Trust the children

These are challenging times. Those of us who like to be in control of our situations (ummm…maybe all teachers?!) are struggling. Some days it seems like everything is spiraling out of control. I think daily of my dear friend Bill Gentry and his wise advice that has gotten me through countless ultramarathons and life itself, “Think small. Control what you can control.”

As we start back to school in whatever setting your district has decided – virtual, hybrid, full in-person classes – I’m wondering if, in our need to be in control, we are controlling our students more than trusting them. My district is starting back 100% virtual, so I’ve been thinking a lot about how to honor and trust children in a virtual space. It’s not my job to control them. It’s my job to support, teach, nurture, honor, respect and trust them. As Loris Malaguzzi says, “There are hundreds of different images of the child. Each one of you has inside yourself an image of the child that directs you as you begin to relate to a child.” Perhaps we can think of our image of the child as it relates to distance learning. Here are a few of the questions I’ve been pondering.

Do we have to mute students in video calls or require them to stay muted until we allow them to unmute? Or can we teach them that the background noise is distracting and then teach them how to mute/unmute themselves? What message does that send when we start by telling children they have to stay muted? Is it our need for control? It’s loud and messy at first (just like adults in virtual meetings) but children can be taught why we have a mute button and when to use it. Hearing our children’s voices is more important now than it’s ever been. Are we teaching them how to use the mute button? Are we making sure there is a lot of time in small groups and one-on-one to allow for authentic talk and conversation? My friend Christy Thompson recently wrote this blog post on students’ virtual voices. Her book, with co-author Kassia Omohundro Wedekind, Hands Down, Speak Out , is a wonderful resource on building talk communities. Can we trust our students to control their own mute buttons? Are we honoring their voices in virtual spaces?

Do we have to start the year with a preset list of rules for video calls or can we co-create them, just as we would co-create agreements in the classroom? Can we negotiate our online space together as we build a community and decide what works and what doesn’t? Can we start the year coming from a place of trust, relationship and partnership? We can communicate what we need as teachers and listen to what our children need. We can do this work together and come to an agreement on what will make this kind of learning successful. We can trust our children and listen to their voices and needs.

Do we have to require children to sit at a table or desk for our video calls or can we trust them to find a space that works for them? We honor and embrace flexible seating in our classrooms, why not at home? I do think children need to be taught what elements are important for a video call – just as I had to discover this on my own last spring. Things like lighting, being able to see the screen and your face when the camera is on are important things we can teach children. I had to figure out where I can best take my calls – standing at the kitchen counter, sitting on the couch, at my desk – they all work for different purposes. But what every child needs – and has available in their home – is different. A friend’s child found that behind the couch was his best spot to focus. With three others in his house doing distance learning and teaching, that was his quiet space. One of my kindergarteners last spring would join us from his yard where we got to see baby birds and his garden. Another child took us on her swing with us. And many children joined us from the top bunk of the bunk beds or in the pillow forts they had built. They were all fully engaged in joyful learning. We need to trust children that they can find a spot that meets their needs and help families understand this and work with their child to find a learning space in their homes that works for them – not us.

Perhaps we can come from a place of trust and relationship, and think of what’s possible with this new, temporary, way of teaching – rather than controlling and restricting children. This is hard. But perhaps letting go of the control, trusting the children, honoring them and letting the virtual classroom be a place of joy will provide opportunities we never saw possible.

And as my friend Bill says, “if things happen to start to go a little sideways, then I know a really great strategy to bring things back to even … think. small.”

A must-read article by the one and only Mr. Rogers

Ten Picture Books that Celebrate Indigenous Peoples #pb10for10

August 10 is a day to celebrate! Thanks to Mandy Robek and Cathy Mere’s annual Picture Book 10 for 10 event, educators and readers from all around share their lists of 10 picture books they can’t live without. Some people share their favorites, others share a list with a specific theme. It’s a time to reflect on old favorites, gather LOTS of new favorites and start to think about what books you must have to share with your class. This year, you can see all of the #pb10for10 lists on Mandy’s blog at Reflect and Refine. Get your library card ready or click on the link that will take you to Bookshop, or another independent bookstore to buy these books.

A little background on my post this year… For the past several years, I’ve done a lot of thinking and learning about the land we live on and the people who were on this land first. I’ve read An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States and reflected on what the history books taught me in school and acknowledged the tremendous amount of unlearning and re-educating that I need to do. I’ve been searching out Indigenous authors and illustrators and learning from experts like Debbie Reese how to look at books and curriculum critically. Last year, I flew to Vancouver and was in awe at the beautiful artwork that is seen throughout the airport. There is such a profound respect, honoring and celebrating of First Peoples in Canada. It’s evident in art, the curriculum that includes Indigenous knowledge, content and perspectives and the land acknowledgments that are spoken at gatherings and are taught, spoken and displayed in schools. Imagine if this became a widespread ritual in communities throughout the United States. Children and families would begin to learn the history of the land they currently live on and the stories of Native communities. They would be inspired to take action and build relationship with the land and Indigenous Peoples, honor Native communities and support reconciliation and decolonization.

I am writing this post on the traditional land of the Pamunkey peoples, past and present. Children often believe that Indigenous Peoples lived “long ago” and their struggles occurred “long ago”. I am committed to disrupting this narrative, starting by acknowledging the land in which I work and play, and continuing to learn and teach about the Pamunkey people and their stolen land on which myself, my students and our school community now occupy, as well as the lands and Indigenous Peoples beyond our community. One place I can do this work, is in the books I read aloud in our classroom.

My #pb10for10 is a collection of #ownvoices books that celebrate Indigenous Peoples, their land, their joy, their struggles and their stories. Enjoy!

The land that surrounds us is part of who we are; it reflects our histories.”

