Working Together: Building a Community

By Betsy Koning, Teacher

“I like the pig best!”

“No, the cow is best!”

“But my favorite is the chicken!”

As the 2010-2011 school year began, the children in East AM were very interested in expressing their preferences about every type of information presented by the teachers. For example, they wanted everyone to know about their favorite characters in a book, verse in a song and art materials on a table. The challenge for the teachers was how to make sure that everyone was heard. Especially when most of the children would repeat their preference over and over at increasing volume, as if they were involved in a heated debate. Examination of this situation brought another, bigger challenge to the teachers’ attention: How would we take a group of individuals and help them to become a community of learners?

The first strategy the teachers employed was to create a voting system for the children to express their preferences. The teachers made large graphs recording each child’s vote. The graphs provided a visual record of the voting results and made the information more meaningful to the children by making them aware of their classmates’ favorites on both general and individual levels.

Next, the teachers found ways to enhance the voting process. They began asking the children why they voted the way they did, recording the answers and sharing those at story time along with the graph. This activity began to help the children gain awareness of varying perspectives. Not only did they learn who had chosen what, but also what motivated the choice. After reading the African folktale, Anansi the Spider, children were asked which of Anansi’s seven sons deserved the prize that is found at the end of the story and why. Children came up with responses such as:

“Game Skinner, because he split open the fish and got Anansi out.”

“Stone Thrower, because he saved Anansi from the bird when he put the stone up in the air.”

“Cushion saved father because he’s soft and saved Anansi.”

As the voting activities continued, the teachers started to notice that the children were referencing what their friends had chosen and allowing it to influence their choice. Though the desire to find things in common with a friend is natural, the teachers hoped to produce results that were more reflective of the class’s true interests rather than results that reflected social connections. In response, the teachers instituted a blind ballot system where children’s names were written on a slip of colored paper that corresponded to one of the voting choices. The children dropped the slips of paper into a slot in a box, and the slips were adhered to a graph and counted during story time. These ballots did indeed have an effect: The results of the votes became more evenly spread across the range of choices.

Once the teachers had found a way to satisfy the need to express preferences, they began looking at other ways to foster a sense of community, such as fostering collaborative play. To encourage working together through play, the teachers introduced various set-ups and scenarios that would require several children’s help. For example, the teachers put out play food, carts, baskets, bags and adding machines in the large hollow block area on the patio to promote store-themed play. The activity required a great deal of cooperation and negotiation and was extremely popular. The children needed to assign roles including customers, cashiers, baggers and stockers. They also needed to organize and divide up materials and decide the order of events, e.g., shelf stocking before shopping.

The success of this project inspired the teachers to create other activities that would require collaborative interactions among multiple children. In the unit block area, the teachers arranged a variety of dolls and miniature, wooden playground structures. Over the course of several days, the children built an increasingly elaborate playground/park/fair/pumpkin patch in which all ideas from bouncy houses to pony rides to petting zoos to “cooking areas” were enthusiastically included.

In the sand area, the children learned from a teacher that the row of rocks that peek out along the back of the area were actually large, buried boulders. The children formed a plan to unearth as many of the boulders as possible. For several weeks, they worked as a team to expose the huge rocks. In the process they shared space and materials and came up with methods to remove tree roots that were in the way.

Other cooperative play scenarios involved structures created by teachers out of blocks, climbers, toy steering wheels and control panels to suggest large vehicles. The children ran with these ideas and added to the structures, creating buses, airplanes and spaceships, which required large numbers of passengers and crew. In the art area, teachers set up group projects such as painting murals and creating paper chains and tablecloths for our class potluck.

Throughout the classroom, the children enjoyed caring collaboratively for our environment: washing tables to prepare for snack, weeding and planting bulbs in the garden, sweeping, raking and helping to care for our class bunny, Dumbo Rose. Children also had the chance to care for various small creatures that were either found in the yard or brought in by the teachers, such as Painted Lady caterpillars, ladybugs, worms and snails. The children looked in picture books to find out what these creatures needed to live and then sought to design appropriate habitats and find food for them.

