Monthly Archives: July 2020

Experts Everywhere

From 2011 to 2015 I had the pleasure of working as a consultant in Katie Rust’s first grade classroom. Katie’s wonderful co-teacher was Andy Mastin. We focused on how to move their instruction from a more traditional teaching approach to one which emphasizes inquiry, play and exploration. We had a blast! Katie and Andy just grabbed any suggestions that I shared, made it their own and ran with it. Now Katie is a second/third grade teacher and she’s writing her own wonderful blog. I’m really eager and pleased to share her latest blog entry with you.

Experts Everywhere
Posted on July 30, 2020 by Katie Rust Brown

Students learn from experts on pizza, commuting and pet care.

As word of the coronavirus’ spread from one nation to another began to circulate in the news, our 2019-2020 school year was in its glory days. Many teachers, myself included, often note that it can take months for a classroom to fully develop into the type of community that we envision for our students. Routines take time to learn and, by the time the holiday break arrives, the classroom resembles the ‘well oiled machine’ often cited as the ideal.

In February, as we began to anticipate school closures, our class was chugging along in the middle of a study on trains (pun intended). We learned about the communities of New York state, focusing particularly on how different types of communities rely on one another and connect to one another. Rural, suburban and urban communities may differ, but they all need one another to work as an interdependent system. We used the train system as our main topic to weave in these bigger concepts of connectivity and interdependence. Then, as we’d been fearing, our school closed. The train, metaphorically, stopped.

The school I work in, Compass Charter School, understood the urgency of caring for children’s basic needs first. We were offered flexibility in our curriculum, and our grade shifted our study to a focus on resilient communities, which allowed us to utilize some of our previous work plans, but also engage students in learning about current events in real-time. During the following months, our class focused on strengthening and maintaining emotional bonds with families and students, while continuing to encourage curiosity about the world around us.

The question, of course, is how to interact with the world when the world has shut down.


This post focuses on experts. For our purposes, an expert is anyone who knows a lot about a topic. Sometimes experts know about a topic because it’s something they’ve studied in school. More often, though, an expert knows a lot about a topic because it’s part of their everyday life, either at home or at work. A mechanic is an expert at cars. A chef is an expert at food. But experts have grander banks of knowledge than you may even realize. Birders know a lot about birds, but they also may know about local parks, how to keep bugs away while birding, what boots to wear while hiking and how to pack snacks on the go! Experts may gain knowledge of their topic through their own personal research and education, but most knowledge that our students want to learn is likely to be information that’s been learned through experience.

During our quarantine here in New York, from March through June, our school community utilized the knowledge of experts on multiple occasions, on the small scale level of students calling an expert for information, to larger, full-school interviews with experts. Both for in-school learning as well as remote learning, utilizing an expert is a way to maintain social interaction with others, practice listening and speaking skills, and to encourage learners to explore a topic of personal interest with someone with common interests.

Why experts? The unique value of experiences with experts lies in their personal connection to the material that they share. Experts who share about their daily jobs, their family life or their own cultures have particular investment in the information that they’re sharing. This investment often leads to an emotionally engaging lesson built on the passion of the expert for their topic. Although reading books and watching videos can provide new information to students, experts offer their own unique perspective on a topic and can provide detailed facts in response to student questions. Utilizing expert knowledge also provides validation and appreciation of experts in fields that are often overlooked. Gas station attendants, pet store workers, train conductors and protestors are important parts of our society that deserve to feel recognized for their contributions.

How do I find an expert? The wonderful thing about experts is that they’re everywhere. They’re everyone. Everyone is an expert at something. The challenge is finding an expert at the specific topic that you are researching. As an example, if your class is learning about ponds, you can ask yourself who you may know that has any experience with ponds. Think broadly. Do you know anyone whose job involves ponds? Do any family members have stories they’ve told about ponds (real or tall tales)? Do you know any friends who have visited ponds? Have you yourself ever been to or seen a pond? Are there ponds close by (and if there are, can you call the local ranger’s office or find someone who frequents the pond to answer questions for your students?) Are there pet stores nearby that may have experts on pond animals? It’s likely that whatever topic you’re studying, you know someone who has expert knowledge on that topic and can broaden your student’s knowledge.

If you can’t find a personal connection to a topic that you’re researching, I highly suggest contacting any known expert on the topic. Why not try? I’ve personally throw out flyers to friends, “looking for someone to talk about organizing protests,” I’ve emailed professional chefs, I’ve walked to the local junk yard and Target… all of which ended with offers from experts to meet with students. You would be warmed by the willingness of people to share their knowledge for the benefit of teaching children.

