Saturday, 15 November 2014

On becoming two

I have been thinking for a while about a way to introduce my wonderful teaching partner, ECE Pooneh Haghjoo. This year has been fast-paced and action-packed, much more than any year since perhaps my first year of teaching (hence a long time since my last post). Although in some ways this year has been the most difficult in memory, with issues and events popping up to complicate the usually busy but joyous job of teaching, I've had many moments of looking over at my partner and thinking: "How did I get so lucky?" Transitioning to FDK has come with many challenges, and not the parts that I anticipated being difficult: the project-based learning from following children's inquiries that our school board and our Ontario curriculum document support is a big part of our K team's culture. Learning to work around sharing the yard throughout the day with 3 other classes and more planning times to consider, more kids/less materials/equipment/space with large classes, among other items on the learning curve. Not difficult this year: finding a way to share the space I'd made my home over the last two years. I'd been told it can be something like a marriage, in that two people share intimate quarters, materials, kids and important responsibilities. I imagined I would be hard to work with: I'm always making plans based on kids' interests and questions, then throwing those plans (and assembled materials/provocations) away or aside when a more powerful learning experience comes up. I've so many loose threads on the go, like my browser which always has at least 5 tabs open... I'm not the calm, quiet one in the room. I'm excited about life and learning. I'm passionate about the environment as third teacher and learner collaboration as the key to inquiry. I'm also loud, often provoking students with musical or noisy invitations to play. I'm happier outside than in, especially because I believe I see the true personality of children when all of their senses are fully engaged in learning, which is much more possible outdoors in every season.

Over the summer I engaged in losing myself in the big, beautiful outdoors with my family. The growth in my kids, especially over our 2 weeks visiting family and friends in BC (shared in this earlier post), was incredible to me. So it was with some trepidation that I returned to school where we were entering our first year of FDK and me not knowing my partner's name or anything about him or her.

In some ways, it was not unlike moving schools like I did three years ago when I left RJ Lee PS in the north after eight years in the same spacious Kindergarten classroom. My commute was a long one but it was hard to leave a community, both my colleagues and the families of students, some of whom had two and three siblings join my class over my time there. I fell in love with the people, but also fell in love with the tree-lined creek that snaked past the school on our north boundary. Walks along the path were "trips to the jungle" and "forest adventures" to my students. We saw cotton-tail rabbits, geese and mallards aplenty, and even a pair of wood ducks one summer day. We went often to "visit our ducklings" every spring. And watched them grow from fuzzy yellow balls that "peep!" through the awkward fuzz and feather stage, always running after "mama duck". We peeked at the school through breaks in the leaf cover, and felt like no one could see us. Leaving RJ Lee was difficult for all the reasons mentioned above, but for me, having grown up in the countryside with a swimming pond and forests to wander in, leaving the little piece of wild behind was really hard. I couldn't imagine finding anything like it anywhere again.

It's not that different for our students, coming to our classes as their first experience of school. What will it be like? Will I make friends? Will it be safe? Will I have fun? Will I know what to do? Moving to Thornwood PS, I was delighted to discovery it was bordered by Cooksville Creek, and that it has the unique "no-mow zone" wild learning area just across the field from our classroom windows (described in this post). Likewise, while I was eagerly anticipating finally joining FDK, I was full of doubts and questions. Last year I had asked Tessa Heffernan, (a PLN friend whose outlook on the learner as capable always shines through in her writing) if she would share what makes her partership with Holly Diljee such a rich and rewarding relationship for the both of them. I was so touched by the obvious love and respect in the post, and it both inspired and worried me. How likely was it for me to be placed with someone who I could see eye-to-eye with on daily matters and big ideas? Tessa's words below, taken from her guest post (see here) really summed up what I had found with the OCT team at Thornwood over the last year, and what I really hoped would be possible with our new ECE partners.
A Joint Philosophy
I’m going to be honest and say that we simply lucked out when it came to similar philosophies.  We both are huge proponents of open-ended materials and activities, uncovering the curriculum through play, emergent learning, a natural and warm environment, choice, supporting and promoting self-regulation, building relationships and teaching skills as opposed to discipline, and making developmentally appropriate decisions.  These goals allow us to constantly focus on the ‘why’ behind our decisions.  If a school-wide activity comes up, we make a decision about participation based on our philosophy.  If we are considering a provocation or activity, we think about how it fits or does not fit with our programming.  If children are taking part in an “outside of the box” exploration, we generally ask ourselves two questions:  1. Are the children being safe?  2.  Are the materials being respected?

