My daughter, Simone Dinnerstein, is a rather incredible person, if I do say so myself! She’s a marvelous pianist who worked very hard her entire life to achieve the success that she is now enjoying. At the age of 4 she decided that she wanted to be a pianist. We were living in Rome because my husband, Simon, had received a Rome Prize for painting. Simon’s studio was at the beautiful American Academy and we had a lovely apartment nearby in the neighborhood, Monteverde Vecchio. We enrolled Simone in a ballet class for children, thinking that she would enjoy the dancing. Little did we know that the pianist who played Chopin while they went through their dance routines would mesmerize her. She began asking for lessons but, since both Simon and I had no musical background, we thought that she was too young to study piano. In addition, we did not have a piano!
The requests didn’t stop. Finally Simon asked the composer in residence, John Thow, what he would suggest and John advised us to begin her on recorder lessons. By this time, Simone was five years old. We bought her a recorder and found a lovely recorder teacher who agreed to instruct her. Her teacher was amazed at how quickly Simone picked up the music. She said that it was as though she had played it in another life.
We didn’t return to NYC until Simone was seven but as soon as we were settled in an apartment, Simone reminded us of our promise to let her have piano lessons when we returned to NY. We brought my mother’s spinet piano to Brooklyn, found a young woman in the neighborhood who gave lessons, and Simone’s life as a pianist began. She eventually went to the Manhattan School of Music Pre-College Division every Saturday until she graduated high school where she studied with Solomon Mikowsky (without missing one Saturday!), then to Juilliard, followed by studying in London with the renowned teacher, Maria Curcio and finally returning to NY to study with Peter Serkin.
The rest of her career is well documented in many articles and interviews, so I’ll skip over that and move right on to the reason for this blog entry.
I’ve always believed that it was my husband’s career as an artist that had the greatest influence on Simone but lately I’m realizing that she is also very much influenced by my career as a teacher. Simone has a deep commitment towards bringing music into the life of the community and also to the lives of young children. To this end she began a program called Neighborhood Classics in two New York City public schools, hoping that it will be replicated in other schools and communities.
This year she has added to that by creating her Bachpacking experiences, where she had gone directly into classrooms in 10 NYC schools and 10 Washington, D.C. schools so that she can play Bach for the children. Yamaha has donated the use of a digital piano and SONY has provided transportation for her. I sat in on two of her sessions with third graders at the UFT Charter School in Brooklyn. The children were totally engaged and eager to ask questions. (“Do you have to practice on your birthday?”). A second grade teacher at P.S. 142 in Manhattan sent me the following email message, “I want you to know this really brought a smile to my face. I can’t begin to tell you how inspired they were and immediately started writing about their experience. They also asked more questions about music today and so I explained some rudimentary things about the treble and bass clef and how notes are written on paper and read between left and right hand. We also discussed how their voices are really musical instruemts and practiced the scale DO RAE Me etc… They just can’t stop telling people about the concert and are trying their best to be so well behaved.I was also amazed how they managed to remember so many of the words they were taught. Did Simone tell you about the one little girl who started to cry because she was holding her breath to be picked to play so Simone was nice enough to allow her to play. She went home and told her mother all about how much she loved the music.”
In Yiddish there’s a word that signifies filling up with pride – kvelling. I guess I’m taking advantage of my blog to do some kvelling. But beyond my pride, it’s so obvious when one sees the children interacting with Simone how easily children take to music and how much joy and fulfillment it can bring to their lives. I hope that Simone’s work in the schools might inspire the powers that be to bring good music instruction and experiences back into the public schools.
“Only a society prepared by education can ever be truly a cultured society …Children must receive musical instruction naturally as food, and with as much pleasure as they derive from a ball game.”
This past Saturday I came across a blog that was posted on Facebook and the latest entry was titled Beautiful Stuff: Diary of a Gan Teacher. A kindergarten teacher was about to begin the Beautiful Stuff project with her class and would be blogging about it periodically. What a perfect find this was for me! The kindergarten classes in two of the schools where I consult are just beginning this project. I emailed all of the teachers the link to this blog and encouraged them to read it, and if they felt the urge, to send in comments on how the project was working in their classes.
