We’re Having a Pajama Party!

What is sillier and more fun than coming to school in pajamas? Pajama Party Day seems to have become a tradition in many elementary schools.

I have a proposal. What about having a pajama party week? Read aloud stories about sleeping, bedtime, and dreams. Think of the rich discussions that these stories might encourage. Some wonderful books to read (and there are so many more than these!) could be Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, Ira Sleeps Over by Bernard Waber, There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, by Mercer Mayer, and Time for Bed by Mem Fox.

Children might share stories about their “going to sleep” routines. Singing lullabies such as Morningtown Ride, Brahms Lullaby, Hush Little Baby and Woody Guthrie’s Sleep Eye. Parents might share lullabies from their native lands or from their childhood.

During Choice Time, you might open a sewing center where children stitch pillows for the big pajama party day that would culminate this mini- study. The writing center might be stocked with little, empty booklets ready for new bedtime stories to be written and shared at meeting time. Perhaps some children might even write original lullabies.

On the big day, when everyone comes to school in pajamas (even the teacher might be wearing a robe!) children at a cooking center could make pancakes for wake up time after lullabies have been sung, bed time stories read, heads rest on student-made pillows and lights go out for a few minutes. Who doesn’t enjoy waking up to pancakes?

The Name of the Game!

Games lubricate the body and the mind.
Benjamin Franklin

It was a cold, icy, snowy New York City winter and Charlene Cruse-Rivera’s kindergarten children at P.S. 244 in Flushing, Queens were not getting outside often to explore the neighborhood outside the school. Earlier in the year they spent a lot of time visiting and playing in a variety of playgrounds as part of their playground inquiry project. What to explore now that it wasn’t as practical to spend much time outside of the school building?

Being a good observer of children, Charlene noticed that a group of the children liked to play board games. She and I discussed this interest and came up with some ideas together. Perhaps it might be opportune to plunge into an in-depth study of board games with the entire class. Would they find this interesting?

Charlene shared her observations with the class and asked them if they would like to spend a week exploring different board games. They seemed interested and so she had one period each day when children got into groups to play a chosen board game. Rather than introduce many games, she had doubles of games so that, for example, each day two groups of children could play Candyland, two could play Checkers, two played Snakes and Ladders, etc.


After playing the games, they discussed their discoveries and observations at the class meeting. Charlene introduced a book where children could write about the different games that they played.

After the week of being immersed in board games, two Choice Time centers were opened. At one center, children could play commercial board games. The second center was one where children could create their own, original games, introduce the games to the class and add them to the game center.

The enthusiasm here built up and even spread to the block center where a group of children created a Dinosaur Game from a block construction.

There’s so much learning that comes from experiences playing and creating board games. (Many of these points can be found on page 129 of my book, Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play.)
• Children draw on their understandings of number sequence
• Children gain an understanding of greater than and less than.
• Children learn the importance of careful strategizing.
• When children create their own games, they draw on their knowledge of basic game attributes and then have opportunities to creatively improvise.
• In creating their own games, children might decide to make up a game that’s based on a favorite storybook, thereby making some important literacy connections.
• Playing a board game is a social activity.

Here are two Choice Time Reflection Journal entries:

Investing in All Children!

 

This article, from the Sunday, April 2, 2017 edition of the New York Times, spotlights the importance of believing and investing in all children. If you haven’t read it already, I hope you take the time to read it now.

SundayReview | CONTRIBUTING OP-ED WRITER

Who Needs Charters When You Have Public Schools Like These?

Starting in kindergarten, the students in the Union Public Schools district in Tulsa, Okla., get a state-of-the-art education in science, technology, engineering and math. Credit Andrea Morales for The New York Times
TULSA, Okla. — The class assignment: Design an iPad video game. For the player to win, a cow must cross a two-lane highway, dodging constant traffic. If she makes it, the sound of clapping is heard; if she’s hit by a car, the game says, “Aw.”

“Let me show you my notebook where I wrote the algorithm. An algorithm is like a recipe,” Leila, one of the students in the class, explained to the school official who described the scene to me.

You might assume these were gifted students at an elite school. Instead they were 7-year-olds, second graders in the Union Public Schools district in the eastern part of Tulsa, Okla., where more than a third of the students are Latino, many of them English language learners, and 70 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch. From kindergarten through high school, they get a state-of-the-art education in science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM subjects. When they’re in high school, these students will design web pages and mobile apps, as well as tackle cybersecurity and artificial intelligence projects. And STEM-for-all is only one of the eye-opening opportunities in this district of around 16,000 students.

Betsy DeVos, book your plane ticket now.

Ms. DeVos, the new secretary of education, dismisses public schools as too slow-moving and difficult to reform. She’s calling for the expansion of supposedly nimbler charters and vouchers that enable parents to send their children to private or parochial schools. But Union shows what can be achieved when a public school system takes the time to invest in a culture of high expectations, recruit top-flight professionals and develop ties between schools and the community.

