Saturday, December 24, 2011

I keep this moment by and by...

I have a skirt I wear every year, on Christmas Concert Day. Wool, A-line, bias-cut. Simple, almost old fashioned. It hits just below my knee. It's plaid, mostly dark green and navy blue, with a bright line of red criss-crossing over. With a ruffly white blouse and a red cardigan, it makes me feel festive without descending into the dangerous territory of Christmas sweaters.
But that is not the real reason I wear this skirt.

The plaid happens to be my family's tartan, and while we don't identify particularly strongly with my Scottish heritage (the circus folk and Swedish royalty being far more interesting), I do like having a tartan to call my own.
But that is not the reason I wear this skirt, either.

The fabric is the real deal, bought in Scotland by my Auntie Billie, sewn into a skirt for her by my grandma. And THAT is, sort of, the reason I wear this skirt.

My Auntie Billie was my dad's oldest (but not older) sister, and the mother of my favourite cousin. She was a tiny lady, with a great big laugh. I spent most of my childhood hearing how very much I looked like my Auntie Billie when she was a little girl, and the comparison delighted me. Her first career was as a hairdresser. She gave me my first haircut (and also my first perm, but I have long since forgiven her for that). My favourite photo of her shows her bent over my three-year-old head, creating tiny ringlets for my very important job as a flower girl in my other Auntie's wedding. I remember that day, sitting on the ottoman in my grandma's living room, Auntie Billie's fingers gentle in my hair, the sound of her laughing with her soon-to-be-wed younger sister. Later, at the wedding itself, I was suddenly too shy to walk down that very long aisle under the gaze of all those people. Auntie Billie, the maid of honour, came back down the aisle, and took my hand. We walked together to the front of the church.

Auntie Billie's second career, and true calling, was as a teacher. At first, she taught high school beauty culture, but it wasn't long until she found her niche with first and second graders at a high-needs school. Eventually, she became a vice-principal, helping to create an innovative year-round school program, the first of its kind in our city. She was a force to be reckoned with: passionate, articulate, stubborn, and oh-so-very funny.  You can see why comparisons to her continue to delight me.

The year I met the first group of kids to call me "teacher," Auntie Billie lost a seven-year battle with breast cancer.

I cried and grieved for her then. I knew I would miss her gentle smile, her hands reaching to hug me, the thoughtful and "just right" gifts that came at birthdays and Christmas, her genuine interest in all parts of my life, her laugh-till-you-cry stories about her students. I was old enough to know that not everyone grew up with a gaggle of aunties and uncles as loving and close as mine. I grieved for myself, yes, but also for my family as a whole: the loss of a sister, a mother, a daughter. But I didn't know yet...

I didn't know, yet, that my own career path would wind its way ever-closer to hers, and that, at every milestone, her absence would sting a little more sharply. As I started grad school, and began thinking and learning about children and families in a whole new way, I wished for her to sit next to me when I came home for holidays, and help me make practical sense of the dense research papers I was reading. When I got my first job teaching in a school (as opposed to a child development centre, rec centre, or community service agency), I wished for her to help me figure out the logistical realities of teaching two grades in one room, and the slippery alchemy of Teaching Children to Read. When I found myself at an unexpected professional crossroads, deciding between a job I didn't want, in a school community I loved; and a new, scary, dream job at a strange new school, I wished for her counsel (I took the dream job, and I'm sure Auntie Billie would approve.) Now, as I struggle every day to balance my students' day-to-day needs with the ever-increasing list of exciting-but-demanding additional responsibilities I seem to have taken on, I wish for her more than ever.  I wish for her to hold my hand as I dance this dance, and walk this path. At 22, I cried for the loss of my beloved Auntie. A dozen years later, I cry for the mentor and cheerleader I know she would have been. It continues to surprise me, this grief that gets sharper, instead of smoother, over time.

I know she is with me, and I find ways to keep her close. A photo of her with her hands tweaking my tiny ringlets sits on my desk at home. The dedication page of my Master's thesis lists her name. Nearly every day, I wear a small gold heart on a chain around my neck, a gift from her younger sister, to her, and back to me upon completion of grad school. Occasionally, I run into old friends of hers, or my dad's, and the first thing they do is gasp at how much I am like my Auntie Billie. I hear her laugh coming out of my mouth when I tell my best teaching stories. I know she is proud, and in case I ever forget it, her siblings -- my dad and my godmother -- remind me of that on a regular basis. But still, I wish she were here, and I wish that the hardest on the days I am most proud: of myself, and my students.

And so, on concert day, I wear Auntie Billie's skirt. I am not as tiny as she was, and so it has to sit high on my waist. The blouse and cardigan help cover this adjustment. As I kneel on the gym floor, helping 20 five-year-olds to remember the words and the steps, I'm pretty sure Auntie Billie is kneeling next to me. I wear her skirt, and I laugh her laugh, and I cry her tears of pride, and I hope that just maybe, when my students take my hand, they feel the love of her hands, too.

Peace on Earth.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

So you want to tweet with kindergarten...

Welcome! Please visit the updated version of this post here:

So, based on the response I have had to my recent media exposure, it seems that another how-to post is in order. Many people have asked me how to get started tweeting with young students, and honestly, the responsibility of guiding you through this is sort of daunting. To simply tell you: "Set up an account and go!" is woefully inadequate, and possibly negligent. As I have described in previous posts, my own decision to tweet with kindergarten was slow, thoughtful, deliberate. Your decision should be, too. With that said, this is my attempt to walk you through Twittergarten (as it has been coined by a reporter I know...). This process remains equally true if you are tweeting with any grade level, by the way, so don't be turned off by the frequent kinder-references. Also: I stand by my statement that this is not a how-to blog. I don't think I tweet with kindergarten any BETTER than anyone else.  This is just how I do it, and this is the only way I can, in good conscience, advise you to do it.**An opening sidebar: The process below is meant for teachers who are looking to tweet with multiple other classes, using connections they have made for themselves. If you are tweeting with just one other class, in the context of Kindergarten Around the World, I'm not sure that ALL of these steps are strictly necessary, and some of them have been done for you, by me. In fact, Kindergarten Around the World would be a great way to start tweeting with your class, and then move on to tweeting with multiple classes. End of sidebar.**

Step 1 - Get on Twitter yourself. I cannot emphasize this enough. If you are not active on Twitter yourself in a professional capacity, I'm not sure that it is responsible for you to start tweeting with your class. From perspectives both technical and ethical, I believe it is important in this situation for teachers to KNOW the medium. Create a personal account, start building a network. Start with me, @happycampergirl, if you don't have anyone else to start following. Other good choices are @hechternacht (my partner in #kinderchat crime, more on that in a  second), and other #kinderchat stars: @matt_gomez, @mr_fines, @mathmurd @tori1074, @havalah. Follow us, interact with us (we're nice, I promise), get a feeling for who is who and what is what. Follow links, read some blogs (and comment, too!), make some friends. Participate in a chat or two (the Newbie's Guide to KinderChat is here, and holds true for other chats, too). This is important for several reasons: a) you will learn HOW to interact on Twitter; b) you will develop some instincts for who your "people" are, and when something is just not right; c)people will get to know you and trust you, which you will need once you start tweeting with your class and are requesting to follow other teachers' classes. Let's put it this way: I do not accept follow requests for my class if I have never interacted with their teacher, and (to be completely honest) my class interacts more with the classes of teachers I know well.

(And, all of this aside: even if you do not want to  or cannot tweet with your class, get yourself on Twitter. It is truly the greatest, free PD you will ever find. If #kinderchat doesn't float your boat, find a chat that does. There are chats for most grades and subject areas. @cybraryman has a great guide, here.)

