Recently, events around the world and at home have left many of us with a heavy heart. Shootings, alt-right marches, attacks on places of worship - it is deeply troubling to see such hatred and anger, surprising to the vast majority of us who simply cannot understand how you could feel that way towards another human being. Many people are wondering how such a thing could happen, how someone could become so angry, so full of hate, so violent. An equal number of people, searching for a solution, are quick to point the finger at gun control (definitely needs to change), at mental illness (definitely poorly understood and supported), at political divisiveness (clearly a problem) as the root of the problem.
But the bigger question is, and always will be, how? Not how do we stop this from happening again but rather how do we stop people from becoming so angry and hateful in the first place?
It seems that a common condition of being human is wanting things to be fair - getting your share of the proverbial pie is built in to our DNA apparently, a survival mechanism I'm sure. I cannot tell you (although if you teach primary or have young kids, I really don't need to) how many times a day something was not fair to somebody, somehow. Observing the majority of the situations unfold in my classroom, on the playground and in my own home, "it's not fair" had more to do with perception than reality; "it's not fair" stemmed from the assumption that someone was getting something bigger, better or belonging to me, regardless of what was actually needed in that situation (teaching wants vs needs is a whole other post). Take, for instance, the classic "it's not fair!" - one child gets a slightly larger serving at dinner. Often, the child yelling it's not fair has not actually stopped to consider whether or not they need more food; they are saying it simply because there is a perception that everyone should get the same amount. When they don't, the feelings behind "it's not fair" can fester and grow, particularly when it seems like your slice of the pie is slowly being picked at by others, leaving you with less and less.
But what if we could flip this narrative? What if, from a very young age, we taught children two simple things - 1) fair is not always equal and 2) there is power in asking why before deciding something is not fair?
Fair is not always equal
For generations, we have been raised with the belief that fair means everyone getting the same thing, which is both impossible and a bit ridiculous. No two people are the same thus no two people will ever have the same wants and needs. What if our kids grew up knowing this to be true? What if they grew up knowing that there was more than enough to go around? That as long as they are healthy, happy and safe, they can share this abundance with others so that everyone can feel healthy, happy and safe...and that healthy, happy and safe looks and feels different for different people. That it is not only about how much we have but how much we have to give.
As educators, we have the power, at least to a certain extent, to help grant this gift of enough, of fair is not always equal. By modelling, in our classrooms and our schools, that everyone and anyone can access all tools and supports, without prejudice or judgment, we begin to help students decide what is enough for them and to see that others' needs are different. When we normalize support, when we offer it to everyone but don't require anyone to take it, we are teaching students that everyone may need some support to be successful; that there is no shame in needing help, no shame in taking a slightly different slice of the pie. Without normalizing support, without offering it to anyone without the slightest hint of judgement, we continually reinforce the notion that fair should be equal but it isn't, that someone else is taking from my slice of the pie.
The power of asking "why"
We can help students move towards understanding the idea that fair isn't always equal by encouraging them to ask one simple question before declaring "it's not fair!". What if, every time a student felt slighted, felt that something was unjust, they simply asked "why"?
Jimmy (sees Suzie holding his pencil) - "Why did you take my pencil?"
Suzie - "Ummm...sorry, I didn't realize it was your pencil and I needed one."
Suzie (running for the swings just as Jimmy runs for the swings too) - "Why did you take my swing?"
Jimmy - "Oh.....yeah. That wasn't very nice, was it? Here, you can have it."
It is nearly impossible for kids, especially young ones, to lie in the face of this question. "Why" circumvents the immediate defensive response we have when someone calls us on our questionable behaviour - think "Hey! You took my pencil!" with it's immediate response "No I didn't!" Why gives us time to reflect on what we did without feeling defensive. 90% of the time, asking "why" prevents further conflict and allows children to solve problems for themselves. Using this in my classroom last year was a game changer - it reduced tattling and empowered students to seek simple, non-confrontational solutions to their problems. It allowed them a little window into the thinking of their classmates - I cannot tell you the number of times the first situation above was immediately followed up by a neighbouring child offering up a pencil that they had in their desk. Asking why helped my students to develop empathy in ways that no lesson from the teacher ever will.
Imagine how the world would change if this generation of kids grows up knowing that fair is not always equal? Knowing that different people need different things to be healthy, happy and safe? What if they knew that asking a simple question like "Why?" de-escalated situations, provided a window into the wants and needs of others and opened the door to collaborative problem-solving opportunities. As educators, as parents, we have the power to make this happen. Tomorrow, as you go about your day, look for opportunities to ask why, look for opportunities to encourage children to ask why. You just might change the world.
Here in the Okanagan summer is in full swing, which means long, hot (really hot, 40 degree kind of hot) days. It also means opportunities to spend time at the lake, hike, bike, laze in the shade, eat every meal outside and just generally soak in the beauty of where we live. Back in the spring, when camp registration brochures were coming home daily, I made the conscious decision not to schedule my kids this summer; no camps, no lessons, just wide open stretches of time. Partly this is a selfish decision - I don't want to spend my summer driving my kids here, there, and everywhere - but mainly I wanted them to choose their own adventures. I wanted them to have time to run through the sprinkler and then sit around in wet bathing suits eating watermelon with the juice running down their chin. I wanted them to seek shade with a book or a journal in the heat of the afternoon. I wanted them to walk two blocks over to knock on their friend's door and see if she's home, then rip around the neighbourhood on their bikes like some ragamuffin biker gang. I wanted them to feel free. (Please note - I am a teacher. I don't work in the summer so I have the luxury of allowing my children this freedom. This is not an option for everyone. Don't feel bad, don't feel guilty. Do what you need to do.)
