Sharing Our Stories. What Are Yours?

Last year, I started the year off with a vlog detailing the thinking behind the spaces in our classroom. As my teaching partner, Paula, and I set-up our room, we spent a lot of time talking about every decision that we made.

  • Why did we put that item there?
  • How many materials should we put out?
  • How might we slightly modify each space to lead to some different learning?
  • How does each area connect with the Four Frames
  • How might we support literacy and math instruction — through play — in each space?
  • What might help our students self-regulate, and how have we addressed these different needs in our classroom design?
  • How do these areas support the building of relationships?
  • Knowing that Kindergarten students often come in at different developmental levels, how have we been cognizant of child development? What might we do to support children as needed?
  • How can we provide a welcoming environment, while still being welcome to kids designing their own spaces and making the room their own?

At the end of the day, it’s nice to stand back and look at the completed classroom (Jill‘s comment at the end of this post, has me editing this sentence now). And yes, I get that warm, homey feeling when looking at and walking through our room, but this isn’t enough for me. I want to share our story behind the decisions that we made, and the thinking behind where we might go next.

This year, in addition to creating micro-environments in our indoor classroom, we also carefully considered the layout and choices that we made in our outdoor classroom. Paula and I spent a lot of time setting the stage for learning. Our outdoor classroom space has largely been used for gross motor play in the past, and while the development of these gross motor skills is so important for kids, we think that this classroom area can be used for even more than that.

  • What are some different ways that we can address and support self-regulation outside?
  • How can we incorporate literacy and math into this outdoor classroom?
  • How can we address and build on the different interests of kids?
  • How can we create opportunities for social language and cooperative play, while also making space for quiet and independence?

This year is my T.P.A. (Teacher Performance Appraisal) year, and as such, I’m thinking about areas for professional growth. Further reflecting on the learning environment both indoors and outdoors — and creating an even greater connection between the two and the value in this for student success — are key things that I’m considering right now. I decided then to move from recording one vlog to recording two. I know that these videos are long, but I hope that they give you insight into our learning spaces and the thinking behind them. 

What insights might you add to our reflections? What are some thoughts on your classroom space? Whether done orally, through a discussion, or in a blog post, I think there’s something to be said for this kind of reflection. Our rooms are more than pretty pictures, and after sharing our stories, I hope that you will also share yours. 


When The Perfect Packer Of The Freezer Space Still Says, “I’m Bad At Math” …

Very early this morning — at a time when most of the population was still sleeping 🙂 — I was having a private conversation on Twitter with Doug Peterson about math. I happened to read Doug’s blog today about the posts that he would be discussing with Stephen Hurley and Diana Maliszewski on VoicEd Radio, and I noticed that the first post was one that he had discussed before. Doug mentioned that he wanted to hear Diana’s thoughts about when students start to “hate” math, and when they start to think that they are not “good” at math. In our discussion, I said, “It’s not in Kindergarten,” and while my initial intention was just to blog about why not, listening to the VoicEd radio recording, has me thinking beyond this.

As many of my blog readers know, I have taught in primary — and particularly in  Kindergarten — for most of my career, but I’ve also taught all of the other grades from grades 1-6 in some capacity. By teaching these different grades — and at times, the same children in multiple grades — I’ve seen how student attitudes and skills vary as they get older. Just as Diana mentioned in the recording today about EQAO data on primary students’ attitudes towards reading versus junior students’, I think that I’ve noticed similar trends in attitudes towards math. It was as I thought about this that I remembered a great conversation with a high school student at camp this summer. At the end of the summer, this student volunteered to help out with some cleaning and packing up of materials. One of the many jobs that I needed help with was storing over 400 popsicles and ice cream sandwiches in the freezer for campers and their families. We had a small number of freezers and lots of boxes of goodies. How was I supposed to do this? This volunteer made the impossible, possible. One of the greatest things about this was the math conversation that happened as a result.

Here’s a student that self-identified as “bad at math,” but I can guarantee you that he has better spatial awareness skills than I do. He was amazed to hear from me though that what he did here was “math.” I think about the Kindergarten Program Document, and how we “notice and name” math behaviours in the everyday. This doesn’t mean that we don’t teach or reinforce specific skills, but we …

  • help students see the numerous math concepts that they’re already exploring through play.
  • get students to think mathematically about their world.
  • encourage students to figure out how to approach and solve problems. 

And these are all things that are not just for Kindergarten. Imagine if this student that’s “great at puzzles” begins to see himself as a “mathematician.” 

  • Does this mean that he might be willing to stick with other, more challenging components of math?
  • What if these more challenging areas were presented to him within the context of something that he better understands?
  • How might this change his attitude towards math and his application of  mathematical skills? 

I realize that expectations become more complex as students progress through the grades, but as someone who could only hope to ever pack a freezer as this student did, I wish that he knew just how “good” he is at math. Don’t you?


What’s Your New Learning?

Last week, I had the pleasure to attend a Let’s Talk Science Summer Institute on Nurturing Inquisitive Minds With STEM. I’ll admit that at first, I was unsure what to expect. In our Kindergarten classroom, we provide a lot of open-ended exploration and play opportunities, and I wondered if some of the activities discussed here would be too teacher-directed for us to use. Would this workshop be beneficial for play-based Kindergarten educators? I’m thrilled to report that not only was it beneficial, but it was one of the best workshops that I have attended in a while. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since leaving Thursday’s workshop, and I realize now that there was actually some unexpected reminders and new learning from this experience.

I’ve always believed that it’s worth reflecting on professional development opportunities and figuring out what you got from them. This blog post is my most recent reflection.

  • We learn more together! I was thrilled that Thursday’s workshop allowed both me and my teaching partner, Paula, to attend together. I love the back-and-forth dialogue that often happens when we learn as a team, and this was certainly true on Thursday. As new ideas were shared, Paula and I would whisper about possible classroom uses. Could we add this chart to one of our play spaces in the room? How might we modify this activity for use in Kindergarten? Would this activity possibly be beneficial for professional learning? Having this chance to talk about our thinking, ask more questions of each other, and even do a little planning for the new school year based on what we learned, was exciting. Yes, if one of us attended this session alone, we could have brought back the information to share with the other person, but then all of the sharing is based on one perspective. Now we both heard what was being discussed, we were both involved in the activities, and we were both able to suggest different extensions that we could then combine or modify together.

  • Look for a little something new in everything that’s shared. Thursday’s workshop was very hands-on, and we spent most of the time working and playing together as part of different sized teams. At first glance, some of the activities seemed very prescribed, and another teacher asked us, “Would you do this in your classroom?” As is, the answer is likely “no,” but that doesn’t mean that we couldn’t get creative with what we saw. So, for example, one activity had us testing a domino and a car as it slid down ramps made of various materials. It was interesting to see all of the material choices, from tinfoil to carpet. What if we added some of these materials to our building space, especially when our students begin to experiment with creating ramps? How might this change the play? Would something other than a block or a car move down the ramp at a different speed? I wonder about something like a penny. How might lying it flat change from putting it on its side? What if we adjusted the angle of the ramp? How does that change the speed of the item that’s rolling down it? When might we use these different materials for ramp use? Maybe it’s time to even explore some ramps in our environment. Now our students might not have as many wonders as I do about these ramps, and they might not take this play in the same direction, but sometimes it’s simply the introduction of one or two new materials, which change the discussion and allow for the introduction of some new vocabulary. Seeing what was available in the kits on Thursday, made Paula and I think about what we might make available in the classroom … which definitely made this “something new,” very useful for both of us.
  • Give opportunities for adults to also play. I’ve blogged about this topic before, but I definitely saw the value of this at Thursday’s workshop. One of the most memorable experiences from the day was when Paula, Anja (another educator that I know), and I made a seed sorter together. This was not an easy task. We had lots of materials available to use, and a pretend budget for purchasing these items. I decided to document our building process — 1) because I think there’s value in the process even if the product doesn’t end up working and 2) because I’m comfortable with this kind of documentation, and in the midst of the uncomfortable demands of making this seed sorter, I felt calmer with my iPad in hand. As we worked through this long process of creating our seed sorter, I was reminded of the need for adults to struggle, make modifications, and try again. If we want our kids to do the same, what do we need to experience first? By not having adults there to solve the problems for us, we were forced to work through the challenges, problem solve together, and eventually meet with success. If, as adults, we don’t have these play experiences though, will we be quicker to save kids when they meet with challenges? Will we know when to step back and when to intervene? I think this seed sorter challenge would be a great one to do at a staff meeting. What might it end up telling us about ourselves as thinkers, learners, and problem solvers?

