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

early childhood education, children, play

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A KINDERGARTEN CLASSROOM

If you would consider taking advice from a long-time kindergarten teacher who appears, in these days,to be a dinosaur,  here’ are my thoughts on what to look for in a kindergarten class.

To begin with, I’d like to scratch out all of the suggestions and ideas for getting your child ready for kindergarten.  It is better to concentrate on , “How is this school, and this teacher, getting the kindergarten class and program ready for my child?”

So then we have the job of checking to see if the kindergarten is ready for the child. Perhaps begin by thinking of some goals that you might have and then look carefully at how the room is set up and how the day is planned to see if they are aligned with your expectations.

This is a fairly long list. I’d say that it is for a parent’s ongoing assessment of what happens in their child’s kindergarten class over the course of the school year.

I might begin by asking myself if this is a place where my child can develop and build self- esteem. What, in this room, will support this?

Does this teacher value curiosity and divergent thinking? How does the classroom environment reflect these values? Are there many areas in the room that are set up for open-ended explorations, where children can explore personal projects and ideas or do centers have “tasks” that stunt creativity and investigations?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does the daily schedule place a primary value on indoor and outdoor play, discussions, and singing? Today, most public kindergartens have time for reading, writing, math, and phonics in their programs. However, in the rush to meet standards and to address new curriculums, this most important part of kindergarten often gets either left behind or scaled down inappropriately. I taught the same children for two years, kindergarten and then first grade. We called this “looping” with a class. I could see how well the children did academically in first grade when they had a kindergarten year that was filled with Choice Time, Inquiry projects, lots of books read aloud, interesting group discussions and plenty of singing.

Remember, this is KINDERGARTEN, Kinder meaning children – the children’s garden!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is this room reflective of the teacher as a facilitator rather than as the major source of direct instructions? Are tables and chairs organized so that children are always facing the teacher or are they incorporated into centers scattered about the classroom?

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                  (Getting a room set up before the schoolyear begins.

Does the classroom library represent a diverse population where all children can find books that speak to their ethnicity, culture and gender identification? Can my child find new books but also wonderful children’s classics. Are the books enticingly displayed and easily accessed by children?

Do you see any signs of inquiry projects that are built upon children’s questions? Is the progression of the project displayed so that the visual documentation focuses on the explorations rather than only on finished projects?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Computers and technology are a reality. However, it’s important that they aren’t used asgames and technological work books. Children can use computers, just as they use books, to figure out problems, to research, to communicate with pen pals from other classes and locations and for a variety of creative activities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is the relationship between the teacher and the parent or caregiver? Is it a relationship of mutual support and advocacy? Are parents welcomed into the classroom? How does the teacher communicate with families? Does the teacher ask you to begin the year by writing about your child, your hopes for your child and your child’s special interests and talents?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It seems to me that we are often forgetting that this kindergarten year is not preparation for the next year of school. Kindergarten should be a joyful, intellectually inspiring and excitingly fun-filled year all of its own.

Let’s not rush children out of childhood. It only comes once. Let’s use this kindergarten year to respectfully honor the importance and specialness of childhood. There’s plenty of time for scholars in the future!

It happened in a small town and it can happen anywhere.

Larry Leaven

“We cannot understand [Fascism], but we can and must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard…because what happened can happen again…For this reason, it is everyone’s duty to reflect on what happened.”
Primo Levi

What happens when  bad politics, homophobia and xenophobia undermine the best intentions for children?  Unfortunately, I saw this happen in a tiny village in upstate New York.

Let me backtrack a few years. In 2018 I was invited by Larry Leaven to do professional development in the Hong Kong Dalton School. At the time, Larry was the director of the school. It was a fascinating week. Most exciting for me was spending time in deep conversations with an educational leader who truly cared about children and about supporting their curiosity, creativity and their participation in a caring community. Larry and I talked and talked. We talked after we visited classrooms, during lunch and in the evening over dinner. It was an incredibly stimulating week for me.