2 - Think through the logistics and reality of tweeting with your class: When will you do it? Do you have the technology? I honestly can't imagine tweeting with my class without having an Interactive White Board. If you don't have one, how will you facilitate students' interactions? (A good PLN can help you figure this out, by the way.) When in your day can you work it in? Twitter is only meaningful if your kids are building relationships with other kids, and that means tweeting regularly. Are you, yourself, completely sold on this medium as a meaningful tool for young children? (Obviously, I am, but you need to draw your own conclusions on this). Read some of the criticisms, here, and here, and think about them, please. 

3 - Figure out your curriculum connections. What are your goals for tweeting with your class? These will provide you a road map for how you will use twitter in your classroom. Are you focusing on geography and social studies? Literacy and literature? Second language development? Math and numeracy? Intercultural awareness and internationalism? It is okay if your answer is "all of the above!", just be sure you know where you are going.  Again, there are teachers around the world who are using Twitter for all of these things, and being active on Twitter yourself will help you find them.

4 - Talk to your administrators. I want to be clear that, while tweeting with kindergarten seems  to be considered cutting-edge, and, in some eyes, makes me some kind of rebel (if I figure out what exactly I am rebelling against, I will let you know), my boss (and her boss) has always been completely, 100% aware and supportive of what I am doing. Another good reason to be active on Twitter yourself is that it will help you build your case with your admins. Long before I wanted to tweet with my class, my boss knew about all the great ideas and support I was getting from teachers I knew through Twitter.

5 - With your boss's help, think through privacy and security questions. Will you tweet photos/video/audio that shows your students? Your classroom? Your school? How will you identify your students? Full names? First names? Initials? Can you/should you name your school and/or city?  Will your class account be private or protected (I highly recommend private to start, but I know of classes for whom a public account best meets their goals, and I know their teachers are handling safety and privacy very well.) Who will you follow? Who will be allowed to follow you? A good PLN can help you think through these things, and share samples of their own policies/consent forms (are you starting to notice a pattern, here?)

6 - Talk to your students' parents, preferably face to face. Even if your school already has a photo/video/online release policy that covers the use of Twitter (this is pretty unusual, by the way), talk to parents and get their written consent. My students' parents KNOW what we are doing, they signed written consent forms, and about 1/3 of them are following our class. Before I created my class account last year, I added twitter to my agenda for our November parent-teacher conferences. I explained it to parents, encouraged them to talk/think about it, and to follow-up with me with any questions or concerns.

7- When ALL of this is done, and (as my grad school advisor would say:) all of your ducks are in a row: create your class account. Share your screenname with your admins and your students' parents.  Use DMs (a DM is a direct, private message on Twitter) to share your class screen-name with teachers you know and trust through twitter, yourself. My class's screenname rarely appears in the public stream on Twitter, because I don't want to field follow requests from spammers or people I don't know. I share our screenname only via DM. With your students' help and input, write your twitter bio, choose an avatar, and send your first tweet. 

With that, you are off to the races. I trust that you are all competent teachers, and capable of creating your own activities, organizational systems, and management tricks (although I'm happy to share my own, if you ask.) If all of this sounds a little confusing, and you are wondering why I kept putting a "#" in front of kinderchat, and you're still not sure how a DM is different from a regular tweet, well.... I would suggest you are not ready to tweet with your class. There are lots of situations where I am completely in favour of learning alongside our students, but, given the attention span of 5-year-olds, and the (manageable, but still present) risks of a social media environment, my position here is that Twitter is not one of those. 

For perhaps the 347th time: If you want to get your class on Twitter, you need to get yourself on Twitter, first.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

From the lake, from the hills, from the sky...

I originally wrote this in May of 2009, and posted it over on my personal blog (which  is private for now, as I wrestle with losing the last shreds of my online anonymity). I'm re-posting it here, because I am proud of it, because it is true, and because, every time I have a success as a teacher,  it makes me reflect on the things that MADE me this teacher.  There is no underestimating the impact of 12 summers of camp life, and the family I found there. Because of camp, I am This Person, This Woman, This Teacher... And I am so very very grateful.

Because of Camp:

  1. My class sings Grace before lunch.
  2. and that grace thanks "the earth" instead of "The Lord."
  3. I know how to start a diesel truck.
  4. I have watched animals being born.
  5. I always know a song when one is called for
  6. and I'm not afraid to sing in public, as long as I have children singing backup.
  7. The stars at night are the most magical sight in the world.
  8. The people who know me best live 2500 km away
  9. so I know what it means to have friendships that are immune to time and distance
  10. and I know that the word family can refer to people you CHOOSE.
  11. The things I am most proud of in my life are not things at all, but young adults, scattered all over the world, doing amazing and inspirational things with their lives.
  12. I say "ten-four" at the end of phone conversations.
  13. I refer to the first day of school as "Opening Day"
  14. And to the teacher-prep time before it as "Staff Week."
  15. I actually think it is my job to clean up messes that I find, even if I didn't make them,
  16. Which means that every time there's puke on the floor of the girls' bathroom, I am the one getting the mop.
  17. I refuse to allow my students to say the words "you can't play with us."
  18. I feel a moral obligation to take children outside as often as weather permits.
  19. I organized a "puddle play" day, where my students were allowed and encouraged to play in the muck that covered our playground.
  20. I believe in teaching children actual skills, so that they can proudly complete the sentence "I am good at..."
  21. I believe that being a good friend is a skill that can be taught.
  22. Whether it's a trip, a party, or a lesson, I plan the details in advance, but am always ready to punt.
  23. I truly appreciate when food is prepared for me by someone else, and served with a smile.
  24. I know that any task is bearable if you are doing it with someone you like, and who makes you laugh.
  25. And that sometimes, doing a nasty chore with a stranger is a good way to become friends.
  26. I don't tell my boss I have a problem. I tell her when I have solved a problem.
  27. I know that the things that are the most fun make the biggest messes.
  28. And if I was involved in the fun, I should be involved in the cleanup.
  29. I remind myself every day that the children are not an interruption of my job. They ARE my job.
  30. I know that chances are that someone higher up is working harder than me, just to ensure that I get a break, and my day goes smoothly.
  31. I know that there are parts of my boss's job that I know nothing about.
  32. I do not underestimate the the threat posed by bored children.
  33. My dog of choice was a chihuahua,
  34. and I know how to remove ticks from his fur without him even noticing.
  35. John Denver makes me cry.
  36. I know that "the boom" is not a loud noise, a gris-gris is not a birdcall, and a girth extender is not... a marital aid.
  37. I know the secret meaning of "The ranch in Taylorsville."
  38. my best stories start with "Let's recap."
  39. I can sell ice to Eskimos!
  40. I get misty when someone calls me "Babe."
  41. It is extremely difficult for me to date someone if I haven't seen his resume and checked his references.
  42. I am far less likely to be a helicopter parent.
  43. I have very high standards of supervision when it comes to young children,
  44. And even higher ones when it comes to teenagers.
  45. I know that the best cure for burnout is sometimes to work harder.
  46. It takes me less than 3 minutes to fall asleep at 1:00 in the afternoon.
  47. I carry a clipboard anytime I want to exude authority.
  48. I find the humour, even in the darkest, most frustrating and painful moments of working with children.
  49. I have been given the very best gift by the very best of friends: the opportunity to love and be loved by their children.
  50. I have friendships that leave me weak with gratitude and admiration and joy, the kind of friendships that people write books about. You know who you are. I love you.

If you are someone who makes charity donations during the holiday season, please consider donating to the Coppercreek Camp Memorial Scholarship fund, which helps provide children with an amazing and magical summer camp experience.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Scrapbook is not a verb: How to Use Evernote for Student Portfolios

Welcome! Please visit the updated version of this post at 

So, the thing is... this is NOT a "how-to" blog. I've never really been comfortable with the idea of using my blog to explain my tools, tips, routines, rituals, in great detail. It always somehow feels like bragging. Don't ask me how TWEETING about some new trick (something I do all. the. time.) doesn't feel like bragging, but it just doesn't. Maybe because Twitter is a conversation, so sharing something there feels more like TALKING? And writing a blog post seems more like hanging a poster saying "Look at me, I am so awesome?" Does that even make sense? Writing a "how to" here seems so much like saying "Behold the brilliance that is me!" Ick. I also tend to not like most "how-to" teacher blogs, for the very same reason. Of course, if you are reading this, and you write a "how-to" teacher blog, I don't mean YOU. YOUR BLOG, I LOVE.

