Looking Back to Look Forward


Carol Flanigan is currently a kindergarten teacher at Council Rock Primary School, an International Habits of Mind Learning Community of Excellence. Carol has taught kindergarten, first and second grade at Council Rock for 26 years and has been infusing Habits of Mind in her classroom and school community for 7 years. Carol has been instrumental in bringing Habits of Mind, Developmentally Appropriate Practice, Project Based Learning, and 21st Century Learning to her school and district. In addition to leading school and district level PD, she has presented at NYSCATE (New York State Curriculum for Advanced Technological Education) and the Rochester Area Literary Council. Carol has a B.S. in Elementary Education from Suny Geneseo and a MA in Early Childhood Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.


It is the end of July and I am starting to feel the excitement of a new school year. Every year I think about what I want to try, what went well in the past, and what I want to do differently. I contemplate how to set up the learning environment, what new resources to try, and how best to support my students. I know I will be working with Habits of Mind. I’ve been learning about and developing habits of mind for the last six years. In fact, last spring my school had the honor of being certified as an International Habits of Mind Learning Community of Excellence. So what does this mean now? It means that this summer I look back to look forward.

Looking Back

When I began my journey with Habits of Mind, I was teaching first and second grade, working with the same class for two years. I was excited about project-based learning, and was exploring the use of iPads in a 21st century classroom. Collaborating with a team of teachers, we found ways to integrate the habits of mind into our curriculum. We did this with hands-on activities to build the concepts through music, literature, movie clips, art projects, dramatic play, games and much more. We gathered data through our senses in science, strove for accuracy and thought flexibly in math and, were amazed at how easy it was to connect the habits of mind to literature. We responded with wonderment and awe with our wonder window and wonder book. We developed a project-based learning unit about some of the habits of mind. The children were questioning and posing problems, persisting and thinking interdependently. Our culminating group projects were posters displayed around the school to help others learn about Habits of Mind and a class movie explaining Habits of Mind to our board of education. The children were engaged, I was invigorated, and the learning was joyful.

Thinking Flexibly in Math

Then I moved to teaching kindergarten. What an opportunity! It is their first year of formal schooling. Young children are naturally inquisitive. They should be experiencing wonderment and awe all the time. What a challenge! Managing impulsivity? Listening with understanding and empathy? I worried about the vocabulary. Would it be too sophisticated? Would the words be too complicated to remember? I also moved from one class all day for two years to two classes, for a half day each, for 1 year. This would be an adjustment.

Looking back on the previous two years at kindergarten there are a few key notions/concepts that stand out.

The vocabulary was hard, but it didn’t matter. Children’s vocabulary in the primary grades grows tremendously. I always use the Habit of Mind vocabulary because modeling and building the vocabulary is important. But we also built the concepts; we gathered data through all our senses by exploring during our fall harvest unit when we explored apples and then wrote about it. We thought interdependently when we created a hot cocoa or flower stand stand, or built a pigeon car out of Tinker Toys.

Thinking Interdependently in the Dramatic Play: Creating a Hot Cocoa Stand and Flower Shop

We listened with understanding and empathy when we problem solved social conflicts. We learned to communicate with clarity and precision when we replaced “Stop!” with “(child’s name) I don’t like when you ____. It makes me feel ___.” When we discussed the habits we had used or identified the ones reflected in a book we read, the children could not always come up with the name. But that didn’t stop them. They’d point to the image on a poster or refer to the idea. One of my favorite examples of this is when a student called Remaining Open to Continuous Learning, “leaving the door open to new ideas.” It was OK that the children were not fluent with the names of the habits yet.

One of my goals was to facilitate learning during children’s self-directed play. The children worked interdependently in the dramatic play and block area. Play time is a natural venue for creating, imagining and innovating. It is the perfect time to manage impulsivity, listen with understanding and empathy, think flexibly and problem solve. We persisted with block creations, gathered data through our senses in sensory bins, and took responsible risks by trying out new materials or ideas. My job was to observe, question, add the language and encourage. It was also my job to carve out time for the children to have self-directed play. The pressure of an increasingly stringent and condensed curriculum and a short day is challenging, and it is easy to fall into the trap of covering one more thing, to squeeze in one more teacher directed lesson. When I fell into that trap, and I did, I don’t think much learning happened.

We connected to many habits of Mind in our Science Units. This is a page from our Forces Unit.

Another goal was to make the more teacher-directed lessons playful. Having the kids put on little skits or puppet shows is a great way to develop listening with understanding and empathy as the children try on different roles. Games require managing impulsivity, striving for accuracy and persisting. STEM projects are wonderful opportunities to practice habits of mind. Our science experiments and inquiry included wonderment and awe, questioning and posing problems. Learning is playful when students are engaged, curious and joyful.

The children used creating, imagining and innovating to imagine and create models of their own machines.

I love that the certification is called Habits of Mind Learning Community of Excellence because the commitment of the entire community is so powerful. I emphasize the Habits of Mind in my communication with families, at the fall curriculum night presentations, in my newsletters, and on Seesaw, an online learning journal. What was so wonderful was that families could connect the habits to life beyond the classroom… and they did. At conferences, parents shared habits they thought their children could use to support their growth. They employed the language of the habits themselves. Parents who came in to read with the class would talk about the habits they saw in the books they read aloud. They shared with me how their children were employing the habits at soccer, after-care, and in the home. One day, I was reading a story and we were talking about the habits of mind the character used, and one of my students remarked that the character was thinking flexibly. I was amazed because we hadn’t talked about that habit in class yet. The children had learned about it during music and physical education classes. My students heard about the habits on the morning announcements, in the principal’s monthly read aloud, during their special area classes, and in their homes. Partnering with families and the commitment of the whole school community supported and reinforced the work in our classrooms.

Looking Forward

What does this mean for the coming year?

For me, I plan to continue to partner with families and my school community. I will ask parents to fill out a Habits of Mind survey about their children at the beginning of the year. I will include habits of mind in our conferences and report card and newsletters. I will try to connect with other classrooms and perhaps the larger community. We will continue to use our online journal to share with families our work in school, including reflecting on habits of mind.
I am perhaps most excited about trying to document habits of mind. Journaling about habits of mind in the classroom and with particular students. Which brings me to my last point.

It is a new school year for me but for my kindergarten students it is just the beginning. I can’t wait to see what they bring. Of course I will build on past practice and new learning. I will plan and prepare. But each class, each individual student, each time frame is unique. What grows in my “kinder garden” is organic and influenced by so many factors. This year I plan to blog about the Habits of Mind in my kindergarten, to reflect and share. I am looking forward to see what grows.

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