Monthly Archives: January 2014

Planning for Choice Time

“Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.”
― Winston Churchill

revising the first grade building planWhen I decided to call my blog Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration, and Play, I purposefully put forth my vision for the meaning and direction of Choice Time by using those three key words: Inquiry, Exploration, and Play.

On a first visit to a school, I always ask to spend time in rooms during Choice Time. To my dismay, what teachers often refer to as Choice Time is actually an end-of-day wind down time for children after a morning and afternoon spent in reading, writing, phonics, and math lessons. This Choice Time might consist of board games, legos, table toys and, if the children are lucky, dramatic play and (not so often) blocks. There’s very little planning for these centers. It is usually a free playtime, a throwaway half hour at the end of the day before dismissal, giving the teacher time to grade papers, prepare homework, conduct a reading or math assessment, or do some other type of paperwork. I rarely see teachers interacting with children or writing down observational notes during this Choice Time.

I have a different vision of Choice Time. Because it is so important, it should be scheduled at a prime time during the school day, allotted a full period (perhaps even a bit more) and carefully planned for by the teacher. I’m not suggesting that centers should consist of task-driven activities. Quite the contrary, I think that they should be open-ended enough to allow for much exploration, discovery, collaboration and creativity.

The teacher should be able to explain very specifically to another adult – an administrator, a parent, and a colleague – the important learning that is taking place as children are exploring playfully. Let me explain a bit about the preparation for my vision of Choice Time centers.

When I present the concept of an inquiry-based and exploratory Choice Time to teachers, I introduce them to a simple planning template. This template is divided into three sections. I’ll attempt to explain how the planning is done.

We begin with the initial setting up of a center and describe the instructional rationale behind this center. For example, at the start of the year the instructional rationale for the block center might be to encourage children to collaborate and share, to give them opportunities to discover the unit blocks different sizes and shapes, and for children to gain an understanding of three-dimensionality. Later in the year, the instructional rationale might include providing opportunities for children to write signs for constructions using their knowledge of phonics, the word wall and words.

If the teacher has a strong understanding of the learning that is taking place at each center, it’s so much easier explaining this learning to administrators, particularly if they question why prime time during the school day is being used for play. Most administrators, it seems to me, have very little knowledge about early childhood and theories of child development. Parents also often need reassurance about the learning taking place while their child is engaged in important, playful, age-appropriate work during Choice Time. This can be at the art table, dramatic play, and the block center or at a science center.

The next part of the first section describes the Materials and physical set up of the center. Where is the center located? Is there a designated area of the classroom where children can do science observations and experiments? Is there enough space in the block center for four children to work cooperatively and is it in an area where constructions can be left up for a few days so children can work on long- term projects? Is the art area well stocked with materials that children easily and independently access? (Hint: If you can find them, clear containers are wonderful to use for materials because children can easily see what is inside.)
Are there appropriate books in each center for children to look through for new information, ideas and inspiration? Are there a variety of writing materials for recording new, surprising information, writing notes, making signs, etc?detail-block market

When I arranged my classroom, I incorporated the tables and chairs into the different centers. For example, in the art center I had two tables that abutted each other, creating a larger area for art projects. A table was in the science center and one in the math center. My goal was to give the message that our room was an art studio, a science lab, a math lab, a library, and a construction/architectural site. It was a big lab for learning and creating. The space in the room was broken up in a more interesting design than if all of the tables were together in the middle of the room. This seemed to work well for me.

After the room and materials are set up and instructional goals are clear, it is time to observe how children use the centers. Therefore, the second part of the template focuses on Assessing the Center. This is done after the children have been using the center for about two or three weeks. We now ask our selves: How are the children using the materials in this center? Sometimes the materials that we put out are not open-ended enough and children quickly tire of them. Sometimes they are too open-ended and they are not being used constructively. Writing down some observations during center time can be very helpful for assessment.

After assessing how the children are using the centers and the materials in the centers, it’s time to do some Reflecting and Planning Based on these Reflections.