Ok, great, I am not even up to the how-to part, and I have already probably offended half of you. So, let's just pull out all the stops here: BEHOLD THE BRILLIANCE THAT IS ME, while I tell you all about How I Use Evernote for Student Portfolios, and You Can, Too.

Back-story: This School has portfolio-based assessment as part of our 3-year strategic plan, and we decided that this year was The Year that every teacher at every grade level would include portfolios in our assessment strategy.

More back-story: Up until now, the kindergarten teachers at my school have always done scrapbooks for the students, containing art projects, work samples and photos. I have always been HORRENDOUSLY TERRIBLE at doing these, because I am one of those people who doesn't think that scrapbook has any business being a verb, and I just feel like, if parents want a nice souvenir scrapbook of kindergarten, they are WELCOME to make one. At home. On their time. Because making a cute scrapbook for each kid is 110% NOT FUN FOR ME. (See? Now I have also offended the scrapbookers out there, haven't I?) Oh, my glee, why do you people even put up with me?

Ok, so: we needed portfolios, I wanted a way out of scrapbooks (not a verb, not a verb, not a verb). Even before we decided this was Portfolio Year, I had begun playing around with Evernote. Evernote is an app, downloadable for free, to computers, tablets, and most Smart-type-phones. I installed it on my Macbook, and my Android phone, and, when my school gave me an iPad to play with over the summer, I put it on there, too. (Quick disclaimer: I have the paid, premium version of Evernote, and have been using for long enough that I am no  longer sure which features are in the free version, and which are only available with a paid account. Basically, if you are considering using it for student portfolios, you need the paid version because you need the extended memory and (believe me) you WANT the capacity to add video clips. If more than one teacher at your school is going to use it, the best value is to set up a sponsored, group account, for education.)

Evernote is such a broad-based app that it is hard to describe it in a general way. Basically, it allows you to create digital notebooks for any topic that interests you. Within each notebook, you can add notes that may be:
  • text (typed right into the app on whatever device you choose)
  • photos 
  • audio clips
  • web clips (there is a web-clipper tool that allows you to insert a link or an entire webpage into an Evernote notebook)
You can also add attachments to your notes, of nearly any file type: Word, Excel, PDF, Powerpoint, video. Notebooks can be shared with other users, so, for example, specialist teachers can add their own notes, photos, work samples to student files. More on that later.

So, I first started using it to document my own teaching, because I am fantastically gifted at teaching an amazing lesson by the seat of my pants, and then being unable to replicate it the following year. I created Evernote notebooks for each unit/theme, and as we did different activities, I:
  • took photos of completed projects/crafts/writing activities, etc
  • took photos of bulletin board displays or whiteboard setups that worked (or didn't)
  • used my phone to text notes into Evernote notebooks about how to change/modify/improve/adapt an activity or lesson in the future.
The reason Evernote was so great for this was that I could walk around the classroom with my phone, open the app, go into the "Butterflies" notebook, take a picture, text a caption, and then IT AUTOMATICALLY SYNCED TO ALL MY OTHER DEVICES. There is no "take a photo, e-mail it to self, save the photo attachment, create a new note, re-attach the photo." The photo and/or text are automatically filed in the right place, and (assuming wifi is present), almost INSTANTLY available on every device to which you have installed the app. Nearly a year into using the app, this still seems like magic to me.

Access anywhere.

The leap from there to student portfolios was a short one. At the beginning of this year, I created an Evernote notebook for each student in my class. Throughout the day, I walk around with my iPad (I much prefer the iPad to the phone, but I suspect that is because the keyboard on my Android phone is downright hateful), and take notes in the kids' notebooks. For art projects, I make sure to take a photo of the process as well as the product. For journal writing, I take a photo of the journal page, and then add audio of the child reading what he/she has written (audio recordings can be added directly to notes, within the Evernote app). I take notes about activities students particularly enjoy, pics of completed lego/sandbox/playdough creations, notes on social skills or behaviour patterns. I also take "souvenir" photos of special occasions: first day of school, birthdays, lost teeth, Halloween, etc. Everything is filed in each child's notebook. Evernote also allows you to copy a note to several different notebooks, so if a group of children complete a project, that project can appear in each child's individual notebook. Student work can also be added by scanning it as a PDF, and then attaching the PDF to an Evernote note, but I find the photo technique is faster and cleaner.

About once a week, I go into Evernote on my laptop, and "clean up" each child's notebook. I make sure the notes are clear and appropriate for parents to see, add captions to photos, delete notes that are not pertinent, and correct anything that is mis-filed (this is easy to do, just drag-and-drop). I also add tags to all my notes. Tags allow me to pull up (for example) all journal work for a particular student, or for all students.  I'm still working out the finer points of my tagging system, but I try to tag by: subject area (math, literacy, language, etc), developmental domain (gross motor, fine motor, social skills, etc), and type of content (photo, journal, audio, etc).

Last week, I had my first round of parent-teacher interviews. In the interview, I showed each parent their child's notebook, and explained that over the weekend, I would e-mail them an invitation to view their child's portfolio at home (I also encouraged them to look at the portfolio WITH their child, and am really hoping they will do so). Parents can choose to download the app, or to log in to Evernote online (this is true for me as well: if ever I was away from ALL of my devices, but needed to update a notebook, all I need is a computer with internet access, and I can log in to to to access all my notes. See? MAGIC!). My plan is to share the notebooks with parents for about 2 weeks, and then "unshare" them, so that I can continue to add new content without worrying about parents seeing typos or mis-files, or temporary notes that only make sense to me.

The next step in all of this is to bring our specialists on board. All my students have classes with our Phys Ed and Music specialists, and some of them also work with our Early Intervention teacher. With a paid Evernote account, I can share students' notebooks with those teachers, and grant them access to add content. There is also the possibility of granting access to the Speech Therapist and Occupational Therapist who work with some of my students. If (please, God, PLEASE) we were to decide to go to all-digital portfolios next year, for all grade levels (and to do so using Evernote), I could also transfer ownership of my students' notebooks over to their first grade teachers. (At least, I'm pretty sure I could. I haven't tested that out yet, but it makes sense that it would be possible.) (To clarify, Evernote is being piloted this year by me, and 2 of the first grade teachers. Other teachers are doing hard-copy portfolios, in a variety of formats.)

Evernote is not perfect. I wish that I could add video notes as easily as photo and audio. (Hey, Evernote people, if you're reading this: how about the ability to record video notes DIRECTLY from within the app, rather than having to record with a camera, download, and then attach to a note? THAT WOULD BE AWESOME!). I wish that I could create a "batch" of notes, all with the same title and tags, and then file them into appropriate students' notebooks. Example: when the children wrote Thanksgiving journal entries, I took a photo of each journal, and then had to title and tag each note individually. It would have been great to be able to create a batch of "Thanksgiving Journal" notes, all tagged with "writing" "language" "journals" "audio." (And if you are reading this, and know a way to do this, YOU HAVE A MORAL OBLIGATION TO SHARE IT IN THE COMMENTS!) I am cautious about my students' privacy, and their Evernote portfolios identify them by first name only. Their last names, birthdates, personal information, do not ever appear, nor does the name of our school.

Altogether, I love the system I have created. I love that I can access my students' portfolios from anywhere, without having to lug around a huge stack of paper. I love that I can photograph and file a whole day's worth of activities in less than 10 minutes. I love that group projects get to be included in EVERY child's portfolio, even if the project is big, messy, or three-dimensional. As a French immersion teacher, I love that the audio note feature allows me to document my students' budding language skills, and play it back over and over to assess their pronunciation. As a kindergarten teacher, I love that it allows to me use and document assessment tasks that are play-based and age appropriate (rather than being limited to paper-and-pencil activities and/or standardised tests.) I love that going through a child's portfolio has the potential to educate parents about not only their own child, but also about what and how and why I teach.

