The Beat of a Heart

“…the most humbling part of observing accomplished teachers is seeing the subtle ways in which they build emotionally and relationally healthy learning communities – intellectual environments that produce not mere technical competence, but caring, secure, actively literate human beings.”
                                                                                           Peter H. Johnston, Choice Words

Trust. Belief in children. Community. These are that buzzwords that have imprinted themselves in my thoughts since my last visit to the preschools and new elementary school in Reggio Emilia. Coming home, after my inspiring trip, was like crashing back to earth from a wonderful float in space. Common Core Standards. Rubrics. Performance tasks. Bundles. High- Stakes Tests. Assessment. All of these words have become the jargon bantered about by politicians and the educational bureaucracy. They do not represent instruction based on teachers’ observations and assessments of the children in their classes. Education today is functioning like a body minus a heartbeat.

However, last Thursday, I walked into Steve Wilson’s third grade classroom at The Brooklyn New School, and I finally heard the thumping of a heartbeat. This time it was my excited heart beating with enthusiasm as I saw that those Reggio buzzwords are alive and well again…trust – belief in children – community.

Steve’s class has spent the last few months intensely studying China and the children were getting ready for their China Museum day that would take place next week. The room, a large space for a New York City public school classroom, was filled with traces of the various explorations on the topic. High up on the front wall hung a huge red kimono. Posters with photos from trips and projects were inside and outside the room.

Mainly, though, children were working in groups on a myriad of projects. On the wall was a chart stating the project rules…Everybody helps. We help each other do things for ourselves. We explain by telling how.

By the sink, I saw four children taking turns scraping the fat off a huge bone. Perplexed by this activity, I went up to Steve to ask him what was happening there. “Don’t ask me Renée, “ Steve responded, “Ask the children.”

How right he was. The children were eager to explain all about the history and use of the Oracle Bone. They were getting this bone ready to be inscribed with important questions that they would pose.

Last year, in anticipation of their next year’s China study, the second grade teachers took their classes to see the exhibition of the Terracotta Warriors from China. This year Steve gave children opportunities to build on that experience in class discussions and individual research.

Hearing the Mary Pope Osborne book Day of the Dragon King read aloud gave the children many ideas for topics to research. 

They raised silkworms in class and the day that I visited, a group of children were using beet juice to dye the silk. Another group showed me how the “rice paddy” that they planted was finally germinating. A small group of children were painting a story onto bamboo sticks while another group sat on the floor constructing the Great Wall of China. Mirrors and stones were used to recreate the Chinese Scholar’s Garden that the class visited at Snug Harbor in Staten Island.

A boy who had been working in the hallway outside the classroom, brought his black and gray ink brush painting inside to share with Steve. Looking at it thoughtfully, Steve asked him to talk some about what he was aiming for in his image. After taking a minute to think about it, Steve explained how the blacks in the image could be used against the grays to give a greater sense of depth. He suggested giving it another try. Without any hesitation the young artist, who had been listening seriously to Steve’s suggestion, took another large sheet of paper, returned to his spot in the hallway, and began to work on his next painting.

Because there was so much work to get ready for the China celebration, adjustments were made to the usual daily schedule.  Project Time began at 9:20 in the morning and children were working until 11:20 a.m.. Sometime in the middle of the work time, Steve gave the signal for children to pause in their work. They were softly asked to take a deep breath, and were reminded to stay focused on their group’s project. At 11, it was time to clean up. Steve very softly announced, “Clean up is not separate from Project Time. It’s the last part of Project Time and needs to be taken just as seriously. If you finish cleaning up your center, don’t forget to see who else needs help” With thirty-one third graders sweeping, washing, organizing materials, moving projects to storage space, picking up pencils, washing brushes, it was quite a scene! Eventually, the room was clean, children were grabbing coats and lunchboxes and somehow they all made it out of the room in time for their 11:20 lunchtime!

What is it that allowed Steve to have so much trust in his children’s ability to work independently on those in-depth projects? How could he have so much belief in their potential to learn through these explorations?

Steve generously gave up his lunch period so that he could meet with me to discuss the multitude of questions swirling about in my mind. First of all, he explained, he has the luxury of working in a school where children learn through inquiry and exploration starting in pre-kindergarten and going up through each grade. This is not new to them when they enter his class in September.

During the first part of the year, Steve told me, he focuses on building a strong and respectful classroom community. Later, when he began the China study, they worked on whole-class projects like making lanterns and raising silkworms. This supported an understanding of how to follow through on a project from the early stages, through the middle and to the culmination, thus allowing children to ultimately work in small groups without his close supervision.

What stood out to me was Steve’s confidence in the children. He gave himself permission to take the time to do what he knew was needed to support his work. As I heard in all three trips that I took to Reggio Emilia, Steve used a road map for his instruction rather than a train schedule telling him when to start and stop.

After our meeting, I went downstairs and ran into Anna Allanbrook, the school principal. I asked her if she could spare a few minutes to answer some of my questions. My main question to Anna was, “What do you do about the Common Core, Performance Tasks, and all of the mandates that are coming down from the city, the state and the national Department of Education.? Anna chuckled. She seemed to be anticipating this question. Perhaps it is something that she is often asked.

