Dive in: 5 things to think about when you’re planning for early learning online.

There aren’t many superlatives left to describe the times we’re living in: unprecedented is pretty much worn out by now.  But thread-bare though our adjectives may be they are nevertheless apt.  Most people alive today have never experienced anything like this pandemic and even those who can remember living through quarantines have never experienced something on this scale. My 95 year old grandmother was born 7 years after the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and there aren’t many people alive who are older than her.

Next week, we in Ontario’s public education sector will begin on a trajectory that has never before been attempted – the roll out of distance learning from Kindergarten to grade 12 across an entire system of public education. Truly, the mind boggles. I challenge you to go into a research database (all Ontario College of Teachers members have access to one here: www.oct.ca) and use the search terms “early childhood education or kindergarten or first grade or elementary school” and “distance education or distance learning or online education or online learning.”  You’re going to come up with virtually nothing.

The research that has been done on early childhood/early primary education and distance learning has been done in teacher preparation, not with young children.  From a research point of view, this isn’t surprising given the challenges in recruiting subjects and getting ethics approval to work with young children.  There are lots of reasons that this research hasn’t been done, not the least of which is that we’ve never had a reason to do it.  As a parent, I wanted my young children learning while interacting with their peers and it’s a well-supported truism that social engagment is critically important to learning, particularly in the early years. Necessity, however, is the mother of innovation.

So, what are some things we might want to consider as we reach out to families online and think about how to continue the learning we were doing face-to-face only a few weeks ago? Obviously, what’s below is only conjecture… there aren’t any actual experts out there, this is all too new. But, as an educator who spent years in Kindergarten and Primary classes both as a teacher and as a consultant and as a student working on her Doctorate in Distance Education, here are some suggestions that might be helpful.

  1. It’s still a community.

If your online learning experiences so far have been less-than-great, as I hear quite often, you may not realize that there this is a domain with theoretical pillars – there’s actually quite a lot of research into what works in Distance Education (DE), albeit mostly with older students. One of these big ideas in DE is the Community of Inquiry (COI) (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000). This framework “represents a process of creating a deep and meaningful (collaborative-constructivist) learning experience through the development of three interdependent elements – social, cognitive and teaching presence.”

What that means for Kindergarten and Primary teachers is that all those things we already do: creating community, nurturing relationships, and supporting families still matter to learning in an online classroom. Your presence in the online space, responding to questions, making comments, asking questions, and sharing content matters. It’s not just a matter of creating content and leaving it there. Your ongoing presence and interaction remain important to the learning. 

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Student presence also matters and it’s important that there’s room for student voice and choice. Students should feel that they have input into the class and how it evolves online, in the same way that you teach responsively in the face-to-face context. I know I’ve taken courses online that feel rote and whose content clearly isn’t responsive to the people taking the class. It’s a miserable experience.

Don’t feel that you have to spend the next few days putting everything imaginable online. Try a few things and see how it goes. Think of it as dancing with a partner: wait to see what moves they make before you make your next move.

2. You are pioneers, be kind to yourselves… and ask for help.

Have I mentioned yet that this is brand new? For some of you the technology itself is brand new. For almost everyone, designing an online classroom is brand new.

It’s not going to be perfect. You’re going to try things that don’t work and there will be moments of frustration. That’s okay. We’re all learning this together.

When you get stuck, take a break or ask for help. There are lots of great videos out there explaining how all of the technolgical tools (D2L, Google Classroom, SeeSaw, etc…) work. There are also some good resources. You can ask your colleagues, you can ask your kids, you can ask me! Try to frame it as a unique learning opportunity for you too and be kind to yourself, no one is expecting perfection.

3. Boil it down

Think about the most important learning for your grade level. Think about where your students were in their learning trajectories when you last saw them. What are the key pieces for them to be successful as they continue through their education? Focus on those. It’s maple syrup season, which is fitting. Be inspired by that process and concentrate on the essence of your curriculum.

4. Think outside the screen.

The classroom will be online, yes, but the learning doesn’t have to be.

