What’s possible beyond Kindergarten?

A combination of unrelated events on Friday have me thinking about teaching, learning, and just how much control we can give to kids. Let me explain.

Friday morning started with some letter investigations. This child-driven, letter interest is happening indoors and outdoors, and even leading to letter-talk as students solve problems among the trees. 

This letter interest continues to evolve. A. started this morning by showing me the Y stick she found. Then E. found a U that he turned around into a C. F. joined in with an L stick, and then other students found and discussed additional letter sticks. They even started combining them to make new letters like X and a “lowercase y,” as E. mentioned. Then individual sticks were used to make an A, and we discussed words that have A in them. M. found an L stick too. Compared it to the number 1. So we could then discuss letters versus numbers. After school today, @paulacrockett and I discussed a way to further this letter-stick interest indoors and connect it with more letter-sounds and words. SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #iteachk #teachersofinstagram #ctinquiry

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As you can hear in our conversations, we are trying to move from identifying individual letters to making connections with sounds and words. We extend this learning differently depending on the child and his/her strengths and needs. But for the first time in my life, this reading and writing exploration is not being pushed by me. Paula and I waited for the students to notice what they could do with the sticks and the letters that they could find in our natural world. It’s really quite amazing to hear the letter-sound talk that is part of our forest play almost every single day. Students are inspiring each other to look at sticks differently, and see how they can even use their bodies to create letters and words. Being a part of this experience this year makes me wonder if given enough time, enough experiences, and enough opportunities to interact with each other, if students may naturally land on some of the academic areas that we often push. Will student interest take this learning to a richer, deeper level if coupled by our questioning and direct teaching (when and if necessary)?

I contemplated similar questions during some math experiences on Friday. These experiences started out in the forest, when two children had a problem sitting on a stump. One child felt as though he almost “fell off the stump” because of another child joining him up there. These two looked to me to solve the problem. Instead of doing so, I presented it to them as a possible math problem. Is there enough room on the stump for two people? This led to a great discussion around measurement, and some math thinking that continued even after I left. 

One of these children was involved in another math problem in the afternoon, when he wanted to help cover part of the bulletin board, so that students could continue to share some of their thinking around the planets and the environment. He told me that he wanted to cut the paper, and I asked him, “How are we going to know how much we need?” This led to choosing a non-standardised tool to measure (he picked straws without me leading him there), estimating the length required, stapling the paper up, and then reflecting on his estimation to the actual length of paper needed. As seen in one of the videos, I did do a little direct teaching around which way we measure, and we talked more about this later: exploring length versus height. While I knew that my question around comparing the actual length to the estimated length would lead to a conversation about fractions, I did not expect another child to chime in and talk about “a quarter” versus “a half.” His fraction knowledge exceeded my expectations. This was a great reminder to me about the point in the Kindergarten Program Document that children are “competent and capable of complex thought.” We always need to remember this!

All of these experiences made me think of some conversations I’ve had over the years about the play-based Kindergarten Program Document. Often educators have expressed to me concerns that I’ve also had in the past.

  • What if children never choose to do math?
  • What if they don’t show an interest in reading or writing?

I’m starting to wonder though if this would even be possible. While we don’t direct the children to do specific activities or engage in specific tasks, we do help set-up the environment to naturally connect with reading, writing, oral language, problem solving, and math opportunities. There really isn’t a way to avoid these options. And since we try hard not to solve problems for kids, children often need to engage in meaningful problem solving opportunities if they want things to change or they want to get certain things done. 

  • Do you want to save your Lego creations? Write about them.
  • Do you want others to know what you’re thinking? Make a sign.
  • Do you need more materials or different materials? Make me a list.
  • How are we going to know which person gets what milk? Get a Sharpie. Read the list of names. Write one name on each carton of milk.
  • Do you want to help hand out the pizza? Read the list of names. What kind does each person get? How many slices?
  • Do you want to create artwork? Title it. All of the professional artists do. 
  • Do you want to change around dramatic play? Do you have a new idea? Tell us about it. Write it down. Make me a list of what we need, and how to rearrange the furniture. Where will everything go?
  • Did you create a house in the block space? How will we know what everything is, and why it needs to stay there? Make us a list. Label your creations. Create a floor plan. Or make a PicCollage, so if the house is destroyed, you can always rebuild it the next day. 

Our classroom is full of clipboards, labels, Sharpie markers, pencils, coloured markers, crayons, books, and paper. Students know where to find our few iPads if they want to create a PicCollage to preserve their work or search for information online. We’ve modelled for them and taught them that we “write to communicate,” and so students do just that! 

We also try to show students that math is not something we do in isolation, but a way that we can share thinking and solve problems. Math talk (and wonders) happen everywhere, and are often driven by kids. 

I’ve taught older grades (right up to Grade 6), and I know that the increased number and complexity of expectations can make this kind of play-based approach a more challenging option. But I wonder what happens when we watch and listen to kids, and take their lead to explore meaningful math problems and authentic reasons to write.

