Vacation — On Hold? Cancelled? Or Something Else Altogether?

Doug Peterson‘s blog post from yesterday continues to weigh on me. I’ve never been a big vacation person and don’t usually go away in the summer — often choosing to work for part of the summer instead — but this year I had plans. 

The first vacation plan won’t seem like much of a vacation to many, but for me, I’ve been looking forward to this for months. I was off to Peterborough. Okay, maybe this is just a short car ride away, but this Peterborough trip was one that I’ve wanted to make for years but never have, as the timing has never worked out right. This year though, I was determined to attend The MEHRIT Centre‘s Summer Symposium. I was finally going to meet in person people that I’ve wanted to meet for years, and never have had the opportunity to do so. I signed up for the full week back in November, and I was counting down the days until July!

While I recognize that a conference does not usually count as a vacation, an opportunity to converse and reflect with individuals that share my passion for Self-Reg was something that I’ve wanted to do for years. And I was finally, finally, going to meet Stuart Shanker and Cathy Lethbridge: two people who I’ve wanted to meet forever! I know that my safety matters more than a conference, but my heart still aches for this cancellation. (And yes, I do realize that this is a privileged perspective, but I want to be honest here.)

The second vacation is actually not mine, but one that my sister and her family were going to make. My sister and her family live in the States, and as a result, I don’t see them very much. They were going to drive down to Ontario for my nephew’s birthday at the end of August. He hasn’t been to Canada since he was a toddler, and I was so excited to show him different spaces now that he’s a pre-teen. But with festival cancellations, pool closures, and hotel problems, they had to cancel their trip. Again, I understand why, and I know that they’re fortunate that they will be able to re-book again, but it still hurts. 

While I think that my summer will now be filled with working (from home, but still connected to education) and reading (it’s no surprise that I love to do that), I’m still missing these not-so-vacation vacations. Strangely enough this unrelated tweet that I sent out yesterday morning has actually had me thinking a lot about this vacation topic.

As others even mentioned in reply to me, it’s not only through books that people are making these connections.

The Coronavirus is taking over our lives, and having us view almost everything differently. 

  • Will books, movies, and television shows slowly start representing our COVID-19 world? Do we want them to?

  • Will social gatherings and festivals be possible again, and in the same way(s) as before? 
  • Even as the world opens up, how quickly will we go back to normal, and will this “normal” change?

I’m finding it hard to imagine life post-COVID. As much as I want my vacation options from this year to be my ones for next year, I wonder if that will be possible.

For now, I’m trying to decide when my #extendedMarchBreakRead Instagram hashtag becomes the #SummerofCOVIDReading hashtag. Maybe the move over will be more seamless than I think. For now, I’m grateful that my summer of reading can continue, even if my thoughts around these books might be impacted by our pandemic. I wonder if we all need a little bit of normal in our lives right now, no matter how small it may be. What do you think? How do you find it? Here’s to hoping that all of your summer plans keep you and your family healthy, happy, and safe … the things that matter most of all!


What If We Thought Beyond The Learning?

This morning, I read a great blog post by Dean Shareski about the purpose of school. The post really resonated with me, as it speaks to so many of the recent conversations that my teaching partner, Paula, and I have had around engagement and programming in the past couple of months. Now I feel as though I need to highlight something before I delve any deeper here: yes, learning is still important to me … to both of us. I am a proud “curriculum nerd,” and have an uncanny ability to memorize curriculum documents. I’m not sure why, and I know that this talent won’t win me any prizes at community Talent Shows 🙂 , but it’s true. Even for grades that I taught years ago, I can remember expectations and big ideas. This is hardly a brag-worthy skill, but as we delve deeper into other topics here, I don’t want to confuse anyone in thinking that I don’t believe learning matters. It does. But when we start thinking about “school” right now, and maybe reflecting on what’s missing, I wonder if we have to go beyond the learning.

