Is it really that gross? Or is it something else?

I was out recently with a fellow educator who teaches at a different school. She mentioned that she has a child in her junior class that bites her nails. “Just think about the germs,” she said. “Last year’s teacher tried to get her to stop, but she still does it. I need to get her to stop.” This really got me thinking, for you see, I could relate to this child.

For years, I bit my nails, right until I was an adult. I still do at times, but I’m more aware that I’m doing it, so I can also talk myself into stopping. I have another habit though, and it’s a hard one for me to stop. I tend to suck on things. I always wear a necklace around my neck, which used to belong to my grandmother. It’s important to me, and I never leave the house without it. Unfortunately, the chain is just the perfect size to fit inside my mouth, and if I start to feel stressed or anxious, I always put it in there. I have the same bad habit with my school identification badge. I wear the lanyard around my neck, and at times, I find myself sucking on it too.

Apparently, I’m not the only one that notices that I do this. Last week, I was outside one morning, and there was a lot of activity happening in our outdoor classroom space. I found the area much louder than usual. A little more frenzied. As I stood there contemplating how I might be able to resettle the space, a Kindergarten child from another class came up to me. He said, “You’re sucking on your necklace, Miss Dunsiger. You do that a lot!” He was right! I told him this, and said, “I tend to do this when I’m feeling stressed.” He replied, “You must be stressed then.” Maybe I was. I took a few minutes to breathe, and about five minutes after that, our class headed to the forest. The quiet and the space out in the forest, helped me a lot, and I quickly noticed that I was no longer sucking on my necklace. 

It looks like the forest is magical — and calming — for many of us!

I share this story because my own experiences sucking things — including even chewing on the edges of my sleeves when I was a child — makes me remember that often this desire to chew is a lot more complex than we might think. For this child — or in my case, this adult — we may know that it’s not the best habit to have, but it’s also a sensory experience, which helps us self-regulate. I mentioned this to the teacher I was out with, and said, “Maybe you could substitute the finger nail biting for another more socially acceptable, oral sensory experience. What about sucking on a mint or chewing gum?” Her reply was, “Well I can’t do that. It wouldn’t be fair. Nobody else is allowed to eat candy or chew gum during class time at school.” My final question is one that I’m going to leave you with today: do they need to? Equity is not equality. I’m a firm believer in this. And I know that we speak about this a lot, but what does it actually mean in our classrooms and schools? For me, it’s about …

  • the child that needs a fidget toy when other children can sit on the carpet without one.
  • the child that sits on the sofa or lies on the small carpet instead of joining our group for meeting time.
  • the child that plays with plasticine, but still listens into the full class discussions, while others can do so without the plasticine.
  • the child that brings in a blanket, toy, or doll from home, even when we discourage home objects, for this is what helps calm the child. 
  • the child that always needs to be at the front of the line.
  • the child that has to write a note in red marker (or blue or green or orange, etc.), even if others are encouraged to use pencil. For this child, colour choice matters. 

This is not a comprehensive list, but just some of my examples from previous years. A teacher once asked, “But what about when all of the other children want to do this too or have these same accommodations?” I would usually answer this query with the same response that I pose to children, “Do you need this? We all get what we need to do our best.” Students are never too young to learn about equity, and maybe it’s this very learning, which will help reframe the thinking behind the finger nail biting and necklace chewing. I sure hope so!


How do we avoid comparisons?

My teaching partner, Paula, and I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about our classroom blog. We recently had our Meet the Teacher Night, and heard from many parents how much they appreciated having the daily updates on our blog. It’s through these updates that they learn even more about what their child is doing in the room, but also the learning that’s happening on a global scale in the classroom. They feel as though they have a window into our room, while also learning different ways that they can support their child at home. That said, there’s another side to this story.

Paula and I are very open in our posts. We share snippets of conversations, strengths and areas of growth that we notice, but also next steps. These reflections are not just about the children. We also reflect on our professional practices. More than five years ago, Royan Lee, a fellow Ontario educator and blogger, wrote a post on filming yourself teaching and deconstructing your instruction. When he published this post, I saw teaching as just the full group instruction that I delivered at the front of the classroom. Now my thinking around “instruction” has changed, and the majority of my lessons happen in small groups. The same is true for Paula. I’m less focused on recording full class lessons — although at times I do — but much of our day is spent on a video camera. Sometimes Paula captures my conversations. Sometimes I capture hers. Sometimes we capture each other at the same time, or we just capture ourselves with the children. But we are forever listening to ourselves on film, discussing our approaches with each other, and considering changes we can make. It’s common for me to make the kind of comment that I did in this Instagram post the other day. 

