Letting My Learners Lead Me

We had the best social studies learning time today! It was spectacular. I know I always say I wish I had a videographer, but wow, I really wish I had one today. My girls were fantabulous — full of energy, passion, and awesomeness.

Let me explain.

We are part way through our super hero unit. We’ve explored fictional super heroes, and created our own personal fictional superhero. After numerous discussions, we decided there aren’t just fictional superheroes, there are also real superheroes! We generated a list of superheroes in our own lives. They included: police officers, firemen, firewomen, grandmothers who get up early every day to make us breakfast, sisters who help us cross the street, dogs who bark at bad guys, teachers who teach us, dads who give us medicine when we’re sick, and nannies who always play games with us.

Today’s topic was  how we can be, and are, superheroes. I planned on showing them Brad Montague’s (Kid President’s brother-in-law) video This is a Joyful Rebellion, and then work on Mirror Messages as a way to give them concrete examples of them being superheroes.

I told them we’d be watching a couple videos this week. I mentioned Kid President and his pep talk for superheroes. None of them had heard of him, so I pulled up a quick photo to show them. They were enamored with his image, the fact that he is a kid, and the idea of a pep talk. They all wanted to watch him TODAY! They were quite emphatic.

I thought for a moment. I wasn’t prepared for an activity for this video, but they were definitely into it, so I decided to give it a go, and see what happened. I asked them “So you want me to change my plans so we can watch this today?” They responded, enthusiastically, “Yes!” I paused, thought a moment and said “OK, let’s watch it, and then talk about it.

OH MY GOSH!!! They got so much out of the pep talk! Their observations, insights, and discussion were amazing.

One said: “But Miss James, we can’t be REAL superheroes!”

I took a breath, put my hands on my hips, thought for a moment, and said “What do you mean?”

She repeated herself: “We CAN’T be real superheroes, Miss James!” and added “We can’t fly.”

“OH!” I said, “You mean we can’t be like Superman?!”

“Yes!” she replied.

As I began to explain that Superman isn’t real, but is a movie and comic book character, another girl interrupted. She practically yelled …

“But they’re NOT REAL! They’re FAKE!”

“Yes!” I said (giving her a high five).

She continued “We’re real, and we can be REAL SUPERHEROES. We don’t need to be able to fly, or shoot lasers out of our hands”

“YEAH!” another said “And we don’t need to have laser eyes!”

“That’s true! We don’t have, or need, lasers hands or eyes!”

Now came the big question. “So if we don’t have laser hands or laser eyes, and we can’t fly, do we have super powers?”

Their eyes seemed locked on me as they struggled with that question. The room was completely silent.

Finally, one yelled, “YES! We do have super powers!”

“What?” I asked.

“We have heart power!”

“YES!! YOU DO!” I exclaimed in return.

I cheered them on as they continued. We have:

  • Big Beautiful Brain Power
  • Our Own Ideas
  • Making Power
  • Kindness Power
  • Niceness Power
  • Friendship Power
  • Art Power
  • Science Power
  • Math Power
  • Loyalty Power
  • Brave Power
  • Strong Power
  • Muscle Power
  • Generosity Power
  • Loyalty Power
  • Creativity Power
  • Honesty Power
  • Helping Power
  • Inventing Power
  • Gift Giving Power
  • Listening Power
  • Thinking Power
  • Word Power

“Wow!” I said “This is fantabulous! I think we have to make signs with our powers. Shall we use big or small sheets of paper?”

“BIG PAPER. Let’s use big paper!”

Of course we had to use big paper. What was I thinking? Their powers, their hearts, their minds, their spirits, DEMANDED big sheets of paper. What else could even come close to holding them?

We each got our favorite color 12×18 inch sheet and set to work writing and illustrating our powers.

After social studies, we had choice time. One of the girls asked if she could work on our 120 chart — we had begun constructing it during math. “Sure! How many numbers do you want?

“Two.” she said.

She took two and placed them in the chart. Then she took a handful. A moment later she said, “I want to finish the whole thing!”

“You go, girl! Use your math power!”


40 minutes later the chart was completed!

We sat and looked at it together. “Wow,” I said, as we high-fived. “That is so fantabulous! Thanks for using your math power to help us get this done.”

