The Safest Space

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!

7 thoughts on “The Safest Space

  1. Tomasen

    Dear Renee,
    I love to hear your voice and passion in your writing. It is so in line with all that I am thinking about and I have to wonder…HOW has this happened? I love the part about trusting our children and our teachers…but mostly the kids!! You are so spot on there!! I also must confess that when I saw the chart with the examples below my jaw and heart simply dropped. So many kindergarteners don’t even have a fighting chance if that is what they are faced with.
    How lucky your daughter was to have you to cheer her on and keep her in a more free environment…even when suggested otherwise. You and I must have been best friends in another life. Of that I am sure.
    Keep writing. I have been thinking that if we all keep linking our blogs together that we can start something ourselves right here on the internet! I know teachers are feeling completely disconnected from their students and well…something has got to give…don’t you think?

    1. Renee Post author

      Tomasen, thank you. I keep wondering, “Where do we begin?” Do we appeal to parents? Perhaps to education students? Young teachers who are coming into the profession now don’t even have the personal experience of a develpmentally appropriate education themselves.(I know that this isn’t a PC expression anymore) I’m somewhat removed from the university education departments. I wonder how they are dealing with this dilemna?

  2. annon.

    Wow, I was just finishing making charts that I am REQUIRED to do for my kindergarten class and I mistakenly thought, in horror, that my beloved Ms. Dinnerstein was promoting this RUBRIC chart. Whew! When I uncrossed my eyes, I was actually able to READ FOR MEANING AGAIN and see that I can still place my trust here at Investigating Choice Time.
    Here is the other awful truth. The staff developers at the TC program have promoted a demeanor towards teachers which is not responsive, and they actually accuse you of interrupting when you politely request to have a point clarified. No wonder the entire city of Madison, Wisconsin said “No, thanks” to Lucy Calkins when she demonstrated this lack of rapport with teachers there in an appearance 3 years ago.
    As a former special education teacher now in a general education classroom, at least I can draw on my skills of using visual connections and I make these d%&@**!! charts really huge, with big icons.
    We have to bring the talk back to how we foster inferential thinking through active engagement. Sadly, administrators are losing this ability. You have to label and explain every art project, every science exploration, block play, etc, in terms of literacy standards. So I am making a class book about block play, to justify it. I have been told I am the only K teacher engaging children in block play in my school!
    Thank you, Renee, for saying it like it is. Can someone explain to the city that any consultant out in the real world would be sent packing if they were so unclear and rushed in their presentations, and so out of touch with the foundations of their subjects.

  3. Constance Norgren

    Your image of these rule and rubric-bound classrooms as sweatshops has a lot of truth in it. A classroom CAN be – at least on many days – the safe studio that you describe, the “room-of-one’s own” where a child – especially a young child! – can explore and dream and make mistakes and use words imperfectly – and learn. Thank you for reminding us in blog after blog after blog that we can…must!…. keep these educational possibilities alive for children.

  4. stephanie


    I am so sad to see this rubric and to know how detrimental it will be to the playfulness that must live in writing. I have seen many versions of creating and publicly displaying hierarchies of children’s worth in hallways and classrooms – and feel sick to my stomach every time, doing my best to persuade teachers and administrators of the damage being done that may take hold and reproduce in horrible ways over a lifetime.

    While few want to talk about the ways capitalism has infiltrated our psyches and ways of being in the world, this is certainly one manifestation: the relentless construction of “progress” or “development,” infinite ways of measuring progress or development, and the creating of hierarchies to publicly award those at the top as “motivation” for those at the bottom to work harder.

    The socialist struggles of Italy made for a very different purpose of early childhood education from the beginning, and at least in the schools we visited in Reggio and heard about through multiple tuition structures, providing more access and flexibility for commuting workers, unemployed families, low income families, and families who don’t live near extended family members all point to: “those who have less get more.” This is light years away from the economic situation in our country – where those who have more get more; and light years away from our schooling situation where we measure infinitely to create hierarchies to figure out who is suited to be at the top (and bottom) of our economic ladders outside of school.

    If we would only stop to think about what is actually driving us to do these things to children…

    Thanks for the terrific post.

  5. Maryellen Musacchia

    Thank you for speaking on behalf of so many who feel powerless to do so. Something HAS to change. The current “status-quo” is frustrating to teachers and a disservice to students.

    1. Renee Post author

      Thank you Maryellen. There’s power in numbers, so maybe we can bring together the voices of reason and make a big sound!


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