“Just Semantics”…Or Is It?

By Nancy Niessen

I’ve always liked words and language. As an adult I have discovered that I really enjoy writing, the entire process from the spark, through its incubation to the many drafts that it takes me to get something ready to publish, including getting the wording just right. In one of his books Malcolm Gladwell refers to a high school English teacher who talked about using words with precision. That really resonated with me. It’s something I’ve considered and have tried to incorporate into my writing, though I am in no way comparing my writing with that of Gladwell!

As I pondered the topic of this blog I couldn’t help but think of what I’ve learned over the past year and a half about self-regulation via TMC (The Mehrit Centre). “Reframing” asks us to look at misbehaviour as stress behaviour. Just semantics? Not at all because the underlying cause of the behaviour is vastly different depending on which words we choose to use. That in turn impacts how we react to the behaviour in question.

I could write more about the topic of self-regulation but in this blog I want to focus on another word choice that has the potential to shift our thinking, or perhaps that reflects a shift in our thinking that has already taken place.

I was volunteering at the Wonder of Learning exhibit in October of 2016 where I enjoyed thought-provoking conversations with a variety of educators. One evening a crew of TCDSB folks came through and unfortunately I didn’t get the name of the one who planted the following idea in my brain. She said that she had heard it suggested that we not refer to The Kindergarten Program as a curriculum.

In actuality it isn’t a curriculum and that relates to Ministry policies as I understand it. Because Kindergarten is not a mandatory program, its document cannot be considered a curriculum. Yet most of us, myself included, have slipped into calling it just that.

What if we didn’t call The Kindergarten Program a curriculum? What if we called it a program? Just semantics? I’m not sure that’s the case and as an experiment I’ve tried not to refer to The K Program 2016 as a curriculum since that fateful conversation. And you know what? It feels much more relaxed to me.

I met a #ReggioPLC colleague, Jamie Ly (@MsJamieLy), at the Wonder of Learning exhibit the week after that original conversation and we carried on the conversation at the exhibit and later via Twitter. Jamie can be so insightful and she captured in words what I was feeling when she said, “it feels more holisitic.” That’s it exactly. Referring to The Kindergarten Program (2016) as a program, The K Program or even as “our program document” has allowed me to disengage from the academic feel the word “curriculum” has traditionally held for me.

Just semantics? I don’t think so. I think our word choice can help us to renovate our outlook and our approach. This is an incredibly exciting time in the world of Kindergarten, one that has the potential to transform thinking and practice for the better in profound ways. The K Program is rich with Reggio influences and pedagogy. Let’s start thinking about it as a program vs a curriculum…we might just find that it encourages and allows us to relax into more of a listener’s stance so that we can more fully embrace and enjoy the magic that is Kindergarten.

Words matter. How are your word choices impacting your thinking and in turn your actions?


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Country Drives

Reflecting on Self-Regulation

By Nancy Niessen

This summer I’ve had the pleasure of several trips back and forth to a favourite beach. I typically find the transition from a nature-rich setting to the city to be challenging, but that is likely influenced by being mildly stressed by the transition itself. Even the act of going from city to beach causes a degree of stress for me – packing up, have I forgotten anything, did I do everything I needed to do before leaving, etc. etc. The one great thing about the transition either way is the drive. I use major highways to get clear of the city and then it’s back roads and secondary highways for me.

I love the scenery, the rolling hills, the fields, the animals, the quaint little towns, the variety of homes, including old schools and churches converted to dwellings. I absolutely love country drives and seeing nature from the car. When I have a passenger with me it’s time to catch up and more often than not, to engage in conversations on topics of greater depth. Perhaps that’s because of the uninterrupted time together, the fact that we’re relaxed and don’t have anything pressing, or the calming effect that the surrounding nature has on us. Maybe it’s a combination of those factors that lead to the intimate conversations we have. One piece of advice I give to new parents I know is, “Drive your kids places – it’s this generation’s kitchen table. Great conversations can happen in the car.”

As a child country drives were a treat. They typically happened on a Sunday and what squeals of delight when we were on a road with one of those “stomach hills”. Those kinds of hills are pretty much gone from our roads these days, but they were the ones that made our tummies do a somersault, which in turn was followed by cries of joy and calls for another. My mother instilled in me a love of and respect for trilliums so we always called it when we saw a wooded area peppered with them. I remember passing fields of animals, mooing at the cows, baa-ing at the sheep, etc. I see fewer animals on my country drives these days but I still “talk” to them when I pass by and the animals I see make me smile and look more closely. I’m always on the lookout for the unusual – a fox, a deer, a hawk, a Great Blue Heron, turkey or some other kind of surprise. Don’t worry fellow travelers I’m not a distracted driver, just an observant one.

Reflecting back I think some of my love of nature is a result of those childhood drives and seeing a different countryside than what was in my own neighbourhood. It wasn’t those drives alone that impacted how I feel today about nature, but I know they influenced my feelings. Being allowed to spend hours outside unsupervised, was another influence for sure. Even when quite young, my neighbour and I would sometimes pack a lunch on a Saturday and take off to the local woods for the day to hike, explore the stream, and revel in the freedom that we felt in the woods.

Let me preface the following by saying that I don’t intend judgement, but rather am sharing something that I’ve been mulling over.

I recently heard a family packing up to head back to the city and the teens were discussing which movie they’d be watching in the car on the ride home. That’s what got me reminiscing about childhood rides in the car and how I remember sitting with my face glued to the window watching the scenery roll by, having conversations about it or sometimes just sitting quietly taking it in. Because it seems that I consider everything through a Self-Reg lens since taking the Foundations course through TMC, I started thinking about the use of videos in vehicles.

When I consider kids watching movies as they travel by road I wonder what they are missing out on – observing nature and talking about it, the interaction with others in the vehicle including their friends, siblings and the adults in their lives. Knowing what we do about Self-Reg and the importance of relationships I wonder about the impact of tuning out when opportunities to engage in real time are available whether that is while driving, while walking to school, at the dinner table, etc. I wonder about tuning out nature. There is certainly enough being written these days about nature’s positive impact on us and on our Self-Regulation that I don’t need to expand on it here. I don’t think it’s a stretch to consider the importance of being present while traveling through nature let alone while spending time physically in it.

I have a friend who isn’t entirely comfortable traveling alone in a vehicle with her children so she makes use of the video option – that helps her to Self-Regulate so she can focus on driving safely. Maybe there is a time and place when watching videos in the car is a positive tool. One thing that I’ve had reinforced through my learning about Self-Regulation is that everyone is different, has different stressors and different ways of managing them so before I judge, I need to pause and reframe what I could quickly consider to be a negative practice.

I thought back to times when I traveled with my two children, sometimes rides of seven plus hours, and typically by myself. Where they always engaged in looking at and talking about nature? An extended time in the car for a trip is very different than a Sunday drive. What did my kids do? They learned over time how to pack their bags with things that would entertain them, things like books, action figures, games and drawing materials that included small notepads or stickie notes. They had snacks that they could access independently, even at a very young age. Treasured blankies and stuffies always came along on our journeys. I had things in reserve in the front seat for when the kids started getting restless and I would pass them back at strategic times. We always had favourite music to sing along with and to this day certain songs remind me of our trips together. How is all of that different than watching a movie? Is it the way that we engage when watching a movie vs doing the kinds of things that my kids did when we traveled? Is it the difference in how interactions play out, or don’t play out, when watching a movie vs engaging in other types of activities? In my mind I think we are more present and more aware of our surroundings and others in it when engaged in active vs passive activities but I suppose we can get just as wrapped up in a book or game as we can in a movie. I’m sure that someone with a better understanding of the neuroscience could explain what is happening in the brain during different kinds of activities – I can only draw on my experience to offer an opinion.

I was delighted when my grown daughter shared with me in the not too distant past that she loves car rides through the country. Is this learned behaviour? Is this because of the car rides when she was younger and the relationships that were fostered with both the environment and with the people she was with? I’m not sure. I’d like to think that our car rides as she and her brother were growing up had something to do with it, but the bottom line is that I like seeing her enjoy and be immersed in the journey. I enjoy hearing her observations about nature. Would I have used movies when my kids were younger, had they been available? I’m not entirely sure one way or the other. It would certainly have been easier in terms of planning, but I don’t think my kids and I would have the memories and connections that we do today that are, in part, a result of our trips in the car together and all the magic that they entailed. I suppose what I’m thinking about all boils down to building relationships with others and with nature. What are our choices, why and how do they impact relationship-building in the immediate and over the long-term?

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Teacher: Identity vs Job

By Nancy Niessen

As some of you may know, I recently retired from teaching (June 2016). I hadn’t planned to retire for a few more years anyway, but over the Easter weekend I made a very quick though reasoned decision to retire at the end of the 2016 school year. As my friends, colleagues and family will attest to, there were a lot of smiles, singing, happy dances and whoops of joy once the decision was made.

One of the reasons I decided to retire was the desire to free myself up to both help and spend time with family and friends, including my grown children and my aging mother (yes, think sandwich generation). Being a part of the first cohort of Stuart Shanker’s Self-Regulation Foundations certification program was an influence on my decision to retire. The course made me realize that I was spreading myself very thinly and that rest and restoration were not getting the attention that they, or rather I, deserved and more importantly needed. The passing of a colleague in the Fall and the serious illness of a couple of friends made me reflect on the fact that I wanted to be able to play and enjoy myself while still young and healthy, and fortunately I was blessed to be able to make such a decision.

What does this all have to do with the title of this blog? I recall a colleague saying to me several years ago when he planned to retire that he had to find out who he was when he wasn’t a teacher. At dinner with friends recently I said essentially the same thing…Nancy Niessen the teacher is a known and I think, respected, commodity. Who is Nancy Niessen when she isn’t a teacher? I confess that I have had an occasional, though not frequent pang wondering about that, both before retiring and now as the new school year is approaching. Several treasured colleagues texted or emailed me when August 1st rolled around to say that they were thinking of me. Though I’ve smiled about the things I won’t be doing at the end of this month, and the things I will be doing instead, I did have a school dream not long after the calendar showed August. I don’t know many teachers who don’t have school dreams once August hits!

I think it’s fair to say that many of us who chose to become teachers felt it was a calling, that there really wasn’t a choice involved no matter how circuitous our route to becoming a teacher might have been. Our love of children, our desire to help them and perhaps a teacher’s influence on our lives when we were younger led us to this career. My grade two teacher, Nancy Wannamaker, was one of my strongest influences in terms of my career choice. I don’t recall what I learned, but rather how I felt in her class. Other teachers over the years had the same kind of influence in my life. The Self-Reggers out there will understand the complexity of saying that a handful of teachers made me feel safe, cared for and valued which in turn made me want to have that same impact on children, to offer those gifts to other young lives.

Teaching tends to consume us. For those of you who are teachers I wonder: How many nights do you fall asleep thinking about what you might have done differently for a little one or his/her family? How many evenings has the caretaker asked when you plan to leave the building? How much of your weekends do you devote to your job? How long does it take every summer for your brain to wind down from the school year? How many dollar stores have you visited while on vacation? How many rocks, sticks, etc. have you collected for the classroom while out hiking? Balance is important in terms of our professional and personal lives but the thing about teaching for many is that it’s not easy to turn off the teacher in us. It’s a job that can be intensely rewarding and satisfying, one that allows for abundant joy and thus the challenge – how to turn that off and/or do we want to?

I’m thinking of all of the teachers out there as the new school year gets closer. I hope the rest of your summer is restorative and that your passion is fueled as you think ahead to the upcoming school year. Me? Well I’m figuring out who Nancy Niessen the retiree is. I’ve had more time for feet in the sand, walks on the beach and reading. I’ve learned to barbecue, I’ve taken up photography and I’m kayaking whenever I get the chance. I’ve renewed my love of gardening. I’ve returned to cooking and trying out new recipes. There are other things on my “to learn/to revisit” list as well as lots of question marks as I want to stay open to opportunities that present themselves. It’s not easy to completely turn off the teacher in me, the desire to learn and stay current. I continued my learning about Self-Regulation at the Summer Symposium in Peterborough in July and it’s a topic I continue to think about and discuss in a variety of circles. I’m reading up on what is happening in Kindergarten because I’m very interested in how The Kindergarten Program 2016 will roll out and how Full-Day Kindergarten will continue to evolve. Teaching was a gift, one that defined me for over thirty years. I look forward to the ongoing metamorphosis as I relax into retirement.

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When Your Best Is Not Enough

Courage, Part II

By Nancy Niessen

This is the second blog I’ve written about high numbers in FDK. Given that I don’t have many posts on my blog, that says a lot about the importance I assign to the topic.

I started this school year with 24 students and the same partner as last year with whom I have a great relationship and a common pedagogical understanding. I felt like a teacher, spending time getting to know the children, their likes, dislikes, and individual personalities. My partner and I have all kinds of observations recorded about what our students know and can do, and we’ve recorded all sorts of inquiry sparks to pursue. Emergent curriculum is alive and well in our program and our students are engaged, motivated and settled in. Relationships are being built and strengthened with the families of our students.

We got the news last week that our school was being re-organized and would lose the small FDK class of 15. The students from that class would be “re-distributed” to the other four classes which were at 27-ish but for mine.

I prayed that our parents would speak out against their three, four and five year olds having to be in classes of 30 in the vague hope that such an outcry might make a difference. A supportive parent reached out to me and told me “your best is good enough”.

I write this blog because alas, my best is not enough. Yes, it’s all I can do, all I can give, but it is not enough for the 30 children in our class. I’ll run the risk of sounding cocky and say that my best is pretty darn amazing. After thirty years of teaching I continue to learn and am as current as I can possibly be in my practice. I read current research, attend conferences, network with colleagues throughout Ontario, Canada and beyond, and I run an evidence-based practice. Qualifier: I’m not perfect and still have much to learn, but you get the idea. Having said all that, I can’t give or do my best with 30 students and it breaks my heart, makes me cry and weighs heavily on my mind and conscience.

Note to the parents of our newest students, should you read this: We’ll welcome and care for your children and will do all that we can for them. This blog is not intended to be personal in any way.

Teachers are asked by our Boards and the Ministry to be progressive, evidence-based practitioners. As an OCT and ECE, I would like to know where the research is that backs up classes of thirty, at any level, but in particular in the Early Years. I’ve said it publicly before and will say it again, the government’s assertion that we need to consider FDK classes of thirty as having a ratio of 1:15 because there are two educators in the room is misleading. The students can be 1:30 for approximately one third of the day in my Board, and when there are two educators in the classroom, sometimes the behavioural needs mean that both the OCT and DECE are working 1:1 to manage a situation…you do the math and figure out what the ratio is then. We scan for safety but sometimes that’s all we can do.

I ask myself honestly, is it just that I’ve been in this career for a long time and I’m getting tired? Perhaps I’m ready to retire. But that’s not it. I love what I do, love learning and would love to continue working with young students, especially at this exciting time when inquiry, play, emergent curriculum, Reggio etc. are in the front seat and are gaining more recognition and understanding in the province of Ontario. We are at a pivotal time in Early Years education. Alas, classes of thirty, or more, or thereabouts, are an undermining and demoralizing influence.

A colleague said recently, “We are set up to fail.” The comment wasn’t specific to FDK but rather to elementary education in general. That brings us full circle to the title of this blog: When Your Best Is Not Enough. I can’t give my best when there are 30 students in the room. Even when I compromise my ideals, my vision of what the program should/could be, let go of some of the dreams I had for our program and our kids, it’s not good enough. Our students, your children, deserve more, or should I say they deserve fewer, given that I am talking about the numbers in some FDK classes in Ontario.

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Documentation As An Adventure

By Nancy Niessen

The last #ReggioPLC chat was about Unveiling Learning, and Louise wrote a beautiful blog about this topic. Unveiling learning: when we have expectations our documentation is no longer pedagogicalWhen @LouiseJupp and I debriefed after the last chat, we talked about focussing on documentation choices for the next chat on May 5th at 7:00 p.m. EST. I had every intention of writing a blog devoted to that.

I’m not sure that I’m being entirely true to the topic of  “documentation choices” as I had originally intended for this blog because there are many things about documentation that I’m currently reflecting upon. I’m relatively new on this Reggio journey and am still making sense of it and how it fits within the school system. How can it co-exist with the more traditional ways of being in the school system?

As I began writing, this article didn’t have a title. It was when I arrived at the end that the title emerged because learning about documenting and how to document effectively has indeed been an adventure for me, one that is ongoing. Wikipedia defines adventure as “an exciting or unusual experience. It may also be a bold, usually risky undertaking, with an uncertain outcome.” I don’t know about you, but that sure feels like a good fit for me in terms of my efforts to document and to learn more about documenting!

Documentation has been on my mind a fair bit lately for a variety of reasons: it has come up in #ReggioPLC chats, speakers at the #becs2015 conference were speaking about it, I’ve been reading about it, and I’ve been pondering it and discussing it with my partner in our classroom.

Questions, wonders and struggles abound when it comes to documentation. I remember hearing Marc Battle say, in paraphrasing Betty Jones, that it takes many years to get comfortable with documenting so we need to just jump in. I have jumped in, with the result being that sometimes I feel like I am swimming smoothly, other times like I’m flailing about in the deep end, and other times like I’m just standing still in the shallows not wading as deeply as I would like to.

When I struggle with something I tend to seek out others to talk to, and I read. Some of the resources that I read that have helped me with documenting are:

*Learning to Document in Reggio-inspired Education by Carol Anne Wien with Victoria Guyevskey & Noula Berdoussis

*The Power of Documentation in the Early Childhood Classroom by Hilary Seitz

*Pedagogical Documentation, Leading Learning in the Early Years and Beyond (MOE, Oct. 2012)

*Documentation in Full-Day Kindergarten, Principals Want to Know (Supporting the ON Leadership Strategy, Issue #15, February 2012)

*Curiosity, Curriculum and Collaboration Entwined: Reflections on Pedagogical Documentation by Pat Tarr (2010)

*Pedagogical Documentation Revisited, Looking at Learning and Assessment in New Ways

To be a researcher is to be curious.

When educators start with curiosity and a

Search for meaning as an entry into

Pedagogical documentation, they may find

Themselves in a new, and possibly

Uncomfortable position as teacher-researcher

~Pat Tarr

I have definitely felt uncomfortable as I delve ever more deeply into documenting. While I feel increasingly comfortable with the process of documenting, I have many questions still…

*How do I make decisions about what to document? Is it that what I am seeing and hearing is something new for a particular child? Perhaps the child is exploring materials he/she has never spent time with previously. Perhaps there is a clear problem that the child is working out that has engaged his/her attention. Perhaps I’m witnessing mastery of a new skill, be it social, academic, behavioural, etc.

*Who is this documentation for? Is it for my purposes as a record of learning? Perhaps it’s for the parents. Or maybe I have the child in mind and want to mirror to him/her what I am seeing and hearing. Perhaps what I am documenting could serve as a catalyst of some kind for other students.

*Why am I documenting? Why create annotated photos and learning stories?

*What do I do with all of the documentation that I gather and create? I certainly can’t put it all up, which takes me back to considering the “why” – why did I document what I did in the first place? Need I be gathering all the pieces of documentation that I do?

Some of my questions are echoed in the Pat Tarr article mentioned above. In relation to beginning to document she says:

“…’where do I begin?’ ‘what should I document?’ are questions that I often hear in my classes and workshops on pedagogical documentation. Documentation seems overwhelming to teachers that with so much happening in a classroom they honestly wonder where to start. Here I return to the notion of curiosity. What do you wonder about? What do children wonder about? How are they making sense of their world? These are different questions from those generated by the assessment lense that Asks questions about what does the child know, where is that child having difficulty?”

I’m also reminded of an article about learning to document, which outlines different “stages of documenter experience”, the first being “deciding to document” and the last being “documenting decision making”. I think that the article this comes from, The Power of Documentation in the Early Childhood Classroom by Hilary Seitz, is worth reading and is helpful in terms of understanding that learning to document truly is a journey, consciously undertaken. Carol Anne Wien’s article, referenced above, also suggests there is a progression towards Pedagogical Documentation from “developing habits of documenting” to “sharing visible theories with others for interpretation and further design of curriculum”.

Considering what these authors have to say has helped me over the years to navigate my way on this documenting adventure, and to understand where I am at, what the next step might be for me to consider.

Mountain Climber

(photo credit)

During the April 21, 2015 ReggioPLC chat, an interesting conversation about documentation unfolded and the concern about not being able to capture everything that goes on in the classroom arose.

1st tweets

2nd tweet

3rd tweet

I was reminded immediately of something Jamie Ly said in the previous #ReggioPLC chat:

Jamie Tweet

And what others said related to Jamie’s comment:

5th tweet

These thoughts served to make me check my ego and reflect on the fact that learning can happen, and in fact does happen all the time, whether or not I am present with the children, documenting what they are doing. This still didn’t entirely settle the issue of wanting to capture all that is going on in our classrooms, though it did take me full circle to consider the “why” of my documentation. Is it so that I can reflect the learning back to the child, or perhaps share it with others? Is it so that I can report?  Rachel’s comment is one I find myself thinking about because it captures very much how I feel and why I want to document…

6th tweet

Those attending the BECS 2015 conference in March,  were honoured by the sharing of Carol Anne Wien, Ellen Brown and Brenda Jacobs. Their thinking about relationality and assessment was so new and fragile that we were asked not to speak publicly about it, but rather to hold their generous sharing in a place of security. Many of us went away head-full, contemplating whether or not Pedagogical Documentation could be used for assessment. Perhaps this was one of the dichotomies to which Will Letts referred to at the end of the afternoon, and we needed to think beyond black and white possibilities.

On April 30th, at a day-long event called How Does Learning Happen, Foregrounding Relationships, Carol Anne Wien spoke about relationality and connections. I apologize up front if I misrepresent her thinking, or anyone else’s for that matter that I reference in this blog. I do thank them for sharing their thinking and for the impact it has had on my own thinking.

It was suggested  that “assessment is about mastery of the known” whereas relationships/connections is about the unknown. Is this not what our Pedagogical Documentation is about, capturing the unknown, what children are thinking, their theories? Carol Anne suggested that relationality and assessment are different, or are at least “stretched apart” and are “different processes”.

Let’s consider for a moment what Pedagogical Documentation is, for it’s very different than the act of documenting and the documentation we produce.

“… pedagogical documentation is a process for making pedagogical (or other) work visible and subject to dialogue, interpretation, contestation and transformation.” (Dahlberg, 2007, p. 225)

Karyn Callaghan spoke about the importance of meaning-making in Pedagogical Documentation. Is this not in fact what turns our documentation into Pedagogical Documentation? It was as though a lightening bolt hit me right there while she was speaking. I wondered are the Pic Collages that I develop, something with the children, and then tweet for parents actually Pedagogical Documentation? Do I fully understand what Pedagogical Documentation is? Am I making meaning or just capturing moments? I’ve been trying to add more of my theories and wonders to the shorter pieces of documentation I create, but I don’t always. I might reflect on them afterwards – does that make them Pedagogical Documentation? These certainly aren’t all that I do in terms of documentation, but I started really wondering about whether or not I was in fact, engaged in creating Pedagogical Documentation.

What if what I am creating is not, in fact, Pedagogical Documentation? What was it then? Annotated photos? If I am not reflecting and offering my thinking, it’s “just” documentation, not Pedagogical Documentation. Is that okay? Is there a place for “just documenting”? Need everything we produce be Pedagogical Documentation? Is that possible?

This reminded me of Ellen Brown asking the following, and my confident response…

7th tweet

I offered a confident response, but now I wonder, what if that response was based on that which wasn’t in fact Pedagogical Documentation? Would that change my answer? Is Pedagogical Documentation feasible to do in a system where I am required to look for the mastery of skills, where we do have to have the “known” as our lens. Or is considering expectations as our lens a “myth of practice”, a “script for action” – things we’ve always done, but that aren’t necessarily required or expected?

I’m shifted back to the idea of dichotomies. Perhaps there is a time and place for both Pedagogical Documentation that includes my reflections and theories about the children’s learning, and the assessment of discreet skills. Carol Anne spoke about this at the Foregrounding Relationships event, that there are times when we need to look at specific skills, and she gave the example of a student who seems to be struggling with something. Paying attention to that might help us to determine if there is an area that needs to be further investigated or assessed.

Throughout this documentation journey I have struggled, at times, with more traditional assessment, with having to assess curriculum expectations in terms of academics. I would far rather engage in documenting inquiries, wonders, etc. I would far rather reflect on the children’s thinking and consider issues like “where to now”? I have pushed back against documentation programs that ask us to put the curriculum expectations on our documentation.  I think I can finally articulate the “why” more clearly.

I wonder if many of us who “feel at home” with Reggio thinking struggle in the school system and in particular with documentation, because of the difference between assessment of skills and what we are asked to do with Pedagogical Documentation. Is looking at what children are doing through the curriculum lens allowing us to engage in Pedagogical Documentation, to approach our work to look for the “unknown” as Wien suggested. Looking only for the “known”, the curriculum expectations, limits what we will see.

Pat Tarr says, “…the assessment lens (that) asks questions about what does the child know, where is that child having difficulty? How does s/he measure up in relation to a standard or learning outcome that most educators, in my experience, use to view the children in their class? By assessment lens, I include curriculum expectations and what must be documented for reporting to parents. That is not to say that these are unimportant, but they limit what is possible.”

“I wouldn’t have seen it if I didn’t believe it.”

~Fox Mulder on X-Files

(the quote is also attributed to Marshall McLuhan)

If we only consider the known, the curriculum expectations, I wonder if we are unlikely to engage in documentation that captures ALL that a child is, beyond the expectations. The quote reminds me of our view of the child. Our students regularly surpass the expectations laid out in our curriculum. Pedagogical Documentation allows us to capture that and reflect it back to the students and the world. I believe that our students are more, far more, than the expectations. I’m reminded of Karyn Callaghan saying that expectations ask us to consider how alike children are. What I enjoy most about my work is getting to know how my students are different, how unique each one is. Our documentation allows us to show that to others, as a way of honouring the children with whom we work. It is because I believe in our children’s uniqueness, that I see it and choose to document that.

In chatting about this blog someone suggested to me that there is more potential to see the greatness of our students if we believe in it. Our view of the child will be reflected in what we choose to document. Will we focus only on the expectations, or will we set out to capture the unknown and perhaps see beyond the expectations set out in the curriculum? Doing so is a more exciting journey, an adventure if you will, that allows us to spend time getting to know a child’s unique qualities, vs how he/she is like others. I can always return to my documentation and see the curriculum in it. I think this was captured well during one of our #ReggioPLC chats:

8th tweet

As I said at the beginning of this blog, documentation has been on my mind lately. I don’t have clarity on all of my thoughts and questions yet, and must accept and honour that learning to document is a journey, an adventure full of excitement, frustrations, new learning and challenges. I may look back on this blog down the line and say “I can’t believe that’s what I thought”, but for now, I offer my thinking out for your feedback, comments, reflections, connections, etc., and I thank you for taking the time to read this.

How do you make your documenting decisions? What guides them?

Is there something you are wrestling with in terms of documenting?

How does Pedagogical Documentation allow you to be a co-learner, vs someone who has to have all of the answers?

How does documenting allow you to explore the unknown?


Lively Minds: Distinctions between academic versus intellectual goals for young children by Lilian Katz

Using document panels to record, reflect, and relate learning experiences by Yomi Ogunnaike-Lafe and Joan Krohn

The Contribution of Documentation to the Quality of Early Childhood Education by Lilian G. Katz and Sylvia C. Chard (1996)

Documentation: Ideas and Applications from the Reggio Emilia Approach by Gigi Schroeder Yu

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By Nancy Niessen

I had drafted the following blog post but was hesitant to work on refining it for publication. It’s a topic on the minds of many FDK educators but it’s not one that a lot of us discuss publicly for various reasons (e.g. not wanting to be perceived as complaining or negative, not wanting to focus on the problems in our programs, a feeling of helplessness – that speaking up won’t matter).

Today I was at the BECS conference at Charles Sturt University along with many talented educators from across the province. These dedicated people gave up their Saturday because of their commitment to their students and their own learning. I witnessed many acts of bravery throughout the day – presenters talking openly about their new thinking, educators sharing their learning journeys including issues they struggle with in their programs. More than once I heard devoted, cutting edge teachers talking about the challenge of working in classes with thirty students. I decided then and there that the following was indeed a post worth making public. So here goes…

A #ReggioPLC chat brought the topic of courage to the forefront and resulted in us having a chat devoted to that topic (March 24, 2015). In between the two chats I got thinking about courage, not only courage in terms of trying new things, having our thinking challenged, being alone in our efforts to change our practice, but also courage in terms of speaking up and out about what isn’t working. I confess this makes me more uncomfortable than it does to try something new. I can always go to the research, find an article, or talk to a colleague when I want to try something new and am unsure. When it comes to being vocal about things that aren’t working in our programs, and I’m talking about the big things here, I think we have a tendency to be less open about that, and to perhaps discuss them in private, if at all. If we aren’t courageous about the big issues, however, I think we are missing an opportunity, as front-line workers, to give valuable input.

Let me say, before I go any further, that I would encourage you to visit the other articles I have posted on this blog, or to visit either of my Twitter feeds. I do love my job and am inspired to try new things and to attack problems of practice with gusto and creative solutions. I am not afraid to tackle a problem and to be open about things I struggle with. My last blog post, Playing With Time and Space, is a perfect example of how my partner and I tackle problems we encounter, problems that we have control over finding solutions for.

I googled the definition of courage and got the following:

“the ability to do something that frightens one.”

“strength in the face of pain or grief.”

Both are relevant and applicable for me. I am uncomfortable to write this publicly about an issue that many of us are facing that is causing us great “pain” and “grief”, both physical and emotional. It is an issue over which we have absolutely no control.

Numbers, specifically, the very large numbers in many Full-Day Kindergarten classes. That’s it, it’s out, the thing that I hesitate to talk about openly. There are thirty, and in some cases, more than 30 three, four and five year olds in one class.

I confess I am uncomfortable to say the following publicly: it is misleading to say that there is a ratio in FDK of 1:15. Throughout the day, one of the educators is on lunch, with no one replacing him/her. That means the ratio is 1:30, sometimes for up to one third of the day.

If one of the educators is working with one child or a small group, then the ratio in the rest of the class is 1:29, or thereabouts. No matter how engaged and independent the students are, how much they help each other and act as peer teachers, the reality is that the students in Full-Day Kindergarten classes are three, four and five years old. They deserve to have more adult attention. “Get volunteers” might be the solution that comes to mind, but it is not that simple for a variety of reasons.

Another issue with so many active, exuberant bodies in one room is the noise. There, another thing that I am not fully comfortable to say out loud. No matter how many nooks and crannies we create in the classroom, how many soft carpets and pillows, etc. that we add to absorb sound, the noise level with thirty students can be exhausting. Not because the kids are doing anything wrong – they’re engaged, on-task, interested in their learning, and being, well, three, four and five year olds. To consider what we hear in an active Kindergarten classroom to be noise pollution is somewhat offensive. At least that was my first reaction when a parent suggested that term, but consider the definition of noise pollution:

Noise pollution or noise disturbance is the disturbing or excessive noise that may harm the activity or balance of human or animal life…” ~Wikepedia

I know what effects constant noise can have on me, and have heard about the impact on colleagues as well – fatigue, headaches, stress. But I don’t want to focus on that, rather on the students. If we believe what the research tells us about the importance of oral language and play, then we need to let the kids talk, talk, talk and play, play, play. Hollow blocks crash as the students learn about structures and stability. Materials are hit together as students explore the creation of sound. Voices escalate as arguments erupt and children negotiate in their play. I do not want to see an end to this, an end to play-based programming. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. I love working with the kids, I love listening to their thinking, watching inquiries unfold as they question the world around them, love watching them become increasingly empowered as they negotiate their world at school.

What troubles me is having thirty children in one room and feeling like I never get enough of anything done. Perhaps my naivety is to blame. This is my first year of FDK and I was so excited about having the kids for the full day, with a partner. I envisioned delving deeply into inquiries, having time for small group learning, as well as lots of time to spend with individual children, especially those who might have struggles at home and who need some extra adult attention and TLC. The reality is that I have less time now to spend with individual students because of the overall number of students and the reality of the needs of a large group. I still feel the same old feelings of never having enough time to delve as deeply into inquiry nor small group academics as I would like to and it haunts me. I don’t have the time to document and then reflect on that documentation, nor in the depth that I would hope to when there are thirty students involved. I heard these sentiments repeated by others today, by people who truly want to embrace the direction the Ministry is asking us to move in. I worry for my quiet students, the introverts who need time away from the herd – how do/can we effectively provide that for them?

I believe in the potential of Full-Day Kindergarten and am so excited about the direction that we are heading in early years education in Ontario. I do think that we need to openly and honestly discuss some of the challenging issues, class size being one of them, in order to realize the full potential of Full-Day Kindergarten.

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Playing With Time And Space

By Nancy Niessen

When I originally began laying out my thoughts for this blogpost, I was focussed on how my partner and I were playing with time in our program, and the impact that was having on the children’s play and self regulation. However, as we began to make some significant changes in the classroom in terms of where centres and materials are situated and how materials are moved around, it struck me that I also wanted to write about the physical environment. As I pondered this shift in focus, I remembered how the current curriculum document in Ontario considers both time and space in the classroom, as well as resources (materials and people) when it talks about The Learning Environment:

“The key components of the Full-Day Early Learning-Kindergarten program learning environment are:

*the use of space in the classroom and outdoor area;

*the use of time during the day;

*the appropriateness and variety of the resources available, including both people and materials.

I shifted to thinking about the Environment as a whole, but I am leery of people reading this blog post and thinking it is another article focussed on Reggio Emilia in particular. That is not the intent. Rather, this article is about problems in practice that my partner and I have identified, and how we’ve reflected on those to come up with solutions that work for the students and for us.

The Ministry’s Think, Feel, Act video series has a few clips about Pedagogical Leadership. One, entitled, Reflective Thinking. In the video, Anne Marie Coughlin talks about dispositions in terms of being curious and listening to others. She asserts that one of the most important dispositions to cultivate is that of being a reflective practitioner. I am delighted that my teaching partner, @glen_rodney, values reflection and engages in it regularly. This includes asking simple questions like, “How did you feel the morning went?” as well as engaging in more in-depth conversations about what the children are learning when they continue to work at a particular centre, in what ways might we change a particular centre based on what we are observing, or how might we approach situations in the class that have us puzzled and struggling with a question about the children’s play and learning. The latter is what propelled me to write this article.

clock for blog

(photo credit)


I’d been reflecting on the clock in our room, and how it drives our program. In particular, the school’s schedule always seemed to be cutting short the children’s play in the morning. I have heard both Carol Anne Wien and Karyn Callaghan talk about the impact of not letting the clock drive decisions in a program and I began wondering how we might adjust our day so that there was more flexibility in it.

My partner and I were also pondering the Nutrition Breaks, in particular the length of them and what to do with the time after the kids were done eating, when it’s just prior to our outdoor time and she is alone with the kids. Another issue we were reflecting on was feeling like working with individuals or small groups had to be at the expense of being “on the floor” with the kids, in the thick of the play action. That’s where the children demonstrate so much of their thinking and learning. Even though play was at least 45 minutes, usually longer, it felt as if the class would just get fully immersed in play, and then it would be time to clean up. A final factor we were considering was the frigid February weather that was keeping us cooped up inside vs spending the middle block of our day outdoors, as we had done throughout the Fall.

Because of the issues listed above, my partner and I discussed the idea of extending the first play period in the morning, ignoring the 10:30 bell that signaled first Nutrition Break, thereby letting the children continue to play and become fully immersed in what they were doing for a longer period of time. Rather than taking my first Nutrition Break during the regular block of time, I would just take it later, when the kids were eating in class. Both Debra and I felt this would work and be beneficial so I took the idea to our administrator and explained what we were thinking and why. She gave us her blessing to go ahead and try it.

We wondered if the kids would be hungry as they were used to eating at 10:30 most days, or at least getting a snack if Nutrition Break was going to be later than 10:30 (twice a week they have phys-ed at 10:30 so the kids eat later and we provide them with a snack to tide them over). We opted not to mention to the kids that we’d be playing longer, but rather would just see what happened. If kids said they were hungry, we’d let them get something to eat from their lunch bags.

While we wondered if some kids would wander with such a long period of time to play, we thought the kids would be more immersed in their play and would be able to delve more deeply into what they were doing. We also felt it would allow us to work with some students at the beginning of the play period, leaving them with still enough time to get into an extended play time. Some of this thinking was based on what I’ve read and heard about play, in particular the importance of allowing children 45 – 75 minutes of uninterrupted, freely chosen play per half day.


We found that the kids settled in well to their play, spending longer periods of time at centres. We also found that they seemed calmer, not only during the play period, but during the Nutrition Break right after the morning play. Debra reports that they engage more in conversation with each other, and when done eating, are more calm as they are immersed in reading time with freely chosen books. Indeed, I find that when I re-enter the room after my own first Nutrition Break, the kids are consistently calmer and more deeply engaged in what they were doing. On occasion a child will say that he or she is hungry, or ask when it is time to eat. This is easily solved by having that child get something quick to fuel up with. I didn’t think to make parents aware of this change and to have them give us input on any impact on their children’s eating habits, but that might have been interesting information to gather.

We have found this change in our practice to be very beneficial for the students, and for us. On three out of five days our schedule allows us to play with time in this way, and we will likely continue to do so. One potential negative to consider is how extending the first block of the day will impact the amount of time we spend outdoors now that the weather is warmer. The middle block of the day is set aside for the Kindergarten students in the school to use the outdoor space, so we don’t have a lot of flexibility in this area. It seems to me that my partner and I will be doing some more reflecting and possibly tweaking the flow of our day if/as needed.


Our kids love the hollow blocks and play with them daily. Recently they have been very interested in building Bey Blade arenas (we let our children bring their toys from home into the classroom and find that doing so enriches the play and learning that happens, among other benefits). There is great learning and negotiating happening but it gets very loud and the hollow blocks are located centrally in the classroom. My partner and I both want to encourage the children’s play, but found that the high noise level was impacting the noise level almost everywhere else in the classroom. We didn’t want to be policing the students so pondered how to allow the play to continue while also solving the noise issue.

Bey Blade Stadium 2 March 2015 Blog          Bey Blade Stadium 3 March 2015 Blog

We ended up moving the block centre to a nook at the back of the room that has a shelf unit and a small carpet in it. This space also houses the leveled reading books, a computer and a magnetic board. The original intent here was that it be a cozy space for students needing less noise, however, it wasn’t being used as much as we envisioned it would be. Ironically, we decided to move the noisy hollow blocks into that quiet space in order to take the volume out of the middle of the room.

Bey Blade Stadium 1 March 2015 Blog


Both Debra and I find the noise level in the rest of the classroom has decreased, and we both feel less need to police the noise level at the hollow blocks. We had explained to the kids why we wanted to make the change, and they helped to re-locate the blocks. We asked them what they thought of the change after it was implemented and they’d had a chance to work in the new space. They said,

“It’s calmer.”

“It’s quieter.”

The majority of students who offered input agreed with the above, but one student said,

“It’s squished. I like it better over there.”

My partner and I had noticed that the space was indeed “squishier” and based on what we saw, thought this seemed like a positive impact. The student’s comment about not liking how squishy it was got us thinking about why some of the children had chosen to play at the hollow blocks in its previous location. Was it that they were interested and engaged in what was happening? Was it that their friends were there? Was it the space itself that drew them? Was it some combination of these? We started looking at the children’s choices in terms of where they played through a different lens.

Interestingly, the space that used to house the hollow blocks came to be used for Lego, in part because of the child who didn’t like the new squishy space. We re-organized some materials with the children’s help. Moving the Lego allowed more room for play in another area of the classroom. These changes, and talking about the reasons for them with the students, set off a chain reaction of other changes in the classroom, which the children became increasingly involved in orchestrating. They started making suggestions about where to move different centres and materials, and materials they might like to have out, and even centres they’d like to create. My partner and I were delighted by the domino effect that was happening because of the one big change in the room – moving the hollow blocks – and we’re excited to see how our classroom space will continue to evolve, with the input of the children.

Just as I was preparing to post this article, one of the students brought some materials to school and wanted to leave them out for others, “We could make a centre,” and she went on to decide where. This got me wondering about leaving everything, including all the wooden bowls, baskets, containers, etc. in a location where the children could access them. I’m not sure I would do this at the beginning of the school year, but now that the students feel increasing ownership of the space, and feel empowered to make decisions about what happens in it, perhaps this is something for us to consider. We’ll see where we wander next!

RELATED RESOURCES (but a few that have influenced my thinking and practice related to this post)

~From Policing to Participation, Overturning the Rules and Creating Amiable Classrooms by Carol Anne Wien (Young Children, January 2004)

~Learning in the Early Years, Exploring Our Thinking by Dr. Kimberly Bezaire (ETFO, 2014)

~How Does Learning Happen? Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years (2014)

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