What we expect and what we get

I had a rough morning with my kids today. Neither of them brushed their teeth, although both of them said they had. My son’s drum book had gone missing, although he’s only had it for a week. All of his mitts were wet because no one reminded him to take them out of his backpack last night (he’s 10… I keep expecting that at some point he’ll remember to do it on his own). To top it off, it’s been 1000 degrees below zero for several weeks and we’re all tired of being perpetually frozen. I lost my temper and got to work feeling awful about myself. I’m sure they didn’t feel great either.

I had expectations about how the morning would unfold. I expected they would brush their teeth (or at least not lie about NOT brushing their teeth). I expected that the drum book would be easy to find in preparation for the drum lesson tonight. I expected that after spending several hundred dollars on the best mitts money can buy, at least one pair of them would be dry. I’m sure my kids expected that their mother, an otherwise sane person, would not lose her mind about these mundane frustrations just before they left for school.

My expectations for how my kids would behave this morning were, arguably, too high. They were also coloured by my own frustration with the weather and my own anxiety about the consequences of their actions. What will people think of me as a parent if their breath smells terrible? If he doesn’t have his drum book? If he goes to school in this temperature with wet mitts? What will that say about me?

I’ve been wondering a lot about expectations this week as I’ve been visiting classes and observing students and teachers. It’s report card season in Ontario and teachers are furiously organizing documentation and writing comments. I remember it well. What I’ve observed in several classrooms has been a rush towards establishing students’ surface-level knowledge of concepts like shape names, numerals, letters, and colours in time for that noun recall to be formally reported on.  Does the child know the name for a rectangle? Can she identify the colour blue?

These assessments are happening outside of the play. Children are building and sculpting and imagining and conversing throughout the room while educators are pulling children out of the play to assess them on these noun recall tasks. There are two sets of expectations that concern me when I see this type of assessment occurring.

The first aspect that worries me is that these assessments don’t get at what we’re expected to be teaching and assessing in Ontario. Looking just at the concept of shape, for instance, the curriculum tells us that as children progress through the Kindergarten program they “describe, sort, classify, build, and compare two-dimensional shapes and three dimensional figures, and describe the location and movement of objects, through investigation.”  Nowhere in that expectation does it say “identify” or “name”. That’s very intentional on the part of the authors of the document.

In several other places in the curriculum document, concepts of shape are discussed. On page 52, for instance, the curriculum advises us that “generic art activities – for example, having children work with pre-cut shapes – should be avoided: they are rarely effective because their focus is narrow and they provide only limited assessment information about the child’s level of understanding. Children need time to imagine, create, and explore in a non-threatening environment where they know that their individual choices and responses are respected and valued.

The document also provides examples of how me might support children’s questions and curiosities around the concept of shape by, for instance “identifying mathematical relationships with the children (e.g., two of their small blocks make one large one; different shapes can be combined to make a more complex pattern).” Later, the document asks us to remember that “children are highly capable of complex thinking. In order to avoid limiting the children’s thinking, and to help them extend their learning, educators [should] provide challenges that are at the “edge” of the children’s learning.”  Simply naming shapes is not on the “edge” of most children’s learning in Kindergarten (what Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development). Children who cannot yet name the standard school shapes can nevertheless demonstrate complex thinking about symmetry, congruence, and the relationships between shapes in their building, drawing and sculpture. In an echo of Arthur Efland’s classic treatise on “The School Art Style,” I fear that these types of assessments slide us towards a “school math style” and a “school reading style” which, like “School Art” have little relationship to either the academic domains they’re allegedly preparing students for nor the spontaneous and sophisticated mathematical and linguistic play of children.

 

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A student’s representation of the CN Tower and his own imagining of a “downtown building.” What mathematical thinking can you observe? How could you create cognitive conflict in this centre to nudge this student’s learning forward? What questions could you ask?

Treating math like it’s mostly about nomenclature reflects both a lack of understanding of the curriculum expectations but also an internalized expectation of the kind of thinking children are capable of between the ages of 3 and 6. The saddest part of this type of withdrawal assessment, for me, is how much is missed when educators are focusing on checklists. All around me, I see children interacting with materials and each other in sophisticated ways. I see children exploring shape concepts in the building centre, I see children exploring colour mixing at the easel and I see children exploring quantity in their dramatic play. I had a great conversation with a child this week about the relationship between a sphere and and a circle as we played with clay together. You miss all that when you’re focused on getting every kid to make the same penguin or making sure every kid can identify a triangle.

