Does it all start with a strong vocabulary?

My mom is a retired Speech and Language Pathologist. I grew up in an environment where I learned about the importance of oral language. This thinking was further reinforced when I started teaching, and my mom has spoken to me about this a lot over the years. Yet somehow, even with all I knew, or all I thought I knew, I forgot about something important until this year.

It all started with an inservice that I went to over the summer. The inservice was on early literacy, and many of the ideas were a review of phonemic awareness skills and the alphabetic principle. During this inservice though, a Speech and Language Pathologist for our Board spoke about vocabulary development, and she reinforced the importance of introducing new words, and using these words, repetitively, in meaningful contexts. She said that it was with this repetition that the words would stick, and the students would start to develop their vocabulary. Oral language, vocabulary development, reading, and writing are all connected, so this increase in vocabulary could lead to improvement in other areas. 

While I realize that this idea may not be new to many of you — and it was something that I’ve also heard numerous times before — this year, I approached things differently. My teaching partner, Paula, and I purposely worked on developing our students’ vocabulary. Some children came to us with a strong vocabulary already, but for all children, we introduced new words.

  • We spoke about their meaning.
  • We used these words, repeatedly, in different contexts.
  • We incorporated them into play.
  • And we listened excitedly as so many children started to use these words correctly.

We had experiences like these ones.

While I’m thrilled with the success that we’ve noticed this year, I can’t help but think about my experience last year. I was at a different school last year with a different teaching partner, and many of our students did not come to school with as strong a vocabulary and as many diverse experiences. While we tried to change this by focusing on oral language and introducing our students to new experiences, I’m left wondering if we did enough.

  • How could we have developed stronger vocabulary skills?
  • What impact might this have had on our students’ reading, writing, and oral language skills?

I may not be able to change the past, but I hope that my new learning makes me approach the present differently. What do you think?


What’s the best time of the day?

If anyone ever told me that 2:00 in the afternoon would be my favourite time of the day in Kindergarten, I’d tell you that you were crazy! Usually, it’s as the day progresses that Kindergarten children become more tired, the class becomes louder, and there’s a need for more active, gross motor play that happens so well outside. It’s why we originally planned to head outside early, before dismissal, so that children could engage in the play that they need. But then something remarkable happened: the play inside was so focused, meaningful, and exciting that each day we struggle more with how long we can wait before we have to tidy up for home. 

My teaching partner, Paula, and I have spoken a lot about why this might be the case. In 15+ years, neither one of us have ever experienced this before. Here are some of our initial thoughts.

    • This is the one time of the day that we are both in the classroom together for an extended period of time. We start our day outside, and we usually don’t come inside until around 10:15. Then we group for our VIP sharing and morning planning meeting with the students, and they are just settling into play when the First Nutrition Break bell goes. We have an open snack table all day long, and children eat when they’re hungry, so our students do not observe the nutrition breaks. That said, I do, and have my supervision duties during the breaks as well. This means, that I often leave the classroom just as the children start to play. My prep is usually right after the First Nutrition Break, and depending on the prep time schedule, a couple of times all of the children leave the room, sometimes a group of students leave, and sometimes another teacher comes in and extends the play in the classroom. When I come back after my prep, Paula goes on her lunch, and then she comes back in time for me to leave for the Second Nutrition Break. This means that there is only one of us in the classroom for around the next 80 minutes, and it’s only after this that we’re both in together.

  • The children have settled into play. It takes a while for this to happen. Students need to negotiate the use of different materials, change up the environment (sometimes even switching materials on the tables or shelves during the day to better meet their needs), and interact and problem solve with their peers. This is often the time that we can intentionally interrupt the play, and start to change that repetitive play into something a little different. We also find that this is when children are more eager to write, as they have created, discussed, and orally formulated the ideas that they want to share in another way. It is also before we start to tidy up that students want to “save” their creations, and this often leads to a writing opportunity.

  • We have a few less students during this time. Since just before the Christmas holidays, we were fortunate enough to get an extra ECE (Early Childhood Educator) that supports students in both Kindergarten classrooms. In the afternoon, she works with a small group of children in the library and outside. These students change on a regular basis, and we are able to plan for this space so that the environment itself best meets the needs of the children in it. (Just like in our classrooms, the students help co-create this space.) With 6-7 students in the library, our numbers reduce to 25-26 children. A smaller group coupled with students that have really settled into the play leads to some incredible thinking, sharing, and learning. 

These thoughts around this successful end to the school day makes me think more about the flow of the day.

