Crusher of Dreams

Whenever I tell non-education acquaintances that I teach kindergarten, the reaction is invariably, “Wow!  That must be so much fun!”  What few people realize is that as a kindergarten teacher, I’m actually a crusher of dreams.

Parents send their perfect, beautiful child to school full of hopes and dreams of the great potential in the child.  And each child is amazing, unique, and has so much to offer.  But sometimes the reality is that there are issues – issues with behaviour, or flags that all is not right with social interactions or a variety of language or academic skills.  It becomes my job to document my concerns and begin referrals, have those difficult initial conversations with parents, consult with other professionals at my disposal, and come up with a plan for the best way to support the child.  As the first teacher that most parents and children have contact with in the public education system, it is my job to set a positive tone for what may become years of interventions, meetings, and plans.

Parents react to the discussions differently.  Sometimes there’s a nod of recognition, the “oh, we’ve noticed that too” response.  Other parents reject the concern outright, the “how dare you think that of my perfect, beautiful child” response.  Then there are reactions that fall everywhere in between.  All parents go through what looks somewhat like the stages of grief though – there’s very often some denial and anger, and definitely sadness, before parents come to acceptance and are willing to be full partners in planning for their child.  Sometimes that acceptance is years away, and I never get to see it.

It is in these first, difficult contacts with parents that the knowledge and skills I’ve gained from inclusive education classes have become extremely helpful.  Being knowledgeable about an exceptionality, and how to best support a child with it, is comforting to parents.  It gives credibility to what I say to them, and provides me with the confidence to say the things that need to be said.

Teaching is all about relationships – with our students, their families, our colleagues – and relationships are never more important than when we are guiding parents through the initial snags on their child’s educational path.  It’s important to begin developing those relationships even before kindergarten begins, so that if there is a need for a difficult conversation at the beginning of the year, the groundwork of trust already exists.

And so, as I sit highlighting and making notes on my kindergarten students’ report cards, in anticipation of parent/teacher conferences tomorrow, I weigh how I can directly, but gently, discuss certain topics.  I know that crushing dreams comes with the territory, but it never makes it any easier.

 

Growth Mindset, or Settling?

This graphic came across my Twitter feed a few weeks ago:

I read it initially and retweeted, because who doesn’t want to have a growth mindset over a fixed mindset?

And then it started niggling in the back of my brain, and I began to feel more and more annoyed and offended by parts of the graphic.  The longer I considered it, the more infuriated I felt.

Why are we always encouraged to believe that kids aren’t worth it – the extra money, the extra resources, the extra well-educated personnel?  Why are we always encouraged to work with the minimum, rather than filling the classroom to the maximum?

If we really believe in inclusion, why aren’t we advocating rather accepting?  It can be viewed as a value judgement on the child if we choose to settle for what we have, rather than advocating for everything we believe he or she needs.  There’s an implication that our exceptional learners can “get by” if only teachers have a growth mindset.

I completely agree with the quote at the bottom of the image:  “When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”  And it’s because I believe that sentiment that I will never stop advocating for what I think is best for my students, whether it’s time, materials, or human resources.  Let’s stop trotting out the lack of support for our exceptional learners as something inspirational like having a “growth mindset”.  It denigrates them, and everyone who works tirelessly to make their school life a positive and rewarding experience.

Life in Kindergarten: Kissing, Butt Slapping, and Nudity

I have a “rocking” little kindergarten class this year.  My students are rough, busy, and loud.  They haven’t come with much patience, don’t possess much stamina for school, and are struggling to make green choices. I’ve definitely seen a lot of growth since the beginning of the year, but some days . . . oh my, some days!

There are days I feel as though all I’ve done is manage behaviour.  I’ve pulled out all my teacher tricks, I’ve read for new ideas, and I’ve picked the brains of my colleagues.  And still, there are days that I feel defeated by a group of five year olds!

But then the best thing happens . . . I pop into the room across the hall, or make a longer walk down the hall to the middle year’s end.  I visit with one of my colleagues, and we share stories of our wild day, sometimes over chocolate.  All the stuff that made the day seem disastrous melts away in the heat of laughter.  The shared stories help create a problem solving atmosphere, and often a plan for moving forward germinates from the interaction.  I am so grateful for the supportive relationships I have, for the people around me who gently push me to do better.

