Tag Archives: Simon Dinnerstein

Listening to the Whispers of the Mind

Simon 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Redefining Literacy: Reflections on my trip to Reggio Emilia

On October 22nd, I traveled to Reggio Emilia with 67 other educators. We had a common focus. We were to visit the schools of this celebrated Italian early childhood program, dialogue with their educational staff and then meet among ourselves to see if we could make significant and enlightening literacy connections between their educational program and current instructional trends in our own schools back homes.

I was driven by a more specific question; one that has been puzzling me for the past few years. How is literacy interpreted in American schools? How is literacy interpreted and supported in the schools in Reggio Emilia? Although this was my third trip to Reggio Emilia, it was the first time that I approached my visit to their schools with such a pointed focus.

For some time now, I’ve been noticing that literacy, in New York City elementary schools, is defined as something that can be framed within a “literacy block” , a specific part of the day when reading, writing and phonics are taught. I wonder if it possible for literacy to encompass a more expansive meaning?

How might an artist define literacy? A scientist? A musician? A mathematician?

When I approached my husband Simon Dinnerstein and asked him how he, as an artist, thinks of literacy, his response was that literacy “would imply the ability to converse about … tone, color value, materials, emotions, expressions, forms, composition, content, …, painting, drawing, …abstraction…and obsession.” For Simon, a high degree of literacy would “consist of backing up ideas with a cogent argument as well as historic and contemporary examples. A super high mode would transform all of these modes into a meaningful personal vision.”

I wrote to the composer, Philip Lasser, and described how a public school’s day includes a “literacy block” and asked him what he thought about this and also how he, as a composer and musician, could describe the concept of being a literate person. He wrote, “Whoever is using the term is really bringing it down to the minimum level of the word, i.e. ability to read. That is being literate but it is not literacy!” When pushed to say more, he responded,” I would think in any discipline, literacy involves a clear overview of the history, periods, seminal figures and an ability to converse about the subject adding a few basic specifics like names, or events, etc….”

For a mathematician’s point of view, I asked Paul Lockhart, author of Measurement and
A Mathematician’s Lament for his take on this question of literacy and he replied, “Of course I agree that literacy in the broader sense is the important idea. And yes, of course, there is definitely such a thing as “math literacy.” I suppose with anything, whether it be writing, poetry, music, science, dance, or mathematics, there are a few levels or varieties of literacy. There’s technical literacy: knowing what fifth position is, or what a perfect fourth is, or how to spell ‘ceiling’, or knowing the Pythagorean theorem. I think this is small potatoes, actually. The REAL meaning of literacy (to me) is understanding the meaning and motivation behind these various arts. What is it that poets do, and why do they do it? What is the history and philosophy of the subject? How has it evolved? Why do humans have such a need to make art and meaning and to communicate it to each other? That sort of thing. To develop a sophistication of taste.”

In the pre-schools and the new elementary school in Reggio Emilia I observed exciting examples of a much more expansive interpretation of literacy. Here is one example of what I mean. A group of four-year-old children had expressed an interest in a flowering Jasmine plant that was in the classroom. After carefully listening to the children’s comments and questions about the plant, the teacher provided opportunities for the children to begin an exploration of perfumes. When they talked to each other, the children seemed to be making references to their mothers and to the perfumes that they used. To follow up on this talk, the teacher set up an appealing display of herbs, spices, fruit peels, and other aromatic artifacts on the art table along with graters, peelers, mortar and pestles, paper, colored pencils, pens, markers, watercolors and other tools. As they explored these materials, the children created symbols for writing perfume recipes, making connections to the smells that came from food being prepared in the school kitchen. They experimented with various ways of extracting smells from plants, discussing the variety of smells that they associate with plants and animals, and creating aesthetically pleasing artistic arrangements of plants and herbs. As this was taking place, the teacher was documenting their animated conversations by drawing her own sketches, taking photographs, and notating bits of dialogue. Periodically, she asked questions and made observations to scaffold their explorations.

In the elementary school, the seven year olds were analyzing words in a way that would put a smile on Diane Snowball’s face. There were snails in the school garden and this sparked an interest in writing about them for some of the children. However, they were having difficulty in figuring out how to spell the Italian word for snail – chiocciola. Rather than proceeding with a spelling lesson or strategy lesson, the teacher provided different types of paper, pencils, crayons and markers. She invited the children to draw a representation of a snail. She then asked them to hypothesize on how the word would be written. The children compared their different spellings of the word and decided that it must be a spelling with many letters. To support their investigations, she gave them strips of paper divided into 10 boxes and asked if they could fit the letters of the word into the boxes.

c     h     i     o     c     c     i     o     l     a

They continued their exploration by looking for words within words that might have a connection to the word chiocciola. They made lists of words that had some connection to the word ‘snail’, all the while discussing the meaning of the word snail and the many ways that the word could be used.

In this simple spelling exploration the children were using drawing, discussions, personal connections to prior experiences and even mathematical thinking to come up with “a meaningful personal vision” for the word chiocciola. They were working together to make meaning of the word and of the spelling of the word. There were boxes provided for analyzing the spelling but the children’s thinking was not slotted into a time-box.

The value that is placed on collaboration, analysis, experimentation, wondering, discourse, and the generally lovely messiness of learning is what so touched my teacher’s heart as I spent time in Reggio Emilia. It bothers me when I visit schools back home and see kindergarten children” days divided into little boxes, like the kindergarten schedule shown below, filled with activities that drain away the natural curiosities that they brought with them when they first arrived in school.

Perhaps my search for a greater interpretation of literacy is misguided. Perhaps what I really want is for our schools, like the schools that I saw in Reggio Emilia, to demonstrate more faith and belief in our children. I would like children to have more opportunities to savor their learning and not to be pushed and rushed up a ladder. I would like children to have the opportunity to deeply explore topics that interest them and to be free to explore these topics as artists, scientists, musicians, athletes …basically using whatever part of the hundred or more languages that speak to them and that they speak in.

I also want teachers to have the same opportunities to grow professionally that are given to the teachers in Reggio Emilia – opportunities for professional collaboration and consultation, time to observe children and, with colleagues, to use these observations and documentation to analyze students work and to plan provocative, engaging and appropriate curriculum that is truly based on what children know, need to know and want to know.