Tag Archives: Bank Street

Down the Rabbit Hole?

alice-300x240On April 19, 2013 I posted the blog entry, “Common Sense” where I recounted a meeting between a group of kindergarten teachers and retired Kindergarten teachers with the man who was the Chief Academic Officer and Senior Deputy Chancellor at the New York City Department of Education. Our goal was to urge him to help restore developmentally appropriate practices in kindergartens in public schools across the city. In addition we wanted an end to the endlessly  inappropriate assessments that were taking much time away from the teacher’s meaningful interactions with students. To his credit, he did extend the 20 minutes originally allotted to us and listened to our examples and our frustrations. To my amazement, though, he told us that he actually had not given much thought to kindergarten!

Now this official is the president of the prestigious Bank Street College of Education and he has co-authored an op ed essay that includes the statement, “Play is also fun and interesting, which makes school a place where children look forward to spending their time. It is so deeply formative for children that it must be at the core of our early childhood curriculum.” I feel like Alice who has just slid down the rabbit hole. Is this the same person who just a little more than a year ago admitted that he hadn’t really thought about kindergarten?

When I fumed about what I saw as a politically advantageous flip flop,  a Bank Street professor, pointed out that Diane Ravitch made a change in her viewpoints when she realized what was right for children. When I mentioned this to my husband his response was, “Diane Ravitch came out and said that she originally was mistaken in her thinking and actions. This man has said nothing about having a change of heart and apologizing for his negligence when working in a powerful position at the Department of Education.

I’m waiting for him to say something that will make me feel more comfortable about his essay and that will stop this fuming feeling that I have.

Read the essay and let me know what you’re thinking about my reactions to this perfectly written description about the needs of early childhood contrasted with what happened to early childhood education in the hands of the Department of Education these past few years.

The Opinion Pages | OP-ED CONTRIBUTORS

The Building Blocks of a Good Pre-K

OCT. 21, 2014

WITH the introduction of universal pre-K in New York City, we have created a new entry point into our public school system. This raises a key question: What do we want our children’s first experiences in school to be? What does a good education look like for 4-year-olds?

This summer, Bank Street College of Education led training for 4,000 of New York’s pre-K teachers, including both veterans and hundreds of people who started teaching pre-K for the first time last month. Worried teachers talked about how the pressure to achieve good outcomes on the third-grade state exams has been trickling down to early childhood classrooms in the form of work sheets, skill drills and other developmentally inappropriate methods.

The problem is real, and it is not unique to New York City. Earlier this year, Daphna Bassok and Anna Rorem, educational policy researchers at the University of Virginia, found strong evidence that current kindergarten classrooms rely too heavily on teacher-directed instruction. Their study, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” revealed that the focus on narrow academic skills crowded out time for play, exploration and social interaction. In a 2009 report for the Alliance for Childhood, “Crisis in the Kindergarten,” Edward Miller and Joan Almon reported that kindergarten teachers felt that prescriptive curricular demands and pressure from principals led them to prioritize academic skill-building over play.

This is a false choice. We do not need to pick between play and academic rigor.

While grown-ups recognize that pretending helps children find their way into the world, many adults think of play as separate from formal learning. The reality is quite different. As they play, children develop vital cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional skills. They make discoveries, build knowledge, experiment with literacy and math and learn to self-regulate and interact with others in socially appropriate ways. Play is also fun and interesting, which makes school a place where children look forward to spending their time. It is so deeply formative for children that it must be at the core of our early childhood curriculum.

What does purposeful play look like? When you step into an exemplary pre-K classroom, you see a room organized by a caring, responsive teacher who understands child development. Activity centers are stocked with materials that invite exploration, fire the imagination, require initiative and prompt collaboration. The room hums.

In the block area, two girls build a bridge, talking to each other about how to make sure it doesn’t collapse and taking care not to bump into the buildings of children next to them. In an area with materials for make-believe, children enact an elaborate family scenario after resolving who will be the mommy, who will be the grandpa and who will be the puppy. Another group peers through a magnifying glass to examine a collection of pine cones and acorns. On the rug, children lie on their stomachs turning the pages of books they have selected, while at the easel a boy dips his brush into red paint and swoops the paint mostly onto his paper.

The teacher observes and comments. She shifts from group to group, talking with children about their work (“I see that you made a big red circle.”); helping children resolve a conflict (“You both want to be the mommy. What should we do?”); posing an open-ended question to stimulate exploration and problem-solving (“What do you notice when you use the magnifying glass that is different from when you use your eyes?”); and guiding children to manage themselves (“When you finish your snack, what activity would you like to choose?”).

Barbara Biber, one of Bank Street’s early theorists, argued that play develops precisely the skills — and, just as important, the disposition — children need to be successful throughout their lives. The child “projects his own pattern of the world into the play,” she wrote, “and in so doing brings the real world closer to himself. He is building the feeling that the world is his to understand, to interpret, to puzzle about, to make over. For the future we need citizens in whom these attitudes are deeply ingrained.”

Earlier in the 20th century, the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky made the related argument that children’s thinking develops through activity-based learning and social interactions with adults and peers. When teachers base their curriculums on Dr. Vygotsky’s ideas, there are significant benefits for children’s capacity to think, to plan and to sustain their attention on difficult tasks.

Play has long-lasting benefits. What is referred to as self-regulation in preschool becomes resiliency in high school. The University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth has found that this trait, which she famously calls grit, can make or break students, especially low-income students. Over the past three years, the New York City Department of Education developed a framework to support the core behavioral elements that drive college and career readiness. Many of them — persistence, planning, the ability to communicate and the capacity to collaborate — have their roots in early childhood.

Next fall, there will be more students in pre-K in New York City than there are in the entire school system of Atlanta or Seattle. To his credit, Mayor Bill de Blasio has not only pushed for expanding access but has also insisted on improving quality and put real money into training and materials. This is a strong start. But we still need to help parents, administrators and policy makers see what the children themselves know intuitively: Classrooms that pulse with meaningful play are our smartest investment.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, who served as senior deputy chancellor of the New York City Department of Education from 2011-14, is the president of Bank Street College, where Nancy Nager is a professor of education and child development.

Remembering Ellie Barr

images 16-20-59I can’t let 2014 begin without writing a few words about an important mentor to me who passed away this year. Elinor Barr, a through and through early childhood educator, was the kind of advocate for children and childhood that is needed so desperately in a time that seems to have turned its back on the important needs of young children.

I met Ellie in 1980 when she was supervising a student teacher in my classroom. I was teaching very young children (3 year olds) that year and felt out of my element and rather insecure. Ellie was always so positive and upbeat. She praised me and also gently gave me some much- needed suggestions. When I left the small private school where I had been working to teach a pre-kindergarten class in the local public school, Ellie followed along with me. A few years later she invited me to teach a class on early childhood education at Kingsborough Community College where she was a professor. I knew how much the education of aspiring teachers meant to Ellie and I was touched by her trust in sharing that important responsibility with me.

Ellie was gentle, wise, smart and funny. There also were sides to her that I wasn’t  aware of until her memorial on November 16th. I learned that Ellie was a lifelong peace and social justice activist. That she worked to integrate the New York City public schools in the 1960’s by helping to organize a reverse busing program. She was involved with helping to enforce anti-discrimination laws in Brooklyn, New York housing. She marched…for civil rights, against the atomic bomb, against wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan, and for all things that might benefit children and education. For over 20 years she was a volunteer on the Hotline at Gay Mens Health Crisis. She taught at an integrated and inclusive nursery school for many years. Ellie was a Doctor of Education and a Professor of Early Childhood Education at Kingsborough Community College for 40 years and she was a Carey Fellow at the Bank Street College of Education.

The memorial at the Brooklyn Friend’s Meeting House was packed. Many people got up to speak. I was particularly moved by the words spoken by Ellie’s Kingsborough colleague, Barbara Weiserbs:

Ellie was a rare person, a combination of political and social awareness, activism, gentleness and steadfast strength, progressivism in education, appreciation of the arts, but mostly an appreciation of and sensitivity to people. You could recognize these characteristics in the way she spoke, the questions she asked and her honest thoughtfulness.

The first time I met Ellie, back in 1979 when I started working at Kingsborough, I knew that I wanted to get to know her. I stopped by her office, which was in the block room. Actually, it was a desk in one corner of the block room. The walls around her desk were filled with pictures. I remember being struck by two. One was a photo taken during the depression of a woman looking worn out and worried, Florence Owens Thompson with her children. The other was the face of Paul Robeson.
I soon discovered that I had found an academic home, an oasis for sharing ideas in a solid early childhood program. Mostly it was Ellie who created this program, and based it on the best of human values: caring for all, interested in all, with support and fairness.
She built the program
She guided people in it.
She created the materials and the curriculum.
And her program lives on.
Outsiders wanted to understand how our classes encouraged the insights that students internalized and took with them to other colleges when they transferred.
There was no deep dark secret. It was the commitment to the program that was shared by faculty, especially by Ellie. She stayed late. “You go”, she would say, “I’ll take care of it.”
She came in early to speak with students whose schedules were difficult because of responsibilities to children, work and their own classes. She chaired weekly meetings for many years for the purpose of finding solutions to student problems, and eventually these meetings came to be known as the “Ellie Meetings’. They clarified issues for faculty and they helped faculty come together as a team, working for a common goal. She spent time visiting schools, looking for better placements, schools where students could experience first hand the teaching approach and classroom settings we spoke about, especially as the discrepancy between what we taught and what students experienced in the school system increased.

She designed the student internships with seminars and conferences to help students better understand their experiences. Assignments in field courses were so meaningful that they are still being used with little modification.

Likewise, many art workshops that she developed continue. The art course was and is central to the program. It puts many core early childhood concepts into workshop form for the students to appreciate. I know some of you had her as a teacher. Lucky you. Students loved her and remembered her long after they left Kingsborough.
She gave of herself to her students, to the program and to her colleagues. She listened and offered advice with a quiet-strong voice made so by the content of what she said. After she retired, she came to Kingsborough weekly and tutored students who needed help with their written work. And who better to help them, because she understood their assignments better than anyone. She had designed them.

She spoke up to add her voice to support the needs of children.
At meetings she’d say, “I want to say something.” And she would open up the discussion to issues that affected the lives of children and their parents, their schools. “What do your students think about this problem?” she would ask. In this way, she continued the struggle for a socially just world and raised the importance of these issues in the minds of students and faculty alike.

She continued to express her support for the needs of children in many other ways too. She demonstrated against cuts in education, she demonstrated for education programs that were invigorating and nourishing. She attended many meetings and fought her entire life for learning processes that enhanced children’s lives. As a leader in the field, she wrote letters and grant proposals to explain and support her position. Here is an excerpt from a letter that she wrote to the chancellor of the Department of Education in 2005:

“As educators and teacher trainers, we are concerned by the lack of play in New York City’s early childhood classrooms. There is a great disparity between how we train our students and what they are exposed to in the public school system.
If our goal is to help create adults who reach the highest levels in all disciplines, we have to provide experiences that encourage experimentation, inquiry, self-motivation, critical and divergent thinking and creativity. In the early years, this is achieved through play.”

The other day, one of my grandchildren asked for an “everything” book. “What is an “everything” book? Is that an encyclopedia, or a dictionary?”
“Yes”, she said, “I want to know about the solar system and how the earth came to be and countries and everything.”
Ellie wanted everything for children too, she wanted them to know everything and to have everything and to grow up being interested in everything.
That is who Ellie was. She engaged in every type of activism to fight for children’s needs: their basic human needs and their “everything” needs.

Last year Ellie visited my husband’s art exhibit in Manhattan and, coincidentally, it was a day that Simon and I visited the exhibit. It was a wonderful surprise to meet Ellie there. After she and Simon discussed his work, I had a few moments to sit and talk with her about the present state of early childhood education. We both lamented the pushing down of an inappropriate curriculum into the kindergarten and first grade classrooms around the city. We worried about how this would affect children now and in their futures. This was the last time that I spoke with Ellie.

I wonder about who will be the spokespersons for kindergarten and first grade children as the “Ellie’s” pass away? Who will be brave enough to defend developmentally appropriate curriculums without being afraid of being called “old fashioned” and “out of synch with the times?” I hope that I can hold on to Elinor Barr’s strength and knowledge about young children and that I can continue to defend them on her behalf.

A priority in Kindergarten?

I’ve had some difficulty writing an entry this week because I’ve been rather depressed about the state of kindergartens in New York City schools. It’s becoming a cliché to say that they are becoming more and more like first grade but there does seem to be a lot of truth to that thought.

When I speak with administrators who have had Bank Street early childhood training, who understand how important play, inquiry and opportunities for social interactions are for young children and who STILL eliminate all opportunities for this to happen in their schools, I really do wonder what is happening? Why isn’t choice time and inquiry a priority for kindergarten classrooms?

Perhaps it has to do with the way that Choice Time is interpreted. I’ve been wondering about how my idea of Choice Time differs from what I’ve been seeing when I visit many kindergarten classes.

I always tried to encourage children to ‘think of the possibilities’. What can happen at this center? What’s the potential for these materials? What might we add to the center to broaden the potential? What center just isn’t going anywhere and what should we do about that? Should we add new materials? Should we just pack up the center and move on?

This was often a topic of discussion that I had with the children. Sometimes we charted ideas – (i.e. Here Are Some New Ideas for What We Might Do At the Sand Table). Other times, it was just an informal discussion that we had at meeting or among the participants at a particular center.

I don’t mean to imply that every Choice Time center, every day, was an earth-moving experience for the children or for me. What I am saying is that I always encouraged children and myself to think about how we could have new ideas about how to use materials and how the addition of new materials changed what children could do at a center.

Don’t we want children to become thoughtful, inquisitive readers, writers and mathematicians? Isn’t it logical to support these behaviors through play and exploration at Choice Time?

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