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!

The Bird Feeder Project

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Here in Toronto this year we have been having an exceptionally cold and snowy winter! Despite the weather, some of our feathered friends have remained in our outdoor classroom. One day when we were outside, some children began to wonder about the birds – weren’t they cold? How were they finding food under all this snow?

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After reading Ricki’s Birdhouse by Monica Wellington, a book about a boy who constructs a birdhouse for the birds in his yard and proceeds to feed the birds throughout the year, the children were interested in making their own bird feeders for the birds in our outdoor classroom. We set up a provocation at the science table including planning sheets, our Ricki’s Birdhouse story, and iPads. Using the iPads, we googled “homemade bird feeder” images and the children looked for designs that appealed to them. Then they set about creating their plans. We encouraged the children to label their plans with the materials we would need to build them.

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After giving the children ample time for the planning process, we gathered up the materials the children requested for their bird feeders. I sent a letter home asking the parents to send in any materials they may have at home to help us with our project. Then we set up our bird feeder making centre! For the most part, the children really stuck to their original designs when making their bird feeders. Other children who weren’t initially interested in making their own plans stopped by and got inspired by their classmates’ projects. The children were really in charge of this activity from start to finish, and were so proud of the feeders they made!

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At the end of the week, we took our feeders outside to hang up in the courtyard. The children were beyond excited to share their creations with the birds. It felt like a bird feeder hanging party!

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Update: After the weekend, we took the children outside to see if there were any clues that the birds had enjoyed the birdseed. We had had another dose of snow, so the children noticed that some of the materials we used did not hold up in the extreme winter conditions.

E.A.: The bird feeders made of Kleenex boxes and toilet rolls with honey stayed up.
F.S.: The snow covered the paper plates and they fell down.
A.C.: The tissue boxes and the buckets are good to make feeders because they stayed up.
J.M.: The apples stayed up too and some of the food was missing.

When talking about whether or not the birds enjoyed the feeders:

M.F.: The bird seed is gone!
B.L.: That’s because the snow is covering the seeds. I can see it if I dig down.
H.K.: I think the birds look fatter!

A Map of My Heart

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What is love? What are the things that you love the most? If we could see inside your heart, what would we find there? These are the questions we examined in our class through the Map of My Heart project. All of this really began when we noticed the children showing an interest in making maps at the writing table. To support and challenge their thinking, we added special “map paper” and an amazing book called My Map Book by Sara Finelli to our writing centre. In My Map Book, Finelli inspires us to think about maps in a whole new way with wonderful images of maps including: “A Map of My Dog,” “A Map of My Day,” “A Map of My Stomach,” and yes, “A Map of My Heart.”

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With Valentine’s Day approaching, I wanted to discuss the theme of love and friendship with my students. To get them thinking about love, we focused on Finelli’s heart map and talked about what we might find in our own hearts. At the Art Studio, we offered the children an opportunity to continue thinking about these questions by making their own heart maps (see the original idea from Playful Learning here: http://playfullearning.net/2009/01/map-of-my-heart/). I felt it was important to give the children as much thinking time as possible for this activity, so rather than having them dive right in to the drawing and painting process, we provided them with planning paper so they could jot down their ideas first. This also had the added bonus of creating some lovely opportunities for dialogue between children as they shared their plans with each other. I found that throughout the art process, children routinely referred back to their plans to help them include all their original ideas in their art piece.

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After planning, the children set to work filling in their heart maps. We used permanent black markers for the drawing process and watercolour paints to add colour when the drawings were complete. As part of our evaluation and discussion of Finelli’s heart map, some children felt that some things would naturally take up more space in our hearts (e.g. more love for my family = a large space in my heart vs a little bit of love for flowers, which would = a smaller corner of my heart) and tried to represent this in their work. Overall, I felt the finished pieces so charmingly represented all of the things my students hold dear – and I learned even more about what kinds of things/experiences are really important to the children in my class.