  • Long blocks of play matter. Without giving the children the time that we do to settle into play, we wouldn’t get to where we are at 2:00.
  • The individual things that we do and observe, matter. While there is so much that we can do and observe when we’re together, there’s also a lot in what leads up to this point. We both notice different things in the classroom. We both watch and support students in making changes to different spaces in the classroom. And then we both talk when we’re back together again, so that when we are both in the room, we can help extend what children started before. 
  • There’s value in working past the noise. This was a big a-ha moment for me. Up until this year, extreme noise has always been a reason for me to close down an area in the room, direct students to other areas, or tidy-up the classroom altogether and head outside. This year though, as challenging as it can sometimes be, we do not let the noise stop us. We may encourage “quieter voices.” We may insert ourselves into the play to help quiet things down. We may even intentionally interrupt the play in the hope of producing a quieter option. We know that it’s usually after this noisy interlude, as the play and conversations settle, that “wonderful” happens. We just have to get to this point. 
  • A big mess can ALWAYS be tidied up! This is something else that is hard for me. Big messes stress me out. I often have to wear my glasses on the top of my head to blur my vision just a bit so that I don’t feel overwhelmed by the mess I see. As Paula and I discussed with the other Kindergarten team at our school on Friday, our children often play inside, relatively uninterrupted, for four hours. I know that this seems like a lot of time. Consider though that during this time, children sit down to eat at least twice, engage in some small group and one-to-one time with us, switch out materials in the classroom to play in different ways, and engage with different children in different parts of the room, connected to all Four Frames of learning. It is because they have this much time that they feel comfortable moving to so many different options in the classroom, as they know that they will always have time for what they love. All of this being said though, you can imagine what kind of mess, 25-26 (and sometimes 32) four- and five-year-old children create in four hours: it’s a lot! It’s why we often clean up the messiest areas first, and even engage in a Dance Tidy (Paula’s brain child) to make the clean up far more fun. The children do clean though, and by the time we go outside, the classroom is tidy and ready for After Care. We’re now down to being able to clean up in 15-20 minutes max, which I think is quite impressive considering the amount of time playing. 

As hard as it may be to have to clean up at the end of the day, I kind of love how this is often one of our biggest problems. There’s something wonderful about loving the learning so much that you don’t want it to end, and ending the day eager to come back the next day. What’s your favourite time of the day? How does this “favourite time” impact on your thinking about the classroom environment, the schedule of the day, and classroom routines? It’s great to celebrate the terrific things happening in all of our rooms!


Are there times when the terms do matter?

Just over a month ago, I read this great blog post by Shelley Burgess that really made me think. I am a strong proponent of making classroom decisions based on what is “best for kids.” I used to tell teacher candidates to start conversations with the kids in mind. If you’re making decisions about approaches to try and activities to do, always consider the child first. I still believe in all of these words, but Shelley’s post made me finally really understand the value of “presuming positive intentions”: even if we’re all fighting for something different, could we still be doing so with the child’s best interests at heart?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I continue to reflect on Full-Day Kindergarten. In the summer, Ontario finalized its Kindergarten Program Document, and this school year, Kindergarten educators have all been working with this new document. We all seem to be at different places in our learning, and that’s okay. I continue to contemplate the following questions about the document, and when talking to other Kindergarten educators, I’m not alone in doing so. 

  • How do we support students with various learning needs?
  • What might a play-based program look like? How do we capture and support learning in this environment?
  • What role do students play in co-creating the learning environment? How do they help create this environment (both in planning and set-up), and what is the value in having kids take on these roles? (A special “thank you” to Cory Jobb for asking me about this on Twitter and inspiring me to add these questions.)
  • What does the role of the educators and the role of the child look like in this classroom environment?
  • What might direct instruction look like in the classroom? How much is too much? How much is not enough? How do you decide?
  • When the document says that “literacy development and mathematics learning occur throughout play and inquiry, and not within isolated blocks of time,” does this mean that language and math centres are out all day long or that language and math are reinforced meaningfully through play? Does this distinction matter?
  • When the document says that we view the child as “competent and capable of complex thought,” what role does this play in terms of how we design the classroom, how we interact with students, how we respond to student ideas, and what learning opportunities we provide for students?
  • When the document reinforces that we start with the child’s interests and connect the expectations to these interests, what might this actually look like in the classroom? How do we also provide new experiences that may lead to other interests?

Depending on how we answer these questions can significantly impact on what our classrooms look like, what we’re doing throughout the day, and what our students are doing throughout the day. I keep thinking back to Shelley’s post and reminding myself that every educator is making decisions that he/she truly believes are best for children. 

