Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"Your High School Gym Teacher Would Be Proud Of You"

“Your high school gym teacher would be proud of you.”

That’s what my Nike Running App told me after my run today. I don’t know if my high school gym teacher would be proud of me, but I’m pretty sure he’d be laughing his ass off at me.
See, when I was in high school, juniors and seniors had PE together. Every semester we had to sign up for “electives” which included, but not limited to- bowling, billiards, basketball (which you never took willingly because the Varsity Basketball coach taught it), volleyball (see basketball…), and running. Now some, like bowling and billiards, were the primo choices, and others, like running were the loser choices. The PE teachers did their best to make it fair each semester so that you weren’t always stuck with the loser choices. I tell you all this to give you backstory as to why I was forced into taking running one semester.
Now, I was a fairly active high school student. I was a wrestling cheerleader, I walked to school most days (a mile, uphill, in snow, both ways). But I did not run. And if I’d put as much effort into pretty much anything as I did into not running, well, I’d probably have been a much better student. 
Every day we had to run around the track. But not my friend and I. We walked, and sang our favorite songs from our favorite bands. We exasperated our PE teacher to the point that for a week, we weren’t allowed to walk around the track together. We still walked. 
Then, because even PE teachers know it gets boring running around a track, he decided to send us running through the neighborhood. And to get us to “prove” we ran, they had pit stops for us to make, and the store owners would give us special rubber bands for us to return to our teacher to prove we ran the route intended. Another friend hid a car around the block. 
So, we set off on our “run”. As soon as we were out of sight of the PE teacher, we hopped in the car to make our pit stops. We’d drive up to the store, wait to see who would go in first (of the people who actually ran), then around the middle of the pack, we “run” into the store and get our rubber bands. We kept this up until we had all of the rubber bands needed, then drove back to the school, parking our car just out of sight of the campus. Then we’d run in like we’d been doing the activity the whole time.
Looking back, I don’t understand why no one ever told on us. And I wonder if Mr. Johnson ever knew we cheated. All I know is, I passed PE, and that’s all I cared about.
Every so often, my friends and I laugh about that PE class, but I suppose the laugh is on me. I began to run awhile back (and by awhile, I mean more than a few years). And now I can’t imagine my life without running…

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

I Love My Beach

I love my beach

My beach isn't "sexy'. You don't come here to "see and be seen". You probably won't find a celebrity hiding out here, like you might on some of the other beaches on this island. Every year on Canada Day the community comes together to celebrate. There are games and concerts, hot dogs and freezies. There's a concession stand run by local teens earning a few extra dollars in the summer. My beach is out of the way, it's local, it's community.

You'll find families with young children here, because the surf isn't too high, and the tide is just right. You'll find cottagers who have been coming her for years, just like their parents before them. You'll find locals, like me, who always have a blanket, a towel, and a chair in the car, ready to go to the beach at a moments notice. 

There is a group of ladies who meet here every day in the afternoon. They're probably in their 60s now, but you know they've been coming here since they were teenagers. As they got older and married, they would have brought their children here with them. Now it's back to just them again, and they sit and gossip, and enjoy the few days of summer the weather gods afford them.

My beach is large and vast at low tide. You can sit where all of the "action" is. Or, like me, you can take your things and go as far away from the crowds as you can walk. At high tide though, you're forced to perch on the rocks or lay up in the grass that's on the cliffs surrounding the cove.

Hipsters come here, on a vacation that's out of the ordinary in it's ordinariness. My beach has starfish, jelly fish, hermit crabs. My beach has seaweed that smells sometimes, and rocks that can cut your feet. I used to bring my own kids here, but they've grown up and moved away. I still come here though, every day in the summer for a few hours. I come here to re-charge. To remember who I am. To find the rhythm of the ocean. Then I go home and go about my day. 

I love my beach in its plainness. Because of it's normal-ness. I love my beach because of what it isn't. And because of what it is. 

In the winter, my beach is hardly accessible. Only to those who are willing to tromp through feet of snow to get to it. But once you get there, you are held in awe. My beach is beautiful. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

Writer's Workshop

Every morning, from October to December, and even into January it went a little something like this:

Boy enters kindergarten classroom crying, obviously stressed

Me: Buddy! What's wrong?

Student: Are we writing today?

