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January 31, 2007

The Making of Problem Solvers

Ahh, the weekend…after exploring fantastical literary worlds for five days with old ladies swallowing flies, purple crayon drawn hot air balloons, and wild things at every corner, I get to delve into my weekly collection of non-fiction, “adult” content at a local café.

As I briefly step away from my pre-k teacher mentality to reflect on the latest 2008 presidential contender or the Ethiopian presence in Somalia, I consider one unifying theme in each of the articles: problems.  Regardless of your political affiliation, job sector, or daily blogger of choice, it is clear that current and future generations face a wide range of political, economic, social, and technological problems.  So what are we doing in Pre-k 114 to provide our society with proactive problem solvers?

One, we are creating a problem-solving culture in the classroom.  Whether the problem is spilled milk, a friend crying, or someone saying they “can’t” do something, we respond with efforts to fix the problem.  Initially, the children said, “ooooooh” and pointed instead.  We then showed puppets in similar situations, brainstormed with the children about how to fix problems, and adopted the phrase, “We don’t say ‘oooh,’ we fix the problem.”

We also don’t give up.  We learned from the Little Engine to keep chugging while saying, “I think I can” and asking for help from our peers.  We receive positive recognition for going out of our way to help others fix problems.  Students who got to purple last week included David and Tanasia for helping each other fold up their blankets after naptime, Awana for assisting Tyrone with his spilled juice, and Kevin for comforting Karen when she was upset.

A second step is to foster critical thinking skills.  Like my favorite adult publications, children’s literature is filled with characters that have problems.  We use these scenarios as a starting point for thinking about ways to solve problems.  Here is an excerpt from a problem solving discussion we had last Friday over breakfast, as we looked at a picture of Jack (of “Jack Be Nimble” fame) jumping over the candlestick. 

Ms. Pappas: What’s the problem?
Sierra: His pants could catch on fire. 
Ms. Pappas: So what should he do?
Sierra: Call 911 to put the fire out.
Ms. Pappas: Great idea.  What if he doesn’t have a phone?
Tyrique: I could put his foot in the sink.
Ms. Pappas: Excellent idea.  What if the sink in his house doesn’t work?
Tyrone: I could take him to your house and put his foot in the toilet.
Ms. Pappas: How will you get to my house?
Tyrone: I will take a cab.
Ms. Pappas: What if I’m not home?
Ravon: He could take Jack to the supermarket for some water.
Awana: No, he not going to be on fire.  He jumped over the candle.  He was quick.

But it’s not all storybooks and nursery rhymes when nurturing young problem solvers - we get them thinking about the world outside of Pre-k 114, too.  I call their attention to potential problems like running out of water or paper.  We discuss why we need those things and ways to conserve them in our classroom.  We are careful to keep the water on for five seconds while we wash our hands and to hit the paper towel dispenser only three times.  The students then celebrate themselves as superheroes saving the world. 

Now the only question is, which one of these great problem solvers is next to join the presidential race?  Some potential front-runners have frequently changed their mind on important issues like the Green Eggs and Ham vs. Cat in the Hat decision, while others have remained consistent, even when faced with opposition over how best to manage the number of people at the Computer Area at a time.  Despite one candidate’s initially strong position in the polls, her rather candid and distasteful bashing of Mr. Squarepants, recently aired on YouTube, could hurt her with the small, though well organized “large pineapple under the sea” vote.  Only time, debates, and exploratory committees will tell…

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