Wednesday, 22 August 2018

collaborative post: mapping our stories of place in clay

So much learning just beyond the arrow.

A view of Swan Lake from the hill.

This year, as I have for the last three years, I attended the incredible, difficult-to-describe week of shared learning known as "The Rhythm of Learning in Nature". I say difficult to describe because ostensibly it is professional development, but it is hard to summarize the fullness of experience and knowledge that is shared among educators for whom Malaguzzi's "Nothing without joy" is part of their theory of learning. It has been made richer for me by the inclusion of my daughter in the forest school running alongside our educator experience; spending time with her and the other children in the meadow allowed me to revel in the powerful connections children make with a place when they have long, unhurried days to explore in it. Last year our group, including the forest school, were fortunate to witness the slow, fascinating metamorphic transformation of a newly above-ground cicada as it rooted into a tree and proceeded to emerge from its hard carapace. It became a symbol for many of us of how this week together changes us, allows us to break free of the "no, but" chains we bring to our teaching in our various contexts. This year was different for me, in that my daughter was now too old for the forest school site (and indeed her dear friends from the last years were likewise not returning) and as such I was making the trek to Swan Lake alone every day. I was happy, however, in that a truly inspiring friend who I had met through my volunteering with the YRNC was able to join us this year for the full week: Tanya Murray's handle on twitter is "Inspire Outside" and it is an apt choice. From day 1, I was excited for the learning and friendships that would grow in the process.

Tanya's sketchnotes are an example of the many gifts she shared with those of us at Rhythm this week. 

Tanya's overview sketch notes of our incredible week at Rhythm 2018. Photo by Tanya.

Delight: a good way to sum up our interactions with Tanya (right) and Juliet Roberstson (holding her first sketchnote after a tutorial by Tanya). Photo by Tanya.

Day 3: Tanya's pic, looking deeply at some mathemagic happening this day.

This map at the Swan Lake/TRCA nature centre fascinated me, as someone who loves riverways and watersheds. It also drove home how far I was from my daughter who'd always attended this week with me. Swan Lake is just a stone's throw away from Lake St. George, another other the kettle lakes (seen here top-middle of the coloured land on map.) Home is at the bottom of the Etobicoke Creek Watershed, near the shore of Lake Ontario. A different landscape inhabited by different flora and fauna: Swan Lake woods ring with the songs of the pewee, phoebes, indigo buntings and blue jays. I received occasional texts from my kids, showing me rabbits and raccoons, and views of the lake from various parks. I missed them but was happy to be connected from afar by our love of the outdoors.

The week at Rhythm continued to enrich my learning about learning, even though I was missing the opportunity to enjoy it alongside my daughter. Every year there are familiar faces that I honestly look forward to seeing all year, and also new people who may be strangers or often are friends through social media but never met. One of those new friends this year is Donna Indrakumaran, a Kindergarten educator I'd never met but knew through twitter. We discovered that though we work for different boards in the Peel region, we actually teach quite close to another in central Mississauga, with her teaching at Sts. Peter & Paul Separate School just a few minutes northeast of me at Fairview PS. Over the week I came to treasure Donna's outlook on teaching and learning alongside our children. One feature of the Rhythm that stands out is that we have a final day away from Swan Lake in which to share what we've learned with a wider outdoor-enthused audience. This Saturday conference is held at the beautiful Kortright Conservation Centre, and our main facilitator for the week becomes the keynote, while facilitators and attendees host smaller workshops. Juliet Robertson shared the same uplifting and mind-shifting stories at her keynote that had led us in playful discovery all week.

For our workshop, four of us combined passions and put together "Mapping Nature Connections" which included a favourite story (Mattland), simple core routines for getting to know and appreciate the place you inhabit (including sit spots), recreating our space by using clay artifacts to map, and looking at examples of work from the children in the forest school program in the meadow above Swan Lake. The workshop was given structure and meaning by Tanya whose work supporting educators of all grades in outdoor pedagogy inspired us all.

The green oasis of Kortright's mostly maple-beech forest provided the perfect place for us to wonder about making place meaningful. Pictured top right and middle: Dominique reading Mattland. Bottom left: Donna's documentation and samples from the children's work at Rhythm. Right: Donna (centre) talking about the clay experience. Not pictured: Tanya, on my side of the circle.


Donna's documentation captured the deep engagement of the school so beautifully, I asked her if she would like to share it here. Please enjoy her story, and feel free to leave comments for her here on the post, or direct to her twitter. Note: this documentation was also shared by Diane Kashin, the chair of the YRNC who makes this incredible PD experience possible. To see her post about Rhythm 2018 see here.

Donna's Story

When coming to Rhythm 2018, I expected to receive PD around Outdoor Education.  What I did not expect was a spiritual experience, igniting a spark which has been smoldering for some time.  Rhythm brings together people, pedagogy and place at Swan Lake in a transformational way - you will not leave the same as you arrived.  Through conversations, reflections, active learning, sharing of food, and sharing of personal experience Rhythm attendees came together. 

