Preschool, Kinder-Prep & 3 Things Kids Need Most #TeacherMom

It’s January and I have a 3 year-old that will be 4 by September. Translation (according to modern society): I should be in a panic because preschool application deadlines are upon us. And of course, after preschool comes kindergarten, and we’re told that academic success in kindergarten corresponds with future earnings.

No pressure.

Yet, when it comes to all that kinder-prep frenzy, I learned the hard way that that pressure does very little to produce a desirable effect, and I have no wish to repeat the experience.

For the sake of my friends and acquaintances in the same stressful boat who feel their sanity hangs by a thread, I want to share a few thoughts once more on this kinder-prep phenomenon.

First, recognize that as a loving, involved parent, you are enough. The scarcity mindset comes from a place of fear — fear that there’s something out there that we don’t have enough of, and it is the deal-breaker between success and failure (for us and our children). But as Brene Brown wrote,

I thought of this same principle when I saw this lovely post from Kristina Kuzmic:

Of course, this NOT intended to be mean preschool isn’t valuable and even necessary for many families. Programs like Head Start play a particularly valuable role, providing support for children that may not have as many advantages.

What this does mean is that we should never underestimate the impact of a loving and involved parent. As I’ve shared before from one of our local university preschools,

“You parents are already doing a great deal to insure success in kindergarten for your youngster. You read to your children, you go on family outings, you model a love for learning, but most of all you are very involved in the lives of your children. This will make kindergarten a wonderful time for your child, and start him/her on the road to a good education.”

Second, recognize that excessive focus on the future robs us of today’s opportunities.

It’s wonderful to want to ensure our kids can face whatever their futures hold. But sometimes we should pause and ask ourselves: are we focusing so much on the future that we forget to focus on their current developmental needs?

In other words, is it about the developmental needs of a 3-4 year-old, or is it about fear for what they might not be ready for when they turn 5?

This fearful approach might include excessive academic drilling, worksheets, or other highly-marketed programs that guarantee hitting every “kindergarten readiness” checklist item. For the most part, rich social interactions are what preschoolers developmentally need most at this age — playing outside with other kids, helping out with siblings, etc. Incidentally, such interactions are the very things that will best prepare them for future success in school anyway.

Third, recognize the importance of letting your child take the lead. 

If your preschooler is indicating interest in learning to read, by all means, pursue that. But if she is resolute in her passion for dinosaurs, please don’t abandon that because you are stressed about kinder-prep checklists. Follow their curiosity, because that precious zeal for learning will serve them far longer than the ability to identify all 52 upper & lower-case letters on the first day of kindergarten (also, keep in mind that there are about a thousand ways to create rich learning experiences that revolve around dinosaurs).

Following our kids’ lead also involves a greater emphasis on self-regulation. Helping our kids develop skills in stress-management and expressing their feelings will also empower them to take ownership over their lives and learning.

One more disclaimer before closing. Speech delays and learning disabilities are absolutely real and parents should be on the look-out for signs and resources to provide their children the support they need. I just wonder if sometimes we start from a place of assuming there is something wrong if our kids are not yet interested in counting and shapes when they are 3.

As we look toward the beginning of formal education, let us do so in a manner that will cultivate curiosity, joy, and ownership.

Relevant posts related to this topic that might be of interest:

Recommended Books & Resources:

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Agency Is Not Just For School #TeacherMom

After sharing my post on employing read alongs to keep my kids from movie-zombie-land for the entirety of Christmas break, a friend in my PLN reminded me,

I immediately knew she was right; while the read-alongs are enjoyed by all, my initial attitude centered more on my own needs than on my kids’. Of course, self-care is essential as parents, but when we consistently turn first to “keeping them busy,” we may miss opportunities to help them develop greater awareness, ownership, and responsibility over their own time–both in and out of the classroom.

All that said, as I started to consider how to bring this kind of autonomous personal planning to life for my 7, 3, and 1 year-old children, doubts sprung up in abundance:

What if they choose to watch movies all. day. long?

We’re still dealing with quite a lot of underdeveloped temporal understanding here–how can I entrust them to planning a couple of weeks worth of time?

What about good healthy stretches of unplanned time/boredom

What if my 7 year old plans a beautiful day and then sickness or other unforeseen events cause it to fall flat?

Where am I going to find the time to help her plan her entire holiday time?

But as I continued to consider my desire to apply my learning in all areas of my life (synthesize over compartmentalize), I realized that desire outweighed my fears.

Interestingly enough, at that very moment of resolution, and without any prompting from me, my daughter told me that she was off to write a list of fun things she might do. I took it as a sign–I grabbed some paper to create a calendar as she worked on her list of activities (which, I should add, included our read-alongs). 🙂

As we worked, an idea occurred to me to address the issue of temporal understanding: what if I measured to scale each day based on the number of hours she is awake? I measured the height of a day-square and then divided that by 12, as my daughter is usually awake for 12 hours each day. Then I made a little time ruler for her, with each line representing one hour:

When I explained it to my daughter, it was a huge light-bulb moment; she was so excited to have a way to make her concept of time more tangible.

