I spy book



This week I had the fortunate experience of stepping into Pam Roque’s P.S. 142 Kindergarten classroom during Choice Time. The children all seemed to be totally engaged with their activities and with each other. Pam was the sole adult in her room. She had no teaching assistant and no student teacher to assist her. Yet there was no chaos. Children were not constantly interrupting her for help. Quite the contrary, I noticed so many instances of children helping each other. I wonder how much modeling Pam did during the school year to lead her young charges to this sophisticated behavior?

It’s April, a few days before the spring break and the class is at the winding down phase of their Beautiful Stuff project.  I could see all sorts of found objects that the children brought to school, being used throughout the classroom.

At one table, two boys were making funny face collages. 2 beautiful stuff face

Spread out on the carpet to dry was a fancy princess collage made of sparkly ribbons and a broken bracelet for a mouth. brand new princess

At another table, two children were using pieces of wood that they painted to make little houses. new beautiful stuff houses


On the floor near the block center, two girls were cutting, pasting, giggling and singing. When I asked them what they were working on they told me that they were making a mermaid because they were best friends and they both LOVED mermaids!


I looked over at the block area and was totally intrigued with the thoughtful concentration of the children who were at work. Their placement of the various trinkets all around their buildings was particularly interesting.

#1 I spy blocks


#2 I spy tower

I didn’t want to interrupt their work and so I asked Pam if she could explain what was taking place. Pam told me that she had shared many “I Spy” books with the class during the course of this project because they seemed to be such a good match with all of the objects that children brought in to school. The children loved the books and they came up with an inventive way of reinterpreting the concept of the books in the Block Building Center.

Builders took trays of the Beautiful Stuff and brought it to the block center. When they finished their construction, they peppered their structure with different objects.

#3  I spy construction

To bring this idea to another level, Pam created a “Beautiful Stuff I Spy” template and the builders filled it out with drawings and words. Then they invited other children to come in and go on an “I Spy” hunt, checking off whatever they could find until they finished the paper!

new I spy treasure hunt list


How did Pam manage to support all of this independence and creativity? I’m going to spend more time in her room, perhaps videotaping so that I can learn more about  her strategies and share them with other new kindergarten teachers. Right off the bat, though, there are some professional practices that are obvious to me.

Pam speaks with a soft, but firm, voice. At meetings and at centers, she is a really good listener, encouraging children to follow suit. Her classroom is neat and well organized. Children know just where everything belongs and they also know how to find things on their own. There are no behavior charts, gold stars or other artificial rewards. The rewards children receive are in their new friendships and in the pleasure of spending each day in a peaceful and loving classroom.

When I’m in her room, I breathe a sigh of pleasure, knowing that here is a place where children are being intellectually challenged and emotionally respected.

Bravo Pam!

A Principal With Principles Speaks Out!


The New York Times


We Need to Talk About the Test


I’D like to tell you what was wrong with the tests my students took last week, but I can’t. Pearson’s $32 million contract with New York State to design the exams prohibits the state from making the tests public and imposes a gag order on educators who administer them. So teachers watched hundreds of thousands of children in grades 3 to 8 sit for between 70 and 180 minutes per day for three days taking a state English Language Arts exam that does a poor job of testing reading comprehension, and yet we’re not allowed to point out what the problems were.

This lack of transparency was one of the driving forces that led the teachers at my school to call for a protest rally the day after the test, a rally that attracted hundreds of supporters. More than 30 other New York City schools have scheduled their own demonstrations.

I want to be clear: We were not protesting testing; we were not protesting the Common Core standards. We were protesting the fact that we had just witnessed children being asked to answer questions that had little bearing on their reading ability and yet had huge stakes for students, teachers, principals and schools. (Among other things, test scores help determine teacher and principal evaluations, and in New York City they also have an impact on middle and high school admissions to some schools.) We were protesting the fact that it is our word against the state’s, since we cannot reveal the content of the passages or the questions that were asked.

In general terms, the tests were confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards. The questions were focused on small details in the passages, rather than on overall comprehension, and many were ambiguous. Children as young as 8 were asked several questions that required rereading four different paragraphs and then deciding which one of those paragraphs best connected to a fifth paragraph. There was a strong emphasis on questions addressing the structure rather than the meaning of the texts. There was also a striking lack of passages with an urban setting. And the tests were too long; none of us can figure out why we need to test for three days to determine how well a child reads and writes.

