The Creation of our Rocket Ship

The Importance of Thinking Imaginatively

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Einstein said it beautifully – an imagination can lead to an endless supply of possibilities. While it’s important that young children learn the basics and acquire skills in numeracy and literacy, I believe that the ability to think creatively and imaginatively, is the key to success in the technology-rich, ever-changing 21st Century world. For an interesting article on the Kindergarten approach to learning (the spiraling process of imagine, create, play, share, reflect) and how it’s so crucial that it needs to extend to learners of higher grades as well to continue the process, check out: “All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) In Kindergarten” by Mitchell Resnick (2007). For now, read about how our imaginations worked together to create our very own classroom rocket ship.

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The Start of a New Inquiry

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“How do you start an inquiry project?” 

I get a lot of questions about how an inquiry project starts. To address these questions, I will explain my own understanding of inquiry-based learning  while utilizing one of the best pieces on this approach to teaching and learning that I have ever come across from the Ontario Ministry of Education (find the whole article here).

I think many educators are intimidated or at least, not totally ‘sold’ on the idea of inquiry-based learning because they have the misconception that inquiries always start and are fully led by the students, themselves. “How do students know what’s best for them to learn and know? How can they learn the basics in an unstructured environment” they ask. While the students do have a lot of involvement in the planning and executing of an inquiry, it is the job of the educator to teach and model for them, the tools they need to successfully move through an inquiry project. These tools include: how to contribute and extend others’ ideas, how to formulate good questions and in essence, how to take those ideas and questions and move into the investigative stage. The educator, then, is not taking – by any means – a passive role and the environment is not unstructured, just differently structured. The educator plays an active role, creating a classroom culture where ideas and questions triumph as “central currency” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013). As the educator acknowledges and praises students for presenting deep questions and in turn, creates an environment where students come to love learning, she simultaneously assists students in moving from a position of wondering to a position of understanding and further questioning, sending the message that learning is a lifelong pursuit. It should be stressed that inquiry-based learning does not mean the absence of longstanding teaching approaches like explicit instruction of skills and knowledge not naturally acquired through student-guided explorations. It just means that there is a combination of these approaches along with small group and guided learning in order to best support students in moving forward in their inquiry ventures.

Throughout these inquiry projects, the educator, with her expertise of the curriculum, is able to locate and pull out curriculum expectations from the children’s investigations. So – in response to those original questions often asked by educators – the students are able to explore topics and problems that mean something to them while the educator ensures aspects of the curriculum are being covered (bonus: students’ wonders often exceed curriculum expectations!). This is not as difficult as it sounds, especially when the educator focuses on the “big ideas” found within the curriculum and picks up on students’ interests or questions that, if explored further, would likely lead to the achievement of overall curriculum goals (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013).

It’s important to understand that inquiry-based learning is not letting go of the class and allowing complete self-direction by the students. After all, “Students’ thinking can be limited when confined to their own experiences. Educators have the privilege of introducing students to ideas that do not emerge spontaneously and from discovery alone, and similarly, they must assume the role of helping children notice things that would not otherwise be seen” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013). Therefore, sometimes this means that the educator may also be involved in the initial ‘sparking’ of an inquiry project by presenting the students with topics, questions or materials that could potentially grab the interests of the students and give them some direction for their next set of wonders and investigations. Educators “play the role of “provocateur,” finding creative ways to introduce students to ideas and to subject matter that is of interest to them and offers “inquiry potential” or promise in terms of opportunities for students to engage in sustained inquiry of their own” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013). The idea is to keep things as open-ended as possible and to allow the students to interact with new stimuli in their own unique ways. The educator may assume that by presenting particular “sparks” the inquiry will unfold in a certain way. However, most often it never quite evolves as the educator imagines and the children end up swaying the inquiry in unexpected directions according to their interests, backgrounds or strengths in abilities.

The Birth of our Winter & Polar Inquiry

Encouraging Thinking About Winter

After coming back from Winter Vacation, we found that the students just needed some time to relax and get back into their routines at school. There wasn’t a whole lot of burning questions or major wondering going on at first. Instead of waiting, we offered some new learning centers and invitations to play that we suspected would get them back into their “investigative” frame of thinking. We knew that “Whether inquiry begins with the student, teacher or a shared classroom experience, what matters most is that the initial query sparks student interest and provides the opportunity and resources for in-depth student investigations” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013). Since we had quite a bit of snow now (as opposed to before Christmas), we decided to work with the topic of “snow” and see where it took us.

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One of my most favourite quotes related to the power of the Arts.

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Christmas, Hanukkah and Much More!

“We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.” – Maya Angelou

To celebrate the holiday season in Room 209, we did our very best to be as inclusive as possible and to expose the children to new and different cultural celebrations including: Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid and Kwanzaa. The month flew by and I admit, with all of the excitement and projects, I got a little behind on my photo taking. Read this post to see what I did manage to collect and to get a taste for how our holiday season celebrations and learning played out.

Starting Off the Month…

Elf on the Shelf: Requesting an Elf from Santa

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After telling the children that I had once heard if you requested an elf from Santa, he might send one, they were excited to give it a try! I did an interactive writing lesson with both classes in which we wrote a letter to Santa, asking him for an elf. We used our sound board to remember letter sounds as we went along. After both letters were complete, I put them both in the mail addressed to Santa.

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Processes, Projects & Possibilities

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Well… it’s finished! The project we’ve worked so long and hard on during the month of December and into January: Our space mural! Behold weeks and weeks of learning all rolled into one beautiful masterpiece to showcase not only the knowledge gained, but also the thinking done, the problems solved, and the creativity exercised. Roosevelt truly summed it up so nicely for us. The effort put in is definitely important and where the magic happens. However, when the final result is as wonderful as this – well, the satisfaction is like no other. I think I can speak on behalf of the children when I say: We are SO proud of our mural!

Come and see it in person! From the intricate and captivating multi-media piece of art made by the children… to the facts posted around the mural (in the children’s own words) to enhance each of the features… to the photos, captions and descriptions that document the evolution of our Space and Gravity Inquiry… you will not be disappointed!

So just how did we get here?

A recap and some updates are in order!

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Blasting Off Into Inquiry!

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I may have gone a little overboard there but you get the idea: Our Space & Gravity Inquiry has not only taken off but has become a richly engaging learning opportunity with limitless possibilities for our SKs. I must say, this inquiry has been one of my favourites to facilitate. I can shamelessly admit with a sense of pride and honour that I have been learning alongside my students every step of the way and it has been utterly rewarding.

As a child I did not have much exposure to this topic area and I’m not sure scientific concepts were ever explained to me in ways that captured my interest and motivated me to explore more. As an adult I’ve come to understand how much of that was partially a result of the kind of education I received. Back in the early 90s when I began my schooling, inquiry-based learning was definitely not “on trend” nor understood by Ontario’s education system. I learned primarily from textbooks or chalkboard lessons and rarely participated in interactive activities. The topics covered were the same ones that were covered the last 10-20 years and were delivered in mostly the same way. To me – and probably many of my classmates – school was where you went to listen to and then remember information being presented by your teacher. I was marked on how well I retained that information and was expected to demonstrate it and “prove” my understanding at the end of each unit in some form of a test or big assignment.

Now, coming from a family of artists, I loved art. I loved drawing, colouring, painting, crafting, experimenting with line and texture and form. My teachers often took notice of my talent and that began to define me, as a person and as a student. As much as I loved art, when I reflect back on my childhood, I question whether or not my abilities outside of art were ever noticed and nurtured to their fullest potentials. In fact, I would argue that they simply were not. I was that kid who made the eye-catching art displayed in the hallways. As I grew older and entered University, I started to feel that my art was not all I wanted to be and began exploring what else I was capable of by pursuing a degree in Sociology – completely shocking my friends and family who assumed I would’ve went into the Arts. I learned so much about myself in those years but what was most life-changing was my realization that: I was, and could do, more than one thing; I could use my mind in other wonderful ways. I found out that I got so much personal fulfillment from learning about the world, researching, reading, analyzing, teaching and creating through my writing as opposed to exclusively through my art.

All of this to say that – what I want for my own students is something more than what my childhood school experience offered me. I don’t want my students to go through school being pigeon-holed into one area of strength in their abilities – or worse, being labeled based on their weaknesses. I don’t want them sitting and listening to my voice all day long. I don’t want them being forced to learn things that are completely irrelevant or uninteresting to them. I don’t want them to be afraid to ask questions and to question even their own teacher when they’re unsure. I don’t want them being assessed only at the ‘end’ of a unit or inquiry and in only one way.

