This Is My Story. What’s Yours?

I started my Friday morning by reading Doug Peterson‘s This Week In Ontario Edublogs post. I already read some of the posts that he featured this week, but one of the first new ones that I clicked on was Debbie Donsky‘s post, Listen with Compassion and Act with Love. After reading this incredible post, I tweeted out the link and said that I thought it would inspire a post of my own. For the past couple of days, I’ve tried to write this post, but with no success. A few minutes ago, I decided to comment on Debbie’s post instead.

It was Debbie’s reply to my comment that inspired this blog post.

She said that she would “like to hear the thinking it sparked” for me, and so, here is my thinking. 

The part that really got to me in her post was when Debbie spoke about her own children struggling in school. I was also one of these children. When I was in Grade 2, I was identified with a non-verbal learning disability in visual spatial skills. In elementary school, my parents were the ones that helped advocate for me. They spoke to my teachers about accommodations that I needed.

  • They got me extra time on tests.
  • They advocated for having diagrams drawn for me, so that I could do the calculations based on the drawings.
  • They figured out ways for me to learn to read (or at least, memorize) maps, and they shared these strategies with my teachers.
  • They voiced the need for me to use a computer for various activities, and they got me the use of this computer.

As they advocated for these accommodations, they helped prepare me to also speak up.

  • They had me practise talking to teachers about my learning disability and what I needed to succeed, and they got me to voice my needs.
  • They spoke to me about the I.P.R.C. process, and they had me attend my I.P.R.C. every year. In high school, I was sometimes the only person that went to the I.P.R.C..
  • They made me aware of what I needed to get these same accommodations in university, and they had me voice the need for an updated Psych Assessment. I wrote a letter to the Board, and I fought to have this assessment done. My letter didn’t work at the time, and my parents eventually paid for a private Psych Assessment, but they supported me in advocating for this need at the school level. They let me take responsibility for this because they wanted me to understand what I needed and why I needed this support.
  • They also let me take the lead in talking to the university resource department about my needs. They went with me to the initial meeting, but they let me do the talking. They encouraged me to follow-up later. They also let me advocate, on my own, for the continued use of a computer and additional time on exams when the university wanted to remove these supports. This time I was successful, and I got both of these things!

My parents helped me understand what having a learning disability meant: that I was of “average to above average intelligence.” This became an important reminder for me when I went into teaching and taught numerous students with learning disabilities. I saw them as I wanted teachers to see me!

I share this story because my parents could have continued to take responsibility for my needs.

  • They could have dealt with the resource departments at my high school and university.
  • They could have made me feel as though I could not function without their support. 

But they didn’t! They realized that at some point, I needed to do the talking, to be the advocate, and to become independent. Without these skills I would not have been able to leave home and go away to university. As extreme as it may sound, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.

I may not be a parent, but as an educator, and one that struggled in school, I can understand those parents that speak up. I know that parents want what’s best for their child and will do everything they can to make that possible. I know that this is what my parents did for me. But I also know that there is a time where we have to move from “parent advocate” to “student advocate.” There are individuals that may always need some degree of a parent voice, but it is important to explore what people can do on their own and when this change can start to happen. How do we support parents and students in this gradual release of responsibility? What is the value in doing so? I would love to hear your stories!


Sharing My Thoughts On These Recommendations

This morning, I started off my day as I always do, reading Doug Peterson‘s blog post. After reading his post, I sent out this tweet.

Doug soon replied with this tweet,

and I assured him that I was planning on blogging. After doing some thinking this morning, here are my thoughts in response to Bill Ferguson‘s Recommendations Follow-Up post

After five years, every teacher graduating from Teacher’s College should have a Masters Degree.

I echo many of Doug’s thoughts on this one. While I know that there’s value in learning more and bettering our practice, extra qualifications do not always equate to better teaching. A Masters Degree would be very expensive for a new teacher, and would put a lot of additional pressure on a teacher that is still trying to work on planning and assessment skills. Teaching is not a 9-5 job, and for those that remain in teaching, they know that and are happy to put in this additional time for the many additional benefits that it brings. But with this in mind, I cannot even imagine trying to add master level courses to an already full schedule of planning and prep work. I worry about this as a person that has taught for 15 years. What about a new teacher? Instead, I wonder about the possibility of a system that looks at ongoing professional development. This happens somewhat through schools already, but a monthly, hour-long staff meeting is not necessarily long enough to learn about new practices, share ideas, discuss struggles, and determine next steps. What are some additional PD possibilities, and what might these mean for teacher professional growth? I think ongoing learning provides even more value than an immediate Masters Degree. 

