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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Looking Closely at Student-Owned Documentation

by Stephanie Bartlett

A big part of my journey this year has been exploring documentation panels.  Inspired by the many talented educators on twitter, I have read, thought, researched, reflected...and the cycle repeats.  I take photos and videos and must admit that I am still figuring out a process to post the photos in the classroom in a timely manner.  (I would appreciate any techniques from those well versed in the world of documentation panels.)
The other day, I printed the photos of our coconut explorations. I thought that if Hunter cut out the pictures, and we explained them together, then the panel would be meaningful to him rather than the parents coming for conferences as had been my original intention. He got some fine motor and sequencing practice cutting and ordering the pictures before we got ready to document the story.
I settled in with sticky notes and proceeded to be amazed at what I learned from Hunter. I thought he would label each event in each picture.  Instead, Hunter labelled the steps of collaboration. The first step was Hunter finding the coconut and exploring on his own. The second group of pictures was when Erik came to join him, the third was the class (spelled phonetically KSE) and the fourth was the opening of the coconut. 
Together we reflected on the different questions that he had been asking and I scribed those underneath.  The message had come through loud and clear for me and I was thrilled: collaborative development is an integral part of creativity in educational practice.  Hunter showed me in his own words that collaboration has been embedded in our classroom culture.
There is an important place for teacher-directed documentation panels to explain our programs to adults, and to celebrate the learning of our students by showing the thinking process.  Dylan William states in his book  Embedded Formative Assessment that "teachers have a crucial role to play in designing situations in which learning takes place, but only learners create learning." (William 158)  I provided the learning provocation and then the pictures; Hunter responded with a high level of engagement and showed me how students can help manage their learning process.  It is now up to me to take everything Hunter shared with me to help design new learning experiences for him and the class. 


William, Dylan (2011.) Embedded Formative Assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press
Friday, March 21, 2014

Living Creatively Helps To Teach Creatively

By Stephanie Bartlett

It's been over a year since I surprised myself and all who know me by publishing a book of poetry.  Since then, poetry has been a way of life but I have had to wiggle into it like a comfy chair and let it seep through the corners of my heart and life.  You see, when I wrote and published, I had a mere seven months to figure the whole thing out from start to finish, including how to write a poem!  I was so stressed to meet my publishing deadline that I burned myself out, wrung dry of any words or ability to write.
Reassured by other poets that this was somewhat normal, I accepted my loss of a point.  I have struggled with scheduling in regular writing time, but have made sure to journal in prose.  I have found that I can still write a beautiful poem but now the poem lives in me and writes itself about a particular topic that is burning to be expressed.  I am just the vehicle to the words, rather than looking for the words to describe a situation.  This does not happen often but I am always somewhat surprised when it does.
Lately, when my thoughts wander, I am thinking about poetry and new possibilities.  I cannot just yet think about writing enough to compile another collection, but I have plenty of work that I didn't use last year.  My original pre-inventive structure was to create a book of poems that would tell the story of my family. My poetic journey took a left turn and the collection was very different from the original intent.   The time is right to delve into my poems, the B-sides if you will, and compile a work that honours my family. 
How does this help my teaching practice? When I am living the creative process, I am better able to recognize the different strands of creative development in my students.  Creativity helps to ground and inspire me, and naturally feeds into my teaching practice.  How good is that?
Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Coconut Tales: Looking Closely At One Student's Spark

By Stephanie Bartlett

Hunter discovered a coconut in our Looking Closely centre.  He spent activity time looking closely, listening to the water inside, wondering and drawing in his journal.  "I wonder how we can crack this open?" He is a collaborative guy, so he quickly found a friend to share his discovery.  The group began to grow and our class discussion at the end of the day was all about whether we could open the coconut the following day and how we might do that.

The next day, I had my tools ready: screw driver and hammer to open the coconut in a fairly teacher-directed fashion.  Sure enough, a gang of them headed towards the unsuspecting coconut, each armed with scissors. The snippets of excited discussion I heard were the very things that I had been teaching all year.  They were talking, wondering, figuring out how to open the coconut and all the while, finding ways to listen and work together. I stopped the whole class and quickly told them there were some people who wanted to crack the coconut.  I asked everyone to just drop their toys, grab their journal and draw how they thought we might open it.  

