As I Sit Here: Thinking about Pre-k


As I sit here, preparing for a Teacher’s College conference, Seize the Moment: Rise to the Challenge of Pre-k, I can’t keep my mind from wandering to my years of teaching four year olds at a private nursery school and at P.S. 321, in Brooklyn, New York. At the time,so many years ago, I didn’t consciously think about the concepts of inquiry, investigation and exploration. I just assumed that those were the ways that four year olds learn. I didn’t, quite truthfully, have a philosophical or pedagogical background in pre-kindergarten instruction. I just seemed to understand and take for granted that four year olds needed many opportunites to explore, inquire, experiment and play, play, play. I was careful to set up centers that supported playful exploration. I brought in an old typewriter and this led to the children setting up an office.When we set up a fish tank in the science center, a fish study was born.

We made playdough each week. Not the cooked kind that could last for weeks. We made, instead, uncooked playdough so that the children’s hands could get right into the mixing bowl and feel what happened as each ingredient was added. We never used store-bought playdough. It was much more fun, and so much more learning took place, when we made our own mixture.

I have absolutely no memory of using any “program.” No Letter People. No Opening the World of Learning. No worksheets. I read stories. Lots and lots of stories. We sang songs. Many, many songs. Rhyming songs. Rhythmic songs. Clapping songs. ABC songs. We looked at our names. “Look, look, Johnny’s name starts just like mine!” “Yes, lets see if anyone else in the class has a name with Johnny and Jackie’s J.” We walked around the neighborhood and looked at familiar signs.

We wondered how many days it would be until Karen’s birthday. We counted the days on the calendar and each day noticed that it was one number less and getting closer to Karen’s special day.

danceThere was dancing!

dress upMake-believe and dress-up!finger paint Finger painting (remember that?) block buildersBuilding!

All of our learning was playful, inquiry-based, and explorative. That’s what pre-k should be. Children should be able to lose themselves in the fun and challenge of a self-chosen activity. Who said that a four year old has a limited attention span? Offer a child materials that are totally engrossing and engaging and there will be a groan of “oh no!” when the end of the period is announced.

So now I’ll return to  planning my workshops on “Inquiry and Investigation” and “Providing Big Opportunities for Little Scientists.” I hope that these forty minutes meetings with teachers will give me an opportunity to share my passion for creating pre-kindergarten classes that do not follow prescribed programs and unrealistic mandates but that do follow children’s natural curiosities and enthusiasms.

At the Museum


“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” Pablo Picasso

“Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder where you are” A group of three year old children sat by a painting in the National Gallery in London, looking up at the stars painted in the sky and sang quietly along with the museum educator who was sitting cross-legged in front of them. As they gazed at the large painting of a nativity scene the educator asked them if they could see the little baby. Many waving hands pointed to the image of the baby Jesus in the cradle. “Let’s sing the baby to sleep.” She cradled an imaginary baby in her arms and softly began singing “Lullaby, and goodnight, go to sleep my baby.” The children didn’t need to be invited to join her. They cradled their own babies and sang along. Storytelling punctuated with singing (the baby intermittently needed a lullaby and the stars continued to twinkle) kept these toddlers engaged and interacting with the art.

My husband Simon and I walked on, looking at a variety of paintings. We had been to London a few times before and felt as though we were visiting old friends. Van Eyck’s The Marriage of Arnolfini, Holbein’s masterpiece The Ambassadors and my favorite, Piero’s musical angels in The Nativity.Piero The Nativity

We continued to wander until we suddenly came upon a class of nine year olds, led by another museum educator. As they entered the gallery, walking towards the selected painting, we noticed that two boys were walking backwards. I was intrigued and stopped to see what was happening.

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThe two boys stood to the side of the painting, unable to see it. The other children sat on the floor facing the painting by Gaspard Duchet, Landscape of the Union of Dido and Aeneas. “I want you to use your best words to describe the painting to Tom and Ahmed. Let your words help them to see the painting with their minds.” The children looked and looked carefully, trying to notice the smallest details, using more and more descriptive language. The two boys, Ahmed and Tom, were encouraged to ask questions of their classmates. “Is the horse on the right or left side of the painting?” “Is there a mountain in the painting?” After a few minutes Ahmed and Tom were asked to turn around and look at the painting and tell if it looked as they imagined it to look.