What I want is for them to be thrilled about going to school to learn new things. I want them to be inspired to share their own ideas, thoughts and opinions and to allow these to evolve. I want them to realize that they have a ton of knowledge, understandings and potential within themselves and to offer the world. I want them to ask questions – lots of them. I want their understandings of curriculum content and larger concepts to be assessed using authentic strategies that recognize the many ways and opportunities people can demonstrate their learning. I want them to learn to think about their own thinking and to push their thinking further. I want this to happen while they are still young enough for it to all make a difference and shape their future. This is what I want.

So now, as we begin to unravel and witness the magic and wonderment that has been made possible by this Gravity & Space Inquiry, I encourage you to consider how all of us – in each of our different roles – can contribute to the educational experience I’ve described above. Educators, administrators, families, community members – we can all teach children to love learning. How can you help to shape a child’s vision of herself as a strong, capable and courageous learner?

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Kinderbucks + Meaningful Play = Inquiry!

Kinderbucks Continues; Understandings Deepen

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Shaw was an Irish playwright and socialist during the 1800s. In his text, Treatise on Parents and Children, Shaw claims that formal education of the time was deadening to the spirits of children and detrimental to their intellectual development. He advocated for an approach that was child-directed and inquiry-based.

Kinderbucks continues to be a popular spot to play, explore and learn. As the children play, I try to simply observe as much as I can. When the moment seems appropriate, we sometimes enter the play and expand their understandings by having them draw on their own experiences at coffee shops to help them better focus their role playing.

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Here you can see how neat and tidy the children have been keeping Kinderbucks. They take pride in keeping it this way because of the sense of ownership they have over it – it was their idea in the first place and much went into it’s planning! You can also see children taking on various roles such as ordering, serving, baking, and making receipts.

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The Evolution of a Project

In my Halloween post, I left off with the image of our class pumpkin and explained how the dripping wet wax made us think of gravity. The children then began asking questions about gravity and the related topic of outer space. In this post, you will see how our newest inquiry has emerged and evolved since that day. Prepare to be inspired…

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Setting the Stage for Investigating & Learning

As I’ve explained in previous posts, Madison and I run a program based on the philosophies of Emergent Curriculum, Project-Based Learning, Inquiry-Based Learning and Reggio Emilia. The melting crayon wax on the pumpkin began a conversation we had no idea would come up prior to the moment. It all started when I posed the problem to the group: How come the wax is dripping down the pumpkin and not dripping sideways or upwards? Many of the children immediately responded that it was due to gravity. I was quite impressed and so to find out more about the children’s conceptions of gravity, I asked them more open-ended questions and invited them to share with me what they knew about the topic. Naturally, some children began to connect the idea of gravity with the subject of space, believing that in space, there is no gravity. I then moved on to remind them about something we had talked about before: Scientists look closely at things but they also ask lots of questions. I welcomed them to ask questions about gravity or space that they would like to know more about. As they asked their questions, I recorded them on chart paper.

The next day when I had Class A, I showed them the pumpkin and posed the same question about the wax. To my delight, they too, were quick to explain the phenomenon of the downward drips with the concept of gravity. A similar discussion arose and we added more questions to the list from the previous day. You can view the collaborative inquiry questions in the photo below.

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Playing to Learn

Playing to Learn: An Oldie but a Goodie

playingtolearnI came across this cartoon a few years ago and it continues to have a powerful effect on me regarding the necessity of play in early childhood. I cannot find the original source of the cartoon to give it the proper credit it deserves but I did find it was now being used on the Learn Quebec website. It has also been a popular resource used in all of my Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario Additional Qualification courses in Kindergarten.

Take a look at the cartoon and see what resonates with you. Perhaps it has given you a better idea about the concept of play-based learning. I want to add that the educators’ roles in a play-based program are critical. This isn’t a ‘free play’ program but a program that utilizes purposefully planned play experiences to engage children and shape their learning in meaningful and authentic ways. As children play, the educators observe, interact with the children, extend and expand their learning and draw out ‘big ideas’ from the curriculum.

