Ode to Teacher Tom

Happy Birthday shout out to the one and only Teacher Tom…

I have been reading educational, holistic living, early childhood, parenting and mommy blogs for more than a decade, and one blog of stands out more than the rest. Teacher Tom! 

Teacher Tom is a play-based early childhood teacher based in Seattle and he writes about daily stories and tidbits from his classroom….but he seamlessly weaves in positive discourse about freedom, democracy, rights, and an unwavering trust in children.

Last summer I was near his stomping grounds and I was trying to summons the courage to ask to come visit his program. I typed up a catchy (albeit slightly “fangirl”) message but it sat unsent in my email under drafts. I was kind of giddy to at the thought of going to see his utopia first hand. Since Teacher Tom does claim his program to be the Center of the Universe, it really should be part of our one day stop in Seattle. Then the ‘rational gremlins’ came into my thinking I figured “Chances are too many people want to visit his classroom”. He is probably is turning them away in droves. So why bother asking.

Visiting with Teacher Tom might be as iconic as seeing the fish mongers toss fish!

I mean Teacher Tom is at least as famous as the Gum Wall!

We could even bring him a cup of coffee from a little cafe we learned about!

So I kinda regret not summoning the courage to ask for a tour or a meet up with Teacher Tom. But today as I read his daily post, I felt motivated to finally say thanks, and was moved to send this happy birthday blog post message, from the other side of the country.

Thank you, Teacher Tom for being a storyteller. A weaver of children’s experiences that powerfully demonstrate the deep engaged learning that can occur in a play-based early childhood education program. Thank you for showing us an example of honoring and trusting children to learn through self-directed play.

Honestly, over the years a few of your posts grate my “public school teacher” nerves. I’d read and grumble, “Teacher Tom…clearly out of touch with reality”. But I’d keep coming back to read because I know that his program is on to something, and through reading his approach I began to become clearer in my own approach to ECE. I agree that creating a high quality preschool program is essentially growing your “own unique and quirky community” that honors the place and people where the program is located. I continue to learn and grow through reading your blog, and hope that you continue to do so for many, many years!

Thank you for continuing to blog, Teacher Tom. If you find your way to Vermont, I have a tipi you can stay in or can build you snow quinzee. And if I find my way back to Seattle, I will dust off that email and ask to stop by!

Sincerely,

April

 

 

When Pigs Fly

Happy Lunar New Year! Today begins the “Year of the Pig” in the Chinese Zodiac! There are so many amazing activities that could be created for children to learn about the Chinese New Year, or an educator could take the opportunity to teach about pigs. As a nature inspired and Farm-to-School loving teacher, I would likely take the route of learning about how pigs are raised and maybe even try to visit a pig farm. In my experience children are shocked at how noisy and messy pigs can be, which is quite different from the cute pink pigs illustrated in children’s books.

I was inspired this morning to get out some supplies and try my hand at seeing if pigs really could fly. Turns out that this apparatus worked, but luckily, our beloved piggy bank didn’t want to fly too far from home!

May all April’s Teaching Tree readers have a year filled with abundance of love, comfort, health, good fortune, honesty, and prosperity. If you haven’t already please follow my blog by entering your email on the right. I promise never to share your email or treat you like a pig! 💗 🐷

 

Grieve through ART PLAY

To be clear, I am no grief expert and suggest that you talk with some more knowledgeable than me about your grief.

Today, I want to tell you a couple of ways to work through my grief. I feel like I could write a dissertation about this topic, but today I am setting a ten minute timer and offering just some first thoughts.

When I sat beside my mom’s bed and held her hand as she took her last breaths a song popped into my mind. So I sang as many of the lyrics as I could remember and her breathing changed, her body seemed to relax, and within the hour she was gone.

I went online and listened to the song and cried. I doodled. I cried. Repeat. Repeat.

I decided that the best way to grieve for myself, and for my children, was to intentionally make time to PLAY. I began to ask myself a very serious question, “Will this bring me JOY?” and if the answer was no, then I declined the commitment or wiggled out of saying yes. A couple of friends were offended, and then I told them that my life priorities had shifted to self care for myself and prioritizing my own family.

Art PLAY – open ended, process oriented art, and finding our laughter again. Multi-generational art play is the sweetest medicine for a grieving family! I am lucky to have a room in my home we call “The Studio”, put honestly, most days it was just a few markers at the dining room table. When you are grieving, give up on the idea of Pinterest worthy set ups…it is the “making” that matters to feed your soul, not creating a image for your social media feed.

Out of time to write today, but here is some advice I just posted to a friend:

“Lay out some water color paints, white paper, and other art supplies. Children have a beautiful way of expressing their thoughts, and when grown ups PLAY and explore the process of art the whole family can release. Our faith guides our words we say to children, and in my experiences the less I say and the more I listen, the better we all move through our grief. And DANCE parties in the kitchen, explain to kids that it is okay to feel both SAD and HAPPY and whole range of feelings after saying goodbye. So much love to you, please, take time to yourself as well.”

Thank you, Pete Seeger, your song continues to soothe generation!