Even as our summer began to fill up with a few trips to visit family and friends, I was feeling pretty good about my decision. Then an email hit my inbox - something to the effect of "Banish boredom and stop the summer slide with these daily learning activites". The email then went on to explain that with just a little prep you could have an activity a day for each child that would keep them learning all summer. There was a calendar and materials lists all provided. I'm not gonna lie, I thought about it for a hot second. Prepared activities for my kids to do every day? Something to suggest when the dreaded "I'm bored" (which, by the way, I swore my kids would never say but, of course, they do) reared it's ugly head? Sign me up! And then I envisioned the last-minute trips to the dollar store, panicking late at night about printables and the 30 or so seconds my kids would probably spend on the activity and I hit delete faster than you can say "Hell nah". This was the complete antithesis to the simple summer I had envisioned; planned activities wouldn't encourage creativity and independence, they would stifle it. Individualized baskets of supplies would not foster collaboration and communication, they would eliminate it. Feeling like you had to do something (me and them) would not create calm and confidence, it would stress us all out. So no, just no.
What will we be doing to encourage some summer learning instead?
Going to the public library
Our local library came to the school and did an awesome sell job on their summer reading club. While it is heavily prize driven, which generally isn't my thing, my class and my kiddos were super stoked about it (plus, most of the prizes are books, so who's really going to complain about that?). They also have some pretty great kids drop-in programs that encourage a wide variety of learning, from STEAM to magic to the natural world. Plus, the library is a great place to get out of the heat. And with the rate at which my kids are filling up their reading/activity logs, we'll be there a lot!
Totally not a word. It should be though. My kids love riddles and jokes and we have found them to be a great way to fill up car rides and lazy afternoons at the lake. Google riddles for kids and you will find a ton of easy (and not so easy!) riddles to share with your family. Pretty much guaranteed there will be a few jokes in there too. And that your kids will start making up their own. You've been warned.
This one is not necessarily for every kid but is huge in our house. My kids love to write and often mimic the books that we read to them, which is a great way to sneak in some good modelling. You can also encourage your kids to write letters, postcards or emails, keep a journal or start a back and forth book where they write to you and you write back. Setting up Lego or Playmobil characters, taking some photos and then writing about them is a super fun way to get into writing too (see this post for more).
Playing card and board games is a great way to pass a slow afternoon or evening and is some of the richest learning around for kids. Our favourites right now are Uno, Clue, Quirkle and Labyrinth. Our oldest (8) started playing cribbage last summer and caught on so quickly! The great thing about card and board games is that they teach all sorts of skills that are challenging to teach really well in a classroom but are so important - strategy, turn-taking, losing gracefully, playing for fun, even letting others win sometimes. My husband often plays a hand or two of Uno with the girls before he heads off to work in the morning; it's a great way to slip in some quality dad-time in what is otherwise a pretty mom-filled summer.
Trying new things
Some kids enjoy trying new things, some do not. I happen to have one of each. Knowing just how far I can stretch my oldest outside of her comfort zone is an art that I have only partly mastered, so sometimes trying new things is a good time and other times not so much. It is, however, always a good learning experience; we learn that new things can be hard, even if we're really excited about them, we learn that patience and perseverance are important skills, we learn that we are not always good at things the first time, and we learn the sense of accomplishment that comes with mastering something new. Of course, psychology tells us there's a lot more going on that just that - as we learn new things, our brain is growing, reinforcing and pruning neurons like crazy, making us smarter and more mentally agile. Good for kids and adults alike!
The concept of physical literacy has been growing in popularity in recent years; knowing how your body moves and how to move it are key skills for life-long health. While it is easy, especially in the heat, to stay inside and be lazy, getting outside every day is fundamentally important to both our physical and mental health. It's also an easy one to couple with trying something new - instead of your regular bike ride on a paved path, find a skills park or easy mountain bike trail in your area and give it a shot. Instead of going for a walk in your neighbourhood, find a hike close by that you've never tried before. If it is really hot out (or smoky, as it is here right now due to some pretty major forest fires burning to the north), try something new indoors - hit a climbing gym, drop-in gymnastics program or swimming pool. No matter how you do it, make sure you get active every day.
Playing - together and alone
Free play is so important for kids! From selecting an activity that is interesting and engaging to you (and others) to having the mental stamina to keep the game going without direction from others, free play builds creativity, stamina, self-awareness and more. Playing with a friend or two brings in cooperation, collaboration, empathy, sharing and managing group dynamics. While occasionally I have to step in and help when emotions start running high, I try to stay out of the kids' way as much as possible. Allowing them to sort out challenges in their own way empowers them to be problem-solvers and encourages them to think of solutions that make everyone happy and keep the game going (or start another one!). All of these skills are fundamental life-skills that are just as important as reading, writing and 'rithmetic.