Then, yesterday (Sunday) I received a beautiful private message on my Facebook page from Amy Meltzer, a kindergarten teacher working in Massachusetts. She wrote about how much she enjoys my blog and how it is supporting her planning for Choice Time. It was such a wonderful beginning to my Sunday. I wrote back to Amy and through the course of our back and forth communications discovered that Amy is the author of the Beautiful Stuff blog! Now isn’t that amazing!
I just love the Beautiful Stuff project. As a staff developer working with early childhood teachers, I find that it is a perfect way to support teachers in understanding the joy and potential of exploration, inquiry and creative expression.
The project is presented in the book Beautiful Stuff! Learning with Found Materialsby Cathy Weisman Topal and Lella Gandini. The publisher’s description of the book on their website says, “inspired by educational practices in Reggio Emilia, Italy, this book focuses on process rather than product. Chapters cover collecting and organizing materials, stimulating thoughts about design, reflecting upon and extending work, and more. Several sorting and categorizing activities are presented, along with individual and group projects and constructions.”
I’d like to share some images of children’s work from two different New York City public schools. In this first school working with this study had a profound effect on the way that the kindergarten teachers approached art with their children. When I first visited their classrooms I was struck by how caring all of the teachers were towards their students. The population consisted of mostly children of immigrants from Latino countries. Many families lived in shelters or in a local housing project. For a variety of reasons, the children did not take part in class conversations. There was little chatter between them at their tables when they were working or at play centers. The art work that I saw on the walls all looked very similar and teacher-directed.
Look at what happened when they were encouraged to experiment with a variety of materials and come up with their own personal designs.
Something unusual occurred in Dana Roth’s kindergarten class at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn, New York. They were in the midst of the Beautiful Stuff project. At their centers, during Choice Time, children created Beautiful Stuff Color Cities, Beautiful Stuff inventions and Beautiful Stuff games. Then one child came up with a new idea. “Let’s have a Beautiful Stuff newspaper!” Dana, who was always interested in picking up on children’s interests, facilitated a discussion to find out what children knew about newspapers. At the class meeting they decided to open up a newspaper center. Children took on different roles – writers, reporters, illustrators and photographers. Here are some of the pages from their Beautiful Stuff Telling Newspaper:
Have any of you had experience with this project? If you haven’t, are you interested in giving it a try? These are some suggestions that I have shared with the teachers that I’ve been working with at various NYC schools:
Ideas and Thoughts from the text Beautiful Stuff!
One goal of this project is to allow children to become ‘fluent’ with materials – as if materials were a language
This project tends to get parents very involved – they too are eager to share the treasures that they collected. They are interested in seeing what other families have discovered.
We want to record the opening of the bags – video, still photo, tape recorded responses, written transcripts
The teacher helps children focus their observations by asking questions and making responses that help focus conversation
Give children opportunities to sort the materials in unexpected ways
Give children opportunities to name the sorted categories and make observations about the different categories
Materials can be arranged and rearranged many times
When materials are arranged in different categories and displayed in an attractive way, parents and children can add to the materials when they come in to school in the morning (see page 21)
Because clutter is distracting, teachers have to make selections and throw away some materials. This should be done with discretion so that feelings are not hurt
Storing materials in clear or white containers allows children to clearly see the colors and textures of each material
Have a display shelf left blank so children can use it for unfinished or finished work (see page 46)
An enthusiastic adult has to be involved to keep the communication and dialogue going
The kinds of questions to ask as well as when to ask or make an observation becomes important parts of being present to the moment with children
Exploring materials is an evocative experience. It stimulates the imagination. It invites children to tell stories and to develop games
Social interaction is a natural outcome of exploring
Exploring materials is a bridge to other avenues of expression, such as drawing, collage, construction and sculpture
Saving a trace or memory of an experience is so important to the art of learning and teaching
Collecting materials and ideas for a project on one day, then inviting children to wait overnight to think them through, builds a sense of anticipation and allows for changes in plans and new ideas
Instead of giving children a model on which to base their work, ask, “How could you make ___ from your materials?”
I hope that you will visit Amy’s blog and that you will share some of your own experiences with this project. If you have thoughts or questions about any aspect of this study, please post them on the “make a comment” space for my blog. I have a feeling that there are many teachers who read our blogs who will have many interesting suggestions and stories to share.
