Tag Archives: inquiry

Transporting a Classroom Towards Inquiry

I could almost hear a chorus of silent groans coming from the teachers sitting around the table in the staff room at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn. It was March 17th, 2005, my first day working as a consultant at the school. The new principal, Jett Ritorto, wanted me to introduce inquiry projects and investigative Choice Time to the kindergarten teachers. But it was mid-March and this was just one more new addition to their already over-programmed day. I wasn’t welcomed with open arms!

“We can’t do an inquiry project. This is when we start our transportation unit.”
I recognized this plea from my own not-so-long-ago days in the classroom. I had my theme, my materials, and my time-schedule all set up and then, in would walk a new staff developer with her own agenda, turning all of my plans upside down.

I assured them that we would not be dropping the transportation unit. Instead we would see what happened if we approached it in a new way. I suggested that they each go on a neighborhood walk with their class that week, with a focus on exploring the different ways that people could travel, to, from, and around their neighborhood. After the walk, they should encourage children to share their observations. This would give the teachers a sense of what the students already know and also what form of transportation seemed to interest them the most. That would allow them to narrow the focus of the class’s transportation study.

When I came back to the school the next week, I met with each teacher individually. The inclusion team, Dana Roth and Karen Byrnes, were excited and eager to share their experience with me. Their children had lots of questions about the subway and that was where they wanted to focus their study. The three of us spent the rest of the period preparing an anticipatory web, plotting out the many possibilities for a subway study. All seemed well.

Later in the week they contacted me and sadly told me that a subway study was out of the question. One of the students was confined to a wheelchair and would have to be excluded from all subway trips. They decided to switch to a bus study. I suggested, however, that they first bring the problem to the class and see what kind of solution the children came up with.

The children were outraged! “That’s not fair! Saim should be able to go on the subway just like us!” Here began a most unusual transportation study – The Wheelchair Project.

The class decided to find out more about Saim’s wheelchair and what it was like for him to move around the school and neighborhood. Saim was pleased as punch to be the center of attention (Dana said that she would not have pursued this route if the child was sensitive about being singled out).

They began the study by interviewing Saim. After the interview, they all sat around him in a circle, observing and drawing. The teachers began webbing what children already knew about wheelchairs and also collecting their “wonderings” on post-its and adding these to the web. From these activities, they decided to focus their study on movement and accessibility. These were the two areas where the children had the most interest.

News about this unusual transportation study traveled around the school like hotcakes. When the school’s physical therapist heard about the investigation, she provided the class with an unused wheelchair. This became a very popular wheelchair observation center. Children used magnifying glasses, tape measures, and detail finders (a square of black paper with a peek-hole cut in the center) to look closely at the different parts of wheelchair. They drew the wheels, the brakes, and the gears. Then they shared their drawings and ‘recordings’ with the children in the block center who were constructing their own version of a wheelchair. This chair took many days to construct. It sometimes fell over and was rebuilt often and eventually was held together with yards of masking tape!

 

 

The class visited the school bus that brought Saim to school to see how the lift helped children with walkers and wheelchairs get on and off. They interviewed the driver and also met Manny, a very affable upper-grade child who used a walker to help him move about. Manny was invited to the classroom where he was interviewed. He then gave each child an opportunity to try out his walker.

After this experience, a lift-bus was built in the block center. After a few days, it was deconstructed and the children built “a better lift bus.”

They walked took neighborhood walks, checking to see which stores and sidewalks were “wheelchair friendly.” Then they walked around the school to find out if their school was wheelchair accessible. The front of the school had lots of steps! How did Saim get into school? In an exciting moment of discovery, they found the symbol that they saw on the lift bus, along with an arrow. The class followed the arrows until they came to the ramp entrance. Problem solved!

They visited a neighborhood house that had been altered to make it wheelchair accessible and they interviewed the owner of the building.

This study certainly held the interest of the class and raised a new awareness of the challenges in Saim’s daily life. The children developed a feeling of respect for Saim and for the other children in the school who used wheelchairs, walkers and crutches.

