Saturday, 24 June 2017

Head Agent And The Birth Of Head Villain

New Message Here

Number Agents is a concept born from Mantle of the Expert.  Unlike a normal Mantle, Number Agents stretches out for a whole year.  Other than this it does follow the traditional steps of a Mantle.

1) Hook - this year we did this with a message in the bottle (there is a post on this on this blog if you would like to know more)

2)Building Belief - spending time setting up our company...this is where Head Agent starts to come in.

3) Clients and Commission - Number Agents happens to have a new client each day and  the commission is our daily problems.

4) Professional Tasks - this is where you math teaching comes in :)

5) Tensions...added by the villains each day.

6) the end of the year it is important that Number Agents officially closes so that we can open a new agency the following year.

My book spells out more of the ins and outs of Number Agents and can be found here.  I do sell hard copies but only have a few left, so if you want one please email  When the hard copies are gone, I wont have any more for a little while.

The beauty of agency is the tensions you can add along the way.  Just out of the blue the other day while I was telling one of my stories to the agents the idea of Head Villain was born.  This villain leads villain school and is focused on making the villains smarter and smarter.  He fits beautifully with our concept of growth mindset and gives the agents yet another reason to want to develop their number sense and concepts about math.

The beauty of this guy is he is multidimensional he can pose problems that have various mathematical strategies required and has that all powerful aura, like Head Agent.   I can see that a quite a story will be woven and I am totally looking forward to it.

The other beauty of this new 'all powerful' villain is of course he will have villain contacts...these villains might in fact pose problems that do not involve maths, but involve other curriculums allowing me to weave my Mantle wider without having to start another company.

Introducing Head Villain....looks like he has got math mischief on his mind.

I have yet to work out what his big debut may be, but am thinking along the lines of another hostage situation...this time it may be ther professor.  The agents will have to solve a range of problems that each correspond to a letter, if they can work out the mystery word, they rescue the professor....or something like that anyway.

I guess the point of this post is to show how broad Number Agency can also how much fun!  It is far more than an approach to teaching maths, it captures imaginations and promotes imaginative play through math.

I am considering at some stage leaving my puppet heroes and villains out as an invitation to play...just to see what happens :)

I hope all of the other agencies are having as much fun as I am.  If you have purchased the book and are not sure where to start this post may help.

I also posted at the beginning of the year a series of posts about my setting up journey.  Post one here.

There are a series of posts on this blog after those two that detail what I have done etc, but I am more than happy to help, just message me through my facebook page Number Agents or email me on

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Increasing Levels of Anxiety In Children - What role do we play and what can we do for their mental wellbeing.

This is something I have been giving a whole lot of thought to lately and I certainly do not claim to have an answer, but I do have ideas that may prompt further thought.

Like most schools we track our 'target learners'...those children that may not be achieving as expected in reading, writing and maths.  As I am sure most schools find, many children appear on the lists in more than one area.  As a small school (200) we are lucky enough to know every child deeply, to be able to make plans that work for them and usually help them to get to where they need to be.

Like most principals I spend a lot of time looking at the children on these lists and trying to find common links.  Over time I have found one great big looming common link...a lack in confidence, and anxiety towards learning or towards being wrong or taking risks, a very real fear of failure.

More info on anxiety can be found here

Now this is not rocket science, but it is alarming to me that such an issue can have such a huge impact on achievement and while there are so many 'programmes' out there to help children to 'recover' from their lack of progress or accelerate to make appropriate progress.  These programmes are all focused on remediating at an academic level...there seems to be a real lack of awareness that the child's issue may not need extra attention on the academics, but actually a more focused approach on their emotional wellbeing.

In fact over time at our school we have noticed dramatic changes in progress for our target children simply through using strategies that enable them to build confidence and self-belief and focusing in on their well being, rather than trying to accelerate anything or even worry about 'academic' success.

Now I am not saying that anxiety is the same as self-belief or confidence, but they certainly are interlinked.  It is absolutely alarming to me that anxiety is so significantly on the rise amongst children.  Anxiety and mental health issues are becoming a huge dark cloud over a young people and certainly does not bode well for our future as a country.

Anxiety is not something I am unfamiliar with.  My family seems to be genetically predisposed to anxiety and it is something both my children have struggled with.  My daughter is in her teens and struggles daily with strong social and generalised anxiety.  It is something I think is completely misunderstood by our education system and one of the most ignored.  Of course my journey through emotional and mental well being with my daughter gives me a strong sense of urgency around how we talk about and education young people around youth the moment it is simply not talked about.  In fact very sadly my daughters friends define mental illness as the images they see on the movies...people locked away in mental wards like zombies.

