Disrupting Innovation

On January 19, the fearless early childhood journalist Susan Ochshorn facilitated a panel discussion at Brooklyn New School, "Disrupting Innovation: A Conversation about Putting the Child at the Center of Education Reform." The aim of this panel was to have "a conversation about the challenges of the policy environment, as well as promising practices and strategies that can illuminate our path forward." My daughter attends BNS, and I have also been working in collaboration with a team of educators to develop an Infant/Toddler Center run by BNS, which would serve my neighborhood of 10 years, Red Hook (which is located a few blocks away from the school). 

Susan Ochshorn, who writes the very informative blog ECE Policy Works, also wrote the book, Squandering America's FutureWhy ECE Policy Matters for Equality, Our Economy, and Our Children, which I'm honored to say features the work of both Little Creatures Films and Find & Seek. Susan had a book launch at Book Culture in Upper Manhattan in the Summer of 2015, but this was the first big Brooklyn event related to the book. Here is how the BNS event was publicized:

Today's education policies are dangerous to young children's healthy development. We're foisting the Common Core and rigor upon four-year-olds, and testing kids out the wazoo. Play, the primary engine of human development, is disappearing. America's youngest students are guinea pigs in a misguided experiment that's squashing their imagination, critical thinking, and capacity for innovation---the engines of our prosperity and pillars of a democratic society. For the 25 percent of kids under 6 in poverty, the unintended consequences are severe. Instead of leveling the playing field, we're depriving them of a high-quality 21st-century education.

This conversation featured myself, Kristin Eno of Find & Seek, along with these colleagues: Anna Allanbrook, Principal, Brooklyn New School; Takiema Bunche Smith, Early Childhood Consultant and advocate; Jeff Frank, Early Childhood Educator, parent of Castle Bridge Elementary School student; and Davia Brown Franklyn, Senior Director of Partnerships, Bank Street Education Center. Here is a 6 minute video including some highlights of our conversation:

FULL AUDIO

Listen to the complete audio recording: PODCAST OF JAN 19 DISRUPTING INNOVATION. Here are some statements that stood out:

highlights

Anna Allanbrook: I've become more and more committed to the simple idea of just watching children. Education Reform Policies are not really interested in child observation. Policies have revolved around what children don't know through some kind of standardized assessment. What I'm finding more interesting is the process of watching and listening to children every day, to see what they do know and to see what they're in the process of finding out. This process is exciting, and in fact, means the curriculum is never static, it's always changing. This year in our school we've been working hard to pay attention to the ideas of the little ones. 

Takiema Bunche Smith:  "When will children have their rights respected?" (reading from the book, I Have the Right to be a Child) In Sweden I saw that they respect children in ways that I actually did not even imagine were possible. Educational reform is not just about educational institutions: we have to join forces with all types of organizations that are looking for justice, and that is really where we need to situate the conversation about Ed reform. 

Susan Ochshorn: The U.S. has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

Davia Brown Franklyn: Bank Street Ed Center is a home for Child as Center. A lot of what this means is the interactions you have with parents and family, purposeful interactions you have with family, the respect you give to the family, leadership, and there's a whole host of teacher development. NYC is making a strong effort to offer school to all 4-year-olds. We have to think about what does PreK look like for children? I realize how vast NYC is. I don't know if you all are familiar with the New York PreK Foundation for the Common Core. There is some sort of guiding principal that most of us can agree on. They didn't try to take the Kindergarten standards and just plop it on 4-year-olds. They spent time. There are 9 guiding principals and here is one that always speaks to me:  (Principle #3)

Children are active learners. A primary approach to learning is through purposeful play. Intentional planning promotes rich learning experiences that invite participation, involve multiple contexts, and engage the senses that help children explore their environment. 

Susan: The principles are great, but that's the gap that we have to bridge.

Davia:  I think that gap lives with the leadership, the teaching, the parents, the leadership, and it's for us as educators to be hopeful, and to say "how do we help fill those gaps and utilize these principles in the way they were intended?"

Susan: There are those many early childhood educators who would argue that the standards are compatible with developmentally appropriate practice. But unfortunately we can't separate the standards from the testing regime that has evolved. And that's where we run into trouble.

