Tears of Hope

sandtableThe Internet can be seductive and, at times, downright dangerous. It can also open the doors to wonderful information. We can make connections with important colleagues who would otherwise have been unknown. That happened to me a few years ago when I met Matt Glover through an online introduction made by Kathy Collins. That introduction led to a very important study-group visit to Reggio Emilia and to my special and valued friendship with Matt.

This past month I had another introduction facilitated by Julie Diamond, a friend who is a wonderful educator, early childhood teacher, and artist. I became acquainted with Rebecca Burdett, a passionate first grade teacher from New Paltz, New York. Rebecca and I have been emailing back and forth, sharing our thoughts about the state of early childhood education. We haven’t yet had a face-to-face encounter but I’m sure that will happen someday.

A few days ago Rebecca sent me a copy of a letter that she wrote to the new mayor of New York City, Bill DeBlasio. I was so impressed with what Rebecca had to say and I thought that I must share it with you.

My only revision to the letter, if I could have made it, would have been to this sentence:
Create Pre-K classrooms with rich learning areas for block play, sand and water, art and music experiences, dramatic play corners and engaging libraries and you will recreate New York City, beginning with its youngest citizens.

I love all that Rebecca wrote. I would, however, wish to revise the beginning to say:
Create Pre-k and kindergarten classrooms with rich learning areas…

In New York City the Department of Education seems to have forgetten that kindergarten is an early childhood grade. When government officials and school administrators ignore this important point, they open doors to let in all sorts of inappropriate practices that can turn kindergarten into a clone of first grade.

Here is Rebecca Burdett’s letter:

January 2, 2014
New Paltz, NY 

Dear Mr. DeBlasio,

I watched highlights from your Inauguration this morning on Democracy Now. I was moved to tears when you began speaking about your new taxation system to provide for Universal Pre-k for all of New York City’s four year olds.

As a veteran teacher, in my 30th year of work with young children, this is an issue near and dear to my heart. I am a graduate of Bank Street College of Education, and have dedicated much of my professional life to early childhood. I know that the steps you are currently taking to provide high quality educational opportunities for young children goes beyond rhetoric about educational reform, and strikes at the deep issues of racial equality, poverty and liberation that will either unite or divide our nation. You have taken action where other leaders merely presented visions of what could be.

I cried, too, when President Obama was first Inaugurated in 2008. I saw him as a beacon of hope, especially in the area of education. A product of a dynamic, progressive education himself, he spoke of strengthening early childhood programs and undoing the damage done to our educational system by No Child Left Behind. And then, he bypassed the gifted guidance of Linda Darling Hammond, and appointed Arne Duncan. Sadly, tragically, a new beginning for young children has not come to pass. We have become a nation obsessed with high-stakes testing, despite 100 years of research that rejects this kind of assessment for young children! The four year olds in 2008, were last May’s 3rd grade class. They sat through federally mandated standardized testing that was as flawed as it was heartless. Race to the Top, with its underfunded and restrictive mandates has inflicted great damage, not just to the eight and nine year olds who sat through three days of grueling, incomprehensible hour and a half exams, but to early childhood programs, as well. Commissioner King lied when he said that young children were not being tested. The new APPR, a bargaining chip of the RTTT monies in NY, with its new scoring equations, required that my students’ work be given a standardized point value.

Last year, my first grade students were subjected to test after test… if you can believe it, two tests in math and literacy, and two tests in Gym, in Library, in Music and in Art. These tests were added to our districts’ ongoing assessments. As a result, my first graders were subjected to 24 discrete assessments between May and June of last year. Of course, there were diagnostic pre-tests in September and October, and ongoing test preparations so the children would know how to “take” the state-mandated tests. You get the picture.

Thankfully, these summative assessments have been reduced by half, due in large part to the enormous pushback by parents, teachers and administrators across the state. Commissioner King has experienced just the beginning of the fall out that will ultimately undo any benefits the Common Core had to offer. When you pit teachers against their students by tying test scores to teacher performance, you are toying with what is, I believe, a sacred relationship between teacher and student. It is completely clear that poverty, and a lack of educational opportunity is what creates diminished results, not ineffective teaching. We need to address homelessness, domestic hunger, unemployment and hopelessness if we want to improve education. We cannot vilify the very people who have worked against the odds, giving all to make a difference in the lives of their students.

But I know I am preaching to the choir. You and I both know that assessing young children with standardized paper/pencil tasks is not developmentally appropriate or efficacious. I am writing to you to ask that you proceed into the world of Universal Pre-K with both eyes wide open to unscrupulous and uneducated test-makers, waiting to descend on the world of four year olds and inflict damage on what I know could be the greatest liberation of the spirit New York has ever experienced. Do not open the floodgates for-profit educational corporations and their canned, scripted curricula. Draw from the tremendous pool of talent your city affords. Seek the guidance of early childhood professionals at Bank Street College of Education, Teachers’ College and CUNY. New York City has a dynamic legacy of Progressive Education that can guide the education policies of a progressive administration such as your own. New York City was home to Caroline Pratt, inventor of the Unit Block, and long time Head of City and Country School. Lucy Sprague Mitchell, of the Bureau of Educational Experiments, (later Bank Street School of Education) shaped a generation of early childhood educators and theorists who have maintained a clear and dynamic vision of what young children need to thrive and take their place as citizens of a new democracy. Deborah Meier’s schools still provide a way of thinking about educational autonomy and the liberation of the spirit. City and Country and Bank Street School for Children are highly regarded schools, but what they offer should not be given only to the few who can afford their tuitions. We can look to them as models for what ALL children should enjoy…a high-quality, active education that sees the child for who she is, a person of great ability and talent, not someday, not after proving this on a test, but by the very nature of being. A happy, engaged and listened-to child, in a beautifully prepared environment, with a full belly and a time to explore, inquire and investigate is on a track to become fully realized.

Create Pre-K classrooms with rich learning areas for block play, sand and water, art and music experiences, dramatic play corners and engaging libraries and you will recreate New York City, beginning with its youngest citizens. Keep student-teacher ratios low, as low as those in the private schools the elite in NY demand, and draw upon the idealistic and dedicated young educators who have cast their lot with education, despite the doom and gloom of our profession’s state. Look to mentors to help these young professionals. You’d be surprised how many recently retired teachers would love to give back by participating in a bold, new initiative such as yours.

