Crows Knows!

Alison Gopnik, author of  “The Scientist in the Crib” (with partners, Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl) and a child development psychologist who has done wonderful TED talks about brain development, once said, there’s a relationship between how long a childhood a species has and how big their brains are compared to their bodies, and how smart and flexible they are. It seems that more intelligent animals seem to have bigger brains and ‘longer’ childhoods. I believe this is true for little humans.

Dr. Gopnik says that the crow, a bird thought to be very smart, has a childhood as long as two years, but a farm chicken, which reaches maturity in only a few months, is not known for the high quality of its upper level cognitive abilities.  The difference in the length of childhood – this gift of time to develop appropriately and fully – says Dr. Gopnik, is the reason why “crows end up on the cover of “Science”, and chickens end up in the soup pot.chicken

I believe that our current education system is becoming like the running of a poultry farm, producing chickens who can do little more than peck on a standardized test, so I got to thinking about what else crows and preschool age learners have in common and I found some pretty neat stuff.

Clara in AvesNoir, a website dedicated to the corvid (crows and their relatives) posted that the common crow will usually live for about seven years

Hey! Just about the same time the human brain takes to develop to the beginnings of logical concrete thinking.

Clara also shared that almost all corvids have been observed using tools, and the raven can be taught to speak basic human language. Crows are emotional animals, too. They react to hunger and invasion by vigorously vocalizing their feelings. They display happiness, anger and sadness. Crows are considered song-birds and posses a deep repertoire of melodies. And, like humans, the more melodious the song, the more soothing the effects. Some crows have even been taught to recite opera. Crows have an excellent memory. They are masters at stashing food in many caches, moving it sometimes two or three times, and remembering exactly where they placed it. In fact, for their size, crows have the largest brains of all birds except some parrots. Their brain-to-body ratio is equivalent to that of a chimpanzee and amazingly, not far off that of a humans.

Amazing. Same as human children from birth to about age 8!

David Dietle, in 6 Terrifying Ways Crows Are Way Smarter Than You Think, gives us the mixed blessings of this knowledge: They can remember your face. They conspire with one another. Their memorize situations and systems. They use tools and problem-solve. They make plans. They use adaptive behaviors.

Remarkable. All the things we want our children to learn!

From comes the fact that when gathered in huge communal groups, they may become a nuisance for people due to their shrill and loud ‘cawing’ and may even attack humans if disturbed. Crows are known to be omnivorous and aggressive and often prey on other birds.

Pretty much describes a classroom full of four-year-olds to me! 

So, my conclusion is this: instead of using a curriculum that breeds chickens for pecking and throws them in a pot, use one that lets you grow crows for their intelligence, and then lets them fly!




The Lakemont Curriculum

Whew! Finally finished the project behind this blog: the creation of a complete Early Education Curriculum we are calling Lakemont.

We’ll be using it this year at the Winter Park Presbyterian Church Preschool Program and will let you know how it goes before we go for full publication.

The blogs here are pieces of Lakemont, a curriculum designed with the mission of optimal natural learning for each child from birth to six through a system founded on the basic EVIDENCE of facts on child development and learning ; EXPECTATIONS (objectives) matching that EVIDENCE; an ENVIRONMENT of physical, emotional, and educational safety; EXPERIENCES that are child-centered purposeful play EXECUTED with consideration of the human factor and mandated DAP; and EVALUATION of child progress and program quality. It is ECLECTIC and encourages ELASTICITY! It makes the learning process EASY, ENJOYABLE, EFFICIENT, and EXCELLENT.

Some Thoughts About Expectations

Common Core and Common Sense – There is a lot of turmoil and controversy these days over Common Core (CC) and how the desire to have nation-wide standardized expectations for education has snowballed (or train wrecked) through the country.

The original idea, thanks to some ‘experts’ working with Bill Gates and many of his dollars, was a good one, because there should be an organized system of clearly defined goals that explain what children are expected to learn.

The first issue with CC is that many early educators say the standards created were not developmentally appropriate for children under eight. I have read and reread them and compared them to the developmental milestones of many early education curricula including the ‘traditionals’ like Creative Curriculum, High Scope, Montessori, and Bank Street; to a variety of individual programs using a variety of curricula, like Head Start, Reggio Emilia, private day care, faith-based preschools, and VPK (FL based pre-kindergarten program managed by the public school system); and to the recommendations of the ‘biggies’ like the American Medical Association, American Pediatric Association, and NAEYC, and in my opinion, the Common Core STANDARDS are not far off the mark. Uh, oh – losing some readers now!

