Sunday, 24 September 2017

Seeing the world from another point of view.

A whole new class of children has begun to settle into the nursery, this year we have 27 three and four year olds and most of them have settled into nursery without too many problems. So far they have only been attending nursery for 2 hours in 2 smaller groups of 13 and 14 but on Friday they all joined up together as one big class and next week they will stay for 3 hours before going to the full time of 4 hours and 45 minutes the following week. 

It is amazing how many new skills they have already mastered and how easily they accept the routine of nursery, so on Friday when they were in a much larger group most took to it  easily. It was interesting to watch them initially playing with the peers they have already met over the past 3 weeks but gradually over the morning they began to mix more and by 11.00 it was hard to imagine they hadn't all been together all along. 

A big rite of passage in the class is when some children discover they can stand up on the outdoor seat to see over the fence into the wider world that lies beyond the nursery playground. For some it is a matter of being able to see the 'big school' where they have siblings attending, others might spot 'God's House' as there are several churches visible in the nearby town, others will recognise the sports pitches above the school where older siblings go to play in a local football team.

However, for me the biggest new view point for any nursery child is that of a peer, for some it is first time they have come into contact with someone their own age who has just as many opinions and demands as them. In first term, we hear lots of 'But I want it' as the children grapple with the whole concept of turn taking. And it can take some a long time to realise that another child has feelings just a big as them. For me, this is what nursery is all about - developing empathy for others and self esteem for yourself. Some children come into the setting with lots of empathy already whilst others have varying degrees of it or none at all. 

On Friday when they were all one big class, one child who is struggling with separation from his parent was crying and it was interesting to see the others reactions, some were close to crying themselves, some were annoyed by the noise and had no sympathy at all for the child whilst one or two rallied round him and tried to offer comfort - either by physically patting him while he was trying to make sense of the big feelings he was experiencing or by telling him how they missed their parent too. I was particularly impressed by one child, who speaks the same home language as the poor upset child, it was the first time they were meeting and yet this child took time to come over and offer a comforting presence to the upset child. He told me how he was going to be his friend and helped me find things that might help him settle. When it was time for his parent to come back, she was so happy to hear that her child had had another to help him deal with his big emotions. 

I look forward to another year of adventures with the class and hope to share some of them with you all through this blog. 

Here is an article I came across about how to help a young child develop empathy:

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Dice - what a great addition!

The thing I love the most about my job is that you just never know what a day will bring bring, preschoolers are rarely predictable in their behaviour and the same goes for the way they look at the world or use resources.
I had always admired the wonderful collection of dice that I saw in use over on Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School's Facebook page but had never got around to getting enough for us to use. So this year when we had our Easter Egg  Hunt fundraiser I decided to use some of the funds to buy lots and lots of dice. I ordered coloured ones and then as a after through added an order for a job lot of red ones too. When they arrived I was delighted to discover that the red dice were much bigger than I had expected and they have proved such a great combination with so many different resources, in just a week the children have had fun adding them to the Polydron and then over the past two days they have proved a real asset with the Tree Blocks. 
The little dice and the Polydron
I watched as 4 children spent over an hour building houses using the dice and blocks and adding to them as they went along. 
One group built their house and then added some small green dice to the roof - "It' a caterpillar" they told me.
Can you see the green 'caterpillar' on the roof?
Another child added tables and chairs for his 'people' (the bigger red dice) and then used the smaller dice as their pizzas! (perhaps inspired by Dominos?!)
Another built a tower and enjoyed counting how many dice they could build up with until it would fall. 

My next plan is to add the dice and poker chips to the Polydron - I'll let you know how they get on!

