Finding Your “Wow!”

Right now, Paula and I have a Early Childhood Education student from Mohawk College joining our classroom three days a week until the end of May. We love to welcome Early Childhood Education students and teacher candidates into our classroom, for as we work with them, we find that we reflect more on our practices and why we make the choices that we do. A recent conversation together after school inspired this post.

Paula and I have worked with children for over 20 years each and over six years together. Like all educators, we’ve figured out different ways to communicate with kids. When I started teaching, I used to think that I had to talk a lot to explain to kids why I felt a certain way or why I made a choice that I did. When problems arose, there was always more talking. Over the years though, and even more when working with Paula, I’ve learned the value of “less is more.” Kids and adults stop hearing — or maybe just stop listening — at a certain point. I think it’s our natural inclination. But a lot can still be communicated valuably without saying too much at all.

Find your “wow!” I wish that I could find the video that I recorded of a child explaining to us Paula’s different wow’s. πŸ™‚ She says, “wow,” a lot. Sometimes the wow is based on an amazing piece of work or an incredible thing that a child’s done. Sometimes the wow is in response to a problem. It’s kind of like asking, “Why are you doing that?!” Try it though. With a different tone, the same word can communicate very different feelings. Often times, just the one word will stop a behaviour or change a response. Your word doesn’t need to be, “wow,” but maybe finding your word has value. (I will admit to adopting, “wow,” over the years.)

Practice your look. Even with a mask on, a lot can be communicated through your eyes. I think that the past couple of years have helped us improve our “eye language.” From across the room though, the right look might encourage the continuation of a choice or the start of a different one. We’ve found recently, that our looks are often accompanied by “finger talk.” A point to another area or a few thumbs up can tell a lot to a child who’s looking our way. Sometimes we can say the most without saying anything at all.

Bring down the volume. Everyone has a different noise tolerance. While we both like a “hum of noise” in the classroom, we find that too much noise can quickly become dysregulating. Sometimes there’s a need to bring the volume down. There are different ways to do this. Occasionally, entering play and providing a new idea or handing over some labels (for writing) can change the volume. Maybe encouraging some different student groupings can also vary the volume. Usually though, I try first to see what happens with a quiet voice. My step-dad, who’s also a teacher, taught me this approach back in my first year of teaching. He said that the inclination is often to talk over kids, but if you purposely get quieter, students will do the same. They follow the model that they hear. And so, as the volume goes up in the classroom, I try to go around slowly to groups and check in with them. I’ll try hard to whisper an observation or a question to them. As challenging as it is, sometimes by engaging in a quiet conversation with each group, the volume goes down everywhere.

In the Faculty of Education, there’s a lot of talk about “classroom management.” The different ways we communicate is a key component of this, I think. What are your wow’s? What other ideas would you add to this conversation around communication? Nothing in a classroom happens by accident, and to truly get the “hum” that we love, I think it takes reflecting on the choices we make as part of this process. Maybe hearing about other people’s choices will give all of us new ideas to try.

The “hum” yesterday afternoon.


What Makes This Year Our Most Successful Year Yet?

I’ve been contemplating this blog post for a while now, and even chatted with my teaching partner, Paula, about it. Usually, social media posts, blog posts, and conversations about COVID and education, emphasize the number of “struggling students” over the past couple of years. There are all kinds of discussions around “learning loss” and how to “fill the gap.” Earlier this year, we had a teacher candidate from a nearby university. When meeting virtually with her professors, they asked me, “What do you notice about your students right now?” They were very surprised by my answer: these are the strongest kindergarten children that we have ever taught. Not only is almost every child meeting expectations, but most are exceeding expectations, and in many cases, quite significantly. Looking at our senior kindergarten students, who will be in grade 1 next year, this means that they are already decoding and comprehending beyond the kindergarten benchmark. How is this possible? It’s this question that has resulted in many of our team reflections.