Jeff Frank: All that potential that children have is just being squandered. Maria Montessori was a radical in her time. Her belief that children want to learn and want to be part of our world. She demonstrated a respect for children that we now take for granted in all of our preschool classrooms. The traditional/testing model is kind of heading back in that direction. I long to be part of public school though I am now in a private school classroom. I question pushing academics on 4-year-olds. But now in my (private preschool) class I have the autonomy, time to sit back and observe children, and individualize my curriculum to help my children become involved and engaged.

Takiema: Even those of us fighting for change might not be open to the reality that people want different things. I really do believe at the end of the day that we all want the same thing: we want our children to succeed in life and be fulfilled. But how they get there, I think we don't agree. That's the purpose of having these conversations. I think we're not always at the same tables. Everybody has to come together so we can actually build a vision together. We need to look at what the evidence says. Children learn through play? Yes! It's called facilitated play. Let's look at the neuroscience, let's look at what the evidence says, and not just what our opinions are. There's evidence that all children need to experience a whole child education. Not everybody buys into that, and we really have to face that. Wade Boykin, PhD wrote a report published by the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk. Research shows that open-ended, play-based, putting child at center, is where they learn the most, but the higher percentage of black students in the room, the less access the children have to that kind of approach.

Anna: I wonder about trust. A lot of this is coming in and telling teachers how to assess children. When we say "play-based curriculum," it doesn't mean we're not watching their work. Whenever you give anybody a script or a program....this is what would make me want to leave the profession of teaching.

Kristin: A lot of what we're seeing happening in the city and the world is based on fear. Fear is running through all of this. Parents are fearful. I've been studying playgrounds and what they look like all over the world. There's a fear-factor that causes our playgrounds to look like they do. They're "safe," right? This fear feeds into all of it, it creates the need for the common core. For holding teachers accountable. But it takes time. So much time, to type it all in, to make sure you have that running record of that child. What is lacking when you're doing all of that? Where is the fine line where you can do more of the authentic thing?

Jeff: This fear is real. It's cultural. We all want our children to do well. It's that leap of faith, but our culture is telling us something different, it's very fear-based. As far as the opt-out movement goes, it was very easy to opt out, but when children get to 4th grade, it becomes harder. 

Where do we go from here?

Reading Susan Ochshorn's excellent book Squandering America's Future is an obvious necessity, to get a handle on the complex interplay of policy and practice within the national early childhood field. Her blog ECE Policy Works keeps readers up on the issues, and she's also been hosting Twitter conversations every third Sunday night, touching upon topics from "the power of art" to "the cult of grit." Chris Thinnes put together a comprehensive Storify record of the first chat, which is a great way to relive the conversation if you couldn't be there. Stay tuned here for the next one!

Willow Nest sprinkles love and light into Brooklyn

Find & Seek has entered a new era!  This past Fall our partner Elisha Georgiou opened a home-based play school in the lovely Brooklyn neighborhood of Windsor Terrace. Our co-founder has fulfilled not only her personal dream but one of Find & Seek's longterm goals of having a space of our own. 

Willow Nest Studio is a warm and cozy, light-filled and colorful room within Elisha's family's home. The space offers many points of interest and engagement for young children, including an ever-changing selection of carefully curated natural and recycled materials and books. Willow Nest is infused with Elisha's understanding of using the environment as third teacher, attentiveness to children's interests, and openness to fostering imaginative explorations. 

Willow Nest truly stands out as a gem among all the preschool options in Brooklyn!  But of course, the one writing this blog is partial to Elisha's work. After working together off and on for 8 years, I have gotten to see Elisha's gift with children develop. Her unique approach shines in the facilitated storytelling that she places at the core of her programs. Elisha converses with 2, 3 and 4-year-olds in a way that draws out the children's wildest dreams and fantasies, and that keeps the children completely engaged in the act of collective storytelling. This is something special to behold. 

A range of Brooklyn parents and young children have been participating in Open Play Family Days on Tuesdays and Thursdays this Winter. Special events are being planned for occasional weekends, and Willow Nest just had a full house for Madeline Solomon/Music Garden's amazing Twice Upon a Time performance. Madeline entertained 15 children ages 0-and parents. Coming soon to Willow Nest:  Spellbound Theatre!

Willow Nest's mission is to provide a high quality, arts based preschool experience to a core group of young children. The inaugural group of little ones entering her 2-3-day-week Story Tree program in the Fall of 2016 will have a wonderful gift of sharing and growing collaborative storytelling over a whole school year!  Because Elisha uses documentation to inform her teaching, the scope of the year will be ever changing and deepening, co-directed by young minds and guided by a compassionate and artistic educator's practice. 

