“…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.