These children were all totally engaged with the painting and with the challenge of assignment. They discovered a connection between the use of descriptive language and their visual experience. What a brilliant exercise this was. When the group stood up to leave the gallery I stopped the teacher to ask her if this was a designated “gifted” class and she assured me that it was a regular class of nine year olds who were having a good time looking at art. Yes indeed.

It was then 12:30, our reserved time to go downstairs to see the exhibition of Late Rembrandt paintings. Rembrandt-self-portrait-age-63-NG221-c-face-halfThis exhibition was one of the reasons for our trip to London. As expected, the galleries were quite crowded. However, there was a hush in the air, almost as though everyone was visiting a cathedral. Well, it was a holy place, a cathedral for art. Rembrandts masterpieces were shown the respect that they deserved. What was interesting was that during our week in London we visited a few other blockbuster exhibits – drawings by Egon Schiele at the Courtauld Institute, Late Turner at the Tate Britain and the incredible German artist Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy.

All of these exhibitions were crowded. At all of the exhibitions the gallery visitors, just like the three year old and nine year old school children, displayed respect and a sense of reverence for the art. It was impressive and inspiring.

Celebration! A book on Inquiry-based Choice Time!

Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.
e. e. cummings

small_celebration-balloonsEver since I left my own classroom in 2000, I thought that I would write a book about Choice Time. I felt (and feel) quite passionate about that time of the day when children mix inquiry and exploration with play. I talked with friends about this not-yet written book. When I worked with teachers in their classrooms and met with them in planning meetings, I talked about writing this book. I even wrote something on my blog bio about this unwritten book. All of this talk and thinking, however, didn’t lead me to feel confident enough to sit down and start writing.

This year, though, I finally sat down and began to write in earnest. Why now? Perhaps it was the urging and support of family and friends. Maybe a significant birthday loomed over me. The persistent confidence of Zoe White most certainly helped me to believe in myself and in the importance of what I had to say. I also think that the disturbing test-driven climate in education made me realize that this book is so important to get out before inquiry and exploration have no connection to a child’s school experiences.

So, I started writing. I worked really hard on drafting a table of contents that I think will speak to the many issues teachers face in setting up and facilitating exciting and relevant centers that allow children to use so many of Malaguzzi’s hundred languages to explore their world. I then wrote a complete chapter on Dramatic Play in pre-k through second grade classes. Zoe checked it over and gave me some editing advice and then she sent it out to Heinemann, where she works as an editor. They thought enough of what I had to say to take the next step and sent the chapter out for peer review.

The reviewers were very positive and yesterday I found out that Heinemann has offered to publish my book on an Inquiry-based Choice Time!

Now I’m ready to get to work. My next chapter to write will be on the classroom science center. It would be SO helpful to me if you could write in on the blog and share information about your science centers. What science programs are you using? If you don’t have a science center, what is preventing you from keeping one a part of your center time? All of this information will be very helpful in terms of my writing a chapter that will truly support early childhood teachers.

So, I’m sharing my almost breathless excitement with all of you! I want to thank the editors at Heinemann for recognizing the importance of exploration and play in the education of young children. I know that there’s a lot of hard work ahead in creating the book of my dreams but for now, I want to shout “yippee!” and celebrate!

Down the Rabbit Hole?

alice-300x240On April 19, 2013 I posted the blog entry, “Common Sense” where I recounted a meeting between a group of kindergarten teachers and retired Kindergarten teachers with the man who was the Chief Academic Officer and Senior Deputy Chancellor at the New York City Department of Education. Our goal was to urge him to help restore developmentally appropriate practices in kindergartens in public schools across the city. In addition we wanted an end to the endlessly  inappropriate assessments that were taking much time away from the teacher’s meaningful interactions with students. To his credit, he did extend the 20 minutes originally allotted to us and listened to our examples and our frustrations. To my amazement, though, he told us that he actually had not given much thought to kindergarten!

