The last play

The weeks that my kids spend at summer camp are usually my opportunity to purge the accumulation of stuff in our house. If I can get it done when they’re not looking, they usually don’t notice that the toy-they-haven’t-played-with-in-two-years-but-is-super-precious-and-can’t-be-thrown-out is missing. This year, like everything else, my annual donate-a-thon has been different.

Firstly, the kids didn’t go to camp so we’ve essentially been together non-stop for 6 months. Secondly, very few places are taking donations of used toys/clothes/books.

My kids’ constant presence this summer has made it very tough to get any of their extensive collections pared back. They go to bed later now so unless I time my covert eviction sessions for early in the morning, I’m out of luck. I can occasionally get them to agree to giving away clothes or books but toys are really, really hard. Even though they very rarely play with them, each toy has an emotional attachment that resists separation, claws out.

But even when I do manage to get them to admit that, no they haven’t played with that pirate ship in three years, and yes, some other child would probably enjoy it, actually getting it out of the house presents it’s own challenges as very few places are taking donations in the pandemic.

So, the toys sit there by the front door, waiting for a new home.

And then something curious happened.

The 12 year old boy who eats two bowl of cereal before bed, who insists that his name is Jeffrey the 3rd-and-a-half (his name isn’t Jeffrey at all), and who thinks it’s hilarious that his armpits smell terrible because it’s yet another way he can torment his sister stumbles across the bag of plastic animals that I promised to one of my Kindergarten teachers and starts playing.

Battle groups of bears

And just like that, time rolls back.

I hear him from the other room, making guttural noises and talking in voices, pretending to be a dinosaur, then a kangaroo, then a bear. I sneak around the corner to spy on my boy/man.

He’s making teams, and organizing battle groups, figuring out who could beat whom (turkey versus kangaroo… who would win?). His elongated pre-adolescent legs folded underneath him in a posture only young hips (or yogis) can tolerate, totally engrossed in play, in a way he hasn’t been for months.

It was so beautiful, and so very sad. He was once an epic player, he could do this for hours, on his own, totally engrossed in a universe of his own imagining. I used to marvel at the way he’d give himself over to the experience with such total intense focus – before fishing and bike riding with his buddies and Minecraft lured him away.

But the playing days are almost over. Take a picture. Hold your breath. Make a wish. And maybe hold onto that pirate ship for just a little longer.

Surreptitious photography

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We don’t know what comes next.

I make a lot of jokes at my own expense. One of my chestnuts is that I have 6 undergraduate credits in walking backwards… I drag this one out when someone notes how deftly I walk backwards down a hallway, leading a group of kids from the gym, or I catch myself after slipping on the playground ice, or I balance on slippery rocks to free a grounded boat. All those years of movement training pay dividends in unexpected ways.

As a child, what I liked about ballet was that it had rules. There was a right and a wrong and progress towards the perfected ideal was clearly defined. You worked hard and you got better. I liked the control, the planning, the purpose, the vocabulary, the known. Like many kids growing up in alcoholic families, my reaction to all the things I couldn’t control was to control as many things as I could. Ballet was all about control and I loved it – I still do.

But then my dance world grew and I was introduced to forms that valued release, fall, suspension, and spiral. I was asked to find my own definitions of progress by teachers who challenged me to decide for myself what meaning movement was making in my life. That was hard work and I didn’t always like it – I really, really wanted there to be a right and wrong. I didn’t want the grey; I was nostalgic for the certainty of ballet.

Just as I was getting comfortable in the modern dance greyscape, I found improvisation, or maybe more accurately, it found me. Whereas in modern dance classes, there were at least some structures for me to hang my control needs on, now I was completely at sea – making it up as I went along, trusting that I could.

I had the good fortune of having improvisation teachers who took my angst in stride – I wasn’t the first recovering ballerina they’d met. They were patient with me and probably kinder than I deserved. Dana Reitz, Lionel Popkin, Sara Rudner… I’m not kidding about the backwards walking – we did everything backwards until we sort of forgot how to do it forwards; that was probably the point.

Bit by bit I got over myself and learned to love improvisation. I learned to trust that I could come up with solutions to problems, in the moment, on my feet, sometimes just on one foot. Sometimes those solutions would be brilliant but most of the time they would be just enough to get us to the next moment, where I could make a new choice and another and another. Sometimes I fell down so then I got up; the dance continued and I learned some humility. I learned to make better in-the-moment choices, I got better at taking in the circumstances and choosing a good path. I also learned to live with the uncertainty of reality – man plans and G-d laughs isn’t an old adage for nothing.