Any time that you explore a how question like this one, I don’t think that you’ll ever know the answer for sure, but it’s still worth delving into the possibilities. In our case, we think that there are a number of factors to consider.

  • We had excellent attendance and participation online. We’ve been pivoting a lot in the past couple of years, and with these pivots, come opportunities for virtual synchronous learning. We have been fortunate that almost all of our students attended at least one of our online sessions each day, and most attended for the three hours of daily synchronous learning. This meant that we could have a more seamless transition between in-person and online learning.
  • We got better at figuring out ways to support reading and writing instruction virtually. When we first moved online a couple of years ago, figuring out how to support this instruction virtually was a challenge. Now though, thanks to screen sharing and even holding up notes for others to read, we’ve been able to explore decoding, comprehension, and written language better in a virtual platform. This meant that this instruction did not stop when we moved online, which helped contribute to academic growth whether at-home or in-person.
  • Classroom set-up allowed for very targeted 1:1 and small group instruction. While the desk/table set-up might make people think that we pivoted to more traditional instruction of the past, our program is still very much play- and interest-based, just with a different look. This look though meant that we needed to be more deliberate in how we entered play and targeted various reading and writing skills for each child. Paula and I discussed students and goals more, and provided a lot of 1:1 and small group literacy instruction connected with child-led play. Thinking about the zone of proximal development, we’ve probably been much better at consistently being in this zone this year, as we’re thinking more about each child as we program and plan. I think this has always been our goal in other years, but maybe the classroom design forced this even more.
  • We took note writing and reading to a whole new level. While Paula and I have embraced note writing and reading over the past number of years, we’ve gotten to a whole new level with it this year. The Fairies of Dundas have really helped with this. The best thing about this note writing is that it might not be for everyone, but by knowing our audience, we can also target the instruction. We’ve been reflecting more on trickier sound combinations and sight words, and deliberately adding these to the fairy notes. Now Paula’s able to support a guided reading note group before the day even officially begins — just as kids enter the classroom each morning.
  • We’ve reflected more, and tried different approaches, to help all children meet with success. While many of our strategies work for the vast majority of students, Paula and I have been thinking more this year about those children that might need something different. Below is one of these examples. By using the cue cards and velcro as well as magnetic letters, this child has moved from just exploring letters and sounds to reading and writing. This has recently extended to letter writing and reading of his own. Sometimes a different approach is needed for some students, and maybe, the individual spaces forced us to think more about individual students.
  • We try to support reading in many different contexts. While I think that we attempted to do this before, we’re far more deliberate in our choices this year. We want children to realize that they can use the sound combinations and sight words that they know to make sense of text in various situations. This even means finding some provocations online, which include words for students to read as part of exploring the image or video clip together. We also have word family books out, and look at explore together everywhere.
  • We’ve been more specific with our home extension ideas, to help support this reading and writing beyond the classroom experience. Many of our parents also saw and participated in online learning, which means that they took ideas that we shared and started doing similar things at home. Even on the Communications of Learning, our next steps were more specific, to help really target areas of need. Now we even have parents writing notes to their children, and we can further target the decoding and comprehension skills with these notes at school.

This has become such a wonderful home/school partnership, which truly seems to benefit kids.

During a year where we often hear about the academic drawbacks that are a result of the pandemic, it’s nice to be able to celebrate some success. Now I realize that we’re privileged to be able to have students with access to technology, families who were able to make virtual learning work, and children with a vast amount of background knowledge, which also helps support vocabulary development and reading and writing skills. But even in the area where we teach, we hear about students struggling, so reflecting on and celebrating these successes seem valuable. They also make us wonder about how we can use our learning over the past few years to positively impact students next year, even if our classroom design changes. Have you had any unexpected positive experiences over these past couple of school years? What might have made these experiences possible? Maybe by reflecting more on the how and why, we can recreate these moments in the years to come.


What Does “Independence” Look Like For You?