It is not the standards that are developmentally wrong – it is the practices teachers have been forced to implement because of the measuring of those standards – the incredibly inappropriate standardized testing system, that is completely wrong.

common-core-monsterGates created a monster that Godzillaed its way from Washington throughout the country, was radioactively altered by the evil greedy test makers, and now causes five-year-olds to have clinical depression over the stress of test taking and making sure their favorite teacher can feed her family because if he fails, she makes less money!

I personally and openly blame Arne Duncan for this, and not just because his first name is spelled funny and his last name is a yoyo. I will probably also lay blame on the Betsy DeVos theory of “education” which is not based on research and which insists on channeling funds to privatized charter schools rather than making necessary changes (USING DAP) to our pubic education system. NO, BETSY, NO!

As teachers have always done – while legislators, administrators, and other ‘educational experts’ make mincemeat of education – please try your best to do what’s right for your children and their parents. Calm the fears, sneak in lots of active learning experiences, fight hard for Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) and wait until this wave of silliness in American education passes.


After Thoughts About Ariel & Belle

As I was thinking about some of my pet peeves in early education settings and ranting about Walt Disney, it occurred to me that I am not being completely fair about allowing teachers to choose what they think is best for THEIR children and about encouraging eclecticism and elasticity in curricular options.

If you have a class full of boys* and girls who LOVE the Disney Princess dresses and the plastic Kardashian heels, certainly have them available – IF, and it is a BIG IF – there is still purposeful play and real learning involved in the experience of dressing in them.

My point on the Dress Up Center, is that the more raw and natural your props are for developing imagination and creativity, the better the learning will be. Imitation and Imagination are both excellent skills to develop, with imitation being slightly less ‘evolved’, but still as VITAL as imagination.

Also, no matter how we pushed in the 70’s for a sense of gender equality by seeing that girls played with blocks and trucks and boys got to dress up and work in the kitchen (STILL A GOOD IDEA, BY THE WAY!) we must understand and accept that due to natural human development plus environment, on the playground your boys will most often use sticks as weapons and girls will use them to build campfires to cook s’mores.

cinderellaOne year, Maria Pagnotta, an outstanding teacher I know, had a morning class of ALL boys (3’s and 4’s). She displayed all the regular props in her Home/Dress Up Center, including a child-size wooden ironing board and iron. NOT ONE of those little guys knew what the traditional use of that iron was. They used it to mash play dough, mimic a rocket launch into space, and hammer golf tees into the peg board. Maria, being the great teacher she was, let all of this occur). Now, the girls in the mixed gender, but same-aged class who used that same room in the afternoons, seemed to immediately realize the ‘normal’ use of the iron and they pressed their Cinderella gowns up a storm before heading to the ball to lose their glass slippers.

Use whatever creates the most and the most high-quality learning in your class. If your children like and CAN LEARN FROM store-bought plastic primary-colored props, use them. But, please try using more raw, natural, unmarked items so the children can use them to create their own ideas, change materials from one-use to multi-use, and not just imitate, but imagine and create.

*YES – PLEASE let the boys wear the dresses and the heels if they want to! Tell their daddies to relax. This is how we all learn who we are and what makes us feel comfortable and happy.

Assessment – Total Program

self assessmentThe Program – Self-Assessment First – A good formal self-assessment procedure begins with open and honest documented observations of the program by parents and staff members using an appropriate assessment tool matching the standards of the licensing agency or accreditation association or the completion of assessment surveys or questionnaires.  The surveys should cover all aspects of the program including physical environment, whole staff expertise, and educational quality of the curriculum.  Questions on the survey should be written clearly and opportunities for comments and suggestions should be afforded. 

The results of the surveys must then be tabulated, documented, and recorded, and the administrative staff – or a committee of staff members and parents comprising a Self-Assessment Committee– should devise a plan for improving areas of need shown by the surveys. 

Programs can devise their own tools or forms for self-assessment (based on their own mission, standards, and job descriptions) or use forms from reputable curricula or accreditation agencies.

Accreditation Assessment – An accreditation process is a great way to thoroughly assess your program and although some of the procedures are tedious, and some accreditation costs are pricey, a national accreditation certification is good for your program. It builds your reputation, proves your worth and increases staff morale, and may even “sell” your program to more parents.

Most national and many state and local licensing and accreditation agencies require an annual assessment of each program applying for a license or accreditation status.  This should include a self-assessment element before the formal assessment visit and usually, the accreditation agency asks for copies of the self-assessment survey results and the improvement plan you have created.

