At this point in my career, I have literally taught every grade level from Kindergarten to Grade 12. Occasionally someone will ask what the hardest level is to teach. It makes me think of one mom’s phrase, “There’s only one thing pukier than a grade nine boy, and that’s a grade nine girl.” She had one of each, and they weren’t puky at all. They were just being fifteen lol. And to be perfectly honest, grade nine was one of my favorite ages to teach – I love my grade sevens now but there are days that I miss that mid-teen quirkiness!
No, the teachers that are working the hardest are most definitely in Kindergarten.
From personal experience in both, I can attest to this fact:
Five year olds are hands-down harder than History 30.
My teaching foray into Kindergarten was an hour of music every day. An hour. Sixty loooooong minutes. Of music! I didn’t have children of my own at that point, and I had trained in the high school stream, so I was ill-prepared for the bedlam a room full of small humans can create. Plus, although I can sing and play instruments, teaching Kindergarten isn’t really about the subject. It’s crying. And running. And stories. So many stories. And tattling. And questions. Even more questions. And soooooo much randomness. Unpredictability at its finest.
Like I said, Kindergarten teachers work hard.
I was thinking about this yesterday at the football game, when I was quasi-adopted by a little guy sitting beside me.
His name is Hayden.
He was just having a really tough time staying focused on the game. I’ll be honest, sometimes I do too! So I watched as he tried to get comfortable on the bleachers, argued with his big sister about sharing her blanket, and got frustrated that he was getting dry grass pieces on his clothes. Like I said, he was having a tough time.
Our youngest niece is ten, so it’s been a while since I’ve really been around someone so small. But I dusted off my best distraction skills and made a new friend, and it wasn’t long till he had climbed on my lap. We watched several quarters that way.
I’m sure some of you will find it only slightly ironic that I explained the game of football to another person, but we did: counting how many tries the team had left by looking at the stick marker, watching for any orange flags thrown to the ground by the referees, waiting for the kicker to come out and see how far the ball went through the uprights. And always, always looking for number 38 - even if he wasn’t sure what the number 38 looked like. It didn’t matter. He was there to see his cousin Cody and cheer for the Rebels!
It left me feeling kind of nostalgic and more than just a little bit wistful.
At the end, his mom thanked me for entertaining him and was apologetic that he couldn’t sit still. I told her that that’s what four year olds should do, and that I’d be more worried about a four year old that sat still and didn’t want to run around. Am I advocating for kids running wild in restaurants? Not at all. But I’ve heard parents say they never take their kids out because they can’t behave. We didn’t go out much when our kids were little, but when we did, they came too. How else would they learn the accepted norms and manners that society expects of us all, adults included, except by doing it?
It’s the same way we learn most things in life. I learned how to bake on my own but with mom beside me until I got it. When I wanted to knit, mom’s hands were on the needles with mine, guiding the yarn in complicated loops, until I could see it. Learning to drive? Okay, that was dad sometimes, but mom was more patient as we rolled along prairie trails between fields. Whether we call it hands-on or authentic learning, there’s one thing it doesn’t involve….being a passive learner.
“Maybe you’re thinking to yourself that the boring lectures you sat through certainly didn’t engage you in using anything, and you turned out just fine. But times change, technologies change, and most importantly, knowledge changes about how to teach kids so that they can apply what they know to real life situations.” Maybe we don’t do it to Kindergarteners. But there are rows and desks and worksheets and far too much sitting that still happens in school. And without sounding melodramatic, it kinda hurts my heart.
This past week, Ms. Hill and I combined our classes for ‘Take Me Outside’ day. The grade 11 Outdoor Ed class planned a scientific scavenger hunt for my 7s and then we finished by playing a giant game of Capture the Flag. It was fantastic.
It also was a good reminder that our students are active learners, and even if we can’t physically be outside every class, not to take the ‘active’ out of the learning.
Too many thoughts are going through my head tonight and I just can’t quite get them to connect, so I’ll end with two things: if you have anyone young enough to still sit on your lap, don’t be in a hurry to let them go. And from the poster that Hayden’s sister made to cheer on cousin Cody, “Believe, be brave, be strong, play football!”