I’m not retired…far from it, but I would offer to you my services. I study children’s block play, and have presented across the country on the importance of play in early childhood programs. I would welcome the chance to help in your work, and to be a part of the effort to create a new vision of how we care for children. We must take back our country from those who would create a two-tiered system for the haves and have-nots. Private schools and charters for the fortunate, and overcrowded classrooms and substandard curricula for the rest. Food abundance for some, and cuts to food stamps for others. Enrichment programs for a few, and cuts to art, music and foreign languages for most.

In the name of all that is good about democracy, this must end. I want to help. Put me to work.


Rebecca Burdett
First Grade Teacher
New Paltz Central School District

I want to help too. I’m ready to jump in and do all that I can to assist in Bill DeBlasio and our new school chancellor, Carmen Farina’s progressive agenda for the education of the children of New York!

You Are My Sunshine

Adrian in schoolyardI am so honored to have been nominated for a Sunshine Award by Pat Johnson. The Sunshine Award is a lovely way that bloggers recognize each other. Basically, it spreads Sunshine from one blog to another!

The Sunshine Award was started by Matt Renwick, an elementary principal in Wisconsin (@readbyexample). Here are the rules Matt lists in his post:
Acknowledge the nominating blogger. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
 Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you. List 11 bloggers. They should be bloggers you believe deserve some recognition and a little blogging love! Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. (You cannot nominate the blogger who nominated you.)

Here are the questions that Pat (http://catchingreaders.com/2013/12/22/spreading-some-sunshine/) asked me along with my answers:

1. If you hadn’t become a teacher, what would you have been?                                         This is such a difficult question for me to answer. Teaching really fulfilled me in so many ways. I could be creative, silly, serious, industrious, social, well, just about anything. I was a very poor science student when I was in high school and in college. As a teacher, though, I loved science. I saw it in an entirely new way. I was opening up a world of wonder for the children and, coincidentally, for myself too. So teaching did fill so many needs that I had. When I was younger, I thought that I might become a writer, possibly a reporter. Now that I’m “retired” from the classroom, I have many opportunities to write about my passion – teaching- on my blog. How lucky can one person be?
2. Tell me something about the grandparent who meant a lot to you.                               When I was very young, my mother and I lived with my grandmother. My father was overseas (WWII) and I imagine that this was economically, practically, and emotionally a good place for my mother to live. My father came back from the war when I was almost three and we moved to our own home, temporary barracks that were built for returning veterans. I spent almost every weekend with my grandmother, probably so that my parents could “reacquaint” after such a long separation. I hung out in the kitchen with my grandma or sat with her as she crocheted. It was a very homey feeling when I was with her. Unfortunately she passed away when I was nine years old. My mother tried to explain to me that Grandma was up in heaven. I have such a strong memory of sitting by my bedroom window at nighttime, looking up at the stars, and wondering which star was the one where my grandmother lived.
3. My favorite charity is…Doctors Without Borders
4. What’s the funniest thing a student every said to you?                                                   Some years ago I was teaching pre-k at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn. One day as I was dismissing the children, one sweet, shy little girl earnestly lagged behind and came over to me. She took my hand in hers, looked up at me with teary eyes and said, “Renee, don’t you get lonely and scared when you’re here by yourself all night?” It really wasn’t a funny statement but it was so touching.
5. Name a teacher from your past who impressed you and why.                                              I loved school. It was like my private refuge. I can’t really remember any of my lessons although I do remember a wonderful day when I went into the teacher’s kitchen with my first grade teacher and a few other children. We made Jello. It was thrilling, especially going into the room where the teachers ate. Another memory was in junior high school English class. My teacher, Mrs. Oliver, read to us every day. That was so special. She also played a recording of Basil Rathbone reading the works of Edgar Allen Poe. That was completely memorable! Thank you Mrs. Oliver.
6. The one thing on my bucket list that I know I will get to someday is…                            In 1976-1979 I lived in Rome with my husband, Simon and my young daughter. Simone went to a lovely (communist!) Montessori pre-school for two years and then to the local public school. She was becoming a true Romano. Simon had a Rome Prize and he had a marvelous studio at the American Academy. They also provided us with a huge apartment in Monteverde Vecchio. All three of us have marvelous memories of that special time. My bucket list wish is to return to Rome for a vacation with Simon, Simone, my son-in-law Jeremy and my grandson Adrian. Jeremy and Adrian have never been there and I want us to be able to all share in the wonders of this beautiful city together.
7. For exercise, I like to…                                                                                                            This is such a downfall for me. Whenever I join an exercise class or make a plan for myself, some part of my body seems to fall apart. I take a private Pilates class each week and I love working with Spela, my fantastic instructor. I also love city walking. New York is the best place for that. I’ve had some pretty bad sciatica, which has really discouraged me from walking but (knock wood) I seem to be on the repair. I hope that pretty soon I can get on a regular walking regime, both in Brooklyn walking by Prospect Park and also walking around with my husband, visiting galleries and just enjoying the city.
8. Who is your favorite children’s book author?                                                                    Maude Hart Lovelace! I grew up devouring the Betsy-Tacy series. My friend Joyce and I would pretend that we were Betsy and Tacy. Even though we lived in a housing project in Brooklyn, we pretended that we lived in a small town in Minnesota. We would pack food, books, notebooks and pencils and ride our bikes to an empty lot near the train tracks. It was a pretty deserted area but we had no fear. I don’t even know if our mothers realized where we were going! It was our secret spot to read, play and write. Betsy (me) and Tacy (Joyce). When I was teaching kindergarten and first grade I introduced the books to my classes for read aloud time. I’m not sure if the children would have known about the books (it was a series) on their own but when they heard that they were my favorite books when I was a child, they couldn’t wait to hear each chapter. They even played Betsy-Tacy during Choice Time and in the schoolyard at recess! At one point (as an adult!) I joined the Betsy-Tacy Society. Anna Quindlen was the president!
9. If you could visit any other country, which one would it be?                                             I’ve never been to Greece and I would love to go there. I’d also like to explore southern Italy. I’ve only been to places north of Rome. I’d like to, particularly, visit the Amalfi Coast.
10. What is the talent you really wish you had?                                                                           I wish I had some musical talent. It’s frustrating to have a grand piano in my home and to have no idea of how to play it. I was at a New Year’s Day party this year and it was filled with guests who played all different string instruments. There was lots of ‘jamming’. One person would leave the group to have a drink or eat and another would musician would step in to play. It looked like so much fun!
11. If you could invent a holiday, what would it be for?                                                           In Italy August 15th is a day when just about everyone stops what they are doing and goes to the beach or the countryside. I love the idea that they are not to obsessed with work to just stop for rest and enjoyment. My husband said that, to him, it’s like the lemmings going out to sea. To me, though, it’s like a glorious belief in the importance of taking a breath to stop and smell the roses.
Here are the eleven random facts about me:

1. I entered a talent show when I was in 4th grade, sang Seven Lonely Days and “yodeled” like a cowgirl at the end. I didn’t actually hear anyone in the audience laugh!
2. My husband and I met at Brighton Beach Bay 3 in 1964. It was the luckiest day of my life.
3. I love vanilla ice cream. Because I’m lactose intolerant, I can’t eat it anymore (although I sometimes eat some and risk a stomach ache!)
4. I don’t like winter. It’s too cold and snowy. I didn’t even like winter when I was a small child.
5. At the age of 65 my hair became curly! People who know me for many years ask me if I perm it but I don’t. It’s just a strange, natural phenomenon!
6. I love being a grandmother. My grandson calls me Nonna. He recently told me that for years he thought that Nonna was my first name.
7. I like to watch Law and Order on TV. I think it might be because it’s safer than watching the real news.
8. I feel passionate about kindergarten and feel, sadly, that it’s the year that is being misinterpreted lately.
9. I’m so proud of my family. My husband, my daughter and my son-in-law all bring passion and dedication to their work: my husband to his art, my daughter to her music, and my son-in-law to his teaching.
10. I’m putting a lot of hope in Bill DeBlasio, New York’s new Mayor and Carmen Farina, our new chancellor. I hope that the will begin righting many of the wrongs that have been imposed on the public school children and teachers these past twelve years.
11. I went to college at night and worked as a secretary for the Yale Truck Company during the day. This was not a high point of my life!!

I would like to nominate

Leah Mermelstein

Merril ( I don’t know Merril’s last name )

Tomasen Carey

Scott Filkins

Katie Lapham

Bloggers, here are my eleven questions:

1. What book(s) are you presently reading?
2. Who was the must influential person in your life?
3. What inspired you to enter the field of education?
4. Do you have a secret vice that you might be willing to share?
5. What is your ideal vacation?
6. What was your favorite childhood game or activity?
7. Is there a film about childhood that you would recommend to a friend?
8. Who was your best friend when you were a child?
9. Is there a work of art or a piece of music that has left a strong impact on you?
10. What educator has influenced your teaching?
11. What is your ideal vacation?
And now, Leah, Merril, Tomasen, Scott and Katie, what your random facts? I hope you have fun playing around with your Sunshine Award! I look forward to your answers.

Here’s a sunshine song for everyone! Listen! Enjoy! Sing Along!  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JcnNb7Pnmok



P.S. I finally have a twitter account! My twitter name is Rd415. Now I need to learn how to use it!

Remembering Ellie Barr

images 16-20-59I can’t let 2014 begin without writing a few words about an important mentor to me who passed away this year. Elinor Barr, a through and through early childhood educator, was the kind of advocate for children and childhood that is needed so desperately in a time that seems to have turned its back on the important needs of young children.

I met Ellie in 1980 when she was supervising a student teacher in my classroom. I was teaching very young children (3 year olds) that year and felt out of my element and rather insecure. Ellie was always so positive and upbeat. She praised me and also gently gave me some much- needed suggestions. When I left the small private school where I had been working to teach a pre-kindergarten class in the local public school, Ellie followed along with me. A few years later she invited me to teach a class on early childhood education at Kingsborough Community College where she was a professor. I knew how much the education of aspiring teachers meant to Ellie and I was touched by her trust in sharing that important responsibility with me.

Ellie was gentle, wise, smart and funny. There also were sides to her that I wasn’t  aware of until her memorial on November 16th. I learned that Ellie was a lifelong peace and social justice activist. That she worked to integrate the New York City public schools in the 1960’s by helping to organize a reverse busing program. She was involved with helping to enforce anti-discrimination laws in Brooklyn, New York housing. She marched…for civil rights, against the atomic bomb, against wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan, and for all things that might benefit children and education. For over 20 years she was a volunteer on the Hotline at Gay Mens Health Crisis. She taught at an integrated and inclusive nursery school for many years. Ellie was a Doctor of Education and a Professor of Early Childhood Education at Kingsborough Community College for 40 years and she was a Carey Fellow at the Bank Street College of Education.

The memorial at the Brooklyn Friend’s Meeting House was packed. Many people got up to speak. I was particularly moved by the words spoken by Ellie’s Kingsborough colleague, Barbara Weiserbs:

Ellie was a rare person, a combination of political and social awareness, activism, gentleness and steadfast strength, progressivism in education, appreciation of the arts, but mostly an appreciation of and sensitivity to people. You could recognize these characteristics in the way she spoke, the questions she asked and her honest thoughtfulness.

The first time I met Ellie, back in 1979 when I started working at Kingsborough, I knew that I wanted to get to know her. I stopped by her office, which was in the block room. Actually, it was a desk in one corner of the block room. The walls around her desk were filled with pictures. I remember being struck by two. One was a photo taken during the depression of a woman looking worn out and worried, Florence Owens Thompson with her children. The other was the face of Paul Robeson.
I soon discovered that I had found an academic home, an oasis for sharing ideas in a solid early childhood program. Mostly it was Ellie who created this program, and based it on the best of human values: caring for all, interested in all, with support and fairness.
She built the program
She guided people in it.
She created the materials and the curriculum.
And her program lives on.
Outsiders wanted to understand how our classes encouraged the insights that students internalized and took with them to other colleges when they transferred.
There was no deep dark secret. It was the commitment to the program that was shared by faculty, especially by Ellie. She stayed late. “You go”, she would say, “I’ll take care of it.”
She came in early to speak with students whose schedules were difficult because of responsibilities to children, work and their own classes. She chaired weekly meetings for many years for the purpose of finding solutions to student problems, and eventually these meetings came to be known as the “Ellie Meetings’. They clarified issues for faculty and they helped faculty come together as a team, working for a common goal. She spent time visiting schools, looking for better placements, schools where students could experience first hand the teaching approach and classroom settings we spoke about, especially as the discrepancy between what we taught and what students experienced in the school system increased.