I share this because part of our thinking behind the blog is to help reframe perceptions of next steps. 

  • None of us are perfect.
  • We all have a “next best move.”
  • Sharing this thinking publicly helps remind us of our areas for growth.
  • It also makes us more human.

Our hope is that parents, educators, and administrators will look at these posts and celebrate with us the different successes, but also support us (and kids) in where we’re going next. Throughout the year, we look back at these posts, and we focus on growth. Where did students begin and where are they now? Also, where did we begin and how have we changed? Just like with our Kindergarten Program Document, our focus is on the individual. It’s about the personal learning stories and the personal growth. 

Over the years, I’ve learned many things from my parents. I have a gifted sister who’s 13 months younger than me, but skipped Grade 1, so we went through school together. As she was excelling, I was the struggling student with the learning disability. There were all kinds of opportunities for my parents to compare the two of us, but they never did. They recognized each of our strengths, and they realized that we would progress at our own rates. They also knew that with support, guidance, and targeted instruction, we would both achieve what we wanted to do. And that’s exactly what happened. As two educators, they were important parts of this instruction, but so were the incredible teachers that we had over the years. 

I share this story because when observations, conversations, and work products are shared publicly, it becomes really easy to wonder, is my child doing okay? Do I need to be doing more? At times Paula and I question, should we share this particular experience? Are parents going to be concerned that their child is not performing at this level, or that their child is not doing well enough? Our hope is no. We know that parents want to see their own children, but also see what’s happening in the classroom. Sometimes when they don’t see their child in a particular space, this becomes a discussion point around, “What did you do in this area, or what might you do here tomorrow?”

Even for us, at times it takes looking back, to realize just how far forward our students have come. Just look at these two posts from the end of last year. 

Individuals just watching last year’s blog posts might only have seen …

  • the child that could write,
  • the child that could read,
  • the child with incredible vocabulary,

but don’t forget that each of these children had a starting point. We all do! There are things that we would do over too … including my word choice over this second example of growth being “even more incredible.” It really is only in Kindergarten where even a week can make a massive difference for kids. The progress at this age is amazing, and we’re fortunate to get to witness and be a part of all of it. With our classroom blog, you can tooAs parents and as educators though, what helps you stay focused on the individuals? The school year is only beginning, and we are already learning a lot about our 29 wonderful learners … and maybe just as much about ourselves!


Bring A Leaf To School … And Then Make It So Much More Than That!

Sometimes it amazes me what inspires me. If you told me that I would wake up this morning and write a blog post inspired by falling leaves, I wouldn’t have believed you, but all it took was a great conversation on Doug Peterson‘s morning post to act as the inspiration for this one. 

As I mentioned in my reply to Doug, our time outside in our forest space definitely leads to “leaf games.” Students make piles of leaves, jump in leaves, and even create art with leaves. So much imaginative and creative play comes from falling leaves. 

Doug pushed my thinking even more though when he tweeted me back and replied to my comment on his blog

Yes, we’re very lucky to have a forest space. We have one of the nicest outdoor spaces that I have ever seen, and it really does provide everything that anyone could ever want in an outdoor learning environment. But Doug’s reply reminded me that even for those that do not have this kind of outdoor area, there are things that they can do. I know, as I’ve taught in these kinds of spaces before, and I realize that in retrospect, I could have done a lot more. 

My final comment on Doug’s post implied that I would be writing a post of my own, and this is that post. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about what could be done in schools that don’t have access to forest spaces. What about those schools that don’t even have grass? I know about those schools. I used to teach at one. At the time, we made our outdoor play time largely about the use of the bicycles, the scooters, the playground equipment, and the sidewalk additions, such as the tracks and games painted on the sidewalks. I’ve seen a lot of this sidewalk painting recently. I used to love these numbers, letters, and words spread across the black top, but now I wonder if the money used on these additions could be better used for a more open-ended play space. 

