My students find something that they’re into. Because they’re 4, 5 and 6 years old, they get really into it. I get into the fact that they’re into it, and (admittedly) go a little overboard – everything that we do touches on that interest. As soon as I get super enthusiastic about something, they must sense it – my desperation to hold onto this inquiry, my longing that it turns into something great must be palpable – and they move on to something else. I feel a sense of sadness, because after all, I worked so hard on making this inquiry “the inquiry“, and poured so much of myself into it, and now it’s all over. But every time, I decide that, as Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote, “Tomorrow is always fresh, with no mistakes in it,” and make up my mind to go for it again, with that new thing that they’re into. And so the cycle continues. But I’ve learned that pushing inquiry is not my job. As I stood back, and watched inquiries grow with very minimal involvement on my part, I began to realize something: my job is not to push inquiry … it’s to facilitate it.
If you conducted a poll amongst my family and friends, it would be unanimous: they would all tell you that I “hate outside”. Not, “She doesn’t like outside,” or “She’s not a fan of outside,” but I guarantee you they would use the word hate. I mean, in the summer, I might hang out on my deck and read a book, or chat on the phone in the sun, but in the winter, you can find me curled up in front of the fireplace in my basement, with four blankets around me. While I wouldn’t say personally that I hate outside, but rather, that I just don’t feel like I get it. All of the activities that seem to unite my Northern Ontario brethren under a banner of “Look at how outdoorsy we are!” just wasn’t passed along to me. I feel like I’m missing some part of my Greater Sudbury DNA.
The kindergarten curriculum treats outside like another classroom, which you can imagine,
to me, sounds like a special version of my nightmare. And they don’t mean it the way that you might remember the outdoors when you were at school – this is not 20 minutes of recess. This is at least an hour of meaningful outdoor learning. When I came back to kindergarten and found out that the outdoor exploration time of my students would be facilitated by me, there was a certain amount of anxiety. And probably not for the reasons you’re imagining. I wasn’t worried about having to go outside with the kids, but rather, about making that time outside meaningful.
Inquiry is the main driving force in kindergarten classrooms throughout Ontario. And after a year and half of this, I feel like “I’ve got” inquiry. You want to learn about turtles? Cool, let’s go look for books and I’ll spend the afternoon sitting on a carpet with you while I hint at the strategies that you’ll need to pick up to get the information you’re looking for. You want to learn to make a snowman? Sure, let’s go outside and play in the snow all afternoon. You want to learn about space? We’ll find some fun and educational YouTube videos and see what we can figure out.
I still get butterflies in my stomach when a student asks me something that I have no idea about. I now automatically say, “I don’t know. Let’s find out together,” but that wasn’t always the case. That comes with building a good relationship with your students. I think it’s important that we tell our students, honestly: “I don’t know.” Those are powerful words, ones that kids need to hear from grown ups. I don’t have every answer. Nobody can. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel a little queasy when I don’t, because I want to be helpful. I want to be the best guide for them possible. I want to be what they need. But it can usually be solved with saying, “I don’t know, let’s figure it out.”
Several weeks ago, I noticed that some of the students were beginning to copy down the things that I wrote in class. It started out innocuously enough – small buzz words that they liked; that soon turned into copying the morning message in full.
They had always been pretty interested in writing, but I hadn’t noticed any real progress until those morning messages began being copied. They would work for entire inquiry periods to meticulously write down everything that I wrote. It was the first time I had ever seen anything like it. These were kids that were ready to start writing sooner than I had anticipated that they would be. No use slowing down the train – the beauty of this model is that I can pounce on things like that and really try to stew an inquiry from it.
And they really did put their all into it. Together, we constructed the alphabet out of Writing Without Tears sticks. I took pictures of their creations, and posted it on a previously empty bulletin board – a bulletin board just itching to have something be put on it. It sat there, with only pictures on it for a few weeks and I waited, sure that it would spark their imaginations.
That wait took some time. The next day, not one student had even noticed that anything was different. What had I done wrong? It was all at eye level! It was with their own creations! I had spent a whole day from my weekend at school making it pretty and wonderful and inspiring for them! A week went by, and still, not a student even noticed that it had been put up.
Or at least, they hadn’t verbalized it to me. Shortly after that, though, I started finding scraps of paper with words on them. These were meticulously written words, carefully copied from my own careful script. So I started putting them up on the word wall. Now, they are proudly writing full pages of the words that they read around them all around the classroom.
I guess I just hadn’t thought of it the same way that they do, but words are everywhere. Literacy is all around us, constantly. We begin by copying or mimicking, and then, when we get brave enough, we venture into unknown waters to tread on our own. I imagine that is what writing is like, too – at first, it’s easier to copy all of the words that we have around us, before we start feeling confident enough to begin building them on our own. Words can be daunting – they’re such a peculiar thing, with such a peculiar spelling and meaning, that they have to be done just so.
But just from my desk, here in class, I see words everywhere. Their names are found in various places around the classroom on tags, in frames and on cards; the morning message is fresh and different every day with a new ami du jour, but it’s so startlingly familiar that the kids always know what it will say; the Jolie phonique songs are hung up under the alphabet wall; the stories that we write grace our walls; we brainstormed a page for every letter of the alphabet and they hang on the wall, as well; our art center is meticulously labelled. Words, words, words, everywhere you look, but because we can read them, we don’t give them much thought. When kids see them, they get excited to take up the challenge, and begin writing all of the words all around them.
I can’t wait until that develops into experimentation with writing and labelling in class, but until then, I’ll just be thankful that my word wall is coming along nicely.