Author Archives: Renee


There will be two days of wonderful professional development workshops and keynote talks at the JCC in Manhattan on August 29 and 30. I’ll be facilitating an all day workshop on August 30. Here’s the information:


Join us for the third annual Come Learn with Us conference. This two-day event will feature full- and half-day learning opportunities for early childhood educators. The conference is timed to reinvigorate, inspire, and challenge educators just before they go back for the start of the school year. Each workshop will include hands-on interactive components and highlight clear, actionable takeaways. New this year, participants will have an opportunity for ongoing learning or midyear check-in to extend their learning well past the conference is over. Click the link under each session title below to register for individual workshops or use the group form to register multiple teachers together.


  • Registration and workshop details will be available on this page in the spring
  • Participants can register for full- or half-day workshops on either or both days
  • Several workshops will be offered each day
  • Full-day workshops are $100, half-day workshops $50
  • Registration includes a kosher lunch from 1-2 pm both days
  • Group registration will be available
  • Discounts are available for schools sending their whole teaching staff, as well as for members of JECA
  • New this year, we are committed to providing a limited amount of scholarships for teachers who do not receive registration reimbursement from their schools
  • Please direct all questions to Aida Mehmeti at [email protected]

WED, AUG 29 +  THU, AUG 30, 10 AM-5 PM
Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Avenue @76th Street



Come Learn With: Renée Dinnerstein (10 am-5 pm) 
The Classroom Speaks: Transforming the Early Childhood Classroom into an Exciting Laboratory for Learning

In this workshop, we will discuss how to transform a classroom into a place where children build things, conduct experiments, create innovative projects, read fascinating books, write original stories, use technology and texts to research for information, and feel free to try out possibilities. We will think carefully about how to create a space where children grow big ideas, make new friends, and dig deeply into exciting investigations. The workshop will address:

  • Arranging the furniture and materials to make the best use of classroom space
  • Considering the different centers that children will use at the beginning of the school year and creating dedicated areas that will be permanent throughout the year, as well as how to make trade-offs when space is limited
  • Looking at what materials will be necessary at the start of the school year and how this will change over the course of the school year
  • Creating a daily schedule that satisfies the demands of the administration yet doesn’t rush children through the day like a train keeping to a timetable
  • How kindergarten and first-grade children can use their Choice Time journals to reflect on what they did at Choice Time and what might have challenged them

We will have opportunities to work on Choice Time planning templates and also work together on interpreting choice time observations and using these interpretations to plan next steps. There will be time for questions and answers.

Renée Dinnerstein has over 50 years’ experience as an early childhood educator. She has taught both in Italy and the US and has spent 18 years as an early childhood teacher at PS 321, one of New York City’s leading elementary schools. She was the teacher-director of the Children’s School early childhood inclusion annex and worked also as an early childhood staff developer in the New York City Department of Education, Division of Instructional Support, where she wrote curriculum, led study groups and summer institutes, and helped write the New York City Prekindergarten Standards. Renée, a past member of the Teachers’ College Reading and Writing Project Early Childhood Reading “think tank,” taught in the project’s summer institutes and presented calendar days for kindergarten and first-grade teachers. She received the Bank Street Early Childhood Educator of the Year Award in 1999. Her book, Choice Time, How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play (Prekindergarten–Second Grade) was published by Heinemann in August, 2016.



Research and Play: Looking at Choice Time Centers

Recently, I was asked if I could create a rubric to help teachers and other educators look critically at Choice Time centers in their classrooms. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable creating a document where teachers used a scale to rate themselves. However, I do think that it might be helpful for teachers and administrators who are new to inquiry-based centers and investigations to have some format for thinking about the why and how of Choice Time centers.

After I finished typing up a “Looking at Choice Time Centers” document, I received two interesting communications. I had shared the document with a kindergarten teacher in Michigan who is very commited to play-based learning so that I might get some helpful ideas and feedback. In her response, she wrote, “About the only thing your missing is a citation for research you used to show that these principles are “research based.” Very soon after that, I received an email from a teacher who asked if I could give her some support in helping families understand the importance of play in her prekindergarten classroom.