As many of my blog readers know, over the past 21 years, I’ve taught multiple grades — from kindergarten to grade 6. I’ve spent the most number of years in kindergarten, but my experiences in other grades, has helped me frame a lot of the learning and the choices that I make now. Insights and conversations with my amazing teaching partner, Paula, have also pushed me to reconsider choices of the past and adopt new practices. Paula’s a firm believer in many things, but one of which is independence. Experiences in other grades often had me viewing independence as just the learning skill, Independent Work. I saw independence as the ability to play, create, or problem solve alone, but conversations in the past couple of months, have me wondering if there’s more to independence than that.

This week, I published this Instagram post.

Looking at our classroom environment under the umbrella of independence, had me thinking about not just how we define independence, but about what independence looks like in our kindergarten program. I’ve decided to share below ten examples of independence in action. Many of these examples came about because of conversations that we had together in the past, as Paula pushed me to see “competent and capable” in a new light.

  • Carrying materials outside for our outdoor learning time. This includes really heavy items that might spill, but require some student problem solving to allow for the safe transportation of materials.
There were actually seven small bottles and one large bottle of water in this bucket.
  • Accessing materials that students want, even if the items are heavy to lift or located in different cupboards. This week, a child told me that he needed a bandaid. Before I could even get to the cupboard to get him one, he pulled the step stool over to the correct cupboard, opened the door, grabbed a bandaid, and put it on. He’s four-years-old. We’ve never had a conversation on exactly where these bandaids are located, but he’s seen Paula and I grab them a few times and even get one for a friend recently. This is all it took for him to independently get his own. The same holds true for markers. Our kids love writing us notes for new markers, and going into the cupboard to grab a package. Plus there’s my favourite glue example from years ago that I’ll share in an Instagram post below.
  • Solving problems including ones that we have not considered before. I could probably share many different Instagram post examples here, but the one that comes to mind immediately is one from a few days ago. A child was distracted by some students in our kindergarten pen that kept coming to the window near his table space. Instead of telling us about the problem, he decided to write a note to attempt to solve this problem. Then a conversation led to some more note writing options.
  • Making the right choice, even when there’s no adult there to directly oversee it. I’m thinking back to this O’Canada example from last year. We were outside, and a child wanted to go in to get some tape. When she was inside, O’Canada started to play. With no adult there to tell her to stop or to oversee her singing, she still stopped, stood, and sang before coming back outside.
  • Taking the key to go inside, accessing materials that they need, and returning to us with the key. I remember when Paula first gave her pass key to a student to go inside to get something that he needed from the classroom. I seriously wondered if this was too much responsibility for a five-year-old. Children rise to the challenge though, and they meet expectations that we set for them. They love having this responsibility, and they are all able to take the key card, get items that they require, and bring the card back out to us. Giving our key card over to kids communicates to them how much we trust them and how capable we know that they are.
  • Controlling the SMART Board. We often freeze an image on the SMART Board in the morning after the meeting time to inspire some creations and discussions. As time goes on, students want to see other images that we looked at as a class. We used to control the SMART Board for kids, but now they do the switching and freezing of images on their own.
  • Documenting or capturing learning independently, particularly when there might not be an adult available to assist. The greatest example of this is one from when Paula was away and there was no supply. A child really wanted me to reply to her note and record the conversation, but I was trying to do a million things at the same time and knew that I couldn’t do this recording. She offered to do it instead, and by just passing over the iPad, she did the rest. Students can make some wonderful teachers too! πŸ™‚
  • Packing up and getting yourself ready for home, but also supporting others that might need some help. I wrote a whole blog post on this topic, but I think that it also deserves some special mention here. The fact that the children coordinate this support on their own, also speaks to their independence.
  • Supporting each other with reading, when an adult might not be available. The example below is one that I shared in another blog post, but it’s a favourite example of mine. When Paula couldn’t be there to help with this reading, children figured out how to help each other. Independence allows for this collaboration to happen.
  • Redesigning the classroom to work for them. This doesn’t mean rearranging the entire classroom, but it does mean that groupings are formed and spaces are reorganized by the kids to meet their needs throughout the day. From pulling up chairs to different tables to carving out areas on the floor, students have really owned classroom organization this year.
You can see different ways that students created and used the classroom environment in this post, even though this might not be the focus of the post itself.

