The Snowman That Never Was: My Struggle With Nutrition Breaks

For many years now, I’ve been at schools that have two nutrition breaks instead of a recess/lunch model. In the nutrition break system, we have two 40-minute breaks during the day: with 20 minutes outside playing and 20 minutes inside eating. I remember when I first learned about nutrition breaks. It seemed strange to have staff and students that may be eating their lunch at 10:30 in the morning or 1:30 in the afternoon, instead of the more typical noon hour. That said, I understood the thinking behind a system that sees the value that outdoor play and full bellies can have to student achievement. Today though, I started to think about outdoor learning, mental health and well-being, and what we can do differently.

Maybe it’s my move to Kindergarten and being in an environment where outdoor learning is such an essential component of the Program Document that has me thinking differently. We start our day outside, and we’re usually out for close to an hour in the morning and some additional time in the afternoon: depending on the weather, student needs, and program interests. While we have a beautiful outdoor classroom in addition to a forest nearby, we primarily let the students take the lead in this outdoor time. And if we really watch and listen to the children, there are so many connections to math skills, language learning, social skills, and problem solving. Rain or shine, this outdoor learning time is usually my favourite time of the day, and I continue to be amazed with what happens in these special outdoor spaces. For the first time ever in my 15 years of teaching, our class does not follow the nutrition break schedule. We have a snack table (where children rotate and eat throughout the day when they’re hungry — they need to eat twice), and we go outside at our own time and primarily dictated by what the children need. Bells no longer run our lives … and I love this!

Twice a week though, I have two, 40-minute nutrition break duties, and I leave our classroom to go and supervise the primary students. Today was one of those days. About three minutes before the bell rang today, a Grade 1 student came up to me. She said, “Miss Dunsiger, can you help us with our snowman? We can’t stack the balls.” She indicated that she even worked with another student and “the ball is so heavy that even the two of us can’t do it.” Another child was walking with me at this point, so the three of us walked over to this snowman. She was right: this was a huge, heavy ball! I explained that I couldn’t pick it up either, but maybe a few more students could help her out. The child that was walking with me offered to help, and another child that was walking by, came over to assist. They struggled. They persevered. They tried different ways to surround the snowball so that they could pick it up safely. And just as the two balls were about to meet, the recess bell rang. I wanted to cry! 

I said that maybe they could come out tomorrow and finish it. One child reminded me that the weather is supposed to warm up and the snow will likely melt. I said maybe they could finish it after. This is when the child that first approached me for help commented, “But it’s already the second break. We just about had it, and now we have no more time.” She was right! To think that all of this problem solving, team work, and perseverance ended with an incomplete snowman, breaks my heart.

Just as I’m struggling with these thoughts, I head over to the lines to let the children go in and get ready for eating time. The students are so loud. They’re still trying to play in the snow. Some children are running around and chasing each other. There are problems with peers, and my only desire at this point is to get everybody inside. The problems spill into the hallways though, and I spend the rest of the nutrition break helping solve them. As I help calm tempers and resolve disputes, I can’t help but think about Stuart Shanker and self-regulation: Why this child? Why now? My thinking led to these questions that I feel could all be at play here. 

  • Outdoor play can help children self-regulate, but does 20 minutes provide enough time for them to truly calm down?
  • The new Kindergarten Program Document talks a lot about the “flow of the day,” and the importance of “minimizing transitions.” These are great considerations for all grades. How many additional transitions happen during the day though because of these two, 20 minute breaks? 
  • Getting dressed and undressed in crowded hallways with additional outdoor clothing (i.e., boots, snowpants, etc.) can be stressful, and does this stress cause the kinds of problems that happened today?

With the different duty requirements, I know that nutrition breaks are hard to change, but I just can’t get past my experience today. My head is full of questions.

  • Outdoor learning time is valuable beyond Kindergarten, so how do we increase these times for all grades?
  • How might we minimize transitions, and what value might this have for all learners?
  • What does your school do? What are the benefits for kids?

It would be great if we could share our stories. Looking ahead, I’d just love for an option where all children could “finish their snowmen.”


Can Relationships Truly Come First?

