P.S. 142 is a high poverty school so close to the Williamsburg Bridge that during recess children can hear the cars above them driving to Brooklyn. Almost all of the 436 students qualify for free lunches.
On the first day of school, when they walk into Frances Sachdev’s kindergarten class in Room 117, most are already behind. By age 4, the average child in an upper-middle-class family has heard 35 million more words than a poor child. Studies have shown that while about two-thirds of kindergartners from the wealthiest 20 percent of households are read to at home every day, about a third of children from the poorest 20 percent are.
Experiences that are routine in middle-class homes are not for P.S. 142 children. When Dao Krings, a second-grade teacher, asked her students recently how many had never been inside a car, several, including Tyler Rodriguez, raised their hands. “I’ve been inside a bus,” Tyler said.
“Does that count?”
When a new shipment of books arrives, Rhonda Levy, the principal, frets. Reading with comprehension assumes a shared prior knowledge, and cars are not the only gap at P.S. 142. Many of the children have never been to a zoo or to New Jersey. Some think the emergency room of New York Downtown Hospital is the doctor’s office.
The solution of the education establishment is to push young children to decode and read sooner, but Ms. Levy is taking a different tack. Working with Renée Dinnerstein, an early childhood specialist, she has made real life experiences the center of academic lessons, in hopes of improving reading and math skills by broadening children’s frames of reference.
The goal is to make learning more fun for younger children.
Earlier this year, Ms. Krings’s second grade visited an auto repair shop where, for the first time, Tyler sat in a car. “I sat in the front seat and then I sat in the back seat,” he said. It made him feel like the star in one of their library books, “Honda, the Boy Who Dreamed of Cars.”
While many schools have removed stations for play from kindergarten, Ms. Levy has added them in first and second grades. One corner of Ms. Krings’s room is for building blocks, another for construction paper projects. There are days when the second grade smells like Elmer’s glue.
Several times a month they take what are known as field trips to the sidewalk. In early February the second graders went around the block to study Muni-Meters and parking signs. They learned new vocabulary words, like “parking,” “violations” and “bureau.” JenLee Zhong calculated that if Ms. Krings put 50 cents in the Muni-Meter and could park for 10 minutes, for 40 minutes she would have to put in $2. They discovered that a sign that says “No Standing Any Time” is not intended for kids like them on the sidewalk.
(They were not ready yet to decode alternate-side-of-the-street parking signs; that’s more appropriate for students with doctorates in hieroglyphics.)
One day last week Ariana Flores said: “We’re going to see a municipal parking garage today. We’re getting a good education.”
When reading, children are taught to make predictions of what is to come in a book, based on a variety of evidence — the cover, chapter headings, foreshadowing. Ms. Krings’s students used their field trip booklets to do the same before their visit to the Delancey and Essex Municipal Parking Garage.
Several predicted that drivers would have to pay to get in.
To be out of school on a sunny winter’s day and walking to a municipal parking garage — it doesn’t get any better than that. Kammi Poom skipped the whole way. Alan Zhao thought it was hilarious to walk like Frankenstein. Evan Nuñez, the smallest, hurried so he could be up front with Ms. Krings.
“There it is,” shouted Julissa Jirmnson. All of them had passed a municipal parking garage before, but few had been inside one. They walked up a ramp, past a blue handicapped zone, orange cones and a red Big Apple sign, then watched the cars coming in. They could see the drivers press a green button and take a ticket, but they didn’t see anyone paying money as they had expected.
In such situations, Ms. Krings recommends consulting an expert, so they asked the man standing in the front booth, whose name was David.
David stepped out, they crowded around, and he said, “They don’t pay to get in, they pay to get out.”
“I knew it,” said Ariana.
“I knew it, too,” said Kammi.
After that, well — there’s too much to tell it all. On the way back they stopped to copy down words from interesting signs. Ariana wrote, “Sprinkler Control Valve Located in Basement.” Jairo Fermin wrote, “Thru Trucks Use Houston Street.”
“I want a decibel level of zero,” Ms. Krings said as they walked back into the school.
For the next hour they did field trip follow-up. Ms. Krings gave them Muni-Meter math problems. At the block station the boys kept building racing tracks and knocking them over while Yudy He Wu made a municipal parking garage and lined the top with Matchbox cars. They never stopped chattering to one another, which Ms. Krings said was good. “They’re working together to resolve problems and developing their verbal skills,” she said.
When Ms. Dinnerstein first came to the school, staff members ran for cover. One of the miseries of being a teacher is that every year, someone shows up from Tweed Courthouse headquarters with a new plan to raise test scores.
But after four years of academic lessons built around sidewalk trips to the Essex Street Market, the subway, several bridges and a hospital emergency room, Ms. Krings is moved by how much learning goes on.
Daniel Feigelson heads the network of 30 schools that P.S. 142 belongs to. He said that he wished more principals would adopt the program but that they were fearful. “There is so much pressure systematically to do well on the tests, and this may not boost scores right away,” he said. “To do this you’d have to be willing to take the long view.”
