Tuesday, 28 June 2016

"It's Okay to be Different": Big Ideas in Kindergarten

There's no denying that a huge part of early years education is providing students a solid academic base that honours their emerging literacy and numeracy skills while preparing them for future grades. That being said, I've never felt that this is the primary focus of Kindergarten. While this "academic piece" is inarguably important - for me, it doesn't outweigh the other sort of learning that happens in our Kindergarten rooms. What other sort of learning do I mean? Not the student stuff, the human stuff. The resiliency. The confidence. The kindness. I was delighted to dig into the new Ontario Kindergarten Program and see that concepts such as well-being, self regulation, belonging, contributing, and problem solving are being given equal weight to literacy and numeracy. For me, more important part of Kindergarten has always been this - the big ideas. These take students just as far as the academics do, and I would argue that they actually assist in future academic learning by helping students become well rounded and well adjusted little people.

At the start of the year, a blank string of burlap bunting hung above our cubbies. I picked it up over the summer at Target, thinking it would fit into our classroom aesthetic and potentially be something the students could add their mark to. That being said, I really wanted something to emerge naturally and to let the students take the lead in how this bunting would be used in our physical space. A few months ago, at one of our daily community meetings, a student suggested we add some words to it - with a letter on each flag. I thought about this idea and challenged students to think about what sort of message we could put on it. I asked students "what are some of the big ideas in our room?" and "what do we want people who come into our community to know about us?".

If you haven't done this with your students yet, I can't recommend it enough. It was so eye-opening to see what big ideas students have really latched on to. Students suggested messages such as "Take a deep breath", "It's okay to make mistakes", "We respect everybody", "We are a community", and "It's okay to make mistakes". These are all some of the "big ideas" I talk about in early education and certainly things I have tried to pepper into our year together. Hearing it reflected back to me by the students in our community was really touching, and I am so glad these important ideas have taken root in our learning space. I remarked to my teaching parter that it was perhaps one of my proudest moments as a teacher.

Taking it to a vote, the students decided on the message "It's okay to be different". This, as you may know, comes to us by way of one of our all time favourite read alouds by Todd Parr. It's also a message that's been repeated daily, weekly, monthly in our classroom community as we learn to embrace and celebrate the differences within ourselves and others. We often talk about what a boring place our community would be if we were all exactly the same. We think about how friends who look different, come from different family types, speak different languages, etc., provide us with a chance to learn more about things we don't know. In so many ways this "big idea" is the mantra of our community this year.

Going about making the actual community banner was a process that brought us together. It turns out that there weren't enough letters for each student to do one on their own, but the students came up with the idea to pair up for some letters. We used several techniques we played with at our Art Studio throughout the year as a culmination of our learning (wire sculpture, sewing, collages with natural materials, finger painting, and drawing on hand made paper). It took us a while, but student energy and excitement for this "community banner" (as they started calling it) was high. When we eventually finished and hung it back on our classroom wall, the students cheered - and I had chills. What a powerful message to display in our space, and one that I hope students take with them as they move not only through school, but also through life. As a child who grew up feeling different, I only wish my own classrooms valued placing this big idea on the wall.

I've always said that I believe in starting the year with the physical space as a blank slate, to be filled with the work of our unique group of students that year. However, as I shared with the students after the banner went up, it's my hope that this remains on the wall year after year to share this "big idea" with future groups of Kindergarten students. To me, not only is it an important and vital message for everyone to hear, but it speaks volumes to not getting bogged down in only academics in school, but rather the "big ideas" that come along with living and learning. Yes, we teach reading, writing, and math, but we also teach acceptance, love, and care. To me, this is what it's all about.

What are the big ideas in your learning community?