Think of your online posts to your classroom as provocations and invite students to use them as a springboard for their own ideas and explorations. You might ask them to write and record a video interviewing their parents or their siblings, they might collect objects in their homes to sort using a variety of attributes, they might create a movement pattern that they record so that their classmates can learn it.  They might collect rocks to use as counters. It’s going to be a less linear learning process than you might be used to and you’ll have to accept that individual products might be quite different but, if you can wrap your head around planning for differentiation, you might find that students are learning in new and unexpected ways.

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5. Relationships before everything.

You are the experts on your students, not me or anyone else. You know their families, what their living situations are, how many siblings they have, what language(s) they speak and whether they have grandparents at home. All of these factors, and more, are going to influence the ways that they interact with an online classroom. All the relationships you’ve built with parents and families in the past 7 months are going to matter a lot over the course of this process.

My own children have been studying online with their Hebrew School teacher since they were very young. They’ve never met her; it’s unlikely that they’ll ever meet her – she lives on the other side of the world. They nevertheless have a great relationship with her.  You have an advantage she doesn’t; you already know your students. Distance learning is a great opportunity to get to know them in a new way. You can maintain and even grow your relationships with your students and their families during this time – what a unique experience to have lived together! What stories you’ll all have to tell! You are going where no one has gone before… be brave.

I’d love to hear how it’s going… please leave a comment below to share your experiences. We may be physically distanced but let’s stay connected!

 

On the verge

It was a week that started with people sharing memes about the convergence of the full moon, the time change and Friday the 13th – brace yourselves teachers, we’re in for a wild ride! How quaint that all seems now. On Wednesday morning we woke up to the news that our city had its first confirmed case of COVID-19. Suddenly, the full moon didn’t seem to matter any more.

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Image by Duncan Miller from Pixabay

We got through Wednesday and Thursday, remaining calm, comforting anxious kids, parents and staff; we were the calm squad. We handed out disinfecting wipes, cajoled kids into washing their hands (yes, again) and tried to stay positive. We mostly succeeded. Thursday afternoon brought the news that all schools would close for an additional two weeks after March Break. Is it possible to be both surprised and not surprised at the same time? If it is, I was. I felt both shock that such drastic action was being taken and relief that we were doing something concrete. I’m a dedicated hand-washer at the best of times; the impulse to do something more was becoming overwhelming, and now, we were.

But that thing we’re doing is, well, oddly, nothing. So far, less than two days into this social distancing experiment, I’m already wondering how to fill the time. I have assignments to complete and that’s probably what I should be writing right now but I’m finding it hard to think about anything other than my experience this past week.

Some things that surprised me:

  • The calm – There are moments when I’m extraordinarily proud to live in this country and this week was one of them. I thought it was very possible that the volume of early-morning sick calls would rise incrementally after the news of the first positive local case broke. After all, everyone was anxious and there are still a lot of unknowns in this rapidly evolving situation. I was wrong. Teachers and support staff came to work, they gave kids the consistency and normalcy they needed and they supported each other with humour and grace. It was Canadian dutifulness at its best.
  • The kindness: Staff baked treats, parents brought in chocolates, people were extra-gentle with each other. When a child had a cough or a runny nose teachers sent them to the office to get checked but with a noticeable undertone of deliberate calm so as not to upset either the child or their classmates. Crises don’t always bring out the best in people; this one did.
  • The work: On Friday morning, as we all digested the news that it would be at least three weeks before we were allowed to come back to school, teachers set to work organizing learning activities for their students. My daughter’s teacher and her grade partners put together a fantastic set of resources for students to work through and they did it all in record time. While my daughter may well wish they were less efficient, she will have lots to keep her busy over the next few weeks. I’m very grateful. They didn’t have to go the extra mile on a day that was already full, but they did.

So, I’m here, on the verge of something and also of nothing. With so much to do and yet nothing to do. With a pantry full of food and an empty calendar. It’s a privileged position but not a comfortable one – unease is the daily constant.

Often when I feel a bit unmoored, I re-read books that have been touchstones for me. Recently, I’ve re-read the last three books in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne series (Anne of Ingleside, Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside) and Hugh MacLennan’s The Watch That Ends the Night.  The shadow of both world wars stalk those novels and it anchors me to remember the enormity of the challenges we’ve faced together as we rise to face this current one. My grandfather was fighting Nazis at 17 years old, surely we can survive a little isolation? My children are less than impressed by my historical musings: “Mom, that’s not fun!” Fair enough.