An “official” visit by licensing bureau or accreditation agency is then held, in which a representative of the agency observes the program and documents his/her findings concerning compliance with agency standards.  Results of the findings of the official visit are shared with the program, and the representative determines the program to be in or out of compliance and whether the program qualifies for license or accreditation certificate.

they're coming!They’re Coming! – There is always stress when outside accreditation or licensing agents arrive to perform a formal assessment of your program. If your program performs a successful self-assessment and takes steps to improve any areas of weakness or need before the arrival of these representatives, it will make the accreditation process much easier.  Even when you are visited by local licensing reps (county childcare agencies, fire and health departments) there is stress.

In the 70’s, before childcare regulations existed or were strictly enforced, I waldoremember working in a privately owned (and unnamed) day care center as Lead Teacher in a class of over 30 two-year-olds.  On occasion I had an assistant, Miss Virginia. On ‘inspection days”, Miss Virginia would scamper from class to class through back hallways, popping up like “Where’s Waldo?” in each crowded single-teacher classroom as the “Assistant Teacher” when the county licensing agent counted heads for correct child-teacher ratios.  Ah – those were the days.

Assessment – Learning Experiences & Staff Performance

Learning Experiences – Classroom learning experiences must be evaluated for the same reasons as the curriculum, but must be particularly assessed by teachers on an ongoing basis by observing the experiences as they are happening and after their occurrence, by noting any effects the experiences had on the classroom environment, by observing the behaviors of the children during the experiences, and by simply noticing whether learning took place. 

Remember      BeforeWill the experience be:          
Right                 Does match up with the levels and needs of my community of learners?
Reasonable     Is it “doable” for my community?  Is it practical?
Real                   Are the children going to be moving, active, and hands-on?
Relatable         Is it interesting and familiar to the children? Is if relevant to them,                              their needs, to their families? Is there new learning to be made from it?
Repeatable      Can the children practice the skills learned in it over and over and over?
Relaxing           Can it be offered in a safe, organized way?
Recreational   Is it fun?
Riggable           Can it be modified easily if it doesn’t work?

And                    After – Was the experience:                                                           Righteous        Was there Primary, Secondary, and/or Spontaneous Learning?


Staff Performancenote_principal-c

Just like assessment of child progress, we need to keep in mind that assessment of Staff Performance is about the WORK, NOT THE STAFF MEMBER!

Individual Staff Performance Assessment/evaluation should happen annually and whatever form is used should match exactly with the written job performance given to each staff person at the time of employment, so that assessor and staff person have a clear, concise, and agreed-upon picture of performance expectations.

To complete an accurate and fair Staff Performance Assessment, assessors really must visit all areas of a campus, including every classroom, all outdoor play areas, enrichment class spaces, and kitchen and bathroom facilities, on a continuing basis to assure compliance with licensing and accreditation standards.  They must be knowledgeable about every aspect of a program and must accept full responsibility for program management and quality.

Do the OCDRP – The procedure for Staff Performance Assessment is similar to the Child Progress Assessment in that the assessor needs to Observe, Collaborate with the person being assessed, and Document. Referral might be used to find training for an individual with observed and documented needs and a Strength Plan is necessary for those individuals as well, so needs can be made into strengths, training can be provided, opportunities for performance improvements can be made, and either excellence can be achieved or employment can be curtailed.

Next Blog: Assessment of a Total Program

Assessment – Curriculum

The success of any school or program depends on continuing assessment of all of its aspects – not just child progress. To assure the high quality of education young children deserve, the curriculum, the staff, and the processes and procedures of the total program need to be evaluated by the current program staff and administration, local or state regulatory and licensing agencies and ideally, by a reputable accreditation organization.

The Curriculum – Any curriculum used and all learning experiences devised should be evaluated for quality, developmental appropriateness, practicality, and relevancy to the needs of the children in a program. Things to keep in mind when choosing a curriculum:

  • The quality of a curriculum should be judged on the expertise, educational and experiential background of its authors, on its comparison to high quality established curricula already in use, on the validity of its research, on its recommendation or approval by a reputable local, state, or national education accreditation agency or association, and on its appropriateness to the particular mission of the program.
  • Developmental appropriateness should be evaluated by the philosophy of the curriculum in relation to valid child development theories, standards and milestones. 
  • Practicality can be determined by actual use of the curriculum and determination of its ease and efficiency in a program or in a classroom. 
  • Whether a curriculum is relevant to a particular learning community can be assessed by having familiarity with the needs and aspects of the children and families in the program and making sure the curriculum matches in need, interests, ethnicities, language differences, and experiences.
  • A program can certainly use elements from a number of curricula, or can mandate that its teachers exclusively follow the tenets of a single curriculum.
  • In choosing a curriculum, administrators and teachers should also ask for parent input and advice.

