A Little Positivity For This Holiday Grinch :)

We are approaching the last day of school before the holidays. I think that most students and educators alike are getting excited about the time off and the chance to re-charge. Most teachers will tell you that the last week before the holidays is one of the hardest weeks of teaching. With many school-wide events, and often special activities happening in the classroom, students are usually louder and more unsettled. Students with special needs often find this week especially difficult, as the routines that they crave have changed.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m like these students. I may try to keep regular routines in the classroom, but I can’t change school-wide events. Sometimes we just have to join in and embrace the craziness. 

Today was our holiday assembly. It was amazing! Marco, one of our intermediate teachers, coordinated the schedule, and our vice principal, Gord, helped everything go smoothly. The students did an outstanding job as they shared singing, dancing, and dramatic performances. I know that everyone loved watching friends and siblings perform, and there was an excited hum both inside and outside of the gym.

I have to admit though that assemblies for me are a struggle.

  • There is a lot of sitting and listening.
  • It’s busy.
  • It’s loud.
  • There is a lot of movement.
  • There is a lot of multi-tasking: watching the students, watching the performances, and getting prepared for our own presentations. 

Usually I get overwhelmed. Today, I tried a new strategy: I decided to look for all of the positives. This helped me focus my attention, and in a good way.

  • I saw incredible student performances.
  • I saw that there are teachers, EA’s, and DECE’s at Dr. Davey with a lot of talent.
  • I saw students working hard at listening, focusing on the performances, and being great audience members.
  • I saw great camaraderie between educators, students, and administrators.
  • Through a few quiet conversations during transitional times, I got to make connections with some new students and develop even better connections with some current students.
  • I saw “differentiation” happening during the performances themselves — both on the stage and off on the sidelines – to ensure that all students met with success.
  • I got to step out of my comfort zone and participate in the Primary Teacher Performance. In 14 years of teaching, I’ve never done this before! It was scary, exciting, and fun … and helped make for a great end to the assembly!

Lots Of “Positive Parts” In The Assembly – Click On The Images To Enlarge Them

My previous principal, Paul, used to speak about the importance of “staying positive.” Over the years, he’s helped me set some “positive goals” of my own. While I’ve tried to stay positive in other situations, I’ve never approached assemblies with the same positive attitude. I think that in different ways, assemblies have always terrified me, and being “positive” means moving past the fear. I’m glad that I attempted to do soI was still somewhat overwhelmed, but ended the day happy. Today’s assembly even helped put this “Holiday Grinch” into a somewhat festive mood. :)

How has being positive changed your experiences? How do you remain positive when it seems hard to do so? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Let’s end things tomorrow on a nice, positive note before the start of the holidays!


Redefining Play

Last night, I wrote a blog post on “play.” I made some assumptions about what “play” is, and I made some assumptions about what it’s not. That’s when the comments started coming in. I thank all of the people that added to the discussion both through the comments on the post and through their tweets.  At one point last night, I felt as though I wanted to rewrite part of my original blog post, and I think that this post is the “rewriting.”

As I’ve blogged about before, I started my teaching career teaching Kindergarten. I taught Kindergarten for 8 years, and I LOVED it! But I knew that Full-Day Kindergarten was starting soon, and I heard a lot about the play-based program. I believed in the value of structure, routine, and direct instruction, and I didn’t think that I could enjoy teaching in a learning environment that was all about play. So I made a very difficult decision to leave Kindergarten, and I’ve never been back. Since leaving though, my teaching style has changed a lot. I learned about inquiry, and I started experimenting with inquiry in the classroom. I started giving students more control over their learning, and “student voice and choice” became important components of the classroom program. Thinking about the comments that I read last night, I guess that over the years, in many different grades, I watched, participated, and facilitated as students “played.”

But what does this “play” look like? What does “play” mean? How, as educators, do we support this “play” in the classroom? I think that these are questions that we need to discuss, especially considering how our classroom environment may continue to change as a result of the impact of Full-Day Kindergarten. Here’s a Padlet Wall that I’m hoping will help us start this conversation. Let’s share our ideas here and see what happens. Maybe, together, we can redefine “play.”

Reconsidering “Play”

Since the beginning of the school year, I’ve seen a number of newspaper articles and television news recordings on extending play-based learning into Grade 1 and beyond. I totally understand the thinking behind these reports.

  • I know that students learn by doing.
  • I know that meaningful play can help develop critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving skills.
  • I know that students benefit the most when learning is meaningful to them. I know that play helps with this.
  • I know that Full-Day Kindergarten has given students more school experience, and that this will impact on future grades.
  • I know that if students have learned in a play-based environment in Kindergarten, it’s hard to adjust to a more traditional Grade 1 program. 

But I also wonder what happens when we only focus on the “play.”