We filled in some scheduled events we already had planned, and then I let her go with the rest!

As with most authentic pursuits in student agency, its scope ended up far beyond the original project, including mathematics, writing, speaking/listening skills, and self-management. My fears turned out to be either unfounded or minimal; there were no fights about watching movies all day long, we actually got to build temporal awareness, and there wasn’t any fussing when things didn’t work out.

Moreover, whenever holiday boredom hit, I was able to ask my daughter what she had planned for herself that day, which was always a positive exchange.

Once again, I’m so grateful for my amazing PLN for pushing my thinking and helping me stay accountable! Thanks, Olwen!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

The Lesson I’ve Never Forgotten From a Parent’s Gentle Rebuke

Opening the door wide open for parent communication can sometimes be a scary thing — fear of the unknown, previous negative experiences, and limitations on time can all add up to create some understandable hesitation.

But each time I have chosen to lay aside these fears, I have always gained — not only in the way of building bridges with parents, but in learning how to improve my practices.

Here’s one example that has stuck with me:

A month into the school year, I started sending emails to all my students’ parents to touch bases, provide encouragement, and to build rapport.

To one of my student’s parents, I sent praise of her willingness to “be an example,” to “stay on task and participate,” and to “step out of her comfort zone to offer ideas” (as she was one of my quieter students).

I hit send and didn’t think twice — until I read her dad’s response:

“This is very helpful. Thank you for taking time with her. She really is a bright young lady. As an extra note, she has some real strength in analyzing math, science and comprehension. It seems that your approach will really reenergize her confidence in these learning skills.”

I never will know for sure whether her dad even intended this as any kind of rebuke, but that was certainly how it translated for me, and rightly so. For I had been so content with how compliant and agreeable his daughter was, I had overlooked her much more powerful strengths.

This father’s gracious response has stayed with me ever since. It stands as a reminder that we owe it to our students to dig deeper to help them uncover their passion, their power, their potential.

While we’re grateful for our students that don’t feel the need to violently rock the boat day in and day out, sometimes, their very lack of any boat-rocking can be cause for concern. We should dedicate time toward finding out why they are content to hide in the shadows, just as we dedicate time toward working with our regular boat-rockers on how to funnel their efforts more appropriately.

So keep sending those emails to parents. Keep searching out feedback. After all, the ones who benefit most from our doing so are our students.

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How My #OneWordGoal Is Going So Far #TeacherMom

You’d think that shortening my New Year’s Resolutions down to just one word would make it a piece of cake. Turns out, it’s not. It is, however, a worthwhile endeavor.

I wrote about my #OneWordGoal of Synthesis last January. I want to revisit it here both as a function of accountability, and to help me reflect on its impact.

The biggest takeaway thus-far is this: there’s more in my life that can complement rather than compete for my energy, time, and resources.

This has broken down into two distinct shifts in mindset:

#1: I used to think that getting “stuck” meant I just needed to dig deeper, work harder, and plow forward with grit. Now I know that most of the time, I simply need to draw from the other wells in my life for the inspiration, strength, or resources I need.

#2: I used to think that committing to even worthwhile opportunities would consume my time. Now I know that, while I still need to be judicious about commitments, the truly meaningful opportunities I engage in turn out to be an investment rather than a drain of my time.

Here are some examples where these shifts have come into play:

Time spent lingering to experiment with the microscope at the library → opportunity to practice letting go as I allowed my daughter to investigate figure out the instrument for herself → opportunity to be reminded of what exactly the wonder of inquiry and learning looks like → opportunity to build my relationship as a parent with my daughter.

investigating what the slick fabric of my jacket might look like

Time attending Jon Klassen & Mac Barnett’s book signing → opportunity to share insight with present and future students about what it’s really like to be an author and illustrator → opportunity for a great blog post (I’ll be blogging more about that fabulous experience soon!)

Time spent reading → opportunity to model to my kids important literacy habits → opportunity to broaden knowledge on quality children’s literature and current research on teaching practices → opportunity to have great conversations with teachers around the world through my PLN.

Focusing on synthesis hasn’t magically given me more time. But it has helped me become better at making connections, noticing opportunities, and applying my learning across all the spheres of my life. I’m looking forward to continuing to focus on this skill, and to start considering my #OneWord2018!

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Inquiry Into How We Express Ourselves

“How We Express Ourselves” was always a tricky PYP unit theme for me. I struggled finding ways to help our students weave it in a transdisciplinary manner, and it almost always just came back to the obvious art.

But similar to how my view of the PYP key concepts has broadened over time, so too is my view of this theme. I have come to better understand that expressing ourselves is a basic human need that is woven into all we do. I’ve also found that authentic self-expression, which engenders passion and joy, is more readily found when we embrace imperfection, cultivate a growth mindset, and are given opportunities to own our learning.

With that in mind, here are a few resources that might help you invite your students into a How We Express Ourselves Inquiry. Don’t forget about the provocation questions at the end (and add a few of your own if you’re so inclined)!

Resource #1: Ballet Rotoscope by Masahiko Sato + EUPHRATES via The Kid Should See This

Resource #2: Callum Donovan Grujicich’s Sculptural Art by CBC Arts, via The Kid Should See This

Resource #3: Why Do I Study Physics? by Shixie

Resource #2: Lily Hevesh’s Dominoes by Telia Carrier, via The Kid Should See This

Resource #5: Picture Books, of course!

“The Big Orange Splot” by Daniel Pinkwater has been a lifetime favorite of mine. Read with your students about what happens when a bird drops a bucket of paint on Mr. Plumbean’s house that used to be just like every other house on his neat street.

I love the mysterious whimsy of Annabelle’s box of yarn that never runs out, and how she uses it to transforms her surroundings.

Provocation Questions:

  • What does it mean to express ourselves?
  • Why do we feel the need to express ourselves?
  • How is general expression different from self-expression?
  • How can one person’s self-expression help someone else see the world differently?
  • How does the way we choose to express ourselves impact our lives? How does it impact the lives of others around us?
  • What is the connection between self-expression and individuality?
  • What is the connection between self-expression and perspective?
  • What does the growth mindset have to do with self-expression?
  • How can self-expression sometimes be unexpected?
  • Why is perfectionism the enemy of self-expression?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

10 Ways for “Every Student to Be On Their Own Learning Path”

Edutopia recently shared Sal Khan’s story and vision in establishing Khan Academy. What stands out most to me was his goal for Khan Academy to help “Bring [us] closer to this model of true personalization where every student is on their own learning path and feels fully engaged.”

Khan Academy can indeed be such a tool for this personalization goal. But it certainly cannot and does not stand alone in such a lofty pursuit. Fortunately for us all, teachers are globally and daily sharing their aha moments and best practices. Here are additional ideas, largely thanks to my PLN’s incredible willingness to share their learning journeys, for helping students get on “their own learning path.”

1. Allow them to plan their day. As teachers Taryn Bond-Clegg and Aviva Dunsiger have illustrated, this can be done with older and younger students:

A good reminder and a little learning for me today … #iteachk #teachersofinstagram #ctinquiry

A post shared by Aviva (@avivaloca) on

Taryn’s full post “Supporting Students’ Agency Take 2” is definitely worth a read. Click on the above images for the link.

2. Do whatever it takes to find out how they really feel. I believe it’s mainly fear that holds us back from uncovering student voice — because what if they say they hate our subjects? What if it invites conflict? What if it takes too much time?

Indeed, when I read posts from Pernille Ripp like her recent “When Reading is Trash or Magic” that shares how she seeks for students’ honest feedback, I wonder how on earth I would respond to some of their bold answers. However, the truth that she and others who do the same have taught me is this:

Only when we uncover students’ true feelings can we help them develop shifts in mindset.

Only when they recognize that they can express what they truly feel — without fear of teacher disapproval or backlash — will they be willing to let their guard down enough to give things a shot.

And only when they see that we are willing to work with them wherever they are will they be able to embark on their own learning path.

3. Help them break down required learning outcomes to tackle them on their terms. Again, Taryn Bond-Clegg shares a fabulous example of this in her post above. Rather than just presenting students with a list of objectives, she helps them break things down into a gradual increase of independence. I have yet to find a better way to negotiate the existence of required learning outcomes with student ownership over their learning.

Taryn shares ways they helped students learn from experts to “ensure [they] are on the right track”
4. Explicitly teach AND model the growth mindset. And it’s not enough to settle on simple platitudes of, “you can do anything if you just try.” It takes being authentic and vulnerable with them. As Jo Boaler recently shared in season 3 episode 1 of #IMOOC (32:10):

“One of the problems kids have is they look at their math teacher and they think, ‘Oh, that’s what being a math person is; you know everything, you never make mistakes, you’re totally sure of everything.’ That’s a terrible image to give kids. So one of the reasons teachers don’t try some of those more open creative tasks is because they don’t know what will happen. They don’t know what kids are going to do.”

Katie Martin adds, “[We must] have conversations with kids about making mistakes — and not just a fake make-mistake — but when you’re actually taking a risk, where you have the possibility of something not working out, [that’s] really powerful.”

