Monday, 29 September 2014

Tackling the "Tough Stuff"

There are some who subscribe to the belief that “tough topics” shouldn’t be discussed with young children, declaring them “too sad” or “too negative”.

Let it be known - I am not one of those people.

In my experience, anytime a potentially “tough topic” has come up with young students, the children prove themselves more than capable of understanding and emphasizing, and sometimes show more maturity than adults I’ve had similar discussions with.

That being said, the concept of being developmentally appropriate is, and should be, at the forefront of our thinking in how these topics are approached and handled. Two that come to mind from my own experience are the story of Terry Fox as well as the meaning of Remembrance Day. Given that the Terry Fox run just happened last week, that’s fresh in my mind as I reflect on this topic.

Two separate times in the past, I’ve heard educators out there say that their Kindergartens would take part in Terry Fox Day and go out and run with the rest of the school, but wouldn’t be discussing the meaning behind it, as it wasn’t “appropriate” for young students. In my mind, this is doing a disservice both to Terry’s story and to your students. Beyond that, it’s sending the harmful message that you think your students are incapable of understanding big ideas. My own experience has shown me that this is in no way the case. In fact, young students bring a fresh and unique outlook that makes them incredibly capable of discussing and understanding these big ideas, when they are (of course) brought up in a developmentally appropriate way.

This past week, I brought the Kindergartens into the gym so we could sit in one large circle and see each other’s faces. I gave one simple reminder that sometimes we read stories that were funny, and sometimes we read ones that were serious. This would be a serious one. A student raised her hand to remind her peers that being serious meant not being silly. Aside from this initial reminder, I never once needed to stop to ask students to listen, to stop talking, or to focus. In fact, the very opposite occurred. As I spoke to them like real human beings who I value and respect, I found I was faced with wide-eyed students, hanging on every word. What I found fascinating was that despite starting in a circle, as I talked more about Terry Fox, the students actually creeped closer and closer, until we were no longer in a circle but rather a tight bunch. It was like they felt and understood that this was much more than just a story book. We talked about Terry’s life, and yes, his illness and struggles. Children raised their hands to make connections to the text, sharing brief stories about people they know who have gotten sick. These moments of connection and sharing made us truly feel like a respectful community – more so than in any other moment this year. Our conversation did eventually turn to Terry’s death, and no, I didn’t brush it over. I view my students as capable. As we spoke, tears did well up in my eyes, as well as the eyes of some students. I am a firm believer that allowing students to see you show real and true emotion is a powerful thing. I am never ashamed of that, and it’s helped to build some really strong bonds in our classroom community. I did make a point of not dwelling on this part, but rather moving forward towards the idea that although Terry isn’t still with us, it’s our job to carry his message forward. This is something that very much resonated with the students. I can’t tell you the feelings I felt when we returned to class later and the students thought of messages to put on flags to wave and support at the run (“Terry Fox is a hero”, “I love you and miss you Terry Fox”, “Terry Fox I wish you were my friend”, “We will help”).

My heart felt warm and full and I checked in with myself and realized why I believe what I believe when it comes to young children and the “tough stuff”. Here was a meaningful experience, in which the students showed their uncanny ability to treat serious subject matter with the utmost respect, connect it to their own real lived experiences, work through their feelings and reframe it to move forward on a positive note. To me, that’s heaps more beneficial than avoiding a topic all together for fear that they can’t handle it. Time and time again, our very capable students prove that belief wrong. 

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Room Tour - now on Twitter!

I realized when going through pictures on my phone that a lot of the shots I took after my classroom set up were finished have never been uploaded!

If you're interested, head on over to my professional learning Twitter account ( for a partial tour of our space!

I will take some additional pictures in the coming days - as I look at these few pictures it's remarkable how the space has already transformed now that the students have entered the space! A huge part of my philosophy is that the students should be reflected in the space, with their work covering the walls (rather than pre-made commercial posters). It's just as much their space as mine. I've found this helps to build community, and also ensures that students have connection and context for what is displayed around them. Starting the year in a relatively blank space invites the students to make decisions about what should be displayed and how and shows them that you value and cherish their work.

At the end of the last school year, I had a very rewarding chat with a parent who remarked "When you explained at the start of the year that the walls were blank because you wanted the students to fill it, I wasn't sure...but looking around this room now, I get it!". Last year we made number panels out of found natural materials, photographed and displayed alphabet letters found in our Island community (inspired by the book City ABC), and filled our Art Studio wall with colour word collages created by the students. These were all things that I could have purchased and displayed on my own, but having the students be the ones to create them built such a strong level of pride in the room, and students and parents alike saw this.

Already this year my fabulous ECE partner Shelagh worked with our new community members to create a stunning name mural to be displayed later this week. Stay tuned for more pictures!

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Inevitable September Flurry: 4 Things to Focus On

Let's all take a deep breath together.

If your week has been anything like ours, it’s likely been a flurry of schedules, logistics, paperwork, organization, and oh yeah – on top of all of that, teaching too.

