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 whÃ¥nau 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.