In New York, the spotlight is on early childhood education!

These are exciting days for some of us in New York City with the focus of both Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo squarely on expanding and universalizing Pre-K. But along with the excitement is also the trepidation of how some of the inevitable challenges will be overcome - procuring the funds, finding the space in a densely populated city, maintaining an adequate supply of well qualified Pre-K teachers... As the mayor's office works with early childhood educators and teacher educators in New York City it would serve us all well to keep an open mind and find examples of already implemented early childhood educational models to examine. As an ancient saying goes: Good ideas come to us from all directions. One such model was featured yesterday in the New York Times:

Educational ideas: Distortions and Confusions

About a 100 years ago, John Dewey was concerned that the then existing traditional school curriculum did not reflect the social, ethnic, industrial and economic changes that were sweeping through American society at the turn of the 20th century. The progressive nature of his pedagogical recommendations aimed toward greater importance being given to who the children in classrooms really were and what their backgrounds were. The questions his philosophy sought answers to were definitely focused on the child: what does the child know? What are the child’s prior experiences? What are the child’s interests? What has the child learned? What further experiences will propel the child’s development and learning? Unfortunately, there were those who took Dewey’s consideration for the individual child to an extreme by giving complete and unlimited freedom to the child. It was in response to this confusion over his intentions that Dewey wrote "Experience and Education" in 1938.

A recent article by Howard Garner about his Theory of Multiple Intelligence is strangely reminiscent of John Dewey’s attempt to set the record straight about Progressive Education. Great ideas are often privy to misinterpretations and distortions over time if they are implemented without being first thoroughly studied and understood within the context of which they emerged.

On teachers and teaching

The NY Times article this morning on Charter Schools started me thinking about teachers and what is good teaching. Are we preparing our teachers to educate children's minds or train them for careers? Neoliberal policies are making it more and more challenging to prepare and be the kind of teachers who will help children become successful human beings first and then successful professionals second. J. Krishnamurti reminds us that "In our relationship with children and young people, we are not dealing with mechanical devices that can be quickly repaired, but with living beings who are impressionable, volatile, sensitive, afraid, affectionate; and to deal with them we have to have great understanding, the strength of patience and love". The quickly-acquired technical knowledge and use of assessment tools, rubrics and check lists serve to evaluate the least important facets of children's development and growth. The act of real teaching requires dedication, commitment and a deep understanding of the teaching-learning process that can't happen in two years. It takes time, patience, practice, dedication and a mind open to growth and self-improvement to be a good teacher...

Cultural Worldviews Shape Parenting and Teaching Styles

There is a brand new study on the Culture of the American Family that was just done by a team at The Institute of Advanced Studies for Culture out of the University of Virginia that highlights four primary Parenting Styles. I served on the Academic Advisory Council of this study for the last three years and have particpated in discussions as this cross-national study was initiated and brought to fruition. The findings were released yesterday at a Press Conference and are mentioned in the Huffington Post:

The most interesting point made is that parenting "is not a system you choose, but an outgrowth of who you are; you don't select it as much as you let it find you. What is "good" parenting depends on the life you've lived and the values you hold".

That, to me, reinforces the directions of my own scholarship: the powerful role of culture and worldview on how we choose to parent or teach. It is hard to pick up a guide or read a book to become the kind of parent or teacher you wish to be. There are forces that run stronger and deeper than an intellectual understanding of how we're expected to conduct ourselves as parents or teachers within a given climate or zeitgeist. Our practices as a parent or teacher are profoundly influenced by the way we internalized these roles through our own socio-cultural-historical experiences. Our practices are profoundly informed by the values we prioritize most.

"Why do we all look at this same role -- parenting -- and see so many different and disparate ways? It is because, this school of thought argues, we are all looking out through different windows, and therefore looking onto entirely different worlds".

It is because of these different windows of understanding that, although we look at the same view we see different images. Our understanding of good teaching is shaped by the image we have of who a child is or who a teacher is. Thus teaching and learning are processes that are specifically shaped by cultural worldviews.

I will discuss this more in my next post.

