Friday, 28 December 2018

Invitations, Provocations and Backward Planning

Last year my primary inquiry was around provocations, I wanted to work on the way I used these in my class to deepen the play and discovery. What I discovered quite quickly is that first I actually needed to understand what a provocation is.

My understanding going into 2018 was that an invitation was specific, it invited children to play/discover in a specific way. A provocation was open ended, it allowed children to interact with a set provocation however their fancy took them.
After trying to set a few provocations, I quickly discovered that perhaps my definition was flawed and the way I was attempting to provoke simply wasn't going to work in the way I wanted to. What I discovered is encapsulated in the statement below.

Once you have taken the time to observe and reflect, it’s time to act on your thinking. After observation and reflection, you will be deciding whether you want to plan a response or if you need to find out more. One way to make that decision is to provide a provocation or a set of invitations for the children and then watch for the response (Stacey, Emergent Curriculum, 2009).

Although my provocations were well intended I wasn't actually tuning into the play to create them. I wasn't using them as a process of noticing, reflecting, recognising and responding, I was just setting what I thought were lovely provocations, but they held little interest for the children because that wasn't where their play was taking them. I was seeing fabulous things online and thinking I could recreate these in my classroom, the truth is, if it hadn't come from the children, it wasn't actually worth doing, no matter how interesting I thought it was the children simply were not interested.

Quite logically this discovery around provocations led me to further develop my understandings around planning, which I had been struggling with a little. Backward planning was born.

Before I go further I want to attempt to offer my definition of invitation and provocation as I find the are often offered up as the same thing and used interchangeably.

From various readings I like the idea that the environment we provide is an invitation. An invitation into play. For me an invitation is not based on anything I have noticed in the play and am therefore responding to, an invitation is based on what I know about the children, the age group, the way they like to play and designed to invite further play. To encourage curiosity, discovery, wonderings, various types of play, that may then reveal (or not) further interests and urges that I may be able to provoke further. The teacher may then choose to use the play and interests they see as a result to provoke further. This might be a simple "what if" could even be as basic as simple action or movement, a change in body language, an inclination, or as deliberate as a conversation.

When I think of invitations I think of intention. There is an intention by providing the invitation to inspire/encourage play in a certain way. I often use these specifically for writing, with the best example being our Spider Sabrina, who started out as just a web on the wall (pictured below), it was the children themselves that decided it was a web...if they had not done this, it would have evolved into something else this 'web' did eventually include a spider that would send us messages. The messages were my intention, but it was the children that allowed me to do this by sharing their knowledge of the book Charlotte's Web.

My intention here was to encourage talk, to provide a bit of magic that may or may not evoke a response from the children. The great interest in Sabrina, led me to do some provocation around spiders, which then evolved into insects and other living creatures. Had the children not at all been interested in the spider, I would have left it at that.

I really like this article around provocations and invitations.

The point I have got to with understanding invitations and provocations is to think of invitations as a way to spark play. As a teacher we then notice the interests being sparked from this invitation and provoke further, perhaps by providing several different invitations around this same interest. For me an invitation would only evolve further to guide further provocation if the children show interest or reveal to me certain understandings or questions. I will continue to provide provocations through photo, video, discussion, simple questioning, play, specific invitations until that interest dries up...we will then move on.  This may be the length of a day, a week, or even over a month.  Sometimes the interest may be fleeting and come to an end within an hour.

Within any classroom there may of course be several different provocations going on at once and this is the balancing act of the teacher. When to provoke further, and when to just leave them to it.

I like one teachers definition, taking straight from the article.

“an invitation is the spark, a provocation fans the fire”.

These quotes that resonate with me.

The materials we choose to bring into our classrooms reveal the choices we have made about knowledge and what we think is important to know. How children are invited to use the materials indicates the role they shall have in their learning. Materials are the text of early childhood classrooms. Unlike books filled with facts and printed with words, materials are more like outlines. They offer openings and pathways by and through which children may enter the world of knowledge. Materials become the tools with which children give form to and express their understanding of the world and the meanings they have constructed” (Cuffaro, Experimenting with the World, 1995).

Teachers endeavour to continually provoke children’s natural propensities to search for meanings, to pose questions of themselves and others, and to interpret the phenomena of their own lives. (Cooper, The Hundred Languages of Children, 2012).

So plain and simply a provocation comes from the children, it is part of the cycle of noticing, reflecting, recognising and responding. It will morph and change as guided by the children and within any classroom there is clearly an agreement between the adults and children that this is something we want to discover and learn more about.

From that understanding, backward planning was born. This year I had the courage to completely ditch any forward planning, other than my ingredients of play (you will need to click on the photo to enlarge.) That includes any timetable. Guided by the week before and my plan below I would set priorities for the week, but when and how these happened were fluid.

I would then, in my teaching/learning scrapbook keep a mind map of where the learning actually went. Tuning into interests, recognising the learning, noting these down and responding as was appropriate. Writing down what we had done, after we had done it. Usually the mind map is in handwritten scrawl, but this one below is neat and tidy so you can see what I mean.

To go along with this, we keep a class scrapbook where we document our learning in photos, captions, drawings etc. This is a document I refer back to constantly throughout the day.

We also share our learning on seesaw, so there is loads of documentation of the learning.

What I really want to try in 2019 is creating a mind map for each child. Having their name or photo in the middle and then documenting their interests, urges, social emotional learning and other areas of learning around the outside. I think this will create a very real and valid picture of the child as an individual and be a great discussion starter with whānau.

