Aren’t I In Teaching To Teach?

What if you were given permission to reduce expectations (if needed) so that you could address a child’s well-being first? Could you do it? I’ve had some very interesting conversations around this topic lately.

As many people know, I’m very passionate about education. I love to teach, and I’m committed to helping students learn. I actually enjoy delving into curriculum documents, and thinking about the front matter as well as the expectations. I spent a lot of time doing so with the Kindergarten Program Document a few years ago, but as an educator that’s taught every grade from K-6 in some capacity, I’ve had lots of opportunities to read Ministry documents. All of this being said though, a few years ago, I had an epiphany: sometimes academic expectations need to come second.

We may want to focus on academic goals. We may have grand plans around activities, provocations, projects, and presentations, but what if our kids are not ready to learn? As classroom educators, we’ve all seen different behaviours, and we’ve responded to them in various ways. In the Faculty of Education, I learned all about the importance of classroom management. Thinking now about Stuart Shanker’s Self-Reg, I wonder if classroom management is still presented in the same way in the Faculty of Education. Or is this a self-control paradigm when a Self-Reg one may be better? I know that I see “management” differently now, especially when it comes to addressing various student needs. If we enter into a battle of wills with a dysregulated child, are we ever going to win? Maybe at times, we need to step back.

  • Why is that child so angry or upset? What might make him/her feel better?
  • Why is that child so loud? What might help him/her calm down? What is this child telling us that he/she needs?
  • Are academic expectations triggering the behaviour? Why might that be, and how can we change this?
  • Does this child just need time? How can we give this child this time, while also supporting the other students in the class? 
  • What impact might my tone and actions be having on the child? Am I increasing or decreasing the stress?

Shanker often speaks about being a stress detective, and more and more, in the past couple of years, I find my teaching partner and I trying to do this detective work. This helps us see behaviour differently. It also helps us put student well-being first: realizing that for some kids, we may need to spend even more time addressing other needs before academic ones. I’m now okay with this because I know that in the end, this child will be far more successful in school and in life. 

But it was not always easy for me to see teaching and learning in this way. I wanted to make school all about expectations. Meeting benchmarks mattered to me (to a degree, it still does). Aren’t I in teaching to teach? Sometimes as educators, I wonder if we see ourselves as failing, if we don’t have all children meet with the same academic success as we hoped. I’m curious though if these same students actually came farther along than they would have by us waiting until they were ready to address different expectations, and then addressing them in ways that worked for them. My recent conversations have helped me see that teaching is about more than academics, and we know this in theory, but what about in practice? This has been a good reminder for me that we don’t just teach expectations, we teach kidsA fundamental difference, I think.


Pulling The Plug On Popcorn Words: What Do You Do?

In September, I will be starting my 18th year of teaching. Wow! I’ve changed many of my practices over the years. One of my most recent changes though is one that has me thinking the most. It’s my approach to teaching sight words.

Many Kindergarten and Grade 1 educators probably have an opinion on how to best support children in quickly recalling sight words. For years, I was an advocate of “popcorn words.” I even taught The Popcorn Song to the tune of Mary Had A Little Lamb. One of my most embarrassing moments as a teacher happened due to popcorn words, and that stray kernel of popcorn, which ended up lodged in my ear. 🙂 In the past couple of years though, the updated Kindergarten Program Document had me wondering about the value in teaching these words out of context. My teaching partner, Paula, and I had many discussions about this, and we decided on a different approach. 

A couple of years ago, we figured that children tend to learn these words as they’re exposed to them more in books. After reading them again and again, they do so automatically, and then slowly, these words make it into their writing. We thought that this might be more of a developmental approach, so instead of highlighting the words for everyone, we just explored these words as kids came across them in texts. While this worked to a degree, when I completed the D.R.A. at the end of the school year, I noticed that it was the slowing down and attempting to sound out sight words, which impacted on some children getting to even higher reading levels. While most children met year-end, grade level expectations, I wondered if a better sight word knowledge would have led to even greater success. But then again, is a word song, a word wall, and flash cards the way to go?

