Yes, our early childhood classes ARE crushing kids

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A disturbing but familiar article is published in this month’s Atlantic magazine. Erika Christakis‘ article shines a light on the negative effect the “race to the top” driven curriculum is having on children’s education. This, of course, is not new or surprising news for early childhood educators. The big question and challenge is, “What will we do to change this destructive trend in 2016?”

 

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How the New Preschool Is Crushing Kids 

by Erika Christakis

ERIKA CHRISTAKIS
Step into an American preschool classroom today and you are likely to be bombarded with what we educators call a print-rich environment, every surface festooned with alphabet charts, bar graphs, word walls, instructional posters, classroom rules, calendars, schedules, and motivational platitudes—few of which a 4-year-old can “decode,” the contemporary word for what used to be known as reading.
Because so few adults can remember the pertinent details of their own preschool or kindergarten years, it can be hard to appreciate just how much the early-education landscape has been transformed over the past two decades. The changes are not restricted to the confusing pastiche on classroom walls. Pedagogy and curricula have changed too, most recently in response to the Common Core State Standards Initiative’s kindergarten guidelines. Much greater portions of the day are now spent on what’s called “seat work” (a term that probably doesn’t need any exposition) and a form of tightly scripted teaching known as direct instruction, formerly used mainly in the older grades, in which a teacher carefully controls the content and pacing of what a child is supposed to learn.

One study, titled “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?,” compared kindergarten teachers’ attitudes nationwide in 1998 and 2010 and found that the percentage of teachers expecting children to know how to read by the end of the year had risen from 30 to 80 percent. The researchers also reported more time spent with workbooks and worksheets, and less time devoted to music and art. Kindergarten is indeed the new first grade, the authors concluded glumly. In turn, children who would once have used the kindergarten year as a gentle transition into school are in some cases being held back before they’ve had a chance to start. A study out of Mississippi found that in some counties, more than 10 percent of kindergartners weren’t allowed to advance to first grade.
Until recently, school-readiness skills weren’t high on anyone’s agenda, nor were the idea that the youngest learners might be disqualified from moving on to a subsequent stage. But now that kindergarten serves as a gatekeeper, not a welcome mat, to elementary school, concerns about school preparedness kick in earlier and earlier. A child who’s supposed to read by the end of kindergarten had better be getting ready in preschool. As a result, expectations that may arguably have been reasonable for 5- and 6-year-olds, such as being able to sit at a desk and complete a task using pencil and paper, are now directed at even younger children, who lack the motor skills and attention span to be successful.
Preschool classrooms have become increasingly fraught spaces, with teachers cajoling their charges to finish their “work” before they can go play. And yet, even as preschoolers are learning more pre-academic skills at earlier ages, I’ve heard many teachers say that they seem somehow—is it possible?—less inquisitive and less engaged than the kids of earlier generations. More children today seem to lack the language skills needed to retell a simple story or to use basic connecting words and prepositions. They can’t make a conceptual analogy between, say, the veins on a leaf and the veins in their own hands.
New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

That’s right. The same educational policies that are pushing academic goals down to ever earlier levels seem to be contributing to—while at the same time obscuring—the fact that young children are gaining fewer skills, not more.
Pendulum shifts in education are as old as our republic. Steven Mintz, a historian who has written about the evolution of American childhood, describes an oscillation in the national zeitgeist between the notion of a “protected” childhood and that of a “prepared” one. Starting in the early 2000s, though, a confluence of forces began pushing preferences ever further in the direction of preparation: the increasing numbers of dual-career families scrambling to arrange child care; a new scientific focus on the cognitive potential of the early years; and concerns about growing ability gaps between well-off and disadvantaged children, which in turn fueled the trend of standards-based testing in public schools.
Preschool is a relatively recent addition to the American educational system. With a few notable exceptions, the government had a limited role in early education until the 1960s, when the federal Head Start program was founded. Before mothers entered the full-time workforce in large numbers, private preschools were likewise uncommon, and mainly served as a safe social space for children to learn to get along with others.
By second grade, the children who had attended preschool performed worse than their peers.
In the past few decades, however, we have seen a major transfer of child- care and early learning from home to institution: Nearly three-quarters of American 4-year-olds are now in some kind of nonfamily care. That category spans a dizzying mix of privately and publicly funded preschool environments, including family-run day cares, private preschools in church basements, and Head Start programs in public elementary schools, to name a few. Across all of them, the distinction between early education and “official” school seems to be eroding.
When I survey parents of preschoolers, they tend to be on board with many of these changes, either because they fear that the old-fashioned pleasures of unhurried learning have no place in today’s hypercompetitive world or because they simply can’t find, or afford, a better option. The stress is palpable: Pick the “wrong” preschool or ease up on the phonics drills at home, and your child might not go to college. She might not be employable. She might not even be allowed to start first grade!
Media attention to the cognitive potential of early childhood has a way of exacerbating such worries, but the actual academic consensus on the components of high-quality early education tells another story. According to experts such as the Yale professor Edward Zigler, a leader in child-development and early-education policy for half a century, the best preschool programs share several features: They provide ample opportunities for young children to use and hear complex, interactive language; their curriculum supports a wide range of school-readiness goals that include social and emotional skills and active learning; they encourage meaningful family involvement; and they have knowledgeable and well-qualified teachers.
As an early-childhood educator, I’ve clocked many hours in many preschool classrooms, and I have found that I can pretty quickly take the temperature from the looks on kids’ faces, the ratio of table space to open areas, and the amount of conversation going on in either. In a high-quality program, adults are building relationships with the children and paying close attention to their thought processes and, by extension, their communication. They’re finding ways to make the children think out loud.

The real focus in the preschool years should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening. We forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children’s understanding. By talking with adults, and one another, they pick up information. They learn how things work. They solve puzzles that trouble them. Sometimes, to be fair, what children take away from a conversation is wrong. They might conclude, as my young son did, that pigs produce ham, just as chickens produce eggs and cows produce milk. But these understandings are worked over, refined, and adapted—as when a brutal older sibling explains a ham sandwich’s grisly origins.
Teachers play a crucial role in supporting this type of learning. A 2011 study in the journal Child Development found that preschool teachers’ use of sophisticated vocabulary in informal classroom settings predicted their students’ reading comprehension and word knowledge in fourth grade. Unfortunately, much of the conversation in today’s preschool classrooms is one-directional and simplistic, as teachers steer students through a highly structured schedule, herding them from one activity to another and signaling approval with a quick “good job!”
Consider the difference between a teacher’s use of a closed statement versus an open-ended question. Imagine that a teacher approaches a child drawing a picture and exclaims, “Oh, what a pretty house!” If the child is not actually drawing a house, she might feel exposed, and even if she is drawing a house, the teacher’s remark shuts down further discussion: She has labeled the thing and said she likes it. What more is there to add? A much more helpful approach would be to say, “Tell me about your drawing,” inviting the child to be reflective. It’s never possible to anticipate everything a small person needs to learn, so open-ended inquiry can reveal what is known and unknown. Such a small pedagogic difference can be an important catalyst for a basic, but unbounded, cognitive habit—the act of thinking out loud.
Conversation is gold. It’s the most efficient early-learning system we have. And it’s far more valuable than most of the reading-skills curricula we have been implementing: One meta-analysis of 13 early-childhood literacy programs “failed to find any evidence of effects on language or print-based outcomes.” Take a moment to digest that devastating conclusion.
I was recently asked to review a popular preschool curriculum that comes with a big box of thematic units, including lists of words and “key concepts” that children are supposed to master. One objective of the curriculum’s ocean unit, for example, is to help preschoolers understand “the importance of the ocean to the environment.” Children are given a list of specific terms to learn, including exoskeleton, scallop shell, blubber, and tube feet. At first glance, this stuff seems fun and educational, but doesn’t this extremely narrow articulation of “key concepts” feel a little off? What’s so special about blubber, anyway? Might a young child not want to ponder bigger questions: What is water? Where do the blue and green come from? Could anything be more beautiful and more terrifying than an ocean?
The shift from an active and exploratory early-childhood pedagogy to a more scripted and instruction-based model does not involve a simple trade-off between play and work, or between joy and achievement. On the contrary, the preoccupation with accountability has led to a set of measures that favor shallow mimicry and recall behaviors, such as learning vocabulary lists and recognizing shapes and colors (something that a dog can do, by the way, but that is in fact an extraordinarily low bar for most curious 4-year-olds), while devaluing complex, integrative, and syncretic learning.

