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.