These classrooms all look so different though, and as I look through Instagram posts, tweets, and blog posts that discuss inquiry-based learning, play-based learning, and Reggio-inspired environments, I’m left questioning my own definitions of these terms. What do these words really mean? I am not a fan of edu-jargon, and I think that all learning environments should be more than the words themselves, but with a program document that explicitly outlines expectations as well as pedagogy, I wonder if we have to come to a common understanding of these terms. Do we all have to be at the same point right now? No. I even think it’s okay to say the words that Sergio Pascucci and Laurel Fynes have shared with me so often: “I used to think … but now I think …”. Our thinking and learning should be evolving, just as we want it to be for kids. We may even be comfortable saying, “I am not quite there yet, but I’m trying this and continuing to make changes.” My concern is though, if we call so many different experiences inquiry-based learning, play-based learning, and Reggio-inspired, but they are not actually thatwhat’s the impact of these mixed messages on parents, educators, administrators, and the students themselves? To increase the benefit of the program for kids and learn more from each other, I think we need a shared understanding. What do you think?


It Just Took A Little More Time …

Two weeks ago, a group of students decided to build the Toronto skyline. They were going to the Raptors Game, and a discussion about their plans, led to this creation. 

A few other children saw how these students were using the recyclable materials to create buildings, and they decided that they wanted to do some creating of their own. They decided to make Mermaid Land.

As we were tidying up on that day, one of our JK students saw these two creations side by side and made a great connection.

It really seemed like we had something special here, but these two creations were taking up our whole back table, and with only a few students involved, we decided that we needed to make a change. We put Mermaid Land away, and we put the Toronto skyline on top of our light table. We put out a small container of sticky notes and markers and the big bin of recyclable materials, with the hope that the children might label some of their creations and add more to their work, but for just over a week, nothing happened. Then one day, we noticed a couple of girls take some plasticine off the shelf and create a couple of mermaids.

They started to use these mermaids for a little dramatic play in “Toronto.” This is when my teaching partner, Paula, suggested that we bring out Mermaid Land and Toronto again, and see if we could revive the interest. This is what we did.

Each day, it took a while for the students to head back to this area. We constantly spoke about cleaning things up and changing up this space. But just as we said, “Let’s put Toronto and Mermaid Land away,” the table started to fill up again. Great things began to happen!

This experience has made me think about the importance of “time.” How do we give children enough time to get immersed in the learning? How do we know when a project is “over?” How do we ensure that we do not react too fast? The Toronto/Mermaid Land creation process has been a great reminder for me to slow down.


Are The “Process Expectations” About More Than Just Math?

This afternoon, I had the pleasure of sitting with some educators from our school and some educators from a neighbouring school to help plan our upcoming PA Day. For part of the PA Day, we’re going to be exploring the process expectations in math: problem solving, reasoning and proving, reflecting, selecting tools and strategies, connecting, representing, and communicating. As our conversation progressed today, I started to wonder if these mathematical processes are actually about more than just math.

It started with the problem solving expectation. I thought about an experience from this morning (that I wish I recorded by I accidentally missed). This Instagram post sums up what happened though.

While this discussion was not about a “math problem,” it did start with bringing a “problem” to the class: the need to display art for our upcoming Art Gallery. Students took this problem and started to generate solutions, which eventually led to a child measuring and cutting brown paper for our bulletin boards. 

This is just one example, but there could be so many more. I think about what happened the other day when it was really muddy outside, and we told the children that they could not go on the grass in the outdoor classroom. The other Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Raymond, mentioned that the grass may not grow back in the springtime if it continues to be trampled down. When the children went outside with their snacks, one of our students found some wood pieces behind the shed. He really wanted to get over to the little plastic house in the corner of the grassy area to eat his snack. He thought that if he could “build a bridge” over to the house, then he would be able to walk over there without walking on the grass. Now this is problem solving!

This problem solving continued as he ran out of wood and had to make other changes.

This was not just about problem solving though. Think about the tools and strategies used, reflecting during the process, and communicating thinking throughout. This communication continued after creating the bridge, as this child then used PicCollage to write a note to Mrs. Raymond to ask her about keeping it. 

I realize that there are math connections to this problem, especially related to measurement. This was not presented as a math problem though. In fact, it was not presented as a problem at all. We initially just said, “No mud or grass.” The child created the problem when he identified his desire to eat his snack in the plastic house and realized that he could not get to it without walking on the mud. This is when he found another way.

The Kindergarten Program Document emphasizes that math and language should not be taught in isolation, but instead, reinforced through play. This is where “noticing and naming” are so important. We can see the learning in action and make the connection, for the students, to the expectations. With this approach, I think that we get richer learning, but we also get these process expectations embedded in so much of what we do all day long. And as students problem solve, reason and prove, reflect, select tools and strategies, connect, represent, and communicate in one subject area, will this make them feel even more confident to do so in other subject areas? I think these process expectations cause us to think more about how children learn, in math and beyondWhat do you think?