Listening In

Monday, 27 July 2015

     Summer learning included a week long stay in Ontario, Canada where I attended the Transform Ed Workshop Series, given by Joanne Babalis.  There she shared her Masters' research on the seven layers of Inquiry-Based learning. The fifth layer, and the focus of this post, is listening. Other blog posts discuss the other layers that include image of the childtimespacematerials,  documenting and planning.

     A few years ago, I stumbled across a series of videos on full-day kindergarten in Ontario, Canada (  There were a lot of things to notice in the videos, but what stood out most was how these five-year olds talked and were able to share their thinking with their teacher and classmates.  I was amazed, but also a little embarrassed, because I knew my students didn’t talk like that. I continued watching the videos with a new focus, trying to figure out what it was the teacher was doing that led to that level of communication. I wondered how she began in September and if there was a list of prompts that she used.  It wasn’t until recently that I realized it probably had less to do with how the teacher spoke and more about how she listened.
     In the above mentioned workshop, I got the opportunity to observe a teacher/student exchange firsthand. Joanne interviewed her former student about her kindergarten portfolio. What I observed during their exchange was the noticeable pause that followed the child’s response to Joanne’s questions. Joanne didn’t rush in with a return comment or quickly ask the next question. Instead, she provided "wait time," possibly to ensure that the child was done speaking or to give the audience time to process the child's response.  In either case, her approach seemed to elevate the student’s words.  I’m not sure if this was intentional on Joanne’s part, as the focus of this session was on portfolios, but the mutual respect that I witnessed gave me insight into how I might better listen to my students.

     Up to this point, any thought I’d given to “listening,” has been limited to teaching the children how to listen (i.e. whole body listening, listening position). It never occurred to me to consider my own listening habits. I now see how listening, as a layer of the inquiry model, is about so much more.  It’s about seeking to understand one another and is a key element in creating a classroom where children’s thoughts and ideas are valued, expressed, and heard.  It's also an often forgotten means of gathering information about a child in an effort to document learning.
     Listening is one area that is just going to take a lot of conscious effort on my part.  I'll be practicing this summer with those around me. I also think it means restructuring lessons so the children are given more opportunities to talk. It's not my own voice I want to be listening to and documenting!   
     What are some ways that you can better listen to your students? 

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Materials (Gifts From the Sea)

Friday, 24 July 2015

     Summer learning included a week long stay in Ontario, Canada where I attended the Transform Ed Workshop Series, given by Joanne Babalis.  There she shared her Masters' research on the seven layers of Inquiry-Based learning. The fourth layer, and the focus of this post, is materials. Other blog posts discuss the other layers that include image of the childtimespacelisteningdocumenting and planning.

   Recently, I had the pleasure of watching a 3-year old at a beach wedding. She was the flower girl and her job was to throw rose petals. During the ceremony, she played with the sand and petals, using her foot as a tool to dig and bury and make patterns.  She was focused and engaged throughout the entire ceremony (much to her family’s delight) and learning about the properties of sand and petals. 

    I’m a big fan of using hands-on materials in open-ended ways because it emphasizes process over the product and gives children opportunities to plan, think, create, evaluate, and take ownership of their work.  Through their explorations, they begin to do the work of scientists, engineers, and artists. Children are curious little beings and the possibilities for their work are endless. Can this be said of a worksheet? I don’t think so.

     While I’ve been using hands-on materials for quite some time, I’m just beginning to explore the idea of using them as provocations or “sparks” for inquiry. This past June, a friend brought me an almost perfect robin’s egg.  Later, she asked if I had showed it to the children. Instead, I had put it away with my “bird stuff” thinking I would share it next year in early Spring. I realize now that if I had been teaching in a more responsive way, I would have shared it the next day, listened to children's thoughts and ideas, and see what developed from there. 

     Like the bird egg, some of the best materials I’ve used were treasures that I didn’t go looking for.  They were either something I came upon spontaneously or items shared by children, families and friends.  This reminds me of a quote by Anne Morrow Lindbergh in her classic book, A Gift From the Sea. “The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.”  


