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.
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The Best Laid Plans

Welcome to the new school year!  I hope it’s been a great experience so far, full of the excitement and rush of newness.  In the spirit of that classic September assignment “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” I’m going to tell you about one of the adventures I had this summer and the way it’s changing my thinking about the work that I do.

A colleague and I had the good fortune of leading a 3-day summer workshop for Kindergarten teachers hosted by our provincial teacher’s union (If you’re reading this from outside of Ontario, you may be thinking: “Your union provides PD… what’s up with that?!?” We’re a lucky bunch.)  This workshop was focused on the new Kindergarten Program Document and the assessment framework laid out in the Growing Success Addendum for Kindergarten.  We also wanted to touch on some of the themes (eek! that word!) of our Kindergarten program: the teaching partnership, the classroom environment, outdoor inquiry, and the thoughtful use of materials.

It was a jam-packed agenda for three days together and we approached the planning with some jumpy nerves.  How could we plan for three days of learning without knowing who we were going to be working with?  When you’re presenting about a student-led, inquiry-based program, it doesn’t make much sense to plan everything out minute-by-minute.  We felt that the meta-message of the workshop needed to align with the messages coming out of our mouths.  You can’t credibly tell people: “You need to be flexible and responsive to students’ needs.”  while simultaneously ignoring the learning needs of the people in front of you.

So we began with enough material for the first two days, with the intention of planning the third day responsively, but after the first morning it became obvious, based on the questions that teachers and educators were sharing and the notes they were sending forward to us, that we would need to re-think our planning sooner than that.

So we did, and we continued to plan in the same responsive way over the next two and a half days.  We also talked to each other about our plans, right in front of the workshop participants, because we wanted to model that collaborative teaching partnership that is so important to a successful Kindergarten classroom in Ontario.  Sometimes it probably looked like we weren’t organized but, while the type-A part of my brain squirms uncomfortably at that perception, I know that the structured improvisation of inquiry-based planning is often what dictates its success in keeping it closely tied to the learning needs of the students.   It’s going to look a bit messy; by nature it’s not a tidy process.

In reflecting on the process of those three days, I’ve been thinking about the nature of the professional development experience in education.  We are very accustomed to receiving our professional development in a tidy, packaged format.  We’ve been schooled in being good consumers and we often expect to be passive receptacles of information that’s delivered to us in a well-polished box.  I know that I’ve been guilty of those preconceptions.  What does that do to the process of professional development?  When it’s so one-sided, what are we really learning?  How does it impact on changing professional practice when the process is so divorced from the needs and interests of the people around the table?

The learning for me, as a person who’s often at the front (side, back – I like to wander) of the room, has been that shifting those perceptions about what professional development “should be”is a challenge.  Our expectations are a strong fortress.  They protect us, true, but they also confine us.  Teaching responsively requires not just an attitude of curiosity but it also requires honesty from both sides of the process.  You can’t meet people’s needs when they won’t share them.  It really distributes the burden of responsibility when the “leader” isn’t always the one in charge.  The success of our professional learning suddenly isn’t someone else’s responsibility; it’s ours.

I was at a meeting last week, led by a teacher who has been seconded to our provincial Ministry of Education.  At the beginning of the meeting she announced, with a twinkle in her eye:  “I have an agenda for today, but really, it’s nonsense… we’ll be going wherever you want to take us.”  And so we did, and it was great.  It was a little bit chaotic, and we didn’t always know what would happen next, but we left having learned what was relevant to us.  For each of us that was different.  And we were okay with that.  I wonder what would happen if this started to be our new normal.  Would some of our cynicism about teacher PD dissolve if we felt more responsible for our learning, if it were more responsive to us?  Would we rise to the challenge?

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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Where does inquiry come from?

This week I came outside and was immediately drawn to what “N” was doing.  I could hear him before I could see him.  He had discovered that if he took a chunk of ice and hit it hard against the metal pole, that not only would it make a sound but that the sound would sustain for several seconds afterwards.  He has a quizzical look on his face as he tried it again and again.  I’m translating our conversation from French so I apologize for any awkwardness in the phrasing.

“N”: bing…

ECE: It continues (the sound) for a long time.

“N” and friends “I” and “B”: bing, bing, bing, bing.

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ECE: It’s like church bells.

Me: How long will it last, “N”, if you hit it and leave it alone?  Can you count?

“I” leans against the pole and “N” hits it again.

Me: Oh, but is it different when “I” doesn’t lean against the pole?

