It’s Winter In Canada … What Do You Do?

There’s no doubt about it: this week was a cold one. Most mornings, the temperature was -15 or colder without the windchill, and hovering around -20 with the windchill. Brrr … This is right around the temperature where our Board makes it an indoor recess, and since we always start our mornings outside, we often had to wait until the last-minute to figure out if we could go out or if we had to stay in. Thankfully we made it outside on all days but one, and that was definitely a more challenging day.

The more experienced I become as an educator and the more I learn from my amazing teaching partner, Paula, the more that I realize just how valuable outdoor time is for all of us. We’re not talking recess here. On most days, we spend over an hour, and closer to 1 1/2 hours, outside in the morning. We go between our outdoor classroom space and our forest area, and this time is often the highlight of my day. This is completely free time! We don’t plan activities or structure the learning in these spaces: we watch students, we respond to them, and we help draw the links between their choices and program expectations. I’ve blogged numerous times about our “forest time”, and I cannot speak strongly enough about the value in this learning space. Our four-month long Letter Inquiry started outside, and continues outside even on the coldest of days. 

I share all of this because during our Staff Meeting this week, I had an aha moment thanks to the other Kindergarten teacher, Janet. In our P.L.C.s (Professional Learning Communities), we were discussing successes in our classroom. The topic of outdoor learning came up. We spoke about how earlier in the week, many children were really cold outside, and we had to come in a lot earlier than anticipated. During our morning meeting time, Paula spoke to the class about this, and had children reflect on how they felt outside and what they could do to feel warmer.

It was great to hear students reflections and know that even our youngest of learners knew what to do to feel more comfortable outside. During our staff meeting conversation on this topic, Janet drew a parallel between the resilience that students show outside and the resilience that we see in the classroom. There’s something to be said for problem solving, perseverance, and the willingness to go back at something, even when it’s challenging, uncomfortable, or not what we initially expected. Cold weather can be like this! But when we get kids to reflect on what they’re feeling and solve some of their own problems — instead of rescuing them — the long-term impact is big. 

Yesterday was another cold day, but children didn’t complain about the weather, dressed well for it, and we stayed outside a bit longer than the day before. When we came in, I had the students reflect on changes they made based on their conversation with Paula on Thursday. 

This process was a good reminder for me that even on cold, wet, snowy, or rainy days, there’s value in being outside, and if we get students involved in the process of solving problems around comfort and warmth, they will enjoy this learning time outside even more. Yesterday, my teaching partner, Paula, was off unexpectedly and there was no supply. This made for a harder day for me, but I think that the calming nature of this outside time, started our day off right. Without getting out first, I wonder if we would have ended up with the positive day that we did

As a parent reminded us earlier this week, “It’s winter in Canada.” Let’s embrace it! I think about how much I’ve learned through “uncomfortable times,” and how “uncomfortable” was even my One Word Goal a couple of years agoCould a little discomfort — even from a cold day — lead to just as much learning for kids as a little discomfort does for adults? How do you respond to the weather, and what impact might this have for children? On this snow-covered Saturday, I hope for winter weather that always stays at least slightly above that -15 mark … as well as the ability to always see the lines in the parking lot! 🙂 Is that too much to ask?!

Aviva

Does Printing Always Have To Come First?

Over four years ago now, I had the “summer of cursive.” Different articles predominated the media about cursive writing, and I became involved in numerous Twitter chats with other Ontario educators about the pros and cons of cursive writing. My thinking continued to evolve that summer, and is still evolving years later. I’ve written many blog posts on cursive writing over the years, and my thoughts are rarely the same. One of the first posts I wrote though following that memorable summer talked about the possibility of Kindergarten students exploring cursive writing through play. The opportunity has never presented itself for that to happen until this year.

A Year 2 student actually inspired us to look at cursive writing in class. This child is a prolific writer, but prints almost exclusively in capital letters. She knows how to form most lowercase ones, but rarely uses them in her writing. One day, she decided that she wanted to practise writing using lowercase letters, and she thought that cursive writing could help her with this. She spoke about learning how to do some cursive writing at home, and then she used the cursive alphabet on the iPad to explore how to write some other letters. Pretty soon, she was writing the names of multiple students in the class. And with the use of cursive, she was actually using lowercase letters in her writing.

About a week later, she continued this cursive writing when making a list of “yummy foods” at the eating table. 

Other students started to listen to her talk about cursive writing, and they became interested in learning. They began talking to each other about different line formations, and we thought that we could extend this thinking by exploring various fonts. 

Since students were also showing an interest in visual arts, and exploring the work of some famous artists including Van Gogh and Kandinsky, we thought that we could link literacy and The Arts. After school one day, my teaching partner, Paula, and I discussed looking at cursive writing as an extension of our exploration of lines. We went back and forth on this one for a bit. Paula initially wondered if we should introduce cursive if some of our students are still learning how to print letters correctly. Then came my question of, do they need to learn printing before writing?

I’ve felt different ways on this topic before, but Valerie Bennett made me think differently when she shared this Case For Cursive information with me. I shared it with Paula, and together we explored the possible benefits of cursive writing for our students. 

  • Would the continuous line help some students form letters that they struggled with doing when printing?
  • Would it help students with forming and extending ideas in their writing?
  • Would it even help some children better solidify letter-sound connections? 

We’re not giving up printing in the classroom or only exposing children to texts written in cursive writing, but we thought that we might build on a natural interest and see about the possible positive impact for kids.

We love how students are tracking the alphabet in cursive, just as they do with the printed alphabet. They are noticing some similarities and differences between the letters. A few children are also starting to read texts written in cursive and experiment with some cursive writing of their own. We’re showing them how to form the letters and giving them opportunities to practice. Just as with printing, we’re trying to be responsive to different students and different needs, and giving multiple practice options, knowing that it can take a while to learn how to form letters correctly. 

I’m not sure if every child is going to learn how to print in cursive this year, but I love that kids are starting to recognize letters and words written in different fonts and experiment with different fonts of their own. Many children are developing fine motor skills in Kindergarten, and cursive writing helps with this. When one of our students then went home to ask her mom to write the “cursive alphabet” in her journal so that she could look at it at school, I was thrilled. This wasn’t one of our home extension activities, but this was something that mattered enough to this child to explore at home. 

This same child was able to read some words in cursive the next day that she was not able to read the day before. Amazing!

This year, one of our Board’s main goals is to have “all students reading by the end of Grade 1.” We love how it’s this same year that our students have taken an extreme interest in the letters of the alphabet, and this interest has extended into a four-month inquiry that’s included a look at cursive writing. As we post our class learning story this week, cursive writing will be a part of this learning.

I wonder about the impact that cursive will have on reading, writing, and fine motor skills. Will an early introduction to cursive writing have a long-term impact on academic skills and/or literacy development? Years ago, I never would have thought of this cursive option for Kindergarten, and now I’m excited to see what’s possible. Maybe I just needed to see cursive writing beyond the worksheet option to gain a new appreciation for this art form. What do you think? Does printing always have to come first?

Aviva

My Look At Teacher Stress

Earlier this week, I saw a tweet from Kristi Keery-Bishop about Dean Shareski‘s latest blog post

I had a few minutes to go before I had to get out of bed and ready to start my morning routine, so I decided to read Dean’s post. Commenting on his post had me running a little late that morning, but it was well worth it. 

Since writing this comment, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to my teaching partner, Paula, about this post, I’ve had the chance to read more comments on it, and I’ve thought about Dean’s response to me to blog about my experience. This blog post then is for Dean, but also for the amazing educators and administrators that commented on what he wrote, and spoke about their stress. I really hope this makes a difference.

