As An Educational Troublemaker, Is It Any Surprise That I’m Questioning “Rules” Next?

Yesterday, I joined some other educators in a blogging challenge. The challenge extended from one that a group of us did last summer: #5days5words. As someone who likes to break the rules, I guess it’s no surprise that I did so again. Instead of focusing on 5 words, I’m going to focus on 5 questions. My question for today is actually about rules: Why do we begin with them?

As I mentioned to a fellow educator today, I’ve been teaching for a very long time: I’m about to start my 19th year. I’ve taught every grade from Kindergarten to Grade 6 in some capacity, and I’ve changed a lot in these 19 years. Maybe I’ve changed the most around rules. I always started off the school year with a list of rules.

  • I’ve tried co-created lists.
  • I’ve tried lists that focus on the positives.
  • I’ve tried lists of things not to do.
  • I’ve tried long lists of rules and short lists.
  • Sometimes I changed “rules” to “agreements,” but really, they were still rules.

In the last few years though, rules have really started to bother me. Even just the mention of rules gives me that funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. I realized recently that Paula and I never created or posted rules for our children. What?! It must have been chaos in our roomExcept, it wasn’t. This made me wonder, why?

  • Could it be that when we view children as “competent and capable” (as our Kindergarten Program Document reinforces for us), we begin to trust that children can make thoughtful decisions on their own and support each other in doing so?

  • Could it be that rules fall into a self-control paradigm, and maybe we need to consider children’s actions — like adult ones — through a Self-Reg lens?

I would like to believe that students can make good decisions and kind choices on their own, and if there’s a problem, there might be something else at play. Just like with adults, children also learn from these problems, and therefore, rules evolve authentically through lived experiences.

  • Will lists of what to do and not do, help with behaviour?
  • Do we really want our first interactions with kids to be in-depth conversations around what to do and how to be in our classrooms and schools?

Knowing the value of building positive relationships, I think that the rule writing of my past never really supported this. How do you create the rules in your classroom? Are formalized rules a crucial element to the start of every school year? Maybe there’s room for a little troublemaking in all of us!


Getting Started On My #5Days5Words … But With A Twist!

Last summer, Kristi Keery-Bishop offered up a blogging challenge: #5days5words. I was one of a few different educators that joined in. Finding the motivation to blog in the summer can be a challenge, so this was a good push. And it was fun! Last night, there was some conversation on Twitter about trying this challenge again, and today, Lisa Corbett published her first blog post. While summer camp started today and I may be beyond exhausted, I also feel inspired to blog. I’m not sure that I can commit to five days in a row in the midst of camp, but I will definitely commit to five days over the next month. Being the educational troublemaker that I am, I’m going to break more of the rules before we even begin. 🙂 Instead of five individual words, I’ve decided to create five questions. My first one is what’s the worst that can happen?

Paula used to ask me this question a lot, especially when we started working together three years ago. Everything worried me. I remember when she first suggested a self-serve paint station. You mean that you want the kids to pump their own paint? How much paint will get on the floor? How much paint will be wasted? 

For Paula, this was a case of, “what’s the worst that can happen?”

  • If the paint gets on the floor, have the kids clean it up.

  • If the kids create too much paint, have them think of different ways to use it.

Paint was only part of our discussion. What about when the children climbed to reach higher spaces indoors or climbed as part of our outdoor play?

  • Do we need to consider why kids are climbing in the first place, and how to support independence and safety in these spaces? Is the safety concern with us or with them?

There were also the (many) times that we put out materials with the thought of using them in one way, and children chose to use them in another. Or they moved these materials around the classroom to use in creative ways. But our plan was not to put them there!

  • Whose the plan for though? 

Maybe what caused me the most stress was Wormville. I love worms, but not when they’re crawling on tables and staying in the classroom (unsupervised) overnight. Both the children and Paula helped me breathe through both of these concerns of mine by getting to the root of the problem, but also looking at the value of the learning.

At many times, in many different grades, children surprise us with their thinking and their intentions. Sometimes these surprises are welcome, and sometimes they terrify us. I know at many times, I’ve just wanted children to follow my plan. Am I scared of the unknown? Do I want and need control? Maybe so, but now I’m also very tempted to ask, “What’s the worst that can happen?” I keep thinking about Lisa’s plan to say, “Yes.” Doing so, often pleasantly surprises me. What about you?


What Happens When You Stand Back And Watch?

This summer, I’m lucky to again be involved in Camp Power. On Friday, many of our campers visited the site, met the instructors, and got a taste of some Camp Power learning before officially starting on Monday. Instead of setting up the activities in the individual classrooms, we ran this first day out of the library upstairs. Instructors worked together to plan activities for the campers. As the Summer Curriculum And Site Support Teacher, I didn’t plan the individual activities, but instead, helped with the registration and observed the play in the library. It was really interesting to stand back and watch.

I was especially intrigued by what children chose to do and not do. During the visits, I sent out these two tweets.

Beyond these pictures though are stories, and I was particularly interested in these stories. Here is what I observed.

  • The most popular options were the building activities (the LEGO and straws) as well as the iPad and robotic choices.
  • Very few children went to the shape pictures, linking blocks, and art options.
  • There were a few children that went to the beading station, but there tended to be one or two children there at a time versus large groups.

This led me to the question of, why? These are some of my thoughts. 

  • The building and iPad/robotic choices were the most open-ended options. Kids could control how they used the tools. There were multiple entry points for all of them. Children could also choose to work together or alone. There were always a couple of adults at both of these options, which gave campers a chance to connect with more people. They seemed to really crave these adult interactions, and these options consistently provided them.
  • The shape pictures, linking blocks, and art options were very prescribed activities. Kids could still use these materials in different ways, as a few did as they built different items out of the blocks or created their own shape pictures, but mostly children followed the activity. They could be less creative here, and these activities tended to lead to one correct answer. Some of these activities might even have reminded children of what they do in school, and maybe, for the start of summer camp, they are looking to do something different than school. The art option could have been more open-ended, but when children saw the construction paper names, I wonder if they saw this as the only choice. What might have happened if we just put out glue, scissors, paper, markers, and maybe a little provocation or two to generate some different ideas? I wonder now if this would have made the art choice more popular.
  • Children that did go to the shape pictures, linking blocks, and art options tended to do so when camp instructors were at these stations. I wonder now if they were drawn to the adult interactions versus the activities themselves. Did the people there make the activities more appealing?
  • Quiet, social interactions with a caring adult seemed to also be a big draw for the beading option. Often there was only one child at this table at a time. I wonder if the children liked the individual attention in this space. While many followed the pattern suggestion by the instructor, I was intrigued by those that just wanted to run their hands through the beads and fill strings with beads. Was there also a sensory component to this play? Did this activity meet these sensory needs?

In our kindergarten classroom, Paula and I forever spent time observing and discussing students.

  • How did they use materials?
  • Why were they drawn to some spaces and not others?
  • How did the use of these spaces change throughout the day?
  • How might we work with children to modify learning environments?
  • How might we use our observations to inspire what we choose to do next and/or inspire how to extend student learning?

I thought of some of these same questions when observing the play at Camp Power on Friday. I wonder how these questions might impact on classroom set-up. When working with the different instructors, I want to use these questions to inspire conversations around programming design and camper needs. What questions do you ask when you stand back and observe children? How might these questions impact on your programming and environment? This summer I have the opportunity to not just watch my own classroom, but many different ones. I’m excited to work with staff to use these 15 days for professional learning as well as student learning: telling the stories behind our observations. Where might our conversations take us? 


How Do You Define Beauty?

While I’ve read a lot of books for personal enjoyment this summer — just follow along at #avivasummerreads on Instagram to see — a couple of professional books have also made it into my stream. I love Susan Stacey‘s thinking around early childhood education and emergent curriculum, and my Instagram posts show that I highly enjoyed both of her books that I read recently.

There are many blog posts that could come out of these books, but this had to be the first. In Inquiry-Based Early Learning Environments, Stacey spent some time talking about “beauty.” As we begin to set-up classrooms and organize supplies, I think it’s important to ask,

  • Who are we doing this for?
  • What role does the child play in this classroom design?
  • How does our definition of beauty compare to a child’s definition?
  • What are we willing to “let go?”

Recently, I went through my Instagram photographs and videos, and I pulled out these pictures. Stacey’s book has me asking the following questions underneath each photograph.

Do you see the messy paint pumps and stacked glass jars, or do you see kids that created their own colours, labelled them, and made them accessible to use? Are you drawn to the messiness or the independence of this space? Can the two co-exist?

Do you see the crowded area with the paper on the floor and the signs hung at an awkward angle, or do you see kids owning the space? Can you see the reading, writing, oral language, and dramatic play that is part of this area? Would it happen as authentically, in a child-directed way, if we had them tidy-up first?

Do you see the mess on the floor and the children that moved the blocks to the wrong carpet, or do you see problem-solving and collaboration in action? Does it matter if the blocks have been relocated?

