During this episode of ShiftED, I caught up with Dr. Sheryl Smith-Gilman of McGill University’s education department to touch base on how our future educators were dealing with their pre-service schooling during the pandemic. Our intriguing conversation revolved around the changing educational landscape in Quebec, dealing with online learning and teaching, and the new pre-school program that was recently released by the MEQ. Dr. Smith-Gilman is a passionate and thoughtful professor which easily comes off during the conversation. I hope you get as much pleasure listening as I did speaking with her. Enjoy!

The full transcript is below.

edited for readability

[intro music]

Chris Colley: Welcome back to ShiftED podcasts. We’re here today with Dr. Sheryl Smith-Gilman from McGill University who is an outstanding pre-service teacher for future educators to come. So welcome Sheryl, it’s really great to have you here today.

Dr. Sheryl: Thank you so much.

Chris: Let’s just start off maybe a little bit on just kind of situating yourself a bit. What do you teach at McGill?

Dr. Sheryl: I’m the assistant director for teacher education programs for the undergraduate and the masters of teaching and learning. I’m also a faculty lecturer. I teach mostly in the first years although I teach from year one to year four courses in communication and education. Mostly all the professional seminars when teachers are in schools, those are the courses that align themselves with the field work. I teach one of my favourite courses that I’ve been teaching for many many years is kindergarten pedagogy because that’s really my background is early childhood. My research has been in early childhood. I have just been growing along with the course as changes in education have come about so I have been growing along with this course, teaching it many years. It gets better and better every year with all the new new technologies and new philosophies and new programs. So that’s really my baby, the kindergarten pedagogy course and I teach all the second year students. So I get to know them all and that really excites me.

Chris: Excellent. That’s really cool. In the university, when you’re teaching your students and you’re going through their stages and stuff, who are your students? Can you describe them to us? Who tends to, who do you tend to have in your classes?

Dr. Sheryl: Mostly we have obviously people who have had background in working with children, who have a passion for working with children. I would say that’s probably the norm. CEGEP graduate students, many from out of province as well. Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed in the past two, three years that we have people returning to school. We have mothers, young mothers who’ve had a few kids and they want to come back and finish their education which is I always find interesting. I love when we get the 45 year old women in class with the 22 year old men, women or men. That to me is great because they bring their experience as parents. They really appreciate it also. Especially when they have young children, they say: ‘oh my goodness, I do this with a child and I shouldn’t be doing that,’ or I realize how important it is to read to children. I’ve seen more and more of that, not tremendous amount but there is more speckling. This year, interestingly enough too, I’ve had more males in my class. Which is not typical in elementary education. So, in my courses that I teach, the elementary pre-service teachers, I have four or five males in the classroom which is wonderful. I’m so glad to see. We need more men in education and in the classroom.

Chris: So much, absolutely. What are the dynamics of that? When you have all of these different learners from different environments coming all together, what kind of culture does it create inside a classroom?

Dr. Sheryl: I would say on the whole, a very sharing classroom. I know sometimes when I’ve had the, if we’re talking about the more mature students, and sometimes there are some who have undergraduate degrees and they want to be teachers and they come back and do a bachelor of education. I’ve had a few as well. They’re the ones that will often stay behind, check with me a little more often. They’re a little bit more cautious that are the typical norm that you get from the the CEGEP levels. But that’s fine. They really do like sharing about themselves. I find education in general, just going back to that reflective kind of stage, that the best teachers make those good connections and when they can connect to family or connect to their past, I think that’s a really important skill because we want to do that with children classrooms as well is to connect to their real lives. So I think that’s one of the areas that I like to focus on in all my teaching. Hopefully model it to future teachers is how important it is to connect to the realities of today.

Chris: I love the reflective practice that you’re talking about Sheryl. That reflection really is a good informer not only for teachers but for the kids and modeling that is really important. Yeah, that’s really great. So, let’s shift a little bit. So interesting dynamics. You have a kind of an idea of your class and the clientele that you have in front of you. This podcast series is looking at the past year, really. Since two Marches ago now, I mean, time is flying but not really. What have been the greatest challenges for you with this onslaught of Covid and the pandemic. How have you been dealing with that, with your students?