She designed the student internships with seminars and conferences to help students better understand their experiences. Assignments in field courses were so meaningful that they are still being used with little modification.

Likewise, many art workshops that she developed continue. The art course was and is central to the program. It puts many core early childhood concepts into workshop form for the students to appreciate. I know some of you had her as a teacher. Lucky you. Students loved her and remembered her long after they left Kingsborough.
She gave of herself to her students, to the program and to her colleagues. She listened and offered advice with a quiet-strong voice made so by the content of what she said. After she retired, she came to Kingsborough weekly and tutored students who needed help with their written work. And who better to help them, because she understood their assignments better than anyone. She had designed them.

She spoke up to add her voice to support the needs of children.
At meetings she’d say, “I want to say something.” And she would open up the discussion to issues that affected the lives of children and their parents, their schools. “What do your students think about this problem?” she would ask. In this way, she continued the struggle for a socially just world and raised the importance of these issues in the minds of students and faculty alike.

She continued to express her support for the needs of children in many other ways too. She demonstrated against cuts in education, she demonstrated for education programs that were invigorating and nourishing. She attended many meetings and fought her entire life for learning processes that enhanced children’s lives. As a leader in the field, she wrote letters and grant proposals to explain and support her position. Here is an excerpt from a letter that she wrote to the chancellor of the Department of Education in 2005:

“As educators and teacher trainers, we are concerned by the lack of play in New York City’s early childhood classrooms. There is a great disparity between how we train our students and what they are exposed to in the public school system.
If our goal is to help create adults who reach the highest levels in all disciplines, we have to provide experiences that encourage experimentation, inquiry, self-motivation, critical and divergent thinking and creativity. In the early years, this is achieved through play.”

The other day, one of my grandchildren asked for an “everything” book. “What is an “everything” book? Is that an encyclopedia, or a dictionary?”
“Yes”, she said, “I want to know about the solar system and how the earth came to be and countries and everything.”
Ellie wanted everything for children too, she wanted them to know everything and to have everything and to grow up being interested in everything.
That is who Ellie was. She engaged in every type of activism to fight for children’s needs: their basic human needs and their “everything” needs.

Last year Ellie visited my husband’s art exhibit in Manhattan and, coincidentally, it was a day that Simon and I visited the exhibit. It was a wonderful surprise to meet Ellie there. After she and Simon discussed his work, I had a few moments to sit and talk with her about the present state of early childhood education. We both lamented the pushing down of an inappropriate curriculum into the kindergarten and first grade classrooms around the city. We worried about how this would affect children now and in their futures. This was the last time that I spoke with Ellie.

I wonder about who will be the spokespersons for kindergarten and first grade children as the “Ellie’s” pass away? Who will be brave enough to defend developmentally appropriate curriculums without being afraid of being called “old fashioned” and “out of synch with the times?” I hope that I can hold on to Elinor Barr’s strength and knowledge about young children and that I can continue to defend them on her behalf.



Last week, on December 11th, I attend a “Town Hall” forum where John King, New York State Commissioner of Education and Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, “listened” to 45 different people speak passionately either for or against the Common Core Learning Standards and the high stakes tests that accompany them. It was a depressing evening. Ms. Tisch sat silently while Mr. King gave glib sound bites to any criticism of the CCLS and of the high stakes testing.

As I sat through the two and a half hour meeting, I couldn’t help reflecting on my own teaching career. Didn’t I have high standards for my students? Didn’t I provide a learning environment where children were encouraged to widen their horizons and challenge themselves to reach for the stars? Didn’t the children thrive academically and socially in a classroom where we sang, played, experimented, and wondered? In a very moving speech at my retirement party in 2003, my colleague at the New York City Department of Education, Office of Instructional Support, Gabriel Feldberg, said, “She taught her preschoolers and kindergartners to call on their own senses and observations, to see meaning in everything from paintings in museums to pollution in the Gowanus Canal. She taught them to do what she must have done as a child: she taught them to teach themselves” How did I do this without the Common Core Learning Standards?

There seems to be a stigma attached to any criticism of these standards. The implication appears to be that anyone who questions the CCLS is, ipso facto, not in favor of having high standards for their students. How insulting!

I’m trying to be open to these new standards but I wonder about the legitimacy of micromanaging expectations for young children. In an article on young children learning to read, in the Scholastic publication Early Childhood Today, Sue Bredekamp, author of Effective Practices in Early Childhood Education: Building a Foundation, agreed that, “There is … a huge range of individual variation that is absolutely normal.” Anyone who knows 5, 6 and 7 year olds, particularly those who have raised siblings, will understand the wide range of developmental jumps from one child to another and from one year to another. How can we possibly mandate that every five year old child, by June, will “Actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding” or “Isolate and pronounce the initial, medial vowel, and final sounds (phonemes) in three-phoneme (consonant-vowel-consonant, or C VC) words.* ( This does not include CVCs ending with /l/, /r/, or /x/.) “ I might feel more comfortable if the standards were written to say, “By the end of second grade, students should….” and leave it at that. Let there be some acknowledgement of the variety of learning styles and rates of young children. Teachers could see a goal for the future, but not have to lock step the instruction and strangle the joy of learning that we want to instill in our young students.