This morning, a fellow educator and friend of mine, Jonathan So, tweeted me this link to his recent blog post. There’s a lot to consider in this post, and contrary to what I usually do, I didn’t comment right away. I thought. This afternoon, I posted this comment, which may almost be as long as the post itself.

Jonathan’s reply made me realize that I needed to do more than reply again, but instead, write this post of my own.

I totally understand what Jonathan is saying here, and in so many ways, I agree with his sentiments. Here’s the problem though: when I read this line, “As a teacher I have had to give up control, and let go of that “Oh I could have used that 40 minutes to cover curriculum” feeling.,” my heart started to beat faster. Am I okay with these sentiments? That’s when I thought back to this post that I wrote on The MEHRIT Centre blog, and my question of, what constitutes curriculum? 

I think that my biggest struggle is that as much as I may know that …

  • relationships matter the most,
  • students need to feel safe and loved in order to learn,
  • school is about more than just academics,
  • mental health and well-being matters both for adults and for children, and we can impact each other: positively and negatively,
  • our new Board vision has “positive culture and well-being” as its first priority,

how do we put academics second? I’m a Kindergarten teacher, and with our new program document, we have more open-ended expectations than probably any other grade. I’m lucky to work at a school with children that have supportive parents, diverse life experiences, strong oral language skills, a solid understanding of texts and how they communicate messages to others, an interest in writing, many opportunities to play with numbers, and a genuine interest in math and its connection to the real world. These students amaze me every day with what they say and do. I know that I don’t need to be worried about school or Board benchmarks in reading, writing, or math, and yet …

  • do I always try to push a connection to reading, writing, or math, even if one does not naturally exist?
  • do I capture more “academic” moments because I think that they may be more well-received than the self-regulation ones?
  • do I question if colleagues, administrators, or parents wonder if I read enough with students, write enough with them, and provide enough direct instruction?
  • do I try to always make parallels to expectations because I worry if others will see and think as I do?

We can believe that relationships matter the most. We say say that relationships matter the most. But how do we consistently put this as our top priority in our classrooms, and how do we keep it there even if our test scores slip? I know that scores aren’t everything, and like Jonathan, I wonder how successful we’d be at meeting the scores if we didn’t work on some of these relationships first. I’m lucky to work with an amazing teaching partner that believes strongly in the power of these connections, and continues to support, encourage, and inspire me along the way. I’m not going to let go of …

and our many classroom times talking with, listening to, and playing with students. I know they make a difference. Maybe though, in the coming months, as I work on my new one word goal (“perspective”), I’ll get better at readily capturing and sharing these times, and not always being concerned about those academic linksWhat do you think: in a world of “benchmarks,” can relationships in the classroom truly come first, and if so, what do we need in place for this to happen? 


How Do We All Find Our Creative Niche?

I recently finished reading John Spencer and A.J. Juliani‘s book, Launch: Using Design Thinking To Boost Creativity And Bring Out The Maker In Every StudentI believe strongly in the fact that every classroom can (and should) be a Makerspace, and that there’s value in providing real world problems and authentic audiences for student work. These ideas are further supported in our finalized Kindergarten Program Document, and as I read Launch, I made numerous connections to Spencer and Juliani’s ideas and our Kindergarten expectations. It’s clear that Spencer and Juliani have the same view of the child that’s highlighted in our Kindergarten document: as “competent and capable of complex thinking.” There’s so much “wonderful” in Launch that it’s hard to just blog about a single idea, but it was this point on “defining creativity,” that really had me stop and think the most.

Until reading this book, I think I had a narrow view of creativity. I think of the children I’ve taught in the past that I saw as the most creative.

  • They were the artists.
  • They were the musicians.
  • They were the dramatists.
  • They were the builders.
  • They were the book writers.

They were not often …

  • the math thinkers.
  • the problem solvers.
  • the collaborators.
  • the organizers.
  • the readers.

But were they? Spencer and Juliani are helping me realize that we’re all creative, and “creativity” does not always mean making something new, but sometimes, “mashing up ideas” to solve problems or view things differently. 

