What Does It Really Mean To Re-Imagine Teaching And Learning?

Yesterday, we had our first PA Day of the school year, and we spent our morning looking very closely at the new Board vision — “curiosity, creativity, and possibility” — and the five priorities it includes. Much of our time was spent in our P.L.C.s (Professional Learning Communities) exploring the first and second priority — “positive culture and well-being” and “student learning and achievement” — and what they mean for us in the classroom. Just this morning, Bill Forrester, an instructional coach with our Board, shared his blog post on his PA Day reflections, and his comments made me think again about areas that continued to grab my attention yesterday.

Todd White, the Chair of our Board, discusses the new vision in this recording below. It’s his comment at about the 1 minute and 46 second mark that I continue to think about.

Our Board is really emphasizing the importance of “positive culture and well-being,” both for staff and for students. As a Kindergarten teacher, I reflect on our team’s decision to really make the beginning of the year about “building relationships.” Students need to feel safe, loved, and respected in order to learn. Adults need to feel the same way. I’ve taught all grades from JK to Grade 6 in some regard, and I’ve heard this comment about “relationships” in every single grade. But then I think back and wonder, until last year, did I ever really spend the time on creating this “positive classroom culture,” or did I just quickly move to academics?

As we sat in our Learning Community teams yesterday and discussed this first Board priority, I couldn’t help but realize how many of our student concerns link back to academic areas. Children’s “mental health” and “feeling of success” seem to be currently tied to how well they do in reading, writing, or math. Looking back now at the detailed description of this first priority, I can’t help but wonder if as educators we feel the same way. Back in Bill’s post, I see his description of the “what,” and the number of ideas that link with “student achievement.” What would the ‘what’ be for “positive culture and well-being?” Does it differ from “student achievement,” or do these ideas need to be linked?

This morning, I find myself sitting in front of my computer and re-reading this blog post that I wrote early in the summer, where I start to question my own success from last year. I knew that our students improved tremendously in social skills, problem solving skills, and self-regulation, but many students were still below in academic areas. If my results were flipped, would I question my success as a teacher, or celebrate the strong reading, writing, and math scores? While it bothers me to say so, I have a feeling that I would do the latter. But in the long run, if the results were flipped, would the children continue to succeed, or do they need these other skills in order to do so?

I’m an educator. In my 16 years of teaching, I’ve helped hundreds of students learn to read, write, and understand different math concepts. I’m not their sole teacher here. Parents support this learning. Other educators support this learning. Peers support this learning. And a variety of resources, used at different strategic times, have also helped with this learning. I know that students need these academic skills to meet with success in the future, and I also know the importance of developing these skills early. As the gap widens, the ability to narrow it becomes more difficult. But I also know that most students won’t take risks unless they feel safe enough to do so, and know that they’re surrounded by people that believe in them, support them, and will continue to encourage them as they try, fail, and try again. I also know that a classroom is not conducive to learning unless it’s calm enough for students to learn in it. If individuals don’t know how to self-regulate, they will ultimately struggle with learning. Finally, I know that basic needs have to be met first (I think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs here) before academics can be addressed. So how do you create an environment that is conducive to learning with students that are ready to learn? Do you merge these first two priorities (i.e., “positive culture and well-being” and “student learning and achievement”), do you keep them separate, or do you do something different entirely? When schooling almost seems to be synonymous with “academics,” I wonder about some possible changes that might have to happen when the first Board priority is not an academic one. What do you think?


Learning To Live Ishfully!

For the past couple of years, I’ve determined a #oneword goal — with many other educators from around the world — to help focus my teaching and learning practices. While the thought behind the #oneword is that we update it every new year (i.e., the beginning of January), technically September is a new year of teaching for us, so forever being the rule breaker, I’ve decided to re-look at my word now. My word for this year was “hearing,” and back in July, I reflected more on this word. While “hearing” is still an important focus of mine, this new one word encapsulates that and just a little bit more. For this school year, my new word is “ishfully!”

