Ladies Day in Blocks

We are fast approaching the end of the school year, and for most of that time the block area has been dominated by the boys of the class.  Whether legos, unit blocks, magna tiles, or marble mazes, the boys quickly fill the space with the allotted number of participants, and have made that space their terrain.


Last week we decided that it was time for the girls to hold forth in the block area, so we declared Thursday (and extending on into Friday) would be Ladies Day in the blocks.  The girls cheered with joy at the opportunity to make the blocks their own for a while.  Even though they had never been denied the chance to spend time in blocks, they hadn’t had the occasion to “own” the blocks for Choice time.   The girls lost no time in getting to work, for they had a vision they wanted to fulfill.  It would be a city, with the Bank of America building as the unifying structure.


As they worked, they talked about what they wanted to create, and they were of one voice in that they wanted to build the city that we explore each week as we walk uptown to Imaginon.DSC_0243

They used an assortment of materials as they worked, from Kapla blocks to  recreate the Bank of American building to magna tiles to make the Linear Park and Trinity.  They were cooperative throughout their process as they decided which of them would be responsible for each building.  The girls labeled each building and carefully taped the name to the structure.


Determined to build something worthy of remaining up for a while in blocks, they followed the instructions to keep their building within a confined area so that they would be able to continue to work/develop their city on Tuesday.  The collaboration that was evidenced in their work was a delight to behold for they were able to manage the give and take that unlocks group creativity.    There was no one who hijacked the group to make the creation their own.

It is good to remember, even now as the year folds into a close that it is important to mix things up.  Send the boys to spend the day working with clay at the art table, or  spend the Choice time making a Vet’s office in housekeeping.  Finally when they come back together as a group, each gender will see that the other has ideas that can enrich their own creative sparks.  Together we are better, and we applaud the vision each child brings, and the ability to bring that vision to life.



There’s a crisis in the American kindergarten.  It’s become the new first grade—if not beyond.  In April, more than 200 teachers descended on Bank Street College of Education in New York City to reaffirm the unique and vital role of kindergarten in children’s lives.


“Play is the highest expression of the child’s development,” Friedrich Froebel wrote in the Education of Man.  We have to forgive the beloved founder of kindergarten for his lapse from gender neutrality, Cecilia Traugh, Bank Street’s dean of the graduate school, reminded the audience as the celebration began. He lived in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Here is a piece adapted from the opening remarks of the conference organizers.  Betsy Grob was a member of Bank Street’s faculty for more than twenty years, and has worked with early childhood educators in many countries, among them Sierra Leone, Chile, Romania, Mongolia, and Azerbaijan.  Fretta Reitzes, founder and director of the Wonderplay Conference, served as director of the 92nd Street Y’s Parenting Center and the  Goldman Center for Youth & Family in Manhattan for twenty-five years.  They are both co-editors of Teaching Kindergarten: Learner Centered Classrooms for the 21st Century.


By Betsy Grob and Fretta Reitzes

This conference comes at a critical time.  It grows out of deep concerns about the pressures on kindergarten teachers and their students.   With the push-down of academic standards and prescribed curriculum, too often choice time is relegated to Friday afternoons. Block areas and dramatic play are disappearing.

Children’s art is being replaced by teacher-made charts, and reading, writing and math workshops leave little time for exploration, discovery and wonder.  Even time for play outdoors is at a bare minimum.

We need to get back to a focus on the social-emotional development of every child in the classroom. Kindergarten must be a safe learning and emotional space for all children, including those living in poverty, children of color, and those who struggle with the fear of deportation and family separation. Kindergarten must be a place where all kinds of learners are engaged.

We hear many kindergarten teachers who want to teach in ways they know meet the needs of their children.  One teacher, who is here today, wrote:  “When I walk into my classroom in the morning, I know I will have an uphill battle to fight for what is right for my kids.” Another educator from Michigan said, “I’ve forgotten what play looks like, sounds like and feels like.” A teacher in Brooklyn quoted one of her kindergartners, who, overwhelmed by the task at hand, looked at her and blurted out, “But I’m only five years old!”

We are a community of educators who have come together to focus on kindergarten.   This is a job we can’t do alone. It’s just too big.

