Something you’re great at

I worry about our dance parties.  Do we have too many of them? Is there such a thing as too much dancing?

I worry about our artwork too.  Clay, paint, wire, beads, pastels, collage, photography, murals… how much art is enough?

And the dramatic play – goodness, that never stops.

Then there are the marching bands and the singing – what a racket!

Is it all too much?  When do we get down to the real school work?  How will we know when we do?

I worry that other people think it’s too much, that parents may think it’s too much, that some nebulous person in the upper echelons may disapprove.  My husband says I worry too much; he’s probably right.

Elementary school teachers have to be all things to all students.  We have to teach everything; unlike our secondary colleagues we don’t have the luxury of teaching only to our strengths.

Don’t feel confident with History, Math, or Music?  Too bad, you’re teaching it.

Fake it ’till you make it – that’s my usual advice.  Kids pick up on your enthusiasm (or lack thereof) and if you present the material with a sigh, they’ll feel your wariness and trepidation and adopt it as their own.  How much of our own math anxiety was actually inherited from teachers who themselves were anxious about teaching math?  Young children love to play with numbers and quantity.  How much of that excitement is drained away when teachers approach teaching math in the same way they approach a rendezvous with a root canal?

So, that’s my usual advice – find an entry point that you’re comfortable with, slap on a smile, and give er’.  Say YES, as Tina Fey would advise.

But then I heard comedian Jessica Holmes speak at a conference.  While much of her presentation was light and hilarious, toward the end she became more reflective.  One of the the things she said that stuck with me was this:

“It’s harder to get good at something you’re bad at than it is to get better at something you’re great at.”

Hmm… that’s interesting advice for teachers.  In education, we’re always looking for places to improve, doing gap analyses to find out where we can grow – usually that’s because there are things we’re not doing very well.  You’ll get no argument from me that there are things we should improve in schools.  I’m not suggesting that we stop trying, not at all.  But, how often are we looking at things that we already do really well and asking ourselves how we can do them better?  How often do we get to direct our energies towards our passions? How great would that be?!?

That’s where I’m at as we slide towards the summer holidays.  We have 5 weeks left together and I’m going to keep the arts humming in my class.  Not because we’re not working on the rest of the curriculum – we are – but because it’s what I’m great at and the kids deserve to be with adults who are pursuing their passions with a smile.

children dancing with drum accompaniment

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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

Bejewelled Creations

One of my favourite things about the Reggio Emilia approach is its focus on the Arts as valuable languages of expression for children and adults.  Whereas in traditional schooling, we tend to treat the arts, at best, as a nice but unnecessary frill, something we can relegate to Friday afternoons when children are at their worst and can’t handle any ‘serious work’ – the hidden curriculum being that we don’t think Art is hard work, we don’t validate it as a career path, and we don’t value what it teaches us – all well-intentioned, I’m sure.  But is it true?  Ken Robinson, and many others (Maxine Greene comes to mind), would disagree.

sculpture made with plasticine, beads, wire, and little gold roses

I always have lingering in the back of my head that developing good fine motor skills are a critical part of the kindergarten experience.  Partly, this is because of all of the conversations I’ve had with teachers that have centrered on the misconception that the only way to teach fine-motor skills is by using worksheets (colouring, cutting).  But there’s another, more personal reason.  When my eldest child was recovering from surgery he had as an infant, I sat beside him as he slept and marvelled at how small the sutures were (the things you fixate on when you’re exhausted).  They were impossibly small.  How could anyone have such precise fine motor skills?  And what am I doing in these early years to make sure that children have the fine motor skills they need to pursue any career they want – even pediatric surgery?

child's hands manipulating a bead with sculpture in the foreground

The arts are one of my solutions.

There is more fine motor development in making a sculpture than there could ever be in a worksheet.

triangular sculpture with two bases and patterning of the beads between the bases

This week we’ve returned to a favourite activity – beading – but with a twist.  A parent donated thicker, heavier wire than we’ve had in the past and they were able to create 3-D sculptures using plasticine as a base.  It has presented many challenges.  Stringing the small beads and buttons onto the wire after struggling to pick them up, bending the wire, and manipulating the harder plasticine.  We’ve also noted that they’ve had to think about the structural integrity of their sculptures and have tried a variety of strategies to get them to stand on their own.   There’s also been lots of learning demonstrated in patterning and measurement.

