Thoughts on Play in Preschool

I observed a half hour of socio-dramatic play in the gym room with preschoolers at Chinatown Learning Center. During the gym time, teachers split the group of twenty students into three groups in three areas of the gym- a slide area, an open area with different gross motor games, and a bike area. I observed a teacher interact with a rotating group of five to six students in the gross motor area with large blocks. The ages of the students ranged from three to five, and students’ responses to the teacher speaking in English varied, as students have varying levels of English proficiency.

The teacher first helped students set out the blocks, then said to students, “Let’s make an airplane!” Some students responded, saying “Ok!”, smiling and pulling out blocks. The teacher put some large blocks together and prompted students to add by saying, “We need a wing, why don’t you put that block here?” Students went along with the teacher, who seemed excited and interested. Once the plane was fully built, the teachers asked with enthusiasm, “Who will be the pilot?” with the first group. One or two eagerly jumped up, raising their hands. The teacher said, “Ok, if you want to be the pilot, you have to fly the plane!” and demonstrated turning the wheel different ways to go straight, up, down, left and right. A five year old sat and moved the steering wheel in all directions. The teacher then said, “We need passengers!” The students did not respond, so she pointed to the back seat and said, “Sit, sit!” Students responded to the gesture, sitting in the back. Then the teacher counted down from ten using her fingers, during which a few students stopped all action and stared. The teacher said, “Blast off!” and the pilot began moving the wheel. The teacher showed passengers how to put their arms out like they were flying. After about three minutes, the passengers got up, distracted by something. The teacher said, “Wait, you can’t jump out of the plane! Where is your parachute?!” Some children did not respond (probably due to lack of English skills), but one child quickly made the motion of putting on a parachute, then smiling and running away.

The last group of students had a four year old pilot (S.) who eagerly raised her hand when the teacher asked who wanted to be pilot. She followed the teacher’s movements for flying the plane in different directions. For about ten minutes, she played, moving the wheel in different directions and saying things like, “Here we go!” and making flying sounds. She then said, “We’re here!” The teacher played off of S.’s suggestion, saying, “We’re in the jungle!”, pretending to look around. S. sat and put her hand as a shade above her eyes, looking in all directions. Suddenly, S. said, “Oh no, there are tigers!” and pretended to get in the plane quickly. She then made shooting noises, pretending to fight off the tigers vigorously. Her face looked determined and her whole body launched into the activity. The teacher said, “Ok, I think they’re gone, let’s take off!” S. said, “Let’s go!” and made sounds for taking off, driving the plane. The other teacher banged a drum and said, “Clean up!” and S. and the other students stopped playing and began to clean up.

This play scenario with the airplane described remains unique, as the teacher scaffolded a higher level of play. When teachers do not engage with students during play, they miss the importance of sustained, shared thinking where adults and children co-construct understandings and explore cognitive challenges (Dockett, 2011). The play allowed different age levels of students to engage and students with limited English to understand the scenario with gesture and sounds. The teacher scaffolded a higher level of play in particular by helping students to enact different roles and giving suggestions for the narrative created together. Although students did not initiate the play, the teacher provided a scenario and had students play off of it on their own. The teacher supported students in using their sound and movement to create a scenario, and the teacher’s prompts helped sustain the play and supported students continuing to enact specific roles within the scenario.

As the teacher engaged students in play, I noticed different types of engagement. Students at different levels practiced language, socio-emotional, behavioral and general problem solving skills through the airplane scenario. Students had to persist at being the “pilot” flying the plane, the “repairman” fixing the wing, and even sitting still as the “passengers”, supporting self regulation and developing “[…] a more complex hierarchical system of immediate and long-term goals” (Bodrova & Leong, 2004, p. 7). Simply engaging in this play with others helped students to practice behavioral and social-emotional skills. They used blocks as a symbol for something else, saw their actions within a narrative, considered their role in relations to others in the play, and sustained their role. Bodrova & Leong (2004)  explain how play supports,“[…] complex cognitive activities, such as memory, self regulation, distancing and decontextualization, oral language abilities, symbolic generalization, successful school adjustment, and better social skills” (Bodrova & Leong, 2004, p. 6).

 As a future Early Childhood or early Elementary teacher, I hope to look for students’ natural excitement and engagement as a jumping off point for learning. Active engagement with students during play allows for teachers to connect with students emotionally as well as intellectually, supports students in knowing that teachers care for their self-worth, and gives teachers a chance to dive into students’ natural interest. However, in thinking of my own practice, I won’t be able to fully support students’ development without knowing their understandings, needs, and abilities and reflecting on how to support and extend these through play. A socio-cultural view of play sees educators’ roles as providing “[…] appropriate scaffolding and support as children are challenged to co-construct new knowledge, skills and understandings” (Dockett 2011, p. 35). The teacher must observe students to know where to focus their learning and what skills to develop through play. The teacher’s role also involves bringing in appropriate resources to support play. For example, in my future practice, I can consider bringing in images related to the imaginary scenario of interest to support students who are currently learning English.

In my future practice, I hope to be an advocate for the type of play observed in this report to both support students at their current level of need and to communicate with families. Bodrova & Leong (2004) explain how it does not occur to many teachers that they need to support play and that in recent studies, “[…] it was taken for granted that most children knew how to play, and those who did not would learn from other children” (p. 4). As schools section off students by age, students do not get a chance to learn higher levels of play from older students. Teachers must not only teach children how to play, but also observe and document students’ behaviors and dialogue to support their next level of learning. Simply understanding higher-level play remains important in being able to identify it and support it and results in “[…] a positive effect on development of foundational skills, including cognitive and emotional self-regulation and the ability to use symbols” (Bodrova & Leong, 2004, p. 6). With a push for academics and a pressure for school readiness, many preschool and early Elementary teachers currently see their roles as getting students to learn basic numeracy, phonics, letter and number recognition, and writing skills. However, many of the skills I observed the teacher support and students practice during the airplane play showed me how these skills are supported by play experiences. For example, simply using symbolic language with children “[…] involves cognitive decentering. This newly acquired competency will later enable children to to coordinate their cognitive perspectives with those of their learning partners and teachers” (Bodrova & Leong, 2004, p. 7). Many taken for granted skills that support students’ learning throughout school and create lifelong learners are given fertile ground to grow within play. An understanding of the importance of play as well as experiences supporting play can help me to develop a classroom that provides a strong foundation for students’ development and learning.