When Larry returned to work in the US, he accepted the job as superintendent of schools in Florida, NY. It’s a small village, mainly known for black earth and onions.  The school district only consisted of a high school,a  middle school and an elementary school. After he initially visited classes at the elementary school, Larry was certain that I could be a good learning support for the early childhood teachers. He wanted me to spend a week each month at the Golden Hill Elementary School and to introduce Choice Time and inquiry-based learning to the kindergartens, first grades and second grades. Truthfully, I was not keen on traveling upstate and staying in a hotel overnight. However, I could feel Larry’s passion for the possibilities of developing an  inquiry-based, joyful learning environment and couldn’t resist.

This was during the heart of the pandemic and it certainly wasn’t the best time for teachers. What I saw when I first visited the school were very bare rooms, no evidence of student work on the walls, tables for children far apart. The principal seemed obsessed with walking around the school with a yardstick, measuring the distances between desks and yet she proudly told me that she was a healthy woman and didn’t need to get vaccinated!

It was, at first, unclear where to begin. However, I was introduced to a lovely, bright and interested teacher who was not working in a classroom that year. She was interested in collaborating with me and we walked around the school and discovered a room that was not being used as a classroom. It could be a perfect set-up for a Choice Time Lab room. Larry approved and gave us a budget for setting it up. Linda Shute, the teacher who would now be the Choice Time facilitator, and I spent a lot of time planning and reflecting. We did this  in person when I came to the school for my monthly visit, on Zoom and via texts and emails. We talked about what might take place in the Choice Time room how to set up the room and mainly how to let the children understand that this was their place for  play and investigation. 

At the same time I worked with the teachers, individually and mainly during grade meetings.  We made plans for tweaking their thematic studies so that they could become more inquiry-based, giving children more agency in how the investigations would develop. I realized that the teachers were trying out something quite unfamiliar to them.  I was impressed with how they were willing to try out a new way of teaching and also how they brought their own ideas and knowledge of the community and natural environment into their work.

Supported with my guidance and encouragement, and Larry’s enthusiasm for our project, Linda turned a dismal, empty room into a vibrant space where children could happily play, socialize and investigate.The room as we first found it.

Getting the room set up for children.

 

 

 

Children covered the locker doors with their self-portraits. This was their room!

Very soon, the room bustled with children’s explorations.

 

Now, to update you on what happened in this sleepy hamlet of Florida, New York after Larry Leaven was there for a few months, I’ll share an article from an April 13, 2023 edition of the Hudson Valley News.

FLORIDA, N.Y. — Tracy Stroh was thrilled when she learned that Larry Leaven was going to be the new superintendent in this tiny Orange County school district.

Stroh, a longtime resident of the village of Florida, had two kids in district schools, and a family member who knew Leaven in Buffalo, where he had previously worked, had told her fantastic things about him. A chance meeting shortly before he was to start work in August 2021 was encouraging — she was relieved as Leaven told her about his positive reception from the school board and faculty.

Still, she had some concerns.

“I did feel a quiet, deep-down sense of worry that the political climate here wouldn’t be kind to him because he happens to be a gay man, in a same-sex marriage, something he never felt the need to keep hidden, nor should he, nor should anyone, anywhere,” Stroh wrote on her blog.

A little over a year later, her worst fears had come to pass. Last November, Leaven resigned as superintendent in the face of consistent harassment from a small but vocal group of parents and community members, several associated with the right-wing organization Moms for Liberty.

Nearly six months on, questions linger about the circumstances of his departure. Leaven’s supporters have argued that he was effectively forced out by the school board, particularly by three new members — Rob Andrade (now the board’s president), Lori Gorcsos and Leslie Hill — who were elected last year on an anti-Leaven platform and whose campaigns were funded by individuals associated with Moms for Liberty. Supporters have continued to demand justice for the ex-superintendent, while also warning of the potential for this to happen in other school districts.

