Inquiry and Play.As they say in the song, “you can’t have one without the other.” When children are playing, they are always creating their own inquiry. It’s only when the adults step in and set up a “play agenda” that the opportunities for inquiry get squashed.
Watch these four-year olds in the school playground after a rain.Without a particular plan, they’re making discoveries as the repeatedly bounce their rubber balls in the puddles that formed in the schoolyard. Wow, how exciting! Every time the ball bounces into the puddle the water splashes and there’s almost a hole in the center of the puddle. What a marvelous discovery. They happily try it again and again. (Isn’t that what scientists do? Don’t tell them they’re being scientists. They’re just having fun!)
Stella is the fifteen month old grandchild of my friend Silvia. Silvia lovingly sends me videos of Silvia as she explores her world and I marvel at her persistence and her inventiveness.
Now comes our challenge as educators. How can we keep this sense of discover and exploration alive in our classroom without giving children a task or presenting them with a a “Choice Time agenda” for exploration?
Here’s a scene from a kindergarten class in a NYC public school. These boys have been playing in the block center for a few days. Consider the persistence and inquiry that they are exhibiting. Pay attention to the young, snack-munching observor on the side and listen to his words of wisdom.
He recently wrote a wonderful article that I would love to share with you. It’s a marvelous example of how a sensitive teacher can impact on his student and parent communitiy.
Here’s Andy’s article:
I walked back into my classroom after lunch. The room is dark, quiet, and the 8- hour loop of best baby lullaby on YouTube is playing to help lull children to sleep. “Mr. Andy,” A short shadow coming from the block center whispered. “CM is crying,” she tells me. “Thank you. I’ll see what’s bothering her. Go lay down,” I told her. However I already knew what was upsetting her. “CM? Are you okay?” “Mama…” she sniffled. “I know.” I embraced her and let her know that her mom will be back soon.
The little girl who told me about CM, overhearing our conversation, added, “Don’t worry, you’ll see mommy soon. Mommy will always come back.”
CM continuted to cry silently. She isn’t usually a sleeper but today she slept, most likely thinking about the next time she’ll see her mom.
Where I teach, it isn’t an uncommon thing for our children to go long periods of time without seeing their parents. I know this because I experienced this when I was their age. I grew up in the same neighborhood I teach. I strongly believe it gives me an advantage when it comes to understanding my families on a deeper level and developing rapport with them.
I never gave much thought to my own family situation when attending school and how it affected my school life. My parents would work seven days a week and over twelve hours each day. I would see them in the morning before leaving for school and dinner at night. At least I got to see my mom. CM gets dropped off and picked up by her dad most of the time. Her dad walks with a limp and one hand is noticeably weaker than the other. CM stated that she doesn’t like playing with her father because he’s slow. I felf sorry for her dad. He rarely smiles but when he does, it’s usually when his strong-headed daughter is speaking like an adult, scolding him and sometimes even myself. She’s one of those students who seems to be an adult trapped in a young child’s body. However, no matter how mature they are, every child wants their mommy.
Every once in a while, CM’s mom will drop her off and pick her up. One morning she had time to stick around for a bit after arrival. As the children played, she sat to play with her daughter who she rarely gets to see. She struck up a conversation with my paraprofessional and she told us she works in Washington, DC at a nail salon. When asked why DC when she could work closer to home and see her family, she revealed to us that it was her own business and there was less competition there than in New York. She needed the business to do well because she had to become the sole provider after her husband’s car accident that left him in his current state. It happened when CM was just a few months old and mom made the difficult decision to open a business to provide for her family far away from home. It broke my heart to find out the sacrifices CM’s mother made to provide her family food and shelter and to know that CM may never know the man her father was before the unfortunate accident. The mother comes back once a week to visit on her day off and the reason CM was overwhelmed with sadness was because her mother’s stay was over and the long wait for her to come back would begin again.
I want CM and all my other students who rarely get to see their parents to know that I understand what they are going through because I was them before and I am here for them now.
When they look at me, I want them to think, “I see me!”
As I have stated before, teaching in the same community I grew up in, I have a better understanding of what my families are going through and why they do things that may seem questionable to my colleagues.
