On a recent winter evening, a group of Cortland-area early childhood educators met to learn about the importance of integrating movement and learning.
Led by Diane Craft, a SUNY Cortland professor of physical education, the group tried their hand at activities they can do in their own settings with easily available materials. Each participant took home a new understanding of the connection between physical activity and brain development, activities they could put into practice right away, and a copy of Craft’s internationally recognized book Active Play!
Since September 2017, SUNY Cortland’s School of Education has collaborated with The Child Development Council, a regional early childhood support agency, to offer these free, monthly Wise Wednesdays workshops that bring together professional facilitators, teacher education faculty, pre-K and kindergarten teachers, childcare center staff and home daycare owners, to do continuing education together.
The lifelong process of learning begins in early childhood, said the series organizer, Alexis Abramo, a former teacher who serves as a staff associate with SUNY Cortland’s School of Education.
“What happens in those crucial months and years is the foundation for a child’s eventual outcomes in kindergarten and elementary school, which is why it is so important that early childhood professionals — those who care for and teach children birth to age 5 — have professional development that is high-quality, relevant and accessible.”
This year, the sessions are on the second Wednesday of the month and run from 6 to 8 p.m. at the New York State Grange building in Cortland, where the Child Development Council is housed. Wise Wednesdays begin with a free meal because many participants are coming straight from a long work day. The meal provides an informal time before the workshop to network, share experiences and learn from colleagues.
“If you have a home daycare, you have to complete continuing education requirements, but because you are caring for children all day, you will probably do that alone in the evenings on the internet,” Abramo said.
“And you will have to pay out of pocket. If you are a pre-K or kindergarten teacher in a school, you will attend school professional development, but that might be aimed more toward elementary and high school teachers and feel really irrelevant to your early childhood classroom.”
In New York state, pre-K and kindergarten teachers who work in schools need continuing education credits through the state Education Department, whereas child care center and home daycare staff receive theirs from the Office of Family and Children’s Services.
“One thing this partnership allows us to do is offer both groups the continuing education credits they need,” Abramo said.
Finding the time and money to strengthen their skills can be an obstacle for both groups. Of course, online continuing education programs exist.
“But there’s a real value in in-person, face-to-face, interpersonal contact in a professional development setting,” Abramo said.
She landed a $15,000 grant through SUNY’s TeachNY Implementation Fund to support the program’s overhead and make it possible to continue holding the sessions for free to participants. Abramo also organized and oversees the project, titled “Partnering to Offer High Quality Professional Development in Early Childhood Education.”
“Too often continuing education programs are more like training that lets them tick the box,” Abramo said. “Hopefully, this is treating them more like professionals. You have everyone in the same room: teacher education faculty who are thinking about best practices and the latest research, pre-K and kindergarten teachers who see things from a school perspective. And child care staff that are trying to bridge the world of home and school. And they all have something to learn and something to teach the others.”
Participants get an insight into kids that are coming into the school system. Child care staff get to hear what issues teachers are facing and how they can help get kids ready for school. Faculty who are preparing the next generation of early childhood educators are able to make connections and stay current with what’s going on in the field.
“Not to mention that SUNY Cortland is preparing a lot of teachers,” Abramo said. “We’re always looking for great placements for student teachers, so having a good relationship with the PK-12 schools around here is good for a university that does a lot of teacher education.”
SUNY Cortland faculty members with expertise in early childhood education Kim Wieczorek, Tricia Roiger, Kate McCormick and Margaret Gichuru, as well as Stephanie Fritz, director of SUNY Cortland’s Child Care Center, have all lent their expertise to planning the project and leading sessions. Current and retired faculty from many departments have facilitated sessions connecting their fields to early childhood education.
This year, presenters have included SUNY Cortland physical education professors Diane Craft (emeritus) and Aaron Hart. Professional facilitators included Stephanie Fritz, who discussed the historical context of America’s professional child care industry and its political and social implications; Anne Withers, director of the Child Development Council, who discussed developmentally appropriate practices for art in early childhood, and Regi Carpenter, who taught the use of stories for learning. Facilitating future Wise Wednesdays will be: Jessica Custer-Bindel, discussing dual language learners in the early childhood classroom; Leigh MacDonald-Rizzo, on the importance of a play-based curriculum; and Tammy Goddard, who will share techniques for addressing challenging behavior.
Wise Wednesdays began under the Teacher Leader Quality Partnerships (TLQP) grant. Abramo joined the university in 2010 as a grant coordinator in the Childhood/Early Childhood Education Department and managed the TLQP grant. The program has been continued through a variety of sources, including funds from the Child Development Center and the SUNY Cortland School of Education. The most recent university and school partnership continues the connections forged during the years of the earlier funding.
“In the first year, our theme was outdoor, out loud, active play,” Abramo said. “Last year, our focus was social-emotional learning and mindfulness. This year, has been a variety of things, but with the TeachNY grant, our focus going forward will be on equity and access for all kids.”
As part of the grant, Abramo is working to include SUNY Cortland students. Next year, early childhood education majors will be offered incentives to attend and bring their host teachers.
“We are all excited about the school-college partnerships and outcomes that this work will generate,” said Andrea Lachance, dean of the School of Education.
For more information, dates and details of upcoming Wise Wednesdays, contact Alexis Abramo at 607-753-4352.