I came to realize that the document needed a reference to the research on the importance of play. I think that it’s important for teachers and administrators to be aware of some of the relevant research on young children and play. This is information for them to share with families. There might be a classroom binder containing a range of articles that parents can borrow. Workshops where parents are invited to experience some of the opportunities for explorations in different centers and also meetings where parents get to hear and question guest speakers might create a community that understands and supports play-based learning. I’ve often said that parents want what is best for their children. As educators, we should be helping families understand the research and see educators support children’s social, emotional and intellectual growth through their play.

Do you have articles or references about the importance of play that can be shared with other teachers and parents on this blog? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we all shared one or two of our favorite articles and then there would be a large menu of references for parents and teachers to choose from? Would you consider sharing with our community of readers? How exciting that would be!

Here is the document that I created. Of course just as we are always growing as educators, this document too is a work in progress!

Looking at Choice Time Centers


Before we look at how centers are set up, introduced and functioning, it’s probably important to personally clarify why we have centers in the first place. Here are some possible goals that you might have for your Choice Time centers.

Focus: We want children to become engaged in activities that will encourage extended focus and commitment.

Independence: Children should be able to use materials independently and creatively.

Language Growth: We would like centers to give children opportunities to develop an expanded vocabulary such as, “I’m building a huge tower that reaches all the way to outer space!” or “Look at the snail’s track of slime.”

Literacy: By providing children with appropriate books, paper and writing implements, they will have opportunities to practice emerging skills such as writing prescriptions in the pretend doctor’s office, making signs and maps in the block center, and drawing observations and diagrams in the science center, using books to research different self-portraits in the art center.

Metacognition: We are giving children opportunities to develop greater metacognition. If children were pretending that they were going on an airplane trip, and they were taking on different roles, they would have to consider:  What does the pilot do? What should I do when I get on the plane with my baby? Who will be serving the food and drinks?

Perception and Play: We give children opportunities to explore their world.  Children might use the experience of a trip to the firehouse to transform their pretend center into a fire station, using their memory of the trip, trip sketches and photographs.

Self-Regulation: We want to support children in developing self-regulation such as learning to take turns and to share materials. Children will be sharing in decision-making at centers and will have many opportunities for social interactions that might involve conflict resolution.

Symbolic Behavior: We will give children opportunities to use symbolic and problem-solving strategies such as figuring out how to use chairs, hollow blocks and paper to create an airplane for dramatic play.

   Research:  We base our work on research that highlights the importance of honoring play-   based learning.This information is helpful to share with families who often have anxieties and confusion about the importance of play in school.  ( i.e. Children from Birth to Five: Academics Versus Play,” policy statement of the Alliance for Childhood (2003); “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds”, Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, and the Committee on Communications and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health; ‘Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need Play in School”, Alliance for Childhood, Almon and Miller.)


Growth in Centers

Ask yourself if you see a potential for growth in each center? Look carefully at the centers and see how they might change over the course of time. (i.e. Water Table Center: Begin simply with a water table, move to an exploration of bubbles, floating and sinking, building boats, color mixing, etc.)

Observations, Comments and Goals:

Are there enough, but not too many, materials in the center to appeal to children with different interests and abilities?  Are the materials appropriate for the explorations being done at a center? For example, if children were being encouraged to carefully observe and draw a snail in the science center, then crayons would be an inappropriate writing implement to use for this activity. If you would like children to begin exploring how to create various lines and colors in the art center,  markers would be an inappropriate material to include at this center because the potential for exploration with this writing and drawing implement is limited.

Observations, Comments and Goals:

Do children have enough time for exploration?

Sometimes children need time to “mess around” with materials at a center before becoming engaged and focused.  Once children become engaged and self-directed, they need enough time for their explorations.

Some teachers have children move to a new center after ten or twenty minutes. Children should never be required to rotate from one center to the other during a Choice Time period. This rotation defeats our goal of supporting focus and engagement.

Observations, Comments and Goals:

Do children get to choose where they will be playing? Are there enough choices of centers available so that children are not “stuck” with a center that doesn’t engage him/her?

Are children’s suggestions for new centers discussed and, if appropriate, honored?

Observations, Comments and Goals:

Is there a consistent, predictable structure for Choice Time, such as a short pre-center discussion, extended time at centers, clean up and a share meeting?