I love that Evernote allows me to create Kindergarten Portfolios that are both a lovely souvenir AND a record of growth and progress.

And most of all, I love that it allows me to do all of this WITHOUT using scrapbook as a verb.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Quite some time ago now, the Toronto Star published this article: How a Kindergarten Class Uses Twitter to Learn About the World, about my use of Twitter in my classroom.  It was tweeted and re-tweeted for a few weeks after it came out. Most of the response was overwhelmingly positive (I did a lot of blushing), but some of it was critical. Much of the criticism was along the lines of the Projects By Jen post I responded to in my own very first post about Twitter in kindergarten. This is a kind of criticism I can respect, as it comes from a place of honest reflection, and leaves room for ongoing dialogue.

One tweet, though, rankled, because it included an accusation of recklessness. I followed up with the tweeter (@ginrob_PT), and after some back-and-forth, he offered to write a blog post explaining why he thought my use of Twitter with my young students was dangerous. His post can be found here: Should Kindergarteners be Using Twitter?

I wanted to know what he had to say. I was honestly worried that he was going to present some incontrovertible evidence that tweeting with kindergarten was profoundly threatening to my students. I had already prepared myself to share the link to his post with my administrators, and to engage in a discussion that might lead to the discontinuation of our kindergarten twitter accounts. I was willing to cancel the entire Kindergarten Around the World project, which would have involved disappointing some 60 teachers all over the globe. THAT is how seriously I take my students' safety.

Seeing his post on the screen, I was relieved. There was not an argument there that I have not encountered before.  The criticisms raised were not new, not scary, not earth-shattering. Furthermore, they were not even particularly TRUE. Indeed, I found (and still find) it hard to read his post without feeling like there was some deliberate misunderstanding of what Twitter use in kindergarten actually LOOKS like. That said, as this year's round of Kindergarten Around the World begins to take flight, it seems timely for me to share my rebuttal.


Argument #1: the "Terms of Use" argument.
It's true. Twitter's previous terms of use state that users had to be over 13. Their new terms of use require that users be able to "form a binding contract with Twitter and are not a person barred from receiving services under the laws of the United States or other applicable jurisdiction. You may use the Services only in compliance with these Terms and all applicable local, state, national, and international laws, rules and regulations." These new terms of use are considerably more ambiguous than that previous "13 and older" policy; however, even if they are interpreted as conservatively as possible, and taken to mean that only adults over the age of 18 can access Twitter... my situation with kindergarten is not in violation of those terms.

I created our class account. It is linked to my e-mail address. I approve every single one of our followers, and I choose who we follow. I type every tweet we send, and I read every tweet we receive (in advance of sharing it with the children). My students are not operating a twitter account when we tweet with our friends, any more than they are driving the car when they ride in the backseat, strapped into their car seats (to be clear, they do get considerable input into which roads we follow. More on this car metaphor later). They are not being let loose on the Great Wide Internet. The account was created and is completely managed by, me, a 30-something adult. If what I am doing is violating the terms of use, than so are parents who create twitter accounts to record the cute things their young children say, and pet owners who create accounts as if their golden retriever or Siamese cat were tweeting the minute details of life in their household.

Argument #2: the "You don't really UNDERSTAND what you are DOING" argument.

This whole argument is condescending, and based on assumptions about me as a teacher and a person. Mr. Tucker never entered into dialogue with me about why/how/when I decided to use Twitter with  my students. He made no effort to get to know me as an educator or a user of social media. If you know me, if you get to know me, it becomes (I hope) very clear, very quickly, that I am a deliberate, intentional, and thoughtful, teacher and social media consumer. I do not dive into tools/toys/ideas/techniques simply because they are New! And! Shiny!, or because I talked to someone who was doing it. The decision to create a Twitter account for my class was made slowly, thoughtfully, deliberately, with much conversation with my administrators, my colleagues, my PLN, and my students' parents.  My colleagues tease me constantly about my first response to any issue: "Let me do some research."

And so, while I will not subject the entire Interwebz to the details of my process, let me just say this: I did the research, I did the reflection, I thought carefully about how/why/when to fit Twitter into our classroom culture and routines. My entire approach to teaching is tied to developmental appropriateness (backed by my graduate degree in child development), so Mr. Tucker's argument that the Twitter environment cannot be cognitively understood by 5-year-olds does not hold water with me. My students understand Twitter as a giant bulletin board, where we post notes to our friends, and they post notes back to us. They know that what we post can be seen by ALL of our friends, and that what we post therefore needs to be kind, respectful, friendly, and safe. (This, honestly, is a better understanding than most adults have of Twitter, in my experience.) We talk about internet safety and digital citizenship, and I know that they "get" it, because they go home and tell their parents how "we have to choose our words carefully so everyone understands us, and we don't have a lot of words, so we have to say what really matters most." That seems pretty clear evidence of comprehension, to me.

My reasons for using Twitter in my classroom have never included the "eventual participation" argument referenced by Mr. Tucker. That said, I think it is sadly misleading (and deliberately melodramatic) to lump social media in with drinking or sexual activity. While there is NO appropriate way for kindergarten children to participate in either one of those activities, there are many appropriate ways for young children to reap benefit from careful, thoughtful, integration of social media into the educational environment. The third activity mentioned by Mr. Tucker as something "children will eventually do" is driving, and to that comparison, I will simply say this: an argument that children should not be exposed to Twitter until they are of an appropriate age to operate it independently is analogous to saying that children should not be allowed to ride in cars as passengers until they are old enough to drive. To continue that particular analogy, it would seem to me that children who ride in cars operated by careful thoughtful drivers, and who engage in conversations about road signs, traffic laws, and safe driving habits, are better equipped to become safe drivers, themselves.

In re-reading Mr. Tucker's post, and this response, for the umpteenth time before clicking "publish," what comes to me is this: Mr. Tucker opened his criticism with a tweet accusing me of recklessness,  and his post, while perhaps more diplomatic than his original tweet, remains essentially that: an accusation. It is one thing to say: "I have done the research and reflection, and I came to a different conclusion than this person." It is entirely different to say: "Because I do not agree with this person's decision, she clearly did NOT research and reflect." The first builds a bridge to a  shared space for deeper understanding. The second builds a wall.

It is my sincere hope that this blog is, and will always be, more about bridges than walls. Respectful conversation makes us all better. Your thoughts and comments are welcome and encouraged, as always.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A long time coming.

This post has been in progress for a long time. I  have chipped away at it, a sentence here, a word there, for months. Re-reading it now, I am worried it sounds like a rant, like I am angry. And yet, not a single word of this came from a place of anger. It has all come from a place of pride, a reminder to myself to respect the work I do every single day. As early childhood professionals, we must take ourselves more seriously, before we ask parents, administrators, ed reformers, and the general public to do so. We must honour ourselves and the work that we do. We must respect our own miracles.
I teach kindergarten.  I am not cute, although my students sometimes are. I do not wear denim jumpers or Winnie the Pooh Christmas sweaters (although I mean no disrespect to my colleagues who do). I am NICE, but not in the way that means "superficially pleasant" I am NICE in the way that means GOOD, positive, kind, and genuine. I say please and thank you to adults and children alike. I keep to the right in the hallway, hold the door for the person behind me, and use an inside voice, because those are the habits I want my students to have.

I am highly educated. I have a Bachelor's degree in Education, and a Master's Degree in Child Development. My master's is a "REAL" Ivory-Tower-Academia, 2.5 yrs of full-time studies, Master's, complete with quantitative research, statistical analysis, a 100-page thesis, and publications. I got straight As in phD-level statistics classes. I collaborated on a chapter published in a highly-regarded academic book on school-readiness. I know HOW to assess children's skills, and I know that my own observations tell me more than formal assessments (note that i will not dignify the word "testing" by including it here). I read original, peer-reviewed, published research.I push my school to participate in research, and I sit with my colleagues and administrators as we pore over the results. Because I put my whole life on hold for 2.5 years of full-time studies, I have nothing but admiration for colleagues who do graduate degrees while continuing to work. I am pretty sure their path is rockier than mine was.

