Monthly Archives: June 2012

Transporting a Classroom Towards Inquiry

I could almost hear a chorus of silent groans coming from the teachers sitting around the table in the staff room at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn. It was March 17th, 2005, my first day working as a consultant at the school. The new principal, Jett Ritorto, wanted me to introduce inquiry projects and investigative Choice Time to the kindergarten teachers. But it was mid-March and this was just one more new addition to their already over-programmed day. I wasn’t welcomed with open arms!

“We can’t do an inquiry project. This is when we start our transportation unit.”
I recognized this plea from my own not-so-long-ago days in the classroom. I had my theme, my materials, and my time-schedule all set up and then, in would walk a new staff developer with her own agenda, turning all of my plans upside down.

I assured them that we would not be dropping the transportation unit. Instead we would see what happened if we approached it in a new way. I suggested that they each go on a neighborhood walk with their class that week, with a focus on exploring the different ways that people could travel, to, from, and around their neighborhood. After the walk, they should encourage children to share their observations. This would give the teachers a sense of what the students already know and also what form of transportation seemed to interest them the most. That would allow them to narrow the focus of the class’s transportation study.

When I came back to the school the next week, I met with each teacher individually. The inclusion team, Dana Roth and Karen Byrnes, were excited and eager to share their experience with me. Their children had lots of questions about the subway and that was where they wanted to focus their study. The three of us spent the rest of the period preparing an anticipatory web, plotting out the many possibilities for a subway study. All seemed well.

Later in the week they contacted me and sadly told me that a subway study was out of the question. One of the students was confined to a wheelchair and would have to be excluded from all subway trips. They decided to switch to a bus study. I suggested, however, that they first bring the problem to the class and see what kind of solution the children came up with.

The children were outraged! “That’s not fair! Saim should be able to go on the subway just like us!” Here began a most unusual transportation study – The Wheelchair Project.

The class decided to find out more about Saim’s wheelchair and what it was like for him to move around the school and neighborhood. Saim was pleased as punch to be the center of attention (Dana said that she would not have pursued this route if the child was sensitive about being singled out).

They began the study by interviewing Saim. After the interview, they all sat around him in a circle, observing and drawing. The teachers began webbing what children already knew about wheelchairs and also collecting their “wonderings” on post-its and adding these to the web. From these activities, they decided to focus their study on movement and accessibility. These were the two areas where the children had the most interest.

News about this unusual transportation study traveled around the school like hotcakes. When the school’s physical therapist heard about the investigation, she provided the class with an unused wheelchair. This became a very popular wheelchair observation center. Children used magnifying glasses, tape measures, and detail finders (a square of black paper with a peek-hole cut in the center) to look closely at the different parts of wheelchair. They drew the wheels, the brakes, and the gears. Then they shared their drawings and ‘recordings’ with the children in the block center who were constructing their own version of a wheelchair. This chair took many days to construct. It sometimes fell over and was rebuilt often and eventually was held together with yards of masking tape!



The class visited the school bus that brought Saim to school to see how the lift helped children with walkers and wheelchairs get on and off. They interviewed the driver and also met Manny, a very affable upper-grade child who used a walker to help him move about. Manny was invited to the classroom where he was interviewed. He then gave each child an opportunity to try out his walker.

After this experience, a lift-bus was built in the block center. After a few days, it was deconstructed and the children built “a better lift bus.”

They walked took neighborhood walks, checking to see which stores and sidewalks were “wheelchair friendly.” Then they walked around the school to find out if their school was wheelchair accessible. The front of the school had lots of steps! How did Saim get into school? In an exciting moment of discovery, they found the symbol that they saw on the lift bus, along with an arrow. The class followed the arrows until they came to the ramp entrance. Problem solved!

They visited a neighborhood house that had been altered to make it wheelchair accessible and they interviewed the owner of the building.

This study certainly held the interest of the class and raised a new awareness of the challenges in Saim’s daily life. The children developed a feeling of respect for Saim and for the other children in the school who used wheelchairs, walkers and crutches.

Over the years, I have returned to the school to visit Dana Roth and I’ve always been intrigued by the variety of studies taking place in her classroom. On one visit, the children were investigating colors – inventing colors, exploring the various names of Crayola crayons and coming up with their own inventive names for their newly mixed colors. On another visit, the children were building a school in their dramatic play center, reflecting their investigation of their own school. Dana still does some thematic studies but she also listens closely to her children and develops inquiry projects based on their interests and wonderings.

I haven’t worked at the school for the past five years, but I’m going back in the fall to, as Laura Scott, the new principal, says, “Give a refresher course” in inquiry studies to keep it alive and well at the school. Let’s see what happens.

Are We Killing Kindergarten?

I just read this article by Amanda Moreno, the Associate Director of the Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy. She speaks so well to many of my concerns, so I thought that I would share it with you. That isn’t to say that I am inagreement with every point. I do think that children learn through play although I do agree that play is not a strategy for stuffing knowledge into a child.

Read the article and share thoughts.

Killing Kindergarten
by Amanda Moreno, Ph.D

I want you to know it took a lot of self-discipline not to title this post “Killing Kindergarteners.” In addition to being an early education researcher, I am also a mother of a 5-year-old currently in kindergarten, so I can tell you that is pretty much the way it feels. All around this country, families are trying to figure out why their small children already dread going to a place that was supposed to serve as a gentle transition to formal learning. They are struggling with ambivalent allegiances, not wanting to be the over-protective parent who babies their child, but at the same time not being fully convinced that their child has a behavior problem just because they don’t enjoy sitting at a desk, independently going through worksheets for a solid hour.

It has become axiomatic in my field to say that early learning expectations are a full year ahead of what they were 20 years ago. Alfie Kohn points out an even more critical piece of this puzzle when he says that “The typical American kindergarten now resembles a really bad first-grade classroom” (italics mine). Somehow I don’t think Robert Fulghum’s list of essential lessons learned in kindergarten would have the same ring to it if among “share everything” and “play fair” appeared “100 sight words,” “command of capitalization and punctuation,” and “compose and decompose numbers 11-19.” Cynicism aside, a year’s worth of additional expectations isn’t in itself the biggest problem if you have a highly skilled teacher who can individualize to suit just about any learning style, and can make just about any learning task age-appropriate and engaging. That is a huge if, I would guess, according to most kindergarteners today.

Is teaching 5-year-olds really that complex an enterprise? It is true that little kids are like sponges in that they absorb discrete pieces of knowledge daily, naturally, and without effort, such as new vocabulary, locations of things in their house, how specific toys work, and what their family dinner and bedtime routines are. But in formal learning settings — at least as they are on average in the U.S. — the game completely changes. For better or worse, the “great divider” in formal learning settings may be whether the learner can decide to tackle new tasks or problems, not because she wants to but simply because she is being asked to. Is it OK for my 5-year-old to learn about Native American history and culture? Sure it is. The parts of the eye and inner ear — why not? But there is no intrinsic motivation when the lesson emphasizes the proper spelling “Tlingit” or “cochlea” and there never will be. No, the kindergarteners who do well with this kind of task are the ones who have already developed the ability to override their intrinsic motivation. This takes more than compliance — it takes executive function, which is in part attention and memory, and in part the ability to inhibit a pre-potent response. You know, like my daughter’s pre-potent response to color with the crayon that most attracts her eye, rather than limiting her choices to the browns, yellows, and oranges that were actually found in traditional Native American garb, as the curriculum required.

This sounds awful — like the only successful kindergartener is one with a broken spirit. It wouldn’t have to be this way if the educational system were structured to accommodate the natural, normal, and highly variable rates of development that occur in early childhood. All typically developing children acquire the basics of executive function eventually. So universal a finding across cultures is this, that it came to be known as the “5-to-7 year shift” — and it is the reason why formal schooling starts around this age worldwide. In this country, the word around makes all the difference. Given the range of ages at which children enter kindergarten (there is about a 25-month spread between the youngest and oldest students), and the three-year age range within which executive function skills begin to become more adult-like, children can be anywhere between preschool and third grade when the complex set of abilities required to decide to learn comes online sufficiently well. Even after controlling for age, kindergarteners still show greater variability in executive function than either fifth graders or preschoolers, indicating there is something unique about the cognitive reorganizations that take place during this period of life.

Our educational system is not equipped to support the application of this kind of knowledge. John Medina has said, “If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you would probably design something like a classroom.”

In early childhood, when children are just beginning (and did I mention, at highly individualized rates?) to acquire the ability to focus under non-optimal circumstances and learn anyway, this is not only unproductive (as it is for learners of all ages), it is dangerous. For young children for whom intentional learning isn’t even on the radar screen yet, every day they spend sitting at a desk and filling out worksheets is like being in a foreign language immersion program with a teacher who believes they’re fluent.

This is not a debate about exploratory vs. direct instruction in the early grades, or play vs. structure, or creative learning vs. traditional academics, or any other label for this false dichotomy. Research supports both, depending on the group of children studied and methods used. While I staunchly believe that play is a human right, you don’t fix the misguided question of how to stuff knowledge into a 5-year-old’s brain simply by doing it “through play.” Similarly, when people tell you direct instruction “works,” ask them what it worked for. If the answer was standardized tests, then you merely have an unsurprising match between method and outcome. Either way, bad teaching will be the result if a kindergarten teacher practices (or is forced to practice) any style in the extreme, and without an arsenal of creative tools for individualizing to children. For those brilliant kindergarten teachers who do possess such a toolbox, the standards and testing craze has tamped their best instincts into hiding.

I agree with Holly Robinson who says that, from a parent’s perspective, the immediate answer lies in finding the right fit for your child — a process we are right in the middle of with our own daughter. Unfortunately, good options are not nearly plentiful enough, and those that exist are not accessible enough to families and children that likely need them the most. In the meantime, my colleagues and I are trying to do our part by speaking out for differentiating education reform efforts for young children, incorporating modern child and brain development principles into teacher and principal prep programs, and consulting to early education initiatives about how to answer to the pressures of accountability without “killing kindergarteners” in the process.