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Growing to Scale: Theatrical Journeys-Embedding STEAM into Early Childhood Education Through Multi-sensory Guided Pretend Play

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Young child engaging in The Journey Playbook
Courtesy Photo

As students attend school during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to support  learners in thinking “outside-the-box” and practice problem solving skills.  Young children often engage in pretend play, acting out observations and experiences they have.  Educators know children learn through play and the importance of providing children with interdisciplinary learning opportunities in languages they are familiar with. Through, her project, Growing to Scale: A 3-Phase Teacher Development Initiative of The Theatrical Journey Project,  veteran CentroNía staff member and theater artist Elizabeth Bruce, developed and published a bilingual STEAM curriculum enhancement for Pre-K children to “become science problem solvers who remedy science problems through handson simulations of real phenomenon. They are experts who solve the problems and emergencies presented in each journey.”

The concepts presented in The Journey Playbook are valuable to educators as The Journey Playbook provides fun opportunities to guide young children through play as they learn STEAM concepts and develop problem solving skills to become experts in solving problems most children experience regardless of socioeconomic factors and educational setting.  Located in Washington D.C., CentroNía overwhelmingly serves low and moderate income and immigrant families, a majority of whom are Latino, African, African-American, or bicultural. CentroNía’s holistic approach provides a bilingual, multicultural environment where children and families they serve receive the support and encouragement they need to succeed.

What were the goals of the project and how were they achieved?

Elizabeth Bruce wanted to support the expansion of the strategies presented bilingually in the Theatrical Journey Playbook: Introducing Science to Young Children through Pretend Play to scale by expanding a previously funded Teacher Development Initiative locally, regionally, and internationally through CentroNía’s Institute. To reach her goal, she created the project, Growing to Scale: A 3-Phase Teacher Development Initiative of The Theatrical Journey Project.

As one can imagine, with the undertaking of her project, there were many steps Elizabeth Bruce needed to accomplish.  She planned to produce and translate The Journey Playbook, train educators, collaborate with educational and community partners and disseminate The Journey Playbook.

She planned to :

  • Embed the Journey Project Teacher Development with CentroNía Institute’s Development of Laboratory Pre-K classrooms led by Master Teachers, who will become Trainers of Trainers with Four CentroNía Sites.
  • Have participation from Pre-K Colleague Centers through linkages with DC Public Schools, Public Charter Schools, and Early Childhood Centers.
  • Collaborate with the CentroNía Institute to present about The Journey Project’s methodology within the  Early Childhood Education, STEM + Art =STEAM, or arts education sectors, locally, regionally, and/or internationally
  • Create and distribute low-tech teaching tools for Journey Kits for participating Lab Classroom Master Teachers.
  • Partner with CentroNía’s pro-bono partners, including engineering professionals to conceptualize/design low-cost, multi-use, inter-changeable, space-saving devices as Journey teaching tools.
  • Print and broaden promotion of The Theatrical Journey Playbook and Teacher Development Program through press, social media, and professional networks.

What progress was made toward her goals?

Elizabeth completed final production and translation of The Journey Playbook! She co-facilitated in Spanish with CentroNía’s Food & Wellness staff, providing Professional Development/Teacher Training Workshops with CentroNía Teachers through a bi-weekly series of workshops on The Theatrical Journey Project to Early Childhood Educators.  Educators participated in either the English or Spanish cohorts.  The workshops/training included The Theatrical Journey Project content and process and integrated nutrition and wellness content explored through the journey process.  She also provided  bi-weekly Journey Project demo/training workshops with all Pre-K Lead Teachers and Assistant Teachers at CentroNía Maryland and co-facilitated (with Robert Michael Oliver, PhD, of The Performing Knowledge Project) workshops on Creativity and Dramatic Engagement for CentroNía Early Childhood, StudioROCKS, and Family Center teachers and staff. Here are a few other highlights from the project efforts:

