Trust!

Trust:“assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or        something; one in which confidence is placed”

Trust: “reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, etc., of a person or thing; confidence. Confident expectation of something; hope”

Can trust exist in today’s tense educational climate, when teachers and administrators rightfully feel as though someone is always looking over their shoulders?

Yes! Trust does exist in classrooms where teachers have the confidence and administrative support needed to follow their understanding of what children need rather than the proscriptions of a teaching program or pacing calendar. For an example of a teacher’s trust in children, let’s enter Marta Quinones’ first grade classroom at P.S. 142.

The children are studying subways. They’ve gone on underground and over ground rides, interviewed workers, and attended a talk given by Paul Steely White, the director of Transportation Alternatives. Because of their particular interests and the involvement of the school art teacher, they visited various stations to see the displays of subway art. There are plans for the children to visit Tom Otterness, the sculptor who created a wonderfully whimsical piece that is on the platform of the 14th street A train station. They’ve read nonfiction and fiction books about subways and written stories and fact sheets about turnstiles, vending machines, motormen and Metrocards. Subway stations are being built with blocks, Legos, and all kinds of recycled materials. Two girls preparing to turn a large cardboard box into a Metrocard machine are discussing how the inner mechanisms might look and work before beginning on their construction.

In one corner of the classroom, near the sink, a group of children are clustered around a table covered with bowls, flour, salt, yellow paint, and various measuring and mixing spoons, Three of the children are reading aloud from a recipe chart as one child slowly pours a cup of water into the bowl.

I sat down and asked them why they were making their playdough yellow. The water pourer looked up and told me, “We’re making a subway station and the tracks are with yellow playdough. We need to make more playdough so we can finish the tracks.” “Next we’re going to make the platform and then a subway train,” piped in the girl holding the recipe chart. They pointed to a nearby table that held a large piece of cardboard with subway tracks made from yellow playdough weaving around the perimeter.

Where was the teacher? Why wasn’t Marta sitting with them?

I looked to the side and saw, a few feet away, the very calm Ms. Quinones, taking notes and smiling. When I went up to her to ask her about this potentially very messy activity, Marta answered, “I trust them to be careful. I’m looking on to make sure that it goes okay but they don’t need me to stand over them and tell them what to do.”

Trust.

This Thursday, five kindergarten teachers and I are going to the former Tweed Courthouse, now home of the New York City Department of Education for a meeting with the chief academic officer of the New York City public schools. We want to give voice to the many kindergarten teachers who are being silenced by, what some have described to me as, an insidiously oppressive atmosphere of intimidation in the schools. There seems to be a fairly widespread belief that it’s safer to be quiet and not complain rather than taking the risk of speaking up and possibly losing a job.

We want to give voice to the many children who are missing out on an important kindergarten year because a developmentally ill-suited curriculum is imposed on them. It’s not uncommon to hear it said that kindergarten is the new first grade.

Among the six of us, we calculated that we have a hundred and fifty cumulative years of experience teaching the early childhood grades. Our meeting was prompted by our professional discomfit with the present direction of early childhood education in New York City public schools, most specifically in kindergarten. An ever-increasing number of assessments are filling up the day. Kindergarteners are often given “busy work” so that their teacher can sit with one child to administer an assessment, often one that has no practical use in classroom instruction.

“Performance tasks” that do not, in any way, relate to most five-year olds “zone of proximal development” are imposed by bureaucrats who have little or no experience with children of this age and little obvious knowledge of child development. Even though the common core-aligned task for kindergarten English Language Arts described on the DOE website states that children should “use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/explanatory texts in which they name what they are writing about and supply some information about the topic” many administrators (perhaps in response to outside pressures) are insisting that teachers must not take any dictation. Five year olds are, in many schools, expected to do their own writing in this task. This might be possible for some children, but for many these become stressful, frustrating and humiliating experiences.

Our visit is a response to an email that I sent to the Deputy Superintendent a few months ago. I had just received a note from a depressed and frustrated kindergarten teacher who was bemoaning the way that her day was co-opted by a variety of administratively assigned assessments, Teachers College lessons and pacing calendars and hours of clerical record-keeping. All of this, she wrote, was preventing her from providing her students, mostly English Language Learners, with the kindergarten experiences that they so desperately needed.

