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.

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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The Linear Calendar Wall

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“For 5 and 6 year olds, time becomes marked by what happened yesterday, today and what might happen tomorrow.”

Sally Haughey – Fairy Dust Teaching

Our linear calendar is an important teaching tool and classroom routine in our kindergarten world.  This idea was born after many conversations with Kassia Omohundro Weekend, author of Math Exchanges, as we were both beginning new school years teaching kindergarten for the first time. We weren’t satisfied with the typical calendar routines in kindergarten (or the higher grades we had previously taught) and started to ask ourselves what would be a meaningful and authentic engagement for documenting the passage of time. We wanted to incorporate a time line of sorts, along with an audit trail documenting our learning together over the course of a year. The linear calendar has evolved a bit over the past seven years, but it remains an important piece of our classroom journey.

I get a calendar from an office supply store every summer and pull it apart. I display it from August to July on a large bulletin board in our room. Every month is included because I want it to show a full calendar year. The first thing that goes on the calendar is our birthdays. I spend time the first week of school having each child find his or her birthday month and day and put a star sticker on that day. This is how the calendar wall is introduced to the children. I see a lot of talk and curiosity as they ask, “When is my birthday?”, “How many months until my birthday?”, and “Look! My birthday is close to (a friend’s) birthday!”

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Each month, I take that page off the wall and bring it over to our meeting area. We interact with this calendar all month in an authentic way – just like I write in my calendar planner. Together, we write in important events such as Back to School Night, early releases, guest speakers, teacher workdays, holidays, etc. We indicate days we are in school and days we are at home by highlighting weekends and holidays with a yellow marker. I spend time at the beginning of each month showing how the calendar flows into the next month by starting on the next day. This is a tricky concept and one worth talking about every month. Some years I have cut the extra days off the end and beginning of the month so the kids can see how it all fits together. When August ends on a Wednesday, then Thursday is the first day of September.

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Every day we look at the calendar during morning meeting and see what is happening that day and what might be happening later in the week. At the end of the day, we cross out the day and write what day of school we just finished. We look to see what is happening tomorrow and for the rest of the week. I’ve found this SO much more meaningful than a song about what “yesterday, today and tomorrow” is, a sentence frame about what today is and what tomorrow with be or a recitation of reading the calendar – all things I’ve done in the past and yet, in June, many kids didn’t know how to interact with a calendar or tell you when tomorrow is.

The kids interact with this calendar on their own throughout the day. You can see them reading it with pointers, talking about how many days until winter break, counting days until the next birthday, reflecting on things we did in prior months, and having conversations during play, reading, etc. I am always amazed at the meaningful conversations that happen in front of the calendar wall.

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At the end of each month, we reflect on all that we accomplished or experienced that month. We create an interactive writing piece together to summarize the month, and choose pictures to display on our calendar wall. The children and I put this together and display it above the calendar month page. This creates a timeline that captures our year together. Children, families and visitors all enjoy looking at our wall story about the year.

With each month page, I also display the piece of art that each child creates on their birthday, and birthday cards with the child’s name, picture and birth date.

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Engaging the children in meaningful conversation, noticings, experiences and authentic calendar interactions and talk is appropriate and beneficial in kindergarten. It’s also fun!

I’ve found the linear calendar to be an essential tool in the teaching and learning in our classroom. I hope this post is helpful to anyone interested in creating one with their kids! Enjoy!

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Our 2018-2019 calendar wall – ready to go!

 

 

 

Exploring Identity: How do I see myself? How do others see me?

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Exploring identity, and beginning to understand who we are and who we are not as individuals and as a community, is a huge part of my teaching. I start this inquiry on day one and continue it throughout the year. One big project we do is with skin color.

When it started to come up in our conversations, I read a few books that explore skin color. The Colors of Us, Shades of People, The Skin You Live In, Chocolate Me and All the Colors We Are, are a few of our favorites. We learned about the science behind skin color and played around with mixing paints that match our skin color. Based on the beautiful language in The Colors of Us, we chose our words for what we would call our skin color. We made up colors like, “whipped cream peach” and “cocoa caramel mocha” and “honey gingerbread”. We mixed the paints and made our self-portraits.