  • Facilitated year-round journey workshops with: Pre-K/Junior Pre-K/Early Headstart Classrooms at CentroNía.
  • Presented bilingually with Spanish translation workshops engaged in 1 ½ hour hands-on demonstration of The Journey of the Sick Teddy Bear, complete with teddy bears, stethoscopes, thermometer, vocal/physical warm-ups, etc. Explanatory debriefs followed each section of the workshop, with a Journey Project one-pager, sample journey, and curriculum methodology handouts were provided. Through this experience, Elizabeth received “Excellent engagement and feedback!”
  • Presented a Training of Trainers on the methodology and pedagogy of the Theatrical Journey Project for Early Childhood Home Visitors.
  • Facilitated a collaboration between CentroNía Family Center and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE).
  • Nurtured additional elements of the Journey Playbook/Project Teacher Training Project including:
    • Disseminating mini Journey Kits to Early Childhood Classrooms.
    • Planning CentroNía Family Center parent-child journey workshops.
    • Developing new journeys with CentroNía Food & Wellness , specifically on topics of hydration, circulation, vitamins and nutrients, and oxygenation.
    • Highlighting Journey Project techniques and methodologies
      during teacher assessments using the “CLASS” assessment tool.
  • One bilingual Journey Project collaborating teacher, Phoenix Harris, previously adapted her own variation of a Teddy Bear Journey as a final project for her Masters’ Degree at Trinity Washington University.

Exciting plans for the future

Project leaders participated and networked extensively at conferences and submitted proposals to continue to present, disseminate, and train teachers on The Journey Playbook.

The Journey Project is collaborating with the “Changing the Face of STEM: A Transformational Journey” event targeted to under-represented communities (Latinos, African-Americans, Native Americans) at the National Academy of Science in June 2018.

Elizabeth Bruce and others within CentroNía leadership have engaged in/are pursuing extensive and accelerated outreach to educational colleagues and organizations (nationally and internationally) receptive to Journey Project/Playbook teacher training, project collaboration and replication including English-language cohorts and one Amharic-language cohort (with translation). Additional plans include continuubg to facilitate workshops at CentroNía with Kinder/1st Graders; having weekly Journey workshops with CentroNía Universal Pre-K Classrooms, and continuing with fundraising for Journey Project Replication/Video Tutorials.

Early Childhood Educator and student engaging in The Journey Playbook
Courtesy Photo

How has The Journey Playbook affected the learning of students and/or teachers?

The learning of students and teachers has been deeply affected both directly, through the extensive hands-on Journey workshops, hands-on teacher trainings/professional development, conference presentations, and indirectly through the production, promotion, and dissemination of the Theatrical Journey Playbook: Introducing Science to Early Learners through Guided Pretend Play, as well as promotion of the Journey Project introductory video, webpage, and promotional materials.

Extensive outreach to major educational partners, schools, and institutions has been and continues to be underway, with projects for teacher training/project replication or adaptation with educational colleagues and Journey Playbook distribution to at least 135 educational colleagues and targeted teacher training/project replication, funding, or other support activities.

PreK/Early Childhood Educators/Teachers engaged directly in collaboratively journey workshops, collaborations, mentoring/modeling, and other teacher training.  The Journey Project began working for the first time with younger children, ages 2 ½ to 3 years old, with remarkably successful results when the project was adjusted to a slower pace with fewer activities per journey, plus repeating the same journey from week 1 to week 2. This addition allows the Journey Project at CentroNía to engage the same cohort of children for a full three years.

What challenges were experienced along the way and ideas for improving the project?

Elizabeth states, “I have learned that the process of engaging educational colleagues and their organizations as
targeted teacher training/project replication collaborators is a longer, more gradual process of deepening relationships and inviting educational leadership to observe/engage with the Journey Project, and especially to commit to teacher training/project replication. Colleague educational organizations, like most nonprofits and schools, are deeply engaged with their ongoing operations and missions and extensively committed to operationalizing, maintaining and funding their organization’s endeavors. Hence, learning about and embracing a new, even highly simpatico, methodology or pedagogy calls for a strong relationship and decisions by leadership to advance mutual commitment to in depth teacher training and project replication. Laying the groundwork for such partnerships, however, promises to come to fruition within a time frame of 1-2 years. Reaching critical mass for project replication/teacher training, thus, is anticipated once extensive ground-laying has been done.”

