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!

Our Day in K

So what does a day in a public, Title 1, kindergarten classroom look like? Part of why I love teaching kindergarten is the adventure that each day brings. I can make a schedule, have a plan, do a whole lot of prep work – and have that all go a different direction once my kids enter the room. That said, I do believe that a predictable structure, routines that kids help create and continually revise to meet their changing needs, and a co-constructed curriculum are important and essential. I listen and respond to what the kids bring into each day. I put a great deal of thought and big picture planning into our days, and then remain continually responsive to the children in our classroom and what I observe each day through kid watching and documentation. As I’ve written about before, I teach children, not a curriculum.

Here’s a general structure of our classroom – at least the one I left last week. When we return in January we will negotiate this again, and through conversations and observation, we will create a structure that works for who we are in January. There are a few non-negotiables that I have in our daily schedule. These are the things that I know are best practice teaching after 28 years in the classroom and my ongoing professional development. They are: play, recess, shared reading, read aloud, literacy & math workshops, interactive writing, and community meetings. How and when we do these things looks different over time as the children grow and change, but they are always a part of every day life in kindergarten. And yes, play is a non-negotiable, because, as we know, play is how children learn. The times are approximate, and our day is more fluid than this appears. For example, you will often see kids reading, making books, engaging with a science or social studies invitation or investigating a math concept during Explore – if that’s their choice for play that day. Oftentimes kids will come in with an exciting idea for a new book to make, or an idea for an art piece or a structure to build. Starting the day with Explore allows them to dive into whatever they are interested in as soon as they arrive. Here is an overview of how our day flows:

  • 8:25-8:45 – Arrival, breakfast, Explore (open ended play with options such as dramatic play, sand, sensory boxes, blocks, puppets, art, math )
  • 8:45-9:10 – News Show, Morning Meeting, Morning Message, Read Aloud (gathering together and sharing what’s on our minds in a whole class conversation to start our day, our daily letter, and a read aloud)
  • 9:10-10:10 – Explore (open ended play – I engage in play with the kids, facilitate an invitation on a content area (like counting collections, magnet play or squirrels) and meet with kids 1:1 or in small groups)
  • 10:10-10:40 – Mathematicians’ Workshop (whole group number talk and math routines, small group or individual exploration and play, whole group share)
  • 10:40-11:00 – Recess (on the playground structure)
  • 11:00-11:30 – Lunch
  • 11:30-11:45 – Storytelling (oral storytelling based on Vivian Gussin Paley’s work – children tell a brief story, I record it and then they act it out with children taking on the role of characters and settings as I read the story)
  • 11:45-12:45 – Specials (PE, Music, Art, Guidance – I am in collaborative team meetings two days a week during this time, the other days are common planning time with my team)
  • 12:45-1:30 – Readers’ Workshop (whole group interactive read aloud, shared reading and/or strategy lesson, inquiry into what readers do, individual and partner reading from book boxes, shared reading charts, classroom library, poetry notebooks, acting out familiar books with props and story language, whole group sharing – I meet with kids 1:1 and occasionally in small groups)
  • 1:30-2:00 – Recess (in a field and garden)
  • 2:00-3:00 – Writers’ Playshop (whole group focus lesson on things such as author’s craft, inquiry into a type of genre, finding stories through play, what writers do – then choices of making books, posters, various writing choices and finding stories in open ended play – I play with the kids, confer 1:1 and meet with small groups, ending in whole group share)
  • 3:00-3:20 – Friendship Workshop (whole group meeting with read alouds, puppets, conversations, problem solving – focusing on building a growth mindset, friendships, our One Big Word, community and the social curriculum)
  • 3:20 – Closing Circle, Dismissal (end of day math routines, songs, packing up)