It's hard to believe now, only a few months in to our time sharing a classroom, but I feel like Tessa's words ring true for me in so many ways. Pooneh has a wealth of experience as a teacher first (back in Iran) but also ECE experience in Canada with early years teaching, mostly with toddlers. Her obvious love of the students is clear to all: our parents, students, and all staff at Thornwood. Her way of reading students' body language and participation to know when it's time to change our routine, our set-up or even simply the story being read aloud? She is a consummate teacher, always listening carefully to the students, looking closely for themes emerging that she can extend. She is patient with young students who say: "I can't" even when they very likely can. She is as fascinated with the way kids think (including their interesting wrong conclusions to experiences) as I am, which belies a powerful belief in kids as capable learners with gifts and ideas of their own. She is patient with allowing students to struggle when it will lead to greater understanding, but also willing to help when a tired child is past their ability to persevere. In short, Pooneh embodies the model of scaffolding learning in her approach to teaching. I wound up with a partner as solidly convinced about the rightness of emergent curriculum as I am.

Her sense of humour lifts me when I'm frustrated with some mundane issue after a busy day. Her joyful embrace of experiential learning, the aspect of a partner I was most worried about? It shines through in her words, actions, and daily documentation of our students learning together. At first I wasn't sure how to add a second user to our class twitter page, so I would simply retweet her posts onto our class page (as some of those I've included here). Now that we share the account as authors, I find myself looking at our page and grinning when I see a new post of a moment I witnessed from across the room (while I was engaged with other students) or often not present for (while one of us takes a group for walks as the other teacher remains in the kindergarten yard with students using outdoor equipment). I appreciate how she sees the growth of individual children as well as the bigger ideas unfolding in their play within groups. It makes me think of how rich our reports and interviews will be, looking at the wealth of observation and documentation she brings. I love the way she captures the joy on the students' faces: though we obscure faces to protect student privacy, the grins are evident in photos of experiences inside and out of the classroom. I also grin when I see a post "faved" by our own account, knowing Pooneh has just come across something I shared that she finds delightful.

Below are just a sampling of tweets that show the joyful learning that my partner has captured this year.
September 17th was "International Flip a Rock Day" and I knew whatever else came our way, I had a partner who saw the value of free exploration outdoors. 

"Look Closely" truly became the culture of my classroom last year when I was still 1/2 day (and thus no teaching partner at the time). It was obvious pretty quickly that Pooneh sees the magic in the littlest moments, too.

The above tweet shows one of Pooneh's many projects undertaken to answer a question or spark from one of the children. It may have grown out of this noticing by several children much earlier on. (tweet below).

One of Pooneh's many invitations for students to explore materials using their senses.

 No explanation (of above tweet) necessary.

Pooneh and the kids playing under the oaks.
 Moments of exploration that resonate for me with the
inquiry-learning approach as outlined in "Worms,
Shadows and Whirlpools".

Earlier week, Pooneh brought a child-sized table and chairs for the classroom, and yesterday she invited students to help her wash it and restore the loose trim with glue. A group of students jumped at the chance to help. I missed almost all of it as they were working away in the cubby area while I was working with others in the classroom, in particular capturing moments at the ice inquiry table we'd set up near the windows. Later that day I smiled when I saw this:

I captured these four girls playing with Pooneh in the cubby while waiting to be picked up at the end of the day: "We are drumming on the table that we worked so hard to clean" say JP and EW (click for vine clip).

Another delightful moment in the day occured during our long "Play & Learn" block in the morning. Students playing with the medical tools from the class "Veterinary Kit" decided to take care of Pooneh instead of animals or other student patients. I wonder now if it was because of the morning conversation at welcome circle when she shared she wasn't fond of the cold weather. She waved at me, holding her "prescription" from one girl: a trip to the beach was the doctor's order. More prescriptions followed.
I know that our story has just begun, and that much learning will occur before the year is over. I have much to learn from my partner and it is still early enough in the year that we continue to tweak our schedule and environment in order to meet our students' learning needs... but I am confident that from now on, classroom stories will be "our stories". I am extremely grateful for my partner. From there, much is possible.

Addendum: when I see the way all the Kindergarten classes have grown over the last few quick months, I'm truly pleased that our new ECE partners are equally on board with the adventure of child-lead, play-based learning as our OCT team are. I often fave tweets from both ECEs and class accounts (some are sharing account like Pooneh and I now do, other classes retweeting from ECE as we did) and I'm delighted at the rich conversations taking place between classes and over lunch in the staff room. Though our school experienced a painful loss this fall that touched us all (deeply felt in Kindergarten), our team is so full of passionate teacher/learners that I expect we'll continue to meet all challenges as a family. I feel incredibly fortunate to work with my Thornwood PS colleagues.

Nothing without Joy - Loris Malaguzzi

Sunday, 24 August 2014

the story of Pelly

Loose parts play involving math, art, storytelling... N's father fish helping to feed his babies in a symmetrical pool.