I know for my daughter this is something she was genetically predisposed for.  Unfortunately it has been a road we have had to travel.  It is a long one, but not one that is impossible to overcome.

This is an issue our country and education system needs to acknowledge and do something!

The dramatic rise of generalized anxiety in young children is something I do not believe has to happen, and I have given a lot of thought to why it does.

What is it about our society that sees this generalised anxiety on such a rise?  

I have a few ideas about this and once again they are just my ideas.

1)National Standards, these horrible things have changed our system completely.  Parents worry, they lack trust now in teachers, they pass this worry onto their children.   National Standards have redefined what being successful at school looks like.  National standards have led to nothing but worry...and we would have to be dreaming if we thought this worry was not passed on to our children.

2)Anxious parents.  We seem to have a real culture of parents that over worry and over cater for their children.  They hover, they rescue, they limit risk and micro-manage.  They over reassure when a child is worried and they let children opt out of things that they are fearful of, rather than helping them to face this fear and learn from it.  They overtalk.  They stop children developing resilience and independence and allow them to develop very narrow comfort zones.   Worst of all they talk about their child's problems very loudly in front of their child, giving real weight and reality to the worry.  Parents, without even meaning to have made children worry warts, fearful of trying new things and unable to deal with failure.  

3)Our system has a very narrow definition of success.  Success is defined by academic achievement and this achievement seems to be so important, much more important than developing into a well rounded person.  We celebrate this success far too loudly, without celebrating the dispositions that may have led to this success.

4)Pressure, pressure is huge from the age of five (or even younger for some)  The huge amount of homework piled on children and after school activities mean our children live pressure cooker lives.  They are always busy, there is never just time to be.  Timetables in school are pressured, there is never just time to be a kid.  In fact I believe we have lost sight of the fact that they are children that we are dealing with, we treat them like little adults in training.

5)Children have too many toys, too many gadgets and not enough opportunities to be bored, be creative, use their imagination, to just go outside and be children.  They don't socialise  enough with other children, they often live in an adult world.

And there are probably many more reasons....of course children with specific anxieties are often predisposed to be anxious and this anxiety can not just be pinned on those listed above, but it is my belief that some children are being made anxious, and if this is the case, we can turn this around, we can start to rectify this.  

A child's mental, emotional and social well being should be of paramount importance to us.  In my opinion it is far more important that academic progress, but in saying that, I believe if we can get things right for a child's well being, their academic progress will take care of itself.

So I obviously have a lot of thoughts regarding this...but do I have solutions?

I do have a few, firstly for parents:

1. Stop.  Stop. Stop.  Stop prioritising children over yourself.  Stop making your life about them.  Stop picking up for them.  Stop carrying their things.  Stop making excuses for them.  Stop hovering.  Stop rescuing them, let them learn from their mistakes.    Stop talking about their worries in front of them.  Stop being anxious for them.  Trust your child's teacher.

2.  Calm down.  Success is being happy.  Success is not being classed as 'well above.'  Well above what?  Well above some stupid contrived standard that will mean very little when they are an adult.  Stop pushing, start sharing learning in a way that you and your child find enjoyable.  Start talking about their world.

3.Stop looking for problems.  Sometimes a child is in a bad mood, because they are in a bad mood.  Let them experience emotions, emotions are normal and the very worrying thing is often children do not understand their emotions, don't shelter them from emotions, don't blame others.  Just because your child starts to behave badly or appears in a bad mood does not mean something is going wrong at school, poor behaviour and bad moods are developmentally normal.  Children need to feel and experience these emotions so they can learn strategies to help them cope.  Experiencing and understanding emotions are vitally important for mental wellbeing later in life.

4.Let them be bored, let them generate their own play.  Let them have time.  Let them talk about how they feel but don't over talk, don't over reassure them.  Acknowledge a worry and move on.

5.Let them face their fears.  If they are fearful of doing something, try to present them with situations to work through this fear.  Don't let them opt out of an activity because they are anxious...this will only make the anxiety worse.  If they do something wrong, let them face the consequence for this, don't intervene in this consequence.

And for schools:

1. Do everything you can to minimise the importance of National Standards.

2. Reframe what it means to be successful at school.  Being imaginative, creative, resilient, having a growth mindset and an innovator's mindset, demonstrating the key-competencies are all far more important than being 'above' or 'well above.'  Simply being a good person that can see possibilities around them is far more important than being the 'best.'