Teaching kindergarten is hard work, on a lot of different levels. It’s emotional work, it’s physical work, and yes, it’s intellectual work.  Is it easier to assess students on surface-level nomenclature than to engage them in conversation during play or small-group instruction in order to assess their progress? It sure is! Does it get you the kind of data you need to move students forward? Does it inform the process of helping them to extend their learning, by providing them with challenges that are at the “edge” of their learningI don’t think it does.

Your expectations shape what you believe is possible for the children in your class. Expectations that focus on recall, memorization and nomenclature create a false ceiling for children’s learning and teach them that school is not about their creativity, their critical thought or their curiosity.   Every time we prioritize recall-type individual assessment over being present in play, we teach children about what we value and what we expect. We can’t be surprised when we later have adolescents and adults who don’t think critically or creatively about problems and issues. We’ve taught them over and over again that those abilities don’t matter.

When I get home tonight, I’m going to apologize to my kids for loosing my temper this morning and I’ll probably buy them a treat on the way to drum lessons as penance. My skewed expectation are relatively easy to repair, mercifully. Our lowered expectations in the classroom, however, are often very hard to identify, let alone change. We are very comfortable doing things how they have always been done and changing those practices puts us in that same, sometimes scary, zone of proximal development that we’re uncomfortable putting students in.

In his book, Mathematizing, Allen C. Rosales describes the importance of creating “cognitive conflict” for students. He describes it as “the process of encountering new situations or facts that “conflict” with what we already deam to be true.” Other authors have used the terms “problematizing” or “de-facilitating” to describe this process of nudging student learning forward purposefully. Every time I’m in a Kindergarten classroom, I find my assumptions and expectations being challenged. I learn anew what marvels young children are capable of when our expectations allow them to demonstrate their incredible capacities.

 

 

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Serendipity and the choices we make

Educators probably make hundreds of choices every day. What do I attend to? How do I balance my instructional goals across the curriculum? Which children should I be working with right now? What should I purposefully ignore? It can be overwhelming and sometimes the relentlessness of the classroom environment leads to inertia. We start making fewer and fewer teaching moves so as not to have to make a choice. That too is, of course, a choice.

The story of these choices becomes how the year unfolds and how we all, students and educators alike, experience being part of the classroom community. Our choices have an impact, whether we’re being thoughtful about them or not. Many times, especially in early learning, those choices come to us serendipitously and we have to react in the moment, deciding which threads to pull on and which to drop.  Here’s the story of one of those threads.

I was visiting a classroom recently when I noticed a child drawing a spiral.

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I asked him about his drawing and he initially didn’t have a lot to say.

“It goes smaller and smaller in the middle.”

In my best Doug Clements imitation, I introduced the vocabulary of a “spiral” and asked the child where he had noticed shapes like that before.

He replied that he didn’t know and pointed back to his page: “I drew it here.”

It was then that serendipity struck.  I recalled that earlier in the day another child had asked the classroom teacher about the contents of one of the boxes on a shelf and she had replied that it contained shells that someone had donated. I wondered if there might be a spiral-shaped shell in that box.

We went to look and found that there were several large conch shells in the box. This discovery inspired the usual listening to the ocean sounds but once we’d all had a good listen, we went back to the table where we’d started and I challenged the children to draw the spiral shapes that they observed in the shell. IMG_9447.jpg

G, the child who had drawn the original spiral, struggled to capture the details in the shape of the shell while maintaining the spiral shape.IMG_9438.jpg

When he reached the edge of the paper, he declared that he was “done”.

I wanted to know how he knew his drawing was finished.

“Because the paper is done, no more.”

In spite of saying he was done, G continued to add more zig zagging lines and then, frowning, said: “I want to draw another one. It’s so hard.”

His friend and I had also been drawing the shell and we looked at how all three drawings were different from each other.

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We also noticed that R, another child at the table, was drawing a different shell and was paying close attention to the detailed lines on his shell.

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I wondered aloud whether some magnifying glasses might help them look closely at the shells so that they could all do what R was doing.  We fetched the magnifying glasses and G made a second attempt at drawing the conch shell.

This time, G looked very carefully at the shape of the shell and followed with his eyes as he drew.

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He drew more slowly and paid close attention to the details.  He frequently paused to change the angle of the shell on the table.

