Our Country, Our Future


The Network for Public Education will hold a historic event in one month’s time. You may choose to attend in person at the Brooklyn New School in New York or view it via Livestreaming. A live-stream of the event will be available on Saturday, Oct. 11, starting at Noon Eastern time, 9 am Pacific time at http://www.schoolhouselive.org/

PUBLIC Education Nation will deliver the conversation the country has been waiting for. Rather than featuring billionaires and pop singers, this event will be built around intense conversations featuring leading educators, parents, students and community activists. We have waited too long for that seat at someone else’s table. This time, the tables are turned, and we are the ones setting the agenda.

This event will be livestreamed on the web on the afternoon of Saturday, October 11, from the auditorium of Brooklyn New School, a public school. There will be four panels focusing on the most critical issues we face in our schools. The event will conclude with a conversation between Diane Ravitch and Jitu Brown.

Testing and the Common Core:
New York Principal of the Year Carol Burris will lead a discussion with educators Takeima Bunche-Smith, Rosa Rivera-McCutchen and Alan Aja.

Support Our Schools, Don’t Close Them:
Chicago teacher Xian Barrett will moderate a panel featuring education professor Yohuru Williams, Hiram Rivera of the Philadelphia Student Union, and a representative of the Newark Student Union.

Charter Schools:
North Carolina writer and activist Jeff Bryant will host a discussion that will include New Orleans parent activist Karran Harper Royal, New York teacher and blogger Gary Rubinstein, and Connecticut writer and activist Wendy Lecker.

Authentic Reform Success Stories:
The fourth panel will be led by Network for Public Education executive director Robin Hiller and will include New York teacher Brian Jones, and from Cincinnati, Greg Anrig.

Diane Ravitch and Jitu Brown, In Conversation
The event will finish off with a conversation between leading community activist Jitu Brown and Diane Ravitch, who will talk about where we are in building a movement for real improvement in our schools.Caro

This event will be broadcast live on the web, and can be viewed from anywhere in the world, at no cost. No registration is required.

If you happen to be in the New York area, you can join the studio audience at the Brooklyn New School, at 610 Henry St. Brooklyn, for the live event.

The Network for Public Education is hosting this event. It is NOT sponsored by the Gates, Walton or Bloomberg foundations. It is sponsored by YOU, each and every one of the people who care about our children’s future.

Can you make a small donation to help us cover the expense of this event? We are determined to create the space not ordinarily given to voices like these. But we need your participation. Please donate by visiting the NPE website and clicking on the PayPal link.


Ines labeled

Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened. – Anatole France

What happens when a group of smart, enthusiastic, dedicated first grade public school teachers get together to plan something new and exciting for their students? The Pet Study at New York City’s P.S. 42 in Chinatown is what happened!

Two years ago I worked as an early childhood consultant at P.S. 42. Rosa Casiello O’Day, the school principal, had attended the 2012 study tour to Reggio Emilia with me. She asked me if I could help her teachers move from a book-heavy thematic approach to social studies to a more inquiry project-based approach.

When I met with the first grade teachers, I was immediately impressed with their collaborative spirit and their love of their students. They told me that they wanted to do an animal study and they began naming some zoo animals that they thought might interest their children. I suggested that it might make more sense to study an animal that could be a part of their classroom. This would allow the children to observe the animal daily and to do research that would not be totally based on what they read in books or what is read to them. I waited for them to protest. None of them had animals in their classrooms. I was in for a surprise.

Not only did they go for my idea, but they brought it to a place that I didn’t even imagine. There were six first grade classes, three classes on the second floor and three classes on the third floor. The teachers decided that classes on each floor would work together. The teachers would pick an animal that they felt comfortable handling. They decided on insects, hamsters, frogs, and turtles. Each room would have a different animal. The children would pick which animal, on their floor, they would like to learn more about. They picked three choices and were told that they would probably get their first or second choice. Luckily it worked out smoothly and each child got a first or second choice of animal to study.