Teachers and administrators at my school have spoken out against the overemphasis on testing for years, but our stance is not one of “sour grapes.” Last year we were one of the 25 top-scoring schools in New York State. We have implemented the Common Core standards with enthusiasm, and we have always supported the idea that great teaching is the best test preparation. But this year’s English Language Arts exam has made a mockery of that position.

It is frightening to think what “teaching to the test” would mean, given the nature of the test. We won’t do it, but some schools will, or at least will try, despite a new state law that mandates that schools limit test prep to 2 percent of instructional time. How does one even begin to monitor or enforce such a mandate?

Over the past few years, as higher stakes have been attached to the tests, we have seen schools devote more time to test prep, leaving less time and fewer resources for instruction in music, the arts, social studies and physical education. This is especially true for schools with a high proportion of low-income students, who tend to do worse on the test, and whose teachers and principals have to worry more about the scores.

At Public School 321, we entered this year’s testing period doing everything that we were supposed to do as a school. We limited test prep and kept the focus on great instruction. We reassured families that we would avoid stressing out their children, and we did. But we believed that New York State and Pearson would have listened to the extensive feedback they received last year and revised the tests accordingly. We were not naïve enough to think that the tests would be transformed, but we counted on their being slightly improved. It truly was shocking to look at the exams in third, fourth and fifth grade and to see that they were worse than ever. We felt as if we’d been had.

For two years, I have suggested that the commissioner of education and the members of the Board of Regents actually take the tests — I’d recommend Days 1 and 3 of the third-grade test for starters. Afterward, I would like to hear whether they still believed that these tests gave schools and parents valuable information about a child’s reading or writing ability.

We do not want to become cynics, but until these flawed exams are released to the public and there is true transparency, it will be difficult for teachers and principals to maintain the optimism that is such an essential element of educating children.

Elizabeth Phillips has been the principal of Public School 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for 15 years.

Embarking on an Inquiry-based Project


Children are very naturally curious about the world around them. Anyone who has observed young children understands that it isn’t necessary to entertain them with expensive and intricate toys. They can spend hours experimenting with cardboard boxes. A caterpillar crawling up a leaf can mesmerize a youngster, giving rise to a multitude of observations and questions. Inquiry projects provide opportunities for teachers to build on the interests of children and plan many rich and challenging instructional experiences.

When I introduce the project approach to teachers, we study their mandated curriculum but we also discuss how topics can be addressed in a way that also considers the interests and various proclivities of their students. For example there was a kindergarten class that was scheduled to begin a transportation study. Instead of pre-planning a full thematic study, the teachers were asked to first take a walk around the neighborhood with the class and find out what children already knew about transportation and what they seemed to particularly interest them. In this case the children had many questions about the subway that ran under their neighborhood. The teachers were all set to begin a subway study. We began planning for the study by creating an anticipatory web. On this document, we listed the possibilities for this study. We included the standards that would be addressed, field trips, possible visiting experts, resources needed, questions children might ask and research , and inquiry-based Choice Time centers that would support the study. We were getting set to go. But then the study took a major twist. Because there was a child in a wheelchair, the class would not be able to take any subway trips. An inquiry study depends on taking many field trips as a means of provoking questions and extending learning. Because it’s children who generate the direction of a study, the problem was presented to the class with an unexpected result. The children’s outrage at the unfairness of the situation led to an unusual transportation study – a wheelchair study!

exploring the wheelchair

In my workshops and onsite staff development, I help teachers develop studies that draw on the insights, and imagination of their students. They learn strategies for co-developing, with children, webs that record what the class knows about the topic at the start of the study, and how to return to this web to enter more information as their knowledge grows and becomes more focused. Children take on the responsibility for categorizing and labeling the information on the web and deciding on the best method for investigating each of their questions.

 resized subway wall

resized what do you want to learn


Projects are approached in three phases. The first phase is when children share, in many ways, their prior knowledge and the teacher arranges for an initial field trip that creates a common experience for all children. During this phase there might be surveys and graphs created for sharing information that will be used later in the study.

resized first trip to see a garage

resized walking trip sheet

The second phase is when the major investigation takes place. There are field trip experiences, experts interviewed, projects worked on in inquiry centers, books read and reports written. I sometimes refer to this phase as the “meat and potatoes” part of the project because of all the work that children are doing to find answers to their questions.

resized big map

resized writing car words

did you ever want to build a hotel

firehouse research

“Experts” visited third-graders who were studying Australia, and  first-graders who were investigating subways.

resized digeroo

resized Raphaelresized Rob


The third phase represents the culmination of the study. The class returns to the initial web to add and revise information and reflect on the learning experience. At this time children decide on how they want to share with others what they have learned on the topic. Will they have a museum? Will they create a video or a computer presentation? Perhaps they will write a play or publish a big book that they share with younger children. The important aspect of this culminating activity is that it is in the hands of the children and facilitated by the teacher.

