Once again, Kathy Collins hits the ball out of the park! Here’s a video that should be seen by parents, teachers, grandparents, administrators, corporate heads, Arne Duncan, Eva Moskowitz, Michelle Rhee, Teach for America fans, etc. etc. etc.
I’ll be leading a panel of teachers and administrators at the November 14th “Dialogue of Two Cities: NYC and Reggio Emilia” and I’ll also be doing a workshop presentation with two early childhood public school teachers who have made major, exciting changes in their classrooms at the WonderPlay Conference on November 15th..
I hope you can come and also that you share this notice with friends and colleagues.
Wonder of Learning New York City 2015 updates!
Visit our expanded website www.newyorkcitywol.org for lots of information about the exhibit!
Come to our first professional initiative in November:
DIALOGUE OF TWO CITIES: NYC AND REGGIO EMILIA
LELLA GANDINI, SOPHIA PAPPAS, JAMES HECKMAN AND JEROME BRUNER SPEAK ABOUT NYC, REGGIO EMILIA AND THE NEED FOR QUALITY EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION FOR ALL.
NOTE: THIS IS PART OF A 2-DAY CONFERENCE CALLED “WONDERPLAY CONFERENCE.”
ALL ATTENDEES MUST REGISTER FOR THE “WONDERPLAY CONFERENCE” TO ATTEND “DIALOGUE OF TWO CITIES”
Go to our website www.newyorkcitywol.org for more details and to register!
Schedule a private visit of the exhibit for your staff and/or parents! Go to our website www.newyorkcitywol.org to place a date request!
Got time on your hands between January and May 2015? Volunteer! Go to www.shiftboard.com/nycreggiovolunteers/register.html
And most of all spread the word: The Wonder of Learning Exhibit is coming to NYC January 15, 2015 – May 15, 2015, and it will be held at Williamsburg Northside School 299 North 7th Street Brooklyn, NY.
Email us with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jane Racoosin and New York City Encounters with Reggio Emilia
My daughter was born in 1972, the heyday of the Women’s Movement. It somehow passed me by. When friends and family visited me to see the new baby, inevitably the question, “when are you going back to work” entered into the conversation. I was totally ecstatic about staying home to be with my baby as long as my artist husband Simon, my baby Simone and I could hold out. By some miracle, and with the help of a rent-controlled apartment, I was able to stretch out my home time for two and a half years. We were rather poor but I was happy as a lark. I didn’t care if, as many friends told me, I was being rather retro in my domesticity. Each day my baby surprised me with something new – a smile, a word, a gurgling along with a song.
My problem was that I knew almost nothing about how to care for an infant or a toddler. I was full of questions. Why was my friend’s baby crawling when my little sunshine was content to sit with her toys and play? Baby Jennifer was starting to walk at 11 months. My Simone took one flop at eleven months and decided to put off walking for another two months. Luckily for me, a wise friend gave me the gift of Berry Brazelton’s book Infants and Mothers: Differences in Development This book was a classic presentation of child development and a “must read” guide for new parents in the 1970′s. .In this book, Dr. Brazelton followed the development of three different babies. All three of the children fell under the umbrella of being “normal” but their development and personalities were greatly diverse. Reading this helped me to stop making comparisons. I just concentrated on and celebrated my daughter’s achievements. Now let’s jump ahead to the present and to the Common Core Learning Standards for children in Pre-k through grade 2. Can you imagine how devastated I would have been if there was a checklist of what standards Simone should have mastered at the end of each year? What if the “standard” for year one would say that by the end of the first year, the 12 month old child will be starting to walk? Perhaps I might have considered my beautiful, and bright baby to be a failure! Thank goodness that T. Berry Brazelton’s examples so clearly illustrated, that children don’t develop skills in a lockstep manner.
You might be asking yourself what my examples have do with the Common Core Learning Standards for Pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten, Grade One and Grade Two?
As an early childhood teacher, I always had high standards for my children. That said, I also understood, that I needed to allow young children a wide berth for growth and success socially and academically. For some children, learning to read and write was as easy as ABC. Others needed more time to put the puzzle pieces of written language together.
