It’s all about you

This year, for the first time, I’m teaching one of my own children.  Now, it’s only for 75 minutes a week, but it’s an adventure nonetheless. My son, who’s 8, is having a very hard time separating Mommy from Miss Emily and it’s a challenge for me to manage his needs effectively when I have 9 other kids to teach at the same time. It’s usually not pretty and I often leave with a nagging headache.

But this week, for the first time in several weeks, I managed to sleep through the night uninterrupted prior to teaching his ballet class.  Instead of going into the class feeling exhausted and edgy, I went in feeling pretty good and I even had enough energy to teach the following class without worrying that I’d fall asleep on my feet.

I’ve been doing some extra reading about how to best teach younger boys in ballet class (there are 3 boys in my son’s class) so I’ve been putting some of those strategies into place for the past few weeks (floor exercises instead of centre work, movement games, team ballet ‘battles’, and lots of fun breaks between the serious bits… in case you’re wondering) but this was the first week when it felt like the dynamic had shifted.  For the first time this year, I felt successful with this group of kids and I didn’t get so frustrated with my own child.

After the class was over, I found myself reflecting on why things had shifted.  Was it because I had tried some new things that were more developmentally suited to that group of kids or was it because I was more well rested and better able to teach effectively and be present in the room?  How much of my frustration with the kids was really about me and my state of mind?  I had been blaming my negative experience of the class on them… but was it really all about me?

We get into this kind of thinking a lot in education.  Too often, I hear teachers talking about being “saddled with behaviours” in their classes, as though the children are choosing to overwhelm their teacher, as though their behaviour is a personal affront to the adults.  We talk about kids in a way that dehumanizes them, that ignores their individuality and that focuses exclusively on their deficits.  I have, many times, observed teachers who have become blind to the amazing things that children are doing right in front of them because they have become so focused on what their students aren’t doing that they can’t see anything else.  It’s one of the most challenging parts of my work: trying to push back against that negativity and advocate for the kids while at the same time not alienating the teacher.

Children are capable… what does that really mean?  Does it mean that we can never talk about the challenges we’re having with kids?  Does it mean that we have to adopt a Pollyanna tone in our conversations so that everything is about sunshine and robins who perch on your finger as you sing a merry tune?  No, I don’t think so.

A colleague once described me as a creative pragmatist, something I took as a great compliment. I don’t want to suggest that problems don’t exist; we all need to vent sometimes and it’s good to have people with whom you can let out all your frustrations. But when venting becomes the tone of all our conversations about children, we have a problem.  Children come to school with all sorts of experiences and it is our job, our mission, our vocation to help them learn.  They are children, we are adults; it’s not their fault, it’s just their turn.

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Courtesy of Anita Simpson @asimpsonEDU

This week has been an excellent reminder of the power of “yet” in my life both personally and professionally.  When things aren’t going well, I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that they’re not going well… yet.  Keeping that mental door open to the possibility of change makes all the difference in my perception of the problem.  As my perception changes, the problem changes too and I start to be able to see solutions that weren’t obvious when I was in full venting mode.  In order to be there for kids I need to be there… really in the room, wide awake (both literally and in the Maxine Greene way), and present, prepared to advocate for them even when it’s uncomfortable and prepared to make the changes in my own practice that will make a difference for them.  You’re the only teacher they have and so am I; what we do and what we say matters.  There are no mulligans in childhood.

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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?

 

 

 

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

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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)

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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

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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

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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

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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)

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This is a chimney.

There’s a slide and a diving board.

It’s to play in.

 

My problem with the problem with sticks

There are a lot of things that get my knickers in a knot in schools.  Worksheets, for starters – why… just why?  The lack of attention we pay to the Arts.  Our obsession with testing as though filling in bubbles and making children who are more unique than snowflakes all complete the same task is going to provide us with magical insight that will transform education forever… oh, I could go on and on.

Right at the top of my list, however, is this kind of nonsense… the kind that I recently read about in this great blog post called Dear Public School: It’s Not Me, It’s You. In it, a mother details some of the nonsensical rules and, quite frankly, borderline abusive behaviour that she witnessed as her son started kindergarten.  It’s enough to make you weep.

“The kindergarten class didn’t have grass. I was told that there’s no running on asphalt.  “It’s not safe and can cause really bad scrapes.” By definition, scrapes are not really bad.  Scrapes, bumps, and bruises should be a part of childhood—they’re how kids learn to manage risk. Scrapes now prevent worse decisions later.

I was told that the school could not meet my child’s energy needs and that instead he needed to get his energy out at “running club” every morning. The thought of five-year-olds running laps to provide an energy release for what they should be getting through creative play at recess was stunning.”

Read the whole thing – it’s worth it.

