Tag Archives: Brooklyn

Taking Ownership

2 hands

It’s  difficult to make changes. This is particularly true when the change is not self-imposed.

Last fall I began work as a consultant in an elementary school in East New York, Brooklyn. For the past eight years the early childhood teachers at this school were using the Core Knowledge  program as the foundation of their instruction. Most lessons were spelled out for them in a teacher’s guide and they had a structured pacing calendar to follow throughout the school year. This curriculum covered topics in science and social studies.

The kindergarten topics for the year were “Taking Care of Body”, “Seasons and Weather”, “Magnetism”, “Animals Throughout the Year”, “Plants”, “Care of Earth with a focus on Continents”, “Maps, Towns, City States. – as a possible link to early civilizations”, “Across the months, continents and oceans,” “Pilgrims,” “Early Settlement,” “Presidents, Symbols and Figures, July 4th,” “Native American-Eastern Woodland,” and “Africa.”

The first grade topics for the year were “Human Body: Jenner, Human Body: Pasteur,” “Seasons,” “Electricity, Edison, Magnets/Magnetism,” Living Things,” Living Things’ Environment,” “Solar System,” “The Earth,” “Matter/Properties of Matter,” “Early civilizations, “ “The World Around Us, Maps, Continents,” “Colonial America,” “American West, Westward Expansion,” and “Biographies from the American Revolution.”

I’m not sure of how inclusively the curriculum  was covered over the course of a school year. However “covered” seems like the crucial word here. In my opinion, most of these  topics don’t seem to be areas that can be significantly explored by 5 and 6 year old children.

This also became clear to the principal of the school and she was determined to do something about this situation. One of her first grade teachers (actually a former kindergarten student of mine!) brought in to school and shared a New York Times article about some early childhood consulting work that I was doing in a school in Manhattan. The article focused on a class trip to a parking garage as part of a class exploration of cars.

After reading the article, the director, Michelle Bodden-White, invited me to visit her school and have a discussion with her early childhood staff about the possibility of making changes in their instructional approach. She wanted them to move towards  a more  inquiry and project based curriculum.

The staff was, understandably, skeptical, particularly the first grade teachers. They were afraid that they would not be covering materials that were aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards. Ms. White and I assured them that this would not be the case and that a well-developed inquiry project could meet the standards as well as  the Core Knowledge program. However, they are a very committed group of educators. They were fearful of ultimately short-changing their students. The reality of the situation, though, was that the school’s past test scores were not very high. Children were not having positive social interactions and there did not seem to be a lot of professional collaboration among the staff.

I officially began my work in the fall but I don’t think that any really significant changes took place until the winter. The turning point was when the teachers had the opportunity to visit the school in the lower east side, observe the inquiry work being done in classrooms and speak very openly with the P.S. 142 teachers about shared challenges, anxieties and hopes.

What I’m going to share with you now is an example of how two of the first grade teachers, following the visit to P.S. 142 and after debriefing with me, took the Car Study and made it one that engaged the children in their class and satisfied the teachers goals of addressing the Common Core Learning Standards. The first grade staff decided to do a car study because they thought that the topic would engage the children. Also, the school is located in a neighborhood that is an Industrial Park. There are many auto repair shops in walking distance and this would allow for a variety of field trips.

From my point of view, these teachers took important and brave steps forward in their professional growth. Previously they had been working with fairly scripted lesson plans. Now, without a script to follow, it was as though they were walking on a  tightrope without a safety net and balancing themselves very well at that! Rather than following a script, they were following the lead of the children, listening carefully to their observations and questions and using this information to plan trips and activities.

Last week  I had my last consulting day for this year. We met to discuss challenges, successes, hopes, and fears. The teachers (all eight on the grade) agreed that the children were very engaged during the Car inquiry study and were quite excited about the many field trips. (I often emphasized to the teachers that the field trips were their primary resources and that they would be the inspiration for further investigations.) Children were enthusiastically writing because their writing was in the service of their investigations and projects. They were  reading books to do research. The teachers noted that the children were now taking ownership of their own learning, engaging in group planning and were more articulate in their observations and questions. They also noted that there were no behavior problems when children were working on the inquiry study!

Here are some pages from the teachers’ journal, documenting different aspects of the study.

Page_1_Overview Page_2_WholeGroup Page_3_CentersOVERVIEW Page_4_Centers_1 Page_5_Centers2 Page_6_Centers3 Page_7_FieldTripMobil Page_8_FieldTripParking Page_9_FieldTripSigns Page_10_FieldTripPoliceCar Page_11_FieldTripSpeedBump Page_12_FieldTripLimousine page_13_FieldTripJunkYard

The children found this in the street this week. Now they’re coming up with plans for turning it into a car! They’re figuring out what parts they will need and how they can split up into groups to work on it. It’s a wonderful project for the end of the school year!



With special kudos to Katie Rust, Maria Soehngen, Karen Romagna, Regina Fallah-Hausman, Shana Brown, Janaya cordy, Davin Aebisher, Julie Steiner, Michelle Bodden-White and Hannah Brooks.


Transporting a Classroom Towards Inquiry

I could almost hear a chorus of silent groans coming from the teachers sitting around the table in the staff room at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn. It was March 17th, 2005, my first day working as a consultant at the school. The new principal, Jett Ritorto, wanted me to introduce inquiry projects and investigative Choice Time to the kindergarten teachers. But it was mid-March and this was just one more new addition to their already over-programmed day. I wasn’t welcomed with open arms!

“We can’t do an inquiry project. This is when we start our transportation unit.”
I recognized this plea from my own not-so-long-ago days in the classroom. I had my theme, my materials, and my time-schedule all set up and then, in would walk a new staff developer with her own agenda, turning all of my plans upside down.

I assured them that we would not be dropping the transportation unit. Instead we would see what happened if we approached it in a new way. I suggested that they each go on a neighborhood walk with their class that week, with a focus on exploring the different ways that people could travel, to, from, and around their neighborhood. After the walk, they should encourage children to share their observations. This would give the teachers a sense of what the students already know and also what form of transportation seemed to interest them the most. That would allow them to narrow the focus of the class’s transportation study.

When I came back to the school the next week, I met with each teacher individually. The inclusion team, Dana Roth and Karen Byrnes, were excited and eager to share their experience with me. Their children had lots of questions about the subway and that was where they wanted to focus their study. The three of us spent the rest of the period preparing an anticipatory web, plotting out the many possibilities for a subway study. All seemed well.

Later in the week they contacted me and sadly told me that a subway study was out of the question. One of the students was confined to a wheelchair and would have to be excluded from all subway trips. They decided to switch to a bus study. I suggested, however, that they first bring the problem to the class and see what kind of solution the children came up with.

The children were outraged! “That’s not fair! Saim should be able to go on the subway just like us!” Here began a most unusual transportation study – The Wheelchair Project.

The class decided to find out more about Saim’s wheelchair and what it was like for him to move around the school and neighborhood. Saim was pleased as punch to be the center of attention (Dana said that she would not have pursued this route if the child was sensitive about being singled out).

They began the study by interviewing Saim. After the interview, they all sat around him in a circle, observing and drawing. The teachers began webbing what children already knew about wheelchairs and also collecting their “wonderings” on post-its and adding these to the web. From these activities, they decided to focus their study on movement and accessibility. These were the two areas where the children had the most interest.

News about this unusual transportation study traveled around the school like hotcakes. When the school’s physical therapist heard about the investigation, she provided the class with an unused wheelchair. This became a very popular wheelchair observation center. Children used magnifying glasses, tape measures, and detail finders (a square of black paper with a peek-hole cut in the center) to look closely at the different parts of wheelchair. They drew the wheels, the brakes, and the gears. Then they shared their drawings and ‘recordings’ with the children in the block center who were constructing their own version of a wheelchair. This chair took many days to construct. It sometimes fell over and was rebuilt often and eventually was held together with yards of masking tape!



The class visited the school bus that brought Saim to school to see how the lift helped children with walkers and wheelchairs get on and off. They interviewed the driver and also met Manny, a very affable upper-grade child who used a walker to help him move about. Manny was invited to the classroom where he was interviewed. He then gave each child an opportunity to try out his walker.

After this experience, a lift-bus was built in the block center. After a few days, it was deconstructed and the children built “a better lift bus.”

They walked took neighborhood walks, checking to see which stores and sidewalks were “wheelchair friendly.” Then they walked around the school to find out if their school was wheelchair accessible. The front of the school had lots of steps! How did Saim get into school? In an exciting moment of discovery, they found the symbol that they saw on the lift bus, along with an arrow. The class followed the arrows until they came to the ramp entrance. Problem solved!

They visited a neighborhood house that had been altered to make it wheelchair accessible and they interviewed the owner of the building.

This study certainly held the interest of the class and raised a new awareness of the challenges in Saim’s daily life. The children developed a feeling of respect for Saim and for the other children in the school who used wheelchairs, walkers and crutches.

Over the years, I have returned to the school to visit Dana Roth and I’ve always been intrigued by the variety of studies taking place in her classroom. On one visit, the children were investigating colors – inventing colors, exploring the various names of Crayola crayons and coming up with their own inventive names for their newly mixed colors. On another visit, the children were building a school in their dramatic play center, reflecting their investigation of their own school. Dana still does some thematic studies but she also listens closely to her children and develops inquiry projects based on their interests and wonderings.

I haven’t worked at the school for the past five years, but I’m going back in the fall to, as Laura Scott, the new principal, says, “Give a refresher course” in inquiry studies to keep it alive and well at the school. Let’s see what happens.