After much deep reflection over the last series of days and today, #blackouttuesday, I am ready to speak up, but I’ll admit that these words are difficult to type out. Difficult for many reasons. I write with a heavy heart due to devastation that the life of yet another person of color, George Floyd, has been taken unjustly at the hands of police (just to name the most recent); and because of the systemic racism that continues to remain in and impact our leaders, cities, communities, and homes. But it’s also difficult to reflect and share here and now because of my white privilege. Sometimes silence is just easier to avoid confronting or offending others. Silence on race isn’t necessarily ill-intentioned; but the negative impact of not speaking up ultimately outweighs the neutral intentions of silence.
To be totally transparent, speaking up on race is something I have been and am still learning; and in the face of this continued injustice, I’m now seeing that silence is not enough. Recent events show that we are currently not doing enough to fix this overwhelming problem, and with racism being modeled and taught in our communities (whether intentional or not), it will continue to take even more hard work and united efforts to undo and re-teach.
I am a person who prioritizes being in harmony with others and being on good terms in all my relationships; and in the past, being neutral about race has at times been an easier way to keep the peace in conversation. I realize that that innate tendency to be neutral is white privilege. But now in acknowledgement of that, I know that I need to use my voice and speak up even when it’s uncomfortable, because I’m seeing a greater need for harmony and justice in our world than harmony in my own conversations. I wish it hadn’t taken me until now to be more vocal about racial injustice. I also do acknowledge that speaking up looks different for different people. This space, Learning with the Littles, is simply where I reflect and document my journey of teaching Kinders/learning alongside them, so it’s where I felt led to share.
There are multiple ways to look at anything – perspective. Our perspectives can always be sharpened, widened, and improved. When thinking about difficult and complex topics like race, we first must believe we are capable of learning and growing in perspective.
If you’ve ever argued with someone who is raising their voice at you, how do you choose to listen to their angry words or passionate yells? I’ve noticed 2 general perspectives people usually have when responding to a passionate argument or attack: either 1) they are overwhelmed by the angry, yelling, assumed to be “crazy” person and simply correct, judge, or critique their “abrasive” and loud argument style, or 2) they listen to the words being spoken and reflect both inwardly and outwardly on how they may have been at fault or could at least help the situation. Personally in a heated argument or situation like this, I choose to listen carefully to the words the other person is saying and the feelings they’re expressing, and seek to get to the root cause even if I somehow play some fault in their anger. But I have encountered many people who, when conflict arises, can only hear the noise and see the destruction. They aren’t hearing the real words being spoken or real stories being shared; they aren’t seeing why the person is actually upset, how they could’ve played a role in someone else’s problems, or how they could’ve even helped be a part of a solution.
So thinking more broadly, how do you choose to “listen” to the riots, what MLK Jr. deemed as the “language of the unheard”? The perspective you take is a choice, and perspectives can always be improved. It can be easy to get caught up in the destruction and violence, and those things are not the solution. But before we point out the devastation on our cities – the more outwardly visible effects that happen to impact all people this time – we must carefully examine the causes. And we must always be willing to acknowledge that the root causes of these protests and riots and the systemic racism they represent could relate to the ways that we either hurt or did not more effectively help along the way. Many of the protests taking place are not violent. But remembering the reasons for the protests, both peaceful and not, along with looking closely at ourselves and how we can help, is the most important place that we can focus our time and energy during this time.
For those of us who are white, acknowledging and believing that we have white privilege is a way we can further unite with people of color. Until white people can each recognize white privilege, it will be difficult to adapt the empathetic perspective needed to create change. And without that transformed perspective, white people will see black people as fighting their own battles, when we need to be actively joining them.
There are so many awesome resources circulating for ways anyone can help right now. Here’s a quick list of some of the more everyday/long-term things I plan to do or continue so that I can be part of the solution:
Read texts/listen to podcasts that further deepen my perspective about and understanding of race. Reflect individually and with others.
Listen to black people and to anyone who can help me learn more.
Be friends with people of different backgrounds, races, beliefs, etc., including both those who challenge my thinking and those who I may end up challenging too.
Have courageous conversations about race in my own home and in my community. Speaking up to peers can be difficult. My friend and co-worker Claire recently reminded me of this resource, a guide that gives educators (and non-educators) specific strategies for responding to biased or prejudiced comments.
Increase racial representation in the literature I read in my classroom and, as possible, in staffing at my school.
Use my voice in relevant ways that arise to help actively fight racism and support racial justice.
We have come a long way over the decades and we also have a long way to go. I stand beside my friends, colleagues, and students of color, along with people of color who I do not know. I want to be more than a person who isn’t racist. I want to be actively anti-racist and do my part as an ally. Black lives matter. Period.
No matter what you see me showcasing from my classroom and the amazing world of Kindergarten…there is a real life element that is ever-present, though you may not always see it or think of it. After all, my students have been alive for only 5 or 6 years; though that real life element still exists in classrooms of all ages. In the day-to-day routines, students are so busy stepping up to meet the immense curriculum demands, along with my own high expectations for structure and hard work, that I often forget how young they are. It’s the little imperfections that bring me back to reality and remind me how little they really are. And many of the imperfections I encounter daily as an educator aren’t even related to the students themselves! There are so many intricate pieces of the job that make being an educator highly stressful and highly demanding.
One really tough day, I found myself adding a post to Twitter about an incredible learning experience where my students had really blown me away!
“Can you pass the substrate???” Just 1 awesome comment heard during our messy learning today! Having littles build structures with different adhesives is something that would’ve seemed too sticky & chaotic to try previously. Letting go of structure ➡️ S empowerment and discovery! pic.twitter.com/Ka6kqAhxou
After posting it, I felt a little odd, seeing as it had been an extremely difficult day. I had even spent the majority of my lunch break crying about an upsetting situation with one of my families, while my team comforted and gave me advice. Any form of social media or online post usually tends to highlight the positives, but there is also a real life element there we don’t always see. I am not a magician, and the amazing classroom experiences I showcase are never perfect. My students and I are human, so it is important that we don’t let mistakes, chaotic moments, and imperfections discourage us. They happen in every classroom everyday…and of course beyond the classroom walls as well! It’s how we reflect on and handle those mistakes that matters.
