A Little Something We Can All Learn From Mrs. Raymond!

We all know that relationships matter. We may even talk regularly about the benefits of these strong connections between educators, parents, and students. But sometimes it’s really seeing the value of these strong relationships that make us realize just how important they are!

Yesterday was the last day for one member of our school’s Kindergarten team. Starting today, Janet is taking on the new-to-her position of a Reading Specialist in our Board. This is my second year of working beside Janet. I knew of her, and then had the pleasure of meeting her, a few years before I started teaching Kindergarten at Rousseau School. I was involved in the N.T.I.P. Program for our Board, and was mentoring an educator that wanted to see a Kindergarten classroom in action. Many colleagues recommended that we go and see Janet’s room, and so we did. I wasn’t disappointed! There were many things that stuck out for me on that visit, but one thing that I remember even years later, are all of the things that Janet did to connect with kids. From her gentle tone to sitting down and creating with a group of students, Janet was always about the kids first. She still is! There is not one child in the school that has not been impacted by Mrs. Raymond! In fact, I don’t think that there’s one educator that hasn’t either.

This point was highlighted for me yesterday. When Paula and I told the class that it was “Mrs. Raymond’s last day,” children were inspired to create things for her all day long. They made her cards, pictures, and notes of love and encouragement. These children are not in her class. Some of them just met Janet for the first time in September, and largely only see her during our outdoor learning time in the morning. But she’s made a difference for them! It was incredible to see how many kids gave Janet some of their very best work yesterday because they wanted her to know how much they cared. Even though Paula and I were already thinking about giving her our pink painting piece as a goodbye present (as she shared with us that it really was her favourite piece of artwork), it was the children that suggested giving her a painting. They wanted her to remember us with something special. Many children at this age are very me-focused, and this is true of numerous students in our class. This is developmentally appropriate, and we know this. But thanks to all that Janet has done for us, and for the school, even these me-focused kids made yesterday about her

So thank you, Mrs. Raymond, for reminding us about the importance of putting kids first. Thanks for always being there with a hug, a kind word, and some encouragement. You’ve made an impact on thousands of students, parents, and educators, including every single one of us in ELP 1What’s a little something that we could all learn from Janet? I’m very sad to see you go, but I’m thrilled that I got the opportunity to work with and learn from you. You’re going to continue to make a difference for kids and adults everywhere, and I wish you nothing but the best on your first day as a Reading Specialist!


What’s Not Pinterest-Worthy?

I always find it interesting to look at the Instagram #BestNine collages that people start sharing in December. What posts make it into the Best Nine, and what ones do not? Every year, I’m a little surprised by my collection. I don’t have a separate personal and professional Instagram account, and almost all of my posts showcase learning in the classroom. That said, my Best Nine rarely include these classroom posts, and for the ones that are included, they are almost always the ones that show the final product instead of the process of learning.

As educators, we speak often about the value in the process. It’s not always about what’s produced, but what children thought and learned along the way. I think that this is really important, as does my teaching partner, Paula. We actually spend the majority of our time discussing the process.

  • What have we observed?
  • What have we heard?
  • Where does the interest really lie?
  • If something is not working, why might that be? What could we try instead?
  • How can we better support growing interests?
  • What is each child’s next step? How can we facilitate this learning?
  • What materials might we include next? How will this change the learning?

Both of us are rarely concerned about the final product. At times, we’re hoping to produce something beautiful, such as these paintings that students created together for our June Art Auction.

That said, we were as committed to documenting the process of these creations, as we were to capturing the final products … maybe even more so.

I’m not a huge Pinterest user, but I do look at Instagram posts regularly for ideas. I like some inspiration. Paula and I both do this. When I just see the final products though, I wonder about the messy wonderfulness that helped get students to this point.

  • How did they start?
  • What problems did they have along the way?
  • How did they solve them?
  • What changes did the educator team make to the learning space during this project? What impact did these changes have on the final outcome?
  • What did the educator team learn from this experience? 
  • What changes might they make if they were to do something similar again?

A photograph or video of the final product rarely answers these questions or provides insight into the process. Thinking about my Best Nine though, and the likes and feedback that I get on my regular Instagram posts, I wonder if the final product may matter even more than we say. Do people want to see problems or do they want to see perfection? In the days of Pinterest, maybe there’s a bigger push for the beautiful photographs versus the messy process. Are there more people out there, like me, that wonder about what’s not shared? With all of the pretty pictures being posted, are many of us reluctant to share the less pretty ones? On this Snow/Rain/Ice Day, I can’t help but do a little thinking about what people share online and what they don’t. Have others also been wondering?