These first graders, mostly English language learners, are writing a script for a puppet show that they will present at their project celebration. It will be a story that describes how we can care for hamsters, the animal that their class had been studying.

Some of the inquiry projects that I have worked on with teachers and children, besides the Wheelchair Project, are

∗ Community Gardens
∗ Local Architecture
∗ Bridges
∗ Subways
∗ The Emergency Medical Team of the local hospital
∗ The Essex Street Market (a market made up of individual stalls)
∗ The Post Office
∗ The Firehouse
∗ The Park
∗ Playgrounds
∗ Classroom Pets (each first grade classroom had a different pet and children chose which pet they would study, changing rooms when it was Inquiry Project time
∗ Healthy Bodies
∗ Construction Site
∗ The School
∗ A Restaurant
∗ Bakeries
∗ Cars

When children complete a few inquiry projects their learning has gone beyond the content area information. Just as with instruction in the writing process, the result is that children become empowered to become lifelong learners. They understand that, with interest, enthusiasm and determination, there are many roads that they can take towards knowledge, understanding and expertise.

Thank you to the work of Lilian Katz, Sylvia Chard, Judy Harris Helm, Sallee Beneke and the teachers in the early childhood schools of Reggio Emilia.


My daughter, Simone Dinnerstein, is a rather incredible person, if I do say so myself! She’s a marvelous pianist who worked very hard her entire life to achieve the success that she is now enjoying. At the age of 4 she decided that she wanted to be a pianist. We were living in Rome because my husband, Simon, had received a Rome Prize for painting. Simon’s studio was at the beautiful American Academy and we had a lovely apartment nearby in the neighborhood, Monteverde Vecchio. We enrolled Simone in a ballet class for children, thinking that she would enjoy the dancing. Little did we know that the pianist who played Chopin while they went through their dance routines would mesmerize her. She began asking for lessons but, since both Simon and I had no musical background, we thought that she was too young to study piano. In addition, we did not have a piano!

The requests didn’t stop. Finally Simon asked the composer in residence, John Thow, what he would suggest and John advised us to begin her on recorder lessons. By this time, Simone was five years old. We bought her a recorder and found a lovely recorder teacher who agreed to instruct her. Her teacher was amazed at how quickly Simone picked up the music. She said that it was as though she had played it in another life.

We didn’t return to NYC until Simone was seven but as soon as we were settled in an apartment, Simone reminded us of our promise to let her have piano lessons when we returned to NY. We brought my mother’s spinet piano to Brooklyn, found a young woman in the neighborhood who gave lessons, and Simone’s life as a pianist began. She eventually went to the Manhattan School of Music Pre-College Division every Saturday until she graduated high school where she studied with Solomon Mikowsky (without missing one Saturday!), then to Juilliard, followed by studying in London with the renowned teacher, Maria Curcio and finally returning to NY to study with Peter Serkin.

The rest of her career is well documented in many articles and interviews, so I’ll skip over that and move right on to the reason for this blog entry.

I’ve always believed that it was my husband’s career as an artist that had the greatest influence on Simone but lately I’m realizing that she is also very much influenced by my career as a teacher. Simone has a deep commitment towards bringing music into the life of the community and also to the lives of young children. To this end she began a program called Neighborhood Classics in two New York City public schools, hoping that it will be replicated in other schools and communities.