Two of my children joined, playing at the Swan Lake Forest School.    Each day they would share through conversations about their play, often telling me of mushrooms and frogs.  They climbed trees and made paintings with mud.  They quickly formed a connection with the forest,  telling me about their hikes each day, and each new creature they found.  They learned to rub plaintain on their insect bites, and lit fires after gathering wood.  The land around them was enough. 

The documentation that follows was taken on a Thursday, after the children had been at the Forest camp for four days.  I had met the children a few times before sitting down to play and document their learning.  The documentation is a sample - a window into the children’s thinking.  Although brief, the children’s connection to place is evident in their clay representations of the forest at Swan Lake.

This documentation was shared with educators at the I am a teacher - get me outside! Conference held by the York Region Nature Collaborative at Kortright during a workshop in collaboration with Laurel, Tanya Murray and Dominique Leger.

Documentation by Donna Indrakumaran

Documentation by Donna Indrakumaran
Documentation by Donna Indrakumaran

Documentation by Donna Indrakumaran

Documentation by Donna Indrakumaran

Laurel here:

We would love to hear from participants at Rhythm 2018 and/or at the "I'm a teacher, get me outside!" conference. Please feel free to comment here, or wherever this post is shared (please tag participants if on social media). Thank you to my collaborators for such an incredible week!

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

a gift on a string

One of the first photos I took at Fairview PS, my new school. The possibilities of this beautiful space, with its natural climbers and magnificent willow tree, made me excited for the new year to come.

It's been a long while since I've sat down to write in depth about my teaching and learning in Kindergarten. This past year was filled with new challenges and new opportunities as it was my first year at Fairview Public School. I must acknowledge that although the year brought many challenges (including the largest class I've taught to date, at 33 students by spring), I feel like I won the lottery in terms of my amazing teaching partner, Katie. I plan to introduce her here, some time soon. Today, though, I was thinking about the year we had together with our wonderful students and families, and trying to distill what it was that made it such a rich learning experience overall. In part it was the warm welcome from the families; being an outdoor and inquiry-focused educator requires some early outreach (documentation, back up with research in the form of articles and the Kindergarten document) to allay fears around risks, discomfort with being wet or dirty, plus concerns about the academic value of such learning. In late fall we invited our families to join us for a community walk through our beautiful neighbouring park. This turned out to be such a popular and successful experience, in which our students highlighted just how much they knew about their living environment, that it turned into a highly-anticipated monthly event for the rest of the year. This, too, deserves its own post. For now, when I try to distill the biggest overall impact of the outdoors, I know that much learning occurred over the year by individual student passion projects and small group inquiries. Larger studies were documented and shared with the whole class such that every student had a story sometime in the year in our bird or tree inquiry documentation books, for example. But to choose a moment that touched the whole class, I have to think of times when emotions ran high and students were compelled to communicate their distress or amazement with the larger community. There were several such occasions over the year, all in response to something witnessed while outdoors. These moments happen every day, all around us. The magic is in the noticing, and that's the skill I work the hardest to instill.

A view of the school as seen from Kariya Park: just beyond our fence exists this magnificent oasis with ducks, turtles, many birds, beautiful ponds and gardens, all surrounded by walking paths. Part of what made leaving a school and team I loved was knowing my new class would have this wonderful place to explore.

Being in a new school meant learning the affordances of the outdoor space along with our students. New to me was a yard small enough to necessitate a plan for sharing with other classes. Due to our large classes and overall proportion of the school population (six classes of more than 30 students each), we were unable to use the school yard during e-breaks (2 40-minute periods) when the older grades were outside. This presented a welcome challenge: how could we maximize our outdoor time over the day? Before finding creative ways to extend our time in unused spaces, however, there was another new challenge for me. In order to have equitable access to the limited outdoor tools and equipment, the Kindergarten team had a structure in place to rotate classes each day through 4 distinct spaces around the yard: a hard-top area with wheeled toys, a fenced-in "pen" with balls, building toys and games, a playground structure with some shade provided by pines, and an area known as "the meadow" in which the log and stump remains of an enormous ash tree provided an inviting climber. My first thought upon learning we had to follow a schedule was along the lines of mutiny, but I was eager to make a good impression on my new team, and trusted my new partner's thoughts about how well it can work. Of course, she was right: the rotating schedule wound up providing opportunities to get to know each of these spaces intimately, and as such children began to make good predictions based on their knowledge of these mini-eco-zones. As in past years, our class participated in the #KindergartenBioBlitz weeks in fall, winter, and spring, helping to form a culture of looking closely and noticing nature in our class.