Works Cited:

Bodrova & Leong (2011) Revisiting Vygotskian perspective on play and pedagogy: Rethinking Play and pedagogy in early childhood education: Concepts, contexts and cultures. P. 61-72. Routledge Press, New York.


Dockett, S. (2011) The Challenge of Play for Early Childhood Educators. Routledge Press, New York. p. 33-44


Kline, T. P., Wirth, D. & Linas, K. (2004) Play: Children’s context for development. Young Children: NAEYC. 58(3) p. 1-35.


Community Funds of Knowledge

In ED 625, Language, Diversity and Schooling at Arcadia University in Spring 2016, I worked in a group investigating the history and experiences of Iraqi Americans. Our investigation involved research and field work in an adult ESL program in Northeast Philadelphia. The history investigation allowed us to look into the barriers for Iraqi Americans for finding jobs after immigrating to America. Our fieldwork at Grow Northeast allowed us to see the process of learning English for a variety of adult English language learners. We were able to not only observe language classes, but also have conversations with the adult learners that gave us insight into experiences for adult English language learners and recent immigrants to the U.S. A focus on Iraqi-Americans as a particular cultural group enabled us to investigate the experiences related to employment in Iraq and in America. By focusing on a particular cultural group, we were able to learn about the struggles and assets of a particular linguistic and cultural community.

Empowering Parents

Readings and experiences this past week have solidified the importance of bringing the expertise and cultural capital of ESL families in particular into the school environment. Arias & Morillo-Campbell (2008) explain how professional development, school structures and policy around including ELL families needs to move to acknowledging families’ strengths and tools instead of focusing on their deficits. The interviews with Iraqi-Americans at my field work location so far have helped me to learn about issues some immigrant parents face related to being involved in the school culture and community. Arias & Morillo-Campbell explain the co-occurring complications that often contribute to a mismatch between ELL families and school culture. (School culture is often the dominant, white, middle class culture.) They explain how ELL families also come from low-income households or experience linguistic isolation. “In 2000, 68% of ELL students in Prek-5th grade were low income, 60% of students in 6-12th grades” (Arias & Morillo-Campbell, 2008, p. 6). Four of the six of the Iraqi-Americans I have interviewed so far do not have jobs due to not having the skill set related to jobs in America, being busy with taking care of family obligations, or linguistic barriers. As a teacher, understanding the full situations of these parents would both provide a place of reciprocity from which to communicate, and create a starting point for involving parents as advocates and key members of a team of supports for students.

Understanding that parents have resources and can be empowered to participate in their children’s education comes first from a shift in mindset. As Arias & Morillo Campbell explain, many ELL parents come from limited formal schooling or have limited literacy in their own language. Parents often come from particular literacy levels, employment and experiential backgrounds that are different from the dominant school culture. As Hollins (2015) explains, the school culture often reflects that of the larger culture, as well as the “[…] values and norms of the society for which they have been developed” (Hollins, 2015, p. 37). Understanding that parents may view school as intimidating or see the role of school in their children’s lives as something different than a teacher may expect might be a first step in empowering parents. Parents’ approach not only to school but how they see their children’s role in the school is often shaped by their experiences. Kalyanpur & Harry (2012) give the example of a special education student named Sylvia. Sylvia’s parents did not attend enough formal school to learn how to read, and they saw Sylvia’s literacy as the most important aspect of her schooling. To Sylvia’s parents, literacy was the key for her to access resources they did not have access to. Sylvia’s disability prevented her from reading, but Kalyanpur & Harry describe how the school team had to revise their goals to focus on advocacy to get supports for Sylvia’s literacy. In this case, parental voice outweighed the professional decisions of special education teachers. Arias & Marillo-Campbell describe the importance of not marginalizing parents or seeing them as outsides and not viewing them from a deficit-oriented perspective. Arias & Marillo-Campbell (2008) describe Luis Moll’s theory of funds of knowledge as “as the essential bodies of knowledge and information found in local households used to survive or thrive” (p. 12). Understanding that parents’ perspective on their child’s needs remains just as if not more valuable than professional opinion is part of empowering families.
Arias & Morillo Campbell (2008) illustrate how bringing parents’ strengths into the classroom goes beyond traditional methods of involving parents in the school and educating them on school practices. Without utilizing and understanding cultural knowledge, schools and teachers cannot support and leverage parental expertise. Arias & Morillo Campbell (2008) explain, “[…] developing ELL parental involvement includes supporting families, promoting communication, and advocacy for empowerment” (p. 11). Suggestions for empowering parents include teaching literacy practices and how these can be supported at home, using parental input to form school curriculum, supporting parental advocacy and connection to community partnerships for the needs of the school community, and family integration into the school culture. (Arias & Morillo Campbell, 2008 p. 12-13) The Iraqi-American people I interviewed were quick to emphasize their areas of capacity and interest. They talked about their jobs managing a laundry shop, teaching Arabic language, and working in a Doctor’s office. They spoke of their knowledge of political science and their experiences volunteering for human rights efforts. Examples of involving these parents could include having them teach Arabic in an after school club, or having them attend policy meetings with teachers. Helping parents such as these to advocate for their children would not only respect their expertise and skills, but also empower them to “shift the power differential in their favor” (Arias & Morillo Campbell, 2008 p. 15-16).