Paula and I talked about these concerns. We still didn’t think that going back to The Popcorn Song and popcorn word games were the answer, but we wondered what more was possible. Was it a matter of being even more deliberate in our introduction and review of these grade appropriate sight words? For the past couple of years, we really worked at linking reading and writing, and having children read back to us what they wrote. This past year, we extended this thinking even more, and had children blend sounds to also read what other children wrote. Students started to see themselves as even more capable readers and writers, when they knew that what they wrote was accessible to their peers, and what their peers wrote, was accessible to them. 

I was so inspired by what Tomek, Trinity, and Brayden did, that I invited two more students to join me out at this graffiti wall on my prep today. They started by reading the words together. Milla finished the sentence in her own. Then they thought about what to write. I tried to get them to think about growth in learning. Milla really wanted to focus on her writing growth. She remembered what I showed her from her time in JK. As we spoke more, she added more details to her work. We even looked at the silent W in “write.” Her ability to self-reflect here almost brought me to tears. ❤️❤️❤️ When we look at our @hwdsb goal, this work aligns with that! SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #iteachk #ctinquiry #teachersofinstagram

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But we knew that students still needed more opportunities to work with sight words. Over the year, many children enjoyed writing us notes to ask for things or to express their feelings. At first, we either read the notes or had the students read them to us. Then we thought of a new idea: we began writing the students back! We really tried to think carefully about the words that we included in these responses:

  • varying the difficulty depending on the child.
  • choosing words which students could sound out.
  • ensuring that many sight words were part of our notes.

We extended this even more by trying to embed both educator and student writing within different play opportunities. It was amazing what happened when we brought some speech bubbles over to the Lego table and into the building area. Sometimes just having one of us start the writing led to children continuing it. 

While we didn’t work on teaching specific sight words in isolation, seeing, experiencing, reading, and writing these words in different play situations helped with greater recall of them. Before long, students were reading more sight words than they had in the past, and my reading assessment concerns from the year before were no longer an issue. 

I share all of this because in the end, sight words were taught exclusively in context, without even the introduction of a word wall. We spoke with our reading specialist about this, and she came up with the idea of adding a ring of sight words to our writing table. While we didn’t focus on them, the words were there if students wanted to access them for their writing. Most did not, and those that did, tended to just copy the words instead of focusing on what they said. This was something that I noticed a lot with the “popcorn words,” and was a big reason why I was happy to try another approach. 

I keep thinking about what a speech pathologist taught me a few years ago. Her fear was that if children see and learn conventional spelling before playing with letter-sounds, they will not use these sounds in their writing or to assist them in reading. She also felt that if we were going to have a word wall, we should look at adding digraphs as separate on the wall, so that the focus was on the letter-sounds instead of the names. To me, this always seemed to extend the wall even more, and I wondered how much children would use this resource to assist with reading and writing. Is it just the thing to do, or is it something that would truly make a difference for them? Word walls though have been around — and popular — since I started teaching, and while I absolutely support the approach that we’ve taken these past few years, I wonder if there’s something that I’m missing here. If we’re using word walls, why are we doing so, and if we’re not, what might be any potential drawbacks for kids? Could the same questions be applied to teaching sight words in isolation? Before another school year begins, I’d like to open up the conversation that may cause some heated debates among primary educators, but I think is worth thinking and talking about. 


Is It Time For All Of Us To Stand Up?

I’m scared. Writing this post is a scary one for me. It’s not because I don’t have strong opinions because I really do, but because I know just how public these opinions are when they’re shared in this platform. This afternoon, I saw a tweet from Andrew Campbell, which really made me stop and think, and serves as the basis for this blog post. 

Andrew’s tweet inspired a lot of conversation, including a few tweets of my own.

Read from the bottom, up.

Ever since reading the news that Ontario will be going back to the 1998 Sex-Ed Curriculum (which is actually the Growth and Development component of the Health Curriculum), I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting. I teach Kindergarten. Technically, this news will not change how I deliver any of my program come September, but as educators, we’re part of a team, and for many educators on this team, this news is going to make a big difference for them.

I can’t help but think about some of our youngest learners. A couple of years ago, I captured this conversation around the beading table one day. While I realize that there’s a lot of background noise and it’s hard to hear everything, what you can hear are a few children discussing their brothers. Their brothers who like pink. These two girls talk with others about how it’s okay for boys and girls to like pink. Way past my recording time, the children continued to discuss other colours, and how people can like any colour that they want. 

They moved beyond colours though to topics including,

  • dressing up,
  • being princesses,
  • playing with dolls, 
  • and wearing make-up.

