It was two different events this week that led to this blog post. First of all, on Wednesday, my teaching partner‘s daughter came to visit the classroom as part of the Grade 9 “Take Your Kids To Work” Day. It was incredibly interesting to hear her thinking about the Kindergarten program.
After our quick morning meeting time, we had the children go off to eat (we have a self-regulated snack and lunch program, where students eat throughout the day when they’re hungry) or play. Paula‘s daughter stood off by the door, and watched these 33 three-, four-, and five-year-olds make their different choices.
- The snack tables quickly filled up with students going to wash their hands, collect their lunches, and arrange their seating so that they’re eating and chatting with their friends.
- A group of students went over to create food items for our restaurant with the air-dry clay.
- A large number of students surrounded the sensory bin to wash the baby dolls, brush their teeth, and fill up different containers with warm, soapy water.
- The carpet was full of students creating new structures, negotiating the use of different blocks and loose parts, adding onto structures from yesterday, and writing and drawing about their creations.
- A few students went to the restaurant: setting the table, ordering food items, and starting to “cook” the food.
- A group of girls went over to the book area to first move all of the books from the shelf onto the little table, and then “read” one book at a time. They follow this same routine every single day.
Looking off from a distance, Paula’s daughter was overwhelmed. Her questions to us were, Why aren’t the children doing the same thing here? Why is there eating and playing happening at the same time? How does anyone learn anything?
These questions led to some great discussions between my teaching partner and I about how students learn, how we observe this learning, how we extend this learning, and how we manage to remain “calm” in such an active environment. With a large class and lots of activity, watching from a distance can definitely lead to this “overwhelming feeling.” Both Paula and I spend a lot of time sitting and working with small groups. By looking at the learning in this small group environment instead of just focusing on the big picture, we can really see and hear what’s happening. This also makes us feel calm. The room is quieter when you look and listen in each area versus taking everything in together. We also have different micro-environments: from darker, quieter areas to lighter, more active areas, where all students can find the places that work for them. It’s amazing to see the number of children that can now self-select the areas that they need when they need them. A Brain Break in the middle of the day helps all of us calm down and refocus, and sometimes even a quiet story, some independent book perusing time, sensory play (particularly water and play dough), beading time, creative opportunities (particularly drawing and painting), and/or a few deep breaths can help with calming down throughout the day.
Paula’s daughter reminded us how her experiences — with a focus on quiet, independent work, similar activity options happening around the classroom, and a full class snack and lunch time — are so different from the environment we’ve created with guidance from the new Kindergarten Program Document. She reminded us about why we need to converse not just with each other, but also with parents and other educators, about the thinking behind these classroom choices. When you hear the thinking and experience the environment as we do, what once seemed overwhelming, seems a lot more calming.
A couple of days later at our PA Day inservice, I was reminded of this again when watching this video clip from Dr. Jean Clinton.
This video reminds us that children are not “empty vessels,” and when we watch them, listen to them, and see what truly interests them, the learning becomes richer. This does mean creating an environment where play is learning, children’s thinking is valued, and often times the direction of the learning varies depending on the interests and needs of the children. I know that our Kindergarten classroom now doesn’t look like mine did 15 years ago, and it doesn’t sound like it either. But every day, the students amaze me with what they say and do. I’m also learning that the small group time spent listening, watching, questioning, and playing with children, helps me feel calm in a classroom environment that is very different than I was used to growing up and that I used to have as a classroom teacher.
Parent observations are taking place in a couple of weeks, and each day, we’ll have five parent visitors. I wonder if any parents will feel as Paula’s daughter did, and if Dr. Jean’s video, student feedback, and/or sharing our approaches (as I did here) will help them see this environment differently. What do you think? Maybe if we all started to slowly stop “stuffing the duck,” a “Kindergarten learning environment” would feel just as comfortable (for adults and students) in any grade.
Aviva, I love the reflections you have made about how Paula’s questions have caused you and your partner to think about the perceptions of others about this transformational program. I think you have addressed several really important issues, especially about the learning environment in which children’s work takes place. I love your comments about listening to and observing children in small group contexts!!
I am curious about your comment: “… and sometimes the direction of the learning varies depending on the interests and needs of the children.” From what I have read of your classroom, I would say that it is more than “sometimes” that the direction of the learning in your program is guided by the needs and interests of the children! It has been my sense that you and your partner know exactly to be guided by the children and when you need to provoke a direction by adding a material or posing a new challenge or……. I love the Dr Jean video, and wonder if the system needs to think about professional learning and how it can be less “stuff the duck” and more personaliazed like the K program?! Thanks for continuing to provoke my thinking with your daily posts and blogs
Thanks for your comment, Jill! I really appreciate all of the conversations that I’ve had with you through Twitter on this new K Program Document. Some of your tweets made it into conversations that we had with our table group during the PA Day session.
Your point about the use of the word “sometimes” actually caused me to go back and change my word choice to “often times.” You’re right: it’s way more than sometimes. I realized this even more as I wrote supply plans this weekend for the Wednesday-Friday that I’m off next week at a conference. My partner and I tried to plan this time on Friday afternoon, but there are so many questionable parts, and I had to write my supply teacher, and say that I would update her again on Tuesday night. I also mentioned that she could converse with Paula during the week, and they might make other changes to our plans depending on how the students respond and new interests that emerge. This program is really about being responsive to kids … and it’s something that I think should be true for all grade levels.
I love the Dr. Jean video too (I’ve seen it a couple of times now), and her message is a powerful one. I do love how our Board is really moving away from this “stuff the duck” PD model. I wonder though if all grade levels view the child in the same way as that outlined in the K Program Document, and if not, what needs to happen to change this view? During our PA Day table conversation, another teacher mentioned that she “couldn’t imagine this type of program for other grades,” and I commented that I actually fell in love with a play-based/inquiry-based program when I taught Grades 5 and 6. This led to a great discussion and I think a small shift in thinking. Are these the kinds of discussions that need to happen more often? How do we do this?
Aviva, I am pleased that i was able to be part of the conversations even without being there! Actually, I did a PL conference in a board a few weeks ago. We did an activity where we gave educators (K-10) 12 “belief” statements. They had 12 cups on their tables, and each person had three straws and three wooden craft sticks. We asked each table group to place their three straws in the cups that corresponded with their top three beliefs, and the craft sticks in the cups corresponding to the three beliefs that caused the most dissonance for them. It was quite disconcerting how many craft sticks there were in the cup representing “all children/students are capable and competent.” So although we Know that we have pockets of educators beyond K who see students this way and who see the value of being in an inquiry stance with students, as you have noted there is still a lot of work to do! The conversations you are having, your blogs and tweets, will help initiate those discussions.
Thanks for the reply, Jill, and for sharing this story. I’m curious to know how other groups of people would respond to this kind of activity — in K and beyond. This could make for a very interesting follow-up conversation. I’m wondering if after talking about it, if others would view things differently. Would viewing classroom examples of what an inquiry-based/play-based approach looks like (and how it can work) make a difference? Continued conversations are definitely important here.