In response to the unfortunate atmosphere of teacher bashing that we are living through, I would like to focus on some wonderful work being done by a group of hard-working teachers in a public school in New York City.
Here’s a bit of background information about this barrier-free, pre-k – 5 school, located on the Lower East Side, which is situated in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. The ethnic breakdown is approximately 75 % Latino, 20 % African-American, 3.5 % Asian and 1.5 % ‘other’. Many of the children live in shelters or foster homes. There’s a large special needs population, often transferring into the school mid-year. Because of the No Child Left Behind legislation, families from other areas of the city transfer their children into this hard-working, caring school and, because children are traveling long distances, there’s a major problem with lateness and absences. This year, the heavy-duty budget cuts came down hard on this community. Without any significant PTA fundraising, staff is often forced to reach into their own pockets if they want to provide any extra materials for their classrooms.
Four years ago, I was approached by their network leader, Dan Feigelson, and asked if I could do some consulting work here with the kindergarten and first grade teachers. He was familiar with the inquiry and Choice Time work that I had done in my own classroom (we had been colleagues at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn) and thought that the children would benefit from more exploration and playtime. The principal, a former pre-k teacher herself, was in agreement.
The school already had a long-term relationship with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. The children were making progress in learning the technicalities of reading and writing. However, they were challenged when the content became more complex. Because of personal stress in their lives, children had difficulty working collaboratively and in resolving conflicts without resorting to violence. The administration believed that the children needed more opportunities to learn and practice positive social skills and to engage in abstract thinking. They decided that the place to begin working on these problems was in the early childhood grades and that is when they decided to approach me.
Here were some of my impressions when I first visited the school: very hard-working and committed staff; positive tone in the classrooms; I did not hear teachers yelling or using harsh words when disciplining children; kindergartens had an unplanned form of Choice Time (really more like free-play) for 20 – 30 minutes at the end of a day filled with all academics; classrooms had very little organization of centers and practically no sense that children were expected to use materials independently (in the block ‘center’ were math manipulatives, dramatic play, teacher-materials stored, etc., there was no visible art center); first grade classrooms did not have Choice Time at all (occasional ‘free play’ as a reward for good behaviors); there were no blocks in the first grade rooms and a very small collection of blocks in the kindergartens.
Drawing on the Reggio Emilia philosophy of considering that the classroom is the second teacher, we first worked on room environment. I wasn’t sure if I was putting the cart before the horse, but it seemed like a concrete way of beginning. Major changes were made in the ‘look’ of the classrooms. The principal also ordered unit blocks for all kindergarten and first grade rooms. To my delight, the teachers began noticing immediate changes in the way that the children were using materials and in the general classroom ambiance.
We then planned out some studies that the teachers thought would interest the children, support their curriculum and also interest the teachers. The first grade teachers wanted their inquiry project to have a social element to it. They thought about the day-to-day lives of the children, and what would be important to all of them. Most of the school population, rather than using private physicians, either went to the emergency room of the local hospital or to a nearby clinic. This is where the teachers wanted to begin…with a study of the EMS. This also morphed into an ambulance study because of the children’s interests and questions.
They visited the local clinic, had a doctor and a nurse visit the classroom, and examined up close an ambulance that visited the school specifically so that the children could explore the inside and outside of the vehicle and interview the EMS workers. Some children became fascinated with bones and what was happening inside their bodies. In the classrooms, ‘hospitals’ were created along with x-ray rooms (overhead projectors, old x-rays). In one first grade room during their choice time, I observed a boy, doll in arms, racing to the “x-ray” room. “My baby hurt his arm. He’s crying! Help me”. The doll was quickly put on the overhead projector and the “x-ray technician looked at the shadow on the wall. He held up an x-ray, looked at it and said, “Your baby has a broken arm. Take him to the hospital!”. He wrote a little note on a pad, gave it to the ‘father’, who took it and rushed back to the classroom hospital, where the baby’s arm was carefully wrapped up with an old ace bandage. That same day, at Choice Time in another classroom I noticed two girls tracing the body of a boy on butcher paper and then, using a book as reference, drawing in the bones for the body. At the same time two other children were using the overhead projector to trace an image of an ambulance. They kept turning it on and off to check their work. This drawing was going to be the ‘plan’ for an ambulance model that they would later create out of cartons and other materials.
The Kindergartens began with a study of the local firehouse, making many field trips there, exploring the firetruck, interviewing the firefighters, checking out their own homes for fire exits and smoke alarms and creating their own home-safety plans.
This year is my fourth year working at this school. Some of the studies that have taken place are a kindergarten exploration of “Beautiful Stuff” ( children brought in ‘found’ objects from home like buttons, toilet paper tubes, broken pieces of jewelry, wood scraps, etc., sorted and labeled all of the ‘booty’ and brainstormed for ideas on how to use these materials in different projects) , a study of the local bakeries, a neighborhood garden study ( I watched children in the block center creating different areas for a classroom garden, using sketches that they worked on together. There were children in the science center planting seeds in small pots that they decorated. When they were finished planting, they brought the pots to the block center where they were put in the ‘community garden’.), a first-grade study of bridges, particularly the Williamsburg Bridge and a study of the NYC subway system. Each first grade class designed and built bridge towers outside their classroom doors and then connected them across the corridor to make one large suspension bridge!
When I asked the teachers if they noticed any positive changes since we began our work, here are some of the things they shared with me:
They noticed that
o Children were becoming more verbal
o The children who are their ‘struggling learners’ are participating more in class work and discussions
o During Choice Time and Inquiry-study time, children with behavioral issues are becoming calmer and more cooperative
o English Language Learners are talking more and sharing stories, possibly because there is no fear of coming up with a right or wrong response
o There is a noticeable carry-over to the writing being done during writing workshop since the children have more shared experiences to draw from
o Field trips have become more purposeful and the children can understand the purpose of each trip
o Parents have told the teachers the their talk about things that they are exploring in class and use a lot of new vocabulary.
o The teachers are more supportive of each other
o There is more professional collaboration
o There’s more of a feeling of a grade-community
o Teachers, along with children, feel a pride in their work
o The cluster teachers have come on board and are planning lessons to support the classroom studies
In a recent email to me, one of the kindergarten teachers wrote about some of the changes that she and her co-teacher made in their classrooms, “ Our block area has been enlarged. Therefore the children have more room to build. We have “blueprint paper” for them to draw their ideas first before building and pencils as well as post- it’s for labeling their building. The art area is more accessible as well as all the different mediums that they need. The dramatic play area is changed with each study and discussed with the children beforehand. There are papers in each work area for the teacher to make notes about what the children are doing, what we think and how to proceed, as well as writing (down) what the children are saying. The room was not as organized and now the children have access to the materials and their projects.”
I am noticing that the flow of the day is much more ‘child-friendly’. Kindergartens have Choice Time for an hour every morning. They go on more neighborhood trips. The first grade has Choice Time at least twice, sometimes more, each week and they too go on curriculum-related trips more often.
When we discussed future professional goals, the teachers asked if we could focus more in depth on using documentation and assessment to help in planning whole class and small group projects and investigations.
These teachers have worked so hard and been so admirable in their professional growth. Their classrooms breathe with imagination, inquiry and a real life force!
On June 10th, two of the teachers and I will be presenting a workshop at Lehman College in the Bronx, NY. The conference is An Early childhood Education Conference: The Reggio Emilia Approach in 21st Century Urban Settings. Our breakout group is titled CHANGE! – DEVELOPING INQUIRY-BASED SOCIAL STUDIES PROJECTS AND CHOICE TIME CENTERS IN KINDERGARTEN AND FIRST GRADE CLASSES AT P.S. 142M. If you’re in the area and would like to attend, you can email Carol Gross at firstname.lastname@example.org