I’m going to do something a little out of the ordinary and take the time to highlight the not so perfect moments of this particular day, the same day where I posted the above Twitter post. So here is a different view of this day – a day that included a lesson that in many ways, I considered to be a huge success! And if you manage to get through the whole school day bulleted below, you may be in for some laughs along the way…
You know it’s gonna be a rough day when you find yourself at Walmart at 6:30AM buying supplies you forgot you needed. It was a big day with more than usual added pressure. In the afternoon, I would be implementing one of my Kenan Fellow lessons where students would be exploring all different types of adhesives and building structures (see more about that here)! A photographer, observing visitors, and parent volunteers were coming for the lesson. It was in the middle of the night that I had made the decision to go to Walmart before school. I had woken up around 2AM realizing that I needed enough craft sticks for 20 students to rotate and build structures at 5 different stations. I was doing some crazy middle-of-the-night math…if 20 students used 10 craft sticks at each of the 5 stations, then I could need up to 1,000 craft sticks?!?!?! What if they went crazy and used more than 10 craft sticks at a table???? That was when I knew I’d be starting my day at Walmart.
Sidenote- it was POURING DOWN RAIN that morning….just a little added depression.
I pulled into school ready to get inside and get all my velcro dots cut in half and added to craft sticks, along with the many other lesson elements I needed to prepare. Right before getting out of my car I checked my parent messages, only to find a very upsetting message from a parent revealing an entire situation that needed to be handled right then and there. I had gotten to school an hour and a half early to prepare for the day, yet this situation consumed my whole morning prior to the arrival bell ringing!
I got through the morning alright. Then SURPRISE! Students will be eating lunch in the classrooms today. Those situations are never thrilling, particularly when the room should ideally look clean for the photographer who is coming later. It also makes my own lunch break shorter while I supervise students in the room and my assistant takes lunch buyers to the cafeteria and back. However many teachers don’t get a “duty free” lunch, so I am thankful for any lunch break I can get.
My team and I ate lunch in the hallway while the assistants supervised students eating in classrooms. I was late to our 30 minute lunch, as I had been supervising students with lunch boxes in the classroom and assembling all the velcro dot craft sticks I hadn’t gotten to in the morning. And as mentioned earlier, I cried through most of that lunch once I did arrive, still emotional from the student/parent situation that had come up earlier and was still not fully resolved.
I picked my students up from specials right before our big, exciting lesson. I gave them a little pep talk about showing self-control in the hallway all the way back to the classroom to earn our fun adhesive exploration lesson. Less than 30 seconds later, I turned around to witness a student spanking another right on the bottom, followed by a combination of laughing, yelling, and tattling.
Time for a fresh start, refocus, and ANOTHER pep talk on the carpet 5 minutes before visitors are scheduled to arrive. 30 seconds in and I hear the words, “I did pee pee.” I look down, and there was a puddle of pee on the classroom rug. This was the 2nd potty accident I had helped with in the classroom that day.
I call a custodian, and while we wait, I threw some paper towels on the spot to soak it up. The students were amazingly patient and quiet during this little mis-hap, which made me proud.
The lesson goes on, potty accident soaking into the carpet and all. We rearranged students to new places on the carpet, and those routine switch-ups of course set off 2 of my students. It caused them to react anxiously and impulsively throughout the entire time I gave directions during the whole group part of the lesson.
We were not as far into our shapes/geometry unit as I had hoped before getting to this lesson, where students would build 2D and 3D structures. Visitors watched eagerly as we reviewed the difference between 2D and 3D shapes. During this review, students basically acted like they had never heard the terms 2D or 3D, always a great feeling for a teacher! Inside I was cringing, but I tried not to let it discourage me too much…I instead looked at this lesson as an opportunity to reinforce these apparently unknown concepts, as students built flat and solid structures. If they didn’t know the terms before the lesson, hopefully they would by the end!
When it was time to rotate after the first center, I realized I hadn’t discussed any sort of clean-up procedures. And that was very evident as we cleaned up. Students were so excited and distracted that it was pure chaos…they were running around the room with their sticky structures, materials were spilled all over the place, and it was all I could do to get students to freeze and listen to procedures.
2nd rotation in, and the custodian finally makes it down to clean the rug, which the photographer is doing a great job of avoiding in photos. The custodian starts up the carpet cleaning machine, which lets off a terrible odor and makes it so that none of us can hear one another. Students continued building their structures amidst the distractions, only a couple of students set off by the noise and change in routine.
When you’re trying a lesson for the first time, there is a lot of unknown and risk-taking involved. I had planned to implement some accountability into the lesson by having students carry a recording sheet with them from station to station, to record structures created and what adhesive was used. Students were so engaged in the building of structures that many recording sheets were untouched and blank at the end of the 5 rotations.
It would be easy to call it quits after this list of “fails” but that is why teaching has caused me to re-think the meaning and implications of the word failure. Sure, if I didn’t reflect on or change any of my practices after that lesson, there might be a problem; but reflection is the entire purpose embedded in failure. I have worked so hard this year to help my students accept and even appreciate failure, and I have to do the same thing with failures of my own. There are many instructional tweaks that I would make if I tried this lesson again. But here are my big takeaways from my reflection on failure itself…the failure that happened throughout this lesson, along with the fails we educators experience every day.
You can’t always control what happens in the classroom, and even when you can, you don’t always facilitate each moment of the day perfectly. Instead, what’s important is how you respond to those “fails” in the moment and reflect on them for future instruction.
It’s important to highlight the imperfections, as well as the awesome moments, that happen in the classroom. Not only should parents and community members be aware of the reality of education, but other teachers need to know they are not alone in these moments.
The “fails” in life are what help us learn, not just in the classroom, but beyond. We should all be more honest about the imperfect parts. They often have just as much or more value.
Failure is ever-present. No matter how amazing something looks on social media or however else it is displayed outwardly to the world, there were imperfect moments along the way too…in every single case.
Coming soon: more on how failure, yes failure, has become a central part of our classroom conversations, reflections, and learning.
Students and parents, raise your hand if you jump up and down when you hear the words “group work”?! If you’re raising your hand, you are not the norm. For most, phrases like “group work” or “group projects” create anxiety, dread, and resent. But why??? Collaboration as a means of 21st century learning has been a buzz word since before I started teaching 4 and a half years ago, and for great reason! Collaborative learning is an authentic replication of work in the real world, a way for students to learn from one another and experience other perspectives, a way of appealing to the interpersonal intelligence for those whose are motivated to learn with others, and so much more. Sure, collaboration is challenging…no one every said that putting a bunch of different ideas in the mix made it easier to come to an agreement. But collaborative learning should be seen as an engaging and worthwhile challenge for both those participating (students) and watching from afar (parents). I’ve noticed parents requesting more worksheets over collaborative learning, and heard of parents not choosing particular schools because of a focus on collaborative work. So why do the people being affected by collaborative learning often dislike it so much? They are the ones who should be benefiting!
