Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Field Trip: The Bonnechere Caves!

The Bonnechere Caves provide inspiration for budding geologists, paleontologists, and artists alike! The natural curves and contours carved by water over ten thousand years offer much to the reflective soul. The invitation to brush one's hand across the fluting and scalloping patterns of water over rock is irresistible. 

Layers and layers of sea mud, sand, and long-deceased marine creatures create the layers of limestone, and only the power of water and time could reveal such beauty: a cephalopod shell forever encased in its sea bed, stalactites formed patiently by the eternal drip-drip-drip that is a cave's nature, and a passage curving ahead to unknown mysteries.

My Kindergarten students were completely awed by the experience of walking so far under the earth. When I suggested that a deer or a person might be walking over our heads at that very moment, their eyes grew wide with wonder.

As a teacher, I highly recommend the Bonnechere Caves as a field-trip destination, either in the Spring or the Fall. There are so many inquiries waiting to spring up from this experience! 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Fossils and Seashells

Like things that fly and all things medieval, fossils have the power to capture children's imaginations in an instant. The beauty of a long extinct life-form transformed into rock is a mystery that most children are eager to investigate. 

Combine the wonder of fossils with a walk through a real, naturally-made limestone cave and you have a recipe for inquiry that might last for weeks. Alas, we only have a week of school left, so we're delving into fossils without getting too deep (no pun intended!)

In preparation for our upcoming class trip to the amazing Bonnechere Caves, we've been learning about geology and fossils. The Caves are our local geological wonder. 500 million year-old fossils embedded in the mud and sand layers of an ancient sea have created a limestone bed on which much of our present-day farmland sits. 

About 10 000 year ago when the last of the Ice Age's glaciers were receding, the run-off eroded the cracks that naturally occurred in this ancient limestone. As limestone is a relatively soft rock, the crack widened over time, eventually forming a beautiful series of subterranean caverns.

Now a popular tourist destination, the Caves staff offer guided tours throughout the summer and fall.

I wanted to give my class some background in hopes that they would have lots of questions by the time we take our tour at the Caves next week. Having been a tour guide at the Caves in my late teens and early twenties, I gave them the short version using chart paper to draw ancient sea creatures! 

We watched this Bill Nye video about fossils, and in it we saw some children making fossils using shells, plasticine, and plaster of Paris. When the questions arose: could we do that?, all I could do was what I always try  to say: I said, YES!

I found a carton of plaster that I'd seen sitting in the supply cupboard for years. It didn't take much to organize small groups to knead their plasticine, squish a shell into it to create an imprint, then carefully pour or spoon some plaster of Paris into their mold. 

Within an hour they were ready to pop out, and now they're curing on the sunny windowsill till Monday. 

It was quick, it was messy, it was hands-on, and it was fun! The children were very excited to see their "fossils", and I know they'll have lots to think about as we embark on our subterranean adventure next week!

Monday, June 9, 2014

We Build Castles in Kindergarten!

The children worked with Miss Sue to plan and design their castles. They generated ideas of what tools and materials we'd need, and what parts of the castle we could include in our designs. It was exciting to hear their use of specialized vocabulary (moat, catapult, battlements, drawbridge, gatehouse, etc.), and to pick up on their excitement about this project. 

I noticed that many of the girls were not as excited and engaged in our plans. I addressed this during a large-group circle time by bringing up other kinds of castles, namely fairy castles! Suddenly, I noticed the girls sitting up a little straighter and tuning in more carefully! I used a cone-shaped Culligan cup to show them how to create a turret if they chose to add towers to their castles, using purple paper. Then the questions started flowing! "Can we decorate our castles? Can we use glitter? Can we draw flowers on them?" 

Of course, I said yes!

We spent two afternoons with the children drawing their cut-lines with permanent marker on cardboard boxes, and us cutting with serrated knives. We followed the children's directions unless there was an obvious problem (e.g. if the door would cut right up through the top). 

I involved the children in the mixing of paint colours. They were so engaged with this project that I barely had to supervise their use of the paint. We covered the tables in plastic and they worked for two days on painting their castles. We discussed painting a secondary coat to create a stone pattern, but they were so eager to play that they didn't want to.

For a few days now, these handmade castles have been the most popular play things in our room. 

The children are so proud of their creations and take such care to make sure they're put away carefully.  It's got me thinking about other play things we can create! 

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Flow of Our Day, Part One: Morning

I often hear other educators and administrators ask about our "daily schedule". I start out by explaining that we prefer to think of our day's events as a "rhythm" of the day, or as "the flow of the day". The rigidity of a schedule just doesn't fit the natural flow of a small child's day.

When the children come into the classroom, we have "transition" time. This is a block of time that varies in length depending on the day, where the children are encouraged to make a gentle transition from home to school. Some of the children begin their day at daycare, and perhaps ate breakfast two hours before getting to school. During this quiet play time, the children are encouraged to go to the washroom, eat a healthy snack, and play quietly at a centre of their choosing. 