Turn, Turn, Turn

Playgroup as a Life Line

Just before my son’s first birthday my husband and I decided to up and move to Northern Vermont, where we knew no one….literally no one. We had just sold our thirty acre family farm in Virginia, and my brother headed to California, my mom headed to more modern house in a city near the farm, and I headed 800 miles away with my husband and son. The first couple of months were mild weather and the excitement of unpacking the new house was keeping me busy, but then November arrived. The days were drab, the pretty leaves of fall were long gone, and the snow had yet to fall. I decided to make wellness appointments for myself and my son to meet our new primary care providers, and at my first appointment my nurse practitioner told me something shocking.

Essentially she said she doubted that I would thrive here, yes, maybe I could survive but likely not more than three years. She talked to me about Post-partum depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder, and social isolation. She gave me handouts to read and her gloomy outlook left me confused and little bit ticked off. I explained to her that I did not have any of those three issues (and I wanted to say, what right do you have to put that crap into my head?). I promptly went home and fumed about it with my husband, and then did the logical thing and searched the internet: “how to avoid social isolation when you live far from your support network and your PCP sucks”.

From my research I determined that step one was to meet real life friends who had similar aged children for at least once a week meet ups. I was delighted to find that there was a community playgroup less than a mile away from my house, and so twice a week, I had a reason to get up and out of the house by 9 a.m. to interact with other moms, and oh yeah, for my son to interact with other kids. This routine was a God-send because cabin-fever was setting in fast, and meeting new people in winter was hard. Through my other errands I would force myself to talk to other moms in the grocery store, or sign up for free events through the recreation department, but nothing worked its’ charm like the weekly playgroup. The young staff members had less early childhood education than me, but their kind words, enthusiastic energy, and parenting tips were just what I needed as I found my way in being the best mom I could be for my son.

I jokingly say that I went to that playgroup for three years straight, and they must have been exhausted seeing me. Playgroup though was a lifeline in figuring out how live in a new town, be a new mom, and it forced me to meet new mom-friends. The nurse practitioner was right in bringing my awareness to things that were not yet a problem, and I know her preventive approach helped me be a better mom. Though I would like to add that I have been here for twelve years, most of which have been days that I thrive, and just a handful of days that I felt I was just “surviving”.

If you are a new mom, find at least one mom friend who you can meet weekly. Maybe for a weekly cup of coffee…or stroller walk.

If you know a new mom encourage her to try playgroup. And if one doesn’t exist in your town, start one, because moms from all walks of life feel socially isolated or lonely. You too deserve the support you need in order to thrive!

Play Advocate & BETA Test

Years ago I read about creating a play advocate binder from Lisa Murphy. Her #binder challenge was a practical way to empower early childhood educators of all backgrounds to embrace the research, read it, print it, and then feel confident to promote learning through play. At the time I thought that the Ooey Gooey Lady must be a soul sister, and I followed along her journey from the periphery. I also had been printing, reading and highlighting articles for years to prove my motto: PLAY = LEARNING!

My binder turned into binders, because there is so much important research about ECE and play. Those articles changed me and my classroom practices, so the binders got turned into workshops that I presented in person. Those workshops helped me meet all sorts of amazing early care providers in Vermont, who told me about more articles and books to read. Which lead me to more stuff to learn, synthesize, and apply. And during this journey of ‘teacher as researcher’ I realized that unequivocally PLAY = LEARNING!!!

Well for 2019, I have set my intention to be a more vocal PLAY advocate.

I believe ALL children deserve the right to PLAY! (((shout it from the mountain tops)))

I have been figuring out how my voice could add to and enhance all the great things already happening. I shy away from political action, loathe asking people for money or doing fund raising, and might rather pluck my eye lashes out than to argue with people entrenched in their own ways of doing things. My pal Sally Haughey, of Fairy Dust Teaching fame, urged me to take my ‘teacher as researcher’ practical approach and use my voice to lead online e-courses. So that’s what I am working on this school year…and there is definitely a lot to learn.

Earlier this week I sent out a little message to a private early childhood group about my goal of being a “play advocate” and about the BETA test of my first online course. I want to test out my course with a small group of diverse early childhood educators so that the content is applicable to wider audience and is tested in the field.

Within an hour of sending out my little message,who is the first to respond but the guru of play advocacy herself! Yes, Ms. Ooey!!! Pinch me, I might be dreaming!

To quote Ms. Ooey’s idea about creating a binder of articles related to play, from a FB post from 2013…. “Put PLAY = LEARNING! PRESENTING THE EVIDENCE. on the cover. From this point forward, copy anything and everything that supports a hands on play based program and put it in there. The intention is to see that it’s not our personal preference that “play is the way” but it is what is backed by science, evidence, anecdotes and experience. It gets it out of us appearing to simply “want it” and shows that others have already done the work to support it.”

For me being a play advocated started with a binder….and now I feel equipped (and most days confident enough) to say that PLAY is a right that is worth fighting for! Maybe I need to sew a cape or make a protest sign!

