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,  DiscoverMagazine.com November 01, 1996. http://discovermagazine.com/1996/nov/riddlesinthesand915 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.
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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.






Saturday, October 10, 2015

Teaching Number Sense in Kindergarten

Kindergarten Number Sense Outcomes
1.1: count in a variety of ways
1.2: explore a variety of physical representations of numbers 1-10
1.3: count to determine the number in a group
1.4: create sets of a given number
1.5: show a given number as two parts concretely and name the two parts
1.6: determine which group has more, which has less, or which are equivalent
1.7: use symbols to represent numbers in a variety of meaningful ways
 While our understanding of number sense begins at birth, when we count our baby's fingers and toes out loud (1:1 correspondence), as Kindergarteners, we are still in the early learning stages of number sense. With this in mind, we attempt to make our learning as holistic and realistic as possible. So we sing songs, we use concrete objects. It's a very hands on, brain on, learning process, but one that will take us a long way in understanding numbers.
Teaching and reinforcing number sense in the classroom is always embedded into our daily routine. From singing songs, to predicting how many people are present and absent, to playing a game, to reading stories, to our "Countdown to 5/10" at the end of the day, we are constantly exposed to number sense. It's through these real life experiences that we truly begin to see that numbers do make sense in our everyday life. By using routines to reinforce number sense, we allow the students to make their own connections, and when they can make their own connections, the learning is more authentic. If it's through our life experiences that we learn, then how much more important is it that our teaching give our students life experience?
IMG_2592
While singing the song, "Farmer Brown Has 5 Green Apples" we use props, and we have a "Farmer Brown". Through this song, we are reinforcing the idea of 'taking away', and we have real life examples right in front of us.
While singing songs like, "Farmer Brown Has 5 Green Apples" we use props, and we have a "Farmer Brown". Through this, we are reinforcing the idea of 'taking away', and we have real life examples right in front of us.
IMG_2594
Usually, during the hockey playoffs, we will take all of the teams that have made it and we keep track of the wins and losses of each series.  Since, right now, it is baseball playoff time, and both my favourite team, the Chicago Cubs, and Canada's favourite team, the Toronto Blue Jays, are in the playoffs, I decided to keep track of each one's wins and losses. It helps that baseball playoffs go to 5 games since we are learning about numbers 1-5 right now. Through this activity, we are reinforcing outcomes 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5, and 1.6 Unfortunately, I'm going to have to add a loss to both the Blue Jays and the Cubs. Hopefully, before the weekend is over, I'll be able to add some wins to them!
Usually, during the hockey playoffs, we will take all of the teams that have made it and we keep track of the wins and losses of each series.
Since, right now, it is baseball playoff time, and both my favourite team, the Chicago Cubs, and Canada's favourite team, the Toronto Blue Jays, are in the playoffs, I decided to keep track of each one's wins and losses. It helps that baseball playoffs go to 5 games since we are learning about numbers 1-5 right now.
Through this activity, we are reinforcing outcomes 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5, and 1.6
Unfortunately, I'm going to have to add a loss to both the Blue Jays and the Cubs. Hopefully, before the weekend is over, I'll be able to add some wins too!

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Joys of Kindergarten



I love that e-Card. It was sent to me by one of my second grade teaching friends. I've been accused of crazy before, especially in relation to teaching Kindergarten. But I've never understood why it seems so daunting to others. Teaching Kindergarten is always a pleasure. The challenge to meet their needs, the fun because you never know what will come out of their mouths. Kindergartener's are awesome for your self-esteem because Kindergarten kids don't care if you sing on tune, they always like your clothes and shoes, and if you play an instrument, they will think you are the most talented person who ever existed!

When you've been teaching long enough, you begin to realize something. Each class is it's own organic creation. Each class is special and unique. Now I know that each child is unique and has their own personality, but those personalities work together to give each class a group personality.

One year I felt like I was white knuckling it through the entire year. I had 2 boys diagnosed with Autism that year, and a little girl with "developmental delays" (a classic case of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome if you ask me).  Then there was the class with lots of "energy", you never knew what would happen from one day to the next. One year I had "that class". You know the one, the kind that has 'behaviour issues'? Took a lot of understanding and deep breaths to make it through each day. And then last year I had a class of comedians. They were hilarious and cracked me up every day, lots of one liners were thrown around. We had a lot of fun.

This year is no different. If I were to classify this class, though, I'd say we are young, we are curious, and we are used to speaking our minds. Have you ever read Junie B. Jones? My own kids used to love reading those books. I remember thinking having a Junie B. in my class would be lots of fun. Little did I know that, this year, the class personality could be described as "Junie B." And let me tell you, it's exhausting. Fun! But exhausting.

Sometimes when you share little happenings during your day with others they say, "You should write these down!" So I thought, why not share them on my little blog. They are pretty funny, and they do say a lot about what it's like to teach Kindergarten.

The first one I like to title-
How conversation evolves in a kindergarten class:
Principal (on the announcements): Boys and girls, I know that many of you saw the fox watching as you came in to school today. Remember, if you are outside at recess and the fox comes over, just walk over to a teacher and tell them.
Me: yes, just tell a teacher. Remember, foxes aren't pets, they're wild animals.
Student 1: my nana feeds the foxes.
Student 2: foxes are carnivores, just like dinosaurs were. I'm an expert on foxes.
Student 3: carnivores eat meat.
Student 4: humans are meat!
Student 1: humans are NOT meat!
Me: well, yeah we are. But foxes won't eat you.
Student 5: then why can't we pet them.
Me: because they are wild animals, I told you that. They aren't trained like your pets, you don't know how they will react.
Student 6: they might bite you, or try to eat you.
Me: they won't eat you.
Student 7: last night I went for a ride in a buggy pulled by donkeys.

We've all been there, right? In the middle of one conversation and then a student contributes something random that has nothing to do with what you were talking about (and I can guarantee that student 7 did not go on a buggy ride pulled by donkeys).

The second is a conversation between one of my students and myself:
Me to a student at the end of the day: You need to finish getting ready. Everyone else is, and we need to get to the busses.
Student: (wailing at the top of her lungs)
Me: Why are you crying?
Student: No one gets me!
Me: What do you mean "No one gets me"? Do you mean they don't understand you?
Student: YES!
Me: OK, does that mean they don't understand your words, or they don't understand who you are as a person?
Student: They don't understand me as a person!
Me: ?
Student: I CAN GET READY FAST!

Teaching Kindergarten means you are always "on". Your brain is functioning at 100% from the time you get there until the time you leave. There are some perks though. You get lots of love and hugs, they are always excited on Monday mornings, and they love to laugh. If you have a bad day, you generally get a do-over the next day, because they really don't carry grudges (just don't take advantage of this feature, because eventually it stops). Other teachers always say they think the kids are cute, but they'd never want the job. Kindergarten teachers are usually the opposite. Older kids are great, but teaching Kindergarten is where it's at. I guess we are our own special breed. I'm glad to be a part of it!