Learning To Read Play

I have been reading the book Visible Learners: Promoting Reggio Inspired Practices in All Schools by Mara Krechevsky, Ben Mardel, Melissa Rivard and Daniel Wilson. In an early discussion with a colleague we focused on the following quote in the forward by Deborah Meier.

I have enjoyed following the Reggio Emilia work but am sometimes put off by the amount of documentation involved. In Visible Learners I came to understand how documentation serves many different purposes, all focused on making the student and his or her learning more visible. It is this visibility that enables parents and teachers, teachers and students, and teachers and other colleagues to join together better in making the world more visible to the student. We can see with our eyes and be blind to what is in front of us far too easily in most classrooms…

Deborah Meier, Forwards to Visible Learners

This raised the question how do we use documentation to make learning visible and further, do we use documentation to see deeper, to ‘see what is in front of us’.

I thought back to four years ago when I first joined the Early Years teaching team. One of my driving questions that pushed me to make the shift to Early Years was the question of how do we learn through play. On one level it is obvious. When in a healthy, nurturing environment, children intrinsically play. This is their natural mode to engage and explore with the world. But how was I to meaningfully leverage play for learning without taking it over and turning it into something else. I think I was focused on the rhetoric of play for identity. To teach through play, I decided I needed to learn how to read play.

The people I reached out to with the question, where do I go to learn to read play, kept coming back to me with the same answer, check out Fairy Dust Teaching. I signed up for their Deep Play: The Architect of the Brain workshop. In that I found this graphic depicting the stages of play.

On the left it lays out stages of play. On the right it provides provocations to engage and scaffold the play, and if done right, without taking over the play. In the centre is described the cognitive actions that are being activated in the different stages. This is what I was looking for. But how do I utilize this knowledge other than in a passive, reflective way? How do I make the implicit explicit. For that I created the following document.

click here to view

On the left are the stages of play. On the right are prompts to the teacher pointing to provocation I can put forth. This became my training wheels as I began to intentionally learn to both read a child’s play and to engage in play with them – scaffolding without taking over. It gave me a tool to engage in the learning moving it forward. In this way the documentation became truly formative, using the documentation to inform the next step. It was also a tool to develop shared understandings, I could share the documentation with co-teachers and parents. Starting with this document we began to create a shared language to discuss play in our reflections and planning.

A Play Story

Here is a narrative of one play journey we were a part of as we learned to read and scaffold play.

Assessment phase: Looking at what is there to do?

There was a student who was new to the school and new to India. This was her first time out of her home country. She spent a long time in the Assessment phase, looking at what is there to do. She would roam around the play spaces moving between the blocks to the dolls to the water table, to the books.

Fascination stage: what can I do with it?

One day she became fascinated with a pair of scissors. These were the colourful plastic kind that cut zig zags and wavy lines. She cut designs, and patterns. She cut strips of paper just to cut strips of paper. She cut card paper, she cut tissue paper. She tried to cut cardboard. It didn’t work.

Occupation stage: how can this fit my plans?

Then, a few days later, the scissors became a hairdresser’s scissors, and she began sitting her peers down, interviewing them as to how they wanted their hair cut as other peers started lining up for their turn, as you would do at a hairdresser. The discussions, the rich vocabulary and the connections she was now making with her peers were beautiful and enriching. I remember one conversation where a student of African origin noted how her hair was “scrunchy and bouncy” like her mom’s and her sister’s hair was but her friend, who was of European origins, hair was straight and “not scrunchy.” This student noted that her hair was like her mom’s and her sister’s. This student driven inquiry into ethnicity and similarities and differences was beautiful and honest.

Articulation Stage: how can this be transformed?

This began to spur on grade level wide projects. The hairdresser was so busy, she now needed a cashier. Money was starting to be cut out and labeled. She was so busy she needed an assistant who would counsel customers on the hair styles they wanted so when they got to the hairdresser they already knew what they wanted. The play dough pizza shop was starting next door exchanging the same money. Then, the lockdown started and it all stopped. I wish I had been wise enough then and comfortable enough in the Zoom classroom to help create the space for this to continue. This is the current nature of my challenge. Any ideas are welcome.

The continuation of the quote above reads,

…But the careful and shared documentation that is described on these pages makes it harder to maintain the view that such documentation is a luxury—a time-consuming form of public relations. In fact, such documentation can, in the long run, be a time-saver when learner and teacher get a clearer picture of what is going on. Continue reading

Technology in the Classroom, a 180

There are few trends in education that generate more focus and discussion than the use of technology.  This is with good reason.  Technology is fundamentally changing the way we live and learn and this trend is only going to continue, if not intensify.  There is no lack of thoughtful blog posts out there on the benefits and uses of technology in the classroom by people much more knowledgeable on the topic than I so I will not even attempt such a post here.  What I want to do here is take a step back and look at the idea of technology in a broader sense.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines technology as:

  1. The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry.
  2.  Machinery and devices developed from scientific knowledge.
  3. The branch of knowledge dealing with engineering or applied sciences. 

Think back for a moment to when I mentioned technology in the first sentence of this post.  What did you think of?  It was computers and Skype and blogs and… right?  It is funny how the everyday use of the word technology has taken on an additional point of definition not found in the  dictionary definition here.  Technology in the everyday use is positioned with an orientation looking forward, viewed as new technologies.  Perhaps we are orientated this way by the threads of the Enlightenment narrative of perpetual progress.

Here I want to ask, what happens if we go back to the dictionary definition of technology when we ask, what are the benefits of technology in the classroom?  What happens if we make a 180 degree turn and view teaching and exploring technology in the classroom as also having an orientation to the past?  Not in a sense that is pejorative towards new technologies, just in a sense that opens up new, or maybe I should say old, possibilities.

I will look at two examples, both of which I carted halfway around the world in my suitcase when I returned to India last August.  First a record player and second my parents old rotary telephone that they kindly lend me.   The  ideas here bare  some influence from the responses given to me by my P4 (Grade 1) students when I asked the same question to them.


Record Player

  • Things can take more time.  The music doesn’t start with the quick click of a button.  You need to take the record out of the sleeve, place it on the turntable, start the record player, cue up the needle and lower it.  Then, and this always surprises the students, you can turn it over and repeat the whole process again.
  • You can see the science happen.  In computers and cell phones the science behind the technology happens behind a hard, shiny, tightly sealed case.  We essentially have to take it on faith that there is technology going on because we cannot observe any of the actions with our senses, other than the result of the music appearing.
  • Music/sound is vibration.  This is closely related to the previous point but deserves to stick out on its own. Grooves shake a needle, that shaking gets turned into sound.  Then you can crank the music up and put your hand over the speaker and, vibrations.  True, you can do this with computer speakers but it is just so much cooler with a record player.
  • Things are fragile.  Luckily, we have not learned this in a tangible way yet, no one has scratched a record – but we have come close.  Yes, an ipad that a six year old may play music from is fragile, but not in the same way a thin needle riding around in a thin groove is.  If a student is asked to flip the record, they need to slow down.  The fragility is also something for the teacher who has bought the record player and carted choice records around the word to remember.  How will I react if a student scratches my Nat King Cole album?
  • Music my Grandfather listened to is not so bad.  One of the highlights of the year so far was playing Benny Goodman in the background while the students grouped popsicle sticks into bundles of ten, as I walked by a six year old I heard her humming along, she new the song.  She said “my dad likes this.”  I envision a day when they are twenty and they hear  Louis Armstrong and pause, and have a momentary flashback to being six, then carry on.  I have to admit, one of the reasons I wanted a record player in my classroom was that so when the kids bound out for recess, I can pause, slow down, and listen to Fred Astaire.


Rotary Phone 

  • Again, things take time.  I have borrowed my parents old phone and it still has a sticker on it with emergency phone numbers.  A student asked “why is 911 the number for an emergency if the 9 takes so long to dial?  Why isn’t the number 111?”  The best answer I could come up with was “because we didn’t think it took a long time to dial 9.”
  • Sometimes you need to remember numbers.  No speed dial here.  We all remembered seven digit numbers.  Do kids practise memorising numbers that long today?
  • When you talk to your friend, you need to stop and maybe even sit down.  I talk on the go.  In the cereal aisle, going up an escalator…  Does this make the conversations more functional, what if I stopped, would I talk, would I listen more.

Teaching with an Invisible Basketball

This clip comes from the first movie in the Air Bud series.  The school’s basketball coach has been fired for being, well, a bully.  A new coach, the janitor, is brought in.  It turns out this new coach is a long forgotten NBA star.