The common core learning standards are in desperate need of revision! Whoever is creating and publishing these standards needs to remove the standards for Pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade. Begin the standards with second grade and early childhood teachers will have the big picture of what their students eventually must be able to do in all of the academic areas. Wouldn’t it make so much more sense for the early childhood standard to say that “by the end of second grade, children will ask and answer questions about key details in a text and answer such questions as who, where, when why and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text” and leave it at that? It isn’t unrealistic to expect that” by the end of second grade children will compare and contrast the most important points presented by two texts on the same topic.” Some children will be meeting this standard by the end of first grade, just as baby Jennifer could walk at 11 months. Others, however, may need a little more time to reach this particular standard, just as Simone needed a little more time to gain the confidence to start walking. I can tell you for a fact that the adult Jennifer and the adult Simone are doing just fine with their walking, talking, reading and writing.
Perhaps if there were early childhood educators and parents of young children on the committee that drew up these common core learning standards, there would have been more understanding of how young children develop. Perhaps each skill should not be broken down by grade but rather by what we would expect a child to know before going into third grade. This might take some of the stress out of the early childhood classes and allow for a return to classes where children have time and opportunities to explore, investigate, take risks without fear of failure and, (might I add this controversial word?) play! George Bernard Shaw wrote, “What we want is to see the child in pursuit of knowledge, and not knowledge in pursuit of the child,” Let’s not be lead by an unrealistic checklist of skills for young children. Instead, let’s heed the words of George Bernard Shaw and give young children many opportunities for pursuing knowledge in classrooms that respect the diversity of each child. We should be creating educational environments that acknowledge the wisdom and research of Dr. Brazelton and so many other educators such as Deborah Meier, Alfie Kohn and Carlina Rinaldi, who tirelessly advocate for developmentally respectful education practices. Let’s not let a checklist of inappropriately constructed early childhood standards take away the child’s joy of learning and the teachers’ joy of teaching!
Today is quite a bittersweet and emotional day in the Dinnerstein household. An exhibition of Simon’s monumental 14 foot wide painting, The Fulbright Triptych, opened at the Tenri Cultural Institute in New York on April 29, 2011.
It stayed there until June 10th and then moved to the German Consulate at UN Plaza where it remained until it was packed up today. It’s going to travel to the Law School at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville where it will be on exhibit for one, possibly two, years. Saying goodbye to it was difficult. Simon began the painting in 1971 when he had a Fulbright Fellowship and we spent the year in the little town of Hesse Lichtenau about a half hour away from the city of Kassel. Our daughter, Simone, wasn’t even a thought in our minds at that time. However it took him three years to complete the work back in Brooklyn and along came Simone, so into the painting she went.
I’ve watched people looking at this work for more than an hour. It’s like reading a novel. Actually, it’s like a memoir, recording some significant moments in our marriage and even before we wed. Starting at the top of my panel are some photo machine pictures taken in the Staten Island Ferry terminal on our second date! There’s been an amazing amount of articles written about the painting since the Tenri exhibit opened in addition to a book totally devoted to this one work. It’s all been quite exciting. A real standout of this time, however, has been Simon’s experience of sharing the work and some of his other work with a variety of school children. At the Tenri Gallery Simon invited a different class of children to visit the gallery each Tuesday. The youngest class was a second grade class from P.S. 142 on the lower east side. The teachers had wisely introduced the children to some of the work back in class by projecting images on the SmartBoard so the children were, in a way, continuing a conversation in the gallery. The concentration of these seven-year-olds, most of who had never been in an art gallery, was admirable. After the children had time to wander the gallery on their own, Simon gathered the group around one of his Palette Paintings and explained to the children how he began this work with an older palette and painted his image into it, incorporating the palette into the composition. Angel, a precocious, animated little boy looked at the picture intently and then confidently remarked “So, Simon, you started with a palette, painted a picture onto it, and now you have this picture. Is that right?” Simon said, “yes, that’s it” and Angel replied, “Wow, that is SO creative!”
Fifth graders from East Flatbush, high school students from Red Hook, fifth graders from Park Slope, classes from the Bronx, and second-language learners from East New York all spent time visiting the gallery. Simon brought in his engraving tools to show the children how he worked on the engraving plate that is at the center of the painting, giving the children opportunities to hold the tools and ask questions.
At all of the visits the children had time to sit before the painting and to draw…to copy parts of the work that interested them or to draw their own compositions and to share these with Simon.
