Deanna Pecaski McLennan, Ph.D., is a passionate full-day kindergarten educator for the Greater Essex County District School Board as well as a researcher and writer, who has spent over twenty years working with young children. Deanna has authored more than thirty articles for journals and is the author of the much-loved Joyful Math series as well as the anticipated Joyful Math: Invitations to Play and Explore in the Early Childhood Classroom. She has devoted her research and practice to exploring the potential for rich mathematics learning through playful inquiry and exploration.
Here is TVO TeachOntario In Conversation with Deanna Pecaski McLennan
1) How did you develop your passion for mathematics? What started your interest in Early Years mathematics?
I am amazed every day by the children in my classroom! As a kindergarten teacher in Ontario’s full day kindergarten program, I am fortunate to be able to explore and learn together with the children in my care. For the last several years I have been fascinated with how to engage children in authentic and playful math practices that originate with their observations and questions regarding the world around them, and build upon their mathematical theories. We emphasize a growth mindset in our work together, and recognize mistakes as learning opportunities. I tend to look at life through a mathematical lens, and see math everywhere.
I wasn’t always so interested in math. When I first began my teaching career I viewed math as one of the essential components of our curriculum, and taught it in isolated blocks of time and discrete activities in the classroom. I now recognize that I was defaulting to teaching math the way I had been taught as a child through rote, product-driven practices.
About ten years ago I was introduced to the works of Jo Boaler and Sherry Parrish regarding flexible math activities that emphasized the process of math learning over the product. I was immediately transported back to my sociodramatic roots and saw parallels with using the arts as a language of learning. In my undergraduate degree I studied Drama in Education and was greatly influenced by the works of Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal. Reading Boaler and Parrish helped me realize that math could also be viewed as a social, beautiful, intricate, emotional subject especially when using inquiry and play in the kindergarten classroom. Every child has a right to learn high quality math, and should be empowered to see him or herself as a true mathematician. Helping children find joy and beauty in math, especially through provocations that involve art and nature, became the foundation of my teaching philosophy and practice. I saw connections between what I was learning from reading professional math publications and the inquiry-based, play-based emergent environment of kindergarten. These recognitions continue to inspire my work; I read everything I can regarding math learning in early childhood, and am always looking for exciting, joyful ways to engage children and their families in math each day while we are together at school.
2) How can educators cultivate a math rich learning space for children?
Early childhood classrooms are the perfect place to engage children in rich math experiences that connect to their natural curiosities and observations about the world around them.
Some of the ways in which I believe educators can cultivate math learning include:
- Make math a part of every space in the classroom and child's school world. In our classroom there isn’t necessarily a ‘math center’ because I want to encourage children to see potential for math learning in everything they explore. Math tools and materials are included throughout the room, and children are invited to use these throughout the space to support their explorations. Math is also included as a large component of our outdoor classroom, and math provocations and activities are included daily. My goal is to help children translate math tools and ideas into other spaces in their immediate school world and beyond (e.g., see how math relates to their walks in the hallway or work in the gym).
- Ground and build math concepts into known objects for children. When introducing, extending or innovating a math idea I try to ensure it is organic and natural to the child's explorations and world. For example, it is more natural to engage children in an exploration of measurement if they measure things in their immediate experience using the stick they are playing with, instead of using a standardized ruler (e.g., "Can you find something the same length as your stick in the yard?", "What is taller than your body?"). I look for opportunities where math emerges naturally in children’s play, and then support and scaffold the learning as it relates naturally to children. Their mathematical theories about the world around them are built through experience and often become more sophisticated and layered over time.
- Use available math moments with children. In our classroom we have a large block of uninterrupted play each day. It's sometimes challenging to manage children, materials and activities during center time. However I try to engage with children as much as possible in the activities, and take on the role of 'play partner' together with them. When I am actively playing I am able to closely observe what they are saying and doing, helping me to identify and extend the rich math learning that is organically occurring (e.g., helping children to recognize why their tower keeps falling, using math terms when they equally share the play dough, introducing math terms as they discuss how many cars are in their parking lot).
- Become a math role-model for children, families, and colleagues. Consider the way you discuss math with others. Even if math isn't your favourite subject, how do you discuss it within your school and classroom? Are you excited by new activities and resources? Do you demonstrate a growth mindset? When mathematical situations arise with children that you aren't sure of, can you use these opportunities to showcase positive thinking and problem-solving? Share your new math learning with others - suggest articles and books you're reading and post these throughout your classroom to enhance documentation displays.
- Find the math in everything. Many educators plan forward by choosing curriculum and programming expectations and then building activities to fulfill these. Try back-mapping activities from time to time; embrace child-centered, organic experiences and then deconstruct them in order to identify the rich math concepts and curriculum expectations that they utilize. You'll be surprised to find that math happens in almost every experience children have in the classroom.
- Try looking at life through a mathematical lens. When planning invitations for learning in your classroom, see what math you can integrate in as well. Changing one or two elements of the experience might be enough to engage children in rich math. It reminds me of how I used to sneak veggies into my children's meals - a little can go a long way! But don’t hide this math from children. The point is not to ‘trick’ them into learning. Be clear in articulating the rich math that children are experiencing, and help them see its relevance, especially when it might not be visible to them at first.
- Collaborate mathematically with colleagues. Share new ideas and resources informally. It's easy and effective to create math invitations and activities and share these within your school or division. If every educator plans one or two activities and these are shared, children will benefit from many rich and interesting games and activities without the burden of planning and preparation it would take one educator to accomplish the same.
- Record and celebrate your math moments. Help children, families, and colleagues recognize that math happens everywhere in the classroom by creating a documentation display with photos, anecdotal observations and connections to curriculum. This bulletin board can be built over the course of the school year as artifacts of learning are continually added by staff and students. Keep sticky notes nearby and invite observers to record their own ideas and share them by posting the notes within the documentation.
- Engage families in joyful math with children outside of school. Consider ways that you can promote and extend math for children after school. Encouraging families to play math games and activities together with their children will not only provide children with additional meaningful math moments, but it may help older family members reconcile their fear or dislike of math. In our classroom we send home family math bags once a week. These are filled with math invitations and materials so that children and their families can play games inspired by our classroom work. We also have ‘stay and play’ days monthly where families are invited into the classroom for a morning of learning together with their children.
- Build your collection of math stories, songs and games. Children love to sing, dance and play games. Ask colleagues to share their favourite games and activities, and use these to help with transitions and other 'math moments' throughout the day. Quite often the words in songs can easily be improvised to match something happening in your classroom, and many rich storybooks have mathematical elements and problems embedded within them that can inspire children.
3) What are you reading at the moment?
I am always excited to find new math resources to read in order to support my continued professional development. This summer I am especially interested in considering what the kindergarten classroom might look like if educators are asked to create a hybrid model this fall where learning occurs in person at school and digitally at home. I’m reflecting upon how we might create a safe and supportive space that honours children as authentic learners and helps them see themselves reflected in the program, even if we have limitations on what materials can be included in the classroom, and restrictions in place for their use. I’m excited about the potential for math learning outdoors, and I’m wondering about how to include families and the local community as partners if their access to the school is restricted. Although these are uncharted times in education, I know that educators and children are resilient and can embrace the challenge as another opportunity for learning and growth. Revisiting some of my favourite math texts, and finding new treasures, will inspire me to reflect upon these challenges and consider new ways of learning together while at school.
Some of my books on my summer reading list include:
Reimagining the Mathematics Classroom: Creating and Sustaining Productive Learning Environments by Cathery Yeh, Mark Ellis, and Carolee Koehn Hurtado (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2017)
The Young Child and Mathematics by Juanita Copley (National Association for the Education of Young Children and National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2000)
What to Look For: Understanding and Developing Student Thinking in Early Numeracy by Alex Lawson (Pearson Canada, 2015)
Loose Parts 4: Inspiring 21st Century Learning by Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky (Redleaf Press, 2020)
More about our guest on In Conversation With
Deanna appreciates looking at life through a mathematical lens, and recognizes opportunities for authentic, complex engagement in all experiences children have while at school. Deanna is also a mom to three children and knows firsthand the importance of supporting and improving their confidence, fluency and accuracy in mathematics. She considers herself a life-long learner and has spent the last several years transforming her classroom into a safe and supportive space where children can take risks without the use of rigid programming, rote practice or worksheets. Deanna believes that educators benefit from sharing their journeys with one another and actively uses reflective writing, technology and social media to connect with others from around the world.
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