Imagine If The Year Started With, “You Are A Mathematician!”

There are many things that I love about our Kindergarten Program Document, but the way that math is embedded through play might be one of my favourites. It’s really about making math authentic. I think about the value of this as children continue to progress through the grades. As a Board, we’ve spent a lot of time looking and talking about Jo Boaler‘s work on Mathematical Mindsets. I can’t help but wonder if the key to changing children’s perceptions of themselves as mathematicians rests in noticing and naming the mathematical thinking that students engage in on a daily basis, while continuing to focus on the Process Expectations. This does not mean that we negate the value in computations and learning specific skills, but we also need to help children view themselves as mathematicians, so that they regularly think, problem solve, and approach life through a mathematical lens. 

I think of the math that happens daily in our Kindergarten classroom. For everything that we do, there’s a lot that we don’t do.

  • We don’t do math centres.
  • We don’t do a Problem of the Day.
  • We rarely use traditional math manipulatives, and even when we do, they’re rarely used in a traditional way. Just look at how the dominoes are used in this house. Mind you, there is still a lot of mathematical thinking in their design.
  • We don’t require the completion of specific activities for kids. 

This does not mean that we just wait for children to become interested in math, and then develop the skills. Nor do students just happen to stumble upon the math, and we wait (fingers crossed) for this to happen. We make a lot of deliberate choices around the materials we put out, the location of these materials, the questions we ask, and our morning meeting provocations, with the intention of developing math thinking and knowledge. Even the little finger plays we do each day are done with math in mind. Here is what we do to get children engaged in thinking mathematically and developing skills, all within the context of play, inquiry, and everyday experiences.

  • We spend a lot of time observing and listening to students. Most of our time is spent with kids. Recently, a teacher told me that I never sit down. I’m not sure about that. I think that my teaching partner, Paula, and I do sit frequently, but never on our own. We’re always with a group of children, or standing back, and listening carefully to what children are saying. It’s when we listen that we can often make the connection to math and can “name” this math for kids. Some might argue that this math talk interrupts the play, and at times, we both wonder if it does. But then we see how children take what we’ve named, and use this language and share this thinking in their play … without us being the push. This makes the observing and listening well worth it!

  • We make our outdoor learning time about way more than recess. When on duty at recess, it’s hard to do anything besides supervision, but with our outdoor learning time, a smaller group and a bigger space allow children to really settle into play. This gives us an opportunity to go around, observe, listen, and talk with kids. We do not structure this outdoor time. Students decide what they want to do and where they want to play (within boundaries of course), but even so, there is so much math that happens authentically outside. Measurement talk is often huge in this space, but sometimes, there are also discussions about geometry (particularly shapes) and number sense (often counting, addition, subtraction, and subitizing). Again, after naming what we’re observing, students begin to use this language on their own. 

  • We think carefully about our transitional times. We don’t transition a lot in our room. With a long outdoor time followed by a long block of play in the classroom, our biggest transition is around mid-day when we come inside and have our meeting time. (Since eating happens all day at an eating table, we don’t heed to the nutrition breaks, which also reduces the number of transitions.) Getting 27 Kindergarten children undressed and organized is a challenge in itself, especially with this never-ending winter, so usually Paula oversees this (she’s amazing), and I connect with the kids as they come into the room. We often use this time for some phonological awareness activities, but also, some math talk. When we noticed that our children really needed to develop their subitizing skills, we created this Google Presentation that shows examples of subitizing in real life. Discussing these examples provides a great opportunity to get children thinking about subitizing. We also play some simple games that have children considering subitizing. I like to use the finger play, “Open them, shut them, give a little clap. Open them, shut them, give a little tap. Open them, shut them, fold them in your lap.” Now I’ve changed the words, and give a specific number of fingers for children to clap or tap. For example, I might say, “Open them, shut them, give a two and three finger clap.” Initially, I focused on doubles, but one child suggested I try an uneven amount, so I changed to this. Children then tell me how many fingers they’re clapping or tapping. Simple, but effective! I also use fingers for children to show me different amounts. This only takes a few minutes, but it’s really worthwhile. Having children discuss how they determined the correct total also provides a great option for communicating math thinking.

