September’s Time Took Me To October and November’s Observation

This year, I’ve been inspired by Beth Lyons to pick #oneword a month to help guide my reflection for that month. I’ve really struggled with my word for October. It’s so late in the month now that I considered not posting anything at all. My teaching partner, Paula, and I have continued to focus on September’s word of “time,” even as we’ve made it far into another month. While our students have been so excited to return to school and reconnect with friends, we’ve been thinking about time in other ways.

  • There’s the “time” to make Self-Reg and well-being a priority and consider what that actually looks like in the classroom.
  • There’s the “time” to support the development of academic skills through play, and the decisions around when we might extend some of this learning versus when the social interactions and problem solving during play might actually be the biggest (or most important) learning.
  • There’s the “time” to let new relationships form as seating arrangements change and different connections begin to happen.
  • There’s the “time” to just sit back, observe, and listen to play to get a better feel for the room and a better understanding of both kids and of ourselves. It’s this last point that connects to my new word: observation.

Yesterday morning, I was chatting with Paula before the students came in. I mentioned to her how much I learn about developing relationships with students by observing her in the classroom. I’m going to say here what I said to Paula at the time: “I wish everyone could see you in action.” There’s something about how she connects with kids that’s special. I think that part of it is how authentic she is when talking with them. They know that she wants to be there and they know that she’s interested in what they have to say. She also gets down to their level. She gets on the floor and plays alongside them. Yes, at times she records as she plays, but at other times, she just plays, and I love that just as much. I have to do that more. There’s so much connecting that happens as you get lost in the learning together. Paula also turns so much into songs: if it’s about gluing popsicle sticks or tidying up a mess, everything is to a tune. An educator once told me that children hear song at a different level, so they respond to it differently. The child that won’t clean up when you ask will do so when you sing it to a tune. Try it! I channel my inner-Paula at every clean up time, and it always works.

I was thinking more about observation when our principal, Tracy, came for a visit. Tracy visits frequently, but it’s not just for a walk-through. For her, the visits are about truly connecting with kids. I’ve already blogged once about my learning from her, but yesterday, she had me reflecting even more. We say that we learn from children, but how do we show that?

Often when Tracy visits, I’m involved with other children, and I see her appear, but I don’t watch all of her interactions. Yesterday made me think more about the nuggets of wisdom that we can glean from observing other educators in action.

This then took me to the news that I received after school yesterday: we’ll be getting a teacher candidate beginning next week until the end of January. Paula and I were chatting about this in the car as she drove me after school to pick up my car from the mechanic. What are some of the key takeaways that we might want for this teacher candidate? One is how we use our observations of students and of the classroom environment to inspire changes and provoke new learning. Another one is how we use our observations of ourselves — through video recordings and discussions as a team — to drive our professional goals and change our practices. Again, it comes down to observations: both of students and of ourselves.

With all of this in mind, for the remaining days of this month and into next month, observation will be my goal. This will be about observing other educators (including my principal, my teaching partner, and our teacher candidate) with the goal of changing and improving my own practices, as well as observing my interactions with students to reflect on what else is possible and what might continue to make things better. Yes, knowing me, some of these observations will be documented with photographs and videos, so that I can look back at them and reflect more, but I’m also going to try to spend some time just watching and listening without a device. What new learning might I glean when the device is away? I see possibilities here for personal and professional growth, and I’m excited to delve into new learning as I make observation an even bigger priority.


Our Own Giving Tree Story: A Tale Of Love, Empathy, And Learning

For just slightly more than a week, my teaching partner, Paula, and I have been able to watch and listen to the most amazing student-led learning outside each day. It all started last Thursday when I was away. A child began talking to Paula as he went to get some tape for a tree. Tape? A group of children wanted to perform “tree surgery” for the branch that was broken on one of the trees in our mini-forest space.

One child expressed concern that the taping could be “littering.” What about nature bandages? What could they use? A. already started to wrap flexible stick pieces around the lower rungs of the tree. Paula pointed out that this was like a “nature bandage.”