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Our big questions that guided this inquiry were:

Why is our skin different colors?

How do I see myself?

How do others see me?

Who am I? Who are we?

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We read books, had lots of conversations, made art and played around with self-portraits in many different mediums – using paint chips, buttons, empty picture frames, ribbons and assorted loose parts. We interviewed our friends and asked them, Who am I to you? and How do you see me?. In our completed self-portrait paintings, we wrote the answers to these questions. We also created and drew a symbol that represented who we are in the world.

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This exploration into skin color and self-identity was a celebration of who we are and who we are to our friends and to each other. It made our community even stronger and helped us explore, appreciate and celebrate the differences and the similarities that make us special. We will continue to go back and revisit our thinking, revise our thinking and celebrate who we are as a community this year.

Building a Conversation

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I’ve been playing around with hands down conversations as part of our morning meetings. Inspired by my friends and brilliant thinkers,  @kassiaowedekind and @TeacherThomp and the work they are doing with talk, I’ve really enjoyed this new start to our day.

As the kids come in each morning, I listen to what they are chatting about. I get a sense for what is interesting to the kids that day and use that information to start our hands down conversation. After our morning announcements, we gather together on the rug and I invite someone to start our conversation around that topic. The conversation may (and often does) change topics, but I help them get started with a common topic. For now. Yesterday, everyone was talking about the upcoming tornado drill.

“We have to go in the basement!”

“Tornadoes don’t happen here. They never do.”

“It’s raining now, are we really having a tornado?”

“Is this a practice or real?”

“What is a tornado?”

I could sense that this was something we needed to talk about before going into the hallway for the drill. The kids took the topic and had a great hands down conversation, answering each others questions, talking about worries, and putting each other at ease. I joined the conversation a little, sharing about my experiences as a child in Michigan with real tornadoes and super scary drills in the basement of our school. But I wasn’t the center of the conversation in any way. The kids respectfully listened to each other, added on to what others said, asked questions and jumped into the conversation when there was that natural opening. They are starting to monitor each other for interruptions, often reminding friends to, “please don’t step on my words”.

We’ve talked a lot about how we “build a conversation”, something I first read about in Maria Nichol’s wonderful book, Comprehension Through Conversation. When we first started these conversations, there were about four kids who dominated every conversation. The rest of the class listened (usually), but rarely jumped in. I brought that up to the kids and we talked about how we build a conversation when different people add to the conversation. I used blocks to show how building a conversation by adding new people is a lot like building a structure by adding new blocks. They got it. I was really amazed at how that shifted our conversations and how more kids participated.

Starting our day with authentic, hands down conversations, with opportunities for all children to talk, has been a wonderful shift away from the structured, very school-based, “share time” when one child shares and then picks a few friends to comment or ask questions. I’m looking forward to exploring this more and to reading about the thinking that Kassia and Christy do on their new blog.

 

Currently – In Our Classroom

watching – tall block towers, pieces of art in various stages of completion, children making books, book boxes bursting at the seams, a vet clinic that has just about lost the excitement, legos that have been made into Bayblades and are spinning all over the room

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listening – to children talk about art, “I see….I think…I feel….”, and to children learning how to navigate conversations in authentic ways

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appreciating – the freedom to allow kids to play and a large space to give kids multiple spaces to play, work and live for 180 days

loving – the excitement around our field trip to the National Gallery of Art tomorrow

dancing – the life cycle of a mealworm, which is actually not a worm, but an insect – they become baby beetles

wishing – for more time to do documentation of all the learning that happens every day

planning – the launch of our next PBL – creating an geometry art museum

creating – a collaborative art piece on a canvas with blues and greens for the background – looking forward to adding more things to our mixed media piece

reading – Art Is…, Alfie: (The Turtle That Disappeared), Uni the Unicorn and the Dream Come True, The Big Umbrella, The Water Princess, Sandy’s Circus: A Story About Alexander Calder, Action Jackson, Be Kind, The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art, Love

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writing – nonfiction books, guided reading books for my kids about friends and things they love, labels for our beautiful stuff to create with

wondering – about Reggio practices, about culturally relevant teaching, about what worked well today and what didn’t, about where we are going next

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Day 6