I know things. I know that playdough is the best way to cleanup spilled glitter. I know that a pint of water added to a sandbox changes everything. I know that some kids print better with golf pencils than with those giant kindergarten pencils. I know how to get tempera paint off a white uniform shirt while a sobbing child frets about "what mommy will say." I know that some kids need tough love and some kids need sweet love and some kids need both at the same time. I know how to give both at the same time.

I love my students. I am in the business of childcare, and I have no illusions about that. I. Care. For. Children. all day, every day. I hold hands and wipe noses and dry tears. I hand out bandaids. I kiss boo boos. I open snacks and tie shoes and zip coats. I desperately wish someone would design mittens that children can put on ALL BY THEMSELVES. I touch children constantly, because I believe too many people are afraid to touch other people's kids in a loving way. I ruffle hair and stroke cheeks and rub backs. I gather children up in my lap and let them cry all over my clean sweater.

I do not work alone. I honour their families even when I don't really understand them. I know that parents are my most powerful allies, and I believe that most parents are doing their absolute very best with the knowledge they have. I collaborate with colleagues I adore and respect and sometimes we argue and agree to disagree, but we go on respecting each other.

I am a smartass. I do sharp and true impersonations of my students and my colleagues. I laugh when kids say inappropriate things. I occasionally lapse into sarcasm that flies far over most 5-year-olds heads. I drop the occasional F-bomb with colleagues. I make a lot of jokes about drinking at work. I do NOT drink at work. Ever. Not even on field trips.

I do hard things. Before winter break in any given year, I have explained cancer, fire drills, famine, homelessness, war, and lockdown procedures to 4 and 5 year olds. After winter break, I tackle racism, environmentalism, international relations, democracy, and natural disasters.  Over apple slices and cheese strings, I moderate respectful debates over the existence of God, ghosts, monsters, heaven, elves, Santa, and the Tooth Fairy.

I make miracles every day.
What do you do?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

for the questions that don't have any answers

In my inbox, from Sarah, this morning:

I really miss those days, before everything. Those first two summers we started to know each other were the last times I remember not feeling insecure about anything at all. And being completely inside every moment.  And I often try to refer back to the confidence I had while playing Batman. :) 

So it wasn't just me. There really is a "before" and "after" in this story... 

Sarah's Story, Part 2.
(If you missed part 1, you can catch up here.)

Over the winter that followed that morning of shooting-the-sh*t on the porch, Sarah’s parents’ marriage crumbled at the hands of infidelity. I don't know what a parent's infidelity does to a child's (and, let's be honest, a teenaged girl is still, very much, a child) sense of herself in the world, but I don't believe it can possibly be good. (To say something else, just so that it is on the record: I know both of Sarah's parents, and they are both absolutely committed and loving parents to her. They adore, honour, and love their daughter, and always have. I have absolutely never doubted or questioned that. I hope that Sarah hasn't either.) I do believe that that infidelity, and its impact on the family life she had always known, burned its way into Sarah's understanding of love, relationships, monogamy, beauty, trust, honesty.  

While her home life spun out of control,  long-undiagnosed learning disabilities (including ADD) were making high school into a prison sentence. A form of dyslexia required super-human focus for Sarah to decode text, while Attention Deficit Disorder systematically eroded her focus. Sarah, always taller and broader than other girls her age, developed bulimia. All of this created perfect conditions for clinical depression to join the party. And speaking of partying, there was more than a little underage drinking and recreational drug use going on. A support group, a regimen of medications, and an alternative high school program kept Sarah treading water. While I remain forever grateful that Sarah did not, in fact, drown in that tidal wave of chemical imbalance, let's be very clear: treading water is not the same as swimming confidently. Not the same at all.

The following summer, when Sarah and her friends registered in our teen leadership programs, they truly and finally became "mine." Sarah moved into my cabin with 10 other girls, where she would stay for 3 years.  The girls were packed into that cabin like sardines, and Sarah, once again the oldest, was definitely the head sardine.  Her music played on the boombox, her posters hung on the walls, her voice resonated in the tones and vocabularies of the other girls.  She both loved and hated her role as a leader.  It made me push her harder, ask more of her than of the other girls.  We argued occasionally.  Thinking about it now, I may have been the only person to whom Sarah had ever gracefully lost an argument. 

I want to be clear: while there is no denying that Sarah brought her demons to camp with her, they did not define who she was in that setting. Camp is a much gentler, safer place than the wealthy Bay Area town where Sarah grew up. In a place where everyone is dirty, grubby, mosquito-bitten, sunburned, bruised, and scraped from bouncing around 200 acres of meadow and pond and forest and swimming pool and mountain bike trails and climbing wall, traditional California definitions of beauty begin to fade. When the only reading required is decoding a one-page schedule, to get yourself to the right activity at the right time, the burden of dyslexia gets a lot lighter. The frenetic pace of camp life might actually make ADD into an asset. And as for drugs and drinking? Well, when teenagers are so intensely supervised, and when the consequences of partaking in those things include being kicked out of your most favourite place on the planet... they become a lot less appealing. 

For much of the time at camp, Sarah shone like the sun. Being in a leadership role suited her big personality. She led 100 children in rowdy "stand-up" songs at campfire, laughing and dancing her way through multiple repetitive verses of silliness. With the help of our dance instructor, she choreographed contributions to talent nights: Thriller, The Time Warp, and others. She led Dorky Dive competitions at the pool. She played basketball with little boys.

All of that being said, there is no denying: eleven 16-year old girls in a 20 x 20 foot space adds up to lots of drama.  They cry lakes of tears and consume gallons of ink scribbling in their journals.  I rarely came to bed without finding someone sobbing, someone mad, someone placating someone else.  They would scatter into little groups:  2 or 3 on the porch, a couple on the back step, someone sitting in the dirt just up the hill, and always, always, someone who slept through it all, and someone else who pretended to sleep through it all.  Sometimes I held them and let them cry.  Sometimes I made them talk to one another instead of about one another.  And sometimes I just tucked them in to bed, refusing to hear any debates, to wipe any tears, to listen to any feelings.   I tucked those girls in the same way I had tucked in the preschoolers I babysat at home.  They were, really, just little girls.

And Sarah, the biggest of my little girls, after several months of winning the battle of bingeing and purging, was suddenly losing it again.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Splashing through the sand bar, talking by the campfire

(I am sort of skipping a week, here, but I promise to come back and do the 3rd kinderblog question. Soon!)

Kinderblog challenge, question #4:
Tell the story of one specific child, who walked into your life and changed everything.

The one child who changed everything.

Confession: This is the one and only kinderblog assignment where I have known my own answers even before publishing the question. I didn't have to think, I didn't have to choose. I knew. It would be Sarah. It has always been Sarah. It will always be Sarah. I have written about Sarah before, in other contexts. I have written TO Sarah: quick scribbled notes and epic letters. I have written FOR Sarah: reference letters and employment verification forms. Sarah, whose name is stitched so tightly onto the surface of my heart that I swear sometimes I can physically feel it. Sarah.

However, the challenging part of this was: Sarah is not some student from long ago, rendered anonymous by time and distance. Sarah, now, is a grown-up young woman, a professional in her field, building a career and a reputation for herself. Sarah is my Facebook friend. Sarah reads this blog. (Hi Sweet Girl! I love you!). So, yesterday, I wrote to her, asking permission to tell her story here.

I was fully prepared for her to say no. I had several other stories in mind if she did. I have been blessed to love and be loved by many, many, amazing kids, each of whom changed everything. Their stories are inextricably knitted into my history, and I carry pieces of them with me every day. All of them, I have loved (and continue to love). Many of them, I have liked. A handful have now grown into adults that I truly consider my friends.

