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Emily Caruso Parnell | @teachontheverge

Emily Caruso Parnell | @teachontheverge

Emily Caruso Parnell is the Kindergarten Program Consultant in the Rainbow District School Board in Northern Ontario. Since beginning her teaching career in 2001, she has taught all grades from Kindergarten to Grade 12. She has taught in public, private, and independent schools. Emily is also a dance educator who holds an MA in Dance from the University of North Carolina Greensboro as well as a Bachelor of Education from the University of New Brunswick, an HBA from York University and is a Registered Teacher of the Royal Academy of Dance. Emily is also a student in the Ed.D program in Distance Education at Athabasca University. 

Posted by on in Education Leadership

We only have a few days left.  Every day we're counting down, using our ten frames: 18, 17, 16 days left. 
Some kids are getting a little clingy, wanting to be attached to us all the time and I wonder whether, for some, summer will bring happy days of outside play, sticky fingers, and wet bathing suits or whether they will long for the first day of school in September.  We send them out into the void at this time of year and, while for teachers (and probably most students) the countdown fills us with heady anticipation, there are always a few students who give me pause, who make me wonder about changing the school calendar, and for whom I wish I could provide more than the ten months we're allotted.

This year, I'm feeling even more nostalgic as I'm also counting down the last few days of my career as a classroom teacher, for the time being at least.  Over the next four years I'll be in a leadership role, spearheading and championing Arts Education in our region.  While I'm unbelievably excited about this opportunity, I'm also a little, as Mike Myers used to say, verklempt.  There is something powerful about being a classroom teacher; you are so close to the action.  You get to know the kids so well and are able to respond to their needs with such immediacy that you can really make change.  You don't have to look at big data sets to know what your students need;  they're yours, by the time the data is processed, you've already made your move. 

There is positional power in leadership roles.  There is the power of influence, of building relationships, of cultivating curiosity and commitment among teachers.  You can build a team of passionate individuals who are invested in shifting the paradigm.  You have the ability to make big changes; I've seen it happen.  There is the advantage of being slightly apart from the fray, allowing you some space and time to think about the issues without having to worry about collecting pizza money or wiping noses.  But there isn't the ability to turn on a dime, to decide that no, we won't be doing that today because the kids are engrossed in their work so we're going to stick with that.  The maneuverability and responsiveness of a classroom teacher are unparalleled.  The intimacy of a classroom, the ragged messiness of it, is both the reason why teaching is so exhausting and why its so rewarding. 

And I'm watching it walk away.

Every day, every square on the ten frame, brings me a little closer to the innevitable goodbye.

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Posted by on in Early Childhood

My son started reading last week.  Just like that - one day he wasn't and the next day he was... fluently.

Now, you may not consider this too spectacular, after all he's six, almost seven.  Maybe you're thinking that it's about time he started to read, already. 

But here's the piece I left out: he goes to school in French; he's only ever been taught to read in French.  No one has taught him to read in English and yet last week, he suddenly started to.  He's also learning to read and write in Hebrew so we might assume that there would be a bit of a first language lag but no, he started picking up English books and reading them, just like that.

Another funny thing happened.  Today, one of our students, who had yet to express an interest in our classroom architecture project, decided she wanted to build something.  As the project's been winding down, we've gotten a little short on cardboard for our 3-D sketches so we had to scramble to get some materials for her.  The building started out quite predictably: four tall walls attached to a base.  Then the question of a roof came up. What kind of roof did she want?  I was working with another student at the time and got to listen in on her conversation with my colleague. 

"I want it like this" - placing her fingertips together with her wrists pointing up.

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Posted by on in Education Policy

This past summer I stumbled upon Glenn Beck's book Conform: Exposing the Truth About Common Core and Public Education.  Now, I'm not a fan of Beck or his politics and I hadn't, until that point, been paying much attention to the Common Core debate in the United States.  But, having done all of my graduate and some of my undergraduate work South of our border, I maintain an interest in how the American system is faring as it is buffeted by more storms than I can wrap my head around.  When I started my Master's degree, the impacts of No Child Left Behind were beginning to be felt and my fellow students had to explain to me that "school of choice" wasn't, as I'd assumed, a good thing.  I prefer Ken Robinson's name for it: Millions of Children Left Behind.

Reading Beck's book, I found myself amazed at how someone who I think of as an extreme conservative could be just as opposed to Common Core as a person on the other end of the political spectrum - someone like Teacher Tom, for instance.  Their reasons, though mostly divergent, converge in places and I think those places are intriguing.  I think about them when I look at my students' work, particularly as we've been working on our architecture project these last few months.  We began this project because the students were so interested in building and we were puzzled about how to extend their interest beyond what we'd already done.  The project has been revelatory as children have surprised us with their designs, and impressed us with their learning.  The project has taught me, once again, to be patient as children explore materials and ideas, to step back and look for learning beyond where I expect to see it and that children aren't interested in our curriculum boxes - they see the world holistically; our boxes don't really exist.  What they've been learning about architecture appears throughout their play, if only we're tuned in enough to see it.

What strikes me most, however, is the sheer diversity of their work.  Having all had similar architectural experiences, learned similar concepts, and with exactly the same materials to work with, they've produced work that is schockingly different.  Each child who has built a scale model has built something that reflects who they are - like a Rorschach ink blot, we see both ourselves and them when we look at their work. 


Each tall painting is different and each architectural drawing is unique.  Why would we want it any other way?  What magic do we think will occur by forcing children to shave off their individuality in favour of conformity and easy-to-measure outcomes?  What I love about teaching is the opportunity to learn about how kids learn, to puzzle with them over a problem, and to walk with them as they wander down a new road, wondering at the possibilities.  Anything that restricts that wonderment makes me nervous; anything that shuts down curiosity is suspect.  My hope for us, on both sides of the border and the political spectrum, is that we can work towards an education that values curiosity over conformity so that children can look back on their school days as a time of magic and exploration.  Creativity is capital, in every sense of the word.

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Posted by on in Early Childhood

The other day some of my friends challenged me to come up with a list of five ways that we need to make school different.  Only five!  Here goes.

I was lucky to attend the recent On The Rise K-12 conference, featuring a keynote by Ron Canuel.  Among the many great things he said during that speech was that we need to look at Kindergarten classes as a model for all classes.  This got me thinking: what is it about Kindergarten that we want to see move up?  If I had a magic wand, here's where I'd put my energy.

1.   The Environment: If we accept that the environment is, itself, a teacher, we need to take a hard look at what our environment is saying to students.  Last week, I overheard two of my students talking about grade 1.  The conversation went something like this:

"I don't want to go to grade 1."

"Me either, I want to stay in this class forever."

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Posted by on in Movement and Play

When I have a few minutes to thoughfully re-read my reflective writing, I sometimes realize that I'm glossing over the rough bits.  I'm pretending, for the sake of efficacy or clarity or sanity, that I don't have moments of doubt, of persistent low-level panic that keep me up at night.  So, let me come clean... I do.

When I was an undergraduate dance major, we used to have to show our choreographic works-in-progress every week and open ourselves up to feedback from the faculty and other students.  What was nerve wracking at first became routine after a few weeks.  We got accustomed to taking what made sense to us and leaving the rest of the feedback behind.  We stopped taking it personally; we learned that, while we were invested in our work, our work was not ourselves. 

One of my choreography teachers had a great metaphor at the time about a bird who lives on your shoulder and who, like the pirate's parrot who relentlessly demands a cracker, nags at you, criticizing your efforts and feeding your anxiety.  She told us to silence our birds, to push them aside, as it was their nagging that was the biggest impediment to our creative process, the deepest pothole on our choreographic paths.  If we listened to our birds we would never make anything new, we'd just find ourselves repeating comfortable motifs and patterns.  The problem wasn't other people's feedback - it was our own.  Sound familiar?

I don't spend as much time choreographing as I used to; teaching has become my primary creative outlet, my improvisational practice, and the new place where my bird lives.  He pops out whenever I take a risk; he's often around.

Yesterday, I took a small group of kids to the greenspace on the side of our school property.  They love to go there and they start asking about it the instant my feet hit the asphalt.  It's a typical bush area in this part of the world, lots of poplar and birch, some cedar and pine, and lots of black rocks.  Our rocks are unique around here.  Decades of logging and mining deforested the entire area and, although we've undertaken the world's largest re-greening project, there are still plenty of bare rock ridges to explore.  Kids love nothing better than to climb them, run along them, and slide down them on their bums.  They also love to run down the slopes, delighting in the slightly out-of-control feeling of their legs pistoning underneath them before they slow themselves down.  The ground is still wet underneath and there are several wetland patches between the ridges.  It's a great place to learn about nature (yesterday the buds on the trees were just beginning to open) and environmental stewardship.  While we were there, one of my little girls said: "Madame, I know what we can be when we grow up: scientists.  Because we explore lots of things."  The laughter bubbles out of them as they chase each other across the rocks.  It's delightful.

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