Listening to the Whispers of the Mind

Simon 5

After working as an early childhood consultant for the past ten years, I’ve finally come to a realization about the true nature of my job. Consultants usually have a fairly defined focus to their work. Often they are working with teachers to refine their writing instruction, reading instruction or math instruction. I originally thought that my consulting work basically concentrated on social studies inquiry and investigative choice time centers. Well, of course that is the area that I’m working on with early childhood teachers. I think, however, that the true nature of my work in the schools is to be a strong advocate for children and childhood.

It’s no secret anymore that teachers and administrators are being forced to structure their curriculums in ways that eliminate opportunities for children to be explorative, playful and creative in their thinking. Children have little opportunity for social interactions with their peers. School days are gridded into neat little boxes. Literacy is believed to exist only in a block of time, usually at the start of the day, often during the entire morning without much of a break.

Somehow, this narrow, boxed-in definition of literacy makes me uncomfortable. Living in a home with an artist and a pianist, I can see how much learning occurs in ways that one might not expect. My husband, Simon Dinnerstein, is an artist but he is also an incredibly intellectually and socially curious person. He listens carefully to everyone and everything – the plumber who is fixing our sink and the scientist who is interviewed on television by Charlie Rose – and he observes the world around him with great intensity. All of this new information somehow works together to inspire a new work of art.

My daughter, Simone Dinnerstein, is a concert pianist who mainly performs classical music but she listens to all different genres of music and lets these different sounds rest within her. In her travels she meets and forms friendships with a variety of people from the neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks, in New York to the Vienna-based theramininist, Pamela Kurstin. As a result of her curiosity and her reflective intellect, her interpretation of the various composers’ work and her performances of their pieces continue to become more expansive and personal.

I thought about this when I recently read a review of Daniel Goleman’s new book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. I was particularly taken with his description of open awareness “Always a rare and elusive form of thinking, it seems to be getting rarer and more elusive. Our modern search – engine culture celebrates information gathering and problem solving – ways of thinking associated with orienting and selective focus – but has little patience for the mind’s reveries. Letting one’s thoughts wander seems frivolous, a waste of practical brainpower. Worse, our infatuation with social media is making it harder to hear the mind’s whispers.”

In New York City, there’s a new teacher evaluation tool called Advance. Multiple measures of “teacher effectiveness” are used to rate teachers. Some of the tools that are used include observations of classroom practice, reviews of teachers’ artifacts, student outcome data and student feedback. For the classroom observations, administrators use Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching.

The original purpose of this document was to be used as a tool to support a teacher’s professional development. The NYC Department of Education has turned it into an instrument for rating teachers. Principals observe a teacher for 15 minutes, writing down every word that teachers and children say during this time period. The administrator then spends a few hours (really!) matching up every part of the lesson with the four domains of the Framework. After a lot of paper work, all information is fed into the Advance computer program and a teacher rating is regurgitated back. This does not take into account anything that the principal knows about the teacher or the children. It’s all based on the computer’s data-driven results. Each teacher is rated this way six times during the school year. There’s no place for nuance. There’s no place for the principal’s opinion based on the teacher’s history in the school. Data. It’s all data-driven.

In a recent meeting with teachers, Michael Mulgrew, the head of the United Federation of Teachers, said that he originally told Charlotte Danielson that her wonderful document would be put through the Department of Education’s system and come out with razor blades attached. So it seems to have happened. If the teacher gets an unsatisfactory rating, his or her job is on the line. This process certainly isn’t encouraging teacher creativity. Towing the line is the order of the day.

As our public schools continue to show signs of this McCarthy-like coercion, how can we expect teachers to give children opportunities to hear the whispers in their minds? Teachers also need to be relieved of the stress imposed by an out of touch bureaucracy so that too they can feel free to incorporate their own experiences and interests in their interactions with children.

Once, when I was teaching kindergarten, I noticed one of the children, Brooklyn, returning to the same book, day after day. This was in September, soon after our summer vacation. I pointed this out to the class and told them that I found this particularly interesting because I did the same thing during the summer. I told them that I read a book called House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. I liked it so much that I began reading it again as soon as I finished the last page. Now, I said, I was looking for other books by the same author. I then wondered if Brooklyn would be looking for more books by Dr. Seuss. This began a class search for Dr. Seuss books to add to Brooklyn’s book pile and it also instigated a temporary class obsession with finding and collecting books by their own favorite authors. The excitement for this activity lasted for a short period of time and then we moved on to something new. I didn’t think about the discussion that led to the author collections until a June day when one of the children asked me if I was going to read them my ghost story. I hadn’t the faintest idea of what he was referring to. “You know, the one that you read two times last summer.” Children listen and think about what we say and do.

