Monthly Archives: September 2010

A Learning Partnership

It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle
that the modern methods of instruction
have not entirely strangled the holy
curiosity of inquiry.
Albert Einstein

This week, two lovely new kindergarten teachers and I met to plan their weekly schedule. They gave me a list of all that they were required to cover – math, writing workshop, reading workshop, word study, handwriting, science, social studies, shared reading, read aloud, morning meeting, five ‘prep’ periods, lunch, and time to take the class to the bathroom (there’s no bathroom in the classroom or on their corridor). I said that an hour daily of Choice Time and outdoor playtime were early-childhood priorities.

I could fill a notebook with complaints about the insanity of stuffing so much into a child’s day. I’m actually hearing from many teachers that in some schools administrators expect kindergarten teachers to shorten or actually eliminate any opportunity for explorative, child-directed indoor and outdoor play in their schedule.

The conundrum for me, in my role as a staff developer, is how to be sure that Choice Time and outdoor play are not excluded from the early childhood classroom at a time when there is so much emphasis on early, rigorous academics and quantitative assessment.

I believe that teachers can ‘defend’ the importance of investigative play in their early childhood programs by:
• Setting up interesting, child-directed centers
• Including appropriate materials in each center
• Adding and taking away materials over the course of the year so as to provoke children’s curiosity and creativity
• Developing centers that support an ongoing science and/or social studies inquiry project
• Including materials that allow children to integrate, in a natural way, reading, writing and mathematics
• Observing children at play, conversing with them about their activities, recording observations and using these documents to plan instructional ‘next steps’

To illustrate, here are just a few possible centers:

Many kindergarten classes begin their year with a name study. Every few days, a different child becomes the “Star Name Child” whose name then is the focus of inquiry. A Name Study Center would be a logical place where children could continue this exploration. This center might first open with lists of class names, alphabet stamps and ink pads (don’t forget to first demonstrate how to use this material), small Xeroxed photos of all the children in the class, glue sticks, pencils, markers, different kinds of papers and blank books, perhaps alphabet grids and clip boards so children can go around the room to do ‘name surveys’ (who’s name goes in the A box, the B box, etc.). One day the teacher might join the children at this center and help them make a name concentration game to add to the area. Children very likely will invent their own name games, especially if they are given new materials…perhaps old playing cards covered over with blank paper, maybe an old game board (I always saved these and found new uses for them at one time or another) and dice or spinners with alphabet letters on them. As more and more names are ‘studied’, the teacher could add name puzzles (or children could make these on their own). Adding carbon paper makes writing names and name books even more exciting…almost like magic!

As the year progresses, this Name Center might morph into an ABC center, especially if the teacher presents this change as an exciting class alphabet inquiry project. This might begin by having the entire class discuss all that they know about the alphabet. Chart this and keep adding (and taking away) information as the study progresses. ABC charts and alphabet books could be added to the center. Magnetic letters, too, help children explore the alphabet. I added the overhead projector to this center. How exciting it was to put the magnetic letters on the projector and see letters, names and words swirling around the room!

This investigation could spread to the classroom library. Children who pick the reading center could be given some empty book baskets and lots of ABC books. Their challenge might be to sort out the books by different categories that they come up with…ABC label books? ABC animal books? Silly ABC Books? ABC Pop-up books? Children might come up with their own totally surprising categories! After they have looked at the books together and sorted them, they could make labels for the baskets and add these new book bins to the classroom library. They might even want to make ABC posters or pictures and decorate the library.

I’m suggesting some center possibilities, and I’ll add more about other centers on upcoming blog entries, but I would not be surprised if children, with their own sense of playfulness and inventiveness, add their own ideas to enhance, improvise and extend these centers if the teacher enjoys and encourages innovation and creative thinking. The classroom becomes a learning partnership between the children and the teacher, who has become an active researcher, constantly learning more about the children in the classroom and about the exciting art of teaching.

CLICK HERE to make a comment. I invite all readers (teachers,students, parents, grandparents, etc.) to leave comments.  It would be wonderful to hear what you have to say so we can have more of a dialogue on the subject.