Mercifully, mer-ci-ful-ly, we don’t have anywhere near this level of control in our schools here in Northern Town and, as I think it would be in most Canadian schools, a “no running outside” policy would be considered lunacy.  However, there is a very well intentioned tendency to manage risk to the point that there is no fun left outside for children.  As teachers, we become not just the ice police, we become the fun police.  Our job becomes to suck the life out of outdoor play in order to mitigate risk; we are playground vampires.

The embodiment of this paradigm is our relationship with sticks.  We have, forgive me, a stick up our you-know-where when it comes to sticks. We confiscate them regardless of whether they’re being used dangerously on benignly.  It’s “no sticks” just like it’s “no running.”

Children play with sticks; it is practically natural law.  Set a kid loose in a forest and within seconds she will have a stick in her hand.  They are magnetically attracted to them.  Our students have been seeking out sticks since they first wandered into the greenspace at the back of our playground.  We have a huge number of them right now since some brush was cleared to accommodate power lines.

They use them in myriad ways.  They use them as fishing rods, they use them to build cabins and tipis, they use them as walking sticks, to break ice, to dig, they hit rocks with them, just to see what kind of sound they make.  They also… it has to be said… sometimes wave them around, like swords.

two boys sitting on a log
they use them as seats

Now – I have seen children, little boys especially, turn chiffon scarves into swords – they will turn anything into a sword – absolutely anything.  Do they turn sticks into swords?  They do.  Do they occasionally hit someone with a stick?  They do.  Can we teach them not to do either of those things?  We can. We really, really can.

girl roasting a snow marshmallow
they use them to roast snowball marshmallows

Children can hit each other with their fists, they can kick each other with their feet… and yet we amputate neither.  We teach them not to; we work really hard at teaching them not to do that.  We can do the same with sticks.  We can choose to say: “here’s this amazing natural material that offers so many possibilities; we’re going to notice and validate the good and work on mitigating and modifying the bad.”  We can choose not to be absolutists and we can be intellectual enough to see the subtlety of the issue.  We want kids to run on the playground.  They need to run on the playground.  They also need sticks.  We rob them of so much when we take them away.

Have you see this? The Importance of Playing With Fire (Literally)

Watch it and then think about that for a minute.  What are we losing out on by constraining children’s play to the point that we remove all of the risk?  What’s left for kids?  What kind of adults will they be?  Think hard before you confiscate that next stick… please.

Qualities and Quantities

The supplies have started to arrive; it’s like a big birthday party.  We don’t often have new supplies arriving en masse in public education so when it happens we (and I’m referring to the adults here) get a little silly.  I performed a memorable happy dance in the hallway; I may never live it down.

I’m always amazed by novelty and the impact it has on children (adults too) – you would think it would get old, but it really doesn’t. When our carpet first arrived, all the children, as a collective, lay down on the floor and rubbed their cheeks against the nubby surface. They just soaked it in, loving the feeling and enjoying the warmth after 2 weeks of sitting on cold tiles. Simple thing, big impact on our lives.

Another piece of equipment that arrived at the same time was an instant favourite, as it has been every year. This toy seems to lend itself to sophisticated mathematical thinking; the relationships between 2-D and 3-D shapes, which shapes tessellate well and which do not, how to use one shape to build another. All of these things I had anticipated because I’ve seen them before. What I’ve never seen is the impact of having so many of a material on the quality of children’s play. This year we ordered double the number of tiles. Just look at what they’ve been able to accomplish!

Covering the surface of the light table with tiles and using that as a building surface makes the whole project glow.
Covering the surface of the light table with tiles and using that as a building surface makes the whole project glow.
I just love the glowing effect of the light table.
I just love the glowing effect of the light table.
Their sense of how the pieces can fit together becomes more sophisticated the longer they play.
Their sense of how the pieces can fit together becomes more sophisticated the longer they play.
We had just talked about building stable structures using bigger pieces at the bottom and smaller pieces at the top.  I think they're trying to prove me wrong!  I was impressed at how they were investigating volume here by using the wooden blocks to fill their cube.
We had just talked about building stable structures using bigger pieces at the bottom and smaller pieces at the top. I think they’re trying to prove me wrong! I was impressed at how they were investigating volume here by using the wooden blocks to fill their cube.
Next stop... the School of Architecture.
Next stop… the School of Architecture.

One of the best thing about having so many of these tiles is that while one group of students is using them on the light table, another group can be using them on the floor or on a table (or a couch in this case).  That’s what BG was doing last week.

And then this happened...
And then this happened…

BG called me over to show me what he had made.  He had used the equilateral triangles to create two hexagons which he had linked together, nearly making three hexagons.  We discussed what he had made and I introduced the name of his new shape.

Which led to this...
Which led to this…

DW had been watching us as we had this conversation and came over to show me that he could use two triangles to make a square.