Two quotes have popped out at me:

There is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.  ~ Hugh MacLennan

The body grows slowly and steadily but the soul grows by leaps and bounds. It may come to its full stature in an hour. ~ L.M. Montgomery

These are chestnuts, old ones, and whether they’ve aged well or not is a matter of opinion. But my experience so far in this crisis is that they’re true, both of them. I’ve seen souls growing by leaps and bounds this week and I’ve witnessed the complexity of our choices under pressure. What the next few weeks will bring, aside from more inevitable complaints about my lack of fun, I don’t know. I’m hoping it continues to bring out the better angels of our nature and that we manage to pull together, under duress, to protect each other.

Long Time Gone

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog first of all, thank you.

Secondly, you’ll notice that things are going to change.

I started blogging in the wake of finishing my master’s degree in 2012 because I missed writing so much. Well, since beginning my doctorate this past summer (2019), that’s definitely no longer a problem! This blog was where my freelance writing career started and where I really honed my voice as a writer. I learned how to narrow down a topic so that it would catch your attention and how to use images and students’ voices to engage conversation. When I no longer had my own classroom and instead spent my time visiting other people’s classes as a consultant, I learned how to aggregate my experiences so that nothing identifiable was left in my blog posts and no one felt singled out (or at least I hope not).

All of those pieces are now much harder.

As a vice-principal I don’t ever want my staff worrying that our interactions are going to be made public; maybe I’ll develop a reflective writing practice as an administrator but I’ll need more time to think about how that will look – there’s plenty to reflect on but how much of it can I share?

The bigger barrier, however, has been the pace of my days. I go and go and go and rarely have a minute to think about what I’ve done and why. Without notes, it would hard to remember what happened in a day – it’s a blur, a happy blur but a blur nonetheless.

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What I’ve learned: don’t write papers at the indoor amusement/trampoline park, unless absolutely necessary. 

And so it’s maybe not surprising that as I dig into the readings for the second course in my Doctorate in Education, I’m having a very hard time connecting to any of it. I read and I don’t remember. For an obsessive reader like me it’s a very strange experience. Who wrote that thing I just read? Where did I read that? I hardly know my right from my left any more. I feel like I’m being indoctrinated into a cult.

Usually in these online courses, I’m an extrovert, posting early and often, but in this course (Research Methods) I’m increasingly a lurker. I read and marvel that other people can cite things at the drop of a hat when I still feel like I’m drowning in a sea of readings, with no foothold. My despair has been bumped up a notch by being on a rotating series of strike days the last few weeks.  Long walks in the snow give me too much time to ruminate on my failings.

My default is to respond to people’s postings with my own reflections, or my own experience, not with a reference. Why is that? Have I just not read the right stuff yet? Am I not cut out for this? Very little of what I’ve read to this point has stuck with me in any meaningful way. I’m clinging to the edges of ideas instead of holding them firmly in my hands.

If my participation is being measured by the number of posts I read and don’t respond to, I’m doing great. If, as is more likely, my participation in judged on how often I post, then I’m probably falling short. I’m not finding that a lot of the discussion in either the Moodle or the Landing is particularly helpful – I generally just feel more and more muddled. Maybe this is normal… please tell me it’s normal!

Am I learning? I’m not sure if we ever know that we’re learning when we’re learning, unless it’s a discrete skill like throwing a curling stone (something I just learned how to do… badly). In my experience, the experience of having learned becomes clear only in hindsight and with a little distance. It’s when I read my old writing or look back on how I used to think about a subject that I realize I’ve changed. One of my mentors, dance education guru Anne Green Gilbert, always says that “awareness is change” and while that has obvious implications for a motor skill like dance (once you’re aware of how you’re performing a movement, you’re already changing it), it’s also true of other learning, in my experience. I’m only aware that I’ve learned something after it’s changed, then I reflect on that change and realize that I’ve learned.

I think I’m too close to this experience right now to know whether I’m learning or not.  Right now it feels like swimming in a dark pool, trying to feel for the sides by bumping into them. The tech tools certainly help to maintain those cohort connections that we established in August but I most often feel similarly defeated regardless of the technological medium. What’s saving me from giving up altogether is the back channel communications with my colleagues in the cohort, be it sharing memes in the Facebook group that perfectly capture our overwhelmedness or just texting each other.

