Where Do You Start?

The other day, I tweeted and shared on Instagram a big wonder of mine.

This is something that I continue to think about a lot.

Here are some of my inferences about why the focus might be on where we want kids to be versus where they’re at.

  • Curriculum documents for Grades 1-12 focus on a list of overall and specific expectations that drive both our instruction and evaluation. A desire to meet these expectations, could lead to starting with the expectation versus starting with the child.
  • As educators, we’re often always thinking about what comes next. I recently blogged about this topic, and while I like to stay focused on the present, it’s not always easy to do. It’s easy to be thinking about preparing students for the next grade or the next big experience, no matter when that might be.
  • It could be about following directions. These directions might include following along with a team approach or thinking about a specific focus in the Board or at a school. I’m actually a really big believer in knowing and understanding a Board’s strategic directions, but I wonder if there’s a link between following them and following the child. Can both be attained simultaneously?
  • It could be because we think that this will actually push kids further. I keep returning to all of the negative posts and articles I’ve read about play in kindergarten. As a kindergarten educator for years, I often heard that it was “because of this play-based approach that kids didn’t learn to read.” I disagree. When play is intentional, relationships are built first so students feel safe taking risks, deeper and richer thinking is prioritized, and targeted mini-lessons are infused into play, you CAN and WILL see results. Paula and I saw this last year. But for all of the positive stories about play, there are an equal or greater number of negative ones, so often reading and writing instruction is approached in a more formal, full class manner in the hope of seeing better results. All educators want kids to be successful. I do believe that these choices come with the best of intentions, but do they yield the best results?

This is the start of my 22nd year of teaching. I’ve been in education for a long time, and I plan on being in it for many more years to come. A lot of my thinking and approaches have changed over the years based on observations of students, conversations with fellow educators, and professional reading. Know more, do better. Very little in my practice is the same as when I started teaching so many years ago. Strangely though, it’s learning from back when I was in the Faculty of Education that I’m thinking about now. I wonder if we need to return to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. By figuring out that zone for each child and teaching within that zone, are we then able to see the most amount of growth?

I’m reflecting now on one of my more challenging years in education. I was teaching kindergarten at the time, and almost all of the students were at a toddler level of development: both socially and academically. Initially, my teaching partner and I tried to start where we might have in previous years with other kindergarten students, but this was just leading to frustration, behaviour, and a lack of growth. Looking at the ELECT Document together, we were able to figure out where students were and what they needed to move forward. At first, it was challenging to run a largely toddler program. Would our kids ever meet kindergarten expectations? But my tailoring the program to the children, they actually all made the most remarkable growth. This doesn’t mean forgetting about reading, writing, and oral language development, but it does mean thinking about developmentally appropriate practice. I will admit that this was a real struggle for me. The only reason that I comfortably took this approach was because …

  • I was not doing so alone. I had a teaching partner, support staff, a fellow educator (with a daycare background) who had wonderful ideas to share, and the administration right there with me.
  • I saw the value in making this change. Both my teaching partner and I did. Even on the first day, when we started to minimize transitions, sing more, increase sensory play, and cover up some areas to limit materials, we met with more success than on any previous days. This gave us the drive to keep at it.

In my Reading Specialist position, I can hopefully be this person that offers the support as we explore resources, instructional approaches, and classroom design together. Monday is a PA Day in our Board, and we will be digging into Universal Design For Learning (UDL) as part of this PA Day. Could looking at UDL inspire conversations around kids, starting points, and where to go next? I believe it’s these discussions that allow for these changes to happen and help us see what might be stopping the change. Even on Friday, I had a great conversation with multiple Grade 1 teachers that I think/hope will inspire more in the future.

  • On-the-fly PD.
  • Building capacity.
  • Critical thinking about practices.
  • Considering new approaches.
  • Knowing that changes do not need to happen alone. I’m right here as part of the process.

My wonderings that inspired this post might still be wonderings, but they are also leading to talking — both virtually and in-person — and thinking and conversing seem like great places to start. What do you think? If you’re open to sharing your thoughts and additional wonders around reading instruction, child-focused learning, and curriculum outcomes, I would love to hear them. Maybe we can all learn and support each other (and our kids) together.


3 thoughts on “Where Do You Start?

  1. Important wonderings:)
    I, like you, learned so much from teaching kinder, embracing play, and shifting to looking to the child as capable and confident. I credit the K document with “freeing” me from feeling bound by curriculum expectations. The k program is truly open and this permits educators to let go a little more and let the student lead. I wonder if gr. 1 curriculum and beyond, combined with reporting protocols, just does not feel as flexible. We hear mixed messaging around what’s good for kids but at the same time we’re asked to assign marks… we’re asked to have an asset lens while also being aware of where they are falling short. We are encouraged to make time to build community and facilitate wellness and then BOOM, we need marks, and targets and progress! Our school days are broken up by so many transitions and interruptions, and challenging behaviours, it’s difficult to just allow learning to unfold- we feel instead like we’d better nudge it along. I do appreciate my Kinder years for the perspective they give me, and I often find myself wondering how I could recreate some of “that” in different settings; different physical settings, different age groups, different curriculum, different abilities and different demographics etc. My learning around early reading has grown and I do also fully buy in to the responsibility of the educator to provide code-based, explicit, systematic, and sequential instruction… I believe we need to further teachers’ confidence in being able to deliver this type of instruction so they may also be able to determine the appropriate starting point for each student. Our current system is a constant push and pull. And I think that creates an environment that stresses the space and time needed to allow children’s learning to unfold more organically. No answers here, I just think the reflection is worthwhile in and of itself. I also appreciate your reflections as they take place inside your new role 🙂

  2. Part II 🙂
    I think what I appreciate most about my role as Reading Specialist is the permission we have to just narrow in on one area. Permission… indeed it IS our role…. We have the luxury of tuning out all the peripheral noise, and honing in on reading. I have time and space to build meaningful relationships with the students I support, the time and space to assess current skills, I get to look at what they CAN do and build from there, and I think students feel safe and competent because when they’re with me we’re working on the very right next steps. That feels good. For both of us. But I do not take it for granted that our role affords us that opportunity while classroom teachers continue to juggle all the things that need juggling in a school day. Perhaps our best contribution is to step in for some of the juggling so classroom teachers can catch their breath and settle into a moment more fully with their students.

    • Janet, thank you so much for sharing all of your insights and reflections here. I don’t think that there are necessarily any answers to my wonderings, but I love opportunities to reflect and appreciate when others add to these reflections. Knowing that you’ve been in this role for a number of years now, I think that I can also learn a lot from hearing about your experiences. You’re making me think a lot about something that Lisa Noble (@nobleknits2 on Twitter) has shared before around visible thinking and learning. This is something that I was committed to as a classroom educator, and it’s something that I think has just as much value in this role. It’s getting comments from people like you, who have me realizing that when we reflect in this forum and open up the conversation to others, we can also share new ideas and extend discussions that might happen in-person at another time (like our upcoming Reading Specialist Meeting). Thanks for being so open here. You’re also making me think about how I’ve tried to balance my classroom time in this role, working with individual students, small groups, and sometimes, the full class, as well as having the conversations with educators, so that we can also work together to support some of these same students. I love how this role allows us to really focus on reading, while also prioritizing the relationships with educators and kids. I always worried how I would feel leaving the classroom, and now that I’m in this position, I realize that I couldn’t be happier and am so very grateful that I have this opportunity. It sounds like you feel exactly the same way! 🙂


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