Shifting Thinking. Shifting Practice. Re-Thinking Both.

As part of our Reading Specialist professional development, we’ve been reading and discussing, Shifting the Balance. I actually read this book back in September when I applied to the Reading Specialist team, as I wanted to gain a better understanding of the Science of Reading. I’m grateful that I did read it then, as re-reading it now — especially after being in this position for over 7 months — allows me to think more deeply about the information shared and re-visit some of my previous learning.

At our last Reading Specialist Meeting, we got into groups to discuss some of our reading and reflections. I was in a group with another educator, who spent many years teaching kindergarten. One point that we both commented on was the focus on the value of oral language and vocabulary building. Students need schema, and it’s through rich play opportunities and wonderful inquiries that we can help build this schema, introduce new and subject-specific vocabulary, and provide lots of talking and listening time with kids. When we’re thinking about the Science of Reading though, a lot of time is spent discussing phonics. At every Reading Specialist Meeting that we’re at, we’re reminded that phonics instruction should probably only be about 20 minutes a day. I know that I’ve shared these words with the educators at my school, and it’s a wonderful and important message. A shift though in how we teach reading, definitely seems to have more of us — myself included — thinking more about phonics, and even this book on reading instruction, is reminding us that there’s more to reading than that. This then comes with a big question and one that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently: If I were to go back to the classroom as a kindergarten educator, what changes might I want to make?

This blog post is inspired by this question. Before I share more, I need to say a couple of things.

  1. This is some of my initial thinking. Yes, it aligns with the Board messaging around reading instruction, but no, it is not the way that I’m telling anyone to teach reading. It is a way that helps to ensure some targeted, systematic instruction around phonics, while holding to the pedagogy in the play-based Kindergarten Program Document that I love so much. It also aligns with the flow of the day that my previous teaching partner, Paula, and I had in our classroom before, so I know that it would have worked for what we had in the past. Connecting with teaching partners, looking at student strengths and needs, and planning together as a team are so important. These are things that I would need to do again if/when I go back to the classroom.
  2. There is not one right way to do things. This year, we’ve been told to dabble. Experiment. Try something new. We are still learning about the Science of Reading, and we’re waiting on the release of a new Language Document, which might include a Scope and Sequence for reading instruction. Professional judgment is so important. The things that might work for me and my students, might not work for you and yours … and that’s okay. I want to write about this because by blogging my thinking, I will remember it, and I can return to it at a later point. Doug Peterson taught me this value of blogging, and it’s why I’m writing this post today.

With this in mind, here are some shifts that I might consider making in kindergarten (but only after having conversations with my teaching partner to see what they think and what else they might add, remove, or change).

  • Maximize transitional times for Phonological Awareness activities. This year, the educators at my current school are using UFLI for phonics instruction. Every UFLI lesson includes some phonological awareness work. Instead of doing this sitting as a class on the carpet, I wonder about doing it during transitional times. What if we played with segmenting and blending as we get ready to line up and move to another area in the school or as we clean up? Maybe this could even be done as students are coming into the classroom each day or getting ready to move somewhere else. As the educators, we would say the sounds in the words and they could blend them or we could give the class a word, and they could give us the sounds. We could also do this when walking in a line somewhere. If we gave the students a word, they could give us the sounds as they step: one step for each sound. I even tried this out this year when connecting with a student in the hallway.
  • Try out the visual drill during line walking times. Each UFLI lesson includes a visual drill, where you show students a letter and they give you the sound(s). If you’ve ever had younger students walk in a line, you’ll realize what a challenge this can be. It’s really hard for them to stay focused on what’s in front of them. Almost 20 years ago, I used to put a stuffed animal on the end of a long stick, and they would watch the stuffed animal as we walked in the hall. This worked. I haven’t used this approach in years, and I have some mixed thoughts around the need to walk in a straight line, but regardless, often this is the expectation in a school. Why not print out the letters in the visual drill, and hold them up high for students to see? They can tell us the sounds as we flash the cards. Many might enjoy this little game, and then we can use this time walking to also support instruction.
  • Do the auditory and blending drills during transitional times, as students come to the carpet. There are usually a couple of times a day that kindergarten students gather as a group. What if we did the auditory and blending drills from UFLI during these transitional times? We could have some students write the letters on whiteboards or clipboards, and we could have others use their fingers to form the letters on the floor or in the air. One educator could lead the blending drill as another one assists students that are still getting ready. We could transition students in two groups (almost), so that those that are most ready for this reading instruction, would be there to participate in the majority of it. Again, it comes down to knowing our students. A few students that need a challenge, could even have a clipboard and make a list of as many of the words that they recall in the blending drill. This could be a differentiated piece for kids. If some students are stressed by this instruction, maybe they could help the other educator with some of the set-up in the classroom, and could then hear and see the lesson but still be slightly removed from it.
  • The new concept could be introduced in a smaller group or during a meeting time. Depending on the students, a smaller group might be better. One educator could always sit around a writing table or in a book nook area with the UFLI presentation loaded. The educator could invite students to join as play begins. Others might listen in, and that’s great! Then the educator could run different lessons for different students, so everyone is receiving the instruction that they need. If we decide to do the lesson with the full class, this could be done during a meeting time. The lesson itself is shorter, but it’s the word work, writing, and decodable passages that take longer. This though leads to my next bullet point …
  • Do the word work, writing, and decodable passages (if applicable), during play. This could easily be done in a little reading area space or around the writing table. Then students that are ready for this instruction, can receive it, and others can always listen in and/or join in from afar. As more students are ready, more groups can happen. We could always support other students with the letters and sounds introduced by making them out of play dough or plasticine, writing them on a covered table, or even printing them with paint or in the sand. Educators playing alongside students could support the learning in this way, and then extend this learning with reading and writing opportunities for students that are ready.

