Empathy, Dialogue and Trust: Talking About School Shootings With Our Students

Doug Hecklinger and Renee Dinnerstein in conversation

In the 1950’s, when I attended public school, it was a short time after WWII. The United States was in the midst of the Cold War with the USSR. I remember periodic shelter drills, when we would scrunch under our desks, pretending that we were being bombed. These shelter drills seemed to me like  strange and scary play activites.




When I began teaching in 1968 we had similar drills. Teachers took the children into the hallway, warned them to be silent, and instructed them to sit on the floor. As a new teacher, I was annoyed by the waste of time and for the possibility of frightening children. 




Now, in 2022, there’s an unfortunate and harsh reality to shelter drills. They are truly necessary and more tied to reality than they ever should be. However, it’s no longer a bomb that threatens school children. It is a threat from within our own society. It is the reality of someone entering a school building carrying rifles and assault weapons. 

How does this threat affect teachers, children and families?

Today I spoke with Doug Hecklinger, a dedicated and thoughtful fourth grade teacher at P.S. 295, a New York City public school. He had some very important suggestions for teachers and families.

I hope that you will share your ideas with our community by commenting on the blog. This is a serious conversation that truly and sadly cannot be avoided.

The Choice Time Room

Play is the engine that drives learning and that opens so many joyful opportunities for young children and for older children . However, for now, let’s think about children in prekindergarten, kindergarten, first and second grade. That’s what we are thinking about at the Golden Hill Elementary School in Florida, New York.

First, we can consider some of the many benefits of play that were outlined in a 2012 National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) position paper along with some classroom examples.

Play helps develop self-regulation. Children take turns playing different roles at different times. One child wants to be the doctor now, but he has to wait his turn.

Play promotes the development of language. Drawing from their experiences, the children support each other in using the particular vocabulary of the doctor’s office such as fever, medicine, X-ray and medicine.

Play promotes cognition. All the children must think their way through the play in very intentional ways. I am in a doctor’s office. What should I do next?

Play promotes social competence. As children execute a play experience together, each of them is empowered by the role she or he plays in its success.

Play gives children opportunities to explore the world. In dramatic play particularly, children bring the world into their play, where they can explore it safely. Today it’s a doctor’s office, next week it might be a camping expedition or a fire station.

Play provides opportunities for children to interact. It’s difficult to play doctor’s office alone so children must interact and co-construct all the meaning and decision-making.

Play provides opportunities for children to express and control their emotions. All sorts of emotional issues can arise in play: fairness, inclusion and exclusion, a lack of understanding, varied expectations, success and failure.

Play helps children develop their symbolic and problem-solving abilities. Two chairs placed side by side make an examination table. But wait—it’s not long enough for the patient to lie down on. Let’s get more chairs!

Play gives children opportunities to practice emerging skills. The doctor writes a prescription, carefully sounding out the words, “Pills for a cold.”

Yes! Play is the engine that drives learning.

Now to return to Golden Hill Elementary School, one of three schools that are part of the Florida Union Free School District in Orange County New York. Larry Leaven is the visionary new superintendent of schools and he is determined to help the three schools soar to greater levels. I had the pleasure of working with Larry when he was the director of the Hong Kong Dalton School and when he returned to the U.S. and began working in upstate New York, he invited me to do consulting work with the early childhood grades. I was to introduce and support kindergarten, first and second grade in integrating an inquiry-based Choice Time and whole class inquiry studies into the curriculum. Unfortunately, this coincided with the Covid pandemic. 

Classrooms had to be rearranged, with children sitting three feet apart. There was no room for blocks, art centers or dramatic play. It was a dismal situation. After a few months of visits, I also decided that it was safest for me to work with the teachers virtually. However, before I made this decision, I got the go-ahead to create a model Choice Time room. Teachers would be able to observe children working in centers. They would learn how to set up centers and the thinking behind why particular materials were and were not included in centers. 