BG then tried to make a square using his triangles but came up with a diamond instead.

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Why do some triangles make squares when you put them together while others don’t… what’s the difference? You can see in this photo that BG has completed his third hexagon.

The next day, I kept noticing more and more students using shapes (both tiles and wooden blocks) to make new shapes and experimenting with tessellation.  I’m intrigued at how these ideas spread.  DW was listening to my conversation with BG… did other students notice?  Were they observing on the sidelines without me noticing or is there some other process at work here?  This week we’re going to share these observations with the whole group – I’m excited to see where it goes from here!

Patience and her virtues

Hello again!

Sorry to have been away for so long.  Spring has actually arrived now and I’m less inclined to be inside typing after such a long winter of seclusion. We’ve had to be patient this year.  Spring came reluctantly with many stuttering and faulty starts that bruised our fragile hearts.  But come it did and it’s got me thinking a lot about patience as I’ve watched some of my students bloom beautifully over the past few weeks.  Here’s the story of one of those blossomings.

At our morning meeting, I shared some photos of work that children had done with the geoboards and elastics on the light table.

shared geoboard documentation
shared geoboard documentation

I invited the children to explore shapes and lines at the light table.  Two children, N & E, decided to work there during the first play block while several other children decided to work in the adjacent art studio.  When I arrived to document their work, N had created this.

N's first geoboard
N’s first geoboard

N: It’s a house.

Me:  Tell me about the parts of your house

I’m pretty sure that N was just playing with the shapes and that he gave me what he thought was the ‘teacher-approved’ answer to my questioning presence.  I was struggling to see how what he had made resembled a house.

N: It’s a strangler house.

Me: I don’t understand.  What’s a strangler house?

At this point, O looked over from her place at the Art studio table and remarked on another geoboard that N had been working on.

train tracks
train tracks

O: That looks like train tracks.

N: Yeah, it’s train tracks.

Again, I’m not sure that N was actually making train tracks but O provided him with a bridge between what he had made and what it might represent.

Me: Oh, the train tracks, do you remember when we saw the train tracks on our walk?

N: Yeah!

At this point, I was called away to take pictures of another project.  When I came back, N had created several more train track geo-boards.   He had also taken some wooden blocks and was pretending that they were a train riding along the tracks.  N usually plays in a very literal-minded way (a car is a car, an airplane is an airplane).  This was the first time I had observed him using objects (the blocks and the geo-boards) to represent other objects (a train and the tracks).

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Later in the week, we walked back towards the train tracks on our bi-weekly community walk.  We had first sketched our observations six weeks earlier.  This is what N drew the first time around.

"train tracks"
“train tracks”

 

“Train tracks” was all he had to say about his drawing at the time.

This is what he told me about the drawings he did on our second visit to the bridge.  He was very engaged and didn’t want to leave.

2nd observational drawings
2nd observational drawings

Me: What can you tell me about your drawing?

N: Train tracks!

Me: What’s about these? (pointing to the lines)

N: Ch, ch, (drawing lines in the air) like a choo choo train!

Me: N, what are those called that you’re drawing in the air?

N: ….

Me: They’re lines, right?

N: lines!

While working on his sketch, N also had a very animated conversation with another child about his second and third drawings.  N was trying to draw people in the windows of the building and the other child was telling him they didn’t look like people so N began adding eyes to their faces so that they resembled the other child’s drawings, exclaiming “this guy has one eye!”

N’s development over the course of this year can be viewed through the lens of psychologist Jerome Bruner’s Three Modes of Representation: Enactive (action-based), Iconic (image-based), and Symbolic (language-based).

Until very recently, N’s play has been mostly enactive.  He likes to run, to make noises related to the toys he is using, and to engage in boisterous physical play.  Any attempt to move him towards representing his interests in another way (drawing a pattern, writing his name) has been met with fierce opposition.  N could teach the G-8 protestors a few things about resistance.   His first attempt at drawing his bridge observations shows how un-iconic his thinking was.  I think he drew what he did only because I insisted he had to draw something; he couldn’t just run around.

Both his play with the geo-boards and his second set of bridge drawings, show an amazing leap forward in his development.  He is now happily using iconic forms of representation and he is accepting  and using feedback from other students about his representations.

I think that N’s story speaks to the value of patience in children’s learning and development.  There have been many times since September that I have felt frustrated by the pace of N’s development.  I have been anxious about his future given his fierce resistance to anything resembling traditional academic skills.  But, I have persisted in providing his with as rich an environment as possible, bringing him for walks, talking to him, and encouraging him to use all of the classroom materials.  His recent breakthrough has confirmed my faith in the power of all of these things to empower children in their development of rich, deep thinking and representation.  Instead of reducing N to a list to his deficits and focusing on the things he can’t yet do, I am energized by observing the amazing things he is learning to do every day!