This playgroup naturally extends the work Elisha and I started at Find & Seek, but it offers the thing Find & Seek always needed: the stability and community necessary to foster a depth of imaginative learning that can turn lightbulbs on and transform young lives. There are so many benefits to working with a small group of 3-4 year olds over one school year! One can only imagine the kind of deep growth Story Tree students will experience when they have the privilege of carrying out collaborative stories with Elisha and friends a few times a week, with the additional delight of exploring a wide range of art materials. And the materials at Willow Nest are so varied and beautiful. From a PVC pipe fort draped with many layers of translucent fabric, to an exquisite range of natural objects that stun the senses, Elisha has a way of displaying objects that instills a sense of wonder. It follows that children would be intrigued . . . and want to explore all day! 

Also this Spring, a 1-day-a-week homeschooling workshop, Willow Roots, is available for families looking for a teacher-facilitated enrichment opportunity that aligns with the families' respective explorations. This 3-hour drop-off provides a new venue for children to explore, a guide who is equipped to shepherd emergent projects from inception to messy process to completion and connection back home. Oh, and let's not forget that this drop-off program also provides a needed break for Mamas!

It's so exciting to see Willow Nest take root and sprout, with several viable early education opportunities for Brooklyn families. This space and its kindhearted pied piper will weave stories into the fabric of the neighborhood, the tree branches of Prospect Park, and the lifelong memories of its young collaborators. 

Willow Nest's location allows frequent visits to Prospect Park. Founder Elisha Georgiou encourages children to play original stories. In this outside balloon-play scenario, the conversation between Elisha and her 3-yr-old students included these statements: "Pretend I sended a note to you . . .  we're going to put a ice cream shop. . . we have ice cream with chocolate and bubblegum."

Willow Nest's location allows frequent visits to Prospect Park. Founder Elisha Georgiou encourages children to play original stories. In this outside balloon-play scenario, the conversation between Elisha and her 3-yr-old students included these statements: "Pretend I sended a note to you . . .  we're going to put a ice cream shop. . . we have ice cream with chocolate and bubblegum."

Dialogues with Material: Educators Experience the Wonder of Learning Ateliers

It's a sad week for NYC, as our city is saying goodbye to the exhibition that became a beautiful and powerful presence over the four months it lived and breathed here: The Wonder of Learning, the official Reggio Emilia exhibition from Italy. On view at the Williamsburg Northside Lower School on North 7th Street in Brooklyn from January to May, the NYC iteration of the show attracted 12,000 visitors, many of whom were educators coming to learn from the images, text and videos produced by the amazing Reggio preschools.  My favorite aspect of the show was not the Italian-made exhibition panels themselves, or the great videos, though stunning and completely inspiring (I had seen those before, and refer often to the exhibition catalog), but something that NYC educators created, and that were unprecedented in the Wonder of Learning's world tour: the two interactive ateliers (Light and Natural Materials) on the 6th and 7th floors. I was honored to work at Beginnings Nursery (as a pregnancy leave Studio teacher), the school that brought the show to NYC, while the show was going up. This and my involvement in early conversations with the planning team, and connection to this network of educators, led me to volunteer to help set up the ateliers, and to help on site at various times as university, public and private preschool and elementary school groups visited the exhibition.

The illustrious Linda White, dressed in white, engaging with visitors in a beautiful white room called the Natural Materials Atelier. Here is the room in its first mood, "Forest." It went on to become transformed, thanks to the work of Robin Koo, into "Ocean" and "Plants." Linda was one of the many NYC-based educators who volunteered to set up and maintain the ateliers and show visitors around. 

The illustrious Linda White, dressed in white, engaging with visitors in a beautiful white room called the Natural Materials Atelier. Here is the room in its first mood, "Forest." It went on to become transformed, thanks to the work of Robin Koo, into "Ocean" and "Plants." Linda was one of the many NYC-based educators who volunteered to set up and maintain the ateliers and show visitors around. 

