My arranged marriages

The environment is the third teacher, this much we know.  That’s the Reggio way; we think of the space itself as a teacher, which, of course, it is – even when we don’t acknowledge it as such.

Then who are teacher one and teacher two?  Teacher two, that’s the child – they teach me new things all the time.  In Ontario, we are uniquely placed to have both a teacher and an Early Childhood Educator (ECE) in the classroom occupying the role of the first teacher (this year I’m extra lucky – we have two teachers and an ECE in our classroom – does that bring us to five teachers?).

The language around these relationships is fraught and still evolving.  Is she my ECE? Does that make me her teacher?  The power dynamics can be a minefield as some teachers have been uncomfortable sharing their space, their desks, and their expertise.  ECEs have, in some cases, come into classrooms that are hostile to their presence and ignorant of their expertise.  There have been hurtful comments about status and college vs. university education.  Did you know that ECEs learn how to design a learning space, how to arrange centres, and, in many cases, how to create pedagogical documentation?  They sure didn’t cover those things in my Bachelor of Education program!  Parents too, have struggled with how to frame their relationships to these new professionals in the classroom.  How can you ensure that important information about your child is communicated to both adults who have responsibility for her care?  Is the teacher in charge of the ECE?  Does the teacher supervise the ECE?  No, but parents can be forgiven for their confusion.  We are all still learning the steps of this new dance as we go.

Teaching has, for generations, been a very private enterprise.  You close the classroom door and go about your business.  Now, all of a sudden, we have to negotiate, discuss, communicate, and compromise – not just with children but with this other adult too – more skills they didn’t cover in teacher’s college!

I’m writing this tonight because I’m feeling wistful.  My ECE – yes she’s mine, just like my husband is mine and my kids are mine, we belong to each other – is going on parental leave in a few weeks.  I will miss her.  We have broken each other in and, like a great pair of shoes, we fit.

Teaching with another adult these past two years has been a transformative experience for me.  I have learned so much from both of the ECEs I’ve worked with.  I learn just by watching her interact with kids, I learn when I see how she sets up a centre, how she coaches a child through putting on his socks (by taking off her own socks and patiently, oh so patiently, putting them on with the child), I learn when I see that she models play for the students who don’t yet know how to play imaginatively – she gets right in there and takes on a role.  I also learn just by having another adult to bounce ideas and information around with.  Her experience of the children can be, amazingly, quite different than mine and the conclusions she comes to are different too.  I can’t rely so heavily on my own perceptions and I’m forced to really confront the subjectivity of my own assessment in a way that I never had to do when I was alone in the classroom.  We can, and do, produce documentation on the same event – it looks quite different – imagine that!

So, while I’m sure that the new ECE coming into our class will be great, I will miss my ECE.  These arranged professional marriages are tricky things, they need chemistry and luck, true… but most of all I think they need trust, respect, and a willingness to change, stretch, and grow.  If we want our students to demonstrate these traits, we need to model them in ourselves… just like putting on those darn socks!

ECE and child carrying stick towards the school
ECE and child carrying sticks towards the school

Assessing the Silence

It’s report card time again and I’m filled with that familiar feeling of excitement and dread that seems to accompany this season every year.  This year, I’m finding myself particularly challenged.  Partly, this comes from having a bigger class than I’ve had before and struggling to know the children well enough to write what is essentially a personal essay about each of them.  Partly, however, it’s a familiar discomfort as I try to put wordless learning into words.   How do you assess a student who rarely speaks, who is shy, who seems uncomfortable with the adult attention of documentation?  When an adult arrives and the play stops… how do you write a report card?

Here’s an example:

KN is playing with magnets in a bin of sand.  When he notices me watching him as he plays with the magnets, he gets up to leave.

Me: No, KN, don’t leave, Madame wants to know what you were working on.

KN: I was just magneting stuff together

Me: and what did you notice?

KN doesn’t respond, he goes back to working in the magnet bin

LH and SN join him – KN almost leaves but decides to stay.

LH – Madame, look! She shows me magnets stacked up on a magnet wand.

KN, LH, and SN continue running sand through their fingers and playing with the magnets.  LH and SN have an imaginary scenario developing using the magnets as characters but I’m trying to stay focused on KN.

TN arrives at the table and KN leaves, followed by TN, who takes KN’s hand and tries to engage him in play. They wind up together in the nature centre (where we have a tent set up – a hiding place?), KN’s body language isn’t encouraging but TN persists, KN has a fixed but polite smile.  They both go to the cloakroom to get their lunch bags, KN waits to eat until TN joins him at the snack table.  (At this point I’m observing from a distance, hoping that I’ll get something more concrete if I stay farther away)

I went over to KN because I was interested in what he was learning or experimenting with.  I was hoping that he’d let me observe and ask some questions but my presence alone was a deterrent to his play and to his learning.  Maybe he’s not ready to share, maybe he just wanted to be alone, or maybe there’s something else going on.  It’s really hard to know for sure.

