Category Archives: Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration, and Play

early childhood education, children, play

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.”

WHY DOES FINLAND HAVE THE BEST SCHOOLS?

 

 

LET’S MAKE SOME COMPARISIONS.

This conversation took place between a father and a school director in Hong Kong during a school tour of a newly opened progressive international school.

The family is Chinese and the father stated that he was concerned that his child is “illiterate” when it comes to Chinese. The director asked him the age of his child and he said “two.” The director explained that the child is NOT illiterate but the child is TWO. When asked if he reads to his child, the father responded, “I don’t have time.”

This is an extreme story, but then again, when we look at the bizarre practices imposed on early childhood programs in many of our public schools in the United States, it might not appear so extreme. There seems to be a lack of understanding of what young children need and what we should realistically expect of them.

Important research backs up the belief that kindergarten children need to have time to play and explore.

I wonder where the people making educational decisions send their children to school?

Education in Finland compared to education in the United States. Now there’s a lot of food for thought!

Growing Choice Time Centers

An aspect of planning choice time centers that I really haven’t written much about is how centers grow and develop of the course of the year. Sometimes changes take place because of the teacher’s observations. The center might be getting a bit stale and a new provocation needs to be added. Sometimes children come up with ideas for making changes in a center. Here are a few examples.

The WATER CENTER generally began with open  water explorations.

 

Children might become interested in seeing what could sink and what could float,  even using clay, recycled bottles or tin foil to design boats that will float.

Later in the year, bubbles might be explored at the center.

 

Here’s a wonderful bubble solution recipe. I mixed it up with the children.

 

Children might use pipes and other materials like funnels, cups, etc. to design and create WATER MACHINES.

Photo by Kristin Eno

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Here is how an exploration of MAGNETS in the SCIENCE CENTER developed one year.

First the children freely explored with magnets, playing with them at the center and around the classroom.

Then some of the children came up with the idea of having a MAGNET MAZE center. They were really interested in mazes and they loved to draw them. They put their mazes on a board, used a magnet and moved a paper clip around the maze. Children exchanged mazes and before long we had a pile of mazes to pick from!

One day I brought my daughter’s magnetic theater to class. The children were fascinated with it. I suggested that they could make their own theaters at the magnet center. We collected shoe boxes . Children chose their favorite stories as the basis for their theater. We had A Snowy Day, Cinderella, and many more stories turned into little theater scenarios. The children used colored paper, drawing paper, crayons, and other art materials to make their scenery and the people who would be in the play. I showed them how to leave room at the bottom of each figure to bend the paper and glue on a paper clip. This allowed the figures to stand and be moved by magnets that were held under the shoe box. This was a particularly popular center!

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In my class we always had a WRITING CENTER. Sometimes children made up stories and sometimes they chose to take unfinished pieces from their writing folders and continue writing on them. In the spring, we had a poetry center and decorated it with beautiful art for inspiration.

 

After some months, the children at the center took index cards and began to label the classroom (invented spelling accepted!)

 

Around Valentine’s Day, rebus writing often became popular. Children wrote lovely messages to each other.

My class was with me for two years. During the course of those years we studied bridges, landforms, waterways, insects and the alphabet. As an end of year project, we had a research center where children were working together to make an alphabet book using all that we had learned. Here’s some of the book.

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When children seemed to lose interest in the ABC center, I added a new provocation – an overhead projector. New excitement was generated as children wrote words that were projected on the ceiling and all across the classroom!

 

When we did a name study, the ABC center was more focused on the names of the children in the class. Children made name games, name books, name puzzles among other ideas that they came up with.

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The MATH CENTER started out as exploring with the various math materials. 

Then the center focused on the pattern blocks. The children loved this manipulative and had so many ideas for how to use them.

 

Around Christmas time the children at the art center were making paper chains to decorate the classroom.  They begain to see if they could make the chains “as tall as the teacher,” “as long as the table,” “longer than the meeting rug.” The children said that they would do this at the MATH CENTER, so children at the art center made links and shared them with the children at the MATH CENTER. Links were put together and taken apart to equal the sizes of different children and different parts of the classroom. At the end of the week we put these chains all together to see how far down the hallway they would go!

 

Children can think of so many ideas for extending or changing the focus of a center. Teachers do too. This meaningful collaboration  keeps the different Choice Time centersi fresh and exciting.