(I purchased these dice from Hope Education)

Sunday, 23 April 2017

#ISV2017 "What Else Could we Do?" - Post No. 2

To read post no.1 about my study visit to Berlin follow this link:
3 young children who shared their stories with us - the boy in the red hat had been living in the centre for 2 years.
On our second day of the study visit, we had the opportunity to visit a refugee centre in Moabit. None of us had any idea what to expect when we saw that on the programme as we have no experience of such centres in our areas. This was an old school building that had become empty as a result of falling birth rates in Berlin. Now it housed 260 people. 
On our walk to the centre we passed a memorial to the local Jewish people who had been transported to concentration camps during the war, the fact of this being right beside the refugee centre made it very poignant.
Our purpose was to meet up with a young trainee teacher who was offering extra language classes to the children in the centre as an after school activity. 
The first thing that struck me as we entered the building was the fact that there were security guards positioned at the entrance, we had to sign in and the thought that someone living there has to do that every time the enter or leave struck me as feeling like a prison and definitely didn't feel like a homely environment right away.
The building looked, smelled and felt like a school, there were lots of people milling about, mostly men hanging about the entrance smoking, children sitting along the corridors playing on tablets or chatting to friends and women with small babies pacing the corridors. It was noisy.
The room where the student teacher was holding German lessons was a bright, colourful room with lots of evidence of play and children - there were games and toys on the shelves and larger pieces of play equipment around the walls. There were only 3 children in the room and they were all very different ages - ranging from 12 to 6. They were full of energy after a morning at school and wanted to be moving about the room. We watched as they played some games with the adult and then we chatted to them about their backgrounds etc. The student teacher explained that she never knew how many children would turn up for each session and as it is voluntary they could wander in and out during the time as well. They could also be at very different levels of German and some might only have just arrived a day or two earlier. The 3 children were keen to introduce themselves in German to us & tell us a little about themselves. Being children they automatically said things like "my name is ..... and I am .... years old' so when it came our turn, Ian went first and followed their lead with a "I'm Ian and I'm 33 years old", of course the rest of us had to follow suit or we'd have looked churlish!! We did tease him about that afterwards of course.
While we talked to the director the children built a castle.
We were delighted that the director was about to join us for a brief chat about the work going on in the refugee centre, he was an amazing person, very young and yet so passionate about his job and the plight of the refugees in Berlin. He was a social worker who had fallen into the role of director when the previous one left and after 2 years was burned out after working 24/7 in the centre but he wasn't leaving to do something easier, as he had decided to move to a role in a local school working with refugee children in their aferschool programme.
He spoke with such passion about how it was so important to make sure anyone moving into Berlin was given every opportunity to integrate into society and allowed to contribute in a meaningful way to local life etc. He was frustrated by lots of the problems he had encountered during this time working in the centre and the many hoops people had to jump through to access the most basis of entitlements. 
The idea is that people spend up to 3 months in such centres before moving out into a more homelike setting but one of the boys we spoke to had been living there for 2 years. This child spoke of not getting to sleep until 3 a.m. because of the noise in the centre each night. 
As the director pointed out was it really fair to the children in the centre to be expected to attend extra language classes after a day at school when they should really be playing? He was also concerned that whilst at the centre children were catered for almost all day and therefore parents had no expectation to look after their own children and this became a problem when they moved out of the centres and most if not all of this support was withdrawn. He was very concerned that families were depending on young children to provide them with their future in Berlin - the pressure on the children was too much, they had to act as interpreters for their parents and were being robbed of their childhood.
The biggest issue in his eyes was the complete disempowerment of people while living in the centres - they had no cooking facilities so even this basic skill was taken from them.
We had an opportunity to see around the centre to have a look at the facilities on offer to the residents. 
No matter how hard anyone had tried, this was still an institutional building and could never be seen as a home in any way, shape or form. I began to feel very sad and emotional as we walked through the building and you realise that life has to be really terrible where you come from if this is seen as better option. The volunteers who work hard to help make centres a better place were incredible, we met people who ran the clothing bank where residents could come to pick out new clothing, they had it set up like a proper shop and I was struck by the dignity they were trying to give people back as they had to choose used clothing. 
The volunteers had worked hard to make the clothing bank feel like a proper shop. 
There was a canteen but it could only hold 30 people so most have to eat in their rooms, meals are provided and as you can imagine aren't of a great standard or even the type of food most of the residents are used to eating.
There were 3 toilets in the building, so you can imagine what they were like and 6 washing machines but no driers for the whole building. I could only imagine how damp the rooms must be as people try to dry their washing.
We were humbled to chat to a young man from Afghanistan who at 17 was living in the centre alone and seems so sad and lonely yet was adamant he didn't want to go back home. Sadly as Afghanistan is viewed as a 'safe' country he is most likely to be sent back soon.
We heard about retired doctors who were volunteering weekly to offer a drop in clinic for residents and how one resident a tailor from Syria was helping to teach sewing skills to others in the centre. 
We later learned that this activity had almost been withdrawn from the plan as there were issues with the director now being available to meet us and a worry that it would be 'too much' for us. However all of us agreed that this had been such a worthwhile part of the programme and that it really needed to be part of it and future study visits too - we could never have understood the barriers the children were facing without seeing where some of them are living. All I could think was, how is a child supposed to concentrate at school when they have been awake until 3.a.m? I was also very struck by how vulnerable the young children wandering around the corridors unaccompanied were, they were very trusting and willing to please adults. 
Once again, though we heard the phrase "what else could we do?" from the staff and volunteers who were doing their best to make an abnormal situation as normal as possible. 
A massive thanks to all who made us so welcome at the Moabit refugee centre and the British Council DE for organising the visit.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

