Do We All Need “Little Listeners?”

Last year, I wrote some professional blog posts that questioned rules that we have at school (e.g., raising your hand and waiting your turn), and how we might reconsider these rules. My previous vice principal, Kristi, commented on one of these posts, and told me about the “Mr. Bucket” that she used in one of her old classrooms, for students that didn’t get a chance to share all of their ideas aloud with the group. In our Grade 1 class, Mr. Bucket transformed into the Little Listeners: two garbage cans that students could write notes to or talk to if they still had more to share. 

Recently, these Little Listeners made their way into our Kindergarten class. They’re being used for a slightly different purpose though. Often students have thoughts to share or emotions to express, and more than anything, what they need is a “listener.” A special welcome to these Frozen Listeners that are willing to hear anything at any time, and are sure not to interrupt.


As I watched students write these Listeners notes or hold them up nice and close to share their problems, I thought to myself, how often do we all just need a good listener? 

I think of issues that happen in the classroom where adults are quick to intervene (e.g., two students arguing over a toy). Maybe letting these students share their thoughts with a Little Listener would give them the confidence and skill to share them even more with each other. I even think about myself. I make sense of much of my thinking through talking. I’ll admit that on my car ride home, I’ll often utter my thoughts aloud as I drive. This is how I reflect. This is often how I formulate ideas for blog posts. Maybe I need a Little Listener bucket too.

Yes, it can sometimes be a little comical to watch somebody pouring out their heart to a garbage can, but for this child, it’s more than a garbage can. Undivided attention has tremendous value, and sitting back and seeing an example of great listening — without interruption, without judgement, and without a plan for what needs to be said next — makes me think even more about my current “one word” focus and how I can become a better listener. I wonder how these Little Listeners could be used in different grades, and even in a home environment, to support students, adults, and the development of problem solving skills. What do you think?


Are We All Special Ed. Teachers?

This morning, I read this blog post by Royan Lee that really struck a chord with me.

I had every intention of commenting on Royan’s post, but the truth is, I need to do more than comment to share my thoughts and feelings on this topic. This post is my comment.

I know exactly what Royan’s talking about here. I’ve heard these remarks before. I have a friend that teaches a Primary Self-Contained Autism Class in our Board, and while I don’t think that I’ve ever said anything to her, I’ve likely had the same thoughts that Royan shared in his post. Hearing the thoughts shared as he did, makes me feel disappointed in myself for thinking this way. Because there’s more to consider here as well: we all teach students with special needs. 

This is my fifteenth year of teaching, and for almost all of those years, I’ve worked with an educational assistant in the classroom to support a variety of students with special needs.

  • Some students have physical limitations.
  • Some students have autism.
  • Some students have Down Syndrome.
  • Some students have behavioural needs.
  • Some students are non-verbal.

Their identification is a label. It’s a label that’s often needed to give these students the support that they need to succeed. I’m incredibly appreciative for all of the amazing educational assistants that I’ve worked with over the years that have helped support these students. Here’s something that I feel very strongly about though: even with the support of an educational assistant, it’s still my job to help program for all students — regardless of needs. It’s with this belief in mind and the choices I make in the classroom, that I’ve heard comments like this before …

  • I don’t know how you put up with all of the screaming.
  • What about the needs of the other students?
  • Does he/she really belong in here? What about a special class?
  • What about the school rules? Is it fair that there are different rules for different people?
  • Why does this child get to do whatever he/she wants?

Here are my thoughts on these comments. Some of them I’ve expressed before, and some of them, I wish that I did. Now, thanks to Royan, I will.

