Tag Archives: exploration

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.

INTRODUCING MR. BILL!

Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition. ~Jacques Barzun

This past summer I spent a lovely afternoon having lunch with my friend and former colleague Bill. As always happens when two kindergarten teachers get together our conversation drifted to the classroom. Bill talked about how current trends in education nationwide have made school more stressful for children and for teachers. Even in Bill’s school, where the administration understands the social and intellectual importance of explorative play, there is often not enough time for children to become involved with interesting projects that they can direct at their own pace. Bill spoke, with a wistful voice, of the last few weeks of school when the children were happily engaged in an investigation of bridges. He devoted long stretches of time each day to this interesting project and noticed that the children were working with more self-directed independence and that many yearlong social tensions seemed to dissipate.

Out of this discussion came Bill’s decision to begin the year with, what he hopes will be, an exciting, child-directed study of playgrounds. We both believed that this inquiry topic would ‘speak’ to all of the children in the class.

Bill (or Mr. Bill as the children call him) wrote to all of the families on his class list informing them of this project and encouraging the children to think about playgrounds during their summer vacation. So far, the email responses from parents indicate that they are mostly concerned that their children have fun, enjoy school and grow as a person. It certainly seems as though they will be eager to support and become involved with their children’s investigation into playgrounds.

I became quite excited about this project and asked Bill if I could ‘follow’ his children and him along this journey of exploration. Bill was intrigued with this idea and so, on my blog, we will be visiting Bill’s classroom and meeting with Bill to plan and reflect throughout the year.

During the week before school was to begin, Bill started getting the classroom set up. To support play and explorations, it was important to leave ample room for extensive block building and also for dramatic play, science and art. This became quite a challenge. I remembered so well wanting to stretch out the walls of my classroom, giving enough room for all my centers and maintaining a sense of space and openness.

Bill decided that, instead of designating a separate classroom area for dramatic play (pretend play), he would use hollow blocks and prop baskets, keeping them stored in a corner of the classroom meeting area/library. That would give the children a lot of space for their play and also the ability to reinvent their ‘script’ each day. Doing this also created more area for a spacious block-building center. When I visited Bill, the day before school was to open, he was in the midst of getting ready for the children…. putting names around the room, setting up a cozy reading corner, hanging curtains, setting up his art center, and completing the myriad of details that will let the children know that this welcoming space is ready for them!

Time to begin unpacking!hmm...now what should I do next?Time out for a song!A place to meet, to talk, to listen, to read, to play...

hmm...now what should I do next?

Time out for a song!

A place to meet, to sing, to talk, to play....

Sharing!

Sharing our thoughts and ideas with friends is so important to all of us. I recently discussed an Amy Tan book that I had just finished reading with the members of my small book club. After reading the book, I thought that I had a pretty solid interpretation and opinion of the story but during our discussion, I realized that there were many aspects of the text that I hadn’t even thought about. When I got back home, I went right back to the book to reread particular passages that my friends referred to in our conversation. I needed to revise a bit of my original interpretation and assessment of the book!

Children too need time to share their discoveries, their artwork, their constructions and their dramatic play experiences. After Choice Time, it’s so productive and supportive of children’s ability to listen and respond to others experiences and ideas if we leave time for a group share meeting. Perhaps something unexpected or exciting happened at the art center or an exciting discovery was made at the water table. Was a new math game invented at the math center?

When the children and teacher meet for post-Choice Time-share children might be encouraged and enticed into choosing an activity the next day that they hadn’t previously considered trying. We are also reaffirming by sharing peer examples the idea that, during Choice Time, we honor and encourage innovation, collaboration and exploration.

As my good friend, Julie Diamond, wrote in a note to me, interest in trying new centers “can be further expanded when teachers find places in the room to display work after the meeting – time discussion”.

Keeping the discussed work up for a while allows children to continue this discussion, ask each other questions, think of what they might possibly do at the same center. It’s also a good idea to have areas of the classroom where Choice Time projects can be displayed…an empty shelf, a bulletin board, even a homemade shelf. My colleague, Connie Norgren, created shelves for her children’s woodworking projects by using pieces of cardboard and string. She hung these temporary display shelves on a pegboard. (see photo)

In some ways, Choice Time follows the workshop structure that is used by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. We begin at a group meeting with a brief ‘minilesson’, then the children have time for their ‘independent’ play and explorations, and we bring closure with our share meeting. It’s absurd to have to justify exploration and play for young children. However, if you have difficultly ‘justifying’ this very important part of the early childhood curriculum, you could call it “ Investigative Workshop” or “Exploration Workshop” instead of Choice Time. If that’s what it takes to make it work for you, go for it!

Write a comment.

A priority in Kindergarten?

I’ve had some difficulty writing an entry this week because I’ve been rather depressed about the state of kindergartens in New York City schools. It’s becoming a cliché to say that they are becoming more and more like first grade but there does seem to be a lot of truth to that thought.

When I speak with administrators who have had Bank Street early childhood training, who understand how important play, inquiry and opportunities for social interactions are for young children and who STILL eliminate all opportunities for this to happen in their schools, I really do wonder what is happening? Why isn’t choice time and inquiry a priority for kindergarten classrooms?

Perhaps it has to do with the way that Choice Time is interpreted. I’ve been wondering about how my idea of Choice Time differs from what I’ve been seeing when I visit many kindergarten classes.

I always tried to encourage children to ‘think of the possibilities’. What can happen at this center? What’s the potential for these materials? What might we add to the center to broaden the potential? What center just isn’t going anywhere and what should we do about that? Should we add new materials? Should we just pack up the center and move on?

This was often a topic of discussion that I had with the children. Sometimes we charted ideas – (i.e. Here Are Some New Ideas for What We Might Do At the Sand Table). Other times, it was just an informal discussion that we had at meeting or among the participants at a particular center.

I don’t mean to imply that every Choice Time center, every day, was an earth-moving experience for the children or for me. What I am saying is that I always encouraged children and myself to think about how we could have new ideas about how to use materials and how the addition of new materials changed what children could do at a center.

Don’t we want children to become thoughtful, inquisitive readers, writers and mathematicians? Isn’t it logical to support these behaviors through play and exploration at Choice Time?

CLICK HERE to make a comment. I invite all readers (teachers,students, parents, grandparents, etc.) to leave comments.  It would be wonderful to hear what you have to say so we can have more of a dialogue on the subject.

A Learning Partnership

It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle
that the modern methods of instruction
have not entirely strangled the holy
curiosity of inquiry.
Albert Einstein

This week, two lovely new kindergarten teachers and I met to plan their weekly schedule. They gave me a list of all that they were required to cover – math, writing workshop, reading workshop, word study, handwriting, science, social studies, shared reading, read aloud, morning meeting, five ‘prep’ periods, lunch, and time to take the class to the bathroom (there’s no bathroom in the classroom or on their corridor). I said that an hour daily of Choice Time and outdoor playtime were early-childhood priorities.

I could fill a notebook with complaints about the insanity of stuffing so much into a child’s day. I’m actually hearing from many teachers that in some schools administrators expect kindergarten teachers to shorten or actually eliminate any opportunity for explorative, child-directed indoor and outdoor play in their schedule.

The conundrum for me, in my role as a staff developer, is how to be sure that Choice Time and outdoor play are not excluded from the early childhood classroom at a time when there is so much emphasis on early, rigorous academics and quantitative assessment.

I believe that teachers can ‘defend’ the importance of investigative play in their early childhood programs by:
• Setting up interesting, child-directed centers
• Including appropriate materials in each center
• Adding and taking away materials over the course of the year so as to provoke children’s curiosity and creativity
• Developing centers that support an ongoing science and/or social studies inquiry project
• Including materials that allow children to integrate, in a natural way, reading, writing and mathematics
• Observing children at play, conversing with them about their activities, recording observations and using these documents to plan instructional ‘next steps’

To illustrate, here are just a few possible centers:

Many kindergarten classes begin their year with a name study. Every few days, a different child becomes the “Star Name Child” whose name then is the focus of inquiry. A Name Study Center would be a logical place where children could continue this exploration. This center might first open with lists of class names, alphabet stamps and ink pads (don’t forget to first demonstrate how to use this material), small Xeroxed photos of all the children in the class, glue sticks, pencils, markers, different kinds of papers and blank books, perhaps alphabet grids and clip boards so children can go around the room to do ‘name surveys’ (who’s name goes in the A box, the B box, etc.). One day the teacher might join the children at this center and help them make a name concentration game to add to the area. Children very likely will invent their own name games, especially if they are given new materials…perhaps old playing cards covered over with blank paper, maybe an old game board (I always saved these and found new uses for them at one time or another) and dice or spinners with alphabet letters on them. As more and more names are ‘studied’, the teacher could add name puzzles (or children could make these on their own). Adding carbon paper makes writing names and name books even more exciting…almost like magic!

As the year progresses, this Name Center might morph into an ABC center, especially if the teacher presents this change as an exciting class alphabet inquiry project. This might begin by having the entire class discuss all that they know about the alphabet. Chart this and keep adding (and taking away) information as the study progresses. ABC charts and alphabet books could be added to the center. Magnetic letters, too, help children explore the alphabet. I added the overhead projector to this center. How exciting it was to put the magnetic letters on the projector and see letters, names and words swirling around the room!

This investigation could spread to the classroom library. Children who pick the Reading Center could be given some empty book baskets and lots of ABC books. Their challenge might be to sort out the books by different categories that they come up with…ABC label books? ABC animal books? Silly ABC Books? ABC Pop-up books? Children might come up with their own totally surprising categories! After they have looked at the books together and sorted them, they could make labels for the baskets and add these new book bins to the classroom library. They might even want to make ABC posters or pictures and decorate the library.

I’m suggesting some center possibilities, and I’ll add more about other centers on upcoming blog entries, but I would not be surprised if children, with their own sense of playfulness and inventiveness, add their own ideas to enhance, improvise and extend these centers if the teacher enjoys and encourages innovation and creative thinking. The classroom becomes a learning partnership between the children and the teacher, who has become an active researcher, constantly learning more about the children in the classroom and about the exciting art of teaching.

CLICK HERE to make a comment. I invite all readers (teachers,students, parents, grandparents, etc.) to leave comments.  It would be wonderful to hear what you have to say so we can have more of a dialogue on the subject.

The door is open!

When I taught kindergarten and first grade, the most exciting part of my day was Choice Time, when children had time to pursue an inquiry topic, explore materials and ideas and, of course, have space and time to play.  If you would have asked any of the children what the most exciting time of the day was for them, I would not have been surprised if they would have also named Choice Time as the best part of their school day.

Now that I’m a staff developer working with early childhood teachers I can see that it’s difficult for them, considering the push for high academic standards for young children, to program Choice Time into their daily schedules. My challenge is to help them (and their administrators) understand that a well-planned Choice Time gives children the opportunities to explore new ideas, problem-solve, practice newly-learned literacy skills in personally meaningful contexts, and, quite importantly, to have fun playing!

I’m starting this blog to open up a forum for sharing ideas, reflections, memories, suggestions, problems and questions about Choice Time. Ideally, we will all have the opportunity to dialogue on the topic.

In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior. In play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.

Lev Vygotsky

The door is open. Let our Choice Time conversation begin!

CLICK HERE to make a comment. I invite all readers (teachers,students, parents, grandparents, etc.) to leave comments.  It would be wonderful to hear what you have to say so we can have more of a dialogue on the subject.