“Criss Cross Apple Sauce” And Other Such Rules

On Monday, we started the day with a special Awards Assembly and a visit from Bruiser: the mascot for The Hamilton Bulldogs. It was a really exciting assembly, and in order to record videos and take photographs to remember some special student moments, I decided to put myself in with the kids and sit on the floor.

I’ve taught primary for 12 years, and I’ve sat on the floor during many assemblies. Here’s what I always remember: it’s uncomfortable. Like really uncomfortable. Your legs fall asleep. You feel all squished in the middle of other students. You don’t have the much-needed personal space. This is when I start to fidget. I spread out my legs. I shift positions. I’m tempted — but don’t — get up on my knees, as then none of the students would be able to see over me. I count in my head the minutes until the assembly will be over!

This is also when I start to think about rules. I’m not talking all rules here, but some of them: the ones that make me start to wonder why we have them. 

  • “Criss-cross apple sauce.” Ask any primary teacher. He/she will have this rhyme committed to heart. If students are sitting safely so that nobody gets hurt (i.e., in their personal space), does it really matter if their legs are crossed?
  • Anything to do with linesline up quietly before coming inside. Line up at all, for that matter. (I’m a HUGE fan of free entry.) Stand to line up as you wait. Stand without talking. (I bet that we could play some wonderful Phonemic Awareness Games — even in our whisper voices — that might support our students and their Dibels next steps.) I wonder how many problems are caused in line ups — especially when considering our neediest students — and what the impact may be for time on task if students gradually progressed inside, with staff spread out to support students as needed. 
  • Writing on lined paper … and more so, everybody writing on the same type of paper. I’ve had many great discussions on Twitter about the “visual noise” that lines can cause. Many students, especially those beginner writers, work better without lines. Why can’t paper type be a choice?
  • Sitting at tables to work. I let my students choose where to work. Some work on the floor. Some work at tables. Some work on cushions or the carpet. Some work in a quiet area on a chair. Many vary their spots depending on the task and their mood that day. Students need places to work, but do they always need to have the same place? If some students do, can we meet these individual needs, and give others the choice?
  • Raising your hand to talk. In real life, we don’t raise hands. We have conversations. We wait our turn, we listen to what others say, and then we chime in. It’s hard to know when to jump in. It’s difficult to pause and not talk on top of others. It’s a challenge to think and wait before sharing. When we have students raise their hands though (and I often do this), we make the decisions about whose ideas get heard. I wonder the value in letting students decide. I wonder the value in letting them negotiate the “talking time.”
  • Eating only at snack or at lunchtime. I love the self-regulation lunch break that many Full-Day Kindergarten teachers are using in their classrooms: let students choose when to eat, and transition seamlessly from eating time to work/play time. Or let students snack while they work because can you really focus on work when you’re hungry?

These are just some of the rules that I feel as though I’ve enforced for most of my 14 years in education, but now I’m starting to reconsider. I think that students benefit from routine. I think that there’s value in structure. But are students not listening, not behaving, not thriving, and/or not respectful if they don’t follow these rules or if we don’t have them in the first place? Getting a little uncomfortable on the floor with my Grade 1’s made me reconsider this list of rules. What ones are on your mind? Why? We don’t all have to have the same thoughts about these rules, but maybe there’s value in challenging what we’ve always done and contemplating new options.


What Role Should “Curriculum” Play?

This is a blog post that I’ve been thinking a lot about writing in the past couple of weeks. It’s not an easy post to write as I still continue to work through my thinking on this topic. There are many blog posts and Twitter discussions that centre on topics that are currently big ones in education:

  • Gaming (And Minecraft)
  • Coding
  • Maker Ed (Making)
  • Inquiry

I’m sure that there are many more, but these are the ones that have populated my streams lately.

  • I think that everything on this list can engage students in learning.
  • I think that everything on this list has the potential to help with developing critical thinking skills.
  • I think that everything on this list can help address many — if not all — of the learning skills that we assess on our report cards.
  • I think that everything on this list can help students meet curriculum expectations.
  • But I think that even when exploring the topics on this list, the expectations still need to be at the forefront.