Union has accomplished all this despite operating on a miserly budget. Oklahoma has the dubious distinction of being first in the nation in cutting funds for education, three years running, and Union spends just $7,605 a year in state and local funds on each student. That’s about a third less than the national average; New York State spends three times more. Although contributions from the community modestly augment the budget, a Union teacher with two decades’ experience and a doctorate earns less than $50,000. Her counterpart in Scarsdale, N.Y., earns more than $120,000.

“Our motto is: ‘We are here for all the kids,’ ” Cathy Burden, who retired in 2013 after 19 years as superintendent, told me. That’s not just a feel-good slogan. “About a decade ago I called a special principals’ meeting — the schools were closed that day because of an ice storm — and ran down the list of student dropouts, name by name,” she said. “No one knew the story of any kid on that list. It was humiliating — we hadn’t done our job.” It was also a wake-up call. “Since then,” she adds, “we tell the students, ‘We’re going to be the parent who shows you how you can go to college.’ ”

Last summer, Kirt Hartzler, the current superintendent, tracked down 64 seniors who had been on track to graduate but dropped out. He persuaded almost all of them to complete their coursework. “Too many educators give up on kids,” he told me. “They think that if an 18-year-old doesn’t have a diploma, he’s got to figure things out for himself. I hate that mind-set.”

This individual attention has paid off, as Union has defied the demographic odds. In 2016, the district had a high school graduation rate of 89 percent — 15 percentage points more than in 2007, when the community was wealthier, and 7 percentage points higher than the national average.

The school district also realized, as Ms. Burden put it, that “focusing entirely on academics wasn’t enough, especially for poor kids.” Beginning in 2004, Union started revamping its schools into what are generally known as community schools. These schools open early, so parents can drop off their kids on their way to work, and stay open late and during summers. They offer students the cornucopia of activities — art, music, science, sports, tutoring — that middle-class families routinely provide. They operate as neighborhood hubs, providing families with access to a health care clinic in the school or nearby; connecting parents to job-training opportunities; delivering clothing, food, furniture and bikes; and enabling teenage mothers to graduate by offering day care for their infants.

Two fifth graders guided me around one of these community schools, Christa McAuliffe Elementary, a sprawling brick building surrounded by acres of athletic fields. It was more than an hour after the school day ended, but the building buzzed, with choir practice, art classes, a soccer club, a student newspaper (the editors interviewed me) and a garden where students were growing corn and radishes. Tony, one of my young guides, performed in a folk dance troupe. The walls were festooned with family photos under a banner that said, “We Are All Family.”

This environment reaps big dividends — attendance and test scores have soared in the community schools, while suspensions have plummeted.

The district’s investment in science and math has paid off, too. According to Emily Lim, who runs Union’s STEM program, the district felt it was imperative to offer STEM classes to all students, not just those deemed gifted.

Students congregate at the start of the Global Gardens after school program at Union Public Schools district’s Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in Oklahoma. Credit Andrea Morales for The New York Times
In one class, I watched eighth graders create an orthotic brace for a child with cerebral palsy. The specs: The toe must be able to rise but cannot fall. Using software that’s the industry standard, 20 students came up with designs and then plaster of Paris models of the brace.

“It’s not unusual for students struggling in other subjects to find themselves in the STEM classes,” Ms. Lim said. “Teachers are seeing kids who don’t regard themselves as good readers back into reading because they care about the topic.”

A fourth grader at Rosa Parks Elementary who had trouble reading and writing, for example, felt like a failure and sometimes vented his frustration with his fists. But he’s thriving in the STEM class. When the class designed vehicles to safely transport an egg, he went further than anybody else by giving his car doors that opened upward, turning it into a little Lamborghini. Such small victories have changed the way he behaves in class, his teacher said — he works harder and acts out much less.
Superintendents and school boards often lust after the quick fix. The average urban school chief lasts around three years, and there’s no shortage of shamans promising to “disrupt” the status quo.

The truth is that school systems improve not through flash and dazzle but by linking talented teachers, a challenging curriculum and engaged students. This is Union’s not-so-secret sauce: Start out with an academically solid foundation, then look for ways to keep getting better.

Union’s model begins with high-quality prekindergarten, which enrolls almost 80 percent of the 4-year-olds in the district. And it ends at the high school, which combines a collegiate atmosphere — lecture halls, student lounges and a cafeteria with nine food stations that dish up meals like fish tacos and pasta puttanesca — with the one-on-one attention that characterizes the district.

Counselors work with the same students throughout high school, and because they know their students well, they can guide them through their next steps. For many, going to community college can be a leap into anonymity, and they flounder — the three-year graduation rate at Tulsa Community College, typical of most urban community colleges, is a miserable 14 percent. But Union’s college-in-high-school initiative enables students to start earning community college credits before they graduate, giving them a leg up.

The evidence-based pregnancy-prevention program doesn’t lecture adolescents about chastity. Instead, by demonstrating that they have a real shot at success, it enables them to envision a future in which teenage pregnancy has no part.