So as I end this blog post, I still feel a little vague on invitations vs provocations, but have come to terms that it doesn't really matter.

Very loosely and not assuming to be correct I offer this definition:

Invitations are the environment we provide, what we choose to put in this environment and provocations are what we do based on the interests and urges we see through children playing in that environment.

What I am clear on is this...nothing I do in the environment should ever say that there is one way to play with or interact with this invitation, it is not my job to tell, it is my job to notice, reflect, recognise and respond. To allow learning to be a mutual agreement between the children as peers and with myself, to truly allow it to be a mutually beneficial journey with no prescribed destination but lovely gorgeous places to explore along the way.

I hope everyone is enjoying their well deserved holidays!

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Reading - my discoveries this year

Reading in a classroom based on play has been one of my professional inquiries over the past few years.  This year, we have made a few tweaks here and there, but what has most dramatically changed, is my understanding of how the brain learns to read.

The seven minute video below is a good summary of what I have been working on this year, the understanding that the brain has to rewire itself for reading is crucial I believe for all teachers.  Key also is the fact that spoken language is integral to later success and that in reading the brain is always translating one letter at a time, even though it gets better and better at this with practice. 

Basically the brain is linking the visual, to the sound and initially this is a slow and very deliberate process.  Adding on here to what I know about brain development, it is a process that happens effectively and efficiently if we wait to engage with reading until a child is developmentally ready.

From my new understandings I developed this framework for literacy development in my class.

This diagram shows clearly how I guide the acquisition of reading skills long before we ever engage in formally 'teaching' children to read.

We have had enormous success with helping children to develop a readiness for reading this year, but it is really important to note that to do this, we must put our old teaching brain to the side as some of our children, even after a year at school are not yet formally reading with us, and that is absolutely appropriate for that child.  Hugely important to note here is that when children do start formally reading with us, they understand what they are doing, are interested and because of the strong emphasis on phonetic awareness, have the skills to be able to solve unknown words.  Given time and patience, they don't really need us at all.  We are free to help them develop strategies that will assist this process.

The more practice a child has at this, the faster their brain gets and then the more able we are to build from an excellent vocab to develop comprehension.  Kind, patient help at home becomes even more important...with the most important word here being 'patient.'

What has most changed is the way I interact with the reader, engaging with readers that are ready has allowed me to develop my own awareness of just how much of the work I was doing before.  When I cast my mind back to those emergent-red-yellow groups where I used to have my voice 'just' in front of children, like I was trained to do way back when....pausing to teach strategies etc, I realise that many children were little more than parroting me....later on, further up the school, they were more inclined to sit back and let someone else in the group solve the word for them.  Their brain wasn't doing what it needed to do to wire itself to read successfully.  I now let the child read, I wait, as long as it takes for them to solve the word, prompting with the stretching of sounds if really needed and re-reading the text just in case the sense has been lost.  We share the reading, in this process a few pages is hard work for the brain, I am quite happy to share the reading process.

What has worked well this year?

1) Decodable texts.  These were a breakthrough for us. We have been using books from Liz Kane Literacy.  They have been excellent at building strong foundations and developing independence in using the code.  They have also helped to build our own understandings of the teaching of phonics.  This led me to think about our older children with code issues and I found these books.  These have been breakthrough for us, children love them and wow they are just wonderful!  Engaging, intriguing, perfect!  We have now purchased a superhero series and an alien series in the project x range.  All decodable.  We have gone through to import these and they have been super helpful, I really recommend them!

2) Individual reading as an when children are ready.  We read one on one, twice a week with children, this has proved to be more than enough.

3) Shared reading of big books and chapter books.  Our current chapter book is Amelia Jane, comprehension has come along in leaps and bounds since I started routinely reading a chapter each day to them.  They can paint the picture in their head, comprehend what is happening and predict what will happen.  They laugh  at the story and the characters very much come alive for them.

4) Interest books, each day children spend time browsing books that interest them, there is no burden on them to be able to read it, but they get a huge amount of pleasure from sharing with their friends...oral language off the hook!

5)Rich discussion in a play based class has made such a wonderful different to vocab and comprehension.  Talking about my world, allows me to understand my world.

6) Not taking things for granted.  Occasionally in books children will encounter words that we think they should understand, but they actually don't.  Simply asking them 'do you know what that means...' allows us to feed in just in time vocab.

7)Telling - children work so hard to learn to read and write when they are ready and interested, if they ask me how to write something, or what a word says, I tell them.   I know that with the mindsets we are establishing, they will have tried hard to work it out before they come and ask me.

8) Developmental goals- the have continued to be very effective for us this year. 

Monday, 19 November 2018

Number Agents - Where the magic happens!

"If you are wondering where agency came came from my imagination and a wonderful childhood memory.  As a much younger sibling with older brothers I spent a lot of time playing on my own.  I invented worlds where I was the hero, defeating villains.  This world has stayed with me for all these years, I wanted to give that wonderful gift to the children in my class and so far it has been nothing but positive."

Well we have just concluded another year in agency, another year in this magnificent world of our imaginations, that just happens to be mathematical.  Agency has morphed and changed a little this year, as it does every year, it changes according to the needs of our children, and where their minds take it.  They fill in the gaps, like a pick a path book, we never quite know our destination, but there is real joy in the journey.  Every year I get more confident, I try new things, some work, some don't but I always learn something.

I have to admit, my children moved me to shed a slight tear this year, as their sadness at closing the portal and saying goodbye to this world that they truly adore, was hard to say the least.  A few really struggled and there were hugs all round...who would have thought maths could move us that way!

From the outside this world looks like it is about puppets, a fanciful, playful time, where completely out of my comfort zone at all times, I transform from character to character, turning each maths session into a narrative, through the beginning, weaving through tensions, coming to a big finish and ending happily ever after.

But is this world all about the puppets, not it isn't.  In fact, when I started out, the puppets were not even a glint in my eye, the villains were still images, that the children brought to life themselves through drama.  It worked just as well this way.  So what is it, about this world, about this approach that is just THAT special.  As the creator of this approach, even I am blown away by the effect it has on children and how they see themselves as learners.

Perhaps it would be useful here, just to reflect back on a year ago, where I was just as blown away, isn't it amazing that every year I can totally amaze myself all over again?

This is a blog post, written on the 1st of December 2017

Many of the ingredients from 2017 have just continued to grow in 2018.  The visual images once again played a huge role, as did the talk moves, very ably lead by Cowgirl Calculation.

In fact the more I just allow myself to embrace this way of teaching, to embrace play, the more able I have become to think like a child again, a lot of the most exciting things that happen in agency come to me right before they happen, just as they would if we were all just involved in dramatic play.

So what is it about this world that make it so successful, what are the key components?

1) The hooking in.  You can watch a bit more about this on my youtube channel, this stage is crucial as it allows children the time to really believe in this world.

2)The narrative...each session follows a common pattern, the entering into the world through an agreed ritual, the just in time learning with professor, the hands on or visual element, the great excitement when a client rings in with a problem, the added tension of the siren going off to signal a breach of the portal as a villain comes in to challenge us, the rush to work together to solve the problem, the fun in talking about our answers and the joy in defeating the villain with our solution, followed by the satisfaction of sorting out the clients problem, the ritual of ending.  All fitted into 40 - 50 minutes.

3) The emotional connection to the characters.  The need to do right by our clients, and the absolute urge to defeat our foes.

4) The added plot twists thrown in throughout the year, stolen brain gain, emergency recon missions, new villains, the kidnapping of professor or lead agent.  The suggestion of a plan or two in the wind.  The appearance of another portal, a recon agent gone rogue, a bomb planted...this is only limited by the imagination.

5) The fact that we are all on the same level, head agent is in charge, not us, we are simply a responsible team, recognised for our problem solving capabilities.  We are not alone, we are one of many teams around NZ and are very aware of the existence of other agencies.

6)The key...when we close agency, we all keep a key in our pocket, a key that can open the door again, this leaves the possibility there that we once again may be agents in some other form and that the world has not gone for good.

7) The is just that, fun!  It is playful, it is memorable!

8) The challenge...never easy, we have to work to grow our brains like a muscle, always needing to be one step ahead!

9) The relationships, perhaps the most important thing, the children love the goodies and the baddies...they truly care about them and respect them!  They actually listen far better to Cowgirl and Professor then they ever do to me out of role.

10)Most learning is done out loud through song, visually and with materials.  There is little burden on children to write and there is not a worksheet in sight!

11) Expert positioning, we are already experts, it feels good and children are much more inclined to have a go and take responsible risks when positioned in this way.

12) In the words of one of my children "the villains do what they say"  eg Subtraction Shark poses subtraction problems, Knight Adder adds, The Grouping Goblin groups...etc there is no great mystery.  Children quickly cotton on to these different functions and develop excellent strategies when allowed the scope to do so.

13) And as with most things in teaching, the real key is is your enthusiasm for this world that will really ignite the learning.  Like anything, if you are just going through the motions, hoping for this to work for you, it wont.

As an aside, mathematical results are awesome using this approach, but the biggest benefit is to mindset, no more maths anxiety in sight!  We have to remember that children are not data and childhood is not a learning difficulty.

I love teaching this way, the children love learning this way, and I can not wait until next year!

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Some things I have learned so far.

This is our fourth year growing into play.  This is the richest journey I have ever been on in my professional career.  This journey has unfolded naturally without the need to be forced, time has allowed me the opportunity to reflect, respond and change as needed. 

My one concern at the moment is that with the growing popularity of play, teachers will jump on board, without a why, thinking they need to put everything in place at once, rushing in without taking the time to let the process guide them, and in turn finding the journey is not as successful as they believe it should be, in turn they will blame play and return to the old way of doing things.

I know and trust that my journey still has a lot to teach me, but wanted to share some of the things I have learned so far.

1) You have to have a why, a reason to start this whole journey, and it can't be because others are doing it and it seems like a good idea.  Our initial why was the limited oral language children were coming in with and the apparent rise of 'learning difficulties.'  Our why now has morphed into developmental readiness.  This why needs to be clearly evident when lovely people like ERO visit, if you are the best person to speak about that why, be part of that meeting, don't count on others to be able to articulate it for you.

2)Clearly have the bones of what you are trying to do in your head and on paper from the start.  What dispositions are you after?  Are you using elements of Te Whariki?  What are the values you want to develop?  How will you guide social and emotional skills?  These are the elements that will help to shape where you find your place in the programme.  Where and how will you take the opportunity to 'coach' these things?  What is it you want for your children?

3)Trust, this is crucial, you need to take time to develop trust in yourself and trust in the children, without trust, this approach will be quite restricted.

4)Learning, how does it look and how does it happen?  I have learned some much about the brain and how it develops.  It is crucial in a play based class that you are aware of developmental needs and how you can use these to engage with each child in your class.

5)Time, it is important not to try to change too much at once, take time with everything, it has been important for me that I have had time to reflect on what I am seeing and respond to these.  I have changed so much of what we do, but don't believe at any stage I have been wrong, I just didn't know better yet.