We went through a few trials of “N” hitting the pole and “I” touching it before we got one when the sound dispersed on its own.  I wondered if “I” was interested in the feeling of the vibration.

Me: 1 – 2 – 3….

“N”: Four… four seconds!

At this point, “B” and “I” join in again hitting the pole with their own chunks of ice.  Bing, bing, bing…

Me: Do you think the sound will be shorter when “B” is touching it?  Why would the sound be shorter when someone touches the pole?

“N”: Because it’s not hard.

Me: Because it’s not hard if someone is touching it? If someone touches the pole and the sound it shorter – why is that?

“N”: (with that quizzical look) Because the ice is harder.

Me: The ice is harder?

ECE: Look “I” – touch the pole, put your hand here.

“N” (speaking to “I” and taking his hand to place it on the pole): You do like this (hand on the pole), I do like this (hitting the pole).

Bing, bing, bing…

Me: Does the sound last longer when no one is touching it?

“N”: 1 – 2… two.

Me: Just two when someone’s touching?  And why is that? Why doesn’t the sound last as long when someone’s touching it?

“N”: bing, bing, bing

ECE (placing her hand on the pole and moving in closer to “N”): What happens to the sound when “I” touches the pole? Why doesn’t it last as long?

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“N”: The hands stop the sound from moving.

Me: The hands stop the sound from moving… wow.

ECE: Wow…

This was an amazing moment.  We knew that “N” could get there, that if he had enough time to puzzle it out he could come up with a hypothesis that fit with his observations, both auditory and tactile.  His initial hypotheses that the ice and the pole became harder didn’t seem to satisfy him any more than they satisfied us.  We’ve had many opportunities for sound-making outside with found-sound instruments attached to our fence (pots, pans, metal and wood pieces, etc…) but this is the first time I’ve observed that experimentation leading to meaty inquiry questions.

Where will we go with this?  We’re going to show this video to the whole class this week and present them with more opportunities to play with sounds and vibrations.  While we usually teach our own music in the classroom with singing and small rhythm instruments, I think that this new thread will prompt us to visit the music room so that the students can experience bigger and more vibratory instruments.   I can’t wait!  Bring on the noise!

 

 

 

 

The best field trip… EVER

We go on a lot of field trips in our class.  I believe in the power of getting outside, off the school grounds, and out into the community.   I really think that one of the things that separates children who succeed and children who fall through the cracks is the richness of their experience; when they come to a book, a math problem, or, heaven forbid, a test question that references an experience like going to a restaurant or riding on a train, the children who’ve had those experiences have an inherent advantage over those who haven’t.  Their broader schema gives them a leg up when confronting new information.  While as teachers we don’t generally have it in our power to take children on airplanes or ski trips, we can take them as many places as possible.  When you’re out and about you are open to new and surprising experiences that may go well beyond the stated objectives of the trip.  So far this year we’ve been to the art gallery and on community walks to urban and green spaces but our latest community walk may go down in the history of my teaching career as the best field trip ever.

It started out as a fairly standard walk.  We were on the hunt for letters – on signs, graffiti, and in the environment.  I handed out the cameras and off we went, pausing frequently to snap photos.

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There were some hairy moments as there are always are when you venture downtown with small children.  Walking sedately in the middle of the sidewalk is not the forté of four and five year olds.  These adventures sometimes require nerves of steel.

We were making our way back to school, crossing over the train tracks, when serendipity found us.

A train engine was chugging towards the bridge and, as it approached, the engineer started sounding the whistle.

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The kids started to squeal with delight and I found myself laughing out loud.  Everyone was smiling.  The train passed under the bridge, sounding its horn (please forgive my total lack of railway terminology).  It was so loud that it shook the bridge.  You could feel it in your chest.

One of the men on the engine got out and turned a switch on the track, waved at the kids, and hopped back on the engine.

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Then they reversed back down the track with the engineer taking over the waving.

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Once again, they gave our chests a rattle as they passed under the bridge.  It was totally thrilling and it wasn’t an experience we ever would have had if we had stayed in the schoolyard.

So – please – be brave and take that class outside!

What is this?

On our first walk, one of the children found an interesting pod.  It looked like a dead leaf but when we shook it we could hear something inside.  However, whatever was inside didn’t seem to be moving of its own accord so I decided to cut it open.  With all of the children watching, I cut open the ‘dead leaf’ layer.  It moved!  Inside was a segmented body that was wiggling vigorously.  What is it?!?

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