Weekly Roundup: Extended Edition

Friday was a day we've been slowly building up to all year, without even really realizing it.

We followed the creek from the lake all the way up to the waterfall near the edge of the school property. After debating whether the lake was a starting point or an ending point (and ultimately settling on the idea that it was our starting point for our hike, but definitely more of an end point for all the water that flows to it and then "just sits"), we followed the creek's twists and turns, sometimes hugging in close to it, sometimes fanning out as it flooded its banks, sometimes climbing high above it to get a bird's eye view. We "scaled cliffs" and then carefully picked our way back down, like mountain goats. We crossed "snowy plains" and a log bridge. We got a bit scared at times, a bit tired at others, hungry, and thirsty, but we never gave up. With each challenge we were more confident and more determined, and finally, we made it to the waterfall. It took all morning to get there, and it has taken all year to build the strength, endurance, confidence, and trust that were necessary to make such a long, demanding journey. 

After savouring our success by throwing sticks and chunks of snow into the waterfall, and just sitting, watching and listening to it, we left the waterfall a gift - a wind chime that Jorgi gave us - and made our way back to the lunch hall. As we walked I felt really exhilarated and proud of the K-pals, and even though they were definitely tired, I could see the evidence that they felt the same way: they were walking with arms around each other, chatting excitedly, carrying sticks and pieces of bark they had collected along the way. 

Why does this matter? Why is what we just did important? Apart from walking a long distance, what just happened? Even after nearly two years of teaching Outdoor Kindergarten, I still find it difficult to articulate (though not to feel or believe in) the answers to those questions. But here is what I think happened. In following the creek's path up from the lake to the waterfall, the K-pals had a powerful experience with a body of water from which Miss K. and I can later draw out and feed back to them questions or discoveries, and in which they can situate and contextualize the learning that happens in a more traditional (and/or abstract) way, through reading books, or having discussions, for example. Our inquiry into water is thereby deepened and enriched. 

In experiencing some fear, some risk, and in overcoming it, the K-pals also experienced a tremendous sense of accomplishment, and the boost in self-confidence that comes in achieving something one didn't at first think s/he could do. In overcoming those fears side by side with their peers, and by helping and encouraging each other, they forged deeper relationships with each other that for me recalls the depth of friendship I felt with my fellow canoe trippers as an adolescent. 

If we want students who care about and feel connected to what they're learning, where they're learning, and with whom they're learning - which I do - and if we want them to meet challenges with persistence, creativity, and the sense that they are eminently capable - which I do - then that, for me, is why hiking up the creek to the waterfall matters.

The hike was also interesting for me in that the K-pals were showing that, for some of them, their thinking around how water moves has changed. A few weeks ago when we first started our inquiry into water by following the crevasse on the road up to the big puddle in the parking lot, some of the students had a hard time separating our path uphill from the water's path. On this hike their was no confusion about that difference. 

But if we sat down together and I asked, "Does water move up or down?" I wonder what kind of responses I'd get. I've been really noticing during this inquiry that the students are tending to better show their understanding, ask richer questions, and posit more thoughtful theories while playing and exploring, and that when we sit down to "do" a knowledge building circle or to draw and write our ideas in our sketchbooks, some of them cling fiercely to the misconceptions of which they had previously clearly let go through and during play. Over the last couple of weeks, for example, we've been focusing on the question of water's colour. While collecting and examining their samples, later playing in a creek, and then simply closely observing tap water, it was clear that the K-pals were coming to understand that water is clear and that it takes on the colours of whatever is in it or next to it. But during our circle, a few students still insisted that water just is blue or green. It is so interesting how the misconceptions persist, and I'm curious about what it is that convinces each person to abandon what they thought they knew, or what they thought was true. What a tremendous leap that is that we're asking them to make!

Another long-running project that hasn't had had any coverage on our blogs yet is the Pinecone Project. The snow is basically all melted now, but when it first started to melt a few weeks ago, a couple of K-pals started to collect the many, many pinecones that were emerging from the snow. Collecting is a pretty typical K-pal activity, and at first I didn't even really take much notice, but the morning after the pinecone collecting began, I followed those same couple of K-pals as they ran directly back to the milk crate in which they were holding all the pinecones, and I was genuinely surprised at how many they had gathered! My real interest in the answer to that question ended up sparking a totally unplanned (my favourite!), multi-layered (and multi-week!) math project.

First we estimated how many pinecones we thought there were in the milk crate. Then I wondered, how could we find out for sure? What would be the best way to count these pinecones? I proposed counting by ten, and so we went about stacking up groups of ten. Once we had set out all our groups of ten, we counted the groups, and had our number.

That’s the surface version of what happened, but in my newfound spirit of translation, here’s some of what I think was really going on: Asking a very young child to estimate about a large number is asking them to grapple with something that is as yet totally abstract for them. I wondered if there was any real value in it, but decided that the exposure to the idea of estimating in this highly motivational context that had arisen so spontaneously was, in fact, valuable. The K-pals definitely needed to be supported through (“scaffolded” in teacher-talk) the process of making their estimates (“Do you think the number of pinecones is closer to 10 or to 20, or to 30?” and so on) and then we immediately followed up that abstract thinking with the concrete experience of counting.

Counting itself is a very complex activity of which rhyming off numbers in the correct order is only one part. In this case, we needed to manage a very large number, and we ruled out, step by step, counting by ones, twos, and threes, and decided to count by tens. This was entirely my decision - the idea that it is possible to count in increments other than one was itself novel to these K-pals - and I again wondered about its relevance since it wasn’t student-generated. But deciding to count by tens got the task to a manageable and meaningful place for the children. Counting to ten over and over again, or, more accurately counting to four because s/he can’t carry any more pinecones and then realizing that s/he has to go back for more in order to “get to” ten, for example, helps the child develop the part-part-whole understanding of number (the idea that every number can be broken apart and composed of different combinations of numbers) and the benchmark understanding of number (each number’s relationship to 5 and 10) that builds the foundation for future understanding of place value.

Once we discovered the total number of pinecones, we were really excited and wanted to share that excitement with the rest of the K-pals and the whole school! So put all the pinecones back in the milk crate and created a poster (literacy!) inviting everyone in the school to also make an estimate. Later on we graphed our estimates (I won’t parse out all of what that involved!) and then repeated as a whole class the exercise of counting out the pinecones by tens. We then identified the closest estimates from our class and the broader school community, and rewarded the winner with a K-pal group hug!

So that is a taste of some of what’s been going on in K-pal over the last two weeks. Have a great weekend!