On Tuesday, September 6th the Brooklyn Historical Society graciously hosted the launch of my book Choice Time- How To Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK-2. To my great surprise over 200 people showed up for the event. Luckily I had arranged for a former kindergarten student of mine, Jimmy Negron, to videotape the evening.
There were two parts to the launch. First I narrated a Powerpoint presentation showing images from the book and spoke a bit about the importance of inquiry-based learning. Then I was joined on stage by Anna Allanbrook, principal of the Brooklyn New School. We discussed the challenge of introducing progressive practices into New York City public schools.
Every new object, clearly seen, opens up a new organ of perception in us. Goethe
As New York City rushes to open up hundreds of pre-kindergarten classrooms, I’m thinking that we need to stop and shine a spotlight on examples of good early childhood practices. In my worst nightmare, I imagine a disaster scene of three and four year old children being drilled on their ABC’s, given workpage pictures to color (stay in the lines!), and learning proper school behavior (let’s clap for Julius. He’s in the green zone. Marcus, maybe you can be a good boy and have your card moved up from the red zone next week.)
Luckily, I had the pleasure of stopping by Amy Binin’s pre-k class at the Brooklyn New School a few weeks ago. Amy and I met in 1996 when we were both part of a group of New York City public school teachers who were visiting the pre-schools in Reggio Emilia. I never had the pleasure of working in Amy’s class but, when I was consulting with kindergarten, first and second grade teachers at the school a few years ago, I would stop in for a chat when we both had time.
Last week as I was preparing a presentation on “Inquiry and Investigations” for a Teachers College conference on pre-kindergarten (Seize the Moment: Rise to the Challenge of Pre-K), I looked up the dictionary definition of curiosity: “an eager desire to know: inquisitiveness.“ Sir Ken Robinson made a connection between creativity and curiosity when he wrote “You can’t just give a creativity injection. You have to create an environment for curiosity and a way to encourage people and get the best out of them.” One of my early childhood idols, Vivian Gussin Paley, advised “The key is curiosity, and it is curiosity, not answers, that we model.”
Amy understands the importance of curiosity. She provides opportunities for children to explore and discover and she listens very carefully so that she can plan her curriculum around their big interests. Here’s a short version of what has been happening in Amy’s class this year.
In October Amy took the children on a neighborhood walk. She gave the children bags and baskets for collecting interesting finds along the way. Would this walk open us a path towards an inquiry investigation? Amy had a feeling that something would come from this experience but she was not sure of the direction it would take them.
When they returned to class, the children became fascinated with the different seed holders that they found. They could shake some of them and hear the seeds inside but they weren’t sure of how to get them out. Amy didn’t give them any answers. She let them figure out the best way for themselves. Little did she know that the most successful strategy was to place the seed holder under a block from the construction center, put a foot on top of the block and jump real hard. It worked! Obviously this method needed adult supervision.
Many seeds were collected when the pods were opened and the children found different ways of examining them.
Some children decided to match up the seeds with the seed holders. Other children arranged the seeds, twigs and pods in pleasing designs. Children brought them to the light table to arrange them along with the different leaves that they collected.
At lunchtime children became aware of the seeds that they found in their fruit. The little apple seeds and tiny orange seeds looked quite different from the big seed in the middle of a plum!
In preparation for Halloween, they cut open a pumpkin and found seeds inside there too! They cooked the pumpkin and the seeds.
On their next walk they collected more branches. Back in the classroom, the children became interested in the wood that they collected from the trees. They noticed that when they snapped off the “tree skin” from some of the sticks, the spot where the bark had been became smooth and light. Now their challenge was to get the skin off the sticks!
and they peeled the sticks.
The class revisited the site of their first walking trip and discovered a tree with a hole in it. What could be in there? They put their hands inside and to their surprise they scooped out wood dust. They brought this back to school and compared it with the dust they made while sanding and peeling the bark.This discovery sparked an interest in wood. To build on this interest, Amy and a class parent set up a woodworking center. Lots of wood sawing followed!
Amy and the children added branches to the block building center and the children began building their own trees.
A center for observational drawing was set up. When children look closely and draw what they observe, it helps them to reflect on what they are seeing. The children drew the seed pods, the bark and the leaves that they collected. One child brought in a bird’s nest to share and to add to the observation center.
Clay is a very sensual and natural material for young children to manipulate. To support the classroom nature study, Rachel Schwartzman, the art teacher, gave the children opportunities to process their understandings by creating trees in the art studio.
The class took a field trip to vist a Natural Play Space in Prospect Park. While they were there, they built a house of twigs! They found a row of tree stumps and became fascinated with the circular lines on the stumps. To follow up on this interest, parents who were purchasing Christmas trees asked the tree-seller for the bottom stump of the tree and these tree stumps were brought to class. Some were in the science center but they also made their way to the block-building area of the classroom.
Amy read many books to the children about trees and about the animals that lived in the trees.
The study was culminated with the construction of a large tree that included nests, birds and squirrels. The children now have decided on a plan to change the tree as the seasons change.
Look into nature and then you will understand everything better.
The Network for Public Education will hold a historic event in one month’s time. You may choose to attend in person at the Brooklyn New School in New York or view it via Livestreaming. A live-stream of the event will be available on Saturday, Oct. 11, starting at Noon Eastern time, 9 am Pacific time at http://www.schoolhouselive.org/
PUBLIC Education Nation will deliver the conversation the country has been waiting for. Rather than featuring billionaires and pop singers, this event will be built around intense conversations featuring leading educators, parents, students and community activists. We have waited too long for that seat at someone else’s table. This time, the tables are turned, and we are the ones setting the agenda.
This event will be livestreamed on the web on the afternoon of Saturday, October 11, from the auditorium of Brooklyn New School, a public school. There will be four panels focusing on the most critical issues we face in our schools. The event will conclude with a conversation between Diane Ravitch and Jitu Brown.
Testing and the Common Core:
New York Principal of the Year Carol Burris will lead a discussion with educators Takeima Bunche-Smith, Rosa Rivera-McCutchen and Alan Aja.
Support Our Schools, Don’t Close Them:
Chicago teacher Xian Barrett will moderate a panel featuring education professor Yohuru Williams, Hiram Rivera of the Philadelphia Student Union, and a representative of the Newark Student Union.
North Carolina writer and activist Jeff Bryant will host a discussion that will include New Orleans parent activist Karran Harper Royal, New York teacher and blogger Gary Rubinstein, and Connecticut writer and activist Wendy Lecker.
Authentic Reform Success Stories:
The fourth panel will be led by Network for Public Education executive director Robin Hiller and will include New York teacher Brian Jones, and from Cincinnati, Greg Anrig.
Diane Ravitch and Jitu Brown, In Conversation
The event will finish off with a conversation between leading community activist Jitu Brown and Diane Ravitch, who will talk about where we are in building a movement for real improvement in our schools.Caro
This event will be broadcast live on the web, and can be viewed from anywhere in the world, at no cost. No registration is required.
If you happen to be in the New York area, you can join the studio audience at the Brooklyn New School, at 610 Henry St. Brooklyn, for the live event.
The Network for Public Education is hosting this event. It is NOT sponsored by the Gates, Walton or Bloomberg foundations. It is sponsored by YOU, each and every one of the people who care about our children’s future.
Can you make a small donation to help us cover the expense of this event? We are determined to create the space not ordinarily given to voices like these. But we need your participation. Please donate by visiting the NPE website and clicking on the PayPal link.
I am so proud of these New York City principals for taking a strong stand against unfair and highly flawed high-stakes tests. Here’s their letter to John King:
Dear New York State Education Commissioner John King,
We New York City and Metropolitan Area Principals hold ourselves accountable to ensuring that all of our students make consistent and meaningful academic progress. Although we are skeptical of the ability of high stakes tests alone to accurately capture students’ growth, we understand a system’s need for efficiently establishing and measuring milestones of learning.
We have been encouraged by the new National Common Core Standards’ call for more rigorous work that promotes critical thinking, and many of us have been engaged in meaningful curriculum revisions as a result. We were hopeful that this year’s state exams would better represent the college preparatory-type performance tasks that Common Core exemplifies. Unfortunately, we feel that not only did this year’s New York State Exams take an extreme toll on our teachers, families and most importantly, our students, they also fell short of the aspirations of these Standards.
For these reasons, we would like to engage in a constructive dialogue with you and your team to help ensure that moving forward our New York State Exams are true and fair assessments of the Common Core Standards. As it stands, we are concerned about the limiting and unbalanced structure of the test, the timing, format and length of the daily test sessions, and the efficacy of Pearson in this work.
In both their technical and task design, these tests do not fully align with the Common Core. If one was to look closely at the Common Core Learning Standards (www.corestandards.org) and compare them to the tests, it is evident that the ELA tests focused mostly on analyzing specific lines, words and structures of information text and their significance rather than the wide array of standards.
As a result, many students spent much of their time reading, rereading and interpreting difficult and confusing questions about authors’ choices around structure and craft in informational texts, a Common Core skill that is valuable, but far from worthy of the time and effort given by the test. Spending so much time on these questions was at the expense of many of the other deep and rich common core skills and literacy shifts that the state and city emphasized. The Common Core emphasizes reading across different texts, both fiction and non-fiction, in order to determine and differentiate between central themes—an authentic college practice. Answering granular questions about unrelated topics is not. Because schools have not had a lot of time to unpack Common Core, we fear that too many educators will use these high stakes tests to guide their curricula, rather than the more meaningful Common Core Standards themselves. And because the tests are missing Common Core’s essential values, we fear that students will experience curriculum that misses the point as well.
Even if these tests were assessing students’ performance on tasks aligned with the Common Core Standards, the testing sessions—two weeks of three consecutive days of 90-minute (and longer for some) periods—were unnecessarily long, requiring more stamina for a 10-year-old special education student than of a high school student taking an SAT exam. Yet, for some sections of the exams, the time was insufficient for the length of the test. When groups of parents, teachers and principals recently shared students’ experiences in their schools, especially during the ELA exams with misjudged timing expectations, we learned that frustration, despondency, and even crying were common reactions among students. The extremes were unprecedented: vomiting, nosebleeds, suicidal ideation, and even hospitalization.
There were more multiple-choice questions than ever before, a significant number of which, we understand, were embedded field-test questions that do not factor into a child’s score but do take time to answer and thus prevent students from spending adequate time on the more authentic sections like the writing assessment. In English, the standards themselves and everything we as pedagogues know to be true about reading and writing say that multiple interpretations of a text are not only possible but necessary when reading deeply. However, for several multiple choice questions the distinction between the right answer and the next best right answer was paltry at best. The fact that teachers report disagreeing about which multiple-choice answer is correct in several places on the ELA exams indicates that this format is unfair to students. Further, the directions for at least one of the English Language Arts sessions were confusing and tended to misdirect students’ energies from the more authentic writing sections. The math tests contained 68 multiple-choice problems often repeatedly assessing the same skills. The language of these math questions was often unnecessarily confusing. These questions should not be assessing our students’ ability to decipher convoluted language. Instead, they should be assessing deep understanding of core concepts.
Finally, we are concerned about putting the fate of so many in the education community in the hands of Pearson – a company with a history of mistakes, most recently with the mis-scoring of the NYC test for the gifted and talented program. (Thirteen percent of those 4 to 7 year olds who sat for the exam were affected by the errors; Pearson has a 3-year DOE contract for this test alone, worth $5.5 million.) There are many other examples of Pearson’s questionable reliability in the area of test design: In Spring 2012 only 27% of 4th grade students passed a new Florida writing test. Parents complained, the test was reevaluated, and the passing score was changed so that the percentage of students who passed climbed to 81%. The Spring 2012 NYS ELA 8th grade test had to be reevaluated after complaints about meaningless reading passages about talking pineapples and misleading questions. (See Alan Singer, Huffington Post, 4/24/13; John Tierney, The Atlantic, 4/25/13.) Parents and taxpayers have anecdotal information, but are unable to debate the efficacy of these exams when they are held highly secured and not released for more general analysis. These exams determine student promotion. They determine which schools individual students can apply to for middle and high school. They are a basis on which the state and city will publicly and privately evaluate teachers. The exams determine whether a school might fall under closer scrutiny after a poor grade on the test-linked state and city progress reports or even risk being shut down. These realities give us an even greater sense of urgency to make sure the tests reflect our highest aspirations for student learning.
So, we respectfully request a conversation about the direction of New York’s Common Core State Exams. As the state is in its early phases of Common Core assessment, we have a wonderful opportunity to align our efforts towards learning that best prepares our children for their future lives. We believe we can do better – and we are committed to helping New York realize the full promises of Common Core.
Principal of Hudson River Middle School, I.S. 289
Principal of East Side Community High School, H.S. 450
Principal of School of the Future, M413
Principal of East Side Middle School, M114
Principal of Young Womens’ Leadership School of Astoria, Q286
Principal of The Salk School of Science, M.S. 255
Principal of Lower Manhattan Community Middle School, M896
Principal of West Side Collaborative Middle School, P.S. 250
Principal of The Laboratory School of Science and Technology, M.S. 223
Principal of Fort Greene Preparatory Academy, K691
Principal of The Academy of Public Relations, X298
Principal of Heathcote Elementary School, Scarsdale Public Schools
Principal of The Cinema School, X478
Principal of Center School, M.S. 243
Principal of William Penn Elementary, P.S. 321
Principal of Global Technology Prep, M406
Principal of The Carroll, P.S. 58
Principal of University Neighborhood High School, H.S. 448
Principal of Wagner Middle School, M.S. 167
Principal of Brooklyn New School, P.S. 146
Principal of The Computer School, M.S. 245
Principal I.A. of Castle Bridge School, P.S. 513
Principal of Earth School, P.S. 364
Principal of Technology, Arts and Sciences School, M301
Principal of Baruch College Campus High School, M411
Principal in Hewlett-Woodmere Public Schools
Principal of Institute for Collaborative Education, M407
Principal of Doris Cohen Elementary, P.S.230
Principal of Isaac Newton JHS for Science and Math, M825
Principal of Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, K448
Principal of Spuyten Duyvil School, P.S. 24
Principal of Central Park East II, M964
Principal of John M Harrigan, P.S. 29
Principal of The School of Discovery, P.S. 503
Principal of Gotham Professional Arts Academy, K594
Principal of Hernando DeSoto School, P.S. 130
Principal of Central Park East I, M497
I.A. Principal of James Baldwin School, M313
Robyn S. Lane
Principal of Quaker Ridge School, Scarsdale
Principal of The WIlliam T. Harris School
Principal of The Lillie Devereaux Blake School
Principal of MS 322
Principal of Em Baker School, Great Neck Public Schools
Assistant Superintendent, Great Neck Public Schools
Principal of John F. Kennedy School, Great Neck Public Schools
Assistant Superintendent, Cold Spring Harbor Public Schools
Principal of Saddle Rock Elementary, Great Neck Public Schools
Principal of The Museum School, P.S. 33
Constance Bond PH.D.
Principal of St. Hope Leadership Academy