Over the years, I have returned to the school to visit Dana Roth and I’ve always been intrigued by the variety of studies taking place in her classroom. On one visit, the children were investigating colors – inventing colors, exploring the various names of Crayola crayons and coming up with their own inventive names for their newly mixed colors. On another visit, the children were building a school in their dramatic play center, reflecting their investigation of their own school. Dana still does some thematic studies but she also listens closely to her children and develops inquiry projects based on their interests and wonderings.

I haven’t worked at the school for the past five years, but I’m going back in the fall to, as Laura Scott, the new principal, says, “Give a refresher course” in inquiry studies to keep it alive and well at the school. Let’s see what happens.

Changes!

In response to the unfortunate atmosphere of teacher bashing that we are living through, I would like to focus on some wonderful work being done by a group of hard-working teachers in a public school in New York City.

Here’s a bit of background information about this barrier-free, pre-k – 5 school, located on the Lower East Side, which is situated in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. The ethnic breakdown is approximately 75 % Latino, 20 % African-American, 3.5 % Asian and 1.5 % ‘other’. Many of the children live in shelters or foster homes. There’s a large special needs population, often transferring into the school mid-year. Because of the No Child Left Behind legislation, families from other areas of the city transfer their children into this hard-working, caring school and, because children are traveling long distances, there’s a major problem with lateness and absences. This year, the heavy-duty budget cuts came down hard on this community. Without any significant PTA fundraising, staff is often forced to reach into their own pockets if they want to provide any extra materials for their classrooms.

Four years ago, I was approached by their network leader, Dan Feigelson, and asked if I could do some consulting work here with the kindergarten and first grade teachers. He was familiar with the inquiry and Choice Time work that I had done in my own classroom (we had been colleagues at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn) and thought that the children would benefit from more exploration and playtime. The principal, a former pre-k teacher herself, was in agreement.

The school already had a long-term relationship with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. The children were making progress in learning the technicalities of reading and writing. However, they were challenged when the content became more complex. Because of personal stress in their lives, children had difficulty working collaboratively and in resolving conflicts without resorting to violence. The administration believed that the children needed more opportunities to learn and practice positive social skills and to engage in abstract thinking. They decided that the place to begin working on these problems was in the early childhood grades and that is when they decided to approach me.

Here were some of my impressions when I first visited the school: very hard-working and committed staff; positive tone in the classrooms; I did not hear teachers yelling or using harsh words when disciplining children; kindergartens had an unplanned form of Choice Time (really more like free-play) for 20 – 30 minutes at the end of a day filled with all academics; classrooms had very little organization of centers and practically no sense that children were expected to use materials independently (in the block ‘center’ were math manipulatives, dramatic play, teacher-materials stored, etc., there was no visible art center); first grade classrooms did not have Choice Time at all (occasional ‘free play’ as a reward for good behaviors); there were no blocks in the first grade rooms and a very small collection of blocks in the kindergartens.

Drawing on the Reggio Emilia philosophy of considering that the classroom is the second teacher, we first worked on room environment. I wasn’t sure if I was putting the cart before the horse, but it seemed like a concrete way of beginning. Major changes were made in the ‘look’ of the classrooms. The principal also ordered unit blocks for all kindergarten and first grade rooms. To my delight, the teachers began noticing immediate changes in the way that the children were using materials and in the general classroom ambiance.

We then planned out some studies that the teachers thought would interest the children, support their curriculum and also interest the teachers. The first grade teachers wanted their inquiry project to have a social element to it. They thought about the day-to-day lives of the children, and what would be important to all of them. Most of the school population, rather than using private physicians, either went to the emergency room of the local hospital or to a nearby clinic. This is where the teachers wanted to begin…with a study of the EMS. This also morphed into an ambulance study because of the children’s interests and questions.

They visited the local clinic, had a doctor and a nurse visit the classroom, and examined up close an ambulance that visited the school specifically so that the children could explore the inside and outside of the vehicle and interview the EMS workers. Some children became fascinated with bones and what was happening inside their bodies. In the classrooms, ‘hospitals’ were created along with x-ray rooms (overhead projectors, old x-rays). In one first grade room during their choice time, I observed a boy, doll in arms, racing to the “x-ray” room. “My baby hurt his arm. He’s crying! Help me”. The doll was quickly put on the overhead projector and the “x-ray technician looked at the shadow on the wall. He held up an x-ray, looked at it and said, “Your baby has a broken arm. Take him to the hospital!”. He wrote a little note on a pad, gave it to the ‘father’, who took it and rushed back to the classroom hospital, where the baby’s arm was carefully wrapped up with an old ace bandage. That same day, at Choice Time in another classroom I noticed two girls tracing the body of a boy on butcher paper and then, using a book as reference, drawing in the bones for the body. At the same time two other children were using the overhead projector to trace an image of an ambulance. They kept turning it on and off to check their work. This drawing was going to be the ‘plan’ for an ambulance model that they would later create out of cartons and other materials.