This is my 17th year of teaching, and one of my best ones yet! I’m not going to say that I never feel stressed. I do. There have been times this year that I’ve felt very stressed, and I might even go so far as to say angry and upset. But compared to other years, I think that I’ve found myself better at dealing with these emotions, and not letting them consume me. My learning from Stuart Shanker, Susan Hopkins, and The MEHRIT Centre have resulted in changes that ultimately led to a calmer “me.” My biggest learning from the Foundations 1 Course that I took through The MEHRIT Centre is that when adults are feeling dysregulated, this impacts on how the students in our care also feel. Kids read us well.

  • They know when we’re happy.
  • They know when we’re sad.
  • They also know when we’re angry and frustrated.

These feelings may have nothing to do with them, but our responses, and even some of our non-verbal cues, may change how students respond to us and how they respond to each other. Could some of these “big behaviour problems” that we tend to hear more about in education actually be caused, even inadvertently, but us? Hence, if we take time and find ways to better manage (or respond) to our stress, will this ultimately reduce the behaviour that we’re seeing in our students? 

I think that the answers to both of these questions are “yes,” and it’s for this reason that I’ve made the following changes and decisions in the past couple of years. 

  • I figured out what makes me feel calm. From reading to drinking coffee to finding a quiet space to connect with friends to getting outside, these are all things that help me self-regulate. I rely on these different options throughout the day when I need some “calm.”
  • I’ve become more attuned to my emotions. I remember a little earlier this year when I was having a really rough time. I went to the Staff Room during the second nutrition break, and I tried hard to calm down. I took deep breaths. I quietly read through some tweets from the morning. I even had a nice conversation with a friend, but I wasn’t feeling calm. I could physically feel my stress. So that’s when I got artistic with an orange. 🙂 As strange as this choice may seem, it worked, and I went back to class after lunch feeling so much better!

  • I make sure to laugh a lot! Laughter makes us feel better. I’m lucky to work with an amazing teaching partner that constantly makes me laugh and kids that always make us smile. We all share laughs during the day, and this extra joy makes a big difference!
  • I don’t let feelings fester. I used to tell my friends what I was thinking or feeling, but I was reluctant to converse openly with colleagues or administrators. It took a lot to get me to open up — especially face-to-face — and when I did, it tended be the equivalent of an emotional hurricane. I’ve improved! I often talk through my thoughts initially with my good friends or family members, but then I approach the person. I speak, but I also listen. And often, the chance to share — even if it doesn’t lead to a solution — is cathartic. It makes me feel better … and then, I am able to move on.
  • I focus on kids, not benchmarks. I know the benchmark goals for our school and for our Board, but I try to not get overwhelmed by data. Thankfully I also work with a great teaching partner that reminds me to look at kids first. Connect with them. Make it safe for them to take risks. Provide risk-taking opportunities that are challenging enough without being overwhelming. Encourage, but don’t push. Listen to what the kids have to say, and when they’re not being responsive, give them the break they need. Try again later, or try again in a different way. By keeping our focus on kids, we’re getting results without sacrificing relationships or the key components of play-based programming. We feel less stressed, and they do too. I think there’s something to be said for this. 
  • I take time for me. Yes, I’m a hard worker and I do work long hours, but the choices I make about how much time to invest in anything is my own. And when I need it, I invest less time. Maybe I share a few less photographs for the day, head out for dinner with a friend, make brunch plans, or even just take a few hours to read a good book. I still blog a lot of my professional blog, but this year, I’ve blogged a bit less. I try to have at least a couple of hours every day that I can relax, unwind, read, and do something that is not school-related. I need it … and I’m better for the kids, my colleagues, and our parents because I do! 
  • I’ve said, “no.” This was not an easy change for me to make, but it’s been an important one. I’ve turned down presentations and opted out of some committees because I knew that I needed the time for me. I took the Reading Part 1 Course this year, presented at BIT17, and continued to be the moderator for Portal Plus, but I was able to balance these things with teaching and life … having just enough positive stress without feeling weighed down by the stress. 
  • I’ve made myself get at least 7 hours of sleep a night. This was not an easy change for me to make. I will admit that there were a couple of days that I missed the 7 hour mark by an hour or two, but I’ve been pretty consistent. Sue Dunlop‘s sleep post really made an impact on me, and I will admit, that I’ve woken up feeling so much more well-rested, happy, and alert. This has to be good for kids!
  • I made the difficult decision to make a change. A couple of years ago, I decided to change schools, even though I was only at my last one for two years. For a variety of reasons, this was not an easy decision to make, but for my own well-being, it was one that I had to make. The reasons for this change are not ones that I want to share here, but I do think, that as hard as it may sometimes be, we need to listen to ourselves. We need to know when we have to move, to try something new, to take a break, or to give ourselves a little extra time because we deserve it, and ultimately, the kids will benefit!

