Sunday, 29 March 2015

If You Want to Cover the Curriculum - Sit on it

Even after spending the past few years venturing into the Twitterverse, the openness and honesty of passionate educators and their willingness to engage in open debate still strikes me from time to time.Yesterday I happened upon one of these debates in which a few educators I follow were discussing the use of coding in the classroom. This particular debate caught my attention because it seemed to be revolving around an ongoing question that we all grapple with: can we teach what is not curriculum? (especially when there is so much curriculum?)

In my time working at the system level as a numeracy coach and consultant it was a big part of my job to encourage teachers to both know their curriculum and use it as their program.  There is so much rich content to be explored in mathematics and all too often it gets rushed through as teachers feel pressured to cover curriculum even if that means having students fill every page of a workbook. Many teachers are not aware that a textbook or program may only include about 80% of curriculum expectations for a given subject and there will be many aspects of those same books that are not curriculum requirements.

A much-respected mentor of mine, now retired, always reminded us: "If you want to cover the curriculum - sit on it. If you want students to learn - inspire them to want to do so."

Luckily in Ontario, our curriculum documents not only allow for creativity and innovation, they are laden with specific frameworks to encourage just that. For example, the mathematics curriculum document provide us with seven mathematical process expectations (problem solving, communication, reasoning & proving, selecting tools & computational strategies, connecting, representing, and reflecting) that really should become the central force of any mathematics classroom. Likewise, the Social Studies curriculum lists The Concepts of Social Studies Teaching (pp.58-62) and Science & Technology document details the Skill Continua for Scientific Inquiry and Technological Problem Solving (pp. 12-18) to encourage us to develop an understanding of the content in ways that allow for creativity and innovation.

Just because there is a rigid relationship between curriculum and evaluation does not mean that our teaching hands are tied. If we ground ourselves in an inquiry stance that allows us to open up our methods in ways that encourage our students to learn, we can create learning environments that prepare our students to adapt to an ever-changing world. I believe it is our responsibility as educators to be model learners: to take risks, to assess for learning and grow from our mistakes.

To those coding trailblazers out there - it is inspiring to "lurk and learn" from you. Cheers.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Play-based Connundrums Need Superheroes

My students love to engage in dramatic play - especially when it replicates things they enjoy. It can be challenging to know when it is necessary to set limitations to play. Body contact and red zone emotions (angry, mad) are clear flags that some teacher intervention is needed.  As a teacher who is new to ELKP, I have been struggling to know when to join into play, when to let the plot line develop and when to put the brakes on play.

Plot lines evolve over time in our room, but recurring themes tend to include zoo animals and puppies but most often involve Transformers, X-Men, the Avengers and Ninja Turtles. Recently a great number of my students spent the day with self-made ninja turtle bandannas glue-sticked to their foreheads.  The only theme I have banned from the classroom is that of the Walking Dead. I am a huge fan of the show and have read all of the graphic novels, but feel its content is not appropriate for the classroom setting. Having a young son of my own, I find it easy to follow the script of their play and I usually only intervene when they have created weapons, are escalating in volume or for the above mentioned red flags. 

Recently, I had some huge aha moments when reading The Play's the Thing: Teachers Roles in Children's Play by Elizabeth Jones & Gretchen Reynolds. (I came across the book on Twitter and was drawn to it - especially since one of the authors and I share the same name.) These superhero authors have done a wonderful job outlining the many roles of a teacher in a play-based environment: we are stage managers, mediators, players, scribes, assessors, communicators and planners.  I highly recommend the book if you have not already read it.  Reading it (and re-reading it) has helped me to recognize my strengths and set goals for improvement.

One of my take-aways from this book has been my changing understanding of my role as a mediator:  
"Teacher-as-mediator is not simply managing behavior; she is teaching social skills and suggesting ideas to enrich play." (p.36)

Upon reflection I realized that all too often I am acting as police officer in dramatic play - rather than mediator. It is a challenge to make the time to mediate play, especially when you are engaged in something like guided reading.  But I have come to realize that it is vital that I do so. In an attempt to quell the violent nature some of these play themes garner, I am finding that a simple prompt like, "who are you saving?" can do wonders to redirect the play to more positive themes that super heroes can invoke.

It is an uphill battle, and I am making baby steps - but I do believe in play.

What have you read that helped you define your role in the play-based environment?

Saturday, 7 March 2015

The Game-changer

Any time a new student joins a classroom it changes the dynamics. 
How can we prepare our students to be accepting of all students and welcoming to new friends?

In February we were having a lot of impromptu conversations about love. Valentines Day tends to initiate those curiosities. It was the perfect opportunity to explore the golden rule. Loving others and treating them as we would want to be treated is not an easy task for adults, let alone Kindergartners. 

Let's be honest. If we take a moment in our daily lives to really pay attention to how we are treating each human being we come into contact with we will notice there is room for improvement. That guy that just cut you off with his big truck? You may feel irritated (in the yellow zone - and maybe even approaching the red), but if you knew he was racing to pick up his sick child from school, or even late for work - afraid that this time would be his boss' last straw - would that change how you feel? This strategy - creating a story- is something that I use all the time to help me to engage my empathy.

Often we differentiate how we treat our students based on what we know about them and their lives. There are so many reasons these differences are necessary. I recently blogged about a band-aid activity I used to explain differentiation to my kindergartners. Our young students may not have the capacity to truly understand differentiation, but they do understand how to love.