Linda Shute, a marvelous, friendly and inquisitive early childhood teacher, was assigned to work with me. Truly, she ended up doing all of the major organizing of the various centers since I could only work with her remotely.

We were given a budget for ordering materials and we had the use of an unused classroom. The room looked rather bleak to begin with, but we had a vision!

We began to plan for the various centers: Blocks, Dramatic Play (with hollow wooden blocks for children to create their own play enviornments), Science (Hermit crabs are on order), Take-Apart, Writing, Sand/mud, Legos, Art, Painting Easel, Math Explorations, Cozy Reading Nook, Light Table, and more will come as we discover the interests of the children.

Carpets arrived. Alas, carpets were returned after it was discovered that they didn’t meet the fire code. New, solid-colored carpets (the DO meet the fire code) are on order. 

We’re getting ready for children!


Linda began taking photo portraits of all of the children who would use the room, prekindergarten through second grade, and in the art room the children drew their self-portraits. These will form a frieze around the room, so all can see who this room belongs to.









Furniture began to arrive!

Children began to arrive!  Children began to play!


Chilcren are beginning to experience the joy and fulfillment of collaboration in the block center as they work together to construct a mansion!

Last week, when I met with second grade teachers to help them plan their “Egg to Chick” inquiry project, they began talking about how excited their children were when they went to the Choice Time room . The teachers pointed out the interesting ways the centers were set up. I talked with them about how they could set up their classrooms as though they are laboratories for exploration and learning. I expected some opposition to the idea but instead the teachers asked….”Do you think we can get blocks for our classrooms?”

Change is never easy. However, the teachers are interested and willing to explore new ideas.

I think that, as the song says, ” the times they are a changing” in Florida, New York! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Golden Hill Elementary School could be a model for how teachers can be catalysts for bringing play and exploration into many more elementary school classrooms?

You can read more about Choice Time in my book, “Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play (Heinemann)

Where Did The Garden Go? : A Conversation with Fretta Reitzes and Betsy Grob

In what seems to be some unfortunate form of memory loss, the origin of the word “kindergarten” is often forgotten. It originates from two German words,” kinder”, meaning children, and “garten” meaning garden. In Germany in 1840, the educator, Friedrich Froebel opened the first kindergarten, The Garden of Children. Fast forward to the year 2022 and we should wonder, as do Fretta Reitzes and Betsy Grob, the originators of the Bank Street Kindergarten Conference,  “Where did the garden go?”

If you are in any way involved with the education of young children, either as a teacher, administrator, parent or caregiver, it’s obvious that this is a question that needs addressing. And so,  we have this marvelous, timely conference where early childhood educators get together (virtually, this year) to celebrate four and five year olds and to share ideas of how to educate them for the twenty-first century while recognizing and celebrating the importance of prioritizing play, exploration, investigation, curiosity, music, art and movement in their young, inquisitive lives. 

This year’s conference is titled Rediscovering the Joy and Purpose of Kindergarten.  Takiema Bunche-Smith will give a Friday evening keynote “Reclaiming and Elevating the Joy, Purpose, and Power of Kindergarten.”   Maria Richa will facilitate a whole group community-building experience, “Rediscovering the Power of Art, Lines, Shapes, and Joy.” On Saturday Dr. Lesley Kaplow‘s keynote is titled, “Big Masks, Little Masks: Finding Each Other in the Kindergarten Classroom.”   Saturday, after lunch, I will be interviewed by Jackie Allen, former principal of P.S. 261 in Brooklyn, NY. We’ll discuss my more than fifty years as an educator, a very long and winding journey.

There will be many workshops on Saturday, before and after lunchtime. The entire conference will be recorded so this will allow educators from as far away as Australia, China, England, and Sweden to join us!  I hope that you and your colleagues will consider attending and that you will share all of this information with other teachers, friends, administrators and families who might be interested.

