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.)

Friday, March 23, 2018

What a Kindergarten Looks Like

My question: “What draws you to choose a book? Do you flip through it? Look at the cover? Read the book jacket?”
Sweet Sally declares, “Bekus it is the tim.
Her mom asked her what that meant. “Because it is the time,” she shared. “I chose to read ‘The Block Party’ because yesterday I went to a birthday party.” She shrugged her shoulders and smiled.

Intriguing thoughts coming from a five-year-old, aren’t they? Rather than giving a traditional response we might expect, Sally embraced the question with her open-minded approach to life. Her simple answer took me off guard.

Yet, it made such sense! Sally’s reflection propels my similar, simple thinking about what my K/1 classroom should look like. Of course, our room should look like our “times” and our calendars as well as our curriculum, interests and passions. Beyond picture book covers, our writing samples and work spaces should be overflowing with our current content.

*If we’re studying plants, we should collect and sort specimens, living and learning as botanists.
*If we’re studying three-dimensional shapes, we should manipulate geometric shapes and build structures, living and learning as architects.  
*And, if we’re studying photography, we should question and observe, live and learn as photographers do.Through taking on these different perspectives, children’s awareness grows. They truly feel a need to know information related to their discipline. Learning about botany, architecture or photography becomes an authentic and valued part of our lives – and the lives of our families.

A Closer Look at One Unit of Study - Photography -
& How It Impacts Our Classroom Appearance
*Even as we teach reading, we learn to read about “how to take pictures” through nonfiction books on photography. As we flip pages in picture books or books using photography for illustrations, we notice the compelling moves illustrators make.
*While we practice writing concepts, we describe the lives of notable photographers or their typical subjects to photograph. We see ourselves as illustrators - trying out different ideas we’ve culled from inspiring books. Both collaborative books designed by the whole class and individually-crafted books reflect our growing knowledge and interest.
*Math skills of counting money, scheduling appointments and organizing data are evident in engaging ways at our photography studio and later, in our photo booth. Cash registers, appointment books, calendars and organizers flow from the dramatic play area. (One perfect, authentic observation is on School Picture Day where children observe the photographer in action, the set-up, equipment, even the footprints taped to the floor! Taking photographs of the photographer at work propels substantive talk later.)

*In the science museum, cameras, film reels, negatives and a light table draw children over alongside sketch pads and magnifying glasses. Science & social studies abound in nonfiction books, child-made posters, class journals and children’s writings. Such topics include:
        +The history of cameras
        +Lives of famous photographers (Ansel Adams, Snowflake Bentley)
        +How cameras work
        +How-to narratives on ‘using different features on cameras”
*Perhaps the most significant touchstone of this study is the children’s real work as photographers themselves. Daily in the morning meeting, we showcase and talk about a photograph from a professional photographer. As children build on their understandings, we apprentice ourselves to our teacher assistant/photography expert, observing her and then being guided as we take our own photos at school. Of course, before we know it, children are taking photos at home and sending them via email to show on our large white board. We begin focusing on our individual work as photographers and how each of us is growing and changing. At each child’s turn as “photographer of the day,” they showcase their work, commenting on the moves they made as they created their snapshots. Sally and her friends are continually inspiring other classmates to broaden their own work.

You can imagine how the room begins changing as the content deepens. When teachers teach reading, writing, math and more by immersing their learners in rich study (of plants, architecture, photography or whatever), authentic questions arise. These questions result in more artifacts brought from homes, more noticings in the real world, and more awareness of the subject through technology and more authentic learning. Of course, these burgeoning resources fill our classroom devoted to such in-depth studies. So, just as Sally enlightened us all because it was the time, we are surely changed as readers, writers, thinkers, creators, historians, scientists and photographers.

As one unit of study concludes, the room begins changing again… Can you guess what our next inquiry will be?

Please share an example of a study that has changed your world.

Monday, March 12, 2018

What Do Children Love?

How could high heels help my kindergartners learn?
Quiet Brooke determined her love for shoes would change us all. Because her mom strongly supported her, they found facts galore.
*Did you know men were the first heel wearers?
*High heels were made of a variety of materials.
*They use a system of sizes, widths, lengths and definitely heights.
*Her compelling closure was showcasing several pairs of heels before demonstrating the proper way to walk.

One of my favorite lifetime memories was the day several weeks later when our kids were highlighting their passion projects in front of our whole school. In those days, we were a school of portables built around a large outside gathering arena. This arena had a wooden stage with rows of benches flanked by trees.