To truly understand the word, you need to read Peter Reynolds‘ book, Ish

This is one of our favourite stories, and the word has truly become our word of the classroom. Even when my teaching partner and I sat down to determine our Flow of the Day, we included many an “ish.”

  • We say “goodbye” at the gate at 9:05ish.
  • We come in from outside at 9:40ish.
  • We tidy-up before our morning meeting at 11:30ish.
  • We get ready for our end-of-the-day routine — including another outdoor learning time — at 2:30ish.
  • We dismiss for home beginning at 3:15ish.

You get the idea. And trust me, this “ish” is on every single one of our daybook pages. Why?

It’s not because we’re laissez-faire or don’t see the value in a plan. It’s because, if we’re truly listening to both kids and each other, then maybe we need the “ish.”

  • We might want every child to say “goodbye” at the fence and move to the playground to play by 9:05, but maybe one child is really struggling with separating. Maybe one child needs another hug, a visit to a sibling’s class to say “hello,” or some additional quiet time with an adult to feel better.
  • We might want to come in at 9:40, but maybe some children are having difficult “goodbyes,” and that extra time outside to breathe, to move around, to socialize with friends, and to calm down is what they need to truly be happy in class.
  • We may plan on tidying up at 11:30, but maybe on some days, the children are so productively involved in play that they need some extra time to extend it. Maybe on other days, the children are struggling, and they need some additional time outside, a movement break, or even a quiet Brain Break to help refocus. And maybe, some children need one option and some need another one, and the two of us (and/or our prep coverage teachers) need to work together, embrace the “ish,” and support all children where they’re at. I’m so fortunate to work with such flexible and understanding colleagues (no “ish” needed here 🙂 )!
  • We might plan on being outside for dismissal at 3:15, but maybe on some days, the children are taking longer to clean up. Maybe on some days, something so exciting happens that we have to take the extra time and be a little bit late because some moments have to be embraced. 

I’m a planner. I like routine, and I function well on a schedule. There are many benefits to this, as routines do help people feel “calm.” But as I continue to spend my days with three-, four-, and five-year-olds, and learn from both them and my partner in the process, I begin to realize that living a little more “ishfully” makes all of us much happier. So for this year, I’m determined to embrace the “ish,” enjoy every special moment in the classroom, and not worry so much about the time it may take to do so. What impact would (or does) living “ishfully” have on your life? 

For now-ish 🙂 ,


Proud To Push Back

Unlike Seth Godin, I am definitely not “the wizard of the short blog post” (thanks Doug Peterson for that wonderful wording), but I am someone who likes a challenge. I also consider an educator a “professional,” and I would like to add educator to the list that Seth’s created here. Doug blogged in response to Seth’s post this morning, and mentioned some of the professionals that have pushed back. Here’s what I’ve done.

  • As an educator, I’ve pushed back by blogging about my thinking and practices that may sometimes be contrary to the norm, but that I truly believe are best for kids.
  • As an educator, I’ve pushed back by openly sharing my thinking (even when difficult to do so), in order to explore other options that may work better for students, for parents, and for educators.
  • As an educator, I’ve pushed back by asking questions, by sharing wonders, and by engaging in “uncomfortable conversations” because I really think that this is how change happens and how we get better at what we do.
  • As an educator, I’ve pushed back by not using certain programs or not using them in their entirety, as I wonder if there might be richer, more meaningful, learning options for kids.

Sometimes I push back loudly: making my intentions known, but also listening to feedback, contemplating other ideas, and continuing to revamp my approach. Sometimes I push back quietly: often working alone or as part of a small group, trying out options, reflecting, and trying again. Eventually I will share, but sometimes not until I’ve collected data and can show the success of this push back. I’m a proud “educational troublemaker,” and I know that I’m not alone in being one. If pushing back means helping children more, I’m happy to push back. What about you? Educators, administrators, and parents, how do you “push back?”


What does “play” mean to you?