  • How do we know when and how to best use direct instruction?
  • How do we support students that don’t have the schema to engage in more creative play?
  • How do we use this play environment to build oral language skills in our youngest learners, and later develop reading and writing skills?
  • How do we explore student interests and curriculum expectations? Do these intersect? What if they don‘t?
  • What support networks are in place for teachers as they navigate through this new approach?
  • If the play-based program is moving up in the grades, are we also re-looking at marks versus descriptive feedback? (There are no marks in Kindergarten, but there are in the other grades. How do we evaluate play? What opportunities are in place to converse with others about what they do?)

I don’t have the answers to these questions. Here’s what I do know though: I wanted play-based learning to work in our Grade 1 classroom. I thought that students could drive their own learning, and we could have large blocks of time to inquire. Language, Math, Science, Social Studies, and The Arts would weave themselves fluidly throughout our day, and I could structure my mini-lessons and small groups based on current inquiries. This was my dream, but it wasn’t my realityStudents needed more support than I anticipated, and I needed to make changes to my original plans to help meet these student needs. I’m still making changes. Some students can handle more flexibility in learning. Some students need more support. Play’s happening, but in different ways for different students.

And while, overall, I’m really happy with our new classroom structure, I know that student needs vary from school to school. Maybe my initial vision would work somewhere else. Maybe it could work with just a few minor changes. This is why I worry when I hear about the play-based program moving up in the grades. It’s not because I don’t believe in this model: I do. But I also know that people tend to interpret “play” in a certain way, and what if this way doesn’t work for studentsHow do we adjust one model to meet the needs of all of our learners? How do we avoid swinging a pendulum between the extremes of “play” and “worksheets?” I think that with a student-centred model, we must be able to find something in between. What do you think?


Preparing Myself For The Week Before The Holidays

This morning, I bumped into my previous vice principal, Kristi, when I was out running some errands. She asked me if I’m looking forward to the upcoming Holiday Break, and the truth is, I really am. I think that the Break comes in the midst of a hectic time, when we all need an opportunity to re-charge before the start of a new calendar year.

I think that I may also be eager for the Break because I’m really nervous about this upcoming week. It’s the week before the Winter Holidays, and as it’s often seen, it’s the week before Christmas. This is an exciting time of the year. It’s full of many amazing opportunities for students — from our Holiday Breakfast to the Holiday Concert — and it even includes a visit from Santa Claus. I know that the students are going to love this! I know that many of them are using our Writer’s Workshop time to write about Christmas, make holiday cards, write holiday letters, and even create their own Christmas stories and comics. They want the holiday, and they’re excited about the Break!

The problem is though that this week before the holidays requires excellent self-regulation skills. It’s one of the most difficult weeks of the year for our neediest students. And for a teacher like me that loves routine, gets overwhelmed with noise, and often shies away from  chaotic social situations, I totally understand what these students are going through. Here’s my promise to these students and to myself:

  • I promise to keep the regular classroom routine as much as possible.
  • I promise to provide structure for those of you that need it (and I guess, for me too).
  • I promise to keep the lights low, the room calm, and as many quiet voices as I can manage.
  • I promise to be there and to listen to you if you need a break or just some quiet time.
  • I promise to prepare you for the changes in routine, so they don’t seem as overwhelming.
  • I promise to still make this week fun, but with the knowledge that it may be a harder week for some than for others.
  • I promise to work with you so that we can make it through this week together!

At this time of the year, it’s hard not to get caught up in the festive spirit. But as we celebrate these holidays at school, how do we support those educators and students that struggle with this change in routine? How do we ensure that it’s a successful “last week before Christmas” for everyone? I know that I’ll be thinking about Stuart Shanker and self-regulation this week. What will be on your mind?


An Unexpected Benefit Of Coding

This week is the Hour of Code. We haven’t been coding every day, or even necessarily for a full hour, but we have been experimenting with coding this week. Some students have tried out some of the activities here. Others have experimented with apps such as Kodable, Tynker, and Scratch Jr.. No matter which option the students have chosen, the curriculum expectations that we really focused on were counting skills, one-to-one correspondence, and directional language. While many students worked alone, they assisted each other by discussing strategies and problem-solving together. We’ve even tried some coding together, and talked about our thinking when working through the process.

Our Coding Together From Today

During these coding activities, I’ve really tried to listen to the conversations and watch the students work through the problems. Today I noticed something very interesting: the students that tend to meet with the most success are actually those students that tend to struggle the most in other academic areas. Why might that be?

Here’s my theory: coding requires perseverance. It can be hard. It can be frustrating. Sometimes what we think might work, doesn’t. There is definitely a need to try, try, and try again. Many students that struggle have learned the need for perseverance. They also know what it’s like to fail, and how excited they feel when after multiple attempts, they meet with success. Meeting with this success can be difficult in certain academic areas, where students may be lacking some of the fundamental basic skills. In these cases, without an alternate program, struggling students may not meet with success. But coding is different. With coding, the students can follow their code, see where the errors occur, and go back to fix them. And eventually, they’ll get their program working, and hence, feel that joy of success. Yes, coding often requires reading. It even requires writing (of some sort). But there are visuals. There are prompts. There are YouTube videos that allow students to visually see and orally hear instructions, and not just rely on the written word. There are supports in place for success, and for those students that persevere, they were feeling this success.