If planned teaching is like gardening, with rows of orderly plants, staked and supported, planters and edging clearly defined, then improvisational teaching is like sidewalk flowers, bursting up unexpectedly in fertile but forgotten corners, largely unnoticed but still beautiful. It’s so much easier to measure the former, that most researchers ignore the latter. We pretend that we can plan everything and we participate in the collective illusion that one is better than the other because one is more predictable, knowable and nameable. Research tells us that improvising uses distinctly different areas of the brain than scripted performance does (Limb & Braun, 2008, Harris & de Jong, 2015, Alexander et al., 2020).

I’ve written in several places that if I could change one thing about teacher preparation in North America, it would be to focus less on planning and more on improvisation. Pre-service teachers graduate knowing how to plan, in almost inconceivable detail, lessons that are very likely to go sideways, if not backwards, in the process of delivery. They get no training in how to cope with the inevitable unpredictability of teaching life. They’re taught to teach as though things usually go as planned when, in reality, they rarely do. This system of planning-based teacher preparation leads to teachers who have a hard time managing the inevitable changes in practice that occur over a long career and sometimes leave the profession in their first five years, disenchanted by the messy reality of a teaching life.

Teaching, like ballet, attracts planners, organizers, and controllers. Most elementary teachers like to plan; they like colour-coded filing systems and day planners that map out instructional units and field trips months in advance. Not knowing how things will unfold every day is stressful and so the idea of going back to school this fall, without knowing what that will look like in any detail, is making many teachers extremely anxious.

I feel that stress too; I want to have good answers for people when they ask me what September will look like. But I don’t and you don’t and we won’t… even when we have a plan from the government, we still won’t. No one has done this before. We are in uncharted waters and we feel adrift.

movement improvisation in a teacher workshop

But are we actually drifting or are we just moving towards a shoreline that we can’t see yet? Five months ago, teachers moved an entire system of K-12 education online, something that had never been done before. It wasn’t perfect, mistakes were made, lessons were learned, but we did it. We have to trust that we’ll be able to do the same thing with whatever circumstances we’re facing in the fall. We have to trust that we’ll be able to take the next step, and the next one, and the next one, be they sideways or backwards and that we’ll be able use the tools we already have and the ones we’ll pick up along the way to make the moves that will see us and the kids to the next moment. It may not always be brilliant but we have to trust that it will be enough – goodness knows we won’t be doing it alone.

How do you get better at improvising? How do you learn to live with uncertainty without feeling panicked? How do you develop that kind of generous trust in yourself and in others? Well, ideally we’d all get into a studio or a field and play for a few hours and it would look something like this. You might start by watching uncomfortably on the sidelines but eventually you’d find a way to participate. Ideally, you’d have lots of time to practice.

In the absence of a contact-jam or a theatre improv class which sadly will have to wait for a post-COVID era, I’d suggest picking up a pencil and sketching something (anything), dancing in your kitchen (making the moves up as you go), writing a journal, collecting interesting things on a walk, sorting them and making a temporary installation, or sculpting a piece of clay into something unrecognizable. As a culture, we’ve subscribed to the idea that the only people who get to do this stuff are the people who are already good at it. That’s nonsense.

Practice not knowing. Practice playing. Practice making, or drawing or dancing even if, especially if, you’re bad at it. It will get those improvisational muscles working, even if they’ve been flaccid since Kindergarten. Have faith that we’ve got this, whatever it is.

Belden, A., Zeng, T., Przysinda, E., Anteraper, S. A., Whitfield-Gabrieli, S., & Loui, P. (2020). Improvising at rest: Differentiating jazz and classical music training with resting state functional connectivity. NeuroImage207. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.116384

Harris, R. & de Jong B.M., (2015). Differential parietal and temporal contributions to music perception in improvising and score-dependent musicians, an fMRI study. Brain Research, 253–264.

Limb, C. J., & Braun, A. R. (2008). Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation. PLoS ONE3(2), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0001679

The problem is coming from inside the school.

I’m not racist.

And, it turns out, you’re not racist.