But Sarah is where it all started. And so, when she promptly replied to my note, granting permission for her story to be told here, it was like a ray of sunshine came right through the computer screen and into my heart. What a blessing, indeed, to spend the better part of an afternoon reliving one of the most powerful relationships in my life....

The thing is: to do this story justice, it's going to take more than one blog post. So, for today, here is:

Sarah's Story, Part 1.

Sarah and I met at summer camp, a place we  both called home for a truly impressive number of years. I still think of it as home. I imagine Sarah maybe does, too. It makes sense that our relationship grew out of that rocky red soil, and blossomed in the high sierra sunlight, where only the toughest plants produce flowers. Camp re-wove the fabric of my life, and built the strongest friendships I have ever known. Of course I found Sarah there. Where else would I have ever found her?

I don’t  really remember being at camp without knowing Sarah, which is probably  accurate. I think she came to one of the first drama rehearsals I ever ran on that splintery outdoor stage, the first session of my first summer, when I was all of 20 years old. What I do remember is her jumping up and down, volunteering herself and her best friend, Alan, to play Batman and Robin in the script we were writing.  I know I gave them the roles, that I was at once surprised and thrilled at their enthusiasm. 

Sarah’s beauty now makes me catch my breath, brings a sting to my eyes, but that first summer, I remember her simply being tall for her age,  plain and muscular and almost stocky in the way of girls who spend a lot of  time in a swimming pool (as opposed to simply lounging next to a swimming pool), the beginnings of acne showing on her cheeks and forehead.  In the mornings I would see her trudging up dust on the road to the riding arena, and again later with dirt ground into her jeans, heat and horse dust suspended around her, an even band pressed into her hair from her helmet.  She came to drama rehearsal every afternoon, when the bright flat sun  bounced off the plywood backdrop, and made the woodchips stick to our sweaty sandalled feet.  I enjoyed having her there – laughter seemed to follow Sarah wherever she went, and she recruited her entourage of platonic male friends to join us – but her 2-week session ended and she went home and the summer went on.  I remembered her, and thought of her occasionally over the winter, but she remained simply a nice kid – a bright kid, with a quirky sense of humor and a gift for satire; a unique kid who managed to be a fourteen year old girl without really behaving like one – but still, basically, just a nice kid. She made me laugh, and she thought I was cool. It was still so early in my career that perhaps that was just what I needed -- a kid who thought I was cool.

The next summer, Sarah became a fifteen year old girl, and she fell in love.  Falling in love seemed to be the thing to do if you were in the oldest girls cabin, and Sarah, along with her 3 closest friends, did it with the same enthusiasm she had for everything else in life. The boy was Scotty – 5 feet tall to Sarah’s 5’7”, nuts about her in spite of barely being able to fit his skinny arm all the way around her waist.  They were inseparable, and, after curfew when I would creep into the girls' cabin to catch the latest camper gossip, I heard breathless stories of kisses at the shower house, and cuddling under the tarp on the backpack trip.  I spent one entire morning sitting in a square of sunlight on the side porch with Sarah and her friends: Lizzie, Anthony, Mary, Faith, Alan, Scotty.  They told me about their schools, their friends at home.  It was from them that I first learned that being a teenager with money carried its own set of stresses, issues, fears.  Sarah was older than the rest of them by a single year – a year that made her an old hand at the high school scene, and made a leader out of her, whether she wanted to be or not.  I remember her warning her friends in a wise tone about the dangers of high school life, the drawbacks of pot, the side-effects of partying too hard.  I fell in love with those kids that hot June afternoon, and perhaps they fell a little in love with me, too.  We laughed together, and I basked in the glow of their affection for me.

Obviously, the story does not stop here, but that patch of sunlight, with that circle of laughing teenagers, seems like a pretty nice place to hang out for a while. Let's enjoy it. We have some shadows to get through soon enough.

More, soon.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

telling tales and biting nails

Kinderblog summer blogging challenge, question #2! And yes, I am nearly a week late on this.

Tell us about the teacher preparation you attended. (You don't have to name the school if you don't want to.) Did you love it at the time? Did it prepare you adequately for teaching? How did you feel about it as you were in it? Does it look different now, looking back? Would you change it if you could? What did get out of it? What did you not get that you needed?

True confession time: this question has kicked my a$$ around the block for 2 weeks. I have started this story 1001 times. Cut, pasted, changed, rearranged, re-considered. I keep trying to make it A Story, with some sort of narrative describing my university experience in a coherent fashion. And I am starting to think that this is not A Story. This is 100 Stories...

I wanted to tear my undergrad program apart, because I spent hours writing fake lesson plans and digging through programs of study, without ever learning anything meaningful about the children and what I am supposed to DO with them. (Honestly, even fake, imaginary children would have been helpful.)

And then I remembered an education lab, taught by an overworked but dedicated graduate student who spent 2 whole class periods explicitly teaching us tips and techniques for writing legibly (and in a straight line!) on the whiteboard, saying she wished someone had taught her, and given her time to practice. She videotaped us writing on the board, and we critiqued one another with gentle humour and gales of laughter.

And I realised: I learned that mastering details makes the big picture a whole lot easier to deliver.

And then I thought about the kind French professor who squeezed me and 2 of my girlfriends into his already crowded section, because the prof of our assigned section -- loud, aggressive, volatile, and too-friendly with students -- made us uncomfortable.

And I realised: I learned that kindness and compassion are not incompatible with professionalism.

I wanted to rant about the education professor who gave us a pile of readings about various educational philosophers, and then assigned a paper wherein we had to choose the philosophy that worked for us. I poured my heart into dissecting each philosophy, explaining why it didn't work for me, and then articulating my *own* beliefs (which, to be clear, DID draw on some of the readings.)  That professor failed my paper because, by not choosing one of the assigned philosophers, I didn't "fulfill the requirements." What's more, according to her, my philosophy was "neither practical nor realistic."*

And I realised: I learned that if evidence of hard work, deep engagement, critical thinking, and reflection is not compatible with "the requirements," it is perhaps time to re-consider The Requirements.

I wanted to decry the irony of Education lectures so dry and boring and poorly delivered that my friends and I took turns going to class and making copies of the notes so as to minimize the wasted time.

And then I thought about the professor with incredible expertise in special-needs populations, who opened the first class by saying "I have a lot of knowledge, and the best way I know to share it is by talking to you." She delivered 60-minute lectures so articulate and engaging that we sat spell-bound for every minute of every class.

And I realised: I learned that there is more than one way to be a great teacher, and there is an art to delivering a great lecture.

And then I thought about my favourite professor, who taught us about reading and writing workshop by having us DO those workshops in her class, at our own level. We wrote our own stories, and when I wrote a narrative, bilingual, poem about my disillusionment with my undergraduate education program (of which, as I recall, she was THE CHAIRPERSON), she read it with an open mind and open heart, and gave me an A+.

And I realised: I learned that truly great teachers are truly humble, and that my own ego has no place in a classroom.

(That professor, by the way, wrote me a glowing letter to get into grad school, even though we had been out of touch for 5 years, wrote to me regularly throughout grad school, and sent flowers on the day I defended my Master's Thesis. And so I have learned that student-teacher relationships exceed the bounds of time and distance.)

I wanted to get up on my soapbox about how woefully little I learned in those 4 years that actually prepared me to teach.

And then I realised: I learned an awful lot about how to think about teaching, and how to become a person who could become a good teacher.

And maybe that is, and was, enough.

*FYI, that philosophy: "Love the child, and the rest will follow." has now carried me through 15+ years of a career working with children in a broad range of settings. It has proven to be not only practical, but permanent; not only realistic, but required.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

when the wind's blowin in your face

Ok, here I am, the one who STARTED the kinderchat summer blog challenge (info here), and yet somehow, I am the last one to actually POST my first answer. I will tell you, however, that I have been mentally composing this since before I came up with the question. As I am washing dishes, showering, driving across town, folding laundry, I am pondering, remembering, reminiscing... It has been good, making all those little trips down memory lane. I know that, by many scales, I am still early in my career, and yet there are still, tucked away into the corners of my brain and heart, so many children, so many stories...

