Last-Minute Kindergarten: Distilling What Matters Most

Hi, there! Mary Wade back again for a quick post as promised on Twitter a few weeks back:

Jumping from teaching 5th grade to kindergarten certainly made for a steep learning curve in those first several weeks, intensified by the fact that everyone in my family has taken turns passing around various illnesses ever since school started.

But now that things have finally settled down and I’m feeling more like myself as a teacher again, I’d like to share some insights. When necessity forces us to keep things simple, what matters most? We already know the answer, of course: relationships, relationships, and more relationships.

That was not really a surprise. But what did surprise me was what does not matter as much. It turns out that contrary to what Pinterest or other pressures might have us thinking, being a kindergarten teacher does not require…

love of crafts (nope; hands-on exploration through centers is my jam)

Our Look Closer Center is probably my favorite.

Perfect handwriting (I really thought this would be so much more important for kindergarten as they are learning to form letters, but it’s just been a great chance for me to revisit my own letter formation!)

Haha, one of my favorite discussions on the year so far! We wanted to know the difference before practicing writing our letters and numbers in shaving cream. I definitely did not anticipate the conversation would go this direction, but that’s kindergarten for you!

Drawing skills for labeling everything (kids are more than willing to help with this, and it creates more shared ownership anyway).

I love our class calendar. Students draw pictures representing each day on halves of index cards and then staple them up. They are always so proud of their shared work.
A few students volunteered to draw pictures of the different emotions and problem-solving strategies we generated together.

Every manipulative or tool under the sun (I felt crushed at first under the weight of things advertised at LakeShore Learning; I since have learned that an exacto-knife + recycled cardboard can make letter tiles on the cheap in a much more environmentally-friendly manner, anyway). However, I would be remiss if I did not give a shout-out to my many incredible and generous family members and friends that donated all sorts of beautiful supplies and furniture to get my room assembled nearly overnight!

I didn’t have student whiteboards, but I did have dry-erase sentence strips, clipboards, and a basket. Viola! Student whiteboard for practice writing.
My classroom on the first day of school, thanks to the hard work of many family and friends.

Posters for everything under the sun, waiting and ready for kids (turns out, the kids pay more attention to things they help create anyway; and it really is OK to build things up slowly over time. I have had many moments where I felt the impulse to prepare something for students, but then realized that it would be a more meaningful learning experience to co-construct it).

This poster is full of “sneaky letters” students have found or made that I snap a photo of. It kind of makes me crazy that it skips around and is incomplete, but it’s been an excellent exercise for me to let go and let the students take the lead!
We talked about the different kinds of stories people make during writing workshop, and I drew pictures of students’ ideas; I ended up printing the photo of this discussion, and it is now posted by our writing workshop cart for students to remember possible picture stories.

Signing my contract to teach kindergarten 6 days before school started was one of the crazier things I’ve ever done in my life. But now, I’m grateful for the way that it forced me to let go of less-important extras, and to focus on co-construction, sustainability, and ultimately, better work-life balance for me and more ownership for students.

What are the most important elements that have distilled in your room over the years? What are you glad you’ve let go of? How have these decisions improved what matters most for you and your students?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

How “Use Your Resources” Shaped My Classroom

“How do you spell _________?”

“What resources could you use to decide?”

“My pencil broke.”

“Could you use your resources to be a problem-solver?”

“I don’t get what we’re supposed to do at this point in our writing.”

“I bet you could use your resources to figure that one out.”

This was one of my go-to phrases with my students. But it wasn’t one of those silver bullet, use-this-and-the-kids-will-do-more-themselves kind of phrase. It took quite a bit of behind-the-scenes effort.

For one thing, there was a lot of ongoing dialogue behind it. 

We would discuss what it meant to be a problem-solver. I would always tell my students, “You may solve your problems in any way that doesn’t cause problems for you or anyone else.” For some, it took months before I could fully convince them that I meant it — for instance, that they could, in fact, use the bathroom without asking as long as they weren’t causing problems.

I would also continually spotlight when students would solve their problems in particularly creative ways, and would praise students for using resources effectively.

For another, I worked to set up a resource-rich environment that students felt comfortable using freely.