Last year, I observed some preschoolers conversing about whether snakes have bones. They argued at length among themselves, comparing the flexible serpentine body with dinosaur fossils and fish, both of which they had previously explored. There was no clear consensus on how these various creatures could contain the same hard skeletons, but I watched, transfixed, as each child added to the groundwork another had laid. The teacher gently guided the group as a captain might steer a large ship, with the tiniest nudge of the wheel. Finally, a little boy who had seen a snake skeleton in a museum became animated as he pantomimed the structure of a snake’s spine in a series of karate chops: “One bone, one bone, one bone,” he informed his friends. “I think we’re all going to have to do a lot more research,” the teacher replied, impressed. This loosely Socratic method is a perfect fit for young minds; the problem is that it doesn’t conform easily to a school-readiness checklist.
The focus should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening.
The academic takeover of American early learning can be understood as a shift from what I would call an “ideas-based curriculum” to a “naming-and-labeling-based curriculum.” Not coincidentally, the latter can be delivered without substantially improving our teaching force. Inexperienced or poorly supported teachers are directed to rely heavily on scripted lesson plans for a reason: We can point to a defined objective, and tell ourselves that at least kids are getting something this way.
But that something—while relatively cheap to provide—is awfully thin gruel. One major study of 700 preschool classrooms in 11 states found that only 15 percent showed evidence of effective interactions between teacher and child. Fifteen percent.
We neglect vital teacher-child interactions at our peril. Although the infusion of academics into preschool has been justified as a way to close the achievement gap between poor and well-off children, Robert Pianta, one of the country’s leading child-policy experts, cautions that there is “no evidence whatsoever” that our early-learning system is suited to that task. He estimates that the average preschool program “narrows the achievement gap by perhaps only 5 percent,” compared with the 30 to 50 percent that studies suggest would be possible with higher-quality programs. Contrasting the dismal results of Tennessee’s preschool system with the more promising results in places such as Boston, which promotes active, child-centered learning (and, spends more than twice the national average on preschool), lends further credence to the idea that preschool quality really does matter.
It’s become almost a cliché to look to Finland’s educational system for inspiration. As has been widely reported, the country began to radically professionalize its workforce in the 1970s and abandoned most of the performance standards endemic to American schooling. Today, Finland’s schools are consistently ranked among the world’s very best. This “Finnish miracle” sounds almost too good to be true. Surely the country must have a few dud teachers and slacker kids!
And yet, when I’ve visited Finland, I’ve found it impossible to remain unmoved by the example of preschools where the learning environment is assessed, rather than the children in it. Having rejected many of the pseudo-academic benchmarks that can, and do, fit on a scorecard, preschool teachers in Finland are free to focus on what’s really essential: their relationship with the growing child.
Here’s what the Finns, who don’t begin formal reading instruction until around age 7, have to say about preparing preschoolers to read: “The basis for the beginnings of literacy is that children have heard and listened … They have spoken and been spoken to, people have discussed [things] with them … They have asked questions and received answers.”
For our littlest learners, what could be more important than that?

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So I ask, once again, what will we do to change this trend in 2016?

School is for learning to live, not just for learning

 

OpalIn 2012, when I was part of a study group visiting the schools and meeting with the educators working in schools in Reggio Emilia.
The diverse group of 68 educators gathered together with the intention of using what we saw in the schools to help spark a discussion focused on developing a greater view of the possibilities for educating children. The group consisted of teachers of very young children, elementary school teachers, college teachers, administrators, and consultants. The tangible outcome of our discussions can be found in the recently published book, The Teacher You Want to Be. Our Statement Of Beliefs and an introduction by Alfie Kohn begin the book, followed by fifteen essays and interviews.

One of the study group participants was Susan Mackay, the director of the prestigious Opal Charter School and the Portland Children’s Museum in Portland Oregon. Susan is inspiring because she not only has a clear vision of what education should be, but she allows it to happen in her child-centered school, where the many positive advantages of a constructivist education are visible. Her recent TED talk, School is for learning to live, not just for learning, says it all in her articulate and passionate presentation. I hope that you will take a few minutes to listen to this video. It’s so much worth your time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDHNxaebe8Q

Just click onlink to hear Susan’s TED talk. (I guess it’s obvious that I’m not up to date about using technology!)

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Fungus, or what we’ve been doing with all those mushrooms

Lately, I’ve been both depressed and angry at the inappropriate curriculum that has been imposed on young children. Then, every once in awhile, I encounter a teacher who is defying the move towards test prep, test prep, test prep and academic pushdown at the expense of joy, inquiry, exploration and play. I’ve decided to start sharing the work of some of these teachers. I hope it make you feel good. Sharing it is good for my soul.

This week I’ll begin with a study that was done by the wonderful Amy Meltzer. Amy teaches kindergarten at a Jewish Day School, the Lander Grinspoon Academy in Northhampton, Massachusetts. Amy refers to the school as a Gan. When I looked it up it seems to be (and I hope I have this correctly!) the Hebrew for an enclosed garden.

Believe it or not, she and her class did a study of Fungus! Here is Amy’s blog post about her study.

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Many, many people have wondered why we study fungus in the Gan. It’s not a typical unit of study in many elementary schools, but in my opinion, it ought to be. First of all, fungi are just amazing. They pop up overnight in the strangest and often most overlooked places, and they are both complex and beautiful. They are in great abundance in the wild in the Fall, when we typically delve into a science topic in our Writing Workshop. Many varieties can be purchased at supermarkets, farmers markets and asian markets, allowing children to investigate, compare and contrast numerous varieties. As nature’s recyclers, they help teach important lessons about conservation, awareness and life itself. (If you haven’t already read it, check out the article in last week’s Sunday Times Magazine about mushrooms.)