While we often talk about, videotape, and photograph our time in the forest, we also have a wonderful classroom just outside our doors. Here’s a look at the outdoor classroom space that my teaching partner, Paula, and I revamped before school started.

Let’s think a bit about those schools that do not have grassy areas, trees, and forest spaces. How might you create an outdoor classroom there?

  • Tires are versatile, outdoor loose parts that can be used for creative play, gross motor play, and even as seats for reading and writing. We’ve collected a ton of tires to use in our outdoor classroom, and they’re all free. Most mechanics want to get rid of old tires, as it costs them to recycle them. Talk to your local mechanic and see what you can get. You’d be amazed!
  • Wooden blocks, of various sizes, are great for building and creating outside. One of the previous kindergarten teachers at our school, Janet, collected and brought in many of these wood pieces for us to use. I wonder at your school if there might be parents or educators with some old pieces of wood. They can be all different sizes. Even starting with a few is wonderful, and then you can collect more as they become available. 
  • The mud kitchen might be my favourite addition to this outdoor classroom. Students that rarely engage in dramatic play in the classroom, engage in it outside around this mud kitchen. I love how it includes both boys and girls. So much oral language, math, science, and literacy comes from this space. We happen to have some berries hanging from trees near our mud kitchen, and collecting and creating with these berries have been very popular lately. Students use sticks and wood chips much like kitchen instruments, and as they create, there are so many wonderful conversations. Even adding some leaves in here, along with weeds, would create some new conversations in this area. This year, we used a couple of old workbenches as the foundation for this mud kitchen. If you don’t have access to these, a few tires with some wood could act as a kitchen. Maybe even an old picnic table would work. We bought some pots and pans at Value Village and Dollarama, and used old buckets to contain the mud. We also got the canteens from Home Hardware and Dollarama at very low prices. This ensures that we can keep enough water outside for this mud kitchen play. The mud piece is key! 🙂 
  • A dig pit helps with the mud component, but also with the sensory play (and the oral language that comes from this kind of play). Students often use the mud in addition to the blocks for building opportunities, which also gets students thinking about construction and cement. What a great chance to develop vocabulary skills! If you don’t have a dig pit area, what about an old sandbox or a long, low Rubbermaid container for some sand? We bought bags of play sand for $5 each at the end of the year, and they get very well-used before we need to purchase more.
  • Stumps work well for gross motor play, but are also wonderful places to sit, eat, and talk. A few stumps with some wood pieces could also act as a foundation for the mud kitchen, if the tire and wood options don’t work well for you. I know that Janet, a previous Kindergarten teacher at our school, found a lot of these wood stumps. Look for them! They are often along the roads or maybe even in a teacher or parent’s backyard after doing some tree cutting. Ask around! You’d be surprised what people have around that they are willing to give you, especially if you can go and pick them up. Just like the tires, these stumps work as wonderful loose parts in our outdoor learning space, and are so versatile. 
  • No doubt about it: the outdoor chalkboard is a wonderful addition to our space, but there are alternatives. A parent made this chalkboard many years ago, and maybe there is a parent in your neighbourhood that could make one. Maybe the money that you save on painting sidewalks or fixing bicycles could be used for a chalkboard instead. If not, some sidewalk chalk on wood pieces, logs, or tree stumps work wonderfully. We had some old doors from a shed, and students love chalking on them. They’ve also been great for painting outside. We’ve brought out water colour paints, but wondered if some of the natural berry paints might be nice to add too. If none of these options work, bring out some clipboards, special pens or markers, and even small notebooks for writing. Placing these around the outdoor space help make them easily accessible, and then kids tend to write more. We find the same thing inside the classroom.
  • Don’t forget about the books! This year, we took the doors off an old shed, and created a wonderful little space for reading and/or dramatic play. Every day, we pull out a box of books, and the kids just love sitting in this space, reading, and talking with each other. Often an adult joins them, and as kids walk by, more stop to listen to and enjoy a story. If you don’t have an old shed space, a tarp, or even an open tent might work well for this kind of reading area. Children also love to sit in tires to read, so a comfy tire space might also work. 