In shifting from the role of a student myself to a teacher, I’ve gradually noticed a shift in my own perspective on collaboration as a means of learning. As a student, I generally didn’t care for it. As the stereotypical student overachiever, working in groups generally resulted in me attempting to micromanage the whole project as if it were my own individual project, or if that didn’t work, resulted in me stressing over whether others would follow through with their parts or negatively affect my grade. In both types of scenarios, grades were the focus and learning was stifled for me and/or other group members. Additionally, these types of activities were more about dividing the large project into smaller “sub-projects,” so each group member usually ended up working independently rather than collaboratively. But my shift to the role of teacher has opened my eyes to the value that collaboration can genuinely have on both social-emotional and content-specific learning. So what exactly are the problems students are experiencing in this dreaded type of collaborative learning, and what can we teachers do about it?
1. Teamwork vs. Collaboration
First things first, let’s be clear on the definitions of terms. Many “group projects” are not collaborative in nature, but activities requiring teamwork.
Teamwork is when everyone takes on a smaller piece of the larger project; and when each of those small pieces are put together, the larger project is complete. There is definitely a time and place for teamwork, whether students each take on a specific job in the work or complete a certain section of the work. Yes, in the real world, this is a realistic model for work completion. But the goal of these activities should not necessarily be to teach the concept of working together, or collaboration. When taking part in teamwork, people work more so individually.
Collaboration, on the other hand, is when a group creates something together from the ground up. The team creates the idea collectively, and all members pitch in however possible to put the idea into action. These collaborative activities are the ones that genuinely teach students how to work effectively with others, appreciate perspectives different from their own, and respond to different ideas and opinions.
2. Grades vs. Reflection
In either situation, whether teamwork or collaboration, the emphasis should be on reflection to become better rather than on grades.
Grades often squelch learning, particularly collaborative learning, which is already a challenge without tying a grade to it. Placing a grade on collaborative activities creates a pressure that causes the learners involved increased frustration and resentment. When disagreements arise, now the goal has shifted from “How can we effectively come to an agreement?” to “If we don’t hurry up and come to an agreement, we won’t get a good grade,” or “If these people don’t listen to my idea we’re gonna fail.” Grades have the potential to teach ineffective collaboration and add frustration to an already challenging process.
Reflection helps learners think back on the experience in an honest way. Without the pressure of grades, students can feel freedom to be realistic about their learning and collaborative efforts in a given activity. When reflecting honestly, students can acknowledge mistakes they might have made during the process, in efforts to learn from those mistakes and become better for next time. In fact, reflection (over grades) might help learners see the positive, rather than the negative and failure, in mistakes.
3. Culminating Projects vs. Learning
Collaborative learning often takes place at the end of a unit, as a summative project reflecting what students learned (to give a grade), rather than as PART of the learning process.
Culminating projects involving collaboration usually remove learning from the experience. Often, collaborative projects are simply supposed to reflect what members of the group have learned for a final grade. Similar to the idea of projects versus project-based learning, a culminating project may as well be the word “test,” again creating added pressure to an already challenging skill.
Learninghappens throughout a unit, not at the end. Collaboration is a great, engaging way to teach new content, while also building students’ collaborative skillset. A collaborative type of activity should more often happen along the way as students learn, not always at the end of the unit. If it could just be approached as part of the learning process, rather than a final “show what you know” group project, it might not be so intimidating and stressful.
In closing, if collaboration isn’t challenging students in a motivating way, something is wrong. So let’s reflect on our teaching practices, so that we can do something about it!
Kindergarten is a lot like herding cats. I had never actually heard that expression until I became a Kindergarten teacher, and it is the perfect visual to reflect what our classes may look like at times, particularly at first.
And for that reason, every time that a new Kindergarten year circles back around, I find myself unsure of how to get started. So much growth occurs during the school year, that it’s hard to even remember what those little 5 year olds are like in the beginning, entering the formal school setting for the first time. It seems like every year I have to physically stop myself from planning a full-out writing activity for the first day/week…wait, we’re still learning letters and sounds! And I just never quite account for the amount of time it will truly take to complete activities…everything takes double the time to get through between expectation reviews, new routines to explain, thorough modeling needed, and transitions. They grow so much during the Kindergarten year that they make you forget just how much structuring it took first quarter to bring the chaos to a controlled and productive level. What makes it even more challenging: while students need to learn the structures, routines, and expectations of the classroom in order to actually function in school and activities, the curriculum doesn’t wait.
So how do I begin, teaching students how to go to school while jumping into the “real” learning right away?
While this problem may be magnified on the Kindergarten level due to their young age and newness to school, I know that this is something that teachers of all grade levels encounter: starting over with a new class, a year younger than the class you just finished with. Shout-out to my friend Aubrey Diorio for getting me pumped for the new school year with her recent post on new school year must do’s, and for inspiring this reflection. While Aubrey’s post gives awesome examples of specific, beginning of school must do’s to set your class up for success (go read it!!!), my post more specifically tackles how to actually dive into and structure the beginning of the year. Unfortunately, just looking back at last year’s lesson plans isn’t always enough: those plans may not account for how routines and expectations were taught and embedded throughout the day, and for things you want to do better or differently for the upcoming year. Each year, it feels like I am re-learning how to structure the beginning of year chaos; but after some time reflecting, I have outlined some of my tips, priorities, and strategies for starting a new school year, or in a Kindergarten teacher’s case…”herding those cats,” as smoothly and effectively as possible.
