The Path To My #onewordONT Goal

Today I felt inspired to blog. I’ve taken a little break from blogging — and really “academic life” — this week, as I nurse the holiday cold that so many of our students had before the Winter Break. I decided to enjoy this first snowy, cold week of holidays with many great books, lots of coffee, and time with family and friends (at least once the coughing stopped 🙂 ). Then this morning, I started out my day as I always do, reading Doug Peterson‘s daily blog post. From his post, I saw Julie Balen‘s one on #onewordONT words, and I was reminded that I’ve finally decided on my “one word goal” for 2018. 

Just like last year, I felt that it was reflecting on my last one word goal that led me to my next one. For the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time considering “perspective.” This word made it into many of my blog posts, and I think became a lot bigger than I initially intended. I think that “perspective” helped me better understand children’s actions, educator decisions, administrator choices, and even academic topics such as growth in reading. And it was my desire for a little perspective that led to a conversation, that a few weeks later, resulted in this blog post. 

This conversation is a hard one to write about, as I want to respect the privacy of everyone involved. Let’s just say that one day, I had a discussion with a colleague that made me start to question our play-based Kindergarten program and our interpretation of the Program Document. While I love our approach and have seen the benefits for kids, I thought about the contrary message that I heard from another educator, and I wondered if I was missing something here. So I took some time to think, I spoke to this colleague again, and then I asked if I could contact the person that shared this message to find out more. She agreed. And I made a phone call. When I phoned, I was tempted to start by sharing my perspective, but instead, I told her what I heard, and I asked her some questions. These questions changed things. They allowed me to find out more, see things differently, and end the discussion feeling as though the gap between our approaches was actually not much of a gap at all. 

Then I knew that the missing part to my “perspective goal” was questioningYes, I like to ask questions. Almost all of my blog posts are full of them. Kristi Keery Bishop, a principal in our Board, has taught me the value in asking and answering “hard questions.” And while Kristi (and others) have helped me get better at asking questions over the years, I think that I’ve somehow forgotten an important component of this questioning: to be truly open to the answers that come from them. 

  • I want to ask questions to inspire thinking.
  • I want to ask questions to inspire discussion.
  • I want to ask questions to find out more.
  • I want to ask questions that lead to problem solving.

I want to be authentic in the questions that I ask both kids and adults, and open to learning more from the answers that I receive. It will come as no big surprise to many of my blog readers that I often have opinions — sometimes ones that are contrary to popular opinion — and am willing and eager to share what I think. Colleagues know this. Administrators know this. Parents know this. Family and friends know this. My online social network knows this as well. And while I’m not opposed to sharing my thinking, I can’t help but wonder how much speaking up has caused conversations to end instead of begin (or continue). So I wonder about the impact of some well-phrased questions: will they lead to deeper discussions and future changes?

Let 2018 be my year of questioning, wondering, and ultimately finding out more! What’s this year going to be for you?


Our Self-Reg Christmas Play Experience

Yesterday was our Christmas Musical Performance, and I’ll admit that I was nervous. We did our first dress rehearsal on the stage in our costumes that morning, and we had to make some last-minute changes based on the singing, the dancing, and the flow of the play. During our dress rehearsal, we had a Grade 1 class in the audience, and some kids mentioned being nervous with just this small class watching them. How would they feel when hundreds of parents and grandparents filled the seats?

This is when something amazing happened: the students were better than they have ever been before! They sang, they danced, and they even delivered their lines loudly, clearly, and with expression. It was incredible to watch, and I’m even more thrilled now that our Reading Specialist Teacher, Sandy, got the whole performance recorded. 

Now I sit back and wonder, why with such a massive audience, were the students better? My teaching partner, Paula, and I discussed this question after school yesterday, and we’re wondering if Self-Reg played a role. 

Yesterday’s audience was not full of unknowns. It was full of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and community members that love, care for, and support these children and us every day of the year. These people were not looking critically at our performance … they were cheering us on! They were laughing with us, clapping enthusiastically, and even singing together with us at the end of the play. 