What the new coach does next has become a go to for me when I want to bring a class of students from being focused on their own individual actions (as we all generally are) to being focused on the actions of others.  That is, when I want to work on building a community.  I have done this activity with students as old as Grade Five.  Today I tried it with a group of Grade One students.  Standing with the students in a circle I picked up my invisible basketball and told the students we were going to pass it around.  I find it works best if you ask the students to be quiet.  I then asked them how they would know who the ball is being passed to.  Eye contact would be essential we agreed.  I then asked them how they would know where the ball was going.  How they would know if it was thrown high or low or if it was thrown fast or slow.  Paying attention to the actions of the person throwing the ball would be essential we all agreed.

We then proceeded to pass the ball, to marginal success.  I have no doubt that our next try will find greater success as we all learn to pay better attention to what the other members of the class are doing.  As the coach in Air Bud says “before you play with [the basketball] you have to learn to play with your teammates.

I have also used this activity when coaching football (that is soccer for the North Americans.)  It is a great way to get the kids to focus on the other players.  To focus on what are they doing with their leg, what they are doing with their feet… and not just focus on the football.

Bloomin Questions


People riding on a commuter train in Yangon, Myanmar  2012

People riding on a commuter train in Yangon, Myanmar 2012

Bloom’s Taxonomy or those six different categories of questions that are usually displayed in a pyramid, has been around since the 50’s.  As a result it is at least as disputed as it is accepted.

One can be wary of Blooms, and other taxonomies, because they can box or compartmentalizing ideas.  As the sometimes philosopher, Joni Mitchel has said:

Every bristling shaft of pride
Church or nation
Team or tribe
Every notion we subscribe to
Is just a borderline
Good or bad we think we know
As if thinking makes things so!
All convictions grow along a borderline

page0002Joni, from Borderline

When defining or categorizing something, in this case questions, we run the risk of cementing our habits and locking our definitions in between borderlines. The irony is that these borderlines around questions may deter our questioning of questions.page0003

The popularity of Bloom’s Taxonomy and the borderlines it has created around the space of questions means that it has played a part in defining how we understand and how we use questions.  Taking a post-structuralist view, language or definitions around words and grammar, create our page0004understanding and that understanding becomes our identity.


Recently I was asked to give a talk for the PTA and decided to run with the Blooms.  The powerpoint along the side is the product of that and what got me thinking about Bloom’s recently.



The Power of Stories

ImageSome years ago I was teaching in a small First Nations community in Northern Canada.  This community had no road to it and so the only way in or out was to fly.  It was during our time there that swine flu made the global headlines.  Early into this calculated panic, I received a notice in my classroom one morning just before lunch.  It went something to the effect that I was to inform the students that school would be canceled after lunch and that all teachers were to be at the local band hall by one o’clock for an important meeting to discuss how the community was going to prepare for the impending outbreak of swine flu. 

When I got to the band hall for 1 o’clock I sat there through a frenzy while we were told to volunteer for jobs that would be essential when the epidemic hit.  People who had their licence to operate heavy machinery were asked to sign up to dig the mass graves.  People would be needed to go around town and shoot the dogs since people would be too sick to take care of them.  Others would be needed to go through town and collect the corpses.  It was suggested that I be on a committee to request body bags be sent up by the federal government.  After the allocation of jobs, a message system was devised where a piece of green paper in your window meant everyone was fine.  Yellow paper meant there was at least one person in the house who was sick.  Red paper in the window meant that someone had died and their body needed to be taken away.

I sat there swinging back and forth between the emotions of shock, disbelief and humour.  From my calculations, the fact that we were flying into the community on 25 year old airplanes in minus 50 degree Celsius weather and landing on gravel strip runways, was much more of a concern than was the remote possibility that swine flu would cause an epidemic that would wipe out a portion of the community.  A few years earlier I had been living in Asia when SARS “swept” through and no one I knew even got a head cold.  What were the people of the community thinking?  How could they get so carried away with irrational fears?Image

As per the native tradition, in a community meeting everyone has their chance to speak and say all they have to say.  Therefore meetings can go on for hours and often well into the late evening.  As the meeting continued people took turns speaking of their concerns.