In this section of the planning template, we ask ourselves: What materials can be added (or removed) to support growth in this center? One year I noticed that the children were losing interest in the science center. They had been exploring with all different types of magnets. Some of the children were particularly interested in mazes. I provided paper, paper clips, pencils and magnets and challenged them to create maze games. They were totally engrossed in using the magnets to pull the paper clips around their mazes. This interest lasted about a week or so but I noticed that it was ebbing. I remembered that my daughter had a magnetic storybook theater when she was younger and began to rummage around at home to see if I could find it. Success! I brought this wonderfully magical-looking theater into school to share with the class and, as I anticipated, the children were enthralled. I wondered, out loud, if we could use shoeboxes and our magnets to create our own storybook theaters. My wondering caught fire. What happened next was a combining of the science center and the art center. Some children found their favorite storybooks and looked through them for ideas as they built their theater scenery. Other children created original stories and scenes or made a scene from their own life. As they drew and cut out characters I demonstrated how to fold the bottom and glue on a paper clip so that the figure could stand upright and be moved around the shoebox surface. Some children glued two clips on to make it easier for the magnet to move the character around the stage. They had to hold their shoebox stages so that they could move the magnet around under them but one child came up with an ingenious solution. He found four empty sewing spools that were in a container full of spools in the art center and he glued (tape had to be added later on!) one on each corner of the shoebox, creating a stand. He placed the shoebox on the table and swiped a wand stick magnet under the box to move his “people” around the stage.

Another question to consider is: Are there any ways that you can connect work and explorations in this center to classroom studies and inquiries? As an example, if you are in the midst of a whole-class folktale study and this week you’re focusing on Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the addition of the storybook and some stuffed bears in the block center can provoke children to construct the forest and the house of the bears. They may use the book and props to start reenacting the story and this is without being given any specific task.

everyone is busyA second grade class that I’ve been working with has been doing a Car Study. After visiting a garage and interviewing a mechanic they opened a “take apart” center where children were using tools to take apart an old machine. They also had a map center filled with all different road maps and materials for children to create their own maps. Recycled materials were stocked in the art center for creating cars.

It may seem somewhat overwhelming to plan out each center using this template and it probably will not be used all of the time. However, there’s so little support that teachers today get in understanding how to develop an exciting, enriched, playful and also challenging Choice Time. I was very lucky. I had so many mentors who taught me about the importance of play my journey as a teacher. I fear that, for new teachers, there are no mentors in their schools who can help them understand how to create exploratory, inquiry-based centers in their classrooms. Hopefully, this planning template will, if not take the place of a mentor, at least give teachers some support.

Tears of Hope

sandtableThe Internet can be seductive and, at times, downright dangerous. It can also open the doors to wonderful information. We can make connections with important colleagues who would otherwise have been unknown. That happened to me a few years ago when I met Matt Glover through an online introduction made by Kathy Collins. That introduction led to a very important study-group visit to Reggio Emilia and to my special and valued friendship with Matt.

This past month I had another introduction facilitated by Julie Diamond, a friend who is a wonderful educator, early childhood teacher, and artist. I became acquainted with Rebecca Burdett, a passionate first grade teacher from New Paltz, New York. Rebecca and I have been emailing back and forth, sharing our thoughts about the state of early childhood education. We haven’t yet had a face-to-face encounter but I’m sure that will happen someday.

A few days ago Rebecca sent me a copy of a letter that she wrote to the new mayor of New York City, Bill DeBlasio. I was so impressed with what Rebecca had to say and I thought that I must share it with you.

My only revision to the letter, if I could have made it, would have been to this sentence:
Create Pre-K classrooms with rich learning areas for block play, sand and water, art and music experiences, dramatic play corners and engaging libraries and you will recreate New York City, beginning with its youngest citizens.

I love all that Rebecca wrote. I would, however, wish to revise the beginning to say:
Create Pre-k and kindergarten classrooms with rich learning areas…

In New York City the Department of Education seems to have forgetten that kindergarten is an early childhood grade. When government officials and school administrators ignore this important point, they open doors to let in all sorts of inappropriate practices that can turn kindergarten into a clone of first grade.

Here is Rebecca Burdett’s letter:

January 2, 2014
New Paltz, NY 

Dear Mr. DeBlasio,

I watched highlights from your Inauguration this morning on Democracy Now. I was moved to tears when you began speaking about your new taxation system to provide for Universal Pre-k for all of New York City’s four year olds.

As a veteran teacher, in my 30th year of work with young children, this is an issue near and dear to my heart. I am a graduate of Bank Street College of Education, and have dedicated much of my professional life to early childhood. I know that the steps you are currently taking to provide high quality educational opportunities for young children goes beyond rhetoric about educational reform, and strikes at the deep issues of racial equality, poverty and liberation that will either unite or divide our nation. You have taken action where other leaders merely presented visions of what could be.