#ISV2017 Berlin - "What else could we do?" - No.1

Me, Ian & Nigel - on a Bear Hunt!

This post is lengthy & could be even longer so I'm going to break down my experience into several posts - this is number 1.
In September I was given new role in school that of 'Newcomer Coordinator' - with this role comes the responsibility of ensuring all our newcomer pupils and their families are welcomed into our school and given all the information they need to take a full part in school life, keeping records of each child's entry to school, home language and place of birth. I also help all my other colleagues to keep up to date with any new initiatives or training that is available to help with the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) that must be maintained for each pupil who is registered as a newcomer.
It seems like fate when I then spotted a week long study visit for primary teachers through the British Council in Northern Ireland to Berlin with the theme of 'Inclusion of refugees and migrants in Berlin'. I asked for permission to apply and sent off my online application. I was delighted to hear in February that I had been offered a place and later that month I travelled to Belfast to meet up the others who would be going with me & some of the other teachers who had got places on 2 other study visits - one to Canada & the other to Hong Kong.
There were to be 5 of us but due to family bereavements it ended up with just 3 of us, Nigel, a Principal of another integrated primary school & Ian, a Primary 4 teacher and modern languages coordinator at his school.
At the briefing session in Belfast we were told a little more about the purpose of our study visit and what was expected of us - we were introduced to the 'Appreciative Inquiry' model, as we were to use this to reflect on our experiences. I have to say as a blogger I was immediately drawn to tie model and thought that it made such sense - it's all about trying to see the positive of any experience rather than focusing on the negatives. I am a firm believer in being critical without criticising and so this approach seems like a natural fit for me. 

