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Discovering the World with Mrs. Thoms Since 1988

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

For hundreds of little children over nearly 30 years, kindergarten teacher Sandy Thoms has been the port of entry to GUS, guiding them into the community of learning, thinking, caring, and growing that defines our school. Over the years, Sandy has worked with a number of  co-teachers, mentoring many new educators. Since 2008, she and co-teacher Amy Billings have forged a partnership that brings to life their mutual goals for GUS kindergarteners.

“If the rest of my child’s education is as exceptional as her kindergarten year at GUS, she will have a very bright future.”  
-A GUS Kindergarten Parent

To be a student in their classroom is to know you are valued and trusted, but that you are also expected to try hard and be nice; that you should express your own opinions, but you must listen to those of others; that you should have fun and be silly, but you must be respectful and serious too. To all of Sandy’s colleagues and parents of students, Sandy is a master teacher with a gentle touch that belies her strong influence and impact on the children in her class.

When you look at kindergarteners, what do you see?

I see children who are full of possibility, energy, curiosity, a desire to know about their world and how it works, and the wish to be both independent and interdependent.

What do you want them to gain from kindergarten?

Although society changes and our knowledge of how children learn advances, the essence of who children are and how they develop remain constant. My goals for kindergarteners have remained fairly consistent over time. I want kindergarten to stimulate children’s natural desire to learn and make sense of the world. I also want to help them gain confidence in themselves as competent learners; experience being valued group members; have opportunities for creative self-expression; move toward greater independence and responsibility in a classroom setting; experience skills work and experimentation in the various disciplines, as compatible with their levels of development and expertise; begin to gain mastery over the tasks they struggle with; and begin to understand themselves as learners.

When I meet students I taught many years ago, what they remember are the projects they did in kindergarten. The skills fade into the background, but they recall the projects that helped them synthesize those skills. There is something deeply satisfying about those projects in that they are real work, such as making a castle out of cardboard they can then play in or cooking a favorite recipe they can then eat and enjoy.  People remember the emotions around the experience, especially when there are processes and outcomes that show them their own competence.

What is distinct about GUS kindergarten?

The way we approach learning is different. We lay a foundation for academic success and skill acquisition in kindergarten and in the future by building children’s social-emotional skills in a safe and positive learning environment. Children will take educational risks if they trust their teachers and peers with their possible mistakes. In addition, our small group learning process encourages children to expand their thinking and learn from each other.

After so many years of teaching, how do you continue to evolve your teaching practice?

For the last three summers, I have attended institutes at Harvard University. The first was entitled “The Arts and Passion Driven Learning,” which informed my work in developing an arts collaboration between Glen Urquhart School and schools in Nevis, West Indies. The second was Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which keeps me current on the latest research on how to make thinking and learning visible. One example of our making thinking visible to children is a game we call You Can Change Your Mind. It is adapted from a protocol learned at Harvard. Using the Smartboard, we put up a picture showing only a small segment of an image. We ask the children to guess what it is. Gradually, we zoom out to expose more of the image. As more of the image is visible, we remind them that they can change their minds based on the greater information that they are seeing. As the children learn that they can modify their thinking, they begin to generalize this understanding to many areas of learning. 

Talk about literacy in kindergarten and your approach?

Our literacy program combines multiple approaches and is based on individual profiles and small group instruction. We focus on the many strands involved in acquisition of pre-reading and reading skills. In addition, intentional opportunities for literacy experiences are integrated across all disciplines. First, we do a careful assessment of each child’s place on the literacy continuum. Some students enter kindergarten near the beginning of this continuum; others are already reading fluently. Through this intimate knowledge of each child’s learning profile, we can focus on areas of strength as well as areas that need support, and guide children toward their individual reading goals.

Do you really teach probability and statistics in kindergarten??? 

We cover a wide range of topics in mathematics as the students learn to think mathematically and make sense of our number system. And, yes, that includes probability and statistics. For example, we ask questions such as, “Do you always, sometimes, or never have an apple in your lunch? When you roll a die, what number do you think will come up? Is there any way to know with certainty which number will come up? In a simple way, they begin to understand probability concepts.

So much is said about getting children ready for what comes next. But what else is important?

I’ve never framed my work with children in kindergarten as getting them ready for what comes next. I think that misses on two counts. One, it sets up a uniform standard to be attained by all children that misses where children are currently. With careful assessing, we can discover where children are in a variety of areas including literacy and numeracy. The goal is to help each child make a year’s progress in a year, keeping in mind the depth and breadth that is required for a strong foundation in each area.

Secondly, instead of taking the short view of what’s next, let’s take the long view. Who do we want these children to be as graduates of GUS, as high school and college grads, as adults? I am privileged to help children begin their educational journey at GUS and see who they become further down the road. We want our graduates to be competent, skilled, generous, thoughtful, engaged people who have integrity, people who continue to learn and grow. That is what I have in mind when I think about what is important in kindergarten.