We are visual creatures; to us, forests seem places made of trees and leaves and soil. But all around me now, invisible and ubiquitous, is a huge network of fungal life, millions of tiny threads growing and stretching among trees, clustering around piles of rabbit droppings; stitching together bush and path, dead leaves and living roots. We hardly know it is there until we encounter the fruiting bodies it throws up when conditions are right. But without fungi’s ceaseless cycling of water, nutrients and minerals, the forest wouldn’t work the way it does. Perhaps the greatest mystery of mushrooms is that they are the visible manifestations of this essential yet unregarded world.

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Our unit began with a trip to Arcadia, to see a variety of mushrooms and begin to learn about their important work – clearing the forest floor and helping to turn dead matter into rich soil. As a nice surprise, our guide happened to speak Hebrew! The children each took at least one photograph of the amazing specimens we saw that day. The pictures are on display in the Gan.

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We then began our close observations of the most well known mushroom, the white mushroom – the ones that come in blue plastic boxes and wrapped in cellophane in the supermarket. We practiced working like scientists, trying to document what we noticed in our science journals.

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IMG_2229After becoming well acquainted with your average mushroom, we headed down to Tuesday Market and visited the booth of New England Wild Edibles.

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Thanks to some generous contributions, we were able to purchase five varieties of mushrooms to study. This time, we recorded our observations in clay – but not until we had a chance to do some free exploration with this new medium!

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Our mushrooms are being fired and should be ready to come home at the end of the week.

As we continued to document what we know and observe in our science journals, we added a bit of whimsy into our study. After looking at images of some of the most beautiful mushrooms on the planet, we designed imaginary mushrooms – featuring the parts of a real mushroom – but with imagined colors, shapes and designs. Aren’t they gorgeous?

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Speaking of whimsy, we are singing this song every day. Debbi Friedlander taught at our school many years ago and stopped by last year for an impromptu concert. We hope she’ll return this year some time.

And of course, many of you have seen our new “class pet”, a shiitake mushroom growing log from MycoTerra farm. We’ve already harvested a few dozen mushrooms, and today we’ll be picking some to make spore prints.

This week, we are winding down our mushroom unit with a little foray into yeast, part of the fungus family. We watched a very cute video which described yeast cells as “yeast monsters” who burp carbon dioxide. We are trying to catch and grow some wild yeast in a mixture of flour and water to create our own sourdough starter.

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I could probably spend a whole year learning about fungus, but all good things must come to an end wind down at least a little.

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I’ll keep looking for early childhood teachers who take their students on exciting journey’s of exploration. It’s good for my soul!

PLAY ON THE MOVE: A conference dedicated to the import

Jimmy playing houseThe Association for the Study of Play
CALL FOR PAPERS
2016 International Conference of The Association for the Study of Play (TASP)
and
American Association for the Child’s Right to Play (IPA/USA)
Graduate School of Education
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, NJ
March 16-19, 2016
Play on the Move
DEADLINE FOR PROPOSALS: November 1, 2015
Link to Proposal Form

After over two decades of play being systematically pushed out of the lives of children, youth and adults, we are at a tipping point. From multiple articles in The New York Times to research reports in neuroscience journals, play is being (re)discovered and is moving to the forefront of conversations on everything from invigorating classroom practice and addressing global conflicts, to understanding brain chemistry and advancing inter-species relations.

What does this moment offer? What doors are opening for the further study of play? What can we do to make a difference?

The 2016 TASP/IPA conference is an opportunity for the field to come together and explore the current state of play, including theoretical, empirical, and applied work that informs our knowledge of play throughout the lifespan and across contexts.

We hope to generate momentum to move the importance of play further into the public domain. The organizing committee has chosen the theme of Play on the Move and we are eager to bring together a diverse group of researchers, practitioners, and advocates, both those new to play and those who have made it their life’s work. We are particularly excited to expand the reach of TASP and IPA to emerging fields and arenas of practice that could enrich and be enriched by our experiences together at the 2016 annual meeting.

Proposals are encouraged from all academic disciplines related to play and from play practitioners and advocates. Submissions from undergraduate researchers and graduate students are encouraged. All proposals will go through a peer-review process.

Below is a brief description of the possible formats sessions may take:
Individual Papers – These sessions will be arranged by the program committee around research themes comprised of four related papers within one session.

Organized Session – A group of papers or presenters submitted together and organized around a common theme with a chair and an optional discussant.

Workshop/Performance – These interactive or performance- based sessions will focus on current issues in play centered on research, practice and/or advocacy.

Roundtables – These sessions will include informal presentations of student research, research in progress, pilot studies, and play-oriented programs. Presenters will discuss their research/practice with small groups of interested participants.

Posters – Participants wishing to share their work in a visual medium may submit posters presenting new research and scholarly work. The sessions will provide opportunities for presenters to discuss their work informally with interested participants.

To submit a proposal, please complete the proposal form. You will need to have:
• contact information of all the presenters
• title of proposal
• presentation abstract of 200 words or less
• program description of 50 words or less
• bios for all presenters
• audio-visual needs
• preferred day of presentation
Please note that all presenters will be required to register for the conference.

If you have any questions or are having trouble submitting your proposal
please contact:
Carrie Lobman
[email protected]
917-806-6624

The Teacher You Want To Be

12039638_1172012686147732_4765401342733201865_nIt’s almost here! On October 22, Heinemann will publish The Teacher You Want to Be, the book that grew out of a 2012 study tour to Reggio Emilia that Matt Glover and I organized. The tour gathered together a group of educators to visit Reggio’s world-famous pre-schools and their new elementary school. We used our observations to jump-start some meaningful conversations that would broaden our thinking about the teaching of literacy.

Our group discussions while we were in Italy, both with the teachers and parents from the Reggio schools and by ourselves in the evening, were thought provoking and exhilarating. We returned to the US determined to keep the conversation going among ourselves and with the public. All of the participants were invited to write personal reflections on their trip experiences. These reflections formed the basis of our Statement of Beliefs, thirteen beliefs describing how children should be learning and how schools and educators can best approach teaching. Each belief is quite descriptive, dealing with what we see as the major issues challenging American education.

Heinemann then got on board and decided that these beliefs were so important that they deserved to be reflected upon by some of our most important minds in education and shared with the public. Now we are almost ready with the final product. The Teacher You Want To Be is a beautiful publication, edited by Ellin Keene and Matt Glover, with an introduction by Alfie Kohn. The book consists of essays written by study group participants (Kathy Collins, Vicki Vinton, Stephanie Jones) and by Katherine Bomer, Deborah Meier, Sir Ken Robinson, Peter Johnston and Gay Ivey, Heidi Mills, Ellin Keene, Dennie Palmer Wolf, Tom Newkirk, Katie Wood Ray, Jose Vilson, and an interview with Simone Dinnerstein, and Jeremy and Adrian Greensmith (my grandson!). This publication was lovingly nurtured from beginning to end by Vicki Boyd and Zoe Ryder White.

I’m so pleased to share the Statement of Beliefs with you and hope that you are as excited as I am to read the essays that these beliefs inspired. I hope that teachers and administrators, book discussion groups, college education classes and anyone interested in improving the state of education, will read this book and keep this vital discussion alive.

Beliefs, Explanations and Issues

Belief 1 (Teachers as researchers)
We believe that teachers are researchers and that instructional decisions are best when based on what teachers have learned and documented by observing and listening carefully to students throughout the day.