I don’t know that what I do will work for others, but I hope that we can all find ways to feel calmer, happier, and healthier in education … because it makes a huge difference for us and for students! I would not want to be in any job where I’m counting down the days until the holidays, thinking about the number of years until retirement, or waiting for the bell to rush out to leave. I love what I do! I love going to school every day … and I’m walking into an incredible environment that feels like a happy place as soon as I open the door. We all need this happiness. We deserve it. And if we can’t find it where we’re at, hopefully we can find ways to make this situation better and more joyous. Self-Reg has done that for me. What about for you? I hope that others are also feeling a sense of calm in their lives and in their professions!

Aviva

What If We Focused On Thinking And Problem Solving Instead Of Coding?

Computer Science Education Week begins today, and is often associated with the #HourOfCode. Some students will be receiving their first introduction to coding, and while it’s exciting for children to try new things and be introduced to options that may be valuable to them in the long run — from solving problems to employment opportunities — I wonder if this Education Week article may be one of the most important ones to consider.

I’m always conflicted when it comes to this week in education. Most years, I try to do something associated with coding

The more that I learn about self-regulation though, the more that I struggle with some of these coding options. Many students become dysregulated …

  • by the moving robots with the numerous sounds and blinking lights (Biological Domain). 
  • by the time spent in front of a screen (Biological Domain). 
  • by the activities that may exceed their reading, writing, or math skills, and lead to a frustrating — instead of “positive” — struggle (Cognitive Domain).
  • by the need to work collaboratively with other people to complete the tasks effectively (Social Domain).
  • by the multiple failures that may or may not lead to eventual successes (Cognitive Domain).

In a relatively small Kindergarten classroom with 27 students that’s beside another classroom — with no full wall — and 26 students, the thought of knowingly causing this dysregulation is hard for me. Paula and I have worked for a long time with our amazing kids to create a calm learning environment for everyone, and what might some of these coding options do to this environment?

As you can see, you go from one room, turn the corner, and are in the other room.

There is also another important reality to consider: neither Paula or I are particularly comfortable with coding. We’ve both had a few experiences with it, but quickly the tasks become more than either of us can do with ease — or even with a good struggle — and this leads to another problem. At times, as the adults, we also feel dysregulated, and often the children, pick up on these feelings and mimic them in their own words and actions. So knowing this, again makes me wonder, what can we do about this, and how can we still provide children with a meaningful learning experience without undo stress?

All of this thinking brings me back to the Education Week articleWhat if, instead of focusing on the tool or activity, we make this week about developing thinking and problem solving skills? These are two key components of our Kindergarten Program Document. For children, how we support the development of these skills, may be in different ways.

  • It could be through coding activities or the use of robots such as Dash, Dot, or Sphero. 
  • It could be through low-tech coding options that include the introduction and reinforcement of mathematical terminology, such as directional language.
  • It could be through building or art options — maybe even with a Makerspace potential — that could eventually connect with the two other bullet points.

My thinking is that these options are differentiated. They allow us to focus on the child first, and develop choices that will help this child meet with success, while engaging in a positive struggle. They also link back to a bigger area of learning — around thinking and problem solving — that will be worth continuing to explore well after this week is over. 