We all need to figure out a way of being advocates for children. We need to be sure that we’re saying and doing what is really right for them. They need quality time to for exploring, questioning, playing, creating and theorizing. In a recent email exchange that I had with Charlotte Danielson she wrote: “we seem to have lost that aspect of early childhood education, which should be obvious to anyone who’s watched four-year-olds at “work” – exploring, formulating hypotheses (they don’t call them that of course, but that’s what it is – trying things out to see what happens), etc. For young children it’s all about inquiry!”

I’d like to expand on what Charlotte Danielson wrote and say that it’s all about inquiry for all children, not only four year olds, and that it is important for us to remember that. Without opportunities for inquiry, we open up the possibility of frivolously wasting the brainpower of our future citizens and, it seems, of creating unhappy and stressed – out schoolchildren.

10 thoughts on “Listening to the Whispers of the Mind

  1. Joan Kramer

    I am particularly fascinated with your amazingly talented family! What a joy that must be! I am also wary of anything that is done to evaluate teachers that isn’t based on real outcomes, and the real needs of the children especially. I know why my favorite subject to teach was science because it was all based on the children’s ability to ask questions, to observe, to make conclusions. And they weren’t even aware they were doing much except having fun. That is what teaching was all about when I student taught in 1970-71.
    I mourn for those days and the days of teaching based on Piaget and others.
    Thank you for keeping us in touch with these important issues.

  2. Tomasen

    Brilliant Renee!! You hit every point with a delicate hammer that sang it’s way all the way home and back!
    It is a crazy world out there indeed. Just the other day I was literally chased down the hall by the principal because we had not formally met even though I had been to her school several times and tried to meet with her several times. She was in a panic…imagine letting someone from the University into the classrooms. What is the fear all about?
    Fear. Fear is running all of these systems and with fear there is no trust.
    Thanks for writing!

  3. Constance Norgren

    “The whispers of the mind”! Renee, you are writing poems on the ideal – and possible – life of teachers and children in their schools – a philosopher of the essences of learning and of the sources of creativity. Thank you over and over for (blog after blog!) fanning the flames of the art of teaching/ the joy of learning.

  4. Linda Baie

    I am fortunate to teach in an independent school based on inquiry and choice. Our students thrive, yet we still fight against the recent trend of children being so structured at home that they rarely outside of school are able to listen to their “whispers”. Few of our younger students have ever had a sandbox or a treehouse! Some need to be taught how to play! Thank you for writing this so beautifully.

  5. Megan

    Renee, thank you so much for this. Your eloquence helps me to realize that this is exactly what I find my biggest job to be as a parent of school-aged kids, even in the very wonderful school that my children attend. I am a big fan of your blog – it’s a wonderful and very valuable resource, and it’s meant a great deal to have my own feelings and observations about kindergarten (and school in general) today be validated by someone with your experience and perspective.

  6. Mary-Ellen

    I can’t help but feel that this is what happens when education is run like a business. It becomes less abut the developmental stages of a child and more about data and test scores. I wonder how Albert Einstein, one of may favorite thinkers of all time, would have fared in today’s world of education? Or where some of the greatest teachers of all time would stand after being put through the Advance tool? Thank you so much for your blog posts and inspiration, Renee. I am so thankful to be able to teach in a school that is open to inquiry and exploration. I know we have a long way to go but I am confident we are headed in the right direction.

  7. Vicki Vinton

    Bravo, Renee, for once again calling it like it is! I’m taking the Goleman quote with me to my session with the teachers from the Opal School at NCTE since they’re one of the few places that explicitly carve out time for children to hear the whispers of their own minds and encourage wandering. See you in Boston!

    1. Renee Post author

      I have been so moved by all of your responses. Vicki, I wish that I could visit Opal school with you. I hope that you share your experience there on your blog To Make A Prairie
      MaryEllen it’s so exciting for me to be a part of the move towards inquiry at the UFT Charter School. You and Sigal are certainly wonderful models for the staff. Megan, I think that ultimately it’s the voice of involved parents who will help make positive changes in public education. Linda I understand what you mean about children who are overscheduled needing to be taught how to play. I think that PTA’s should show and discuss the video Caines Arcade. It’s a wonderful example of the creative thinking a child does when he has the “down time” necessary for coming up with his own innovative ideas. Stacy I feel like I would like to follow up on the DOE’s statement “pioneers for data.” It’s been haunting me since I read your comment! Joan, wouldn’t it be wonderful for us to revisit the teaching of the 70’s and add on all of the brilliant new ideas from the work of theorists such as Sir Ken Richardson, Tom Newkirk and Carlina Rinaldi? Tomasen, your story of being chased down the hall in a school is so sad, especially since the school is so lucky to have your involvement. Connie, you know that all I know about poetry and the poetics of teaching comes from my personal and professional friendship with you!


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