Cub's Corner Blog
Reflections on Our Teaching Journey - October 20, 2023
By Anesa Hadziefendic and Kara Menges, Pine room
Teaching, like many professions, often requires us to embark on a journey of change. I have asked two Sacred Heart Preschool teachers to reflect on their journey to becoming SHP educators, specifically around how they have beautifully woven the Ursuline Core Values into their classroom environment. Leading with who we are as Ursuline educators means supporting our students in constructing their own identities. All of us, students/teachers/parents, are offered time and space to lead with who they are called to be.
Our kids are the future, and they can very well be a change in this world. Our Beloved Community teaches us Reverence, Service, Leadership, and Community--all of the Ursuline Core Values of Sacred Heart Schools. We all are important and capable of love, empathy, and learning. We are all Beloved. As an International Baccalaureate World School, Who We Are is a required unit of inquiry every year, for every student. Across the globe, students of all ages inquire into their identity, their role and place in their world, their beliefs and values, and exploring who they may be called to be. At Sacred Heart Schools we are blessed to have the Ursuline heritage as part of our identity and the Ursuline Core Values as our guide.
One center in our classroom is quite an important one. This area has a table and chair that faces a wall. Upon that wall holds various pictures of diverse people, as well as a mirror and quotes from our students. On the table, you might see pom-poms of different skin tones, twine, and other loose parts. At another time, you would see skin-toned crayons and matching paint chips. You also might view various children’s books featuring characters of color as well as books about Community. This area in our classroom was naturally created with the help of our students and is home to the representation of our Beloved Community.
But what is a Beloved Community? Josiah Royce, a philosophy professor at Harvard first coined the term in 1913. Royce wrote, “My life means nothing, either theoretically or practically, unless I am a member of a community.” He searched for a “Beloved Community,” one that included the entire human race. Martin Luther King Jr. then continued with this idea in 1956. They believed that humans, no matter their background or race, could come together to live harmoniously. They had an image of a community of love and justice wherein brotherhood would be an actuality in all social life. We would be careless if we did not feel the urge to include these beliefs in our classroom.
The creation of our Beloved Community has been building up since we began co-teaching with one-year-olds at Angela Hall…although we didn't know it at the time. The essence of us both starting our teaching careers at Angela Hall is symbolic in many ways. Our one-year-olds are the youngest learners on campus, and because of that, they inspire us with their curiosity and their enthusiasm to constantly explore their world, no matter the cost. What other motivation does one need to become a teacher? After all, to be a teacher also means to be a forever learner. To have taught at Angela Hall is a unique and one-of-a-kind adventure that we are forever grateful for. Our extraordinary colleagues guided us and became part of the SHP family. Our experience there has made us into the teachers we are now. To this very day, we insist that we never forget where we came from, and we want to acknowledge that the community of Angela Hall was the spark that ignited our inspiration to teach and in turn, create our Beloved Community.
Even though teaching the youngest students did not require us to learn and teach the International Baccalaureate framework, it seemed to come to us naturally. And before we knew it, we were applying the units in our one-year-old lesson plans. Our Red Room kids were obsessed with community helpers. Our dramatic play center housed uniforms of police officers, firefighters, bakers, doctors, construction workers, postal workers...etc. As you can imagine, our kids treasured dressing up. Dress up is a form of imaginative play that boosts problem-solving and self-regulation skills. Within this center, our kids could create situations and scenes with these clothes and act out social situations while testing new ideas and behaviors in a comfortable environment. With that in mind, we understood that we required a method to expand on the remainder of the people within our community, using their occupations as an appeal. Does every community helper wear a uniform? If not, then what did the people in our community look like?
We have a duty to start constructing a better environment for our children's future, which is why some of our professional development helped us reimagine what community helpers could be. We were challenged to think about our roles as teachers and how that role is changing. We have the choice to accept responsibility in teaching children how to be respectful and kind humans. We want our students to use their skills to be leaders and make the world a more inclusive and understanding place. SHP faculty has studied and discussed the ideals of justice and practical solutions to help make the world a more inclusive place for everyone. The International Baccalaureate states just this!
