Christmas? Holidays? Is The Name What Matters Most?

It’s December, which means that everyone is talking about the holidays. Whether at school, during my Leadership Course, or at home, I can’t help but get immersed in conversations around celebrations, presents, and upcoming plans. As many people know, I’m Jewish. My step-dad isn’t though, so for most of my life, I’ve celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah.

  • Sometimes this involves lighting the menorah while opening presents around the Christmas tree.
  • Sometimes this involves a family dinner that includes both turkey and potato latkes.
  • And sometimes this involves a whole month of celebrations, when Hanukkah and Christmas dates don’t align.

I love the ability to celebrate a bit of everything, and in many ways, personalize the holidays. I’ve been to a Christmas Eve service at church, and I’ve also been to many Hanukkah parties. Both are special, and I’m thrilled that I’ve had both experiences.

Teaching at seven different schools over the years, I’ve observed and participated in many holiday experiences. I’ve seen,

  • carol sings,
  • hot chocolate parties,
  • Christmas lunches,
  • holiday songs,
  • Christmas songs,
  • Hanukkah songs,
  • and many plays of the same variety.

For me, the name doesn’t matter. Call it a “holiday assembly/song/play/lunch/party,” call it a “Christmas assembly/song/play/lunch/party,” or call it any combination of the two. With whatever we’re calling it though, let’s not forget about some small things that could make a big difference for everyone. For example, a few weeks ago, a teacher that I know (I didn’t ask her to include her name here, so I’ll keep it anonymous) mentioned having a Christmas lunch at her school. How wonderful is that?! It’s great, except for the fact the turkey is not Halal, so most of the kids and some of the staff couldn’t eat it. A small thing, but something that could make a HUGE difference for kids, adults, and their sense of belonging. This example reminded me of a few years ago when we had a hot chocolate party at school. The School Council made hot chocolate for everyone. A mom on the committee mentioned that marshmallows contain gelatin, so some of our families couldn’t have them. I told School Council members that they could purchase Kosher marshmallows (which would also be Halal) down at a nearby Fortino’s. They did this: allowing all students to enjoy marshmallows and hot chocolate. A small, but significant, decision. Sometimes it’s the smallest decisions, which can make the biggest impact. 

Recently, I was out with a good friend, and we were discussing this very topic. She said something which stuck with me. She mentioned how a Christmas tree is almost like a “Canadian tradition. It’s part of our culture.” I think that she might be right. The real story of Christmas doesn’t involve,

  • a tree,
  • reindeers,
  • elves,
  • or Santa Claus.

Have these instead become non-denominational symbols which tie us all together? As big a Grinch as I can be — and trust me, I’m one of the biggest there’s something about a decorated tree, some great Christmas songs (Step Into Christmas is my very favourite), and special times together, which are hard not to love. 

I know, understand, and support the importance of making sure that everyone feels included at this time of the year. Sometimes I wonder though if maybe this can be easier than we think. Maybe it’s in the little things that matter the most, and maybe there’s a part of all holidays that everyone can enjoy. For all the time that we can spend dissecting the wording of “Christmas” versus “holidays,” little of the same thinking seems to come into play when celebrating Easter in classrooms. Why is that? What if we saw the tree, reindeer, elves, and Santa Claus as just as non-denominational as the bunny, the baskets, and the chocolates? Would this change things? 

At times, I’ve wondered about not celebrating anything, but is this really the answer? Right now, our kids are eagerly discussing their Christmas trees, elves on the shelf, and holiday gatherings. One of our Kindergarten students even wrote a play for us to perform. We’re certainly celebrating Christmas, while also discussing other holidays/celebrations: trying to be responsive to kids, teach some new things, and not forget about the big and little elements, which could make a difference this holiday season. 

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After discussing The Elf on the Shelf this morning, Mya decided to make a little elf book for her elf. She first wrote “I love you,” with this first sound in each word. Then she started to think of more complex sentences, and sounded out each word. Callum was excited to help her with this at the eating table. As she was cleaning up the paint today, she said to me, “Where is my elf book?” Where would the tiniest book be? I was worried, but she found it, and read it to me. She figured out most words, and even did a little sounding out. I want to keep building confidence in this strategy. Best of all though, as she was getting ready for home, Mya reflected on her book last year versus this year. She’s seeing her growth as a learner. ❤️❤️❤️ SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #ctinquiry #iteachk #teachersofinstagram

