Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Shared reading of 'How CHILDREN SUCCEED'


e.p.i.c. School teachers were invited to hear guest speaker Paul Tough chat about his latest book (thank you The Mabin School). Teachers returned, eager to begin reading Tough's book: How Children Succeed. It was decided, due to busy schedules, that we would 'share' reading the book and summarize each chapter. Like a book club, we get to discuss our understanding and varied perspectives of the material presented, and if at the end of the book we remain interested in finding out more, summer-time always presents the ideal 'reading catch-up' time for teachers.

I read the introduction. 
Due to the need for efficiency, I often skip the intro. in ‘education’ related books but being first to summarize, I thought I should begin at the beginning. I was hooked!
I have been reading books about what is needed for children to succeed for a long time. A quick search of the office bookshelf would have you find ‘Habits of Mind’ and numerous others. The question is similar for all, “Who succeeds and who fails?”

The author, a new parent at the time, relates a story of visiting a school where he noticed the j.k. teacher didn’t interfere or direct, or do any sort of behaviour management – how could this be, he wondered? The school had adopted Tools of the Mind where children were taught directly skills to support the rubric of self regulation: controlling impulses; staying focused on the task at hand; avoiding distractions; managing emotions; organizing thoughts. The founders believe these skills will lead to more positive outcomes for students.

The author, Paul Tough, claims that folks from very diverse educational backgrounds have begun to produce evidence that the ‘skills’ most important to develop are qualities that include persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence. Of course, we can’t get better at curiosity by practicing over and over again, like we do with printing. The question is, how do we develop these traits?

Tough relates a story of a professor of Economics (really) who, since winning the Nobel prize, is studying what traits lead to success? How do they develop in childhood? What kind of interventions might help children do better? 

I look forward to exploring and discussing chapter one!


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Creativity in the Classroom

When I began this blog, I had visions of writing at least monthly but it quickly became apparent to me that I had bitten off way more than I could chew. With classroom and administrative responsibilities, along all the varied types of communications that I enjoy creating and sharing, there was simply no time left over for maintaining this blog. I had given up! But this past week, someone signed up for my blog - nudge, nudge, nudge - and I read an interesting book that made me want to share. And what better venue than here, my blog.

I am an avid reader and read lots of varied types of books. This past year, a classroom family gave me a gift that included the book 'Imagine: How Creativity Works' by Jonah Lehrer. Creativity is an interesting word. What exactly does it mean? In my own family it conjures images of artistic-visual talents and compared to my family, I am the least creative. Yet, creative is something I always strive to be. To think outside the box, to tackle problems in new and innovative ways, to approach problems, discussions and work from many different angles and possibly change my own view - and in the end - share this learning approach with my students. It isn't about memorizing or knowing the right answer (after all, that is what Google is for) instead it is about challenging myself to create new ideas. Jonah says "the reality of the creative process is that it often requires persistence." It turns out that creative people work hard to be creative - I thought it was only me and likely because I wasn't as creative as I wanted to be. I also learned that "criticism leads to more new ideas in that it encourages us to fully engage with the ideas of others." At Pixar, they have daily 'take apart' meetings where they critique every little thing. It is the only way to get better, generate new ideas, after all, the 'absence of criticism keeps us all in the same place."

My favourite part of the book - I have many - is when Jonah talks about a scientist showing a interesting toy to a class. The scientist shows surprise when she 'accidentally' pulls one of numerous tubes making the toy squeak. The scientist's surprise response "did you see that? Let me try that again!" created a very different response than the second group of children. The second group received a rather different presentation. The type of presentation many relate to teaching children. This is what this is .... It is called a..... This is how it works..... Following both demonstrations, the children were given the toy to play with and can you predict what happened? How the responses differed? The first group explored the toy thoroughly and the second group, almost not at all. "When students are given explicit instructions, when they are told what they need to know, they become less likely to explore on their own. Curiosity is fragile thing." To me this proves how incredibly valuable those little pieces of (at times annoying) scrap art created at the cut and paste area really are. And open ended play, "crucial for the development of cognitive skills, including self-control, attention and working memory."

I read this book because creativity is something I value and, I want to know and learn more. But I did not anticipate that this would be a book about the classroom, about learning with children and how schools should be. I enjoyed learning about the creation of the 'Swiffer', 'Post-it Notes' and the Nike slogan but what I enjoyed reading and hearing about was - what I already knew (but it sure is nice to hear it backed up with research) "when children are allowed to create, they're able to develop the sophisticated talents that are required for success in the real world. Instead of learning how to pass a standardized test, they learn how to cope with complexity and connect ideas."

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Mindfulness is a hot topic

There is much to do at the beginning of the school year, it is easy to forget that the children too have much to do. They have to get used to new materials, new routines, new teachers, new organizational systems, new expectations... We are fortunate in our school. e.p.i.c. School is a small school and for young children, familiar faces, small spaces, small numbers and a family like environment all contribute towards making our students feel secure in their learning environment.