While I’ll admit feeling slightly overwhelmed by the numbers when I walked into the gym, I was also feeling connected to this audience. This is a very tight-knit school community, so while students saw their own family members, they also saw faces of many friends and acquaintances around the gym. Stuart Shanker, Susan Hopkins, and The MEHRIT Centre speak about the important connection between relationships and Self-Reg.

When we had our dress rehearsal, our small audience was full of many unknowns. I wonder if the kids felt this lack of connection, and performed differently than they did when surrounded by the love of family, friends, and the community. I’ve been a part of many Kindergarten holiday performances before, and usually the children don’t sing, dance, or act when greeted with such a large audience. I think that our audience yesterday afternoon was just as big as many others that I’ve experienced in the past, but it was their connection to the kids that varied. Maybe it’s not about numbers, but love!

As we headed to the gym yesterday afternoon, Paula told every single child, “I’m proud of you, and you’re going to be amazing!” She was genuine, caring, and reminded the children that they are loved and supported. This coupled with the feelings exuded by the school community helped make for a great play. Yesterday’s experience makes me think about school assembly performances. How can we always help all kids feel believed in and loved, as our kindergarteners did yesterday? What impact might this have on the quality of the performances and the feelings of the students? As the holiday concerts and plays come to an end, I’m wondering how to make Self-Reg assemblies a yearly reality.


How Do You Know When To Turn Your Classroom On Its Head?

My teaching partner, Paula, and I noticed a problem: no matter what resources and materials we provided in our dramatic play space, the area always remained empty. In the block area right beside dramatic play, there was always a lot of storytelling, creativity, and drama, but this never flowed into the other space. While we were thrilled to have this kind of drama in the block area, this space is a large and fairly central point in the room, so the noise always seemed to carry. It was also a hard space for one of us to insert ourselves into the play and to help to extend it. With no table in here, it meant sitting down on the floor, and often getting in the way of other children trying to play around us. We also noticed that the play in this block space was becoming rather stagnant. Often students would make this area into a “house” or into the orphanage for Annie, but the discussions were usually the same, and normally once the area was set-up, the play never continued or it ended at around the same point. So it wasn’t bad play, but was it really benefiting kids and resulting in learning?

Paula and I spoke about this on Tuesday, and we decided to make a change. We thought that the draw to the block space might be the two empty shelves, where children often liked to sit and create rooms of their own. We wondered what would happen if we put the missing shelves back, set-up dramatic play into a house (because “family” always seemed to be a popular play option), and even added components from Roots of Empathy to align with our baby visit for Wednesday. Maybe students would sing the doll the songs we taught them, and even interact with the doll on the small green blanket, just like we do when our baby visits. We were super excited about the possibilities and thought that we may have finally solved our dramatic play issues.

Not so much. Unfortunately, Wednesday did not start out as we expected. The wind chill factor made the temperature one degree below the requirement allowed for going outside, so we needed to start our day inside. This meant that the kids did not move around as much as usual, and they had to adjust to a change in routine. We also had our Roots of Empathy visit planned for 10:30, which would usually be right after we come in from our forest time, but would now be right in the middle of play. Would our Roots of Empathy provocation in dramatic play yield the same results that we hoped?

During our morning meeting time, Paula worked hard at inspiring interest in this new dramatic play space, and even picking some excited students that wanted to start over there with the new materials. But they didn’t use the materials as we expected. In fact, all of the kids were more interested in drawing in this space or cutting up small pieces of paper to make drinks for the baby, and it took a long time for anyone to even play with the dolls. While we enjoyed the play that we saw, and especially appreciated the empathy shown in the doll play, these experiences were very short-lived. After our Roots of Empathy visit, even those students that were initially interested in this space didn’t go back to it. 

