Play: My #OneWord Goal

It’s the end of another year, which means that it’s also time to select my #oneword for 2019. Thanks to some inspiration from Sue Dunlop, I’ve been choosing a single word focus for the past four years. Last year, I focused on questioning. Sue got me to think even more specifically about this goal, when she questioned me on how my questions might change.

As I indicated in my reply to her, I’ve really worked on leading with questions this past year. I’m trying to let other people share their ideas first, and instead of just piping in with my own thoughts, I’m trying to express wonders to keep the conversation going. This is giving me a chance to really listen to what my colleagues, friends, and family members have to say, allowing me to appreciate different perspectives, and at times, slowly inspiring change. Sometimes, I’m really proud of my questions and the wait time I give them, and sometimes, I recognize that I need to improve. My new #oneword goal will allow me to still focus on questioning, but through a different lens. 

I thought that I had my new word figured out, and I was just formulating a blog post in my head when I ran across these two tweets about the same article that George Couros shared yesterday

It was then that I realized that my word for 2019 needs to be playI’ve blogged about “playing” many times before, and I stand up for the tremendous value in free play. 

  • Not “play” as an add-on when the work is done …
  • Not “play” as an adult-directed centre or adult-controlled task for children to complete …
  • Not literacy centres, math bins, or tabletop activities …
  • Not 20 minute blocks of time inside or outside, but extended periods to engage with peers and adults, problem solve, use materials in creative ways, and socialize …
  • And not “play” just for Kindergarten, but what play can be for all grades. 

Even with a Kindergarten Program Document that speaks to the value in “free play,” play continues to have a negative connotation in educational circles. I know that with our Board’s focus on reading in Kindergarten and Grade 1, some educators wonder how “play” aligns with these reading goals. What happens if your principal walks into your classroom and the children are playing? This is a question that I’ve regularly been asked. Here’s how I would respond.

  • I hope that he sees me observing the children as they play.
  • I hope that he sees me chatting with my teaching partner, Paula, about our observations, and making plans on how to extend the learning.
  • I hope that he sees me playing with the children.
  • I hope that he sees me documenting their learning.
  • I hope that he hears me noticing and naming the math and language learning that I observe, and then trying to extend this learning.
  • I hope that he sees the mini-lessons that happen through play, with the overarching question of, “Why this learning, for this child, at this time?”
  • I hope that he comes and joins in on the play, making sense of the learning that he sees based on his observations.
  • I hope that he uses these moments of play to spur conversations between us and the staff as a whole, about the value of play in all grades. 

Recently, we even received the message from some Reading Specialist Teachers in our Board, that reading assessments in Kindergarten should not be done in isolation, but instead, based on our observations through play. Hallelujah! If nothing else, I think this speaks to how our Board is viewing play in Kindergarten. Maybe “play” can be a good word after all. 

All of this being said though, I think back to a conversation that I had with a parent (not a Kindergarten parent, and not a parent of a child in our class) from a couple of months ago. I ran into her at a coffee shop on the weekend, and as we were waiting for our coffees, we started chatting. She shared her reservations of play-based learning based on her experiences from many years ago. This is when I shared some of the stories in this blog post, and the fact that in the past couple of years, our students have met with more reading success than in any other year of my teaching career. Play matters! The Kindergarten Program Document is an amazing resource, which can even inspire questions, wonders, and programming decisions for educators in other grades. 

So what will a focus on “play” mean for me in the upcoming year? 

  • Trying to change perceptions around “play” by sharing our classroom experiences and examples shared through social media. 
  • Bringing examples of “play” to staff meeting and PA Day discussions to help highlight the learning that happens through play. 
  • Asking questions and expressing wonders to other educators — not just those that teach kindergarten — to help inspire play-based learning in other grades.
  • Sharing examples of play in other grades — there are some good examples through Twitter and through some blog posts that I follow — to help reframe thoughts around play beyond kindergarten. 
  • Highlighting “play” in our Daily Blog Posts to continue to emphasize to parents the value of learning through play. 
  • Observe and chat with my teaching partner, Paula, about ways to improve how I can authentically play with kids. (She’s fantastic at this!) How might these play interactions impact on student achievement?

Over the years, I’ve been the teacher that was afraid to say, “We’re playing.” I called play time, 

  • learning time,
  • work time,
  • and free exploration,

but this year, I’m going to happily call it what it is: play. Who’s with me? By keeping play at the forefront of our conversations, I’m hoping to also change perceptions and improve in my ability to “play”: connecting with kids through play. Here’s to a wonderfully playful year! What’s your one word goal for the year? I hope that 2019 is a great year for everyone!