Children need to feel secure and comfortable in their learning environment in order to learn best. We all know this. Children who are scared, hungry, tired, or angry are simply not in the best position for optimal learning. This year, we decided to implement parts of a program called 'How does your engine run?' The reason for initiating the program was to help students who were experiencing some challenges, but also because we realized it could benefit everyone if we could support our students in learning to be more self-aware. Aware that when they are sad or upset there are tools they can use to calm themselves down, and that when they are worried or anxious, there are other tools that allow them to help themselves. Three year old children are just learning how to identify their feelings. Imagine how powerful it could be for them to realize that they have the power to manage their feelings. The concepts are challenging for any 3 year-old, and in the heat of the moment, sometimes they are challenging for adults. But the idea that the whole school is using the same vocabulary "hmmm, you seem to be having a hard time sitting on that chair, it looks to me like your engine is running really fast" might support mentoring and greater understanding. (The sentence might finish with... "I wonder if it would help you to try that while standing." - providing the strategy.)
I liked the idea, but when it came time to put it into practice with my senior students, it seemed to be missing something; it seemed a bit too one-dimensional. I felt the need for more than just our engines running fast, slow or just right (necessary for optimal learning) and some guesswork at figuring out what works best for each child. A class parent casually mentioned the 'MindUp' program to me. Admittedly, had I known that she had seen it on The View, I might never have looked it up, but I didn't know and when I did look it up, I liked what I saw. 
Here is a link I initially found:
I ordered it via Scholastic. It wasn't a big investment and I had little to loose. Since then, I continue to use the 'how is your engine running' analogy but have mixed it into the Mind Up curriculum for a far more well rounded program. 
I am including a video discussing the reasons and benefits of the Mind Up program. It took me a while to get past the fact that it was Goldie Hawn who started it all - keep looking and you will find a program that has lots to offer. 

What have we done in the classroom so far? My senior kindergarten students have learned that the pre-frontal cortex can also be known as the wise leader as it is important in making wise decisions/choices. They have also learned that the amygdala is the 'security guard'. For example, if we are scared the amygdala might tell us to run (in order to stay safe) or to stay still and of course, perceived threats are blocked by the amygdala. We are still learning about the role of the hippocampus, the memory keeper, like a scrapbook in your brain. We have looked at pictures of an old brain scan (my sisters from the early 80's when she was suffering from migraines) and worked at finding the pre-frontal cortex (we think we did!), the amygdala (they claim they can see it), and the hippocampus.  
We begin most days with a few simple deep breathing excercises, to calm our bodies and minds and prepare ourselves for careful, mindful listening and optimal learning. I even purchased a Tibetan singing bowl (oh, I love the sound) to help focus attention on our breathing. I like that our students are learning to identify when their 'engines' are running too slow or fast, and that there are many strategies one can use to regulate our own engines so that they can run optimally, but I especially like that they are learning about their brains and why they respond in the way they do, and what part of their brains they are activating. They all know what part of brain 'Dad' is using when he shouts at another driver and they know why he cannot make a better decision in that moment. And they are learning to just 'breathe' as a means to gain more self control and make wiser decisions. 

Self-regulation has always been an important topic in early education, so I admit that when I started along this path, I had not realized what a hot topic this had become.  I hadn't even connected the word 'mindful' to the idea of self-regulation.

Our young children are exposed to way more than I ever was. Expectations are more, the way we work is more, and the world we live in has way more (of everything), so it is essential we give our children the tools to deal with the challenges they will face.

I look forward to our next lessons where we will...

I am going to ask questions such as "this part of the brain helps us to remember friends' names"...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Risk Taking

Back to school preparations have really helped me to generate a giant bucket of things to write about, but have also cleared my calendar of any spare time for writing.

I enjoyed the month of August with family. It was a lovely break from routine and restful enough to allow me to return to school pumped and eager for yet another beginning. I especially enjoyed some added time with my 10 year old niece and discovered what an amazing person she is. She has a fabulous sense of humour, loves to read (and reads very well), and has a quick wit that I envy. She is also anxious to do well in school, always striving to complete all of the items on a given rubric so that she can get the best possible grade (she comes by her perfectionist nature quite naturally). She is thinking about her future and what classes she will need, to get into the right University for her chosen career path. She is 10!

I tell you all this because I have come to realize that her education is missing something I believe is vital. She is 10 years old and school has taught her that the purpose of school is to get good grades. I believe the purpose of school is to learn, and in particular, how to learn.

It's a bit of tricky situation. Of course, her family are proud of her good grades. So am I. But in the long term what will serve her well in her work life? Her good grades will be long forgotten, but her ability to think critically, to be a good problem solver, to work collaboratively with others and to think creatively are more likely to help her on the road to success.

I recently read a short article by Alina Tugend (see link) author of Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong.  At e.p.i.c. School, our young students are at a very vulnerable stage and what we teach them is no where near as important as how we teach them. I want our students to learn that mistakes are part of the learning process, and that taking risks will help them achieve new learning.

