Trust:“assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something; one in which confidence is placed”
Trust: “reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, etc., of a person or thing; confidence. Confident expectation of something; hope”
Can trust exist in today’s tense educational climate, when teachers and administrators rightfully feel as though someone is always looking over their shoulders?
Yes! Trust does exist in classrooms where teachers have the confidence and administrative support needed to follow their understanding of what children need rather than the proscriptions of a teaching program or pacing calendar. For an example of a teacher’s trust in children, let’s enter Marta Quinones’ first grade classroom at P.S. 142.
The children are studying subways. They’ve gone on underground and over ground rides, interviewed workers, and attended a talk given by Paul Steely White, the director of Transportation Alternatives. Because of their particular interests and the involvement of the school art teacher, they visited various stations to see the displays of subway art. There are plans for the children to visit Tom Otterness, the sculptor who created a wonderfully whimsical piece that is on the platform of the 14th street A train station. They’ve read nonfiction and fiction books about subways and written stories and fact sheets about turnstiles, vending machines, motormen and Metrocards. Subway stations are being built with blocks, Legos, and all kinds of recycled materials. Two girls preparing to turn a large cardboard box into a Metrocard machine are discussing how the inner mechanisms might look and work before beginning on their construction.
In one corner of the classroom, near the sink, a group of children are clustered around a table covered with bowls, flour, salt, yellow paint, and various measuring and mixing spoons, Three of the children are reading aloud from a recipe chart as one child slowly pours a cup of water into the bowl.
I sat down and asked them why they were making their playdough yellow. The water pourer looked up and told me, “We’re making a subway station and the tracks are with yellow playdough. We need to make more playdough so we can finish the tracks.” “Next we’re going to make the platform and then a subway train,” piped in the girl holding the recipe chart. They pointed to a nearby table that held a large piece of cardboard with subway tracks made from yellow playdough weaving around the perimeter.
Where was the teacher? Why wasn’t Marta sitting with them?
I looked to the side and saw, a few feet away, the very calm Ms. Quinones, taking notes and smiling. When I went up to her to ask her about this potentially very messy activity, Marta answered, “I trust them to be careful. I’m looking on to make sure that it goes okay but they don’t need me to stand over them and tell them what to do.”
This Thursday, five kindergarten teachers and I are going to the former Tweed Courthouse, now home of the New York City Department of Education for a meeting with the chief academic officer of the New York City public schools. We want to give voice to the many kindergarten teachers who are being silenced by, what some have described to me as, an insidiously oppressive atmosphere of intimidation in the schools. There seems to be a fairly widespread belief that it’s safer to be quiet and not complain rather than taking the risk of speaking up and possibly losing a job.
We want to give voice to the many children who are missing out on an important kindergarten year because a developmentally ill-suited curriculum is imposed on them. It’s not uncommon to hear it said that kindergarten is the new first grade.
Among the six of us, we calculated that we have a hundred and fifty cumulative years of experience teaching the early childhood grades. Our meeting was prompted by our professional discomfit with the present direction of early childhood education in New York City public schools, most specifically in kindergarten. An ever-increasing number of assessments are filling up the day. Kindergarteners are often given “busy work” so that their teacher can sit with one child to administer an assessment, often one that has no practical use in classroom instruction.
“Performance tasks” that do not, in any way, relate to most five-year olds “zone of proximal development” are imposed by bureaucrats who have little or no experience with children of this age and little obvious knowledge of child development. Even though the common core-aligned task for kindergarten English Language Arts described on the DOE website states that children should “use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/explanatory texts in which they name what they are writing about and supply some information about the topic” many administrators (perhaps in response to outside pressures) are insisting that teachers must not take any dictation. Five year olds are, in many schools, expected to do their own writing in this task. This might be possible for some children, but for many these become stressful, frustrating and humiliating experiences.
Our visit is a response to an email that I sent to the Deputy Superintendent a few months ago. I had just received a note from a depressed and frustrated kindergarten teacher who was bemoaning the way that her day was co-opted by a variety of administratively assigned assessments, Teachers College lessons and pacing calendars and hours of clerical record-keeping. All of this, she wrote, was preventing her from providing her students, mostly English Language Learners, with the kindergarten experiences that they so desperately needed.
I was so upset by this note. In the heat of the moment, after reading and rereading it, I decided to pass it on (without the teacher’s name) to the deputy superintendent, challenging him to respond to this sad message. To his credit, he very shortly afterwards responded, inviting us to come and speak with him. I asked if we could include a few other teachers and this was approved.
A representative from the deputy chancellor’s office has emailed me several times to confirm the details for this meeting. She made it clear, on more than one occasion that we will only be allowed thirty minutes to present our thoughts. Thirty minutes! Does the Deputy Superintendent not trust us to share the sincerity and wisdom of our experience with him?
We want to explain to him our belief that kindergarten is a year for building a strong foundation, which will support the academic learning for the years ahead. If we can speak fast enough, we would like to say that in kindergarten the child should develop a sense of himself/herself as a learner. There should be experiences that strengthen the child’s sense of curiosity, exploration and self-regulation. The child should be feeling secure enough to take risks without the fear of failure. The teacher of five-year olds should intentionally be providing rich first-hand experiences that are connected with children’s interests, opening up many opportunities for talk, questioning, creating, and experimenting. Kindergarten children need time to engage in unstructured outdoor play. When children’s free play occurs under the watchful eye of the teacher, there are many opportunities that present themselves for scaffolding conflict resolution strategies, so necessary for all aspects of life.
I’m hoping that the deputy chancellor will understand the reality of a kindergarten child’s school day in NYC – highly-structured programs that are heavy in academic instruction, lack of time to learn through exploratory activities, and in many schools, no opportunities for children to play outdoors other than a few minutes at lunchtime. This does not match up with what we know is best for developing self-motivated and confident life-long learners.
I am putting a lot of trust in the sensitivity, respect and interest of the deputy superintendent. I’m trusting that he will understand that this discussion is all about the children. I’m trusting that this visit will be the start of a long and serious conversation that will, ultimately, have a positive impact on the lives of the kindergarten children in the New York City public schools.
Trust. “Confident expectation of something; hope”