Friday, 29 August 2014

The Importance of Reflection (and my personal Mantra for 2014-2015)

Let’s go back in time. 365 days, to be exact. One year ago, I had just put the finishing touches on my Kindergarten classroom and was ready for back to school. The shelves were stocked with markers, crayons, paper, glue, scissors, sparkles, pom-poms, popsicle sticks, rocks, leaves, twigs, feathers, books, clipboards, magnifying glasses, binoculars, and more math manipulative than you could ever imagine. My teaching partner and I stepped back and took it all in – remarking on how beautiful and inviting it looked.

…and then came the kids.

Needless to say, the plethora of materials set out on the very first day of school was nothing short of overwhelming to them. While the students surely had an enjoyable time, what followed was more or less dumping everything together and my teaching partner and myself wondering why they weren’t using the materials in the way we had imagined.

Flash forward now, to this year’s classroom setup. It’s the same space, same furniture, a slightly tweaked layout, a teacher reflecting on his practice, and because of that, significantly less materials.

My teaching partner and I realized pretty quickly last year that perhaps we had gone overboard with the materials in September and honestly, I’m not that ashamed to admit that. It came from a good place, and at the time we truly thought it was what our students needed. Through the experience, we’ve learned otherwise. I wrote in my last entry about the need to reflect on your teaching philosophy, and I want to extend that to reflecting on your learning space.  As I happily snapped pictures last year of my fully stocked shelves (I’m not kidding – I’m talking 15 jars of different math maniplatives!) I was proud. And I still am proud! I’m not ashamed or embarrassed to say that as a third year teacher I thought that was a good way to start September. As a fourth year teacher, I’ve learned otherwise, but I remind myself that teaching is a journey and trying something and learning from it is better than not trying at all. I’ve long been a believer that teachers can always continue learning about their craft. Whether you’re a newer teacher like me, or have been teaching for years and years, the learning should never stop.  Way back in the first year of my undergrad I took a course called “Reflective Practitioners” and it’s a term that has stuck with me since. Teachers do more than teach. We research new strategies, implement them, and then most importantly, step back, reflect, and analyze the effectiveness of what we’ve done. I could have kept my overcrowded and overwhelming shelves of 2013 to myself, but I’m not afraid to say that it was a lesson I had to learn. There’s a great power in reframing mistakes as learning opportunities, and in the end it makes you a better educator.

Which leads me to my mantra for the 2014-2015 school year…say it with me now: “LESS IS MORE”.

Yesterday, I stood back and took in my classroom setup. Words that came to mind were “streamlined”, “sparse”, and “open”. Rather than give into the voice in the back of my head saying “It’s too empty, put more things out!” I’m going to stick with this and see how it goes. It’s not super easy – there is an undeniable urge to put more things on the shelves, to add more tables and chairs, etc. – but I’m trying things differently this year. After all, the space right now only has me in it. In less than a week 35 little bodies will enter that space and fill it up with their laughter, their wonders, their learning, and their creativity. It's their room as much as it is mine, and I want them to help decide what goes on the shelves and when. Right now at each learning center are a FEW purposeful yet open-ended materials that will invite students to explore the type of learning that can happen in each area. It’s only the first week, after all. Yes, as the year progresses I will bring out more and more materials and fill those shelves up, but not until my students are ready. When I do, community discussions will occur regarding how to best take care of these newer materials, and the students will brainstorm creative ways to use them in our learning. In Early Childhood Education, we have to remember that before they can master putting lids back on markers and sweeping up the sparkles they spilled, our students first have to get used to being at school for the first time ever. That’s huge. Pairing that with also putting away math manipulatives properly when they’ve maybe never even used them before is understandably too much. 

So, in conclusion – as teachers, let’s not be ashamed of times when we tried something that didn’t quite work out. That doesn’t make you a bad teacher. In fact, I’d say that acknowledging it and spending time thinking about how to do it better next time makes you a good teacher.

Feel free to comment and share your own experiences with reflecting on your practice. Is there something you did last year that you’ll do differently this year? What things did you have to learn through experience?

And one last time, say it with me (mostly because I benefit from the reminder and still have a slight urge to go back into school and fill up my shelves) – LESS IS MORE!

Monday, 18 August 2014

"Reggio inspired" vs "Reggio": One little word that makes a big difference

You may have noticed that in the blurb up top I refer to education that is “Reggio inspired” rather than “Reggio”. While that may seem like a very small detail, I believe it’s a hugely important distinction to make when speaking about my classroom. In fact, it's something that I’m conscious of mentioning every single time I describe my classroom to others.  As far as I’m concerned, the only actual “Reggio” classrooms out there are the ones actually in the Reggio Emilia region. The rest of us, who are inspired by the magnificent work they do with students, can’t, and in my opinion, shouldn’t, lay claim to that label.

But why?

