The Case of the Blank Page: Rethinking Writing in Kindergarten

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while.  Over the Family Day long weekend I was visiting with my niece.   It was her brother’s birthday and the kids had all received loot bags.   In the loot bag was a very cute little notebook with lines on the page.  Let me preface the following exchange by noting  that my niece is 4 years old and an extremely bright, outgoing, capable child.  Here is how the conversation evolved:

Niece’s father: “Show Auntie Jess how you write your name.” 

Niece:  “I can’t write my name.”

Niece’s father: “Yes you can you just did it yesterday.  Show her.”

Niece: “I can’t”

Niece’s father: “Why”

Niece: “I don’t know how”

Niece: She looks up at me and in a quiet voice whispers, “The lines are too small.”

This is when my head instantly went into teacher reflection mode!  Aha!  Knowing  this child so well and knowing how “smart” she is, I was surprised she was not willing to write her name on the lines.  I tried to explain to her that the lines didn’t matter and I just wanted to see her writing.  She refused.  What does this tell us as educators?  Those lines have stifled her desire to communicate in writing.  If I was to infer what she was thinking, it wasn’t that she couldn’t write her name but that maybe it wouldn’t be perfect.  As adults we have modelled the correct way to write on lined paper and children have watched this many times; she didn’t want to make a mistake.

What does this mean for our kindergarten students?  Beginning writers go through many different writing stages.  It is not developmentally appropriate to have a beginning writer practise their writing on lined paper or worksheets.  When we create worksheets that we think will help support developing writers, we can be hindering their writing by not allowing the student to explore and practise on a large blank piece of paper.  When we provide worksheets or lined paper we’re sending the message that their writing isn’t good enough if it doesn’t fit between the lines.  Some students may begin to dislike writing.  To me this is a slippery slope…dislike writing, afraid to take a risk, etcetera.  

You may be thinking, “How will they learn to print if they don’t learn on lines?”  I challenge you to re-think that concern.  The “lines” do not teach writing.  They do not teach the formation of letters nor the writing process, traits, or craft.  Those lines hinder a young child’s natural curiosity to communicate in writing.  The nice “neat” printing can come later…or not, and remember it’s not in the Ontario Language Curriculum, Grades 1-8 or the Full-Day Early Learning-Kindergarten Program document!

I would like to thank my niece for reminding me that knowing our students as learners and establishing parental partnerships are critical to maximizing student success.  If I did not know my niece well enough or if her father had not told me that she could write her name, then I would have thought that she “didn’t know how”.  How wrong I would have been!  Sometimes, as adults, we don’t see the obstacles that we create for our young learners.  Next time you create a “pretty” worksheet or have your students practise writing on lines…ask yourself, “What is the purpose of this?”  or “Is there another way my students would like to demonstrate their learning?”  When asking students to write down their thinking,  provide Kindergarten students with the materials and let them choose the size of  blank paper (different sizes have different purposes).  I promise you will be amazed by what they can write!

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Getting Started with Collaborative Inquiry

This week I had the pleasure of visiting the AMAZING Library Learning Commons at Allan A. Martin Sr. Public School, Peel District School Board. I went with two teacher librarians from Brian W. Fleming P.S. and Forest Glen P.S. Both teachers are in the process of evolving their school libraries into a Library Learning Commons. You may be thinking, “What is a Library Learning Commons?!?” Below I’ve attached some background information on Library Learning Commons. It is taken directly from our Peel Board Curriculum and Instruction Support Services page under the curricular area of Library:

The school library, as a Library Learning Commons
-Is a classroom where students can engage in learning through inquiry sparked by natural curiosity and imagination
-Provides equitable access for all
-Is where teacher-librarians collaborate with students and educators in learning partnerships to support student achievement
-Is a laboratory where students and educators are encouraged to use emerging technology to support student engagement and success

-Work with resource teams, classroom teachers and students to plan, teach and assess learning
-Connect teachers and students to locate and utilize resources in various formats and modalities to support learning in accordance with the initiatives and expectations of the Ontario Ministry of Education
-Support differentiated instruction by building resources, tools, technologies and learning spaces that address the needs of different learning styles, needs and abilities
-Model and teach respect for intellectual property and practice academic honesty.

This was my second visit to Allan A. Martin. The first time I went to visit the space, I took so many pictures of how they had transformed their physical environment. They replaced traditional round tables with “snake” like tables that are often moved around to suit the immediate need of students’ collaboration; they had soft seating for a lounge-like feeling, collaboration tables with one computer in the middle for collaborative group work, and high top tables for sitting or standing…I could go on and on! There are also two flat-screen televisions with Apple T.V. for students to present their work from their iPads or to be used to display information that would traditionally be displayed on a bulletin board. The Library Learning Commons has multiple laptops and iPads that student can sign out for inquiry research, just in the same way they have traditionally signed out a library book. The iPads and laptops are not “locked-up”; students just come and get one when they need it, scan the barcode, and return it at the end of the day. Providing this equity of assess was really important for Allan A. Martin as they implemented Peel’s BYOD policy. It is truly an inspiring space that is energizing and the student engagement is visible!

Learning Commons #2   Learning Commons #1

During this visit we were fortunate to see a Grade 6 Collaborative Inquiry in action. If you are new to inquiry or beginning to explore the inquiry process, some of the following ideas may be helpful. Many of the ideas are taken from the professional resource, Q Tasks.  I ordered mine today!Q Tasks

1. Start with your Social Studies curriculum. Display the Big Idea for the current strand you are focusing on (some might need to be re-framed in student friendly language) and de-construct it as an entire class. Then have students brainstorm questions using a Q Chart.

2. Optional: have students generate “Wonder” questions for any topic in which they are interested.

3. Students at Allan A. Martin worked in Groups of 4 and, after developing a series of questions with the Q-Chart, they focused on the questions in the dark gray area (see below). Students were then asked to select 1-2 of these questions to explore in more depth. These questions became the foundation for their Collaborative Inquiry. The questions generated in the white area became their guiding questions, helping them to develop search phrases and keywords.

4. Students then created a Collaborative Inquiry statement/Question/We wonder…

5. Students at Allan A. Martin searched using the Peel Board’s eLibrary’s eResources. There are numerous encyclopedias, databases, journals, magazine articles, etcetera. This is wonderful because, as the classroom teacher, you know that these are safe reliable sources. If students want to use Google, then they have to complete an “Evaluating a Website” audit to evaluate the site’s authenticity before using it.Q Chart

6. Once students have completed this Q Chart they fill out an Inquiry Question Contract. An example of a contract is in the professional resource, Q Questions. Once approved, each group member is accountable for answering one question to be successful.

It is important to note that, in this Library Learning Commons, there is no culminating task for the inquiry. Think about it; when you are interested or wonder about something, you read/research the topic and formulate an opinion. You don’t always create a presentation or write an essay on what you learned. The process is what’s important here; the impact is the learning. Collaborative Inquiry allows students to engage in work and practise the skills needed for the 21st century. They are answering real and relevant questions in which they are interested, they are working in groups, they are thinking critically, and learning how to communicate with others with technology woven into these skills.

I would like to thank the administration and Mary Jo Wheeler, the teacher-librarian at Allan A. Martin Public School, for allowing us to observe their inquiry program in action! As we co-reflected in the afternoon, we discussed the structure of classroom inquiries and using the Q Chart and Inquiry Contracts to achieve that. We can’t wait to start co-teaching!

Additional professional reading is linked below:

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Collaborative Inquiry Learning in Mathematics

Today I had the pleasure of co-learning with a group of educators from Grades 2-5 at Brian W. Fleming Public School, Peel District School Board. As we continued our learning journey in the effective teaching of mathematics, we viewed a web cast from the Creating the Conditions for Learning Mathematics, a Ministry resource. The video segments focused on consolidating student thinking and analyses. We decided to focus on consolidation because we believed this to be our greatest area of professional need when working through a 3-Part Lesson.

We began by discussing the professional resource 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions by Smith and Stein (2011). This is an excellent resource! We discussed the importance of anticipating students’ responses as well as possible misconceptions (Marian Small’s Making Math Meaningful is another resource that identifies possible misconceptions when teaching new mathematical concepts). This is such a critical component in our planning! Anticipating responses allows us to focus our observations during the Action part of our 3 Part Lesson, and helps us when planning the strategies we want to highlight during the consolidation in order to help students identify different strategies used and the big ideas in the lesson. Listed below are the 5 Practices:

5 Practices


The question posed to students in the video segment was, “ How many pieces are needed to fill the Connect 4 game board?” We then broke off into two smaller groups and anticipated the students’ responses and possible misconceptions. Next we looked at Cathy Fosnot’s Landscapes of Learning framework. This was the first time that I had used this teaching and learning framework to analyze or “notice and name” the strategies, big ideas, and models for organization that students are using when solving a problem. At first, many of us found the landscape or mind map to be a little overwhelming. However, after viewing the video clips that showed two educators debriefing using the landscape, we quickly saw how this was an extremely valuable tool! Not only could we use this landscape to “notice and name” the strategies that students were using when solving mathematical numeration problems, we also thought we could also use it to track students’ progress.



Click the link below to watch the web casts we viewed today.

Creating the Conditions for Learning Mathematics

The Landscapes of Learning can also be found in the Fosnot kits. If your school has purchased this resource, I would highly recommend taking the time to explore it; I know I will!

In the next few weeks, this team will meet again to co-plan, co-teach, and co-debrief a mathematics lesson. I’m looking forward to co-teaching with my colleagues and continuing our Collaborative Inquiry around the consolidation component of the 3-Part Lesson, communication, and the integration of technology using the TPACK framework. I will let you know how it goes!

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