Save Friday, April 8 from 5:30 PM – 8:30 PM ET and Saturday, April 9 from 10:30  AM – 3:30 PM ET for the Teaching Kindergarten Conference. Register and let’s bring the garden back into kindergarten! 

It’s Not About The Destination, It’s About the Journey: A Conversation with Lindsay Persohn on Classroom Caffeine

On August 4th, I had the pleasure of discussing Choice, Play and Inquiry with Lindsay Persohn for her wonderful podcast Classroom Caffeine. We talked about my journey as a teacher and the people who informed my thinking. Our discussion moved to the importance of engagement and a description of an engaged class. This led us to the incredible trip to the schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy that Matt Glover, Kathy Collins and I organized for 68 educators, where we focused on what it looks like when there is an expanded view of literacy.

It was a totally enjoyable conversation.  It will be broadcast on the Lindsay’s podcast,  Classroom Caffeine,  on November 9th. I’m pleased to share it with you on my blog now. I hope you enjoy it!


Story Workshop: A Conversation with Susan Harris MacKay and Matt Karlsen


On September 28, 2021 I had the pleasure of chatting, via Zoom, with Susan Harris MacKay and Matt Karlsen. Susan’s recently published book, Story Workshop: New Possibilities for Young Writers, is an exciting approach to writing that makes important connections highlighting the important connections between children’s play and the stories that they all bring with them to the classroom. 

Susan, Matt and I are both doing work with the dynamic Larry Leaven, newly appointed superintendent of schools in Florida, New York and the teachers at the Golden Hill School. All working together we will help teachers bring exciting innovations to school during this challenging time. 

I hope you can listen in to our conversation!




On August 5, 2021 an article appeared on the front page of the New York Daily News describing the removal and destruction of a student mural that was recently hung in the P. S. 295 school cafeteria. Doug Hecklinger was the teacher of four of the six fifth-graders who created the artwork and he was, needless to say, quite upset to hear of the action taken by the school administration.

In our conversation, Doug talks about all of the work that the school faculty, along with the students and their families, put into embracing a culture of diversity and social equity. He gives us a very clear picture of the school community and the mission goal of acceptance that was very unexpectedly squashed when the students’ work was destroyed. He also talks about his hope for the important, healing that needs to now take place.

How Long Do Spiders Sleep? – A conversation with Richard Lewis and Kristin Eno

In previous blog post, Julie Cavanagh, principal of P.S. 15 in Brooklyn, said that children have made their hopes for returning to school very clear. She said that they are craving “play, play, play.” They need to play so that they can socially and emotionally heal from the isolation and fears of the past 15 pandemic months.

In this conversation, Richard Lewis and Kristin Eno make a second visit with me to talk about how observing our students at play allows us to pose questions that will build on their natural curiosity and take children on a journey of exploration, conversation, questioning and magical thinking. Richard and Kristin’s ideas will be so helpful for teachers and parents in creating a return to school this fall that will be filled with gentle joy and healing for children and for teachers.


Working Against the Odds: Four New York City principals discuss the challenges of this past year and their dreams for the future

On Thursday, June 3, I met, on zoom, with  four New York City elementary school principals so that they could reflect on their challenges these past 15 months and on their hopes for the year ahead.

Bob Groff is principal of  P.S. 244 in Flushing,Queens. Dana Rappaport is principal at  P.S. 234 in Tribeca, Manhattan. Gabriel Feldberg is principal of the progressive public school that was started by Deborah Meier in the 1970’s, Central Park East One, in Harlem, Manhattan and Julie Cavanagh became principal, during the pandemic, of  P.S  15 in  Red Hook, Brooklyn.

I initially presented to the four of them a list of challenges school leaders might have faced. It turns out that I only touched the tip of the iceberg!

Thank goodness we have these dedicated men and women to navigate the schools and care for the children, teachers and families who have, in all different manners, been traumatized living through this pandemic.