It is timely for us to reflect on something that is often overlooked—the legacy and historical roots of kindergarten. Three visionaries played a powerful role in creating the foundation: Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, and John Dewey.

Each of them asked the same questions that we ask today: What is the purpose of education? What is necessary for a rich and meaningful childhood?  What do young children need to become life-long learners and fully engaged adults?

Pestalozzi lived in Switzerland from 1746 to 1827.  A reformer whose ideas were considered radical, he believed that every child had the ability to learn and the right to an education. Pestalozzi supported active rather than passive learning, a focus on the child’s interests and needs, and communication between teachers and parents.  “Learning is not worth a penny,” he wrote, “when courage and joy are lost along the way.”

Froebel, also a reformer, lived in Germany from 1782 to 1852. Inspired by his time at Pestalozzi’s training institute in Switzerland, he returned to Germany to open his schools for young children.  Froebel saw them as gardens, where children would connect with nature, sing, dance, and explore materials that he had created, which he called “gifts.” Central to his pedagogy was a set of wooden blocks—ancestors to the unit blocks designed by Carolyn Pratt that have historically been part of the kindergarten classroom.

Searching for a name that conveyed the essence of these schools, Froebel exclaimed to a colleague: “Eureka! I have it! Kindergarten shall be the name of the new institution!By the beginning of the 20th century, his model had been adopted here, and throughout Europe.

John Dewey, who lived in the United States from 1917 to1952, is recognized as the father of progressive education.  For Dewey, active learning was essential, and the classroom was a democratic community in which children learned about shared responsibility, and the focus moved from the teacher to the child. “Education is a social process,” Dewey wrote. “Education is not preparation for life but is life itself.” Understanding his philosophy is essential to creating kindergarten classrooms that work for all children.

During the 20th century, radical educators such as Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Carolyn Pratt, Elisabeth Irwin, Rudolf Steiner, Maria Montessori, Loris Malaguzzi, and Elizabeth Hill created schools based on these principles.  Developmental psychologists Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Erik Erikson, Jerome Bruner and many others researched and supported the foundational ideas of  Pestalozzi, Froebel and Dewey.

This is our legacy.  We stand on the shoulders of giants, pioneers who advocated for a meaningful education for all children.  But today we see the essence of kindergarten disappearing.  That poignant question “Where did the garden go?” is front and center in our conversation.

Our challenges may seem insurmountable, but we need to keep moving forward.  We can, and must, play a role in shaping today’s kindergarten.  It is our intention to inspire you to keep learning, to reflect on your own practice, to always ask “why?” and to be courageous and teach what you know is right. As Dorothy Cohen, a legendary educator and author at Bank Street, wrote: “There is no more important teacher in the educational structure than the teacher of the young child.”

You are the experts.



Today we were outside on the playground and our friend Triphene came running up, brimming with excitement with a little slug in his hand.  As you know, you have to glom onto the thrills that kindergarteners bring your way, so I held out my hand and told him that we could put it at the Noticing Table.  Before long, Triphene had brought several other slugs my way, so I sent him into the classroom to bring back a red tray to hold the slugs.  Before long he came running back, but with a piece of red paper in his hands since he couldn’t find the red trays.  For the next ten minutes or so, he found more slugs to bring to the red paper, until we had a total of seven slugs to observe during Choice Time.

By the time we went inside, the red paper was traced with silvery slug trails (or slug writing, or slug poetry if we only knew how to read their words).  We talked about the slugs, asking questions about slugs and snails.  “Why do they put out those antennae?” ” I think those are the way that they eat.”  “Are they building a shell on their backs?”  “Do they turn into snails?”  “What do they eat?”  Of course, we need to research to find out the answers to these questions and we are learning how to find resources for the information that we seek.  We can look in books, in magazines, on the internet, at ImaginOn.  Our sources are large, but our first source is our own eyes and experience.


At the Noticing Table, the children were engrossed (!!) by the slugs.   Since Mrs. Redmond and I were involved in other projects, the children took the reins and off they went. They decided that they would go beyond just drawing the slugs, but would attach a piece of paper that would give the slugs an opportunity to draw their own words/descriptions. The children first picked a piece of pink paper, but then decided that the silver trails would show up better on black paper.  They found the paper, stapled it to their drawings, and put the slugs to work.  The Noticing Table was surrounded by enthusiastic scientists who were drawing, discussing, hypothesizing, and arguing a bit about what they were seeing with their own eyes.