“None of this happened overnight,” Ms. Burden recalled. “We were very intentional — we started with a prototype program, like community schools, tested it out and gradually expanded it. The model was organic — it grew because it was the right thing to do.”

Building relationships between students and teachers also takes time. “The curriculum can wait,” Lisa Witcher, the head of secondary education for Union, told the high school’s faculty last fall. “Chemistry and English will come — during the first week your job is to let your students know you care about them.”

That message resonated with Ms. Lim, who left a job at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa School of Community Medicine and took a sizable pay cut to work for Union. “I measure how I’m doing by whether a girl who has been kicked out of her house by her mom’s boyfriend trusts me enough to tell me she needs a place to live,” she told me. “Union says, ‘We can step up and help.’ ”

Under the radar, from Union City, N.J., and Montgomery County, Md., to Long Beach and Gardena, Calif., school systems with sizable numbers of students from poor families are doing great work. These ordinary districts took the time they needed to lay the groundwork for extraordinary results.

Will Ms. DeVos and her education department appreciate the value of investing in high-quality public education and spread the word about school systems like Union? Or will the choice-and-vouchers ideology upstage the evidence?

David L. Kirp is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, a senior fellow at the Learning Policy Institute and a contributing opinion writer.

Teaching Kindergarten: Where Did the Garden Go?

childrens-drawings-716340_1645

Finally, an amazing and much-needed Kindergarten Conference will be hosted at the Bank Street College of Education on April 21 and 22. If you’re a kindergarten teacher, work with kindergarten teachers or have a particular interest in kindergarten, I would encourage you to sign up for the conference ASAP!
Teaching Kindergarten: Where Did the Garden Go? Practice, Policy, and Advocacy

Join other kindergarten teachers, school leaders and policy makers as we revisit and celebrate the unique and vital role of Kindergarten in the life of the child. Inspiring keynote speakers will present current research on learning and development and its implications for Kindergarten practice.

Workshop leaders will engage you in interactive sessions on literacy, math, social studies, block building, family engagement, music and science, among others. All workshops will address working with English Language Learners, children with special needs, the rich diversity of our students and the Common Core State Standards. Participants will leave the conference reinvigorated and inspired to strive for what is right for all Kindergarten children.

Featured Speakers

Friday, April 21
Keynote: A Meaningful Kindergarten for ALL children | Dr. Derrick Gay
Guest Speaker: Who is the 5 year old? | Lesley Koplow
Guest Speaker: The Power of Song in Kindergarten | Betsy Blachly and Susan Harris

Saturday, April 22
Keynote: What is Happening to our Children’s Garden? Reflections on Kindergarten in a Changing World | Dr. Beverly Falk
Keynote: Transforming Kindergarten: Supporting Teachers to Strengthen Quality | Dr. Shannon Riley-Ayers
Special Interview: Joining with the Kindergarten Learner | Yvonne Smith interviewed by Julie Diamond

Morning Workshops

Upon Registration for the conference, you will be asked to select one morning workshop from the list below.

Morning Workshops Descriptions

1. Block Building Basics: Making the Most of Your Block Area | Facilitator: Rebecca Burdett
2. Creating Environments, Routines, and Curricula to Support Kindergarten Learning: Forging Links between Personal Content and Learning | Facilitator: Julie Diamond
3. Embracing Differences in Kindergarten | Facilitator: Dr. Derrick Gay
5. Facilitating Social-Emotional Development through Movement in the Kindergarten Classroom | Facilitator: Diane Duggan
9. The Importance of Family Engagement | Facilitator: Maimuna Mohammed
10. The Importance of Play in Kindergarten | Facilitator: Joan Almon
12. Museum Studies in Kindergarten | Facilitators: Margaret Blachly and Andrea Fonseca
14. Science Exploration in Kindergarten: Curiosity, Enthusiasm, and a Love of Learning! | Facilitator: Michael Ziemski
15. Storytelling/Story Acting: Bringing Vivian Paley’s Methodology into Kindergarten | Facilitator: Suzette Abbott

Afternoon Workshops

Upon registration, you will be asked to select one afternoon workshop from the list below:

Afternoon Workshop Descriptions

4. The Essential Role of Trips in the Kindergarten Curriculum | Facilitator: Salvatore Vascellaro
6. Finding the Courage to Bring Kindness and Compassion Back to the Garden | Facilitators: Kelly D’Addona, Laura Morris, and Dr. Cynthia Paris
7. Friendship, Fear, Fairness, and Fantasy at Five: What Makes Vivian Paley’s Kindergarten Vision So Stubbornly Relevant in All Settings? | Facilitator: Dr. Patricia M. (“Patsy”) Cooper
8. How Curiosity Drives an Investigation: The Wheelchair Study and the Aviation Project | Facilitator: Dana Roth and Renée Dinnerstein
11. Literacy and Art, Building the Bridge | Facilitator: Denise Prince
13. From Read-aloud to Retelling: Planting a Story Garden in Kindergarten | Facilitator: Nina Jaffe
16. What’s New in Children’s Books for the Kindergarten Classroom? | Facilitator: Mollie Welsh Kruger
17. Working with English Language Learners in Kindergarten | Facilitators: Tatiana Rosa and Antonia Bendezu

Register
April 21: 4:00 – 8:30 pm
April 22: 8:00 am – 4:00 pm

Bank Street College of Education
610 West 112th Street, NYC 10025
Register Now 

To pay by Purchase Order, complete a registration form for each participant and fax the PO and registration form(s) to 212-875-4777.
Partial SCHOLARSHIPS are available. Apply here. (Scholarships are reviewed on a first-come, first-serve basis until funds are depleated.)

