Taking Ownership

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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.


4 thoughts on “Taking Ownership

  1. Leonidas

    At a time when teaching is becoming increasingly scripted, and teachers are intimidated by constant intimations of “consequences,” accounts such as this consistently prove that the true power of teaching lies in the connection between the very capable minds of teachers and students.

      1. Constance Norgren

        This series of essays (Renee’s blog) is a bright and guiding light for teachers and for all who love children – a guiding light for the ones who listen to their students and take ownership of their own classrooms! Here, again and again, are classrooms humming with energy and fun and learning. It brings me so much hope to hear – in this blog – the voices of the teachers who help make that happen. Hooray for teachers who listen, teachers who go on adventures with their children – inside and outside of the classroom. Hooray!!!


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