     I’m not suggesting that it is practical or even possible for me to acquire all of my materials in this way, but it seems that there’s something inherent to the spirit of inquiry that encourages me to trust the process whether I am gathering materials, children’s questions, or topics for exploration.


     So as I collect materials for the new school year, I may just take a few more walks along the parkway and a few less excursions to Dollar Tree or clicks on Oriental Trading.  I also may explore ways to invite children and families to become more involved in the making and sharing of materials. Lastly, if I am to receive a “gift from the sea,” I hope to recognize its potential, not just for exploration, but for it’s unlimited possibilities with inquiry. How will you collect and use materials in your classroom?

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Space (A Shared One)

Monday, 20 July 2015

    Summer learning included a week long stay in Ontario, Canada where I attended the Transform Ed Workshop Series, given by Joanne Babalis.  There she shared her Masters' research on the seven layers of Inquiry-Based learning. The third layer, and the focus of this post, is space. Other blog posts discuss the other layers that include image of the childtimematerialslisteningdocumenting and planning.
     A parent once sent me a note saying, “Just as a home is a reflection of the people that live there, a classroom is a reflection of the teacher,” and she went on to talk about my classroom environment.  For a long time I have thought that my classroom should be a reflection of me, and for the most part it has been.  Yet, I've begun to realize, that what I want in the coming year, is a space that is a reflection of the children that live there.
    Over the last couple of years, I have begun to transition from bright primary colors to more neutral, earthy tones.

    Here is a pic of the science center before school started in 2014.

     Here is the same space a year earlier (yikes!).

     While I definitely think the change has been a good one, I haven't always been clear about why I was moving in this direction. In the beginning, it was mostly about the aesthetics. And while that might have been a good enough reason, I've come to learn more. I now realize that a more simple space with a neutral palette allows greater room for the children's work to take center stage. At the same time, limiting commercially-made print and graphics leaves less to compete with children's art work and ideas.  This means the classroom might look pretty plain in September, but it is my hope that by December, it will be clear to anyone who enters who the children are that live there!

    If my classroom does say anything about me at all, it should say that I value children and their thoughts and ideas, not that I like chevron or that I’m into owls (which I am!).  What will your space look like in the coming year and how might it be a reflection of the children?

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Time (Flow of the Day)

Friday, 17 July 2015

     Summer learning included a week long stay in Ontario, Canada where I attended the Transform Ed Workshop Series, given by Joanne Babalis.  There she shared her Masters' research on the seven layers of Inquiry-Based learning. The second layer, and the focus of this post, is time. Other blog posts discuss the other layers that include image of the childspacematerialslisteningdocumenting and planning.
     I noticed that what I call a schedule, is often referred to as the "Flow of the Day" by Canadian teachers.  While both serve as a timetable, the difference in wording is intentional in the way that it impacts classroom learning. The word schedule means to plan an event to take place at a particular time.  In the classroom, a schedule is usually displayed in a linear format and lists the subject areas in the order in which they will be taught.  There are usually many subjects with specific time allotments allowed for each.

    The word flow means to move in a steady, continuous stream.  Teachers who use a "Flow of the Day" define specific contexts for learning (i.e. whole group time, centers, etc.) but break their day into larger chunks of time with less transitions. Often these timetables are displayed in a horizontal format and while there is a clear plan for the day, teachers are flexible and responsive.  If children are in the “flow” of a project, they may be allowed to continue while motivation and engagement are at an all-time high. 

     I spent some time thinking about my own timetable and how I will use this to best match my image of the child in the coming school year.  In an effort to create larger chunks of time, I broke the day up into four main blocks: reading workshop, writing workshop, math workshop, and discovery time and folded in some of the smaller segments that were typically separated out. For example, I made shared reading part of reading workshop and shared writing part of writing workshop. I took math tubs out of the morning slot and wove it into the afternoon block of math workshop.  Snack will be self-guided and happen as part of discovery time.  