Everyone is welcome.
I used to use the question, “How do you eat an elephant?” quite a bit, but found kids just gave me funny looks…they didn’t seem to like the idea of an elephant being a meal, even in an analogical sense. It definitely wasn’t my original question; the internet attributes it to Desmond Tutu, but an ancient Chinese proverb about a journey beginning with a single step, is along the same lines.
The answer to the elephant is simple: one bite at a time.
Same with the journey. You aren’t going anywhere without that first step, and you aren’t going anywhere far except by taking one step at a time.
So now when I’m looking at a brick of text that a student has written, I tend to go with “You don’t eat a steak in one bite, do you? Let’s break that up into smaller pieces.” It seems to be more palatable to them. (lolololol.)
When I run, I sometimes find myself having gone too far and then know I have a looooong way back. It’s generally too embarrassing to call kid #2 to come get me with a vehicle, although that has happened before, so I try to persevere and think of it in smaller pieces. Just run to that next approach. To the corner. Turn the corner. Past the slough. To the next approach. Home.
Last year, we read Terry Fox’s story through the novel “Run” and I was reminded that this is how Terry viewed his journey. He knew he was going to run a marathon each day, but didn’t think of it as a whole. He just ran to the top of one hill to the next, setting small running goals that would add up to over 40km each day. A true growth mindset.
Today, I had to split wood for winter. We heat our house with a wood-burning fireplace, so the task is an inevitability of fall unless we want to freeze when winter comes! When I looked at the pile this morning, it seemed insurmountable. I knew it was going to take HOURS and HOURS.
And it did.
But I set smaller targets to get through. I’d count out a certain number of logs, then split them and take a break. I’d pile them into the wood shed until I had a wall covered, and then take a break. I set an alarm on my phone so that every hour I (you guessed it) I took a break. Lol. It might sound like I had a lot of breaks, but I also split and stacked wood for ten hours. My best guess is over 1700 pieces - I’m going to really feel it tomorrow - but that insurmountable pile of logs slowly and then completely disappeared.
Had I fixated on the immensity of the task and the size of the pile, in particular how long it was going to take me, I’m not sure I would have accomplished as much…especially knowing in hindsight that it would be the entire day! The work didn’t change, but by thinking about it in a manageable sense, my attitude toward it made it possible.
As educators, we are familiar with SMART goal setting. We take a task or problem, and word it so that it is SPECIFIC. By visualizing a clear and precise goal, it becomes achievable.
The goal also has to be MEASURABLE, although not necessarily numerical. In our school division, we are asked, “How do we know?” and I use it often with students. How do we know this is narrative writing? How do we know that the character is desperate? How do we know our goal is effective?
The ‘A’ in the SMART goal is ATTAINABLE. This is the one that I sometimes have difficulty with. If it is easily accomplished, perhaps it wasn’t the correct goal in the first place. Yet, if I have set an unrealistic and unattainable goal, I may find the whole process frustrating and give up. It’s a delicate balance!
The goal also has to be RELEVANT and to me, this might be the most important aspect of a SMART goal/task, especially with students. If there isn’t a compelling reason or authentic aspect to what we are doing, we risk student disengagement, and end up with compliance and hoop-jumping from our kids…and that’s not learning.
The last aspect is TIME-BOUND. I haven’t ran in a month. I haven’t been to the gym in even longer. I talk about starting up again but it’s in vague terms and very noncommittal. There are many excuses why: mostly it’s just been crazy busy! But thankfully I have someone who is very persistent, and we are hammering out our commitment to get back at it….and that includes a specific time aspect. (November 13, I promise!)
This fall, we did more visual goal setting as a staff. These are tied into our personal ‘passion projects’ and I have chosen to work on deepening relationships between our school and our elementary neighbors and community. It isn’t written as a SMART goal per se, but our planning definitely follows the same format. Getting it narrowed down and worded the way I liked it was just as agonizing as the first goal setting we did, but it is posted on my door and I am excited with the initial progress that is happening. (#teachernerd)
When working with kids, it’s so important to remember, and be cognizant about the fact, that they are easily overwhelmed by large tasks. This is why we look at writing as a process: the final product is just one part; why we ‘chunk’ tasks, just like Terry did with his daily run; why we use a ‘whole-part-whole’ strategy, introducing an idea and then scaffolding/working through its parts to have a stronger understanding of the ‘whole’ (and the context of the parts) when we get there.