And now I’ve done it again… I’ve written an entire assignment without a single citation.

Except for Anne – does that count? She says it all the time so let’s go with Green Gilbert, A. (2010).  Take that APA.

 

 

 

Pulling on the threads

The end of the school year is getting closer and we (teachers and students alike) are all a little weary. At this time of year, I notice that the inquiries in many classrooms start to peter out and practice sometimes reverts to worksheets and themes. This change is problematic for several reasons:

  • There is still so much going on in children’s play, regardless of the season. When we stop paying attention, we miss lots of valuable learning.
  • The summer regression (sometimes called the summer learning loss) is a real thing, particularly for students who don’t have a lot of literacy support at home. We need to make the most of the time that we have with students; we can’t afford to lose any precious minutes to classroom activities that aren’t moving learning forward (like watching movies or completing word searches).
  • For some students, holidays aren’t a happy, carefree time. When we shift our instructional focus towards themes related to summer holidays, we put a lot of stress on those students who may not be looking forward to 8 weeks spent at home. We impose our own anticipation of summer onto them and create needless anxiety.

When I’m teaching ballet, I’ll sometimes stand on a chair or sit on the floor to, quite literally, see my class from a different angle. I’ve taught some of my students for a decade or more and I need to find ways to see them with new eyes so that I can continue to challenge them and help them progress.

The same thing can happen in our classroom practice and, while standing on a chair may not be the best suggestion (or so my health and safety manual tells me), we do need to find ways of seeing our students with fresh eyes, especially as we near the end of our time together.

In the last couple of days, I’ve thought about two ways we might shift our perspective.

Earlier this week, I accompanied a group of students on a community walk through their small town. We noticed lots of interesting changes in the environment: daffodils blooming, trees budding, and bugs… so many bugs! The kids were simultaneously fascinated and terrified by an old house that they were convinced was haunted.

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Among the things they collected on our walk were pine cones from the large, mature red pine trees that lined the streets. When we got back to the classroom and looked more closely at them, the kids noticed that the shape of the pinecone resembled the shape of the shells we had observed and drawn on one of my previous visits. This gave us an opportunity to revisit the drawings we had done before and to remember the strategies we had used to capture the shape of the shells. Revisiting work you’ve done during the year and looking at it with fresh eyes can leapfrog into something new and interesting. You may want to enlist colleagues to work through a documentation protocol with you to help you see your experiences from a new perspective.

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How can we draw these shapes? It’s triangles and spirals together… like the shell!

Another strategy that can spark fresh engagement and activity is sharing the work of one child whose work has caught your attention.

A couple of weeks ago, I was visiting a class and noticed one boy walking the same trajectory over and over again.

He was talking to himself as he walked and clearly had a purpose to his pathway.

When I asked him what he was doing, he replied that he was walking on his secret path and he showed me where his path went.

I wondered how he might be able to share his path with his classmates and he decided that he needed to draw a map.

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At first the map was just a series of dots in a curved line but as we talked, he realized that he needed to represent the starting and ending points of his pathway: “I start at the water bottles and I end at the library.”

 

 

 

 

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The water bottles are represented by circles. The books are represented by rectangles.

This map drawing attracted other students who then began drawing their own maps which led us on a journey through the school following their maps up and down stairs and, eventually, to the library. Screen Shot 2019-05-16 at 2.23.41 PM.png

When we returned, we shared the original map with the whole class which has since led to more map making. What began as a single child walking through the class, became a much larger project that may see this class through to the end of the year. If we hadn’t pulled on that thread we wouldn’t have been able to weave that pattern together. Where are the threads in your classroom? How can you weave them together to create the tapestry that will wrap up your year?

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Sharing his map with the class.

5 ways to make your read alouds work!

Reading aloud to kids is an experience that almost everyone who has spent time with children has in common. Whether you’re a veteran teacher or a teenage babysitter, you’ve probably touched the magic that we create when we take the time to read with kids.

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I’ve had some amazing experiences as a parent and a caregiver of reading aloud: the moment when a child recognizes the letters in their name, or a common word, or a rhyming pattern in the text or a repeated phrase or sound that they love to yell out at the top of their lungs.

“Clang Clang Rattle Bing Bang, Gonna make my noise all day!”

