Here’s To You: The Almost Graduates!

I’m about to finish my 16th year teaching with the Board. Sometimes it amazes me that I’ve been teaching for so long, and had so many opportunities to connect with students, parents, extended families, and staff members at multiple schools within Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. Yesterday, I was reminded of how lucky I am, when I ran into two former students with their moms: one that is about to graduate Grade 8, and one that is getting ready to go to Grade 12. These interactions really made me stop and think about how much I’ve learned from my former students over the years. 

There’s something special about every child and every teaching experience. I have memories of all 16 years. But today, I’m thinking back to my experience teaching Grade 5. There was something extra special about this class. 

  • I taught many of these students in Kindergarten, Grade 1, Grade 2, and then, Grade 5. When this happens, you truly become a family.
  • This was the class that helped me embrace and love play-based and inquiry-based learning. These students inspired me to start teaching Full-Day Kindergarten with a Program Document that truly supports these approaches. 
  • This was the class I was teaching when I found out that I was one of the recipients of the Prime Minister’s Award For Teaching ExcellenceIt was an experience to remember, and one that I got to enjoy with these wonderful Grade 5’s.

These Grade 5’s are the same Grade 8’s that will be graduating on Tuesday. It is in thinking about all of them, that I raise a toast to these “firsts”: special memories and experiences that happened with them first.

    • Here’s to our Murder Mystery that was like a culminating task without a culminating task.

    • Here’s to our Big Body Bonanza that helped me feel like Ms. Frizzle for the first time in my teaching career, and allowed us to go deeper with the human body than I ever thought was possible.

    • Here’s to our first game of Challenge that led to many, many more. Here’s to an environment where questioning was always welcomed and encouraged.
    • Here’s to the “operator”: the child that gave himself the job of answering the phone every time it rang, and took responsibility and showed maturity in a way that was truly special for him.
    • Here’s to The Energy Grinch play, a wig that I thought I’d never wear, and getting me up onto a stage at a year-end assembly because this is what mattered to kids. Here’s to me learning how to embrace the “uncomfortable” thanks to these Grade 5’s.

    • Here’s to Michael Kors shoes, babysitting solar-powered S’mores, musical organ systems, and daily discussions over digestion.

To all of those Grade 5’s (now Grade 8’s), here’s to a year of “firsts” and a lifetime of many more “firsts” to come. I’m so proud of all of you. The sky’s the limit! Continue to work hard, play hard, think hard, and question lots: there is NOTHING that you can’t do! And “thank you” for teaching me so much over the years. There’s a little bit of each of you in all that I do, and I look back on and think about these special memories often. You have each made me a better teacher, and for that, I’m incredibly grateful.

Here’s to the almost graduates, and amazing new adventures to come! To think that I ended the year before this Grade 5 one wondering if I should stay in junior, and to now be so very thankful that I did. We all need to find a way to preserve these special memories. Blogging is my way. What’s yours?


Did “Out of Control Bots” Help Me Reframe “Hitting?”

I had an interesting experience earlier this week that has caused me to reflect on my responses in the past and how they’re changing over time. Let me explain. 

On Monday morning, we were out in the forest as we always are, and a child came up to my teaching partner, Paula, and I to express a concern. He mentioned that another child “hit him twice” as they were playing together. This child was part of a larger group of students out in the mini-forest. Paula said, “Let me come over with you and we can talk.” Since there were so many children over there, I wandered over with her. Paula initially spoke to the child that hit, but it was his response to the hitting that led to this bigger conversation with another child. You see, there was a reason for the hitting. They were playing, “Out of Control Bots.” Paula’s one question about what happened, led to this much longer conversation.

Even though he was fixing his watch at the time, he did agree to write the rules for the game. This rule writing, actually led to some dramatic play, as different children acted out the Out of Control Bot sequence. One child videotaped this to include as part of the instructions for the game.

Next came some photographs along with writing to share more about what this game looks like in action.

I share all of this here because my initial temptation was to stop the game … and stop it before I even had a chance to hear more about it. For years, I’ve replied to reports about hitting with comments to other students to, “Stop hitting. Choose another space to play. Stay away from each other.” And, if I’m completely honest, I usually make all of these comments without even attempting to find out what happened and if there could be more to the story. 

Paula has caused me to think differently though. She always asks students, calmly, about what happened. She hears students out, and she attempts to problem solve with children. She also keeps a very important lens: what is developmentally appropriate play? Some play is physical, and there can be value to this rough and tumble playIs this type of play always valuable at school? Maybe not. But if we just tell students to “stop,” is this really enough to change behaviour? 

On Monday, Paula caused students to reflect on their play. Out of Control Bots continues to be a forest game, but with no more reports of hitting. 

  • So is the touching gentler?
  • Are all of the students more aware of the rules?
  • Or did students just start to accept the physical nature of this game? 

Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above. I think there’s something to be said for this though. When we watch students play and listen to children interact, we do this through an adult lens. I wonder if we have to see things more through the eyes of a child. How do we do this? How do we decide when to stop play, interrupt play, or just let play be? I know that Monday’s experience has caused me to react a little less abruptly when I hear about hitting. This doesn’t mean that I ignore the problem, but just hear everybody out. I think this is a change worth making. What about you?


It’s Time To Change My Supply Plans!

This week, it was a couple of seemingly unrelated experiences that helped give me a new perspective. Let me explain. 

It started when I was away at a meeting one afternoon, and a supply teacher came in for me. In the past, I’ve heard similar words from supplies as I heard after this day. 

  • “I feel so useless.”
  • “I don’t know what to do.”
  • “So they’re just going to play all day long?”

Yes, we run a play-based Kindergarten programOur students play for most of the day. This is when and how learning happens, and it’s through our questions, mini-lessons, and extensions, that we also work on targeting areas of need. I can imagine how overwhelming this may seem to a supply teacher. It’s so contrary to how I’ve taught in the past, and it’s so hard to detail this approach through written plans (no matter how hard I may try). 

Fast forward to a few days later, and another experience. On Thursday morning, we were lucky enough to have Dr. Jean Clinton visit the Kindergarten classrooms at our school. I’ve admired Dr. Clinton for years, and heard her speak multiple times in the past. I was so excited to have her visit. She arrived just a few minutes before the bell, and she joined us outside as we met the students. What I noticed about her right away was that she immediately connected with kids.

  • She got down to their level.
  • She answered their questions.
  • She showed interest in what they had to say. 
  • She shared some of her own experiences, while also respecting students’ ideas and theories. 

Even when she was talking to us, she realized the importance of our connection with kids, and let us step away, interact with others, and then come back to the conversation. There are many things that are incredibly special about Dr. Clinton, but the ability to build relationships — quickly and meaningfully — I think is definitely one of them. Within minutes of saying “hello” to Dr. Clinton, one child looked at me and said, “I like her. She’s funny!” In fact, he liked her so much that he took it upon himself to go into the classroom and get her, and invite her out to the forest to play. I love how two kindergarteners walked her out to this space, and took her to our nature swing to start the morning exploration. 

I share these Dr. Clinton anecdotes because it was actually watching her in action and thinking about how my teaching partner, Paula, interacts with students that I had an aha moment: my supply plans have been wrong all along. For years, in addition to my other instructions, I’ve suggested to supplies that they rotate/circulate around the room. But what I should have said was this:

Find a group, sit down, and talk to, listen to, and play with kids! Then later on, go and find another. Repeat.

When you just circulate all day, you don’t connect with anyone. You don’t form relationships and you don’t find out more about children. It’s then easy to feel lost, useless, and unsure of the value in play. But when you get closer, and make these connections with kids, you start to see the magic that we get to see every day!

Consider the math and science learning that comes from this kind of experimentation.

From now on, my supply plans will change. I wonder if this will change how some educators feel about teaching Kindergarten. Imagine if we all left supply plans that first emphasized the need to build relationships with children. Would the supply horror stories that we all hear far too often stop altogether? I think about my supply days from 17 years ago, and realize how little I connected with kids. I know that I would change that now. What about you?


Let’s Not Forget About The Power Of Love!

The most wonderful thing happened yesterday, and I have to share it. 

We started our day out in the forest as we always do, and many students took an interest in the track lines left over from the previous day’s Track and Field event. 

About half-way through the races, one JK student sat down in the middle of the track. Students ran around her. Eventually she got up mid-way through one of the races and ran to the finish line. Then she walked over to the fallen tree — obviously upset — and sat down. Before my teaching partner, Paula, or I could go over to see what made her sad, another child walked over. 

  • He sat down beside her.
  • He rubbed her back.
  • He whispered quietly to her.
  • He even gave her a hug … of which she returned one as well.

He spent quite a long time sitting there comforting her, and in the end, she joined a group of children and began to play again. There are many amazing things about this.

  • The upset child always comes to see us if she’s feeling angry or sad, but due to the comfort from a classmate, she never did.
  • These two children rarely play together and never speak, but yesterday, this little boy gave this little girl the kindness that she needed to calm down.
  • The student that offered so much comfort has never done something like this before. He often seeks out a hug or a gentle rub on the back when he’s feeling upset, but he has not given the same to somebody else. When a child really needed it though, he did. And on top of everything else, without her saying a word, he recognized this need.

As the year comes to an end, and we reflect on our student growth, I can’t help but think about what happened yesterday. How do we continue to make “love” a classroom and school priority? Imagine if the world was filled with a little more empathy, kindness, compassion, and love!


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?