Image

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?

 

 

 

The Christmas Quandary

I’m a bit of a scrooge, I’ll admit it.  I do not slip easily into the holly-jollies of this time of year.  I’m pretty serious by nature and it’s a difficult posture to shake.  I find it hard to toss life aside, to suspend disbelief, to step outside of myself for a while.  I’m working on it.

The contrast between my scrooge-ish tendencies and the general December explosion in schools is always a bit jarring.  The tinsel, the Santas, the trees, the gingerbread men, the sparkly, doo-dad, whoop-it-up craziness that barrels into most schools on December 1st and overtakes programming until the end of the calendar year always feels more like a tidal wave than I’d like it to.  There I stand on the beach, watching it tower over me, unable to stop it.  I can’t run away fast enough.

When I had my own classroom I would actively buck the trend,  looking for ways of acknowledging the cultural significance of the holidays without completely giving into the madness.  And, in case you’re wondering, this isn’t about the much vaunted but largely fictional “War On Christmas” that we hear so much about in the media.  For me it was more about creating an oasis in the classroom, a place where my students could rely on a routine that would be sustained, a rhythm that would be protected, even while the rest of the world was going mad.  

Kids are tired right now.  In most Canadian schools, we haven’t had a holiday weekend since the middle of October.  That’s nine weeks without a day off.  Oy.  Kids are also up late, eating foods with a lot more sugar, and very excited about the big day(s).  My own kids have been having full-blown Hanukkah meltdowns.  Eight crazy nights… picture it… let’s just say it doesn’t lead to Norman Rockwell scenes of familial peace and harmony.  It’s more like eight nights of cage-match parenting.  As much fun as Hanukkah is, I’m always happy when it’s over.

One of the biggest obstacles to fundamentally changing practice in Kindergarten classrooms is our adult attachment to holidays.  We seem to be very stuck on how to manage without “doing Christmas” or “doing Easter.”  

Here’s my observation, for what it’s worth: we are our own worst enemies.  We complain that the kids are “crazy” at this time of year but we feed into the craziness by completely giving our classrooms over to Christmas.  We abandon routine, we abandon inquiry, and we steer children in the direction of focusing on one event at the expense of everything else that might be interesting to them.  We complain about the madness as though it’s something that’s happening to us instead of something that we are actively participating in.  

We have this idea that we’re “doing it for the kids” but I really question whether that’s true.  Yes, the children like Christmas but they don’t like it at the expense of everything else in the universe.  For them it’s one tile in a mosaic of interests.  They don’t stop building because it’s Christmas.  They don’t stop making art because it’s Christmas.  They don’t stop dramatic play because it’s Christmas.  In fact, when I surveyed my documentation from Decembers past, I couldn’t find a single instance of children “playing Christmas” spontaneously.  

clay play (1)
4 days before the Christmas holidays: “Now you’re just like me, we all have capes.” ~ superhero play

If we believe that play is a window into a child’s inner life, then what can we learn by noticing the absence of Christmas in their play?  Maybe we’re not “doing it for the kids” after all. Maybe we’re doing it for us and maybe, just maybe, if we want December to be a more productive, more pleasant, less crazy time in schools, we’ll need to dial back our adult preoccupation with all things green and red and offer our students a more neutral space, a space into which they can project their own values, create their own celebrations, and express their own sense of festivity, unencumbered by an adult agenda.  There are other colours out there… we can choose a wider palette. 

pencil spectrum (1)

 

 

Architectural Voices – Part 3

This is the third and final installment of children’s poetic reflections on their architecture projects.  To read about the project in its entirety, please use the search term “architecture” in the search window below.

The Big Apartment Building

apartment building 2

It’s kind of big and also people who live here don’t have to live in little houses, they can live in big buildings.

And also they don’t have to live out of houses.

It took a long time to build it.

The sides are really big and the building’s really big

There’s lots of places for people to live inside.

Sometimes they have to break it down because it’s not working well.

They make designs so that the building doesn’t fall down

and they glue the bricks so it doesn’t fall down on the people inside.

 

The Pretty Triangle (A-frame)

IMG_0499_2

There’s a big window.

You slide the door open.

I like that it’s a triangle.

It looks like a face with eyes open or eyes closed.

 

The Villager Hut

DSCF6500

L: It kind of looks like a farm.

T: It would look like a real farm if the windows were down there.

E: It looks like a villager hut from Minecraft.