  • Sometimes “narrow” is beneficial. Paula and I really try to embrace the value in open-ended learning opportunities, and it’s for this very reason that we don’t use signs in the classroom that tell children what to create or how to use different materials. Last year though, we noticed that some students became more involved in artistic learning opportunities when we showed a few examples of some possible finished products. These weren’t posted anywhere, and they weren’t even all of the same thing, but sometimes these examples helped inspire future creativity. And often, it didn’t take long before these examples were no longer needed. Educators scaffold all the time in the classroom. Maybe a few examples act as necessary scaffolding for some kids. Paula and I thought about this on Thursday, when we engaged in different design challenges. While we don’t want to tell kids how to use recyclable materials — or limit creativity because of what we suggest — would some more children use these items if we shared a design challenge to go with them? What if we showed photographs of possible things to create, or even watched an informative video with an idea or two? We could even get kids to start to write up their own design challenges, or make this a possible home extension activity. Thursday’s workshop had us wondering, when might narrowing options be more beneficial for kids? How can we then extend to more open-ended options?
  • Be open for different ways. During some of our design challenges, we were told to draw a diagram of what we created. Paula and I have suggested something similar to our students before. This can provide a great opportunity for some authentic writing, and even math exploration (e.g., around geometry (shapes) and measurement). What I loved though was when Anja borrowed my iPad and used Explain Everything to create this diagram. This was such a good reminder that there’s not one right way to do anything. If one of our students chose to do this, would we be open for this other option? How can we encourage students to explore different options? I so appreciate that our Let’s Talk Science facilitators were very open to the many ways that we shared our learning on Thursday!

As we all get ready to head back to school, is there something new that you learned from some recent PD that you hope to incorporate into your classroom this year? How might you do so? If not, maybe there’s a little something from my Let’s Talk Science learning that may help as a new school year begins. As Thursday’s workshop reminded me, we can always be open for something new!


A Taste Of Leadership

Now that Camp Power has come to an end, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking around leadership. One of the things that this camp allows me to do is to develop my leadership skills. As one of the site leads, I get to support instructors with program planning and implementation, as well as coordinate professional development opportunities to continue to extend this learning throughout the three-week camp program. This position excites me. It makes me think and act in different ways. It helps me see the value in a good question, the need for a positive school culture, and the importance of building community. 

I love watching the growth of children and staff (myself included) throughout the 15 day program, and thinking about everything that was needed to make this happen. But one thing that I appreciate the most about this site lead opportunity is that it gives individuals in a teaching role, the chance to lead. 

I remember a meeting that I was invited to a number of months before the summer program began. Representatives from different local school boards that are involved in the Summer Learning Program came to this meeting. As we went around the table to introduce ourselves, people identified their School Board role. I met many principals and consultants, but I was the only teacher around this table. This is often when I default to the line, “I just teach Kindergarten.” I wonder why I feel the need to include the word, “just.” Is everyone else a better leader because they are one all year round? 

