What Kind of Class Do We Want?

img_6072I love the way winter break is like pushing the reset button. I’ve enjoyed relaxed days with friends, family, books and the mountains. It’s been fabulous. It’s recharged my mind, my body and my soul. I’ve allowed myself to step away from my classroom (physically and mentally) and now I feel a renewed sense of excitement, energy and possibility as I get ready to return in a few days.

My kids and I have enjoyed 17 days off. While it’s been wonderful, I know that January 3rd is going to be like starting all over again in many ways. Seventeen days to a five and six year old is an eternity. But I love the idea of a second “first day” of sorts. It’s a chance to re-establish our community, to get to know one another again, to reteach those things that were falling apart in December and to revisit what kind of class we are. It’s like a blank slate that we can create together again.

One thing I always do that first week back is to ask my kids, “what kind of class do we want to be? What kind of community do we want to have? Who are we?” Those are big questions, but my kindergarteners never fail to think deeply, to reflect on what was working and what wasn’t, and to create a promise of sorts that guides us for the rest of the year.

We start this conversation in our morning meeting on the first day back. I take notes on chart paper as we talk and start to determine what really matters to us. We read new books and revisit old favorites that first week back and talk about what makes characters kind and likable, or unkind and unlikable, and how that might look in our classroom. Books like Grumpy Bird, Each Kindness, It’s Okay to Make Mistakes – and any Todd Parr book, Red, A Crayon’s Story, I Used to Be Afraid, Walter Was Worried, The OK Book, Elephants Cannot Dance, Ish, The Invisible Boy, Have You Filled a Bucket Today?  and Last Stop on Market Street – just to name a few of our favorites. The main idea here is to determine what would make our classroom a wonderful place to be – and how can we contribute to that.

We revisit the chart daily, adding and revising our thinking. After a week or so, we create our own chart – through interactive writing – that reflects who we are in this classroom. We always display it in a prominent place so that, as one of my kids said last year, “everyone who comes in here knows that this is how they have to be. You can’t be mean and come in our room.”

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Last year’s chart as a work in progress – adding things to it as we discuss.

This document serves as a class pledge or promise for the rest of the year. We read it and use it as a tool to solve problems, resolve issues and remind us of what kind of class we are. It’s a powerful tool to come back to when the inevitable problems arise.

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Last year’s  finished chart with photos!

How do you reset after a long winter break? Best wishes to everyone for a fantastic second “first day”!

Update: Here is our chart from last week (January 2017). We will be working on making our class chart next week. Stay tuned!

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“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

How do you encourage and celebrate thinking in your classroom?

Something to think about…

The Wonder of It All

“If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

 

Discovering magnets for the first time!

Discovering magnets for the first time!

Kindergarteners come to school with a huge sense of wonder. They are constantly questioning, pondering, discovering, wondering, exploring – it’s just a natural part of who they are. I absolutely love this part of working with four and five year olds! I think it’s my job to keep that sense of wonder alive and to encourage it as a part of the learning experience. While most of us have a curriculum and/or state standards to follow, I find that the standards are simply a departure point. If I only teach the standards as they are written, in order to “cover” an objective, I miss many opportunities to get kids excited about learning. I once had an instructor tell me, “if you’re only going to cover something, you may as well bury it in the backyard.” This has stuck with me and I try very hard to create learning experiences that are ongoing, meaningful, deep and full of discoveries.

Setting up the baby beetle habitats – counting how many we have

Setting up the baby beetle habitats – counting how many we have

Life cycles are a part of our curriculum. Our county provides us with an ant farm, which is a fun way to study life cycles, but I like to go beyond that by extending this study throughout the year. We start the year with monarch caterpillars in our classroom. We witness the amazing transformation to butterflies and then track their migration to Mexico. In the winter we bring “baby beetles”, commonly called mealworms, into our classroom. The children observe the tiny wormlike critters go through their transformation into large, black beetles. We count, record and observe the changes. We get them out of their habitat and look at them closely, feel them crawling on our hands and experience their life cycle firsthand. We get an incubator in the spring and learn about chickens – watching the baby chicks hatch in our classroom. Through these many experiences, students truly learn our required standard about the life cycles of living creatures. They also learn much, much more.

Playing with the dinosaur sensory box while making a book about dinosaurs

Playing with the dinosaur sensory box while making a book about dinosaurs

This year my class is extremely interested in dinosaurs. I started a dinosaur box the first week of school in order to appeal to this interest. I filled it with dinosaur books, toy dinosaurs, pictures of dinosaurs and fabrics, rocks & stones to create dinosaur habitats. We also have a dinosaur sensory box, an app on our ipads that teaches kids how to draw dinosaurs as well as an app that teaches kids information about dinosaurs. Out of this play area, many children have written books to teach others about dinosaurs. They have learned how to read nonfiction texts with graphs, labels, captions, and various nonfiction text features. They are continuously drawn to the dinosaur play because it is something that interests them. They want to learn more and they want to share their learning with others. Are dinosaurs in my curriculum? No, but through the dinosaur play many of my literacy standards are being met.

