Author Archives: Renee

A YEAR OF KINDERGARTEN INQUIRY

Every Tuesday evening I facilitate a zoom meeting of early childhood educators where we discuss a different chapter of my book, Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, and we share our stories from our classrooms. It’s a wonderful group of educators consisting of teachers and administrators from across the United States, Newfoundland, Taipei, Taiwan and Bolivia, South America.

Last week Lauren Monaco, a wonderful kindergarten teacher, who works at P.S. 89, a NYC public school,shared a study that she did with her kindergarten class in an East Harlem charter school a few years ago. The children’s interest in trees fostered curiosity about squirrels and inspired them to advocate for their East Harlem community. This wonderful study began in September but, taking a variety of loops and turns,  continued until the end of the school year.

At the beginning of the year, as a means of supporting children in developing a sense of classroom community, Lauren began a study of trees by creating tree inquiry groups. Each group “adopted” and named a tree that grew in the school community garden.

The children began drawing leaves from their trees, comparing how their leaves differed from the leaves of other inquiry group leaves. They looked at their leaves on a light box and examined the veins by looking at them through the hole of a “detail finder”, a piece of paper with a small circular window cut into it. They went outside and studied the bark of their tree.

Lauren introduced many books on the topic of trees and leaves to the class. A favorite book was Lois Ehlert’s Leaf Man. The illustrations inspired many leaf men being created as children engaged with natural materials at the art table during Choice Time.

 

Some of the children had an interest in creating a forest during Choice Time. To do this they had to experiment with paper so that they could figure out how to make trees that would stand up straight.

While the class was busy exploring trees and leaves, one child, Naima, began her own inquiry study. Naima became obsessed with figuring out how to lure squirrels to the classroom window. The children had noticed some squirrels in trees outside the third story classroom window. They wondered how they could get them closer so that the class could study them. Naima began to attach acorns to string and hang them outside the window, but couldn’t manage to lure the squirrels up to the third floor. Children are inventive and during Choice Time Naima began to create an elevator out of cardboard and tried to fit it through the narrow opening of the window. Naima’s interest in squirrels spread throughout the class.

Children developed a strong interest in squirrels, fascinated by how they moved and how they played. They read books and watched videos. They even found Youtube videos of mazes that were created for squirrels!

The interest in squirrels led to an interest in all the creatures that lived in or near the trees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

From a science catalog, Lauren purchased a “rotting log”. Children now were able to study the creatures that help decompose wood: snails, centipedes, pill bugs and beetles. This was a very new experience for these children who lived in the inner city!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The class took an exciting trip to the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. At writing workshop they shared their research with each other.

 

Lauren documented the direction of the study by posting the children’s work in the hallway. Rather than creating a “cute” display, an authentic story of the study, in the children’s own words, was created and the class shared their explorations with the school community.

 

The children’s focus turned to the question of how they could create houses for the squirrels and where they could build them. They looked at photos of houses for squirrels and they began drawing their own plans.

Home Depot donated wood pieces to the class and at Choice Time children began experimenting with constructing squirrel homes. First they sanded the wood and then they used duct tape and tape to hold pieces together.After they were satisfied with how their houses looked, they glued the pieces of wood together.

The children wondered where they could put their squirrel houses and decided that the school community garden, the site of their trees, would be the perfect spot.

At this same time the kindergarten classes in the school were doing an inquiry study of playgrounds. Because the school did not have a playground of its own, they visited other playgrounds in the neighborhood and also took a bus to Central Park to explore the playgrounds in the park. Of course an important part of their playground research included playing in the playgrounds!

“Let’s make a playground for our toy insects and our real snails!”

 

 

 

They began to create models for both squirrel homes and also play equipment.

 

 

 

 

 

An exciting day was spent painting the squirrel homes.

It was time to add more documentation.