As our teaching journeys moved us to Salesia Hall last year, we began teaching through the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program our Beloved Community fell into place. During the unit, How We Express Ourselves, we celebrated MLK day. We read a story celebrating his life and achievements, and our students were in awe. How does Dr. King express himself? They naturally realized that there are other ways to express yourself besides occupations or hobbies. Is it possible that one could express themselves by being a kind and compassionate human? Our discussions about the story led us to conclude with the idea that ALL children (and people) deserve to be able to live, learn, and play together. We all deserve love, friendship, and equity. We found an area in our classroom to keep this story out for our students to read during free play and organically began adding other activists and reimagined community helpers. After a few months, we had studied Yayoi Kusama, Greta Thunberg, Harriet Tubman, Malala Yousafzai, Gandhi, Ruby Bridges, Mr. Rodgers, MLK, and countless others, each time posting a photo of each person on the wall. We included a mirror at this table, as the kids were a significant component of our Beloved Community, and we needed them to understand that their image would always be posted should they visit the area. Along with literature and photos, we included an area for play at the table. Using twine, loose parts, and an open-ended imagination, students could experiment with these pieces to make faces of diverse people. They could compare different skin tones and connect them to the people we’ve studied and themselves.
Soon, questions and inquiries flooded the room when they noticed a new person on the wall. How did they change the world? Why are they important? Where are they from? In our Beloved Community, our kids celebrate diversity, they learn about different perspectives, and try to connect with children around the world. Today, we still use this table as an essential staple of our classroom. We created a space where everyone actively participates and learns to advocate for themselves and others by means of compassion. As we take a step back and reflect (as all IB teachers do), we understand that these concepts are not just for our children but for all of us.
Reflections on my Sacred Heart Preschool Professional Development Pathways - September 29, 2023
By Michele Hemenway Pullen
Looking back over my time with Sacred Heart teachers, no quote stands out more to me than that from Caroline Pratt, 1946.
I have had the joyful privilege of working with the Sacred Heart Preschool teachers for many years. What began with a question from now director Austin Butler Nikolich continues today as ALL the teachers come with their inquiries and invitations for me. And I WELCOME them.
Over this time, we have embarked on journeys through how children develop and what their capacities are, how to teach the alphabet based upon brain science, how to document what we already are doing and WHY, how to weave content areas into all day and every day EXPERIENCES that are there FOR children, how to move outdoors, how to examine our bias and beliefs and create a beloved community for our children and most recently, how to grow (no pun) as a forest together! And in the middle there, how to best love and serve families during a health pandemic. We walked all the way through that one and have come out the other side- healing and moving forward with all the lessons in our back pockets.
What has struck me most through this time with teachers is the unusual dedication and commitment to professionalism in all its forms. Yes, teachers are colleagues and treat each other as such. Yes, teachers are responsible and accountable for the children in their care and act accordingly. Teachers are creative and inquisitive- yes- all of that to an unusual degree, frankly.
Sacred Heart Preschool is a model of professionalism. However, that’s not what I mean.
I am talking about something that defies definition in some ways. I have seen and visited hundreds of classrooms around the country over 20 years. There are only a very few that spark this recognition- ah, this is teaching. THIS IS TEACHING. It’s something you cannot put your finger on or explain easily. It comes in emails where teachers share this moment or that bit of artwork or a newsletter. It comes in the simple shared conversations with children outside when I am visiting classrooms about times we felt “not understood” at a loss in childhood.
It’s the extraordinary in the ordinary that is teaching. I am so grateful for this ongoing work with the teachers your children spend their days with. It is the spark we need now more than ever to know that things will be as we hope for them. Their future IS bright.
Outdoor Play and why it's Critical to Child Development - September 15, 2023
“No bad weather, just bad clothes!”
“Anything you can do inside, you can do outside!”
While these may seem like small statements out of context, they truly illustrate our SHP philosophy. Current research in child development continues to support the concept that outdoor play is critical to a child’s growth. But why outdoor play?
Being outdoors provides the perfect recipe for sensory input. Sounds, sight, touch – all the things we know children’s brains require for growth – are right there! Indoors, much of the manmade input can be overwhelming, sending the brain into an anxious state that does not promote growth. But in nature, where things are balanced and gentle, our brains do not have to focus on fighting or fleeing, creating the ultimate learning environment.
Natural materials outside provide the ideal setting for true creative play and problem-solving. Manmade structures and equipment are often prescriptive. A slide tells you how to play with it (“this is for sliding down”), and if you try something else, you will likely be corrected. (“Don’t climb up the slide, only go
down.”) But a fallen tree? For one child, one day, it is a bridge crossing a magic stream, and the next day, it is a kitchen for baking cookies. In one moment, it is a place to climb and balance, and the next moment, it can be a spot for hiding and giggling. We have seen this first hand with the addition of the newly fenced “Hill” at the back of our playground. The only “equipment” in that space is a few fallen trees and a large, discarded tube. But children can literally spend hours on The Hill and often prefer it over the structures on the playground.
