It’s a Wrap!

Now that report cards and administrative protocols have been dealt with, this is the time of year where teachers often find themselves grappling with a mix of emotions. Personally, I am feeling; 1) exhausted – no explanation needed; 2) happy – to have had an amazing year of growth and learning in a new school; and 3) grateful – that our school is staying open and will be reincarnated as an alternative school next year, with an environmentally-focused program. The way I would describe myself right now would be all these emotions wrapped into one big bumbling ball of trying-to-be-a-teacher. I am still trying to make sure that everyone in my charge is safe, happy, and having valuable learning opportunities throughout their days – it’s just that I am a bit distracted as I look in cupboards or on my desk… There are still lots of things to do in my classroom before I can surrender my keys to the custodian because, as we know, it is never just say goodbye to students and colleagues, close the door and drive off into the holidays. At least this year I am not moving schools, just classrooms. I never needed help organizing my primary or junior classrooms at the end of the year, but in kindergarten, I am ever grateful for my ECE teaching partner. Nevertheless, the task of closing up seems mammoth. So where do I start?

On my desk a series of small containers and baskets accumulated throughout the year and slowly filled with loose parts – like lonely puzzle pieces, beads, buttons and dice. Yesterday, I took it all and emptied everything into a huge wooden salad bowl. Then, I placed the big bowl on a centre table with smaller empty bowls around it. Who would have guessed that it would be the most visited centre for 2 days? Without telling them what I wanted them to do, students started sorting by colour, then by theme, and pretty soon, all the items had been moved around, played with, and finally sorted out again so that everything could be put back in its proper place. One job done!

Next on my list is organizing all the books and resources I collected throughout the year – piles are scattered over and under my desk and along shelves in no particular order. Luckily, I was able to take several rigid file boxes from the librarian who was clearing out her space. In a strange kind of way, I am looking forward to organizing the books. Sorting a growing collection of resources gives me a sense of satisfaction that maybe only teachers who strive to be organized, but never fully attain that state, can understand.

Finally, apart from closing up my classroom for the year, I have an end-of-the-year gift for my teaching partner who made my year so much fun and fulfilling. We are lucky to share a philosophy about how young children learn and we make eachother laugh. I also really want to make sure I show my appreciation to the office administrator who always has my back. I can honestly say, that in all my years of teaching, so much of a school’s success has to do with an office administrator who manages so many of the fine details of the day-to-day life in a school. At my current school, she is the hub, essential and all-knowing, with a great sense of humour. It is a pleasure to recognize and thank her for all her efforts to help me with all the administrative stuff I tend to sometimes forget.

I am not quite there yet, but all will come together as it always does. Then, when I finally do say goodbye to everyone and hand over my keys, I will acknowledge all the work I have done throughout the year in one deep sigh and step into the holidays to relax and recharge. And then run back into the school to collect my worm composting bin (message to myself). Here’s to the holidays!


Mud Lake in June

Now that the weather is nice, and the water has receded from the spring flood, we have been able to take groups of 5 kindergarten students to the forest behind our school every day for about an hour. It’s a wonderful way to start the day, especially when the temperature is hovering around 24 degrees Celsius.

I told the Dragonfly group it was their turn today. They checked that they had proper footwear (usually rubber boots, but if it’s dry, we make sure they have running shoes rather than sandals at this time of year, because there is poison ivy along the trails). After a quick visit to the bathroom, they were ready to leave. As we left the school yard, I let them run across the field behind the school and wait for me up ahead at the soccer goal posts. That way, they got some energy used up so that they wouldn’t feel like bolting along the trails in the forest.

Before we entered the gate to the forest from the bike path, I got them to prepare themselves as Nature Detectives, making sure their eyes, ears and noses were switched on. (I like the way a colleague of mine tells her students to use their ‘Rabbit Ears” and “Deer Eyes” when they are outdoors observing). Touching and tasting are not permitted in the forest, which is a nationally protected bird sanctuary, although not picking up sticks is really hard for some students. Generally, if it doesn’t change the landscape, a twig or leaf occasionally may get moved from one place to the other by some students but they know to leave empty handed, because we are “observers not disturbers” in the forest.

Due to the prevalence of the poison ivy, plant identification is really important so that the students are aware but not afraid to venture into the forest. “Leaves of three – let them be” is the helpful rhyme which many have used to stay clear of the nasty effects this noxious weed can produce (not a sting, more like a blistering burn which can last days and be serious enough to require hospitalization for those who are particularly sensitive to the toxic oil). Once informed however, students can make better choices about how they access a forested or natural environment, rather than simply avoiding it. So lately, my groups have been learning about different 3-leaved plants which are commonly found along trails – poison ivy, wild strawberry and purple clover. This is what our kindergarten students noticed;

Poison Ivy

Toxicodendron radicans

poison ivy

Wild Strawberry

Fragaria vesca

 wild strawberry

Purple Clover

(also called Red Clover)

Trifolium pratense

purple clover


  • 3 leaves
  • shiny
  • pointy
  • 3 leaves
  • ‘teeth’ around each leaf
  • pointy
  • 3 leaves
  • white smudge in middle of leaf
  • rounded, not pointy


  • low to the ground at the side of a trail
  • NOT a bush or a tree
  • same
  • same



  • Bunches of tiny white flowers (too many to count)

How to Identify Poison Ivy

  • A few white flowers (you can count them, i.e., not too many on a plant blooming at the same time)
  • Single purple flower “like a ball” rising above the plant


Can you touch it?





  • Food for birds and animals but NOT people
  • Food for people, birds and animals
  • Can eat the fruit
  • Food for people and animals
  • Can make tea with the leaves and flowers

As we walked along, someone would point to a plant and ask, “Is this poison ivy?”, and other students would reply, “No. It’s too tall,” “There are too many leaves,” or, “Yep. The leaves are shiny.” Now, apart from helping them to respect the ‘do not touch’ rule, students have started to look for different characteristics on plants, understanding that the forest is more than just a mess of green, and that each plant has a name and a special role to play.


The Changing Nature of the Outdoor Classroom

With the warmer weather, we have arranged it so that every day of the week, a group of 5 kindergarten students can trek with either a teacher or Early Childhood Educator to the Mud Lake bird conservation area across the field from our school. During the winter, when weather was less predictable, and often times uncooperative with temperatures plunging to -30 degrees celsius, or fields of sheer ice to navigate across with 4 and 5 year old students, we could not plan on going out every day. With the arrival of spring, however, everyone is happy to have the chance to move beyond the school building to do some outdoor learning.

For the first few visits, everything was wonderful with buds on trees, a small variety of plants coming up through the mulch and moss, and the Canada Geese filling the air and the waterways with their boisterous presence. Then it started to rain. The run-off and the rain soon created flood conditions that were catastrophic for some people along the Ottawa River. The flooding was so severe that the paths were impassable and our students and staff were prohibited from visiting the area because the water levels were so high. Birds that nest along the shoreline most definitely lost their clutches, and we are not sure how the female beaver, who a week before the flood could be observed proudly grooming herself on top of the fortified lodge, was managing now that the lodge was almost completely submerged.

The flooding offered to all the students at our school, not only an opportunity to observe the transformation of an area they had come to know very well in previous seasons, but also a goldmine of inquiry-based learning which was opened up as students wondered about how flooding affects animals and insect populations, where flooding happens, where the water came from and where it eventually goes. It also gave us a chance to explore around the fenced off, protected conservation area of Mud Lake. This meant that the children could climb the trees beside the bike path that lies between our school yard and the forest, and they could learn about a completely different collection of medicinal plants that grow best in disturbed soil with exposure to full sun, such as mullein (Verbascum thapsus), shepherd’s purse (Bursa pastoris), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and the rather abundant and pesky, but with rich medicinal properties, dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), and burdock (Arctium lappa). We even found some stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) which irritates more than stings – and is not toxic like poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). The students have been able to get up close and personal with these plants because the habitat they grow in is easily accessible. In the forest, we do not touch or pick anything because it is a protected area, and because there is so much poison ivy along the trails. However, in the fields and ditches which are frequently mown, these plants grow in abundance as long as there has been no pesticide treatment.

This Spring, the flooding of the shores of Mud Lake has really exemplified the benefits of the outdoor classroom which is neither static nor predictable like a classroom within a building can be. With the changing nature of the forest and pond that make up the bird conservation area, our students have been able to experience how powerful, dynamic, and full of life a small area in their neighbourhood is. As the waters recede, we will soon be able to return to the trails and waterside that the children have come to know so well, and explore the changes that have occurred over the past few weeks, but now we will add a stop on the way to climb a tree and notice a plant or two.


