Category Archives: group formation

Nurturing a Sense of Place

Posted November 23, 2016

IMG_5543 (3)

by Amanda Janquart

We set off with a true sense of adventure, the task to explore a completely new locale. A plan was hatched as the class stood and looked into the wooded area – some would go that way, others the other way and we’d meet on the top of the hill. One of the first finds was a small gap between two large tree trunks – a secret entrance! Everyone squeezed through to enter the new land. We were now in the newly child-named land of Cowallet. The feeling of excitement grew to giddiness – what would we find in this land?? Itty bitty mushrooms, a garden tag, and a tree that grew bark right over parts of an old fence – as if the wire was poked in on purpose. A child volunteered to climb the tree to help us get our bearings. Could she see the golf course? What was over the hill? Too many other trees were in the way to tell. Everyone gathered to rest in the fallen leaves and we sang Going on a Bear Hunt. This had been a great adventure.

*Excerpted from the Spring Room daily email to families of the preschool class.

How we interact with a place influences what it means to us. Think back to the places which helped define childhood. Were we told how to behave in the space, or given free range? Could we choose the paint color, or was it forbidden to leave fingerprints on the wall? Did we build forts and redirect streams or were we too nervous to leave the trail? For young children, emotion is the primary attachment factor, determining which places stay with us as we grow. At All Seasons, a positive emotional attachment to our outdoor space is the goal. And stewardship is a hopeful result of sense of place.

The quality of our interactions with places matter. With preschoolers, time to explore independently and as a community is balanced with an adult’s sense of wonder and appreciation. What does that look like at All Seasons?

~ We keep it playful. Every space offers a chance for pretend play.

~ We repeat visits throughout the seasons. The Swamp is transformed after a period of rain.

~Problems and challenges can be solved bit by bit. Pulling Buckthorn can be done in stages. Children can learn how to use sticks safely with practice.

~There is comfort knowing we can always come back. Forts can be worked on when interest swells.

~ Children have a say, helping decide where to go. A fire to roast apples in The Boulders can be planned and anticipated. A request to see if the Fairy House has changed can be easily accommodated.

~ Risks are allowed, and even encouraged. Balancing on fallen tree limbs or flipping over logs to see insects in The Woods takes courage.

~ Resilience is built when accomplishments accrue. Climbing into The Dinosaur Tree can take months of trying. Climbing up the sledding hill on The Golf Course takes patience.

~Families are kept informed of the spaces we explore through daily emails.

~ Teachers are always looking for ways to extend and expand experiences. In Cowallet, a newly named area of the woods, we planted seeds to return to. Yarn was brought to The Pines to expand the booby trap play. Journals, snacks, and books become more interesting in unexpected places.

In the end, we are building memories. Some bind the classroom community through shared experiences, and some connect individuals to specific places. We are doing our best, nurturing a sense of place and growing stewards.

At the Beginning

Posted September 14, 2016

Amanda Janquart

Children exploring independently

Children exploring independently

“The children enter school not even knowing names, yet ready to step into each other’s dreams.” Vivian Paley, a much lauded early childhood educator and author. Our staff had the great fortune of meeting with Vivian in Chicago last year, thanks in large part to Sarah Sivright’s personal and professional relationship with her. She is a hero in our field of early childhood education.

The start of a school year is filled with newness. For a preschooler at All Seasons, the initial conference before day one helps to eliminate some aspects of the unknown. They have seen their room, and what the teacher knows is past the starting line, having had time to discuss children’s backgrounds with parents. But what each child faces is still daunting – from new peers to meeting seniors, from hiking in the woods to figuring out the soap dispenser, and from working as a community to communicating individual needs.

In the midst of all the new experiences and expectations, teachers are observing closely. We are looking for strengths and paths to provide guidance. We are watching to learn each child’s comfort level, so we know when to gently nudge them past it. We are taking notes to record where they are developmentally, which in turn become records of growth. You may be wondering what exactly we are looking for and what we are writing down. Well, for now we are simply writing a narrative of what we see and hear.

“In play children talk the most to each other. I learn the most about a child by watching.”  – Vivian Paley

Children exploring as a group in an unfamiliar environment

Children exploring as a group in an unfamiliar environment

We meet each child where they are when they come, and as our notes and observations grow, the next step is to look for patterns. At the Fall Conference, we will again talk with parents to discuss hopes for the year and potential concerns, as well as actions needed to address them. We will share what we’ve noted, with a focus on the child’s social and emotional development, their approach to discovery and their physical and motor skills. The emphasis at this age is on social and emotional growth. It is through our observation of their play that we can gain the fullest understanding of where they are and what they need next.

“The children know enough about play to begin a curriculum of play. To study play is to study the theatre of young children.” – Vivian Paley

The Power of Stories

Posted July 16, 2015

by Sarah Sivright


Story Dictation

I had the good fortune to be mentored by two extraordinary women—Vivian Paley and Gillian McNamee. I taught with Vivian at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and was introduced to story dictation and acting in her classroom. Gillian was my professor and advisor in graduate school, and later, a parent of one of my preschool students. Both women continue to be dear friends and mentors.
Gil has recently published a book titled, “The High-Performing Preschool; Story Acting in Head Start Classrooms.” In her book, she presents a powerful case for the use of story dictation and story acting (SD/SA) as the centerpiece in early childhood classrooms, particularly those serving low-income and ESL students. Paley’s presence accompanies Gil through the book’s pages, along with Lev Vygotsky, a Russian developmental psychologist, who, in his brief life (1896-1934) developed theories about early childhood development that have had a powerful impact on our understanding of how children think and learn. These two giants in the educational world help steer Gil’s course, offering theories, stories and wisdom.
At All Seasons Preschool, we teachers frequently bemoan the “missing the mark” quality of current early childhood education. We know that dramatic play and SD/SA “work” in these settings. Children are eager to engage in these two particular activities and they grow and learn from their experiences. We KNOW this. Happily, McNamee doesn’t just wring her hands and cry.  Along with extensive research, she documents her years working with teachers and children in Chicago’s Head Start classrooms, to build a realistic case for the use of story dictation and acting as a curriculum that can satisfy national and state standards and move all children along the path to becoming readers and writers.
She describes the power of this simple activity:
“When a teacher writes on a piece of paper, he or she models and the child experiences up close what it looks like to say a word and draw a configuration of symbols to represent what was spoken. As the teacher echoes each word being written, the child can see it constructed in print conventions: ‘When—parrot—gets—a—shot—he—doesn’t—cry. There. Your first sentence reads, ‘When parrot gets a shot he doesn’t cry.’ What happens next?’ Children see and hear concepts of print; every mark on the paper is put there for a purpose…to record and affirm their thinking.
As McNamee points out, readers’ and writers’ workshops, and guided reading groups are attempts by educators to “seize hold of emerging verbal skills to strengthen and expand them toward written language.” (p. 88) But children’s understanding and use of language is so much more than this. “Language learning is a community enterprise to communicate goals and expectations in satisfying needs, to inform, persuade, delight, and console each other.” (p. 35) The community piece is essential here. “…children build concepts about characters, events and phenomena in the world with each other before and while they are building these understandings as individuals….In scope and sequence, it [story dictation and acting] is the perfect all-inclusive comprehensive curriculum and method of teaching that encompasses all children in learning.” (p. 38)
As I I read Gil’s book, I marked up and flagged dozens of pages, some to share with teachers and some with parents. While I can’t include every wonderful, useful, enlightening idea I’d like, two powerful conclusions are important to emphasize. First, we as teachers knew we were onto something great when we started SD/SA, and now we can be even more sure of its value. (We’re doing story dictation now with the grandmas and grandpas, with the children acting out the senior’s stories!) Secondly, both teachers and parents can support our children’s language development in powerful ways. Reading aloud is one you already know to do, but taking story dictation is one you might not have tried yet. Dictation alone might be satisfying, but if you can find a way to act out stories, even better!


Story Acting

I couldn’t resist—one more powerful passage that expresses a truth we see and try to nurture at All Seasons:
“Vygotsky and Mrs. Paley teach us that assembling children in a group and presenting lessons does not make a community. …Community means recognizing the interdependence of participants; children want and depend on one another’s help in growing up. Dramatizing ideas provides the necessary structure for such a learning community, as it requires words to portray and examine ideas under a teacher’s direction. Dramatizing stories provides the unique opportunity for children to show one another and their teacher what their thinking looks like, and to serve as one another’s lifeline in their next steps growing up in school.” [Emphasis mine]

Sarah Sivright

Out on a Limb…With a Wheel Chair

Posted November 24, 2014

by Amanda Janquart, Spring Room Teacher


Forming intergenerational connections is a strong tenet of our curriculum at All Seasons. It can be exciting and scary at the same time. I do believe that overcoming fear leads to a deeper sense of accomplishment, and takes us to a point where multifaceted learning happens. The fleeting nature of our lives becomes more apparent as we age. Forming a relationship with Grandma Bette, our classroom grandma, evoked fears in me, and perhaps spoke to a larger cultural issue. It meant opening up to the possibilities of heartache. But it is now harder to imagine what would have been lost if I’d let worry stop me. Along with being the Spring Room’s weekly story reader, Grandma Bette has become a part of our class’ story. She is who the children want to build ships for, make cards for, parade in costumes for. Children push us to take emotional leaps just as we encourage them to do the same. They can plow through countless obstacles without a backward glance. I have been thoroughly humbled by their example.

I’ll share a recap of a recent morning in the Spring Room, one with a focus on our relationships:

There were numerous examples of how comfortable this class has become – with the environment and each other. Outside, they requested the “roll the ball down the hill” game, then moved seamlessly to basketball, which was near the trikes, so riding them was next. They helped each other back onto the sidewalk when tires slipped off (those darn “flat tires” became quite comical), and reinforced what the street signs meant – One Way and Stop. They did all of this with such camaraderie and compassion, calling out support as well as lending a hand. They rocked at clean up too, “Hey, I’ll put that ball back for you” and “Yep, the shed is all shut.” But by far, their strength of relationships was showcased that morning when we went to get Grandma Bette to spend time with us in our classroom. They urged each other to hurry with snack (cheese and apples) so we wouldn’t be late to get her. They cleared chairs out of the way so I could push her wheel chair through the dining area. They very excitedly pointed out new photos of themselves in the hall – “That’s me, Grandma Bette!!!” They warned her repeatedly about how to keep her fingers safe in the elevator. In the room they got to work immediately on what they had earlier planned out to show her – the magnatile rocket, the pumpkins in the kitchen, and the triumphant (if temporary) return of the marble run tower. It was unclear who was most excited; the boys or Bette.  She met one of our stick bug pets and was “served” a few wooden cookies before Amy helped her back upstairs. Before she left, she was already asking about her next visit.

Yes, starting a relationship can feel awkward as an adult. The hugs and handshakes can feel rote, but keep going and get past that stage. I can say that compassion is contagious and if you feel any hesitancy, follow a child’s lead (new beginnings are a constant in young lives and they don’t waste time getting to the point where it feels good). Or, follow the senior’s lead; (they are done wasting time on what doesn’t matter). Oh, how I’ve failed to find out Bette’s perspective in all this relationship forming! Perhaps because it will be a little scary to ask and then listen, not knowing where it will lead? I’m sure to be humbled yet again.

The Process of Becoming a Cohesive Group

Posted October 7, 2014

photo 2 (2)                                                                                                

Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing…

We have one month of school under our belts.  What does this mean in the life of a classroom?  As any parent or teacher can tell you, every day is different, but there are certain predictable stages that a class (or any group) goes through before they can functional optimally.

Typically in this stage of becoming a group, team members are polite, anxious and excited.  They don’t know other members of their group, they don’t know what to expect of others, nor do they know what is expected of them.  Children returning to the school for a second or third year may have less anxiety simply because they know the rules and routines, however, they truly need to establish an entirely new identity as one of the older children.  No longer is it productive for an older child to be a follower, as most of the leaders have all moved onto kindergarten.  Younger and new students’ brains are on overdrive as they learn “the rules” of the school and the routines of the day.

This is the phase when the wheels can fall off the cart without tenacity and determination on the part of the teachers.  The formal polite behavior diminishes as children become more comfortable with each other and boundaries are pushed, both against the rules and against each other.  In any group, there is bound to be conflict, as it is not possible for groups of any size to agree on everything.  “I wanted that toy!”  “Why do you get to be the mom?”  “Why do we HAVE to have group time/snack time right now?”  “I don’t want to put away the toys.”  Frustration can build and tempers flare when things don’t go the way someone wants them to for too long.  This is the phase where the consistency and support of a great teacher are essential to maintain the peace and to continue to grow.

Gradually, the group moves into the norming stage. This is when people start to resolve their differences, appreciate others’ strengths, and respect the authority of the teacher.  Everyone is now committed.  Consciously or subconsciously, it is a given that we are stuck with each other and we will be next week, too.  There is always an overlap between storming and norming, as new issues always arise.  The group needs to revert back to storming before returning to norming.

This is the stage when all the hard work has paid off, there is minimal friction, and things are functioning smoothly.  It doesn’t mean there won’t be conflict or “storming” any more, but typically it is short and things can revert back to normal.