These four- and five-year-olds are confident that these are practices that we can support for boys and girls, and “it doesn’t matter as long as this is what they like.” (Thank goodness for some documentation, which allowed me to look back at this conversation even two years later.

I then start to think about other conversations that I’ve heard or been a part of in my last three years in Full-Day Kindergarten.

  • There’s the discussion around “asking for a hug” before giving one.
  • There are the times that children spoke about the body parts on the doll before giving the doll a bath. 
  • There are the numerous conversations around peeing, pooping, and everything in betweenNothing intrigues young children more than bodily functions.
  • There are the kissing discussions, which happened frequently this year thanks to these kissing heads. We did have a further discussion on if both parties were happy with being kissed.

  • There are also the pregnancy conversations … especially those around worms this past school year. 

I share all of these stories because even our youngest learners are coming to school with some different experiences and background knowledge than the students that came before them. From my stories, you can see the start of conversations around gender, identity, consent, and body parts. What’s going to happen when we remove a Health Curriculum, which addresses where these children are already going and need to go next?

I can’t help but think back now to a conversation that I had recently with another educator. I made the comment, “I think that this is what’s best for kids, but …”. When I said, but, this other person replied, “As soon as we know that it’s what’s best for kids, there is no but. We are in the business of supporting kids. Every. Single. Time.” He’s right … and it’s for this very reason that I’m choosing to be scared, but also to press publish. I need to do what’s best for kids, and that means supporting a curriculum document, which aligns with what students are experiencing in their lives today. Creative educators will come up with different ways to professionally address these needs, and ensure that all children are heard and supported. But we need more than just creative educators. Are we all willing to speak up on behalf of kids? I think that change starts with our collective voices being heard.


Achoo! Stopping A Sneeze And Reflecting On Self-Reg.

What do you do when you have four hands and three instruments in your mouth and you’re about to sneeze? You write a blog post in your head of course! 🙂 This was me today. I spent a few hours this morning at the dentist. I went there thinking that I needed to get a root canal done, and finding out that thankfully I didn’t, but I did need to get three cavities filled instead. This was my first big experience with my new dentist. I had a wonderful dentist before, but he retired, and I heard terrific things about this dentist. While I procrastinated on going in — going to the dentist terrifies me — I finally made it in there last week. And now I was back today. I didn’t know what to expect, but I definitely didn’t expect a tickle in my nose within the first few minutes of lying down. I couldn’t risk sneezing though, so instead, I did some thinking.

I’m not sure if she’s aware of it or not, but I think that this dentist truly understands Self-Reg.

  • Yes, a dental office room needs to be bright, but right away, she offered me some sunglasses to help darken the space and lighten my stress load. In our classroom, we often only turn on one set of lights, and use natural light as well as some darker areas, to create micro-environments in the room. I really appreciate these different spaces, and I’m very sensitive to bright lights. Knowing that they might be necessary for her, I love how the offer of some sunglasses also gave me what I needed. 
  • She checked on me constantly. The dentist always wanted to make sure that I didn’t feel any pain and that I was doing okay. She even offered me a break between cavity fillings in case it was too much for me to experience multiple ones at the same time. Just as students can benefit from some short breaks, so can adults! (Now I will admit that I was eager to get these fillings done, so I said, “no,” to the breaks, but possibly a break would have helped with my sneezing problem. If only my nose was still tickling then! 🙂 )
  • Everything about her was soft and quiet. From her gentle touch to her quiet voice to the low music in the background, I just felt calm being around her. And just for the record, I am never calm in a dentist’s chair. 🙂 She was the exception though. Again I thought about the classroom. I was like that anxious child: the soft tone and limitless patience made a big difference. 
  • She always made sure I could answer before she asked me questions. One thing that I struggle with at the dentist is when I need to respond to a question and the dentist has his/her hands in my mouth. How can I talk? How will the dentist understand me? This increases my stress, and makes me reluctant to engage in conversation, but then makes me feel rude if I don’t reply to comments made. It’s like this dentist understood that, and she always made sure that she removed her hands from my mouth after she asked me a question. She gave me a way to speak easily, and I so appreciated this!
  • She built a relationship with me first. As a new patient, I had to arrange a 1 1/2 hour meet-and-greet appointment (this isn’t the official name for this appointment, but this is what it was). During this time, the dentist got to know me as a person and as a patient. She found out how I feel about coming to the dentist, what causes me stress, and what makes me feel calm. She took X-rays, went through my teeth with me, and then worked on a plan to support me as one of her patients. Even today, when I came back for some dental work, she spent a little time talking to me about my summer. She told me about her kids (whom I knew from one of my teaching experiences), and she gave us a chance to connect before she started working in my mouth. Self-Reg starts with relationships, and this dentist spent the time to build these important connections!

