Outdoor Classroom Day cropped up in my Facebook feed last year and I excitedly asked our school principal to sign our school up to participate. The premise sounded awesome, spend a whole school day outside, then document and share your experience to promote the importance of outdoor play and outdoor encounters for children. Yay!
Learning from Last Time...
In 2017 I was enthused but woefully underprepared (no, falsely prepared). First, we took our chairs outside and the kids spent time sketching pictures of the forest and school buildings. This was reasonably successful and fun. Then we went out onto the playing fields and tried to do a WORDBUILDING activity using LITTLE BITS OF PAPER. To this day, I think to myself ‘whyyyyyyyyy? Why, Miss Muller, did you even vaguely consider that to be a sensible idea?’ Within minutes little bits of paper had blown everywhere and nobody, including myself, really understood why we were outside in the first place. Good going, Miss Muller. In hindsight the only viable interpretation of this mysterious choice was that at this point last year I was so unutterably freaked out by my student’s weak literacy skills that I couldn’t conceive of a day without a word-building activity or similar. But the truth is it was nonsense, and how thankful I am that you only have to be a first-year teacher once!
Outdoor Classroom Day 2018... what went down!
This year when Outdoor Classroom Day promotions started up, I was ready. We’d already had a spontaneous mud play session on the last day of Term 3, which was an eye-opening moment for me (and the kids!) I knew that this year I wanted to approach a day of being outside in a very different way. First of all, I wrote a letter to parents asking them to allow their kids to bring spare clothes in their bags on Outdoor Classroom Day. I also warned them that their kids might get messy and muddy (an expectation which they lived up to effortlessly)
The day did not run smoothly, it was boisterous and excessively noisy, I worried a lot about disturbing other classes and preventing total mayhem in the form of mud fights. I encountered discipline issues throughout the day, and I spent the last hour of the school day washing muddy feet and hands in a big bucket and mopping the bathroom floor which was a brown sludgy mess.
But despite all of this, IT WAS EXCELLENT FUN and I am excited to share some photographs and highlights from the day. Some parts went by so fast and needed such a high degree of teacher involvement that I didn’t manage to take photographs, but I still managed to capture some special moments. For the most part, I planned the day according to a few key topics that we’re looking at this term, which are all wonderfully cross-curricular – mapwork, spatial orientation and prepositions. We also started looking at comparing mass (heavy and light).
We started the day exploring the school with a picture map of the school grounds, teaching the kids how to orientate themselves according to a spatial diagram. ‘Let’s see if you can find the hall… the Grade 6 classroom… the basket ball court, etc’. This was in preparation for doing a ‘treasure hunt’ after break. Next we took our chairs outside and played a version of ‘Simon Says’ with a big emphasis on using prepositions (stand in front of your chair, hide behind your chair, walk around your chair, etc). I am excited to see how this embodied learning impacts their written work next week, as we continue exploring prepositions in their written stories.
After Simon Says, I invited the kids on a nature hunt, to find 4 objects which they could sketch and compare. Within minutes they had found some intriguing objects including long reed grass that they waved in the sky and giant leaves that one student wore as a sun shading hat! They document which objects were heavier and which were lighter, but they also just had fun hunting for objects and trying to classify them – is it a leaf, a fruit, a rock a wood?
Our next activity was a treasure hunt. While the children read indoors for a few minutes, I quickly hid the treasure I had bought for the kids (a balloon each and a small sweetie). They worked in groups and each group received a different set of written instructions, that they could read independently. As soon as they had read their instructions, each group raced out of class to find their treasure. By the time I had helped the last group orientate themselves, almost everyone was back in class blowing up balloons and chewing toffees. It was over in a flash, so I only got a photograph of the instructions and map I prepared for them.
After the treasure hunt we made out way to our (poorly neglected) vegetable garden in which one aubergine plant is bravely fruiting its first bounty. We happily observed and watered it and then proceeded to weed the rest of the garden, with the express motive of clearing space with which to play with mud. I poured water onto each clearing and the children busied themselves with the task of getting as muddy as possible. It was both delightful and stressful, as shrieks of delight were interspersed with shrieks of dismay as a few children played inconsiderately, splashing others and even smearing mud on other children’s clothes. Why? Aaaaaaah! In the end, a good dose of bucket washing and a very muddy bathroom floor gave way to relatively clean children, who went home smiling.
Find out more...
If you are a teacher and you haven’t heard of Outdoor Classroom Day, here is their website! If you have heard about it and are on the fence, I encourage you to give it a go, even by doing some practice rounds and trying short activities outside throughout the year before building up to a whole day. And for more inspiration about the potential of outdoor learning, read about the amazing development of ‘Forest Schools’ in the UK and surrounds, where children’s entire learning experience takes place outdoors in rain or shine. In a world where so many children grow up an in urban jungle, inundated with a capitalist, consumerist agenda that promote screens, plastic and junk outdoor play is a quiet but radical reclamation of our human right to wonder, explore and commune with our natural environment.
Read more Snapshots of our day to day classroom antics, or explore my recent posts on education and teaching in South Africa.
Earlier in October I attended a conference about self-directed learning and unschooling, hosted by an unschooling community organisation called ‘Growing Minds’. I didn’t know that such a community existed in South Africa until about 6 months ago, when I first saw the conference announcement on Facebook. I had read somewhere that Elon Musk was unschooling his children and hadn’t given the idea much further thought except to label it ‘probably elitist’. And so I was surprised and intrigued to find it working as a grassroots, community-oriented movement here in South Africa.
I was also hooked by the theme of the conference, which was ‘unschooling as decolonisation’. I decided to attend, with a mind to listen, mostly, and maybe ask some questions. I was ready to feel inspired, but also possibly alienated.
Making this decision was one of the main factors that spurred me into re-working Encounteract and start writing more about my teaching and learning experiences. I knew I’d probably meet a lot of people who disagree fundamentally with the idea of school and its premise of providing education. I knew that some would have views of varying intensity and myopia and that talk about reform in mainstream schools might not be up for discussion. I wasn’t sure where the decolonial conversation would really go – or what kind of room it would really be given. I wasn’t sure where or how I would fit in, or even exactly what my stance was. I have often told people that I am a school teacher who ‘doesn’t trust schools’ but I am also hesitant to condemn schooling completely, because really it is a term that encompasses many possible interpretations both good and evil. Writing was my go-to option for starting to process these ideas and feelings, to start articulating my identity as a teacher (a learning teacher) and defining what felt important.
I always planned to write some reflections on the conference, but I am still not sure how they are going to emerge. Without a doubt, I am glad that I went, but I am also aware that the experience left me troubled about things that I didn’t know I needed to feel troubled about. I went in with a lot of questions, and I just left with more.
And so I haven’t exactly been churning out essays. Instead, I got back to my classroom, spent two exhausted days yelling at kids and tearing my hair out and feeling like a bad teacher. Good Going, Miss Muller.
What I have realised is that I want to at least test the waters of emergent curriculum and child-led learning, especially while I still have a classroom for 6 weeks. Soon the year will be over and I will be saying goodbye to my students for good. Already they have accomplished more than I really expected them to (because hey! this is all still pretty new to me and I didn’t know what to expect or what was possible when the year started). Now I’m wondering, what would happen if I cracked open the core structure of our school day and started introducing more freedom and choices to the students? Already they have unanimously decided that the school day should start with everyone grabbing a book from the book box and reading on the carpet. Goodbye registration period, we don’t miss it! What else will they show me?
To make things more interesting/ complicated, the in-coming Grade 1 teacher is shadowing me for the rest of the term, and I am responsible for guiding her as much as possible to take over my class. Yikes, truly! I don’t feel like an expert, or even proficient. In fact, I feel a bit like an eccentric inventor who is guessing half the time. But I am still excited to retrace my steps with her, to remember some of the highlights of the year,but also the mistakes, all the things I had to do over again or that really, shoulda-could’ve worked, but didn’t - or that shouldn’t have worked, but did!
With all these muddles of puddles to reflect on (in?) Encounteract is set up either to be neglected or besieged by my attentions. Read more about my teaching (and coping!) strategies or check out my most recent posts.
I learnt this approach to observational line-and-form drawing from our PGCE art teacher. My inner art-snob initially bristled at the idea of just 'copying' other drawings instead of drawing 'from life' but I'm now a firm convert. Drawing has a central role in the Foundation Phase with the biggest emphasis placed on imaginative drawing. Children are expected to draw themselves, their friends, families, homes and holidays, animals and adventures - all predominantly from their heads.
Many enjoy this, some don't. Most become suspicious after a while, seeing the world in its complexity, they start to doubt their capacity to render it at all. The 'I can't draw that' mantra lands on the lips and sometimes solidifies in the heart, hands and gut for a lifetime. From what I've seen, little emphasis is placed on helping children to develop the observational and rendering skills required to actually 'learn to draw'.
I have learnt to love these black and white line drawings, because they give my students a way to connect SEEING and DRAWING, to connect their eyes' work and their hands' work in an accessible way. Rendering the 3-Dimensional world into 2D is a truly complex skill, rendering 2D to 2D is complex still but it is also much simpler. You don't have to see round corners, you don't have to flatten the world onto your page.
What I really wanted to say in this post is that my heart always soars to see the beautiful linework many children produce in these sessions, but there are also always students for whom this activity is quite upsetting and even traumatic, for whom the 'I can't draw that' mentality has already taken hold. In considering teacher self-esteem this week, this drawing session today made me mindful of my students' self-esteem. If I value drawing-as-learning, which I truly do, how can I help my students draw confidence from drawing - especially for those whose perception of the world is already one in which they feel inadequate?
If you enjoyed this post, read more Snapshots, or explore all my most recent work.
It goes without saying that BEING WITH my class is the main part of my teaching life but being APART from them is a big part too. Not only do I spend time after school every day doing student-focused work, like planning and evaluation, but I also think about my students and about teaching further into every evening.
But there are also those times when I don't think about my students or about teaching at all. This requires a significant shift in mentality. I have learnt that if I sit down in the evening to do even one school-related task I almost inevitably end up doing a planathon (and STILL feel behind!) I've learnt that if I want to disengage my teacher-brain, I have to switch it off completely.
This all-consuming aspect of teaching has made my pretty resolute about carving out time for myself that is at least nominally separate from my teacher-brain. I cocoon my weekends (well many of them) and approach Mondays with a possibly flawed sense of fatalism.
And then there's actual holidays. Yikes. This one was especially intensive because I went home to see my family. I knew without a doubt that I didn't want to do any 'school work' while I was in Windhoek.
I prepped and planned and generally tried to organise the classroom so that when I walked in 10 days later I'd get a comforting sense of purpose and flow.
Well, my morning didn't really turn out like I'd hoped. Within the hour I felt impatient and frustrated - at myself and my students, but mostly at myself. I did the gaping fish. I did the stony stares. I felt tired and I didn't feel fun. Why hadn't I spent my whole holiday preparing a world of activities so that this day could be lit? Why didn't I anticipate the lacklustre mundanity of trying to get seven-year-olds to listen to me quietly for unreasonable lengths of time?
At the end of the school day, small groups of students darted and drifted in and out of our classroom, as they always do, wanting to chat, to ask me things and to be comfortably in our space. I even got a marriage proposal - well a declaration really.
We laughed together, we hovered in this calm merriment and I thought about how much I'd looked forward to seeing them that morning. Deciding to disengage my teacher-brain is always a big decision. It has a cost, but I have to believe that it also does me good. A pause. A rest... a gathering of other self-fragments. My afternoon was better than my morning. The teacher is back at her desk.
This week I'm writing about internal teacher dialogue and its impact on teacher-self-esteem and resilience. I'll also be writing about writing. A teacher writing about other teacher's writing. Meta. Read my first 'author snapshot' about the awesome CULT OF PEDAGOGY blog here.
So this week was the last week of term and now we're on a 10 day break before diving into the 4th and final term. I wanted to think of a fun way to keep my students writing in the holidays. I can't rely on them having access to writing material at home and I also believe strongly that when children have been involved in the process of making their own resources, they simply LOVE and engage with them more actively.
Enter ZINES! Zines are basically diy books made from folding single or sometimes multiple pieces of paper. They are a whole publishing subculture especially popular among artists and activist but they also have amazing applications in the classroom.
I wanted to design a zine that would allow my children to write some news or short stories during the holiday, including space for them to draw pictures. Each child folded and decorated their zine and then took them home.
Here's how we made our zines!
First I made a template by folding my own zine, designing a simple front cover and drawing 'writing lines' on each page inside. I chose to pre-title it (I called it 'Seven Small Stories') but later in the year I will definitely do more open-ended zine making where kids can design their own zine from scratch.
Next I photocopied one template for each of my students. Then I started directing them step-by-step in how to fold their zines. At each step I went round the class to help children who were struggling. Folding a zine requires quite refined fine motor skills as the paper needs to be folded precisely, so it is definitely a challenging activity for 6 - 7 year olds. Read more about how to fold a zine at this useful zine website (not my own).
...And lastly the children personalised the front cover of their zine by writing their name, drawing a picture for the front cover and colouring it in. I am so excited to see how they use their little writing zines in the holidays!
I intend to write a whole lot more about developing writing literacy, especially in ESL learners AND I also intend to write a whole lot more about how zines are an absolutely brilliant way to do this. If you enjoyed this post, read more snapshots about learning in my classroom!
This activity rocks for so many reasons. I especially love it because it shows the versatility of paper and its potential for making 3-dimensional creations. I love how practically and expressively it allows children to explore line and form, the flat but pliable paper strips bent and twisted into extra-ordinary shapes and arranged in energetic compositions. It is accessible, inexpensive and most of all really, really fun.
This is an idea that I originally saw on Pinterest and there are many iterations all over the web, so it is very hard to tell where it originated. Practically it is very easy to execute. I cut some fresh paper strips, but also collected off-cuts over the months, whenever I trimmed card for other projects.
This was my second year trying it and while it was successful and fun last year too, my impression was that this year my students took to it more daringly, with far less reliance on my guidance. I can't pin down exactly why this might be. Perhaps I explained and demonstrated the activity more clearly? Comparing pedagogical approaches from year to year can be difficult because there are so many factors at play - just having a different bunch of kids can have a huge impact on how an activity is taken up.
It was also interesting to notice a few high achieving students who were really anxious to be given such open-ended instruction and for whom the freedom to play and create equated to a scary uncertainty. And at the same time, some students who struggle tremendously with traditional school work, especially fine-motor control, took to it with joyful gusto.
To me this kind of activity forms an essential part of a balanced early years program and it is especially important because it reaches kids who don't thrive at more structured, traditional school activities.
Read more snapshots here, or explore my Instagram @katiencounteract.
One of the classroom management mysteries that I'm still grappling with like a ghost behind a tangled sheet is *what to do about general chatter* in class. My thought process on this topic always runs on a kind of loop:
1. I don't want to be a dictator teacher who insists on pin-drop silence and believes that children should be seen and not heard.
2. besides often when children are working productively they mutter benignly to themselves, counting out loud or sounding out words because they haven't learnt to do that in their head yet. It's just part of their learning! And who doesn't like to think out loud sometimes?
3. At first the room is relatively quiet and I feel like my strategy is viable. Mutterings and murmurings throughout, it's impossible to tell if there are occasional non-work related conversations going on and who cares anyway because remember point 1.
4. Oh but wait. What happened? Everyone is yelling. Everything is loud. Children are calling out my name as though I can't hear or see them. I see you, I hear you, I promise, but aaaaaargh!
5. Yell yell yell. Insist on immediate and continued silence. Insist again because cause they definitely ignored me the first time. I need quiet in this room! So do they! They need to learn how to work without chatting, don't they?
6. Don't they?
7. Return to 1. But now my head hurts and is this a hamster wheel?
Read more Snapshots here or at my instagram @katiencounteract
Recently one of my students initiated telling her news in isiZulu first and then translating it to English. This variation was very well received and bilingual news has become something of a trend. Not everyone is doing it, but more and more children are trying it out.
In our classroom ‘Telling News’ or ‘Show and Tell’ is a daily staple, an essential opportunity for children to practice spoken language skills and share their stories. But like many children in South Africa, and probably all over the world, School = English and this means that my students are essentially being schooled in a second or ‘foreign’ language. Speaking in English, for many of them, is a huge learning curve.
Finding opportunities for my students to use their burgeoning bilingual skills in class is important for many reasons - from simply validating and embracing their home language, to helping them develop translation skills and ultimately bilingual literacy. At the moment my students have 2 hours of isiZulu lessons per week – taught ironically as their ‘2nd Additional Language’ but if we can find other ways to incorporate isiZulu into our English-speaking school day, I believe that ALL their language learning gets a boost.
Read more snapshots here.
"All right boys and girls I need someone to come up and help us solve this problem. I'm going to choose someone who's sitting very nicely..."
(This is a time-honoured teacher ruse, met with bolt upright backs and gleaming hopeful eyes.)
Ah, shoot. They all took the bait. Now I have to choose one. I have to choose quickly. I've learnt that if I let my eyes wonder round the room too long, the souls of wide-eyed 7 year olds bore into me like innocuously piercing dentist tools. I call out a name and the announcement is met, instantaneously, with a roar of indignant discord. “Hauw, Miss! “
Some objections are quite articulate...
"Hauw Miss why so-and-so"
"Hauw Miss, you never choose me" (Not true!)
Others more guttural. They roar, they howl. They slam their hands dramatically into the carpet.
Tears erupt silently, heads sink helplessly onto scabby knees. Stumped, I hand out tissues, pat heads and repeatedly utter the now dog-eared "You can't always be chosen but I'm sure you'll get your turn soon" script in a desperate attempt to calm the stormy class and prevent total mutiny.
This kind of meltdown happens pretty much every day with my current class and has been happening since the beginning of the year. They’ve gotten a little less protracted and dramatic over the months. The chorused howl doesn’t last as long, there are fewer actual tears. But I still need to prep the children daily. “You know we need to share our turns to talk” “Try to feel happy for whoever gets a turn”. They nod agreeably. I feel hopeful. But the next time someone is chosen to talk or demonstrate knowledge in front of the class the same roar of objection greets me. Humph.
What really gets me about this situation is that it does feel unfair. My students all love having a turn to stand up in front of the class. They love sharing their knowledge, love being picked. Is there something really flawed in my approach of singling out students in this way? Clearly the injustice to the rest of the class is deeply felt, but is their feeling justified or is this just ‘how life works, kids.’ In my heart I suspect the former, but the status quo would have you believing otherwise. Children Have to learn that Life is Unfair (says the Status Quo) Children have to learn that they can’t always be chosen, that they can’t always be heard. What sinister function do these assumptions play in societal power games?
This also bothers me because I spend so much time asking the children to listen to me. Asking for their attention, rattling on and on about how good listening shows respect and don’t you know that listening is a part of how you learn, boys and girls. BOYS AND GIRlS! Are you listening?! I feel like ‘turns to talk’ are like candies and I am the hoarder, the keeper. Greedily, I keep many of the candies to myself, TTT. I use my candies for a lot of good reasons, but I also feel like I waste them on a lot of nagging, berating and lecturing that could surely be better used some way else.
Writing these Snapshots on talk has helped me to articulate some deeply rooted anxieties and doubts I have about my teaching practice, particularly how we share talk time in our class room. As I reflect on these troubling issues, I have found myself being more alert to my own talk-behaviour, checking myself at times when I have wanted to launch into another lecture or interrupt the children’s work to announce something. But it is difficult to self-correct, to have that acute awareness, hold myself accountable, come up with an alternative and act on it.
Ultimately I need new strategies. Cultivating this awareness, alternative-seeking and problem-solving is a big part of what Encounteract is all about. Read more Snapshots here. Read about new, progressive thinking in education that has the potential to challenge the grim status quo here. Read more reflections on societal and political factors impacting education here.
Earlier this week my wonderful teaching assistant left school by 9:30 to take her sick baby to the clinic. In spite of being the actual teacher, my heart sank at the idea of managing the kids by myself.
The day went from bad to worse. I stood in front of the buzzing room of little bodies gaping like a fish, trying to work out how to address the children without simply screaming my head off. Every utterance was swallowed by the din. More than once I seriously wished that I could walk out the room and hide somewhere.
Not only was I struggling to get the children settled, I'd also realised that the activity I had set for them was actually too difficult and this was making them even more restless and disengaged. Eventually I called-in all their books (in the manner of a paper-cellecting whirlwind) and handed out loose paper. We started a new activity where children worked in pairs to build and write sentences, instead of working on their own. It was still noisy, but it was way more productive and by the end of the day the children were actually unusually calm. I eyed them suspiciously, disbelieving. How did this happen?
I am glad that I talked myself through the gaping-fish moments, that I changed my tactics and that I didn't give up. An earlier version of teacher-me probably wouldn't have worked all that out. Getting your ducks in a row takes time and having your ducks in a row is something you can't take for granted.
Read more snapshots here.
A daunted but determined teacher irons out the creases of her brain.