1. Make lists
Before the kids arrive, I have found it helpful to make lists. Not just a list for the thousand things I have to do to get the room ready, but a list, broken into categories, to outline expectations, routines, activities, flexible seating expectations, and protocols students need to learn to get the classroom up and running. My list is categorized into 3 sections: expectations (embodying all behavioral expectations, flexible seating expectations, routines, protocols, and day-to-day skills needed), centers (both beginning of year literacy/STEAM and initial Daily 5 literacy centers), and technology (apps, systems, and activities for beginning of year). Your list may be more broad or more specific than that. In essence, this is a “Planning To Do List”…what your students need to learn in order to learn in your classroom for the year. Don’t just make the list, but try to prioritize it. For example, students can’t get through the first day of school without carpet time and work time, so expectations for sitting on the carpet, using supplies, and using flexible seating should be taught day 1. This is a list that I print off, cross items off of, and pull un-taught items from to put into my weekly lesson plans. And in the world of Kindergarten, these are lists I pull from throughout the entire first quarter. Time to spare? Teach something else from “the list.”
2. Build a strong foundation
All students need a strong foundation to learn the expectations and routines of their new classroom, but Kindergarten takes this one to another level! Using my running list of all the new “school things,” daily expectations, and routines students need to learn, I will teach, practice, and reinforce new skills daily. Sometimes I act out the procedure, sometimes peers act it out, sometimes students illustrate a picture of themselves following the expectation, sometimes we search for examples and non-examples in literature, sometimes we make “do’s” and “don’ts” anchor charts. And while expectations are embedded into all areas, some aspects taught are more behavioral and some are more like classroom systems or routines for certain parts of the day. Our first writing project is all about behavioral expectations, as students practice their illustrating skills to reflect themselves showing given school expectations. Regardless of what foundational concept is being taught, there is SO much to learn in this department for Kinders that I’m usually building the foundation throughout first quarter, and of course throughout the year as things become more challenging.
3. Take the time to fill in gaps
Sometimes a routine or procedure has already been taught, but each day we complete it, there are issues. Whether it’s a flexible seating or classroom library procedure, it’s easy to become frustrated when it was taught but isn’t being followed. I used to keep the mindset that it has been taught, I just reviewed it impatiently, and it will be a waste of our time to go back and fully re-teach; but at a BT meeting a couple years ago, the mentors in the room reminded me that it was never a waste of time to strengthen a routine in the classroom. At the time, I had been feeling so pressured to keep up with the curriculum that I had undermined the importance of filling in those gaps. Filling in the foundational gaps students may have missed not only brings sanity to you, it brings clarity to them and helps the classroom run more efficiently in the long-run. So rather than become frustrated with myself or them, I’m learning to take the time to fully re-teach the expectation in a new way.
4. Make modifications
Certain groups handle things differently than others, and some groups aren’t ready for certain routines others may have handled easily right away. There’s no shame in modifications for success! Some years, I have had to make a special beginning of year classroom library, because the large sticker system library was too overwhelming for most students for the first quarter or two. Students still had books to access, so they could still complete tasks, but without as many choices and without as structured of an organizational system. Another example- last year, my class needed assigned numbers to line-up on for greater structure. We still got where we needed to go, but we modified how.
Many activities, both at the beginning and throughout the year, are structured into student stations. I have found student learning stations (or centers) to be effective for many reasons: they provide a variety of activities, they can be easily differentiated for ability and interest, they promote a small group learning structure, and they allow for a teacher (and/or instructional assistant) to lead stations that require greater student support and allow for less independence. In the beginning of the year, we ease our way into stations, with the eventual goal of implementing literacy centers in the Daily 5 structure. Beginning of year stations, implemented for a portion of our literacy block (but we also do math stations throughout the year!!), integrate different STEAM, reading, and writing elements. While keeping up with the curriculum, I try to implement as many themes for play (and creativity) as possible, since play sadly diminishes little by little throughout the year. I plan for 2 teacher-led (usually literacy and art), and 3 independent stations for students to rotate through. To go into a little more depth on some of the subjects and station activities we implement on the Kindergarten level-
Writing: We often work on self-portraits, illustrations to tell a story, and sketches to sequence events of a story. While sketching, we think in shapes; and while illustrating, we practice coloring neatly and using colors that make sense.
Reading: If a teacher directed station, we often work on parts of a book, print concepts, and reading behaviors at this point in the year. Students can all use any classroom library books of their choice with these open-ended tasks! As time progresses during the quarter, students begin to learn and implement an independent read to self time, either telling the story using the pictures in the book or using sticky notes to search for given items (sight words, colors, literacy concepts, punctuation, letters) in text.
Art: Students can create name art in different ways: crumbled tissue paper balls, miscellaneous craft materials, foam squares, newspaper cutting, etc. Students also create art that goes with read-clouds we read, which helps them build their fine motor skills and learn to follow multi-step directions.
Tech: Students play with an app that has been newly introduced. While keeping it open-ended, it is helpful to give students challenges, for example: try to use the typing feature, camera feature, and drawing feature in your creation. After students have explored the app and can make connections to it and its features, I phase into some collaborative tech activities that begin to integrate curriculum and prepare for the ways they will use different creation-based apps in Daily 5 literacy centers. Implementing a tech station is also an opportunity for students to practice logging into their Google Drive accounts with our brand new Chromebooks.
Imaginative play: Students can participate in a free choice play center, like blocks, housekeeping, legos, or doll house.
Engineering/Makerspace: We have many “building tubs” in our classroom that enhance student fine motor and also give opportunities for imaginative play. These tubs often start the year without constraints, promoting free play. This year, I plan to start adding in more structure as students get comfortable, giving a specific category or challenge for students to create around. Students can also create using the makerspace.
6. Introduce permanent structures gradually
For students to take part in these stations, there is a lot of modeling and direction-giving that happens so that they can be successful independently. Young students struggle so much to actively listen for long periods on the carpet, so this can make simultaneously introducing more permanent, long-term routines and activities a challenge. It takes long enough to master the open-ended station structure described above, but by the end of first quarter, students also have to be ready to jump into our more permanent Daily 5 centers. It takes strategy to prepare students for the long-term, while promoting success in the short-term as well. To do this, I make time for 15-minute mini-lessons throughout first quarter, to teach the literacy centers (read to self, word work options, tech options, and work on writing options) that students will need to independently access as we make the transition.
Again, making a list helps. I’ve written down all of the centers students will have to jump into 2nd quarter, and that’s what you’ll want to break into mini-lessons. In the mini-lesson, I usually model completing the center myself, then complete it again with a partner to model the collaborative aspect, and finally have students repeat the directions back to me. Then, that particular center that has been taught may slowly make its way into our beginning of year stations, so that students see it again soon and get practice completing it independently. Tech is a little bit different, as young Kindergarten students need plenty of time to play with an app, with some specific challenges of features to try, before integrating a subject area right away. So modeling tech may start as modeling creating a “for fun” project, rather than giving students a task aligned with the curriculum right away. Implementing mini-lessons has helped me make a smooth transition from beginning of year centers to permanent centers.