One of the speakers at the December 11th meeting was Liz Phillips, the principal of P.S. 321 where I taught for many years. She certainly represented a voice of reason as she presented her thoughts on the ill effects of high stakes testing. While we don’t necessarily agree on all issues, I was quite impressed with her talk. I asked her if I could share her speaking notes on my blog. Here they are:

Liz Phillips PS 321
• I really believe most of us here have the same goal—high quality education for all students; equity in education.
• We have some serious differences about how we reach that goal, and I am deeply concerned that current state policy is moving us so much further from this goal and increasing the achievement gap as some schools feel compelled to give up a rich curriculum to spend increasing amounts of time on test prep in place of the arts, recess, and hands-on activities that develop critical thinking, problem solving and collaborative skills.
• I’m in favor of having high expectations for children, in holding ourselves accountable, in assessing children—we do that daily. I’m not opposed to some standardized testing, used appropriately. I’M EVEN IN FAVOR OF THE COMMON CORE STANDARDS—RICH POSSIBILITIES.
• What I am strongly opposed to is the nature of the current tests; the way cut scores have been manipulated; the way the state is spending a huge amount of money to pay Pearson and outside consultants, and the high stakes decisions being made with very questionable data. I AM VERY SAD THAT SOMETHING THAT HAD A LOT OF PROMISE—THE CCS—HAS BEEN SO TAINTED BY INAPPROPRIATE TESTING THAT IS LABELED AS CCS ALIGNED.
• THE TESTS ARE UNNECESSARILY LONG. There is no reason that a fourth grader needs to spend close to 5 hours…270 minutes on an ELA test and 5 hours on a math test. We can assess how our kids are doing on much shorter tests.
• AND, BY TYING TEACHER EVALUATION TO MINUTE CHANGES IN TEST SCORES, WE ARE DOING A HUGE DISSERVICE TO STUDENTS. IN NYC.  WE KNOW, FROM OUR EXPERIENCE WITH TDRS, THAT THE DATA SIMPLY IS INACCURATE AND MISLEADING…and that it will lead to a narrowing of the curriculum. We are using numbers that may seem to mean something when they don’t. One example…one year, one of our teachers had an average proficiency level of 3.97 (student’s scores from third grade)…OUT OF 4.5 at the end of the year her average proficiency level was 3.92. No statistician would claim that this is a statistically significant difference—and most of us would agree that kids scoring an average of 3.92 on the test means kids are well on the way to being college ready. This happened to be one of the strongest teachers in my school—by any other measure—parent satisfaction, children’s feedback, and my observations. Yet this insignificant change landed her in the 6th percentile.
• The exams need to be significantly shorter, not shortened by 6-7 minutes as day as has currently been proposed.
• We need to minimize the impact of test administration and grading by having the state centrally grade the tests…tremendous inequality when wealthy districts can pay outside companies to grade tests but in NYC school pick up the cost by having to send teachers to grade and hire substitutes. In my school we were mandated to send 5 teachers to score for 15 days each….and pay for 75 subs to cover them.
• There needs to be a change overall in the financial priorities of the state, with more money going to schools and less to outside companies and consultants.
• We need to make sure that test scores are not the determining factor in teacher evaluation so that the curriculum is not narrowed out of desperation.
We need to do this so that so that we can truly prepare all children to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, lifelong learners, and effective citizens in a democracy.
Thank you.

Teachers Talk Testing

Celia OylerThis past Tuesday, December 3rd, P.S. 321 in Park Slope Brooklyn, hosted a forum titled Teachers Talk Testing. A panel made up of five teachers, a public school principal (Liz Phillips) and a professor from Teachers College (Celia Oyler) all spoke with great passion and knowledge. They presented very specific examples describing the destructive effect that high stakes testing is having on public school children.

The teachers and parents have set up a very impressive website, teacherstalktesting.com.

I hope that you will all visit it often. It will be continuously updated.

New York city residents are URGED to also sign the petition to Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio, which is posted on the site. 
While there are more aspects of high stakes testing that need to be changed, the petition asks that the new mayor take the following actions once in office:
1. End promotion tied to test scores.
2. End middle and high school admissions tied exclusively to test scores.
3. End school report cards based primarily on student test scores.
It is pointed out that these changes won’t fix everything, but they’d be a great start in helping to lower the weight these high stakes tests are currently placing on teachers and their students.
Once again, please do go to teacherstalktesting.com to sign the petition to Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio and read more about actions being taken to oppose these high stakes test.

Here is an article about the meeting that was posted on schoolbook.com:

Brooklyn Teachers Blast Emphasis on Testing
Wednesday, December 04, 2013 – 04:00 AM
A group of veteran teachers described in detail Tuesday night how an emphasis on standardized tests was sucking the joy out of the classroom, adding undue stress to students and educators themselves.
“The tests are kind of ruining what we love,” said Sara Greenfield, a third-grade teacher at P.S. 321 William Penn in Park Slope. She said that the time needed to prepare for the tests has displaced experiential learning.
“At this point it’s a luxury for most New York City teachers to choose to take their classes to a dance performance, instead of read about a dancer and answer multiple choice questions about that dancer,” she said.
Greenfield and others spoke to parents and fellow teachers in the P.S. 321 auditorium at a forum under the umbrella of Teachers Talk Testing, a newly-formed group seeking to reduce the emphasis on testing in three ways: ending grade promotion tied to test scores; ending middle school and high school admissions tied exclusively to test scores; and revising the way test scores factor into school progress reports.
For some, the issue of over-testing was connected to the implementation of the Common Core learning standards. Tuesday’s panel came at a time when the New York education commissioner, John King, has been holding community forums — at times contentious — around the state. The New York City forum has not been scheduled yet.
King recently defended the push for the Common Core — and the new tests aligned to the standards, saying that too many students were graduating high school unprepared for college. But critics have said that the standards and tests are being pushed too fast, especially after less than one third of students statewide passed the tests last spring.
“There’s a lot of good things in the Common Core standards, and I think most good teachers would agree that we want to hold our students to high standards,” said Alex Messer, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 321. “But the Common Core standards have come out quickly,” without enough time to work out the kinks, he said.
P.S. 321′s principal, Liz Phillips, bluntly brought the problem with the Common Core back to testing. “The value of the Common Core has become totally tainted because of the tests,” she said.
Teachers reported that despite their best efforts to avoid test prep, they felt it would be unfair to put students in a testing situation without familiarity with the format and types of questions they would need to answer. And, despite an effort to downplay the importance of the tests, students were fully aware of the stakes involved, they said.
“Children, contrary to popular belief, are observant,” said Sam Coleman, a third-grade teacher at P.S. 24 in Sunset Park. “They pick this stuff up.”
Ronda Matthews, a fifth-grade teacher at P.S. 321, said watching her students struggle with the tests was painful.
“The high-stakes associated with testing has such unforgiving consequences for my students and myself,” she said. “I find it hard to stomach that such extreme decisions and labels are placed on students and teachers alike based on a few days of a high-pressure situation.”
Now, with student performance on state tests also factoring into teacher evaluations, the system may not only weed out ineffective teachers but also discourage highly effective teachers as well, said Julie Cavanagh, a special education teacher at P.S. 15 Patrick F. Daly in Red Hook.
“I find myself subjecting these kids that I love to this thing that’s not good for them, doesn’t benefit them, doesn’t give me the information that I need — which is supposed to be the purpose of assessments,” she said. “It is the definition of insanity.”

