Saturday, 16 August 2014

musings on what really matters, from a valued friend

I don't wish to take much space here because the beauty of Tessa's post is perfect in its entirety. I do, however, want to share how it came to be I was able to bring this unique voice here. There are many people with whom I've made a connection online (through #ReggioPLC twitter chats or spontaneous conversations) that goes beyond "twitter follower/PLN". There is something about the way we share a view of children (as infinitely capable, curious, fascinating) and teaching (as a wondrous journey, forever deepening and growing out into our lives) that creates real friends through the ether. So naturally, when there is a chance to meet these inspirations in "real life", I jump at it. Tessa and Holly came to Toronto for an Ontario Reggio Association conference in the spring, and though I was unable to attend I was not going to let the chance to break bread go by. We wound up having quite the emergent curriculum model walking tour of downtown Toronto (that was my fault, imagine a toddler taking you for a tour: smells, sights, sounds all stop me in my tracks constantly). When we finally sat down for a cuppa, I felt like these two wonderful educators were long-lost friends. It was an interesting coincidence that Tessa sent me her draft during the week of the second annual "Reggio-inspired Summer Intensive" course where many of us thought about the #ReggioPLC voices we were missing, such as Tessa, Tracy, Nancy, and many others. Teaching through the lens of joy, discovery, curiosity and possibility does make life and friendship seem so rich. 
What follows is Tessa's story, with all photos by Tessa or Holly.

A Teaching Partner Forever Changes You

I was thrilled when Laurel asked me to write a post for her blog...ten months ago!  In true Laurel fashion, she gave me complete free reign over what to write and I mulled over a variety of topics as I worked my way through my first year in Full Day Kindergarten.  After the year was finished, I thought it would be the perfect chance to share some of our learning.  But as I wrote what I thought was going to be an overview, one element continued to stand out:  the educator team in FDK.  Within everything I wrote emerged the experience of working, collaborating, and dreaming with a teaching partner and so here I share with you our journey.

Words could never fully capture the impact of teaching alongside a partner and, more specifically, with Holly Diljee.  Let’s be honest here - there is a period of time before beginning the journey with a teaching partner of extreme trepidation.  Will my partner be okay with my spontaneous nature and habit of making regular changes to plans throughout the day?  Will I feel like a fool doing my typical singing/dancing routines in front of another adult?  Will our philosophies be similar?  What if we disagree about things?  How will we know who does what throughout the day?  But all of this trepidation is now a distant memory.

Holly reading a story outdoors.

Planning & Creating Our Environment Together

I knew things would be amazing in the first email I received from Holly.  I was fairly certain we would be a great match.  And then we began working together and I felt beyond fortunate that our paths had met up.  I think the first time I realized what an impact Holly was going to have on my teaching was when we sat down together to plan out our room.  She had such innovative ideas and considered elements that I had not thought of before.  She suggested that we put our dramatic play centre in the middle of the room to act as a divider and, through conversation, we realized it also sent a very strong message about what we valued in our classroom.  I wanted our couch to be within eyeshot when entering the room to send a welcoming message and she suggested that it be placed within steps of the doorway.  Our conversations began to open up a whole world of “why nots” and “I wonder ifs” and “wouldn’t it be great if we”.  In fact, just the other day I texted Holly to tell her I was getting my hands on a beautiful tea service set thinking strictly about using it with water.  She immediately responded with excitement about a provocation with various bags of tea and, like that, the idea grew.

photo 4.JPG

After initially setting up our environment or adding, changing and adapting our space, we always step back and watch.  Are there challenges within our design once the children are in the space?  If we see something that isn’t working, we first adapt the environment before thinking about the “behaviour” piece.  For example, when we first set up our couch, there was a ledge along the back.  Children were standing on the ledge and somersaulting over top.  While this is excellent gross motor exploration (!), it became a huge safety issue which is our priority.  We hypothesized that if we were to set something along the ledge that was beautiful and required care and gentleness, that the couch would become a place for quiet and calm again.  We set boards along the back of the couch and placed potted plants on the boards.  Without repeatedly discussing flipping over the couch, a small change in the environment redirected the children.  Of course, there are many times where discussion (reciprocal discussion) is needed but we try, where possible, to begin by making changes within the environment.

