On Thursday, June 3, I met, on zoom, with four New York City elementary school principals so that they could reflect on their challenges these past 15 months and on their hopes for the year ahead.
Bob Groff is principal of P.S. 244 in Flushing,Queens. Dana Rappaport is principal at P.S. 234 in Tribeca, Manhattan. Gabriel Feldberg is principal of the progressive public school that was started by Deborah Meier in the 1970’s, Central Park East One, in Harlem, Manhattan and Julie Cavanagh became principal, during the pandemic, of P.S 15 in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
I initially presented to the four of them a list of challenges school leaders might have faced. It turns out that I only touched the tip of the iceberg!
Thank goodness we have these dedicated men and women to navigate the schools and care for the children, teachers and families who have, in all different manners, been traumatized living through this pandemic.
My mantra to to early childhood educators has been to begin with the children. I’d like to share with you an example of how a teacher listened to his students and allowed their interests to lead the way to an inquiry investigation that naturally included math, science, literacy and higher order thinking.
How can the problem of a leaking sink lead to a fascinating prekindergarten investigation? Andy Yung, the prek teacher at P.S. 244 in Flushing, New York, with the support of his principal, Robert Groff, and assistant principal, Tu Harris, helped lead children into this investigation through their observations and their many wonderings.
The sink in the bathroom would not turn off and it bothered the children. Cayla announced that the sink is broken. Jonathan was worried that if the sink breaks there would be no water for the classroom and that there would be no sink. Anabel was more ecology-minded when she said, “The bathroom sink is wasting water!” Olivia seconded that thought, “The bathroom sink water keep(s) going…water (is) being wasted.”
Andy asked the children why it was important to save the water. Camilla said that we need it to wash our hands. Jonathan added, “We use to drink water. There’s water in the toilet.” Harsh was thinking beyond the classroom. “Sharks need water to live.” That made William add that all animals need water and Camilla joined in again by noting that “trees need water to grow.”
Brandon noted that the class Walking Sticks insects needed water to live.
Harsh observed that Tails, the leopard gecko, had a water dish in her tank.Raina noticed that the class fish lives in water and and Jonathan said the the plant-helper waters the plant every day.
When Andy began writing down what children knew about water, he realized that this was a perfect entree into a long-term investigation, the Water Project.There was a water table that hadn’t yet been opened and Andy decided that this would be an appropriate first step in the investigation. He brought it to the class meeting area, introduced it to the children, and asked them for suggestions on how to take care of the water table section. After many children contributed their ideas, William put them all together into three important water table rules:
Keep your body dry.
Do not throw water.
Do not splash water.
Andy brought out cups, funnels, pipes and buckets and the center was open for play and investigation.OnOOO
One day, Raina’s mother visited to show the class a video of Raina doing her chores at home. The children decided that they should have the chore of washing dishes too, so the water table became a place to wash the dishes from their Pretend center.
Andy is almost a poster boy for donorschoose.org, a wonderful site that encourages teachers to write small, classroom grant proposals and share these with the public so that people can make contributions to help get materials into classrooms. What fun it is to see water squeezed out as a spinner is turned around and around.
He also purchased a hand-powered washing machine!
A class trip to the laundromat it being planned.
Back to the water table, bubbles were introduced. For some children it was easy to blow a bubble, but for others it was a bit more difficult. But how exciting it was to finally figure it out and to shout, “I did it!.”
Bubbles were fun to blow outdoors too.
Here’s some other ways of exploring water that has been taking place. Color mixing Colored ice Pouring water Making paper by hand and with a blender
Water Music Building bridges over water
Then the bridges moved indoors into the block center.Andy read many books to the children and some of them inspired more inquiry into what happens when water mixes with other materials, when it freezes and when it evaporates. A lot of new vocabulary was incorporated into daily discussions.The children conducted water experiments.
They used drawings to record the steps in their experiments.
The plumber came to fix the sink and this provoked a new interest in tools. Will this lead to a take-apart center? I’m sure that Andy, an observant and sensitive teacher, will follow the lead of his children!
“The most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between, and they took great pleasure in doing just that.”
Norton Juster, The Phantom Toll Booth
Journeys have recently been on my mind. Perhaps it’s the onset of winter that is provoking my journey daydreams. More likely, though, it’s the observations that I’ve been making on days when I’m consulting at P.S. 244 in Flushing, New York. The fascinating journey that Angela Valco has been taking, along with her class of mostly English Language Learner second graders, is what I’d like to share here. Since last month, they have embarked on a very unexpected and child-initiated exploration, prompted by their interest in computers and robots.