Conference Fee:
$195* Early Bird fee (through March 15, 2017)
$265* Conference fee (after March 16, 2017)

1 graduate credit may be earned by paying the tuition fee, $1525 (includes conference fees)
*Includes Friday dinner, Saturday light breakfast
Earn 12 CTLE hours or 1 CEU included with conference fees

Register Now

To pay by Purchase Order, complete a registration form for each participant and fax the PO and registration form(s) to 212-875-4777.
Partial SCHOLARSHIPS are available. Apply here. (Scholarships are reviewed on a first-come, first-serve basis until funds are depleated.)

We wish to thank Community Playthings for their support.

Conference Location:
Bank Street College of Education
610 West 112th Street, New York, NY 10025

This conference was created and developed by:
Betsy Grob
Betsy currently advises students at City College of New York and served on the faculty of Bank Street College for over twenty years. Betsy has taught kindergarten, first grade, and Spanish in both New York City and Colorado and has worked with early childhood educators in many countries including Sierra Leone, Chile, Romania, Mongolia, and Azerbaijan. She is co-author of The Right to Learn: Preparing Early Childhood Teachers to Work in High-Needs Schools (Bank Street College Occasional Paper Series) and is co-editor of Teaching Kindergarten: Learner-Centered Classrooms for the 21st Century (Teachers College Press, 2015). Betsy holds an MS and an EdM from Bank Street College.

Fretta Reitzes
Fretta, an educational consultant, was the founder and director of the Wonderplay Conference at the 92nd Street Y in New York City from 2006-2016. She was the director of 92Y’s Goldman Center for Youth & Family from 1990-2016 and was director of the Y’s Parenting Center from 1980-1990. Before her tenure began at 92Y, Fretta taught preschool, kindergarten, and first grade in New York City and New Jersey and trained daycare teachers and directors in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She is the co-author of Teaching Kindergarten: Learner Centered Classrooms for the 21st Century (Teachers College Press, 2015), Wonderplay (Running Press, 1995), Wonderplay, Too! (Running Press, 2005), and The Right to Learn: Preparing Early Childhood Teachers to Work in High-Needs Schools (Bank Street College Occasional Paper Series).

Conference Registration
Register Now
Contact CPS to register with a PO
email: [email protected]
tel: 212-875-4707 or
fax:212-875-4777

LET’S NOT LET KINDERGARTEN DISAPPEAR!

book nookWhat have we done to kindergarten? Like the loss of so many aspects of our democracy, the concept of kindergarten as a garden for children is disappearing from sight. In both cases, my heart is breaking.

I’ve made the unfortunate move of joining some Facebook sites for kindergarten teachers and when I read many of the posts, my blood begins to boil.
“We introduce 2 new words a week as well as review what we have learned. (We have 40 words on our county sight word list.) The motions and visual piece really help my kiddos. I do not always read what is listed on the back…Sometimes I just make up my own.”
• “ I only have 25 mandatory words, but last year when all the kiddos mastered them by November, I carefully selected another 25 to put out there for exposure. I use the small cards, in a pocket chart near our morning meeting things. Introduce 5 or so a week October – December and then daily review one column of five each day of the week.”
• “We have 87 sight words!!!”
• “Our home living areas were taken away this summer”

What does NAEYC, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, say about appropriate kindergarten practices? How do they define what seems to be considered an out of date expression “Developmentally Appropriate Practices?” I went to their website to check it out.

Here’s what is written on their Kindergarten page:
“Developmentally appropriate practice… is an approach to teaching grounded in the research on how young children develop and learn and in what is known about effective early education. Its framework is designed to promote young children’s optimal learning and development.
DAP involves teachers meeting young children where they are (by stage of development), both as individuals and as part of a group; and helping each child meet challenging and achievable learning goals.”

They write that kindergarten must fit appropriately between preschool and first grade. I’ll add to that by saying that kindergarten shouldn’t be confused with first grade.

Here are some teaching tips that are provided on the NAEYC kindergarten page:

“Teachers must balance kindergartners’ varying abilities and needs while making sure that the curriculum fits appropriately between preschool and first grade.