7. Longer morning meetings
Morning meeting is a great way to integrate so many of the foundational skills students need: expectations, social skills, team building, and growth mindset. This year, I want to plan my morning meetings even more intentionally and do a better job sticking to my daily structure I’ve outlined:
These themes follow a daily handshake and greeting that students give each other around the circle. First quarter, a longer morning meeting not only helps better build that foundation and classroom community, it also gives an opportunity to explicitly teach social skills. Students also, of course, need time to actually learn morning meeting routines (that handshake feels like it takes hours to get through at first!). And morning meeting is a time to review things that are and aren’t working in the classroom, so it is a great time to re-teach expectations needing review and for students to bring expectation suggestions and questions to the table. Last year, students suggested early on that I tape the floor to indicate where to put away flexible seating items after an activity.
8. 4C activities
Going along with the social skills foundation that students need, it is important to get students collaborating, communicating, thinking critically, and creating right away. While keeping up with the curriculum and teaching it effectively creates curriculum experts, we want well-rounded experts with 21st century foundational skills! Each of the 4Cs can be taught through one larger 4C activity, or through individual 4C activities highlighting each C. It is helpful to integrate literacy as these skills are introduced. Last year, Chris Tuttell and Janet Pride led our school in some PD, introducing us to 4 different texts that go along with and help teach each of the 4Cs. Along with each text, there are plenty of individual activities that highlight and have students practice each of the Cs. Last year, I instead ended up using one text to introduce a STEM challenge to students, and highlighted a different C that went with each day of our work as I added to our anchor chart. I later used the 4 texts mentioned above to reinforce the 4 Cs throughout the year. Regardless of how the 4Cs are introduced and practiced, it is helpful to define the 4Cs individually, so that students begin understanding and using the language. There are many ways to jump in, but the main takeaways: introduce each C, define each C, have students practice each C, and use literature as a springboard.
Taking the time to reflect on my beginning of year organization strategies for diving in with a new class has allowed me to more clearly define the structures I’ve informally adopted. Maybe this structure has given others some thoughts or ideas to ponder or tweak to make your own, or maybe you have some of your own tips to share in the comments below! I love the beginning of school and tend to want to rush right into the fun learning and excitement, but I and my students also thrive in a structured, organized environment. We teachers have to be strategic in order to dive right in WHILE building the foundation up! Even though I’ve worked most of my summer away and feel like I’ve hardly had a chance to blink since the last school year, I am ready and SO excited to get started with my 18-19 class of Kindergarteners!!!
Opportunity context plays a large role in a person’s confidence, and therefore, learning. I was lucky to grow up in an environment where all influences encouraged me to pursue my dreams. Not only was I taught to go after my dreams, I was told that I would reach them if I put my mind to it with practice and determination. I could be anything I wanted to be with the right amount of studying and schooling. I never had to question what I was capable of because of the mindset instilled in me since birth.
As early as Kindergarten, it is clear who comes in with a work ethic to persist through challenges, who is learning that practice leads to growth, and who already believes that “you either have smarts or you don’t.” Growth versus fixed mindsets within students not only affect their overall confidence, the type of mindset a child carries also affects his or her level of academic achievement. Students who don’t believe they can grow come in believing they will not be successful, and their mindset causes the outcome to be a “self-fulfilling prophecy”- what they believe about themselves comes true. For many students entering Kindergarten, school is a foreign concept. Not only is picking up a pencil a new thing for some, but following multi-step directions, asking for help, and independently taking responsibility for personal items are all brand new concepts. It takes practice for many students to adapt when they have not been to school at all, did not receive quality preschool with valuable Kindergarten preparation, or did not go for the length of time of their peers. Children are aware of this gap, and many of those who have not had as much school and academic exposure seem to believe that they will always struggle. Many are scared to try new things…like tracing the letters in their name or raising their hand to respond to a question. They see others doing it with such confidence and believe “they just don’t have it.”
Here are some quotes, some amidst tears and hyperventilation, that I have heard this year reflecting a fixed mindset:
“I can’t do it.”
“This is too hard.”
“I’m scared…I can’t….”
“But I don’t know how.”
“Oh I wasn’t raising my hand…I wouldn’t know that answer.”
“I’m always gonna have bad days and everyone else is always gonna have good days.” (referring to behavior)
This fixed mindset in students becomes a problem. And Kindergarten is the pivotal age to begin addressing this issue of mindset, as the achievement and opportunity gap begins dividing students from the first day of K on. Their beliefs about themselves are holding them back from where they could be. Research shows that when we practice a skill, our brain gets stronger and more proficient with that skill; and the more we get into the habit of absorbing new information and taking part in the struggle of the learning process, the better we get at new skills and at learning in general. Contrary to what was believed for many years, there aren’t “math” people or “word” people…we can all be any kind of people we want if we practice and persist through challenges.
This year more than years past, it was clear that I needed to teach students about the science behind their brains. Many students weren’t going to do much growing until they believed they COULD grow. So here are some ways that we are learning about and practicing a growth mindset on a weekly basis:
–Morning Meeting: Morning meeting is a time to come together as a class each morning, greet one another, share out, and focus our day for a successful start. Morning meeting has provided a lot of outlets for focusing on growth mindset. We have used this time to learn about a growth mindset, and that intelligence is not fixed. Additionally, when sharing out, students often respond to mindset prompts and share with others what they are proud of, something that is a challenge for them, something they can’t do YET, etc. We also use morning meeting to reflect on growth and show new student work compared to previous student work, giving students visual evidence that their brain has grown.
–Class Dojo Videos: This is where the bulk of growth mindset instruction took place and how students learned about the secret behind their brains. Even if your school does not use Class Dojo, these videos can be located on youtube as well. These videos have given us the language (matched with visuals) to talk about how our learning can change, rather than our learning being fixed. The first video showed us Mojo’s (the main character) original thinking: that you’re either good at something (like math), or you aren’t. His thinking isn’t resolved until the 2nd video. After watching the first video, I took a vote to see who believed that “smarts” are either something you have or you don’t; and who believed you could get better with practice. Only 2 students originally believed you could get better with practice.. A couple weeks later, I took the vote again, and everyone unanimously believed practice helps you improve and learning is not fixed. Below is the first of the five growth mindset videos, and the first of three perseverance videos.