I can’t help but think about many of Rhonda Urfey’s blog posts. Rhonda is currently a Grade 6 teacher in our Board, and as you will see in her posts, she takes some of the Kindergarten philosophy and extends it to this older grade. Everything may not be play-based or inquiry-based, but she definitely connects a lot of the learning to topics that matter to kids. She elicits some great thinking and problem solving in the process. There’s something to be said for this. What about you? Our Kindergarten students amaze me on a daily basis with how they think and what they can do, and I can’t help but wonder if given the time, the support, the diverse experiences, and an educator’s thorough understanding of the curriculum, if the K philosophy could extend well beyond this two-year program. Anybody else trying this or willing to give it a try? Let’s continue to believe in kids, as they have so much wonderful to share!


What would they say?

This week, a mom and her daughter created this sign for our classroom. 

I happened to be out at a meeting when she presented this sign to the class, but when I got back and saw what was shared, I had to hold back my tears. Why?

This, to me, is everything that Paula and I strive for in a classroom. I love how there’s not one mention of academics, and yet, every skill mentioned here is what makes academic growth possible. This sign shows …

  • that relationships are paramount.
  • that we all support each other.
  • that children feel safe to take risks, and we encourage this risk-taking.
  • that we believe in the power of perseverance, and children also believe in it.
  • that school is a wonderful place to be, and that in this environment, children will always feel loved. 

I’ve never asked parents before for their view of the classroom, but after this, I just might start. This child’s sign made me think about how I would want others to view our room, and how they do. What might other parents put on their signs? Do their words align with our view of teaching and learning, and if not, are there changes we need to make? I wonder if other educators have thought about this as well. What have you asked, and what have you found out? As Donna Miller Fry said in her comment on this post, I think that I’ll also be looking back at this sign often as a reminder of why we do what we do. What about you?



Is it time that we all took on this #studentnamechallenge?

Today, our JK-Grade 2 students went to see Theatre Ancaster’s wonderful performance of Annie. 

As with most Kindergarten field trips, in addition to watching the show, I also spent a lot of time waiting for children outside of the bathroom. The performance was held at Ancaster High School, so as I waited, I ran into many students that I taught before. For nine years, I taught multiple grades at Ancaster Meadow School, and it was many of these students (in addition to some of their siblings) that I saw today. 

When the students shouted out, “Hey, that’s Miss Dunsiger” — or I noticed them — I made sure to say “hi.” I was thrilled that I could call each of these previous students by name. I’ve written before about the positive impact that using names can have on children, but I really saw this today. These students beamed when I used their name. One girl even leaned over to hear friend and said, “She really, really remembers me!” I do. I remember her and her sister, and her mom and her dad. I even remember when she came in for her observation visit back in Junior Kindergarten. 

These memories stick, and today was a great reminder for me that not only are these memories special for me, but they’re special for kids! Thomas Ro, an HWDSB principal, has continued his #studentnamechallenge at his newest school. I love the premise of this challenge, and I love how hard Thomas has worked at learning the names of all of the students. Last week, he sent out a tweet with an update of how many names he’s learned at his new school.

Sue Dunlop, one of our Board’s superintendents, shared his tweet with this very important addition.

I think Sue’s right. Thomas should challenge others to take on this challenge, but not just other administrators. Teachers, caretakers, secretaries, support staff, volunteers, and students around the school, all benefit from taking on Thomas’ challenge. In many ways, a connection starts with a name … and these connections matter! Some happy responses from former students today were a great reminder of just how much these connections mean, even many years later.

What do you do to remember names? What impact does it have on students — past and present — when you call them by their name? I think it’s time for even more of us to take on Thomas’ student name challenge … don’t you?



Is it time to get uncomfortable and re-think assessment and evaluation?

I’m not one to back away from “uncomfortable conversations,” and I think that this blog post may lead to one. Lately though, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about marks, rubrics, feedback, and the role that parents play in this complex process.

As a Kindergarten educator, I thankfully haven’t had to assign marks in a couple of years now. I love how Growing Success: The Kindergarten Addendum focuses on assessment from an asset lens. Assessment is really about knowing where the child is at, his/her biggest area of growth, and what he/she needs to work on to move forward. Learning is seen in a positive light, and students are at the centre of this learning. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the way that learning should be. 

But in the last few months, I’ve had many interesting conversations with other educators about assessment and evaluation thanks to the Reading Part 1 course that I’m taking through our Board. As part of this course, we’ve explored rubrics, Growing Success, and parent communication as it connects to assessment and evaluation practices. It’s through these conversations that I’ve heard many comments that I’ve also heard before.

  • Parents aren’t involved enough in their child’s learning.
  • Rubrics tell parents how their child is doing.
  • Parents respond to bad marks or problem phone calls. 
  • Parents want marks.
  • Children need to know how they’re doing.

These are comments that continue to bother me. Why? I have yet to meet parents that don’t want to know how their child is doing AND aren’t willing to support their child in the best way that they know how. As Aaron Puley reminded me years ago now, we cannot assume that parents know how to support this learning at home. 

  • Are we providing suggestions?
  • Are we making these suggestions accessible to all parents?
  • Are we giving parents and students the time needed to try out these suggestions at home? 