Native Governance Center
One of the many incredible pieces of art in the Vancouver airport
“Pacific Passage,” featuring the “Hetux” or Thunderbird

We All Count: A Book of Cree Numbers, written and illustrated by Julie Flett

The Water Walker, written and illustrated by Joanne Robertson

Bowwow Powwow, written and illustrated by Brenda J. Child

We Are Grateful, Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frane Lessac, written by Traci Sorrell

Stolen Words – Kimotināniwiw Itwêwina, written by Melanie Florence, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard, translated by Dolores Sand

Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, written by Kevin Noble Maillard

We Are Water Protectors, illustrated by Michaela Goade, written by Carole Lindstrom

My Heart Fills With Happiness, written by Monique Gray Smith, illustrated by Julie Flett

When We Are Kind, written by Monique Gray Smith, illustrated by Nicole Neidhardt

The Circle of Caring and Sharing, written by Theresa “Corky” Larsen-Jonasson, illustrated by Jessika von Innerebner

Our history has left out many of these voices and difficult truths. I invite you to learn the history, bring these voices, people, books, stories, food, culture and art into your classrooms and learn about the land where you live, work and play. This is a good starting point, and there are many more resources here.

Kitchen Kindergarten – Play and Distance Learning

Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.
– Kay Redfield Jamison

Our classrooms are filled with opportunities for children to play. We have blocks, dramatic play areas, loose parts, puppets, sand tables, water and sensory boxes, abundant book baskets and art areas full of supplies for children to create, enjoy and play. When we moved to distance learning in March, I wanted to be sure that the opportunities I was providing for synchronous and asynchronous learning were filled with play. We know that children learn through play, and I didn’t want that to change with the switch to distance learning. Our school required us to send home a choice board each week with activities for each content area, and our kindergarten team decided to focus on open-ended, play invitations with this board. We kept an ongoing brainstorm list of ideas and pulled from it each week when we created our document to go home. I will share that document with you here. Feel free to make a copy and add your own ideas or adapt and change these to meet the needs of your families.

Here are some of my thoughts about creating and using play invitations or choice boards.

  • Less is more. Keep many of the choices the same over time – if they are open ended and encourage playful learning, then kids can engage with them again and again. I think of our classroom. We have a predictable structure and keep things basically the same over time (readers workshop, writers workshop, blocks, dramatic play, art, math stations, etc…) and only change them out when we notice attention is waning, when we introduce a new inquiry or hear children talking about areas of interest. I viewed this choice board in the same way, allowing children time to go deeper into their play, instead of having this be a checklist to “get it done”. Families appreciated the same structure and ideas on the choice board when they stayed the same over time, and only changed occasionally. Children were invited to share about what they had done on the choice boards during our Google Meets, and I listened carefully as I planned the choices for the following week.
  • Introduce the choices with a short video invitation. I coded each square on the choice board with a letter and number (for example, the literacy choices could be L1, L2, etc..) to refer to in the video title. You can then read the task, have a brief conversation about what they might do in that task and model the task when it’s appropriate – or just leave it wide open for their exploration. These videos can build excitement for the invitation – just as we would in the classroom when introducing a new play provocation, invitation or possibility. You can save them on a private YouTube channel so kids can access easily. It also allows for more independence when children are interacting with the choice board.
  • Make sure families have access to a digital copy (I put mine in our Google Classroom each week), and a hard copy (I mailed home a copy each week). Some families liked the digital copy, and I could also add links to this one. Some families liked having a hard copy for kids to color in the squares as they engaged with the activities. I had one child who would make rainbows in each box as she revisited the invitations again and again. Here are a few examples of our choice boards. The hard copy was one page for easy printing. The digital copy included links and was a longer document. Families had access to both each week.
  • In addition to giving 2-3 choices for each content area, we had a “Link of the Week” on every choice board that looked similar to this: Link of the week: Nat Geo Kids  and Cincinnati Zoo Home Safari. Go on a virtual field trip to learn about new zoo animals from the zookeepers at the Cincinnati Zoo. Can you find those animals on the National Geographic Kids site? What more can you learn? We pulled from a growing list of virtual field trips, explorations, and sites that we discovered that encouraged active, playful learning and inquiry.
  • I also created a Padlet for my class. I added links that we visited during our Google Meets and other sites that were of interest to the kids, based on their interests and conversations we had in class. I included a link to our private YouTube channel where I would read books aloud and sing our favorite songs, links to sites where they could get books online, favorite YouTube dance videos, virtual field trips and any links I thought they would enjoy. This was a nice “one stop shopping” place for families and kids to access independently. Padlet can be easily accessed on any device and is a great way to visually bookmark favorite links. You can also comment on each item and label it however you would like.
  • As we look towards the beginning of a school year, it’s important for us to communicate the importance of play with our families. I felt that I had many opportunities to do that throughout the year with my class. With a new class starting in September, I will have to be very intentional with helping families understand the importance of play and making sure children have lots and lots of time each day to play. Kristi Mraz generously created an AWESOME document to help guide families with language to use when their children are playing at home. We adapted it to fit our families and language we had used with our kids. I’ll share it here. I also added photos of problem-solving anchor charts that we had created in the classroom. Check out Kristi’s blog for more wonderful ideas on virtual learning, play and writing and to see the original document.

I think it’s important to note, and to make sure families understand, that open-ended free play is critical for children, and that these are simply invitations. Kids will often have way better ideas than these! For example, one of my kids showed me this AMAZING colored masking tape art project she made on her wall with her stuffed animals in “Owl School”. Love it! Children shouldn’t be forced to do these things or required to do a certain amount each week. If a child is not engaging with any of these play invitations, it’s worth asking why and meeting with the child and their family to find out what interests them and what their play looks like at home. I certainly don’t want anything that I send home to be stressful or feel like a required assignment that must be completed. Play should be fun and engaging. I want my children and their families to look forward to these each week and to enjoy engaging in the activities together. And it’s up to me to figure out how to make that happen if it’s not.

How are you honoring a child’s right to play during distance learning?
Please share! Together we can make this the best it can be for now – until we are all back in our classrooms together – hugging, painting, building with blocks – enjoying each other once again.
Langston created his own superhero – Spidercane!

Play, while it cannot change the external realities of children’s lives, can be a vehicle for children to explore and enjoy their differences and similarities and to create, even for a brief time, a more just world where everyone is an equal and valued participant.

– Patricia G. Ramsey

This is part 3 of my Kitchen Kindergarten series. For part 2, Math & Literacy Distance Learning go here, and for part 1, Distance Learning with Young Children, go here. Enjoy!

Kitchen Kindergarten – Math & Literacy Distance Learning

Digital is not an enemy – it’s a new possibility.”

Carla Rinaldi, President of Reggio

I try to spend most of my life living in a space of thinking about what’s possible. And sometimes that’s hard. Really hard. Lately, it’s been an ongoing challenge. I never thought I would be considering ways to teach four and five year olds remotely. And yet, here we are. When Carla Rinaldi suggested that digital is a “new possibility”, it opened my eyes to viewing distance learning in a new light. As I reflect back on four months of distance learning with kindergarteners, I realize that we had several successful routines and learning adventures, as I’m sure you all had, as well. It’s important for me to share them and to invite you to share yours, as this is the way we can grow and learn together – making our journey into distance learning the best it can be. And remembering that this is temporary.

Our job is too difficult and too beautiful to do alone.”

Amelia Gambetti, Reggio Emilia, April 2015 (quote from Diane Kashin’s blog)

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ve heard me write about my firm belief that we teach children first and foremost – not standards, curriculum or programs. I think we really need to remember that as we move to virtual teaching in the foreseeable future. At a wonderful webinar by Mike Flynn, he said, “good online teaching is good teaching – don’t let the ed-tech get in the way.” We need to focus on our students first, then what good in-person teaching would look like and then choose a tech tool that matches. We can’t focus first on the fancy technology that might be flashy and look cool, but may not be what our students need.

I used Google Meet because it was one of the approved platforms in my district. You can do these things on Zoom or Microsoft Teams and I’m sure other platforms that I’m not familiar with. Blackboard Collaborate Ultra will present more challenges, because of the inability to see more than 5 people at a time on the screen, but it’s still possible to adapt for your online platform if that’s what you have to use. I’d like to continue this blog series with a look into a few things that worked for us in math and literacy learning in whole group. You can find my previous post here.

Math

I continued the number talks and math routines that we were used to doing in the classroom and adapted them for a virtual setting. Here are a few of the ones that worked well, with links to explain them further.

  • Finger patterns were a favorite, and we used them in a variety of ways. This required being able to see everyone on the screen, something that I felt was essential for many reasons – finger patterns being one of them. I had a magnetic 10 frame and number cards from the fabulous Tiny Polka Dot math game that I would show the kids. The kids would then use their fingers to show me the number in multiple ways. This might sound like, “How many? Show me on your fingers. I see 3 and 4. Can you show me 7 a different way? I see 2 and 5.”
  • Which One Doesn’t Belong? – We used Christopher Danielson’s book in the classroom along with this website and created many of these images on our own in Google Slides. This was an easy math routine to adapt to virtual by sharing the screen and recording children’s thinking in the Jamboard or Google Document.
  • How Many? – This is another excellent math book by Christopher Danielson, but the book is just a starting point. Once you start thinking “how many?” when looking at objects, you start taking pictures of all sorts of things! When you water your garden, when you’re organizing painting supplies, when your running shoes overflow the closet (OK, maybe that’s just me) – all are opportunities for a math talk that begins with the question, “how many?” I love these talks because there are so many possibilities and it gives kids a chance to count, explain their thinking and think beyond rote counting. Choosing highly engaging photos hooks kids right away and makes for an exciting math talk.
  • Three Act Tasks – I had a lot of success using these in virtual learning. This website will explain what a 3-Act Task is. These are highly engaging and really challenge kids to think and explain their thinking.
  • Is it Fair? and Who Is Hiding?– Antonia Cameron, Patricia Gallahue and Danielle Iacoviello’s wonderful new book Early Childhood Math Routines explains these routines in depth. This blog post shows you how an Is it Fair? routine might go. Using photos that kids are familiar with and their names makes this engaging and a rich mathematical conversation, where kids have to decide and justify if an image is fair or not. Who Is Hiding? is another quick image routine that supports oral language and helps them make meaning through conversation as new information is presented. These open-ended math routines encourage rich conversation and debate and work well in a virtual platform.
Who Is Hiding? is a quick image routine that encourages close looking, wondering and meaningful conversation. Choose a photo that connects with your kids and content and create a Google Slides document where you can slowly reveal the picture – removing pieces with each slide.

Literacy

Literacy continued to be woven throughout our virtual classes, just as it was in the classroom. Here are a few things we did routinely in virtual learning.

  • Read aloud – I made sure to read aloud at least one book for every session we had. I shared in my earlier post how I shared the screen and used a digital text for read alouds. This let everyone see the words and pictures clearly. I also created a private YouTube channel where I read aloud books for kids to listen to on their own. Children need to hear us reading aloud and engage in conversations about books on a virtual platform as much as in a classroom.
  • Shared Reading – I used a variety of texts for shared reading. I brought several big books and charts home, but I found that children couldn’t see them as well on the screen. I would like to play around more with document cameras and a way to continue using our beloved big books. Poems, chants and big books in Google Slides, Jamboard and SMART Notebook worked well. I took a photo of our class anchor chart listing what readers do, and I placed that photo next to the shared reading text – just like we would have it hanging near our shared reading text in the classroom. I used my cursor as the pointer. I also learned that you can make your cursor larger in your computer’s Accessibility setting (Display – Cursor Size) – and that’s a game changer! Our poetry and song notebooks are such a huge part of our classroom reading life, and I want to continue this practice during distance learning by mailing home copies of the shared reading texts for children to put in their notebooks. Finding a way to distribute these is something that teachers need to think about. It’s important for kids to have hard copies of reading materials – not just digital. We need to figure out a way to routinely get these things into the hands of kids.
  • Shared Writing – I did shared writing on a large piece of paper as well as on a Jamboard or Google Document. If kids can have a white board or paper to write along with you, that’s even better and far more engaging. We continued to co-construct texts such as letters, class books and community stories – just like we did in the classroom. I found that if I was typing the children’s words, I had to slow down considerably. Inviting them to write along with me and share what they wrote in front of the camera helped me with that. Just as in the classroom, our shared writing pieces became shared reading pieces to revisit again and again.
  • Word Work – A magnetic burner cover or a cookie sheet makes a great portable way to do word work virtually. I brought home my magnetic letters and used these often, just as I would in the classroom. With their white boards or paper they could do the word work along with me. I would love for my kids to each have a set of magnet letters – that’s something I’m thinking about for the fall. I recently learned about these letter tiles, and look forward to trying them out.