I remember walking to school and home alone when I was in the second grade. During dismissal, I would tell my teachers that I was walking home with a friend and his parent. I would tag along for the walk until we reached a point where he had to turn and I had another block left. When I got home at around 3PM, I would boil some water in a pot and make myself instant ramen noodles. It would hold me over until my mom got home at around 8PM. In between that time, I would turn on PBS for Arthur, watch some Nickelodeon cartoons until 5, then switch to Cartoon Network for some Dragon Ball Z. Homework would get done within that time. When my mom came home, we’d have dinner and it would be time to go to sleep.
My mother worked long hours and every day of the week. There was no weekend for her because the week never ended. Her day would start at 7 AM and go until 8PM with hardly any real breaks in between. At this time, my father was in China and we were on our own.
The situation wasn’t ideal but it was the only thing my mom knew. I think back to this a lot since I started teaching in the community. I see the same hard working parents working jobs that are physically and mentally draining. Although the work may be different, the hours are still long and seeing their kids is scarce.
The first day of school is always so exciting. Meeting my new students and their families is always something I look forward to in September. Some parents we meet for the first time and do not see them until parent teacher conference because their work isn’t flexible enough to allow them to drop off or pick up their children. Some parents I never get to see because it’s just impossible for them to take off. In these situations the grandparents are caring for the children.
After the first parent teacher conference, we have either seen and met with one or both parents. For the conference, we always insist that the parents come to the meetins so they have an idea of what’s happening in their child’s class and the progress they are making. The grandparents are understanding and will relay messages back to the parents. This wasn’t the case for RG. RG’s aunt attended the meeting but the conversation wasn’t as impactuful as it would have been if his parents had come. We asked about mom and dad and it turned out that they lived in another state running a restaurant business. Business is always better out of state because there’s less competitition. It’s great for the family to earn a decent living, however something must be sacrificed. For RG and his two siblings, that meant seeing his mom and dad only once or twice a year if they’re lucky.
Memories of my childhood comes rushing back to me. My mom was never able to attend school events that happened during the day. No one came to my 6th grade graduation but I understood why. My mom would make time to come to conferences, however the language barrier would be an obstacle and having my brother or me translate was equally difficult as we were both losing our Wenzhou dialect and you can forget about any educational jargon that needed to be translated. It think about RG and how happy he is even though he doesn’t get to see his parents much. He makes the best of his situation because that’s all he knows. That’s the experience he grew up with.
RG’s situation was a stark contrast compared to one of my other students, CZ. CZ’s mom dropped her off and picked her up every day. CZ’s mom was super involved in her children’s academic life and would often bring her children to many of the free programs offered at the Queens Public Library. Love and care was displayed in different ways between both families. CZ would often take photos of her and post it somewhere. I had inquired about it and she revealed to me that she was sharing on WeChat, a social media platform that’s very popular in China and the Chinese community. I was semi familiar with the app since it’s the only way I could effectively communicate with my mother other than calling her.
I told CZ’s mom of my ignorance to the app and she gave me a quick tutorial. This would become the game changer I needed to help engage parents. No matter how much I tried to get parents to follow our class social medial accounts, only a fraction knew how to work them. With the help of CZ’s mom, we created our own class WeChat group. She invited parents she with close with and I invited the parents whose info I had. The group quickly grew and we had over 50% of our class parents represented.
I started to learn more about the platform. It became a great resource to engage parents in discussion about what we were doing in the classroom, asking for volunteers, and replenishing certain classroom supplies. Parents who I couldn’t communicate with before, I was now able to because of the translate feature for text messages. It dawned on me that perhaps we could finally get in contact with RG’s parents through WeChat. RG’s grandma gave me his aunt’s number to add to the group and, once aded, she added RG’s mom. As soon as we received each other’s contact, she messaged me instantly. All the conversations we would’ve had during the parent teacher conferences were now happening through the platform our parents were most familiar and comfortable with.
When the second parent teacher conferences were scheduled, I decided to reach ot to RG’s mom to see if she wanted to have a live video chat and have RG’s grandma there in person to receive the necessary documents. We were able to work it out and have a successful conference with a parent we would hae never been able to converse with. Today, we have over 80% of our families in our WeChat group and it’s been the highlight of this year as parents are more informed and know what’s happening in our classroom even if they aren’t able to come to school or live in another state.
