Monthly Archives: October 2014

Down the Rabbit Hole?

alice-300x240On April 19, 2013 I posted the blog entry, “Common Sense” where I recounted a meeting between a group of kindergarten teachers and retired Kindergarten teachers with the man who was the Chief Academic Officer and Senior Deputy Chancellor at the New York City Department of Education. Our goal was to urge him to help restore developmentally appropriate practices in kindergartens in public schools across the city. In addition we wanted an end to the endlessly  inappropriate assessments that were taking much time away from the teacher’s meaningful interactions with students. To his credit, he did extend the 20 minutes originally allotted to us and listened to our examples and our frustrations. To my amazement, though, he told us that he actually had not given much thought to kindergarten!

Now this official is the president of the prestigious Bank Street College of Education and he has co-authored an op ed essay that includes the statement, “Play is also fun and interesting, which makes school a place where children look forward to spending their time. It is so deeply formative for children that it must be at the core of our early childhood curriculum.” I feel like Alice who has just slid down the rabbit hole. Is this the same person who just a little more than a year ago admitted that he hadn’t really thought about kindergarten?

When I fumed about what I saw as a politically advantageous flip flop,  a Bank Street professor, pointed out that Diane Ravitch made a change in her viewpoints when she realized what was right for children. When I mentioned this to my husband his response was, “Diane Ravitch came out and said that she originally was mistaken in her thinking and actions. This man has said nothing about having a change of heart and apologizing for his negligence when working in a powerful position at the Department of Education.

I’m waiting for him to say something that will make me feel more comfortable about his essay and that will stop this fuming feeling that I have.

Read the essay and let me know what you’re thinking about my reactions to this perfectly written description about the needs of early childhood contrasted with what happened to early childhood education in the hands of the Department of Education these past few years.

The Opinion Pages | OP-ED CONTRIBUTORS

The Building Blocks of a Good Pre-K

OCT. 21, 2014

WITH the introduction of universal pre-K in New York City, we have created a new entry point into our public school system. This raises a key question: What do we want our children’s first experiences in school to be? What does a good education look like for 4-year-olds?

This summer, Bank Street College of Education led training for 4,000 of New York’s pre-K teachers, including both veterans and hundreds of people who started teaching pre-K for the first time last month. Worried teachers talked about how the pressure to achieve good outcomes on the third-grade state exams has been trickling down to early childhood classrooms in the form of work sheets, skill drills and other developmentally inappropriate methods.

The problem is real, and it is not unique to New York City. Earlier this year, Daphna Bassok and Anna Rorem, educational policy researchers at the University of Virginia, found strong evidence that current kindergarten classrooms rely too heavily on teacher-directed instruction. Their study, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” revealed that the focus on narrow academic skills crowded out time for play, exploration and social interaction. In a 2009 report for the Alliance for Childhood, “Crisis in the Kindergarten,” Edward Miller and Joan Almon reported that kindergarten teachers felt that prescriptive curricular demands and pressure from principals led them to prioritize academic skill-building over play.

This is a false choice. We do not need to pick between play and academic rigor.

While grown-ups recognize that pretending helps children find their way into the world, many adults think of play as separate from formal learning. The reality is quite different. As they play, children develop vital cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional skills. They make discoveries, build knowledge, experiment with literacy and math and learn to self-regulate and interact with others in socially appropriate ways. Play is also fun and interesting, which makes school a place where children look forward to spending their time. It is so deeply formative for children that it must be at the core of our early childhood curriculum.

What does purposeful play look like? When you step into an exemplary pre-K classroom, you see a room organized by a caring, responsive teacher who understands child development. Activity centers are stocked with materials that invite exploration, fire the imagination, require initiative and prompt collaboration. The room hums.

In the block area, two girls build a bridge, talking to each other about how to make sure it doesn’t collapse and taking care not to bump into the buildings of children next to them. In an area with materials for make-believe, children enact an elaborate family scenario after resolving who will be the mommy, who will be the grandpa and who will be the puppy. Another group peers through a magnifying glass to examine a collection of pine cones and acorns. On the rug, children lie on their stomachs turning the pages of books they have selected, while at the easel a boy dips his brush into red paint and swoops the paint mostly onto his paper.

