“Yes, You Are Allowed To Do That!” One Principal’s Mission to Bring Back Play in School

by Brett Gustafson

As a principal for the last 13 years, I have come to the realization that the biggest threat to the emotional and academic well-being of our children is me – maybe not me personally but principals.  Principals are telling teachers to do away with play in school because, “We need to be more academic.”  The problem is that all the data and the research out there proves that statement 100% false.  Play in all grades, especially the early grades, is necessary for students’ emotional, behavioral and academic success. I am heartbroken to hear parents in my town tell me “kindergarten is too serious” or “my child was labeled ADHD because he can’t sit in kindergarten.”  I am here to tell principals we need to become part of the solution.  This account is one more piece of evidence in a growing pile of data that shows children learn best through play.

Four years ago I was hired to turn around a school that was dubbed “The Worst School in the State” by a, then, assistant superintendent.  I discovered the principal before me made all kindergarten teachers throw out their sand tables, kitchen centers, and blocks to make the early years more academic.  At that time, less than 30% of kindergarten students met the state benchmark for early reading proficiency and there was 350 out of school suspensions in a school of 500 students.  Clearly, the get tough, “no excuses” policies were not working. header_640037029_

Many principals of a chronically underperforming school probably would have continued to push for “more academic” lessons in the early grades, because most principals do not come from early childhood settings.  They are not aware of the research nor do they have any personal experience working with young children. They think of kindergarteners as mini-fifth graders who should sit in their seats and get to work. I am fortunate enough to have a wife who is an early childhood expert who hands me articles to read about play in school and proudly boasts she can teach every Common Core State Standard for kindergarten math in the block center.  With her guidance, I performed a little experiment with my kindergarten teachers.  The teachers and I read articles on the need for play in the classroom and I encouraged them to create multiple opportunities for students to engage in interactive play throughout the day.  One teacher, who seemed like she was on a hidden camera show, asked, “Wait, we’re allowed to play in the classroom?”  It is heartbreaking that the question needed to be asked, but, in most schools, teachers are told explicitly not to let the kids play or “play is for recess.”  I reassured her, “Yes, you are allowed to do that.”

Remarkably, there was one teacher on the grade that wanted nothing to do with this “experiment,” so she became the control group and life in her class stayed much as it had last few years according to district recommendations.   Two of my kindergarten teachers embraced the idea of play in the classroom and flourished.  Jessica Scire, who had been teaching for five years, seemed a bit depressed with her class prior to the experiment, but then, with a big smile, declared, “This is what I was went to school for.  This is why I went into teaching.” She created a play center with a pizza restaurant where each day students created scenes from the restaurant that included wait staff taking orders on paper, delivery drivers, and dinner conversation.  Lisette Garcia was the other teacher who later told me of her subversion, “I’ve been doing play even when we weren’t supposed to because I knew my kids needed it.” housekeeping corner 1Now, with the blessing of the principal ,her kitchen center was brought to its glory. She shared, “It builds their vocabulary, especially for my ELL students.”  Throughout the year, Scire and Garcia incorporated elements of movement, song, and play in all their subjects and the kids thrived.

Perhaps it is not surprising that there was practically zero office referrals in the two kindergarten classes that incorporated play in their lessons.  The students were more engaged and they were allowed to move around the classroom in a manner appropriate for five-year-olds.  The control group class, on the other hand, had practically a referral a day and I was forced to send more adults into that class to intervene with students who had so called “problem behaviors.” 