Perhaps the most moving experience occurred shortly before the end of the exhibit at the German Consulate. A friend visited the gallery with his very talented, bright, thirteen year old son who has some learning disabilities. Rafaell was so taken with the painting that he asked to be brought back to see it again. At the second visit he spent one hour almost emotionally communicating with the painting. We were quite impressed with his concentration. But that was not the end. Back home, his father heard him talking with his younger brother, explaining that this amazing painting was going to be leaving New York and urging his brother to go and visit it. His father was so impressed that he, in fact, did return to the consulate with both sons to pay homage to a remarkable work of art. Simon Dinnerstein by Rafael, 13 years old
It was so exciting to see how this work of art spoke to the young children and the older teenagers. Each brought their own life experiences along with them as they interacted with the work and each, I’m sure, brought away something personal that hopefully will stay with them forever.
“As soon as I saw you, I knew a grand adventure was about to happen.”
A.A. Milne, Winnie –the- Pooh
Before pacing calendars, before the hysteria of Common Core Learning Standards, before preparing four and five year olds to be college and career ready, there actually were some wonderful classroom opportunities for opening doors and embracing unexpected opportunities for learning. Many years after the fact, (actually eighteen years later) I can recall one of those special moments.
It was September 1996, the start of another teaching year with a new group of kindergarten children. As I did most years, I encouraged each child to bring a favorite storybook from home to share with the class. These books were kept in a special “sharing basket” and each day I picked a few to read aloud. I never, ever would have predicted what was going to happen when I picked Lee’s book to read.
I truly enjoy reading most children’s books but there’s one series that I find particularly tedious and uninspiring, the Berenstain Bears books. However, as much as I avoided reading them to the class, the children seemed to equally love each one in the series. Why? I couldn’t quite figure that out but, nevertheless, there’s obviously something in the humor of the adventures that appeals to five year old children.
Lee’s book was The Berenstain Bears’ Camping Adventure and the minute that I finished my reading, the sounds of “read it again” rang out all around the carpet. O.K., I’m a rather obliging sort so I did it – I read it again. Each day that week the children asked if I could reread that silly tale of a bear family’s adventurous camping trip. Finally, after about the fourth reading that week, I put the book aside and asked if anyone in the class ever went on a real overnight camping trip in the woods. A small sprinkling of hands went up. Most of the children had never gone camping.
“Hmm, I wonder….” (As the year progressed, they would begin to realize that those two words often prefaced some class adventure or project.) “I wonder…could we imagine that a forest grew in our classroom, that day turns to night, and that we could go on a classroom camping trip? I wonder…” Well, can you imagine what happened next? “Yes!!” “Yes, let’s do it!!”
With the excitement beginning to reach a high pitch, I lifted my hands to indicate that it was time to settle down and I said, “Let’s think about it and talk about this tomorrow.” I wanted to see if the idea would sustain over night and I also wanted to think about this crazy idea that I had just proposed!
The next day the children came to school buzzing with excitement about our camping trip. Their parents, on the other hand, looked totally confused. It’s September and you’re taking my five year old on a camping trip…and at night? What kind of crazy teacher did we end up with this year? I certainly would need to send out a class newsletter very soon!
At our morning meeting, we couldn’t seem to move away from the topic of a classroom camping trip. They were just too excited, so I asked the children to talk to each other about what they knew about the forest and about camping trips. Then we had a class share. All different themes and concepts, seemed to present themselves: forest animals, dangerous animals like tigers and elephants, trees, flowers, bears, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, starry skies at night, camping gear like tents, sleeping bags, and flashlights, campfires, roasting marshmallows, etc.
I told the children that, if we were going to do a good job of turning our classroom into a forest and getting ready for a camping trip, then we would have to do some research. This new word warranted a longer discussion so it was tabled for our next meeting.
When I came back to the topic and began to discuss research with the children, we brainstormed for ways of getting information. An interesting comment on the time that this took place is that nobody suggested that we use the Internet! Reading books and talking with people who had experience seemed to be the most popular suggestions and hence began our first experience with reading centers.