Further reading

Theatrical Journey Playbook

What is STEAM Education?

Three Core Concepts in Early Development

Creating a Collaborative Co-Teaching Culture: Building Teacher Relationships to Improve Student Achievement

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Developing a common language for teachers pays off
Students share reasons for supporting collaborative co-teaching strategies at Stone Scholastic Academy.
Students share reasons for supporting collaborative co-teaching strategies at Stone Scholastic Academy.

The goals of the Teacher Development Grant: Creating a Collaborative Co-Teaching Culture project lead by Seol Moon and Barbara Onofrio, Principal, at Stone Scholastic Academy were multiple:

  1. Build strong, cohesive, collaborative relationships amongst educational professionals within the school,
  2. Work collaboratively to raise student achievement, improve climate/culture and build teacher capacity by having teachers work collaboratively on tailoring content to match the needs of all students in the classroom, and
  3. Move toward a more inclusive environment for our special student populations.

Supporting the Teachers in Collaboration through Professional Development

Stone Academy started the first year of the project (August, 2014) by enlisting a consultant, Dr. Meg Carroll from the St. Xavier University.  Dr. Carroll presented a 2 day workshop to all staff which included the following topics:

  • Co-Teaching:  A presentation of the Illinois Professional Teaching Standards, particularly Standard 8-Collaborative relationships:  “the competent teacher builds and maintains collaborative relationships to foster cognitive, linguistic, physical, and social/emotional development.  This teacher works as a team member with professional colleagues, students, parents or guardians, and community members.” Included were common Co-Teaching Models, Team Teaching key concerns and a Co-Teaching Checklist.
  • Neurology of Learning:  Brain-based Applications and  types of learners:  concrete, abstract and reflective.
  • Executive Functioning and Organizational skills: focusing on planning, emotional control, attention, self-monitoring, organization and the working memory.
  • Accommodations and Modifications:  definition and examples of each.  Included in this session were the characteristics of various disabilities and matching instructional strategies.

After having built a common language collaboration centered on two things:

(1) building strong collaborative internal relationships and

(2) digging deeper into what successful Co-teaching is and how/when to use various models.

We purchased several copies of Dr. Marilyn Friend’s publication, “Co-Teach!  Building and Sustaining Effective Classroom Partnerships in Inclusive Schools.” We formed a book club, broke down chapters and held discussions related to the content.  (Meetings were held on 10/20/14, 10/27/14, 11/19/14, and 4/6/15).

Co-Teach! Building and Sustaining Effective Classroom Partnerships in Inclusive Schools (2nd Edition) by Marilyn Friend Link: http://amzn.com/0977850315
Co-Teach! Building and Sustaining Effective Classroom Partnerships in Inclusive Schools (2nd Edition) by Marilyn Friend Link: http://amzn.com/0977850315

In addition to our book club, on January 16, 2015, 9 teachers were sent to the Dr. Marilyn Friend’s workshop:  “Best Practices in Co-Teaching.” Both grant and local funding were utilized.

Teachers were sent as partners in an effort to strengthen their professional bond.  They learned first-hand the components and intricacies of Co-Teaching, and had a bit of experience working with different models so that they could be more effective.

As Co-teaching is a new strategy to this school, it was important for teachers to feel supported, yet not threatened.  It was felt that teachers should have the autonomy to work with the strategies and would benefit from a mentor or coach.  They needed to be able to be observed and receive feedback on their progress and performance, without this being used toward their professional evaluation.  Dr. Meg Carroll was commissioned to do this work.  She visited the school on numerous occasions (10/20/14, 12/15/14, 1/29/15, 4/6/15, and 4/20/15) to observe teachers and teacher teams, discuss, document and provide critical feedback.

