Is Any Day A Good Day For A Change?

This morning, I started off my Monday as I often do: reading Diana Maliszewski‘s recent blog post. Diana publishes a new post every Monday morning, and I really enjoy starting my school week with her views. There’s a lot that I enjoyed about today’s post, but it was a couple of sentences in particular that stuck with me and led to this tweet. 

This is the post that I promised to write. 

It was these two sentences that I could not get out of my head.

Now that (hopefully) all the curriculum requirements have been covered, evaluated and reported, we still have a few weeks left with our students. Instead of playing DVDs for them to watch, why not try some activities that you’ve heard about but never had the time or inclination to try before?

I am not a fan of full-length movies, and I definitely believe in the value of routine. I know that the students crave it as much as we do. I also know that this is the time of the year when risks seem that much safer, and easier, to take. 

  • Students are older.
  • They are often more mature and independent.
  • Report cards and/or communications of learning are done (or almost done), and there is less pressure now around assessment and evaluation. 

I think it’s this last point that has me wondering. Would we view the end of the year differently if we didn’t view expectations as things to cover/meet/report on, but instead, as a lens to view the learning that is continuously happening in the classroom? In this case, does the learning ever really slow down or stop? 

This makes me think of a conversation that I had months ago with an educator from another school. She said, “I still have so much to teach. How will I ever finish? How will the children be ready for Grade 1?” Her questions really got me thinking because for the first time ever, I wasn’t worried about this. Our new Kindergarten Program Document really emphasizes the importance of viewing the whole child, observing their actions, understanding their interests, and constantly making links to program expectations. If we’re doing this, I wonder …

  • Will we be more apt to make changes at any time of the year?
  • Will our excitement, and our students’ excitement, about learning continue to exist no matter what month it may be?
  • Will it be easier to view “the child” (versus “the expectations”) first?

Yes, the school year is coming to an end. Classroom routines are more regularly interrupted by field trips and special events. Completed report cards and/or communications of learning make us feel more relaxed. And in many ways, this is the ideal time to try something new! But, I wonder, in a play-based and inquiry-based learning environment, does the “year-end slow down” not slow down quite as much? Is any day a good day for a change? As we once again transformed our classroom today, I started to think this might be true.

For the first time, students took COMPLETE ownership over this change, and maybe this shows just how ready they are for next year. Could letting students have this much ownership be our latest risk?


How Do You Find Balance Between The “Creative World” And The “Real World?”

Our students are like other children their age. They love everything from unicorns to transformers, and speak often about Pokemon, My Little Pony, princesses, dinosaurs, and even Minecraft. When we think about interest-based learning, it would be easy to choose any of these topics, and dig deeper … but how deep could we get? I am not suggesting that we ignore these interests, or even stop children from discussing them in a Kindergarten classroom, but when it comes to inquiry-based and play-based learning, maybe these are not the topics to extend.

I was further reminded of this today when I woke up this morning to a lovely email from a parent. This mother discussed how much her child has grown this year, and the difference she’s noticed in her child’s maturity. Now her child speaks about “being mindful,” respecting the environment, noticing litter, and commenting about the impact that litter can have on the health of animals. This email made me think about my first reading of the updated Kindergarten Program Document, and some questions I had regarding a chart in it on “traditional planning” versus the “inquiry-based approach.”

I wondered if “inquiry-based approaches” could still include some topics under “traditional planning,” like dinosaurs, as I knew that in the past, I attempted to go deeper with them. This year, my teaching partner, Paula, and I even further explored this thinking when we quickly saw an interest in dinosaurs, and we wondered what else was possible. We felt optimistic when students shared a strong prior knowledge on this topic.

While there was a little bit of research and some initial discussions with groups of students in class, this inquiry topic quickly died, as it was hard to push beyond the concrete.