Hollins, E. (2015). Culture in school learning (3rd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

M. B. Arias & M. Morillo-Campbell (2008) Promoting ELL parental involvement: Challenges in contested times. Education Policy Research Unit.

Embarking on an Elementary Math Adventure…


Much of my mathematics learning in early Elementary school seemed to be focused on discrete skills and rote learning absent of context. Math seemed compartmentalized from experiences, “[…] a series of topics, skills to memorize, chapters in a book” (O’Connell, p. 1). I never thought of math as “problem solving” to begin with- this term implies too much independence. Instead, my early days of math made me at worst think of math as a set of prescriptions outside of my understanding that I had to apply without an express reason. If these prescriptions were not applied properly, I often was incorrect without room for argument. “Being good at math was measured by correct answers that could often be found by applying a memorized formula or algorithm” (O’Connell, p. 1). Worried I would get the “wrong” answer, I often felt a sense of inadequacy or unease while doing math that I continue to feel pervading my work with Elementary learners as I help them through math concepts. For a visual and tactile learner, concepts were difficult to grasp without being made clear visually or with hands-on examples. I learned how to multiply and divide, but I didn’t seem to fully understand what I was doing in the process. A relatively eager and quick learner in all other subjects, math eluded my understanding in a way that caused me to view it as a necessary evil lacking joy or relevance.

Success in math due to high parental involvement and brief spikes of insight continue to stick out in my mind. I remember reviewing multiplication tables with my mom, who would drill flash cards until I felt frustrated and tired. Math came easy to my parents and older brother, who seemed impatient when tutoring me. Geometry came easily to me as a visual-spatial learner, and math seemed accessible up until eighth grade, with the advent of obtuse proofs. I remember getting big hugs from my eighth grade math teacher and eleventh grade pre-calculus teachers for doing well on tests after months of struggle and confusion. A linguistic learner and prevalent journal writer, I still remember writing in my journal in junior high, “I hate math! It’s annoying! But do you want to know a secret? I kind of like how annoying it is! It makes me mad, but that’s kind of fun!” This frustration was different from disinterest, and might have pointed to my interest in the problem solving process that at times makes math an enjoyable puzzle. However, into pre-calculus in high school, I began to feel primarily frustration as I attempted to untangle what I saw as the abstract world of pre-calculus. Every day in class felt like a forced process, and I felt so far removed from relevance that I didn’t take math as a subject at all in my senior year in high school.

My current relationship with math has been colored by more positive experiences than I had in my early years and through junior high and high school. I took statistics in college for a Minor in Psychology, and finally saw how math could be relevant in its relation to human stories. In pursuing art in college, I used math to measure frames and prints, and to mix color proportions for inks for screen printing. These processes helped me work through real-world applications of math skills. As I have worked with preschool through sixth grade students in the past three years, I have learned to appreciate the mental processes involved in mathematics and how these develop in learners. Teaching math to preschoolers and helping Elementary students with math homework has helped me to find ways of understanding math on my own so I could transmit understanding to others. I have begun to look at some concepts that I thought I understood in new and clearer ways through working with young math learners. For example, I have always had to count on my fingers for simple arithmetic, but have learned how to chunk number groups to make adding and subtracting an easier mental process. I am excited about the idea of math being a way of understanding the world and that skills and understandings related to math can be generalized to logic and problem solving in all areas of learning.

I hope to learn ways of making math accessible for all types of learners, especially ones that have learning styles that may be antithetical to those typically proficient in math. I hope to learn tactile, kinesthetic, auditory, visual and even linguistic learning strategies for understanding math concepts. I want to teach in a way that helps learners of different levels of confidence and with different strengths approach math and find ways of making the problem solving process engaging. I want to help students see the importance of their own sense making and reasoning, with content that remains relevant to their current and future passions. In this process, I hope to get a firmer grasp of which math concepts and strategies should be of focus for different grades and how to teach these for different levels of developmental readiness. I hope to build a toolbox of skills and strategies to reach learners at different levels of interest and readiness. My goal as an educator is to help all students access the world from a place of confidence, and I hope that my math teaching can help a variety of learners make sense of their world.

O’Connell, S. (2013) Putting practices into action: Implementing the common core standards for mathematical practice, K-8. Heinemann.

Culture in School Learning: A Response


In Chapters 3 and 4 of Hollins, “Culture in School Learning: Revealing Deep Meaning”, I was challenged to think about the importance of understanding my own racial identity and the racial identity of my students. As Hollins (2015) describes, issues of racial identity can bring up emotional reactions. Even if it is difficult to confront your own background and how it relates to others’, everyone has an identity to negotiate in relation to others. Every identity has difficult parts to confront that may make an individual uncomfortable. Hollins explains how each family has its own history of empowerment and disempowerment, and a core lack of understanding feeds into the idea that some racial groups have inherently higher status than others. “There are cycles of education, ignorance, oppression, poverty, and power within the history of a single family or those affiliated with a particular surname” (Hollins, 2015, p. 59). Hollins (2015) argues the importance of the “journey inward”, which involves understanding one’s own cultural biases and experiences and how negotiating these biases and experiences can help create a more informed interaction with the outside world. Minority racial groups have had more stigma and racism to contend against in America since Euro-Americans decided to claim themselves as the majority group. However, all racial groups have their own issues to confront. As teachers, we need to be especially aware of how our background and the ingrained messages from our families and experiences color how we interact with students.

