And How are the Children..?

Opening Ceremonies and Keynote

We started off right with a dance party!  After the dancing lights formed into a Kool and the Gang conga line around the room, we all settled down and enjoyed our cupcakes (the electric tea lights were brought in atop cupcakes) while the keynote speaker began.

Let it shine at Leadership Connections 2010!

“Good leaders lead with the heart.” This was a recurring theme in the keynote address given by John Graham, a former diplomat and mountaineer turned philanthropist. Graham is the spokesperson for Giraffe Heroes Project, an organization that encourages people to “stick their necks out for the common good.”

We’ve been hearing a lot of giraffe-related metaphors today as a result.

Graham is not of the early childhood field, but appears to understand the qualities that make for good leaders are required for all leaders, whatever or whomever they lead – like ability to use intuition, to build trust, and to have vision. Regarding vision – he is quick to explain that vision is not code for dreams and fantasies, but rather a visualization of real goals and plans. A kind of projection of the future. According to Graham, “A vision is a great North Star – a vision is a great source of guidance… It inspires. It’s glue…” He talks about using vision as a planning tool for groups working together, reminding us to use heart to guide visioning, not just brain and thinking; non-profits often start with goals and objectives, and he urges them to start with vision.

He touched on a lot of values that feel very spiritual to me, and in such an amicable, straightforward kind of way. I appreciate his approach. Even if he’s not familiar with the details of early childhood leadership, he gets leadership. He gets the humanity required to lead and to make meaning, which he boils down to service and making life better. I believe in my heart that leadership is a way to practice serving society and humanity.

Public Policy Forum

We the PPF took the form of a lecture/presentation (during which I tweeted a few salient points), followed by facilitated breakout discussions. The Forum Facilitators:

  • Kay Albrecht of Innovations in Early Childhood Education
  • Stacie Goffin of Goffin Strategy Group
  • Luis Hernandez of Region IV Head Start
  • Karen Ponder, an ECE Consultant
  • Margie Wallen of the Ounce of Prevention Fund

The Public Policy Forum Keynote speaker was Sharon Lynn Kagan of Teachers College, Columbia University – today’s recipient of the Visionary Award. Her talk was called Advancing ECE2: Early Childhood Education [ece] and its Quest for Equity, Coherence, and Excellence [ECE]. Very clever title.   Kagan stridently puts forth a number of ideas about how she thinks early care and education should be moving forward in terms of policy on the national level. During the breakout sessions, we discussed what she referred to as ‘8 Bold Steps’ that could be taken. I’ll have to find a link to her website so that people can read about that in detail, as we did not get handouts for that session. One of the 8 Bold Steps was to change how we credential ECE professionals. There is ongoing discussion, debate and some tension about how to appropriately require educators to obtain the proper knowledge base to do their jobs effectively and well. Research tells us that quality of education improves if teachers hold degrees, but Kagan points out that she isn’t convinced that there is a big difference in quality between those who have 2 or 4 year degrees.

Addressing AA vs. BA – Kagan commented that she doesn’t want to excise or price-out diversity among our practitioners. She says we need to develop a system where educators function like nurses and demonstrate skills, irrespective of the degree. They would take a competency-based exam. I think this is a really good idea. It sets a consistent standard for quality service provision, but allows for more variety of educators. Kagan says she also wants a credential that has national recognition and is transferable from state to state.

In a lot of ways, she seems to want the moon. In a lot of ways, I agree with her; It’s about time we started acting like we deserve the moon in early childhood. We’ve gotten way too comfortable with the assumption that we’ll never get what we need, so we often don’t bother to aim high. Kagan is aiming crazy high, but her aims might be crazy like a fox.

This topic got a lot of attention during the break out session that I participated in. I chose the session facilitated by Kay Albrecht, and she had us jump right in and hit the ground running. It was a bit much – lots of people talking about a lot of topics. My favorite moment during the breakout session was when the event photographer chimed in: Apparently, he is a retired high school administrator. He told us that he believes that what ECE professionals do is very important, and the effects of our work could be seen in the children he worked with. Too bad he’s not working anymore – it figures that when I finally hear someone from the high school side of things acknowledge that, they’re retired. I’m glad he spoke up, though.

Anyway, it was a good session, and Kay Albrecht is an excellent facilitator. I will definitely be following up on Lynn Kagan’s work, and I hope that she can get more educators on board with advocacy engagement. That’s my pet soapbox at these ECE events: We’ve got to get involved in advocacy! Let’s be activists! Stop complaining to each other and start demanding change!

Then we had delicious hors d’ourves and very nice jazz music during the networking reception, where I caught up with some old acquaintances and talked more with new friends before retiring to my room for a little time with my family. My amazing husband has done a lot to make it possible for me to attend this conference, and I am very grateful for his sacrifices and accommodations. I’m drinking lots of water!