Choice Time is so much fun! I can’t imagine teaching without it.

Part One: THE ROLE OF THE ARTS IN PREPARING CHILDREN TO LEARN ACROSS ALL DISCIPLINES

photo: Kristin Eno

I am preparing my keynote address for an education symposium. sponsored by the Wind Institute, to be given at the University of Missouri, Columbia. The subject of the symposium is The Role of the Arts in Preparing Children to Learn Across All Disciplines. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this subject and my thinking is all over the place – Isabel Allende’s incredible story of how she learned to write by falling in love with Marc Chagall and his painting; my daughter Simone Dinnerstein’s experience going into schools across the nation with her Bachpacking program, playing Bach for children in their classrooms and generating a lively discussion; the role of Visual Literacy, particularly an experience I had with a painting by George Tooker and a group of novice teachers; the experience of taking my class to MOMA to see Monet’s Water Lillies paintings; and finally, an interesting discussion that I had with a neighbor yesterday. I asked him if he would write up what he told me.I’ll begin my thoughts on the topic of the teaching of art and how it impacts on children’s learning by sharing his story with you.
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View of Florence, Italy

Nick’s story:
As a parent with 2 school age children I have long been interested in your advocacy of early childhood education that involves experimentation, imagination, and play as part of the fundamentals of learning. Rather than being peripheral, the arts can be central to education and should be an integral part of a well conceived curriculum. I thought you might be interested in the results of a family trip to Florence in April 2016.

As an artist I have long been enthralled by Italy,and in particular Florence, and wanted the children to have the opportunity to be introduced to a place that has been meaningful to me.

At the time our children were having some troubles in school.

Leo, just turned six, was in Kindergarten and having trouble with a structured curriculum. He had trouble reading and concentrating and regarded each day as a prison sentence. “Why do I have to go?” was his plaintive cry every morning. Antonia, a nine year fourth grader, was able to learn material but did not feel successful. Each new topic brought tears and tantrums.

The purpose of the trip was primarily personal and cultural, to introduce the children to a place I love and to hopefully give them a deeper perspective on the world they will inhabit. We had no idea of addressing their academic problems, but we were stunned to discover on our return that they both showed marked improvement in their school work. Leo stopped bringing home books from the A and B basket and graduated to f and G. He began writing real stories during Friday free writing time.

His drawings, which previously had advanced little beyond scribbles and rudimentary blocks, began to have scale and be placed meaningfully on the page. He started discriminating between different colors, talked about patinas and began noticing the proliferation of Renaissance derived architecture and ornamentation in our Brooklyn neighborhood. When he took an intelligence assessment test for a possible IEP he scored 10 to 15 points higher than the year before. Teachers were struck by how much more active and engaged he was at the end of the year.

Antonia, while not always appreciative of my lecturing, also responded positively to the trip.

She made a jump in the level of books she was reading and also consolidated gains in math and Hebrew. More importantly, in her case, she seemed much more confident about new ideas and material. Remarkably she made one improvement that amounted to a complete turn around in her abilities, almost as if her brain were rewired. We were convinced before the trip that she suffered from a spatial cognitive deficit. She was often confused about where we were even on a familiar walk and would have a meltdown if we turned down a different street from usual, apparently unable to tell that it was a parallel path. After nine days of finding our way around Florence, using the famous and beautiful landmarks as our guides, she became not just a calm follower but an active leader in finding our path. Her anxieties about schoolwork occasionally resurface but her inabillity to find her way has disappeared for good. She is a different person, a braver person.

What did we do? We did not spend a lot of time in crowded galleries like the Uffizi. Every day we took the same path down the Arno and crossed the bridge. Nearly every day we walked through the Boboli or Bardini gardens or up to Piazza Michaelangelo for exercise and to gain a perspective on the city. We went to small museums and took in a sampling of the extraordinary mural cycles on view in the city. The children might not remember the names Giotto and Masaccio, Paolo Uccello, Andrea Del Sarto and the but they looked at their works and we discussed the differences and similarities. Leo was particularly interested in the Bargello (the sculpture museum) where we talked about the techniques of sculpture, the differences between marble and bronze, Gothic and Renaissance and how they related to classical models, public and private patronage and the relation of different modes of depiction in sculpture to contemporary animation. I kept things simple and he made genuine connections. We also talked about decorative sculptures when walking through the gardens. Somehow they were recharged for learning even though we did not do a single assignment from school!

