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 ?

Reading, Creating and Playing with Art

Playing with art on the SMARTboard

We have spent the last two weeks immersed in Wassily Kandinsky’s art. My kindergarteners have been talking about his art, tracing over it on transparency paper, playing with it on our SMARTboard, and creating their own “Kindergarten Kandinsky”. It’s been exciting to listen in on the conversations as the kids compared different pieces and wondered why Kandinsky made the choices he did as an artist. We have had fun playing “I spy” as the students looked closely for “the big blue circle next to the small triangle behind the three parallel lines”. They have enjoyed talking about the pictures Kandinsky made with shapes and we had quite an interesting discussion about how Kandinsky couldn’t have intentionally made an “Angry Bird” in one of his paintings since it was made 100 years ago. It started a great discussion about perspective, imagination and creating stories in our minds. I loved how they connected it to making pictures in our minds as we read!

They love looking at the big art prints on paper and the Kandinsky SMARTboard station has been a top choice during Explore time. I have a feeling the Kandinsky prints will continue to be a part of our classroom explorations and conversations for quite some time.

Cutting shapes for our mural

We ended our Kandinsky study by creating a class mural – our “Kindergarten Kandinsky”. The kids cut out a variety of shapes and lines and we carefully placed them on a large piece of butcher paper. We talked about where the shapes would go, how they would overlap, what the proximity to other shapes and lines would be and negotiated our artwork together. After everything was placed as the students wanted it, we glued it down. The kids were so excited to have a giant “Kandinsky” to discuss and talk about, just as we have talked about his original artwork.

Negotiating placement of our shapes on our mural

Our finished "Kindergarten Kandinsky"

After spring break, we are starting a photography study of the alphabet through found pictures in the environment. I think the Kandinsky study has opened our eyes to reading pictures and seeing beyond the obvious. We are ready to look for letters in nature and in our environment. Stay tuned for a post in a few weeks on this new project!

What makes you happy?

I enjoyed hearing Pat share about The Happiness Project over dinner last week, and just started reading it last night on my iPad. It got me thinking about what makes me happy in teaching. I’ve had some difficult years where it was very hard to focus on what made me happy. Years where the days that ended in tears far outweighed the days that ended with a smile. Years where I really questioned whether I could stay in this career or not. This year, in my first year teaching kindergarten, I am happier than I’ve ever been in my teaching career. On my run this evening I reflected on why – what is it that has me being so happy as a teacher right now?

1. The kids. I absolutely love my students. They are funny, sweet, caring, energetic, loud, wiggly, creative, bouncy, squirmy, fabulous, thoughtful, inquisitive, wonderful little people. They love being at school and make our classroom such a happy place for us all to be. They force me to be in the present – in the “right now” – because that’s where their world exists. They celebrate the littlest things and help me see the beauty and magic in the 1/2 inch that our plant grows overnight, the magnets in our science center, the first words they put in their books and that first book they read all by themselves. Every day has little celebrations woven throughout. Even when things get tough (and yes they do get tough, as in any classroom) we work through the problems and end up back in our happy place. They seem to get, in their 5 and 6 year old wisdom, that life is short – fix our problems quickly so we can hug and go back to play. I learn so much from my students every day.

2. My team. I work with 2 dedicated, passionate, fun teachers and 3 amazing instructional assistants, as well as a wonderful ESOL team. I feel supported, encouraged and connected unlike any year before in my teaching career. It makes all the difference when you have team members you can share with, reflect with and create with. I never realized the power of collaboration until this year. I learn from these wise educators every day.

3. My school. I feel respected as an educator and trusted to make decisions in my classroom. This is huge. I am VERY aware of how little this happens in other schools around the country. Being trusted as a knowledgeable professional in your classroom and school is empowering and motivating and something ALL teachers should have. And it can make all the difference in how happy you are at work.

4. The play. Our day is full of play. Pure play, playful learning, playful discoveries, outdoor play, dramatic play, literacy/math/science play. Purposeful play that supports children in learning and growing in a developmentally appropriate way. How can you not be happy when your day is full of play? I work hard every day. I go home utterly exhausted. But I like to think of it as playing all day, because it rarely occurs as “work”.

5. The books. Reading books to kindergarteners is pure joy. I love sharing my passion for books with my young learners. They get so excited when I introduce a new book, they love reading books by themselves and with a friend, and they love hearing books read aloud. I get to plan great books to read for our curriculum and share them with my kids. It’s really one of the best parts of my job. Helping to cultivate a love of reading and writing through complete immersion in the wonderful children’s books that are out there is a tough job. But someone has to do it. 😉 I’m so happy it gets to be me.

What makes you happy? 

How do you stay happy in the face of the many challenges facing education and educators currently?

Playing with the Big Kids

This morning on the CBS Morning Show there was a story about a high school student who has possibly figured out a cure for cancer. Angela Zhang got interested in bio-engineering as a freshman. She started reading doctorate level papers and began to see it as a puzzle that she wanted to decode. She eventually talked her way into the lab at Stanford University and was doing her own research as a junior in high school. What I kept thinking as I watched this story is that she was playing. She found something that interested her and made the time to play around with it. She had the support of teachers who encouraged her to go beyond the curriculum, to follow a passion and to play. And look what happened.

So what if we built time for students to play into the school day? Not only in our primary grades – but in the upper elementary grades, middle school and high school as well? Recently at a staff professional development session my principal asked us what Explore time would look like in the upper grades. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I think there are so many possibilities for having an open-ended exploration and play time in all grades. After watching the CBS show this morning I’m even more convinced that carving out the time for this (our biggest challenge, perhaps) would be worth so much. Having this time would engage our struggling students as they find things they are interested and successful in and are motivated to pursue. Our students would be able to challenge themselves and pursue areas to research and explore that may not be part of our standard curriculum. We would help students find a passion and stick with a project over time, creating, problem solving, exploring and playing.

