Tag Archives: kindergarten

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....

More on “Ready for Kindergarten”

This letter, in today’s New York Times, was so “on the mark” and I would love to share it with you and encourage you to share your thoughts and suggestions on my blog.

To the Editor:
Re “Too Young for Kindergarten? Tide Turning Against 4-Year-Olds” (front page, May 28):

Here’s a simple solution to the problem of too-young children in kindergarten: Restore kindergarten to what it was before we went off the rails in this country, sucking the joy and life out of learning and school by viewing education solely through the narrow lens of tests, tests and more tests.

The fact that parents of means are choosing to hold their children back until they are as old as 6 proves that kindergarten has morphed into first grade. Four-and-a-half and 5-year-olds are simply developmentally unable to perform the tasks that are being asked of them.

Kindergartners’ days should be filled with learning and fun that is accomplished through music, dance and movement, art-making, storytelling, read-alouds, pretend, dress up, blocks, play of all varieties, a multitude of science explorations, and, yes, a nap.

Such kindergartners will emerge well prepared for first grade, and guess what? They will do better on standardized tests down the road.

JANE COWAN
Brooklyn, May 29, 2011

The writer is a K-12 art teacher.

Following the Children’s Life Force

Recently, a teacher new to teaching kindergarten asked me how she should know what centers and materials to offer children during Choice Time. She wondered what the “trick” is to planning for Choice Time.

I think that the most important aspect to planning choice time centers is for the teacher to be a good listener and observer. For example, in one class that I visited, the children were playing with Unifix cubes. They were making the line of cubes higher and higher. There was a lot of excitement. I walked over and exclaimed that the line of cubes seemed to be as tall as I am. I stepped over next to the tower. It reached my chin. One boy said, “wait” and got more cubes to add to it. (I actually had to put them on for him because, even though he got on tiptoes, he couldn’t reach. We kept adding one at a time until one of the children called out “Stop”. It was as tall as I am.

That was the perfect opportunity for the teacher to have the children share this experience at the Choice Time share meeting. She could start ‘wondering’ how many cubes might reach as tall as Sho Yin? How many Teddy Bears (little plastic teddy bear counters) could go from one end of Sho Yin to the other end? Hmm, maybe she would have to stretch out on the rug to be measured with Teddy Bears! What else could we use to measure Sho Yin? The teacher might start writing down the children’s suggestions and then come up with a great idea to share with the children. “How about a measuring center?” “What would we need to add to this center?” That is the birth of a new center that has grown right out of the teacher’s observations and interactions.

The children begin to pick up on the teacher’s interest in what is happening during Choice Time. They notice that she is writing down notes of interesting observations and often sharing these with the class. They will notice how she gets new ideas that grow out of these observations. If this happens enough, children will begin making suggestions for centers based on what they notice happening in their centers. One year a group of kindergarten children in my class asked to share their great idea at meeting. I really didn’t know what to expect. “Let’s make a castle in the Pretend Center!” Well, this made complete sense. For some reason, this class of children had a particular interest in castles, kings and queens, princes and princesses. Many castles had been constructed in the block center. I’m not quite sure where this particular interest came from. I had been reading the chapter book, The Wizard of Oz, to them and maybe this sparked the interest. I’m not quite sure but they certainly were enthusiastic about this topic. I said that they certainly could make a Castle Center but that we should first find out more about what was needed. Over the next few days I read some fairy tale picture books aloud (the version of Snow White illustrated by Nancy Eckholm Burkert was a favorite), and I found a shared reading book about a King (I can’t remember the title!). We made lists of what we needed in terms of dressing up and also decorations and then opened up an art center for making crowns, capes, wands, fancy-colored windows (dipping napkins in a water and food coloring mixture) and turning two chairs into fancy thrones. Signs were also made and hung up all around the center. Scrolls became important. There was a lot of writing important messages and proclamations on paper turned into scrolls. When all of this was done, the Castle Center was officially opened. It was interesting to observe the children playing there because, in many ways, it was the same type of play that they did pre-Castle…but with an added zest! It was the children’s incredible imagination and life force along with my openness to listening and taking their ideas seriously that opened up a new center for exploration and play.

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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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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.

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.