6)You can not run a class based on play and developmental needs and still hang on to the old way of forcing learning.  This needs to change.  A play-based/developmental approach is at cross purposes with a programme that forces academic learning and testing in the way it has been done in the past.

7)Children are individuals and need to be treated with respect given to their needs.  One of the gift a class based on play gives us is the opportunity to really see children, but we must allow us to take the time to do so.

8)The curriculum comes from the children, trust that it will.  In fact I have never discovered so much with my children, I don't plan for this, but it is up to me to notice it and work out a way to respond if appropriate.  It is up to me to see how the prescribed 'curriculum' has been falling out of our days, not the concern of the children who naturally see everything as connected.

9)Oral language is off the hook in a play based classroom, if you are looking for a way to improve confidence and ability to speak, play based is an absolutely perfect way to do this. 

10)Eventually there is a need to ditch weekly planning and the timetable, this will happen naturally and as if feels right.   Backward planning is where it is at.

11)  There is no need to spend loads of money on resources, in fact we have ended up ditching many of ours.  If you want to purchase items, take time to watch the interests and urges first.  Open ended items are the absolute best.

12) Mess is good, pack up at the end of the day.

13)Reading, writing and maths can still be part of your day, these just may look a little different.  For us we use storytelling for writing, number agents for maths and reading is individual if and when they are ready.

14) Get ready for that old teacher on your shoulder to have a field day every time you see the actual age of children and compare it to their so called reading level.  This voice will dim with time, but it will always be there.  Take it from me, progress will be there, but it will look different.  Measures of reading, writing and maths may be more relevant from Year 4 on.

15) Children will naturally deepen play, you don't need to do it.  There is no need for beautiful provocations, take time to provoke or invite when you are responding to an interest.

16) You may have wonderful ideas for a provocation, and the children may not take the bait...don't worry, just shelve that idea.

17)Children love a 'sense of a mysterious other' and it is a great way to provoke writing.  Use magic at every opportunity.

18) Every day won't be a wonderful leap through the daisies, this approach is hard work, I have never worked harder, I go home brain dead and some days wouldn't make the pages of facebook.  The great days outweigh the difficult ones. 

19) Eventually you will be able to ditch any rewards you have been using in a traditional classroom.  We have phased this out this year.  Children simply don't need them.

20) Allow yourself good chunks of time to reflect, honestly look at your programme, if something is not working, why isn't it...what can you change?

Play has transformed our classroom and continues to transform our school.  We have learned to see children from a point of competence, to see them as creative, imaginative and able...this lens has helped us to change the way we see children and in turn, change the way we interact with them.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Bringing in student voice

I promised a wee while back to share a bit about how student voice can be used to assist planning and a middle primary class.  Here it is:)

This is not my work, but is shared generously by a teacher from my school.  She has been on a journey with using student voice and from that journey play-based has been a natural path, this post however is just about how she uses student voice, taken straight from her planning with her permission.

Student Voice - Planning
Years 2, 3 & 4 class

This is the collaborative classroom culture and student voice approach that continues to grow and morph on my learning journey.  It is ever changing and evolving!  I have not specifically included play based learning, Mantle of the Expert, positive behaviour, etc.

Feeling confident enough to take responsible risks and knowing that your voice is heard, and it matters, is pretty powerful.  Inextricably linked to this is the ability to care for yourself, others and property.  Our focus in room 5 is that “we focus on caring, teaching and learning” (we have no other rules).  If there is caring, respect and trust can be formed, and kindness, empathy, valuing ourselves and others, and valuing property grows.  Imagine a class like this!  It makes for an exciting and happy year together!

Term one’s focus is on creating this culture.  This happens moment by moment, day by day - always consistent.  Through Play Based Learning others help others and time is given to encourage, coach, have fun and explore.  We take time to notice and reflect as our culture grows.  (I use Seesaw to capture moments to help us with this.)  This term I use to do a lot of observing and relationship building.  Important attachments for specific children are targeted (Joseph Driessen - BSc TTC MEdAdmin).

Student voice is powerful.  We work together every day.  I may lead in some areas but not all the time.  Planning is just one area where students voice is heard. In term one we create a skeletal framework for our weekly planning (which of course can change). During term one we make time to notice how we feel, at different times of the day to check when we generally feel the most ready to focus on our teaching and learning.  Morning is usually the best and so we plan our reading, writing and numeracy in the first one or two blocks.  All other things to do are planned around this (unless we need to change it for some reason).  Planning time is very short as we only focus on specific things we need to plan for the next week. (we plan on Friday). 

Please note:  The curriculum areas below are only skimmed over. They are not in-depth.   

Writing: Genre is usually chosen on Tuesday or during the week, as things unfold. Children put their ideas to the rest of the class and I may suggest a genre that we may not have covered for a while or if I think it would fit in well with what we have been doing.  Then we vote.  The most vote wins.  An example of student voice happened just before the end of term 3.  I was being observed by another teacher and thought a recount, narrative or something like that would be good, but the children had a different idea.  I had recently read, “One fish, Two fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” by Dr Seuss and they loved the idea of making up words and rhyming and they wanted to do that.  So after I put my case forward, we had a vote.  Guess who won?  So that day the teacher observed writing from a Dr Seuss perspective! 