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Exploring Loose Parts

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This week at the small building centre, we created an “animals in winter” provocation using a variety of materials and loose parts: wood chips, acorns, mushrooms, small blocks, glass tiles, animals, stones, etc. We also provided the children with some non-fiction books about animals and the class iPad. Having a variety of loose parts available to the children is advantageous in many ways. Loose parts can be used in any way the children wish, thus encouraging creativity and imagination. The children are also not limited with how loose parts can be used, combined, or organized. Because loose parts can be used in many ways, the children are able to demonstrate and explore a variety of themes and ideas. A popular theme that arose from this provocation was that of animal homes. The children were very interested in using the loose parts to create shelters for the animals. When they weren’t sure what a particular animal’s home looked like in real life, we googled it on the iPad and used the images we found to recreate a home that suited the animal. There was a lot of investigation, research, and problem solving going on!

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Whose Nest is This?

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Last week one of our students found a small nest on her way to school. The exploration of the nest during our sharing circle produced a lot of wonderment from the students:
E.A.: I wonder what kind of bird made it. I thought maybe a sparrow or a robin or a hummingbird.
H.K.: I wonder if a baby was born in the nest.
J.M.: I wonder why the nest is so small. Can it be a real nest? Maybe it’s too small to be somebody’s nest.
G.M.: I wonder where the nest came from. Maybe it was in a tree and the wind blew it down and then E.A. found it.
J.K.: I wonder what the leaves inside are for.
C.G.: I wonder where the baby has gone to.
A.: I wonder where the mom has gone to.

After reading some supporting materials about birds and their nests and the nests of other creatures, we created a provocation to see who the children thought may have made the nest. The small size of the nest was quite puzzling to the children, as they could not seem to imagine how a bird and her babies could fit inside.

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Here is the drawing S.M. made after looking inside one of our nest books:

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S.M: “A bee. It has to be something so small because the nest is so small.”

Here are a few samples of some other ideas the children came up with:

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I am excited to see where this discussion goes next week as we delve into how animals prepare for winter and explore other nests in our neighbourhood!

Our Wonderful Tree: A Collaborative Art Piece

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This week, two projects we have been working on came together at the Art Studio: The Dot Project and our Tree Study. I could easily tell you all about it, but instead we asked the students to write about what they created, how they made it, and how they felt about it. Here is what the children wanted to say (they even came up with the title!):

Our Wonderful Tree: A Beautiful Art Piece
We made art at the Art Studio – something we’ve never made before! We used Plasticine. Plasticine is like Playdough except it is hard. We had to rub the Plasticine with our hands to warm it up. Some of us blew hot air on it or put it on the heater to make it soft. We made a tree trunk and tree branches. Then, we each made a leaf in the shape of a dot. Some of us put our leaves on top of other leaves. We used all the colours of the rainbow (and the colours of fall). Some of us mixed up the colours to make swirls of colour. Our Kindergarten helpers helped us add grass and a butterfly and a flower to our work. Our work makes us happy because it’s so big! We are surprised that we made something that we’ve never made before and it turned out so nice. We are proud that we made such nice art. Some of us are sad that we are finished because we wanted to keep doing more!

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Stone Towers

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This term we have been working on a tower inquiry. As with any inquiry we are engaged in, I am constantly looking for ways to provoke or enhance student thinking and learning throughout various centres in the classroom. In the summer time I visited the beach quite regularly and was always fascinated by the small stone towers that were left behind on the beach by talented beach-combing architects. Of course, eventually I was inspired to build my own…and I snapped a picture of my creation. This week I placed a picture of my stone tower, along with a challenge to my students, in our small building area. Since tower building with rocks is a bit of a challenge, I was looking for the children to use what they have learned about balance and problem solving to build the tallest tower they could. I also wanted to introduce them to the concept of recording their work on paper, so I provided them with paper, fine tipped markers, and crayons. This is how the centre looked:

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The children were quite excited to give this challenge a go. As they worked, I took notes on how they approached the challenge, what strategies they used, and how they problem solved. The children most enjoyed recording their towers on paper – even taking care to draw them as accurately as they could by counting and checking how many stones they used, demonstrating each stone’s size, and colouring them in the appropriate colour.

Here are some of the students’ thinking I captured:

M.B.: “1, 2, 3, 4. I used 4. I put the big big big rock first and then I got medium sized, small and then so small at the top.”

S.M.: It looks like a snowman. I used 5 rocks. First I got a big one, and then another one the same size, and then some small ones.

A.F.: I saw they were all kinds of grey colours. I used 3 stones. I didn’t use more because I was worried it would make it fall down.

A: I need the flatter ones. I got five! 1, 2, 3, 4, 5!

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Stay tuned for more updates on our tower inquiry!