–Language: The videos we have watched and conversations happening in our morning meeting have transformed our overall language. Now you might hear an “I can’t do it…YET.” And if that yet doesn’t make it to the end of the phrase, you can bet the people sitting near that student will chime in with a YET to remind their friend of a growth mindset. Another phrase we love and have adopted from the Class Dojo videos is to “take the challenge,” rather than run away or give up. That has really taken the place of “this is too hard,” as students are now inspired to “take the challenge” and get better at whatever skill they are practicing. A fellow K teacher on my team, Claire Morrison, does an amazing job instilling a growth mindset in her students! She has also adopted similar language with her students through the Class Dojo videos, and they took the phrase to the next level and made it their class motto (see below). It is hanging in the front of the room signed by all the students in her class. Also, check out her anchor chart (see right) on transforming language to reflect a growth mindset! This anchor chart is our next step during Morning Meeting this week…thanks, Claire!
Earlier this yr a S said "Look Ms. Morrison, I took the challenge!" & it has since become our class motto. We talk often about the power of 'yet' & these awesome kinders wanted to pledge to challenge themselves to always try their best! #wetakethechallenge#kindersCANpic.twitter.com/QnvdGUYbfZ
–Focus on practice: We talk about practice all the time now. Students are seeing that the learning activities we take part in throughout the day ARE practice that help us learn. Tasks are no longer scary, they are practice. And students are less scared to take risks, because they know that trying it is how you learn. This has been a big mindset shift. A couple of students have used the phrase “practice makes perfect,” and are usually now stopped by other students who remind them, “there’s no such thing as perfect…we can always get better!” Once recently, a student got an answer wrong, and another student giggled. One student got very defensive for her peer who had gotten the answer wrong, and said “It’s not funny! He is learning, and you have to try it to learn!” In another instance, a couple of students were questioned by another student for having to complete their work at a teacher’s table for extra support, an outsider listening in again jumped to their defense, saying “They may not have had as much practice as you before…sitting with the teacher helps them get better practice to learn!” As a group, our language has transformed, and when we go back to “old language,” you can see how other students jump to the defense.
–Activities where learning isn’t easy: Various 4C/STEM activities have helped us practice using a growth mindset. These activities really show students what taking on a challenge feels like. And we have seen, just like in our videos, that just because you take on a challenge does not mean you’ll get it figured out in the snap of a finger. You have to persist through the challenge even when it continues to be difficult, or even when you sometimes fall into “the dip.” We are finding that learning can feel like a struggle, and not to run away from the struggle.
–Reflection: After these challenging STEM activities, it is always important to reflect on the activities and on student mindset. We ask what was easy, what was hard, and next steps. Students are now identifying times when they went into “the dip,” or when they really had to show perseverance to get through a challenge, or how they still need a little more practice to master a skill. Reflection is also what we do in our Morning Meeting, when sharing personal experiences or responding to Mojo’s experiences in the video clips we watch. We reflect orally often, and at this point in the year, have also started reflecting using self-assessment exit tickets after a lesson. We’re seeing how reflection helps us identify areas of struggle so that we can improve.
Taking some time out of the day to teach growth mindset has been critical to my students’ learning this year. You can see through the above example descriptions the new and improved ways students are talking about and approaching learning. Growth mindset, in essence, embodies the #kindersCAN movement – a belief in the capabilities of our youngest learners, and consequently, a belief in all learners and ourselves.
During my first year of teaching (around 3 years ago), growth mindset was a big district push, and I learned a lot about it; but this is the first time I have shared about it with my students, and the outcome has been amazing: students are learning how to think of themselves as learners, but also learning character strengths that will bring them success in life. I believe that growth mindset is a springboard for overall confidence which, in many senses, is vital to a person’s success. Confidence- a belief in oneself- is what makes someone unstoppable, and confidence starts building from birth on. Often, confidence makes the difference between thinking you have value or not, being able to effectively defend yourself or not, creating aspirations you want to live up to or not, turning that tassel or not, going to college or not, following your dreams or not, maybe even taking a path no one else in your family took or not. It is easy to take confidence for granted when it was instilled in you since birth, but more than any other content I learned in school, I recognize that confidence is what got me where I am now. Growing up, I didn’t realize how privileged I was to always know in my mind that I would be successful if I put my mind to it (aka confidence)….and to never worry about whether taking a risk could result in complete failure, or whether I’d have to defend a questionable choice I made, or whether I’d be capable of making it through school. I always had confidence I could do it all, and it is vital to remember that not everyone’s experiences instill that level of confidence! Building up confidence in learners from day one is really more important than anything else they could learn; and it is part of what many groups or students need in order to be on an equitable playing field with their peers. So before assuming students “can’t do it,” help them believe that they can; give them the right level of instruction, tools, and opportunities for practice; have them reflect on what they can do when they have a growth mindset; and work with them to build confidence that pours into all the areas of their lives. That’s one of the best ways we can ensure equity and genuinely change lives in this profession.
In the past, my Kinders have always participated in “shared research.” With a whole or small group, I have modeled how to use various tools for research (W.K.7), I’ve shown how to scan through the text to seek out the important parts, and I’ve shared how I can use this information (W.K.8) to write informational text all about a topic (W.K.2). From there, students used the information that we collected in our shared research to follow my modeling and also write all about that same topic.
And I recognized that while I was on the right track, showing students the importance of research in 21st century learning, I was the one picking the topic, doing the work, giving the information, and modeling the writing. Students, rather than gathering their information through research, were gathering their information from me to write all about a topic. Additionally, students were learning about a topic as a group – a topic that I chose for them to watch me research and potentially one that they had no interest in. I was the one doing, rather than them.
When I asked myself how to change it up and make this a more valuable experience, I was overwhelmed: overwhelmed with the idea of how to give a class of K students choice in what they researched, overwhelmed with how students would be able to independently gather information through research with limited reading skills, and overwhelmed with the idea of how to effectively organize personalized research for 22 Kindergarteners, where they have access to a variety of tools,
It was a risk, but one that I wanted and needed to take. In this post, you’ll see the steps I took to make it happen, the sharing and collaboration that started to take place among teachers along the way, and my reflections on the success of the project.
I broke the project into a 3 week time span.
