Thursday, November 19, 2015

A New School Year, A New Role: Bring on the Media, Makerspace, and Tech

As the title indicates, I have started a new position in my district. After teaching kindergarten for 14 years, I decided to apply for the Media and Tech Integration position that opened for the 2015-2016 school year. With this position, I have responsibilities to work with students in our media center, coordinate the media center resources, and work with teachers and students in the area of media/tech integration. I am thankful that I saw the signs and understood it was time for a change.

I began my summer with the need to create goals so I had a focused beginning to the year. After some research of other media/tech specialist's blogs, sites, and Twitter pages, I was able to formulate a mission for our building's media center.

I knew that I wanted our media center to be more than a place to check out books and learn about the Dewey Decimal system. That is not a life skill that will help my students learn and grow in our world today. The media center is truly a hub of media and tech that can empower learners, build enthusiasm, and provide much more than a two-dimensional education. This belief brought me to research the makerspace movement. There is a lot of information available and I had more than enough to get me started in this new venture. 

I have a limited amount of direct time with each grade level on a weekly basis. This created a situation where I had to be flexible and a bit creative with how I accomplish our media/tech goals in our media center. I am able to combine media/tech skills and standards with the creative atmosphere of a makerspace to meet multiple goals in one session. The ISTE standards were a useful guide as well as the experiences of other media/tech specialists on Twitter. 
We are only one quarter into the school year and I am receiving a lot of feedback from students, teachers, and parents. I am exhilarated to move forward and build a making program that meets the needs of our school. Some of our favorite projects/experiences thus far have been:
3D Printing
Sphero's and iPads

In the upcoming months, we will be starting some inquiry and media literacy projects. I am also hoping to create a permanent makerspace area (as of now we set-up and clean-up after each session in our media center) that will be available for open-use by students and classrooms. The next few months should be an exciting opportunity! 

Favorite Resources: 

Favorite Twitter Peeps:

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Making Learning Relevant: Student Centered Learning in Kindergarten

www.makinglearningrelevant.weebly.comIt is that time of year in Carlton, County Minnesota. Teachers are gathering at our multi-district workshop to share their expertise, experiences, and learning for the benefit of the schools, teachers, and students. This year, my presentation is entitled, "Making Learning Relevant" and we are going to explore the different types of student-centered learning.

While creating the site I will use during the presentation (check it out here), I had the chance to reminisce about some of the past experiences in the classroom and what I have learned from those experiences. It amazes me how the first 5 years of teaching were almost about survival, years 6-10 were about exploring my strengths and weaknesses, and now years 10-14 have been about truly discovering what kind of teacher I truly want to be. I thought I would take this opportunity to share these realizations.

Student centered learning is not just about creating things you think your children will enjoy. When I earned my first masters in teaching and learning, we explored the different types of learners and how to best meet their needs. I was taught that we must design lessons that will meet the needs of all learners. This is a wonderful thought, but what they meant was that I should include different tools and methods of passing information to the student. This somewhat relates to the idea of creating cute and interesting tools for the student, as I did during my undergrad program. This is not student-centered learning to me, as the teacher is still directly in control. Student-centered learning is best completed when the student controls the learning process by asking questions, researching, and sharing their learning.

Effective classroom management does not happen when you control students. This is what it meant for me in the beginning of my teaching career. Now, with the integration of student-centered learning, it means that I will create an atmosphere that promotes learning and permits little time for behavior issues. Sure, there are still moments where a five year old will display genuine kindergarten behavior: feeling angry, yelling, or crying. This doesn't require control by the teacher, but understanding of the development of a child. I really wish I had taken more psych classes in college, it would have saved me a few years of learning the hard way!