Students shared what they knew, and learned a few more facts, but applying this knowledge in a meaningful way proved challenging. While some dinosaur play has continued throughout the year, it never goes beyond play: with maybe a few connections to social skills, oral language, math (measurement or counting), and possibly some reading or writing. This kind of imaginative play has a place in the classroom, and can be very valuable for kids, but as we work with groups of students to develop critical thinking skills, questioning skills, problem solving skills, and plans for action, are these really the best topic choices? I think that this is when learning has to be “real.”

I actually thought a lot about this yesterday morning when I received an email from a colleague (and friend) moments before the bell. This teacher noticed that a branch was breaking on one of the younger trees in our school yard. Our students love to swing from this tree, and while they can’t reach this particular branch, they could definitely break other ones. This teacher wondered if the Kindergarten Team could talk to the students about not swinging from these branches. She was around to plant these trees, has seen them grow up, and wants to have/see them for many more years to come. I totally understand. We could have told the students to just “stop swinging from the branches,” but instead, we presented the problem to them and asked for their help in solving it.

These tree branch solutions dominated our outdoor learning time yesterday.

In retrospect, it’s these kinds of experiences that result in deeper learning. This teacher’s concern allowed students to problem solve, own the problem, and own the solution. I think this will change how they play outside, how they view the trees in the forest, and how they talk to others about the use of these trees. When we’re outside in the morning, some classes of older students also come out for phys-ed or D.P.A. (Daily Physical Activity). They often play with our students in the forest. I wonder if Friday’s conversation and call to action will change how all of these students use the trees and the discussions that they have about them. Even some teachers in the staffroom were talking positively about the signs on the trees. While students spelled most words using letter-sounds, the use of these sounds coupled by picture cues made their message clear, and both students and adults, are taking notice of it. 

Looking back at the chart from the Kindergarten Program Document, I’m given an even better appreciation for the content on the right. I’m also reminded that as Kindergarten educators, we have many jobs to do. I think that one of our responsibilities is to expose children to meaningful topics that can provide concrete learning experiences while also allowing for deeper learning. Will students always articulate these interests first? Maybe not. But if we provide children with diverse learning opportunities, will some of their interests change and connect with topics beyond the creative world that so many of them know and love? How do we help students extend their interests while not ignoring the ones that already exist? I think of the mom that wrote me this morning. Her child now talks about something else beyond stuffed animals, cats, and princesses. There’s something to be said for that. What do you think?


What Makes A “Reading Assessment” Better?

There are so many reasons that I should be happy right now … and I am happy. I am proud. But this week, something’s really been bothering me, and it revolves around reading assessments. It’s almost June, and as the year comes to an end, many Ontario educators are starting to do final reading assessments. We can choose the assessment that we use, and there are different options out there. I’ve used various ones in the past, and I’ve liked many for different reasons. I think that my issue right now is deeper than the assessment tool itself. Here’s my struggle.

I’m currently about half-way through my SK students, and there have been no surprises. I’m not expecting any either. Yes, there were a couple of times that I vacillated between two levels, and so I tried one, and if needed, I tried another one. But in the end, our students are getting basically the level that I anticipated, and their needs, are the ones that we knew. 

  • The assessment is showing us which children need to continue to develop their sight vocabulary. We also have numerous video recordings that show us this.
  • The assessment is showing us which children need to continue to work on blending sounds to read unknown words. My teaching partner, Paula, and I have identified some similar needs through daily reading experiences with our students. 
  • The assessment is showing us which children need to check for understanding, and use different strategies to problem solve and correct errors. Again, we notice this through regular reading with our students.
  • The assessment is showing us which strategies students use when they get to difficult words, and which ones they do not use. We notice this as well when we read one-to-one and in small groups with students.

Then comes my even bigger concern: does a level change how we view students? Let me give you an example. There are two children: Student A and Student B.

Student A reads a text one level below our Board benchmark. She tracks each word as she reads it and sounds out unknown words: linking the sounds with the picture cues. She attempts the next level, and uses many of the same strategies that she used for the one before. She does not have a quick recall of sight words, and has not picked up on the pattern in the book yet. Since she’s trying to sound out each word, her reading sounds disjointed, and while she is close in the number of errors, you can tell that the text is slightly too hard for her. She knows how to decode though, and with continued practise of sight words, the use of a few more reading strategies, and regular oral reading, she will meet benchmark. Will it happen before the end of the year? Possibly … especially with continued practise.