Towards the end, an elder who I had never seen before or after, was brought forward in his wheel chair and was given the microphone.  His words were translated into English, mostly for the benefit of the teachers in the room, who were largely from outside of the community.  He began by speaking of his early childhood living semi nomadically on the land and of the days during WWI when Spanish flu had come through the communities.  He began to speak of his vague memories from the time of early childhood when so many of the people he knew had succumbed to the flu and passed away.  I sat there and listened and watched the room, I could feel myself straining to understand the roots of the narrative.  The story was not unheard of by me but I had only heard it as background or context to other stories.  In contrast to me, I came to notice, the community members sat there nodding in agreement moments before an important point was made.  They had all heard this story before and knew what the next point was going to be. 

It was then that I understood the panic and the sense that this flu emanating out of Mexico really could be impending up on the shore of a frozen lake in the Canadian sub-arcticThe community members were coming into this meeting with a different narrative than I.  I was raised in the narrative of the wonders of science that can control and concur nature.  The community members I was among share some of that narrative and they are also members of a different narrative, a narrative of which the Spanish flu is only one chapter and a later chapter at that.  It is a chapter that had its start in 1492 with first contact of Europeans to the Americas.  Though first contact that far up north came centuries later, the proto contact period where European disease spread from tribe to tribe was the foundation of this narrative that was the fuel to the panic of that meeting.

ImageThis is one particularly poignant example of the power of narrative.  It raises questions that I find myself coming back to again and again as an international teacher.  You have great power to influence and shape narratives.  The subtle but influential undercurrents that sculpt the ways we understand and interact with our world.  To be honest, I had found that meeting in the band hall, humourus, I was sure the community was overreacting in the extreme.  Had the elder never asked to speak I would never of had the ah ha moment and I probably would be telling this story differently, about the community that was out of touch.   What other times, having taught in Thailand, India and Myanmar, have I missed the narrative?  Laughed or brushed of a comment.  What does that do to the students, competing narratives, one emanating from home, one from the classroom? 

This could be a good place to collect more stories of divergent or unseen narratives.  We all know they are there, but how often do we see them?  Feel free to post your stories.

My Favourite Metaphor

ImageThis is not an original metaphor.  I don’t remember where or when I first heard it nor do I know who first came up with it, but it has become a favorite.  I introduced it through the first week of school and come back to it again and again through the year.

It is a metaphor of an iceberg.  The iceberg we see is huge, majestic and foreboding, all at the same time.  That iceberg that we see, is only 12 % of the iceberg that is there.  The other 88% is resting silently and hidden under the water.  (The science behind it is explained well here.  http://www.bsharp.org/physics/icebergs)

This image of an iceberg becomes a metaphor when you think of it as an idea, a thought or an argument.  The portion above the surface is the obvious part, but the majority is hidden, the depth of it is not obviously visible.  When a student offers me an abviose answer I often just ask, what’s below the surface? or, think deeper.  It becomes our own little key word to trigger a habit of looking beyond the obvious for the underlying assumptions.  It has obvious implications for TOK but I use it in grade 5 and grade 2.

The Wandering Teacher

The Wandering teacher quote-page0001-1

I’m very much a wMountain Walkinganderer.  Teaching has brought me to the Canadian arctic, to Thailand, to India and now to Myanmar.  I am afflicted by that curiosity to always see the next mountain, next sea, next river and, when I can make it out of the cities, to see the motion of the stars.

As much as I love this quote and have carried it with me for years, I find the applied conclusion unsettling, that wondering and wandering are to separate endeavors.  It has been the act of heading out to see the next mountain, the next sea and the next river that has afforded me the wealth Beach Walkingof experiences to wonder about.  The wandering has been the greatest source for my wondering.  I will take Augustine’s quote not as a description of fact, that you wander without wondering, but as a warning or cautionary tale, to not allow oneself to become engrossed in the wandering and let the wondering be set aside.

My wandering comes with me into the classroom.  That desire to not use last year’s lesson plans, to aim for a different destination.   This blog, the Wandering Teacher is where I will do my wondering, born out of my wandering.  It is a place to collect my thoughts, it is an attempt to not pass myself without wondering.  It is a place a place to collect and connect my thought on teaching, on the art and the practice of it, into a body of ideas more layered and eventually more evolved.