This is not something that I’ve ever done in this way before. It does align with some past practices that Paula and I had, but it also varies from some. I think it would be a case of trying, reflecting, and trying again. My hope though would be that in this case, there would still be lots of opportunities for rich play and inquiry, while targeting reading skills, but in a developmentally appropriate way. As kindergarten educators, what does this systematic phonics instruction look like in your classroom? What’s working? What’s not? What might you consider changing and why? There’s still time to try something new, and as this school year is coming to an end, maybe we can all learn a few different approaches from each other. Thanks to Shifting the Balance and a great book club conversation for shifting my thinking, shifting practice, and re-thinking a bit of both.


Sharing Our Stories

Today was our monthly Reading Specialist Meeting at the Board. As part of our afternoon session, we watched some of the Right To Read Inquiry Public Hearing.

This video segment is a powerful one, and while we probably watched less than 10 minutes of it, I don’t think that there were any dry eyes in the room. As educators, hearing about this student’s experiences in school and what she needed to be successful really had all of us thinking.

When our PD was over today, I was chatting with another Reading Specialist and one of the consultants. Listening to them discuss a few personal experiences made me realize that so many of us have stories to share. I have one too. I didn’t share all of this story with them at the time, but I have blogged about this before and I decided to do so again in light of this inquiry and Ashley Judge’s story.

My story is not the same as Ashley’s because my struggles were not in reading. I learned to read with ease, and I’ve always loved books. I was an avid reader as a child and as an adult. But as I’ve shared before, when I was in Grade 2, I was identified with a nonverbal learning disability in visual spatial skills. While I was identified with my learning disability well before Ashley was, I was could still connect with much of what she said around academic success and struggles. I was not a child who failed at school.

  • I worked hard, and like Ashley, my grades were often in the B and C range.
  • I had the support of both my mom and my step-dad — two educators — who helped me find strategies that worked, while advocating for me and teaching me how to advocate for myself. Just like Ashley’s mom who sat beside her during this inquiry, my parents were always beside me.
  • I also needed many similar supports to Ashley, including copies of notes and additional time to write tests.
  • Like Ashley as well, with the supports in place, I was successful. I got a couple of scholarships to university, and I continue to live my dream of being a teacher.

Listening to this video today, and then thinking more about Ashley’s story on the drive home, I realized that I had to share this story of mine again. Sometimes, it’s when we share our struggles, when we connect to the importance of accommodating and the success that happens as a result, and when we refocus on kids (from our own childhood experiences to our educator ones now), we see students in a different light.

  • We understand more.
  • We connect more.
  • And we want to try something different because the human element of education changes education.

What are your stories? How do they impact on your views of students, learning, and success for all? It’s hard to listen to Ashley and not be inspired to reflect and to act.


Vacation — On Hold? Cancelled? Or Something Else Altogether?

Doug Peterson‘s blog post from yesterday continues to weigh on me. I’ve never been a big vacation person and don’t usually go away in the summer — often choosing to work for part of the summer insteadΒ — but this year I had plans.Β 

The first vacation plan won’t seem like much of a vacation to many, but for me, I’ve been looking forward to this for months.Β I was off to Peterborough.Β Okay, maybe this is just a short car ride away, but this Peterborough trip was one that I’ve wanted to make for years but never have, as the timing has never worked out right. This year though, I was determined to attend The MEHRIT Centre‘s Summer Symposium. I was finally going to meet in person people that I’ve wanted to meet for years, and never have had the opportunity to do so. I signed up for the full week back in November, and I was counting down the days until July!

While I recognize that a conference does not usually count as a vacation, an opportunity to converse and reflect with individuals that share my passion for Self-Reg was something that I’ve wanted to do for years.Β And I was finally,Β finally, going to meet Stuart Shanker and Cathy Lethbridge: two people who I’ve wanted to meet forever! I know that my safety matters more than a conference, but my heart still aches for this cancellation. (And yes, I do realize that this is a privileged perspective, but I want to be honest here.)

The second vacation is actually not mine, but one that my sister and her family were going to make. My sister and her family live in the States, and as a result, I don’t see them very much. They were going to drive down to Ontario for my nephew’s birthday at the end of August. He hasn’t been to Canada since he was a toddler, and I was so excited to show him different spaces now that he’s a pre-teen. But with festival cancellations, pool closures, and hotel problems, they had to cancel their trip. Again, I understand why, and I know that they’re fortunate that they will be able to re-book again, but it still hurts.Β 

While I think that my summer will now be filled with working (from home, but still connected to education) and reading (it’s no surprise that I love to do that), I’m still missing these not-so-vacation vacations. Strangely enough this unrelated tweet that I sent out yesterday morning has actually had me thinking a lot about this vacation topic.

As others even mentioned in reply to me, it’s not only through books that people are making these connections.

The Coronavirus is taking over our lives, and having us view almost everything differently.Β 

  • Will books, movies, and television shows slowly start representing our COVID-19 world? Do we want them to?

  • Will social gatherings and festivals be possible again, and in the same way(s) as before?Β 
  • Even as the world opens up, how quickly will we go back to normal, and will this “normal” change?

I’m finding it hard to imagine life post-COVID. As much as I want my vacation options from this year to be my ones for next year, I wonder if that will be possible.

For now, I’m trying to decide when my #extendedMarchBreakRead Instagram hashtag becomes the #SummerofCOVIDReading hashtag. Maybe the move over will be more seamless than I think. For now, I’m grateful that my summer of reading can continue, even if my thoughts around these books might be impacted by our pandemic. I wonder if we all need a little bit of normal in our lives right now, no matter how small it may be. What do you think? How do you find it?Β Here’s to hoping that all of your summer plans keep you and your family healthy, happy, and safe … the things that matter most of all!