I’ve had some recent requests for me to share my Choice Time planning templates so I decided to post them here on my blog.
This is one that I wrote after a school director requested a “Choice Time rubric.” I was actually rather appalled by the idea of creating a rubric to rate children and/or teachers in relationship to Choice Time. I’m more interested in teachers and children becoming more reflective about their play, explorations and discoveries.
However, after a lot of thought, this is what I did come up with:
If you are planning to add a new center to Choice Time, this template may help to structure your planning. When you’re planning a center, be sure to have unstructured materials so that it is the children who are imposing their ideas on what will be happening at the center. Think of your job as structuring the center for unstructured investigations.
You can also add to this any way that you might add materials to the center to enhance the inquiry work that you are doing in Social Studies, Science or Math.
This is a very easy way to observe children at centers, reflect on the observations and then, based on observations and reflections, plan instructional “next steps.” The only work during Choice Time is to spend a few minutes observing children at centers. Then put aside the observation sheet and return to it when you are not working with the children. Here’s a blank template and then one where the teacher made observations as children worked in the block center. What would you make of what was happening in the center? What might your next step be? Would you do a minilesson to address something that happened at the center? Add or take away materials?
Are any of these templates helpful? I would love to hear from you!
Where do I begin? What should I emphasize? I want to stress the importance of play in the life of the child and also in the life of the classroom. How can I best and concisely describe how play looks in a first grade and a kindergarten classroom? It is important to include that the book gives teachers concrete information on how to prepare an environment that entices children to explore, create and collaborate while they play and how, through playing in these centers, they also become more independent in using space and materials.
What does the room look and sound like when children are playing in the Dramatic Play Center, the Block Center, the “Science Lab,” the Art Studio? What might teachers observe happening in these centers? What is the role of the teacher before, during and after Choice Time?
There’s so much to include! I’m almost frozen because I don’t know where to begin and how to fit it all into three minutes.
I tried to record a video and it was more than seven minutes!
Oh no! This won’t do!
I asked my friend Laura Wagonlander to share with me some important ways that my book helped her create a vibrate Choice Time in her kindergarten classroom in Fenton, Michigan. Here’s some of her feedback: “I think my big “aha” moments were that Choice Tim empowers children to be learners and show their understanding of what they are learning in a context that is meaningful to them. It (the book) guides educators in how to set up the classroom environment so they can honor children’s interests and abilities while at the same time teaching them skills they can use to nudge their thinking deeper. …When we teach in isolation or we do an activity with an expected outcome, even if it’s “playful,” it isn’t the same as giving them true choice …If you can give kids enough time in choice, magic happens…It’s all like a beautiful dance.”
I wondered if I should start all over again, creating a new 3 minute video. Then, to the rescue came my grandson, Adrian Greensmith. Thank goodness for 17 year olds! In a few minutes he cut my seven minute video down into just a little over three minutes. This is what I’m sending to Beijing. I hope it does the trick! There is so much to say about Choice Time and how I hope my book helps to support teachers.
What would you have included in a three minute video about my book on Choice Time if you could?
I will be facilitating a day-long workshop at the “Come Learn with Us” conference at the JCC in Manhattan on August 28th.
Here is a description of the workshop:
Come Learn With: Renee Dinnerstein The Classroom Speaks: Transforming the Classroom into an Exciting Laboratory for Learning
In this workshop, we will discuss how to transform a classroom into a place where children build things, conduct experiments, create innovative projects, read fascinating books, write original stories, use technology and texts to research for information, and feel free to try out possibilities. We will think carefully about how to create a space where children grow big ideas, make new friends, and dig deeply into exciting investigations. We will see video clips of children in Choice Time centers and also powerpoints of child-directed inquiry projects.
The workshop will address:
*Arranging the furniture and materials to make the best use of classroom space
*Considering the different centers that children will use at the beginning of the school year
*Creating dedicated areas that will be permanent throughout the year, as well as how to make trade-offs when space is limited
*Looking at what materials will be necessary at the start of the school year and how this will change over the course of the year
*Creating a daily schedule that satisfies the demands of the administration yet doesn’t rush children through the day, like a train keeping to a timetable
*Suggestions for how kindergarten and first-grade children can use their Choice Time journals to reflect on what they did at Choice Time and what might have challenged them
*We will have opportunities to work on Choice Time planning templates and also work together on interpreting Choice Time observations and using these interpretations to plan next steps.