     There will be a secondary “flow” within each of these larger chunks (i.e. warm-ups, mini lesson, work time, sharing) and because it is repeated throughout our day, the children will be supported by this predictable structure while still having large chunks of time to explore a specific focus (i.e reading, writing, math, integrated studies).  
     What will your timetable look like and how does it match your image of the child?

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Image of the Child

Thursday, 16 July 2015

     Summer learning included a week long stay in Ontario, Canada where I attended the Transform Ed Workshop Series, given by Joanne Babalis.  There she shared her Masters' research on the seven layers of Inquiry-Based learning. The first layer, and the focus of this post, is the image of the child. Following blog posts will discuss the other layers that include time, space, materials, listening, documenting and planning.
     My own image of the child, consciously or unconsciously, affects everything I do in the classroom including how I set up my space, what my schedule looks like, what materials I use, and how I document student learning.  Most importantly, it impacts my interactions with children and how they come to view themselves as learners.
    For example, if I believe that children are capable of making their own choices, then I will give them freedom in choosing where to sit, play, and study.  In turn, the children will learn that their ideas and opinions matter. 
    A few years back, I had the privilege of sitting in on a conversation between author Bruce Coville and some students at my church. He was asked to talk with them about his spiritual beliefs. He told the children, “When what you believe and what you do are one in the same -  you are at your very best.” 

     In reflecting on my own image of the child I can see that there is sometimes a gap between what I believe and what I do in the classroom.  While I might tell you that I believe in a child’s ability to choose, I am making many of the decisions for the children and so my practices tell a different story. 
     In order to bridge that gap, I need to get real clear about my own beliefs before beginning any planning for next year.  I thought it might be helpful for me to find a photo or illustration that depicts my image of the child. I chose this one by illustrator Julia Woolf.   

When I look at this, I see children who are playful, joyful, curious, free, and creative. They are full of wonder and I’ll bet if I could talk to these children, they would have a lot to say!
     What is your image of the child and does it match what you are doing in your classroom?

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Begin Again

Tuesday, 7 July 2015


     As teachers we are lucky enough to get a clean slate to begin with each year. I can’t think of too many professions that get a chance to do that! It’s a great time to think about what worked and didn’t work in the past year and consider making some changes.  In Ontario, many teachers use the 3 R’s (repeat, rethink, and remove) to evaluate their current practices.  I found this helpful in making my own plans for next year.
Repeat: reading conferences, math tubs, discovery time, student work displays
Rethink: how I introduce centers, assessment/documentation, small group instruction
Remove: commercially made materials, my busy classroom carpet (see below!)

     When I got this carpet 9 years ago I loved it! It brightened up the room and solved a lot of issues I was having with seating and personal space.  But lately, I’m not so in love with it. As I move toward a more neutral palette, it has become one big irritant for me. I’m wanting just a plain rug. One that will not be so visually distracting when I am teaching lessons on it or when children are using it for building or creating. What are you wanting to repeat, rethink, or remove in the next year?

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Saturday, 4 July 2015

There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children.  
One of these is roots; the other, wings."
                             W. Hodding Carter

        One day, many years ago, I found a dish towel at a garage sale that was adorned with the above quote. The dish towel was hideous, with a busy pattern of orange, gold, and avocado green florals from the seventies, but I bought it anyway because the quote resonated with me. It beautifully stated what I believed to be my role as an educator - to give children regular opportunities for modeled/guided instruction (roots) along with time for them to take risks and apply their learning independently (wings). I knew back then that it required a careful, delicate balance and that too much of one, at the expense of the other, would not lead to optimal growth.  It led me to discover and explore the workshop model, an approach I am still committed to today, because it provides the roots and wings balance that I feel children need to flourish.  I’ve been an educator for over 25 years now, and W. Hodding Carter’s quote still rings as true for me today as it did when I first stumbled upon it. For this reason, it seemed like a fitting title for this blog and also because it extends to my own learning as an educator.  In the days, weeks, and months to come, I hope to share with you, not only my deep roots, but even more importantly, my successes and failures as I spread my wings and try out new ideas in my ever evolving classroom.  

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