For so many of us, all around the world, this Coronavirus pandemic has tilted life to an unfamiliar and uncomfortable angle. Life isn’t as it should be. It’s a confusing time, a frightening time and a complicated time. Days take on different meanings depending on what is and is not happening in our lives. Many teachers are struggling to connect with their students as they juggle their personal responsibilites as parents who are home schooling their own children. It’s overwhelming!
As an early childhood consultant I have been trying to imagine how to productively use my time and how I can virtually connect with teachers. Those first weeks of sheltering at home caused my days to stretch on and on. I was feeling like a person without a purpose.
I wondered if there were a few teachers or parents who would like to explore Choice Time with me. I posted a proposal of my Facebook page and waited to see if anyone might be interested. This is what I wrote:
I’m planning to begin an online, Zoom, presentation/conversation with teachers about Choice Time and Inquiry Projects. My idea is to present a Powerpoint and classroom videos. There would be opportunities for discussion. Using Zoom is quite new to me but I’m pretty excited at the prospect of communicating with teachers! It would be appropriate for teachers of Prekindergarten through Second Grade. PM me if you’re interested.
The response was overwhelming. Teachers from all parts of the world responded. How impressive it was for people who were working so hard to continue teaching on line to even consider spending some of their “spare” time joining a Choice Time discussion group.
The conversations the first week focused primarily on play and Choice Time. We explored what free play looks like and how it might be transferred into the classroom. You can watch the first session here:https://vimeo.com/406286992
The second week was devoted to looking at and discussing two different whole class inquiry projects. One study took place in a prekindergarten classroom and the second one took place in a kindergarten class. Both classes were in New York City public schools. You can view the second week’s session here: https://vimeo.com/411393368
The third week was opened up for teachers to share how they were providing Choice Time opportunities for children as part of their virtual teaching.
How can we avoid giving children “tasks” to do? Can we tweak what was originally a task and encourage children to use the same materials in a more explorative and creative way? For example, instead of giving children specific activities to do with 10 stones or buttons, might we challenge them to see if they can create an interesting design or pattern with the stones. Perhaps we could ask them,”What were you thinking about when you created your design? Can you think of ways to move them around to create something new? Would you like to add something to your collection and see what you can make? What kinds of ideas do you have?” This gives the children opportunities to play, explore and use creative, higher-order thinking.
In a recent zoom workshop for prekindergarten and kindergarten teachers, I was asked if I could include ideas for virtual choice time. Not having taught virtually myself, I was reluctant to do this. I wondered if my ideas might not be helpful. I did give it a try and the feedback was positive, so I’ll share some of what I came up with.
Keep a consistent daily schedule
Maintain routines that children will become familiar with
Include songs and chants
Have a regularly scheduled storytime. Perhaps invite family members and other people in the school who the children know to record a reading of a storybook.
Perhaps include a question of the day. When this becomes routine, children can come up with a question or wondering for everyone to consider.
•Remember that this is a stressful time for all, teachers, children and parents. Keep the emotional needs of all a priority.
•Parents, during virtual teaching and learning, are our partners. Is it possible to have separate group meetings with parents to answer their questions and to tell them what your aims are? This will help them bond as partners in teaching and learning
A Looking Out of My Window book
•Take some blank papers and fold them together to make a little book.
• Every day draw a picture of something you see when you look out of your window.
•You might see a bird, a car, a tree, maybe even flowers.
•You can make a “detail finder” by cutting a peep-hole in a paper. This will help you look really closely!
•First get children’s ideas and then, if it seems helpful, show these pictures.
•Only use these pictures as prompts to start a conversation about building a special reading and play spot at home.
•At morning meeting, brainstorm some chores to do at home. Possibilities are washing dishes, setting the table, sorting socks from the laundry, folding laundry, putting away toys, making the bed, etc.
•Each child can pick a chore that they want to do.
•Parents (or older siblings) can video tape the child doing the chore and send it to the teacher.
•The teacher can make a “chore montage” and everyone can watch it together.
•This might be followed by a discussion of other ways to be helpers at home, how it felt to get a chore done, who helps out in our community and in our home, etc.
Go on a search around your home
•See how many electrical items are in each room.
•Can you draw a picture of something you might invent that could use electricity?
You might want to use recycled materials to construct a new machine.
•Can you give names to parts of your invention and label them?
•You might want to write a story about your invention. Let your imagination go wild!
•Listen to your favorite song. Make up a dance or exercise routine to go with your song. Ask the teacher if you can share it at meeting and teach it to the class.
•Play a board game with someone in your family. Then see if you can make up your own board game. You can play it with someone in your family. Ask your teacher if you can share it at a class morning meeting.