Not only did the children care for the animals, they also cared for each other. The older children began to relish guiding and teaching the younger children, showing them where to find and how to use materials. For example, making paper wings was a popular activity among many children in the class. The children who were experienced with this process walked new children through choosing paper, folding it, drawing a pattern, cutting out the shape and taping the wings onto their backs. Also, the children participated in cooking projects to make food for snack time. A particularly popular project involved baking a variety of gluten-free crackers, which everyone could enjoy, regardless of wheat allergies.

The cooperative nature of these projects led to many opportunities for problem- solving. Limited space and materials gave rise to complex negotiations over division of resources, length of turns and assignment of roles. How many big sisters can a pretend family have? Can one driver give friends rides in two different carts at the same time? Can a space ship have more than one captain? With teacher support, the children found their own answers to these questions and many more. The paths to these types of solutions can be long and complicated, but they always provide the participants with opportunities to learn about what it takes to be part of a group. Working together to solve problems helped the children to build trust with one another and the teachers.

As our classroom community became more cohesive, the children became very aware of the absence of one of their friends or teachers.  They asked questions and created hypotheses about why the missing person was not at school. Often they made cards and drawings that they wanted to send to the absent friend. Written communication was becoming increasingly important to the group.

In response, the teachers introduced mailboxes for the children. They presented them all with small cards bearing photographs of themselves and invited them to decorate their card and/or write their name. These cards were then attached to the front of a series of little pigeonholes in rows on a wooden cart. For weeks the mailbox area was a flurry of activity with children sending and receiving letters and drawings. The popularity of this project led the teaching staff to seek other ways to foster paper communication. A class newspaper, to be read at story time, seemed a good way to expose all the children to the effectiveness of written words for sharing information.

To create the newspaper, a teacher would collect stories and drawings from the children throughout the morning and display them on several large sheets of paper. The teacher sorted the contributions into categories, such as sports, entertainment, weather, cooking, etc. The paper was then read to the group at story time.

As the year progressed and relationships grew, children became increasingly aware of one another and frequently sought out particular playmates. The teachers decided to examine what the children knew about the concept of friendship. Through asking the children, “How do you show someone that you are their friend?” the teachers were able to ascertain what friendship means to three-, four- and five-year-olds. The answers ranged from simple gestures of affection, such as “Give them a hug,” to deeper expressions of fondness, like “You can share your toys with them” or “You can try to make them feel better when they are sad.”

The skills the children acquired through working on these projects and forming connections with one another will be useful to them throughout their lives. In her book, Mind In The Making, Ellen Galinsky, former president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute, outlines several of the essential life skills every child needs. The children in the East AM class were challenged to build many of these skills through the work they did this year.

• Two of the first skills Galinsky mentions are focus and self-control, which were required right from the beginning of our project when the children voted and had to wait to express their own opinions and pay attention to what others had contributed.

• Another essential skill is perspective taking, which requires impulse control, observation,

listening skills and reflection and is vital to working as part of a group.

• Also on Galinsky’s list is communicating, which involves deciding what you need others to know and how best to get your message across, in addition to understanding what others are trying to tell you. This skill was practiced every day as children interacted in each area of the classroom, made mail for one another and made contributions to share at story time.

• Yet another skill involves making connections. This means not only taking in information but also figuring out how to use it. Examples of this abounded as children learned things about one another’s ideas and preferences and then used this information as they crafted games and storylines that would be appealing to multiple players.

• Finally, Galinsky touts the ability to engage in self-directed, engaged learning. Though some projects may have been suggested by materials provided by the teachers, the work and play in the classroom was really driven by the children’s ideas and decisions. They took projects in directions that the teachers would never have imagined.

As the school year drew to a close, the teachers reflected on the work they and the children had done over the past nine months with a sense of satisfaction. The year started with individuals trying to make their desires and opinions known and to find their place in a group and ended with a new understanding of what it means to belong to a community.