Next we all gathered around the table.  When I turned back from gathering my tools to demonstrate how to do open our treasure, I saw that Rowan (who had just returned from a five month stay in Maui) grabbed the coconut, and used his scissors like a screw driver in one of the holes, saying "Let me do this. I used to open these every day."  What empowerment for a student who is working hard to return to routine, school, all the while learning a new language! There was no need for me to be there, so I quietly hung back and let him run the show.  

The conversation turned to excitement about the water inside. "What will it taste like?" "Can we try it?" Like a surgical assistant hoping to be helpful, I grabbed our class set of cups and suggested that everyone pour two shakes in so that they could all try the water.  So fun! And then...after some French oral language activities because I need to get them talking as much as I can...we counted to three and tried the coconut water.  "Eeeewwwww!" "Gross!" 
The last step was to graph who liked the taste and who did not.  We ended the day chanting "Je n'aime pas l'eau de coco!" 
This activity was made possible by a provocation that sparked the curiosity of one student. Then, he shared his interest and collaborated, all the while generating ideas on how to open the coconut.  Students then caught the spark and drew a plan.  This gave them an opportunity for authentic writing, then math and oral language skills.  Listen carefully to your students, teach them to wonder, question and investigate and offer provocations that will allow their curiosity to spark.  To me, this is a joyful way to teach and the results always astound me. What examples do you have that highlight student engagement?
Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Looking Closely At Our Special Talents

by Stephanie Bartlett

Transforming a program is akin to a leaf in the wind; sometimes you float gently, content with the wind to give you lift, other times you are thrown wildly somewhere you haven’t been before. My strongholds are my teaching partners and my action research in creativity in educational practice. This post is the next step in our creative journey of Looking Closely in the Kindergarten classroom.
 When we laid plans to develop the Je suis unique theme to carry us through the year, we knew how to begin.  It fit into virtually every area of the Kindergarten curriculum and tied in beautifully to the Looking Closely project.
Students were proud to bring in their five photos and proudly hang their favourite on our class tree. What came next has touched the educator in me in ways I couldn’t have predicted had I planned the entire unit early in the year.
The Olympics led us into Je suis bon/bonne en… We looked closely at the different sports and athletes.  Then, students were asked to go into their special pocket in their portfolios and choose a photo highlighting an activity that they love.  We made salt dough Olympic medals and hung them with our photos on the tree, then practiced the vocabulary for about a week.  Our medal ceremony was a celebration of each child’s source of pride.

Inspired by Georgia Heard’s heart maps in her book Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School, I gave students a large piece of paper and gave them a guided drawing lesson in the technique of drawing a large heart (you need to move your whole arm to draw it!) and let them create their own heart.  Always looking for an opportunity to develop fine motor skills, they had to cut out the heart themselves.  The next step required students to draw their favourite activity in the classroom. In my mind, if they visit a centre often, that action demonstrates intrinsic motivation and engagement.   I taught them how to add texture to a painting, and gave students a large paper to paint a background on which to glue their heart.  Each day, a quick journal lesson built on the previous, and step by step, we developed our hearts. Students were encouraged to add another activity that they loved.  This was a gentle encouragement for students to think about their work and begin to analyze.  Many revisited their hearts and added new activities with phonological writing.

This week at student-led conferences, students will proudly give their parents a tour of their “hearts” and the activities they are passionate about.  Going back to outcome unknown, I have an idea where we will go next to further develop Je suis unique, but will enjoy this moment and with the help of my students, we will collectively decide the next steps on our journey that will take us into spring.


Heard, Georgia (1999). Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry In Elementary and Middle School. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
Monday, March 17, 2014

Tales from the Treefort

We talk about how important it is to model creativity so that we can recognize it in our students. Nurturing our own creative practice can be hard to fit into a busy life but I am a writer and sometimes I just get the urge to write. This is the latest. Enjoy.