I cried, too, when President Obama was first Inaugurated in 2008. I saw him as a beacon of hope, especially in the area of education. A product of a dynamic, progressive education himself, he spoke of strengthening early childhood programs and undoing the damage done to our educational system by No Child Left Behind. And then, he bypassed the gifted guidance of Linda Darling Hammond, and appointed Arne Duncan. Sadly, tragically, a new beginning for young children has not come to pass. We have become a nation obsessed with high-stakes testing, despite 100 years of research that rejects this kind of assessment for young children! The four year olds in 2008, were last May’s 3rd grade class. They sat through federally mandated standardized testing that was as flawed as it was heartless. Race to the Top, with its underfunded and restrictive mandates has inflicted great damage, not just to the eight and nine year olds who sat through three days of grueling, incomprehensible hour and a half exams, but to early childhood programs, as well. Commissioner King lied when he said that young children were not being tested. The new APPR, a bargaining chip of the RTTT monies in NY, with its new scoring equations, required that my students’ work be given a standardized point value.

Last year, my first grade students were subjected to test after test… if you can believe it, two tests in math and literacy, and two tests in Gym, in Library, in Music and in Art. These tests were added to our districts’ ongoing assessments. As a result, my first graders were subjected to 24 discrete assessments between May and June of last year. Of course, there were diagnostic pre-tests in September and October, and ongoing test preparations so the children would know how to “take” the state-mandated tests. You get the picture.

Thankfully, these summative assessments have been reduced by half, due in large part to the enormous pushback by parents, teachers and administrators across the state. Commissioner King has experienced just the beginning of the fall out that will ultimately undo any benefits the Common Core had to offer. When you pit teachers against their students by tying test scores to teacher performance, you are toying with what is, I believe, a sacred relationship between teacher and student. It is completely clear that poverty, and a lack of educational opportunity is what creates diminished results, not ineffective teaching. We need to address homelessness, domestic hunger, unemployment and hopelessness if we want to improve education. We cannot vilify the very people who have worked against the odds, giving all to make a difference in the lives of their students.

But I know I am preaching to the choir. You and I both know that assessing young children with standardized paper/pencil tasks is not developmentally appropriate or efficacious. I am writing to you to ask that you proceed into the world of Universal Pre-K with both eyes wide open to unscrupulous and uneducated test-makers, waiting to descend on the world of four year olds and inflict damage on what I know could be the greatest liberation of the spirit New York has ever experienced. Do not open the floodgates for-profit educational corporations and their canned, scripted curricula. Draw from the tremendous pool of talent your city affords. Seek the guidance of early childhood professionals at Bank Street College of Education, Teachers’ College and CUNY. New York City has a dynamic legacy of Progressive Education that can guide the education policies of a progressive administration such as your own. New York City was home to Caroline Pratt, inventor of the Unit Block, and long time Head of City and Country School. Lucy Sprague Mitchell, of the Bureau of Educational Experiments, (later Bank Street School of Education) shaped a generation of early childhood educators and theorists who have maintained a clear and dynamic vision of what young children need to thrive and take their place as citizens of a new democracy. Deborah Meier’s schools still provide a way of thinking about educational autonomy and the liberation of the spirit. City and Country and Bank Street School for Children are highly regarded schools, but what they offer should not be given only to the few who can afford their tuitions. We can look to them as models for what ALL children should enjoy…a high-quality, active education that sees the child for who she is, a person of great ability and talent, not someday, not after proving this on a test, but by the very nature of being. A happy, engaged and listened-to child, in a beautifully prepared environment, with a full belly and a time to explore, inquire and investigate is on a track to become fully realized.

Create Pre-K classrooms with rich learning areas for block play, sand and water, art and music experiences, dramatic play corners and engaging libraries and you will recreate New York City, beginning with its youngest citizens. Keep student-teacher ratios low, as low as those in the private schools the elite in NY demand, and draw upon the idealistic and dedicated young educators who have cast their lot with education, despite the doom and gloom of our profession’s state. Look to mentors to help these young professionals. You’d be surprised how many recently retired teachers would love to give back by participating in a bold, new initiative such as yours.

I’m not retired…far from it, but I would offer to you my services. I study children’s block play, and have presented across the country on the importance of play in early childhood programs. I would welcome the chance to help in your work, and to be a part of the effort to create a new vision of how we care for children. We must take back our country from those who would create a two-tiered system for the haves and have-nots. Private schools and charters for the fortunate, and overcrowded classrooms and substandard curricula for the rest. Food abundance for some, and cuts to food stamps for others. Enrichment programs for a few, and cuts to art, music and foreign languages for most.