On the 5th of March the 3 of us met up in Dublin airport to travel onto Berlin. We got the train into the centre of Berlin and found our hotel easily, it was so centrally located in Alexanderplatz that we were within walking distance of most sights and had a range of transport options on our doorstep too. The 3 of us found out we had similar outlooks and were ready to learn from our colleagues in Berlin as well as sharing some of our practices and experiences. 
The programme had been drawn up by Frauke in the Berlin British Council office and I have to say, it ran like clockwork the whole 5 days and each meeting we had built upon the information we had received at the one before so by the end of the week we felt we had a very comprehensive picture of how the education and social care systems had reacted to the huge influx of refugees into Berlin.
We met with representatives from the Berlin Education Senate & Inspectorate and heard how they had worked closely with housing, police & town planning to figure out where best to place refugees - it seems like a lot of joined up thinking & something that seems quite alien to us in N.I where we tend to react to situations rather than plan ahead.
We met with social workers and psychologists who worked closely with the schools to help place children in schools as soon as possible - the key seems to be to ensure all children have access to education quickly so they could become active members of society. 
We visited schools throughout the week to meet with those who teach in the 'Welcome Classes' - in Berlin when a child arrives into school with no German, they are placed in a 'Welcome Class', a small class of up to 13 children of mixed aged groups, with the aim of getting their spoken & written German up to a level where they can then move out into a mainstream class. 
I had seen similar system in Florø, Norway in 2006 & had been impressed with this idea, our then principal had mooted this idea when we got back home but our education authority had seen it as segregation and discouraged it. So I was very keen to see if it was working 11 years later in another country and with such a huge influx of children with no German in the schools. Interestingly, Berlin has always had this system, it is not a reaction to the recent refugees but the number of the classes is now on much bigger scale. (**Welcome Classes increased from 639 in Dec 2015 to 1,053 in March 2017 with over 12,000 children in these classes)
The amazing Joana from Anna-Lindh Schule, who spent well over 2 hours answering our questions and inspiring us with her passion for the children she teaches.
The teachers in each of these classes were amongst the most passionate individuals I have ever met, they were determined to give all the children in their classes the best start possible and to help them become active members of society. For some this meant, taking the children out onto the public transport system to help them navigate their way around a strange city or taking them to the opera to help them enjoy all aspects of the culture in their new home. It was about helping the children enjoy as normal an experience as they could in an otherwise very abnormal situation. However, the overwhelming feeling of all the teachers we met was that there wasn't enough integration going on, the classes felt very separate from the rest of the school - in some cases the classes were in different buildings altogether. There was also an issue of how the 'local' children were being prepared for all their new peers and being supported in their acceptance and understanding of what some of these children had been through. On our last day we met with an agency ( who work hard to do just this, whilst supporting all newly arrived young people, they also ensure that they offer lots of opportunities for locals and refugees to mix together. (Interestingly in Berlin a child is seen as someone aged between 6 and 21 and they are working to move this to 27)
The wonderful Welcome Class at Theodoar-Heuss Schule, who made us so welcome too.
So what did I take away after my 6 days in Berlin? 
I learned that there are not hoards of refugees swarming the streets of Berlin, I heard Berliners say over & over "What else could we do?" when asked about the reaction of the city to the huge influx of refugees. I saw children being children and smiling, playing, keen to learn & teachers who were so passionate and caring and determined to make a difference in lives that had been transformed.
I, personally, felt that the separate Welcome Classes are not as good a way of helping children integrate and acquire language skills as our more inclusive model of supporting children in small groups that are withdrawn from class for extra support or given the support in class. I really felt that our children who have English as additional language pick it up quicker from their peers with additional support rather than being intensively taught separately. We have over 20% of our pupils coming from a 'newcomer' background and yet I would defy anyone to pick them out at playtimes etc. whereas I did see the children from the Welcome Classes playing together outside and tending to stick together - obviously they felt safer with the children they knew from their classes.
However, we don't have the huge numbers that the schools in Berlin have had, we also don't have children arriving into upper primary who have never attended school and need to learn the most basic of skills and tasks, so I can see why the smaller numbers of a Welcome Class can be such a reassurance to some children. 
I did like the way the Welcome Class teachers had time to really work with the parents of the children in their classes - they had weekly meetings to discuss progress, issues etc. and this allows them to build up good relationships with the families. There was a real drive to help these families fully access all that Berlin society has to offer & I felt that this is something we could do much better, our system tends to concentrate on educating children without seeing the family behind the child.

Massive thanks to all the British Council N.I and DE for all that they did to arrange this study visit and make it such a worthwhile experience and to all the schools who welcomed us and took time answer our many, many questions. 

Here is a link to the British Council DE's post about how to help refugee children settle into school:

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Guest Post: How to celebrate Spring - Icelandic Style!