Student B reads the benchmark level text. She sounds out some words, but not with the same confidence as Student A. She has a slightly better sight vocabulary though, and she quickly picks up the pattern in the text. She continues with the pattern then, which helps with fluency. She also makes excellent use of the picture cues. Student B scores just within the “independent” range for this text. While Student B technically scores higher than Student A, both students are decoding text, and the first student is actually more confident at blending sounds together. 

I think of this because next year’s teacher is going to receive a list of levels. Without knowing the child yet, how might these levels impact on his/her view of the child as a reader and his/her strengths and needs? I ask this question because one of the most powerful parts of doing this reading assessment so far has been one of two comments that I have heard repeatedly from students as I speak to them about their reading behaviours: either “I’m a reader!” or “I can read now!” These words matter. Every child saying them is right. 

  • They understand that pictures and words have meaning.
  • They are using letter-sounds, picture cues, and/or contextual cues to read words.
  • They are tracking print.
  • They are independently correcting most errors using different strategies.

These children are ALL readers! Will all of us — myself included — remember to view these children in this way, and communicate these thoughts to them, so that they continue to build confidence in their reading skills?

I can’t help but connect this thinking to a wonderful VLOG that I saw tonight by Susan Hopkins and her daughter, Siena. 

In this VLOG, Siena talks about her experience with EQAO. While I realize that this standardized test varies from a short reading assessment, what I think is similar and important to note, is that this is only one assessment. Our view of the child — and even the child as a reader — has to be greater than this one assessment. How do we ensure that it is? I think about my experiences in the past, and I wonder if I always remembered the importance of not seeing and inferring information about children as readers through the lens of only one assessment, no matter how standardized it may be.

I know that there’s a lot that I should be celebrating.

  • All of our students have made incredible gains: some of the best that I’ve seen in my 16 years teaching with the Board.
  • The percentage of students that have met benchmark will exceed our school target. 
  • All of our SK students, and even many of our JK students, have learned how to decode. 

But maybe the most interesting thing is the fact that I can write all of these words without having finished this reading assessment, and yet, I KNOW that each of these points are true. I’m then left wondering, in our reality of ongoing documentation and reflection, how might our need for standardized assessments change, or is their greatest value, in the fact that they are “standardized?” I know that there are many people who view these tools differently, so tonight I’m hoping to start a conversation and deepen my understanding.


Fidget Spinners, Take 4: New Learning Thanks To Some Recess Friends!

You would think that at this point, I would have worked through my fidget spinner thoughts, but I’m not done … yet. Some interactions with a couple of students during an indoor recess have me thinking more about the problems with “banning them.” And yes, I realize how hypocritical I sound, when my last post was about the very idea of imposing a ban. When we listen to — and really hear — kids though, sometimes our thinking changes. This is what happened to me.

On Thursday, we had a very rainy day at school, and with the rain steadily coming down, there was an indoor recess in the afternoon. I was on duty. As I wandered between the classes, two students came up to me. They asked if they could walk with me. Their class was listening and dancing to some music, and these two did not like the song choice. They were hoping to get out of the room, but also have a little movement time of their own. As a Self-Reg advocate, I was so proud of these students for recognizing their needs and approaching me with a solution, so of course, I had to say, “Yes!”

I noticed that both of these students brought fidget spinners with them, so I asked them why they needed the spinners at this time. It was their answer that caused me to pause and think. They said, “We don’t … but we’re not allowed to use fidget spinners during class time. We can use them at recess time though, so we’re using them now.” Before I comment, let me start by saying, I get it! On Tuesday, I made a similar comment to students when the use of these spinners dysregulated me and a number of children that were both watching their use and using them. But sometimes when we hear somebody else say what we’re thinking, we view these words differently.