Explanation Issues and Concerns
The decision of what should happen in a classroom each day can best be made by teachers who know their students well. Teachers are researchers, engaged in a pedagogy of authentic listening and observation, using what they learn from students today to influence what happens tomorrow. These decisions should be made with intention and with a strong belief in the rights of children to use natural learning strategies such as storytelling and wondering. Teachers, not programs, should make instructional decisions for children. Increasingly we see schools where the expectation is that all students be taught the same thing, same day, at the same time. How can we realistically expect students across classrooms (or even within a classroom) to have the same needs, and therefore, be taught the same lesson at the same time? Even within one classroom, there is a range of abilities and interests. We should expect classroom instruction to recognize and reflect this range of abilities and interests. Education that is “standardized” is not responsive to unique human beings who have particular strengths, gifts, interests and challenges.

Belief 2 (Teachers as learners)
We believe that the way teachers approach their own learning should parallel the way children approach their learning, and school is the place where both teachers’ and students’ learning is characterized by engagement, purpose, and self-direction.

We believe children should be actively engaged in their learning, exploring areas of interest and curiosity. They should be self-directed, be able to work interdependently, and have opportunities for authentic choices that engage them in deep thinking. Teachers, as learners, should engage with their professional growth in the same way. We can’t expect students to learn with purpose, choice, and engagement if educators don’t hold themselves to the same expectations. There should be congruence between how teachers and students approach learning. Educators often hear the call for helping students become collaborative, self directed, inquisitive problem solvers. Unfortunately, in many instances students are in educational environments that don’t foster these habits of mind. It is difficult to create environments that nurture these habits of mind in students if teachers find themselves in a pedagogical climate that doesn’t support their own intellectual growth and development. “Practice what we preach” is more effective than “do what we say, not what we do.”

Belief 3 (Appreciative view of children)

We believe educators should have a positive and expectant view of children, with an understanding that children enter school with personal histories and particular strengths that teachers should recognize and use as the foundation for working with them.

Educators should have an appreciative view of children. Children should be viewed through a lens of strengths rather than deficits and next steps should be based on where they are at that particular moment. Naturally, there will be a range and the pathways to learning will need to be differentiated. Teaching decisions and instructional decisions should be based on a child’s current development, not on the pacing calendar of a program.

Successful learning environments are predicated on the teacher’s knowledge that the vast majority of children don’t benefit from being labeled and grouped. This labeling promotes a “bell curve” mentality in adults. Children are all too aware of where they fall on the curve. Intellect isn’t something we’re born with. It’s something we develop alongside intellectual mentors, both teachers and other children. We increasingly see educational decisions and curricula that assume all students have the same needs and are in the same place in their learning at one particular time. This thinking, combined with high stakes tests and rigid pacing calendars, leads to a deficit view of children and teachers. School communities should engage in a process of value articulation and have regular opportunities to check practice against those values. Time should be taken to consider these goals as a community and to support one another in continually revisiting their image of children.

Belief 4 (Struggle is where learning happens)
We believe children, families and teachers should see challenge, struggling, and mistakes as positive, creative opportunities for learning and growth.

Students and teachers should understand that much learning is involved in the approximations any learner makes toward an ideal practice. When children engage in learning that is meaningful, challenging, and in their zone of proximal development it will lead to children encountering challenges and difficulty, and also works towards understanding. Struggling is a synonym for productive learning as long as the struggle is not overwhelming. The key is to create educational experiences that aspire towards high levels of challenges in environments where children feel comfortable enough to make mistakes.

Neuroscience is clear that optimal environments for learning support a state of relaxed alertness in which the brain is most open to making new connections. This research supports the need to focus on social and emotional intelligences to develop other kinds of intelligences. True inquiry and deep thinking assumes that answers and understanding will not always come easily, and that approximations should be welcomed and honored. Too often, teachers try to make learning easy for children, presenting materials and lessons that don’t challenge students to problem-solve or think out of the box. This can lead to learning environments where the goal is primarily getting a right answer rather than one that supports critical and creative thinking that allows and encourages children to take risks while working out challenges. If our goal is to support deep understanding, then students need to have opportunities to think deeply over sustained periods of time.

Belief 5 (Engagement)
We believe students desire and have a right to autonomy, self-direction, and choice in their development of lifelong learning and engaged citizenship, and that teachers should design learning environments that foster rich opportunities for engagement.

Explanation Issue
Human beings are prewired to explore. Curiosity is a natural state of mind that drives the need to be in relationship with and make meaning of the world around us. School should be a place that supports the sustaining of such habits of mind. Environments should be designed to foster opportunities that support and encourage this disposition. When teachers provide space and time for children to independently problem-solve and orchestrate their strategies for self-chosen purposes, children learn how to transfer what they’ve learned in school to outside of school situations. They become flexible learners who can apply understandings and strategies both in and out of school. The mere acquisition of skills can occur with low levels of engagement, but the skills will not be as firmly embedded if students aren’t engaged in their learning. Increasingly, we see educational systems that promote the attainment of skills solely for the sake of attainment. Students see little meaning of relevance towards long-term intellectual growth. Disengaged children often view schoolwork as something that doesn’t easily cross the border between the school day and their every day lives.

Belief 6 (Ownership of Learning)
We believe both teachers and students should share ownership of the learning experience, whereby they collaboratively make meaningful decisions that impact the course of learning day by day.

This belief isn’t meant to naively suggest that we’re calling for hands off teaching. Quite the contrary. When teachers believe that children are capable of deep thinking and problem solving, they are more willing to share ownership and control of learning with students. Children then develop a sense of agency and a belief that they have important thinking to contribute. There should be a balance of ownership in the classroom that can occur only when actively engaged teachers are willing to trust in the innate abilities of children and share the learning process with their children. The learning process in schools is often controlled by the teacher, the program, and/or the curriculum, leaving little opportunity for children to have any ownership or control over their learning. Instructional pathways that are predetermined for large groups of children allow for few real choices and decisions on the part of the children, and therefore encourage passive, rather than active, learning, and send the message that “learning” is something that one cannot have control over. In life we need individuals and groups to be excited about pursuing different interests and passion. If schools promote conformity and sameness, why would we expect adults to behave any differently?

Belief 7 (Intellectual Stimulation)
We believe children have a desire to interact with challenging questions and inquiries of real importance to themselves, to their community, and to the world.

Children of all ages, even very young children, have the capacity to chew on big questions and are continuously making theories, whether we ask them to or not. By creating environments that support habits of research and collaboration, children will develop attitudes that allow them to sustain a sense of wonder, value multiple perspectives, and develop an increasingly sophisticated capacity for critical thinking and innovation. When students are in environments where they are encouraged to ask and pursue meaningful questions, their learning is deeper and more likely to transfer between home and school and across content areas. Elevating the scale of children’s work from isolated tasks to authentic, significant projects that matter in their lives and communities increases the probability for meaningful learning. Children quickly realize the difference between meaningful, authentic learning situations and contrived situations that only serve the purpose of acquiring a predetermined skill. When schools frequently focus on controlling bodies rather than fostering intellectual growth, school experiences are pushed toward that of discipline, punishment, and compliance rather than questioning, engagement and intellectual growth. The goal of curricular programs and resources should be to stimulate independent thinking, deep and complex questioning and problem solving.