Want To Make A Difference? Give A Card.

Today’s my first day of Christmas Break. I started the day by meeting a friend of mine for brunch. As we were chatting over brunch, we started to discuss Christmas presents. I made a comment that I’ve made before: it’s not the gifts, but the kind cards that make a big difference to me. These are some phrases that will stick with me during the months to come:

  • “dedication to education …”
  • “active and involved teacher …”
  • “it’s obvious that you care about your students and strive to provide the best learning opportunities possible …”
  • “grateful for the effort you put into your work …”
  • “that yourself and Mrs. Crockett are there as surrogate moms to calm him, hug him, and guide him …”
  • “You challenge him, see his ability, and help him improve and grow …”

As an educator, one of the greatest gifts is knowing that you’re making a difference for kids. These are the words that propel me forward, and they’re the ones that I take comfort in during more challenging times. I can’t help but think about this older blog post by Sue Dunlop. While I may love electronic communication, and lose almost all papers that I receive (despite more organizational systems that you can imagine), one thing that I never lose are cards. I keep all of these notes in a great big drawer, and just as Sue does with her basket of cards, I pull some of these notes out and read them on the days that I really need them.

This drawer of cards though is not just full of notes from parents and students, but also, administrators. Sometimes I print that nice email from a principal or keep the few “thank you” cards that come my way. At the past few schools where I’ve taught, I also have principals and vice principals that write personalized notes to all staff members at Christmas time and at the end of the year. I honestly cannot imagine a better gift! Just yesterday, I received a lovely holiday card from my principal, John. For all of the kind words that he wrote, what really stuck with me was the personalization of his message. He knows that the kids are why I teach — and why I push myself as an educator — and he made this clear in his note. He also ended his card with a reference to great coffee and great booksAs many people know about me, I do love my coffee, and I do love to read

These few words in a holiday card, show that John has gotten to know me as a person as well as an educator. I appreciate both!

It’s because of administrators like John, and many others that I’ve had in the past, that I put away my iPad for a little time in the weeks leading up to the Break, and I hand write (usually with a Sharpie, as I never have a pen 🙂 ) colleagues, friends, and administrators, holiday greetings.

  • I think about my word choice.
  • I consider some anecdotes to share. 
  • I try for a combination of funny and heart-warming.
  • I make these cards personalized, as I know how much this personalization means to me.

Do you want to make a difference to someone this holiday season? What about before year-end? Write a note. A note that shares an authentic connection with the recipient. I think there’s little that’s more powerful or inspiring than that. Do you agree?


Our Ideal Writing Program — What’s Yours?

A couple of weeks ago, Doug Peterson drew my attention to this blog post by Alanna King about the ideal writing program. I commented on Alanna’s post at the time, and said that it would likely inspire a post of my own. This is that post. 

Alanna is a high school teacher, and as a Kindergarten educator, we’re about as far removed from each other as possible. That said, there are components of Alanna’s ideal writing program, which I think are equally as important for our young learners. I was particularly drawn to her sentence in the second last paragraph of her post: “Above all various community experts and authentic audiences should be employed to heighten the authenticity of the writing program.” This is something that my teaching partner, Paula, and I spend a lot of time thinking about. 

  • It’s the reason that we don’t have journals
  • It’s the reason that we emphasize writing to communicate, and we engage with children in this writing all the time. 

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There is always interest in writing milk notes. Initially N. wrote a note to go with Mya to get the milk. I encouraged Mya to do the reading of the note, and work with sounds to determine unfamiliar words. N. then read my response and wrote me a sentence to answer my question. She figured out what words to add to write a complete sentence. Then Olivia wrote me a milk note to go with Carly to get the milk. I wrote them back. Carly initially said, “I can’t read all of that,” but both her and Olivia, worked through the sounds and the familiar words to read my response. They decided to write a note to ELP 2. Carly wrote this second note. They did need their milk, and they wrote Carly back. So the two of them went to get the milk. Meanwhile, Jacqueline wrote me a milk note. While her note may be more of a combination of random letters, she separated the letters into words. She read the words — left to right across the page (pointing to each word) — asking to go and get the milk. I said that she could help tomorrow. So many literacy behaviours exhibited here too. ❤️ SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #iteachk #teachersofinstagram #ctinquiry

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  • It’s the reason that our caretakers have learned how to read Kindergarten writing, and are happy to respond to it.