In the name of all that is good about democracy, this must end. I want to help. Put me to work.


Rebecca Burdett
First Grade Teacher
New Paltz Central School District

I want to help too. I’m ready to jump in and do all that I can to assist in Bill DeBlasio and our new school chancellor, Carmen Farina’s progressive agenda for the education of the children of New York!

You Are My Sunshine

Adrian in schoolyardI am so honored to have been nominated for a Sunshine Award by Pat Johnson. The Sunshine Award is a lovely way that bloggers recognize each other. Basically, it spreads Sunshine from one blog to another!

The Sunshine Award was started by Matt Renwick, an elementary principal in Wisconsin (@readbyexample). Here are the rules Matt lists in his post:
Acknowledge the nominating blogger. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
 Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you. List 11 bloggers. They should be bloggers you believe deserve some recognition and a little blogging love! Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. (You cannot nominate the blogger who nominated you.)

Here are the questions that Pat ( asked me along with my answers:

1. If you hadn’t become a teacher, what would you have been?                                         This is such a difficult question for me to answer. Teaching really fulfilled me in so many ways. I could be creative, silly, serious, industrious, social, well, just about anything. I was a very poor science student when I was in high school and in college. As a teacher, though, I loved science. I saw it in an entirely new way. I was opening up a world of wonder for the children and, coincidentally, for myself too. So teaching did fill so many needs that I had. When I was younger, I thought that I might become a writer, possibly a reporter. Now that I’m “retired” from the classroom, I have many opportunities to write about my passion – teaching- on my blog. How lucky can one person be?
2. Tell me something about the grandparent who meant a lot to you.                               When I was very young, my mother and I lived with my grandmother. My father was overseas (WWII) and I imagine that this was economically, practically, and emotionally a good place for my mother to live. My father came back from the war when I was almost three and we moved to our own home, temporary barracks that were built for returning veterans. I spent almost every weekend with my grandmother, probably so that my parents could “reacquaint” after such a long separation. I hung out in the kitchen with my grandma or sat with her as she crocheted. It was a very homey feeling when I was with her. Unfortunately she passed away when I was nine years old. My mother tried to explain to me that Grandma was up in heaven. I have such a strong memory of sitting by my bedroom window at nighttime, looking up at the stars, and wondering which star was the one where my grandmother lived.
3. My favorite charity is…Doctors Without Borders
4. What’s the funniest thing a student every said to you?                                                   Some years ago I was teaching pre-k at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn. One day as I was dismissing the children, one sweet, shy little girl earnestly lagged behind and came over to me. She took my hand in hers, looked up at me with teary eyes and said, “Renee, don’t you get lonely and scared when you’re here by yourself all night?” It really wasn’t a funny statement but it was so touching.
5. Name a teacher from your past who impressed you and why.                                              I loved school. It was like my private refuge. I can’t really remember any of my lessons although I do remember a wonderful day when I went into the teacher’s kitchen with my first grade teacher and a few other children. We made Jello. It was thrilling, especially going into the room where the teachers ate. Another memory was in junior high school English class. My teacher, Mrs. Oliver, read to us every day. That was so special. She also played a recording of Basil Rathbone reading the works of Edgar Allen Poe. That was completely memorable! Thank you Mrs. Oliver.
6. The one thing on my bucket list that I know I will get to someday is…                            In 1976-1979 I lived in Rome with my husband, Simon and my young daughter. Simone went to a lovely (communist!) Montessori pre-school for two years and then to the local public school. She was becoming a true Romano. Simon had a Rome Prize and he had a marvelous studio at the American Academy. They also provided us with a huge apartment in Monteverde Vecchio. All three of us have marvelous memories of that special time. My bucket list wish is to return to Rome for a vacation with Simon, Simone, my son-in-law Jeremy and my grandson Adrian. Jeremy and Adrian have never been there and I want us to be able to all share in the wonders of this beautiful city together.
7. For exercise, I like to…                                                                                                            This is such a downfall for me. Whenever I join an exercise class or make a plan for myself, some part of my body seems to fall apart. I take a private Pilates class each week and I love working with Spela, my fantastic instructor. I also love city walking. New York is the best place for that. I’ve had some pretty bad sciatica, which has really discouraged me from walking but (knock wood) I seem to be on the repair. I hope that pretty soon I can get on a regular walking regime, both in Brooklyn walking by Prospect Park and also walking around with my husband, visiting galleries and just enjoying the city.
8. Who is your favorite children’s book author?                                                                    Maude Hart Lovelace! I grew up devouring the Betsy-Tacy series. My friend Joyce and I would pretend that we were Betsy and Tacy. Even though we lived in a housing project in Brooklyn, we pretended that we lived in a small town in Minnesota. We would pack food, books, notebooks and pencils and ride our bikes to an empty lot near the train tracks. It was a pretty deserted area but we had no fear. I don’t even know if our mothers realized where we were going! It was our secret spot to read, play and write. Betsy (me) and Tacy (Joyce). When I was teaching kindergarten and first grade I introduced the books to my classes for read aloud time. I’m not sure if the children would have known about the books (it was a series) on their own but when they heard that they were my favorite books when I was a child, they couldn’t wait to hear each chapter. They even played Betsy-Tacy during Choice Time and in the schoolyard at recess! At one point (as an adult!) I joined the Betsy-Tacy Society. Anna Quindlen was the president!
9. If you could visit any other country, which one would it be?                                             I’ve never been to Greece and I would love to go there. I’d also like to explore southern Italy. I’ve only been to places north of Rome. I’d like to, particularly, visit the Amalfi Coast.
10. What is the talent you really wish you had?                                                                           I wish I had some musical talent. It’s frustrating to have a grand piano in my home and to have no idea of how to play it. I was at a New Year’s Day party this year and it was filled with guests who played all different string instruments. There was lots of ‘jamming’. One person would leave the group to have a drink or eat and another would musician would step in to play. It looked like so much fun!
11. If you could invent a holiday, what would it be for?                                                           In Italy August 15th is a day when just about everyone stops what they are doing and goes to the beach or the countryside. I love the idea that they are not to obsessed with work to just stop for rest and enjoyment. My husband said that, to him, it’s like the lemmings going out to sea. To me, though, it’s like a glorious belief in the importance of taking a breath to stop and smell the roses.
Here are the eleven random facts about me:

1. I entered a talent show when I was in 4th grade, sang Seven Lonely Days and “yodeled” like a cowgirl at the end. I didn’t actually hear anyone in the audience laugh!
2. My husband and I met at Brighton Beach Bay 3 in 1964. It was the luckiest day of my life.
3. I love vanilla ice cream. Because I’m lactose intolerant, I can’t eat it anymore (although I sometimes eat some and risk a stomach ache!)
4. I don’t like winter. It’s too cold and snowy. I didn’t even like winter when I was a small child.
5. At the age of 65 my hair became curly! People who know me for many years ask me if I perm it but I don’t. It’s just a strange, natural phenomenon!
6. I love being a grandmother. My grandson calls me Nonna. He recently told me that for years he thought that Nonna was my first name.
7. I like to watch Law and Order on TV. I think it might be because it’s safer than watching the real news.
8. I feel passionate about kindergarten and feel, sadly, that it’s the year that is being misinterpreted lately.
9. I’m so proud of my family. My husband, my daughter and my son-in-law all bring passion and dedication to their work: my husband to his art, my daughter to her music, and my son-in-law to his teaching.
10. I’m putting a lot of hope in Bill DeBlasio, New York’s new Mayor and Carmen Farina, our new chancellor. I hope that the will begin righting many of the wrongs that have been imposed on the public school children and teachers these past twelve years.
11. I went to college at night and worked as a secretary for the Yale Truck Company during the day. This was not a high point of my life!!

I would like to nominate

Leah Mermelstein

Merril ( I don’t know Merril’s last name )

Tomasen Carey

Scott Filkins

Katie Lapham

Bloggers, here are my eleven questions:

1. What book(s) are you presently reading?
2. Who was the must influential person in your life?
3. What inspired you to enter the field of education?
4. Do you have a secret vice that you might be willing to share?
5. What is your ideal vacation?
6. What was your favorite childhood game or activity?
7. Is there a film about childhood that you would recommend to a friend?
8. Who was your best friend when you were a child?
9. Is there a work of art or a piece of music that has left a strong impact on you?
10. What educator has influenced your teaching?
11. What is your ideal vacation?
And now, Leah, Merril, Tomasen, Scott and Katie, what your random facts? I hope you have fun playing around with your Sunshine Award! I look forward to your answers.

Here’s a sunshine song for everyone! Listen! Enjoy! Sing Along!



P.S. I finally have a twitter account! My twitter name is Rd415. Now I need to learn how to use it!