Hollins highlighted how the dichotomy of “white” and “other” has been constructed through America’s history of racial tensions, and the idea of “white” only exists in opposition to “non-whites”. The author even goes on to explain that “white” racial identity is based on the victimization of “non-whites”.  I consider myself Euro-American, and grew up in a school and district with a large percentage African American students. My school attempted to teach equality education, and although I think it was well intentioned, I think racial dichotomies were perpetuated and the value of understanding different races and cultures was not fully explored. The dichotomy of “white” and “non-white” pervaded and continues to pervade much of the dialogue. I believe that our culture needs to move to communicating the message of the importance understanding every cultural group as unique and providing crucial resources and perspectives. Looking and cultural groups for their unique background remains more complicated and nuanced and requires more work than categorizing groups of people. One example of validating the cultural capital of every group includes understanding that Euro-Americans have their own culture, and are not the “normal” or “standard” cookie cutter person that should be considered truly American.

For the past three years, I have worked with Chinese American students, many of whom are from families that recently immigrated. The school environments I find myself in through field work have mostly had Chinese-American students as well as high numbers of African American students. It remains possible that these students see me as the one in power; the “normal” American. They may alternately view themselves as the “other”. I have noticed the Chinese-American students I work with negotiating their identities when they say that they are American, but their parents are still Chinese. Many of them seem to value being American over being Chinese, which may have been passed down from the messages they get at home. As a teacher, it remains important to understand not only your own racial background but also students’ understanding of their racial background. Hollins (2015) argues that different racial groups learn about each other vicariously, learning how to think and feel about members of groups other than their own and often inheriting biases. A new African American student came into our group of only Chinese-American students, and I noticed tension in their interactions and behaviors. One Chinese-American student told me, “My parents told me that black people are bad! I don’t know why.” This startling comment gave me a stark awakening to understanding how racial bias is past down in families. Instead of blaming families for communicating prejudice, it remains important to understand that parents often communicate in ways that they find protect their children. Hollins (2015) explains, “Ogbu (1985) pointed out that parents prepare their children for the world as they experience it. That is, much of how students come to view the world is taken from their parents’ experiences” (p. 84).

All teachers will have diversity in their classroom, even if at first glance they see all of their students as “white” or as belonging to one racial and ethnic group. Understanding and incorporating that diversity into the classroom’s culture and bringing them in as resources in the classroom remains part of being an effective teacher. Hollins (2015) gives concrete examples of researching surname origins, giving student surveys based on reactions to both school and out of school environments, and getting to know parents’ cultural capital. Simple procedures for getting to know students can be employed, but need to be paired with the work of understanding how teacher and student identities shape all of their experiences in the classroom.

Hollins, E. (2015). Culture in school learning (3rd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

The Kindness of Strangers: A trip to Hive Chicago Buzz 2016

With my little roller suitcase, backpack and many layers to beat the cold, I trooped out of the subway and into the Philadelphia International Airport. Airports are built for people traveling, lacking English proficiency and generally confused about their location and direction. The fact that there were clearly demarcated areas for where to go did not stop me from walking in a large circle after being directed in an unclear way upon entrance to the airport. This was less a matter of confusion and more of a case of the nerves- before this day, I had avoided flying for a long time and had never traveled independently. So what changed this past weekend? Call it a new stroke of courage, or the breath of fresh air 2016 seems to have brought into my life, but I was about to embark on an adventure to Chicago.


On my way to the flight deck, I asked someone behind a desk where to go in a fit of confusion. He seemed to brighten slightly at my request, and I continued to stay in my spot and ask questions for what seemed to be longer than what he was used to. As he solved the problem, he took the time to ask what I did for a living, and relayed some of his experiences working with difficult youth in schools. “It was hard”, he said. I guess dealing with strangers at the airport can get mind numbing beside the challenge of teaching. He gave me advice on my transfer in Detroit and seemed to enjoy a rare moment actually being able to help someone who was grateful for the advice.


If I learned anything traveling for the first time independently to a unique and eye-opening conference, Hive Chicago Buzz, it’s that helping people can simply mean owning our own expertise, no matter how small. Being new to the busy world of travel opened my eyes to the daily good will that creates a fabric of interactions that keeps all of us afloat. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of grumpiness and selfishness in the world. Even so, a shift in line for someone else, a slight smile, an acknowledgement of mutual experience, an offer to lift a heavy bag, or an agreement to switch seats all have the power to shift outlook on the day.

HIMG_0147ive Chicago Buzz was all about empowering individuals to create change. The focus of the conference was on creating programs that increase accessibility for youth to independently create change. Sam Dyson, the leader of Hive Chicago, called it “Tequity”, or improving equity with technology.

I helped Kira Baker Doyle talk about how to look for trends in social networks- whether digital or otherwise. All participants had unique perspectives, whether working for a tech start up, a Chicago museum, a youth-centered nonprofit or for a educational gaming company. All participants were drawn to the discussion out of a need to draw from the resources that other human beings provide. Bringing together networks is like pulling together a puzzle of bits of knowledge. No one person or organization can do it all. It remains important to find ways to pull people together to show them the place for their puzzle piece.


As a future teacher, I was particularly interested in the youth-centered initiatives. I spent the afternoon getting to know RideW/Me, an app created by and for high school students that allows them to carpool safely to events in the city. The app was created through Chi Hack Night, where professionals including designers, web developers, journalists and activists work with anyone interested in creating civic-minded technology solutions. This event and the young people involved in it demonstrates how Chicago seems to have an energy based on bringing people from diverse backgrounds together and supporting their capacity to contribute their own little piece of expertise.IMG_0153.JPG

Part of my experience involved simply taking a step back and understanding what this Hive Chicago was all about. An energized organization, it seemed to me to be one of the more forward-looking groups of people I’ve had the chance to spend some time around. Like a busy bee hive, the organizers and participants seemed to always be on a mission, and the entire event had a structured yet unstructured feel. People were free to choose sessions out of interest, but commitment and hard work were encouraged. Everyone seemed ready to learn and passionate, although coming from different vantage points. As I crouched back to watch the innovation happen around me, I tried to remind myself that my contributions did not have to be Earth shattering or “open sourced/techno-savvy” to be valid or important. Different voices are just as important as the technical infrastructure supporting the proliferation those voices. All of this technology just means more of a chance for a level playing field where every voice matters.

