Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Tough Life Changes

Sometimes teachers just look crazy.
“There’s the same amount of water right now on earth as there was thousands of years ago.” (Cue the crickets chirping.)
“Children’s bodies are made up of 65% water.” (Kids’ heads lifted in surprise.)
“Some children in our world don’t have clean water to drink.” (Wait! What?)

Breaking children’s hearts isn’t something I’ll ever get used to.

So, first I just teach the easy stuff:
  • Water flows downhill.
  • It takes the shape of its container. 
  • Water has different forms - liquid, solid and gas.

But, eventually, those other things come up while flipping pages in a book or catching a glimpse of the news. Some older kid’s sure to spout it out.

Little kids all just assume that other little kids’ lives are sort of like theirs.
I mean, they know we look different - and our families have other people in them.
They know that some kids love soccer and others, art.
But, we all sort of do the same stuff.
We come to school each day and learn and play together.
We read stories and add and build with blocks.
And then we go home. Where our lives are sort of the same.

Well, until we open books (like National Geographic’s A Cool Drink of Water, Barbara Kerley) and see how some kids really live. 
  • How they collect rainwater (that we just traipse through.) 
  • How they covet cool, clear drops (that we discard without even thinking.) 
  • How they bathe in water (we wouldn’t be caught dead near.)
Things will change this week.
We’ve had delightful sweet moments of creating calming bottles of beautiful, mixed colors and gorgeous tee-shirts covered with lovely spirals of tie-dye.
We’ve used eye droppers and funnels, mixing cups and vials.
We’ve played in the water table, laughing over surprise splashes and drips on faces.

But, we’re going to open back up that One Well: The Story of Water on Earth book (written by Rochelle Strauss) and continue reading on pages 20 and 21 ...and life’s going to be a bit harder.

And then, our lives will change - just a little at first. 
  • We're going to start noticing how long the faucets stay on while we brush our teeth. 
  • We’ll question where that empty water bottle’s going to end up. 
  • And we’ll pick up a few more pieces of trash that blew across our playground.

Before more changes happen.

Changing lives can be tough.

Monday, September 3, 2018

An Inquiry That Changed Us: Our Kindergarten Water Movie, 8 Years Later

I didn't want to make a movie.
I didn't have a clue of how to make a movie.
But, the kids' new learning on water kept propelling us from one cool engagement to the next.
Before I knew it, they were begging me, "YOU'VE just got to do something about this, Mrs. Barnes! Think of it - this school in Nicaragua has NO water! You have to DO something!" (They truly couldn't understand how children everywhere didn't just get fresh water - like we did. It was a huge, humbling learning experience.) I seriously looked right back at them and reasoned, "Well, YOU ALL know way more people than I do. I bet YOU can do something about it." 

Their first idea was to just scream it from the highest place we could. Seriously. Once they tried that a couple of times, they realized they'd need something more. There in the first scene of the completed movie though, you'll see their rendition of screaming it from the highest point we knew. (Our bridge in the garden was the highest place they could figure around our small school. I'll never look at that first scene without thinking about the power of children who stumble upon an idea and won't let it go...)

From there, it became history. I told them they really needed to let everyone know important facts and engagements we had shared about water... before asking them for money. So, they did. They tackled their plan with gusto, working for days to figure out the technology and the best ways of showcasing all our kindergarten knowledge on water. Some of the pieces they knew they wished to share:
  • Creating water paintings Frank Asch-style 
  • Testing water in vials with other substances 
  • Studying globes to identify salty vs. freshwater 
  • Understanding how many people struggle to access clean water to meet basic needs
The children helped to plan everything for the movie itself: 
Who would stand where? 
What artifacts would we share? 
How would we find all the buckets for the "children across the world" scene in the garden?

And they worked for days alongside our teaching assistant and early childhood intern to showcase what they knew about water... before telling the world about their plan. You see, they just happened to discover a school in Nicaragua with no water. And, although we couldn't fix the whole world, maybe we could help just one place. 