I’d love to hash it all out even more, but the Westin Hotel Heavenly Bed is calling me. More tomorrow: Skill-Building Clinics, and the Friday Evening Champions for Change Dinner!  More to come…

Today was a great introduction to the world of professional early childhood consultation. I have learned about so many great tools and resources.

My first Leadership Connections session was a pre-conference seminar: Consultation and Change Management, facilitated by Patricia Reinhardt and Anne Mead of Connecticut.

It was enlightening to learn about the structures and real intentionality that have gone into developing standards and practices for early childhood consultation.  Anyone who is interested in starting consultation should seek out these resources – there is much more to it than I knew.  This is not to say that I thought there was nothing to it, but a lot of professionals have put a lot of thought into really developing organized and ethical practices for consultants in ECE.  This is encouraging for a couple of reasons:

1. It’s always great when a group of people care enough about a topic to develop intentionality about the way it is handled.

2. There are guides for practitioners who are interested in pursuing early childhood consultation as a career direction.  Guides that are aligned with the NAEYC Code of Ethics.

I think the best thing about the session (besides being well-presented and engaging) is that they offered so many practical tools for consultants, such as a basic guide for assessing the culture of an organization, and the frameworks for understanding system structures and methods for communicating with consultation clients.

This was a good start to what I’m expecting to be a great conference.  Stay tuned for more!

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  • Much has happened since my last professional development update (I’ve signed on as a worker with the U.S. Census, so my blogging opportunities are somewhat fewer and further between).  In brief:
  • Conference Scholarship: Rescinded!  😦
  • Registration Status: Registered anyway! 🙂
  • Extra Seminar and Dinner: Signed up (and very excited)!
  • Hotel Room Funds: Raised!

When we left our intrepid hero, she had blazed into the month of April on a comet’s tail, reporting that she had been able to raise enough funds to cover the lower conference registration fee, AND that she had been surprised with an offer of a scholarship!  Huzzah!  But then, minor disaster struck..!

Unfortunately, about 2 weeks after accepting the scholarship, booking a room and ordering new business cards, on the day that I received my conference registration confirmation, I was told that I should NOT have been offered that scholarship, and that my registration would have to be canceled.  Whaaat? Oh, the disappointment!  Apparently, someone who shall go unnamed allowed my scholarship to be approved when it should not have been.  So my professional development fund bottom line took a hit to the tune of a few hundred dollars, and I had to regroup.

Fortunately (have you ever read that book, ‘Fortunately’?), I was able to (eventually) raise enough money to pay for registration out-of-pocket, thanks to many generous donors, and a kind, helpful conference organizer at National Louis University.  So, ultimately, losing the scholarship was an inconvenience, but not a tragedy.  Scholarship notwithstanding, I am registered for Leadership Connections 2010, as well as an additional seminar on change management, plus a Champions for Change networking dinner.  In spite of my setback, my goals are being achieved.  I have no complaints.

Since the elimination of the scholarship, I have had to scale back my plans for spending at the conference vendors’ hall, and I won’t be able to donate any scholarship funds as I’d hoped, but I have been able to keep my hotel reservation, and should be able to afford to buy meals (hotel food is expensive, and I don’t have a car to go out foraging with), due to the incredibly generous support of several private donors.  I continue to be amazed and humbled at people’s capacity for sharing and caring.  You better believe that I will pay it forward the first chance I get.

So we’re set to go!  Who knows what adventures will unfold, but rest assured that I will make the most of them, and I will keep you posted!  See you at the conference (if not before)!

John Holland of Inside Pre-K writes about ‘Fueling the Pre-K Fire’ and the effects of negative reports about preschool education.  According to Holland:

Every once in a while a study or report is published that is less than positive about public pre-k. These reports are like rocks thrown on a bonfire when you consider the quantity and quality of studies that support the benefits of pre-k for children and communities. Sure, some sparks fly when a study that is less than positive is published but that is all there is, sparks. When a bonfire is really burning, you can’t put it out with a rock.

I really like this ‘rocks on the fire’ metaphor.  Problem is, a few pieces of bad spin can do more damage to the cause of promoting preschool education than we’d prefer.

Rocks on the fire cannot shake the resolve of those of us who are already dedicated to early childhood care and education (ECE).  But for the uninitiated, the skeptical and the uncertain, what seem like rocks to us die-hards, can be like a bucket of water.  This is an issue because legislators, potential funders and other policy-influencers often tend to be uninitiated, skeptical and/or uncertain when it comes to the value of investing in ECE.