I don’t think 9 days in Florence made our children do things that they were not capable of before. Instead I think it pulled together what they already knew. I got the impression that things tied together inside of them, as they moved through the squares and museums and along the Arno. Of course they might have done that at home, eventually. I just believe that in an environment as rich as Florence with the freedom to talk and run and ask, those connections happened much faster.

The promise of gelato also helped!

SINGING: A JOYFUL AND MEANINGFUL BRIDGE TO LITERACY

This is my post on the Literacy for All blog_

July 24, 2017
Singing: A Joyful and Meaningful Bridge to Literacy

by Renee Dinnerstein, 2017 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker Renee Dinnerstein

“Look Renée, it stopped raining!” Akhira pointed to the window and twenty-four pairs of eyes followed her finger. Sure enough, the incessant rain had stopped and we could, at last, have outdoor play. But for my kindergarten children the ceasing of the rain also meant that at our morning meeting we would all happily sing Blue Skies.

Singing together infused my classroom with good feelings. When Vicky had a problem separating from her father one morning, we all solemnly sang our Comfort Song – “What should I do if my best friend is crying? What should I do? I don’t know what to say. I take my friend in my arms and I hold her.” Of course the children then wanted to continue singing verses for their daddies, mommies, uncles, aunts, sisters, cats and puppies. Eventually Vicky too forgot her separation anxieties and joined in the singing.

I believe that singing is a powerful tool for building community, and not only in classrooms. During the civil rights movement, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, group singing helped freedom fighters hold onto their courage in the most difficult of circumstances. “The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle,” said the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., “they give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope in the future, particularly in our most trying hours.”

Community building in the classroom is probably our first goal as teachers. When we form a cohesive, caring community, class rules seem to easily fall into place. Children help and support each other, bullying becomes practically a non-issue and maintaining discipline is not the teacher’s priority.

Before I continue writing about the importance and joy of singing with children, I must address the issue of voice. Many teachers have told me that they really cannot sing in school because they don’t have good singing voices. Truth be told, my voice is somewhat flat and I have difficulty carrying a tune. However, that never seemed to bother the children in any of my classes.

We sang every day and for many different purposes. As we studied bridges, we sang Love Can Build a Bridge, which led to an interesting discussion of metaphors. Maggie described a kiss as the bridge of lips between two people and Nils noticed that a rainbow could be a bridge from our earth to the sky. During the years that I co-taught with Connie Norgren, combining her first grade class and my kindergarten class each day for Choice Time, Inquiry Studies and group sings, Connie, a wonderful guitarist and folk singer, taught us many ecology songs (Think About the Earth; The Garden Song), freedom songs (Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around; Rosa Parks; This Little Light of Mine) and songs from different cultures, (Des Colores; Que Bonita Bandera; Santa Lucia)

Many literacy skills can grow out of the joyful experiences of singing together. Here are but a few of them.

Phonemic Awareness

When children sing and clap out songs, they are also playing around with sounds. They segment them and then put them back together again. They tap and clap out rhythms. Consider the song Baby Beluga where the rhythm spaces the song into syllables, “Ba-by Be-lu-ga, in the deep blue sea” or the chant Miss Mary Mack: “Miss Mar-y Mack, Mack Mack. All dressed in black, black, black. With sil-ver buc-kles all down her back, back, back.”

Rhyme

Because there are so many rhyming songs it’s almost difficult to know which ones to highlight. For starters there’s Down By the Bay, Jenny Jenkins, and This Old Man (which is also a counting song). Singing songs that mix up initial consonants such as in Willoughby, Wallaby Woo bring out lots of giggles but also involve children in thinking about the sounds of the consonants in addition to the rhymes.

Alphabetic Awareness

Besides the old standby of the ABC song, don’t forget about A You’re Adorable. My class loved to sit in a circle and write the letters on each other’s back as they sang. Then they rubbed their hands across the back that they wrote on to erase the letters, turned around and re-sang the song as they wrote in upper case! It was a non-threatening way for children to practice writing the alphabet and it gave me the opportunity to casually walk around the circle, singing and noticing who was still having difficulty with letter formation.

Phonemic Awareness and Spelling Patterns

A song that opens up opportunities for the engaging activity of going on hunts for spelling patterns is I Can’t Spell Hippopotamus. After we’ve had many opportunities to sing that funny song and come up with some simple spelling patterns (can, man, pan or bet, let, set) children set themselves up in partnerships, get sticky-notes and pencils, and peruse the classroom looking for spelling patterns on charts and in books around the room. Then we get back together and sing again, incorporating their notes into the song. It’s a game, it’s a song, it’s a spelling lesson, and it’s fun!

One to One Word Recognition

After children know a song really well (“by heart”), put the lyrics on a chart and the children will begin making connections between the words that they have been singing and the words that are written on the paper. Children can then take turns being the teacher and, with a wooden stick (I’ve used a chopstick), point to the words as the class reads and sings along. Children might take turns looking for sight words on the song chart and underlining them. Then they might put circles or boxes around words in the song that keep repeating. The key importance here is to wait until the children have internalized the words of the song aurally before making them visual. When you do that, the print is meaningful to the reader.

In June, I often celebrated our year of singing by recording the children singing together, making copies of the tape (would it be a CD today?) for each child and adding a sing-along songbook. I recently met a former student, now a college graduate, who told me that for years after kindergarten she listened to the tape and that the family played it when they went on long trips so that they could all sing along together, karaoke style!

I like to keep in mind the words from an African spiritual that encourages us to “sing when the spirit says sing,” and to bring spirit and joy into each school day. Joyful singing can become a bridge to many joyful literacy learning experiences!

Renee Dinnerstein is a featured speaker at our 2017 Literacy for All Conference, October 22-24th. She will be presenting on Monday and Tuesday of the Conference.

We’re Having a Pajama Party!

What is sillier and more fun than coming to school in pajamas? Pajama Party Day seems to have become a tradition in many elementary schools.

I have a proposal. What about having a pajama party week? Read aloud stories about sleeping, bedtime, and dreams. Think of the rich discussions that these stories might encourage. Some wonderful books to read (and there are so many more than these!) could be Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, Ira Sleeps Over by Bernard Waber, There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, by Mercer Mayer, and Time for Bed by Mem Fox.

Children might share stories about their “going to sleep” routines. Singing lullabies such as Morningtown Ride, Brahms Lullaby, Hush Little Baby and Woody Guthrie’s Sleep Eye. Parents might share lullabies from their native lands or from their childhood.

During Choice Time, you might open a sewing center where children stitch pillows for the big pajama party day that would culminate this mini- study. The writing center might be stocked with little, empty booklets ready for new bedtime stories to be written and shared at meeting time. Perhaps some children might even write original lullabies.

On the big day, when everyone comes to school in pajamas (even the teacher might be wearing a robe!) children at a cooking center could make pancakes for wake up time after lullabies have been sung, bed time stories read, heads rest on student-made pillows and lights go out for a few minutes. Who doesn’t enjoy waking up to pancakes?

The Name of the Game!

Games lubricate the body and the mind.
Benjamin Franklin

It was a cold, icy, snowy New York City winter and Charlene Cruse-Rivera’s kindergarten children at P.S. 244 in Flushing, Queens were not getting outside often to explore the neighborhood outside the school. Earlier in the year they spent a lot of time visiting and playing in a variety of playgrounds as part of their playground inquiry project. What to explore now that it wasn’t as practical to spend much time outside of the school building?

Being a good observer of children, Charlene noticed that a group of the children liked to play board games. She and I discussed this interest and came up with some ideas together. Perhaps it might be opportune to plunge into an in-depth study of board games with the entire class. Would they find this interesting?

Charlene shared her observations with the class and asked them if they would like to spend a week exploring different board games. They seemed interested and so she had one period each day when children got into groups to play a chosen board game. Rather than introduce many games, she had doubles of games so that, for example, each day two groups of children could play Candyland, two could play Checkers, two played Snakes and Ladders, etc.


After playing the games, they discussed their discoveries and observations at the class meeting. Charlene introduced a book where children could write about the different games that they played.

After the week of being immersed in board games, two Choice Time centers were opened. At one center, children could play commercial board games. The second center was one where children could create their own, original games, introduce the games to the class and add them to the game center.

The enthusiasm here built up and even spread to the block center where a group of children created a Dinosaur Game from a block construction.

There’s so much learning that comes from experiences playing and creating board games. (Many of these points can be found on page 129 of my book, Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play.)
• Children draw on their understandings of number sequence
• Children gain an understanding of greater than and less than.
• Children learn the importance of careful strategizing.
• When children create their own games, they draw on their knowledge of basic game attributes and then have opportunities to creatively improvise.
• In creating their own games, children might decide to make up a game that’s based on a favorite storybook, thereby making some important literacy connections.
• Playing a board game is a social activity.

Here are two Choice Time Reflection Journal entries:

Investing in All Children!

 

This article, from the Sunday, April 2, 2017 edition of the New York Times, spotlights the importance of believing and investing in all children. If you haven’t read it already, I hope you take the time to read it now.

SundayReview | CONTRIBUTING OP-ED WRITER

Who Needs Charters When You Have Public Schools Like These?

Starting in kindergarten, the students in the Union Public Schools district in Tulsa, Okla., get a state-of-the-art education in science, technology, engineering and math. Credit Andrea Morales for The New York Times
TULSA, Okla. — The class assignment: Design an iPad video game. For the player to win, a cow must cross a two-lane highway, dodging constant traffic. If she makes it, the sound of clapping is heard; if she’s hit by a car, the game says, “Aw.”

“Let me show you my notebook where I wrote the algorithm. An algorithm is like a recipe,” Leila, one of the students in the class, explained to the school official who described the scene to me.

You might assume these were gifted students at an elite school. Instead they were 7-year-olds, second graders in the Union Public Schools district in the eastern part of Tulsa, Okla., where more than a third of the students are Latino, many of them English language learners, and 70 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch. From kindergarten through high school, they get a state-of-the-art education in science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM subjects. When they’re in high school, these students will design web pages and mobile apps, as well as tackle cybersecurity and artificial intelligence projects. And STEM-for-all is only one of the eye-opening opportunities in this district of around 16,000 students.

Betsy DeVos, book your plane ticket now.

Ms. DeVos, the new secretary of education, dismisses public schools as too slow-moving and difficult to reform. She’s calling for the expansion of supposedly nimbler charters and vouchers that enable parents to send their children to private or parochial schools. But Union shows what can be achieved when a public school system takes the time to invest in a culture of high expectations, recruit top-flight professionals and develop ties between schools and the community.

Union has accomplished all this despite operating on a miserly budget. Oklahoma has the dubious distinction of being first in the nation in cutting funds for education, three years running, and Union spends just $7,605 a year in state and local funds on each student. That’s about a third less than the national average; New York State spends three times more. Although contributions from the community modestly augment the budget, a Union teacher with two decades’ experience and a doctorate earns less than $50,000. Her counterpart in Scarsdale, N.Y., earns more than $120,000.

“Our motto is: ‘We are here for all the kids,’ ” Cathy Burden, who retired in 2013 after 19 years as superintendent, told me. That’s not just a feel-good slogan. “About a decade ago I called a special principals’ meeting — the schools were closed that day because of an ice storm — and ran down the list of student dropouts, name by name,” she said. “No one knew the story of any kid on that list. It was humiliating — we hadn’t done our job.” It was also a wake-up call. “Since then,” she adds, “we tell the students, ‘We’re going to be the parent who shows you how you can go to college.’ ”

Last summer, Kirt Hartzler, the current superintendent, tracked down 64 seniors who had been on track to graduate but dropped out. He persuaded almost all of them to complete their coursework. “Too many educators give up on kids,” he told me. “They think that if an 18-year-old doesn’t have a diploma, he’s got to figure things out for himself. I hate that mind-set.”

This individual attention has paid off, as Union has defied the demographic odds. In 2016, the district had a high school graduation rate of 89 percent — 15 percentage points more than in 2007, when the community was wealthier, and 7 percentage points higher than the national average.

The school district also realized, as Ms. Burden put it, that “focusing entirely on academics wasn’t enough, especially for poor kids.” Beginning in 2004, Union started revamping its schools into what are generally known as community schools. These schools open early, so parents can drop off their kids on their way to work, and stay open late and during summers. They offer students the cornucopia of activities — art, music, science, sports, tutoring — that middle-class families routinely provide. They operate as neighborhood hubs, providing families with access to a health care clinic in the school or nearby; connecting parents to job-training opportunities; delivering clothing, food, furniture and bikes; and enabling teenage mothers to graduate by offering day care for their infants.

Two fifth graders guided me around one of these community schools, Christa McAuliffe Elementary, a sprawling brick building surrounded by acres of athletic fields. It was more than an hour after the school day ended, but the building buzzed, with choir practice, art classes, a soccer club, a student newspaper (the editors interviewed me) and a garden where students were growing corn and radishes. Tony, one of my young guides, performed in a folk dance troupe. The walls were festooned with family photos under a banner that said, “We Are All Family.”

This environment reaps big dividends — attendance and test scores have soared in the community schools, while suspensions have plummeted.

The district’s investment in science and math has paid off, too. According to Emily Lim, who runs Union’s STEM program, the district felt it was imperative to offer STEM classes to all students, not just those deemed gifted.

Students congregate at the start of the Global Gardens after school program at Union Public Schools district’s Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in Oklahoma. Credit Andrea Morales for The New York Times
In one class, I watched eighth graders create an orthotic brace for a child with cerebral palsy. The specs: The toe must be able to rise but cannot fall. Using software that’s the industry standard, 20 students came up with designs and then plaster of Paris models of the brace.

“It’s not unusual for students struggling in other subjects to find themselves in the STEM classes,” Ms. Lim said. “Teachers are seeing kids who don’t regard themselves as good readers back into reading because they care about the topic.”

A fourth grader at Rosa Parks Elementary who had trouble reading and writing, for example, felt like a failure and sometimes vented his frustration with his fists. But he’s thriving in the STEM class. When the class designed vehicles to safely transport an egg, he went further than anybody else by giving his car doors that opened upward, turning it into a little Lamborghini. Such small victories have changed the way he behaves in class, his teacher said — he works harder and acts out much less.
Superintendents and school boards often lust after the quick fix. The average urban school chief lasts around three years, and there’s no shortage of shamans promising to “disrupt” the status quo.

The truth is that school systems improve not through flash and dazzle but by linking talented teachers, a challenging curriculum and engaged students. This is Union’s not-so-secret sauce: Start out with an academically solid foundation, then look for ways to keep getting better.

Union’s model begins with high-quality prekindergarten, which enrolls almost 80 percent of the 4-year-olds in the district. And it ends at the high school, which combines a collegiate atmosphere — lecture halls, student lounges and a cafeteria with nine food stations that dish up meals like fish tacos and pasta puttanesca — with the one-on-one attention that characterizes the district.

Counselors work with the same students throughout high school, and because they know their students well, they can guide them through their next steps. For many, going to community college can be a leap into anonymity, and they flounder — the three-year graduation rate at Tulsa Community College, typical of most urban community colleges, is a miserable 14 percent. But Union’s college-in-high-school initiative enables students to start earning community college credits before they graduate, giving them a leg up.

The evidence-based pregnancy-prevention program doesn’t lecture adolescents about chastity. Instead, by demonstrating that they have a real shot at success, it enables them to envision a future in which teenage pregnancy has no part.

“None of this happened overnight,” Ms. Burden recalled. “We were very intentional — we started with a prototype program, like community schools, tested it out and gradually expanded it. The model was organic — it grew because it was the right thing to do.”

Building relationships between students and teachers also takes time. “The curriculum can wait,” Lisa Witcher, the head of secondary education for Union, told the high school’s faculty last fall. “Chemistry and English will come — during the first week your job is to let your students know you care about them.”

That message resonated with Ms. Lim, who left a job at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa School of Community Medicine and took a sizable pay cut to work for Union. “I measure how I’m doing by whether a girl who has been kicked out of her house by her mom’s boyfriend trusts me enough to tell me she needs a place to live,” she told me. “Union says, ‘We can step up and help.’ ”

Under the radar, from Union City, N.J., and Montgomery County, Md., to Long Beach and Gardena, Calif., school systems with sizable numbers of students from poor families are doing great work. These ordinary districts took the time they needed to lay the groundwork for extraordinary results.

Will Ms. DeVos and her education department appreciate the value of investing in high-quality public education and spread the word about school systems like Union? Or will the choice-and-vouchers ideology upstage the evidence?

David L. Kirp is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, a senior fellow at the Learning Policy Institute and a contributing opinion writer.