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.

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