The learning didn’t stop here. After looking back at the video of the tree surgery before heading outside the next morning, many children returned to the tree to see how it was doing. They decided that the tree needed water. This led to collecting puddle water for the tree and feeding it together. They even created jobs for all of the tree workers.

When this week, we looked at some Andy Goldsworthy art to extend on some of the flower and leaf cutting happening outside and in the classroom, a group of kids worked together to create nature art in the tree. I didn’t realize until today that this broken tree was the one that they chose for the art. I wonder now if this was a purposeful decision to add a little colour and life to this tree.

Then on Thursday, a child came to get me almost as soon as we got outside. As she said, “Something is happening that we do not like.” The tree branch was falling again, and children were trying to hold it in place. E. got me a nature tie and I tied it up. K. then got me another one for some added security. It wasn’t long before J. was filling up buckets of soil and dumping them on the tree. He was “making the tree better with soil.” It’s incredible to hear and see the regular acts of kindness for this broken tree.

Then yesterday came. Once again, a group of children returned to fix the tree ties and provide the tree with food, water, and love.

After school, as Paula and I were reflecting on the day, we spoke about this tree. We couldn’t help but return to this wonderful post that Janet Raymond shared with us recently.

The Facebook Post Shared With Us By Janet Raymond

Without a doubt, this tree is their friend. Every day, combinations of different children come to check on this tree.

  • They give it food and water.
  • They find and tie the nature bandages again.
  • They give it hugs, talk gently to it, and show and tell the tree how much they love it.

At an age where children are largely self-absorbed, this tree is helping them show and care about something beyond themselves. It’s one of the greatest examples of empathy that we have ever seen, and often pushes us close to tears. Even more incredibly, the kids are largely self-motivated to go and check on this tree and care for it. The only thing that we do is show the documentation from the day before to maybe spark some further curiosity. The follow-up is driven by them.

While I realize that we will not be able to save this tree, just like this branch experience from a few years ago, I really wish that we could. If or when the branch breaks more, I wonder what our kids might do. Will they come up with another way to save it? How might they eventually commemorate their love and the loss of this precious tree?

Yes, every day we begin outside for about 1 1/2 hours — rain, wind, snow, or shine — and while we provide some provocations and talking points on the SMART Board each morning before we head out, this time is largely planned by kids.

  • They decide what materials to bring out with them.
  • They decide how to use the space.
  • They choose what to do.
  • And they modify their plans when “big kids” arrive and cohorts need to separate.

Looking back on this tree experience, I would say that this time outside is very well spent. What do you think? This little broken tree is bringing out the kindness, love, and compassion in each of our young learners, and for this, we are so incredibly grateful.


“Maybe The Tooth Fairy Uses The Pronoun, ‘They'”: A Kindergarten Look At Gender

Sometimes children surprise us in the most wonderful of ways, and make us reconsider what else might be possible in the early years.

Today’s post — and story — begins back in September, when my teaching partner, Paula, and I heard this conversation around the picnic table outside.

We wondered if it was time to read What Riley Wore — a wonderful book recommended to us last year by Beth Lyons — to extend this conversation about clothing choices and to help dispel stereotypes. This is what began to happen on September 17th when Paula read What Riley Wore to the class.

We love how one student remembered reading this book online last year, which might have also provided additional schema to help with our discussion.

Now fast-forward about three weeks, and here is a transcript of the conversation that Paula and I overheard during group time.

Since hearing this discussion, time and time again, we’re hearing similar student statements as we watch video clips about different topics (e.g., the creation of characters for stories) and/or ones that include various characters (e.g., such as the fairies that many of our students are currently so excited about). Children are very insistent that clothing choices, vocal qualities, and actions do not determine a person or character’s gender.