When the rain falls down

it will fall off onto the roof.

The roof is a sesame circle.

It’s for Lego guys – villagers.

 

K’s House for my Family

DSCF6490 DSCF6493

The stairs they go up

roof.

the

to

way

the

all

And the windows are not square

‘cause they can look out of more places.

The fence has a little door

and they can go

straight to go inside.

The chimney is where Santa goes down.

 

Z’s House

DSCF6502

The roof is made out of paper and the rest is made out of wood.

There’s no ladders to go inside the window ‘cause that would be weird.

I have a chimney.

Santa Claus fell through the window – he’s stuck in there now.

I have a square window.

The door looks like a square

But

It

Isn’t.

 

The Playground (an almost haiku)

DSCF6497

This is a chimney.

There’s a slide and a diving board.

It’s to play in.

 

Guns and their cupcake cousins

Some teacher friends and I have been talking about guns for a long time.  It’s an open question for us, one we’ve struggled with over the years.

I’m not a gun person.  As a child I fired a hunting rifle a couple of times – meh… it’s not really my thing.  I don’t pretend to understand some people’s love of guns but I try to separate my discomfort with guns from my relationships with the people who like them.  We have a lot of avid hunters in this area and many of our children have very responsible, safe relationships with guns at home.

I started my teaching career in a very challenging school context where guns were a daily fear for staff and students.  Because of that experience, and in an effort to implement school rules, I have often taken a very hard line when it comes to gun play in my classes.

And it comes up all the time.

“No guns at school.” – I say that almost as often as I say “walk”.

I understand why it’s a rule; we want children and adults to feel safe at school.  It’s hard to feel safe when someone is pointing a gun (pretend or otherwise) at you.

But still they play with guns – they make them out of sticks, out of blocks, and out of snap-cubes… oh, the snap-cubes!  We always wind up putting them away because they lead almost immediately to gun play.

children's hands holding snap cube guns

So I understand why it’s “no guns at school” and generally I adhere to that maxim but then I find myself torn.  Most of the time, I pay extra attention when children are very engaged in something and, let’s be honest, they’re VERY engaged by gun play.  They are totally captivated, riveted, and engrossed.  They’re not actually hurting each other but they are playing at hurting each other.  Where is the line between acceptable play and unacceptable play?  I have so many questions.

I don’t have the answers to any of those questions but I do have some student voices to add to the mix.

Some students are particularly savvy about rationalizing their gun play so that it will be acceptable to adults.  This week alone I’ve been told that what looks like a gun is actually:

  • a laser – “And it’s okay Madame, because the lasers on Star Wars don’t really hurt people.”
  • a ketchup squirter
  • and my personal favourite… a cupcake thrower (reminiscent of that moment in Ghostbusters when Dan Ackroyd conjures up the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man – “the most harmless thing”)

A colleague also has some great video of a child holding a snap-cube gun who, as the teacher approaches, flips it around and declares with a smile: “Look Sir, it’s an L.”  This one is particularly brilliant as it shows that the child knows that teachers are so fixated on literacy that making a letter might deflect any reprimand for what was clearly gun play.

These kids are aware that they’re transgressing school rules by playing gun games.  They’ve even come up with alternate explanations to placate the adults.  That’s some pretty sophisticated theory of mind going on.

So I’m left wondering: is there any place for this play in the classroom?  Is there something to value here?  The kids are obviously very engaged and that’s usually my bellwether for valuing.  What do you do in your classroom when kids are engaged in gun play?  I’d love to know!

 

 

Things pop up.

Sometimes when I’m reading teacher questions about inquiry, I come across something along the lines of: “I don’t get it, the kids were really interested in subject X and now they’re not.  How can I get them to do an inquiry when they don’t stay interested in anything?”

Sing it sister (or brother – as the case may be).

I hear you, I really do.

One of the most challenging aspects of teaching this way is trusting the natural ebb and flow of children’s interests and questions.

I recently took my Senior level qualifications so that I would be officially qualified to teach grades 11 and 12.  It’s been a long time since I’ve taught high school and I was pretty rusty.  The whole unit planning process was bewildering to me after so many years of teaching in an inquiry-based classroom where planning comes more as a response to the children than it does as a top-down process that adults impose upon them.  Going back to the process of writing formal unit plans caused me to reflect on the challenges of inquiry.  Maybe some of our frustration with the in-and-out nature of inquiry comes from our expectation that it will look like those unit plans.  Do we expect it to be linear?  Do we expect that after the children introduce a topic, that they will then proceed to engage with it in a linear sequence of activities, ending with a culminating experience? Big finish, jazz hands, curtain closes, ta-da!?

