I’m Doing This! #5Days5Words

I love to blog, but I don’t blog on a schedule. My only self-imposed blogging rule is that I’ll publish at least one post a week, and I usually write more than that. But over the summer, one is often it, and I’m happy to meet my goal. Blogging makes me happy! Today, I read this recent post by Sue Dunlop, where she linked creativity and writing. Writing — and in my case, “blogging” — is my way to be creative. When I was young, I used to always say that I wanted to grow up to be a teacher and a writer. Thanks to this blog, I’m able to be this writer, and thanks to HWDSB, my teacher dream has also come true! It was recently an administrator in our Board that got me thinking more about blogging. Kristi Keery-Bishop is one of my favourite bloggers, and I’ve missed her posts in the last few months. I was excited to see that she’s blogging again, and has actually offered up a challenge to other bloggers#5days5words. Oh gosh! I love a challenge, but can I blog on a schedule? It’s actually the combined effort of Sue and Kristi — likely unknowingly to both of them — that has me facing my scheduled writing fears and taking this challenge. I want to get creative. I adore blogging. And maybe it will be good to approach some writing in a different way.

My first word and first post then is all about a break. I don’t take breaks well. While I love to read, spend time with family and friends, and even sleep in every so often, usually my break times — especially my summer breaks — are interrupted. Since high school, I’ve always worked in the summer, and I love doing so. I could choose to take two months off, but honestly, I wouldn’t know what to do with all of this time. For years, I taught for my parents at their summer school, and then in the past couple of years, I’ve become one of the site leads for our Board’s Camp Power Program. While camp doesn’t start until August (or the end of July this year), there’s planning and preparation to do throughout the school year and into July. I spent days in and out of the Board Office with the other site leads as summertime began. But then I did something that Sue Dunlop actually recommended to me a few years ago (and I wish that I could remember exactly when or how she did so), and I took a break. Like a real break. I went over a week where I didn’t send emails, coordinate supplies, or do planning or preparation for camp.

  • I met friends.
  • I enjoyed the beautiful weather.
  • And I read LOTS and LOTS of books(Sometimes I even read more than one a day!)

I loved every single minute of this break time! I needed it. But last weekend, I realized that it’s August now, and back-to-school is coming soon enough. I really need to work on updating our class blog, and I had grand plans to do so. When the weekend came though, some wonderful books captured my interest instead. It was last Sunday night when I sent this text to my best friend. 

You know what? The class blog will be updated … and it will be done before the start of school, but right now, maybe I need to rest, relax, and rejuvenate during these finals days (or weekends) of summer. Yes, I’m constantly pulled in by the educational conversations and classroom posts on Twitter and Instagram, and sometimes I feel guilty when I spend my time reading a great suspense novel instead of an academic book, but I try not to. Breaks are important, and when the school year begins again, I will be giving all of myself to our kids, our parents, our classroom, my colleagues, and the school for 10 wonderful months. It’s okay to take a break … right? Do others feel this same guilt that I sometimes feel, and how do you address it? I know the many comments that are made about educators and “two months off,” but maybe we all need to embrace the break we need … no matter what that might look like for us. It seems somewhat ironic now when I ask others to join in on this #5days5words challenge, but hopefully you can do so while still enjoying your break and the remaining days of summer!


From Cherries To Tips, How Do You Think About Math?

Have you ever just stopped to think about how you use math in your life every day? I’ve been doing this a lot lately. It started last weekend, on the same day that I posted this tweet.

My step-dad has often said, “Too many cherries angry up your tummy,” and this statement has stuck with me. As such, every time I have cherries, I tend to think about the number that I’m eating. During this past school year, when my teaching partner and I spent more time focusing on subitizing, I found myself trying to subitize to figure out the number of cherries I selected in a handful. I’ll admit that along with subitizing, I often had a few wonders running through my head.

  • Will I always grab approximately the same number of cherries?
  • Is it possible to grab more than 10?
  • How might my handful compare to a child’s handful?
  • How might my handful compare to another adult’s handful? Are most adult handfuls around the same size?
  • What might all of this information mean when it comes to understanding and applying non-standard measurement?

I kind of love how something as simple as grabbing a bunch of cherries can have me thinking about and using math.

It was actually later on last Sunday when I found myself thinking about math again. I went out for dinner on Sunday night with a friend. Both of us were paying cash for our meals, and I was working out the tip. I usually leave around 25%, and I do so, because I have a quick way of figuring out this amount. I just divide the total of the bill in half, and then in half again. I shared this little tidbit with my teacher friend, as she was also working out her tip. Not only does this kind of math help me keep my mental math skills sharp — yes, at times, computations matter — but it also helps me do some thinking about these number amounts. 

  • What if the service was incredible? How might I adjust this total to closer to 30%?
  • Or what if the service was not as good as usual? How might I easily figure out 20% instead?
  • What role does rounding play?
  • How do I use anchors of 5 and 10 to help me out?

Yes, I’m “such a teacher,” but I do appreciate authentic reasons to engage in math thinking and learning. I thought of that especially this week when working with one of our Camp Power campers. I was walking up the hallway just before lunchtime, and I heard this camper coming out of his classroom. He slammed the door shut and started to scream. I walked over to him and quietly said, “You seem really angry. Do you want to come and sit with me for a little while?” He replied, “I don’t want to talk!” I said, “We don’t need to. We can just sit.” And so we did. It didn’t take long though before he started to talk.

His story began with, “We shouldn’t be doing math at camp. We didn’t do it last year. Why are we doing it now? I don’t want to do math.” Interesting. I remembered this camper from last year, and I replied, “Didn’t you use Dash, the robot, last year?” He was quick to confirm that he did. So quietly I said, “Well then, you actually did do math. You figured out the length that it could travel straight down the maze before it needed to turn. You figured out the angle of the turn. You learned how bigger and smaller numbers changed the size of the angle. You did a lot of math!” This stopped him for a minute. Then he replied, “Well nobody ever told me that was math. That math wasn’t on a sheet. I didn’t need a pencil for that math.” Hmmm …

In Kindergarten, we focus on noticing and naming the math behaviours that we see through play. This is how we develop mathematical vocabulary, as well as problem solving, thinking, and understanding. Talking with this camper recently and considering my own authentic math opportunities, I’m more convinced than ever that this Kindergarten approach to math has value well beyond the early years. Thinking about what this child said to me, what are we — even unknowingly — communicating about math based on the choices that we make for how to explore mathematical concepts? Is this what we want to communicate, and if not, how might we change this message?

I can’t help but reflect on this Twitter discussion from the other night.

If we think about the math that kids remember and the math that they apply, are we doing enough of this kind of math, and if not, is it time to change? One day, I want my previous students to be thinking about math in their lives as I do, and hopefully seeing it in a positive light. Before we head back to school, I wonder if it’s time to do some more math thinking of our own.


Aren’t I In Teaching To Teach?

What if you were given permission to reduce expectations (if needed) so that you could address a child’s well-being first? Could you do it? I’ve had some very interesting conversations around this topic lately.

As many people know, I’m very passionate about education. I love to teach, and I’m committed to helping students learn. I actually enjoy delving into curriculum documents, and thinking about the front matter as well as the expectations. I spent a lot of time doing so with the Kindergarten Program Document a few years ago, but as an educator that’s taught every grade from K-6 in some capacity, I’ve had lots of opportunities to read Ministry documents. All of this being said though, a few years ago, I had an epiphany: sometimes academic expectations need to come second.

We may want to focus on academic goals. We may have grand plans around activities, provocations, projects, and presentations, but what if our kids are not ready to learn? As classroom educators, we’ve all seen different behaviours, and we’ve responded to them in various ways. In the Faculty of Education, I learned all about the importance of classroom management. Thinking now about Stuart Shanker’s Self-Reg, I wonder if classroom management is still presented in the same way in the Faculty of Education. Or is this a self-control paradigm when a Self-Reg one may be better? I know that I see “management” differently now, especially when it comes to addressing various student needs. If we enter into a battle of wills with a dysregulated child, are we ever going to win? Maybe at times, we need to step back.

  • Why is that child so angry or upset? What might make him/her feel better?
  • Why is that child so loud? What might help him/her calm down? What is this child telling us that he/she needs?
  • Are academic expectations triggering the behaviour? Why might that be, and how can we change this?
  • Does this child just need time? How can we give this child this time, while also supporting the other students in the class? 
  • What impact might my tone and actions be having on the child? Am I increasing or decreasing the stress?

Shanker often speaks about being a stress detective, and more and more, in the past couple of years, I find my teaching partner and I trying to do this detective work. This helps us see behaviour differently. It also helps us put student well-being first: realizing that for some kids, we may need to spend even more time addressing other needs before academic ones. I’m now okay with this because I know that in the end, this child will be far more successful in school and in life. 

But it was not always easy for me to see teaching and learning in this way. I wanted to make school all about expectations. Meeting benchmarks mattered to me (to a degree, it still does). Aren’t I in teaching to teach? Sometimes as educators, I wonder if we see ourselves as failing, if we don’t have all children meet with the same academic success as we hoped. I’m curious though if these same students actually came farther along than they would have by us waiting until they were ready to address different expectations, and then addressing them in ways that worked for them. My recent conversations have helped me see that teaching is about more than academics, and we know this in theory, but what about in practice? This has been a good reminder for me that we don’t just teach expectations, we teach kidsA fundamental difference, I think.


Pulling The Plug On Popcorn Words: What Do You Do?

In September, I will be starting my 18th year of teaching. Wow! I’ve changed many of my practices over the years. One of my most recent changes though is one that has me thinking the most. It’s my approach to teaching sight words.

Many Kindergarten and Grade 1 educators probably have an opinion on how to best support children in quickly recalling sight words. For years, I was an advocate of “popcorn words.” I even taught The Popcorn Song to the tune of Mary Had A Little Lamb. One of my most embarrassing moments as a teacher happened due to popcorn words, and that stray kernel of popcorn, which ended up lodged in my ear. 🙂 In the past couple of years though, the updated Kindergarten Program Document had me wondering about the value in teaching these words out of context. My teaching partner, Paula, and I had many discussions about this, and we decided on a different approach. 

A couple of years ago, we figured that children tend to learn these words as they’re exposed to them more in books. After reading them again and again, they do so automatically, and then slowly, these words make it into their writing. We thought that this might be more of a developmental approach, so instead of highlighting the words for everyone, we just explored these words as kids came across them in texts. While this worked to a degree, when I completed the D.R.A. at the end of the school year, I noticed that it was the slowing down and attempting to sound out sight words, which impacted on some children getting to even higher reading levels. While most children met year-end, grade level expectations, I wondered if a better sight word knowledge would have led to even greater success. But then again, is a word song, a word wall, and flash cards the way to go?

Paula and I talked about these concerns. We still didn’t think that going back to The Popcorn Song and popcorn word games were the answer, but we wondered what more was possible. Was it a matter of being even more deliberate in our introduction and review of these grade appropriate sight words? For the past couple of years, we really worked at linking reading and writing, and having children read back to us what they wrote. This past year, we extended this thinking even more, and had children blend sounds to also read what other children wrote. Students started to see themselves as even more capable readers and writers, when they knew that what they wrote was accessible to their peers, and what their peers wrote, was accessible to them. 

I was so inspired by what Tomek, Trinity, and Brayden did, that I invited two more students to join me out at this graffiti wall on my prep today. They started by reading the words together. Milla finished the sentence in her own. Then they thought about what to write. I tried to get them to think about growth in learning. Milla really wanted to focus on her writing growth. She remembered what I showed her from her time in JK. As we spoke more, she added more details to her work. We even looked at the silent W in “write.” Her ability to self-reflect here almost brought me to tears. ❤️❤️❤️ When we look at our @hwdsb goal, this work aligns with that! SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #iteachk #ctinquiry #teachersofinstagram

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But we knew that students still needed more opportunities to work with sight words. Over the year, many children enjoyed writing us notes to ask for things or to express their feelings. At first, we either read the notes or had the students read them to us. Then we thought of a new idea: we began writing the students back! We really tried to think carefully about the words that we included in these responses:

  • varying the difficulty depending on the child.
  • choosing words which students could sound out.
  • ensuring that many sight words were part of our notes.

We extended this even more by trying to embed both educator and student writing within different play opportunities. It was amazing what happened when we brought some speech bubbles over to the Lego table and into the building area. Sometimes just having one of us start the writing led to children continuing it. 

While we didn’t work on teaching specific sight words in isolation, seeing, experiencing, reading, and writing these words in different play situations helped with greater recall of them. Before long, students were reading more sight words than they had in the past, and my reading assessment concerns from the year before were no longer an issue. 

I share all of this because in the end, sight words were taught exclusively in context, without even the introduction of a word wall. We spoke with our reading specialist about this, and she came up with the idea of adding a ring of sight words to our writing table. While we didn’t focus on them, the words were there if students wanted to access them for their writing. Most did not, and those that did, tended to just copy the words instead of focusing on what they said. This was something that I noticed a lot with the “popcorn words,” and was a big reason why I was happy to try another approach. 

I keep thinking about what a speech pathologist taught me a few years ago. Her fear was that if children see and learn conventional spelling before playing with letter-sounds, they will not use these sounds in their writing or to assist them in reading. She also felt that if we were going to have a word wall, we should look at adding digraphs as separate on the wall, so that the focus was on the letter-sounds instead of the names. To me, this always seemed to extend the wall even more, and I wondered how much children would use this resource to assist with reading and writing. Is it just the thing to do, or is it something that would truly make a difference for them? Word walls though have been around — and popular — since I started teaching, and while I absolutely support the approach that we’ve taken these past few years, I wonder if there’s something that I’m missing here. If we’re using word walls, why are we doing so, and if we’re not, what might be any potential drawbacks for kids? Could the same questions be applied to teaching sight words in isolation? Before another school year begins, I’d like to open up the conversation that may cause some heated debates among primary educators, but I think is worth thinking and talking about. 


Is It Time For All Of Us To Stand Up?

I’m scared. Writing this post is a scary one for me. It’s not because I don’t have strong opinions because I really do, but because I know just how public these opinions are when they’re shared in this platform. This afternoon, I saw a tweet from Andrew Campbell, which really made me stop and think, and serves as the basis for this blog post. 

Andrew’s tweet inspired a lot of conversation, including a few tweets of my own.

Read from the bottom, up.

Ever since reading the news that Ontario will be going back to the 1998 Sex-Ed Curriculum (which is actually the Growth and Development component of the Health Curriculum), I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting. I teach Kindergarten. Technically, this news will not change how I deliver any of my program come September, but as educators, we’re part of a team, and for many educators on this team, this news is going to make a big difference for them.

I can’t help but think about some of our youngest learners. A couple of years ago, I captured this conversation around the beading table one day. While I realize that there’s a lot of background noise and it’s hard to hear everything, what you can hear are a few children discussing their brothers. Their brothers who like pink. These two girls talk with others about how it’s okay for boys and girls to like pink. Way past my recording time, the children continued to discuss other colours, and how people can like any colour that they want. 

They moved beyond colours though to topics including,

  • dressing up,
  • being princesses,
  • playing with dolls, 
  • and wearing make-up.

These four- and five-year-olds are confident that these are practices that we can support for boys and girls, and “it doesn’t matter as long as this is what they like.” (Thank goodness for some documentation, which allowed me to look back at this conversation even two years later.

I then start to think about other conversations that I’ve heard or been a part of in my last three years in Full-Day Kindergarten.

  • There’s the discussion around “asking for a hug” before giving one.
  • There are the times that children spoke about the body parts on the doll before giving the doll a bath. 
  • There are the numerous conversations around peeing, pooping, and everything in betweenNothing intrigues young children more than bodily functions.
  • There are the kissing discussions, which happened frequently this year thanks to these kissing heads. We did have a further discussion on if both parties were happy with being kissed.
  • There are also the pregnancy conversations … especially those around worms this past school year. 

I share all of these stories because even our youngest learners are coming to school with some different experiences and background knowledge than the students that came before them. From my stories, you can see the start of conversations around gender, identity, consent, and body parts. What’s going to happen when we remove a Health Curriculum, which addresses where these children are already going and need to go next?

I can’t help but think back now to a conversation that I had recently with another educator. I made the comment, “I think that this is what’s best for kids, but …”. When I said, but, this other person replied, “As soon as we know that it’s what’s best for kids, there is no but. We are in the business of supporting kids. Every. Single. Time.” He’s right … and it’s for this very reason that I’m choosing to be scared, but also to press publish. I need to do what’s best for kids, and that means supporting a curriculum document, which aligns with what students are experiencing in their lives today. Creative educators will come up with different ways to professionally address these needs, and ensure that all children are heard and supported. But we need more than just creative educators. Are we all willing to speak up on behalf of kids? I think that change starts with our collective voices being heard.