Shopping for Preschools

On one hand, the onset of Spring brings blossoming tulips and magnolias here in the north-east, heralding the approach of warmer, longer, sunnier days. On the other hand, it brings the much dreaded admissions decision season as pre-schools and kindergartens in the city begin the process of informing parents whether their child was admitted or rejected or wait-listed. The season becomes joyful if the news is good, and can become colder and greyer than winter if families get a rejection letter. The admissions season begins in early fall, or even  late summer, as embarking on school tours and completing application forms seem to take up every waking moment of parents of  toddlers as they strive for that "best" preschool for the beloved apple of their eyes. I can only remind families that there is no one "best" school. Rather, the school that is right for your toddler is the one that works best for you as a family. As a former Director of Admissions of an Upper West Side Independent Nursery/Kindergarten school I was interviewed a few years ago on how to shop for preschools. The points I made at that time still hold good and are available at the following link. As parents of toddlers prepare to launch into next year's admissions season they might want to take a deep breath and read these pointers:

Schooling in the Maldives

The political turmoil in the Maldives with the ousting of its president earlier this month reminded me of my recent visit to that beautiful island country while on a Fulbright Grant. I was conducting a research study on the influence of globalization on pre-primary and primary teacher education in South Asia.

The Maldives is an Islamic archipelago of 1,192 islands and about 400,000 people is not only a delicately balanced ecological system but was also experiencing the growing pains of a new democracy. An important development in the Maldives has been the new constitution written in 2008, and a president who came to power in 2008 after democratic elections were held for the first time in 30 years. This political change considerably influenced current educational practices. The Maldives was one of the countries included in my study. I have written about the beauty of the Maldivian sea and sky earlier in the blog. Here I want to describe one of the primary schools I visited. I am choosing to write about this particular school because of the student elections that were taking place during the time of my visit. Undoubtedly, the concept of elections and voting was new to Maldivian schools and society. The following excerpt is taken from field notes that I kept during my research:

"This is a government primary school that runs from Grades 1-8. The principal took us around on a guided tour. First thing that strikes you is how clean and neat the school environment is. The building is large, three storied, spacious open classrooms and open hallways, colorful, with lots of motivational and inspirational posters and slogans. Big emphasis on values: Fairness, Trustworthiness, Respect, Citizenship, Caring, Cleanliness, etc on staircases and hallway walls. Outside the school there is a large board with a proverb about thoughts and actions and character and destiny, which resembles other eastern philosophies such as Hinduism and Buddhism that I had encountered in other South Asian countries. The first grade classrooms are buzzing with two teachers and about 17-30 students each. There are four rooms and all of them are studying a unit on Family. Each classroom has a shoe shelf outside and all the students take their shoes off before entering the classroom. Their shoes and clean and polished, and their white uniforms are clean, washed and ironed. The students seem engaged and busy – both girls and boys. There are slogans for each grade level: The first grade slogan is Reading is Fun, the second grade slogan is Read to Lead; the third grade slogan is Dream Big, Learn More. The children in this grade level are grouped into groups named after sea creatures – lobsters, sea horse, jelly fish, etc. The medium of instruction in all schools is English but the local langauge, Dhivehi, is also used extensively.Elections for the school presidents (one boy and one girl) will be held tomorrow and there are 239 candidates in all. Students as well as teachers will be voting. Only one day is allowed for campaigning and today all the candidates have their poster and photo up on the hall-way walls.  Since space is such a commodity in the Maldives and especially Male (about 100,000 people live on island which is less than 2 square kilometers in area) all schools have two-three shifts daily in order to accommodate all the children in the city. Since classrooms are shared by multiple groups each day, students cannot leave their books in their classroom and have to carry them to and fro between home and school each day".

Mid-winter Festivities in India continued...

The weekend celebrations continued with Pongal and Makar Sankranti.

Pongal is celebrated in various forms in many parts of India. I was reminded of my stay in Sri Lanka two years ago. I was in Colombo during January. Sri Lanka has a large Tamilian population and Pongal was a big celebration there as well. It’s a holiday that falls in the Tamil month of Thai on Jan 14th each year. So it’s called Thai Pongal and it is the only Hindu holiday that follows the solar calendar. It coincides with the rice harvest and thanks is given to the sun for a good harvest that has passed and for a good harvest season to begin for the next year. So the sun is worshipped and celebrated.

The following article is copied from the Sri lankan newspaper The Island, and provides a good description of this festival:

Pongal in Tamil means "boiling over or spill over".

The saying "Thai Pirandhal Vazhi Pirakkum" meaning "the birth of the month of Thai will pave the way for new opportunities" is often quoted regarding the Pongal festival. People believe ‘Thai’ shows new ways to find peace, love, harmony, prosperity, joyfulness in everyone’s life.