Just after Christmas break one of my students moved and our small class was down to 14 students. With no ECE, our class has a maximum capacity of fifteen. Since then, my students have been asking when we will have a new friend join us to replace the student who had left. Often, during prayers we would ask God to send us a new friend. Last week those prayers were answered. A new student joined our classroom - the game-changer.

Welcomed with excitement and open arms, the game-changer tore into our classroom and spun us around like a washing machine. There have been moments where I feel we have gone back in time, and that all our hard work to develop our classroom community has vanished. My students with eyes wide are still adjusting - but something wondrous is occurring. With any concern (ex. The game-changer dumped out all the Lego) my response has been, "the Game-changer needs love". They do not know why nor can they, but yet my students show empathy. They are learning to live by the golden rule. 

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Courage Can Be Contagious

I have been doing a lot of reflecting lately. Starting something new has re-energized me and brought back many memories of my first years of teaching. Recently I read a blog with some key learning anecdotes from a first year of teaching and I was inspired to do the same. 


How I came to work at an elementary school in a small rural town south of London is a post all its own. It was however serendipitous - that I, a self-proclaimed secondary English teacher came to work in this place of inspiration.

On the Friday of Labour Day weekend I packed up my dad's car and made the two-hour drive to London to start my teaching career. I had lined up a few apartment viewings for that morning and had planned to go and begin setting up my classroom in the afternoon. Upon arriving at my first viewing, the skies opened up and I waited out the seasonal downpour in the crowded car. When I realized the landlord was a no-show and decided to leave, the car would not move: it was the alternator.

Sitting in that car in the rain, waiting for the CAA truck I was in pure panic mode. I had packed, planned every minute detail, scheduled it to down to the minute. Although I did not know it at the time, I was learning my first valuable lesson as a teacher: to expect the unexpected.

The extraordinary CAA driver helped me unpack my car into a Tim Horton's and towed my dad's car the two hours home. My friend's mother picked me and my things up. She had agreed to let me crash at her place for a few nights until I found an apartment - and  The next morning - Saturday - I rented a car and drove back home to pick up my mother's car and made the long drive back to London that afternoon.

I remember standing in my 7/8 classroom - a portable - that Sunday, in utter disbelief.  What would I do on Tuesday? All I could do in that moment was take in my surroundings, arrange the desks and look over the welcome notes that my new teaching partners had shared with me.

On that first day, I survived the hour long commute, did my best to be inspiring (yet firm) as I outlined rules and procedures - and then I taught math. You see, the only student resources in the classroom were a stack of dusty old math textbooks and I found some comfort in their familiarity. I felt relieved to have a break at lunch. That was until my teaching partner burst into the room laughing, "which one of you taught math this morning - you're kids HATE you!" My quiet devastation was as harsh as you might imagine.

The next month flew by. There was little sleep, many teary phone calls home, apartment-hunting and the purchase of my first used car. There was also so very much learning. My students motivated my creativity, my colleagues - turned friends - guided me and my principal inspired me.

On October 2, 2003 (provincial election day) I had (what was at the time) the worst day ever. I woke up for the first time in my new apartment. My furniture was not arriving for a few days, but I had insisted on sleeping there (even if it was on the floor in a sleeping bag).  What I did not expect was to wake up with pink-eye. It was disgusting - and although Tele-health assured me I could work and my colleagues called it a new teacher "right of passage", I couldn't help but be mortified. That afternoon I headed straight for the small town clinic. Eye-drops in hand, I returned to my car only to find that I had a flat tire. One hour later, my car was towed to the local C-Tire and I was told it should be ready in a few hours. My stress-level was at a peak. I had made the necessary changes to ensure that I could vote - and now there was no way I could make it to the poll in time. Picking up my phone to make a call I realized it was dead.

From an old payphone I made a call to my then-boyfriend looking for some sympathy.  He was cold, uninterested and ended the call quickly. When I finally made it home to my new - dark - apartment, I was hungry, tired and deflated.  I should have expected what came next. We were both new teachers and in a relatively new relationship, but his arrival at my door that night to initiate the break-up was ill-timed and broke the last piece of strength I thought I had in me.

The next morning at school I was visibly shaken.  The cold hardwood floor was much less comfortable the second night and I had not slept a wink.  My perceptive principal arranged to have my first period class covered.  She listened - she did not judge - and in that moment I felt respected.
She said a lot of things that day, made me feel like I could quit and move home if I wanted to (I didn't) and let me know how much potential she saw in me as a teacher. But the thing I remember most about that conversation is what she said next:

My principal said, "move in with me".

Found on

She had a room in her home and welcomed me to come and live with her family. It was a tempting offer - living alone for the first time was lonelier than I had anticipated. Her offer was enough to awaken a new found courage in me. I did not need to live with her to be inspired by her. On blustery winter days we would share the commute and our car conversations always left me energized. Learning along side of her was and still is the richest opportunity I have had to date as an educator. When the time came eighteen months later to make the choice to move closer to home, I did so on my own terms.

In the process of putting these memories down in print, I have been thinking about how far that I have come since those early days.  As teaching professionals we need to recognize the trials new teachers are experiencing. How can we make their transitions easier? In what ways can we ensure new teacher wellness? I think that sharing our own stories is a first step - but we must also empathize and be willing to give of ourselves (maybe not our own homes-lol). Courage really is contagious!