  • The screaming is how he/she communicates. The screaming will stop. I just need to take a deep breath, be patient, talk less, and use the visuals more. It will work, and in time, the screaming might not even happen anymore (or at least happen less frequently).
  • I meet the needs of all students. Many strategies that work for our neediest students also benefit other students. When we look at how to create predictable routines, chunk information, talk less, and provide more hands-on learning, all students succeed.
  • Special classes are wonderful for some students, but just because a child has special needs, doesn’t necessarily mean that he/she belongs in a special class. When students learn how to work with others with a variety of needs, they also learn patience, problem solving, compassion, and respect. These are important life lessons. 
  • I think that even our youngest learners can understand what equity means. I’ve taught JK/SK students before that I give everyone what he/she needs to do his/her best. Some students might get something that others don’t, and that’s okay. That’s what they need. Sometimes rules need to be flexible for some students because that’s what those students need to succeed.
  • No child is without expectations, but expectations might look different for different students. Yes, we have a curriculum, and I believe strongly in the value of curriculum expectations. But, I teach children first. I need to look at what my children need, and sometimes, other expectations need to trump academic ones (e.g., learning self-help skills). If we look closely at how we teach these skills and how we interact with students, I bet even the non-academic activities will actually meet academic expectations (e.g., sorting laundry for the wash may meet math expectations connected to data management).

Looking back at what I shared here, I think, to some extent, we are all Special Ed. teachers. In some way, we all teach students with special needs. Our students (and their parents) need to know that regardless of children’s needs that we believe in them, that we’ll program for them, and that we’re determined to see them succeed (and support them in their success). Do we all feel confident and skilled enough to teach in a self-contained class? Maybe not. And maybe that’s okay. But if we tell Special Ed. teachers that they’re saints, what are we saying about our own ability and/or devotion to teach students with special needs? What value are we giving to a label, and how is this impacting on our view of the child? I’m lucky to teach all students in my class, many of whom have different needs, and it’s the challenge to meet some of these needs that make me feel most successful of all. What about you?


Seeking Advice For How To Avoid “Full Stops”

Yesterday was the start of a wonderful new adventure as I became a JK/SK teacher with a new partner. September showed us the value in having large blocks of time for students to play and explore, with small group instruction to target individual needs. Our routine yesterday allowed for this, and it was great to see the students interacting with each other, beginning to problem solve together, and forming new connections with new friends.

One big thing that we would still like to reconsider is break time. Just as students are truly immersed in play/learning, we have to stop for a nutrition break. I know that others have handled this same issue with some kind of variation of the solution listed below.

  • Many classes have self-regulated snacks and lunches. For these breaks, there’s a table where students can eat throughout the day. They remain accountable for eating by checking into this table at least once a day. Then they can eat when they’re hungry, and the learning can continue smoothly over the nutrition breaks, usually largely thanks to the supervision and facilitation by the Early Childhood Educator.

I love this idea! Yesterday, we used our Snack Program snacks for a Snack Table where students chose to come throughout the day. Chatting with each other also provided good opportunities, in small groups, to practice social skills and develop oral language skills. The problem is that our supervision and prep time schedules do not allow for self-regulated breaks, in lieu of nutrition breaks, to work consistently.

Without these breaks, students need to clean-up before every nutrition break, so that there are spots at the tables for them to eat. This means more transitions and breaks in learning time. It also means that students need to start playing/learning again after every break, and we wonder if this will impact on getting to that richer, deeper learning that happens over time. How might we avoid classroom clean-ups before every nutrition break (if we can’t use the self-regulated option)? How have educators in various grades handled this same problem? What are the benefits and/or drawbacks for students? We’d welcome any insights and ideas that you can share.



The “Little Things”

This evening, I had this short Twitter conversation with a fellow educator, Kristi.

2015-09-30_21-45-11When I read Kristi’s reply to my initial tweet, I couldn’t help but nod along. We’re in the midst of reorganization, and as classrooms change and students get ready to move, I sit back and realize that it has been an exhausting week. I wonder though, have I taken the time to just slow down and enjoy the “little things”: those small, wonderful classroom moments?

  • Sharing a snack with a student.
  • Listening to a funny story and enjoying a good laugh.
  • Cutting, painting, gluing, creating, and getting completely immersed in some messy problem solving.
  • Putting on a puppet show. 
  • Building a tower together. Watching it fall, and trying again.
  • Enjoying a good book together. 
  • Dancing, singing, and being just a little bit silly. 
  • Playing a game of hopscotch. 
  • Running, jumping, skipping … moving in all kinds of different ways.

Kristi’s tweet, whether intentional or not, was a good reminder for me to slow down and truly enjoy these little, wonderful things. I wonder how doing so may allow us to connect even more with students, and what the impact of that may be. What do you think? How do you find the time to enjoy your list of “little things?” 


More Than Ever … Or Maybe Always

This morning, I read a blog post by Doug Peterson, that inspired the following comment.

Shortly after publishing my comment, Doug sent me this tweet.

2015-09-27_13-26-34I like a challenge, and so I started writing.

To me, it’s the second paragraph in my comment that really requires more explanation.

2015-09-27_13-27-59Since Doug’s original post looked at the role of the educator in the use of technology in the classroom, I will keep the focus here on “technology.” (I wonder though if similar comments could be made for “change” in general.)

I first think back to my Grade 6 teaching experience at Ancaster Meadow. When I was teaching Grade 6, I worked alongside a fabulous teacher, Gina Bucciacchio. We did a lot of planning as a grade team, and our planning discussions often included the role that technology would play in learning. We talked about how to introduce different apps within the context of our specific learning goals, what app choices might be most beneficial for which projects, and how various apps worked or didn’t work in the teaching and/or application of various skills (and how we would change things in the future). Having the opportunity to share ideas with each other, allowed both of us to make positive changes in the classroom, and I think, ultimately benefitted our students. While either one of us could have reflected on our own, working together, allowed for a greater impact on more students and insight into practices that we may have missed if working alone.

I see the same thing happening in classrooms at my current school. I have to thank both Stefania Sackfie and Nina Wallace for letting me share their experiences here. These two Grade 4 teachers, looked closely at the needs of their students, the technology available to them (i.e., one-to-one iPads), and their use of space, and re-created their classroom spaces to maximize student learning. They looked at how to make the Maker Movement a regular part of their classroom practices, and how to integrate subject areas to lead to deeper thinking and learning. It’s awesome to see both low-tech and high-tech tools used in their classrooms, and used differently by different students based on interests, strengths, and needs. The teachers are definitely not invisible in these rooms, but instead, taking on different roles, as facilitators, questioners, observers, and small group and/or individual student supporters. Speaking last week with Stef, I realized that both Nina and her have looked ahead to the other grades, and how learning happens in them, and are providing some of this prior knowledge and skill set to lead to even greater student success. By working together, Stef and Nina can reflect on what works, what doesn’t, and what to try next … and this is exactly what they’re doing. They’re not limited by their own ideas, but what they can do together.

Administrators are also an important part of these teams. I’ve been fortunate to work with many amazing administrators over my teaching career. At the school level, these principals and vice principals can model technology use, as they tweet and blog to network, share, and reflect. One of my previous vice principals, Kristi, has inspired countless numbers of my blog posts by what she shares both through Twitter and her blog. When I was at Ancaster Meadow, my Grade 5’s used to tweet her photographs and videos of their work, and her questions would inspire deeper thinking and new directions. With technology, we never have to be alone in the classroom. Even when Kristi was elsewhere in the building or out of the school for a day, she could still be “in” our classroom thanks to the use of a device. She often sees things differently than me, and the students benefitted from hearing hearing her feedback as well as my own. My current principal, Gerry, also uses technology for educational purposes. I love how he regularly retweets and/or captures and shares the learning that’s happening in different classrooms. Seeing ideas that we can’t see when working in our own rooms, often inspires new ideas or reflections on old ones.

These technology connections don’t stop at the school level. I think about the senior administrators in our Board. I first “met” my previous superintendent, Sue Dunlop, through Twitter. Just like with Kristi, Sue’s tweets and blog posts often result in new learning for me. I love how she takes the time to connect online as well as in person. A couple of weeks ago, I sent out this tweet.


