Thursday, 19 November 2015

"Paper, books! Coffee!": Who sets the rules in classrooms?

"Hands on top!"

"That means stop!"

For the past few years of my teaching career, this has been my go-to call and answer for when someone in our classroom community has a message that needs to be heard by others. It's always worked, and the students really latched on to it - often using it independently to announce their own messages (which I love - it's not just up to the teachers to speak and be heard, this is something that we foster in the students as well!). Say "Hands on top" to anyone who's passed through Room 109 in the last few years, and they'll know what it means...

...that is, until this year.

Within the first two weeks of this new school year, my teaching partner and I reflected on how we'd noticed this little trick didn't seem to work in the way it used to. Some students wouldn't respond at all, while some others would mindlessly reply "That means stop!", while not stopping at all, but continuing on with their own independent tasks. I'm a firm believer in reflecting on every element of your practice to ensure everything works and nothing is ever done just because "this is how we've always done it". With that in mind, we set out to see what we could do about this.

As blog readers may know, our major focus is always community building in our classroom - as I believe that it creates a solid and crucial foundation for all other learning to stem from. That being said, I wasn't about to spend any of my own time Googling "ways to get students' attention" - instead, I opened it up to the capable and clever students in our community. At one of our morning meetings I shared my feelings about how this method wasn't working in the same way it used to. Not surprisingly, most students agreed. We decided together that perhaps we needed to try something different - that we had just gotten so used to this chant that it seemed to lose it's actual meaning. Believing what I believe about who's in charge of classrooms (all of us - never just teachers), I asked our class for suggestions, which led us to the following five options:

- keeping "Hands on top...that means stop"
- "Stop, look, and listen! Ok!"
- clapping a pattern and having the others repeat it back
- "Paper, books! Coffee!"
- "Listen, look here! Bubblegum!"

In taking student suggestions, I was adamant to honour all contributions. While I felt that "Hands on top" was no longer effective, some students wanted to keep it so we included that in the list of ideas. As well, it was easy for me as an adult to think that options such as "Paper, books! Coffee!" and "Bubblegum!" probably wouldn't work at all, but I truly wanted to honour these ideas from students and allow them to come to their own conclusions about their effectiveness. With that in mind, we committed to trying these five options over a course of a week, one a day, before voting at the end to decide which one we wanted to use this year. I asked students to be open to trying each idea and to keep the following lens in mind:

- Is it effective? (i.e. does it work at getting our attention?)
- Is it easy to remember? (i.e. short, catchy, and does it remind us what we need to do?)
- Does it make us feel good? (i.e. being mutually respect instead of rules, yelling, and "teachers being in charge")

This became our quasi success criteria for the experiment, which was important as I wanted the students to select the one that they truly felt worked the best for them. As a teacher, I have no interest in coming into a classroom and setting my own arbitrary rules - I think it's significantly richer and meaningful to give students a role in creating our community's expectations and routines. By sharing this responsibility it not only practices what we preach about our classroom belonging to all of us, it also encourages students to follow those routines because they had a hand in creating them.

So, I know what you may be thinking - what happened next?

Well, here we are, mid November, and the call and answer method selected by students after sharing their own ideas and trying each one out is "Stop, look, and listen! Ok!"...and does it ever work! As predicted, students felt was effective, was easy to remember, and made them feel respected. They did agree that while the options about coffee and bubblegum were fun to say, they didn't achieve the intended goal. I could have shot down those ideas as soon as they were given, but I don't feel that's respectful, nor would it have allowed them to construct their own learning and opinions through actual experiences (and that's what it's all about!).

If you don't already, have a look at your own classroom routines and ask yourself - does it all work the way it needs to? - and if not, don't be afraid to turn things over to the students to come up with a solution. Time and time again, I see they are capable, helpful, and insightful. For that reason, and more, I believe in involving them in the process of establishing classroom routines. To me, having the teacher select all of the rules, routines, and expectations sends an unspoken message that I'm defintely not ok with.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Classroom as a Garden: How Setup Evolves Throughout the Year

Anyone who knows me knows that I love a good analogy, and my favourite one to speak about with regards to early childhood education is the idea of a classroom as a garden. I love to speak about that idea with my colleagues, and have been wanting to blog about it for a while now to share my thoughts.

Like many educators, I posted photos online in early September of our classroom setup. I did this for a variety of reasons - sharing ideas with other teachers, hearing their feedback, and of course, a general sense of pride in our hard work in transforming the space for a new year. However, I'm a firm believer that the idea of "classroom setup" is not a September singularly concept, but rather an ongoing and transforming idea as the school year progresses.

In so many ways, I like to approach classroom setup as I would a garden. But what do I mean by that?

Like a garden, classrooms need weeding. My ongoing professional goal over the past few years has been to streamline and de-clutter our learning environment. I've found, like gardening, the weeding process is ongoing (and sometimes never ending!), but really so worth it. By clearing out the weeds (classroom clutter) it allows the blooms (or the purposeful and meaningful learning) to not only be seen, but appreciated in their full glory. In fact, many plants (or students!) grow better in these sort of spaces - spaces that are pruned and tended to with love and care.

Like a garden, classrooms have different seasons, months, weeks. Just like certain seeds to be planted at certain times in a garden, certain ideas or learning provocations may be more successful when they are presented at the right time for your unique students. For me, this speaks volumes to the idea that while there are huge benefits of sharing ideas online, we need to be mindful that we're not simply plunking down ideas in our rooms that seem nice, but rather thinking critically if they work for our students at this time. Perhaps some concepts or learning areas would be more successful if we waited, like gardening, until the "right season" for that growth. Like in a garden, we try to plant seeds and sometimes they take, and sometimes they don't. We're not against letting some go, and revisiting (or trying again with those seeds) when the time/season is right.

Like a garden, our classrooms need to be sufficiently supplied with what they need to grow - and this may not be the same for every plant, or centre. Learning Centres should change as your students grow and develop. We like to start sparse, allowing students to master the intended learning in our classroom without being overwhelmed, but as our year progresses and students show such remarkable mastery, growth, and development as Kindergartens do, our Learning Centres change with them. By adding additional materials and learning materials at the right time, we contribute to the success we see. But just how some plants need full shade and some need part sun, not all Learning Centres will need the same thing. Some may be more open ended/student directed while others need a specific teacher supplied provocation or prompt. My teaching partner and I always laugh because whenever we're done tending to a specific Learning Centre and giving it what it needs to be used successfully by our students, we turn around and see that other Learning Centres are now in need of the same thought and attention. And thus the gardening process continues! Like I said before, the idea of classroom setup has never been just a start of year thing to me, as I believe it's never ending - just like gardening, it's a year long process.

I'm now going to share some photos here of our space in September, knowing that several of my upcoming blog posts are going to detail specifically how the space has evolved and changed the more we get to know the unique students in our community this year - we've weeded and weeded and weeded, and while many seeds have taken and bloomed, some didn't take - and thus we reflected on what we neglected to consider, and several centres have been tended to and even changed so that they can be successful.

To me, our classroom is like a garden - not only for the reasons listed above, but also in the sense of being full of beautiful blooming minds demonstrating ongoing growth. Feel free to comment your thoughts on this analogy, and how you've seen it interpreted in your space.