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The first drawing (left), the second drawing (right)

The resulting drawing is on the right. You can see how his attention to the shape of the shell led him to more closely replicate the roundness of the conch.  When I talked to the students about how G’s drawing had changed between his first and second attempts, R said: “one is a circle and one is more a square.”

 

When the class gathered at the carpet, we shared with the other children our drawings and our learning about the shapes we had found in the shells. We also shared the new vocabulary we had learned: spiral.

The inquiry might well have ended at that point as the students went to eat lunch and then moved outside for their outdoor play block but serendipity struck again. As I was wandering around the edge of the schoolyard, looking for places that the class might explore and engage with nature, I noticed that some of the terrain had been disturbed by a piece of heavy equipment. Soil was turned over, it was muddy and snowy and there were tire tracks everywhere. When I walked over for a closer look, I noticed some small objects sticking out of the ground. Amazingly, they were snail shells, dozens of them. Some were broken but many were intact and they were all covered in semi-frozen mud.

I called the children over and they began plucking them out of the ground with their cold fingers.  The students who had drawn the shells earlier in the day were particularly excited when they noticed the obvious spirals on the snail shells.

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We theorized about what the broken shells would look like once we washed the mud out of them and the students debated intensely amongst themselves: were there snail guts in there or was it just mud?

I had to leave the school at that point but I left them with the shells and a plan to wash out the mud and report on what they observed. I also sent them a copy of the book Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman.

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There’s a lot going on here: children are investigating concepts that, in a traditional academic context, would slot themselves nicely into the subject boxes called Biology, Mathematics and Art. For children, these are a whole.

To paraphrase Ken Robinson, children aren’t aware that subjects are “an available condition.”

None of what happened with G, R, and their classmates that day would have been possible if I hadn’t had my ear to the ground, if I hadn’t been open to the potential for magic to happen. In his book Mathematizing, Allen C. Rosales writes that “students’ optimal learning opportunities occur when their hearts and minds are focused on the topics or ideas they have decided to investigate at the moment.”

Finding that context and being open to the serendipitous choices that are available to us every day depends on how well we listen to kids, how closely we watch them and how much we care about creating curriculum that is relevant to their holistic way of seeing the world.

Back to Basics: 5 strategies for success in Kindergarten

The first few weeks back at school have had me going back to my roots in Kindergarten.  I’ve had the pleasure of visiting many classrooms and interacting with lots of curious and capable kids. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but there’s always a part of me that’s struck by the timelessness of early childhood.  As much as we lament the way society, or technology, or time changes children and families, there are some constants that remain, regardless of the specific moment we find ourselves in.

I’ve had two kids this week tell me that I look like their grandmas (because I don’t dye the grey out of my hair – I’m 41) so perhaps you’ll indulge me in a little walk down memory lane.

  1. The floor is where it’s at.

As Karyn Callaghan so eloquently describes in this video, children quite literally see the world from a different perspective.  They are closer to the ground than we are and it’s important that we get down on the ground to see what they see. Often when an educator tells me she can’t figure out what a group of children is doing or how to move their learning forward, I suggest that she spend some time sitting on the floor, watching the students or even playing alongside them.  Creating your own drawing or building or ramp or pattern that pushes the learning forward by increasing the complexity or the height or the structural challenge can be as effective (or more) than verbally prompting a child.  So much of our communication – regardless of our age – is nonverbal and you will miss a lot of what’s going on between children if you always remain at adult height. Make the floor your friend.

2. Go outside

Those kids look too old for kindergarten, you may be thinking.  You’re right. That’s my son and one of his friends. They’re much older but they’re still fascinated by building things outside, playing outside, all things outside. Technology is seductive but outside is absorbing.

Time spent outside with your students is never time wasted but, like being on the floor, it helps if you’re close to the action.  Watching from afar rarely allows you to understand what’s going on. You’ve got to be in on the action.

Irrigation, erosion, dam buiding and water management are hot topics in the fall.

Grab a shovel or a stick and go with them.  You’ll have a much better idea of where to take the learning if you’re there when the questions (verbal or not) are being asked.

3. Move

Sitting is bad for us. Sitting is the new smoking. Sitting is sufficiently problematic that many of us wear alarms that chide us when we sit for too long. And yet…

And yet…

Too often we expect young children (both in Kindergarten and beyond) to sit for far too long and then we get upset because many of them can’t. Even when they can, it’s often not because they’re attending to what we’re trying to teach, it’s just that they’ve become expert self-regulators. They rub their legs or tap their fingers or zone out so that they appear compliant, don’t get into trouble but still manage to cope with the stress of remaining immobile for so long. Consider limiting your carpet meetings to 10-15 minutes.  You’ll get more bang for your buck, children will attend to what you’re saying and you’ll have less negative behaviour to manage.