The first half of this post was first published in June on the Peel21st Project 184 blog, under the larger blog project lens of "What I Learned Today" (see original here). Upon reflection later after our final week of school, I found that I had learned a lot about my students even as the school year was coming to a close and I was no longer working so diligently to notice and document all the learning. I also noticed that, even when I knew I had to start breaking down the classroom and getting ready to let go of my students, I found it very difficult to turn off the part of me that is always looking closely, listening, documenting, prodding new questions and explorations.

After a brief introduction on the blog, I told the story as follows:

Yesterday after morning dismissal, I discovered a package in my mailbox. It was addressed to our class, from our friends in Mrs. Lowe’s Kindergarten in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I didn’t reveal the package to my afternoon class right away, as it was our outdoor “Play Day” and thus I didn’t expect to have a rapt audience; after all, my students had just seen the banquet of delights that awaited them upon arrival. The Kindergarten team had set up an impromptu water wall, a sand castle centre, weaving, picnic area, frisbees, bubbles, bikes and scooters out beyond our yard, chalk, paint, ball games, and more. These outdoor play days are the sort of event that older students remember fondly and ask about when they see you in the hall: “Hey, Ms. Fynes, are you guys having play day again this year? Do you need any helpers?” I dropped my mail on my desk, reapplied sunscreen, and headed outside for more fun.
While the package would be a surprise for my students, I had already learned about it a few days earlier. A little while ago I had sent a parcel to Connie Lowe, a Kindergarten teacher in Manitoba who I follow (both PLN and class) on twitter. She had admired a photo from our class, and commented on the beautiful beach glass the students were using in their creations. I showed this tweet to a few students and asked if we should send them some of our glass, as we have plenty to share. They liked the idea. Two girls also agreed to create some pictures to illustrate a favourite way to use the sand-softened glass pieces: making mandalas. I mailed the parcel with their illustrations and sent a “hint” to the class of what was on its way west.
Soon after we got a “Thank you!” tweet from Mrs. Lowe.
I showed the girls who’d helped assemble the gift, and that was the end, I thought.
Then Connie tweeted us a hint, in the form of a blog post, that we would be receiving a gift in return. Her post was so surprising it brought tears to my eyes. I wondered how my students would react to this generosity from a class so far away.
Today we sat down to our welcome circle, and opened our package. I was sad to note that the two girls who had sent notes and pictures were both absent today. This didn’t dampen the excitement in either class when I showed the tweet we had sent, to set the stage for why we had received this gift in the mail.
“Pelly” was received with a chorus of “ooh!” and “wow!” and quickly passed around the circle as we read the notes Mrs. Lowe’s class had sent us.
It impressed my students so much that students we didn’t know would share something so precious with us.  These words came up again and again: “They must miss Pelly”, “They are so nice”, “I love Pelly”. In the afternoon class I had time to share Connie’s story when I paraphrased her blog post and showed the movie her students made. My Ks were so full of wonder, and empathy (“She looks like she’s crying” was said about one photo in the movie) and ideas: “Maybe we could take a plane to get there. It’s far”. Students made Pelly a nest, improvised eggs with stones, made thank you cards, and asked me to tweet @MrsLowesClass several times to say thank you and to ask questions.
My name is Laurel, and I love the wonder of children and the power of social media to connect us to learners near and far. What I learned today was that my very young learners are quite capable of understanding how others feel, even when those others are people in another province. I learned that generosity abounds in my students. My students learned, yet again, that we have friends like us all around the world. (end of original post).

From the moment Pelly arrived, almost all of my students (both morning and afternoon classes) became engaged in new inquiries, all spurred on by the arrival of our new provocation. Pelly inspired students to inquire into pelicans, naturally, but also into feathers, flight, nests, fishing birds, swimming and diving, geography, social etiquette (the desire to send thank you notes and reciprocal gifts was overwhelming), the loneliness of moving to a new place, and more. I can't help but wonder what learning may have come if it weren't the last days of school! Here follow many of the tweets that came out of our room once Pelly arrived. The thought that went into the actions seen in photos and vine clips below (e.g., exploring flight with feathers and paper airplanes, creating nests and finding loose parts food for Pelly, writing letters and making pictures for our faraway friends in Ms. Lowe's class) proved to me again the power of following a spark or provocation through all the myriad ways students wish to interpret their wonders.

While the student engagement was powerful, I have to admit the teacher engagement for me was a highlight of a wonderful year, full of such rich moments. (Another collaborative inquiry shared with Kelly Wright's class, a near-neighbour just west of us in Mississauga, will feature in an upcoming post). The connection made by sharing the wonder and delight of our classes captured the imagination of our principals, both supporters of inquiry-based, student-driven learning. The way our young students took initiative, showed their compassion and their generosity, and continued to be actively engaged in their education right into their last days of school impressed upon all of us the importance of giving our students the materials and letting them dictate how to interpret them. We were far apart but met in wonder, because all roads lead to Hawkins.