They dreamed up a plan for collecting money and promised they would learn to count it all up.
They'd give people options so parents didn't feel like they just had to send it in with no work on the kids' behalf. (You know, besides digging through sofa cushions and under car seats, too.)
And they decided for sure on a plan to honor those people who chose to give - a present! After all, there's nothing like homemade cards.

Clearly, we learned as artists and scientists, readers and writers, definitely social scientists and mathematicians. As movie-makers, we hesitantly watched and worked - and then released our masterpiece into the world.

Gratefully, we cheered as the money rolled in - counting from just pennies the first day to our final amount of hundreds of dollars. How excited we were to send the money to that small village to fund their new water pipes and bring fresh water to the school. And how different our learning became - when we realized that a bunch of five- and six-year-olds could indeed change the world!

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Creating Our Kindergarten World - Setting Up a Classroom that Inspires

Science Museum - 2018/2019
How can I possibly be setting up my classroom for the 29th time? Those first years just blur together in a haze of bulletin board paper and stacks of boxes. In those beginning years, my classroom looked very much like the ones I had lived in as a child. The desks in rows, teacher’s desk at the front. (Being a cop’s wife, I always put mine at the back so I could keep my eye on everything in front of me!)

I laugh when remembering my second school, an open school built in the 70’s. We tried to create walls from furniture, searching for our classroom boundaries in the midst of those wide-open spaces. I vaguely remember a child disappearing through our “walls” now and then!

But, since 1999 when inquiry teaching took over my heart and soul, my room setups don’t look quite like they used to. Our kindergarten feels sort of like a little village of specialty areas where kids can find their place - what drives them, what moves them, what they care about. Or where they can even help to create their own space.
Closeup of Science Museum - 2016
with child-made labels on their artifacts
My teaching heart now rests on creating invitations for young scientists, artists, social scientists, mathematicians, readers and writers to envision the world and their work in it. Thank God for my teaching assistant, an artist at heart, who helps me figure out the mechanics of bringing our dreams to reality.
Atelier - 2016
How do we make our room come to life?
Library Organized by the Children - 2017/2018
  • First, we consider the big picture, the spaces we can’t imagine living without. For us, it’s an Atelier (artists’ workshop), Science Museum, Construction Zone (blocks), library, and constantly-evolving dramatic play area.
    Dramatic Play Area transformed from a
    home to a photography studio, 2016
  • Next, we envision the whole group teaching area (complete with big book stand, authentic calendar work, Smart Board access and room to spread out.)
    View from the door - 2016 across the dramatic play area,
    looking toward the whole group teaching area
  • View from reverse of whole group teaching area - 2016,
    looking back toward children's cubbies and shelving
  • Then, we think about our upcoming inquiries and the specialty areas where we envision kids living through different perspectives. We embark on photography early in kindergarten around the time our school pictures are taken.
    • We take photos of the photographer as he’s taking pictures of us. We know that shortly our dramatic play area will become a photography studio and check-in office based on his set-up.
    • Our walls will display children’s photos.
    • Our science museum will burst with old cameras, negatives, and film reels.
      Shadow Wall - 2016
  • Finally, we reflect on other desired areas: a Color Studio for artists, Shadow Wall for builders, Authors’ Hangout for writers, a Tech Zone for engineers, and an office for mathematicians. We are thrilled to have a large porch and beautiful garden just outside our backdoor - perfect for naturalists, gardeners, poets and painters.
  • Oh, I almost forgot those long work tables with chairs to squeeze in…
  • Most importantly though, we invite the children to move into the spaces and make them their own! We encourage brainstorming and accept their ideas. When youngsters feel that they own the room, their work becomes even more transformative.
    Lights & Shadows Setup - 2016
    Light table & overhead projector amidst books

My biggest suggestions
1. Put in first those things that compel you!
2. Then, think of places in which your children can engage.
3. Last, squeeze in what else you need.
4. However, once the children arrive, be open to their involvement in creating your world together.

If you find it difficult to imagine giving some control over to your students, consider this: One of my brave colleagues actually puts her furniture in the middle of the room for the children to negotiate their classroom together! Those children truly own the space and all their work that happens in it. 