Speaking of exactly why ECE is so important, here’s some useful info (thanks to Mr. Holland at Pre-K Now) – you’ll find this especially useful if, when it comes to early childhood issues, you identify as among the uninitiated, skeptical and/or uncertain:  If you like charts, graphs and tables, I direct you toward the Public Policy Forum’s excellent table of research on early childhood education outcomes.  This great visual provides us with:

  • Names of Longitudinal Studies (studies done over time to figure out whether or not there are lasting effects), Reviews, Meta-analyses (studies done on the outcomes of multiple studies), and Cross-sectional studies (studies that use data from a single point in time).
  • The cognitive, behavioral, social, educational, societal effects found, as well as the benefit-cost ratio of said studies.
  • Whether or not outcomes were measured, and whether or not they were significant outcomes.
  • A glossary of terms in PDF format.

If you’re a visual thinker like me, then you will really appreciate this resource!

Great resource number 2: The Pew Center on the States has published a nice little summary of RECENT evaluation findings for your convenience!  It’s called ‘The Case for Pre-K in Education Reform,’ and it summarizes positive outcomes found in research done on preschool programs in 6 different states.  These studies have been published in the last 5 years, and present important findings on improving early literacy and math skills, as well as reducing numbers of children who repeat grades.  From Louisiana, for example:

An evaluation of the LA 4 pre-k program by the Center for Child Development at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette shows that, at the beginning of the school year, the average early language, literacy and math skills of pre-k children in the state fall within the lowest 20 percent of the national peer group. By year’s end, these children caught up to the national average.

Based on data collected from 2002 to 2006, when compared to peers who did not participate in the program, children who attended LA 4:

• were as much as 36 percent less likely to be held back in kindergarten; and

• were as much as 49 percent less likely to be placed in special education through second grade.

This summary shows how pre-k education continues to be relevant and beneficial across the country.  And it’s only 6 pages long!  Yes, yes, quality over quantity, but we’re all busy people.  Let’s appreciate the opportunity to enjoy a brief, yet highly  informative resource.

I think Holland’s ‘rocks on the fire’ notion applies best in the company of ECE advocates.  Step outside of our ranks, though, and I think it is overly optimistic.  We have got to stay vigilant about bouncing those rocks back at the naysayers, and keeping our spin positive (especially since our positive spin is actually true and beneficial to society!).

And for those of you who have yet to make up your minds, check out these links on your next coffee/tea break and see for yourself.  Our nation needs what quality preschool education has to offer: children, better prepared to succeed.

Because I am essentially a big nerd, I envisioned that the 57th Street Bookstore would be teeming with early childhood enthusiasts.  I feared that if my friend and I arrived any later than 5:30 pm, we would have to squeeze through a standing-room-only crowd to get a decent vantage of the visiting author, and that I’d have to wait forever to get a book signed, if there were even any copies of the book left.  I am pleased to say that while the event was well-attended, my anxiety was unwarranted.  And it was a lovely time listening to Vivian Gussin Paley talk about children, stories and relationships.

While there was no throng of early childhood practitioners, I set out to buy my books before the talk, so I could have them signed afterward without too much waiting (besides being rather averse to waiting in lines myself, I was accompanied by my 11 month old son, who might not tolerate waiting after an hour-long lecture/reading).  As I approached the book table, Ms. Paley walked into the room with her husband.  Yay!  Almost immediately she engages me, the conversation starting with Duncan (my son), and moving on to the topic of the early childhood job market and what’s going on with the Illinois state budget.  I mention how she was the honored guest at my masters degree commencement, trying my best not to sound like a groupie.  She has that kind of unabashed openness that puts you at ease, and makes you feel like you are talking with someone you already know.  I see my friend Rachael arrive, and I excuse myself go to purchase my copies of ‘The Boy on the Beach,’ and ‘You Can’t Say You Can’t Play,’ before the talk begins.

What strikes me most about listening to Paley describe what she sees and learns from observing children’s play, is that she is able to articulate the value of play in a way that relays the essential humanity of it.  I attended a luncheon presentation once, sponsored by the Alliance for Childhood, where the speaker was a woman who teaches children to play for a living.  She expressed her frustration at the limited understanding people generally have for the importance of play; how play skills are taken for granted and her work is often gently dismissed with “Well isn’t that nice?” when she thinks of herself as advocating for a human rights issue.  Vivian Paley gets it, and she explains it rather elegantly.  During her talk, she discussed how children, in play, offer and accept roles from each other, building relationships through the mutual acceptance of each other’s stories.  Talking about loneliness, or “the dark spot of children going to school,” Paley explains how “one piece of dialog makes a friend out of a stranger.”  What great, simple tools for educators to use!  So much of intentional instruction and guidance of children is just this: knowing how to sculpt education and growth out of what already occurs.  She encourages us to make way for conversations that will happen among children, and to see why those conversations- facilitated in imaginative play- are essential to children building relationships, and building community among each other.  Another favorite quote along those lines: “With play, a young child figures out a way to be necessary to the group.”