After all …

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Halloweek in SK

Halloween + Week = Halloweek 

Halloweek in Room 209 was busy but also filled with a ton of excitement. Although I try to stay away from themes, it was the first time that all of my students celebrated Halloween. For that reason, I didn’t see the harm in integrating some Halloween festivities into our program. Each activity was still open-ended, play-based and inquiry-focused and thus there was no departure from our regular curriculum. Have a look at what we were up to…

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On Monday, we surprised the children by decorating our door to look like a mummy. Madison led the children in creating blow paint monsters. They used straws to blow air onto wet paint to create the splash effect. After they dried, they added details like eyes, mouths and horns. Each one was unique and was added to our classroom mummy door.

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Partnerships in FDK

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Our class pumpkin with melting wax project – designed by Madison, RECE

Partnerships & Collaboration: Why an ECE in Full-Day Kindergarten? 

This week I wanted to take the chance to introduce you all formally, to the lovely Registered Early Childhood Educator who graces us with her many talents every single day – Madison McPherson. For those who are less familiar with the role of an RECE, I thought it may be helpful for me to outline just how much RECEs – and in particular, Madison – has to offer a Full-Day Kindergarten program.

Like teachers, Ontario RECEs are regulated by an organization that regulates and governs its members in the public interest (The College of Early Childhood Educators). In addition to a college diploma in Early Childhood Education, many RECEs – including Madison – also have university degrees in Child Studies or similar areas. They specialize in assessing children’s developmental needs and stages and designing programs that address children’s identified needs, stages of development and interests. Although teachers also receive formal education in these areas, bachelor degrees in Education cover a broader range of educational and pedagogical topics. For this reason, ECEs truly are the experts in child development and are an asset to a Kindergarten team.

I am lucky enough to have such a talented RECE to work with. I mean that truthfully and with the knowledge that not every partnership is a match made in heaven. Instead, I have been given this amazing person, partner and friend to collaborate with every single day. Having this kind of relationship truly does benefit not just Madison and myself but also – and this is huge – the children and the effectiveness of our program.  I’m a big believer that children can sense and pick up on the general vibes and emotions in a room. They know when adults are unhappy and stressed out or when they are happy and playful. Luckily, I am proud to say that Madison and I – through our strong working relationship – are able to emit a positive energy and model for the children what it looks like to get along and work together.

Madison and I are both two different people with different backgrounds but together we build off of one another’s talents, ideas and experiences with the children to acknowledge and support our students’ unique array of needs, strengths and interests. Having different perspectives and existing as a team but also as separate entities in the classroom allows us to combine our different viewpoints to create a more well-rounded vision for our program. Alone, this would simply not be possible.

Another way that Madison is an essential component to our program relates to the play- and inquiry-based teaching and learning approach that we utilize for the benefit of our students. Madison is not just another set of eyes or hands in the classroom. She interacts with the children in much the same way that I do. While I do more of the formal assessment, she partakes in daily documentation along with me – through observations, anecdotal notes, photographing, video-recording, checklists, etc. It is really difficult to interact with the children in inquiry-provoking ways and simultaneously conduct this kind of documentation without a second person in the room. We take turns playing both roles so that the children experience both of our presences and so that we acquire a balanced outcome from the documentation and observation. We debrief throughout the day and at the end of the day to ensure we are always on the same page and to point out things that perhaps the other did not catch.

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Madison’s dedication to our program is undeniable. She handmade these felt cinnamon buns for our new play coffee shop, Kinderbucks. Amazing!

Madison also plays a key part in the children’s daily instruction. She often sits and leads small-groups in fine-tuning their fine-motor and printing abilities as well as their letter-recognition and letter sounds. While she does this, I am able to work more closely with other students on different areas. Every mid-day, Madison also runs her own carpet time where she teaches a lot of the music and dance components of the curriculum, reads the children books and also does some social and personal lessons. Often, she plans, organizes and sets up new play-based activities or centres for the room or helps children while they work on their Think Books and Math Journals.

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Madison teaches the children songs that capture their attention and spark their imaginations. Here, she makes a connection to our new play coffee shop by demonstrating a song called, The Donut Shop.

Madison is an irreplaceable part of our SK EFI English classroom. I admire her soft and loving yet firm but fair approach with the children. I couldn’t be more proud of how much she has done to make the room, the program and the overall atmosphere an inspiring and motivating place to learn and play – for the students and adults alike!

I hope I’ve been able to capture – even if just a little bit – what an amazing educator she really is.