•Can you draw a map of your room or of your apartment? What are the landmarks that are very important to you?
•You might imagine that you are a pirate and you’re looking for a treasure. Draw a treasure map.
•Think of everything on your mind. How could you draw a map of your mind? What about a map of your heart?
Cooking Together Day
•Children (with an adult) cook the dish and the teacher cooks along with them.
•Send the recipe a week ahead so parents can prepare ingredients and be familiar with the recipe.
•Children who can’t participate might sketch what is happening and make a recipe/cook book. Perhaps they might want to create their own recipe.
Two kindergarten teachers from the Dalton Hong Kong school shared some ideas with me via zoom.
I sometimes asked children if they could change their intials into new or silly pictures. This is a similar challenge.
As a final 2-cents piece of advice, I really would like to urge teachers and parents to ignore any message that children are “falling behind” during this time. Children are naturally curious and they are always learning something. It’s the responsibility of the teacher to observe, listen, support and facilitate children’s learning by understanding what they know, what they’re interested in and to build on that. Vygotsky wrote of the zones of development. Young children need to have the freedom to explore and learn in their Actual Zone of Development, their comfort zone. As teachers, we can gently and perceptively challenge them to stretch into their Zone of Proximal Development. This is where they can experience the excitement discovering new understandings just as this prekindergarten boy did when he proudly blurted out, “I did it!.”
Where do I begin? What should I emphasize? I want to stress the importance of play in the life of the child and also in the life of the classroom. How can I best and concisely describe how play looks in a first grade and a kindergarten classroom? It is important to include that the book gives teachers concrete information on how to prepare an environment that entices children to explore, create and collaborate while they play and how, through playing in these centers, they also become more independent in using space and materials.
What does the room look and sound like when children are playing in the Dramatic Play Center, the Block Center, the “Science Lab,” the Art Studio? What might teachers observe happening in these centers? What is the role of the teacher before, during and after Choice Time?
There’s so much to include! I’m almost frozen because I don’t know where to begin and how to fit it all into three minutes.
I tried to record a video and it was more than seven minutes!
Oh no! This won’t do!
I asked my friend Laura Wagonlander to share with me some important ways that my book helped her create a vibrate Choice Time in her kindergarten classroom in Fenton, Michigan. Here’s some of her feedback: “I think my big “aha” moments were that Choice Tim empowers children to be learners and show their understanding of what they are learning in a context that is meaningful to them. It (the book) guides educators in how to set up the classroom environment so they can honor children’s interests and abilities while at the same time teaching them skills they can use to nudge their thinking deeper. …When we teach in isolation or we do an activity with an expected outcome, even if it’s “playful,” it isn’t the same as giving them true choice …If you can give kids enough time in choice, magic happens…It’s all like a beautiful dance.”
I wondered if I should start all over again, creating a new 3 minute video. Then, to the rescue came my grandson, Adrian Greensmith. Thank goodness for 17 year olds! In a few minutes he cut my seven minute video down into just a little over three minutes. This is what I’m sending to Beijing. I hope it does the trick! There is so much to say about Choice Time and how I hope my book helps to support teachers.
What would you have included in a three minute video about my book on Choice Time if you could?
What happens when kindergarten children and second graders get together for Choice Time? Fun, fun, fun! Fanny Roman and Angela Valco have been collaborating on inquiry studies together and they decided to see what would happen when their children got together for Choice Time. They both had a lot of TRUST in their children and had given them many experiences to engage in INQUIRY, COLLABORATION and EXPLORATION so it’s not a surprise that this was a very successful interage Choice Time!
The Guinea Pig Center
The Science Center
Constructing tracks for the robot
Making Play Dough
Take a peek into the classroom to see the children building the tracks for the robot, working in the art center, playing games, and cleaning the guinea pig home.
And then reflecting in journals about the wonderful experience of sharing Choice Time
Would you like to learn more about Choice Time? My book, Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play might be a helpful guide.
How do you define play and choice time in early childhood classrooms? Brett Whitmarsh, Director of Digital Communications and Social Media Manager at Heinemann Publishing, and I took some time out during the 2016 NCTE conference to have a serious conversation about the topic of my new book on Choice Time.
In my book, I wrote that, “play is an engine that drives learning.” “During choice time, children choose to play in a variety of centers that have been carefully designed and equipped to scaffold children’s natural instinct for play.” I presented a good deal of information on what teachers need to consider when they set up choice-time centers that promote inquiry-based, guided play in a classroom. I also summarized the research, describing the different kinds of play and why they are important. I believe that it is important for teachers to be able to cite research when discussing the importance of play in early childhood (pre-k – grade 2) classes. Choice Time allows children opportunities to engage in joyful, important, playful, age-appropriate work that will empower them to become lifelong learners.