“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts” (Shakespeare)

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood. (Mr. Rogers)

On Sunday, May 16th, I had the pleasure of chatting with my grandson, Adrian Greensmith, and three of his classmates. They are all studying acting and devised theater at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. We talked about play, what it means in their acting classes and what it was like growing up in four different countries – Russia, (Ksenia Elinson) Peru (Sebastian Alonso), Turkey (Omer Cem Coltu) and the U.S. ( Adrian Greensmith)

Their thoughts were fascinating – play as preparation for life, training the muscles of the imagination, thinking out of the box, never losing the child inside, being in the moment all the time….the thoughts poured out of them and I had the feeling that we could have continued this conversation much longer. One thought that Ksenia shared was that at the core of playing is doing things together. It made me think about all that children lost this year when they did not have the opportunity to take  part in play with their friends and classmates.

Our conversation spoke to some interesting quotes that I shared during our zoom talk:

“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” Ralph Waldo Emmerson

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.” Carl Jung

“In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play.” Friedrich Nietzsche

“If you want to be creative, stay in part a child, with the creativity and invention that characterizes children before they are deformed by adult society.” Jean Piaget





An Unexpected Baby Study: Children are NOT Colorblind


When Fanny Roman, a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 244 Queens, became visibly pregnant, the children were curious and began asking questions and making observations. Their curiosity provoked a class inquiry project, The Baby Study. The project was going smoothly until multiracial baby dolls were introduced.  Each child chose a baby doll , concealed in a gift bag, to be their own, and an unexpected reaction to the dolls changed the focus of the study.

It all began at the start of the school year. On the fourth day of school, when the class met on the rug for their morning meeting, Isaiah asked, ” Ms. Roman, do you have a baby in your belly?”

Because we value children’s curiosity, Isaiah’s question became the topic for the closing circle that afternoon

Fanny began by asking,“What do you know about babies?” Some responses were:

  • Babies cry (Sharon)
  • They’re cute (Abigail)
  • They can’t walk (Hayden)
  • I have a baby (Laura)
  • They drink milk (Kaitlin)
  • Babies poop (Kayla)
  • Babies drink from a bottle (Sebastian)


The classroom environment became more focused on babies. A word wall began to grow.

  • infant
  • Umbilical cord
  • bottle
  • crib
  • cradle
  • diapers
  • baby food
  • pacifier
  • sonogram

The room was filled with books about babies. Some books were for read aloud. Some were for “research” and browsing in the various centers.












The children loved reading and re-reading  this big, shared reading book when they were gathered on the rug. During Choice Time, some children chose to make diapers, cradles and carriages.


We always accept children’s approximations. When we do this, it encourages children to not worry about being “perfect” and to take risks.

Fanny projected her sonogram on the SmartBoard.

Viewing the sonogram provoked many questions. Some of their wonderings were…

  • Why was the baby crying?
  • What else was inside besides the baby?
  • How was the baby coming out?

Elias decided to show up two weeks early!

 Linda, the student teacher, took over.








Linda noticed the children’s interest in what babies could eat so she brought in different jars of baby food for children to taste.





The children recorded their questions about baby food.

The children prepared their own baby food.

They used an IPad to research the steps for making their own baby food.





Fanny was going to bring Elias into school the next day and Linda helped the children prepare to meet Elias for the first time.

Fanny came to school with Elias, showed the children how she changed the baby’s diaper, fed him and answered many of their questions.

Then I thought of Lesley Koplow’s book, “Bears, Bears, Everywhere.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could purchase a baby doll for each child to nurture and keep forever? If we had the money, we could buy a class set of multiracial dolls. Robert Groff, the principal, loved the idea and he somehow found the funds to order the dolls. Fanny prepared the children by continuing to read about diverse families and also about adoption. We waited for the dolls to arrive!


