Giving The Students Control

Today we went on our year-end trip to the African Lion Safari. One of the first questions that appears on a field trip form is what expectations will be met by this trip? Since field trips are supposed to be for educational purposes, I always try to have my students complete a follow-up activity after we come back from a trip. Usually the students write a journal entry or a blog post. Since our trip to the African Lion Safari was our final field trip for the year, and it was on a Friday too, I wasn’t sure what kind of follow-up activity to do, but I thought that I would come up with something on Monday.

Then today I was amazed! Just as we were boarding the bus this morning, one of my Grade 2 students said to me, “Miss Dunsiger, I’m so excited! I packed a notebook to bring with me on the trip. I’m going to write down everything that I learned today!” Wow! What a great idea! I figured that this student might record one or two points that he could share once we got back to school. On the bus ride home though, he showed me his notebook. He had 10 pages full of notes detailing what he learned today. I was amazed!

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Click on this photograph to take you to an online book of this student’s work. Please note that some pages may be difficult to read because of the glare.

I never asked any of my students to do this, but based on interest alone, this child created one of the best field trip activities ever! He made this day about learning, and it’s clear that he learned a lot. To me, this is a great example of why we have to give students control over their own learning, for often they will amaze us with what they can do.

On Monday, we’ll be reflecting on today’s trip. Thanks to this student, I’m not going to just give one follow-up activity, but instead I’m going to make some suggestions and see what the students do. I can’t wait to see what they share!


Saying Goodbye

I’ve always found it difficult to say “goodbye,” and this year is no different. This year though, I’ll be saying goodbye to an administrator that has really made a huge impact on me and on my students. Bev Laporte, our fantastic principal, is retiring in a week. Bev, I’m going to miss you!

I’ve been trying to think of the perfect way to say, “goodbye.” I started to think about what I might want when I retire, and I realized that the best gift of all would be to know that I made a difference. Bev, you’ve made a difference. Here’s my Top 5 List (in no particular order) of What You’ve Taught Me Over Your Years At Ancaster Meadow:

1) You taught me that students come first. Every decision that you make, you make with the students in mind. You really showed me the importance of thinking of students and their needs, and planning based on what is best for them.

2) You taught me the importance of having fun. Whether getting a pie in the face at Spring Fling or helping to paper mache dinosaur eggs in the classroom, you always saw the importance of laughing and learning.

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3) You taught me that learning never stops. You model this in all that you do too. You always read the blog post links that I send you and the ideas that I share, and you’re always willing to try something new. You see the importance in “change,” and you helped me see this as well!

4) You taught me the importance of slowing down and really listening. I’m a talker. I didn’t start talking until I was almost four, and my parents love to tell me now that I’m “making up for lost time.”:) Sometimes as a talker, I forget the importance of stopping and listening. The two of us have had so many wonderful conversations over the years, and it was by listening that I learned the most!

5) You taught me to set high goals and do everything that I can to achieve them. Even when the goals seemed out of reach, you were always there to let me talk and encourage me along the way. You believed in me, and you reminded me about the importance of believing in my students. We both benefited!

Bev, you’ve helped me become a leader, and you’ve encouraged my students to lead too. I know that I’m a better teacher because of you!


But I Need Help Too!

When I was in the Faculty of Education, I had a placement in a Grade 4/5 class. I taught science all afternoon on rotary, and I worked with a teacher that had her Masters Degree in science. She knew it all. And I struggled in science … I mean I really struggled! We were teaching Rocks and Minerals at the time, and students had to conduct different tests to identify various rocks and minerals. I had an answer guide, but the rock and mineral samples kept on getting mixed up. One student was certain that he was holding a diamond sample, and while I knew that this didn’t make sense, I also couldn’t figure out any reason to tell him that he was wrong. I was at such a loss. I’ve really never felt more unsure of myself as a teacher. Every night, I went home and I studied. I read everything there was to read about science, and I tried to educate myself enough to answer all of the student questions on this subject. I really felt like I needed to know it all.

I’ve been teaching for almost 10 full years now, and until this year, I always felt like it was my job to be the “expert” on everything. The students were looking to me for all of the answers. My job was to have them. Then things changed. Thanks to my amazing Professional Learning Network (PLN) on Twitter, I learned that it’s okay if I don’t know it all. I learned that students can teach each other too and that it’s okay to ask for help.

All of my students know that I have limited artistic skills. When the year started, I used to demonstrate all of the art lessons, but my demonstrations often led to more questions than answers. I was frustrated, and my students were too. Then I started seeing how many talented artists I have in my class. I started to get help from these students. I would let them model what to do, and the quality of all of the art improved.

