I’ve often talked about my own classroom as a studio and laboratory where children could find a safe place to experiment and take chances. Creating this risk-free environment was a priority for me. It was important in school and also at home for my daughter, Simone.
Now an adult with her own 11-year-old child, Simone has become a world-renown pianist. She realized her passion for music at a very young age. When she was almost nine years old we enrolled her in a pre-college Saturday program at the Manhattan School of Music. She studied solo piano, played in ensembles, learned ear training and music theory, sang in a chorus and attended a performance class. She thrived in this musical world and never missed one Saturday from when she began in third grade until she graduated high school.
Not all of the students were as serious as Simone about their music instruction and an important part of each Saturday was also spent in play…running through the halls playing tag, giggling about boys when the teen years hit, sitting around talking…generally just being children having a good old time. After being at Manhattan School for a few years, many people who were seriously involved in music suggested that we transfer Simone to the Juilliard pre-college division. This was a more career-driven program with higher professional standards that the students were held to. I vehemently refused to agree to this change. I wanted Simone to have the freedom to find her own way and to take chances in a relatively low-risk, playful and nurturing school.
In describing the importance of the work environment, the Pulitzer prize- winning author, Jhumpa Lahiri, said, “ My holy space is my studio. That’s the safest space. An artists studio is the place where the artist feels most protected because in that space he or she is the most vulnerable and invulnerable at the same time because that’s what one has to feel in order to make something.”
Our young students are both vulnerable and invulnerable, just like the artist or writer in the studio. They enter kindergarten sometimes apprehensive, often eager and usually curious. Here is a new world to explore, new people to meet and many new skills and rules to learn.
On my visits to the schools in Reggio Emilia and in discussions with the Italian teachers, my colleagues and I were impressed with the very strong faith and belief in children’s abilities that permeated all that we saw and heard. Teachers encouraged children by sharing meaningful observations, providing interesting provocations and giving children a lot of time and freedom to explore with a variety of materials. Learning was a communal experience and children shared, discussed, explained, argued, mediated and created together in the safety of their school environment.
In 1988 I returned to teaching kindergarten after having spent the last ten years teaching pre-kindergarten. In my school, all of the kindergartens were taking part in the writing workshop under the tutelage of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. I was skeptical and reluctant to push my young children into something that they might not be ready for. However, I quickly changed my mind when I saw how inquiry-based the workshop was and how much fun the children were having drawing and sharing their stories.
The writing workshop was a wonderfully risk free time of day, when children could take many chances in exploring some previously uncharted territory. Mark, who came into kindergarten without any pre-school experience, could proudly show me his swirly scribble and talk at length about his ride on the roller coaster at Coney Island.
During the same workshop, Neal worked intensely on his bird poem,
Hiw or Birds ther Color?
How are birds their color?
FlmiNGGows or PiiNGk
Flamingos are pink
BeCis thea eat Shrmp
Because they eat shrimp
CirDNils or Red Becis thea Eat Pstir
Cardinals are red because they eat pizza
Blwjis or Blw Becis thea Eat BlwBires
Bluejays are blue because they eat blueberries
Pekics or Gren BeCis thea Eat Gris
Peacocks are green because they eat grass
Chikings or Briwn
Chickens are brown
Becis thea Eat Dirt
Because they eat dirt
Wit iF a Bird Eats a Rinbow
What if a bird eats a rainbow?
Both boys were experimenting with writing and language. They weren’t in competition with each other. They were both proud of their work and encouraged to keep writing.
Would they have felt as free to experiment if they were asked to self-assess their work against this rubric that I saw in a kindergarten classroom last October?
When the classroom teacher noticed the look of horror on my face, she sheepishly said, “I knew that you wouldn’t like this Renee. Our TC Staff Developer told us that we have to use it.” I thought of how Mark would have been crushed. Perhaps he would not have gone on to become our class “master of the double e”. Later in the year, when Mark felt ready to start adding words to his stories, he discovered “ee”, finding this double letter in all different places, even on a tee shirt that he wore, with great excitement, to school.
I wonder, with great sadness, about the change that has taken place in this wonderful program that at one time valued the stories of all children. Of course it is not only the writing workshop that has lost its way. Somehow, the vision of the strong and able child, a child filled with personal history and great potential appears to have vanished from our school system. Belief and trust have been set aside…no belief and trust in children…no belief and trust in teachers. Teachers are controlled with threats and fear. Children are controlled with rubrics, tests, scripted lessons and unrealistic, uninspiring expectations.
A sweatshop-like factory has sadly replaced the studio and laboratory. Perhaps the children need a union!