Tag Archives: staff developer

The Safest Space

I’ve often talked about my own classroom as a studio and laboratory where children could find a safe place to experiment and take chances. Creating this risk-free environment was a priority for me. It was important in school and also at home for my daughter, Simone.

Now an adult with her own 11-year-old child, Simone has become a world-renown pianist. She realized her passion for music at a very young age. When she was almost nine years old we enrolled her in a pre-college Saturday program at the Manhattan School of Music. She studied solo piano, played in ensembles, learned ear training and music theory, sang in a chorus and attended a performance class. She thrived in this musical world and never missed one Saturday from when she began in third grade until she graduated high school.

Not all of the students were as serious as Simone about their music instruction and an important part of each Saturday was also spent in play…running through the halls playing tag, giggling about boys when the teen years hit, sitting around talking…generally just being children having a good old time. After being at Manhattan School for a few years, many people who were seriously involved in music suggested that we transfer Simone to the Juilliard pre-college division. This was a more career-driven program with higher professional standards that the students were held to. I vehemently refused to agree to this change. I wanted Simone to have the freedom to find her own way and to take chances in a relatively low-risk, playful and nurturing school.

In describing the importance of the work environment, the Pulitzer prize- winning author, Jhumpa Lahiri, said, “ My holy space is my studio. That’s the safest space. An artists studio is the place where the artist feels most protected because in that space he or she is the most vulnerable and invulnerable at the same time because that’s what one has to feel in order to make something.”

Our young students are both vulnerable and invulnerable, just like the artist or writer in the studio. They enter kindergarten sometimes apprehensive, often eager and usually curious. Here is a new world to explore, new people to meet and many new skills and rules to learn.

On my visits to the schools in Reggio Emilia and in discussions with the Italian teachers, my colleagues and I were impressed with the very strong faith and belief in children’s abilities that permeated all that we saw and heard. Teachers encouraged children by sharing meaningful observations, providing interesting provocations and giving children a lot of time and freedom to explore with a variety of materials. Learning was a communal experience and children shared, discussed, explained, argued, mediated and created together in the safety of their school environment.

In 1988 I returned to teaching kindergarten after having spent the last ten years teaching pre-kindergarten. In my school, all of the kindergartens were taking part in the writing workshop under the tutelage of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. I was skeptical and reluctant to push my young children into something that they might not be ready for. However, I quickly changed my mind when I saw how inquiry-based the workshop was and how much fun the children were having drawing and sharing their stories.

The writing workshop was a wonderfully risk free time of day, when children could take many chances in exploring some previously uncharted territory. Mark, who came into kindergarten without any pre-school experience, could proudly show me his swirly scribble and talk at length about his ride on the roller coaster at Coney Island.

During the same workshop, Neal worked intensely on his bird poem,

Hiw or Birds ther Color?
How are birds their color?

FlmiNGGows or PiiNGk
Flamingos are pink

BeCis thea eat Shrmp
Because they eat shrimp

CirDNils or Red Becis thea Eat Pstir
Cardinals are red because they eat pizza

Blwjis or Blw Becis thea Eat BlwBires
Bluejays are blue because they eat blueberries

Pekics or Gren BeCis thea Eat Gris
Peacocks are green because they eat grass

Chikings or Briwn
Chickens are brown

Becis thea Eat Dirt
Because they eat dirt

Wit iF a Bird Eats a Rinbow
What if a bird eats a rainbow?

Both boys were experimenting with writing and language. They weren’t in competition with each other. They were both proud of their work and encouraged to keep writing.

Would they have felt as free to experiment if they were asked to self-assess their work against this rubric that I saw in a kindergarten classroom last October?

When the classroom teacher noticed the look of horror on my face, she sheepishly said, “I knew that you wouldn’t like this Renee. Our TC Staff Developer told us that we have to use it.” I thought of how Mark would have been crushed. Perhaps he would not have gone on to become our class “master of the double e”. Later in the year, when Mark felt ready to start adding words to his stories, he discovered “ee”, finding this double letter in all different places, even on a tee shirt that he wore, with great excitement, to school.

I wonder, with great sadness, about the change that has taken place in this wonderful program that at one time valued the stories of all children. Of course it is not only the writing workshop that has lost its way. Somehow, the vision of the strong and able child, a child filled with  personal history and great potential appears to have vanished from our school system. Belief and trust have been set aside…no belief and trust in children…no belief and trust in teachers. Teachers are controlled with threats and fear. Children are controlled with rubrics, tests, scripted lessons and unrealistic, uninspiring expectations.

A sweatshop-like factory has sadly replaced the studio and laboratory. Perhaps the children need a union!

Transporting a Classroom Towards Inquiry

I could almost hear a chorus of silent groans coming from the teachers sitting around the table in the staff room at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn. It was March 17th, 2005, my first day working as a consultant at the school. The new principal, Jett Ritorto, wanted me to introduce inquiry projects and investigative Choice Time to the kindergarten teachers. But it was mid-March and this was just one more new addition to their already over-programmed day. I wasn’t welcomed with open arms!

“We can’t do an inquiry project. This is when we start our transportation unit.”
I recognized this plea from my own not-so-long-ago days in the classroom. I had my theme, my materials, and my time-schedule all set up and then, in would walk a new staff developer with her own agenda, turning all of my plans upside down.

