Assessing the Silence

It’s report card time again and I’m filled with that familiar feeling of excitement and dread that seems to accompany this season every year.  This year, I’m finding myself particularly challenged.  Partly, this comes from having a bigger class than I’ve had before and struggling to know the children well enough to write what is essentially a personal essay about each of them.  Partly, however, it’s a familiar discomfort as I try to put wordless learning into words.   How do you assess a student who rarely speaks, who is shy, who seems uncomfortable with the adult attention of documentation?  When an adult arrives and the play stops… how do you write a report card?

Here’s an example:

KN is playing with magnets in a bin of sand.  When he notices me watching him as he plays with the magnets, he gets up to leave.

Me: No, KN, don’t leave, Madame wants to know what you were working on.

KN: I was just magneting stuff together

Me: and what did you notice?

KN doesn’t respond, he goes back to working in the magnet bin

LH and SN join him – KN almost leaves but decides to stay.

LH – Madame, look! She shows me magnets stacked up on a magnet wand.

KN, LH, and SN continue running sand through their fingers and playing with the magnets.  LH and SN have an imaginary scenario developing using the magnets as characters but I’m trying to stay focused on KN.

TN arrives at the table and KN leaves, followed by TN, who takes KN’s hand and tries to engage him in play. They wind up together in the nature centre (where we have a tent set up – a hiding place?), KN’s body language isn’t encouraging but TN persists, KN has a fixed but polite smile.  They both go to the cloakroom to get their lunch bags, KN waits to eat until TN joins him at the snack table.  (At this point I’m observing from a distance, hoping that I’ll get something more concrete if I stay farther away)

I went over to KN because I was interested in what he was learning or experimenting with.  I was hoping that he’d let me observe and ask some questions but my presence alone was a deterrent to his play and to his learning.  Maybe he’s not ready to share, maybe he just wanted to be alone, or maybe there’s something else going on.  It’s really hard to know for sure.

There are also those time when my teacherly questions seem – in hindsight – pretty ridiculous.

hands tyeing scraps of fabric around a plastic block tower

Last week PB and CM were building a tower with Magnatiles.  Then they started to tie scraps of fabric around the tower.  I thought this was pretty interesting.  I’d never seen anyone use those two materials in that way.   I asked them why they were wrapping fabric around their tower.   They looked at me, then at each other, shrugged, and PB replied: “We just wanted to decorate it.”

Of course.

Report card writing, especially in Kindergarten, is as much art as it is science, as much inference as data analysis.  With some children, it’s like trying to capture a shadow in a jar.  I don’t think I’ve quite got it figured out.

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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!

Ice Fishing and Footprints

I think I need to rename this blog… maybe it should be called “teaching on the verge… outside” because it seems that this year, especially, so much of what I’m noticing is happening outside.  I think that this has a lot to do with the greenbelt strip we have at the edge of our playground which offers so many more possibilities for learning than a traditional playground ever could.

We recently had a day of heavy rain which melted all of our snow.  This was followed by a drop in temperatures and a good dump of snow.  The snow stuck to the ice which had formed on all of the branches, creating a beautiful effect that puts every branch into stark relief against the blue sky.  The denuded trees looked sparkly and crisp and the evergreens were heavy with layers of snow and ice.  FI asked if the trees had grown; everything looked fuller and more substantial.  According to the calendar it’s still fall… maybe we need a new calendar!

snow covered trees seen from below

It is like walking into a winter wonderland.

snow covered branch, sun and clouds

LH was very interested in the way her feet crunched through the snow and the frozen slush underneath, leaving very defined footprints.  She took me to see a large footprint that she thought belonged to a monster.

footprint in snow

Then she created a footprint of her own which she told me came from a big dog.

a child-created footprint in the snow.

LH has an amazing imagination so this discussion of footprints quickly swerved in a different direction as a group of students came to tell us about the chipmunk they had just seen.  In response, LH said: “At my grandma’s I saw 18 chipmunks, 18 dancing chipmunks, and they did cartwheels and skated on the ice.”  She then decided that she should camouflage herself, like animals do.

child hiding in/camouflaged by cedar trees

As LH was hiding in the branches, I noticed two boys playing on the ice in a nearby ditch. I was concerned because the ice had weakened during the rain so I went over to show them that it wasn’t safe to stand on.  I cracked a hole in the ice with my boots and the children moved back on to the bank.  They were undeterred, however, and changed their game.  Now, they were ice fishers!  They found sticks and vines on the ground and began using them as fishing rods.  One of the boys, BH, often engages in fishing-play.  He rallied the others to fish through the hole in the ice.  He told them: “You have to be quiet so the fish don’t get scared.”  LH joined them and told us: “I ate fish last night and it was real: I put ketchup on it.” Clearly, only the realest fish needs ketchup!

children pretending to ice fish

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.

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!