  • We’re intentional about what we put out and where we place items. During the course of the day, just about everything in the classroom is moved around, but to start, Paula and I think very carefully about what we’re going to put out and what learning and conversations these materials might lead to. We had a Math Night a couple of months ago, and as a Kindergarten team, we decided to really showcase math through play. In this document, we highlight different areas of the room and how we connect math concepts to these areas. In our room, we try to make more authentic links to data management, and now students come up with all kinds of their own reasons to survey friends and interpret data. That said, this document still shares a lot of different examples of math in the classroom, as well as extension possibilities for home. This home/school connection is so important, as then parents can also provide these authentic math opportunities, and help children see themselves as mathematicians. 

As I think more about math in the early years, and really just math in general, I wonder if the traditional math manipulatives and tools make math learning any better. I had a conversation recently with various Kindergarten and Grade 1 teachers. They were surprised that I didn’t use ten frames. We may not use the traditional ones, but we explore the same concepts in different ways. Is a ten frame better than an ice cube tray with 10 spaces in it? What about a muffin tin with 10 cups? When our Kindergarten students first started in our class, many of them wondered when we were going to “do math.” Without a workbook, a blackline master, or a separate time for math learning, play didn’t seem like math. But now, with the amount of math talk that we do, more children realize that math can — and does — happen everywhere, even around the eating table.

And even better, children see themselves as thinkers and doers of mathtrue mathematicians. Isn’t this one of our goals as educators? I realize that embedding this authentic math through play can be harder as children move up in the grades, but then I see examples such as the many ones here what a Grade 6 teacher in our Board does — and I realize that it’s still possible. I wonder how many of these students view themselves as mathematicians. Does this change their mathematical mindset? Imagine if we all started the school year telling students that they are mathematicians, and helping them believe it. Would something like this make a difference to how students see themselves as mathematical learners? I know that I teach some of our youngest children, but maybe there’s something that we can all learn from the Kindergarten Program DocumentWhat do you think?


Blowing The Lid Off The “Awards” Can Of Worms One More Time!

I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a while now, hoping that as I continue to think about this topic, I can figure out a solution on my own. I can’t seem to though, so I’m wondering if my P.L.N. (Professional Learning Network) might have some insights to share. I’m about to blow the lid off this can of worms one more time: awards

I’ve had some mixed feelings on awards over the years. As much as I value and discuss the benefits of intrinsic motivation, being nominated for and winning an award of my own, makes me feel hypocritical for only speaking negatively about them. Did an award change me? I don’t think that it did. I work as hard now as I did back then, and I still have questions of …

  • are we doing enough?
  • how can we meet the needs of a child that’s not showing as much growth?
  • how can we make our program even better?
  • what do others think when they see our classroom? Do their opinions matter? Why? How can we use their insights to help us determine our next steps?

My teaching partner, Paula, and I reflect regularly, and we’re constantly tweaking our program to better meet the needs of kids. Award or not, we’ll still never see our program as perfect, and that’s okay. It’s this reflection that helps us continually improve.

Considering my thinking on awards then, I’ve been challenged to think differently about them over these past couple of years, as our school does Monthly Award Ceremonies. I’ll admit that I have some reservations about these awards, but there are two things that help me get through these assemblies.

  1. Every child wins an award before the end of the year. All students are recognized for their strengths, growth, and contributions to their class and school communities.
  2. The awards are personalized. We don’t have specific areas of focus. Each teacher can decide on the various reasons for children to win awards: from social growth to academic growth. Last year, there was even a group award, for children that demonstrated specific achievement as a larger group. 

As demonstrated in my Instagram post above, I was definitely feeling better about these awards. Then one night after school, I had a lovely conversation with a parent. This mom came to talk to me because her child came home upset. Her child thought that everyone in the class won “one award,” but she noticed that one child won two already. This child wondered if Mrs. Crockett and I noticed all of the things that she was doing and her growth over the year. This broke my heart!

Sometimes a few children receive a second award because the Phys-Ed or Music teacher hands one out to them. This doesn’t happen often, but it did in this case. Yes, this child was very deserving of this second award, but my conversation with this mom made me think again about awards. We recognize this mom’s daughter in class all the time.

  • Her work often inspires other children.
  • We often look at her work during meeting times.
  • We always provide positive feedback on what she shares.