As I look back on what was an astounding year in terms of all the explorations that took place, I also look forward to seeing more exciting projects unfold with our twitter friends, now following our new class name @109ThornKs as our school transitions to FDK. The name change represents an exciting change for our class: we are now two educators and one, all-day class. Pooneh Haghjoo and I will be learning together how the days will flow, and how our learning community will grow. I'm excited to learn and teach alongside my experienced and passionate new partner Pooneh.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

musings on what really matters, from a valued friend

I don't wish to take much space here because the beauty of Tessa's post is perfect in its entirety. I do, however, want to share how it came to be I was able to bring this unique voice here. There are many people with whom I've made a connection online (through #ReggioPLC twitter chats or spontaneous conversations) that goes beyond "twitter follower/PLN". There is something about the way we share a view of children (as infinitely capable, curious, fascinating) and teaching (as a wondrous journey, forever deepening and growing out into our lives) that creates real friends through the ether. So naturally, when there is a chance to meet these inspirations in "real life", I jump at it. Tessa and Holly came to Toronto for an Ontario Reggio Association conference in the spring, and though I was unable to attend I was not going to let the chance to break bread go by. We wound up having quite the emergent curriculum model walking tour of downtown Toronto (that was my fault, imagine a toddler taking you for a tour: smells, sights, sounds all stop me in my tracks constantly). When we finally sat down for a cuppa, I felt like these two wonderful educators were long-lost friends. It was an interesting coincidence that Tessa sent me her draft during the week of the second annual "Reggio-inspired Summer Intensive" course where many of us thought about the #ReggioPLC voices we were missing, such as Tessa, Tracy, Nancy, and many others. Teaching through the lens of joy, discovery, curiosity and possibility does make life and friendship seem so rich. 
What follows is Tessa's story, with all photos by Tessa or Holly.

A Teaching Partner Forever Changes You

I was thrilled when Laurel asked me to write a post for her blog...ten months ago!  In true Laurel fashion, she gave me complete free reign over what to write and I mulled over a variety of topics as I worked my way through my first year in Full Day Kindergarten.  After the year was finished, I thought it would be the perfect chance to share some of our learning.  But as I wrote what I thought was going to be an overview, one element continued to stand out:  the educator team in FDK.  Within everything I wrote emerged the experience of working, collaborating, and dreaming with a teaching partner and so here I share with you our journey.

Words could never fully capture the impact of teaching alongside a partner and, more specifically, with Holly Diljee.  Let’s be honest here - there is a period of time before beginning the journey with a teaching partner of extreme trepidation.  Will my partner be okay with my spontaneous nature and habit of making regular changes to plans throughout the day?  Will I feel like a fool doing my typical singing/dancing routines in front of another adult?  Will our philosophies be similar?  What if we disagree about things?  How will we know who does what throughout the day?  But all of this trepidation is now a distant memory.

Holly reading a story outdoors.

Planning & Creating Our Environment Together

I knew things would be amazing in the first email I received from Holly.  I was fairly certain we would be a great match.  And then we began working together and I felt beyond fortunate that our paths had met up.  I think the first time I realized what an impact Holly was going to have on my teaching was when we sat down together to plan out our room.  She had such innovative ideas and considered elements that I had not thought of before.  She suggested that we put our dramatic play centre in the middle of the room to act as a divider and, through conversation, we realized it also sent a very strong message about what we valued in our classroom.  I wanted our couch to be within eyeshot when entering the room to send a welcoming message and she suggested that it be placed within steps of the doorway.  Our conversations began to open up a whole world of “why nots” and “I wonder ifs” and “wouldn’t it be great if we”.  In fact, just the other day I texted Holly to tell her I was getting my hands on a beautiful tea service set thinking strictly about using it with water.  She immediately responded with excitement about a provocation with various bags of tea and, like that, the idea grew.

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After initially setting up our environment or adding, changing and adapting our space, we always step back and watch.  Are there challenges within our design once the children are in the space?  If we see something that isn’t working, we first adapt the environment before thinking about the “behaviour” piece.  For example, when we first set up our couch, there was a ledge along the back.  Children were standing on the ledge and somersaulting over top.  While this is excellent gross motor exploration (!), it became a huge safety issue which is our priority.  We hypothesized that if we were to set something along the ledge that was beautiful and required care and gentleness, that the couch would become a place for quiet and calm again.  We set boards along the back of the couch and placed potted plants on the boards.  Without repeatedly discussing flipping over the couch, a small change in the environment redirected the children.  Of course, there are many times where discussion (reciprocal discussion) is needed but we try, where possible, to begin by making changes within the environment.

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Rich Reflection as a Team
I think the element that stands out most about our relationship is the deep level of reflection that comes throughout the day.  We talk about student interests, extensions to provocations, fairness of expectations, changes to scheduling, adaptations to environment, level of engagement, rich questioning, effective documentation, children’s individual needs, curriculum connections, small group focuses, developmentally appropriateness,  embedded assessment - the list could go on and on.  We are often asked when we find the time to talk.  Early in the year, we had a huge piece of chart paper where we could each write down emerging interests we noticed and ideas for materials or next steps.  It is certainly true - there is never enough time in the day to fit in all of the richness of conversation.  Unless engaged in exploration/documentation/conversation with a child or group of children, we talk throughout the whole day.  Sometimes it is a quick flash of a photo on the iPad from across the room.  Often it is a pointing at a group of children engaged in an activity or a quick “Did you see what so-and-so was up to over there?” with a knowing smile.  Regularly we reflect on next steps/materials for a provocation or centre.  Many times it’s a quick stop to list off things such as “patterning, measurement, sorting, positional language” as one of us documents children building at the block centre.  And when we run out of time during the day, we Tweet photos or thoughts back and forth when there is time at night.  

A Joint Philosophy
I’m going to be honest and say that we simply lucked out when it came to similar philosophies.  We both are huge proponents of open-ended materials and activities, uncovering the curriculum through play, emergent learning, a natural and warm environment, choice, supporting and promoting self-regulation, building relationships and teaching skills as opposed to discipline, and making developmentally appropriate decisions.  These goals allow us to constantly focus on the ‘why’ behind our decisions.  If a school-wide activity comes up, we make a decision about participation based on our philosophy.  If we are considering a provocation or activity, we think about how it fits or does not fit with our programming.  If children are taking part in an “outside of the box” exploration, we generally ask ourselves two questions:  1. Are the children being safe?  2.  Are the materials being respected?  This can lead to water on the floor and sand in the dramatic play centre which can also lead to creativity, imaginative play, ownership of materials, and responsibility in tidying.  
It can also lead us to make adaptations in the classroom such as realizing more materials were needed at the dramatic play centre to bake with and making a batch of playdough/cloud dough.  We also took time to write up our philosophy to be shared with supply teachers.  We wanted to ensure that we were explicit about our thinking to allow for comfort for guest teachers and to ensure that children were able to explore and investigate in a similar way to when we were in the classroom to ease the change.  We have discussed writing up a formal philosophy to display to make our thinking visible in the classroom.  That’s not to say that we don’t discuss ideas from different perspectives.  There are times when we share an idea and say “What do you think?” and we have a conversation rooted in our philosophy that helps us to make a choice.  No decision is ever made solely by one of us.  We are a team.  

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Intentional and Thoughtful Programming

    As we make decisions about our programming and schedule, we always try to bring ourselves back to our philosophy.  If we believe x, they we are demonstrating it by y.  

If we believe self-regulation should be a huge focus, then we need to provide choice and opportunities for children to self-regulate.  We decided very early on that we would invite children to choose when they would have their snack.  We designated a snack table where children could freeflow from discovery centres to snack and back to discovery centres.  Early in the year we heard children saying “I’m hungry” and we assisted in co-regulating by making suggestions.  It was amazing how quickly the children moved to simply going to get their snack when they needed it.  Children in our room are able to eat throughout the day whenever they choose.  I think of myself and how it is impossible for me to concentrate or be emotionally in control when I am hungry so this is pivotal for our 3, 4, and 5 year olds.

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    If we believe that children are competent and capable, then we need to provide materials that demonstrate this belief as well as a great deal of time for self and guided exploration.  We have many glass materials in the classroom and have discussions about how we take care of such materials.  We have steered away from commercial and plastic materials in favour of more natural and open-ended things.  The result of this seemingly simple change has been astounding.  We are continually amazed by the level of creativity and imagination with these rich,
open-ended materials and I can confidently say having used predominantly bright, colourful, “made-for-kids” resources for years that materials play a huge part.

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    If we believe that children are capable of driving their own learning, we need to provide choice attached to the interests we see demonstrated.  Throughout the year, children had many choices about joining one of two inquiry groups or discovering independently.  Often we have one group outside and one inside and children are invited to choose.  On Fridays, we team up with our other kindergarten classroom and one room hosts a more quiet, low-key activity (yoga, educational video, etc.) while the other opens their centres and children make choices based on how they are feeling.  We offer choice of where to sit at all times including during story time where some children choose to sit on the couch, others on stools, and many on the floor.  All of these choices play a huge part in building self-regulation skills.

(One of our inquiry groups that children could choose to take part in)

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(A group who chose to explore outdoors)
A small group worked to write the kinds of paint we needed to order.

