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It’s okay to play

We’re about to embark on week 6 of distance learning in Ontario, week 4 of that learning being led by classroom teachers. The novelty has worn off and our reserves of cheerful optimism are running low. Teachers, elementary teachers in particular, are known for their cheeriness but even the sun-shiniest among us are showing the wear and tear of this uniquely stressful time. If you’re feeling out of sorts you’re in good company.

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Kids are feeling weary too. It’s a long haul and it’s going to get longer. My own children are tech-savy and have all their basic needs met: they wake up and go to bed on a regular schedule, they’re getting outside every day, they’re eating well and they have parents who can help them academically (although I confess that dividing fractions required me to do some review).  If my kids are struggling to remain motivated with their online classes, which they are, then it’s likely that everyone is. The teachers I’m in touch with reported that this week felt like heavy lifting with kids. They weren’t engaged, they weren’t handing in work and they weren’t present for synchronous sessions. What had been working before, suddenly wasn’t.

In my last post, I shared this image which describes the Community of Inquiry as conceptualized by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000). The model proposes that the educational experience in distance learning is composed of three equally important types of presence: cognitive presence, teaching presence, and social presence.

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Over the past several weeks we have seen a lot of influential educational thinkers frantically distancing themselves from the terms “distance learning” and “online learning” as we struggle to both name what we’re doing and to describe its challenges. Emergency remote learning seems to be a term most people can agree on. While I agree that what’s happening is somewhat different from a planned distance learning experience that students have chosen to engage in, I think that we ignore the lessons of distance education research at our peril. Imagining that what we’re doing is entirely different from what distance educators have been doing for decades just isn’t accurate. We’re doing it under intense pressure and with students who haven’t chosen to learn this way but the nuts and bolts of how it works is very similar.

One of the distance education practices that I think we would be wise to pay attention to is valuing social presence. Garrison (2009) describes social presence as “the ability of participants to identify with the community (e.g., course of study), communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop inter-personal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities.” I don’t know if that’s something most teachers thought about when they were rushing to put their online classrooms together a few weeks ago.

How are we allowing students to sustain and develop their relationships with us and with each other in our online context? How are we having fun? How are we being silly? How are we playing? We do this effortlessly in our classrooms by telling stories, joking with students, providing feedback, and relating personal connections to the material. We don’t even realize we’re doing it most of the time. Online we have to be more deliberate about it.

Even if you’re teaching grade 12 Physics, allowing time and space for the development of social presence matters. Why? It matters for its own sake – we all want to feel like we’re part of a community, especially now – and it also matters because it contributes to cognitive presence; students learn better when they’re socially engaged.  As an adult taking distance education courses, you may have never experienced this being done well but the research supports that social presence and cognitive presence go hand-in-hand. So don’t be afraid to ease off the content gas pedal for a while and focus on having fun with your students. Have a look at tools like FlipGrid, which allows students to post short video clips. Have a pet beauty contest, even if the contestants are pet rocks. Re-name the elements in the periodic table based on characters on their favourite TV shows, or politicians, or celebrities. Ask students to complete an activity outdoors – tableaux anyone? Have a silly walk contest. Give yourself permission to have fun. It’s not just okay to play, it may actually be essential to sustaining students’ cognitive presence over the long haul. We can be here for a good time and a long time.

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Things not to worry about…

There’s a lot to worry about in the world these days and I’m a worrier, so I’m finding that my plate is quite full most of the time.  I try to give each worry-worthy bit its own segment of the day but I’m running out of pie pieces to distribute as the list of necessary bits gets longer and longer.  So I’ve decided to do something different to assuage my anxiety.  I’ve decided to start thinking about the things I don’t need to worry about.  Between that and a strong cup of tea, I figure I should be well on my way to earning myself a piece of real pie sometime soon.

It’s also Kindergarten open-house season right now as parents visit their preferred schools to try and decide where the best place will be for their little ones.  It can be a confusing time and parents often have a lot of questions.  One of the ones I heard most often on those nights, and still hear from parents of young children, is “How will you teach my child to read?” or its variation “When will she/he learn to read?”

The older and more experienced I get, the more this question falls into the category of “things-not-to-worry-about”.  Now, I’m not suggesting that children don’t sometimes need adult help learning to read… some do.  I’m just not adding it to my list of things to worry about.  I’m also leaving off teaching children colours, numbers, shapes… all the usual “content” of kindergarten day plans.

 

Writing new and familar words

My own observations as a teacher and a parent tell me that three things really matter in learning all this critical content: people, books, and materials.  When children are exposed to adults who care about them, interesting books, and materials rich in possibility, they will, almost always, learn all of this content through questioning, listening, play, and observation.  Very little, if any of it, will need to be explicitly taught.

Circling (okay, not quite) the words “un” and “le” in one of her favourite books
My own daughter had almost no interest in print during her first year of Kindergarten.  This year she can’t get enough of it.  She is constantly asking how to write new words, she is finding familiar words in books, and she wants us to scaffold for her as we read aloud: “Which word is ‘six’ Mommy? Oh, that looks almost like ‘dix’ and they rhyme!”

Doesn’t matter what the medium is these days… letters are the message.
I’ve observed the same pattern in child after child. The little boy whose only interest for the whole first year of Kindergarten was marble runs is reading independently halfway through his second year.  The little boy who was so shy that he would hardly speak through two years of kindergarten is plowing through books and reading them aloud in grade 1.  It happens.  It happens all the time.

One of my children walked at 17 months, the other learned to walk in the Hong Kong airport just days after her first birthday (I was wishing for a few extra days of non-mobility, frankly).  No one suggested remedial walking lessons for the first child.  And yet, we expect reading to happen for children in a predictable way.  We, parents of the latte generation, want our children reading based on our timeline and we get anxious if little Bailey isn’t exactly as precocious in learning his letters and numbers as small Sadie down the street.

Please, take it off your list.  They’re going to get it – keep reading to them, show them that reading is something you love and they will love it too.  Read for pleasure; there’s no better motivation for learning. Pretty soon you might find yourself wishing you had a few more weeks of iliteracy to luxuriate in, believe me… I’m stuck monitoring a complex points scheme that my children invented… apparently you get 300 points for pooping your pants and only 10 points for not whining.  If you need me, I’ll be in the laundry room.

 

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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?