Author Archives: Renee

Let’s Talk About Choice Time

only workersHow do you define play and choice time in early childhood classrooms? Brett Whitmarsh, Director of Digital Communications and Social Media Manager at Heinemann Publishing, and I took some time out during the 2016 NCTE conference to have a serious conversation about the topic of my new book on Choice Time.  cropped-book-cover.jpg

In my book, I wrote that,  “play is an engine that drives learning.”   “During choice time, children choose to play in a variety of centers that have been carefully designed and equipped to scaffold children’s natural instinct for play.” I presented a good deal of information on what teachers need to consider when they set up choice-time centers that promote inquiry-based, guided play in a classroom. I also summarized the research, describing the different kinds of play and why they are important. I believe that it is important for teachers to be able to cite research when discussing the importance of play in early childhood (pre-k – grade 2) classes. Choice Time allows children opportunities to engage in joyful, important, playful, age-appropriate work that will empower them to become lifelong learners.

We started our conversation on the issue of the diverse kinds of play (You can see below for a full transcript of our conversation):

 

Listen to the podcast here:

 

 

Transcript:

Renee: Well, when I think about choice time, first I think about children and play. When children play, there are basically two different kinds of play. One play is free play. The other play is guided play. Free play is when children are out in the schoolyard and they’re running around and someone picks up a stick and the stick becomes a sword or it becomes a magic wand. They have their own agenda. Nobody else is involved with that agenda other than the children. That’s their agenda.

Guided play is when the teacher sets up different centers for play and investigation. The teacher decides what the room is going to look like, what the center is going to look like, how much space she or he is going to allot for the center, what materials will go in the center. Then what happens in that center is up to the children. The children are not guided in what they do. It’s totally up to them, but the teacher has a very important role in setting up a play environment, an investigation environment, an exploration environment for the children.

Brett: Why are choice time and play so important?

Renee: Play is what drives children’s learning. First of all, it’s joyful. We want children to have joy in their life. That’s really important. It’s important to me as a teacher. Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, I’m going to read something that he said. “In play, the child is always behaving beyond his age, above his usual everyday behavior. In play, he is, as it were, a head above himself.” Children grow in play. They do things that extend their learning. It’s an engine for driving the learning that children have. In choice time play, the children are able to actually incorporate all the other things that they’ve done all day, all through the week, and bring it with them into these centers that they have. What’s really interesting is that when children are playing they get to practice what they think it’s like to be an adult. Sometimes for an adult it’s funny to watch it because it’s taking it and twisting it a bit. It’s the way that they think.

For example, in my book I talked about how children were playing doctor and mother came with a very sick baby. Jeffrey the doctor said, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry.” He took out his injection needle and he jabbed the baby doll. The mother said, “My baby died.” Jeffrey said, “Don’t worry.” He jabbed the baby with the needle. He said, “She’s okay now.” The mother took out her pocketbook, gave him a wad of bills and teetered away in her high heels. That’s the way they saw life. They were acting it out. It’s important, very important for children to be able to do that, and for teachers to honor that, to say, “This is important. We must honor this.”cleared-doctor

Brett: On that, how can teachers connect choice time centers to classroom studies and the curriculum?

Renee: I think it’s so easy to make connections to the curriculum during choice time. Probably as you go up in the grades it happens even more so. For example, I have something in the book. Can I read from the book?

Brett: Absolutely, yes.

Renee: This was a first grade class in Manhattan on the lower east side. They were doing a subway study. They were going on many trips and interviewing people and learning all about it. During choice time these were some of the things that were set up: comparing subway maps from different cities and creating a subway map with a key for stations and routes for children’s own imaginary city. They created an imaginary city. Polling classmates about subway ridership, creating a graph and sharing the information, designing subway car models using photographs and sketches, using subway sounds. This was in one class where they did this, subway sounds to create a musical. They recorded it. They made their own subway music.sketching at the station

Writing and illustrating poems because there is something on the New York City subway called Poetry in Motion. They were making poems to go into the subway. Painting a subway mural, constructing subway cars out of blocks, using an interactive white board to research subway routes, and planning out trips that they were going to take. They made a subway station in the classroom for the dramatic play. They created a turnstile after going to the subway and doing sketches of it and seeing how it worked.

This is just one example of how it is, but if a class is doing a neighborhood study, there are so many things they could do in terms of recreating the neighborhood, opening up a store in the dramatic play area, going to a store and buying things and cooking it in class. There are a tremendous amount of connections and always, always ways for children to record things that they’re doing.the classroom market

Brett: Well, I think you just spoke to this with the subway example, but how do you see schools implementing choice time in their classrooms?