I just read a brilliant essay by Alfie Kohn that Valerie Strauss shared on her blog. It’s a piece that should be read and shared by anyone who has anything to do with the education of young children. After you read this, it would be so wonderful if you could share it with as many parents of young children as possible. It’s the parents who will be the ones who finally say, “Enough!” (At least I hope that they will say that.)
I’m wondering, as a New Yorker, how I can reach Bill DeBlasio, our new mayor, and encourage him to read this article and to think carefully about how the city will educate all of the potential pre-k students in New York City. We could really make a difference and set an example here!
Here is the article:
By Alfie Kohn
Universal pre-kindergarten education finally seems to be gathering momentum. President Obama highlighted the issue in his 2013 State of the Union address and then mentioned it again in this year’s. Numerous states and cities are launching or expanding early-education initiatives, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has made this his signature issue. Disagreements persist about the details of funding, but a real consensus has begun to develop that all young children deserve what has until now been unaffordable by low-income families.
But here’s the catch: Very few people are talking about the kind of education that would be offered — other than declaring it should be “high quality.” And that phrase is often interpreted to mean “high intensity”: an accelerated version of skills-based teaching that most early-childhood experts regard as terrible. Poor children, as usual, tend to get the worst of this.
It doesn’t bode well that many supporters of universal pre-K seem to be more concerned about economic imperatives than about what’s good for kids. In his speech last year, for example, the president introduced the topic by emphasizing the need to “start at the earliest possible age” to “equip our citizens with the skills and training” they’ll need in the workplace. The New York Times, meanwhile, editorialized recently about how we must “tightly integrate the [pre-K] program with kindergarten through third grade so that 4-year-olds do not lose their momentum. It will have to prepare children well for the rigorous Common Core learning standards that promise to bring their math, science and literacy skills up to international norms.”
The top-down, test-driven regimen of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiatives in K-12 education is now in the process of being nationalized with those Common Core standards championed by the Times — an enterprise largely funded, and relentlessly promoted, by corporate groups. That same version of school reform, driven by an emphasis on global competitiveness and a determination to teach future workers as much as possible as soon as possible, would now be expanded to children who are barely out of diapers.
That doesn’t leave much time for play. But even to the extent we want to promote meaningful learning in young children, the methods are likely to be counterproductive, featuring an emphasis on the direct instruction of skills and rote rehearsal of facts. This is the legacy of behaviorism: Children are treated as passive receptacles of knowledge, with few opportunities to investigate topics and pose questions that they find intriguing. In place of discovery and exploration, tots are trained to sit still and listen, to memorize lists of letters, numbers, and colors. Their success or failure is relentlessly monitored and quantified, and they’re “reinforced” with stickers or praise for producing right answers and being compliant.
This dreary version of early-childhood education isn’t just disrespectful of children; decades of research show it simply doesn’t work well — and may even be damaging. The same approach has long been over-represented in schools that serve low-income African-American and Latino children; indeed, it was described by the late Martin Haberman as the “pedagogy of poverty” and it continues to find favor in inner-city charter schools. If we’re not careful, calls to expand access to preschool will result in more of the same for younger children whose families can’t afford an alternative.
Consider the basic equity argument. Proponents of universal pre-K cite research about the importance of early-life experiences, arguing that children in low-income families are at a real disadvantage in terms of intellectual stimulation, exposure to literacy, and so on. That disadvantage, they point out, can reverberate throughout their lives and is extremely difficult to reverse.
It is true that, on average, children in affluent homes hear more words spoken and have more books read to them. But, as Richard Rothstein points out, it’s not just a matter of the number of words or books to which they’re exposed so much as the context in which they’re presented. “How parents read to children is as important as whether they do, and an extensive literature confirms that more educated parents read aloud differently.” Rather than “sound[ing] out words or nam[ing] letters,” these parents are more likely to “ask questions that are creative, interpretive, or connective, such as, ‘What do you think will happen next?’ ‘Does that remind you of what we did yesterday?’ Middle-class parents are more likely to read aloud to have fun, to have conversations, or as an entree to the world outside. Their children learn that reading is enjoyable.”