Every memorandum/correspondence from the educational body should reflect a positive attitude demonstrating support for their teachers and schools. Parents need to become aware of this too.

I think that there’s a lot of value in being positive. When we share information in this way, it really changes the culture of a school and a community. I think this also has to extend to how we talk about kids. The new Kindergarten Communication of Learning aligns with this thinking by removing weaknesses, and instead focusing on key learning, biggest areas of growth, and next steps. Seeing children through an asset lens is so important, just as we want to see staff members and schools through this same lens.

Assessments should in the area of application of knowledge. When this occurs we can better understand the students growth.

Like Doug and Bill, I do agree with this, but I also think we need to consider the Achievement ChartAre we looking at all categories in this chart? How are we ensuring that we do? What knowledge is key, and how do we link this knowledge to a meaningful application of it? As much as I question the use of tests/quizzes that are solely knowledge-based, I know many educators that talk about the value in skills. We still have standardized tests that focus on some of these skills. I’m curious to know how people balance these different needs. I also think that if we’re looking at “application,” a test may not be the best option, but how many tests are still happening in schools? While there are definitely pockets of people that are exploring different options, I wonder what the norm is in schools. Are more changes necessary, and how do we make them?

That schools should become the home base of social services that children can receive all the support the need to succeed. This should include parental support where necessary. If schools are the soul of the community then all the resources to ensure the success of children should be found there.

I agree with Doug that this is something that makes a lot of sense, but may take time to full implement. Last year, I taught in an inner-city school in Hamilton, and it was great to see the amount of community supports that were in place at this school. A breakfast program, snack program, Food4Kids, after-school Running and Reading Club, clothing donations, and social work services to support families were all a part of the school environment. Yes, sometimes the needs exceeded the supports, but things were definitely happening. It was also wonderful to see staff members and administrators supporting families and actively looking for more support options when needed. “It takes a village to raise a child,” and this village is definitely hard at work in so many school communities!

Every school should make inquiry research the basis for their education with the interests of the children being the springboard for their education.

I totally agree with Doug on this point. I think that this is happening on a small scale, but what’s needed to take this to the next level? Sometimes I wonder how we continue to balance the focus on the child with the focus on curriculum expectations. In the past couple of years, our Board has had teachers develop a professional inquiry, where we explore a “problem of practice” (for lack of a better word) and determine our “next best step.” I wonder if this kind of approach might help make this fifth recommendation more a reality. 

That two years of special education training should become mandatory to help teachers understand how to help weaker students become the best they can be.

I do agree about the need to focus on special education. That said, even after taking some additional qualifications in this area, I found that it was the practice of working with children with special education needs that made the biggest difference for me. We all need these experiences, and then we need opportunities to collaborate with others, share ideas, and learn various strategies, so that we can better support all of our students. This is where that ongoing PD that I mentioned under recommendation number one, makes so much sense to me. 

What are your thoughts on these recommendations? I would love to hear what parents, educators, support staff, and administrators think. Various viewpoints could make a big difference here. Let’s extend the conversation that Bill started here and Doug continued here


Giving Valentine’s Day Back To The Kids!

Valentine’s Day has never been my favourite day of the year. As a Kindergarten teacher, I always dreaded the multiple piles of valentines that needed to be sorted before the end of the school day. Even if children just sign their own name to the cards, trying to distribute them into 30+ bags, never fails to be a challenge. Then there is the creation of the bags themselves. Why does everybody have to decorate a bag? What is the value in doing so? What if a child doesn’t want to decorate one? Yes, I’m the Valentine’s Day Grinch, and my heart hasn’t managed to grow quite yet. 🙂 But this year, I had a different perspective on this holiday.