Here’s the truth. I love my job as a Kindergarten teacher. I want to be in the classroom. 

  • Working with children excites me.
  • I may not countdown the number of days until school ends, but I do countdown the number of days until it begins.
  • Our kids make me laugh.
  • I have the best teaching partner in the world, who constantly gets me thinking differently, trying new things, and considering other approaches to better support kids. 
  • Watching children master difficult concepts, learn new skills, and change their attitude towards learning, thrills me. 
  • The classroom is one of the places where I’m happiest!

This doesn’t mean that I want to give up my summer leadership opportunity for an instructor position. Being a site lead comes with its own challenges, its own successes, and its own joy. I’m thrilled that the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board allows a teacher to be a leader in this way, and still go back to the classroom every September. Maybe one day, I’ll want to extend my formal leadership beyond the summer months, but for now, I couldn’t be happier to be heading back to teaching … and with some new thoughts and skills that I have learned this summerHow do different schools and Boards support leadership interests among classroom teachers? I wonder if there are other educators out there like me, who love the classroom environment, while also enjoying a taste of leadership.


Could A “Sneaky Approach” To Professional Development Actually Be Best?

My summer camp position is a really interesting one. You can find me …

  • stuffing hamburgers and hot dogs;
  • signing for food orders;
  • setting up tech equipment in the gym;
  • completing and uploading the daily slideshows;
  • sitting down with a child in the hallway, in the library, or in the classroom, who may just need some extra time or additional support;
  • documenting learning around the school;
  • planning for PD sessions;
  • and/or working with instructors and kids.

In different ways and for different reasons, I love each and every one of these jobs … despite a few texture and scent issues. 🙂

That said, without a doubt, my time spent in the classroom continues to be my favourite! I had a very special — and unexpected — moment today thanks to this time. And surprisingly, this moment didn’t happen in the classroom, but instead, at our after camp PD session. 

We meet twice a week after camp for professional development, and today, we were discussing documentation. As part of this session, I asked every instructor to bring along a piece of documentation to discuss. The goal was to look closely at this documentation, talk about the child, and try to determine some possible next steps together.

As I listened in on these conversations today, a couple of people spoke about things that they’ve tried in the classroom. Here’s what surprised me.

  • One instructor mentioned using an alphabet chart with one of the campers, after she saw me introduce this strategy to him. She said that this child was starting to use it independently, and now she’s using the chart with another camper.
  • Another instructor mentioned that she saw what I did with the alphabet chart — and this would have been through Twitter — and she decided to try it with one of her campers. It worked!

The amazing thing about both of these points is that in neither case did I actually directly talk to the instructors about this strategy. By going into the classroom and working with kids alongside the instructors, they were able to see this strategy in action. They were able to see and hear how children responded, and then figure out, what might work for them. Also, by using social media and sharing what I did in different classrooms, other instructors were able to implement similar approaches that might work for their campers. I think about what Lisa Noble has said before about visual learning, and the value in educators, consultants, and administrators, sharing their thinking and learning visibly. 

I’m not an expert here. For 10 months of the year, I happily get to live and breathe the classroom experience, and it’s this experience that I bring into my Camp Power role. I can’t help but think about the some staff members that I’ve worked with in a school setting over the years, including,

  • curriculum consultants,
  • Early Years consultants,
  • instructional coaches,
  • learning resource teachers,
  • and reading specialist teachers,

and how I’ve often hoped to have these individuals pull out students or provide me with PD in-services. Maybe there was something better — something more — that I could have looked for instead. What if we worked together in the classroom to support students? Could the best professional development happen when we actually work alongside each other? I can’t help but think about how we use documentation in the classroom for kids, and the benefits of observing children closely, and using these observations to plan next steps. Maybe when we work in the same space, together, educators do the same thing, and figure out new approaches and how to use them based on what they see and hear. Might a “sneaky approach” to professional development actually be the most effective one?