The summer of July 2002, Lucy Calkins asked me if I would give the closing talk for educators attending the Early Childhood Reading Institute at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. I was honored and, truthfully, quite nervous. I’m not a pro at public speaking. However it ended up being quite an interesting experience because it led me towards reflecting on my life as a teacher. I just came upon my speech when looking through my files and I thought that I would share it with you.
After spending more than half of my lifetime surrounded by children, this year I made a major change. I’m now working in an office where wonderful colleagues in a room full of books and computers surround me. So, last week it was a treat for me to return to The Childrens School West, a small public school annex in Brooklyn where I had worked as the teacher/director last year. The kindergarten teachers invited me to their “stepping up” ceremony and celebration. As their parents watched, the children sang some of their favorite songs, recited a kindergarten poem and performed a musical play that they wrote themselves, The Gingerbread Family, a witty take on The Gingerbread Boy.
When I left the class, I found myself mysteriously crying. Thinking that I was having one of those occasional “fiftyish moments” I took some time to sit in the park across from the school to compose myself before going to my next destination, the fifth grade graduation at P.S. 321.
P.S. 321 had been my second home since I began my teaching career there in 1968. It was wonderful to sit in the audience, surrounded by so many parents that I have known over the years, and to watch my former students who I taught in kindergarten and first grade proudly receive their diplomas. I could so well remember each one of them on their very first day of school. I remembered their parents too, who looked as tentative as the children whose hands they were holding!
At the graduation I found myself sitting next to my former student Kalyn’s father. We reminisced about how he had to hold his hand over hers to help her write her letter K as she signed in on that first day of school. Once again, I found those tears welling up. As I tried to hold them back, I had a personal epiphany. I realized that I was crying because I knew what an incredibly lucky life I have had. How many adults have the opportunity to spend their lives working in a profession that is so satisfying, challenging and important to so many people?
When families bring their children to school, they are entrusting us with their most precious possessions. As a parent, and now a grandparent, I know how difficult it is to “let go” and transfer some of my responsibility for my child to another adult, much less to a total stranger. Because of this, it is so important for educators to create, in their classrooms, a second home that is comfortable and welcoming to the child and to the child’s family.
Our classrooms need to have a voice that says, “I welcome you to this exciting place where you are a very special and important part of a caring community.” We can give this message to children even before they enter school by sending them a friendly letter at the end of the summer, introducing ourselves and telling them about some exciting project that the class will be working on together. We can involve them in this project by suggesting that they collect pictures from magazines and draw representations of their ideas.
One year I wrote to my future kindergarten class and told them about a bridge study that we were going to begin together with our fourth grade reading buddies. I asked the children to start collecting bridge pictures and, if they actually saw a bridge, to sketch it and bring the picture to school with them on the first day. I also wrote to the parents and began involving them in our classroom plans by sharing some of my ideas for our class study. When the children arrived on the first day of school they came with postcards and drawings in their hands. They were full of stories to share about the bridges that they saw during the summer. Parents had photos, trip suggestions, and names of family members who had bridge expertise to share with the class.
We were already a community and the year had just begun.
Our classrooms need to have a voice that says, “In this room you will be an explorer, an artist, a musician, an architect, a mathematician, a writer, a reader and a scientist.” We need to physically arrange our rooms so that there are areas where children can explore, dramatize, build, create and experiment. We need to value these explorations by scheduling prime time for them in our daily plans. One half hour at the end of the day gives one message about what we value. A well-planned hour in the early afternoon (in the morning if you can be so revolutionary) gives a very different message about the importance that we place on children taking responsibility for the direction of their explorations.
This exploratory time, or Choice Time as it is sometimes called, is the perfect opportunity for connecting all of the strands of our curriculum. In my block area we had baskets of books about bridges, photographs and drawings of all kinds of bridges, a Big Book of one of our special fiction bridge stories, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, that children used for dramatic re-creations, a large pad for children to draw plans for bridge construction, blank labels to use for revising their building plans, and cards and paper for labeling and writing about their finished bridges. On the wall we had a growing list of bridge words that children were constantly referring to. In the Art Center, we hung art reproductions with images of bridges in them and all sorts of materials for children to construct, paint and draw with. Children labeled their constructions and wrote descriptions of their artwork. We were becoming bridge experts in many different ways and children had a great variety of opportunities to direct their own learning.
Our classrooms need to have a voice that says, “We understand that you are a literate person who can already do some reading and writing. We will all be helping you to learn more about reading and writing and we will all be learning that together.” On the first day that children come to school, I ask them to sign in on our class list and to find their name card and turn it over to show that they have arrived and are a part of the community. I celebrated all of their attempts to write their names and assured parents that even scribbles were acceptable for the first day of kindergarten. We need to show children that we accept and value their approximations while we patiently help them take steps towards conventional reading and writing.