  • Thanks to this approach, kids have learned that they can solve problems through writing.

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While it was drizzling outside this morning, it was also cold. Joshua realized that rain boots do not keep your feet warm in the winter. After we got undressed (kids are really working on doing so independently and quietly), we talked about what we could do to solve this problem. Joshua thought about writing a note to parents letting them know that we just need “winter boots” in the winter. During play today, he told me that he wanted to write this note. He started doing so on paper, but we wondered if the print might be harder to read. Then he moved onto an iPad. He looked at good emojis to add, and we conferenced to discuss what other sentences might be worth adding. He now has the perfect note for us to share with parents tonight. ❤️ Problem solving and some authentic writing (and reading) in kindergarten. Now to focus with Joshua on expanding on the ideas in his writing (trying to build more independence in this area). SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #ctinquiry #iteachk #teachersofinstagram

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Writing in kindergarten is different than in other grades though. Some of our students are just learning about the value of mark making, and how these marks carry meaning. While it’s so important to introduce letter-names and sounds, and show the connection to words, we have to do so at the pace that’s right for each child. I look back at some of the reading and writing examples from last year, and the growth that these students showed from the start of Junior Kindergarten to the end of Senior Kindergarten. Incredible! 

From shapes and random letters to letter-sounds and conventional spelling, this growth is amazing. I think this growth happened because …

  • all writing is embraced.
  • next steps are targeted to individual students.
  • we expand vocabulary as we also teaching reading and writing.
  • we don’t teach sight words until kids are using invented spelling skills with ease.
  • we help students see that they are writers, so they take risks as writers.
  • writing happens everywhere, in various situations, all day long.

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I like looking at the different ways that kids write. It started here with Emma making some pictures and writing words that she knows. Now to vary sentence types by sounding out words to add. N. remembered a poster she saw, but wanted to spell “colour.” Breaking the word apart into syllables with @paulacrockett helped. She also showed her a dictionary to help with some spelling. She’s moving to more conventional writing. Callum and I did some writing today based on the LEGO vehicles he made with Zakaria. He segments the words with ease, but relies on the clues on the vehicles versus the sounds to read back the words. Now to focus on more of the sounds. I love how this writing is continuing even when we leave. ❤️ SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #ctinquiry #iteachk #teachersofinstagram

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  • kids support each other. They are actually talking writing. 

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There were some interesting conversations, reading, and writing around this table today. Mya started by telling me the story of her treehouse. Emma read me her list of words, and we looked at sounds if she wasn’t sure of one. Owen figured out that we needed more paper towels, so he made a note for the caretaker. Then I had him look at circling words to make the note easier to read. I then overheard this conversation around vowel rules. I love how kids were helping edit each other’s work. We could then dig a little deeper into some vowel rules (for this group of students that are ready for this). All kinds of reasons to write! ❤️ SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #ctinquiry #iteachk #teachersofinstagram

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Our writing program is really about choice, but with regular inspiration to write. 

There is no limit to where writing can happen, and in our own, creative ways, Paula and I ensure that writing does happen each day. We also have many kids though that are excited to write, and often come up with their own ways to do so. Our writing table is a flurry of activity, which has now expanded to the carpet space. In fact, it’s been so busy, that we’ve created a new writing table … and these are only the more designated writing spots. Pencils, pens, markers, Sharpies, sticky notes, pads of paper, and clipboards are everywhere, and kids are always using them.

For me, an ideal writing program is one where,

  • kids are inspired to write.
  • they see the value in writing.
  • they see, and are encouraged, to use writing as a creative outlet.
  • they are immersed in the written word.
  • they see the connection between reading and writing, and become better — more confident — readers and writers as a result. 

Imagine if this is how all kids left kindergarten. What impact might this have for writing in future grades? What does the ideal writing program look like for you? In many ways, I think that it’s not about a formal program — but the lack of one — which makes it so very ideal.



Combatting Christmas Craziness: Are You With Me?