In the end, I want this summer to be about self-directed fun that isn't structured or organized by an adult. While I know that this may result in more than one "I'm Bored!" I think the skills that my kids will learn are worth it. And who knows, we might just sneak in a mom-planned activity here or there to keep us going!
Teacher: "I am feeling so overwhelmed lately. We just have so much going on at school."
Me: "Oh? What's up?"
Teacher: "Well, we're doing Shelley Moore."
Me (in my head): Wait, what?!
Me (out loud): "I'm unclear. What do you mean?"
Teacher: "Well, you know, Shelley Moore."
And so on. By the end of the conversation I was no clearer on what they were actually doing (although I was pretty sure it wasn't Shelley Moore, herself, thankfully) and I don't think this poor teacher was either.
Please don't misunderstand, I am not blaming this teacher or her administration. They were attempting to adopt practices that are best for kids, I have no doubt about that. But we have a bad habit in education of adopting practices without necessarily adopting the philosophy behind them. Without really looking at the habits of mind that led someone to these practices in the first place. This comes from a well-meaning place, on the part of both teachers and administrators; we want what's best for kids, so we jump on the latest and greatest bandwagon, without taking the time to unpack the "why" of the bandwagon. We're busy and time-crunched and want to get started bringing the awesomeness to the kiddos, so we jump in to practice. While we may adopt the practices, and some of them might even stick, we don't ever start driving the bandwagon until the philosophy that led someone to start the bandwagon in the first place settles in to our soul as something we know to be true, something we need to be true.
It's a bit of a catch-22, really. Some people readily adopt the philosophy, while others need to toe-dip in to the practices and see what a difference they can make before they are convinced. I think the key, though, is to ensure that the why behind the whole shebang is clearly articulated and continuously reinforced. And it has to be detailed; wanting success for all students is something every educator would say they espouse, but believing, unequivocally, that every student can be successful is something we, as a society, have been trained to disbelieve. We live in a world of averages, where comparison to the norm tells us how smart we are, how capable, how likely to succeed (for more on this read Todd Rose's book The End of Average). This thinking is ingrained in our education system; we test kids against benchmarks all the time and send the outliers to a special teacher for special help. We expect the bell curve to exist, so we unintentionally create a self-fulfilling prophecy; the bulk of the kids will be average, a handful will be the outliers. And outliers are difficult to reach, or so we've been taught.
This, my friends, is where Shelley Moore, and others like her, enter the picture. Shelley (hopefully she doesn't mind being on a first name basis) is a funny, engaging speaker with a great deal of experience teaching the outliers. With entertaining anecdotes and great analogies (see the bowling video here), Shelley is working hard to show the "average" teacher that you can successfully reach all your students, even those pesky outliers. And this is how you end up doing Shelley Moore; great ideas + great salesmanship = lots of people jumping on your bandwagon. Yay! Fantastic, right? Well, yes, except some people get so caught up in the excitement they jump on the bandwagon without knowing where the bandwagon is headed, others get dragged on to the bandwagon whether they want to or not and still others are happy to ride the bandwagon until it gets to where they're going. Point is, not everyone is there because they are ready and willing to drive the bandwagon. So let's celebrate that they are on the bandwagon and then let's work our butts off to make sure that they know, deep down in the centre of their being, that this is the right bandwagon to be on.
If we're lucky, they might just create a bandwagon of their own.
If you read my last post, you know that I tried out provocations last week with great success. With a gentle nudge from a colleague, I realized that this was actually not the first time I had tried out provocations (is a provocation by any other name still a provocation?) so, with a little reflection, I've come up with a few tips and tricks to make provocations go well in your classroom.
Provocations do not need to be complicated or grand. They are not "the big show". They are the nudge that sets your students on the path to wondering, thinking, learning. They are as simple as a great book, an interesting picture, an object out of place, a piece of art, a stick brought in from outside. Anything that sparks your students in to wondering, discussing or acting is a provocation.
Keep it simple.
If you've been cruising Pinterest or Instagram you've seen provocations that are, well, Pinterest-worthy. If you're in to spending several weekends sourcing items and creating elaborate scenes, by all means, be my guest. Want to know a secret though? The prettiest table was the last one my students were drawn to and they actually spent very little time there. I think they instinctively shied away from it because they didn't want to wreck it; they wanted to get messy and creative and that wasn't the place to do it. Keep your tables accessible and kid-friendly and save yourself some time in the process.
One of the greatest things about provocations are what you hear from the kids. The wonder, the awe, the questions, the aha moments - those are what you really want to capture. On your own, this is incredibly difficult. Even with an iPad or phone to record the action, you will have trouble getting to everyone. So enlist some help. Another teacher, your principal, support staff, parents; whomever you can find to help you record what the students are thinking as they experience the provocations. Not only is it fascinating to see what they think, these thoughts will guide your planning for the rest of the unit or allow you to see what your students have learned.
Be open to the experience.
I am pretty open to mess, noise and chaos in my classroom. Many teachers are not. During the provocations I sometimes found it difficult to check my instincts and allow things to continue despite the mess and chaos. Shaving cream and food colouring on the couch? Sure. In your hair? Why not? Dripping across the floor from one end of the classroom to the other? Ummmm....Often it didn't feel like my students were headed in the learning direction I had intended (or any learning direction at all for that matter) but their direction is the the direction that really matters when it comes to provocations. You plan the provocation but you don't get to decide where they take it. If you feel like kiboshing something, step back, wait for a moment and decide if you really need to step in or if you're just trying to control the situation.
