Monthly Archives: June 2013

A Teaching-Out-Of-The-Box Quilt

My friend Robin visited yesterday. She’s a radio personality who approaches life with an impressive  force and energy. We began to talk about the state of education and Robin came up with an interesting idea. Robin grew up in Baltimore and had a challenging home life. It was  school, she emotionally said, that really saved her. As we sat around the table eating dinner, we shared stories about  teachers who made huge impressions on us because of their ability and determination to think and teach out of the box.

Robin thought that a great many people must have examples of how creative teachers had major impacts on their lives.She suggested that, in the style of the Aids Quilt, we begin a project where we piece these stories together – one story to another, to another, to another…. making a sort-of story quilt consisting of examples of  lives  affected by creative, caring, non-script-teaching professionals. She thought that it would be a perfect response to the type of teaching- to- the- test mentality that is driving education today.

I’m pretty excited about the idea but I don’t know how to get it started. What are your thoughts? Wouldn’t it be great to have these stories printed up, attached together, and hung in some public spot? Am I thinking too big or crazy?

What do you think?

Taking Ownership

2 hands

It’s  difficult to make changes. This is particularly true when the change is not self-imposed.

Last fall I began work as a consultant in an elementary school in East New York, Brooklyn. For the past eight years the early childhood teachers at this school were using the Core Knowledge  program as the foundation of their instruction. Most lessons were spelled out for them in a teacher’s guide and they had a structured pacing calendar to follow throughout the school year. This curriculum covered topics in science and social studies.

The kindergarten topics for the year were “Taking Care of Body”, “Seasons and Weather”, “Magnetism”, “Animals Throughout the Year”, “Plants”, “Care of Earth with a focus on Continents”, “Maps, Towns, City States. – as a possible link to early civilizations”, “Across the months, continents and oceans,” “Pilgrims,” “Early Settlement,” “Presidents, Symbols and Figures, July 4th,” “Native American-Eastern Woodland,” and “Africa.”

The first grade topics for the year were “Human Body: Jenner, Human Body: Pasteur,” “Seasons,” “Electricity, Edison, Magnets/Magnetism,” Living Things,” Living Things’ Environment,” “Solar System,” “The Earth,” “Matter/Properties of Matter,” “Early civilizations, “ “The World Around Us, Maps, Continents,” “Colonial America,” “American West, Westward Expansion,” and “Biographies from the American Revolution.”

I’m not sure of how inclusively the curriculum  was covered over the course of a school year. However “covered” seems like the crucial word here. In my opinion, most of these  topics don’t seem to be areas that can be significantly explored by 5 and 6 year old children.

This also became clear to the principal of the school and she was determined to do something about this situation. One of her first grade teachers (actually a former kindergarten student of mine!) brought in to school and shared a New York Times article about some early childhood consulting work that I was doing in a school in Manhattan. The article focused on a class trip to a parking garage as part of a class exploration of cars.

After reading the article, the director, Michelle Bodden-White, invited me to visit her school and have a discussion with her early childhood staff about the possibility of making changes in their instructional approach. She wanted them to move towards  a more  inquiry and project based curriculum.

The staff was, understandably, skeptical, particularly the first grade teachers. They were afraid that they would not be covering materials that were aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards. Ms. White and I assured them that this would not be the case and that a well-developed inquiry project could meet the standards as well as  the Core Knowledge program. However, they are a very committed group of educators. They were fearful of ultimately short-changing their students. The reality of the situation, though, was that the school’s past test scores were not very high. Children were not having positive social interactions and there did not seem to be a lot of professional collaboration among the staff.

I officially began my work in the fall but I don’t think that any really significant changes took place until the winter. The turning point was when the teachers had the opportunity to visit the school in the lower east side, observe the inquiry work being done in classrooms and speak very openly with the P.S. 142 teachers about shared challenges, anxieties and hopes.

What I’m going to share with you now is an example of how two of the first grade teachers, following the visit to P.S. 142 and after debriefing with me, took the Car Study and made it one that engaged the children in their class and satisfied the teachers goals of addressing the Common Core Learning Standards. The first grade staff decided to do a car study because they thought that the topic would engage the children. Also, the school is located in a neighborhood that is an Industrial Park. There are many auto repair shops in walking distance and this would allow for a variety of field trips.

From my point of view, these teachers took important and brave steps forward in their professional growth. Previously they had been working with fairly scripted lesson plans. Now, without a script to follow, it was as though they were walking on a  tightrope without a safety net and balancing themselves very well at that! Rather than following a script, they were following the lead of the children, listening carefully to their observations and questions and using this information to plan trips and activities.

Last week  I had my last consulting day for this year. We met to discuss challenges, successes, hopes, and fears. The teachers (all eight on the grade) agreed that the children were very engaged during the Car inquiry study and were quite excited about the many field trips. (I often emphasized to the teachers that the field trips were their primary resources and that they would be the inspiration for further investigations.) Children were enthusiastically writing because their writing was in the service of their investigations and projects. They were  reading books to do research. The teachers noted that the children were now taking ownership of their own learning, engaging in group planning and were more articulate in their observations and questions. They also noted that there were no behavior problems when children were working on the inquiry study!