Now this official is the president of the prestigious Bank Street College of Education and he has co-authored an op ed essay that includes the statement, “Play is also fun and interesting, which makes school a place where children look forward to spending their time. It is so deeply formative for children that it must be at the core of our early childhood curriculum.” I feel like Alice who has just slid down the rabbit hole. Is this the same person who just a little more than a year ago admitted that he hadn’t really thought about kindergarten?

When I fumed about what I saw as a politically advantageous flip flop,  a Bank Street professor, pointed out that Diane Ravitch made a change in her viewpoints when she realized what was right for children. When I mentioned this to my husband his response was, “Diane Ravitch came out and said that she originally was mistaken in her thinking and actions. This man has said nothing about having a change of heart and apologizing for his negligence when working in a powerful position at the Department of Education.

I’m waiting for him to say something that will make me feel more comfortable about his essay and that will stop this fuming feeling that I have.

Read the essay and let me know what you’re thinking about my reactions to this perfectly written description about the needs of early childhood contrasted with what happened to early childhood education in the hands of the Department of Education these past few years.

The Opinion Pages | OP-ED CONTRIBUTORS

The Building Blocks of a Good Pre-K

OCT. 21, 2014

WITH the introduction of universal pre-K in New York City, we have created a new entry point into our public school system. This raises a key question: What do we want our children’s first experiences in school to be? What does a good education look like for 4-year-olds?

This summer, Bank Street College of Education led training for 4,000 of New York’s pre-K teachers, including both veterans and hundreds of people who started teaching pre-K for the first time last month. Worried teachers talked about how the pressure to achieve good outcomes on the third-grade state exams has been trickling down to early childhood classrooms in the form of work sheets, skill drills and other developmentally inappropriate methods.

The problem is real, and it is not unique to New York City. Earlier this year, Daphna Bassok and Anna Rorem, educational policy researchers at the University of Virginia, found strong evidence that current kindergarten classrooms rely too heavily on teacher-directed instruction. Their study, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” revealed that the focus on narrow academic skills crowded out time for play, exploration and social interaction. In a 2009 report for the Alliance for Childhood, “Crisis in the Kindergarten,” Edward Miller and Joan Almon reported that kindergarten teachers felt that prescriptive curricular demands and pressure from principals led them to prioritize academic skill-building over play.

This is a false choice. We do not need to pick between play and academic rigor.

While grown-ups recognize that pretending helps children find their way into the world, many adults think of play as separate from formal learning. The reality is quite different. As they play, children develop vital cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional skills. They make discoveries, build knowledge, experiment with literacy and math and learn to self-regulate and interact with others in socially appropriate ways. Play is also fun and interesting, which makes school a place where children look forward to spending their time. It is so deeply formative for children that it must be at the core of our early childhood curriculum.

What does purposeful play look like? When you step into an exemplary pre-K classroom, you see a room organized by a caring, responsive teacher who understands child development. Activity centers are stocked with materials that invite exploration, fire the imagination, require initiative and prompt collaboration. The room hums.

In the block area, two girls build a bridge, talking to each other about how to make sure it doesn’t collapse and taking care not to bump into the buildings of children next to them. In an area with materials for make-believe, children enact an elaborate family scenario after resolving who will be the mommy, who will be the grandpa and who will be the puppy. Another group peers through a magnifying glass to examine a collection of pine cones and acorns. On the rug, children lie on their stomachs turning the pages of books they have selected, while at the easel a boy dips his brush into red paint and swoops the paint mostly onto his paper.

The teacher observes and comments. She shifts from group to group, talking with children about their work (“I see that you made a big red circle.”); helping children resolve a conflict (“You both want to be the mommy. What should we do?”); posing an open-ended question to stimulate exploration and problem-solving (“What do you notice when you use the magnifying glass that is different from when you use your eyes?”); and guiding children to manage themselves (“When you finish your snack, what activity would you like to choose?”).

Barbara Biber, one of Bank Street’s early theorists, argued that play develops precisely the skills — and, just as important, the disposition — children need to be successful throughout their lives. The child “projects his own pattern of the world into the play,” she wrote, “and in so doing brings the real world closer to himself. He is building the feeling that the world is his to understand, to interpret, to puzzle about, to make over. For the future we need citizens in whom these attitudes are deeply ingrained.”