My last morning in Chi-town!

As I sat nervously waiting for the first of my four short plane rides of the weekend to start, I saw the man I had talked to a half hour earlier make a bee line for me through the crowd. “Hi! It looks like you found your gate. Great! I’m just checking to see if you found your flight. Many are getting delayed or cancelled with all the snow!” I smiled and thanked him for his concern. As he walked away I noticed how meaningful that small connection felt in particular within the sea of people milling around us. On my first flight, I felt a camaraderie with the many strangers taking a leap of faith in the big metal tube careening through the sky. You can choose to feel alone on that plane, or part of something larger and much more complicated and incredible. I will secure my own life mask first, but that wouldn’t be worth it without someone to help beside me.

What Do I Expect from Elementary School? Not this.: Comments on a Reblog

Elementary school students are not young enough to understand the value of the work they do everyday. They naturally want their work to be purposeful and valued in the community. However, their developmental level and readiness needs to be acknowledged. They may want to run their own business, but they are developing the math, writing and social studies skills to understand what goes into that. Elementary school students are developmentally ready for exploration and play while beginning to have ownership over some of their decisions as they become more independent. They need to be able to develop these skills in a purposeful community- one connected to a larger community, valuing students’ agency and perspectives so that they may contribute something at large. I agree that a large part of the work Elementary school students should be doing in interpersonal, and understanding their emotions and those of others as well as how to work in a group are crucial. Of course all the work they are doing should be authentic in ways that connect with them as individual learners, and that help them to find their own strength and value. Unfortunately the curriculum and testing teachers and students get handed often reflects the larger society: one that values meeting deadlines over contemplation and reflection. I do feel that society is moving to a more value-driven base, but it takes time for change. A classroom that bolsters student voice and that gives them opportunities to find joy in learning remains crucial to counteract the messages they will be inevitably getting from the testing system and American society. I have yet to read “To Teach” or “Teaching for Social Justice” by William Ayers, but I think those are crucial for any teacher contemplating the value of imposed curriculum versus student-centered curriculum.
Highlights from this post:

“You’re educating children to know the life cycle of a plant in the 1st grade, when they haven’t learned how to tie their shoes or button their own pants after using the restroom. Maybe the focus should be on teaching them how to learn, instead of on what to learn.”

“It’s backwards logic that is being hailed as the solution to low test scores. Forcing more and more curricula at students at a younger age and a faster pace doesn’t make them better students. It doesn’t teach them skills. It gives them a shallow pool of non-relevant information that they may not remember past the test and don’t know how to apply in real life.”

“Elementary school should be about exploration, and exposure to vast amounts of very well-written books. Writing should be an opportunity to capture observations and imagination in a tangible form. Elementary education should include learning about history through storytelling, art, and music. It should be about dancing, and singing, and playing while developing social skills, communication skills, and interpersonal awareness. Elementary school science should be about questions and wonders, experiments and all things messy. Math should be taught as part of nature and daily life, and if it were introduced that way, children would not be afraid of it when the numbers show up. There should be no limit to the topics that can be explored in elementary school. It should be about how to become a learner…not about curriculum, and definitely not about testing.”

Boils Down to It

When I put my children on the bus in the morning, the wish I call out to them after kissing their heads, is, “Have a good day!” Pure and simple.

Now, I know that not every day can be a birthday party, and not all things in life should be made into a fun activity. My wish is not overly naïve or idealistic, it is simply that they enjoy their day at school.  It is my hope that even if there are moments of the day when things don’t go well, or times when they are frustrated, or they find something to be particularly challenging, the overall feeling when they return home is not negative.

I want them to have had enough positive experiences, enough moments of engagement, enough creativity and fun built into their day that “good” is the predominant mood descriptor.

That is not currently the case.


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Maker Spaces in Chicago

To start off 2016, I will be posting about different maker education and connected learning people, spaces and places, and writings that I have compiled. This Spring semester will be busy- I am going to be working for the University City Arts League for afterschool  and school day art classes at the Powel School, a K-4 public school in West Philly. I will (hopefully!) also be volunteering with Allison Frick, who has a maker space at the Glenside Library and works for the Hacktory in Philadelphia. I will also continue to work with Kira Baker-Doyle, who teaches at Arcadia University about Connected Learning and Literacy, as well as writes and speaks on connected learning, networked teacher communities, and maker spaces. I hope to bring this work together into bringing maker eHacktoryducation and connected education into my current and future classroom!

If all goes according to plan, I will be going to the Hive Chicago Buzz 2016– Hack Day this January! In honor of this hope, here is information on some outstanding and inspiring maker spaces, organizations and people who make Chicago a buzzing bee hive of maker education.

  1. YOUMedia

    Sponsored by the National Writing Project,YouMedia creates learning labs that are a model for engaging youth in out-of-school spaces, hands-on learning, mentoring and technology. Based on the YOUMedia model at Harold Washington Public Library in Chicago designed by the Digital Youth Network, these learning labs are decentralized, meaning they can be found throughout the country. YouMedia has resources for creating your own learning lab  and a toolkit that provides information on creating a maker spaces including creating the physical space, using digital tools, collaborating among organizations, mentors, and programming.

  2. YOUMedia Chicago

    Photo credit:

    YOUMedia Chicago is a digital learning hub that exposes a population not typically exposed to digital media resources to various forms of digital engagement. This comprehensive study talks about findings related to how youth use YOUMedia, how programs meet youth’s interests, the roles of staff, and how youth see their participation in YOUMedia. Connie Yowell, “Brother” Mike Hawkins and Mimi Ito, along with others helped to drive the study. The space has both unstructured access areas and structured after school programs. Students create and edit videos and music and engage in online networking and collaborative learning on YOUmedia online (a closed social network). The study talks about student- reported results and suggestions for creating similar spaces. Mike Hawkins, the former lead mentor for YOUMedia Digital Youth Network, details how the work plays out for students at YOUMedia Chicago and engages in a conversation about interest-driven learning in this online discussion. The YOUMedia Chicago Connected Learning Program Guide profiles five maker spaces with the common theme of being interest driven, peer supported, academically oriented, production centered, networked and focused on a shared purpose. Curriculum scope and sequence, student and teacher roles, core competencies gained through the project and offline and online tools are included for each maker space profiled.

