Halloween Inspirations

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An emergent curriculum is one that is guided by the children’s interests. I get a lot of questions about what this looks like in Kindergarten. In particular, many educators often express a fear that an emergent curriculum will be random, unorganized, and not tied to the curriculum, which is everything it is not! So today, I thought I’d share an example of  how you can incorporate the children’s interests into your weekly planning.

When my partner and I sit down to plan, we have the curriculum goals in mind that we want to address – the challenge is coming up with creative and interesting provocations or activities that will be inviting to our students. The easiest way to do that is to fuse our curriculum goals with the children’s interests. When you spend time listening to your students – really listening – you will find the things they talk about to be a source of great inspiration!

At this time of year, Halloween is a big source of conversation and excitement amongst my students, and really, it’s not hard to see why. Dressing up? Free candy? No wonder the kids are so excited!

An exciting event like Halloween is a great opportunity to inspire children to try activities they might not normally try simply by putting a Halloween twist on them. An example I can share is a provocation we created at the Art Studio last year that asked the children to design a face for our Jack-o-Lantern. Even my most reluctant artists were eager to try their hand at creating a spooky masterpiece! What a great opportunity for the children to talk about their preferences, past experiences with celebrations, and future plans. Here is a picture of the provocation:

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Often, we set up such experiences for the children and they take on a life of their own or go in a direction we didn’t initially expect. In this case, our fine motor and language activity developed into a mathematical discussion after one student who visited this centre created two options for our Jack-O-Lantern: one happy, and one spooky. You can see he also added the words “YES” and “NO” to his design.

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I’m making a survey…so we can vote to see if we make a scary face or a happy face.”

After sharing Sam’s idea during reflection time, of course the class was excited about the opportunity to put it to a vote! After looking at some pictures online of scary and happy Jack-O-Lanterns, we did our survey on the Smart Board. What an authentic way to talk about the purpose of surveys. Afterwards, many children were inspired to replicate this idea on their own during discovery time.

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Around Halloween we were also working on measurement and pumpkin measuring became another popular and interesting provocation. Here, the children were given snap cubes and pumpkins of different sizes (which we happened to bring back from a recent trip to the farm). The children were asked to find out how many cubes tall the pumpkins were. I was also interested in finding out if the children could identify which pumpkins were the tallest or smallest and how they could prove their thinking. Because pumpkins are round and we were measuring with cube sticks, it became clear that accuracy in the measurements was hard to prove simply by using our eyes. I asked one student how she was sure her measuring stick was the same height as her pumpkin, and this is what she did:

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During reflection time, we posted this picture on the SmartBoard so this student could share her thinking with the class. It gave us an opportunity to talk about the importance of accuracy when measuring. Later that same day, a group of excited boys called me to the math centre. They had been inspired by our discussion before lunch but had come up with a “better way” to show their measurements were accurate:

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The boys then used these structures to directly compare heights to see which pumpkins were taller. Amazing!

Are your students excited about Halloween? How are you incorporating your students’ interests in this spooky holiday in your classroom?

See, Think, Wonder: Developing Thinking Routines in the Classroom

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Today I thought I’d share a strategy I use to help my students communicate their thinking during the inquiry process. See, Think, Wonder is a thinking routine I use with my students to help them think critically about an object or idea and express their ideas with others. See, Think, Wonder is a strategy that developed out of Harvard’s Project Zero. It was originally developed with a view to help children think critically about art and artwork, though I use it across my program and have found it particularly effective during inquiry projects. If you haven’t checked out the Project Zero website, I highly recommend it! There are a number of amazing strategies and projects there which anyone working with early learners might find useful.

See, Think, Wonder falls under one of Project Zero’s “Thinking Routines.” Basically, the idea of a thinking routine is that you approach it the way you do any other routine you want to establish in your class, with lots of modelling, practice, and a gradual release of responsibility. As a kindergarten teacher, the idea of establishing routines is a familiar one. We have routines for entry, snack time, carpet time, etc. Why not have routines for thinking as well?

When I was thinking about how I would introduce this routine to the class, I knew I wanted to create a visual element to accompany the language prompts as I thought it might help my students connect to what I was talking about. I created the following template using both words and images. For “I See…,” I included an image of a magnifying glass (not just a picture of eyes, as I had originally thought, because I wanted to impart the idea of looking deeply at something); for “I think…,” I included a picture of a brain; for “I wonder…,” I put a picture of a thought cloud (this is specific to my class because I have a bunch of thought clouds on sticks that we use to communicate our “wonderings,” so I knew my students would connect to that and know what I wanted them to express). Here is the finished template I created – you can click on it for a pdf version:

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To begin, I use an electronic version of the template on the SmartBoard to model my own thinking. This year, I started by using a photograph from a recent nature walk we went on as a class so that the children would have their own schema for the event that I was talking about. However, you can just as easily use a new image or object. Over the coming days and weeks, I repeat the routine but gradually involve the children’s ideas. I always record our thinking on the same template.

When I feel that the children are comfortable with the template and the language, I place copies of the template at our discovery centre. Here, the children are given an opportunity to communicate their own ideas. Some children draw pictures to show their thinking, and others attempt to write their own ideas down with a combination of letters and familiar words.

Here are a couple examples from our butterfly inquiry last year:

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I see the caterpillars eating. I think the caterpillars are ready to turn into a butterfly. I wonder why they turn into a butterfly.

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I see it fell. I think it is frozen. I wonder why it is not moving.

What do you think about using See, Think, Wonder as a thinking routine for your class? Are you using any other strategies for encouraging deep thinking with your students?

Nests, revisited…

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One of the things I’ve noticed about inquiry projects is how everlasting the learning is. Our projects never really end; though we may “shelve” our thinking and ideas for a time, we often revisit our projects throughout the year – or even in the following year. Earlier in the fall I wrote about a nest inquiry we embarked on after one of my students brought in a nest she found on her way to school (you can read about it here: “Whose Nest is This?”). This Spring, students started thinking about an inquiry from last year where we studied the birds in our yard. As the weather warmed up, the children started noticing our sparrows territorially guarding the bird houses in the courtyard and began speculating that the birds might be preparing nests for their babies, as they had done last year. This created some interesting discussion and wondering about nests. Some of the questions that came up were:

Why do birds (and other animals) build nests?

How do they build nests? What materials do they use? How long does it take?

We really wished we could see inside our bird houses so we could see what the birds were up to! To that end, I found a clip on YouTube that showed a time lapse of a bird building a nest inside a birdhouse (some clever person had set up a video camera in the roof of the house to capture the whole process – boy, did my students think THAT was a genius idea!).

To capitalize on the students’ interest in nests, I created a provocation at the Art Studio. We had been working with clay over the last few weeks and I wanted to give the students a new experience with this popular material. Here is the provocation:

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Students were asked to sculpt a nest out of clay and make sure that it could safely hold at least one egg. Students were also asked to add “texture” to their nests using a variety of materials. Fitting an egg proved to be a wonderful challenge that encouraged the children to problem solve as they worked  – making their nests deeper, wider, or taller as necessary to safely hold the egg. When it came to adding texture, we spent some time holding real bird nests and describing how they felt – “rough,” “prickly,” “scratchy.” “soft,” “smooth,” etc. Children were given simple tools (popsicle sticks, toothpicks, forks, etc.) to add the texture they felt was appropriate. This was a new experience for my students, as our previous work with clay had required them to make their pieces as smooth as possible. Some children had a hard time scratching up their work – in their minds, the nests needed to be smooth because “that’s what clay should feel like.” I was fascinated by this line of thinking. It just goes to show that we often misinterpret the messages that children receive from us from our teaching.

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S.M: The inside of my nest is very big so all the eggs can fit and won’t fly out because of the wind!

Y.T: I made my nest with clay. First, I made a circle and then I put my thumb in and pushed. First the egg didn’t fit and then I pinched it more and tested it but it still didn’t fit, then I tested it again and it fit!

G.M: Nests are for baby birds. The nest keeps the eggs from falling out on the ground where someone might eat them.

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J.M.: Nests are very scratchy. I’m going to pinch it to make it rough. I really enjoyed making this!

J.K.: Nests have a bumpy texture.

S.M.: My nest has a rough texture on the outside and a smooth texture on the inside. It’s smooth in the inside because we don’t want to hurt the birds.

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After completing our nests, the children were given the opportunity to paint an egg to put inside. We read An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston and Silvia Long (one book of many in a wonderful series – definitely worth checking out!) where we learned about the different sizes, shapes, designs, and textures eggs can have. We also discovered that eggs can be laid by a wide variety of animals! While working on their eggs, the children were asked to imagine what creature might hatch from their egg – a wonderful, creative exercise that greatly influenced how the children designed and painted their eggs.

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M: That’s a crab egg. It’s red with black spots!

M.B. I knew he was making a crab egg. I knew it because he made it so red!

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M.C: I’m painting my egg black because there’s a black snake inside!

R.K.: Mine is a blue jay egg. It’s just blue because a blue jay is blue. Oh, I love my egg!

J.M.: I made my egg green with white, yellow, and blue. I put on black speckles and blue lines. There’s a little robin inside.

Our display of nests and eggs is in the centre of our classroom, at the children’s level. Our students can be found admiring their work daily (and they can’t wait to take them home!).

Are you working on a bird or nest inquiry at the moment? What kind of thinking is happening in your class? I’d love to hear what you are up to!

Planning for a Full Day of Inquiry-Based Learning

Lately I’ve had the opportunity to work with educators who are either teaching Kindergarten for the first time or are moving from a half-day Kindergarten to a full-day Kindergarten program. I get a lot of questions about how to structure a full day for our early learners. In this post, I’ll try and give you an idea of how we’ve arranged our weekly schedule to work best for our program and student needs. Please keep in mind, this is just one way of organizing things and that our schedule does change as the year progresses and as we find things are either working well/not working at all. Also keep in mind that “prep” times are periods on our schedule that are assigned by the school.

Here is our current weekly schedule. Click on the image to open a PDF file.

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When we were arranging our schedule, we felt it was important to make sure that the children had ample time for working at discovery centres, both in the morning and in the afternoon. In the morning, our discovery time runs from 10:10 a.m. to 11:25 a.m. This time includes a self-directed snack (children stop to eat if/when they feel the need though most opt out of a morning snack) and reflection time. During centre time, the children self-direct their own activities. This was a big change for me initially. When I taught kindergarten half day, I was that teacher with the clipboard who assigned children to specific centres each day. In full day, I let go of making choices for the children and let them choose the activities that are most interesting and important to them. If I encounter a student who only ever chooses the block centre, I may suggest an alternative or invite him/her to see what is happening at the Art Studio. And I have never been turned down. Generally speaking, most children are interested in trying new things and are interested in the provocations that pop up around the classroom.

Reflection time is a crucial part of our day. Reflection time is when we gather as a group to share our learning from Discovery time. I jokingly refer to reflection time as “free advertising” because it is the time when we can highlight the important learning goals/behaviours/discoveries we want the children to be demonstrating, through the children’s own work. The decision about which children share is not random, but purposeful. Perhaps it might be a student who made a breakthrough or did their personal best, or it may be a child sharing an interesting way they interacted with materials at one of our provocations, or it may be a child sharing a problem they encountered while working and the class is invited to help them brainstorm a solution. The reflection process is interactive. When a child is sharing, the class is given the opportunity to ask questions and give feedback. I continue to be amazed by how thoughtful the children are in their questions and comments. They often speak of being ‘inspired’ by things they saw their classmates doing. I am often inspired too! And remember that child I mentioned earlier? The one who chooses the same centre day after day? Reflection time is one of the ways we can inspire that child to try something new, or at the very least, stay connected to all the interesting things that are happening in the class.

In the afternoon, we try to mirror the morning schedule as closely as possible. We usually begin the afternoon with writer’s workshop, a focused three-part lesson on writing skills. When I have prep in the middle of the afternoon, we sometimes opt for a shorter group time on the carpet with no writing so that the children still get ample time for exploration at centres. The afternoon is also when we run our “special programs” such as Math and Science Investigations (which you can read more about here) and Art and Fine Motor Instruction (which you can read more about here).

In our class, we try and make the most out of every moment of our schedule. For example, if I am leading a group lesson on the carpet (e.g., during Focused Instruction) then my ECE partner is working one-on-one with children for guided reading. Similarly, if my ECE partner is leading Reflection time, then I use that time to pull students for guided reading. In this way, we are able to achieve a balance between whole group instruction and still target the individual needs of our students.

For those interested in my day plan format, I’m including a sample day from my day plans. I’m always tweaking my day plan format each year, but this style has served me well. Click on the image to open a PDF:

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As always, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask!

 

Zen Garden

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As I have mentioned previously, the children in our class have been curious about gardens lately (check out my post about our Imaginary Garden). One of the things we have been wondering about is different types of gardens: rock gardens, flower gardens, fairy gardens, etc. As a result, we decided to create a Zen Garden provocation at the sand table:

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To give the children some background on Zen Gardens, we looked up pictures online and I found a Youtube clip that showed the process of working in and maintaining a zen garden, which the class was quite fascinated by. The children were quite interested in the designs that were created in the gravel (in our case, sand) and noticed how quiet and still the garden was. We also talked about keeping the garden free from clutter and garbage and the idea that before making designs, it was important to start with a clean surface of sand. This meant using a hand-held brush (small broom) to brush and comb the sand. While watching the children at the centre, I was struck by how seriously they took this initial step – brushing and smoothing the sand in a slow, calm manner.

Initially, the children had difficulty making designs in the sand. Some children were frustrated that they were not able to create the patterns or designs they had envisioned. With practice and reflection (during group sharing time) we discovered that in order to make a clear pattern, the creator had to use the rakes very gently/lightly and slowly. This added to the purposeful work that was happening when the children were engaged here.

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Here are some of the children’s creations, which they were certainly quite proud of!

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One of my favourite gardens was created by a JK boy in my class. He had been coming to the garden for a few days but had either stood back and watched his classmates or worked in a very small corner of the sand bin. On this particular day, he worked with one other student and then by himself to create his masterpiece:

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A.F.: This is my Zen Garden. I made a bridge – the stones are walking on the bridge. And I put in lots of plants and grass. The sticks are the trees. And the rocks are the daddies carrying the babies around. There are lots of daddies in the garden today. I even made designs with my rake! I had to work really slowly and quietly.

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The stones going for a walk on the bridge…

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The plants and bushes and grass…

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The daddy rocks carrying the baby rocks…

As with any provocation, the success of our Zen Garden came from the schema building, questioning, problem solving, and reflection that we engaged in throughout – both as a whole class and individually or in small groups at the centre itself. Our Zen Garden is a calm space that gives the children a quiet place to create with loose parts. The complexity of the gardens is increasing daily, especially now that the children have gotten the hang of design-making with the rakes, so I’m excited to see what happens next!

 

 

 

 

Spring Inspirations

When you dream of spring, what does it look like?

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Spring is finally here…sort of. Despite the fact that it is still chilly outside, spring has sprung at the Curious Kindergarten! This year, the children were particularly excited about the arrival of spring – doing their own countdown in the days leading up to March 20th. When the first day of spring arrived, some children were naturally disappointed that when they woke up that morning there was still snow on the ground, a chill in the air, and a winter jacket to wear to school. We wanted to latch on to the children’s natural excitement about the changes that were still ahead, so we created a “Spring Inspiration” table at our classroom science table.

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Above: Birds nests, birds, eggs, and early spring plants inspire the children’s thinking around the creatures we have already observed in our Outdoor Classroom.

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Above: Insects, a bug house, planting supplies, animals, and non-fiction books about spring changes help the children envision what they might begin to see and do outside now that the weather is changing.

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Above: These fairies and garden gnomes were a huge hit, providing ample opportunities for dramatic play, storytelling, and the development of ideas around how creatures respond to the changes outside.

The question we have been asking leading up to spring (and after) is: “When you dream of spring, what does it look like?” In order to support the children’s thinking, we have been reading a lot of books (both fiction and non-fiction) about spring and engaging in visualization exercises. Many of our classroom activities have been designed to help the children communicate their thinking in a variety of ways. For example, at the playdough table we created a provocation with green dough and spring-themed loose parts (mushrooms, flowers, butterflies, stones, wood chips, etc.) in which the children created their own “spring scenes.” At the writing table, children have been encouraged to write their own poems about spring, and at the art studio, children were given the opportunity to paint a still-life portrait of a tulip.

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M.F. and M.B. created a collaborative drawing that tells their story of spring creatures.

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“Hello Spring” is a poem written by one of our JK students at the writing table.

What an exciting time! It really does feel like there has been a “spring awakening” happening in our classroom. How have you marked the arrival of spring with your students? What kinds of inquiries and ideas are you talking about?

Math and Science Investigations (M.S.I.)

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Math and Science Investigations (M.S.I.) is a building program I have been doing in Kindergarten since I started my career. I first learned about it during one of my practicums in a Kindergarten class when I was in teacher’s college. Essentially, M.S.I. is an inquiry-based program that uses building materials to encourage the development of math and science concepts, creativity, problem-solving, perseverance, planning, and much, much, more. My original resource for M.S.I (a worn photocopy from a book that used to exist somewhere in the board) is long since lost; however, I found a great replacement in the book Building Structures With Young Children by Ingrid Chalufour and Karen Worth:

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Basically, M.S.I. goes something like this:

1) I teach a mini lesson on the day’s focus.

2) Each student gets their own bin of building materials (blocks, connectors, cups, etc.) and takes it to a table. The bin goes on the chair and the children stand at the table and build. I circulate and facilitate discussion, pose questions, take notes, take photographs.

3) Reflection. I post pictures of interesting structures for discussion and feedback.

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We engage in M.S.I. as an entire class, one period per week. That being said, the building bins are always available during discovery time and it is common to find children selecting them to continue working on an inquiry we are engaged in. We also often find ourselves setting up provocations that support the learning that is happening in M.S.I., due to significant student interest.

Here are a few questions I often get about M.S.I:

Q: What kind of materials do you use? How do you organize enough bins for each child to have one?

A: We use a variety of store-bought traditional building blocks and some found materials to make up our bins. Wooden blocks, tree blocks, better blocks (kind of like Duplo), foam blocks, cups (laundry caps) from the recycling depot, anything that will stack! I purchased some materials from school catalogues, found others at garage sales and recycling stores, and got some for free from the recycling depot in our school board. Anything that can stack reasonably well is a good material for M.S.I. If you don’t have enough for everyone in your class you could always run the program with children working in partners or groups, and we sometimes do this as well depending on the focus of the lesson.

Q: What about space? Where do you store your materials? What if you don’t have enough table space for each student?

If you don’t have enough table space for each student to have their own spot, children can build on the floor. The idea behind standing and building at a table is that children are initially encouraged to build up with their materials. Standing helps the children stack their blocks more easily, and see their structure from all sides. Placing the building bin on a chair frees up table space for working. We store our building materials in two large rolling shelves. The shelves hold about 36 bins. I have a small space, but it’s not overwhelming in the classroom. I saw another school where the three kindergarten classes shared their M.S.I materials on a rolling cart that was parked in the hallway and could be easily moved to each class.

Q: What kinds of inquiries have you done? How long does one inquiry last?

A: The resource Building Structures With Young Children focuses on two inquiries: Towers and Enclosures. This year we have completed a Tower Inquiry (which I will write more about soon) and are now working on enclosures. We have also done inquiries on bridges and castles. In one school year, we usually have time to complete at least 2 large structure inquiries through M.S.I.

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Q: How is M.S.I introduced? What does it look like at the beginning of the year?

A: At the beginning of the year, M.S.I. time is mainly spent establishing routines and working on basic concepts of space, balance, making a plan, etc. There is a lot to be said just for helping the children locate a bin, find their own work space, build, and then tidy up. A lot of time also goes into establishing routines and expectations for sharing and reflecting on our structures at the end of the lesson. The most important part of the initial phase of M.S.I. is exploration and helping the children stay focused on solving problems rather than getting frustrated if/when their structure falls down. The children are often encouraged to choose different bins regularly to get a feel for the variety of materials we have available.

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I have to say, the children are always excited to see M.S.I. on the schedule. I continue to be amazed at how reflective and thoughtful they are about their structures and how mature they appear when giving feedback and suggestions to their classmates during reflection time. Although when I started teaching I successfully ran an M.S.I. program without a lot of fancy technology (none, actually), the access we now have to iPads, a classroom camera, and an interactive SMARTBoard have helped me take our building program to a whole new level. Being able to take a photo of a child’s structure and immediately post it on the SMARTboard for us to discuss is an invaluable part of the program. We regularly use the SMARTBoard pens to label the structure in the photo, highlight shapes in the design of the structure or draw on possible ideas to add next time.

If you have any other questions about how M.S.I. works, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line!