Preparing for an expert experience: Before meeting with or interviewing and expert, you may sometimes want to expose students to the topic at hand or the expert themselves. You can do this by writing or finding short articles about the expert’s topic. Depending on whether this experience is launching or extending student learning on a topic, you may also want to brainstorm a list of questions for your expert. These questions can either be shared ahead of time, answered in written format, or can be asked during a live experience together.

Expert experiences, in person and while learning remotely

Live Expert Interviews and Visits: When teaching in a classroom, experts may be asked to visit in person. You may also want to plan a trip to the expert’s place of work to experience their knowledge even deeper. But, a live interview with an expert is also possible remotely via any video platform. This can be done as a whole class, in small groups, or privately between a student and the expert. A “visit” to an expert, when the expert brings you into their world, is another option for a live experience. Experts may show you what they do at work, they may demonstrate a talent or hobby from home, or can take you on a tour of a location that may not be accessible for the class as a whole. These live experiences have the benefit of allowing questions on the fly that students brainstorm, but may also be more difficult to plan due to time restrictions of students, experts and teachers. These live experiences are not limited only to students. During remote work times, teachers and staff may also learn from experts via video call PD and interviews. This past spring, my staff and I attended professional development sessions with Paula Rogovin, author of The Research Workshop, and were able to learn from her expertise and ask questions about moving forward with the work in our school.
Staff members learn about research and inquiry from Paula Rogovin via an online video call during remote learning

Pre-Recorded Expert Interviews/Videos: If interviewing an expert live is not an option, or you would like to utilize experts with whom you don’t have personal contact or connections, you can utilize pre-recorded interviews or videos to encourage students to learn from those with knowledge of a particular topic. While learning remotely in April, our students were studying resilient communities and were learning about and analyzing the job of essential workers. We wanted students to broaden their view of the word ‘essential,’ and we reached out to a class parent, Heather, who was a veterinarian in our area. While it was difficult to find the right time to interview Heather live, she was gracious enough to film parts of her work day at her veterinarian office to share with our students. In this way, our class was able to learn from Heather and her work in a time that best suited both our expert and our students. You can view Heather’s video an example of this type of pre-reorded expert experience HERE. Additionally, utilizing interview videos or day-in-the-life videos of experts in a variety of fields, found on youtube or other video websites, can supplement student learning.


A class family assists in creating pre=recorded videos for student research

Experts as study resource When researching a topic of interest, students may be encouraged to contact an expert as a source of knowledge. You can list a brief summary of the expert’s experience, list their contact information and the preferred ways of communication (email, phone call) It is advisable to contact with experts first to let them know that students may be reaching out. I also suggest limiting the time that students may be contacting this individual, which helps students schedule their learning during work/school hours and offers the expert the flexibility of answering student questions in times that are helpful for them. Our school has a foundational belief in sustainable living. During our study on resilient communities, it became clear that many systems in New York City (and globally) were becoming strained as a result of the excess of people working from home. As an option, students were able to contact a friend of mine to ask about his job in engineering and how his job had been affected by the quarantine in NYC.

Experts can be found everywhere. They’re your family members, your friends, your teachers, your grocers, your firefighters and your nail technicians. Utilizing an expert promises a personalized and engaging lesson for children and validates the work of our everyday heroes who keep our society moving.


You can read Katie’s blog here, at  You can also find Katie on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram under the name TeachItOut.

Virtual Conversations on Virtual Choice Time



For so many of us, all around the world, this Coronavirus pandemic has tilted life to an unfamiliar and uncomfortable angle. Life isn’t as it should be. It’s a confusing time, a frightening time and a complicated time. Days take on  different meanings depending on what is and is not  happening in our lives. Many teachers are struggling to connect with their students as they juggle their personal responsibilites as parents  who are  home schooling  their own children. It’s overwhelming!

As an early childhood consultant I have been trying to imagine how to productively use my time and how I can virtually connect with teachers. Those first weeks of sheltering at home caused my days to stretch on and on. I was feeling like a person without a purpose.

I wondered if there were a few teachers or parents who would like to explore Choice Time with me. I posted a proposal of my Facebook page and waited to see if anyone might be interested. This is what I wrote:

I’m planning to begin an online, Zoom, presentation/conversation with teachers about Choice Time and Inquiry Projects. My idea is to present a Powerpoint and classroom videos. There would be opportunities for discussion. Using Zoom is quite new to me but I’m pretty excited at the prospect of communicating with teachers! It would be appropriate for teachers of Prekindergarten through Second Grade. PM me if you’re interested.

The response was overwhelming. Teachers from all parts of the world responded. How impressive it was for people who were working so hard to continue teaching on line to even consider spending some of their “spare” time joining a Choice Time discussion group.

The conversations the first week focused primarily on play and Choice Time. We explored what free play looks like and how it might be transferred into the classroom. You can watch the first session here:

The second week was devoted to looking at and discussing two different whole class inquiry projects. One study took place in a prekindergarten classroom and the second one took place in a kindergarten class. Both classes were in New York City public schools. You can view the second week’s session here:

The third week was opened up for teachers to share how they were providing Choice Time opportunities for children as part of their virtual teaching.