  3. Digital Youth Network

    Photo credit:

    University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute founded the Digital Youth Network (DYN), cofounded by Aliki Lee. DYN develops technical, creative & analytical skills, with the desire to support urban youth in learning digital media. Coming from the research that urban youth have limited access to technology in their homes, Remix Learning creates a platform for organizations including schools to create a customized social learning network. DYN also publishes research on 21st century learning.

As I get my feet wet with a maker-centered 2016, I’m looking forward to making more connections between these amazing endeavors that bring students’ passions and the value of true engagement to the forefront. Here’s to an engaged, growth-centered and hands-on 2016.

A differentiated literacy learning environment

Foundations of Differentiation

Literacy remains foundational for all types of learning and in particular provides a challenge for early grades teachers due to the urgency of the curriculum and learning needs. Additionally, literacy curriculum’s effectiveness responds directly to individual culture and background experience. A culturally responsive literacy environment can help involve students in particular who may be at a disadvantage due to their readiness, interest or personal learning profile. “[…] no practice is truly best practice unless it works for the individual learner” (Tomlinson, 2001, p. 17).

A differentiated literacy classroom takes into consideration learner needs from many angles at once. Instructional design in the form of universal design for learning must be formed in a way to help learners access the curriculum from various entry points. The intersectionality of factors that create complex individuals in the classroom includes gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, abilities, needs, and strengths.

“The approach is rigorous, relevant, flexible, and varied while intended to meet students at personal instructional levels in efforts to maximize growth resulting in individual success” (Santamaria, 2009, p. 217). 

Preparing for students’ varying needs means preparing for students’ abilities, interests and readiness. While not every nuance of students’ unique profiles and needs can be prepared for in every lesson, the types of materials, content and environment a teacher creates directly reflects that teacher’s knowledge of and sensitivity towards student need.


“[…] while the image of a ‘standard issue’ student is comfortable, it denies most of what we know about the wide variance that inevitably exists within any group of learners” (Tomlinson, 2001, p. 9).

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“How teachers view their students, and ultimately how their students are constructed as learners, depends on the teachers’ assumptions and beliefs about knowledge; about teaching and learning; about the kinds of classroom roles they take on; and the roles they offer to students” (Gibbons, 2009, p. 165).

For example, Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences and Craig Pohlman‘s neurodevelopmental framework contend that we all have strengths, interests and areas that need support depending on our particular profile as learners. Understanding the needs of learners, whether through multiple intelligence surveys, psychoeducational evaluations, interest inventories, or more common informal assessments helps to understand the type of material and response that can best meet learner needs.

Not all learning can be accounted for in every lesson, unit or learning experience. For example, my second grade social studies unit shows how opportunities for different learning experiences that address learning style need to be built into the curriculum in ways that make sense for the particular curriculum and students in the classroom. In this second grade unit plan in particular, students were given many chances to speak, write and be engaged in movement with hands-on activities. While not every learning preference was addressed in this unit, students were given diverse opportunities for engagement and response.

Scaffolding for student readiness also remains dependent on the classroom profile available, and different scaffolds can be used at different times. In my second grade social studies unit, for example, scaffolds included one-on-one support, graphic organizers, slower pacing, and the use of visuals instead of text. These scaffolds could be provided for English Language Learners, students with IEP’s, students with behavioral problems or problems focusing, or students who have particular trouble with the tasks required of them in this unit. Scaffolds can be built into the lesson and can be made flexible to changing student needs. The teacher needs to plan as well as make on-the-ground judgments about the most necessary forms of differentiation and adaptation for that particular lesson or moment.

Literacy Differentiation

Even if a teacher sets up a multifaceted curriculum and learning environment with a variety of teaching techniques, materials and strategies, core components of true differentiation would still be missing. As with all teaching, understanding inherent biases toward student difference remains a backdrop to creating a classroom truly responsive to student needs.

Baines (2004) stresses in “(Un)learning Disability” that ability is not fixed, and teachers need to see their students with disabilities as whole people and not as a diagnosis. Baines further argues that students’ problems in the classroom may in part be due to curriculum or teaching styles that include “disabling practices” (p. 111). Bias and academic stereotypes about who can succeed often drives classroom behavior and interaction- based purely on race, gender and past behavior. Darvin (2015) writes how teachers need to ask themselves, “In what ways do I recognize or overlook, value or devalue the linguistic and cultural capital that learners come to class equipped with?”(p. 598).

Santamaria (2009) highlights Gloria-Ladson Billings’ research on what makes teaching culturally responsive, which includes, “teachers’ understanding of culture and the role of culture in education; teachers taking responsibility for learning about students’ and community; the teachers’ use of their students’ culture as a foundation for learning; and teachers’ support of the flexible use of students’ local and global culture” (p. 223).

Teachers who examine and work to understand their limited views of student potential can open up space for students to bring their own knowledge and experiences into the classroom. Understanding information about different ethnic groups as well as all students represented in the classroom  “[…] is needed to make schooling more interesting and stimulating for, representative of, and responsive to ethnically diverse students” (Gay, 2002 p. 107). Helping students to tell their stories and bring their knowledge to the literacy classroom in particular requires informed supports and curricular and instructional choices.

