Tag Archives: race to the top


child writing

Take care of all your memories. For you cannot relive them
Bob Dylan

What will the children remember, years from now, about their year in kindergarten? When their days are filled with lessons in reading, writing, mathematics, and phonics, will they have fond memories of an exciting Fundations lesson? With days devoid of play, indoors and outdoors, will they lovingly remember the experience of reading “back-to-back” and then “shoulder-to-shoulder”?

I have become obsessed with this question of what children will remember after spending the year visiting kindergartens, speaking with teachers, and listening to parents. I finally decided to contact some former students and parents of students and ask them if they could write down one kindergarten memory. My former students are now in their twenties, perhaps a few almost hitting thirty! I wondered, “Would they actually remember anything at all after all of those years?”

Let me share some of what they shared with me.

Zeke (graduating college this month)
I think my most vivid memory is waking across the Brooklyn Bridge replica we made. It was a lot of fun learning about the various bridges and building the replica. building a bridge

Milah (Just graduated from college)
When I think about kindergarten I remember performing plays, Billy Goat Gruff, writing poems, and Peter the turtle :):):)peter edited

Kaitlin (kindergarten, 1994)
I remember choice time and playing at the fake kitchen/home area. And I remember smearing shaving cream on the desks. That was fun!‬ Jimmy playing house

Julia (kindergarten, 1990)
I remember singing! I think we sang Blue Skies, and I think maybe the Banana Boat Song? I remember visiting the fire station on Union Street and getting to slide down the pole. I remember playing in the school yard. I think the singing is what sticks out most for me.Connie, me and kids- joyful singing

Jimmy (Kindergarten, 1990)
I remember building block time with Nick and David. Of course my fav was nap time on our phenomenal blue mats.blocks

Sara (kindergarten, 1996)
I remember looking at meal worms. We had a big tank with a bunch of bugs and we could pick them up with tweezers if we wanted to.
I also remember days when I would choose something like puzzles at Choice Time because I thought I wanted to do something quiet by myself, but then I’d be bored halfway through and regret my decision. It was always better to choose the ‘special activity’ or the one all your friends chose.
There was a giant refrigerator box for time out. It had a pillow on the bottom and cut outs on the side.

I remember Backwards Day, which I always thought could be more backwards. And I remember eating my pudding (dessert) first at lunch and it gave me a stomach-ache.
I also remember nap time, because what adult doesn’t reminisce about nap time.

The Quiet, Cozy Reading Room

Lionel (graduating college this month)
I do remember our trip to Madiba, and feeling like a celebrity because the restaurant was near my parent’s house (..?). It’s funny what kids get really excited about, but I’m sure I received some special attention from my classmates because it was close/my family was there. I remember eating roasted corn with our student teacher (was her name Liz? I don’t remember now…I remember quite clearly that she liked to eat mango, and told us stories about eating it messily) at the restaurant. That was just when they opened, now they’ve been in the neighborhood for ‘as long as I can remember.’ Funny.1-239  2000

Dan (kindergarten, 1990)
I remember being picked up by my Aunt on the day my brother was born, and some time later (a few weeks? months?) my mother bringing baby David into class so all of us students could take turns tracing him on large white paper!1990 class photo

Anna (kindergarten, 1994)
Your name went up on some board when you learned to tie your shoes? I was trying to learn and was struggling, and I really wanted my name to be on the board, but was also very conscious of it not being on the board. When I finally learned, I felt very accomplished.

I remember sitting at a table drawing something and you telling me I did a good job and feeling very warm and happy.drawing

Sophie (kindergarten, 1994)
I loved the Quiet Corner! I remember it being a little structure made out of cardboard, very dark and full of pillows, where we could go when we wanted to spend some time being quiet. It was lovely! And it has stayed with me.

I also remember Author of the Week; each student got a week during which all of the books they’d written during class were displayed on a bookcase near the front of the classroom. I think one period was spent having the rest of the class interview the author of the week about the stories she’d written. That was awesome.

Ross (kindergarten, 1993)
My strongest memory of kindergarten is of singalong time, particularly “Here Comes the Sun.” I remember loving the song and the act of singing/listening. I would later (re) discover the Beatles and develop a much broader love for their music, but it all started then (and possibly with “An Octopus’s Garden” too?).

David (Just graduated from college)
I remember doing a lot of singing in that class. In particular, the song Love Can Build a Bridge. We would sit on the rug and sing along to the cassette, and Akira would sing the vocal “flair” parts. We even recorded it on cassette – I remember the microphone hanging down from the ceiling over the rug and we all sang into it. I still have that cassette somewhere.