Of course, the kind of play that Paley is talking about takes a lot of time and space created by adults.  The rich soil of great play is being eroded by time constraints, testing expectations and didactic instruction, and we talked about that.  Paley presented us with the metaphor of “Play is a Play,” and stated that we are cutting that performance somewhere between Acts II and III.  She challenges us to consider what happens in classrooms where play is cut off before Act III emerges, before the story the children are weaving reaches its logical or necessary conclusions.  What is lost when we cut these stories short?

When she opened the floor for questions, a person brought up digital media and how it creates disconnection, encourages short attention span, etc.  Naturally we talked about how preparing for assessments dominates a lot of classroom time.  I have to admit a mild lack of patience for these parts of Q&A sessions, because there is a tendency among educators to begin a lot of hand-wringing and wondering aloud why no one listens to us.  A lot of time can be spent complaining about ways that our collective store of knowledge is ignored.  I don’t mean to say that venting frustrations is a waste of time, but doing it while Vivian Gussin Paley is sitting there, willing to answer questions, would be a wasted opportunity.  My solution to this problem is to circumvent with a well-placed question about action and advocacy.  My question:  As the nation moves in the direction of more assessment-for-accountability and the conversation about common educational standards changes the perception of early childhood on the national stage, have you participated in any initiatives or activities to address prioritizing play in terms of policy and advocacy?  Her answer: Engage parents in advocacy. She said the adult who is most easily reached regarding this topic is the parent, and that parents groups are the best groups to speak to in order to effect some change.  Then, bringing it back to the educators she said, “Teachers can make more use of their parent groups than they have.”  There’s a gentle challenge there, I think.  There is often tension in the relationship between teacher and parent (reasonably so), and too often, even when good relationships exist between parents and educators, there can still be a pernicious Us v. Them mindset that prevents us from fully harnessing the power we could wield if we not only worked together, but advocated for each other (for example, how many parents have out there in Illinois have considered calling your legislator and speaking up to save teachers’ jobs?  How many teachers have contacted their state representative to support house bill 174 -or any legislation- on behalf of families?).

My friend Rachael, a teacher of at-risk pre-k and kindergarten asked a follow-up question asking what advice she had to give to teachers who are trying to preserve play in their classrooms when many are moving towards having common schedules for each grade level yet still want to advocate for play? and Paley responded “It can be done with more… like-minded help,” encouraging Rachael to make more use of a community effort within her school, and find creative solutions to getting enough bodies in the classroom to support such an effort, like using older students to record story dictations.  I appreciate Paley’s suggestions to create more of a community effort within classrooms, however, I think sometimes teachers should be encouraged to advocate outside of the world of the classroom, which can be very insular and isolating. Play is unappreciated in institutions beyond individual schools or school districts, and we have to contend with more than principals and superintendents.  Legislators, and others who influence policy can always stand to hear input from constituents who are educators.  Some teachers may have to step outside of their comfort zones to affect change on a community-wide level.

I look forward to reading Paley’s latest work, and benefiting from her insights.  Her voice is an important one among advocates for play.  I’m glad I got a second chance to hear her speak, and thank her for her words and wisdom.

I have been spending the day as a visitor in the 3rd grade classroom of my friend and colleague, David Groves. I brought an art activity to do, based on the story Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold. The students are bright, enthusiastic and so knowledgeable – they took to the story and assignment with verve, asking thoughtful questions and making astute observations.

I would love an opportunity to guest teach again – I haven’t been in a classroom in such a long time, and there are so many practical considerations of group rhythm, pacing and ongoing focus, guidance and, well, teaching. Mr. Groves is adept at not only managing behavior, but guiding it toward learning at every opportunity. This is why I admire teachers so much, and why I intend to make a career out of giving them support.

Thank you for this opportunity, Mr. Groves. I am learning so much, and will definitely look for more opportunities to spend time in classrooms.

Here is a great, easy-to-use advocacy tool for citizens of Illinois interested in supporting quality school environments and education jobs: NO TO 37.org.  You fill in your info, and it not only locates you legislators BUT ALSO generates a message that you can edit with personal touches, and automatically send to all of them.  Incredibly easy and fast.

The form also generates phone numbers for your personal senator and representative, and if you are in Chicago, the senator and rep for whichever CPS school you enter.

NO TO 37– Contact Your Legislators.

Keep in mind. personal letters and phone calls have the greatest impact on legislators.  We all pay closer attention to a handwritten letter than a form letter.  People think about how much effort you put into getting in touch with them.  So if you have the time, go that extra mile – it will be appreciated!

But this is so easy that there’s no reason not to, and if you follow up with a phone call or personal note, or office visit, so much the better.

NO TO 37– Contact Your Legislators

Every voice matters!

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