Tag Archives: Amy Meltzer

Fungus, or what we’ve been doing with all those mushrooms

Lately, I’ve been both depressed and angry at the inappropriate curriculum that has been imposed on young children. Then, every once in awhile, I encounter a teacher who is defying the move towards test prep, test prep, test prep and academic pushdown at the expense of joy, inquiry, exploration and play. I’ve decided to start sharing the work of some of these teachers. I hope it make you feel good. Sharing it is good for my soul.

This week I’ll begin with a study that was done by the wonderful Amy Meltzer. Amy teaches kindergarten at a Jewish Day School, the Lander Grinspoon Academy in Northhampton, Massachusetts. Amy refers to the school as a Gan. When I looked it up it seems to be (and I hope I have this correctly!) the Hebrew for an enclosed garden.

Believe it or not, she and her class did a study of Fungus! Here is Amy’s blog post about her study.



Many, many people have wondered why we study fungus in the Gan. It’s not a typical unit of study in many elementary schools, but in my opinion, it ought to be. First of all, fungi are just amazing. They pop up overnight in the strangest and often most overlooked places, and they are both complex and beautiful. They are in great abundance in the wild in the Fall, when we typically delve into a science topic in our Writing Workshop. Many varieties can be purchased at supermarkets, farmers markets and asian markets, allowing children to investigate, compare and contrast numerous varieties. As nature’s recyclers, they help teach important lessons about conservation, awareness and life itself. (If you haven’t already read it, check out the article in last week’s Sunday Times Magazine about mushrooms.)

We are visual creatures; to us, forests seem places made of trees and leaves and soil. But all around me now, invisible and ubiquitous, is a huge network of fungal life, millions of tiny threads growing and stretching among trees, clustering around piles of rabbit droppings; stitching together bush and path, dead leaves and living roots. We hardly know it is there until we encounter the fruiting bodies it throws up when conditions are right. But without fungi’s ceaseless cycling of water, nutrients and minerals, the forest wouldn’t work the way it does. Perhaps the greatest mystery of mushrooms is that they are the visible manifestations of this essential yet unregarded world.


Our unit began with a trip to Arcadia, to see a variety of mushrooms and begin to learn about their important work – clearing the forest floor and helping to turn dead matter into rich soil. As a nice surprise, our guide happened to speak Hebrew! The children each took at least one photograph of the amazing specimens we saw that day. The pictures are on display in the Gan.


We then began our close observations of the most well known mushroom, the white mushroom – the ones that come in blue plastic boxes and wrapped in cellophane in the supermarket. We practiced working like scientists, trying to document what we noticed in our science journals.






IMG_2229After becoming well acquainted with your average mushroom, we headed down to Tuesday Market and visited the booth of New England Wild Edibles.



Thanks to some generous contributions, we were able to purchase five varieties of mushrooms to study. This time, we recorded our observations in clay – but not until we had a chance to do some free exploration with this new medium!





Our mushrooms are being fired and should be ready to come home at the end of the week.

As we continued to document what we know and observe in our science journals, we added a bit of whimsy into our study. After looking at images of some of the most beautiful mushrooms on the planet, we designed imaginary mushrooms – featuring the parts of a real mushroom – but with imagined colors, shapes and designs. Aren’t they gorgeous?






Speaking of whimsy, we are singing this song every day. Debbi Friedlander taught at our school many years ago and stopped by last year for an impromptu concert. We hope she’ll return this year some time.

And of course, many of you have seen our new “class pet”, a shiitake mushroom growing log from MycoTerra farm. We’ve already harvested a few dozen mushrooms, and today we’ll be picking some to make spore prints.

This week, we are winding down our mushroom unit with a little foray into yeast, part of the fungus family. We watched a very cute video which described yeast cells as “yeast monsters” who burp carbon dioxide. We are trying to catch and grow some wild yeast in a mixture of flour and water to create our own sourdough starter.


I could probably spend a whole year learning about fungus, but all good things must come to an end wind down at least a little.


I’ll keep looking for early childhood teachers who take their students on exciting journey’s of exploration. It’s good for my soul!

Beautiful Serendipity

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Do you believe in serendipity?

This past Saturday I came across a blog that was posted on Facebook and the latest entry was titled Beautiful Stuff: Diary of a Gan Teacher. A kindergarten teacher was about to begin the Beautiful Stuff project with her class and would be blogging about it periodically. What a perfect find this was for me! The kindergarten classes in two of the schools where I consult are just beginning this project. I emailed all of the teachers  the link to this blog and encouraged them to read it, and if they felt the urge, to send in comments on how the project was working in their classes.

Then, yesterday (Sunday) I received a beautiful private message on my Facebook page from Amy Meltzer, a kindergarten teacher working in Massachusetts. She wrote about how much she enjoys my blog and how it is supporting her planning for Choice Time. It was such a wonderful beginning to my Sunday. I wrote back to Amy and through the course of our back and forth communications discovered that Amy is the author of the Beautiful Stuff blog! Now isn’t that amazing!

I just love the Beautiful Stuff project. As a staff developer working with early childhood teachers, I find that it is a perfect way to support teachers in understanding the joy and potential of exploration, inquiry and creative expression.

The project is presented in the book Beautiful Stuff! Learning with Found Materials by Cathy Weisman Topal and Lella Gandini. The publisher’s description of the book on their website says, “inspired by educational practices in Reggio Emilia, Italy, this book focuses on process rather than product. Chapters cover collecting and organizing materials, stimulating thoughts about design, reflecting upon and extending work, and more. Several sorting and categorizing activities are presented, along with individual and group projects and constructions.

I’d like to share some images of children’s work from two different New York City public schools. In this first school working with this study had a profound effect on the way that the kindergarten teachers approached art with their children. When I first visited their classrooms I was struck by how caring all of the teachers were towards their students. The population consisted of mostly children of immigrants from Latino countries. Many families lived in shelters or in a local housing project. For a variety of reasons, the children did not take part in class conversations. There was little chatter between them at their tables when they were working or at play centers. The art work that I saw on the walls all looked very similar and teacher-directed.

Look at what happened when they were encouraged to experiment with a variety of materials and come up with their own personal designs.


proudchoosing woodcreation 1intense concentration!

tree bulletin board


Something unusual occurred in Dana Roth’s kindergarten class at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn, New York. They were in the midst of the Beautiful Stuff project. At their centers, during Choice Time, children created Beautiful Stuff Color Cities, Beautiful Stuff inventions and Beautiful Stuff games. Then one child came up with a new idea. “Let’s have a Beautiful Stuff newspaper!” Dana, who was always interested in picking up on children’s interests, facilitated a discussion to find out what children knew about newspapers. At the class meeting they decided to open up a newspaper center. Children took on different roles – writers, reporters, illustrators and photographers. Here are some of the pages from their Beautiful Stuff Telling Newspaper:

our telling newspaper

We're showing our BS- newspaper

blue city


Have any of you had experience with this project? If you haven’t, are you interested in giving it a try? These are some suggestions that I have shared with the teachers that I’ve been working with at various NYC schools:

Ideas and Thoughts from the text Beautiful Stuff!

  • One goal of this project is to allow children to become ‘fluent’ with materials – as if materials were a language
  • This project tends to get parents very involved – they too are eager to share the treasures that they collected. They are interested in seeing what other families have discovered.
  • We want to record the opening of the bags – video, still photo, tape recorded responses, written transcripts
  • The teacher helps children focus their observations by asking questions and making responses that help focus conversation
  • Give children opportunities to sort the materials in unexpected ways
  • Give children opportunities to name the sorted categories and make observations about the different categories
  • Materials can be arranged and rearranged many times
  • When materials are arranged in different categories and displayed in an attractive way, parents and children can add to the materials when they come in to school in the morning (see page 21)
  • Because clutter is distracting, teachers have to make selections and throw away some materials. This should be done with discretion so that feelings are not hurt
  • Storing materials in clear or white containers allows children to clearly see the colors and textures of each material
  • Have a display shelf left blank so children can use it for unfinished or finished work (see page 46)
  • An enthusiastic adult has to be involved to keep the communication and dialogue going
  • The kinds of questions to ask as well as when to ask or make an observation becomes important parts of being present to the moment with children
  • Exploring materials is an evocative experience. It stimulates the imagination. It invites children to tell stories and to develop games
  • Social interaction is a natural outcome of exploring
  • Exploring materials is a bridge to other avenues of expression, such as drawing, collage, construction and sculpture
  • Saving a trace or memory of an experience is so important to the art of learning and teaching
  • Collecting materials and ideas for a project on one day, then inviting children to wait overnight to think them through, builds a sense of anticipation and allows for changes in plans and new ideas
  • Instead of giving children a model on which to base their work, ask, “How could you make ___ from your materials?”


I hope that you will visit Amy’s blog and that you will share some of your own experiences with this project. If you have thoughts or questions about any aspect of this study, please post them on the “make a comment” space for my blog. I have a feeling that there are many teachers who read our blogs who will have many interesting suggestions and stories to share.

Don’t you just love those serendipitous moments?

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baskets - beautiful stuff261 arranging