Let’s see what DAP {Developmentally Appropriate Practice} in kindergarten looks like:
Mrs. K sits with Keira, going over letter-sound correspondence. Then she goes to the block area to help Shelley. Mrs. K doesn’t make pronouncements; instead, she respectfully waits for the right moment to build on children’s existing conversations. She listens attentively and understands where, when, and how to intervene. She joins in the children’s play, modeling positive behavior. Her contributions are subtle, playful, and full of teaching.

Kindergarten teachers must fully engage in the social world of the classroom and be intentional in their interactions and instruction. With the many differences among—and wide age range of—kindergartners, teachers should be responsive to developmental, individual, and cultural variation. Thoughtful, sensitive teaching promotes a joy of learning and prepares children for further academic challenges.

Acknowledge what children do or say. Let children know that we have noticed by giving positive attention, sometimes through comments, sometimes through just sitting nearby and observing. (“Thanks for your help, Kavi.” “You found another way to show 5.”)

Encourage persistence and effort rather than just praising and evaluating what the child has done. (“You’re thinking of lots of words to describe the dog in the story. Let’s keep going!”)

• Give specific feedback rather than general comments. (“The beanbag didn’t get all the way to the hoop, James, so you might try throwing it harder.”)

Model attitudes, ways of approaching problems, and behavior toward others, showing children rather than just telling them (“Hmm, that didn’t work and I need to think about why.” “I’m sorry, Ben, I missed part of what you said. Please tell me again.”)

Demonstrate the correct way to do something. This usually involves a procedure that needs to be done in a certain way (such as using a wire whisk or writing the letter P).

Create or add challenge so that a task goes a bit beyond what the children can already do. For example, you lay out a collection of chips, count them together and then ask a small group of children to tell you how many are left after they see you removing some of the chips. The children count the remaining chips to help come up with the answer. To add a challenge, you could hide the chips after you remove some, and the children will have to use a strategy other than counting the remaining chips to come up with the answer. To reduce challenge, you could simplify the task by guiding the children to touch each chip once as they count the remaining chips.

Ask questions that provoke children’s thinking. (“If you couldn’t talk to your partner, how else could you let him know what to do?”)

Give assistance (such as a cue or hint) to help children work on the edge of their current competence (“Can you think of a word that rhymes with your name, Matt? How about bat . . . Matt/bat? What else rhymes with Matt and bat?”)

Provide information, directly giving children facts, verbal labels, and other information. (“This one that looks like a big mouse with a short tail is called a vole.”)

Give directions for children’s action or behavior. (“Touch each block only once as you count them.” “You want to move that icon over here? Okay, click on it and hold down, then drag it to wherever you want.”)”

It’s interesting that there’s nothing written about requiring children to memorize a bank of sight words or number facts. The emphasis seems to be more on helping children to understand, question, manipulate materials. Although the expression isn’t used, the message is to consider the child’s Zone of Actual Development and Zone of Proximal Development when introducing a challenge.

It’s so important that teachers and administrators remember the importance of play in the life of a four, five and six year old child. As I wrote in my book Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, “…when children are at play, they’re not just playing – they’re learning. Play is the engine that drives their learning.”rachel_sci1

Photo: Kristin Eno

All of this information presents some big challenges. How can we be sure that teachers of kindergarten children understand the basic principles of developmentally appropriate practice? How can we support them to stand up to administrators who don’t have this understanding so that they can provide joyful, playful, intellectually challenging kindergarten classrooms?

These are important questions that I’m pondering. What are your thoughts and suggestions? How can we support kindergarten classrooms where the goal for each child isn’t to memorize 80 sight words but rather to develop socially, creatively and inquisitively?

Let’s Talk About Choice Time

only workersHow do you define play and choice time in early childhood classrooms? Brett Whitmarsh, Director of Digital Communications and Social Media Manager at Heinemann Publishing, and I took some time out during the 2016 NCTE conference to have a serious conversation about the topic of my new book on Choice Time.  cropped-book-cover.jpg

In my book, I wrote that,  “play is an engine that drives learning.”   “During choice time, children choose to play in a variety of centers that have been carefully designed and equipped to scaffold children’s natural instinct for play.” I presented a good deal of information on what teachers need to consider when they set up choice-time centers that promote inquiry-based, guided play in a classroom. I also summarized the research, describing the different kinds of play and why they are important. I believe that it is important for teachers to be able to cite research when discussing the importance of play in early childhood (pre-k – grade 2) classes. Choice Time allows children opportunities to engage in joyful, important, playful, age-appropriate work that will empower them to become lifelong learners.

We started our conversation on the issue of the diverse kinds of play (You can see below for a full transcript of our conversation):

 

Listen to the podcast here:

 

 

Transcript:

Renee: Well, when I think about choice time, first I think about children and play. When children play, there are basically two different kinds of play. One play is free play. The other play is guided play. Free play is when children are out in the schoolyard and they’re running around and someone picks up a stick and the stick becomes a sword or it becomes a magic wand. They have their own agenda. Nobody else is involved with that agenda other than the children. That’s their agenda.