A few ideas I came up with for Explore time in grades 2-6 are:

*Legos, blocks and ramp building – including architectural design books and magazines as well as websites for constructing (this is a picture of kindergarteners building ramps – can you imagine how much further older kids could take this?)

*games – Scrabble, Boggle, Life, Monopoly, Yahtzee – just to name a few – these games are full of fun learning opportunities, yet we often don’t have time to play them in school

*science experiments – I think of all the cool experiments and projects at Steve Spangler Science, and countless other science resources, and think that older kids could experiment and play with a variety of science tools, engaging in problem solving, hypothesizing and persistence to a task they are interested in

*photography – children could explore photography and various editing tools that allow you to manipulate and alter photographs such as ColorSplash and Photoshop, using digital cameras,  iPods or iPads

*art – exploration with a variety of mediums, as well as books, websites, etc. to get ideas from

*technology – kids could Tweet, create their own blogs, create digital stories, make movies, etc… there are SO many possibilities here

*reading – I know I would love an extra 30 minutes or so in each day to read whatever I chose – books, magazines, blogs, etc.

*writing – kids could work on their own books and stories or work with others to create collaborative pieces

*projects and research on topics in the curriculum that kids want to explore further or topics that students choose

I feel that with older kids simply giving them the time and then challenging them to create a project of their choosing would be all you really need to do. Of course, you would provide materials, guidance, etc. – but I think they could come up with ideas beyond what we can think of. Finding the time is a challenge in an educational climate where it seems as if every minute is planned with curriculum objectives and pacing guides – with the standardized tests being the ultimate goal. But don’t we want thinkers, problem solvers, engaged learners, and motivated students in addition to good test scores? I would argue that providing this time would improve test scores, especially in your reluctant, struggling students who aren’t invested in school. It would get them hooked on learning, motivated to learn more and I think great results in math, reading, writing and the content areas would be seen. Isn’t it worth a try?

I’d love to hear from you if you are trying anything like this with your students.

How do you make the time? What types of Explore activities/projects/etc. are your students engaged in? What advice do you have for teachers wanting to try this?

Literacy Explore

Our kindergarten literacy block is structured with time for whole group instruction, small group & one on one instruction, book box time, sharing and choice stations. Literacy Explore is similar to reading and writing stations. In fact, I call it that so the children know that it’s not quite as open-ended as our Explore time. During this time I expect the kids to be engaged and playing in a literacy activity of their choosing. The children choose from the choices on our work board. They can move freely from station to station, as long as there is room. Reading from book boxes or our classroom library and writing are always a choice with no restrictions on how many kids can be doing this. I also have a time when everyone is reading from book boxes or the classroom library – in addition to our literacy Explore time. I want to make sure that everyone is engaged in texts of their choosing at some point in our day, in case they are not choosing this during Explore.

An example of some of the choices available as reading and writing stations are:

-reading around the room (children have pointers and can walk around the room looking for letters or words they know)

-writing around the room (children have clipboards and can walk around the room writing down letters or words they see)

-big books (all the big books we have read, as well as class big books we have made are in a bin for children to reread – I also have a big picture dictionary they love to read)

-puppets (I have a variety of puppets and stuffed animals from books we have read. Kids can create their own puppet stories or retell books we have read.)

-magnetic letters (a variety of magnetic letters and words on an oil drip pan and cookie sheets for kids to make words, match and sort letters, etc.)

-letter sand boxes (see this previous post for a photo and description)

-name bottles (we interviewed each child and then created a name bottle for them – it’s a bottle with all the letters of their name plus some glitter – kids can match a name bottle with a name card at this station) 

-story retelling (I have props for several stories we have read numerous times – the children can retell the story with the props)

-rhyming and letter games (various games where kids can match objects that rhyme, objects to a letter chart, objects with similar beginning or ending sounds, etc. – a good source for ordering lots of little objects is from Time for Tots on Etsy)

-poems and songs on charts (Children can reread familiar poems and songs with pointers at this station. I laminate all of our charts, tape a plastic hanger to them, and hang them on a chart stand. I have several hooks around the room for kids to hang the charts on while they are reading them.)

-iPad and iPhone (A variety of literacy apps are available at these stations – I especially like the digital story apps Fotobabble, StoryKit, and Storyrobe) as well as the SMARTboard (literacy games and websites).)

-letter stamps (Kids can make books, stamp names or words, sort letters, etc. with the ABC stamps.)

-flannel board (I love my “old school” flannel board! It is great for retelling stories and creating new ones from having multiple felt pieces available. Story Time Felts has a wide variety of stories available on felt and for a few dollars extra, they come pre-cut. Check with your librarian, many times old flannel boards are just in a closet, not being used.)

This is just a sampling of some ideas. I leave the choices up for a few weeks, adding new ones in and rotating ones out if I see that kids aren’t going to that station. I can then reintroduce a station later with renewed interest.

For our youngest literacy learners (and really, all literacy learners), I feel that it’s particularly important to make literacy accessible, playful, meaningful and engaging. When children have the opportunity to choose from a wide variety of stations they are certain to feel empowered, successful and in control of their learning. This helps set the foundation for strong literacy learning, and allows our stronger children the chance to go beyond the curriculum.

I’m sure there are many more literacy based exploration ideas out there. How do you do literacy stations? Please share!