Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Power of Rituals: The Birthday Circle

happy birthday 1

Chloe and Malick celebrating their summer birthdays.

There is your chair, and the birthday child’s chair.
It is almost time.
The children are taking their circle places
while the birthday child goes to the box of birthday books
and makes her choice certainly and without hesitation.
You’ve taught the children to grow up with books
So no wonder a book is at the center of this ritual.
Now you fit the crown upon the birthday child’s head-
a ponytail to manage!–engaging the class all the while.
Okay? Ready?
Let the reading commence!

Happy Birthday Little Bear from a year ago
gives way to Just in Time for the King’s Birthday.
In this reading the King will be a Queen, Queen Sophie
to be exact, which extracts a wide smile from the birthday girl
each time you say it.
The children begin to mumble a few words with you,
and now they are reciting large sections of it
as though this is some birthday chorale,
the words some luscious candy
to be eaten once a year.
“Say the words to yourself, boys and girls,” you remind them,
and then you are accompanied by a silent chorus
as ecstatic as if they were singing Bach!

The End. The children are satisfied.
You give a child a smooth birthday stone
you found at Gerritsen Creek. The child knows just what to do.
This is the end of the second year, after all!
From child to child the rock is passed and from each
a message to the birthday child:
“We have been friends since we were little. Do you remember
when the fishtank broke in pre-school?”
“You always have a mischievous look on your face
and when you come into the room, I always think
it is like the sun coming into the room.”
            (You, fearless one, are always apart,
            teacher, negotiator, disciplinarian,
            and part of things,
           swamp walking, jitterbugging, birthday message.)
“Happy Birthday. Good Luck.”
“I want you to know you are a good friend to me.”
this is the time for the messages that bear saying
            (They are so much more sophisticated this year than last
            when the rock nearly flew around the circle.)
I imagine each child listens differently,
shyly, boldly, quietly,
with who knows what private dialogue
as she or he is appointed the center of the universe,
stars and planets revolving around this glittering birthday crown.
The child I am watching listens intently, nods, smiles
Goes into moments of a little reverie.

But isn’t that what the whole thing is about?
A reverie? A meditation on entering this world?
The dream is broken with a chorus of happy birthday,
then, how old are you?
The birthday child responds in song:
I am seven years old.
All together now: One two three four five six seven and,
Arms rolling, a roll for good luck. Napkins! Cupcakes!
“I want chocolate!” “I don’t like chocolate!” “I want red glitter!” “I want green!”
Ah, now we are back to the real world, a group of hungry seven year olds.

Seven! How did this happen? That
these children, so apprehensive, so new, so fresh two years ago
like wriggling tadpoles
should now be these self-assured youngsters,
rulers of their world, master of the ceremonies
that move them along in this classroom, their world,
their world, with you, the one they quote at home
attend to, criticize, praise, listen for, listen to (when all goes well)

For you, Queen Renee, la reine, la regina
We wish a birthday poem that includes the quiet joy
that comes with creation.
If we could gather these children together twenty years from now
to sing to you that birthday song,
we would find a chorus of voices in which,
yes, even after so many years, so many teachers,
so many events that we cannot possibly now know,
we would still hear you.

This beautiful poem, written by Sophie’s mother Barbara Danish,was a gift for me at the end of my second year teaching a class of lovely children. We began our birthday ritual in September of kindergarten and ended it in June of first grade. The poem really says it all.

Our ritual was simple. When the children came in I had a pre-cut but undecorated paper crown waiting on a table and children who wanted to began to “pretty it up” – crayons, markers, glitter – whatever they chose. The morning message contained the first official birthday wish of the school day.

At the end of the day we had our birthday circle. A chair was set up for the birthday celebrant. I had a basket of books with birthday themes for the birthday child to choose from. Some popular books were Just In Time for the King’s Birthday; Happy Birthday Little Bear; A Birthday for Frances; Happy Birthday, Moon; The Secret Birthday Message; Some Birthday!; Birthday Soup (a chapter in the Little Bear book), and A Letter to Amy. The birthday child picked a book for me to read to the class. The children giggled and loved when I substituted the name of the birthday child when I read the story!

I had a smooth stone that was our birthday stone. After the story, the stone was passed from child to child, moving around the circle. When a child held the stone, he/she shared a birthday wish. Some children merely said, “Happy Birthday.” Others shared a personal wish or a memory connected to the birthday child. It was so interesting to observe how the quality (and length!) of each child’s birthday wish changed as the year progressed. Since I had the children for two years, there was so much growth that I could see just by listening to the depth of these shared stories and wishes.

Next came the waited for moment. The birthday child made a silent wish and blew out a candle that was placed in the middle of the birthday cupcake. Cupcakes were usually brought to school in the morning by the child’s parents. On some occasions, I rushed out to buy cupcakes and juice at lunchtime if a child didn’t bring these to school. Parents were told at the start of the school year that they could only bring juice, cupcakes or muffins and, if they liked, some birthday plates and napkins. I did not allow cakes or party bags. Also, if children had parties outside of school that did not involve the entire class, then invitations had to be mailed, not given out in class.

After the candle was blown out, we sang the Happy Birthday song  and then children went to the tables to eat, drink and chat.

This was our ritual. The pattern was the same for each child. The children loved it. I loved it. Nobody had, what my mother-in-law would have called, a hooh-hah extravaganza and I really don’t think that anyone felt deprived. Our birthday ritual was part of the glue of our classroom community, overflowing with love,warm wishes and sometimes the tears of visiting parents!

Gesell Institute on Common Core for Grades K – 1

Here’s something for early childhood educators and parents of young children to ponder.

Gesell Institute Statement on the Common Core Standards Initiative
March 18, 2010
The core standards being proposed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers are off the mark for our youngest learners. We at Gesell Institute call for a new set of standards for Kindergarten through Grade 3 that adhere to solid principles of child development based on what research says about how and what young children learn during the early years, birth to age eight. The proposed standards for Kindergarten through grade 3 are inappropriate and unrealistic. Policy must be set based on hard data and not on unrealistic goals surrounding test scores.
If the achievement gap is to be closed, child development must be respected and scientific research surrounding how children learn must be taken into account. Research clearly shows that early readers do not have an advantage over later readers at the end of third grade, and attempts at closing the achievement gap should not be measured in Kindergarten based on inappropriate standards.
The work of Gesell Institute has long been focused on research and best practice in child development and education – our legacy is based on the ground-breaking work of Dr. Arnold Gesell, a pioneer in the field of child development who observed and documented stages of development with normative data reflecting what children typically do at each age and stage. Currently, our national study collecting developmental information on over 1400 children across the country is in its final stages of data collection. This data, to be released in Fall 2010, is expected to further support what we know about how children develop and what they know at various ages, as well as the importance of focusing on appropriate methods for teaching young children.
We urge the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to respect the individual developmental differences of children and revise the K-3 standards based on research and the advice of experts in the field of early childhood. Having endorsed The Alliance for Childhood Joint Statement of Early Childhood Health and Education Professionals on the Common Core Standards Initiative, we support the call to withdraw the early childhood standards and create a consortium of experts “to develop comprehensive guidelines for effective early care and teaching that recognize the right of every child to a healthy start in life and a developmentally appropriate education.”

Oh Joy! It’s the first day of kindergarten!


I can still hear the sound of children crying, see the exciting roll of big white paper with crayons invitingly nearby, and feel my hear thumping in my chest. Each new start of a school year always seems to conjure up memories of my very first day of kindergarten.

My sister was just born and my mother needed to stay home with her. My father had to open his hardware store in the morning, so I went to school with my mother’s friend Elsie and her daughter Ronnie. Ronnie seemed quite confident and jumped right into some activity that was put out on one of the child-sized tables. Shy Renee stood on the side, wanting to be a big schoolgirl but also wanting to be home in a nice, safe place. That’s pretty much all that I can remember from my first day of school, other than the little boy who wet his pants and had to be taken to the bathroom in the corner of the room to be changed and my father coming to pick me up at the end of our half day of school and jokingly referring to my teacher, Miss Hefferman as “Miss Peppermint!” While his joke is funny in retrospect, at the time I was mortified that he was making fun of my teacher’s name. I think that I was also so afraid that she might hear my father’s blasphemy! These memories are as fresh as though they happened yesterday and not (could it really be?) 64 years ago. I can’t say if my first day was a good experience or a frightening experience. Mainly, I know that it was important enough to be memorable.

Years later, when I became a kindergarten teacher, I knew that it was important for the first days of school to set the tone for the year. I wanted all of the children, the outgoing, confident ones and the shy, quiet ones, to leave school excited and enthusiastically eager to return the next day. I’m not sure if this always worked for each child, but that was my big goal. I knew that establishing routines was important but that would happen as children began to understand the flow of the school day.

Getting children to learn how to follow routines was most definitely never my primary focus for these first days of the school year. Setting the stage for each child’s love of school was my personal mandate.

I made sure to create a room that would be welcoming, comfortable and interesting. For instance, I had Peter the turtle, named by a class, many years ago, after a character in their favorite book, A Snowy Day. One year I had the offer of a used 55-gallon tank, which I accepted. Although it took up a lot of precious classroom space, I had an instinct that this turtle would be an important member of the class and I was right. Throughout the year, children chose to write stories, non-fiction books and poems about Peter.

I set up the tank right near the entrance to the classroom. Children and parents started the first day by greeting me at the doorway and then greeting Peter! At the other side of the tank was the carpet where we would have our class meetings. Often, to the giggling joy of the children, Peter would climb up on his rock and seem to listen to our singing and enjoy our stories.