Reading:  The children I get are all usually ready to learn and so I do group them.  The children who are at an independent reading age (including comprehension) are in the independent group.  These children choose what they study (within an area they collectively agree - say animals) and then present their learning to the class in whatever presentation they want.  They then become the teacher and the class (including me) become the learners.  Sometimes if a reading group is reading something that another child is interested in they come down and listen and join our group.  This is also where I may find ‘urges and intrigue’ that the class as a whole wants to find more about.  This is where I may leave reading groups for a day or so - or a week (except for those I need to target - with their permission) and we work together on gaining knowledge and understanding of this subject.

Numeracy:  The children rely on me most times to help to guide their next steps.  When I notice a common thread (say a lot of the numeracy detective groups are grouping numbers and counting in 5’s, I may say, “I have noticed that there are some of you counting in groups of 5’s.  That is what multiplication is (and then I would show them what they are doing).  Who would like to start learning about this operation?”  Children also inspire me with ideas about word problems we could use.  If children ask if we can do something else we discuss this together.

Children also ask me during the week to write in our planner for Friday something they want to teach the class.   Some things we have been taught are making a stone from aluminium, french knitting, slime and origami.  On Friday morning they present to the class what they would like to teach and show them an example.  If it is voted through we look at our plan for next week on the tv screen and decide where this can fit.  I have put in things that are going to happen that next week already so it saves time.  Children recheck each day and comment add or change.  Two copies are then made.  One for the children (that goes on the whiteboard by the Menu) and one for me.  I use my plan more in-depth.

Ronda Rowlands


I have been wonderfully impressed by the culture established in this class.  Children are a real mix of ages and abilities but they operate very much like a supportive family group.  I have been lucky enough to observe Ronda working on the timetable with her class on a Friday and it is a super collaborative process.  One thing is always evident, children want and choose to challenge themselves.  When given the choice they don't opt for the known or the easy, they opt for the challenge.  They understand their collective strengths and appreciate their differences.  They get a sense that they are all learners (including the teacher) and that they can all be teachers, how rewarding is that!  There is a real culture of trust and respect in this room that I think really has to be seen and understood.  Children are capable, they appreciate challenge and where they are placed in an environment that also appreciates their need to play and follow their own interests and urges, they flourish.  The reason we keep such a multi-level split in this area of the school is to allow us to provide for developmental readiness, it works incredibly well.

A huge thank you to Ronda for always inspiring me with her abilities as a teacher, her willingness to embrace change when it is for the good of our children, and for always putting children at the heart of what she does.  A caring, kind, giving individual who brings this into every corner of her classroom.

We must trust ourselves as professionals, we must be flexible, and we must give children the respect and trust that they deserve, at every stage retaining the beauty that is childhood.  #buildinghappybrains

Leslee Allen


Tuesday, 9 October 2018

The crucial role of attachment - for some children it is far more complicated!

I am not telling you anything new by saying relationships matter.  They matter more than anything else in the classroom, the relationship you have as a teacher with each one of those competent human beings in your room is crucial, what you say and do matters far more than what you teach.  Relationships are that important, they matter at each level of our system!

This is not rocket science, deep down as teachers we know this in our bones.  It is what makes teaching both so rewarding and so frustrating at the same time.

But I have never delved more deeply into the science of relationships and just how important they are until most of my staff went on a course about attachment theory with Joseph Driessen.

What they came back with from that day hit me like a truck and made so much sense that I sat up and wondered why I had never thought about it before.  It was like I had all the pieces of the puzzle, but was trying putting them together without any idea of what the picture needed to look like in the end.

We have a strong focus on emotional learning at our place, developing social and emotional understandings through play, directly teaching empathy and kindness, and a push into valuing wellbeing over academic achievement.  It has become what we are about, who we are, our why.

I even identified emotional safety as the first priority in brain development and often talk about children 'reverting' or being unable to learn when they are feeling unsafe.  But I had not gone that one step further and explored attachment.  When I started reading about it, it made absolute sense to me.

There have been so many children that befuddled me over the years, but once I looked at them through a different lens, attachment seemed to really make sense based on what I knew about them.

This is an interesting, yet short article that sheds some light on what I am talking about.

"Attachment theory is well known to professionals within health and social care, but is less understood by teachers. Teachers may misinterpret insecurely attached children’s behaviour as uncooperative, aggressive, demanding, impulsive, withdrawn, reactive or unpredictable. So it’s important for teachers to better understand this behaviour and some of its possible causes."

It is all so interesting to me, there are so many children who I have been puzzled by in my time, for all intents and purposes they show all of the ability to achieve, but often display odd, oppositional, disruptive, disconnected, negative behaviour.  For these children it never seems to matter how much you pour in in terms of extra support, and they certainly don't respond to consequences for behaviour, actually it often makes their behaviour worse.  I used to describe it as if they were putting up walls, protecting themselves, hurting us, before we could hurt them or let them down.  Low and behold I was pretty darn close with this definition.

This info is great, if not a little long, however so worth the read if you are struggling with children that just seem to be a puzzle.  

So what does this mean for us?

Well very simply it means continuing to focus on wellbeing and emotional learning as a school, but it also means working as a team to identify individuals that need us to be their attachment, supporting each other to be able to do this.   It means ensuring that we all learn about emotion coaching, and think at every step about how we interact with every child in our school.  It means helping children to understand and accept their emotions, and to know how to behave in these situations.

A very simple way we are trialling is just taking more time with a particular child we believe has issues around attachment and ensuring that every day we have had at least 3 or 4 positive interactions/conversations.

Trying to avoid the negative, we will be working on our understanding of emotional coaching and restorative practice.