I’m sure social studies would have been good if we followed my plan to the letter. But, I’m also sure it wouldn’t have been this good. And I have no idea if this girl would have had the confidence in her power to finish this chart on her own. My decision to allow my students to lead me — to step into the unknown, trusting in them, me and us — made all the difference.

I’m so glad they asked to lead, and I’m super glad I said yes, and followed them.


Helping Students Reach Higher

As educators we often talk about wanting our students to:

  • reach
  • stretch
  • go as far as they can
  • achieve

We also work hard to provide:

  • instructions
  • help
  • scaffolding
  • tools
  • structure

My classroom word wall is quite fluid. Sometimes it has our names on it, other times it has words we may encounter in our various learning units. Once we return from winter break, and move towards spring break, I begin to give the world wall more and more to my students.

In reading they each write three words they want to add to our word wall. They must be words they know how to spell like they are written in a library book.

I’m careful to not say “Three words you know how to spell correctly.” When they use inventive spelling — which is appropriate and important in Kindergarten — the words they write are correct if they, and I, can read them. For instance eat might be written ete. Or, teacher might be encoded as teechr. These are examples of correct inventive spelling, because they follow phonetic rules, and accurately convey the sounds, words, and thoughts of the writer. I don’t want them to begin thinking that the way they write is incorrect, and only by memorizing words, or asking for help, are they able to spell, write, and share their ideas.

In Social Studies, my students think of three words related to our topic, that they’d like to add to our word wall. Often these are words that are difficult to spell like they are spelled in library books. My girls stretch them out as best they can, then we work together to make any needed changes. This gives me the opportunity to share rules, digraphs, blends, and crazy things about the English language (for instance, ir, ur, and er have the same sound!), as well as help my girls find their own errors in thinking, hearing and sounding out.

For instance, one girl wanted to write strong. She srog. We stretched the word out, tapping the sounds – to try and tease out that n sound. She added it. Then I asked her to read me her word again. She read strong. “Hmmm,” I said, “I read srong.” She looked at me with a puzzled look, and sounded it out while holding my gaze. Then she looked at what she wrote and sounded it out again. Finally, she laughed and said “Oh, t! I forgot a t.”

These moments are examples of my students reaching, stretching, and attaining, while I support and scaffold. Sometimes, though, the reaching, stretching, and scaffolding is much more literal.

My students are confident in their own ability to find safe and effective ways to use things in our classroom to achieve their goals. So, they often create their own scaffold, and reach as high as they desire.


But, there are times the height they hope to attain is beyond their reach. That’s when I offer myself as a resource. I provide the scaffold they need to reach higher than they might on their own.


I really like that I am supporting them, rather than holding them. They get the chair. They have to be brave enough to step onto the scaffolding (me) and stand tall. Even though I am spotting them all the while it’s not always easy! Once on the scaffold, they have to breathe, trust, focus, reach higher. and write — undeterred by the distance they are from the floor!

For me, these are all moments of creativity.

  • Thinking outside the box.
  • Being open to possibility.
  • Inventing as we spell.
  • Not being deterred by what seems impossible considering the tools we have or do not have.
  • Risking.
  • Being brave.
  • Giving it a go.
  • Reflecting, adapting and rethinking.

And, let us not forget the equally important and essential parts of engaging in creative thinking and doing:

  • Experiencing joy.
  • Being struck by beauty and awesomeness.
  • Learning.


I never cease to be amazed, and amused, by the imagination of my Kindergartners! Here are some examples from the first few weeks of school.

Every year, the kindergartners regularly take what is, and transform it into what might be. This year is no different. The other day two of my girls excitedly exclaimed  “Look, Miss James!!! CAMERAS!”  First they used them — photographing anything that sat still — then they shared them with me.

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In a similar fashion, imagination filled our space with ringing phones. The K architects and builders had to get the building inspector (me) to come inspect their buildings prior to giving tours. Blocks and popsicle sticks were quickly taped together to create phones which rang loudly — often with shouts of “We’re calling you!!!!” — as they tried to get me to come review their building.

Imagination soars as blocks, objects, and ideas, are combined in new ways to create fanciful builds during our social studies work. Stories, even more elaborate than the building  itself, accompany each new structure  — “In order to get in, you have to use sticky shoes, climb up this tower, stand on the top, and LEAP to the balance beam below!”

They use their imagination as they struggle to understand the new, and its connection to the known. At these times they construct theories as to how what is, might have come into being. While playing in our sensory table, one of them said, “Miss James, did you paint this beans to look like cows?!”

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I almost burst out laughing – imagining myself painting each bean. I didn’t though. Instead I affirmed her observation “Wow those DO look like cows. I never thought of that!” Then we looked at the many different types of beans in the bin and marveled that the beans grow this way!

I always tell the Kindergarten parents their children’s imagining is important. It may be entertaining, but, it’s so much more. It’s powerful and valuable, and must be affirmed, encouraged, supported, and grown.

Imagination enables them, and us, to make meaning, understand, explore, investigate, test, and create new ideas and things. Strengthening the skill of imagining –the ability to think, see, conceive of, and believe in, things that are not before us — as well as strengthening our belief in its efficacy, is remarkably important.  It’s meaningful and necessary now, and for the future.

Imagination fuels our creativity. The great scientists and researchers, trying to solve any of the many problems facing us will not succeed without imagination. They must be able to imagine what does not yet exist — new ideas, new combinations, new structures. They have to be able to imagine a world without the problem they seek to solve — no more illness, hunger, loneliness, pollution, war, hatred, to name just a few. And, they have to imagine themselves conceiving of the solution.

While researching a bit for this post, I was thrilled to discover the article by psychologist Lev Semenovich Vygotsky, entitled Imagination and Creativity in Children. He writes:


Imagination is not just an idle mental amusement,

not merely an activity without consequences in reality,

but rather a function essential to life.

(Vygotsky, 2004,  p13)



Vygotsky, L.V. (Jan-Feb 2004). Imagination and Creativity in Children. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, vol. 42, no. 1, January–February 2004, pp. 7–97. Retrieved from http://lchc.ucsd.edu/mca/Mail/xmcamail.2008_03.dir/att-0189/Vygotsky__Imag___Creat_in_Childhood.pdf





Hinges in Kindergarten


How will we make our own hinges? Hmmm …

The girls and I have been thinking about this for some time now. Last night I ran out to the hardware store and bought a hinge so we’d be able to look at the pieces, and problem solve together today.

Seems we have many problems to solve:

  1. We don’t have a way to screw in the hinge plates.
  2. We don’t have the remarkable stable structure of concrete walls.
  3. We don’t actually have hinges or hinge plates for our door.
  4. We don’t yet have the door completed.

How might we:

  1. Make our door more secure and stable? (Tomorrow we’re going to take a look at some door designs.)
  2. Create hinges, or hinge-like things, to hang our door?
  3. Create a stable structure to anchor our door?
  4. Make our door workable?

When I look at all the problems, and all the how might we questions, I’m a tad overwhelmed. But, then I see, in my minds eye, my girls, this morning.

I told them I had tubes that might work for the door. With a good deal of excitement, they asked if they could work on the door. “Sure, go ahead!” I replied.

When I popped my head in the makerspace, it was a remarkable scene. Four large columns were being constructed by four groups of girls. They were talking, pointing, sharing ideas, collaborating, and working hard. Some were standing on chairs (the door is much taller than they are). Some were straining their necks to see to the top of the door. All were engaged, empowered, invested, and joy-filled. It was AWESOME.

There is hope!



Perhaps you are wondering:

  1. Why do you need to make hinges?
  2. You’re making a door?
  3. Why do you need a working door, doesn’t your classroom already have one?

We are making hinges and doors as part of our Social Studies supermarket build.

More on that later!



Spectacular Superhero Creativity!

The Kid President video “For the Heroes: A Pep Talk from Kid President” inspired me to include Superheroes in our Social Studies curriculum. If you’ve never seen the video, it’s definitely worth taking the time to give it a look! For the Heroes: A Pep Talk from Kid President

We each create a superhero, write and illustrate a 3 page book about superheroes in our own lives, and finally, write and illustrate one about how we are superheroes for others! OH, and we create our own superhero capes!!! It is super fun, and super powerful!

We are working on the first two parts of the unit – creating the superheroes and working on our Superheroes in my Life book.

Here’s a superhero from today. My student’s enthusiastic explanation was – in the best possible way – hysterical.

I really must get a videographer so that I can capture every word!

                                               Super Cross and Super Sister                                                  (with jars of heart and cross power)

super hero blog post

Heart power colors their costume. Cross power is used against the bad guys. Super Cross and Super Sister tie the bad guys with the crosses and fly them to jail. Sometimes, depending how bad the bad guys are, they even remove the bathrooms from the jail! (LOL!!!)

Heart Power is particularly interesting in Super Sister (the smaller of the two figures). The dots on her clothing are actually buttons. She presses them to change the colors of her clothing. If she presses just one, her outfit becomes that color. But, if she presses two or more, it becomes the color generated by those colors mixing.

I immediately noticed the white cape. Though I was curious, I resisted questioning it, or saying “you need to add color to her cape.” Instead, I just let her talk. As though she read my mind, she said (with a HUGE smile), “I don’t need to color the cape, because the buttons on it are invisible!”

I laughed out loud!

Given the chance to be creative, to think outside the box, and to make their own decisions, they do, and they do it really well!




Great conversations

Our Thanksgiving Social Studies unit included a huge block build.We divided ourselves into three groups – those who remained in England and Holland, the Pilgrims/Saints who chose to leave on the Mayflower, and the Native Americans who were here when the Pilgrims/Saints arrived.

There were definitely times I wondered what I was thinking when I decided to work on this project. Many days I wondered how I would ever survive the energy, non-stop conversation, inquiry, work, and overall “mess” of the build. But survive it I did! And, wow, what a spectacular experience it was! My only regret is that I didn’t have a tape recorder running at all times. The conversations, questions, problem finding, problem solving, collaboration, joy, struggle, teamwork, negotiation, and creativity were remarkable.

We read books, watched youtube videos, and talked – a lot! The girls made sketches, as well as lists of things they wanted to include in each area. Then, unable to contain them any longer, the build began!

They were relentless in their work. The energy they brought to it was amazing. We usually worked in 30-60 minute increments, but often they wanted to spend more time, and continued to work during choice-time.

Here are some photos of the final product. They do not do justice to the incredible thought, work, and attention to detail the girls engaged in each day, but they will give you a sense of what was accomplished.

An overhead shot. England and Holland are to your right and include a castle, two homes and three windmills. The Mayflower sits in the ocean at center. The Native Americas are to your left and include a river (with a waterfall), a garden, round house and two long houses. 
_MG_4815Looking towards the Native American build from with the castle.


 Looking at the Native American build from within the Mayflower.


Looking toward the Mayflower from within the Native American build.


The build was filled with problem finding and problem solving. How do we create a rounded structure from rectangular blocks? How do we make windmills? How do we create waterfalls? How do we represent fish in the ocean or rivers? What do squash look like? How can we create them for the garden? What do we do when our people don’t fit into our house? How do we negotiate when our neighbors want to add more ocean, or more land, or a larger river, and it crosses the line into our area? What do we do when our ideas are different than others in our group? And perhaps most thought-provoking – Where do we put the dead people?

The discussion regarding the dead people arose days after learning some perished on the ocean journey. Their discussion was practical: “Nope we do not want to store the dead people where we will be sleeping.” and “Maybe we can just throw them in the ocean.” But it was also filled with kindness and empathy: “Throwing them into the ocean wouldn’t be very nice.” They arrived at their solution after several extended discussions with each other and me. I didn’t offer solutions. I simply encouraged them to keep thinking, talking and problem solving. Eventually they decided the cereal box from our re-usable supplies would work perfectly.


They didn’t only think about death. They also imagined people living – and giving birth! Directly in front of the “going to heaven box” they placed this woman – with her three babies!


They treated the living with the same thoughtfulness they afforded the dead. “Did they have toys, Miss James?” “Did they have dolls?” After discussions about themselves and their parents, we decided they must have had some things to keep the children happy and entertained. They painstakingly created these cardboard dolls.


They worked for nearly a month. When it was time to end the build, they resisted the notion of finishing and dismantling their work. “We aren’t done!” they insisted. I assured them their work had been thorough and fabulous. I explained we would do future builds – both exploratory and representational. Then I invited others in to see the build. The girls shared their work and their thinking as they gave the visitors tours of the build.

Finally it was time to clean up. It was a massive undertaking. But, it was a great part of the process. We had worked together to create the build, and now we worked together to “destroy” it.


Eventually each block was sorted and stored, every piece of tape removed from the floor, each scrap of paper swept and recycled, and each handmade treasure safely stored in a girl’s bag. The canvas is clean, ready for our next creative learning experience! My fingers are crossed we will all be able to lean into the unknown, and experience another incredible build together.