Picture Brooke, auburn ringlets of hair, clonking up to the microphone. As with each kindergartner, the audience of first through fifth graders, teachers, assorted parents and visitors all leaned forward, smiling with anticipation for yet another inventive way of learning. Brooke shared about the first high heel wearers (as a historian) and the variety of materials, the sizes and more (as mathematicians and scientists). 

“And now, I’m gowing to demonstwate the pwoper way of walking in high heels…” Brooke looked into her audience and smiled, twirled her full skirt and turned towards me. During her third step, that beloved shoe hit a bowed board the wrong way and sent her tumbling. The crowd gasped audibly. I jerked forward and made the best catch of my life, catching a flying five-year-old in my arms - as delicately and poised as I could manage. While we squealed, laughed and hugged, there actually wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

Our district superintendent, wiping away a tear himself, made a remark later about our school being a unique place where all learned while using everything. Pretty significant compliment! Because not only had we all learned a bit about the history of shoes; but, we witnessed a shy child become a huge risk-taker and end up becoming a champion of our Learning Celebration.

Really, though. Can teachers and kids learn using anything?
When you ask little kids about their passions, you might be surprised. Sure, the usuals are there - ballet, soccer, and drawing. But, dig a bit deeper.

As responsive teachers, we help open possibilities in front of our kids. And we just never know where our curriculum may be headed next!
* Snow globes and cleaning products
* Chipotle restaurants and movie theaters
* Making blueberry muffins and taking care of a little brother.

Little kids lead interesting lives. They come to school already knowing certain things - some, academic; others, more street-smart. Hopefully, all with something they adore. They’ve watched others excel in this passion. They’ve “read” books, looking at pictures and making up words. They’ve seen things at stores or museums or even on YouTube.

When little ones cross the threshold of home to school, we continually exert “Look what you can do already! Look where you spend your time and talents and desires. Thank you for teaching us all about this passion of yours.” (If they don’t have any passions yet, this perspective gently nudges them to consider developing things in which they care and become invested.)

At school:
*Those passions guide us as teachers.
*They enlighten and inspire.
*They connect strangers and create friends.
This perspective in teaching pushes us to help kids discover their passions. Sometimes it’s noticing what they love and simply giving a name to it for them.

Often little kids (and family members) believe they show up as empty vessels, waiting to be filled. I believe though that one of our challenges as teachers is to observe closely, jotting down kidwatching notes of children’s choices of workstations and materials followed by deep reflections:
*Which books are they drawn to?
*What other mentor texts do we need to provide in our classrooms that may be just the thing this child really needs to move forward?

In continually “naming” their inclinations, we lift their interest and make it something important. We raise them from simply being another kid to being an expert on something - one from whom everybody else can learn.

This way of teaching and being isn’t for the faint-hearted though! Interesting passions invite compelling questions. It requires that we take a critical stance, examining our materials and resources to ensure that we offer equitable places of entry for all kids.
*While listening to an engaging read-aloud, one little girl piped up, “When are we gonna get to the girls in this book of scientists, Mrs. Barnes?”
*Similarly, years ago, Purushotham begged me, “I want to read about people like me… and don’t say Gandhi again. I already know about him. There’s gotta be more than Gandhi!”

Not just books about people and nations. But, books about stuff.
When Devin wanted to share his snow globe collection and Brooke’s heart beat at the thought of high heels, I had to creatively approach my classroom library to figure out how I could elevate their loves to something being worthy of spending money on (if I could find it!) And, if we couldn't find it, perhaps we could write it ourselves!

This notion of lifting up children for their interests and desires involves:
*our classroom libraries
*our rotating dramatic play areas
*our exploration time manipulatives.
But, it takes over even more, bringing a flood of home-made, paper props and child-created class books. Children even change their language. (Playing with beads as jewelers? Learning with seashells as oceanographers?)

So, yes. We do study snow globes.
*As historians, we wonder who first created them.
*As mathematicians, we work with large collections of snow globes.
*As scientists, we figure out the right solution for making them work.
*As artists and makers, we create and design our own.

Then, we move on... to learning about restaurants and child-sized cleaning products. Yes, we truly all learn something from each child’s love.

What memory of a child’s passion stirs your heart still? Consider how that love might have impacted learning. Please share your stories, thoughts and questions...