Friday, 24 November 2017

Writing, what should we really be looking for?

Well I am sitting here amongst 23 learning journals trying to write reports.  With my annual reporting and strategic planning up on my computer screen that I am now officially half way through, as well as planning for 2018 and thinking about our upcoming planning day and Empty Classroom day.

However invading my mind over the last few days has been this blog post, rather than continue to push it to the side, I have decided to just get it out.

Writing, wow, there has been some real learning in this area for me this year.  Which in fact I didn't even realise until last week.  My complete perception of what a child that is ready to write has changed, in fact my thinking has done a complete flip.

I used to love it when children came in already able to write some words, letters and perhaps even put a basic "I went to..." story together.  In fact I would breathe a sigh of relief because I was confident that I could get those children to where I wanted them by the end of they year.  I now realise I had it all wrong.

What I have realised is that children that enter like this have been given a very prescribed view of what writing is about, they are simply regurgitating a pattern that they have been praised for over and over again and in fact have just learned they symbols of writing, but not really the whole point of writing.

Hopefully I am not losing you with my thinking here as I am well aware that my mind is in a number of different places.

These children then enter a classroom like mine used to be and are again rewarded for being able to regurgitate this pattern.  Their view of writing is narrow and somewhat robotic.  In fact what I have noticed is that they don't understand at all that their writing conveys a message that they actually want to write about, when they come to draw a picture, the picture often has nothing to do with what they have written.  Children that are taught this is what writing is all about are the ones that will struggle to take risks, to step out of a comfort zone and ultimately just be able to express themselves through the written word.  They also often need a 'topic' or idea to write about...and guess what in my old life I used to give it to them :)

So what is writing?  Ultimately is is a way of scribing my thoughts through a system of symbols that others understand and could also be spoken out loud. This is the key, spoken out loud.  Oral language and the ability to come up with a message is the unlocking of and whole purpose of writing.

What I have found this year is that children need to be allowed to go through the stages of writing, drawing pictures, talking, scribing symbols and eventually learning the code.  They need to be allowed to explore this within an environment that is rich in talk and experiences that they self-direct and are interested in.  Time to just record symbols and pictures is pressure to scribe words, no teacher marks.

Slowly this year I have watched children that came in unable to hold a pencil begin to understand the code and transition through the writing stages on their own, with very little intervention on my part.  They see it, they hear it, they talk it and so in the end the can write it.

These children, that didn't come in with a definition of what writing is, and already able to 'write' are my best writers, their ideas reflect their interests, they are not narrowed by a sentence structure that I have taught them....the write how the speak and it is gorgeous, they don't leave out details because they 'can't' write them down.

For me this learning has further reinforced the absolute need for play to be the core of our curriculum.  I am sure we have all had children in the past who have said "I have nothing to write about"....well you know what, not one child has said that this year in my play-based room....they have many messages they want to convey, all of the time and because they follow their urges, many ideas to write about.

Of course there are many other ingredients that go into this, as indicated on my play-based learning ingredients mind map that I have shared on here.

What do I now hope walks through my classroom door?

What I want is a child who wants to play and has no preconceived ideas of  what writing is....who has been talked to a lot and allowed to explore their own interests and curiosities, who has been allowed to play outside, to use their imagination and get messy, who has been allowed to develop according to their own needs and in their own time and comes to school with their happiness kete full. 

That's what I hope for....I can take it from there in my play-based room quite happily.

And what if their kete is not full....well I will endeavor to find ways to fill that too!

Monday, 20 November 2017

What I Love About Visual Images

Before this year, I had dabbled with the use of maths eyes and always used a lot of subitizing activities within my sessions.  I also used a lot of ten frame work and lots of similar patterns for ten shown in different way.  I also have a few numicon resources that I use from time to time.

Dice and cards have also always been a big part of my programme, and continue to be so.

This year I have really got stuck into number talks.  In particular dot talks and using a range of other visual images.

Dot talks have proved to be amazing and I am really impressed with how this approach has really assisted children to develop flexibility with number.  In particular it has really helped them with the concept that there is not only one way to see or do things and often not one 'right' answer.

A concept I have really been hammering lately is that a number can be expressed in different ways but mean the same thing e.g. 11 + 1 is the same as saying 6 + 6 etc.

I think dot talks has really assisted children to develop this understanding and I am really seeing a deep sense of number coming through.

This is an example of a dot talk.  I have yet to film a session with a different visual image.

This is an example of one of the dot talks I use.

Flexibility with number is definitely becoming a strength.

Number sense is also a real strength this year and many of these things mentioned on this mindmap are coming shining through.