We’ve been thinking more about this, for while these daily discussions show how much students are thinking about gender, during small world dramatic play, usually characters take on the more stereotypical gender roles and appearances. Is this because we are choosing certain pronouns when talking about the characters with these kids and/or because friends are choosing these same pronouns when having conversations during play with their classmates? How might we invite the conversations and application of learning that’s happening in the full class into the small world dramatic play?

As much as The Kindergarten Program Document supports it, before this year, I think that Paula and I wondered how we could discuss gender with our students and build acceptance and understanding about what seemed like such a huge and complex topic for three-, four-, and five-year-olds. Reflecting though on our view of the child in The Kindergarten Program Document, if we truly believe that kids are “competent, capable of complex thinking, curious, and rich in potential and experience” (page 10), then how are we discussing bigger issues with kids and allowing these conversations to flourish past the initial discussion? Our students remind us daily what is possible, while also having us contemplate where to go next. What about yours?


Whatever Happened To … The Fallen Tree?

Every Sunday, Doug Peterson writes a Whatever Happened To post, which allows us to reflect on memories and share experiences from the past. Today, I couldn’t help but write my own post, inspired by a Facebook message by Janet Raymond that my teaching partner, Paula, texted to me yesterday.

Thanks to Janet for letting me share her Facebook message here.
The photographs from Janet’s Facebook message that she also gave me permission to share.

Unlike some of Doug’s weekly blog posts, I know what happened to this fallen tree. I don’t know all of the reasons why it was removed, but just like Janet, I realized that at some point it might be. The actual moment though brought me to tears. This tree was so much more than just a broken tree.

For me, this tree is where Paula and I learned to trust each other. It was instrumental in creating our strong partnership. When I first moved to Rousseau School, I was so excited about the forest that was part of its property. We could now take children to the forest without filling out permission forms and arranging for volunteers. Reading The Kindergarten Program Document, which was new at the time, I realized that outdoor learning was a key component of the Document, and I was excited to see the possibilities in this amazing space. Paula took me and the rest of the class to the forest area early in the school year, and a big attraction was the fallen tree. While I knew, and truly believed, that kids are “competent and capable” as emphasized in the Program Document, I couldn’t seem to walk away from the tree as children climbed and played on it. Was it safe? Could we trust kids up there? I still remember the day that I stood at the bottom of the tree and started this very conversation with Paula. She helped me see how careful students were being on this fallen tree, how they were only taking the risks that they were ready to take, and how they were safely supporting their peers as they climbed. She gave me the confidence to let go and to gradually step away from the fallen tree as students explored it. This was our first of many in-depth discussions that helped us see each other’s points of view and respect what the other person had to offer to the conversation. The magic that is our partnership now — six years in the making — began at the bottom of this tree.

This tree is where we helped show others the learning potential that can happen outside. It’s where we captured conversations around risk-taking and math thinking that extended to our indoor classroom. It’s also where we explored with Dr. McNeil, when he came from Let’s Talk Science, and helped us learn more about insects.

The fallen tree was also part of our incredible visit with Dr. Jean Clinton, four years ago now.

Yes, for both of these visits, we went beyond this one tree into the forest, but the fallen tree is where each one started. Our forest love began at this tree.

For the kids, the tree is where relationships began. Friendships started as children sat together on this big tree, enjoyed a snack outside, and socialized with each other in some different groupings than they might have in other areas of the classroom or outdoors.

The fallen tree is where children learned to support each other, while also becoming more accepting of each other. Sometimes it was about waiting for the child to climb down the tree while others might be able to move a lot quicker. Sometimes it was moving back off the tree so that a child that couldn’t get over the hump could get off. Sometimes it was cheering on those students that weren’t sure if they could do it, and letting them know that they had friends behind them. And sometimes it was being accepting of the fact that there was more than one safe way to get down this tree, and differences are good.

The fallen tree is where children learned to take safe risks. Time and time again, Paula and I saw that the risk-taking that happened outdoors transferred indoors, as children started to take risks in reading, writing, and math learning.

Yesterday, as Janet and I were texting back and forth about this blog post, she shared with me a great post that came across her Facebook feed.