Tonight though, I realized the value in admitting that I need help. As the year comes to an end, I’m trying to get some student work organized to send off to the Ancaster Fair. I brought home the work tonight along with the fair tickets too. After I finished filling out the tickets, I stared at them and at the work. Then I looked again. I just couldn’t figure out how to attach the tags. I tried all kinds of different options, but nothing seemed to work. Finally I emailed the staff and asked for help. As I sent off the email, I felt this funny feeling inside. I felt like a failure.

Then I got this lovely email from an Educational Assistant (EA) that works in the classroom. She said to me, “Aviva, don’t worry! I’ll help you with this tomorrow.” I know that this is a small thing, but this EA’s email made me feel so much better. She didn’t make me feel like I failed. She reminded me that it’s okay to ask for help.

That’s when I thought of my students. I think that students need to see us asking for help. I think that we need to model that we don’t have all of the answers. This doesn’t make us failures; this makes us better teachers. Tonight, I know how my students feel when they’re struggling, and I hope that I always give them the same wonderful support as this EA gave me!

When have you struggled? How do you think that this has made you a better teacher? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


The One Thing That Matters In Education

After school on Friday, I was quickly cleaning up my classroom before heading off to my brother-in-law’s graduation party. Just as I started, I heard a voice in the doorway that said, “Hi, Miss Dunsiger.” I turned. It was a previous student of mine. I taught him in Kindergarten, and now here he was, standing in front of me, already in Grade 5. He’s not at the school anymore, but he came back for a visit, and he wanted to say, “hello.” We stood and talked for about five minutes, and while he kicked around a soccer ball, we talked about what he’s learning in school and the sports that he’s playing. He was happy, and he was excited to come back and talk. I love that!

As a teacher, I want to make connections with my students. I want them to love school, and I want them to want to come each day. Over the years, I’ve had many student teachers, and I’ve told all of them the same thing: “You need to be genuine with the students. They need to know that you care about them. Forming these relationships is important.” Seeing this student yesterday reminded me of this. In education, we can be pulled in many directions, but there’s only one thing that really matters … the children.

Thank you to this wonderful student that reminded me of the importance of this. As the year quickly comes to an end, I want to thank all of my students for making each and every day at school a wonderful one.


Finally I Understand: How My Opinion Of “Play” Has Changed

As many of you know, I was a Kindergarten teacher for 8 years before I moved to Grade 1, and now to a Grade 1/2 class. I loved teaching Kindergarten. When I started teaching it, I thought that I would never move out of it. There were a number of reasons that I chose to change grades, but a bit part of it was the Full Day Early Learning Kindergarten (ELK) model. As a Grade 1 teacher last year, I was part of group that offered feedback on the program expectations for the ELK Program, and I had some reservations. Yes, I had some problems with full days of “play.”

Please don’t get me wrong. I have always been a teacher that sees the value in hands-on learning. Up until this year though, my vision of hands-on learning always meant structured play. This hands-on learning was always very teacher-directed, and even though I always differentiated activities, I always did the differentiating. To me, I saw a play-based Kindergarten program as organized chaos, and I couldn’t understand how students would be academically ready for Grade 1. I knew the philosophy behind the ELK Program, but I wasn’t sure that being a part of it was right for me. Even though our school doesn’t have full-day Kindergarten yet, I knew that it was coming, so I thought that it was better to leave before it did.

And then Thursday came along. I had an epiphany on Thursday. As a culminating task for our Structures Unit in Grade 1 and our Simple Machines Unit in Grade 2, I had two different Science activities set-up for the afternoon. The Grade 1’s were working in partners to make a straw, stick, or brick house that would protect the Three Little Pigs from the Big Bad Blowdryer. The Grade 2’s were making a wind-powered car: applying what they learned about wheels and axles. (Please visit the individual student blogs for videos of these activities.) As the students went off to work, I sat back, and I started taking photographs. Then I went around, sat down with different groups of students, asked them questions about what they were doing, and helped them when necessary. The classroom was bustling! There was lots of activity, tons of talk, and all kinds of awesome teamwork. Students were being creative, they were coming up with new ways of solving problems, they were creating some of their own extensions, and they were “playing” while also learning too.

That’s when I knew: students can learn through play. Play doesn’t need to be chaotic, and it doesn’t need to just be screaming, car crashes, and knocking over blocks. Students can direct purposeful play too. They can experiment, they can explore, they can question, and while doing all of this, they can learn. Even with the activities that we did in class, the students drew diagrams of their plans (science and art), labelled their work (writing), and discussed what they would add or change the next time (oral language). They even extended their learning, like this one student, that went home that night and created a video of testing her car at home. She almost created her own advertisement for this car too (media literacy). The possibilities really are endless!

So knowing what I know now, do I want to go back to teaching Kindergarten? No, because I would love to extend the play-based learning that the students are getting in Kindergarten into the early primary grades too. I’m glad that I had this epiphany though, and that I now see things the way that I do.

What do you think about play-based learning? How does play-based learning look in your classroom? How do you want it to look? I would love to know your thoughts!