I want to be back in our classroom more than anything in the world right now. I want to experience the togetherness and pure joy that a classroom full of children brings. I want to hug children, paint with children, hear the joyous roar of children at play and share a book with tiny, squiggling humans on our rug. It physically hurts to know that won’t happen anytime soon. However, we can make distance learning the best it can be right now, at the same time we long to be back in our classrooms full of hugs, love, joy and children’s laughter. Maybe we can even create virtual classrooms that have all of that in a way that’s never happened before – it’s certainly a possibility. Loris Malaguzzi said, “nothing without joy”. How can we create virtual learning spaces that are full of joy?

What has worked well for you? Please share. We are all on this journey together.

Dancing and singing the monarch migration. I miss this.

Kitchen Kindergarten – Distance Learning with Young Children

I haven’t met any early childhood teacher who loves teaching virtually. Perhaps there are some out there, but overwhelmingly teachers want to be in classrooms – playing, hugging, learning and wondering with their students. We were plunged into distance crisis teaching last March, and we will be continuing this type of teaching for some time, I’m afraid. Embracing virtual or distance learning and looking for ways to make it work, and work well, is important, while acknowledging that this is temporary.

Carla Rinaldi, the President of Reggio said, “a digital experience is among the 100 languages – 100 possibilities – 100 ways of approaching reality – of the children. Digital is not an enemy – it’s a new possibility.”

How can we make distance learning the best it can possibly be – a new possibility for our children?

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what worked and what didn’t work in virtual or distance learning for my kindergartners. I’m continuing to learn, think, explore and collaborate as I do Kitchen Kindergarten Summer Version – my district’s “continuity of learning” sessions. I will share a few things that I found are working quite well for whole group learning. I will tell you, I’m pretty “low-tech”. I start with what I know works well in the classroom and think about how I can adapt it to virtual teaching. I’m learning a lot more “high-tech” options this summer, but most of these ideas are in the “low-tech” category. I’m planning future posts on whole group, small group, 1:1 and play dates, as well as thoughts for how it might look starting with a new class of kindergartners.

Kitchen Kindergarten – two laptops were KEY – I could see what the kids were seeing when I was sharing my screen.

A few ideas for whole group distance/virtual learning:

Langston’s drawing after a whole group song where kids created a character in each verse.
  • Have a predictable starting and ending routine. We start each Google Meet with a hello drum song, greeting each child by name. We end each Meet with a favorite class song, “Skinnamarinkydink” and then send each other hearts with our hands as we say good-bye to each child on the Meet. Singing virtually is messy, but fun – and so worth the joy of coming together with a song.
  • Plan activities that actively engage the children, rather than have them passively sitting in front of the screen. My kids all have white boards and this is a great way to have them be actively learning. They can write words, numbers, draw, etc.. I found this worked better than the chat box for kindergarten. We practiced letter formation, sight words, number formation, math stories, drawing, names, and played games with our white boards. Have the kids get up to dance, move, find things to share, etc. – just like in the classroom. We wouldn’t have kids sitting passively for 30 minutes in a classroom – it’s important to have lots of opportunities for active learning and movement while on a screen, too.
  • Give children time to talk and engage with each other. We have time each Meet to share stories and show our pets, apartments, toys, backyards and family members. I share my dog, my garden and tell stories of my life at home. Kids share books they made, art they created, and the stories of their lives that we love to hear. Our time virtually is much less than a school day, but we still need to make time to share all those stories that would normally be shared during our school day. It’s how we stay connected and feel like a community. I start each Meet with share time and invite kids to stay on after our scheduled class time ends if they have more stories to share. We often go well beyond the scheduled 30 minutes, but it’s important to hear what they have to say.
  • Hidden Pictures are a huge hit and a wonderful way to work on vocabulary, oral language and directional words and they are highly engaging. Highlights for Kids (remember the magazines in the doctor’s office when you were a kid?!) has them for free on their website. My kids LOVE them.
  • Puppets! I worked with a teaching artist from Wolf Trap Performing Arts Center this past year and learned so much about puppetry, so it was natural to continue this into our virtual classroom. The children engaged so well with puppets and it is definitely a strategy I will continue to use. Stuffed animals of our favorite book characters, well-known class puppets and some new friends helped me teach new concepts like why we need to wear a mask, and also helped us with navigating big feelings we had, social-emotional learning, retelling stories and engaging with number talks and math stories.
  • Read lots and lots of books and talk about them – just like we do in the classroom! I brought home a ton of books, but I found it was frustrating for the kids to watch me reading a book. They had trouble seeing the pictures, and if their Meets setting wasn’t right, if anyone else talked, their image would replace me. I made the switch over to reading books on a shared screen with a variety of tools. Open Library K-12 Student Library is where I look for titles of books I want to read first – they have so many books available for free. I also use Kindle for their many free digital books, and I’ve purchased some of my all-time favorites. I’m exploring Loom and using a document camera, too.
  • Continue focusing on inquiry and play. Mystery Doug and SciShow Kids are two of my favorite YouTube video sites for exploring questions that kids ask. They are short (3-5 minute) videos that focus on a question and encourage kids to talk and wonder. I found them to be great introductions to a topic. I will show the video and then stop and have a conversation with kids. Then we will do some type of active learning and invitation for kids to try something at home. We explored how airplanes fly and then made our own paper airplanes. We measured how far they could fly with our shoes/steps and then read a book about how to make paper airplanes to give them more ideas. Finally, the kids revised their airplane to see if they could make it fly even further. One day we learned about trees and wondered “what is the biggest tree?” – Mystery Doug pointed out that “biggest” could mean lots of different things and showed us several really cool BIG trees. Then I cut an avocado and showed the kids how they could grow their own avocado tree with an avocado pit, a jar and toothpicks. I leave links and invitations on our Google Classroom after each session for kids to revisit what we did and extend the learning if they choose. It’s also nice for children who didn’t attend the Meet to see what they missed and engage in the learning on their own.
  • Teach the kids how to mute and unmute because of background noise, but don’t control their voices. My friend Christy Thompson wrote a wonderful blog post about this here. Being able to use a tool like Zoom or Meets, where you can see all the kids is SO important. It’s easier for them to slide their voices into a conversation or raise their hands and it’s more like being in the classroom. It’s also so important to be able to see each other, show each other things and feel that sense of community that we all need. They want to see their friends. We have to let the kids see each other, talk and continue creating community in virtual learning.