Disclaimer: Whatever you do, be open to the
children's ideas for transforming their own space!

What are your primary considerations when creating your ideal classroom? Please feel free to share photos, too, so we can learn from each other.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Getting Outside, Learning Outside

          “Ooo! That is SO scary!”
“Yeah, I’m not going anywhere near those woods!”
“Looks haunted to me…”

Although we had just crossed a four-lane, busy street, my kindergartners’ eyes grew big. “What?” I looked around to see what in the world they were talking about.

There we were, right next to a stand of pine trees. I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing aloud. “These aren’t haunted! I’m not sure I’d classify them as real woods at all. It’s just some trees growing by this busy street.”

As we continued our shortcut along a parking lot and behind some offices, I mulled over their comments. My students were mostly from neighborhoods with homes close together and plenty of sidewalks. Other than mountain trips and the occasional visit to their neighborhood or national parks, they probably didn’t have many opportunities to delve into woods. Real woods.

  • We passed a retention pond. I beckoned them to walk closer to it. PLOP! We all jumped and giggled to see that a frog had heard us approach and leapt out of our way.

  • We meandered around a pine tree in the grass between the doctors’ offices. It was then we heard a mother bird fussing at us. We had come too close to her babies, nesting in the branches.

  • Stepping away quickly, we looked down to discover ants furiously patching up the mess we had made of their homes.

As we entered the quiet coolness of the library, my mind drifted to a myriad of thought-provoking nonfiction texts on habitats I knew I would find there. Classics by Jean Craighead George and Lynne Cherry awaited us as well as newer ones by Jason Chin. Paintings by Wendell Minor were a must as well. How delightful to discover Cindy Jenson-Elliott’s Antsy Ansel: Ansel Adams, a Life in Nature! It would definitely bring a new flavor to our photography study as well.
On our return trip, I noticed an awed hush from the children zig-zagging around the ant hills, craning their necks to see if Mother Bird noticed us or if the pond were teeming with life again. As we came to the busy intersection, others looked over into the stand of trees, shrugged their shoulders, and smiled.

Noting their eager eyes, I’m reminded again of their exuberance for learning. Another mission took shape - one that would provide even more opportunities for my kindergartners to interact with the world around us in meaningful, new ways.

And we would begin it that very week with powerful books and more walks in our backyard.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Talking with Children About School Safety

How in the world does a teacher talk with little kids about tough topics - strangers, death, emergency plans and intruder drills? What do we do if the unthinkable happens? If bad people burst into the school, where do we hide? Or do we run?

Since 1985, I’ve spent hour after hour with a bunch of little kids.
*I know their favorite authors and the books they'll want more copies of.
*I can predict their actions and responses to things that come up (sometimes!)
*I imagine the things that run through their heads.
Just because I’ve taught so many of them.

Hundreds of little people have come through my door, read my books and hugged my neck. I’ve grown to figure out their handwriting, interpret their drawings, sort of think like them. Parents often stress when crises come and wonder how in the world they’ll face the situation themselves - much less, tackling such tough topics with their child. Over the years, many of them have asked, “What am I supposed to say? How did YOU handle it?”

So, in that vein, I’d like to share portions of a blog entry on such tough topics, originally entitled “Thinking About Safety.” It was created with my first graders’ parents in mind this past spring on the heels of some school shootings and significant press coverage. Interestingly enough, this was the blog post that generated the most interest and engagement from their parents over our two-year loop together.

                       Hmmm… how many kids can we fit on the sofa? 

Check out the graph that greeted the children one morning in April… We typically use graphs like this (Venn diagrams and t-charts, too) to introduce a concept around which our math workshop revolves later in the day. Unbeknownst to the children though, I had more in mind than a math standard. With the continuing emphasis on safety and making sure that little kids had plans for themselves in emergency situations, my real goal was to see how many kids I could fit in little places, tucked in, hidden away… just in case. (And I actually was wondering if we could all fit into the bathroom. Yep. How do you test that?)

