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Play-centered curriculum demands hard work from students and teachers alike    

A preschool student kneels in front of a huge pile of what seem to be hundreds of plastic dogs and bugs. He’s been asked to sort them into separate bins. He accepts the assignment enthusiastically. As he works, teacher Elizabeth Bakst turns to her adult visitor and explains that sorting objects is a key first step in exposing a young student to the basics of mathematics.

She then turns to the student and begins helping. "I am picking up the bugs with my left hand," she says to the student, "and the dogs with my right hand. How are you doing it?"

"Fast!" he exclaims, without hesitation.

This is just the kind of cute misunderstanding that charms adults when they visit Gordon’s preschool. But when asked about it later, Bakst uses it to illustrate just how rich even the smallest exchange is in the preschool classroom.

"He said ‘fast’ and that was really how he was doing it. He was going as quickly as he could. I wanted him to know that there were other strategies that could be used." "When I made that remark I was hoping to suggest to him that if he had stopped for a moment to reflect on how he was doing it he might come up with a better way to do it. I wanted to encourage him to stretch his thinking."

Bakst’s teaching partner Kristen Fraza echoed Bakst’s analysis. "That really is how we do it, and it does work. And eventually, that student will be able to come to the table with a strategy before they start sorting the animals."

Preschool is a world where something as simple as cleaning up plastic animals can become a gateway to math, and every brief exchange represents an opportunity to teach important life skills.

"The idea is to be aware that something that might be offhand in another context can have great meaning here," explains Bakst.

"The students are thinking about everything. It is our responsibility to make sure what they are thinking about is what is important."


Many Decisions All Day Long

A typical preschool class is made up of 18 four- and five-year-olds. The days are each the same: a well-planned course of activities that each last between 45 and 90 minutes. Every day, students come together as a full class, or in groups of nine or ten. They also have the opportunity to work by themselves as well as in pairs and in groups of three and four.

When the class gathers as a whole, they take turns contributing to a group conversation, or explore a book with a teacher. The rest of the day’s work takes place in "centers" — play areas created by carefully positioned furniture and low dividers. The Book Center, the Block Center, Housekeeping, Computer, Sand, and Art are some of the constants in the classroom landscape.

"Take Apart" is another favorite Center, where students use tools to disassemble VCRs, alarm clocks and other appliances that are past their prime. Other Centers come and go according to student interest. After only four months of this school year, the students have already constructed a Castle Center, exhausted its possibilities, and dismantled it. A Shoe Store and a Post Office have also popped up over the course of the year.

"If you peek into the class it often just looks like a lot of hubbub, but if you stand next to one student for two minutes you will see that they are each working very hard," says Bakst. At the beginning of a recent morning, more than half of the students fell immediately into quiet concentration, pursuing projects alone or in groups of two or three. Four children set upon the "Galaxy Explorer" space-themed play area in a burst of boisterousness but after a few minutes they too had moved on to more focused work. Bakst’s "hubbub" buzzes along, but every child is doing something.


Structure First, Then Freedom

The schedule for each day is similar, and for good reason. "A predictable environment is necessary to give them true freedom to inquire," says Bakst. The students arrive and they know what is going to happen that day, and this helps them feel powerful and comfortable.

Within this framework, students shape the day according to each student’s individual interests, as well as the dynamics that form in the whole group. Fraza and Bakst have created the context; the students decide what they want to do with it. Projects are not assigned, but arise out of the students’ imagination. Fads often sweep through the room — one week everyone is writing letters to everyone else, the next week mapmaking might be all the rage. One day everyone made paper cellphones.

The instructors even enlist the students’ help in designing the classroom. They help generate the rules when they create a new Center and help decide what will go in it. This exercise provides an opportunity for instruction. Says Fraza: "We ask them ‘what would you need in order to do this? If you want a writing area, what would you need there? What do writers use?’"