*There will be time for questions and answers.
My workshop will be capped at 25 participants.
Here is a link to register online. Otherwise you can call registration at 646-505-5708:
What happens when kindergarten children and second graders get together for Choice Time? Fun, fun, fun! Fanny Roman and Angela Valco have been collaborating on inquiry studies together and they decided to see what would happen when their children got together for Choice Time. They both had a lot of TRUST in their children and had given them many experiences to engage in INQUIRY, COLLABORATION and EXPLORATION so it’s not a surprise that this was a very successful interage Choice Time!
The Guinea Pig Center
The Science Center
Constructing tracks for the robot
Making Play Dough
Take a peek into the classroom to see the children building the tracks for the robot, working in the art center, playing games, and cleaning the guinea pig home.
And then reflecting in journals about the wonderful experience of sharing Choice Time
Would you like to learn more about Choice Time? My book, Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play might be a helpful guide.
My mantra to to early childhood educators has been to begin with the children. I’d like to share with you an example of how a teacher listened to his students and allowed their interests to lead the way to an inquiry investigation that naturally included math, science, literacy and higher order thinking.
How can the problem of a leaking sink lead to a fascinating prekindergarten investigation? Andy Yung, the prek teacher at P.S. 244 in Flushing, New York, with the support of his principal, Robert Groff, and assistant principal, Tu Harris, helped lead children into this investigation through their observations and their many wonderings.
The sink in the bathroom would not turn off and it bothered the children. Cayla announced that the sink is broken. Jonathan was worried that if the sink breaks there would be no water for the classroom and that there would be no sink. Anabel was more ecology-minded when she said, “The bathroom sink is wasting water!” Olivia seconded that thought, “The bathroom sink water keep(s) going…water (is) being wasted.”
Andy asked the children why it was important to save the water. Camilla said that we need it to wash our hands. Jonathan added, “We use to drink water. There’s water in the toilet.” Harsh was thinking beyond the classroom. “Sharks need water to live.” That made William add that all animals need water and Camilla joined in again by noting that “trees need water to grow.”
Brandon noted that the class Walking Sticks insects needed water to live.
Harsh observed that Tails, the leopard gecko, had a water dish in her tank.Raina noticed that the class fish lives in water and and Jonathan said the the plant-helper waters the plant every day.
When Andy began writing down what children knew about water, he realized that this was a perfect entree into a long-term investigation, the Water Project.There was a water table that hadn’t yet been opened and Andy decided that this would be an appropriate first step in the investigation. He brought it to the class meeting area, introduced it to the children, and asked them for suggestions on how to take care of the water table section. After many children contributed their ideas, William put them all together into three important water table rules:
Keep your body dry.
Do not throw water.
Do not splash water.
Andy brought out cups, funnels, pipes and buckets and the center was open for play and investigation.OnOOO
One day, Raina’s mother visited to show the class a video of Raina doing her chores at home. The children decided that they should have the chore of washing dishes too, so the water table became a place to wash the dishes from their Pretend center.
Andy is almost a poster boy for donorschoose.org, a wonderful site that encourages teachers to write small, classroom grant proposals and share these with the public so that people can make contributions to help get materials into classrooms. What fun it is to see water squeezed out as a spinner is turned around and around.
He also purchased a hand-powered washing machine!
A class trip to the laundromat it being planned.
Back to the water table, bubbles were introduced. For some children it was easy to blow a bubble, but for others it was a bit more difficult. But how exciting it was to finally figure it out and to shout, “I did it!.”
Bubbles were fun to blow outdoors too.
Here’s some other ways of exploring water that has been taking place. Color mixing Colored ice Pouring water Making paper by hand and with a blender
Water Music Building bridges over water
Then the bridges moved indoors into the block center.Andy read many books to the children and some of them inspired more inquiry into what happens when water mixes with other materials, when it freezes and when it evaporates. A lot of new vocabulary was incorporated into daily discussions.The children conducted water experiments.