In Shareski’s post, he states that,

When I think about our virtual classroom, it’s these parts of school that we really try to create. I’m not going to say that this is easy to do, and various family experiences and student realities mean that our virtual school is certainly very different than our in-person one. But Shareski’s point here got me thinking more about the conversations that Paula and I have each day. While we definitely touch on expectations and learning as part of these discussions, far more time is spent looking at how we can build and facilitate communityconnections, and just being. Here are some things that we’ve tried to make these three things possible.

Making Our “Virtual Classroom” A Family Affair – There are many parts of the Kindergarten Program Document that I love, but this quote on page 10 is one of my favourites.

While we have a few children that attend our daily meetings on their own, we have invited family members to be a part of this process from the very beginning. Sometimes siblings join in. Sometimes parents stay and participate. We love seeing the younger and older siblings that partake in our Fun Fitness Fridays, and even the parents there to exercise along with the kids and our fabulous phys-ed teacher. There are also a few parents that might be in the background, doing their own work as the kids connect online, but all of a sudden they will chime in with an idea or share something that they’ve tried at home. It’s the community feel and connections here that make me smile week after week!

Giving Water Cooler Time – I think about those movies and television shows that I used to watch, where people in the office gathered around the water cooler … to chat, to connect, and just to beWhen we were in the classroom, this water cooler time was always first thing in the morning, as children came in and grabbed a snack to bring outside. 

We don’t have this same space to connect right now, but we’re finding that by joining our online meetings a little earlier, we can have a virtual water cooler connection. This is what happened the other day, as we watched some unexpected social connections form in this virtual classroom space. The conversation here had nothing to do with academics, or a conventional impression of school, but it was so very powerful as it gave kids a chance to truly socialize. I love how a six-year-old made this connection happen, and for a small snippet of time, everyone could just be.

Finding Ways To Play Together – This week, we decided to try something a little bit different, and we invited kids to bring some food items (their choice) to our meeting time. We created food art together, inspired by some work shared by our Teacher Librarian. Then kids enjoyed a snack with their friends. While a few children decided to draw their food art instead, during this Food Art Session, we were able to virtually connect around food. It was wonderful to have parents and siblings there to “make” with us, and even helped build a community feel to this meeting time. Yes, there was learning here, but the focus was far more on the connection. We also had a child that couldn’t attend, but did her own Food Art at home, and then mom shared her creation with us. Connecting is starting to extend beyond real-time connections to those that happen over time. 

While I wish that we could make this child’s suggestion work …

… in the meantime, I’m glad that we could find some way to connect as we once did. 

I realize that none of these connections may be ideal. My heart aches for what school once was and hopefully will be again. I would give anything to safely get back into a classroom and teach as we used to do so. But for now, this is the safest option, and I’m glad that a little bit of the wonderful of school can still exist online. How might you support community, connection, and just being in your virtual classroom (whether synchronous, asynchronous, or both)? We are coming up on the last month of school, and in the classroom, this can be one of the hardest months. Engaging kids during this time, when thoughts of summer are at an all-time high, is a challenge. Now this challenge is multiplied in our virtual world. But maybe thinking about school through Shareski’s lens will help during the next four weeks. As we connect, will learning then happen … and not just academic learning, but also social-emotional learningIt might not be perfect, but it could be our best, and maybe right now, this is good enough.


Can Kids Learn Social Skills Online?

I used to get involved in many different conversations through Twitter. Pre-COVID. Maybe this was a time when life seemed less complicated and when emotions didn’t run quite so high. In the last few months, I find myself reading less tweets, and really thinking about how I want to connect online. Maybe I’ve become a little more selfish in these COVID days, and maybe it’s okay for all of us to sometimes put “us” first. With all of this in mind, it surprised even me when I chose to reply to this tweet from Andrew Campbell the other day. 

As I mentioned in my reply, I’m not sure that I totally agree.

I think that a lot comes down to how we use these online platforms, as well as the interests and needs of the students in front of us. We differentiate in the classroom, so why not online?