Earlier in the 20th century, the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky made the related argument that children’s thinking develops through activity-based learning and social interactions with adults and peers. When teachers base their curriculums on Dr. Vygotsky’s ideas, there are significant benefits for children’s capacity to think, to plan and to sustain their attention on difficult tasks.

Play has long-lasting benefits. What is referred to as self-regulation in preschool becomes resiliency in high school. The University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth has found that this trait, which she famously calls grit, can make or break students, especially low-income students. Over the past three years, the New York City Department of Education developed a framework to support the core behavioral elements that drive college and career readiness. Many of them — persistence, planning, the ability to communicate and the capacity to collaborate — have their roots in early childhood.

Next fall, there will be more students in pre-K in New York City than there are in the entire school system of Atlanta or Seattle. To his credit, Mayor Bill de Blasio has not only pushed for expanding access but has also insisted on improving quality and put real money into training and materials. This is a strong start. But we still need to help parents, administrators and policy makers see what the children themselves know intuitively: Classrooms that pulse with meaningful play are our smartest investment.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, who served as senior deputy chancellor of the New York City Department of Education from 2011-14, is the president of Bank Street College, where Nancy Nager is a professor of education and child development.

The Journey

Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.
Auguste Rodin

Hilly RoadThis week I had the pleasure of having dinner with three very dedicated, hard working New York City early childhood teachers. Two of them, fairly new to teaching, were full of questions about the inquiry process. At some point during our delicious meal, one of the teachers commented on my wealth of knowledge. I practically choked on my food, thinking of all that I’m still learning about teaching and children and also about the long and bumpy road that I traveled from 1968 until 2014.

It wasn’t until I graduated from college with a degree in Sociology, that I realized teaching was what I truly wanted to do with my life. New York City was desperate for new teachers and, after taking 12 credits of rather simple-minded education courses, I was considered to be ready for the classroom. It was the middle of a semester, and at the advice of my teaching friends, I purchased forty postcards and sent them out to schools all over the borough of Brooklyn. I didn’t realize what was about to happen.

Starting at six in the morning my phone began ringing nonstop. “Can you come to sub today?” The voices of the school secretaries usually had a rather frantic sound to them. After traveling to all corners of this large borough, to totally unfamiliar neighborhoods, I too began to have a frantic pitch to my voice! The life of a new substitute teacher, particularly in unfamiliar schools, is not the “Life of Riley.” After a few weeks I began to wonder if I was making the right career choice. I’m ashamed to say that I was also beginning to wonder if I actually liked children very much!

Just at my point of giving up, I received a call from the assistant principal of P.S. 321, a pulic elementary school in my neighborhood. I was told that if I would substitute teach every day, in any class that needed me, I could take over a kindergarten class in April because the teacher was moving from New York. For what seemed like eons, I came in each day just like a trouper. On one particularly miserable day  the children in the “gifted” fifth grade class decided that they did not like my lessons and they began throwing sponges and erasers at me. I was demoralized and didn’t think that I could make it in to substitute teach the next day.  When I spoke with the assistant principal to tell her that I wouId take the next day off, I was told, in no uncertain terms, that if I didn’t continue subbing when and where they needed me, the kindergarten position would be given to another candidate.

I came to work.

Eventually, I had my own class. On my first day with the kindergartens (a morning class and an afternoon class) I proceeded to spill a large container of red paint all of the pretty new pink dress that I foolishly wore to work! I had many lessons to learn!

The next year I taught second grade. I was given some teaching guides, a very helpful paraprofessional, and was told that my children were in the middle of the grade, not ready for second grade work. I, however, was fired up and ready to make this a wonderful year for these 34 seven year olds. But how would I do that? I wasn’t quite sure. Each day I would show up for work no later than 7 a.m. I carefully tied together the legs of two desks and lined each pair up in a nice neat row. If everything were straight and orderly, then it would show that I was in control. Oh, I had so much to learn. Years later, if I saw one of those students, all grown up and walking down the street, I hid from their sight. What must they think of me? What kind of memories could they have from that straight-row year?