I can’t help but think of our Board’s new vision: Curiosity. Creativity. Possibility. When I first heard of this vision, I wondered about a student that might be like me. I struggle to express myself through The Arts. More well-known forms of “making” and “tinkering” are not my thing. Am I — and others like me — “creative?” And then I read the book, and I realized that this blog is my creative outlet. It’s how I put together ideas, question continuously, and bring my thinking to an audience. I may not create with my hands, but I do with my mind. Our students can too.

With this new thinking, I’m left wondering, how do we allow all students to develop their creative niche? I can’t help but think about more opportunities to inquire and problem solve in all subject areas and represent thinking in various ways: recognizing the value in all of these waysIs this how we help all children recognize their creativity? What might this actually look like in a classroom environment? I would love to know what you do.



Social Media: Is Avoidance Really The Answer?

Over the holidays, I had a very interesting conversation with a relative. She shared some thoughts about “why educators should not be using social media to communicate.”  These are some of the questions that she raised during our discussion. 

  • What if messages are misinterpreted?
  • What if our tone is misinterpreted? 
  • What if parents, administrators, or students get angry or upset based on something that we’ve shared?
  • What if parents compare their child’s work to another student’s work because of what’s shared? 

These questions highlight for me another reason that some educators choose not to blog: the fear of making our thoughts public and the possible repercussions for doing so. But is this fear a good reason to choose not to share or just a good reminder to be careful and think more before choosing what and how we share?

I use social media (particularly Twitter, Instagram, and blogs) to share student thinking and learning with parents, and I guess ultimately, with the world. I try to be careful about how I capture this work. 

  • I take many headless photographs and videos, and only use student names when agreed to by the students and the parents. I use initials a lot.
  • I try to keep the focus on the work and the learning. By not just taking a photograph or video of each child doing each activity, there are fewer opportunities for comparisons.
  • I consider my captions carefully. Again, I try to highlight the work and the learning, and also, celebrate student growth.
  • I use Storify to not just collect the individual snippets of learning, but provide a context for this learning that helps highlight growth and connections to program expectations.

While much of this documentation makes its way into our daily post on our class blog, I sometimes reflect on this work in other ways on my professional blog. It’s when writing these blog posts that I find myself proofreading more, considering word choice even more carefully, and sometimes, getting an opinion or two before publishing. While it’s largely parents that read our class blog, a more diverse audience reads my professional blog, including parents, administrators, colleagues, and various educators. My professional blog is a way for me to reflect, but also start, and hopefully continue, conversations.

I’m a self-proclaimed “educational troublemaker,” and I’m proud to be one. I appreciate when people comment with their diverse views, so that we can continue the conversations online. Sometimes words do cause strong emotions, and maybe, that’s okay. If we’re professional and open to dialogue, these emotions can be a good thing. Even if people don’t always choose to comment or talk directly to us, our words might get people thinking, and with thinking, often comes change.

I understand why people focus in on the social media horror stories (and cautionary tales) because there are lots of them. It’s these same stories that made me question joining Twitter over seven years ago. Maybe though, instead of focusing on the problems, we need to focus on the positives. (Again, could “perspective” play an important role here?) 

  • The “thank you’s” from parents and students for capturing the school day online, and knowing how to extend learning at home thanks to what’s shared.
  • The parents that years later, still send the occasional tweet with updates on student success.
  • My new learning thanks to the conversations I’ve had through Twitter, Instagram, and blog post comments.
  • Connections I’ve made thanks to social media that I never would have made without it. Just as one example, over three years ago, I tweeted Stuart Shanker some of my blog post links connected to the Calm, Alert, and Learning Book Club I was involved in. That started a connection that eventually led to my work with The MEHRIT Centre.

I don’t think we should ignore the cautionary tales, but could we reduce future problems, by sharing more examples of how to use social media “for good?” Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and blogs are not going away. Is attempting to put a stop to their use, really the answer? I don’t think so, but what about you?


Two Students, Two Stories, And More To Think About

The last week of school before the winter holidays is always such an interesting one. While there are lots of fun festivities that always make children happy, there are also lots of changes in routine, that can result in increased problems. This year, we taught until December 23rd, so children and adults were both more aware of the upcoming holidays — particularly Christmas — and these changes in behaviour were very apparent this week. 