Guided play is when the teacher sets up different centers for play and investigation. The teacher decides what the room is going to look like, what the center is going to look like, how much space she or he is going to allot for the center, what materials will go in the center. Then what happens in that center is up to the children. The children are not guided in what they do. It’s totally up to them, but the teacher has a very important role in setting up a play environment, an investigation environment, an exploration environment for the children.

Brett: Why are choice time and play so important?

Renee: Play is what drives children’s learning. First of all, it’s joyful. We want children to have joy in their life. That’s really important. It’s important to me as a teacher. Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, I’m going to read something that he said. “In play, the child is always behaving beyond his age, above his usual everyday behavior. In play, he is, as it were, a head above himself.” Children grow in play. They do things that extend their learning. It’s an engine for driving the learning that children have. In choice time play, the children are able to actually incorporate all the other things that they’ve done all day, all through the week, and bring it with them into these centers that they have. What’s really interesting is that when children are playing they get to practice what they think it’s like to be an adult. Sometimes for an adult it’s funny to watch it because it’s taking it and twisting it a bit. It’s the way that they think.

For example, in my book I talked about how children were playing doctor and mother came with a very sick baby. Jeffrey the doctor said, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry.” He took out his injection needle and he jabbed the baby doll. The mother said, “My baby died.” Jeffrey said, “Don’t worry.” He jabbed the baby with the needle. He said, “She’s okay now.” The mother took out her pocketbook, gave him a wad of bills and teetered away in her high heels. That’s the way they saw life. They were acting it out. It’s important, very important for children to be able to do that, and for teachers to honor that, to say, “This is important. We must honor this.”cleared-doctor

Brett: On that, how can teachers connect choice time centers to classroom studies and the curriculum?

Renee: I think it’s so easy to make connections to the curriculum during choice time. Probably as you go up in the grades it happens even more so. For example, I have something in the book. Can I read from the book?

Brett: Absolutely, yes.

Renee: This was a first grade class in Manhattan on the lower east side. They were doing a subway study. They were going on many trips and interviewing people and learning all about it. During choice time these were some of the things that were set up: comparing subway maps from different cities and creating a subway map with a key for stations and routes for children’s own imaginary city. They created an imaginary city. Polling classmates about subway ridership, creating a graph and sharing the information, designing subway car models using photographs and sketches, using subway sounds. This was in one class where they did this, subway sounds to create a musical. They recorded it. They made their own subway music.sketching at the station

Writing and illustrating poems because there is something on the New York City subway called Poetry in Motion. They were making poems to go into the subway. Painting a subway mural, constructing subway cars out of blocks, using an interactive white board to research subway routes, and planning out trips that they were going to take. They made a subway station in the classroom for the dramatic play. They created a turnstile after going to the subway and doing sketches of it and seeing how it worked.

This is just one example of how it is, but if a class is doing a neighborhood study, there are so many things they could do in terms of recreating the neighborhood, opening up a store in the dramatic play area, going to a store and buying things and cooking it in class. There are a tremendous amount of connections and always, always ways for children to record things that they’re doing.the classroom market

Brett: Well, I think you just spoke to this with the subway example, but how do you see schools implementing choice time in their classrooms?

Renee: Now, is the question how do I see it or how do I want to see it? There’s two different things there, but in the best case scenario, in the very best case scenario, for kindergarten for example, choice time is scheduled during every day because it is so important. It’s scheduled during a prime time during the day. I mean, I used to do it first period, but I think that after maybe reading or something, but not at the end of the day because when it’s at the end of the day these five and six and seven year olds have been doing reading and writing and math and phonics. They don’t want to be thoughtful about what their play is. They just want to just hang out and do it. In the best case scenario the scheduling is very important.

Also I think that just as with the reading workshop and the writing workshop, the teacher has to really be planful about what is happening. The same thing for choice time. Observe the children. Write down what the children are doing. Reflect on what you’ve written. Think about, based on what I’ve reflected, what are my next steps? What am I going to do? Have conversations with children about that. early observation reportWhen choice time is really working super well, then children start coming up with their own ideas for centers that are important for the classroom.

For example, in a kindergarten class that I’ve been working in this year, for some reason, I don’t know why, but some of the children, they wanted to open up a shoe store. They wanted to make their own shoes. The teacher asked them to explain what they needed and what they were going to do. They were very clear about what they wanted to do. She set out the materials. They traced their feet. They measured each other’s foot. They basically made shoes. They made thongs. Then they said it needed to be in plastic bags like in the store. They put it in Ziploc bags and hung it up and opened a shoe store in the dramatic play area. 7

Brett: That’s so cool.

Renee: This was a children-driven … Sometimes it’s more the teacher driving it or a collaboration between the children and the teachers, but this case it was totally child-driven.

Brett: Talk about the importance of trust in the classroom in choice time.