What kept me sane that year and the next year when I taught first grade? Well the children of course. They seemed oblivious to how insecure I was and seemed to give me their complete love. Then I had the added support of my colleague, Connie Norgren. Connie and I sat together at our first teacher’s meeting and have been close friends ever since. Connie has truly been my mentor teacher. She just naturally knew what was right for children and she followed her beliefs with her practice. Also, Jennifer Monaghan, the PTA President had faith in me and got PTA funds to support a summer reading course that I took that first year.

In 1970 my husband received a Fulbright Fellowship to Germany and I spent that year reading about 100 novels as I passed the days in the sleepy town of Hesse Lichtenau. When we returned to NY in 1971, I became pregnant and in 1972 gave birth to my marvelous daughter, Simone. When Simone was three years old she was accepted into a wonderful local nursery school, The Storefront School, run by two Bank Street trained teachers. They allowed me to pay for part of the tuition by working half-days in their school . THAT is when I really started learning how to teach young children. I felt as though I were drinking up all that they were modeling in their interactions with their students and in their planning.

Since then I’ve had many different experiences. I’ve taught with some wonderful teachers at P.S. 321 and under three different visionary administrators – William Casey, Peter Heaney and Liz Phillips. I had the privilege of learning from Lucy Calkins when her work, at its beginning stages, was still very inquiry-based. I’ve made three important trips to Reggio Emilia to learn from their educators and children. I could keep adding to this list and it continues to grow.

Why have I subjected you to this long history? It’s to show that teaching is an ongoing journey. Except for a lucky few, many of us don’t naturally know just what to do. We learn and we learn and we learn. And we continue this trip because we love the wonderful payoffs. It’s not a monetary reward but it’s much greater and more important than money. It’s a feeling of being part of something that is more special than one can imagine – the social, emotional and intellectual growth of children. As the Chinese proverb says, “To get through the hardest journey we need take only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping.”

An Inquiry-Based Classroom

screwdriverIt is not the answer that enlightens but the question.
Eugène Ionesco

I recently had the good fortune to view an early screening of the film Good Morning Mission Hill and to hear the director, Amy Valens, talk about the Mission Hill School and her experience of filming in their classrooms. Afterwards, I had a discussion with an administrator of a school in Brooklyn, New York where I am currently doing professional development with the kindergarten and first grade teachers. I have been trying to convince the early childhood staff that the children will learn more and be much happier if the teachers can embrace a culture of inquiry. Except for a few classes, it has been an uphill battle. Sometime, midway through our discussion, this lovely young administrator looked at me with frustration and said, “What do you actually mean when you refer to an inquiry-based classroom?”

We definitely had a failure to communicate. This confusion probably was due to my misguided assumption that I was laying down a strong foundation of understanding before encouraging teachers to make physical and instructional changes. I returned home perplexed and obsessed with thinking about this conversation. It kept me up for most of that night.

The next morning I sat at my computer and began to think about the concept of describing an inquiry-based classroom some more. I created an outline of what I might expect from a classroom where inquiry, exploration and play would intrinsically be the foundation for an early childhood curriculum. With the help of my two wise friends, Julie Diamond and Shelley Grant, I came up with a few bullet points that outlined some understandings that I believe a teacher should have in order to create an inquiry based classroom.

This outline is by no means complete. It’s a work that is very much “in progress.” I am hoping that my blog readers will comment and add suggestions for revising this list. I welcome your thoughts! In this time of standardized testing, evaluations, and finger pointing we need to redirect and bring the attention back to what children, teachers and schools REALLY need.

Some Characteristics of an Inquiry-Based Classroom

The teacher has an understanding that the child comes to school as a fully formed person, not as an empty vessel that needs to be filled.
∗ This implies respect for who the child is and for all the knowledge that the child brings to school from his/her background.
∗ The teacher will develop a curriculum that begins with what the children already know and builds on the child’s sense of wondering.