Zoltan Sarda, the science coach, brought the children out to the garden and helped them get their constructions completed. It was particularly exciting for the children to use real, adult tools and to work on constructions in groups under Zoltan’s guidance

What began as Naima’s dream of creating an elevator for the squirrels became a reality! Look at the ecstatic expression on her face.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now the focus shifted to the playground that the children wanted for themselves. Other schools had playgrounds and they wanted one too! They began to plan for the equipment that their playground would need.

They wrote a heartfelt letter to the Mayor and to other local politicians, explaining why they needed a playground. The letter received some interest at first. Then, unfortunately, the administration of the school changed and it went from being a child-centered program to one that focused on standardized test-taking and collecting data. Alas, as usual, it was the children who suffered. It was so clear (just look at their faces and the work that they were doing), that when children are engaged, interacting, playing and exploring in an environment that values joyful learning, they will flourish. 

There was an exodus of progressive educators after the administration changed. Teachers were no longer free to teach to the child, but were expected to teach to the test and to a standardized curriculum.

This all makes it so obvious that we, the professionals and the community , must stand fast and push for the education that children deserve. Deborah Meier, the founder of Central Park East and Mission Hill School, recently told me that it is clear to her that we know how to provide a successful school experience for children. We only have to look towards the expensive, progressive private schools where there are small classes, art, music, dance, and play in a nurturing environment. That’s what all of our children need!

Moving On

     

 ‘The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.’ –Pablo Picasso

I’m one of the lucky people who landed, feet first, in the  profession most perfect for themselves – teaching young children. The many years that I spent in the classroom were so special and memorable.

When I first made the decision to leave the classroom and work as an educational consultant, sharing my experiences with young teachers, I felt frustrated at not having my own room and my own class. However, after some years of consulting, this too began to feel meaningful. Now I’m at another crossroads. I’ve decided that it’s time to leave behind my consulting work and move on to …what? I’m not sure yet but I’m hoping my next life phase will soon become clear.

As I looked through my file cabinet and began to dispose of files that I no longer use, I came upon a copy of the closing speech that I gave at the 2002 Teachers College Summer Reading Institute. I have not looked at what I wrote since I presented the talk so many years ago and I was moved to tears as I read it to my husband. I’d love to share it with you. If you have any thoughts about my message, please do write them on the blog. I’d be so touched to hear what you have to say.

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Closing Talk at Teachers College Reading Institute

July 2002

After spending more than half of my lifetime surrounded by children, this year I made a major change. I’m now working in an office where wonderful colleagues, in a room full of books and computers, surround me. So, last week it was a treat for me to return to The Children’s School West, a small public school annex in Brooklyn, where I had worked as the teacher/director last year.

The kindergarten teachers invited me to the “stepping up” ceremony and celebration. As their parents watched, the children sang some of their favorite songs, recited a kindergarten poem and performed a musical play that they wrote themselves, The Gingerbread Family, a witty take on The Gingerbread Boy. When I left the class I found myself mysteriously crying. Thinking that I was having one of those occasional “fiftyish” moments, I took some time to sit in the park across from the school to compose myself before going to my next destination, the fifth grade graduation at P.S. 321.

321 had been my second home since I began my teaching career there in 1968. It was wonderful to sit in the audience, surrounded by so many parents that I have known over the years, and to watch my former students who I taught in kindergarten and first grade, proudly receive their diplomas. I could so well remember each one of them on their very first day of school. I remembered their parents too. They looked as tentative as the children whose hands they were holding. At the graduation, I found myself seated next to my former student Kalynn’s father and we reminisced about how he had to hold his hand over hers to help her write her letter K as she signed in on that first day of school.

Once again I found those tears welling up and, as I tried to hold them back, I had a personal epiphany. I realized that I was crying because I knew what an incredibly lucky life I have had. How many adults have the opportunity to spend their lives working in a profession that is so satisfying, challenging and important to so many people?

When families bring their children to school, they are entrusting us with their most precious possessions. As a parent, and now a grandparent, I know how difficult it is to “let go” and transfer some of my responsibility for my child to another adult, much less to a total stranger. It is so important for educators to create, in their classrooms, a second home that is comfortable and welcoming to the child and to the child’s family.