Is there a chart that shows all of the choices available, with pictures and labels, so children can see what centers they can choose from?

Are there appropriate numbers of children that can play at each center? This number might be indicated on the choice chart. Consider letting children come up with numbers for centers based on their play experiences. (i.e. If children complain that It was too crowded in the Pretend Center and that there were too many children there, you might suggest “Perhaps this week we can think about whether it would be better to put a number that tells how many children can play there together. Let’s think about that this week and talk about it in a few days.”)

Is there a consistent, not random, method of calling on children to make choices? One idea is to have a list of students on a chart and have a paper clip that is lowered on the chart to a new name each day.

Are clean-up routines clear and consistent?

Observations, Comments and Goals:

Is the allotted space appropriate for each center? Blocks and Dramatic Play need a great deal of space. Science needs a smaller space. Art needs enough table space so that children can work on big projects.

Remember that space for centers should be fluid and will probably change over the course of the year. Some centers might not need much space at the start of the year but at some point in the year will need more space. There might be new centers added and centers taken away either temporarily or permanently. Follow the lead of the children and their play patterns.

Observations, Comments and Goals:
Assessment and Planning

Choice Time observations are qualitative. Observations can inform future work in  a particular center. They also can focus on what children are accomplishing at a center.

It helps to do an observation with a question in mind. Your initial observation notes should be value-free. Only write what you see. Transcripts are helpful. Later in the day you can reread your observations and record your reflections. Think of what you’re learning about the center or the interactions of the children at the center?

You can then use this information to plan your next instructional steps. It might mean introducing new, challenging provocations to the center.

Your next instructional steps will be based on your initial observations and your reflections.

Observations, Comments and Goals:


Teachers MUST speak out!

In 1976 my husband and I, along with our 4-year-old daughter and 12-year-old dog, moved to Rome, Italy. Our stay, courtesy of the American Academy in Rome, was originally to be for one year but, happily, it lasted almost three years.

We enrolled Simone, my daughter, in a wonderful Montessori School. Lemon and olive trees were sprinkled about the garden, sunlight poured into classrooms, and an abundance of play, investigations and singing filled each day.

Alas, then the year was over and we had to look for a kindergarten. The school only went through pre-k. Simone started reading quite fluently when she was four years old but she mainly got her joy from running, climbing in the schoolyard, taking part in class impromptu dramas such as a wonderful free-spirited production of the Bremen Town Musicians, and singing, singing, singing. This was a tough act to follow and we came up with no new possibilities. The various schools that we visited (and we went to many including the local state school) had rigid, unimaginative, workbook-filled days for five-year olds. We didn’t know what to do.

Out of desperation, we reached out to the director of the Montessori School and entreated her to allow Simone another year in the school. After much discussion, she agreed. When other parents of kindergarten-age children, heard about our decision, they too decided to keep their children in the school. It all worked out perfectly. Or so we thought.

After the first week of the next school year Simone, with tears trickling down her face, sadly told us that she didn’t like school anymore. We wondered if we made the wrong decision but we asked her to explain why she no longer liked going to school. “It’s boring. Too much work.” Hmm, what was going on?

I went back to the school to speak with her teachers and discovered that they were giving her “schoolwork” to do each day. While the other children were happily splashing about at the water table or painting murals in the art studio, she was sitting alone with paper and pencil, filling in worksheets. The teachers, to their defense, thought that they needed to challenge Simone with academic work because she was already reading and writing, We told them that we were not interested in her doing “school work” and that we would like her to spend her days with all of the other children.

The problem was solved. Simone was once more a happy, bubbly, curious and creative five year old.

Now I sadly think about all of the many kindergarten children who are having the joy of learning through play and exploration drained from their school experiences.

Today the Defending the Early Years Project is launching its 2-minute documentary series #TeachersSpeakOut. You can share this blog post and also share on social media and with friends the video of Bianca Tanis discussing the corporate hijacking of early education at


From the #EarlyEd front lines: Now is the time to share our stories. Now is the time to reclaim our voices as experts.

