a smiley face on the sign and colored it with a highlighter so that the students would notice it immediately upon entering the classroom. “Great!” I thought. “This is going to save time!” I wouldn’t have to write detention slips for kids with no pencils or call parents on kids who failed to show up for detention or defend my philosophy of how to make kids responsible by actually holding them responsible. That lady at the service center was some kind of a genius!


     I don’t recall exactly how many days went by before all the pencils disappeared, but I am sure it was less than a week. I reminded the little rascals that part of the privilege of borrowing is returning that which has been borrowed. “Do you understand?” I asked. They nodded. “You are on your honor. I realize it’s easy to forget to return the pencil when you are hurrying to get your things together to get to the next class.” They nodded. “So, I am taping a big flower to the top of each pencil so that you won’t forget.” They giggled.

     “But, how can we use the eraser?” one bright little chap asked.

     “Well, I thought of that. In here,” I said, pointing to a second decorative coffee can, “are 24 big, red erasers. The rule for them is the same as for the pencils. Return what you borrow. Got it?” They nodded again. All was well – or so I thought.

     Again, I am not certain when every pencil – and its decorative blossom – went missing. I guess about the same time as the 24 big, red erasers! I decided at that very moment that the lady from the service center was an idiot, and I wanted to tell her just what I thought of her stupid idea. Alas, I controlled myself and simply returned to my former practice of giving kids the “opportunity” to be responsible. Those who came prepared to my class were able to complete their work without receiving detention. Those who didn’t suffered the consequences. It was that simple.


     Years later, a sociologist, who was selling the idea of PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention Systems), told me that the pencil-lending program failed because I didn’t reward the little darlings immediately and without fail for returning the writing utensils. I actually tried this when I was forced to hand out good-behavior coupons (30 per week) to students who came to class on time, waited to be recognized to speak, treated others with respect, and brought a pencil. The idea was to reward the obedient child in front of the non-compliant one so that Mr. Naughty would get the big picture: Those who follow the rules receive rewards right away. Once again, I put the pencils out. I thanked profusely the students who returned the pencils and gave them coupons they could turn in for a chance to win a Walkman or a bicycle in a drawing at the end of the six weeks. (This was about 90% of the students, the ones who always did what I asked of them anyway.)

     I could go on, but the following is the short version of what happened next:

• The good kids continued to display good behavior, danced to music on new Walkmans, and rode new bikes around the neighborhood.
• The teachers often made things up so that Mr. Naughty could at least get a coupon and a taste of life on the other side.
• Mr. Naughty often left this highly coveted coupon on the floor and sometimes even refused to take it.
• Schools spent lots of money on food and prizes.
• Mr. Naughty still received detention, in-school suspension, and sometimes even a trip to the alternative campus.
• Teachers tried to convince the authorities that we were wasting valuable resources and lots of teaching time on a program that failed to reach the targeted 10%.
• Many of us retired and quit fighting the system.
• PBIS conditioned kids to acting responsibly only if there is an immediate reward.
• The good students grew up, went off to college, and failed because they just didn’t see a good grade or a good education as reward enough for doing the work.
• Then, they entered the workforce and expected to have well-paying jobs just because they had degrees.
• They wrote “IDK” on job application forms when asked to describe their “work ethic.”
• Cities such as Richmond, California, started paying career criminals (to the tune of $9000 per year) NOT to kill people. (This is for real.)
• Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that I lost a record number of pencils!

     Okay, maybe I’ve exaggerated a bit. We still have many great kids (maybe not 90%) who have overcome such nonsense and will go on to be successful, contributing members of society. I wouldn’t bother getting up each morning if I thought otherwise. My best advice to a new teacher, however, is to ask her students to walk through the classroom door with tools in hand prepared to work hard every day. Then, hold them accountable. This approach might just revive the strong work ethic that many of us remember so well.

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