50 Ways to Wonder: Educate families on how to connect with nature

50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the ClassroomIn an effort to bring curiosity and joy back into the elementary school classroom, I decided to start a series called 50 Ways to Bring Wonder into the Classroom. I hope to keep these ideas simple and easy to implement for the time-crunched teacher. Most of these ideas come from other teachers, blogs, and books – so I don’t claim credit for them! Click here to see previous posts in the series. And without further ado, here is the next idea!

9. Educate your students’ families on how to connect with nature.

One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from Rachel Carson, when she says “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder… he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”

The quote inspires me to be that adult, the one with whom my students can explore the world and marvel at its mysteries. I do everything I can to make room for joy and wonder in the classroom. But let’s be real – there isn’t enough time in the school day to do it right. The pressures of academic expectations in kindergarten (or any grade) are way too high to really let my students spend the optimal amount of time exploring the outdoors. I am lucky if I get in 30 minutes a day of unstructured time for my students, plus a few science lessons outside each week.

But this is where I turn to my students’ families – after all, they are the ones who spend the most significant amount of time with their children, long after the kindergarten year is over. Why not help them learn to bring joy and wonder into their children’s lives? Yes, families are busy, and many may not be receptive to pushes from their child’s teacher to find time for playing outside. But I believe strongly in the importance of connecting children with nature, so it’s worth every attempt at involving my students’ families to do just that.

There are lots of ways to involve families. I run the garden committee at my school, which has parents and community members on board for planting and growing the garden. We also encourage parents to adopt the garden for a week in the summer, bringing their children with them to weed and harvest during the non-school season.

nature parent books

If you don’t have a garden, consider purchasing books that parents can borrow. I recently read How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature by Scott D. Sampson, and LOVED it. It’s filled with ideas for how parents can help their children at each stage of growth (early childhood, middle childhood and adolescence) become enamored by the natural world. He gives ideas for how parents can become “nature mentors” (like Rachel Carson advises), addresses the paradox of technology and the outdoors, and lists tons of other resources for parents and caregivers.

Another good resource is the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. He outlines the research behind the dramatic drop in time spent outdoors, and why it’s bad for children’s health and futures. This one is a little gloomier than How to Raise a Wild Child, but it’s become a classic for parents and teachers who are worried about their children’s connection to nature.

There are also TONS of resources available online, and I sometimes print this and attach them to my weekly family newsletter. Here are just a few you could include:

These conversations might be hard to have at first, since parents are often worried about a myriad of things besides getting their kids outdoors more. But I believe it will help enormously to encourage parents in your mission to bring more joy and wonder into the lives of your students. Make sure to tell parents that they don’t need to be nature experts to take their kids outdoors – it’s less important to name all the plants on your hike, and more important that you are going on a hike together.

Inspiration for the week

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I woke up this morning full of excitement for my upcoming nine days of freedom (aka spring break!). And for some reason, even though it’s only just turned to spring, I couldn’t get summer plans out of my head. There’s so much I could possibly do this summer. There’s a master naturalist course I want to take, plus a yoga teacher training I got accepted to (!), as well as my summer grad school classes, some science-related professional development stuff through my school, and my summer job at the nature center. Plus J and I are hoping to take a trip to California to see the redwoods and Big Sur (!!).

So much to choose from, which is an awesome problem to have. But it seems as always that I’m taking on too much and won’t be able to do it all without being a crazy busy crazy person. And summer is definitely NOT the time for being a crazy busy crazy person. It’s supposed to be my season of relaxation.

So I’ll have to do some thinking and schedule-balancing, and probably let a few of those things go for now. I need to get better at remembering my intention to simplify my life. To help me remember, I decided to put together a few links on intentional living for your viewing pleasure…

Why saying you want change is not enough. A conversation in this article, that his mentor has about truly wanting something, really rang true for me. I keep saying I want a simpler life, or enough money to travel, or more time to read, or to learn how to rock climb better. But I don’t realign my priorities to make sure I do it.

A mentor of mine was interacting with a gentleman older than me when the man made this statement, “I want to buy a Corvette.”