I was so upset by this note. In the heat of the moment, after reading and rereading it, I decided to pass it on (without the teacher’s name) to the deputy superintendent, challenging him to respond to this sad message. To his credit, he very shortly afterwards responded, inviting us to come and speak with him. I asked if we could include a few other teachers and this was approved.

A representative from the deputy chancellor’s office has emailed me several times to confirm the details for this meeting. She made it clear, on more than one occasion that we will only be allowed thirty minutes to present our thoughts. Thirty minutes! Does the Deputy Superintendent not trust us to share the sincerity and wisdom of our experience with him?

We want to explain to him our belief that kindergarten is a year for building a strong foundation, which will support the academic learning for the years ahead. If we can speak fast enough, we would like to say that in kindergarten the child should develop a sense of himself/herself as a learner. There should be experiences that strengthen the child’s sense of curiosity, exploration and self-regulation. The child should be feeling secure enough to take risks without the fear of failure. The teacher of five-year olds should intentionally be providing rich first-hand experiences that are connected with children’s interests, opening up many opportunities for talk, questioning, creating, and experimenting. Kindergarten children need time to engage in unstructured outdoor play. When children’s free play occurs under the watchful eye of the teacher, there are many opportunities that present themselves for scaffolding conflict resolution strategies, so necessary for all aspects of life.

I’m hoping that the deputy chancellor will understand the reality of a kindergarten child’s school day in NYC – highly-structured programs that are heavy in academic instruction, lack of time to learn through exploratory activities, and in many schools, no opportunities for children to play outdoors other than a few minutes at lunchtime. This does not match up with what we know is best for developing self-motivated and confident life-long learners.

I am putting a lot of trust in the sensitivity, respect and interest of the deputy superintendent. I’m trusting that he will understand that this discussion is all about the children. I’m trusting that this visit will be the start of a long and serious conversation that will, ultimately, have a positive impact on the lives of the kindergarten children in the New York City public schools.

Trust. “Confident expectation of something; hope”

12 thoughts on “Trust!

  1. Constance Norgren

    Your words make tears come to my eyes. I remember my happy days as a kindergarten teacher – reading aloud after lunch every day with the children laying on the rug, listening and sometimes falling asleep, the sun pouring in, walking trips both planned and spontaneous, lots of cooking (baklava, once – with a little exploration of the Greek alphabet, saffron buns for Lucia Day, latkes, of course (and making clay lamps for Diwali) as part of our study of “festivals of light” in December, husking and cooking corn near Thanksgiving….lots of singing every day. Falling in love with books and reading favorites over and over. Dressing up and acting out stories. The “baby study” when mothers brought in their babies during choice time (there were many babies that year!) and we sang to them, said nursery rhymes to them, traced and measured them and held them. I am so glad to read about kindergarten times like the many described in “Investigating Choice Time.” Hooray for the teachers who keep trusting and hoping and making school a good place for children and for all of you who keep this dream alive! Thank you Renee!!

    Reply
  2. Patrick Berry

    Thanks for your post Renee. It not only got me thinking about trust but also about the value of play and mistakes. I think we need to trust that creative spaces are ones where kids play and make mistakes. And that learning (I would say in all grades) is dependent on both. We need to trust (teachers and students) that learning can happen through this.

    You write, “Kindergarten children need time to engage in unstructured outdoor play. When children’s free play occurs under the watchful eye of the teacher, there are many opportunities that present themselves for scaffolding conflict resolution strategies, so necessary for all aspects of life.” I agree. Your post reminded me of this piece by Anne Haas Dyson: “All work and no play makes for troubling trend in early education”: http://www.news.illinois.edu/news/09/0126playtime.html

    Related to this, and to the learning of older children, I think we need to create spaces where kids of all ages can make mistakes. Ken Robinson did a great TED talk on how schools can kill creativity: http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html

    I hope your meeting goes well tomorrow!

    Reply
    1. Renee Post author

      Thank you Patrick. I have heard the KEN Robinson talk and its brilliant. It’s a wonderful example ( once again from him) of using humor to drive home an important.

      It’s so interesting how the needs of young children and college children overlap. All need to be trusted to make mistakes and learn from them. That’s a good reason to stop putting up those rubrics next to student work that is on display. What a way to discourage any risk-taking!

      Reply
  3. Vicki Vinton

    I don’t often find myself in kindergarten rooms, but I was in one the other day where children went from spelling words with short vowel sounds on the board to writing How-to books in which, no matter what they were writing about, they were limited to sharing just four steps (one beginning with the word first, the second with the word next, the third with the word then and the fourth with the word last). And seeing that I felt my heart breaking. Interestingly enough, though, the block area of the room was amazing, with children collaborating on all sorts of interesting projects. But the teacher had to limit the children’s time there because of the all the other stuff she was expected to do. So here’s hoping your words are heard by the DOE. I will be with you in spirit.

    Reply
  4. Kristin B. Eno

    Renee, what commendable work you are doing as an advocate for reversing this troubling trend! How did the meeting go? I am anxious to hear about all thirty minutes of it. I trust that you and your team of expert early childhood educators are fighting the good fight on the frontlines of what, sadly, appears to be another unnecessary battle for our children’s hearts and minds (and futures). Thank you, thank you. As Vivian Paley questioned in her 2011 NAEYC conference keynote, “Who will save the Kindergarten?” As she reminded us: the children and the teachers will. And you are taking steps to save it! You and the teachers who have come together to speak out, informed by your tireless hours spent listening–listening to the children, as they play and learn and grow. In environments facilitated by teachers attuned to the true needs of children, the true heartbeat of early learning. As Vivian noted in her talk, she was “half-asleep” until she began to listen to the language and the lore of children at play. How sad that most of our supposedly “advanced” culture is half-asleep when it comes to early childhood policy. We parents need you, and the work you are doing, so much. Thank you, once again.

    Reply
  5. Kathy Collins

    Renee,
    I just caught up on several of your blog posts, and I can’t begin to tell you that the classrooms you share and the studies you detail are so inspiring. I hope the meeting with the Deputy Chancellor went well, and I hope the message that you and the other teachers shared was received by him with equal measures of sincerity and humility. Please post some play-by-play from the meeting. Thanks again for all of your tireless advocacy for childhood and for teacherhood.

    Reply
  6. Kathreen Harrison

    I am a teacher in a public school in a small town in Maine and reading your blog post this morning really cheered me up. The curriculum in the elementary and middle schools where I live is very much driven by mandates geared to raising test scores. Young children spend their days dealing with text, sitting still, and following the directions of teachers. I mourn the loss of classrooms where the curriculum was designed to meet the developmental needs of children. I am thrilled to see that there are still schools out there where classrooms serve children so well. I have a blog too – to be found at: rethinkingeducation.bangordailynews.com

    Reply
    1. Renee Post author

      Hi Kathreen
      Thank you for getting in touch with me. I’m really hoping that there will be a swing back to sanity at some point soon. The meeting that I had with the deputy chancellor was (somewhat) hopeful!
      I’m looking forward to following your blog.
      Very best wishes,
      Renee

      Reply
  7. Laura Sedlock

    Renee– First, I just want to echo the “thank you” from people in previous posts – I am SO GLAD that you are pursuing this essential cause in such a thoughtful and substantive way.

    One aspect of this whole issue I often think about – to add to the conversation about trust – is motivation, both for teachers and children. What makes children motivated to come to school every day, to face the challenges and frustrations inherent in growing and learning new skills and abilities? What motivates teachers to come to work everyday and face 6 hours alone with a group of 25 students? Anyone who has taught can feel the difference between a classroom full of motivated people and those who are just doing what they are required to do. Where is the connection between motivation and learning, and why doesn’t anyone seem to speak of this? If there is discussion about motivation, what kind of motivation is it? Is it external, based on approval from others’ dicated expectations, or intrinsic motivation based on the sense of gratification that comes from growing and learning and pursuing questions and interests that are compelling to you?

    Finally, I am so glad to hear you mention the zone of proximal development. It is probably the most useful theories of learning I have encountered. While I learned about this first as a theory in graduate school, it has become so real to me as a parent of young children. As I watched my daughters learn new things, it became so evident that no matter how much support or exposure or direct instruction I gave them, they would not take that final leap until they were really ready.

    Oh, there is so much more to say and feel about all this, but I will stop here for now!
    Thanks again, Renee.

    Laura

    Reply
    1. Renee Post author

      Hi Laura

      I’m so glad that you picked up on the zone of proximal development. I fear that many new teachers (and perhaps some experienced ones) are not aware of this important theory. It is so clear, when working with children, that they must be ready for new exposure of instruction if it’s going to be productive. This applies, of course, to adults too. Thanks for mentioning it!
      Renee

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>