And thus begins the school year.

Don’t get me wrong – the start of the school year is actually one of my favourite times of the year (second only to the end of the year, when we get to look back and reflect on the growth we’ve seen!), but in all honesty we know the start of the year is sometimes equal parts challenging and inspiring. With the start of a school year, there’s always a settling in period – new teams are getting used to working together, or maybe you’re adapting to a new room, grade, or even school. Perhaps some routines and logistics in your school have changed or you’re part of an entirely different schedule. And you’re doing paperwork. Lots and lots of paperwork. Forms get counted, forms go home, forms come back, forms get filed, forms get sorted, more forms go home, etc. Even the most passionate and organized teacher has multiple moments of feeling buried under all this paperwork, change, and settling in period. It happens. But the point I want to make with this post is that alongside all these busy tasks, there are lots and lots of really amazing things happening too if you stop to notice them – so don’t lose sight.

This year I’m working hard on moving my focus away from the inevitable start of the year flurry, and am instead trying to focus more on the following four things I don’t want to lose sight of. Join me!

1) Teamwork makes the dream work!

I can’t actually take any credit for that handy slogan, I picked it up at a lovely dance studio I teach at (hey OSD!) but it perfectly encapsulates something to keep in mind as the school year begins. You, your ECE, any other Kindergarten teachers in the school can, and should, operate as a team. It’s only going to make everyone’s lives easier, and sometimes approaching a situation from someone else’s viewpoint can really open things up. Nobody can be expected to do this all alone – so make use of your team!  Delegate when you need to delegate, and ask for advice when you need it. Each team member brings a unique outlook and set of skills to the program, and good things happen when this becomes central to how you operate. The start of the year is an incredibly busy time – approaching it as a team is highly beneficial to all involved.

2) A matter of priority: human connection over busy work.

With so much of that aforementioned paperwork to get organized and out of the way, prioritizing your tasks is crucial. It boils down to what you believe September is meant for. For me, September is all about connecting personally with your new group of students, building the foundation for the rest of the school year, and making them feel safe, respected, and valued as part of your learning community. This becomes impossible when you let the paperwork and busy tasks take the forefront. Yes, these important organizational tasks need to get done, but at times when they don’t impede your ability to connect authentically with your students. If even part of your focus is on organizing the newsletters and packages to be sent home while a brand new student is trying eagerly to show you the picture they just drew, it’s time to reassess your September priorities. If you, like I do, value the new connections with your students above all else, that means that yes, we may need to take away part of our lunch break to get the paperwork done, or maybe even take it home that night to complete.

3) Analyze, think it through, rack your brain for more ideas – and then STOP!

Speaking of taking things home to complete, we all know what our nights are like in September (and all year, really). We go home and the wheels in our head keep turning and turning, going over what happened that day, what worked, what didn’t, what we can do differently next time, and what we still find challenging. We take advantage of the Internet, which connects us with educators around the world and we share experience and advice. This is a great thing and it shows our commitment to bettering our practice. However, this doesn’t mean we need to (nor should we) spend every single waking hour doing this. As a newer teacher, I’ve fallen into this trap before – thinking that a “good teacher” spends ALL their time thinking about their practice and how to improve their classroom. I’ve now realized the importance of giving yourself one or two hours a day for something else, anything else, unrelated to your job – working out, making a meal, reading a book, visiting a friend. Taking time away from analyzing your school day doesn’t make you a bad teacher, it makes you a teacher who understands the need to pace yourself and ensure you’re not heading for burn out. There’s a benefit to spending our hours at home thinking about our classroom, but there’s a bigger benefit to finding balance between this and the things we enjoy that recharge us for the next day.

4) Celebrate the small stuff, and realize that the big stuff takes time.

In terms of what’s happening in your classroom in September, I’m a big believer in going slow. As educators of young children, we know the importance of repetition, repetition, repetition. Class routines don't happen with the snap of your fingers. As well, not everything will work right away - but don't lose sight of the fact that eventually things will fall into place. A successful classroom community takes time. It takes multiple attempts, failures, successes, and resilience. In a couple of months, we'll be looking back at this time of the year and remarking on how far our students have come since then, and how our routines and expectations run seamlessly. Remember that just because it's not there after one week (nor should it be!) it doesn't mean it will be never there. And while you keep reinforcing these things to strengthen them in the long run, don't forget to celebrate the things that ARE working right away! Maybe your students did their best tidy up yet. Celebrate this and congratulate them! Maybe a quieter student suddenly raised their hand to contribute to a community discussion. Know that your efforts to create a safe and respectful space are working! It's easy to get caught up in the flurry of the start of the year - but don't forget to highlight the small successes that are happening in your classroom day after day. It's a daily reminder I give myself - less "Oh wow, I have so much to do in September!" (because talking about how much we have to do at the start of the year won't change the fact that it still needs to be done) and more "Oh wow, lots of good things are already happening, let's keep this up!".

Attitude is everything.