How can we avoid giving children “tasks” to do? Can we tweak what was originally a task and encourage children to use the same materials in a more explorative and creative way? For example, instead of giving children specific  activities to do with 10 stones or buttons, might we challenge them to see if they can create an interesting design or pattern with the stones. Perhaps we could ask them,”What were you thinking about when you created your design?  Can you think of ways to move them around to create  something new? Would you like to add something to your collection and see what you can make? What kinds of ideas do you have?” This gives the children  opportunities to play, explore and use creative, higher-order thinking.


In a recent zoom workshop for prekindergarten and kindergarten teachers, I was asked if I could include ideas for virtual choice time. Not having taught virtually myself, I was reluctant to do this. I wondered if my ideas might not be helpful. I did give it a try and the feedback was positive, so I’ll share some of what I came up with.

  • Keep a consistent daily schedule
  • Maintain routines that children will become familiar with
  • Include songs and chants
  • Have a regularly scheduled storytime. Perhaps invite family members and other people in the school who the children know to record a reading of a storybook.
  • Perhaps include a question of the day. When this becomes routine, children can come up with a question or wondering for everyone to consider.
  • •Remember that this is a stressful time for all, teachers, children and parents. Keep the emotional needs of all a priority.
    •Parents, during virtual teaching and learning, are our partners. Is it possible to have separate group meetings with parents to answer their questions and to tell them what your aims are? This will help them bond as partners in teaching and learning

Some ideas…

A Looking Out of My Window book

•Take some blank papers and fold them together to make a little book.
• Every day draw a picture of something you see when you look out of your window.
•You might see a bird, a car, a tree, maybe even flowers.
•You can make a “detail finder” by cutting a peep-hole in a paper. This will help you look really closely!



Ikea posted ideas for making hide-outs.

•First get children’s ideas and then, if it seems helpful, show these pictures.
•Only use these pictures as prompts to start a conversation about building a special reading and play spot at home.
Chore Week
•At morning meeting, brainstorm some chores to do at home. Possibilities are washing dishes, setting the table, sorting socks from the laundry, folding laundry, putting away toys, making the bed, etc.
•Each child can pick a chore that they want to do.
•Parents (or older siblings) can video tape the child doing the chore and send it to the teacher.
•The teacher can  make a “chore montage” and everyone can watch it together.
•This might be followed by a discussion of other ways to be helpers at home, how it felt to get a chore done, who helps out in our community and in our home, etc.
Go on a search around your home
•See how many electrical items are in each room.
•Can you draw a picture of something you might invent that could use electricity?
You might want to use recycled materials to construct a new machine.
•Can you give names to parts of your invention and label them?
•You might want to write a story about your invention. Let your imagination go wild!
•Listen to your favorite song. Make up a dance or exercise routine to go with your song. Ask the teacher if you can share it at meeting and teach it to the class.
•Play a board game with someone in your family. Then see if you can make up your own board game. You can play it with someone in your family. Ask your teacher if you can share it at a class morning meeting.
•Can you draw a map of your room or of your apartment? What are the landmarks that are very important to you?
•You might imagine that you are a pirate and you’re looking for a treasure. Draw a treasure map.
•Think of everything on your mind. How could you draw a map of your mind? What about a map of your heart?
Cooking Together Day
•Children (with an adult) cook the dish and the teacher cooks along with them.
•Send the recipe a week ahead so parents can prepare ingredients and be familiar with the recipe.
•Children who can’t participate might sketch what is happening and make a recipe/cook book. Perhaps they might want to create their own recipe.
Some recipe ideas
•Making playdough together
•Cinnamon toast
•Scrambled eggs
•Deviled eggs
•Ironed grill cheese sandwiches
•Fresh squeezed OJ or lemonade
• Pancakes
•English Muffin Pizza
Two kindergarten teachers from the Dalton Hong Kong school shared some ideas with me via zoom.
I sometimes asked children if they could change their intials into new or silly pictures. This is a similar challenge.

As a final 2-cents piece of advice, I really would like to urge teachers and parents to ignore any message that children are “falling behind” during this time. Children are naturally curious and they are always learning something. It’s the responsibility of the teacher to observe, listen, support and facilitate children’s learning by understanding what they know, what they’re interested in and to build on that. Vygotsky wrote of the zones of development. Young children need to have the freedom to explore and learn in their Actual Zone of Development, their comfort zone. As teachers, we can gently and perceptively challenge them to stretch into their  Zone of Proximal Development. This is where they can experience the excitement discovering new understandings just as this prekindergarten boy did when he proudly blurted out, “I did it!.”