By the time I get home, I am able to tell the funny stories of the day, and laugh.  My teenagers giggle at the number of times I’m asked for a kiss, that my butt is slapped or fondled as a question asking method, or that a child pulls down his pants.  They think kindergarten is definitely more x-rated than high school!

Adding the therapy from my family to the therapy already received from colleagues, allows me to confidently and happily face a fresh day each morning . . . which is exactly what the little people I work with deserve.

 

Changing Plans

I’m always cautious about doing too much specific planning during the summer.  A long time ago, a seasoned teacher told me that you can make fabulous plans during the holidays, but then the wrong kids show up on the first day of school, and you have to start planning again from the beginning.

Even so, the students who showed up in my classroom this week have me rethinking how I will approach the first month of school, and possibly the whole year.  More than two-thirds of the students came into kindergarten without some of the basic skills I would generally expect, including being able to print their names, draw a person, and listen to a story.  They have lower levels of stamina than I’ve experienced with past classes.  Some students haven’t really experienced an adult authority figure in their lives, and are surprised that they need to follow the routines and structures of school.

We’ll be spending much of September learning to hold our pencils, write our names, and practice whole body listening.  I’ll set aside my favourite beginning of the year books in favour of books with less text, so that we can build stamina, and experience that story time is one of the most exciting and magical times of the day.  We’ll have far more movement breaks, and go outside more often.  We’ll practice writing and drawing not only in the classroom, but on the sidewalks, rocks, and walls of the school, with chalk and water.  We’ll keep working on getting into the habit of following routines, and celebrate the successes along the way.

I don’t think anything we’ll do in the next month will be Pinterest or blog worthy, but I guarantee one thing:  at some point this year, I’ll be able to look back at the phenomenal growth I’ll have had the privilege of watching.  And that will make it all worth it.

Dieppe

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the raid on Dieppe – the bloodiest day of battle for Canada in the Second World War. Sitting in the Saskatchewan Archives a couple weeks ago (acting as my daughter’s research assistant as she prepared for a project), I was surprised by two things. First, news of the battle was reported in the evening edition of the Regina Leader-Post on August 19. I tend to think that news didn’t travel so quickly in the past, but I suppose with the time difference between Europe and Regina, the technology at the time would have allowed for important news to be available quickly. The second surprise was the glowing reports of the raid. From the vantage point of 2017, headlines such as “Allied Victory Was Decisive” made me gasp. There was such pride that the South Saskatchewan Regiment, based out of Estevan, had been involved. It was heartbreaking to read through the papers through the end of August, as the slow realization of what had really happened became apparent. Casualty list after casualty list was published, as well as photos of local men lost. There were frequent articles reminding readers to stay positive.

Dieppe by the numbers:
4963 Canadians left on the mission.
916 were killed in action.
1950 (approximately) became prisoners of war.
2200 (approximately) – many wounded – made it back to England
5 am – time raid began
10:50 am – time Allied commanders were forced to call a retreat

We paid so heavily to fight Nazism the first time. Let’s make sure we don’t have to do it again.

“Talk to them like they’re people”

My oldest daughter is spending her third summer at the local pool, life guarding and teaching swimming lessons.  She has become quite enamored with an almost-four year old in one of her classes, and has stories about him almost every day.  A couple comments she made yesterday were a-ha moments for her, and I think they are good reminders to many adults.

My daughter was somewhat surprised by how developed the little guy’s personality and opinions were as a three year old. After telling a story about how he had reacted to a situation, she commented, “It’s really important to talk to them [kids] like they’re people, because they have a lot going on.”

That particular comment made me think about how often we discount students and what they’re thinking and feeling, because “they’re just kids”.  Think of all the decisions we make for our students – where they sit, how they work, who they work with, what they learn – without ever asking their input. And then we wonder why they don’t develop independence and critical thinking skills.

As I prepare for a new group of kindergarten students, I’m spending much of my time thinking about how to give them voice in their learning and life at school.   Inquiry activities related to their interests will be a focus, as will choice making during centres, and the choices they will make about what to add to their digital portfolios.

I’m also committed to advocating for students in the school in general – in the kinds of recess and other policies we establish for our students. How can we include them in any problem-solving that needs to happen?

For so long, education has been “doing” something to students.  We need to change our thinking and recognize that student input is essential.  We need to treat them “like people, because they have a lot going on.”  In most cases, they know what they need better than we do.  We just need to get better at listening.

Mashable cute girl child spinning GIF

A girl who knows what she likes!

Doing Something that Scares You . . . *

*Title and post inspired by the amazing Aviva Dunsiger.

You know how it goes:  your stomach is twisting, your shoulders feel tense, and that little voice inside your head is saying, “What the heck are you thinking!  You can’t do this!”

Trying something new or out of my comfort zone often brings these physical and emotional responses.  It’s so much easier to stick with what I know and maintain the status quo.  I wouldn’t say that I’m a born risk taker – quite the opposite.  I lean towards perfection, which sometimes paralyzes me from taking chances. As I said in this post though, I’m getting better at living in beta.  I know how much I’ve gained by taking leaps and looking into the eyes of risk in the past.

The biggest, scariest thing I did in the past year was go back to university.  After a brief conversation with a colleague I admire, I decided to sign up for inclusive education classes at the University of Regina.  I was feeling a little stuck with where I was, and was mourning the transfer of an administrator with whom I loved working.  The colleague’s advice was basically, “Why don’t you just do it?  What’s stopping you?” (To which I thought:  my fear, my anxiety, lack of time . . .).  And, I took the leap, signing up for an intensive class to be completed in the first two weeks of July.

As that first day of class rolled around, I had so many worries.  What if I didn’t know how to learn in that way anymore?  What if I looked ridiculous to all the pre-service teachers working towards their degrees?  What if I didn’t like it?  What if it was just a big waste of time and money?  Was it fair to be taking the precious time away from my family?  And on and on and on, the questions and fears swirled in my head and in my heart.

And then I got there.  The two weeks flew by.  The learning was exhilarating!  There were things I read about and discussed with others that I knew would make me a better teacher immediately.  I met a person who has become a close friend and valued sounding board.  Surprisingly, I felt powerful.  I wanted more, and couldn’t believe that I’d ever been scared.  This fall, I’ll complete my fifth class in 17 months, and will obtain my Special Education Educator Qualification.  And, I’m already wondering what I can do next.

There is so much value in taking that step into the unknown.  It helps us to grow personally and professionally, and it helps us develop empathy for others who are trying something scary, including our students.  Acknowledge your pounding heart, quiet your doubting mind, and take a giant step toward that thing that scares you. You won’t regret it.

Reflections from the Deck

This is the first morning I can sit on my deck and feel as though I have no particular education-related tasks that have to get done . . . 19 days after the last day of school.  I took an intensive summer class at the University of Regina for the first two weeks of summer, and just completed it yesterday.

We haven’t had rain for so long – it’s so dry!

This post could go a couple of ways.  I could say, “Look at how dedicated I am as a teacher, pursuing professional development opportunities during my vacation time!”  Or, I could talk about how meaningful I find the classes I’ve taken in the past year, and how they’ve made me a better teacher and a role model for my students.  I’m going to go with the latter.

I only have one more class to take to obtain the Special Education Educator Qualification I’m seeking.  That makes me happy for the accomplishment, but sad that it’ll be over.  I’ve found the classes both exhilarating and nourishing.  They’ve challenged me to look at what I do through the lens of research and best practices, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with interesting people from other schools and school divisions, as well as pre-service teachers.  Each time I leave a class, I walk away with greater confidence in my ideas and abilities.  Each one of them has made me feel more powerful as a person and an educator.

How do I transfer those intense feelings about learning to my students?  One of the easiest ways I found this past year was simply talking about it.  The grade 7/8s in particular were always somewhat surprised, but also fascinated, that I was still learning (I know, shocking at my age!!).  They’d ask me how things were going, what kinds of questions I was asking and finding answers to, and we had many discussions about what success looks like.  I hope that I provided good modeling for them – that we learn all our lives, that we are always striving to be better than we were before.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Albert Bandura developed his Social Learning Theory.  At its heart, it states that human behaviour is primarily learned by observing and modelling others.  My students need to see me as a model of what learning looks like, whether it’s talking about the books I read, the classes I take, or looking for answers to questions that come up in class.  As always, it’s what I do and the way I react to situations that have a great influence on the young people I work with.

It reminds me of the poem by Mary Rita Schilke Korzan, called “When You Thought I Wasn’t Looking”:

Thinking We Know More Than We Do

The April 10 episode of The Current on CBC radio included an interview with cognitive scientist Steve Sloman, the co-author of The Knowledge Illusion.  I had to stop what I was doing (washing dishes in my kitchen) and furiously scribble down snippets of what he said that really struck me.

Some of the fragments on my scrap of paper include:  “we use other people to think”, “in order to accomplish things, we work together”, “to do our best work, we have to rely on our communities”.  These thoughts stuck out to me – some of my best learning and teaching experiences have come about through collaboration, and I am so grateful when I find a colleague with whom I can “bounce ideas off”, until we come up with a big, beautiful plan.

I also see this kind of collaboration happening everyday in my kindergarten classroom.  During centres, the students constantly build from each other’s ideas, and they really do rely on their classroom community to do their best work.  It leads me to wonder why we don’t see – or encourage –  as much of this collaboration, this using “other people to think”, as students get older.

Another thing Sloman emphasized was that we need to admit our lack of knowledge and make use of the people around us.  Great leadership and followership should be looking to many people, not one person.  This also struck a chord – how often do I want to be the person who “knows”, and feel a pang of anxiety if I don’t and have to ask someone else for help?

Interestingly, this may be a widespread issue among teachers, this lack of ability to admit that we don’t know everything.  Years ago, when my brother was in the banking industry, he was receiving training in customer service.  The instructor commented that the most difficult customers were generally teachers.  The rationale was that teachers are used to being the smartest person in the room, as well as authority figures.  Teachers, the instructor continued, carry this attitude into other areas of life, and are  difficult to advise because they are less likely to accept the knowledge of people around them.

Sloman’s interview was a great reminder to me that it’s okay not to know everything, that I need to use the people around me for their knowledge, and that together we can do far better work than we can do individually.

Great leadership and followership should be looking to many people, not one person. by Terelyne Vadeboncoeur

Vimy 100

5:30 came and a great light lit the place, a light made up of innumerable flickering tongues, which appeared from the void and extended as far to the south as the eye could see, a light which rippled and lit the clouds in that moment of silence before the crash and thunder of the battle smote the senses. Then the Ridge in front was wreathed in flame as the shells burst, confining the Germans to their dugouts while our men advanced to the assault.

– Private Lewis Duncan to his aunt Sarah, April 17, 1917 (as found in Vimy by Pierre Burton)

Beginning yesterday, Canadians are commemorating the historic Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge.  Being able to take this patch of land – the best defended German position on the Western Front, where British and French armies had failed – was a huge accomplishment for the four divisions of the Canadian Corps.  In April 1917, it had been not quite 50 years since Confederation,  and Canadians have always seen this victory as a “coming of age” for our country.

And an expensive coming of age it was – 3 598 perished in four days of fighting, while another 7 000 were wounded.  With the Canadian population sitting at about eight million at the time, the losses in the battle were overwhelming.

Land still scarred from battle.

In a gesture of gratitude after the First World War, the French government gifted land that included Hill 145 to Canada.  The Canadian government, with architect Walter Allward, set about building a national memorial for the 11 285 Canadian soldiers lost in France who have no known grave.  This magnificent memorial has captured the imaginations of Canadians for almost a century, and many citizens consider seeing the Vimy memorial a “bucket list” item, or a pilgrimage experience.

How does Vimy fit into the classroom?  History and geography are obvious.  In the lead up to Remembrance Day in the fall, my students chose soldiers from Saskatchewan who were lost in the war, used primary sources to get to know them, and then wrote tributes about the men to share with our school community.  Our “Bring the Boys Home” project made men who’d been dead for 100 years very real for my group of 12 and 13 year old students.

We were also fortunate to be able borrow a “Giant Floor Map” from Canadian Geographic.  Being able to “walk” the Western Front, get an idea of the location of the well-known battle sites, and visualize the topography, contributed to a better understanding of the First World War.

Other than the obvious history and geography content, talk of Vimy is also a good jumping off point for conversations on topics that range from the meaning of sacrifice to the importance of relationships between people and countries.  My students and I have spent a lot of time thinking about how we behave in everyday life, and about the leaders we choose, and how those actions can make a difference so that a tragedy of the magnitude of a world war never happens again.

We will remember them.

We will remember them by keeping the peace they gave their lives for.

We will remember them when we work together for the greater good.

We will remember them when we treat others with respect and caring.

We will remember them.