Me: Well, yeah, probably.

Student: I hate writing!

Me: Why?

Student: Because I never do it right!

Me: You never do it right? What does that even mean, bud?

Student: It's so hard. Remembering all that stuff

Me: Well then, let's focus on the pictures.

Student: OK

And off he'd go for the day. Sometimes this conversation helped him, others, he would find himself crying and stressed at various times of the day.

Let me explain something about my teaching style. I'll let you in on a secret: I think a lot of people think I'm a lazy teacher because I don't really do much. That's not really true. Shhh! Don't tell though! What is true is that in certain aspects of my teaching I am pretty laissez-faire. And writing is one of those areas.

From September to December my main focus is on the picture telling the story. We work on detail, we work on developing our fine motor muscles, we work on straight lines and curvy lines. What we don't do is work on writing down words.

But, inevitably, one of the students will get it into their brain (either because of an older sibling or someone at home), that writing is only writing down those letters, and knowing all of those letter sounds, and letter shapes, and putting them all together. They don't think that those pictures we take our time working on are all that important.

And, for this young boy, that is exactly what happened. So every day, we would have this conversation, or one quite similar. As time went on, and some of us would start writing down those letters and sounds we knew, his stress level would continue to climb. It wasn't as if he didn't know these sounds or letters, it was that he was afraid to take that risk, afraid to experiment. And no matter how many times in class we talked about taking risks and trying new things, he would stress himself out.

I spoke to his mother on more than a few occasions, reassuring her that I was not interested in putting more stress on him. That's not what Kindergarten is about. It's about social and emotional growth. Yes we teach writing and reading, but the emphasis in my classroom has never been, and as long as I have my way, never will be on academic achievement- regardless of what people think they hear or read. Kindergarten is your first taste of school. I want that memory to be a positive one.

I am a firm believer that we learn to write by writing. So the bulk of my writer's workshop sessions are me giving them some paper, or a blank book, and letting them write. Whatever they want. However they want. Whenever they want. It doesn't take long before they begin to realize that the letters we've learned make sounds and the sounds work together to make words. It only takes me reading what they've written down a few times before they realize the letters in the words have to be in a certain order (this year we somehow can't grasp that AM is not spelled MA).

That's what I mean by laissez-faire. I don't stand over them, helping them sound out words. I don't have them report to me every day. Heavens, by March or April I really don't give them too much direct instruction. I just let them write, then I let them read to me what they've written, and I let them read it to the class if they want.

 I give them lots of time to write, and I give them lots of paper. And although we have a specific time in the day set aside to write, if they want to, they can write at other times as well. Writing isn't just about stories though. It's lists, it's poems, it's menus, it's whatever we do to communicate with paper and pencil/crayons/markers.

What am I doing while they are all writing? Well, I am writing too. I've re-discovered my joy of writing myself. So while they are sitting at their tables writing, I like to find a spot for myself, I take out my own writer's notebook, and I write. I am accessible to them if they need anything, and I am setting the example that writing isn't just a task we do at school. It can be something we find great enjoyment in. I show them some of my documents on Google Docs, I let them see that I write with pens, and I write with a computer, I write with whatever I can. By doing that, I am letting them know they can do it too.

I've gone through all kinds of teaching styles, especially when it comes to writing. And you know what I've found? Leave them alone works the best. Leave them alone, trust them to do what they can, and cheer them on when they've exceeded their own expectations. And guess what? They always exceed their own expectations.

That boy, who would get so stressed over writing? Here's what he wrote today, June 24:

(for those of you who don't read Kindergarten, let me translate: 
Jack N is coming to my house. Jack N is here. Me and Jack N are playing a video game. Jack N won Mario Kart)

I'd say he's going to do OK in Grade 1.

Friday, June 10, 2016

What is Play?

I have been involved in a Kindergarten committee with our province's Department of Education for the past six months. Yesterday was our last meeting for the school year, we will pick up where we left off in the fall. But we were asked to write out a statement of our beliefs of Kindergarten and of play. Here is what I said (sometimes I even surprise myself, lol!):

What Is Play?