The teacher observes and comments. She shifts from group to group, talking with children about their work (“I see that you made a big red circle.”); helping children resolve a conflict (“You both want to be the mommy. What should we do?”); posing an open-ended question to stimulate exploration and problem-solving (“What do you notice when you use the magnifying glass that is different from when you use your eyes?”); and guiding children to manage themselves (“When you finish your snack, what activity would you like to choose?”).

Barbara Biber, one of Bank Street’s early theorists, argued that play develops precisely the skills — and, just as important, the disposition — children need to be successful throughout their lives. The child “projects his own pattern of the world into the play,” she wrote, “and in so doing brings the real world closer to himself. He is building the feeling that the world is his to understand, to interpret, to puzzle about, to make over. For the future we need citizens in whom these attitudes are deeply ingrained.”

Earlier in the 20th century, the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky made the related argument that children’s thinking develops through activity-based learning and social interactions with adults and peers. When teachers base their curriculums on Dr. Vygotsky’s ideas, there are significant benefits for children’s capacity to think, to plan and to sustain their attention on difficult tasks.

Play has long-lasting benefits. What is referred to as self-regulation in preschool becomes resiliency in high school. The University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth has found that this trait, which she famously calls grit, can make or break students, especially low-income students. Over the past three years, the New York City Department of Education developed a framework to support the core behavioral elements that drive college and career readiness. Many of them — persistence, planning, the ability to communicate and the capacity to collaborate — have their roots in early childhood.

Next fall, there will be more students in pre-K in New York City than there are in the entire school system of Atlanta or Seattle. To his credit, Mayor Bill de Blasio has not only pushed for expanding access but has also insisted on improving quality and put real money into training and materials. This is a strong start. But we still need to help parents, administrators and policy makers see what the children themselves know intuitively: Classrooms that pulse with meaningful play are our smartest investment.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, who served as senior deputy chancellor of the New York City Department of Education from 2011-14, is the president of Bank Street College, where Nancy Nager is a professor of education and child development.

The Journey

Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.
Auguste Rodin

Hilly RoadThis week I had the pleasure of having dinner with three very dedicated, hard working New York City early childhood teachers. Two of them, fairly new to teaching, were full of questions about the inquiry process. At some point during our delicious meal, one of the teachers commented on my wealth of knowledge. I practically choked on my food, thinking of all that I’m still learning about teaching and children and also about the long and bumpy road that I traveled from 1968 until 2014.

It wasn’t until I graduated from college with a degree in Sociology, that I realized teaching was what I truly wanted to do with my life. New York City was desperate for new teachers and, after taking 12 credits of rather simple-minded education courses, I was considered to be ready for the classroom. It was the middle of a semester, and at the advice of my teaching friends, I purchased forty postcards and sent them out to schools all over the borough of Brooklyn. I didn’t realize what was about to happen.

Starting at six in the morning my phone began ringing nonstop. “Can you come to sub today?” The voices of the school secretaries usually had a rather frantic sound to them. After traveling to all corners of this large borough, to totally unfamiliar neighborhoods, I too began to have a frantic pitch to my voice! The life of a new substitute teacher, particularly in unfamiliar schools, is not the “Life of Riley.” After a few weeks I began to wonder if I was making the right career choice. I’m ashamed to say that I was also beginning to wonder if I actually liked children very much!

Just at my point of giving up, I received a call from the assistant principal of P.S. 321, a pulic elementary school in my neighborhood. I was told that if I would substitute teach every day, in any class that needed me, I could take over a kindergarten class in April because the teacher was moving from New York. For what seemed like eons, I came in each day just like a trouper. On one particularly miserable day  the children in the “gifted” fifth grade class decided that they did not like my lessons and they began throwing sponges and erasers at me. I was demoralized and didn’t think that I could make it in to substitute teach the next day.  When I spoke with the assistant principal to tell her that I wouId take the next day off, I was told, in no uncertain terms, that if I didn’t continue subbing when and where they needed me, the kindergarten position would be given to another candidate.

I came to work.

Eventually, I had my own class. On my first day with the kindergartens (a morning class and an afternoon class) I proceeded to spill a large container of red paint all of the pretty new pink dress that I foolishly wore to work! I had many lessons to learn!