To oversimplify a bit, the homes of advantaged parents look more like progressive schools, while the homes of disadvantaged parents look more like back-to-basics, skills-oriented, traditional schools. It makes no sense to try to send low-income children to preschools that intensify the latter approach, with rigorous drilling in letter-sound correspondences and number recognition — the sort of instruction that turns learning into drudgery. As Deborah Stipek, dean of Stanford’s School of Education, once commented, drill-and-skill instruction isn’t how middle-class children got their edge, so “why use a strategy to help poor kids catch up that didn’t help middle class kids in the first place?”
Alas, that is precisely the strategy that tends to follow in the wake of goals offered by most politicians and journalists who hold forth on education. If schooling is conceived mostly an opportunity to train tomorrow’s employees, there’s a tendency to look to behaviorist methods — despite the fact that behaviorism has largely been discredited by experts in child development, cognition, and learning.
Lilian Katz, a leading authority in early-childhood education, once observed that we tend to “overestimate children academically and underestimate them intellectually.” This is why a school that is exceedingly “rigorous” can also be wholly unengaging, even sterile. If those who favor prescriptive standards and high-stakes testing equate rigor with quality, it may be because they fail to distinguish between what is intellectual and what is merely academic. The rarity of rich intellectual environments for young children seems to leave only two possibilities, as Katz sees it: Either they spend their time “making individual macaroni collages” or they’re put to work to satisfy “our quick-fix academic fervor.”
Happily, these do not exhaust the possibilities for early-childhood education. One alternative is sketched out in a wonderful book by Katz and her Canadian colleague Sylvia Chard called “Engaging Children’s Minds: The Project Approach.” Here, teachers create extended studies of rich themes that resonate with young children, such as babies, hospitals, or the weather. Children might spend a month learning about such a real-life topic, visiting, drawing, discussing, thinking.
And there are other, overlapping educational models, including two with Italian roots: Montessori education and the Reggio Emilia approach, where “young children are not marched or hurried sequentially from one different activity to the next, but instead encouraged to repeat key experiences, observe and re-observe, consider and reconsider, represent and re-represent.” Educators who have been influenced by Jean Piaget’s discoveries about child development, meanwhile, have built on his recognition that children are active meaning makers who learn by constructing reality – intellectually, socially, and morally. One of my favorite practical resources in this vein for early-childhood educators is “Moral Classrooms, Moral Children” by the late Rheta DeVries and Betty Zan.
All of these approaches to educating young children offer opportunities to learn that are holistic and situated in a context. They take kids (and their questions) seriously, engage them as thinkers, and give them some say about what they’re doing. The trouble is that current calls for “high-quality” universal pre-K are unlikely to produce learning opportunities that look anything like this — unless political activists begin tp educate themselves about the nuances of education.
2. See www.nytimes.com/2014/01/21/opinion/pre-k-on-the-starting-blocks.html.
3. Some sample headlines in Education Week over the last year: “Business Executives Push Common Core Hard,” “Business Groups Crank Up Defense of Common Core,” “Chamber [of Commerce] President Calls for Support of Common Core in 2014.” In 2009, Bill Gates defended the Common Core, a significant proportion of whose start-up costs have been paid by his foundation, for its capacity to eventually produce a “uniform base of customers.” (See http://ow.ly/pxALx.)
4. Note I say “for play” – not “for opportunities to learn by playing.” The point of play is that it has no point, and children deserve the opportunity to engage in it even if it doesn’t teach skills or anything else. See http://ow.ly/ta2uT.
5. Alfie Kohn, “Early Childhood Education: The Case Against Direct Instruction of Academic Skills.” Excerpted from The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), and available at www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/ece.htm.
6. Alfie Kohn, “Poor Teaching for Poor Children…in the Name of Reform,” Education Week, April 27, 2011. Available at www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/edweek/poor.htm.
7. Richard Rothstein, “Class and the Classroom,” American School Board Journal, October 2004, p. 18.
8. Stipek is quoted in David L. Kirp, “All My Children,” New York Times Education Life, July 31, 2005, p. 21.
9. Lilian Katz, “What Can We Learn from Reggio Emilia?” In The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education, edited by Carolyn Edwards et al. (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1993), p. 31.
10. Lilian Katz, “The Disposition to Learn,” Principal, May 1988, p. 16.
11. Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini, and George Forman, Introduction to The Hundred Languages of Children, op. cit., p. 7.
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