Renee: Now, is the question how do I see it or how do I want to see it? There’s two different things there, but in the best case scenario, in the very best case scenario, for kindergarten for example, choice time is scheduled during every day because it is so important. It’s scheduled during a prime time during the day. I mean, I used to do it first period, but I think that after maybe reading or something, but not at the end of the day because when it’s at the end of the day these five and six and seven year olds have been doing reading and writing and math and phonics. They don’t want to be thoughtful about what their play is. They just want to just hang out and do it. In the best case scenario the scheduling is very important.

Also I think that just as with the reading workshop and the writing workshop, the teacher has to really be planful about what is happening. The same thing for choice time. Observe the children. Write down what the children are doing. Reflect on what you’ve written. Think about, based on what I’ve reflected, what are my next steps? What am I going to do? Have conversations with children about that. early observation reportWhen choice time is really working super well, then children start coming up with their own ideas for centers that are important for the classroom.

For example, in a kindergarten class that I’ve been working in this year, for some reason, I don’t know why, but some of the children, they wanted to open up a shoe store. They wanted to make their own shoes. The teacher asked them to explain what they needed and what they were going to do. They were very clear about what they wanted to do. She set out the materials. They traced their feet. They measured each other’s foot. They basically made shoes. They made thongs. Then they said it needed to be in plastic bags like in the store. They put it in Ziploc bags and hung it up and opened a shoe store in the dramatic play area. 7

Brett: That’s so cool.

Renee: This was a children-driven … Sometimes it’s more the teacher driving it or a collaboration between the children and the teachers, but this case it was totally child-driven.

Brett: Talk about the importance of trust in the classroom in choice time.

Renee: I think that trust is the essence of choice time because as I have said before, the teacher sets up the centers. The teacher puts out material. The teacher arranges the room so that children can work independently. Then the teacher trusts the children to know what to do with those materials. Sometimes it may not be what the teacher is thinking. Sometimes you may think, “Oh my goodness. What are they doing there?” You could always sit down with a group of children at the end, at meeting, and talk about, “Tell us some more about what was happening there,” but this element of trust is crucial. Children need to know that they need to have agency and need to know that the teacher respects that agency. Trust them to know what to do and to know how to play, to know how to explore.

Brett: Building off of that, maybe a teacher who has just read the book or is in the middle of reading the book now, and they’ve not done that before, they’ve not experienced that opportunity of trust. How would you advise that teacher?

Renee: I think one of the things that I tried to do in the book was for the different centers, the basic centers, to be very explicit about not just what to put out and how to set it up but how to introduce it. That is so important, how to introduce a center and how to introduce it slowly. Then after you introduce it, to go back again and to then go around in a circle back again in a meeting to what was talked about at the mini-lesson before the children went out there. I think that maybe for a new teacher, to not have too many centers. There’s nothing wrong actually, with having doubles of the same center. That’s okay. Some children are going to the art table here and some children are going to it there, but I think that it’s just really … Take it slowly. Take it really slowly.

You see there is something that a lot of teachers do, which are literacy centers, which are valuable in their own rights, but literacy centers all have a task. Teachers are used to that. They’re used to knowing that children are going to come out of a session with those literacy centers and know and come out with a product or a solution or something like that. Don’t expect that. Get comfortable with understanding that that’s not what this is all about.

Choice Time Lets The Light In

anna-allanbrook-01-360x220

Susan Ochshorn,  blogger and founder of ECE PolicyWorks, has   written a very informed review of my book, Choice Time-How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK-2. I’d love to share her article with you.

RENEE DINNERSTEIN’S REVOLUTION GROWS IN BROOKLYN
Posted by Susan Ochshorn, on December 15th, 2016
Last September, before school began, I made my way to the Brooklyn Historical Society for the launch of Renée Dinnerstein’s new book, Choice Time. At a time of standardized tests for five-year-olds, canned curriculum, didactic instruction, and the Common Core—in a city of deep inequality and segregation—this event was long overdue.

More than 200 teachers poured into the landmark Romanesque Revival building, now a center of urban history, civic dialogue, and community outreach. Many were left standing around the edges of the room, the air tense with expectancy. After a day of setting up their classrooms, they still had energy to burn.

Following a PowerPoint presentation, Dinnerstein invited Anna Allanbrook, principal of the Brooklyn New School, to join her for a conversation. Both women are committed to active learning, equality of opportunity and diversity, the nurturance of community and democracy, and the belief that young children, who are naturally thoughtful and curious, make their own meaning, with adults as their trusted guides.

Dinnerstein and Allanbrook are members of a vanishing species of educator. Attention was rapt as they reflected on the challenges of upholding the progressive ethos in a city where it has become the province of the privileged. The audience was primed for the discussion, bursting into applause when the subject of segregation came up. “All parents want to send their children to schools where exciting things are happening,” Dinnerstein said.

