On August 4th, I had the pleasure of discussing Choice, Play and Inquiry with Lindsay Persohn for her wonderful podcast Classroom Caffeine. We talked about my journey as a teacher and the people who informed my thinking. Our discussion moved to the importance of engagement and a description of an engaged class. This led us to the incredible trip to the schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy that Matt Glover, Kathy Collins and I organized for 68 educators, where we focused on what it looks like when there is an expanded view of literacy.
It was a totally enjoyable conversation. It will be broadcast on the Lindsay’s podcast, Classroom Caffeine, on November 9th. I’m pleased to share it with you on my blog now. I hope you enjoy it!
Every new object, clearly seen, opens up a new organ of perception in us. Goethe
As New York City rushes to open up hundreds of pre-kindergarten classrooms, I’m thinking that we need to stop and shine a spotlight on examples of good early childhood practices. In my worst nightmare, I imagine a disaster scene of three and four year old children being drilled on their ABC’s, given workpage pictures to color (stay in the lines!), and learning proper school behavior (let’s clap for Julius. He’s in the green zone. Marcus, maybe you can be a good boy and have your card moved up from the red zone next week.)
Luckily, I had the pleasure of stopping by Amy Binin’s pre-k class at the Brooklyn New School a few weeks ago. Amy and I met in 1996 when we were both part of a group of New York City public school teachers who were visiting the pre-schools in Reggio Emilia. I never had the pleasure of working in Amy’s class but, when I was consulting with kindergarten, first and second grade teachers at the school a few years ago, I would stop in for a chat when we both had time.
Last week as I was preparing a presentation on “Inquiry and Investigations” for a Teachers College conference on pre-kindergarten (Seize the Moment: Rise to the Challenge of Pre-K), I looked up the dictionary definition of curiosity: “an eager desire to know: inquisitiveness.“ Sir Ken Robinson made a connection between creativity and curiosity when he wrote “You can’t just give a creativity injection. You have to create an environment for curiosity and a way to encourage people and get the best out of them.” One of my early childhood idols, Vivian Gussin Paley, advised “The key is curiosity, and it is curiosity, not answers, that we model.”
Amy understands the importance of curiosity. She provides opportunities for children to explore and discover and she listens very carefully so that she can plan her curriculum around their big interests. Here’s a short version of what has been happening in Amy’s class this year.
In October Amy took the children on a neighborhood walk. She gave the children bags and baskets for collecting interesting finds along the way. Would this walk open us a path towards an inquiry investigation? Amy had a feeling that something would come from this experience but she was not sure of the direction it would take them.
When they returned to class, the children became fascinated with the different seed holders that they found. They could shake some of them and hear the seeds inside but they weren’t sure of how to get them out. Amy didn’t give them any answers. She let them figure out the best way for themselves. Little did she know that the most successful strategy was to place the seed holder under a block from the construction center, put a foot on top of the block and jump real hard. It worked! Obviously this method needed adult supervision.
Many seeds were collected when the pods were opened and the children found different ways of examining them.
Some children decided to match up the seeds with the seed holders. Other children arranged the seeds, twigs and pods in pleasing designs. Children brought them to the light table to arrange them along with the different leaves that they collected.
At lunchtime children became aware of the seeds that they found in their fruit. The little apple seeds and tiny orange seeds looked quite different from the big seed in the middle of a plum!
In preparation for Halloween, they cut open a pumpkin and found seeds inside there too! They cooked the pumpkin and the seeds.
On their next walk they collected more branches. Back in the classroom, the children became interested in the wood that they collected from the trees. They noticed that when they snapped off the “tree skin” from some of the sticks, the spot where the bark had been became smooth and light. Now their challenge was to get the skin off the sticks!
and they peeled the sticks.
The class revisited the site of their first walking trip and discovered a tree with a hole in it. What could be in there? They put their hands inside and to their surprise they scooped out wood dust. They brought this back to school and compared it with the dust they made while sanding and peeling the bark.This discovery sparked an interest in wood. To build on this interest, Amy and a class parent set up a woodworking center. Lots of wood sawing followed!
Amy and the children added branches to the block building center and the children began building their own trees.
A center for observational drawing was set up. When children look closely and draw what they observe, it helps them to reflect on what they are seeing. The children drew the seed pods, the bark and the leaves that they collected. One child brought in a bird’s nest to share and to add to the observation center.
Clay is a very sensual and natural material for young children to manipulate. To support the classroom nature study, Rachel Schwartzman, the art teacher, gave the children opportunities to process their understandings by creating trees in the art studio.
The class took a field trip to vist a Natural Play Space in Prospect Park. While they were there, they built a house of twigs! They found a row of tree stumps and became fascinated with the circular lines on the stumps. To follow up on this interest, parents who were purchasing Christmas trees asked the tree-seller for the bottom stump of the tree and these tree stumps were brought to class. Some were in the science center but they also made their way to the block-building area of the classroom.
Amy read many books to the children about trees and about the animals that lived in the trees.
The study was culminated with the construction of a large tree that included nests, birds and squirrels. The children now have decided on a plan to change the tree as the seasons change.
Look into nature and then you will understand everything better.
In the summer of 1996, I attended a one-week institute for educators in Reggio Emilia, Italy. At that conference, Carlina Rinaldi, director of the Reggio Emilia schools, said something that has reverberated for me again and again. To paraphrase her, she advised teachers that they should consider teaching using a road map to guide their instruction rather than a train schedule. A road map lets you know where you started, where you’re going and important routes and landmarks along the way. But more importantly, it also allows you to take detours for interesting explorations, always showing you how to get back onto the original road. A train schedule, on the other hand, doesn’t allow one to take more time exploring places and ideas that are particularly interesting. It keeps one from taking those detours that allow for interesting and sometimes mind-altering surprises.