I always find it challenging to write out a daily schedule because there is SO much more that goes on beyond what is listed. And our day just isn’t so segmented. For example, you might be asking, “where’s your science time?”. While science is not listed as a set time, there is a great deal of science happening throughout Explore, in small groups, in read aloud, shared reading and monthly walking field trips. We’ve been studying squirrels (as required by my district) for the past five weeks. The amount of knowledge our kids have is mind-blowing – not because of a 45 minute science block, but because of ongoing discovery, conversation and observation of squirrels. We danced the squirrel life cycle, observed & painted squirrels, watched squirrel TV (who knew?), went on walks looking for squirrel dreys, read countless books on squirrels, wrote our own squirrel books and played with squirrel habitats during Explore for weeks. My kids were so engaged during our squirrel study and are all quite the experts. While this was a teacher-initiated study, the kids had ongoing interest and explored squirrels well beyond the curriculum expectations.

Our workshops follow the foundation established by Donald Graves, Mary Ellen Giacobbe, Lucy Calkins, Nancie Atwell, Katie Wood Ray and others, with the key elements of: time, choice, response, identity & community. They have a predictable structure and begin with a short focus lesson, move into independent workshop time and end with coming back together as a community to share. But this is all done in a way that is appropriate for kindergarteners. And not all kindergarteners (since we know children are vastly different), but the kindergarteners I have at this moment. Playful, joyful, learning and discovery has to be at the heart of this work. The last thing we want to do is to turn off our youngest learners by focusing so much on a curriculum that we forget these are four, five and six year old capable human beings. The independent workshop time looks very different every day during our literacy and math workshops. It might be independent reading, creating stories while playing in dramatic play, a small group shared reading, interactive writing of a letter to a friend who has moved away, building a structure from blocks and loose parts while writing a book about it, playing with Magnatiles, exploring patterns with a variety of tools, reading a leveled text, playing and retelling a story with puppets, or counting collections – just to name a few possibilities. But the work that children are engaging in always goes back to the elements of workshop: time, choice, response, identity and community.

The laser tag project – started in Explore and continued in Writers’ Playshop for several weeks

I wrote this blog in response to numerous requests by teachers to share what our schedule is and what our day looks like. Many of these requests were by teachers who shared that they just didn’t have time for play, or that play wasn’t allowed in their district or they didn’t see a way to do all the academic requirements that are now a reality in kindergarten, along with play. As I wrote before, I believe that play is a non-negotiable. It’s as essential as lunchtime, in my opinion. It is how children learn. As teachers, we have to advocate for our kids, read the research, be informed, share our thinking with others, and at times, be subversive in our relentless pursuit for what children need to grow and thrive as happy learners. I hope this gives you a window into our day and perhaps opened up some possibilities for how you might think about your day, with your kids, to make sure every day is filled with joyful, playful learning and discovery.

Picture Book 10 for 10 – Windows, Mirrors & Sliding Glass Doors

Today is the 10th annual Picture Book 10 for 10! I’m honored to join everyone today in celebrating 10ish (or 20ish 🤷🏼‍♀️) of our favorite picture books.

I’m sharing my favorites that I hope will serve as windows, mirrors & sliding glass doors for kids in my kindergarten class, and for kids everywhere. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop says:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books. (1990, p. ix)

If you’re not familiar with Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, I urge you to find out more here, as well as a video interview here.

Now, more than ever, our children deserve to feel represented in our classrooms and in the world. They deserve celebration and exploration of their identity. They deserve self-affirmation. They deserve to feel seen and be heard. They deserve to feel empowered to speak up, speak out and be agents of change. They deserve to feel like they matter.

Books can be an entry point for important conversations and connections in our classrooms and our lives. Here are a few of my must-have read-alouds in the classroom. I hope you find some that speak to you and your students. Enjoy!

New Beginnings

Sunrise from an AirBnB I stayed at this summer during a trail running mountain weekend in Virginia

As summer draws to a close, that bittersweet feeling emerges once again. While I love my summers, I also love my job. I look forward to welcoming a new group of kindergarteners as much as I look forward to weekday trail runs in the mountains, family time, leisurely puppy walks and lazy days reading at the pool. I’ve always felt so fortunate to have a job that has such a defined starting and stopping point with a chance to recharge in between. 

