Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Connecting the dots

Our first sign of spring found outside, brought in for a visit today: pillbug!

In February, I shared a story from my Kindergarten Specialist AQ class: we had a discussion about our heroes or mentors in education, those people who we listen to and think: "That's the way it's done!", or "I'd like to teach like that". I had said: "...several years before I'd hear the terms: "self-regulation", "Reggio-inspired", "emergent curriculum", and "inquiry-based learning", I met a teacher who embodied all those ideals in her teaching practice". I was delighted to hear that she was invited to speak to our class for our last Saturday session, because I remembered that above all, Nancy Thomas advocated for the importance of play.

Now it might seem a funny statement: "the importance of play", when speaking about Kindergarten teaching. Of course play is important! Lessons should be fun, and animated, so students will want to participate. That is what I believed, having taught in Kindergartens as a supply teacher, and then with my own. Make it fun, sing a song, do a dance, teach a rhyme. But what of play? Play as a reward for finishing a learning task, or play as the method of uncovering new ideas, these are very different understandings of "play-based learning". So it is that in my early years of teaching, I thought I was all about play, but then I would attend one of Nancy's workshops, and I would see glimpses of the bigger picture:
  • No need to worry about the child who chooses the train centre day after day and eschews your invitations to the painting table. 
  • No need to teach every child every expectation from the document as if they were discreet skills and not pieces of a larger puzzle. 
  • Play as the deep, meaningful expression of a child's interests and ideas. 
  • Science as the most natural topic of day-to-day learning, not "themes" or holidays, or whole group lessons, but getting down eye-to-eye with a student at the nature table to ask what they see, and what they think. 
  • Play as the authentic expression of what a child is thinking about in the moment.
When I spoke to other teachers in my course, I couldn't pinpoint exactly what it was about her message that so inspired me. From the workshops I attended, I saw that Nancy focused on science, or perhaps I would better describe it as "wonder", while many other workshops offered ideas about literacy, numeracy, personal and social growth, or the arts. I wondered if that was the reason I so connected with her message: I am happiest in the woods or at the lake, listening for birds or exploring local flora. I love a good storm, wind in the leaves, "lovely light" time, and treasures found in low tide. With my own kids, I try to share the every-changing nature of our world by exploring the outdoors in all weather. Teaching Kindergarten means every day being able to indulge in my senses and share the wonderment with my students.

My girl cradling a vole found at the bottom of our sledding hill.
A windchill can't keep us inside when there's chickadees to feed!

On Saturday, Nancy shared a slideshow of pictures from schools in Reggio Emilia, where I just learned she had been to study before I had met her. As I looked at the now-familiar images of beautiful, light-filled classrooms and well-stocked ateliers, I once again began to see a bigger picture emerge. As I heard about the teaching approach in Reggio Emilia schools in Nancy's words, I connected the dots between so many of the ideas now informing my day-to-day decisions in the classroom. The first compelling message from the Reggio schools is that of "the environment as third teacher", wherein real or authentic objects are present for daily use, such as glass, china and wood. I remember that when I read about this approach, while I immediately loved the aesthetic of a beautiful, natural classroom, I worried about the addition of breakable objects into a busy room. What I discovered, however, was exactly what the literature described: children treat their environment with care when they see a reason to. Plastic dishes and bowls are meant to withstand being thrown, stepped on, or worse. Why on earth would we want that for our children?

As Nancy spoke about the incredible projects in the art studios, or the learning shared in all classrooms through documentation, I saw more connections emerge. Carol Anne Wien (whose workshop last month inspired three of us twitter friends and attendees to coin "a new 3R's"of the role of the teacher in an inquiry-based classroom), worked with Nancy and other Reggio-inpired educators, resulting in the wonderful: "Emergent Curriculum in the Primary Classroom".

No matter which slide we were looking at, a theme was evident throughout, one which she touched on again and again when describing the freedom of students in a Reggio classroom to take risks we never would or could allow in North American classrooms. Nancy saw in the pictures aspects of life in Reggio Emilia that I had missed: everywhere there was evidence of children being being trusted to explore their limits both physically (climbing up ladders or on tabletops to participate in a project) and socially (students working alone or practically heaped on top on one another while enjoying group play). She outlined the image of the child in Reggio Emilia society: "Children are strong, resourceful, and capable. So, naturally, more is allowed to happen in class and outside". 

Further to this, she contrasted the Reggio approach with the North American model concerning the difficulties of students whose learning styles don't fit with the overall needs of the mainstream classroom. I was surprised to find tears springing to my eyes when I heard: "In Reggio schools, children have special rights, not special needs". This way of honouring the multitude possibilities inherent in every human being is one that I had never heard before, and it framed the purpose of following the interests of the child in an indisputable way. Every child has a right to an education that serves their needs and interests, and those who learn in a subtly or dramatically different way from most others are not excepted.

So, when I connect the dots, the picture that emerges is as clear as a constellation on a moonless night. What made Nancy's presentations so compelling for me was her constant message, consistent to this day in everything she says: the child comes first. That's it. Deceptively simple, and yet it took me years to understand it. The child comes first, not the curriculum, not the fashionable new trend in teaching, not the politics nor the patterns of what worked before, not the size of the class or the program being applied. The children and their interests drive the direction of the inquiries and the depth of their engagement in topics.  A skillful teacher listens, joins in the conversations, and adds just enough support to keep the spark burning, while capturing the learning and helping the children reflect upon it.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Spring is here? I wonder

This year's weather has led to some interesting conversations in my classroom. Students observe the falling snow, the iced-over puddles and bare trees, and naturally conclude that winter is here to stay. Other students, however, come to school bursting with the news: "Tomorrow is spring!", "Spring starts this week, the radio said so!", or "Spring is tomorrow, it's on the calendar!". This week we have talked about the way the sun has been with us longer in the evenings, the dark early mornings, and the upcoming "Earth Hour" and how best to celebrate it with the class. And so we wonder, when is it really spring?

At our wonder table, we're wondering what happens to the pussy willows in water, or left dry.
During March Break I heard what I've long considered the first sign of spring: red-winged blackbirds were singing cheerfully by the lake. I suppose the blackbirds were trusting the longer days, instead of watching the weather. Perhaps the birds were simply tired of waiting, and eager for something new. Today we dressed in our full snow gear, grabbed the shovels, and went out to clear off the alphabet road for riding bikes. Instead, we played in the big, fluffy flakes drifting down around us. Once indoors, the play seemed to be ready for change, too. No longer are students building elaborate arenas to test their favourite beyblades from home, or creating their own spinners out of snap cubes or magnets. The "magnificent marbles" creations, once a hub of noisy, joyous activity, now see only a few visits each day. The return of the cold weather has meant our "puddle problem" inquiry is now all but forgotten. Today, two new students joined us, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. I observed as they visited all the centres in the room, peering into bins, watching their peers, and played with different toys. I wonder what interests and ideas they bring with them, and where our next sparks might come from. Until then, I watch, and I wonder.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Shining a light on a hidden curriculum

This year represents an important anniversary for me in teaching. Ten years ago I was attending OISE/UofT, completing my Bachelor of Education. I hadn't gone straight into teaching after my first round of university, instead working and traveling around Ontario taking courses the meet my diverse interests (among them a hands-on mosaic class, Aanishnaabemowin ("Ojibwe language"), and tabla drumming). I had many passions and was trying to become a jack-of-all-trades instead of choosing a career which I felt would limit my horizons. It was the example of a dear school friend, whose mother was a teacher in the public system and who was herself a teacher in the Waldorf system, that influenced my decision to teach. D'Arcy's genuine sense of wonder at the world makes her the ideal primary school teacher. Her delight at children's way of thinking and her humour always delighted me. I loved being around kids, but wasn't certain I had what it takes to lead a class. To test myself, I began telling stories at the "1001 Nights of Storytelling" Friday evenings in Toronto. It was an education in oral literature, humour, as well as a tremendous confidence-booster. I still try to make time to catch the professional storytellers at the various festivals in town, even though I no longer participate in telling.

Braving the waves.

It wasn't until I had my first child, however, that I made the time to volunteer in classrooms and begin the application process for teacher's college. That first spring, while my boy was enjoying the fresh country air at the grandparents' house, I volunteered in D'Arcy's mother's grade one class. Myra was the best example of gentle classroom management I have seen: she treated the students with such dignity and gave them room to make mistakes and correct them, when many of us may have pushed for apologies or restitution. She followed the students to grade two in September, and I was once again able to join her class and learn how to cultivate a caring classroom environment. There I observed that the most important lessons learned in class are not the facts or academic skills, but the social aspects: learning how to learn. To this day I admire Mrs. Colby's example and I credit her for the big ideas I learned about the social curriculum of any classroom.

Me and my boy at the beach: his first week of school, my first year with my own Kindergarten class.

 I started at OISE with a toddler at home. I knew from my own experience that I related best to primary students, but tried my hand at every age up to grade eight. It was later, when I began occasional teaching (supply work) that I realized I was happiest in a Kindergarten room. My year at teacher's college was filled with exciting projects, each arts-infused and cross-curricular for all ages. I taught with several other teacher candidates who became friends. It met my need to follow many interests at once, and for that I was grateful. Once again, however, the particular lessons or skills I gained there are mostly forgotten in the interim. The social lesson that never left me was from a book called: "You Can't Say You Can't Play" by Vivian Paley.

We candidates were discussing how to create a welcoming climate in one's class when we read an excerpt from this incredible book. I now see it as a teacher's inquiry project into building inclusion into her program, but at the time it seemed both radical and unavoidable at the same time. Years later I found an interview with the author on my favourite radio/podcast (and the inspiration for the title of my blog): "This American Life".

Vivian's big experiment was surrounding a fact she observed in her Kindergarten classroom: "Kids saying over and over: "No, no room here", "No, I promised to play the next 16 games with someone else", "No we're already playing, you can't join in", "No, you cannot play with us", with the same kids always relegated to the role of the outcasts". Her discomfort with the "hidden curriculum" of certain students creating social heirarchy led her to propose a new rule: "You can't say 'You can't play'". 
She then details the shock, disbelief, rejection, and eventual happy adoption of the rule by her students. This excerpt from the interview outlines the various stakeholders in her class grappling with the idea when it was first proposed: 

A: "Let anybody play if someone asks" (often rejected)
L: "But then what's the whole point of playing?"
N: "You just want Cynthia"
L: "I could play alone. Why can't Clara play alone?" 

(author notes: Clara is often rejected, and goes and sits in her cubby alone)
A: "I think that's pretty sad. People that is alone they has water in their eyes"
L: "I'm more sad if someone comes that I don't want to play with"
Teacher: "Who is sadder, the one who isn't allowed to play, or the one who has to play with someone he or she doesn't want to play with?"
C: "It's more sadder if you can't play"
L: "The other one is the same sadder"
A: "It has to be Clara, because she puts herself away in her cubby, and L can still play every time"
L: "I can't play every time if I'm sad".

It is a difficult story to read for anyone who has been that child told "No, you can't come in".  I dreaded the outcome as I read on and saw that students initially rejected the idea, especially the student "L" for whom the current arrangement was a source of power. I was delighted, then, to read on and see: "Once the rule kicked in, within a week, it was as if this had always been the way life would be". 
Paley describes the experiment to Ira this way: "Can you legislate this type of morality, can you order people to be kind, not to exclude others? ... Once the rule was in effect, there was a palpable sense of relief in class, as if they'd been rescued from meanness. The children were grateful for structure that let them feel good about themselves and each other".

I carried this lesson with me into my practice, first as an occasional teacher and then with my own class. I was quick to intervene when students were denied access into games or centres. The divisions persisted, however, as I was teaching whole-group lessons that required whole-group response time. I see now how natural it is for students to compare themselves to others when they are all working together, especially when the work isn't open-ended. I saw how students with fine motor strength were able to finish printing assignments quickly and head off to the highly favoured areas of the classroom, while their slower friends struggled to complete the task. The consequence of this "task-first, then play" practice interfered with students' ability to choose where to play, as the water table, sand area and big blocks would be filled up first. A heirarchy formed, in spite of my best efforts. It began to change when I started making little changes to my structure, supporting self-regulation by allowing students to choose when to complete their tasks. Later still the whole-group tasks gave way to project-work, intentional play, and a greater focus on oral language development. I have seen the difference in the way that students understand one another, now that they are free to develop their skills in the area of their choice. The most delightful surprise of my change came in the way that students now play: the freedom to choose adds to the motivation to persevere through difficult challenges. Students who may have balked at writing when there was a "writing centre" are leaving notes on their creations, signing up for sharing time, and writing books with me. They are, as I quoted Lilian Katz saying a few posts back: "learn(ing) the academic skills in service of (their) interests".

D'Arcy dancing with the boy, age 3.

In talking with my friend D'Arcy over the years, I have seen our practice grow closer and closer, even though our schools remain fundamentally different. Her experience of teaching in both the Waldorf and the public school system gives her a uniquely broad  perspective upon teaching and learning. Embracing emergent curriculum and letting Reggio-inspired influences into my classroom have made my practice much more creative, responsive to students' needs and interests, and in a way that I hope approaches the wonder of the world that is highlighted in Waldorf schooling, more magical. D'Arcy continues to be a good friend and a motivator to keep pushing my boundaries beyond what is comfortable.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

A new 3R's

The "Co-constructing Contexts for Meaningful Engagement" Conference at Charles Sturt University was one of those PD opportunities I wish I could share with all Kindergarten teachers in Ontario and beyond. I have been thinking about Saturday's experience all week. When asked at school how the conference was, I gushed. However when pressed about why, I realized it was hard to pin down exactly the one reason I was so transformed. Now I think that it was more than the exceptional choices of presenters and speakers. It included the opportunity to network at length, to reflect, to probe new ideas, to explore the big ideas of the morning's talk with a group of likewise inspired educators.

Following Lilian Katz's keynote speech, we were given time to sit with a smaller group of people, some 20 or so per room. The facilitator in our room encouraged us to think about key messages we'd taken from the talk, and to reflect upon what it meant for our own professional practice. I was happy to share my table with teachers, university instructors, and my ETFO AQ instructors whose two courses have been such a large part of my ability to take risks and embrace new program directions. We discussed how Lilian outlined how to choose or find a worthy topic for deep, extended project work. I brought up an image that has been in my mind for some time, building on the idea that an interest which spawns from a child's wonderment is often called "a spark". As a child, I loved to help my father when he built a fire in the fireplace or the woodstove. It is a task that requires timing and attention to detail in order to get right: the need for kindling right when the spark catches, the deliberate choice of smaller wood to catch before the long, slow-burn logs can be added. It seems to me that inquiries in the classroom are much like this: you have to be there to catch the spark, and kindle it quickly with questions or connections before it goes out. Adding layers of research, experimentation, or writing to the project requires it to be well-stoked and burning on its own (that is to say, the children have ownership of the exploration and rely on the teacher more as resource support by this time). Connections can be like coals: a fire long burnt-out, but deep below the heat still resting and quick to catch anew with added fuel. I have seen this too, where explorations I thought were over come roaring back to life when a new student takes interest or some new discovery ignites the play all over again.

At the risk of seeming cliche, I think that a good PD experience may answer your questions, and leave you with fixes for your problems. A great PD experience, however, leaves you with more questions than you had going in - new questions, sparked by "aha" moments or ideas that challenge your way of thinking. Indeed, I felt both relieved (Oh, so many people out there who are doing emergent curriculum and proving its value) and also humbled (Oh, but look at how much more I could be doing).

My first small workshop was with Carol Anne Wien, whose knowledge of Reggio pedagogy is but one of the reasons she is held in high regard by so many Reggio-inspired teachers in Ontario. She used intensely personal stories from a childcare centre where she had long been a partner in order to illustrate how teachers can let go of outdated practices and embrace a more wholistic, emergent curriculum. Her framework detailed how "the teachers' stance" as educators honouring children's experience involves "attentiveness, empathy, authenticity, and appreciation of the child's voice". The stories were painfully personal and left more than one of us in tears, and in awe. My main take-away from the session was an echo of something Lilian had said earlier about children tackling big ideas and doing "hard work": "Building stamina takes being connected to the project - motivation to work hard comes from genuine interest in the work". That it is the same for teachers should come as no surprise, but it was an "aha" moment for me nonetheless.

Critical thinking prompts left for my students at our interactive art piece, inspired by Project Zero.

My next workshop I picked by title alone, and was later delighted to find it was hosted by Joanne Babalis, whose blog "Transforming our Learning Environment into a Space of Possibilities" was one of the first places I knew to explore the process of changing one's practice by changing the environment or learning space. While I have followed Joanne on twitter, Pinterest, and joined her and others in the fantastic "We Can See" Project Blog, we had never met. The title which so intrigued me: "Children’s Treasures: Toys and Tinkering as Powerful Entries for Curriculum and Research" really spoke to the year I have had. In past years of teaching I regret that I saw toys from home as a distraction from the important learning at school. Last year I began to reform that idea and began to find ways to allow personal treasures to enter everyday play in my classroom, and was delighted with the wealth of new ideas to talk about every day. We were sorting by categories we never dreamed of before: wheels or no wheels, faces or none, toys that speak or make music, toys that are silent, toys that are soft, toys that are shiny, hard, "spinny", huggable, fast, funny. That was just the beginning.
As Joanne put it: "When students' toy treasures are welcomed in the classroom, they provide endless possibilities for meaningful engagement, inquiry, and learning". Joanne's ongoing projects, as displayed so lovingly in photos, document binders and even videos, were a testament to what is possible in the new FDK program with teachers who embrace the teachers stance as outlined by Carol Anne Wien. My main take-away from her talk was the vignette about a boy whose exploration of magnets was difficult to interpret at first: "When you aren't sure where the play will lead, it's good to keep listening for clues, for points of entry". Joanne is the model of the responsive teacher.

At the end of the day, three of us twitter friends who'd just met in person continued to tweet our connections and reflections. Tracy (@TracyPick) and Nancy (@world_of_k) noted that we had a "new 3R's" to move our thinking along as educators: Risk, Reflection, Relationships. This was a response to Carol Anne Wien's stance as a teacher, and I think it's a good model for how to expand our learning together.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

A transformational day

Yesterday I was one of many lucky educators at Charles Sturt University for the "Co-constructing Contexts for Meaningful Engagement" Conference. That this was no ordinary weekend conference was evident when one looked around during the keynote address: many of the best and brightest in early learning were there from PDSB and from all around Southern Ontario. A quick glance around confirmed to me that my once-lonely path on the way to embracing an emergent curriculum Kindergarten was now a warm and welcoming party full of  like-minded educators.

Making a ramp for a favourite car from home.
The conference invitation described the day thusly:

"This year's conference will focus on the contexts and relationships that support a transformation of our view of children, e.g., moving from a model of teachers-learners to a concept of co-learners; expanding the notion of 'classroom' to include the role of resources, materials, and the environment in promoting engagement".

The day would have been worthwhile even if only for the workshop sessions in the afternoon, but the morning started with the keynote speaker Lilian Katz, a woman who has spent her long career challenging educators to go beyond imposed curricula, to uncover the innate brilliance in young children. A woman who has inspired everyone that I look up to in education. I regret that I didn't realize how influential she is until now, when I began to connect the dots. I remember having read her work quoted in many articles and books in the last few years, during my first two Kindergarten AQ courses, in blogs of educators I follow. 

Arguing against the idea of teachers (or schools) deciding the content of what is important for our students to learn, she invited us to consider that our job is to help children to "make better, fuller, deeper, more accurate sense of their own experience and environment". Another way she described it was like this: "strengthen their innate nosiness". I like that. Children are curious about how things work, why they are the way they are, what effect their actions have on the people around them. Emergent curriculum, or to use Lilian's preferred term, the project approach, allows children to deeply explore what is in their environment, what they may interact with, and what matters to them. My main take-away from her talk was a new way to look at the power of children's innate ability to learn. She described a child who had made a new discovery but didn't know exactly how to record what they just found out: "Show me how to write this!" he said. He, like all students immersed in deeply satisfying play, "learned the academic skills in service of his interests".

A child's science experiment at home: S drew the materials (a snowball put into the freezer at home), wrote "What happens?" and brought to school to share.
Another reason to anticipate attending the conference was that I knew I would have a chance to re-connect with many colleagues I hadn't seen for some time, and also to meet several people from my online PLN (personal learning network). Through twitter and Pinterest I have been able to connect with like-minded professionals around Ontario, and the world over. Indeed, many of us were live-tweeting the keynote highlights as Lilian's words challenged our thinking or resonated with deeply-held conviction about project work. Naturally, I began to look around the room: who had their devices open? Who was on twitter? Over the day I was able to put faces to names and even wound up with hugs. A shout out to those I was happy to finally meet: Nancy @World_of_k, Tracy @TracyPick, Joanne @joanne_babalis  (whose workshop was wonderful!). I was able to introduce friends to my wonderful AQ instructors (Kindy parts 2 and 3) who were presenting a workshop down a few doors from the engaging instructors who'd taught me Kindy part 1 nearly four years ago. All these people whose inspiration and support allowed me to feel free to take risks, to try to do things differently, in order to make room for project-based learning to take over most of my program.

I continue to mull over the ideas I heard, the challenges put forth, and the notes I took. The rest of the day was another post in itself, with workshops lead by Dr. Carol Anne Wein and Joanne Babalis, and with three of us newly met twitter friends framing our teaching approach in a new way, as inspired by what we'd heard that day: a new 3R's for emergent curriculum. But that is another story.