Is it about “watching” instead of “asking?”

Last week, our superintendent visited our school, and as part of his visit, he went around to the different classrooms to talk with students and observe some learning in action. As our principal and superintendent came in and chatted with our kids, I found myself standing back and watching and listening to the conversations. The next day, I had a similar experience when our instructional coach came in for a visit. I found myself once again wondering, What do others see? What do they think? 

That’s when I started to think about a change that I made recently. I used to always approach groups of students and ask, “What are you doing?” (I’ll admit that sometimes I still do.) But in the past couple of weeks, I’ve tried hard to instead, walk quietly up to groups of students, watch, and listen. 

  • What are they saying?
  • What are the students doing? Are they all doing the same thing, or are they doing different things?
  • If the play is similar to the play that I’ve seen happening many times before, how might I “intentionally interrupt” the play to extend the learning?
  • How does this play connect with some of the Kindergarten Program expectations? What Frames?
  • What might be my next best move to build on the learning or to create some new learning opportunities for students? (Sometimes my “next best move” is to do nothing at all, and just keep listening and observing. Reflecting on this documentation later and discussing it with my teaching partner, often helps us determine what to do next.)
  • What possible literacy and/or math learning is already developing from this play, and what learning could develop with the right prompt or provocation from me? In our new document, literacy and math learning is not supposed to happen in its own block, but throughout the day and through play. Sometimes this happens naturally, and our job may just be to help “label this learning” for students (e.g., giving them the right math terms to align with what they’re already doing), and sometimes, students benefit from a gentle nudge (e.g., If you want to turn our dramatic play area into a restaurant, what might we need? What if you made a list with some of your ideas?).


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These two boys were employees at a Chocolate Shop, and they had money (rocks) from selling their chocolate. They estimated how many they had, and then counted with Mrs. Crockett.

It’s as we stand back and answer all of these questions, that I think we start to see the learning happening and the potential for more learning as well. If I’m not thinking in this way, I could look around the class and think,

  • The students are happy.
  • Everyone is doing something.
  • The children appear to be engaged.
  • Some children are working alone and some children are working together.
  • There’s at least one mess somewhere — usually more than one.
  • Sometimes the children can talk about what they’re doing, and sometimes they can’t.
  • There’s a quiet hum in the room. It’s louder in some areas and quieter in others, but there’s definitely always some noise.
  • Students move freely around the room. From an outsider perspective, would that mean that there appears to be a “lack of structure?”

Our Kindergarten Program Document though is changing the way that learning happens and the way that we plan for these learning opportunities. Instead of starting with the expectations, we start with the interests of the child and align these expectations to those interests. Sometimes children will articulate those interests to us, and sometimes, we have to watch and listen closely to figure out what they may be. Students can also show their learning — for all expectations — in one of many ways: saying, doing, or representing. This gives a lot of freedom in what children can do, and it means that we have to watch and listen even more closely — and sometimes for an even longer period of time — to see this learning happen. According to Growing Success — The Kindergarten Addendum, parents can also tell us about learning that happens outside of the classroom, and this can become evidence of meeting expectations. The learning environment then is much bigger than the classroom walls, and the time needed to truly understand it becomes much bigger as well.

I’m so glad that we share our classroom learning online, as then even those people that come in for quick visits — be it educators, administrators, or parents — can gain a more thorough look at the learning that happens each day. Play-based learning is still a new approach for many people — myself included. Each year, I get more comfortable with what this approach might look like in the classroom, and how I can help others see the learning that happens through play. What do you think when you watch play in action? How do you make the learning explicit to children and to others? I would love for all stakeholders in education to chime in here, for as our new Kindergarten Program Document rolls out, I think these are discussions worth having. 


What If We All Took Some Lessons From Kindergarten?

Today, our Board was inservicing instructional coaches on the finalized Full-Day Kindergarten Program document. A friend of mine, Bill Forrester, is an instructional coach, and he mentioned me on many tweets from today. Bill asked a number of great questions, and while I tried to reply to some of them during my prep and nutrition breaks today, I realized that some answers require more than the 140 characters allowed by Twitter. I told Bill that I was going to blog about some of my thinking, and this post is a result of that promise. 

The first question that caught my attention was this one.


I think that are are many things that we can do to help with this.

  • Make math and literacy meaningful and purposeful. Help students see some real world connections to what they’re learning. Remember too that in many ways, their real world is the play that’s happening in the classroom. This real world learning may include creating signs to save structures, counting money collected (whether it be for Terry Fox, popcorn, or pizza), discussing topics that matter to them and building new vocabulary as a result of this, and reading facts about topics of interest.
  • Creating open-ended activities where all students have an entry point. It’s important to remember that there is a continuum of learning for math and literacy skills. If students feel as though what’s being expected of them is too challenging, they will stop seeing themselves as mathematicians, writers, readers, and communicators, and instead see themselves as failures. We need to create learning opportunities, where all students can show what they know. While our view of children is as “competent and capable,” they also need to see themselves this way. 
  • Celebrating successes. Students often need to feel successful in order to keep working and enjoying what they’re doing. We try to celebrate success with kind words of encouragement, specific examples to show how their skills have developed (e.g., “Last week, you were writing with just random letters. Now you’re using first sounds.”), and opportunities for students to highlight their own growth and feelings of accomplishment. Sometimes this happens as a full class, and sometimes this happens during a small group or one-to-one sharing time. It’s these kinds of experiences though that lead to students sharing what this child shared a few weeks ago.

  • Whenever possible, trying not to make literacy and math separate from other learning. We want students to see that all day long they can develop these skills. When literacy and math skills are developed/supported through play, students see the value in these skills because they can make more connections to why we’re using them. 
  • Looking beyond a level. This very topic came up when I blogged about levelled texts earlier in the month. If students only see themselves according to a level, they may not always feel positive about what they can do. This connects to my second point about honouring all students and providing meaningful play opportunities with multiple entry points. 

The second question that intrigued me was this one.


I happened to read this tweet shortly after I took these two photographs today.

A large part of co-constructing an environment with children is believing that students will tell us and show us what they need, and then we need to be responsive to what they say and do, even if this may be contrary to our initial plan. I’m thinking now about the changes that our classroom environment has undergone since September and the reasons behind these changes.

  • We moved a large table out of the dramatic play area to create a bigger writing/drawing table because students wanted more room to draw and write.
  • We pulled our sensory bin away from the wall and out into the middle of the floor because more students wanted (and needed) these sensory experiences.
  • We moved the big pillows away from the carpet because they were restricting the room on a small carpet, and students wanted more space to sit. 
  • We moved the light table into the dramatic play area because the students were not using it in the Book Nook area, but wanted a table space, for various purposes, in dramatic play.
  • We’ve sometimes created a second snack table because more students are hungry at the same time of the day, so this additional table provides more eating room. It’s flexible depending on hunger. 
  • We added a table for painting because there is so much interest in painting that a two-person easel does not provide enough room. 

These are just the big changes. Small changes — like the ones we pictured today — happen every day in the classroom.

I realize that these topics are being discussed because of the roll-out of the finalized Full-Day Kindergarten Program document, but I almost feel as though the questions asked here and the answers provided should be considered for every grade. What impact might this have on how students perceive school and how students perceive their own abilities? How might this impact on their attitude towards school? It was when I moved from primary to teaching Grades 5 and 6, that I finally realized (and appreciated) the value in play-based learning. I learned a lot from my Kindergarten PLN in these junior years. I can’t help but wonder if all of us couldn’t learn a little something from a “play-based Kindergarten model.” What do you think?


How Might We All Get Magical Forest Moments?

When I found out that I got the job and was moving to Rousseau School, one thing that I was very excited about was the forest attached to the school, and the opportunity to explore this forest with the students. Jocelyn Schmidt, a Kindergarten educator in York Region, blogged about forest learning over a year ago now, and since reading her post, I’ve been intrigued about what might be possible. Then I started working with a wonderful team of Kindergarten educators that love regular visits to the forest, and see all of the incredible learning that can come out of this special place.

We didn’t go to the forest right away, as first we got students comfortable in the immediate school environment, but by the middle of September, we made our first trek there. While I was really excited to go, I was also scared. Our students climbed everything, particularly a big fallen tree just on the edge of the school property. On one hand, I loved the safe risks that the students took as they climbed, but on the other hand, I was terrified that they would fall down. I couldn’t pull myself away from the tree, and I constantly reminded students to “be careful.” As I blogged about recently, I’ve become more comfortable with this climbing, and I see how careful and safe the students are as they climb. I still stayed close to the tree, but responded differently to requests for help, and it was amazing to see what happened. 

Slowly the forest is changing me, and yesterday, I realized just how much. At the end of the day yesterday, we headed out to the forest, and a few minutes later, the other Kindergarten class joined us. While I started by standing over next to the fallen tree, pretty quickly I witnessed one student supporting another one that was scared. She encouraged her throughout the descent to the ground, and I realized that the children really do have the support of each other. 

It was around this time, that I heard a chant of “heave ho” coming from the opening of the forest. I looked over to see a group of students carrying a large log over to the middle of the hill. Now I was intrigued and I had to go over to investigate. While I continued to keep a close eye on the fallen tree, I realized that other educators were watching this area too, and the children were also keeping a close watch and supportive eye on each other. What I saw and heard during my new investigation continued to capture my interest and my heart, and I think is best conveyed through the photographs and videos below. 

Never before have I been so sad for the day to end. I can’t wait to go back to the forest and see what happens next. I realized just how magical the forest can be.

  • In the forest, 66 Kindergarten students never seems like too many. There is space for all of them to explore and purpose behind the many different explorations. And for those students that really need a quiet area alone, there is more than enough room for that too. 
  • In the forest, new leaders arise. One of the quietest followers in the classroom was one of the most vocal leaders during yesterday’s investigation. This makes me wonder how we can bring a little more of the forest back inside. 
  • In the forest, everyone is happy. Maybe it’s the fresh air and exercise. Maybe it’s the amazing discoveries. Maybe it’s something else entirely. All I know is that yesterday afternoon, I was walking with one child over to the forest. She was really tired, recovering from a cold, and eager to go home. All she wanted was her mom. But then we got there, and everything changed. She climbed the fallen tree. She collected sticks for the campfire. She went to find treasures inside the forest opening. On the way back to school, she couldn’t stop talking about the triangular rock that she found, and she just wanted to stay at school to find more. The forest has incredible healing powers.
  • In the forest, there are never any problems. Students support each other. They all find activities that interest them. They interact with some different people than they do in the classroom. They’re even patient as they climb tree and wait their turn to share discoveries. It again makes me wonder how we can bring that “forest feeling” back inside. 
  • In the forest, collaboration happens authentically. Students that sometimes find it difficult to work with one or two other students in the classroom, seem to connect with many more students among the trees. Maybe it’s because there’s a bigger interest that draws them together (e.g., the campfire). It’s truly incredible to watch them build off of each other’s ideas and support each other as they work and learn together.   
  • In the forest, it’s quiet. Yes, there can still be noise, but it never seems too loud, and there are always lots of areas of quiet too. I know that the quiet makes me feel calmer, and in a smaller space with many students, it can be hard to find that silence. Maybe sometimes we all need it.
  • In the forest, there’s always kindness. Students utter words such as, “Are you okay? Can I help you? Remember, you can do it!” They support each other in ways that go beyond even what we see in the classroom. The forest melts my heart every single time we go!

I came from a school that didn’t have a forest, and didn’t necessarily have a safe outdoor space to explore in the same way. This year’s “forest learning” makes me realize the value of this space, and the need for a real outdoor learning environment beyond an area to ride bikes and climb playground equipment. There’s something to be said for students just being equipped with a stick, a rock, trees, and some grass. So what about the schools where this isn’t possible? I wonder about trips to outdoor conservation areas. I wonder about exploring areas in the community. I wonder about links with other schools that have what we have at Rousseau. What are your “forest learning” experiences? How can we provide more students with the amazing learning that happens among the trees? We all deserve some forest time!


“Craftville 2.0” … Maybe There’s A Place For An Updated Version!

On Thanksgiving Monday, I wrote a blog post where I shared some of my evolving thinking on “art” versus “crafts.” The post led to some interesting conversations both in the comments and on Twitter. One of the Twitter discussions really got me thinking about the definition of “crafts.”

This topic was further addressed today when I got an email from a parent in our class. (I always share my professional blog posts with parents, and I welcome their feedback. I’m so glad that this mom shared her thinking and agreed to let me share it in this post.)


Sarah’s comment about “tool development” really made me think about Mary-Kay‘s point about “tinkering,” and how crafters “design and experiment while creating.”

  • To really communicate artistically, are there certain skills that students need to learn first? What might they be?
  • What kinds of crafts might help students develop their artistic skills?
  • Does this definition of “crafts” vary from the one that we may currently have?

Sarah’s email today and the questions that I shared above formed the basis for a great conversation that my teaching partner and I had this afternoon. While we both have questions about your stereotypical holiday crafts, we started to wonder what kinds of skills our students may need to develop to better communicate artistically. What kinds of activities might help them with this? We began to speak about the “elements of design,” which are also discussed in the new Kindergarten Program Document, and if some explicit instruction around these elements may help students as they create using them. We broadened our definition of “crafts,” and looked at some of the ideas that Sarah mentioned, as even just that important reminder that an artistic voice can be shared in many different ways. The Twitter discussion, Sarah’s email, and our conversation led to our decision to focus on a specific skill tomorrow, but also provide some varied, open-ended artistic opportunities — possibly both inside and outside — to allow children to practice this skill, but also make it their own. 

Over the past few days, I’ve been reminded about the power of language. For me, the term “craft” means carbon copies of final products that allow for limited artistic expression, thought, or application of skill. But maybe my definition is too narrow. Maybe my views are too negative. And maybe under the umbrella of a Maker culture — an umbrella that I see both through the Twitter conversation and Sarah’s email — an intentional use of certain crafts, or at least “skill development,” can make art even more powerful. What do you think? How do we make “crafts” purposeful, and what “craft options” might we consider? What value might this have for “art?” I would love to continue this important conversation.


Hello “Craftville!” Is it time to reconsider this season?

This afternoon, I was looking through my Twitter timeline, and I caught this tweet from a fellow Kindergarten educator, Shannon Andrews.


I’m so glad that Shannon recently shared this important reminder. We’re just starting to enter what I like to refer to as the “Craftville Season”: Thanksgiving crafts give way to Halloween crafts, followed soon by Christmas crafts, then Valentine’s Day crafts, and end with Easter crafts.

The funny thing about these crafts is that they tend to be the same in all grades, and while they’re often categorized as “art,” the question is, how are they really addressing the elements of design and creative thinking? Some people may question if I’m being too critical here. Maybe some children think these crafts are fun. Maybe providing an outline makes some children feel more confident in their skills. Are these crafts fun for everyone though? Do they promote thinking and problem solving? Do they allow for creativity? Do they increase a child’s confidence, or do they decrease it, when his/her final product can’t look like the model? Are they engaging for all? The new Kindergarten Program Document has us constantly question, “Why this learning, for this child, at this time?,” and asking this question may start to change our thinking about these holiday crafts. 

More than four years ago, Aaron Puley wrote this wonderful blog post, where he questioned the engagement value of these types of crafts. He looked closely at curriculum expectations and provided some different art options. Aaron’s post, like mine, may make for an “uncomfortable” read. But it’s often through discomfort, and the dialogue that comes from this, that change happens. For me, Aaron started this dialogue four years ago. I’d like to continue it today. What do you think? If these crafts are being questioned for our youngest learners, should we also be reconsidering them for other grades? How do you approach this? I hope that this conversation may lead to a fresh approach for the “Craftville Season.”