Sunday, 23 June 2013

We can see... the end of an amazing year!

As we come to the end of this year, my first year at my new school, I can not help but look back in awe at how much we have accomplished in a short ten months. My classroom became a home, and my students became a caring community. Students who were nervous to try new things blossomed into true risk-takers, often teaching newly-learned skills to their peers. A student who was silent at school for nearly two years found his voice, to the delight of his classmates (and his teacher!!!) with some truly fantastic support from his family. I include myself in that group: my professional annual learning goals including becoming more connected with teachers, students families', and with the greater school community. I can't help but smile as the last of our wonderful Kindergarten team here at Thornwood joined twitter and immediately saw the power of the amazing PLN (professional learning network) to share ideas and further our professional learning conversations. This blog, started back in the busy winter when I was finishing my K Specialist AQ and still sporting a cast on my broken wrist, has taken me deeper than I thought possible into reflecting upon my practice and the learning taking place in our class.

But I think the thing that changed me and my classes most of all, the thing that makes this year so different from the eight wonderful years of Kindergarten in my former school, is what happened when our class joined the "We Can See" project blog back in the fall. I discussed this back in an earlier post "We can share our stories" talking about how quickly students began to write for an audience of their peers. Even earlier in the year, two PM class girls sparked a counting project when they shared with me how they could count to ten in their home languages: Mandarin and Farsi respectively. This led me to record them counting, share with both classes, and start a "We Can Count!" Voicethread book (click to play) project. This book grew over the year and, in fact, a new student recently joined us from Japan, and he has agreed to join the book during this, the last week of school! This project well demonstrates how these students have a well-developed sense of identity and self-image (see the #1 expectations, below). Not long after starting this book, I learned about the "We Can See" project blog, and I knew it was a logical extension for my students who already knew that their words and images had an audience in the school and at home (through my class site links). I was right: the project was hit!
Not only do students understand that their works are being seen by peers and other followers, such as parents and Kindergarten teachers in Ontario and beyond, they also enjoy writing back to their far-away friends about the projects they see on the blog or on twitter. Together we have learned about different types of responses, and as such students offer a comment, a connection, or ask a question of their friends in other Kindergarten classes. Social media is such a prominent part of our lives, so it makes perfect sense to introduce students to responsible internet use (netiquette) while also meeting several of the expectations from the Personal and Social area of The Full-Day Early Learning–Kindergarten Program.

As children progress through the Full-Day Early Learning–Kindergarten program, they:

(Overall Expectation 1): demonstrate a sense of identity and a positive self-image
1.1 recognize personal interests, strengths, and accomplishments 
1.2 identify and talk about their own interests and preferences
1.3 express their thoughts (e.g., on a science discovery, on something they have made) and share experiences (e.g., experiences at home, cultural experiences) 
(Overall Expectation 3): demonstrate a beginning understanding of the diversity in individuals, families, schools, and the wider community
3.3 talk about events or retell stories that reflect their own heritage and cultural background and the heritage and cultural backgrounds of others (e.g., traditions, birthdays, cultural events, myths, Canadian symbols, holidays)

Full-Day Early Learning - Kindergarten Program (draft) pp. 58 - 62)

Back when I wrote that post "We can share our stories", I had begun by lamenting the fact that students weren't yet interested in making their own personal "I can see" stories. This is no longer true, as my Peel site now has a nice long list of Voicethread books for families to see and enjoy at home. My students are used to me taking two types of photos or videos: firstly, those that may be used within the class, which may include names, faces, and identifying features of those in the photos; secondly, those which exclude all identifying features so that they may be shared with twitter followers, our classroom site, my blog, or other forms of social media. Students are well-versed in my safety protocols and even remind me when I'm taking video clips to be careful around showing names on artwork. It has lead to some interesting conversations, then, when we see students in other classes creating their own personal "I Can See" books with very personal details included. I loved how they noticed these details and so we talked about the fact that in those particular cases, the teacher wasn't making a decision to break the rules. We read the "fine print" in those posts, and in those cases the teachers thanked the families for taking part in the project and allowing for their personal photos to be used. This lead to a conversation about "informed consent". Big ideas for young students, indeed.