We are all now participating in this intensive Reading Institute and, of course, we are all concerned with providing the best reading, writing and word study instruction for our children. We want to work towards helping our children meet higher standards of literacy and that is a big challenge for all of us. We want to be sure that in our classes we are planning for a balanced and comprehensive literacy program. However as we do this, it is important that we not lose sight of the bigger picture. Our balanced literacy should be a part of an even larger BALANCED LEARNING ENVIRONMENT. We want our children to have grand minds. We want our children to be curious about the world around them. We want them to understand that there are so many incredible things to learn and so many different ways of learning. We want to create classrooms where children can discover the serendipitous moments that make everyday experiences become thrilling and worth looking at more closely. We want to provide an environment where children feel safe taking risks and chasing dreams.
Recently, Milah, a former student of mine who is now a third grader, called and asked if she could interview me for a Women’s History Month assignment. She came to my home and we had a wonderful morning, drinking tea and talking about my career, my childhood, and various other aspects of my life. When we were finished, Milah said, “You know Renee, I have admired you since I met you in kindergarten.” I was so touched and taken aback by her statement. I asked her what it was that she admired. Milah, without hesitating, said that she loved the way that I taught. She said that I was “silly, exciting, and strict.” I must say that I was a bit shaken by being called strict. It seemed like a word with so many negative connotations. I asked her what she meant by “strict.” She said, “We always knew what we were supposed to do in your class. We knew that you expected us to work hard and that you expected us to do great work. But we also had so much fun and we were always doing new, silly, and exciting things.”
In their book Best Practice: New Standards for Teaching and Learning In America’s Schools, Steven Zemelman, Harvey Daniels and Arthur Hyde suggest that there are six basic structures that are implemented by exemplary teachers. These structures are Integrative Units, Small Group Activities, Representing-to-Learn, Classroom Workshop, Authentic Experiences, and Reflective Assessment. We need to think about ALL of these structures when we design our curriculum. If we plan a day where children have a reading and writing workshop, appropriate word study, and where they are given many opportunities to hear and discuss stories that are read aloud to them, we are empowering children. We are giving children the tools that they will need for recording the investigations and discoveries that they make during Choice Time and when they are exploring the natural world around them. If we encourage children’s curiosity and show them that we value their explorations, our curriculum may take unexpected and exciting turns.
One year, after vacationing in London, I brought some postcards in to school to share with the children at meeting time. One particular card, a reproduction of the famous Rosetta Stone, fascinated a group of children and they asked if they could look at it with magnifying glasses during Choice Time. They were very curious about the hieroglyphics. I was able to find a hieroglyphic alphabet chart in my closet. This led to an activity that they thought of. They wrote their names and other familiar words in hieroglyphs! When the class went to the school library, the children asked the librarian for books about Egypt. What began as a small group exploration was catching on and spreading throughout the class. Children began to find pictures of Pyramids and Sphinxes. They brought these pictures to the block area and attempted to construct them with blocks. They made signs and descriptions and taped them to the Egyptian buildings. Picking up on this unexpected excitement, I arranged for a trip to the Brooklyn Museum where we visited the Egyptian collection. When we discussed what we observed on the trip, the children asked if they could try to make a mummy case like the one in the museum. For two weeks, different groups of children worked on constructing a paper mache mummy case during Choice Time. Another group of children created a story about the imaginary person in the case. We took the completed five-foot mummy case out to the schoolyard and spray painted it gold. Then at Choice Time four children used the hieroglyphics chart to “translate” the life story on to paper strips and glue it to the mummy case.
Did the children become “experts” on ancient Egypt? I doubt it. What they did learn, however, was that when they had an interest in something, they could read, explore and expand their knowledge in many different ways and in many different places. I hope that is what they carried with them when they left my class. I hope that they left my class with a passion for learning because if they have that passion, and if we, the educators, have given them a nurturing, inspiring learning environment and well-balanced literacy instruction, then they have the tools to succeed.
Carlina Rinaldi, the director of the municipal early childhood program in Reggio Emilia, Italy, said that we need to go into our classrooms with a road map and not with a train schedule. When we travel with a train schedule, there is no time to tarry between stops or we will miss the train. If we travel with a road map, we know the road to our destination but we can determine when we will hurry and when we will slow down. We can take detours if something interests us, but to get to our destination, we must then return to the main road. This seems like a much more interesting trip. This seems like a trip that I would cherish and remember.
So I hope that in September you will put the train schedule in your back pocket and take out your road map. Create a curriculum that will allow you and your children to see many sights, enrich your lives and have a glorious year together that will never be forgotten.
It’s now 11 years since I gave that talk. We now have Common Core Learning Standards, Teacher Evaluations, the Danielson Framework and a race to the top. Would I change what I said in July 2002? I think not!