Saturday, August 2, 2014

September in Kindergarten: Reflective Thoughts

After learning alongside so many incredible educators at the ETFO Summer Academy course this summer that Cheryl and I instructed we had many questions and conversations around what September may look like and how you "get started".

As always, every school board, school, and classroom will have unique differences and challenges but there are definitely some things that we think about every September and remind ourselves of when setting up and planning for the first couple of weeks.

If I could give just one piece of advice it would be to SLOW DOWN. We all start the year with passion, excitement, and an eagerness to get started. Every September I think back to June where we left off and how incredible the children were. I always forget how slow we need to go in September and how exhausting the first few months are (even when I remind myself!)

There should be NO rush to get started with academics in the Fall. There is plenty of time to get there and uncover children's learning/academics through play.

START by building your FOUNDATION:
Teach the children routines, get to know the children, focus heavily on building relationship with them and between them, provide children with new language and experiences (e.g., how to enter play, how to ask for help). Depending on the children in your room they will come in with various experiences and skill sets in terms of personal and social interactions.

What materials should you start with?
Less is MORE. I definitely can't stress that enough. Sometimes we try to add "more" too soon and it reminds us why we limit the materials in the Fall. We start by setting out very simple provocations and materials for the children to explore. Having less out allows the children to learn how to interact socially and how to follow the routines of the classroom (such as tidying up). In the art area we will often start with pencils, crayons, and blank paper. In our dramatic play area we begin with a "home" providing the children with babies, cooking utensils and a few loose parts to create with (e.g., string and gems). Our building area always begins with our large wooden blocks (which are a staple in the room) and then our loose natural materials (tree cookies, pine cones, branches). The natural materials are stored and connected beside our Nature Area. In this space we may simply add Forest Animals to encourage imaginative play at the beginning of the year.

Tools in our Dramatic Play Centre.

Clipboards and Bug Catchers in Outdoor Environment.

Magnifying Glasses and Seashells on a Provocation Table.

Simple Building Materials and Large Wooden Blocks.

Nature Area: Connected to our Building Are with loose, natural materials

We do not have a specified math area, rather we provide math tools on shelving that can be brought to table tops or added to any area of play (e.g., balance scale, measuring tools, shapes). We do not have a large number of manipulatives out at any given time and in the Fall there is a lot of dumping and sorting of materials. The other tables in our room we use as "provocation" tables which vary based on interests, needs, and inspiration. To begin the year we put out simple provocations that vary from year to year. Last year we had magnifying glasses and seashells with paper/pencils out which encouraged children to slow down and look closely. We also had mirrors and patterning blocks on another table.

What does that look like?
In the Fall for the first 2 weeks of school, Cheryl and I split up our class (e.g., 15 students each). We spend time with the children getting to know the areas in the classroom and the materials that are available. We explore both our indoor and outdoor environments. Cheryl will take 1/2 of the children inside and I will take 1/2 of the children outside during our Learning Centre time. We have 2 Learning Centre blocks in our day, so we switch groups in the afternoon.

We begin the Learning Centre time by focusing on ONE AREA. For example, Cheryl may take the children to the dramatic play area. She will talk about what materials and tools are in the area and then she will role play. It is only a 10-15 minute discussion/interaction but it provides children the opportunity to see what is available and to ask questions. Outdoors, I may spend time introducing the materials that we have available (e.g., sand materials or instruments). We will discuss how to use them, where they are stored, and what to do when finished with them.

After our discussions, the children are free to choose any area to explore and investigate. We will then spend time supporting the social interactions and routines in the classroom. With only 1/2 of the class it is easier to reinforce important messages that you decide upon with your partner (e.g., if you are finished playing somewhere you need to tidy up the materials or ask the other children if there is something that you can tidy before you leave). We often find we guide children with different social scripts in play and their interactions.

This also provides us with more time to support children in learning routines such as where to hang up their backpack or how to change into their indoor shoes during transitions.

Things we "teach" in the fall:
If we don't focus on academics in the Fall, then what do we teach? We support the children in many ways while they adjust to the new routines of school and try to figure out their place in it all. We find that we do a lot of prompting, modelling, and hand over hand instruction/support. I'm sure I am not remembering everything, but some of the things we "teach" are...