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Assembling this stick Christmas tree was no small feat. Tommy helped figure out where the branches belonged. He kept measuring the branches during the process to determine the size of the one that needed to come next. The wire was hard to use though, and it was frustrating when someone walked nearby and caused it to break. Joshua really persevered with the wire. He learned how to wrap it around and cut it. Then Cohen and Brooke came along to help. Joshua supported them. I love how careful they’re being even as they climb up and down on the chair. Joshua was excited to feel comfortable enough to work from this height this year. Brooke then began to hang the pine needle pieces. Do we need to collect more tomorrow? There was also a big discussion on the star. Could we tape it? Use wire? What would we make it out of? Joshua thought paper, and he merged his idea with Tommy’s. This tree isn’t done yet … SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #ctinquiry #iteachk #teachersofinstagram #cti_celebrationsandtraditions

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How do you address the holidays at school? How do we ensure that everyone belongs? I think it’s the feelings of belonging and love, which may matter most of all.  What do you think?


All Math. All Day. All Wonderful. Here’s Why.

Yesterday was our Board’s Math PA Day. All schools were focusing on math all day long. I will admit that at first, I was skeptical as to how we could make this one topic relevant, meaningful, and engaging for all staff. I know that it’s not just “math teachers” that teach math. Have a look at these incredible art images that Karen Wilkins shared with me. So much math talk and math thinking could come from these pictures: both in creating and in analyzing them.

The list could go on. The Kindergarten Program Document rests on the idea of “noticing and naming” mathematical behaviours through play and everyday experiences. We don’t have to create different math moments, math activities, or math questions for children to explore. We can link this learning to everything that they’re already doing. 

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I was taken by this group of kids down in the sand today. L. wanted to enter the play. We worked on how she could ask, and then she joined. Such interesting math conversations as they negotiate their family play. Rileigh even demonstrates subitizing up to three through this play. I find it interesting how it was really all about what role they wanted to play, and not the playing itself. Is this part of parallel play? Then came the birthday party talk. “Everyone is invited to my birthday party.” I wonder how many people make up “everyone.” Apparently it’s 100. What is 100? A fascination with big numbers perhaps. Michael drew a parallel to Hunter last year. I wonder what part of 100 made him think about Hunter. Something to explore more. ❤️ SWIPE ⬅️FOR MORE. #ctinquiry #iteachk #teachersofinstagram #mathchat

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Then Brooke and Alba joined in the sand play. They saw the cook book on the little table, and they decided to follow a recipe. What could they use for all of the ingredients? Why, sand of course! Brooke thought of the idea of putting each of the ingredients in a different bowl. She found more on the white shelf to use. Alba found the marbles, which made perfect blueberries. As they told me about the ingredients, I wondered if we should label them to keep track. Brooke even remembered that she wrote “milk” in a recipe before, and checked the spelling. Alba and Brooke both sounded out the words and labelled the containers as they filled them. Yes, this is the mess on the floor, but they cleaned it all up. I wonder if following the recipe will allow for some oral procedural writing. It was totally worth breathing through the messy floor! ❤️❤️❤️ SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #iteachk #teachersofinstagram #ctinquiry #problemsolving

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There is sorting, subitizing, and measurement evident in the example above.

Everything from physical education to dramatic play are evident in the examples above, which shows that math can play a role in these different subject areas. That said,

  • are these connections always obvious ones?
  • are they the topics that these subject-specific teachers want to discuss?
  • how are we going to ensure that everyone leaves the day with some new ideas (even just one) and inspiration for future work with students?

Our principal, John, was very devoted to making yesterday’s PA Day a positive experience for everyone, and I definitely left feeling happy. Why? I think this comes down to some very intentional decisions throughout the day. 

  • Mixed Grade Groupings – At our school, we have P.L.C.’s (Professional Learning Communities), which include educators from a couple of different grades. I’ll admit that I’m not always a fan of these P.L.C.’s because sometimes I just want time to connect with the other Kindergarten team members, but yesterday, I definitely appreciated these groupings. It was beneficial, first of all, to have the primary music teacher as part of our team, for she then shared how she might reinforce some of our targeted skills through music (e.g., by singing number songs and counting beats). It was also beneficial to see where kids are at and where they’re going next. As a Kindergarten team, we taught many of the Grade 1 students that we discussed yesterday. We knew these kids, and some strategies that worked for them. Discussing these strategies as part of a larger team, gave the Grade 1 teachers some other approaches to consider. We also got to see what our Senior Kindergarten students might be doing next year. Are there additional things that we could do to help bridge the gap between Kindergarten and Grade 1? What are some specific math skills that are being targeted here, and what might these same skills look like in both grades? Which components of the questions are actually reading and writing, and which are math, and are there ways to further address math thinking beyond written responses? We were able to dig into the Achievement Charts, and look at what “communication” can look like in Grade 1, and what it looks like in Kindergarten. What could be the possible benefits to some overlap?
  • Lively Discussions – While John may not have intentionally created these discussions, by making the P.L.C.’s as he did, and by allowing for small group and large group conversations, he was able to help facilitate lots of good questions and respectful debate. I keep thinking about the belief that it’s through discomfort that change happens, and these discussions helped produce some of this good discomfort. A number of years ago, I taught at Ancaster Meadow School, where I had the fortune of having a lot of similar kinds of conversations with Jo-Ann Corbin-Harper (a teacher at the time) and Kristi Keery-Bishop (our vice principal). I love how both Jo-Ann and Kristi ask hard questions that get you thinking, and it was these same kinds of questions that were being discussed yesterday. I keep thinking about a couple of these conversations from yesterday. One was around the topic of graphing. As educators, we can spend a lot of time on children learning how to draw the perfect bar graph. Gosh know that I have done this. But what if we looked at the time spent drawing a bar graph versus analyzing the data. What skill is more important? Are they equal? How do we weigh the time spent on these tasks in class? What is our goal here? Another topic of discussion was around choice. I can’t help but think about this great blog post that I read yesterday morning (with special thanks to Doug Peterson’s post for pointing it out to me), which discussed this very topic. Sometimes we teach students that might want to do what their friends are doing, but would benefit from another option. Could choices be available for everyone? How do we support students in choosing the option that works best for them? How do we get children to start doing this on their own? Some good questions led to some great conversations!
  • The Protocol – In my Teacher Leadership Course, I’m learning a lot about different protocols. I’ll admit that I sometimes struggle with protocols, and yesterday’s one was not easy. It required us to tell our small groups about the context for a specific piece of student work, and then to listen as other people in the group analyzed the work and provided us with some next steps. There were many moments that I wanted to jump in with comments, and a few times where I did not follow the protocol exactly, but it was beneficial to hear what other people had to say. While we had already tried certain approaches, some activities were new for us. Other comments made me think of ideas that we tried last year that we haven’t used this year yet, such as these subitizing photographs for morning math talks. Maybe it’s time to begin these talks again. There were also activity suggestions that we could either use as is, or modify to also align with the pedagogy outlined in the Kindergarten Program Document (e.g., along with counting the number of crackers that a child has in front of him, we could also ask this child to get a specific number of crackers — math that is then taught and reinforced through everyday experiences). The protocol gave everyone a voice in the discussion, and it was the many voices that resulted in new ideas, and modifications to and reminders about, old ones. 
  • Time – In education, we often talk about depth versus breadth. There is always a lot to cover and many things that we could explore. Yesterday, I really appreciated how we had big blocks of time to talk and dig into resources and work samples. We got somewhere, as a small and as a large group, and I think that everyone in the room left with at least one new idea to try. Nobody seemed to leave thinking, I came with a work sample to share, but didn’t get a chance to discuss it, or I had an idea to talk about, and never got a chance to share it. We all shared. We all heard. And we all learned. Just as big blocks of time are beneficial to kids in the classroom, they are also beneficial to adults, and John certainly gave us this time.

I left school yesterday with my brain full and ready for a nap 🙂 , but I also left feeling revitalized about math and excited for the week ahead. This was a great feeling! I know that different schools had different approaches to this Math PA Day, and I wonder how others felt at the end of it. How did your school address math, and more specifically, numeracy, to make it successful for all? What were possible benefits and drawbacks to these approaches? I’m excited to see the impact that this PA Day learning will have on kids.


What If It’s Backwards?

Thanks to a Twitter discussion between Doug Peterson and Jonathan So, I became aware of this recent blog post by Jonathan. This post made me think about the Kindergarten perspective, and how Hattie’s thinking might apply if viewed through the lens of the Kindergarten Program Document. A few years ago when I first read this new Program Document, there were a lot of comments that made me wonder, there were many points that made me nod along, and there were some uncomfortable thinking moments. My biggest shift in thinking came from this comment in the document (which also inspired a further Twitter conversation).

I wonder then about what this means around how we communicate learning expectations. 

While I’ve taught Kindergarten for the most amount of time in my teaching career, I have taught all grades from Kindergarten to Grade 6. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years unpacking expectations, developing Learning Goals, and even co-creating Success Criteria with students. I’m one of those people who enjoys reading curriculum documents, and have spent much time reading and thinking about Growing Success as well as Growing Success — The Kindergarten AddendumWhile both discuss Learning Goals and Success Criteria, what these look like from Kindergarten to Grade 12, vary. It’s the noticing and naming the learning in Kindergarten, which makes the Learning Goals and Success Criteria explicit to the children. 

Thinking then about Jonathan’s post, I then see differences when it comes to “teacher clarity.” 

  • We’re not starting lessons telling kids what they’re learning.
  • We don’t have posted Learning Goals and Success Criteria around the classroom, although we do have posted documentation, which acts as a provocation for discussing and extending the learning. 
  • We don’t outline specific activities at each space in the classroom, although we do provide provocations, which often attribute to and help direct the learning in each of the areas. 
  • We know our kids (and their strengths and needs), we know the expectations, we know the materials provided in each area around the room, and we know the anticipated ways that they will be used, but the teaching and learning happens more organically, so the clarity occurs when observing and conversing with kids. 

If Paula was focused solely on the expectations, she would have pushed the labelling at the time, and really honed in on the reading and writing potential. Instead, she was focused on the children, so her expectations changed based on what the kids communicated. She then used a moment at a later time to focus in on letter-sound combinations, reading, and writing. 

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We bought this structures book thinking that it might inspire some different buildings at the blocks, but Tommy loved it, and was inspired over at the LEGO. He made one of the house types with Filip. Who built the original? What could they find out about it? @paulacrockett read through the information with them, and even encouraged some letter-sound work to read some unfamiliar words. Then it was time to label the structure. Tommy was very independent here, but looked at how to separate some words with @paulacrockett. Loved the literacy, math, and science connections with this building today. At the end of the day, someone accidentally broke the structure. That was okay. Tommy thinks he can rebuild it. How might the book inspire him tomorrow? What will he remember? ❤️ SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #ctinquiry #teachersofinstagram #iteachk

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I know that many find this approach more chaotic, as we have a little less control over how it looks. But by not segmenting learning into blocks of time (e.g., a language period, a math period, a science period, etc.), by giving into the richness of learning that can happen with more open-ended approaches, and by re-exploring concepts over a longer period of time, kids aren’t saying, “But I don’t get it!” 

  • Learning is approached in many ways: cue the 100 Languages of Children.
  • Expectations are addressed when students are ready to learn them.
  • The child is truly at the centre of the learning.

Targeted instruction is still key, and students continue to learn the links between their actions and the expectations. There is still a shift though in when these expectations are communicated to kids, if they’re communicated to all kids or just some, and when this teacher clarity takes place. Is a backwards approach sometimes best? I see the benefits, but what about you?


Are You Willing To Bring Out The Adult Scissors?

I remember last year when my teaching partner, Paula, and I discussed putting out some grown-up scissors. Our dramatic play space was evolving into the Build-A-Baby Clothing Store, and we added some felt to this area for children to use to make clothing. Felt is hard to cut with children’s scissors. Try it. We did, and we couldn’t do it. Our fear was that as students attempted to cut the felt, they would end up cutting their fingers. It’s just like trying to chop ingredients with a dull knife. Sometimes a sharp one is better. But could we really add giant adult scissors into a play space in a Kindergarten classroom?

Somehow this became one of the most difficult decisions that we made last year. We had no problem …

  • using screwdrivers with the class,
  • putting out hammers,
  • and letting the kids use knives (butter knives, that is, but they still had teeth),

but we spent days discussing if we could take the plunge and add some adult scissors to dramatic play. Eventually, we decided to try this, but demonstrated how to use these scissors responsibly. Since we couldn’t find an instructional video for using adult scissors, we made our own. I realized later that this child actually had the scissors upside down (oops!), but the key points were still highlighted (even if I did talk a lot).

From January onwards, all of our students used adult scissors … and they did so responsibly. There was not one injury from these scissors. 

This year, the adult scissors came out a lot earlier. This wasn’t intentional. We had them in a bin on the art shelf, and some SK students found them when they were looking for additional scissors to use. They used them last year, so they knew how to do so. And so they did. We kept putting these scissors back into the art shelf bin, but they kept coming out again. Somehow, a pair ended up at the eating table, another in the cutting bin on the carpet, and a third over in the block space. Paula and I wondered again, was it too early in the year to have these scissors out? Something wonderful though happens when you trust students with grown-up materials. They use them even more responsibly.

By adding these items to the environment, you’re saying to them (explicitly or not): “I trust you. I believe in you. I know that you can do this.” The funny thing is that in Kindergarten, there will always be a child (or two or three) that are learning how to cut for the first time, and decide to do a little hairdressing. Usually it’s just a small snip of hair. This is almost a right of passage. You remind the child that, “we just cut paper or tape … but not hair.” This can be upsetting, and even frustrating at times, but it happens. The amazing thing is, this doesn’t happen with the adult scissors. Kids treat these items differently. They know that they’re sharp, and they look more intimidating, so they seem to use them with greater care. The noticeable safety of the children’s scissors make them that much more apt for the kind of cutting that you may not want. 