I think that may be at least part of the problem.

Here’s an alternative way to think about it.  Be a detective… notice where things pop up.

This week, we’ve continued to work on our Architecture project but we’ve let it ebb a bit, just to see what would happen.  I haven’t been pushing the cardboard sketches as hard as I did last week.  The materials have still been available but I haven’t put them out as an invitation.  Here’s what I’ve noticed instead:

Bridge building

boy adding a stick to a bridge over a ditch  boy walking over bridge built with sticks

Creating tile mosaics that look very much like architectural drawings from the “plan” perspective

children building with mosaic tiles on a whiteboard

Children using the architectural examples we’ve looked at and their own prior knowledge to inspire their own buildings.

architectural drawing of Mumbai apartment
Architectural drawing of a proposed Mumbai condo development with swimming pools in every apartment.

child building with magna tiles

child's version of the Mumbai apartment
O.N.’s version of the Mumbai apartment

And today, B.W. using her own prior knowledge and what we’ve learned about design to create her own city.

child's city constructed with wooden blocks
“One part is Toronto and one part is New York. The part with two towers is New York and the part with the CN Tower is Toronto.”

Maybe instead of thinking about inquiry following the rhythm and organization of a unit plan, we might want to think about it more like a garden.  Some plants you seed intentionally, other plants just pop up, their seeds carried by the wind or by a passing bird.  It’s all about noticing those surprises, valuing them, and seeing how they fit into the bigger picture.  Look for them – they’re there!

A real girl builder

Our partner architect visited the class for the first time yesterday; what an exciting visit! As MF exclaimed… “a real girl builder!”

architect speaking to kindergarten class

She had so many great ideas to share with our students and we all (adults included) learned a lot.  As non-architects it’s a big leap for us, as educators, to help the children through this inquiry and her visit gave us a much-needed shot of confidence.

She had a great strategy for teaching perspective drawing.  She brought in two green peppers and used them as a substitute for a building because, as she pointed out, peppers have walls and interior space.

architect demonstrating drawing techniques using a pepper

She showed us how to draw the pepper from the front (architecture term, elevation), from the top (plan), and with the front wall cut away (section).  The children were captivated by the idea that there was more than one way to draw an object.  They asked great questions and had amazing ideas about what kinds of buildings architects design (prisons, hospitals, shopping malls).

architect demonstrating drawing techniques using a pepper

KC shared that it was important to make a diagram of your building and we talked about how we might measure our drawings so that a builder could follow them accurately.  Our architect then showed us how to measure our model buildings so that we could translate them into drawings too.

architect showing students how to measure model building

She showed us how we could draw our buildings from elevation, plan, and section perspectives – this was especially interesting because it got the children thinking about shape; a triangular building looks rectangular when you view it from the top.

architect demonstrating measurement techniques  architect drawing a model house

After all that learning we got the chance to do our own drawings!  The children amazed us by applying their new learning so immediately and by using rulers, for the first time, with confidence and precision.

children drawing a model building  children drawing a model building  children drawing a model building  child measuring her drawing on grid paper

 

Process-based painting

We tend to think of art as a product: a thing to hang on a wall.

We, that is, those of us who aren’t artists, miss out on all of the messiness about and tossing aside that happens long before you have anything to hang up.

As a choreographer, I know how many ideas I try on for size before I hit on one that I like and that works with my dancers.

Young children approach the creative process differently.  Their art is, quite literally, ALL ABOUT PROCESS.  We often talk a good talk in education about process-based assessment and about looking beyond the product for insight into learning but at the end of the day we remain quite concerned about what’s on the paper; the product.

Many kindergarten students couldn’t give a hoot about what their painting looks like when they put down their brushes.  They are interested in how the painting changes as they add layers of paint, how the paint behaves, how it mixes together.  They will often start with an image and then paint over it.  Their process often has more in common with storytelling than it does with paint-by-numbers.  SH, for instance, began by painting a robot and then added several layers of paint over top.  You can just glimpse the robot underneath.

robot painting covered by red paint

This art work challenges us to closely observe children’s process as they work through their creative ideas and not to settle for assessment that is only interested in the product.