The next year I taught second grade. I was given some teaching guides, a very helpful paraprofessional, and was told that my children were in the middle of the grade, not ready for second grade work. I, however, was fired up and ready to make this a wonderful year for these 34 seven year olds. But how would I do that? I wasn’t quite sure. Each day I would show up for work no later than 7 a.m. I carefully tied together the legs of two desks and lined each pair up in a nice neat row. If everything were straight and orderly, then it would show that I was in control. Oh, I had so much to learn. Years later, if I saw one of those students, all grown up and walking down the street, I hid from their sight. What must they think of me? What kind of memories could they have from that straight-row year?

What kept me sane that year and the next year when I taught first grade? Well the children of course. They seemed oblivious to how insecure I was and seemed to give me their complete love. Then I had the added support of my colleague, Connie Norgren. Connie and I sat together at our first teacher’s meeting and have been close friends ever since. Connie has truly been my mentor teacher. She just naturally knew what was right for children and she followed her beliefs with her practice. Also, Jennifer Monaghan, the PTA President had faith in me and got PTA funds to support a summer reading course that I took that first year.

In 1970 my husband received a Fulbright Fellowship to Germany and I spent that year reading about 100 novels as I passed the days in the sleepy town of Hesse Lichtenau. When we returned to NY in 1971, I became pregnant and in 1972 gave birth to my marvelous daughter, Simone. When Simone was three years old she was accepted into a wonderful local nursery school, The Storefront School, run by two Bank Street trained teachers. They allowed me to pay for part of the tuition by working half-days in their school . THAT is when I really started learning how to teach young children. I felt as though I were drinking up all that they were modeling in their interactions with their students and in their planning.

Since then I’ve had many different experiences. I’ve taught with some wonderful teachers at P.S. 321 and under three different visionary administrators – William Casey, Peter Heaney and Liz Phillips. I had the privilege of learning from Lucy Calkins when her work, at its beginning stages, was still very inquiry-based. I’ve made three important trips to Reggio Emilia to learn from their educators and children. I could keep adding to this list and it continues to grow.

Why have I subjected you to this long history? It’s to show that teaching is an ongoing journey. Except for a lucky few, many of us don’t naturally know just what to do. We learn and we learn and we learn. And we continue this trip because we love the wonderful payoffs. It’s not a monetary reward but it’s much greater and more important than money. It’s a feeling of being part of something that is more special than one can imagine – the social, emotional and intellectual growth of children. As the Chinese proverb says, “To get through the hardest journey we need take only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping.”

An Inquiry-Based Classroom

screwdriverIt is not the answer that enlightens but the question.
Eugène Ionesco

I recently had the good fortune to view an early screening of the film Good Morning Mission Hill and to hear the director, Amy Valens, talk about the Mission Hill School and her experience of filming in their classrooms. Afterwards, I had a discussion with an administrator of a school in Brooklyn, New York where I am currently doing professional development with the kindergarten and first grade teachers. I have been trying to convince the early childhood staff that the children will learn more and be much happier if the teachers can embrace a culture of inquiry. Except for a few classes, it has been an uphill battle. Sometime, midway through our discussion, this lovely young administrator looked at me with frustration and said, “What do you actually mean when you refer to an inquiry-based classroom?”

We definitely had a failure to communicate. This confusion probably was due to my misguided assumption that I was laying down a strong foundation of understanding before encouraging teachers to make physical and instructional changes. I returned home perplexed and obsessed with thinking about this conversation. It kept me up for most of that night.

The next morning I sat at my computer and began to think about the concept of describing an inquiry-based classroom some more. I created an outline of what I might expect from a classroom where inquiry, exploration and play would intrinsically be the foundation for an early childhood curriculum. With the help of my two wise friends, Julie Diamond and Shelley Grant, I came up with a few bullet points that outlined some understandings that I believe a teacher should have in order to create an inquiry based classroom.

This outline is by no means complete. It’s a work that is very much “in progress.” I am hoping that my blog readers will comment and add suggestions for revising this list. I welcome your thoughts! In this time of standardized testing, evaluations, and finger pointing we need to redirect and bring the attention back to what children, teachers and schools REALLY need.

Some Characteristics of an Inquiry-Based Classroom

The teacher has an understanding that the child comes to school as a fully formed person, not as an empty vessel that needs to be filled.
∗ This implies respect for who the child is and for all the knowledge that the child brings to school from his/her background.
∗ The teacher will develop a curriculum that begins with what the children already know and builds on the child’s sense of wondering.

The teacher understands that as an educator of young children, it is important to be flexible and that the daily schedule is conducive to the age of the children being taught,
∗ Young children need large blocks of time for exploring, building, pretending, etc.
∗ Children shouldn’t be rushed from one activity to another.
∗ Inquiry and Choice time (or whatever you are calling the work/play time) should be at the heart of your program, particularly for pre-k, and kindergarten. Because of that, it needs to be scheduled early in the day.
∗ In the first and second grade too, Inquiry and Choice Time shouldn’t be left for the end of the day because children will be tired from a day of academics and, therefore, will most likely not get the most out of this rich part of your program.

The teacher understands that the child’s curiosity should be scaffolded and nurtured throughout the day.∗ There are opportunities for questioning and explorations all day, throughout the curriculum.

∗ As an example, if the teacher plans to teach the spelling of the sight word “it,” the children might be asked what they notice about the word, what will help them to remember it, etc. Perhaps one child might say, ”It starts with the same letter that Inge’s name starts with only it’s the small “i. ” The teacher acknowledges that as a valid strategy for remembering the word. Another child might add that “it” is a small word because it only has two letters.
∗ Rather than beginning with drilling the spelling of a new word, the children are encouraged to bring to the lesson what they already know and to share it with the class.
∗ Teachers are taking notes on observations throughout the day. These notes are reflected after the school day and used to plan new lessons and centers based on this valuable information.

The teacher understands that it’s important to be teaching the children not the subjects. There are many opportunities for children to engage in self-initiated experiences and for children to feel encouraged to innovate on an idea or project
∗ There should be an area in the room where children can keep on-going projects, for example an art project or a Lego construction.
∗ Children should be encouraged to return to a center another day to continue work on a project.
∗ The block center should be away from traffic and should be large enough for a group of children to comfortably work there together.
∗ The teacher makes sure that there are appropriate tools, materials, books and blank paper (even blank booklets) in each center.
∗ It should be clear where materials belong. Labels with drawings or photos can be taped on shelves to show children where to get and return materials.

Failure should be seen as a part of learning and as an opportunity to take a risk.
∗ If a child is having a behavior problem, the teacher should speak privately with the child. Public behavior charts are basically shaming charts. They are up with the expectation that someone will “be bad.” Children who don’t get their name moved to a “red light” are anxious about being good. Children who have difficulty with self-control become known as the naughty children. There’s basically nothing positive that comes of these charts (they might keep a class in check on the short term but they do so much damage and little teaching in the long term.) As Alfie Kohn writes, “ Reward charts — with or without punishments — shouldn’t be used because children aren’t pets to be trained. Rewards, like punishments, are basically ways of doing things TO people (to make them obey), whereas the only way to help kids grow into decent, responsible, compassionate people is to work WITH them (to solve problems together).”
∗ It’s much more productive to concentrate on “acts of kindness” where a child observe a classmate performing an act of kindness, shares this with the class and it gets posted on the bulletin board. This encourages empathy and community.

The children should feel part of a community and a member of a joyful class. The children should feel a sense of shared ownership of the classroom.
∗ Time is set aside for class meetings where children share their observations, questions, and the work that they have completed or works in progress.
∗ These meetings are opportunities for children to take part in meaningful dialogues.
∗ The teacher enters into the conversation both as a facilitator and as a model.
∗ The teacher never refers to himself/herself in the third person when speaking to a child or to the group. We are, as teachers, modeling social behavior. I don’t think that anyone would sit with a group of friends and say, “Mrs. Dinnerstein enjoyed that book.” Bring back the “I to class conversations!”
∗ The children and teacher decorate the room with the children’s work and not with commercial charts, borders and other materials that can better be produced in the classroom. Someone sitting in a factory in, say, Michigan, does not know the children in your class.
∗ It’s much more effective to have children and teachers collectively come up with class rules.
∗ Children can create number and color charts if it appropriately comes up in class discussions.
∗ Having their own work decorating the room, such as their own alphabet chart hanging across the front of the room, gives the children pride in their work and in their classroom.
∗ The room is organized into clear areas. (In my classroom, I integrated tables into each center, giving the classroom the look of a laboratory for learning and experimenting rather than having tables clustered together.)
∗ Children understand how to use the materials in each area because the teacher has explicitly taught how materials are cared for and where they are stored. The teacher also teaches the routines for going to centers or activities, and cleaning up when the period is ended.