3. Ensure emotions are part of your programme in some way.  Teach children about emotions and help them understand that it is healthy to feel different emotions.  

4.  Play-based learning.  This is the most fundamental change I think that all schools should make.  Play-based learning allows children to develop cognitive, emotional and social competencies that will in my opinion greatly reduce anxiety.  Play-based learning also allows us to identify 'safe-sitters.'  Those children who stay within the known, taking part in activities like colouring because they want to do something they are able to do well.  These are the children who will struggle with failure later on, these are the children we need to help now!

5. Listen to children, really listen.   Allow them to plan events, talk about timetables, self-direct learning where possible.  Embrace happiness and fun at every opportunity.  

6. Embrace mistakes.  Explicitly teach the importance of doing things that challenge you.  Embrace the importance of the struggle.  Allow children to experience and learn through failure.

7.  Create a culture of kindness.  Find a way to deliberately teach this from a young age and have firm strategies for dealing with bullying.  Bullying has a profound effect on mental well being and can completely alter a way a child sees themselves.  Empower children to stand up for each other.  We are a KiVa school and I believe this approach should be in all schools.  Don't simply say 'we don't have bullying here.'  I am afraid all schools have bullies...often we are completely unaware.  

8. Allow children to take pride in the process, to understand the importance of reflection.

9.  Embrace the imagined.  Allow opportunities to create, innovate, play!

10.  Stop using speed based warm ups for maths or testing for the sake of testing, knock basic facts 'testing' at speed on the head.  Math anxiety is very real for our children and these activities only serve to make it worse.  Give them time, use talk moves, encourage mixed ability groups and redefine success.  

There are probably many more ways you can think of to help us reduce the current rise of anxiety amongst children.  These are simply my ideas.  My hope is that we can start a conversation around this issue.

To me it is vitally important that we think about and act on this now, the mental well being of our children will be crucial for their success in the future and it is something we can do a lot to help with. 

 Currently our education system is adding to this anxiety, something needs to change now.

(And you know what....teacher anxiety is also on the rise...that can't be a good thing for our children can it?)

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Such a fun session today

We had such a great session today I just had to share.

We started off with our normal rhythm into agency, singing our count to 100 song.   We practiced our doubles and then used this song.  Our focus at the moment is counting on.

After this we played finger fun...once again practicing counting on from the biggest number.

 Basically we jump for an amount nominated by agent 81...raise that many fingers, then jump again for another nominated amount, we then group our fingers and add them up.

Today our villain was Sum Snake.  He is a bit trickier because he doesn't really have a client to provide us with a problem.

So I decided to have some fun and go into role.  We are lucky enough to have a small office located just behind our mat area.  When the alarm sounded I said "who can hear that sound"  and proceeded to make the hissing sound of Sum Snake.  I then said "I think it is coming from back there"  I  walked into the office area pretending it was Sum Snake's lair.  

Then there was a great kerfuffle...Agent 81 had obviously been kidnapped by Sum Snake.  To confirm this Sum Snake poked his head around the corner of the door so the agents could see him and proceeded to tell them that Agent 81 would be held until they could give him three problems with the sum of nine.

This was where the going into role came in....while out in the office I grabbed a hat and turned into Policeman Peter, who came into agency to help the agents save Agent 81.  I always find this so wonderful, they so readily accept that you are in character, they don't bat an eyelid, they just go with it.  

We busily worked away with our always some agents had written three ways within the first minute, while others were busily collecting nine items and making two groups.  It was lovely to see.

When we were done, Peter the Policeman went back to find Sum Snake in his lair.  Obviously taking his life into his own hands to rescue 81.    By this time the lair was full of a sticky spiderweb like substance and Peter had to crawl on his stomach to avoid it.  

Sum Snake was captured and listened to our equations with the Sum of 9.  Luckily they were all correct and Agent 81 was returned to us after great disgust expressed by Sum Snake...who then crawled back to his lair we he belongs.

After rejoicing and chanting we checked out of agency.  And during play-based time many of the agents wrote letters to Peter thanking him for saving 81.

I had so much fun today!  Who wouldn't want to do maths...the agents love it, I love it and it is just like one big story in which, we play the heroes!  

Here's to many more agent adventures ahead of us!

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

What the the Number Agents up to at the moment?

Right, after a number of posts not related to Number Agents (or at least directly) I thought I better catch up and let you know what we are up to at the moment.