These are just a few things that I’ve found work well. I’ll continue to share my thinking here. I truly believe that the teachers who have experienced virtual teaching and learning with children are the experts. We need to share our ideas and experiences with each other so that we can be in the best position possible to continue distance learning or resume when necessary this fall. What ideas do you have for whole group virtual learning? Please share!

Moving forward…

As an ultrarunner, I often use the phrase, “relentless forward progress” during a long run as a reminder that I need to keep moving towards that finish line, no matter how hard things get or how much I want to quit. I’ve found myself thinking “relentless forward progress” regarding teaching these past months. This has been like an ultramarathon – running 100 miles at a time – full of ups and downs, tears, joy, smiles and laughter, feelings of hopelessness and feelings of great success. This is hard. So very, very hard. But we keep moving forward. Each day gets a little better. More kids log on to the Meet. More kids talk and share. I watch webinar after webinar trying to figure out different ways of doing this virtual crisis teaching. I cry. I reach out to friends going through this same experience. I reach out to my families. I reach out to my kids. I live for the laughter and joy that comes from seeing their beautiful faces twice a day on a screen. I sing and play drums and dance and wear silly hats. I try new things each week to engage and connect. Lunch bunch, virtual play dates and small groups. Some go better than others, but we are all relentlessly moving forward, hopefully with more joy, love and connection than despair and sadness. It’s a rollercoaster and we are doing whatever we can to take care of the little humans we love so much.

But now the conversations are turning towards what’s next. What happens in fall? How will school look when a new school year starts? And this is when I get gripped with fear. The conversations I’ve listened to suggest taped off areas of a classroom and playground. Keeping children 6 feet apart at all times. Wearing masks. Having children stay in their own 6 foot tape bubble all day – in a desk. Not allowing children to play with each other in the classroom or playground. Not allowing them to share supplies or toys. These thoughts and questions keep me up at night. And there are no answers…yet. I struggle to see possibility in this “new reality”. I hear talk of returning to school while social distancing and wearing masks and I just can’t see how this can be done without school becoming a traumatic experience for young children.

I teach 4 and 5 year olds. Many of these children don’t speak English yet. For many of them, this is their first school experience. So what do I do on that first day and week of school when the inevitable tears start? When children need to be hugged or passed off from their families with a gentle hand hold? When families need to be comforted as they send their little one off to school? When children are scared and need to be comforted with a smile and a hug? When they fall and need a band-aid? When we have to huddle together for the Lockdown Drill or exit the building quickly for a fire drill – and children need to be comforted through these experiences? When they need help blowing their nose? When they need their shoes tied? When they miss their families and need to sit in my lap? When they need to lean on my leg, just because? When they need to see the pictures in the book I’m reading? When they need to talk to a friend? When they excitedly come in and want to hug me and tell me a story? When former students see me in the hall and run to give me a hug? When they are drawn to the other child who speaks their language and they need to just play with blocks together? When they want to run on the playground and forget they can’t go close to others? When they look expectantly at the adults for reassurance that this thing called “school” will be ok, and all they see are our eyes – trying desperately to communicate that this will all be ok when we are so fearful ourselves?

Love, connection, relationship, community and play are the foundation in which we build our classroom each fall. It is this foundation that makes the academic piece possible. If children don’t feel safe, loved and connected, the reading, writing, math and science just can’t happen. So I’m struggling with the possibility of a “new reality” of constantly telling children they can’t touch me or other children – and they have to stay 6 feet away (six feet is very, very far when you are a tiny four year old). With verbally pushing them away constantly. With thoughts of saying “no, you can’t do that” and redirecting them to keep distance all day long. With fear being a constant cloak in our classroom space.

I don’t have answers. But I do know that the people making decisions about how to proceed in the fall need to invite us to the conversation and listen to the early childhood teachers and the families of our youngest learners. And if we aren’t invited, we need to share our thoughts and concerns through email and phone calls. We need to make sure our voices are heard. I do think we can get to a space of possibility in all of this. We can do hard things. And I do think we can come up with some answers with our collective wisdom and love for young children. Pre-K and kindergarten are unique. So very, very unique. The decisions made for elementary, middle and high school students have to be different for our youngest learners. It is my hope that we have a seat at this table, or create one by reaching out via email, and that our expertise working with young children is listened to, honored and respected. And, that the small human beings we get to start a new class with next year are listened to, honored and respected. They deserve it.

Sending love and health to all of you. Know that you are doing incredible work right now. And it’s hard. But we got this.

Take Care of Each Other

We are in unprecedented times. Things are changing by the minute. One thing we can be certain of is that schools will be closed for quite some time. I’m so grateful to the educators and authors who have been graciously sharing resources wide and far on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. I’ve been sharing them out on our Catching Readers Facebook page. I, like many others, felt a need to DO SOMETHING.

BUT. As I pause and think about what these upcoming weeks might look like for many of our students, I simply can’t put school-based learning at the forefront. We cannot expect families to instantly start home schooling, nor should we require kids to sit in front of a computer and engage in distance learning or online courses immediately. Many families don’t have computers, internet service or devices beyond their own phone. Many families are most concerned about childcare or where meals are going to come from, health insurance or if they will still have a job tomorrow. Many families have elderly parents living with them and are concerned about their well-being. Many families are worried about way bigger things than their child’s daily lessons. Our children feel this stress even more now than when they were in a daily routine of coming to school. And even if you are lucky enough to have an abundance of resources at your fingertips, and if you don’t have many of these worries – is this what’s best for our kids right now? Maybe. Maybe not.

So for now, I have some ideas for what families might do with their children. These ideas don’t require devices or many materials. They are simple and fun for kids and adults. You need to do what works for you – as do our families. We can continue sharing resources with our families, but we can’t expect them to become teachers. And we can’t bombard them with resources, pile on required assignments, and add yet another stressor to their lives.

Being together, enjoying time connecting with each other, helping each other, PLAYING, exercising, using your imagination, being creative, and getting outside together is really what I think we need to focus on now. If a child needs a schedule to help them, great – make a schedule with them. But above all, listen to them. Be responsive to what they are telling you. Hug them. Put your phone down and be with them. Play with them.

Here are a few suggestions. But please remember, you need to do what works for you and your family and I hope teachers share that message with the families of the students they teach.

*Make a mask or a hat! You can use construction paper, junk mail paper, crayons, etc. It might be a favorite animal or a character from a book. You might want to act out a story after you make it. Thank you to my dear friend Carrie, for this photo of her son, Critter.

  • Read! Read books together, read out loud, read whatever you can get your hands on. Take a walk and look for Little Free Libraries. Many schools have these, as well as many neighborhoods.
  • Play dress up! Young children love to dress up! Get out some scarves, old jewelry, shoes, hats, etc. and let your child create an imaginary world.
  • Build a fort! Put sheets, towels or blankets over furniture. Get a flashlight and a few books and read in the fort. Make shadow puppets with flashlights.
  • Make a water play area in the bathtub or a plastic tub outside – add measuring cups, shaving cream, cups and bowls for scooping and pouring. Kids love playing in water!
  • Write letters! Kids love to write – and draw. Kids can write love letters to people in their family, to relatives who don’t live with them, to neighbors in the apartment complex (and deliver them to their doorsteps).
  • Make books! Give kids a few pages of paper and they can make books with pictures, words, etc… Many of our kids are used to this in school with daily Writers’ Workshops – this is something that all kids can do at home and they love it. Don’t worry about whether the words are spelled right, just let kids make books in their own way.
  • Count! Gather things in the house to count: beans, popcorn kernels, socks, towels, dishes as you set the table, anything!
  • Make art! When markers run out of ink, put them in a cup of water. In a few minutes, you’ll have watercolor paint. Use a kitchen brush, a Q-tip, a cotton ball or a stem from an evergreen tree as a paintbrush if you don’t have a paintbrush at home. Open up a paper bag and tape it to the wall – create a big mural with crayons, markers or paint.
  • Play with boxes! Take any box and let your child have fun with it. They may want to cut, paint, stack or tape them – or get inside of them, or create a fort with them. Boxes can provide hours of play and learning.
  • Go outside! Play tag, run around, go for a walk, have races, pretend to be different animals and move like them, look for insects under rocks or logs (always put the rock or log back where you found it so you don’t disturb the habitat), find a local park that might have some woods to explore, look for signs of spring, talk with your child about what you see/hear/smell, lay down and look at the clouds, gather sticks/rocks/pinecones and count them or make a fairy house, have a push-up contest, take a bag lunch and have a picnic, find a tree and observe it every day – take pictures and talk about how it’s changing.
  • Dance party! Put on your favorite tunes and DANCE! Make music with pots and pans and wooden spoons.
  • Listen and talk together. Be present and enjoy each other.

Make a wonder wall! My friend Kassia took a paper bag and made this cool wonder wall for her kids.

Again, this is a huge list that I brainstormed and gathered with help from friends. Families need to do what works for them. I think what matters most right now for teachers is to be in touch with their kids through calls, texts, FaceTime, or group chats – not to assign work, but to connect. Hear the stories they come to school everyday eager to tell. Let them know that you are still here, that you still think of them, that you miss them, and that you love them. Many of our children left school one day with no idea that they wouldn’t be back in their classrooms with their friends and teachers for weeks or months. Let them call their friends, FaceTime with their friends, write letters to their friends. And I think what matters most for families is to be there for their kids. Listen to them. Talk with them. Play with them.

I hope this helps. As the weeks go by, I will continue to blog and post on the Catching Readers Facebook page and on Twitter. Please take what helps you and share whatever may help your families.

Take care of yourself. Take care of each other.

The Alma Woodsey Thomas inspired collaborative art piece our class did on our last day together last week. It speaks of love and hope and togetherness for me.