Week 1- the research
Week 2- the “all about” books
Week 3- green screen informational movies
Week 1: The Research
I knew if students were going to be researching different topics, they would be working in small groups with common interests. So I figured that learning stations would be the best way to organize the research that went into the project. While I wanted to give voice and choice to students in this research project, I also knew that to make the project more effective for them and less scary for me, there needed to be some structure also. I narrowed it down to animal research, and from there, picked a diverse variety of animals students could pick from. On a simple, hand-written slip of paper, students ordered the animals 1-5, based on their research preferences; and from there, I was able to group students into research small groups. Students’ choices and interests were varied, allowing me to give them either 1st or 2nd choice.
5 animals meant 5 learning stations, and student small groups would rotate through all the different stations in 1 week: the 2 teacher-led stations (by me and my TA) would be the stations where the bulk of the new learning took place, and the other 3 would be more observational-based learning stations. We did one rotation per day during our 20-30 minute writing block each day. Each animal group had a folder, which gave them their task/materials for that day’s research. This is how I kept the stations organized, and, after thorough modeling, how students knew what to do during their station. Students knew that after all of this research, the goal was for them to know the characteristics of their animal, their animal’s habitat, what their animal eats, along with any other information that they find to be interesting about their animal and what it can do. Participating in these research stations would allow me to assess W.K.7, how well and effectively students participated in shared research.
Station 1: Brainpop/Make a Map: I led this station, as students would be logging into their individual Brainpop accounts, watching an informational video, and using the “make a map” tool to show their new learning.
Station 2: Habitat: Students observed pre-printed pictures of their animal’s habitat (located in their folder), and from their observations, spent time drawing and labeling the parts in their animals’ habitats.
Station 3: “Nonfiction Boxes”: This is one of my “work on writing” centers that students are already familiar with, which is why I thought it would fit perfectly into an independent research station. While looking at pictures/info about their animal, students wrote down observational facts about the animal.
Station 4: Informational read-aloud/puppet making: My TA led this station. She read them information about their animal using an animal encyclopedia, asked several comprehension questions for discussion after the reading, and then monitored while they made a “puppet” of their animal. This is the puppet they would use in the culminating green screen project.
Station 5: Pic Kids app: Students used a grid within the tool Pic Kids to insert photos of their animal and write can, have, are facts about their animal collaboratively.
Students rotated through the stations during week 1, periodically reflecting in their journals along the way.
Week 2: The All About Books
After a week of research, it was time to apply their learning to write informational text. Students were now going to organize their learning onto a planning sheet, and from there, create their all about books. Their planning sheet contained 4 sections for them to organize their information, indicated by pictures: characteristics, habitat, diet, and other interesting information. Students worked for a couple of writing blocks to plan, and a couple of writing blocks to make their books. This was the section of the lesson that addressed the majority of the learning objectives: W.K.8 (recalling information from research) and W.K.2 (write informational text).
Once we finished the planning and writing of our books, students buddied up to peer edit their “all about” books: they gave each other feedback, and checked each book with a writer’s checklist. This was the first time I had my students use a writer’s checklist collaboratively, rather than independently, and it was the most successful my kinders have ever been using this rubric tool! 2 brains are better than 1!
Week 3: Green Screen Informational Movies
As an extension of W.K.8 (recalling research), I wanted students to work together to create informational green screen movies on their animal, and consequently create a teaching tool so that others could learn about their animal. Again, I was overwhelmed. How were small groups of Kindergarteners going to take their individual notes and information to make collaborative, collective green screen scripts. I wracked my brain for the best way, and thank goodness I ran into Chris Tuttell that morning! She took the best of my ideas, added her own ideas, and we had a plan.
Each animal small group worked at a table, with each student holding their individual scripts. Students in the 4-5 student animal small group formed smaller groups by partnering up and taking on 1-2 sections of the planning sheet. They partnered together to share their sentences in their particular assigned section (for example: habitat), and from there, partners circled the sentences between the 2 that best summarized and taught others about that section. Then, the partners in the small group came back together as a whole, and shared their circled sentences with a recorder in the group, who made the official script for each section.
To make it kinder-friendly, the script template was structured very similarly to their original story planning sheet.
Once the script was completed, we made copies for each team member and highlighted their respective lines. Students rehearsed and were ready to make their informational movies.
As we wrapped up this project, I was left with an overwhelming sense of satisfaction. I had taken a risk, it actually worked, students actually learned, and best of all, they had so much fun. In listening to their sweet voices in these green screen movies, I can hear a confidence and maturity in some of my students that I’ve never heard before. I love how certain tools can excite students in ways that I, nor they, ever imagined.
Click here to see our final green screen informational movies!
Collaboration Along the Way
Collaboration is where I should have started with this project, but since I had never tried anything quite like it with Kindergarteners, and struggled to find online resources/information of other K teachers who had tried it, I felt like the idea may not work and wanted to try it before mentioning it to my team. Once I started my research learning stations, I got excited that it was working and, with that boost of confidence, started sharing with my team! They were immediately excited about the structure, yet voice and choice, in the research project and started the project in their own classrooms, with slight adjustments/differences that helped fit the project to the learning and needs of their own students.
Kelsey Clarke, one of my teammates, and myself had meanwhile been anticipating a visit to our classrooms from Lisa Poirier, a K teacher we have connected with this year through different PD, events, and of course, Twitter! It so happened that Lisa was coming to observe our literacy blocks, and was able to see both of our projects in action. She got the perspective of my project, as we wrapped up the all about books and started making our green screen scripts…
Lisa, also excited about personalized research for her littles, took back some ideas as she began the project in her own classroom! Each of our projects had slight differences in implementation and outcome, but were all derived from the same common theme and idea.
After we all finished up the project, we used the green screen videos from each class as teaching tools: students teaching students about their animal. To amplify overall student learning, we gave students the opportunity to view the green screen movies of all 3 classes, and then Kelsey, Lisa, and I connected through Google Hangout for some student reflection.
It was amazing to hear students speak to what was easy and challenging in the project, what they really enjoyed about the project, along with the similarities and differences that they noticed between the 3 projects. Lisa’s class even asked for some tips for collaboration, to which students from the other 2 classes responded saying things like “Don’t fight…be kind! Listen to all members. Remember, it’s not just about 1 person’s idea…it’s about what everyone thinks!” These student-created green screen movies became authentic teaching tools, and gave us the chance to connect and reflect with others for added relevance and excitement.