Techniques for a Culturally Responsive Literacy Classroom

  • Janus
    Janus, the Roman god of doors and entrances. (Photo cred)

    A “Janus Curriculum” looks both at students’ prior knowledge and experiences as well as curriculum outcomes and standards. “In a Janus curriculum, prior knowledge and the everyday language with which students are familiar together provide a bridge to new learning and academic language and literacies” (Gibbons, 2009, p. 59). Janus, the Roman god of doors and entrances, provides an apt metaphor for giving students entry points into the curriculum. Bringing in photos from home or talking about experiences alone does not make a curriculum that connects to students or that taps into their particular forms of meaning making. The more strategies and forms of input available to students, the more they will be able to connect from their own particular lens.

Student Voice and Interaction

  • Getting students to communicate in the classroom remains crucial in developing their literacy skills, which are always a flux of reading, writing, listening and speaking. Interaction develops Common Core-linked skills such as speaking and listening and acts not as a bi-product of the lesson, but should be explicitly planned for throughout. Gibbons (2009) emphasizes using communication-focused activities, in which the message is more important than the form, to get students using language for authentic purposes. Setting up opportunities for structured interaction around academic learning can be done throughout various formats, age groups and types of lessons.Daniel and Conlin (2015) specify that teachers often communicate with students in an “initiation, response, evaluation” pattern.  The teacher asks a question, the student responds, and the teacher makes a judgment or labels the answer as correct or not. Gay (2002) writes about how different cultures have different roles for speakers and listeners. Teachers need to understand students’ ways of communicating and honor them in the classroom in appropriate ways. “Because they are denied use of their natural ways of talking, their thinking, intellectual engagement, and academic efforts are diminished as well” (Gay, 2002, p. 111). Daniel and Conlin (2015) recommend re-voicing and building upon students’ ideas builds students’ oral language skills.

    Increasing interaction involves planning for simple ways for students to interact throughout the lesson, or through creating the structure throughout the lesson for students to rely on each other for expertise or to complete their work.
    (Echevarria, Vogt and Short, 2013).

  • Bailin (2014) talks about using “Where I’m From” poems with students to access their cultural experiences in the form of an engaging, empowering activity. She recommends doing a “Where I’m From” activity at the beginning of teaching any group of students, because it’s not possible to teach students without knowing them first. Students read the original poem by George Ella Lyon, and they create their own poem and visuals, then share in non-traditional ways, such as through speaking or digital storytelling. She argues that starting with this poem allows students to bring their own culture and experiences to the school community, creates a sense of trust, and shifts the typical power dynamic of the teacher transmitting knowledge to students.

Authentic Literacy Tasks

We have all experienced how reading or writing changes depending on the context and reason for the activity- whether we are writing an email, writing for ourselves or for an audience, or reading to find a particular answer versus reading for pleasure. Cummins et al. (2015) write that one-third of the association between reading performance and students’ socioeconomic status was mediated by reading engagement. (p. 561).

Many experiences created with reading and writing need to be offered to students to make them authentic.

“There is no one magic way to teach reading: learners need to be shown a variety of strategies to use in reading texts, and take on a range of reader roles as they do so” (Gibbons, 2009, p. 105).

  • Cary (2004) recommends using interactive journals to encourage authentic writing. Although Cary specializes in ELL’s, this strategy can be used with all students. The purpose of these journals is to focus on expression and message over form. This allows students to practice written communication in ways that are meaningful to them. “In interactive journals, students and teacher exchange questions, comments, ideas, jokes and anecdotes about topics of mutual interest” (Cary, 2004, p. 99). Tomlinson (2001) explains using interactive journals in response to reading a novel for in a 6th grade class to differentiate according to students’ interest and readiness. The teacher varied journal assignments through the class in ways that scaffolded for higher levels of abstract thinking. (p. 83)
  • Using visuals immediately engages students and helps them to access higher order thinking. Visuals can accompany vocabulary or concepts, or can be produced to help students make sense of, communicate or consolidate their learning. They act as a bridge between languages for English Language Learners as well.
  • The family and community can be involved through using interactive technology. Cummins (2006) writes about how English Language Learners wrote stories in the language they were learning in school, and these were translated by others in the community including peers, older students and community volunteers. Texts were shared online and in school, allowing for multiple audiences. Increase in cognitive transfer of language skills, framing of learning within a culture, and legitimizing students’ home language within the classroom allowed for literacy instruction that departs from current norms in literacy instruction.

    Drama and performance

    Drama and performance connect students to language in ways that engage their background experiences and emotions, which further connects them with the meanings of texts. Students become more familiar with complex vocabulary by using movement, instead of using words they don’t understand to explain a word. Students may not know how to explain something verbally, but can show their understanding.

  • Drama provides a more playful format for students to use speaking skills or to practice reading outloud, and provides an opportunity for an alternative formative assessment. Brouillette (2012) explained that the teacher can get an assessment of many students’ language needs at once, as they all have opportunities to respond simultaneously. Fluency increases as students read within a context of a play and use movement and expression to understand language. They may be less intimidated than speaking in front of a class when doing informal, whole-group theater activities. The teacher can assess language needs in a different way than paper and pencil assessments when using theater.
  • Kelly (2006) described having students take the perspective of a character in a drama to understand a different point of view. When students identified with the character, they were more likely to have an emotional connection and therefore were more motivated to understand the character. Activities for students to engage with characters in drama include writing journals from the other person’s point of view or creating dialogue in the voice of characters.
  •  Art provides a less intimidating access point for students to connect to content and themes that they wouldn’t normally access through reading, writing, speaking or listening alone. Students access the material from a playful, flexible place when using what Medina (2006) calls “multiple sign systems”, and also connect with the content on a deeper level. Varying the engagement with text allows students to access deep themes without explicitly stating them outright. The teacher doesn’t explicitly tell students the themes, and they discover them on their own.“Our classroom can be, among other things, a children’s workshop on divergent thinking” (Ayers, 1993 p. 92).

