Kira Hamann is an instructional assistant professor in the Early Childhood and Elementary programs at Illinois State University, and a doctoral student in the School of Teaching and Learning. Kira teaches social studies methods, issues and practices in elementary education, and intro to urban education at ISU. In addition, she has been a supervisor to ECE clinical students in the local schools. Prior to her work at ISU, she was a PreK teacher at Ravenswood Elementary in the Chicago Public Schools. In this post, she shares a practical tool for layering in history teaching and building classroom community in ECE classrooms.
“Mrs. Hamann, remember yesterday when it was Halloween and I wore my princess costume?”
“Kaia, yesterday was Tuesday, March 2nd, not Halloween back in October.”
Maybe you’ve had an exchange with a young student that sounded like this before–This exchange was one that took place often in my PreK classroom as my young students tried to situate themselves and the events of their lives in time. Trying to help my students develop an understanding of the passage of time was a challenge because although they were such visual learners, the use of a traditional calendar, which wipes clean each month and starts fresh, was not enough to keep the memories of the recent past firmly in my students’ minds. Yet, I knew that the beginning understandings of history as a social science for young children were dependent on students’ ability to position themselves in time. If I expected them to be able to concretely understand concepts of people and places from the past, I had to first help them know where they themselves fell in the passage of time!
This led to me to search for ways to make the passage of time in the classroom more concrete. Around this time, I had a colleague who was going through Montessori training with her public school in Chicago, and she shared with me the Montessori practice for celebrating for birthdays, which uses visual timelines to tell a child’s life story on his/her birthday in the classroom. You can see more info about this practice here and in a future blog post of mine. Thinking of celebrating birthdays through the use of timelines made a lot of sense to me, and got me thinking about what impact it might have if we created a classroom timeline on the walls of my classroom. Would this give my students a visual of the passage of time and better help them to situate themselves in time?
One of the National Council for the Social Sciences’ ten thematic strands, “Time, Continuity, and Change,” calls for “social studies programs that include experiences that provide for the study of the ways human beings view themselves in and over time.” Learners in early grades gain experience with sequencing to establish a sense of order and time. They enjoy hearing stories of the recent past as well as of long ago. Additionally, the Illinois State Social Studies Standards include Standard 16, “Understand events, trends, individuals and movements shaping the history of Illinois, the United States and other nations.” The early learning standard Illinois 16.A.ECa asks that students recall information about the immediate past. Creating a classroom timeline would help to address these standards!
So starting at the beginning of every school year, my class started a visual timeline that documented the learning and changes that took place in our classroom over the course of the year. My classroom had very high ceilings, so we had great vertical wall space where I planned for this timeline to live.
On students’ birthdays, they would bring in a personal timeline chronicling their life, and we would tell the story of their life (in a later blog, I will go more in depth with how to celebrate birthdays like this).
Then their personal timeline would be added to the class timeline. On the first day of a new month, we would reflect as a class on what had happened to us, and what we had learned during the past month. From this reflection, we created a reflective list to hang for that month. Then we would predict activities that would happen in the new month. Connecting each month by a black line of construction paper gave my young students a concrete visual of they typical format of a timeline, and starting from left-to-right across my classroom walls reinforced the concept of reading from left-to-right in our culture and in English and also reinforced the way we tend to read timelines.
Over time, this timeline spread across the walls of the room, as we spent the year together. It helped my students make sense of their lives by giving them a physical, concrete reference for the past, the present, and the future. Students were able to reference specific spots and memories on the timeline, and I would often overhear student conversations like, “Remember in November when we went on a field trip?” “Yeah, look there it was!” I noticed students looking up and referencing the timeline throughout the day, and it became a wonderful source of pride, as students would describe what our class had learned and done to all types of visitors to our room. Our classroom sense of community was enhanced by this pride and the conversations centered on growth and change that we had experienced as a group in our classroom.
Not only did the use of this timeline help my students’ understanding of the passage of time, but it gave me time to pause each month and actually reflect on all that had taken place. In everyday classroom life, the days go by in a whir! Taking one day each month to pause and reflect made me realize that I was truly making a difference, teaching a ton, and having good outcomes in my classroom. Seeing this on the walls of our classroom, not only helped give my students a concrete reference, but also me. On days, when I felt like my teaching wasn’t working, looking up at the timeline gave me good insight into the impact I was having each month, and helped me see just how much we had truly covered as a classroom community.
Consider how you celebrate the passage of time in the classroom and your ECE students’ understanding of the passage of time. Do you recount learning that has taken place throughout the year? Do you have students that mix up the passage of time like my young Kaia? Do you feel like the days and weeks are all bleeding together? Might a visual timeline with reflection each month help? There are several ways that visual class timelines can be created, especially if you do not have large wall space like I did. Creating a smaller visual for the wall like Ms. T’s Classroom here or Janelle’s comment on this one here or the blog Science Notebooking does here, can also work! This can also be done by creating a class timeline big book in which pages are added throughout the year. The sky’s the limit with the format, but the concepts stay the same. Reflection each month should take no more than 15 minutes of time once a month, and having the kids reflect on what they have learned makes great additions to that month’s list on the timeline. Giving one/ two students the job of writing the list also brings students into this process. Adding photos of students engaged in these activities makes this even richer.
Using a visual timeline of our class helped create a sharp contrast to most young children’s developing memory and awareness of time and change, in which children make comments such as, “Remember, yesterday, when it was Halloween,” like Kaia said earlier are replaced with more accurate understandings of events over time. With the help of the timeline, students are able to accurately place themselves in learning and growing over time. Although I felt that the use of the timeline was powerful, my students said it best. At the end of each year, I would interview children and ask what had been their absolute-most-favorite part of being a member of our classroom. Year after year, their responses included the timeline. If that doesn’t sell its worth, I’m not sure what does! Think about how you can layer in more teaching of history for your students and at the same time build a sense of community through your own classroom timeline!
Illinois State Board of Education. (2010). Goal 16: History. In Illinois Learning Standards: Social Science. Retrieved from http://www.isbe.state.il.us/ils/social_science/standards.htm
Illinois State Board of Education (2013). Illinois early learning and development standards. Retrieved from http://www.isbe.state.il.us/earlychi/pdf/early_learning_standards.pdf
National Council for the Social Studies. (2014). National curriculum standards for social studies: Chapter 2–the themes of social studies. In the National Curriculum for Social Studies. Retrieved from http://www.socialstudies.org/standards/strands