We started our conversation on the issue of the diverse kinds of play (You can see below for a full transcript of our conversation):
Listen to the podcast here:
Renee: Well, when I think about choice time, first I think about children and play. When children play, there are basically two different kinds of play. One play is free play. The other play is guided play. Free play is when children are out in the schoolyard and they’re running around and someone picks up a stick and the stick becomes a sword or it becomes a magic wand. They have their own agenda. Nobody else is involved with that agenda other than the children. That’s their agenda.
Guided play is when the teacher sets up different centers for play and investigation. The teacher decides what the room is going to look like, what the center is going to look like, how much space she or he is going to allot for the center, what materials will go in the center. Then what happens in that center is up to the children. The children are not guided in what they do. It’s totally up to them, but the teacher has a very important role in setting up a play environment, an investigation environment, an exploration environment for the children.
Brett: Why are choice time and play so important?
Renee: Play is what drives children’s learning. First of all, it’s joyful. We want children to have joy in their life. That’s really important. It’s important to me as a teacher. Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, I’m going to read something that he said. “In play, the child is always behaving beyond his age, above his usual everyday behavior. In play, he is, as it were, a head above himself.” Children grow in play. They do things that extend their learning. It’s an engine for driving the learning that children have. In choice time play, the children are able to actually incorporate all the other things that they’ve done all day, all through the week, and bring it with them into these centers that they have. What’s really interesting is that when children are playing they get to practice what they think it’s like to be an adult. Sometimes for an adult it’s funny to watch it because it’s taking it and twisting it a bit. It’s the way that they think.
For example, in my book I talked about how children were playing doctor and mother came with a very sick baby. Jeffrey the doctor said, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry.” He took out his injection needle and he jabbed the baby doll. The mother said, “My baby died.” Jeffrey said, “Don’t worry.” He jabbed the baby with the needle. He said, “She’s okay now.” The mother took out her pocketbook, gave him a wad of bills and teetered away in her high heels. That’s the way they saw life. They were acting it out. It’s important, very important for children to be able to do that, and for teachers to honor that, to say, “This is important. We must honor this.”
Brett: On that, how can teachers connect choice time centers to classroom studies and the curriculum?
Renee: I think it’s so easy to make connections to the curriculum during choice time. Probably as you go up in the grades it happens even more so. For example, I have something in the book. Can I read from the book?
Brett: Absolutely, yes.
Renee: This was a first grade class in Manhattan on the lower east side. They were doing a subway study. They were going on many trips and interviewing people and learning all about it. During choice time these were some of the things that were set up: comparing subway maps from different cities and creating a subway map with a key for stations and routes for children’s own imaginary city. They created an imaginary city. Polling classmates about subway ridership, creating a graph and sharing the information, designing subway car models using photographs and sketches, using subway sounds. This was in one class where they did this, subway sounds to create a musical. They recorded it. They made their own subway music.
Writing and illustrating poems because there is something on the New York City subway called Poetry in Motion. They were making poems to go into the subway. Painting a subway mural, constructing subway cars out of blocks, using an interactive white board to research subway routes, and planning out trips that they were going to take. They made a subway station in the classroom for the dramatic play. They created a turnstile after going to the subway and doing sketches of it and seeing how it worked.
This is just one example of how it is, but if a class is doing a neighborhood study, there are so many things they could do in terms of recreating the neighborhood, opening up a store in the dramatic play area, going to a store and buying things and cooking it in class. There are a tremendous amount of connections and always, always ways for children to record things that they’re doing.
Brett: Well, I think you just spoke to this with the subway example, but how do you see schools implementing choice time in their classrooms?
Renee: Now, is the question how do I see it or how do I want to see it? There’s two different things there, but in the best case scenario, in the very best case scenario, for kindergarten for example, choice time is scheduled during every day because it is so important. It’s scheduled during a prime time during the day. I mean, I used to do it first period, but I think that after maybe reading or something, but not at the end of the day because when it’s at the end of the day these five and six and seven year olds have been doing reading and writing and math and phonics. They don’t want to be thoughtful about what their play is. They just want to just hang out and do it. In the best case scenario the scheduling is very important.
Also I think that just as with the reading workshop and the writing workshop, the teacher has to really be planful about what is happening. The same thing for choice time. Observe the children. Write down what the children are doing. Reflect on what you’ve written. Think about, based on what I’ve reflected, what are my next steps? What am I going to do? Have conversations with children about that. When choice time is really working super well, then children start coming up with their own ideas for centers that are important for the classroom.
