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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Independent Reading: A look in a kindergarten classroom

2014-12-17 11.45.29Independent reading time is a key component of any reader’s workshop. It looks different at every grade level. What’s important is that we have a time, daily, for kids to read by themselves or with a partner, to choose what they read, and to have time to talk about what they are reading. In my kindergarten classroom, we have book boxes and a book box time every day.  Every child has their own box. Inside the box is a variety of books. There is a Ziplock bag with their “just-right” books. In the bag there are guided reading books, paper books that we have read together as shared reading charts throughout the week, ABC charts, name books, cut apart sentences from guided reading groups and ABC books. Children know that they are to read their baggie books first. There are also “look books” – books they can read the pictures or retell the story. They can choose 5-7 “look books” to put in their book box. These are library books, books from our classroom library and favorites that have been read aloud. This might be a super cool book on snakes, a Pete the Cat book we’ve read out loud several times, a Mo Willems or Todd Parr book from our author study or any good book they find on our shelves. Finally, each child has a poem and song binder that is full of poems and songs we’ve read together as shared reading pieces. Our book box time is social, full of energy and full of engaged kindergarten readers – reading the words, reading the pictures, retelling the books, making decisions as readers and talking about books. Children choose a cozy nook to read, they decide if they are reading by themselves, with a partner or with a group, and they choose what they read – just like readers do. Here is a glimpse into our book box time. Enjoy!

Should we teach kindergarteners to read?

Playing with cloud dough

Making a volcano with cloud dough

Making friend's names with magnetic letters

Making friend’s names with magnetic letters

This week I read an article citing a report saying that forcing kids to read before they are ready could be harmful. The report specifically references Common Core Standards in Kindergarten and says “there is no evidence to support a widespread belief in the United States that children must read in prekindergarten or kindergarten to become strong readers and achieve academic success”. While it was surprising to me to hear that there is “no evidence”, it was not surprising to read the other findings the authors reported. I hear over and over about blocks and dramatic play stations taken out of classrooms, recess taken away, and endless inappropriate assessments being given (an “online, practice quiz for kindergarten” should never, ever happen). Our children deserve better.

Reading in the Gingerbread House

Reading in the Gingerbread House

I agree completely with what the authors of the study share in the report. Children need to play – it is how they learn (and research does support this).  But I also think it’s important that we give our kids every chance to get that important school literacy piece as soon as possible – with developmentally appropriate practices. It is tragic that, as the article states, “teacher-led direct instruction in kindergarten has almost entirely replaced the active, play-based experiential learning that we know children need”. I don’t think that we should force children to read, but I do think we can immerse children in rich literacy experiences early on and ignite an interest in learning to read and write. We don’t need to have hours of drill and kill and teacher-led direct instruction. We don’t need worksheets and mindless one-size-fits-all instruction. We don’t need hours of assessments. We don’t need to make kindergarten (or first, second..or any grade, for that matter) full of these things.

Acting out Knuffle Bunny in the "laundromat"

Acting out Knuffle Bunny in the “laundromat”

My classroom is a play-based kindergarten classroom, with a great deal of authentic and meaningful literacy experiences offered each day. We read aloud, we have choices throughout the day in curriculum, content and activities, we have a daily Writer’s Workshop, we play, we learn letters, sounds and links, we have 2 recesses each day, we have snack, we read pictures and words in books, we build things with blocks, we learn how to read,  we dress up in the drama center, we play in the kitchen/spaceship/laundromat, we put on puppet shows, we learn how to form our letters, we discover things in sensory boxes, we have guided reading groups, we explore things we are interested in, we read charts and poems, we wonder, question and grow and we do it all in an active, playful, meaningful and developmentally appropriate way. And at the end of the year, some of my kindergarteners are reading at the county-wide benchmark. And some aren’t. But they can all tell you a favorite author and what kind of books they like. They can all read books they’ve written and tell you what author/illustrator they see as a mentor.  They all see themselves as readers and writers. That is ultimately my goal.