It’s why each piece of writing, like this one, starts with an idea. Then a word. Then a sentence. And a paragraph. And another.
And a finish.
(Sometimes, it's even a good one.)
As you start your journey this week, remember it’s just a series of single steps…direct to the coffee pot….and straight through to Friday.
Oh, and everyone is welcome.
"Some things I can teach you. Some you learn from books. But there are things that, well, you have to see and feel."
I feel like I’ve told this story before. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. From Kindergarten with Miss Carney at Birsay School, I just knew. Like every fiber of who I am, was always connected to being a teacher. I know it isn’t that way for everyone, but if I woke up tomorrow and had to do another job, I’m not really sure what it would be. Maybe a copy editor? I’d be good at pointing out other people’s grammar mistakes, but that doesn’t sound like much fun. And seriously, the internet almost debilitates me some days when I am reading…I don’t think I could do it!
Nurse? Uh uh.
Accountant? Good god, no.
But isn’t that the way we think? How we ask kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It was a number of years ago that I heard it reworded to: “What problems do you want to solve when you grow up?” And I’ve never asked another kid the former question again.
This past week, our son applied for university. Besides having to set aside my denial that my baby is moving on next year, the big question loomed. He’s thought seriously about different careers over the years, and although my side of the family is all farmers, on my husband’s side there are exclusively three: nurses, teachers, and police officers. I was pretty sure that two of the three were out.
He knows that you really can’t apply to any police service right out of high school, and that makes perfect sense to me. There is no substitute for life experience – I know that the older I get, and the more kids I interact with, the better I am at what I do. In our house, we don’t believe any education is wasted, so he knew that he was going to be taking, well, something.
I’m sure that our guidance counsellor doesn’t recommend this as a strategy for choosing a post-secondary institution, but his criteria was: go where his sister is. (They don’t happen often, but there are times that I know we did something right with our kids.)
So he has applied to Mount Royal University, where she is in Nursing, to study criminology. Because you can’t take anything for granted, there are other options as well. In a little bit of surprise to me, he also applied to Education at the University of Calgary. I wasn’t surprised in the sense he considered teaching; both of my kids would be amazing teachers. No, I was surprised because whenever people would ask either one of them, “Do you want to be a teacher like your mom?” the answer was always a resounding, “NO!”
I think the biggest deterrent was just watching me. All the time preparing, at home and at work; the marking; the coaching and directing. All the time taken away from my own kids, to be with other people’s kids. It’s a guilt that can still get me, even with (almost) adult children. This past week, my daughter was home from Calgary on reading week. Between a full work week, a volleyball tournament, before and afterschool practices, helping to set up and then work at a provincial meet that our school was hosting, (thankfully our community choir practice this week was cancelled), there wasn’t a lot of time to just hang out. In fact, all we had was Friday evening. One night.
It’s not that I begrudge time spent with our students. I love getting to know them better in these other ways and know that these relationships are integral to what we are doing in the classroom, that what we do is important and unique. Sometimes, it’s just hard.
One of my favorite writers, Matt Haig, has a children’s book coming out next week called "The Truth Pixie." He tweeted out a sneak peek: “If everything was perfect, every single day, you’d never know the good from the just-about-okay. The truth is, your future will often be great; it’s bad now you’re seven, but wait till you’re eight.” And from another page, “Don’t forget who you are. You are a fighter. As the dark in the sky makes the stars shine brighter. You will find the bad stuff has good bits too. The bad days are the days that make you you.”
And one more:
There will be people you love
who can’t stay forever,
and there will be things you can’t fix,
although you are clever.”
And that's a humbling truth. Have a great week! Everyone is welcome! Tervetuloa. Tawâw.
It’s Thanksgiving weekend and most of us will pause for a little bit to reflect on the things and people that we are thankful for. Probably like you, I have a list! Letting those people know, however, is a whole other thing.