    The teacher needs to take a critical eye to the texts and materials provided to students. “These analyses should focus on the quantity, accuracy, complexity, placement, purpose, variety, significance, and authenticity of the narrative texts, visual illustrations, learning activities, role models, and authorial sources used in the instructional materials” (Gay, 2001, p. 108). Further, students are able to connect with larger issues or questions that may be difficult to address on their own.  Students can connect to personal experiences as well as wider social or political climates through the accessible format of drama.


    Culturally responsive teaching “[…] acknowledges that student achievement is influenced by home and community cultures by ways in which these attributes play out in learners’ educational, sociopolitical, and historical contexts” (Santamaria, 2009, p. 227).

Differentiated literacy instruction needs to take into account various student learning profiles while also considering students’ cultural capital. Setting up particular learning environments in response to student needs involves reflecting on personal perspective and bias as well as building up strategies and tools for engaging students in authentic literacy tasks.

Ayers, W. (1993) “To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher. New York, NY: Teacher’s College Press.
Bailin, E. (2014) My(Media)ted Life. My TedX Talk: The Power of Digital Storytelling. [Video File] Retrieved from:
Baines, A. D. (2014). (Un)learning disability: Recognizing and changing restrictive views of student ability. New York, NY: Teacher’s College Press. p. 138-145.
Brouillette, L. (2012). Advancing the speaking and listening skills of K-2 english language learners through creative drama. TESOL Journal. 3(1).
Cummins, J., Hu, S., Markus, P., & Montero, M. K. (2015). Identity texts and academic achievement: Connecting the dots in multilingual schools. Tesol Quarterly. 49(3). 555-581.
Cummins, J. (2006) Identity texts: The imaginative construction of self through multiliteracies pedagogy. In Garcia, O., Skutnabb-Kangas, T., Torres-Guzman (Eds.) Imagining Multilingual Schools: Languages in Education and Glocalization, (p. 51- 68). Cleveland: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Daniel, S & Conlin, L. (2015). Shifting Attention Back to Students Within the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol. Tesol Quarterly. 49(1) p. 169-187.
Darvin, R. (2015) Representing the Margins: Multimodal Performance as a Tool for Critical Reflection and Pedagogy. TESOL Quarterly 49(3). 590-600
Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2013). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP Model, 4th Edition. Pearson.
Gay, G. (2002) Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education. 53(2), 107-116.
Gibbons, P. (2009). English Learners Academic Literacy and Thinking: Learning in the Challenging Zone. Portsmouth, NH: Heineman.
Kelly, K. (2006) I’m a lot like her: Entering the world of others through process drama. Schneider, J.J., Crumpler, T. P. & Rogers, T. (Eds.) Process Drama and Multiple Literacies: Addressing social, cultural and ethical issues. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Medina, C.L. (2006) Identity and imagination of immigrant children: Creating common place locations in literary interpretation. Schneider, J.J., Crumpler, T. P. & Rogers, T. (Eds.) Process Drama and Multiple Literacies: Addressing social, cultural and ethical issues. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Santamaria, L. J. (2009). Culturally responsive differentiated instruction: Narrowing gaps between best pedagogical practices benefiting all learners. Teachers College Record 111(1), 214-247.
Tomlinson, C. A. (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (2nd ed). Alexendria, VA: ASCD

Drama and Performance

Beyond providing opportunities to increase comprehension of vocabulary, to work on fluency, and to assess students’ language needs, theater provides a means of critical reflection.

Darvin (2015) shows how theater can bring larger issues such as social status and race issues into the classroom. It remains important to remember that the dominant language represents power, and how this changes classroom relationships. Knowing how to speak, read and write proper English means that you are able to get a job and have high status in society. Often dialects such as African American Vernacular English or foreign languages are denigrated in their status by not being incorporated into the classroom. Privileging the written word in particular can also subjugate the history and potency of oral traditions.

Darvin (2015) argues that multi-modality in particular allows those who are typically marginalized to have a voice. While Brouilette (2012) emphasized that individuals are able to speak more through theater, Darvin (2015) further argues that the symbolic language and imagery used in theater allows individuals to connect to wider ideas. “Possessing varying levels of economic, social, and cultural capital, learners both position themselves and are positioned not only within the contexts of a classroom or workplace, but within local, national, and global networks” (Darvin, p. 592).

Theater allows for students to not only take on their own voice, but embody the voice of an “other”. Students can take on the role of the “other”, or someone from a different cultural, social, racial, or experiential background, and relate to it through writing, speaking and acting from their viewpoint. In a previous course, I learned that theater can be used to help connect students to history by having students embody a historical figure and write and speak dialogue from their perspective. When students embody someone that is different from them, they cross boundaries and are able to understand that other person better. I hope to use simple forms of dialogue with my students, particularly my ELL’s, to promote this powerful mix of language support and critical reflection.

Without home culture supporting school culture, or home engagement in literacy, students from backgrounds not valued in school may be less engaged in text. Cummins et. al. write that one-third of the association between reading performance and students’ socioeconomic status was mediated by reading engagement. (p. 561). Stereotype threat, or the effects of negative perception of a group’s ability, decreases that group’s performance. Cummins et. al. therefore emphasize the crucial practice of helping students voice not only their background knowledge, but also use texts as a way of questioning established power relationships.

Kindergarten video theater lessons and lesson plans:

Grade 1 video theater lessons and lesson plans:

Grade 2 video theater lessons and lesson plans:

Brouillette, L. (2012). Advancing the speaking and listening skills of K-2 english language learners through creative drama. TESOL Journal. 3(1).

Darvin, R. (2015) Representing the Margins: Multimodal Performance as a Tool for Critical Reflection and Pedagogy.

TESOL Quarterly 49(3). 590-600
Cummins, J., Hu, S., Markus, P., & Montero, M. K. (2015). Identity texts and academic achievement: Connecting the dots in multilingual schools. Tesol Quarterly. 49(3). 555-581.