They used drawings to record the steps in their experiments.
The plumber came to fix the sink and this provoked a new interest in tools. Will this lead to a take-apart center? I’m sure that Andy, an observant and sensitive teacher, will follow the lead of his children!
“The most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between, and they took great pleasure in doing just that.”
Norton Juster, The Phantom Toll Booth
Journeys have recently been on my mind. Perhaps it’s the onset of winter that is provoking my journey daydreams. More likely, though, it’s the observations that I’ve been making on days when I’m consulting at P.S. 244 in Flushing, New York. The fascinating journey that Angela Valco has been taking, along with her class of mostly English Language Learner second graders, is what I’d like to share here. Since last month, they have embarked on a very unexpected and child-initiated exploration, prompted by their interest in computers and robots.
Following an inquiry approach to Social Studies is a new mode of teaching for Angela. She first tried it out last year by exploring the NYC subway system and also picking up on the class’s fascination with two guinea pigs, their new class pets. Angela wrote the following to me, “ Inquiry work in the classroom has shifted my teaching approach, classroom culture and understanding of how children learn. …Being open and taking the time to listen to my students’ questions, ideas and wondering is the key to a successful inquiry. I enjoy being a part of the process of listening to my students share their curiosity and then working side by side with them in the inquiry process….My classroom has become a learning laboratory with the space and tools for my students to develop ideas and wonderings.”
To be sure, this has not been an easy switch in teaching style for Angela. Like many teachers, she previously followed a more teacher-directed thematic study approach. However, after seeing the success and excitement generated by various inquiry projects in the kindergarten classes, she decided to follow the direction taken by the kindergarten teachers and move towards experimenting with instruction that is less predictable and scripted. She also added Choice Time into her schedule. In an email to me, Angela wrote, “I am constantly stepping out of my comfort zone to make learning more engaging and to give more ownership to the kids. …Choice time and inquiry is a time where I see learning come alive! I watch and observe my kids in a way that makes me understand them more. It’s my favorite time. It’s worth all the extra time and all the uncomfortable risks.”
Let’s consider some aspects of going on personal journey, one that we might look forward to during our vacation from work. Of course we first must get the idea for the trip. What is it that sparks our interest in visiting a city or going on a climbing expedition? A trip might be inspired by discussions with friends who have taken this journey, an article in the newspaper or even a movie that we’ve seen. After making the decision to take this trip, we do some initial planning. Perhaps we consider what we already know about the place we want to visit. We might contact friends who have already been there to get additional ideas from them. We could jot down some ideas about what we might want to see on the trip and get new information by using a Google search. Then we plan our itinerary, book a flight and reserve hotel rooms. We’re ready for new experiences and discoveries! There are some places we know that we MUST visit but we also realize that we can get “off track” when something really interesting comes up. By keeping a diary we can keep track of our thoughts along the way and reflect on our experiences when we return home. After the trip, we might invite friends or family over so that we can share our photos and talk about our marvelous journey.
Angela and her class went on a journey – one of discovery and learning. This class journey followed very much the same trajectory as a trip that you or I might take on our vacation. It first began when Angela listened to her children as they worked and played and recorded her observations. At class meetings she brought to the children’s attention some of what she heard from them and this information provoked a class discussion focused on their interests. Since the major interest was on robots, together, they created a thinking map, showing what they already knew about robots and what they wanted to find out.
Angela began planning by thinking about questions children might have, materials she might need, possible trips, etc.
Then she began brainstorming with the children to see what they already knew.
The children also helped to plan for Choice Time by sharing their suggestions for different centers.
Just as our trip wanderings sometimes stay on track and other times take detours in unexpected directions, some Choice Time experiences connect to the robot investigation and others give children opportunities for exploring a variety of interests such as a sewing center and a Build-a Story center where children built a story with Legos, wrote about their story and shared it with the class.
He is building a story and writing about it. Angela noticed that this was a wonderful center for her English Language Learners.
Wondering about what allows the keyboard to work.
Checking it out by looking inside the keyboard.
Analyzing the Robot
Using an IPad to get directions for constructing a robot. Building a tentSharing is an important part of project work.