After the groups were established, the teachers arranged to have common “Inquiry study times” and the children moved to the room with the animal they were studying. I was afraid that this might end in chaos but I was totally wrong. The children very enthusiastically walked to their pet study room.

Something quite wonderful came of this collaboration. Because of a district mandate (not what the principal really wanted), there were three categories of first grade classes – bilingual (basically, children who just arrived from China and who spoke little English), ESL (children who could speak some English but not fluently) and monolingual (English-speaking children). When these three groups were merged during the inquiry period, children who never communicated with each other became friends. Children learning the language began speaking much more English. Children who had difficulty understanding or expressing themselves in a new language, had peer translators! The teachers were quite excited by this unexpected perk of having the children intermingle and work together.

Here are some examples of the work that the children did. Notice how the act of observing on a daily basis provoked children to have many “wonderings.” They researched for answers in many different ways: observations, books and the Internet and sometimes by asking an expert, such as when they visited a pet store. Without actually following a “common core curriculum” or “bundle”, the study had so many of the CCLS embedded into the children’s work.

The Hamster Study

*Hamster wonderings

*hamster questions


*domesticated tame

*hamster drawings*Fluffy's behavior*venn diagram*hamster group projects*big book plan*what it eats*hamsters eat


The Turtle Study

* turtle questions


*turtles are good at swimming


*turtle diagram


*turtle paintings

we think he is a male because

*turtle diagram 2


The Frog Study

*at pre-meeting


*day 1 day 2 day 3

*why is our frog changing color

I notice that the frog is brown

*changing colors

*frog's eye

*the eye is



The Insect Study

*using our schema

*set up

*sketching, etc.*why do they die? stick insect


*stick insects


helpful or harmful



star name 2

As this new school year gets underway, one big question that parents, teachers, and administrators ask themselves is how much and what approach to phonics should be taught to kindergarten children. I would answer them with this question: What better way is there to interest a 5 year old in letters, sounds and words than starting with his/her own name?

All of us learn best when we can build on our past knowledge or our schema. Just about all children have a special connection to their own name and that interest gives us a perfect starting place for teaching about the letter-sound connection. That is a basic premise behind what is sometimes referred to as “Star Name” activities. With a bow to Patricia Cunningham whose writing introduced me to this name study and to my former colleagues at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn who were always coming up with new ways of extending this activity, I would like to share this intellectually challenging and fun name study with you.

There are, of course, many variations on doing a name study, but here is one way to proceed:

∗ Write each child’s first name on a piece of sentence strip that is just about the size of the name. Use longer strips for long names and shorter strips for short names. This helps children notice the connection between the way a long name like Abraham looks and sounds compared with the way a short name like Ann looks and sounds.

∗ I put the name strips in a box or bag and each day I picked out a name at random. Well, actually it always wasn’t really random. I did think ahead about the potential learning opportunities for particular names and what children were ready for at that time. (Some teachers prefer picking names in alphabetical order.)

∗ The child picked is the “Star Child” for the day.

∗ I pinned a construction paper star on the child, carefully writing his/her name on it while the children observed how I checked and formed each letter. (Some teachers use a paper crown rather than a star.)

∗ The “Star Child” sat in a ‘seat of honor’ and the children interviewed him/her. Some teachers let the class decide on three questions to ask at each interview. For example: Do you have any brother or sisters? What is your favorite color? Do you have any pets? The teacher records each interview on chart paper. This can be copied into a class “Star Name Big Book” with the child’s picture on the interview page. Children and parents love reading and rereading this book .It makes for a perfect shared reading experience because of the repetition of questions.

∗ Write the child’s name again on a large piece of paper, saying each letter as you write it. Together with the children, discuss observations. You might talk about upper and lower case letters, count how many letters are in the name, notice repeating letters, notice the size of the name, etc.

∗ Here’s a fun letter-scramble game to play after you discuss what children have noticed about the name. Cut out each letter or have pre-written letters on large index cards. Call on children to “be” the letters. Tape a letter on the front of each child’s shirt or let them children hold the letters in front of themselves. Mix them up. Have children come up and put the name back in the correct order. Sometimes it is less intimidating and more risk free if children volunteer to do this in pairs so that they can help each other. The “star child” can be the name checker!

∗ Be sure to reserve a bulletin board for your Star Name display. Tack the child’s name strip onto it. Each day you will be adding a new name to this display.

∗ Culminate each star name session with each child writing the star name on one side of a drawing paper with crayon and then drawing a picture of the star name child under it (or a picture of something they enjoy doing with the Star Name child, perhaps playing in the schoolyard or building with blocks together.) They then write their own name on the back of the paper. All the pictures can be stapled together with a pretty cover made by the star name child and taken home by the star name child as a class gift to be shared with families.

∗ Here is a suggestion from a P.S. 321 teacher, Glenda Lawrence. Draw a frame on the white board/ chalkboard or tape a frame on a magnetic board and jumble up all of the magnetic letters in one of the names that have been studied. Challenge children to put the name back in order. It’s informative to see what strategies children use to “decode” the name. Does a child understand that the capital letter begins the name and then does he use this information to check with a posted class list of names? Does he count the number of letters in the name and check a class list to see what names have that amount of letters? Be sure to have a large class name list nearby. Encourage children to share their strategies and you begin writing these straregies on  chart paper. Refer to these periodically. Children will probably be coming up with new strategies as the study continues and you will add them to the chart, always rereading the list of strategies.

Each day, pick a new name out of the box and follow the same routines. As you accumulate more “Star Names”, you can lead the children towards making more complex observations.

Examples of what these observations and activities might be are:

∗ Both Gina and Gail have names that begin with a “G” but the “G” makes a different sound in each name.

∗ Alexandra’s name begins with an A and ends with an a but one is uppercase and one is lowercase.

∗ Lee has the shortest name in the class. It has only 3 letters.

∗ David, Daniel and Devon all have names that begin with “D.”

∗ We can think of lots of words that rhyme with Jan’s name – man, pan, can, fan… ∗ You can rearrange the names on the Star Name bulletin board into groups according to some common attribute (e.g. number of letters, syllables, etc.) and let the children “guess the rule”. After doing this a few times, children can have turns to organize names according to their rule.

∗ Introduce Venn diagrams and let the children decide where the names should go. For example, one of the circles in the diagram can be labeled “names with 5 letters” and the other circle can be labeled “names that begin with D.” A name like David would have to go in the overlapping part of the diagram because it has 5 letters and begins with “D.”

∗ Play, “I’m thinking of…” as in “I’m thinking of a girl whose name begins with the letter S, ends with h and she has two a’s in her name. It’s a 5-letter name. Can you guess who she is?

∗ Play “construct a person”. (A version of hangman!) where the teacher puts lines for each letter in a name and children have to guess if a particular letter is in the name. If it is, then the correct blank is replaced with that letter. If it isn’t, then a part of the person is drawn. The goal is for the class to figure out the name before the person is completed.

The activities are endless. You will no doubt think of many more, as will your children.

It’s wonderful to see children begin to make important connections. One child was trying to read a word and got stumped by the letter g. He looked at it, paused, and then said, “I can’t remember the name of it, but there are two of them together in the middle of Maggie’s name.”

If you have done a name study with your class and you have other strategies that you have used, please do share them. We can all learn for each other!

The Name Game! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxQQH75Znfk

What’s Your Name? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAFSTrSNJMg

Wonders of Learning in NYC

wonder of learning

I’ll be leading a panel of teachers and administrators at the November 14th “Dialogue of Two Cities: NYC and Reggio Emilia” and I’ll also be doing a workshop presentation with two early childhood public school teachers who have made major, exciting changes in their classrooms at the     WonderPlay Conference on November 15th..

I hope you can come and also that you share this notice with friends and colleagues.

Wonder of Learning New York City 2015 updates!

Visit our expanded website www.newyorkcitywol.org for lots of information about the exhibit!

Come to our first professional initiative in November:



Go to our website www.newyorkcitywol.org for more details and to register!
Schedule a private visit of the exhibit for your staff and/or parents! Go to our website www.newyorkcitywol.org to place a date request!
Got time on your hands between January and May 2015? Volunteer! Go to www.shiftboard.com/nycreggiovolunteers/register.html

And most of all spread the word: The Wonder of Learning Exhibit is coming to NYC January 15, 2015 – May 15, 2015, and it will be held at Williamsburg Northside School 299 North 7th Street Brooklyn, NY.
Email us with any questions at nycreggio@teachingbeyondthesquare.org
Thank you,
Jane Racoosin and New York City Encounters with Reggio Emilia


 46_Renne&Simone My daughter was born in 1972, the heyday of the Women’s Movement. It somehow passed me by. When friends and family visited me to see the new baby, inevitably the question, “when are you going back to work” entered into the conversation. I was totally ecstatic about staying home to be with my baby as long as my artist husband Simon, my baby Simone and I could hold out. By some miracle, and with the help of a rent-controlled apartment, I was able to stretch out my home time for two and a half years. We were rather poor but I was happy as a lark. I didn’t care if, as many friends told me, I was being rather retro in my domesticity. Each day my baby surprised me with something new – a smile, a word, a gurgling along with a song.

My problem was that I knew almost nothing about how to care for an infant or a toddler. I was full of questions. Why was my friend’s baby crawling when my little sunshine was content to sit with her toys and play? Baby Jennifer was starting to walk at 11 months. My Simone took one flop at eleven months and decided to put off walking for another two months. Luckily for me, a wise friend gave me the gift of Berry Brazelton’s book Infants and Mothers: Differences in Development  This book was a classic presentation of child development and a “must read” guide for new parents in the 1970’s. .In this book, Dr. Brazelton followed the development of three different babies. All three of the children fell under the umbrella of being “normal” but their development and personalities were greatly diverse. Reading this helped me to stop making comparisons. I just concentrated on and celebrated my daughter’s achievements. 51YEVf590+L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_ Now let’s jump ahead to the present and to the Common Core Learning Standards for children in Pre-k through grade 2. Can you imagine how devastated I would have been if there was a checklist of what standards Simone should have mastered at the end of each year? What if the “standard” for year one would say that by the end of the first year, the 12 month old child will be starting to walk? Perhaps I might have considered my beautiful, and bright baby to be a failure! Thank goodness that T. Berry Brazelton’s examples so clearly illustrated, that children don’t develop skills in a lockstep manner.

You might be asking yourself what my examples have do with the Common Core Learning Standards for Pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten, Grade One and Grade Two?

As an early childhood teacher, I always had high standards for my children. That said, I also understood, that I needed to allow young children a wide berth for growth and success socially and academically. For some children, learning to read and write was as easy as ABC. Others needed more time to put the puzzle pieces of written language together.

The common core learning standards are in desperate need of revision! Whoever is creating and publishing these standards needs to remove the standards for Pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade. Begin the standards with second grade and early childhood teachers will have the big picture of what their students eventually must be able to do in all of the academic areas. Wouldn’t it make so much more sense for the early childhood standard to say that by the end of second grade, children will ask and answer questions about key details in a text and answer such questions as who, where, when why and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text” and leave it at that? It isn’t unrealistic to expect that” by the end of second grade children will compare and contrast the most important points presented by two texts on the same topic.” Some children will be meeting this standard by the end of first grade, just as baby Jennifer could walk at 11 months. Others, however, may need a little more time to reach this particular standard, just as Simone needed a little more time to gain the confidence to start walking. I can tell you for a fact that the adult Jennifer and the adult Simone are doing just fine with their walking, talking, reading and writing.

Perhaps if there were early childhood educators and parents of young children on the committee that drew up these common core learning standards, there would have been more understanding of how young children develop. Perhaps each skill should not be broken down by grade but rather by what we would expect a child to know before going into third grade. This might take some of the stress out of the early childhood classes and allow for a return to classes where children have time and opportunities to explore, investigate, take risks without fear of failure and, (might I add this controversial word?) play!block rocket   George Bernard Shaw wrote, “What we want is to see the child in pursuit of knowledge, and not knowledge in pursuit of the child,” Let’s not be lead by an unrealistic checklist of skills for young children. Instead, let’s heed the words of George Bernard Shaw and give young children many opportunities for pursuing knowledge in classrooms that respect the diversity of each child. We should be creating educational environments that acknowledge the wisdom and research of Dr. Brazelton and so many other educators such as Deborah Meier, Alfie Kohn and Carlina Rinaldi, who tirelessly advocate for developmentally respectful education practices. Let’s not let a checklist of inappropriately constructed early childhood standards take away the child’s joy of learning and the teachers’ joy of teaching!

A Bittersweet Day in May

simon talking to groupArt is not what you see, but what you make others see.” Edgar Degas

Today is quite a bittersweet and emotional day in the Dinnerstein household. An exhibition of Simon’s monumental 14 foot wide painting, The Fulbright Triptych, opened at the Tenri Cultural Institute in New York on April 29, 2011.


more moving crate

a. The Fullbright Triptych

It stayed there until June 10th and then moved to the German Consulate at UN Plaza where it remained until it was packed up today. It’s going to travel to the Law School at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville where it will be on exhibit for one, possibly two, years. Saying goodbye to it was difficult. Simon began the painting in 1971 when he had a Fulbright Fellowship and we spent the year in the little town of Hesse Lichtenau about a half hour away from the city of Kassel. Our daughter, Simone, wasn’t even a thought in our minds at that time. However it took him three years to complete the work back in Brooklyn and along came Simone, so into the painting she went.

8.Simone I’ve watched people looking at this work for more than an hour. It’s like reading a novel. Actually, it’s like a memoir, recording some significant moments in our marriage and even before we wed. Starting at the top of my panel are some photo machine pictures taken in the Staten Island Ferry terminal on our second date!13 There’s been an amazing amount of articles written about the painting since the Tenri exhibit opened in addition to a book totally devoted to this one work. It’s all been quite exciting. A real standout of this time, however, has been Simon’s experience of sharing the work and some of his other work with a variety of school children. At the Tenri Gallery Simon invited a different class of children to visit the gallery each Tuesday. The youngest class was a second grade class from P.S. 142 on the lower east side. The teachers had wisely introduced the children to some of the work back in class by projecting images on the SmartBoard so the children were, in a way, continuing a conversation in the gallery. The concentration of these seven-year-olds, most of who had never been in an art gallery, was admirable. After the children had time to wander the gallery on their own, Simon gathered the group around one of his Palette Paintings and explained to the children how he began this work with an older palette and painted his image into it, incorporating the palette into the composition. Angel, a precocious, animated little boy looked at the picture intently and then confidently remarked “So, Simon, you started with a palette, painted a picture onto it, and now you have this picture. Is that right?” Simon said, “yes, that’s it” and Angel replied, “Wow, that is SO creative!”explaining palette painting

InDreamsBeginResponsibilities copy

Fifth graders from East Flatbush, high school students from Red Hook, fifth graders from Park Slope, classes from the Bronx, and second-language learners from East New York all spent time visiting the gallery. Simon brought in his engraving tools to show the children how he worked on the engraving plate that is at the center of the painting, giving the children opportunities to hold the tools and ask questions.simon explaining plate

15-The Fulbright Triptych - detail #4

At all of the visits the children had time to sit before the painting and to draw…to copy parts of the work that interested them or to draw their own compositions and to share these with Simon.

carefully drawing drawing

girl standing

looking up closePerhaps the most moving experience occurred shortly before the end of the exhibit at the German Consulate. A friend visited the gallery with his very talented, bright, thirteen year old son who has some learning disabilities. Rafaell was so taken with the painting that he asked to be brought back to see it again. At the second visit he spent one hour almost emotionally communicating with the painting. We were quite impressed with his concentration. But that was not the end. Back home, his father heard him talking with his younger brother, explaining that this amazing painting was going to be leaving New York and urging his brother to go and visit it. His father was so impressed that he, in fact, did return to the consulate with both sons to pay homage to a remarkable work of art. Fulbright Triptych- rightRaphael's drawing-4Simon Dinnerstein  by Rafael, 13 years old

It was so exciting to see how this work of art spoke to the young children and the older teenagers. Each brought their own life experiences along with them as they interacted with the work and each, I’m sure, brought away something personal that hopefully will stay with them forever.


Camping Out!


“As soon as I saw you, I knew a grand adventure was about to happen.”
A.A. Milne, Winnie –the- Pooh

Before pacing calendars, before the hysteria of Common Core Learning Standards, before preparing four and five year olds to be college and career ready, there actually were some wonderful classroom opportunities for opening doors and embracing unexpected opportunities for learning. Many years after the fact, (actually eighteen years later) I can recall one of those special moments.

It was September 1996, the start of another teaching year with a new group of kindergarten children. As I did most years, I encouraged each child to bring a favorite storybook from home to share with the class. These books were kept in a special “sharing basket” and each day I picked a few to read aloud. I never, ever would have predicted what was going to happen when I picked Lee’s book to read.

I truly enjoy reading most children’s books but there’s one series that I find particularly tedious and uninspiring, the Berenstain Bears books. However, as much as I avoided reading them to the class, the children seemed to equally love each one in the series. Why? I couldn’t quite figure that out but, nevertheless, there’s obviously something in the humor of the adventures that appeals to five year old children.

Lee’s book was The Berenstain Bears’ Camping Adventure and the minute that I finished my reading, the sounds of “read it again” rang out all around the carpet. O.K., I’m a rather obliging sort so I did it – I read it again. Each day that week the children asked if I could reread that silly tale of a bear family’s adventurous camping trip. Finally, after about the fourth reading that week, I put the book aside and asked if anyone in the class ever went on a real overnight camping trip in the woods. A small sprinkling of hands went up. Most of the children had never gone camping.

“Hmm, I wonder….” (As the year progressed, they would begin to realize that those two words often prefaced some class adventure or project.) “I wonder…could we imagine that a forest grew in our classroom, that day turns to night, and that we could go on a classroom camping trip? I wonder…” Well, can you imagine what happened next? “Yes!!” “Yes, let’s do it!!”

With the excitement beginning to reach a high pitch, I lifted my hands to indicate that it was time to settle down and I said, “Let’s think about it and talk about this tomorrow.” I wanted to see if the idea would sustain over night and I also wanted to think about this crazy idea that I had just proposed!

The next day the children came to school buzzing with excitement about our camping trip. Their parents, on the other hand, looked totally confused. It’s September and you’re taking my five year old on a camping trip…and at night? What kind of crazy teacher did we end up with this year? I certainly would need to send out a class newsletter very soon!

At our morning meeting, we couldn’t seem to move away from the topic of a classroom camping trip. They were just too excited, so I asked the children to talk to each other about what they knew about the forest and about camping trips. Then we had a class share. All different themes and concepts, seemed to present themselves: forest animals, dangerous animals like tigers and elephants, trees, flowers, bears, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, starry skies at night, camping gear like tents, sleeping bags, and flashlights, campfires, roasting marshmallows, etc.

I told the children that, if we were going to do a good job of turning our classroom into a forest and getting ready for a camping trip, then we would have to do some research. This new word warranted a longer discussion so it was tabled for our next meeting.

When I came back to the topic and began to discuss research with the children, we brainstormed for ways of getting information. An interesting comment on the time that this took place is that nobody suggested that we use the Internet! Reading books and talking with people who had experience seemed to be the most popular suggestions and hence began our first experience with reading centers.

Children were encouraged to bring in books from home, if they had them, on any of the topics that we listed. I also suggested that we look through our classroom library and I scoured the school library and our very well stocked bookroom. We organized baskets of books on the different topics…Stars, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, I added Little Red Riding Hood, Forest animal books, books about flowers, books about trees, and so forth. I then spent a few days on some partner-sharing minilessons with practice time on the rug. Children picked partners. I made a chart listing the different topics and partners signed up for a basket of books that they would spend two (or possibly three…my memory is failing on this detail) days reading together. There were generally two sets of partners to a basket. At the end of each reading center time, all of the children at the center were encouraged to talk about what they discovered from their books that day. At the share meeting, I did the sharing. I shared my observations of what I noticed about the way children were working together, focusing on the positive.

We began listing our discoveries (there were no tigers or elephants in any of the forest books!), we set up some new centers based on what children were discovering (at our second choice of centers, we added a birds in the forest center) and children drew pictures of things they wanted to remember from their center. We had about three rounds of centers so each child got to spend time in three different reading centers.

Now we had lots of information and we brainstormed for choice time centers to help get our class ready for the camping trip. In the block center, children build a forest and the house of the three bears. (We added teddy bears to the block center). In the dramatic play center the children were playing some sort of variation of Goldilocks and Red Riding Hood. We had a star center where the children made stars and constellations (their own constellations) that I hung from the light fixtures. In the art center children were using construction paper and cardboard dowels to make trees and flowers. Some children painted a forest mural. My student teacher made trail mix with a group at our cooking center. Playdough birds and animals were sculpted. It was, needless to say, a busy time.

At meeting, I taught a star counting song –Stars shining, number, number one, number two, number three, number four, oh my, oh my o my o my, bye and bye, bye and bye…we turned out the lights and used flashlights to make the “starts” appear as we sang and counted. We also learned and practiced “Going on a Bear Hunt.bear hunt

As our “camping day” grew closer, the classroom filled up with trees, flowers, a starry sky, a more and more intricate forest scenario in the block center with paper flowers and trees scattered among the wooden structures. Trail mix was doled out into individual paper bags for each “camper.” We constructed a model of a campfire and I brought in chopsticks to use as twigs for roasting marshmallows. (This activity was going to depend on a lot of imagination!)

On camping day we sang and went of a bear hunt. We made a hiking line, with each child carrying a knapsack, and walked past the home of the three bears in the block corner. We sang The Happy Wanderer, a new song that I taught the children, “I love to go a-wandering, along the mountain track. And as I go, I love to sing with my knapsack on my back.” We spoke about all of the things that we were seeing along the way – birds, little animals, flowers, trees, bears, (teddy bears!) and finally stopped when we came to our “campfire.” The children spread out blankets that were in their knapsacks and I gave out our sticks and marshmallows. We “roasted” and ate the marshmallows and chomped on the trail mix. Then, the lights went out and it was nighttime. I read a spooky story by the campfire and then the children stretched out on their blankets. We passed around the flashlight as we sang the star counting song and when the lights went on, it was morning. Time to pack up the knapsacks and say goodbye to the campout day!

I guess this camping out experience was an unusual way to begin the school year. It was the only time that this happened because it fit perfectly the experience with The Berenstain Bear’s Camping Adventure book that Lee shared with us. But as I reflect on this experience it makes me think about the emphasis that so many teachers put on spending the first month (or months in some cases!) on learning routines and “getting to know each other.” When we finished this mini experience, we all knew so much about each other. I really didn’t need to spend much time on teaching routines because they fit so comfortably and practically with all of our activities. The children learned them quickly and they most certainly got to know each other and feel a comfortable ownership of their classroom. That’s what we want, isn’t it? The children understood that they could get both enjoyment and information from books and that it was important to have discussions to further their understanding. They learned how to use the materials in the classroom.

We also started out the year with a significant bonding activity that set a precedent for the year ahead. As Winnie the Pooh said, “As soon as I saw you, I knew a grand adventure was about to happen.” I think the children in my class knew that we were about to have a year of adventures in our kindergarten…and we did!

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.