The Kindergartens began with a study of the local firehouse, making many field trips there, exploring the firetruck, interviewing the firefighters, checking out their own homes for fire exits and smoke alarms and creating their own home-safety plans.

This year is my fourth year working at this school. Some of the studies that have taken place are a kindergarten exploration of “Beautiful Stuff” ( children brought in ‘found’ objects from home like buttons, toilet paper tubes, broken pieces of jewelry, wood scraps, etc., sorted and labeled all of the ‘booty’ and brainstormed for ideas on how to use these materials in different projects) , a study of the local bakeries, a neighborhood garden study ( I watched children in the block center creating different areas for a classroom garden, using sketches that they worked on together. There were children in the science center planting seeds in small pots that they decorated. When they were finished planting, they brought the pots to the block center where they were put in the ‘community garden’.), a first-grade study of bridges, particularly the Williamsburg Bridge and a study of the NYC subway system. Each first grade class designed and built bridge towers outside their classroom doors and then connected them across the corridor to make one large suspension bridge!

When I asked the teachers if they noticed any positive changes since we began our work, here are some of the things they shared with me:
They noticed that
o Children were becoming more verbal
o The children who are their ‘struggling learners’ are participating more in class work and discussions
o During Choice Time and Inquiry-study time, children with behavioral issues are becoming calmer and more cooperative
o English Language Learners are talking more and sharing stories, possibly because there is no fear of coming up with a right or wrong response
o There is a noticeable carry-over to the writing being done during writing workshop since the children have more shared experiences to draw from
o Field trips have become more purposeful and the children can understand the purpose of each trip
o Parents have told the teachers the their talk about things that they are exploring in class and use a lot of new vocabulary.
o The teachers are more supportive of each other
o There is more professional collaboration
o There’s more of a feeling of a grade-community
o Teachers, along with children, feel a pride in their work
o The cluster teachers have come on board and are planning lessons to support the classroom studies

In a recent email to me, one of the kindergarten teachers wrote about some of the changes that she and her co-teacher made in their classrooms, “ Our block area has been enlarged. Therefore the children have more room to build. We have “blueprint paper” for them to draw their ideas first before building and pencils as well as post- it’s for labeling their building. The art area is more accessible as well as all the different mediums that they need. The dramatic play area is changed with each study and discussed with the children beforehand. There are papers in each work area for the teacher to make notes about what the children are doing, what we think and how to proceed, as well as writing (down) what the children are saying. The room was not as organized and now the children have access to the materials and their projects.”

The children created a market in the pretend center when they studied The Essex Street Market

Building The Essex Street Market in the block center

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am noticing that the flow of the day is much more ‘child-friendly’. Kindergartens have Choice Time for an hour every morning. They go on more neighborhood trips. The first grade has Choice Time at least twice, sometimes more, each week and they too go on curriculum-related trips more often.

When we discussed future professional goals, the teachers asked if we could focus more in depth on using documentation and assessment to help in planning whole class and small group projects and investigations.

These teachers have worked so hard and been so admirable in their professional growth. Their classrooms breathe with imagination, inquiry and a real life force!

On June 10th, two of the teachers and I will be presenting a workshop at Lehman College in the Bronx, NY. The conference is An Early childhood Education Conference: The Reggio Emilia Approach in 21st Century Urban Settings. Our breakout group is titled CHANGE! – DEVELOPING INQUIRY-BASED SOCIAL STUDIES PROJECTS AND CHOICE TIME CENTERS IN KINDERGARTEN AND FIRST GRADE CLASSES AT P.S. 142M. If you’re in the area and would like to attend, you can email Carol Gross at [email protected]

Is Kindergarten Ready for the Child?

