Wednesday, 26 July 2017

A Journey in Relocation: What "Makes" a Classroom?

Hello! I hope all you educators are currently having a well-deserved, relaxing, and enjoyable summer. I know it's been a bit since I've posted here, but those of you who have been following along on Twitter know that our end of the year was quite busy (and exciting!) to say the least. Due to the flooding on Toronto Island, our school was evacuated mid May and relocated to a city-side school downtown. Long story short, we had about 2 hours to pack our bags with "everything you need for the rest of the school year". I think I spent about half that time pacing the classroom, overwhelmed with where to begin. That being said, I'm not here to blog about how challenging the re-location was. We quickly realized there was nothing we could do to change the situation with flooding on the Island, and we committed instead to staying positive and doing whatever we could do to ensure a smooth transition for our students. I'm a big believer that students pick up on the energy you put out, so it was important to me to stay positive through this unexpected transition.

In fact, despite the challenges, I'm quite thankful for the experience. Walking into an empty classroom mid-May with 26 eager, curious, and energetic students ready to go was an eye-opening experience for all of us. The entire process really helped me to learn and reflect on the idea of "what makes a classroom", as my ideas and understanding about early years education transform and grow. Through this experience I have high-lighted some major perspectives I feel are important to consider when we design spaces for learning, engagement, and well-being.

Day 1 in our "new space" - assessing the situation
We were quickly settled at a downtown school that happened to have some rooms empty for us. As you may know from previous posts, I am big on the idea of classroom community, so it was natural for us to start this experience in a circle, talking about our feelings and ideas. To me, this was much more meaningful and a better use of our time than me rushing around and setting up the new space for the students.

After a community circle where students openly shared their feelings about leaving the Island (scared, nervous, excited, confused, etc.) we broke into small groups to give our opinions about what our new space needed. As an educator, it was a really interesting experience to see what students deemed "important" in our space, and what areas from our old classroom they really connected with. I anticipated some of the students' ideas, but some caught me by surprise and I was thankful to have their voice included in this process. They thought of some things I would not have, and after all, I am a big proponent that our space belongs to ALL of us.

And with that, we got to work. Including the students in the process of not only brainstorming, but creating, our new space was also an effective use of time in our early days of relocation, when we were still waiting for our packed boxes of materials and furniture to arrive from the Island (thanks TDSB Task Force!).

Something that emerged in student brainstorming was the need for more colour and art on our walls in the new classroom. We created the collaborative piece you see above, and used our ongoing exploration of rhyming words to create a new community chant! We were Room 109 on the Island, Room 212 in our new space, and wanted to honour both the old and new things we were filling our space with. The students really took to this new, but quickly familiar, daily chant. We would start every day with it, which was important as it gave students a semblance of routine in this time of change and unpredictability.  Check out the video below!

As more and more shipments from the Island school arrived citywide, students used what they found to continue co-creating areas for play in our new space. It was striking to step back and observe the independence students demonstrated and the ownership they had over their experiences as a result.

While creating new areas was a focus, we also wanted to ease the transition of relocation by honouring old and familiar items from our Island space. So many things were going to be changing around our young students (no more boat! so many staircases!), and a conscious effort was made on our part to bring along some things that would provide a sense of comfort and familiarity to our students. Our community name banner, a yearly Room 109 tradition, made the trip to the city with us, and I still remember the smiles and cheers when students came in after lunch and saw it hanging on our new wall. It made me stop to think about how a community is still a community, no matter where you may be. As well, we knew we had to bring our classroom disco ball along, as daily dance parties are another Room 109 tradition, which we happily continued in our new space.

While none of this was an ideal situation by any means, being purposeful and thoughtful about how we were co-creating our new space helped to ease the transition. While students continued to miss our old space, they also took pride over our new space - because they were so involved in the process. Students even started bringing items from home to spruce up our space!

With a month and a half to go in the school year when this relocation occurred, we also knew that we had to think about more than just setting up the new space. It was our responsibility to continue to ensure that meaningful, hands-on learning was occurring even without all our materials, furniture, and resources. As believers in the power of inquiry based learning, we turned to our unique situation to inspire student authentic engagement and thinking. Among other invitations for learning, students spent some time in May and June considering how to help get water off the Island using a STEM lens and several supporting read alouds. Due to the relevance of this topic in our students' lives, it was something they really took to.

After a few weeks, a learning coach from our board's Early Years department came to visit our new space, and inquired about sending other educators to visit and observe. At first, I wasn't sure why anyone would want to see us in the midst of relocation, but she made a great point - that this was an opportunity to showcase that it isn't all about the perfect classroom size and location, or the beautiful furniture and pristine materials. These things do not make a classroom. They are nice, yes, but a classroom is so much more than something you can recreate from Pinterest. While the aesthetic element is crucial (i.e. classrooms need to be free of clutter, inviting, and warm), our thinking needs to shift beyond simply how a classroom looks. Welcoming visitors into our new space hopefully encouraged us all to think about classroom creation from an asset based lens as opposed to a deficit based lens - working with what you DO have. Our new space was far from "the perfect classroom", yet it served us so well during our time, and I believe it helped the students feel safe and honoured throughout this relocation. That is the power of a classroom. This experience really sparked my brain in thinking about what in fact does "make" a classroom, and I've highlighted the following concepts in my own experience:

Meaningful: This experience helped me reflect on what I was putting out, and why. I feel strongly that when it comes to materials "less is more" - and what better time to explore that concept when still waiting for your boxes of materials to ship from the Island! Not having lots of "stuff", meant that we had to be very thoughtful with what we did present to spark learning, and how we did it. Nothing was put out "just because", and as a result, we observed engaged students. With limited furniture, we also had to get creative. This space was used primarily as an adult education room, which meant desks almost as tall as the Kinders themselves! What was neat about this was that our centres almost became dual purpose - with students standing up and working at desk level, and students below the desks, engaged in floor play.  While I would have loved for all of our lower tables from our old space to materialize here, we made due with what we had, and I think that is so important in what makes a classroom.

Responsive: Classroom setup isn't just a start of the year thing - a classroom should change, grow, and adapt alongside the learners within it. That also means highlighting things in our own practice that aren't working, and making those changes. A phrase I love it "I used to think, but now I think...". There's nothing wrong with admitting that something we tried didn't work, and a huge power in shifting our views. For example. like many, I have displayed our markers, crayons, and pencil crayons sorted by colours. For whatever reason, this specific group of students this year were not responding to it, and I found myself having to give constant reminders as well as sort them myself during tidy up. With this in mind, I looked at this transition as a perfect time to try something new - not sorting by colour in our new space. Students didn't really notice, which showed me that maybe this was an idea I was clinging to "just because". I may try it again with future groups, but for these students, I needed to be responsive to them in how I displayed materials in the classroom.

Co-created and Familiar: The biggest piece I hope to showcase in this blog post is the power of involving your students in every step of creating the physical space. From brainstorming to creation to upkeep, student thinking and action took centre stage. The result of this was pride and ownership over their space, which directly translates to their learning. Honouring student voice ensures we are truly a community. Also, having things that are familiar to the students - artifacts or traditions within the community (i.e. our name banner, disco ball, rainstick), help to create a space where students feel safe, and honours their well-being when unexpected transitions do occur.

Before long, my teaching partner and I stood back and were amazed at how resilient our students were being despite this major change in our school year. The space we were in was far from perfect, but it was ours - and it really felt like that. I always feel so bittersweet at the end of the year as we dismantle the classroom. I didn't expect to feel it this year, in this new space, but in fact I did - and quite strongly. Our students had put so much love and effort into the space, in such a short amount of time, and I unexpectedly had tears in my eyes as we packed it all back up in late June.

The transformation of our new space after a month and a half
In closing, I implore us all to continue thinking about what "makes" a classroom. Yes, aesthetics do, and should, play an important role - but there are bigger ideas at play!  As wild as it was to relocate in May, I am thankful for this unique experience and how it helped me to continue focusing my thinking towards these ideas. That being said, I am excited to be back in "our" space on the Island come September and to see how this new learning impacts our classroom setup then. Here's to life-long learning!

(and as well, here's to Nelson Mandela Park Public School! Thank you for graciously hosting us during this relocation!)

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Somewhere I Feel Calm, Quiet, & Safe: Visualization, Imagination, & Self-Regulation

Somewhere I Feel Calm, Quiet, & Safe: Visualization, Imagination, & Self-Regulation

This year, a lot of our learning about Self-Regulation and Well-Being has been focused on different energy levels our bodies may feel throughout a school day – calm, energized, or somewhere in between. A blog post about what led us to this point can be found here:

As noted in previous blog entries, our classroom community has taken part in discussions about what areas of our day may be more successful when we feel energized and alert, and what areas of our day may be more successful when we feel calm and quiet. Since that point, we have been building strategies we can use to take us from one energy state to another (i.e. calming our bodies down before a transitional time, getting our brains alert before a small group literacy lesson). One such strategy we typically use after our pre-lunch dance party to calm our bodies down before our walk to the lunch room is to lay on our backs, close our eyes, listen to the rainstick, and imagine a place that makes us feel calm, quiet, and safe. Usually after a few minutes of this visualization and deep breathing, students slowly sit up and share the place they were imagining. Students have responded well to this strategy and educators have noticed their emerging ability to self-regulate their energy states when needed. 

With this in mind, we saw natural connections from this calming visualization strategy to our on-going self-portrait project. Rather than draw themselves, we challenged students to draw the calm, quiet, and safe place they saw in their imagination. Studying landscapes in art helped us to learn how we could be successful in our drawings. Another focus was to look deep into our imagination and add all the details we could see. Many students reflected on their initial try and chose to try again to improve their work. 

From here, each student’s unique landscape was photographed and then projected onto our classroom wall using a digital projector. This allowed students to “step into their world” – by placing themselves in front of the projection, it was as if they had entered the world of their imagination. Each student chose an expression and pose that felt right to them and was photographed by an educator. We feel that the final product creates a tangible and visible representation of student thinking around our “calm, quiet, and safe” visualization. Every student’s unique ideas come through in their work in a striking and very special way, and we hope these visuals will assist students in their emerging learning around self-regulation.

A few examples below...with faces blurred for privacy. More examples can be found on our shared classroom Twitter (@IPSKindergarten) or my professional learning network account (@JoelSeaman).

"I'm laying in the grass and it's raining. I can feel the rain dripping on me"

"I'm in a calm rainforest with so many trees and I'm looking at every one"

"I'm in China with my Mom and Dad"

"I'm in a nice, quiet cave"

"In India with my baby sister"

"At home smelling a flower"

"Under the water with Mommy and some fish"

"In a tree where nobody can get me except Mom and Dad"

"I'm on a beach listening to a coconut dripping water"

"Hey! That's me!"

Connections to the Kindergarten Program:
Belonging and Contributing: communicate their thoughts and feelings through various art forms, demonstrate a sense of identity and positive self-image
Self-Regulation and Well-Being: demonstrate independence, self-regulation, and a willingness to take responsibility in learning and other endeavours, demonstrate an awareness of their own health and well-being
Demonstrating Literacy and Mathematics Behaviours: communicate with others in a variety of ways, for a variety of purposes, and in a variety of contexts
Problem Solving and Innovating: use problem-solving strategies, on their own and with others, when experimenting with the skills, materials, processes, and techniques used in drama, dance, music, and visual arts

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Calm, Energized, or Somewhere in Between: an On-Going Inquiry into Energy States & Self-Regulation in Kindergarten

“Children’s ability to self-regulate – to set limits for themselves and manage their own emotions, attention, and behaviour – allows them to develop the emotional well-being and the habits of mind, such as persistence and curiousity, that are essential for early learning and that set the stage for lifelong learning.”

(Ontario Kindergarten Program, 2016, pg 54)

     Throughout our year together, we’ve explored the concept of self-regulating our emotions, needs, and learning through a variety of large group, small group, and individual learning experiences. Self-Regulation and Well-Being, as one of our Four Frames of Learning in the Ontario Kindergarten Program, is regarded as a key component in our community that allows students to build an emerging emotional vocabulary and learn to make appropriate choices based off their energy states. By providing students with prompts such as “listen to your body”, modelling appropriate strategies and naturally building in both high energy and low energy moments throughout our day, it is our hope that students find success in fulfilling the overall and specific expectations found within the Self-Regulation and Well-Being frame of the 2016 Kindergarten Program.

     In early January, we began having community discussions about the differences between feeling calm and feeling energized. Through these conversations, educators were careful not to label one energy state as “right” and the other as “wrong”, as we firmly believe there are moments throughout the day where calm energy is useful, but also moments when being energized helps! Sometimes “self-regulation” in the classroom can be misunderstood as encouraging students to be quiet, calm, and still at all times – while this has a time and a place, we also know that every child is different and sometimes they need opportunities to expel their high energy in safe and respectful ways (we do a lot of Dance Parties and outdoor experiences). We also wanted to honour the fact that it’s not exactly a clear dichotomy of being either calm or energized, but more often a whole range of energy states in between. With this in mind, we considered the option of creating a visual representation that would help the class check in with themselves and articulate their current energy state. Knowing that the concepts we were exploring through this community inquiry are very abstract, we felt a visual element would help to make this more concrete and provide a developmentally appropriate experience for our emerging self-regulators. Our emerging Learning Goal was to build student autonomy in listening to their body and recognizing their current energy state.

     But first – we felt it was appropriate to start with knowledge building circles about the concepts of being calm and being energized to ensure that all students had to opportunity to learn from each other’s thinking and experience. Below are some examples of student voice around the topic of our energy states:

     Analyzing the data that emerged from these knowledge building discussions was interesting – and lots of our prior learning, experience, and knowledge emerged. Students linked being calm to taking deep breaths, which is a strategy we have used all year. It was interesting to see students linking the concept of feeling energized to specific moments in their lives (i.e. birthdays, Christmas) and to also have a student articulate that being energized is just as important as being calm. Through the next week, educators observed these concepts coming up naturally in student discussion and also connecting to various texts in our room (“Breathe”, “My Many Coloured Days”). Community discussions began to shift towards how our energy states link to certain parts of our day. Students demonstrated understanding that both energy states are important throughout the day – and often these energy states change as we transition through different moments of our day together.