First things first...I have seen a lot of information out there again about maths anxiety.  Number Agents was born out of my interest in play and drama and further refined after maths PLD, but it was also born out of need to give children a positive mindset to mathematics.  It has certainly proven to be an effective approach in terms if that.  For those that are not sure what math anxiety is, this short video is a good one to watch.

So what are the agents up to at the moment and what am I noticing?

Our last few weeks have focused on subitizing and the use of doubles and halves to help us.  We have also been learning to count on from the biggest number.

This subitizing song is great.

Subitizing is something we work on in lots of different ways and it is so valuable.  We have been using dominoes, cards, other random patterns, tens frames, tally marks and fingers.

The professor has then led us in using these patterns to add groups together.  They love the Professor and listen to him so closely it is lovely.

We spend a lot of time working in groups and learning from each other.  Over the last few weeks we have faced Captain Fraction, Subtraction Shark and The Knight Adder.

Children are getting good at using materials and it is also great to see some developing an awareness of counting on from the biggest number.

Using dominoes to make up number stories.

 Popsicle sticks are a popular tool.

Using drawing as a strategy

Group problem solving time...

What Have I Noticed?

Although we spend very little time on the knowledge of how to read and write numbers, agents are displaying some excellent progress with many able to read numbers to 100 and most able to write numbers to 20 with accuracy.  They are also accurate at one to one counting and I think this is helped along by the fact that we use "I can count to 100" as our way into agency each day.

Talk moves are improving.

I am really glad we added Cowgirl Calculation, she is excellent at re-voicing.  Agents are now able to state if they agree, explain how they solved the problem and state their answer.  Their oral language is brilliant and this is largely due to the play-based environment they are allowed to operate in throughout significant parts of their day....they are always talking!

Our play-based environment feeds beautifully into agency and vice versa.  Agents often spend time upskilling during self-directed sessions.

These agents spent a significant amount of time practicing their numbers together, because their learning goal is to get better at numbers (their words.)

I am very happy with where we are up to...the agency now has 29 children and this will soon be in the mid thirties.  And just for your viewing pleasure....our Number Agent chant....a little loud, but that is typical of new entrants when you ask them to speak up :)

I hope all the other agencies are having as much fun as we are!

Sunday, 11 June 2017

What does ready look like?

School readiness is a hot topic at the moment.  In can be a hard one to lock down actually.  Many children start school quite 'compliant' they are willing to have a go, willing to try....but often they are a mystery because the don't seem to make the same progress as their peers.  Some are obvious they come into school operating at a 3-4 year professionals why would we expect these children to suddenly be able to read and write?

In a play-based environment it is now really easy to pick up social can be a little more difficult to pin down what exactly is going on in terms of learning readiness. I am really not liking calling it learning ready, because from day dot they are learning...I guess in this case I am referring to the academic readiness we have all become so preoccupied with, in a system that feels like a pressure cooker.  In fact in my opinion a traditional new entrant classroom is often slowing down and narrowing learning...but that is a blog post for another time, perhaps when I am feeling braver.  Learning should not be defined by what is measured by standards.

Over the years we have had a number of children who have been mysteries...they just don't seem to be able to make progress and while I am not overly preoccupied with this in the first year especially, I have often wondered if there was a way of picking up these children early and laying the foundations that may be lacking, the bits of their puzzle that are not quite there yet.

This usually comes back to gross and fine motor skills, two things you may not notice unless you really hone in on them.  In fact I had a group of boys one year that just desperately needed to develop their gross motor skills.  They couldn't hop, skip, crawl etc.  We basically had a workshop on this each day and low and behold their progress academically improved.  These skills are so vital in developing the cognitive connections for learning and if they are lacking will stall progress.

Children with limited fine motor skills will be reluctant writers...can you imagine wanting to use a pencil for a long period of time if this was physically difficult for you?  Can you imagine wanting to write at all?  It is like people that can not they choose to type for a period of time...?

Vocab development in my opinion is the new crisis in education.  Never before have I seen children entering school with such a lack of oral language.  Our classrooms are now full of children with immature speech, with many children not able to name everyday items.  They are our new ESOL children, would we expect 'normal' progress in language from an a child that had english as a second language.  How can you possibly read or write if you can not even name everyday objects.

With vocab as a huge area of need, then an awareness of phonics is just asking too much.  All the building blocks shown on the diagram below need to be in place for a child to achieve with 'happiness' at school.  I have learners who still need to stick their tongue out to perform everyday tasks, how can we expect them to be making what we would define as academic progress?  I am not saying this diagram is the be all and end all, but for myself in a play-based classroom it is a good place to start.