Another simple way is teachers being able to keep children in their class for more than a year if they think they would benefit from this.  We all have them, the children that we struggle with for the first two to three terms and then suddenly, that connection happens, that attachment...and then we do it to them, we move them on and the teacher next year struggles in the same way we did.  At our place we are now nominating children that we think would benefit from a second year, taking to whånau and going from there.

The other strategy is to identify those children that we think are going to have difficulty attaching to a new teacher and taking deliberate opportunities for them to develop a relationship over term 4, this may mean swapping classes a few times in the term to give that teacher an opportunity to bond...or the new teacher making a real effort to interact with that child in the playground on a daily basis.

All so simple, but it could be groundbreaking for us.

Love this

I know it does not seem like rocket science, but if we are to put this understanding at the centre of everything we do, in every school, what a difference we could make.

Of course play-based learning and Mantle provides us with the perfect opportunity to promote wellbeing and attachment, another reason to embrace play-based learning!

This book is a good starting point.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Building happy brains

Over the past three years I have learned more about the brain and how it develops then ever before in my career.  Like the children, suddenly there was a purpose for my learning, it intrigues me, fills me with a need to discover more and to share this learning with others.

Building happy brains has kind of become my little hashtag...born out of a realisation that in the past, the brain and how it develops has not even been part of my thinking when teaching new entrants, or in any age group for that matter.  I taught the way I taught because that was how things were done.  I taught reading in leveled groups, every day, with every child, even my newest children.  I expected them to be able to sit down and work towards criteria in activities.  I expected them to write for extended periods of time after I had modelled, even if they had no idea how to hold a pencil.  I thought using taskboards and systems like daily five gave them 'choice.'  I thought that choosing time was a great way to incorporate a bit of play.  My classroom was a traditional new entrant room, full of routine, timetabled learning and structure, because that is what children need...isn't it?

Now don't get me wrong, teaching has always been something I was born to do, I love it, am good at it and couldn't even fathom doing anything right.  But the absolute and utter truth is that my way of teaching four years ago was not in the best interests of the children, it was in the best interests of me.

I won't spend time going through my journey as there are many blog posts on here about that, a couple of short books and a recorded webinar you can watch via facebook on the learning through play page if you would like to know more.

What I do want to talk about is my greatest passion and in turn my greatest concern.   Over the last three years brain development has become and absolute passion of mine, and as I have learned more, I have become increasingly concerned that many classrooms don't take into account anything that the research shows us.  

We continue to place children on a conveyor belt of learning that sees some succeed and some fail.  Why is that ok with us?  It is my contention that many children fail in our system because we have a very poor understanding of the brain and how it develops and the practice we employ does nothing to assist this development in a positive way.  In fact some of the practice does more damage than good.  We need to start appreciating children on an individual level, rather than trying to put them into poorly labeled boxes.

Now, firstly let me say, I am no expert, most of what I have learned, I have learned through my experience, a bit of trial and error, a lot of listening and a lot of reading.  I have no intention to blow you away with science and every intention of showing you the most important facets of what I have learned so far to show you how knowing a little bit about brain development can transform what we do and how we engage with children.

Nathan Wallis has become one of my go-to experts, he explains things in simple, matter of fact manner that makes sense to me.  This is a good listen if you have not heard it.

The most important feature of my learning has been the role body awareness, fine motor, gross motor and the development of dominance and working memory play in developing learning readiness.  In the brain is simply not ready for any sort of academic learning until these things are in place.

Something that Nathan mentioned at one of his sessions is that the brain is like a house, built from strong foundations and from the ground up.  Seemingly so simple, yet when we look at how we transition children from ECE, where they are intent of laying strong foundations, to school, where we try to put the roof on first, you can instantly see where we are going wrong.  

It is like a building project, one contractor has spent time and love laying strong foundations, may have even started putting up some of the structural walls, but is deemed to be working to slowly, so the job is handed over to another builder (a bit of a cowboy if you ask me) who quickly whacks up the rest of the walls, puts the roof on and walks away, without any thought given to the quality of the job...the house is bound to have structural issues later on.

Without any intention, primary school teachers have become those cowboy builders, with an endpoint in mind and targets to meet, time is not a luxury we have afforded to the children who walk in our doors.  Now this is not entirely our fault, we've been doing what we have been trained to do in a system that has become heavily dependent on testing and targets.

So what can we do, how can we change this.  What we did, was set some early goals for us to work towards with children on an individual level when they walk into our classroom.  A point for us to take up from and a way of showing progress.  We are obviously play based and only read with children when they are ready, no more conveyor belt for us or our children.

I really like this blog article.

My own diagram that I interact is based on the model below:

This is my version

These goals are working so well for us.  We can take children from where they are up to and continue to lay lovely strong foundations and gradually work our way up the diagram until we begin more formal learning.

What I want is for more classrooms to take brain development into account when developing our programmes, not just for new entrants, but for each year level.  If we are to take brain development into account, we will end up ultimately with every child being successful, we will be able to see easily where their needs are and if they may need some extra help.

We need to stop being in a rush.  There is no winning post, learning is not a race.

In a room based on play, employing this philosophy is possible.  If you have not looked into play based learning I urge you to do so, and get into an ECE near you to see just how they go about laying those lovely strong foundations.

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Ditching the traditional timetable - backward planning

Ok, so I believe that the very notion of a timetable is contradictory to a play-based class that aims for child led learning through interests and urges.  So we 'formally' ditched it this year and it has the best thing we could have done.

Like a flowing stream I believe a play-based class meanders, whilst the water is all ultimately travelling in the same direction, every drop of water travels a slightly different path. 