Great flexibility with number.  Understanding that 12-10-1 was the same as saying 12-11=

Agents are really displaying a brilliant understanding of grouping thanks to dot talks and use of other visual images.  Grouping is coming quite naturally and seems like a logical next step when solving problems.  This little one has only had half a term at school, she already has a lovely awareness of number, so visual images have built on this pre-knowledge.

It is visual images that have surprised me the most.  I use a range of these.  Some are quite obscure and require a lot of talk about what agents notice, others are more obvious and agents can quickly start to see and explain groupings.  Below are an example of a couple of these images.  Both are equally useful in developing understandings.

Something I wasn't expecting is the change I would notice in agents after using images like this regularly, along with dot talks.  The change has been in their ability to explain, to have a go and to not worry about having the right answer as they quickly see that there may be many different ways to see and explain things.  

Some children who would quite likely have sat back in 'normal' maths sessions have shone and continue to do so, these are often your out of the box thinkers that may not have fitted into a traditional knowledge focused session.

The mixture of talk and the springboard of a visual image has transformed our agency and the agents in it.

What it!  This agent originally stated that there was 22 triangles.  Another agent challenged him and said that there were four triangles.  The built on each others understandings to come up with an answer they were both happy with.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Have we forgotten that children are still just children?

My journey into play based learning and my resulting learning (ongoing of course) about brain development has led me to this question.  In all our wisdom and push to provide for modern learners, have we forgotten that children are still just children?

We seem to be so desperate to jump on the next bandwagon, to shape our classrooms for the future, to teach these supposedly 'different' learners, who are so 'different' to how we were, in progressive ways.

There are businesses shaped around providing professional development and resources so we can provide for these supposed different learners....but what is it that has made them so different?

My thinking has now meandered to this point....children are no different to how we were....they are still just children....with the same developmental needs...the environment around them has shaped them in different ways, which leads them to engage or seek activities that are different to those we sought out, but is this necessarily a good thing, and is this benefiting anybody?

I think back to my childhood and it was of course very different.  I spent hour upon hour outside, riding bikes, horses, swimming in creeks, playing skipping games and elastics, using my imagination, climbing trees....just being a kid.  I had a social life, I frequently had friends over and didn't have a constant stream of after school actvities.  Back then very simple hand held devices were being introduced and I loved them, in fact just like children today, if my mother had allowed me to, I probably would have spent hours on these...but she didn't.  I also remember as a teen getting our first computer.  Basically all I used this for was learning basic code to make it do fun things....if it could of done more, I would have probably spent more time on it.  Of course the key here would have been, I wouldn't have been allowed to.

Children are still just like we were.  They spend time on devices because we allow it, probably not because it is their preference, but they are there, they are entertaining and intriguing...I would hasten to add probably a bit addictive and they have few other options.  Lives are busy, social lives have dwindled, outside play is a dying art.  Children need other children, whilst they can play alone, they enjoy the social nature of play...with friends they are much more likely to opt for the outdoors.

I have also had an interesting thought...are the young adults we are seeing with real wellbeing issues a result of us beginning to believe the hype that children are so different from how we were and treating them as if they were are different model of child, using approaches that pushed them through childhood and did not allow them the right to follow their appropriate developmental pathway?  If play is not present in the home, then I believe it is our absolute responsibility to provide for this fundamental need even more so at school.

And so I have come to a point in my thought process where I feel a little like the Lorax....but instead of the trees, I speak for our children, and they need us.

They need us desperately.

No, school should not be the cure of all ills, but in this case I think it needs to be.

We have taken all devices out of our room.  We have not had them for two years now and the children are 'different.'  They learn to socialise much more quickly, are not drawn to the shiny bauble that is that device and low and behold have learned to use their imagination.  I am not saying you have to do this, but we have and love it.  In fact most of our junior rooms up to year 3, are going this way.

Play needs to be put back at the centre of what we fact it needs to be what we aim for.  Children need to be encouraged to do all those things that they need to do developmentally to build that part of their brain securely.  If you have read my earlier blog posts you will know what I mean here, so I won't go on about this.

My children adore playing clapping games.  It took us a while to learn pat-a-cake, but it is now a firm favourite.  They are no different to how I was, or you were, they are children.

Play is elevated to the highest and most important thing we can be doing in our class of children (who have had 0-18months at school)  We talk about the power of it for their brain and hopefully this starts to spill over into home.

We get outside a LOT!  In fact some children spend more time outside then in on lovely fine days.

