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!

Writing for a Reason

We’ve been making books in my kindergarten class since the first week of school and I am amazed at the wonderful books my students have written already this year. Most of my writers write wordless picture books, although a few are adding letters and names of their friends, as well as dedication pages. When students share their texts, they do a great job “reading” the pictures as they tell their story. When I talk with the kids about their books, I notice that the majority of them are on one topic, even though the blank books I give them have five pages of paper. Some books are personal narratives, some are made-up stories; others are list books and nonfiction books. Our bookmaking time is supported with LOTS of read aloud books, conversations about what authors do when they write books, and invitations (not prompts) to make books like our favorite authors.

  • “Mo Willems uses speech bubbles to help Elephant and Piggie tell the story. You could try that in your book.”
  • “David Shannon makes us laugh when we read his books. You might want to make a book that makes your reader laugh.”
  • Pumpkin Circle teaches us about something real that happens in nature. You’ve learned a lot about pumpkins and monarch butterflies. You could write a book that teaches someone about those things or something else you know a lot about.”
  • “Bill Martin, Jr. writes about the alphabet having an adventure in Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. You could write a book about the alphabet too.”

My kindergarten writers have an hour-long writer’s workshop every day. They are never at a loss of what to write about and they complain when it’s time to stop. They truly love writing and already see themselves as authors. Standing on the shoulders of favorite authors and envisioning themselves making books just like Mo Willems, Eric Carle and Jan Thomas keeps our workshop thriving daily.

This past week we decided that our kinder classroom needed some labels to help us put supplies away and to direct visitors to specific areas in our room. We made a bunch of labels together using interactive writing, with me sharing the pen with my young writers. Our bathroom was carefully labeled (to help the preschool kids who visit our room during art), the window, the block area, the clock, the books, and so on.  Since enthusiasm was high, I decided to take this meaningful activity and link it to the writing my students do every day.

After labeling the room, I invited the children to try labeling in their books. “You might want to try labeling some of the pictures in your books today. That will help someone else read your book – just in case you aren’t sitting there to tell them about it”.  It was a huge “a-ha” moment for many of the children. There was an explosion of letters and words filling the pages of their books. They saw a reason and a purpose for adding words to their stories and moved to a new level of bookmaking. I can’t wait to see where our writing goes from here!

How is writer’s workshop going in your kindergarten or first grade classroom?  What real world writing are your students engaged in?

We All Have Stories to Tell

I recently read an excellent blog post from Cathy Mere in which she said,  “In a teaching world filled with data, I think the best thing about the first days of school is getting to know kids not by numbers, but by living beside them.” How true and wise these words are. They have echoed in my mind since I read the post. Living beside our students, establishing trust and relationships and getting to know who they really are as people is the foundation of a good year.

The first three days in my new kindergarten class have been full of getting to know my students and beginning to establish a strong community for us to live and learn in all year. For many of my kids, this is their first experience of school. It’s so important for me to make our learning community one where we know each other well, and care about each other. One of the routines I established on day one was an oral storytelling time. It quickly became my favorite time of the day. It’s all about getting to know each other and sharing ourselves in this new community together.

I started our first storytelling time by reading No, David! and sharing the author’s notes by David Shannon on why he wrote that book. Then I said, “you know – everyone has stories to tell, just like David Shannon did. I have stories and I’ll bet you have stories too!” Then I shared a story about my dog Cayo and how she barks at the mailman every day. The kids were spellbound, listening to me weave a story out of an everyday occurrence. I then asked if any of them had a story to tell. All hands went up. These kindergarteners, many of them English language learners, on the first day of school, sat still and were engaged for over 20 minutes while story after story was told by their classmates. It was magical. I realized then that this was a necessary part of every day. We were getting to know each other by sharing what was important to us and by sharing the stories of our lives. What a great way to connect with each other, realize similarities and begin to build a strong community.

As my year continues, I plan to keep our storytelling time as an important part of our day. While I will eventually get to know my kids by numbers, I want to keep living beside them every day, listening to the stories they tell and getting to know them as people.