Do you see the child standing on a chair, or do you see the many children accessing the same space in different ways? Can we look beyond the climbing if we see it instead as Self-Reg in action (for this child) and communicating through art? Is this where viewing children as “competent and capable” matters most of all, or is this enough?

Do you see the blocks on the floor, the path that’s blocked, and the mixing up of materials that may never get sorted properly again? What about the labels on the blocks, or the time that the labels were forgotten, and ink went right on the blocks instead? What about re-framing this as mark-making, literacy in action, problem-solving opportunities, and independence over the environment? Would you need to go and pick up that paper on the floor, or can you hope that when children tidy-up, it will come up with the rest of the materials?

This last picture needed the inclusion of the entire Instagram post. How does it make you feel? Should we interrupt the drawing to go and clean up the block mess? What about having the children relocate so that there’s a wider path? How will we get over to the door, through to the block carpet, and around to the eating table? What about that LEGO box behind the chair? Won’t someone fall? Or is this all part of how materials have been relocated to meet different needs, allow for different social interactions, and create different play? What if we just trust that in the end, the tidy up will happen … even if it takes a while?

I know how I would answer these different questions now, but even a year ago, I might not have answered them in the same way. But it was regular conversations with Paula, as well as with our kids, that changed these answers for me. Plus it was watching the children in these spaces, and what they did with these materials, that had me reconsidering how and when I respond to them. Last night, I saw a tweet from The Groovy Teacher, which made me think again about this blog post.

Here’s my reply.

I think I love our beautiful mess. What about you? How might our new students help redefine beauty for us, for their parents, and for themselves? Now I think that it’s time to take a deep breath and embrace the beautiful mess.


Why The iPads Might NOT Be In The Hands Of The Kids

My classroom used to be full of devices. I even taught a Grade 1/2 class many years ago, where we had almost 1:1 iPads and/or computers. Kids spent the majority of their time in front of a screen. For learning. With a purpose. But still in front of a screen. And I thought that this was best. Now my thinking has changed, especially in the younger primary grades.

The other night, I caught this tweet from Karen Lirenman, and I promised her that I would reply, but with a blog post. This is that post.

Over the past four years, I’ve gradually reduced the use of technology in the classroom. At two different schools, I’ve seen many children that are coming into kindergarten with more Smart phone knowledge than me — dare I share a picture of my cell phone 

— but they are still learning how to …

  • enter play,
  • work together,
  • socialize with each other, 
  • and solve problems.

While my teaching partners and I realize that you can develop some of these skills with the use of technology, there’s something about watching these three-, four-, and five-year-olds staring at screens that stopped us. 

Now we all realize that technology can be an incredibly powerful documentation tool, and you just have to look to my Instagram account and last year’s class blog to see that we definitely use technology in this way. But then why don’t we have kids regularly documenting on their own using these devices? For me, I think that it comes down to our view of documentation.

Last year, my teaching partner, Paula, and I really focused on using our documentation to tell a story. Even more so than other years, we relied heavily on Instagram because we could put multiple photographs, videos, and work samples together to be part of this story. These stories often included both of our voices as well as the voices of our kids. Many parents started to comment on these posts, which also allowed for the addition of their voices. It was the combination of voices and contributions that not only made these stories rich, but allowed us to look back at them together each morning with the kids, and use them to extend play. Below are examples of some Instagram stories from the end of the school year. You can see how these stories combine together to tell a bigger one.

Yes, at different times, we could have given students an iPad to use on their own to record their thinking and learning. I wonder though,

  • do we need the conversation — between both adults and children — in order to go deeper with this reflection?
  • are children distracted by the screen, which then pulls them away from the learning?
  • how much does everything need to be captured?

In the examples above, Paula was away on this day. There was a supply in for her, but she was actually on her lunch when a lot of this learning happened. With a really big block of play though (over three hours), there was still lots of time to connect with the other children as well as focus on this Pet Salon learning. 

Now when thinking about giving children an iPad to document learning, I keep coming back to these two questions.

  • How will we (adults and children) use what they capture?
  • How will this help move learning forward?

Then depending on the answers to these questions, iPads either come out or they don’t. Maybe even more interestingly, for the past three years, the iPads were always stored in a space that kids could access easily. They all know where they are and how to get them. They are rarely getting them though. What might we extrapolate from this? Student voice should absolutely be a part of classroom documentation, but is it the conversation with the kids that allows us to move from a still picture or a short video to future learning? I think that it might be. What about you?