Wonderful Weekly Moments: What Are Yours?

Kids amaze us! They do so all the time. I remember reading somewhere once — I wish now that I remembered where — that when we see kids as “competent and capable” (a key tenet of The Kindergarten Program Document) that we shouldn’t be surprised when they show us that they are exactly that! Somehow though, as impressed as I always am with our incredible 30 kindergarten students, they still manage to say and do things every day to raise that bar just a little bit higher. This week, we’re about to begin a new month, and my full calendar tells me that we’re almost in the middle of the April/May/June school year experience. As I mentioned in my last blog post, I’m really committed to celebrating the wonderful in these remaining months. The recent surprises below have definitely been my weekly-ish wonderful. 🙂

Wonderful Moment #1: Love! Our students treat each other like family, and they support each other as they would support family members. I continue to be amazed how much love and kindness they demonstrate without any prompting from us. The world is in good hands with this kind of love around!

Wonderful Moment #2: Unexpected Vocabulary Usage A number of years ago, I attended a summer institute at the Board, where a Speech Pathologist spoke to us about the importance of introducing new vocabulary to kids. She said something to me that I didn’t know, and that I also questioned at the time: “If you continue to use the same terms in different contexts on multiple occasions, kids will pick them up. Now I’m a word nerd, and I love to learn new vocabulary myself, but I wondered if children would really start using specialized vocabulary even if they heard these words many times. Thankfully I work with an amazing teaching partner, Paula, who does what this Speech Pathologist suggested almost organically. And it works! Listen in the videos below, as kids read, write, and use terms including acronym, objective, momentum, and materials in different contexts. Yes, even our youngest learners should be introduced to these kinds of terms. 

Wonderful Moment #3: Growth Identified Many educators know that I’m not a fan of standardized assessments. I really believe in the benefits of pedagogical documentation, and how much learning we can see when we look and listen closely to kids. We can determine next steps through these kinds of observations, much as we can from other assessment data. Now, there are times during the year when I do more formal assessments, and when I see growth through them, I do get excited. One of these times even inspired a tweet of mine a couple of weeks ago.

That said, as exciting as this time was, the DRA (reading assessment) just confirmed what I already knew about this child as a reader. Often though, the less formal assessments are done by Paula and I, and we’re the one interpreting the data. It then came as a wonderful surprise yesterday when our caretaker came in to comment on some notes that children wrote him. They’ve been writing him notes all year, and so, he could also see and “assess” their growth. Listen as he comments on these notes below. Confirmation from others that the growth that you see is also seen by them, makes for a wonderful way to end a Friday!

It’s often these unexpected and terrific surprises that lift us up, even when we don’t realize that we need this. Parents, educators, and administrators, what are some of your wonderful surprises? I may already be breaking my #CelebrateAprilMayJune rule, but as the educational troublemaker that I am, maybe this comes as no surprise. 🙂 Some rules are meant to be broken, especially when it comes to sharing a little extra joy.


Dear Educators, Let’s #CelebrateAprilMayJune!

There are many educators whom I had the pleasure of meeting online before I ever met them in person. Peter Skillen is one of these educators. He’s passionate, funny, devoted to students and learning, and someone who always makes me think. Working with Peter a number of times through Minds on Media made me even more committed to a constructivist approach to learning for adults as well as for kids, and without him even knowing it, he’s changed how I deliver PD. Thank you, Peter! 

Recently, Peter blogged an open letter to Ontario educators. It’s one of my favourite blog posts of Peter’s, and it reminds me why what we do in the classroom continues to be so very important. It’s not that we should ignore politics, but we should also remember that our kids may not know this other reality. They need us. They need the best of us.

  • They need our smiles.
  • They need our creativity.
  • They need our engaging lessons and activities.
  • They need our hard questions.
  • They need our support. 
  • They need our love.

I keep thinking about the comment that Peter left me in reply to my comment on his post. 