At dismissal, Triphene put the slugs back in their home where he had found them, underneath a drain that covers the equipment for the watering system.  Tomorrow our research can begin in earnest as we look for the answers for the questions that came to our minds today.  We’ll gather sources and will see what we can learn about these creatures that share our playground and our planet.  But we will remember that our first and foremost resource has been our own observation.  Here’s a question for tomorrow:  Why do the slugs gather in the drain that covers the watering system?  Why is that a comfortable place for them?

As we look at this day through the eyes of Reggio Emilia, we see that we have to be open and receptive to the ideas that the children bring our way.  We had never thought of looking for slugs, much less making a slug collection.  When we are open to the ideas that the children show us, (even if that means holding a slimy slug while others are being collected) we give our little ones an opportunity to show us the world through fresh, unfiltered eyes.  We all learn something new when we look through the cracks in our lives to the pieces that can seem alien or unfamiliar.  By the end of the week, thanks to Triphene, we’ll be knowledgable about something new.

And just to let you know, slugs and snails are mollusks and gastropods.  Hmmmm.  Gastropod….does that word give us a clue about slugs?

The Fire Is Still Burning


Two years ago in early  April I went to Reggio Emilia, Italy to study the magic that happens when children are given the freedom to explore and to construct their own knowledge of all that is happening in the world in which we live.  Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio Emilia schools, once said, “Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by;  instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water.”  Now, two years out from the Light the Fire grant and my trip to Italy, I’m still learning how to ride down that river of experience along with my children.

I have found that the more I watch my children, documenting what I see, the more I learn about what is happening with each child.  The documenting is the toughest part, for it often goes by the wayside in the rush of the day.  The camera is my most reliable tool to preserve those moments I want to remember with the children, and the images I capture give me a frame of reference to use when I need to clarify my thinking.

The children have been writing persuasive letters as a part of their Writer’s Workshop, and their work as been meaningful to them as they are finding a true use for their writing.  They have written letters to Mo Willems encouraging him to continue to write Piggy and Gerald books, they have written to Mr. Jenkins to have the outside water fountain repaired, and they have written to the first grade teachers promoting Choice time in that upcoming grade level.  They defended their position logically and in such a way that their arguments were spot-on.  Their writing has a real world purpose, and is a part of their lives.  They want to learn how to make their writing more easily read by others, and as a result they are working to include as many sounds in their words as possible.  It is a wholistic manner of teaching, and the children are constructing their own knowledge according to the needs they recognize as they work.


I have come to recognize that the more I can preserve the whole-ness of the day the better it is for my children.  Chopping the day into sections stops the flow of learning, and the multiple transitions from one area of learning to the next is difficult for many children.  This is often when we see behavioral issues crop up.  I truly believe that providing our children with a healthy, uninterrupted Choice time is one of the most empowering acts we can do for our kiddos. It provides them with the opportunity to read, to write, to draw, to create, to daydream (!), and to plan what they would like to do next.  It is unbridled constructivist education.


Now, what does the teacher do during all of this open-ended creativity?  Sit back with the camera, drink some coffee and eat bon-bons?  The teacher is the orchestra conductor, the one who keeps the ball spinning, the cook who is putting the delicious meal on the table.  It is up to us to set the table with opportunities that will stretch our children, giving them the idea that there is more to play than just putting legos together.  Our job is to think carefully and creatively about what we want the children to learn, whether it is about hatching eggs, what makes a good public park, or what makes certain words strung together chime as poetry.   We set the table, and give the children the opportunity to come to their own conclusions through their exploration of all the ingredients we have put before them.

It is much easier  to just give children a work sheet, an activity that all will “perform” rather than undergo the messiness and unpredictability of a variety of activities that are presented for exploration and for self discovery.   It takes a measure of trust in the child, knowing that children are burning to discover the meaning and truth in the world.  When we provide the children with these open-ended experiences and opportunities, their educational experiences are rich and unique to each child, for each of them finds what they are striving to learn.


I recently put out clay, hoping that the children would make people to populate the park that we had made, much like the clay people that the Reggio children had made in the picture at the beginning of this post.  My ideas were clear, but the children made their own path.  Suddenly there were dogs and bears and balls as well as skateboarders, swimmers, and old men with canes.  Some dogs looked like blobs, but the children knew what they were and could give each a name.  Next they will be able to write a poem about their creations, putting words to the clay images they have made.  Or…perhaps they will have another idea, and we will float down the river together, making discoveries along the way that neither of us had imagined.


Another year begins


So tomorrow the year begins, not yet for children but for their teachers as we begin to look forward to a year with a new collection of children.  As I have pondered the “red thread” we’ll follow for this year, the answer was given to me in the form of a bird’s nest, a swallow’s nest, to be exact.  Hardin and I were finishing our final lake swim of the summer at Camp Merrie Woode, and he found a nest nestled among the eves on the swimming dock. This swallow’s nest will join a collection that includes a hummingbird nest, multiple robin’s nests, and other various and sundry nests that we have found over several springs and summers.  It will be the beginning of my Headline News, as well as the beginning of our “red thread” for collections will be a focus that can lead us through our year together.


The dictionary defines collection in two ways.  The first is the act of collecting or gathering together, and the second is a group of things gathered together.  For this year, our first and most important collection will be the children who will gather together in a group to explore the new frontier that kindergarten presents.  Each of these children will come into our classroom with a unique perspective on the world, each with his/her own passions.  As we begin our time together, our collection of personalities will be revealed as we discover the ways in which we are alike as well as the delightful ways in which we differ.


One of the ways in which we demonstrate our individuality within a group is with the presentation of our passions.  When we share our enthusiasm for anything, we are opening ourselves to others, as we find common areas of agreement (or dissent) and make connections that might otherwise be missed.  As we look at collections, it can be a window into the passions of another person.  With my collection of nests, folks can ascertain that I have a passion for those winged creatures that grace our lives with their beauty and their songs.  A collection of shark teeth can indicate a passion for the ocean, and can expand into an exploration of types and habitats of sharks.  A collection of pottery can expand into a look at methods of creating pottery as well as the historical significance of fired clay in the evolution of the human race.  DSC_0031

So what is the red thread we can follow in kindergarten during this year that will follow the word “collection?”

That will depend greatly on the children that we have, and the passions they will bring to our class.  It will give us an opportunity to follow the sparks that each collection will bring to our lives as we watch for the clues, the constant mediation that will happen between the children and their adults.  Their passions—collections—will provide us with a window through which we can lead the class in explorations of another world.  A collection of leaves can lead us into us into a look at the types of trees on Trinity’s campus, a quest as to why some leaves fall and others stay green all year, a wondering as to the shapes of leaves.  This can be a springboard for both reading, writing, and science as we work together as a collection of learners.


By using the passions—the collections—of the children and their teachers we will build agreements on the shape of our classroom as we follow this “red thread.”  Our collections will not be limited by collections of objects, but will also allow for the collection of words, of ideas, of buildings we create, of books we love, of stories we share, of conversations, of dreams, of songs we sing together.  It will be an amazing year, a year in which our look at collections will lead to collaboration and growth as we set the table with the passions of our children.  Let the year begin!

The swallow’s nest

Summer dreaming

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We are currently at High Hampton in Cashiers, swimming long luxurious swims in the cold lake, sleeping soundly to a chorus of bullfrogs, and delighting the the pleasures of food that you don’t need to prepare yourself (although that is a pleasure as well).  The period of summer that is free of outside demands is one in which my mind can run freely with the possibilities that the upcoming school year promises.  Llamas passing by on afternoon hikes, the breeze blowing over the lake, a great blue heron sailing in to lunch on a frog;  all provide pictures that feed the imagination for the year ahead.


Nevertheless, my thoughts drift along with the breeze toward the beginning of school, and my new class of kindergarteners.  As I spend my days swimming, hiking, and reading I’m thinking of an umbrella onto which I can anchor the red thread that will lead the class along through our year together.    Some words that are resonating with me for now are music, space, time, feeling, light….More are bubbling up every day as I think of ways to connect these words to ways that we approach learning in the space and time of kindergarten.

If you think of a word/phrase/linchpin that we might use, send it on!

Making Learning Visible

As we continue on our Harvard course using the techniques of Reggio Emilia to find ways to make learning visible, our work becomes richer and deeper.  The course work spirals around, making our thinking more involved as we think of the ways in which we can see our children’s learning.  The past two weeks have been involved with using documentation to demonstrate the learning we see.  So much of assessment of the growth of our children is involved with tests and formal assessments, but this course has helped us all to realize that there are many other ways to record the progress of children, from photos to recordings to videos.  As we spend time watching and listening to our little ones as they work, we come away with a vivid picture of the learning that is occurring.

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One of our group activities involved creating a paper airplane that could fly ten feet with a cargo load of five pennies.  Five of us were builders and the other two were documenters, recording the ways in which we worked together.  We were able to see, first hand, how the children worked.  In our group, there were a few who just dived into the process, learning by trial and error.  Others felt the need to plan before making an attempt at the task.  We documenters were able to witness and record the differences in style as the group tackled this job, and were able to see the ways in which they began to come together as a team.  They began to use the ideas that others had suggested, thinking about cargo loads on planes, thinking about how their thrust could determine how far their plane could go, thinking about what they could add to their plane to make it more aerodynamic.


What does this tell us about our children and their tasks?  I took away the idea that when given time, the children are able to collaborate more effectively.  It is all about providing the time for the children to find ways in which to voice their opinions and to hear the voices of their friends as well.  It is also important for us as educators to give ourselves to opportunity to sit back and listen, really listen to what the children are giving us.  Sometimes it is hard to sit on our hands and let them go, but often this is when the most powerful learning can occur.  The learning isn’t just  a pencil and paper activity, but involves working together with materials and finding ways to come to a  consensus.

Making Learning Visible

There are several (seven, to be exact) members of the Trinity faculty who are currently enrolled in an online course from Harvard’s Project Zero that uses the book Making Learning Visible that I received from a generous family last spring.  A big part of making learning visible is documentation of the work the children have done as a part of their experience, and this is one of our first assignments for the class!


One of the latest “red threads” our class has been following is the art work of Henri Matisse.  We knew that we would be going to the Bechtler Museum of Art as a culmination of our study of the five senses, so at the beginning of our study, we took a long hard look at Matisse.  We found that he became disabled later in his life and switched from painting to collage, and called his work “painting with scissors”.  Mary Ann O’Sullivan and I decided to make a Matisse day in kindergarten that would incorporate the five senses.  The children cut with a wide range of textured materials, they attempted to draw on the bottom of the loft using markers attached to yardsticks, they ate snacks that they cut into Matisse shapes, listened to jazz as they worked, and drew with scented markers (we had to slip in smell somewhere).


After a break in our Matisse learning, it was time to visit the Bechtler Museum of Art, and see their new exhibit of JAZZ by Henri Matisse.  This was also a look at our five senses, so the children had a sensory experience in the classroom of the museum before going to the gallery.


We then went through the gallery and the art  set our minds to work.  We couldn’t take pictures in the gallery, so everyone will just have to visit the Bechtler to see how impressive the works by Matisse are.  The museum itself was beautiful, and the Firebird never fails to see imaginations on fire.


Back at school, the afternoon brought our Choice Time, and one choice was to use paper scraps including paper we had painted earlier in the week to make a “Matisse Collage”.  This engaged a number of children who spent a chunk of their choice time in their creations.

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As this was going on at the art table, the block area was beginning to rock as the children set about building the Bechtler.  The block building was completely impromptu, with no nudging from their teachers.

DSC_0005“I love the Bechtler.”

“I’m making this sign for the Bechtler.”DSC_0002

DSC_0003It began with just a building with a door at the front, but soon evolved as one child made the Firebird to go out front, others were making art work for the walls, and still others were adding to the building to include the sculpture patio.

IDSC_0008DSC_0015“If we make sculptures, we can put them in.”

“This is going to be a medium sized sculpture.”

“This is an elevator to get to the third floor.  There’s not enough room for it to go inside.”

“It can also be another way to get into the museum.


“This is going to be a chair for the restaurant.  It can look like a chair if you pinch it.”


So, the building still stands, with children adding to it each day (and we are now on day 5), as they remind each other to “look out for the Bechtler”, and  as they make signs to remind the others of the “construction zone.”

Best of all was this quote from Hayes: