It is not the answer that enlightens but the question.
I recently had the good fortune to view an early screening of the film Good Morning Mission Hill and to hear the director, Amy Valens, talk about the Mission Hill School and her experience of filming in their classrooms. Afterwards, I had a discussion with an administrator of a school in Brooklyn, New York where I am currently doing professional development with the kindergarten and first grade teachers. I have been trying to convince the early childhood staff that the children will learn more and be much happier if the teachers can embrace a culture of inquiry. Except for a few classes, it has been an uphill battle. Sometime, midway through our discussion, this lovely young administrator looked at me with frustration and said, “What do you actually mean when you refer to an inquiry-based classroom?”
We definitely had a failure to communicate. This confusion probably was due to my misguided assumption that I was laying down a strong foundation of understanding before encouraging teachers to make physical and instructional changes. I returned home perplexed and obsessed with thinking about this conversation. It kept me up for most of that night.
The next morning I sat at my computer and began to think about the concept of describing an inquiry-based classroom some more. I created an outline of what I might expect from a classroom where inquiry, exploration and play would intrinsically be the foundation for an early childhood curriculum. With the help of my two wise friends, Julie Diamond and Shelley Grant, I came up with a few bullet points that outlined some understandings that I believe a teacher should have in order to create an inquiry based classroom.
This outline is by no means complete. It’s a work that is very much “in progress.” I am hoping that my blog readers will comment and add suggestions for revising this list. I welcome your thoughts! In this time of standardized testing, evaluations, and finger pointing we need to redirect and bring the attention back to what children, teachers and schools REALLY need.
Some Characteristics of an Inquiry-Based Classroom
The teacher has an understanding that the child comes to school as a fully formed person, not as an empty vessel that needs to be filled.
∗ This implies respect for who the child is and for all the knowledge that the child brings to school from his/her background.
∗ The teacher will develop a curriculum that begins with what the children already know and builds on the child’s sense of wondering.
The teacher understands that as an educator of young children, it is important to be flexible and that the daily schedule is conducive to the age of the children being taught,
∗ Young children need large blocks of time for exploring, building, pretending, etc.
∗ Children shouldn’t be rushed from one activity to another.
∗ Inquiry and Choice time (or whatever you are calling the work/play time) should be at the heart of your program, particularly for pre-k, and kindergarten. Because of that, it needs to be scheduled early in the day.
∗ In the first and second grade too, Inquiry and Choice Time shouldn’t be left for the end of the day because children will be tired from a day of academics and, therefore, will most likely not get the most out of this rich part of your program.
The teacher understands that the child’s curiosity should be scaffolded and nurtured throughout the day.∗ There are opportunities for questioning and explorations all day, throughout the curriculum.
∗ As an example, if the teacher plans to teach the spelling of the sight word “it,” the children might be asked what they notice about the word, what will help them to remember it, etc. Perhaps one child might say, ”It starts with the same letter that Inge’s name starts with only it’s the small “i. ” The teacher acknowledges that as a valid strategy for remembering the word. Another child might add that “it” is a small word because it only has two letters.
∗ Rather than beginning with drilling the spelling of a new word, the children are encouraged to bring to the lesson what they already know and to share it with the class.
∗ Teachers are taking notes on observations throughout the day. These notes are reflected after the school day and used to plan new lessons and centers based on this valuable information.
The teacher understands that it’s important to be teaching the children not the subjects. There are many opportunities for children to engage in self-initiated experiences and for children to feel encouraged to innovate on an idea or project
∗ There should be an area in the room where children can keep on-going projects, for example an art project or a Lego construction.
∗ Children should be encouraged to return to a center another day to continue work on a project.
∗ The block center should be away from traffic and should be large enough for a group of children to comfortably work there together.
∗ The teacher makes sure that there are appropriate tools, materials, books and blank paper (even blank booklets) in each center.
∗ It should be clear where materials belong. Labels with drawings or photos can be taped on shelves to show children where to get and return materials.
Failure should be seen as a part of learning and as an opportunity to take a risk.
∗ If a child is having a behavior problem, the teacher should speak privately with the child. Public behavior charts are basically shaming charts. They are up with the expectation that someone will “be bad.” Children who don’t get their name moved to a “red light” are anxious about being good. Children who have difficulty with self-control become known as the naughty children. There’s basically nothing positive that comes of these charts (they might keep a class in check on the short term but they do so much damage and little teaching in the long term.) As Alfie Kohn writes, “ Reward charts — with or without punishments — shouldn’t be used because children aren’t pets to be trained. Rewards, like punishments, are basically ways of doing things TO people (to make them obey), whereas the only way to help kids grow into decent, responsible, compassionate people is to work WITH them (to solve problems together).”
∗ It’s much more productive to concentrate on “acts of kindness” where a child observe a classmate performing an act of kindness, shares this with the class and it gets posted on the bulletin board. This encourages empathy and community.
The children should feel part of a community and a member of a joyful class. The children should feel a sense of shared ownership of the classroom.
∗ Time is set aside for class meetings where children share their observations, questions, and the work that they have completed or works in progress.
∗ These meetings are opportunities for children to take part in meaningful dialogues.
∗ The teacher enters into the conversation both as a facilitator and as a model.
∗ The teacher never refers to himself/herself in the third person when speaking to a child or to the group. We are, as teachers, modeling social behavior. I don’t think that anyone would sit with a group of friends and say, “Mrs. Dinnerstein enjoyed that book.” Bring back the “I to class conversations!”
∗ The children and teacher decorate the room with the children’s work and not with commercial charts, borders and other materials that can better be produced in the classroom. Someone sitting in a factory in, say, Michigan, does not know the children in your class.
∗ It’s much more effective to have children and teachers collectively come up with class rules.
∗ Children can create number and color charts if it appropriately comes up in class discussions.
∗ Having their own work decorating the room, such as their own alphabet chart hanging across the front of the room, gives the children pride in their work and in their classroom.
∗ The room is organized into clear areas. (In my classroom, I integrated tables into each center, giving the classroom the look of a laboratory for learning and experimenting rather than having tables clustered together.)
∗ Children understand how to use the materials in each area because the teacher has explicitly taught how materials are cared for and where they are stored. The teacher also teaches the routines for going to centers or activities, and cleaning up when the period is ended.
In spite of the tumultuousness of caring for twenty to thirty children each day, teaching can be a rather solitary profession. Teachers are busy in their own rooms and rarely get the chance to visit the rooms of our colleagues, particularly during class time. I spent some time in Adele Schroeter’s 4th grade classroom, because her class and mine were buddy-classes, in Connie Norgren’s first grade room because for five years we did a modified version of team teaching and in Phyllis Allen and Bill Fulbrecht’s kindergarten class because we often planned together and combined our classes for periodic group singing. Those were pretty much the classrooms in my school that I was very familiar with.
After retiring as a classroom teacher I began working as a literacy consultant. In this capacity, I have had the opportunity to visit classrooms in all different communities in New York City. There are so many times when I wish I could go back into my classroom to try out some of the wonderful instructional ideas that teachers shared with me on my visits. However, there’s one thing that I saw in so many classrooms that both surprised and upset me – all different forms of behavior management charts.
The use of behavior management charts in early childhood classrooms seems to be much more common than I ever realized. Some charts involve stars or stickers. Many of them seem to be color-coded. From what I can gather, the goal of most of them is to keep children under control.
I definitely understand how important and challenging it is for teachers to maintain a calm atmosphere in the classroom. It can be disturbing for the teacher and for the students when there are children who constantly exhibit disruptive behaviors.
How well I remember those evenings when I returned home from work, carrying in my head the name and image of some particular child. After a day at work, I could still hear the voice of a child who spent a good part of the day pushing me to the edge of my patience!
As challenged as I was ten years ago, today’s teachers have so much more that they must deal with. In my observations of kindergarten, first and second grade classes over these past few years, it is evident how many more children there are who might be labeled “discipline problems” or, even more extremely, children with ADHD. Today’s educators are faced with a myriad of unfair obstacles. Teachers who once worked with teaching assistants are now, because of budget cutbacks, without any classroom help. In addition to adjusting to new curriculum demands they also have larger classes. Most classrooms include children with diagnosed and undiagnosed special needs.
I think that it’s impossible not to consider the impact that the academic take- over of the early childhood curriculum, concurrent with the implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards and benchmarks is having on the school life of the young child. This phenomenon has created teaching schedules filled with long stretches of sitting, listening, reading and writing. There are few opportunities for children to experience play and exploration, creating a climate in which an increase in behavioral issues is no surprise. The Scottish psychologist, R. D. Laing believed that some mental dysfunctions that patients with psychosis exhibited were often understandable responses to difficult life experiences. Perhaps we can make an analogy and say that the aggressive classroom behaviors of some active young children are reactions to some of the developmentally inappropriate practices that fill their days.
Taking all of this into account, I understand the appeal of using a visual rewards system for keeping behavior in check. This might, on a very short term, have some positive effect on controlling classroom behavior. However, there are some important questions to be asked.
Are children learning to internalize acceptable social behaviors with this chart or are they only exhibiting these behaviors in exchange for a reward? Are we, unintentionally, labeling children the “good” children in the class and the “bad” children in the class? Are the more dutifully behaved children becoming anxious about the possibility of being moved to a negative spot on the chart? Are the charts giving teachers important information about why children are acting out? (Perhaps a child is bored with the work. A child might have had a traumatic incident at home that evening or morning. A child might be hungry. A child might physically need more opportunities to move around freely.) Is this chart helping to develop a caring classroom community?
Because of the challenges of teachers and children face each day, it is even more crucial to spend time establishing a classroom community that is built on trust, respect, cooperation and student empowerment. I believe that an important goal for teachers is to establish a democratic and responsive classroom community. This is, by no means, an easy task but the results prove well worth all of the teacher’s time and effort. Sir Ken Robinson, in his book Finding Your Element, writes, “ When communities create shared ideas, values and patterns of behavior, they create a culture. What you make of what lies within you is affected by the culture you are a part of: by what it encourages and discourages, permits or forbids.”
The use of public behavior tracking charts can, in effect, act counter to the goal of creating the kind of community that I think most teachers desire. Rather than giving children a positive message, tracking children’s behavior on a chart displayed on a bulletin board sends and unspoken negative message that someone in this class is likely going to misbehave. Children begin to focus on where they are on this chart and how they compare to other children in the class. They think about who is always “bad” and who is “good” in the room. An element of stress is passed on to all the children. Children who tend to be more physically active begin to develop negative self-image because their behavior invariably puts them in the “misbehaving” category. This public display that rates a child’s behavior becomes a means of possibly causing shame, stress, and feelings of defeat.
I have noticed that the classrooms I visit with the most stable and calmest communities are classrooms where teachers have not used behavior charts or other methods of doling out rewards and punishments as a means of maintaining classroom order. For example, when I bring visitors to Pam Roque’s kindergarten classroom at P.S. 142 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, everyone is immediately impressed by the noticeable independence and cooperation among her children. When I was last in her room, I looked around for a behavior chart but couldn’t find one. I asked Pam about this and she said that she never used one. It just wasn’t the way that she wanted to conduct her class. I did notice that the room was arranged and conducted so that the children would develop independence. The room is not cluttered with teacher’s paraphernalia and centers were set up so that children could access materials easily. At class meetings, it’s easy to sense how interested Pam is in children’s comments and observations. She is a good listener and gives children time to think about their questions and answers. This respect for everyone’s contributions is a positive role model for the children’s own behaviors.
My first year as a literacy consultant, I worked in a public school in the Chelsea area of Manhattan. Being new to this work, I felt rather anxious and not quite sure yet about the parameters of my role. One of my first assignments was to help a new first grade teachers learn how to conduct guided reading groups. The teacher, Rob Catlin (now the principal of the River East School, a progressive NYC public school), had a very challenging class. Many children were living under difficult conditions and some began the day exhibiting angry and aggressive behaviors. Rob, however, had received training in Responsive Classroom strategies, which he employed at his morning meetings. At first I would impatiently wait for these long meetings to end so that we could get started on our reading work. However after sitting through a few of these morning sessions, I could see the wonderful community building that was taking place and literally see the children begin to relax and smile. They shared important information about themselves and commented on each other’s reflections. They were becoming a caring and respectful community.
In my own classrooms I never had a particular program that I followed but I did have some routines that might have encouraged empathy and cooperation. . In place of a list of rules, we learned and discussed in great detail the poem Hurt No Living Thing by Christina Rossetti. This poem became the basis of our code for classroom behavior. The simple words of the poem really contained everything that we needed to know about what could and couldn’t be done in school. What does it mean to hurt someone? Have you ever been hurt? How did it feel? Have you ever felt hurt inside? What do you think made you feel that way? When we opened up this kind of conversation, we really were talking about sensitivity and respect. The words to the poem were, of course, revisited often during the school year, each time with greater depth of understanding.
Hurt no living thing: Ladybird, nor butterfly, Nor moth with dusty wing, Nor cricket chirping cheerily, Nor grasshopper so light of leap, Nor dancing gnat, nor beetle fat, Nor harmless worms that creep.
About halfway through the school year we would begin collecting “Acts of Kindness” which were dictated to me or written by children and posted on a classroom bulletin board. At first, noticing kind acts was a big challenge for the children. They wanted me to post their own acts of kindness but on this board we posted acts of kindness that we noticed others doing. After a while everyone was on the lookout for signs of kind acts AND they wanted others to notice their kind acts! The board kept filling up with sticky notes describing different kind acts in our classroom, in the lunchroom, in the playground, in the schoolyard and….every once in a while, acts of kindness that they noticed at home!
Each week children took on different classroom jobs. One of the jobs was to be the class comforter. The child who had that job would comfort a classmate who was in distress. This could be someone having separation issues, a classmate who fell in the schoolyard, or someone who was having difficulty calming down in class. The act of being a comforter didn’t happen automatically for all children. We did much role-playing, discussion, sharing of how they were comforted by parents, and also what made them feel better when they were upset. We even had a “Comfort Song” that my good friend and colleague, Connie Norgren, taught me. (What do I do when my ____________is crying? What do I do? What do I say? I take my ______________in my arms and hold him) We sometimes even sang about comforting our pets or our grandparents. The children took this song very seriously!
My classroom also had our Cozy Reading Room, a painted refrigerator box with an arched door cut out and some nice soft pillows to sit on inside. Two children sometimes snuggled up in here to read books or share stories with each other. This also became a spot where the class comforter would do his or her magic to comfort the child in distress.
I would like to say that I didn’t give children time in a “time out” chair but that would be an untruth. I did follow a rule that I once read somewhere, “as many minutes as the child’s age.” Nevertheless, to my horror, I once overheard a conversation that had a profound effect on my use of time outs. A parent was picking up a particularly active child at the end of the school day and she asked him how his day was. “Really good,” he told her. “I didn’t have any time out.” Oh my! I became very aware of not overusing this strategy again! The clinical psychologist, Dr. Laura Markhan wrote in an article to parents the “Timeouts make kids see themselves as bad people, …don’t help kids learn emotional regulation.” Mea culpa! If I could only go back and do things differently…but how?
Nikki Sabiston , in her blog entry, Why I Will Never Use a Behavior Chart Again, describes the Take-A –Break Space. The idea is that a child has an opportunity to cool down or remove him/herself from a stressful situation by going to some area in the classroom that is set aside just for this purpose. It’s non-punitive. The child decides when he or she is ready to rejoin the group. It sounds like a reasonable, more sympathetic alternative to a time out chair and it carries with it the assumption that the child can reflect on his/her behavior and learn to self-monitor.
Realistically speaking, there could be a time when a child might need an individual behavior plan, but this intervention certainly shouldn’t be punitive or long term. I had one opportunity to do this and it seemed to have successful results.
Larry (not his real name) was a challenging child. He knew how to push everyone’s buttons. When he came to my kindergarten class he was repeating the grade. His former teacher passed on this information to me, “Larry has no interest in learning anything.” Well this, I discovered quite quickly, was not true. Larry was very bright, loved anything to do with mathematics, could stick with a project for long periods of time if he was totally engaged with it, but also had, it seemed, a lot of pent up anger and also difficulty controlling his temper. I stayed with this group of children for two years, kindergarten and first grade. By the middle of first grade Larry had worn me down. I knew that I had to try something new with him.
Here is what I already knew. We were a very tight classroom community. Almost all of the parents found ways to support our classroom activities. A caring but very young mother who had three young, very active children was raising Larry. Larry’s father was incarcerated (although I was not supposed to know this. I discovered it by observing and listening to Larry when he was playing in the block center.) It was my hunch that Larry was pretty desperate for his mother’s attention and that he was anxious about his father’s condition. I couldn’t do very much about the situation with his father but I had an idea of how to somehow reach his mother. I set up a parent-teacher meeting and told her about my concerns for Larry. She was aware of his behavioral difficulties in school. She was living with the same behaviors at home and she, too, was at the end of her tether.
It was my belief that Larry was craving individualized attention from his mother. He wanted her all for himself and that wasn’t happening. I came up with a plan that I shared with Larry’s mom and she agreed to find a way to uphold her part of it. My next job was to share the plan with the class. I managed to arrange for Larry to be out of the room and I called a class meeting. I told the children that I was aware of the problems that they were having when Larry lost control of his behavior and I thought that we could all help him to find better ways of dealing with situations that upset him. The children listened quite attentively as I told them of my plan. I said that I was going to tell Larry that I was setting up a point system for him. Whenever I noticed that he was having a good day, or part of a day, I would give him a point. When he got twenty points, he was going to get a special treat. (What I did not tell the class is that the treat was going to be a trip to the ice cream parlor with his mother…just him, not his sister, not his brother. Only Mom and Larry, having a special time together.) We discussed ways that they could help Larry. If they noticed that he was getting frustrated, they would step in to help him out. They would compliment him whenever they could. They would be sure to ask him to join in their games in the schoolyard and tell him what a good job he was doing at the game before he had an opportunity to lose his temper. They would find times to ask him for help if it was something they knew he could help them with. These were all ideas that the children came up with.
That day I spoke with Larry about the point plan and told him about what his special reward would be. I told him that the class knew that we were doing this but that he was the only one responsible for getting the points. We were off and running.
Everything worked out better than I expected! The children did all that they could do to make school life easier and more successful for Larry. With each new conflict-free day, I could almost see Larry’s tense body relaxing. The children felt so pleased with the way that Larry was interacting with them.
Finally, Larry earned his 20 points. It was an exciting moment for him and for the class but a big disappointment followed. His mother told me that it was just too much for her to spend that time going out with him without taking the other two children. I just couldn’t convince her of how important it was. Somehow I managed to fudge some excuse but I suggested to Larry that we go out for a pizza lunch together and then go for an ice cream dessert. This seemed to make him happy. We told the class about our plan and everyone seemed quite pleased.
At lunch in the pizzeria I noticed that Larry was taking little pieces of the crust and setting them aside on a napkin. One, two, three…until he counted up to 23. “What are you doing?” I asked him. Larry looked up at me from his counting. “I’m bringing something back for my friends in school.”
We didn’t do the points again and Larry seemed to be having an easier time for the rest of the school year. Something between him and the other children changed and they appeared to become aware of how important their help was to him. I even noticed that some of the families were inviting him over for playdates after school.
It took quite a while for me to resort to a point reward system in my work with Larry. We had many talks, time outs and parent-teacher meetings before I resorted to this approach. In retrospect, I think that this plan would not have worked if I hadn’t first spent so much time supporting the development of a strong classroom community. It was this community of caring children that helped Larry deal with some of his challenging classroom behaviors.
A caring community and respect for each individual’s self-esteem – two essential goals as important as any other part of the curriculum in any early childhood classroom.