4. Sing

Somewhere between the days when Kindergarten teachers spoke to everyone (bank tellers, police officers) in a sing-song tone and today, we’ve lost the connection between Kindergarten and singing. I’ve visited too many classes where there is hardly any singing. This summer I was giving a workshop and a teacher asked me if there was a website where all the songs I was teaching were available so that she could stream them on her SmartBoard and thereby avoid actually singing. We have become singing phobic.

Maybe I should blame American Idol but many teachers are convinced they can’t sing. I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the kids are not Simon Cowell and they really don’t care how great your voice is.  Another secret: being “good” at singing is mostly about practice.  I’m always amazed when I have the occasion to sing Happy Birthday with people who go to church on a regular basis.  They harmonize effortlessly, they stay on the beat and they all find the same key.  It’s not because they’re formally trained in vocal music, it’s because they sing regularly; they are good at it because they practice.  You’ll get better too, I promise.

The other reason singing is so important is that it is one of our best strategies for developing phonemic awareness, the bedrock upon which we build literacy skills. The way that sounds are segmented, emphasized, and placed into rhyming patterns in songs helps children to build their awareness of sound to symbol relationships. Song lyrics can also be used as shared reading text and then posted for students to read and sing together which continues to build their developing literacy skills.

Finally, singing helps to smooth out transitions (lining up, walking in the hallway) and builds routines that kids look forward to. Singing feels good and it gives kids something to do during times when they might otherwise find themselves at loose ends and irritating each other. Sing your transitions and you will find they are much more manageable.

5. Recognize the good

It is very easy sometimes to fall into the habit of managing behaviour by saying “no” a lot.  I’m not advocating that you allow behaviour that is anti-social or dangerous but it is often so much more effective to recognize what’s going well.  Most children will notice when other children are being praised and will rush to join the club. This works equally well with teenagers.  You can even do it in a song!  Developing a practice of noticing when kids are doing well will also shift your perspective towards the things that are going well in your classroom. Too often we fall into despair about how much work there is to do and we forget to acknowledge how far we’ve come. It’s October… to paraphrase Robert Frost, we have miles to go before we sleep.

If we want Global Competencies we need to stop stigmatizing the Arts.

There are conversations in all of our lives that we have repeatedly.

“Did you brush your teeth? Are you sure?”

“Do you have to pee? Please try to go before you put your snow pants on.”

“Where is/are your lunch box/agenda/library book/snow pants/mitts?!? The bus is coming!”

Clearly, I’m ready for winter to be over, already.

Beyond those quotidian rants however, there are professional conversations that I’ve had so many time they’re staring to feel scripted.

One of those well-rehearsed conversations is about the Arts and whether or not students should be encouraged or even allowed to pursue them past high school.  Sometimes the conversation is even about high school courses and whether students “have time” for subjects like Music and Visual Arts in their timetables.

In Ontario, students are required to complete one Arts (music, drama, dance, visual arts, media arts) credit during their four years of high school. One. For some students, that’s all they do because that’s all they want to do… and that’s fine. I understand that for those students, the Arts are not going to be where they find their passion and I can accept that.  I still think that in the interest of human wellness we should be requiring more than one secondary Arts credit but this particular post is about another kind of student: the kind that wants to pursue more Arts credits but feels that they can’t.

The students I’m thinking of are talented in many areas, academically capable, high achievers.  They excel at school and beyond.  Their horizons are wide open and their futures are bright.

Unfortunately, what tends to happen as these students progress through high school and begin to make choices that will shape their career pathways, is that we, the well-intentioned adults in their lives, discourage them from pursuing pathways that we feel are less likely to safeguard their financial futures. We steer them towards maths and sciences because we think that’s where the jobs are.

We’re not altogether wrong.  There absolutely are job vacancies in those sectors: Statistics Canada reports 28,095 vacancies in professional, scientific and technical sectors in the third quarter of 2017.  However, our well-meaning advice is having unintended consequences.