My mentor responded to his desire quite frankly, “No you don’t.”

“What do you mean? Of course I do. I’d like to own a Corvette.”

My mentor responded with words I have never forgotten, “No, you don’t really want to buy a Corvette. You see, if you really wanted to buy a Corvette, you could buy a Corvette. You could sell your home and maybe also your business. Then, you would have enough money to buy a Corvette. You say you want to own a Corvette… but if you really wanted to buy a Corvette, you’d be changing your life to do exactly that.”

Amazing new podcast discovery! It’s called Running on Om, and it’s all about the mind/body/soul connection between running, yoga, mindfulness, and intention. How did I function without this podcast until now?

I think making avocado toast every night could simplify my life.

The secret to having a simplified schedule. Something I need to work on.

A book I got and a book I would like to get.

I was trying to avoid the major fad that is the Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, because I’m freakishly organized already and don’t need to be pushed any further in that direction. But then a good friend of mine convinced me to look at how the book recommends you get rid of possessions – by asking the question “Does this spark joy?” It seems silly, because items in your house don’t really spark joy. But I looked at my closet with the lens of “does this piece of clothing make me feel joyful?” If the answer was no, I got rid of it. If the answer was “well I might wear this someday” or “I really like this color” or “I paid a lot for this dress,” I still got rid of it. Lo and behold, I got rid of about one-fourth of my clothes in 15 minutes. It was awesome.

Mindfulness in the classroom: Mindful Moments

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You guys you guys, I discovered the best thing!! I’ve been trying to figure out practical, not-overwhelming-or-hard-or-time-consuming ways to bring mindfulness into my classroom, and when I came across this artist, I realized it was made just for me. Or so I’d like to believe. Anyway, her name is Kira Willey, and she is a singer/songwriter and yoga person who wanted to bring more mindfulness into kids’ lives. She has lots of albums filled with beautiful yoga-for-kids songs, but my absolute favorite is her new one, Mindful Moments for Kids. I highly recommend you get it.

mindful moments album cover

The songs are about a minute long, and have names like “Candle Breath,” “Imagine You’re a Tree,” and “Be a Bumblebee.” They give short and simple directions for calming your body, breathing in and out deeply (sometimes like a bumblebee, sometimes like you’re blowing out a candle), and centering your mind. The fun instructions (“pretend you’re holding a cup of hot cocoa…take a small sip and say mmmmm as you breathe out”) completely captivate my kids, and the songs get even the squirreliest bunch of kindergarteners to calm down and focus. The album has 32 different songs on it, so the kids always have a lot to choose from.

I especially like doing them when the class comes to the rug. If you think about it, transition times like coming to the rug are a really good time to take a minute for mindfulness. I realized recently that I don’t allow my kids to have slow transitions from one thing to the next. When writing time is wrapping up, I say “okay time to come to the rug for science” and expect them to be cleaned up, seated and quiet within minutes. We rush our kids from subject to subject, from room to room, from area to area. But sometimes they need time to refocus on the new topic at hand, or the new role they are expected to play (before I was a writer, now I am a scientist). These mindful moments from Kira Willey are a perfect way to help them do just that.

Inspiration for the week

inspiration for the week

Spring is coming! I’ve decided (even though I realize my confession borders on sacrilege, given the popularity of fall in the collective minds of millennials) that spring is my favorite season. Nothing gets me more excited about life than hearing that first mourning dove, watching snow melt from the branches, and feeling the warm spring sunshine on my face. So happy spring, and enjoy some links that have inspired me this week!

Self-care is something that I know teachers don’t prioritize nearly enough: Experts share their tips on how you can be kinder to yourself.

Homemade almond milk. My bf makes this every week, and it’s always more delicious than the store-bought kind. Given how much I use each week for breakfasts, I should probably start making it too.

I sent this to one of my busy momma friends, about giving yourself some space, a moment of peace, which women don’t do often enough.

Along those same lines, you can’t read, watch and do everything (but I’m always guilty of trying).

And last, a super interesting article that gives another reason why poverty is a barrier to healthy eating habits. Children need to try a new food at least 8 times before they learn to like it – and if you’re strapped for cash, why would you bother buying a food that you know your child will reject 8 times in a row? Wasting food is not an option in many families, so kids don’t get enough chances to try new fruits and vegetables. Enter…the school system! Just another reason why we should systematically educate kids on healthy eating habits in schools.

Raising race conscious children: having tough conversations

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I have a new blog obsession, one that was recommended to me by Families for Justice, a local group I started working with to bring conversations about race to our community. The blog is called Raising Race Conscious Children, and is one of the best resources I’ve come across for learning how to talk about race, gender, and sexuality with young children. While I’m not a parent, I do, in a sense, have kids – my kindergarten students, every day for eight hours, all year long. Tough conversations arise when I spend time with my kids, and I’ve started going to this blog for inspiration and advice on how to work through these tough conversations.

The blog authors publish articles on all sorts of topics that arise when you spend time with young children, such as “Momma, why aren’t there more boy teachers?” and “Black is not a bad word: Why I don’t talk in code with my children.

For example, check out this post on what happened when the author’s seven-year-old daughter encountered an act of sexism on her soccer team. A boy cut in front of her in line and said boys should go first. He also later told her it would be embarrassing if a girl beat a boy while playing soccer. Her daughter got upset and told him it wasn’t nice.

On the way home, instead of shying away from the topic, her mom asked her daughter to explain what happened, and told her she was proud of her for standing up for herself. But the mom felt some unease when she realized that she didn’t explain the root cause of this interaction – that the boy wasn’t just being mean, he was being sexist.

So that night, the author “circles back” and brings it up with her daughter again. She does some courageous things in the conversation, including defining the word “sexism” for her daughter, and explaining that this probably won’t be the last time she’ll face a situation like this.

And instead of being fearful or upset, her daughter responds with courage too, and connects it to Rosa Parks standing up for what she believed in.

The author’s experience was a powerful one, and confirms my belief that we need to talk about these issues with our young children, instead of pretending that they’ll go away if we ignore them long enough. The conversations are tough, but necessary, for bringing social justice transformation to our families, classrooms, and communities.

My favorite line from the article:

“I don’t know if I found the right line that day, but I definitely grew. I grew in respect for my daughter and her ability to analyze what’s really going on. And I grew in my clarity that supporting our children in naming the truth of their own experiences isn’t likely to make them small or afraid. It’s much more likely to make large and courageous their capacity to act with agency in the world.”

What happened when I defined sexism for my daughter

A few words on the importance of play

importance of playIn my grad class we’ve been doing some readings about the importance of Socratic questioning in education. While I was initially turned off by the topic (what does Socrates have to do with teaching five-year-olds?), it turns out to be really relevant to teaching kindergarten. Socrates viewed inquiry and investigation as the best way to learn, as opposed to passive accumulation of skills and knowledge. I’ve long been an advocate for more play in the classroom, and it turns out that even 300 years ago, educators saw play as the best way for young children to learn. Check this out, from Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (emphasis my own):

German educator Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) conducted reforms of early education…that have changed the way young children in virtually all of the world’s countries begin their schooling. For Froebel was the founder and theorist of the “kindergarten,” the year before “regular” schooling begins in which children are gently encouraged to expand their cognitive faculties in an atmosphere of play and affection, and one that, in a Socratic spirit, emphasizes children’s own activity as the source of their learning.

Froebel intensely disliked traditional models of education that viewed children as passive vessels into which the wisdom of the ages would be poured. He believed that education should focus on eliciting and cultivating the child’s natural abilities through supportive play. The idea of the kindergarten is just this idea of a place where one learns and unfolds through play.

Modern kindergartens…[retain] the core idea that children learn to unfold themselves by active thought, reciprocity, and the active manipulation of objects…Children all over the world today owe much to his contribution, since the idea of a type of early education through play in an environment of sympathy and love has created kindergartens more or less everywhere.

So awesome! Kindergarten should still be about playing! Except the author goes on to say…

This healthy idea is under pressure in our world, as children are pressed to drill at skills earlier and earlier in life, often losing opportunities to learn through relaxed playing.

It’s true. So much of my kindergarteners’ day is NOT playing, and is instead structured learning experiences to make sure they acquire a set of skills that in order to be “college and career ready” (at age six!). Ugh.

What that means for me is that I’m going to cling to that 30 minutes of free play time in my schedule every day, and not feel guilty if I expand it.

Mindfulness in the classroom: it starts with the teacher

mindfulness in the classroom

This school year has been harder than most for me. I have a big class, lots of kids with lots of needs, and I feel like I’m constantly stressed out. For some reason, the pressures of teaching and taking care of my students, plus adhering to all the other expectations that come with teaching in an elementary school these days, have left me feeling exhausted – even more exhausted than a normal kindergarten year. I’ve had more moments of disillusion this year than I have in the past (Am I really cut out for being a teacher? Am I losing my ability to be patient with my kids? Should I find another profession?)

It’s led me to a lot of soul searching. After lots of journaling, talking with colleagues, and reflecting, I’ve concluded is that yes, I still want to be a teacher, and am as dedicated as ever to teaching and reaching my students. But it’s been quite a while since I’ve been able to step back and deeply appreciate those beautiful moments that come with teaching young children. Their sense of wonder, the joy they bring to the smallest of tasks, the lessons they teach me about happiness and humanity.

What I need are more strategies for making my days slower, happier, more joyful. Yes, stress will always be part of teaching. But if I learn how to manage this stress in a way that’s healthy for both me and my students, I know that my days will be more joyful, and peaceful, again.

After lots of reading, I’ve figured out a potential strategy for managing this stress. Enter: mindfulness! I feel lucky to have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon that is circulating the teaching field these days. Mindfulness in the classroom is a subtle but powerful concept that has brought hope back to the way I think about teaching. Our district requires us to do a professional development project each year, so I decided to take on mindfulness as my project this year. I plan to study mindfulness for teachers, students, and the curriculum – and share what I learn here.

The first lesson I’ve learned seems to be the most important: You can’t teach mindfulness to your students without practicing mindfulness in your life first.

Yoga, meditation, and journaling are all habits I use to bring more mindfulness into my life. Others use running, biking, walking, or restorative breathing. I’ve also heard of people who write a word like “awareness,” or a mantra like “breathe and let go,” on a stone, and put it on their desk in their classroom. This reminds them to take a pause and notice their body, notice how they are feeling, notice what they need to recenter themselves.

My favorite resources for learning the basics of mindfulness in the classroom, and how to adapt it in your own life first, are listed below.

Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness In and Out of the Classroom by Meena Srinivasan

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This book is written by a former teacher from India who now works on social-emotional development in the States. I love her short, informative chapters, her stories of the classroom, and her straightforward advice on bringing mindfulness into your life. She also provides an entire unit (geared towards 6th grade but adaptable for other ages) on mindfulness that would be perfect for the beginning of the year. I loved this book and it only took me about a week to read it.

Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom, by Patricia A. Jennings

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This book was a longer read, and full of tons of strategies and habits for adapting more mindfulness into your life and classroom. This is a good one to read after you’ve had a basic introduction (maybe from the previous book I mentioned). The author really emphasizes how teaching is an emotional profession, much more than most jobs, and the stress level can be very high – and mindfulness strategies can really target the emotional stress that teachers experience every day.

The Way of Mindful Education: Cultivating Well-Being in Teachers and Students, by Daniel Rechtschaffen

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I have to admit I haven’t read this one yet! It’s got a long waiting list at the library, so I’ll get to it eventually! The author is pretty well known in the field as a mindfulness educator, and I’ve heard a few interviews with him (including this one from the podcast Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science – another awesome resource for learning more). I have no doubt it’ll be a good resource.

Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn

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This was my first introduction to meditation and mindfulness. The author is well-known as one of the first to bring mindfulness meditation to a larger Western audience. The book is really easy to read, with short chapters that give lots of practical advice on how to develop a mindfulness practice. He has tons of other books, but this one is a sufficient introduction to developing the habit. It’s also really cheap and you can often used copies at thrift stores!

Next week I’ll share some of my tips on how to teach mindfulness to your students. And eventually I hope to share what I learn about the benefits of mindfulness and working towards a more peaceful classroom. Thanks for reading!

photo credit

Inspiration for the week

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Well here we are at the end of 2015. It hardly seems like winter, let alone a few days before Christmas, due to the fact that it’s pouring with rain virtually everywhere in the midwest. But I’m still doing my end-of-the-year stuff, including reflecting on the year that has passed, and recovering from an intense semester in the kindergarten classroom. Hoorah for winter break, and year-end thoughtfulness. Here are some links for to help you along in your New Years reflections:

A year-long adventure in saying no to self-improvement.

A hilarious guided meditation. I’m trying to weave more meditation into my life, because my stress level has been chaotic this year. This video is perfect, and I want to watch it every day.

Along the same lines of being mindful, the broken promise of multi-tasking.

Essential Zen Habits. A book to get.

The best folk albums of 2015.

Teach Breathe Learn. I just got this book, on teaching mindfulness in the classroom. I haven’t read it yet, but it looks promising.

Maria Popova’s bookshelf! She writes Brain Pickings, one of my all-time favorite things to read on the internet. And here are all of her book recommendations in one place. Guess we know where all my tax return money will go…

And last certainly not least, Unraveling the Year Ahead: the workbook. My favorite way to set my intentions for next year.

On talking about race in kindergarten: Children’s books to read

One of my main goals as a kindergarten teacher is to help my students be comfortable in their own skin (literally and figuratively). Thus, every year we talk about race. To be more accurate, we talk about skin color. I am a big proponent of having this conversation with young children, because as research shows, kids notice it already. While many adults want to pretend that they “don’t see color,” kids already begin to notice differences in skin color when they are infants. I believe it’s important to discuss and explore our differences, instead of focusing only on how we are all the same. So every year, I teach an All About Me unit that includes discussions and explorations of our skin color.

To jumpstart these conversations, I read aloud many of the great children’s books that have been written about race and skin color. I decided to compile a list of the books that I find most helpful, because every year I go back to try to find them. I encourage you to read them with your students, or purchase them for your home! (And for more information on what we do after reading the books, click here or here.)

Books on Race

  1. Happy to Be Nappy by bell hooks
  2. Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children by Sandra Pinkney
  3. Chocolate Me! by Taye Diggs
  4. I Like Myself! by Karen Beaumont
  5. I Love My Hair! by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley
  6. The Colors of Us by Karen Katz
  7. Skin Again by bell hooks
  8. A Rainbow All Around Me by Sandra Pinkney
  9. Shades of People by Shelley Rotner
  10. Black is Brown is Tan by Arnold Adoff
  11. All the Colors We Are by Katie Kissinger
  12. It’s Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr
  13. The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler
  14. Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester
  15. I Am Latino: The Beauty in Me by Sandra Pinkney
  16. Colors of Me by Brynne Barnes

Inspiration for the week

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Some links to inspire on this beautiful fall day!

On summer’s departure. But autumn in the midwest, how do I love thee.

I may have already linked to this once, but I listened to the unedited version of Mary Oliver’s interview on the On Being podcast. She’s pretty amazing.

We are becoming the phone people! Yuck.

I really want to try making apple cider kombucha.

Speaking of fermented things, I follow this fermentation blog, Phickle, and would love to get her new book Ferment Your Vegetables!

Textbooks whitewashing history. No surprise there.

I don’t know much about this yet, but apparently Obama wants students to stop taking unnecessary tests. Heck yes.

I love this blog written by an American teacher who moved to Finland. He had an article in the Atlantic a while back which is how I found out about it. But I like his most recent post a lot as well: Finland’s teachers – with less stress and more time – collaborate naturally. My favorite line? “Collaboration is virtually impossible when teachers are overwhelmed.” My second favorite line? “Teachers need many opportunities to work together, and a lighter teaching load to maximize the time they spend together.” AMEN!

And for celebrating fall with your students…the Ultimate List of Books that Inspire Nature Explorations.