    If we believe that all children are on their own journey, then teaching explicit skills should meet each child where they are.  Our kindergarten curriculum leader began to focus on the topic of small groups and after hearing the message MANY times, I finally had an ‘a-ha!’ moment as I looked around to see a child who was already reading and a child who did not yet know the difference between letters and numbers sitting for the same learning activity.  This was a huge moment of change in programming for me.  Holly and I take turns leading small groups within math and literacy instruction.  Our theory around this (particularly in the area of math) became if we explicitly teach a skill (e.g. sorting by categories) and purposefully put materials out (a variety of loose parts mixed together in the sand table with bowls) to support this exploration, we should see the language/skills emerging with in play more often.  We were amazed by the amount of embedded assessment we were able to do during discovery centres based solely on some explicit teaching and being intentional with materials.

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(A child investigates our loose parts table)

Multiple Perspectives in Documentation
Documentation with a partner was probably the piece that I was most excited about moving into Full Day Kindergarten.  I was not disappointed!  Holly has the most incredible knack for capturing not only a gorgeous photo but at the precise moment of discovery.  She has shared many of her tips with me along the way.  It is the most beautiful thing to be working in two different groups and being able to come together afterwards to see what the other group had been exploring through documentation.  It also allows us to make suggestions to each other about next steps within a group project.  
Sometimes one of us will focus on taking photos while the other writes down direct quotes from children so that the two can be put together.  I’ll never forget the moment when we discovered we had been documenting the same exploration but from two different angles richly capturing the investigation.  Holly regularly emails me photos/learning stories that I post directly on our class blog.  We are eager to be able to root ourselves more deeply into analysis of documentation next year and hope to invite parents to a few documentation evenings to share with them, too.  

Holly captures a magical moment of discovery (photos above and below)

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Relationships Rather Than Management
I think the biggest impact that working with Holly has had on me is around the way she talks to children.  It is absolutely remarkable.  Let’s just clarify something here - I have never been a yeller or a drill-sergeant.  But for the first month of school, I found myself stepping back in awe and watching Holly work through challenging situations with the most patience I had ever seen.  Then, I began implementing her strategies when I was supporting challenges.  
The first thing I noticed was the amount of time she would wait.  With two educators, problems no longer needed to be solved immediately.  Think about it - when, as adults, do we ever solve a problem within a five minute span?  Often we walk away, cool down, think about it, come back, and discuss.  So why should children not be given the same opportunities?  Is this not what supports developing self-regulation?  
One day, I asked her how she knew how long to wait.  She shared that she was watching the child’s body for cues and when he began to slow himself down and appeared calm, then she began to talk.  I sheepishly thought back to previous days where I was following the child around talking at him and wondering why he wasn’t listening!  She said she always mirrored his feelings first and then came up with a solution.  
As the year went on, I think at some points we both wondered if those observing us felt like we were ignoring challenges.  But we had discovered that by giving time where needed, both the child and ourselves were in a better space to discuss next steps instead of trying to talk about things in the heat of the moment.  
    Working with a partner has made me much more reflective about my practice and much more aware of my own areas for learning.

Collaborative Reporting and Parent Communication

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I will admit (to boos and tomato throwing from some!!) that I am one of those people who does not mind writing report cards.  I see it as an additional chance to give parents a glimpse into their child’s world highlighting their learning along the way.  But writing with a partner has made me love reporting.  Two sets of observations, two sets of photos, two sets of learning stories, two sets of views of a child’s interests, and two sets of ideas for next steps.  It doesn’t get richer than that!  
Holly has a real strength in capturing the essence of a child both in reporting and at parent conferences.  She thinks outside of the box when it comes to skills.  I remember struggling to report on the fine motor skills of a child and, after a moment, she began to rhyme off things such as “Well, he does his zipper up with no problem, he attaches small Lego pieces together, he manipulated Pokemon cards with no challenges, he opens his lunch containers with ease”.  I had been so stuck in trying to assess from the perspective of writing or drawing that I had completely missed the many other ways this child was demonstrating his fine motor skills.  Working with a partner is full of ‘a-ha’ moments such as those.

    We’ve also had families with questions about the value in play-based and emergent learning.  Being able to discuss as a team a response rooted in our philosophy, the Ontario curriculum, and direction from our board along with what we know about what is developmentally appropriate adds so much richness to discussions.  These conversations also drive us to think more critically about our practice.  Do we need to be more explicit on our blog or in our parent conferences about the learning taking place?  Would it be beneficial to have a parent night where we have more a formal conversation about play-based learning and our philosophy?  These discussions drive us to want to refine our practice and point to areas where we may need to spend more time reflecting about how to adequately share the incredible learning taking place within our walls each day.

    So many teachers talk about that feeling of isolation within the classroom and while I think this is improving with collaboration, team teaching, and social media, the feeling still exists.  Teaching alongside a partner removes that feeling entirely but it takes a willingness to be vulnerable in acknowledging your areas of need and being completely open to the knowledge and expertise of a partner.