Once again, we had building and dramatic play happening in the block space, and nothing happening in the corner of our room. Now what? Paula and I stood back and watched the play unfold, and that’s when we started to talk. Should we reconsider this dramatic play space? Is it okay to just have the merge of blocks and dramatic play in the block area, and is there a way that we could work on interrupting this play and extending it? Should we try something else altogether? Paula had an idea. She spoke about opening up the block space, moving down the carpet, and combining it with dramatic play, so that the areas could truly merge. 

I’ll be honest here: I couldn’t really picture what she had in mind. This seemed like an upheaval of at least half of the classroom, and we were about to do this on a day with no outdoor time and about 20 minutes before Paula left for her lunch. Was this a good idea? I wasn’t sure, but I trust Paula, I knew that the room wasn’t being used well in its current set-up, and I realized that if we didn’t make this change now, with After Care in our classroom at the end of the day, we wouldn’t be making this change at all. So I looked at Paula and said, “Let’s do it! Go convince the children that this is the change to make.” This is exactly what she did! 

As with everything, one change inspired many more, and our room design continued to shift for the rest of the day … and even into the next day. But this change in design was exactly what we needed. 

    • Now the blocks and dramatic play are truly combined, and the addition of a table and a few more surfaces to write, gives us more room to easily insert ourselves into the play and extend it. 

    • Now there is enough room between the blocks and the dramatic play space to have many more children in this area at the same time. With students a little more spread out in dramatic play, the volume is quieter, and the play seems to be moving beyond just creating items to engaging with them.
    • Now the dramatic play interest is focused around “a hospital,” which provides many more authentic opportunities for reading, writing, and math than The Annie Play or a house. Each day, we’re also able to watch some short videos and look at some non-fiction texts, which focus on developing new vocabulary that students can use during play.

    • Now the eating table is more removed from the play, which helps students focus on eating. Before our eating table was right next to the block carpet, which often led to students standing up and going to join this block play, as they were so close to it. Now the eating table is near the door, and in front of a shelf, which blocks students off a bit more from the play and helps them remain focused on their food and their conversations with peers. 

    • Now there are more sensory play options in the classroom. Earlier this week, Paula and I spoke about children’s use of the creative table. Often this use is short-lived, and sometimes, even when we respond to what kids like to do (e.g., cutting, pasting, painting, etc.), the table remains empty or with very few students around it. Why? We thought that the block area was so central and popular that it was pulling kids to it, including those kids that like and need these other art and creative options. We also have more Year 1 students this year, than Year 2 students, and we wondered if their attention span may be shorter, and if we need to switch up this space more often throughout the day. Are we also trying to create too many opportunities for longer art projects, when our kids may just need the sensory play and fine motor opportunities provided by this space? With our new set-up, we have our sensory bin, our creative table, a plasticine or play dough area, and another sensory space (which now has kinetic sand), all in one area of the room. We went from two sensory play spaces to four, and especially on Friday, when Paula was away and there was no supply, I noticed just how calming these areas can be. We are also really encouraging students to take items from the creative shelf, so that they can create their own art and fine motor opportunities in this space, and they are starting to do that now. This is great to see!

Our sensory bin was not being used today, so early this afternoon, I added some water beads. This attracted a large crowd. So much oral language as kids talk with each other. A little math talk too. And these water beads seem to be so calming for many. Eventually led to some letter talk, and even some signs for children that were concerned about water beads breaking or being swallowed. Madeline heard the O in No, and when I said that the “N,” had one less line than the M, she made it correctly. Great to see kids eager to make signs for meaningful purposes. Next week, we’re going to continue with water beads but with a small change to encourage even more letter and word talk. SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #iteachk #teachersofinstagram #sensoryplay #ctinquiry

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The Reggio Emilia philosophy often speaks about “the environment as the third teacher,” and last week’s room design changes reminded me of the value in listening to kids, being responsive to them, and continuing to make changes that are right for the children at that time. Will this design option always work for kids? Maybe not, and maybe even if it does, it will not work for our students next year. But maybe it’s also the dysregulation that can sometimes come before the holidays that makes the additional sensory spaces — that calm many of our kids — that much more important. The block space also allows for some heavy lifting, which is calming for other children. Even redesigning the classroom on Wednesday likely helped settle the play, for the movement of the furniture and the movement of the carpet, provided some gross motor opportunities that those same kids need — and would have gotten — outside. 