Restricting play to a timetable gives a ping pong effect, that I personally find very stressful, for me I wanted to get of the conveyor belt and just allow the learning to take over.

So what it is it we do, are we travelling along blind. are we still planning?  Yes we are planning, I look at it like different camera angles, there is the extreme wide shot that shows us the full picture, the wide shot that focuses in on particular items and the close up which picks out priorities for the day/week.

Alright, enough of the waffle, this is how I do it (it is of course not the only way to do it by any means.)

Beginning of the year - Ingredients of play, what are the important parts of my programme that I want to weave into my room

This mind map is here

And a framework for developmental progress

And a specific one for communication/literacy

Along with this, as the progress of development in literacy is vital to me and it comes first from an ability to communicate and play around with sounds.

From this I create a mind map one for each term, using what I discovered in the term before to guide me.  This is in no way prescriptive, but a guideline.

This one is for this term.

From there I keep a google drive folder that includes the developmental stage children are at, our developmental goals writing groups (which are flexile) and other bits and pieces.

Then this is where I go back to the future :)  I have a good old fashioned scrapbook.  I glue in all the important stuff I need to refer to, so that I can scribble over stuff and change as needed.  I also keep a class learning story book where we can paste photos and make notes about our learning.

For each week, I will reflect on my mind map and on the week before, along with the interests and urges I have noticed and any emotional/social areas that could do with more focus.  I will pop these down as priorities for the week.  These are my must do's.  An example from last week:

 (we currently have 43 children and three teachers.)
*KOS - where I live, what if I get lost, feelings
*Writing group 2 once, writing group 3 once, storytelling together.
*Number Agents
*Bucket filling (to help with some friendship issues)
*Being brave mindfulness
*Individual readers, ten each day split between the three of us.
*Individual developmental check in's three-four each per day

Then we just go for it, get into the flow of the day, starting with play, and taking my cue from the children I begin to incorporate the things highlighted as priority as and when they are appropriate.  At each break time I will write down what we have actually done in that session. 

As we notice interests and urges I will also scribe these and may incorporate bits and pieces into our day that complement these.

By the end of the day, I will have a timetable written, the novelty is that it has already been done and will be used to guide the flow of the following day.

At times even our must dos will go by the wayside if it interrupts our flow.

In my facebook post I also spoke about children creating the timetable in a year 2-4 class.  I promise I will blog about that next, because it is not my process, I want to check with the teacher involved to gather all the ins and outs.

I hope that this post was helpful. 

And just because they are so so cute!

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Before we get started with play...

Play-based learning is on the rise (quietly does a happy dance) but with that comes the risk of bandwagon jumping.  Bandwagon jumping happens frequently when the 'next new thing' comes along, even though play is hardly the 'next new thing,'  Bandwagon jumping means that little thought is given to the why or how, with the most thought being given to how to get the the end point right now.

I urge caution and reflection before anyone makes changes to how they do things in their classroom.  Firstly because I believe you must have your own why, and this can not be, just because everyone else is doing it and secondly if we leap into things quickly, it is more likely that one or two negative comments from people who do not believe in play will lead us to backtrack just as quickly.   To stand firm behind our practice and the importance of play, we must fully trust in it ourselves, and for that to happen, we have to allow ourselves time.  Play could mean a dramatic change to the pedagogies in our classrooms today, and we do not want to get this wrong.

Firstly our why.  I believe it is crucial that we all have our own why and sometimes this takes time to just reflect, discuss, share and find out.  My why began with an inquiry into engagement and motivation back in 2012.  This inquiry made me much more open to honestly appraising my own practice and led to us trying various ideas like discovery time, developmental groups,  junk shed time, removing school rules, and mantle of the expert.  All of these things served to show me the power of play and the capability of children.  The inquiry also went hand in hand with some deep delving into the lack of oral language and vocab children were coming in with, and an ever growing diagnosis of processing disorder for some of our puzzling children.  Because I was in a state of honest reflection I was entirely ready to meet my student x he was the one that opened my eyes to the failings in our traditional new entrant programme.

To understand why this was such a breakthrough for me you have to know the 'me' from then.  I was convinced that believing children were capable meant pushing them into academic learning like reading and writing straight away because 'they could do it.'  I believed play belonged in ECE and would often become very frustrated that they had not even been taught to write their name.  I lacked any real understanding of developmentally appropriate learning and had a lot to learn from my ECE colleagues.

I met student x at the right time.  We had already started a little on incorporating playful approaches and I was ready to be very honest with myself and stop my deficit thinking in terms of the children and their readiness for learning and start thinking about what I could change.  Student X had real difficulty with following instructions, answering simple questions and appeared lost 98% of the time.  Rather than just accepting that there were processing issues going on (although it did definitely go through my mind and we did make referrals) we took a proactive approach, implementing several oral language approaches along with a small play-based class to assist him and his peers.  The results were really pleasing and now, although much older, student x is working well within expected academic levels, but also (and probably much more important) has some great dispositions in place to ensure he will continue to experience success in life.

He is my why, because he showed me (along with listening to Nathan Wallis and a lot of other reading) how implementing developmentally appropriate practice could benefit myself and my children.

Taking this process slowly, implementing one part of the puzzle at a time allowed me to form a strong trust in play and in turn a trust in myself.  Because I have this trust in play and an understanding of why play is best for my children, I can stand firmly behind this when questioned.  I don't have that flicker of doubt that I would have had if I had leapt into play headfirst and attempted to put the puzzle together all at once.

My advice is to start slowly, find your why and change one thing at a time.  Do your research, see the power of play in action in your own classroom and in the classroom of others, note all the wonderful positive things you see in the play so you can truly trust it.  Talk to others, share ideas, reflect on what you are doing and allow the changes to unfold naturally because they are necessary and right for you and your children, not because others have told you that is the way to do it.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Finding the curriculum in a play-based class

The title of this post is deceptive, because of course, if you are a believer in play, you will know that play is in fact the curriculum.  In essence in the real world, there is no such thing as the 'curriculum'...that is just something contrived by a system that wants to fit learning nicely into labelled boxes.

Well in my world, learning does not fit into boxes, but is sprawled all about the place like a giant spider web, connected and purposeful.

But in saying that, one of the most frequently asked questions by teachers when they come to visit, is how do you prove coverage of the curriculum, how do you plan for it?

To answer that effectively, you would probably have to observe over at least a three week period to see how we tie this all together by allowing the children to determine and drive the learning.  Learning in our room could be best described as fluid, it ebbs and flows, and weaves itself throughout our day naturally.  Our role within that is to notice, support, provoke and extend on the learning, without taking over. 

What I find at the moment is that most teachers new to play are worried about fitting in the other curriculum areas, loosely defined in most schools as areas of inquiry or topics.   They want to know how to fit in the topic areas that they are required to teach. 

Very luckily for us, we have not had school wide 'topics' for many, many years now.  If there is to be true student agency and direction in learning I think the idea of having a school wide topic is contradictory.  Instead, we will discuss the needs of the children in our school and perhaps set some goals around dispositions, competencies or values, maybe even a big idea in Science that we may feel has not been covered well enough, but we will not dictate what must be taught and when.  Our focus is needs based and responsive.

In my opinion for a play-based philosophy to be embraced fully, we need to get away from the kind of prescriptive planning that dictates a topic.  For learning to be powerful and meaningful, it needs to come from an area of child interest, this is not as simple as asking children what they would like to learn about at the beginning of the year, because often, just like us, children do not know what interests them until they are allowed time to explore and investigate.  I would also hasten to add that I don't believe asking children what they are interested in, counts as having student voice, if that is all the input they have.

Ok, so I have got a little off track again, back to the point of the post.  My inquiry this year, is into provocations.  I wanted to develop my own ability to do this as a natural part of the classroom, but I also wanted to ensure this was not directing children in a way that I wanted them to go.  You see all these amazing provocations/invitations online and that gets you thinking  that for a provocation to be successful it must look a lot like this.  Well, my discovery this year has been the opposite.  As an example of this let me talk about what is going on at the moment. 

In my planning, I had identified some areas of interest that came up towards the end of the term that I thought may be worth provoking further.  These were areas that within the play I was able to see children wanted to know more about.  If we get to these we will, but if the interests that I see this term take us in a different direction, so be it.

Our most recent 'inquiry through play' has come out of a child's interest in dinosaurs.  He had found a book that told him how long a certain dinosaurs teeth were.  We spent some time together measuring that length out and he shared it with the whole class at one of our moments when we came together.  This inspired a lot of talk and discussion on teeth and what other animals had long teeth.  We found a youtube clip and children continued to find this topic of great interest.  I invited them to draw an animal into our 'learning journal' that they wanted to know more about (in terms of their teeth) and a group of children chose to do this, while others went off about their play.  Using these pictures we will explore length etc and keep this learning area going for those that are interested.  Children come in and out of the learning as they choose and as the interest in the topic dwindles, so will our focus on it.   The great thing is that through these discussions, children have shared their understandings around extinction, herbivores, carnivores, omnivores, etc...they have springboarded from the topic to show me understandings that I would never have known they had.

To round this little area of learning off we may explore very quickly how to look after our teeth and just for fun and to add a bit of mantle in, I will add an imaginative dimension in that also brings in their currently strong interest in design and construction.  The tooth fairy will employ us to create a contraption that can transport the gigantic teeth of one of the animals we have been investigating.

So, this area of learning is basic and does not take up a lot of our day and is not focused on everyone, but ebs and flows until it dwindles naturally.  I will then tune into another interest and we will start the process again.  We cover so much more of the 'curriculum' than we used to and it is so much more real.  We keep records of this in our 'learning scrapbook' so we can look back on what we have been doing and it also doubles as a record of learning...backward planning if you like.

I do love to use 'magic' in my classroom a lot.  The imagination is such a fabulous pathway into learning and I enjoy feeding this in wherever I can.  My most recent bit of magic is a simple placemat from kmart that I think looks like a spider web.

At the moment it is stapled up into the corner of our classroom and has not been noticed.  I have a second one to add to it soon.  I also took this photo this morning of a perfect spider web which I will share with them.  I envision many will go hunting for spider webs during their play as well.

Hopefully this will prompt them to notice the 'spider web' in our class.  The idea is to add to it like Charlotte's Web.  Eventually there will be a spider sitting in it, along with regular messages appearing for us to read. Who knows, perhaps they will even write back.

So basically that is how we do it, we notice interests and provoke from there, letting the children guide how much time we spend on this topic before we move on.  Last term it was castles, which was a lot of fun.

Alongside this we use a lot of picture books, particularly when teaching values and dispositions.  We will also use picture books that are relevant to the current areas of interest to perhaps provoke a bit more thought or investigation.

Rather than planning each week, I write down what we actually did and make notes for myself on likely where to nexts.  Seesaw is also a great way to evidence this.

So how do we find the curriculum, well we don't really, it finds us.

I really hope everyone is having a brilliant term!

This is a copy of my 'planning' for term 3

Framework for the term