I think that it’s because this year, we did things differently. On February 13th, I read the students a story about Valentine’s Day. I asked, “Who is planning on bringing in valentines tomorrow?” Most children raised their hands. That’s when I asked, “Where will people put all of their valentines?” This is when students mentioned the bags and boxes that the characters had in the story. I then took some volunteers that wanted to make bags, and we got some construction paper from the cupboard in order to do so. Yes, I did manage to grab green, but I promise that this was accidental. 🙂 I love that children weren’t forced to create these bags, and even though many children used the green bags, a few children made their own special bags (of various colours and designs), and that was also fine. Plus the reading, writing, and problem solving that were part of the bag making process, made me feel as though even in this activity, learning was happening. 

Then there was Valentine’s Day itself. For the first time in 15 years, I did not …

  • organize the bags.
  • have children sit in a circle to distribute valentines.
  • help children hand out the cards.

I realized that one of my biggest struggles with the holiday is that the teaching and learning environment that I try to create for the rest of the year, I abandon on this one day. 

  • I micro-manage.
  • I have children sit for too long.
  • I have every child doing the same thing at the same time.
  • I wait until too late, and then feel stressed to finish before the bell.

This year, I wondered, “Why?” I’m so grateful to have a teaching partner that had this same question, and even though she was away sick on Valentine’s Day, she supported me in this thinking from afar. Thank you, Paula!

This year, I let the children take control of Valentine’s Day. We used our “meeting time carpet,” and a group of interested students …

  • decided how to organize the bags.
  • helped their classmates read the names on their cards. 
  • helped their classmates hand out their cards.
  • helped find children that did not hand out their valentines yet, and ensured that they did.

This was not a pretty process, but it was remarkably calm. A few children sat in the middle of the carpet and read the valentines as they went in their bags. One child monitored that everybody received a valentine. Many children went back and forth between the carpet and their play to check out how many more valentines were in their bags. Some children preferred quiet options to the busy carpet, and they found these quiet spaces.

As Paula’s supply moved towards the carpet to check on the valentines, I quietly sang, “Let It Go!” She giggled, but she understood. So often we talk about “the process” as mattering more than “the product.” Why shouldn’t this hold true for Valentine’s Day? I know that there were mistakes.

  • A few children missed bags.
  • Some children put the wrong valentine in the wrong bag.
  • Some children got multiple valentines from the same child.
  • A few children brought home extra valentines, even though I’m not so sure that they brought in extras.

But as we went to put our card bags in our backpacks, I mentioned these possible mistakes. Then I asked …

  • Do we all have cards? Yes.
  • Do we all have treats? Yes.
  • Are we all loved? Yes.

With just these three questions, every child was happy and I was happy too. 🙂 How do you give your students control over the holidays? What’s the value in doing so? For 14 years, I did the “Valentine’s Day circle,” and I’m thrilled not to be going back. This thought alone may be enough for my Grinch heart to grow after all.



When Fashion Magazines Become Reading Materials …

On Friday night, my teaching partner and I were talking about this upcoming week at school. We noticed that students continue to enjoy creating and designing their own purses. 

Since one of our current inquiries revolves around “art,” we thought that we could extend this interest in purses, and help students see the link between “fashion” and “art.” We emailed parents and staff members, and asked them to send in any old fashion magazines that they would be willing to donate to the class. On Monday, the fashion magazines started coming in.

When the magazines arrived, we looked through them to scan for content, and then we placed them in our Book Nook area. After school yesterday, I caught these conversations.

Then today, as students eagerly worked on handing out their Valentine’s Day cards, I saw these two students looking through a magazine together.

It was so interesting to see how these students came back to the fashion magazine throughout the day today. I even recorded this interesting discussion around one of the dress pages, as the child expressed which ones she liked, which ones she didn’t, and why.

The amazing part about this is that about an hour later, two JK students sat down together at our quiet table space and created a fashion magazine. When I came back from lunch today, they eagerly showed me their magazine, and even discussed what inspired them.

The day was almost over at this point, so we cannot extend this learning until tomorrow. That said, we’ve already discussed how we’re going to add a fashion magazine to this table area to hopefully inspire some more magazine creations tomorrow.

  • How might the children’s fashion choices vary from the ones in the magazine?
  • How can we represent all interests and styles in our clothing choices?
  • How might the fashion choices change depending on the seasons (just like the purse choices did)?
  • What slogans might we add to our images?
  • What information might we share about our designs?
  • How might we use our feelings about the fashion choices in these magazines to influence the fashion choices in our magazine?

