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No worksheets here: This Chicago kindergarten teacher wants to bring play back to classrooms

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, Chalkbeat asks educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here. 

On assignment for a fellowship earlier this year, Kathryn Cannady started asking early education teachers around Illinois about a new state tool to gauge kindergarten readiness. The assessment had been celebrated as a first-of-its-kind way to identify gaps in early education statewide — one step toward building up a fractured preschool system that reaches only a small percent of eligible Illinois students.

A theme began to emerge in Cannady’s interviews: That teachers felt like the assessment rewarded an academic focus in the classroom, even though research largely supports schools taking a different approach with young children.

“Research shows that children learn best from play,” said Cannady, a Teach for America veteran who has taught in China and in the United States and worked in Chicago charters since 2015. “A lot of times when people think about early childhood, they have this idea that kids are playing and teachers are sitting back with their feet up. But that’s not at all what happens, and play is actually this really amazing thing that kids use to take what they understand in the world and build on it.” 

One of her favorite lessons, she said, illustrates that idea, and it started simply with some boxes that were delivered to her classroom. The children started pretending they were cars, and she went with it. “They said they need wheels — so I started talking about shapes. That’s geometry! Then they said we needed police officers — and so we started talking about the role of police and rule-setting. That’s social studies! They said we need signs — so we talked about how to spell STOP. At the end of a week, we had roads and signs and each kid had their own car. It was a great experience and one of my favorite lessons,” she recalls.

As part of our How I Teach series, Chalkbeat asked Cannady, a kindergarten teacher at Acero Brighton Park, about other ways she disguises learning as play, what captivates her about teaching, and another favorite lesson that involves a monster named “Blue.”

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher? 

I spent many years doing different forms of teaching, loving them, and then not actually wanting to be a teacher. In my senior year at Northwestern, I got involved with a group called Peer Health Exchange. Through this organization, I taught health classes in CPS, and realized that I could make a career out of the one thing I’d tried to avoid.

Kathryn Cannady

Kathryn Cannady

I moved to China, started teaching and doing college application consulting. Many of my students took it for granted that they would be accepted to and attend American universities, and I became frustrated that it was so much easier for a Chinese student to attend college than it was for students who actually lived in the U.S. 

I wanted to come home and try to work so students in Chicago felt they had the same right to access college and education that Chinese students had expressed. In 2015, I joined Teach For America, and have been in the classroom ever since. 

How do you get to know your students?

In the beginning of the year, my classroom apprentice and I set aside extra time to go around and play and interact with each student and get to know them better.

We like to start our day with a classroom survey about what students prefer (think ice cream or cookies; biking or running; playing with blocks or Legos), and then give students a chance to share with their friends. 

I also try to make sure that when students come up to me and share that I pause what I’m doing and really engage with them. Five-year-olds are so eager to share and you can tell it means a lot to them when you stop what you’re doing to listen to them and ask questions. 

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

When we’re working on letter sounds in class, I bring out our friend “Blue.” She’s a “monster” painted on a board with a mouth cut out so students can “feed” her. Blue asks students to feed her different letters or objects that start with a sound, and the kids get so excited to play with her. If we’re off task or really energetic in class, I always like to bring out Blue and some letters to take a break and feed her. 

I got the idea of feeding letter sounds to her from a professional development I did online through the Rollins School’s Cox Campus, and it’s a fun way to build play and engagement into a lesson that could be really dry for a young learner.

Because Blue is always hungry, she can change what she wants to eat throughout the year (from letter sounds like ‘F’ and ‘R’ to blended sounds like ‘fr’ to short words like ‘frog’) as the students get stronger in their literacy skills, which makes it easier for me to scaffold for different levels and build in more difficult skills. 

What is an issue in the current policy discussion that could use more on-the-ground input from educators?

Since I’ve started teaching, I’ve grown frustrated about not being able to implement play in my classroom. Play is such a contentious topic in today’s education sphere: Schools are increasingly implementing what they consider to be “academically rigorous” curricula — that include math worksheets or letter tracing pages — to close the opportunity gap.

But research shows that children learn best from play. Children learn and create meaning through play, which means that a child will still learn to count if they count blocks or trains instead of dots on a worksheet. Instead of having children work on copy-and-trace worksheets, we should be helping them practice writing for a menu in a pretend cafe or label a drawing of a building in a blocks center.  

The misconception that play cannot be rigorous and meaningful robs students of their opportunity to learn in a developmentally appropriate manner. If policy makers and district leaders spent more time talking to teachers who are really knowledgeable and experienced with implementing play, it would enhance student experience and improve early childhood education. 

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

I work with predominantly Spanish-speaking students and parents. I’ve seen some hesitation around using Spanish. I can’t say that this is due to the growing backlash against Latinx immigrants and Spanish within the United States at large, but it’s hard to imagine that the growing hate and bias hasn’t in some way trickled down. 

I try to combat this by teaching in both English and Spanish, and even taking traditionally white characters in stories and altering them to represent my students. In our literacy curriculum, one of the characters was a white student, so I took the content of the lesson and rewrote it for the student to be a Latina student. With our fairytale units, I look for books that have Spanish language or are traditional Spanish tales to make sure that my children see themselves in our content. 

Even though my Spanish isn’t perfect, I try to show them that I’m learning their language and building confidence so they can feel the same way about English.  I’m grateful to have the opportunity to celebrate both my students’ backgrounds and language in a way that can counter this external narrative, and work so hard to ensure that students feel proud of their emergent bilingual status and backgrounds. 

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach. 

In my third year of teaching, I had a parent walk into my classroom and say “Oh, not another white lady,” before walking out of the room. I’d been working in the school for two years, and felt like I’d built a strong relationship with the school and community, but this moment reminded me that our work as people working in diverse spaces isn’t ever finished.

This parent was absolutely within reason to be nervous about having a teacher who didn’t represent her child or match their background, and I appreciated her honesty. It reminded me that a big part of my job was working to make sure that parents felt comfortable having me as their child’s teacher, and that I had to continuously work to represent their needs and background — even if it wasn’t my own.

The shock of the comment wore off, and I sat down with the parent to ask what she needed from me and how her child best succeeded. We ended the year with a great relationship, but it took me realizing that I have to do the work with every family, every year. 

What part of your job is most difficult?

The hardest part of my job is the feeling that you always want to or can do more for your students. I feel so much responsibility to make students’ experiences meaningful and supportive, and that makes it hard to leave my work at school. I am always thinking about lessons or interventions or supports I can change in my classroom, and it’s so difficult to turn that side of me off. 

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

When I first was told that I was going to teach preschool as a TFA corps member, I was a bit disappointed. I thought that kindergarten was just going to be playing with kids and that it wouldn’t have an impact. 

This was a misconception for two huge reasons. One, play is such a meaningful way for children to build their meaning of the world, and it might look like nothing to adults, but it is the childhood equivalent of work. Two, being a teacher isn’t about being the life-altering savior of children riding in on a white horse. It’s about being a servant to families and students, and starting their educational journey off in a way that empowers them and makes them love learning and school. 

 What are you doing this summer?

This summer I’m a Policy and Advocacy Summer Fellow through Leadership for Educational Equity. I’ve been placed with the Illinois State Charter School Commission and am doing research on Special Education Cooperatives.  

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

I think the best advice I’ve ever received is that you can always apologize and try again. My students can benefit from me making a mistake and apologizing, because it shows them that even adults aren’t perfect. If I am teaching a lesson and it doesn’t go well, I’ll stop, “rewind” and tell the students “Hm, Mrs. Cannady didn’t do that well, did I? I’m sorry, can I try again and do this differently?”.