I know that she feels this acknowledgement at the time, but why is an award more powerful than this? The truth is that we have many children that could receive awards every single month. Their growth blows us away. These children are committed to learning, improving, and valuing the process. Paula and I try to instil in our students how proud we are of them every single day. At the time, it seems to make a difference, but then I hear this award story, and I wonder. 

  • If everyone is getting an award, does this eventually negate the value of the awards?
  • Are students viewing awards as more powerful than genuine compliments and positive feedback? Does this matter?
  • At such a young age, is the stress of receiving or not receiving an award (we’ve been witness to both) too much for our students? What impact might this have on their sense of self?
  • If we don’t use award systems in our classroom, why are we doing so through these Monthly Award Ceremonies? What makes them different?

I really don’t know the answers to any of these questions and nor do I know what to do. Paula and I continue to discuss this topic, and we’d welcome thoughts from others. While I told this mom to invite her daughter to talk to us if she wanted, so that we could solve the problem together, she never did. I know that the mom spoke to her daughter, and this was likely enough, but thinking of how this child feels, makes me feel equally as upset. If this is what awards do to our youngest learners, what about our oldest ones? I know that these assemblies happen with the best of intentions, and I know how proud parents are of their children each month. But experiences like this one make me wonder again about awards, and what might be best for kids. Maybe the answer is not the same here for every grade or every child. What do you think, and what do you do?


Here’s To One Amazing Village!

Friday morning, I started off my day as I always do by reading Doug Peterson‘s This Week In Ontario Edublogs post. One post that really caught my eye was a recent one by Jen Aston. In this post, Jen discusses her experiences with a daycare, and the impact that some positive daycare experiences have had on all three of her children. The description of these play-based, Reggio-inspired daycare centres really appealed to me, as I saw a lot of parallels to our own classroom program.  I really tried to capture this in the comment that I left on Jen’s post.

Jen’s post stayed with me all day yesterday, and had me thinking even more this morning. I think it’s this belief that “it takes a village to raise a child,” which has resulted in the classroom success that we’ve seen this year. 

This year, our Board has started to focus on reading skills in Kindergarten and Grade 1. One of the Board’s goals is to have “all children reading by the end of Grade 1.” Now before concerns are expressed around what’s developmentally appropriate for Kindergarten children, and how this goal aligns with the Kindergarten Program Document, let me say that the goals for Kindergarten reflect the expectations under the Developing Literacy and Mathematics Behaviours Frame in our document. To support this new goal, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board hired Reading Specialists, who go into Kindergarten and Grade 1 classrooms to support reading development. (Please note that this is a very simplified definition of their jobs, so I apologize in advance if I have not accurately defined the roles of Reading Specialists.) I’d like to think that my teaching partner, Paula, and I made reading one of our priorities before this year, but with this new Board goal and the support of a Reading Specialist, I think that the two of us have thought even more about how we’re developing reading skills, programming for students, and supporting those children that are struggling. Maybe the extra time thinking and talking about reading made a difference for kids, as without a doubt, our students this year have met with even more reading success than in any other year of my teaching career: with ALL of our students on target for meeting or exceeding grade level reading benchmarksWhy the change? I think it’s the village that made the difference.