Negotiating the order of the alphabet letters with friends

Negotiating the order of the alphabet letters with friends

I’m reminded of the phrase from medicine, “first, do no harm”. This needs to hold true in education. The last thing any of us want is a child refusing to go to school, locking himself in his bedroom, and hiding under his bed. We want children excited about learning, passionate about topics they are discovering at school, talking about favorite authors and illustrators, questioning, wondering and eager to learn, empowered because they know they have a voice in their learning. We don’t want to harm our children. If we are being asked to do things that we know are not developmentally appropriate and that may harm some children, then we need to speak up. It’s worth fighting for the blocks, the recess and the dramatic play. It’s worth fighting for our children. Thank you to the authors of the Defending the Early Years project study for giving us another tool to fight with.

Don’t Stop Believing

2013-11-07 13.28.43This past year has been an amazing year in my running life. I’ve run over 17 ultra marathons and have set personal best times in several big races.  Yes, I’ve put in the training miles and have my nutrition perfected – and I am passionate about running – but there is something even more important that has helped me achieve my goals this past year. It’s the people I run with and having a whole team of friends who believe in me. I was lucky enough to be welcomed into a close-knit group of runners last year who have been there for me in more ways than I can count – on the trail and off. They laugh with me, support me, run many long miles with me, and believe in me. I can’t help but see the connection between this and the students I work with every day.

I truly feel that my job as a teacher is to believe in every child – to believe they can learn and to expect wondrous things from them. I have to focus on what they CAN do, not what they can’t do (yet), and build upon that foundation. Kindergarten can be an overwhelming grade to teach. I look at my state standards (which are remarkably similar to those I had when I taught first grade several years ago…that bar just keeps being raised) and then I look at my students – this year over 7 of them JUST turned 5. They have only been on this planet for barely 5 years and we expect them to learn so much in the short year we have them. And they do. They learn to count to 100. They learn to read. They learn to make books that stay on topic. They learn about the monarch migration and how magnets work. They learn to solve problems, be independent, to tie their shoes and wash their hands after they go to the bathroom. They learn to use their words, be brave, be strong, put on their mittens, be kind and that they can make a difference in their world. We teach them all of these things, but we also believe in them. We believe they can do it. And they do.

And if we’ve done our job well, they will believe in themselves.

“I think that the best thing we can do for our children is to allow them to do things for themselves, allow them to be strong, allow them to experience life on their own terms, allow them to take the subway… let them be better people, let them believe more in themselves.”  – C. JoyBell C.

 

Lessons from Kindergarten

Last week I finished my 20th year of teaching, and my first year of teaching kindergarten. Every year I learn many, many things to layer onto my learning and growing as a teacher. Who I am as a teacher is a rich tapestry of 20 years of students, colleagues, parents and experiences. Here is a list of the lessons learned this year.

1. Read. You can never read too many books. I filled our days with read alouds and exposed my kids to many authors and genres. The last week of school we reflected on our favorite books. The conversation was long and spirited as we discussed favorite authors and books. We finally came to the conclusion that it’s impossible to have just one favorite. I love that my kindergarteners are going into first grade with long lists of favorite authors and titles. They cherish books as much as I do. I hope this stays with them for many years.

2. Laugh. You can never laugh too much. Teaching can be stressful and teaching 20+ 4 and 5 year olds can be like herding cats. But we always have a choice  – to allow ourselves to get stressed and upset or to step back and find some humor in the situation. I learned a lot from my little friends this year about how to see the joy and laughter in a situation instead of allowing the stress to get the best of me.

3. Play. Never underestimate the power of play. I learned so much about each of my kids by observing and joining them in play. There is nothing that could be more beneficial than the Explore time we have at the beginning and end of each day.

4. Slow down. Kindergarten has taught me that everything will take at least twice as long as I’ve planned for it to take. And I finally embraced that. Next year I will really focus on planning less and not feeling rushed or pressured to move through things quickly. Slowing down lets me be more present for my students and to enjoy the moments more as well.

5. Talk more. In a classroom with the majority of children learning English for the first time, developing oral language is key. Encouraging talk during play, writing, reading, math, morning meeting, science, social studies, and throughout our day allowed all children to greatly increase their language. Talking was how we solved problems, negotiated our curriculum, built our relationships and got to know each other in our community of learners. A kindergarten classroom is never quiet. And that’s OK.

6. Talk less. This one is big for me. I tend to talk too much. I still do. But I’m working on listening more and talking less. I am trying to focus my instructions, explanations, etc. and get to the point right away. Kids tune out after a few short seconds and I’m aware of that and working at being more concise. When I talk less, it gives them more time to talk, play and learn!