Our class “Wonder Wall”

Our class “Wonder Wall”

Another way I try to keep wonder alive in our classroom is with our “Wonder Wall”. I first read about this idea in the fabulous book, A Place for Wonder by Georgia Heard and Jen McDonough. We have a special board in our room where we can put post-it notes about things we wonder about. This is a way to keep track of our thinking and to remind us about things we want to talk about, investigate, explore and learn more about. I keep a close eye on the Wonder Wall and use it as a launching place for classroom units of study, books we read, websites to visit and experts we might know that can come and share their knowledge with us. It’s a great way to keep track of the many wonders that kindergarteners have!

Playing with fake snow in a classroom sensory box

Playing with fake snow in a classroom sensory box

Deep learning and exploring happens when children are encouraged to follow passions, explore interests, inquire and wonder. Giving children time to explore and honoring their investigations, thoughts and discoveries allows for real learning that will stay with children forever. I try to not get caught up in the push to follow pacing guides and “cover” the curriculum. I want my teaching to be deep so that the learning sticks and is meaningful and exciting for the children. I follow the children’s lead while making sure I am accountable to the curriculum, standards and expectations of my county. It’s a juggling act of sorts, and it’s not easy, but it’s something that I can’t do any other way. I strive to be that “good fairy” and give my children the gift of a lifelong sense of wonder and to keep my sense of wonder alive each day in our classroom. I can only do that when my focus is on the children in our classroom, their interests and their needs, at this moment in time.

How are you keeping wonder alive in your classroom? 

This post is cross posted on the #kinderchat blog  as part of the NaBloPoMo project. Early childhood educators from all over the world have contributed to the #kinderchat blog this month for daily posts about teaching children in the early grades.  Join us for our weekly chat on Twitter – 9pm EST Mondays under the #kinderchat hashtag – and for a new Webinar series starting January 30. Katie will be leading a conversation about writing in the early years at 9pm EST January 30. Join us in Blackboard Collaborate for the first #kinderchat Campfire Webinar

Explore!

“In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior. In play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.”

Lev Vygotsky

Several years ago I had a huge “a-ha” moment while reading Serious Players in the Primary Classroom: Empowering Children Through Active Learning Experiences. If you’re interested in meaningful, purposeful play and learning then this book is a must-read. My “a-ha” moment resulted in creating one of my favorite times of the day – Explore. I started Explore when I was teaching second grade, and have done it with first grade and now kindergarten. We start and end each day with 15-30 minutes of Explore time. When my students enter our room every morning they unpack and then choose an Explore station. I have a work board where the children move their name to indicate their choices. Choices might be: blocks, art, iPad, dramatic play, sand table, garden rocks, Legos, puppets, puzzles, games, math manipulatives, play-dough, building ramps, etc. Reading in the library and writing are always choices.  I typically have 12-16 choices with space for 4 children at each station.

Because my room is on the small side, I don’t have the supplies out in pre-set stations, for the most part. I teach the children where to get the materials and how to put them away. Children are free to move from station to station as they wish – as long as there is room, they can change stations as much as they’d like. As the year goes on, it is my hope that Explore will turn into student-generated projects and stations that they create as an extension of our curriculum. I leave the board up with different options each week, but the children know they can let me know if they would like to create their own Explore station.

One year after a trip to a folk art exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a group of second grade students decided to create their own folk art exhibit during Explore time. Just the other day we found a HUGE box in the hallway waiting to be taken out with the trash. We grabbed that box and it is currently being painted as a Fairy Princess Castle House. What will happen next is yet to be seen. It’s up to the children what they choose to do with the box. It’s up to me to provide the supplies and space for their creativity to shine.

During Explore I want kids to do exactly that – explore different things in our classroom and play! This is an important time for me to interact with the children. Walking around the room I take pictures, engage in play with students, ask questions, wonder out loud and observe. Kid-watching during Explore time gives me tons of anecdotal notes to help guide my teaching. This is a time rich with oral language opportunities and a chance for all students to be successful, empowered problem solvers. They are engaged, invested and learning a tremendous amount.

Explore is a time in our day that I couldn’t live without. It’s messy, fun, productive, exciting and full of learning that may not happen within the normal day and set curriculum. I can easily say that I don’t have the time for this. But I believe that we make time for what is important. And this is important work for children.

Have you tried a version of Explore? Please share your experiences with open ending exploration and play time for children. We would love to hear new and different ideas!

I’ve taken the idea of Explore and carried it over into math and literacy as well. Stay tuned for my next post on how Literacy Explore works in our classroom. And check out Kassia Omohundro Wedekind’s post on Math Explore over at Math Exchanges.