Resist the urge to control.
Directly related to the last tip, resist the urge to control. As teachers we spend a lot of time controlling people and situations; this is not the place for that. Let things flow the way that they flow. It might not go the way that you think it will go but you can still learn a lot from it. Appreciate the learning for what it is, not what you wanted it to be.
Check your language.
Language is so very powerful; unintentionally, we can use it to control and guide a situation. A great idea is to ask questions instead of commenting on what is going on; "Tell me about what you're doing/what you see here", "What are you wondering about that?", "Are you curious about anything at this table?", "What made you try that?", "What are you going to do next?"
Start small, grow big.
I was lucky; I had lots of support in the form of people and already created provocation tables. If you don't find yourself in this auspicious situation, consider introducing provocations a little at a time. Start with a book, add in a picture (consider trying this technique from Making Thinking Visible), then move to one table in the back of your room. Allow kids to explore and move through each experience, loop back to one that worked well, then try the next one on for size. When you`re ready, go big (with help, see above).
In the end, the most important thing to remember is that provocations are designed to elicit a response from your students; you can structure the provocation to guide their thinking but you cannot control where they take it. There is beauty in that. There is freedom in that. There is so much to be learned and explored by following your students where they lead. Provocations are a reciprocal learning opportunity between teacher and student; be open to the opportunities and you and your students will reap the rewards.
If you are trying to figure out where to go after introducing a provocation to your classroom, consider having your students record their wonders. This will make their thinking visible to you and allow you to figure out which way to go next. To help you out, I created this simple freebie for them to record their learning on. Click on the picture to download (also available in French - click on the pic and then follow the link in the description).
Good luck, be patient, have fun and enjoy! Let me know how it goes...
It is no secret that I love collaborative teaching and learning (it's in my bio, over there ---->) and this week was one of so much fantastic collaboration with some pretty incredible people. I am incredibly lucky to have such amazing people around me.
What, you ask, was all of this fantastic collaboration about? Provocations. Water provocations, specifically. And man oh man were they amazing! Seeing my class exploring, experimenting, wondering and learning in a self-directed way was inspiring, to say the least.
This all started because I wanted to break out of the literacy centres, math centres mold and really try teaching in a much more holistic way. It's something I have been struggling with in Grade 2 and Grade 2 French Immersion specifically and will continue to struggle with for awhile, I'm sure - how to teach fundamental concepts like learning to read, write and do basic math without relegating social studies and science to cute little experiments and projects that are completely out of context. And before you give the standard "well, you just weave reading and writing and math in to your social studies unit" - which seems to be the pat answer from people who are either a) not primary teachers or b) not in the classroom day-to-day (and I freely admit that this has been me so no offense intended) - please take a moment to consider the resources necessary to do this effectively (lots of leveled readers on topic, in French, in my case; thoughtful, well-planned math assignments that are more than just decorated with pictures that fit the theme; mentor texts that lead to fantastic writing that fits the theme, and so on and so forth. And time. So much time.). Doable? Absolutely. Alone? Not without losing your mind. The amount of time, brain power and resources it takes to create a unit of study that effectively melds curriculum with student-interest and dynamic teaching is crazy high. Definitely worth the effort in the end, though.
Anyways. As they sometimes do, the stars aligned to allow me to bring together a group of incredibly knowledgeable educators who were willing to help me plan a unit that aligns with multiple areas of the curriculum, is responsive to my students' needs and interests and allows multiple subjects to be woven together in to some really rich learning opportunities.
Provocations are a Reggio-Emilia approach that are most easily conceptualized as anything that stimulates a child to wonder about, act upon or otherwise engage with a topic. While these often take the form of provocation tables, they can be as simple as books, photos, items from nature, a single object or an event that grabs a child's interest. So, in all likelihood, you are probably already using provocations in your day-to-day teaching practice and you just don't know it. Go you!
By the definition above, my unit is filled with provocations (go me!) but we specifically brought in some provocation tables to stimulate wonders (aka questions) that would guide the direction of the rest of the unit. Lucky for me, water provocations are apparently a hot topic this year (who knew I was so on trend?) so our district Instructional Leadership Team had a number of provocation tables prepared; I added a couple of my own that I thought would respond to the needs of my class and we were off.
So much excitement. So much curiousity. So much wonder. Although we cut them off after 45mins to allow another class to check the provocations out I think my kiddos could have kept going for at least an hour. They thrive on this stuff. I'm stoked to see where this takes us!
As usually seems to be the case with me and blogging, I only get around to writing when the universe conspires to remind me, with a degree of a repetitiveness that I just can't ignore, that something is important enough to blog about. Psst...People are wondering about this, Bryn - look, over here! And here! And there! Riiiiggghhhttt. Got it. Clearly, I am a little slow on the uptake. Anyways. This time, it's apps.