Taking Ownership

celery smaller
I know where I’m going
And I know who’s going with me
Irish Folk Song

Sometimes we think that we know where we are going. We have plans. We have all the tools that we need to get there. We’re well – prepared for the journey.
And yet, something along the way moves us in another direction. It entices us.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a market study that was taking place in a first grade class in East New York, Brooklyn. The children visited many different markets and they were involved in recreating the markets in their classroom. This was their direction…learning about and recreating markets. All was well. Children were absorbed in the study. The teachers understood the roadmap. And then…

The class went on a trip to the Union Square Market, a large farmers market located in Manhattan. “Where’s the market?” the children asked, looking for the sliding doors, the big freezers, the conveyer belts. “Oh, so THIS is the market!” What a discovery!union market smaller

The children were given 2-dollar vouchers that they pooled together and they bought all sorts of new and unknown vegetables…. Brussels sprouts, parsley, kale, spinach, peppers, basil, celery…and brought them back to the classroom to observe and taste.tasting.smallerjpg

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Each child took home a “mystery bag” of vegetables to share with their families. The next day they brought in lists of all that they could name and identify and told each other what they did with the vegetables when they brought them home.

The farm and the produce became a hot topic of conversation. “I wonder if we could make a farm in our classroom?” mused the teacher. Yes!

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The children planted seeds and labeled their crops.


They constructed fences between the different vegetables that were in their gardens.

The road turned.

The Market Study has morphed into a study of good nutrition. This was amazingly timely, coinciding with Michelle Obama’s attempt to confront childhood obesity with her “Let’s Move” initiative. Katie Rust, one of the teachers, sent me this message in an email, “we decided, after much pressing …to write to Michelle Obama about our work with fresh produce. Our class is beginning a “Healthy Food Initiative” …. Mr. Mastin and I are taking a teacher pledge to offer only fresh produce as snacks, and parents will be doing the same. Students will be writing letters describing our market study and how it has inspired us to be better decision makers about our food. We hope to complete the package to send within the next two weeks and we’ll keep you up to date. … I’ve attached the parent letter/pledge…. We’ll be having a healthy Thanksgiving party this Wednesday at noon “


The children have been reading circulars to see how healthy and not-so-healthy products are advertised. They’re becoming wise consumers.
The teachers and the children have taken ownership of this study and followed a detour leading to a more personal destination. Sometimes we think that we know where we are going. And yet, something along the way moves us in another direction.

December 6, 2013:  New photos added – The Avocado

Just about to taste this avocado

Just about to taste this avocado

I like the avocado!

messy avocado handscompostsprouting

To Market, To Market – Inquiry study in first grade

Questions 1We don’t hear too many good stories about schools, classrooms and teachers these days. The newspapers focus on failing schools, teacher evaluations, low scores…negative, negatives, and negatives. I’d like to occasionally show some examples of teachers who are on a quest for providing the best and most appropriate educational climate for their children. Sometimes this involves taking baby steps towards change. That’s ok. Babies don’t just get up and walk. They first crawl, and then they often “cruise” around a room to build their walking confidence. Then, one day they’re walking their way around their little world.

I’m going to share a little snapshot of Katie and Andy’s classroom. They teach first grade in a UFT sponsored charter school in East New York Brooklyn. This is an economically poor, mainly African American neighborhood. Many children live in shelters or in foster homes.

When I visited Katie’s class last year, children sat at desks that were set up in rows facing the front of the room. The teacher taught. The children listened and copied work written on the wipe board that was behind the teacher. There were no centers. No art center. No blocks. No science center. You can get the picture.

What I’m sharing today is the start of a Market Inquiry Project that they are involved with this fall. They’ve visited many markets in and out of the neighborhood. They went to a local community farm and they are planning on visiting a large farmer’s market in Manhattan. What they decide to see and explore is directed by the students’ questions and by their prior knowledge. money and business questions
questions 2
Why are there scanners...

After a trip, the teachers ask the children how they would like to represent their new information. Out of this discussion, the centers for the week are set up.

The class now has a block center and also a nicely stocked art center. Andy and Katie's art center
The desks are arranged in clusters so that children can collaborate on projects. Discussion and collaboration are becoming an important instructional goal this year.

In the block center the children are building a supermarket. Before they began their construction they worked together to draw a plan. This was posted in the center to be used as a building reference. As they made changes in their building, children returned to the original plan to revise it. The day that I visited the classroom, they decided that their market would have a drive-in restaurant!
first grade plan for market building

Revising the market plan

Revising the market plan

Drive-Through Supermarket Restaurant

Drive-Through Supermarket Restaurant

Because they noticed many signs in the market, a sign-making center was set up. These signs were brought to the children working in the block center. Another group of children were making products for the market. There was another center where children were making bilingual circulars. I couldn’t quite understand what was happening at the center until one of the children picked up a pile of advertising circulars to show me. The teacher explained that when they visited a Target store the children noticed that many signs were in English and Spanish. They were studying Spanish in school and decided that their market would have English/Spanish circulars.

