Facing My Pink Elephant

My previous vice principal, Kristi, is one of my favourite bloggers. I go back and review her blog posts often, and in fact, many of them inspire me to reflect more. As I was doing some planning this morning, I couldn’t help but think about Kristi’s “pink elephant” blog post. You see, I’m having my own, “What am I teaching kids …?,” moments.

Last week, one of the Grade 2 teachers brought over two big garbage bags of various branches and rocks that the Grade 2s used for a Visual Arts activity. One of the Grade 6 students at our school has been coming down for a few weeks now to teach my students about dinosaurs. He’s inspired my students to want to create a Jurassic Park, and is even willing to come and teach them how to create plasticine dinosaurs for the area. He modelled how to create one a couple of weeks ago.

As soon as the students saw the natural items in the garbage bags, they were eager to create the Jurassic Park. To help tie this learning to our Social Studies expectations on communities, I thought that we could look at creating a Hamilton Jurassic Park.

  • What might Hamilton have looked like back in the dinosaur days?
  • How might the different areas in our Hamilton Jurassic Park meet the needs of the various dinosaurs?
  • What areas in our current city might be best suited for these areas in our Hamilton Jurassic Park? Why?

We even went on a walk in our community, and looked at the different types of areas that we could see: from park areas with more trees and grass, to areas with just sidewalks and buildings. Students even spoke about areas that they’ve visited outside of the immediate community: from different waterfalls to water parks, and even nature trails. Coming back from our walk and conversing about what we knew and wondered, helped the students realize the value in making a Hamilton Jurassic Park Plan. Yesterday, our Dinosaur Action Committee formed, and students started researching, thinking, and planning for this Jurassic Park. Before they left for the day, they even asked if they could finish their planning on Monday. Absolutely! They are very eager to start creating!

This is where I’m struggling.

  • How much time will we spend on creating the Hamilton Jurassic Park?
  • How can I get my students to think deeply before, during, and after the creation process?
  • How can I get my students to see the links to our Visual Arts, Science, Social Studies, Language, and Math expectations, and reflect on their own learning?
  • While I see the tremendous value to using Visual Arts as an instructional strategy, how does this activity become different than the hours spent on creating a fancy bristol board display?
  • What happens once the display is made? Where is the real world (or meaningful) learning?

I know that my students often choose to express themselves through the Arts. I also know that some students still struggle with spatial reasoning, and this activity would allow them to work on these skills: both through the creation and layout of the environment and the dinosaurs. I think that the key to the learning is going to be in the thoughtful interactions between students, and my questions to students before, during, and after the process. Good reflection questions are going to be very important. I think that there could be an opportunity to make this activity more meaningful by sharing our learning with the Kindergarten students (that are also very interested in dinosaurs and have been exploring nature more). My students love connecting with other groups of students, so this could be an opportunity to do so. Maybe we could even give our Hamilton Jurassic Park to one of the Kindergarten classes … providing another reason for the creation of it.

I love that the students are passionate about what we’re doing, and are taking control of this activity: from the planning to the creation. The conversations yesterday showed me just how much thinking and learning is possible. But still I sit here and wonder, is this Hamilton Jurassic Park just a “pink elephant” in disguise? What do you think? If it is, how can I still honour my students’ interests and passions? What would you do? I’ll admit that it makes me uncomfortable to put my plans out there, with an uncertainty of how people will feel, but as Heidi Siwak shares, we learn so much from the negative feedback. It’s time to face that pink elephant.


Please “See” What I “See!”

My classroom is the middle room in a pod. It’s usually very quiet. I don’t get too many visitors that I don’t expect, and sometimes, even when I expect visitors, they don’t come. Today was different though. This morning, there were lots of people — some that work at the school and some that work at outside agencies — that came by for different reasons. At the various times that they arrived, we were working through a Math/Science (Structures)/Visual Arts problem. Students were inspired by the work of George Hart, and they used a variety of different materials to create structures, three-dimensional figures, and/or abstract art in much of Hart’s style. This morning was about problem solving, persevering, and applying learning from Math, Science, and Visual Arts in new ways.

When people walked into the classroom this morning, their eyes were drawn to the mess. I can’t blame them! It looked like all of the craft materials from The Dollar Store threw up on our carpet and floor (and I’m not exaggerating). I ignored the mess because I knew that the students would clean it all up (and they did, in only 10 minutes), and because I heard and saw all of the thinking that was shared during this exploration (like that which is shared below).



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But what about the people that didn’t hear this thinking, see the curriculum links, and understand this learning? What did they see?

I know that I do things differently. I tell myself that we don’t all have to be the same, that others aren’t judging me, and that what I’m doing makes the biggest impact on the people that matter the most: the students. But then as I set-up for the afternoon on my prep time or reflect on my day after school or on the way home, I can’t help but wonder, do people see what I see in this “messy learning?” If not, how could I change perceptions?  We don’t all have to be the same, but sometimes it’s hard to be “different.”