We have a finalized Kindergarten Program Document that I absolutely love. I have already blogged about many of the highlights in this new document, including the value of play-based learning and an inquiry mindset for children and adults. To support this, the document emphasizes that literacy and math should not be taught in blocks of time, but integrated in meaningful ways throughout the day. I embrace this approach, and was even vocal about it last year when we were still using the Draft Kindergarten Program DocumentAll of this being said though, I’ve come to realize that sometimes what seems simple in theory is far more complex in practice.

My teaching partner and I have talked a lot about literacy instruction (in particular) over the past couple of weeks. Since the school year began, we’ve made some significant changes to our classroom program. These changes initially stemmed from some Kindergarten team reflections. There are two Kindergarten classes at our school, and both classes have 32 students in them. The classrooms are attached, and due to the location of the cubbies, there’s only a partial wall between both classrooms. With two full classes, this means that there can be a lot of noise. We realized that the noise was a stressor for many students. To reduce this stress, we decided to make more use of our outdoor classroom, split both classes in half (as much as possible), and support smaller groups of students instead of always supporting larger ones. 

We’ve definitely noticed the value in these changes. Both the indoor and outdoor classroom environments are a lot calmer. With smaller groups, there are also more opportunities to model play and problem solving, which helps all children when interacting in the larger groups. Even when all 64 students are between the two classrooms, the noise is less, and the play is far more productive. Clean-up time can still be a challenge, but there’s definitely been a lot of growth in less than a week!

While this part is wonderful, my teaching partner and I continue to contemplate how we can use our small group time in the classroom. Play is definitely how the majority of this time is used, but should it be all the time? This is where we’re struggling. Right now, when I bring in the first group of students, we spend about five minutes, looking at, reading, and discussing books. Yes, I do ask every child to get a book. 

  • Students can sit anywhere.
  • They can look at a book alone or with friends.
  • They can spend the whole time looking at one book, or select multiple books to explore.

I should say that all of our students know how to open a book, track text (even if they’re making up a story to go along with it), and tell stories based on illustrations. They love books, and taking a few minutes to explore one after running around and playing outside, seems to calm them down. I’ve noticed that many students go back to looking at books during the day and/or refer to the books around the room as they play. I wonder if a little time exploring a book in the morning, helps with this.

After this reading time, we connect together on the carpet for a quick morning meeting. This meeting time is 5-10 minutes, maximum. It’s the instruction that happens at this meeting that has my teaching partner and I wondering if there’s a better option. At this point, I’ve used this time for a reading or writing mini-lesson. 

  • This IS NOT about a letter or sound of the day program.
  • This IS NOT about reviewing sight words.
  • This IS about showing how writing allows us to communicate with others, and how we can write in many different ways: from pictures to conventional spelling.
  • This IS about trying to create more confident readers and writers that are willing to share their thinking and ideas, even if they’re not perfect.
  • This IS about highlighting a few decoding strategies (not naming them, but showing how they’re used), with the hope that more students will start to use them as well.

I don’t have a mandatory follow-up activity, and I don’t have reading, writing, or math centres set-up around the room. I do encourage students to apply what they’ve learned as they play, and then I circulate, observe, and look for opportunities to encourage and/or support this reading and writing during play. 

My intention is not to forget about the other frames, and I definitely observe learning that happens beyond reading, writing, and math, but I wonder if I capture enough of this other learning. Does this kind of morning mini-lesson run contrary to the play-based learning approach? I keep thinking about the fourth point in Kristi Keery-Bishop’s recent blog post: “We need the check ins and instruction.”  While her post was not about Kindergarten, it does speak to the fact that we need to support students to move them forward. From the data we’ve collected these past few days (i.e., work samples and group contributions), can we better support this learning through play instead of through a group mini-lesson? What if we used this meeting time to provoke thinking around a topic of interest, and see where children go next?