They’ve had a blast working with these new and familiar materials and their creations are just beautiful.  I hope you enjoy them as much as we have!

wire sculptures displayed on a shelf

 

 

 

Children’s theories about ice

It’s been really cold here in Northern Town: freeze your eyelashes together cold.

We’re a pretty hardy bunch but even we have our limits and we were stuck inside for a few days while the wind blew itself out and the temperature came up a few degrees.

What to do, what to do?  What do you do inside with 35 children when it’s -35˚C outside?

We decided to play with ice!

Our amazing ECE led the children in filling balloons with coloured water and braved the weather to place them outside.

two rows of coloured balloons, filled with water, sitting in the snow
water… meet your new friend cold.

We waited…

Today during our outdoor inquiry time we ripped open the ballons and found that the water had frozen beautifully and that it had produced an interesting effect.  All of the colour had migrated to the bottom of the balloon and rows of air bubbles were visible within the orb of ice.

a sphere of ice, blue towards the bottom, clear on the top, bubbles throughout.  the top of the sphere is flat

When I showed the children this photo on the Smartboard, I told them that I wondered (je me demande…) why all of the colour had gone to the bottom of the balloon.  What did they think?

MN:  Because the water’s lighter than the food colouring so the food colouring is at the bottom and the water’s at the top

PB: The water froze so it was turned into ice so you cut the balloon so you can see the ice and the bubbles are inside

UN: If you drop it it will crack open and you can’t get a new one.

CF: The gravity was pushing it down – the blue – because of the the bubbles.

MP:  The water is pushing it down (the food colouring)

At this point in the conversation there was some back and forth about the bubbles so I asked: What are the bubbles trying to do?

LT: They’re trying to get out

Another child disagreed.

TN: The bubbles are trying to stay in place in the water

LT replied: No, the bubbles are trying to get out to make a puddle

UF: I think the bubbles are trying to escape the ice because there’s a little hole at the top

BU: Maybe they’re trying to swim up and get on someone’s head and have a ride

BW:  I think the ice is growing and the bubbles don’t want to pop.

AQ: The food colouring wants to get out of the balloon from the bottom – it wants to dig through the ice.

UN: I think the ice is growing and the bubbles are going to break the ice and when the ice is broken they want to run away and go back to their home.

I find their thinking fascinating.  It opens up a window into their minds and gives us precious information about how they’re making sense of the world and how we might help them to develop their thinking.

Some of them are drawn to creating a narrative using the bubbles, water, and food colouring as characters.  Others are interested in the science of the process and are trying to figure out how it works.  Others still are using what they already know about the world (gravity, weight) to create a hypothesis.  Another group of children is more interested in how they are personally affected.

XC, for instance, said: “If you drop it, it might break” – she has a point!

There will most definitely be more cold weather ahead – let’s see where else the ice can take us!

Still under construction but we’re getting there.

In August, I showed you some photos of our newly renovated classroom when it was completely empty.

Over the course of the last few months, our supplies have slowly trickled in and we’re finally feeling as though the room is beginning to take shape.  We’d love to hear your thoughts on our 4th teacher (we already have 3!)… the environment!

classroom with furniture and neutral wallsAnd in case you’re wondering… we still don’t have a window!

We are the ice police.

We have had ice before today; thin sheets on shallow puddles.  Today was the first day that we had real ice.  The kind you have to stomp on to get it to break, the kind that beckons you out to the middle of foot-deep puddle/ponds to see how many jumps it will take to break through.  This was serious ice.

There is something about ice that just begs children (and adults, I confess) to break it – such a satisfying crunch and the interplay between the solid layer on top that conceals the liquid beneath.  It leaves you wanting more and more.  Being the committed inquiry-based, child-led teacher that I am, all of this ice leaves me in a pickle.  I can’t let them walk out into the middle of the puddle/pond because I know that eventually they will break through and find themselves knee-deep in cold, icy water.  But, at the same time, I don’t want to entirely deprive them of the ice-breaking pleasure that they so crave.

Arg! What to do?

So we become the ice police.  We chase them away from the deeper spots and we let them go to town on the shallow puddles and ditches.  Sometimes, when I’m watching them, I stomp down with my own heel… just to hear the crunch.

child breaking ice with a stick