School has been in the back of my mind all summer long, but now it’s moving to the front. I’m catching up on those professional books that have been piling up. I bought my new notebook and calendar for the year. I have my new reading glasses and brand new Flair pens ready to go. I’ve done home visits to meet the incoming kindergarteners. And I am starting to visualize my classroom space and the four and five year olds who will live there soon. I’m thinking of my goals for the year as a learner and as a teacher. I’m excited for yet another new beginning.

Twenty-eight years ago, when I first started teaching, I spent a lot of time before school started designing bulletin boards, cutting out letters and stapling up borders, making seating arrangements, carefully writing labels with kid’s names, crafting cute behavior management systems (something I cringe at now), and doing other things – stuff – that I felt was necessary. But how I choose to spend my days before I welcome the kids has changed drastically for me. It’s now about my “why” – my reason for being a teacher. It’s about community, identity, freedom and love.

Now I spend the days leading up to the start of the new school year revisiting old favorite professional books like Choice Words and Troublemakers, writing and reflecting about the past year, revisiting my notebooks from the past years, thinking about the aesthetics and the space, imagining what might come up in our learning space and rehearsing how I might handle problems and how I can invite children into our space as a community of learners, explorers and problem solvers. I think a lot about the intentional language I will use because I know how much language matters. I visit some of my favorite online places like Tom Drummond, Fairy Dust Teaching and Opal School and get inspired with new possibilities to try in the upcoming year. I spend a lot of time thinking, reading, writing and anticipating what our year might bring. My focus is on the children and the community we will create together.

When I welcome children into our room the last week of August, they will enter a thoughtful, beautiful, inviting space – that is also a blank canvas, inviting them to make their mark and make it their own. My bulletin boards are empty (except for our linear calendar), the walls are mostly empty (except for a few choice pieces of art done by former classes), the space is organized and inviting with books, plants and invitations to play – but open to change and revision based on what these children might need. I want my new class to enter our room and feel a sense of wonder, delight, curiosity and excitement, as well as a feeling of belonging. I want every child to feel that they can be who they are in our classroom. It’s not my space – it is our space.

I still have a few more weeks to dive deeper into my “why” for this year. To plan out those first important read aloud books and to think deeply about what kind of community we are going to create together. What an exciting time of year for teachers! A fresh start, a new beginning, a chance to create something magical – alongside a group of wonderful tiny humans. How lucky I am.

One Big Word

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A class book we made after exploring the One Big Word – LOVE

Last year at the annual NCTE convention, I went to an amazing session by the teachers at Opal School. I left with pages of notes and thoughts from their brilliant thinking, but the one thing that really stayed with me was the idea of “cracking open a word” – seeing what’s inside of a word for all of us in the class. I immediately returned to our classroom and began the ritual of  our “One Big Word”.

Over the past year, we’ve explored many words that spoke to our class community. We engage in an inquiry about what that word might mean and how the meaning of the word might be different for all of us. We read books about this word and discover books that connect to the word, make books about the word, find pieces of art that connects to the word for us, draw pictures of what the word means to us, find characters that connect to our word, have Hands-Down Conversations around the word, and record our thinking on a large chart. These charts serve as anchors to our classroom community and conversations we may have in times of celebration or times of difficulty. We refer back to them often. Many of our Friendship Workshops are focused around our current One Big Word, or revisiting past words.

The words are chosen by listening to the children and what seems to be important, interesting or something that might be beneficial to explore deeper. Sometimes the kids suggest a word, sometimes I propose a word, sometimes a word comes out of an experience or a book we read. Sometimes we spend a week with a word, sometimes it’s a month. All of this is done in a way responsive to the children in our community at the present time. Some of the words we’ve explored are: kind, friend, community, listen, love, empathy, compassion, hero & shero, persistence, joy and brave.

Here are a few of our One Big Words and some images that capture our thinking. Enjoy!

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Reading our book about our One Big Word, LOVE to our pre-K friends

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