In many Ontario secondary schools, teachers refer to the “six-pack” of grade 12 courses that many motivated, university-bound students take in their last year of high school: Chemistry, Biology, Physics (the Sciences), Advanced Functions, Calculus and Vectors, and Mathematics of Data Management (the Maths). That’s a lot of very intense courses to take during one year, and a lot of pressure to be ready for those courses by taking the pre-requisites in grades 9, 10, and 11. Students also have a mandatory grade 12 English credit to complete.  It sure doesn’t leave a lot of time to be in the band.

The conversation therefore becomes about whether these students have time to “waste” on subjects like music and dance, given that they’ll “never get a job doing that.”

People have actually said that to my face: “Oh, my son/daughter/student will never get a job doing that (Art, Drama, Dance, Music) so why would they pursue it?”  Keep in mind that I have two degrees in Dance and that I have several jobs that use my Arts training every day. There’s a lot to unpack here.

First, there’s the assumption that the only purpose of education is to prepare you for a job.  What kind of impact is that having on our kids? Is their only value as income-earners, cogs in an economic wheel?  What about their value as humans, as thinking, feeling, creative beings?  We wonder why people become less creative as they age while we simultaneously pressure them to abandon the activities that honour and foster their creativity – the activities that make them happy. It shouldn’t surprise us when they fail to develop the skills that we repeatedly tell them don’t matter.

Second, people who make this argument assume that students have to make a choice between pursuing the Arts and learning in STEM subjects.  Life is long.  Most people will change careers several times. What do we gain by forcing students to choose such a rigid path so early? More importantly, how much do we loose?  How inflexible does our workforce become when people have been steered so powerfully towards focusing on one narrow thing? How devastating for them when it doesn’t work out.  I remember playing Trivial Pursuit with my grandfather, whose degree was in History but who was also a Geologist and prospector.  He could answer any trivia question.  He could also light a fire in the pouring rain, but that’s another post altogether.  We need to foster that kind of flexible thinking and learning in our schools, not squash it by forcing students to make a stark choice.

Finally, the most troubling assumption that’s made about learning in the Arts is that the skills we teach aren’t valuable or marketable.  People seem to have this image in their heads of a rail-thin starving artist in a cold garret, painting his un-sellable canvases and eating stale bread.  That image is so far away from the reality of the artists I graduated with as to be laughable.  Some of my former classmates are still pursuing performing careers but many have parlayed their expertise into careers in medicine, education, design, or management. The performers too are rarely doing just one thing; often they’re pursuing multiple career pathways at once… triumphantly.  If you want to learn about successful career transitions, ask an artist.

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All of the skills that we’ve now labeled “Global Competencies” (formerly known as 21C) are taught through the Arts.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving? Ask a theatre company who has to tour a show with an ensemble cast, a modular set, and a shoestring budget.

Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship? Ask an independent dance artist who has to write grant proposals, organize a summer dance camp for children, perform and stage her own work, and market herself to festivals.

Collaboration? Join an orchestra, a band, or the cast of a play… you’ll be an expert on collaboration.

Communication? In the Arts we practice communicating in every way possible: visually, acoustically, linguistically, through body language and movement, among others.  When words fail, we step up.

Citizenship? Look at any progressive movement in history; you’ll find artists at the forefront, pushing for a fairer, more diverse, better world.

Self-directed Learning? That’s our bread and butter.  Artists are constantly seeking out opportunities to learn from each other in order to move their practice forward. In the absence of an obvious pathway, we create our own.

If you’re reading this post and sensing a certain desperation in my tone, you’re not wrong. I am feeling a little desperate. I’m frightened for our kids.  I’m scared and sad for the kids who have enormous potential as artists-in-progress, and are put off pursuing their passions by well-intentioned but ill-informed adults. I’m also afraid for the many students who are struggling with anxiety and depression, whose pursuit of a perfect transcript has left them floundering with no way to express their angst.  Put some clay in their hands, give them a brush, or a role, or a trumpet… let them create.  Most importantly, don’t tell them that they have to choose.  The things they’ll learn in arts classes, be they in high school or beyond, will serve them well for the rest of their lives, whether or not they go on to a career in the Arts as we have traditionally conceptualized it. They will learn exactly the skills they will need to navigate this uncertain world, a world of career changes, entrepreneurship, and acrobatic flexibility.

We are a culture in love with the dichotomy but we have to get over it… fast.  The world is changing all around us and without these 21C/Global Competencies, we’re going to be left behind. It’s not either STEM or Arts, it’s AND.

Teaching has a tall poppy problem and it needs to change.