It’s that encouraging look across the classroom or chat after a moment with a child who is struggling.  It’s knowing that there is someone to offer advice prior to a difficult conversation with a parent.  It’s the utter joy in observing moments of rich and meaningful learning and the celebration that comes along with it as a team.  And it’s the the beauty, if you’re so lucky, of dreaming of big possibilities for another year together.

*Note: Please note that Tessa and Holly will be able to see and respond to comments to this post here.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

the fourth teacher ... is time

I recently returned from nearly two weeks in spectacularly beautiful BC. It was our first whole family trip out of the province in a few years, and we were able to pack a lot of visiting with family (our generous hosts, my in-laws, and many extended family) and friends. We were last altogether in BC in 2006, when our family had only three (our daughter was born the next year), though my kids and I visited two summers ago on our own. Every time I've been on the west coast, either for business or for a visit, I've found it terribly hard to leave. The beauty of the environment, whether downtown Vancouver, deep in the old-growth forest in Cathedral Grove, on the green trails or sandy beaches in Stanley Park or the rocky shore in Departure Bay, all leave an impact on us. This time, however, I had the added lenses of #lookclosely, #ReggioPLC and #hawkinsinspired learning as a part of my worldview. It was natural, then, that everywhere I looked I saw evidence of the importance of the environment as third teacher.

Many in my twitter PLN take risks both in their own learning (throwing out the tried-and-true, trying new ways of seeing and teaching) and in their teaching (sharing the planning with their students, straying from the widely-used methods to adopting a research-backed inquiry stance). The two early years educators quoted below touch on this idea again and again in their writing about learning and teaching. Meeting both of them last year, although briefly, had a great impact on the way I see myself and my students as learners.

Suzanne Axelsson's post about the environment as integral to the learning asks an important question:
"Are you allowing the children to experience sensory activities - to use all their body - all their senses? Are you including smell, sound, touch, sight and taste into the design of your setting?"

Petra Eperjesi's goodbye post to her lovely K-pals, reflects upon their growth through adventure:
"As the minutes ticked by without incident, as I watched the kids slowly pick their way down the side of the gully like mountain goats, help each other get unstuck from the mud, fall in the creek and get back up again, I started to relax. And then I noticed that, without any input from me, each little group of students had chosen an activity in the gully with a level of risk that was totally appropriate to them. Those who chose to stay at the top and not even venture down the steep hill were those K-pals who I would have wanted to nervously micromanage had they come down, and there are many K-pals who I would not have permitted to rappel down the side of the gully, but those kids were not even interested in that activity. Most interestingly,... risk seemed to be the dominant factor in their choice of activity..."
Louise's tweet today was timely as the article outlined the need for more challenge in play. I particularly appreciated the inclusion of the six categories of "risky play" which are integral to children developing an awareness of their limitations and capabilities.

"When I look out the window, I see little kids swarming the equipment. But the older kids stand in bored-looking groups, huddling against the fence, shuffling with impatience as they wait for the bell to ring. A few kick around a soccer ball, but mostly there’s nothing for them to do.
We have become a society completely paranoid about possible dangers during play. Most kids are not allowed to engage in risky play, which Norwegian early childhood education professor Ellen Sandseter defines as the following: (1) exploring heights; (2) handling dangerous tools; (3) being near dangerous elements, such as fire and water; (4) rough-and-tumble play; (5) experiencing speed; (6) exploring on one’s own. Parents who do allow their children the freedom to play “dangerously” are considered negligent." Katherine Martinko

 I am already consciously making an effort to say "Yes" to students when years ago I would have said "No"; "No" to climbing a fence, building structures above my head, using scissors for materials thicker than cardboard, pouring water away from the safe confines of the water table, using loose parts or play dough away from their original centre. I'm not saying I always say yes, but I use my knowledge of the context (the student, the material, the situation) as my guide, and try to remember that there is always a lesson to be learned from taking a negotiated risk. Sometimes I don't say yes or no, but turn the question back to the students.
Still, this beautiful setting and freedom from our usual schedule offered something more. I kept seeing how being away from home where everything is different and new was like my kindergarten classroom for the new students who join in September. Travel can be overwhelming or delightful or possibly both. Having "fresh eyes" can be exciting or exhausting. So what exactly is it about a vacation that makes it so much more memorable than daily life? In a word: time.

 Over the week, when I had quiet moments on the beach before the family awoke, I began to formulate the idea that would become this post. One afternoon I used the voice memo app to record my thoughts while I walked along the tide pools and rocks, listening to the sounds of children laughing, gulls keeling, and waves lapping the shore. What follows, interspersed with tweets from our time in Yellow Point and on the mainland, is my memo more-or-less verbatim (names removed).

Why is a vacation a time when the most learning happens?
Self-regulation has a chance to develop through self-discovery (your boundaries, comfort, natural consequences).
You can follow your nose spend all day in the pool, walk alone on the beach or spend time with friends.