Following an inquiry approach to Social Studies is a new mode of teaching for Angela. She first tried it out last year by exploring the NYC subway system and also picking up on the class’s fascination with two guinea pigs, their new class pets. Angela wrote the following to me, “ Inquiry work in the classroom has shifted my teaching approach, classroom culture and understanding of how children learn. …Being open and taking the time to listen to my students’ questions, ideas and wondering is the key to a successful inquiry. I enjoy being a part of the process of listening to my students share their curiosity and then working side by side with them in the inquiry process….My classroom has become a learning laboratory with the space and tools for my students to develop ideas and wonderings.”
To be sure, this has not been an easy switch in teaching style for Angela. Like many teachers, she previously followed a more teacher-directed thematic study approach. However, after seeing the success and excitement generated by various inquiry projects in the kindergarten classes, she decided to follow the direction taken by the kindergarten teachers and move towards experimenting with instruction that is less predictable and scripted. She also added Choice Time into her schedule. In an email to me, Angela wrote, “I am constantly stepping out of my comfort zone to make learning more engaging and to give more ownership to the kids. …Choice time and inquiry is a time where I see learning come alive! I watch and observe my kids in a way that makes me understand them more. It’s my favorite time. It’s worth all the extra time and all the uncomfortable risks.”
Let’s consider some aspects of going on personal journey, one that we might look forward to during our vacation from work. Of course we first must get the idea for the trip. What is it that sparks our interest in visiting a city or going on a climbing expedition? A trip might be inspired by discussions with friends who have taken this journey, an article in the newspaper or even a movie that we’ve seen. After making the decision to take this trip, we do some initial planning. Perhaps we consider what we already know about the place we want to visit. We might contact friends who have already been there to get additional ideas from them. We could jot down some ideas about what we might want to see on the trip and get new information by using a Google search. Then we plan our itinerary, book a flight and reserve hotel rooms. We’re ready for new experiences and discoveries! There are some places we know that we MUST visit but we also realize that we can get “off track” when something really interesting comes up. By keeping a diary we can keep track of our thoughts along the way and reflect on our experiences when we return home. After the trip, we might invite friends or family over so that we can share our photos and talk about our marvelous journey.
Angela and her class went on a journey – one of discovery and learning. This class journey followed very much the same trajectory as a trip that you or I might take on our vacation. It first began when Angela listened to her children as they worked and played and recorded her observations. At class meetings she brought to the children’s attention some of what she heard from them and this information provoked a class discussion focused on their interests. Since the major interest was on robots, together, they created a thinking map, showing what they already knew about robots and what they wanted to find out.
Angela began planning by thinking about questions children might have, materials she might need, possible trips, etc.
Then she began brainstorming with the children to see what they already knew.
The children also helped to plan for Choice Time by sharing their suggestions for different centers.
Just as our trip wanderings sometimes stay on track and other times take detours in unexpected directions, some Choice Time experiences connect to the robot investigation and others give children opportunities for exploring a variety of interests such as a sewing center and a Build-a Story center where children built a story with Legos, wrote about their story and shared it with the class.
He is building a story and writing about it. Angela noticed that this was a wonderful center for her English Language Learners.
Wondering about what allows the keyboard to work.
Checking it out by looking inside the keyboard.
Analyzing the Robot
Using an IPad to get directions for constructing a robot. Building a tentSharing is an important part of project work.
A few weeks into the robot study, I encouraged Angela to ask the children if they could think of ways to use classroom resources to further their robot investigations and also to demonstrate what they already know. This will be a class discussion when the children return from the holiday break.
Similar to our trip diaries, the children write in their reflection journals after each Choice Time. Some children share journals each day, inviting their classmates to ask questions and make comments.
One day I visited the class during their meeting and I asked them if they thought that a robot would someday take the place of the classroom teacher. Angela told me that this idea opened up a “can of worms” and an intense discussion on this topic lasted for a few days. Perhaps this thought put the children a bit out of their comfort zone!
If I created a robot, it might…
…clean a car.
This is still a study in progress. Where will it go? How much longer will it continue? Will it lead to another study, one of computers and coding? The answer is still to be discovered and I’ll most certainly share the progress of the journey that these second graders and their teacher are taking in a future blog post. Isn’t it refreshing to know that the direction of the study isn’t all worked out and that it is the power of the children’s interests and questions that will lead the way?
“It’s good to have an end to journey toward: but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness