Thursday, June 16, 2016

Each One My Child: An Open Letter of Healing and Hope

I have spent much time these last two days grieving for a child not my own, for a family I don't even know. By now news of the tragedy from Disney World has spread across news outlets and social media. And although it has been one of the most upsetting situations in recent months, it's hard for me to not read the latest information as I try and make some sense of this horrible tragedy. In my online travels I've been touched by how complete strangers have reached out to one another to offer shared sympathy and support. On her blog Scary Mommy shared something today that absolutely brought me to tears. In her plea for parents to stop judging one another and instead follow a path of kindness and understanding she wrote:

"To the mother and father who went for a walk on vacation for the last time with their little boy yesterday, I am deeply sorry that you had to experience the worst kind of tragedy possible, an accident. I grieve with you. Your baby was my baby. Your son was my son. I have nothing but love for you, love to help you get though the pain yesterday, today, and for what is gonna seem like a thousand tomorrows. I wrap my thoughts and prayers around your aching heart and soul. May the God of this universe in some miraculous way bring peace to you and your family."

Scary Mommy summarized perfectly what I have been feeling in my heart. An unbearable pain for a child and family miles away. And although we do not know each other, I carry their anguish with me. You see, I am an educator of young children. And although those in my care are not biologically mine, they are like my own. I love and care for them and want the very best for them. So when there is a devastating event that affects the lives of young children, even those I do not know, it personally affects me because I cannot help but imagine how I would feel if it were one of my children or students. It causes me to hug my own children a little tighter, and smile a little brighter in the classroom.

         

My sorrow drives me to do what often brings me solitude and reflection; write. Writing is a way for me to share my passion for early childhood with others. It helps me reflect upon my practice and consider how I might continue to better myself while advocating for the lives and education of young children. And as I was at school today, looking around at the classroom and considering how the last few weeks of school might look as we enter the middle of June, I was drawn to the idea of crafting this blog post. First as a way of releasing the emotions I have held within for the last few days, but also as a way of sharing with my families just how much I appreciate being a part of your lives. When I decided to become an educator, I could not have anticipated just how much of an impact the little children in my care would have on me. They have shaped who I am as a person, educator, and mother.

So to my cherished families, please know this. Your child's time in my classroom might be a brief moment in a long and wonderful childhood but their impact on me will last a lifetime. I am a better person for those whom I have known, whom I have cared for, whom I have loved. And although I am always thrilled when your child has mastered basics like learning to write, read or add, I am most satisfied when I see the look of wonder in their eyes in our classroom. To experience the moment of pure joy a child feels when seeing a rainbow in the sky, hearing the song of their laughter when catching a hopping insect, or quietly witnessing them caring for another are my most rewarding moments. These might not always been captured in our documentation or shared beyond the classroom but they are what make my role as an early childhood educator so magical and satisfying.

When the last day of school arrives and the walls are cleared of artwork and the centres tidied of toys, there will be an empty sadness hanging in our classroom for me. Your children are my children. Just like you, I want the absolute best in life for them. Their happiness is my happiness; your family is my family.  When that final dismissal bell rings and the children are gone, I will stand in my empty classroom and sigh, satisfied knowing that I did the best I could for them in our time together, but sad that this time is now done. Summers are a much needed way to refresh and recharge (many of you have noticed my extremely hoarse voice...) but as soon as August nears I will look forward to readying the classroom for another interesting year - with it bringing a new group of children who will become my own.



Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Mindful Sketching in our Special Garden Spots

"Looking at beauty in the world
is the first step of purifying the mind."
Amit Ray

We have been spending much time this year helping children become mindful of their thoughts, emotions, and bodies. Through active engagement, reflection, and focus on the immediate moments of our time together, we hope that children realize that there is much potential for growth and learning when we engage truly with the present moment.

In our room children have much choice and control over their activities. They choose what areas of the room they'd like to visit, what materials they'd like to use, and the direction and scope of their individual and collective play. Educators serve in role as attuned facilitators carefully observing, supporting and scaffolding children's experiences.

A few times a week we ask children to participate in a whole group activity, usually focused on literacy. Our individual student clipboards are a versatile tool to use when we want to engage children in reflective writing/drawing outside of the classroom. Today we encouraged children to choose a drawing tool they enjoy and headed up to the rooftop garden.

There children were asked to carefully choose an area that captivated them and then quietly observe what they noticed for a few minutes. What did they wonder about the space? What did they think happened there before we arrived? After we left? Who lived there? We invited the children to sketch a drawing to show their interpretation and tell the story of their special garden spot.


It was amazing to see the children's quiet, careful attention to their drawings. Many chose to use pencil and the details of their artwork told a rich story. Some chose to work in solitude while a few others quietly whispered, sharing their drawings and pointing out other aspects of the garden to each other.  


They carefully noticed the details and highlighted what they liked about each other's drawings. We overheard very kind words and careful, constructive feedback as children offered suggestions to one another in order to help improve the drawing in some way. 



Many FDK teachers wonder about whole group activity time - is it appropriate and meaningful to ask all children to do the same thing and at the same time? Is a program still emergent and child-centred if children are asked to participate in teacher suggested activities like drawing in the garden? 


We consider ourselves advocates for child-guided play and exploration but feel there is also a time and place for adult initiated activities such as this. We have noticed that many children have been curious about the different plants growing in our school yard and predicted that they would find the ones growing upstairs just as interesting. We also know that many of the children spend much of their play time drawing so the activity would appeal to them. The actual act of drawing is very open ended and there are entry points for every child with this activity. The process is emphasized as being more important than the product and there isn't any wrong way of participating in the activity. For those few children who don't spend much time drawing this activity helps carve some time in our day where all children have opportunity and encouragement to do so. There are entry points for everyone.


In a few days we will revisit our garden spots and compare our drawing with a new moment in time. We wonder if the garden will have changed much since our last visit and how children will enhance their drawings in order to reflect this growth and change. We predict that like the vegetation, our children will also experience growth and development each time we revisit this type of experience together. Perhaps next fall we will start this process even earlier in the year so that children can visit the same garden spot over and over again and witness the full cycle of life with the changing of each season!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Honouring Children as Artists

"Make the studio space beautiful, a place that nourishes the spirit and senses. If you have the resources, store paint in clear jars to bring vibrant color into the room. Bring lush green plants into the space. Pour glitter into glass jars and set them on the window ledge to sparkle in the sun. Arrange shells, rocks, or branches on shelves, or hang them on the wall. Tuck unexpected treasures into the studio; a vase of feathers, a basket of sea glass, or an abandoned bird's nest. Store paintbrushes in pottery jars. Create a space that stirs the imagination and awakens the senses."

Ann Pelo, The Language of Art, p. 8

Our children love art. The art studio is one of the most popular centres visited during free play and often the first children look to upon their entry to the classroom. They are curious to see what new invitation has been displayed and eager to explore the new tools and materials that have been added to the art shelves. 

This week we purchased some mini terracotta saucers for use with our watercolour paint pucks. The earthy colour and cool texture made it a perfect fit with the centre's neutral palette. We believe that art materials should be aesthetically displayed and accessible to children. When the beauty of the materials - the texture, size, shape and colour - are celebrated (instead of being hidden in a storage cupboard) and included as part of the classroom decor, children are inspired to use them in innovative ways to support their explorations and communicate their ideas and learning to others. The art centre is a place where children feel inspired and welcomed! We honour children and their ideas through the use of meaningful, beautiful, accessible materials that celebrate them as learners with endless potential!


Our watercolour paint pucks challenged us for a while, which is why we were so excited to find the terracotta saucer solution! In the past we had tried using the traditional tray, but we didn't like how we were limited to the colours that were stuck in the tray. The children will often ask for specific colour combinations depending on what they are creating. In the previous photo you can see that the colours of paint displayed match the flowers in the vase. The tray did not offer this as a possibility with its fixed number of spots. The plastic also retained the colours of the paint and the stains and messy nature of the tray were uninspiring. We weren't satisfied with this solution.


We've also tried displaying the pucks on a mirror, but that was also cumbersome. The paint would become stuck which made swapping out the colours for certain combinations depending on the provocation or experience very difficult. The glass mirror was also not easy to use when transporting materials outdoors. Plus the mirror just looks messy. We believe that honouring children and their work means providing accessible and aesthetic tools and materials that value them as equal members in our learning community and sends the clear message that they and their ideas are essential for our collective understanding and growth. 


We used individual terracotta saucers. By separating each paint into its own container, the colours could be easily integrated into the display of materials available to the children on the art shelves. This means that we are displaying more shades and varieties of materials in our colour spectrum, and children are now able to access any paint colour they might need for a project. They do not need to ask an adult for assistance because the materials are freely available whenever they might be needed.



Engaging children in rich, meaningful, integrated artistic activities outdoors is an important part of our program. Now that the paint pucks are easy to transport, the children are able to self-select the ones they need for a project and independently use these outside.


An added bonus? They look just as lovely when resting on a bed of grass too!


We also examined how we displayed our various shades of pastels in the centre. Normally they are sorted by colour using a white ice cube tray. Like the watercolour tray, there are many easy to see stains and the materials aren't very inspiring or enticing.


We reorganized the materials using the terracotta saucers and the pastels look just lovely sorted and displayed similarly to the paints!



Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Using QR Codes to Explore Painted Ladies

Our children have been busy observing and exploring our Painted Lady Caterpillars in the classroom. Having the opportunity to nurture a caterpillar to butterfly has given children authentic motivation to learn about Painted Ladies as they build empathy and understanding while caring for a living thing.

We are always searching for ways to integrate technology in a meaningful way that helps build our collective knowledge and experience throughout the process of learning. We want technology to compliment and support our emerging understandings and help children see its potential in their work with one another. Because our children love to go on 'hunts' around the room, we set up an activity today that had five cards with corresponding QR codes hidden around the room.

Each code looked like this and had...


...a number to indicate its order, a sentence to describe the life cycle stage being explored, and a QR code leading the child to a video showcasing that stage.  

After a quick refresher on how to use the QR code scanners, children worked in pairs to search the room for the codes, used the app to scan them, and enjoyed the detailed videos highlighting a specific stage of the butterfly's life cycle. What we love about this activity is that children get practice using the QR scanner app, learn how the codes can help access information quickly and easily, and the retrieved videos nicely compliment the text-bound information that we have been relying upon. The videos engage children in a different way than books do and re-energize the children's interest in the caterpillar centre.




We just loved the look of interest and wonder on the children's faces as they carefully watched the videos together. There were many connections as children realized that many of the videos were time lapsed; we have a lot of experience creating our own as part of our documentation explorations.




We are sharing our QR codes for those educators who might be interested in using something similar in the classroom. Just click on the link, print the codes, and use an QR code reader to access the videos. Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Why Blog?

     

As the school year comes to a close we have been reflecting upon our year; something we always review is our effectiveness in communicating with families. Have we honoured children's learning in the classroom and made visible the rich space of possibilities so that families are informed of their children's journeys and feel connected to our classroom? Have children been included in this process as an integral source of information and inspiration? We feel that one of the many ways we have been able to do this, and expand our professional learning network (PLN) is through our blog. We think all educators should consider how a blog might help them advocate for playful learning in the early years and better connect with their school community and beyond. Perhaps this blog entry will be the catalyst for some educators to create their own blogs for use in their classrooms next September. Feel free to share the address of your school blog in the comments below!

Why blog?

Blogging is an effective communication tool.

Blogging is a very effective way to to share the innovative and exciting activities happening in one’s classroom with a larger audience. Multiple forms of information can be shared on a blog - photos, videos, hyperlinks, iMovies, padlets - helping to embed technology into instructional practices and documentation.

Blogging helps demystify what happens in a process-driven, inquiry-based classroom and builds support for why this type of practice is both meaningful and developmentally appropriate practice for children. With few ‘receipts’ of learning like paper and pencil products being sent home from school, families are often left to wonder what their child accomplished all day. The all too common shrugging of shoulders is still a common response to the age old question of ‘what did you do at school?’.

Blogging can be a great way to share the learning happening through play and inquiry in one’s classroom and encourage parent-child conversations about school as families visit the site together. This helps children reflect back on past events and use the information as inspiration in order to plan for future classroom work.

Blogging also serves as an effective way for families to give immediate feedback on classroom events and activities. Enabling the comment feature allows readers to publish public comments on each blog post. Moderating these can ensure that content is appropriate and confidentiality of children (names, locations) is maintained.

 

Blogs can serve to motivate families and extend ideas and activities that have happened in the classroom at home. In order to encourage responses to posts and facilitate a ‘conversation’ between the blog and readers, invitations to reply in a particular way can be included as part of the post. For example, after hanging a birdfeeder outside of the classroom window and posting photos of the birds that have visited, readers can be asked to contribute photos of birds that have visited their backyards by including these in the comments section to the corresponding post. This way the audience is helping to co-construct the content of the blog. Families may be more inspired to engage in home activities that support school activities and curriculum if they have a public forum to share their ideas and relate these back to their children’s education. Just as educators may be more motivated to raise their level of programming knowing that they have an audience, so too will the readers of the blog as they work to create a communal representation of the ideas and understandings contained in the posts.

Communication also occurs between divisional teachers who share ideas and strategies for implementing curriculum. As they visit one another’s blogs, teachers will become inspired by their colleagues and this may act as a catalyst for professional conversation and feedback on activities.

Blogging integrates technology into regular practice.

Children can help blog, integrating technology into everyday moments in the classroom. Many blogging websites have apps for smart devices so children can blog in real time with an adult during an activity. Sharing time can include a review of photos inserted into a blank blog post and children can help co-construct the narrative in a shared writing experience. This also serves as an opportunity for a rich discussion about internet safety and critical consumption of online information directly in the instructional moment.

It is a cost effective and environmentally friendly way to share a lot of information with a wide audience with little to no paper products. Occasionally we will sent out a reminder slip with the blog address and description to families in order to advertise our site and remind them to visit.

Blogging also encourages teachers to become more tech savvy as they learn to manipulate new and exciting forms of technology and mash these together with their blog.


Blogging as Assessment

Blogging can be a form of assessment. Online entries can be reviewed and information used to guide assessment and evaluation for children. Online entries can be printed and personal observations regarding children can be directly written onto pages. These can then be used in a child’s portfolios.

Blog entries can be added to learning centres in the classroom as part of the documentation available. Using a QR code tagged with the web address of all entries related to that particular centre (e.g., all entried tagged drama are then shared in the dramatic arts centre using a QR code) helps bring digital documentation into the classroom and shares the stories of the rich learning that has happened throughout the year at the centre.

Children who are on extended trips away from school or absent can see what was missed and families might be inspired to create similar learning experiences at home. It’s almost impossible to make up a missed day of interactive play at school - there are no take home activities that can replicate the richness of learning together with friends - but the entries help families see exactly what their child missed while absent.

Blogging inspires.

 

Blogging helps educators connect with one another as interesting ideas are shared online and a spirit of learning encourages risk-taking in one’s classroom. Many teachers like to visit one another’s blogs, so your audience may eventually expand beyond the families of your students. It also inspires you to become better, knowing you are opening up your classroom to a global audience.

Blogging gives teachers an empowered voice as they strive to change the world of education and way kindergarten is viewed by outsiders. Many teachers still struggle with didactic pressures from colleagues and administrators who are unaware of best practices in kindergarten. Authoring a blog means that one has regular opportunities to share the rich, integrated, developmentally appropriate learning taking place each day in the classroom.

Blogging inspires kids. From experience I know that children in the classroom are more motivated to participate in an activity if they know I’m going to be blogging about it. They want to see themselves in a public forum and enjoy having an audience.

Blogging also inspires families. Over the years I’ve heard from many families who have begun to visit our class blog as soon as they register their child for school in the winter for the following fall. Many learn what the expectations and activities are for kindergarten and begin to prepare their children for this adventure by engaging in some of the activities at home. Younger siblings benefit as they also get a chance to experience activities, helping ready them for school at an even younger age than their older siblings. Families who are undecided about which school to attend might be swayed by the detailed programming information being shared on a blog.

Teachers are inspired to find new and exciting ways to share content from their classroom and this will help differentiate classroom practices (e.g., videos, word clouds, voice recordings, narratives, photos, artwork). As a blogger I am always interested in new and exciting ways to enrich my content, build readership, and help portray the exciting things happening in the classroom in tangible ways to others. 

 

Blogging helps educators reflect.

Blogging is reflective - a teacher must consider the important elements of an experience when crafting the descriptive narrative that accompanies photos in a blog entry, helping to reflect upon the experience and think about how to extend the learning moving forward.

I believe that blogging will ultimately help raise the stakes in the classroom as teachers try to outdo their own last best post and keep the energy going in the classroom. An amazing entry for me only further motivates me to try and outperform in order to have even more exciting and informative entry for families to enjoy.

As blogs are archived teachers can travel backwards in time and review posts from months and even years ago, celebrating their growth and journey as educators. It’s a record of what was done in the classroom and a predictor of future successes. It’s a way of honouring the children and stories of the classroom long after they have moved upwards into a new grade.

Your blog is who you are as an educator. It will make you marketable as an educator and help advertise you to potential administrators when looking for new opportunities (e.g., new school, assignments, leadership opportunities). We all want to have rich, detailed digital online footprints that showcase who we are as educators and show what we are capable of in the classroom and school.

 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

ETFO PLEY Chat

We were so very excited to welcome the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) to our classroom today in order to have our very own PLEY Chat recorded in our classroom! The children were very excited to share their learning and play with our visitors and did just a tremendous job showcasing our program! The children had many questions about how the cameras worked! A big thank you to everyone involved in helping to make us feel comfortable and eager to share our classroom with others!








Although it was one of the most interesting and honouring events in my career, I had some pretty strong nerves heading into this opportunity. I recognized the significance of the PLEY chat and wanted it to be the best I could offer. Of course once the recording stopped I had many more ideas of what to say and show on camera, but this is the life of an educator; we are continually revisiting and reflecting on our experiences and considering how to make them even better moving forward. I know very few educators who can say they are ever truly satisfied with something and have no need to learn and improve. This is a good thing I think!

One of the most rewarding aspects of my career is helping to inspire and provoke learning in educators as well as children. I do not take my role as AQ instructor lightly; I see our classroom reflected in the hundreds of retweets, Facebook likes, and blog visits we have each week and know that what we say and do is important. It's humbling to know that our deep love of kindergarten and early childhood is shared by so many invested and attuned educators from Ontario and beyond and we are working hard every day to not only provide the best learning environment for our youngest learners, but also make the pedagogical choices behind every classroom decision we make visible beyond the walls of our classroom.  Thank you for sharing this journey with us. When we engage in rich PD opportunities with you through Twitter, Facebook, email, and AQ course discussions, you help US become better educators too, as we reflect upon our practice, consider your comments and questions, and implement your suggestions into bettering our classroom and program. Our professional learning network inspires us to be the best we can be each day, and ultimately the FDK children of Ontario are the ones who benefit the most!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

What Does Equal Really Mean? Exploring the concept of equivalency in guided and playful explorations

I had the pleasure of attending a workshop presented by Dr. Alex Lawson at the ETFO Math Conference this past weekend. In addition to being a renowned expert in Ontario Mathematics I found Dr. Lawson to be a highly engaging and motivating speaker. Her ideas for enriching the mathematical space in the classroom and engaging children in higher level activities that embed a deeper understanding of and accuracy in computation were highly relevant. Dr. Lawson reminded me of the need for both child-guided exploration and explicit instruction when considering number sense in the classroom. 


Dr. Lawson spoke specifically about the recent interest and discussion that has been explored in the press regarding the debate between children needing to memorize their basic facts and guided exploration leading to number mastery. For those interested she has written a Ministry  monograph delving more deeply into this issue. I found Dr. Lawson's discussion of particular interest because of the ongoing debate in FDK regarding just how much explicit instruction and guidance children should have in a playful, emergent program. Many teachers wonder about the balance between guided instruction and open exploration. How might a teacher initiate and introduce a math concept that has not yet emerged in the children's play? What is the link between explicit instruction and small group practice? How can educators embed more meaningful math explorations into an emergent space? What strategies can educators use to ensure all children have access to robust math explorations in meaningful ways?


Dr. Lawson spoke specifically about the need for children to have rich, meaningful interactions within the classroom that promote an internalization of number sense, specifically computation, fluency, and accuracy. Memorizing facts and engaging in rote, didactic activities may help a child recall facts, but there won't be a deep understanding or flexibility when working with numbers and children won't necessarily know the 'why' behind the math.



I was fascinated by the following slide that Dr. Lawson shared. When asked which equation was wrong, most children felt all were wrong except for the third. Why? They rationalized that it was the only equation written in what they perceived to be the correct format. The children were thinking that the equal sign meant 'answer' and had not really internalized the concept that the equal sign represents that each side is the same as the other. They had memorized what they felt was the correct way to write an equation without understanding how the symbols and numbers worked together. This was troubling for me.



When I returned to the classroom I wondered what my children would think if I presented the same question to them. I wrote four different equations and asked them which one was wrong.


I was so pleased when many of them immediately pointed out the third as being incorrect. When I asked why, they automatically totaled the different addition ideas on each side of the equation and stated that both sides needed to be the same.

"2 plus 1 equals 3 [is wrong]. It would have to be 2 plus 3 to equal 5!"
"The other ones all have the same numbers. 3 plus 1 is the same as 1 plus 3."
"The last one is 6 for both sides."

As they explained their thinking I wrote their ideas directly onto our morning message.



I was pleased that many recognized the incorrect equation but wanted to make sure as many children as possible had entry points into thinking about the idea of equivalency and knowing that each side of an equal sign needs to be the same in order for the statement to be correct. I asked the children to sit around the edge of the circle and placed a set of subitizing cards in the middle. The cards show different ways of representing numbers (numerals, dots, ten frames, cubes, fingers, etc.).


In our pocket chart I placed a number of equal signs and asked the children to consider how they might organize the subitizing cards. A number of children demonstrated how they could use numbers in different ways and placed the equal sign in the middle to show these were the same.


This generated a lot of interesting conversation as children debated the numbers. I'm hoping to revisit this idea in another few days and encourage the children to add addition or subtraction signs on either side of the equal sign so they are composing and decomposing numbers yet making each side balanced and equal to the other.


This activity was available for the children to revisit and explore during our next large play blocks. Many children wrote their own equal signs and used these as well.


In the above example I introduced the idea of equal numbers. This was a teacher-initiated activity however I also wanted to provide an opportunity for the children to have open exploration so I created an invitation for them to explore the concept of balancing and equal measurements using loose parts and a scale.


Many children were drawn to the interesting materials. They were curious about what the scales were and how they worked and spent much time with open ended exploration.


"Look! I know when they are equal! These arrows need to be in the same place!"

As the children manipulated the loose parts on the scale they noticed that the heavier side was lower than the lighter side and the arrows did not line up. In order for both sides to be equal the scale had to be level and then the arrows would touch. 



After open ended exploration with this concept the children shared their thinking in the next whole group circle. We named the learning and shared math terminology to help the children engage in meaningful conversations the next time they visited the materials - balance, level, and weight were especially important math words to hear and learn.


We began to notice an interesting thing during the next play block. Many children were exploring the idea of being 'equal' using different play props and ways of measuring materials.

We noticed measurement at the playdough centre... 

"2 parts can come together to be a whole."

"I have equal slices of pizza so all the friends have the same to eat."


"4 equal slices of pie to eat too!"


It was so interesting to see how the children interpreted our initial conversations of what 'equal' meant and applied their understandings to new and interesting play situations. We heard many conversations today and noted that some children were beginning to use language that described fractions - this is especially interesting as fractions are one of the topics most children have difficulties with. If kindergarten children are becoming comfortable using rich math language in the appropriate corresponding context, their mathematical mindsets will flourish as they see themselves as capable and invested mathematicians in the classroom and beyond!
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