Well, after the graph question and the children’s predictions, we just had to check it out. So, a few children at the time, we began: “Do you think two kids can fit there?” Laughter. Of course! And the first two had plenty of space...

“How about four? Six?” Once the children realized that we r-e-a-l-l-y wanted to see how many kids we could cram on there, more excitement ensued! Lots of giggles and pleading to try another and another until all 21 squeezed onto the sofa somewhere!

(Don't you just love their 'thinking poses' for their parents to see?
An easy way for parents to bring up the conversation we shared at school!)
After the fun challenge of squeezing everybody onto the sofa, we started guessing other places where all 21 of us could fit, squeeze, or even hide. Under cubbies? In the atelier? Behind the science museum? Beneath the computers? How about... the bathroom?!?

Look where we all can tuck away - and no one
can find us! There's room for plenty more...
We did a better job fitting in the bathroom -
than we did in the photo! 

Anytime something horrific happens, I know parents shudder and wonder how we at school might approach such tough topics with little kids. This is how I approach it… 
*with an out-of-the-box, simple (seemingly-unrelated) question; 
*creative (but, thoughtful) engagements; 
*and just a few words of reflection from anyone who wishes to share. 
We ended our conversation with “You might want to talk to your parents about other places we could hide in our classroom and at school - just in case we ever had to.”

We do have a plan - several scenarios, in fact. Thankfully, I’m married to a man who happens to be a former Secret Service agent, a retired sergeant detective and a brilliant strategist. Numerous times, he’s stood in different corners of my classroom and advised me of possibilities for squirreling one more kid safely away. I shake my head sometimes, just considering why we have to have such scenarios. But, I’m determined that your children will be safe with me. No. Matter. What.

This paragraph is how I ended my blog with parents that day:
“Thanks for thinking deeply with your child, too - and lightly chatting every now and then about little things they can do that could keep them safe wherever they go. I think sometimes with the gravity of these days, there might be a tendency to warn, caution, lecture, inadvertently scare children. But in working with kindergartners and first graders, sometimes saying less - in a light tone - may achieve more. (It’s been such a gentle topic that one little guy keeps wanting to play 'Hide from the Principal' again!)”

I think we all slept better that night. 
Just knowing there’s a plan. 
Just knowing we’ve thought through the unthinkable.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Writing Workshop on the 1st Day of Kindergarten

We make books on the first day of kindergarten. Kindergartners (and their parents) are always shocked to discover this fact. During our very first Writing Workshop, why, you can hear crickets chirp. Little ones’ eyes dart and heads duck as they wonder, “Does she think I know how to write already? I’m just five!”

Everything will have gone beautifully on this first day of school - until now. You see, I will have just read a wonderful book and we will have laughed over our favorite parts. And then I will announce, “We know you have stories of your own, too. We can’t wait to read them. In fact, why don’t you go ahead and get started on those books now - and then we’ll meet right back here to share them with each other?”

Some brave little soul will finally confess, “But, we don’t even know how to write!” Others nod sheepishly, eyebrows raised, wondering if they’re in the right room.

“Sure, you do!” I emphatically say. “What did you love about this book we just finished?”

Someone will timidly remark, “... Um, the pictures?’

“Yes! You can draw awesome pictures,” I’ll agree as I flip back through pictures in our read-aloud. “See how the writer makes the story flow from page to page? You can draw your pictures out like that, too.”

“I don’t know how to write any words.” Another confession.

“Really? Does anybody? … Your name? Sure! ... ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ - I’m sure they’ll be in some of your stories… ‘Love?’ Absolutely, there’s room for love in your book. What else could you do with your book?”

After a few more ideas surface about tossing in some other letters we hear and being sure that stories make sense, we’ll rally them to jump up and give it a try. Go make a book!

Some rush right over and immediately start, digging through those beautiful new boxes of crayons. Others falter a bit. Each one looks around to see what their new friends are doing, trying to get ideas from each other. My assistant and I wander around, exclaiming over the bright colors of this one and the abundant details of that one. We’ll ooh and ahh over their attempts.

