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Remembering Ellie Barr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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