Welcome Simone

This year she has added to that by creating her Bachpacking experiences, where she had gone directly into classrooms in 10 NYC schools and 10 Washington, D.C. schools so that she can play Bach for the children. Yamaha has donated the use of a digital piano and SONY has provided transportation for her. I sat in on two of her sessions with third graders at the UFT Charter School in Brooklyn. The children were totally engaged and eager to ask questions. (“Do you have to practice on your birthday?”). A second grade teacher at P.S. 142 in Manhattan sent me the following email message, “I want you to know this really brought a smile to my face. I can’t begin to tell you how inspired they were and immediately started writing about their experience. They also asked more questions about music today and so I explained some rudimentary things about the treble and bass clef and how notes are written on paper and read between left and right hand. We also discussed how their voices are really musical instruemts and practiced the scale DO RAE Me etc… They just can’t stop telling people about the concert and are trying their best to be so well behaved.I was also amazed how they managed to remember so many of the words they were taught. Did Simone tell you about the one little girl who started to cry because she was holding her breath to be picked to play so Simone was nice enough to allow her to play. She went home and told her mother all about how much she loved the music.”

P.S. 42


two uft boys at keyboard

scrunchy face at the piano

In Yiddish there’s a word that signifies filling up with pride – kvelling. I guess I’m taking advantage of my blog to do some kvelling. But beyond my pride, it’s so obvious when one sees the children interacting with Simone how easily children take to music and how much joy and fulfillment it can bring to their lives. I hope that Simone’s work in the schools might inspire the powers that be to bring good music instruction and experiences back into the public schools.

“Only a society prepared by education can ever be truly a cultured society …Children must receive musical instruction naturally as food, and with as much pleasure as they derive from a ball game.”
—Leonard Bernstein

Hyde Park boys

Beautiful Serendipity

261 self portrait

Do you believe in serendipity?

This past Saturday I came across a blog that was posted on Facebook and the latest entry was titled Beautiful Stuff: Diary of a Gan Teacher. A kindergarten teacher was about to begin the Beautiful Stuff project with her class and would be blogging about it periodically. What a perfect find this was for me! The kindergarten classes in two of the schools where I consult are just beginning this project. I emailed all of the teachers  the link to this blog and encouraged them to read it, and if they felt the urge, to send in comments on how the project was working in their classes.

Then, yesterday (Sunday) I received a beautiful private message on my Facebook page from Amy Meltzer, a kindergarten teacher working in Massachusetts. She wrote about how much she enjoys my blog and how it is supporting her planning for Choice Time. It was such a wonderful beginning to my Sunday. I wrote back to Amy and through the course of our back and forth communications discovered that Amy is the author of the Beautiful Stuff blog! Now isn’t that amazing!

I just love the Beautiful Stuff project. As a staff developer working with early childhood teachers, I find that it is a perfect way to support teachers in understanding the joy and potential of exploration, inquiry and creative expression.

The project is presented in the book Beautiful Stuff! Learning with Found Materials by Cathy Weisman Topal and Lella Gandini. The publisher’s description of the book on their website says, “inspired by educational practices in Reggio Emilia, Italy, this book focuses on process rather than product. Chapters cover collecting and organizing materials, stimulating thoughts about design, reflecting upon and extending work, and more. Several sorting and categorizing activities are presented, along with individual and group projects and constructions.

I’d like to share some images of children’s work from two different New York City public schools. In this first school working with this study had a profound effect on the way that the kindergarten teachers approached art with their children. When I first visited their classrooms I was struck by how caring all of the teachers were towards their students. The population consisted of mostly children of immigrants from Latino countries. Many families lived in shelters or in a local housing project. For a variety of reasons, the children did not take part in class conversations. There was little chatter between them at their tables when they were working or at play centers. The art work that I saw on the walls all looked very similar and teacher-directed.

Look at what happened when they were encouraged to experiment with a variety of materials and come up with their own personal designs.


proudchoosing woodcreation 1intense concentration!

tree bulletin board


Something unusual occurred in Dana Roth’s kindergarten class at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn, New York. They were in the midst of the Beautiful Stuff project. At their centers, during Choice Time, children created Beautiful Stuff Color Cities, Beautiful Stuff inventions and Beautiful Stuff games. Then one child came up with a new idea. “Let’s have a Beautiful Stuff newspaper!” Dana, who was always interested in picking up on children’s interests, facilitated a discussion to find out what children knew about newspapers. At the class meeting they decided to open up a newspaper center. Children took on different roles – writers, reporters, illustrators and photographers. Here are some of the pages from their Beautiful Stuff Telling Newspaper:

our telling newspaper

We're showing our BS- newspaper

blue city


Have any of you had experience with this project? If you haven’t, are you interested in giving it a try? These are some suggestions that I have shared with the teachers that I’ve been working with at various NYC schools:

Ideas and Thoughts from the text Beautiful Stuff!

