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.

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?
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.
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: ?

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!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"Purposeful Play"

There was a time where children played all through summer. They came home from school and they played. They played in their 1/2 day kindergarten classes (if they even went to kindergarten). They played, and they played, and they played. And guess what? They managed to get a man on the moon. They managed to build cars, and factories, and machines. They managed to harness electricity, and they managed to invent indoor plumbing. And they didn't have adults asking them what they were doing. They didn't have adults directing their every move. They were able to play pickup baseball, basketball, football, hockey games. And they were able to solve problems on their own. Interesting, I know!

There's a term that gets thrown about in education circles, and it sounds so rational, so reasonable, so "important", but it really bothers me. It's the term, "purposeful play". I understand where the sentiment is coming from, though I don't agree. In theory, when you read articles about "purposeful play" it sounds great. Children are in charge of their own learning (YES!), children have large blocks of time devoted to play (YES!). But then, when you read further, there is still the adult standing in the corner asking the questions, "What do you think will happen next?" "Why did you chose to build it that way?" All of these questions getting in the way of individual discovery. Though the questions aren't bad, and it is good to reflect on our learning at all ages, it's more of the push to get adults involved in the children's play instead of allowing the children their own time and space in which to play. If the children want the adult to become involved in their play, it should be up to the child to invite the adult. Too often what happens in children's play is the adult gets involved and pushes their own agenda (asking the questions instead of allowing the discovery). Too often uninformed people become involved in the classroom and push their own agenda on the children (reading by Instructional C by the end of Kindergarten- oh wait, lets push them up to a level D instead; writing at a certain level; understanding math facts).

Please don't misunderstand. I don't think children should have free reign to do whatever they want, whenever they want. Not at all. But what I do think is that children will learn what they need to learn when they are ready to learn it. It is my job to create the atmosphere and environment to facilitate that learning. There is still much room for direct instruction from the teacher. There is still a time for children in kindergarten to do specific work on reading, writing, and mathematics. But there is also time for children to do other learning- and that is through their play.

If someone were to come into my classroom at choice time, and if you'd asked them what the children are doing, they might say they are playing. They might think what they're doing is "cute" (another pet peeve of mine) . But I would imagine the first thing they might not think is that the children were "learning".  It isn't "purposeful play" you know,  they aren't doing a fun activity directed by the teacher.

In education, and in early childhood development, we know that young children (like all animals) learn best through play. What is unfortunate though, is that people who don't understand early childhood development, who don't understand play (and many of those are in positions of authority over education--- umm politicians and business leaders...) feel the need to impose their opinions and ideas on our children. They think we are "falling behind the rest of the world" and we need to get these kids "learning" at a younger age. So those of us in education, because we have to defend our practices, begin to doubt our own knowledge. We try to synthesize what we know with the expectations of those outside our field. And we call it "purposeful play". But it really isn't play. It's still an adult, forcing their own agenda, while trying to make it "fun".

Each year I get to this point, where I think it's important to pass on what is actually happening when we play. Because I am such a strong proponent of block play, I generally use that as my example. Perhaps some year I will choose a different one, but I haven't tired of block play yet...
Here is the documentation I put up today regarding what we learn through block play:

(I apologize for the quality of the pictures, I know it's hard to see what is written)

What I put up here are pictures of my students building and creating in the block area, pictures of them drawing what they've built. Then I put up quotes from "The Block Book" put out by the NAEYC (it's a classic), as well as which Kindergarten curricular outcomes are met through block play (hint: each of our curricular areas have at least one outcome met, and over 29 individual outcomes are met). All without me getting involved in their learning. I provide the materials, I encourage cooperation, I might suggests they draw their buildings and maybe write about them. That's as far as I get.

It's my job, as their kindergarten teacher, to defend their learning. It is my job to champion Developmentally Appropriate Practice. It is my job to inform those who may not know that ALL PLAY IS PURPOSEFUL. It all meets the needs of the individual wherever that individual is.

Silly people, what makes you think children aren't learning?

Saturday, November 1, 2014


Not about teaching Kindergarten today. But I saw this and it reminds me of my husbands grandmother. She passed away 5 years ago today. She was the definition of a classy lady. She proved that money doesn't give you class, education doesn't give you class, it's who you are on the  inside.
She was born on a farm in Central Illinois, into a family that spoke only German until the First World War. As soon as the US declared war on Germany, her family began to speak English only.
During the Depression she and her brothers would hunt squirrel in the timber for supper.
She married a carpenter who refused to let her make macaroni and cheese because that was what they fed him at the Orphanage he grew up in. They lived in a small town and had 2 daughter’s together, and he passed away about 20 years before she did.
But that is her history, it isn’t who she was. My husband refers to her as a “feisty old bird” who loved nature and animals. She created a natural habitat in her yard for the birds and squirrels. As long as she had her health, she would go out and bird watch in the country.
This farm girl was outspoken about her beliefs that crop-dusting and pesticides were ruining the environment and all our health and would tell any farmer she came across what she though.
When you became a part of her family, you stayed a part of the family. It didn’t matter. When her youngest daughter divorced, Grandma still kept contact with the ex-husband. He was one of the pall bearers at her funeral, right alongside the daughter’s current partner. When her grandson (my husbands cousin) divorced, his wife still came to help Grandma clean her house. The ex-wife’s daughter (cousin’s step-daughter) was still very much a part of the family, even though there were no blood ties.
She was feisty, a hard worker, fiercely loyal, and outspoken. Everything I aspire to be. Man, I miss her. I am so glad I knew her.