And you know what, those children are no different to how we were.  They thrive on our trust.  They thrive on the fact that we allow them to be in control.  They thrive on movement.  They thrive on social engagement.  The classroom we have now, I would have loved to be in as a child.  They don't seek the shiny baubles of devices, they seek out loose parts, just as I would have as a child.  They are not wriggly worms that require wobbly chairs just to fact behaviour issues are down to an all time low.  They LOVE mat time, because they know it will be short and they can return to their play.

As an advocate for play and for children I believe it is my role and hopefully yours as well if you are reading this, to advocate for play.  To spread the word about its importance.  To spread the word about the importance of childhood.  To encourage it back into homes, before it is lost for good.

Children are not some weird and mystical being, so different from us that they need different, new, expensive teaching approaches.  They are children with the same developmental, social, emotional needs as we once had as children.  They deserve the right to enjoy childhood and all of its joy to the absolute fullest.  The deserve the right to explore their world.

Let them play.

(We will be celebrating outside play on the 30th of November.  There is a link to this event on my Facebook page Number Agents.  On this day they whole school will self-direct their play outside.  This may be a great way to give play the kick start it needs in your school.)

Saturday, 11 November 2017

What is it we should be checking on along a child's journey in their first year at school and beyond?

Something that interests me is our obsession in education on assessing children, assessing them for their progress, but also assessing them for their knowledge gaps.  Then filling these gaps with focused teaching of the knowledge we believe will fill this gap.

Very rarely do we look beyond the knowledge that may be needed to fill this gap and think about why the child is having difficulty making our perceived 'expected' level of progress in the first place.

I have been just as guilty of this and used to cycle Number Agents through a two week cycle of knowledge focus so that I was 'covering' what I thought I needed to.

In writing I would focus in on that specific thing the child was not doing to try and ensure that on their next sample they showed me they could indeed do it.

And so it went on, I was constantly filling up gaps in the knowledge that in doing so I could 'accelerate' their progress to a level that would prove I had 'taught' them something.

The last 18 months have been transformative for me.  Challenging my own assumptions and being open to change and flexible enough to change has opened up a whole new viewpoint on learning.

Firstly I stopped seeing everything that was missing as a gap that needed to be filled.  I folded right back and did some learning about the brain.  The work of Nathan Wallis really resonated with me and the diagram of brain development was one that really helped to make it all make sense.  Nathan talked about the brain developing sequentially.  Like a house the floor needed to be put on along with the walls and then the roof, the roof being academic learning.

I went back to school after listening to him to be speak(or to be honest, home that very evening) and worked on a model that related to this that I could translate to the classroom.

I see that I will develop this further, but for now it helps me to summarise what I now aim to do for my children.  From this I made huge modifications to the goal sheets that we work through with children.  Rather than including academic goals early on, I created goals that would allow me to see fine and gross motor skill development.  Goals that would allow me to have more insight into the child in front of me and their individual development.

This sheet has already been modified several times and I am guessing that I will modify it many more times as I learn more.  

We have sheets that go along with each step and eye tracking and dominant eye is something I want to add to the fine motor section of the goals, for now, we note it down for our own reference.

For us now these developmental goals have become the way we help children to make progress that is relevant to their developmental stage.  Our programme has become very individualised.

Rather than thinking later on about a child that may have had a year and is not making the perceived amount of academic progress and then back tracking and trying to see if they have movement issues, we now ensure that this is in place first.  The reality is it may take a child a year or more to be ready for further academic learning beyond what happens through out play and I am absolutely 100% ok with this.  I now completely understand why many people believe the actual teaching of reading should be delayed till seven.

I think we need to be doing more of this:

Wow and I still remember doing this at five....:)

This article is brilliant for explaining why it is we need to be folding back and not pressuring children to do things they are not ready for.

I just don't believe that we (as an education system) comprehend how important it is to really understand the link between movement and learning in terms of the brain.  Our approach to the education of five year olds would certainly suggest that we don't.

While some children may be able to develop academic awareness and make appropriate progress without strong foundations in place, you can guarantee that later on some cracks will appear if we have not allowed them the time to simply develop and be ready.  Applying understandings, displaying initiative, transforming learning, resilience, bouncing back from difficulty, well developed social skills and management of risk are amongst the things I believe will become difficult for learners that are pushed into the academic arena before their brain is developmentally ready.  However this is an area that warrants further thought from me.

Instead of expecting five year olds to walk through the door and begin their 'academic' journey in terms of reading, writing and maths.  I believe we should allow them to walk into our rooms and just pick up where their brain is currently at.  As educators we need to find ways and means of doing this, we have 46 individuals in our two home rooms now, each one is working individually on their own journey, they are all different and all achieving well for them, we are not filling in any gaps, we are gradually building foundations for them to grow from.