In the end, this blog post is about a lot more than leaves. It is about creating a space where kids can get creative, expand their schema, apply what they’ve learned in the classroom in another area, and develop their social and academic skills through open-ended learning opportunities. When I was at my last school, I never made enough use of the outdoor space that we had. I thought that we were limited due to the lack of grass and the inability to keep items outside overnight. But what if the bikes in the shed were replaced with some natural materials? What if items were locked down? (We did this with our mud kitchen this year.) I know that if I went back to a school that didn’t have our kind of outdoor space, I might shed some initial tears 🙂 , but then I would explore what could be done. For when we create these play opportunities — rich in oral language, creativity, and the development of new vocabulary — the social and academic benefits are huge. Just like leaves are everywhere, can wonderful outdoor play be everywhere too? How do you make this possible? Thanks to Doug for reminding me that there is always more we can do!


How Do You Avoid The Power Struggle?

Power struggles. As another year begins in Kindergarten, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about these. In Ontario, children start JK when they are as young as three: turning four by the end of December. Sometimes students may be three-, four-, or five-years old, but be at a developmental level that is more like two-years old. As someone who has not had my own children, I didn’t have a lot of experience with toddlers until I started teaching Kindergarten. I don’t think that I truly began to understand their behaviour until I began working with Early Childhood Educators, who were willing and open to teaching me a lot. It was then that my thinking and approaches changed. 

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had to remind myself of some wise words: “You will never win a power struggle with a two-year old.” Three experiences made me realize how different approaches would have completely changed the following outcomes.

Earlier this week, I was outside with the other Kindergarten classes one morning. A group of students decided to set-up a hockey game over in the corner. They made sure that all interested children were included, and supported each other as they played. I really enjoyed watching this hockey game, and was doing so when one child took the hockey stick over to the picnic table. He started banging on the table with it, and then moved to banging on the ground. These are little plastic mini-sticks, and I was really concerned that he was going to break the stick. I went over to him and explained that the hockey sticks needed to be used for the hockey game. He wasn’t willing to go back, and continued to bang. Again, I asked him to bring back the stick, and when he ignored me a second time, I took the stick. Now I should have anticipated what came next, but I didn’t. He went to hit me. This should not be a surprise. It really was my own fault. If I didn’t grab the stick, he wouldn’t have hit me … but he might have broken the hockey stick. I could have reacted in all kinds of different ways, and over the years, I’ve reacted in many of them. But Stuart Shanker‘s and Susan’s Hopkin‘s voices went through my head at the time, and I started to think about Self-Reg and power struggles. 

  • I took a step back.
  • I gave him some space.
  • I got down low.
  • And I waited.

When he quieted down, I asked him in a really quiet voice, “What did you want to do with the hockey stick?” He replied, “I want to make music.” Of course! What a great idea! I could work with this. I said, “This is a wonderful idea! This hockey stick might crack though. That could hurt someone. What else can we find around here to use to make music?” That’s when he found another stick. Another child picked up a rock to use. I even suggested using our hands. This child totally calmed down, created his music, and left the hockey stick in a safer place. 

I was thinking about this experience when I was outside again one morning, and I heard some screaming coming from the building space. Why was this child screaming? I used the words that I often hear my teaching partner, Paula, use: “You look really sad. What’s wrong?” He stopped screaming and said, “Another boy took my hat. He threw it on the ground.” I replied with, “I can see why that might make you sad. Do you know who did it?” Sure enough, he pointed to a child that was hiding in the dig pit: huddled and crying. I went to go and talk with him, but I could see that he was also really upset. I tried Paula’s line again: “You look really sad.” Before I could say anything else, he said, “I’m mad! He [he pointed to the other child] started taking blocks from my building. He wouldn’t stop, so I took his hat.” Hmmm … “I can see how that would make you angry.” I looked at the first child and asked, “Did you take the blocks?” He admitted that he did. I said to him, “That’s why he threw your hat. He was mad. I wonder if we could share the blocks. Where can we find some more?” They looked around and found some. I then said to the child in the dig pit, “What could you do the next time you’re angry?” We brainstormed a couple of options together. A good start!

The more that I thought about what happened, the more that I realized that a different reaction from me could have changed the outcome. If I went up to that child angry that he threw the hat, he probably would have cried more. He might have screamed or thrown something at me. He was definitely dysregulated at the time, and not up for explaining what went wrong without my opening to do so.

