The value of early childhood education has dominated the headlines in recent months, but the 700 educators who participated in the UFT’s seventh annual Early Childhood Conference on March 22 didn’t need to be convinced of its importance. Celebrating the theme of “Many Children, One Voice,” they were there to “sing a melody of best practices,” as Karen Alford, the UFT’s vice president for elementary schools, phrased it in her opening remarks.
“We teach children who are read to every night and others who don’t have a book in their homes,” Alford said, noting that students come to school with a wide range of experiences. “We must be the advocates who mold and shape our tomorrow with one voice.”
Keynote speaker Dr. Mary Montle Bacon, whose work focuses on the challenge of educating children from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, struck a chord with participants when she said, “Children in public school have the right to equal access to educational opportunity.”
In her vibrant, animated speech, Dr. Bacon encouraged the attendees not to “lose track of the vision” and to keep their students’ perspectives in mind.
“We [now] have to educate children that this system has never tried to educate before,” she noted as participants nodded in agreement. “Those children are entitled to the education they need at this point in time and sometimes it’s not the one in your lesson plan.”
In the packed opening session, new Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer praised the attendees, saying she was there to “listen and learn from those who know how to do early childhood education correctly.”
The PS 176 chorus from Cambria Heights, Queens, performed under the direction of Toni Coleman.
Participants chose from among 16 workshops that focused on all areas of early childhood education, from math talk to multiple intelligences.
In a workshop on strategies for addressing the learning differences between boys and girls, participants squeezed rainbow-colored stress balls shaped like miniature brains — a reminder that brain development is different between the two sexes. After studying some sobering statistics — boys make up more than 80 percent of discipline referrals — they exchanged ideas about how to make their classrooms more “boy-friendly.”
“We talked about how boys tend to enjoy competition, so I’m thinking about putting together some teams for spelling bees instead of just having them write the words down,” said Isabel Valentin, a 1st-grade teacher at PS 375 in East Harlem.
Grace Ferrara, a first-time attendee at the conference and a special education teacher at PS 1 on the Lower East Side, said she had gotten good tips from a workshop on improving read-alouds.
“I learned about putting Post-its in my copy of the book, which is a great way to help myself,” she said.
In other workshops, participants spent time creating materials they could put to use in their classrooms, like books in a workshop called From Reader to Illustrator.
“I always come home with a bunch of new, practical ideas that can be implemented right away,” said Aleksandra Klitenik, a kindergarten teacher at PS 58 in Carroll Gardens, who is a regular participant at the annual conference. “And exchanging ideas is the best way to learn.”