Through the Fairy Door

Our fantasy characters became our confidants. We would talk and listen to them and tell their stories at will. They did not mask reality; they helped us interpret and explain our feelings about reality.
—Vivian Gussin Paley, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play

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Fiona is our classroom fairy. She visits every so often, leaving us notes and surprises. Fiona made herself known one fall day when the kids in the class noticed our fairy door on the wall. The next day there was a letter waiting. The kids write her notes, leave her presents and celebrate the magic that is Fiona. Every single kid buys in to the fantasy play that our fairy brings. She begins her visits each year once the kids notice the fairy door, and classes talk about her from years past. I love it.

Today when the kids arrived, Fiona had made our play stand into a magical fairy garden. There was an invitation to play with the fairy stones, the glitter, the natural objects and the books and writing paper that Fiona left us. It’s another space in our classroom where kids can go and play and imagine that Fiona is real. She becomes their confidant, their friend, their imaginary player in our kindergarten classroom. She provides another path to creating narratives, solving problems, inventing situations and seeking meaning in a five year old’s world. The play is filled with talk and imagination, literacy, wonder and joy. It’s truly as magical as Fiona.

“Let me end with what for me may be the most important aspect of play we learn from the children: it is in play where we learn best to be kind to others. In play we learn to recognize another person’s pain, for we can identify with all the feelings and issues presented by our make-believe characters.”

– Vivian Gussin Paley, from The Importance of Fantasy, Fairness, and Friendship in Children’s Play – An Interview with Vivian Gussin Paley

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Day 5

Our Day – Their Way

“We must credit the child with enormous potential and the children must feel that trust. The teacher must give up all his preconceived notions and accept the child as a co-constructor.”

-Loris Malaguzzi

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Our daily schedule – on this day

A few months ago, I was thinking about our day. Kids had been complaining that we didn’t have enough time for Writers Workshop when it was scheduled right after lunch, and I wanted to ask the kids what their thoughts were. I had always set our daily schedule. I started to question this, and began to wonder why I had to decide what the schedule would be. Why can’t the kids have a say in this? I initiated a conversation during morning meeting about our daily schedule. They agreed that the time allotted for Writers Workshop was a problem. They wanted more time to write, and they also wanted more Explore (our free play time), so we decided that we should try to fix this.

We started by establishing the “non-negotiables” – things in our day that we didn’t have control over, like lunch, recess and our specials. Those went up on the white board first. Then we took all the cards we had written out at the beginning of the year and looked at them on the rug. The kids talked about how they wanted the day to go and we created the daily schedule together. It was fabulous. They created the schedule to work for them. And they even carved out more time for Explore.

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We have time every day for Explore – time to paint and create, as a choice

Now, as part of our daily morning meeting, we go over our daily schedule and talk about how we want our day to look. Most days stay similar to how the kids changed it a few months ago, but sometimes a child will suggest having Mathematicians Workshop at the end of the day, or switching Readers Workshop to the morning, or something else they want to try out. I let the kids decide how their day will look. It’s our day – and the kids should have a say.

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Making the castle for Imagination Station

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Day 3

Moving Furniture, Solving Problems

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Moving the dramatic play furniture across the room to the old block area.

It started with a question.

“Can 5 people go to blocks?”

I typically turn questions like these back onto the kids, asking them if they think that will work. That day, I just said, “no, there’s not enough room”. Our block area was fairly small, and while 4 kids could squeeze in, there were often issues with not enough space.

“Well, then we need to fix that! Let’s change it so there is enough room!” said one girl.

“Yes! Let’s move the furniture. We need to make it bigger!” came the cries from, now, very excited kindergarteners.

In that moment I had to make a choice – to continue with the planned math lesson or to follow the kids and rearrange our classroom, making a bigger block area. I paused, took a breath and remembered what I believe. I believe that kids are capable. I believe they can solve problems and be persistent when faced with challenges. I believe they can, and should, challenge the way things are and question respectfully. I believe they are “can-do” kids.

So, we made a plan. We talked about what they wanted in the block area, what might work, how we could rearrange, and what we needed to make our classroom work for us. And then, we did the plan.

The kids decided to switch the Imagination Station with the current block area, allowing for more space in blocks and building, and a bit less in dramatic play, which was a huge area currently set up as a vet clinic. This class LOVES to build. It totally made sense that we have a huge space for building and making stuff. We began moving furniture, sweeping up the real life dust bunnies – while laughing at the connection to Jan Thomas’ Rhyming Dust Bunnies book, learning how to use the big dustpan, measuring the space and deciding what would fit where, and rearranging our space to work for the kids living and playing in that space every day. It was magical. I pretty much stood back and watched this take place, in awe of these kiddos.

Real life problems and real life problem solvers.

Capable kindergarteners recognizing a problem, making a plan, and solving the problem.

They can do it.

If we let them.

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Loving our new HUGE block and building area!

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Day 1

 

 

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.

Writing in Kindergarten

Writing has been a recent topic of discussion on the #kinderchat Twitter feed. I was honored to be invited to participate in the first #kinderchat Campfire Webinar series last week with an hour chat on “Writing Joyfully”. If you’d like to listen to our recorded discussion, you can listen here. For those of you who would rather have the “Cliff Notes” version, I’m writing this blog post to summarize a few of my current thoughts on writing with young children.