Children were encouraged to bring in books from home, if they had them, on any of the topics that we listed. I also suggested that we look through our classroom library and I scoured the school library and our very well stocked bookroom. We organized baskets of books on the different topics…Stars, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, I added Little Red Riding Hood, Forest animal books, books about flowers, books about trees, and so forth. I then spent a few days on some partner-sharing minilessons with practice time on the rug. Children picked partners. I made a chart listing the different topics and partners signed up for a basket of books that they would spend two (or possibly three…my memory is failing on this detail) days reading together. There were generally two sets of partners to a basket. At the end of each reading center time, all of the children at the center were encouraged to talk about what they discovered from their books that day. At the share meeting, I did the sharing. I shared my observations of what I noticed about the way children were working together, focusing on the positive.
We began listing our discoveries (there were no tigers or elephants in any of the forest books!), we set up some new centers based on what children were discovering (at our second choice of centers, we added a birds in the forest center) and children drew pictures of things they wanted to remember from their center. We had about three rounds of centers so each child got to spend time in three different reading centers.
Now we had lots of information and we brainstormed for choice time centers to help get our class ready for the camping trip. In the block center, children build a forest and the house of the three bears. (We added teddy bears to the block center). In the dramatic play center the children were playing some sort of variation of Goldilocks and Red Riding Hood. We had a star center where the children made stars and constellations (their own constellations) that I hung from the light fixtures. In the art center children were using construction paper and cardboard dowels to make trees and flowers. Some children painted a forest mural. My student teacher made trail mix with a group at our cooking center. Playdough birds and animals were sculpted. It was, needless to say, a busy time.
At meeting, I taught a star counting song – “Stars shining, number, number one, number two, number three, number four, oh my, oh my o my o my, bye and bye, bye and bye”…we turned out the lights and used flashlights to make the “starts” appear as we sang and counted. We also learned and practiced “Going on a Bear Hunt.”
As our “camping day” grew closer, the classroom filled up with trees, flowers, a starry sky, a more and more intricate forest scenario in the block center with paper flowers and trees scattered among the wooden structures. Trail mix was doled out into individual paper bags for each “camper.” We constructed a model of a campfire and I brought in chopsticks to use as twigs for roasting marshmallows. (This activity was going to depend on a lot of imagination!)
On camping day we sang and went of a bear hunt. We made a hiking line, with each child carrying a knapsack, and walked past the home of the three bears in the block corner. We sang The Happy Wanderer, a new song that I taught the children, “I love to go a-wandering, along the mountain track. And as I go, I love to sing with my knapsack on my back.” We spoke about all of the things that we were seeing along the way – birds, little animals, flowers, trees, bears, (teddy bears!) and finally stopped when we came to our “campfire.” The children spread out blankets that were in their knapsacks and I gave out our sticks and marshmallows. We “roasted” and ate the marshmallows and chomped on the trail mix. Then, the lights went out and it was nighttime. I read a spooky story by the campfire and then the children stretched out on their blankets. We passed around the flashlight as we sang the star counting song and when the lights went on, it was morning. Time to pack up the knapsacks and say goodbye to the campout day!
I guess this camping out experience was an unusual way to begin the school year. It was the only time that this happened because it fit perfectly the experience with The Berenstain Bear’s Camping Adventure book that Lee shared with us. But as I reflect on this experience it makes me think about the emphasis that so many teachers put on spending the first month (or months in some cases!) on learning routines and “getting to know each other.” When we finished this mini experience, we all knew so much about each other. I really didn’t need to spend much time on teaching routines because they fit so comfortably and practically with all of our activities. The children learned them quickly and they most certainly got to know each other and feel a comfortable ownership of their classroom. That’s what we want, isn’t it? The children understood that they could get both enjoyment and information from books and that it was important to have discussions to further their understanding. They learned how to use the materials in the classroom.
We also started out the year with a significant bonding activity that set a precedent for the year ahead. As Winnie the Pooh said, “As soon as I saw you, I knew a grand adventure was about to happen.” I think the children in my class knew that we were about to have a year of adventures in our kindergarten…and we did!
I SPY, I SIGH
This week I had the fortunate experience of stepping into Pam Roque’s P.S. 142 Kindergarten classroom during Choice Time. The children all seemed to be totally engaged with their activities and with each other. Pam was the sole adult in her room. She had no teaching assistant and no student teacher to assist her. Yet there was no chaos. Children were not constantly interrupting her for help. Quite the contrary, I noticed so many instances of children helping each other. I wonder how much modeling Pam did during the school year to lead her young charges to this sophisticated behavior?