  • lunch routines and expectations (including what to do when finished eating, what you might have conversations about at lunch, how to open new packages/containers)
  • how to take care of your belongings (where to hang your backpack, put your shoes, the routines of going from outside to inside)
  • how to line up or walk through the hallways
  • what to do if you need help
  • focus on transitions (how can we transition children smoothly between activities)
  • how to interact with other children (e.g., how to enter play or ask to join, how to negotiate, how to extend play, how to listen to each other)
  • how to share materials (e.g., if someone is using something - what could you ask them? what if they say no? what could you say then?)
  • how to solve problems

Daily Schedule:
We begin the year with our daily schedule in place, we may just slightly monitor our timing. We provide a bit longer for children to tidy and a bit less time as a whole group. During our Focused Learning we often begin the year by using books on tape/cd. We find that hearing different voices and expressions is really engaging for the children and provides them with a quick experiences on the carpet to begin to learn the routines there as well.

Small Group Instruction:
Simply put, does not happen for us until end of October or beginning of November. Rushing this piece only results in back tracking throughout the year to reinforce routines and social skills that can be taught in the Fall. When you begin will depend on your group as well - do you have SK students that you taught the year before? do you have only JK students? Have your children been in childcare or programming prior to school? Do you have a high ELL population? There are many factors that will guide this decision.

Some educators begin the year with elaborate assessment scales. I have seen many variations and approaches. Of course every school board will have different expectations and assessments that need to be done. Aside from those, I challenge you to think about what you really need to know. Do you need to know how many letters that brand new JK students knows week 2? Does it really matter if you know if a child knows their colours? I also challenge you to think about HOW you may collect the information. Will you invite that child to a table and "test" them by asking them the shapes on a sheet of paper? Or ask them to count for you to see how high they can go?

What watched them in the building area and made short notes about the language they are using, the questions they are asking, the relationships they are building.

What observed them at the paint table and notice the way that they add their name?

What ask one child a day to help you count the number of students in the classroom as you go outdoors to play to ensure that you know how many children are outside?

Cheryl and I have strong opinions on slowing down in the Fall and collecting information as it comes in naturally. There are so many genuine ways to learn about the children that you have in your classroom that don't require you to overwhelm yourself with in depth assessment templates.

Give yourself permission to slow down. I promise that in the process of slowing down you will capture more than you would if you sat down with each child one at a time. Also, what is important to know in the Fall? I always wonder why we need to know how many letters a child can will that improve my practice? Could you rather make note of whether a child knows "none", "few", "some" or "most" letters? It brings me back to my running record training when the facilitator challenged us to think critically about letter ID assessments and overusing them. A child may identify 7 letters one day and 17 the next - assessments with young children can be very inaccurate and depend on a number of factors.

Hopefully that is helpful for those just embarking on their journey in Kindergarten or even for those returning. It has certainly helped me to get my brain back into September thinking as well. I am looking forward to slowing down and getting to know our new students in the Fall as well as welcoming back those who are returning to us.


  1. Thank you Tracy (and Cheryl). By the morning of Day 2 I will have all my JK's and SK's in class and I was really worried how I was going to do this. Would the children throw the sticks? Would they interact with the materials? Again I will slow down and relax and observe and change what needs to be changed. Thanks again.

  2. Absolutely Barb. If you take the time to talk about all of the materials slowly with the children, they are more likely to understand the different purposes and to respect the materials. The pressure to move quickly will definitely hit you, but ignore it and take the time up front!

  3. Everything old is new again. I taught kindergarten this way for 20 years... And yes I had 27 jks in one room and some years split classes. Always started with minimal centres open- focusing on rules routines social skills, and organiZation when tidying up. Non-preferred before preferred activities, large group before small or independent, and bringing the outdoors in for science and exploration. For many years I had a water table, sand table, snow table, pasta table.. Anything we could measure and maipulate.. We watched butterflies bloom and chicks hatch in noir rooms. We re-enacted stories videotaped them for to enjoy. All while bringing to levels of excellence academically. Every few years the government of the dAy renames / changes semantics of what good teachers are already doing and everyone says wow. So I teach special ed in the same way... Start simple and keep raising the bar.

  4. Thanks for this blog post. I'm new to FDK and it was helpful to read your assessment tips. I really liked the one about having the kids help count your line up.

  5. How do I follow your blog?

  6. Where have you gotten all your little wood materials (e.g. the last picture posted on this post)? TIA

  7. A very insightful article. I'm new to K so I am a tad nervous! Routines, routines, routines! Less talk, more listening. After teaching grade 3 for many yrs, this is going to be a huge change. Thanks so much!

  8. Rock on!!!!! Loved your write up!

  9. Great read especially before school starts. It's funny how u forget the basics and always try to go above and beyond. Less is more and play is learning. Nature materials are the best!!! Can't wait to get back into my room and add some natural items to my centre's ��
    Thanks ladies

  10. Your post is in such a good timing. Excellent reminders about LESS is more. Thank you. Your team is my inspiration.

  11. Your post is in such a good timing. Excellent reminders about LESS is more. Thank you. Your team is my inspiration.