For example, in a kindergarten class that I’ve been working in this year, for some reason, I don’t know why, but some of the children, they wanted to open up a shoe store. They wanted to make their own shoes. The teacher asked them to explain what they needed and what they were going to do. They were very clear about what they wanted to do. She set out the materials. They traced their feet. They measured each other’s foot. They basically made shoes. They made thongs. Then they said it needed to be in plastic bags like in the store. They put it in Ziploc bags and hung it up and opened a shoe store in the dramatic play area.
Brett: That’s so cool.
Renee: This was a children-driven … Sometimes it’s more the teacher driving it or a collaboration between the children and the teachers, but this case it was totally child-driven.
Brett: Talk about the importance of trust in the classroom in choice time.
Renee: I think that trust is the essence of choice time because as I have said before, the teacher sets up the centers. The teacher puts out material. The teacher arranges the room so that children can work independently. Then the teacher trusts the children to know what to do with those materials. Sometimes it may not be what the teacher is thinking. Sometimes you may think, “Oh my goodness. What are they doing there?” You could always sit down with a group of children at the end, at meeting, and talk about, “Tell us some more about what was happening there,” but this element of trust is crucial. Children need to know that they need to have agency and need to know that the teacher respects that agency. Trust them to know what to do and to know how to play, to know how to explore.
Brett: Building off of that, maybe a teacher who has just read the book or is in the middle of reading the book now, and they’ve not done that before, they’ve not experienced that opportunity of trust. How would you advise that teacher?
Renee: I think one of the things that I tried to do in the book was for the different centers, the basic centers, to be very explicit about not just what to put out and how to set it up but how to introduce it. That is so important, how to introduce a center and how to introduce it slowly. Then after you introduce it, to go back again and to then go around in a circle back again in a meeting to what was talked about at the mini-lesson before the children went out there. I think that maybe for a new teacher, to not have too many centers. There’s nothing wrong actually, with having doubles of the same center. That’s okay. Some children are going to the art table here and some children are going to it there, but I think that it’s just really … Take it slowly. Take it really slowly.
You see there is something that a lot of teachers do, which are literacy centers, which are valuable in their own rights, but literacy centers all have a task. Teachers are used to that. They’re used to knowing that children are going to come out of a session with those literacy centers and know and come out with a product or a solution or something like that. Don’t expect that. Get comfortable with understanding that that’s not what this is all about.
“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”
— Margaret Mead, cultural anthropologist
I’ve done a lot of thinking and writing about choice time, inquiry, exploration and play. In my book on choice time I described how to set up and introduce a variety of centers that give children the opportunity and freedom to collaborate, create and have fun. Lately, however, I find myself musing about what might happen if we could give children more freedom to not only choose what centers they want to go to at Choice Time but also what centers they want to create and organize themselves for investigation and play. These thoughts were fueled by something that I observed in a kindergarten class in Flushing, New York.
One day, some of the children approached their teacher, Fanny Roman, and told her that they would like to have a center where they could make their own shoes. It’s unclear to me why this was important to them but after some discussion, it became obvious that the
children making the request were quite serious and had a strong idea of how they would go about creating sandals. When she saw how well they had thought out their ideas, Fanny said, “ok, let’s see what we need to set up the center.”
The children wanted construction paper, crayons, markers, scissors, and pipe cleaners. When they organized their material, they got to work. They traced their feet and the feet of anyone who would want a pair of shoes special ordered. Shoe soles were marked so that they wouldn’t mix up pairs that went together. The shoes were decorated so that each pair had a unique look.
Interest in the shoe production spread throughout the class and more children wanted time to work in the shoe factory. One of the children said that she saw shoes in a store hanging in plastic bags so children brought in zip lock bags to package their shoes.
Fanny took the children on a walk to a local shoe store and then the children decided to turn the dramatic play center in a shoe store. Feet were measured. Shoes were bought. It was THEIR center and THEIR project.
Now I’m trying to think about how teachers can support children’s ownership of centers. Are there structures for opening up conversations that encourage children to imagine centers that will reflect their personal interests and obsessions?
I’m thinking about this and will write more very soon. I’m fired up with this idea! What are your thoughts and experiences? Let’s share ways that we can put more decisions about choice time in the hands of children.