From my perspective as a teacher I will find this diagram as a useful starting point to 1)Assess readiness for even more learning and 2) Pinpoint an area that needs extra support before further progress can be made.  

This is just a starting point and my initial thoughts based on my research over the last couple of years, but it will form one of the assessment documents that is important in my play-based classroom and will be placed in each child's scrapbook for tracking purposes.  In my opinion this is real assessment, it really informs us, it is purposeful and of use to me in guiding a child's next steps cognitively.  Obviously within each section there is a lot of learning behind this and a lot of ways to get there.

Just as an aside, I am not saying that academic progress is impossible without these things in place, but I am thinking two to three years ahead..I think many of our learners that hit the wall and are tagged as 'reluctant' or needing 'recovery' or 'acceleration' can be traced back to one of these foundations lacking.  If we can slow down and ensure these foundations are in place in the first year, then we are doing them a great service later on!  Learning should be learning and enjoyable, not something that is a source of frustration.

Of course my answer for all of us is to embrace play-based learning.  In a classroom based on play these foundations become so much easier lay.  

My advice, slow down, embrace play, view children as individuals with individual needs...our children deserve it.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Learning Ready - What do we want parents to know?

It is a question I have been asked frequently in my career, what does my child need in order for them to be ready for school?

Over the years my answer has changed, take me back only a few years ago my answer would probably have centred around counting, letters, writing their name etc, along with the usual looking after belongings, tying shoes, social skills and manners.

Over the past few years I myself have been on quite the journey...I have challenged my own assumptions about what makes a 'good' learner and in turn have changed my answer to this question.

I now believe it is not the children that need to be 'school ready' but it is the school that needs to be 'children ready.'  This can be done by embracing play-based learning and discarding any programmes that are solely based on children getting to a certain standard.  The reality is there is nothing standard about our children, therefore there should be nothing standard about the education we give them...they deserve more than that.

Many people at a management level will demonstrate a reluctance to make this change, because they are fearful results will fact the opposite is true...our results academically have improved in that first year or two, but much more importantly the improvements in learning dispositions (which can not be measured with data) are tenfold.  Any reluctance is born from fear...if we are afraid to take a risk, to trust, then nothing will change.

Anyway...back to the question....what does my child need to be school ready?

Firstly this is a question that needs to be reworded....what does my child need to be learning ready?

Here is where my little diagram comes in....I have two versions, one for writing and one for readiness, not a lot of difference.  These are simplistic diagrams with a lot of depth of thought behind them..  We will be using the top diagram just to check in with our learning ready our children are and to make sure we know early on what foundations have not yet been put in place.

So, how can parents help their children to be school ready?

1) Play, develop motor skills like hopping, balancing, crawling, skipping, rolling, jumping, climbing etc by self-directed outside play.  Glorious, gadget free play.  As simple as that.  Their body needs to move, this movement is crucial for brain development.  Through this play children are developing not only gross motor skills, but also will be taking responsible risks which are so important for effective learners.  I emphasise gadget free, I simply don't believe preschoolers have a need for devices and this exposure needs to be closely managed.  Removing devices from our classroom has been one of the best things we have ever done.

2)Provide invitations to develop fine motor skills.  Painting, hammering, using tongs to pick up small items, twisting, turning, using a screwdriver, negotiating chopsticks...hand strength is vital for children to be able to use a pencil and to experience success and not frustration.

3)Talking....this is perhaps the most forgotten thing in our world today.  Indulge a young child's wonder about the world.  Talk a lot, describe, discuss.  Let them explore their urges and interests, indulge their fabulous imagination.  Talk, talk, talk and talk some more.  Read frequently to your child, talk about the pictures, have fun with rhyme, tell jokes and let children make up their own jokes!  Early number sense comes from talk.  Baking with your child, talking about patterns they see around them, sharing concepts like taller, shorter, faster, slower, counting everyday objects...these are all the starting points of mathematics.  A child's oral language ability is crucial for later progress in all curriculum areas.

4)Words and sounds...too often children sing the abc, but they have no idea what this is.  They have friezes up on their wall, but have no idea what they are.  The sounds letters make are much more important than the name or look of a letter.  Explore sounds, talk about the environmental sounds around silent, what can you hear?  Explore rhyme, talk about how words sound the same.  Letters are simply the symbol for the sound.  Talk about the sounds children can hear in words and then if you really want to, show them the letter that writes that sound.  Encourage children just to listen, to notice and explore, this will lead them beautifully into letter awareness at school.  If you really want to explore letters, this song is a great one for linking a sound to a letter.  Short programmes like the alphablocks are on youtube and are fabulous at linking the letter to the sound and to start to explore how sounds go together to make words.

Thats it....along with the usual, look after belongings, toilet themselves, have manners, share and take turns, that is all a child in my opinion need to have in order to be learning ready.  It is then up to the school to be ready for children.

To me, items 1, 2 and 3 are the most important.  If we have children that need extra attention at school it is usually in one or all of these items.  Often we have to fold right back to gross motor skills.

I see learning readiness as a brick wall...we need to lay these initial bricks really solidly so that the wall will be able to stand and that knowledge that is built on top will have strong foundations.

At school those termed reluctant, or struggling will often be found to be missing part or all of these initial foundations.  How can they build a strong wall without solid foundations for it to be built upon?

Parents should not feel a burden to get children ready for school.  It is however  a parents job to be helping a child's brain develop to its full potential and to simply spend time....time is a beautiful thing and an absolute gift.

"There is no gadget that can replace the pure power of play." - Leslee Allen

Friday, 9 June 2017

Some more thoughts about writing

After yesterdays thoughts about writing I have been giving some really deep thought to what might be the essential building blocks to enabling children to grow into effective writers and how running a play based classroom really helps to put these in place.  This is the very basic diagram I have created that demonstrates what I am thinking at the moment.

There are so many components that come into enabling children to be writing ready, and this diagram is very simple but basically it includes what I believe to be the key parts of the puzzle.

So what comes first... to me initially it needs to be those gross motor skills, along with the ability to perform activities that cross the midline.  Often children will come to school with this part of the puzzle already well in place...but I am sure we all have had experiences with those children that have not got these things in place.  Play-based learning is incredibly useful here because children can be given many opportunities to explore these skills.  PMP is also a useful programme to help with this.  

Fine motor skills are also incredibly important, how frustrating must it be for children, when simply holding a pencil is a challenge?  Once again there are so many opportunities in a play-based classroom to develop these skills.  I always find that as these skills develop, so does a child's ability to draw a pencil and in turn to form letters or attempt symbols for writing.

Vocabulary is a huge deficit in today's classrooms...if you speak to any new entrant teacher anywhere you will hear the same issue, children simply do not have the vocab they need to describe what they are seeing or thinking.  Their clarity of speech is not as good and their ability to form sentences is far below what it used to be.  

This is once again where a play-based room comes into its own.  Children are constantly talking, sharing, discussing, negotiating and there are ample opportunities to explore language and actually talk with children.

Last but not least by any shape or form is phonemic awareness and the ability to hear sounds and rhyme.  Once again the ability to slow down in a play-based room and take time to build these skills in authentic fun ways deepens understanding.  We have talked a lot about slowing down, not pushing children beyond initial sounds to more complicated spelling patterns.  Really taking the time to go over and over these sounds, to stretch words, to break words and look at their parts, to do this out loud...and most of all to have fun with appeal to kids, "If I can spell mum, I can spell bum" etc.  A play-based classroom allows you to just take time and have fun with sounds.  Lots of learning done out loud, rather than writing it down initially.  A play based classroom also allows children to engage with language in a very authentic and purposeful way that they themselves self-direct.

Can you imagine being a child that does not have these components in place....writing may be possible, but would it be a pleasure, would it be something you would want to do?  I believe this is where our reluctant writers are born....when we forget how complex the process is and spend time pushing forward, rather than folding back and weaving a strong web to enable them to become successful writers.  Quite ironically it may be our efforts to accelerate that ends up stalling progress.

A reluctance is formed when something has been hard for a very long time....the reality is, while it may become easier to spell, to use a picture, to tell a story, to hold a pencil... the mindset that has been formed is hard to break....writing becomes something they never want to do....even when in the end they probably are able to do it.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

From My Professional Blog

A Hunch Forms - Early Phonemic Awareness and how it can be missed without us even knowing...

"This blog post is taken from my professional blog"
This week we have had some interesting discussions around the staff room table.  We have a small group of year 5 students, girls and boys (about 6 children) that just seem to have some major building blocks missing in terms of phonemic awareness.  They have gotten to a particular point with their writing and seem to have stalled.

These children have been part of good phonetic programmes throughout their time at school, but they just don't seem to have made solid connections.

In a stroke of genius our lovely Shelley decided to take them right back to initial letter sounds, rather than presuming they had them, she wanted to find out if they did.

Low and behold these children all had major gaps in their very basic letter/sound knowledge.  They all found this, something we would expect our Year 2 children to have nailed, difficult.  Good on Shelley for not presuming...perhaps we presume to much?

Now these children can read...they are not miles ahead, but neither are the miles behind...have they struggled, yes...but it is not their reading that is of concern, in fact if we were just looking at their reading ability, it is unlikely that these children would have been identified for support.  We would never have picked up this huge looming gap in alphabet knowledge if we had not identified them through their writing.

I guess this makes complete sense.  In reading I can learn words as a whole, if I am visually savvy I can work out enough to read a text fluently, in other words I can fill in the gaps if I have fairly good comprehension and vocab.

But writing is different, you can get to a certain stage, but if you lack alphabet awareness writing would be an incredibly frustrating and spelling would be just about impossible.  In fact my writing would be incredibly hard to read, it would appear quite nonsensical.

This is true for these children, writing has become their barrier and now it seems painfully obvious why,....the initial building blocks of literacy that is our alphabet has not been firmly cemented in the learning wall...thus it is falling over.

And so I got to have we missed this, how have they gotten through each year level without us realising their alphabet knowledge was so lacking?

I have some hunches on this:

1) If a child is not cognitively ready for school when they start, they are going to miss that early phonetic learning simply because these connections are not yet ready to be made.

2)We pick most children up early because of their reading progress, or lack of it...we are often more delayed with picking up their writing in terms of invented spelling or lack of it.
3) By the time children are cognitively more ready for making these early connections we have moved onto word families and they start to pick up this knowledge, but individual sounds may be a mystery to them, and we just expect them to know.
4)There is a strong link to numeracy progress here and helping in one area, seems to also benefit the other.

So what can we do to ensure these children get picked up earlier and we can cement those initial bricks in the wall firmly so it does not fall over later?

**I think we just need to reframe what we look for in terms of early indicators....particularly looking for invented spelling and the ability to sound out words with dominant sounds....if this is not happening by the end of the  first 18 months or second year  it is probably a good sign that early phonetic awareness is not in place and we should leap in and help those connections to be made before frustration and bad habits along with writing reluctance sets in.

I will be adding this as an indicator when looking at target students.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Planning in Agency

I like to keep my planning quite open and be guided day to day by what the agents find difficult or too easy the day before.  However in saying this an agency session does have a daily rhythm that looks like this:

Hot Spots/Daily Basics/Maths Eyes
Quick subsitizing song
Doubles doubles song
My dog fraction

Make a tower to ten game - groups of three
Professional Development Activity

Professor - Using dominoes to make number stories - professor to model using the giant domino to make up the number story.  Focus in on the use of the pattern and begin to talk about starting from the biggest number.  Begin to focus on counting on for those that are ready. - Work in groups of three
Teacher in role...
Painter - help something is helping with my paint, half of the paint keeps disappearing from each can.
  • Captain Fraction
Word Problem
Arrrrr….the painter had 8 cans of paint and I have taken half of the cans, how many does he have left?

(focus in on agents using materials to solve the problem, or their doubles knowledge by drawing a picture.)

Talk move focus
Cowgirl calculation - focus on how do you know?  Do you agree, disagree with the agent before you?
Strand Link
Focus in on statistics.
Probability - how many times do we roll a five

Where to next?

 I like to have a focus in some shape and form on subitizing.  I find this focus really builds a deep understanding of number and assists greatly with basic fact knowledge that will be needed later on.  Our sessions will also have a strong focus on materials and visual strategies.  

At the end of each session I will write quick notes to myself and tweak the next days session if needed.  I will then use these notes to guide my next week's planning.  

I have been really impressed by how much my agents have grown with their agent talk moves.  They are now able to state if they agree or disagree with the agent before them and able to articulate how they solved the problem.  Cowgirl Calculation will reinforce and scaffold this and is often heard to say "so you are saying..."  Having Cowgirl revoice what they have said builds greatly on their own abilities to talk about the strategies they have used.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

The Power of Play - Bringing Parents Along For The Ride

Along with winning over management, winning over parents seems to be amongst the top of concerns when embarking on a play-based learning journey.

It is certainly one of the main topics when I am talking to other principals and staff at other schools.  Many schools are coming up with new and innovative terms for the word play in an attempt to bring parents on side...while this is completely up to individual schools, I don't think there is any need to call play by any other name.

From my perspective parents come at this issue with really only one concern in mind...if they are playing all day, how and what are they learning?

If we as educators can take parents along for the ride with us and make the learning as visible as possible, I think we can appease these concerns.

I'm not a very linear person, my thoughts are often all over the place, and if you have ever had a discussion for me about anything that I am passionate about, you will know my mind is inclined to jump from one point to another and often they do not seem connected.  So in an attempt to keep myself on track I have placed my ideas of how to bring parents along for the ride in numerical order.  This is by no means a step by step guide, but they are roughly in some order.

1)  Start slowly.  We started with discovery time (3 years ago.)  Children loved it.  We took loads of photos of the learning and shared these with parents via our blog.  Through discovery we started an outside discovery shed, this was available to the whole school and it was a very positive way to implement play.

2)Our journey through discovery time led us to create a once a week class for ten new entrant children, completely play-based.  Through this class I was able to share the benefits and progress made socially and cognitively with our Board of Trustees.  Our Board received a lot of information about early learning and the developments we were making and the success we were having.  In turn the BOT became a big supporter of play-based learning.  Also through this parents with new entrants were able to see the benefits that this play-based class had on their child's initial transition to school.

3)Throughout our regular school newsletters and class newsletters I started to weave quotes about play-based learning and its benefits to children.  I also started sharing information via facebook, like podcasts about play and brain development.

4)When speaking to parents we started to change what we were talking about, framing it around key-competencies.  Focusing more on cognitive, social and emotional skills.  Placing importance on these key elements allowed us to help parents to see play-based learning from a different perspective.

5)At our annual new entrant information evening I started to focus more on play-based learning, talking about how our class worked, and encouraging parents to embrace play-based learning at home as well.  Encouraging them not to worry about readiness in terms of academic skills, but in terms of early social skills, creativity and imagination.  Photos shown at this evening were a mixture of pure play and also included focus of regular curriculum tasks that parents would expect to see.  We clearly paint a picture of a classroom where children still achieve well and begin to learn early literacy and numeracy skills as expected.  This puts parents minds at rest.  We also share our daily timetable at this meeting, it helps parents to see how self-directed and more teacher-directed tasks are woven into our day.

6)We still give parents ideas on how they can help at home.  Our children still have simple literacy and number goals (aligned with what they are up to) but the message we give is for parents to only begin to support with these when they see their child is interested.  We also place importance on play at home and encourage parents to see the value in slowing down.   When a child starts they get a little early learning pack with nursery rhymes and alphabet.  The letter that goes with this explains how it can be used.  When children are ready, parents get another letter explaining the next step in the reading process is early book skills etc etc.  Basically each step of the way is clearly scaffolded with information we deem important at the time.

7)We have created a parent information hub (blog) which is linked off our school blog.  This is still a work in progress, but includes a lot of important information for parents about early learning and the importance of play in brain development.  I put any research or information on here that I think is useful and link it to our seesaw account.  This is the link to our hub here. 

8)Seesaw - this is fabulous and has really helped us to make learning visible and accessible to parents.  We put on here balance of photos that show progress and play and can not rave more about what a wonderful addition it has been for us in terms of communication.  Through Seesaw I am able to share the problems we face during Agency.  I am able to share the villains and I am able to share the strategy and knowledge that we are learning, along with the learning songs we are using in agency.  Parents can clearly see that there is a lot of learning going on, and through these links can help children at home, or even join in on the play, pretending to be agents themselves.💚💛

9)Visit days are a brilliant way for parents to see play and learning going hand in hand.  We try to make these mornings a real taster....showing how we do reading and writing through play.  Children are your best sales people here....the way the talk about their learning always amazes parents and I think puts their minds at ease.  Children are also incredibly happy in this environment and the transition is easy...I think that helps immensely.

10)As a way to pull our whole learner community into play we took part in Outdoor Classroom Day this year.  The whole school self-directed play outside.  Many parents commented on how much children loved this day, many have asked when it will be repeated and I think most were amazed at the way children were able to self-direct all day.

I am really happy with where we are at now in our play-based journey.  We will continue to tweak what we do in terms of parent communication, but I think the key lies in this word...communication, making the learning within the play visible to parents and taking every opportunity to show it off.  As with anything there will also be interesting conversations to be had, but I think if we ourselves are well versed in the benefits of play and can demonstrate these clearly to parents, BOT  and our wider community then we are on the right track.