What was surprising to some was the incredible academic gains the two play classes made this year.  In the class where they created stories in the pizza restaurant, 67% met the state benchmark for kindergarten reading.  In the class with a vocabulary-rich kitchen center, 61% met benchmark and that includes a high number of students whose first language is not English.  These were the highest reading scores in the school’s history.  The teacher who wanted to be “more academic” had just 35% of her students scoring at benchmark. 

blocks 2Next year, we are working on expanding play and movement to all four classes in kindergarten and all four classes in first grade.  It is clear to me, as it should be to all principals, that play is a necessary component of learning.  This should come as no surprise to early childhood educators but many elementary principals are slow to embrace.  I share this account with Defending The Early Years not to boast “Look how great I am!” because, had it not been my wife (who worked with Senior DEY Advisor Dr. Diane Levin in college), I might not have been so quick to try this experiment this year.  I share this because I know there are many well-intentioned principals out there who don’t have the early childhood background to know how crucial play is for learning.  Please share this with them to let them know, “Yes, you are allowed to do that.”

Brett Gustafson is the husband of early childhood educator Libby Rackliffe-Gustafson and the principal of James Curiale School in Bridgeport, Connecticut.   

Boston Second Graders Imagine Their Dream School

by Lily Holland

This week in Boston iboston public schoolss a Week of Action to Save Our Public Schools.  For many of my fellow Boston Public Schools teachers, I know it’s felt more like a year of action with everything that’s gone on.

As part of the other actions I will take this week, I want to give voice to a group we rarely hear from: elementary school students.

I teach second grade.  Yes, second graders are adorable but they are also keenly aware of the world around them.  Their endless curiosity leads to a unique perspective on everything from the best Taylor Swift song to the worst food in the cafeteria.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been studying activism with my students.  We’ve studied famous activists from history, learned about the variety of ways people take action and have had community activists and student leaders come speak in our classroom.  After watching their families and teachers advocate for the budget and feeling inspired by the bravery of local high schoolers who led a walk out, my students decided they wanted to take action too.

Yesterday, we started by making a mural that showed what their dream school would be like if money was no object.  Let me start by saying thphoto 1at when I was seven or eight and attending a fully-funded public school in Winchester, MA, I would have dreamed of having over-the-top things like a swimming pool or something outrageous like a movie theater.  My students, attending a chronically underfunded school, instead requested things like pencils, markers, and glue sticks. photo 5 One student asked me if he was allowed to simply say that his dream school would be “shiny and new.”  Another student asked if it was too big to dream of a school where kids who felt sad could have a room with soft things and people to talk to.  Many students dreamed of a better playground and some asked for a class pet and field trips to far-away places.  As they were working, a student came over to ask me if some schools have a whole library in them rather than just one in their classroom.  When I said yes, he changed his mind from a swing set to a library.photo 2

So, please, stop telling me that our schools are fully-funded or that our budget is as big as it can get because my second graders can show you that it’s not.  I feel lucky to work in a school with a principal who fights like crazy to get my students what they deserve and knows that they deserve more than what we’re able to give them.  But, at the end of the day, without a bigger budget, it’s out of her hands.  At this point, it’s hard to not see this budget as a value judgment about the lives and futures of my students.

I think I’ve changed my mind.  When I introduced this activity, I originally said I dreamed of a school with an outdoor garden that my students and I could use to grow healthy food.  Now I think I dream of a school where seven-year-olds don’t have to just dream about the schools they deserve.

Lily Holland teaches second grade in the Boston Public Schools.

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You Are Not Alone: The Value of Speaking Up, Together

Today’s post is written by second grade teacher and guest blogger, Emily Kaplan. On Saturday, May 21st Emily presented at the 6th annual Boston-Area Educators for Social Justice Conference with DEY’s Co-Director Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin. The workshop was titled: Defending the Early Years: Finding your voice as an early childhood activist. Emily is a reflective teacher who went from feeling discouraged and alone to feeling empowered – and part of a movement. How did that happen? We asked Emily to share her journey as an emerging activist, as a way to encourage and inspire other early childhood teachers. And that is precisely what happened on Saturday. Please read and share Emily’s story below:

You Are Not Alone:

The Value of Speaking Up, Together

Emily Kaplan

            Good morning! My name is Emily Kaplan, and I am so very excited to be sharing with and learning from you all here today.

 

Last year, I taught second grade at a “no excuses” charter school in Boston. In the past few months, I have written several articles about my experience there, as well as the systemic forces which support the existence and growth of these dangerous and counterproductive pedagogical environments.

 

A few days after an article I wrote was published in the Washington Post, an e-mail popped up in my inbox with the subject line “THANK YOU!!” It was from a woman who teaches at a charter school in another state.

 

“Hi Emily,” it began.

 

I don’t often do this, but I just wanted to thank you for writing your article about your experience in your no excuses charter school… While reading your article I felt like you must have been in my head reading my mind to have views so heavily aligned with mine. I also teach at a “no excuses” charter… We are seeing these exact trends in our kids from K-12th grade… I would repost your article but I won’t…yet…

 

As much as my article seemed to bring comfort to this woman, her e-mail brought me tremendous relief as well. I had been terrified to put my writing—my experience and my convictions— out into the world. I feared retribution, personally and professionally. What I feared most deeply, however, was that I was writing into a void: that it would turn out that no one would be listening at all.

 

But that is not what happened. After I began to write about my experiences, I heard from a lot of people. Some of them, as expected, were angry; I am proud to say that I recently had an entire Huffington Post article written about how short-sighted and simple-minded I am.

Most of the people I heard from, though, were educators who felt just as strongly as I did about the same topics. Many were young teachers from around the country whose thoughts and experiences were parallel to mine. Others were educators with decades of experience who wrote to say that I had voiced what they had been feeling for years, that the way this country educates its youngest students has changed for the worse. “I did not retire with joy as I hoped I would,” one teacher wrote. “We need to become a coalition and advocate for developmentally appropriate education for children.”

I agree, wholeheartedly. But I also think that we’re already partly there.

There are so many people who share this mission, and many of them have organized. I’m honored to be here today with Defending the Early Years, a group of brilliant, passionate, experienced educators and academics who fight the good fight, day in and day out. The Teacher Activist Group, The Badass Teachers Association, The Boston Education Justice Alliance: these groups are doing excellent work, and I credit them— 100%— for granting me the courage to take my first baby steps in joining the world of early childhood activism.

 

Last year, when I was teaching at the charter school, things were going— how do I say this diplomatically?— terribly. I struggled every single moment of every single day. And I began to think that not only was I a terrible teacher, but also that I was deeply crazy.

Nearly everyone around me, after all, seemed to be on the same page, downing the Kool-Aid like water at a marathon. I must have been the one who was wrong.

So, in desperation, I looked online. Was there anyone out there who felt and thought as I did? Was there any chance, that is, that I was not insane?

Within a few keystrokes, a whole world opened up. I was not the only one who felt this way— not by far. There were whole communities, organizations, books, academic careers devoted to dismantling the type of approach to education that I found myself in. No, I wasn’t crazy. And I was going to take start taking notes.

I transitioned from survival mode to journalist mode, from cowering in the corner to playing offense. For the rest of that school year, I viewed every troubling situation I found myself in, every example of the type of pedagogy I so deeply disagreed with, as material for my future writing.

This is how I got myself through my time at the charter school. And this is how I came full circle— to join, in baby steps, the community that helped me survive. We are not alone. And the more we band together, loudly, unapologetically, the stronger we will become.

 

Thank you.

 

To read more posts from Emily Kaplan check out:

How Parental Power(lessness) Distinguishes Suburban Public Schools from Urban Charters – originally published by EduShyster

and

All I Really Need to Know I (Should Have) Learned in Kindergarten – originally published by EduShyster

How Parental Power(lessness) Distinguishes Suburban Public Schools from Urban Charters

by Emily Kaplan

This piece originally appeared on EduShyster.com

This is how you get your child into a public school in an affluent suburb:

  1. Make a lot of money.
  2. Buy a house in an affluent suburb.

Congratulations! Your child will now receive a top-tier education!*

*If you ever feel that your child is not receiving the education to which she is entitled,  exercise your right to go directly to the administration and complain. (Your tax dollars pay their salaries, after all.) Work with teachers and administrators, many of whom have decades of experience, to create an individualized education plan for your child. Do not fear retribution: your child cannot legally be driven from the district in which you have chosen to live.**

**If you still feel that your child is not receiving the best education property taxes can buy, you may choose among several courses of action, including: going to the school committee (an elected board on which sits one or more parent representatives like yourself); running for a seat on said committee; sending your child to a private school; or moving to another suburb, where you may repeat the steps above until you are satisfied.

This is how you get your child into a Boston charter school:

  1. Possess the social capital to be informed about the existence of— and application procedures of— charter schools. (Good luck to recent immigrants, particularly those who do not speak English!)
  2. Make the harrowing decision that the education your child would receive in the local district school is so under-resourced and/or deficient, academically or otherwise, that you are potentially willing to tolerate one or more of the following characteristics of many charter schools:draconian discipline; an obsession with testing; a developmentally inappropriate curriculum; a curriculum which is not culturally representative of your family; an inexperienced team of teachers and administrators, many of whom have never taught in any other environment; treatment as a pawn in a drawn-out political ruckus about charter schools’ right to exist and/or expand (or not.)
  3. Attend lottery night, at which you will be informedby a charter school administrator that if— and only if— your child “wins the lottery,” he or she can have the chance to graduate from high school, gain acceptance to college, and succeed there. (According to her, if you “lose,” of course, the chances of your child having a fair shot in life are slim to none.)
  4. Look around the room of parents and their children, all of whom are just as desperate for quality education as you are.
  5. Realize that, statistically speaking, 90% of them will “lose.”

If you “win,” congratulations! Your child has a chance of receiving a decent education!*

*If you ever feel that your child is not receiving the education to which she is extraordinarily lucky to have “won,” well… she can always go back to the district you fled, right?school bus

*       *       *

Charter schools in Boston compare themselves to public schools in the city’s most affluent suburbs. If their students’ scores can match those of wealthy suburban children, they reason, they will face similarly abundant opportunities in life.

Even if scores are comparable, however, the schools themselves are not. While the best suburban schools provide students with a balanced school day and curriculum, enriched by a well-resourced environment led by experienced educators, the common charter school model is vastly different. Here, the school day is far longer (at many, children are in school for over nine hours), and even the youngest children have recess for only up to twenty-five minutes. (Where I taught last year, my second graders did not have recess until three in the afternoon, after they had already been in school for eight hours.) Suburban parents would never stand for the very things which make these schools distinctive: a rigid, punitive discipline system which suspends students as young as five; a pedagogical philosophy which prizes quantifiable outcomes above all else, thus elevating testing to the forefront of the curriculum; and an ultimately counterproductive ignorance of children’s developmental need for exploratory play.

These urban charters tend to be run by white women in their twenties whose lived experiences differ sharply from those of their students, who largely come from low-income families of color. Their charter schools feel like reflections of them, of armchair philosophies about what poor kids need, and not the kids themselves. (These schools’ ideas and “best practices”reverberate in the echo chamber of the no-excuses universe, made up of charter networks which seem less distinguishable from each other with each passing year.)

That is, while suburban schools feel like the neighborhoods in which they are situated, these charter schools certainly do not: in the words of one educator I know, they feel like “schools for black kids run by white people,” imposed upon the communities they supposedly serve. And they feel like this, I think, due to all of the reasons listed above, but also in no small part to the parent recruitment process: while parents with means move to the suburbs because they want their children to attend “good schools,” urban parents who can’t afford to move out of the city must choose among a set of dismal options.

In a nutshell, then: suburban parents run toward; urban parents run away. Running toward is empowering; escaping never is.

Politically and financially, affluent suburban parents own their children’s schools. Parents of students at urban charters, however, better not push their luck. (They “won the lottery,” after all.) Suburban parents can question the system all they like; ultimately, they are the system. Charter parents are certainly not— and by questioning it, they have everything to lose. (The racial undertones of this environment—black parents should be grateful for the education these white educators so generously provide— are significant.) Unlike suburban students who attend district schools, students at urban charter schools can be expelled or pushed out— and no parent wants to be forced back to the district which drove them to enter the charter lottery in the first place.

Urban charters wield this power to ensure compliance from students and parents alike. The strict discipline for which charters are infamous is applied to parents as well as their children. Unlike at suburban schools—where parents are welcomed to join the PTA, to volunteer, to lead projects, and to meet with an administration that must earn their support—parental involvement at many urban charters is as unidirectional as it is punitive. If a student accumulates enough behavioral infractions, for instance, he or she must serve an in-school suspension until the parent is able—on one day’s notice—to take time off of work in the middle of the school day to observe the child in class for an hour and a half. Teachers and administrators threaten students who break the rigid rules of the school with parental involvement: “If your behavior doesn’t get better,” they tell these five- and six- and seven-year-olds, many of whom come from families struggling to make ends meet, “your dad will have to keep missing work to come here. You don’t want him to be fired, do you?” Parents who do not comply are told that the school may not be for them.

Take it or leave it, be grateful, kowtow: we know what’s best for your child.

Ultimately, this serves no one.

Last year, I had a student whose family and pediatrician believed she had a learning disability; I suspected the same. The parent was desperate for a way to help her child; she requested a school evaluation so that the girl could qualify for special education services. Before the meeting, for reasons I still do not fully comprehend, the school determined that the child did not qualify for services. When I expressed discomfort with this decision, I was informed that the staff members who had performed the evaluation— not me, not the pediatrician who had known the child from birth, and certainly not the child’s mother— were somehow the incontrovertible experts on this child and her learning needs. (Furthermore, I was icily informed, because I had questioned the school’s decision, I was no longer welcome at the meeting where this news would be broken to the parent.)

At a suburban school, a parent would have the power to challenge this determination; here, the parent’s only recourse was to remember— as administrators sighed at the end of almost every internal evaluation meeting— that “at least she’s not in public school.”

Perhaps, but that misses the point: charter schools should strive to provide the best education possible, not just one some deem the lesser among evils. Without parental involvement at all levels, however, charters will continue to stagnate in the ways that matter most. The steps for success, then, seem abundantly clear.

This is how wealthy suburban schools succeed:

1. Put children and parents in the driver’s seat.

This is how urban charter schools would succeed:

1. Put children and parents in the driver’s seat.

Emily Kaplan is an elementary school teacher living in Boston. She has taught in urban public, urban charter, and suburban public schools. Contact her at emilykaplan@post.harvard.edu.

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Senior Advisor Nancy Carlsson-Paige Reflects on the 2016 Network for Public Education Conference

The 2016 Network for Public Education Conference, held April 15-17 in Raleigh, NC, is truly an experience—something hard to describe.  For a few days in April, education and social justice activists from around the country come together in a burst of energy and synergy to share lives and ideas and to build an education movement for equity and justice for all children.

I was glad that Denisha Jones, DEY National Advisory Board member, and I attended because our session was the only one focused exclusively on young children.  Our panel was called T-E-S-T and Not PLAY is a Four-Letter Word:  Putting the Young Child and the Teacher at the Center of Education Reform.  Susan Ochshorn, early childhood author and journalNPE 2016 3ist, moderated, and we were joined by Michelle Gunderson, first grade teacher and early childhood leader in the Chicago Teachers Union. We covered many issues in a short time including the decrease in play and active learning in classrooms for young children, the disproportionate effects of corporate education reform on black and brown children and those in low-income communities, and the need to strengthen our advocacy for young children.  Lots of folks attended the session and I was really glad we were there to connect early childhood issues to the larger landscape of education reform that were the focus of the conference.

Many people came up to me over the course of the three days in Raleigh to tell me how they follow DEY, appreciate us, and benefit from using our materials.  It was really heNPE 2016 2artening to realize that we are voicing important ideas and issues that might otherwise not be accessible to teachers and parents.  People are using the papers we’ve put out in a variety of ways as well as our fact sheets, and many say they read our website regularly.

At the conference, we learned about many new documentary films being made about the current state of education in our country.  All of these films and how to order them are listed on the NPE website.   In a separate session we saw a “fine cut” preview of the almost finished documentary Backpack Full of Cash.  This film is being made by Sarah Mondale and Vera Aranow who made the PBS series called SCHOOL which received so much acclaim.   Their new film unwraps the movement to privatize our nation’s schools, telling a straightforward and understandable narrative through the eyes of the communities affected.   The film should be out in the coming year and I think its time is right.

On Saturday, we listened to a riveting keynote speech from Reverend William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of NAACP, about the history of racism in our schools and the continuing reality of systemic racism that permeates our society today.  Rev. Barber is a gifted orator who can move his listeners to new levels of awareness by his artistic crafting of words and powerful delivery.Themes of charter schools, over-testing, privatization, racial justice, poverty, global education, democracy, and public education ran through the speeches and sessions of the conference, helping all of us to heighten our understanding and also our resolve to continue our work.  I felt re-energized about our work at Defending the Early Years, proud of what we do, sure that we should keep on.

Maybe next year YOU will want to attend the Network for Public Education conference—you won’t be disappointed!

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Emily Kaplan’s reflections on “No Excuses” charter schools – Please Read and Share

On Thursday, an important essay was posted in Jennifer Berkshire’s brilliant blog
EduShyster. This post, All I Really Need to Know I Should’ve Learned in Kindergarten, was written by Boston-area elementary teacher, Emily Kaplan. The post has already been featured on ECE PolicyWorks, and here at DEY we hope that the piece will continue to gain traction and attention. We believe in ampliphying teachers’ voices, which have been drowned out and often discounted in our national conversation about education policy and reform. In her essay, Kaplan documents her experiences and observations teaching at a “No excuses” charter school, as compared to other teaching experiences she has had. She poses many questions, including the following:

…what if a necessary component of improving the long-term prospects of small children from disadvantaged backgrounds is not accelerating through childhood, but purposefully lingering in it?

Kaplan’s piece also opens the door for important conversations about race, poverty and education. The following is the comment left by DEY’s Senior Advisor, Nancy Carlsson-Paige:

This is a terrific article that I will share widely. Thanks, Emily, for seeing through the smokescreen of rote learning and chants for success which have just about nothing to do with real learning in the early years. Thanks too for great descriptions of developmentally sound education–the place where kids gain the deep capacities for real success: thinking deeply, solving problems, imagining and creating, inventing, getting along with others, gaining confidence socially and as learners. And thanks to Dienne for naming exactly a problem we white early childhood educators have. We need stronger alliances, more diverse voices and more trust across groups if we are going to give all young kids the best education possible. And Emily, thanks for naming poverty as an obstacle to that goal. We can’t solve it all in the schools.

Click here to read Emily Kaplan’s full essay on the EduShyster blog, and don’t forget to also check out the comments!

DEY at NAEYC’s Annual Conference

DEY Panel at NAEYC
Our DEY panel at NAEYC received a standing ovation! Diane Levin facilitated our panel on the challenges of the Common Core – drawing on the expertise of Joan Almon, Constance Kamii and Lilian Katz. Their messages, which are captured in the advocacy reports they have all published with DEY, truly resonated with the audience. We were able to archive much of the session on video, and have added the clips to our Defending the Early Years’ YouTube Channel.
You can also watch clips from our organizing meeting with Denisha Jones. We had over 50 people in attendance to work with us in identifying key educational issues as well as potential next steps for dealing with the issues. Thanks to Blakely Bundy for her immense help in making this event a success!