This post is from the wonderful Unnur from Leikskóilinn Stekkjarás in Hafnarfjördur, Iceland. I have been so fortunate to visit Unnur in her school twice now and each time her enthusiasm and great attitude have been infectious. Here is a wonderful little post about how they let the children celebrate the warmer Spring weather, keep active and there is lots of problem solving & collaboration happening too. (As Unnur said herself: "Hopefully the pictures will tell you a little story as well")
'Get the hat/scarf out of the tree' - such a simple game!
Spring greetings from Iceland.  Yes we are optimistic here and the first sign is when we go into the woods and play the 'Get my hat out of the tree' game. We have played this game for a couple of years now and it is always fun time and a sign that the children are waiting to go out to play without winter jackets. 
The game is normally played around a tree that is either dead or about to be chopped down. So we need to throw our hats as high up in the tree as possible and either shake the tree if it is a tree that is going to be chopped down or if the tree is still in good condition then we go and find some long sticks and take turns in getting our hats down.  
Sometimes we need to ask a friend to help if we can't reach and sometimes we need to help a friend to find a better angle to get the hat down.
A fun thing to do when the we don't bring anything with us to the woods except good humour and warm things like hats & scarves that aren't needed.
Hope you all have a good Spring. 


Thursday, 23 March 2017

Seeing the potential of resources.

A simple pallet mud kitchen is so popular in Bear Woods, I think it'll have to be expanded. 
This week the weather has taken a much colder turn again, last week we were outside a few days with no coats on and yet here we are this week all wrapped up with hats, gloves, scarves and lots of layers! But it has been dry & that really does make a difference to the outdoor play. I find on dry days the children use the whole outdoor space whereas on wet days some stay under the roof and only a few venture out to play with water on the slide or painting in the rain.

This week I was able to put the large Community Playthings hollow blocks out into the playground and the children had so much fun building different structures all week - from cars, to boats, to chairs or castles. 

I recently listened to a colleague talk about how children in her class were questioning things a lot less than she had found a few years ago, she worried that she rarely heard the 'I wonder what might happen if/when.....' type of musings from her class of 7 year olds. I was quite surprised because that's all you hear in nursery most days as the children look at resources and equipment and think 'what might happen if.....'
Sometimes as adults, we can forget how the resources and equipment are new or different to the children and it can take them a while to see their full potential, just because we know how they can be used doesn't mean that it is as obvious to the children, nor do I think adults should always just show children how to use resources. It makes more sense to allow them to discover the potential & as a staff we have to stand back at times and just watch & see how the play unfolds. 
A few weeks ago, after mainly using them to sit in or step on or fill with water, one child picked up a bilibo and put it on their head - an instant monster! Then a few others realised the fun of this & joined in and hey presto we had an invasion of monsters pottering around the playground for a while. 
Likewise the children have been using the red tops to store water and only recently discovered they could actually spin around them, it is lovely to hear the laughter as a couple of children squeeze into them and spin upside down but it was only this week that one child put a top on top of a tyre and found they could climb inside. Then a few more joined in and they became pirates in their ships keeping watch for sharks!
Invasion of the bilibo monsters!

I love that young children never see any object as just one thing and can see that it can have name different ways of being used. 
I also love their potential to problem solve and evaluate risk taking. One child saw a stick & some netting up high in a widow den, so he got some 'H" crates and tried to reach it but still couldn't so he got another stacking crate and tried again but it still wasn't high enough so another child suggested another crate stacked on top and finally he could get up to get the stick & netting. However the child who had brought the 2 stacking crate wasn't yet comfortable with that risk so he took it off each time he wanted to climb up and then his friend just put it back on again for his more challenging climb.

Can't quite reach it yet but his friend has the solution.