So, what actually happened in my kindergarten classroom on the first day of school after the photo-snapping parents and grandparents left their most wonderful treasures in my care?

I set up activities on the tables for the children to explore. For example, in the art area I might have had a vase full of sunflowers, art postcards with flower reproductions for children to look at, paper of different sizes, crayons and colored pencils.

In those wonderful days when I had a paraprofessional working with me, I set up a table for making playdough. This was always a magnet for children. The assistance of paraprofessionals in the classroom, alas, is now only a memory in most New York City classrooms. When I became the sole educator in the room, I put out playdough that I made the night before school began for children to play with on this first day of school. New week, when Choice Time would begin, I would sit with a group of children to make playdough for the week. (I never used commercial playdough in my class. My reasoning opens up a big discussion of process versus product. Perhaps this can be another blog entry!)

The dramatic play center was open, but on the first few days I only included a small amount of dress-up clothes, play dishes and pots, a play telephone and a small pad with pencil. In the near future, as the children became more skilled at cleaning up, I would add more materials to the center.

I put out some simple puzzles that would be inviting but not overwhelming and some manipulatives such as a pegboard and a magnet-builder. The block center was closed (blocks covered with a sheet or paper) on the first few days. Very soon I would introduce the unit blocks to the entire class through a whole class building activity.

When all of the parents left, I was free to walk around, chat with the children and record my initial observations. How did children approach and use the materials that I put out for them? Who jumped into an activity and who stood on the side and needed my help to join a group or find an activity?

Clean up time, too, was informative for me. In looking through my scribbled notes in some of my old plan books, I see that some years I wrote, next to clean-up time, “good job by class” or “Tommy might need special help learning to do this” or “leave more time for clean-up.” These initial observations gave me the information I needed to guide me in planning appropriate lessons for helping children learn clean-up procedures and also for helping children learn to transition from one activity to another.

When we all met on the rug the first day, I shared the year’s first  morning message. Because it was a short school day, I didn’t plan a separate snack time. The children had a snack on the rug as I read them a storybook. One year it was Mooncake. Another year I read Franklin in the Dark, which turned out to be very popular with the children, perhaps because of the turtle in the room.

I usually taught the children two songs the first week of school. I wanted them to sing songs that they could bring home and sing to their families. It wasn’t the same two songs each year, but two popular ones were Woody Guthrie’s “Howdi Do” which we sang throughout the year at the start of the day, and “Freight Train“, a very calming song that we often sang after lunch and at the end of the day. In each case I eliminated verses or even changed some to make them more appropriate for 4 and 5 year olds.

I might, if time permitted, teach the game Statues or Mirror (Face-to-Face). I did, however, try to keep the time that children sat on the carpet as short as possible.

At the end of the morning, the children drew self-portraits. (Sometimes I saved this activity for the second or third day of school.) I gave each child an individual mirror and a paper with the child’s name. As one would expect with 4 and 5 year olds, there was always a wide range of drawing abilities. Some children made noticeably realistic drawings and some children were happy with squiggle sketches. I celebrated all of them. We would create self-portraits at the start of each month. By the end of the year these drawings became wonderful assessments for the children and for me.

The first day or two were usually half days that tended to be over sooner than I always expected. The morning would end with our new song and with some description on my part of something exciting that would happen the next day.

I know that my synopsis of the start of the school year is rather sketchy. However, the big idea that I would like to emphasize is how important it is to think of these opening days of the kindergarten year as a special time when teachers can begin to generate children’s enthusiasm and joyful love of school. This is the excitement that teachers can build on throughout the school year!


Howdi Do

I stick out my little hand

To ev’ry woman, kid and man

And I shake it up and down,

howjido, howjido

Yes, I shake it up and down, howjido

Howdy doozle doodle doozie 

Howji hijie heejie hojie, 
Howji hojie heejie hijie, 

Howjido, howjido, howjido, sir, 
Doodle doosie, howjido.

On my sidewalk, on my street, 
Any place that we do meet,

Then I’ll shake you by your hand, 
Howjido, howjido,

Yes, I’ll shake it up and down, howjido

Howdy doozle doodle doozie 

Howji hijie heejie hojie, 
Howji hojie heejie hijie, 

Howjido, howjido, howjido, sir, 
Doodle doosie, howjido.

I feel glad when you feel good,

You cheer up my neighborhood,

Shakin’hands with ev’rybody,
Howjido, howjido



Freight train, freight train going so fast.

Freight train, freight train going so fast.

Please don’t tell what train I’m on,

So they won’t know where I’ve gone.

Love to hear that old whistle blow.

Makes me feel like I’d like to ride some, too.

Please don’t tell what train I’m on,

So they won’t know where I’ve gone