The spirit of Lillian Weber hovered over the proceedings. A revered professor of early childhood education at the City College of New York, she supported teacher activism at the grassroots, and became the first woman, in 1973, to deliver the annual John Dewey Society lecture—well before No Child Behind and corporate reform would wreak havoc with the philosopher’s creed. “Find the cracks,” Weber urged her students, a sentiment echoed by the late Leonard Cohen in “Anthem,” released in the early 90s: “There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything) That’s how the light gets in.”

Choice Time, a guide to deepening learning through inquiry and play, is Dinnerstein’s gift to the city’s early childhood teachers, with whom she’s been working for nearly five decades. They’re hard pressed to find the light in today’s climate of constraint and metrics. The pressure on them and the children is acute, robbing both parties of autonomy, agency, and joy in the work at hand. “We need a revolution,” Dinnerstein declared, plaintively, at one point during the evening.

The book begins with a quick scan of the research on play, a powerful engine of human development. The repercussions of its disappearance cannot be overstated, especially for children in poverty. As Regina Milteer, Kenneth Ginsburg, and Deborah Ann Mulligan warned in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2012. “To effectively preserve play in the lives of economically disadvantaged children,” they wrote, “its presence in schools …must be supported…Otherwise, school engagement might suffer and efforts at creating a better-prepared generation might fail.”

Their concern was welcome, but their advice had gone unheeded. In the nation’s classrooms, the damage had been accruing, block by block banished from kindergarten—along with the kind of active learning that children need to thrive. Joan Almon and Edward Miller had been tracking the trend, reporting on its implications in their seminal work, Crisis in the Kindergarten, published by the Alliance for Childhood in 2009.

In Choice Time, Dinnerstein offers readers a taxonomy of play adapted from this report, nine types encompassing “forms of exploration that support…social, emotional, creative, and intellectual growth.” Never mind the overlap in form and function—children develop mastery, learn rules, and have their senses engaged in many kinds of play. In clear, simple language, she sets forth the rationale, rooted in research, for the centers of the ideal classroom:

… it’s a laboratory for exploratory learning, a place where children build things, conduct experiments, create innovative art projects, read fascinating books, write original stories, use technology and texts to find out information and feel free to imagine and try out possibilities. It’s a place where children grow big ideas, make new friends, and dig deeply into exciting investigations.

Here, learning is collaborative, students’ voices are heard, and their work documented. The teacher is the guide, scaffolding “children’s natural instincts for play, introducing materials and posing questions and ideas that help them develop a wide range of skills.”

Observation and recording, a vanishing skill in the age of quick, quantitative assessment, undergirds practice. Close, careful attention to children yields information for extending their learning. In the centers Dinnerstein proposes (blocks, science, reading nook, dramatic play, math, and art), these strategies hold, and she tells her readers just what to do, chapters interspersed with charts called “Teaching Interventions,” lined with observations and possible responses.

All of the above requires time—in short supply as we continue to race our students to the top. In the second chapter, Dinnerstein gets to the core of the loss:

It may be that of all the voices in the classroom, time actually speaks the loudest. How we use time during the day speaks volumes about our beliefs about teaching and learning and our understanding of the developmental needs of young children. Just as the heart pumps blood through the…vessels of the circulatory system, providing the body with oxygen and important nutrients, choice activities are vital to the well-being of young children…

Dinnerstein’s blueprint for change requires leaps of imagination and faith for the new generation of early childhood educators. They’ve come of age professionally during an era of reform that has pushed children’s needs and the evidence base to the periphery. Practitioners in a field long marginalized, they’ve been reluctant to challenge the regime.

Last year, at a meeting in East Harlem, where choice time is but a dream, a principal from Sunset Park, a gentrifying community of immigrants in Brooklyn, spoke of how she had just brought back blocks to her elementary school, after more than a decade’s hiatus. The teachers didn’t know how to use them. Choice Time lets the light in.

 

In the Hands of Children (with addendum)

“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”
— Margaret Mead, cultural anthropologist

7I’ve done a lot of thinking and writing about choice time, inquiry, exploration and play. In my book on choice time I described how to set up and introduce a variety of centers that give children the opportunity and freedom to collaborate, create and have fun. Lately, however, I find myself musing about what might happen if we could give children more freedom to not only choose what centers they want to go to at Choice Time but also what centers they want to create and organize themselves for investigation and play. These thoughts were fueled by something that I observed in a kindergarten class in Flushing, New York.

One day, some of the children approached their teacher, Fanny Roman, and told her that they would like to have a center where they could make their own shoes. It’s unclear to me why this was important to them but after some discussion, it became obvious that the
children making the request were quite serious and had a strong idea of how they would go about creating sandals. When she saw how well they had thought out their ideas, Fanny said, “ok, let’s see what we need to set up the center.”

