Explorations in Expectations

I’ve been asking myself a lot about expectations lately.  What, as teachers, do we expect from children? What do we expect from ourselves?  How do we define our roles in schools and how do those roles, in turn, define us?  For instance, how does what we expect from children affect how they behave and what they do in the classroom? 

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague last week.  She asked me why my students are so calm at lunch.  I tried hard to explain to her about self regulation.  I mentioned that they’re rarely told what to do so they’re pretty skilled at making good decisions for themselves.  They decide when to eat, who to sit with, what to eat, and where to sit.  But I think it goes deeper than that.  It helps me to sit back sometimes and to really listen carefully to their conversations.  Here’s one that I found particularly revelatory.

N is a 4-year old who often has trouble self-regulating.  He yells a lot and sometimes gets very upset when he doesn’t get his way.  J is also 4-year old.  She is very verbal and likes to tell very complex stories about the work that she makes in class.  One day they were together in the art studio working on a project. 

When I arrived, J was gluing acorns, shells, and rocks onto a long line of glue.  N was watching with interest but not participating actively in the creation.  In the video, I can see him periodically looking out into the classroom when interesting noises catch his attention but he stays with J.  Something about what she’s doing is holding his attention.  J passes the acorns to another child and then says “I need glue, I need glue”.  She gestures to another child at the table and asks: “Can I have your glue?”  Then she says to herself “Oh, yeah, there’s glue over there.”  She goes to get the glue and proceeds to add more glue to her artwork.  N watches all of this with interest.  When I shift the camera to another child, N calls me back:


N: Madame, Madame, J is making this for me.

Mme: Oh, she’s making it for you.

N: Yes, ’cause I was a baby.

Mme: You were a baby.

J: Yeah, we were playing a game.

At this point, N picks up one of the bottles of glue and begins making little polka dots of glue on the page.  J says: “We need lots and lots of glue.”  It’s the first time N has taken an active role in the creative process.  They continue adding glue.  Eventually other children claim the glue bottles while J and N are occupied gluing shells. 

J: It’s full. (meaning the line of glue is full of shells)

N: We need some more glue.  (noticing that the glue bottles have gone missing)  Hey, we need that glue! 

This is the point at which N would usually start yelling and might have to be removed from the environment.

Instead, J says to the child with the glue bottle: “B, can we use this for a minute?”

Then she says to N: “You just have to ask nicely.”  At the very end of the video, we can hear another child asking: “Do you need this glue?”  N replies: “We already got some.”

I know this little interaction might seem pedestrian but here’s what I found incredible about it: I could have stepped in at any point.  I could have encouraged N to participate more actively, I could have instructed J to change her design (perhaps to align with some particular curriculum expectation), I could have asked them to use different materials, less glue, etc… I certainly could have stepped in when N started to get upset.  I chose to say almost nothing.  Why?

I confess that it’s a bit difficult to articulate. 

I believe that they can figure it out and I believe that the process of doing so is more valuable than instruction from me ever could be.  I also believe that the lessons they learn about self regulation when they figure things out for themselves are far more sticky than any formal character education I could ever do.  I believe they can and so they do! 



Why I hate worksheets

I tried to come up with a more polite title for this blog post, really I did.  It’s coming out of my own frustration when worksheets come home in my own child’s backpack.  I’m not trying to shock or offend the publishers of those beloved blacklines or the teachers who use them.  But… I am ready to throw this baby out with the bathwater and I’m not afraid to tell it on a mountain (how’s that for mixing metaphors).  So… why do I hate them?  I’ve got a little list, I’ve got a little list… and they’ll none of them be missed, they’ll none of them be missed! (It’s from the Mikado, enjoy! I’ve got a little list – The Mikado)

Reason #1: This Painting by D

Reason #1: This painting by D

D made this painting one day.  She is always thoughtful when she makes art so I like to ask her about what she makes.

Mme: D, tell me about your painting.

D: Well, that’s an X and that’s an L and that’s a banana.

Mme:  What about that? What’s that?

D: That’s a pattern Madame (said with an “isn’t it obvious” tone)

D is practicing letter shapes, she’s working with colour (she knows many of the colour names in French), she has background and foreground, she understands simple patterns.  Why does she need to be bored by a worksheet?  What would it add to her learning?  Would her “L”s be better if she practiced them over and over on a line or would that just crush her desire to write?

Pumpkin SeedsReason #2: Pumpkin seeds

This week we carved the pumpkins that the children brought into class.  We scooped out the goop, separated the seeds, rinsed them, I took them home during lunch, roasted them, brought them back, and we ate them.  If this isn’t fine motor skill practice, then I don’t know what that is.  I also think it’s richer and way, way, way more fun than any worksheet could ever be.  We chatted while we worked so we also developed our oral language skills!

Patterns EverywhereReason #3 – Patterning

I didn’t teach this child how to make an A/B pattern.  I talked to her about her pattern and she has access to the materials she needs to make patterns: materials that vary in colour, shape, texture, and size.  The patterns happen.  I think having them happen spontaneously and playfully make it stickier, make it more transferable, and make it better learning than filling out squares or colouring in pictures of elephants and hippos ever could be.

There… it’s just a little list, right?  I could go on.  I truly believe that none of them would be missed, per Gilbert and Sullivan.  I think there’s often a fear that we wouldn’t know what to do in classrooms if we didn’t have worksheets to assign.  We need to trust the children.  They will discover, they will grow, they will talk, and they will learn.

I read a great article today about student and school successes in Finland which made me want to jump up and down with delight (I’m prone to that sort of thing).  I highly recommend it.  Why Are Finnish Kids So Smart