Wednesday reminded me of the value in a new perspective and a different pair of eyes. If I was the only one in the classroom, I probably wouldn’t have made any changes, and even if I did, they would have not been the ones that we made. I couldn’t see what Paula saw. Once again, I’m reminded of the power in feedback for educators: not as evaluative but as a way of providing different perspectives and necessary changes for kids. How do we open up our classrooms more for the fresh eyes and important dialogue that comes from observations and conversations between educators? Growing Success tells us about the importance of “assessment for learning” in the classroom. Wednesday made me wonder if there’s an educator equivalent, and if it’s the feedback from others that really helps us change the most. I’m so very thankful for Paula, and the new perspective that she gives me on a daily basis. How do you gain new perspectives?


It’s Winter In Canada … What Do You Do?

There’s no doubt about it: this week was a cold one. Most mornings, the temperature was -15 or colder without the windchill, and hovering around -20 with the windchill. Brrr … This is right around the temperature where our Board makes it an indoor recess, and since we always start our mornings outside, we often had to wait until the last-minute to figure out if we could go out or if we had to stay in. Thankfully we made it outside on all days but one, and that was definitely a more challenging day.

The more experienced I become as an educator and the more I learn from my amazing teaching partner, Paula, the more that I realize just how valuable outdoor time is for all of us. We’re not talking recess here. On most days, we spend over an hour, and closer to 1 1/2 hours, outside in the morning. We go between our outdoor classroom space and our forest area, and this time is often the highlight of my day. This is completely free time! We don’t plan activities or structure the learning in these spaces: we watch students, we respond to them, and we help draw the links between their choices and program expectations. I’ve blogged numerous times about our “forest time”, and I cannot speak strongly enough about the value in this learning space. Our four-month long Letter Inquiry started outside, and continues outside even on the coldest of days. 

I share all of this because during our Staff Meeting this week, I had an aha moment thanks to the other Kindergarten teacher, Janet. In our P.L.C.s (Professional Learning Communities), we were discussing successes in our classroom. The topic of outdoor learning came up. We spoke about how earlier in the week, many children were really cold outside, and we had to come in a lot earlier than anticipated. During our morning meeting time, Paula spoke to the class about this, and had children reflect on how they felt outside and what they could do to feel warmer.

It was great to hear students reflections and know that even our youngest of learners knew what to do to feel more comfortable outside. During our staff meeting conversation on this topic, Janet drew a parallel between the resilience that students show outside and the resilience that we see in the classroom. There’s something to be said for problem solving, perseverance, and the willingness to go back at something, even when it’s challenging, uncomfortable, or not what we initially expected. Cold weather can be like this! But when we get kids to reflect on what they’re feeling and solve some of their own problems — instead of rescuing them — the long-term impact is big. 

Yesterday was another cold day, but children didn’t complain about the weather, dressed well for it, and we stayed outside a bit longer than the day before. When we came in, I had the students reflect on changes they made based on their conversation with Paula on Thursday. 

This process was a good reminder for me that even on cold, wet, snowy, or rainy days, there’s value in being outside, and if we get students involved in the process of solving problems around comfort and warmth, they will enjoy this learning time outside even more. Yesterday, my teaching partner, Paula, was off unexpectedly and there was no supply. This made for a harder day for me, but I think that the calming nature of this outside time, started our day off right. Without getting out first, I wonder if we would have ended up with the positive day that we did

As a parent reminded us earlier this week, “It’s winter in Canada.” Let’s embrace it! I think about how much I’ve learned through “uncomfortable times,” and how “uncomfortable” was even my One Word Goal a couple of years agoCould a little discomfort — even from a cold day — lead to just as much learning for kids as a little discomfort does for adults? How do you respond to the weather, and what impact might this have for children? On this snow-covered Saturday, I hope for winter weather that always stays at least slightly above that -15 mark … as well as the ability to always see the lines in the parking lot! 🙂 Is that too much to ask?!


