Nancy Clark-Chiarelli believes something as simple as a spider’s web can inspire discussion and ignite young imaginations. She works with West Virginia preschool teachers to improve language and literacy learning among their students.
“Coming back on the plane from our last visit to West Virginia, I was thinking about an experience I had. As I was walking into a school, I was trying to toss something into the trash can, and in the corner I saw a spider’s web. I thought, ‘There’s something you could develop a curriculum study around—something kids can observe and have first-hand experience with.’ Dinosaurs are fine, but a spider … it’s alive, right there!
Sure, preschoolers can make a spider out of an egg carton and pipe cleaners. But just think about the engaging language and literacy experiences a teacher could orchestrate with preschoolers about something as fascinating and real as a spider. I thought about Charlotte’s Web, and how the trash-can spider, if placed in a well-planned activity, could inspire so much curiosity and conversation.
West Virginia has a universal pre-K system, which means that by the 2012–2013 school year, every four year old in the state will have access to a year of preschool. So the state needs to make more preschool classrooms available and enlist more preschool teachers. EDC is implementing a professional development and mentoring program to help pre-K teachers improve how they teach language and literacy. Our teachers come from Head Start programs, child care centers, and private and public pre-K programs.
Designing cognitively challenging curricula that incorporates rich language and literacy goals and activities is a challenge for the teachers. A preschool curriculum is typically arranged around one-week studies of holidays or seasons. For example, in the autumn, many teachers will plan a week’s study of apples. Children may cut out a paper apple and glue it on paper or color in a pre-made apple. We push teachers to ask themselves, ‘What about apples interests my children?’ Wouldn’t it be more challenging to take the children to an orchard and invite discussion about what they observed about the apples? Why are some bigger than others? How do they grow?
The teachers and mentors are excited about the focus on curriculum planning that’s coming in the year ahead. If you don’t have something cognitively challenging going on in the curriculum, you don’t have much to read or talk about. But if you can weave in things children see every day into the curriculum, you can get them talking about what they understand and their misconceptions. We’re so excited that the mentors and teachers are up for the challenge and see their training on new preschool curricula as valuable.”
Examining the Efficacy of Two Models of Preschool Professional Development in Language and Literacy is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.
Originally published on January 21, 2009