Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Teaching as a TEAM

As I’ve embarked on my journey as an “teacher who blogs” I’ve found my brain filling with future topics I want to write about, with many being placed on the back burner for posts to come. However, before 2014 ends, there’s one more topic I’ve hoped to get to this year – the importance and power of a team teaching approach in a Kindergarten atmosphere.

If I had to select one single factor that leads to our daily successes in our classroom, it would be this – a true team approach. My initial team member is the Early Childhood Educator I work alongside day in and day out (and I am so very lucky – she is passionate, knowledgeable, kind, flexible – I could go on all day!), but my vision of a team approach extends outside the walls of the classroom. I am lucky to find myself a member of a team that includes the other Kindergarten teachers and ECEs in the school, other grade teachers, our admin, and yes, teachers and educators from around the world (thanks Twitter!). Approaching the job of Kindergarten teacher (one that I firmly believe is so much fun, but also highly challenging!) from a team approach really only makes our lives easier. Trying to tackle everything all on your own (Planning! Set up! Assessment! Documentation! Snowpants! Accidents!) is truly impossible – something will have to give, and as far as I’m concerned you are then doing a disservice to your students.

I spoke earlier about how lucky I am to be part of the great team I am part of. I don’t want to lead you on however and make you think that we magically all fell into the same place and all happen to share the exact same ideas about education. We are, in fact, all quite different and bring our own unique perspectives to the table. We do (and this is something I'd argue for all educators) all at the core have the same desire and end goal (to be the best educators we can be). However, the reality is that we also bring different experiences, education, and philosophies to the classroom. But this is what I want to get to – rather than throw our hands in the air and say “We can’t work together! We have different ideas!” (which sadly I see and hear from other teaching teams more often than I’d like to admit), we’ve embraced these differences, which I feel is key to our success as a team. We all know there is no singular “right” way to teach and as I said before, nobody can do it alone. By reframing the differences between you and your team members as opportunities for growth, you’re ensuring that you’re never stuck in a rut, rather continuing to learn about other ways to approach early childhood education. Plus sometimes having to defend your beliefs about education is a healthy thing and a good reminder of why you think what you think and do what you do. Whenever I feel stuck about how to extend a learning centre or how to interpret some documentation, I turn to the teachers and ECEs I work alongside with at school and suddenly they may comment on something I totally missed or encourage me to try something I hadn’t considered. 

This year, Shelagh (ECE) and I were quick to highlight our strengths and weaknesses and have gotten great about allowing each other to take the lead (my strength tends to be big picture whole group learning, and she excels at small group centres and extensions for learning). As a result, our program is richer and we’re both being used to our full potential. We also pay attention while the other takes the lead and pick up tips from each other so that we can continue our areas for growth. As far as I’m concerned, NONE of this would have happened if we stopped at the “we’re too different to work together!” excuse. In some ways, we are different, yes. But in so many ways (and more are uncovered everyday!) we want the exact same thing. It’s every team’s responsibility to find their differences, not run from them - embrace them, and structure their program accordingly. As I said earlier, I think it’s really enriched our program and it takes a lot of power to admit that you may not have all the answers yourself. But trust me, your students need teachers that can listen to each other, share what they have to offer, and work together.

Last year at the Ontario Reggio Association conference, I had the great delight and pleasure to hear educators from Reggio speak about their practice. Something that really stuck with me was how all educators sat down weekly to discuss their documentation of current inquires and provide suggestions to each other. The team I’m part of at the school level (three Kindergarten classrooms) have committed to doing this in the new year. I can’t wait to see how this further extends not only our team approach, but the successes students reach in our respective classrooms.

My message to other teachers (and myself!) is that differences between you and your team members are not negative things, but rather something to be celebrated. They are chances to teach each other, learn from each other, challenge your own preconceptions, and employ perspectives you may not have come to on your own. Having a team approach opens us up to alternate ideas, viewpoints, questions, and extensions. Essentially it’s giving us extra hands, eyes, brains, and hearts – things Kindergarten teachers need in bulk!

To close, one of my go to sayings – “Teamwork makes the dream work!”

And oh yes, - Happy New Year!

Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Photography Project: Honouring the Creative Spirit Over Crafts

One of the joys of working with young students is that they see the world from a unique perspective, sometimes surprising us with the way they see and represent the world around them. Rather than try to force them into the way we adults see the world, I try to honour this daily in the classroom. The approach I take to art seems to encapsulate this. In our classroom you’ll find an Art Studio stocked with a variety of ever changing open-ended art materials. What won’t you find?

A model made by me for the students to follow.

In my mind, there’s a big difference between honouring creativity and making crafts. There’s nothing wrong with crafts in other situations, but I feel they have no place in a truly child centred learning environment. Art exists in the eye of the artist, and time and time again students have blown me away with the stunning art they create when we provide them with materials, step back, and let them create. Sure, they may not create art in the way we imagined it, but it’s their art after all, not ours.

This topic “creativity vs crafts” seems to come up most often around the holidays – as Kindergarten tradition seems to dictate some sort of “make and take” – an art project to send home for the holidays. Some classes may opt for the handprint reindeer, the step by step snowman, or gluing pom poms onto the precut Christmas tree. Myself, I’ve never really understood how this is art – if anything it seems more like a gift to parents from the teacher than the child. The teacher devised the plan, the teacher prepped the materials, and the teacher explained step by step. The child simply went through the motions. I’m sure parents do in fact love any sort of handmade item by their child, but I’d argue allowing students a higher level of artistic and creative freedom in the process makes for a much more meaningful end product.

I had hoped to blog about this before the holidays, but didn’t want to spoil our class’ holiday surprise, as I know many of the parents read this blog. As a class, we’ve spent the last month and a half exploring the art of photography. This has fit perfectly into my philosophy around art being a way to capture a child’s unique worldview, rather than the teacher dictating how art “should look”. With careful use of an iPad, the students have captured stunning images of themselves, each other, and their learning. 

With help and input from the students, our dramatic centre transformed into a Photography Studio. Students had the chance to take self portraits, choosing their own pose, background, facial expression, etc. All creative choices were made by the students themselves. I simply stood by to make sure the iPad was being used safely (and it was, they were so careful! After a while I could leave that centre entirely and work elsewhere in the classroom fully trusting the students to take care of it). I had only intended to keep this centre open long enough to capture a self portrait of each student, but I quickly noticed the students interest lingering  here. As well, it was fascinating to see how students “warmed up” to the camera over time. Many of the self portraits taken the first day it was open were stiff, with neutral facial expressions. However, as the centre remained open longer and longer, faces relaxed, students brought props from around the classroom, and personalities really started to shine through. In other areas of the room we studied books of famous photographs and discussed what we liked about certain photos. I found it so interesting to see the photographs students were taking. While we as adults may frame and focus a photo in a certain way, the young students had their own (great!) ideas about how to make a photo interesting.

Towards the end of this project, students looked back at the portraits they had taken, and were asked to choose their favourite one. Again, this allowed them ownership over their art. It wasn’t me deeming which one looked “the best”, but rather them – and their unique perspective – making the final creative choice. With the help of our classroom’s fabulous Early Childhood Educator, students also designed and created their own picture frame to display their work. To honour our open ended approach to art, students were presented with a variety of decorative items, and made all choices about what they would use and where they would put it on their frame. They even made their own wrapping paper – mural paper was taped to our art studio table and students had full control over decorating it with bingo dabbers and markers!

This project was achieved without any imposition from the teachers about how art “should look”, and no two final products looked the same. In fact, it was very much about process over product, and creativity over step by step, one size fits all crafts. In the end, we sent home what I hope is a meaningful, one of a kind piece of art that captures each child’s unique creative spirit. I won’t lie – it was a big project and took a lot of time, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s entirely worth it. I can’t share the portraits themselves, as I don’t show students faces online, but trust me when I say that the photos are stunning and wouldn’t be out of place on any Art Gallery wall. Allowing students the main role in creating art resulted in photographs that were even better than I could ever imagine myself. They create art in a totally different way than an adult would, and that's an amazing thing. In fact, I'm pretty sure the Room 109 Photography Studio is now a permanent centre in our room - there's just so much potential here - for expression, for creativity, for representation, for learning - all while embracing a child centred approach.