Getting Started

“The first essential for the child’s development is concentration. The child who concentrates is immensely happy.”
Maria Montessori

Two years ago I had the opportunity to visit a class of 5 year olds in Reggio Emilia, Italy. They had just finished their morning group meeting and were beginning their ‘work period’. Twenty- four children were scattered around the classroom, which included a loft area containing unit blocks and a large bathroom with a washbasin that children used for water explorations. Block building, art, dramatic play, math activities, water play…all of this was happening in a room that buzzed with the sound of happy and engaged voices. What particularly amazed me was that this period lasted for two hours and children did not appear to be wandering from one activity to another. Occasionally, a child would walk over to another area to observe or chat with the teacher, but then he returned to his own activity, seemingly ‘recharged’ by the encounter.

Although I’m not suggesting a two- hour choice time, I do encourage teachers to expect children to stay at their chosen center for the entire period, rather than shifting from one activity to another. Concentration and focus are important elements in the learning process. It is logical for teachers to expect that children will become engrossed in an activity over an extended time period. However, as we well know, this doesn’t ‘just happen’ in a classroom setting. It takes a lot of teacher preparation, expectation, instruction and patience.

At the start of the year, I scheduled a relatively short Choice Time. I wanted children to be asking for more time rather than wondering what to do at their centers after ten or fifteen minutes. Little by little, the period was extended to an hour, sometimes longer. By late winter and spring children were often so engaged in their play and explorations that they usually continued at the same center for two, sometimes three, consecutive days.

I suggest that teachers always begin Choice Time with a class meeting. Think of this as a group planning time. Perhaps the discussion might be on how a new material might be used in one of the centers. It might focus on a problem that the teacher has noticed or one that the children have complained about. Clean-up time immediately comes to mind as a challenging activity for a group of young children. This might require a discussion and plan that takes place over a few pre-choice time meetings. The crucial word here for these discussions is ‘brief’ because children are eager to go off and play in their centers.

I know that many teachers rightfully will wonder how they can maintain a Choice Time where children are naturally focused and engaged in one area and where they don’t lose interest and walk off to join another center. There’s probably also questions about the child who has a meltdown after getting ‘closed out’ of a desired choice. These concerns and questions, (and I’m sure that there are many more that I haven’t mentioned), are very understandable and need to be taken very seriously. I’m going to attempt to share many of my ideas, experiences and suggestions in the next few weeks.

For today, I would like to share some thoughts about setting up and maintaining centers. The organization of each center is so important for encouraging extended explorations and innovative work. Think carefully about what might possibly happen in the center. What are the basic materials necessary for beginning explorations? Start simple. For example, in the art center, be sure that there’s a variety of paper, enough scissors for about 6 – 8 children, nice, new crayons, glue sticks, and maybe some colored chalk. Don’t put out an overwhelming amount of materials and add new supplies, little by little. You might want to have a whole-class art lesson on using paper strips for collage and sculptures. Then you could tell the children that there will be a basket of paper strips in the art center just in case they want to try something new during Choice Time. You could introduce a water center by first giving partners a small pan of water to explore, using stirring sticks, sponges and straws. The entire class could do this exploration and then, after collecting the materials, you might give children a chance to share their ‘discoveries’. Having perked their interest in water, you could tell them that you will be setting up a water table (you just need a plastic baby-bath basin on a table) for Choice Time. After children have had more opportunities to play and explore with the sticks and sponges, you might begin introducing new materials like funnels and tubes. The idea is that the centers start out simple enough for children to explore and play without being overwhelmed but they are also ‘open’ enough to keep adding new materials to extend the possibilities.

All of the centers should have appropriate materials for writing such as paper, blank booklets, memo pads, list paper, chart paper, crayons, pencils, markers, etc. There also could be a space at that center where children might post or hang up work. My centers all had at least one basket of books that  somehow related to that area of concentration. I told the children that these were books for ‘inspiration’.

I tried to incorporate my classroom tables into the centers, rather than having a cluster of tables in the middle of the room. This served two purposes. Having the table in the center gave the area a more permanent ‘studio’ or ‘laboratory’ ambiance. Also, it was much easier for children to independently get started as soon as Choice Time began, rather than have me ‘assign’ tables or room spots for each center. Room design is so important. The room set up literally speaks to the child, but that is yet another discussion!

CLICK HERE to make a comment. I invite all readers (teachers,students, parents, grandparents, etc.) to leave comments.  It would be wonderful to hear what you have to say so we can have more of a dialogue on the subject.

Why Choice Time?

Exploration is what you do when you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s what scientists do every day. If a scientist already knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t be discovering anything, because they already knew what they were doing.
Neil de Grasse Tyson
Director, New York Hayden Planetarium

This week, I received emails from two teachers, each asking for advice and information about Choice Time. They want to know what kinds of Choices to offer, systems to keep Choice Time from becoming chaotic and unfocused, how often to schedule Choice Time, what they should be doing during Choice Time, how many choices to open at one time, etc. These are all important questions that I want to answer so as to give these teachers as much support as possible. But, that said, I think that it’s important to first explain why I value Choice Time and why I spent so much time planning for this part of my kindergarten and first grade curriculum.

Choice Time provides a point and place, during the school day, for children to make sense of the adult world. So much of what happens in the classroom today is driven by a standardized, scripted curriculum. Teachers are bound by pacing calendars and quantitative assessments. Because of these mandates, children have less and less opportunities to make decisions, even down to being able to chose what they will be writing each day. That is why it’s important to provide time for children to explore, theorize, create, and experience the frustration of learning through trial and error.

My ideal Choice Time involves an active teacher who, by listening closely to children’s conversations and monologues, becomes aware of many of their understandings, misunderstandings and wonderings. This invaluable insight into their world provides the teacher with the seeds for planting future classroom dialogues and inquiries.

In planning choice time centers, I would suggest keeping in mind your big goals for the year. I wanted children to develop independence and self-confidence. Making interdisciplinary connections and beginning to generate personal lines of inquiry and exploration is another important goal. I provided many opportunities for children to use reading, writing and mathematics in ways that would support their own, self-directed projects and activities. Children should understand that they could use classroom equipment and materials in new and innovative ways. There should be many opportunities within the center for children to expand and deepen their use of language to express ideas, discoveries and confusions. When there was a sense all of this happening, then I knew that I was on the right track and my Choice Time was becoming successful in meeting my goals.

In setting up choice time centers, I planned to leave opportunity for children to ‘set their own agendas’. In September, the centers were usually rather basic: blocks, dramatic play, play dough, an art center, water explorations, a science table perhaps with shells to explore. These were a few of the possible early centers. As the year proceeded, centers became more focused on the children’s particular interests and on class inquiry studies. For example what began in September as ‘water explorations’ might possibly become a ‘water-machine invention’ center where children were experimenting at constructing water machines. At the playdough table, instead of making traditional flour and salt playdough, children might be creating their own innovations on the traditional recipe, adding sand or sparkles to the batter to see what would happen.

Although I was setting up the centers and deciding, initially, what materials to include, my ‘message’ was “I wonder what interesting projects you are going to come up with?” We would have interesting class discussions centered on “what can we imagine doing with this new paper?” or “Are there any thoughts on what we might explore with our new microscope? What new materials will we need to bring to the science table to help you with your science investigation?”

Generally, there wasn’t a specific ‘task’ to be completed although, sometimes, there might be a particular focus for a center. For example, one year when my class was studying the waterways in New York City we read about landforms and how they affected the creation of these waterways. This topic fascinated many of the children and they asked if they could use our sand table to make their own landforms using the Plasticene that we had in our art studio. I emptied the sand from the table and each day a group of children went to work on this project. There was a big basket of reference books and some photographs of landforms such as mesas, buttes, mountains and valleys. The children decided on how this project would proceed and, on some occasions, a few disagreements erupted, such as on the day when Alex decided to add spikes to her butte. She adamantly insisted that buttes had spikes. When the children came complaining to me about this, I suggested to Alex that she defend her decision to add spikes by finding some pictures of buttes in the book basket. I walked away and left the group, hoping that they would come to some mutual agreement. When I came back, I saw that the other two children, looking through the photos with Alex, convinced her that the buttes should be ‘spike-free’. Through their dialogue, conflict, and rhetoric the children pulled apart an idea, experimented with different strategies and eventually arrived at a point of compromise and satisfaction.

There’s so much more that I will be writing about Choice Time in future entries…helpful routines for making it run smoothly, ideas for new centers, the role of the teacher during choice time, assessing the work that the children are doing in their centers, dealing with problems like scheduling and clean up time, making connections to the curriculum, how it looks different across the year and from grade to grade…and any other choice time questions that come up over the course of the year.

CLICK HERE to make a comment. I invite all readers (teachers,students, parents, grandparents, etc.) to leave comments.  It would be wonderful to hear what you have to say so we can have more of a dialogue on the subject.