Fidelity vs. Thoughtfulness

img_9986 We live in a time right now when professional resources are abundant. We have endless access to lesson plans, problem based learning projects, activities, ideas, blog posts, professional books, teachers sharing with teachers, curriculum guides, programs, etc… I can Google any topic and find a wealth of resources. Teachers are not at a loss for what to teach and ideas for how to teach it. But there’s something that I keep coming back to:

Are we being thoughtful with what and how we teach?

There are now scripts written out for literacy workshops, charts to copy or simply post, literacy “cookbooks” of sorts with specific lessons for exactly what your students might need and other resources to make our lives easier and to save time. These are good things, for the most part. Don’t get me wrong. They are based in research, carefully thought out by expert educators who know how kids learn best, tested in real classrooms with real kids. I own most of these resources and use them as I plan – (as a resource, not as a script). And these are WAY better than any basal textbook series I’ve ever seen. These resources have definitely lifted the quality of literacy instruction in many schools. They’ve provided a scaffold for implementing literacy workshops.

But are we thinking deeply about the kids we are teaching? 

img_0082Years ago while teaching in Florida I was at a required basal textbook training for a series my county had just adopted. The representative said, “Look! Everything is written out for you. Even the teachable moments. You don’t even have to think!” And that’s when I walked out of the meeting. I didn’t go into teaching to not think. And I value my profession way more than to accept the idea that it would be a good thing if I didn’t have to think. It’s offensive and degrading to be told you don’t have to think.

It’s easy to flip open a book and have your lesson plan written out for you and ready to go. And chances are, with many of these resources, you would be teaching a good lesson. We get ideas from each other – that’s what teachers do. We don’t have to constantly recreate the wheel.  But I hope that we are still thinking. And reflecting. And connecting with OUR kids – the ones sitting with us in our classrooms at this very moment. I hope we are not taking exactly what’s handed to us and teaching it blindly because we were told to “teach with fidelity”. We need to think and question. We need to teach our kids to think and question. We need to continue learning as teachers and understand the WHY behind what we are doing. We need to be responsive and reflective as teachers.

img_0081A teacher leader in my county once helped me reflect on the idea of fidelity vs. thoughtfulness. I keep coming back to that. Perhaps we need to be implementing new structures, programs, etc. with “thoughtfulness”, rather than “fidelity”. We need to look at the programs, curriculums and expectations our district and administration give us with a critical eye. We need to be very careful with resources we find online. We need to tweak the “recipes” in these literacy “cookbooks” to meet the needs of our students. We need to use the pre-printed anchor charts as a temporary scaffold for us as teachers – and replace them with kid pictures and drawings and our own students’ words as soon as we feel solid in that teaching.  We need to deconstruct these things together with our team, be thoughtful in our implementation, question and reflect on what works and what doesn’t.  As one of my former principals always says, “the answer is in the room”.  Talk, reflect and think together – don’t just blindly follow something from outside. We need to use the abundance of resources we have as departure points to launch our own best teaching. We need to keep talking, questioning and thinking with our team and on our own.  As I’ve said before, we teach children, not curriculum, programs or standards.

Be thoughtful. Question. Be willing to change your thinking.  And as Lucy Calkins once wrote in my copy of The Art of Teaching Writing, 

“Be a brave learner. Be brave enough to outgrow your own best teaching.”


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? 

Reflecting On Your Classroom Space

In the previous blog entry, Designing Your Classroom Space,  we mentioned some things to think about while designing your classroom before the children arrive.  Once the children come it’s time to talk with them about the various spaces – what they are for, how the children will participate in keeping each space neat and organized, and so on.  Perhaps they will have suggestions for areas you haven’t thought of. One year my first graders asked for a Lego building table so they could keep their creations intact and continue building each day when they arrived in the morning. What a great idea! We moved tables and immediately set up that space in our classroom. Once your children arrive you will be able to see if your classroom works. Do you have enough whole group area so that the whole class can sit and not be crowded?  Is your library big enough for many kids to browse books? Is your small group area really out of the way so you and the children you work with are not distracted or interrupted?  Teachers need to be responsive to what the students need and how the classroom can work best for them.

After the first few weeks of school, we suggest you consider the following questions:

  • Walk around your room – does every space have a purpose? Talk about this with the kids. Are they able to explain the purpose of each space and use it effectively?
  • Does your environment help or hinder what you and your students want to do? Some years most of my kids like to work on the floor with clipboards – some years most like tables or desks. I adapt to what my class needs that year.
  • Do your walls tell the story of children’s learning journeys? Consider charting your year of  learning through shared writing monthly, photographs of children at work, photocopies of book covers, etc. – all of this sparks conversation and tracks your year together.
  • Do the children have ownership of all that is displayed – do they know WHY it is on the walls? Does it reflect their learning? Are your anchor charts created with the class – and able to be added to or changed as new learning occurs?
  • Do you have children’s work and photographs displayed? Artwork, family photos, field trip photos, self-portraits, photos from recess or reading workshop, and more – all of these add a sense of community to your space.
  • Do your available resources encourage curiosity, creativity and communication?
  • Is your personal space uncluttered? (get rid of things you do not use or love; find ways to organize things that constantly look untidy; file away things that are not being used.)
  • Is there an area that isn’t working as well as it can?  If so, plan to discuss it with the children and come up with solutions.

Chapter 5 in Catching Readers describes in words and photographs how to set up an environment to support students in a comprehensive literacy approach, as well as provides a list of professional resources to help you design your classroom space.  Your classroom is home for you and your students 8 hours a day, 180 days a year. Make it a warm and welcoming place that encourages learning, creativity and self-expression. And never be afraid to change things as you continue to reflect on your year with your students. What are some ways you create a fabulous classroom space? Please share your ideas!