Our classrooms need to have a voice that says, “I welcome you to this exciting place where you are a very special and important part of a caring community.” We can give this message to children even before they enter school by sending them a friendly letter at the end of the summer, introducing ourselves and telling them about some exciting project that the class will be working on together. We can involve them in this project by suggesting that they collect pictures from magazines and draw representations of their ideas. One year I wrote to my future kindergarten class and told them about a bridge study that we were going to begin together with our fourth grade reading buddies. I asked the children to start collecting bridge pictures and, if they actually saw a bridge, to sketch it and bring the picture to school with them on the first day. I also wrote to parents and began involving them in our classroom plans by sharing some of my ideas for our class study. When the children arrived on the first day of school they came with postcards and drawings in their hands and they were full of stories to share about the bridges that they saw during the summer. Parents had photos, trip suggestions, and names of family members who had bridge expertise to share with the class.

We were already a community and the year had just begun.

Our classrooms need to have a voice that says, “In this room you will be an explorer, and artist, a musician, an architect, a mathematician, a writer, a reader and a scientist.” We need to physically arrange our rooms so that there are areas where children can explore, dramatize, build, create and experiment. We need to value these explorations by scheduling prime time for them in our daily plans. One half hour at the end of the day gives one message about what we value. A well-planned hour in the early afternoon or in the morning, if you can be so revolutionary, gives a very different message about the importance we place on children taking responsibility for the direction of their explorations. This exploratory time, or Choice Time as it is sometimes called, is the perfect opportunity for connecting all of the strands of our curriculum. In my block area we had baskets of books about bridges, photographs and drawings of all kinds of bridges, a big book of one of our special fiction bridge stories, The Three Billy Goats Gruff , that children used for dramatic re-creations, a large pad for children to draw plans for bridge constructions, bland labels to use for revising their building plans and cards and paper for labeling and writing about their finished bridges. On the wall we had a growing list of bridge words that children were constantly referring to. In the art center we hung art reproductions with images of bridges in them and had all sorts of materials for children to construct, paint and draw with. Children labeled their constructions and wrote descriptions on their artwork. We were becoming bridge experts in many different ways and children had a great variety of opportunities to direct their own learning.

Our classrooms need to have a voice that says, “We understand that you are a literate person who can already do some reading and writing.” We will all be helping you to learn more about reading and writing and we will all be learning that together.” On the first day that children come to school I ask them to sign in on our class list and to find their name card and turn it over to show that they have arrived and are a part of the community. I celebrated all of their attempts to write their names and assured parents that even scribbles were acceptable for the first day of kindergarten. We need to show children that we accept and value their approximations while we patiently help them take steps towards conventional reading and writing.

We are all now participating in this intensive Reading Institute and, of course, we are all concerned with providing the best reading, writing and word study instruction for our children. We want to work towards helping our children meet higher standards of literacy and that is a big challenge for all of us. We want to be sure that in our classes we are planning for a balanced and comprehensive literacy program. As we plan, it is important that we not lose sight of the bigger picture. Our balanced literacy should be one part of an even larger Balanced Learning Environment.

We want our children to have grand minds. We want our children to be curious about the world around them. We want them to understand that there are so many incredible things to learn and so many different ways of learning. We want to create classrooms where children can discover the serendipitous moments that make everyday experiences become thrilling and worth looking at more closely. We want to provide and environment where children feel safe taking risks and chasing dreams.

Recently, Milah, a former student of mine and now a third grader, called and asked if she could interview me for a Women’s History Month assignment. She came to my home and we had a wonderful morning drinking tea and talking about my career, my childhood and various other aspects of my life. When we were finished, Milah said, “You know, Renée, I have admired you since I met you in kindergarten.” I was so touched and taken aback by her statement so I asked her what it was that she admired. Milah, without hesitating, said that she loved the way that I taught. She said that I was “silly, exciting and strict.” I must say that I was a bit shaken by being called strict. It seemed like a word with so many negative connotations. I asked her what she meant by “strict.” She said, “We always knew what we were supposed to do in your class. We knew that you expected us to work hard and that you expected us to do great work. But we also had so much fun and were always doing new, silly and exciting things.”

In their book Best Practice: New Standards for Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools, Steven Zemelman, Harvey Daniels, and Arthur Hyde suggest that there are six basic structures that are implemented by exemplary teachers. These structures are Integrative Units, Small Group Activities, Representing-to-Learn, Classroom Workshop, Authentic Experiences, and Reflective assessment. We need to think about ALL of these structures when we design our curriculum.

If we plan a day where children have a reading and writing workshop, a period for appropriate word study and are given many opportunities to hear and discuss stories that are read aloud to them, we are empowering children. We are giving children the tools that they will need for recording the investigations and discoveries that they make during Choice Time and when they are exploring the natural world around them. If we encourage children’s curiosity and show them that we value their explorations, our curriculum may take unexpected and exciting turns.

One year, after vacationing in London, I brought some postcards in to school to share with the children at meeting time. One particular card, a reproduction of the famous Rosetta Stone, fascinated a group of children and they asked if they could look at it with magnifying glasses during Choice Time.  They were very curious about the hieroglyphics. I was able to find a hieroglyphic alphabet chart for them. This led to and activity that they thought of where they wrote their names and other familiar words in hieroglyphs. When the class went to the school library the children asked the librarian for books about Egypt. What began as a small group exploration was spreading throughout the class. Children began to find pictures of pyramids and sphinxes. They brought these pictures to the block area and attempted to construct them with blocks. They made signs and descriptions and taped them to their Egyptian building. Picking up on this unexpected excitement, I arranged for a trip to the Brooklyn Museum where we visited the Egyptian collection. When we discussed what we observed on the trip, the children asked if they could try to make a mummy case like the one in the museum. For two weeks, different groups of children worked on constructing a paper maché mummy case during Choice Time. Another group of children created a story about the imaginary person in the case. We took the completed five- foot mummy case out to the schoolyard and spray painted it gold. Then, at Choice Time, four children used the hieroglyphics chart to “translate” the life story onto to paper strips and glue it to the mummy case. Did the children become “experts” on ancient Egypt? I doubt it. What they did learn, however, was that  when they had an interest in something, they could research, explore and expand their knowledge in many different ways and different places. I hope that this is what they carried with them when they left my class. I hope that they left my class with a passion for learning. If they have that passion, and if we, the educators, have given them a nurturing, inspiring learning environment and a well-balanced literacy instruction, then they have the tools to succeed.

Carlina Rinaldi, the director of the municipal early childhood program in Reggio Emilia, Italy, said that we need to go into our classrooms with a road map and not with a train schedule. When we travel with a train schedule, there is no time to tarry between stops or we will miss the train. If we travel with a road map we know the road to our destination but we can determine when we will hurry and when we will slow down. We can take detours if something interests us, but to get to our destination we must then return to the main road. This seems like a much more interesting trip. This seems like a trip that I would cherish and remember.

So I hope that in September you will put the train schedule in your back pocket and take out your road map. Create a curriculum that will allow you and your children to see many sights, enrich your lives and have a glorious year together that will never be forgotten.

 

 

Empathy, Dialogue and Trust: Talking About School Shootings With Our Students

Doug Hecklinger and Renee Dinnerstein in conversation

In the 1950’s, when I attended public school, it was a short time after WWII. The United States was in the midst of the Cold War with the USSR. I remember periodic shelter drills, when we would scrunch under our desks, pretending that we were being bombed. These shelter drills seemed to me like  strange and scary play activites.

 

 

 

When I began teaching in 1968 we had similar drills. Teachers took the children into the hallway, warned them to be silent, and instructed them to sit on the floor. As a new teacher, I was annoyed by the waste of time and for the possibility of frightening children. 

 

 

 

Now, in 2022, there’s an unfortunate and harsh reality to shelter drills. They are truly necessary and more tied to reality than they ever should be. However, it’s no longer a bomb that threatens school children. It is a threat from within our own society. It is the reality of someone entering a school building carrying rifles and assault weapons. 

How does this threat affect teachers, children and families?

Today I spoke with Doug Hecklinger, a dedicated and thoughtful fourth grade teacher at P.S. 295, a New York City public school. He had some very important suggestions for teachers and families.

I hope that you will share your ideas with our community by commenting on the blog. This is a serious conversation that truly and sadly cannot be avoided.

Where Did The Garden Go? : A Conversation with Fretta Reitzes and Betsy Grob

In what seems to be some unfortunate form of memory loss, the origin of the word “kindergarten” is often forgotten. It originates from two German words,” kinder”, meaning children, and “garten” meaning garden. In Germany in 1840, the educator, Friedrich Froebel opened the first kindergarten, The Garden of Children. Fast forward to the year 2022 and we should wonder, as do Fretta Reitzes and Betsy Grob, the originators of the Bank Street Kindergarten Conference,  “Where did the garden go?”

If you are in any way involved with the education of young children, either as a teacher, administrator, parent or caregiver, it’s obvious that this is a question that needs addressing. And so,  we have this marvelous, timely conference where early childhood educators get together (virtually, this year) to celebrate four and five year olds and to share ideas of how to educate them for the twenty-first century while recognizing and celebrating the importance of prioritizing play, exploration, investigation, curiosity, music, art and movement in their young, inquisitive lives. 

This year’s conference is titled Rediscovering the Joy and Purpose of Kindergarten.  Takiema Bunche-Smith will give a Friday evening keynote “Reclaiming and Elevating the Joy, Purpose, and Power of Kindergarten.”   Maria Richa will facilitate a whole group community-building experience, “Rediscovering the Power of Art, Lines, Shapes, and Joy.” On Saturday Dr. Lesley Kaplow‘s keynote is titled, “Big Masks, Little Masks: Finding Each Other in the Kindergarten Classroom.”   Saturday, after lunch, I will be interviewed by Jackie Allen, former principal of P.S. 261 in Brooklyn, NY. We’ll discuss my more than fifty years as an educator, a very long and winding journey.

There will be many workshops on Saturday, before and after lunchtime. The entire conference will be recorded so this will allow educators from as far away as Australia, China, England, and Sweden to join us!  I hope that you and your colleagues will consider attending and that you will share all of this information with other teachers, friends, administrators and families who might be interested.

Save Friday, April 8 from 5:30 PM – 8:30 PM ET and Saturday, April 9 from 10:30  AM – 3:30 PM ET for the Teaching Kindergarten Conference. Register and let’s bring the garden back into kindergarten! 

It’s Not About The Destination, It’s About the Journey: A Conversation with Lindsay Persohn on Classroom Caffeine

On August 4th, I had the pleasure of discussing Choice, Play and Inquiry with Lindsay Persohn for her wonderful podcast Classroom Caffeine. We talked about my journey as a teacher and the people who informed my thinking. Our discussion moved to the importance of engagement and a description of an engaged class. This led us to the incredible trip to the schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy that Matt Glover, Kathy Collins and I organized for 68 educators, where we focused on what it looks like when there is an expanded view of literacy.

It was a totally enjoyable conversation.  It will be broadcast on the Lindsay’s podcast,  Classroom Caffeine,  on November 9th. I’m pleased to share it with you on my blog now. I hope you enjoy it!

https://www.buzzsprout.com/1338925/9324729

Story Workshop: A Conversation with Susan Harris MacKay and Matt Karlsen

 

On September 28, 2021 I had the pleasure of chatting, via Zoom, with Susan Harris MacKay and Matt Karlsen. Susan’s recently published book, Story Workshop: New Possibilities for Young Writers, is an exciting approach to writing that makes important connections highlighting the important connections between children’s play and the stories that they all bring with them to the classroom. 

Susan, Matt and I are both doing work with the dynamic Larry Leaven, newly appointed superintendent of schools in Florida, New York and the teachers at the Golden Hill School. All working together we will help teachers bring exciting innovations to school during this challenging time. 

I hope you can listen in to our conversation!

 

 

BROOKLYN PRINCIPALS REMOVE STUDENT MURAL CELEBRATING DIVERSITY

On August 5, 2021 an article appeared on the front page of the New York Daily News describing the removal and destruction of a student mural that was recently hung in the P. S. 295 school cafeteria. Doug Hecklinger was the teacher of four of the six fifth-graders who created the artwork and he was, needless to say, quite upset to hear of the action taken by the school administration.

In our conversation, Doug talks about all of the work that the school faculty, along with the students and their families, put into embracing a culture of diversity and social equity. He gives us a very clear picture of the school community and the mission goal of acceptance that was very unexpectedly squashed when the students’ work was destroyed. He also talks about his hope for the important, healing that needs to now take place.

How Long Do Spiders Sleep? – A conversation with Richard Lewis and Kristin Eno

In previous blog post, Julie Cavanagh, principal of P.S. 15 in Brooklyn, said that children have made their hopes for returning to school very clear. She said that they are craving “play, play, play.” They need to play so that they can socially and emotionally heal from the isolation and fears of the past 15 pandemic months.

In this conversation, Richard Lewis and Kristin Eno make a second visit with me to talk about how observing our students at play allows us to pose questions that will build on their natural curiosity and take children on a journey of exploration, conversation, questioning and magical thinking. Richard and Kristin’s ideas will be so helpful for teachers and parents in creating a return to school this fall that will be filled with gentle joy and healing for children and for teachers.

 

Working Against the Odds: Four New York City principals discuss the challenges of this past year and their dreams for the future

On Thursday, June 3, I met, on zoom, with  four New York City elementary school principals so that they could reflect on their challenges these past 15 months and on their hopes for the year ahead.

Bob Groff is principal of  P.S. 244 in Flushing,Queens. Dana Rappaport is principal at  P.S. 234 in Tribeca, Manhattan. Gabriel Feldberg is principal of the progressive public school that was started by Deborah Meier in the 1970’s, Central Park East One, in Harlem, Manhattan and Julie Cavanagh became principal, during the pandemic, of  P.S  15 in  Red Hook, Brooklyn.

I initially presented to the four of them a list of challenges school leaders might have faced. It turns out that I only touched the tip of the iceberg!

Thank goodness we have these dedicated men and women to navigate the schools and care for the children, teachers and families who have, in all different manners, been traumatized living through this pandemic.

In Conversation: THE ROLE OF PLAY IN THE LIVES OF FOUR ACTING STUDENTS: KSENIA ELINSON, SEBASTIAN ALONSO, OMER CEM COLTU AND ADRIAN GREENSMITH

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts” (Shakespeare)

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood. (Mr. Rogers)

On Sunday, May 16th, I had the pleasure of chatting with my grandson, Adrian Greensmith, and three of his classmates. They are all studying acting and devised theater at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. We talked about play, what it means in their acting classes and what it was like growing up in four different countries – Russia, (Ksenia Elinson) Peru (Sebastian Alonso), Turkey (Omer Cem Coltu) and the U.S. ( Adrian Greensmith)

Their thoughts were fascinating – play as preparation for life, training the muscles of the imagination, thinking out of the box, never losing the child inside, being in the moment all the time….the thoughts poured out of them and I had the feeling that we could have continued this conversation much longer. One thought that Ksenia shared was that at the core of playing is doing things together. It made me think about all that children lost this year when they did not have the opportunity to take  part in play with their friends and classmates.

Our conversation spoke to some interesting quotes that I shared during our zoom talk:

“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” Ralph Waldo Emmerson

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.” Carl Jung

“In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play.” Friedrich Nietzsche

“If you want to be creative, stay in part a child, with the creativity and invention that characterizes children before they are deformed by adult society.” Jean Piaget