More About Culture: A Pre K Classroom

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First of all, I want to give credit in this blog posting to one of my colleagues on this trip, Alayne Stieglitz. Alayne has a background in education of young children and was an astute observer, helping us recognize patterns we might not have seen without her help.

We observed a pre-K classroom of 3 ½-year olds in South India. There were 30 children and one teacher. The teacher was completely in control of the class. Substituting for another teacher who was out that day, she was not new to the school; ordinarily, she taught a third standard class. Although this teacher was not their regular teacher, the students seemed familiar with her cues, which seemed to be “the way they do things” in that school.In a classroom, subtle cues especially, are usually explained verbally and then practiced multiple times until the children recognize them and can use them to get organized. We imagined that was what we were seeing here. In a parent-child relationship that process begins in infancy, and it is likely that most of the cues have originated in nonverbal communications that later gain verbal meaning.

The children started the day outside, with free play. Inside, older children from other classes helped set up classroom. Inside the classroom, the children sat on individual mats in a semicircle facing the board, with their backpacks arranged neatly in front of them and began the class with a meditation. Then they were ready to begin.

The teacher used a number of different ways to help the children make transitions: (1) First, she asked them to line up to come inside. That activity is spatially organizing and potentially rhythmic; as all the children file in together, it is likely that they will coordinate their pace. (2) She asked them all to sit on their mat in a cross-legged position and place their backpack in front of them; that also organized the children in space and included repetition on a theme – sit in the right position in the right place and orient another identifying part of you – your backpack – in front of you. (3) Then there was the meditation; meditation is highly organizing, calming the body and emotions and lowering stress. The multiple steps involved in settling down to begin the lesson would be expected to facilitate the transition by establishing a 1, 2, 3 4 rhythm – first (1) get in a line to come inside; then, (2) get out mat, and (3) place your backpack on floor in front of the mat; then (4) sit down in the right position. Sometimes, when a child was not in place on his mat on the floor, she would reposition his backpack, which seemed to be a cue for him to take his place. (5) The teacher also used counting to go from one activity to the next.

It is important to note that none of the children seemed overly constrained. There were little disruptions to the routine, most of which were smoothed out quickly without the teacher’s attention. Mostly, however, the children seemed relaxed and comfortable – knowing their routine and on familiar ground. After the meditation, they continued with chanting and prayers. Again, this activity offered more than the verbal content of the prayers; it offered the regulatory support of rhythm.

They began the lesson by writing the date and day on the chalkboard. When a child got the answer right there was a big clap (this was repeated multiple times during the day). Then they took attendance. This took time (30 students), but it was a learning experience. It involved recognizing each child’s presence by saying his or her name, gave practice focusing attention, regulating body movement and state, and acknowledging the teacher’s authority (Every child stood up and said, “yes, Miss”, when his or her name was called; the teacher would correct them if they did not stand up.

Then the teacher started the story. She started it by drawing scenes from the story on the blackboard. She went back and forth among different forms of information – visually showing them pictures, her acting the picture out, and (auditory) telling them the story. This offered all the children multiple domains of sensory information so that if any of them were weak in one area of processing information, they had a chance at a couple of other ways of taking in the information. The teacher’s animated facial expression, varied tonality of voice, and use of repetition, also enhanced the accessibility of the information.

It was interesting that the teacher did not sit down. She was moving all the time. She walked around from the blackboard to the circle, and around the circle, over time approaching each student in her movements and gaze. She had a regular rhythm of speaking and then asking for response. When the teacher disciplined, she didn’t interrupt the process of the lesson. She often didn’t acknowledge the “bad” behavior when it was happening but later she called the child up to sit near her. Most of the discipline was matter of fact; one boy insisted on sitting in the middle of the circle, and she had to move towards him to get him “with the program”. No one seemed shamed. She didn’t look cross with the two boys she moved close to her. Later, the boys participated well, and she called on them. She always made an effort to show them the picture, too.

It was a long story but the children were engaged for the length of it. There were multiple times when she laughed with pleasure, as if enjoying the class. She was also very firm. After telling them the story, the teacher had them retell the story. She called on someone and asked him or her the story of the picture and then she did the same with another child and another picture. One little boy went on forever, and the other children started wiggling, so she had to stop him, by raising up her hand and averting her gaze to face another child.

Then she divided them into small groups and gave each group a book. As she instrumented the transition from the large group to the small groups, she helped them get organized by specifying that there had to be 5 in each group. This started them counting, giving them something to do during the transition and keeping them organized – they weren’t just sitting and waiting. When she left the room to get the books, they started playing a rhythmic game with their hands.

There were two boys who seemed to be refusing to get into groups. She let one get a writing book from his backpack and he came over and sat next to her, where she gave him some individual attention. In this culture where the group often takes precedence over the individual, the teacher was still able to negotiate an individual agenda with one child who could not go with the flow. There were some children who didn’t seem to have the social competence to join a group, and she helped them get into groups. In the groups, the children read their books out loud. but she didn’t seem bothered at all.

The room got noisy, but she didn’t seem to mind. When the first two people got up to swap books, she asked them a question and if they couldn’t answer it she gave them back the same book. Then the kids swapped books. This was the third type of transition that she used. She started counting in a regular voice and tone. As she counted, the children started to find their places. When they were not in place by the time she reached 10, she began with the same even tone and intensity. By the time she counted twice, almost all of the children were in their places. She had to help a few, which she did by getting up and moving them gently by the shoulders.

Then they started with math. She changed the agenda item on the chalkboard from reading to math – that indication itself an important cue – a written cue for something that is happening, is valuable – especially for pre-readers. They chose the cutout numbers that corresponded with the number she called out. Then, they put sticks in the correct number of holes for each number. She was patient with them when they didn’t find the numbers. When one little boy didn’t know “5”, she finally gave him another number and when he got it right, all the children clapped.

Again, I wondered – is there anything about this culture that we could successfully import into ours in the US?

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