They do a similar thing outside, as they look at how to use different areas in our playground space. Deciding on materials to use and how to organize each area, all speak to their independence.

I realize that kindergarten varies from other grades, but choosing these ten points to include really forced me to think more about independence and what that actually looks and sounds like in our indoor and outdoor classrooms. What does independence look like in your classroom or home, and what might be the benefits of supporting this independence? Maybe by sharing ideas, we can consider new ways to further develop this important skill in all of our kids.


“Let It Go”: Our FROZEN Approach To Classroom (Re)Design

As regular readers of my professional blog know, my teaching partner, Paula, and I are always reflecting. While we like to celebrate successes and things that work well, we’re also cognizant of things that could be better and changes that might need to happen to make that possible. While I’d like to think that we’re not scared of change, we also try to avoid change for change sake. Often questions of, “why,” and “what will the impact be on kids?,” weigh heavily into our decisions. Just before March Break, COVID restrictions in our Board minimized, and this was later accompanied by a drop in the mask mandate. Our kindergarten class could “go back to normal,” or at least start to resemble classes of the past. While years ago, we would have jumped quickly to make these changes, there were many reasons that we chose not to this year. In this blog post, I mentioned that we would be responsive to kids, which again had us returning to, should we be reconsidering classroom design and routines? Then two things happened that have us thinking again.

In a recent blog post, I mentioned that I would be off for three days to get my wisdom teeth removed. I had a couple of different supply teachers over this time. One occasional teacher, responded to a message of mine with this most wonderful note.

While Paula and I see the classroom and student learning from our perspective, it’s a rarity to hear about how others perceive the environment. Even though we try to give a window into our room each day, it’s not the same as being there. Before school started yesterday morning, Paula and I returned to the words in this note. Being in the classroom, interacting with the kids, and hearing from both of us, gave this occasional teacher a unique insight into our program. She highlighted in her words so much of what we value: from independence to inquiry to the value of a partnership. This had us wondering, if we change the environment, will all students meet with as much success? Is there another way to support change?

Talking together also led to a decision that varies from our usual approach. Normally, when play begins, we encourage students to stay in their spaces and we’ll come to them to see what they’re doing and to provide feedback. Independent play gradually extends to cooperative play, but often with the kids around them — or at least within the zone of their space. Since distancing is no longer a requirement, we agreed to sit back and watch as students move around more freely.

  • Maybe they will go and see what others are doing and provide some feedback of their own.
  • Maybe this will lead to some different groupings and social experiences.

This required a little letting go, but it also allowed us to engage in deeper conversations with kids. We could observe even more than we usually do, as we were less focused on just getting to the next child and more focused on what was happening in the environment. We still supported independent play first, but the move to cooperative play was more natural and led by the child.

For months now, I’ve wanted to talk more with groups of students about some of their artwork, but this rarely seemed to happen. When it did, the conversation was often 1:1 with kids and usually felt rushed. By letting go, I finally had one of my desired artwork conversations yesterday. Even though you can’t see the gathering in the video, there were four or five students circling around me at the table — with the crayon box — talking about art. And after they chatted, they dispersed and went back to their own work — maybe/hopefully even further inspired by what we discussed.

I didn’t love how I began this conversation, but things get better around the 20 second mark. Now I wish I engaged even more in a discussion about other possible titles. Maybe “Bunny In A Jar” would have been even better. Something to think about for next week.