Whenever I gave any verbal instructions, I also wrote them on the board so they had that reference. Whenever we worked to uncover new writing or math tools, we wrote our strategies on anchor charts and then posted them as resources to check on. Whenever I brought in new supplies, I told my students about them and asked where would be the most effective storage place.

And perhaps most importantly, I worked to listen to student voice.  

They were always full of remarkable ideas for using and creating resources I hadn’t thought of.  The easy part of listening to student voice was keeping a suggestion box that we would review during weekly class meetings. The hard part was letting go to truly honor that voice by allowing sometimes imperfect or messy ideas to move forward.

After all, if “use your resources” meant they were only permitted to use my resources, or to solve problems within my set of solutions, I wasn’t actually cultivating an environment of student ownership. Real autonomy comes when those in charge don’t pretend they have all the answers.

I was certainly an imperfect executor of this ideal, but I’m enjoying the way I can use my current resources to learn more from my PLN to return to the classroom with a greater commitment to student voice, choice, and ownership.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Why & How to Abolish “Can I Go to the Bathroom?”

The way we handle one of our students’ most basic needs can reflect a lot about the degree to which we cling to control. Not only does this topic take a lot of honest self evaluation, but it requires genuine empathy for each of our students.

Why?

unnecessary interruption

When students are required to raise their hand to ask to use the bathroom, it often disrupts the flow of a discussion.  And with intercom announcements, drills, and more, don’t we have enough interruptions anyway? 

Domino effect

Particularly with younger students, a restroom announcement from one student often triggers several more deciding to go unnecessarily. This turns a simple, individual routine into a larger disruption to learning.

humiliation factor

We probably don’t need to list all the circumstances that may require a person to visit the bathroom more frequently than others.  And because those circumstances are often deeply personal and sometimes embarrassing, forcing students to raise their hand each and every time can be humiliating for some, and perhaps debilitating for others.  Students have enough on their shoulders without the added anxiety of whether they’ll be able to discreetly take care of their bodily functions.

Student autonomy


We often worry so much about our responsibility as teachers to keep tabs on all our students that we lose sight of their capacity. However, with some training and discussion, the majority of our students can handle the simple social contract of only using the restroom when needed, and to monitor appropriate timing to do so.  If you’re worried about them getting up in the middle of instruction, tell them that. Explain the concern that they will miss important instructions, and encourage them to utilize independent or group work time. Explain the privilege and associated accountability with this autonomy. And of course, continue to keep an eye out to pick up on misuse and possible intervention. See ideas for this in the tips below.

Put yourself in their shoes

We may think we’re teaching them responsibility to check in with you first. We may think we’re teaching them time management to tell them to just go during their breaks. But in the end, we must honestly ask ourselves the tough questions: how would we feel to work in an environment where we had to check in with someone each time we needed to go?  How would our concentration be impacted? What messages are we sending to our students when we strictly control their bathroom use?

How?

  • If you’re coming from a place of more thorough bathroom-use monitoring, start by opening up the conversation with your students. Arrange a class meeting and ask students how they would feel about a new bathroom procedure that allows them to take care of things without coming to you. Discuss the functions of trust, responsibility, and safety, both during that meeting, and throughout the year.
  • Set alternative requirements that will still fulfill your responsibilities as a teacher.  For instance, stipulate that students must put an object on their desks, such as a bottle of hand sanitizer, to indicate they have left (win-win). Another idea is to further require that only one boy and one girl may be absent simultaneously to avoid group bathroom hangouts.  

via 3rdGradeThoughts
via 3rdGradeThoughts

  • Really ask yourself, is one of  your main worries that they’re going to the bathroom just to escape? If so, ponder what you can do about your classroom environment or practices to make your room a more desirable place to be.
  • For students who are accustomed to total teacher control, they may view this new privilege as a continuation of the “me vs. teachers” game they’ve learned.  If this happens, work with that individual student, reminding him or her about trust.  You may find it necessary to create an individual system for that one student (small check-out sheet, etc), but make sure you do not punish the entire class for the lack of responsibility of just a couple students.

featured image: Sam Breach