The teacher understands that as an educator of young children, it is important to be flexible and that the daily schedule is conducive to the age of the children being taught,
∗ Young children need large blocks of time for exploring, building, pretending, etc.
∗ Children shouldn’t be rushed from one activity to another.
∗ Inquiry and Choice time (or whatever you are calling the work/play time) should be at the heart of your program, particularly for pre-k, and kindergarten. Because of that, it needs to be scheduled early in the day.
∗ In the first and second grade too, Inquiry and Choice Time shouldn’t be left for the end of the day because children will be tired from a day of academics and, therefore, will most likely not get the most out of this rich part of your program.

The teacher understands that the child’s curiosity should be scaffolded and nurtured throughout the day.∗ There are opportunities for questioning and explorations all day, throughout the curriculum.

∗ As an example, if the teacher plans to teach the spelling of the sight word “it,” the children might be asked what they notice about the word, what will help them to remember it, etc. Perhaps one child might say, ”It starts with the same letter that Inge’s name starts with only it’s the small “i. ” The teacher acknowledges that as a valid strategy for remembering the word. Another child might add that “it” is a small word because it only has two letters.
∗ Rather than beginning with drilling the spelling of a new word, the children are encouraged to bring to the lesson what they already know and to share it with the class.
∗ Teachers are taking notes on observations throughout the day. These notes are reflected after the school day and used to plan new lessons and centers based on this valuable information.

The teacher understands that it’s important to be teaching the children not the subjects. There are many opportunities for children to engage in self-initiated experiences and for children to feel encouraged to innovate on an idea or project
∗ There should be an area in the room where children can keep on-going projects, for example an art project or a Lego construction.
∗ Children should be encouraged to return to a center another day to continue work on a project.
∗ The block center should be away from traffic and should be large enough for a group of children to comfortably work there together.
∗ The teacher makes sure that there are appropriate tools, materials, books and blank paper (even blank booklets) in each center.
∗ It should be clear where materials belong. Labels with drawings or photos can be taped on shelves to show children where to get and return materials.

Failure should be seen as a part of learning and as an opportunity to take a risk.
∗ If a child is having a behavior problem, the teacher should speak privately with the child. Public behavior charts are basically shaming charts. They are up with the expectation that someone will “be bad.” Children who don’t get their name moved to a “red light” are anxious about being good. Children who have difficulty with self-control become known as the naughty children. There’s basically nothing positive that comes of these charts (they might keep a class in check on the short term but they do so much damage and little teaching in the long term.) As Alfie Kohn writes, “ Reward charts — with or without punishments — shouldn’t be used because children aren’t pets to be trained. Rewards, like punishments, are basically ways of doing things TO people (to make them obey), whereas the only way to help kids grow into decent, responsible, compassionate people is to work WITH them (to solve problems together).”
∗ It’s much more productive to concentrate on “acts of kindness” where a child observe a classmate performing an act of kindness, shares this with the class and it gets posted on the bulletin board. This encourages empathy and community.

The children should feel part of a community and a member of a joyful class. The children should feel a sense of shared ownership of the classroom.
∗ Time is set aside for class meetings where children share their observations, questions, and the work that they have completed or works in progress.
∗ These meetings are opportunities for children to take part in meaningful dialogues.
∗ The teacher enters into the conversation both as a facilitator and as a model.
∗ The teacher never refers to himself/herself in the third person when speaking to a child or to the group. We are, as teachers, modeling social behavior. I don’t think that anyone would sit with a group of friends and say, “Mrs. Dinnerstein enjoyed that book.” Bring back the “I to class conversations!”
∗ The children and teacher decorate the room with the children’s work and not with commercial charts, borders and other materials that can better be produced in the classroom. Someone sitting in a factory in, say, Michigan, does not know the children in your class.
∗ It’s much more effective to have children and teachers collectively come up with class rules.
∗ Children can create number and color charts if it appropriately comes up in class discussions.
∗ Having their own work decorating the room, such as their own alphabet chart hanging across the front of the room, gives the children pride in their work and in their classroom.
∗ The room is organized into clear areas. (In my classroom, I integrated tables into each center, giving the classroom the look of a laboratory for learning and experimenting rather than having tables clustered together.)
∗ Children understand how to use the materials in each area because the teacher has explicitly taught how materials are cared for and where they are stored. The teacher also teaches the routines for going to centers or activities, and cleaning up when the period is ended.

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

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!

What’s Your Name?