I understand the argument that many curriculum documents are outdated. I completely agree that we should never treat the curriculum like a checklist with the need to cover every expectation: we want to go deep. There is a lot of value in looking to the overall expectations and the big ideas. The process expectations — in subjects like Math and The Arts — also provide ways to deal with bigger concepts and greater learning. I know that there is the argument that in our changing world, students need to know more than what’s addressed in the curriculum documents. In many ways, I agree with this statement. But how can these other skills be addressed under the umbrella of curriculum expectations?

I thought about this topic during a planning meeting this morning. On Wednesday, I’m presenting at the Rewired Conference with Jo-Ann Corbin-Harper and Kristi Keery-Bishop. We’re talking about inquiry in the classroom from three different perspectives: a classroom teacher’s perspective, an instructional coach’s perspective, and an administrator’s perspective. As we were planning, we looked at how often inquiry is mentioned in the curriculum documents: from FDK-Grade 12. It’s in all of them! And that got me thinking that even my list of topics can still connect to the expectations, no matter how outdated the curriculum documents may be. Maybe gaming, coding, making, and inquiry can all be vehicles for addressing expectations instead of learning in their own right. I can’t help but think back to a conversation I had with our Arts Consultant, Karen, a couple of years ago. She spoke about, “using The Arts an as instructional strategy.” Could this hold true for areas beyond The Arts?

I think that this is often how these topics are being addressed in schools. And I love that! Yes, we need to give students a chance to explore these areas and/or initially teach some skills or concepts so that students can use these “vehicles” effectively. Hopefully soon though, the topic of discussion will not be as much about gaming, coding, making, and/or inquiry, but instead more about the linked curriculum area. Plus, if we do see these topics as vehicles for learning instead of the learning itself, then the students can start to choose the vehicle that works best for them and/or works best for the subject area. I think there’s a lot of value in this student choice. 

Is there additional learning that can be done around the “vehicles” themselves? Absolutely! But does this learning have to happen at school? Not necessarily. Maybe interested students can pursue these topics more at home, through clubs, or with friends. Or maybe this learning does happen at school, but is connected to applicable Language, Math, Science, Social Studies, Physical Education, and/or The Arts expectations. Maybe the more that we know the curriculum, the more that we can make connections between expectations and topics of interest.

I love the changing face of education. I know that the more that it changes, the more that educators are reconsidering what they’ve done before and what else they can do to support and engage students. I also think that’s wonderful. At the same time, I’m believing more and more that all of this can be done while looking at student needs and curriculum expectations first. Am I missing something though? What do you believe? How do you consider both curriculum and tools/programs when planning for students? I would love to hear more about what you do and the reasons behind your choices.


All I Really Need To Know About How To Be A Better Teacher, I Learned From Teaching Students With Autism: Version 2

Next week is World Autism Awareness Day: a day that means a lot to me. This year is the first year, in many years, that I have not taught a student with autism. Last year, I rewrote one of my favourite texts,  All I Really Need To Know, I Learned In Kindergarten, to share how teaching students with autism have made me a better teacher. This year I’m going to do something different. I realized this year that many strategies that I used when teaching students with autism, really benefit all students. So here’s the updated version of my take on All I Really Need To Know, I Learned In Kindergarten.

All I Really Need To Know About How To Be A Better Teacher, I Learned From Teaching Students With Autism: Version 2

All I really need to know about how to be a better teacher, I learned from teaching students with autism. Even though I don’t teach any students with autism this year, here are the things that I learned that continue to influence my teaching:

  • Routines matters.
  • Preparing for changes in routine helps reduce stress.
  • A visual schedule helps students better understand and take control of their day.
  • Talk less.
  • Use visuals more.
  • Have clear, consistent expectations.
  • Respond to the students. Some days are harder than others. Accept this. Make changes to still make these hard days, successful ones.
  • We all need independent work areas.
  • Take a deep breath. Use a quiet voice. It’s amazing how our volume influences the volume of others.
  • Have high, but realistic, expectations for all students. All students need us to believe in them, and they need to know that we do.
  • Work as a team. We can learn a lot from each other.
  • Differentiate. It’s hard, but it’s possible. All students deserve the right to experience success. 
  • Teach compassion. 
  • Demonstrate the importance of acceptance. Help students see that every child matters.
  • Reflect a lot. Try something, make changes, reflect on it, and try again. 
  • Work with parents. They know their children best. The insights that they can share will definitely help.
  • Persevere. Embrace the saying, “Let’s start fresh.”
  • Avoid labels. Gifted. Learning disabled. Autistic. The list goes on. Regardless of the label, children are children first.