This conversation stuck with me for the rest of the week, and made me think again when I commented on Doug Peterson‘s blog post from yesterday

Here is where I’m stuck: it all revolves around the question of, why would, or should, children be using these spinners? If it’s because it helps them focus, then when would they need them? I would think that would be during class time, and particularly, group meeting times, as this is when it’s often the hardest to pay attention. It’s also when students may not be able to easily use other focusing strategies, such as moving around, as this could distract others more and make it harder to see teacher and student demonstrations. And if I were to think back to my first experience with these fidget spinners — just over a week ago now — when they were used by children that needed them, they actually worked well. 

Maybe my biggest issue here is that these spinners are being embraced by everyone as a “self-regulation tool,” but are they truly needed by everyone? There are lots of other fidget toys out there: from squishy balls to elastic bands. I’ve had students use many of them in the past, and some have really benefited from their use. Initially, other students are intrigued by them, and some want to try them out as well, but it doesn’t take long for those children that don’t need them to lose interest in them, and the children that do, to find a way to use them well. The fidget spinners have changed what “fidget toys” look like in the classroom, and by marketing to everyone, are they losing their value to those that could benefit the most? 

This brings me back to thinking about my role as an educator: to support and teach students. 

  • If I ban the use of fidget spinners in the classroom, am I helping students understand why they might benefit some children?
  • If I only allow children to use them at recess time (which we don’t actually have in Kindergarten), am I making a statement that these spinners can only be used as “toys” and not “tools?” Is this truly the case? 

I still believe that these spinners were not the right tool for the children that used them this weekbut maybe, through questioning, I have to help students understand this as well. I also believe that the toy/tool distinction is an important one, and maybe fidget spinners can be both, but is it valuable to help children understand which way they’re using them, and why that might impact on when they can use them? I’m still not convinced that these spinners are the best tool for Kindergarten children, but after this week’s recess conversation, I’m reconsidering how I might respond the next time that I see them in action. I’m hopeful that I won’t have too many opportunities to practice this response, 🙂 but maybe a different outlook is exactly what I needed here. What do you think?


Fidget Spinners, Take 3: Could “Banning” Sometimes Be The Right Thing To Do?

Fidget spinners have been a popular blogging topic for me lately. My thinking on them continues to grow, and I think was further modified today when two more students came in with them. Today, I really started to question if these spinners belong in a Kindergarten classroom.

Like with any tool, I think we have to consider “why” we’re using it. This why question is important for educators to contemplate as well as for students. I think it’s one thing when a child tells me that he/she is using the fidget spinner to “feel calm,” and it’s another thing when a child doesn’t know why he/she is using it. Then is it really a good self-regulation option?

Last week, two students used these spinners with some success. They were able to spin them on the carpet, stay focused on the speaker, and participate in the class discussion. This was not the case today.

  • Children around the “spinners,” were more focused on them than on the conversation.
  • Children that were spinning the fidget spinners were distracted by them and unable to effectively join in on the conversation. Sometimes they didn’t know what we were talking about. 

This was when we suggested that the fidget spinners go away. These students were fine with putting them in their backpack, and they did not go to bring them out again or ask to do so.

At this point though, our group meeting time was over for the day, and this would be the most logical time for students to use these spinners. So now I’m left wondering …

  • Were the spinners just not for them?
  • Can we enjoy these spinners as a toy instead of a tool, but at least realize that this is why we’re using them?
  • When any tool distracts another child’s learning, do we need to reconsider this tool or just the location for its use?
  • In a Kindergarten classroom where we only meet as a group for a short period of time (or any classroom that’s similar to this), are fidget spinners really necessary? When else might children need them?

Today I was ready to ban fidget spinners, and I feel incredibly hypocritical for saying this. I know through Stuart Shanker‘s work that what dysregulates one person may be used to self-regulate another one, but when a tool distracts to the extent that this one does, can it really be used effectively in a classroom? If so, how? I hope that somebody can give me a new perspective.