I When it comes to technology, I am a bit of an oxymoron; I am hugely passionate about its (informed) use in schools yet I fiercely limit my own children's access to it. In large part this is because my time with my children is limited and I want to spend that time interacting with them, not having them ignore me while they stare at a screen. I want to read them great books, draw pictures, do crafts, bake and play board games with them; I want to build connection and memories in the small amount of time I have between getting home from work and bedtime every night. Not that I needed validation for choosing this approach but I smiled when an article entitled "Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent" crossed my path; apparently the guru himself and I are on the same wave-length.
However, I freely acknowledge that there are many times when technology just makes life easier (like, you know, nightly, when I'm making dinner and answering 400 questions and helping create some fantastical beast out of toilet paper rolls and wishing that I could just.let.go. a little bit and turn the damn tv on and therefore make dinner in peace). In those times, I want to be able to turn to high-quality apps that do more than just entertain my child (once an educator, always an educator. Sorry, kiddos). But in a sea of 40,000 apps in the iTunes Education category alone, how does one even begin to choose? Well, I've been fortunate enough to stumble across some really great ones, have a few recommended to me and found a few on great sites such as Common Sense Media. I share my favourites with you here - on my page aptly titled Great Apps & Websites.
A disclaimer, of sorts, before you click that link - I am very picky about the apps that I share. As mentioned before, there are tens of thousands of apps out there; I list 14. Why? Because a) there is a huge difference between a high-quality learning app and a game that has had the education tag slapped on it for effect, b) with few exceptions, apps are generally about practice rather than learning. Or playing, with a little bit of practice sandwiched in there somewhere. I have tried to find the apps that will truly help your child learn something new, whether they know it or not, and c) if I wouldn't choose it for my own kiddos, I'm not going to recommend it to you.
I have also chosen apps that are as general as possible in their scope (if your child is obsessed with space, there are some pretty wicked space apps out there but I did not mention them here) and promote the development of broad thinking skills as much as they promote skill-specific practice.
Your time is limited. Searching through the app store only to come up with mediocre apps is frustrating and not in your child's best interests. Hopefully my list helps you find a few apps that will inspire your kids to think and wonder and learn and maybe will even connect you with some other great gems along the way. Please share them with me if you find them!
I've been experimenting with flexible seating this year. And by experimenting I mean that I gave away all my desks in favour of 5 tables, 3 couches, 10 hokki stools, 25 carpet squares, 1 standing table and a few stand alone desks. I've learned a lot over the course of the first four months of the school year (see here and here for more about that) and am ready to make some changes.
You see, my current model of flexible seating has not really worked for this particular group of kiddos. It hasn't really worked for me either. They are a very social group who are still choosing to sit with friends rather than people who will help them learn. I find it very challenging to be as rigid as you need to be about the rules and am coming home exhausted from constantly regulating student behaviour. Perhaps we didn't model and practice these things enough early in the year. Perhaps my unwavering expectations wavered too often. Who knows. What I do know is that we are ready for a change.
Setting up for change
As a class, we had a discussion about how they felt about the seating arrangement. At the beginning of the year there was a lot of disappointment about not having desks; I thought that had faded by now, but no. About half of the students still want desks - some because they want to learn on their own, away from a group, some because they would like some personal space to store their belongings. A few spoke up about wanting assigned seats so that they were not responsible for constantly choosing where they sat (these were mainly the ones who struggle to make good choices) and most wanted to know where they were going every day. They want their own space. They want to lessen the anxiety and the conflict in the classroom. I can totally get on board with that.
Choosing limited choice.
I value the idea of allowing students choice in their learning. I believe that it empowers them to be self-aware and more active in their learning. However, I do think there is such a thing as too much choice, especially for the little guys. We had too much choice going on and it was leading to problems. So, how to have choice but not too much choice? Here's what I decided to do. Each student wrote on a piece of paper whether they would prefer to work in a group, a partnership or solo. They then wrote 1 person they learn well with, 1 person they do not learn well with and 1 friend. They know that they will have the opportunity to do this every 3 weeks and that I will do my best to accomodate their requests. Once they are set up at their new "home" there will be many times throughout the day when they can choose to work on the floor, at the standing table or on the couches. In this way, they have the comfort and security of a home base but do not have to sit and work at a table all day every day. They also do not have to choose a new spot all the time if they don't want to. Hopefully, this will bring down the anxiety and conflict in the room yet still allow my kiddos to be the best learners they can be.
Over the holidays I have brought in the few extra desks I could find around the school to accomodate those that want to work solo. Hopefully in the new year we will be able to scrounge more desks for those that want them. For now, we will have to make do with knowing that we have our own place within the classroom that we can always come back to and that we are responsible for maintaining.
Check back later to see how we do!
Update - apparently desks are on their way! We will have 18 desks and 2 tables (1 large, 1 small) for the kids to work at. I'm so excited for this next phase!
If you read my last post you know that flexible seating has not exactly gone off without a hitch in my classroom. It has been a learning experience in so many ways. While I still love the idea of students being able to choose where they work throughout the day, I also value the idea of being a responsive teacher. Really, really value it. So in light of some recent feedback from parents and students, as well as an awareness of the behaviours in my classroom and knowledge of my own personality (whew, that sounds like a lot of things to think about all at once!), I am moving away from the model of flexible seating that I have been using up until now. Why, you ask? Read on to learn more...
We need a home base.