I know that my website and app choices are by no means complicated coding applications. I know that real coding requires many more skills than what is required in these introductory lessons. All of that being said though, coding started to help my strongest students feel empathy for their peers that may sometimes struggle. It helped some new classroom leaders emerge. Observing students during these coding activities reminded me that we need to give children more safe opportunities to struggle, and give them a chance to work through these struggles alone or with their peers. Maybe we also need to give these same opportunities to parents and educators. It’s as we find learning challenging, that we understand what our children experience. We learn when and how to support them and when to maybe give time to problem-solve independently or collaboratively with peers. What have you learned from coding with children? How can you see using coding at home or at school, and why might you consider these options? The Hour of Code can just be the beginning!


The Perfect Brown Leaf

This afternoon, I had double duty: outside supervision of the playground and inside supervision of the Grade 1 pod. As I was supervising the playground today, a student in another class came up to me. She was so excited! She had the most PERFECT brown leaf. She told me that she found it outside on the way to school, put it in her locker to keep it safe, and brought it outside for recess. I’ve never seen anyone so careful with a leaf. She held it gently on the bottom of the stem and never let it go: even choosing what to do and where to play based on if the leaf would be safe.

That’s when it happened. The bell rang, and just as I was heading over to the lines to bring in the Grade 1’s, I heard a high-pitched scream. It may have even been more of a wail. I looked around quickly, and there was that Grade 1 student, holding that very same brown leaf, that another child had borrowed to look at and broken in half. There were tons of apologies, but this Grade 1 student sadly held her little brown leaf … that was no longer one leaf, but two. Still crying, she took my hand and followed me inside, and I let her get undressed and ready to eat, while I went around to the other Grade 1 classes to make sure that everyone was settled. I kept thinking to myself, how was I going to solve this problem?

It was then that I entered her Grade 1 classroom, and I noticed her quietly eating her lunch. She seemed okay. She wasn’t crying anymore, and she even seemed to be talking a bit to her friends. I decided not to say anything.

Fast forward a couple of hours, and the day was coming to an end. As I was helping my final students do up their zippers and line up for home, I received a tug on my jacket. There was the little girl from lunch. She was holding the two halves of her leaf. Oh no! The tears were going to start again. They didn’t though. Instead, she gave me one of the two halves and asked if I would find a special place for it outside. “Miss Dunsiger, now it can go back to nature!” How wonderful is that?! I took that leaf, and I honoured her request.

I also thought on my drive home about what happened today. How often do we solve problems for students? How can we give students “time” to come to solutions on their own? If I didn’t have double duty today, and I wasn’t trying to get other Grade 1 students settled, I probably would have solved this problem for this student. I would have tried taping the leaf together or going outside in search of another leaf. These solutions may have worked, but they wouldn’t have been her solutions, they would have been mine. Today this student learned how to overcome tears, problem solve, and see things from a different perspective. And I learned that adults don’t have to solve all problems, and tears don’t necessarily mean an increased need for adult support. It’s amazing how much learning came out of the perfect brown leaf.


Maybe There Is Value In “Good Job!”

About an hour ago, I finished and published today’s Daily Shoot Blog Post. Then I went to have dinner. It was when I got back to my computer after dinner that I saw this tweet from Jonathan So. 2014-12-08_19-23-32I have to admit, this tweet made me really happy. Why? Jonathan is one of the amazing math thinkers and educators that I aspire to be. Often in education, even with tools like Twitter, blogs, and in-school sharing, we tend to teach in a bubble. We do our work in our classroom each day, and we may share our learning with others, but do we really know how others feel? How do we know that we’ve done a “good job?”

  • We can see our student work and hear our student thinking, but even in these cases, I wonder: should they be doing more? Should they be thinking differently?
  • We can look for improvements over time, but even when we see these improvements, are they enough? Are there things that we could do to push learning forward even more?
  • Even when students seem engaged, good conversations are happening, and we feel success, I still think, what could make these conversations better? Are these discussions as good as I think they are, or should I be approaching this topic differently?

And so, even on my many great days in the classroom, I can’t help but have some self-doubt. This is where Jonathan’s 140 characters made such a difference. It was the reassurance from a colleague that I was doing something right. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that I can do better. This doesn’t mean that I won’t continue to rethink my questioning skills, increase my wait time, and avoid the need to repeat what students say. I will. But sometimes — even though we’re supposed to avoid the words “good job” — I think that adults and students alike need to hear these words. For me, when I feel good about myself, I want to tackle my many “next steps.” A few positive words always make me feel good. Whether online or at school, it can be scary to open up our classroom to others. It can be scary to ask for feedback. And it can be scary to hear what others really think. But I think it’s worth being brave, for as we hear this feedback, and make changes to our practices, we also hear words of encouragement that help validate what we’re doing in the classroom. What impact do positive words have on your teaching practices? Do you seek feedback from others? Why or why not? How do you use this feedback? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Aviva