I was particularly intrigued by the group of children who were sitting on the floor working on a writing project. They told me that they were writing a play about a mother who was shopping in a market with her child. Now they were writing the script. At the start of the school year, for first graders, so much of the effort at this point was in actually determining how to write each word. The children’s collaborative effort in figuring out the spelling was impressive. A year ago, children telling each other how to spell a word might have been reproached for cheating! Now, it’s considered collaboration and it’s celebrated.

I feel like I would like to celebrate the giant steps that Katie and Andy have taken towards creating an exciting, creative, collaborative first grade classroom!

Listening to the Whispers of the Mind

Simon 5

After working as an early childhood consultant for the past ten years, I’ve finally come to a realization about the true nature of my job. Consultants usually have a fairly defined focus to their work. Often they are working with teachers to refine their writing instruction, reading instruction or math instruction. I originally thought that my consulting work basically concentrated on social studies inquiry and investigative choice time centers. Well, of course that is the area that I’m working on with early childhood teachers. I think, however, that the true nature of my work in the schools is to be a strong advocate for children and childhood.

It’s no secret anymore that teachers and administrators are being forced to structure their curriculums in ways that eliminate opportunities for children to be explorative, playful and creative in their thinking. Children have little opportunity for social interactions with their peers. School days are gridded into neat little boxes. Literacy is believed to exist only in a block of time, usually at the start of the day, often during the entire morning without much of a break.

Somehow, this narrow, boxed-in definition of literacy makes me uncomfortable. Living in a home with an artist and a pianist, I can see how much learning occurs in ways that one might not expect. My husband, Simon Dinnerstein, is an artist but he is also an incredibly intellectually and socially curious person. He listens carefully to everyone and everything – the plumber who is fixing our sink and the scientist who is interviewed on television by Charlie Rose – and he observes the world around him with great intensity. All of this new information somehow works together to inspire a new work of art.

My daughter, Simone Dinnerstein, is a concert pianist who mainly performs classical music but she listens to all different genres of music and lets these different sounds rest within her. In her travels she meets and forms friendships with a variety of people from the neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks, in New York to the Vienna-based theramininist, Pamela Kurstin. As a result of her curiosity and her reflective intellect, her interpretation of the various composers’ work and her performances of their pieces continue to become more expansive and personal.

I thought about this when I recently read a review of Daniel Goleman’s new book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. I was particularly taken with his description of open awareness “Always a rare and elusive form of thinking, it seems to be getting rarer and more elusive. Our modern search – engine culture celebrates information gathering and problem solving – ways of thinking associated with orienting and selective focus – but has little patience for the mind’s reveries. Letting one’s thoughts wander seems frivolous, a waste of practical brainpower. Worse, our infatuation with social media is making it harder to hear the mind’s whispers.”

In New York City, there’s a new teacher evaluation tool called Advance. Multiple measures of “teacher effectiveness” are used to rate teachers. Some of the tools that are used include observations of classroom practice, reviews of teachers’ artifacts, student outcome data and student feedback. For the classroom observations, administrators use Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching.

The original purpose of this document was to be used as a tool to support a teacher’s professional development. The NYC Department of Education has turned it into an instrument for rating teachers. Principals observe a teacher for 15 minutes, writing down every word that teachers and children say during this time period. The administrator then spends a few hours (really!) matching up every part of the lesson with the four domains of the Framework. After a lot of paper work, all information is fed into the Advance computer program and a teacher rating is regurgitated back. This does not take into account anything that the principal knows about the teacher or the children. It’s all based on the computer’s data-driven results. Each teacher is rated this way six times during the school year. There’s no place for nuance. There’s no place for the principal’s opinion based on the teacher’s history in the school. Data. It’s all data-driven.

In a recent meeting with teachers, Michael Mulgrew, the head of the United Federation of Teachers, said that he originally told Charlotte Danielson that her wonderful document would be put through the Department of Education’s system and come out with razor blades attached. So it seems to have happened. If the teacher gets an unsatisfactory rating, his or her job is on the line. This process certainly isn’t encouraging teacher creativity. Towing the line is the order of the day.

As our public schools continue to show signs of this McCarthy-like coercion, how can we expect teachers to give children opportunities to hear the whispers in their minds? Teachers also need to be relieved of the stress imposed by an out of touch bureaucracy so that too they can feel free to incorporate their own experiences and interests in their interactions with children.

Once, when I was teaching kindergarten, I noticed one of the children, Brooklyn, returning to the same book, day after day. This was in September, soon after our summer vacation. I pointed this out to the class and told them that I found this particularly interesting because I did the same thing during the summer. I told them that I read a book called House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. I liked it so much that I began reading it again as soon as I finished the last page. Now, I said, I was looking for other books by the same author. I then wondered if Brooklyn would be looking for more books by Dr. Seuss. This began a class search for Dr. Seuss books to add to Brooklyn’s book pile and it also instigated a temporary class obsession with finding and collecting books by their own favorite authors. The excitement for this activity lasted for a short period of time and then we moved on to something new. I didn’t think about the discussion that led to the author collections until a June day when one of the children asked me if I was going to read them my ghost story. I hadn’t the faintest idea of what he was referring to. “You know, the one that you read two times last summer.” Children listen and think about what we say and do.

We all need to figure out a way of being advocates for children. We need to be sure that we’re saying and doing what is really right for them. They need quality time to for exploring, questioning, playing, creating and theorizing. In a recent email exchange that I had with Charlotte Danielson she wrote: “we seem to have lost that aspect of early childhood education, which should be obvious to anyone who’s watched four-year-olds at “work” – exploring, formulating hypotheses (they don’t call them that of course, but that’s what it is – trying things out to see what happens), etc. For young children it’s all about inquiry!”

I’d like to expand on what Charlotte Danielson wrote and say that it’s all about inquiry for all children, not only four year olds, and that it is important for us to remember that. Without opportunities for inquiry, we open up the possibility of frivolously wasting the brainpower of our future citizens and, it seems, of creating unhappy and stressed – out schoolchildren.

They should be getting dirty counting frogs in ponds!

They shouldn’t count frogs on pages.They should be getting dirty counting frogs in ponds.

This statement says it all.

I’m sharing Monique Dois’ impassioned and articulate letter because she presents such wonderfully clear reasons why this testing mania is inappropriate and misguided. I hope that this is a letter that will go viral on the internet to support a movement that lobbies for a return to appropriate instructional practices in early childhood grades!hard hats at work

October 18, 2013

Dear Commissioner King,

It appears that I have to take some time out of my day to explain to you why my just-turned-five-year-old son shouldn’t be taking your standardized bubble tests as a “Measure of Student Learning” (MOSL) in Kindergarten. I would think that the last sentence that I wrote would stand on it’s own and that I wouldn’t need to elaborate the point any further. (“Kindergarten” and “standardized bubble test” just appeared in the same sentence, in case you missed it.) Unfortunately, it seems that all of the research in best early childhood practices has been thrown out the window in the interest of what you call reform.

I was thinking of writing to you about all of the ways that this kind of testing is inappropriate for 4 and 5 year-old children. For example, I was thinking about how kids in this age range can’t sit still. Or how young kids have the tendency to cry and run away from being forced to do stupid stuff. I was also imagining how my son is much more likely to make an elaborate pattern on your bubble sheet than fill in “right answers.” (And this would be a much better use of his time and mathematical energies, actually.) I was also tearing up thinking about how the wonderfully empathetic minds of young children don’t understand what “cheating” is. I wanted to communicate how painful it is to me as a parent and educator to think about kids trying to help each other on the test, only to be told by their powerless teacher that that is not allowed.

So, I guess what I am saying Commissioner King, is that it crossed my mind to address you on all of the ways that this kind of testing will further degrade kindergarten. But then I remembered hearing that your children go to a Montessori school. And I got angry. Why? Not because I don’t think your children deserve an active, hands-on, developmentally appropriate, loving, playful, and artful experience in school. But I think all children do. Stop bubble testing our babies!

Then I remembered that you don’t like hearing impassioned pleas of educators and parents. When we tried to compel you to stop destroying our children’s tenacity and love of learning at a forum in Poughkeepsie you arrogantly called us “special interest” groups and then canceled the rest of your public hearings. It sounds to me, Commissioner, that you are still developing the stamina, perseverance and grit that it takes to really listen to all the people who disagree with you and take their varying perspectives into consideration while building your own. So instead of going that route and getting all “emotional mom,” I decided to keep it simple and professional:

Commissioner King, you can’t measure student learning in Kindergarten using a pencil and paper bubble test. I’ll give you one example. On one of these Measures of Student Learning (MOSL) you ask children to select the illustration that shows 13 frogs. Something that seems so simple as being able to count thirteen is not really that simple at all. Let me explain.

While children are learning to count they show a number of behaviors in the process of counting actual objects that are not captured on this test. For example, if you give my son 13 buttons and ask him to count them, this is what will happen: First he will get a mischievous grin and say “A lot! So many I can hardly count!” This will tell you that he will probably have to work hard counting numbers in this range (it’s funny how kids will tell you what they need, if you listen). Then he will start counting. He starts by moving the buttons into a line, which shows us that he has some understanding that he needs to keep track of his counting. Then as he gets to 9 he will stop moving them and start just touching them where they are. This tells me that at 9 he has to start working hard to remember the counting sequence and starts attending more to that and less to keeping track. He may loose his one-to-one correspondence as he focuses his effort on the counting sequence and just hover his fingers over buttons as he chants the numbers. If I ask him to do it again, he may line up all of the buttons and accurately count them all, because the first time he tried got him warmed up for the task.

After he shows evidence that he grasps how to count 13, then I would ask him to give me 13 buttons from my collection. It is much more challenging to count out 13 buttons than to count a pile of 13 buttons. It requires my son to be really secure in his understanding of 13 because of different skills being juggled. The inconsistency of his counting 13 will tell us that my son is in the right range for his learning potential and I will look for lots of ways to give him 10-20 real life objects for him to count and manipulate in different contexts. We may call all of this practice in “composing and decomposing numbers to 20”. Though, as opposed to your seriously bewildering Engage NY modules, we don’t usually call it that when we are talking to 4 or 5 year-olds. Doing so doesn’t make our instruction more rigorous, it makes it more ridiculous.

At this point, my son is likely to pick out and start talking about his favorite button and how it is so shiny and how he loves the sparkly, rainbow-y colors. This may seem off task to you, and you may be likely to have me redirect him. But an experienced Kindergarten teacher like my son’s teacher would encourage him to play with the buttons. She would observe what he does, take his lead, help give him language for his play as he sorts the buttons by color, size, number of holes, “sparkliness” and so on. Play is serious work in Kindergarten.

This understanding of the development of number sense in young children is completely lost on your tests. Your system is so riddled in so-called “high standards”, and a can’t-reach-the-ever-moving-bar deficit model of education, that you have completely lost track of what makes for good teaching. I know that my child’s Kindergarten teacher is much better equipped to assess my kid’s counting than your multiple choice questions. I am outraged by the very notion that you will assess her as a teacher using the completely unreliable “data” mined from these MOSL bubble tests.

Early childhood teachers are unfortunately used to being degraded, undervalued and our work rendered invisible. But enough is enough. We have to draw the line with tests that are an insult to our professional as well as common sense. Making teachers use an inappropriate assessment that is tied to their very survival as a teacher, will encourage them to do inappropriate things to kids. Tests that require kids to count frogs on pages will only encourage teachers to have kindergarteners count lots of frogs on lots of pages. Kindergarteners should be given meaningful opportunities to solve real life number problems, build nature collections, make beautiful patterns with buttons, describe objects and live and learn what it feels like to hold numbers of objects in their tiny, precious hands. They shouldn’t count frogs on pages.They should be getting dirty counting frogs in ponds.

Thanks for listening, Commissioner King. I know that you are working on your ability to hear criticism. I appreciate you sticking with me through all of this. I know it required a considerable attention span. Luckily unlike my 5 year old you do have the capacity for such attention, even if you don’t regularly practice using it while listening to teachers and parents. Practice makes perfect!


Monique Dols, mom to a Kindergartener and early childhood teacher
Bronx, NY

P.S. You know Froebel, right? He’s the guy that like, totally inspired Kindergarten and Montessori. Before he came along people used to think that play in early childhood was a frivolous waste of time. I know, crazy right!? What were they thinking?