We need to stop expecting children to do what they are not ready for.  

This does not only apply to five year olds, I believe there are many children sitting in our classrooms in their first few years at school that have weak foundations and really need to go back and solidify these foundations, I don't think it is ever too late!  Think about those boys that suddenly around year 3/4 start to appear in data as below, are reluctant writers, become behavior issues.  Could it be that simply by checking their foundations of development we could assist them to further engage with academic learning?  But what do we currently do, I would suggest that in most cases we just try to fill in the gaps, spend more time on this area, continue to force learning upon them that they are not able to engage with.

I have many examples now of children who, given the time to develop their foundations,  don't need anyone to help them fill in the gaps, their brains are ready to do that for themselves, given authentic learning situations they display remarkable progress when and as they are ready.  

Schools should be places of thinking, not fountains of knowledge.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Ingredients of my play-based room

Ingredients of my play-based room

I have updated the mindmap and here is the PDF

I have also updated my Term 4 planner and that is here in PDF

The other link people have found useful is my goal sheet that is based on the sequential development of the brain...current copy is here.

This is also our dispositions/habits sheet that I have developed and we will be using to drive our thinking and reflection around children's learning and growth.

I hope these are useful.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

What does a typical day of play-based learning look like for us?

First I want to preface this post with a disclaimer...I am not claiming that this is the only way to run a play-based room, I am not claiming to be an expert, I am simply sharing my experience so far.  Have I got everything right?  No probably not.   Am I still learning and developing my own pedagogy and understanding?  Yes absolutely!

Our days are never the same, but they do follow the same basic flow.  The one thing that is important to us, is the freedom to just go with the children's passions or interest if the urge so takes us :)

9.00 - 9.10am - We start the day with play.  The bell means to come inside, but not to stop playing.  As children are playing we wander round, greet them and do the roll.

9.10 ish - Our morning song will play from Wai Ako, this is the signal that children are to come to the mat, we generally sing two or three songs together.  Here we will do a what's on top, if we are looking at growth mindset, we may do something connected to that, if it is emotions, something on that, if something has come up at play based time, we will discuss that....or we may share something new in our learning story scrapbook.

9.25ish - Self Directed play  (one of us will be observing, one of us may be doing reading with a child)

10.10 - 11.00am - Number Agents (Maths through drama and play)

----Morning tea

11.20 - 12.00pm Self Directed Play (individual readers or check ins as required)

12.00pm - Writing through storytelling - incorporate phonics using whole words to explore sounds.  Sometimes we may just work on words and sounds without the storytelling.


1.25pm - Self-directed play (clean up after this session)

2.15pm - Reading together, browsing at interest books, choosing one to take home

2.35 - Shared Reading from a chapter book or similar

clean up and home at 2.55pm

We do not stick to times really and our timetable is pretty fluid, we have certain things we want to fit in during the day and we ensure we do this.  If a child's interest our urge takes us in a different direction, then we go with it.  We do try to build in a lot of reflection on the play using photos or videos we take.  At these times we will talk about the learning and dispositions we are noticing in the play.  We do use big books for shared reading, but we also read to them from chapter books or treasuries.  At the moment, the mr men little miss series are a favourite.

What does the play look like?

Well it varies and we are incredibly lucky to have two classrooms joined together, a courtyard, a mud kitchen, and a huge outside space.  We have a range of loose parts in the classrooms and the costumes are a big hit.  We also keep what we call 'invitations' out in our back room that we pull out occasionally.  These include boxes made up in themes.  We find the children are drawn to the type of play and mix with a range of children that have the same interests and urges as them.

It is amazing how many different types a play one child may engage in during a day and on the other hand how long certain play can be sustained.

The other thing that I have really noticed is the other benefits a play-based classroom has had for us and our children.  We have less tale telling, children are far more likely to solve their own problems and are noticeably more resilient.

Children get on better, they have better social skills and are more likely to work with a variety of children in a day so friendships are wider and much happier.

We deal with behaviour infrequently.  Because we are aiming our programme at specific developmental needs and operating on a very individualised level, children are engaged and motivated because we are not expecting tasks that are cognitively inappropriate for them.

Learning happens without pushing and children can make huge gains almost overnight.  As you focus in on their development you are more likely to see the actual gains they are making rather than the academic ones.  We know them so well, the relationships we have with each of them are far more powerful than ever before.

Can't wait to see where our play-based journey takes us next!