The Opt Out Movement and Kindergarten

It is not unusual to overhear observations such as “ kindergarten looks like the new first or second grade” or “What happened to play in kindergarten?” In a growing number of schools across the country we haven’t moved past these observations to take action. So what does this all have to do with the boycotting of high-stakes standardized tests? And why should  parents and teachers support what is now well known as the Opt Out movement?

The assessments that third, fourth and fifth graders are subjected to each year are more about crunching data and less about helping children become stronger, inquisitive and active learners. Teachers usually do not see the results of the tests until it is too late for any information to be helpful for instruction. The exams seem to be designed in ways that do not relate to what children in each grade need to learn. Because there is so much pressure for schools to reach high test score numbers, much class time is spent in teaching to the test.

What does this have to do with kindergarten? Five year olds don’t (yet!) take these tests. Alhough research shows that young children learn through play, not through early academic pressure, administrators, pressured by the demands of standards-based accountability, impose inappropriate curricula that early childhood teachers must implement. Young, new teachers, many of whom have not experienced play-based learning themselves, are often at a loss, caught between early childhood’s solid research base and expectations.

In the 2009 report, Crisis in the Kindergarten, Edward Miller and Joan Almon cite the following findings from Linda Darling-Hammond and Jon Snyder’s research on German kindergartens found in their article “Curriculum Studies and the Traditions of Inquiry”

 Long-term research casts doubt on the assumption that starting earlier on the teaching of      phonics and other discrete skills leads to better results. For example, most of the play-based kindergartens in Germany were changed into centers for cognitive achievement during a wave of educational “reform” in the 1970s. But research comparing 50 play-based classes with 50 early-learning centers found that by age ten the children who had played in kindergarten excelled over the others in a host of ways. They were more advanced in reading and mathematics and they were better adjusted socially and emotionally in school. They excelled in creativity and intelligence, oral expression, and “industry.” As a result of this study German kindergartens returned to being play-based again.

In the United States, however,  evidence seems to be thrown out the window or ignored and kindergartens continue to eliminate most , if not all,  opportunities for children to play.

Recently, as I was walking down the hallway of a New York City public school, I passed a kindergarten class with this weekly schedule posted on the door of the classroom.

I wondered if this school day for five- year old children, like the one shown in this schedule,  was becoming more common throughout the city. I’ve often seen similiar schedules where children get “free play” or “Choice Time” for a half-hour at the end of the day. Why aren’t educators and parents connecting the dots between a grueling school day in kindergarten  and the increase in diagnoses of  ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)?

Isn’t it obvious that this schedule and others like it are  so closely connected to the hysteria over high test scores and the pressure to meet the Common Core Standards? Isn’t it obvious why all parents, not those only of third through fifth grade students, should be vocally supporting the Opt Out movement?

If we, parents, grandparents and educators, do not speak up and put pressure on politicians and high-up powers in the education department, then it certainly will be our children who suffer.

CASDA- A Wonderful Early Childhood Conference April 30

Here’s some information about a wonderful early childhood conference that will be held in Albany, NY this April 30.

Anna Allanbrook, the inspiring principal of the Brooklyn New School will give the keynote address and some of the teachers from her school will be presenting workshops. It sounds like it will be a day not to be missed!

Here’s a link to register

If you’re anywhere on the east coast, don’t miss this wonderful opportunity !

The Bach Invasion!

“Music makes your kid interesting and happy, and smart will come later. It enriches his or her appetite for things that bring you pleasure and for the friends you meet.”                                                                                                          Dr. Kyle Pruett, Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine

On March 21, 2018, a public school in Brooklyn was invaded by the music of Johann Sebastian Bach in celebration of his 333rd birthday. Forty musicians spent a day visiting every P.S. 321 classroom. The rooms and the halls of the school were filled with music. This wasn’t the first year that the school was invaded by musicians playing classical music but each “invasion” brings excitement and new experiences to the children from kindergarten through fifth grade.

This is a huge school. There are almost 1500 students. How many principals would be as open to dedicating a school day to music as Liz Phillips, She has welcomed each “invasion” with open arms and anticipation. I taught at P.S. 321 for many years, my daughter and grandson were students there and my son-in-law, Jeremy Greensmith, now teaches there. It’s truly an important part of the life of my family. Now, Simone Dinnerstein, my daughter, has organized community concerts at the school and also made a personal commitment to bringing classical music into the lives of all the children and their teachers.