My teaching partner, Paula, and I have been discussing this a lot lately. As I mentioned in my last blog post, our approach to online learning has gradually shifted/evolved in the past seven weeks. While we offer a lot of asynchronous options through our class blog, we also try to support these choices through our daily class meetings. Now though, the weather is getting nicer, we’ve almost finished our second month of learning at home, some home realities have changed (with a few parents going back to work), and our numbers are slowly dropping. While for five weeks, we had 23-26/28 students consistently joining us for our daily meetings, we now have 15-19 students attending. We sent out an anonymous survey to parents to try and find out some reasons behind this trend, and if there’s anything else we can do to support different needs. The most consistent feedback is that parents wanted more small group options. 

Right now, we offer an online meeting from 10:00-11:00 every Monday to Thursday, with a 10:00-10:30 Fitness Friday meeting option, thanks to our fabulous Phys-Ed teacher. For the Monday-Thursday meetings, kids can come and go freely. We try to start with more of an interactive mini-lesson, and then children stay online and work with us. We check in on what they’re doing, provide feedback, and facilitate conversations between kids. Usually there are more students at the beginning of our meeting time, and then children leave, and we have a smaller group to end the call. While we always attempt to connect with all those interested, some students talk/share more, and maybe this is even what these kids need. During these meeting times though, a small group is usually around 8-10 kids. Maybe some students need less than this. 

Our survey results also intersected with this week’s announcement that Ontario school buildings will stay closed for the rest of this school year. While our online classroom numbers might be dwindling, the year isn’t over yet, and Paula and I are not ready to say “goodbye” right now. Maybe another small group option will increase excitement, attendance, and engagement during the final month of school. It was with these thoughts in mind that we announced our online play dates.

Thinking about the parent “Searching For Answers” in this article, I wonder if a play date would meet his child’s needs. Now maybe, at first glance, this seems less instruction-focused than some other online learning options, but connecting and extending language and math learning during child-directed play is what Paula and I do in our physical classroom every single day. It’s the very pedagogy highlighted in our Kindergarten Program Document. With fewer children in each group and less of a formal lesson, children might also be able to talk more freely with each other, and we can support the development of social and problem solving skills as well as academic expectations. Our play time might be MUCH shorter than it is in the classroom, but we wonder if this approach will allow for an even bigger focus on relationships, which we both feel is so vital to our Document and our program.

My heart breaks when I read articles like the one that Andrew tweeted. Joining an online classroom should NOT be …

  • a fight,
  • an emotional upheaval,
  • or a way to destroy the rest of the day.

If it is, maybe the format or the tool isn’t working for that child. What else might? 

But at a time when there’s so much uncertainty and disruption to normal, sometimes just seeing a friendly face meets a social and emotional need. For many of our kids, this is true. It’s why we continue with these daily meetings. For others it isn’t, and in these cases, we find other ways. What about you? In this Distance Learning world, are there ways to meet both social and academic needs, and what ways might you suggest? Let’s share approaches, and maybe all kids can benefit from our collective voices!


Is Happiness Possible?

Last weekend, I blogged about our evolving style online. At the end of the post, I shared these thoughts around our ideal distance learning classroom, and the possible problems with making this vision a reality.

On Monday after our online meeting, a discussion with my teaching partner, Paula, had me re-thinking these concerns. During our meeting, she led an interactive mini-lesson around constructing items out of recyclable materials. Things went well, and students left with some ideas to try and some construction to do, but where could we go after this? Our back-and-forth discussion had us wondering what would happen if we invited children to bring along paper, recyclable materials, craft supplies (if they had them), and/or various building materials to play and create with us. We wouldn’t have a specific lesson, but we would show and discuss some provocations with the kids, hear about their projects, and then support them in what they were doing. We’d even play alongside them. This is what learning would look and sound like in our physical classroom. Could this happen online?

We both had some reservations, but we’ve tweaked our distance learning approach over the past six weeks, and this seemed like the next logical step. We had to try it. And so we jumped in — two feet, without a life preserver, but with an optimistic view of what would happen!

And it was worth the risk, as this next tweet sums up our amazing experience.

Yes, I realize and fully admit that we’re in a privileged situation here. Paula and I do not have young kids of our own at home. We have the time to plan for this experience and to support this learning online. We have a wonderfully supportive parent group with access to the Internet, devices to use in this online learning environment, and the ability to be there to help their children login and assist them when needed. I know that this is not the reality for everyone. In fact, I’ve taught at some schools where getting online could be a challenge, even with access to devices at home, as sharing with siblings and having parental support when parents are also heading off to work, would be the reality for many. But even coming from a privileged experience and teaching in a largely privileged community, problems still exist. 

  • There are still many students sharing devices with siblings.
  • There are still parents working — inside or outside of the house — and/or having other commitments at our online class time.
  • There are still wifi and connection issues that sometimes cause children to freeze and families to leave the online meeting.

But in the midst of this, there are also moments of wonderful! I need to capture and celebrate these moments, for in such an uncertain time, it’s nice to find a reason to smile. Tuesday was one of those reasons. We even noticed that some students that tend to struggle during these online meetings seemed more relaxed, maybe from being in an environment that more closely resembles their school reality. With children able to choose their materials and listen, play, and converse far more seamlessly (Paula and I still helped facilitate the conversation so that students were not talking overtop of each other), they were less stressed. 

  • They smiled more.
  • They interacted with us and with their friends more.
  • They responded to questions and shared ideas for where to go next.
  • They got excited about learning again.

Not only did Paula and I have lots more opportunities to converse with each of the kids, hear their ideas, and make suggestions for possible next steps, but the time flew by. For the first time in over six weeks, I didn’t end an online meeting with a headacheCould feeling more at ease have reduced everyone’s stress? 

Everything felt so right that we decided to extend this play on Wednesday. Why do things never stay perfect for long?

As great as things were on Tuesday, we noticed that our numbers were slightly smaller than usual. Hmmm. On Wednesday, they were even smaller. Now I realize that this could be from any number of things, including,

  • sunny weather,
  • burnout,
  • other home plans,
  • and work commitments,

but when numbers stay consistently high for over five weeks, and then fall suddenly, you begin to wonder why. Could play be the cause? Paula and I wondered if parents wanted a more structured lesson as part of this online learning time, so we decided to combine play with a lesson, and see what happened.

On Thursday, I was even more unsure about how to interpret things. Our numbers stayed lower, and while a few kids came with materials for the more guided lesson, most children that weren’t playing on Tuesday and Wednesday, showed up ready to play on Thursday. Now what?

We’ve been asking for feedback since this distance learning began, but we decided to try a different approach and create a two question, anonymous survey asking for parental feedback and suggestions. This might have been the way to go all along! Now about 1/3 of the parents have completed the survey — much more feedback than we’ve received in the past — and with some great suggestions. Paula and I are now looking at …

  • a few different small group options,
  • other ways to blend play and mini-lessons, 
  • and different ways to elicit feedback and thoughts from kids.

As grateful as I am for supportive parents, I’m also grateful for a willingness to share insights and new ideas that we might not have considered before. Both my Twitter reflections and this survey process reminded me of something important: perspectives vary, and hearing different perspectives help us not only vocalize our thoughts, but see the world through a different lens. Thanks to those parents and educators, who helped me further think through why we do what we do, but also how we view our choices based on our life experiences. 

I’m now thinking back to my teaching experiences from the past, and wondering if I was still at one of these other schools, would I attempt to do what we’re doing now? Maybe then, what I’m considering smaller numbers, would be our daily reality … or even on the higher side. Perspective. That said, I keep returning to a Twitter conversation with Lisa Noble about her first synchronous learning experience.

For these couple of families, Lisa made a big difference. I’d like to think that even if only a few of our children attended, for those that did, we gave them what they needed. Then for others, we try a different approach:

  • maybe through some phone calls,
  • maybe through some home learning suggestions,
  • and/or maybe through our own version of this Cougar Curbside Fitness … for this honestly might be one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen! (What about Eagle Roadside Phonological Awareness … would that get people out?!)