For numerous students and families at Rousseau, this tree was their friend. It was one of those special relationships that are nurtured through each visit, each climb, and each social interaction there. I know that eventually everything comes to an end, and maybe it was time for this tree to go. My hope is that children and educators can find another special forest space — be it the nature swing, the big log, the mini-forest area, or something else altogether — where new generations of kids can have these same experiences that they had on this fallen tree.

At our new school, we don’t have a forest on the property, but the small trees in one space that our kids call, “the mini-forest,” and our world’s smallest “mountain,” have become the areas where our students connect, take risks, explore together, and support each other in different ways.

What are your memories of this fallen tree or other trees that might have been equally as special to you? At a time when COVID restrictions limit many interactions inside, these outdoor moments become even more important. Rousseau’s fallen tree might be gone, but the memories remain, and I hope that new ones can be made in the magical forest space where strong relationships for kids and adults began and were nurtured thanks to the loveliest of imperfect trees.

A couple of more tree memories.

How Do You Enter And Leave A Room?

This is my sixth year teaching with Paula. There are many things that Paula’s taught me over the years, but one that stands out might not seem that significant to others, but it’s a choice that I’ve returned to often: there’s no need to announce yourself as you return to or leave from the classroom. While I’ve picked up this habit through my years teaching with Paula, and if anything, will just quietly mention to her that I’m coming or going, we never really chatted about why we make these choices. This changed on Thursday though after a classroom visit from our wonderful principal, Tracy.

Tracy’s come into our classroom a few times now, and every time that she does, it’s with the quietest of moves. She comes in low: getting herself low to the ground, so that she can easily connect with the students. For her, it’s not necessarily about chatting with every child, although she does make time to visit with all those that want to visit with her. She takes genuine interest in what kids are doing: not in a loud way to attract the attention of everyone, but in a quiet way, to show children that she’s there for them. There were so many things about Tracy’s recent visit that are worth blogging about …

  • From her kneeling on the floor and chatting with kids …
  • To her being vulnerable enough to learn from them and open enough to let children co-regulate her.
Listen to the video on the very last page of this post. You can hear Tracy and the kids in the background.

But when the day was over and Paula and I reflected on this visit, we kept returning to how Tracy came and left the classroom and why these choices mattered. This classroom visit wasn’t about her. It was about building relationships with students and connecting with us. She showed tremendous respect for their play by not interrupting it, but adding to it, which meant that when she left, the room was as calm as when she entered. The play and creating continued. Is this why Paula and I don’t announce our comings and goings to the class? As soon as we do,

  • the attention is taken away from what children are doing,
  • the volume in the classroom gets louder,
  • and the settled feeling disappears.

No longer is there that feeling of calm.

Speaking of calm, Tracy’s approach also made us feel better. Even after 20 years of teaching, principal walkthroughs usually make me want to throw up. I know, and believe, in the benefits of principals being in the classroom on a regular basis, but no matter how wonderful and supportive our administrators are, I always worry about what they’re going to see and what they’re going to think. Will they be able to see the same value in the play that we see? Tracy’s silent exit and entrance though, and her quiet moments with students, helped me fixate on her presence a little bit less. I could then continue playing with children, as I was moments before she arrived and for hours after she left. From Stuart Shanker, we know about the impact that an adult’s dysregulation can have on kids.

Did Tracy’s approach reduce our feelings of stress around her visit, resulting in a continued calm for the rest of the day?

Thanks to our principal for agreeing to let me blog about her visit and our learning and discussions that evolved from it. Quiet connections and unannounced comings and goings might not be new for Paula and I, but the further thinking behind the reasons for both happened thanks to Tracy. Whether you’re an educator, administrator, or parent, how do you enter and leave a room? What impact do you see on children? If it’s a home room, a school room, or both, I wonder if it’s in the quiet moments and smaller movements that we can show our interest in kids without overtaking their play. Is it about us or about them? A little time with Tracy has us thinking about this question more.