On Teaching: What Makes a Preschool Education Work

When I visited Palacios in Corpus Christi in the spring of 2018, I asked her to reflect on the most essential building blocks of a high-quality preschool program. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Kristina Rizga: How did your teaching improve after your first decade in the classroom?

Rebecca Palacios: The biggest shift was that I learned how to integrate multiple subject areas into a very visual, oral, tactile, thematically integrated lesson environment, where it wasn’t just me talking to children. Early on in my career, my teaching was more splintered and not as engaging for children: Now it’s reading time; now it’s math time; now it’s science time.

Around that time, several teachers and I created the district curriculum based on the theme of families. Every two weeks, there was a new theme about family: my family; my school family; family celebrations and traditions; families on a farm; animal, insect and plant families. As we were learning about families living on a farm, we would integrate math by learning about the shapes of the buildings on a farm: the silo, the triangles in front of the barn door. We would teach seasons of the year as science, as well as the life-cycle of animals on a farm, and how the farmer prepares, plants, and rotates crops. And then for social studies, we would explore the farmer’s job, farm-to-market systems, and the transportation pieces that support the work. And then back to math again: How many wheels does each car have? And throughout every piece, you are developing vocabulary and literacy.

The more a teacher integrates subjects thematically, the more she can review and reinforce similar concepts over time. You are making important connections and correlations. For example: Ants have a home, and here is how the seasons affect their work and life. Look, they go down under the ground, and they close their door. Just like the farmer, who closed up the field. And you rhyme, decode, sound, and blend new letters and words—building phonemic awareness around a theme.

Building it all together for young children just became so much more fun, engaging, and meaningful to them than me just saying, “Okay, now we’re going to read this book, and let’s just clap these words”—if the words have no connection to anything in children’s minds.

Rizga: At the age of four, what knowledge, skills, and dispositions are most essential to learn?

Palacios: I felt my job was to build reading, math, science, social studies, art, and music into engaging learning experiences that helped the child develop vocabulary and made them want to come to school. If they have the vocabulary, and they understand what that vocabulary actually means, they will be able to be great readers.

But you can’t just read and decode. If you can’t picture the word in your head, there’s no comprehension. If you’re reading a book about animals and plants and you can decode ‘lion’—but you’ve had no experience with what a lion is—then you’ve lost the comprehension. People in Corpus Christi knew that I was always looking for materials to create learning environments. I had a professor once call me and say, “I heard you do a lot of science, and I have petrified wood. Would you like it?” I said, “Absolutely!” You can’t teach four-year-olds by talking; you have to show them. “These are ancient pieces of wood. These are sedimentary rocks. This is how friction, momentum, inertia work.” I wanted low-income children to use the language that kids on the other side of the town were hearing, and I’d bring pulleys, weights, rocks—whatever it took for them to visualize and manipulate different ideas.

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