Child-directed outdoor play offers the perfect opportunity for practicing risk assessment when the stakes are low. Children learn about their bodies and their abilities as they decide if this branch will hold them as they climb or if that log will roll if they step on it. Risk assessment is a critical lifelong skill, and if our children are provided consistent, extended times to practice, they are much more equipped to properly assess risk as the stakes get higher (for example, behind the wheel of a car!)
As SHP continues to deepen our understanding of and commitment to the ideal environment for children, we stay up-to-date on current research through faculty-wide book studies. We would love to share our current read, “Balanced and Barefoot – How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, Capable Children.”
Kim Tabler, Assistant Director of Program Development
IB Learning through Outdoor Exploration - September 1, 2023
The smell of campfire in the summer heat kicked off my first few weeks in my new role as Assistant Director of Pedagogy. I eagerly wood-burned the new signs for our classrooms that now hang in the hallways of Salesia Hall and Angela Hall to welcome back our teachers to a newly dedicated space that celebrates and encourages outdoor exploration. While I was wood burning our new signs, I got to know the architecture of each leaf we intentionally chose to honor our beautiful Ursuline campus. It truly became a labor of love as I felt a new appreciation for our campus and the opportunities it has gifted us as educators and our students as globally minded leaders and learners.
Through our Ursuline identity and the International Baccalaureate framework, we are constantly exploring opportunities for our students to drive our units while honoring the core values of Community, Reverence, Service, and Leadership that benefit their learning experience. What better way to do this than to encourage them to investigate our new classroom identities, as well as their own, that correlate with our beautiful campus and all it celebrates?
Many classes have taken campus walks with the goal of finding “their” classroom tree. This introduces research skills, one of the IB Approaches to Learning, for even our youngest kids. How will we know it is the correct tree? What do the leaves look like? Does it produce any fruit or nuts? Anytime you are walking our preschool halls, you will notice the multiple sources of documentation that showcase these explorations and the kinds of further investigations that came from this experience.
One experience in particular has stuck with our teachers and students over the past few weeks. Over the summer, the Sassafras Room took their children on a walk to go find their tree, and unfortunately, the tree could not be found! Where did it go? Is the map wrong? Did the tree fall in a storm?
One young learner took it upon himself (with the help of his mom) to walk around campus one afternoon on a mission to find the sassafras tree…expecting it was just a sassafras tree. The next day, the boy took his class on an adventure to show everyone his discovery. The tree had become intertwined and codependent on a Magnolia tree! This discovery excited all the students, and they even noticed the tree was producing a variety of leaves that looked like a mix of magnolia leaves and sassafras leaves. The teachers encouraged the students to be inquirers by following their line of questioning and allowing them the chance to answer their own questions. When the students noticed the leaves on the tree looked different, their teacher didn’t pull out a phone and google it on the spot. Instead, they allowed their students time to hypothesize, think, investigate, and perform further research. The students drew pictures of the tree, etched the tree bark on paper, picked leaves off the ground, and took all their evidence and newly gained knowledge back to the classroom to do some further reflection and research. With the help of their teachers, the kids learned the tree had undergone a process called inosculation! They went on to draft a letter to people on campus who they thought would be able to plant a new sassafras tree on campus so they could continue their investigation.
As the investigation progressed over the next few days, the teachers added documentation to their bulletin board with the direction of the students. We have moved away from making our evidence of learning seem picture-perfect by just showing a “finished product” because learning is messy and ever-evolving. All our classrooms proudly and organically document the learning process to honor the capable image of the child. You will notice how the bulletin boards in the hallway change over time, and each classroom will display their evidence of learning in various ways.
This kind of learning experience is just one of many that our students take part in daily through the IB framework, our emergent curriculum style, and living the core values while being a part of our Ursuline Campus. Through the IB framework, our kids are encouraged to be problem-solvers, thinkers, risk-takers, and much more, and we patiently observe and document these experiences to scaffold learning over time. We look forward to the learning journey while our students grow and blossom on our campus, and we are excited you all chose to be a part of this journey with us.
~Caroline Strong, Assistant Director of Pedagogy
The Need for Free Play in Nature Blog Post - August 25, 2023
Close your eyes, relax, and breathe deeply.
Now, think back to some of your earliest memories of your childhood…specifically your happiest play memories.
Where were you?
Who were you with?
What were you doing?
When asked, most adults over 30 speak of running or biking through large areas, spanning neighborhoods, and even towns. They remember climbing trees and building forts, exploring creeks and forests, and playing games created by groups of children. Rarely were adults around, let alone boundaries. Most say they knew all their neighbors, so someone could always find them. There were environmental cues that “told” them when it was time to head home after a long day of free play.
My fondest play memories are of meeting friends from our adjoining neighborhoods, riding bikes to the creek (just a drainage ditch near a thicket of trees), and playing kick the can until it was time to go home for dinner. The 6:00 church bells told us it was time to go. In the summers, we would all head out once more for games of flashlight tag until the fireflies joined us, then we knew we only had a few more minutes before bedtime. We didn’t have cell phones or adult supervision. We knew to check in at the closest friend’s house. Often it was a phone tree from parent to parent if we needed to be found. We were just fine!
Over time, the independence we enjoyed as children has been usurped by a restrictive and prescriptive world for children and young adults. Play spaces are often confined to fenced yards, afternoons are spent in organized sports or lessons, and adults more frequently supervise and control when, where, and how children spend their free time. Few children are playing in wide open spaces, climbing trees, balancing and jumping off logs, rolling down hills, or building with sticks to make hidden spaces.
As Peter Gray, author and research professor of psychology at Boston College, writes, “The decline of free play and the careerist approach to childhood have exacted a heavy toll” (Free to Learn). He further explains, “Free (nature) play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome fears, solve problems, and have agency over their lives (and learning)” (Free to Learn).
Over the last decade, Sacred Heart Preschool has taken a stance on the decline of free play in childhood. Free play is self-directed, freely chosen, and internally motivated. Free play is neither frivolous nor what happens after the actual “learning” is complete. Free play IS learning. This understanding has changed how SHP creates environments and builds relationships, and it was the catalyst for a years-long playground redesign project.
SHP faculty and staff are currently participating in a book study with Angela Hanscom’s book Balanced and Barefoot and inviting their preschool parents to join. As a pediatric occupational therapist, Hanscom walks the reader through how nature play is vital for a balanced childhood, how unrestrictive movement sets the groundwork for future fine motor skills like writing, and how physical play like hanging, climbing, pushing, and rolling build the stamina and eye tracking needed for eventual reading.
Throwing out a boxed curriculum and leaning into what neuroscience tells us is best practice for child development requires a strong foundation of knowledge and experiences that set the stage for a significant physical and pedagogical shift. As a faculty, we researched and studied play schemas, the Reggio-Emilia approach, and Forest Schools. We partnered with a local Forest School, spent time in outdoor classrooms, and began a risk/benefit analysis of our playground. We learned that our students would spend 10-15 minutes on a play structure, then find trees and mulch to play with. Our students were seeking out spaces that felt hidden, items to climb on or jump off, and open-ended materials with which to build and create.
Too often, SHP teachers found themselves refereeing the slides…but why? Why can’t children go up the slide? Why can’t our students climb trees? Why can’t they play with sticks? The research shows that when scarcity is involved, the risk becomes more abundant... so if we don’t want children to wield sticks like light sabers, we need a LOT of sticks.
We now know that identifying and assessing risk is a life skill that is crucial to learn at a young age. We want our teenagers to be able to identify risks before they begin to drive, so they need to learn how to climb trees while they are young. Here’s why: The children will tell us what makes something like climbing a tree a healthy risk or a hazard. Some children can scale a tree at the speed of light. Our teachers talk with them about the balance between safety and hazards. Others are hesitant to climb just a few feet. If a child cannot get up into the tree or can only go a few feet before wanting to come down, they are not yet ready for the challenge of going higher…and we (adults) do not step in to assist. Through practice, children gain confidence in their abilities and are more capable in their movements. SHP faculty and staff often say, “What’s your plan?” “How are you feeling about where your body is?” or “Let’s think of the next step before moving.”
Children are capable and competent, and when given time and space to have agency over their play, they prove they can do anything. Life skills like problem-solving, risk assessment, communication, and teamwork are all honed while children are engaged in free play in nature, and school spaces must support this.
Salesia Hall’s new natural playspace is one example of how SHP is championing the movement to get kids outdoors and let them play.
We hope you join us for a family book club using Balanced and Barefoot. Details to come!