Everything you need to know about teaching and learning is in here: classroom management, differentiated instruction, self-regulation, and most of all, putting students first. I’m a better teacher because of what I’ve learned from teaching students with autism. On World Autism Awareness Day, let’s remember what makes all of our students unique and wonderful, and how sometimes, looking closely at the needs of one student may really benefit all of them.

How has working with children with autism influenced how and what you do? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Space For Independence

“For all of the opportunities to collaborate (and learn together), maybe every student also needs his/her own independent work station.” This is a comment that I heard the other day that really got me thinking. You see, we don’t have any desks in our Grade 1 classroom: there are three circular tables, a couple of smaller rectangular tables, and a guided reading table. I never considered this an issue, but this conversation really intrigued me because we also started talking about Stuart Shanker‘s work on self-regulation as part of it. Last year, I was involved in a Book Club for our Board, and we read Stuart Shanker‘s Calm, Alert, and Learning. I’ve blogged about this book many times before, and Shanker’s work has probably influenced me the most in my teaching. So I couldn’t help but pause after overhearing these words about an “independent work station” because I thought about how important this would be for students as they try to self-regulate. I began to wonder, do we need to reconsider our classroom arrangement?

It was the day after this conversation that the students began to transform our classroom into a library. I watched the students very closely both yesterday and today, as I wanted to see if they could work both independently as well as collaboratively during this process. And that’s when I noticed that they do have “independent work stations.” I think that I overlooked them initially because I had one view of what these stations should look like, and the reality was actually much different.

  • These stations are not necessarily individual desks.
  • They are also not necessarily the same for everyone.

Sometimes these work stations are comfy chairs in the middle of the classroom or in a quiet area. Sometimes these work stations are floor spaces in the corner, beside the wall, or on the carpet. Sometimes these work stations are behind the guided reading table (if it’s not being used), by the doorway, or on the little table in the book nook. Sometimes these work stations are on the big table by our Wonder Window or at one of the circular tables that are not being used. Sometimes these work stations are almost underneath a table — not quite fully under, but definitely close — because these secluded spots provide the needed quiet.

The amazing — and surprising — thing was that every student figured out when he/she needed this independent work area, and found an area that worked for his/her needs. Despite the messiness of learning — with books, papers, markers, tape, scissors, and glue everywhere — both students (and teachers 🙂 ) were able to find the “calm” they needed to work, to learn, to be. Even in the midst of a collaborative learning environment, we still need our space for independence. How do you help create these spaces for yourself and your students? 


Hugs … And The Words That Followed Them!

I had a wonderful March Break.

  • I loved taking the time to relax.
  • I loved reading some good books (including a wonderful mystery that I’m really hoping to finish in the coming weeks).
  • I loved meeting with friends and connecting with family members.
  • I loved planning for upcoming workshops and organizing some work for school.
  • I loved sleeping in … and I even loved a few afternoon naps. 🙂

For some reason, the March Break always seems to go by fast: you feel like you just started it and then it’s over. One of the first questions that people ask you after the Break is, “How was your holiday?” And I know that over the years, my reply has included phrases such as, “Not long enough,” or “Too short.” Vacations are wonderful, and while I do love school, that 4:30 alarm clock can be a hard adjustment after a week off.

Today was a little different. Before I got into any big conversations with colleagues about the Break, I saw one of my students. He came up and gave me a very unexpected hug. (In fact, he gave me a couple of them today.) At one point, I asked him why I got the hugs, and he said, “Because I missed you, Miss Dunsiger, and I’m happy to be back.” Simple words. Incredibly heart-felt. And why I will be resisting the urge from now on to say, “Not long enough,” “Too short,” or any other similar variation of this. 

Our words are powerful, and if this student that hugged me heard me say that my holiday was, “Not long enough,” I wonder what impact this would have on him. I wonder how he would view my thoughts on school, and I worry that it’s not the impression that I would want to give him. Because I do believe that school is a “wonderful place to be,” and it’s nice to know that after a week away, the students want to come back. How big an impact do you think our words have on students? Does this change how you respond to questions such as, “How was your holiday?”