When we started this new routine, we were amazed at how calmly the day began. Instead of tired, hungry little ones sitting at the carpet waiting for the other students to gather, we saw smiling faces. The whining that often started as soon as the children came in was no longer an issue. We use this time to circulate and greet each child warmly, check home bags and collect milk money, and do a check in with the children and each other. We take note of anyone who seems more tired than usual, or is feeling lonely for home. We have time to cuddle up in the big comfy chair for a story with any little ones who are needing some extra time to settle into the day. We also have time to listen to all those stories the children carry to school with them!

After 15-30 minutes (again, depending on the day), the children are cued to tidy up and gather together on the big carpet. We begin our day with a prayer, add a sticker to the ten-frame where we count the days in the month, check in with the Star of the Day, sing a song or do a finger play, and then a very important aspect of our day takes place: Turn and Talk.

As I mentioned above, children this age are always bursting with stories to share! I plan ahead to share something interesting or exciting with the children (such as seeing an animal on the way to work, or going to the beach on the weekend, or what we did when the power went out, etc.). Before I share, I ask the children a provocative questions, such as "Last night there was a thunderstorm! What do you know/feel about thunder and lightning?" I then ask the children to "turn and talk", knee-to-knee with a partner.

The children know that they must use their blossoming listening skills, because once they've had a chance to share with each other, they will report back to the class about what their partner said! In a very short time of incorporating daily Turn and Talk into our rhythm, I've seen a lot of growth in the children's ability to focus, interact in conversation, and express ideas verbally. 

Once our circle time winds to a close, we usually go off into small groups to focus on specific skills. 

For example, this morning the EA in my room took one group off to brainstorm their ideas about how we could begin building castles. They reviewed terms, drew a labelled picture together, talked about safety when using cutting tools and glue guns, and got very excited about their plans! 

I worked with another small group, reviewing a story we read yesterday about a castle under siege. We also reviewed terms (siege, battlement, drawbridge, and catapult), and read a new passage about a young boy becoming a page, then a squire, then a knight. I followed up by dubbing each of the students as they knelt before me! They loved it!

The third group worked independently at the creation station and played with the wooden castle. We rotated three times adjusting the length of each session according to the children's interest and attention. 

The groupings are always fluid, reflecting the interests, developmental stages, and needs of each student. 

Please tune in again tomorrow when I'll give you a peek into what our afternoons are like!

Our Afternoon: The Flow Continues

I have my ideas of how our flow will work next year. I hope to book two gym periods so that I can divide the JKs and SKs according to their energy levels. Every child will get gym every day, but sometimes they'll go in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon. 

Especially in the early part of the year, I find that many of the JKs need a rest right after lunch. The plan is to take the JKs to the gym in the morning when their energy levels are high, to give them a body break and to allow for some deeper focus groups with the SKs. The SKs will go in the afternoon when the JKs need some quiet time. 

As it stands, our afternoons look like this:

Right after lunch recess, the children come in and go to French. I spend my prep preparing blogposts, sending notes home, exchanging story books, and updating notes on the iPad. I pick the children up and we head to the gym (or outside) for some movement! 

When we return to our classroom it is Free Choice Play Time. I often do one-on-one assessments at this time to add to the information I gathered in the morning, and to inform planning for the coming day(s) and week(s). During this play time, the children can have a snack at any time they wish. We give them a heads-up when there are 10 minutes left till tidy-up so they can make sure they make time to have a snack. 

We tidy up, gather at the carpet to hand out homebags, then send them out to recess. From there, they catch their buses and head home.

The goal is that each child leaves our room feeling that they were cherished, that they are safe here, and that they look forward to coming back to continue their investigations and social development the next day!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Flow of Our Day: Morning, Continued

Yesterday I wrote about the Flow of Our Day, focusing on the first part of the morning. It's amazing to reflect upon how much is "uncovered" in these early hours of the day: personal and social skills, oral development, printing and reading skills, numeracy, making connections, sharing experiences...it is almost impossible to keep track of all the wonderful skills small children learn by playing and interacting! It is also when the children are most energetic and open to gathering and sharing knowledge (although that goes on every moment they're awake, doesn't it?).

Our students go outside for recess, then come in for another healthy snack. We keep the lights off for most of the day, as we feel it keeps the overall "feel" of our room calm. We are blessed to have large windows that let in a lot of light. When the children have tidied up their snack, they choose a book to read alone or with a friend at the carpet. I love seeing the Senior Kindergarten students sitting close with a Junior Kindergarten and "reading" familiar stories aloud!

When everyone has finished, I read a story aloud. Sometimes it's just for pleasure, or a story I've read many times before (I've even recited stories, with no book in hand, to the great attention and delight of the children). Other times, it is a deeper, richer text (what we call a mentor text) that we will read again and again through the week to unveil deeper understanding by asking HOT questions (I'll write a future post about these!).

The rest of the morning follows a similar flow to the earlier part...small, flexible groups to work with a grown up on specific tasks, games, and skills. We usually focus on numeracy/math concepts at this time of day. 

Then we gather at the carpet to say Grace, before we have lunch and recess.