It’s the End of the Year – time to panic!

Last week, the first sentence of an article for teachers caught my eye and then my gut – “It’s the end of the year…..” – I have no idea what was discussed in the article because I was numbed by the realization and panic that gripped me. Rather than a, “woohoo!”, I felt an, “ack!” as I realized what I read was true – the end of the school year is indeed upon us and I still have mountains of things I need/want to do.

I thought that it might be helpful for new teachers to know that it is a common occurrence for many teachers, new or seasoned, at this time of the year to feel as if they are running out of time to teach everything in the curriculum, to finish up projects and assessments, to get to things they meant to cover but hadn’t started yet, to adequately prepare students for EQAO and have something meaningful for students to become engaged in afterwards, etc., etc. And it’s not as if we’ve been doing nothing all year long, it’s just that we’ve likely been doing a LOT of EVERYTHING and time, none the less, tends to run out on us. If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night with the scary thought that you will never make to the end of the year, here are some ideas which may help you steer yourself towards the last day without too much distress.

Firstly, think about what you are most proud of having accomplished this year – an inquiry, a student who made great gains in an area of his or her learning, successful parent relationships, a positive and inspiring professional relationship, a problem you solved, something valuable you learned that will influence your teaching in the future, or simply having survived a challenging year.

In kindergarten, the students have grown a lot and achieved so much in the short time they have been at school. Kindergarten is a major growth period in a child’s life – no doubt about it. While the math and literacy components are important and provide a lot of the structure and framework for our days, weeks, months of learning, it is the social and emotional learning that carries the greatest amount of significance for the future learning of a child. Taking stock of the year, I’d have to say that this is the area where my partner and I have spent a great deal of effort trying to provide access to enriching experiences and building positive relationship skills, and where we are the most pleased with the progress we have seen in our students.

Next, with the days counting down, although report cards need to be written, and classrooms need to be organized or cleared out, it is also important to look at what you may want to build on or change in your teaching practice for the following year. This is much more effective to do while you are still in the midst of teaching, rather than when you are on summer holidays and you think you will take the time but somehow never do. Here is a great article written by Caitlin Tucker entitled, Save Your Sanity with a Things To Revamp Next Year List in which she provides a ready-made chart you can fill in as you take stock of your year. You can use her categories or add your own. Anything you ‘revamp’ may also provide points you could address in your Annual Learning Plan at the beginning of the next school year, or they may simply be things that will help you feel a little more on top of your game when you get back into the classroom at the end of the summer.

Finally, as unpleasant the comparison may be, this is the time of the year that most resembles exam period at university. There will be some long hours at the computer and maybe some cramming on top of full days at work. However, just as we managed to get through our exams, so too will we eventually arrive at our summer holidays. In the meantime, I remind myself to breathe deeply and make some sense of the workload by putting things into perspective, with a healthy balance of time to recharge, and I know I will make it through as I always do. 

Imparting a Love for the Creepy Crawlies

I remember when I was about 7 years old, I worked really hard to capture a huge toad in our backyard. I found a clean pickle jar in the garage then carefully scooped him up and carried him inside to the kitchen to show my mother. It was a classic, “Can I keep him?” moment, but my mom convinced me to let him go because his family would miss him. That made sense to me, and so, back he went.

I learned years later that my mother, who had kept a calm, kind voice throughout our brief discussion, was not at all a fan of reptiles and that she had had a case of the heebie jeebies after I left the kitchen. I had no idea because she never showed it and I imagine that that is one reason why I never had a problem with creepy crawly creatures.

Fast forward to today, and I am mindful of the way I treat and discuss bugs – not just the pretty ones like butterflies and ladybugs, but also the hairy, slimy and alien looking ones –  with my kindergarten students. Many of the students live in apartment buildings and do not often get a chance to dig in the dirt, climb trees or splash in puddles. A few families may have home gardens and compost bins, but the majority don’t have the luxury. So when it comes to getting down with the small creatures that crawl or slither, we are thrilled to see that a few students who used to shriek and recoil at the sight of a spider or worm are now hanging around when someone finds a bug, curious to see what the creature is and what it does. For example, today, a jk student found a curled up centipede. She showed it to everyone and carried it around for most of our Outdoor Learning in the morning. She was so excited when the centipede got used to her hand, then uncoiled itself and started crawling in her palm. She asked for a bucket and carried it around for much of the day, understanding that she would have to put it back where she found it so that he could survive.

April offers many opportunities to teach respect and care for bugs. We have begun to notice tiny ants on the floor in the classroom at this time of year. At first, many were repulsed by the ants crawling around near the doorway to the outside, but the other day, while waiting in line to go out, we noticed that a group at the end of the line had all picked up tiny ants to let them crawl on their hands and arms. Playtime will occasionally come to a halt if someone notices a small bug crawling on the floor. Immediately, space around the bug is cleared of people and toys until a solution is found to save it from being accidentally stepped on. Often, I will grab something handy to scoop up the bug and put it outside (our windows do not have screens). Since the students have seen us do that with spiders, beetles and ants in the classroom, they are now doing it themselves. It was wonderful to see a little girl carefully use the book she was reading to rescue a spider and help him escape outside.

While it is not necessary to have a love of creeping creatures in order to impart a respect for them, it definitely helps. Students will want to show you what they’ve caught, and it is hard to share in their excitement if the thing they crawling in their hand turns your spine to jello. Not all bugs are adorable or beautiful, and some can be genuinely hard to love – especially if there is a serious “Eeeewwww” factor or they sting or bite, but teaching respect for all insects is considered essential for encouraging young children to become guardians of nature. Moreover, it is a small step, albeit an extremely important one, towards having compassion for all living things. The following articles support this perspective and have some at-a-glance information about some common bugs you may find in your school yard;

Teach Your Kids to Love (and respect) Bugs!

Teach them to love the insects

In the yard last week, a student found an enormous dew worm after a big rain – the worm was as long as a garter snake and almost as thick – not as cute as the wee red wrigglers we have in our vermicompost because the student needed both hands to hold all of it – but fascinating, nonetheless. The worm/snake was gently carried and cared for, and although there was a request that we put him in our classroom worm compost bin, the big guy was finally, but reluctantly, left outside, “Because his family would miss him.”

For Earth Day – A Chance for Environmental Custodians to Show What They Know

Knowing that I have a worm composter in my kindergarten classroom, two girls (grades 1 and 2) came up to me last week as they walked in from recess holding a bucket of earthworms. A bucket. Full of worms.

They asked me if they could join these worms with the ones in my classroom, and I had to tell them, “No”, that just as there are different kinds of fish or dogs in the world, so are there many different kinds of worms, and these two kinds were very different, not to mention the fact that the worms in the bucket had been born in the wild and that is where they should remain. The students were a little disappointed by my answer, especially after all their hard work delicately harvesting about 2 cups of worms, so I suggested that they could introduce them into the gardens in our courtyard (outdoor) classroom. The girls headed into the courtyard, found a spot near a tree and gently dumped the contents of the bucket on the ground. They were very proud of themselves and told me they knew about how worms help us so they felt that they had really helped the worms, too.

While I was on lunch duty in their classroom a while later, the girls were still eager to talk to me about the worms – evidently, the vermicomposter makes me some sort of expert in the way of the worm. Anyway, they told me that they were just getting started. The girls had BIG PLANS. They wanted to start their own Worm Care Service, since they know exactly what worms need. “Great!” I said, as I realized what a great inquiry-based learning opportunity this was, “Maybe you should make some posters and business cards telling people what it is you do.” This got them even more excited and they wanted to get down to work as soon as they finished eating. Even though selling a worm care business may not be a realistic venture, there is the fact that the girls could at least have an opportunity to share their knowledge about worms. And that is how the idea of a Children’s Fair to showcase students’ environmental interests and projects has come to be added to this year’s Earth Day Celebration. Being the first time at my new school, it will start out with just one or two tables, if we’re lucky, showcasing students and their nature-conscious projects and hobbies. The Fair is open to grades 1 to 6, and all the students will get a chance to visit and ask questions and learn from each other.

Having done something like this last year at my previous school on Earth Day, I had forgotten how rich an experience it was for the students involved. I realized afterwards that it had been so successful because it was an opportunity for students to do something at school which had no rubric or assessment attached to it, and for which they were highly motivated. Last year, all I did was call a meeting together asking students how they would like to participate in the Earth Day Celebration. That’s when things just started to morph into them wanting a way to share their knowledge or expertise about the environment. At the meetings, there were lots of ideas and “Can I…?” questions. In the end, not everyone was ready to set up a table with items and information, but at least it got them to consider the possibility that something they know or do could be of some interest and value to their peers and the adults in their life. This year, I don’t know what expertise we will showcase, but If someone has a feather or rock collection they are proud of, if they know how to fold newspaper into compost bin liners, or if they know how to make bird calls or care for worms, then the Children’s Fair is the place to show what you know.

Giving Mindfulness a Go

I’ve always been impressed with stories of teachers using meditation and/or mindfulness in their classrooms, helping their students to calm their minds and grasp strategies for self-regulation in a way that most people are too busy to attempt. Thinking that it should be something I set up at the beginning of the school year, I just never got around to fully dedicating time and effort to introducing the concept of mindfulness in my classroom. I felt that I was definitely far too busy to try (evidently, I needed some mindfulness) regardless of how I believed it would truly benefit not only my students, but my teaching practice as well. And then, a couple of weeks ago, I finally jumped in and gave it a try.

In a previous post, I wrote about how our students were involved to varying degrees in a brain inquiry. After having poked at the brain for about two weeks, we have now begun leading both classes in exercises of mindfulness. Using the book, “Mind Up!” as our guide, we began the introductory lesson and are amazed at how everyone has become engaged in the idea of thinking about how we think. Mapping the brain helps to identify key areas responsible for what the brain can do. The students have learned about the prefrontal cortex (called the “Wise Leader” in the “Mind Up!” program), the hippocampus (“Memory Bank”) and the amygdala (“Security Guard”). Now, the students are locating their thinking and reasoning for their actions in their heads. If I ask, for example, why they can remember how to count to 20, some students will say that it is because of their ‘Memory Bank’, while many of them, even some of my junior kindergarten students will readily drop the word,  ‘hippocampus’ (because it’s a very cool word). We all smiled today when a jk student came up to me and said cheerily, “I heard a story today and then I put it in my hippocampus!”

We are also finding that giving the direction to “Use your Wise Leader” as they touch their foreheads to show that they remember where that part of the brain is, seems to be a little more meaningful for the students as they begin to explore the idea of self-regulation. Metacognition is a challenge for anyone. Without a means of helping children understand what the brain does and what it allows us to do, simply asking them to THINK about why they’ve done something can be too abstract. Now, they are building the foundation for understanding what their brains are capable of, and by extension, what they are capable of.

On the wall beside our carpet area, there is a poster of the brain with the three key areas highlighted and labeled so that we can refer to it when we gather for stories, the morning message, or knowledge building circles. To get everything started, we slipped the initial lesson about mindfulness into our day just after our morning message – it was a 10 minute introduction. Later in the day, we talked about it again, building on what we had begun talking about in the morning. Now, at any time of the day when the group is gathered together, we are able to have a quick lesson and keep slowly moving through the mindfulness program. It has become a regular aspect of our day, with the students understanding the power of their breathing, their emotions, and all of their senses. Maybe we are imagining things, but the classes seem to feel calmer and the students more grounded. We will definitely continue what we are doing.

There are many resources on mindfulness out there – from books to videos – and they all seem to be worthwhile. The book, “Mind UP” is just one of many. If you have ever considered bringing mindfulness into your classroom, my ECE partner and I can attest that you do not need to be an expert in the field. If you find something that seems like it would be appropriate for your students, I encourage you to take a deep breath, give it a go, and see what happens.

One Inquiry, Two Classes

March is a great time to study the human body because it makes a logical segue into Nutrition Month. For our two kinder classes, my partner and I decided to set out a few provocations to see how far the students would delve into the body before we moved on to learn about the four food groups.

To start things off in March, we had “Mr. Torso”, a life-sized, human torso which became an internal organ puzzle that could be taken apart and reassembled by the students. In small groups I was able to present the torso to the students and answer their questions about the organs and how they worked. What the students seemed to be most interested in, apart from the functioning of the large intestine which elicited plenty of giggles, was the brain.

In the torso puzzle, you can remove half of the brain and then take it apart in three pieces of hard plastic. I could not imagine anyone being motivated to learn about the brain using chunks of grey plastic, and yet, an inquiry began to take shape one morning with one of our classes.