Addendum to this post: I asked Fanny to write me something about how this interest in shoes got started. Here’s what she wrote:
“A little girl named Yi Tong initiated the entire shoe center. She was at the writing center and she started making a shoe that her mother bought her in the store. She inspired so many other children and they all made connections with her story. Everyone had something to share about going shopping to buy shoes. My role was just listening and showing interest and excitement. I slowly started to add on to what was going on in the classroom. I would walk around and say, “oh, I noticed that more children are making shoes with paper. What are some other tools we can use? What other centers can we add to our choice chart that are related to shoes?
My read aloud, poems and math investigations had a theme of shoes : ) They got really into it !”
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.
“As soon as I saw you, I knew a grand adventure was about to happen.”
A.A. Milne, Winnie –the- Pooh
Before pacing calendars, before the hysteria of Common Core Learning Standards, before preparing four and five year olds to be college and career ready, there actually were some wonderful classroom opportunities for opening doors and embracing unexpected opportunities for learning. Many years after the fact, (actually eighteen years later) I can recall one of those special moments.
It was September 1996, the start of another teaching year with a new group of kindergarten children. As I did most years, I encouraged each child to bring a favorite storybook from home to share with the class. These books were kept in a special “sharing basket” and each day I picked a few to read aloud. I never, ever would have predicted what was going to happen when I picked Lee’s book to read.
I truly enjoy reading most children’s books but there’s one series that I find particularly tedious and uninspiring, the Berenstain Bears books. However, as much as I avoided reading them to the class, the children seemed to equally love each one in the series. Why? I couldn’t quite figure that out but, nevertheless, there’s obviously something in the humor of the adventures that appeals to five year old children.
Lee’s book wasThe Berenstain Bears’ Camping Adventure and the minute that I finished my reading, the sounds of “read it again” rang out all around the carpet. O.K., I’m a rather obliging sort so I did it – I read it again. Each day that week the children asked if I could reread that silly tale of a bear family’s adventurous camping trip. Finally, after about the fourth reading that week, I put the book aside and asked if anyone in the class ever went on a real overnight camping trip in the woods. A small sprinkling of hands went up. Most of the children had never gone camping.
“Hmm, I wonder….” (As the year progressed, they would begin to realize that those two words often prefaced some class adventure or project.) “I wonder…could we imagine that a forest grew in our classroom, that day turns to night, and that we could go on a classroom camping trip? I wonder…” Well, can you imagine what happened next? “Yes!!” “Yes, let’s do it!!”
With the excitement beginning to reach a high pitch, I lifted my hands to indicate that it was time to settle down and I said, “Let’s think about it and talk about this tomorrow.” I wanted to see if the idea would sustain over night and I also wanted to think about this crazy idea that I had just proposed!
The next day the children came to school buzzing with excitement about our camping trip. Their parents, on the other hand, looked totally confused. It’s September and you’re taking my five year old on a camping trip…and at night? What kind of crazy teacher did we end up with this year? I certainly would need to send out a class newsletter very soon!
At our morning meeting, we couldn’t seem to move away from the topic of a classroom camping trip. They were just too excited, so I asked the children to talk to each other about what they knew about the forest and about camping trips. Then we had a class share. All different themes and concepts, seemed to present themselves: forest animals, dangerous animals like tigers and elephants, trees, flowers, bears, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, starry skies at night, camping gear like tents, sleeping bags, and flashlights, campfires, roasting marshmallows, etc.
I told the children that, if we were going to do a good job of turning our classroom into a forest and getting ready for a camping trip, then we would have to do some research. This new word warranted a longer discussion so it was tabled for our next meeting.
When I came back to the topic and began to discuss research with the children, we brainstormed for ways of getting information. An interesting comment on the time that this took place is that nobody suggested that we use the Internet! Reading books and talking with people who had experience seemed to be the most popular suggestions and hence began our first experience with reading centers.
Children were encouraged to bring in books from home, if they had them, on any of the topics that we listed. I also suggested that we look through our classroom library and I scoured the school library and our very well stocked bookroom. We organized baskets of books on the different topics…Stars, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, I added Little Red Riding Hood, Forest animal books, books about flowers, books about trees, and so forth. I then spent a few days on some partner-sharing minilessons with practice time on the rug. Children picked partners. I made a chart listing the different topics and partners signed up for a basket of books that they would spend two (or possibly three…my memory is failing on this detail) days reading together. There were generally two sets of partners to a basket. At the end of each reading center time, all of the children at the center were encouraged to talk about what they discovered from their books that day. At the share meeting, I did the sharing. I shared my observations of what I noticed about the way children were working together, focusing on the positive.
We began listing our discoveries (there were no tigers or elephants in any of the forest books!), we set up some new centers based on what children were discovering (at our second choice of centers, we added a birds in the forest center) and children drew pictures of things they wanted to remember from their center. We had about three rounds of centers so each child got to spend time in three different reading centers.