As educators, we constantly talk about knowing our kids best. This is as true over Computer Science Education Week as over any other week of the year. Let us continue to be true to our students, as well as ourselves, and find options that challenge thinking, inspire problem solving, but still support a calm learning environment for all. What do you think? As this exciting week begins, I’d love to hear what you have planned.

Aviva

 

Hello Kinderland! Are we really in a world of our own?

I’d like to think that a bit of Kindergarten can make its way into any grade. It was really when I taught Grades 5 and 6 that I learned to love the play-based/inquiry-based approach that is prevalent in the Kindergarten Program Document. These grades were the ones that eventually brought me back down to teaching Kindergarten … and loving it! But over the past couple of weeks, I’ve started to wonder if Kindergarten really is unique, and maybe we need to embrace and celebrate the differences.

At our school, educators are divided into PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) that span grades and include prep coverage teachers, Educational Assistants, and Early Childhood Educators. The thinking is that we can share experiences, learn from each other, and ultimately, better our program and benefit kids. I do believe that this is possible! As much as we may connect with each other during the school day, we rarely get a chance to see each other’s classrooms and learn about the multiple experiences provided for students. We all have different perspectives, having taught at various schools and in various grades over the years, so what we can bring to the table is often unique. I appreciate that we get these opportunities to connect and learn from each other.

Having taught numerous grades before, I’ve been privy to many conversations around preparing kids for what’s coming next. This discussion happens across all grades, but especially between Kindergarten and Grade 1. The play-based program in Kindergarten seems contrary to the structure of many Grade 1 classrooms, and the question is, are we doing enough to get them ready? I still stand by every point that I wrote in this last blog post, but now I’m wondering if there’s even more to consider. Do we need to accept that Kindergarten is different?

  • Students are younger. What is developmentally appropriate in Kindergarten may not be true for other grades. We need to consider the developmental continuum that really is outlined so well in the ELECT Document.
  • We don’t give grades. There is no assessment of learning in our Growing Success Addendum, which also speaks to the fact that we are always looking at how assessment informs instruction versus as an evaluation of a task. This addendum speaks to the value of pedagogical documentation, and while this kind of documentation exists in other grades, it’s central to assessment in Kindergarten. 
  • We don’t have a “curriculum,” we have a “program.” Like Nancy Niessen, I think that the difference between these two terms is big and important. Reading her blog post helps clarify this. 
  • Our teaching exceeds academics. To a degree, this is true in all grades, but in Kindergarten, the amount of instruction around non-academic areas is huge. We teach children how to …
  • solve problems,
  • how to enter play,
  • how to interact with each other,
  • how to get dressed for outside,
  • how to get undressed when they come in,
  • how to neatly hang up their belongings and bring their things home with them,
  • how to open containers,
  • how to clean up after themselves,
  • how to undo and do up buttons and zippers,
  • how to go to the bathroom independently, and maybe even what to do when they’re in there. I have used many a doll and a potty in Kindergarten to teach the toileting process, and I know that I’m not the only one. 

These are all important skills, and they’re ones that lead to success well beyond Kindergarten!

Different isn’t bad. It’s a reality, and I think that it’s one that we need to accept. Expectations and pedagogy can vary significantly between Kindergarten and Grade 1, and I’ve often wondered if connecting K and 1 educators would change this. Maybe though there are reasons that these differences exist, and when children get to Grade 1, most of them are academically, socially, emotionally, and developmentally ready to tackle expectations beyond those introduced in Kindergarten.

I wonder if the value of these K/1 connections rests instead in learning and appreciating what each program has to offer and where students are at in these various grades. Possibly then we can also look at if there are instructional practices we can adopt to make transitions smoother for kids and to support students that may be at different academic, social, or developmental levels. What do you think and what have you tried? Many years ago, I used to say that I taught down in Kinderland. Is it possible that we really are — at least partially — in a world of our own?

Aviva