There are also those time when my teacherly questions seem – in hindsight – pretty ridiculous.

hands tyeing scraps of fabric around a plastic block tower

Last week PB and CM were building a tower with Magnatiles.  Then they started to tie scraps of fabric around the tower.  I thought this was pretty interesting.  I’d never seen anyone use those two materials in that way.   I asked them why they were wrapping fabric around their tower.   They looked at me, then at each other, shrugged, and PB replied: “We just wanted to decorate it.”

Of course.

Report card writing, especially in Kindergarten, is as much art as it is science, as much inference as data analysis.  With some children, it’s like trying to capture a shadow in a jar.  I don’t think I’ve quite got it figured out.


Parenting on the Verge


Parenting on the Verge

The school year can feel very long sometimes.  Somewhere around March when the snow won’t melt and everything is grey and you’re close to offering up your first born in exchange for a sunny day and some budding trees, it starts to feel very long.  At that point summer feels like a hazy fantasy, a tease on the calendar.  And then summer arrives… and you realize that there are ways in which summer is longer than the school year.

There are ways in which 2 is more than 28.  28 kids entertain each other.  2 kids fight.  While they’d like to play with anyone (ANYONE!) other than their sibling, everyone else is on holiday, or at camp, or whitewater rafting someplace way more exciting than what you, mommy, have to offer. 28 kids have a custodian.  2 kids have me: chief activities coordinator and janitor.  So, it’s hard, during the summer, to give my kids the leeway to be creative and explore in the ways that I would like them to because, lordy, I’m just so tired of cleaning my house! (And we moved this summer, so that may account for some of my impatience.)

It’s also been hard to let my now 6-year old big boy have the independence he is so craving.  Oh, I talk a good talk about The Land adventure playground in Wales and I’m a big fan of blogger Lenore Skenazy but when I watch my little boy bike down the street and out of sight all by himself, I have to swallow a big lump in my throat and hold myself back from running after him.  But, oh, the reward is in how proud he is of himself that he crossed the street alone, that he remembered to look both ways, that he got up that big hill without having to walk his bike once, that he stopped at the stop sign.  He’s so excited.  I’m excited too… it’s just that it feels like walking on the edge of cliff, being on the verge of peril and greatness at the same time.

I am finding that, the more I document play at school, the harder it is to stop at home.  I find myself constantly taking note of all the cool things my kids do while they play.  This summer has been no exception.  Children are amazing at finding ways to entertain themselves, even in very challenging circumstances.  Lunch with the extended family gets too long? Set up a restaurant at the nearby tables and take each other’s orders!

resto Monkey Man

When every single toy in the house has been packed… use the moving boxes to make forts!

Mommy, moving boxes are for making forts... duh!
Mommy, moving boxes are for making forts… duh!

And after you’ve moved, use the moving boxes in place of painting paper… because Mommy still hasn’t found the box with the paper!

deck painting

Oh, and hit your brother, that’s always good for a few minutes of entertainment.

In the end, I’m looking forward to going back to school.

But… I’ll miss these long and lazy days, the morning snuggles, the endless books, building forts in the bush, the evening bike rides, and the visits from friends.

I may even miss the fighting, just a little.

tree fort

Child Development and the Report Card Problem

This article appeared in my Facebook feed this week and I was intrigued.  It’s written by a paediatrician and summarizes his observations from 25 years of practice.  The one that struck me most from a teaching perspective is number 3, about cyclical growth.

There is a rhythm and pulse to each child’s life – sometimes fast and intense, sometimes slow and quiet. Just as each spring brings a renewed sense of appreciation for life, each stage of a child’s life is a time of new discovery and wonder. After all, learning is not just a process of accruing information. It’s the process of transforming our ideas, and sometimes this requires forgetting in order to see with fresh eyes. Some children will take a step backward before making a giant leap forward. 
We just finished writing and sending home report cards a few weeks ago.  I like writing report cards, a minority view to be sure.  Most teachers I’ve met dread them, a position I understand if not one that I share.  While I enjoy writing them and feel that it is an important and even sacred moment in our communication with parents, I don’t like the lack of flexibility in the timing of report cards.  A child’s development knows nothing of reporting periods and paperwork; it follows its own rhythms and dances to the tune of no master.  We have seen children blossom over the past two weeks for whom we struggled to write adequate comments at report card time.  All of a sudden, they’re giving us a tonne of data – they’re coming into their own.  If only I could write their report card now!  I understand, from a perspective of administrative convenience, why it’s important that all the report cards go out at once, on a fixed timetable, but as I document some of the astonishing growth we’ve seen lately, I wish I could go back in time.