Renee: I think that trust is the essence of choice time because as I have said before, the teacher sets up the centers. The teacher puts out material. The teacher arranges the room so that children can work independently. Then the teacher trusts the children to know what to do with those materials. Sometimes it may not be what the teacher is thinking. Sometimes you may think, “Oh my goodness. What are they doing there?” You could always sit down with a group of children at the end, at meeting, and talk about, “Tell us some more about what was happening there,” but this element of trust is crucial. Children need to know that they need to have agency and need to know that the teacher respects that agency. Trust them to know what to do and to know how to play, to know how to explore.

Brett: Building off of that, maybe a teacher who has just read the book or is in the middle of reading the book now, and they’ve not done that before, they’ve not experienced that opportunity of trust. How would you advise that teacher?

Renee: I think one of the things that I tried to do in the book was for the different centers, the basic centers, to be very explicit about not just what to put out and how to set it up but how to introduce it. That is so important, how to introduce a center and how to introduce it slowly. Then after you introduce it, to go back again and to then go around in a circle back again in a meeting to what was talked about at the mini-lesson before the children went out there. I think that maybe for a new teacher, to not have too many centers. There’s nothing wrong actually, with having doubles of the same center. That’s okay. Some children are going to the art table here and some children are going to it there, but I think that it’s just really … Take it slowly. Take it really slowly.

You see there is something that a lot of teachers do, which are literacy centers, which are valuable in their own rights, but literacy centers all have a task. Teachers are used to that. They’re used to knowing that children are going to come out of a session with those literacy centers and know and come out with a product or a solution or something like that. Don’t expect that. Get comfortable with understanding that that’s not what this is all about.

Choice Time Lets The Light In

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Susan Ochshorn,  blogger and founder of ECE PolicyWorks, has   written a very informed review of my book, Choice Time-How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK-2. I’d love to share her article with you.

RENEE DINNERSTEIN’S REVOLUTION GROWS IN BROOKLYN
Posted by Susan Ochshorn, on December 15th, 2016
Last September, before school began, I made my way to the Brooklyn Historical Society for the launch of Renée Dinnerstein’s new book, Choice Time. At a time of standardized tests for five-year-olds, canned curriculum, didactic instruction, and the Common Core—in a city of deep inequality and segregation—this event was long overdue.

More than 200 teachers poured into the landmark Romanesque Revival building, now a center of urban history, civic dialogue, and community outreach. Many were left standing around the edges of the room, the air tense with expectancy. After a day of setting up their classrooms, they still had energy to burn.

Following a PowerPoint presentation, Dinnerstein invited Anna Allanbrook, principal of the Brooklyn New School, to join her for a conversation. Both women are committed to active learning, equality of opportunity and diversity, the nurturance of community and democracy, and the belief that young children, who are naturally thoughtful and curious, make their own meaning, with adults as their trusted guides.

Dinnerstein and Allanbrook are members of a vanishing species of educator. Attention was rapt as they reflected on the challenges of upholding the progressive ethos in a city where it has become the province of the privileged. The audience was primed for the discussion, bursting into applause when the subject of segregation came up. “All parents want to send their children to schools where exciting things are happening,” Dinnerstein said.

The spirit of Lillian Weber hovered over the proceedings. A revered professor of early childhood education at the City College of New York, she supported teacher activism at the grassroots, and became the first woman, in 1973, to deliver the annual John Dewey Society lecture—well before No Child Behind and corporate reform would wreak havoc with the philosopher’s creed. “Find the cracks,” Weber urged her students, a sentiment echoed by the late Leonard Cohen in “Anthem,” released in the early 90s: “There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything) That’s how the light gets in.”

Choice Time, a guide to deepening learning through inquiry and play, is Dinnerstein’s gift to the city’s early childhood teachers, with whom she’s been working for nearly five decades. They’re hard pressed to find the light in today’s climate of constraint and metrics. The pressure on them and the children is acute, robbing both parties of autonomy, agency, and joy in the work at hand. “We need a revolution,” Dinnerstein declared, plaintively, at one point during the evening.

The book begins with a quick scan of the research on play, a powerful engine of human development. The repercussions of its disappearance cannot be overstated, especially for children in poverty. As Regina Milteer, Kenneth Ginsburg, and Deborah Ann Mulligan warned in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2012. “To effectively preserve play in the lives of economically disadvantaged children,” they wrote, “its presence in schools …must be supported…Otherwise, school engagement might suffer and efforts at creating a better-prepared generation might fail.”

Their concern was welcome, but their advice had gone unheeded. In the nation’s classrooms, the damage had been accruing, block by block banished from kindergarten—along with the kind of active learning that children need to thrive. Joan Almon and Edward Miller had been tracking the trend, reporting on its implications in their seminal work, Crisis in the Kindergarten, published by the Alliance for Childhood in 2009.