Shortly afterwards, Sue replied with this question.


Our back-and-forth conversation helped me make more sense of the problem and what to do. Technology connects us as learners, and ultimately, the new learning that we do impacts on our classroom practices. The tweet that I shared is a good example of a question that I have and have discussed with other teachers, but sometimes, it takes somebody with a different background, an outside view, and/or different experiences to give that necessary, new perspective.

Parents also play an important role on these teams. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to have many parents that comment on blog posts, tweet replies to questions and/or student sharing, or email me new ideas or resources. Many students will record videos and/or take photographs of their work because they want this information shared with their families through Twitter or our class blog. I can’t help but think back to a conversation at a staff meeting a couple of years ago. My principal at the time, Paul, was talking about various views on homework. He mentioned that many parents like homework, not necessarily because of the work itself, but because it gives them insight into the classroom and opportunities to connect with their children (paraphrased here). Paul’s comment has stuck with me over the years. If children use technology in isolation, there isn’t a chance for this connection with their parents, but if they work together at home to create something new, receive feedback from parents on their projects, or show and discuss what they’ve done at school, then we have true parent engagement. Technology provides a chance to parents and students to work and learn as a team, in a face-to-face and online situation, because of the easy sharing that can happen anywhere, at any time.

Yes, as adults and as students, we can learn a lot, on our own, from the technology available to us in the classroom. I think that we learn more though when we use these tools as “teams,” when we’re open to reflecting together, and when we make changes and/or implement new ideas, together, based on these reflections. I can’t help but think about the last paragraph in Doug’s post.

2015-09-27_14-53-14I guess that my questions would be, do we ever want technology to be more than a “guest?” If we use these tools without the various human connections, what’s lost in the learning? Technology gives us information. It lets us publish and reflect on our work. But when we use technology as co-learners, to make positive changes to practices, and to merge online and offline interactions, I think that our learning becomes deeper, richer, and more beneficial for kids. What do you think?


Is It Time To Take Them Back Out?

Every Friday, retired educator and prolific blogger, Doug Peterson, publishes a “This Week In Ontario Edublogs” blog post, where he comments on some of the posts that he’s read throughout the week. I love reading and reflecting on Doug’s thinking, and he often inspires me to think differently. This week, Doug’s post included a comment about one of my weekly blog posts.

On Friday morning at 5:05, Doug’s insights caused me to stop and do some reflecting. Here’s my problem: I’m a huge advocate of play-based learning. I have seen and truly believe that students learn best when they’re passionate about the topics, immersed in them, provided with meaningful experiences to question and extend their learning, given large blocks of time to touch, feel, explore, talk, and listen, and receive direct instruction in small groups, linked with their topics of interest.

I think of the example that Doug gave in his post about how he’d likely be tempted to “spend all day at the Lego centre.” Is this a problem? With a few prompts, the careful placement of pictures, texts, writing materials, and small toy action figures or dolls, Doug’s Lego interest could easily connect to the Full-Day Early Learning Kindergarten Program expectations from Language, Math, Science, Visual Arts, Drama, Health and Physical Activity (i.e., fine motor skills), and Personal and Social Development. Doug may not initially touch on all of these curriculum expectations, but with adult involvement, connections with peers, good questions, and various invitations to extend learning or consider other options, I feel confident that his thinking, social, and academic skills would develop through play. Might I call him to join me for a guided group or some small group direct instruction? Yes. But if Doug was a reluctant learner, and I invited him to bring his Lego creations to the table as a starting point for our small group instruction, I bet he’d come. I also bet that he’d be intrigued enough to get involved, stay focused, and learn something new during this short, purposeful instructional time.

Doug may not learn to sit on a carpet. He may not receive his lesson with the rest of the class, but neither would the other students. Do they need to? Are they all at the same level and at the same instructional point of entry? If not, what skills are really met by all being instructed together? Doug, like others, would learn to be engaged, motivated, and academically and socially “pushed,” but based on his own interests and needs. I think that matters. I think that “play,” and all of the learning that can be connected to it, has tremendous value in all classrooms, but if that’s the case, where does technology align with this play?