Daniel (Just graduated from college)
When I think of my favorite kindergarten memories, I immediately think of choice time. Although for me there was never much “choice” involved because my heart belonged to blocks. With those wooden blocks I was able to build bridges, skyscrapers and even spaceships. I could feel the structural integrity of my creations, even if that meant sitting on them until they collapsed. Why was this satisfying? I don’t know. All I knew was that crayons and books couldn’t hold a candle to blocks!block builders

Gillian (kindergarten, 1994)
My sister was born while I was in Kindergarten – December 1993. my mom brought my infant sister into class a few months later for “choice time.” Not sure why but with some kids, crayola markers and a giant roll of paper we traced her body. She was a squirmy baby and I’m not sure how it worked or why tracing an infant seemed like a good idea but I remember that my friend Basam was particularly gentle and caring with her. I’m sure there were other kids involved but I can only remember Basam and my mom. The drawing was on a huge roll of paper and had a strange misshapen baby outline surrounded by other less human scribbles. We had the drawing for a long time – it was important to me and my parents – bizarre archive- I’m not sure if it’s still somewhere in their house. Hoping it is.

Some parents also shared their memories of their child’s kindergarten year –

I remember the first curriculum night. I don’t know what I expected but I was blown away by the range and depth of the techniques used to support literacy. I guess I had some fantasy of phonics and memorizing the alphabet, and I remember my mind being blown about how language emerges in different ways with different kids. I have forgotten all but the feeling of excitement that someone (you) actually had a method to the madness. The one thing that has stayed with me (probably because it was a visual) that you had an outline of a word – that the pure shape of a word was one of the many ways to begin decoding. I will never forget that.

I have a memory of a writers’ workshop publishing party. This may have been from first grade and I am sure that I have embellished it in my mind for comic effect. The kids happily publishing real life, unvarnished reflections of the messy side of Park Slope home lives. Literally revealing the ‘dirty laundry’ at home. All the parents dressed up and on good behavior while their kids were publishing accounts that were not so dressed up. ‘Out of the mouths of babes.’ I remember being a little disappointed and relieved that Vicky only ever wrote about rainbows. There was not much insight there, except that I think that she really liked doing the illustrations and she knew that she had a good solid 6 pages of copy (blue, green, yellow, orange, red, violet).vicky reading


One thing that comes to mind immediately is the self-portrait that my son drew with his bird on his head. I loved the self-portraits the children made. Hanging along the walls of the classroom , they made the room belong to the children. I also loved them because drawing was a medium in which my son felt “good at something”. He was shy then and seemed to stand back while the girls in the class danced around, comfortable in their outfits and friendships. I often felt that boys were pushed to the back at 321 (I also have daughters), in efforts to compensate for previous limitations.

I also remember the play “Three Billy Goats Gruff”, with its imaginative props. There was a lot going on in that classroom.


Renee, I can’t distinguish between kindergarten and 1st grade because you looped with the kids, but here are a few memories:
· The class singing Pete Seeger’s “Sailing Down My Golden River” for a performance for parents. As a result, that song, whenever I hear it, brings me to tears.
· Moriah Shapiro doing some kind of performance (maybe year-end) and you announcing that we’d all be seeing her on Broadway in a few years.
· Realizing that David had learned to read by identifying words (as opposed to sounding them out) when we took him to DC and, as the metro train pulled into a station, he said, “Look Mom, it’s Friendship Heights.” Humorously, he currently lives about two stops away from that station.
· Last but not least, the bridges project. Wherever we traveled during and afterward, David would identify the kind of bridge we were seeing. I recall accompanying the class on the trip to the Brooklyn Bridge and still have on my fridge a dog-eared photo of the entire class on the bridge. Eerily, it shows the two world trade towers in the background.


Unfortunately, I can’t add anything to what Susan has said here. It’s so long ago! But I can say that choice time was a brilliant thing, and clearly left an impression on David. (I believe we told you the story of how “choice time” was the punch line he used in an improv skit recently and he was surprised that it fell flat – because, as he discovered, he was the only one who had experienced it.)

Giving the kids the notion from an early age that at least part of their time is self directed, fun learning is such a gift to them.


Singing, playing outdoors, building with blocks, reading in the refrigerator-box cozy room, napping, poetry, dramatic play, Choice Time, our turtle, trips, bridge study, plays, Backwards Day, and more singing, singing, singing…a rainbow of kindergarten memories.


What kind of memories will we give to the children who attend kindergarten during the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top years? Let’s think about that and then take some positive action to stop this craziness. Let’s return childhood to children. They will turn out to be wonderful young adults! As William Crain wrote in Reclaiming Childhood (Henry Holt and Company, 2003) ” ...Schools should respect the child’s spontaneous interests and natural ways of learning. They should repect the child’s enthusiasm for physical activities, creative projects, the arts, and play, and they should give children opportunities to learn through these activities.”


A Passion for Learning

mummy caseThe 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!

Lee, Vera and Brooklyn with mummy case

papier mache mummy case making

1969 class photo

K239 1999