Have you ever had a parent ask you if her/his child is ready for kindergarten? Have you ever heard a teacher complain about a child who doesn’t have enough academic skills to be in kindergarten?

I’ve been wondering a lot about these two questions.

Checking online, I found one after the other websites-advising parents about kindergarten readiness. Some sites discuss the pros and cons of redshirting, keeping a child back from kindergarten so as to give (usually) him an extra ‘edge’ in the grade and also giving him time to develop the ability to sit still for extended periods – time for hours of reading, writing, phonics and math.

My big question is this: Shouldn’t kindergarten be ready for all children?

Shouldn’t teachers (and administrators, of course) understand that within this kindergarten age group there’s a wide range of development, physically, socially and intellectually?

New York State, among many others, has adopted the Common Core Standards (a document that defines, grade by grade, what children should be able to do in reading, phonics, writing and math by the end of the school year.) These prescriptions are all about ‘academics’. Social and emotional issues are not even addressed. I could go on and on criticizing all different parts of these ‘standards’ but unfortunately this is what schools must consider when thinking about classroom practices.

What I’m noticing is that many schools seem to be feeding the fire of this hysteria by assuming that kindergarten must now, because of the standards, become the ‘new first grade.’ Hence come the fears and anxieties of parents who naturally want to protect their children and insure their school success.

However, I strongly believe that teachers (and administrators) should analyze these standards and then revisit the writings of John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky. It is possible to create classrooms where children have many opportunities to learn through exploration, play, exciting inquiry projects, singing songs, reading funny big book stories together and also meet the standards. This can, and should, be a class where there is an environment of stress-free learning and fun.

When I work as a consultant in kindergarten classes, I always stress the importance of keeping inquiry-based explorations and play at the core of the child’s day. Reading, writing and math workshops certainly can by incorporated into the program but they shouldn’t be the focus of the child’s day. When I was teaching, I certainly did have those workshops, but my day always began with a group meeting that flowed into choice time centers. I put a lot of thought into planning centers that challenged the children while they were playing and having fun. This started our school day with energy and good feelings.
Now, returning to those standards for kindergarten, here are some thoughts:

Why not sing Down by the Bay, Jenny Jenkins and many of the other rhyming songs, where children need to listen for and generate rhymes? Won’t children then be demonstrating an understanding of how to “recognize and produce rhyming words” and have fun at the same time?

Why not introduce an inquiry into the names of classmates? Children will gain contextual practice in recognizing alphabet letters. They’ll have many phonological and phonetic experiences when they clap out the syllables of the names and make interesting comparisons and ‘noticings’ (“Look! Akhira and Alexandra both start with A and end with A” “Lee only has 3 letters and it has one clap. Barbara has more letters and it has 3 claps”. “If we take away Pam’s P and change it for an S…its Sam! Pam and Sam have rhyming names!”) With teacher guidance, they begin learning the small, frequently used words that are hiding inside names (am is in Sam, and is in Randy, in is in Devin…).

Inquiry projects provide unlimited opportunities for teachers to keep an eye on helping children meet the standards. For example when children study the trees around the school, they get to make shape comparisons, measure tree trunks, see how leaves can float (if they’re lucky enough to have a water exploration center in the classroom!), learn how to use nonfiction texts to get new information By exploring a topic that is of interest and that is a part of their real world, children learn that they can use a variety of tools and strategies to look for answers to their questions. They become researchers!

If we were to judge how young children learn best by putting inquiry based learning on one side of a scale and hours of paper and pencil instruction on the other, I think that the result is a no-brainer. I believe that the scale would tip down on the side of inquiry. On the inquiry side children have fun while learning and practicing skills such as formulating and asking questions, recording information, purposefully using a variety of math strategies, working cooperatively in groups, and using many different avenues and materials for making discoveries.

When teachers move towards a constructivist approach, the knowledge and needs of the children becomes central. This is different than a teacher-led programmatic approach where the program goals are central and the children must adjust to them. By designing instruction based on the children’s prior knowledge there are more opportunities for children to feel successful. When a teacher gives children opportunities to explore areas that interest them, she is helping children develop a disposition to become self-directed life-long learners.

This is what kindergarten should be. In this type of classroom, kindergarten is ready for the child!

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Why Choice Time?

Exploration is what you do when you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s what scientists do every day. If a scientist already knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t be discovering anything, because they already knew what they were doing.
Neil de Grasse Tyson
Director, New York Hayden Planetarium

This week, I received emails from two teachers, each asking for advice and information about Choice Time. They want to know what kinds of Choices to offer, systems to keep Choice Time from becoming chaotic and unfocused, how often to schedule Choice Time, what they should be doing during Choice Time, how many choices to open at one time, etc. These are all important questions that I want to answer so as to give these teachers as much support as possible. But, that said, I think that it’s important to first explain why I value Choice Time and why I spent so much time planning for this part of my kindergarten and first grade curriculum.

Choice Time provides a point and place, during the school day, for children to make sense of the adult world. So much of what happens in the classroom today is driven by a standardized, scripted curriculum. Teachers are bound by pacing calendars and quantitative assessments. Because of these mandates, children have less and less opportunities to make decisions, even down to being able to chose what they will be writing each day. That is why it’s important to provide time for children to explore, theorize, create, and experience the frustration of learning through trial and error.

My ideal Choice Time involves an active teacher who, by listening closely to children’s conversations and monologues, becomes aware of many of their understandings, misunderstandings and wonderings. This invaluable insight into their world provides the teacher with the seeds for planting future classroom dialogues and inquiries.

In planning choice time centers, I would suggest keeping in mind your big goals for the year. I wanted children to develop independence and self-confidence. Making interdisciplinary connections and beginning to generate personal lines of inquiry and exploration is another important goal. I provided many opportunities for children to use reading, writing and mathematics in ways that would support their own, self-directed projects and activities. Children should understand that they could use classroom equipment and materials in new and innovative ways. There should be many opportunities within the center for children to expand and deepen their use of language to express ideas, discoveries and confusions. When there was a sense all of this happening, then I knew that I was on the right track and my Choice Time was becoming successful in meeting my goals.

In setting up choice time centers, I planned to leave opportunity for children to ‘set their own agendas’. In September, the centers were usually rather basic: blocks, dramatic play, play dough, an art center, water explorations, a science table perhaps with shells to explore. These were a few of the possible early centers. As the year proceeded, centers became more focused on the children’s particular interests and on class inquiry studies. For example what began in September as ‘water explorations’ might possibly become a ‘water-machine invention’ center where children were experimenting at constructing water machines. At the playdough table, instead of making traditional flour and salt playdough, children might be creating their own innovations on the traditional recipe, adding sand or sparkles to the batter to see what would happen.

Although I was setting up the centers and deciding, initially, what materials to include, my ‘message’ was “I wonder what interesting projects you are going to come up with?” We would have interesting class discussions centered on “what can we imagine doing with this new paper?” or “Are there any thoughts on what we might explore with our new microscope? What new materials will we need to bring to the science table to help you with your science investigation?”

Generally, there wasn’t a specific ‘task’ to be completed although, sometimes, there might be a particular focus for a center. For example, one year when my class was studying the waterways in New York City we read about landforms and how they affected the creation of these waterways. This topic fascinated many of the children and they asked if they could use our sand table to make their own landforms using the Plasticene that we had in our art studio. I emptied the sand from the table and each day a group of children went to work on this project. There was a big basket of reference books and some photographs of landforms such as mesas, buttes, mountains and valleys. The children decided on how this project would proceed and, on some occasions, a few disagreements erupted, such as on the day when Alex decided to add spikes to her butte. She adamantly insisted that buttes had spikes. When the children came complaining to me about this, I suggested to Alex that she defend her decision to add spikes by finding some pictures of buttes in the book basket. I walked away and left the group, hoping that they would come to some mutual agreement. When I came back, I saw that the other two children, looking through the photos with Alex, convinced her that the buttes should be ‘spike-free’. Through their dialogue, conflict, and rhetoric the children pulled apart an idea, experimented with different strategies and eventually arrived at a point of compromise and satisfaction.

There’s so much more that I will be writing about Choice Time in future entries…helpful routines for making it run smoothly, ideas for new centers, the role of the teacher during choice time, assessing the work that the children are doing in their centers, dealing with problems like scheduling and clean up time, making connections to the curriculum, how it looks different across the year and from grade to grade…and any other choice time questions that come up over the course of the year.

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.