So, How Do We Choose??surprised mary 2Here is a brief comparison of some of the best Early Education Curricula in the business including Bank Street, Creative Curriculum, High Scope, Kamii-DeVries, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, and Winter Park (my own creation). The best programs and classrooms are ones in which teachers are allowed and encouraged to pick from each of these types of excellent, developmentally appropriate, child-centered, highly researched curricula, and use what is best in each for the children in her learning community.

 Curricula Comparison for WordPress

Next Blog: Assessment – Learning Experiences and Staff Performance






Assessment – Planning and Conferences

So, Now What? – The final step in the assessment process is Planning – the sharing of each child’s portfolio of work, notes, photos, and completed Assessment Tool and the creation of a Strength Plan for each child.  This should be done twice during the year, if possible, and all planning should be done with parent consultation and signed consent.  I STRONGLY suggest your plan should be stated in this formula: Strengths-Needs-Plan, emphasizing each child’s strengths first, his needs second, and a plan for using the strengths to meet the needs.

“State the Strengths, Note the Needs, Plan for Progress” is my motto.

For most of the children the plan will be simple.  Teacher and parent look at all of the assessment information, determine strengths and needs, and create a plan for continued progress.  The plan can be written in a sentence or two at the bottom of the Tool itself (or be on a separated Strength Plan Form. Both parent and teacher sign the form at the parent-teacher conference, and the plan is initiated in the classroom.  There should be space on the form for comments as well. Here is a sample:

Strength Plan Form

For some of the children the plan will be more difficult as the teacher-parent team may feel referral assistance is needed or that the child’s behaviors and skill acquisition are not on a satisfactory level according to the developmental standards.  In these cases, teachers need to make suggestions to the parent for implementing recommendations from referral resources or they may have their own recommendations for alternate methods and activities that will make better use of the child’s strengths to assure improvement in his progress. 

AGH! Conferences – Parent-Teacher conferences are not easy, but must be done professionally and positively.  Your purpose is to note strengths and needs and to create, with parent input, a Strength Plan for each child’s continuing progress in learning. Be prepared for conferences by having all the information you need at hand including Assessment Tool and portfolio.

Conferences are best with both parents present, without the child present, and no other siblings present, if possible. Try to hold them in the classroom so you can point out each child’s favorite work area. Allow 10 to 15 minutes for each conference and make every attempt to stick to that rule by having a clock or timer on the table so other parents are not kept waiting. I always have a box of tissues on hand as well.

Have a professional but warm and friendly attitude, be empathetic, and ALWAYS START WITH THE CHILD’S STRENGTHS!!!!

Here are some examples of positively stated teacher comments you might use to get parent input on a strength plan:

  • “Stephanie loves to be outside, but needs to work on standing and then walking, so we will work on the outdoor baby gym to continue to strengthen her pulling up muscles.  Is there a park near your home so you can work on this outdoors, too? Is there anything else you can suggest?”
  • “Kurt is bigger than the other children, but you can see from the several incident reports you signed that he is often aggressive and needs to work on his social and friend-making skills.  We will give him a position of responsibility every day so he can learn to use those big muscles to help others.  Dad, you say he and his big brother rough-house at home.  How about playing games with him at home that are not overly aggressive and destructive and maybe go for walks with him rather than watching wrestling on TV? What else do you want us to emphasize with him?”
  •  “Since Melissa is a terrific listener, but needs to work on literacy skills, what do you think about working with on her pre-reading skills by offering her more time in the Listening Center with her favorite books on tape?  I have a tape player you can take home, too. Do you have another things you’d like to see happen at school?”
  • “Thomas is already using phonics to read, but does not talk during Circle Time and it sounds like he’s having some difficulty pronouncing certain sounds.  Here’s the name of a good Speech Therapist.  You can call her, or I can give you a list of some other therapists. Maybe working with one can help him feel more comfortable talking and he can practice by reading aloud to the other children. How do you want to proceed?”

easy as pieEasy as Pie – Conferences are never all fun and games, but I can just about guarantee if you use these types of communications – and the Strength-Need-Plan formula, no parent will be waiting menacingly in the parking lot for you with a wiffle bat after your next parent-teacher meetings.


Next Blog: Assessment – The Rest of the Program



Assessment – Referral

The third step in the OCDRP system of assessment is Referral.

Where to Go NextReferral means that a teacher is requesting or suggesting that there is a need for professional assistance beyond the capabilities of the program staff in order to meet the needs of a child’s behavior or skill acquisition.

