What I Learned — Just From Watching

As my students know, when it comes to holiday time, I’m like the Grinch. I even call myself that, or sometimes Scrooge: take your pick! 🙂 My problem is not with the holiday itself: I love Christmas time, and just like the students, I’m excited about a break and getting the opportunity to relax and rejuvenate. My issue is with the unstructured time that tends to come before a Break. All students — particularly those with special needs — thrive on routine, and when these routines change, there are usually problems. So I don’t have days of unstructured time with various holiday movies and crafts. This plan doesn’t work for me, but more so, it doesn’t work for my students.

Earlier this week though, I read a blog post written by one of my favourite bloggers who also happens to be my vice principal: Kristi. Here is one of the ideas that she mentions in this post:

2013-12-20_10-11-58I really took this idea to heart, and yesterday, I decided to set-up a couple of different play opportunities. (Since our school focus is on student choice, why not give students some options for “play time?”) I started by showing students this challenge:

holiday house_1Then there was the board game option. I told students that they could bring in their own board games for a special activity on the last day of school. (Note how I say, “activity,” and not “party.” Word choice matters, in my opinion. Say “party,” and the students go crazy. Say “activity,” and the students still envision some structure.) I also have a huge cupboard of various board games — from Scrabble to Jenga — and students enjoyed exploring all of them.

With a couple of choices in place, I sat back and watched what students did … and it was really quite amazing to see! Here’s what I observed.

1) Students included everyone in their games and activities. At one point when Mr. Steiner, our phys-ed teacher, was in the room, I had half the class playing Jenga. Everyone took turns! Students supported each other. They cheered for each other. And they all willingly took part in the fun consequences if they lost the game (from 10 push-ups to 10 burpees).

Playing Jenga With Mr. Steiner

Playing Jenga With Mr. Steiner

2) Students chose to collaborate … even when it wasn’t required. For the Holiday House Challenge, I figured that some students would choose to work together and others would choose to work alone, but I was wrong. Everyone teamed up! It wasn’t a matter of one student doing all of the work either: students split up the tasks. They brainstormed ideas orally, and then they made adjustments when needed. They respected all of the ideas shared by their peers, and they worked together to look at ways to improve each of the ideas. You can even hear some of this team work in the video below.

3) Students demonstrated independent problem solving. Many groups of students chose to build their houses in Minecraft, and one group ran into a problem: their house flooded. Instead of getting upset or coming to me to try and problem solve (and trust me, I wouldn’t have been of much help :)), they solved the problem on their own. Awesome!


4) Students decided to “work” first. I knew that it was the day before the Winter Break began, and as much as I may have wanted it to be a “normal day,” I also knew that it wasn’t one. With the holiday assembly in the middle block, I only saw my students for two periods, and I figured that it would be hard to expect much work from them. What impressed me was that even when I gave the students the fun alternatives, some groups that were not done their projects for school, asked me if they could finish them first. Yes — absolutely! One group of students even conferenced with me to help edit their iMovie so that I could publish it yesterday. When I asked them why they made this choice, they told me, “We really wanted this movie on the website, so that we could help make a difference over the holidays!” This is definitely an added value in making learning meaningful! Here’s their movie. (Please note that this group had difficulty getting answers to questions that would work for graphing purposes, so they made a media text on the topic, and found some statistics online for a separate graphing activity.)

5) Students made curriculum choices that I didn’t envision. With about 30 minutes left until the end of the school day, some students asked me if they could take out plasticine for an art activity. I figured, “why not,” so I let them get some. What really impressed me was not just what they created, but when they came to me and explained that they, “used the elements of design when making their unicorn.” Then they told me all about the different elements of design! Even on this last day of school, during “free choice” time, students made these curriculum connections. I was so excited about this that I asked them to tweet about what they did. Here’s what they wrote.


6) Students found the “best place” to work and learn. The great thing about having different areas in the classroom is that students can find a place that works for them. Yesterday, they really spread themselves out based on what they wanted to do, and the best area to do so. The louder board games took place at the longer tables, the quieter board games took place on the floor, the holiday house challenge took place in areas around the room, and the sofas were for some quieter discussions. I loved seeing all of the students enjoying their time with each other!

2013-12-20_11-04-23Yesterday was truly a positively perfect end to a wonderful four months in the classroom. Who knew that there could be so much learning in the midst of unstructured time? So I may still be the Grinch during the holidays, but maybe my heart is growing just a bit. 🙂 I think that I can now see more value in this “play time,” and I’m starting to wonder if there are other times during the year to just let students “play.” What do you think? How do you use “play” and “observations” to inform your teaching? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!



7 thoughts on “What I Learned — Just From Watching

  1. Mrs.Dunsiger,

    The first point you made has made me feel for many teachers. Routine mix-ups include sleeping and drooling on desks (ewww), and uncontroled learning. That is why students, and most importantly parents, need to ensure that we stick with our everyday routines. Then your amazing day 😉 . I loved how you let your students express themselves, and how you awarded them with your bright comments. The only way to encourage anyone to learn is to appreciate what they have already done well. That would always be the first step.
    When I get to your vice principal’s message I feel pleased that someone has written something so vivid about that topic. I would like to skip a few and talk about technology. Technology has helped us in our everyday learning, and for me will always do so. Back we go, and I would say, you have an extremely cooperative class! And I am sure that any teacher wouldn’t hope for more.
    I am sorry if I was not supposed to be commenting on this blog, but once I saw this post of yours I could not resist. A question for you is… How have you gathered your thoughts about this particular day?
    Thanks from a Gr.5 and Gifted Student,
    Yusra I. / @yimran0639

    • Yusra, thank you so much for commenting on this post! I’m thrilled that a student added her voice here, and you had so many very detailed observations. It’s great to hear that student perspective!

      Thanks for asking me a question too! I love questions. I’m not quite sure what you mean by your question though. Can you explain more? This blog post really helped me gather my thoughts on today (as blogging often does), but also the photographs and tweets that I sent throughout the day (and later shared on our class blog) helped me gather my thinking. Does this help?

      Thanks for chiming in! Happy New Year, and have a wonderful week back at school!

      Miss Dunsiger

      • Your answer helped, but what I really meant to say was: What were your points and opinions about your day? What was your first thought when the school day ended?
        I find it amusing to ask this question from many teachers.
        Actually, I am currently in vacation in Norway, Europe. So, I can’t say I will be at school after the holidays 😉 . Thanks for the best wishes, and now that I have seen you respecting my comments ( 🙂 ) You will see me commenting quite often on this blog of yours!

        • Thanks for the reply, Yusra! My initial thoughts when the day ended were, “Wow! What an awesome day!” and “I really need to think of ways to do this more often.” Blogging about this day helped me clarify my thoughts, and your comments, help me even more.

          Thanks for your comments and questions! I love hearing this student perspective. Have a fantastic time away! While you may not be learning at school come January 6th, I’m sure you’re learning a lot from your vacation. I hope that you’ll blog about your new learning too.

          Miss Dunsiger

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