To me, adding the “inspired” after Reggio, suggests a level of critical thinking and analysis that I feel is crucial before adapting the philosophy to your unique set of learners. While I am a huge fan of the Reggio approach and truly believe it benefits students, there is an inherent danger in blindly taking on educational philosophies “just because”. I’m delighted that Reggio seems to be “in” right now in many Kindergarten classes, but also worry about the motivation behind this and why educators are suddenly embracing it.

Yes, the aesthetics of your learning space are at the forefront of a Reggio inspired program, and rightfully so - the concept of your environment as the third teacher is a very important one. However, simply putting wicker baskets and mason jars in your room and calling it Reggio isn’t enough, nor is it really the point. Sharing photographs on social media sites such as Interest is a double -edged sword for teachers. While I personally don’t use it, I do recognize that it allows for a great deal of idea sharing and inspiration that can be beneficial in our field. However, in some respects, it can lead teachers to simply recreate something because they like the way it looks rather than thinking deeply about if, and how, it will actually benefit their students. This can, and sometimes does, put sole emphasis on the physical appearance of our classrooms over something of equal importance, such as how we speak to our students. I think all of these elements are important in a Reggio inspired program. Transforming your physical space to a Reggio inspired room is great (and important!), but it’s not all there is to Reggio. Reggio is a rich and meaningful approach to education that comes with some incredible ideas about the image of the child, the role of the teacher, and the sort of learning opportunities presented to students – these things have nothing at all to do with wicker baskets. The idea that Reggio is only about bringing in natural materials and making things look pretty is a vast oversimplification of what I consider to be a rich and effective teaching philosophy. I challenge any and all teachers who have thought about how Reggio would work in their space to look into these concepts, and move beyond just the appearance of your classroom.

I want to take a quick moment to clarify my intentions with this post. In no way am I trying to criticize others and the decisions they make in their classrooms. I recognize that all teachers (myself included!) are part of an ongoing journey and constantly have areas for growth. These reminders, to think critically and question everything, are just as much reminders for myself as they are for other teachers.

So, how can one be Reggio inspired? 

Let’s immerse ourselves in learning as much as we can about Reggio concepts, but never forget to look through a lens of critical thinking. Perhaps you’ll come across something that resonates with you. That’s great! But don’t stop there. Your students are a totally unique set of individual learners and perhaps some thought needs to be given on how to implement these ideas in a way that’s tailored to them. Rather than adopting ideas just because it seems like the thing to do, ask yourself why, ask yourself how it would benefit your students, ask if it’s what they need. If my very patient teaching partner had a nickel for every time I said “Let me just play devil’s advocate for a second here”, she’d be a millionaire.  I’ve think that questioning ourselves is so very important in the teaching field. Imagine taking a stranger on a tour of your classroom – could you justify the decisions you’ve made in your space? And no, “I think it looks pretty!” is not a justification. Student success should be at the forefront of the choices we make.  So take Reggio ideas, be inspired by them, think hard about them, and put them into place in a way that works for you, and most importantly, your students.

Sunday, 10 August 2014


Hi all, and welcome to the first post of my blog.

I’ve created this site for a variety of reasons. First, I hope to connect with other professionals in the field of education. Through these new connections I hope to be challenged, informed, and encouraged. As teachers, we spend the majority of time working in isolation in our own classrooms and I strongly feel that there is a benefit to engaging in professional discourses and using new viewpoints and ideas to evolve your own philosophies and practice. A complacent teacher is an ineffective teacher.  Secondly, I hope to use this site as a tool to connect with parents and families from my own classroom community. We already use email and Twitter to provide daily glimpses into our learning, but I want to allow parents an opportunity to go deeper in understanding WHY we do the things we do. I hope to utilize this site to give more information and justification for my choices as a teacher. Lastly, I’ve created this site for myself. I hope to document my journey of life long learning and to self reflect on how my own practice evolves over time.

Why "Wide Eyes and Wonder"?

Choosing a title for this blog was surprisingly difficult. I went through a multitude of them before finding one that just felt "right". The final title came from what is undoubtedly one of my favourite things about working with young students: the sense of wonder they find in what we as adults may consider the most minute of things. Looking at the world around them through their "wide eyes and wonder", there's a definite sense of magic in the little things. Feathers, rocks, seasonal changes, structures and the community around them are enough to springboard interesting wonders, questions, self-made theories, and serve as the catalyst for further learning. In inquiry based learning, this sense of wonder is crucial. I've always been a believer that education is reciprocal. While the students certainly can learn from me as an educator, I can learn just as much from them. This sense of childhood "wide eyes and wonder" is one of those things that my students have taught me, and is something that I think is important to bring back in our adult lives. Given the fact that it's reflective of both my philosophy and practice in early childhood education, I've chosen it as the title of my blog. Stayed tuned for more entries, and please - don't be afraid to comment!