photo 5(1).JPG

photo 1.JPG

Rich Reflection as a Team
I think the element that stands out most about our relationship is the deep level of reflection that comes throughout the day.  We talk about student interests, extensions to provocations, fairness of expectations, changes to scheduling, adaptations to environment, level of engagement, rich questioning, effective documentation, children’s individual needs, curriculum connections, small group focuses, developmentally appropriateness,  embedded assessment - the list could go on and on.  We are often asked when we find the time to talk.  Early in the year, we had a huge piece of chart paper where we could each write down emerging interests we noticed and ideas for materials or next steps.  It is certainly true - there is never enough time in the day to fit in all of the richness of conversation.  Unless engaged in exploration/documentation/conversation with a child or group of children, we talk throughout the whole day.  Sometimes it is a quick flash of a photo on the iPad from across the room.  Often it is a pointing at a group of children engaged in an activity or a quick “Did you see what so-and-so was up to over there?” with a knowing smile.  Regularly we reflect on next steps/materials for a provocation or centre.  Many times it’s a quick stop to list off things such as “patterning, measurement, sorting, positional language” as one of us documents children building at the block centre.  And when we run out of time during the day, we Tweet photos or thoughts back and forth when there is time at night.  

A Joint Philosophy
I’m going to be honest and say that we simply lucked out when it came to similar philosophies.  We both are huge proponents of open-ended materials and activities, uncovering the curriculum through play, emergent learning, a natural and warm environment, choice, supporting and promoting self-regulation, building relationships and teaching skills as opposed to discipline, and making developmentally appropriate decisions.  These goals allow us to constantly focus on the ‘why’ behind our decisions.  If a school-wide activity comes up, we make a decision about participation based on our philosophy.  If we are considering a provocation or activity, we think about how it fits or does not fit with our programming.  If children are taking part in an “outside of the box” exploration, we generally ask ourselves two questions:  1. Are the children being safe?  2.  Are the materials being respected?  This can lead to water on the floor and sand in the dramatic play centre which can also lead to creativity, imaginative play, ownership of materials, and responsibility in tidying.  
It can also lead us to make adaptations in the classroom such as realizing more materials were needed at the dramatic play centre to bake with and making a batch of playdough/cloud dough.  We also took time to write up our philosophy to be shared with supply teachers.  We wanted to ensure that we were explicit about our thinking to allow for comfort for guest teachers and to ensure that children were able to explore and investigate in a similar way to when we were in the classroom to ease the change.  We have discussed writing up a formal philosophy to display to make our thinking visible in the classroom.  That’s not to say that we don’t discuss ideas from different perspectives.  There are times when we share an idea and say “What do you think?” and we have a conversation rooted in our philosophy that helps us to make a choice.  No decision is ever made solely by one of us.  We are a team.  

photo 2.JPG 

 photo 1.JPG

photo 4.JPG

Intentional and Thoughtful Programming

    As we make decisions about our programming and schedule, we always try to bring ourselves back to our philosophy.  If we believe x, they we are demonstrating it by y.  

If we believe self-regulation should be a huge focus, then we need to provide choice and opportunities for children to self-regulate.  We decided very early on that we would invite children to choose when they would have their snack.  We designated a snack table where children could freeflow from discovery centres to snack and back to discovery centres.  Early in the year we heard children saying “I’m hungry” and we assisted in co-regulating by making suggestions.  It was amazing how quickly the children moved to simply going to get their snack when they needed it.  Children in our room are able to eat throughout the day whenever they choose.  I think of myself and how it is impossible for me to concentrate or be emotionally in control when I am hungry so this is pivotal for our 3, 4, and 5 year olds.

photo 4.JPG

    If we believe that children are competent and capable, then we need to provide materials that demonstrate this belief as well as a great deal of time for self and guided exploration.  We have many glass materials in the classroom and have discussions about how we take care of such materials.  We have steered away from commercial and plastic materials in favour of more natural and open-ended things.  The result of this seemingly simple change has been astounding.  We are continually amazed by the level of creativity and imagination with these rich,
open-ended materials and I can confidently say having used predominantly bright, colourful, “made-for-kids” resources for years that materials play a huge part.

photo 5.JPG

    If we believe that children are capable of driving their own learning, we need to provide choice attached to the interests we see demonstrated.  Throughout the year, children had many choices about joining one of two inquiry groups or discovering independently.  Often we have one group outside and one inside and children are invited to choose.  On Fridays, we team up with our other kindergarten classroom and one room hosts a more quiet, low-key activity (yoga, educational video, etc.) while the other opens their centres and children make choices based on how they are feeling.  We offer choice of where to sit at all times including during story time where some children choose to sit on the couch, others on stools, and many on the floor.  All of these choices play a huge part in building self-regulation skills.

(One of our inquiry groups that children could choose to take part in)

photo 1.JPG
(A group who chose to explore outdoors)
A small group worked to write the kinds of paint we needed to order.

    If we believe that all children are on their own journey, then teaching explicit skills should meet each child where they are.  Our kindergarten curriculum leader began to focus on the topic of small groups and after hearing the message MANY times, I finally had an ‘a-ha!’ moment as I looked around to see a child who was already reading and a child who did not yet know the difference between letters and numbers sitting for the same learning activity.  This was a huge moment of change in programming for me.  Holly and I take turns leading small groups within math and literacy instruction.  Our theory around this (particularly in the area of math) became if we explicitly teach a skill (e.g. sorting by categories) and purposefully put materials out (a variety of loose parts mixed together in the sand table with bowls) to support this exploration, we should see the language/skills emerging with in play more often.  We were amazed by the amount of embedded assessment we were able to do during discovery centres based solely on some explicit teaching and being intentional with materials.

photo 2.JPG
(A child investigates our loose parts table)

Multiple Perspectives in Documentation
Documentation with a partner was probably the piece that I was most excited about moving into Full Day Kindergarten.  I was not disappointed!  Holly has the most incredible knack for capturing not only a gorgeous photo but at the precise moment of discovery.  She has shared many of her tips with me along the way.  It is the most beautiful thing to be working in two different groups and being able to come together afterwards to see what the other group had been exploring through documentation.  It also allows us to make suggestions to each other about next steps within a group project.  
Sometimes one of us will focus on taking photos while the other writes down direct quotes from children so that the two can be put together.  I’ll never forget the moment when we discovered we had been documenting the same exploration but from two different angles richly capturing the investigation.  Holly regularly emails me photos/learning stories that I post directly on our class blog.  We are eager to be able to root ourselves more deeply into analysis of documentation next year and hope to invite parents to a few documentation evenings to share with them, too.  

Holly captures a magical moment of discovery (photos above and below)

photo 3.JPG

Relationships Rather Than Management
I think the biggest impact that working with Holly has had on me is around the way she talks to children.  It is absolutely remarkable.  Let’s just clarify something here - I have never been a yeller or a drill-sergeant.  But for the first month of school, I found myself stepping back in awe and watching Holly work through challenging situations with the most patience I had ever seen.  Then, I began implementing her strategies when I was supporting challenges.  
The first thing I noticed was the amount of time she would wait.  With two educators, problems no longer needed to be solved immediately.  Think about it - when, as adults, do we ever solve a problem within a five minute span?  Often we walk away, cool down, think about it, come back, and discuss.  So why should children not be given the same opportunities?  Is this not what supports developing self-regulation?  
One day, I asked her how she knew how long to wait.  She shared that she was watching the child’s body for cues and when he began to slow himself down and appeared calm, then she began to talk.  I sheepishly thought back to previous days where I was following the child around talking at him and wondering why he wasn’t listening!  She said she always mirrored his feelings first and then came up with a solution.  
As the year went on, I think at some points we both wondered if those observing us felt like we were ignoring challenges.  But we had discovered that by giving time where needed, both the child and ourselves were in a better space to discuss next steps instead of trying to talk about things in the heat of the moment.  
    Working with a partner has made me much more reflective about my practice and much more aware of my own areas for learning.

Collaborative Reporting and Parent Communication

photo 2(4).JPG

I will admit (to boos and tomato throwing from some!!) that I am one of those people who does not mind writing report cards.  I see it as an additional chance to give parents a glimpse into their child’s world highlighting their learning along the way.  But writing with a partner has made me love reporting.  Two sets of observations, two sets of photos, two sets of learning stories, two sets of views of a child’s interests, and two sets of ideas for next steps.  It doesn’t get richer than that!  
Holly has a real strength in capturing the essence of a child both in reporting and at parent conferences.  She thinks outside of the box when it comes to skills.  I remember struggling to report on the fine motor skills of a child and, after a moment, she began to rhyme off things such as “Well, he does his zipper up with no problem, he attaches small Lego pieces together, he manipulated Pokemon cards with no challenges, he opens his lunch containers with ease”.  I had been so stuck in trying to assess from the perspective of writing or drawing that I had completely missed the many other ways this child was demonstrating his fine motor skills.  Working with a partner is full of ‘a-ha’ moments such as those.

    We’ve also had families with questions about the value in play-based and emergent learning.  Being able to discuss as a team a response rooted in our philosophy, the Ontario curriculum, and direction from our board along with what we know about what is developmentally appropriate adds so much richness to discussions.  These conversations also drive us to think more critically about our practice.  Do we need to be more explicit on our blog or in our parent conferences about the learning taking place?  Would it be beneficial to have a parent night where we have more a formal conversation about play-based learning and our philosophy?  These discussions drive us to want to refine our practice and point to areas where we may need to spend more time reflecting about how to adequately share the incredible learning taking place within our walls each day.

    So many teachers talk about that feeling of isolation within the classroom and while I think this is improving with collaboration, team teaching, and social media, the feeling still exists.  Teaching alongside a partner removes that feeling entirely but it takes a willingness to be vulnerable in acknowledging your areas of need and being completely open to the knowledge and expertise of a partner.

It’s that encouraging look across the classroom or chat after a moment with a child who is struggling.  It’s knowing that there is someone to offer advice prior to a difficult conversation with a parent.  It’s the utter joy in observing moments of rich and meaningful learning and the celebration that comes along with it as a team.  And it’s the the beauty, if you’re so lucky, of dreaming of big possibilities for another year together.

*Note: Please note that Tessa and Holly will be able to see and respond to comments to this post here.


  1. Truly inspirational post Tessa! I am a FDK teacher in Barrie who had a true partnership with my DECE this year. It was truly wonderful! Our roles were interchangeable even going as far as co-authoring our classroom blog. I can't wait for another wonderful year together. I consider myself truly blessed to have such a fabulous teaching partner.

    1. Hi Shelley!

      Thanks for taking the time to read and for sharing your lovely words. I am so happy to hear about your wonderful partnership. Co-authoring your blog would give such voice to your collaboration. How do you go about doing that?

      All the best on this year's journey!
      Tessa :)

  2. Hi Tessa! I had set up my class blog the prior year. Because of the wonderful, trusting relationship we have, I simply gave my partner my password and then depending on who has time/documentation to share, one of us will post an entry to the blog. It works really well and takes some of the pressure off me!
    Wishing you a wonderful journey this year also and will watch for your posts on Twitter!