Belief 8 (Joy)
We believe that learning is based in relationships, and that interactions between teachers, families and students should be joyful, compassionate, and authentic.

School should be a place of wonder, joy, intellectual risk-taking and well rounded fun. The sounds of a classroom should include a balance between teacher and student voices, laughter, and conversations, both formal and informal. We’re not suggesting classrooms without structure or planning. Instead, we believe the learning environment should be joyful and fun because those are conditions that encourage academic risk-taking, vibrant interactions with others, and higher levels of engagement. True learning and deep understanding are often the byproduct of a joyful learning environment.
We increasingly see schools where the experience for teachers and students is primarily one of assessing, evaluating and sorting. In these situations students may reach external benchmarks, but at the unfortunate cost of growth and development, connection and community.

Belief 9 (Teacher Professional Growth and Collaboration)
We believe that teachers develop professionally through meaningful inquiry and collaborative opportunities with colleagues, characterized by sharing observations of students, exploring instructional possibilities, and reflecting on their growth as learning teachers and teacher-leaders.

Schools should be vibrant, stimulating and creative places that support creative thinking for teachers as well as for students, and to this end teachers must have regular and frequent opportunities built into their schedules to meet with colleagues and other professionals so that they can collaborate, reflect and explore the implications of what they’re observing in their classrooms. Professional development is then self-directed and collaborative making use of critical friends as they take an analytical stance towards both learning and teaching. Because learning is socially embedded for all humans, we should build up opportunities for educators to work together as a way to support professional development. Too often teachers’ planning time is spent on the minutia and paperwork that supports a system built on data and accountability, rather than on the needs of children. Additionally professional development time is often devoted to training teachers to implement a program rather than on building their own capacity as thinkers and learning designers. Many researchers have identified capacity building as a critical factor in creating meaningful learning for students.

Belief 10 (Interdependent Learning/Student Collaboration)
We believe children grow theories about the world around them through their collaborations and interactions with one another.

Children need constant opportunities for collaboration and social interaction. A socio-constructivist approach should be embedded throughout the school day. Spaces and routines should be organized to facilitate discussion and social interactions where children are engaged in a collective journey together. To often students look to the teacher for all of the answers, and frequently they are looking for a single right answer. Children should be encouraged to build on their collective knowledge and experiences as they become independent thinkers and learners. A central goal should be to facilitate learning and create an environment where, through collaboration, engaged children become dynamic thinkers and problem solvers who question, interpret, form theories, and find significance in the world around them.

Belief 11 (Family)
We believe positive and integrated relationships between families and educators are crucial and plentiful opportunities for collaboration among students, teachers and families are essential.

Teachers should develop empathy for the struggle inherent in learning and work in solidarity with children and families. Children benefit when schools and families are harmoniously engaged in the learning experience. Learning occurs within relationships when connections are made between children, families, and educators.
The tenor of the language schools and teachers choose to use is important and has the power to invite or exclude children and families from becoming enthusiastic participants in the world of school.

Belief 12 (Head and Heart)
We believe teachers have the opportunity to learn more about children’s ideas, experiences, and interpretations when we offer them multiple means of expression.

We believe that all effective and engaging learning occurs through both the mind and the body. Cognitive thought is embedded in social and physical explorations occurring in inspiring environments. All learning occurs through the body. Constructive experiences engage the whole child, body and mind, hands and heart. Today we see learning, particularly deep, meaningful learning, as embodied, encompassing both thought and feelings. A carefully designed, aesthetically intentional environment plays an essential role in the social and physical engagement of the mind, body, and feelings. With a focus on narrow skill attainment, schools often lose sight of how learning occurs and neglect to foster student aesthetic, artistic, and social development. Children should be seen and nurtured globally due to the interdependence of all aspects a child’s development.

Belief 13 (Time)
We believe children need time, both within a school day and across a school year, to deeply explore topics of importance and interest.

Learners of any age need prolonged periods of time to interact with ideas in order to become fully engaged with them. The time needed also varies from child to children. In order for children to become self-directed learners, children need to have ample time to work on long term projects, as well as have some control over how they spend their time. When children’s days are too fragmented it is difficult for them to stay with an idea if they don’t have the time needed for deep engagement.
When the school year is too rushed, it is difficult for children to stay with an idea or project for sustained periods of time. How the school day flows should reflect what we know about child development and learning, not the artificial structures of pre-packaged curriculum and schedules.

Ringing the Bell for Play Inside the Classroom

block rocket

This article, written by Motoko Rich, was printed in the New York Times yesterday, June 9th. I didn’t agree with everything in it (I do think that when they are truly engaged in an activity, five year olds have an attention span much longer than 5 minutes.) but generally, it was wonderful to see the NYTimes publishing an article about the importance of play in kindergarten. Finally! Perhaps common sense and an understanding of the social, emotional and intellectual needs of young children is returning!

Kindergartens Ringing the Bell for Play Inside the Classroom

Call it Kindergarten 2.0.

Concerned that kindergarten has become overly academic in recent years, this suburban school district south of Baltimore is introducing a new curriculum in the fall for 5-year-olds. Chief among its features is a most old-fashioned concept: play.

“I feel like we have been driving the car in the wrong direction for a long time,” said Carolyn Pillow, who has taught kindergarten for 15 years and attended a training session here on the new curriculum last month. “We can’t forget about the basics of what these kids need, which is movement and opportunities to play and explore.”

As American classrooms have focused on raising test scores in math and reading, an outgrowth of the federal No Child Left Behind law and interpretations of the new Common Core standards, even the youngest students have been affected, with more formal lessons and less time in sandboxes. But these days, states like Vermont, Minnesota and Washington are again embracing play as a bedrock of kindergarten.

Logan Lowry, left, and Douglas Corales playing an educational game on Chromebooks in Melissa Maenner’s kindergarten class at Hilltop Elementary. Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times
Like Anne Arundel County here, Washington and Minnesota are beginning to train teachers around the state on the importance of so-called purposeful play — when teachers subtly guide children to learning goals through games, art and general fun. Vermont is rolling out new recommendations for kindergarten through third grade that underscore the importance of play. And North Carolina is encouraging teachers to evaluate paintings, scribbles or block-building sessions, instead of giving quizzes, in assessing the reading, math and social skills of kindergartners.

But educators in low-income districts say a balance is critical. They warn that unlike students from affluent families, poorer children may not learn the basics of reading and math at home and may fall behind if play dominates so much that academics wither.

“Middle-class parents are doing this anyway, so if we don’t do it for kids who are not getting it at home, then they are going to start at an even greater disadvantage,” said Deborah Stipek, the dean of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford.

Across the country, many schools in recent years have curtailed physical and art education in favor of longer blocks for reading and math instruction to help improve test scores. The harder work even began in kindergarten.

Most recently, more than 40 states have adopted the Common Core, standards for reading and math that in many cases are much more difficult than previous guidelines. In some school districts, 5-year-olds are doing what first or even second graders once did, and former kindergarten staples like dramatic play areas and water or sand tables have vanished from some classrooms, while worksheets and textbooks have appeared.

