Winter Staff Development Day: Creating Intentional and Meaningful Learning Experiences

By Raquel Ryan, Teacher

Bing Nursery School’s 50th anniversary this year has inspired current staff to reflect deeply on what it takes to create an exceptional environment for young learners. We highlighted this theme on Feb. 8 at our quarterly staff development day, where we gathered and listened to three of our own distinguished colleagues deliver talks about three seemingly separate subjects: literature, math and music. We discovered throughout the day that, as teachers, we can employ similar strategies to support learning in each area. Repetition and active participation emerged as common threads that ran through each of the inspiring presentations. 

The day started with a talk from head teacher Mark Mabry, titled “Read It Again! Repeated Read-alouds of Children’s Books Inspire Emergent Literary Experiences,” which he co-presented at the National Association for the Education of Young Children Conference in November 2015. It emphasized how repetition begets a familiarity with a story that transforms the storytelling experience from passive listening to active participation for children. This active participation then leads to the children’s meaningful learning of written and spoken language. Mabry closed with a reminder that this is the intention behind reading the same story all week at story time and keeping the book shelves in each classroom stocked with the same books for an entire quarter. (For more details about this lecture, please see page 27.) 

After a brief time for questions and small-group discussions, head teacher Todd Erickson presented “Counting on Play: Creating a Preschool-Aged Mathematics Foundation in a Play-based Curriculum”—a talk he had previously given in February 2015 at the Early Childhood STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] Conference. In this lecture, Erickson emphasized that repetition and active participation lead to significant learning of basic and complex mathematical concepts. He explained several strategies teachers can use in the classroom to support mathematical learning, including using specific math language during play and creating math projects based on the children’s interests. 

Children are born mathematicians; they recognize patterns and show an interest in classifying and ordering objects, Erickson said. Using basic, open-ended materials such as unit blocks, children build their mathematical reasoning skills by solving problems during their play. Given uninterrupted play time, children can develop multiple strategies for dealing with a single problem. They also have the opportunity to return to an unsolved problem time and again. Repeated experiences help children to gain knowledge through successes and, perhaps more importantly, through failures. When children are working with unit blocks, adults can support their mathematical reasoning using math language. This can be anything from “I wonder how many pieces you have here” or “I wonder which building has more pieces” to “Let’s count the number of small blocks it takes to equal the length of a large block.” Intentionally using repeated math phrases during block-building helps children to develop a deeper understanding of math. 

Erickson also discussed how teachers can encourage learning of mathematical concepts through the project-based “emergent curriculum” approach used by many Bing teachers. Emergent curriculum is a teaching philosophy that aims to create an enriching, open-ended environment by responding to the individual interests of the children. Projects offer the opportunity to explore math concepts in a contextually relevant way and also have the capacity to grow to suit the children’s changing interests. A teacher holds many responsibilities when facilitating these projects, such as supporting foundational learning, experimenting with different learning modalities and revising as needed. For example, if the children are showing an interest in colors, a project to determine how many children like each color could be implemented using charts and graphs. This kind of project can be extended across weeks and helps children to understand basic math concepts such as number use and recognition, one-to-one correspondence, and comparing object groups. Erickson reminded us that it is important for teachers to continually follow the interests of the children with the intentions of the curriculum in mind. Focusing on these goals encourages teachers to fight the “either/or” mentality of directed-teaching versus play-based learning, and instead incorporate both where appropriate.

After a time of small-group discussions, we listened to a lecture from head teacher Kitti Pecka, called “Keeping the Beat! Music, Math and Poetry.” Similar to the two talks before her, she emphasized repetition and active participation as crucial parts of music learning, and touched briefly on how music leads to the formation of important connections in the brain. Pecka also explained how music can be a powerful tool for children to make connections across disciplines, with others, and within themselves. 

Music connects to language and math in several ways, said Pecka. Much like repeated read-alouds, singing the same songs over and over again allows children to gain a better understanding of rhythm and lyrics. The cadence of the song can assist children’s understanding of the natural cadence of spoken language, and the lyrics can support their understanding of the meaning of words. Additionally, musical lyrics are a simple way to expose children to beautiful poetry. Music is also inherently connected to mathematics because of the way beats and rhythms are divided. By simply participating in music, children are starting to understand basic math concepts. In a more straightforward example, singing songs about math can teach children specific concepts. An example of this is the song Five Green and Speckled Frogs, where one frog jumps off the log in each verse. The repetition of the chorus with one less frog each time allows children to grasp the concept of subtraction. 

Music time also serves as a venue where where children can express their own personalities and still feel a part of a larger community. Creative self-expression through singing and dancing can contribute to a child’s self-esteem and sense of individuality. The magic of music comes when all the individuals actively participate together. As Pecka reminded us, “We can all come together and sing at the same time—we cannot do the same when we are talking.” 

Over the course of the day, it became clear that repetition and active participation are two of the most important parts of significant and meaningful learning for children, regardless of discipline. The day was filled with information describing the intentions behind many of the current practices at Bing, and we left feeling inspired to carry out that intentionality in our day-to-day lives, always being mindful that we are working to create an optimal environment for young learners.