This is where I’m struggling. If I think it’s okay for Doug to be immersed in that Lego play — at least until something else intrigues him then is it okay for others to be immersed in a Lego app? Could I connect low-tech tools with these high-tech ones to get more from the students that might want to play these iPad games? Maybe so. I wonder though if the same thinking and problem solving skills would happen with these high-tech tools. It’s easy to build a structure on an iPad when none of the blocks fall over, but it’s much more challenging to do so with real materials, on surfaces that aren’t always flat, and surrounded by students that might also impact on the structural stability. Problem solving in these cases, allow for richer discussions and deeper thinking. In my opinion, it’s as students think and apply their learning, that facts become meaningful and skills really develop. This is what I want! 

The iPads though may have a different classroom value: capturing learningI’ve seen that even my youngest students love taking photographs and recording videos. An educator that I really respect and admire (I haven’t asked for permission to include this person’s name here, so I won’t), suggested using iPods or iPads to get students to take these photographs throughout the day. We can then see the evolution of thinking and learning through their eyes, and we can use these images as starting points for small group discussions and/or explorations. For the time being, I’m looking at removing all apps from the iPads, except for the camera, PicCollage, Explain Everything, and MyStory. The iPads won’t be used for play, but they could be used to create the “play story,” that captures the learning that happens during play. I think, given time, this could work. What do you think? Do we need to take breaks from play-based learning, or can learning just extend from play? How might iPads (or other technology) support this extension? I’d love to hear what others think and do!


A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words … Or At Least The 10 Repeated Regularly

I’ve been thinking a lot about visuals lately. Even with short gathering times, we can easily give a lot of instructions to students. Sometimes we repeat these instructions constantly.

Put your lunch bag on the hook.

Push in your chair.

Quiet voices.

Hands to yourself.

Remember to pick up your garbage.

If I really think carefully about my day, I’m sure that there are many more phrases that I say often. Why keep repeating myself?

I can’t help but think about Ross Greene‘s saying that, “Children do well if they can.” With this belief, then wouldn’t students choose to follow the oral directions and/or regular routines if they could do so? Maybe not all students can remember the steps or hear and understand the oral instructions. If we think about it, even adults use pseudo-visuals as they create To Do Lists and complete agendas or daybooks. Visuals work.

That being said, I know that I’ve wondered before how I’m going to transition individual students with visuals or remember to refer to the visuals instead of talking so much. I wonder if using more visuals with the class — for even just some routine reminders — could be the answer. I’m not suggesting that we micromanage every behaviour, but instead, reduce stress, limit talking, and increase predictability with some simple picture and/or written word cues. I wonder how many other strategies that help some students, might actually benefit all. How might this thinking impact on our use of these strategies in the classroom? What do you think? 


The Day That I Hid The iPads

On Friday, I did something that I never thought I’d do. I took all of our class iPads and I hid them in the cupboard. Why? Because the second that the Kindergarten students see those iPads, they want to play on them. They don’t want them to engage in educational activities, to document learning through photographs and videos, or to record their thinking, they want to race Lego cars and quickly add noisy stamps to a DoodleBuddy page. As much as I love technology, I’m questioning the use of it in these cases.

I’ve tried different things since the school year started. At first, I chose some apps to support learning, and I locked the students in the apps. I used them as part of a guided group with some follow-up for independent practice, but as I watched the students listen to sounds and connect them with pictures, I wondered if there wasn’t a better way to develop vocabulary. Were these words meaningful to these students? Would they really help the students with an understanding of initial sounds? Why not develop these skills through play? 

That’s when I took a different approach. One of my students is eagerly starting to write more, and he was very proud of a castle that he built out of blocks. He wanted to write about it, and he loves using the iPad. I showed him how to use the MyStory App, and he created this one page story on his own.