  • First there is the targeted intervention. Our Kindergarten Program Document regularly refers to this question: why this learning for this child at this time? Any professional development that we received from our Reading Specialist, curriculum consultants, Kindergarten consultants, and even Speech and Language Pathologists, emphasized the importance of this targeted intervention. They really got us thinking about where are our students at, what do they need next, and how can we support them in getting to this next step? In alignment with the pedagogy embedded in the Kindergarten Program Document, Paula and I made the decision not to withdraw students when we support them, but to embed these targeted mini-lessons within the context of play. This takes a lot of communication between the two of us and careful observation of students to figure out exactly when and how to provide this small group instruction, but we do make it happen … every single day
  • Next, there is the access to a group of professionals, who all come with a different knowledge base and various ideas about how to support students. Yes, I am one of the lucky ones. I teach at a fantastic school in a middle-to-high class area, with supportive parents, and incredible children … but not all of our students started the year at benchmark. In fact, when we looked at our SK students back in September, we were concerned about almost 50% of them. Not all of the children recognized letters of the alphabet or knew their letter-sounds. Some students were still at the lower rungs of the Phonological Awareness Continuum and many of our children were very reluctant readers. Only 1 of our 11 SK students was already reading. So we definitely had some work to do, and we needed to pay attention to many different perspectives. Our Speech and Language Pathologist gave us a great understanding of phonological awareness. We were able to determine at what level of instruction each child was at, and then focus on the areas of need. We embedded many phonological awareness games into our transitional times to help develop some skills with the whole class, while also working with individual and small groups of students during play to meet other needs. Paula, as a Registered Early Childhood Educator (R.E.C.E.), also has an amazing understanding of child development. She knew where the kids were at, what areas we might need to work on first, and how to tell when children are truly ready for reading. We also have a Curriculum Consultant and Early Years Team, who we have consulted at different points during the year. Their program knowledge helped us figure out how we could support struggling readers while still holding true to the Program Document and the play-based learning that we believe in and do. We also have a couple of different Kindergarten classrooms at our school, and seeing what other people are doing, talking about various options, and exploring new possibilities, especially for our targeted students, make a difference. Finally, thanks to an incredible Professional Learning Network through Twitter and Instagram, we don’t just have to rely on the amazing people in our Board. We’ve got so many people out there, in other Boards and from around the world, who are willing to support us with ideas, resources, and great questions, all of which help us improve our program.

  • There is also our Reading Specialist Teacher. Sandy Batenburg has been great! I had the pleasure of working with Sandy, when she was a Learning Resource Teacher at Dr. Davey School, and I think that our previous connection definitely helped as we built a new relationship this year. Sandy and I do not always see eye-to-eye, but we have a lot of respect for each other, and are always willing to engage in good professional dialogue. Sandy has a lot of experience working with children with a variety of needs, and she had many ideas about how to support our targeted students. While we initially arranged an intervention model where she worked with about six of our students just outside of our room, we didn’t like the idea of pulling children from play and making reading (and writing) as separate from other learning. This is something that we don’t do, so why were we doing it with her? Recently, after talking with Sandy, we’ve made some changes, and now Sandy supports students within the classroom twice a week. It’s great that she can connect with more children, that Paula, Sandy, and I can plan together, and that we can all learn from each other. The kids benefit, and we benefit!
  • Parents are another very important part of this equation! Parents spend even more time with their children than we do, and for some children, the connection with their mom or dad will allow them to take risks at home, which they will not take in the classroom. This home/school connection is so important to us! We use our classroom blog as a way to share what children are learning in the classroom, but also as a way to share possible extension activities for home. This year, we added a Family Contributions link to our Class Blog, where we post home experiences that parents share with us. Sometimes, with the permission of parents, we also tweet or Instagram home learning examples. It’s great to see parents capturing the process of learning, as well as the final product!
  • We’ve moved even further away from reading levels. Now, we don’t even send home levelled readers. Students helped us remove the levels from the readersYes, at times we read texts that might be levelled, and we will choose different books depending on our group of readers. That said, students have stopped talking about what level they’re at. They understand the value in reading everything, as highlighted by this discussion outside yesterday morningWe’re thankful for Fountas and Pinnell, who reinforced the value in not telling children their reading levels, and a Speech and Language Pathologist, who emphasized the importance of making take-home reading in Kindergarten about vocabulary development and comprehension, not just decoding.
  • Last, but not least, we have a wonderfully supportive administrator, who watches our day through our class blog, engages regularly with children, and notices the student growth as part of our program. Our principal, John, continues to contemplate what learning looks like in Kindergarten. As many people who know me, realize, I am not one to stay quiet. I will ask questions. I will push back. And John and I have had many great conversations around play and reading instruction. His wonders make me think. They often cause me to go back and learn more, and they almost always result in greater dialogue with my teaching partner, Paula. But it is this back-and-forth dialogue, continual reflection, and changes to our program, which ultimately benefit kids. John is definitely an important part of our village, and I appreciate how he embraces a diversity in approaches, especially when he can see the potential learning opportunities for kids.

Learning doesn’t happen by accident, and it doesn’t happen alone. It really is about a series of approaches with the support of many different people who make a difference. Yes, I’m thrilled with the success of our students this year, but I’m just as thrilled with the connections we made to make this success possible. In the coming months, I want to reflect more on what can make next year even better. Before I forget to do so though, I really want to pay tribute to the village that made this year’s growth possible. Who’s in your village? What impact has this made on your kids? Thanks to our village for helping raise such amazing kids!