April, May, and June are often seen as the three busiest months of the year in education. They usually blend into each other. For us now, we’re almost through one of these months. Without a doubt, the current political climate will add an extra layer of stress and uncertainty to the next couple of months — and likely many more after that — but maybe we all need to think about Peter’s wise words. For the remainder of the school year, I’m going to make sure that I share at least one thing a week from the classroom that excites me, inspires me, makes me laugh, and/or makes me feel proud. I tend to be a big sharer anyway, so maybe this goal doesn’t seem like such an overwhelming one, but I’m really going to think about this proud teacher moment. We all have them. Sometimes it’s a small thing and sometimes it’s a big one, which makes the biggest impact. But maybe in the midst of conflict, we also need to highlight the positives.

Extreme Kindness For A Friend, Which Certainly Becomes My #CelebrateAprilMayJune

All that I ever wanted to do was teach. Some of my favourite moments are in the classroom. I feel very lucky to get to do what I love every day. I don’t go to “work.” I go to “school,” and nothing could make me happier than that. I may not love our uncertain educational future, but I do love teaching, and I do want to celebrate that! Please share some of your exciting teaching moments in the comments below or on Twitter at #celebrateAprilMayJune. Let’s highlight the impact that we make on kids, and celebrate the joy that is teaching. For me, teaching is way more than a 10 month job, and I know that I am not alone!


When, Where, And Why Do Sight Words Matter?

Sight words. I’ve had different experiences and thoughts around sight words over the 16 years that I’ve taught Kindergarten to Grade 2. I used to always introduce The Popcorn Word Song early in the year, and even ran some guided reading groups over the use of this song. Last year, my teaching partner, Paula, and I talked a lot about how we would approach the instruction of sight words. If I started to look critically at my past practices, I would note that while many children started to recognize the sight words out of context (i.e., in the song and on the word wall), they were not reading these sight words correctly in context. Nor were they spelling them correctly. Why? It was this question, and the conversation that Paula and I had around it, which changed our approach to sight word instruction.

We now introduce sight words as part of authentic reading and writing opportunities. Having students write notes to us, and writing back to them, have been great ways to do this. Paula and I are very deliberate in our word choices. We know which children are learning to recognize some very beginning sight words (e.g., I, a, the), and which children are ready for more challenging words (e.g., here, there, because). We vary our notes based on our students, and we focus on different words depending on them.

Many students still spell sight words using letter-sounds, which becomes a problem for a word such as “of” or “my.” This is where I think that knowing your students is critical. When children are ready to move to more conventional spelling, and are even starting to do more conventional writing on their own, we may look at editing specific sight words. This is what I did in the example below in the case of the word “of.” The fact that this child could read the word correctly, had me getting her to look for when to also write it correctly.

This kind of editing makes its way into other types of writing experiences, such as in the examples below when this child is writing multiple sentences and even a story in one case. Looking back at some specific word endings, as well as the spelling of certain words, seems appropriate for her considering what she is sharing.

Now that many of our students are connecting oral sounds to text in various ways — in both JK and SK — we’ve changed our morning transitional activity to align with this growth. We now try a couple of different ways to get students using sounds to write words, exchanging vowel sounds, consonants, consonant blends, and digraphs to spell and read different words, and embedding sight words as part of this writing to improve reading fluency.

As we’re well into April/May/June — the three months that often seem to combine themselves in education due to the speed at which they come and go — Paula and I have spent a lot of time looking at our students. We’re really focused on our SK children, as they move into Grade 1, and considering where they are in terms of their reading and writing skills. Fifty-percent of our SK students are well above the Board benchmark in reading. As a class of readers and writers, these are some of the strongest students that we’ve ever had moving into Grade 1.

Compared to even previous years, this year we’ve spent the least amount of time in isolation focusing on sight words, but our students are reading even more of them. We know that some children are exposed to these words through flashcards and games at home. This has built confidence for some kids, and a bigger sight word vocabulary, but some of these same children are more reluctant to use letter-sounds to decode unfamiliar words in print. Does working with letter-sounds first help increase a willingness to use them more independently in different contexts? On Thursday afternoon, Paula and I are out at a Board PD session that’s going to focus a lot on sight word knowledge. We’re curious to hear what other educators do and what they notice. We wonder if learning sight words in context increases children’s ability to read and use them with ease, while still using other decoding strategies to figure out unfamiliar words. Is timing key when it comes to sight word acquisition? Paula and I would love to say that our observations from this year make our sight word approach one worth continuing to explore, but knowing that at least some children are playing with sight words in a different way at home, is a combined approach necessaryCould the connection between school and home be what’s key here? We know that Thursday’s PD session will bring opportunities to question and to reflect, but in the meantime, we’d also like to hear more about your approach. What role do sight words play in your writing and reading program, and what have you noticed about this role and the connection to how students view themselves as writers and readers? Please continue to push our thinking as we continue to push our own.


“Can You Help Me Move This Branch?” A Tale Of Passion, Perseverance, And Problem Solving!

Every week, there are different classroom experiences that really capture my attention. This week, it was the experience of one child that inspired this blog post.

It all started on Tuesday, when Cohen decided that he wanted to build a mini-forest in the junior field, which borders our forest. As other children were looking for worms, he enlisted the help of two children in moving logs and finding items to replant in this forest. The mud was still pretty frozen, but Cohen dug hard to ensure that the items remained standing. He had some serious perseverance as he started to make a new forest.

Of course, when returning to our forest space on Wednesday, Cohen realized that his mini-forest was destroyed. He didn’t get upset though. Instead, he started building his forest again, and with some questions from me, began to think about how he could keep this one standing.

At After Care on Wednesday night, Cohen noticed that his forest was gone again. No problem though! He wondered if creating a small forest in our kindergarten pen space would be better, and he got to work on that. The wind on Thursday morning made it harder for his logs and bushes to stay standing, so Cohen developed a new plan instead. What about transporting the logs out to the bigger forest to rebuild out there? He enlisted the help of some friends, and then worked hard with one child to carry the heavy log all the way out to the forest space. Cohen started to think differently today though. He wondered if building his mini-forest closer to the bigger one would keep it safe. Another child helped him plant, and while they stuck to smaller bushes and sticks, they still got everything standing even in the snow, rain, and wind.

On Friday, Cohen was thrilled to see that his plan worked. Building a smaller forest closer to a bigger one ensured that nobody destroyed his work. He could now add to his mini-forest. It was his mom’s comment though, which we added to the Instagram post below, that totally melted my heart today. Cohen’s motivated by more than just building a forest! He wants to give people without a home, a place to live. This young child is thinking about big solutions to a big problem, and I’m reminded again about just how “competent and capable” kids can be!

It was with this very thought in mind that I needed to pause when Cohen came to ask me for help on Friday morning. He wanted to move a huge branch to his little forest space. “Not to stand up,” but instead to be “like a log.” I didn’t think that I could help, but I didn’t say, “no.” I watched carefully as this child enlisted the help of many other kids to move this branch. They couldn’t do it, but they didn’t give up.

I was so inspired by his dedication that I used Cohen’s branch dilemma in our shared reading/interactive writing text for the day.

I’m not sure if any of the suggestions will help, although I do wonder if Cohen will get his “wrestling men” support come Monday. A little strangely perhaps, I find myself cheering for this six-year-old and the relocation of this enormous branch. Either that, or I really want him to develop an alternative option instead.

You see, I can’t help but think about one of the conversations that I had at my Reading Part 2 Course yesterday morning. We were talking about risk-taking, and how taking risks in other areas can also transfer to taking risks in reading and writing. Risk-taking. Perseverance. Problem solving. These are skills that readers and writers need, but they’re also skills that are developed in so many ways, including in a forest space.

Thank you, Cohen, for letting me get into your head this week and seeing the tremendous pay-off that can happen with passion, persistence, and problem solving. For parents, educators, and administrators, how do you support kids in achieving big goals, learning from mistakes, and persisting through challenges? I think that we can all learn something from Cohen’s mini-forest adventures.


Winning Tactics For Radical Bulletin Boards

I almost always start my day by reading Doug Peterson‘s blog posts. On Thursday, he issued a hilarious challenge in his post with lists of creative blog post titles all focused on Ontario education. While his post was tongue-in-cheek, I do like a good challenge. I’ve also been contemplating a blog post of my own about bulletin boards since reading this tweet by Sam Hammond. This is that post.

I’m not looking to delve into Doug Ford’s claim here, but I am looking to suggest a few radically different kinds of bulletin board options. When I look on Pinterest and even in Hammond’s tweet, I see the kinds of picture perfect bulletin boards that I’ve never had before.

  • First of all, I can never hang anything that straight no matter how hard I try. I’d love a world where crooked is the new normal. 🙂
  • Secondly, my bulletin board space is never that well-organized. I think that I’m spacing things out well, and then objects overlap, I run out of room, or I have a huge chunk left in the board to fill with a really big piece of work, an awkward decoration, or a large hole. 
  • Finally, I never want to spend that long on bulletin board decor. I applaud those that do invest this kind of time, but when I see these beautiful displays, I always think, that would take me hours to do. What will I have to sacrifice to make that happen? Some of the displays are also very season-specific, which makes me wonder how many times I would need to change the board. Ahh!! The thought of changing a board that often causes me stress. 🙂

It’s for all of these reasons that I started to think differently about bulletin boards. In the past few years, my teaching partner, Paula, and I have come up with a number of different ways to use our bulletin boards that work for us (two people who are very creative without being very artistic) and for our students. Most of our decisions come down to two important questions.

  • What’s the purpose of this bulletin board space?
  • Who’s the audience for this bulletin board space?

With the answers to these questions in mind, we now have three major uses of these bulletin board spaces: none of which include borders, decorations, or purchased items.

  • As a place to share our evolving thinking/learning around an inquiry topic. We were inspired by Rhonda Urfey, another teacher in our Board, who posted some of her documentation on her class’ water bottle inquiry a few years ago. We loved the use of the lines to connect the different areas, and the information about each part of the process, to show how it evolved. Her bulletin board contained information, work samples, photographs, and objects, and we wanted to also use our boards to show the observations, conversations, and work products involved in an ongoing inquiry. Since Paula and I are unlikely to redo bulletin boards frequently, we decided to pick topics that are ongoing. The Environment this year, and our Letter Inquiry last year, were perfect examples of this. 

  • As a place to highlight the writing continuum. In Kindergarten, students are often at various stages of a writing continuum. We want all children to feel comfortable and confident as readers, writers, and mathematicians, and we know that this often happens when they can see themselves in the learning environment. This doesn’t necessarily mean seeing their work, but it does mean seeing the kind of work that they do. So if there are “scribble writers,” it’s valuable for them to see examples of this, and realize that this is a valuable part of the writing process before moving onto random letters. This often seems to help with risk-taking. Just like in the example above, we love how students visit this kind of bulletin board often, and even add to it. This allows us to extend the display together and make children part of the display process. 

  • As a workspace. We often cover our long back bulletin board with brown paper and create murals or other writing/drawing/painting/art experiences together. There is something incredibly calming for many children as they stand up high and face a board to create. At times, we wonder if it creates an illusion of quiet: something that is hard to come by in a kindergarten classroom with 30 children and no full wall between us and the room next door. We love the creativity and storytelling that comes from these kinds of activities. With the brown paper, it’s also easy for students to recover the board and start again.

Compared to many bulletin boards that I’ve seen online, these examples are …

  • far less perfect
  • and ever-changing without always starting again,

but they are also …

  • created with the kids,
  • accessed by the kids,
  • highlighting the process as well as the product,
  • and inspiring further work and learning in the classroom.

We love these imperfect, “radical” bulletin boards. What about you? What are your radical bulletin board ideas, and how do they benefit your kids? I’d always welcome some new inspiration!