When I visitited the Early Childhood schools in Reggio Emilia, the philosophy of teaching with a road map rather than a train schedule was emphasized. We had our road map for our study, but suddenly we were taken on an unexpected, but very important detour. Fanny had to listen carefully to her children and provide an outlet for them to express themselves, but she also had to gently show them the possibility of another path.

Watch and listen closely to what children are doing and saying when they are presented with their baby dolls.

Why won’t she touch her brown-skinned doll?

She wouldn’t touch her doll when the children were taking them out of their bags. Here is her journal reflection after a class discussion.

Fanny consulted with Steve Quester, the school’s consultant from the Center for Racial Justice in Education. He advised  Fanny to  continue her open forum for risk-free class discussions He suggested that she model how the children could nurture their babies such as by rocking them in their arms and singing to them. Steve, Fanny and I believed that the children needed  many opportunities to play with their baby dolls during choice time. They also took their dolls home for weekends and holidays. Fanny spoke openly with parents about the study and the way that the baby dolls created a turn in the direction of the project. She encouraged parents to keep up a communication with her and to let her know how children were talking about their “babies” at home.

Here’s a short transcript from a class discussion:

Fanny: How are you feeling about the babies?

Milo: I’m excited.

Fanny: Tell us why.

Milo: Because I have a baby.

Jenny: I am feeling happy and excited.

Fanny: Say more?  Why? 

Jenny:  Because I have a baby.  Because I like it.  Because it matches my skin color.

Donna : mine too.

Fanny: Say more.

Donna: The baby is so cute.  I like it.  I’ll keep it.  I don’t know how to make a dress, but I can make a paper dress.

Fanny: That sounds like a great idea.  Ok!  Lou?

Lou:  I’m too excited and too happy.  The baby.  I like the baby is because the skin is just like my skin. Mine is white and this is white.  And also, it looks cute.

Fanny: Can I add, I hear that some of you are talking and noticing  the skin color.

Lou: And also because I was really close to see the baby outside of the blue cover and I saw some are only blue and some are not.  I decided that the blue ones are white skin and some babies on the top have some black.  I decided the black one is black skin.  

Fanny: Ok so we will come back to that in one second.  We are going to give everyone who wants to share a chance.

Ming:  I am so happy because I don’t have a baby brother.

Fanny: That’s so sweet!  Thank you for sharing. Leb?

Leb:  And the paper, I saw over it and I saw blue.  And I got this one because it’s the same skin as me.

Fanny:  That was a surprise…you all chose your babies and you didn’t know what it looked like.

Leb:  But I just saw over the paper.

Lou: But I saw the color.  I looked over the color. 

Fanny: Oh so you could notice?

Lou:  It just had a little black and I didn’t choose it.

Fanny:  I’m hearing some feelings about how the babies look and the babies looking like you.  Before, we talked about families and how families look. (Goes back to previous discussion before getting the babies)

Fanny and I also read and discussed this article with each other as we continued planning for the study. https://inclusions.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Children-are-Not-Colorblind.pdf

During Choice Time, children made clothes for their babies.

They decided on the gender of their baby.

Each day two children get to share their baby with the class.

Be kind to babies!

The class had a discussion about baby sitting and daycare after Fanny noticed that some children were randomly leaving baby dolls around the room. The children took this quite seriously!In June, Elias came to school to visit the babies. Where will this study lead the school? Mr. Groff realizes the important issues that were revealed when the multiracial dolls were introduced and he doesn’t want to back off from them. The school continues to work with Steve Quester. Also, this year the baby study will be reintroduced to a new class of kindergarten children and each child will get a baby to “adopt.” It will be interesting to see where this leads. As an aside, the year following the study, Charlene Rivera Cruse, a first grade teacher, told the children from Fanny’s kindergarten class that they could bring their baby dolls to school with them. One boy did not bring his doll. He said that his grandmother threw it away because boys do not play with dolls.

There are so many issues to acknowledge and I feel proud of the teachers at P.S. 244 and the principal, Bob Groff, for embracing this important challenge.