While volunteering at the exhibition, I had the most wonderful conversations with visitors, who usually seemed to fall into two categories: educators and families (children with parents). I spent a lot of time in the Natural Materials Atelier, which became like a sacred space for me, and I'm sure many others. What an amazing combination of a meditation/prayer studio, art space, and garden, with a stunning view of North Brooklyn and Manhattan! The whole room came alive at different points in the day, due to the change of the light through the South-facing window. Many who came and saw the room just stood there, in awe of their surroundings, this unexpected beauty, before exploring. It seemed like Robin and the Wonder of Learning atelier committee had touched upon a winning combination of museum-school-sacred space. The question hovered in all our minds: How could we not try to recreate such a beautiful space again and again, in schools, museums, or in the case of Find & Seek, in a library? Was this another take on a library of materials? Materials lab meets studio? This was the whole point: to make us think, to get us to wonder, to ponder the possibilities in settings within which we do our work with children. The hard work paid off, and educators took notice. I am hopeful for a range of new partnerships and projects to crop up around NYC. There is no reason why schools can't look more like these studios. If they did, wouldn't children's experience at school open up to endless possibilities?

Alex Long, PreK teacher, Spruce Street School (PS397, NY NY), paints with water on slate.

Alex Long, PreK teacher, Spruce Street School (PS397, NY NY), paints with water on slate.

One day while volunteering, I met Alex Long, a PreK teacher at the Spruce Street School in Manhattan. He was thoroughly enjoying the experience, and stayed quite a while in that room, painting with water on slate, taking in all the rock arrangement and bark decomposition areas, and microscope wall projections, and chatting with me and Linda. We had a great conversation about connections between the atelier and his own classroom of 4-year-olds. Here is just a tidbit:  "Just listening to what my students have to say guides me in what we can be working on. It makes me feel good to see a lot of stuff I have in my room, here.  I try to really hear what [my students] say. My goal is for my students to leave my class being in love with learning."

Annabelle, Avenues K teacher

Annabelle, Avenues K teacher

That same Saturday in February, Annabelle, a kindergarten Spanish immersion teacher at Avenues school in NYC, also enjoyed the Natural Materials/Forest room. She said this: "My big take away after experiencing this exhibit is the importance of giving children the experience of change and impermanence in their learning. The idea that interacting with the natural world and seeing what change I can cause and how it can make me feel is so enormous. The experiences with natural materials are the biggest and most lasting gifts we can give to children." 

Nakoley Renville, principal of PS 208KE in Flatbush, Brooklyn, enjoys the Light Atelier with her son.

Nakoley Renville, principal of PS 208KE in Flatbush, Brooklyn, enjoys the Light Atelier with her son.

Nakoley Renville, principal of an elementary school in Brooklyn, enjoyed the Light Atelier with her family. "It is inspiring for me as a principal because it's reminding me of what it's like to be a child again. Putting myself back in the days where I was free to wonder, explore and feel like I could dance like there's nobody watching." 

NYC-based Early childhood consultant Renee Dinnerstein and her husband, artist Simon Dinnerstein. 

NYC-based Early childhood consultant Renee Dinnerstein and her husband, artist Simon Dinnerstein. 

Renee Dinnerstein who writes the blog Investigating Choicetime brought not only her colleague Nakoley but her husband Simon, the painter, and he also enjoyed the light room. Renee's words rang especially true to me: "This is the best PD for NYC teachers right now. This has nothing to do with 'career and college-ready,' it has to do with expanding the mind." These words from a veteran educator should not be taken lightly by all those teachers out there trying to make heads or tails of the Common Core and High Stakes Testing. What about the expansion of the mind, through working with materials like those found in these ateliers? I'm grateful that Renee is consulting in public schools all over NYC to help redirect teachers toward inquiry work.

Martha Foote, director of the Park Slope Childcare Collective

Martha Foote, director of the Park Slope Childcare Collective

Martha Foote brought all of the teachers from the Park Slope Childcare Collective to the exhibit. She had this to say: "Such an inspiring exhibit - and how reaffirming to see children truly respected by their teachers, not only in how the teachers speak with them but in the types of experiences the teachers nurture to allow inquiry and growth."

At the Wonder of Learning I was encouraged to see the enthusiastic response from so many teachers and families from all over the city and beyond, and especially to these ateliers. We cannot deny that American educators created these rooms, and that many American educators are opening doors to the "wonder of learning" in their classrooms every day. We need not idolize nor idealize Reggio Emilia so much that we forget our own strengths. These ateliers pointed us back to the original ateliers of the Diana School in Reggio, and others, but there's no denying that they were a phenomenon specific to NYC. Just look at that view!  

