The NAEYC National Conference
By Pamela Crisostomo, Teacher
In November 2000, I and five other staff attended the annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children held in Atlanta, Georgia. On returning to Bing, I fielded many questions from parents and colleagues about the conference events and about the sponsoring organization.
The NAEYC is the nation’s largest and most influential organization of early childhood educators and others dedicated to improving the quality of programs for children from birth through third grade. The group’s membership includes teachers, childcare providers, college faculty, and public policy makers. As a professional organization, the association is also committed to professional development for teachers. The annual conference has become the largest educational conference in North America; in 2000, over 30,000 people attended to take advantage of eye-catching exhibits, stimulating workshops and speakers, and opportunities for networking.
The hardest thing about the conference for me was choosing from the myriad of interesting and informative sessions offered in the program. The conference sessions were divided into strands, so attendees could either choose a special focus or take a broad approach. The wide-ranging strands included administration, at-risk children, curriculum, family support, and research and technology.
At the first seminar I attended, “Negoti-ating Cultural Conflicts,” Louise Derman-Sparks of Pacific Oaks College discussed culture, traditions, identity, and integrating diverse perspectives into early childhood programs. She and a panel of her colleagues explored how cultural values affect the classroom and how teachers affect and deal with cultural conflict in the classroom. Teachers, Derman-Sparks said, must identify culture in everything they do and must always keep open the lines of communication with children’s families.
Evening sessions, typically longer, allowed participants to engage in more in-depth discussions. The first night, I attended “The Play Experience—A Source of Wisdom and Healing,” which offered a hands-on play experience with recycled materials. The workshop facilitators—including Walter Drew, well known for his small wooden building units, and Elizabeth Jones of Pacific Oaks College—encouraged participants to relate the play experience to basic developmental needs such as self-expression, social competence, and creative problem solving. We participants could see the importance of observing and listening to children as a way of helping them to experience play as a source of healing. We were also encouraged to do something already firmly a part of Bing’s curriculum: use recycled materials for play.
The next morning I toured the exhibition hall, looking at the displays by Teacher’s College Press, Bank Street College of Education, ERIC Clearinghouse, and other publishers of books for teachers, along with the exhibits by Lego, Community Playthings, Great Explora-tions in Math and Science, and other makers of play and learning materials used in Bing classrooms. Then I spent the afternoon at a session on mixed-age grouping in early childhood settings and how it affects children’s play. Lynn Gehrke of Concordia University spoke about cooperation as the hallmark of mixed-age classrooms like those at Bing. Though some critics of mixed-age classrooms express concerns that older children are somehow held back by younger children, Gehrke found that the older children model for and mentor the younger ones, learn empathy and social skills, gain in confidence, appreciate their own development, and cooperate better.
That night, all of the Bing attendees gathered for “The Project Approach: An Evening of Shared Knowledge.” Lillian Katz and Sylvia Chard, authors of The Project Approach, led the session. In opening, Chard, from the University of Alberta, asserted that project work provides children with a “research” work culture and allows them to pose their own questions, instead of always following teacher-directed themes. Participants then rotated among four mini-sessions, including Mark Mabry and Jane Farish’s presentation, “All About the West Room Hens.” In all, the session presented project work of all sizes and scopes and provided a good opportunity to learn about the project approach in every venue from teacher education to a classroom of two-year-olds. Lillian Katz of the University of Illinois noted in her closing remarks that project work was excellent for social development and quoted from Jane and Mark’s presentation:
From the “crystallizing moment” of discovering the first egg, the children were talking to each other, discussing ideas, and working carefully. We noted them developing analytical skills and observed the value of observational drawing as a tool for children’s research and reflection.
On the final day of the conference, I and several Bing teachers attended a series of seminars. One, “Contemporary and Emerging Issues in Children’s Play,” discussed different theories as lenses on, or ways to examine, play. To use theory, one must find the right lens to understand children’s play experiences. Once they are understood, adults can take different approaches to help facilitate children’s play.
Another seminar, “Ordinary Moments, Extraordinary Possibilities,” gave us an additional look at project work. George Forman of the University of Massachu-setts referred to a project as a “string of ordinary moments.” Forman explained that children can have profound experiences revisiting ordinary moments and talking about extraordinary ways of doing and thinking about things. Inspired, the Bing delegation went on to discuss how our project work involves the children in investigations of significant events and phenomena in their own environments, providing multiple contexts in which children can apply their developing social, literacy, and numeracy skills.
I left Atlanta exhausted but inspired, my head percolating with ideas. I returned to the children and families of Bing revamped, refreshed, and ready to use the wealth of information I had learned in Atlanta.