My Own Reflections
What would I change next time?
>Next time, I would start with collaboration, rather than end there. Collaboration up-front will help finalize those challenges/intimidations before starting. Now that this project won’t really seem like a risk anymore, it should be easy starting here next time.
>Brainpop jr. is such a great tool with lots of new features. I had created individual student accounts, so that students could watch the video and make-a-map in their individual accounts. Little did I know that the video software was out of date on half of my desktops and would not play the videos. So we got creative. Sometimes, we would watch the video as a whole group, then go into our individual accounts to make a map. Sometimes, for sake of time, we’d watch the video together and then students would make a map as a small group, taking turns with the dragging and typing. Next time, I would have my students already familiar with how to login and utilize Brainpop in their individual accounts, and also ensure that the proper updates were already put in place on the desktops.
>I would love to make my stations more rigorous and more learning-packed next time. This time, I had some stations where actual learning and research took place, but other stations were more observational, simply looking at pictures to gather information. When taking a risk, sometimes we add in elements that bring a sense of comfort and make a task seem more doable. That way, when attempting it again later, those original risks seem less scary, and make room for new risks you might take the next time around. So next time, I would like my kinders using additional tools in their research stations, for a wider variety of experience and learning. Maybe youtube kids? NC Wise Owl? Pebble Go? Discovery Ed? Adding a variety of nonfiction easy readers to my classroom library? Not only would I like to add new research tools, but have my students already accustomed to using them when they get into their learning stations for a research project. As research is such a relevant skill, I’d love for student research to become a consistently-used skill, rather than a skill simply used for 1 big research project.
>Quality-wise, Google Hangout was a bit lacking when it came to the visual and sound elements. We’re wondering if there’s a way to connect and reflect more clearly?
>This time, I gave voice and choice on what animal students researched. As I continue trying this project in future years, I can’t wait to see how it will grow. Some possibilities I’m contemplating: How could I structure it for students to choose their research tools? Rather than having everyone complete a green screen movie as their culminating teaching tool, how could I give student choice in the teaching tool they will each create? These are all possibilities that would have seemed overwhelming during my first trial run of the project, but possibilities I now feel inspired to consider, in collaboration with my teammates.
As always, my little ones have proven to me that #kindersCAN. Throughout and after the project, I shared my hesitations with them in trying this research project, and how it was scary for me to turn it over to them, knowing how chaotic all of the different topics and tools could get with a room of little people. But I told them that I believed in them, because they had never given me a reason not to. And as they worked, they took part in similar reflections. Throughout the week, we took time to reflect and describe what we were finding easy and hard in our research. Seeing my students’ awareness and grasp of their own learning, just as I had shared my own reflections with them, was powerful.
Each time I do this project, I believe that it will get better and more effective. And at some point, maybe research will stop being referred to as a project in my classroom, and become a frequently and consistently integrated tool for learning and exploring our personal curiosities……maybe #geniushour is in our near future!
It’s amazing how mindset – a single word and concept – can be detrimental to teaching and learning, but can also be the reason for teacher and student success. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on mindset, how it affects success, and how teacher and student mindsets also affect one another.
My mindset- that of the educator:
Working many hours outside of the 8 hour day, taking the time to connect to a PLN of other educators, voluntary PD, educational reading and book studies by choice – all signs of an educator who is continuing as a learner, and consequently, an educator with the right mindset. For some, dedicating extra time throughout the week to plan, share, and learn is a priority; but for others, these things are just “more to add to the plate.” So what’s the difference between the teacher volunteering extra time to learn and the teacher who refers to these same actions as “too much” or “overwhelming”? It’s a mindset.
Just to clarify, there are times that any job can become overwhelming; and teachers definitely experience this feeling at times throughout the school year. But when “overwhelming” turns into an excuse to avoid risk-taking, that’s when it becomes more of a mindset issue. My own mindset has been transforming from the beginning of my journey in education. To give a small example, when I started my student teaching over 3 years ago, I remember being initially surprised there was a weekly grade-level planning time (boy, did I have a lot to learn)…I assumed that teachers who had been teaching a while would just use last year’s plans to get them through each week. Those thoughts reflected my current mindset: not only did I have so much to learn about the importance of collaborative planning, but these thoughts also revealed my thinking that teachers could dedicate less time and effort to the job if they just re-used the same plans each year. Finding ways to save time can be very valuable for educators, but again, should not be an excuse to deny your students of the experience they deserve. Reflecting now and having learned so much since carrying those initial misconceptions, it’s scary to think where students today would be if we all just used “last year’s plans” every year. Sadly though, this detrimental mindset does exist; and there are teachers in our own district and beyond teaching today’s students with yesterday’s lessons and tools.
A big part of what has helped transform my own mindset over the years are other inspiring teachers and leaders constantly striving to #becomebetter. Educators are more likely to think and act with a growth, learner’s mindset when they are inspired by a leader who has one. The amount of hours we put in doesn’t define our mindset, but our thinking, along with the questions we ask ourselves, do. Every educator out there should be able to explain the steps they are taking to continue learning, and if not, then how do you expect your students to be a learner in your classroom?
So are we satisfied where we are now, or are we dedicating time to become better for our kids?
Their mindset- that of the learner:
The learner’s mindset is related to and affected by the teacher’s mindset. If you’re bored with a lesson, they probably are too. If you’re doubting your students’ ability to successfully reach your expectations, they probably are too. If you aren’t taking risks and learning more, why should they take risks and learn more? We have to model the mindset we want for our students. When teachers inspire a classroom culture of joy and innovation, combined with a strong sense of community where “mistakes” are part of the process, a growth mindset for learners will start to take shape.
I’m open with my students when I’m taking a risk with an activity they’re working on. And at the end of the lesson, after asking them to personally reflect on how it went, I often share my own “teacher” reflection with them: What went well with the lesson from my perspective? What surprised me? What would I do differently if I were going to teach this lesson again? In being transparent with my kinders, I’ve seen an increase in student self-esteem and less fear of making mistakes in the classroom. By modeling my own truthful reflections, I’ve also seen more honesty when they reflect on their success with a lesson.
We all have someone along the way who helps inspire this mindset within us. Even as educators, we look to leaders who model this type of mindset. It is my hope that each day as I strive to model this mindset, I will inspire my students to take risks and become better too.