These moments and conversations are but pieces in the larger puzzle of what we as educators in the United States do with the Reggio Emilia approach. We saw at the Materials Conference the great work happening at Opal School in Portland, Oregon, and similarly beautiful work is happening at Beginnings in NYC, and many other schools in this city. Great things are in the works, that point to real bridges being made between Reggio and NYC. Will an infant center and preschool inspired by Reggio Emilia by way of Jönköping, Sweden, soon spring up in South Brooklyn (thanks to Beth Ferholt)?  I am very excited to see what Robin Koo is up to in the coming year. Teaching Beyond the Square is looking for a space to house its vast collection of found and natural materials, for use in early childhood, thus delivering a REMIDA equivalent that NYC sorely needs. Perhaps the 12,000 guests to the Wonder of Learning would agree . . .

Hundred Languages Materials Conference NYC

What a beautiful day with colleagues at Brotherhood Synagogue, Beginnings Nursery and the 14th St Y in NYC! Materials Day was amazing, with brilliant keynotes from David Gersten and Susan Harris Mackay, workshops by Amy Miller, Robin Koo, Jennifer Azzariti, Linda White, Shelly Gargus and Yeshnaya Dougherty, Eve Chwast, Tim Hayduck, Elizabeth Margulies, and more. 

A not-stellar photo of two of my favorite educators: Amy Miller (Beginnings) and Susan Harris MacKay (Opal School/Portland Children's Museum). What a great conference Amy put on!  What a brilliant talk Susan gave!

A not-stellar photo of two of my favorite educators: Amy Miller (Beginnings) and Susan Harris MacKay (Opal School/Portland Children's Museum). What a great conference Amy put on!  What a brilliant talk Susan gave!

I have long admired the work of Susan Harris MacKay of Opal School/Portland Children's Museum and it was such a privilege to hear from her today. While I knew she was good, I didn't expect for my socks to be knocked clean off. This was largely due to the fact that she centered her talk on something I also consider to be at the heart of best practice: LOVE.  Her talk covered bullying, through the eyes of 3rd graders, and showed reconciliation and redemption, through art and play. It included the issues of civil rights that are still rocking our country. It dealt with the hard stuff, but never left the idea that beauty, art, love can and will win out. Now that's a message we all need to hear.

For our Find & Seek talk we presented a range of story fragments that had evolved from our story/play workshops at Red Hook Library, BEAM Center and Artscetera, along with a couple of videos from workshops we did in 2013.

So fun to see our Cardboard Challenge movie projected behind the cardboard making workshop in the 3-4's room at the 14th St Y. 

So fun to see our Cardboard Challenge movie projected behind the cardboard making workshop in the 3-4's room at the 14th St Y. 

We wanted to take this chance to post here the video documentary of our CARDBOARD CHALLENGE at Beam Center, from October of that year: 

This video was a long time coming! It's a message to all of us educators out there who are trying to play roles of both "teacher" and "documentarian." Trying to do both at all, or either well, is no small task. Hopefully this video was worth the wait! Still looking for the better audio that we know we have stored somewhere on some forgotten hard drive under one of those piles of materials...but until then, enjoy the sounds of cardboard-wielding (and a cockatiel!) in the background.

After our presentation at the 14th St Y I headed to Beginnings to do a deconstruction/reconstruction workshop with Jennifer Azzariti.  I was struck by the way Brenna Hatcher not only deconstructed a purple knit shirt, but arranged the pieces. Jennifer also noted this reminded her of a sewing pattern, how it was laid out. Hatcher had cut the bottom of the shirt into strips and started to weave it together. I was happy to deconstruct just some simple pieces of white shirts and fabric, to begin making a doll. Oh no! It's still not finished...

Jennifer Azzariti's workshop featured many cast-off articles of clothing, awaiting de-and re-construction. To Brenna Hatcher, teacher at Barrow St Nursery: "The essence of shirtness is still there."

Jennifer Azzariti's workshop featured many cast-off articles of clothing, awaiting de-and re-construction. To Brenna Hatcher, teacher at Barrow St Nursery: "The essence of shirtness is still there."

The workshop was held in Debbie's 3's class at Beginnings. This class has really run with their study of FACES!  When I worked with them in the Winter they were making faces of clay, and we had a wonderful time upstairs in the Art Studio. Now it's clear they've been recreating the ABOUT FACE game by Eboo with real 3D materials, instead of photos of materials. So much fun!