Anna pointed out to me that all of the inquiry work being done throughout the school fits so well into the intention of the common core standards. In fact, Brooklyn New School has had an emphasis on reading nonfiction texts for years because of how important they are in the inquiry research. She also explained that the staff has plans to meet at the end of the school year to codify their various inquiry projects, showing where and how they align with the common core standards.

As part of their project work, the children are doing a lot of authentic, intentional writing. They’re asking questions, analyzing data, responding to information in many using a wide variety of modalities, collaborating and problem solving.

What more can we ask of our 8-year olds?

After speaking with Anna, I stopped by Steve’s classroom to say goodbye and thank him for a wonderful morning. It was independent reading time. There was a hush in the air as children, scattered around the room, were quietly engaged with their individual books. Sitting on a bench at the side of the room, Steve was head to head conferring with a boy. I looked at the chart that hung on the wall over their heads and read these words . “Talent is what you have. Effort is what you give.” These few words say so much about the spirit of this classroom . We all have our own special talents and we also all have a commitment to giving something to our community.

11 thoughts on “The Beat of a Heart

  1. Kristin B. Eno

    What a wonderful gift to Brooklyn (and to Red Hook/Carroll Gardens), that this school is doing such great work with children! This past Friday I took my third tour of the school (I have a rising PreK-aged child), and I have to say I felt the buzz, the fire, the hush, the magic, that you’re talking about. I saw lots of evidence of inquiry work in the PreK and K. An example: PreK teacher says: “our class had several students who were very affected by Hurricane Sandy, so our Shadows study evolved out of those conversations. But the other PreK class didn’t have kids who were as affected, so they ended up investigating a mysterious room in the basement….” Nice! Steve’s reference to that staff meeting, and the staff meetings I could see taking place as I was touring (apparently the K team was meeting to discuss documentation-wow!) drive home how much planning time teachers (whether in Reggio Emilia or Brooklyn) must put in, for work to be this rich and meaningful. Anna brought several of her teachers to a Reggio institute several years ago at Lesley U, called Bringing the Outside In. I was doing video documentation of that conference and was very impressed that a Brooklyn public school had a presence there. Looks like they’ve continued on their journey, enlightening so many little lives all along the way (and educating parents, too!). Thanks so much for telling us more of the story.

  2. Jenniier B

    The miracle of Steve (who was my daughter’s third-grade teacher) is exactly that ability to trust children, after he lays such a deep, deep foundation of expectations and values and a true understanding of how everyone benefits from observing and strengthening them. I have noticed it especially in discipline—he lets things go so much farther than I would instinctually do, letting the kids have a chance to settle down on their own or resolve things themselves, and only if that doesn’t happen does he step in. He is a truly gifted man, though. Even as a BNS parent, who knows firsthand how well this approach works, I can’t help but think while reading this: But this guy is a saint and a genius! How can this be implemented far and wide? Where do we find more Steve Wilsons?? I guess the answer must be in training. And believe me, I’m all for it. Thank you for writing this, and for visiting BNS!

    1. Renee Post author

      Jennifer, you are so right about Steve being gifted. We can’t clone him but teachers certainly can learn from him. I would love to document his work next year, starting from the beginning of the school year. I also think that he should be filmed and interviewed. Teachers CAN learn when they get good training and administrative support (this is so key!). In many schools that I go to as a consultant, the teachers are following a pretty scripted program put out by Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Their principals put money into having TC staff developers train the teachers on how to follow this approach. It’s a matter of priorities. The same money can be put into another kind of training. Many new teachers haven’t learned anything about child development, as insane as that sounds. This too is something that needs to be taught and valued.

      Thank you for your response. I hope you keep reading and responding to the blog.


  3. Kathy

    As a parent of a child in Steve’s class, what you witnessed in Steve Wilson’s classroom happens daily… amazing stuff. BNS’s greatest strength is how the teachers are allowed to teach the “whole child” with THEIR whole selves. And they are remarkable human beings. Thanks for observing and for working in professional development. I am looking forward to your book!

  4. Pingback: Remainders: No snow day for city schools but that could change | GothamSchools

  5. KK

    Hi Renee,

    I too have a child in this class. (In fact, she appears–headless–in one of the photos above.) I came to your blog because Anna mentioned this post in her weekly principal’s letter. Of course, I was pleased to see the 3rd graders and their teacher celebrated. (And, fantastic as he is, it’s not just Steve who pulls this off at BNS. My older kid had a different 3rd grade teacher, Ilana, and her class, similarly, was a hive of activity during the China study and a place where children were truly, deeply trusted. Moreover, it’s not just 3rd grade; my daughter in Steve’s class was deeply engaged in last year’s 2nd grade island study and I know she will be similarly caught up in 4th grade’s Lenape study.)

    I poked around in your archives a bit, though, and became disheartened to read about so many classrooms where the teachers are straitjacketed into a far more rigid, developmentally inappropriate curriculum. I didn’t know whether to cry or smash something when I saw the entry about publicly posting a child’s work as “Try Again” or “OK.” How completely, utterly awful and soul destroying!