Throughout the year, the project team needed to enlist the assistance of substitute teachers and also provide extended day opportunities for teachers to work together, both of which were utilized.  This time was used to have teachers observe colleagues within the cohort, provide feedback and have professional conversations.  Teachers also began to work on lesson planning together.  As time passed, and they were able to work together as one generalist and a specialist, and we agreed it would make sense to look at an entire year’s curriculum.  A couple years ago, Stone teachers began work on curriculum mapping, but the task never fully developed.  Now, with newly learned instructional strategies and stronger relationships, teachers decided to revisit that activity.

Fortunately, Dr. Carroll has experience in curriculum mapping, and provided guidance to teams of teachers as they worked together to develop grade level curriculum maps which concentrate on the areas of literacy and math.  Once curriculum maps were complete for a grade level, the plan was to then meet as a team to look at vertical alignment so that the end product would be complete and cohesive for grades K-8.  From there, they can begin to delve into examining and creating effective student assessments.

At the end of the 2013-2014 academic year, Stone was cited by the State of Illinois regarding student placement of students with disabilities.  The school houses 629 students, with roughly 12% of our students receiving special education services.  Once notified, our special education team met with administration and outlined a plan to correct these measures.  We collaborated, and through teacher discussion, we identified a small group of students who could perhaps benefit from receiving instruction in a more inclusive environment.

Parents were consulted, IEP meetings were reconvened, and the internal structure was adjusted so that more Co-teaching environments were made available.  Co-teaching helped us be successfully removed from the state’s Focused Monitoring after only one year, as opposed the customary two year process.

How teacher collaboration impacted learners

Students were asked directly to write about their experience in a Co-teaching classroom.  Overwhelmingly, students indicated they preferred this type of teaching and offered the following reasons:

  • I like having two teachers because we can learn from two different ways.
  • I’d say having two teachers is good due to the fact that if there’s a long line for one, the other is able to help you.
  • I like having two teachers because all of the stress is not on one teacher.
  • I enjoy having more than one teacher around because if we had one teacher and 32 students, the teacher would be yelling A LOT!
  • I like having two teachers because if you asked one and you didn’t understand it, you can ask the other.
    Not all students like working in a co-teaching classroom.  One student is quoted as saying, “I don’t really like having two teachers around because I can’t get away with secretly playing with Smartape 360 or reading.”

Teacher’s comments related to co-teaching express positive aspects as well.  One teacher commented “the best results have been having the opportunity to give the students two ways to look at solving problems.  Because my co-teacher has a background in Special Education, she naturally uses ways to explain the concepts in a more concrete way, for example, drawing pictures on the board. etc. “  They also said there is less stigma for children and professionals use a common language.  Teachers stated they are able to do more small group work, and feel they are better supported.  They also say they have developed a greater professional respect for colleagues because they learn from the others’ expertise and find out what each brings to the table.  They illustrated their Co-Teaching experience by creating the attached display which they proudly placed in the staff lounge which was the only available space due to overcrowding.

Addressing challenges for future implementation

The most significant challenges we faced this first year was to find time for teachers to meet.  Since we are now on a longer school day, our regular day starts at 8:00 a.m. and ends at 3:00 p.m.  For a good portion of the school year, many teachers also work an extended day program for some part of the week, as approximately one half of our children attend the After School All Stars program from 3:00  until 4:15 p.m.  Teachers were accommodated by giving them a choice of being provided a substitute teacher, or earning an extended day stipend.

Teachers are also concerned they will have to change partners every year due to different assignments or staff leaving.  Fortunately the staff at Stone is relatively stable, and administration is making a commitment to keeping as many positive teaching partners intact as possible in the upcoming year.

Grading is another area of concern.  Teachers must have time to discuss individual student progress and agree on a fair and equitable grading system.

Finally, there is one teacher who is still showing reluctance to “let go” and collaborate.  Offers continue to be extended to her to participate in discussions and administration is working with her to lessen her concerns.  It is my hope that giving this teacher time, and keeping her exposed to her co-teaching colleagues, she will see the added benefits to utilizing this model.

Theatrical Journeys: Introducing STEM to Young Children

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A fun, creative approach to growing scientific thinking for all students
Journey of the Sick Teddy Bear #1 : Throat Swab
Journey of the Sick Teddy Bear #1 : Throat Swab

As educators, we’ve found ourselves spending most of our time and resources finding ways to better convey the STEM subjects to students that live an increasingly technology dependent world.  The problem with this way of thinking is that it, without really even trying, devalues the arts and humanities as non-essential.  Although no one is going to cure cancer by reading Shakespeare and we aren’t going to solve world hunger by painting pictures, we lose something by leaving these essential subjects by the wayside.  The humanities help us understand what it means to be human and art is almost always fun.  It’s easy to engage students, especially young ones, when you can incorporate dramatic play into your own lessons.  So why not teach STEM lessons through the lens of theatre?

Triggering the joy of discovery in STEM

This is exactly the kind of creative idea that Elizabeth Bruce at CentroNia in Washington, DC is doing with her Theatrical Journeys Project.  Drawing on over 35 years of experience in the arts, Ms. Bruce has developed this project as a homegrown, community based initiative, with funding from the DC Arts Council and similar organizations contributing (including the McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation). According to her proposal “The Theatrical Journeys Project is innovative because it fuses child-centered, dramatic play with simple STEM phenomenon. The STEM phenomenon is explored thoughtfully through experiential lessons. STEM content is made concrete through simple simulations and multi-sensory explorations rooted in play and the joy of discovery.”  Elizabeth Bruce has also ensured that visual aids are bilingual, reflecting the needs of the students in her school and making sure that all students are able to participate.

How a science lesson becomes a theatrical journey
Journey of Sick Teddy Bear #2: Giving Teddy Bear Medicine
Journey of Sick Teddy Bear #2: Giving Teddy Bear Medicine

Bruce’s lessons are simple, real world situations that kids may find themselves in some day.  For example, in the sick teddy bear journey, the children (”doctors”) will diagnose their teddy bear (”patient”), checking it’s pulse, or taking a mouth swab.  They then will “culture” the bacteria in an incubation oven.  The next step of the lesson is figuring out which bacteria has grown and how best to cure it using antibiotics.  It may seem silly at first to imagine a group of young kids diagnosing a teddy bear.  But when you look closer, you can see those gears in their minds starting to shift.  Connections are being made between this lesson and the real world.   By taking scientific inquiry and couching it in make believe, educators are making learning more digestible, turning a lesson into into a playful treat.

Identifying the illness
Identifying the illness

The work of Theatrical Journeys is to produce simple lesson plans.  Twenty was the original goal, though that may be exceeded as of this update.  Documentation and video of the project will also be uploaded to YouTube for other educators to consider.  Like the art it imitates, Theatrical Journeys is constantly evolving project, driven by the needs of the students in every way.

Increasing respect between peers, opening minds to STEM careers and capturing disengaged learners
A young doctor checking bacteria levels in a petri dish.
A young doctor checking bacteria levels in a petri dish.

As mentioned before, the project has already produced a number of new and exciting journeys, so how are the students responding?  According to the progress report “the tactile and kinesthetic child-centered nature of the journeys has become a model of how to effectively engage young children who often present behavioral or disengaged learning challenged in the PreK classroom.  Happily, these children consistently engage fully with the hands-on, “there-are-no-wrong-answers” approach to the Theatrical Journey Project.”  Not only that, there has been the unexpected, but wholly welcome side effect of increasing respect between students.  By exposing students, especially minority ones, to moments where they are refered to by their peers as “Doctor” has fostered an aspirational attitude that wasn’t there previously in many of the students.  And this is a good thing.

What's growing in there? Let's put medicine on it!
What’s growing in there? Let’s put medicine on it!

I said earlier that no one is going to cure cancer by reading Shakespeare, but if by playing doctor with this teddy bear in PreK even one student is inspired to grow up to become one… they might just.

 

 

 

 

Further reading