Student-centered learning has strong ties to the wonderful world of play. When a student has some open 'playtime' in school, some would look at this as a chance for the child to relax or even goof around for an hour. I would then say that they haven't truly observed what a child does during their free exploration time. Watching a child persevere while trying to build the tallest block tower they have ever seen, I see that they are problem solving, using math and science, and usually communicating and sharing with others. This is exactly how I would describe many of the inquiry and project based learning projects we have completed. When children play, they are exhibiting student-centered learning in its' purest form. The teacher need only provide materials, observe for more teachable moments, and stand back to watch the learning happen.

Not all screen time is created equal. We use technology in our classroom quite often, as it is a great tool for researching, practicing, and presenting our learning. It is not used as a device of control (if you don't finish your work, you can't use your iPad), a baby-sitter (sit and watch this video for fifteen minutes), or busy-work. When we complete research on animals that cannot be found in our own environment, the iPad becomes a lens in which to observe the rarely seen. When we want to create something that can be sent across the world to be viewed by other kindergarten learners, we can simply press a button and communicate with others. Students work together to problem solve, communicate, create, and collaborate on their iPads, which is much more valuable than your typical screen time.

One of the most valuable things we can learn is that we don't have to be right and it is okay to make mistakes. It amazes me each year how long it can take a child to accept that they will make mistakes and not always be first. Then I realize, there are times where my own pride gets in the way of my own learning, and I supposedly learned this years ago. Realizing we aren't perfect and that there will always be someone who can do something better is sometimes hard to accept. In order for student-centered learning to be effective, we have to deflate our own egos and admit our mistakes.

I have learned a lot during my fourteen years of teaching. I look forward to years 15-20 and can only imagine the teacher I will be upon the end of another phase in my career. Until then, here is to learning from our mistakes and moving forward!

Monday, August 25, 2014

My Classroom Pics

We officially start teacher workshop days tomorrow. I was able to get into my room all summer, as we had summer school sessions for kindergarten in my room. This gave me some time to rethink a few things and make some changes. The layout is ready and I am looking forward to seeing the children next week. Here is a look at what I have been up to:

Whole Room
This is the view looking into my classroom from the doorway. It is a long and skinny room, but it has a lot of windows (fabulous).  That means I have very little wall space, but I don't like to fill that anyways so it works well. The four round tables are spread out and the children do not have assigned seats. They like to work any and everywhere; tables, floors, shelves (yes, actually sitting in the shelves). The only things we hang on our walls are the students work and educational tools that are required by our school (oh, and a giant leaf that I got as a gift from a friend). I have found that children are distracted by too much hanging in the classroom, so I use organized walls and greens/blues (found to be calming colors) to keep our environment somewhat calm. 

Writing Center

This is our writing area. We have a bulletin board and white board for our anchor charts and word wall. The chalk table has already been put to good use by my own children.  I try to keep it full of fun writing items. The children tend to use the chalk table or small chalk boards more than whiteboards or paper when given the choice.

Reading Center

This is our reading area. We post our vocabulary words on the tree leaves each week. It has taken me all ten years plus I have been teaching to fill the reading center with books. I am finally starting to feel that it is strong enough to handle an entire class. The rocking chair is for the kids, as we usually have story with all of us on the larger carpet. The reading bins are for reading games for during word work times.

Science Tools

This is the science and building area. This also shows the children's iPad/notebook/folder storage area. We are a 1-to-1 iPad school, which has been a fabulous addition to our inquiry units and reading/math blocks. Our blocks and science tools are stored on the shelves. We bring these out as needed during our inquiry units. The children also take these things out each day during playtime.

Math Center

This is the math area. We have bins for during math workshop and plenty of bins for during choices and playtime. Our yearly calendars are posted on the cupboard. I have really liked how calendar discussions have become much more functional by keeping all twelve months posted. 

Dramatic Play

This is the big hit during playtime; the kids simply refer to it as the kitchen. I converted an old entertainment center into a kitchen, as the plastic one I had before didn't seem to draw the children to the center. I found the table and chairs at a rummage sale, as I didn't have room for a big table. Love all my windows! 

Whole Group Area

Our Smartboard is used often, but we always keep paper nearby just in case. I purchased two, cheap whiteboards to post our goals and the blue chart is for our schedule. My husband built the Smartboard step for me and I covered it in fabric to prevent splinter mishaps. We all sit on the carpet together during whole group times. 

Science Part 2

I do not have a sand/water table because honestly, I haven't found one I liked and could afford. So, I keep a shelf near the sink with bins and we fill the bins with different things throughout the year: sand, water, noodles, rocks, etc. The children can simply take the bins down and bring them to the rug to use (well, they are quite heavy so I carry them). I also have to have our refrigerator and recycling bins for snack. The school also requires us to have our school-wide behavior program (Above the Line, Below the Line) posted on our walls. It fits well with guidance (learning from our mistakes in a healthy way rather than use punishment) so I appreciate how it fits with my own feelings towards behavior charts and treasure boxes (these have no place in my classroom). 

My 'Desk'

This is my 'desk' area. I got rid of my desk a few years ago as it took up too much room. My computer and bins are on the counter as well as my group supplies down below.  I love how this created more room in the classroom for the items the children use. 

That's it! I am ready for the children to come decorate the cupboards and explore the room. If you have any questions/comments/ideas for me, please share. I have enjoyed looking at posts online as they have helped shape my room. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Inquiry and PBL Rock!

Teacher Chemistry Classroom Clip ArtThere have been some difficult moments for me in the last year, as there have been for many teachers. The increased focus on academics and performance at the kindergarten level can make you forget why you became a teacher. The regulations, standards, assessments, and push for children to learn at our pace rather than their own have made me question my place in the classroom and where I see myself in ten years.

Then, there are those moments that bring you back. Mostly, its' when a child is having a great day and you feel you have been a part of that experience. For me, the moments that bring about those feelings of success are often based in inquiry and project based learning. The combination of allowing children to manage their own learning, drive the lessons, and be enthusiastic about learning something new help me remember why I chose to become a teacher. Thank goodness for these moments!

Man Reading With Glasses Clip ArtOne project in particular was a recent project based learning experience. The children created their own stores in our classroom. The learning goal was to give the children an introduction to money (along with several other small goals). The learners created a proposal as to what kind of store they would like to open, created products to sell (we used paper), filmed a commercial, researched the different coins and practiced using them, priced their items and then opened up for business. The children were so enthused, they kept the stores open for a longer period of time than I planned. There were sales when shopping was slow, an increase in inventory when things were flying off the shelves, and even a small monopoly taking place when children wanted to band together and corner the market. The learning taking place was authentic, meaningful, and just plain old fun!

Big Magnifying Glass Clip ArtA second project we have worked on recently was animal inquiry projects. The children have been researching various animals and driving the activities and lessons. I prepared several resources from websites, checked out books from our library, and downloaded new iPad applications. The children chose animals, wrote down their inquiry questions, and started researching. The lessons that developed were created by the students and thus meaningful. This is what made them successful. All the while, we integrated our kindergarten reading and math skills to help us be better researchers and find answers to our questions. The children blogged their responses, shared them with families, and wrote books and poems. The enthusiasm from a kindergartener that feels success from finding an answer to their question is a wonderful thing to see.

So, I will continue to drive the inquiry and PBL projects. Partly for the sake of my students who now have a love of learning. Secondly, for myself. I sometimes need a reminder of why I become an educator.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Play and Standards in a Kindergarten Classroom

I have a wonderful grade-level team and we have great conversations about teaching kindergarten every week. It may be funny stories of classroom events, ideas on how to be successful in the classroom, moments of celebration when a child meets a goal, or the sharing of challenges that we have to overcome. It seems lately, there are more stories of challenges than in previous years. This directly relates to the increased pressure on young children to perform at the highest level possible without regard to developmentally appropriate practice or research.

When I first began teaching, the value of play was well-known in kindergarten. Sure, there were already talks about how play was valued much less than previous years. Still, the curriculum was given to me in the expectations that I would use it as needed and in a way that met the needs of my children. My children received more than an hour of unstructured playtime (imaginative, artistic, constructive) each day. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Now, the same curricular constraints are placed on a five-year old as they are on a 12-year old.

In my kindergarten classroom, I am trying to balance reading standards (both from the state and from my district), math standards (again from the state and district), and the emotional and social needs of my children. I need to include 90 minutes of reading and 60 minutes of math with my five and six year old children. Yet, there are numerous studies that show a play rich environment for our kindergarten learners is best, not direct instruction. Students who are pushed at a young age do not achieve more than students who are given a playful kindergarten experience, it is actually the exact opposite (see Alliance for Childhood and NAEYC). Standardized assessments prior to age eight have been proved to be less than 50% accurate (Alliance for Childhood). Each year, the standards for K-12 are increased and the emotional and social needs of the child are proportionately decreased, despite research and facts from real experts (those with a background in education who have taught for more than just a few years as well as those who have completed unbiased research in the area of education). 

How is a teacher that values early childhood education supposed to handle this? I have struggled with this question this school year and I think I am starting to grasp what I need to do if I am going to stay in the classroom. It isn't a big surprise that we need to find balance between what is required and what we know as educators is best for our children. It is heartbreaking that the two are separate, but knowing that early childhood educators were not involved in the creation of the common core standards I know that this is in fact true. I find that I need to focus more on how I can creatively combine standards and the needs of my children. I know the standards are not going away anytime soon, so I must do what I can and stay positive if I want to continue as a teacher.

Providing this balance requires constant effort, more effort than it takes to lesson plan or assess as a teacher would traditionally. It can be overwhelming and disheartening to have to go through this process. The standards are there and I will try my best to help my children meet these standards in a developmentally appropriate way. This includes the use of art, play, inquiry, and guidance to meet standards rather than a day full of direct instruction. The beauty of guidance and inquiry is that it is effortlessly differentiated and meets the needs of all learners.

As I get frustrated and overwhelmed, I find myself doing three things. I rely on my grade-level team and husband to help me make sense of all the standards and requirements that are pushed on our young children. I correspond with educators on Twitter and follow many blogs that keep me thinking of solutions and help me know that I am not alone. I also keep the words of Fred Rogers in my head:"When we treat children's play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that's to be found in the creative spirit. It's the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.”

"Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Social Media: A Focus on Relationships and Communication

As teachers, we all have to find tasks and objectives that deserve our attention and others that are okay to leave behind. We cannot do it all. I started doing this after receiving good advice at a kindergarten conference about five years ago. The educator speaking (I wish I could remember her name) mentioned that we cannot devote our time to everything if we want to be an effective teacher. If there is an area that you do not find important and are only doing it because it is a routine, drop it. I have made choices over the years, dropping many items off my list of to-do's. One area I have given more attention is the use of social media to promote global relationships and communication.

Personally, this advice gave me permission to drop fancy bulletin boards and job charts. This is not to say that if a person uses these things they are making a bad choice; to each his/her own. These were just items that I chose to do without as I felt they were not important to the children. Rather than a pretty bulletin board full of posters and borders, I use year-long word walls and vocabulary walls. Instead of a job chart, volunteers take care of responsibilities in the classroom and we get to talk about how kind it is to offer your services freely. Now, my extra time is devoted to our classroom blog and social media pages.

The children started writing their own blogs this year. I tried many different platforms and finally decided on Kidblog for our class and individual student blogs. The main reason is that we have 1-1 iPads and the app for this site is very user friendly for young learners. I do pay the yearly fee (without it you are limited to 100 pictures and video). Children at this age prefer to post pictures with their text. This also makes for a valuable portfolio as the children can take pictures of their work and reflect. After the blogs were set-up, we made our first posts and shared them with our families. Most parents commented (for those that didn't/couldn't, I asked fellow teachers to comment on blogs). We also started participating in a blogging challenge with K-1 classrooms around the world. The children were excited to have comments and the chance to make comments on other blogs. There were some excellent conversations and we will have a great reflection platform for the remainder of the year.

Another way we have used social media was by posting to Twitter and Facebook. Twitter has been the best way to communicate with classrooms around the world, while Facebook is the best way for us to communicate with families. We have had several meaningful conversations and activities because of this communication. For instance, we had classrooms from Australia, Korea, and China comment on our Lego projects. This provided the children with feedback and more ideas for further exploration. We have viewed posts about good books to read, games to play, and differences in cultures around the world. This has given us a lot think about. Parents have also commented that they have a way to start a meaningful conversation about school when their children get home, as they have been informed of highlights from the day. These are great tools because I can post quickly from my phone no matter where we are, taking very little time.

The reasoning behind my choice to utilize social media in the classroom is simple: social media tools promote relationships and communication. The ability to communicate both in the classroom and globally relates to standards in every level of education, including kindergarten. There is also a lot of research promoting social media use in the classroom under the guidance of the teacher. For more information, feel free to check-out my social media site. I put it together for a presentation I gave at a local workshop.

We are always looking for more classrooms in which to follow/like/converse. Visit us on Twitter (@Mrslembke), Facebook (MrsLembke), or our blog (

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Why do We Use iPads in the Kindergarten Classroom

I was recently asked if iPads have helped improve student scores in my classroom. My honest answer is, "I am not sure". I haven't isolated data in the area of iPads to see if scores have increased. My gut tells me that children have been able to learn basic skills such as letter and sound recognition at an increased rate, but that is not something I can back with data. I have not collected data specifically related to the iPad for a simple reason. I do not use iPads in the classroom for the purpose of increasing scores. We use iPads in the kindergarten classroom because they empower the learner and in areas of both academics and creativity.

In the area of basic math and reading skills, we use iPads for practicing skills. Not just skills and applications that the teacher dictates, but skill-practice that is managed by the learner.  This is not about planting a child in front of an application just to entertain, but to teach a child how to choose an application that meets their needs. Just as I assist the learner in choosing a book or game that fits their needs, I help them choose an application. I provide choices, both technology-based as well as concrete choices using paper, games, blocks, and other manipulatives.  Many who fear the use of screens in the classroom would worry that the children would only choose the iPad. This is not the case. The children jump back and for between various tools based on interest, their gross motor needs, skills being practiced, and social opportunities with their peers. The beauty of all of this, is that the learner is choosing what to practice and how based on their needs. Learner choice is a wonderful reason to utilize technology in the classroom.

Children in kindergarten are usually just beginning to move past basic phonemic awareness and delving into reading skills. Most are unable to write a legible or decodable word in the beginning of the school year, thus requiring the teacher to assist in dictation when sharing work with others (families, friends, displaying in the halls, etc). The beauty of the iPad is that a student can use their reading abilities and pair them with their speaking abilities (usually much more developed). The teacher does not need to place their hand in the student work, allowing a child to draw, write, and later speak to share their work. This can be accomplished while creating eBooks (I love using MyStory), recording with the camera, and blogging (Kidblog) on our iPads. After a short lesson, I can stand back and let the learner share with the world while only providing minimal assistance. This can become a vehicle for skill practice, creative exploration, reflection, and collaboration. There are so many avenues a classroom can take in the area of learner voice with the iPad, I couldn't fit it all in this blog post.

When I am asked why I use iPads in kindergarten, I reply that technology can empower the learners. I do not claim that the iPad will create a huge increase in scores, as the teacher is still one of the biggest factors to the success of the classroom. To have a tool that allows my learners to share, create, practice, collaborate, and reflect is appreciated by both the learner and the teacher when used appropriately.