Does Printing Always Have To Come First?

Over four years ago now, I had the “summer of cursive.” Different articles predominated the media about cursive writing, and I became involved in numerous Twitter chats with other Ontario educators about the pros and cons of cursive writing. My thinking continued to evolve that summer, and is still evolving years later. I’ve written many blog posts on cursive writing over the years, and my thoughts are rarely the same. One of the first posts I wrote though following that memorable summer talked about the possibility of Kindergarten students exploring cursive writing through play. The opportunity has never presented itself for that to happen until this year.

A Year 2 student actually inspired us to look at cursive writing in class. This child is a prolific writer, but prints almost exclusively in capital letters. She knows how to form most lowercase ones, but rarely uses them in her writing. One day, she decided that she wanted to practise writing using lowercase letters, and she thought that cursive writing could help her with this. She spoke about learning how to do some cursive writing at home, and then she used the cursive alphabet on the iPad to explore how to write some other letters. Pretty soon, she was writing the names of multiple students in the class. And with the use of cursive, she was actually using lowercase letters in her writing.

About a week later, she continued this cursive writing when making a list of “yummy foods” at the eating table. 

Other students started to listen to her talk about cursive writing, and they became interested in learning. They began talking to each other about different line formations, and we thought that we could extend this thinking by exploring various fonts. 

Since students were also showing an interest in visual arts, and exploring the work of some famous artists including Van Gogh and Kandinsky, we thought that we could link literacy and The Arts. After school one day, my teaching partner, Paula, and I discussed looking at cursive writing as an extension of our exploration of lines. We went back and forth on this one for a bit. Paula initially wondered if we should introduce cursive if some of our students are still learning how to print letters correctly. Then came my question of, do they need to learn printing before writing?

I’ve felt different ways on this topic before, but Valerie Bennett made me think differently when she shared this Case For Cursive information with me. I shared it with Paula, and together we explored the possible benefits of cursive writing for our students. 

  • Would the continuous line help some students form letters that they struggled with doing when printing?
  • Would it help students with forming and extending ideas in their writing?
  • Would it even help some children better solidify letter-sound connections? 

We’re not giving up printing in the classroom or only exposing children to texts written in cursive writing, but we thought that we might build on a natural interest and see about the possible positive impact for kids.

We love how students are tracking the alphabet in cursive, just as they do with the printed alphabet. They are noticing some similarities and differences between the letters. A few children are also starting to read texts written in cursive and experiment with some cursive writing of their own. We’re showing them how to form the letters and giving them opportunities to practice. Just as with printing, we’re trying to be responsive to different students and different needs, and giving multiple practice options, knowing that it can take a while to learn how to form letters correctly. 

I’m not sure if every child is going to learn how to print in cursive this year, but I love that kids are starting to recognize letters and words written in different fonts and experiment with different fonts of their own. Many children are developing fine motor skills in Kindergarten, and cursive writing helps with this. When one of our students then went home to ask her mom to write the “cursive alphabet” in her journal so that she could look at it at school, I was thrilled. This wasn’t one of our home extension activities, but this was something that mattered enough to this child to explore at home. 

This same child was able to read some words in cursive the next day that she was not able to read the day before. Amazing!

This year, one of our Board’s main goals is to have “all students reading by the end of Grade 1.” We love how it’s this same year that our students have taken an extreme interest in the letters of the alphabet, and this interest has extended into a four-month inquiry that’s included a look at cursive writing. As we post our class learning story this week, cursive writing will be a part of this learning.

I wonder about the impact that cursive will have on reading, writing, and fine motor skills. Will an early introduction to cursive writing have a long-term impact on academic skills and/or literacy development? Years ago, I never would have thought of this cursive option for Kindergarten, and now I’m excited to see what’s possible. Maybe I just needed to see cursive writing beyond the worksheet option to gain a new appreciation for this art form. What do you think? Does printing always have to come first?