Writers Playshop

Playing a story with clay

I’ve been playing around and exploring the idea of Writers Workshop being more like a makerspace or play space for several years. Katie Wood Ray, my number one mentor of writing with young children, speaks of writers “making stuff” in many of her professional books, and I’ve always loved this. While I fully embrace the idea of kids making books, I don’t privilege book making over other making – writers “make stuff”, and a list, a puppet or a lightsaber might be exactly what that child writes today. As I thought about how my thinking surrounding Writers Playshop has evolved, many mentors come to mind. Karen Wohlwend’s work in Literacy Playshop was one of the first books I read that challenged my thinking about workshop. Brad Buhrow and Anne Upczak Garcia showed me many different possibilities for writing in their book, Ladybugs, Tornadoes and Swirling Galaxies. I began to use their ideas many years ago when I taught first grade. This is one of my most often revisited professional books. Angela Stockman’s Make Writing was the first book I read that helped me to really envision what this might look like in the classroom. Her work continues to inspire me and make me question, revise and reflect on my practice. A few years ago, I saw Michelle Compton and Robin Thompson speak about their story workshops – they now have a wonderful resource called StoryMaking, that was published last year. When I discovered the amazing Opal School’s work at a NCTE conference three years ago, and saw the beauty that is story workshop unfolding in magical videos, articles and stories, I was in awe of what’s possible for our writers. They continue to inspire, challenge and guide my thinking. Opal School, and the resources they provide, are truly a gift to educators and to children. Building on best practice, new learning, new thinking, questioning, wondering, playing, kidwatching and reflecting, I continue to transform the way our Writers Workshop – or Writers Playshop looks. Here’s a peek into Writers Playshop in our kindergarten classroom.

Sharing a book

Our Writers Playshop is a scheduled hour every day, although kids often choose to write and do Writers Playshop activities during Explore, our free play times. We start with a short, whole group focus lesson (mini-lesson), that might be on craft, process, mechanics, genre study, interactive writing, introducing a new material, modeling a way to play out a story, oral storytelling, looking at a mentor author or reviewing routines. Then we move into our Playshop where kids are finding their stories through play of all sorts, making books, making posters, writing letters, making puppets, reading, making art or creating in some way. I confer with kids, play with kids and occasionally meet in small guided writing groups. We end our Playshop with sharing. This sharing and celebrating time often becomes another focus lesson with the kids leading the class to teach others what they tried today. You’ll notice the structure and foundation is solidly built on workshop teaching as written about by Donald Graves, Lucy Calkins, Nancie Atwell, Mary Ellen Giacobbe, and others, with choice, time, response, identity and community at the heart of the workshop.

Writers making books and making “stuff”

If you are new to writing workshop, or an experienced workshop teacher, this is an excellent resource. I’ve also written about writers workshop, here, here and here – listing many of my favorite resources. The older posts speak to my foundational beliefs about teaching writing. While my thinking has evolved and expanded over time, I still hold these beliefs true – all children are writers and writing can start on day one in kindergarten (and all grades). I start our Writers Playshop by helping children see themselves as writers and establishing identities as writers, authors and illustrators. I start this on day one in kindergarten by introducing blank books and inviting children to make books about something that is important to them – just like their favorite authors do.

Making books
Sharing a story made with painting and puppets

I then begin to add in the play component of our Writers Playshop. I slowly introduce new materials as possibilities to make stories (clay, blocks, paint, loose parts, puppets, dramatic play, etc.) – often modeling them to make a story in Writers Playshop, shortly after I’ve introduced these materials in Explore. I invite the children to find a story in these materials during Writers Playshop. I then always follow up with the invitation, “after you play your story, you could write it in a book if you want it to live forever!”. The kids take it from there!

Playing a story with loose parts
Playing a story with loose parts

We made an anchor chart together to show the difference between our Explore (free play) time and Writers’ Playshop. This helped kids I noticed weren’t yet making a story or an information text via oral storytelling or written bookmaking during Writers Playshop. I felt that it gave them a little nudge when they knew the expectation was to find a story and think of how they might share that story. We also made anchor charts about where stories live and what a story might be. Their story might be something that happened to them, a make believe story or a true story about something they know a lot about, like squirrels or winter.

How are Explore and Writers Playshop different and the same?
Ongoing “where do stories live” chart
What is a story?

Writers Playshop is a favorite time of each day! My kindergartners find stories in so many things, and are inspired to make books (and many other writing pieces) that will “live forever”. They see themselves as authors and illustrators. The making and play space of our Writers Playshop is accessible to all, and highly engaging. It is playful literacy and pure joy.

“We need a basket of OUR books in the library!”

Here are a few more of my favorite resources if you’re interested in bringing play to your writers workshops: Opal School Story Workshop Blog Post 1; Opal School Story Workshop Blog Post 2; Story Workshop Video; Equity and Access Through Story Workshop; Starting With Story Workshop – Opal School Please share your stories of how you make writing a playful, joyful time in your day! Happy playing and happy writing!

Cell phones made during Writers Playshop
Puppets and a file folder setting to tell a story

“Play, while it cannot change the external realities of children’s lives, can be a vehicle for children to explore and enjoy their differences and similarities and to create, even for a brief time, a more just world where everyone is an equal and valued participant.”

Patricia G. Ramsey – Renowned Early Childhood Educator

Agreements & Who We Are

I’ve spent a lot of time reading everything that Tom Drummond and Teacher Tom have written and I simply love the way they honor children and view them as capable human beings. I’ve paid close attention to how they use language in everything, but especially in creating boundaries and expectations for the class community. This year I decided to try something new surrounding creating rules, or agreements as we call them, as we create a community together in our kindergarten class.

We started the year by having a conversation to negotiate what we need to do in order for us to have a safe and fun space to learn together. I shared my non-negotiable rules first: No hurting each other or putting someone in danger with your voice or body. No destroying property. Then I opened up the conversation for our negotiable rules. As Tom Drummond says, “negotiable rules are goals for harmonious community interactions”. We started by talking about what kind of class we want to have. As we talked, I asked the kids, “how do you think we can do that here?” I was curious as to what children with little to no school experience might say. What their idea of “rules” might be. In the past, I haven’t spent much time on this with kindergarteners until later in the year. But I wanted to start the conversation early, and have the kids begin generating the expectations for our year together. I wanted to hear their voices, what mattered to them and have them own the class we were creating together. One of the first conversations was had when I noticed that everyone seemed to have a need to RUN FULL SPEED anywhere they wanted to go. Now, I love to run, I know kids need to run (and that’s a big reason we have 2 recess times) and I wish we could run all day, but the reality of 20 kids running full speed in a crowded classroom means that an accident is inevitable – and that was a good opening for our conversation. I reminded the kids that a non-negotiable for me is that no one can hurt or put someone else in danger, and when kids are running in the classroom someone will get hurt. Then I asked them, “so what can we do about that?” This is the language I come back to over and over as issues arise, and as we need to revise our agreements. The chart below shows how our chart looks at this point in the year – a work in progress.

