What Are Your “Yogurt Moments?”

The other day, as I returned from my prep, a child asked me, “Did you eat your yogurt?” Pretty soon, a conversation started around us about yogurts in our lunches, favourite flavours, and ones that we’re hoping to try. This might sound strange, but this year, yogurt’s connected us.

It all started when I noticed that a child had the same brand of yogurt that I did: Oikos. I mentioned this to her, and she started to share the flavours that she’s tried. I said that I’ve had these flavours before, but recently, I bought the gingerbread variety. I quite like it. She hadn’t tried this flavour yet, but another child did. A few days earlier, he showed me that he had the “chocolate banana” flavour, which he used to eat last year when we were online together. I mentioned it was “one of my favourites,” and now he loves to show me when he has it. Another child showed us the reusable container that he has in his lunch. “I have yogurt too,” he said. It looked like vanilla.

A couple of days later, Paula returned from her lunch with an Oikos yogurt. A child noticed. She asked, “What flavour is it?” Peach. Across the room, kids commented on having tried or not tried this flavour. I haven’t, but Paula says it’s quite good. Others had suggestions of yogurt flavours to try. Paula said, “I have a shopping list in my pocket. Why don’t you add to it?” And so, as the school day comes to an end and a few kids finish their lunches, one child gives Paula a list of yogurt flavours to purchase and does a little reading of a grocery list.

I share this story, for one thing that I miss the most during these past couple of COVID school years, is our eating table. While this table might not be able to exist again anytime soon, these yogurt stories remind me that in a different way, we might still be able to connect with kids over these small moments.

  • Maybe it’s about food.
  • Maybe it’s about sports.
  • Maybe it’s about hobbies.
  • Maybe it’s about pets.
  • Maybe it’s about something else entirely.

I don’t think it really matters what it’s about. Instead, what matters, is finding these couple of minutes to chat and connect with kids. Our yogurt talks take seconds out of our day. Usually, kids ask me about the “yogurt in my lunch,” as they say, “hello,” on the way in. Sometimes the question comes before the “hi.” But this quick conversation tells us a bit more about children and what matters to them, and it gives them some added insights about us … beyond us as educators.

This year, our Board prioritized mental health and well-being, and provided choice boards of lessons that educators delivered for almost the first two months of school. Some of these lessons are still being explored now.

As Paula and I reflected on the yogurt talk during lunchtime yesterday, we realized that it’s these kinds of smaller conversations that can still allow for check-ins with kids when longer lessons are not possible. It’s what helps us build relationships with them. This is my sixth year working with Paula, and until I started to, I don’t think that I ever took the time to get to know students as more than learners. I couldn’t tell you about …

  • their pets,
  • their siblings,
  • their families,
  • their favourite and least favourite foods,
  • their extracurricular activities,
  • their hobbies,
  • and the list goes on.

Now I try to prioritize truly getting to know kids. I think this is where relationships start. What about you? How do you get to know more about students beyond academics, and what might be the value in doing so? I’d love to hear about your yogurt moments. While they might seem inconsequential, I wonder if they might be some of the most important moments of our day.


To Move Or Not To Move? That Is The Question.

Years ago, I would have never believed that we would need a seating plan in kindergarten, but with forward facing desks and a requirement for contact tracing, this is one of our realities. When I first started teaching grades beyond kindergarten, I used to figure out a seating plan and keep it all year long. Other teachers would tell me that they were constantly moving kids around, but I thought that the consistency of the space was important for kids, so I never moved them. Then I started teaching Grade 5. I taught two students with autism that year, and having their spaces with their predictable materials reduced a lot of stress for both of them and allowed for independence. But I realized that I could rearrange furniture with students and switch up seats, as long as these two students still had their spaces. As you learn more, your thinking changes. This has held true this year as my teaching partner, Paula, and I regularly move students around. We know that our families see these changes, as our learning environment is so visible to them through our blog and Instagram posts. Paula and I realized recently though that as visible as we are with our classroom space and student learning, we’re not always visible in why we make these choices. This post explains the why.

  • With COVID restrictions, free-flowing movement and interactions in the classroom are more challenging. While we completely understand why kids would want to socialize with all of their friends in the room and move and play everywhere, that much movement requires constantly sanitizing spaces. This ultimately limits independence and reduces the freedom that we have to work and play so easily with kids. And so, all of our students have a forward facing desk space with lots of room around them. They can bring materials to their space and share them with friends — such as the buckets of blocks and bags of cubes — but to allow for distancing, they can only play with the people around them. Now there is a range for how big “around” can be, and we try to follow the child’s lead when considering what connecting in this space might look like. It’s an evolving process and involves daily reflection around what kids need, and how we can meet these needs while also holding to restrictions and considering independence. These movement considerations lead us to the second part of our “why” …
  • New spaces mean the development of new friendships. We teach the youngest students in the school. Some are only three-years-old. While many of our kids will point out or talk about close friends — even if they don’t remember their names (which is more common than you might think in kindergarten) πŸ™‚ — they are still getting to know each other. We want to avoid having cliques form. We want kids to feel comfortable connecting with each other, and knowing that their peers will welcome them into their social groups. Moving kids around the room, allows for the start of new friendships/relationships. We really noticed that this past week.
  • These friendships extend to the outdoors. While there can be far more flexibility outside with moving and connecting, it’s great to see how children are still expanding their social groups outdoors. Our kids are so welcoming to each other, and not only invite other children into their play but allow others to join as they ask. Could the frequent change of seats inside be supporting the growth of new relationships outside?

We’re not moving children because of problems. We’re moving them to support new interactions, develop existing ones, support independence, and allow for student leadership. Some kids can move with greater ease and less stress. Others need particular spaces — be it due to the amount of room in the area or the location of the space. It’s a balancing act, and we’re always trying to match our own thinking with student input.

Apparently I’m becoming better at creating seating plans despite a few snafus along the way …

Live and learn, I guess! But as we look to submit seating plan 2,000,020 — or so I joke — I think about the upside to a little change. Knowing your learners also means knowing when to move them and knowing when not to. Pre-COVID, we used to talk a lot about the environment as the third teacher. With the seating arrangement as it is, this proves more challenging, but could variations at the individual spaces become the evolving environment? Could the moving of children within these spaces also impact on how the environment is used and the learning that happens as a result? I’d love to hear your thoughts on “to move or not to move,” which has suddenly become a big reflection question in our kindergarten world.


“Can I See My Schedule?”: A Look At Independence And Self-Advocacy

Recently, I met a teacher friend for brunch. As we were chatting about school and life, she started to speak about IEPs (Individual Education Plans). Our Board’s IEP process has changed this year, and many modified IEPs have become accommodated ones. As a kindergarten educator with a Program Document that gives us permission to go back into the ELECT Document if needed, I really like these changes and the focus on how to get all students to meet expectations and succeed. One comment that came out of our brunch-time conversation was, “What is going to happen when these students grow up and get jobs? Nobody will change the expectations for them then.” This had me reflecting on my own experience growing up with a non-verbal learning disability. This learning disability hasn’t disappeared as an adult, but it also hasn’t stopped me in meeting my professional goals. What made this possible?

I first have to thank my parents for teaching me, even at a young age, to self-advocate. My parents were both in education — one as a teacher and one as a Speech and Language Pathologist — and when I was first identified with a non-verbal learning disability back in Grade 2, they made sure that I understood what I needed to succeed.

  • They had me attend my IPRC each year, and as I got older, I often attended without my parents.
  • They were also metacognitive in their approach. When my step-dad showed me ways to read maps by memorizing the order of countries — something I could do with strong memory skills — he talked me through why this approach worked. This allowed me to later apply this same approach without his support and to show teachers what I could do when it came to mapping.
  • They got me to talk to my teachers about what I needed and why. This didn’t mean that they didn’t sit in on meetings with teachers, especially when I was younger, but they involved me in the conversation with the use of question prompts and the sharing of ideas. This allowed me to ask for what I needed, be it a diagram in a math class so that I could apply the formula, the use of a computer to write exams due to a familiar tremor, or additional time to finish tests and exams due to slower written output (especially if a computer was not available).
  • When I was about to head off to university, and I knew that I needed an updated Psychological Assessment to receive the same accommodations there as I did in high school, they encouraged me to write a note asking for this assessment. I entered into conversations with the resource teacher and the principal about this need and why it was important. Yes, I could talk to my parents about what I had to do and why, but they encouraged me to own this process. It really helped me reflect on my needs, but also on what made success possible.

I also learned that having a learning disability did not mean that I was less capable or unable to meet my goals. Thanks to both my parents and my learning resource teacher, I learned that to be identified with a learning disability, you needed to be of “average to above average intelligence.” This is a point that I’ve returned to often even in conversations with colleagues. The identification comes because of a gap between verbal and non-verbal skills. With this in mind, the key for me, and I think for other students, is to use your strengths to overcome your weaknesses. Growing up, this meant choosing to convey my understanding of ideas in writing or orally, instead of through drawings or labelled diagrams. Later on, this included choosing courses (particularly in high school and university) that allowed me to capitalize on my strengths, such as taking more language, sociology, and history classes instead of geography ones, and choosing math classes that were not based fully on geometry.

I did not hide my learning disability. I worry that learning disabilities are things that we can become ashamed of or that we need to deny because they can make us seem less capable. If we want students to have some control over the accommodations that they need and apply them without always needing teacher support, then we can’t be afraid to be different. Yes, when I grew up, this meant often writing tests and exams in alternative learning spaces or on a device instead of by hand. As an adult, this means sometimes going to a meeting with only a computer and an iPad instead of a pencil or pen. Neither of these accommodations limited my ability to meet expectations, and nor did they impact on others’ abilities to do the same … even if in different ways.

As an adult now, and an educator, I know my limits and I know what works for me. I’ve taught every grade from kindergarten to Grade 6 in some capacity, and nobody has expected less from me because of a learning disability. That said, I apply accommodations all the time.

Before teaching geometry in Grades 5 and 6, I experimented with my step-dad on the concepts and how I could understand them. I took apart cereal and cracker boxes to understand nets, and I brought some in to support students that struggled as I did. I made sugar cube towers to help see what different sides of three-dimensional buildings would look like, and I helped kids build these same towers in the classroom when they needed to.

I connected with other educators to help read and create maps before exploring them with my students. Over the years, Google Earth changed things for me, as I could explore maps in a 3-D perspective and go on walking tours that helped me understand directions more. Google Maps also provides typed directions, which I could then compare to a map, to better understand what left and right looks like on a 2-D drawing.

I learned to appreciate the value of YouTube, Pinterest, and Google Images. Yes, Paula and I love to examine artists and artistic techniques with our students, but my drawing skills are limited. There are amazing videos and photographs that can act as provocations for kids. I can also use these guides to draw alongside students and meet with more success than I could without that support.

I ask for help. I’ve learned that colleagues can read the maps that I can’t, and if I’m still unsure, I can always send off an email to principals and double check. I’ve often had to do this once a year with the big questions of, “Where is our cohort zone? Can you give me a landmark instead of a visual? And where exactly is the room that we’ll be in, as the map has me lost?” I also realize my limitations, so I get students to help if needed. Right now, Paula and I do this with our fire drill book, as it’s so easy to forget the book inside each day, and you never know when a fire drill might happen. Paper overwhelms me, and I try to limit it, as organization of paper materials is not my strong suit. We have a student though, who always checks the white bucket on the desk for the fire drill books and brings it outside each day. She remembers to bring it back in as well if we don’t. A little help from a five-year old can go a long way.

I digitize as much as possible. Paper becomes an organizational nightmare for me, but with an iPad, I can keep most things electronically. I can also take pictures of paper items, which allows me to organize them digitally. This helps reduce my fear of losing that piece of really important paper, which I’m almost certain to lose.

I try to prepare ahead for social interactions and conversations. I know that I’m more likely to cry than some other people, especially in more emotionally-charged or stressful conversations. Sometimes writing down beforehand what I’m going to say or practising with a friend first, can make a difference. I’ve also learned to not let tears stop me, even though I wish that they wouldn’t always come.

I plan ahead. Paula and I do this all the time with our daybook plans. We plan together after school, and I find the links at night to help with provocations the next day. This doesn’t mean that plans don’t change, but being organized in this way reduces a lot of stress. Working through changes in schedule ahead of time also helps, as then we can anticipate problems and solve them before they happen. This doesn’t mean that there are never surprises, but this limits many of them.

I get to school early. Not only does this help with the planning and organization pieces shared above, but this helps me with parking … particularly in the winter time. Some people with non-verbal learning disabilities cannot drive due to their visual spatial skills. I’ve learned strategies that work for me — like lines on the road and predictable routes — but the lack of lines in the parking lot in the wintertime is a huge stress for me. If I arrive early, I can park next to the large structure in the lot. This helps reduce the problem of not knowing where the lines might be. If this doesn’t work, I use a little humour to soften the blow of possibly taking up multiple spots.

As we work through this new IEP process, I wonder if we could also consider this a call to look more closely at independence and self-advocacy. What might this look like for kids? A child in our class unexpectedly reminded me of this the other day. We have a visual schedule that we use for all students to help understand the routine of the day and reduce the stress with changes in routine. In addition to this, we also have an independent visual schedule for one child. When this student came into class, he accidentally placed his backpack on top of his schedule. I didn’t think anything of this until he said to me, “Can I see my schedule?” We then moved the backpack, and there it was. This is a kindergartener speaking up for what he needs. The beginning of self-advocacy and maybe a reminder for all of us of what is possible. Identifications do not need to limit options, but as we work through accommodations for kids, how are we also supporting them in gradually playing a more active role in this accommodating? I’m grateful for parents and educators that made this possible for me, and it’s what I hope is possible for all students.


Bathroom Stress

I vacillated about blogging on this topic, but in the past couple of weeks especially, I seem to have been tuned into a lot of bathroom stress. In kindergarten, kids love to talk freely about bodily functions, and they’re naturally very curious about their bodies. Like most kindergarten classrooms, we have a washroom in our classroom. It’s a single bathroom, and our students can use it freely without asking first. Many students though still let my teaching partner, Paula, and I know when they’re going to the bathroom. It’s a habit of sorts that we just can’t stop. It’s through so many bathroom conversations that we realized how much stress comes from this one room.

First, there is the question of, “Is the bathroom free?” You would think that the answer to this would be obvious, but kindergarten children have a habit of closing the door when they leave the bathroom and keeping it open the rest of the time. We’ve taught children to knock and ask, but many don’t respond to the knock. Nobody wants to wait if it is available, but they also don’t want to barge in if it’s not. Then comes the delicate dance of just opening the door a bit to see or urgently requesting educator support, as it’s stressful not to know.

This open and closed problem was not just one noticed this year.

Then there is the waiting game. We talk frequently with students about listening to their bodies and not waiting until the last minute, but based on age alone, many kids do wait until the last minute to go to the bathroom. This can be problematic when there is one toilet and lots of need. It’s made more challenging during the time of COVID, where heading to another classroom to “borrow a bathroom” is harder, as we can’t mix cohorts. This means that one child goes to the bathroom, others see (as all desks are forward facing, so children notice everything that’s happening in the room), and the “peeing is contagious parade” begins. Now there’s a line-up with an accident likely only being minutes away. This leads to additional stress. There are the student concerns about waiting in line when they “really have to go” coupled by the adult concerns about rushing a child and increasing bathroom stress. If you play this roulette game wrong though, you end up with an accident and an even longer wait for kids to get into the bathroom. Getting changed in kindergarten is not a quick process.

There’s also the “sound of the toilet” stress. Kindergarten toilets are loud. Like really loud. Maybe it’s a big toilet in a small bathroom that increases the noise volume. Maybe it’s the brand. But many students do not like the sound. This means that they’ll either not flush the toilet or come to an educator to flush for them. Sometimes this means students supporting each other with flushing, which might seem strange, but does seem to reduce the stress.

There’s also the “size of the item in the toilet” stress. Even though many children don’t like to flush the toilet on their own, they also don’t like pee, poop, or toilet paper in the toilet when they go to use it. Recently, I was made aware of this problem in the most unexpected of ways. A child came to me seriously distressed. There was “/p/ /oo/ /p/” (yes, he sounded it out) in the toilet, “and it looks even bigger than the hole, Miss Dunsiger. Will it go down? I think it’s going to cause the toilet to overflow.” I do love an inquiry mindset, but this was a new case of wonder for me. πŸ™‚ I could have told him to “just flush” and “it would be fine,” but he was obviously stressed. I kept thinking about Stuart Shanker, The Prosocial Domain, and the need to be empathetic here. I went to investigate. While I had no doubt that the poop would flush, I told him, “I understand your concern. Would you like me to flush it?” He said, “Yes, but run out of the bathroom quickly in case it overflows.” I heeded his advice, and we spoke about how long he would have to wait to ensure that the tank would refill. He felt that it would take a while. Could the stopping of the sound be a clue? Thankfully, there was no flood — especially considering that Paula was on her lunch at the time and dealing with a flood on my own might have been stressful — but it did show me how kids think and the deep thought that might go into something that we might consider a non-issue. The stress is real.

Finally, there is the “wiping” stress. Here is something that I’ve learned from 20 years of teaching, most of which has been spent in kindergarten: young kids poop at school and many don’t know how to wipe their bums. It’s not just about the wiping, but it’s also about getting enough toilet paper and pulling that toilet paper off the roll. It doesn’t pull well. Being there to talk kids through this process is important. When you see children in tears because of pooping and wiping, you realize how easily this could lead to negative bathroom experiences. We can help change that trajectory.

I share these stories because bathroom stress is not just restricted to kindergarten. COVID limits the number of students in the washroom at a time, and the scheduling of bathroom breaks can cause problems for students in all grades: if it’s around the need to go at another time or the difficulty with going on a schedule. Even just asking to go to the bathroom can be stressful for some kids, be it about a fear that their request will be denied or that attention will be coming their way for even asking. These washroom woes reminded me that …

1) teaching is about more than academics,

2) how we respond to students can increase or decrease stress for them,

3) an inquiry mindset can present itself at the most unexpected of times, and

4) just as we get students to consider multiple points of view as one of many Language expectations, we have to do just that when listening and responding to kids.

As a new week is upon us, look and listen for the bathroom stress in your classroom or home. How do you respond to it? What impact might this stress have on your child’s behaviour and interactions with others? Even as adults, it’s easy to get caught up in bathroom jokes, but some toilet talk might be more serious than we initially realize.


What Are Your “Scaling The Mountain” Moments?

All of our kids know that I’m TERRIFIED of heights. Absolutely, positively, petrified. I try everything possible to stay at the bottom of the mini-mountain that so many of them love to play on because I am so frightened of climbing up it. On Friday though, two kids convinced me that it was worth scaling the mountain.

To provide you with perspective as to the height of the mountain.

This experience, which was probably ten minutes max, has me thinking a lot about risk-taking. How do we model for kids what risk-taking might look like? How do we show our vulnerability by also leaning on others when we take these risks? The mountain climb might seem like a small one for many, but for me, it was a big deal and our students know that. Sometimes I wonder if we share this uncertainty enough with children and if we should be sharing it more. As another week begins, I’m reminding myself about the need to demonstrate some bravery: safe and reasonable risks with the backing of others when required. Will you be doing the same? What might your mountain moments be?