Many families have busy lives. Parents may work shift work. Children may be involved in extracurricular activities. This doesn’t mean that they won’t work on these home suggestions, but may need more than a day to do so, or may benefit from options that can support learning on the go: be it in a car, on a bus, or on a family walk. 

I think that we also live in a world where marks have been the norm for a long time. If we want parents to understand the benefits of feedback or how assessment can be communicated through an asset lens, then we have to introduce them to these other options. We have to talk to them about the benefits of these different approaches. Answer their questions. Read the documents together. Have a good conversation about them … and be willing to have these uncomfortable talks because kids are worth it!

When I was in the Faculty of Education 18 years ago, a professor told me, “Parents give us the best that they have!” Their kids mean the world to them, and they want to know that we care about them as much as they do. Just like educators, parents know the most about what they’re accustomed to. If we’re trying a different approach, we need to communicate this to them, and help them see the benefits of an alternative option. We have to be open to discussion and some new learning together!

Here’s my biggest concern: for as long as I can remember, educators have told kids and parents to “look at the comments. Don’t focus on the marks.” And then, we all seem a little shocked when everyone does the opposite. Why? If we’re toting the benefits of rubrics (largely mark-based) and highlighting problems (instead of successes), wouldn’t people see the most value in a mark that quickly communicates, in a pseudo-standardized way, where their child is at? If we want students and parents to look beyond the mark, maybe we need a less mark-based approach all the way up to the report card. If the grade is the biggest focus, what does that say about how we communicate learning and how others view it? I know that there are pockets of changes happening in Ontario. Is it time to make a gradeless option (at least prior to report cards) an even bigger movement? I think that it just might be.


Let Them Do It!

The other day, I had an epiphany: we really don’t solve problems for our kids. This is new for me. The amount of independence that we build and support in our Kindergarten children at times amazes me. It’s beyond what I’ve done before, and it’s because of my amazing teaching partner, Paula, that our students have gotten to the point that they’re at now. Let me explain.

My epiphany started on Friday morning, when a child came up to us in the forest. Another child was accidentally poked with a stick in the nose, and his nostril was bleeding slightly. The child that was hurt seemed fine, and he slowly came up behind the student that came to tell us about the problem. Paula looked at his nostril, and before she could say or do anything, the girl who approached us said, “I have Kleenex in my pocket. Look: a package!” She then took one out and gave it to her friend. He wiped off his nose, and used a second one just to be sure that all of the blood was gone. The two students then went back to play together. No tears. No additional intervention from us. Problem solved.

Fast forward then to the couple of times that students had to get dressed and undressed for the cold, outdoor weather. It looks as though winter has arrived in Ontario. Trying to get 27 three-, four-, and five-year-olds packed up for home and into snowsuits can be stressful at the best of times, but not if your partner is Paula. Then it’s much calmer. We don’t do the dressing for the students. 

  • Will we talk through problems with them? Yes.
  • Will we suggest friends that can support them? Yes.
  • Will we ensure that there is enough space and time to get ready? Yes.

But with the exception of three zippers that I did up on Friday, I didn’t touch another snowsuit, coat, or pair of boots. I calmly listened to Paula sing, “Who’s going to be ready? Nobody knows but me!,” on repeat. There’s something incredibly soothing about this song … at least for me. And then I watched the children attack the dressing problem.

I had to remind a few students about items left behind, and one child forgot to put on her snow pants and had to start again, but she still managed to do it. A couple of children took longer to finish, and while I’m sure that I could have intervened and sped up the process, I didn’t. Neither did Paula. Even as the other children left with their parents and one child was still getting dressed, I stood at the door and tried to talk him through the rest of the process.

  • Was it stressful? A bit …
  • Was I tempted to intervene? Yes.

But even with dad waiting at the fence, and then slowly making his way into the Kindergarten playground area, I stopped myself from getting this child dressed. For you see, there’s something to be said for independence and problem solving. There’s something to be said for accomplishing a task, even when it’s really hard to do … and for Kindergarten students, getting dressed in snowsuits is a really hard thing to do. So just like Paula, I ask questions, I use visuals, I sing the steps, but I don’t solve problems for the child. 

  • At times, this means that a child goes home without an item.
  • At times, this means that dressing takes longer than usual.
  • At times, this means that we may be delayed in going outside.

But this also means that children leave at the end of the day feeling “competent and capable,” just as our Kindergarten Program Document emphasizes. I think that the value of this feeling outweighs a few misplaced items and additional time. 

I can’t help but think about the times that I’ve heard educators say, “My Grade ____’s can’t solve problems. I need to help them with everything.” I think that I was one of these educators before. But now I wonder if I created these problems. 

  • Did I let the child struggle?
  • Did I give the child time to meet with success?
  • Did I use questions and other prompts to help the child through the problem solving process?

Maybe with our best of intentions to help children, we actually create the problems that we later lament. I think that I needed Paula to help me see the value in the struggle and the benefit of letting kids be independent … even when it can be a frustrating experience for us. I’ve began to wonder, do we intervene because this is what kids need or what we need? What’s the value in the learning that comes from the little, daily struggles and forgotten items along the way? Our Kindergarten children are reminding me just how independent ALL kids can be!