Making dinosaur books

Making dinosaur books

Writing, to young children, is play. It is natural, engaging and fun. Kids love to write. And they write like 3, 4, 5 or 6 year olds – not like we, as adults, may define “writing”. Their books, signs, labels, etc… are full of squiggly lines, pictures, scribbles, maybe some letters and even occasionally a word or two. However, when a child makes something, and you say, “Read it to me!”, he or she can “read” it to you. What they have put on the paper has meaning to them. And they love to share that!

I view writing in a similar way to how I view oral language development and reading. I think children need lots and lots of modeling in order to take something on as his or her own. We talk to our children from before birth, engaging with them in meaningful conversation, questioning, wondering and celebrating their first attempts at talking. We don’t insist on those early words being correct, and through lots of modeling, eventually our children become proficient speakers of our language.

The same goes for reading. We read to our children from before birth, immersing them in lots of bedtime stories, read alouds and play with books. We celebrate the first time our children “read” a familiar book – turning the pages as they retell a story they’ve heard many times before. We know they aren’t reading as adults read – but we celebrate this success and know it is paving the way to independent reading.

The Mitten - interactive writing

The Mitten – interactive writing

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Community writing to label book baskets

I see writing in the same way. In our kindergarten classroom, we have two distinct types of writing- community writing and independent writing. Community writing, which includes shared writing (where the children are deciding what we want to say and the teacher is doing all of the writing – actually scribing what the children are saying in a small group or whole group setting) and interactive writing (where the children and teacher are deciding what to say and sharing the pen to write the words, again in a small or whole group setting). Both of these go under the umbrella of “community writing” because we are composing text as a community of learners together.  This is the time when I am modeling what writing is. The finished text for these projects is correctly spelled and written. The teacher is filling in what is out of reach of the children. (For example, if the word we are writing is “read” – the children might call out “r  e  d” – the teacher honors this approximation, has a child write the   r  and  e, then takes the pen to write the  a, saying “in this word there is an a that we don’t hear”, then allowing a child to write the ending letter  d)  It is a model of writing that becomes shared reading in our classroom. It’s essential that the writing is correct for that reason. I don’t want to display writing that is not correct for children to read and/or use as models for their own writing. The topics for these writing projects are mostly teacher driven – connecting to science, social studies, math or literature we have worked on together, as well as functional text for our classroom (schedules, labels, signs). I am modeling what correct writing looks like with the help of the children. It is an extremely supportive environment that helps our young writers in many ways. My students are seeing and hearing me think aloud as we compose the text together. Those children who are ready to write sentences have this opportunity to see what that looks like. Those children who are just beginning to label their pictures or are exploring letter/sound relationships also see this in our writing projects. All children are seeing the “in the head” thinking of a writer getting thoughts down on paper.  It is a daily teaching practice that models writing and allows children to participate within their zone of proximal development. It is paving the way to independent writing and encouraging children to take risks in their own writing.

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Angry Birds vs. Lizard – cover of a book

Writer's Workshop

Writer’s Workshop

We also have a daily Writer’s Workshop, where children are engaged in independent writing. In our classroom, this is a time when we “make stuff”. Most of the time, this is books.  I model what book making is by reading lots and lots of wonderful books by authors we love. We start on day one, with 5 blank pages of paper stapled to make a book. This format evolves as a variety of book forms are discovered over the year.  During independent writing time the children are working on their own (for the most part – occasionally we have co-authored books with a friend), making books about topics of their choosing.  We read lots and lots of good books to use as our mentor texts, and learn from authors we love about making books. The children work at their own pace – sometimes taking many days to complete a book. I confer with the children as they are writing and they share their books with me and with the class. I take notes for myself as I talk with my writers, but I do not write on their books. If I need to remember what they wrote to take note on whether they are staying on one topic or have an understanding of how a particular genre works, for example, I write it down for me in my notes. I do not write on a child’s book at all. I teach each child differently, based on what they are ready for as a writer. I honor the fact that they are five, and are writing like a five year old. If a child decides to make a book and then I do the writing for him or her (either by writing under his or her writing, transcribing a word or two, or otherwise writing on the book), it is sending a strong message that I am the one who really knows how to write – not the child. It takes away ownership from the book. A child can “read” his or her book just fine – if we let them – and if we change our definition of what “reading” might look like – perhaps the book sounds different every time it is read. That’s fine. The child is the author and they can read it however they like.

This is a brief overview of writing in my classroom. There are many more examples and thoughts in the Webinar. Stay tuned for another post about how I use mentor texts in my classroom and how I support my young writers through various tools in our classroom. Here are a few of my mentor texts that have transformed my teaching of writing – I highly recommend: Already Ready, Interactive Writing: How Language and Literacy Come Together, Engaging Young Writers, In Pictures and In Words, Talking, Drawing, Writing: Lessons for Our Youngest Writers.

So what are your thoughts on writing? How do you help your young writers thrive?

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