Constant Conversations

When students are invited to express their own ideas, it helps fulfill another classroom goal: building the students’ language skills. "So much of the work is getting children to verbalize what they are doing," says Early Childhood Director Maureen Kelly. "We are constantly setting up situations where the kids have to verbalize to make the situation work. As they hear, and consider, each other’s ideas, children become capable of seeing beyond their own view of a situation."

"The conversations are constant," confirms Fraza. "There is not anything that goes on that is not discussed at length. That’s a big part of what we do."

In a recent class, Bakst could be seen using a conflict between two students as an opportunity for instruction in social and emotional skills as well as verbal acuity. She carefully directed the conversation between the students, sketching out the framework of the conversation while making the students themselves fill in the blanks.

"Turn around so she can see your face," to one. "Did you hear what she said?" to the other. "It sounds like she might be saying you hurt her feelings," to the first, "is that right?"

Bakst is doing more than simply keeping the peace; she is showing them how to empathize, building each child’s social skills while fostering a warm and positive climate throughout the group. "After they learn to solve problems and resolve conflicts in the group," says Kelly, "children bring this experience with them and use it in their daily interactions."

Teachers’ Best Work Is Invisible To Students

The students help create the rules and the activities of the classroom. But the daily curriculum is student-led on a much deeper level as well. Teachers observe the children carefully, and constantly orchestrate contexts in which each student’s bright ideas will shine. Often, Bakst and Fraza’s best work is invisible to the student, as they guide and prod each learner without breaking the momentum of their curiosity and imagination.

In a recent class Fraza issued a steady stream of carefully worded hints, spurring kids into a variety of actions without ever giving them a direct instruction. "Whose name are you going to write next?" she asks a beginning writer who is beginning to lose his concentration. To a group who had just fashioned snowmen out of plastic spoons, she casually says, "If you guys need to do a puppet show just let me know."

"We try to ask open ended questions," explains Bakst. "Instead of ‘What is that?’ we ask ‘Can you tell me about that?’ That is a richer and more authentic question, and it won’t just get a one or two word answer. It gets them going."

"We will also model activities for kids," says Fraza. "They will see us make lists, write down recipes, and make lists of what we need to buy. And in their presence, the two of us will discuss what we need to do in order to get something done."

Sometimes inanimate objects do the work. For instance, the students’ interest in writing is fueled by the array of written materials left throughout the room as props for play. Telephone books, address books and old magazines are constantly being pressed into service as students engage in role-playing and pretend games.

Perhaps the teachers’ most powerful and most subtle tool for leading the classroom is their power to leave certain things out of the classroom. The room is so packed with tools and toys that it is not clear that anything is missing. But rest assured that everything in the room has been given careful consideration. The teachers are quite sensitive to how a small choice about what to bring into the room can have a large impact on the student’s learning.

"If we have tape out," says Fraza, "they won’t use anything else to attach two things together. They won’t use glue, they won’t use string, they won’t find another solution. But if there’s no tape out they will discover how else they can do it, and they will each come up with their own solution."

Constant Evaluation

When the teachers aren’t interacting with the students, they are observing them carefully. The two teachers take notes throughout the day and communicate with each other constantly. Friday afternoons are set aside for building the curriculum and comparing notes. The changing dynamics in the classroom give them a clear idea of what’s working and what needs changing "We’ll say to each other ‘They are painting letters in art.’ ‘They are writing in the telephone books’," says Fraza "It‘s time to ask them if they want a writing center."

The two of them also closely follow each student’s growth. Preschool-age children develop quickly, and goals and expectations must vary for each student. An age difference of only a few months, for instance, can create a visible difference in two children’s skills and dispositions.

For that reason, success looks different for each student. "We have goals for each one," says Fraza, "we know where they need to go and watch their progress from a to b." And there’s work to do with every student. "For instance, you almost never see a child who is interested in both numbers and in letters at any given time," says Bakst. "There’s always another challenge."

But when asked if there is an overarching goal of the program, a way that the teachers know they are succeeding, Fraza answers right away:

"When I hear that the kids enjoy going to school, I know we’re doing good work. And when I see a student get deeply engaged, in whatever they are doing in the classroom, I know that that student is succeeding."

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