As we created the list, and continued to have conversations around it, I asked the kids for their agreement before I wrote each one. The item needed to have full agreement by everyone in the class, including me, before going on the chart. If we couldn’t agree, then it didn’t get written down. This list became known as “Our Agreements”. We refer back to the list often – at first with my guidance (“I want to remind you that you and friends agreed to…”) and eventually with kids generating the conversation and talking to friends about the agreements on their own. If someone throws something, we remind each other that we have an agreement not to throw. If a friend is being mean, you might hear someone say, “that was mean and we have an agreement not to be mean, please stop”. As problems or issues come up throughout the year, we decide together if a new “agreement” needs to be added or revised. Looking at this chart you might be thinking, “wait, I’ve always been told never to write down “rules” in the negative – we should write what we want kids to do, not behaviors that we don’t want to see”. But here’s the thing – this chart was generated by the kids. I wrote their exact words. They own it – and therefore, they are accountable to these agreements. If I had suggested “let’s write ‘keep hands to ourselves’ instead of ‘no kicking, no hitting, no scratching’…” it would then become MY agreements. Kids would happily say “yes, keep hands to ourselves”, but would they really own it? I’ve seen firsthand a list that was “kind of” generated with kids (but with a heavy teacher hand) be completely ignored, and how there is great power in the agreements being owned by the children – not by me. So I’m completely okay with this list of “no” things, because the kids own it, it reflects what matters to them, they refer to it, and most importantly – they hold each other accountable if agreements are broken because these are the promises they’ve made to each other.

In December, I felt that we were ready to take the agreements to a new level, so we started a conversation about who we are as a class – and what kind of class we want to be. I recorded their thinking and we continue to add to this chart. It’s still a work in progress. I’ve written about this process here. When we came back to school after winter break, I pulled out this chart and we started doing some deep thinking and reflecting on our school year so far – and focusing on what kind of future we want for our class. We revisited our agreements and had some conversations about favorite books and characters and how they connect to who we are as a class and as individuals. We will continue to engage in this conversation for the next week or so, adding and revising our chart, and then we will create our own co-constructed chart that speaks to who we are as a class – creating our future together. There is great power in speaking things into being. By setting goals and ideals, opening up a conversation about how we can get there, declaring who we are, making agreements, holding each other accountable, and talking together when things aren’t working – children take on ownership, responsibility and love for each other as human beings.

Interactive Storytelling

This past fall I attended a wonderful conference in Washington, DC. – the Children Are Citizens conference. While I left with much to think about and try in my classroom, the one thing I implemented immediately was storytelling. Georgina Ardalan, @georgina_in_dc, led an outstanding session on interactive storytelling. She shared a video with Ben Mardell using Vivian Paley’s storytelling and story-acting approach, and then shared how she uses this in her pre-K classroom. Finally, the participants got to experience this fun interactive storytelling. It was amazing!

I took this back to my classroom and started it the next day. The process is simple, but I’ve found it to be extremely powerful and so much fun. It’s definitely a favorite part of our day.

First, the storyteller thinks of a story. We have a storyteller each day and their name is on our calendar so they know when it’s their day. I encourage them the day before to think about what their story might be. The storyteller tells their story to me, as the class listens. I write it down as they tell the story – on my clipboard, writing fast to keep up with the story. This is not a shared writing. The writing is just for me. Most stories at this point in kindergarten are 5-6 sentences long. After the story is told, I read it back to the storyteller – one sentence at a time, asking them if that’s what they want it to say and making any revisions. The class listens and asks any questions or for clarifications they might need. This on-the-spot revising has been really wonderful in helping kids elaborate and use more details in their stories.

Next, we determine who the characters are, and what the setting is. We do this together. Then we decide what parts we need actors and actresses for. Often the kids want someone to play roles beyond the characters. For example, if a story takes place at the beach, someone will play the beach. If there’s a toy or piece of furniture in the story, a child will pretend to be that. I let the kids decide what roles we need people to pretend to be. The storyteller then chooses whether they want to play a role in the story or if they want to be in the audience. Then the other roles are assigned to kids.

Next, we move to the space on the rug where the audience sits, and the actors and actresses get on the rug space that is the “stage”. I give them a minute to talk and plan how they are going to play their roles, and then we start the story-acting! I read the story as the kids act it out. We usually have time to act out the story twice, with different kids playing the different roles, in our daily 15 minute storytelling time.

Through this daily storytelling, I’ve seen the kids have a much deeper understanding of and enjoyment with:

  • oral language and communicating with others in a clear way
  • community building through sharing stories that are important
  • characters and setting
  • beginning, middle and end
  • adding details to stories to help your reader or listener
  • revising to make a story clearer
  • adding dialogue to make a story even better
  • how to use movement and facial expressions to communicate an idea or feelings
  • listening and asking questions to understand a story better
  • listening and enjoying a performance – what is the role of the audience
  • creating stories on their own during Writers’ Playshop (I always remind the storyteller that they can make a book of their story so that this story will live forever – many kids choose to do this.)

At the end of first quarter, we did an assessment of the books that children have written. Every single child in our classroom is able to write a 3-5 (or more) page book, on one topic, with a beginning, middle and end. Many of the books had details I would expect to see much later in the year such as, dialogue and more complex story lines, characters and settings. I think the daily storytelling has played a huge role in this. The transfer from the oral, interactive storytelling to the children’s own writing is clearly evident. And the fun we have every day during this time is the best!

Below are two videos from storytelling in our classroom. Enjoy!