Now we had lots of information and we brainstormed for choice time centers to help get our class ready for the camping trip. In the block center, children build a forest and the house of the three bears. (We added teddy bears to the block center). In the dramatic play center the children were playing some sort of variation of Goldilocks and Red Riding Hood. We had a star center where the children made stars and constellations (their own constellations) that I hung from the light fixtures. In the art center children were using construction paper and cardboard dowels to make trees and flowers. Some children painted a forest mural. My student teacher made trail mix with a group at our cooking center. Playdough birds and animals were sculpted. It was, needless to say, a busy time.
As our “camping day” grew closer, the classroom filled up with trees, flowers, a starry sky, a more and more intricate forest scenario in the block center with paper flowers and trees scattered among the wooden structures. Trail mix was doled out into individual paper bags for each “camper.” We constructed a model of a campfire and I brought in chopsticks to use as twigs for roasting marshmallows. (This activity was going to depend on a lot of imagination!)
On camping day we sang and went of a bear hunt. We made a hiking line, with each child carrying a knapsack, and walked past the home of the three bears in the block corner. We sang The Happy Wanderer, a new song that I taught the children, “I love to go a-wandering, along the mountain track. And as I go, I love to sing with my knapsack on my back.” We spoke about all of the things that we were seeing along the way – birds, little animals, flowers, trees, bears, (teddy bears!) and finally stopped when we came to our “campfire.” The children spread out blankets that were in their knapsacks and I gave out our sticks and marshmallows. We “roasted” and ate the marshmallows and chomped on the trail mix. Then, the lights went out and it was nighttime. I read a spooky story by the campfire and then the children stretched out on their blankets. We passed around the flashlight as we sang the star counting song and when the lights went on, it was morning. Time to pack up the knapsacks and say goodbye to the campout day!
I guess this camping out experience was an unusual way to begin the school year. It was the only time that this happened because it fit perfectly the experience with The Berenstain Bear’s Camping Adventure book that Lee shared with us. But as I reflect on this experience it makes me think about the emphasis that so many teachers put on spending the first month (or months in some cases!) on learning routines and “getting to know each other.” When we finished this mini experience, we all knew so much about each other. I really didn’t need to spend much time on teaching routines because they fit so comfortably and practically with all of our activities. The children learned them quickly and they most certainly got to know each other and feel a comfortable ownership of their classroom. That’s what we want, isn’t it? The children understood that they could get both enjoyment and information from books and that it was important to have discussions to further their understanding. They learned how to use the materials in the classroom.
We also started out the year with a significant bonding activity that set a precedent for the year ahead. As Winnie the Pooh said, “As soon as I saw you, I knew a grand adventure was about to happen.” I think the children in my class knew that we were about to have a year of adventures in our kindergarten…and we did!
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.
(you can hear the chant if you click on the link and then click on Shelly Kee Bookey!)
All children seem to love playgrounds. They don’t need instruction on what to do with climbing bars, swings, a sandbox or a crawling tunnel. They run right off to play.
It’s not unusual to see children become fascinated with a ladybug crawling across a branch, an ant working its way over a fence or a caterpillar inching itself through the grass.
Children are naturally curious and full of energy.
So what happens in a kindergarten class where children who are studying playgrounds are introduced to a tankful of snails in their science center?
A playground for the snails!
Of course this magical combination of a snail study and playground study needs some special conditions to allow this idea to take shape. It needs children who have had opportunities to visit and play in many playgrounds. These children need to have had the time and encouragement to freely observe and explore snails in their science center. There should have been many experiences for children to use their imagination as they worked with a variety of open-ended art materials. AND, quite importantly, there needs to be a teacher who values exploration, inquiry, play and imagination.
You will find all of these ingredients in Bill Fulbrecht’s kindergarten class at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn, New York.
When I visited during Choice Time this week, the children were in the midst of the playground study that began even before the start of the school year. During the summer Bill sent out a letter letting the children know that they were all going to become playground experts that year! He encouraged the children to bring in, on their first day of school, drawings and pictures of playgrounds. The seed for the study was planted!
Over the course of the last few months the class has taken many trips to playgrounds both in the neighborhood, in Prospect Park, and around the city. They periodically walk to a nearby site to observe the development of a new playground being built. A few weeks ago they interviewed the playground designer. A notebook is passed from family to family. Parents write and draw sketches of their personal memories of going to playgrounds when they were children. These stories are shared in class.