Imagine showing up to work every day and knowing that you were going to have to pick your seat several times throughout the day. No office, no desk of your own, no corner that belonged just to you. Imagine that every time you got up to go get a drink or sharpen a pencil someone snagged your chair because they didn't realize anyone was sitting there. Imagine not having a place to put the things that you brought with you to make you feel comfortable. Doesn't sound like much fun, does it? In fact, for many adults this situation would produce a fair bit of anxiety. And yet, this is what flexible seating does to kids.
Over these first few months of the school year, I have seen a rise in the anxiety level of some of my more sensitive kids. I have seen more conflicts arising with those that lack self-control. In general, the feel in my room is not the feel that I was hoping for at all. Kids crave structure and knowing where they are starting and ending each day helps to instill this structure.
There is way too much movement throughout the day.
In the primary grades we change activities frequently, which means we change tools frequently. In the model of flexible seating that I currently have, our tools are not at our fingertips. Our book boxes are stored in one area of the classroom, our notebooks in another. In order to change activities we have to completely tidy up from one, move around to put things away and then move around to proceed to get out the new items. Movement is good to break up the day but this kind of movement is not what we need. My class is very social and getting up to put things away means 23 opportunities to stop and chat along the way which equals a lot of wasted time. I tried timing them and that helps but it still doesn't solve the problem. I have designated students to hand out materials but 2 kids handing papers out to an entire class is way too time consuming for me. Having materials at our fingertips (in our desks) will make it easier to eliminate a lot of wasted time.
There is a lack of ownership of space and place.
One of the things that I really want to instill in my class is a sense of shared ownership and responsibility for our materials and classroom. What I have found with this particular groups of kiddos is that there are a few who will happily clean up after the majority and a majority who will happily let that happen while they chat away. Unfortunately, this does little to instill a sense of shared ownership and more directly results in kids believing that they can drop pencils on the floor, leave garbage lying around and not tidy up their work space because someone else will always clean it up for them. So. Frustrating. I have tried making them stay at their workspaces until all is tidied up but again, 3 group members stand around and watch while one group member tidies. I have played ``magic spot`` many times and, hey, it works, but, honestly, bribing kids with a small prize in order to tidy up really doesn`t sit well with me (at least not on a regular basis. I don`t object to it as a once in awhile thing after a big art project, let`s say). No, I want to be able to say ``Joe, please tidy up your space`` and know that it is probably Joe who made the mess. I also think it will be easier to support students who struggle with being messy as I will be able to give them a concrete space to monitor and clean as necessary.
I dislike being a nag...and they dislike it too.
Of all that I have read about flexible seating, the key seems to be an unwavering commitment to moving students the minute they lose focus on the task at hand and begin talking to their neighbours. In my very social class, this has become a never-ending nag fest. They don't like it and neither do I (it's exhausting!). One of my boys actually said to me "Madame, can't you just assign us seats?!" He is aware of the fact that he regularly makes the choice to sit with friends but can't seem to help himself in the moment. He knows that no matter how many times I remind him and move him, he's just not at the point where he is able to make choices based on his learning needs rather than his social ones and he's sick of hearing his name 4000 times a day. And he's asking for help. Yes! That's awesome. As a responsive teacher, I want to meet his needs and help him be the best learner he can be. Ball's in my court.
Lack of flexibility.
While this might seem odd - flexible seating causing a lack of flexibility? - I do find that having only tables, a few desks and couches is very limiting for this group of kiddos. For the most part, they don't like to stand, so the standing table very rarely gets used (except during art, they love it then) and they don't really like to work on the floor, so mainly they choose to sit at the tables or on the couches. Here's where the lack of flexibility comes in - if you're a kiddo who prefers to work alone and at a table, I don't have a lot of options for you (I have 3 solo/partner options). If I had desks, we could easily change our classroom setup from groups to partners to solo and back again; with tables, I have no flexibility. When we discussed our seating arrangements as a class, about half of the class said they would prefer desks. Unfortunately, storage is limited at our school and all of the desks have been hauled away so we will have to wait and see if we can get some back.
In the end, what I've realized is that I believe in the power of student choice when it comes to empowering them in their learning. I believe that being responsive to student need is one of my utmost priorities as a teacher and I need to make sure that I have the tools accessible to do that. The model of flexible seating that I have chosen does not work for this particular group of students and so I'm abandoning it, for now. Who knows what next year's group will be like?
Want to know what I plan to do instead? Check out my next post in this series, here. Missed the first post? Check it out here.
Heading in to this school year, I whole-heartedly embraced flexible (or self-selected, whichever you choose to call it) seating. To me it sounded like such a great way to meet the needs of so many learners, provide a cozy, communal feel to the room and allow students to build their self-awareness. Win, win, win.
So, I diligently did my research, reading blog post after blog post. I learned about all the different options for seating and storage and flow. I set my classroom up with all of these things in mind.
And then the students came.
Aaaannnnd I learned a few things, which I share with you here. I still love flexible seating, I just know now that it is not all rainbows and unicorns, especially with 7 year olds (let's be honest, 7 year olds are rainbows and unicorns most of the time, which kind of makes life around them...not. Rainbows and unicorns make a lot of mess, people. Lovely, wonderful mess, but mess nonetheless).
5. Figure out your storage plan. And then add more.
My initial storage plan involved communal everything - pencils, erasers, scissors, duotangs - everything went into group boxes. The only non-communal storage items were personal book bins for reading times. It sounded great - I labeled every pencil bin and every table...easy peasy. I assigned students the job of handing out duotangs and papers. We were good to go. And then the questions started - "Where can I keep my pencil case?", "What about my glasses? I don't want to carry them all day!", "Who's this kid? (shows me a duotang)...and what about this one? And this one?" Oh my word.
I quickly realized 3 things - 1) they must have some personal space to store things, 2) an exciting part of Gr. 2 is having your own space. When you don't, you don't feel as grown up. And 3) constantly passing out an entire class's worth of duotangs means a lot of sitting around for 22 other kids.
Now, we got over #2 pretty quickly and are trucking along just fine feeling all grown up. After all, being allowed to work on couches with your friends* feels pretty grown up.
*we'll talk more about this later. For now, suffice it to say that this is huge management piece in and of itself.
#1 is still a pain in the butt. Our book bins are too large to be brought with us to the tables every time, not to mention the amount of time taking them out and putting them away 15 times a day would take us. I purchased a cardboard mailbox thingy but the slot isn't big enough for things like glasses cases. And it would appear that when messy rainbows and unicorns pull one thing out of their mailbox, everything else comes with it. Straight to the floor with a big plop. Which some of the rainbows and most of the unicorns forget to clean up. Sigh.
Since the purpose of this post is to allow you to learn from my, ahem, challenges, let me suggest that you a) make sure every child has a reasonably sized personal storage space that can contain glasses cases, a pencil box (if you choose not to use communal supplies) and several duotangs, notebooks, etc. I personally would have a separate book bin, as you will end up with notebooks and duotangs getting buried in books or strewn about the classroom during reading times. See point above about the neatness of rainbows and unicorns. Which leads me to my next point...
4. Really, seriously consider the flow of your room.
I am blessed with a decent size space, thank goodness, but unfortunately I have only 1 wall without a door, sink or board on it, which means that my storage options are limited. I also have a completely useless shelving unit that is about 4 inches deep taking up a good chunk of real estate on one of my walls. I say this not to complain but to point out that storage space is essential for a flexible seating classroom. You must be able to quickly and efficiently get supplies out and put them away; and when I say you, I really mean 24 little darlings. I am not the first person to realize this...see this blog post from Minds in Bloom and this one from Lives of Learning for more ideas.
Ideally, store about 5 students' supplies (book bin, pencil case, duotangs, etc) in one area. More than this and you spend a lot of your day managing the flow of people so that unicorns don't trample rainbows in their quest to get to work. Have separate areas of the class for each group of 5 so that they are not tripping over one another to get where they are going. Make sure that the storage areas are at a reasonable height (a few of my kiddos are pretty short and can't actually see in to their mailboxes) and are easy to keep tidy.
If you are in the same boat as I am and storage space is at a premium (maybe or maybe not due to a large and useless shelving unit), number your students. We are learning a lot about even and odd numbers just simply by virtue of having to manage flow. I allow the evens to go first to get their supplies while the odds pick their seats. I allow numbers 1-5 to put their book bins away, then 6-10 and so on and so forth. It is a bit more time consuming this way but we're learning to be more efficient as time goes on.
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to consider flow. Do it. Have someone else look at your plan. Rethink. Rethink again. Try it. Drop it like it's hot. Change it. Try it again. Eventually you will have a well-oiled rainbow and unicorn machine.
3. Consider having home groups.
Sometimes you need kids to quickly form groups, or you need to be sure the classroom has been well-tidied at the end of the day. Home groups allow you to quickly and easily have kids go back to a certain spot in the room and ensure it is tidy. They allow you to have work groups that you know work well (mostly...there are always conflicts, even with rainbows and unicorns) without having to move people because they chose to sit with their friends instead of people they work well with. Home groups just make some days and some activities quicker and easier.
2. Model, Model, Model.
No matter what seating options you end up with in your classroom, do not, under any circumstances, assume that your students know how to sit, stand or otherwise use the tools they have been given. Sure, they've sat on a couch a million times before. At home. Do you know how they sit on their couch at home? That's right, they don't. They lie on it, they jump on it, they climb on it. I'm pretty sure they never actually sit on it, and certainly never with a piece of writing to work on.
So, model, model, model. About half of the seating in my room is hokki stools, which most of my students have used before. So, I skipped the step of modeling how to sit on a hokki stool. Because really, how hard can it be? They`re wobbly, so self-preservation would suggest that you keep at least a toe on the floor at all times for balance. But no. Rainbows and unicorns are built for exploring, that is how they learn. So now, daily, rainbows and unicorns fall off the hokki stools as they attempt to spin, balance and kneel when the boss is not looking. And now, daily, we have to review how to sit on a hokki stool.
Do yourself a favour and model the heck out of every possible seating option you have available to you. Praise the students that use them correctly and actively correct those that don`t. Short term pain for long term gain, trust me.
1. Have unwavering behaviour expectations.
-The beauty of self-selected seating is that students are not forced to sit in uncomfortable, ill-fitting chairs at uncomfortable, ill-fitting desks all day. The challenge is that you no longer have control over where they choose to sit. The rose-coloured glasses version of this fairy-tale suggests that students will choose the spot that they need to be successful, regardless of where there friends are sitting. But take off those rose-coloured glasses for a minute and consider what motivates kids - school work or friendship? Riiigggghhht.
So that means that you, dear teacher, need to help them learn to make good choices. In a traditional classroom set-up, you would simply move their desks so that they were on opposite sides of the room. That is no longer a possibility. It also isn't really much of a learning opportunity. The student has not had any form of agency in the move, so they haven't learned to consider what is best for their learning in that moment. In a flexible seating arrangement, you can allow students the freedom to choose within the confines of a very strict, do-not-pass-go-do-not-collect-$200, I will move you if you show me you have not made a good choice for your learning situation.
What I have found is that reminding students of their purpose before they begin a task, advising them to make a good choice based on this purpose and maintaining an absolutely inflexible rule about when you will move them results in them beginning to make good choices. For me, no warnings at all has worked best. 1 warning generally resulted in about 5 minutes of better focus and then they fell off the rails again. The reality is, there are just some kids they are better off not working beside at certain times (I have 2 darling boys who love to read together and oh are they cute curled up on the sofa reading but let them write sitting side by side and it's a disaster. They are learning that as much as I am). It's tough constantly being the police but man, is it rewarding when they start making those good choices. And reward them you must! They need to know that they are making the right choices at the right times and that you are proud of them. Rainbows and unicorns love praise. Love it. Eat it up like candy.
And know that when you slip, because we all slip when we are tired or stressed or sick or they are just-so-bloody-cute-you-can't-resist-letting-them-just-this-one-time, you can go back. Warn the kids that you have all fallen off the rails a bit and that this week is get back on track week. Let them know that it might be tough but that you can all do it and you will all be better for it. And then praise the heck out of them again and again and again when they do get back on track.
In the end, flexible seating is all about making sure that students' learning is being enhanced, rather than hampered by their environment. It definitely takes some work but I love having the opportunity for students to a) learn what works best for them when it comes to their learning and b) have what works best for them help them learn.
Read my follow-up post, Why I'm Abandoning Flexible Seating, to learn more about my thoughts on flexible seating in Gr. 2 (hint: I'm not totally abandoning it).
The beginning of the school year is a time of hunkering down and doing your own thing in your own classroom but it is also a time of running in to people you haven't seen in awhile, at Pro-D, at school, at meetings. Making a big move, moving from the known to the unknown, has led to some very interesting conversations with people I run in to. Generally, they go something like this:
Other teacher (with a suspicious, this-can't-possibly-be-true tone) - "So...you're not in LAT anymore, right?"
Me - "That's right. Teaching Gr. 2 French Immersion now."
Other teacher - "Wow! What a change! How's it going?"
At this point, I have a choice to make - I can choose to smile and answer "Oh, great, it's going really, really well", which is the socially expected response or I can answer honestly, which sounds a little more like "It's good. It's hard, really, really hard. There's so much I don't know, so much I didn't realize about teaching little guys." It's a little too naked, a little too honest for most people, but it's the truth. So what do I do?
For the most part, I choose to tell the truth. This is hard, it is very new to me (it's still September, after all) and I'm ok with that. I think it's important that people know that this is a huge learning curve for me but that I'm working through it, that I'm ok with not knowing and learning as I go. To hide this process is kind of like trying to hide a cannonball in the deep end - everyone already knows I've made the leap, I might as well own the noise and the mess too.
What inevitably transpires after I own the noise and the mess is this - people jump in to save me: "Oh, so and so teaches Gr. 2 I'm sure that they have stuff for you" (love that word, stuff, as if more pieces of paper will help me figure this out); "Isn't ________ (name of very experienced Gr. 2 teacher) helping you out? I'm sure she would, you just have to ask!" (which leads to me backing her up because yes, as a matter of fact, she has been very helpful). Apparently, being in the deep end means I am drowning and everyone feels the need to throw me a life raft (a well-intentioned life raft, but a life raft nonetheless).
Honestly, though? I'm ok in the deep end. It might not be pretty and I may go under every now and then but as I struggle I am learning what works for me. Floating on someone else's life raft doesn't teach me to swim; I need to learn to kick, move my arms and breathe all on my own. I'll happily take a coach or two and some tools along the way but this is my process and my learning curve; my deep end.
In her book, Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle Melton talks about our society's need to take the pain away when we see it in others. We aren't comfortable being uncomfortable and we really aren't comfortable seeing others in discomfort. The deep end is not comfortable; it is messy and deep, so deep. But it is in discomfort that we grow and so, I must work through this discomfort on my own. I must find my own rhythm and my own stroke in order to be able to feel good about swimming.
So to those who have offered to save me, thank you. Thank you for wanting to take the discomfort away, thank you for wanting me to feel more comfortable. I appreciate it. I'm going to be ok, though. It might not be pretty, it might not be smooth, but I will figure it out. I will learn how to swim in the deep end.
PS - to those of you who have offered to jump in to the deep end with me, who have jumped in to the deep end with me, I cannot thank you enough. Having someone swimming beside me means a lot.
I'm Bryn, teacher, mom, book lover, athlete. I am passionate about living life with my family, teaching and learning something new all the time. I hope you find something that speaks to you here on my blog and would love to hear from you too!