He never recorded an audio component to his story, but I’m sure that he could go back and do so, and maybe even tell more about his castle. Maybe he could even make up a story about the people who live in the castle, and expand on his ideas both orally and in writing. My Story could definitely be a valuable app in the classroom, but for my students that keep looking for games, will they be interested in an app like this one?

The truth is, I don’t want to spend all of my time policing the apps that the students use, and trying to explain to them again and again, why iPads are not just for games. Play is learning, and students can think and problem solve as they create with Lego (making various structures for different purposes), race cars on the floor (and maybe even measure and create a road for the cars), and experiment with sounds (both found sounds and musical instruments), but what is the benefit of them doing these activities on the iPad? In fact, I think that in these cases, technology limits the options and materials, where Lego, blocks, paper, loose parts, and musical instruments, provide many more options. Sometimes technology can be a quieter choice, and I’ll admit that I do like the calmness that comes with quiet, but should the amount of noise determine the tool choice? Is quieter necessarily better? These are the questions that I asked myself before I put away the iPads, and my answers determined my decision to do so.

Will the iPads stay away forever? No. And a couple may even make their way out soon for documentation and creation purposes … even if only to use with a few students. Overall though, I think that our four- and five-year-olds need to look beyond the screen and experiment with, create with, and touch real objects. They need the social interaction and problem solving skills that comes from face-to-face play. As inquiries begin, projects evolve, and skills develop, the iPad will have its place, but technology is not always the best option, and sometimes a little louder may be a little richer and a little betterWhat do you think? 


A Few Kind Words

Last September, I started teaching at a new school. It was a wonderful move for me, and while I still miss Ancaster Meadow, I do love Dr. Davey. A couple of times this week though, I’ve realized something very special about this school.

While I’ve made some friends at Dr. Davey, I’ve basically just formed nice working relationships with my colleagues. I was then surprised when twice this week, staff members went out of their way to drop by to chat before school and at the end of the day. In both cases, somehow these colleagues knew what I was thinking/feeling, and they were there to share words of encouragement and offers to help. These conversations made me think about my previous interactions with colleagues. I know that I may have acted in a similar way for a good friend, but would I have supported all staff members as these individuals supported me?

I wonder about the impact on a school if all of us found ways to genuinely “build up” all of our colleagues. I know that the words that these people shared with me, slowly helped change my perspective, gave me another reason to try again, and made me believe a little bit more in myself. If we want to bring about change in a school, don’t we all need that feeling that we can do it, that we’re part of a team, and that we matter? I think we do. What do you think?


“I’m being a dot!”

Today was International Dot Day, and our students were very excited to listen to Peter Reynolds‘ story, The Dot, and make their mark in a way of their choice.

I share this information here because of how the day ended. Shortly before home time, all of the students gathered together to sing some songs and engage in some movement activities. We’re working on playing with words, and my partner, Mandie, developed a fun game to go with the song Willaby Wallaby WooAll of the students were sitting around in a circle playing the game and singing the song … except for one student. This child sat in the middle of the carpet and twirled around in a circle for the entire song. I’m actually surprised that she didn’t get dizzy.

When the song ended, Mandie asked her, “Why weren’t you sitting in the circle with the rest of your friends?” Her response was, “I’m being a dot. I’m making my mark.” Mandie and I couldn’t help but smile. In so many different ways, she was making her mark …

  • Showing us the value in creativity.
  • Reminding us that the same activity may not work for everyone.
  • Reminding us of the importance of asking, “why,” before reacting to students.
  • Showing us that students need opportunities to make connections and develop their own meaning based on what they hear and see.

Maybe we all need to be a little like this student. Be brave. Be different. Make “our mark” in our own creative and personal ways. Dot Day is going to have a very special meaning to me from now on thanks to this four-year-old. How did your students make their mark today? How can we support and encourage the diverse ways that students and adults alike can make their marks?