In Choice Time, Dinnerstein offers readers a taxonomy of play adapted from this report, nine types encompassing “forms of exploration that support…social, emotional, creative, and intellectual growth.” Never mind the overlap in form and function—children develop mastery, learn rules, and have their senses engaged in many kinds of play. In clear, simple language, she sets forth the rationale, rooted in research, for the centers of the ideal classroom:

… it’s a laboratory for exploratory learning, a place where children build things, conduct experiments, create innovative art projects, read fascinating books, write original stories, use technology and texts to find out information and feel free to imagine and try out possibilities. It’s a place where children grow big ideas, make new friends, and dig deeply into exciting investigations.

Here, learning is collaborative, students’ voices are heard, and their work documented. The teacher is the guide, scaffolding “children’s natural instincts for play, introducing materials and posing questions and ideas that help them develop a wide range of skills.”

Observation and recording, a vanishing skill in the age of quick, quantitative assessment, undergirds practice. Close, careful attention to children yields information for extending their learning. In the centers Dinnerstein proposes (blocks, science, reading nook, dramatic play, math, and art), these strategies hold, and she tells her readers just what to do, chapters interspersed with charts called “Teaching Interventions,” lined with observations and possible responses.

All of the above requires time—in short supply as we continue to race our students to the top. In the second chapter, Dinnerstein gets to the core of the loss:

It may be that of all the voices in the classroom, time actually speaks the loudest. How we use time during the day speaks volumes about our beliefs about teaching and learning and our understanding of the developmental needs of young children. Just as the heart pumps blood through the…vessels of the circulatory system, providing the body with oxygen and important nutrients, choice activities are vital to the well-being of young children…

Dinnerstein’s blueprint for change requires leaps of imagination and faith for the new generation of early childhood educators. They’ve come of age professionally during an era of reform that has pushed children’s needs and the evidence base to the periphery. Practitioners in a field long marginalized, they’ve been reluctant to challenge the regime.

Last year, at a meeting in East Harlem, where choice time is but a dream, a principal from Sunset Park, a gentrifying community of immigrants in Brooklyn, spoke of how she had just brought back blocks to her elementary school, after more than a decade’s hiatus. The teachers didn’t know how to use them. Choice Time lets the light in.

 

In the Hands of Children (with addendum)

“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”
— Margaret Mead, cultural anthropologist

7I’ve done a lot of thinking and writing about choice time, inquiry, exploration and play. In my book on choice time I described how to set up and introduce a variety of centers that give children the opportunity and freedom to collaborate, create and have fun. Lately, however, I find myself musing about what might happen if we could give children more freedom to not only choose what centers they want to go to at Choice Time but also what centers they want to create and organize themselves for investigation and play. These thoughts were fueled by something that I observed in a kindergarten class in Flushing, New York.

One day, some of the children approached their teacher, Fanny Roman, and told her that they would like to have a center where they could make their own shoes. It’s unclear to me why this was important to them but after some discussion, it became obvious that the
children making the request were quite serious and had a strong idea of how they would go about creating sandals. When she saw how well they had thought out their ideas, Fanny said, “ok, let’s see what we need to set up the center.”

1The children wanted construction paper, crayons, markers, scissors, and pipe cleaners. When they organized their material, they got to work. 2They traced their feet and the feet of anyone who would want a pair of shoes special ordered. 35Shoe soles were marked so that they wouldn’t mix up pairs that went together. The shoes were decorated so that each pair had a unique look.

6Interest in the shoe production spread throughout the class and more children wanted time to work in the shoe factory. One of the children said that she saw shoes in a store hanging in plastic bags so children brought in zip lock bags to package their shoes.close-up-in-plastic-bag

Fanny took the children on a walk to a local shoe store and then the children decided to turn the dramatic play center in a shoe store. Feet were measured. Shoes were bought. It was THEIR center and THEIR project.

Now I’m trying to think about how teachers can support children’s ownership of centers. Are there structures for opening up conversations that encourage children to imagine centers that will reflect their personal interests and obsessions?

I’m thinking about this and will write more very soon. I’m fired up with this idea! What are your thoughts and experiences? Let’s share ways that we can put more decisions about choice time in the hands of children.

Addendum to this post: I asked Fanny to write me something about how this interest in shoes got started. Here’s what she wrote:

“A little girl named Yi Tong initiated the entire shoe center. She was at the writing center and she started making a shoe that her mother bought her in the store. She inspired so many other children and they all made connections with her story. Everyone had something to share about going shopping to buy shoes. My role was just listening and showing interest and excitement. I slowly started to add on to what was going on in the classroom.
I would walk around and say, “oh, I noticed that more children are making shoes with paper. What are some other tools we can use? What other centers can we add to our choice chart that are related to shoes?

My read aloud, poems and math investigations had a theme of shoes : ) They got really into it !”

Listening is so important!

Book Launch-Part 2 – Conversation with Anna Allanbrook

looking-at-worm-with-magnifying-glassOn Tuesday, September 6th the Brooklyn Historical Society graciously hosted the launch of my book Choice Time- How To Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK-2.

This video is the second part of the launch presentation. I was joined on stage by Anna Allanbrook, principal of the Brooklyn New School. We discussed the challenge of introducing progressive ideas into public schools.