Despite all the unknowns, books start emerging:

This young author is very comfortable with illustrating.
Look at all those glorious details in the picture. She'll have much
to say - when she becomes more confident about writing! 

This is actually the last page of a young author's
delightful tale having a beginning, middle and end.
As she eloquently tells her story, she points to the "cursive"
(on the right side): "Queen Emma had a beautiful crown. Queen
Emma and the prince lived happily ever after in the mermaid sea."

This author's familiarity with letters shows through
the strings of letters surrounded by color bands
and a roller coaster track.

This young author captured an amazingly-detailed
illustration showing characteristics of his
different family members.
"F" for family.

Once children saw initial letters were affirmed, they
became more confident and created thoughtful designs -
H (house), F (flowers). 

This young author has confidence as a mathematician
as well - mixing his knowledge of letters
 & numbers to convey meaning:
"I ate ('8') a poptart for ('4') breakfast."

This young author was enthralled with
the current news of the day. She
excitedly shared her story.
(To read: go right to left,
from bottom to top.
"Gold medal.")
This young author has certain understandings about
books should look like: clearly-discernible words, spaces between
them, illustration reflecting the story.
About ten minutes in, I’ll tap our gong. Everyone will freeze while I’ll tell them the significance of this beautiful gong during Writing Workshop. I’ll ask for a few children to show us what they’ve done so far, holding them high and slowly showing them around as the author shares. As we all see the abundant variety of beautiful markings on paper - and how each one is celebrated right where they are - each child seems to gain much more confidence about what writing moves they can try next. I’ll thank each volunteer and then announce that we’ll take about 10 or so minutes to finish up our first Writing Workshop.

There are always the reluctant ones - afraid to make mistakes, confused about the excitement, perhaps unsure of any letters at all. I’ll invite them to walk around with me, looking over shoulders, asking kids for their inspiration, soaking it all in. Hopefully, they’ll return to their seats, at least to sketch a picture and jot their name. My goal is for each young writer to compose something - anything - on this first day in Writing Workshop.

All too soon, I touch our gong again. As the sound reverberates and lessens, I announce that our very first Writing Workshop is coming to a close. Believe it or not, there are usually groans. “Already? We just got started!”

I laugh and say, “There’s always tomorrow! We’ll write every single day during our Writing Workshop time. You’ll get a special tool tomorrow to help you keep up with all your books; but, for today, why don’t you just bring your books over here to our sharing chair? You can put them in our basket - and I’ll cherish reading them tonight!”

As little ones murmur (“...not enough  time… not finished ...why can’t we go longer”), I’ll discover a few extra minutes to showcase several samples:
*“Ooo… tell us what you did here! Where did you get that idea?”
*”What is that ‘f’ for? How did you know to write it?”
*”My goodness! Could you please explain how you made that roller coaster - just in case we want to try one ourselves?”
After each child shares, we all clap and cheer. As I get to know these children over the coming days - the hesitant ones, the artistic ones, the train-loving ones, the ones with some knowledge of books, I’ll look for picture books to engage and inspire them. Once we share meaningful experiences and enjoy some laughs together, I’ll know even more what will drive them to write.

But, this is how I start it all - this introduction of Writing Workshop to a bunch of little kids on the first day of kindergarten. This is what our new life as authors will be like:
*We’ll be inspired.
*We’ll try some things together.
*We’ll work on some things by ourselves.
*Then, we’ll finish by sharing our writing with our friends - which will inspire others.
Every. Single. Day.
(One thoughtful child notices, “It’s like a great, big circle. A circle of writing!”)
And this hesitant, messy, sweet start will be enough for now.
After all, they’re just five.

(I'm thankful to have gleaned so many wonderful ideas from amazing teachers, small and tall, near and far - particularly Dr. Heidi Mills and all my colleagues at the Center for Inquiry in Columbia, SC as well as Lucy Calkins, Katie Wood Ray and Lisa Cleaveland.)