Dr. Sheryl: We’ve all been home for over a year which has not been the most conducive to teaching. There’s nothing like being in front of a class or being with students or students being with each other. So I think I would have to say of course we’re missing that person-to-person connection. Teaching is about relationships and about connections and we certainly are missing it, especially in the kindergarten pedagogy course that I teach. As an example, this is a methods course. They’re learning skills, strategies, understanding, development, what children are capable of, and really I think the biggest challenge for me is I’ve had to be so creative online. Because there’s nothing like having hands-on opportunities and we didn’t have that per se. Although LEARN Quebec did do something wonderful for us with the Makerspace online and the students loved it and they got it. But you have visited my class before and you know how dynamic that is when we’re they’re all there and we’re touching and we’re feeling and we’re laughing with each other out loud. So there’s that connections that we miss. But we managed, you know? As teachers, we’re educators, we manage.

Chris: We’re always learning too, eh? You’ve been thrown back into this learning phase of figuring out how do we create effective online learning environments. What were some of your tricks or strategies that you use to create those relationships because we hear over and over, if you don’t have strong relationships with your students, it’s harder for them to be motivated and want to you know see through the course. So, having those relationships that are so important, how do you nurture those in an online environment?

Dr. Sheryl: I think one of the biggest words, pieces of vocabulary which has always been part of our vocabulary anyways, is matter of intentionality. You have to be so intentional on everything you do. We are, I am anyways, and I think teachers are also but because of this online forum and because of that lack of contact, what are we doing online that is so intentional that we get to what we have to get to? So naturally my teaching style had to completely change. I’ve taught this course since 2009. So if you just think, I mean, not in person. Of course, it’s changed, it’s developed with new programs etc. But I had to really create opportunities for interaction and I think that was really key. So instead of having these three-hour classes online, the lecture part was asynchronous. We did a flipped classroom approach. We came into our Zoom sessions with active hands-on learning and as active as possible and keeping students very busy. I educated myself as well. I learned about Jamboard, I learned about Padlet, I learned how to do a poll. I’ve been around a long time, so these were all very new and in fact, very exciting and very creative. Even my students became very creative. Some of their projects that are usually more physical, more visual, creative, they had to do things online that blew me away, just blew me away because I think that was important. So to keep those relationships, to answer your question. Lots of water cooler talks. Let’s go into breakout rooms and just check in with each other, how are you doing? I would pretend to be flying around in cyberspace, you know and just say hi, how you doing? I’m checking in with you. I think that’s really important. So intentional in keeping the relationships. Intentional in what you’re bringing onto the screen. Listen: Zoom fatigue is Zoom fatigue. My class was not the only class that they are taking. So I can only imagine how exhausting it was for them.

Chris: Oh I’m sure it’s totally exhausting. It is too, eh? The fatigue of Zoom is real. We’ve lived it. We know from experience. I want to pick up on something you had mentioned Sheryl about how your students have become more creative or innovative. Could you give us some more examples about how you saw that coming to life, how your students evolved?

Dr. Sheryl: Can I give you an example right from the classroom? It’s too bad this isn’t visual because I would love to be able to show you but let’s try and describe it in words as best as possible. One of the – as an example in the kindergarten pedagogy class – is the first thing we do, we speak about how we envision young children. I’ll ask my students right away, know what do you think of young children and it’s amazing. People still think they’re empty vessels, they need to be filled. They’re little sponges, they’re naive. Then we start to delve into some theory around what children are capable of, especially in today’s time. What are our four-year-olds talking about and our five-year-olds talking about? We developed this image of the child. This is borrowed from the Reggio Emilia approach, something that is part of my background. But it really tells us how we envision the child is how we’re going to teach them. If we think a child is naive then we’re going to be feeding them and spoon feeding them. If we think the child is creative and capable and interested and hands-on, well, we’re going to provide them with tools and materials and learning experiences that will do. So one of the projects that my students typically did when we were in school was create a visual representation of their image of the child. And I usually got beautiful paintings of the child’s brain and they would title it: the child is the thinker’. And they would make these beautiful paintings or beautiful sculptures, as the child is creative. So they create these beautiful clay sculptures with pails falling into them with words and letters. The pieces were magnificent. My office at school is filled with all these beautiful pieces. Puzzles that they put together. Games they put together to show the child is creative, child is unique, the child is deserving, the child is having rights. I had one group of students who created a painting that tied it up in ropes because they were from war-torn countries these three students and they felt that they were robbed of their right to play, their right to learn, and they told their story. So these wonderful, very impacting pieces. How was I going to create this online? So I charged my students with the same task but visual and I had no idea what was going to come about. I said, nothing, you know this is a very deep conversation of how we envision children. Lo and behold, I received beautiful videos, podcasts, poetry read online with music. I was just bloated. There was one that is a gallery walk as the child as an explorer and it takes you into a museum. I think it’s called Art Step if I’m not mistaken. It’s the platform, you would know better than me, Chris. They took us into a museum of the child and the love of nature and how the child experiences. They were so powerful that I have already curated these and hope to write about this because that’s something else that I do. But I want people to understand about digital art which is something that has also been exposed to me. So in all honesty I’ve learned quite a bit that it doesn’t always have – not all people are artists or can create sculpture or paintings and I always accepted that anyways. But wow! There’s a whole other artistic world out there. I’d love to be able to show it to you one day but it’s really, I think you would be blown away. So that’s just an example of how creative students got. Yes, was I pushing them? Absolutely. But in retrospect, when we had that day of celebration to look at each other’s work, it was quite moving .

Chris: That’s amazing. That’s a great visual in my mind of all of these digital artifacts that they created. Was it that open-ended Sheryl? You allowed them to choose whatever platform or whatever means they wanted but here’s my theme, you guys choose how you’re going to show it to me.

Dr. Sheryl: I would have loved to have suggested something but I was just as naive as them. So they went out and they explored some. I mean some knew how to do videos and things like that but I didn’t know what to expect. ‘What do you want?’ and everybody wants answers like any child. These I consider to be university students still my kids. What do you want? I said, I don’t know. I said but go out there and explore. Go out and I think it was very motivating. It was an interesting way to learn because that image of the child that they grounded, took them through the rest of the course. This was done within the first month of the course so it grounded them. Now that I see the child as capable, as having rights, all these beautiful themes emerged. Child is capable, having rights, is deserving. One group did a beautiful video and took shots from all over the world of children with music. I mean, it was so powerful. But they had all these beautiful themes. I said, well now that you know they’re not empty sponges and naive, let’s start planning for the kindergarten classroom. That’s just where the course takes off.

Chris: Wow. Here what’s the student in front of you going to be and then figure it out. Wow that’s really a great idea Sheryl. I love that. Let’s look at that journey then. So, the student goes through the year. They’re advancing towards their profession. What’s the kind of student you want to see at the end of that? Well actually, I should say, what kind of professional do you want to see at the end of their journey at McGill? What do you try to have? What do you want to see in that educator?

Dr. Sheryl: Besides the knowledge of content and besides the methodology of different teaching strategies, you know teaching today is so is so challenging and so rewarding. I suppose if every student walks out feeling confident, having agency, being able to connect to community within their school, within their families that they work with, we want them to feel good about networking in an educational environment. We’re looking at this more and more with new competencies about lifelong learning. We’ve always believed in this but now we’re making a point of this. So this is something new that we too as teacher educators need to instill in our programs. That commitment to continual learning is very important and growth. I think these are our key elements to ground them as they move through because they’ll have many different experiences until they find a home or wherever that may be. Professionalism indeed and thank goodness for the field work and the wonderful teachers that open their doors and let our students come in and guide them and mentor to them. Hopefully they have mentored so well that our future teachers will also mentor others. This is a an educational community. Importantly that, we started talking about this right at the beginning, is that ability to be reflective to connect to your own life. We do it in our teaching. At McGill, in our courses, is always to make those connections. Again you’re modeling it to make those connections with your students but these impact. These touch us deeply. I think when teachers don’t get to that point, they may burn out quickly or they may not get the meaning. People say to me, you’ve been around a long time and yes I have. I was a teacher for many, many years and then I went back to school et cetera. And I even questioned myself. What made me go back to school and do a doctorate or do my master’s and after so many years of teaching? I think that that flame, that fire never stopped. I’m not boasting about myself. I’m just saying you have to be a professional learner. You’re not only a teacher, you’re a professional learner and that really has guided me through the years and keeps keeps me excited. So that’s hopefully the steps that they’ll take as they move on as well.

Chris: Yeah but like you said, that reflective aspect I think is key because that will push your professionalism further down the road, right? Through that reflecting on what you’ve done and maybe I made a mistake doing that and I should adjust this. And that reflex too, we want to have in our students as well. Not only our pre-service educators to be but also our students as well. So they’re not asking, ‘well what do you want me to do?’ like when you’re launching an activity or a project. So we have the new curriculum that just came out last week actually. Well, the English version I should say. Can you tell us what the crux of preschool education is?

Dr. Sheryl: Well, child-centered first of all. I think the program is outstanding. I’m so glad that they have included the four-year-olds. They’re smart, they can do it. We need qualified teachers to be able to guide them as they head into school. The crux of the program is a play-based approach on child’s global education. We don’t have to worry about number, well we teach them numbers, but we don’t have to worry about subject areas. We have to worry about their development and we all know that when children can self-regulate, when they feel good about themselves, when they can get along with other children, when their language is there, they start to think, they start to inquire, they tinker, they play, they play with purpose. All these beautiful – what you’ve taught me also – this is a child based program and I applaud the Quebec government. I think we are avant-garde in early childhood. I see this helping with situations with daycare, when daycares have been very overcrowded or not overcrowded necessarily but sparsity of daycares in some parts of Montreal. This will alleviate some of the congestion of getting into a good daycare. Let’s put the kids in schools, in wonderful environments, and get them ready. Give them those good developmental foundations. Develop their domains that they need to go on. I think the program is outstanding. I know a lot of work went into it and I know that that this is what education is all about. No matter where children go in the world, they play. It’s a play-based program.

Chris: Yeah I totally agree with you. I love that idea that play is at the centre of all of it. You get them actively involved in exploring, discovering, communicating, fighting and making up and life, you know?

Dr. Sheryl: Exactly! These are all life skills.

Chris: Yeah, I always think that it should be lifelong kindergarten that we have throughout all of school and keep that same practice alive which kind of gets forgotten once we hit grade one. We’re gonna try something. This is a little different. it’s a Q&A rapid fire, okay? So quick answers and I’m gonna give you some myths and some sentences and you tell me what you think of it, alright?

Dr. Sheryl: I’ll try!

Chris: First thing and these are a lot of things I hear about preschool from preschool teachers and consultants. Should there be a nap time?

Dr. Sheryl: A nap time? I think you have to know your customers. I think you have to know your children. There are some children four years old that still need to have a little nap in the afternoon. I think it’s really the dynamics of the class. I think a rest time is there’s nothing wrong with it. Some children may fall asleep a little bit, some children will just take a book and just lie in a mat and play or have some quiet times or some quiet games. I think children do need down time absolutely. I think it depends on the dynamics of the class. You may have a very active class and nobody needs it but what if you have one child who still needs that rest time so, should we allow it? I would say yes.

Chris: Okay, another question: Should preschool look like grade one?

Dr. Sheryl: No! No, no, no, no, no, no, no desks, no desks, no desks, no blackboards, no whiteboards! Keep them off the screen a little bit. I worked a a little bit during my research in Kahnawà:ke and I worked at a wonderful early childhood centre. There is no technology in those classrooms at all except a camera when children had to do photography. So what are we giving kids? What are we putting in their hands? What kind of experiences are we giving them? I want us all to move away from the prefab and it was something that I think I learned along the way too. Some indigenous ways of knowing is to connect to the land. Go outside, go into nature. Get away from the coloured macaroni and the googly eyes and the sparkles you could leave because that’s a necessity but all of that – we don’t need it. Because you’d be amazed how children are more in awe with a mirror and a flashlight and the natural world. These are what interests the child. I taught four-year-olds many many years ago and I remember at the time my father was working as a volunteer at the Montreal general hospital. And you know the x-ray machines that they put up on the wall? They used to look at your ribs. So they were throwing them all out. Everything is gone digital, correct? And my father said to me, you know the hospital’s throwing out all these these x-ray machines, he says, and they’re — I said, give them to me. So there were little table top light tables where we brought in the natural world and looked at leaves and sketched them and traced them and poured sand and drew and wrote letters in them etc. The children weren’t always – I couldn’t get them off of this and this was an old x-ray machine. So don’t, if you have any, don’t throw them out.

Chris: Well I told teachers too, don’t throw away your overhead projectors just yet because they could do the same thing with that light play. The kids love that stuff

Dr. Sheryl: Love it, love it! We used to use them to show natural items on the wall or on a piece of paper and we used to trace them and paint them. We would enlarge a butterfly to a massive degree that the kids were just in awe. But just think what we just taught them? You know how to manipulate light. What shadows are about. The fine motor development, the discussion, the social interaction. Look at all the developmental domains that are in and it’s all playful. So it should not look like grade one.

Chris: Alright, here’s another question: Should preschoolers know how to read and write before they enter grade one?

Dr. Sheryl: No. Should we be exposing them to letters and words and numbers? Absolutely. Fun, playful way. Little kids love work. They love to have their little journals and write their plant p l t n. That’s fine. I think you introduce it, you expose them to it, but certainly not to the point that they must be fluent readers or writers. I think if presented the right way children should know the letters, they should know all the alphabet, they should know some small sight words – absolutely. But we do it in a playful way through song, through music, writing in the sand, creating papier-mâché names. Whatever it may be, all in a playful artistic way.

Chris: And that indicates in the curriculum. That’s what they’re saying, right? Because one of the dimensions is written language. So I was like hmm are we trying to get them to write? Then I read further and it said well have them play write. Like they’re at a restaurant and they’re taking an order and they’re, it’s gobbledygoop but they’re understanding when you write and how you go about it and like the infrastructure of it. Rather than, does it sound right, is it the right word, is it spelled correctly, is that the right grammar?

Dr. Sheryl: Absolutely, yes. The focus on language is extremely important but you know there is the approach of the complete dynamics of phonemic awareness. The rhyming, the singing, all the things that we did when we were little kids that we didn’t even realize we were doing but this is all attuning the ears, attuning the language to what it should be. Playing with words even if they don’t make sense shmerly burly twirly furly. That is fine as long as you’re hearing it. This is all the beginning of language and to expose them to language, to write in front of the children. Come up and add your name or sign your name to your painting. What would you like to title it? Would you like to write it or should I write it for you? Scribing for children to show them that the words are important when written down and only that letters put together, make a word. That’s basically what we want to teach them so we dance to words, we move to words, we paint them, we write them in a drama centre like you said. We’re taking orders in a restaurant and even you know this is all developmental and I would say, the typically developing child does come out of kindergarten with some ability to read some words. Some abilities to write their names. Some soar. I mean, I’ve had five-year-olds who read on a grade one/two level. I have seen that and it’s all part and parcel. It’s only in the classroom, it’s making partnerships with families as well. Parents should read a lot to kids. This is important.

Chris: Books are so important. So important. That’s really amazing. Well Sheryl, I just want to thank you for joining us today for this conversation. I think it’s a valuable conversation to have and it kind of orients us where we’re starting. We talked a little bit about Covid but I really love the stuff that we talked about, about our youngest learners. We gotta get to understand them more and I totally agree with you. I think this curriculum that just came out is something to be admired and something to be integrated on a much more cross-board kind of way or manner I should say. Right, well thank you very much. This was a lot of fun and I hope to see you soon.

Dr. Sheryl: You bet. You bet. Thank you Chris. Keep up to great work.

Chris: Take care of yourself! Yep, thank you very much, you too. I hope that we can see each other face to face in the new school year.

Dr. Sheryl: You bet, you bet. Take care, be well.

Chris: Thank you very much.