Thursday, August 17, 2017

Setting Up A Classroom Environment That Teaches

My classroom environment is truly a labor of love for my kids. I love how the amazing and inspiring Opal School in Oregon describes their environment as one that will inspire, engage, provoke and support learning. That is my goal as I start setting up my room for the new year. 

I want my room to inspire my students as artists, scientists, engineers, story tellers, builders, writers, mathematicians and more. 
I want it to be a place where they will engage in creative and critical thinking, plus engage in experiences where they can use reading, writing and math in authentic and meaningful ways that are natural for them. 
I want it to be a place where they are provoked to explore, investigate, take risks, try again, ask questions, and feel safe.  
I want it to give them the support they need to succeed at all the above.  

Doesn't this all sound like my role as a teacher? It is totally my role.  In our room, we have three teachers.  Me, the students, and the environment.  We all teach, inspire, engage, provoke and support each other.  I use the environment as the third teacher. Here is how I make my room into an environment that teaches.

Each area in my room is set up very purposefully to make learning happen naturally.  The 21st Century Skills children need such as, creative and critical thinking, communication, problem solving, collaboration/team work, are a major focus.  At this age they need to learn how to learn. Being in a public school I am also held accountable for the Common Core Standards plus State Standards for Science and Social Studies so I have to take into consideration how these will be fostered in each area naturally. Books, paper, writing tools and clipboards are available in almost every area to encourage kids to authentically use reading and writing skills. Here are the areas in my room. 

This first area is our Building/Engineering Area.  This is always one of the favorite spaces in our room.  A lot of STEM happens in this area.  The wood and natural blocks along with the natural items on the other shelves are slowly introduced and then are always available.  Other items are sometimes added such as tubes, ramps, and different characters with which they can create stories. Sometimes I will write a specific challenge for them, sometimes they create their own challenges. They are not pictured, but this area has paper and clipboards for kids to write their plans, blueprints and stories on and a binder to keep them in so kids can use other's designs as inspiration.

On the Engineering Table, we are starting out with Legos. Many other STEM materials will changed out and added as the year goes on. Favorites are Legos, K'nex, Magnetix, and Marble Runs.  Here they also create plans or document their projects.

Books for inspiration are displayed with the materials.

Here is the learning that takes place in our Building/Engineering Area. I post these in each area for parents and visitors to see. Feel free to use these as inspiration to create your own! 

The next area is our Dramatic Play Area. It starts out as a home/kitchen, but usually becomes a project as the kids turn it into things like a vet or doctor's office, pizza parlor, bakery, restaurant, space station, beauty salon, school, haunted house...a lot of creativity is shown here! When they transform this area, they take ownership of it.  Sometimes it is connected to an inquiry, but not all the time. Reading and writing happen as naturally in this area as they do in real life as they are pretty much role playing life here! The art piece was created by a class two years ago.  I love it so much that I can never let it go!

Here are at the skills they are using and fostering as they play in this area.

The next area is our Art Studio. So much creative thinking and story telling happens here.  The kids use real artists tools and mediums which are switched out often for them to explore what they can do and create! The table right now is almost set up for them to use loose parts to create self portraits that show feelings. I still need to add mirrors.  Nothing is cookie cutter in this area.  Each child creates as they are inspired to create.

Here are the life skills they are learning while they explore this area.

Below is our Maker's Space.  Here they can come up with their own creative ideas looking at the materials available which are always changing based on what we find or bring in.  Parents like to send materials in for this area!  The kids are required to come up with a plan.  A template is provided where they write the name of what they are making, list the specific materials needed including the amount and colors, and show what it will look like by making a drawing with labels showing the different part.  Lots of writing skills happening here as they prepare to make their project and reading skills are used as they reread what they wrote or when they read someone else's plan to create the same thing. This area is not open right away.  They need to prove responsibility as a class first as it is a messy station that takes work to clean up.

Next is our math area.  I have a table with materials to explore a certain concept, and shelves with math manipulatives and materials for them to explore specific math concepts.  The difference between these and Math Centers/Stations is that I do not tell the kids what to do with the materials.  Once they know what math is, they explore these materials as mathematicians and see what they notice or discover about math.  They share with the class what they noticed or discovered and this act of sharing usually turns into a mini-lesson on the concept.

Our next area is our Look Closer Table.  This is where they become scientists and researchers. I set up invitations for kids to look closer, and document through pictures and later words what they notice to share with others.  As we get into inquiries, this table will have materials to explore whatever it is we are investigating and learning about. Books about the subject are also added here for them to read and use for research. I start our with something simple such as shells, rocks, or things from nature until we start to get involved in an inquiry.