And I don’t know why.
I’m not sure if it’s the reserved, reticent Finlander parts that I’ve inherited, but saying the words isn’t always easy. The people who know they are important to me, know it, without me saying so. But that’s a cop-out. I get that. Like I wrote in my first blog post, I’m a very private person so public declarations kinda don’t fit well with me, which makes writing this blog of personal thoughts every week a bit out of my comfort zone. But I’m thankful for the people who read it, who give me feedback on it, and who encourage me by their comments.
This is my twentieth blog entry, and I realized what I hadn’t written about yet is where this blog title came from…where I’ve come from. So in the interest of sharing, and saying thank you, this is what ‘rocks and willows’ means to me.
I grew up in an area on the edge of the Coteau Hills called Rock Point. It was, and mostly still is, a small enclave of Finnish farming families. Like most immigrants coming to Saskatchewan in the early 1900’s, these weren’t farmers by trade, but farmers of necessity. My grandfather’s settler story involves travelling from Finland by boat, then by rail to Dunblane, Saskatchewan. At the time, that’s where the railway ended. He had 25 cents in his pocket and didn’t speak a word of English. But he persevered, broke land with oxen, and a small Finnish community flourished, including a store, school, and post office. It was given the name “Rock Point” by one of the only English settlers in the area, Isaac Moore, because the rolling hills and landscape reminded him of a place in Nova Scotia by the same name. Only a few weeks ago, Isaac’s son Benny, along with his own son, visited my mom and dad there. Benny remembered all the other kids speaking Finnish at recesses and noon hour. He learned some Finnish so that he could know if the other kids were talking about him, plus he didn’t want to be left out! In today’s rhetoric about immigrants ‘fitting in like the old days’ it’s a good reminder of what those days actually entailed.
Rock Point is appropriately named for the geology aspect too. There are a lot of rocks in that soil! I can’t imagine how many rocks my dad has piled, dragging the rock picker across acre after acre, year after year. The one thing that these rocks are good for is the Finnish sauna. Dad says the darker the rock, the better the steam! Every farm house had a sauna, and often the sauna (a separate building) was built before the house. It’s hard to explain the spiritual importance of a sauna, when most people associate them with hotels and gyms. Many deep and significant conversations happen when you sauna with someone.
On my own? There’s a lot of reflective thinking happening in that heat.
Wednesday and Saturday nights were sauna nights, and many evenings I remember neighbors coming over for a sauna and then coffee. Finns looooooooove their coffee! I sat through many conversations in Finnish around a table, listening politely to the cadence of words I didn’t understand. That simple rural upbringing has impacted who I am in innumerable ways, and Finnish ways of seeing the world infuse every aspect of my life.
The second part of my blog title is willows, like the willow tree. My maiden name is Pajunen. In Finnish, paju is a willow tree (with the -nen meaning little) so littlewillow is often my choice for username or email. The willow is an interesting tree. In Saskatchewan, willow trees are found growing around many sloughs and lakes. The roots of a willow tree are often bigger than its base and it absorbs water like a sponge. If you cut it off at the ground (and mow over it repeatedly lol) it stubbornly sprouts new branches. And just one cutting stuck in the soil will root itself. Persistent and resilient! Like that tree, our families and communities have strong connections that hold it up. Our part is just one root in many. In a school, as people move on and others move in, if a strong culture and vision exist, it lives beyond those migrations. In our families, as I lost my Finnish grandparents, those traditions lived on and are passed onto my own children now. No matter where they may choose to live, they will take that with them. And the persistent, resilient nature? Well, I’ve written about Finnish sisu before lol.
As someone who has loved words and writing my whole life, I see the title in another way too. It’s not just ‘rocks and willows’ but on some days, it can feel like ‘rock, sand, willows.’ There are times when it feels like I’m mired in sand. Hindered by self-doubt, questioning my effectiveness as a teacher, or mom, or just having a crappy day…stuck between a rock and, well, you know the rest. So I hope that in my writing and tweets, I don’t just give the Instagram-perfect version of teaching and life…because it’s not, and that’s okay. That’s human. It just means that I’m still growing and learning, and that’s a good thing.