I can’t help but love these cutting experiences from the past couple of weeks.

They make me think of a tweet that I sent yesterday as I was reading this wonderful Instructional Core article for the Teacher Leadership Course

If we view the child as “competent and capable,” then how are we setting up our classroom to align with these views? Maybe this begins with something as simple as putting out some adult scissors. What do you think?


Giving Life To Emails

I’ve recently been doing a lot of thinking around electronic communication. I’m taking the Teacher Leadership Course through our Board, and one of the modules deals with communication. Through this module, we looked at how much we can communicate through our tone and actions, as well as our words. The Mehrabian Communication Study was an eye-opening one, and made me think about this older post by Sue Dunlop on the value of communicating in person or through a phone call. I totally understand what Sue’s saying, and what others expressed during this module on the importance of reducing or highly eliminating electronic communication, but I wonder if we can still find some reasons for emails to exist.

For most of October and some of November, we had a student teacher in our classroom. While my teaching partner, Paula, and I communicate a lot in person — taking multiple moments to reflect together before school, during the school day, and after school — we also share a lot electronically. It’s common for both of us to text or email each other with new ideas, interesting articles, and questions to consider, in the evenings or on the weekends. We’ve actually increased and deepened our communication with each other through these blended digital and non-digital options. Topics of greater debate are ones that we will definitely discuss in person, but other topics are often discussed online. With the use of emojis, word choice, and tone, there is almost a non-verbal component to this written “verbal” communication.

When our student teacher was in our classroom, we included her in many written conversations. I remember having a great discussion with her at one point about her preference to converse in person. I understand. And I wanted to give her what she wanted, so we tried to arrange additional times to sit and talk about lessons, upcoming plans, and feedback. That said, I remember mentioning something to her that I think is worth considering in this electronic communication discussion: as much as we can discuss in person with our administrators or colleagues, different schedules and meetings, often make emails and texts a reality of our day. I think that there’s an important skill in learning how to communicate clearly, effectively, and at times, even passionately, through an email. I still wouldn’t recommend discussing controversial issues online, but I have used email as a way to set-up a meeting to discuss some of these topics. 

A number of years ago, I remember emailing a principal of mine to set-up one such meeting. I had a few important topics to chat about, and I felt that these topics required more than an email exchange. That said, I knew how busy this principal often was during the day, and I didn’t want a rushed exchange — for either one of us. My hope was that by arranging a time, we could really take an opportunity to converse and problem solve. This is exactly what happened, and my principal quickly got back to me with a time to meet the next day. I remember this meeting though, for as soon as I came into the room, he jokingly mentioned “looking on my blog” to see if he could “determine what I might like to discuss.” 🙂 He knows me well, and in fact, I did blog generally about the issue, just a little later than he looked. This exchange though reminded me of something important: I often take to electronic communication tools — particularly my professional blog — to flush out my thoughts on a variety of topics. This time organizing my thinking, deciding on my word choice, and even getting feedback from others, often helps me see different perspectives and remain calmer (and less emotional) during face-to-face conversations. 

If given the option — assuming that the topic of conversation is not a contentious one — I would far prefer an email exchange. Why? This is where I can choose my words best, format my remarks, and keep the conversation cognitive, instead of with the emotions that often happen in person. Even when engaging in face-to-face or phone conversations, I often make a list of my main points and pre-plan how I want to communicate my thoughts. This keeps me focused on the topic at hand, and helps reduce the possibility of tears (something that is always a struggle for me, especially around more sensitive topics). So while I know and understand the value of these in person conversations, I don’t want to get rid of electronic communication tools. For people like me, who require the thinking, planning, organization, and reflection time around discussions, there’s something to be said for a tool that lets me do this without the need for an immediate response. 

  • I can proofread.
  • I can wait on pressing “send.”
  • I can get input from others first.
  • I can even read the words aloud to see how they might sound, and invite a trusted friend to do the same.
  • I can have a record of my words and theirs, which can sometimes be beneficial if issues do arise. 
  • I can quickly and easily invite other people into the conversation if needed by adding them to the chain of emails. This is far harder to do when trying to work around yet another person’s schedule for a face-to-face meeting.

Am I alone here? Even with the benefits of a human connection, are there times when an electronic option may be preferable? I think there’s a skill to composing a well-written and well-read email that showcases the feelings, actions, and person behind the words. I like undertaking the challenge of mastering — or at least improving — this skill. What about you?