~ Robert Munsch, Mortimer ~

Equally amazing are the books that make me cry, the books during which my kids know they can expect mom to get choked up “Mommy, why are you crying… again?!? You know how it ends.”

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Bagels from Benny makes me cry 100% of the time.

But whether I’m reading to one kid in a bunk bed or a whole gymnasium full, there are some tricks that I use to keep their interest and make the most of the time and I hope you will find them helpful in your practice as you harvest those magic moments with your students.

  1. Why this book, for this child, at this time? 

Too often when I visit classes, I see read-alouds chosen at the last second or selected because the characters (often familiar from television) are favourites for the kids. Alternately, the book may be a favourite for the teacher, a classic from their childhood or something their own children love. The books we choose to read in our classes should directly relate to the instructional goals we have for our students.

I worry that as you read that last sentence, you’ll be thinking that read-alouds should be dry and boring with curriculum standards attached at two-page intervals. Not at all! Instructional goals might include working on phonological awareness (rhymes, initial sounds, phoneme segmentation) or on prediction, inference, or making connections to personal experience. They might also relate to the children’s social development or their curiosities/inquiries. Whatever your instructional goals are, your read-alouds should support them in a pleasurable way that will increase overall engagement and, even better, give everyone a laugh (or, in my case, a cry).

2. Lights, Camera, Action!

One of my favourite things about the new Fountas & Pinnell Literacy Continuum is that they’ve titled texts read aloud by the teacher as “Shared and Performance Reading.” Describing a read aloud as a performance couldn’t be more accurate. Teaching is highly performative to begin with and reading aloud to students is often the most “on-stage” part of the day.  Take advantage of it!

Vary the volume, tone, speed and character of your voice. Change your posture. Move around. Use props and gesture. Be silly! Kids love watching their teacher become the ogre under the bridge, stomping his feet while he drools at the prospect of devouring a tasty goat and then quickly transitioning into the goat with skinny knees knocking together nervously as she tiptoes across the rickety bridge on her delicate hooves. What could be better?!?

3. Don’t do all the work.

Do you know who loves to do funny voices and make sound effects?

Kids!

When read-alouds don’t work, one of the most common reasons is that teachers are doing too much. Kids love to get involved and they can, at any age. They can make the sounds of the cars or the bird or the farts. They can guess the next rhyming word or chant the repeated text in a book. They can also get up and act out parts of the story as they explore the meaning of verbs. If you’re measuring the success of your read-aloud by how quiet and still your students are as you read, I’d suggest that you’re using the wrong measuring stick altogether. Students will be more engaged in the reading when they know they have a role to play in telling the story.  The drama glossary in the Ontario Arts Curriculum offers some great ideas for how to actively engage kids in a story. So does the CODE website.

4. It’s too long.

We all have finite attention spans, perhaps even more so in the last few years. Children’s attention spans in Kindergarten are estimated to range from 10-25 minutes. If you’re teaching young children, I would suggest keeping your read-alouds under 15 minutes, maximum. If the book you want to read will take longer than that, there’s nothing wrong with reading it in chunks. Come back to it tomorrow! The kids will get more out of the experience when they’re fresh and pausing will build suspense. It’s a great opportunity to work on prediction: “What do you think will happen next?”

5. Context

Write what you know, the experts tell us. If you don’t have a personal connection to what you’re writing about, it’s not likely to be successful. The same is true for reading, particularly for our youngest children. They need to be able to connect to the story somehow. It can be set somewhere far away and involve people whose lives are very different but if your students don’t have a context within which they can engage with the narrative, they’re likely to tune out, sometimes politely and sometimes not-so-much.

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For instance, the book Mama Panya’s Pancakes is set in an Kenyan village and involves experiences many children in urban settings wouldn’t have (fishing, going to a market, bargaining for the price of food) but it centres around sharing food and the experience of hosting friends for a meal. All children are likely to be able to connect to those ideas, even if their only experience of sharing food is at school. Think carefully about what the context is for the books you’re choosing. What’s the entry point for your students? Without a context for the learning, you’re not likely to accomplish your instructional goals, no matter how well intentioned they may be.