The holidays are coming soon, and “Christmas craziness” (which is not necessarily a bad thing, but just the reality of the season) is certainly settling in at school. While I’ve been pretty good all year long with getting out of the classroom for at least part of one of the nutrition breaks, lately I’ve found myself leaving the room for just 5-10 minutes at most. There’s just so much going on — many absolutely wonderful things included in this — and leaving seems harder than usual. Yesterday, was one of those days when leaving just wasn’t happening. I left the classroom for a total of 10 minutes: such little time that when my teaching partner, Paula, told me after school that a child had a bathroom accident, I wondered, “How did I manage to miss that?!” 🙂 (It turned out to be just as I left the second time around. Lucky timing perhaps. 🙂 ) With Crock-A-Doodle Ornament Decorating Day combined with my no prep day (and on a Friday, no less), I was definitely prepared for a little extra activity. What I wasn’t prepared for was my interaction in the hallway. 

I was on my way back to the classroom at the end of the first nutrition break, and I ran into  a child that I know in the hallway. Another educator was just behind me, and she seemed to be following the child. That’s when I stopped and looked at the student, and realized by his body language and eyes (it looked like he had been crying) that he was upset. Thinking about some of Stuart Shanker‘s work, my impression was that this child was incredibly dysregulated. I figured that the person behind me was keeping an eye on this student, but knowing the child, I thought that just one mistimed comment or abrupt action would likely send him running. What could I do? 

I started to think about the Seven Norms of Collaboration, and how Paula often uses paraphrasing to get kids talking. Could this work here? It was worth a try. I looked over at the little boy, and I said, “Billy * (* name changed here for privacy reasons), you look really sad. What’s wrong?” He looked at me and said, “I am. I wanted to go to the library. I always go to the library, but it’s closed today. Now I have to go to the gym. I don’t want to go to the gym.” Yay! He was talking to me. “Oh Billy. I can understand why that might make you sad. I like going to the library too. Maybe it will be open later, and you can go then.” He liked the thought that this might be the case, and seemed to soften a little. “Maybe it will,” he said. I then asked, “Do you want to take a breath with me? Breathing makes me feel better.” He said that he did, and so we stood in the hallway and took a couple of deep breaths together. He even reached for my hand, and we held hands for a minute while we breathed. We were pretty close to a water fountain at the time, and I knew that Billy needed to still walk further before he ended up where he needed to go. There was still time to run, and I didn’t want him to run. He seemed calmer, but was he calm enough? I said, “Do you want a drink of water before you keep going? Water makes me feel better too.” He did, and so we both stopped for a drink at the fountain. At this point, the educator that was behind me was now standing with us. “Do you want to come with me, Billy?,” she asked. He slowly started to smile and reached for her hand.

Crisis averted. Trajectory possibly changed. No matter how much I may think about Self-Reg, and everything that I learned through Foundations 1, I still make a lot of mistakes. Sometimes despite my best of intentions, I end up escalating behaviour instead of de-escalating it and/or missing the signs of that dysregulated child or adult. But sometimes it’s different when you’re an outsider. Sometimes it helps to see things through fresh eyes: removed from the situation, but in-tuned with the individual. This was what happened yesterday. As I walked back to class, I did so with the knowledge that, “Today I made a difference.” Was it this very heart-warming thought that helped me make it through some ornament making stressors? I think that it might have been. In the end, I wonder if this child helped me just as much — if not more — than I helped him. Heading into the school week before the holiday break, let’s all remember the extra stressors at play, and how one kind word, listening ear, gentle touch, or softer tone may make a difference for a child that’s immersed in “Christmas craziness” and the routine changes that this brings. Hallways are busy places. It’s easy to stay focused on the movement from Point A to Point B, and miss everything in between. What might happen though if each day this week, we stopped and connected with one child? An unexpected child. A child that might need us most of all. How might our perceptions of this child change? How might the actions of this child change? We all have five days to make a difference. This is my goal for the week. Who’s with me?


Christmas? Holidays? Is The Name What Matters Most?

It’s December, which means that everyone is talking about the holidays. Whether at school, during my Leadership Course, or at home, I can’t help but get immersed in conversations around celebrations, presents, and upcoming plans. As many people know, I’m Jewish. My step-dad isn’t though, so for most of my life, I’ve celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah.

  • Sometimes this involves lighting the menorah while opening presents around the Christmas tree.
  • Sometimes this involves a family dinner that includes both turkey and potato latkes.
  • And sometimes this involves a whole month of celebrations, when Hanukkah and Christmas dates don’t align.

I love the ability to celebrate a bit of everything, and in many ways, personalize the holidays. I’ve been to a Christmas Eve service at church, and I’ve also been to many Hanukkah parties. Both are special, and I’m thrilled that I’ve had both experiences.