But I also think of the rock and the willows as anchors, symbols to what I believe and who I am. Today, I give thanks for Rock Point, Mummu and Poppa, sauna conversations, family, freedom, mentors and mentoring, a career that is also my calling, and so much more. I’m headed to the farm to celebrate with my family today. I know that they know it, but I’ll do my best to tell them too. Happy Thanksgiving! Tawâw. Tervetuloa. Everyone is welcome!
Friday afternoons aren’t always an easy time to be productive. (Tbh, Sunday night's for blog writing aren't much better!) By that time, the week is feeling long and my energy is fading. It just isn’t the most conducive time for doing something, especially if it lands on a day when I have a prep period.
This past Friday, that exact situation happened. And because I just couldn’t get my head around doing any marking or reading emails or preparing for the next week, I went for a walk.
A learning walk, to be precise.
A learning walk, in my estimation, is a collaborative yet personally reflective experience. It involves observing student learning in other capacities/classrooms, thinking about what other teachers are doing, and considering how I might incorporate that into my own teaching….all to improve my practice and improve student learning.
If I thought that Friday afternoons weren’t a conducive time for ‘doing something’ I was very quickly proven wrong. I saw room after room of side-by-side learning, hands-on learning, and generally a lot of movement and energy and fun. In my twitter feed recently, the connection between learning and movement has been widespread, and although I don’t teach math, I follow Peter Liljedahl and was interested in his ideas of using vertical non-permanent learning surfaces. My goal last week was to get kids out of their seats as much as possible, and adapted this whiteboard approach to ELA. Granted, there are a lot of PAA classes offered in the afternoon, so they tend to be more hands-on to start with, but student engagement wasn’t limited to just Home Ec and IA. There was just very little student ‘sitting’ going on.
Obviously, I didn’t go into every classroom. I completely understand that although this isn’t a big deal for some, for others it would be a distraction and an intrusion. I get that. Plus I hadn’t asked…I sorta wandered into rooms that were open and active.
For me, my door is always open and I really like having people come in to see what we are doing. (Generally, the students don’t even balk at visitors anymore, although our VP is like a ninja…one minute he’s not there, and the next one he is!) But for the rooms I did stop to observe, I saw a lot of #prideandjoyatwork both from staff and students. I gleaned a better understanding of subject matter (got to see what kids were working on) as well as different colleague’s approaches to instruction…there is a lot of side-by-side learning going on in our school!
It really did give me a good chance to reflect on what I am doing in my room to facilitate both hands-on and side-by-side learning. One thing that has been really successful over the past three weeks has been our Friday game time. Gamification is a technological approach that totally has many benefits to it, but this is gamification ‘old school’ style. We literally break out Scrabble, Apples to Apples, Anomia, Tellestration, Pictionary and other ELA minded games, but also popular classics like Connect 4, Battleship, and Monopoly. It has been great for students to interact socially in small groups, to communicate with people who aren’t necessarily their best friends, and to play fair and follow the rules lol. Because if the banker in Monopoly doesn’t remember to give them $2 as they pass GO, or if they didn’t add their dice up correctly, they’ll let them know instantly! The first two weeks, I limited our time to about twenty minutes. This last week, they were so into their games that we played almost the whole period. It was awesome.
Part of my year-opening spiel to kids involves discussing the idea that I want students to have fun WHILE learning, not at the expense of learning. As teachers, we are constantly making decisions about what we make room for, and what we have to let go. I know that in the months ahead, I will continue to make room for movement and make interaction in learning a priority. I’ll also continue to use George Couros’s advice as a foundation – it’s posted on my back bulletin board, and I think of it often. Non-negotiables for schools: They are a welcoming and warm environment. They develop students as good people and learners. They model the learning they expect from their students. They stoke curiousity, not extinguish it.
As we head into this next week, everyone is welcome! Tawâw. Tervetuloa.
Perpetual amateur. Lifelong learner. Vice-Principal. Teacher. Musician. Mom. Annnnd if you're reading this, then I'm still a blogger.