Hopefully these questions will help inspire artistic choices and lead to critical media literacy conversations. Our new Kindergarten Program Document, emphasizes the importance of children “talk[ing], listen[ing], read[ing], writ[ing], and view[ing] media texts” (page 70). I know that our students are only four- and five-years-old, but fashion advertisements are their reality. They see advertisements on television, YouTube videos, music videos, and in magazines. Addressing the students’ interests while providing them with these examples in the classroom, not only allows us to support them in thinking critically, but also encourages them to be the “voices” that change the message: creating their own magazine allows this to happen.

This year, I continue to be amazed by the wonderful life experiences that all of our students have had. While our children love Pokemon, the Frozen characters, The Littlest Pet Shop, Batman, and Star Wars, their experiences extend beyond the make-believe. I’ve used fashion magazines for art and literacy activities in the past, but I’ve never thought about using them as reading materials, writing inspirations, or provocations for oral communication opportunities. But why not? Our students live in the real world. How can we include more of it in the classroom? What, if anything, is stopping us? 


Do we share our educational worries enough?

I remember having a conversation once with a fairly new teacher at a different school. She spoke about some creative things that she was doing in her classroom, and how all of her children seemed really engaged in the learning. She mentioned to me though, “If anyone walked by, I’m sure that they would wonder what was going on. The room was a mess. There were buckets of manipulatives all over the floor. There was a lot of noise as students worked through the math problems together. I kept my eye on the door, worried about what people would think.” That’s when I shared my story.

Our room is always a mess. I usually wear my glasses on the top of my head for most of the day, as the sight of a big mess stresses me out, but the blurry look makes me feel calmer. This made the teacher laugh, but it’s also true. There are a lot of things that I choose to do to feel better about the same experience that she described to me … as this is what we experience in our play-based Kindergarten classroom every single day.

  • I get down low to the floor. Then I can still see and work with the children, but have less of a view of the big mess.
  • I find some quiet areas in the classroom. With 32 Kindergarten students, we don’t have a lot of “quiet,” but there are spaces that have less noise. Right now, that space is at our writing/drawing area. If I’m feeling overwhelmed by the noise, I move myself over there. Just the quiet conversations and the ability to write and draw with some students, makes me feel better. 

Even with a larger group of students, this space is so calm.

  • I go to the sensory bin. Sensory play can be calming for adults as well as children. I love to get my hands in the shaving cream, play with the soapy sponges, and even create with the loose parts, as I explore the different textures and materials. I can actually feel myself calming down as I go to the space, and I love that as soon as an adult appears there, more children follow.

I loved playing here too!

  • I connect with one or two students, or even a small group. If there’s a lot of action happening in the classroom, I try to narrow my focus. By talking or working with just a few students, I acclimate myself to the noisy environment and feel less overwhelmed by it. 
  • I start to tidy up. I don’t put everything away, but I slowly start filling some bins, and getting students to clean up the items that they are not using. This reduces the visual noise in the room and makes me feel better about the space. It also tends to lower the overall noise level, as students can also find messy spaces dysregulating. 

But as I also shared with her, even with everything I do, I still worry. 

These worries are not going to stop me from doing what I do, as I truly believe in the value of this type of learning environment for kids. My teaching partner and I see this value every single day. We know that we’re meeting expectations. We see children learning, and we hear them discussing their learning. We know that a mess can be tidied up, and that the conversations, while sometimes loud, are also purposeful. We also know that we’ve created quiet spaces for the students that need it, and we’ve been able to find these spaces when we also need them. But the worries are there, and when talking to this teacher, I started to wonder if we need to share them more. I thought about myself.

And no matter what, I will probably always worry, wonder, and question … but maybe there’s value in embracing all of these things. These are the things that help us improve. 

  • They cause us to reflect.
  • They force us to dialogue more.
  • They encourage us to change.

If we embrace the “worry,” celebrate these difficult experiences, and support each other in having more of them, will greater changes continue to happen? We encourage students to take risks and make mistakes. How do we do the same for adults? What might this mean for education? I would love to hear your thoughts.