Think Space

If you were to ask me about one place in my Kindergarten classroom I could not do without it would be my think space. I look at it as a bridge for my students ability to access the curriculum, making meaningful relationships and learn to self regulate. These are powerful skills I hope to teach each of my students throughout my time with them.

You may be asking yourself “What is a think space? It can and will look different in every classroom. Our classroom think space has a small blue rug in the corner. Included within that space are books about emotions, fidget toys, cushions for children to get comfortable, pictures hung on the wall of all their families/loved ones and small mirrors hung on the wall with the words “You are awesome! You can do it! You are loved.” There is also a feelings poster with children’s faces showing many different types of emotions.

At the beginning of the year I introduce the think space by modeling what it looks like. We discuss the emotions we all have inside of us that make some days difficult. Through situations and discussions I model going to the think space and what I can do with the items within that space. We read texts that are stored in that area which discuss emotions. We also practice calming belly breathes. The main purpose of the Think Space is to go to this space and think about the feelings we are having. It’s a time for reflection and at my age group it is helpful to have the poster of children’s facial expressions of different emotions. I often see children pointing to the poster of how they feel at that moment. This makes it real for my students, almost showing them in a way they are not alone and these feelings are normal.

I always have students at the beginning of the school year who have difficulty with transitions into the school day. They struggle with the separation from their parents or loved ones. The pictures posted on the wall of all the families/loved ones help with this. I had a student every day for the first two months come into school crying. After I introduced the Think Space which happens the first week of school he would come in and ask to go there. I would always say yes. Gradually his tears were less and less and one day he came in and said “Mrs. Sousa can I just go to the think space in the morning right away everyday. It’s what I need.” “Absolutely”, I said. Every day after he entered the room, hung up his things and then spent about 5 minutes in the think space gathering his thoughts and feelings and then started on his way. Giving him that moment and space allowed for him to be successful in school whereas before he would be in tears for most of the morning otherwise.

Not every child may need or want to visit the think space in the classroom. That’s ok. What’s more important is that it is there. In our classroom the children are taught that they may need different things to help them learn throughout the year. They always know they have access to the tools but also know its not something they are required to use.

I recently attended a conference and author, Lynda Mullaly Hunt was the keynote speaker. She spoke of her childhood and how it flows through her stories. During the keynote she had a visual of a blender. That blender is full of emotions and that is where anger stems from. We as teachers need to remember that behaviors from our students are not a direct insult to us. The anger that comes out of a student through unpleasant ways is the blender switch being turned on full force without a lid on the top. The anger wildly spews out for peers and teachers to witness. These students don’t want to be “bad”. They don’t want to act this way. They simply don’t know how to deal with the emotions they feel. The space created in my classroom allows for students to deescalate, learn self regulation skills, practice meditation and breathing techniques.

Teaching reading, math, writing, science and social studies skills are clearly important to me but its also equally important to teach such important social emotional skills. It’s amazing the success students have when they learn these important social emotional skills. I have seen students do well in my room academically because of the think space. It allows them to recognize their feelings, think about their behavior and flip their behavior or emotions to a positive light to then be able to interact and learn from their peers and myself.

I know I am writing this from a Kindergarten mindset but I believe forms of the think space can and should be used across all grade levels. We all know as teachers we have days where we are going through tough stuff and days where we are feeling a mix of emotions. We are human, but so are our students. Give them the grace and understanding they need in order to change their day and be successful and uplifted.

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Dear First Year Teacher,

I often think back to my first year teaching and I’m going to be blunt… I see lots of worksheets, missed connections with students, and an extreme lack of confidence in myself. I am not embarrassed or ashamed by this as I am proud of who I have become today. I’m able to look back and see the learning trajectory from that date back in 2010 to now. The path of my trajectory keeps sky rocketing with force. And the best part about it is that there is no end.

Embrace the messiness of your first year teaching. You only know what you know and that is ok. One of the most powerful tools you can use as a teacher is to become reflective about your teaching practice. Show yourself grace in this life long learning journey. I remember thinking to myself the first few years that I needed to learn and master everything. Yet little did I know there is never true mastery in the art of teaching. How can you master something that is constantly evolving. It seemed as though every time I had “mastered” something I would attend a professional development seminar and realize there was so much more to learn. That to me is the absolute beauty of teaching.

It’s all about the force of your teaching/professional growth trajectory. I want you to find that force within yourself and also within your surroundings. Drive that force by creating goals for yourself for each school year. I don’t mean 10 goals because lets face it, the tasks and demands of teachers is so high that it will be impossible to really achieve 10 goals in a school year. I like to stick to 2 goals or teaching practices that can be added to the classroom each year. Using 2 new goals/practices allows me to dig deep and learn by research and doing within the classroom.

I remember the fear of jumping in to new practices when I was a first year teacher. What if it was a big flop? How can I teach something I don’t really know enough about? These questions are a waste of time. Don’t listen to that. Listen to your innovative ideas, your heart and what students need. I used to think I needed to know everything as a teacher before teaching it, but honestly the best lessons that instilled so much grit and perseverance in my students was when I learned along side with them. They learned very simply that mistakes are ok. They were able to see my growth along side with theirs and it was so much more engaging for my students and myself.

If I could scream this from the mountain tops I would… “JOIN TWITTER!” My new teacher self back in 2010 would have laughed at that comment if I heard it then. I didn’t know the power it had yet. In the words of Todd Nesloney “Don’t live on an island.” The power of twitter is real. “Out of the 1/2 billion tweets that post every day, 4.2 million are related to education, according to Brett Baker, an account executive at Twitter.com.” https://www.edsurge.com/news/2014-04-30-twitter-exec-reports-that-educators-dominate-the-twitter-sphere It is a place to collaborate, learn, and push yourself out of your comfort zone. Its filled with a pool of teachers who want to push themselves on this teaching trajectory each and every day.

Twitter does have amazing benefits, but also always know some of the best professional development can be from your next door neighbor. I have never been in a classroom where I can’t take away at least 5 new ideas that would benefit my students. Visit your colleagues classrooms when you can. Collaboration time between teachers is valuable and essential. I know its easy to isolate yourself the first year or even years after because you may not feel like you are confident to bring any ideas to the table. Find your voice though. I was told recently by an administrator that any decision you make, if its in the best interest of the children cannot be wrong. Don’t be afraid to speak up and share your ideas. They are just as valuable as anyone else’s.

Enjoy this bumpy roller coaster every minute. If I could go back to my first year self I would simply say…be proud, speak up and get off that island! Look for those micro moments with your students and make meaningful connections. Learn alongside with them when jumping into a new idea or practice. Self reflection is the key to any change and growth. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” -Nelson Mandela. How amazing is it that you now have a role in changing the world and our future. Best of luck on your teaching trajectory.

If your interested in starting your twitter journey I highly recommend following: @KidsDeserveIt @TechNinjaTodd @gcouros @teacher2teacher @mraspinall @train_ugly @SteeleThoughts @CRCarter313 @BuildMathMinds

Making Math Meaningful

Tears…shaking…feelings of defeat… pure anguish. Reading those words you may think to yourself wait, I thought this article was about math. Unfortunately those words accurately describe my math education. Good news is that I have grown to love math, but it took about 30 years to do so. I have thought about why my relationship with math has been so tumultuous over the years. Through deep reflection, understanding of my current students, and my lens as a teacher, I have realized what was missing for me all these years.

I’m not sure where this cycle of hatred toward math began, but I do remember vividly staring at a math problem on a worksheet. The math problem and I were absolute foes. Just like any relationship in life it takes time and understanding to cultivate a true bond. My kinship with math was never solidified (well not until adulthood at least) and here is why. I continued to stare at these math problems and loathe them. I would sit and think to myself “Why am I doing this…I am never going to use this in real life.” Over the years math and I would continue to dance around each other and never truly learn to dance together. We could never find understanding and meaning in each other. I would continue to be asked to complete math problems and the disconnect between math and the world around me grew bigger and bigger.

You may be thinking to yourself wow this girl is dramatic, math isn’t that bad. Or maybe you are thinking how much you can relate to these feelings. Whatever your feeling is, stop and think about your math education and how you were taught. That may, or may not have helped your relationship with math.

As a Kindergarten teacher, I focus so much on cultivating relationships between my students. They are working through navigating how to be friends and at that age there is a lot of mediating, discussions, and connections I try and make for my students. Math never had any connections to the world around me. My relationship with math never blossomed because of this. Just like a Kindergarten student would have difficulty making new friendships, I had difficulty solidifying a relationship with math.

I think back to math work problems. Johnny has 9 apples. His sister Suzie came and ate 4 apples. “Wait what!?! Suzie ate 4 apples. Wow she must have a stomach ache.” is what I thought to myself. And that, my friends, is where you lost me. There was no genuine connection of numbers to the world around me. I would continue to learn all these algebraic equations over the years but had no outside visualization or understanding of what they mean’t. Without meaning I continued to think, just how unimportant math is in my world.

Ok, now that I’ve got my math therapy session all out there in the open I want to provide ways that will help you as a teacher teach that little Valerie that is in your classroom today. Cultivate a relationship between math and the world they live in. Bring it to life through real examples of how your students can truly own math. I’m going to give you a clue…worksheets are most likely not the answer. For younger children its through hands on exploration and problem solving. For older students you could ask them to pick a career, hobby, sport or even an everyday task they may be interested in and have them present all the ways math is needed in order to be successful. They could use all the math skills taught to connect to their world. Coding is a powerful way to bridge that gap. It allows students to use their knowledge and present it their way. It will teach them so much determination, grit, and mathematical thinking. Giving children choice at any age is a catalyst to engagement. Allow your students to see the beauty of math that surrounds us everyday.