Stay tuned to April’s Teaching Tree because I have lots of research based information and have the know-how to make it do-able for a wide variety of settings.

I am learning the ropes of the social media world and can now be found here—

Blogging at: www.aprilsteachingtree.com

Facebook – April’s Teaching Tree

Instagram – Aprils_Teaching_Tree

Pinterest – azajko

 

And if you want to be in the small group of participants to BETA test my new course email me – aprilzajko@gmail.com The official well-polished course will be ready for release later in 2019!

Fire Drill

 

About twenty years ago I got woken up in the night to sirens in the distance. I was staying at my brother’s house and realized he had stayed late that night to work at the flower shop. So I grabbed my keys and rushed toward the sirens. As I approached my worst fears were realized, the fire was in the strip mall of my families flower shop and I could not believe my eyes. It was engulfed, there were fire trucks everywhere, smoke filled the sky, and my mind raced. I parked and ran toward the first fireman I saw and through my sobbing and hyperventilating I told him I thought my brother was in there. He assured me he wasn’t because they had a done a thorough sweep. When I finally connected with brother I was so relieved that he was alive. It was one of the scariest days of my life, and to this day I still feel panic when there is a fire siren or fire alarm.

The arsonist, who had targeted the biker bar next door to our shop, committed the crime to retaliate against his cheating girlfriend. He was arrested and served time, but it continues to baffle me how others do not realize the impact that their actions have on others.

My family never reopened that flower shop in Rising Sun, Delaware and almost my entire family moved to Virginia to start over. It was heart breaking to see years and years of work be destroyed by the senseless act of a stranger. Though our portion of the building was still standing every item had smoke or water damage. Knowing that none of us were injured in the fire and feeling support of our friends and community was our saving grace getting through that time.

Now, even twenty years later, I am still impacted by that night. I always ask my employers for a five minute warning before a fire drill, and almost always they understand and agree. I also teach about fire safety to my students and try to give them the opportunity to see a fire truck up close, and to see a fire man go from his normal clothes to full gear. Children are often very frightened by firemen with their ventilator masks on, and so it’s essential for them to know not to hide from a firefighter coming into their home to save them. (more fire saftey teaching tips in a future post)

I share this story because I know many other educators also have similar stories of how a fire has impacted their lives, and though everyone got out safe there can still be traumatic aftershocks. What seems like a routine monthly drill can send a person into a panic. It is important to talk to your coworkers and employer so that they know that this is an issue, and hopefully they would agree that you deserve a five minute warning. Each of us has our own challenges, and it is okay to ask for support.

 

 

Power of Puppetry

One of my ‘secret sauce’ ingredients in being an engaged and effective early childhood educator is puppetry. Puppetry allows me to talk through tough topics with the my students, gives me the opportunity to demonstrate how different characters express emotions, offers me the chance to model how two characters can handle a dispute, allows me to ‘think out loud’ which shows children why someone might think differently then themselves, explicitly teach kindness & empathy, gives me the chance to perfect accents, safe space to act silly, and ultimately create a community of learners that honors inclusion and celebrates diversity. That’s a whole lot of reasons to bring puppets into an early childhood setting!

Now I am no performer. I routinely sing off key and certainly would clam up if ever put onto an “America’s Got Talent’ stage. But in front of my little crew at circle time, I take on the role of performer and take it quite seriously. I read books with prosody, sing songs with enthusiasm, groove and dance with delight, and put on some simple yet powerful puppet shows. My captive audience enjoys the show, and they learn that they too can and should let their creative side out to play. Creating a learning environment that honors children and gives them avenues to express themselves in a wide variety of ways gives all children the opportunity to learn and grow.

 

Give new life to an old puppet stand with a fresh coat of paint! Thanks Bill Tulp for this original painting!

Children love to imitate the adults in their lives, so as soon as circle time is done, a few children often gravitate to the classroom puppets and put on their own shows. I love to have a puppet stand so children feel invited to put on a show. Children learn how to negotiate with peers so a couple of children are the performers as the other are the audience, and with some support, they learn how to take turns in these roles.

Observing their puppetry play allows me to take notes on their use of language to express their thoughts and their conversational skills with peers. For children who come into my classroom with limited language skills, creating opportunities for parallel play with peers or adults with puppets is a great way to nurture their language skills. Other children who are going through some tough issues or ‘big feelings’ can benefit from puppetry play as well and can give the child a chance to connect with an adult in safe and non-intimidating way.

Because I am a nature-loving teacher I tend to purchase woodland animal puppets for my classroom, but really any kind of puppets will work. I have been surprised to see that sometimes the most popular puppet becomes almost a mascot for the class! Giving children the chance to make their own puppet to take home would also be a great idea (and topic for a future blog post).

Introducing a new puppet that goes along with a beloved book also encourages story retelling and improves comprehension. Offering a few props that go along with a story such as three pig puppets and some of the materials they used to build their homes begins to add layers to the puppetry play and expands the children’s performances.

So if the puppets are collecting dust in your program, pull them out and give them center stage at circle time. Breathe life into the puppets and build both verbal skills and opportunities for social & emotional learning!