K: “We can think about being calm when you don’t want to be distracted from learning”
R: “Or when the Nursery kids are napping” (next door)
J: “Or at the Quiet Corner”
J: “And to be safe walking in the halls”

R: “I feel energized when we’re playing or going to Gym or having a Dance Party”
J: “At the Block Centre”
K: “And when we go outside”

With sufficient front-loading, we felt it was time to create the visual line that would allow students to think about and represent their inner energy levels. With the help of a group of students we created a “sliding scale” of sorts – with calm on one end, and energized on the end. We created a clothespin with each student’s face and chose the question “How do you feel right now?” to honour that our energy states are in a constant state of flux throughout the transitions of our day.

“I feel a little calm and a little energized” – M

Checking in with themselves and their energy states has now become part of our daily routine. We’ve noticed many students choosing to add their clip to the line at the very start of the day, but also revisiting the line many times to change their representation. Often after Gym class many students move it to energized, and we practice taking deep breaths and visualizing a place that is quiet, calm, and safe to bring our energy levels down. Other strategies that students recall from previous learning this year and have been self-selecting when it’s time to bring our energy down are using the rainstick sound or using our class sparkle jar.

S: “I feel like I’m inside a cloud and water is dripping on me”
M: “I imagined I was on a beach listening to the waves and laying under an umbrella”
A: “I was thinking about being in my Dad’s car and sleeping”
A: “I was in a cave that was very quiet”
What’s next? As the cycle of Inquiry continues and students continue to construct and reform their knowledge on the concepts of differing energy states and when they are more appropriate throughout our day, we as an educator team are considering where this can take us. One idea we are exploring is using the scenes that students have shared through our “quiet, calm, and safe” visualization exercise and connecting it to a project at our Art Studio – where these landscapes will come to life.  We also want to continue the concept of “being energized” and ensuring that it is not seen as a negative, but just a feeling that we all experience throughout the day. Recently students have been more attune to the energy states in the room (J: “It’s loud. I think we need a Dance Party now!”). We have also discussed a redesign of our Quiet Corner using our students’ unique ideas to co-create a more calming space for our class. We have started with the question “What makes YOU feel calm?” with the understanding that we’ve always selected the tools for calming down. We are curious to learn if our ideas align with theirs!

Connections to Ontario Kindergarten Program (2016):

Specific Expectation 1.9: describe personal experiences, using vocabulary and details appropriate to the situation

Specific Expectation 2.4: demonstrate self-control (e.g., be aware of and label their own emotions, accept help to calm down, calm themselves down after being upset) and adapt behaviour to different contexts within the school environment (e.g., follow routines and rules in the classroom, gym, library, playground)

Specific Expectation 24.5: communicate and record results and findings either individually or in groups (e.g., record ideas using pictures, words, labels, or in charts)

Friday, 6 January 2017

In Celebration of Outdoor Learning

Playing, exploring, and the act of simply being outside provides immeasurable opportunities for rich and meaningful early learning experiences. As an educator, outdoor learning is a huge part of what I try to do - and yes, that does mean year round. As my first blog post of the new year, I wanted to share some photos that I believe capture the spark, joy, and endless possibilities of outdoor learning. Photographing and documenting learning is something we embrace in all areas of our program, but I must say that photographing outdoor learning has become something very special for me. There's something about capturing the smallness of our students juxtaposed with the largeness and vastness of the outdoor space they're exploring that I find endlessly inspiring. What stands out to me in the shots I've selected are the moments of joy, the moments of calm, the moments of solitude, the moments of togetherness, and the moments of belonging that arise naturally in nature. I hope these photos of our outdoor learning spark something in you as well.

It wouldn't be right to blog about outdoor learning and not mention the fact that we have a unique location on Toronto Island that allows for many opportunities to spend time in nature. That being said, I know that the reality for many can mean small outdoor spaces and lots of pavement and concrete. Regardless of your own outdoor learning areas (or lack thereof) I encourage all educators to become advocates for outdoor learning. Countless pieces of research point to an outdoor learning component being a vital part of early learning. With that in mind, I believe that it's on all of us to share this with admin, staff, and families - to encourage a possible re-think of outdoor space, or even to explore for travel to inspiring outdoor spaces. While outdoor learning comes naturally on the Island, I have met many educators across our board who transforming traditional school playgrounds into creative and useful outdoor learning spaces. Just like our students need exposure to letters, numbers, social skills, and independence, we also owe it to them to provide chances for intentional outdoor exploration. As we enter a new calendar year, consider pledging to spending more time outside with your students in 2017. They'll thank you!

"Must we always teach our children with books? Let them look at the mountains and the stars up above. Let them look at the beauty of the waters and the trees and the flowers on earth. They will then begin to think, and to think is the beginning of a real education." 
- David Polis