The act of boiling over of milk in the clay pot is considered to denote future wishes for the family. The fresh earthen vessel is adorned with flowers, turmeric leaves and roots.Traditionally, the rice was cooked on a hearth specially built for the occasion. Of course, these days, the hearth has been replaced by the gas/electric stove in urban homes. Pongal, which is also essentially an agrarian festival, is devoted to the boiling of milk in a pot to which rice, Chakkarai (jaggery) and the syrup extracted from crushed sugarcane is added.

This sweet rice pudding is offered first to Lord Surya (Sun), Ganesha and other deities and is then eaten at the climax of a family festive meal. People also prepare savouries and sweets such as vadai, murukku, payasam etc. Although it started as a festival for farmers, today it has become a national and popular festival for all Tamils.

On the day of Pongal, early in the morning, everyone bathes and wears new clothes. Family members then jointly draw the Kolam (a decoration laid on the floor). Rice-flour (plain and coloured) is used to draw the Kolam. Parallel straight lines can be drawn using a cylindrical rod (Ulakai) as a guide. A Kolam can be a plain one or can be artistically drawn with symbols of cosmic interest. The Kolam defines the sacred area where the Pongal is prepared.

Within the perimeters of Kolam, typically, firewood is used to cook the rice. The Pongal is set up in the direct view of the Sun (East). Traditionally, the Kolam is laid in the front or side of the house, but in areas where cooking indoors with firewood is hazardous, the Pongal is prepared in kitchen and brought to the location where Kolam is set up.The moment of climax is the spill over of the Pongal during cooking. The spillover of milk is a propitious symbol of abundance. Sometimes, firecrackers are lit to signify the moment. Once the Pongal is ready, a Padayal (the offering) is first made. Sharing of the Pongal with friends and relatives follows a few minutes of meditation or a prayer.

Pongal coincides with the festival Makar Sankranti which is celebrated in various parts of India. Sankranti means ‘sacred change’ and occurs every month as the Sun moves from one house of the Zodiac to another. But special sanctity is attached to the movement of the Sun to Capricorn this weekend and is called Makar Sankranti.Makar Sankranti is also a farmer’s festival celebrated on the occasion of the harvest coming home.

Mid-winter Festivities in India

New Delhi: Today is Friday the 13th - an ominous sound in the Western world that I live in. But in India where I am at the moment, today heralds a celebratory weekend bringing in Lohri, Makar Sankranti and Pongal...After the festivities of Dussehra and Diwali in the fall, it's now the mid-winter festive season for giving thanks and harvesting that celebrates the season of winter crops or Rabi in India. This will be followed by the festivities of Spring with Shivratri, Holi,  Ramnavmi and Baisakhi...I want to describe briefly the festivals celebrated this weekend in different parts of India:

Lohri: Wheat is the main winter crop in the breadbasket of India - Punjab. The grain is sown in October and harvested in March or April. In January, the fields come up with the promise of a golden harvest, and farmers celebrate Lohri during this rest period before the cutting and gathering of crops. According to the Hindu calendar, Lohri falls in mid-January. "The earth, farthest from the sun at this point of time, starts its journey towards the sun, thus ending the coldest month of the year, Paush".

I just returned from a Lohri celebration at our neighbor's home. At sunset on this cold January evening, a large bonfire was lit in the open courtyard of the house around which gathered the entire extended family and close friends. The senior-most was the patriarch of the family, and in his house live his three married sons with their wives and children in the kind of joint family arrangement that is still commonly seen in Indian households. There was a spirit of joy and festivity as everyone circled around the fire (parikrama), throwing puffed rice and popcorn into the flames, and singing popular folk songs. A commonly heard chant is "aader aaye, dilaader jaaye" (may honor advance and poverty retreat).The bonfire ritual is also a an invocation to Agni, the fire god, to bless the land with a good harvest, for abundance and prosperity.

There were four generations of the family participating in this annual celebration - and all joined into the singing and the dancing, munching on eatables like til (sesame) seeds, peanuts, jaggery, or sweets made from sesame seeds and jaggery like gajak and rewri. Trays of popcorn and pumpkin seeds were also being circulated. Although I didn't stay for it I was told that in a bit, children would start demanding the Lohri 'loot' in the form of money from all the elders.This moment, of course, was what the kids were waiting for! But at the same time they were learning about rituals and traditions that were valued by their families and would be passed down from generation to generation. Although I am not Punjabi I was grateful for the invitation and cherished the opportunity to participate in this cultural celebration of thanksgiving and rejoicing.