Photo shared by Tijana's family.
It is with great pride, then, that I share my first such project with you. Tijana is a "butterfly" (or SK) in the AM class (JK students are "caterpillars" in my class). This means she is soon leaving Kindergarten. She is an artistic student who often shares her art work with us, asking me to take a video while she describes her creation, or sings a song for her class at share time. When she took a trip with her family to Florida during the first week of June, I asked her family if they would share any photos they took while away. They agreed, and sent me a link to the set of photos online. That same week, Ms. Schmidt's and Ms. Theis' Kindergarten class posted a new book on the shared blog, this time a book created by Taha in their class to share his trip to Egypt.  After our class read the blog and I scribbled down the many responses to his book, I mused how wonderful it would be if Tijana were able to create a book like that, too. Note: scroll down to the comments to see what my students had to say. The next day at school, Tijana showed the trip photos as a slideshow to her classmates, using the long pointer to point out interesting details from her trip. She did a wonderful job retelling her exciting days spent with her family. Then, with her parents' written permission, we set about creating her own "We Can See" book to share with our larger Kindergarten community and families. She and I worked together, a bit each day, to select photos, type messages, and record her story (link provided below). We didn't work every day, because of exciting interruptions such as outdoor play day, walks to the park, or days when I worked closely with other ongoing project groups such as our snail garden inquiry. I am very proud of her work and of all my students for the amazing growth they've shown this year. Butterflies, you are ready to spread your wings and fly off to grade one.

I want to say some important thank you's: thank you to Tijana and her family for agreeing to work with me in this way, and thank you to the families of all my wonderful students who signed the media release and my special Voicethread request form, and who share the books we make with family and friends around the world. Thank you to the wonderful administrative team at my new school who not only support my experimentation with social media, but who ask me to share my successes with others at school. Thank you to my fabulous, hard-working, always collaborative Kindergarten team at Thornwood, especially for all jumping in headlong into twitter with me. Water's fine! Thank you to Joanne Babalis for creating the "We Can See" project blog, and to Angie Harrison whose class project inspired Joanne to do so. You have all made this year incredibly special, one I surely will never forget. 

Thank you, reader, for reading along. Now please enjoy Tijana's book: "We Can See... Florida!" (click to open).

Note: If you try to open on a mobile device you may receive a pop-up request to download the Voicethread app. This isn't necessary, as you can view it through the web version (any browser will do). Try copying and pasting this link if the first option doesn't work for you:

Saturday, 8 June 2013

loosely told stories

Invitation to play. What would you like to make today?

Today I take a break from reflecting upon individual students for reporting to revisit the story I began in the last post: loose parts exploration in my classroom. While loose parts play is difficult to categorize because it allows players to imagine endless scenarios and enjoy a tactile experience, there are rather different directions that this play can take. In part one, I looked at the play that evolved when I brought buckets of water-softened beach stones, driftwood, and bricks, and also shared a beautiful provocation in the form of photos of stone balance structures created by Peter Reidel. Those stone and wood stacks still grow, tumble, and grow anew in the class. The same materials also spill onto the carpet and onto nearby tables, with jumbles of fancy fabric samples and empty frames, and bowls of stones, glass gems, seeds, acorn caps and other purchased and found treasures.


This week I looked over my hundreds of photos and video clips and felt such delight. Hundreds of images, because once students know you have a capture device, you are always on call: "Come, take a picture of my pattern!" or "Can I make a video to share?", "Can we show this to Ms. Croft's class?".
All around me, students using the language of design: "I used light ones and dark ones in my spiral", "These lines are bumpy, but these ones are straight", "We made a mandala out of stones and jewels", "I made a pattern. These are bricks, these are stones, acorns, and the shells of the snails".

Creations made in the classroom and in our nearby park.

Loose parts are a natural part of the classroom from the beginning of the year, involving much more than artistic or aesthetic exploration. Building structures for small world play, forts to play in, and ramps and mazes, all take place with loose materials such as large wooden blocks and slabs, tree slices, cardboard tubes, and found objects. Adding the little items such as glass gems and shells came slowly over the year, such as when I made my own little light box in the fall. Students enjoyed the light and shadow play, but it wasn't until I began to share images made by "land artists" that I saw the change happen, like it did last year in response to the same provocation. Sharing a selection of Andy Goldsworthy's other-worldy ephemeral art resulted in silence, and then applause. I recommend trying it with your students - many artists experiment and even excel at land art, but there are none in the world like Goldsworthy for sheer wonder. An excerpt (click to play) from "Rivers and Tides, or a slideshow (click to play) of images of his works from over the years would be a nice start. Another inspiring artist to share with beautiful examples of both stacks and mandalas can be found here.


One way to provoke an interesting conversation about what makes art, and what students think about a  style of art, is to use the images in a daily sign-in question. For one week, I had students choose between styles of art they might like to try ("Would you like to try to balance stones or make a design?") or which materials they would like to try ("Would you rather use stones/glass gems/pine cones?") or respond to an artist's work ("Which one of these pictures inspires you to try your own?").

Students mixing materials, and also mixing up their choice of playmates. New voices heard in creative area.
I've come to notice how loose parts art have changed the social dynamics in the room in several subtle ways. My "creative area" (the only name I could come up with for the spot in my room with sinks, paint racks, craft and writing supplies, play dough, and natural light from the windows) was often visited by students who enjoyed creating works of art: paintings, little books, clay sculptures, leaf rubbings. Yes, clipboards were taken elsewhere for drawing or writing, but unless I set out new provocations such as vegetables for stamping with or made ice-pop paints with students, many children opted out of visiting this area. Sharing land art images and providing many natural  or open-ended materials lead to artistic exploration taking over the room: light table spirals, stacks on one carpet, structures on the other, flowers and people and other representational art made in frames on tables.

Another change in dynamic is the change from individual focus on product (making a painting to take home or hang up in class gallery) to process, often involving several students. There is something almost magical about walking around the room, no longer hearing: "He got brown paint on my painting!" or "I need that colour, hurry up!". No more worrying about the direction to take or fretting over the finished product. The students have no "finished" product to take home, but what they have gained in awareness about art and about themselves is immeasurable.

Loose parts art invites collaboration and problem-solving. Sometimes it looks like several students working on their own little pieces in frames but sharing bowls of materials, chatting about their designs, offering each other new parts to add or asking for someone to pass them another item. Perhaps it is because I have been collecting so many materials to use, or perhaps it is the sheer pleasure gleaned from playing with beautiful, tactile materials, but I rarely see arguing over materials even in such close quarters as the table below.

A group of morning friends share materials and space, chatting about their choices and designs.
Sometimes it looks like one child beginning a small pattern and then, slowly or all at once, being joined by several more students bringing more materials. Time after time I have watched students enter into a process already begun, adding their ideas, sometimes knocking things over, sometimes changing the story or design quite radically. What amazes me is how this happens quite organically, with no arguing when a balance stack is accidentally knocked over, and such rich talk amongst the collaborators. The other aspect of this collaboration that delights me is the stamina the children display. I am not entirely certain if this is possible simply because students have developed self-regulation by this time of year, but to see a child or a group work hard and maintain focus for close to an hour, in a busy, noisy room? It is truly a marvel to behold.

Here are some examples of that magic at work.

Here are some of the students' creations as captured, by request, in 6-second vine clips.
Note: links will open in a new window, on desktop computer. On mobile device it may open in browser or in vine app if you have it installed. Sound will be off, click on the speaker icon to listen.

The bridge over the dangerous river

"This is our mandala for our birthday friend" made by the AM class for M on her day.

 The big reveal!

T's beautiful frame design

Another collaborative project begins