The Opt Out Movement and Kindergarten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CASDA- A Wonderful Early Childhood Conference April 30

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

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

Here’s a link to register

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

The Bach Invasion!

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

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

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

Here’s a glimpse into some of the classrooms.

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


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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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


The Dinosaur Game

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

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

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

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

The New Hampshire Literacy Institutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keynote Speakers




ENGL Course Offerings

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


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

Democracy vs. Dystopia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






My Buddy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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


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!



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.



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.



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.


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.

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!