Here are some pages from the teachers’ journal, documenting different aspects of the study.

Page_1_Overview Page_2_WholeGroup Page_3_CentersOVERVIEW Page_4_Centers_1 Page_5_Centers2 Page_6_Centers3 Page_7_FieldTripMobil Page_8_FieldTripParking Page_9_FieldTripSigns Page_10_FieldTripPoliceCar Page_11_FieldTripSpeedBump Page_12_FieldTripLimousine page_13_FieldTripJunkYard

The children found this in the street this week. Now they’re coming up with plans for turning it into a car! They’re figuring out what parts they will need and how they can split up into groups to work on it. It’s a wonderful project for the end of the school year!



With special kudos to Katie Rust, Maria Soehngen, Karen Romagna, Regina Fallah-Hausman, Shana Brown, Janaya cordy, Davin Aebisher, Julie Steiner, Michelle Bodden-White and Hannah Brooks.



Two weeks ago I read an article in a New York City newspaper, geared to teachers, written by a kindergarten teacher about the importance of Choice Time . That should have pleased me. For quite some time I’ve been an advocate of keeping play and exploration in the early childhood curriculum. Yet I found this piece to be disturbing. Why?

First of all, the writer of this article states that the Common Core Standards are “developmentally appropriate and provide an in-depth, detailed guide for what must be mastered in kindergarten…” Once we outline a detailed guide for kindergarten mastery we are immediately off –base. As the authors of Developmentally Appropriate Practice write, educators of kindergarten children need to, “meet children where they are as individuals and as a group.” Micromanaging what all kindergarten children must master by the end of a school year is contradictory to what we know about how young children develop and about what we need to do to support their creative, social and intellectual development. I’m not implying that we should not have high standards for all children. We do not need to have a checklist of how, what and when children need to meet very specific academic benchmarks.

Another problem that I had with this article is that there is an assumption that children will need to be motivated to become engaged in centers and that the teacher will need to “clearly model how each center works.” The writer gives an example of what might be modeled to introduce the Read-Along (listening) center and how the minilesson would align this center with the Common Core. The teacher suggests telling the children that after they listen to a story “they will fill in a simple beginning, middle and end worksheet and retell the story with friends at the center. The students are encouraged to practice using the five Ws (who, what, when, where and why) when they are retelling.”

Choice Time is not a time to give children tasks. It should be an opportunity for children to direct their own play and therefore, their own learning. The teacher carefully sets up centers with materials that provoke investigations but it is the child who discovers ways of using the materials. When interest in a center wanes, then it opens up a few possibilities. It might be time to retire that center (at least for the time being.) Perhaps the teacher could present the children with her observations of how she has noticed a lack of interest in the center. The children might come up with ideas for “remodeling” that area to make it more interesting. They could brainstorm for different ways that the center could be used; what might take place at that activity? Perhaps at the Read-Along center the children might suggest having drawing paper so that they could draw pictures that the story brought to mind. The teacher might suggest adding blank tapes to the center so that children could tell and record stories for other children to hear. On the other hand, they might agree that the center is no longer interesting to them and suggest putting it away.

suspension bridge

One year when my kindergarten class was in the midst of a long and exciting study of bridges I noticed that the bridge constructions were becoming more and more intricate, taking up all of the space in the block center. Abutting this area was our very under-utilized dramatic play center. I thought that it might make sense to close up the dramatic play area and extend the block center. I was so sure that the children would appreciate this change since they practically never went into dramatic play during this period. I shared my thoughts with the class and to my great surprise there was an uproar of dissent. Absolutely nobody wanted me to take away what we called “the pretend center”. One child suggested that we make it a smaller pretend center. I questioned whether there would be anything that they could do in a small pretend center but the children thought that it could be a little store. After two days of discussions, it was decided that we would open up a little bookstore and that we could make the block area a little bit bigger. Unexpectedly, we were now beginning a mini-inquiry study of bookstores!


We visited a bookstore in the neighborhood, interviewed the workers and the bookstore owner, sketched and discussed the arrangement of the books in the store and stood outside the store observing, drawing and photographing how the store looked from the street. A few weeks were spent transforming the dramatic play area into a bookstore. Because it was a little bookstore, children who chose the writing center were busy writing little books. Our classroom library was searched for little books to add to the store collection. Children built an awning, made signs, constructed a cash register and made paper money, and wrote labels for the shelves, organizing the little books by subjects (just as they saw when they visited the neighborhood bookstore.) This exciting curricula detour lasted a few weeks and shows what can happen when children are challenged to consider and solve a classroom problem.

Choice time is not a part of the kindergarten program because it is in service of meeting the Common Core Learning Standards. Choice Time is part of the kindergarten program because it is essential that children have opportunities to play, investigate, explore, socialize, collaborate, think out of the box, play with a box, create…. have fun!