Reflecting on what sort of classroom environment is needed for our students to learn at their best, for them to be able to take risks, is a list of behaviours that our students must experience. I am certain the list is just a beginning, please feel free to add to it.

  • 'Mistakes' are valued for the learning they provide. 'Mistakes are seen as natural parts of the inquiry process'.
  • Questioning - asking is invited.
  • Teachers ask many open ended questions - where there are no right or wrong answers. In our classroom this is often called 'brainstorming'. 
  • All ideas are o.k. to share.
  • Sometimes questions are asked and not answered.
  • Ideas are discussed for their explanatory potential, ability to solve the problem, rather than being called 'right' or 'wrong'.
  • Inquiry and making mistakes are both modeled.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Young children NEED to move to learn.

Teachers work hard to keep students engaged in learning. Props, manipulatives or even 'surprise' bags with materials hidden inside are just a few strategies I use to create interest and to help maintain attention in a classroom of young students. Supporting the growth of children's attention spans by finding ways to keep them engaged has always been a classroom goal.

Over the years I have learned a tremendous amount about developing young children's attention spans and especially regarding the development of listening skills. It has been a challenging lesson, one which is often at odds with what I learned during my practicum and from every day life experiences: Just because a child isn't looking doesn't mean they aren't listening, and just because a child is wiggling doesn't mean they aren't engaged.

At a recent trip to a movie theatre, (my nephew and I saw 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'), I periodically looked away from the screen and took a look around the theatre. What did I see? People appeared engaged and actively listening, but few were sitting still. One person was jiggling his leg, someone else was rocking back and forth in the big theatre style seat. Others moshed on popcorn and more seemed to change sitting positions often. It was very apparent that there was a lot of movement for a group who were supposed to be listening.

In my classroom, I have a 'fidget basket' for children who need to have something to do so that they can listen. I admit, I continue to work on finding ways to use the materials in the basket without interrupting the attention of others, but I know that children need to be allowed to move. 

I read several education related books this summer (and lots of poolside fiction too!) One of the books I read is called 'Spark: New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey.

"Learning and memory evolved in concert with
the motor functions that allowed our ancestors to track down
food. So far as our brains are concerned, if we're not moving,
there's no real need to learn anything."

I think that say's it all. We need to move to learn. At e.p.i.c. School, our day begins with assembly. Even though there is listening, there is also active participation and movement incorporated into the beginning of the school day. The idea is to wake children up, rev their bodies and get everyone ready for active learning.

"Exercise improves alertness, attention and motivation and is brain food, 
stimulating newer cells in the hippocampus."

Physical breaks during circle time provide a great opportunity to keep children engaged because they aren't sitting too long. When giving children the chance to move, I love to incorporate smart moves such as touching an elbow to the opposite knee, which helps with organization as well. 

Last year, while working at a literacy fair, I met a teacher who worked with children with reading disabilities and he was adamant that children needed to sit still and be quiet in order to learn. I can only wonder how much better those students would have done had they had a teacher who gave them movement breaks, who incorporated movement into their learning activities and respected that they needed to move in order to learn? Perhaps I will meet up with him again this year, and just maybe, with a bit more science-based information in my back pocket, I can convince him to allow his students to move.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

My First Blog Post

Here we go! My first ever blog post. I admit I set up a blog page a few years ago but failed to follow through. It is intimidating to write anything after following favourite bloggers such as Teacher Tom. Ah well, learning is all about taking risks right? So here goes a new learning experience for me, writing for others via a blog.

For my first posting, I want to share a first teaching experience. I have been teaching for more than 20 years now (and am amazed at how quickly those years have added up) but this was a pivotal moment, an important learning experience that has served as a good reminder when teaching young children.
Learning to manage a class of 30 children was new to me and the computer that someone had loaned our classroom provided a great way to occupy students and create some quiet moments in a busy room. The program, it's name long forgotten, was an ideal program to prepare students who had little rural experience for a class trip to a farm.  It had these cute little pigs on the screen, and I had thought, they looked more realistic than cartoonish.

To the farm and straight into the barn we went. The guide began by asking the children to name each animal she pointed to before we did anything else. She pointed to the horses, and the children identified the horses, she pointed to the cows and the children knew they were called cows. After naming typical farm animals she pointed to the last of the animals and .... silence.

30 students and not one knew what the animals in the pen were called! How could that be? We had read stories teaching us about farm animals, talked about what the animals ate and what their babies were called, and we even had a computer program that was filled with facts about them. I was stunned. Why didn't my students know what these animals were? The reason was simple. They weren't cute. They didn't say oink, oink as they did in the stories. They certainly weren't pink, and they were HUGE. This was a pivotal moment for me. My very own concrete learning experience. My students didn't know they were pigs because my students had no experience with these big, smelly creatures and they certainly didn't match up with any concept of a 'pig' presented in the classroom. Telling and seeing isn't enough if you don't have the experience to build on.

This year, my goal is to commit to more hands on learning experiences, and yes, even a few more classroom experiences a la 'Teacher Tom'.