Some years ago, Lucy Calkins, head of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project,asked me if I would co-present a day for kindergarten teachers.. Lisa Ripperger was going to address writing workshop in kindergarten, Mary Ann Colbert was presenting the reading workshop and I was going to speak about choice time. When the three of us met to plan, Lisa and Mary Ann were able to plan together but I seemed to be the ‘odd man out’. I noticed that they were thinking about how their workshops changed and grew across the year. I began to wonder if I could use a similar paradigm to plan for a year of Choice Time. I’d like to share what I came up with. However, I think that it’s really important to consider this only as a possible Choice Time roadmap and not as a train schedule to follow.
Fall (September to December)
Since this is the start of the school year, my instructional focus for centers is on creating situations that will support conversation and also on helping children, often through direct demonstration, learn how to use and care for materials.
(I.e. unit blocks; water and sand implements such as funnels, tubes and different size cups; science tools such as magnifying glasses, droppers, shells; paint, crayons, markers, a selection of papers, glue, scissors and other possible art materials in the art center; a selection of math manipulatives; and independently using the headphones, tapes and tape recorder in the listening center).
At centers, children can explore the many possibilities for using a variety of equipment and materials. They also have time to work independently and in small groups, sharing materials and ideas with each other. I have noticed that activities and constructions, at this time of the year, are quite often ‘of the moment’ and might last only for one day. Children are usually ready to explore something new the next day. They are also just learning to work in small groups and in partnerships where they need to share materials.
By giving children opportunities to share their work and choice time experiences with the class, and by providing places in the room to display children’s work, both projects that are completed and work in-progress, the teacher is encouraging children to see themselves as competent explorers.
Winter (January to March)
By this time of the year, my instructional focus is more towards giving children opportunities to work on expanding their projects. Children are encouraged to build onto a project. A few examples are adding more details or color to a drawing or painting. They might create signs and add people and animals to a block structure. In my class and in other classes I’ve seen the dramatic play area transformed into a doctor’s office, a post office, a castle, a grocery store and even a playground. The water table becomes an exciting center for making new discoveries just by adding new materials such as food coloring, ice cubes, snow or soap suds. I remember a time when a group of children used the Cuisenaire rods and small wooden ‘people’ from the block center to create a village in the sand table. What is so exciting is that the possibilities are endless depending upon the children’s interests.
By now, children are often beginning to label projects and to use print more naturally in the different centers, such as writing telephone messages in the dramatic play center or making a ‘scientist’s observation book’ in the science center. Children might be becoming more involved in planning together before beginning their play. The teacher would probably notice a greater use of dialogue within the centers as children share ideas and negotiate compromise.
Spring: April – June
For me, this was a particularly exciting time of the year. My instructional focus for Choice Time now included supporting children’s increased engagement in dialogue and their growing ability to use writing and reading as part of their choice time projects.
During this time of year, I found that it was important for children to have more time in their centers. They often stayed in the same center for at least two days.
My centers would quite often give children opportunities to expand on classroom inquiries in social studies, science and chapter books that I read to them. Some examples of this were a group project to design and construct a bridge when we were involved in a bridge study. The group spent five days working on this project, drawing bridge plans, revising, building and using toy cars and people to play with their bridge. After I read the chapter book, My Father’s Dragon, the children asked if they could make their own 3-D map of Wild Island. I gave them a large piece of cardboard to work on in the art center. Different children worked on this project each day, referring to the book to be sure that they were putting everything in the right order. They labeled the different parts of the map, made arrows to show what came first, made ‘pop up’ people and animals and, as you can imagine, had many opportunities to resolve conflicts within the group!
The science center, one year, led to an interesting child-created project that combined science discoveries, literature and art. After a few of weeks of open, self-directed explorations with magnets in the science center, a group of children thought of adding a story box center to choice time. The children used empty shoeboxes to recreate scenes from favorite storybooks. They folded paper to make people who could stand up and glued paper clips to the bottom of each figure. They then used their magnets to move the figures in their boxes, creating magnetic theaters. This activity was inspired by my daughter’s store-bought magnetic theater (she called it her ‘Magnetic Land’) that I had shared with them earlier in the school year.
By the spring, children tend to work independently and more self-sufficiently. Now the teacher has more opportunities to observe children working at their centers during choice time. At this time of the year, I’m consistently impressed by the incredible progress children have made in working cooperatively and in using classroom materials with so much creativity. Now when children use print within their projects they are using more conventional spelling for the high-frequency sight words that we have been exploring during shared reading and writing workshop. I also notice the dialogue that takes place during share meetings becoming more sophisticated and descriptive. Children listen to each other more attentively and, in their responses, exhibit a greater ability to partake in the give and take of conversations.
This is, of course, only a road map and not a train schedule for planning Choice Time across the year. To make all of this work well, I assume the involvement of a teacher who enjoys observing and listening to children at play.
This teacher is eager to develop a lively, interactive and stimulating classroom. She/he values individuality and improvisation, and understands that there are many playful, age-appropriate roadways leading towards developing children with strong literacy and mathematical skills. This teacher has also created a classroom environment that has allowed children to develop positive self-images. Through a year of working cooperatively in inquiry-based Choice Time centers, they have learned to value and respect the contributions of the group. These centers provide a road map to the world around them, which offers endless opportunities for being inspired.