1The children wanted construction paper, crayons, markers, scissors, and pipe cleaners. When they organized their material, they got to work. 2They traced their feet and the feet of anyone who would want a pair of shoes special ordered. 35Shoe soles were marked so that they wouldn’t mix up pairs that went together. The shoes were decorated so that each pair had a unique look.

6Interest in the shoe production spread throughout the class and more children wanted time to work in the shoe factory. One of the children said that she saw shoes in a store hanging in plastic bags so children brought in zip lock bags to package their shoes.close-up-in-plastic-bag

Fanny took the children on a walk to a local shoe store and then the children decided to turn the dramatic play center in a shoe store. Feet were measured. Shoes were bought. It was THEIR center and THEIR project.

Now I’m trying to think about how teachers can support children’s ownership of centers. Are there structures for opening up conversations that encourage children to imagine centers that will reflect their personal interests and obsessions?

I’m thinking about this and will write more very soon. I’m fired up with this idea! What are your thoughts and experiences? Let’s share ways that we can put more decisions about choice time in the hands of children.

Addendum to this post: I asked Fanny to write me something about how this interest in shoes got started. Here’s what she wrote:

“A little girl named Yi Tong initiated the entire shoe center. She was at the writing center and she started making a shoe that her mother bought her in the store. She inspired so many other children and they all made connections with her story. Everyone had something to share about going shopping to buy shoes. My role was just listening and showing interest and excitement. I slowly started to add on to what was going on in the classroom.
I would walk around and say, “oh, I noticed that more children are making shoes with paper. What are some other tools we can use? What other centers can we add to our choice chart that are related to shoes?

My read aloud, poems and math investigations had a theme of shoes : ) They got really into it !”

Listening is so important!

Book Launch-Part 2 – Conversation with Anna Allanbrook

looking-at-worm-with-magnifying-glassOn Tuesday, September 6th the Brooklyn Historical Society graciously hosted the launch of my book Choice Time- How To Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK-2.

This video is the second part of the launch presentation. I was joined on stage by Anna Allanbrook, principal of the Brooklyn New School. We discussed the challenge of introducing progressive ideas into public schools.

Book Launch Part 1 : Why Choice Time?

chapter-1-collaborationOn Tuesday, September 6th the Brooklyn Historical Society graciously hosted the launch of my book Choice Time- How To Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK-2. To my great surprise over 200 people showed up for the event. Luckily I had arranged for a former kindergarten student of mine, Jimmy Negron, to videotape the evening.

There were two parts to the launch. First I narrated a Powerpoint presentation showing images from the book and spoke a bit about the importance of inquiry-based learning. Then I was joined on stage by Anna Allanbrook, principal of the Brooklyn New School.  We discussed the challenge of introducing progressive practices into New York City public schools.

Today’s post shows Part One, “Why Choice Time.”

If you would like to read more about the book, check my page on the Heinemann website, http://www.heinemann.com/products/E07765.aspx

Can Learning As Play Make a Kindergarten Comeback ?

1(Urban Matters)  September 21, 2016

Can ‘Learning as Play’ Make a Kindergarten Comeback?

By Lydie Raschka

One day last school year, a girl in Fanny Roman’s kindergarten class at PS 244 in Flushing, Queens arrived bubbling with excitement about her new shoes. With Roman’s encouragement, she began tracing classmates’ feet on paper and constructing “shoes,” using pipe cleaners for laces. Her enthusiasm proved contagious; in response, Roman read poetry and picture books about shoes and students set up a play shoe store of their own, with different-sized shoes in boxes, labeled “Jellies” or “Sneakers”, as they categorized by size and even priced their wares. In their writing, they started using words such as “Velcro,” buckles” and “shoelaces.”

Welcome to “choice time.” In a number of New York City elementary school kindergarten classes, it revives, in modified fashion, the once-common play-as-learning “free time” that’s been driven almost to extinction in favor of whole-class instruction, textbooks, worksheets, and other elements of more rigorous education in the Common Core era.

Nationally, the amount of kindergarten time spent on reading and math instruction has substantially increased, according to a recent study published by AERA Open, titled, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” Authors Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham, and Anna Rorem found that some 80% of a national sample of teachers now believe students should learn to read in kindergarten, compared to only 31% who thought that in 1998; only 40% reported at least an hour of student-driven activities per day in their classrooms.

While there’s no question that early education is critical, there’s also a growing number of researchers, educators, and parents questioning whether the formal academic approach now rooted in many kindergarten classrooms has gone too far.

Academic expectations and play don’t have to be mutually exclusive goals, some early childhood experts say. Lilian G. Katz, author of Lively Minds: Distinctions Between Academic versus Intellectual Goals for Young Children, argues that while “bits of information,” such as learning the sound of the letter “s,” do matter, they may not warrant as much time as schools increasingly give them. She and other prominent educators, including Deborah Meier and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, are part of a nonprofit group called “Defending the Early Years,” intended to help early childhood educators combat an increased focus on academics over the discovery, inquiry, and play that stimulates the mind in a fuller way and is often called “choice time.”

Another highly respected, now retired, elementary school teacher in New York City, Renée Dinnerstein, believes that a way to stimulate a rich choice time is to “make the classroom into a sort of laboratory for children – to create a science center where they really feel like scientists; an art center where they really feel like artists.”

“The challenge,” she says, “is to plan inquiry-based, explorative choice time, acknowledging important elements of free play within the high standards expected” in the Common Core-era classroom – even in kindergarten.

Dinnerstein expands on these ideas on her blog, Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration and Play, and in a new book, Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning through Inquiry and Play, Pre-K – 2 published by Heinemann Press. In recent years, she also has helped develop kindergarten choice time at various local schools.

“The teacher’s prepared environment is essentially what differentiates free play and choice time,” Dinnerstein says. That can mean, for example, creating a classroom “construction area” replete with kid-sized safety goggles, vests, blocks, hard hats, sign-making materials and mini-people or animals. Teachers introduce items of interest based on what kids say and do.

PS 244 principal Bob Groff says that for his students (drawn from a heavily Chinese immigrant neighborhood where some 70% start school with little or no English) “choice time is a great opportunity to develop language socially and academically at the same time.” It also encompasses reading, writing, and math learning goals. “This blends all of that together,” he said. “It’s natural, not forced. It’s going to have more long-lasting success.”

Kindergarten teacher Fanny Roman is a believer in choice time, too, and has put it at the start of the school day. “I liked it first thing,” she said. “It made me so excited every day to come in.” Nevertheless, choice time also takes time—time that isn’t easy to find. “Every minute counts,” said Roman. “It’s all about the testing grades and what we have to do to get them ready in kindergarten.”

Dinnerstein thinks those minutes could be used better—to create an intellectually stimulating kindergarten that promotes reasoning, analyzing, predicting, and questioning. “When kids are pushed to read early, they’re not pushed to do a lot of thinking,” she said. “It’s not like I’m against children learning to read. [But] I don’t think the goal is that every child leaving kindergarten has to learn to read. If you have two children in one family, they’re not learning everything at the same speed—crawling, pushing up, standing—but they all end up walking.”

Lydie Raschka is on the staff of the InsideSchools project of the Center for New York City Affairs. She’s a Montessori teacher-trainer during the summer months.
Photo Credit: Fanny Roman
Urban matters home

The Spirit of Synchronicity

Chapter 7 DRAMATIC PLAYIs there a shift in the wind? Are teachers and parents finally fed up? Could the interest in my book on Choice Time indicate a return to joyful, age-appropriate, explorative learning?

There appears to be a genuine interest in moving towards inquiry-based, rather than test-driven, instruction. Heinemann ‘s decision to publish a book that puts this belief out front is commendable. Hopefully their support of the importance of play and inquiry signifies a meaningful climate change that will open the doors to a better educational experience for children.

Sometimes the spirit of synchronicity looks kindly upon us!at water table

If you’re in New York City this Tuesday, I hope you might join me for the official launch of my book.
Book Launch Event

Tuesday
September 6, 2016
6:30 p.m.
The Brooklyn Historical Society
128 Pierrepont Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Tel. 718-222-4111

CHOICE TIME
How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play
PreK-2

Renée Dinnerstein
Foreword by Kathy Collins

Join me for
A PowerPoint presentation with photographs and videos from NYC classrooms

A short reading of selections from the book

A conversation with Anna Allanbrook, principal of the Brooklyn New School
We will discuss the potential of introducing progressive ideas to our public schools.

Q & A

Wine and Snacks

Book signing
Books will be available for purchase at the event

RSVP would be greatly appreciated. ([email protected])

book cover

Photographs by Kristen Brenneman Eno

 

Revisiting “Camping Out”

 

6.6 wendyTwo years ago I wrote a blog entry about an exciting, unexpected beginning- of -the- year study that merged inquiry, literacy and play. It’s not necessarily something that anyone would repeat since it came so naturally to my class that particular year. However it is an example of what the possibilities are when the teacher listens carefully to the children and feels free enough to run with the ball when the opportunity arises.

Here it is: Camping Out

“As soon as I saw you, I knew a grand adventure was about to happen.”
A.A. Milne, Winnie –the- Pooh

Before pacing calendars, before the hysteria of Common Core Learning Standards, before preparing four and five year olds to be college and career ready, there actually were some wonderful classroom opportunities for opening doors and embracing unexpected opportunities for learning. Many years after the fact, (actually eighteen years later) I can recall one of those special moments.

It was September 1996, the start of another teaching year with a new group of kindergarten children. As I did most years, I encouraged each child to bring a favorite storybook from home to share with the class. These books were kept in a special “sharing basket” and each day I picked a few to read aloud. I never, ever would have predicted what was going to happen when I picked Lee’s book to read.

I truly enjoy reading most children’s books but there’s one series that I find particularly tedious and uninspiring, the Berenstain Bears books. However, as much as I avoided reading them to the class, the children seemed to equally love each one in the series. Why? I couldn’t quite figure that out but, nevertheless, there’s obviously something in the humor of the adventures that appeals to five year old children.

Lee’s book was The Berenstain Bears’ Camping Adventure and the minute that I finished my reading, the sounds of “read it again” rang out all around the carpet. O.K., I’m a rather obliging sort so I did it – I read it again. Each day that week the children asked if I could reread that silly tale of a bear family’s adventurous camping trip. Finally, after about the fourth reading that week, I put the book aside and asked if anyone in the class ever went on a real overnight camping trip in the woods. A small sprinkling of hands went up. Most of the children had never gone camping.

“Hmm, I wonder….” (As the year progressed, they would begin to realize that those two words often prefaced some class adventure or project.) “I wonder…could we imagine that a forest grew in our classroom, that day turns to night, and that we could go on a classroom camping trip? I wonder…” Well, can you imagine what happened next? “Yes!!” “Yes, let’s do it!!”

With the excitement beginning to reach a high pitch, I lifted my hands to indicate that it was time to settle down and I said, “Let’s think about it and talk about this tomorrow.” I wanted to see if the idea would sustain over night and I also wanted to think about this crazy idea that I had just proposed!

The next day the children came to school buzzing with excitement about our camping trip. Their parents, on the other hand, looked totally confused. It’s September and you’re taking my five year old on a camping trip…and at night? What kind of crazy teacher did we end up with this year? I certainly would need to send out a class newsletter very soon!

At our morning meeting, we couldn’t seem to move away from the topic of a classroom camping trip. They were just too excited, so I asked the children to talk to each other about what they knew about the forest and about camping trips. Then we had a class share. All different themes and concepts, seemed to present themselves: forest animals, dangerous animals like tigers and elephants, trees, flowers, bears, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, starry skies at night, camping gear like tents, sleeping bags, and flashlights, campfires, roasting marshmallows, etc.

I told the children that, if we were going to do a good job of turning our classroom into a forest and getting ready for a camping trip, then we would have to do some research. This new word warranted a longer discussion so it was tabled for our next meeting.

When I came back to the topic and began to discuss research with the children, we brainstormed for ways of getting information. An interesting comment on the time that this took place is that nobody suggested that we use the Internet! Reading books and talking with people who had experience seemed to be the most popular suggestions and hence began our first experience with reading centers.

Children were encouraged to bring in books from home, if they had them, on any of the topics that we listed. I also suggested that we look through our classroom library and I scoured the school library and our very well stocked bookroom. We organized baskets of books on the different topics…Stars, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, I added Little Red Riding Hood, Forest animal books, books about flowers, books about trees, and so forth. I then spent a few days on some partner-sharing minilessons with practice time on the rug. Children picked partners. I made a chart listing the different topics and partners signed up for a basket of books that they would spend two (or possibly three…my memory is failing on this detail) days reading together. There were generally two sets of partners to a basket. At the end of each reading center time, all of the children at the center were encouraged to talk about what they discovered from their books that day. At the share meeting, I did the sharing. I shared my observations of what I noticed about the way children were working together, focusing on the positive.

We began listing our discoveries (there were no tigers or elephants in any of the forest books!), we set up some new centers based on what children were discovering (at our second choice of centers, we added a birds in the forest center) and children drew pictures of things they wanted to remember from their center. We had about three rounds of centers so each child got to spend time in three different reading centers.

Now we had lots of information and we brainstormed for choice time centers to help get our class ready for the camping trip. In the block center, children build a forest and the house of the three bears. (We added teddy bears to the block center). In the dramatic play center the children were playing some sort of variation of Goldilocks and Red Riding Hood. We had a star center where the children made stars and constellations (their own constellations) that I hung from the light fixtures. In the art center children were using construction paper and cardboard dowels to make trees and flowers. Some children painted a forest mural. My student teacher made trail mix with a group at our cooking center. Playdough birds and animals were sculpted. It was, needless to say, a busy time.

At meeting, I taught a star counting song – “Stars shining, number, number one, number two, number three, number four, oh my, oh my o my o my, bye and bye, bye and bye”…we turned out the lights and used flashlights to make the “starts” appear as we sang and counted. We also learned and practiced “Going on a Bear Hunt.”bear-hunt

As our “camping day” grew closer, the classroom filled up with trees, flowers, a starry sky, a more and more intricate forest scenario in the block center with paper flowers and trees scattered among the wooden structures. Trail mix was doled out into individual paper bags for each “camper.” We constructed a model of a campfire and I brought in chopsticks to use as twigs for roasting marshmallows. (This activity was going to depend on a lot of imagination!)

On camping day we sang and went of a bear hunt. We made a hiking line, with each child carrying a knapsack, and walked past the home of the three bears in the block corner. We sang The Happy Wanderer, a new song that I taught the children, “I love to go a-wandering, along the mountain track. And as I go, I love to sing with my knapsack on my back.” We spoke about all of the things that we were seeing along the way – birds, little animals, flowers, trees, bears, (teddy bears!) and finally stopped when we came to our “campfire.” The children spread out blankets that were in their knapsacks and I gave out our sticks and marshmallows. We “roasted” and ate the marshmallows and chomped on the trail mix. Then, the lights went out and it was nighttime. I read a spooky story by the campfire and then the children stretched out on their blankets. We passed around the flashlight as we sang the star counting song and when the lights went on, it was morning. Time to pack up the knapsacks and say goodbye to the campout day!

I guess this camping out experience was an unusual way to begin the school year. It was the only time that this happened because it fit perfectly the experience with The Berenstain Bear’s Camping Adventure book that Lee shared with us. But as I reflect on this experience it makes me think about the emphasis that so many teachers put on spending the first month (or months in some cases!) on learning routines and “getting to know each other.” When we finished this mini experience, we all knew so much about each other. I really didn’t need to spend much time on teaching routines because they fit so comfortably and practically with all of our activities. The children learned them quickly and they most certainly got to know each other and feel a comfortable ownership of their classroom. That’s what we want, isn’t it? The children understood that they could get both enjoyment and information from books and that it was important to have discussions to further their understanding. They learned how to use the materials in the classroom.

We also started out the year with a significant bonding activity that set a precedent for the year ahead. As Winnie the Pooh said, “As soon as I saw you, I knew a grand adventure was about to happen.” I think the children in my class knew that we were about to have a year of adventures in our kindergarten…and we did!

The Classroom Speaks: Getting the room set up

 

compass classroom layoutAs the new school year approaches (or has already begun in some areas!) I thought I would share one part of the second chapter in my newly released book, published by HeinemannCHOICE TIME – How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK-2. The chapter is titled “The Classroom Speaks” and this section of the chapter addresses getting the room physically set up.

The Classroom Speaks
In the opening segment of the wonderful children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers welcomes his young viewers into the neighborhood, singing about the beautiful day and inviting them to be his special neighbors. Monday through Friday, for nearly ten months each school year, the classroom is the neighborhood we share with our students. And just as Mr. Rogers created a safe and welcoming neighborhood for his friends (Daniel Striped Tiger, Lady Aberlin, Mr. McFeely), we work hard to create a gentle, exciting space of our own. Ideally, it’s a laboratory for exploratory learning, a place where children build things, conduct experiments, create innovative art projects, read fascinating books, write original stories, use technology and texts to find out information, and feel free to imagine and try out possibilities. It’s a place where children grow big ideas, make new friends, and dig deeply into exciting investigations.
When children and their families first walk into a classroom at the beginning of a new school year, what they see all around them tells them a lot about the neighborhood they will inhabit. Each classroom has a voice, and the position of the furniture, the materials, what’s on the walls—everything, really—speaks and tells the children whom and what you value. The voice is so powerful, in fact, that Reggio Emilia teachers teachers in the schools in Reggio Emilia say the classroom is the second teacher. … Children can access materials without adult assistance. There is a palpable sense of co-ownership.

A Room with a Voice
Every summer, rooms piled with cartons, chairs, and tables await the transformation that takes place when the children return to inhabit and animate the space. -Figure2. 1-Bill contemplatingThis image of a classroom with a voice guides our decisions about arranging the furniture and selecting the materials that will be waiting for the children on their first day of school. Even the simplest decisions can speak volumes. A terrarium placed at the eye level of a six-year-old, for example, says something very different than a terrarium placed out of reach on top of a bookshelf. When a classroom speaks, the message is obvious to all who pass through its doors. A classroom can say to each child:
• I welcome you to this exciting, caring place.
• You are now part of a community that works, plays, and shares together.
• You are a very special, important member of this community.
• In this room, you will be an explorer, a creator, and a scientist.
• You will find many ways to record and share your discoveries.
• You are a literate person who can already read and write. (Even the youngest child can re-create a story by reading the illustrations and can make marks on paper that are meaningful to that child.) Together we will learn more about reading and writing.
• Because we are a sharing community, there will be times when we all come together as a group.
• Because you are a unique individual, there will be times when you will have a private place to be alone with your thoughts.
• Because we value and seek out one another’s ideas, we will have time and places to meet in small groups.
• We are a community that always shows respect and compassion for one another and for all living things.
• We will celebrate one another’s achievements.
The challenge for us as teachers is not so much in deciding what we want our classrooms to say but in knowing how to say it.

Most of us start thinking about organizing our classrooms during the summer, well before the school doors open. All during August, we draw sketchy diagrams of possible classroom arrangements. …. Will we have all the centers set up and ready on the first day, or will the children help set them up once they arrive? And what about the daily schedule? Once everything is set up, how will each day go?

So many decisions to make as we arrange and rearrange and rearrange until the children finally arrive and the space comes to life and we rearrange all over again based on how they move around the room. … How do we make decisions about space, materials, displays, and time that say clearly to our students, “Welcome to our neighborhood. It’s your special place. I’m so glad you’ve come”?

Space
When space in a classroom speaks, the arrangement of furniture and materials tells a lot about how the community lives and works together. …While we don’t have any control over the actual dimensions of our classroom space, there are all kinds of decisions we can make that will impact how much space we’ll have inside those dimensions and how we’ll use it.

Furniture
A certain amount of furniture in a classroom is a necessity, but it’s important to think about both what you have and what you need when it comes to the layout of furniture in the room. …do you really need that big desk, or would a file cabinet and a small shelf suffice? … Consider removing any piece of furniture that’s not essential and also favoring any piece that can do double or triple duty during the day……..Ideally, the landscape of a classroom where young children work and play has a low profile.

Layout
As you consider the arrangement of furniture and materials in the room, think of the classroom as a laboratory for exploration. Instead of positioning all the tables in the center of the room, isolating them from investigation centers, divide the room into discrete areas, ready for children’s explorations. 

Consider the kinds of spaces you will need across the day. Most classrooms have at least one meeting space that is big enough for all the children in the room to gather together. …The meeting area should not be too close to the classroom door. If it is, meetings will be interrupted anytime someone enters or leaves the room… the meeting area can be used for other purposes. Since it’s big and open, it might be used for centers that involve a lot of movement and action. As long as the materials for the center are stored in transportable containers, the space can be transformed quickly. …Children can read independently in the meeting area during reading workshop, and with lap boards, they might also use the space for writing. If the space is defined by bookshelves, it can double as the classroom library.
Outside the meeting area, it’s important to decide whether you are going to have any other dedicated areas in the room such as a block center, a reading nook, or a writing table by the window. ..if you know that children are likely to be noisy when using the space, you can make sure it’s separated from places where children need quiet. If you create a dedicated space away from the flow of traffic, children will have plenty of room for building and moving around their constructions without fear of unintended mishaps. You can equip and outfit a dedicated space with all sorts of supports for the designated activity, and you can base the size and location of the space on the nature of the activity itself.
Ideally, a classroom would have dedicated areas for all its permanent centers, but whether or not that’s possible really depends on how much space you have. ..  if you’re longing for a spacious block center, you might do away with the dramaic play center and store these materials and hollow blocks on a shelf by the meeting area. Again, practically any space can do double duty during the day as long as materials are easy to store and transport.

THere need to be enough centers for children to feel as if they truly have a choice about where they will go. …Once you have a number of centers in mind (based on the number of children you have), then it’s time to look around the room and figure out where each of those centers might take place. How much room will children need? Children in an art center, for example, will need space for big collaborative projects with lots of materials, while children in a science or math center might work on a tabletop with all the tools and materials they need for their explorations neatly organized and stored. Remember that any tables you use for explorations during center time can also be used during whole-class activities such as writing workshop and math lessons. Also consider the noise and activity levels of each center and try to separate them accordingly.

Finally, once you’ve figured out where all the centers are going to be, it’s important to consider the flow of traffic around the room. Can children move easily from place to place? If not, can you relocate any of the centers, or might you need to streamline the number of centers to fit the space? Are materials located strategically to prevent overcrowding? Traffic flow can be tricky to predict because certain groups of children simply move through space differently than others.

A space that worked perfectly the year before might for some reason create a major issue for this year’s class. In the first days and weeks of school, you’ll want to observe the movement in your classroom during center time and make adjustments based on how you see students using the space.

Save the date !

book coverIf you will be in New York City…

Save the Date!
Tuesday
September 6, 2016
6:30 p.m.

Book Release Event

CHOICE TIME-How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play

Renée Dinnerstein
Foreward by Kathy Collins

The Brooklyn Historical Society
128 Pierrepont Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Tel. 718-222-4111

Join me for

  • A presentation with photos from NYC classrooms
  • A reading from the book
  • A conversation with Anna Allanbrook, principal of the Brooklyn New School.
    We will discuss the potential of progessive education in our public schools.
  • Q & A
  • wine and cheese
  • Book signing (Books will be available for purchase)

Publication date: August 25, 2016

To read more about the book, go to Heinemann- http://www.heinemann.com/authors/productsByAuthor.aspx?id=100093