Referrals are made ONLY after PARENT permission and agreement is given.  It could be suggested to a parent that he/she make the referral contact, but program staff should support that contact or offer to make it if the parent cannot.  Parents who do not feel comfortable speaking to or meeting with referral agencies or individuals should be assisted by program staff as advocates.

Every Program should have a Resource List available to parents and teachers showing professional individuals and agencies in the community who can be of service to in the determination of any needs a child may have.  Administrators should compile the Resource List or find one suggested by local licensing agencies. 

A good Resource List should include physicians, therapists, psychologists, diagnosticians, screeners, or agencies relating to specific aspects in each of the Learning Areas and in issues relating to Family.

  • Body               General Health, Growth, Hearing, Vision, Speech, Physicality             
  • Mind               Attention Span, Focus, Speech, Learning Differences
  • Spirit              Anxiety, Impulsivity, Depression, Fear
  • Family           Concerns about Health, Abuse, Neglect, Finance, or Emergencies

Special Interest groups that deal with parenting issues such as health, disabilities, multiples, adopted children, single parenting, same-sex couple parenting are also helpful to parents.

The BEST programs include ALL of the above AND help parents find the right resources AND provide education and training programs for their parents          ON-SITE!

Here’s Where Things Can Get a Little Sticky – It is hard for parents to hear that theresticky may be something “different” about their child’s ability to learn and develop fully. In fact, in some instances, it can be excruciating. Explaining to a parent that his/her child may have special needs that you need assistance in defining or diagnosing is not easy and must be done using facts without opinion or judgement.

You must NEVER diagnose! You must refer to professionals for this. You owe this to each child, each parent, and the reputation of your program.

No Surprises – As the bearer of the message that a child may need referral, you may be on the receiving end of tears, questions, defensiveness, and anger. If you have communicated your concerns early and often during the year, this will be an easier process. If suddenly mid-way or late in the year you announce you have concerns serious enough to warrant referral, you need to retrain yourself on both observation and communication skills. If you find yourself in the position of suggesting referral for a child, use the advice on conferences later in the next blog.

Next Blog: Planning and Conferences

Rant About Assessment & Accountability

angry ladyWe are all aware of the Common Core issues and the use of standardized testing to determine accountability in our public schools. The Common Core Standards are NOT AWFUL! But the implementation of the techniques being suggested, even forced, on teachers in order to reach these standards TRULY IS AWFUL. It is the least developmentally appropriate practice being implemented in recent educational history and all early educators should band together to stop it.

The Country Mouse and the City Mouse – The other ‘beefs’ I have about the current public education situation is the terrible idea that a single standardized test can measure the value of all children’s learning and that the scores on that test can or should determine the progress of a child from grade to grade level or the value of the work of the teacher in the learning community.

We have to have national standards, but we do not have to use standardized methods of presenting information to children. What we offer them must be relevant to them and meaningful to their life situations in order for the learning to be of value and high quality. Children in the urban inner cities and children in the rural towns must all learn to count, but some will learn by counting how many city blocks they walk to school and some will learn by counting cows! There should never be a mandate for standardized teaching methods except for their being developmentally appropriate for the particular learning community.

Teacher Accountability – As for the idea of accountability and worth of the work of any teacher being judged by test scores, it is just plain stupid. I believe that there are so many more variables in this equation, it is ridiculous and extremely demeaning to suggest that salaries and career advancement of teachers should be determined by children’s test scores, and I am furious with whomever advocates this idea. (Looking at you, Bill Gates and Arne Duncan!)

A teacher’s work should be judged by administrators who have had their own teaching experience and that judgement must take into consideration things like class size, physical condition of the facility itself, the economic level of the community and the effects of poverty (numbers of children with diagnosed special needs including hunger, chronic illnesses, and safety issues) amount and quality of a teacher’s past and continuing education, and above all the quality of administrative, parent, and community involvement and support. No teacher’s work should be assessed by the ‘failure’ of a kindergarten student to successfully pass a single standardized test administered on a computer he does not have experience with.

All That Being Ranted – We do need to find ways to assess our children’s learning and to assess our programs (and teachers) for accountability, so for those children headed into kindergarten, using an ACTIVE and INTERACTIVE MINIMALLY TECHNOLOGICAL testing situation that includes the HUMAN FACTOR and takes a developmentally appropriate amount of time to perform and is based directly, specifically, and purely on the (again) developmentally appropriate educational objectives of your program is ok.

Next Blog: Assessment – Referral