We’ve already seen an interest develop, and maybe digging deeper into this topic, developing vocabulary, asking and answering questions, and observing how children share their knowledge with us, will also give us opportunities to read, write, and develop math skills in a meaningful context. Tomorrow morning, I will still bring in a group of children. We will still spend a few minutes looking at books, but after that, we’re going to look back at some photographs and videos on the blog, discuss an evolving interest connected to them, and see what happens next. My teaching partner and I feel better about this new plan, but we still have some nagging questions, and would love to hear about your experiences.

  • In a play-based learning environment, is it okay to have a “book time?” How do you decide?
  • How do you handle group instruction? 
  • How do you inspire children to extend learning beyond this instruction? Do you use provocations, leave them with a question, just wait and see what happens, or do something else entirely?
  • How do you support reading and writing during play? How do you determine the right time to do so? 

I know the value in oral language. I understand the need to develop social skills, problem solving skills, and self-regulation … usually before academics. But when we have a group of learners that are ready — and even eager — to read and write, we want to capitalize on this interest. Every book that I’ve read on inquiry, also speaks about the value of direct instruction. I think this would also hold true for our youngest learners, but what does this balance look like in a play-based, Kindergarten environment? Let’s extend this important discussion.


How Can We Replicate These Happy Recesses?

This year, I started teaching at my seventh school. I always find it interesting to do my first duty in a new environment, as it’s intriguing to watch how children interact with each other, how they interact with you, and what problems may occur. I’ve now finished four duties at my new school — two inside and two outside — and I’m amazed by what I’ve observedThere are very few, if any, problems, and those that do occur, are small ones.

I started to wonder why this might be the case. I think that there could be many factors.

  • The size of the school. I now teach at a very small school with as many staff members in the entire school as there were last year in just the Kindergarten team. Fewer students sometimes equate to fewer problems.
  • The socioeconomic background of the families. For the past couple of years, I taught at a school with a very high poverty rateWhen students may be coming to school without breakfast in the morning, the ability to stay calm and resolve day-to-day recess problems can be a lot more challenging. 
  • The strong belief held by all staff members that children are “competent and capable.” This actually makes me think of the new Kindergarten document. It really is quite amazing to see this belief in action. All staff members trust the students, and allow them to be independent, whether during recess or class time. Even Kindergarten students feel confident going into the primary bathrooms (if need be), walking down to the office, or finding different rooms (e.g., the music room). The size of the school definitely helps with this, as all of the rooms are on one floor, and the entire school is a circle. That said, when children have this sense of responsibility and feel this trust, I wonder if it transfers down to everything that they do, including their interactions on the playground.
  • The positive way that all of the adults in the building interact with children. I never hear any raised voices. Everyone in the building is calm, and I think that this “calmness” transfers to the students. This doesn’t mean that problems don’t occur, but I think that the children truly feel as though everyone cares about them, and this mutual respect makes a huge difference. As I think back to Susan Hopkinsblog post on Self-Reg Havens, I can’t help but wonder if I’ve just stepped into one.
  • Space. Even though the inside of the school is small, the outside is quite large. Kindergarten students do not use this playground during the nutrition breaks, and there are two big, separate areas for primary (Grades 1-3) and junior (Grades 4-6) students. With a massive play structure (probably the biggest one I’ve seen at any of the schools that I’ve taught at before), grass to run on, benches to sit and talk on, and a basketball court to use, there are tons of loud and quiet places to meet the varied needs of students. When children have room to move and multiple areas to meet their diverse needs, fewer problems seem to occur.

I know that there are some points on this list that are out of our control.

  • Some schools are big and some are small.
  • Some schools are in areas with high poverty rates, and some are not.
  • Some schools have more outdoor equipment options and playground space, and some don’t.

Even with these differences though, I can’t help but wonder, what is in our control to change? Would more positive recess experiences lead to more positive classroom experiences? It definitely makes my heart happy to see children smiling, having fun, and interacting with each other in wonderful ways both inside and outside of the school doors. This is definitely a feeling that’s worth replicating!