Tales of a Tree Fort

by Stephanie Bartlett

Walking down the cottage road known as the “Back Road,” all seems to be what one might expect on a quiet afternoon, midweek on a hot summer day.  The sound of cottagers chatting, boats on the lake, birds chirping and the occasional car. If the curious eye notices a lone orange pylon on the side of the road, and veers into the forest to investigate, this is the moment when one slides into another reality.
Slip into the cool woods, climb the steep hill with the railing and follow the clean and well-maintained trail through the maple grove…and prepare to be suitably impressed.  For in these woods lies a small community built by the kids on the Back Road. The group of children consists of cousins and friends who spend endless amounts of time together engaged in old-fashioned fun.
 Like most people who buy cottages, we bought our cottage to have our own special place on the lake.  There was a back lot across the road attached to our property that we enjoyed for the privacy it gave us, but we never really knew what to do with it until the kids started to want to explore back there. As parents, we decided four summers ago to provide tools and the materials and allow the children to tinker and discover.  Summer number one began with fairly regular parent supervision, with the adult serving as a guide. Once the building site was chosen, a rudimentary platform was built. The kids were, after all, only six and four.
 The following summer, we provided the safety talks, some supervision and a daily inspection of the building site to tighten screws and reinforce structures. A real tree fort began to take shape. Towards our last day of that summer, the gang wanted to have a bonfire. The answer? Absolutely not and our reasons were many: the fort was in the middle of the forest, there was no water source to put out the fire, and kids weren’t allowed to build fires, to name a few. They disappeared into the woods without argument, only for us to be invited back at the end of the day.  What we found amazed us.  A fire in the middle of the woods? No problem. The kids had cleared a large spot to the point where there was not a single leaf.  They had clipped any branches that were close and dug a fire pit, surrounded by rocks dug out from the forest floor. They had gone so far as to build benches, with cut and stacked firewood underneath, and even carved marshmallow sticks. And the no-water problem? That was addressed by the presence of a large garbage can, buckets and a plan. If they were allowed to have the fire, they would truck water up from the lake back to the tree fort to fill that bucket.  And the icing on the cake was the railing they built to get up into the woods, knowing that one of the parents experienced severe knee pain. We were convinced.
Once the date and time was set for THE BONFIRE, the kids were highly engaged with the excitement of planning their first official gathering, which sadly, would be our last day before heading home two provinces away until the next summer.  They created a loop of mountain bike trails, made welcome signs and gates, and planned the menu. By the time the adults arrived, we felt very much like guests and our hosts were bursting with the pride of ownership. We roasted hot dogs and marshmallows and washed them down with juice.  Tours were given, as children proudly explained their role and the tasks that they had done to help make this a reality.  Real tears were shed at the end, as the door to the tree fort was locked with a nail to hold it shut and the last gate on the path was lowered.
The third summer began with a more sophisticated level of creativity, tinkering and problem solving.  As soon as the out-of-province gang arrived, the tree fort was open for business.  The kids collected scrap wood and brought it over.  The cottage collection of tools migrated from our basement to the back forty, and proceeded to be considered “theirs.”  There was an easel set out to sketch plans of ideas that could and would take shape. Small details were added to the tree fort, such as hooks, hinges and windows. Additions, both big and small, were added, and then taken away. The sounds echoing out from the woods this year were music, hammering, sawing and laughter.  Connor, a close friend on the road who lives there all year around, arrived with his lawn tractor and a trailer full of tools, wood and a portable stereo.  The kids had it made.
 As the tree fort became a metaphor for freedom and independence, more creativity began to happen.  This is problem solving in a very real sense. Think of an idea, experiment, analyze whether it worked, collaborate and try again. The kids built a playground: swings, tire swings, and teeter totters, all by trial and error. Plans for a second level and another tree fort nearby began to take shape. When they needed to climb higher, they built a ladder; when they needed to take a break from working, they played on their playground.  They became so engaged that sometimes we parents had to cajole the kids to come out of the woods and enjoy the water. Trips to the marina changed irrevocably. We were now being hounded to go to the marina to get nails, not just ice cream.
 That summer, there was no question about scheduling bonfire parties. One mid-summer, a moonlight fire and one to close the tree fort for the season.  The kids set the dates, carried endless buckets of water back for the fire, planned the menus and prepared the food.  The guests showed up each time, anticipating the hard work proudly on display and a good time.
 Adults and kids alike knew by this time that we had something really special at work.  We are raising our children in an era where we don’t let them explore and wander the way we did when we were young. As Gever Tulley of the Tinkering School in San Francisco says, “challenges will arise that are usually developmentally appropriate. “ (Tulley and Kelly 2012). He points out that children will build to make their dreams a reality, not necessarily to make something that “works.” For the exception of the screw nails for safety, the kids built the entire structure and surrounding “toys” independently.  By allowing kids to tinker, we are allowing them to engage in their dreams and to reconcile those dreams with the reality around them.
 And so, as we begin to set our plans for next summer, I am wondering what will take shape in and around the tree fort this time. I know that my own kids have already started to reflect, as well as to think forward but they have yet to articulate any plans.  That could be because the magic happens within the beauty of collaboration and they need both the setting and the gang for the dreams to take shape.