A study comparing federal government surveys of kindergarten teachers in 1998 and 2010 by researchers at the University of Virginia found that the proportion of teachers who said their students had daily art and music dropped drastically. Those who reported teaching spelling, the writing of complete sentences and basic math equations every day jumped.

The changes took place in classrooms with students of all demographic backgrounds, but the study found that schools with higher proportions of low-income students, as well as schools with large concentrations of nonwhite children, were even more likely to cut back on play, art and music while increasing the use of textbooks.

Experts, though, never really supported the expulsion of playtime.

Using play to develop academic knowledge — as well as social skills — in young children is the backbone of alternative educational philosophies like those of Maria Montessori or Reggio Emilia. And many veteran kindergarten teachers, as well as most academic researchers, say they have long known that children learn best when they are allowed ample time to go shopping at a pretend grocery store or figure out how to build bridges with wooden blocks. Even the Common Core standards state that play is a “valuable activity.”

But educators point out that children are also capable of absorbing sophisticated academic concepts.

“People think if you do one thing you can’t do the other,” said Nell Duke, a professor of education at the University of Michigan. “It really is a false dichotomy.”

Therese Iwancio playing a game with her kindergarten class at Cecil Elementary school in Baltimore. Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times
M. Manuela Fonseca, the early-education coordinator for Vermont, said her state was trying to emphasize the learning value of play in its new guidelines.

“Before we had the water table because it was fun and kids liked it,” she said. “Now we have the water table so kids can explore how water moves and actually explore scientific ideas.”

Still, teachers like Therese Iwancio, who works at Cecil Elementary School in Baltimore’s Greenmount neighborhood, where the vast majority of children come from low-income families, say their students benefit from explicit academic instruction. She does not have a sand table, play kitchen or easel in the room.

“I have never had a child say to me, ‘I just want to play,’ ” said Ms. Iwancio, who has taught for two decades.

On a recent morning, she asked children to read aloud from a simple book. On the wall hung a schedule for the day, with virtually every minute packed with goals like “I will learn sight words” or “I will learn to compose and decompose teen numbers.”

Jayla Stephens, 6, said she liked school because “you get to do a lot of work and you will get better.”

In neighboring, more affluent Anne Arundel County, 321 kindergarten teachers last month attended training sessions on the new curriculum. Required each day: 25 minutes of recess, 20 minutes of movement, 25 minutes in play centers. The district is buying sand or water tables, blocks, play kitchens, easels and art supplies for every classroom that does not have them.

Teachers were given tips on how to be more creative in academic lessons, too, like tossing a ball printed with different numbers to teach math.

“We don’t think that rigor negates fun and play,” said Patricia J. Saynuk, the coordinator of early-childhood education.

Traci Burns, who has taught kindergarten for the last five years at Annapolis Elementary School, said she was looking forward to retrieving previously banished easels.

“With the Common Core, this has been pushed and pushed and pushed that kids should be reading, sitting and listening,” she said. “Five-year-olds need to play and color. They need to go out and sing songs.”

At Hilltop Elementary, a racially and economically diverse school in Glen Burnie, Melissa Maenner said she had found that teaching kindergartners too many straightforward academic lessons tended to flop.

“They are 5,” Ms. Maenner said. “Their attention span is about five minutes.”

WHAT WILL THE CHILDREN REMEMBER?

child writing

Take care of all your memories. For you cannot relive them
Bob Dylan

What will the children remember, years from now, about their year in kindergarten? When their days are filled with lessons in reading, writing, mathematics, and phonics, will they have fond memories of an exciting Fundations lesson? With days devoid of play, indoors and outdoors, will they lovingly remember the experience of reading “back-to-back” and then “shoulder-to-shoulder”?

I have become obsessed with this question of what children will remember after spending the year visiting kindergartens, speaking with teachers, and listening to parents. I finally decided to contact some former students and parents of students and ask them if they could write down one kindergarten memory. My former students are now in their twenties, perhaps a few almost hitting thirty! I wondered, “Would they actually remember anything at all after all of those years?”

Let me share some of what they shared with me.

Zeke (graduating college this month)
I think my most vivid memory is waking across the Brooklyn Bridge replica we made. It was a lot of fun learning about the various bridges and building the replica. building a bridge

Milah (Just graduated from college)
When I think about kindergarten I remember performing plays, Billy Goat Gruff, writing poems, and Peter the turtle :):):)peter edited

Kaitlin (kindergarten, 1994)
I remember choice time and playing at the fake kitchen/home area. And I remember smearing shaving cream on the desks. That was fun!‬ Jimmy playing house

Julia (kindergarten, 1990)
I remember singing! I think we sang Blue Skies, and I think maybe the Banana Boat Song? I remember visiting the fire station on Union Street and getting to slide down the pole. I remember playing in the school yard. I think the singing is what sticks out most for me.Connie, me and kids- joyful singing

Jimmy (Kindergarten, 1990)
I remember building block time with Nick and David. Of course my fav was nap time on our phenomenal blue mats.blocks

Sara (kindergarten, 1996)
I remember looking at meal worms. We had a big tank with a bunch of bugs and we could pick them up with tweezers if we wanted to.
I also remember days when I would choose something like puzzles at Choice Time because I thought I wanted to do something quiet by myself, but then I’d be bored halfway through and regret my decision. It was always better to choose the ‘special activity’ or the one all your friends chose.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________
There was a giant refrigerator box for time out. It had a pillow on the bottom and cut outs on the side.

I remember Backwards Day, which I always thought could be more backwards. And I remember eating my pudding (dessert) first at lunch and it gave me a stomach-ache.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________
I also remember nap time, because what adult doesn’t reminisce about nap time.

The Quiet, Cozy Reading Room

Lionel (graduating college this month)
I do remember our trip to Madiba, and feeling like a celebrity because the restaurant was near my parent’s house (..?). It’s funny what kids get really excited about, but I’m sure I received some special attention from my classmates because it was close/my family was there. I remember eating roasted corn with our student teacher (was her name Liz? I don’t remember now…I remember quite clearly that she liked to eat mango, and told us stories about eating it messily) at the restaurant. That was just when they opened, now they’ve been in the neighborhood for ‘as long as I can remember.’ Funny.1-239  2000

Dan (kindergarten, 1990)
I remember being picked up by my Aunt on the day my brother was born, and some time later (a few weeks? months?) my mother bringing baby David into class so all of us students could take turns tracing him on large white paper!1990 class photo

Anna (kindergarten, 1994)
Your name went up on some board when you learned to tie your shoes? I was trying to learn and was struggling, and I really wanted my name to be on the board, but was also very conscious of it not being on the board. When I finally learned, I felt very accomplished.

I remember sitting at a table drawing something and you telling me I did a good job and feeling very warm and happy.drawing

Sophie (kindergarten, 1994)
I loved the Quiet Corner! I remember it being a little structure made out of cardboard, very dark and full of pillows, where we could go when we wanted to spend some time being quiet. It was lovely! And it has stayed with me.

I also remember Author of the Week; each student got a week during which all of the books they’d written during class were displayed on a bookcase near the front of the classroom. I think one period was spent having the rest of the class interview the author of the week about the stories she’d written. That was awesome.

Ross (kindergarten, 1993)
My strongest memory of kindergarten is of singalong time, particularly “Here Comes the Sun.” I remember loving the song and the act of singing/listening. I would later (re) discover the Beatles and develop a much broader love for their music, but it all started then (and possibly with “An Octopus’s Garden” too?).

David (Just graduated from college)
I remember doing a lot of singing in that class. In particular, the song Love Can Build a Bridge. We would sit on the rug and sing along to the cassette, and Akira would sing the vocal “flair” parts. We even recorded it on cassette – I remember the microphone hanging down from the ceiling over the rug and we all sang into it. I still have that cassette somewhere.

Daniel (Just graduated from college)
When I think of my favorite kindergarten memories, I immediately think of choice time. Although for me there was never much “choice” involved because my heart belonged to blocks. With those wooden blocks I was able to build bridges, skyscrapers and even spaceships. I could feel the structural integrity of my creations, even if that meant sitting on them until they collapsed. Why was this satisfying? I don’t know. All I knew was that crayons and books couldn’t hold a candle to blocks!block builders

Gillian (kindergarten, 1994)
My sister was born while I was in Kindergarten – December 1993. my mom brought my infant sister into class a few months later for “choice time.” Not sure why but with some kids, crayola markers and a giant roll of paper we traced her body. She was a squirmy baby and I’m not sure how it worked or why tracing an infant seemed like a good idea but I remember that my friend Basam was particularly gentle and caring with her. I’m sure there were other kids involved but I can only remember Basam and my mom. The drawing was on a huge roll of paper and had a strange misshapen baby outline surrounded by other less human scribbles. We had the drawing for a long time – it was important to me and my parents – bizarre archive- I’m not sure if it’s still somewhere in their house. Hoping it is.

Some parents also shared their memories of their child’s kindergarten year –

I remember the first curriculum night. I don’t know what I expected but I was blown away by the range and depth of the techniques used to support literacy. I guess I had some fantasy of phonics and memorizing the alphabet, and I remember my mind being blown about how language emerges in different ways with different kids. I have forgotten all but the feeling of excitement that someone (you) actually had a method to the madness. The one thing that has stayed with me (probably because it was a visual) that you had an outline of a word – that the pure shape of a word was one of the many ways to begin decoding. I will never forget that.

I have a memory of a writers’ workshop publishing party. This may have been from first grade and I am sure that I have embellished it in my mind for comic effect. The kids happily publishing real life, unvarnished reflections of the messy side of Park Slope home lives. Literally revealing the ‘dirty laundry’ at home. All the parents dressed up and on good behavior while their kids were publishing accounts that were not so dressed up. ‘Out of the mouths of babes.’ I remember being a little disappointed and relieved that Vicky only ever wrote about rainbows. There was not much insight there, except that I think that she really liked doing the illustrations and she knew that she had a good solid 6 pages of copy (blue, green, yellow, orange, red, violet).vicky reading

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One thing that comes to mind immediately is the self-portrait that my son drew with his bird on his head. I loved the self-portraits the children made. Hanging along the walls of the classroom , they made the room belong to the children. I also loved them because drawing was a medium in which my son felt “good at something”. He was shy then and seemed to stand back while the girls in the class danced around, comfortable in their outfits and friendships. I often felt that boys were pushed to the back at 321 (I also have daughters), in efforts to compensate for previous limitations.

I also remember the play “Three Billy Goats Gruff”, with its imaginative props. There was a lot going on in that classroom.

****

Renee, I can’t distinguish between kindergarten and 1st grade because you looped with the kids, but here are a few memories:
· The class singing Pete Seeger’s “Sailing Down My Golden River” for a performance for parents. As a result, that song, whenever I hear it, brings me to tears.
· Moriah Shapiro doing some kind of performance (maybe year-end) and you announcing that we’d all be seeing her on Broadway in a few years.
· Realizing that David had learned to read by identifying words (as opposed to sounding them out) when we took him to DC and, as the metro train pulled into a station, he said, “Look Mom, it’s Friendship Heights.” Humorously, he currently lives about two stops away from that station.
· Last but not least, the bridges project. Wherever we traveled during and afterward, David would identify the kind of bridge we were seeing. I recall accompanying the class on the trip to the Brooklyn Bridge and still have on my fridge a dog-eared photo of the entire class on the bridge. Eerily, it shows the two world trade towers in the background.

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Unfortunately, I can’t add anything to what Susan has said here. It’s so long ago! But I can say that choice time was a brilliant thing, and clearly left an impression on David. (I believe we told you the story of how “choice time” was the punch line he used in an improv skit recently and he was surprised that it fell flat – because, as he discovered, he was the only one who had experienced it.)

Giving the kids the notion from an early age that at least part of their time is self directed, fun learning is such a gift to them.

****

Singing, playing outdoors, building with blocks, reading in the refrigerator-box cozy room, napping, poetry, dramatic play, Choice Time, our turtle, trips, bridge study, plays, Backwards Day, and more singing, singing, singing…a rainbow of kindergarten memories.

 

What kind of memories will we give to the children who attend kindergarten during the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top years? Let’s think about that and then take some positive action to stop this craziness. Let’s return childhood to children. They will turn out to be wonderful young adults! As William Crain wrote in Reclaiming Childhood (Henry Holt and Company, 2003) ” ...Schools should respect the child’s spontaneous interests and natural ways of learning. They should repect the child’s enthusiasm for physical activities, creative projects, the arts, and play, and they should give children opportunities to learn through these activities.”

 

Leveled Books in Kindergarten?

It’s been 16 years since I’ve taught kindergarten and I often wonder how my teaching would have been compromised if I hadn’t left the classroom. I don’t consider myself to be a renegade but then again, there are some things that I just could never bend to do. One of them is leveling books in kindergarten. Perhaps I left teaching at just the right time because I would most likely be in a constant battle with the school administration.

 

 

reading together on the rug

My last year as a kindergarten teacher was just when my colleagues in kindergarten were introducing leveled libraries. I absolutely refused. I argued to my principal that this might be the last year that children would not feel labeled and compared (yes, children do understand who is a “good” reader and who isn’t) to their classmates.

Here is how I made peace with this push towards turning kindergarten into Pre-first grade as I attempted to hold on to my beliefs. I read a beautiful storybook to the class and, as we always did, we discussed the book. I followed by reading a Level B book .The discussion after the reading was, as expected, rather limited. I asked the children to think about their reactions to the two books. “Would you prefer to hear one as a bedtime story?” “What made you pick that book.” They all not surprisingly, picked the storybook as a book that they would like to hear read to them.

Then I focused them on the print in both books. Children noticed how small the print was in the storybook and how many words were on each page. Then they pointed out that the Level B book only had a few words on each page and that the print was bigger than in the storybook. I told them that the Level B book was not a book that is usually picked for hearing a story to read aloud. It was a book that children picked if they wanted to learn to read the words in books.

I had by my side a stack of books from Level A to Level D. I put them in a basket and asked the children to come up with a good label for these books. They decided on “Learning To Read The Words Books.” I told them that I would add the basket to our library and if anyone wanted to work on one of those books, they could find a partner to work with or they could tell me and I would find time to read the book with them. As the year went on, some children worked on reading those books and some didn’t.

I looped up to first grade with my class. By the end of the first grade year, everyone was reading, but at different levels. In first grade I did level the books and I discussed the importance of reading just-right books. In my heart of hearts though, I knew that children would probably thrive if they weren’t pushed so hard and so early, into print and that there are children who might begin reading later than first grade. A dear friend of mine who is a teacher, a poet and a voracious reader told me that she didn’t begin reading until the end of second grade.

Teachers, parents, administrators and politicians are all getting rather hysterical about pushing, pushing, pushing children. I think of flowers that grow up tall but also blossom out. I’m for nurturing children as they blossom. Leveling books in kindergarten? Bah!

DO MESAS HAVE SPIKES?

making a mesaSome years ago (these sweet children are about to graduate from college!) my first grade class was engaged in a study of waterways. This was a year-long investigation and adventure that we took together with our 4th grade buddies. We visited the pond in Prospect Park, the Gowanus Canal, and the ocean at Breezy Point. Along with the 4th graders, we took an exciting ride on the MetroNorth train, and followed the Hudson River all the way to the Croton Reservoir.

Along with a representative from the Department of Environmental Protection, the children did water-testing experiments in class, took a walk around the neighborhood to observe how water is tested at various water-checking stations located on different streets and we also visited the water control center at the reservoir in Central Park.

Our “big bang trip” was a boat ride in Jamaica Bay with five instructors from the New York Aquarium. The instructors set up five different exploration stations and the children spent time at each one.

colin on the boat

Our assistant principal, Richard Goldstein a former science teacher, spoke to the children about different landforms and how they interact with and form the various waterways. He helped the children make mini-landforms in small plastic boxes. The next day at the suggestion of the children, we followed this up at Choice Time by creating various landforms in our sand/water table, mapping the landforms and then pouring down “rain” creating rivers and islands.waterway #1

waterway mapwaterway-process descriptionSometimes there was a disagreement about how the landforms should be constructed , but the children were encouraged to do some research to settle their disputes!

 

Collaboration, sometimes conflict, creativity, research…all taking place at one center during Choice Time in a first grade class!

Nature and Nurture: the best of pre-k

standing on tree stump

Every new object, clearly seen, opens up a new organ of perception in us.                                                                                                                                                                                                              Goethe

As New York City rushes to open up hundreds of pre-kindergarten classrooms, I’m thinking that we need to stop and shine a spotlight on examples of good early childhood practices. In my worst nightmare, I imagine a disaster scene of three and four year old children being drilled on their ABC’s, given workpage pictures to color (stay in the lines!), and learning proper school behavior (let’s clap for Julius. He’s in the green zone. Marcus, maybe you can be a good boy and have your card moved up from the red zone next week.)

Luckily, I had the pleasure of stopping by Amy Binin’s pre-k class at the Brooklyn New School a few weeks ago. 1601297_702899816431136_2948489232921810240_nAmy and I met in 1996 when we were both part of a group of New York City public school teachers who were visiting the pre-schools in Reggio Emilia. I never had the pleasure of working in Amy’s class but, when I was consulting with kindergarten, first and second grade teachers at the school a few years ago, I would stop in for a chat when we both had time.

Last week as I was preparing a presentation on “Inquiry and Investigations” for a Teachers College conference on pre-kindergarten (Seize the Moment: Rise to the Challenge of Pre-K), I looked up the dictionary definition of curiosity:an eager desire to know: inquisitiveness. Sir Ken Robinson made a connection between creativity and curiosity when he wrote “You can’t just give a creativity injection. You have to create an environment for curiosity and a way to encourage people and get the best out of them.” One of my early childhood  idols, Vivian Gussin Paley, advised “The key is curiosity, and it is curiosity, not answers,
that we model.”

Amy understands the importance of curiosity. She provides opportunities for children to explore and discover and she listens very carefully so that she can plan her curriculum around their big interests. Here’s a short version of what has been happening in Amy’s class this year.

In October Amy took the children on a neighborhood walk. She gave the children bags and baskets for collecting interesting finds along the way. ***collectingWould this walk open us a path towards an inquiry investigation? Amy had a feeling that something would come from this experience but she was not sure of the direction it would take them.

When they returned to class, the children became fascinated with the different seed holders that they found. They could shake some of them and hear the seeds inside but they weren’t sure of how to get them out. **opening a podAmy didn’t give them any answers. She let them figure out the best way for themselves. Little did she know that the most successful strategy was to place the seed holder under a block from the construction center, put a foot on top of the block and jump real hard. It worked! Obviously this method needed adult supervision.***Screen_Shot_2015-01-29_at_9.59.15_PM

Many seeds were collected when the pods were opened and the children found different ways of examining them.

Some children decided to match up the seeds with the seed holders. Other children arranged the seeds, twigs and pods in pleasing designs. Children brought them to the light table to arrange them along with the different leaves that they collected.***arranging

***arranging with teddy bear counters***leaves on light tableAt lunchtime children became aware of the seeds that they found in their fruit. The little apple seeds and tiny orange seeds looked quite different from the big seed in the middle of a plum!

In preparation for Halloween, they cut open a pumpkin and found seeds inside there too! They cooked the pumpkin and the seeds.cutting the pumpkin

On their next walk they collected more branches. Back in the classroom, the children became interested in the wood that they collected from the trees. They noticed that when they snapped off the “tree skin” from some of the sticks, the spot where the bark had been became smooth and light. Now their challenge was to get the skin off the sticks!

They sanded…. sanding

and they peeled the sticks.peeling tree trunk

The class revisited the site of their first walking trip and  discovered a tree with a hole in it. What could be in there? They put their hands inside and to their surprise they scooped out wood dust. ***What's in the hole?They brought this back to school and compared it with the dust they made while sanding and peeling the bark.This discovery sparked an interest in wood. To build on this interest, Amy and a class parent set up a woodworking center. Lots of wood sawing followed!

Amy and the children added branches to the block building center and the children began building their own trees. building tree with branches

A center for observational drawing was set up. When children look closely and draw what they observe, it helps them to reflect on what they are seeing. The children drew the seed pods, the bark and the leaves that they collected. ***copying itchy ball***Itchy ball drawingdrawing barkOne child brought in a bird’s nest to share and to add to the observation center. ***drawing nest holding stuffed animal

***drawing of the nestClay is a very sensual and natural material for young children to manipulate. To support the classroom nature study, Rachel Schwartzman, the art teacher, gave the children opportunities to process their understandings by creating trees in the art studio.clay tree

rachel 7The class took a field trip to vist a Natural Play Space in Prospect Park. climbing on treeclimbing in the tree!While they were there, they built a house of twigs! ***building with branchesThey found a row of tree stumps and became fascinated with the circular lines on the stumps. ***looking at tree stumpsTo follow up on this interest, parents who were purchasing Christmas trees asked the tree-seller for the bottom stump of the tree and these tree stumps were brought to class. Some were in the science center but they also made their way to the block-building area of the classroom.

Amy read many books to the children about trees and about the animals that lived in the trees.

The study was culminated with the construction of a large tree that included nests, birds and squirrels. ***making a tree?The children now have decided on a plan to change the tree as the seasons change.

Look into nature and then you will understand everything better.

Albert Einstein