Play is natural, it's how all mammals learn. Play is creative. It's make-believe, it's imaginary. Play is exploring. Play is making sense of the world. It's making a hypothesis and testing that out through experimentation. Play is science, it's math, it's literacy. Play is not just the life of the child, but the life of a human.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sand Play and Scientists

I once read an article that captivated me. As I was reading it, all I could think of was the children in my classes over the years who play with sand. And I thought of all of the times we've had to defend the practice of play as well as playing in the sand throughout the years. This article, Riddles In The Sand was written in 1996. Maybe more research has been done on sand. Maybe scientists and physicists understand how sand works now, at least more than they did in 1996. But as I read it, I was reminded that children are scientists. Children are physicists. Children are engineers. Every day, across the world, children are involved in theorizing, in planning, in trying out theories, and in finding 'proof' for their discoveries.

I was captivated, am still captivated, by the article, by the medium of sand, and by the idea that children are scientists. That is the purpose of this blog post. I wanted to put pictures to the words. I wanted to give credence to children and their play. I wanted to show that just as physicists and engineers theorize and experiment with materials, the idea to experiment, to theorize, begins in childhood. It begins with play. 

Riddles in the Sand
Physicists completely understand a solitary grain of sand. Why, then, are they at a complete loss to explain a mere handful of the stuff? 

"That not even a physicist can explain why sand behaves the way it does seems astonishing. Sand is neither invisibly small nor impossibly distant; observing it requires neither particle accelerators nor orbiting telescopes. The interactions of grains of sand are entirely governed by the same Newtonian laws that describe the motion of a bouncing ball or the orbit of Earth about the sun. The odd behavior of a layer of sand bounced up and down on a tray should, in principle be entirely knowable and entirely predictable. Why, then, can't Behringer [the physicist mentioned in the article] simply take a bunch of equations describing the motion of all of the individual grains, put them in a very large computer, and wait--for years, if necessary--until it spits out a prediction?" (p 2/9)

"Because the language of physics does not contain a vocabulary for granularity, engineers must treat granular material as either a liquid or a solid. These approximations work most of the time, but occasionally they lead to disaster....when the grains come to rest against one another they form intricate, quasi-self-supporting structures. That is why adding more grains to the top of a silo often does not increase the pressure delivered to the bottom at all, but rather increases pressure outward agains the sides of the silo." (p 3/9)

"Engineers who design buildings and roads, on the other hand, assume that under stress the supporting (and granular) soil will behave like a deforming solid, much the way plastic does. Once again, this convenient approximation occasionally leads to disasters." (p. 3/9)

"...if engineers understood the physics of soil better, these disasters might have been avoided." (p. 3/9)

"If you really want to describe what sand is doing in any given situation, you have to know which modes are dominant and which sets of equations you'll need to employ.... (p. 7/9)

"You just have to recognize that not everything you do is going to shake loose major pieces of knowledge... But collectively, and on rare occasions, experiments will come along and make a significant impact. It's like looking at a distribution of avalanches- you have a lot of little ones and, every once in a while, a big one." (p. 9/9)

(*all notes are from the article Riddles in the Sand by Fred Guterl, November 01, 1996. All pictures are mine)

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Music Fun!

As many of you probably know by now, we enjoy singing in our class. I’ve occasionally record us singing and reciting poems, and I thought you might enjoy a couple of samples.
Our first poem inspired our snowmen shown above (click on the link, the slide may download to your computer):
And our song “Snowflakes are falling down” is a special favourite. We made crystal “snowflakes” to go along with this song:
Here is the link to this song:
Snowflakes are falling down

*NOTE* If you click on the poem link, a powerpoint of the poem/song with the words and the recording will download to your computer.
*ALSO* We had a big snowstorm just after I took the picture of the crystals hanging in the window. Now it looks more "authentic"

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Time: Two Hours of Play

The original post was dated Jan 13. It is now Jan 30 and here is an update:

Ever since we started playing for 1 1/2 to 2 hours a day, this is what I've noticed:

1- The play is deeper, more thought provoking
2- They play is less frantic- they know they have time. They know they will have a beginning, a middle and an end that will be satisfying for them.
3- They are quieter when they play
4- (with the exception of 3 or 4) They are choosing a wider variety of activities. They are choosing literacy games and math games. 
5- The art that is created has more depth. It isn't just markers on paper anymore, they have added other media (the art shelf has been stacked with a variety of materials, they are just now getting to them)
6- When it is time for direct instruction, the sit and listen longer
7- I have to do less direct instruction

Now, I know there are other benefits that I am not listing here, and I know some of these behaviours could be seen as where the students are developmentally, but from everything I have observed, there has been no negative consequences to the prolonged play time. Which, of course, does not surprise me. When I meet with a student or two in a small group or one on one, they are more focussed on what we are doing, because they have confidence that they will be able to get back to their other play without missing too much time. This has only been a positive experience for us all.

I did something crazy yesterday. I let my students play for two hours. It was the best two hours we've had in a long time, and guess what? We'll be doing that from now on. Two hours of uninterrupted play time every day. Two hours to theorize, experiment, build, problem solve, create, learn, teach.

It started with a phone call. One of my friends at our provincial department of education phoned just before our Christmas break wondering if I'd be interested in being a part of a small group of kindergarten teachers who are being tasked with finding a way to return kindergarten to being more child-centred. Our province touts its kindergarten program as being play based with integrated curriculum, but as time has passed it's becoming more and more like a subject based program: first we have literacy, then we have math, then we have writers workshop... etc. I know many kindergarten teachers are feeling this push, and we are finding it harder and harder to push back. That phone call got me thinking about my own practice in the classroom, and I realized that while I talk about trusting students, and letting them play, more and more lately I have not been putting what I preach into practice. That phone call was a wake up call for me as well.

Over our break, I had to ask myself some tough questions. If I say we need to trust students to manage their own learning, am I doing that? Sometimes. If I say children need time to play in order to work through their learning, am I allowing the proper amount of time to do that? Again, sometimes.

Because I could not answer a definite yes, I knew it was time to re-think my practice.
-What will I do while they play that long?
-What if someone comes in and asks what's going on?
-What if they come in and want to know why I'm doing what I'm doing?

Here's what happened:

While the children were playing I was able to sit with a group and play a rousing game of letter go-fish. One of those students needs extra work in letter recognition, and I was able to sit with him, in a stress free environment, and have some fun while working on the letters.

I have another student who comes in every single day stressed out because he is anxious about Writers Workshop. No matter how many times I tell him that I don't expect him to have everything perfect, that I will help him, he still stresses over it. He spent a long time with a buddy building "a car building" in the block area. Then he went to the art area because he wanted to make a picture for his mom. I asked him if his mom ever asked what he did during the day, and he said yes. I suggested that he draw a picture of his structure so he could show her what he did. He thought that was a good idea but wasn't sure how to do that. I was able to model how I would draw the picture, then he was able to take that risk and do it himself. Because we had this time, I suggested he write down at the bottom what it was, and I was able to talk him through that. No stress, no tears, no anxiety. It was a big breakthrough for this guy.

Then, another guy, who struggles with some fine motor issues, was watching us and he decided to draw a "crabby patty" he had made in the kitchen area.

All of this would have been impossible if we didn't have the time. If we only had a half an hour of free choice time. Because we had such an extended time to play, children were able to play in more than one area, were able to begin a task and complete it. They were able to spend their time talking out ideas and problem solve with their peers. 

After our play time, it was recess, then we had snack and our specialty class. When the students came back to class, we all sat down as a group and we talked about our big play time. I asked them if they enjoyed it (of course they did) and if they'd like to do that every day (of course they do). So I put up on the board a list of things we "have to do" every day, things we "should do" every day, and things we "want to do" every day. Then I put up a simple time schedule and we filled in the blanks. As a group we were able to see how we can still fit in everything we "have to do" and "should do" and even the things we "want to do" and still have a big play time. 

We still have Writers Workshop and Guided Reading and Math. We still have large group instruction, but we don't have to spend time teaching things we already know. I can introduce the concepts, then they have the opportunity to work on these in their own time and space (and if they don't 'chose' to do it on their own, there is still time to 'encourage' them while still allowing them lots of time to play). Those of us who might need a little extra help can get that now during our large block of play time. We can play games and even have some one on one time. So many times I feel like I don't get a chance to sit down and play with the kids, get to know them. 

I am constantly asking, what happens if we trust children? What happens if we truly value play, value it enough to allow our students to actually play? Because when we trust children, we give them the tools they need to become self-motivated, we give them the responsibility for their learning. We help them find the gift that already resides in them. Children are capable, but too often we take that away from them. Let's give it back.