Teaching at seven different schools over the years, I’ve observed and participated in many holiday experiences. I’ve seen,

  • carol sings,
  • hot chocolate parties,
  • Christmas lunches,
  • holiday songs,
  • Christmas songs,
  • Hanukkah songs,
  • and many plays of the same variety.

For me, the name doesn’t matter. Call it a “holiday assembly/song/play/lunch/party,” call it a “Christmas assembly/song/play/lunch/party,” or call it any combination of the two. With whatever we’re calling it though, let’s not forget about some small things that could make a big difference for everyone. For example, a few weeks ago, a teacher that I know (I didn’t ask her to include her name here, so I’ll keep it anonymous) mentioned having a Christmas lunch at her school. How wonderful is that?! It’s great, except for the fact the turkey is not Halal, so most of the kids and some of the staff couldn’t eat it. A small thing, but something that could make a HUGE difference for kids, adults, and their sense of belonging. This example reminded me of a few years ago when we had a hot chocolate party at school. The School Council made hot chocolate for everyone. A mom on the committee mentioned that marshmallows contain gelatin, so some of our families couldn’t have them. I told School Council members that they could purchase Kosher marshmallows (which would also be Halal) down at a nearby Fortino’s. They did this: allowing all students to enjoy marshmallows and hot chocolate. A small, but significant, decision. Sometimes it’s the smallest decisions, which can make the biggest impact. 

Recently, I was out with a good friend, and we were discussing this very topic. She said something which stuck with me. She mentioned how a Christmas tree is almost like a “Canadian tradition. It’s part of our culture.” I think that she might be right. The real story of Christmas doesn’t involve,

  • a tree,
  • reindeers,
  • elves,
  • or Santa Claus.

Have these instead become non-denominational symbols which tie us all together? As big a Grinch as I can be — and trust me, I’m one of the biggest there’s something about a decorated tree, some great Christmas songs (Step Into Christmas is my very favourite), and special times together, which are hard not to love. 

I know, understand, and support the importance of making sure that everyone feels included at this time of the year. Sometimes I wonder though if maybe this can be easier than we think. Maybe it’s in the little things that matter the most, and maybe there’s a part of all holidays that everyone can enjoy. For all the time that we can spend dissecting the wording of “Christmas” versus “holidays,” little of the same thinking seems to come into play when celebrating Easter in classrooms. Why is that? What if we saw the tree, reindeer, elves, and Santa Claus as just as non-denominational as the bunny, the baskets, and the chocolates? Would this change things? 

At times, I’ve wondered about not celebrating anything, but is this really the answer? Right now, our kids are eagerly discussing their Christmas trees, elves on the shelf, and holiday gatherings. One of our Kindergarten students even wrote a play for us to perform. We’re certainly celebrating Christmas, while also discussing other holidays/celebrations: trying to be responsive to kids, teach some new things, and not forget about the big and little elements, which could make a difference this holiday season. 

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After discussing The Elf on the Shelf this morning, Mya decided to make a little elf book for her elf. She first wrote “I love you,” with this first sound in each word. Then she started to think of more complex sentences, and sounded out each word. Callum was excited to help her with this at the eating table. As she was cleaning up the paint today, she said to me, “Where is my elf book?” Where would the tiniest book be? I was worried, but she found it, and read it to me. She figured out most words, and even did a little sounding out. I want to keep building confidence in this strategy. Best of all though, as she was getting ready for home, Mya reflected on her book last year versus this year. She’s seeing her growth as a learner. ❤️❤️❤️ SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #ctinquiry #iteachk #teachersofinstagram

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Assembling this stick Christmas tree was no small feat. Tommy helped figure out where the branches belonged. He kept measuring the branches during the process to determine the size of the one that needed to come next. The wire was hard to use though, and it was frustrating when someone walked nearby and caused it to break. Joshua really persevered with the wire. He learned how to wrap it around and cut it. Then Cohen and Brooke came along to help. Joshua supported them. I love how careful they’re being even as they climb up and down on the chair. Joshua was excited to feel comfortable enough to work from this height this year. Brooke then began to hang the pine needle pieces. Do we need to collect more tomorrow? There was also a big discussion on the star. Could we tape it? Use wire? What would we make it out of? Joshua thought paper, and he merged his idea with Tommy’s. This tree isn’t done yet … SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #ctinquiry #iteachk #teachersofinstagram #cti_celebrationsandtraditions

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How do you address the holidays at school? How do we ensure that everyone belongs? I think it’s the feelings of belonging and love, which may matter most of all.  What do you think?