A common refrain of teachers engaged in professional learning is something along the lines of ‘sounds great in theory but how do we put that into practice?’

As a teacher of second grade to middle school students, I was fortunate enough to attend many conferences and workshops and learn from all manner of experts in all manner of pedagogical topics and theories. I walked away from these conferences and workshops excited by new ideas but always anxious as to whether or not I could apply them effectively. I would turn to the teachers around me for advice as I tried to implement what I had learned. Invariably, we were all struggling with the same theory to practice conundrum.

Due to the grades that I taught and the size of the schools that I taught in, the teachers around me were not teachers of students under the age of 7. In retrospect, I wish that I sought them out – especially those teaching our 3, 4 and 5 year olds.

While I miss having a class of my own, a great privilege of being a school leader is the access I have to the classes of others. And while Grade 2 was the youngest grade level that I taught, the classes that I continue to learn the most from are those younger than that.

This week I had the chance to work with our pre-kindergarten students. The opportunity came about because I had to reschedule a MAP test during the time they were going to visit the IT lab so I said I’d make it up to them without really knowing how I was going to make it up to them. I folded them a paper plane each and figured they could color them inside and throw them outside. Simple.

This is how the 30 minutes unfolded.

The children were waiting for me on the mat so I could give them initial instructions. I modeled how they might want to color their plane before they were to go back to their table, pick their favorite color and show me that color so I could give them their plane to begin coloring. At the tables, we had children that were still mastering how to hold a crayon to those that were almost spelling their name. Some were drawing intricate cars and lightning bolts while others were happy coloring their entire plane yellow.

After 7 or 8 minutes, we all came back down to the mat to share the creations. Each child had the opportunity to explain what was special about their plane. One child was very eager to share his understanding of the connection between color and speed while others simply pointed to a feature or design that they were proud of. Some listened intently to their peers and asked questions while others needed some help to focus on the speaker.

After another 3 step instruction (line up, walk in a line to the volleyball court, and line up on the baseline) we were ready to throw. The plan was to have each child throw one at a time and, once everyone had thrown, stand where their planes landed. Each child watched the others throw and some planes went further than others. Some children had thrown a paper plane before while others were not sure how to hold one. When they were told to stand where their planes landed, most took big steps and counted aloud as the did. This was not prompted. And when they did get to their planes, there was no way they were going to stand still. They all threw their plane again and again in all directions in attempts to throw it further than the last time. This extended impromptu practice session had children trying to throw over and through the volleyball net and into a basketball hoop. It was punctuated by children asking their friends how they threw it so far, children trying different throwing techniques and one child telling me how their brother makes paper planes that fly better than these because the wings are bigger.

After about 25 minutes from the the time that we first met on the mat, we all lined up to throw one last time. Apart from a few looped trajectories, all the planes flew further than the first attempts. After the obligatory high-fives we all went back inside to sit on the mat to answer a few of the questions that the children had asked around how paper planes fly. I tried my best to recall and explain some aerodynamic principles and settled on the idea that air gets under the wings and lifts it up and that color actually has nothing to do with it. I’m not sure if any of the children bought that but at least the seed was sown.

I was delighted with how things had gone but upon reflection all that could really be attributed to me were the planes. After dishing those out, I just followed the children, learned their names and kept them moving along. Our teaching assistant on the other hand was busy working with students who she knew needed a bit of help with their crayon grip, or students who needed some extra encouragement to share their ideas, or students who were learning to count to 10.

If I had turned my mind to it or even just shared what I was intending to do with our teaching assistant beforehand, we could have been recording the data that was so clearly presenting itself as our teaching assistant was formatively assessing students in counting, speaking and listening, fine motor skills, following multi-step instructions, scientific process, approaches to learning and more. A simple checklist listing a couple of learning areas would have done the trick – and I know that trick from observing early childhood teachers like our teaching assistant and her colleagues.

So, long story short, if you are a teacher of older children like me and are ever wondering how to turn theories and ideas around inquiry-based instruction, differentiated instruction, integrated curriculum delivery, project-based learning, conceptual learning, positive behavior management, integration of character education, alternative assessment strategies (I will stop here for the sake of brevity), I urge you to help out in the classes of some of our younger students.

Given how much practical knowledge and expertise the teachers of our younger students have to offer, I wonder if we are doing enough to celebrate these teachers and involve them in the development of teaching practices throughout our schools.  While many of us have been trying to turn theory into practice, it seems the practice of the teachers of our younger children is what these theories could have developed from in the first place.