It’s April, a few days before the spring break and the class is at the winding down phase of their Beautiful Stuff project. I could see all sorts of found objects that the children brought to school, being used throughout the classroom.
On the floor near the block center, two girls were cutting, pasting, giggling and singing. When I asked them what they were working on they told me that they were making a mermaid because they were best friends and they both LOVED mermaids!
I looked over at the block area and was totally intrigued with the thoughtful concentration of the children who were at work. Their placement of the various trinkets all around their buildings was particularly interesting.
I didn’t want to interrupt their work and so I asked Pam if she could explain what was taking place. Pam told me that she had shared many “I Spy” books with the class during the course of this project because they seemed to be such a good match with all of the objects that children brought in to school. The children loved the books and they came up with an inventive way of reinterpreting the concept of the books in the Block Building Center.
Builders took trays of the Beautiful Stuff and brought it to the block center. When they finished their construction, they peppered their structure with different objects.
To bring this idea to another level, Pam created a “Beautiful Stuff I Spy” template and the builders filled it out with drawings and words. Then they invited other children to come in and go on an “I Spy” hunt, checking off whatever they could find until they finished the paper!
How did Pam manage to support all of this independence and creativity? I’m going to spend more time in her room, perhaps videotaping so that I can learn more about her strategies and share them with other new kindergarten teachers. Right off the bat, though, there are some professional practices that are obvious to me.
Pam speaks with a soft, but firm, voice. At meetings and at centers, she is a really good listener, encouraging children to follow suit. Her classroom is neat and well organized. Children know just where everything belongs and they also know how to find things on their own. There are no behavior charts, gold stars or other artificial rewards. The rewards children receive are in their new friendships and in the pleasure of spending each day in a peaceful and loving classroom.
When I’m in her room, I breathe a sigh of pleasure, knowing that here is a place where children are being intellectually challenged and emotionally respected.
I’D like to tell you what was wrong with the tests my students took last week, but I can’t. Pearson’s $32 million contract with New York State to design the exams prohibits the state from making the tests public and imposes a gag order on educators who administer them. So teachers watched hundreds of thousands of children in grades 3 to 8 sit for between 70 and 180 minutes per day for three days taking a state English Language Arts exam that does a poor job of testing reading comprehension, and yet we’re not allowed to point out what the problems were.
This lack of transparency was one of the driving forces that led the teachers at my school to call for a protest rally the day after the test, a rally that attracted hundreds of supporters. More than 30 other New York City schools have scheduled their own demonstrations.
I want to be clear: We were not protesting testing; we were not protesting the Common Core standards. We were protesting the fact that we had just witnessed children being asked to answer questions that had little bearing on their reading ability and yet had huge stakes for students, teachers, principals and schools. (Among other things, test scores help determine teacher and principal evaluations, and in New York City they also have an impact on middle and high school admissions to some schools.) We were protesting the fact that it is our word against the state’s, since we cannot reveal the content of the passages or the questions that were asked.
In general terms, the tests were confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards. The questions were focused on small details in the passages, rather than on overall comprehension, and many were ambiguous. Children as young as 8 were asked several questions that required rereading four different paragraphs and then deciding which one of those paragraphs best connected to a fifth paragraph. There was a strong emphasis on questions addressing the structure rather than the meaning of the texts. There was also a striking lack of passages with an urban setting. And the tests were too long; none of us can figure out why we need to test for three days to determine how well a child reads and writes.
Teachers and administrators at my school have spoken out against the overemphasis on testing for years, but our stance is not one of “sour grapes.” Last year we were one of the 25 top-scoring schools in New York State. We have implemented the Common Core standards with enthusiasm, and we have always supported the idea that great teaching is the best test preparation. But this year’s English Language Arts exam has made a mockery of that position.
It is frightening to think what “teaching to the test” would mean, given the nature of the test. We won’t do it, but some schools will, or at least will try, despite a new state law that mandates that schools limit test prep to 2 percent of instructional time. How does one even begin to monitor or enforce such a mandate?
Over the past few years, as higher stakes have been attached to the tests, we have seen schools devote more time to test prep, leaving less time and fewer resources for instruction in music, the arts, social studies and physical education. This is especially true for schools with a high proportion of low-income students, who tend to do worse on the test, and whose teachers and principals have to worry more about the scores.
At Public School 321, we entered this year’s testing period doing everything that we were supposed to do as a school. We limited test prep and kept the focus on great instruction. We reassured families that we would avoid stressing out their children, and we did. But we believed that New York State and Pearson would have listened to the extensive feedback they received last year and revised the tests accordingly. We were not naïve enough to think that the tests would be transformed, but we counted on their being slightly improved. It truly was shocking to look at the exams in third, fourth and fifth grade and to see that they were worse than ever. We felt as if we’d been had.
For two years, I have suggested that the commissioner of education and the members of the Board of Regents actually take the tests — I’d recommend Days 1 and 3 of the third-grade test for starters. Afterward, I would like to hear whether they still believed that these tests gave schools and parents valuable information about a child’s reading or writing ability.
We do not want to become cynics, but until these flawed exams are released to the public and there is true transparency, it will be difficult for teachers and principals to maintain the optimism that is such an essential element of educating children.
Children are very naturally curious about the world around them. Anyone who has observed young children understands that it isn’t necessary to entertain them with expensive and intricate toys. They can spend hours experimenting with cardboard boxes. A caterpillar crawling up a leaf can mesmerize a youngster, giving rise to a multitude of observations and questions. Inquiry projects provide opportunities for teachers to build on the interests of children and plan many rich and challenging instructional experiences.
When I introduce the project approach to teachers, we study their mandated curriculum but we also discuss how topics can be addressed in a way that also considers the interests and various proclivities of their students. For example there was a kindergarten class that was scheduled to begin a transportation study. Instead of pre-planning a full thematic study, the teachers were asked to first take a walk around the neighborhood with the class and find out what children already knew about transportation and what they seemed to particularly interest them. In this case the children had many questions about the subway that ran under their neighborhood. The teachers were all set to begin a subway study. We began planning for the study by creating an anticipatory web. On this document, we listed the possibilities for this study. We included the standards that would be addressed, field trips, possible visiting experts, resources needed, questions children might ask and research , and inquiry-based Choice Time centers that would support the study. We were getting set to go. But then the study took a major twist. Because there was a child in a wheelchair, the class would not be able to take any subway trips. An inquiry study depends on taking many field trips as a means of provoking questions and extending learning. Because it’s children who generate the direction of a study, the problem was presented to the class with an unexpected result. The children’s outrage at the unfairness of the situation led to an unusual transportation study – a wheelchair study!
In my workshops and onsite staff development, I help teachers develop studies that draw on the insights, and imagination of their students. They learn strategies for co-developing, with children, webs that record what the class knows about the topic at the start of the study, and how to return to this web to enter more information as their knowledge grows and becomes more focused. Children take on the responsibility for categorizing and labeling the information on the web and deciding on the best method for investigating each of their questions.
Projects are approached in three phases. The first phase is when children share, in many ways, their prior knowledge and the teacher arranges for an initial field trip that creates a common experience for all children. During this phase there might be surveys and graphs created for sharing information that will be used later in the study.
The second phase is when the major investigation takes place. There are field trip experiences, experts interviewed, projects worked on in inquiry centers, books read and reports written. I sometimes refer to this phase as the “meat and potatoes” part of the project because of all the work that children are doing to find answers to their questions.
“Experts” visited third-graders who were studying Australia, and first-graders who were investigating subways.
The third phase represents the culmination of the study. The class returns to the initial web to add and revise information and reflect on the learning experience. At this time children decide on how they want to share with others what they have learned on the topic. Will they have a museum? Will they create a video or a computer presentation? Perhaps they will write a play or publish a big book that they share with younger children. The important aspect of this culminating activity is that it is in the hands of the children and facilitated by the teacher.
These first graders, mostly English language learners, are writing a script for a puppet show that they will present at their project celebration. It will be a story that describes how we can care for hamsters, the animal that their class had been studying.
Some of the inquiry projects that I have worked on with teachers and children, besides the Wheelchair Project, are
∗ Community Gardens
∗ Local Architecture
∗ The Emergency Medical Team of the local hospital
∗ The Essex Street Market (a market made up of individual stalls)
∗ The Post Office
∗ The Firehouse
∗ The Park
∗ Classroom Pets (each first grade classroom had a different pet and children chose which pet they would study, changing rooms when it was Inquiry Project time
∗ Healthy Bodies
∗ Construction Site
∗ The School
∗ A Restaurant
When children complete a few inquiry projects their learning has gone beyond the content area information. Just as with instruction in the writing process, the result is that children become empowered to become lifelong learners. They understand that, with interest, enthusiasm and determination, there are many roads that they can take towards knowledge, understanding and expertise.
Thank you to the work of Lilian Katz, Sylvia Chard, Judy Harris Helm, Sallee Beneke and the teachers in the early childhood schools of Reggio Emilia.
My daughter, Simone Dinnerstein, is a rather incredible person, if I do say so myself! She’s a marvelous pianist who worked very hard her entire life to achieve the success that she is now enjoying. At the age of 4 she decided that she wanted to be a pianist. We were living in Rome because my husband, Simon, had received a Rome Prize for painting. Simon’s studio was at the beautiful American Academy and we had a lovely apartment nearby in the neighborhood, Monteverde Vecchio. We enrolled Simone in a ballet class for children, thinking that she would enjoy the dancing. Little did we know that the pianist who played Chopin while they went through their dance routines would mesmerize her. She began asking for lessons but, since both Simon and I had no musical background, we thought that she was too young to study piano. In addition, we did not have a piano!
The requests didn’t stop. Finally Simon asked the composer in residence, John Thow, what he would suggest and John advised us to begin her on recorder lessons. By this time, Simone was five years old. We bought her a recorder and found a lovely recorder teacher who agreed to instruct her. Her teacher was amazed at how quickly Simone picked up the music. She said that it was as though she had played it in another life.
We didn’t return to NYC until Simone was seven but as soon as we were settled in an apartment, Simone reminded us of our promise to let her have piano lessons when we returned to NY. We brought my mother’s spinet piano to Brooklyn, found a young woman in the neighborhood who gave lessons, and Simone’s life as a pianist began. She eventually went to the Manhattan School of Music Pre-College Division every Saturday until she graduated high school where she studied with Solomon Mikowsky (without missing one Saturday!), then to Juilliard, followed by studying in London with the renowned teacher, Maria Curcio and finally returning to NY to study with Peter Serkin.
The rest of her career is well documented in many articles and interviews, so I’ll skip over that and move right on to the reason for this blog entry.
I’ve always believed that it was my husband’s career as an artist that had the greatest influence on Simone but lately I’m realizing that she is also very much influenced by my career as a teacher. Simone has a deep commitment towards bringing music into the life of the community and also to the lives of young children. To this end she began a program called Neighborhood Classics in two New York City public schools, hoping that it will be replicated in other schools and communities.
This year she has added to that by creating her Bachpacking experiences, where she had gone directly into classrooms in 10 NYC schools and 10 Washington, D.C. schools so that she can play Bach for the children. Yamaha has donated the use of a digital piano and SONY has provided transportation for her. I sat in on two of her sessions with third graders at the UFT Charter School in Brooklyn. The children were totally engaged and eager to ask questions. (“Do you have to practice on your birthday?”). A second grade teacher at P.S. 142 in Manhattan sent me the following email message, “I want you to know this really brought a smile to my face. I can’t begin to tell you how inspired they were and immediately started writing about their experience. They also asked more questions about music today and so I explained some rudimentary things about the treble and bass clef and how notes are written on paper and read between left and right hand. We also discussed how their voices are really musical instruemts and practiced the scale DO RAE Me etc… They just can’t stop telling people about the concert and are trying their best to be so well behaved.I was also amazed how they managed to remember so many of the words they were taught. Did Simone tell you about the one little girl who started to cry because she was holding her breath to be picked to play so Simone was nice enough to allow her to play. She went home and told her mother all about how much she loved the music.”
In Yiddish there’s a word that signifies filling up with pride – kvelling. I guess I’m taking advantage of my blog to do some kvelling. But beyond my pride, it’s so obvious when one sees the children interacting with Simone how easily children take to music and how much joy and fulfillment it can bring to their lives. I hope that Simone’s work in the schools might inspire the powers that be to bring good music instruction and experiences back into the public schools.
“Only a society prepared by education can ever be truly a cultured society …Children must receive musical instruction naturally as food, and with as much pleasure as they derive from a ball game.”
Do you believe in serendipity?
This past Saturday I came across a blog that was posted on Facebook and the latest entry was titled Beautiful Stuff: Diary of a Gan Teacher. A kindergarten teacher was about to begin the Beautiful Stuff project with her class and would be blogging about it periodically. What a perfect find this was for me! The kindergarten classes in two of the schools where I consult are just beginning this project. I emailed all of the teachers the link to this blog and encouraged them to read it, and if they felt the urge, to send in comments on how the project was working in their classes.
Then, yesterday (Sunday) I received a beautiful private message on my Facebook page from Amy Meltzer, a kindergarten teacher working in Massachusetts. She wrote about how much she enjoys my blog and how it is supporting her planning for Choice Time. It was such a wonderful beginning to my Sunday. I wrote back to Amy and through the course of our back and forth communications discovered that Amy is the author of the Beautiful Stuff blog! Now isn’t that amazing!
I just love the Beautiful Stuff project. As a staff developer working with early childhood teachers, I find that it is a perfect way to support teachers in understanding the joy and potential of exploration, inquiry and creative expression.
The project is presented in the book Beautiful Stuff! Learning with Found Materials by Cathy Weisman Topal and Lella Gandini. The publisher’s description of the book on their website says, “inspired by educational practices in Reggio Emilia, Italy, this book focuses on process rather than product. Chapters cover collecting and organizing materials, stimulating thoughts about design, reflecting upon and extending work, and more. Several sorting and categorizing activities are presented, along with individual and group projects and constructions.”
I’d like to share some images of children’s work from two different New York City public schools. In this first school working with this study had a profound effect on the way that the kindergarten teachers approached art with their children. When I first visited their classrooms I was struck by how caring all of the teachers were towards their students. The population consisted of mostly children of immigrants from Latino countries. Many families lived in shelters or in a local housing project. For a variety of reasons, the children did not take part in class conversations. There was little chatter between them at their tables when they were working or at play centers. The art work that I saw on the walls all looked very similar and teacher-directed.
Look at what happened when they were encouraged to experiment with a variety of materials and come up with their own personal designs.
Have any of you had experience with this project? If you haven’t, are you interested in giving it a try? These are some suggestions that I have shared with the teachers that I’ve been working with at various NYC schools:
Ideas and Thoughts from the text Beautiful Stuff!
- One goal of this project is to allow children to become ‘fluent’ with materials – as if materials were a language
- This project tends to get parents very involved – they too are eager to share the treasures that they collected. They are interested in seeing what other families have discovered.
- We want to record the opening of the bags – video, still photo, tape recorded responses, written transcripts
- The teacher helps children focus their observations by asking questions and making responses that help focus conversation
- Give children opportunities to sort the materials in unexpected ways
- Give children opportunities to name the sorted categories and make observations about the different categories
- Materials can be arranged and rearranged many times
- When materials are arranged in different categories and displayed in an attractive way, parents and children can add to the materials when they come in to school in the morning (see page 21)
- Because clutter is distracting, teachers have to make selections and throw away some materials. This should be done with discretion so that feelings are not hurt
- Storing materials in clear or white containers allows children to clearly see the colors and textures of each material
- Have a display shelf left blank so children can use it for unfinished or finished work (see page 46)
- An enthusiastic adult has to be involved to keep the communication and dialogue going
- The kinds of questions to ask as well as when to ask or make an observation becomes important parts of being present to the moment with children
- Exploring materials is an evocative experience. It stimulates the imagination. It invites children to tell stories and to develop games
- Social interaction is a natural outcome of exploring
- Exploring materials is a bridge to other avenues of expression, such as drawing, collage, construction and sculpture
- Saving a trace or memory of an experience is so important to the art of learning and teaching
- Collecting materials and ideas for a project on one day, then inviting children to wait overnight to think them through, builds a sense of anticipation and allows for changes in plans and new ideas
- Instead of giving children a model on which to base their work, ask, “How could you make ___ from your materials?”
I hope that you will visit Amy’s blog and that you will share some of your own experiences with this project. If you have thoughts or questions about any aspect of this study, please post them on the “make a comment” space for my blog. I have a feeling that there are many teachers who read our blogs who will have many interesting suggestions and stories to share.
Don’t you just love those serendipitous moments?