 No expectations of have to do, when to get up, when to go to bed.
All the usual rules are out the window. You can be some one different from the image you hold in your head day to day, you can be more free.
I learned that I can cross the pool the whole way from one side to another, on one breath. This is something I've never tried before. Generally when in the pool (at home) it's rushed, I'm worried about other things, I'm watching the kids or the clock (because swimming time will run out).
Being on vacation free frees up a lot of time to follow your nose... your interests.
I spend early hours on the beach when everyone else wants to sleep in.

 Again, self-regulation: if your body says sleep, sleep. If you want to get up and explore, that's absolutely fine. There are no rules when you're on vacation (like my kids have at school: recess is short, bathroom breaks, get up early, eat before dark) except have a good time.

 Watching my kids pushing themselves, not because we're telling they have to but because it's fun, because they want a challenge, because they have hours and hours to develop their idea.
Watching my girl jump in the pool and spend hours and progressively push herself further down into the pool, deeper and deeper, testing herself to hold her breath, pushing herself to do new tricks and flips, but also watching her do this with her friends: "Oh yeah, let's see if you can hold your breath for 2 minutes", "Let's see how far we can go down", "Can you touch the bottom?"

And everything becomes a game - it's impossible to get bored when you're in a pool with lots of other kids and lots of tools, because all of those toys become a game: whether it's a ball or a pool noodle, or jumping in or splashing... the rules are made on the fly and the challenges become part of the game (friends made on the fly, too).
Watching how some kids choose to spend time in the pool and others go right to the ocean, stick their hands in, pick up crabs. It's all about your comfort level and your interests. Self-regulation needs time.

 Watching my girl grow, change from very squeamish and nervous to touching a snake, hauling up traps and sticking her hand in a crab trap, watching a fish get killed and filleted in front of her eyes (and later eating both for dinner), I see you learn more on vacation then you ever could in school, when everyone has to do it at the same time, and when everybody's watching to see your reaction, and there's a right way and a wrong way.

My memo ended there, with me answering my kids who had come down to join me on the rocks. My big aha, that environment is key but that time is needed to truly explore the environment and one's self in it... continues to grow.  I see the importance of inquiry, of emergent curriculum: there is something to be said for being on vacation and being able to develop your interests and challenge new skills at your own pace. It's also valuable to share those insights and challenges with others who help you process and reflect on all that you're experiencing. How fortunate that I was able to meet up with twitter friends, both "old" (well, I did manage to meet Heather once before) and new.

 While on the plane heading back home, I opened up my now dog-eared copy of Natural Curiosity, a document that deeply resonates with me and my practice. I had read several chapters on the way west, and now I was further along and finding so much that aligned with my experiences on vacation. I flipped to the back cover to retrieve my bookmark and was happily surprised to recognize the location of the photo (which I had admired before but never could place): it was the lily-covered pond  in Stanley Park where we had just stopped at a few days before to watch a great blue heron stalking frogs. I have no doubt the authors felt a connection to the place, a park so wonderful my daughter had talked about it for two years since our last visit.

Stanley Park remains one of my favourite places in the world, a place so full of wonder: mountains, ocean beaches, deep forest trails, marvelous gardens, streams and lakes, birds and creatures of all sizes. The huge scale of the place invites you to climb, jump, crawl in a hollow tree, splash in a stream. When I picture the elements of an engaging learning environment, the shore on Vancouver Island and all the delightful areas of Stanley Park come to mind.
  One aspect of engaging learners in outdoor exploration is the deeper engagement in caring for the environment, or stewardship:
"In an environmental context, stewardship refers to human actions that contribute to a sustainable future for humans, animals, and plant species alike. 
Acts of stewardship grow from a deep respect for, and desire to protect, the balance of nature within the Earth’s biosphere." page 54, Natural Curiosity

A crow on White Rock beach. Plenty of crows, gulls, and herons, but the plentiful starfish from last trip two years ago were reduced to one seen below the water line. Scientists have reported their disappeance all along the coast.

A place you love is a place you will care about. I fell in love with BC but likewise I fell in love with the flora and fauna at my school when my class spent hours outside to #lookclosely at our natural surroundings. I wonder what stewards my students might become with their deep knowledge of their adopted trees, favourite bug hunting spots, hideaways in the no-mow zone, and more. I think back to that tweet above, about how self-regulation develops through the exploration and testing of one's limits. Over time, too, knowledge and affection develops. 
“The only instruction for how to be in a place with a child, it seems to me, is to be wholeheartedly attentive, genuinely present.  Which means, sometimes, conversation, and sometimes, quiet.  Sometimes, naming, sometimes, marveling.  Being present, together all the time, in generous and interested relationship with each other and with a place.” Ann Pelo
We must discover our place in the natural world. Together. (review of Ann Pelo's "The Goodness of Rain")