Looking back and thinking more about our documentation from yesterday, provided a good opportunity for Paula and I to reconsider a changing environment. Maybe by letting children take the lead, the classroom can change more temporarily and organically based on what students need at the time. We also have one possible addition for a couple of kids beginning on Monday. Will this lead to more additions? Maybe. But also maybe not. Possibly it took a few different discussions and perspectives for us to realize that big changes are not needed for everyone, and small changes can still be supported within our set-up if we observe more, let kids lead, and support or re-direct when necessary. Surprisingly and unexpectedly to me, COVID has made us better at observing, reflecting, and creative problem solving. What about you? Thanks to an occasional teacher who helped us view a problem differently. As we welcome a visiting student teacher and an Early Childhood Education placement student into our classroom next week, I wonder if their insights will give us even more to consider.


Unfilled Jobs = Increased Guilt: Reflecting On Needing To Be Away

Tomorrow I’m getting my wisdom teeth out. I put in my absence on Tuesday for three days. In the past, our school would not be one with many unfilled jobs. Putting in a three-day job, with the additional note that it’s an amazing group of students with a fantastic teaching partner, would probably have had the job picked up before the day was through. This didn’t happen though.

With COVID, there are not enough supply teachers — even with retired educators coming back for additional days — to fill the number of absences each day. Never mind, having enough supply DECEs or EAs for open jobs. People that are off are sick too. Some are really sick. For some educators, five days is enough to recover from COVID and come back to the classroom, and for others, they need longer. This is just referring to COVID absences, never mind absences for other reasons. In my position for Monday to Wednesday this week, I even explained that I was off getting my wisdom teeth out. I didn’t want an occasional teacher to worry about another possible connection with COVID. It didn’t make a difference though.

Every day, our board in the office is full of unfilled jobs. Sometimes I’ve seen up to seven unfilled. This means that educators are missing preps, volunteering to take on extra duties, and juggling schedules to make sure that there’s a teacher for every class. This means that often there’s a lack of EA support, and one instead of two educators in a kindergarten classroom, as there are no other options for DECE and EA jobs that go unfilled. Administrators are juggling a million balls in the air to try and coordinate coverage schedules, provide support to everyone, and attempt to payback preps when there are just not enough occasional teachers to make that happen.

My Experience From Last Week

I share this story as in my case, my job was split into three jobs in an attempt to fill the absences. It actually became more like four jobs, as one supply could do 1 1/2 days, and one could do the final day. With surgery tomorrow, there’s still half-a-day unfilled. And this is stressful for me, as I know that if this job goes unfilled, my colleagues are going to need to give up their preps again to cover. While I know that everything will be fine, and Paula and our kids will thrive in the next three days, having multiple educators — particularly multiple ones in one day — will be incredibly stressful for some of our neediest learners.

  • Some kids might be louder than usual.
  • Some kids might interact differently with their peers and the adults in the room.
  • Some kids might cry more easily.
  • Some kids might be less focused and move more quickly between the suggestions for the day.
  • Some kids might wander more than usual.

These are all of the things that I’m thinking about tonight. These are all things that are out of my control, but also things that weigh on me as I contemplate this upcoming week. And this is hard because we should be taking sick time when we need it, but without enough occasional teachers, we feel more guilty for making the choices that we do. COVID has taught us that we should not be going to school when we’re ill, but when I can’t get a supply teacher almost a week in advance for a three-day job, will I be more apt to dismiss that sore throat, stuffy nose, or headache, when maybe I shouldn’t be doing so? I’ve never found it easy to take a sick day, and like other educators, have come to school more times than I probably should with everything from strep throat to bronchitis. Writing supply plans is one of my least favourite things to do. I also don’t like putting that extra pressure on my teaching partner that I know happens when I’m not there. Plus, I love my job and I adore our kids, and I don’t want to be away unless absolutely necessary. This week I have to though, and I never expected it to be as stressful a decision as it ended up being when the job went unfilled. While I might jokingly get excited on a daily basis for being the big winner in the game of Prep Roulette (I have a strange sense of humour πŸ™‚ ), I’m hoping this game will end soon with less absences and healthier school populations.