What Would You Do With The Blocks?

I’ll admit it: I kind of have a love/hate relationship with the blocks. Students build amazing things with the various blocks in our classroom. They use the blocks in ways that I would have never considered. While at times the loudness of the block area can bother me, my biggest problem right now is that students use this space and these materials in the same way every single day

My teaching partner, Paula, and I spoke about this briefly on the last day of school before March Break. We also noticed this same problem earlier in the year. Students regularly built dinosaur hotels or museums. While their structures were great and often led to exploring math concepts and engaging in writing, the structures themselves rarely changed.

Even when we had children tidy up what they made, they often packed the structures up on the shelves, and then resurrected them the next day. 

While I do love the math thinking that goes into these shelf structures, when the block buildings continue to look the same day after day, I wonder how much thinking and learning is going into their design. Before Christmas holidays, Paula and I chatted about this, and we decided to add some new materials to the block area to see if that would interrupt the playIt did! 

We added the Q-BA Maze 2.0 marble run that students initially used independently from the blocks to make marble runs. Then they used the pieces in conjunction with the blocks to create some block marble runs.

It didn’t take long for a group of students to realize that they could use these marble run pieces to make robots, and now they have included them in their block structures.

But now the dinosaur hotels/museums from September are being replaced with robot structures that tend to resemble each other day after day. Now what?

I was doing some thinking over the March Break, and that’s when I thought back to this Rube Goldberg Machine that Darla Myers shared on Instagram. 

I asked her today if she had a video to share of the process, and she generously shared this one.

Even though this Rube Goldberg Machine isn’t working, seeing what other Kindergarten children have tried and maybe having our students engage in some problem solving of their own, could lead to a new use of old materials (i.e., blocks, Lego, dominoes, ramps, and marbles)Could this be the intentional interruption that our students need? 

Paula and I have not had a chance to talk about this idea or brainstorm other ones yet. As the March Break comes to an end, my brain is busy thinking about possibilities, so I thought that I would bring this question to my blogging community. What have you tried before or what might you try in this case? We know the children love to build. We want to explore different ways to use some favourite materials that will hopefully lead to increased problem solving and innovation. All ideas are welcome!


THAT Child

This is not a story about one of my students. It is not even a story about a child in the same grade that I teach. It is a story though about a child that continues to change me. 

I met this student at recess one day. There was a problem in the lunchroom. My suggestion to have him come and walk with me, seemed to make a difference, and by the time that we both got back to class, he was a lot calmer. 

  • Maybe the physical movement helped.
  • Maybe the change of scenery helped.
  • Maybe connecting with someone who understood him, helped.

This child went from screaming and crying to smiling, and there was something about that smile that stuck with me. I think it was knowing that my tone and actions helped result in a positive change. It was the realization, that as educators, we can make a difference.

This was back in September. This child and I have interacted many times since then. Over the past seven months, he has reminded me of numerous things.

  • That tears are a stress response.
  • That those that hit do not always intend to hurt.
  • That we would “use our words” if we had the words to use.
  • That sometimes, when we feel the most angry and upset, the offer of a hug is the best offer of all.
  • That we all need to feel loved and know that there are people out there that love us.
  • That we have to seek to understand a child’s perspective, even when that perspective may be hard to understand.
  • That fewer words, a quieter tone, and getting down low, almost always make a big difference.
  • That our end goal is not to punish.

As I continue to learn more about self-regulation, I will admit that I make many mistakes. I often react as I shouldn’t or say things that I wish I didn’t. But this child is the exception: with him, I remember what I need to do. I remember what he needs. And I see the power of Shanker‘s work in actionreminding me that this is what I have to remember when working with every other child. 

I am far from perfect, but this child continues to change me, and for that, I’m grateful. Who is your “child?” May we all have stories to share of those students that help make us better.


What’s Your “Wonderful?” Celebrating The Experiences That Make Us Say, “Wow!”