Before I tell the story I am going to tell, I suppose it would be nice to share the question. As per the kinderchat blog, this week's question was:

Tell us the story of the first group of children for whom you were "Teacher." Maybe it was at a school, but maybe it wasn't. Maybe it was a childcare centre, or a daycamp, or a swimming pool or a dance studio or a hockey rink.  Maybe it was in your own home, or their home. Who were they? Who were you? What did it FEEL like? Maybe it was amazing. Maybe it was terrible. Either way, there is a story there. Tell it.

So, Internet, here it is: The Kids Who Made Me Teacher

When I finished my education degree, I proceeded, quickly and urgently, to NOT hunt for a teaching job. The reasons for this were both logistical -- a summer position in California, followed by a month of travel around the state, capped off by a dear friend's wedding. (If Crecky and Baig had not said their vows on a beautiful late September day in the Wine Country, this whole story might be very different) -- and emotional. The last few months of my degree were draining, and aside from one very inspiring professor, had left me sour on the whole idea of school board bureaucracy. Now, nearly 15 years after the fact, I will admit, too: the entire prospect of Applying To Work For a Big School Board, and then Being Responsible For Delivering the Program of Studies terrified me. What's more, a few summers working at sleepaway camp had shown me that there were all kinds of ways to build relationships with kids OUTSIDE of a classroom, and Relationships With Kids had always been my priority.

So, I returned from California in early October, and started the the hunt for A Job With Kids. Within a week, the local YMCA had snatched me and my over-qualifications right up, and I was a YMCA Child Development Worker. This meant I spent all day every day in a room with 12 toddlers. That's right. Me, another staff member, and ONE. DOZEN. TWO-YEAR-OLDS.

I was immediately exhausted. The childcare field being what it is (underpaid and therefore generally understaffed, with crazy high staff turnover), those kids had been through 8 teachers in 6 months. There was no routine. There was no consistency. There were no systems. There was no schedule. There was me, another adult (more on her in a second), and twelve little people with limited verbal skills, limited social skills, limited... everything. And they were ALL in diapers. My memory of the first few weeks in that room looks like a cartoon: me, sitting on a tiny chair in the middle of the floor, while the kids chased each other in circles around me, shrieking. In my mental image of that scene, there are clouds of dust rising around small, pounding feet, and the children's race around the room leads them up and over any furniture or obstacle in their path. Including, at times, me. Now, in retrospect, my rational brain knows: the children were not, IN FACT, running over the tops of all the furniture... were they? 

I knew nothing. The teacher preparation program I had attended had many wonderful qualities, but it sure didn't teach me very much about CHILDREN. Who knew that it was developmentally normal for 2 year-olds to bite each other? Who knew that they could have diaper blowouts that rival a newborn's? That their method of choice to get what they want is to disable the competition? That stressed out working parents will scream at you about a lost sippy cup? That potty-training could burn through 8 complete outfits in one day for the child, and nearly as many for me? That 12 of them can cry at the same time for 12 different, but equally mysterious reasons? That the sound of 12 simultaneously crying toddlers will make most adults cry, too? WHO KNEW? On more than one occasion, I excused myself to the adult bathroom, rested my head against the toilet paper dispenser,  listening to the blessed quiet, feeling tears leak down my face. I was so tired.

And then, my co-teacher was fired (for turning her back on the entire group while I was changing diapers, resulting in scary incident involving a small child and adult-sized scissors), and along came Noelle. Noelle was as young as I was, and our combined knowledge about managing groups of 2 year-olds should have barely filled a teacup. And yet, somehow, together, we figured it out. Routines replaced chaos. Rituals replaced anarchy. Because we knew nothing, we were open to anything. We tried things: outdoor play first thing in the morning? Nope, too cold. Singing songs while we wait for lunch to arrive? Yes, brilliant. Walking to the park? Nope. Watching the swimming pool? Yes. We sat on the floor and played with those kids, showing them WHAT TO DO with all those buckets of toys. We helped them wrestle in and out of dress-up clothes. We read hundreds of stories. We sang thousands of songs. 

As the room settled down, we got braver. We started baking with the kids (blue cupcakes, anyone?). We filled the water table with leaves, then with snow, then with feathers. We didn't know this was called a sensory tub. We thought we invented it. We made rules, more for ourselves than for the children: When a child asks for a story, we must read to them. If you smell the dirty diaper, you change it. The person who deals with lunch dishes doesn't have to disinfect nap mats. Noelle kept the toys clean, and I did the laundry. 

And the children. Oh my sweet Baby Jesus, how we loved those children. Somehow, without ever saying it, Noelle and I shared a clear understanding: our first and most important obligation to those children was to love them. With those children, I learned to love caregiving -- the giving of care to teeny tiny people. As faces were washed and diapers were changed and sippy cups filled and washed and re-filled, I discovered the power in those tiny moments of interaction. At nap time, Noelle and I worked our way around the room. Starting in opposite corners, we would each sit between 2 small cots, and hold a third child on our laps. Did you know you can rock a child to sleep while sitting on the floor? As Garth Brooks crooned soft love songs through the CD player, we each rocked one kiddo while rubbing two other little backs in slow circles. (The side effect of this routine was the best abs I have ever had in my life.)

Those children changed me. I had spent the end of my degree program frustrated that my belief in the power of loving children was dismissed, by professors and peers alike, as being "not enough" to make a teacher. Those children taught me that, when love is understood, not as a feeling or as an object, but as an action, it is not only enough. It is everything. 

It's a little and a lot to ask
An endless and a welcome task
Love isn't something that we have
It's something that we do.

(Clint Black)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Ready, Freddy?!

Welcome! Please visit the updated version of this post at

So, in another twitter-related adventure, I stumbled across a website yesterday that talked about "Kindergarten Readiness." This has been one of my pet catch-phrases since grad school, so I dove right it. The list of teacher expectations was very thorough, and also, to me, without knowing a lot about the setting and environment in which the author worked, very high.  It did, however, make me think that it was high time for me to blog about this pet topic of mine: Kindergarten Readiness, And What It Means To Me. Dive on in, folks, the water's fine.

Let's just start with the fact that I think the whole concept of children needing to be "ready" for kindergarten is absurd. To say that a child is or is not ready for the first year of school suggests that it is somehow that child's responsibility to prepare for school. And the concept of "preparing for school" seems to lead, all too quickly, to things like worksheets for 3-year olds, and homework for 4-year olds, and expensive "kindergarten prep" courses, and all kinds of other silliness. To me, "ready for school" means, and should ONLY mean that the child in question is: well-fed, well-rested, adequately dressed. Any 5 year old (or, in the case of my province and our March 1st cutoff date, any 4.5 year old) for whom those things are true is Ready for School. If those things are NOT true, well, I think and hope we are all clear that it does not represent any failing on the part of the child.

All of that being said, last year, at my school, we identified a need to establish some kind of screening process for kindergarten students who are new to us. To be clear, we do not, and will not, screen children for spots in our preschool (3 year olds) or Junior Kindergarten (4 year olds)  because... well... THEY ARE 3 AND 4 YEAR OLDS, THANK YOU VERY MUCH. However, we do want to ensure that when enrolling children "from the outside" (as in, who did not attend our junior-K program; not as in: OUTSIDERS! BEWARE!), those children are at a comparable level of development to the children who did attend JK with us. (To be even clearer: our preschool and JK are developmentally appropriate, play- and choice-based programs, where the priorities are social skill development and language immersion.) And I already hate how all this sounds because GACK! Screening for kindergarten!  Comparing 4 year olds' social skills! And I feel like I am suggesting that children who did NOT attend our JK are somehow deficient or of lesser quality, and that is so not the case, and oh God this is terrible and uncomfortable for all of us, isn't it? So let's just move along: for a number of good reasons, we needed a screener to assess incoming K students. And while I am not 100% comfortable with that, we are a private school and there were reasons, and we do not have unlimited resources to support really high-needs kids, and if we were a public school this would be unconscionable, and please don't hate on me, I KNOW. I KNOW.