I was recently asked by the P.S. 142 support network to write something about the inquiry work being done in the early childhood classes of their school. I thought that I would share this with you. Writing it down really did help clarify the work for me! I encourage your questions and thoughts on this topic!
The inquiry project work that I have been doing at P.S. 142 is grounded in the research and practice of Lilian Katz, (former president of NAEYC and founder of the ERIC research center) and also in the work done in the early childhood schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy.
The Project Approach, an outgrowth of Ms. Katz’s work at the University of Illinois, is based on the following beliefs:
∗ All children come to school with the desire to understand their life experiences
∗ All children want to learn
∗ There is a strong interconnection between the life of the school and the real life outside of school, they are not separate spheres
∗ Although students construct their own knowledge, they need the expertise of teachers to facilitate and guide this process of construction
∗ Students have diverse strengths, weaknesses, interests and backgrounds
∗ It is a great advantage to capitalize on these differences to help children learn from one another
∗ Students learn best when they have a positive self esteem and a sense of purpose
∗ Children learn through a mixture of first-hand observation, hands-on experience, systematic instruction and time for personal reflection
∗ Social and emotional skills are equally as important as academic skills and knowledge for student success and classrooms need to be flexible learning spaces that support and adapt to student needs.
Complementing this, the schools in Reggio Emilia (which I have visited twice and where I will be returning to in October, 2012 with a group of literacy leaders such as Ellin Keene, Matt Glover, Kathy Collins and Katy Wood Ray) are founded on the following key features:
∗ The environment of the classroom is important enough to be considered a second teacher and must be organized with this thinking in mind
∗ Children have a multitude of symbolic languages (consistent with Howard Gardener’s writing on multiple intelligences); documentation in many forms helps to drive the curriculum; children can engage in long-term and short term in-depth investigations that incorporate responding, recording, playing, exploring, and hypothesis building and testing
∗ The teacher is a researcher who carefully listens, observes and documents children’s work and the growth of community in the classroom and who is expected to provoke and stimulate thinking
∗ There should be a strong home-school relationship where children, teachers, parents, caregivers and the community are interactive and work together.
In my work at P.S. 142, I have been encouraging the teachers to look and listen carefully to the children throughout the day. When we begin planning for our inquiry projects, the teachers and I first take a walk around the community, thinking carefully about what children see and experience in the world outside of school. We also discuss what inquiry project experiences children have had in the previous grades and how a new project will allow children to build on their new schema. Therefore, children who have had the experience of in depth investigations of the Williamsburg Bridge and then the subway system can logically move on to an inquiry project that focuses on cars and car travel.
Before beginning the project with the children, the teachers map out what we call an Anticipatory Web. This includes the possibilities for exploration on the topic, resources such as books, Internet sites, experts to be interviewed, and field trips to support the study. Possible activities across the curriculum are included. We look at the common core standards and discuss how they can be addressed through the project work.
We are often fixated on understanding and assessing our academic goals for instruction. However, as Lilian Katz has written “a curriculum or teaching method focused on academic goals emphasizes the acquisition of bits of knowledge and overlooks the centrality of understanding as an educational goal. After all, literacy and numeracy skills are not ends in themselves but basic tools that can and should be applied in the quest for understanding. In other words, children should be helped to acquire academic skills in the service of their intellectual dispositions, and not at their expense.”
When the kindergarten, first grade and second grade children at P.S. 142 begin work on an inquiry project, the teacher always begins by brainstorming for all that the children already know on a topic. Often young children, particularly children with special needs, have difficulty articulating verbally what they know and so children have many opportunities to express their prior knowledge in many ways. They can draw a picture, create a model, act out or tell their story. We have found that if children can create an image of their ideas, then this acts as a support for them when the class meets to discuss and record information.
After recording their information on post its, the teacher will usually meet with a small group of children to begin organizing these notes into categories. A few of the post-its are read through together and discussed. Children think about which statements belong together. For example, in the Car Project, children might have said, “Cars have engines” “You can take a car to ride to the country” “Car drivers have to follow traffic rules” “There are seatbelts in cars” “Cars can go fast “I went to Coney Island in a car”. The small group might then organize these statements into these categories. ” HOW CARS CAN GO, WHERE CARS CAN GO, PARTS OF A CAR, RULES FOR CARS. This chart is then shared at meeting time and the entire class then completes this. Using a small group to begin makes the process more manageable for children who would lose focus when presented with too much information.
Referring to this newly formed web, the class then begins recording their questions in the form of “wonderings. These questions will drive the investigation. This year, in one of the kindergarten classes, the teacher was having a difficult time engaging children in formulating important questions for investigation. Because this is the fourth year that she has been doing inquiry projects, she realized how important this step is in the process. Rather than come up with questions herself, she knew that the children’s involvement and curiosity were crucial to tap into. She came up with the idea of creating “research committees.” They had just started an inquiry project about firefighters. The teacher had already collected and shared the children’s drawings and stories about firefighters. She read a few books to them and had a toy firetruck in the classroom. She asked the children to help her list important things that they knew about firefighters and fire engines and listed this on a chart. Then children picked which one they wanted to research. Being on these ‘committees’ supported children in developing important questions!
Last year the first grade began the year with a study of bridges. This was a natural choice based on the location of the school right along the ramp of the Williamsburg Bridge. When winter arrived, they moved on to a subway study, since, on their walks across the bridge, they had noticed the train traveling alongside them. Also many children rode the subway to school. In spring, however, they circled back to the bridge study, this time focusing on moveable bridges. By now, all of the children brought with them much prior knowledge from the first two studies of the year. When the class made a trip to the bridges over the Gowanus Canal, they had the exciting opportunity to stand on the Carroll Street retractile (swing) bridge as it opened. The teacher pointed out the gears and the tracks, relating it to all that they had seen when observing subways. The next day, back in one classroom, a group of children were building a moveable bridge. Before beginning they each drew a plan for the bridge that would be built. When the teacher came over to see the bridge she asked whose plan they used. One child who particularly has a history of acting out behaviors explained how they used “a little of his, a little of his, and a little of mines,” Collaboration was a major challenge for this child but because of the excitement of the investigation and building activity, and his engagement with the topic, he more naturally was able to rise to the challenge of cooperative play.
Recently, one of the second grade classes, as part of their car inquiry project, went on a walking trip to visit the Municipal parking lot on Essex Street. Previously, they had walked through the neighborhood, carefully reading and interpreting the various street parking signs and the muni-meter. The teacher put money in the muni-meter and showed the children what the ticket that came out looked like. At the parking garage the children again observed and interpreted the various signs and symbols letting drivers know where to park, when, where and how much to pay, and when to stop and go. Each child had a personal “trip recording book” that included photographs of different parts of the parking garage. Before the trip they wrote predictions and questions that they would like answered. They took notes at the garage and had time to write reflections when they returned to the classroom.
Back in the classroom, the children broke off into groups. One group went to the block area and began work on building a parking garage, putting up signs and symbols and adding toy cars so that they could role-play “parking garage”. Another child chose to work in the math center, using the pattern blocks to design cars. She recorded how she created her cars, using the symbols for the various shapes. A group of children went to the art center where they used recycled materials to construct cars – some realistic and some imaginary, such as the flying car made from an empty water bottle. After the completed their constructions, they wrote descriptions of the cars. Four children worked with the student teacher on researching some of the questions on the class “Wonderings” chart. They wrote their answers on post-its that they put over the questions to show that they have already been answered. Another group that consisted of a group of children who had more advanced mathematics and reading skills played “What’s The Rule” using a new game that included a set of “Cool Cars” cards. In observing the group, I was impressed with the way that each small group was working with a high level of focus, independence and engagement. I also noted that the teacher was able to maintain an atmosphere of play and also engage children in reading, writing and mathematics.
That afternoon, in the same classroom, the teacher used the muni-meter experience to generate a mathematics problem that the class solved together. She then asked the children to create their own muni-meter problem, write it up, solve it, show on paper how they solved the problem and illustrate their story. As I walked around the room with the teacher, I saw how she was able to use this one recent experience and allow all children to work at their own level of knowledge. Each child’s problem was validated and supported by the classroom teacher. Children were eagerly sharing their math stories with each other at their tables.
The teachers have been using a template for observing children during centers and inquiry work time that I was introduced to by a Swedish teacher who was visiting Reggio Emilia when I was last there. This is a form that is divided into three sections. Blank forms are kept on clipboards in each center so that the teacher, student teacher, teaching assistant or parent helper can easily access them. The first section is labeled “What do I see?” This is where the observing adult records interesting and worthwhile observations. That is the only section that is recorded at this time, so it doesn’t take a lot of time away from the teacher’s interactions with children during Choice Time. Later in the day, when there is time for reflection, the teacher returns to the observation sheet and completes the next two columns, “What does this mean?” (Interpreting the observations) and “My next steps” (based on what I have seen, what instructional, organization, or social changes should be implemented?)
At the very end of an inquiry project, I spend time with teachers on some self-evaluation. We use an adaptation of an inquiry evaluation form that is in the book Young Investigators by Judy Harris Helms and Lilian Katz. Some of the questions that we discuss (we do this totally through discussion and not by filling in a form) are:
∗ Did the children take responsibility for their own work or activity?
∗ Were children absorbed and engrossed in their work?
∗ Were children strategic learners?
∗ Were the children becoming increasingly collaborative?
∗ Were tasks in the projects challenging and integrative?
∗ How do you use children’s work from the project to assess learning?
∗ How did you facilitate and guide the children’s work?
Based on our assessment discussion last June, this year we decided that a major focus of my consulting work with them would be on documentation. We will consider how to use the documentation of project work to help t plan for whole class and differentiated instruction. We also want to use this documentation to help, strengthen the home/school connections and to provide opportunities for children to become more involved in self-assessment and setting personal goals.