Fifteen years. For that long, I’ve been a teacher with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, and this is the first time that I ever experienced what I did yesterday: a look at what play-based learning can really be. 

This all started back in September, when we had some sunflowers delivered to our classroom. Students shared a lot of prior knowledge about sunflowers, and we linked this flower to some of Vincent Van Gogh’s work. The more we spoke about Van Gogh, the more interested students became in his work. One child had some unframed Van Gogh prints at home that he brought in for us to explore. We moved from sunflowers to Starry Night. The children loved this painting, and all year long, they’ve been creating different representations of Starry Night.

As I mentioned in this previous blog post of mine, we moved from exploring Van Gogh to exploring other artists, including Kandinsky, Picasso, and the nature artist, Andy Goldsworthy. It was as this art interest continued to develop, that my teaching partner, Paula, and I decided to make our next round of VIP presentations about visual arts. What the children shared with the class is truly incredible. They each learned more about different artists, and they encouraged their classmates to dig deeper and create their own artwork inspired by these artists.

Not only did the children create like artists, but they thought and spoke like artists. Artwork inspired everything that they did. Students were reading, writing, and thinking more around artwork. Meaningful math also came out of these art experiences.

K. is helping prepare for the #art gallery. #iteachk #teachersofinstagram #ctinquiry

A post shared by Aviva (@avivaloca) on

Just before the Christmas holidays, Paula and I spoke about this art interest, and we wondered about creating an art gallery, so that children could share their work with others. We decided to approach the idea after Christmas. Before we could share the idea though, the students thought about it themselves. When we once again spoke about the hard work and incredible sharing that came out of a VIP presentation, one of our SK students said, “Maybe we should make an art gallery with all of this artwork.” What a wonderful thought!  This is when we began brainstorming as a class.

This child went home and started to create some of her own plans.

It took just over a month, but the gallery plans grew from there. The children owned this learning. As difficult as it was for both of us at times, we let go and let the students take charge of this. There’s something amazingly perfect in the perfect imperfections.

  • They covered the boards to display the artwork.
  • They divided the boards so that there was enough room for all of the artists.

  • They decided where to place the artwork in the room and how to place it.
  • They hung up the artwork, and learned how to use tools such as a stapler and tape (successfully) to make the work stay in place.

  • They even chose which artwork to display and why, and ensured that all artists were well-represented in the gallery. 

Yesterday was the day of the art gallery. Prior to our visitors coming, we talked about what we might discuss and what we might show our parents, the principal, and our Arts Consultant.

Touring the room inspired a couple of students to create maps for the gallery, and once again, we had another literacy and math connection.

And then, an hour before the end of the school day, on the last day before March Break, we had our art gallery. It was incredible to see the children share their learning with all of our visitors. 

What and how much the students shared, varied, but as parents noted, their children were talking about art at home. They were even coming in with additional artwork to add to our gallery and share with the class. One JK student is determined to turn his house into an art gallery, and he wants to bring home his artwork after the break so that he can do so.

Now this wonderful experience is over, and as I asked Paula after school yesterday, “What do we do now? Do we have to take everything down?” She said that an SK student asked her these same questions. This child was almost a little sad that the gallery day arrived because she didn’t want it to “all be over” after that. Maybe it doesn’t have to be. This art gallery happened because of the children, and what happens next will be because of them as well. Maybe we will replace the gallery with something new, or maybe it will extend into something else. We have to wait and see.

Looking back at the evolution of this project, I’m reminded about what happens when we really look and listen to kids, believe that they are “competent and capable of complex thought,” and give them opportunities to show us exactly what they can do. I think back to some of my experiences from the past, and how I could have done things differently: exposing the children to more diverse experiences, developing new vocabulary, and giving the time to allow ideas to naturally develop. I can’t change what I did back then, but I can change what I do now. This art gallery was one of the most amazing moments of my teaching career. I want more amazing! What are some of your terrific teaching and learning experiences? How have they influenced your future practices? Let’s celebrate together!


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!