Assessment as Valuing

For the past two days, M, J1, and J2 have been using the snap cubes as part of their dramatic play and have arranged them in very interesting ways. I first noticed M and J1 at the two wooden desks, facing each other and carefully grouping their cubes according to colour.  I was drawn to them because I could hear J1 singing.

Singing the Snap Cube Anthem
Singing the Snap Cube Anthem

I asked: Qu’est ce que tu fais? (What are you doing?)

J1: They’re singing their national anthem.

Once the singing ended, I overheard:

J1: Grab your kids and grab your snacks ‘cause this one’s going to be a doozy.

J1 had recently been to a professional hockey game with his family and had shared his experience with the class.

Grab your snacks!
Grab your snacks!

J1: This is my best guy.

M: These are the bad guys, these are the good guys.

The next day, when J2 returned to school, the play continued with him, this time at the table in the math centre.

day 2 of snap cube fighters
day 2 of snap cube fighters

Later that same day, M and J revisited their play at the wooden desks again.

Back at the wooden desks
Back at the wooden desks

A few days later I showed J1 and M the photos:

Question: What are the big towers for? What’s the difference between the big towers and the little ones?

M: The big ones are the trainers. The big ones train the little ones how to fight better. They’re martial arts fighters
J1: Mine are karate fighters – ‘cause I play karate.
M: And mine are martial arts, ‘cause I play martial arts.
‘Cause the patterns.
Mme: Tell me about the patterns.
M: We use them as their fighter suits.
Mme: Have you noticed that people have patterns on their clothes?
J1: Like me – I have green, blue, green.
Mme: And like on my shirt.

How does this play fit into our curriculum expectations?
The Ontario curriculum tells us that in Kindergarten, children will…

– listen and respond to others for a variety of purposes and in a variety of contexts
– begin to use and interpret gestures, tone of voice, and other non-verbal means to communicate and respond
– use language in various contexts to connect new experiences with what they already know
– describe personal experiences, using vocabulary and details appropriate to the situation
– orally retell simple events and simple familiar stories in proper sequence

The Arts
– explore a variety of tools and materials of their own choice to create drama and dance in familiar and new ways
– use problem-solving skills and their imagination to create drama and dance
– communicate their ideas about something (e.g., a book, an experience, a painting) through sounds, rhythms, and music
– respond to music from various cultures, including their own

Now let me say a little about how I assess and how I see assessment in the context of the Full-Day Early Learning Kindergarten program.  I believe that all assessment is based on noticing and valuing.  As soon as you notice something, you’ve ascribed value to it (positively or negatively) and have therefore assessed it – to varying depths.  For instance, when I notice two students wrestling on the carpet, I assess that negatively because, in the school context, I don’t value it.  It’s often not a particularly deep assessment although it has prompted me to think deeply about the role of physical play in children’s development.  It’s usually a superficial assessment that the play is getting dangerous and so I intervene.  However, the process of noticing and valuing can be much deeper.  In the context of a play-based classroom, I see one of my roles as being that of a detective.  I am looking for places where what the children are doing intersects with the curriculum.  I see the curriculum as being, in large part, a description of a developmental stage, rather than a list of things I need to teach in a top-down way.   I believe that, given exposure to the right materials, environments, and experiences, children will learn these things and will demonstrate their learning in their play, their conversations, their artwork, and their writing.  If there are areas where we’re not seeing that learning, that’s where we may need to do some more direct instruction, either one-on-one, in small groups, or with the whole class.  We may also need to modify the environment and change the materials.

I’ve written before on this blog about the inherent subjectivity of this process.  All assessment is subjective.  We, the grown-ups, decide what to assess, when, and how.  The curriculum itself is subjective and culturally-specific.  I point this out not to devalue our curriculum but to put it in context.  It is a living, breathing, document.  It gets revised regularly and what we choose to value within children’s learning changes.  Where subjectivity becomes dangerous is when we don’t pay attention to it – when we trick ourselves into thinking that we have magic, objective powers.

We need to always be aware of our subjectivity and to critically examine it.  Are we missing something?  What are the children doing that we don’t notice?  What are our biases?  Having two people in the classroom has made a huge difference for me this year.  The Early Childhood Educator that I work with notices different aspects of the children’s play than I do and I am so grateful for that diversity.  It keeps us both honest and highlights our own subjectivity – awareness is key.

And so I come back to M and J1 and their snap cube fighters.  Often, when we think of dramatic play, we look for children dressed up in costumes, acting out roles, like firefighters, doctors, or parents.   However, that’s not always what it looks like.  Sometimes, it can look like two little boys, sitting in desks, arranging cubes.  As educators, we need to put on our detective hats and remain vigilant about finding the learning in the play.  Because, as Shakespeare put it “The play’s the thing.”



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).


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!


Alex, I’ll take “Things You Didn’t Know About Mme Emily” for $100 please.

In 1984, Mme Emily strapped on the first of many pairs of these pink slippers.

Answer, for the daily double… ballet slippers!

Yes folks, from then on I was hooked… and I still am.  Now, I’m not nearly as bendy as I was at the height of my dancing days but I still value flexibility both physically and intellectually.  What’s been surprising me lately is the way that students use materials flexibly.  I’ve been astounded by the number of times I’ve discovered the children playing with something in one area of the classroom that I thought would never wander from its home.  It’s fascinating.  Children collaborate and work independently as they put materials to all kinds of new and interesting uses.

This is the bin we use for our inside shoes. Now it’s a house. You can’t see it in the picture but she also has a clipboard propped up against the wall and she was very busy writing with it.
This is a piece of driftwood I collected as a child and a stick that the children brought in from outside. It’s now a musical instrument.
Reading in the block centre… we took the shelves out so that we could fit in more blocks. It turns out they make perfect reading corners. Very cozy and great for sharing!
Turtles and dominoes no longer in the mathematics area, now being used as inventory and currency in a store… which is also a throne, I think.