As an educator, today’s dental experience has me reflecting on the classroom. How do we connect with and support kids? How do we create these calm environments in different places around our school? This dentist could have just seen today as an opportunity to do some work, make some money, and move onto the next patient, but she never did. She spent the additional time needed to connect with me, and it made a huge difference on how I viewed the dental office … even when I needed to sneeze. 🙂 I wonder if a focus on Self-Reg makes as big a difference on how staff and students view the school.


Bring Out The “Change Card”: Learning To Live With Those Unexpected Changes In Plans

I finally got a chance to listen to the June 27th recording of the VoicEd Radio: This Week In Ontario Edublogs show

It was an off-hand comment by Stephen Hurley in the introduction to this show that really made me reflect on the end of our school year. Doug and Stephen recorded this show on the second last day of school, which also happened to be a very rainy day in Ontario. Regular readers of our classroom blog know that rain does not stop our daily outdoor learning time, but thunder and lightning do. Unfortunately, there was a weather alert for a “severe thunderstorm,” and so it was with a heavy heart that we had to cancel our year-end field trip to the splash pad at LaSalle Park. We didn’t want to do so, and we went back and forth on options, but if we waited until the Wednesday morning to make the call, we’d have to pay for both busses as well as the rental of the splash pad. And so, looking at the projected forecast the night before with our principal, weighing options, and discussing student safety, we opted for a Plan B. 

Our year-end trip is an interesting one, as almost all of the parents come along. They coordinate a family picnic at the park, younger siblings join us, and this becomes the alternative to an SK Graduation. Instead we celebrate with families over food and fun at the splash pad. Now what? We knew that many parents already purchased food items for the picnic and booked the day off work. We don’t have control over the weather, but all of the children and parents were looking forward to this day, and now we needed to make a last-minute change in plans. While we knew that our alternative would not necessarily be as exciting as the original plan, we hoped that it would help reduce the upset over completely cancelling everything: we invited families into our classroom for the last two hours of the day to share a meal and play together. 

I still stand by the tweet that I sent out early in the morning on June 27th.

Sometimes life doesn’t give us what we expect. In a week of absolutely beautiful weather, we picked the one day of thunder, lightning, and rain. We know that some kids were disappointed, and we’re sure that parents probably dealt with a few tears the night before when they had to share this news with their child. But this disappointment provides a great learning opportunity for all of us. The truth is that this news is a small upset compared to probably much bigger upsets that children and adults will need to deal with in their lives. And so, just as we did at school, use this experience as a learning opportunity.

  • Let children cry if they need to.
  • Empathise with kids, and express that this news is disappointing.
  • Then focus on the solution.

Yes, our playtime was probably not as fun as a day at the splash pad, but …

  • parents still got to spend time with their kids.
  • children and adults got to play together.
  • everyone had social time with family and friends.
  • we still celebrated our SK students before they moved on into Grade 1.

I still wish that the weather cooperated, and for the sake of Stephen’s son, I hope that they got to go on their trip to the splash pad. But maybe this little upset at the end of the school year, provided one of the best learning opportunities of all. And if we didn’t stay back on the 27th, Mud Man would have ceased to exist and the year would have ended on a much different note. 🙂

And then the next day …

How do you help children deal with disappointment? We love routine, and even attempted to keep a consistent classroom routine right until the last day of school. That said, I still remember a conversation that I had once with a Speech Pathologist, who was helping me support some students with autism. She suggested that I make a “change card,” for when I needed some last-minute changes to the schedule. She said that this could help these children learn to adjust to change. Maybe we all need a “change card” in our lives. How might you use one over the summer? A special “thank you” to our wonderful parents, who made this change in plans on the 27th a lot less stressful than it could have been. Thanks for supporting us in dealing with disappointment!