  • One goal of this project is to allow children to become ‘fluent’ with materials – as if materials were a language
  • This project tends to get parents very involved – they too are eager to share the treasures that they collected. They are interested in seeing what other families have discovered.
  • We want to record the opening of the bags – video, still photo, tape recorded responses, written transcripts
  • The teacher helps children focus their observations by asking questions and making responses that help focus conversation
  • Give children opportunities to sort the materials in unexpected ways
  • Give children opportunities to name the sorted categories and make observations about the different categories
  • Materials can be arranged and rearranged many times
  • When materials are arranged in different categories and displayed in an attractive way, parents and children can add to the materials when they come in to school in the morning (see page 21)
  • Because clutter is distracting, teachers have to make selections and throw away some materials. This should be done with discretion so that feelings are not hurt
  • Storing materials in clear or white containers allows children to clearly see the colors and textures of each material
  • Have a display shelf left blank so children can use it for unfinished or finished work (see page 46)
  • An enthusiastic adult has to be involved to keep the communication and dialogue going
  • The kinds of questions to ask as well as when to ask or make an observation becomes important parts of being present to the moment with children
  • Exploring materials is an evocative experience. It stimulates the imagination. It invites children to tell stories and to develop games
  • Social interaction is a natural outcome of exploring
  • Exploring materials is a bridge to other avenues of expression, such as drawing, collage, construction and sculpture
  • Saving a trace or memory of an experience is so important to the art of learning and teaching
  • Collecting materials and ideas for a project on one day, then inviting children to wait overnight to think them through, builds a sense of anticipation and allows for changes in plans and new ideas
  • Instead of giving children a model on which to base their work, ask, “How could you make ___ from your materials?”


I hope that you will visit Amy’s blog and that you will share some of your own experiences with this project. If you have thoughts or questions about any aspect of this study, please post them on the “make a comment” space for my blog. I have a feeling that there are many teachers who read our blogs who will have many interesting suggestions and stories to share.

Don’t you just love those serendipitous moments?

261 boy

baskets - beautiful stuff261 arranging

Alfie Kohn’s Wise Words

blocksI just read a brilliant essay by Alfie Kohn that Valerie Strauss shared on her blog. It’s a piece that should be read and shared by anyone who has anything to do with the education of young children. After you read this, it would be so wonderful if you could share it with as many parents of young children as possible. It’s the parents who will be the ones who finally say, “Enough!” (At least I hope that they will say that.)

I’m wondering, as a New Yorker, how I can reach Bill DeBlasio, our new mayor, and encourage him to read this article and to think carefully about how the city will educate all of the potential pre-k students in New York City. We could really make a difference and set an example here!

dress up

Here is the article:

By Alfie Kohn

Universal pre-kindergarten education finally seems to be gathering momentum. President Obama highlighted the issue in his 2013 State of the Union address and then mentioned it again in this year’s. Numerous states and cities are launching or expanding early-education initiatives, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has made this his signature issue. Disagreements persist about the details of funding, but a real consensus has begun to develop that all young children deserve what has until now been unaffordable by low-income families.

But here’s the catch: Very few people are talking about the kind of education that would be offered — other than declaring it should be “high quality.” And that phrase is often interpreted to mean “high intensity”: an accelerated version of skills-based teaching that most early-childhood experts regard as terrible. Poor children, as usual, tend to get the worst of this.

It doesn’t bode well that many supporters of universal pre-K seem to be more concerned about economic imperatives than about what’s good for kids. In his speech last year, for example, the president introduced the topic by emphasizing the need to “start at the earliest possible age” to “equip our citizens with the skills and training” they’ll need in the workplace.[1] The New York Times, meanwhile, editorialized recently about how we must “tightly integrate the [pre-K] program with kindergarten through third grade so that 4-year-olds do not lose their momentum. It will have to prepare children well for the rigorous Common Core learning standards that promise to bring their math, science and literacy skills up to international norms.”[2]

The top-down, test-driven regimen of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiatives in K-12 education is now in the process of being nationalized with those Common Core standards championed by the Times — an enterprise largely funded, and relentlessly promoted, by corporate groups.[3] That same version of school reform, driven by an emphasis on global competitiveness and a determination to teach future workers as much as possible as soon as possible, would now be expanded to children who are barely out of diapers.

That doesn’t leave much time for play.[4] But even to the extent we want to promote meaningful learning in young children, the methods are likely to be counterproductive, featuring an emphasis on the direct instruction of skills and rote rehearsal of facts. This is the legacy of behaviorism: Children are treated as passive receptacles of knowledge, with few opportunities to investigate topics and pose questions that they find intriguing. In place of discovery and exploration, tots are trained to sit still and listen, to memorize lists of letters, numbers, and colors. Their success or failure is relentlessly monitored and quantified, and they’re “reinforced” with stickers or praise for producing right answers and being compliant.

This dreary version of early-childhood education isn’t just disrespectful of children; decades of research show it simply doesn’t work well — and may even be damaging.[5] The same approach has long been over-represented in schools that serve low-income African-American and Latino children; indeed, it was described by the late Martin Haberman as the “pedagogy of poverty” and it continues to find favor in inner-city charter schools.[6] If we’re not careful, calls to expand access to preschool will result in more of the same for younger children whose families can’t afford an alternative.
Consider the basic equity argument. Proponents of universal pre-K cite research about the importance of early-life experiences, arguing that children in low-income families are at a real disadvantage in terms of intellectual stimulation, exposure to literacy, and so on. That disadvantage, they point out, can reverberate throughout their lives and is extremely difficult to reverse.

It is true that, on average, children in affluent homes hear more words spoken and have more books read to them. But, as Richard Rothstein points out, it’s not just a matter of the number of words or books to which they’re exposed so much as the context in which they’re presented. “How parents read to children is as important as whether they do, and an extensive literature confirms that more educated parents read aloud differently.” Rather than “sound[ing] out words or nam[ing] letters,” these parents are more likely to “ask questions that are creative, interpretive, or connective, such as, ‘What do you think will happen next?’ ‘Does that remind you of what we did yesterday?’ Middle-class parents are more likely to read aloud to have fun, to have conversations, or as an entree to the world outside. Their children learn that reading is enjoyable.”[7]

To oversimplify a bit, the homes of advantaged parents look more like progressive schools, while the homes of disadvantaged parents look more like back-to-basics, skills-oriented, traditional schools. It makes no sense to try to send low-income children to preschools that intensify the latter approach, with rigorous drilling in letter-sound correspondences and number recognition — the sort of instruction that turns learning into drudgery. As Deborah Stipek, dean of Stanford’s School of Education, once commented, drill-and-skill instruction isn’t how middle-class children got their edge, so “why use a strategy to help poor kids catch up that didn’t help middle class kids in the first place?”[8]

Alas, that is precisely the strategy that tends to follow in the wake of goals offered by most politicians and journalists who hold forth on education. If schooling is conceived mostly an opportunity to train tomorrow’s employees, there’s a tendency to look to behaviorist methods — despite the fact that behaviorism has largely been discredited by experts in child development, cognition, and learning.

Lilian Katz, a leading authority in early-childhood education, once observed that we tend to “overestimate children academically and underestimate them intellectually.”[9] This is why a school that is exceedingly “rigorous” can also be wholly unengaging, even sterile. If those who favor prescriptive standards and high-stakes testing equate rigor with quality, it may be because they fail to distinguish between what is intellectual and what is merely academic. The rarity of rich intellectual environments for young children seems to leave only two possibilities, as Katz sees it: Either they spend their time “making individual macaroni collages” or they’re put to work to satisfy “our quick-fix academic fervor.”[10]

Happily, these do not exhaust the possibilities for early-childhood education. One alternative is sketched out in a wonderful book by Katz and her Canadian colleague Sylvia Chard called “Engaging Children’s Minds: The Project Approach.” Here, teachers create extended studies of rich themes that resonate with young children, such as babies, hospitals, or the weather. Children might spend a month learning about such a real-life topic, visiting, drawing, discussing, thinking.

And there are other, overlapping educational models, including two with Italian roots: Montessori education and the Reggio Emilia approach, where “young children are not marched or hurried sequentially from one different activity to the next, but instead encouraged to repeat key experiences, observe and re-observe, consider and reconsider, represent and re-represent.”[11] Educators who have been influenced by Jean Piaget’s discoveries about child development, meanwhile, have built on his recognition that children are active meaning makers who learn by constructing reality – intellectually, socially, and morally. One of my favorite practical resources in this vein for early-childhood educators is “Moral Classrooms, Moral Children” by the late Rheta DeVries and Betty Zan.

All of these approaches to educating young children offer opportunities to learn that are holistic and situated in a context. They take kids (and their questions) seriously, engage them as thinkers, and give them some say about what they’re doing. The trouble is that current calls for “high-quality” universal pre-K are unlikely to produce learning opportunities that look anything like this — unless political activists begin tp educate themselves about the nuances of education.
1. Seewww.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/02/12/remarks-president-state-union-address.

2. See www.nytimes.com/2014/01/21/opinion/pre-k-on-the-starting-blocks.html.

3. Some sample headlines in Education Week over the last year: “Business Executives Push Common Core Hard,” “Business Groups Crank Up Defense of Common Core,” “Chamber [of Commerce] President Calls for Support of Common Core in 2014.” In 2009, Bill Gates defended the Common Core, a significant proportion of whose start-up costs have been paid by his foundation, for its capacity to eventually produce a “uniform base of customers.” (See http://ow.ly/pxALx.)

4. Note I say “for play” – not “for opportunities to learn by playing.” The point of play is that it has no point, and children deserve the opportunity to engage in it even if it doesn’t teach skills or anything else. See http://ow.ly/ta2uT.

5. Alfie Kohn, “Early Childhood Education: The Case Against Direct Instruction of Academic Skills.” Excerpted from The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), and available at www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/ece.htm.

6. Alfie Kohn, “Poor Teaching for Poor Children…in the Name of Reform,” Education Week, April 27, 2011. Available at www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/edweek/poor.htm.

7. Richard Rothstein, “Class and the Classroom,” American School Board Journal, October 2004, p. 18.

8. Stipek is quoted in David L. Kirp, “All My Children,” New York Times Education Life, July 31, 2005, p. 21.

9. Lilian Katz, “What Can We Learn from Reggio Emilia?” In The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education, edited by Carolyn Edwards et al. (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1993), p. 31.

10. Lilian Katz, “The Disposition to Learn,” Principal, May 1988, p. 16.

11. Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini, and George Forman, Introduction to The Hundred Languages of Children, op. cit., p. 7.

Also on The Answer Sheet
For school choice-loving Democrats to consider

Planning for Choice Time

“Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.”
― Winston Churchill

revising the first grade building planWhen I decided to call my blog Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration, and Play, I purposefully put forth my vision for the meaning and direction of Choice Time by using those three key words: Inquiry, Exploration, and Play.

On a first visit to a school, I always ask to spend time in rooms during Choice Time. To my dismay, what teachers often refer to as Choice Time is actually an end-of-day wind down time for children after a morning and afternoon spent in reading, writing, phonics, and math lessons. This Choice Time might consist of board games, legos, table toys and, if the children are lucky, dramatic play and (not so often) blocks. There’s very little planning for these centers. It is usually a free playtime, a throwaway half hour at the end of the day before dismissal, giving the teacher time to grade papers, prepare homework, conduct a reading or math assessment, or do some other type of paperwork. I rarely see teachers interacting with children or writing down observational notes during this Choice Time.

I have a different vision of Choice Time. Because it is so important, it should be scheduled at a prime time during the school day, allotted a full period (perhaps even a bit more) and carefully planned for by the teacher. I’m not suggesting that centers should consist of task-driven activities. Quite the contrary, I think that they should be open-ended enough to allow for much exploration, discovery, collaboration and creativity.

The teacher should be able to explain very specifically to another adult – an administrator, a parent, and a colleague – the important learning that is taking place as children are exploring playfully. Let me explain a bit about the preparation for my vision of Choice Time centers.

When I present the concept of an inquiry-based and exploratory Choice Time to teachers, I introduce them to a simple planning template. This template is divided into three sections. I’ll attempt to explain how the planning is done.

We begin with the initial setting up of a center and describe the instructional rationale behind this center. For example, at the start of the year the instructional rationale for the block center might be to encourage children to collaborate and share, to give them opportunities to discover the unit blocks different sizes and shapes, and for children to gain an understanding of three-dimensionality. Later in the year, the instructional rationale might include providing opportunities for children to write signs for constructions using their knowledge of phonics, the word wall and words.

If the teacher has a strong understanding of the learning that is taking place at each center, it’s so much easier explaining this learning to administrators, particularly if they question why prime time during the school day is being used for play. Most administrators, it seems to me, have very little knowledge about early childhood and theories of child development. Parents also often need reassurance about the learning taking place while their child is engaged in important, playful, age-appropriate work during Choice Time. This can be at the art table, dramatic play, and the block center or at a science center.

The next part of the first section describes the Materials and physical set up of the center. Where is the center located? Is there a designated area of the classroom where children can do science observations and experiments? Is there enough space in the block center for four children to work cooperatively and is it in an area where constructions can be left up for a few days so children can work on long- term projects? Is the art area well stocked with materials that children easily and independently access? (Hint: If you can find them, clear containers are wonderful to use for materials because children can easily see what is inside.)
Are there appropriate books in each center for children to look through for new information, ideas and inspiration? Are there a variety of writing materials for recording new, surprising information, writing notes, making signs, etc?detail-block market

When I arranged my classroom, I incorporated the tables and chairs into the different centers. For example, in the art center I had two tables that abutted each other, creating a larger area for art projects. A table was in the science center and one in the math center. My goal was to give the message that our room was an art studio, a science lab, a math lab, a library, and a construction/architectural site. It was a big lab for learning and creating. The space in the room was broken up in a more interesting design than if all of the tables were together in the middle of the room. This seemed to work well for me.

After the room and materials are set up and instructional goals are clear, it is time to observe how children use the centers. Therefore, the second part of the template focuses on Assessing the Center. This is done after the children have been using the center for about two or three weeks. We now ask our selves: How are the children using the materials in this center? Sometimes the materials that we put out are not open-ended enough and children quickly tire of them. Sometimes they are too open-ended and they are not being used constructively. Writing down some observations during center time can be very helpful for assessment.

After assessing how the children are using the centers and the materials in the centers, it’s time to do some Reflecting and Planning Based on these Reflections.

In this section of the planning template, we ask ourselves: What materials can be added (or removed) to support growth in this center? One year I noticed that the children were losing interest in the science center. They had been exploring with all different types of magnets. Some of the children were particularly interested in mazes. I provided paper, paper clips, pencils and magnets and challenged them to create maze games. They were totally engrossed in using the magnets to pull the paper clips around their mazes. This interest lasted about a week or so but I noticed that it was ebbing. I remembered that my daughter had a magnetic storybook theater when she was younger and began to rummage around at home to see if I could find it. Success! I brought this wonderfully magical-looking theater into school to share with the class and, as I anticipated, the children were enthralled. I wondered, out loud, if we could use shoeboxes and our magnets to create our own storybook theaters. My wondering caught fire. What happened next was a combining of the science center and the art center. Some children found their favorite storybooks and looked through them for ideas as they built their theater scenery. Other children created original stories and scenes or made a scene from their own life. As they drew and cut out characters I demonstrated how to fold the bottom and glue on a paper clip so that the figure could stand upright and be moved around the shoebox surface. Some children glued two clips on to make it easier for the magnet to move the character around the stage. They had to hold their shoebox stages so that they could move the magnet around under them but one child came up with an ingenious solution. He found four empty sewing spools that were in a container full of spools in the art center and he glued (tape had to be added later on!) one on each corner of the shoebox, creating a stand. He placed the shoebox on the table and swiped a wand stick magnet under the box to move his “people” around the stage.

Another question to consider is: Are there any ways that you can connect work and explorations in this center to classroom studies and inquiries? As an example, if you are in the midst of a whole-class folktale study and this week you’re focusing on Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the addition of the storybook and some stuffed bears in the block center can provoke children to construct the forest and the house of the bears. They may use the book and props to start reenacting the story and this is without being given any specific task.

everyone is busyA second grade class that I’ve been working with has been doing a Car Study. After visiting a garage and interviewing a mechanic they opened a “take apart” center where children were using tools to take apart an old machine. They also had a map center filled with all different road maps and materials for children to create their own maps. Recycled materials were stocked in the art center for creating cars.

It may seem somewhat overwhelming to plan out each center using this template and it probably will not be used all of the time. However, there’s so little support that teachers today get in understanding how to develop an exciting, enriched, playful and also challenging Choice Time. I was very lucky. I had so many mentors who taught me about the importance of play my journey as a teacher. I fear that, for new teachers, there are no mentors in their schools who can help them understand how to create exploratory, inquiry-based centers in their classrooms. Hopefully, this planning template will, if not take the place of a mentor, at least give teachers some support.

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.