It was thinking about some different approaches that got me through my third experience this week. We were playing in the classroom one afternoon, and I noticed a child getting increasingly frustrated. He started a few short screams and cries. I tried to suggest a different activity option, but that wasn’t working. Considering the time and the last time that he ate, I thought that hunger might be at play. Would a short lunch break make a difference? I grabbed his lunch bag off the shelf, and called him over to the eating table. He didn’t want to come, and started to cry a bit more. I tried to just let things be for a few minutes, but the tears weren’t subsiding on their own. I really needed to get him to eat or drink something. Forcing him to come would only result in a power struggle. No win there. So what did I do in the past when I wanted a child to come and eat and he/she was reluctant to do so? I needed to get creative! I thought about the day before and how excited he was to pretend to talk to a person on the phone. What if something in his lunch bag called him instead? No hurt in trying. I opened the bag, and quietly called his name: making the bag open and close with each word that I said. He stopped crying. He turned his head, and he walked to the eating table. “Isn’t that so cool? My lunch bag said my name.” I said that it must mean that the lunch bag wants him to eat something, and this is exactly what he did. I must admit that I love when the challenge of a “no win” becomes a “win” with just a different, creative option! Success. 

While I realize that these stories might be more unique to Kindergarten, there are students out there that struggle in every grade. Can each of these students self-select a better option, or again, do we need to consider options that reduce some of those power struggles in the first place? What are some things that you’ve tried? My teaching partner and I have had so many great moments these past couple of weeks, but maybe our biggest celebrations came when our actions helped turn around difficult situations. I can’t help but wonder if it’s some of these positive outcomes that might help change a child’s trajectory. Imagine how powerful that could be.


Is it time to gain a new appreciation for scribbles?

My teaching partner, Paula, and I had this really interesting conversation after school yesterday. I’m bringing the discussion to the blog as I wonder if others have had similar discussions before, and I’d love to hear what you decided to do.

At the end of each day, Paula and I go back through our documentation, talk about the kids, and make plans for the next day. We also discuss the different areas in the room.

  • How have children used these spaces?
  • What should we keep the same?
  • What might we like to change? 

Yesterday, the sand and playdough spaces led to our most interesting conversation. We initially wondered if we should change both areas. While we saw some possible language and math connections in both spaces, we weren’t seeing children using these areas in these ways. The literacy and math connections were less evident than we hoped. Could we get more reading, writing, number exploration, and measurement experimentation happening in other ways?

But this is when we started to wonder … maybe as much as we want to develop reading, writing, and math skills, is it time to slow down? While I may know that kids need to develop relationships and feel comfortable in an environment before significant learning can happen, I still feel an internal drive for scores.

  • Who are our target students?
  • How do we reach these targets? 

Yesterday’s conversation reminded me that we just finished our fourth school day with kids. Maybe the playdough and the sand meet needs outside of academic ones.

  • Could they provide a calming option for some kids?
  • Does the sensory play help some children as they develop new friendships?
  • Do these items help with creative/make-believe play?

At the end of the day today, Paula and I decided to replace the playdough with water colour paint and keep the sand for at least one more day. We have a possible way to interrupt this sand play tomorrow. We really vacillated on these choices though, and only made them after deciding that if needed, the playdough could always come out again. 

With every comment I made today, I wondered …

  • Are we pushing reading and writing too early?
  • Have all necessary oral language skills been developed first?
  • Do we try to push, and then relent if kids don’t respond?

I almost felt as though I wanted a do-over each time I spoke, but then when I didn’t say or do anything, and just let things be, I also questioned if that was the right choice.

All of these thoughts were running through my head when Paula went on her lunch. It was during this time that our principal came into the classroom for a visit. As he walked around, I noticed him ask a little girl about a piece of work that she did. At first glance, it looked like she just scribbled two colours of marker all over a piece of paper. My first thought was jokingly, why did this need to be the single piece of paper work that he saw? 🙂 

Shortly after he left, I invited this same child to join me over at the creative table. We looked at how to draw a portrait together. It was interesting, for while she identified some different shapes she saw in the mirror and drew on the paper (e.g., a circle), she was all about just drawing lines and curved shapes … even with support. This made me realize that this is where this child is at, and she needs these lines and shapes to slowly progress to letter formation. It’s all a part of the process. Could this playdough and sand play also be a part of this process? I don’t want to neglect the connections to math and language, but I also don’t want to lose sight of the other benefits in these play opportunities. Is it time to gain a new appreciation for scribbles? I think that it might be.