Our current reality is not one that we could have anticipated. It was not discussed in the Faculty of Education, or focused on during any of the learning sessions that I’ve attended in the past 19 years of teaching. Just as teaching in the classroom comes with the need for reflection, change, more reflection, and more change, the same is true online. Our move to online play came out of some of our reflections, and our modifications to this play approach will come out of some more. But in this crazy world that we live in right now, it’s nice to look at a computer screen, see making, see excitement, see smiles, see learning, and find our own little bit of happy. What might yours be?


Is Talking Time Lost Time?

In our classroom, kids are always talking. Since most of our teaching and learning happens in small groups, children have many opportunities to converse with us, with their friends, and even with other educators who join our classroom space. Learning happens through conversation. I truly believe this. It’s how kids …

  • share their theories,
  • respond to questions,
  • re-evaluate their thinking,
  • socialize with others,
  • problem solve,
  • and express their emotions.

Now that school is happening online, I see this talking time through a different lens.

After our daily online meeting times, my teaching partner, Paula, and I reflect together. One thing that we talk about a lot is the talking that happens in our digital classroom space. When we first began these meetings, we noticed that many students would talk forever. Usually in the classroom, we could use some non-verbal cues to help transition from one child speaking to another.

  • Maybe it’s an open palm inviting somebody else to share.
  • Maybe it’s regular nodding to help children know that we’ve heard them, that we agree, and that they can move on with their plan. 
  • Maybe it’s just a gentle touch on the arm, which signifies to slow down, wait, and possibly give somebody else a turn.

We do all of these things without even realizing that we’re doing so, but often these small actions help with carrying and sharing a conversation. Online though, when we’re all little bubbles on a screen, non-verbal cues are much harder to read. Paula and I decided that we had to explicitly teach kids when it was time to share the microphone. We came up with an oral prompt. When one of us says, “Thank you so much for sharing,” this is the cue to let somebody else speak. We assured students that they can stay on until the end, and share additional thinking with us then. Overall, this has helped a lot, and most students have a Pavlov’s dog response to these words, but there are still some children that want to keep talking. 

This is when we feel conflicted. We can cut children off, and at times, we will ask them to wait and share more later, but we’ve also spoken a lot about why these kids want to talk so much. For over two months, they’ve been forced to stay home and stay away from others. 

  • No friends.
  • No relatives.
  • No school.

A few children have found ways to connect on FaceTime …

… but others have not. For some kids, our online class is the only time that they are connecting with people outside of their home. It’s maybe the only time that they are seeing and talking to other 4-6 year olds. And they are beyond excited to see their friends, to share their stories, to ask their questions, and to speak with other kids and adults who will listen to and hear them. 

How can we cut this off? Instead we try to find ways to link their stories to some project ideas and to suggest other spaces where they can also share all of their great ideas. FlipGrid has been amazing for this: an open area to talk, connect, and share story after storyYes, I realize that some of our class times go longer because of more talking time, and some of our online lessons take more time to complete because of a little more sharing, but maybe this is okay. Paula and I talk regularly about creating a classroom environment that’s “responsive to kids.” Is a little extra “talking time” what these kids need? How might their sharing lead to new learning for themselves and others? 

I keep thinking about one of my favourite videos from Jean Clinton about brain development in the early years.

Kids are not “empty vessels,” and the thinking and learning that they share with each other can be just as valuable as what we share with them. If I stop and really listen to the stories that students tell, I can hear,

  • theories around their view of the world,
  • new vocabulary,
  • reflections on social interactions,
  • thoughts around their self-esteem,
  • and thinking about their emotions.

No, we don’t want one child to dominate a discussion. We still actively work on asking others questions and inviting others to share, so that all voices are heard. But maybe, for some kids, these daily moments of talking time are critical. It gives them a voice outside of their homes and a little bit of normal in a sea of abnormal. I think that I needed this reminder to see things differently. What about you? I know that come Tuesday, I’ll continue to use, “Thank you for sharing,” as a way to keep the conversation going, but if a child keeps talking after the prompt, I’m hoping that I remember this post as a reminder of a possible why. For some kids, these extra minutes of talking time might make their day, their week, their year. Just as we ask kids to be patient in our online space, maybe this is a reminder for me, that as adults, patience is just as important.