It’s amazing, really… we have all of this research that tells us that racialized students are over disciplined and underestimated in school systems all over the world and yet none of us in education is racist. Weird.

People are all over my social media feed railing against the de-streaming of Ontario’s grade 9 program because it’s impossible for secondary teachers to differentiate their instruction the way that elementary teachers do every day and (pearl clutch) there can’t possibly be any differential impact on learning from having specialist teachers teach the subjects in which they’ve specialized. Most of all, however, many people in education seem unable or unwilling to believe what the research is telling us, namely that streaming is a practice that disproportionately impacts racialized students.

My first teaching job was in an urban, big-city public secondary school with a majority black student population and a majority white teacher population. I taught kids in several streams while I was there and I can remember, vividly, individual kids in the applied stream that could have handled more academic content. The streaming became, for them, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Was it technically possible for them to move into the academic stream after grade 9? Sure. Was it likely? No. They had made friends in the applied stream. They would have to bridge the content gap somehow, likely in the summer, when most of them needed to get jobs. Most of all, however, they were unlikely to change streams because they had internalized our assessment of them as learners. We, the people with the letters behind our names, had put them there so that must be where they belonged.

Most students in Ontario enter grade 9 having never been taught mathematics by someone with a mathematics degree. The idea that we get to decide a student’s academic trajectory before they’ve even had the chance to learn from a subject specialist is astonishing. We are setting students on a pathway that will impact their whole life; that’s a lot of power. If we get it wrong, the consequences for them are enormous.

Zevenbergen writes that ability grouping is “achieved through a differentiated curriculum that increasingly reifies differences as students progress through school” (2003, p. 7). That means that streaming makes existing differences between students more real, more concrete, and harder to change. While streaming is not the only way those differences are reified, it is one important way that is (relatively) easy to change. Zevenberger goes on to write that

most often when students are grouped by ability, the outcomes support the practice – that is, the higher streams perform very well, and the lower streams perform poorly. This can be used as evidence to show that the practice is justified and that the groupings are correct since the outcomes ‘prove‘ the effectiveness of the original groupings. However, questions need to be posed as to whether pedagogy is matching the needs of the students or whether the outcomes are a reflection of the pedagogies being used. (2003, p. 3)

I get a lot of things wrong every day, just ask my kids. I know that my decision-making is fallible; to paraphrase Amos Oz, I frequently disagree with myself. Why is it so hard for so many people to entertain the possibility that we have biases that impact our decision-making around streaming? Why is it so difficult to believe that we might be getting things wrong, systemically, when it comes to streaming? Why do we believe that we are uniquely exempt from bias? We let ourselves off the hook and point the finger elsewhere with a breezy casualness that takes my breath away. This is not reflective practice.

Are there other factors that contribute to student learning? Absolutely. Do we, as educators, control most of those factors? We don’t, at least not beyond our power as engaged citizens in a democracy. We can’t control whether a student has books at home. We can’t control whether they are growing up in poverty or plenty. We can’t control what their experiences were like in the early years. What we can control are the decisions we make on their behalf in our schools.

We can make better decisions. We can look at the research (if you want a good research summary, I’ve listed some sources below which I’d sugest as a starting point) and then look at ourselves with a dollop of humility. The research on streaming tells us that it’s a problematic practice, that it privileges the privileged and disadvantages the disadvantaged. Awareness is change. We know better, now we need to do better – kids are counting on us.


Forgasz, H. (2010). Streaming for Mathematics in Victorian Secondary Schools. Australian Mathematics Teacher66(1), p. 31–40.

Gaztambide-Fernández, R., & Parekh, G. (2017). Market “Choices” or Structured Pathways? How Specialized Arts Education Contributes to the Reproduction of Inequality. Education Policy Analysis Archives25(41).

Murdoch, J., Guégnard, C., Koomen, M., Imdorf, C., Kamanzi, C. & Meyer, T. (2017). Pathways fostering mobility to higher education for vulnerable immigrants in France, Switzerland and Canada, European Journal of Higher Education, 7:1, p. 29-42.

Segedin, L. (2012). Listening to the Student Voice: Understanding the School-Related Factors that Limit Student Success. McGill Journal of Education47(1), 93–107.

Zevenbergen, R. (2003). Grouping by ability. A self-fulfilling prophecy. Australian Mathematics Teacher, 59(4), p. 2-7.