Learning From Today; Looking Ahead To “Tomorrow”

Today, I had the pleasure of visiting Nancy and Debra‘s Kindergarten Class at Earl Kitchener School. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m thrilled to be going back to Kindergarten next year, and I was really glad that I could visit this classroom today with my amazing partner. Nancy and Debra run an incredible program that truly honours the developmental needs, the learning needs, and the voice of the child. Today’s visit, followed up by the conversation with my partner, really has me thinking tonight.

Here’s my thinking and learning after today:

  • Students need large blocks of time to learn. This is not the first time that I’ve thought this, and this is something that I’ve tried to work on even in Grade 1 this year. But this time needs to come with less “teacher talk time” and more “kid talk time.” This morning, the Kindergarten students came into the classroom around 9:00. They were playing and interacting with each other until almost 10:30. There was a 2 minute instruction given at the beginning of the day, and the students came together for about 3 minutes to read and talk about a note at the end. Something amazing happened when the students did meet though: all 30 of them were quiet, focused, engaged, ready to contribute, and ready to learn. Maybe the open-ended “play time” helps with self-regulation.
  • The classroom environment needs to change to meet the needs of the students. Today, we saw students beginning their day with writing their “play plans” and then going off to play. Nancy mentioned though that at the beginning of the year, students started by meeting on the carpet, talking, engaging with puzzles, books, or other materials, and then starting to play. The play plans started when students were ready to write them. I never asked today, but I wonder if this starting time may have been different for different students. Then again though, I saw students completing their plans with sentences only, pictures and sentences, and pictures and individual words. That’s differentiation. 

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  • We can all learn something from Kindergarten. Over the years, there are many things that I’ve learned from watching and listening to Kindergarten teachers. Today’s “play plan” has me thinking of something that I’d like to try in Grade 1 as well. I really like the idea of students planning out their time and committing to something that they want to do. This would also allow them to think about what they’d like to learn. A play plan is an authentic reason to write and/or communicate ideas. Why wait until next year to give this a try? Look out for my modified version coming next week.
  • School can, and should, feel like home. Maybe it was the colour choices in the room. Maybe it was the furnishings. Maybe it was the excited buzz of discussion in the air. Maybe it was the pieces of home (from dolls to small toys) that made it into the classroom. Whatever it was, the room felt warm, cozy, safe, and like a place that I would want to be … and want to stay. I appreciate this as an adult. I can only imagine how the children feel.
  • Students benefit from authentic reasons to learn. Sometimes these are bigger real world reasons, and sometimes they’re reasons that are important to their world. All learning that happens in Nancy and Debra’s class has a purpose. The students understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. They’re learning important skills (e.g., subtraction), but in a context (e.g., figuring out the number of students in the class today). Students are constantly challenged to think, to communicate, to problem solve, and to move beyond the, “I don’t know,” to the “I can try.” 

That should have read, "Yes, flatten it down more."


That should have read, “Yes, flatten it down more.”


  • Oral language has to come first. Students need talking time. They need opportunities to play with language. They need to have the vocabulary to understand words, to predict words, and to read words. Reading and writing are important, but the skills won’t develop without this oral language time first. Depending on students, this may mean that some students are ready to read and write before others. I think students need to be immersed in language. I think they need to see print wherever they go. I think that a paper and a pencil — even at the blocks or with the dolls — can maybe invite writing, but we can’t force writing. We don’t want to cause frustration. We don’t want students to shut down. We want to build success. 
  • Academics don’t need to be separate from play. Play time is learning time. I was only in Nancy and Debra’s class for a couple of hours this morning, but here’s just some of what I saw (all of which are curriculum expectations): listening to and communicating with others, using resources to help write, writing simple messages, understanding of letter-names and sounds, one-to-one correspondence, counting (and subitizing), non-standard units of measure, understanding of two-dimensional shapes and three-dimensional figures, knowledge of living things, exploring tools (e.g., dolls) to create drama, using different tools (e.g., paint, paper, clay) to create works of art, and more social language skills than I can list. To plan for our students, we don’t need a program guide. We don’t need blackline masters or photocopied sheets. We need to know our students, know the expectations, invite learning, and listen enough to move kids forward. All of this can happen through play.
  • Assessment is valuable. Documenting student learning, and using this documentation to plan ahead, is even more valuable. Today, I saw Nancy and Debra talking to students. I saw them writing down what students shared. I even noticed that they tweeted out a PicCollage sharing one of the discussions. I also saw Nancy doing a more formalized assessment: DRA. I think there’s value in collecting all of this data, and using it to help plan for students. At our school, we use Dibels as well, and I actually think it has some overlapping purposes. Just like DRA, Dibels can be an assessment tool. Yes, there are blackline masters that can be used to review the skills, but do we need to use them? Why not teach these skills in context? Oral language does not require a printed paper follow-up activity. Reading does not always mean a book: poems, songs, maps, Pokemon cards, comic strips, and posters can all be read. Writing doesn’t need to happen on photocopied lines, separate from play time: students can write lists, write reminder notes, create signs, write plans, and write stories, all while playing. I’m convinced that all of this integrated, meaningful learning will help students develop their skills, whether seen through observation and documentation or standardized assessments.

I don’t know what awaits me next year. Just like this year, maybe our initial plans will have to change based on our students. But also, just like this year, as the students grow and their skills change, our program can adapt to meet their needs. Our visit today showed me what play-based learning can look like. I love the possibilities, and I certainly learned a lot from the opportunity to see a program in action. Regardless of grade, how do you make play-based learning work in your classroom? What have you learned from this approach to teaching and learning? I’d love to hear about your experiences.


Hallway Noise

The students are very excited about maps and using them to explore our community. On Friday morning, they quickly congregated around the paper maps, Google Earth on the iPads, and Google Maps on the computers to start checking out favourite locations and directions to different places. There were lots of great conversations all captured in our Daily Shoot Blog Post.  While students were pointing out lots of landmarks in the community, they were not consistently using directional language to explain how to get from one place to another. Why? Meeting back with the class as a group helped me figure out the problem: many of them were confusing left and right. I taught the children the little hand trick to help them with this (an “L” versus a “backwards L”), but then I wanted them to apply what they learned. We decided to go on a quick walk through the school in search of different locations (e.g., the library, the gym, the office), while also looking at the locations of various landmarks along the way. Students know that I struggle with directions, so I often ask for help, and today they were going to help me out. They were so excited! I grabbed the iPad, and they directed me around the school.

The only problem? It was loud! I tried to encourage whisper voices, but the students were thrilled to show me around, and that excitement resulted in some noise. You can hear me shushing constantly — way more than I wanted — but as we were walking, all I could think about was that teachers were going to start to close their doors. We were interrupting classes. People were going to be mad at us. We passed the first door with our loud voices, and as you can hear in the video below, a teacher did come out, but she wasn’t mad. She wanted to know more about what we were doing, and in fact, even spoke to me later about how engaged the children sounded. 

I think that we always need to be respectful of learning that’s happening, but for my class on Friday, that learning was happening in the hallway. Students weren’t yelling to be disruptive: their discussions were on-task, and they were all actively involved in the activity. Their words were also the perfect diagnostic assessment on directional language and landmark identification.  

  • Maybe I needed to worry less about the noise.
  • Maybe I didn’t need to view doors closing as a bad thing, but as an option that classes could use to reduce the noise if necessary.
  • Maybe if we take our learning to the hallway sometimes, we’ll learn about new approaches from each other, and this learning will impact on our teaching practices as well as benefit our students.

I don’t think we want to encourage students to scream in the halls or have loud personal discussions when other students are learning, but maybe we need to reconsider “learning space.” How can we help students learn during “travel time?” Is it okay to sometimes make a little noise? What do you think? I know that my pointing option helped stop the noise, but it also stopped what I was learning about student needs. I didn’t gain as much information from a finger as I did from a conversation. I wish I could go back and tell my class that the talking time was okay. I think that if I had the choice, I would do just that.


What If We Responded Differently?

Twice a week, I do indoor lunch duty. I supervise four classrooms of students while they eat their lunch. Every time I do this duty, I promise myself that I’m going to blog about it, and up until this point, I haven’t, but today I am writing this post. I should mention here that I supervise young students — often those in Grades 1 and 2. I also only supervise during the second nutrition break, so it’s getting later in the day, and many of the children are getting tired. But my interactions with all students make me wonder if we — as educators and parents — could try a different approach.

Here’s a sample of just some of the many requests, questions, and “big, big problems, Miss Dunsiger,” that I am regularly asked to address.

  • ________ touched my lunch bag.
  • Can I move to sit beside _________? There’s nobody sitting there.
  • Can I throw out my garbage?
  • _________ is humming/singing/talking. Please make him/her stop.
  • _________ put his/her lunch away … and the bell hasn’t gone yet.
  • _________ ate his/her candy first.
  • _________ is sitting beside me. I want to sit beside __________ instead though.
  • _________ said a bad word. (After further investigation, not once has this word actually been a bad one.)
  • _________ has a toy. Is he/she allowed a toy? What if I have a toy that I want to play with too?
  • _________’s face looks mean. I don’t like that face. 
  • _________ didn’t stand beside me in line, but he/she is my friend. Why didn’t _________ stand beside me then?

I will admit that none of these problems take long to solve, and without a doubt, in the minds of six-year-olds, they are all problems that matter. But are they problems that adults have to solve? What if, instead of solving them, we asked the children: how would you solve themUp until now, I’ll admit that I’ve addressed all of these problems and more, but I can’t help but wonder, if we aren’t teaching children how to solve small problems, how will they solve bigger ones? Is “waiting until they’re older” the solution, or is it better to start now? As June approaches and we begin our last month of school, I’m thinking that I want to address these small problems differently than before: I want to give children ownership over them. Who’s with me?