(*Collective deep breath*) Okay. So. After many long discussions and sleepless nights, Camryn (my boss) and I came up with the following:

In the context of a meet and greet with the parents, Camryn gives the child a piece of paper and a big box of crayons, and casually asks the munchkin to draw a picture of her/himself while Mom and/or Dad chat with Camryn. When kiddo reports that the picture is done, Camryn asks him/her to talk about their picture, and asks if they can write their name on it, ALL VERY CASUALLY AND CONVERSATIONALLY SO NO ONE FEELS STRESSED. After that, parents go on a school tour with our Director of Admissions, and Camryn brings the munchkin down to my classroom to hang out with other children for a half-hour or so, and do whatever we are doing. AND THAT IS ALL. Basically, if kiddo can make deliberate marks with a crayon, respond appropriately to questions about the drawing, and interact with my class without smacking anyone, they are in. (Assuming that parents are also reasonable, pleasant, and on board with our school's mission, values, and philosophy.)

Now, I realise that describing my school's screening procedures is not the same as sharing my own "expectations" for students who arrive at my classroom door on the first day of school, but there is definitely a link between the two. Ideally, a child who is "ready" for my classroom:

  • feels excited about starting school, 
  • identifies his or her own name
  • uses writing utensils and scissors purposefully
  • takes turns in a game with other children
  • counts to 10 
  • will sit and listen to a story

That's it. That's all. Those are the only things I am willing to commit to in writing, and I am even hesitant to do that, because I have had children who can't do those things at the beginning of the year, and still manage kindergarten beautifully. So I also have to say, even with this short list in place:

  • If a child is scared about kindergarten, I will hold his hand until he feels safe.
  • If her own name is a string of hieroglyphics, I will point out the letter(s) that make it unique.
  • If scissors are new and unfamiliar, I will hold the paper while he makes his first cuts.
  • If taking turns stretches her self-control to the limit, I will play, too, and model how it works.
  • If counting stalls at 7, we will play counting games every day until 8, 9, 10, are familiar friends.
  • If sitting still is too hard, I will provide her a wiggle cushion, a fidget toy, a special spot, and I will read my very best stories, in my very best voices, until a story is a better treat than a treat.
  • And I WILL NOT grumble or complain that a child who struggles with ANY (or all) of these things "wasn't ready" for kindergarten.
Because, at the end of the day, doing all those things adds up to Doing My Job. Children can't walk in a straight line? My job to make up a game to help them. Can't get ready for recess on a snowy day in less than 20 minutes? My job to write a poem/chant/cheer to help everyone remember that mittens go last. Can't tell B from P? My job. Doesn't know what comes after 8? My job. Can't produce a rhyme for cat; the sound for G, a word that starts with M? My job, my job, my job. Yes, many children can do all of these things when they start kindergarten, but many can't. The ones who can't, learn from those who can. The ones who can, may not be able to weather minor disappointments without tears, or cope with being last in a line. It is also My Job to help THOSE children master THOSE skills.

It is my job to be ready, on the first day of school, to reach and teach, the children who walk in my door. And THAT, to me, is what Kindergarten Readiness means. 

It means that THE KINDERGARTEN, (and the teachers who teach there), are ready.

Friday, March 11, 2011

I heard them say, love is the way

Welcome! Please visit the updated version of this post here:

A few weeks ago, we started a new project in my classroom: Kindergarten Around the World. I will spare you the minute details (hit me in the comments if you want to know more), but it is, basically, a virtual exchange between our class, and a partner class overseas. For my 20 Canadian munchkins, we found a partner group in East Borneo, Indonesia. Both classes have created an imaginary friend, who attends our partner school. (For the curious, our imaginary friend is a little girl named Ella. She is 6 years old, she has blond hair, brown eyes, and brown skin. Her gender and name were decided by vote. Her age and appearance were drawn at random.) We use Twitter to ask research questions of our partners, and the answers allow us to write stories documenting our imaginary friend's experience in another country. Each child has a journal for the project, where they record things they have learned. It being kindergarten, the recording mostly takes the form of drawings. The children dictate text to go with their drawings, and then copy that text onto their pages. We are working on a Prezi presentation to share our learning with parents and other classes. We have made a video to teach our "Indonesia friends" about snow and how to get dressed for recess when it is very cold.

When my team conceived of this project, I knew it was going to be cool. As mentioned in my previous post about Twitter in kindergarten, I love love LOVE that my students are building real connections with other children their own age. This project brought it to another level, by pushing them to imagine themselves in a completely different setting. (As we graph the often FIFTY degree difference in our daily temperatures, I often imagine MYSELF in a completely different setting, too!) I knew that this project was going to take us in unexpected directions, and there is no doubt that it has. In the 3 weeks since it started, we have learned:

  • That  a map is  picture of a place, taken from up high, and helps us see where things are.
  • That blue parts of a map are always water.
  • That when we are at school, our Indonesia friends are sleeping, and vice versa, and that that is because the Earth is rotating, and Canada and Indonesia can't face the sun at the same time.
  • That voting is a fair way of making decisions as a group, and that just because something is "fair" doesn't mean that everyone is happy about it.
  • That orangutans eat more fruit than any other animal.
  • That baby orangutans stay with their mothers for 6 years.
  • That adult male orangutans live alone, but still visit their mothers.
  • That orangutans can yell so loud you can hear them from 1.5 km away.
(We REALLY got into the orangutans. Our partner school is located close to an orangutan preserve, and once we'd had a virtual fieldtrip using a link they sent, it was all orangutans, all the time...)
  • That, shockingly, not only can kindergarten teachers be men (as we have learned from some other Twitter friends), but music teachers can be men, too.
  • That in warm climates, many schools have outdoor swimming pools RIGHT AT SCHOOL, and that this is possibly the very coolest thing about Indonesia.
  • That "temperature" tells us whether it is hot or cold, and that "weather" tells us what the sky looks like. 
  • That "Fanta" is another word for "orange pop."

Every single time we log in, we learn.

And, then, today, we learned about tsunamis. 

Some of my students had heard about the events in Japan on the news, and that Indonesia was among the countries facing a tsunami watch. They were curious and concerned:

What is a tsunami, Mme? It's a big big wave, bigger than you can imagine, big enough to wash away cars and buildings. 
Is it dangerous? Yes, it can be very dangerous.
Could we have one  here? Probably not, because we live a very long ways from the ocean. 
Our Indonesia friends can see the ocean from their classroom, could they have one? Yes, it is possible that they could have one, but the people in charge in their country are watching carefully, and they will evacuate if it looks like a tsunami is coming. 
What is "evacuate?" If something dangerous like a fire or a tsunami or a really bad storm is coming, the police and the army will help people move to safer place until it is okay for them to go back home. 
Where would they go to be safe? They would go somewhere further away from the ocean, probably somewhere higher and drier, until it was safe. 

Can we tell them to come here? They are our friends, we can take care of them, they will be safe with us, and they could go to our school. There's only 6 kids in their class, we have room for six more. Can we please tell them to come here...?

I knew this project would be amazing. I knew it would make me proud. I knew my students and I would learn things I never expected, and that there is magic in learning TOGETHER. 

I didn't know it would be the thing that made a faraway tragedy into something real. I didn't know that it would leave me humbled by my students' simple statements of generosity. I didn't know how REAL those 6 little people, on the other side of the world, were going to become to my 20 little people. 

They are our friends. We can take care of them. They will be safe with us. We have room.

I didn't know that this project would lead me to think that the world might be a far better place if foreign aid and international disaster relief policies were written by five-year-olds. 

They are our friends. We can take care of them. They will be safe with us. We have room.