Here’s a glimpse into some of the classrooms.

Here’s a jazz musician introducing children to his improvising on Bach’s music.


Kelly Howard and her students played for the children in Jeremy Greensmith’s class.


Even the squirmy kindergarten students were visited by a high school student who played her cello for them.


My former first grade student, Corinne Bennett, returned to P.S. 321 to perform for a class of second-graders. What a wonderful teacher she has become!

I wonder if this experience will be the inspiration for a chid to learn to play the violin?

For some time there has been talk of the “graying” of the classical music audience. Somehow, I think that the exciting introduction to classical music that these children are experiencing is creating many future concert-goers!


Here is a television program that highlighted a past “invasion”

“Life is more fun if you play games” Roald Dahl

It is a happy talent to know how to play
Chinese fortune cookie

Have you ever watched children racing about in the schoolyard during recess? Motion, curiosity, interactions, explorations…these all abound. Just click on this link and witness the energy and the discoveries these children are making as they splash the ball into the puddle.244 puddle splashers

Charlene Cruse-Rivera, a kindergarten teacher in a New York City public school, watched her students playing in the schoolyard last September and had an inspirational idea. Why not begin the school year with an project exploring  outdoor games? Working on this as a class  would be a sure-fire way of building a community of learners and this study would assure lots of outdoor time.She got parents on board by introducing a notebook that went from one family to another every few days. Parents, grandparents and caretakers could write about the way that they played outdoors when they were children. Each time the book was returned from one family, it was shared with the class and passed on to the next family. This school is in a community that has many immigrants from a variety of different countries and cultures. Some parents, who were less comfortable writing in English,  wrote in their native language . Charlene assured them that she could have their entries translated so that she could read them to the class. Some parents preferred sharing drawings instead of writing. The book was a wonderful way of including families in the class investigation and the children were so proud of sharing their family pages.

The project was brought into the classroom at Choice Time when children went to the art center and found ways of representing some of the outdoor games that they played.



When the weather got colder Charlene had the idea of extending the investigation into a study of board games because these could be played indoors. She began by dedicating one period a day for one week for children to play a variety of board games.


After the children had time to explore the different games, Charlene felt certain that this would be a study that they would enjoy and that would be worth spending an extended amount of time exploring. When I visited the school for one of my consulting days, Charlene and I sat down and did some planning.

These are some of the understandings that we hoped would come out ot the study:

  • There are some similarities in the rules of playing otdoor games and the rules for playing board games.
  • There are also differences in the rules for outdoor games and board games.
  • The rules help us understand how to play a game.
  • Rules for a game are usually consistent.
  • By knowing all about commercial board games, children will understand how to create their own games.

Children began creating their own games during Choice Time. They also wrote about the games they played in their Choice Time journals and they added to a big book of games and game rules.

They made new games for the class to play, even some in the block center.


The Dinosaur Game

Click here to see some wonderful inquiry into creating a new game in the block center!best block investigations

Playing board games gives children opportunities to experience taking turns, verbally interacting with friends, waiting for their turns, and sharing. Rather than becoming fixated on a computer screen, children experience playing face to face with each other. They also learn new strategies, and often use mathematical skills (counting the dots on the dice, counting out moves on a board, using logical thinking skills.) So many of the kindergarten Common Core Learning Standards were playfully addressed in this study.

As Benjamin Franklin said, ” Games lubricate the body and the mind.”

Bravo Charlene, for getting those young minds very well-lubricated and giving them lots of important time for play and exploration!

The New Hampshire Literacy Institutes

I am honored to have been asked to participate in the New Hampshire Literacy Institue. (description below.) If you have an interest in taking part in an exciting and intense explortaion of Choice Time and Inquiry in Grades Pre-k through 2, check out my section:

ENGL 920-03 (2.0 credits)July 23-27 (1 week)
Monday-Friday, 8:15-2:15
The Classroom Speaks: Transforming the early childhood classroom into a laboratory for learning literacy

As our early childhood classes become more and more academic, it’s important for us to hold onto what we know young children need–opportunities for inquiry, exploration and play. When a powerful, authentic inquiry-based choice time is placed at the heart of an early childhood classroom, the energy, creativity and excitement for learning rises to the forefront.
Thinking of the classroom as a laboratory for learning, we will design physical classroom layouts that support this concept. Working from our room plans, we will then look carefully at each center, planning for appropriate materials, and discussing ways to integrate opportunities for writing and reading in each center.

Using video clips and transcripts, participants will use an observation template to reflect on children’s work/play in a center and to use this information to develop next steps for the center. We will pay particular attention to how a teacher sets up a center and how children are encouraged to then take ownership of what happens in the center. We will see how Choice Time Journals can be implemented in classrooms to give children the opportunity to use their writing and drawing as a means of reflecting on their day’s experience at their Choice Time center.

If you know anyone who might be interested, please pass on this information. Also, if you have any questions, send me an email.

The New Hampshire Literacy Institutes is a five-week summer program consisting of two- and four-credit graduate-level courses as well as non-credit workshops. You may register for a course and/or attend a workshop, but auditing will not be permitted. Undergraduates with a bachelor’s degree in May are eligible to attend in July. Permission is required. The maximum load is ten credits. Classes are scheduled daily, Monday-Friday, 8:15-2:15, except where noted. Keynote Speakers are included in the program as a special feature for all participants.

Here’s a link for more information and to register online:

Keynote Speakers




ENGL Course Offerings

  • 911-01: Experiments in the Poetry Classroom (Shelley Girdner), 2 weeks (4.0 credits), 7/2-7/13
  • 922-01: Reading to Write (Linda Rief), 2 weeks (4.0 credits), 7/2-7/13
  • 922-02: Listening Beyond the Text (Tomasen M Carey), 2 weeks, (4.0 credits) 7/9-7/20
  • 920-01: Get a (READING) Life (Kathy Collins), 1 week (2.0 credits), 7/16-7/20
  • 911-02: Writing Fiction (Clark Knowles), 2 weeks (4.0 credits), 7/23-8/3
  • 920-02: The Journey Is Everything (Katherine Bomer), 1 week (2.0 credits), 7/23-7/27
  • 920-03: The Classroom Speaks (Renee Dinnerstein), 1 week (2.0 credits), 7/23-7/27
  • 920-04: Who’s Doing the Work? (Kim Yaris), 1 week (2.0 credits), 7/30-8/3
  • 922-03: Reading Between the Lines (Laura Smith), 1 week (2.0 credits), 7/30-8/3
  • Workshop: The Power of Narrative
  • Non-credit, 3-day workshop with Tom Newkirk, Penny Kittle & Kelly Gallagher, 7/16-7/18


Department of English | phone (603) 862-1313 | fax (603) 862-3563
Hamilton Smith Hall | 95 Main Street | Durham, NH 03824
College of Liberal Arts • 603-862-2062
Murkland Hall, Durham, N.H. • 03824

Democracy vs. Dystopia

For the last few years I’ve become special friends with Deborah Meier. Each time that I meet with her, I feel as though I’m soaking up her wisdom and her inspiring trust in children and in teachers. Trust is a word that seems to weave its way through my thinking, more and more – lack of trust and need for trust.

A few years ago I had a rather long telephone conversation with Eva Moskowitz founder and CEO of the Success Academy Charter Schools. It was supposed to be a ten minute conversation but it went on for almost forty minutes. She wanted to pick my brain about play and choice time. She shared with me her observation that, although the children in her schools were learning to read and write very well, they were not well socialized. There were many fights and behavior problems. She thought that, perhaps, the children needed some opportunities to play. She remembered that when her child went to the progressive public school, the Manhattan New School, there was a lot of block play and inquiry projects. Perhaps her students needed something similar.

It was a strange, uncomfortable conversation. There didn’t seem to be a an understanding of what young children needed if they were to be well-educated. I didn’t pick up, from our conversation, a knowledge of developmentally appropriate curriculum and why it was important to think of this when planning for a child’s education. She was basically interested in following a fix-it -up approach to one particular issue rather than something that philosophical underpinning or understanding. She wanted a quick fix.

Susan Ochshorn,a writer and policy analyst, and a member of the board of directors of the Network for Public Education, has written such an important article about two different attitudes towards the education of young children. She compares Deborah Meier’s new book,  written with Emily Gasoi, These Schools Belong to You and Me, with Eva Moskowitz’s memoir The Education of Eva Moskowitz . In her book review which appearsat  Alternet, Ms. Ochshorn writes:

More than two decades ago, Deborah Meier warned that the idea of democracy was in peril. “Is it ever otherwise?” she asked in the preface to The Power of Their Ideas, her elegantly argued manifesto for public education. A self-described preacher on its behalf, she has spent half a century nurturing “everyone’s inalienable capacity to be an inventor, dreamer, and theorist—to count in the larger scheme of things.

Like Susan Ochshorn, I first personally encountered Deborah Meier when she gathered together a group of educators, many of them university professors of early childhood education, to discuss the dismal state of early childhood education in New York City and to try to arrive at some strategies for addressing this problem. The group named itself the New York Voices of Childhood, actually the name that I suggested. For me, it was encouraging to finally meet with a room packed with other like-minded educators. Perhaps we could get our voices heard at last. In her article, Susan Ochshorn writes:

Drills, scripted teaching and standardized testing threatened our national genius for inventiveness. We had entered risky terrain, five-year-olds deemed failures before they reached kindergarten. We knew that flexibility, perseverance, empathy, curiosity, social awareness, and resilience are best developed in exploratory play, yet these qualities were now missing from the lives of growing numbers of our youngest citizens.

However, this was also the time that charter schools, and particularly Eva Moskowitz’s chain of schools, the Success Academy Charter Schools, were appearing. Ms. Ochshorn ponts out that by 2014, Eva Moskowitz was  “pushing students to excel on standardized tests, psyching them for peak performance with “Slam the Exam” rallies.”

If one bought in to a system that was valuing quantitative score-based assessments of children over a qualitative assessment that valued more about the child than  data  recorded on a computer spread sheet, Moskowitz and her schools seemed to be  succeeding. In her review of the two books, Ms. Ochshorn is right on the mark when she writes of Moskowitz:

With harsh discipline, and incentives offered for good behavior and high scores on practice tests, Moskowitz remains convinced she can close the achievement gap between her students, the vast majority of whom are black or Latino living in poverty, and their more affluent, white peers. Her methods are abusive. Students’ every movement is monitored. Daydreaming is prohibited. Children are shamed, their lackluster performances on weekly spelling and math quizzes posted in a red zone on charts in the hallway.Her strategies betray appalling ignorance of child development. From the moment of birth, children’s interactions with sensitive caregivers fuel their social, emotional and intellectual development, with enduring effects on their future capacities. The process of bonding, or attunement, is the first order of business. The choreography of this dance is nuanced, babies building basic trust, a sense of security and optimism that nurtures their desire to engage in the world and take on challenging tasks with persistence and pleasure. In development-speak, the phenomenon of applying nose to the grindstone is called “mastery motivation,” a process by which children acquire a sense of competence and control. Kids continue to hone these skills in play. Their insatiable curiosity and new knowledge form the foundation for the students, not to mention the human beings and citizens, they will become.

Moskowitz talks and writes about how she is providing schools of choice for parents who previously had no opportunities to choose schools for their children and who were limited by often inferior public schools in their neighborhoods. However, I wonder about the children who have parents who don’t understand the system  of applying for  charters or who are too overcome by their survival problems to spend time and energy filling in applications and taking part in a lottery. What about those children? What about the children who have special needs, emotional or physical, and who are steered away from the Success schools?

I also wonder if the government officials who support these schools, such as Michael Bloomberg and even Barack Obama, would send their children to schools where the main focus is on preparing for standardized tests and where children are trained to sit like robots,  where competition beats collaboration, and where children are learning through rote and intimidation?

Susan Ochshorn gives us more than a well-written book review. She presents a provocation, pushing us to consider deeply what it is that we really expect from early childhood education and what we want for our children.






My Buddy

Fanny, a kindergarten teacher, and Angela, a second grade teacher, recently decided to pair up their children for weekly reading buddy sessions. The children already were working together on a study of their new guinea pigs. The teachers asked me if I could give them some advice and I began looking through my files for an article that I wrote in 1996. I found it! Here it is.

Book Buddies
The scene in the classroom would have made any teacher smile. Blanca and Ellen sat together in a corner, Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat between them, Blanca’s arm draped around Helen’s shoulder. Blanca, the second – grader, pointed to the words as she read aloud to Helen, the kindergartner. The older girl paused at the end of each sentence until the younger one chimed in with the missing rhyming word. Before long, Helen would be reading about that mischievous cat all by herself.

These children are participating in a popular program at my school, P.S. 321 in Brooklyn, New York. Our teachers and students refer to the project as “buddy classes”, and they’re taking place all over the school. The benefits are compelling. Younger children like Helen learn how to read, older children like Blanca practice their reading skills and take pride in passing them on, and teachers at both levels marvel at their students’ growing knowledge and confidence.

In our hectic days filled with required subjects, enrichment classes, outdoor playtime, and more, it can be difficult to fit in even one extra activity. But because the teachers in my school are so convinced of the positive effects on children’s learning and self-esteem, we take the time to make the program work. During lunch, before and after school, in car pools, and on the phone during evenings and weekends, we eke out the minutes to plan our weekly reading get-togethers.

Because classes and schedules vary, teachers organize the program in the way that best fits their needs. Some classes have an easygoing system in which one or both children bring a book to share. The students find a comfortable place and spend the 45-minute period reading. It isn’t unusual to see children stretched out on a rug, sitting together on a rocking chair or on a pillow in the hallway, or even finding a spot of privacy under a desk. Teachers walk around the room and make sure all is running smoothly.

Other classes may pair up on more ambitious projects. One kindergarten and fourth grade team is working on an alphabet study together. Having read and compared many different ABC books, they’re now creating their own alphabet books and cards and learning to sing “A You’re Adorable.” Some classes are reading and writing poetry. One year my kindergartners and Adele Schroeter’s fourth graders took part in a sea study. We read fiction and nonfiction books about the sea and marine animals, worked on small-group research projects and ended the year with a boat ride in Jamaica Bay led by five instructors from the New York Aquarium.

If you would like to create a buddy program, here are six steps to make your start-up easy:

1. FIND AN INTERESTED COLLEAGUE. One unexpected bonus of this activity is that upper and lower grade teachers get to know each other and share ideas.

2. AGREE ON YOUR EXPECTATIONS. How much planning time are you willing to devote to the program? How frequently, and where, will your groups meet? Young children often feel more comfortable meeting in their own room, especially at the beginning of the school year. After a few weeks, some teachers split the groups in half. One group stays in the kindergarten class and the other meets in the upper-grade class. Twenty-five children in a room are a lot quieter than 50!

3. CREATE THE RIGHT PAIRS OR TRIADS OF STUDENTS. Most teachers take personalities and reading abilities into account when making this decision. Talk about your children together and think carefully about the match. Sometimes you’ll have to switch children around but it’s usually best to let them try to work out problems on their own first.

4. DECIDE HOW YOU WILL RUN THE SESSIONS. A typical get-together begins with a short meeting on the rug, often with the little ones singing on their buddies’ laps. The teachers might share a story or role-play a strategy in front of the group. Then the children go off in pairs to read together. About ten minutes before the end of the session, everyone gets together again to share something interesting that they’ve read and to sing a song. The classes may also take turns providing a snack for the session.

5. FIGURE OUT HOW THE CHILDREN WILL GET THEIR BOOKS. In my class, students chose one or two books they wanted their buddy to read to them and labeled the books with their names. A day or two before our meeting, a group of fourth graders picked up the books and brought them back to their classroom. The fourth graders read the books for homework and had time in their class to work on book-sharing strategies.

6. AFTER YOUR PROGRAM IS UP AND RUNNING, CONDISER EXPANDING IT. The opportunities for cooperative activities are limited only by your imagination and schedule. Classes can go on trips together or the children can tem up to create their own stories.

Any way you choose to implement your buddy program, this shared learning activity will provide an enriching experience for everyone involved. Your students will no doubt be the first to agree. When asked about the advantages of working with kindergarteners, one fourth grader in my school said, “We give them security and friendship.”

But perhaps a kindergartner summed up the program’s educational benefits best when he said, “They tell you stuff you never knew before.”