Tulley, Gever. "The Arc, Learning by Making and Learning by Inventing." Educating for Creativity: A Global Conversation. Ed. Robert W. Kelly. Calgary, Alberta, Canada: Brush Education, 2012. 39-51. Print.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Blow, Blow, Blow Your Boat

by Stephanie Bartlett
A play-based program is the ultimate backdrop for the most incredible learning opportunities.  It is our job as educators to pay attention and listen carefully. As facilitators, we  can then offer tools and experiences for students to become mindful learners, all in the midst of play.  Take boats, for example.
Over the course of the last couple of months, B, H and C have often sat and drawn pictures of boats.  We have hung them on the wall near our water table and I have waited for the right moment to take their learning to a deeper level.  It all came together this week when many students were involved in a pirate game.  They created treasures to hide and drew maps for everyone to take part. (Hello, collaboration!!) For two days, I watched and listened carefully, wondering how to decide the best way to guide their thinking. I asked my three students to sit the next day and draw plans for boats they could build.  Their plans initiated a class discussion about motor boats and sail boats, and pirate ships, of course!

 B went to the next step and created a materials list.

The next day, B arrived and spent a large amount of time building a model boat out of popsicle sticks, telling me "I thought and thought at home about how I could build a boat with buttons, popsicle sticks and string. This boat collects garbage on the ocean and I need to build a claw on the back."

Coincidentally, my colleague mentioned earlier in the week that she had many students who were very taken with machines, motors and boats in particular.  There was my point of convergence. We could create boats together!  As a team, we have decided to offer the opportunity to students in all three of our kindergarten classes to work together. Today, we had two parent volunteers come in and set up an area with materials, paper and writing tools to draw plans and a tub of water to test for seaworthiness. Knowing that sparks catch fire, we started this idea with the interest of a few students, knowing that others would jump on board, so to speak. The environment was focused and highly engaged. There was a quiet hum of happiness and excitement, peppered with observations, in the most natural form of analytic thinking and feedback.  

"I think your boat is leaning too far to one side." 
"How can I get my boat to move?" 
"You need some wind. Can you blow?"
"Mine is sinking." 
"My boat is heavy on one side. It keeps leaning."

Some students drew plans and then proceeded to build without referring to their plan.  There is an interesting focus point for the next projects, always keeping in mind that some learners are unable at this point to articulate what their plan is before they execute and we believe that is ok.

Others, drew their plans and build their boats accordingly.

Genius Hour has been very fluid in my class this year.  My original intent was to spend every Friday morning engaged in different projects.  In the ever-changing world of Kindergarten, if students are protopying an idea or developing an idea, they are not all going to put it away until the following week...they will keep playing until they are ready to discover new things or play with different people.  So, on Fridays when I have two parent volunteers, I now create the space and provide the materials for students who are experimenting with certain ideas. 
As educators, we can help students discover new concepts and play with intention. Teaching without themes in the traditional sense of the word is perhaps best understood through the lens of creative development.  The vocabulary and disposition of creative development is the common thread that helps my students to open their minds and apply the skills we are learning in a very real context that is relevant to them.  
What's next? On Monday morning, when the students enter the room, their boats will be waiting for them.  Will they return to their boats and continue tweaking their models? Will others have decided that they would like to build another prototype? Will they play with their boats in the water table? Will some draw another picture or write a story? Will they naturally group the different types?

One thing is certain: I will be nearby, listening to the feedback and analytical development and watching the magic of engaged students, waiting for the next possible spark.