5. Explicitly teach AND model metacognition. Visible thinking routines are especially useful on this front because it brings that thinking to the surface. I loved having the opportunity to work with teachers at my old school last year during which we applied visible thinking routines to bring their thoughts on inquiry to the whiteboard for group dissection. Students must learn their processes to bring their thinking to the surface in order to more fully take the reins over their learning.

6. Provide choice in how they organize their thinking. Melanie Meehan recently shared an excellent example of how we sometimes get caught in the pitfall of believing all the students need to use the same graphic organizer to gather their thoughts. Here’s her example of several writing graphic organizers:

(speaking of ways writers plan, have you ever geeked out over seen J.K. Rowling’s timelines for her plotlines?)

7. Provide choice in how they express/assess their thinking. Seesaw, notebooks, vlogs, portfolios, word clouds, Storybird, Prezi, sketchnotes… the list goes on and on. The point is that we need to get out of the mindset that all the students need to have the same presentation in order for it to be valid.

8. Create a rich and diverse culture of reading. I loved watching Colby Sharp’s vlog touring his classroom library — quite aside from the sheer volume, I was impressed at his clear efforts to reach all his students’ reading needs. Obviously, this culture goes beyond just the presence of books — my short list for additional inspiration includes Nerdy Book Club, Pernille Ripp’s blog, and LibraryGirl.

9. Give them autonomy over self-regulatory basics. This includes bathroom use and snacks. I wrote some time ago about why and how we need to abolish “Can I Go to the Bathroom?” and it’s just as relevant as ever now. I also appreciated Aviva Dunsiger’s classroom tour when she showed where and why she has a designated spot for her kindergartners to “eat when they feel hungry.” After all, how can we expect them to be on their own learning path if they are distracted by waiting to take care of their personal basic needs?

10. Prioritize the pursuit of meaning Time and time again, through my own practice and through the many wonderful teachers in my PLN, meaning is the way we get out of “the game of school.” If it doesn’t personally matter to them, nothing we do will matter in the longterm. See my story of “Digging Deeper in a Poetry Unit” on Edutopia for a personal example.

I look forward to continuing to learn and discover ways we can truly help our students own and personalize their learning. Thank you to all the teachers out there who have and continue to share their learning journeys!

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5 Crucial Lessons My Kids Have Taught Me On Play #TeacherMom

One of my favorite parts of family vacations is that we are ALL together ALL the time (incidentally, by the end of the week, that also becomes one of my least favorite parts, but we don’t need to focus on that…)

It is delightful to watch my kids play together and to learn more about the ways they are learning through play.

Here are a few lessons they have taught me about play that I can apply to the classroom when I return.

1. Sometimes, they really do need ALL those toys. In my tendency to get overwhelmed by clutter, I’m often tempted to go into edict-issuing mode. Only one bin of toys may be played with at a time! If a new toy is desired, the first bin must be cleaned up first! But over time, I’ve come to realize that when I make it solely about my preferences, I can stand in the way of valuable tinkering, connecting, and, well, learning. See photos below.

The dreaded pile of ALL the toys ready to be sorted. Again.
The kinds of interconnection that’s often the result of having all those toys out.

2. Sometimes, they DON’T. When we recently babysat another 3 year old, I thought about getting out the bin of play food/utensils, but I got distracted. By the time she left, I discovered that the preschoolers exercised resourcefulness by using the loose parts box that was out. I loved how this gave them the opportunity to think creatively and use their imaginations.

3. The richness of play lies in its foundation of connection and relationships. In The Importance of Being Little, Erika Christakis writes, “Indeed, playing games and laughing together are far more educational than drilling kids on their ABCs on the way to daycare.” The most meaningful moments with my kids are when my daughter and I try to “out-pun” one another, or when my son and I chant and act out “Peel, bananas, peel, peel bananas,” or when my baby and I play peek-a-boo. I believe this is all because these moments are all about each of those kids — finding ways to surprise and delight and engage them — rather than about me and my agenda.

4. Interaction through play is where we can “gain confidence” in our children’s learning. I recently came across an advertisement for a kindergarten preparatory program that included this parent endorsement: “I am so confident in my child now and know that he is 100% ready for kindergarten.” Far from providing buy-in, I found this to be a heartbreaking statement.

Of course, I, too, was once enveloped by the kindergarten readiness frenzy, so I understand the way it can blind us from the very learning taking place before our eyes. I also understand the worries of being a working parent and not being present for that learning as often as we’d like. However, I’ve found that if we treasure any opportunities we get to play with our children, we will grow in our confidence in their capacity to learn and grow.

5. Time for play is an investment we’ll never regret. It isn’t always fun to be chastised that I’ve put the wrong car in a “garage,” or that I’m using the wrong kind of voice, or, heaven forbid, that I’ve assumed the wrong pretend name. But ultimately, these prove to be our best moments filled with learning, love, and invitations to remember what matters most.

What lessons has play taught you? How can we apply it to the classroom?

featured image: Mackenzie Brunson