This area is our Sensory/Fine Motor Area but sometimes it will become something else entirely like another "Look Closer" table or "small world play" if needed.  It is a sand/water table. At the beginning of the year I cover it up and start with play dough to work their fine motor muscles which they will need desperately in kindergarten as they learn to write and use a keyboard.

Here are the materials we are starting with to explore texture, print, lines, and work those fine motor skills.  Lavender is in the bag for them to mix with the play dough for a calming sensory experience.

Here is why this area is so important!

Below is our library.  Clipboards are available to incorporate writing also.  They will start with drawing their favorite part.  Later paper may be available to practice opinion writing about books they read, or sequencing a story, or writing about what the story reminded them of or made them think about (making connections).  At some point I would like to add portable CD players for listening to stories. My old boom box broke!

The Library is part of our Literacy Area.  I also have a table there with materials to explore Literacy concepts.  Again, they are different from stations in that they are not told how to use the materials.  They explore the materials and I pick some to share what they did with them with the class to create a literacy mini lesson as we talk about what they did.  Right now it has materials to freely explore letters.

I also have a Writing Area.  This area has shelves by the window filled with writing materials such as pencils, colored pencils, crayons, markers, twistables, paper, and booklets.  Unfortunately, I do not have a photo of it so I will include one in my next blog post!

While the kids are exploring the environment I am very active with the kids.  I join them and grab onto learning opportunities to point out to them. I guide them to use writing, reading and math, but it usually happens without my guidance! I spend a lot of time identifying what they just did as a mathematician, scientist, engineer, artist, writer, reader, etc. or what 21st Century Skills they used so they see the connection to their experiences and share with the class. They understand those academic concepts so much more when they see how they are using them naturally, meaningfully and authentically in their everyday experiences. I also do one on one lessons as I help them as they are trying to use reading, writing and math skills. You will never see me sitting at a table by myself during this time.  

Here is the finished room! I tried to make it as homey and calming as possible!  I hope you enjoyed the tour and understand how the environment can be used to teach purely from the kids exploring it freely.  

Friday, June 9, 2017

Planning Templates for Inquiry/Project Based Teaching

I get multiple emails every day asking for copies of my inquiry planning templates and daily schedules.  After clearing all of my emails and trash for the year, I accidentally deleted permanently some emails from people wanting these that I had yet to answer.  Since I don't know who they were, I am hoping they will find this page and get the planning pages that they needed and know that I did not ignore them! In this post, I have links to all of my template pdf's in my google drive for you to download.  I do all I can to help others on their journey into inquiry based teaching so these are free for you to download. They are not perfect but they have worked for me at different times in my journey as a Reggio Inspired Teacher. You can take the ideas and change them to work for you in your situation and environment, but they will give you a base to work from as you make your own.

When planning for Inquiry/Project based learning, it takes a lot of time up front, but then planning is easy for the rest of the inquiry which can last up to a month. Planning an Inquiry always starts with observing the students.  Once I notice a large group interest, I find out what they know and wonder.  I take that information and start planning.

Right now, my favorite planning tool is a simple web map. This web map was created based on the one that the amazing Joanne Babalis created over at Check her out! She is brilliant! I liked the way she designed it and I can just add more lines where I need them. Sometimes I use this template, but sometimes I just make my own web map with a blank sheet of paper and a pencil.  It is a great way to organize my thoughts.

You can find this template here:

Here is a photo of a handmade one filled out.

As I am brainstorming ideas I have the Language Arts and Math Common Core Standards and Science and Social Studies Standards nearby.  I made this sheet with all of the language arts and math standards all on one page to make it easy for me. It is amazing how many standards are covered, used, and learned by using the skills authentically during inquiry! I highlight the ones that will be covered.

You can download this Common Core list here:

This next inquiry planner is a great way to organize your ideas into the different stages of Inquiry Based Learning and also has an area for project ideas and presentations if you want to go even deeper using Project Based Learning.  It literally spells out the process of Inquiry/Project Based Learning. This template was very helpful as I was transitioning from thematic based teaching to Inquiry Based Teaching.

You can download the Inquiry planning template above  here:

Here is one already filled out about our castle inquiry as an example. You can download it here:

After that, I use many different "weekly" planning papers.  This one is more fluid and open ended.  It can also last for more than one week. I like the way it makes me plan for the environment as a third teacher.  Many of the ideas that end up on my map can happen during our play-based learning block.  I find that I use this template more the second half of the year.

You can download it here:

Here is an example filled out with plans here:

At the beginning of the year, I usually use my schedule as my planner.  Here are two different years.
You can download the one above here:

And this one here:

These also show what my schedules look like but I will get more into scheduling in another post.  They are far from perfect! I am constantly trying to figure out ways to have less transitions in the schedules and I feel that it is always a work in progress!  I will be making some major changes to it next year.  I am always looking back and reflecting on the previous year and this past year showed me some changes that I need to make.  I will share that when I figure it out at the beginning of the next school year.  Also know that my schedules are more fluid than they look on paper.  If students are really engaged in some part of the day, I may let them have more time and move another planned lesson to the next day.