  • Classroom conversations seemed louder. There was a lot more noise. Even when children were just talking to each other, they seemed to do so in a louder voice.
  • Crying was at a premium. It didn’t seem to take much to lead to tears, and even children that usually don’t cry, seemed to be more easily upset. 
  • Friendships were tested. We heard many reasons that students were not being good friends or kind friends, and this again seemed linked to increased tears.

Thinking about the key question that Stuart Shanker often asks — Why this child and why now? — you could start to understand the possible reasons why these problems may be occurring. (These are just some possibilities, but there are certainly more.)

  • More classroom holiday festivities that change classroom schedules and sometimes lead to increased stress.
  • Late nights and less sleep as children attend different holiday parties.
  • Colder temperatures that cancel outdoor learning time and shift classroom routines.
  • More sugary snacks shared in the classroom: diet can have an impact on behaviour.
  • More assemblies that also change classroom schedules and increase sitting time.

And yet, even when we might know why, sometimes it’s a challenge to stop and reframe at the time. This week, I was reminded about the need to do just that.

The first time was during one of our assemblies. The problem was actually not with a student in our class, but with a child in a class that happened to be sitting near ours. We had a lot of parents attending the assembly, and as such, we were all sitting very closely to each other. A lack of personal space is a challenge for many students and adults. During one of the presentations, I happened to turn around and see an altercation between two students. Other teachers also saw the problem and responded by trying to get the students to move away from each other, but due to the lack of space, there was not a lot of room to move. Physical closeness only increased the problem. While one child looked as though he was calming down, the other child was clenching his fists and making noises: I knew he was still angry. I went up to the prep coverage teacher and asked if I could help. I’ve developed a relationship with this child, and asked if he wanted to come up and sit with me. He did. He slowly moved out of the crowd and over near the staff chairs. While with me, I was able to quietly talk to him, and he started to take a few deep breaths and relax. As the assembly progressed, he found a spot to sit away from everyone else. Even though this was not one of the assigned seating areas, I love how everyone in the room supported him in sitting there: knowing this is what he needed to succeed. 

The second time was a few days later in our classroom. It was the end of the day and everyone was getting ready for home. The winter weather means that children need to put on snowpants, boots, hats, scarves, and mittens in addition to a coat, so the dressing routine is far longer and more complicated than before. Add in the stress of the holiday season, and for some children, dressing time is further complicated. One child in particular was really struggling. I found him some personal space to get ready, but he just threw his snowpants and coat on the floor and refused. I decided to walk away for a bit, but a few minutes later, I heard him crying softly and making a growling sound. He was mad. I looked at my watch and realized that we had to be outside for dismissal in less than five minutes, and I was starting to feel frustrated. Why wouldn’t he just get dressed?! And then he said something that changed my response. In between the tears and the anger, he said, “Miss Dunsiger, my dragon is coming out.” I thought back to a couple of weeks ago and the dragon story I told. It was then that I turned to him, and in a quiet voice I said, “Do you need a hug?” His response: “Yes!” He walked over to me, we hugged, and then he said, “Now we can both be happy.” In minutes, he got dressed and ready to head home. 

These stories are a great reminder to me that …

  • relationships matter. They often help us see behaviour differently and view each other in a more positive light. 
  • sometimes our angriest students are the ones that need a hug most of all.
  • children know how we feel, and often a change in our behaviour will also result in a change in theirs.
  • we also need to be kind to ourselves. No matter how much we may know, we all make mistakes, and taking the opportunity to learn from them is so important. 
  • teaching is about so much more than just academics, and in those stressful weeks around holiday times, maybe we realize this the most. 

The other day, I happened to see this tweet from Jen Wright about stress behaviour versus misbehaviour. 

I can’t help but think about the two experiences from this past week at school, and how many times I would have responded differently and looked to punish what I was sure was “misbehaviour.” This tweet will be one that I’ll look at again as I head back to school in a couple of weeks: knowing that there’s stress then too, and at all different times of the year, children’s actions may not be as they initially appear to be. How do you remember to reframe and what value do you see for kids? I’m reminded of my one word  perspective — for 2017, and how reframing can help me gain a new perspective. What about you?