Leaven’s tenure in Florida

Leaven, who has more than 30 years of experience in education — including founding the Dalton School in Hong Kong — became superintendent in August 2021 of the Florida Union Free School District, which serves about 850 pre-K-12 students in the village of Florida and nearby towns of Goshen and Warwick.

Florida has a population of about 3,000 and is situated in Orange County’s famed Black Dirt Region, known for its rich soil and onion fields, about 60 miles northwest of New York City. Its political leanings trend conservative — the village went about 55-45 percent for Donald Trump in 2020.

While many in the Florida school district, like Stroh, welcomed Leaven, he almost immediately began to face sharp attacks from several community members by email, in local media like the Warwick Valley Dispatch and Warwick Watch, and probably most viciously, on Facebook.

Leaven has described these attacks as smears. “Every single decision that was made in the district was put out in these (Moms for Liberty-affiliated Facebook groups) and was twisted,” he said. “I can only fire back so much, and I’m not going to jump online with this stuff.”

In many ways, the attacks mirror those roiling school districts nationally: demands to ban books like “Gender Queer” (a graphic memoir by nonbinary author Maia Kobabe), accusations of anti-white and anti-Christian bias, and accusations that Leaven misused federal funds by giving professional development contracts to friends, an allegation he has called completely baseless.

Some critics accused Leaven of a lack of transparency or authoritarian tendencies, arguing that it was pushing educators out of the district, but Stroh said this couldn’t be farther from the truth. 

“(Leaven) was an extremely accessible person who would talk to anyone about anything,” she told the Times Union.

Stroh and others say it was Leaven’s sexuality and perceived liberalism that triggered the backlash. A record of the harassment shared with the Times Union — including screenshots, emails and media clips — shows that many of the online attacks were overtly homophobic.

One local resident wrote in a Facebook post: “If it were not for the Plandemic lockdowns, we would not know that a homosexual Marxist superintendent is perverting the minds and morals of the children in the Florida Union-Free School District …”

Another suggested in a post in a private Florida-focused Facebook group that Leaven had been banned from Hong Kong for sexually abusing children: “This is what happens when a Western ‘educator’ in Hong Kong who quickly garnered a reputation for extra attentiveness to small boys ‘suddenly’ flees Hong Kong and sidles into a small, rural school district …”

While these comments were among the most extreme, Leaven and his supporters say that the most persistent harassment came from several Florida parents who are associated with the Orange County chapter of the group Moms for Liberty.

Moms for Liberty was founded in Melbourne, Fla., in 2021. It describes itself as advocating for “parents’ rights” but is known nationally for spearheading right-wing attacks on public schools and LGBTQ teachers and students. It has received critical attention from prominent civil liberties organizations like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the Southern Poverty Law Center — the latter has referred to it as a “radical parent group” — and it appears to have close links to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has publicly voiced support for the groupand appointed one of its co-founders to a governing board overseeing Disney World’s district.

The 2022 education board election

Leaven has emphasized good working relationships in the district, including in his resignation statement. But his supporters say the Florida school board election in May 2022 radically reshaped the context of his tenure.

In that election, three new members — Andrade, Gorcsos and Hill — were elected to the five-person board. The three ran together as “Team Florida” in a campaign obviously directed at Leaven.

One campaign flyer read: “The curriculum that has been forced on our public schools prioritizes lowering academic standards and indoctrinating our children through divisive programs like Common Core, Critical Race Theory, and Social Emotional Learning. … The parents of our community know what is best for our children and we oppose efforts to use our community’s public schools to push destructive social experiments on our children.”

Other material was even more explicit. A packet delivered to all voters in the district prior to the election included a flyer that read: “The parents and children need your support to elect new members that reflect a more conservative and traditional approach to education in our village. … For the past 12 months there has been an effort to radicalize and indoctrinate children in a culture that is both shocking and highly promiscuous.”

Attached was a flyer elaborating on the differences between “Traditional vs. Progressive Learning,” characterizing the two “types” as “Traditional (Classical)” and “Progressive / Marxist.”

(This is a flyer Leaven says was distributed at board meetings by a parent associated with Moms For Liberty)

The packet also included a column from the Warwick Valley Dispatch by “guest columnist Marilyn Young” (an asterisk noted that the newspaper does not necessarily endorse the commentary). It reads as an interview with a Florida resident named “Adam,” who claims to be leaving the district due to Leaven. “The School Board needs to get Leaven out of his position before he does permanent damage,” Adam tells Young. “I think the School Board should fire the Superintendent immediately.”

Andrade, Gorcsos and Hill did not respond to questions about their campaign or their relationship with Leaven. But an expenditure statement from the election, obtained by FOIL request, offers insight into their candidacies — while also raising questions.

Each of the three candidates lists the same six contributions to their campaign. All six donors are members of a private Moms for Liberty group on Facebook, to which the Times Union was able to obtain access.

The largest donor, Gayle Young, who donated $854 to each of the three candidates, is the same Marilyn Young who wrote the editorial the candidates included in their election packet, according to Leaven. Young also advocated prolifically on behalf of Team Florida in the same private group around the election last year.

Potentially complicating matters, the accuracy of campaign expenditure reports is not entirely clear. The three candidates — who filed virtually identical forms — each reported total expenses of $1,740. That number is the sum of their itemized expenses and itemized contributions, but it’s not clear how the contributions were spent or whether they were made to the candidates individually or “Team Florida” as a group.

Andrade, Gorcsos and Hill also did not respond to multiple inquiries about their campaign finances, and Young did not respond to a question about her contributions.

Leaven’s departure

Whatever their financing, the new board quickly came into conflict with Leaven. At a July 28, 2022, special meeting, the board took up a motion to terminate several professional development contracts that had been negotiated and signed by the previous board, which had been funded with American Rescue Plan money.

According to the minutes of the meeting, the purpose of the motion was “to remedy the more urgent health & safety issues the school district needs to address.” But Moms for Liberty members had repeatedly accused Leaven of impropriety with the contracts — which he has denied. 

At the meeting, Leaven apparently disagreed with the board; according to the minutes, he said: “Removing programs will hurt students. … It is rare to have these funds available for programs. It is an opportunity to grow together.” (Leaven said he stood by his comments from the meeting; Andrade, Gorcsos and Hill did not reply to a question about why they terminated the contracts.)

The motion passed unanimously. After the meeting, Leaven only remained in the position for about four months, announcing his resignation on Nov. 10.

Despite a substantial turnout at a school board meeting the following week to protest his departure, Leaven’s exit was welcomed by the Orange County Moms for Liberty chapter. A Facebook post from Nov. 10 reads: “Take your pornographic indoctrination back where you came from. This is what happens when you mess with our children in OCNY.”

A screenshot from the Orange County Moms for Liberty Facebook page.

A screenshot from the Orange County Moms for Liberty Facebook page.

Orange County Moms for Liberty

A national issue? 

Karen Svoboda, president of the Dutchess County-based nonprofit Defense of Democracy, an organization that advocates for inclusive public schools, sees what happened to Leaven as part of a pattern of conservative school boards targeting superintendents across the country. Her organization has compiled a list of several dozen similar cases, ranging from California to Florida to North Carolina to South Carolina and beyond.

In addition to circulating a petition demanding the resignation of the new Florida school board members, Svoboda has also helped publicize what Leaven’s departure is costing the district: $300,000, which includes the costs of securing Leaven’s position, his separation agreement, interim support in the role and retaining a consulting firm to conduct the search for a replacement, according to a February news release from Defense of Democracy. (As of publication, the school district had not confirmed these costs.)

Stroh is also disturbed by the expense. “It is an enormous cost in a small village,” she said.

Tensions around Leaven’s resignation erupted at the Feb. 16 board meeting, where Stroh was one of several community members who criticized the board and asked questions about the ongoing search for a new superintendent.

“You forced the resignation of an excellent superintendent with a stellar CV,” Stroh said. “You did this not only because he’s openly gay, but also because he was clear on his goal to help us create an equitable and safe environment for all students regardless of skin color or sexual orientation or gender identity or any other differences.”

The Joy of a Journey

Last Saturday, I had an amazing “New York” day. My husband and I met my daughter and son-in-law at the Whitney Museum to see the inspirational exhibition of Edward Hopper’s work. After a few hours at the museum, we took a cross-town bus to Union Square where we got on a Q train to East 86 Street. We were hungry so we walked to Second Avenue and ate at a very old time New York diner. After stuffing ourselves until we could eat no more, we walked to the beautiful Carl Schurz Park and then took a walk on the promenade along the river. We ended the day by riding on the ferry from East 90th Street to Wall Street, with stops along the way. It was windy and cold on the top deck but we had the most amazing views of the city!

This wonderful day made me think about the joy of going on an inquiry journey with children. When I was teaching, my kindergarten class traveled all around New York as part of our bridge study. The next year, when the children were in First Grade ( I looped with my class), at the suggestion of the children, we investigated the various waterways that flowed under the bridges that we had visited and other waterways in and on the outskirts of the city. I’ll never forget those experiences and I wouldn’t be surprised if the children, now in their 30s, and their parents too, have memories from those excursions.

When I did consulting work with teachers, I encouraged them to embrace inquiry investigations in their classrooms. So many of these teachers did so and with truly wonderful results for the children and for themselves.

When we disembarked from the ferry we walked to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal to get the train back to Brooklyn, but along the way we passed Saker Aviation and I was reminded of a wonderful Aviation investigation that Dana Roth did with her kindergarten class.

Here are some photos to take  you along on the children’s investigation and on their journey.

THE NEXT TRIP WAS TO FLOYD BENNET FIELD.

 

 

I would love to hear about  inquiry journeys that you and your classes have gone on! 

      You can click on “reply” at the top of this post to share YOUR classroom inquiry story.

 

Global School Play Day

In December, 2020 I posted a conversation with Peter Rawitcsh, Anne Haas Dyson, Nakoley Renville and Dr. Peter Metz, What Price Do Children Pay When Play Disappears? Dr. Metz discussed how, in his pediatric psychiatric clinic, a new diagnosis seemed to be appearing. Play Deprived. 

Mary Pipher, the renowned American psychologist has warned that the protected place in space and time that we once called childhood has grown shorter.

Global School Play Day is a valiant effort to address this problem. Dr. Peter Gray, the author of Free to Learn, is a passionate spokesman for this important project.



RAISING AWARENESS ABOUT THE NECESSITY OF UNSTRUCTURED PLAY

February 4, 2015, was the first annual Global School Play Day for students in schools around the world. In year one, over 65,000 students participated! Since 2015, over a million students from 75 Nations were given the gift of unstructured play time. Can we reach 1,500,000 students in 2023? We think so!

In his TEDx lecture, Peter Gray clearly argues the case that today’s kids do not grow up playing and this has negatively impacted them in many ways. It’s time we return the gift of play to this generation.


How Does GSPD Work?
First, please register your class/school to tell the world that you will be participating in GSPD 2023. If you do not teach, but would like to register your vote of support, please use this form. https://www.globalschoolplayday.com

COVID-19 Information – GLOBAL SCHOOL PLAY DAY IS ON!
COVID Safety – We are not doctors or scientists and do not have a deep understanding of the transmission of COVID. If you choose to participate we encourage you to assure your students’ safety first (As we know teachers do). We do however have some child-generated ideas. We would encourage you, since the day is about having children be self-directed, to have a play brainstorming session with your students where you lay out the safety guidelines. They, of course, will have amazing ideas!

1. EDUCATE – Teach your students, parents, colleagues, and administration about the benefits and necessity of play. Perhaps you could share Peter Gray’s TEDx video with them on the decline of play in our culture.

2. GET SOCIAL – Invite your colleagues to participate in Global School Play Day 2023 (February 1). Light the fire so others will catch the vision of returning the gift of unstructured play to this generation by talking about it on social media and in the teachers’ lounge. Write your own blog post encouraging your readers to join in on GSPD. Connect with the GSPD community by hashtagging your social media posts with #GSPD2023.

3. CALL FOR TOYS – Tell your class to bring anything they wish to play with to school on February 1, 2023 (Or as close to that date as you can). The only restrictions we ask: they must bring toys and these toys may NOT require batteries or electricity. No devices. Give them some ideas, since today’s kids rarely play and often own very few toys: board games, dolls, Legos, blocks, trucks, cars, racetracks, playing cards, empty cardboard boxes, markers, jigsaw puzzles, blankets (for forts), social games (charades, Pictionary, etc.) The only exception to the electronics rule would be a board game that has an electronic timer, an electronics play kit, or similar. How about taking your students out in the dirt or snow to dig, explore and get messy? You may want to show your students photos of past GSPD events to open their eyes to unfamiliar types of unstructured play.

4. PLAY! NO SCREENS – NO STRUCTURE – ALL DAY LONG
on Global School Play Day, allow your students to spread their toys out around the room or take the kids outside and just PLAY!



Don’t organize anything for your students.
Don’t tell them how to play with the toys/games.
Don’t interfere with your students unless you see something that could get you fired or would physically hurt a child (this does not include something that may be physically uncomfortable for a child.)
Don’t Leave Them Unsupervised as the day is unstructured by adults, but not unsupervised.

Other than taking a few pictures/videos, try to be invisible and let the kids play. This is a day of unstructured play, not playful teacher-led lessons. You will be amazed at what your kids come up with!

5. SHARE AND REFLECT – After the event, be sure to share your pictures, ideas, and reactions on social media (with parent consent) and hashtag them #GSPD2023. Perhaps you could add a post to your blog sharing about the experience. Ask your students to reflect on GSPD as well! Be sure to talk to your students and if possible, their parents, about the necessity of daily unstructured play. Your students will most surely ask if they can have play days more often. A great answer is, “Of course! Every day can be “play day” with your friends in your neighborhood after school. Keep playing as you did at school today, but just do it after school.”

What If?
What if… you can’t run your Global School Play Day on the first Wednesday in Febraury? Do it on another day! The important thing is your kids and colleagues need to be free from thinking that play is a waste of time and begin to see the value in it.

What if… you don’t want to play ALL day? That’s fine. Make it the hour of play. Again, the point of Global School Play Day is to raise awareness and start discussions. We do encourage you though to take the plunge and dedicate a whole day to unstructured play. You will cause others to ask why you would give up a whole day “just for playing.”

What if… you want to do #GSPD2023 with your work, high school or college class? Go for it! Big kids need to play, too! Each year we have many participants from all levels of school!

What if… you want to jump in and play with your kids? Can adults play, too? That’s up to you, but the concept of GSPD is to get kids playing freely without adult intervention or structure. If you get down on the floor with your kids, be sure to let them just play. Resist the temptation to organize, discipline, and teach.

What if…you want to have your students use iPads or computers? Well, no one is going to tell you what to do, but this is NOT the concept of Global School Play Day. GSPD is a day to get away from staring at screens and instead of interacting with peers. [Note: the organizers of GSPD are NOT opposed to technology use for children.]

Global School Play Day is for public schools, private schools, and homeschool families! Let’s spread the word about the benefits of unstructured play. Together we can reverse the downward trend in childhood play that many nations have experienced since the 1950’s.



A YEAR OF KINDERGARTEN INQUIRY

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

An exciting day was spent painting the squirrel homes.

It was time to add more documentation.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Moving On

     

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

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

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

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

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Closing Talk at Teachers College Reading Institute

July 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Doug Hecklinger and Renee Dinnerstein in conversation

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

How does this threat affect teachers, children and families?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

I hope you can listen in to our conversation!