This week they have been so excited to spy a scarecrow up on the hill above nursery, opposite Bear Woods - it looks down onto the nursery playground & so they were very happy to get up close & see it when they visited Bear Woods - the discussion had been whether it was Harry O'Hay or Betty O'Barley (that old is it a boy or a girl question!) & decided it is Betty O'Barley. (Read all about these pair in The Scarecrows' Wedding by Julia Donaldson)
"It's Betty O'Barley"
We had out first visit to bear Woods for a while this week & it is so lovely to see how much this class just loves being up there. They can happily spend over an hour just pottering around, rolling down or climbing up the slope, balancing on the mossy log, rolling large silver garden balls along the benches or pretending the mossy log is a broomstick. 

So here's to more outdoor adventures as we enter Spring and begin to see warmer days (I hope).

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Developing your Practice.

I have blogged quite a few times about how my practice has evolved over the past 13 years mainly as a direct result of being involved in British Council Comenius projects with schools in Poland, Norway, Italy, France & Sweden but I have often wondered whether the same projects ever had as big an impact on any of the other partners.
So last year when the Polish kindergarten contacted me to see if our school was interested in embarking on a new Erasmus Plus (the new name for Comenius projects) Project, I jumped at the chance. This new project is about how to best integrate migrant children into kindergartens & there are 10 partners from 8 different countries involved - U.K (us), Sweden, Poland, Romania, Czech Republic, Macedonia, Italy & Estonia. 
We had our first face-to-face meeting last month in Łodź in Poland and it was so good to have the opportunity to revisit the kindergarten almost 9 years after my last visit. 

I first was in Kindergarten 152 in 2005 and was struck immediately by the warm atmosphere and homely feeling in the classrooms, there was a lack of the expensive resources I was used to seeing back home in early years classrooms but there were lots of plants and carpeted areas and a real warmth between the children and teachers. The day was very structured with lots of individual 'lessons' e.g. chess, ballet, English etc. and it felt quite formal. However, it did seem a little chaotic and their teachers always commented on how well behaved our children were when they visited.
So when I revisited at the beginning of March I was delighted to see how their various projects since 2008 have had a huge influence on their practice. The biggest change was that they now have mixed ages classes so in each class there are 3,4,5 & 6 year olds. Every teacher I spoke to was adamant that they would never go back to their former way of having classes of 3-4 year olds, 4-5 year olds  & 5-6 year olds. They explained how this new system was very alien to the Polish system and theirs is the only kindergarten in the city to offer it and how many parents were resistant to the idea at first. As the teachers explained, this new way of organising classes means that no teacher has a whole new class at the beginning of a school year, as only a handful of children will move on each year & so the others will help the new children to settle in more easily.

Each classroom was still full of greenery and felt like a home from home but I could immediately see that they were much better resourced - they all have interactive whiteboards and lots more resources. It was very obvious that every teacher had taken on board many of the different strategies for class management and teaching styles that they had seen in each of their partner schools. There was lots of hands on learning rather than direct teaching & embedding learning in concrete experiences with lost of layering, the children were getting so many opportunities to practice their numeracy skills again and again in different ways - simple counting, number identification, physically jumping and counting etc. 
Every class we went into it was very obvious that there has been a big emphasis on teaching English in the kindergarten, all the children were very keen to practice with me & I was very impressed by their understanding, it wasn't just learned phrases. 
When I first visited in 2005, the outdoor space was very bare and only used in Spring & summer terms. As our partnership with the Norwegian outdoor kindergarten had had such an impact on my practice I was curious to see if anything had changed in their outdoor space too. I was delighted when Grazyna, the director, took me aside and wanted to show me their newly developed outdoor spaces. They have such a huge outdoor area and I as so happy to see al of it being used now and all year round too. It was lovely to be able to go outside with 2 of the classes and see the children playing in the space & I got to chat to the teachers about how the space is used. 
I am a firm believer in evolving practice but I also believe that it has to happen slowly and be realistic about each setting - you cannot simply transplant ideas from one country into another - so it was so wonderful to see how this kindergarten has reflected on how they might incorporate ideas or change them to suit their setting and practice. Most of all, I could see that all changes came about because of the difference they could make to the lives of the children and staff and not just because they were a current trend. 

You can read more about my project experiences here: