Thursday, May 5, 2016

Encouraging and Displaying Authentic Writing

Thanks to the many teachers who have been following the blog and connecting with me through email, Facebook and Twitter! It's been so exciting to hear your ideas regarding our classroom and practice and learn from yours as well!  I had a few emails regarding how we engage children in authentic, meaningful writing during our play time. I have decided to answer these questions in a blog post in case others are wondering the same. I look forward to receiving more of your questions and will do my best to answer them - or @McLennan1977.

Writing and drawing are important parts of math thinking and consolidation because these are effective ways for children to communicate and share their mathematical thinking with others. In our room each child has his or her own clipboard and these are displayed together on the back of our book shelf. Children are encouraged to chose a piece of drawing or writing that they are proud of and put it on the clipboard for display.

It's easy for the educators in the room to see which child has selected a piece of writing for display, and who might still need encouragement to do so.

Once a child has decided to display a different piece of writing, the paper is removed from the clipboard and added to a child's learning portfolio.

Sunflower Still Life

"Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better." 
Albert Einstein

Our children created delicate black outlined water colour paintings today. There work is stunning; with time and practice they have emerged as observant and skilled artists. We love still life art because it really encourages the children to take time to carefully observe the many details of the subject and use the materials and tools they feel will help them best represent what they see. It's always so interesting to see their interpretations of the same object and how different the finished pieces are.

Exploring Math in an Inquiry-Based Kindergarten Program

Math has become a great interest for me due to a school wide focus on improving children’s interest in and attitude towards math. I was introduced to the work of Sherry Parrish regarding ‘number talks’ and felt it was a strategy that could easily be implemented into a play-based, inquiry-based FDK program. I have been fascinated by Jo Boaler's work on Mathematical Mindset. After learning about and implementing a focus on number talks and making math meaningful and engaging for children, I noticed huge gains in children’s computation and fluency as well as the time they spent during free play working with math tools and strategies. This was incredibly motivating for me.

Positive Growth Mindset

As a child I disliked math. I felt I wasn’t ‘smart enough’. My reading and current practice with number talks and growth mindset has shown me it’s not about how ‘smart’ you are, but how hard you work and persist with any given activity. Just as important are teachers' mindsets towards math and math learning. We need to truly believe that any child can succeed at math and create a supportive environment where they feel free to take risks and aren't afraid to make mistakes. Low floor high ceiling tasks will provide entry points for all learners and ensure we are able to differentiate to high degrees when needed for those children who are learning at different rates and require a different challenge (see an example here). I want to help children change their mindsets towards math and discover that there are many different ways to analyze, interpret, and solve a math problem. Math can be an enjoyable activity and is hugely relevant to our lives. I also wanted to continue to positively change my own mindset towards math as an educator and parent. To see some of the extensive work we have done on growth mindset please visit other entries tagged with this label.

Our Program

Children’s early learning experiences have a profound effect on their development. Early interactions directly affect the way connections are made within the brain. To give each child the best start possible our kindergarten program provides a variety of learning opportunities and experiences that challenge and engage children while building confidence - providing foundations in cognitive, physical, emotional, and social development. In our kindergarten class, we want each and every child to enjoy coming to school and to see learning as fun, exciting, and meaningful. We explore lots of teacher-guided and child-initiated opportunities that appeal to each child’s learning style. We want to help develop life long learners! Reaching each child’s potential while supporting learning development is the main goal of our kindergarten program.


Gradual Release of Responsibility in a Playful Math Environment

The goal in a playful environment is for children to be comfortable and confident applying mathematical strategies in authentic problem-solving situations. An educator helps children become successful by first introducing the ‘big ideas’ of math in a whole group situation and then providing numerous opportunities for children to practise using the tools, terminology and strategies in authentic contexts during small group time and the open play block. For example, during circle time the educator might introduce a ten frame, demonstrate how to use it for various purposes (e.g., subitizing, counting, recording, adding) and then encourage children to independently use the ten frame in small group activities and play.

Here is a sample math lesson where children are considering what they observe and wonder in a growing shape pattern:

Authentic Math in an Inquiry Model

In emergent programs educators aim to embed rich math resources and opportunities throughout the room and not just in a defined ‘math centre’ in order to encourage organic exploration. The children are investigating and finding solutions to questions or problems generated in the social interactions they have during playtime. Teachers can bring these inquiry-based topics and authentic queries to the whole group for extensive discussion, specifically highlighting math and computation when applicable. Because children are highly invested in solving these problems they will be more likely to work together to brainstorm various strategies for arriving at solutions that meet the needs of many learners.

Finding the balance in emergent practices also means that the teacher carefully selects developmentally appropriate activities that capture children’s interests while still fulfilling curriculum expectations. Interesting materials can be placed in the classroom and the teacher can ask questions or suggest challenges to entice children into exploring these further. An emergent kindergarten program creates natural opportunities for purposeful computation by:
  • providing children the freedom to explore self-directed areas of interest 
  • introducing interesting and challenging materials for children to use independently and with teacher guidance
  • emphasizing a child-centered problem-solving approach when difficulties arise
  • using organic materials and loose parts in place of commercial products
  • honouring children’s questions and providing guidance when needed


Young children show their understanding by doing, showing, and telling. They come school with a wide variety of experiences, interests, strengths, and needs. We will observe, listen, and ask questions in order to assess the achievement of each child. This information will then be used to determine instruction so the diverse needs of each child are met.

Observation is the most important assessment strategy that we use in the classroom. Since students spend much of the day interacting with others in various learning centers, we will spend a lot of our time observing children in action and recording these observations.

In our classroom we will create a portfolio for each child – it will contain pieces of “work” from throughout the year. This includes samples of writing, drawn pictures, photos of the child engaged in the classroom, recorded notes from observations of them in action, recordings of student/teacher conferences, and pieces of artwork. Portfolios can be viewed by parents anytime, and will be shared during parent-teacher conferences at report card time. Portfolios are also sent home on a regular basis and parent feedback is encouraged through the use of a parent observation sheet. See a copy of our reflective prompts page to families here.

Environment as the Third Teacher

We start the beginning of the school year with empty walls. Working together we slowly create documentation displays that reflect our questions and explorations using artifacts of learning (e.g., photos, artwork). Effective documentation “draws others into the experience - evidence or artifacts that describe a situation, tell a story, and help the viewer to understand the purpose of the action” (Seize, p. 88). As the year progresses our walls honour learning by sharing the children’s journey helping them to feel valued, respected, and encouraged to take greater risks in their work with others. This work then inspires the children to reflect upon what they have done to help consolidate learning and use this as a reference or inspiration for future explorations.

Seitz, H. (2008). The power of documentation in the early childhood classroom. Young Children, March: 88 - 93.

Places of Wonder and Discovery

We continue to look for opportunities to create areas of beauty, wonder and discovery in our classroom in order to inspire children and provoke learning opportunities. Here are some highlights of our room today...
Clipboards displayed in a shelf with children's drawing and writing to celebrate their growth...
Textured fabric quilted together to cover bulletin boards and present interesting patterns...

Child sculptures displayed on the snack table to inspire conversation...

A planting area with literacy connections in a sunny spot...

Documentation integrated with interesting materials and tools at the children's level...

Containers of interesting objects placed in various spots in the classroom...

Literacy materials displayed for function and beauty...

Woven creations hung above tables to inspire beauty above...

Natural materials and textures in the drama centre to inspire creative play...

Transparent documentation integrated into displays to captivate...

Black and white photos capture attention when placed on a quilted background...

Beautiful materials displayed in the art area beckoning to be used...

Whimsical materials capture attention and draw children to the mailbox and hopefully writing letters to their friends...

Displays on shelves offer interesting colours and patterns...

Our collection of natural materials inspires conversation and research...

Literature is integrated with artifacts to provoke exploration and reading...

Beautiful materials celebrate children as capable, invested learners...

Collections in the reading area invite children to visit and spend time exploring...

A quiet corner becomes an escape...

The individuality of children is reflected in the display of their learning portfolios and the spirit of our natural school is reflected in the display...

Beautiful Stuff

Thank you to our families who have sent in found and recycled materials for our 'beautiful stuff' project! We look forward to seeing the interesting things that are brought in and are looking forward to the rich math, science and art activities we plan to do with the children!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Creating a Place of Wonder

Spring often brings with it reflection and renewal and we felt it was time for us to renovate our reading area. Although it was tucked away in a cozy nook and we replenished the books often, the children weren't drawn to using it. We wanted to spark their interest in the centre so that they would be inspired to visit this area again for the remaining months of the school year. 

During a whole group discussion we asked the children what they liked about the centre. They shared that they enjoyed sitting on the chairs and chatting with friends, reading books from around the room on the chairs, and they loved the 'magical' light that we used each day to create a bit of ambience. They however hoped for new books to read and interesting things to look at.

One of the most inspiring books I have read regarding beautiful designs in early childhood environments is "Designs for Living and Learning" by Deb Curtis and Margie Carter. The book is filled with large, colourful illustrations of learning spaces and the potential of many innovative and loose parts to inspire play and creativity. When considering how to take the children's suggestions from our discussion and use them to help design our new reading area, I reviewed this book for guidance and inspiration.

Some of my favourite thoughts from the book include:

"The environment is the most visible aspect of the work done in the schools by all the protagonists. It conveys the message that this is a place where adults have thought about the quality and the instructive power of space. The layout of the physical space is welcoming and fosters encounters, communication, and relationships. The arrangement of structures, objects, an activities encourages choices, problem solving, and discovering in the process of learning. There is attention to detail everywhere - in the colour of the walls, the shape of the furniture, the arrangement of simple objects on shelves and tables." (p. 13)

"Filling your environment with aspects of the natural world can further soothe the senses and sensibilities of those present. When you contrast something as simple as a shelf or plastic baskets with a shelf containing natural fiber baskets, the different sensory experience is immediately apparent. There are many ways to incorporate plants, water, natural light, and fresh air into your building." (p. 16)

"Children also love finding treasures - shells, feathers, rocks, coins, keys, flashlights, baubles, and beads. Rotate a supply of these and other intriguing objects in attractive baskets and boxes or as curiosities on a table or low shelf-top mirrors. Create nooks where you can place rocks that glitter or shine, a set of costume jewelry gemstones, or holograms. Putting books, cards, or photos nearby that relate to these objects can further stimulate children's inquiry. Because childhood is a time when the world seems full of magic and wonder, you can keep those brain pathways growing and expanding by placing intriguing discoveries in your environment." (p. 17) 

"Literacy involves unlocking a system of symbols and codes, and there are many ways you can expand children's experiences with this process. The wider world of symbolic representation extends into the visual arts, and adding a range of materials to explore these will encourage children to understand and express themselves using art materials, music, dance, and theatrical expressions. Early childhood environments can be stocked with materials and opportunities for what Howard Gardner calls 'multiple intelligences' or the educators of Reggio refer to as the 'hundred languages'." (p. 18)

Today we worked together with the children to create a magical place for literacy and exploration in our cozy reading nook. This is the finished centre as of this afternoon. I still envision adding more materials (perhaps writing and drawing bins to encourage more of the artistic language that is discussed on p. 17 in the book).

We created an aesthetic display of many of our favourite read alouds, sorting and then organizing them by colour. Our children have been fascinated by colours (mixing them, creating different shades, using them as interesting representations for objects, etc.) so I really wanted to reflect this back in the way we presented the reading materials. I also liked that this incorporated math into the centre as the sorting rule for the books was organization by colour. The new, low shelf is made by placing a long wall shelf from IKEA on two wooden big blocks from our building centre. It's a portable shelf that is now low and at the child's height, especially when they are sitting on the carpet.

We found some of the children's favourite objects in the room (whimsical cats, wooden beads, shells) and placed them in an interesting display. We used the frame to highlight the dried hydrangeas and placed a mirror behind the objects to reflect light and provide an interesting view. The children can also look at themselves in the reflection.

We were inspired by the passage referring to childhood 'treasures' like shells, sticks, and feathers so we created a textured display by using fishing net and large birch branches to help highlight and showcase the materials. We are going to add another large mirror behind this display.

Our children love to draw and we have been focused this year on growth mindset and the unique differences that make us a special, powerful group of learners. We showcased the children's recent pastel self-portraits, using a black frame to help the art stand out on the chicken wire display board.

The children were immediately drawn to the new materials after they helped us organize the centre. We are always amazed at how carefully they handle the delicate objects; they are diligent in returning them to the spot where they were found and are very kind and considerate in sharing the materials with others.

New books were discovered and old favourites found again. Many children spent time at this centre this afternoon, accomplishing what we had set out to do! We sparked a new interest in visiting the reading area, which had now become a place for magic and wonder. This is exactly what the children had hoped we would do in our planning discussion earlier in the week!

After all that work I even had time to enjoy a few books with my special helpers! We hope you are inspired to revisit some of your centres and consider how you might be able to add a little wonder and magic for your learners! Next we are going to refresh our dramatic arts centre. Stay tuned!

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