Why I (mostly) love writing report cards

Have you recovered from your fainting spell?  Do you need some smelling salts? Some orange juice? A moment to catch your breath?  Go ahead, have at me.  You love writing report cards?!? Are you crazy?!?  Aren’t they the bane of every teacher’s existence?!?

That certainly seems to be the consensus but, to quote Martin Sheen on the West Wing, “as a lifelong holder of minority opinions” I beg to differ.

Writing report cards offers me the opportunity to write, which I love – you may have noticed.  I get to write about children, one of my favourite topics.  These are the children I spend my days with, watching them like a detective or like a pirate trying to ferret out treasure.  I take notes, recording what they do and say.  I take photos, I take videos, I save samples of their work, sometimes suffering through intense negotiations: “Can Madame just keep your painting for a few days, please? What if I take a picture of your painting, can I keep that?”  They aren’t always keen on relinquishing their artistic treasures to their pirate teacher.

So I go on collecting like some kind of crazed reality show horder until I can finally share what I’ve collected in a report card.  For me, it’s a beautiful opportunity to share my observations, my discoveries, and my insights.  Sure, I speak to parents on the phone, I talk to them in the schoolyard, I write a newsletter and I keep this blog but there’s something special about the report card.  The report card I write for a four-year-old today will probably outlive me.  It will be filed away someplace safe, perhaps to be pulled out on special occasions.  It’s an enormous privilege to be part of someone’s life in that way, to midwife their passage into school, and I don’t take it lightly.  There is a sacredness to writing report cards that I feel often gets lost in our irritation with the formatting and the data entry system.  Because of its formality, it is a special moment of communication between a family and a teacher.


Now… I did say ‘mostly’… here’s the part I don’t like (thankfully a part I don’t have to reckon with this year).  I don’t like assigning numbers to children.  Numbers give us the illusion of objectivity, as though we might be measuring something like barometric pressure or the distance to the moon (both of which are also subjective when you think about it since someone had to invent the units of measurement!).  But we’re not measuring anything so solid, in fact.  We’re assigning numbers to children, organizing them based on criteria (criteria we create) and, in my view, dehumanizing them little by little.  There are winners and losers, those who leave school waving their numbers high over their heads and those who leave dejected.  Numbers also erase all the complexity that I love writing about.  All the nuances are wiped away in favour of something we can average, compare, and analyze.  What is gained?  I wish I new.  Having attended a very rigorous school that doesn’t provide letter grades, I can attest to the fact that grades don’t equal rigour.  In fact, I never worked harder than when I wasn’t working for letter grades.

No report cards are more precious to me than the ones that were written by people who cared about me and really knew me as a learner.  I pull them out occasionally when I need to remember why I teach.  I hope my students will do the same some day.

Follow that play!

It’s been a busy few weeks in my life, as you may have gathered by my complete absence.  Three days of praying, one while fasting… it takes a few beats for me to wrap my head around teaching again.  What’s been catching my eye?  The diversity of play.

I’m constantly impressed by how the children use the room… they’re everywhere.  They find the most interesting corners to climb into.  They’re under my desk, in the art studio, surrounded by blocks, lying on the floor, tucked in behind the puppet theatre.  They are everywhere and anywhere.  My challenge is to follow them.

As I’ve explored documenting their play and experimentation over the past few weeks, I’ve been struck by how challenging it is to document some kinds of play and inquiry.  When children are sitting and playing or while they’re making art at a table or easel, it’s pretty easy to chat with them about what they’re doing, to take pictures and video, or to transcribe their conversations with each other.  I can eavesdrop without imposing or interrupting.  Much harder, however, is documenting play that moves around the room, that runs, that rolls, and that crawls.  I’ve been wondering about this, particularly as it relates to boys.

Ship building part 1, working together

While I hesitate to generalize, boys’ play tends to be very active.  There isn’t a lot of sitting still.  It’s a real challenge to document that kind of play.  If you were to sneak a peak into my classroom when I’m documenting you might get to see me walking or crawling while simultaneously trying to take notes, photos, and video; I wouldn’t call it graceful.  How easy would it be to miss it altogether, to assume that there really isn’t anything of value happening, to be sidetracked by the teacherly need to keep everything orderly?  I’ve been making a conscious effort to insinuate myself into this very active dramatic play – in the last week I’ve observed monsters, wolves, spaceships, pirates, and a ticket booth.  It’s an ongoing project and, as we take our first steps into outside inquiry and exploration this week, I’ll continue to struggle to figure out how to capture their active inquiry and to do their learning justice.  There’s just so much going on… it’s an embarrassment of riches.

More ship building... this time a narrow design.