7. Play. (yes, I realize I have this twice – it’s that important) Some people reply to my telling them I teach kindergarten with a “how cute – you get to play all day!” While I despise the “cute” word, it is true, I do get to play all day. And by play I am talking about all kinds of play – imaginative play, dramatic play, purposeful playful learning, authentic play, inquiry based play and discovery play. Play that goes way beyond the traditional definition of play.  I do want my kids to view making books, reading, and math workshop as play. Play is fun and learning should be fun too! I embrace the word “play” in our classroom and realize that a lot of adults need to understand what “play” looks like in our classrooms and how critical play is to learning. And while we may “play” all day – it’s through play that we learn, grow, build a solid foundation of academic and social learning and inspire a love of learning.

8. Build a community. While I’ve known for quite some time how important a strong community is, this year reminded me once again that it’s the glue that holds us all together. Our classroom community sets the stage for all the learning that occurs throughout the year. But it’s also the community that is built within our teams and our schools. I had the privilege of working with a phenomenal team this year. Sharing your days with like-minded, passionate and caring educators makes coming to school every day a joyful experience. I realize and appreciate how lucky I am to have this.

Kindergarten is my happy place. It’s where I need to be as a teacher. Having been a teacher in grades 1-8, a literacy specialist and a librarian – I’ve finally found my home in kindergarten. I thank each of my students and my colleagues for helping me see that and for giving me so much to learn from this year.

What did your students teach you this year? 

Three Things

Last week I was in Asheville for Spring Break, enjoying running the beautiful mountain trails there. I met two women at a bike & outdoor shop bar one evening and we started talking. The women were on a mountain biking vacation from Canada and had left their children and husbands at home. It came up in conversation that I was a kindergarten teacher, and one of the women asked me if I could tell her the top 3 things she should be doing to prepare her 2 and 4 year old children for kindergarten. Without hesitation, I told her – read to them, play with them and talk with them.

She seemed a bit surprised. She said of course she was doing those things – but what could she do to really prepare them? And then she immediately stopped, took a step back, and said, “wait – you mean everyone doesn’t do that?”

I wish all of my children came in to kindergarten with 4 years of rich, enjoyable read aloud experiences – tons of imaginative journeys they’ve taken with forts in their living rooms, fairy houses in the backyard, castles built out of refrigerator boxes, blocks and Lego creations, cardboard arcades built, time spent running from dragons, swimming with mermaids or whatever else their imagination created for them – and hours of talk with family members who not only ask questions but stop to really listen to what their young children have to say, wonder about, dream up and talk about. But the reality is that many of our kids don’t. So that’s my job. I want kindergarten to be a time for my students to hear hundreds of amazing books read aloud, to play for hours with things that interest them and with their own imaginations and to have lots and lots of time to talk and to listen, to talk and to be listened to.

Of course there are many other things that I rank with high importance as well, but my top 3…read, play and talk. Those are the things I wish all new parents knew about and made a priority for their child’s learning and development.

And the things I wish all early childhood classrooms provided for their young learners.

What are your 3 things ?

Playing with Books

Our read aloud time is one of my kindergarteners favorite times of the day. They love to listen to books and to talk about the books we read. Whenever I can, I will use realia or puppets while reading a book to my class. It makes the story come alive, engages all my kids and helps my ELLs connect with the book. Our Pete the Cat stuffed animal and Very Hungry Caterpillar puppet are favorites for the kids to play with after hearing the stories many times. I recently got props to go with Mrs. Wishy-Washy (a tin bucket, a cow, a horse and a duck) with the intention of using them during math for storytelling problems. While they are great for that, my kids started getting them out during our literacy stations to retell the story. They were retelling the story, sometimes using the book, sometimes not , capturing the different voices, dialogue and general storyline.  They pretended to be the characters, changing their voices to go along with the story and retold the story numerous times. This is going to become a regular literacy station in our classroom with props for other books available to play with as they retell the story or make up a new story. Thanks to a picture I saw on Twitter from @TeachLearnLive, I’m planning a Knuffle Bunny station with a cardboard box for a clothes dryer, a clothes basket and a Knuffle Bunny doll. Hattie and the Fox props are ready to go next week too. I’m looking forward to seeing what else comes out of this book play over the next several weeks. I plan on observing, listening and joining in on the play during our literacy station time. What books do you use props for? So many possibilities!