This winter, Bill brought in some snails for the science center. The children conducted all sorts of “snail experiments”. They discovered what snails like to eat, how quickly they move, and, of course, how to care for them. At the art center, we noticed children twisting paper to make snails. They used the digital microscope in the science center to create snail movies.
And then it happened.
Someone came up with the idea of making a playground for the snails. The idea delighted the class and Mr. Bill flew with it. He suggested that they begin collecting boxes and other materials so that they could start the project.
They began by painting the boxes that would become the foundations for their playgrounds.
Children worked in partnerships to draw plans for a snail playground and they shared these drawings with each other.
Then, during Choice Time, children signed up to begin constructing the playgrounds with their partners. When the playgrounds were completed, they signed up for taking turns to bring the playgrounds to the science center so that they could let the snails try out the equipment!
This project is still in progress. Yesterday when I visited the class, I recorded some of my observations as I watched two children at the art center and two at the science center. Later, when I left the class, I looked over my observations and jotted down some thoughts about them and some possible next steps. I noticed that all four of the children seemed particularly focused on issues of safety. Snail safety? Playground safety? I’m not quite sure from my one observation. I’ll share my notes with Bill and get his ‘take’ on this.
It’s so gratifying to see children traveling through this study at a snail’s pace…exploring, creating, collaborating, improvising and having a wonderful time.
In response to the unfortunate atmosphere of teacher bashing that we are living through, I would like to focus on some wonderful work being done by a group of hard-working teachers in a public school in New York City.
Here’s a bit of background information about this barrier-free, pre-k – 5 school, located on the Lower East Side, which is situated in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. The ethnic breakdown is approximately 75 % Latino, 20 % African-American, 3.5 % Asian and 1.5 % ‘other’. Many of the children live in shelters or foster homes. There’s a large special needs population, often transferring into the school mid-year. Because of the No Child Left Behind legislation, families from other areas of the city transfer their children into this hard-working, caring school and, because children are traveling long distances, there’s a major problem with lateness and absences. This year, the heavy-duty budget cuts came down hard on this community. Without any significant PTA fundraising, staff is often forced to reach into their own pockets if they want to provide any extra materials for their classrooms.
Four years ago, I was approached by their network leader, Dan Feigelson, and asked if I could do some consulting work here with the kindergarten and first grade teachers. He was familiar with the inquiry and Choice Time work that I had done in my own classroom (we had been colleagues at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn) and thought that the children would benefit from more exploration and playtime. The principal, a former pre-k teacher herself, was in agreement.
The school already had a long-term relationship with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. The children were making progress in learning the technicalities of reading and writing. However, they were challenged when the content became more complex. Because of personal stress in their lives, children had difficulty working collaboratively and in resolving conflicts without resorting to violence. The administration believed that the children needed more opportunities to learn and practice positive social skills and to engage in abstract thinking. They decided that the place to begin working on these problems was in the early childhood grades and that is when they decided to approach me.
Here were some of my impressions when I first visited the school: very hard-working and committed staff; positive tone in the classrooms; I did not hear teachers yelling or using harsh words when disciplining children; kindergartens had an unplanned form of Choice Time (really more like free-play) for 20 – 30 minutes at the end of a day filled with all academics; classrooms had very little organization of centers and practically no sense that children were expected to use materials independently (in the block ‘center’ were math manipulatives, dramatic play, teacher-materials stored, etc., there was no visible art center); first grade classrooms did not have Choice Time at all (occasional ‘free play’ as a reward for good behaviors); there were no blocks in the first grade rooms and a very small collection of blocks in the kindergartens.
Drawing on the Reggio Emilia philosophy of considering that the classroom is the second teacher, we first worked on room environment. I wasn’t sure if I was putting the cart before the horse, but it seemed like a concrete way of beginning. Major changes were made in the ‘look’ of the classrooms. The principal also ordered unit blocks for all kindergarten and first grade rooms. To my delight, the teachers began noticing immediate changes in the way that the children were using materials and in the general classroom ambiance.
We then planned out some studies that the teachers thought would interest the children, support their curriculum and also interest the teachers. The first grade teachers wanted their inquiry project to have a social element to it. They thought about the day-to-day lives of the children, and what would be important to all of them. Most of the school population, rather than using private physicians, either went to the emergency room of the local hospital or to a nearby clinic. This is where the teachers wanted to begin…with a study of the EMS. This also morphed into an ambulance study because of the children’s interests and questions.
They visited the local clinic, had a doctor and a nurse visit the classroom, and examined up close an ambulance that visited the school specifically so that the children could explore the inside and outside of the vehicle and interview the EMS workers. Some children became fascinated with bones and what was happening inside their bodies. In the classrooms, ‘hospitals’ were created along with x-ray rooms (overhead projectors, old x-rays). In one first grade room during their choice time, I observed a boy, doll in arms, racing to the “x-ray” room. “My baby hurt his arm. He’s crying! Help me”. The doll was quickly put on the overhead projector and the “x-ray technician looked at the shadow on the wall. He held up an x-ray, looked at it and said, “Your baby has a broken arm. Take him to the hospital!”. He wrote a little note on a pad, gave it to the ‘father’, who took it and rushed back to the classroom hospital, where the baby’s arm was carefully wrapped up with an old ace bandage. That same day, at Choice Time in another classroom I noticed two girls tracing the body of a boy on butcher paper and then, using a book as reference, drawing in the bones for the body. At the same time two other children were using the overhead projector to trace an image of an ambulance. They kept turning it on and off to check their work. This drawing was going to be the ‘plan’ for an ambulance model that they would later create out of cartons and other materials.
The Kindergartens began with a study of the local firehouse, making many field trips there, exploring the firetruck, interviewing the firefighters, checking out their own homes for fire exits and smoke alarms and creating their own home-safety plans.
This year is my fourth year working at this school. Some of the studies that have taken place are a kindergarten exploration of “Beautiful Stuff” ( children brought in ‘found’ objects from home like buttons, toilet paper tubes, broken pieces of jewelry, wood scraps, etc., sorted and labeled all of the ‘booty’ and brainstormed for ideas on how to use these materials in different projects) , a study of the local bakeries, a neighborhood garden study ( I watched children in the block center creating different areas for a classroom garden, using sketches that they worked on together. There were children in the science center planting seeds in small pots that they decorated. When they were finished planting, they brought the pots to the block center where they were put in the ‘community garden’.), a first-grade study of bridges, particularly the Williamsburg Bridge and a study of the NYC subway system. Each first grade class designed and built bridge towers outside their classroom doors and then connected them across the corridor to make one large suspension bridge!
When I asked the teachers if they noticed any positive changes since we began our work, here are some of the things they shared with me:
They noticed that
o Children were becoming more verbal
o The children who are their ‘struggling learners’ are participating more in class work and discussions
o During Choice Time and Inquiry-study time, children with behavioral issues are becoming calmer and more cooperative
o English Language Learners are talking more and sharing stories, possibly because there is no fear of coming up with a right or wrong response
o There is a noticeable carry-over to the writing being done during writing workshop since the children have more shared experiences to draw from
o Field trips have become more purposeful and the children can understand the purpose of each trip
o Parents have told the teachers the their talk about things that they are exploring in class and use a lot of new vocabulary.
o The teachers are more supportive of each other
o There is more professional collaboration
o There’s more of a feeling of a grade-community
o Teachers, along with children, feel a pride in their work
o The cluster teachers have come on board and are planning lessons to support the classroom studies
In a recent email to me, one of the kindergarten teachers wrote about some of the changes that she and her co-teacher made in their classrooms, “ Our block area has been enlarged. Therefore the children have more room to build. We have “blueprint paper” for them to draw their ideas first before building and pencils as well as post- it’s for labeling their building. The art area is more accessible as well as all the different mediums that they need. The dramatic play area is changed with each study and discussed with the children beforehand. There are papers in each work area for the teacher to make notes about what the children are doing, what we think and how to proceed, as well as writing (down) what the children are saying. The room was not as organized and now the children have access to the materials and their projects.”
The children created a market in the pretend center when they studied The Essex Street Market
Building The Essex Street Market in the block center
I am noticing that the flow of the day is much more ‘child-friendly’. Kindergartens have Choice Time for an hour every morning. They go on more neighborhood trips. The first grade has Choice Time at least twice, sometimes more, each week and they too go on curriculum-related trips more often.
When we discussed future professional goals, the teachers asked if we could focus more in depth on using documentation and assessment to help in planning whole class and small group projects and investigations.
These teachers have worked so hard and been so admirable in their professional growth. Their classrooms breathe with imagination, inquiry and a real life force!
On June 10th, two of the teachers and I will be presenting a workshop at Lehman College in the Bronx, NY. The conference is An Early childhood Education Conference: The Reggio Emilia Approach in 21st Century Urban Settings. Our breakout group is titled CHANGE! – DEVELOPING INQUIRY-BASED SOCIAL STUDIES PROJECTS AND CHOICE TIME CENTERS IN KINDERGARTEN AND FIRST GRADE CLASSES AT P.S. 142M. If you’re in the area and would like to attend, you can email Carol Gross at [email protected]