Larger inquiries emerged in response to what we noticed while outside in our different spaces:
  • the play of light and shadow (noticing evaporation differences in shade and sunlight, building shade structures, bending and bouncing light with reflective materials or the surface of water)
  • water movement as seen in rivers forming under gushing gutters, the sometimes dry creek bed in the park next door, rain and snow
  • balance and trajectory schema play in the meadow where the large logs and stumps provided various heights for climbing, throwing, stacking
  • bird inquiry around the different species we saw in different areas of the school ground (woodpeckers and jays in the pines by the playground, swallows zipping over the field, robins on the hardtop after rain, ducks and gulls wading in the puddles forming beside the field after rain or snowmelt, orioles by the park in spring, many species of songbirds visiting our window and tree feeders)
  • plant and tree identification, particularly in fall using fallen leaves, and in spring using the emerging flowers and leaves
  • gardening in our window boxes, transplanting to the front raised beds
  • insect and invertibrate behaviour 

Students drawing pillbugs we'd collected outdoors (in our "catch and release" glass house); this "looking closely at nature" area from the first day of school gave students a place to collect and observe interesting nature artifacts.

All this is preamble to share a very small moment in time: a gift that came to us on an invisible string. This beautiful day at the end of May, we headed out to the meadow lugging the "wonder wagon" (our cart with various tools for investigating and recording nature observations). Late in the fall we had adopted a tree in the meadow as our own; it was a newly-planted maple with slim trunk. It won out over other favourites, including the magnificent weeping willow that towers overhead. Each time we walked the path into this space, several students would run to greet their favourite tree in the space. This time, there was a gift awaiting us. It dangled, bobbing and twirling, on its invisible thread. A small, green caterpillar cradling a white ball of silk, dancing in the breeze as it hung from the willow tree.

The caterpillar swung from a swaying branch. We gathered in a circle to observe.

I managed to capture a tiny snippet of the action without also capturing student faces or identifying features. Instead of embedding I've included these videos as links below, to open in a separate window ( a friendlier format for those reading on various devices).

The caterpillar dances over our heads.

So many wonders arise as we observe this caterpillar overhead. NS: I hope it turns into a butterfly soon.” AK: I like butterflies, (they’re) so cute.”

What happened next surprised us all. Both teachers turned away for a moment, each of us to talk to different students. When we turned back, the caterpillar was gone. We looked all around, but saw only stunned faces, and a few hands pointing to where the caterpillar had been.
"What happened?" "Where is it?" asked those of us who'd looked away.
The answers tumbled out of several students all at once. As it turns out, a bird had swooped down and grabbed the thing right out of the air, flying away without stopping. I did my best to capture their explanations, and then because I was delighted by the turn of events but horrified that I'd missed it, I asked if any of them could draw a picture or diagram to show me how it happened. The clipboards and drawing materials were sorted out in a hurry. Students asked to tweet our friend and favourite "nature expert", Rob Ridley. This is the story, illustrated and described by the witnesses.

What truly shone in this moment was the intimate knowledge of our environment, and the communication skills of these different learners. Each picture captures important details of that split-second moment in time. By focusing on drawing, equally or perhaps even more than writing, our students became quite skilled at expressing events, opinions, desires, and other ideas. I should note that several students later added words to their initial drawings, from simple one-word labels to titles and short sentences describing the action. It is the drawing, however, that told us so much about what they noticed. This dramatic scene was over in the blink of an eye. What students chose to share, and how they expressed it, demonstrated some amazing creativity and knowledge of text conventions.

Paraphrased explanation: the "string" is blue because like water, it was invisible but can also look blue in drawings.
An extreme close-up detailed the size difference of the two creatures, as well as allowing room to add the pertinent detail R noticed about the caterpillar: faint lines along the body and the white ball of silk near its head.

"I drew a map of where the bird was going."

"The bird flew up and the caterpillar was spinning, spinning..."

AK (whose description is included in the collage above) was quite affected by witnessing the suprising event. The next day in class he suggested, "We should put something in the tree so everyone knows what the bird wants. The bird wants a caterpillar. I think the bird is hungry for the caterpillar. They have babies and they want to eat them and bring them to their nest."

Later, while holding a tiny beetle in his hand, AK remembered the event again, "I don't want it on my hand. The bird is going to get on my hand because he wants the bug."

This gift of a surprise turning into study is the best demonstration of a curiosity-driven curriculum I can think of. The thinking behind their illustrations, also the connections students made in order to identify the bird, and to why he swooped down like that... all tie into the importance of slowing down, noticing nature, and wondering together.

As I was writing, I paused to find more tweets from that day. I noticed a tweet from a friend who teaches older students, but none-the-less often inspires me in my own practice due to her use of an environmental education lens. This was exactly what I was writing about, without realizing what made that moment so illustrative of the year: it was the way children pulled their knowledge from our year together to make a whole story to share with our families and friends. The student who identified the bird as a red-winged blackbird, remembering details he'd learn in his many hours (overall) spent watching visitors to our window feeders and reading field guides. The student who used her knowledge of motion lines. The student who inspired others to use arrows to indicate "mapping". The student who surprised us with the unique perspective in the close-up drawing of the bird. The student who included herself and her friend in her picture, to describe how shocked they were as they witnessed the event, and also added the fluffy snowflake-like seeds of the cottonwood tree which blew over us later that same morning. These were seeds planted over the year of joyous curiosity in the outdoors. Thank you Emily for helping me see that.

If you wish, leave a comment about a moment that has left an impact on your class.