I asked the students what they wondered about the brain, and the questions that arose were terrific;

“How does your brain control everything in your body?”

“How come our brain has water inside?”

“How does our body talk to our brain?”

“How does the blood get to the brain?”

“How does your brain make you think?”

Amazing! We set about having a Knowledge Sharing Circle where they talked about what they knew. They also shared books from the classroom library, sat with friends looking for the answers and watched short animated videos that helped explain the way the brain works. Every student was involved somehow in the brain inquiry.

Now here comes the part of the story where the knowledge building is reserved for me as a teacher keen on re-enacting the same exciting inquiry-based lesson. When I did the same provocation with my second class the next day, the brain inquiry seemed to spark a little at first and then fizzle out. Puzzled and frustrated, I found myself wanting to lead the students into formulating their questions, and much as I tried to duplicate the energy and excitement of the previous day, I was trying a little too hard to draw out ideas and questions like; “Do you have any questions about what our brains DO?”, or, “Try starting a question with HOW…”  Much as I tried, there was no spontaneous interest or individual ‘wonderings’, just a few students who were looking at me and trying to follow my prompts. So after eventually getting only one question which, I believe, even the student who offered it was not quite convinced that was really what he had wanted to ask; “Does the water in the brain… pump…to make the brain… change shape?,” I did my best to clarify the question with the help of the group, realizing that I probably should have asked them what organ they were interested in learning about, rather than expecting them to be as interested in the brain as the first group was. It’s not a student-led inquiry if the teacher comes up with the questions, after all.

Helping Children with FASD in Your Classroom

Many years ago, when I was in Teacher’s College, I did my practicum in what we could call today a ‘systems’ class. I worked with several students with Down’s Syndrome, a few with non-specific developmental challenges as well as some students who were identified as having Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (now called Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder). This was the first time I learned about FASD. What we learned was very basic. We were told that there were certain facial features which might help to identify a child with FASD and some unpredictability in behaviour, but other than that, I do not recall learning, in practical terms, how to meet the needs of such a child.

Fast forward to today, and I am far more familiar with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) in the classroom than I ever was with FASD – for some reason, it seems it’s just not something we talk about or receive in-service training for. Then last week, I became enlightened by a workshop which helped explain how damaged a developing brain of a fetus that is exposed to alcohol in the womb can become, and what we as educators and caregivers can do to help children affected with FASD. As I heard more about the characteristics and strategies associated with children with FASD (Important to note: the majority of individuals with FASD do not have facial features associated with the disease, hence it is considered an “Invisible Disability”), I became excited about the possibility of fresh interventions that I could use to help some of my students, who, although do not have definitive diagnoses of FASD, still present with key behaviours such as memory deficits or impulsivity.

Some of the key points which have helped me readjust my perspective as I “put on an FASD lens”, I have taken from an information package provided by the Fetal Alcohol Resource Program (Citizen Advocacy of Ottawa). I highly recommend becoming more familiar with the condition because the strategies are relatively simple to employ and can be supportive not only to students with FASD but to any student struggling with behaviours in your classroom. A video entitled, Dear Teacher is also included in the package and serves as a gentle reminder of how we need to treat those of our students who face challenges which may be difficult to understand. I have found these useful reminders at a quick glance, but there is so much more that can be learned about FASD.

The chart below is called, “What FASD is NOT.” I find it particularly useful as it clarifies the ways certain behaviours may initially be perceived, and how, through a different lens, they should be understood.

                                    We NEED to shift our thinking

From Seen As….. …To Understand As
Won’t Can’t
Bad Frustrated, Challenged
Lazy Tried Hard
Lies Confabulates/Fills in
Doesn’t try Exhausted/Can’t start
Mean Defensive/Hurt
Doesn’t care Cannot show feelings
Is a problem Has a problem

With a few upgrades in our approach with one of our students who has had particularly challenging behaviours, my teaching partner and I have already noticed an improvement in the child’s independent learning, interactions with peers, and response to direction. Some phrases we have found useful reflect the intent of some of the examples provided in the information package; “I can see this is tricky for you. We are going to solve this later. Let’s get a drink of water.” (patience and redirection) ; “Let’s figure out a better way for next time,” (support rather than punishment); and, “Come here. It’s OK.” (no matter what you do, I am here for you).

At this point, we are by no means specialists in FASD, but we are willing to learn as much as we can as we continue to see positive results. As educators, we all use patience, consistency, support and understanding, but with some of our students, we may need to use a little (or a lot) more.

Home Away From Home

I used to teach in a small school in downtown Ottawa that was about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. There were many activities planned for the celebration, and one of them was a tour of the school explaining how and why it was designed the way it was a century ago. I will never forget hearing about how glorious the original kindergarten room was, with its high ceilings, vast bay window and enormous mantelpiece over the fireplace. Apparently, there was even a big chandelier hanging in the middle of the room, “To make it feel like home.” Today, the chandelier is gone but the bay window is still there, the ceilings have dropped and the mantel was covered over long ago with drywall and plaster – guess that could feel a bit like some homes nowadays, too.

The idea that a classroom should feel cosy rather than sterile has come back to me as I teach kindergarten in a 50 year old school. We are lucky to be on a corner, with lots of windows, but the classroom is undeniably square, with painted concrete block walls, a dropped, acoustic-tiled ceiling, and fluorescent lights. When I say square, I mean that everything is at right angles – windows, walls, bulletin boards, etc. Nary a wavy line to be found. That was the way you would have found our classroom until last month, when my ECE colleague and I talked about changing things up to be a little more of a Reggio-Emilia inspired classroom with more natural,organic materials (cosy) and fewer brightly coloured, plastic ones (sterile). With a few changes to the way we set things up and to the materials we use, we feel that the energy of the room is now more calming and welcoming.

There aren’t a lot of changes we can make, but here are few that we tried. For starters, the concrete block walls in the classroom are painted a dull yellow in high gloss paint. The bulletin boards are also painted in a brighter high gloss, and the cupboard doors are a kaleidoscope of blue, purple, green, and yellow – waaaaay too many colours! To tame them down and calm the eyes, we covered the bulletin boards with large rolls of brown paper. To frame the bulletin board, we stapled scrunched up green tissue paper. The effect? With the irregular framing of green tissue paper combined with the brown, earthy colour of the bulletin board, the corner of the classroom has been calmed. The door to the classroom is directly opposite and it makes walking into the classroom much more appealing than the bright, mismatched colours that were there before, and the yellow walls are hardly noticeable any more.

Another thing we did was bring the outside into our room. We have a huge tree branch that I had intercepted from the custodian as he was hauling it towards the dumpster in the fall after a storm had snapped it off a tree in the yard. Hanging it horizontally from the ceiling was not possible due to health and safety regulations, so I stuck the bottom of the branch inside a rigid poster tube, and then attached the tube with plenty of duct tape to the side of a filing cabinet beside my desk. It is now one of the first things you see when you walk in the room. The students decorate it whenever they get in the mood and so it is constantly changing. Dead or alive, trees in the classroom are great. Period.

Another little “make it feel like home” touch we added was a set of white cotton curtains hung to frame the giant white board/projector screen that dominates one wall. Now the curtains cut off the corners of the big rectangular screen and make it look more like a movie theatre screen. Feels a little special. We’ve also talked about bringing in some table lamps to place at some of our centres but we lack enough room along the walls where electrical outlets are located, so we rely instead on the lovely sunshine that streams in from the considerable window space. The natural light is perfect for the plants we’ve got growing on the window ledge. Some live and some die due to a lack of water, or over-watering (depending on whose responsibility it is that week) but there is no doubt that they add another continuously changing organic presence to the room and soften its manufactured aspects. We’ve got kitchen herbs which inevitably get picked and eaten (chives, basil, mint, lemon balm), as well as a chrysanthemum we rescued at the end of autumn from our planter in the school yard, and a sweet potato vine which is growing quite happily in a clear glass vase where we can watch the roots reach down towards the water.

The final touch we add only on the coldest days when it is just not possible to have outdoor learning is projecting the fireplace channel on the whiteboard when the students arrive in the morning. It is a big fire and the gentle crackling sound offers a distraction from the fact that our routine has been changed and we are spending the morning indoors. Most definitely makes the whole room feel cosy and homey. The classroom may not be anything like the home my students return to at the end of the day but we can still try to make it feel as hospitable as possible, a little like their home-away-from home.