When I use these, I still need to plan my environment as the third teacher so I made a map of my room using Pages on my iPad. This is great to have for substitute teachers so they know what is going on during the play block! I just fill in the invitations to learn, provocations, challenges, and experiences that will be set up in each area.

Hopefully providing these links will help you all be able to get these when you want them, rather than having to wait for me to answer your emails!  I hope they help!

Darla Myers

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Our Last Days of Kindergarten: Enjoying the Moments

Here is a recap of our last days together in Room 201:

Cicadas!  Lots of Cicadas.  We were one of the "lucky" classes who happened to be outside just as thousands of Cicadas started crawling out of the ground.  You could not walk in the grass without crunching them.  The ground was literally crawling...and most of the kids loved it!  Those poor cicadas waited 12 long years to come up for air and they came up during recess at an Early Childhood Center. I kind of felt sorry for them.  The kids were picking them up, observing, looking closer and asking questions!  It was a perfect learning experience.

We spent a lot of time outside.  The weather was the most beautiful we have had all year!  Here you can see some girls chalking a log.

We kept on observing and taking care of our growing lettuce and wishing it would grow faster!

We blew bubbles and basically focussed on enjoying the moment with each other.

I set out a few invitations to explore stars, but not very many visited them.  They realized that they only had a few days left to play with their old favorites... the staples of play in our room.

Most wanted to play in our building area with blocks, our new giant foam blocks, loose parts, legos, K'Nex, Magnetix, the Marble Run, Dramatic Play Area, the painting easels and the sandbox.

We celebrated our friends who had summer birthdays.  Each child decorated their initial on their birthday. Here is our finished Birthday Branch Chandelier. 

There was an obsession with Fidget Spinners so I gave them a challenge to create Fidget Spinners using anything they could find in our classroom.  They used K'Nex, Legos, toothpicks, cotton swabs, corks, tape, pencils and paper.  I was amazed at how well some spun!  They also started really studying the spinning motion!  Oh if only we had more time with each other! I could have taken this so much further!

Lots of notes were being written to friends telling them they love them and are going to miss them.  The writing center was full and our letter template paper was the most popular this last week.

I asked the kids what advice they had for next years kids to be successful in Kindergarten.  I was amazed at their wisdom!  This list is advice we should all take to heart to be successful in life!  I will save it to read to the kids next year on their first day.

I passed back the wish rocks where their parents wrote their wish for them at the beginning of the year.  They wanted me to read them out loud and you could tell by the looks on their faces that their parent's words were very meaningful to them.

On our very last day, they came in to gifts from me on their tables.  I gave them bubbles, a magnifying glass and a notebook along with a note to them that came from my heart. If you read the note, it will explain my choice in gifts.  The wonderful bubble labels came from

They made me read the note out loud to them because they wanted to know what it said.  That was my first cry of the day.  I could barely squeak it out.  After I read it, they all rushed me for a group hug.

Next we had field day all day long!  It was such a fun day to end on.  Here are a few of the activities:

The Parachute
Scooter Relay Race

Guard Your Pin


Balloon Volley

Dance Freeze
 We took a break for some free play after lunch and snapped a few class pictures.

What Time is it Mr. Fox?

Sponge Relay Race

Ping Pong Ball on a Spoon Relay Race

Water Balloon Toss

Snack Break and Popsicles to help us cool off!
Then it was time for us to say goodbye.  We all sat down, snapped a couple more pictures, and then I told them through tears how special they all were to me and that I cannot wait to see what they continue to do with all of their big ideas.

We walked out to the busses one last time and gave our hugs goodbye.

It is tradition for all the busses to wait for all of us teachers to get back to the front and wave as they honk their horns and drive by carrying away our precious ones from us one last time.  It is emotional and exhilarating at the same time.

I took the beads off our our peace wreath which has hung as a reminder to strive for a peaceful environment by our door all year and hung them onto our Peace Bead Chandelier which now carries the beads of three years worth of kindergartners and their parents.

I packed my room into my closet (or as my kinders like to call it: The great big room of everything),

and left a room that will start out as a clean slate for next years new friends.

This is the hardest part of my job...saying goodbye.  Each year, my friends are finished at the Early Childhood Center and are all off to their grade schools where they will use the life long learning skills that they gathered while here and most I will never see again, but I will always wonder where their lives take them.  I hope to see some of their big ideas in the future! Have a wonderful Summer everyone!