I promised I'd share the flow of the afternoon today, but in the interest of keeping these posts of a reasonable length, I'll postpone that till tomorrow!

Thank you all for joining the Inquisitive Children Facebook page...I'm amazed at how quickly it's growing! I appreciate your encouragement and interest, and would like to invite you to leave comments here or on the FB page so I know you're reading!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Don't Mind Us...We're Just Playing!

Playing probability games and recording results

Imagining that they're in a chrysalis

Sorting beans and macaroni by shape and colour

Building a medieval castle

When people hear "play-based" to describe the approach to teaching and learning in Ontario's Full Day Early Learning Kindergarten classroom, the most common misconception is that the children are "just" playing. 

Just playing? 

It might be more accurate to describe what we do each day as "learning THROUGH play". In basic terms, it means that the skills and knowledge that the children gather over the two year program are acquired through play, experience, interaction, and communication (rather than by the teacher delivering information, then having the children prove their understanding through one-on-one assessments and paper-and-pencil tasks). It might even be said that the children are learning because they are playing.

It is a child's birthright to spend their time playing. When children play, they:

*construct knowledge   *process emotions  *problem solve  *internalise experiences  * challenge themselves  *laugh and have fun  *imagine  *learn to lead   *learn to cooperate  *develop as critical thinkers  *manage stress  *express ideas  *develop an inquiring mind  *foster healthy living habits

In our classroom, play takes two shapes. Free-choice play is where the children become engaged in many different activities of their choosing, such as playing in sand, water, or sensory materials, using art materials, building with blocks, sorting buttons, using math manipulatives, imagining with puppets or costumes, and so on). This is also our "inquiry" time in the day, where the teaching team circulates, listening and observing, watching for those little sparks of interest that come so naturally to children. As the children argue, solve problems, seek more information, and explore the play materials, we make notes and plan for the next day's deeper explorations.
Learning to blend consonant sounds in small groups

Finding words that start with their letter

During our more "formal" instructional times, we incorporate play to teach the children specific skills and areas of knowledge. For instance, instead of just counting by rote, we play number games that challenge the children and allow them to use their hands and bodies (instead of having them fill in worksheets!). Simple materials like number cards, letter cards, counters, ten frames, hundreds charts, and word cards can be used in so many ways, to make these moments of explicit teaching fun.

Tune in tomorrow to find out more about a typical day in our classroom, what we like to call "The Flow of the Day".

Monday, June 2, 2014

Medieval Times in Kindergarten

This morning two children collaborated on building a really long wall of blocks that reached from our big carpet to the sand table. I mentioned that it reminded me of the Great Wall of China, and another student said, "That wall is very long, very big, and very old!"

When we gathered at the carpet, I shared a photo I'd taken of the children's wall, then one of the Great Wall. The discussion turned to why people long ago built such a wall, and I mentioned the movie "Mulan". Drawing on the children's experience led them to recognize that the Great Wall (in the movie) was built to protect the people of China from attacks by invaders.

We wondered together what other kinds of defensive structures humans have made. I drew a picture on chart paper of a wooden palisade (I remember visiting them at historical sites when my family drove across Canada in 1983!). The children became very animated and thought the sharpened logs looked like pencils. naturally, this led to the idea that we could create pretend palisades in our classroom!

Then I mentioned that castles were also built as defensive structures, and that was it: a new inquiry was born. Incredibly, the children sat completely rapt and attentive for 40 minutes while we generated questions about castles! Some of the questions were:
 During recess, I gathered as many books about castles as I could find, and borrowed a beautiful model made by one of my co-teacher's son. When the children came in, they pounced on the books and learned a new word: RESEARCH! Some of the children spent the next 40 minutes engaged in conversations, heads leaning together over books about the Medieval period, generating more questions (which I recorded as I circulated around the room, to add to our "I Wonder" chart). 
What does this say, Mrs. P?

A large group of students collaborated with a variety of blocks to build a giant castle on our big carpet! As I observed their work, I heard them discussing towers, the crenellated ramparts of a castle (not in those words, of course!), and what tools builders might have used to create a stone castle. 
A few students were busy drawing and cutting out castles, copying pictures from a book to draw the portcullis. Another used paper and a stapler to create a bow and arrow!
The children have begun creating a list of materials we'll need to start building our own castles! They are very excited and motivated. This inquiry will include finding out about what children played with long ago, and how people made their clothes. Some of the girls were wondering what the clothes looked like, and how they were made. 

I brought in a wooden castle of my children's, and borrowed some other models made by older students. It didn't take long for the children to call in the recruits, and played at "siege", where the turtles, pigs, and dinosaurs were breaking through the portcullis and into the castle! I believe that's Mickey Mouse on top of the gatehouse.

To further our inquiry, I've asked parents to send in boxes of all sizes, paper tubes, and low-temperature glue guns. I'm betting I'll have lots of busy hands in my classroom tomorrow, creating their own models! I've also started a Pinterest board here to gather ideas for further exploration. I look forward to where we're headed with this!