I assured them that we would not be dropping the transportation unit. Instead we would see what happened if we approached it in a new way. I suggested that they each go on a neighborhood walk with their class that week, with a focus on exploring the different ways that people could travel, to, from, and around their neighborhood. After the walk, they should encourage children to share their observations. This would give the teachers a sense of what the students already know and also what form of transportation seemed to interest them the most. That would allow them to narrow the focus of the class’s transportation study.

When I came back to the school the next week, I met with each teacher individually. The inclusion team, Dana Roth and Karen Byrnes, were excited and eager to share their experience with me. Their children had lots of questions about the subway and that was where they wanted to focus their study. The three of us spent the rest of the period preparing an anticipatory web, plotting out the many possibilities for a subway study. All seemed well.

Later in the week they contacted me and sadly told me that a subway study was out of the question. One of the students was confined to a wheelchair and would have to be excluded from all subway trips. They decided to switch to a bus study. I suggested, however, that they first bring the problem to the class and see what kind of solution the children came up with.

The children were outraged! “That’s not fair! Saim should be able to go on the subway just like us!” Here began a most unusual transportation study – The Wheelchair Project.

The class decided to find out more about Saim’s wheelchair and what it was like for him to move around the school and neighborhood. Saim was pleased as punch to be the center of attention (Dana said that she would not have pursued this route if the child was sensitive about being singled out).

They began the study by interviewing Saim. After the interview, they all sat around him in a circle, observing and drawing. The teachers began webbing what children already knew about wheelchairs and also collecting their “wonderings” on post-its and adding these to the web. From these activities, they decided to focus their study on movement and accessibility. These were the two areas where the children had the most interest.

News about this unusual transportation study traveled around the school like hotcakes. When the school’s physical therapist heard about the investigation, she provided the class with an unused wheelchair. This became a very popular wheelchair observation center. Children used magnifying glasses, tape measures, and detail finders (a square of black paper with a peek-hole cut in the center) to look closely at the different parts of wheelchair. They drew the wheels, the brakes, and the gears. Then they shared their drawings and ‘recordings’ with the children in the block center who were constructing their own version of a wheelchair. This chair took many days to construct. It sometimes fell over and was rebuilt often and eventually was held together with yards of masking tape!



The class visited the school bus that brought Saim to school to see how the lift helped children with walkers and wheelchairs get on and off. They interviewed the driver and also met Manny, a very affable upper-grade child who used a walker to help him move about. Manny was invited to the classroom where he was interviewed. He then gave each child an opportunity to try out his walker.

After this experience, a lift-bus was built in the block center. After a few days, it was deconstructed and the children built “a better lift bus.”

They walked took neighborhood walks, checking to see which stores and sidewalks were “wheelchair friendly.” Then they walked around the school to find out if their school was wheelchair accessible. The front of the school had lots of steps! How did Saim get into school? In an exciting moment of discovery, they found the symbol that they saw on the lift bus, along with an arrow. The class followed the arrows until they came to the ramp entrance. Problem solved!

They visited a neighborhood house that had been altered to make it wheelchair accessible and they interviewed the owner of the building.

This study certainly held the interest of the class and raised a new awareness of the challenges in Saim’s daily life. The children developed a feeling of respect for Saim and for the other children in the school who used wheelchairs, walkers and crutches.

Over the years, I have returned to the school to visit Dana Roth and I’ve always been intrigued by the variety of studies taking place in her classroom. On one visit, the children were investigating colors – inventing colors, exploring the various names of Crayola crayons and coming up with their own inventive names for their newly mixed colors. On another visit, the children were building a school in their dramatic play center, reflecting their investigation of their own school. Dana still does some thematic studies but she also listens closely to her children and develops inquiry projects based on their interests and wonderings.

I haven’t worked at the school for the past five years, but I’m going back in the fall to, as Laura Scott, the new principal, says, “Give a refresher course” in inquiry studies to keep it alive and well at the school. Let’s see what happens.

The door is open!

When I taught kindergarten and first grade, the most exciting part of my day was Choice Time, when children had time to pursue an inquiry topic, explore materials and ideas and, of course, have space and time to play.  If you would have asked any of the children what the most exciting time of the day was for them, I would not have been surprised if they would have also named Choice Time as the best part of their school day.

Now that I’m a staff developer working with early childhood teachers I can see that it’s difficult for them, considering the push for high academic standards for young children, to program Choice Time into their daily schedules. My challenge is to help them (and their administrators) understand that a well-planned Choice Time gives children the opportunities to explore new ideas, problem-solve, practice newly-learned literacy skills in personally meaningful contexts, and, quite importantly, to have fun playing!

I’m starting this blog to open up a forum for sharing ideas, reflections, memories, suggestions, problems and questions about Choice Time. Ideally, we will all have the opportunity to dialogue on the topic.

In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior. In play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.

Lev Vygotsky

The door is open. Let our Choice Time conversation begin!

CLICK HERE to make a comment. I invite all readers (teachers,students, parents, grandparents, etc.) to leave comments.  It would be wonderful to hear what you have to say so we can have more of a dialogue on the subject.