There are lots of problems in education, big systemic problems, governance problems, structural problems that seem unsolvable sometimes because they’re so deeply rooted in the way things have always be done.  And then there are problems that are so darn easy to fix, it’s a wonder they haven’t already been solved.

One of those easy problems is the tall poppy problem (or syndrome).  If you’re not familiar with that expression, it’s one of those fabulously apt British turns of phrase (also popular in Australia).  Wikipedia defines it as describing “aspects of a culture where people of high status are resented, attacked, cut down and/or criticized simply because they have been classified as superior to their peers.”  While I’m not keen on the term “superior” in their definition, I’m sadly all too familiar with the problem itself; virtually every teacher I know who has moved into a leadership role, whether in their school or in their system has experienced it.  When a poppy gets too tall, we cut it down to size.

poppies in a field

“Wow, the superintendent is coming to your class again?!?”

“You’re sure out of the school a lot.”

“Why does she get to go to so many conferences?!?”

“Giving another workshop, are we… what’s that, the fourth one this year?”

Comments like these, tossed around casually in the staff room or peppering the conversation in the hallway, are the tip of the tall poppy sword.  They give new teachers the message that it’s not good to stand out, that it’s better for your social survival to blend in, to be average, to find the middle and stay there.  These comments stigmatize striving, they punish achievement, and they disparage risk taking.  It’s already scary to take risks, to try new things in your teaching, to put your hand up when opportunity comes knocking; when we normalize comments like this and the social exclusion that often comes with them, we make it even scarier.

I am grateful to my dance training for many things but top of the list is that it has made me basically immune to these types of remarks. I get angry about it, sure, but it doesn’t ever stop me.  Not everyone, however, spent their adolescence having their every flaw and foible pointed out to them.  It toughens you up and it helps you to understand that other people’s opinions are valuable only insofar as you deem them relevant.  Feedback is great when it helps you to get better; in that context it’s an investment in your practice whether it’s as a dancer or as a teacher. When its goal is to bring you down, however, it’s not worth paying attention to.

While a thick skin is great, and I highly recommend developing one, it’s no substitute for a culture of lifting people up, of celebrating when colleagues are recognized and of supporting each other to take risks, stick our necks out and become ever better. The tall poppies among us should inspire us all to grow, to reach, and to make our classrooms and schools better places for kids and families. We need to start challenging comments that disparage the tall poppies; like all forms of bullying, this type of power play thrives in dark corners. Naming the behaviour when we see it would go a long way towards changing the culture.

Cutting people down makes us all worse off and, at a time when we’re encouraging our students to take risks and to find innovative solutions to our many problems, we need to make sure that our schools are places where teachers too feel safe and supported as risk-takers and innovators.  We need to grow to meet them; I hear the sun is warmer up there.

5 Lessons from the Stage for Teachers

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All the world’s a stage

I was recently working in a busy kindergarten classroom.  I arrived to a room full of activity, bustling with energy, teaming with learning.  The students were engaged at play, active and joyful with the noise of conversation and materials interacting.   A group of boys had build and obstacle course/pathway and they were challenging themselves to jump between the blocks while staying balanced.  Another group was using a mirror to draw self-portraits.  Other children were playing with puppets, painting, and reading.

After a period of observation, we asked them to leave their play and to join us at the carpet for some music and storytelling.  The teacher tapped the outside of a singing bowl to get their attention and the children slowly began to make their way towards the carpet.  I love singing bowls so I took the opportunity to use it as a way to draw all the students in, playing it by rubbing the outside edge and then slowly moving it across my body so that the sound moved through the room.  The students, familiar with this sound, were transfixed and watched me as I raised and lowered the bowl, moving it from right to left as it vibrated in my hand.

It was a bit of theatre, a gimmick perhaps.  I use all of my performance skills in these transitional moments; I draw myself up to full height, exaggerate my gestures, and use my voice to effect: when the sound of the singing bowl faded away, my voice was a whisper. Later in the lesson, the children went and gathered items that they could use to make soft and loud sounds in the room and I conducted their found-sound-orchestra with the nearest pencil, using flourishes and facial expressions to indicate when I wanted each group to play.

So many times when I watch teachers who are struggling to maintain students’ interest and to manage a group, I notice that, while the may have a good grasp of the content they’re teaching, they’ve forgotten (or have never thought about) that teaching is a performing art.  While I am absolutely an advocate of teacher as guide on the side and meddler in the middle, I am noticing that many teachers don’t know how to grab onto those ‘on stage’ moments and make the most of them.

So, in the spirit of building dramatic tension please imagine a drumroll as I give you my top five tips for creating student engagement through performance.

1. Body Language

If there was one thing I would give new teachers, it would be an awareness of their body language.  Women (who occupy the majority of elementary teaching positions) have, in many cases, been taught to take up less space with their bodies, to be quiet and unobtrusive.  Good performers take up space.  They occupy the room with authority.  They plant their feet and square their shoulders.  Their spines extend and their heads lift.  They don’t fidget; their gestures are purposeful and clear.  The maintain eye focus.  They make no apologies for their presence in a room.  Be aware of your own physicality and what it’s telling your students.  What messages are you sending?  Is the subtext of your body language sabotaging your teaching?

2. Use your voice.

We use our voices all day in the classroom but rarely do we think about how we use them.  Too often, teachers’ voices maintain a consistent range, which starts loud and gets louder when the noise level in the classroom increases.  I almost never hear a whisper or a change in pace, tone, or intonation.  The brain loves novelty and children’s ears will generally perk up when the teacher starts speaking in a very low tone or starts stretching out her words.  Not only does it help students to pay attention, it will also help to save your voice, which brings us to my next suggestion…

3. Silence

Think about that moment before a concert starts, when everyone settles in and leans forward, straining to hear the first notes.  That is a beautiful moment.  Dramatic pauses are sadly underused in teaching.  There are few techniques more effective than a short pause. To wait. For the next. Word. Try it.

4. Move

A few times in my teaching career, I’ve had parents request that their child sit closer to the front of the class due to challenges with attention, vision, or hearing.  These requests have caused me to ask: “Where is the front?”  I very rarely stand in one place in a classroom.  Unless I’m sitting down, I’m walking.  Movement is another way to help students pay attention; it forces them to track you through the classroom and gets them to move in their seats.  It also demonstrates confidence and allows you to touch base with every student while giving you something to do if you’re prone to fidgeting.

5. Transitions

Transitions are the tip of the sword in teaching.  They can absolutely ruin a good lesson.  Every transition is an opportunity to loose the students’ interest.  Think about performances you’ve seen when the scene changes are clunky, when the lighting cues aren’t in synch or when the performers are under-rehearsed.  Those transitional moments are agony for an audience.  People start to shift in their seats, check their phones, or whisper to their friends… and these are fully grown adults, presumably more capable of self-regulation than the kids in our classes!  Practice your teaching transitions, make sure you have all the materials you need, give the kids something to do during the transition, sing a song, tap dance, 7th inning stretch… anything.  Being aware of transitions, cutting them back to the bare minimum and smoothing out the ones that remain will make a huge difference to your classroom management.

Break a leg!

The missing ingredient

I attended my first meeting about full-day kindergarten in the Spring of 2010, 7 years ago now.  In the intervening years, I’ve worked as a classroom teacher in FDK and as a support person for FDK classrooms.  I’ve thought hard about the progress we’ve made and the progress we’ve missed as I’ve observed and documented, reflected and refocused.   And I have to say that, although there are some shining examples of excellence, our progress, across the province, hasn’t been where many of us would have hoped.   We are, in many meetings, still talking about the same issues we were discussing 7 years ago.

Why? Why haven’t we, in spite of our best intentions, been able to move the needle on some of these critical issues in early learning?  Why is my daughter still coming home from her second year of Kindergarten with worksheets and fixed-result crafts?  How can I possibly be having the same conversations with her teachers that I was having with my son’s teachers in 2012? They’re getting tired of it and so am I (imagine for a moment the delight a teacher feels when I walk into their classroom information night… oy).

I’ve been thinking hard about these questions a lot this year, especially as I’ve been working with the teachers, educators, and artists in our Artists-in-Residency (AIR)(education) program (generously funded by the Ontario Arts Council).

Without exception, the artists working in this program bring an entirely fresh perspective to the classrooms they’re working in.  They see things with new eyes.  They don’t have the same preconceived notions that many of us in education do about children, their capacities, and the possibilities for learning in the classroom.   Let me give you an example.

In one of our schools, we have had an artist working with both a kindergarten teacher/ECE team and a grade 3 teacher.  The same artist also worked in the school last year but this is the first time we’ve extended the program beyond kindergarten.  She has been in residency, typically spending two half-days per week in each class, for 8 weeks.  As the grade 3 teacher pointed out, that’s the equivalent of 9 months of Visual Art instructional time according to the minutes allotted in our board (which are comparable to instructional time allotments across Ontario).

During this time, the grade 3 students have made plaster casts, abstract maps, and clay pots.  They’ve experimented with linocut printmaking and copper tooling.  They’ve also made their own paper and learned about 3-dimensional drawing techniques.  It’s been a rich and rewarding experience for everyone and represents a particularly brave leap for the teacher; grade 3 is a testing year in Ontario and many teachers would be reluctant to give so much time to an Art project.

But we’re here to talk about Kindergarten so let me tell you about the project in that class.  Last year this artist worked with the students’ interests and curiosities to create a very detailed 3-dimensional model of a coral reef, including a reef sculpted in wire, covered in plaster bandages, and painted in bright acrylics.  This year, the class began working on a few projects to test the water and get an idea for where the students wanted to take the project.  They began with the students’ existing fascination with building which prompted tall paintings (à la Holton Rower) and architecture-inspired floor plans and building designs.

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tall paintings mounted for display

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Kindergarten blue print
The project quickly shifted, however to a focus on space.  Space.  As we had done the previous year with the coral reef, this direction prompted some soul searching on the part of all the adults.  Space seems an awful lot like a theme.  Was this really where we wanted the project to go?  Did it have enough to do with Art? Was it a genuine place of curiosity for the students or was there a bigger question we were missing? But given that we didn’t have any other obvious direction, we decided to go for it.

I ordered batteries, wires, and LED lights while the artist’s receipts revealed purchases that stretched from one end of the dollar store to the other.  The students made a planetarium out of a giant cardboard box, featuring constellations that were wired together and used finger pressure to connect the circuits.  They created Mars rovers and a dramatic play centre that featured plaster bandage helmets and moon shoes.  They created a cave populated with crystal sculptures.  The project went well beyond where anyone would have predicted at the outset. The teacher and ECE reflected:

“It was interesting to observe an inquiry progress through the arts. The children’s questions lead us. I wonder how our project would have looked if we had not used the techniques introduced by the artist?”

And that’s the rub that we’re facing, 7 years in.  We’ve tried to adopt Malaguzzi’s broad view of 100 languages without bringing in the translators he used.  We are like aliens, fish out of water.  We don’t know how to navigate and though we’re trying, gamely in many cases, we keep reverting back to our old languages of reading, writing, and mathematics because there isn’t anyone to bridge the cultural gap for us.  The gulf between the culture of school and the culture of childhood remains in large part, I think, because the people who could comfortably stand on both sides of the divide aren’t in schools.  We haven’t asked them to come in.

Vea Vecchi, writing in the journal Innovations in Early Education writes:

“In the late 1960’s the decision was made to have an atelier and an atelierista in each municipal infant-toddler centre and preschool in Reggio Emilia. It was a choice that was revolutionary then and now because it changed a conformist way of thinking about education, of looking at knowledge and learning. This choice created a dialogue between social constructivist pedagogy and the poetic languages of the atelier. This decision was actually quite subversive. In a very short time after the original institution of the atelier, the culture of the atelier began to infuse throughout the entire school. The atelier brought certain techniques and certain culture into the school but also had an intense effect on all the aspects of the school.” (Fall 2012, Volume 19, Number 4)

The artists of the atelier are not teachers, just as our AIR artists aren’t teachers.  They bring a subversive set of eyes and hands and legs to the classroom and in the upending that occurs, the very nature of what school is changes.

Vecchi writes: “Loris Malaguzzi talked about the atelier as a being an “impertinent atelier.” This is a term that I like very much because it implies that the atelier is a place of provocation. The atelier is a place that guarantees that knowledge and learning are taking place with the mind and the hand as well as rationality and emotions connected.”

Learning with the mind and the hand… learning with emotions.  How many of the issues that we talk about in education, be it a better future for learners who identify as Indigenous, a focus on Mental Heath, physical literacy, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration are so obviously served by having artists present in schools, active in schools, integrated into schools?  How far could we move the needle on student Mental Health if kids had access to an art studio in their schools, if their teachers had access to an artist-in-residency… full-time? How much more creative could we all be if we had the kinds of opportunities that the students and educators involved with the AIR program have had?  What a difference it would make to the culture of school if we had fluent adult speakers of the 100 Languages in the building. I think we’re missing out, our kids are missing out, and our society is missing out.  Send in the artists. There’s no time to waste.