 

 

 

The things they won’t stop playing

In my work, as in the work of many people, I imagine, there are themes that come up again and again. Sometimes I get asked a question and I can point to a blog post I wrote or an article I read months or years earlier that touches on the same subject. Little kids have some very consistent interests; it’s why certain toys remain popular for generations. Building toys are one of those evergreen entertainments; kids can play with Lego or magnet-tiles forever, it seems.

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In general, my attitude towards the “problem” of repetitive play has been to encourage educators to look more closely at children’s play, to observe with a curious eye and to wonder about what they might be missing. In short, my approach has been to push back against our perception that there IS a problem at all. Often, when children return again and again to the same materials, they’re trying to figure something out and it’s our job to value what they’re doing enough to discover and support the intentionality of their play.

However, there are some times when repetitive play really is something to be concerned about and it’s worth spending some time thinking about how we might structure the environment and our interactions with children to support expanding their repertoire of play behaviour.

Recently, I was working with a teacher who was distressed by the repetitive play she was observing in her classroom. A group of boys consistently chose to visit the Lego centre and exclusively created spinning toys that they then “battled” against each other to see which one could withstand colliding with the other spinners. They resisted choosing any other material or building any other type of structure. It had been months of repeating the same play behaviour and they were unfazed. The teacher had tried her best to extend the play towards an investigation into rotation, more broadly, but they were unmoved. The Beyblades continued to duke it out.

When I began observing their play, I positioned myself right in the centre just to see what effect my presence would have. Sometimes, just having an adult body in the space is enough to shift the play subtly. It didn’t work in this case, the boys just moved the play away from me. Not to be deterred, I followed them and began asking them questions, essentially being a brat.

“Do you always make spinners?”

“Why do you always make spinners?”

“What do you like about spinners?”

“Do you know how to make anything else out of Lego? Are you sure, because all I see are spinners.  How do I know that you know how to make other things.?”

Essentially I did my best to make their play a bit uncomfortable by being, politely, annoying. At the same time, I was building with Lego myself, struggling to make something as unlike a spinner as I could.

They were, as I had suspected, up to the challenge my behaviour created.

Slowly at first but soon with increasing enthusiasm, their play changed. Some of them began building other things, others drifted off to other areas of the classroom. Suddenly the marble run came out and building took off in that area. Those that had stayed with the Legos began creating patterns and characters, building houses and stories.

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Did I commit the cardinal sin of play-based-learning here? Is changing the play because of an adult agenda against the rules? That’s definitely up for debate and you might disagree with me in the comments. The reality is that we work in a system that places certain demands on us related to assessment and reporting. When children’s play is especially repetitive, it’s hard to write report cards. What are our next steps?

It’s also true that we’re seeing, anecdotally at least, that children are coming to school with less play vocabulary than we would have expected in the past. Due to the ubiquity of technology, concerns about safety and other societal pressures, their exposure to materials, to outdoor environments, and to other children is often less robust than that of children from previous generations. They may genuinely struggle to know how to play with the diversity of materials and contexts we’re offering in a Kindergarten class.

So while it may not fall within the paradigm of purely emergent curriculum, I think there is some value to modelling and disrupting play that has become rote. Some adult intervention in certain moments, when the play has been closely observed and other interventions (changing the environment, for instance) have been tried, does help to move the learning forward. One of the biggest things I learned from the RECEs I’ve worked with is that an adult, working in role in the play space, can often help children succeed in the classroom better than any behaviourist intervention. Erica McWilliam, in her 2009 essay “Teaching for creativity: from sage to guide to Meddler” suggests that adults should be “usefully ignorant” as they meddle in students’ learning to nudge it forward.

“If teachers can understand the value of being “usefully ignorant” about learning options and possibilities, at the same time as they are expert in their disciplinary field and their pedagogical practice, who are active and inventive in the classroom, who challenge and support, who do not make things too easy, and who are not the only source of authority, who use processes of discovery, critique, argument and counter-argument effectively, who enjoy learning themselves and who do not rush to rescue their students from complexity—such teachers will contribute immeasurably to the creative capacity of their students now and in the future.”

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Sometimes that looks like asking some annoyingly dumb questions. Sometimes it looks like building or drawing something yourself and wondering aloud how to make it better. Sometimes it looks like wearing a funny hat and pretending to be a flower. Our work, sometimes, looks an awful lot like play.

 

 

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.