    How is it that the teachers at our school are able to do what these other teachers seem forbidden to do? Because our principal is tenured, for one thing, and so is not as fearful as others might be to let her teachers find their own way, exercise their own talents. Because our student population is economically more well off on average than the student populations at many other schools. (Even though 1 out of every 4-5 kids @BNS is free/reduced lunch eligible, in our city of unconscionable child poverty this qualifies as well off!) Why should this matter? Because test scores correlate to income, so we’re less likely to have to fear closure or other reprisals due to poor test scores.

    This is madness, of course. Our system shouldn’t be run on fear and fear of poor test scores should not preclude children in the other classrooms you blogged about from being able to take great pride in sculpting a terra cotta warrior head or teaching a classmate, with great enthusiasm, about Lao Tzu or paper making. Chances are that if you read this blog, you are already involved in some sort of pushback against the misbegotten “reforms” which are preventing classrooms from being as electric as Steve’s. If you aren’t, please get involved. Look into joining forces with ParentVoicesNY or Change the Stakes. Start a Parent Action Coalition at your school.

    Thanks again for letting others see what can happen–and sorry for getting carried away and writing a comment that’s nearly as long as the post!

    1. Renee Post author

      I really do appreciate your involved comment on the blog. I agree with you about the dedication and involvement of the BNS staff. I worked with them a few years ago and totally understand how this commitment to a child-sensitive, inquiry-based philosophy of education runs through all of the grades and classes. Anna, of course, is a strong leader and advocate of this type of education. I don’t think that it’s only her tenure that allows her to stand for this. I’ve been in many other schools where the principals have tenure, know that what is happening to children is wrong, and still are fearful of bucking the system.

      I concentrated on Steve’s class because we were just in Reggio Emilia together, I know him and felt comfortable spending the morning in his room. This wasn’t (and I hope it didn’t read that way) a comment on the other third grade rooms. Ilana, Diane and Malika all invited me into their rooms and I loved what I saw. Also, your daughter’s head was cut off because I didn’t have permission to show her on my blog.

      Madness and fear are good words to describe the climate in schools. This Thursday a few kindergarten teachers and I are going to Tweed to meet with Shael Polakow-Suransky. We want to express our strong opinions about how the emphasis on assessments and performance tasks are having negative impacts on kindergarten children. He (Shael) has made it clear that he can only spare 30 minutes for us. How insulting! How typical of the DOE in New York City. A few teachers who were asked to participate decided not to because they feared for their jobs. It’s a disgraceful way to run a school system…lack of respect, lack of understanding about the real needs of children.

      I do hope that parents will get involved. I know that it’s usually the parents from the more upscale communities who have the time and ability to become activie (for a variety of reasons.) I do hope, however, that these organizations that you mention do an outreach to parents in diverse communities.

      Thank you again for taking the time to respond to the blog. I hope that you can share it with friends!


  6. Kk


    I will definitely share with friends and I sent the link to GothamSchools (who included it in one of their links roundups). And please don’t worry, I didn’t think you were giving short shrift to the other 3rd grade teachers; I just wanted to point out to readers who might not know that what you were talking about was not somehow idiosyncratic to Steve’s class. That said, Steve does put in an incredible amount of effort and is the veteran teacher of the grade. He provides the continuity for the China study year after year, while the newer teachers, together with Steve, change it up just a bit so that is never exactly the same from year to year. This mixture of old and new, of strong collaboration at the grade level, is so important to what the children ultimately experience in the classroom. “Reform” efforts that pit teachers against one another or routinely assume that senior teachers have somehow lost their mojo certainly do not put “children first.” (Of course, some teachers, even at BNS, DO lose it–or never had it–and children, parents, and indeed fellow teachers need a system that allows that situation to be definitively addressed when, rarely, it surfaces.)

    As for Anna, yes, it is not just tenure (although that does function as a prerequisite), but principle, conviction, and courage that underlie her stance. Last spring, when I heard about how nervous even tenured principals were about involving their schools in the field test boycott, I felt really frustrated–at some point these folks just have to stand up to the DOE and stand withtheir families!

    Good luck in your meeting with Shael. I must admit that I don’t understand him. When I have heard him speak, he seems so reasonable and yet he backs unfettered testing, which of course takes away so much time from the real learning you talk about here.

  7. Steve Peterson

    I found your blog via Vicki Vinton’s blog. I love the work you are doing here; this post is terrific! I’m a third grade teacher. I am so VERY inspired by what you have described. This is what learning (and life!) should be like.

    Thank you for opening this door. I’m thinking of how I might step through…

    1. Renee Post author

      Thank you Steve. Push through that door! There’s a lot of excitement there for you and your students.
      I’m working with a group of third grade teachers this year for the first time. They told me about how
      involved the children get when they’re doing inquiry work. Children who are reluctant to write during
      their writing workshop are doing so much writing and reading as part of their study of Japan. They’re
      also doing lots of creative exploration with clay, paper, paint, etc.
      Let me know how the year goes for you. I’m interested!


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