Distancing tips from a dancer

A former student of mine posted a very funny meme today. I don’t know who created it but hats off to them for hitting the nail on the head (if it was you, please let me know so that I can give credit where it’s due).

Here it is:

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The image that accompanies it is particularly hilarious for those of us who’ve spent lots of time in contemporary dance classes and movement workshops. We see a group of people, all standing, facing in different directions, all between 6-10 feet apart. This is a typical way that modern, experimental or contemporary dance classes start, everyone in their own personal space (your space bubble), moving through the general space (the space in the room) without getting too close to each other. Often, dancers will start off moving slowly and accelerate as the exercise continues; what is easy at a slow tempo becomes very challenging the faster you go. As you move quickly through the space (yes, that’s really how we talk) you have to change directions or reverse if you get too close to someone else. You become hyper-aware of where everyone is. We do this kind of activity all the time. In our world it’s normal… although I’m sure to an outside viewer it looks a little odd, perhaps even slightly unhinged.

I was out in public briefly this afternoon, grabbing milkshakes with my kids at a local ice cream place. It was a very hot day and we had to wait on the sidewalk for our milkshakes to be ready. As people moved in and out of the line, and up and down the sidewalk, we had to make room for each other, adjusting our positions relative to the ice cream, the curb and the road. While I adjusted automatically, I watched other people really struggle to adapt to the changing environment while maintaining personal space. And then this genius meme landed in my social media feed and I wondered what exactly I learned during those many barefoot years that might help everyone adapt during these distant COVID times. So… here’s my best attempt at distilling more than a dozen years of contemporary dance training into 6 easy-ish tips.

  1. Be aware: You’re going to have to put down the phone for this to work, folks. Distraction is the enemy of spatial awareness. The first step to knowing who’s around you and where they are is knowing where you are in space and you can’t do that if you’re staring down at your phone.
  2. Slow down: There’s a reason we start our spatial awareness exercises slowly in a dance class. Moving at a slower tempo is far less challenging than moving quickly. While you can’t always control where other people are going to move, you can control your own movements and maintaining that control is much more straightforward when you take things slowly.
  3. Walking goes all ways: One of the dance classes I took as an undergraduate could easily have been re-named “The Walking Backwards Class”. Our teacher was very intent on getting us to be competent retrograders (retrograde means performing movement in reverse, like turning on the rewind button on a VCR). So, to build that skill we walked forward, then backward. We ran forward, then backward. We skipped and leaped forward, then backward (this is much harder than it sounds). What we quickly learned is that human beings are very bad at moving, as dancers say, in the backspace. Our eyes are in front and that’s how we travel through the world: facing forward, moving forward. Reversing and moving sideways take practice but they are essential skills if you’re going to maintain your personal space in public. You have to be able to move out of someone’s space if they’re moving towards yours.
  4. Kidwatching: Have you ever watched young children play tag? Have you seen how they change direction? Let me tell you what they don’t do: they don’t lock their knees and try to look cool. They bend their knees, they lower their centre of gravity, and they turn on a dime. If you want to move through a crowd with agility, you’re going to have to give up on looking cool. The fastest way to change direction is to lower your body weight by bending your knees and sticking out your tuchus. It also helps to counterbalance with your arms. You may not be the most chill-looking person in the grocery store but you might avoid getting too close to COVID Mary who’s coughing her way through the cereal aisle.
  5. Eyes up, ears open: Most people, unless they have extensive movement training, indicate pretty clearly where they’re about to move. If you really watch them, you can tell, through their eye focus, their arm movement, or the way they shift their body weight, which direction they’re about to go before they go there. You can also use your peripheral vision, every dancer’s best friend, to help you anticipate the movement of people who are beside or behind you. You’ve got to be looking up at people for that to work. Eye contact (particularly my eyebrow-raised-vice-principal-stare) is also really good at communicating your desire for personal space. Listening for people, particularly indoors, also helps. If you’re paying attention, you can hear people moving around you and you can move out of their path before they get to yours.
  6. Practice: All of these techniques work for dancers because we practice them… a lot. You’ll get better at observing and responding to movement the more you do it, I promise. And to everyone who told me I was wasting my time doing a dance degree, I now curtsey ironically in your general direction. Throw roses if you wish, just don’t get too close.

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

5 Lessons from the Stage for Teachers

Recently

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!