A few weeks into the robot study, I encouraged Angela to ask the children if they could think of ways to use classroom resources to further their robot investigations and also to demonstrate what they already know. This will be a class discussion when the children return from the holiday break.
Similar to our trip diaries, the children write in their reflection journals after each Choice Time. Some children share journals each day, inviting their classmates to ask questions and make comments.
One day I visited the class during their meeting and I asked them if they thought that a robot would someday take the place of the classroom teacher. Angela told me that this idea opened up a “can of worms” and an intense discussion on this topic lasted for a few days. Perhaps this thought put the children a bit out of their comfort zone!
If I created a robot, it might…
…clean a car.
This is still a study in progress. Where will it go? How much longer will it continue? Will it lead to another study, one of computers and coding? The answer is still to be discovered and I’ll most certainly share the progress of the journey that these second graders and their teacher are taking in a future blog post. Isn’t it refreshing to know that the direction of the study isn’t all worked out and that it is the power of the children’s interests and questions that will lead the way?
“It’s good to have an end to journey toward: but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness
What has been happening to kindergarten, all over the oountry, is an absolute travesty. I’ve complained about this often, on this blog, on Facebook, and in presentations to teachers and administrators.
I recently watched this video produced by Defending the Early Years. I can’t say anything better than Jim St. Clair says it here. Listen, ponder, share, rage and, hopefully, think of how we can do something to return Kindergarten to the joyful place that it once was.
Five years ago, Dana Roth a marvelous kindergarten teacher at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn, came to my home to work on writing a chapter for Teaching Kindergarten: Learning-Centered Classrooms for the 21st Century with me. When we took a break in our writing, Dana asked me for some advice. The children in her class were particularly interested in airports and airplanes. She wanted to begin an inquiry project with them but she knew that it would, because of security rules, be impossible to make a class trip to the airport. Should she just see if there was something else that interested the children? I suggested that we put our heads together and create an anticipatory web. That might give her some direction to see if an airport/airplane investigation would make sense. This is what we came up with:
Dana thought that she would do some preliminary exploring with her children. She started by inviting children to draw pictures of what they knew about airports and airplanes.
The next day, instead of their regular “signing in,” Dana proposed a question to determine their past knowledge. We always build upon what children already know (schema theory) rather than introducing an exotic, unfamiliar exploration.
The children shared what they already knew about airports.
Then they went of, drew blueprints of how they thought an airport would look, based on their past experiences and they began building.
It took a lot of tape to hold up the tower and a lot of concentration to create the sign for it.
At class meeting, the children shared their “wonderings” and considered how and where they could find answers to their questions.
During Choice Time children children researched different airplanes and airlines, created airplanes in the art center and continued building.The class took a trip to the Saker Aviation Heliport but first they made a list of questions. Back in class…
It seemed to be the time to culminate the investigation.
SKIP AHEAD TO AUGUST, 2018. I WAS INVITED TO VISIT THE DALTON SCHOOL OF HONG KONG AND WORK WITH LARRY LEAVEN, NANCY DU, SHAuN PORTER, MATTHEW WHITE AND THE WONDERFUL TEACHING STAFF ON DEVELOPING INQUIRY-BASED CHOICE TIME AND CLASS INQUIRY PROJECTS.
Larry Leaven, Shaun Porter.
I shared Dana’s Aviation Study with the staff from Datlton School and with teachers and administrators from two other Hong Kong school. First I projected the PowerPoint and we discussed different aspects of the study. Larry posted a photo of each page of the study on a wall adjacent to the presentation as a long time line or frieze. We invited the teachers to look at the study again along with copies of their teaching standards. When they saw an instance of a particular standard being addressed, they were asked to write a note on a post-it and stick it on the picture.
The discussion after this activity was lively, intense and illuminating. The gist of the discourse was that we DON’T begin with the standards when planning a long-term investigation. If we listen to children, value their knowledge and encourage questioning and investigating in many different modalities, then the standards will ultimately be covered, but in a more exciting and meaningful way than if we prepare a study that is pre-planned based on the teaching standards.
At the entrance to the Hong Kong Dalton School, there’s a plaque with the quote, “I’m not led. I lead.” That’s the important mantra to remember.